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.
The 4th Armored Division landed at Utah Beach on July 13, 1944, a month after the D-Day invasion (June 6, 1944) of the French Normandy coast. Within weeks, the "Breakthrough" division was sweeping across France. During the Battle of the Bulge, the unit provided badly needed support to the encircled US forces in Bastogne, Belgium. In late March 1945, the 4th crossed the Rhine River into central Germany and, by war's end, had reached the Czech border.
On April 4, 1945, the "Breakthrough" division overran Ohrdruf, a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp and the first Nazi camp liberated by US troops. Created in November 1944 near the town of Gotha, Ohrdruf supplied forced labor in the form of concentration camp prisoners for railway construction leading to a proposed communications center, which was never completed because of the rapid US advance. In late March 1945, the camp had a prisoner population of some 11,700, but in early April almost all the prisoners were evacuated on death marches to Buchenwald. The SS guards killed many of the remaining prisoners who were too ill to walk to the railway cars.
The 4th Armored Division's discovery of the Ohrdruf camp opened the eyes of many US soldiers to the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
The 4th 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 4th Armored Division, European theater of operations:
The commanding general of the 4th Armored Division refused to sanction an official nickname for the 4th, believing that the division's accomplishments on the battlefield made one unnecessary. "Breakthrough" was occasionally used, apparently to highlight the division's prominent role in the breakout from the Normandy beachhead and liberation of France in 1944.