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Testing 100 miles in motion: the Signal Corps in Europe/North Africa
by Carol Stokes
Described as a "war of material and machines," World War II precipitated a revolution in communications technology and consequently in the Signal Corps.
Totally different from World War I's static trench-fighting, this conflict involved rapidly moving people and equipment as the Allies pursued the enemy across North Africa and Europe. Regardless of terrain, communications were critical for coordinating the activities of the mobile armies that pursued the Axis enemy across a continent in World War II.
A signals war
"This is a signals war," observed BG Jerry Matejka, who foresaw the undeniable importance of rapid communications in the war's early stages.
The Mediterranean campaign, encompassing North Africa, Sicily and Italy, was the first phase of the Allies' drive to liberate Europe. This early test of the Signal Corps was not disappointing, although allied combat troops didn't initially appreciate early microwave and radar equipment. "Planning the proper radar coverage caused us some headaches," Matejka later recalled.
He attributed the primary difficulties to geographic differences between American and British soldiers. Cooperation between the groups eventually swayed British opinion of American radar communications equipment, and it was judged excellent.
Even more important, it brought increased respect for Army communicators as combat commanders realized what they had to contribute to the war effort. Communications equipment became commanders' link to integrated warfare. Through its advances, creative commanders began to realize an almost-unlimited potential for successful missions.
With radio and radar, commanders were able to communicate with their troops while they were moving in vehicles advancing into battle. During battle, they could communicate with their higher headquarters, providing them with up-to-the-minute reports and statistics to enhance their decisions.
North Africa success
Official Army histories extol signal units' contributions to the successful North African campaign. Among those mentioned in Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West by George Howe was 829th Signal Battalion. On D-day+1 of the North Africa invasion, 829th's C Company was instrumental in establishing communications between the western task force and the Allied command post at Gibraltar.
Communications with Oran were established Nov. 10 via SCR-188 and SCR-199 radio sets. On the drive from the invasion site to Casablanca, 239th Signal Operation Company manned the French telephone switchboard in Fedala and provided commercial circuits to units approaching Casablanca. No other wire communications were available, for no field wire or related equipment had yet been landed.
Signal Corps units were integral to combat forces who landed on the beaches. For example, a detachment of 141st Armored Signal Company was part of the support element that went ashore with 13th Armored Regiment at Mersa bou Zedjar, the westernmost beachhead of the North Africa invasion. As engineers constructed roadways over the sand and medics set up first-aid stations, signalers linked the beachhead with the various combat commands' headquarters.
The 141st Armored Signal Company, 141st Signal Company and 9th Signal Company also saw action in this first phase of the liberation of North Africa and the European continent.
The American Army moved on to nearby locations on the continent. The invasion of Sicily and Italy challenged the Signal Corps to the limit, since armored as well as infantry demands grew.
Armored commanders had learned many lessons from North Africa; they realized from their experiences their units would require as much, if not more, wire and cable as infantry did to meet their European-theater communication requirements.
Army communicators' labors included installing and maintaining combined military telephone and teletypewriter networks of 2,209 open-wire route miles; 1,750 cable route miles; 78,499 telephone circuits; 43,013 teletype circuit miles; 10,654 telephone-switchboard lines; exclusive tactical-headquarters boards and boards of less than 50 lines; 9,393 telephones; and 144 teletype-network switchboard positions serving 849 individual teletype machines.
By the end of the campaign to liberate Sicily and Italy, almost 9,000 7th Army Signal Corps troops rehabilitated 4,916 miles of telephone wire; laid almost 1,800 miles of spiral-four cable; and handled more than 8,000 radio messages.
The Signal Corps saw action during the Normandy invasion June 6, 1944. For example, 3103th Signal Service Battalion, set up in southeast England, helped deflect German resistance to the landing. By simulating a radio net, the 3103th did its part to convince the Germans the real invasion site wouldn't be Normandy but in Pas-de-Calais.
Members of 294th and 286th Joint Assault Signal Companies made the Normandy beachhead on foot and by parachute with 101st Airborne Division. The 165th Signal Photographic Company came ashore with the first infantry elements at nearby Omaha Beach. Unfortunately, the 165th's commanding officer, Capt. Herman Wall, was the first Signal Corps member to be wounded in action during the Normandy invasion.
On D-day, 926th Signal Battalion radio operators worked on the landing ships, keeping 8th and 9th Air Force headquarters in England informed about action over the beaches. Men of the 926th waded ashore on D-day+2 to establish landlines among U.S. positions. On D-day+5, the 926th's teletype communications connected France and headquarters in England via FM radio equipment. Within a week of D-day, radio, wire and teleprinter circuits provided reliable communications links for all headquarters and Army echelons.
The Signal Corps continued to provide communications support as the struggle to free Europe progressed. Its tasks covered a broad spectrum. For example, 36th Signal Heavy Construction Battalion, using four assault boats lashed together, laid 1,600 feet of open wire across the Rhine between Urmitz and Engers. This open-wire span, one of the longest in the world, was completed in 11 days. (The men christened it the "Harry C. Ingles Span" in honor of the Chief Signal Officer.)
Signal units in many locations performed an endless variety of tasks. One of those, 926th Signal Battalion (Separate), linked air headquarters and fighter control stations with airfields sometimes 200 miles apart. Its construction companies provided wire links from fighter control to advance radar units using clerks, supply men and motor mechanics as linemen.
Little more than a month after D-day, the 926th supported the 8th and 9th Air Forces and the Royal Air Force at St. Lo. It was at that location July 25 in France that some 4,000 airplanes bombed the town to rubble. (BG Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was killed at St. Lo by American bombs that missed their target.)
Another signal organization, 555th Signal Aircraft Warning Battalion, typical of that type of unit, operated communications lines that controlled 3,500 aircraft missions. Maintenance men of a ground unit, 143d Armored Signal Company, performed 10,000 repair jobs on more than 1,700 radios in less than a year. The going was tough in Stolberg, Germany, 143d crews worked in dugouts. In fact, 143d soldiers often worked near the front lines as its parent, 3d Armored Division, crossed Europe.
Describing Allied battles in France, Army historian Charles MacDonald called communications "a bright spot." Pointing out that radio was often the sole means of communication, he described the SCR-300 as "work(ing) almost perfectly." Writing about a river crossing by 23d Armored Infantry Battalion, he painted a picture of communicators under fire, using SCR-300s as well as backup SCR-284 and SCR-536s to keep the combat forces on the air.
Danger was always imminent. Sometimes luck was with the communicators. The men of 3188th Signal Service Battalion were extremely fortunate; they survived the Dec. 8, 1944, sinking of troopship HMS Empire Javelin in the English Channel.
The battalion, among others, went on to operate communications systems in France, Belgium and Germany. At one point, the 3188th performed its duties simultaneously at seven locations. Its soldiers worked on switchboards and typewriters, with its repair and maintenance teams and detachments scattered throughout the theater. Near the end of the war, 3188th teams were working in four countries France, Belgium, Germany and Italy.
In World War II, little was typical in the Signal Corps' missions. They faced never-dreamed-of challenges at every echelon corps, division, battalion or lower. Regardless of location or terrain, communications were critical, and they were provided. From North Africa, through Sicily, Italy, across France into Germany, the Signal Corps was there until victory in Europe.
Dr. Stokes is U.S. Army Signal Center and Fort Gordon's command historian.
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