Shelled Hospital at Anzio
Here we see the aftermath of a shell hit on a hospital tent somewhere in the Anzio beachhead. The Allies were pinned into such a small area that this sort of accident was almost inevitable, and the hospital area became known as 'Hell's Half Acre'. It is unlikely that the Germans were deliberately targeting the hospital tents.
Flashback : Dallas
Roberts (left) and two fellow Army Nurse Corps nurses receiving the Silver Star
The opening paragraph from a chapter in Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation:
There are so many impressive numbers connected to World War II that it’s difficult for one or two to catch your eye. Here are a few that caught me by surprise: more than sixty thousand women served in the Army Nurse Corps. Sixteen died as a result of enemy action. Sixty-seven nurses were taken prisoner of war. More than sixteen hundred were decorated for bravery under fire or for meritorious service.
The chapter is titled “Mary Louise Roberts Wilson,” a profile of Mary L. Roberts, a Methodist Hospital nurse who enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps in 1942. She served with the 56th Evacuation Hospital Unit alongside many other medical professionals from Dallas (the unit — sometimes called the “Baylor Unit” — was organized by the Baylor University College of Medicine in Dallas). She knew she would be serving overseas in field hospitals in combat zones.
As far as seeing action, the worst of the worst for the 56th was on February 10, 1944 when their hospital tents on the Anzio beachhead in Italy were attacked by German long-range artillery shells for a full thirty minutes. Several operations were underway during the attack, and Roberts, the chief nurse of the operating tent, managed to keep a calm head and help to maintain as much order as possible.
“I wanted to jump under the operating table, but first we had to lower litter cases to the floor. Pieces of steel already were ripping through tents. There were four litters. I saw a patient on the operating table had his helmet near him so I put it over his head to give him that much protection.” (Mary L. Roberts, Dallas Morning News, Feb 23, 1944)
When the shelling ended, two enlisted men in the operating tent had been wounded, and elsewhere in the field hospital, two nurses had been killed and several other personnel wounded. As a result of their exceptional bravery, outstanding leadership, and “gallantry in action,” Roberts and two other nurses, 2nd Lt. Rita Virginia Rourke and 2nd Lt. Elaine Arletta Roe were awarded the Silver Star . No women had ever received the medal. As 1st Lt. Roberts had seniority, she was the first woman in history to be decorated for heroism in action.
Maj. General John P. Lucas surprised her and the other two nurses on Feb. 22, 1944 with an informal presentation of the medals at the same Anzio hospital that had been shelled only twelve days earlier. After the brief pinning ceremony, the nurses immediately returned to their duties, all feeling they were accepting acknowledgement for their team, not for themselves alone. Roberts spent 29 months overseas, and tended to more than 73,000 patients.
After the war, when Lufkin-native Mary Roberts returned home, she worked for almost 30 years as a nurse at a VA hospital in Dallas, and, rather late in life, she married fellow veteran Willie Ray Wilson. Mrs. Wilson died in 2001 at the age of 87. She was buried with full military honors.
1944 (Fort Worth Star-Telegram Archives, UTA)
Presentation of the Silver Star at Anzio
Mary Roberts Wilson (1914-2001)
Sources & Notes
Top photo and first quote from The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw (New York: Random House, 1998).
For an exceedingly detailed history of the 56th Evacuation Hospital Unit, with several photographs, see here .
Articles on Mary Roberts from The Dallas Morning News archives:
- “Baylor Unit In Action” (DMN, Aug. 26, 1942): photo of unit, including Roberts, working around an operating table
- “Dallas Nurse, Two Others Win Medals” (DMN, Feb. 23, 1944): “The award, denoting exceptional bravery went to Lt. Mary L. (Pinky) Roberts, 1205 North Bishop, Dallas, Texas, chief nurse in an operating room hit by shell fragments.”
- “Nurses of Dallas Unit Serving at Anzio Doing Jobs Cheerfully Despite Many Hardships” by Wick Fowler (DMN, March 31, 1944)
- “Ends Military Career: WWII Recalled By Heroic Nurse” (DMN, July 26, 1964): photo and interview with Mary Roberts Wilson on her retirement from the U. S. Army Reserve
- “Happiness Is Being Part of a Team” by Jane Ulrich Smith (DMN, May 16, 1972), photo and interview, on her retirement from the Veterans Administration Hospital
- “Compassion Revisited: Nurse Reunites With GI She Treated For Serious Injuries In WWII” (DMN, Nov. 4, 1999): a reunion with former patient Dewey Ellard of Mobile, Alabama, brought together by Tom Brokaw
- “Distinguished Career In Medicine Followed — WWII Gallantry — VA Hospital Honors Longtime Nurse — Who Won Silver Star in ” (DMN, Nov. 6, 2001): interview with the then-87-year-old Mrs. Wilson, published two-and-a-half weeks before her death
- “Mary Wilson, ‘Angel of Anzio,’ Dies at 87 — WWII Nurse Known For Kindness Was Decorated For Bravery Under Fire” (DMN, Nov. 24, 2001)
Other women who were honored in 1944 for heroism and achievement in the line of duty:
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Aug. 20, 1944
Anzio - The Duce visit to the hospital in Tubercolosario
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Beginning of the TrailRoster of Co. B Starting Overseas
Victor J. Mulaire, Capt. M.C.
Don B. Durham, Capt. M.C.
(now commanding Co. A, 120th Med. Bn.)
John M. Thomas, Capt. M.C.
(Transferred to 45th Div. Clr. Co.)
Joseph V. Crecca, 1st Lt. M.C.
Russell R. W. Layer, 2nd Lt. M.A.C.
(now commanding- 120th Med. Bn. H.Q. Detachment)
Willard G. Crawford
Raymond L. Everett
Felix R. Losarnio
Aaron B. Moore
Leonard J. Garside
Ray D. Lenning
Cecil F. Rodgers*
William J. Rubin
Jesse L. Caldwell
TECHNICIANS, 4th Grade
Lloyd E. Wheeler
Charles A. Bertinotti*
John D. Cole*
Harold J. Harris
John B. Jones
TECHNICIANS, 5th Grade
Doyle A. Deatherage*
Robert M. Gardner*
John R. Linker*
Glenn D. Strickland*
Only Wisconsin woman killed by enemy fire during WWII honored
Lt. Ellen Ainsworth, a nurse with the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, is pictured in her uniform in this undated photograph. Ainsworth was serving with the 56th Evacuation Hospital at Anzio, Italy, when a German bomb exploded outside her tent Feb. 12, 1944. She died from her wounds four days later. Courtesy photo.
(L to R) U.S. Army Nurse Corps nurses Mary Henehan, Lena Grussing, Ellen Ainsworth and Avis Dagit (now Avis Schorer) are dressed for duty while in Italy during World War II. Ainsworth would later become one of six Army nurses killed by enemy fire in Anzio, Italy. (Courtesy of Avis D. Schorer).
A mugshot of the now 95-year-old Avis Schorer when she was a WWII nurse. She wrote a book about the experience called titled 'A Half Acre of Hell.' (Pioneer Press: Ben Garvin)
An operating room at Anzio, Italy, during World War II. Over a period of four months in 1944, U.S. hospitals at Anzio treated more than 33,000 patients, of which about 10,800 suffered battle wounds. (Courtesy of Avis D. Schorer)
In this photo provided by the U.S. Navy, lining the deck of a landing craft at the dock at Anzio, Italy wounded American troops, casualties from the fierce battle for the Bridgehead, lie on litters awaiting transfer to a hospital ship offshore, Feb. 28, 1944. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy)
95-year-old Avis Schorer is photographed at her home in Lilydale on Thursday, May 22, 2014. Schorer wrote a book about her experience as a WWII nurse titled 'A Half Acre of Hell.' (Pioneer Press: Ben Garvin)
A new visitors center at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy, honors eight Armed Service members who lost their lives in Italy, including Lt. Ellen Ainsworth, a Glenwood City, Wis., nurse who was killed by a bomb fragment at Anzio in 1944. Ainsworth was the only woman from Wisconsin killed by enemy fire in World War II. (Courtesy of Tina Young).
Only hours after Lt. Ellen Ainsworth succumbed to shrapnel wounds, a few dozen mourners gathered on the beachhead of Anzio, Italy, to honor the Army nurse who would be the only woman from Wisconsin to die from enemy fire in World War II.
A German bomb had exploded outside her tent four days earlier, gravely wounding the Glenwood City native. Though she had watched Ainsworth’s condition deteriorate day after day, it was a shock to know the fun-loving 24-year-old was now gone, recalled fellow Army nurse Avis Schorer.
“It was surreal,” Schorer said recently of her friend’s death. “I couldn’t believe it. Not Ellen, who had always been so strong and sure of herself.”
Schorer recalled standing on the beachhead and listening as a Protestant minister said a few words and a bugler played taps.
The bugler played wonderfully, she said, and the mourners then watched as a fleet of American bombers flew overhead and dropped their payloads on the surrounding German positions that were holding back Allied advancement.
“In my mind, I can picture that with exceptional clarity,” said Schorer, now 95 and living in Lilydale. “Some things are hard to forget.”
This year marks the 70th anniversary of Ainsworth’s death and the Allied invasion of the Anzio beachhead. Ainsworth is buried at the nearby Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno and is featured as one of eight Armed Forces members in the cemetery’s Sacrifice Gallery — part of a new visitors center that is being celebrated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Memorial Day.
“We’re trying to tell the story of the American Armed Forces and their sacrifices and achievements … and put a face to all of those headstones,” said Timothy Nosal, acting director of public affairs at the American Battle Monuments Commission, which operates the cemetery and 24 more on foreign soil.
Ainsworth — one of nearly 7,900 Americans buried at the cemetery, which also memorializes about 3,100 more Americans missing — became one of the first women ever to receive the Silver Star — given posthumously for actions she took two days before she was mortally wounded.
She was on duty that day in the 56th Evacuation Hospital, which was housed in a collection of canvas tents on the Anzio beachhead, as the area was being hit by heavy artillery shelling, according to a plaque honoring Ainsworth at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King, in King, Wis.
A shell dropped outside of her ward, sending fragments tearing though the canvas. But despite the damage and danger, Ainsworth calmly directed patients to the ground, preventing further injury.
“By her disregard for her own safety and her calm assurance,” the plaque quotes an Army report as saying, “she instilled confidence in her assistants and her patients, thereby preventing serious panic and injury. Her courage under fire and her selfless devotion to duty were an inspiration to all who witnessed her actions.”
