898th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion (Automatic Weapons)

Combat History

The 898th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion (Automatic Weapons) was formed from the 2d Battalion of the 209th Coast Artillery Regiment (Anti-Aircraft) on 18 March 1944. The 209th was a National Guard unit from upstate New York, primarily from the Buffalo area, and was augmented by personnel from the 121st Cavalry Regiment, from around Rochester. The original strength of about 1,400 Guardsmen—present when the 209th was called into federal duty on 10 February 1941—eventually grew to over 4,000 by early 1944, and included officers, NCOs, and junior enlisted men of the Regular Army and the Army of the United States as well as the NY Guard.

The 209th was a distinguished unit in several ways. From its ranks came 840 enlisted men who were ultimately commissioned as officers—more than any other anti-aircraft regiment. After additional training at Camp Stewart, Georgia, the 209th, including the 2d Battalion that was to become the 898th, was the first US Army anti-aircraft regiment sent to the European Theater. The Regiment departed the New York Port of Embarkation aboard the Queen Mary on 10 May 1942 and arrived in the Firth of Clyde six days later. There, it transferred to a smaller vessel and was transported to Belfast, Northern Ireland three days later. During seven months in Ulster, the Regiment conducted both anti-aircraft training (in the vicinity of St. John’s Point, County Down) and actual anti-aircraft duty for the Lough Foyle US naval base and the Lough Erne seaplane base, as well as the city of Londonderry itself.

On 10 December 1942, the Regiment was transferred across the Irish Sea to Liverpool. Shortly thereafter, the 209th left by ship for North Africa, and arrived in Mers el Khebir, in Free French Algeria, on 3 January 1943.

From January through August, the various elements of the 209th performed anti-aircraft duties at locations across French North Africa, including Oran and Algiers in Algeria and Ouijda, French Morocco. For these activities, the Regiment was awarded campaign participation credit for the Tunisian campaign, which ended with the capitulation of the Germans’ Army Group Afrika in mid-May 1943.

After training with the 1st Armored Division in Algeria in September and October, the 209th sailed with the “Old Ironsides” Division to Italy, where it arrived in Naples on 28 October. By mid-November, as the Fifth Army attacked the German “Winter Line,” the Regiment was deployed for anti-aircraft duty in the vicinity of Vitulazio, about 21 miles north of Naples. There, the men of the 209th encountered their first major German air raid. On 20 November, crews of the 209th shot three Focke-Wulf 190s out of the Campanian sky to tally the Regiment’s first kills of the War.

After II Corps penetrated the Winter Line and reached the southern banks of the Rapido River—the edge of the next major belt of German fortifications, the “Gustav Line”—the 209th displaced forward to occupy anti-aircraft firing positions in the vicinity of Venafro. There, on 3 January 1944, the 209th claimed four more German aircraft, this time Messerschmidt Bf-109s.

As the Fifth Army’s II Corps and British X Corps battled to breach the Gustav Line, US VI Corps landed at Anzio in late January in an attempt to outflank the formidable German defenses further south. However, the VI Corps was quickly bottled up and the main effort again turned to penetrating the Gustav Line. After four more months of ferocious and costly fighting across the entire Italian Peninsula, in mid-May, Allied forces south of Anzio launched Operation DIADEM, in which French troops achieved a breakthrough of the Gustav Line near Sant’ Ambrogio, and units of the Polish Corps did the same at Monte Cassino.

Throughout this period, the 209th provided protection against low-flying German aircraft in the vicinity of San Pietro and Mignano. On 18 March, elements of the Regiment’s 2d Battalion were detached and became the 898th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion (Automatic Weapons), and the 209th was redesignated as the 209th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Group. From early-April through mid-May, the 898th was deployed for anti-aircraft defense near Montesarchio, Castel Volturno, and Biai.

As Allied forces broke through the Adolf Hitler Line and the Anzio beachhead to the north, the 898th advanced with the Fifth Army to successive firing positions south of Rome (Itri, Borge Faiti - Littoria) and, after the city fell on 5 June, north of the city, in Tuscany (Santa Marinella, Montaltro di Castro, Morrona, Grosseto, Fauglia, Valtriano).

From 25 July to 13 August 1944, the 898th served on the Arno River Line as a provisional infantry battalion, engaging German infantry and mountain infantry units. Missions included defending fixed positions, ambush and reconnaissance patrols, and firing harrassing and interdictory missions with machine guns and mortars. During this period, the battalion suffered more casualties than in the rest of the war combined.

In mid-August, the 898th was withdrawn from action and moved to the vicinity of Naples, where it prepared for shipment to Ajaccio, Corsica. Throughout August, September, and most of October, the Battalion conducted anti-aircraft training on the island. However, in recognition of the growing shortage of infantrymen in the European Theater and the air superiority—and even air supremacy—being enjoyed by US forces almost everywhere in the ETO, the 898th also conducted infantry training while on Corsica.

