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The First Infantry Division on D-Day

The following is Chapter One, “An Army That Won’t Complain, Won’t Fight,” from the book “THE FIGHTING FIRST: The Untold Story of the Big Red One on D-Day” by Flint Whitlock (Westview Press, 2004).

Louis Newman had the best seat in the house at the biggest, loudest, most important amphibious assault landing in history. It was a seat he would just as soon not have had.

The twenty-seven-year-old private first class from Brooklyn, New York, a member of Cannon Company, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division (known as the “Big Red One” from its distinctive shoulder patch designed in World War I), was perched atop the cab of a three-quarter-ton truck that was stalled in chest-deep water about a hundred yards from a beach in France dubbed “Omaha.”

Whichever way he swiveled his head, the entire chaotic, horrific panorama of the Normandy Invasion encircled him like the battle cyclorama paintings at Gettysburg and Waterloo. To his front was a prickly landscape of beach obstacles of all descriptions; frightened men wading ashore from landing craft; boats and vehicles wrecked and burning; geysers of water being blasted into the air; and a shoreline erupting with an unending series of violent bursts.

Behind and beside him, warships of all description were firing shells of every caliber over and around him — all accompanied by a stereophonic soundtrack cranked up to eardrum-shattering volume. Above him — most of them unseen above the low, steel-gray clouds — hundreds of warplanes were crisscrossing the leaden sky. Adding to the horror of the scene, bobbing in the water all around his olive-drab, steel island, were the corpses of his fellow invaders, leaking blood. As dangerous as his exposed position was, Private First Class Newman had another problem: He couldn’t swim. He had lost his inflatable life belt. His rifle and helmet were also missing. And the tide was rapidly rising. 1

While Louis Newman sat pondering his future atop his dangerous perch, a few miles behind him, on board a gray-painted Navy cruiser, General Omar Nelson Bradley fretted like a nervous, expectant father, totally out of touch with the battle he was supposed to orchestrate.

Somewhere in France, a German field marshal by the name of Erwin Rommel was racing back to his palatial command post at La Roche-Guyon, on the Seine between Paris and Rouen, hoping that he was not too late to reverse the tide of a battle that had already spun out of control during his brief, untimely absence.

In a villa in Southampton, England, a bald, grim-faced, American four-star general named Dwight David Eisenhower stood chain-smoking, jingling the English coins in his pocket, and staring at huge situation maps that maddeningly refused to tell him if this invasion, for which he alone took full responsibility, was about to become a stunning success or a crashing, tragic failure.

Across the ocean in America — from where had come so many of the young men who were at that moment engaged in a life-and-death struggle — the war-weary nation was asleep, unaware of the drama unfolding along the northern coast of France. No less than the ultimate outcome of the war in Europe hung precariously in the balance.

Exactly how Louis Newman and 175,000 other American, British, Canadian, and Free French soldiers who were, at that very moment, fighting their way onto the northern coast of Nazi-occupied France found themselves in this situation is a complex story that began several years earlier.

The necessity of invading the European continent as the only way to defeat Nazi Germany was recognized early on by the British. After France fell to the Germans in June 1940, and the British Expeditionary Force sent to provide assistance to the French was sent reeling into the sea at Dunkerque, German dictator Adolf Hitler expected the British to sue for peace; he was not prepared for British defiance. After attempting to mount his own amphibious invasion of Britain, Hitler called it off due to the lack of a proper invasion fleet and the fact that his air force, the Luftwaffe, had not gained air superiority over the English Channel during the nine months of the Blitz in 1939–1940. Frustrated, Hitler turned his wrath on the Soviet Union, which he had earlier lulled into inaction with a non-aggression pact. 2

Although the United States was not yet in the war, American ideas on how to defeat Hitler had begun to take shape during the spring and summer of 1941. With much of Europe under Nazi domination, and Britain and Russia struggling to survive the German onslaught, it seemed obvious to the realists in Washington, D.C., that the United States would not be able to remain neutral much longer. To prepare for the war he saw coming, General George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff, asked the War Department to create an assessment on how to defeat the Axis powers. This study, which later became known as the Victory Plan, dovetailed with British ideas and showed clearly that the only way to win the war would be to physically invade the European continent and march into the heart of Hitler’s Third Reich.

Before this could happen, however, two main conditions needed to be met: Enough men would need to be trained and equipped for the task, and sufficient shipping would need to be available to transport the men and their supplies to Britain, from which the invasion would be launched and supplied. According to the Victory Plan, the success of such an invasion hinged on eliminating the German U-boat threat in the North Atlantic; achieving air superiority over enemy-controlled Europe; destroying or disrupting the German economy and war industries; degrading the German military machine on other fronts; and establishing harbors and military bases in Britain. 3

It was an almost impossibly tall order, especially given the fact that the United States in the summer of 1941 was still a third-rate military power with a small army and obsolete equipment. The grandiose plans of landing in Europe and marching into Berlin would have to wait. The British, on the other hand, now that Germany had called off the invasion in order to attack Russia, began planning an invasion of their own. In September 1941, the British Chiefs of Staff charged Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten and his Combined Operations Headquarters with studying the feasibility of conducting amphibious operations against German-held Europe. Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill told Mountbatten, “You are to prepare for the invasion of Europe. You must devise and design the appliances, the landing craft, and the technique . . . . The whole of the South Coast of England is a bastion of defense against the invasion of Hitler; you’ve got to turn it into the springboard for our attack.” 4

Although the responsibility for the invasion soon passed out of Mountbatten’s hands, the invasion of Europe became, as one historian observed, “the supreme effort of the Western Allies in Europe — the consummation of the grand design to defeat Germany by striking directly at the heart of Hitler’s Reich. One of the last attacks, [Operation Overlord] was the fruition of some of the first strategic ideas.” 5

The shock waves from the Japanese bombs that fell on the U.S. military installations in the Hawaiian Islands on 7 December 1941 rudely shook Americans out of their blissful isolationist dreams. With America’s military preparedness in a sadly neglected state, the industrial giant began to rise slowly from the enforced idleness of the Great Depression, stoked the cold furnaces of its factories, and began churning out an endless, ever-quickening procession of tanks, trucks, warplanes, ships, rifles, cannon, bombs, bullets, and all the other necessities of war. Whitewashed barracks and canvas camps sprang up practically overnight across the United States to welcome the students, salesmen, farm boys, truck drivers, cooks, clerks, and laid-off workers who were now fledgling soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and Marines, eager to fight for their aggrieved country. There was a war to be won, and almost no American boy or man wanted to be left out of it.