Following her death, U.S. Army Nurse Corps Superintendent Col. Florence Blanchfield wrote to Ainsworth’s mother, telling the grieving woman that Ainsworth “typifies the very finest in American womanhood,” according to a passage in “And If I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in World War II,” by Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee.
“Had she known that it was to be thus, she would still have said, ‘I must go. It is my duty,’ ” Blanchfield wrote. “The nurses are like that in this war. They fear nothing. They beg to go forward as far as possible because they feel they are needed so urgently.”
A BRIGHT SPIRIT
Ainsworth, born in 1919, the youngest of three siblings, attended nursing school at Eitel Hospital School of Nursing in Minneapolis.
She graduated in 1941, and Pearl Harbor was bombed that December, launching the nation into war.
When Ainsworth signed up for the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in March 1942, nurses were under tremendous pressure to join the military, but another likely factor in her decision to volunteer was a longing to see and experience the world, said Schorer, author of “A Half Acre of Hell,” a book published in 2000 that details her experiences as a WWII nurse.
Schorer met Ainsworth at Camp Chaffee in western Arkansas, where both women did their training, and they became good friends.
“She was a very outgoing, fun-loving person,” Schorer said. “Ellen was a unique personality. Everything to her was exciting, challenging.”
Ainsworth’s cousin Pat Testor grew up with her in Glenwood City and agreed that Ainsworth usually was the life of the party.
“She was one of my favorite people,” said Testor, of Maplewood. “She was so funny. She had a tremendous sense of humor.”
And she wasn’t afraid to have a drink or get into a bit of mischief, either, Testor said.
Ainsworth’s bright spirit didn’t fade when she was shipped oversees — first to Morocco, then Tunisia before she and the rest of the 56th Evacuation Hospital landed in Italy south of Salerno in September 1943.
That November, the hospital moved up the Italian peninsula to Dragoni, and the weather there made for dismal conditions — cold, rain and knee-deep mud that together eroded morale, Schorer said.
As Christmas approached, Ainsworth wanted to bring some cheer to the troops, so she organized a group to sing Christmas carols over the public-address system.
“I think she really strived to make every situation better, if possible,” Schorer said.
TENDING TO THE WOUNDED
The fighting in Italy was not going as well as the Allies had hoped in late 1943.
They had believed the Germans would not hold onto the southern Italian peninsula for long, but the Allies discovered advancement more difficult than anticipated. Weather, terrain and German forces all helped hinder their progress to Rome, said Tim Brady, a St. Paul author of two WWII history books.
The decision was made to try to flank the German forces by invading the Anzio beachhead, which was between the German frontlines and Rome.
The maneuver did not go as well as planned.
While the initial invasion of Anzio was successful, the Allies did not follow up with advances quickly enough, giving the Germans time to move troops into positions surrounding the beachhead and locking the two sides in a quagmire.
Schorer and Ainsworth arrived in Anzio in late January, and the fighting was fierce along the frontlines, which were so close to their hospital that wounded troops could walk there if they were able, Schorer said.
“We had an enormous amount of casualties,” she said. “Some of them were so gravely wounded, you knew they weren’t going to make it.”
The nurses were responsible for observing patients, looking for changes and administering the necessary medical care. They were commissioned officers in charge of their wards, but there wasn’t a large division of labor everyone did what needed to be done, Schorer said, adding that along with the Allied forces, they tended to German prisoners and the occasional Italian civilian.
Over a four-month period, the hospitals at Anzio cared for more than 33,000 patients, of which about 10,800 had suffered battle wounds.
Schorer said Ainsworth loved doing nursing work and felt protective of those she cared for. But it was difficult for the nurses to watch the ravages of war firsthand.
“These were men our age,” Schorer said. “Some of them seemed like little boys, even.”
Ainsworth’s sister, Lyda Ainsworth, who died last year, wrote a speech in the 1970s for the dedication of a health clinic to Ainsworth. In it, she spoke of a letter she received from her sister:
“I got a letter one time all spotted with tears. She was all torn up over the suffering of ‘her boys’ — and the fact that there was so little she could do to protect them, and to ease and comfort their pain — or halt their deaths.”
‘HELL’S HALF ACRE’
Despite the red crosses painted on the hospital’s tents, the 56th Evacuation Hospital was not a safe place for either the patients or medical personnel.
The hospital was close to ammunition and weapons, legitimate targets for the Germans, and sometimes would be hit with artillery shells and bombs. The hospital’s canvas tents would do nothing to protect those inside, and many were wounded and killed. In just a few weeks following the invasion, several nurses and patients had been killed by enemy fire at the beachhead’s hospitals.
All told, the fighting at Anzio killed 92 medical personnel with the U.S. Army Medical Department, wounded 387 and left 60 classified as missing in action.
The entire war saw 16 women of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps killed directly from enemy fire, six of those at Anzio.
The frequent bombing and shelling of the beachhead made for a constant sense of vulnerability, Schorer said, adding that some wounded troops felt safer in their foxholes on the frontlines than they did in a hospital bed situated in what the troops had nicknamed “Hell’s Half Acre.”
The air raids were numerous at Anzio and when one sounded, the hospital’s staff would shelter in what was little more than a large foxhole covered by timbers. Ainsworth, however, chose not to seek refuge there, saying she did not want all the hospital staff to be killed by a direct hit, and so she took her chances elsewhere, Schorer said.
“She wasn’t afraid of anything,” Schorer said.
On Feb. 12, 1944, Ainsworth had just gotten off duty and was in her tent when a German bomb exploded outside, striking her with bomb fragments.
“I was still in the shelter and someone said Ellen had been hit,” Schorer said.
Ainsworth was immediately rushed into surgery, and everyone was optimistic about her survival at first. But each day that passed, Schorer said, she began to lose ground.
“These fragments would make a small entry in the skin, but internally the injuries were often very severe,” said Schorer, who was assigned to be her nurse. “You didn’t want to think she was as bad off as she was.”
Ainsworth told Schorer not to worry.
“She said, ‘I’m stronger than anything the Germans can throw at us,’ ” Schorer said. “That was the attitude she had to begin with. She really put a brave face on for everybody.”
But toward the end, she was barely conscious, and Schorer was tending to her the morning of Feb. 16 when Ainsworth reached for her oxygen mask and then gasped her last breath.
On March 9, Ainsworth’s family received a telegram informing them she had been killed. It would have been her 25th birthday.
“It was hard on everybody,” said Testor, who was living in Montana at the time.
The family chose not to bring Ainsworth’s body back to the U.S., thinking in part that her mother, who was dying of cancer, could not handle all that would come with that, Testor said.
Ainsworth’s father also was devastated, and it’s the family’s understanding that he was so overcome with grief that he destroyed most of the letters she had sent home from overseas, said Testor’s niece, Linda Hafdahl.
NOT TO BE FORGOTTEN
In the years following her death, a residence hall at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King, a health clinic at Fort Hamilton in New York, a conference room at the Pentagon and the American Legion Post in Glenwood City were dedicated to Ainsworth.
Yet her story was relatively unknown among the younger generations in Glenwood City, said Sally Berkholder, a Glenwood City native who knew the Ainsworth family.
Berkholder knew little about the circumstances of Ainsworth’s death when she posted Ainsworth’s photo and a short message about her on a Facebook page last Memorial Day, prompting a number of responses.
“The switchboard just lit up,” said Berkholder, who now lives in Glenwood City. “The comments from people my age and younger were, ‘Who is Ellen?’ ”
Berkholder, the secretary for the Glenwood City Historical Society, started doing research on Ainsworth, including reading Schorer’s book, and she even visited Ainsworth’s grave during a trip to Italy in February.
Ainsworth and Schorer, she said, belong to an “amazing generation of women” who endured incredibly harsh conditions during the war but kept their humanity.
“Ellen and the people of that generation suffered hardships and turned self-sacrifice into an art form as children,” Berkholder said, referring to the Great Depression. “That kind of experience, I think, steeled them to withstand the onslaught of this war.”
And their story, she added, is not one people should forget.
“These women saved lives, and they never got the credit I think they deserve,” Berkholder said. “She could have sat home and had a great career just being a nurse at a private hospital in the Twin Cities. People like that, giving up the comforts of home and putting their lives on the line — I just think that’s extraordinary.”
There were twelve kids in my Dad's family, seven boys, five girls. Five of the seven boys served in the military during WWII. One of Dad's older brothers, Paul Butler, is nearly 80 years old. I saw him this summer. Paul still lives on the Southwestern Colorado homestead where my Grandparents raised all those kids. He does his best mending fences on a sharp curved county road, where speeding motorists are constantly taking his fence down.
