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Article about the 3rd Armored Division
Battlefield Magazine - November, 1958 issue

Enlarge above double-page spread

  Above sub-headline: "Saint-Lô, Namur, Mons fell before the crushing onslaught of the pile-driving 3rd. But ahead lay Bastogne."


Text of Article:

By Bruce Jacobs
Cover illustration by Stanley Borack

In a bivouac area at Fort Benning, Georgia, Major General George S. Patton, Jr., stood by the roadside conversing with a lean man in civilian clothing. The pair watched as a convoy formed, and then Patton turned toward his companion.

"Well," he remarked. "I've just given you an armored division."

His associate in civilian clothing, Major General Alvan C. Gillem, shook hands with Patton and waved his convoy commander down the road that led to Camp Beauregard, Louisiana.

This was the birth of the powerful battering ram which led the attack of the VII Corps, First Army, in its eastward march from Normandy into the heart of Germany during World War II.

This was the aptly-named "Spearhead" Armored Division.

In 221 days of combat in the ETO, the Division killed and wounded more enemy troops than can accurately be tallied; it destroyed nearly 7,000 enemy combat vehicles; it took more than 75,000 prisoners.

The iron that ran in the veins of the 3rd Armored Division was forged April 15, 1941, from a cadre supplied by General Patton's 2nd Armored Division.

Like the 2nd Armored, it fought as a "heavily" armored division, and in the crucial stage of the final campaign in Germany it was the 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions that met head on to seal off the Ruhr pocket and thus complete the encirclement of the German forces east of the Rhine.

The cadre of regulars from the 2nd Armored Division was supplemented first by a crop of reserve officers and then by the arrival of Selective Service soldiers. General Gillem and his staff put the new armored division together at Camp Polk, Louisiana, after a brief period at Camp Beauregard.

By the fall of 1941, when the Division was scarcely six months old, it was called upon to furnish the cadre's for new armored divisions. Green replacements had to be trained to take their places in the tank and infantry regiments, the artillery battalions, and the support elements of the Division.

After hard field work in the rugged Louisiana bayou country, December was supposed to provide a breather. Camp Polk was fairly quiet on Sunday, December 7, 1941. But by mid-afternoon, fusses from nearby towns were crowded with returning 3rd Armored soldiers, as the Division went on a wartime footing.

General Gillem left to take command of the II Armored Corps and Brigadier General Walton H. Walker became Division commander. The Combat Command concept was introduced. Colonel Leroy H. Watson was appointed to head Combat Command 1 (later A), and Brigadier General Geoffrey Keyes was placed in command of Combat Command 2 (later B). This reorganization left the Division with three regiments: the 32nd Armored (tanks), 33rd Armored (tanks), and 36th Armored (infantry).

After 15 months in Louisiana the Division headed west to the Desert Training Center in California. General Walker, meanwhile, had been tapped for higher command. Brigadier General Leroy H. Watson was named his successor. Watson commanded the Division for two years and led it into combat.

In the fall of 1942 the Division headed back east. Already the 1st and 2nd Armored Divisions had undergone their baptism of fire in the North African landings; the 3rd Armored Division was certain its turn had come.

It shipped out in September, 1943. From September 15 to June 23, 1944, the 3rd Armored was stationed in England. By D-plus-14 the entire Division had crossed the English Channel to assemble on French soil. It rolled across Omaha Beach and was soon in the hedgerows of Normandy. This was hardly tank warfare terrain, and in the initial stages it was rough going for the 3rd Armored.

At Villiers-Fossard a German counterattack had driven a salient into the lines of the 29th Infantry Division. It was stormed by Combat Command A, led by Brigadier General Doyle O. Hickey. Task Force Boudinot and Task Force Parks then slugged their way through the hedgerows to overcome the enemy force.

Next came orders for the 3rd Armored to launch a power drive through a 30th Infantry Division bridgehead across the Vire River to seize the high ground southwest of Saint-Lô.

General Watson moved the Division into the shallow bridgehead and swung into action although, once again, there was scarcely any room for armor to maneuver. This time CCA was in reserve, and Combat Command B, attached to the 30th Division for the operation, hurled itself toward Les Hauts Vents, or Hill 91.

One of the highest points between Cherbourg and Caen, it afforded a bird's-eye view of the enemy around Saint-Lô. The Germans were determined to hold at all costs.

The task force at Les Hauls Vents took terrible punishment. Although the troops did not know it, they were up against the Panzer Lehr Division, one of the crack outfits of the Wehrmacht; Panzer Lehr never recovered from the meeting.

With only six tanks remaining in action, a task force under Lieutenant Colonel Rosewell H. King stormed up the hill on July 10. They were subjected to fierce counterattacks and were finally driven off the hill the following day. The battered tankers, with their armored infantry, gathered themselves for a last try, and regained the heights. They managed to cling to their toehold for five more days until reinforcements from the 30th Division arrived.

