Skip to comments.The Magnificent Infantry of WW II
Posted on 05/01/2014 7:23:39 PM PDT by Retain Mike
The Army deployed 67 infantry divisions for the Second World War. Each was like a small town with its own equivalents for community services plus the eight categories of combat arms. Units such as artillery, engineering, and heavy weapons engaged the enemy directly. Yet of all categories, the foot soldier faced the greatest hazard with the least chance of reward. Except for the Purple Heart and the coveted Combat Infantrymans Badge, recognition was often missing because so few came through to testify to the valor of many. The infantryman faced the most dismal fate of all whose duty was uninterrupted by missions completed or a fixed deployment time.
Omar Bradley said, Previous combat had taught us that casualties are lumped primarily in the rifle platoons. For here are concentrated the handful of troops who must advance under enemy fire. It is upon them that the burden of war falls with greater risk and with less likelihood of survival than any other of the combat arms. An infantry division of WW II consisted of 81 rifle platoons, each with a combat strength of approximately 40 men. Altogether those 81 assault units comprised but 3,240 men in a division of 14,000 ..Prior to invasion we had estimated that the infantry would incur 70 percent of the losses of our combat forces. By August we had boosted that figure to 83 percent on the basis of our experience in the Normandy hedgerows.
Nearly a third of those 67 divisions suffered 100% or more casualties. However, regimental staffs saw their frontline units obliterated three to six times over. To deal with this problem there were never enough infantrymen coming from the states. Replacement centers continually reassigned artillerymen, machine gunners, cooks, and clerks to infantryman duties. The situation in Europe became so severe that rear area units in France and Great Britain were tasked to supply soldiers for retraining as infantrymen.
For example the 4th and 29th Infantry landed on D-Day and suffered about 500% battle casualties in their rifle platoons during the eleven months until VE-Day. Added to these numbers were half again as many non-battle human wrecks debilitated by trench foot, frost bite, pneumonia, hernia, heart disease, arthritis, etc. Many of these men never returned to duty. In the jungles of the Pacific non-combat losses exacted an even greater price. But somehow such assault divisions crossed Europe and the Pacific and always remained in the forefront of attacks.
Ernie Pyle said of them, The worst experience of all is just the accumulated blur, and the hurting vagueness of being too long in the lines, the everlasting alertness, the noise and fear, the cell-by-cell exhaustion, the thinning of the surrounding ranks as day follows nameless day. And the constant march into the eternity of ones own small quota of chances for survival. Those are the things that hurt and destroy. And good soldiers went back to them because they were good soldiers and they had a duty they could not define.
Partial bibliography: A Soldiers Story by Omar N. Bradley
Brave Men by Ernie Pyle
The U.S. Infantryman in World War II by Robert S. Rush Links for Listings of United States Divisions during WW II http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_Army_divisions_during_World_War_II http://www.historyshots.com/usarmy/
Army Battle Casualties and Non-battle Deaths in World War II http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/ref/Casualties/index.html
3rd 'Marne' Infantry Division http://www.custermen.com/ItalyWW2/Units/Division3.htm
National 4th Infantry (IVY) Division Association http://www.4thinfantry.org/content/division-history
The corps and army commanders had favorites and used them repeatedly. Other divisions were always sent to less active sectors or occupied a flank in a breakout.
Thank you in advance. I know I can expect a good review with suggestions when I post to Free Republic.
I guess they are what we now commonly call, “the point of the spear”. I recall Churchill seeing that the Russians had a 9 to 1 ratio of fighters to support troops. He recalled that Montgomery had just about the exact opposite.
Still as Patton once said, an Army is a team and everyone is important, from the guy who washes the pans to keep the soldiers from getting sick to the combat soldiers. They all have to perform.
Thank you for posting this.
I have a nice short book from the immediate post war period called “Fighting Divisions.” It contains brief unit histories of every United States combat divsion. I’m sure it’s no longer in print but it’s a nice quick reference.
The 1st. Infantry Division(’The Big Red One’’) was also in the D-Day landings.
What about Infantry organic to Armored Divisions?
There were what, 20 Armored Divisions?
Interesting footnote: George Patton, grandson of a Confederate officer and a Southerner by birth and temperament,without hesitation integrated his Third army units to maintain combat efficiency.