Paul Butler signed up for one year in the Army in January, 1941. December 7, 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. His year had suddenly been extended. Paul was assigned to the 45th Division, 157th Infantry Regiment, Anti-Tank Company. During basic training he was transferred into a rifle company. He was shipped overseas in June of 1943 aboard a converted passenger ship, the Susan B. Anthony. They didn't know where they were going and in July of 1943 he landed in North Africa where they received further training. Back aboard the Susan B. Anthony they were told they were headed for Sicily. On July 10, 1943 they were transferred onto a landing craft where they hit the beaches of Sicily. There he fought bravely in the Battle of Bloody Ridge, at San Stefano. Paul Butler recalls:
"We were under machine gun fire all night long, laying on the ground. Machine gun fire killed my Sergeant. The Italians weren't very good fighters but the Germans were, they were always blowing up railroad tracks and bridges. I saw a U.S.O. show with Bob Hope. We traveled on foot a lot under General Patton's command. He gave a speech to about 2,000 of us and we were told we'd hit the mainland of Italy. I remember him saying, "If those SOBs don't back up, take your bayonets and make them." Patton had to return to the states over the incident where he slapped the soldier with battle fatigue, so we went on without him. In Sicily I was transferred back into an Anti-tank company and I hauled 60mm Mortar rounds. On Sept. 8, 1943 we hit Salerno Beach. There, I drove a White 1/2 track pulling a 37mm gun. I drove the 1/2 track onto the beach head. On the way into Italy, the Italians surrendered, but the Germans fought furiously. That winter we were foot soldiers in the mountains of Italy. A lot of G.I.s got trench foot, frozen feet and lost toes. Then, on January 29, 1944 we hit Anzio Beach Head. The Germans had all the high ground and we were pinned down on the beach every day for 4 to 5 months. Every day was like a D-day. I built a cellar that kept shell fragments out. It was a foxhole with a timber and sandbag roof. We had a gas stove and played cards sometimes with a candle, when the candle went out you knew you had to get out to get oxygen. The Germans had this big gun we called Anzio Angie and when the big shells were fired, it sounded light a freight train coming. The gun was placed back in a tunnel on a railway car. They had a 6 barrel mortar that sounded like a screechin' tomcat, but the toughest were those German 88's. Us 1/2-track drivers had to drive back up this road one time so we could hide and camouflage our vehicles. Most of my 37mm gun crew was killed then. They gave me the Bronze Star for delivering ammunition while under fire. I was just one of the lucky ones who didn't get hit. A lot of men were captured, then escaped and rejoined us. One unit lost all but two of its men. One day when we had a break in the shelling and I was horsing around with some other fellas and one threw a dirt clod and gave me a black eye. They sent me to the hospital. They wanted to give me a Purple Heart, but I told the truth and said I'd rather have some aspirin. During the 2nd night, the Germans shelled the hospital and I crawled under my cot. I told them it was safer where I had been and I asked to be sent back to the front. The last part of May, we broke out of the beach head and headed for Rome. On June 6, 1944, D-Day, we were headed into Rome after 5 months of fierce fighting on Anzio. Because the Pope was in Rome, we were sent back to the beach head for more training until Aug. 1. On the 15th of August we hit the Southern France beach head near the French Riviera. It was an easy landing with very little resistance. We spent the winter in the Vosges Mountains. It was really cold. I remember the sap freezing in the trees and they'd blow up just like shells. In November of 44 we went into Alsace, an area along the German-French border. There was heavy fighting from town to town. I was a Transportation Corporal at the time and I drove a Dodge 6x6 pulling a 57mm Gun behind it. We were under blackout operations most of the time. We crossed the Rhine River on an Army built bridge and into Aschaffenburg about 2 weeks after General Patton entered the city. We were in and out of buildings and German Snipers were firing at us all the time. Our commander told us that the end of the war was getting close and he didn't want to see any more of us get killed, so we pulled out and the Air Corps bombed the city. My last day of combat was April 30, 1945, my 511th day. That day I visited the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. The day before, I company of the Third Battalion had been the first to Dachau. Some of my buddies went over that day, I figured I'd better see it too. I didn't really want to, but I did. Them pictures you've seen, it was the truth. We had been fighting for two years and we were hard. We had seen things-our friends killed and you kind of got used to it, maybe your emotions sort of die. A few days later I hitched a ride down somewhere in Germany to see your Dad. I had found out where he was and decided to visit. All those soldiers. and I found him. I came walking up and he said, "That's Paul Butler." When I got back to camp, they sent me home. When the plane landed in Florida, I kissed the ground."
In the last few years, I've lost two important men who had been in my life for a long time. They were both veterans of World War II, both heroes to me and to others.
From Anzio Beach Landing to Dachau Liberation – and the Saving of Holocaust Torah Scrolls
This story begins in the late winter of 1942. The world was aflame with the rampages of Hitler’s Germany. The U.S. was desperately trying to catch up with Hitler who had been in preparation for world conquest for years.
Nathan Crandall (1914 – July 4, 2000)
Nat Crandall was born, raised and educated in Windsor, Canada through the equivalent of one year of college. His parents were orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe and the family language was Yiddish which was important because it was to play a part in the war when he became an unofficial interpreter since Yiddish is so close to German.
Crandall recalls: “My wife, Ruth, and I had been married for several years, both working. Like many of our friends, we were making a start from scratch. I had recently taken the plunge to open my own business with a partner, producing fabric sample display cards being used in the textile industry. Fabrics, when available, were sold from a labeled swatch. Due to the shortages created by the war, these types of sales aids were no longer necessary. As a result, we closed down with a complete loss of investment.”
Nat was fortunate to get a job with a coat and suit manufacturer owned by a friend’s father. He was the supervisor and coordinator of the cutting room, assigning the sewing work to various sub-contractors. He was put in charge of purchasing supplies such as buttons, linings, belts, zippers, and other accessories.
Inducted into the U.S. Army, 1943
Crandall was inducted into the Army in February 1943, and landed in Camp Wheeler in Macon, Georgia as an infantry trainee. His first child (Rick) was on the way, but had not yet been born. Crandall was shipped out from Newport News, Virginia, and spent 21 days in a convoy of Liberty ships.
He recalls: “I don’t know how my wife made out during those years. My salary was $60 or $65 per month and I sent it to Ruth and only held out $3 or $4 per month. I didn’t smoke. She did amazingly well with that little money.”
There were 600 troops packed in each ship – sleeping in hammocks in three 8-hour shifts. The rest of the time was spent eating and doing nothing. It was 20 long days on the convoy to go across the ocean from Virginia to Oran, North Africa on the Mediterranean.
Nat recalls: “we were all puzzled – why did we have to bring mattress covers with us, two apiece. Well, we later learned that they were used for body bags. They just used us as couriers and they all went to some central place for subsequent use.”
Beach Landing at Anzio
After arriving and sitting idle for 3-4 days in Oran, Crandall was shipped out to Anzio on Day + 2, i.e. two days after American troops began the assault on Anzio’s beachhead on January 12, 1944. The landing was done with LST’s (Landing Ship Tank).
The LST had a flat open deck and a super-structure for crew and controls on one side. “My friend, Ernie Friedman and I were positioned in the shade of the superstructure watching huge geysers of water shoot skyward. We didn’t yet realize that we were being shelled by what later became famously known as the Anzio Express – a very large-caliber cannon mounted on a rail flat car that receded into a tunnel in the mountain when attacked by the Allied Air Force. The explosions were enormous.”
The LST made it to the beach, and two huge front doors swung open allowing the various vehicles to roll out under their own power. Those, including Crandall, who survived the landing, scrambled into the town of Anzio where they were provided shelter by friendly Italians.
“I got down the ladder from the LST and went into town right under the German fire. We were all green as a cucumber. We were all pinned down by German fire. Anzio had a very flat beachhead. You’d walk for 1 ½ hours on the flat until you’d start to see the rise to the hills. So we were wide open. The British soldiers who were right next to us, had to have their tea at 4pm every afternoon. The Germans knew that, so at 4pm every day the German Spitfires came around to lambaste us. There was no place to hide.”
“The Germans did cause damage, but it was even more psychologically damaging. When the German tanks came up, the British went up in their Spitfires and did pretty good damage to the Germans, but we were running around, just trying to find a safe place. It put the fear of survival in you and you formed a team.”
The beachhead at Anzio: the third amphibious landing for the Thunderbirds. In the first landing on Day 1 there was little opposition due to surprise, but when German Field Marshall Kesselring encircled the beachhead, the ground was paid for in blood.
Crandall was part of a group assigned to Company A, 180th Infantry Regiment.
“We were led to the front and we were introduced to the Platoon leader, Lt. Siegel from the Bronx. He was friendly and chatted with each one of the replacements, asking semi-personal questions about our backgrounds and education. A real nice guy.
When it came to my turn, he asked me the same sort of questions, in particular, if I had participated in any sports in school. Since I had not yet learned that in the Army you keep your mouth shut, like a schmuck, I went through my sports career in football, basketball, swimming, and tennis. The Lt. was impressed and said, ‘Good, I’ve got just the thing for you. That’s yours now!’
He was pointing to a BAR (Browning Automatic Repeater) gun, which was a portable automatic firing weapon that fires from clips containing twenty 30-caliber bullets. It’s the next step up from the M1 rifle, more like a light machine gun.
“With the weight of the gun, about 50 lbs., two bandoliers of clips, my pack, gas mask, when on the move, I felt my ass was dragging on the ground and I was sure I would develop blisters any minute.”
At night they started the march up to the front in the foothills of Anzio.
“So there we were in Anzio, and at a certain time at night the bombardment started, and it was vicious. The Germans hadn’t weakened in any way. They were well supplied and they had driven well into Italy. They had a modus operandi to demoralize us. They did a pretty good job of it. We each would send patrols out to case each other every night. The land between us was a real no-mans land. It was booby-trapped and was just a mess. We were bombarding each other, but they had the protection of the hills and we had no protection.”
Analysis from: www.45thDivision.org/campaignbattles/anzio.htm During the four months of the Anzio Campaign the Allied Corps suffered over 29,200 combat casualties (4,400 killed, 18,000 wounded, 6,800 prisoners or missing) and 37,000 noncombat casualties. Two-thirds of these losses were inflicted between the initial landings and the end of the German counteroffensive on 4 March. Of the combat casualties, 16,200 were Americans (2,800 killed, 11,000 wounded, 2,400 prisoners or missing) as were 26,000 of the Allied noncombat casualties. German combat losses, suffered wholly by its Fourteenth Army, were estimated at 27,500—figures very similar to Allied losses.
The Anzio Campaign was controversial. The operation failed in its objectives of outflanking the Gustav Line, and speeding the capture of Rome. Allied forces were quickly pinned down and contained within a small beachhead, and they were effectively rendered incapable of conducting any sort of major offensive action for four months pending the advance of Fifth Army forces to the south. As General Lucas repeatedly stated before the landing, the paltry allotments of men and supplies were not commensurate with the high goals sought by British planners. He steadfastly maintained that under the circumstances the small Anzio force accomplished all that could have been realistically expected. Lucas’ critics charge, however, that a more aggressive and imaginative commander, such as a Patton or Truscott, could have obtained the desired goals by an immediate, bold offensive from the beachhead. Lucas was overly cautious, spent valuable time digging in, and allowed the Germans to prepare countermeasures to ensure that it became a long, costly campaign of attrition.
Yet the campaign did accomplish several goals. The presence of a significant Allied force behind the German main line of resistance, uncomfortably close to Rome, represented a constant threat. The Germans could not ignore Anzio and were forced into a response, thereby surrendering the initiative in Italy to the Allies. The 135,000 troops of the German Fourteenth Army surrounding Anzio could not be moved elsewhere, nor could they be used to make the already formidable Gustav Line virtually impregnable. The Anzio beachhead thus guaranteed that the already steady drain of scarce German troop reserves, equipment, and materiel would continue unabated, ultimately enabling the 15th Army Group to break through in the south. But the success was costly.
Wounded by Shrapnel
“We must have been in Anzio for a few weeks. It was a hellhole of death. We couldn’t break out. Every American soldier carried a dog tag that had your number and your religion. Mine was stamped Hebrew, so I never wore my dog tag around my neck. I always had it in my back pocket so if I was captured I’d just throw it away because I wouldn’t want them to know I was a Jew.”
