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News Archive > Sport > Preparing to turn the tide of war

Preparing to turn the tide of war

1st September 2004

HUNDREDS OF American troops poured into Newquay during the Second World Two to prepare for the D-Day landings.

They stayed at the many hotels in the resort and trained in the surrounding area.

But after they left what was to become of the men - the Newquay Voice investigates.

Newquay and its hotels played an important role in the Second World War by providing accommodation to men of 1121st Engineer Combat Group of the United States Army and its 112th and 254th Engineer Combat Battalions who were to play important and heroic parts in the liberation of Europe.

They stayed at many of the town's hotels including The Barrowfield, Tolcarne, Trenarren and the Marina.

These troops were amongst the first to arrive in the United Kingdom from America, reaching Northern Ireland in early 1942 when they were employed in constructing Supply Depots and Training facilities until moving to Devizes in January 1943.

Immediately prior to arriving in Newquay the men were engaged in building assault-training areas in Devon at Slapton Sands, Woolacombe and Saunton Sands.

They were also involved in clearing anti-invasion mines from a number of beaches in Devon and Cornwall including Par Sands and Whitesand Bay.

During these mine clearance operations some men were killed and others injured.

Upon arrival in Newquay in the mid 1943s full time training began in preparation for the invasion of Europe.

The units were allocated key roles as part of the United States Army V Corps.

Clearance of mines from beaches continued as part of this training.

Manoeuvres were carried out on Bodmin Moor and other training areas including Lusty Glaze Beach.

This involved mine laying; bridge building, demolition and other combat engineering tasks under 'live' battle conditions. At Lusty Glaze there was an artillery practice range.

As D-Day neared the troops transferred to staging areas on the South Coast of England and intensive training, including practice landings was carried out.

Tragically, many of the men who were stationed in Newquay lost their lives in Normandy and subsequent operations.

The 112th Engineer Combat Battalion, after undergoing many months of intensive training and participating in several amphibious exercises was selected for an important role in the invasion of the European Continent.

The unit was temporarily detached from V Corps and the 1121st Engineer Combat Group and attached to the 1st US Infantry Division.

Between June 1 and 5 1944, men of the 112th battalion boarded their allocated invasion craft at Portland and Weymouth harbours and set sail for Normandy on June 6.

Before D-Day the commanding officer of 112th Battalion, Lt Col John O'Neill had left the Battalion temporarily to command a special army/navy team formed with the task of clearing anti-landing craft obstacles on Omaha Beach in advance of the invading troops.

The team led by Lt Col O'Neill suffered heavy casualties in carrying out its mission.

His executive officer Major William A Richards assumed command of 112th Battalion for the D-Day landings.

Assault units of the battalion landed on Omaha Beach.

The assault forces organised briefly on the beaches and courageously went over the top in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation through the minefields and obstacles.

Major Richards was among 37 men of the 112th Battalion who were killed or missing. A further 45 members of the battalion were wounded, 34 of them seriously.

Despite these casualties and the extremely fierce enemy opposition, 112th Battalion succeeded in their D-Day mission and their heroism was recognised by the award of a Presidential Unit Citation and a number of individual decorations for gallantry.

Troops of the 254th Engineer Combat Battalion landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day having been selected for the special task of erecting bridges to enable troops of V Corps to link up with troops of the US Army VII Corps, which landed on Utah Beach.

Their other role was to facilitate the transport of troops and essential war materials.

The No 1 platoon of 254 landed with the first wave of troops on D-Day.

They were selected for the special task of clearing an area of mines, booby traps and other obstacles so that the headquarters of the US Army V Corps could be safely established on the beachhead.

The platoon travelled in two landing craft, both of which were put out of action by shellfire.

The troops had to just jump onto other boats, which eventually landed them a long way off the beach.

Two officers and eight enlisted men earned decorations for heroism during this operation.

On June 7 the platoon were employed in clearing an area to be used as the first military cemetery, which was tragically soon filled.

The 1121st Group Headquarters staff left from Falmouth and landed at Omaha Beach Normandy on June 8, 1944 operating in the vicinity of 112th and 254th battalions to control the operations of the units.

