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Training in England
September 15, 1943 - June 17, 1944



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Settling into New Camps


On the afternoon of September 14th, the Irish coast was sighted off the starboard bow. During the afternoon the convoy hove to; the destroyers and battlewagon went their way; and the merchant vessels began to pass through the submarine nets. The John Errickson and the Capetown Castle docked at Liverpool on September 15th, and the Shawnee put in at Bristol. Troops aboard ship looked curiously down and waved at British "Tommies" on the piers and swapped oranges and cigarettes for the strange new English coins. Barrage balloons hung everywhere, and an occasional flight of Spitfires whipped across the grey, scuddy sky. England at first glance, looked threadbare. The scars of the Luftwaffe were visible on every side, and even the island's civilians looked grey and tired.

Upon disembarking, units were loaded in Britain's small "Toonerville Trolley" trams and transported across country. At every stop, small English children collected a wealth of gum and candy, oranges and C-rations. Hot tea was served by NAAFI units, for the first time to 3rd Armored Division personnel.

Most of the division elements reached their new camps in the deep night, struggled out of trucks and trudged in to find straw pallets in Nissen huts or barracks. The 102nd Cavalry Regiment had supplied quartering details which guided personnel through the blackout, prepared breakfast, and generally did their utmost to welcome the new "Invaders" of Britain. Breakfast, inevitably, included powdered eggs, a diet which was to become symbolic of the ETO.

Troops of the division were billeted for the most part in Wiltshire. The various units found themselves located in little, age-old English villages with quaint names, and odd, meandering streets. Division Headquarters went to Bruton, in Somerset. Combat Command "B", the 33rd Armored Regiment, 391st and 67th Armored Field Artillery Battalions were at Warminster; the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment settled in Sutton Veny; the 83rd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion at Longbridge Deverill; Combat Command "A", 45th Armored Medical Battalion, and Trains Headquarters at Stockton House, near Codford; the 32nd Armored Regiment at Codford; Maintenance Battalion and Supply Battalion at Codford St. Mary; the 23rd Armored Engineer Battalion at Fonthill Bishop; the 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion at Mere, all in Wiltshire. Division Rear was at Wincanton; the 54th Armored Field Artillery Battalion at Frome; and the 143rd Armored Signal Company at Cucklington in Somerset. Undoubtedly, the best cared for units were those at Warminster, which had been a permanent camp built for the Royal Armored Corps, and provided with adequate workshops and other facilities.

There followed the process of "settling down." ETO and V Corps directives were received, sorted and digested. Within three weeks equipment was being issued, including tanks. The "Yanks" found that petrol was scarce and that their "blooming big lorries" often damaged the mouldering but precious English Architecture on either side of narrow lanes.

England offered many points of interest to the new arrivals, not the least of which was her WAAF's and ATS's. There was a dreamlike beauty in the mossy old buildings and thatched cottages, the abbeys and ancient castles, each and every one of which stood haughty in its mantle of tradition. The village pubs suddenly became loud with the extrovert voices of Americans, and the Sabbath quiet of these old places echoed with laughter and argument. There were land army girls, and WAAF's, ATS, and NAAFI - they served the worst coffee in the world. But they were all cordial and hospitable to the new arrivals. Soldiers of the 3rd Armored Division learned the Canadian Crawl, the Polly Glide, and the Okie Dokie. They learned to sing "Roll Me Over," and it was a lusty wartime ballad best suited to barrack rooms and marching columns, but not at all nice.

Across the downs of Britain in late 1943, all the great armies of the western allies were gathering for the much discussed assault on Europe. Division officers went along with the 5th Canadian Armored Division to maneuvers in the area east of Andover and north to and beyond Hungerford. Throughout their nine month stay in Great Britain, hundreds of "Spearhead" soldiers visited the various British and colonial units to swap ideas and techniques. There, on the "aircraft" carrier anchored off the shores of fortress Europe, the allies learned to respect each other. They had begun to cement the ties of that first team which swept on to Normandy beaches in June of 1944.

Initially in England, the 3rd had been attached to the V Corps. In early November, when Lt. General Omar Bradley's First Army was activated, the division was assigned to Major General Hugh Woodruff's VII Corps, later to be commanded by Major General "Lightning Joe" Collins on the western front.