“We broke out to Cape xxx (?), because we had the Third Division. … well there was another very interesting point towards the east coast of Italy called Casino Pass that the Third Division was trying to take, and we were marching to Rome. It was at Capa Leone where I was wounded with shrapnel – and that was an experience. The Germans had tanks all around and they were launching shells everywhere.”
Evacuation Hospital at Anzio was within Artillery range and also subject to serial Attack.
“We had tanks too, and bazooka shells were flying in both directions. A piece of bazooka shrapnel the size of my thumb hit me in the leg and the force of that impact knocked me to the ground and I threw up and was in a state of shock. I had to get back to the medical station, but a lot of other guys were wounded too, so there was no help. I began to crawl towards the first-aid station. I dragged my rifle with me, because you’re not allowed to be without a gun. As I crawled along, I could see the extent of the bombardment. There were a lot of German dead bodies all around and you had little protection. You kept worrying that maybe one of these guys laying around was still alive and just playing dead, so that’s why you needed the gun.”
“I don’t know how long I crawled because I was in a bad mental state, but I made it back to the first-aid station. They put me on a stretcher and immobilized me.
The shrapnel had lodged up against my sciatic nerve. And it would hurt me if I moved around. They put me on this two-motor plane to get me out. They got me to Naples and shipped me to a hospital, which was a converted convent. They took a look at me, looked at my records and proceeded to cut my pants away they gave me a spinal and cut out the shrapnel. This was happening while the Germans were bombing Naples and I was trying to move but I was still numb from the waist down from the spinal, so it was very frustrating and terrifying.”
Historic Thunderbird Division
Crandall was assigned to Company A, 1st Battalion, 180th Infantry Regiment of the 45th (Thunderbird) Division. A Company had 4 platoons of 36 men each. Three were fighting platoons and the 4th was a weapons platoon that included automatic weapons and mortars. Usually one platoon stayed back behind the weapons platoon, so they were a backup if the forward platoons were breached. The same method was used with Battalions, one would be held back. The same was done with an entire Company.
Thunderbird Arm Patch
The Thunderbird Division was historic – landed at Anzio, followed Patton across France and Germany and was part of the liberation of Dachau. On January 12, 1944 the Thunderbirds together with the U.S. Third Division joined with a British artillery unit that landed on Anzio with us. Besides being shelled by the Anzio Express, there were constant attacks day and night by the German Air Force. There was no shelter on the beachhead other than foxholes excavated by the troops.
Landing in Southern France
“Next we made the landing in Southern France we landed on the Riviera in Southern France in an amphibious landing up the Rhone River valley and marched up into Germany. This was about March of 1944. The French part was not that difficult. There was some resistance because the Germans usually had the high ground and we had the low ground.”
“The First Sergeant of the Company, the administrator, was caught in the accidental crush of a tank and was incapacitated, and I was appointed as an acting First Sergeant, so I took on his additional responsibilities – if we were to be sheltered at any time, I needed to hunt up and allocate where each platoon and squad was to stay and to make sure that there was availability of hot food to the troops.
“At the same time as I was acting as First Sergeant, I was also the radio man. When we were spread out in combat arrangement, I handled all the inter-squad communications with a device like a walkie talkie. Then we had another kind of more long distance communication back to the battalion with a more heavy duty radio you carried on your back. I handled that too.”
“So we marched through France. The fighting wasn’t too fierce, but there were a number of instances where we made contact with the enemy. There was a lot of gunfire. The Germans seemed to pull back a bit – they weren’t so aggressive in France, but when we got to German soil in the Black Forest, that got really rough.”
Following Behind Patton
In France in December of 1944 Patton was pulled out of his march across Europe to rescue Bastogne the allies did not want Bastogne to fall. The speed of his march to get to Bastogne was an incredible record. This was part of perhaps the most famous battle of the war – the Battle of the Bulge which was the single largest and bloodiest battle that the American forces experienced in World War II.
“Patton took Bastogne in about 6 days, faster than anyone could believe. We followed him and mopped up.”
Crossing the Siegfried Line
Crossing the border from France to Germany was a cold experience. There was snow in the mountains “it was the dead of winter. We were trying to pierce the Siegfried line. There were two lines in Europe, the French had one called the Maginot line and the Germans had one called the Siegfried line. These were a system of pillboxes heavily reinforced with fields of fire that crossed over them so that if you got through the first line of fire, you got hit by the second line of fire.”
“We tried to crack the Siegfried line but couldn’t do it at first. We were told to retreat back – crossing a road and going up a slope. My leg had not completely healed. I was running along the road and they opened up on us and as I ran I kept coming down hard on my leg and it gave way. I fell and rolled over the embankment. As I did, I could see the tracer bullets flying overhead where I had been a second before. Lucky – I was in the right place at the right time.”
Cross-fire, Mine Fields and a Bronze Star
“We attempted to cross the Rhine River (part of the famous Rhineland Campaign designed by Eisenhower and executed by Generals Patch and Patton many heroic accounts of American infantry came from that campaign that finally broke the back of German resistance) which was a natural barrier for the Germans, but it was our objective to cross over. We were parked on the western bank awaiting instructions from the top, and I get a telegram that my wife had been operated on. She had a hernia from carrying Rick. I went to the company commander and asked if I could go home, she’s alone. He said no, under the circumstances there’s no chance. That night the bombardment started from our side and we were both shelling like crazy. It was a fireworks show.”
“We were put on small landing craft to cross the river, and as the Germans saw us coming they began to use their artillery and mortars on us. You could see us from the illumination of the shell-fire above. We did not do well on that landing. We knew that the banks on the Eastern side had been mined heavily – booby-trapped. We were a crowd of 30 men with no space at all – they were still shelling us – we had an assembly point to meet with the rest of the Company, but all we had was a compass and surrounded by river and minefield. Everyone was worried about the minefield and was frozen about whether to step on something or not to step on something. In our training we had been indoctrinated about the way to go through a mine field and there are textbook operators who will only do things the text book way. One of the reasons the Americans turned out better than the Germans is because the Americans always made the best of a situation and you had to adjust to the situation.”
“The Germans could not adjust, they had to do it just the way you were supposed to. We were told that the Germans would start their barrage in a manner that would first attack the advance portions of their attackers and then they would lift the barrage to attack whoever was coming in to support the front lines. This seemed OK but they would start well forward of the group coming after them. This was taught not only to us officers but to all the troops – the American army wanted all troops to be trained in what to do in all situations. Sometimes under fire people would get frozen and that’s what I was confronted with.”
“There were two shells that had exploded very close to each other creating shell holes. We had six guys in one shell hole and seven in another shell hole almost next to it. The German fire was coming at us all the time. I saw what was happening – from time to time there was illumination from the bursting of the shells. So I said ‘OK, we have to make it to the assembly point – that’s what we want to do. I want you guys to follow me and let’s get through this.’ So I had the voice of the authority. I said: ‘line up, keep your six paces, follow me and let’s go.’
This wasn’t done in any way or shape of bravery even though I was awarded the bronze star for it – I was just carrying out what I’d been taught. I can’t go back I said to myself, I must go forward. No matter what, I have to push forward.”
“I said: ‘you guys follow me,’ and I got a hold of one guy I had recognized and I said: ‘you bring up the rear and make sure nobody stays,’ and I just went. It was pure luck that no one got hurt and we got through it.”
“The Germans had tanks, howitzers, guns and did heavy shelling. I led them right through the fire, right into the teeth of it, but that wasn’t the worst part of it – the worst part of it was that you didn’t know where you were stepping. There were explosions on either side of us, but I didn’t stop to figure out what they were, I just wanted to get my gang through. I was in the right place at the right time – I wasn’t brave, I just knew I had to do this to get through and there was no option. That was the situation and that was the crossing of the Rhine.”
“Another time tragedy hit again, very close. My first Commander, Sudbury, was killed right in my foxhole next to me. We were in a foxhole and a shell just hit on his side of the foxhole. If it hit on the other side, I would have gotten it. Of course I was bounced around. It wasn’t a big foxhole. It was hard to dig foxholes in that part of the country. You had lots of trees with strangle roots. Every time you tried to dig a foxhole you ran into roots that you had to take out. It took maybe an hour or two to dig a foxhole that would give you any protection. Then there were rocks – people talk about foxholes – you put a shovel in the ground, you dig a little hole you have a foxhole, it’s not so easy.”
“Sudbury’s mother contacted me after the war, when I was discharged from the Army. She had seen a picture of a soldier lying in the snow, and she thought it was her son, and she wanted to ascertain who might know something about it – who was on location at the time. She got my address from the War Department. She sent me a letter and the picture and she said she’d appreciate it very much if I could positively identify him one way or the other in the photo. It so happened it was not him, I was sorry to report, but I was able to tell her that I was with him when he was killed and that it was instantaneous death, something that came out of the blue and that was it.”
Chasing Retreating Germans Across Germany
“It turned out, the effort the Germans made and lost at Bastogne was sort of a last ditch stand. After that they started retreating. They were desperate – even dressing their soldiers in American uniforms and infiltrating us. Our command told us that we should test American soldiers we didn’t recognize by asking them baseball questions that they probably wouldn’t know if they were Germans.”
“We still encountered a lot of resistance. We were in the Black Forest which was a series of wooded hills. Sometimes we marched on foot to the various points, sometimes when our intelligence would say things looked clear we would send up personnel carriers and tanks to speed up the whole operation. We were really loaded down, we had a gun belt with cartridges, gas masks, a back-pack filled with incidentals and a blanket roll – we looked like beasts of burden. You had to carry everything with you. We had a spade that folded a canteen with water – a sorry sight to see.”
“Once we were scheduled to take a hill somewhere in the Black Forest about 2000 yards away. We were already on one hill, but unbeknownst to us the Germans were also on the hill we were supposed to jump off of. There was snow on the ground and we started down the hill. We later found out that the Germans had pulled in their crack Winter Elite troops (SS troops from Norway and Sweden) and brought them into this area. They had white parkas and no other color on them. As we jumped off and were half way down the hill, they jumped off on the same hill. These guys were fanatical. We had a terrific firefight there. They carried black bandanas and they would wave them either left or right depending on which way they wanted to go. They had very good firepower.”
“So, both we and the Germans on this hill were surprised that each other was there and for a period of time, we didn’t have a field of fire to protect us. So we had a hand-to-hand situation. These guys just kept coming, they wouldn’t back down. There were hundreds of bodies left on the ground.”
“The type of aggressiveness that they were showing – well I never faced this before. By this time our Division was a very experienced division, we were well trained. We killed them all, took the hill and proceeded onwards.”