Some of the Group Headquarters staff did in fact land on Omaha Beach on D-Day for reconnaissance purposes before returning to their ship to report their findings.

The 146th Engineer (Combat) Battalion and other assigned specialist engineer bridge and equipment companies were also under the control of 1121st Group Headquarters but these units were billeted to the north of Newquay and not in the town itself.

146th Battalion had the thankless D-Day task of clearing the underwater and other beach obstacles on Omaha Beach in the path of the invading forces. Heavy casualties were sustained, 50 per cent or more, in performing this operation.

112th and 254th Battalion under the command of 1121st Group Headquarters fought their way inland carrying out combat engineering duties in support of various attacking infantry and armoured units.

In the fierce fighting for the capture of St Lo in July 1944, both battalions were engaged as infantry.

A number of casualties were sustained, some of them fatal and a number of individual awards for gallantry were received.

Both Battalions were selected to accompany the Free French Army in the liberation of Paris and were amongst the first Allied Troops to enter the city.

112th were in fact the first Engineer Unit to enter Paris where they were engaged, amongst other operational tasks, in the removal of road blocks to enable the traffic of the liberating forces to move through.

Front-line action continued through France and Belgium and into Germany in September 1944, when they were some of the earliest of the invading forces to cross the German border.

In December 1944 the 112th and 254th Battalions were heavily involved in the 'Battle of the Bulge' Ardennes offensive.

254th Battalion were in the frontline in the area of Bullingen at the time of one of the early German attacks in the early hours of December 17 and suffered heavy casualties in a gallant defensive action.

Some of their troops were actually overrun in their foxholes by the advancing enemy tanks but their resistance blunted the attack and caused a crucial delay and diversion in the German assault.

The heroism of the 254th Battalion in this action was recognised by the award of the Croix de Guerre with Silver Star, and a Presidential Unit Citation.

A number of individual decorations for bravery were also made, some of them posthumously.

Tragically the cost was high, 54 men were killed or missing in action and many others were injured.

112th Battalion also performed heroically in this battle. For their action at Monshau they were awarded a Presidential Unit Citation and a number of individual awards.

Operations at Monschau were in support of the V Corps Cavalry Group.

Work parties crawled out night after night placing mines and trip-flares in front of the Cavalry positions.

As a result this was one of the areas the Germans did not break through and the Battalions action was a major factor in the final defeat of the enemy in the 'Battle of the Bulge.'

In 1945 both units continued their activities through Germany in support of various American divisions and corps.

In March 254th Battalion constructed in one day a 1,372ft long pontoon bridge across the River Rhine for the transport of troops, vehicles and equipment across the river following the collapse of the Ramagen Bridge.

This feat was a record-breaking operation in terms of length and construction time.

Interestingly amongst some of the earliest troops across the bridge - known as the Victor Bridge - were men of the 112th Battalion.

Although 112th did not work on the bridge itself, they constructed three underwater booms across the river upstream to protect it from frogmen or other water-borne attacks and set up guns and searchlights to guard booms.

Frontline activity continued through Germany into Czechoslovakia where contact was made with Soviet forces in Pilsen at the cessation of hostilities in Europe.

With a few short exceptions 112th and 254th Battalions operated throughout the campaign in Europe under the control of 1121st Group Headquarters, which kept in close proximity to the units.

Just before the end of the war in May 1945, 1121st Group Headquarters and the 112th and 254th Battalions were transferred from the First Army to the Third Army under the command of General George S Patton.

Post-war engineering work was carried out in Czechoslovakia and France before the men who had travelled about 1,400 miles across France, Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia, in almost continuous operations against the enemy, began to be repatriated to the United States.

Words taken from Brief Records of US Army Engineer Units in Newquay and their participation in the Liberation of Europe by Sid G Green.

1st September 2004

Odie Waters 4th March 2018 18:17
My father was with the 112th Engineers Combat, met and married my mother in Braunton in January 1944. Thank you for this wealth of information, he died when I was 15... no wonder he was so strict and mean. :)
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