By: Jason Patrick, U.S. Army Engineer School Historian’s Office
In the early morning hours of June 6th 1944, men and equipment were poised and waiting to begin their assault on the five predetermined landing points on the coast of Normandy, France. The day of days was getting underway and the combined Allied invasion force stared down the throat of a fate that would see the loss of many lives and many struggles laying before them.
One struggle faced in the operation was the presence of obstacles, both underwater and on the beaches themselves. These had to be cleared to allow the successful landing of men and equipment otherwise things at the shore would get delayed and on the beaches, delays meant death to those coming ashore and fighting to move inland.
One unit charged with the mission of breaching and clearing obstacles was the 299th Engineer Combat Battalion. The 299th was assigned the mission of clearing eight 50 yard wide gaps in the various underwater obstacles. They were the only Engineer Battalion to land on both beaches assigned to American forces and actually had personnel landed before any other American units had set foot on the beach.
At 0633 hours on the 6th of June, eight assault teams of the 299th had landed on Omaha Beach and set to work of clearing obstacles under heavy enemy fire with the help of eight armored bull dozers that had made it ashore in working order. By 0715 hours the teams had blown five of the eight gaps
and support vessels were landing while infantry elements remained pinned down behind the dune line. During the landing two of the assault teams were found to be missing in the confusion and chaos of combat. By 0900 hours the two missing assault teams were located and by 1000 hours the infantry was able to clear the beach defenses and move inland off the beach.
As the infantry and their support moved off the beach the 299th continued their mission of clearing the beach of all obstacles for the next three days. They would face mortar and artillery fire as well as strafing and bombing attacks from enemy aircraft until the 8th of June when anti-aircraft batteries could be put into action effectively shielding the beach from enemy aircraft. By 2300 hours on the 9th all standing obstacles on the beach were cleared. After having been among the first soldiers to land on Omaha, losing nearly a third of their personnel, paving the way for the assault force and ensuring that support vessels from the invasion fleet could bring their crucial supplies and equipment ashore, the men of the 299th were attached to the 336th Engineers of the 5th Engineer Special Brigade and would move inland by foot to a nearby village.
The actions and sacrifice of the men of the 299th on Omaha Beach in June of 1944 earned them the Presidential Unit Citation as well as a permanent place in US Army and US Army Engineer history.
From the USAES Historian’s Office
by Jason E. Patrick
Throughout history, an army’s ability to wage war has rested squarely on the ground commander’s ability to place soldiers and equipment in the areas that will have the most impact on the battle space. Also critical to waging a successful campaign is the ability to adequately provide the logistical capability for those commanders to properly supply their forces. From the Greek Hoplites to the Mongol Hordes to the maneuver battalions of today’s modern modular Army the ability to move and the ability to put forces into action quickly and effectively can determine the outcome of an entire war; It is roads, just as much as air lift and air mobility, that make that difference. One of the earliest examples, still very tangible and in some instances still travelable, are the Roman roads. The Romans created a massive network of roads that radiated and stretched out to all points in the empire and consisted of both improved and unimproved roadways. Over 50,000 miles of this network was paved and in several areas of the world the roads are still passable. The Romans made them as straight and flat as possible. Working on the concept that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line and that the straighter the road is the more quickly materiel, personnel and equipment could be moved to a location. They were constructed by first digging two trenches that were 8 to ten feet apart and then between these two ditches a wide flat bottomed trench, called an Agger, was dug. This trench would be lined with a series of stone fillers beginning with stones that were 6 to 8 inches in size and then on top of that would be fist sized stones with coarse sand or sometimes volcanic cement to fill in the gaps between the stones. This would then be covered by what was called Pave Stones. These were large flat stones that were cut to fit tightly together. These construction methods lead to a very durable road surface that could withstand the test of time as well as large volumes of military traffic. There are a Number of sections of the old Roman roads that still exist today including 10 miles of the Appian Way leading out of Rome.
While today the method of constructing roads has changed some based on newer technology and capabilities, the major principles are the same, and so is their purpose: Moving equipment and personnel over long distances in the most efficient method possible. We saw it in the mid-1930s up through the 40’s with the development and construction of the Autobahn in Nazi Germany and then here in the United States during the 1950’s with the start of the Eisenhower Interstate System and other similar highway projects around the globe. In Iraq and Afghanistan the need to maintain and improve local roadways was critical to our ability to project combat power to areas where it is needed. It also allowed us to improve the ability of the local populations to travel and move goods and supplies safely and effectively as well which helped to support the local economy and encourage growth and development.