“We got to Nurnberg and for the first time we encountered hand-to-hand street fighting. The swastikas were flying with the Gold balls in the air. After Nurnberg we went on to Munich with more street fighting. Then, not far from Munich, was Dachau.”
Analysis from: www.45thDivision.org/campaignbattles: The Rhineland Campaign, although costly for the Allies, was ruinous for the Germans who suffered some 300,000 casualties and lost vast amounts of equipment. Hitler, having demanded the defense of the entire German homeland, enabled the Allies to destroy the Wehrmacht in the West between the Siegfried Line and the Rhine River. Then, the Third Reich lay virtually prostrate before Eisenhower’s massed armies.
Eisenhower was gratified with the results of the Rhineland Campaign. They clearly justified his tenacious adherence to a broad-front strategy. In late March he wrote Marshall that his plans, which he had “believed in from the beginning and [had] carried out in the face of some opposition from within and without, [had] matured . . . splendidly.”
Eisenhower (left) and Patton (right) in Bastogne
Eisenhower chose to press the German defenses continually, straining the enemy from Antwerp to Switzerland, and to increase Allied strength in men and materiel for the inevitable assault into the heart of the Reich. Consequently, he frequently changed the main Allied effort and executed secondary attacks when he saw opportunities across the broad front facing his armies. In many ways the Rhineland Campaign became a protracted, bloody battle of attrition, a battle the Allies had the resources to win. The Rhineland Campaign ended in a triumph that paved the way for final Allied victory.
Eisenhower’s tactful, yet determined, stewardship of a complex and often contentious coalition force made the successful conclusion of a difficult campaign possible. The indomitable soldiers fighting in the Allied cause, transformed high-level plans into victory on the ground. In incredibly harsh weather, over difficult terrain, and against a determined foe, Eisenhower’s soldiers had triumphed. Of all these soldiers, the infantryman had the hardest lot. Eisenhower later wrote that it was his foot soldiers who had demonstrated the “real heroism—which is the uncomplaining acceptance of unendurable conditions.” At Aachen, in the Vosges Mountains, along the length of the Siegfried Line, and on to the Rhine River, the Allied infantryman had persevered and, through his determination, vanquished the Wehrmacht.
“We went into Dachau and that was like walking into purgatory to see all those poor people. The German soldiers had departed. There was no fight to get into Dachau, but we didn’t know that. There were certain elements of the German army that were so fanatical that they would often stay and fight no matter what the circumstances. They were like the Japanese Kamikazes, they fought to the last drop of blood they were so hyped up by Hitler.”
“We knew we were liberating Dachau, we were told what we were doing.
As a matter of fact we were warned not to give the inmates of Dachau any food at all – they could not take it food had to be administered in a professional way because they had been starved for so long that their stomachs can’t handle it and they’ll cough up the food and they’ll be in pain and they might not survive.”
“Right after we captured Munich we were told about Dachau. Before that we didn’t get too much information. The only newspaper we were given was the Stars and Stripes. Now obviously the Stars and Stripes was censored, but we knew that the Jews were being persecuted and other people too. But the American army was using psychology too – they didn’t publish some stories to control the spin and the morale. In the back of our minds it wasn’t so much that we wanted to liberate Dachau, we wanted, to the man, to get this war over with. Not so much the humanitarian aspects, although that came into it when we saw with our eyes and smelled with our noses what went on at Dachau – we were just sick and tired of war.”
“I remember where the guardsmen stood as we walked in to Dachau, with all the barbed wire and stanchions all around. We weren’t the only ones that came into Dachau – it was a very large camp. I think we came in maybe from the southern end and others came in from east, west and north. I saw the gas chambers, the buildings, the piles of clothes, the goods that were being pilfered by the Germans. There were live prisoners still stumbling around and when they finally saw the Americans – they knew the war was over.”
“As soon as we got into Dachau and we immediately knew what we had to do. There were corpses piled like cordwood all over uncovered. The stench was horrible and it was becoming a health hazard. Some of the bodies had been buried, but towards the end the Germans didn’t care any more. The first job that we had to do was to put the bodies in the ground without even trying to identify them, because the plague had set in from the conditions. Instead of doing it ourselves we commandeered the Germans – some were still around. Bulldozers were flown in and we bulldozed some graves and the captured Germans pushed the bodies in. It took a good seven days to get this thing done. The American army did a good job of getting medical people in and supplies to tend to the freed prisoners.”
“Dachau was a big camp, and even the inmates who were in there were afraid to come out because they were afraid of anyone with a uniform. There was no flesh left between the skin and the bones. They were afraid. They had no hair, their skulls were grotesque. The teeth were gone. It wasn’t a pretty sight. There are no words that can describe the horror – you had to see it.”
“Once Dachau was freed the American army had special people to come in and clean up. The soldiers moved on. At the nearby airport, First and Feldberg, a compound was set up to receive the German and Italian prisoners who were coming through the Brenner Pass just to give themselves up. We had to feed them and care from them. So we built these large towers for observation. There were no tents to go around and the prisoners had to sleep without them. We were told if any of these prisoners walked across a line drawn, to shoot them on sight. They got the message and no one tried to escape after the first few times.”
The Holocaust Torah Scrolls Story
“Back to when we got into Germany and were marching through Nurnberg to Munich we were heading northeast. We got to this particular village – it was a typical country village. The center of town had a stockpile of manure for fertilizer. I don’t remember the village name. When you’re in combat you don’t think of these things. Your gut is tied up in knots. If anybody ever tells you they weren’t afraid, they’re full of baloney. I started about my business to quarter the troops. The procedure was that first we picked out a convenient location, in this case a house, for a command post to house the Company Commander, myself, the telephone systems (strung with wires along the ground to the different squads). So I picked out a house that was central to the troops. It was a farmhouse, even though it was central to the village.”
“Usually the Company Commander would pick the defense perimeters, so he would define where the troops deployed for overnight stay. We were always wary of booby traps. The Germans used mines in strategic locations where you would least expect them. They even set mines inside houses as they retreated. They weren’t very powerful mines, but they were explosives designed to hurt and cause chaos. At this point in time the Germans were on the run in retreat. The front was a very broad front and it was a tough job establishing a pincer movement North and South to capture the Germans in retreat.”
“Anyway, in the farmhouse I established the command post where the Commander wanted it. You know we lived in the field, so if we thought we were going to be somewhere for 12 hours at a time, i.e. more of a reserve posture for an interval, letting the other two companies go to the fore, we decided this was a time to let the troops wash up, clean their helmets, take a shave …”
“We liked that to be done indoors so I would make sure we’d get some facilities in peoples’ homes native to the area. The German housewife owner of the house was in her middle 50’s in age. She seemed a good housewife the home was simple but clean and well kept. Whenever we came into contact with the Germans as local residents I heard from them they had been told that the American soldiers were horrible, tyrants, that they would rape women, kill children, destroy things … any horrible thing you could think of. It was my job to talk them out of that fear.”
“I said in Yiddish to the housefrau: ‘We’re here to get rid of Hitler, that’s our main purpose. We have nothing against the normal German people, just the military.’ This pitch was agreed on beforehand with Company Command.”
“The woman of the house finally relaxed a bit and we were able to get some water, use the wood burning stoves to wash up, shave and to use the facilities of the house. Finally when everyone was settled down, I think she did some cooking for us which was welcomed, since we normally ate a lot of Spam. Spam is horrible stuff, that was chopped up ham, fruit bar, K rations and some C rations (canned goods). We never carried the C rations, too heavy. The C rations weren’t bad and were usually in the company store. The K rations had a hard core of chocolate for energy.”
“When everything quieted down and we were discussing what’s ahead of us, the woman came to me and said in Yiddish ‘If you will come with me, I have something for you, but you’ll have to come with me.’ She led me to the basement which had an entryway door through the kitchen floor.”
“There was a stairway down, and you needed a candle because there was no electricity. I couldn’t comprehend why she came to me for something to give, since the Captain was there with me and he was my superior. She came up – she was not a big bruiser of a lady and she is lugging up these steep stairs with no handrail, a package wrapped in very used, brown wrapping paper.”
“She put the package on the table in the kitchen and she said, ‘This is for you.’ I unwrapped the paper and there were two soiled Torahs. No covers, just the two Torahs. I couldn’t believe that here in the middle of combat, all of a sudden were two Torahs. I wanted to get the story from her, so I sat her down and I asked, ‘Tell me, how you got these?’”
“She told me that her husband had been a cripple for many years I suspect it had to do with his legs and therefore he was excluded from the German Army. But the Germans had a secondary type of Army he was in I called it the “looting” army, for cleanup – so when they were in Russia and they took a town and everything was secure, the looting army came in – she called it the Todt labor battalion. They had their instructions about what to do, they had to strip out the town and send everything back to Germany where they had great shortages of almost everything.”
This full Torah scroll was one of the pair presented to Crandall – now in restored condition.
“So the looting army was in one town that she said was Tarnopol, and I don’t remember if I asked her how her husband got the scrolls back to her. His purpose in taking them was that he recognized that the animal skin on which the Torah’s were printed was something that would stand up. They were very short of shoe leather – everyone’s shoes were wearing thin at that point, so it was suggested that the Torah material could be used when her shoes wore out – you could cut out the insoles stacked two or three at a time and use it in the shoes. She told me she had never done it because she was a very devout Catholic as most people were in that section of Germany. Every bedroom had a crucifix above the headboard. She recognized that these were religious documents, but she was not quite sure what they were. She saw that they were in scroll form and as she put it, ‘it looked religious.’”
“She took a chance showing them to me. Of course I asked, ‘Why are you giving them to me?’ She said, ‘Du bist a Judah’ She recognized the fact that my German was not pure German, but rather Yiddish, so she knew I was Jewish. So here I had two scrolls and I’m in the middle of combat. I couldn’t put them on my back, so what could I do?”
The Tarnopol Connection
Tarnopol. In 1941: the city being attacked and then occupied by the Germans who exterminated most of the Jews and sent others to the death camps.
Tarnopol had been Polish from 1920, was annexed by the Soviets in 1939, and captured by the Germans in 1941 and not retaken by the Russians until April, 1944.
When the Soviet-German part of World War II broke out, there were about 17,000 Jews in Tarnopol. The Germans overran the city on July 2, 1941. Only a few hundred Jews succeeded in fleeing to the east, following the retreating Russian army. Two days after the Nazis entered, a pogrom began. The Nazis were helped by Ukrainian policemen in taking Jewish men out of their apartments and shooting them in the courtyards of the houses.
The synagogue, Reb Yankel’s Kloise in Staroshkolna Street, was a place of collective murders. The synagogue itself was burned. The number of the Jews killed there was more than 100.