During a brief rest period, the Division welcomed replacements of men (Villiers-Fossard and Les Hauls Vents cost the Division 1,000 men) and vehicles. As it turned out, this was the last rest the Division would have for many months.

The Division, now assigned to VII Corps of the First Army, bolted through a breach in the enemy lines at Marigny as the great Saint-Lô breakthrough began. Racing columns of armor hurtled south through war-torn French hamlets, moving day and night, rolling back the German armies.

Colonel Truman E. Boudinot assumed command of CCB. As the Division blasted its way south it learned of the plight of the 4th Division at Mortain. Combat Command Boudinot branched out and sped for Mortain in early August, 1944, to help break the back of a determined Panzer thrust. The CCB troops fought a grim five-day battle. When they were pulled out for a respite, orders sent them back into action east of Mortain where a German attack was on the verge of a breakthrough to Avranches on the seacoast. If it were successful, this German move would cut the supply lines of Patton's Third Army.

The 33rd Armored roared into high gear. It smashed forward under heavy artillery fire and plugged the gap. Wave upon wave of enemy troops and vehicles were sent at them, but CCB held fast; by August 12 the Germans at Mortain were beaten and the threatened breakthrough to Avranches was averted. The battered CCB then rolled south to rejoin the Division.

In August the Division came under the command of Major General Maurice Rose, one of the most brilliant armor officers in the Army. No armchair tactician, General Rose rode with the lead elements of his tank columns as they thrust deeply into enemy territory in the vanguard of the First Army drive from Normandy to Germany.

The high command saw an opportunity to trap the German Seventh Army, so the 3rd Armored made a U-turn and hurtled north to link up with British troops driving south from Caen.

Combat Command A (Hickey) swept forward in two columns and got off to a good start. Then the fast-moving tankers were hit by counterattacking Germans near Ranes. The enemy closed on all sides and surrounded the combat command, isolating it from the Division. This was not unusual for the front-running tankers, and CCA coolly fought its way forward. At this point the Division Reserve (also called CCR) went into action. In the 3rd Armored the Division Reserve consisted of the detached battalions not with CCA or CCB.

While CCA fought at Ranes, the Division Reserve slashed at Joue-du-Bois, southwest of Ranes, and CCB seized La Motte Fouquet. This concentrated the Division in a tight circle around Ranes, and on the morning of August 16 General Rose launched a coordinated attack toward Fromental. The town was taken and the Division continued to push northward on the road leading to Putanges. On the afternoon of August 18, Sergeant Don Ekdahl, a 33rd Armored Regiment tanker, met the point of the British armored column to put the finishing touch on the closing of the Falaise Gap.

After this, the 3rd Armored was known as the Spearhead Division. From Fromental the Division sped to the Seine and went into the attack below Paris. In a brilliant 18-day operation the Spearhead vaulted from the Seine to the Siegfried Line.

During this drive, the Division learned that a large enemy force was operating west of the Laon-Mons line near the Belgian border. General Rose took the Division due north, hoping to trap the Germans and deny them access to the roads leading east back into Germany.

He sent CCB and CCA toward the objective by divergent routes. CCB bolted from Meaux through Villers-Cotterêts to Soissons; recon elements of CCA slashed through Château-Thierry en route to the Division's rendezvous at the Belgian border.

Moving forward in six columns, the Spearhead, by September 2-3, closed on Mons, Belgium. For several days before the clash of arms at Mons, the Germans had been moving north on a route parallel to the U. S. VII Corps' route of march. On the morning of September 3 the Germans wheeled eastward to pass through Mons, confident it would be an easy march to the safety of the Siegfried Line. But Mons was already held by Rose and his Spearhead Division; 3rd Armored task forces manned strong roadblocks guarding every road leading out of the city. The Germans marched right into the 3rd Armored tanks, and the result was one of the most decisive setbacks suffered by the German Army.

Some of the Germans fought to the death, but in many an instance they gave in and marched off to the PW cages. A CCA Military Policeman mistakenly motioned an attacking German Mark V Panther tank into a 3rd Armored bivouac area in the dark. The German tank lumbered in among the idle U. S. tanks, and was in an excellent position to wreak havoc. Instead, the driver shut off his engines, and the crew came out of the tank with their hands in the air.

More than 40,000 German troops were trapped by the speed of the Spearhead action at Mons. The 3rd Armored took more than 8,000 prisoners.

Leaving the 1st Division to mop up the Mons sector, the 3rd Armored raced forward again on September 4, heading for Namur. Combat Command A (Hickey) was on the left with Combat Command B (Boudinot) on the right, to the south. Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Mills led his task force into Namur late that same day; the rest of CCB slipped across the Meuse, and CCA fought its way through stiffened enemy resistance to reach Namur and push forward in a bold attack toward Liége.