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Hard Training Begins

Training in England was hard and complete. Road marches, obstacle courses, maintenance, and all of the familiar army drill routines were dusted off and put into practice. There were schools which catered to various subjects such as aircraft recognition, camouflage, waterproofing, and chemical warfare. New weapons were issued and tested on the ranges. Training films, including the old boy behind the eight ball, were shown time and again. Command post exercises on the downs were not uncomfortable in the early fall, but as raw, winter weather approached they became a trial. The division slowly assimilated greater knowledge of terrain and its advantages; maneuver, and the art of shrugging off limitations of blackout, weather, and discomfort. Forty-eight hour passes were issued to the men after they had been in Britain for six weeks, and the tricolor patch began to turn up in such places as London, Bournemouth, and Bristol. Troops sweated out air raids in the English metropolis, thrilled as the searchlights caught Jerry aircraft, and then gasped at the torrent of ack-ack through which an enemy plane could fly unscathed. They saw the sights of England. They walked through Picadilly in the dim blackout. They travelled the byways of Leicester Square and saw the terrible bomb damage in London. Troops of the division watched a Ju-88 jettison its eggs and then burst into flames as a British Mosquito night fighter darted in for the kill. And they saw the dead enemy for the first time. Slowly, as a by product of all these things, men of the future "Spearhead" became aware that the war was close, that the byword in Europe was; "kill or be killed." They trained with a solemn thoroughness.

During this time the division was doing a great deal of range firing. Units practiced on Bowls Barrow, near Warminster; at the Kimmeridge anti-tank range, where sea mist alternately veiled and unveiled the targets; and at the anti-aircraft areas: St. Agnes and Penhale on the west coast. Minehead, on the Bristol Channel, was also visited by gun crews of the 3rd.

Field problems became the order of the day in November. The 36th Armored Infantry, "Parks' Own," went out on a six day workout. Division Headquarters made its first overnight bivouac on the coldest of early fall days. All of the other units participated, and the downs of Salisbury Plain were awakened as never before in history with the rumble of motors. Command Post Exercises were frequent, and no amount of cold or wetness served to postpone them. Maneuvering over the chill downs, in frost or raw, driving rain, 3rd Armored Division soldiers were learning to disregard the elements in order to accomplish their primary missions.

Early in December, the 486th Armored Anti-Aircraft Battalion arrived at East Knoyle, Wiltshire, and was attached to the division. The ack-ack soldiers arrived just in time to participate in another "shooting month," with firing on the Imber battle range, at West Down, and Bowls Barrow. Again tank destroyers travelled to Minehead, and AA units visited St. Agnes and Penhale. At Minehead, the mist was nearly as bad as that of Kimmeridge. Gunners fired each time the fog was dissipated, and were often forced to wait while ships passed by on the Bristol Channel.

Training highlight of December, was a combined arms problem on the Imber range west of Chitterne, which was planned and supervised by General Hickey and the Combat Command "A" staff. In this operation a tank battalion, plus an infantry company, an artillery battery, and an engineer platoon, demonstrated the "employment of a covering force in lieu of an advance guard when contact is imminent, the occupation of attack positions, and the detailed fire plan necessary for a coordinated attack, and the employment of battalion supporting weapons in the initial stages of the attack and as security against counter attacks during reorganization." Under the guiding hand of General Hickey, the problem was extremely successful.

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Christmas 1943

Christmas in Britain was properly celebrated by troops of the 3rd Armored Division. They celebrated with English beer and an occasional bottle of scotch, with parties for British children, and with roast turkey and cranberry sauce in the old tradition. Some of the men visited friends in the hospitable little suburban towns, or spent the evening with WAAF's or Land Army Girls, dancing.

For most of the men there was a strange pathos in this wartime Noel in a foreign land. They heard the children of Britain singing Christmas carols beneath the blacked-out windows of thatched cottages in Somerset and Wiltshire, their voices thin and clear, innocent and joyous with the age old melodies that challenge death and fear. Many of these youngsters had never known a peacetime Christmas, and yet they lifted wan faces to the stars and sang! The tankers of America pooled their rations; then in every hamlet where the soldiers of the new world were quartered, the gum, the chocolate and the Christmas candy of America found its way to these children of war who still felt the exaltation of good will.

It was the same spirit in the old, dark varnished taverns of Britain. Scotch whiskey was almost nonexistent and yet, for this day, a small amount miraculously made its appearance. The busy, blowsy barmaids of England bobbed in and out with great mugs of ale. Yank and Tommy Atkins sang the ageless Christmas carols and roared together into the ribald wartime ditties: the "Roll Me Over," and, "There'll be no promotions, this side of the oceans!"

The yellow glow of subdued lighting fell on shoulder patches of the 8th Army Desert Rats, Montgomery's finest and, across the foaming pints of ale, one might also list the elite of America's fighting men: the lifted wings of the air forces, already harrying Germany in preparation for the great, unborn invasion; the tricolor of the 3rd Armored Division, and the various shoulder insignia of proud infantry units. Shoulder to shoulder, men of the United Nations drank, and, drinking, sang the lovely old cosmopolitan carols that ally themselves with no one nation. Outside in the blue-black night, the searchlights of Great Britain fingered a starry sky in search of Jerry raiders. There was no peace in England, but there was a great brotherhood of free men poised for the endeavor which should guarantee that peace.