The prison became the place for special torture of Jews. Hundreds of Jewish men were brought there, and ordered to kiss the corpses, bathe them, and drink the bath water. Afterwards they were cruelly killed. The Germans ordered them to bury the piles of corpses in mass graves in the two Jewish cemeteries, or to bury them temporarily in the courtyards. Often those who buried the corpses were then shot.
The Ukrainian policeman and the urban mobs were very active in the pogrom. Usually the Germans shot only men. The Ukrainians also killed women and children, murdering them barbarically with iron clubs, knives, and in other ways. They also destroyed the apartments of the Jews, their places of prayer, and robbed their property. 5,000 Jews were murdered, the majority of them men.
After the pogrom the town was full of corpses. For weeks Jews searched for their lost relatives. People dug up corpses from the mass graves in the places of mass murder.
Later another several thousand Jews were assembled in Sinskey Square. All were ordered to kneel in lines. Whoever moved from his place was shot. The rest of those assembled, some 3,000 – 4,000 people, the majority of them old or with infirm bodies, were loaded on trucks to the railway station, and there they were loaded on railway cars.
This enormous train stopped at the Tarnopol station for two days without giving the Jews, who were tightly sandwiched together, food and water. Afterwards the train went to the Belzec death camp. Many Jews jumped from the windows, but the majority of them died under the wheels of the train or the bullets of the guards.
A few days afterwards another group of Jews were again assembled in the barley mill on Baron Hirsh Street, and a witness has related that there were a heap of children’s corpses in the square near the mill. The Germans and the Ukrainians organized the corpses in a pyramid, and put a living child on it with arms outstretched.
From the mill the Jews were transferred to the railway station through the streets of the city, accompanied by an orchestra. At the railway station the Jews were loaded onto the transport to Belzec. Again many Jews jumped from the wagons. In the last two actions 2,500 were killed.
Three years later, the battle for the re-taking of Tarnopol by the Russians lasted a few weeks in March and April 1944. The control of the city passed from side to side, and both armies fought for every building. The Red Army finally occupied the city on April 15, 1944 after which the remnants of the Jews began to leave their hiding places. The Jewish committee, which was established in Tarnopol between May and July 1944, listed 739 survivors from the city and its surroundings. The majority of them immigrated shortly to Poland. A few hundred of Tarnopol Jews were rescued by the Soviet Union, and they, too, went to Poland. The Soviet authorities permitted the Jewish committee to make a fence around the place of mass murder and the other graves in the fields of Petrikov, and erect a stone monument. During the 1950’s the monument was destroyed by anti-Semites. The two Jewish graveyards were also destroyed completely in time, and the space was flattened. Buildings and garages were erected on the site of the cemeteries. At the end of the 50’s there were about five hundred Jewish inhabitants. The majority of them originally were not from there.
(From Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities in Poland, pp 234- 251 Published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.)
Back to the Battlefield:
Nat Crandall: “Well, after the death of Sudbury, I got to know my second Company Commander, Captain Schroeder very well. When you’re in combat in the Army, everyone is your buddy. There’s very little differentiation between people – we all wanted to get out together. It becomes almost like a brotherhood or a basketball team or baseball team. So I went to the Schroeder – he had his own personal Jeep and he had gotten hold of a trailer that the Jeep could pull on a hitch. Whatever he saw he liked, he put in the trailer and took it along. So I went to him and said these scrolls are very valuable to me.”
“I told them what they were – the five Books of Moses – the basis of the Jewish religion and many religions. I said they are very valuable, intrinsically and otherwise, I asked if he would please let me put them in his trailer until we could get somewhere I could ship them home. He said OK and that’s how they made it despite the fighting – for I don’t know how long. Then there was a problem getting materials to wrap them in. I finally got the cook to give me something that he received supplies in. I addressed the scrolls back to my wife and sent them through the US Army Post Office. Truthfully a lot of stuff went home that way, even though there was an order out: No Looting.”
“So I sent the scrolls home but in a couple of weeks they were actually returned to me in the field! The censors would not pass them. They did not understand what they were. They just returned the package to sender. So again I went to the Company Commander and I said, look I told you the story, I said I don’t know anything about the Army war policy, I’m at the bottom of the echelon here, what can I tell them?”
“He said, ‘I think I have a way of getting them back to the States’ He contacted the Regiment … in the Army you had to go through steps. If you wanted to talk to the Regiment you had to talk to the Battalion first. He got through to someone and they told him, OK we’ll handle it – you put your stamp and signature as if these were yours and we’ll see that it gets through and that’s the way the Torahs got to the US.”
“So my wife Ruth kept them, but her parents came to find out what they were all about. Ruth’s mother was a very religious and orthodox lady – to the nth degree. She heard Ruth had these Torahs and that they were probably ripped and soiled, she said: ‘there’s no way you can keep these Torahs, they are desecrated, and you have to bury them.’ Well that didn’t sit well with me, felt I’d been kept alive to save those Torahs and Ruth knew how I felt. Well my sister Sarah approached her rabbi at Bnai Sholom. She came back and wrote to me that the rabbi has made arrangements to place the Torahs with the Jewish Theological Seminary because they have a library of historical documents. The one thing that they need is an affidavit as to how I came about getting them. Well it sounded like a good idea to me. They had a library and it seemed an appropriate place.”
“I couldn’t afford anything else, we were not comfortably housed – we lived in Baldwin Harbor and then we moved to Lido Beach – well I figured this was the best way to go. So the Torah’s went to the Seminary. This was in 1945. I never checked them out for many years because you had to go all the way up in Washington Heights which was near Columbia University, and maybe it worked out for the best because of what happened 50 years later.”
Exit the Military
“After the Germans surrendered, the Company Commander came to me and said he wanted to step me up in position. It had advantages in stature. I said, well it had some disadvantages too. There was still a war going on in Japan, I said I didn’t want to go to Japan. He said, don’t worry about that. If you’ve been in two theaters of operation (and I had) then you cannot be sent to Japan. ‘What I recommend for you is to become a supply officer for a particular regiment.’ I said thanks but no thanks. I have lots of points and I want to use them to get out. I had two purple hearts, I’d been in two theaters of combat, I had a bronze star, a wife and a child and I want out.”
“He said, OK, and that’s how I got out.”
Restoration of the Holocaust Torah Scrolls
For years the Crandall kids occasionally heard snippets of a story from their Dad that he’d come upon two Torah scrolls while marching across Germany during his stint in WW II. Nat never talked about the War until quite late in life. Nothing further materialized from the scant hints of the existence of these scrolls until sometime in 1992 the idea was thrown around that it would be amazing if even after 50 years, if the scrolls were still at the Jewish Seminary and could be retrieved, perhaps they could be restored and used in Nat’s grandson Brett’s bar mitzvah. There were lots of doubts about the story, and even if it were true, what were the odds that the scrolls still existed?
Nat actually found the paper signed by the Seminary evidencing their being left there – and proving ownership! That was stunning. So at age 82 Nat trekked to NY, rummaged around the Jewish Seminary – at first being disappointed at the news that there had been a partially destructive fire there in the 1950’s. However, they did find the two scrolls – a full Torah scroll and an unusual smaller and rare Haftorah scroll just as Nat had described. He identified them by the unusual ivory and wood carved spindle on the Haftorah scroll.
Holocaust Haftorah scroll with unusual carved ivory spindle crown and rings.
Based on that, and the letter he produced, the Jewish Seminary released the scrolls to him. Upon inspection, it was damaged, but only lightly – some letters had literally fallen off the page as though they were stick-ons (they weren’t, it was later learned that heat can make that happen to heavy ink on animal skin). One of the two fancy carved spindles was missing but it the overall scroll was largely intact.
Upon inspection, the calligraphy-style writing was judged to be unusual – a fancier-than-normal and older style than would even be expected for mid-20th century. Restoration was to be a challenge.
One day Nat’s son Rick told the story of the scrolls to an associate who was an orthodox Jew living in Australia. He indicated that his Rabbi (from his orthodox Temple in Sydney), was relocating to Israel where he’d been appointed to a Judge-ship. This Rabbi happened to be a scribe – meaning he was trained to write a Torah – and that coincidentally was stopping for a week in the U.S.
Rick contacted the Rabbi/scribe, Rabbi M. Sevy, and gave him a summary of the story over the phone and he insisted the scroll be brought to him. Upon seeing the scroll and studying it, he asserted that he’d heard of such a ‘haftorah’ scroll but he had never seen one. The Australian Rabbi offered to stay in the U.S. for an extra two weeks, and defer his relocation to Israel, in order to restore the writing himself. The whole thing was much too coincidental, and so in his most humble manner, Rick asked the Rabbi: “with the greatest respect, Rabbi, please do not be offended if I ask you to show me some of your lettering …” and then there was silence. The Rabbi smiled and said he would expect nothing else of a careful person. He went to his luggage, removed a rolled up sleeve of calligraphy pens and an ink bottle, chose one and said “do you see that phrase (pointing to a section of the scroll)?”
He then produced lettering on a scrap of paper, almost without referring to the scroll, which was identical in style to the ancient lettering, and beautiful to see. There was no further hesitation.
Rick and the Rabbi talked for a while about his father’s story. When he got to the part about Nat believing the scrolls had saved his life, the Rabbi exclaimed: “Of course! There can be no question about it!” The Rabbi then told a story that occurred during the Israeli Six Day War (he was in Israel then) the Sabbath fell in the middle of it. A Rabbi felt strongly that the troops should have a service. He took a Torah from its ark, and this little man marched with it out onto the battlefield towards the troops. An enemy shell exploded near him and apparently several saw him literally blown into the air from the percussion. He was described as gripping fiercely to the Torah, and fell to earth completely unharmed and proceeded on his way!
When all was finished it was only three months before Brett’s Bar Mitzvah – which gave him time to practice with the scroll. On September 29, 1995 Brett put the restored scroll back into active service at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, Michigan after 52 years of obscurity. As is customary for a Bar Mitzvah 13-year old, Brett delivered his speech, but this one was especially powerful and moving – there was not a dry eye in the congregation when he finished.
