Tuesday, March 19, 2013

First Across the Rhine

First Across the Rhine

Just finished reading First Across the Rhine by Col. David Pergrin (with Eric Hammel). It's an account of the actions of the 291st Engineer Combat Battallion during their assignment in the European front of World War II. The 291st was one of the most decorated engineering groups of the army having performed well during the Battle of Bulge and the ensuing drive towards the eventual invasion of Germany.

The author, Col. Pergrin, was an accomplished student of Penn state having been part of the football team as well as a Captain at it's ROTC Engineering Company. Upon graduation he was commissioned as a reserve 2nd Lieutenant of the Army Corps of Engineers. With the war brewing in Europe he was called up for active duty at the Engineering Training Center in 1941.

In 1943 he was assigned to be the training officer of the 291st then eventually he assumed the mantle of being its executive officer. Col. Pergrin was eventually thrust into being the commander (he was a 26 year old major at that time) of the 291st after its original commander suffered a serious back injury prior to its deployment into Europe.

The 291st landed a few days after the Allies had stormed Normandy on D-Day. They immediately set up to do their assigned work of clearing mines and booby traps left behind by the Germans as well as clearing the road ways in order to help the outward drive to Germany. One notable invention of one of the members of the combat engineers, that contributed greatly to the break out in Normandy, was the inventive use of their armored bulldozers to push thru the tall hedgerows in the Bocage to create gaps that the infantry can assault while catching the defenders by surprise. Eventually some enterprising armored units installed prongs at the front of their Sherman Tanks and the Rhino Tank was invented. That made the work of breaking through the hedgerows even more faster.

An engineering combat group can also go on an offensive function, as witnessed during the Battle of the Bulge. The 291st distinguished themselves in this theatre of war as their actions of setting up roadblocks (armed only with machine guns and TNT) , blowing up critical bridges and protecting vital fuel dumps helped contain the surprise German offensive that created a bulge in the Allied lines. Critically outnumbered and outgunned they held their positions in Malmedy well despite the lack of supplies and bad weather.

The 291st was also instrumental in reporting the Malmedy Massacre, having been one of the first units to come in contact with the survivors of the shooting of allied prisoners. This dastardly deed was done by Kampfgruppe Peiper, the spearhead of the German offensive during the Battle of the Bulge. Having no time to take prisoners due to their mad dash, they opted instead to execute them.

One other notable action of the 291st was the rapid deployment of one of the longest pontoon bridge ever at Remagen to support the heavily damaged Ludendorff Bridge before it collapsed. With that, the Allies were able to establish a foothold into Germany and press on their attack for the rapid capitulation of the Third Reich. The building of the bridge was no easy feat as the Germans threw everything they had to prevent the bridge from being built. The 291st experienced a lot of casualties during this time as the Germans assaulted them with not only artillery and air strikes, but also with V-2 rockets.

After this action the 291st continued its support of the Allied offensive, this time in the heart of Germany. During its entire history in the European theatre, the 291st would continuously get detached from its parent 1111th Engineer Combat Group as it would often get personally requested by some generals to be attached to their army group owing to their distinguished performance.

With the end of the war in Europe, Col. Pergrin was assigned to head the 112th Engineer Combat Battalion for deployment to the Pacific. Due to the performance of the 291st, it was personally selected by Col. Bill Carter, the 1st Army Chief Engineer, to accompany him to his reassignment in the Pacific. Luckily the war in the Japan ended before this could happen. The 291st was eventually deactivated in October of 1945.

This account of the actions of the Engineering Combat Battalion is definitely a good read. It gives you a detailed look into the life of an often overlooked, but otherwise very important cog of a combat group in World War II. As an engineer, I was always curious as to what the functions of a combat engineering battalion were. That is aside from the usual construction and maintenance and demolitions tasks it had to accomplish.

With this book I wasn't disappointed as I learned more about the functions of the said unit as I sifted through each page. I've learned that aside from those mentioned above, the combat engineers role is very critical in supporting the attack of the infantry or armored groups. They install the bridges (often times under artillery attack or direct fire), defuse the boobytraps and remove the obstacles that the enemy defense have put in place to thwart the rapid movement of an invading army.

They are also responsible for repairing roads and other critical pavements (air strips etc) needed to support an army on the move. Roads supply it with the armaments and needed supplies, but better roads ensure that those arrive on time. Road maintenance not only involves patching up holes but also removing stalled allied or enemy vehicles as well as dead bodies (for eventual policing by graves registry). Good roads are also instrumental in saving lives as field ambulances can quickly get a wounded soldier to a field hospital.

This book is definitely a recommend read in my opinion.