Book Review: Hell on Wheels ( Donald E. Houston) : WW2

8/12/2001 • Harry S. Truman, World War II Reviews

Hell on Wheels, by Donald E. Houston, Presidio Press, Novato, Calif., 1995, $15.95.

Activated at Fort Benning, Georgia, in July 1940, the 2nd Armored (“Hell on Wheels”) Division fought in Sicily and then across northwestern Europe as one of the U.S. Army’s premier armored divisions in World War II. It distinguished itself by its mobility and hell-for-leather fighting spirit and won the respect of both allies and foes.

The 2nd Armored began its service in Morocco in November 1942 and then moved to Europe, where the soldiers battled through the difficult Normandy hedgerow country, the Siegfried Line and the Ardennes Forest. By the time its WWII serv-
ice ended in April 1945, the division had suffered 981 killed in action, 4,557 wounded in action, and 202 mortally wounded.

After crossing the Rhine River to meet Red Army units at the Elbe, the division served as the honor guard for President Harry S. Truman at the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945. And, in recognition of the unit’s illustrious battle record, the 2nd Armored was chosen to be the
first American division to occupy Berlin.

Few other U.S. Army units covered as much ground or fought harder than the Hell on Wheels Division–or have had their saga chronicled as masterfully as in this accurate, professional and definitive history by Donald Houston, a 2nd Armored veteran. It is an epic of heroism, tragedy and determination that honors all the tankers and support troops who wheeled across Europe, spearheading the Allied advance into the heart of the Third Reich.

Vigorous, scholarly and packed with historical detail and personal anecdotes, Hell
on Wheels’ narrative rolls along at a brisk pace like a 2nd Armored Sherman tank. Few unit histories are well-written, but Houston’s book is a shining exception.

After outlining the division’s ancestry and the growth of the fledgling U.S. Tank Corps in the early 1920s, Houston guides the reader through the division’s training and participation in the Tennessee, Carolina and Louisiana maneuvers; then overseas for its limited baptism of fire in North Africa and actions in Sicily; on to England for its pre-Normandy training on windswept Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire; and finally across France and Belgium and over the Rhine and Roer rivers into Germany.

Houston highlights the division’s most significant actions. After breaking out of the Normandy hedgerows in the summer of 1944, the division made such rapid progress against the German Fifteenth Army–sometimes attacking around the clock–that the Belgians dubbed the 2nd Armored “La Division Fie-en-Roue,” loosely translated as “hell on wheels.”

Although assigned a secondary role in the breakout at St. Lô, the division quickly had to take over the primary attack. At the Siegfried Line, the 2nd Armored faced its heaviest fighting. For two grueling months, it struggled to advance 12 miles. The tankers showed their mettle spectacularly in December 1944 when called upon, at four hours’ notice, to help reduce the “bulge” in the Ardennes. In blackout conditions and radio silence, the division advanced over icy roads and lost only 17 vehicles. Its Combat Command B surrounded and destroyed the 2nd Panzer Division, while Combat Command A and the reserve element fought elements of the 9th, 15th and Panzer Lehr divisions that were trying to rescue the 2nd Panzer. The 2nd Armored defeated the Germans and drove them several miles south, protecting the right flank of VII Corps.

The author points out that the division had the benefit of a number of outstanding commanders: Charles L. Scott, a true pioneer of armor who learned vital lessons from the British Eighth Army’s battle against the Afrika Korps in the Western Desert; George S. Patton, who stamped the 2nd Armored with his dash and aggressive spirit; Willis D. Crittenberger, who instilled pride in organization and appearance; Edward H. Brooks, an artilleryman who stressed firepower coordination; and Ernest N. Harmon, who led the division twice, in North Africa and then in France and during the Battle of the Bulge.

Originally published in 1977 and now reissued in paperback, this is a highly rewarding record of a gallant fighting unit.

Michael D. Hull