After Namur, the Spearhead thundered down the Meuse Valley into the outskirts of Liége. The armored advance was checked by the concentrated fire of German antiaircraft guns originally emplaced to protect the city from air attack. General Rose halted his tanks, and Division artillery roared into action. Then patrols from CCA poked into the city. Combat Command B, meanwhile, seized the high ground south of the Meuse, taking the enemy forces completely by surprise. A smartly executed pincers movement by the two combat commands doomed the defenders of Liége.

The tankers waited for a pair of infantry divisions to move into the area; then the rat race to the German border was resumed. The Division seized Verviers, then Eupen, less than ten miles from the Belgian-German border; and for the first time the 3rd Armored encountered a hostile populace.

Tanks from the Recon Company slashed into German soil first, followed closely by Task Force Lovelady of CCB - the 2nd Battalion - both of Colonel Welborn's 33rd Armored. Task Force Lovelady captured the German village of Roetgen; the 3rd Armored men were the first invaders since the days of the Napoleonic wars to seize German soil by battle action. The Task Force pushed through Roetgen and moved into the shadow of the Siegfried Line on September 12; it was less than three weeks since the 3rd Armored drive had been launched at the Seine. Now the Division was ready to hack its way through the tank barriers which guarded the path into the heart of Germany.

Combat Command A dispatched Task Force X under Lieutenant Colonel L. L. Doan against the Siegfried Line early on September 13. It sliced across the Eupen-Eynatten-Aachen road where it was confronted with the West Wall studded with tank barriers and covered by large pillboxes every 100 yards. The enemy's defenses were organized in depth, and included mutually supporting trenches out of which mortar and machine gun fire poured.

Doan's task force included the 2nd Battalion of his own 32rd Armored Regiment, the 1st Battalion, 36th Armored Infantry, plus a platoon of engineers and tank destroyers. As the infantrymen slugged forward, the engineers followed closely behind with demolitions gear. The Tank Destroyers fired in support of the infantrymen and engineers who swarmed through the tank barriers and pushed up to the crest of the first ridge. After a bitter exchange of shots, they were forced back to the dragon's teeth where they were raked by fire from a pillbox that was supposed to have been knocked out.

Colonel Doan decided he could move through the dragon's teeth on a sort of roadway which apparently had been filled in as a convenience for local travel. Lieutenant Colonel Sydney T. Telford got 20 of his battalion's tanks through the gap in a hurry.

German tanks and 88's pounded the attacking Allied forces. One by one the tanks of the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Armored, were hit and set afire. The next day, September 14, the depleted 2nd Battalion was relieved by the 3rd Battalion, whose tanks were pounded by heavy fire as they attempted to advance. A direct hit cost the 3rd Armored one of its greatest tankers. Staff Sergeant Lafayette Pool, who suffered serious leg injuries. Sergeant Pool, a Division legend, had had five tanks shot out from under him.

The battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Walter Richardson, bulled its way toward Eilendorf as the infantrymen took Nutheim. By evening Task Force X had closed into the outskirts of Eilendorf, a village due east of Aachen. Task Force Y moved abreast of Doan's force as CCA concentrated its effort on Stolberg, and half the city was taken by September 23. The Germans, however, were holed up in the other half of the city and the campaign took on the aspect of a siege.

By this time the Division had less than 100 tanks in satisfactory operating condition, about 30 of the Shermans could run in low gear only. As it held the line (Stolberg to Mausbach) and rebuilt its strength, General Rose got orders for the Division to swing into action toward the Germans' Roer River line.

Mid-December brought the Germans' Ardennes counteroffensive and the Battle of the Bulge. The 3rd Armored was swiftly moved from Germany back to a strategic spot in Belgium from which it could intercept German armor columns streaming west. CCA's armored infantrymen dismounted to grapple with German paratroopers attempting to cut the Eupen-Malmedy road. CCB raced to the La Glieze-Stavelot area to team with elements of the 30th Division battling the crack Adolph Hitler Panzer Division.

With his two principal Combat Commands in action at widespread points, General Rose found himself almost without troops; nonetheless, he was ordered to secure the road from Manhay to Houffalize. The 3rd Armored without CCA and CCB consisted only of the Division Headquarters Forward Echelon, a small CCR, and the 83rd Recon Battalion. With this force General Rose set out in bitter cold and fog determined to attack. Three columns were formed by Lieutenant Colonels Matthew W. Kane, William R. Orr and Sam Hogan, and the attack was launched.

At one point in the battle the Germans appeared to have won; and they dispatched a surrender ultimatum which was delivered to Colonel Hogan in the town of Beffe.

"If you want this town," said Hogan, "come right in and take it."