Here are his speech notes:
BRETT CRANDALL’s BAR MITZVAH SPEECH NOTES Age 13, Sept. 29, 1995
THIS HOLIDAY PERIOD IS ALL ABOUT ENTERING A NEW YEAR, COMMITTING TO RETURN TO TRADITIONAL JEWISH VALUES
SO MY HAFTORAH PORTION IS ABOUT A RETURN TO JEWISH BELIEFS
THE ACTUAL STORY: RETURN TO WORSHIPING 1 GOD
DESTROYING CLAY IDOLS
THERE IS ANOTHER RETURN HAPPENING TODAY
I READ FROM A HAFTORAH SCROLL THAT IS BEING RETURNED TO ACTIVE USE FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 52 YEARS AFTER BEING NEARLY DESTROYED IN THE HOLOCAUST
SPECIAL SCROLL IN MY FAMILY, SPECIAL STORY
MY GRANDFATHER NAT CRANDALL WAS A SOLDIER IN WW II, MARCHING ACROSS GERMANY IN COMBAT
HIS COMPANY STAYED OVERNIGHT IN A FARMHOUSE AND THE WOMAN OF THE HOUSE WHO SPOKE ONLY GERMAN, FIGURED HE WAS JEWISH FROM HIS ABILITY TO SPEAK TO HER IN YIDDISH.
SHE BROUGHT OUT TWO SCROLLS SHE HAD BEEN HIDING IN HER BASEMENT. HER HUSBAND, A GERMAN SOLDIER, SENT THEM TO HER FROM A TEMPLE THEY DESTROYED IN TARNAPOL, POLAND.
HE TOLD HER IN A LETTER TO USE THE PARCHMENT OF THE SCROLL FOR SHOE LEATHER.
SHE COULDN’T DO IT EVEN THOUGH SHE WASN’T JEWISH.
SO SHE WAS RELIEVED TO GIVE THEM TO MY GRANDPA
FOR SHE WAS WORRIED ABOUT BEING CAUGHT WITH THEM.
HE CARRIED THEM ACROSS THE BATTLEFIELD WRAPPED IN A SIMPLE CLOTH, UNTIL HE COULD SHIP THEM BACK TO THE U.S.
HE IS CONVINCED TO THIS DAY THAT THEY PROTECTED HIM FROM DEATH DURING BATTLE.
HE PUT THEM IN THE NY JEWISH SEMINARY IN 1945 FOR SAFE KEEPING,
BUT HE RECENTLY GOT THEM BACK SO WE COULD RESTORE THEM. THE SCROLLS ARE ALL THAT IS LEFT OF A WHOLE TEMPLE THAT HITLER DESTROYED.
BUT NOW WITH THIS READING THE SCROLL IS RETURNED TO USE…
WE’RE KEEPING IT HERE AT TEMPLE BETH EMETH SO OTHER BAR MITZVAH CAN USE IT.
Hospital at War : The 95th Evacuation Hospital in World War II
During World War II, the army established 107 evacuation hospitals to care for the wounded and sick in theaters around the world. An evacuation hospital was a forward hospital accepting patients from the battlefield. It was where the wounded first received definitive care.
Formed at Camp Breckenridge, the 95th Evac arrived in Casablanca in April 1943, with seven thousand troops, thirty doctors, and forty nurses. First pitching their tents at Oujda, they moved eastward toward Algeria before making a D-day landing on the beaches of Salerno, Italy, on September 9, 1939. Shortly thereafter, they entered Naples, then set up shop at Anzio before moving on to become the first American hospital to penetrate Nazi-occupied Europe. After the guns were silent, records show that these doctors and nurses had treated over 42,000 Americans in almost all the critical battles of the European theater: Salerno, Monetcassino, Anzio, southern France, the Battle of the Bulge, the Rhineland, and finally, the invasion into Germany.
Hospital at War is the story of the 95th Evac Hospital as told by Zachary Friedenberg, a young surgeon at the time, fresh out of his internship. He tells the story of how the men and women of the 95th survived the war. He describes how they solved problems and learned to treat the war-wounded in the extreme heat of North Africa and during the frigid winters of the Rhineland. He tells how they endured shelling and a bombing of the hospital and how they adjusted to the people and the countries in which they worked.
By the end of their two-year tour of duty, the men and women of the 95th Evac were superbly efficient. A casualty who made it to their facilities had a 99 percent chance of surviving. For anyone who wants to know how so many of our boys made it home despite horrific injuries, this book provides part of the answer.
A Half Acre of Hell: A Combat Nurse in WW II
If you want to get a feel for what it was like to be a nurse, right by the WWII front lines, this is a book for you. It&aposs not in any way a romantic description, but a very down to earth one. Nurse Avis Dagit starts her book with 12 September 1941, the day before she graduates from nursing school in Iowa. Their teachers have tried to convince their students to sign up for the military services on a voluntary basis, saying that it&aposs better to do this than to be conscripted, that they are all singl If you want to get a feel for what it was like to be a nurse, right by the WWII front lines, this is a book for you. It's not in any way a romantic description, but a very down to earth one. Nurse Avis Dagit starts her book with 12 September 1941, the day before she graduates from nursing school in Iowa. Their teachers have tried to convince their students to sign up for the military services on a voluntary basis, saying that it's better to do this than to be conscripted, that they are all single and have no reason to not do so. But Nurse Dagit is honest and says that she was not really interested. She was looking forward to sharing a flat with three other girls and get on with her life. Her parents could not see any reason at all why she should go off to a war that they felt others could fight. But the teachers did not stop nagging and the Red Cross came for a visit, saying to the girls that 75% of them would meet their future husbands in the forces, since that is what statistics showed.
She finally joined the Red Cross, especially since her future room mates backed out of sharing a flat, for various reasons, and disappointing her. Now things happened fast. Pearl Harbor was attacked, war was declared on Japan and then Germany, and it all completely shocked Dagit, who realized that she would actually be called in to service, when she in time for Christmas heard from "uncle Sam".
For her 23rd Birthday present, she had to report to Camp Chaffee in Arkansas, the 17 March 1942. She adopted fairly well to army life, but wished for a quick end to the war and most of all, to get to stay in the US. She made friends with Danny, that she would stay with till the end of the war. Doris was another friend that fell in love and married, so she could get out. Soon she also got to know, Mary and Ellen, two heavy drinkers that liked to party and have fun. Most of the others were getting anxious, feeling that they were not doing anything, and wanted to be sent overseas, so they could save lives. Dagit was content and did not think of the army as an adventure at all. Everyone but Dagit was excited to leave for Texas in January 1943, to join the 56th Evac Hospital.
On their way, overseas, Mary and Ellen, spent a fortune in New York, on bathing suits. These bathing suits re-appear many times in the book. Especially since Dagit could not swim and could see no use for a swim suit at all, them going off to war. On the ship to North Africa they all received books on customs and language, and Dagit found an old friend, Gertrud, from nursing school. 24 April 1943, they all stepped ashore in Casablanca, Marocco.
Up till now in the book, there are few really shocking things. But arrival in Marocco meant swimming on the beach and other "inactivity", like going to parties. Unfortunately the reader gets to see one back side to feelings running high. One nurse got raped. A court case took place with two other nurses as witnesses and they all came back in shock, since the man was acquitted, even though the evidence was there. The poor girl then slipped in the black out and was sent home as a liability which the nurses also had a difficult time to accept and understand. In June, they were all taken to Tunisia, to set up hospital and games were over. Now they received casualties from the fighting in Sicily and they also got to feel what air raids are like. In September they were on the move again, to Sicily and received new books on Italian customs and language. The hospitals from now on were in tents. The Germans were behaving just like the Japanese, bombing hospital ships, and hospitals. The nurses fought with weather and incredible amounts of wounded as well as air raids. They moved on to Naples where they actually got to go shopping on off duty occasions. Vesuvius was letting itself known since all the shelling woke the volcano to life.
The worse part of the book, is their three months in Anzio, when the army could not get off the beach head and the Germans sat above them looking at everything they were doing. Axis Sally kept on mocking them on the wireless. Noone dared to go outside the compound. Four combined hospitals with nurses, had gathered for strength but they soon realized that the Germans cared nothing for the Geneva convention. The hospitals were bombed and the ambulances going to ships in the harbour, were shelled. Dagit was scared witless for the most part. Her friend Gertrud got hit in an air raid and lost a leg and both kidneys, and could not be saved on the operating table. Dagit's friend Ellen, was hit by shrapnel and died after many days in agony. Her friend Pete tried to calm Dagit down one evening, and when she went to sleep during a raid, he went to polish his shoes in the foxhole, that he and other enlisted men, had dug for themselves. His foxhole was shelled and he lost both legs at the hip. After three months in hell's acre, they were finally relieved by another hospital.
Dagit really got to see lots of Italy. Now and then, the nurses would have some delights. Being sent to Capri for rest, going on excursions to Naples, Rome, Florence and later on to Venice, Lake Maggiore. They would get new uniforms. They would get chances to go dancing and partying. But for the most part, war was hell for them.
What touched me the most, was Gertrud and Ellen dying, and Mary's drinking problems. Mary got engaged to a young man that was always stationed near by and they were planning their life after the war, but after a weekend in his flat, his interest for her cooled down and she did not hear from him again, not even after the war. But there were many, many tragedies. I even cried when one of the nurses had bought an alabaster elephant for her mother and had had doctors put it in a cast, so she could send it to the US. It still arrived in pieces. I cried when Dagit's friend Jon declared that he loved her, even though he was married, and she told him that it could not be. I cried when Italians broke in to their tents and stole both souvenirs and their clothes! Finally I cried when they cried, entering the harbour of New York, seeing the statue of liberty, in early October 1945.
It's a very well written book, very touching but nothing for the squeamish. I had nightmares every night while reading this book! If I have any complaints, it is that the book lacks an epilogue. It would have been nice to heave heard how things sorted themselves out for both her male friends but also Danny, Mary,and Lena. And most of all, how Avis Dagit's life turned out. Very late in the book, she mentions these men that had been flocking around her, but that she had no romantic feelings for. And she mentions towards the end, a boyfriend that she had in the US before the war, and that she didn't love him either, him being ten years her senior, and that they had grown apart. One wants a conclusion somehow. To see that life worked out! . more
Operation Shingle: Chapter 4
The Battle of Anzio was in four parts: The Landing, The Battle, Attrition and The Breakout.
GOC 1st (Br) Infantry Division, Major General Sir Ronald Penny KBE. CB. DSO. MC., wrote in his diary on the eve of embarkation:
". the 24 Guards Brigade should be ashore by 1600hrs [on D Day] and the Division on assault scales by midday D+1. By that time I hope that 24 Guards Brigade will be on its way to Albano, with 3 Brigade on the night of D+1 following them up"
Books have been written about the Battle of Anzio which I would not presume to emulate but I shall merely mention a few of the critical moments affecting my own 1st Infantry Division.
