Monday, May 18, 2015

1st Armored Division

An M24 of 1st Armored Division

Following the capture of Rome on June 4, 1944, the combat record of the 1st Armored Division can be broken into three main phases. Immediately after the Rome operation, the division took part in a rapid pursuit of German forces northward to the Arno River. As the front stabilized in mid-July, the division was taken out of the line due to heavy equipment losses. It was at this time that the division switched organization from the "heavy" 1942 configuration to the "light" 1943 TO&E.

The division was recommitted to combat in early September 1944, taking part in the efforts to break through the Gothic Line defenses. The division was most heavily involved in the fighting in the heavily defended Futa Pass area. The subsequent fighting in the early fall proved very frustrating due to shortages of men and materiel as well as the rugged terrain. The autumn offensive petered out in October since the US Army was giving priority to operations in northwest Europe. During the period of stalemate along the "Winter Line;' the division was withdrawn to a staging area north of Livorno (Leghorn) to serve as corps reserve as the division was ill-suited for positional defense.

When the Fifth Army began planning its spring offensive, the division was given a central role in both the breakthrough and subsequent exploitation phase. Once the Fifth Army broke out of the mountains in the middle of April and into the Po Valley, the campaign again regained its momentum, with a rapid advance through northern Italy. The division ended the war near the Swiss border around Lake Como.


The 1st Armored went back into action at the end of June just north of Grosseto. For the job of pushing the Germans through the rugged coastal mountain; that lay in the sector, enough artillery, infantry and other troops were attached to the division to give it the strength of a young corps.

The left was assigned to CC "B", the center to Task Force Howze and the right to CC "A". On the left and right flanks of the sector the 91st and 81st Reconnaissance Battalions we operating.

A taste of the kind of fighting the division would be called on to do for the next few weeks was encountered by CC "B" as it turned off Route 1 toward Massa on June 22 {1944}. The Massa road was the combat command's main axis, but it passed through a saddle not far from the main highway. Commanding the saddle the Germans had 9 Mark VI Tiger tanks, and they stopped everything CC "B" sent up.

A flanking force was sent back 10 miles and up another road to the east. The Germans were waiting for it and knocked out four TDs and twelve light tanks. There was no road over which the German position could be flanked to the west, but there was a faint trail that led up the ridge not far from the saddle. It was no place to be sending tanks, but tanks were sent, and the Germans withdrew.

The "saddle" action was typical of the fighting throughout mountains. The same flanking action over an almost impassable trail--one the Germans had thought barred anything but a persistent mule--caused Roccastrada to fall in the CC "A" sector.

The Germans contented themselves for the most part with establishing road blocks and destroying roads and bridges before the 1st- Armored tankers. The favorite road block included two Mark VI tanks with their 88 millimeter guns trained on a curve in the twisting road or on some other kind of defile. Since only one or two medium tanks could be used to attack the road block (the terrain limited movement to the narrow roads), the German Tigers usually had to be neutralized by artillery.

In one case in the Task Force Howze sector, however, the 1st Armored troops either killed or captured every German infantryman outposting one roadblock formed by two Mark VI tanks. After that it was simply a question of surprising the German tankers. A medium tank and a TD got the first Tiger after an infantry platoon had worked up to a hill above the roadblock and opened fire with every small arms weapon they had. The second Tiger got away, but was found a few miles up the road with a track damaged.

The mountains got more rugged the farther north the combat commands went, and above Massa CC "B" found itself with 10 miles of hills that had to be covered but which had not even trails.

The infantry dismounted and headed into the hills. They struck fast and surprised a battery of horsedrawn German artillery. They captured the guns and horses intact, and for the next few days supplied themselves by horseback. They scoured their battalion and found a peep driver who had once lived in Texas. He was the chief blacksmith.

Past Castelnuovo the attack was "downhill" to the Cecina River valley which fronted the high peak topped by the fortress town of Volterra. To get to the river on June 30, CC "B" armor took off across country, making the road as they went.

Across the river the armor took up positions astride High 68 which connects Volterra with the coast. Shortly after dark, three Mark IV tanks came east on the highway and reached the outskirts of the 1st Armored tank perk before being discovered. A tank destroyer blasted three-inch AP shells at the exhaust the first and knocked it out. The second Mark IV pulled off the road and sought refuge by a haystack.