Crossing the Rhine!
Provided by the U.S. Army Engineer School’s Historian’s Office
In early March of 1945, the Allied strategy involved a rapid, large-scale advance into Germany, an effort intended to end the war quickly and with the least destruction possible. However, the push east by four divisions, the 1st Infantry Division, the 9th Infantry Division, the 9th Armored Division, and the 78th Infantry Division, was stalled at the Rhine River. The US was stymied by the retreating Wehrmacht elements’ destruction of bridges leading across the Rhine. A lone railway bridge, the Ludendorff Bridge, at a small town called Remagen still stood intact. This bridge held the key to the Allied forces’ full throttle push into Germany.
On the 7th of March 1945, the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion discovered the intact state of the bridge and reported it back to higher. The order to take the bridge was given, with the 9th Armored Engineer Battalion to provide an Engineer reconnaissance element. Men from Baker Company’s 2nd platoon were the first across the bridge, checking its serviceability for Infantry to cross and locating and disarming various charges that the fleeing Wehrmacht had set on the bridge. By midnight, the 9th had completed hasty repairs, and the Allied main body began to cross.
On the 10th of March, the 276th Engineer Combat Battalion assumed maintenance and repair duties. That same day, the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion, in conjunction with the 998th and 988th Treadway Bridge Companies, began constructing a Treadway to facilitate increased movement across the Rhine. Their progress was hampered by not only heavy sniper fire, artillery and bombing, but also by debris floating downstream in the swift currents of the Rhine. Through careful observation and maintenance of netting placed upstream of the bridge and their tireless efforts and sheer determination, the bridge was completed by 1700 hours on the 11th of March, and the 291st became the first Allied unit to construct a tactical bridge across the Rhine.
A second bridge, that was a heavy reinforced ponton bridge, was begun by the 51st Engineer Combat Battalion. Assisted by elements of the 181st and the 552nd Engineer Heavy Ponton Battalions, and completed only five hours after the 291st’s bridge, more equipment and personnel began moving East across the Rhine all while under fire from the enemy that still put up resistance on the East side of the Rhine.
For 6 more days, repair operations continued on the Ludendorff Bridge in an effort to continue the flow of men, heavy equipment, and materiel across the bridge. Allied forces continued the fight to expand the bridgehead, now aided by P-38 Lightning aerial patrols to curtail attacks by the German Luftwaffe. Unfortunately, movement across the bridge as well as enemy fire from artillery and JU-87 Stukas continued to weaken an already critically damaged structure, and on the 17th of March 1945, the structure of the Ludendorff Bridge gave way and collapsed, taking 100 Engineers with it into the swift waters of the Rhine. After the bridge collapsed, the 148th Engineer Combat Battalion, assisted by the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion, began immediate efforts to construct a Class 40 Floating Bailey Bridge downstream from the former site of the Ludendorff. The bridge was completed within 48 hours, and the flow of Allied assets east into Germany once again recommenced.
By capturing, securing, and maintaining the Ludendorff Bridge for as long as possible, the Allies were able to continue and eventually successfully complete their accelerated push into Germany, which ultimately led to Germany’s defeat.
Image found at the following link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/291st_Engineer_Combat_Battalion_(United_States)#/media/File:Rhine_River_pontoon_bridge_wwii.png
US Army Engineer Actions in the Marshall Islands Campaign the Assault on Kwajalein Atoll
Jan 29 1944 to 21 February 1944
Provided by the U.S Engineer School Historian’s Office
In this month in 1944, combined US Army, US Marine and US Navy forces put boots on the ground in the Marshall Islands campaign. Beginning on the 31st of January with the four islets to the northwest of Kwajalein and then with the two islands closest to it. The initial landing forces consisted of infantry and elements of the 13th Engineers who were well versed in the use of rocket grenades, explosives and flame throwers, hit the beach by 0900 hours and the assault met with no resistance. The initial waves cleared the coral reefs without issue but by early afternoon as tides changed; a number of landing craft were forced to offload their cargo roughly sixty yards short of the beach. Engineers assisted in the offloading of jeeps and trucks utilizing bulldozers, once material had been brought ashore they set to work on clearing positions for artillery emplacements. By 1600 that day the 105mm Howitzers had completed their registration fires in preparation for the following day’s assault on Kwajalein.