Finally, on 24 October, the 898th departed the Corsican port of Propriano aboard LST 288, bound for Marseilles. The Battalion landed two days later, marshalled, and moved north to join the 100th Infantry Division, elements of which (Combat Team 399) were already in combat near La Salle by the time the 898th joined them on 5 November. From that day until the end of the war in Europe, the 898th would be attached to the 100th: its soldiers would endure the same hardships, participate in the same battles; and play an important role in the same victories as the Centurymen they supported.

Crew of an M1 40mm Gun in position near Epinal, autumn, 1944. (US Army Military History Institute)

As the 397th and 399th Infantry Regiments opened the VI Corps attack on the German Winter Line in the High Vosges the 898th deployed its 40mm cannon and quad .50-caliber machine guns to defend the four field artillery battalions of the 100th DIVARTY. As the Centurymen of the Division’s three infantry regiments broke through the deeply-ensconced defenders of the 708th Volks-Grenadier Division, the 898th fought off at least eight sorties by Bf-109s which broke out of the low cloud cover to threaten the Division rear.

On 3 December, as the Division pursued delaying elements of the 361st Volks- Grenadier Division north through the Low Vosges quad .50-caliber and 40mm cannon crews of Battery B/898th engaged a Messerschmidt Bf-109 over Bouxwiller (18 kilometers south-southeast of Mouterhouse) and scored a probable kill on the German attacker.

Crew of an M51 "Quad Fifty" scans the low-ceilinged winter sky for attacking German aircraft. (US Army Military History Institute)

Over the next three weeks, the crews of the 898th’s guns displaced ever forward, continuing to provide local anti-aircraft defense for the gunners of DIVARTY while they pummelled the Grenadiers barring the way to Bitche. Hostile air activity was practically non-existent in the Division area during this period; the Luftwaffe was hoarding its dwindling fuel and depleted ranks of pilots for use in the Ardennes Offensive, which began in mid-December in the US First Army area. When, like the rest of the Seventh Army, the 100th Infantry Division suspended its offensive operations and went over to the defensive as a result of the great German attacks in the north, the 898th took up anti-aircraft positions throughout the Division area, with the Battalion CP moving up to St. Louis-les Bitche from Wingen-sur-Moder on 23 December.

A "deuce and a half" (2 1/2 ton capacity) prime mover and an 898th AAA crew haul their M1 40mm gun through the late autumn mud, early December 1944. (SOC)

Even before the Germans’ Army Group G launched Operation NORDWIND, the last Wehrmacht offensive in the West just before midnight on the last New Year’s Eve of World War II, the 898th had been engaging a puzzling array of aircraft. This pattern continued throughout January, and has been a source of rumor and speculation by thousands of veterans of not only the 100th and its supporting units since the war, but by veterans of adjacent units—such as the 44th, 45th, 63rd and 70th Infantry Divisions—as well.

Beginning on 29 December, Batteries B and C began engaging flights of P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers attacking targets within the 100th Infantry Division sector. At first, these were assumed to be captured American aircraft flown by German pilots; indeed, the Germans did have a aerial special operations unit (Kampfgeschwader 200) which operated a number of captured (crash-landed and rebuilt from parts) US Army Air Forces aircraft, but there is little reason to believe that these were used in such mundane roles as strafing or bombing US artillery positions. Although this unit’s activities were shrouded in secrecy during the war, no post-war evidence has ever been gathered that indicates that captured Allied aircraft were ever used in ground-attack missions by the Luftwaffe.

Circumstantial evidence also mitigates against the use of captured USAAF fighter- bombers against the 100th Infantry Division from December 1944 forward. As an operational security measure, even the ground units of Army Group G which were to attack on New Year’s Eve were strictly forbidden to conduct even the most minor reconnaissance missions in preparation for their upcoming offensive. (The infantrymen of the 100th who watched the attackers run straight into minefields in the initial phases of the offensive witnessed the consequences of this German command decision!) It is, therefore, extremely unlikely that precious, rare assets of the Luftwaffe such as meticulously reconstructed Thunderbolts would be used to attack American positions that were about to be attacked by units which were utterly dependent on the element of surprise for their offensive’s success!

Finally, the sheer quantity of aircraft involved in some of the attacks on the 100th’s sector practically preclude the possiblity that these were German-flown aircraft. While clear evidence has been established of the Germans’ possession of a handful of flyable Allied aircraft of many types (including P-51s and P-47s), there is absolutely no indication that the Germans would have been capable of launching strikes in squadron (+) strength, such as the raids by 18 P-47s on Enchenberg on 2 January or 10 more P-47s later that same day against Division positions near Bining.