While it was the Japanese who had attacked America, President Franklin Del­ano Roosevelt had always regarded Nazi Germany as the greater threat; if Britain and Russia fell, the United States would be left to face Germany and Italy alone. It was therefore determined, even before Pearl Harbor, that once the U.S. was at war, the bulk of American military resources would be concentrated against Nazi Germany; Japan, it was felt, could be contained in the Pacific until the European enemies were defeated. 6

Two weeks after Pearl Harbor, Churchill met with the American Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C., at what became known as the Arcadia Conference. There he outlined his strategic concept for the defeat of Germany, which included a naval blockade of Axis nations; the bombardment of German cities, industrial sites, and transportation networks; amphibious attacks against German installations and interests from Norway to the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas; and a final assault on Nazi Germany itself. 7

As the American war machine gathered steam, U.S. and British planners, with the continual prodding of the besieged Soviet Union, began working together to formulate the invasion of Europe. Churchill, already facing manpower and ma­tériel shortages, and waiting for a United States that had not fully mobilized, was understandably reluctant to invade the Continent alone. The 1940 debacle at Dunkerque was still fresh in his mind. Even fresher were Britain’s brave but ultimately failed seaborne assaults in Norway, Crete, and Greece. Trying once more to gain a foothold on the continent, Churchill gave his blessing to a large-scale commando raid at the French port city of Dieppe on 19 August 1942, an operation known as Jubilee. Taking part were 5,000 soldiers of the Canadian 2nd Infantry Division, a thousand British troops, two dozen Free French commandos, and about fifty American Rangers. The goal was not to wrest France away from the Germans, or even to be a precursor to a much larger invasion, but simply to gather intelligence about the state of German coastal defenses.

The British quickly learned an expensive lesson. Jubilee was anything but a call for celebration; of the 6,100 Allied soldiers who reached the beach at Dieppe, over half were either killed or captured, and the shaken survivors of the nine-hour battle were withdrawn under fire. Dieppe taught British planners two things: a considerably larger landing force was essential, as was a heavy and prolonged air and naval bombardment of the hostile defenses. For Churchill, who, as first lord of the admiralty in 1915 had presided over the disastrous seaborne landing at Gallipoli in Turkey, Operation Jubilee was especially chilling. These two signal events — Gallipoli and Dieppe — were to form the basis of his reluctance to send British troops into another amphibious adventure. Churchill’s desire, instead, was to nibble at the edges of the Third Reich with his limited forces until the United States could bolster the British effort. He thus proposed postponing any invasion until the periphery of the Reich had been sufficiently reduced. His dynamic mind churning out plans and proposals at a breakneck pace, Churchill saw major attacks against German-controlled North Africa, Italy, the Balkans, and Norway as vital before proceeding with any major invasion of France. 8

The United States, on the other hand, was not terribly keen on the indirect operations Churchill was advocating. With its growing industrial might, the United States was eager to take the fight to the enemy. If we wait too long, U.S. military advisers argued, the Russians might be defeated, and then the entire German war machine would be free to concentrate on Britain and the United States. Bombing the Reich was fine, but bombing alone would not win the war; it would take troops on the ground, meeting and annihilating the enemy, and marching into Berlin, to achieve total victory.

But where and when to start? Invading the European continent was important as a long-term objective, but certain realities made it impossible in 1942. Facing a two-front war, America was not yet capable of taking on the lion’s share of combat in the European/Mediterranean Theater. Until sufficient quantities of men and matériel could be built up in Britain, the two nations could only attempt to break Germany’s will to fight and disrupt her war production by round-the-clock strategic bombing of her cities and factories.

The most pressing problem, however, was the fact that German submarines and aircraft were sending to the ocean floor millions of tons of vital, American-made war goods destined for beleaguered Britain and the Soviet Union. Before the millions of men — plus their tanks and guns and planes and trucks and bullets and bombs and gasoline and tires and spare parts and rations and mountains of other supplies and equipment — could be concentrated in Britain, the sea lanes would need to be secured. The navies of both Britain and the United States swung into full action to rid the Atlantic of the U-boat menace, a task that would take time. Until the wolf packs could be defanged and Britain turned into a mighty launching pad for the invasion, some other place needed to be found to engage the enemy.

Among the American divisions being prepared to take the war to the enemy was the 1st Infantry Division, most of whose members hailed from New York and New England. The Big Red One was considered by many to be America’s premier Army division, and with good reason. Elements of what eventually would become the 1st Infantry Division could trace their heritage to 1798. The division’s predecessors also fought in the War of 1812; the Mexican War of 1846–1848; the Civil War; the wars against the Indians in the Southwest; at San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War; in the Philippine Insurrection; and during John J. Pershing’s 1916 Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa along the U.S.-Mexico border.

World War I broke out in 1914 and the United States entered it three years later. The days of regiments being the main combat forces were numbered; the exigencies of the First World War required larger units — divisions — made up of four regiments. Thus, before the American Expeditionary Force was sent to fight in France, the Army was reorganized and the 1st Expeditionary Division (soon renamed the 1st Infantry Division) was formed. It consisted of the 16th, 18th, 26th, and 28th Infantry Regiments (when the Army reorganized again in 1940 and the number of regiments in a division was trimmed to three, the 28th was transferred to the 8th Infantry Division).