By 0800 landing craft began to line up for the assault. Infantry and engineer climbed down the nets into the awaiting Higgins boats and, under the cover of naval artillery and air bombardment, began their journey ashore. Enemy resistance was light, consisting mostly of anti-aircraft fire. By 0930 hours the first wave of men came ashore to find that the bombardment had been effective in knocking out enemy fortifications along the shoreline. The attack plan called for two regimental combat teams to land abreast and then move up the length of the island. Then protected by naval and air bombardment they would advance inland. The landing forces were able to advance inland approximately 150 yards before running into enemy resistance. Japanese soldiers were occupying pillboxes that were emplaced amongst piles of rubble and the infantry-engineer teams were able to eliminate the threat with relative efficiency.
Once the initial landing phase was completed, the first group of shore party engineers came ashore with Col. Brendan A Burns who was the shore party commander. The two beaches were organized for receiving supplies and equipment being brought ashore by LVTs (Landing Vehicle, Tracked) and Dukws. At the same time the combat engineers, having run into fewer problems than originally anticipated, joined the shore party engineers and with their bulldozers smoothed the rough ground stretching from the beach to the western section of the road which skirted the island. By nightfall the front lines had reached a point that was one fourth the distance from the landing beaches to the northeastern tip.
On the third day the invasion force encountered increased resistance from Japanese forces who were entrenched in pillboxes and other fortifications constructed from coconut logs and sand. Infantry-Engineer teams were set to work on destroying these positions and utilized every resource they had from flame throwers and explosives, firing into the firing and observation slits and even placing Bangalore torpedoes down ventilation pipes. The engineers moved from position to position while suppressing fire from the infantry kept the Japanese soldiers heads down. Larger structures were handled with the support of tanks following behind the tanks as they closed in on targeted structures. Meanwhile shore party engineers were improving the capability of bringing supplies ashore by clearing roadways and areas for supply dumps and building causeways on the lagoon side of the island. On the end of the third day, supply boats were being unloaded by the shore arties faster than landing craft could bring materiel ashore. Thanks to the efforts of the Engineer augmented infantry operating in teams and the quick working engineers in the shore party allowing the movement of supplies and equipment further inland, three-fourths of the island were in the hands of US forces the 4th of February. Though increased resistance was met and the remaining Japanese forces fought with a ferocious intensity, by 1600 hours that day the word was sent back to the commander of the Joint Expeditionary Force, Rear Adm. Richmond K. Turner that “All organized resistance…has ceased.”
Army Engineers Construct the Ledo Road in World War II
In the fall of 1942, Lieutenant General Joseph Stilwell, the Commanding General of U.S. Army Forces in the China-Burma-India theater of operations, had the mission of supporting the Chinese in the fight against Japanese forces. However, the Japanese controlled the main supply road into China from India, which necessitated the need for a new supply road. To address this problem, LTG Stillwell organized a group of Engineers to build a road from Ledo, India through Burma to the main supply route in China. This road would serve as both a supply route to China and also a line of communication that could enable offensive operations against the Japanese in Burma.
The 45th Engineer General Service Regiment and the 823rd Engineer Aviation Battalion, as well as several other Engineer battalions and companies, were tasked with building the Ledo Road. Initially under command of Colonel John Arrowsmith, construction of the road began 16 December, 1942. The Engineers operated almost continually through severe weather, thick forest and mountainous terrain. The project included clearing, grading, compacting, and finishing the road, as well as constructing several culverts and bridges to navigate over numerous streams and rivers. Operations started well, but slowed down several months into the project due to severe weather and issues with equipment maintenance, and in October of 1943 Colonel Lewis Pick took over as commander. Finally, on 12 January, 1945, after more than two years of consistent hard work, Major General Pick led the first convoy of 113 vehicles out of Ledo, India to Kenming, China. The Engineers’ steadfast effort over the more than two years of the project was much appreciated, and MG Pick called the construction of the Ledo Road the toughest job ever given to U.S. Army Engineers in wartime. The actions of the Engineers greatly contributed to the war effort and the eventual victory over the Japanese. (source: Fowle, Barry W. Builders and Fighters: U.S. Army Engineers in World War II. Fort Belvoir, Va.: Office of History, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1992. 327-346. image source: http://www.history.army.mil/brochures/indiaburma/indiaburma.htm)
Technician Fourth Grade Truman Kimbro, Medal of Honor Recipient
In December of 1944, as part of the 2nd Engineer Combat Battalion, Technician Fourth Grade Truman Kimbro’s selfless actions during the Battle of the Bulge impeded the German offensive and allowed his unit to successfully retrograde. As a result he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. The citation is as follows:
“On 19 December 1944, as scout, he led a squad assigned to the mission of mining a vital crossroads near Rocherath, Belgium. At the first attempt to reach the objective, he discovered it was occupied by an enemy tank and at least 20 infantrymen. Driven back by withering fire, Technician 4th Grade Kimbro made 2 more attempts to lead his squad to the crossroads but all approaches were covered by intense enemy fire. Although warned by our own infantrymen of the great danger involved, he left his squad in a protected place and, laden with mines, crawled alone toward the crossroads. When nearing his objective he was severely wounded, but he continued to drag himself forward and laid his mines across the road. As he tried to crawl from the objective his body was riddled with rifle and machinegun fire. The mines laid by his act of indomitable courage delayed the advance of enemy armor and prevented the rear of our withdrawing columns from being attacked by the enemy.”
