Sunday, August 27, 2006


This weekend, Friday 25th, Saturday 26th and Sunday 27th, the city of Mons in southwest Belgium commemmorates its liberation by the US 3rd Armored "Spearhead" Divison, event which took place on September 2nd/3rd 1944.

Tanks in Town, Mons 2005

It's always a huge spectacle since Mons and surroundings are every time visited by tens of period vehicles, many of which are US combat tanks of that time: Shermans of course, but also Chaffees, tank destroyers, Honeys, and, a bit erroneous, Pershings, since that type didn't enter action until late February 1945. The photo above gives an impression of Mons' main square taken in completely by all kinds of wheeled and tracked vehicles in use by US divisions in the ETO (European Theatre of Operations) in '44-'45. Responsible for the organization of Tanks in Town, is the Royal Mons Auto Moto Club, and the photos on display here are from them. Unfortunately they are not from this year's event, but of that of 2005. Couldn't make it there.

James W. Carroll, first GI in BelgiumMons, pop. 91,000, is quite an amiable place with a picturesque town centre and a fair share of beautiful historical buildings. While there's little industry, it is important as an educational centre since there are a lot of colleges and a university. It is also the centre of the Borinage region, and old coal basin lying along the French/Belgian border. In early September 1944, that border was crossed en masse by rapidly advancing US units which had just all but destroyed a huge body of German armor and infantry in the notorious Falaise pocket in Normandy, France. The photo to the right shows the very first GI to cross the border, PFC James W. Carroll, a scout of the 628th Tank Destroyer Battalion, on his trusted Harley Davidson WLA. Because 3rd Armored had more WLA's in service (some 300 plus) than Shermans, it could be argued that the Spearhead should rather be called the 3rd Armored Hell's Angels division! Actually, Tanks in Town is also made possible by the WLA association, which groups Harley Davidson WLA aficionados from around the world (the HD WLA was the most widely used motorbike by the US Army in Europe).

While the Falaise pocket was real bad for the Germans, with 50,000 KIA and an enormous lot of matériel ruined, the Germans fared little better at Mons, where they underwent a similar catastrophe, albeit on a smaller scale. In the process of liberating the city, the Spearhead and accompanying units bagged some 40,000 troops in the so-called Poche de Mons, including the remnants of the 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen. While Hohenstaufen offered fierce resistance and its remaining 88mm guns took out a large number of US tanks, overall it was another catastrophe for the Nazis. In just two days, September 2nd and 3rd, they lost 30,000 men either dead, wounded or taken prisoner, including three generals. Among the 10,000 which managed to escape was 9th SS Panzer, now only 3,600 "strong" and guided out of the carnage by its Chief of Staff Obersturmbannfuehrer (Lt. Col.) Walter Harzer, since the commanding general, Sylvester Stadler, had been gravely wounded in battle. Hohenstaufen was so badly mauled that in all likelihood it had no tanks left. Still, its remaining infantry and a few armored cars and self-propelled guns would prove pivotal in repelling the British paratroopers at Arnhem, barely three weeks later. But that is another story. The photo below shows an armoured Tanks in Town column consisting mainly of Shermans on a road just outside Mons, 2005.

Tanks in Town, Mons 2005

Notice how, as time goes by, we so quickly get used to the successive camo and colours of the US military. When I first saw the "pajama" camo now in use by US ground troops I had a little trouble seeing its advantage over the desert camo used during OIF. And now the large kevlar helmets and sandy colours and patterns look almost archaic. Back then, see photo, it was all olive green and khaki. While the olive green for the tanks wasn't that bad, one can guess that at some point some smartass high up in the Pentagon must have concluded to dispense with the large white stars. Too good a marker for an anti-tank round I suppose.


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