During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson deployed twenty-nine infantry divisions to France. They fought with a courage and tenacity that shocked the enemy, electrified the Allies, and proved to be the deciding factor in the final victory. And at the head of the list of units that distinguished themselves stood the 1st Infantry Division. It is said that one of the division’s artillery batteries fired the first shots of any American unit when it reached the front lines in October 1917; 1st Infantry Division soldiers also became the first American army casualties of the war. The Big Red One was engaged in some of the hardest fighting during the last year of the conflict — battles with names that seared themselves into the consciousness of Americans for generations to come: Cantigny, St. Mihiel, Soissons, Argonne. 9

The word “infantry” comes from the French — infanterie — meaning a soldier trained and equipped to fight on foot. No matter how technologically innovative warfare has become, no one has yet invented a robot to replace the foot soldier, capable of marching long distances in any type of terrain or weather while lugging all his possessions in a pack on his back, and doing battle with the enemy by means of his rifle, grenades, bayonet, knife, and even bare hands.

The key to an infantry division’s success is the quality of its personnel and their training. In pre–World War II America, combat skills did not come naturally. While some of the recruits (and they were either volunteers or men who had been drafted) may have previously handled rifles in pursuit of pheasants or deer, the vast majority of city-dwelling civilians had no familiarity with firearms. As most families in the 1930s and 1940s were church-goers to some extent, most young men grew up with the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” impressed strongly into them. Thus, turning a recent high-school graduate or young, ex–soda jerk into a trained, disciplined soldier was not easy. It took time — thirteen weeks of basic training, then advanced infantry training — in which the soldier could hone his craft during realistic combat training scenarios and exercises. The young American soldier learned to fire his M-1 Garand rifle with deadly accuracy; to lob grenades; to attack with a bayonet; and to engage in hand-to-hand combat. He learned to dig protective holes in which to take cover while under attack by artillery, aircraft, or tanks. He learned to ignore heat, cold, wet, thirst, hunger, exhaustion, and minor injuries. He learned the limits of his endurance — and was pushed beyond them. He learned to perform not only his own job, but the jobs of those around him, for he never knew when a machine-gunner or mortarman or radio operator might be hit, requiring him to fill in for a downed comrade. He learned how to be a part of a team.

The young soldier also learned to instinctively and unquestioningly obey orders, no matter how dangerous they might be. Conversely, despite the insistence on instant obedience to orders, he was encouraged to think for himself when confronted by unusual situations, and to assume a leadership role when his leaders were killed, wounded, or missing. He learned — no, had drummed into his head — that the most important thing about being a soldier was to accomplish his assigned mission, regardless of the difficulties, discomforts, or obstacles, even at the cost of his own life. 10

With all infantry divisions having the same organization, the same training, and same broad mission, what set one division apart from another was a com­bination of factors — mostly the quality of the officers and NCOs, or non-­commissioned officers; the sergeants and corporals. The officers of the 1st Infantry Division, most of whom had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, considered themselves the best of the breed. Many of the older officers — the colonels and lieutenant colonels and majors — had been in the Army since World War I, and many had seen combat. The same was true for many of the senior NCOs. Between them, they had a wealth of combat experience and knowledge to pass along to the younger officers and soldiers.

Perhaps just as importantly, they would impart their deeply held convictions that the 1st Infantry Division was not just the best damned division in the United States Army, but in any army in the world. Therefore, once the U.S. entered World War II, big things were expected from the Big Red One.

In early August 1942, with its stateside training complete, the entire 1st Infantry Division was crammed aboard the converted luxury oceanliner, the HMS Queen Mary, and shipped from New York to Scotland. To kill time, poker games broke out all over the ship, and one soldier is reported to have won $28,000. 11 Others also made a killing, including members of the ship’s crew, who, according Sergeant George J. Koch, a member of the 1st Reconnaissance Troop, “had a ‘field day’ and looted our barracks bags, which were in the hold, of personal articles, especially candy, cigarettes, shaving cream, etc.” 12

Upon arriving in Scotland, the division was sent by rail to England, where it underwent almost three more months of advanced training under its battle-hardened commanding general, Major General Terry Allen * and his deputy, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (who had served with the 1st during the First World War), the oldest son of the rough-riding former American president. Few in the division knew where it would see its first combat of this war; many assumed it would be France, or perhaps even the Soviet Union. Their assumptions would turn out to be wrong.

In the autumn of 1942, the Russians were tenaciously holding out at a city on the Volga River named Stalingrad. The city’s namesake needed all the help he could get — and quickly. With Stalin demanding a “second front” to relieve German pressure on his nation, the United States agreed to enter the European war through an unlikely door: pro-German, Vichy-French-controlled Morocco and Algeria, from where the United States would reinforce the British who had been battling the Germans and Italians in North Africa since March 1941. 13 Operation Torch, as the invasion of North Africa was code-named, would give Americans their first real taste of battle outside of the Pacific. Under the overall command of Lieutenant General Dwight David Eisenhower, 67,000 U.S. troops were poised to begin wading ashore at three points along the Moroccan and Algerian coasts. 14

In the black morning hours of 8 November 1942, the 1st Infantry Division lay in darkened transports off the unsuspecting coast of Algeria in the Gulf of Arzew, keyed up and ready for just this moment — its baptism of fire — and its young members wondered if they could live up to the reputation established by the “old-timers.”

