Forget 'Suicide Squad,' this was America's 'Suicide Division'
Moviegoers are gearing up for “Suicide Squad,” the new movie featuring comic supervillains who work to protect America. But the U.S. was protected by an entire “Suicide Division” known for lightning tactics and fierce fighting in World War II.
The 12th Armored Division preferred the nickname, “Hellcats,” but was dubbed the “Suicide Division” by the Nazis for stubbornly defending territory despite heavy losses.
The 12th Armored Division activated Camp Campbell, Kentucky in 1942. In Sep. 1944, it was sent to Europe and in Nov. they crossed the English Channel to join the 7th Army in the attack across France.
The Hellcats arrival was characterized by fighting and extreme cold. The 12th was sent against the Maginot Line, the string of underground bunkers originally designed to protect France from the Germans. Unfortunately, these bunkers were now manned by the Nazis who put up a fierce resistance.
Just after the start of 1945, the division saw its bloodiest fight. While the more famous Battle of the Bulge was going on in the Ardennes Forest, German troops launched counteroffensives in other parts of the Allied line. On the French and German border, some of these attacks focused on tanks of the 12th Armored near Herrlisheim, France.
Bad maneuvering by higher commanders left the U.S. forces vulnerable to German anti-tank fire during pitched armored and infantry warfare there from Jan. 5, 1945 to Jan. 19.
On Jan. 19 Col. Charles V. Bromley and Combat Command B, roughly half of the division’s combat strength, were under heavy assault by German infantry supported by tanks. The headquarters staff prepared to evacuate in a hurry, but Bromley yelled at them that they would hold their position.
“Stop this goddamn panic,” he said. “We’re not retreating anywhere. We’re defending this command post; we’re holding this line. We’re soldiers; we have weapons; we’re expendable.”
The Nazis took note of the 12th Armored Division’s stubborn refusal to retreat. German prisoners of war said that the 12th became a feared unit and was dubbed the “Suicide Division.”
The 12th Armored lasted long enough to be relieved by other U.S. units and was pulled back from the front. During the fighting around Herrlisheim, the division lost approximately 1,250 men and 70 combat vehicles.
At Herrilsheim, the division’s soldiers had become true veterans. After this baptism by fire, they were sent to oust the last German holdouts in France at the Colmar Pocket. The mountain stronghold had been promised to Hitler as a Nazi birthday party gift by Heinrich Himmler, but the tanks of the 12th and other divisions cut the Germans off and liberated the French.
After receiving awards from the local French leaders, the division was sent for a short rest and refit before being transferred to Patton’s Third Army.
In the first six days of a new Third Army advance, the Suicide Division cut to the Rhine River and then captured a string of cities along the banks. A new nickname, the “Mystery Division,” was placed on the 12th because not even Army press releases identified who the new tanks in the Third Army were.
On Mar. 19, the 12th was told to keep attacking south in a search for intact bridges. Over the next three days, the Hellcats killed over 1,000 Germans, captured approximately 5,700, and seized a large amount of enemy materiel and a hospital. They also destroyed a train, 20 tanks, and 56 artillery pieces and anti-aircraft guns.
The division’s lightning attack continued, sometimes moving so fast that German defenders would wave until they realized the unit coming towards them was American.
After returning to the 7th Army, the 12th Armored Division began another series of quick attacks that captured German manufacturing plants, troops, and famous German cities like Nuremberg. At Dillingen, the division successfully captured one of the few bridges left intact over the Danube. At the bridge they erected a sign for Allied forces trying to catch up:
You are crossing the beautiful blue Danube through the courtesy of the 12th Armored Division.
As the war was drawing to a close, 12th Armored Division tanks teamed up with regular German troops and French prisoners to fight off SS attacks at Castle Itter when the hardline Nazis attempted to execute the prisoners and guards there.