The unfortunate conclusion which must be reached is that these attacks were mistakenly mounted by American pilots. On 30 December, raids by six P-47s killed seven Americans and wounded six more. The heaviest attacks, on 2 January (43 P-47 and P-51 sorties against 100th Infantry Division targets in the Enchenberg, Bining, Petit-Réderching, Rahling, and Montbronn areas) could at least reasonably be attributed to USAAF fighter-bomber pilots zealously pitching in to defeat the attacks by XIII SS Corps on the Division’s left flank and XC Corps on the Division’s right. Ground troops and even tanks and artillery pieces are difficult to identify precisely at 300 miles per hour and several thousand feet of altitude. The paucity of close air support which had been available to the Seventh Army throughout its autumn campaign—due to bad weather, heavily-wooded terrain, and SHAEF priorities elsewhere—had done little to sharpen the air-ground cooperation skills of either the pilots of the supporting XII Tactical Air Command or the leaders and crews of Seventh Army ground maneuver elements. The results were that numerous 100th Infantry Division positions were attacked by friendly aircraft on 1, 2, and 5 January 1945, and that these errant aircraft were engaged by all four firing batteries of the 898th AAA Battalion (Auto Weapons) with hundreds of rounds of 40mm and thousands of rounds of .50-caliber ammunition during this period of intense combat.

A Seventh Army convoy rumbles through the snow of the worst winter in Alsace in 50 years, with a "Quad Fifty" for rear security, January 1945.(US Army Military History Institute)

Adding to the confusion and turmoil of this period is the undeniable fact that there were some Luftwaffe attacks in support of the German ground effort. On 1 and 2 January, flights of Bf-109 fighters attacked Division rear area positions near Bining; on 2 January, one of the Messerschmidts was confirmed shot down by Battery B. Two more Messerschmidt sorties were noted on 5 January, but after this date, as the Germans’ NORDWIND thrust was contained, Luftwaffe air activity diminished to nil in the 100th’s sector throughout the remainder of the month. Fortunately, so did the US Army Air Force’s!

Neither the 898th nor the 100th had seen their last aerial “friendly fire” incidents, however. On 22 January and again a week later, Century Division positions around Petit-Réderching, Bining, Enchenberg, and Montbronn were subjected to strafing and even bombing attacks by P-47s and P-51s; Battery D was awarded official credit for shooting down one of a flight of four Mustangs which attacked 397th Infantry positions around Petit-Réderching on 29 January!

In preparation for the Seventh Army’s final drive through the Westwall and across the Rhine, Operation UNDERTONE, XII TAC fighter-bombers began preparatory attacks two days before the scheduled jump-off. Again, in addition to attacking German targets around Bitche, dozens of USAAF fighter-bombers mistakenly hit positions in the 100th’s area. Once again, the crews of the 898th did their best to beat them back. On 13 March, Battery D was awarded a confirmed kill of a P-47 attacking Division positions around Enchenberg, and three of the other seven attacking American aircraft were observed sustaining hits from both 40mm and quad .50-caliber rounds.

Fortunately for all concerned, German defenses quickly crumbled once the ground offensive began on 15 March, and after this date, no aerial targets were observed or engaged by 898th crews anywhere in the Division’s rapidly-evolving area of operations for the remainder of the month.

The last anti-aircraft activity of the war for the 898th came in the month of April, when, as the Battalion intelligence summary for the month put it, “The Luftwaffe was aggressive” in its last-ditch defense of the Fatherland. On 1, 2, and 7 April, various German aircraft were engaged, albeit to no effect, near Illgen, Liemen, and Schwetzingen. Interestingly, several of these aircraft included jets, such as the famous Me-262 twin-engine fighter and the lesser-known Arado AR-234 light bomber. A large formation—huge, at this stage of the war—of 14 Bf-109s was engaged near Horrenberg on 2 April, and a single Junkers JU-88 made an appearance on the 7th to round out Luftwaffe’s air activity in the 100th’s zone as the Division charged across the Rhine and into Swabia to the southeast.

The final important combat mission of WWII for the 898th came as the Battalion supported the 100th’s assault crossing of the Neckar River at Heilbronn, 4 - 11 April 1945. Elements of the battalion provided anti-aircraft defense of the crossing sites, which were already under fierce attack from German artillery ranged to the east of the city. Fortunately, no German air threat materialized to further hamper the Division’s difficult crossing operations.

The crew of an 898th AAA "Quad Fifty" on the alert for attacking Bf109s, FW190s, or . . . P47s or P51s! (SOC)

Throughout its combat service, capped by a six-month attachment for operations to the 100th Infantry Division, the 898th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion (Automatic Weapons) performed its various missions in an exemplary fashion. As part of the very first Coast Artillery Anti-Aircraft regiment deployed to the European Theater, it was in combat much longer than most; whether protecting ports in North Africa, airfields in Italy, field artillery positions in the Vosges Mountains, river crossing sites in Germany, or even while serving as a provisional infantry battalion on the Arno River, the men of the 898th served with distinction. The 100th Infantry Division, threatened by its own forces’ aircraft more than by the Luftwaffe, was nevertheless fortunate to have such an experienced, battle-hardened, and supremely competent unit to provide its anti-aircraft defense from the Meurthe to the Neckar and beyond.

Sources: Battalion operations and intelligence records in the National Archives boxes 407 427 17459 and 17460, and other records graciously provided by Mr. John Merchant, a WWII combat veteran of the 209th Coast Artillery Regiment (Anti-Aircraft).