To say that the campaign was a confused mess would be an understatement. The 1st Infantry Division, landing near Oran as part of Major General Lloyd Fredendall’s Central Task Force, did well in its initial combat operations, quickly taking the Vichy-French-held cities of Oran, Arzew, and St. Cloud. The fight for Oran was over almost before it began, and the advancing 1st Infantry Division was warmly greeted by the citizens. Terry Allen noted in a letter home, “Our passage through the city was most impressive. The entire civilian population turned out en masse and were hysterically enthusiastic at the sight of the American flag.” 15

Within three days, Allied troops claimed 1,300 miles of coastline, and the British and Americans were soon preparing to push into Tunisia and Libya. During this three-day period, the 1st Infantry Division had been blooded — and bloodied: 94 killed, 251 wounded, and 73 missing. 16

After this initial success, Eisenhower inexplicably allowed his subordinate, British Lieutenant General Sir Kenneth Anderson, to split up the division and parcel out elements of it as reinforcements for British units. Not unexpectedly, these elements did not perform well, and the only reinforcement that was done was to reinforce British perceptions that the American Army was untrained, undisciplined, and ineffective. On the other hand, the British Eighth Army, under General Bernard Law Montgomery, was doing well. German and Italian forces seemed to be crumbling. By 17 November, even the French forces in North Africa, perhaps sensing which side was eventually going to win the war, had broken with the Germans and turned into American allies. 17

Angry at his division’s mounting casualties under British leadership, however, Terry Allen went to see Eisenhower in Algiers to request that his division be reunified under his command; Ike promised to look into the matter, an answer that did not satisfy Allen. Upon leaving to return to his headquarters in Oran, Allen ruffled the feathers of Ike’s irasible chief of staff, Walter Bedell Smith, with an offhand remark: “Is this a private war in Tunisia or can anybody get in on it?” Smith was not amused, the division was not reunited, and the remark would later cost Allen dearly. 18

With the North Africa campaign still under way, Churchill and Roosevelt met at Casablanca from 14 to 24 January 1943 to discuss broad strategy for the eventual invasion of the European continent. General Marshall’s staff had already drawn up a plan (code-named Roundup) that called for the invasion of France in the spring of 1943, while the bulk of the German army was tied down on the Russian front and before the coastal defenses of France could be strengthened.

Roosevelt, Churchill, and their staffs worked tirelessly to hammer out an agreement that consisted of several major objectives: stepping up efforts to eliminate the U-boat menace in the Atlantic; increasing the bombing offensive against Germany; keeping German troops pinned down in the Mediterranean area with additional operations; providing more material aid to the Russians; engaging in “island-hopping” by the Americans across the Pacific with an eventual invasion of the Japanese home islands; increasing pressure on the Japanese in the China-Burma-India Theater; and proceeding with plans to develop the top-secret atomic bomb. 19

A number of factors still conspired against a quick invasion of France: a lack of shipping (especially LSTs — Landing Ship, Tank); a lack of trained and/or combat-tested American units (the Roundup plan called for forty-three assault divisions); a lack of necessary supplies; and a lack of sufficient air and naval support. It would take more time to overcome these obstacles. Much to the disappointment of many, especially Stalin, the invasion of France was postponed until 1944. 20

The Americans, meanwhile, stumbled through a series of embarrassing defeats at the hands of Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, including a devastating reversal at Kasserine Pass in mid-February 1943. Finally, Allen received permission to reunite his division and was ordered to hold the line west of Kasserine. Hold they did. On 23 February, Rommel sent two panzer divisions against the thin line of Yanks, but the riflemen, anti-tank gunners, and artillerymen of the Big Red One, along with American armor and air power, stopped them. The Germans regrouped, returned, and were stopped again. Rommel called off the assault and retreated to lick his wounds; Major General George S. Patton Jr. wrote to his wife, “This has been a great day for the American Army. The 1st Div stopped the famous 10th Panzer cold in two attacks.” 21

In a 3 March 1943 letter to George C. Marshall, Eisenhower expressed his confidence in the 1st Infantry Division’s two leaders: “Terry Allen seems to be doing a satisfactory job; so is Roosevelt.” 22

Eisenhower knew he had a problem with II Corps commanding general Lloyd Fredendall, who was disliked by almost everyone, both above and below him. Upset with Fredendall’s lack of aggressive spirit (and especially his penchant for selecting poor subordinates), Eisenhower sacked him in early March and replaced him with the fire-breathing Patton, a fifty-seven-year-old officer notorious for his shocking obscenities, volcanic temper, and demanding, Prussian-style approach to discipline. Believing that slovenly troops were unlikely to be good fighters, Patton sought to bring about a swift change in attitude with a proven method of behavior modification: Hit ’em in their pocketbooks. Patton established strict dress regulations and swooped down on anyone caught violating them. Soldiers could ill afford the loss of pay, so he steeply fined officers and enlisted men alike for breaches of his dress code. Steel helmets and leggings were to be worn at all times, and officers were required to wear ties — even in battle in the desert. It was reported that Patton even flung open latrine-stall doors to see if soldiers had their helmets on while relieving themselves. 23

Second Lieutenant Harold Monica, D Company, 18th Infantry Regiment, was told that “any officer of II Corps apprehended by the MPs [Military Police] without a neck tie would be fined $25.00. I heard a couple tried it to see if he was serious and were picked up and promptly fined. My tie may have been a little loose, but I had one on.” 24

The harassment worked. Soon, the steel-helmeted, legginged, and necktied soldiers hated and feared Patton more than they hated and feared the Germans. As unpopular as Patton’s methods were, the disgruntled troops got the message and began shaping up. Besides looking like soldiers, they now began to perform like soldiers.

While the American soldiers in general cursed Patton, Allen was worshipped by his 1st Division troops. Unlike the peacock Patton, who always appeared spit-polished from his varnished helmet to his gleaming cavalry boots, Allen was a soldier’s general. He stayed with his troops at the front, sharing their hardships. He was also reportedly the only general who slept on the ground, rather than on a cot or a bed. He didn’t care that his clothes were wrinkled and his black hair tousled. What he most cared about was making his men the finest soldiers they could be. Between battles, there was very little slack time for the Big Red One; Allen always had some sort of training program scheduled. Because he believed night attacks were safer than daylight assaults, much time and effort was devoted to training the men in how to move and fight in the dark.

