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.
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
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.
Casualty figures for the 11th Armored Division, European theater of operations:
- Total battle casualties: 2,877
- Total deaths in battle: 524
"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?