D+2: The Corps Beachhead Line was still the perimeter line of D Day and much material and all the reserves had been landed so no longer could inactivity be excused. The first patrol from 1 Division was sent forward from the Grenadier Guards to probe along the Axis of Advance - the main road northward from Anzio to Albano. They came under heavy fire from buildings christened "The Factory and beat a hasty withdrawal (the Army does not recognise the word "retreat") having established the intelligence. An attack was mounted against this strong point on the morning of D+3 which was finally occupied after fierce resistance with hard hand-to-hand fighting. It was now quite clear that the easy opportunity of reaching the Alban Hills had been lost. However, the first objective had been secured and the Alban Hills looked so much closer that if the next objective, Campoleone Station, could be taken there may yet be success.
D+7: One of the unexpected "eventualities", to which I have already referred, caused a delay of 24 hours in a co-ordinated attack with the US forces which gave the enemy yet further time to strengthen their positions. The British intention was to seize Campoleone Station by now heavily defended with machine guns, self-propelled guns and tanks. After an advance under fearful fire our troops were established south of Campoleone but the objective had not been taken. It was not a good position being now the tip of a salient 5 miles long and vulnerable to infiltration through terrain ideally suited for the purpose and about which the Germans were past masters. Tank support was called but this also failed due to unexpected terrain and the power of enemy fire. To complete the unhappy picture it rained unceasingly for long periods.
The US suffered badly their attack on Cisterna to the south was repulsed and the bitter news was that the attempt to break through at Cassino had failed. The attack on Campoleone Station was only partially successful. The outlook was not good. Further continuance of the attack on Campoleone was useless given the situation and the very severe casualties sustained. The order was given to make a fighting withdrawal for 4 miles to the previously occupied positions at Carraceto. There was nothing for it but to recognise that the Beachhead perimeter was now a defensive line. It was 4th February.
The next days were a respite from close engagement time sorely needed to take stock of the casualties and the situation, for soldiers to recover from the mental and physical experience, for battalions to re-organise the survivors into some kind of smaller Order of Battle and generally prepare for the inevitable German attack. Casualty Clearing stations and tented Field Hospitals sufffered from indiscriminate shelling and it is ironic that evacuated wounded men, who might expect to enjoy rest and recuperation and possible return to UK should be killed in their beds. One of the urgent jobs was the provision of earth embankments round the tented wards of the Field Hospital to give some sense of security against shrapnel to the wounded and dying and those gallant women - the army nurses of the Queen Alexandra Imperial Nursing Service - who tended their soldiers with such devotion. A shell is no respecter of persons and they too paid with their lives.
Carroceto and "The Factory" area were of critical importance. A disused railway bed crossed the Anzio-Campoleone road by a high level bridge with embankment approaches which provided a line of defence. Further back the road crossed open country for 2 miles with no stop line until a lateral road and another high level bridge known as "The Flyover". Were this to fall to the enemy it could not be long before the Beachhead was overcome and all lost. Hitler had ordered that "the abscess must be lanced" and indeed it would be.
Casualties at Campoleone and during the withdrawal had been high and our infantry in need of a rest but a defensive position was established around Carroceto Station and "The Embankment"
Hitler's Order of the day read out to the German 14th Army:
"It must be driven home to the enemy that the fighting power of Germany is unbroken and that the invasion is an undertaking that will be crushed in the blood of British soldiers"
Somewhat dramatic but.
The German attack came on 7th February with three German Divisions against the desperate remnants at Carroceto. Other technical and service personnel had been brought up to improve numbers amongst which were the Royal Engineer Field Companies acting in an infantry role. 23 Field Company was in the line with The Scots Guards positioned in front of Carroceto Station. They held out from all sides against everything the Germans could do until the 10th February when they were attacked with tanks against which there was no defence and were overwhelmed and never seen again. I have since found out that Major "Jake" Hornby, my good friend and their Officer Commanding, was killed and is buried at Cassino. I wish he had been buried where he died - in an Anzio cemetery.
It was during the action at Carroceto that the Grenadier Guards position was seriously threatened from the rear by enemy infiltration. There was just one feasible crossing place over a natural obstacle. Here the German attackers were held at bay with the help of men of the US 504th Para. the situation was saved by Major W.P. Sidney of The Grenadiers (later Lord De L'Isle and Dudley) who, although wounded, denied the crossing place to the enemy with hand grenades and tommy gun fire - like Horatius of old. For this act of heroism he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Once again, what was left of the Division withdrew from the positions at Carroceto towards The Flyover and lateral road which was the Final Beachhead Line and beyond which there must be no further withdrawal. It was here that the last stand must be - a case of stand or fall. This was a period of confused fighting amongst the steep, bramble ridden old water courses of "The Wadi Country", a peculiar feature lending itself to a game of cat-and-mouse. 1st Division was totally exhausted and much reduced in strength so its Front was handed over to fresh troops of the 45th US Division and the 56 (Br) Division, 1st Division being placed in reserve - and always the rain.
The knockout blow was being prepared. Von Mackensen, the German Army Commander planned to throw the whole of his 14th Army with the new MarkVI Tiger tanks against the Beachhead defenders on a wide front from The Flyover eastwards but this was countermanded by Hitler who ordered a concentrated punch through The Flyover and directly down the road to Anzio town. Furthermore he directed that the thrust be led by the Lehr Regiment of selected Nazis, demonstration troops who had never been in battle. Von Mackensen, against his better judgement, had no alternative but to obey. The German attack was heralded by a devastating artillery bombardment on 16th February. The 432 guns of VI Corps replied in equal measure. At 0630hrs the attack began on the narrow front decreed by Hitler. Hitler's Lehr Regiment were cut down and turned in disarray in Von Mackensen's words "thrown back disgracefully", but elsewhere seasoned German troops opened up a wide salient in centre of the Allied line. The next day nearly 40 dive bombers bombed the salient in an attempt to split the front wide open, immediately followed by massed infantry attacking from The Factory. Every gun in the Beachhead, supported by the naval ships, poured high explosives into the salient. The night sky was a continuous flame of fiery-red, the trees standing out in sharp silhouette and in the air a constant drum-roll of cannon, then to be followed in daylight by a massive US air attack of 531 sorties. Yet the German nerve held and their advance continued with 14 battalions, supported by tanks, to within a mile of The Flyover. At this time weary troops from the 1st Division in reserve were called forward again to help and took up positions to the right of The Flyover
Next day - the 18th February - the Germans made what was considered to be the final attack. They had suffered fearful heavy losses, nearly every battalion being reduced to not much more than a company. They had already beaten a large dent in the Allied front line and now felt that with fresh troops they could administer the killer-blow. The British and American tired soldiers waited for the worst in the pouring rain. The attack was launched with infantry reinforcements and tanks, with the road as the axis of advance. Two tanks gained The Flyover embankments but were knocked out with anti-tank gunfire. The infantry stormed through a forward company of the Loyal Regiment on the right but the line held. Meanwhile, every man who could fire a gun had been mobilised - soldiers from the cookhouse, stores, drivers, clerks, the docks, wherever, filled the gaps around the Flyover.
The critical moment had passed. The enemy had fought itself into a state of collapse and even with the bravery of the German soldier nothing more could be done and the vaunted 14th Army, which had started the battle outnumbering the Allies four to one and with the confidence of sufficient numbers for regular reliefs with rested troops and fresh equipment, had had enough. For all that had been done the Final Beachhead Line had been defended and had been held intact against all odds just 4 miles from Peter Beach were the Division landed, only four weeks previously, so full of hope but there was no victory for Hitler and German arms. The day was 19th February both sides were to count the cost. Words of mine cannot convey what the infantry (of both sides) endured. I doubt if anyone could except a person who was in the firing line the whole period and then the recollection might be more than was bearable to record. A journalist likened the beachhead to "Hell in a Hatbox" - with much more than a grain of truth. The beachhead was saved, as it had to be, but the cost was horrendous.
"Attrition", as used here, has been described as a lull. A lull certainly, but only compared to the fierce battle in defence of the Beachhead perimeter. The infantry of 1st Division were relieved by US troops and 5th (Br) Infantry Division recently landed at Anzio. Air attacks and high level bombing continued unceasingly with particular attention given to Anzio town and shipping in Bomb Bay. As a protection an oily, black smoke screen was generated to hang over Anzio but that did not stop the bombs dropping - it just meant they were more indiscriminate!
A new Nazi weapon showered upon us from the skies - a nasty device called a Butterfly Bomb. This was a small canister of explosives from which sprouted vanes causing it to rotate and fall slowly, rather after the style of sycamore seeds one sees twisting down from the tree in the Autumn. These nasty bombs lay silent and inert on the ground or perhaps in long grass or undergrowth but the tiniest movement would detonate the device causing the loss of a foot, blindness or other injury. From the German point of view these were an efficient weapon as a wounded man is more of a liability than a dead one. The German seemed to thrive on technological tricks. There was the "Marder" midget submarine piloted by a single crewman. This was a modified torpedo with a conventional torpedo slung underneath. Then there was the "Goliath", a miniature tank controlled remotely through trailing wires. The idea was that this small tank, only two feet in height and carrying a 200-pound explosive charge, would advance and be detonated to destroy and intimidate. An example of this was discovered, abandoned at the side of the Albano road, by the same Lt George Baker MC who blew the bridge over the River Moletta immediately after the landing. Next night REME towed it back through The Flyover with a long length of barrage balloon wire and the winch of a Scammell recovery vehicle.
At no time during the whole of the 4 month-period of the Battle of Anzio was any place out of range of enemy artillery and, no matter where, one was liable to be shelled whether in Anzio town, on the beaches, in the woods or at the front everyone was in a forward area there was no rear area. Ammunition and petrol dumps were prime targets and to see one of these go up was quite something - pyrotechnics galore! Anzio town was specially selected to receive the attentions of "Anzio Annie". The Germans are good at very big guns! Some may have heard of "Big Bertha" the huge gun which bombarded Paris in WW1. Well ours was of similar ilk. It hid somewhere on the Alban Hills. in a railway tunnel. There it lived like some great brooding monster weighing the best part of 215 tons. Periodically it would trundle out to perform its party-piece which was to hurl a shell weighing a quarter of a ton at the beachhead distant a mere 20 miles. It could deliver its lethal missile, if persuaded by a team of 10 men, over distances up to 38 miles! Its target was mainly Anzio town which it steadily reduced to piles of rubble. There was one redeeming feature. the shell announced its arrival with a sound like the approach of an express train which gave one time to select the most comfortable shelter to hand!
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