With the recent commemorative overload of wartime events of the last century, it would be easy to overlook the story of the tragedy which befell the young GIs of the US army’s 66th division on Christmas Eve, 1944, 70 years ago. The division arrived in England during late October 1944 and moved into the campsites, civilian billets, the requisitioned hotels and grand houses previously occupied by soldiers of the US 1st Division, the ‘Big Red One’, and the US Rangers before their departure for the Normandy beaches on D-Day. The bloody and terrifying experiences of those young soldiers on Omaha Beach was memorably depicted in Stephen Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan.
The 66th, known as the Black Panthers, after their ID shoulder patches showing the head of a black panther in a red circle, consisted of three infantry regiments and four artillery battalions, mainly based in the large military camp at Piddlehinton. Others were based in Puddleton, Beaminster and Lyme Regis, and it was one of the members of the medical battalion stationed in the Alexandria Hotel who befriended me, a ten year old pupil of Mrs Ethleston’s school in Uplyme at the time. With their arrival I, and some of my classmates, had re-started our small business of trading fresh farm eggs for American comics and chewing gum which had proved popular with the soldiers of ‘The Big Red One’ when they were in town, their affection for their own dried eggs being totally non-existant. A friendly Private 1st Class John Ellis, from Michigan, had given me his fountain pen, a very precious present at the time of wooden pen holders with steel nibs which flicked splashes of ink across the page whilst writing. I treasured that pen greatly for many years. On the day before Christmas Eve he drove me home from Lyme to my home in Rousdon, my small bicycle hoisted in the back of his jeep. His battalion had received orders to move out and the jeep was full of sports equipment unwanted on their journey into combat. I arrived home and was deposited with baseball bats, cartons of balls, baseball gloves, helmet, together with a full badminton set with nets, rackets and shuttlecocks,—and one wonderful thing extra, a Christmas turkey. All frozen turkeys scheduled for the Christmas dinner of the black panthers were handed to the local Red Cross for distribution to the local needy as the division was hurriedly mustered for departure to France.
Shortly after his return to Lyme he was paraded in front of the hotel and he and his fellow soldiers were marched up Silver Street to the railway station where ‘Lyme Billy’ was waiting to shuttle them to a troop train awaiting them at Axminster Station. Later we heard that the three coaches of the small branch line train were insufficient and that cattle trucks from the sidings had to be coupled up to cope with the number. Later in the day their troop train reached Southampton docks where they joined their main force who had travelled down from Dorchester. Two ships were moored up awaiting them, one a Belgian vessel with a Congolese crew, the SS Leopoldville. They were destined for Cherbourg and onwards to the forests of the Ardennes where they were to re-inforce Allied forces pinned down by a fierce German counter offensive, recorded historically as the ‘Battle of the Bulge’.
They set sail into the growing darkness of that Christmas Eve afternoon, singing carols and doubtlessly thinking about their folks preparing for Christmas back home. They were escorted by four warships, three British and one French, all under the command of the Royal Naval destroyer, HMS Brilliant. The order was given to zig-zag their course across the Channel as German U-boats were known to be on the prowl. As they neared the French coast Brilliant raised the black flag signalling that U-boat contact had been made. The lights of Cherbourg could now be seen, many from places where people were partying, celebrating their first post war Christmas. It was nearly six o’ clock when a torpedo from U486 struck the side the Leopoldville. Whilst three of the escorts went off to hunt the U-boat with depth charges HMS Brilliant drew alongside the stricken Leopoldville to rescue as many of the Americans as they could. The seas were rough and the rise of the swell between the two vessels was between 12 and 20 feet. A net was slung over the side of the hull of the Leopoldville but some were losing grip and were dropping down onto the deck of the destroyer breaking arms and legs. Some dropped between the hulls of both ships and were crushed to death by the movements of the sea. Many of the survivors reaching the deck of the Brilliant safely thrust their unspent English pounds into a GI steel helmet, a token of thanks to the Royal Naval ship’s crew.
Five hundred thankful GIs were ferried to the port of Cherbourg, just five miles away but when the Brilliant returned the Leopoldville had sunk. Altogether 802 young Americans were lost, the bodies of 493 of them were never recovered. The attacking U-boat, U486, was caught up with eventually and met its comeuppance when it was sunk by a Royal Naval submarine, HMS Tapir on April 12, 1945, off the coast of Norway. The wreck of the U-boat was discovered on the ocean floorbed near Bergen early last year, 2013, by a Norwegian oil company.
As with the disaster which had befallen Operation Tiger on April 28, the previous spring, when a convoy of US assault ships were attacked by German E-boats, as they turned off the coast of West Bay in a simulated journey to the Normandy beaches centred on mock assault landings at Slapton Sands in south Devon, the incident was covered with a shield of secrecy by embarrassed military authorities. That shroud of secrecy persisted for four decades after the war. That German E-boat attack in Lyme Bay cost the lives of 749 GIs, ten times the actual casualty figure on Utah beach on D-day, which Exercise Tiger was all about.
Whilst researching this story in the Dorset History Centre a few years ago I found the name and address of a surviving ‘Black Panther’ then living in Evansville, Indiana. John F.W. Koch, Pfc, of Company D, 262nd Infantry Regiment, 66th Division, ‘Black Panthers’, US Army, who at the time had been visiting ‘Camp Marabout’ at Piddlehinton, to relive his experience together with his son. We corresponded together for some time. Nineteen at the time, one of his memories of that dreadful night was of seeing what appeared to be rolled carpets being washed ashore as they disembarked at Cherbourg. I telephoned him a short while ago but sadly I was told by his wife that he has since passed away. There was a question I wanted to ask him which Mrs Koch answered. After their operation in southern Brittany where they toppled the last of the Nazi strongholds in the St. Nazerre pocket surrounding the German submarine pens, they moved to Germany as part of the occupational forces and John, who was of German Emigrant origin, took the opportunity of seeking out his relatives when he got to Koblenz. Yes, that was so, Mrs Koch told me, strange to hear considering the severe circumstances of that time, but, nevertheless very human.
The division then moved to Marseilles to start facilitating the shipping of American forces from the European theatre to the Pacific, but two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and the war was over. On the 27th of October, 1945 they returned home almost a year exactly after their arrival in Dorset. During my research for this story I was pleased to find the name of my friendly GI friend, John Ellis, among the names of the survivors. So please cast thoughts of remembrance for those young soldiers who sailed towards a watery end thinking of home and singing carols, when you join in your local Christmas carol service, as the congregation will be doing on Sunday, this coming December 21st in the church of St. Mary, Piddlehinton.
In 2004 a living memorial of 802 trees was planted at the site of Camp Marabout, to commemorate those young Americans who died on that Christmas Eve 70 years ago.
Derek Stevens is available for talks. Telephone 01297 553765 or 07525 35485.