It was natural, then, that Patton and Allen would have their clashes. In one of the most celebrated, Patton, while visiting 1st Division headquarters, asked about some narrow trenches outside the command tents. Allen explained that they were for the men’s protection from enemy air attacks. To show his contempt for what he thought was cowardice on Allen’s part, Patton urinated into Allen’s trench. “There — now try to use it,” he challenged. Allen’s bodyguards audibly clicked off the safeties on their Thompson submachine guns — a not-so-subtle hint that they did not appreciate Patton’s disrespectful act toward their commanding officer. Patton evidently realized he had crossed the line and prudently departed the scene. 25

It was the middle of March and time for a new II Corps offensive, one that Patton felt needed to be a resounding victory in order to finally gain the respect of the British after the mediocre showing of American troops under Fredendall. With Montgomery’s Eighth Army engaging Rommel’s troops along the Mareth Line in southeast Tunisia, and Alexander’s First Army attacking Colonel-­General Jürgen von Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army around Tunis, Patton would attack to the south at El Guettar with four divisions: the 1st, 9th, and 34th Infantry and 1st Armored. Patton directed elements of the 9th and 34th Divisions to make a feint toward Faid and Fondouk while the 1st Armored Division headed for Kasserine and beyond. Allen’s Big Red One would capture Gafsa, an important road junction and railroad town, and drive through enemy lines at El Guettar. 26

On 16 March, the II Corps units burst out of eastern Algeria and began hunting for the enemy. The 1st Infantry Division roared into Gafsa, only to discover it abandoned by the Italians. The offense pushed on to El Guettar, twenty miles away. With the help of a Ranger battalion, the 1st held the Kasserine Pass. The Germans were not about to let this valuable piece of terrain go so easily. For the next three days, the 10th Panzer Division hammered the Big Red One, overrunning some positions with its tanks while the Luftwaffe strafed others with relentless air attacks. Yet, Allen’s men, supported by artillery and tank destroyers, held fast, refusing to yield. Thirty-two panzers were knocked out and hundreds of infantrymen killed, forcing the Germans to fall back. Eisenhower wrote glowingly to Marshall, “The First Division continues to give a good account of itself.” A new reputation for the 1st Infantry Division had been forged. 27

The war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote, “For you at home who think the African campaign was small stuff, let me tell you just this one thing — the First Division did more fighting then than it did throughout all of World War I.” 28 Pyle also had a particular fondness for the Big Red One’s commander. He noted, “Major General Terry Allen was one of my favorite people. Partly because he didn’t give a damn for hell or high water; partly because he was more colorful than most; and partly because he was the only general outside the Air Forces I could call by his first name. If there was one thing in the world Allen lived and breathed for, it was to fight. He had been all shot up in the last war, and he seemed not the least averse to getting shot up again. This was no intellectual war with him. He hated Germans and Italians like vermin . . . .” 29 In April, Patton’s II Corps, including the Big Red One, was shifted 150 miles to the north behind British lines and prepared for the last battle of the North Africa campaign. But Patton would not be around to command the fight; on 15 April, he turned over the reins of II Corps to his deputy, Omar Bradley, and departed for Casablanca to work on the plans for the next phase of the Mediterranean campaign. 30

Under Bradley, the 1st and 34th Infantry Divisions, although suffering heavy casualties, prevailed, killing or capturing hundreds of the enemy. With the exhausted, depleted, and starving German and Italian troops now boxed into a corner from which there was no escape, Allied artillery batteries and aircraft pounded them unmercifully until they surrendered on 1 May. The battle for North Africa was over. 31

The 1st Division was pulled off the line and trucked back to near Oran, where it recovered from six months of combat and added reinforcements from the States. First Lieutenant Fred Hall of Hudson, New Hampshire, the executive officer of E Company, 16th Infantry Regiment, indicated that the division was not in a particularly jolly mood. “Since arriving in Africa, we had been wearing woolen uniforms. The weather turned hot. The base personnel at Oran were all dressed in summer khakis. We expected to be issued the same uniforms; when we found out we were to continue wearing woolens, it only heightened the resentment between combat soldiers and the [rear-echelon] personnel. There wasn’t a lot of recreation. We would go into Oran for a couple of drinks and movies. The atmosphere in the city was sometimes tense between the combat veterans and the service personnel.” 32

Hall may have downplayed the situation. General Bradley had a slightly different view: “While the Allies were parading decorously through Tunis,” he wrote, “Allen’s brawling 1st Infantry Division was celebrating the Tunisian victory in a manner all its own. In towns from Tunisia all the way to Arzew, the division had left a trail of looted wine shops and outraged mayors. But it was in Oran, the city those troops had liberated on the [Operation] Torch invasion, that the division really ran amuck. The trouble began when SOS (Services of Supply) troops, long stationed in Oran, closed their clubs and installations to our combat troops from the front. Irritated by this exclusion, the 1st Division swarmed into town to ‘liberate’ it a second time.” Eisenhower ordered Bradley to get the rampaging 1st Division troops out of Oran. Bradley believed that the 1st’s behavior signaled “a serious breakdown in discipline within the division. Allen’s troops had now begun to strut their toughness while ignoring regulations that applied to all other units. . . . Despite their [prodigious] talents as combat leaders, neither Terry Allen nor Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, the assistant division commander, possessed the instincts of a good disciplinarian. They looked upon discipline as an unwelcome crutch to be used by less able and personable commanders. Terry’s own career as an army rebel had long ago disproved the maxim that discipline makes the soldier. Having broken the mold himself, he saw no need to apply it to his troops. Had he been assigned a rock-jawed disciplinarian as assistant division commander, Terry could probably have gotten away forever on the personal leadership he showed his troops. But Roosevelt was too much like Terry Allen. A brave, gamy, undersized man who trudged about the front with a walking stick,* Roosevelt helped hold the division together by personal charm.” 33

