The 11th Armored Division during World War II
As Allied troops moved across Europe in a series of offensives against Nazi Germany, they found tens of thousands of concentration camp prisoners in deplorable conditions. Malnutrition and disease were rampant, and corpses lay unburied. The soldiers reacted in shock and disbelief to the evidence of Nazi atrocities. In addition to burying the dead, the Allied forces attempted to help and comfort the survivors with food, clothing and medical assistance.
11th Armored Division Campaigns during World War II
Formed in 1942, the 11th Armored Division landed on the Normandy beaches in France in mid-December 1944. Shortly after its arrival in Europe, the "Thunderbolt" division was deployed to Belgium to attack advancing German forces during the Battle of the Bulge. In March 1945, the 11th moved into the Rhineland and advanced eastward into the heart of Germany. The following month, the unit moved southward from Thuringia into Bavaria, capturing Coburg on April 11 and Bayreuth on April 14. On May 5, the 11th took the Austrian city of Linz, and a few days later met up with advancing Soviet forces.
The 11th Armored Division and the Liberation of Mauthausen and Gusen
During the invasion of German-held Austria, the "Thunderbolt" division overran two of the largest Nazi concentration camps in the country: Mauthausen and Gusen. On May 5, 1945, the 11th arrived in Gusen, which had originally been a subcamp of Mauthausen. The division's arrival prevented the SS guards from murdering thousands of concentration camp prisoners by dynamiting the underground tunnels and factories where the inmates had been forced to work.
The next day, the 11th Armored Division entered the Mauthausen concentration camp. In the unit's "sanitary report" of May 25, 1945, the division's Medical Inspector stated that "the situation in the camp on the arrival of the US Forces was one of indescribable filth and human degradation." The report stated that 19,000 prisoners were crammed into bunks meant to accommodate around 5,000 persons and that the two- and three-level bunks held 10 to 20 prisoners each. The prisoners had been fed a mixture of sugar beets and potato peelings that "looked like worms in mud." Thousands of prisoners were naked or clothed in rags. Some 8,000 survivors in the camp, the report continued, were in need of immediate medical care and more than half of the camp's inmates "were little more than skeletons." Soon after arrival, the 11th Armored Division began implementing measures to treat the ill prisoners and improve conditions within the camp.
I remember that there were piles and piles of corpses there
Recognition as a Liberating Unit
The 11th Armored Division was recognized as a liberating unit by the US Army's Center of Military History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1985.
11th Armored Casualty Figures
Casualty figures for the 11th Armored Division, European theater of operations:
- Total battle casualties: 2,877
- Total deaths in battle: 524
11th Armored Division Nickname
"Thunderbolt" is a nickname adopted by the 11th Armored Division during its rapid march in December 1944 to reinforce US troops defending against the German military offensive in the Ardennes Forest.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What challenges did Allied forces face when they encountered the camps and sites of other atrocities?
- What challenges faced survivors of the Holocaust upon liberation?