Thursday, March 25, 2010

American Rail in WWII Belgium

My grandfather's 304th Port Company along with the 303rd Port Company served guard duty while in Antwerp, frequently as supply train guards. After the 519th Port Bn. loaded trains in Antwerp a team of 5 or so GIs joined the cargo, riding on open train cars to prevent theft. The black market was an absolutely massive problem for the Allies. It was not uncommon for a train to loose tons of its cargo before reaching its destination. The Allied trains in Belgium were operated the US Army's 708th Railway Grand Division, mentioned in a 1945 TIME magazine article.

Yesterday I got a hold of The Saga of the 708 Railway Grand Division by A. G. Gregory. This book was published in 1947, so it's not easily purchased. My library in Colorado requested it for me using interlibrary loan. My copy came all the way from Illinois. If you are at all interested in supply movement by train, this is a good little book (only 73 pages long). The 708 operated in England, France, Belgium. and Germany. The book includes maps for all of their routes. I knew the 304th Port Co. men rode to Brussels and Li├Ęge. It was interested for me to see all the other possible towns my grandfather may have visited.

After delivering their cargo the train guards did not have a return train ride to Antwerp. It was up to them to find transportation. They relied on finding a truck that happened to be headed to Antwerp. Because this unreliable transport was expected they were not under a tight deadlines to get back. My grandfather and the other guys took their time finding a ride. They would typically stay in town for a few days, staying with a Belgian family that was eager to invite the American liberators in to their home.

Liege was one train destination that could be as dangerous as Antwerp. The 708th Railway Div. had their headquarters there, joined by the 740th Railway Operating Battalion. The Germans attacked the Allies' rail yard with their V-1 and some V-2 rockets. Benjamin King's Impact: The History of Germany's V-Weapons in World War II includes 4 pages describing the V-bomb siege of Liege. These "robot bombs" dropped on Liege from November 20-30, 1944. They started again on December 15th to coincide with the German's Ardennes Offensive, ending in March 1946. Although the railroad was the target, many of these inacurate V-weapons landed within the city itself. By the end of the V-bombardment 92 Allied soldiers were killed and 336 were wounded. 1,158 Belgian citizens were killed or wounded with 82,700 buildings damaged. The German Luftwaffe (air force) had also strafed and bombed the railroad.

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