But on the other side of the haystack was a medium tank. It pulled forward a few feet, swung the turret and pumped two fast shots into the German tank, then ducked back. The German tank exploded and burned, and the 1st Armored crew had their hands full to keep their own tank from catching fire. The third German crew burned their own tank and escaped into the hills.

Volterra still had not fallen when the division was relieved from the sector June 10, but a battalion of medium tanks stayed behind to assist in the final assault on the town. The reconnaissance battalion, the tank destroyer battalion, the engineer battalion and division artillery also remained in the sector for about two weeks before joining the division at Bolgheri.

At Bolgheri in July the division was reorganized on the table of organization already in effect in most other armored divisions. The two armored regiments were reformed into three separate tank battalions, the 1st, 4th and 13th; the infantry regiment was split into three separate battalions, the 6th, 11th and 14th, and nor changes in personnel and equipment were effected in the artillery, reconnaissance, tank destroyer, engineer, medical and ordnance battalions.

Major General Vernon E. Prichard, who as a Lieutenant Colonel had commanded the 27th Armored Field Artillery Battalion at its activation in 1940, was assigned to the 1st Armored Division as commanding general, relieving General Harmon.

Because reorganization resulted in a reduction of total personnel, the division secured permission to rotate 600 men during the month to the United State. The remainder of the "jobless" were sent to replacement depots. Some later rejoined the 1st Armored and a large number--most of those with more than two years' overseas service--were sent home.

The 1st Armored remained in the vicinity of Bolgheri until assuming command of a defensive sector on the Arno River around Pontedera August 13.

Pontedera was a hot spot. The town was packed to rafters with mines and booby traps, and it bordered the River, which marked the foremost American positions. German machine guns were less than 200 yards away.

When the 47th Armored Medical Battalion learned Pontedera's main hospital was still occupied, the ambulance platoon of "B" Company was ordered to evacuate the 300 aged and invalid Italian patients still in the front-line town. For three days and nights, the ambulance drivers and stretcher bearers worked steadily to remove the civilians. Although the Germans frequently shelled the vehicles as they went to and from the town, only one ambulance was hit. No one was hurt.

While a part of the division held the line, the remainder trained in rear areas. Until the end of August activity along the front was restricted to patrolling. The men swam or waded the river, exchanged shots with the Germans manning the defenses on the north side and swam or waded back. Casualties were light.

On September 1 the division pushed across the river, picking their way through minefields. Altopascio was taken September 4 and Lucca was occupied the same day without opposition. By September 18 the line had moved into the mountains bordering the northern side of the Arno valley. Castelvecchio was occupied and the line held until September 21, when CC "A" troops were relieved and assembled in the Prato-Sesto area north at Florence. CC "B" troops, including tank, infantry and artillery battalions, remained in the line.

CC "B" moved north of Pistoia on Highway 64 October 1. By October 11 the troops had occupied Silla and Porretta. Bombiana fell on October 13 and was held despite German counter-attacks. By October 30 the infantry was beyond Palazzo in an attack on Castelnuovo. Company "B" of the 11th Armored Infantry Battalion took Castellaccio, and CC "B" ordered a defensive line organized.

At 0900 hours October 30 a German battalion attacked the "B" Company position. The company commander called for reinforcements, reported one of the enemy was two yards from him and signed off. Fifteen minutes later he called back and reported the attack repulsed.

The Germans came back again and again in the next four days. They attacked in battalion strength a total of six times in five days but the "B" Company position held. They remained in the line with other CC "B" troops until rejoining the division in November.

During the winter of 1944-45 units of the 1st Armored Division alternated between rest areas and front-line duty. Because the terrain prohibited the use of more than a few tanks at any one time, many of the men in the division, who had been trained for specialized jobs, parked their vehicles and took up rifles and submachine guns to become infantrymen for a while.


The final campaign in Italy began for the 1st Armored Division at dawn on April 14, 1945. The German bastion of Vergato fell that day to the 81st Reconnaissance Squadron and the attack was pushed north on Highway 64 toward Bologna. The division fought three days, gaining 10 miles to the north, before being relieved by an infantry division.

