Tag Archives: Black Edelweiss

The Red Circle’s ’45 European Vacation

Activated 15 July 1943 at Camp Carson, Colorado– some 79 years ago this week– the U.S. Army’s 71st Light Division (Pack, Jungle) was a rarity when it came to WWII infantry divisions as it was not descended from units that had a Great War history. Formed from two regiments of regulars– the 5th and 14th– that had long been assigned to defend the Panama Canal, augmented with new units such as the 66th Infantry Regiment, it was originally meant to fight in the triple canopy green hell of the South Pacific.

With a TO&E that included hundreds of horses and mules to carry and support 75mm pack guns– rather than the more standard 105mm howitzers and trucks– it had a small footprint, just 9,000 men, only about two-thirds the size of a traditional “leg” infantry division.

“7200 rounds of 75mm pack how. Ammunition is required per battery for operations of the 609th F.A., 71st Div. (L), atop a ridge on firebreak trail near hill #3905 during mountain maneuvers. Here are men of Hq and Service Batter, 609th, 71st L. Div., unloading dummy ammunition after a long 5-mile haul up the steep firebreak trail. 900 rounds a day is a good haul, as one mule can carry only 9 rounds. HLMR Mtn. Man. 168-9-44-593.’ Army Signal Corps photograph Photographer: J. P. Johnson. 22 March 1944

However, the 71st (L) never did make it to New Guinea or the Philippines.

Proving a bad idea in stateside tests in California, the 71st (L) was recast as a standard 14,000-man infantry division, sent to Fort Benning for additional training, and left its 75mm guns and beasts of burden behind.

This put it late to mature and the outfit only reached the European Theatre of Operation (still with jungle-trained Panama regulars of the 5th and 14th Inf Rgts making up two-thirds of its combat force, because this is the Army we are talking about!) in the Winter of early 1945.

The 71st ID’s patch had a red circle around it, earning the unit the easy nickname of “The Red Circle.” This uniform, of WWII combat veteran Staff Sergeant Harold R. George, is in the American Legacy Museum.

Hitting France on 6 February 1945, some 245 days after D-Day, it would enter combat on 10 March and spend 49 days engaged, suffering 1,879 total casualties in that short period, some 13.3 percent of its strength. The division earned two battle streamers, for the Rhineland and Central Europe Campaigns, and notably took 107,406 enemy POWs, including bagging most of the battered stragglers of the dreaded “Black Edelweiss” of the 6th SS Mountain Division Nord.

In doing so, the men of the 71st earned over 800 individual awards including 166 Silver Stars and 651 Bronze Stars. In the final days of the war, on 4 May 1945, the Division liberated Gunskirchen, one of the many subcamps of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Three days later they made contact with advancing Soviet Red Army elements near Waidhofen after capturing Steyr and were already making merry by the time VE-Day hit on the 8th.

The most excellent war chronicle map below, drawn by T4s Emil Albrecht and Roland Wille, covers the 71st 49-day war with the Seventh and Third Armies from Limesy, France to Sierning, Austria.

(3500×2200) National Archives Identifier: 152951241 https://catalog.archives.gov/id/152951241

Four Hours from Sicily to Dachau

For those looking to get a little war movie fix over the coming holidays, I suggest you check out The Liberator on Netflix. Based on Alex Kershaw’s excellent 2012 book of the same name, it covers the real-life “500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau” traveled by (later Brig Gen.) Felix L. Sparks.

Sparks, who enlisted during the Depression to make sure he was fed, was first a company and later a battalion commander in the 45th (Thunderbird) Infantry Division’s 157th Infantry Regiment— drawn literally from “Cowboys and Indians.”

“Troops of the 45th Division march thru Caltanissetta, Sicily. 157th Infantry, Company L. [old] Signal Corps Photo # MM-LCE-7-18-43-P2-11-6.” 7/18/1943. Photographer: Klein. Via NARA 111-SC-176493

Notably, the unit saw the elephant– and by all accounts was trampled flat by it– at Anzio, then went on to duke it out against crack SS mountain troops (the dreaded Black Edelweiss of 6. SS-Gebirgs-Division “Nord”) in the frozen hell of Reipertswiller, before playing a key part in the taking of Aschaffenburg in the face of downright wasteful and fanatical resistance in the last days of the war. Famously, the unit was also involved in the controversial death of unarmed SS troops at Dachau during its liberation.

The four-part series is filmed in a new CGI hybrid Trisoscope technique which looks vaguely similar to what A Scanner Darkly was produced in a few years back and an upgrade to the woefully underappreciated Heavy Metal and circa 1978 version of Lord of the Rings.

Now don’t write off The Liberator as a “cartoon,” as the technique is on point and allows for an easy and more accurate (ironically) portrayal of period places and equipment– especially tanks, and aircraft– that is just not possible in live-action films (admit it, you cringe a little bit every time you see the Russian T-34/85s mocked up like Tiger Is in Kelly’s Heroes).

How about that mortar data plate?

While not Band of Brothers, and Sparks is not Dick Winters, The Liberator is a good retelling of a story that is oft forgotten. There are way worse ways to waste four hours.