(Citation source: http://www.cmohs.org/recipient-detail/2826/kimbro-truman.php, Photo source: http://www.navsource.org/archives/09/13/130254.htm)
The 20th Engineer Battalion Keeps Supply Route Open Along Kall River
In autumn of 1944, allied forces had broken through the Siegfried Line near Belgium, and needed to seize dams on the Roer River in order to advance. In order to seize these dams, the town of Schmidt Germany would have to be seized. This town was perched on top of a hill overlooking all approaches. In late October of 1944 the 20th Engineer Combat Battalion was tasked to support the 112th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Division so that they could seize the town. The 20th Engineer Combat Battalion’s mission was to open and maintain a supply road from the towns of Germeter to Schmidt.
The attack on the town started well and the 20th assisted the infantry in seizing the bridge over the Kall River. Using hand tools and dozers and despite poor weather and difficult terrain, the engineers were successful in opening the trail leading to the bridge.
However, the first tanks to move down the trail became disabled and blocked the road. Under heavy enemy artillery fire, the 20th cleared and improved the trail so that friendly vehicles could continue. German forces then counterattacked, driving the 29th Infantry Division troops from Schmidt. The 20th Engineer Battalion was then tasked as infantry to hold the German forces along the Kall River. This was one of the heaviest fighting in which the 20th had been engaged, suffering over 140 casualties by the time they were relieved on November 10th, but were successful in keeping the supply route open and holding the German forces back.
(Source: USAES Unit History Documents, Twentieth Battalion Engineers, 8 Jan 1947, p 29-31. Photo: Army History Office http://www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/Siegfried/Siegfried%20Line/siegfried-ch15.htm)
Engineer Assault Gapping Teams on Omaha Beach – June 1944
(From the USAES Historian’s Office)
On 6 June 1944, the Allies began Operation Over-LORD. This invasion of the European continent was designed to bring a close to German Occupation. With the support of the 5th and 6th Engineer Special Brigades (ESB), they provided landing support for V Corps on D-day. This set into motion 34,250 men and 2,870 vehicles. Of these, 5,632 men and 315 vehicles belonged to the Engineer Special Brigade Group. There where another 2,500 Engineers assigned to corps and divisional units.Engineers made up 25 percent of all troops that landed on Omaha.Assault Gapping Teams were designed to blow holes in the obstacles lines on the beach. The teams were trained at the British Assault Training Center. Army Intelligence provided aerial photographs showing the types of obstacles on Omaha Beach, and then developed mockups of them for training purposes.
The Engineers planned the development of the Omaha beachhead in three phases: the assault phase, the initial dump phase, and the beach maintenance dump phase. The first two phases took place on D-day. At 0630 during the assault phase, Engineer Gapping and Support Command Teams came ashore and destroyed the obstacles lining the shore. Engineer battalion beach groups followed the Engineer teams and established initial dumps of ammunition and fuel, cleared the exits, and developed roads for the supported infantry units
Against stiff German opposition, the American teams began to open exits. At exit E-1, Sgt. Zolton Simon, of Company C, 37th ECB, led his five man squad in clearing and marking a narrow path through the mines. Wounded once while sweeping for mines, Sgt Zolton got a second, more serious wound after reaching the top of the bluff, but a path had been cleared. For his actions he was awarded the Silver Star. 1st Lt Charles Peckham of Company B stood in the path, cleared by Sgt Zolton and his men, and urged the infantrymen to follow Sgt Zolton up the now mine-free trial. For his actions he received the Bronze Star.
