DESIGNATION: French 2nd Armored Division
ACTIVATION: August 24, 1943
CAMPAIGNS: France and Germany
As part of its efforts to revive the French military following the disaster of 1940, the United States equipped 19 French air squadrons and carried out an extensive rehabilitation program for the French navy. Just as important, it fully equipped and trained eight French divisions in North Africa and, after the landings in Southern France in August 1944, partially outfitted and trained an additional three divisions. Of those ground units, three were armored divisions that were organized and equipped on the model of similar U.S. armored formations organized after 1943. One, the 2nd Armored Division, or 2ème Division Blindée, was raised in North Africa on August 24, 1943, as part of the reorganization of the French Army of Africa.
The 2nd Armored Division had originated with elements of the 2nd Free French Light Division, which had first been formed from Free French Forces operating in Chad. Initially assembled in Morocco, the division was fortified with units drawn from the Army of Africa, North African conscripts and volunteers who had come from France via Spain.
With a strength of 16,000 men, the 2nd was completely reequipped by the United States with some 250 M4A2 Sherman and 63 M3A3 Stuart tanks, 216 M3 halftracks, 126 artillery and antitank guns, more than 2,000 trucks and almost 400 jeeps and light cars. The division was organized around three battalion-size armored regiments, each with a headquarters squadron, a squadron of Stuart light tanks and three squadrons of Shermans. Each squadron had three platoons of five tanks each and two command tanks. The supporting infantry regiment was composed of 80 officers and 2,340 men, including 170 Africans.
A slight variation from an American division’s organization was the 2nd’s lack of a permanent regimental headquarters; instead each battalion operated independently within Groupements Tactiques (tactical groups). To facilitate liaison with adjacent U.S. units, the French division was assigned a senior U.S. adviser, Major Robert M. Luminaski. According to the official U.S. history of the rearming of the French in World War II, his performance “drew from the French no small degree of admiration.”
Command of the division was entrusted to Maj. Gen. Philippe Leclerc de Hautecloque. To inspire his new command, the regiments in the 2nd were given the designations of some of France’s most illustrious units, including, the 12th Cuirassier Regiment, 12th African Rifles Regiment, the 501st Tank Regiment, 1st Chad Marching Regiment, 1st Moroccan Spahi Marching Regiment, Marines Armored Regiment, 1st Battalion of the 3rd Colonial Artillery Regiment, 1st Battalion of the 40th North African Artillery Regiment, 11th Battalion of the 64th Artillery Regiment, 13th Engineers Battalion and 22nd Anti-Aircraft Land Forces Group. To further stiffen the new division, these French units were supported by three American formations—the 534th Repair Company, the 841st Supply Company and the 108th Artillery Group. Like their American counterparts, the 2nd Armored fought in combat commands, which were generally composed of an armored regiment, an infantry battalion in halftracks, a group of artillery and detachments from the other arms and services as needed. Leclerc designated his Groupements Tactiques by the initial of its commander— GTD (Dio), GTL (de Langlade) and GTR (Rémy).
After training in Morocco, the 2nd was transferred to England in April 1944, where it became the supply and training responsibility of the U.S. Third Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. George Patton. On June 1, the 2nd Armored Division was assembled in the Hull area in northern England. It sailed from Southampton on July 29, and landed on French soil at last at Utah Beach on August 1.
Attached initially to U.S. Maj. Gen. Wade Haislips’ XV Corps, the division was committed to the Alençon-Argentan area on the southern flank of the Falaise pocket beginning on August 17. On August 22, it began its race to Paris, entering the French capital with the 4th U.S. Infantry Division on August 25. Between September 8 and October 9, the division continued its advance eastward with the Third Army toward the Moselle, taking Bacarrat on October 31 and reaching the foot of the Vosges Mountains. On November 11, it was committed in the Alsace offensive, breaking through the German lines at Badonviller and driving toward Saverne, which it liberated on November 22.
The next day the 2nd Armored Division entered Strasbourg, which officially marked the complete liberation of France. During the German Nordwind counteroffensive in January 1945, the division fought in Lorraine then returned to the offensive against the Colmar pocket as part of General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny’s First French Army in January and February. The 2nd Armored Division was withdrawn in February and regrouped in central France, though some of its units took part in closing the Royan pocket. Returning to the front lines in April 1945, the division was attached to the Sixth Army Group and entered southern Germany, culminating its combat operations by being among the first Allied units to enter Adolf Hitler’s Alpine retreat at Berchtesgaden and having the satisfaction of recovering tens of thousands of bottles of wine that had been looted from France in 1940. The division continued on to Diessen, Bavaria, where its war-weary members celebrated V-E Day. The division remained at Diessen until late May 1945, when it was sent home. Upon his return, Leclerc was greeted by his countrymen as a hero.
Fighting under U.S. command for the majority of its combat tour in Europe, the French 2nd Armored Division lost 1,205 men killed in action and another 3,500 wounded. All together the campaigns of France and Germany cost the French ground forces (excluding the French Forces of the Interior, the French Resistance, before their incorporation into the regular French units in October 1944) some 74,000 casualties, including 15,000 killed in action. France thus repaid America’s investment in its armed forces with blood.
Originally published in the February 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.