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Invasion Draws Closer

The new year of 1944 saw the division nearer, both physically and in preparedness, to combat operations. Heavy air attacks on the continent, plus a slow but steady advance in Italy, boded well for future victory. It appeared, as General Eisenhower predicted, that the war might end in 1944.

If anything, training tightened in those last few months before the assault on Europe. Maneuvers on Salisbury Plain were a weekly occurrence. The division sent teams to Weymouth on temporary duty to learn the intricacies of waterproofing vehicles for the invasion. Once again all of the various ranges heard the crash of 3rd Armored Division weapons, and there were schools in combat swimming, anti-aircraft spotting, chemical warfare, and a host of others.

General Montgomery visited the area on January 17, and mentioned that he would be leading allied forces in the first phase of the invasion. Later, Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, Air Chief Marshal Tedder, and others visited the division. The Duke of Gloucester, brother of King George VI, inspected armored force weapons on misty Salisbury Plain.

With the advent of spring, the world waited breathlessly for word of the great attack. May was all warm sunshine and dry weather. Daily, great flights of Fortresses and Liberators smashed at the continent. The nights were a constant drum of sound as the Royal Air Force punished the enemy. German propagandists screamed alternately that there would soon be an invasion - that there would be no invasion! "Midge," one of the Axis female propagandists, entertained American troops with hit tunes while she dulcetly slipped in the barb with allusions to the terrible cost of an amphibious landing.

There was no doubt about the big show in the minds of division personnel. Once again the 3rd was on the move. In late May and early June, most units had pitched pup-tents on the downs and were waiting for word to proceed immediately to ports of embarkation. All vehicles were waterproofed, combat loaded and ready. Maps of the continent had been issued to officers and non-coms. The talk was all of D-Day and H-Hour.

Still, nothing happened. All day and all night, the great fleets of warplanes passed over. Early June was warm and sunny - "Hitler Weather," the Nazi panzer troops of 1941 had called it. Now there was expectancy in the air. Men of the 3rd chafed at the delay; they had expected to go into combat on the morning of invasion.

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Normandy Landings

The first news came by radio on the morning of June 6, but it was only a belated confirmation to GI's who had lain awake all night listening to the wave after wave of aircraft passing overhead, and the muted, distant rumblings of bombardment. The big show had started, and the 3rd Armored Division still cooled its tracks on the downlands of Somerset and Wiltshire.

The delay was of short duration. Shortly afterward the units left their bivouacs and travelled to ports of embarkation at Southampton and Weymouth. Each man received D and K rations, plus PX supplies, motion sickness capsules, and vomit bags. The well waterproofed vehicles rolled aboard LST's and the channel lay ahead. It was the end of another phase. There behind were the green fields of England, and there ahead were the tall poplars of Normandy. Each man looked at his neighbor and thought - I wonder how many of us will come back.

Although separate units of the 3rd Armored Division had, for the most part, arrived at ports of embarkation on June 18 and 19, heavy channel storms delayed the crossing. It was not until the 23rd that the first elements touched French sand on Omaha White Beach, below Isigny. The 32nd and 33rd Armored Regiments, the 23rd Armored Engineer Battalion, and the 486th Armored Anti-Aircraft Battalion, went ashore on this date.

On the 24th, Division Headquarters, forward and rear echelon; Division Artillery, with the 54th, 67th, and 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalions; Combat Commands "A" and "B"; and Division Trains, landed.

The main body of the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment reached France on June 25, but Regimental Headquarters had been there since the 18th, thus becoming the first sizeable 3rd Armored Division unit in Normandy.

Still delayed by stormy weather, the 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion arrived on June 28; the main body of the 45th Armored Medical Battalion on July 2; Supply Battalion on July 3; the 83rd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion and the Maintenance Battalion on July 4.

On Omaha Beach, the backwash of battle, a vast graveyard of broken equipment, smashed tanks and twisted ships, lay rusting in the brine. The invasion armadas were there off shore, an unbelievable panorama of power. Barrage balloons swayed in the moist air, and Thunderbolt fighter-bombers zoomed from a newly constructed air strip close to the beach. Thousands of engineers worked on the floating piers, and a steady procession of nondescript German troops, captured in the early fighting, straggled down to board outgoing transports. Past them, in the other direction, battalion after battalion of American soldiers, replacements for the infantry divisions up forward, trudged wearily ashore and went up the muddy road which led inland.

Most of the 3rd Armored Division's vehicles were able to roll off their LST's to dry land. A few, coming in on the high tide, touched down in yard-deep water, but there was no record of any swamping or like mishap.

Assigned to areas a short distance from the beach, troops spent their first days in France de-waterproofing and preparing for combat operations. The orders were already drawn up and ready.

Next Chapter: Normandy, France

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