Recommitted 10 miles west, on narrow roads and mule trails the division scaled peak after peak before breaking into the fertile flatlands of the Po Valley on April 21. Combat Command "A" reached Highway 9, important lateral valley route, in the early morning and Combat Command "B" at last light had closed up on the left. Prisoners had been trickling into the division cages since the opening day, and the 257 Germans captured on April 21 raised the division's total for the operation to 874.

The hard-pressed German forces fell back before an armored spearhead pushed out by CC "A" on the morning of April 22. By dark the combat command had plunged 25 miles northwest into enemy territory. Modena was bypassed, to the right and left, then cleared by a special force on the following day.

April 22 at 0424 hours CC "A" reached the Po River at Guastalla and consolidated the position. The newly-formed Task Force Howze closed up to the Po about 10 miles west of Guastalla at Brescello. Combat Command "B" had difficulty crossing a river near Modena, but was able to join the rest of the division on April 24.

On April 23 the commander of the new task force organized a small raiding party-initially only a platoon of tanks and 19 infantrymen and set out to the south. The tanks and half-tracks of the party drove past unheeding Germans for miles before firing a shot. Then in the heart of the city of Parma the raiding party began its destruction.

The speed of the maneuver made it impractical to count the destruction, but the tankers and armored infantrymen left the town square littered with dead and wounded Germans and the burning and wrecked vehicles.

Before returning to their base at Brescello, the raiding part drove further west to the Taro River to secure important bridge The raiders' casualties were negligible but hundreds of Germans were killed, wounded and captured.

The entire division had closed up to the Po by April 26. CC "A" crossed the river at San Benedetto and moved into the attack again. The combat command rolled past Mantova that morning, reached a point twelve miles north of the city by early afternoon, and by dark was on the outskirts of Brescia--52 miles from the Po River.

Soon after midnight, reconnaissance elements of the command contacted a German column attempting to escape into Germany. They pulled off the road and waited until the enemy convoy was along side then a medium tank blasted the fourth German vehicle. At that signal everything opened up-armored cars, tanks and machine guns, plus countless rifles and tommy guns. When the fight was over 150 Germans were dead. Some of the 200 prisoners taken reported that a second column was due along the same route at 0500 hours, and the reconnaissance party laid an ambush for it. This time not a German escaped. Those not killed or wounded were taken prisoner, and nearly 50 German vehicles were destroyed.

The Brescia fight had slowed the advance of the armored spearhead, but by dawn it was rolling again. By 0900 hours April 28 the tanks and armored cars were in Coma, and shortly after were on the Swiss border a few miles beyond. Any hope the Germans had of escaping from northwestern Italy was shattered.

CC "B" and the remainder of the 81st Reconnaissance Squadron closed up on the southern flank of CC "A" and set up road-blocks to protect the gains. The Germans, their escape route cut, and their lines of communication and supply severed, surrendered by the thousands. The PW total on April 28 was 12,853. Supply dumps, an evacuation hospital and even a service command headquarters fell to the 1st Armored.

On April 29 the 81st Reconnaissance Squadron moved west, bypassing Milan to the north. As the squadron reached the Ticino River 25 miles west of the city on April 30 the German garrison in northern Italy's greatest city surrendered. The official entry into Milan was led by Combat Command "B”.

The division rapidly closed up to Vercelli and Novara, threatening the German 75th Corps a few miles to the west. On May 2 at 1845 hours the surrender of all German forces in Italy was negotiated and Combat Command "B" was detailed to administer the disarming of the 30,000 Germans left in the northwestern Italian pocket.

Up to the armistice on May 2 the division's troops--including "service" echelons which had captured a large share of the total--took prisoner 40,886 Germans. Countless quantities of supplies, vehicles, tanks and guns were taken, and 12 German generals were captured. They included the commanders of the 232nd and 334th Infantry Divisions, the chief of staff of the Ligurian Army and the commander of the Lombardy Corps.

In 19 action packed days the division traveled approximately 230 miles from its starting point in Vergato. Some vehicles of the 81st Reconnaissance Squadron, which went an additional 90 miles to Aosta to meet French forces, had as many as 1000 additional miles on their speedometers at the campaign's close.

This last battle was the high point in the division's 30-month combat record--a fitting culmination to three years of overseas service.

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