By Christmas night Task Force Hogan was still surrounded and out of ammunition, food and gasoline. General Rose radioed orders for all vehicles and equipment to be destroyed. Then TF Hogan set out on foot to infiltrate enemy lines and rejoin the Division. They made it after a 14-hour march through a bitterly cold night.

On January 3 the Division jumped off in an attack designed to wipe out the enemy salient and bring First Army's line abreast of Third Army's at Houffalize. Six days later the Division reached Lierneux, Belgium, where it halted to refit and catch its breath for the first time in many weeks.

February 26 the Spearhead rolled back inside Germany as both Combat Commands bolted across the Roer River and seized Elsdorf, Blatzheim, Kerpen, and Sindorf in short order. As the Division blasted its way across the plains from the Roer toward Cologne, the last major obstacle in its path was the Erft Canal.

While his Division thundered toward this inland waterway, General Rose brought up his reserve and sent Combat Command Howze toward the canal. In a short time the Division was in the new bridgehead on the east bank of the Erft, marshaling itself for the all-out drive against Cologne. A day later the 3rd Armored had come to within four miles of the great German city; and by March 7 the Division had flushed the last enemy troops out of the city. On the same day, further south, the 9th Armored Division seized the railroad bridge across the Rhine - the Ludendorf Bridge at Remagen.

First Army decided its principal objective was the expansion of the bridgehead; consequently General Rose was ordered to divert the 3rd Armored from Cologne at top speed. The columns of the Spearhead raced south and moved across to the east bank of the Rhine via a pontoon bridge.

The Division coiled behind the 1st and 104th Infantry Divisions. When the signal was flashed to them on March 25, the 3rd Armored bolted through the lines of the infantry divisions to launch another Spearhead special.

General Rose noted the resemblance to the action at Mons. He thereupon turned north to begin the sweep that resulted in the encirclement of the Ruhr and the sealing off of German Army Group B under Field Marshal Model. Ahead of Rose and the 3rd Armored Division lay the greatest one-day advance in Spearhead history - and a tragedy the Division would long remember.

The Division thundered across the Westphalian plain, knifing deeply into enemy country, heading toward a link-up with the 2nd Armored Division. Lieutenant General J. Lawton Collins, the VII Corps Commander, conferred with General Rose and asked how soon the 3rd Armored would reach the city of Paderborn, 120 miles away.

"I'll be in Paderborn at midnight tomorrow," General Rose promised.

By midnight the next day the 3rd Armored had actually sprinted 90 miles in a brilliantly executed attack; and within another 24 hours the Division sped into Paderborn. But General Rose by then lay in a grave at Ittenbach.

[Webmaster's Note: The following brief description of events surrounding Gen. Rose's death is an extreme over-simplication, according to newer research results presented in the Rose biography published in 2003 and authored by Steven L. Ossad and Don R. Marsh.]

Leading one of the 3rd Armored task forces in the cross-country race, Rose was ambushed by a heavy enemy armored patrol. The uneven fight lasted only a few moments, and then the Germans closed in around the general's jeep. Rose stood there helplessly as an enemy soldier spouted a torrent of German at him.

The general reached for his pistol as a gesture of surrender; the German misunderstood, and a machine gun opened up.

The Spearhead resumed its advance under the command of Brigadier General Doyle O. Hickey; Colonel Doan took over CCA.

At Paderborn the Division blasted its way in ruthlessly. Company C, 36th Armored Infantry, smashed through to the city's airfield. The 1st Battalion of the 36th moved in so swiftly it seized a total of 136 cannon.

On April 1 the sprint from the Rhine came to an end as patrols of the 3rd Armored linked up with leading elements of the 2nd Armored Division in the Paderborn-Lippstadt area. The reunion of the two divisions didn't last very long, as the 3rd Armored was soon racing toward another river obstacle, the Weser. The Division slugged through three hastily-formed enemy divisions. Task Force Richardson sped north to Bernburg, where it cut off the possible escape route for some 80,000 enemy troops bottled up in the Harz Mountains. Other elements of the Division grappled with fanatic bands of German die-hards, many of them using captured U. S. vehicles and equipment.

The last major offensive was mounted April 21 as the battle for Dessau commenced. The tankers blasted their way through strongly fortified roadblocks, and the armored infantrymen and engineers had to work their way from house to house.

In the waning days of the war the weary Spearhead was relieved by the 9th Infantry Division. The 3rd Armored pulled back to Sangerhausen for a rest, and was there when the German high command surrendered.

In November, 1945, the Spearhead passed quietly into history in a simple ceremony in Germany. Two years later it was reactivated as a training division at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and in 1955 it was once again organized as a combat division. In 1956, the Spearhead again crossed the Atlantic to Germany and duty with the U. S. Seventh Army.


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