Many felt Bradley’s criticism of Allen was unjust. Some of it, no doubt, was the result of Bradley’s hearing Walter Bedell Smith’s side of his brief, sarcastic run-in with Allen. Some of it, too, could be attributed to Bradley’s being a teetotaler and finding Allen’s reputation as a two-fisted drinker repugnant. And part of the problem was Allen’s reputation as a free spirit; while on maneuvers or in a class on tactics at Command and General Staff School, Allen could never be counted on to come up with the “book” answer; his creative mind had already puzzled out several unconventional solutions. But while his personal appearance and manner often marked him as “casual,” beneath the rumpled exterior beat the heart of a fierce competitor. An excellent horseman and polo player, Allen was an aggressive type who hated to lose at anything. Some members of his division may have been slightly lax when it came to military bearing, saluting, neatness, and close-order drill, but it was wrong for anyone to regard them as “undisciplined.” The men of the 1st Infantry Division were fighters, not choirboys, and woe be unto anyone — Allied or Axis — who challenged them or got in their way. 34

A year later, after the Normandy landings, war correspondent and radio commentator Quentin Reynolds broadcast a tribute to Terry Allen and his men. “Terry Allen used to like to fight [the Germans] at night. We would ask General Allen why. And he gave us profound military reasons, such as that the surprise would be greater. He could sneak artillery up through the night. But when we really pressed him, Terry Allen would admit that he liked to fight . . . at night because his casualties were fewer. The 1st Division had terrific casualties in Tunisia — about thirty percent. The boys hoped that they’d be sent home for a rest. Most of them were Dodgers fans, and they wanted to get home for the 1943 baseball season. At that time, the division was composed chiefly of New York City, Long Island, Pennsylvania, and a few New England men. But then the Sicilian invasion was being planned. Terry Allen sent his men to Oran for a rest. They just about tore that city apart — these kids had been in tough combat for so many months. Terry Allen said to the MPs, ‘My boys have had a tough time; let them enjoy themselves.’ . . . The 1st was proving itself to be a great division. The boys in the 1st Division grumbled. They wanted to go home. . . . They grumbled and complained, and little, hard-bitten General Terry Allen listened to them. And then he said, with his eyes smiling: ‘An army that won’t complain, won’t fight.'” 35

On 13 May 1943, the North Africa campaign was declared officially over. There was much rejoicing, and the Americans and British were showered with flowers by grateful civilians from Tunis to Arzew. But Tunis was a long way from Berlin, and between the two cities lay a hot, rocky, volcanic island known as Sicily. There would be plenty of complaints ahead.

About the time the Big Red One was fighting for its life at El Guettar, back in England an unheralded appointment took place. It was announced in no news­papers, was heard on no radio broadcasts. Like much of what happened during wartime, the appointment of British Lieutenant General Frederick E. Morgan to a secret post was closely guarded information. By April 1943, he and a small staff had created COSSAC — Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander — and to Morgan and the new organization fell the daunting task of drawing up preliminary concepts for the invasion of the European continent. Morgan cautioned his staff to avoid thinking of themselves as planners of the invasion; rather, they were the embryo of a future supreme headquarters — SHAEF, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force — that would coordinate everything needed to put millions of men into France and, ultimately, into Germany. 36

While the first rudimentary steps were being taken to create what eventually would be known as Operation Overlord, the rest of the war against Hitler could not be allowed to wither on the vine. After the Allies had swept North Africa free of the Germans and their Italian partners, it was deemed critical to keep as many of the enemy as possible bottled up in the Mediterranean, where they could not bolster Nazi forces on the Eastern Front or be used to build even stronger defensive fortifications along the French coast. To accomplish this, the British and Americans would need to invade the island of Sicily.

This operation, known as Husky, was the largest amphibious operation up to that point in the war, with 181,000 men, 3,200 ships, and 4,000 aircraft taking part. Eisenhower was named overall commander of Husky, just as he had been for Operation TorchHusky would be a combined Allied operation, with four American divisions, under Generals Patton and Bradley, and six British divisions, under General Bernard Law Montgomery, the hero of the North African campaign, landing on the southeastern corner of the island. 37

In May, during the planning for Husky, Eisenhower told Patton that he was considering sending Terry Allen back to the States for an eventual new job as a corps commander, but Patton wanted Allen and the 1st Division. Despite their often-stormy relationship, Patton had a genuine respect for Allen and the division he led. While Bradley preferred to use the untested 36th Infantry Division (Texas National Guard), Patton insisted on the Big Red One. “I want those sons of bitches,” he pleaded to Eisenhower. “I won’t go on without them!” He got them. 38

After weeks of additional training under the broiling Tunisian sun, the grumbling, complaining 1st Division was alerted: Grab your gear, load up. We’re going to Sicily.

When one looks at a map of the Mediterranean, one notices that there is an obvious stepping stone between Tunisia and Italy: Sicily. When one reads a guidebook about Sicily, one learns that it is the largest island in the Mediterranean, with an area of 9,926 square miles, or 25,708 square kilometers. One discovers that 85 percent of the land is hilly or mountainous, with Mount Etna, an active volcano, its highest peak at 11,122 feet (3,390 meters). The capital, largest city, and chief seaport is Palermo, on the northern coast. One learns that most of the Sicilians are very poor, eking out a living through farming the overworked soil. The island is prone to earthquakes, and a hot summer wind from North Africa, called the sirocco, leaves the riverbeds bone dry and tempers frayed. One finds out that, owing to its strategic location, Sicily has been invaded, occupied, and ruled by the ancient Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, Germans, French, Spanish, Austrians, and the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. One discovers that the Siciliani have very strong family ties, that the people have an ingrained distrust of foreigners and government, and that their code of honor forbids them from reporting to the police crimes that they consider to be private, family matters. One also learns that the Mafia is the de facto government of Sicily. 39

What the guidebooks don’t point out is that, in the summer of 1943, the island was also home to some 365,000 heavily armed Italian and German soldiers just waiting for the Americans and British to invade.