You mean quiet sectors like Bastogne and the Ardennes during the battle of ‘the bulge’...
Sometimes great units were put in quiet sectors to recover... Only they end up being very hot.
Good article! Just picking at ya.
Fighting Germans, now that is a nightmare.
On D-Day The 29th landed with”The Big Red One”at Omaha!The Fourth at Utah!!Patton had some favorites like The 90th and The 35th.He spoke to these men as often as he could and encouraged and congratulated them.To Patton,The Infantry WAS The Army!!!
Ernie Pyle... a true inspiration.
To all who served Thank you for my freedom....regardless of when or where. You have my heart
One thing the Germans learned early was that you have to have infantry to support Armor. You can’t just sent out the armor by itself.
Since my Father was in the Combat Engineers, I have noticed that infantry typically speak highly of the Engineers.
I also read a German book about their armor while attacking Russia. The author said they were going through heavy artillery fire but they were safe in their tanks but the “sappers” which they called their engineers, had nothing but their helmets to protect them while they were building and repairing bridges.
Patton had two Grandfathers who were Confederate veterans. One a general and the other a colonel. One died at New Market.
Patton was from California and he did not integrate his army. It actually would have been a big mess if he tried.
With all due respect he did. When he needed riflemen he placed African Americans into his combat units.
Thanks for posting this. I picked up a used copy of Brave Men and read it about 20 years ago, and it really opened my eyes to a lot. Got Omar Bradley’s book and read it about that time too. Regular guys did amazing things, not because they were looking for an adventure.
You often hear the point that today’s infantry fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq have seen more infantry combat than most infantry during WW II in NW Europe, while serving multiple tours of duty. While that may be strictly true in terms of the total time in combat, it is misleading in the sense that the reason for such relatively short tours in WW II was owing to the 8 months from D-Day untill VE-Day and the fact that units in combat had such extraordinarily high turnover in personnel owing to the staggering casualty rate. There is no way that so many of today’s warfighters would have survived to complete so many tours of duty were our enemies in the Middle East able to project the same relative combat power and skill of the German enemy.
This is not meant to detract from the enormous sacrifice, diffuculties experienced and bravery of our contemporary warfighters in their struggles against a ruthless enemy. I just think it helps to place it all in historical context.
Finally as we cosider placing women into combat, let us not refight the last war. The next one may be a contest similar to WWII, if not in style than in the casualty rates. As the article shows, EVERYONE in the Army is ultimately an infantryman if needed. Just ask the men of the Word War II Army Specialized Training Program who had been trained in relatively rear area jobs such as radar technicians, aircrew, anti-aircraft artillery, engineering, dentistry, medicine and the like. Most of them were transferred to combat units has infantry to replace the unbelievable losses in the line infantry and armor units and in preperation for the invasion of Japan.
This possibility does NOT bode well for large percentages of women in the Army.
You do some fine writing, do you ever submit articles, or seek to write guest opinion pieces?
I forget the name of the division, but the whole outfit was killed, wounded, or captured before it was over. with the centuries of history, who ever decided the Ardennes would ever be a quiet sector?
Army Battle Casualties and Non-battle Deaths in World War II
As a former Infanteer, the only guys I respected more were the combat engineers. Everyone else was wogs (without guts). Those engineers have a tough job too, nothing like prodding for mines with a bayonet under fire.
Very brave men...I think the frontal assault on D-day was crazy though and an awful slaughter of many great men. I understand that Joseph Stalin was pushing hard for that invasion.
Thanks for the write up. A cousin of my Dad’s has an interview (transcript) on the web, from some college kid’s project. He was a scout, and talked about how they had it easy - having vehicles, sleeping in the vehicles, etc. (”Sure, we were behind enemy lines, if anybody really knew where the lines were. But it’s not like we were looking for a fight.”)
He mentioned a few times about how bad he felt for the poor guys in the infantry.
He told of the time when he first got there and always had plenty of food because guys were giving away any rations with pork in them.
Once he got into the fight he realized why - the pigs would feed on the corpses on the side of the roads. He quit eating pork too.
I hope we’re not forgetting the Marine Corps....
Thank you for posting!