Despite the doubts and fears of the early hours on Omaha, the invasion was successful, in great part attributable to the efforts of the engineer teams but with a high price. Without their efforts in destroying obstacles on the beach and clearing minefields, the Allies might not have held the beachhead and established the critical toehold in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The above was taken from “The Normandy Landing” by Barry W. Fowle published in the Spring 1994 issue of ARMY HISTORY http://www.history.army.mil/armyhistory/AH30newOCR.pdf
On 9 May 1794, Congress established a Corps of Artillerists and Engineers in the U.S. Army. This action returned Engineers to the ranks of the Army for the first time in more than 10 years. At the end of the Revolutionary War, several officers including MG Louis Lebegue Duportail argued for a peacetime Army with a single Corps of Artillerists and Engineers as was customary in many European countries. Congress not only refused to support the proposal but also disbanded the bulk of the Army in 1783. This included the Corps of Engineers with its chief engineer and the companies of sappers and miners. By the following June, the surviving military establishment consisted solely of an infantry regiment and a company of artillery stationed at West Point.
In 1789, Secretary of War Henry Knox revived the recommendation for a small Corps of Artillerists and Engineers. Congress delayed taking action until 1794 when war with Britain threatened again. Then there was an acute need to upgrade neglected coastal fortifications and construct new ones.
In March, Congress appropriated funds for fortifications work from Maine to Georgia, and Knox hired seven “temporary” engineers to carry out the work. The group included Pierre L’Enfant and Stephen Rochefontaine, both veterans of the Revolutionary War Corps of Engineers. Although employed by the War Department, these Engineers did not join the Army.
Knox took advantage of the situation and again urged Congress to approve the plan he and Duportail had advanced earlier. A corps combining artillerists and engineers, he argued, would provide the additional trained troops now needed to garrison the coastal fortifications. The new corps was to be commanded by a lieutenant colonel and to have four battalions, each commanded by a major and consisting of four companies.
It took months for the Corps of Artillerists and Engineers to recruit the officers and troops needed to reach its authorized strength. Although international tensions eased in the latter half of 1794, Congress resolved to continue a seacoast defense program. By the end of the year, there were single company garrisons of artillerists and engineers at Fort Jay (New York); Fort Mifflin (Philadelphia); Fort Whetstone, later McHenry (Baltimore); and Fort Johnson (Charleston). The following February, Stephen Rochefontaine, one of the “temporary” Engineers, was commissioned a lieutenant colonel and took command of the Corps.
The creation of a Corps of Artillerists and Engineers in 1794 assured an engineering presence would continue in the new U.S. Army, which lead to the establishment of the Army’s first Chief Engineer in 1775.
In 1798 Congress added a second regiment to the Corps. By the time Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, it had become clear that the united Corps was not producing the desired well-educated, scientific body of Engineer officers that it had planned. The short-lived experiment ended. Finally, in 1802 Congress permanently established a separate Corps of Engineers and The U.S. Military Academy at West Point as the Nation’s first engineering school.
This excerpt is from the U.S Army Corps of Engineers
Engineers on the Muse – Christmas 1944
Out along the Muse on Christmas Day, Major General Harmon’s 2nd Armored Division moved into the attack position. There were two task forces moving out of the village of Ciney, to support the movement down the main road N-36. At the town of Hamois, Lieutenant Arch Taylor and his 3rd platoon, Company A. Engineers, had been guarding a bridge starting on December 20th 1944.
On December 25, they received an order to blow the bridge, because G-2 posted a report that the enemy was approaching. LT Taylor and his men set the chargers to destroy the bridge. Just before they turned the key, a detachment of MPs arrived and told them to abort the mission. It bridge was needed for American armor units moving south. One of the engineers replied “Well, glory, hallelujah, maybe the tide was turning out here.
Taylor pulled his men off the bridge and they went to the top of the hill and watched the elements of MG Harmon’s division roll their tanks across the bridge and on to the battle. They had been retreating long enough, and it was time for the Americans to take the offensive.
The Engineer company commander, Captain Gamble, had promised all his men a hot Christmas dinner on this day. He meant well, but it did not work that way. When Mess Sergeant McCarl, and Lieutenant Frank Hayes left the CP with the kitchen truck they fully intending to drive to all the company positions with the meal. The truck ran into enemy fire as it came into the area and it had to turn back.
The men had cold K rations on Christmas day. This was the same as all the days before. LT Taylor’s men could only consol themselves with the news they might be relieved.
This was the Christmas story repeated across the front lines in 1944. The soldiers could only keep warm that night with thoughts of peace and the dream they would come home.
Source: The DAMNED ENGINEERS by Janice Holt Giles Studies in Military Engineering number 1