Operation Husky began at dawn on 10 July 1943, in extremely rough surf along the southeastern coast. Approaching in LCVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicles and Personnel), eight infantry divisions prepared to disembark onto the beaches and rush inland. Overhead, elements of the U.S. 82nd Airborne and British 1st Airborne Divisions roared in, ready to drop behind enemy lines. Under the aegis of Patton’s Seventh Army and Omar Bradley’s II Corps, the American assault divisions were the 1st Infantry Division (with a Ranger battalion attached), the 3rd Infantry Division, and the 45th Infantry Division (Colorado and Oklahoma National Guard). The 2nd Armored Division was the “floating reserve” (to be brought in when necessary, while the 9th Infantry Division would remain in North Africa until needed). Five British infantry divisions, plus the airborne, made up Montgomery’s Eighth Army invasion force. 40

After surviving a jolting ride in the small landing craft, the Big Red One hit the beaches near Gela. It was fortunate for the invaders that the coastal defensive positions were manned by Italians. The defenders, caught by surprise, put up only token resistance before either surrendering or retreating. Lieutenant Leonard E. Jones, of C Company, 18th Infantry Regiment, laughed: “Italians are the worst soldiers on the face of the earth. They love to be captured.” 41

The next day, the weak Italian defense gave way to a determined German counterattack with tanks — headed directly for the 1st Infantry Division’s positions. Thirty panzers and fifty-five truckloads of German infantrymen were spotted coming down the Gela-Niscemi road, attempting to split the invasion force, with virtually nothing to stop them. In the literal nick of time, the 16th Infantry Regiment’s Cannon Company arrived and blasted away at the enemy with its 105mm howitzers, knocking out dozens of tanks and sending the enemy fleeing.

Next came the fight for the Ponte Olivo airport, north of Gela. At midnight on 11 July, the 1st Infantry Division moved into the attack and caught the German garrison before it could react; by noon, the airfield was in American hands. The Germans continued for days to mount counterattacks in the hope of throwing back the Big Red One but, no matter how many panzers and truckloads of infantry the Germans employed, they could not stop the Yanks — nor the British, who were also moving inland from their eastern beachheads and overcoming opposition. After hard fighting, the 1st Division moved northward through the mountainous center of the island. By 29 July, despite heavy losses, Allen’s men had managed to battle their way just to the west of a town called Troina. 42

In the meantime, developments were taking place behind the scenes that would have a major impact on the future conduct of the war in Europe. On 19 July, the first Allied bombs fell on two major railroad marshaling yards and an airbase in the city of Rome. This raid, preceded by the Italian army’s woeful performance in North Africa and Sicily, brought about a crisis in Italy. Five days later, after the fall of Palermo, an anti-Mussolini backlash erupted. A vote of no confidence by the Fascist state’s Grand Council shocked the dictator and he appealed to King Victor Emmanuel III for support; even the king expressed his displeasure with Mussolini’s conduct of the war and the affairs of state. Stunned and humiliated, Mussolini had no choice but to resign — and was promptly arrested. In his place, a caretaker government under the aging, anti-Fascist Field Marshal Pietro Bodoglio was installed and immediately proclaimed that the war, and Italy’s role in it, would continue (while simultaneously holding secret talks with the Allies that would lead to Italy’s capitulation). The Romans, who had once lustily cheered Mussolini, marked the fall of the Fascist government with wild revelry. In Sicily, over 120,000 Italian troops celebrated the news by deserting or surrendering, although some continued to fight alongside German units. Feeling he had been stabbed in the back by Italy, Hitler ordered the evacuation from Sicily of as many German units as possible. The steady withdrawal of German troops across Sicily for the city of Messina — only a mile from the Italian mainland — turned into a raging river of gray-uniformed humanity. 43

With the 1st and 9th Infantry Divisions sweeping eastward through the center of the island, the 3rd and 45th Infantry Divisions driving eastward along the northern coast, and the British rolling northward along the eastern coast, the likelihood of a carbon copy of the Allies’ victory in Tunisia seemed very real. Once Troina fell, the 1st was promised a welcome relief by Major General Manton S. Eddy’s 9th Infantry Division.

Troina was built atop a ridge that dominated Highway 120 and the surrounding barren countryside. Considered a natural strongpoint, Troina and its environs are extremely steep, with little room for an attacking force to maneuver. The battle did not go well from the start. For openers, both II Corps and Division Intelligence had failed to detect the presence of elements of four enemy divisions — all of them seasoned fighters, firmly entrenched in strength in the town and surrounding mountains, and determined to keep open the escape route to Messina. The 1st Infantry Division was exhausted from three weeks of nearly continuous, uphill fighting in stifling heat. The division was below strength, too, due to malaria and the heavy casualties suffered since the landings.

The unsuspecting Americans, advancing from Cerami, were a mile west of Troina when the Germans unleashed a storm of artillery shells that brought the advance to a halt. Three days later, the 1st had crawled only a few hundred yards, all the while taking a severe pounding from German guns that not even aircraft could knock out. On 3 August, Allen launched a night attack by the entire division which very nearly succeeded. The Germans struck back with a fierce counterattack, however, and there the matter stalemated. The fifth day of the battle, 4 August, began with an air and artillery bombardment of German positions, but still the enemy refused to be dislodged.43 So furious was the battle for Troina on 5 August that Private James M. Reese of the 1st Division’s 26th Infantry Regiment was awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously. Reese, a member of a mortar squad, kept up a steady rate of fire against German attackers at nearby Monte Basilio until enemy fire drove the squad from its position. Down to three rounds, Reese knocked out a machine gun, then inflicted further casualties with a rifle before dying in a fusillade of German fire. 45

The German defenders had done their job well, having delayed the Americans for nearly a week to allow their units to escape across the Strait of Messina — units that would live to fight another day in Italy. Under cover of darkness on 5/6 August, the enemy began slipping quietly out of Troina and the neighboring mountains. On the morning of 6 August, Allen’s men entered the shattered town to find the enemy gone. 46

The Big Red One had suffered greatly; some of its rifle companies were down to sixty-five men from their authorized strength of 193. Troina also claimed two more casualties — Generals Allen and Roosevelt. While the battle was still raging, a message that was not intended to reach Allen until the battle was over was delivered to him: He and his assistant were to be relieved of command. In the military, being relieved of command is tantamount to being fired. And for the order to come down before a battle was even concluded carried a strong odor of dissatisfaction about the performance of the officers in question.