I’m a bit skeptical about that. The military was ordered to integrate in 1948, but the Army dragged its feet until the Korean War broke out. There, the Army was so desperate for troops, any troops, that trying to maintain colored and white unit differentiation proved too problematic. If integration was successful six years later, under far more trying and chaotic circumstances, why couldn’t it have been possible in 1944?
Thanks for the article. I recently read an internet article written by a soldier describing his experience in the Battle of the Bulge. I recognized his units, 2nd Infantry Div. and 38th Infantry Regiment, as units that my dad was in. The author mentioned that he fired bazookas and 81 mm mortars, which was my dad’s MOS.
I knew that it was a long shot, but I wondered if maybe, just maybe, he knew my dad. To make a long story short, I was able to find an address for the author, sent him a letter, and received a reply. He knew my dad and gave me the name and address of another man in the same unit who was in the same mortar crew as my dad!
I have since had several phone conversations with the 2 men. The second man sent me a picture in which he is standing right next to my dad. That is the only picture of my dad that I have. The picture was taken in Pilson, Czechoslovakia in 1945. It is a treasure to me since my parents were divorced when I was very young, so I didn’t really know my dad, although I had met him when I went to his home and introduced myself when I received my draft notice. Surprisingly, he knew who I was when he answered the door. I visited him a few times after I got out of the army, but he never discussed his military experiences.
My dad died in 1981 and I was presented the flag that covered his casket for the military funeral. I was so honored. I am very proud of him, and I am proud to be his son.
But what an incredible set of circumstances for me to actually be able to talk to two men who served with, and remembered, my dad. It truly was a long shot.
Perhaps you are thinking of the 28th ID, who got mauled in the hedgerows, again in the Hurtgen Forest and once again buying time for the Airborne to make history at Bastogne?
My dad was a BAR gunner in the 110th Regiment of the 28th. He was proud of what he did, but always said that the official history of the war was written by the same rear echelon types who decided that the Hurtgen Forest was a good place for an attack and the Germans would never come through the Ardennes again, and was thus highly suspect.
patton wanted to keep going and deal with the russians right there. we wouldn’t let him.
I believe you are thinking about the 106th Division, the Golden Lions.
The 106th was one of the last combat units deployed to Europe, and in December 1944, it was thought they would get some on the job training in the “quiet” Ardennes sector. Two regiments, the 422 and 423 Infantry, were placed in the exposed Schnee Eifel salient, and were surrounded and destroyed in the first few days of the battle. The third regiment, the 424th, was defending St. Vith and suffered heavy casualties. The division was never fully reconstituted and not returned to major combat.
The other division destroyed in the Ardennes was the 28th, a veteran division sent there to recover from heavy losses in the Hurtgen Forest. It was stretched over a very long front. The northern regiment, the 112th, was herded into the St. Vith “Fortified Goose Egg.” The southern regiment, the 109th, was pushed back to the south. The center regiment, the 110th, bore the full brunt of 5th Panzer Army’s attack and was wiped out. 28th Infantry Division also did not fully recover from this mauling.
World War II was a meatgrinder that consumed huge numbers of troops. The difference with World War I is that the combat was more fluid instead of static. But the casualties were even higher. As bad as the casualty rates were for American divisions fighting in the west, they pale in comparison to the casualties of the brutal war in the East between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
In the Battle of the Bulge, the United States Army suffered about 75,000-80,000 casualties, of which about 19,000 were killed. It is considered the largest single land battle fought by the US Army. On the Eastern Front, that was small change. During the “Right Bank Ukraine” Operation from December 1943 to April 1944, the Soviets suffered 1,100,000 casualties, of which 270,000 were KIA. While that was a gigantic offensive, it gives an idea of the sacrifices they demanded to win.
There’s a daily post here posted by FReeper Homer_J_Simpson of the New York Times from 70 years ago. Each day you can read the progress of the global war. In the Russian press releases, they always talk about how many “inhabited places” they have retaken from the Germans. There was a reason for that. Those villages and “inhabited locations” provided the fresh cannon fodder to replace their staggering losses. When the Red Army entered a village, every male between the ages of 16 and 45 was given a scrap of uniform, a weapon, a few hours of training and a vodka ration. Then they were let loose to take their revenge on the Germans. Poorly trained, they suffered horrible losses. But as the Red Army marched forward, it continuously regenerated itself, which was something the Germans could not do.