While the battle for Troina counted as an American victory, Allen and Roose­velt could feel no satisfaction. Although Patton had requested that Allen and Roosevelt be relieved, and Eisenhower (who had personally seen that Allen was exhausted as far back as May) had approved the request, it was Bradley, curiously, who took full responsibility for the action. For his part, Allen later blamed Ike’s chief of staff, Walter Bedell Smith. 47

In his autobiography, Bradley expressed his belief that the two-star general was too close to his men, who would fight like Tasmanian Devils in combat but suffered from an exaggerated sense of self-importance and a lack of personal and unit discipline. Bradley noted, “Among the aggrieved champions of Terry Allen, and he had many, the relief was condemned as completely unwarranted, and some of them mistakenly ascribed it to a pique between Allen and Patton. There were no grounds for their suspicion. It is probably true that Patton irritated Allen, but it was Patton who persuaded Eisenhower to give him Allen for the Sicily invasion. Responsibility for the relief of Terry Allen was mine and mine alone.”

Bradley firmly believed that the 1st Division was unable to subordinate itself to the corps mission and participate willingly as part of a larger group: “The division had already been selected for the Normandy campaign. If it was to fight well there at the side of inexperienced divisions and under the command of an inexperienced corps, the division desperately needed a change in its perspective.” According to Bradley, “Under Allen, the 1st Division had become increasingly temperamental, disdainful of both regulations and senior commands. It thought itself exempted from the need for discipline by virtue of its months on the line. And it believed itself to be the only division carrying its fair share of the war.”

Bradley saw Terry Allen as too much of an individualist, and the division too full of pride and self-pity. Something had to be done. “To save Allen both from himself and from his brilliant record, and to save the division from the heady effects of too much success, I decided to separate them. Only in this way could I hope to preserve the extraordinary value of that division’s experience in the Mediterranean war, an experience that would be of incalculable value in the Normandy attack.”

Bradley knew that relieving Allen of command, especially after the difficult battle for Troina, would be seen by some as a punishment for failing to take the town quickly, but so be it. He could not replace Allen with Roosevelt, either, for, if anything, Roosevelt was even more popular than Allen and governed with a gentler hand. And he couldn’t very well allow Roosevelt to stay on as assistant division commander because, “any successor of Allen’s would find himself in an untenable spot unless I allowed him to pick his own assistant commander. Roosevelt had to go with Allen for he, too, had sinned by loving the division too much.”* 48

Although failing to acknowledge Bradley’s role in the “firing,” an officer on Eisenhower’s staff noted in his diary on 2 August, “Major General Terry Allen, commander of the 1st Division, and Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, his assistant, had been relieved by Patton, the decision confirmed by Ike. The former for ‘war weariness,’ and to be returned to America, without discredit, under our rotation policy. There he could rest and take another division, as he’s an excellent commander. His men love him. . . . General Roosevelt had proved to be a gallant leader of inexperienced troops. He is battle-wise and extremely courageous. Likewise, he had ‘had it.’ Ike thought eventually his good qualities could be used by later assigning him to an inexperienced division about to go into battle. . . . The 1st Division has been in more fighting than any other outfit in this operation, and General Allen simply became fatigued to such a low ebb that he was unable to afford the inspiration and the leadership, as well as the imagination and discipline, that are necessary for a divisional commander.” 49

On 7 August 1943, the day after he was officially relieved of command, Allen wrote a farewell message to his men: “To all members of the ‘Fighting First:’ In compliance with recent orders, Major General Clarence Huebner, who fought in this division with great distinction during the last war, has been designated as Division Commander. I feel most fortunate to have been your commander during the proceding [sic] year. You should be proud of your combat records. . . . You have lived up to your battle slogan, ‘Nothing in hell must stop the First Division.'”

Allen then received the Distinguished Service Medal and departed for the States.* He apparently bore no bitterness toward Patton. In fact, in a 14 August letter to his wife, Mary Frances, he noted, “My change of assignment orders were a great surprise. . . . Patton was most kind and cordial and thoroughly appreciative of what the division had done. Said the division had carried the weight of the attack in Sicily.” 50

Omar Bradley had already selected a new commander for the Big Red One, a general who was Allen’s polar opposite. “As Allen’s successor in the 1st Division,” Bradley noted, “we picked Major General Clarence R. Huebner, known to the army as a flinty disciplinarian. Huebner had enlisted in the army as a private in 1910 and was commissioned before World War I. He was no stranger to the 1st Division, for he had already worn its patch in every rank from a private to colonel. In returning to command the division, however, he had come from a desk in the Pentagon,* an assignment which did not tend to ease his succession to Allen’s post. On the second day after he assumed command there in the hills of Troina, Huebner ordered a spit-and-polish cleanup of the division. He then organized a rigid training program which included close-order drill.

“‘Keerist —’ the combat veterans exclaimed in undisguised disgust, ‘here they send us a stateside Johnny to teach us how to march through the hills where we’ve been killing Krauts. How stupid can this sonuvabitch get?'” 51

Although Clarence Huebner’s resumé was impressive, everyone wondered — did he have what it would take to replace the beloved Terry Allen and turn the exhausted, self-pitying 1st Infantry Division into the hardened steel needed to crack Hitler’s Fortress Europe?

Copyright © 2004 Flint Whitlock. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web by special arrangement with the publisher.

“THE FIGHTING FIRST: The Untold Story of the Big Red One on D-Day” is available from Amazon.