That’s what war requires. And women have no place in the front lines of this sort of endeavor.
Sappers were also the guys who “Probed” the ground looking for Land Mines! ENORMOUS TESTICLES!!!!
Keep this in mind the next time somebody tries to tell you that we should have extended the war by marching on Moscow. As a practical matter our divisions (as well as those of our allies) by the Winter of 1944 were operating far below their authorized strength in the all-important category of infantry.
Raised in California, however.
There were a lot of “Rules of Thumb” developed from experience in WW2. One of them was the idea of “Wastage”. That a division operating “on the line” could expect a certain percentage of casualties PER DAY regardless of the level of combat. Those casualties came from routine patrolling activities and the minor skirmishes associated with enemy probing. If the division went into an offensive, or had to repel a major assault, then those daily casualty figures would of course rise.
Of course all those “wastage” casualties were pretty much infantry or soldiers attached to infantry units.
quiet sectors like Bastogne and the Ardennes
My father made it through til then with 2 purple hearts for relatively minor wounds,,, in the Ardennes he was hit bad and left for dead for 2 days in the snow with just a hit of morphine... on the 3rd day they evacuated him on a c47 to England where he stayed for 3 months...
If the war had gone into 1946 I suspect that you’d have seen a much larger contribution along the lines of French African Troops in WW1.
Thank you for the information. I said in another response that I wondered how could anyone be aware of the last several centuries of history and still decide the Ardennes would ever be a quiet sector?
This brings to mind the essay and letters I have developed about dropping the atomic bomb on Japan. Here is a portion.
In support of dropping the atomic bombs historians often cite the inevitability of horrifying casualties, if troops had landed on the home islands. They extrapolate from 48,000 American and 230,000 Japanese losses on Okinawa to estimates of 500,000 American and millions of Japanese casualties for mainland invasions. However, these optimistic figures arise from studies preceding the unfolding recognition by planning staffs of the American experiences on Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. These sanguine estimates are also over seven times the dead and wounded suffered by Americans during The Battle of the Bulge; casualties that shocked the American public.
Such estimates could have greatly understated casualties. Kyushu and Honshu at over 100,000 rugged square miles mathematically enable at least 500 defensive redoubts; fortifications comparable to that General Ushijima constructed to inflict most losses at Okinawa. This rapid increase in killing efficiency extended to planned stubborn defenses of their major cities just as the Germans had maintained in Berlin. The American island hopping strategy had ended, because the Japanese had determined the few regions within their mountainous country that could accommodate the huge armies and air forces needed. Harry Truman contemplated increasingly dire estimates causing him to reflect on the possibility of an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other.
The Greatest Generation and their parents would have been enraged to discover a cabal had ignored the nuclear option for ending the war simply to indulge some personal moral orthodoxy. If there was any alternative, Harry Truman, Henry Stimson, and George Marshall were not about to procure the deaths of countless Americans in protracted ground campaigns following amphibious assaults exceeding D-Day.
Would be great to hear from archy on this...
By all accounts, Tarawa was a meatgrinder. Everyone got hammered, but the second wave, having to wade ashore from landing craft hung up on the surrounding reef, must have been especially horrifying.
One wonders if current generations of American kids could manage something like that, but it seems that our servicemen (and women) are doing great things in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Here is part of an essay I wrote on repeal of DADT and I believe it applies even more to women serving in an MOS likely to engage in combat. The context here is the survey that said 70% of those in the military saw no problem serving with homosexuals
“The entire military exists to serve Marine and Army combat infantrymen and their associates in Special Forces. DOD accomplishes nothing of lasting significance until these people walk the ground formerly held by an enemy, and well over half of those trigger-pullers opposed repeal. Only they understand the unimaginable totalitarian leadership and obedience demanded by their chaotic, barbaric, and brittle environments.
I have heard objections in terms of having to shower with homosexuals, but the problem really begins when showers, hot food, and regular sleep fade into memory to be replaced by exhaustion, brutality, turmoil, and trauma. The leadership and discipline of a sub-culture that enables victory or at least survival in those environments cannot be turned on and off. It must continually penetrate throughout the military services. A mental disorder involving sexuality when thrust into the midst of that totalitarian structure warps the relationships that must be maintained.”