This post was written by Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab.
Ten months after the D-Day invasion, Allied forces were sweeping through western Europe. Germany in April 1945 is often depicted as the Allies capturing scattered Axis soldiers and liberating citizens from the clutches of the Third Reich. Small offensives, cutting supply lines, and rounding up fractured German units was far from the reality of the situation, however. American troops encountered some of the most tenacious and ruthless fighting of the war and faced the cruelest and vilest of human nature as they liberated concentration camps throughout the region.
The culmination of the war in Europe brought with it the most mechanized force the planet had ever seen with the sheer firepower of the United States military. In spite of Allied superiority in weaponry, divisions often had to fight in close quarters with hand-to-hand combat. Limited maneuverability in small German towns resulted in heavy losses. The men fighting in Germany were either battle-hardened or green recruits, but all of them were sleepless and racing to end the war at breakneck speed. The new feature film, Fury, depicts the last month of the war in these startlingly real terms.
Fury’s fictionalized account of events at the end of the war focus on a small platoon within the 2nd Armored Division. The 2nd Armored Division was created in July 1940 under the command of then Colonel George S. Patton. Parts of the division were among the first U.S. military armored divisions serving in North Africa when they landed at Casablanca on November 8, 1942. After nine months the division moved on to Sicily in July of 1943. On June 9, 1944, the 2nd Armored Division landed on Omaha Beach in the invasion of the Normandy. There the division known as “Hell on Wheels” fought the Germans near Avranches and then crossed through France as part of the Third Army before reaching Germany in September 1944. The 2nd Armored Division was the first to reach the Elbe River in mid-April 1945, which is where the Fury story begins.
During their period of service in World War II, the 2nd Armored Division took 76,963 prisoners of war, liberated tens of thousands of Allied POWs, and destroyed or captured thousands of enemy tanks, including Panzers and Tigers. Between 1942 and 1945, the 2nd Armored Division lost 1,160 men in battle.
To get a sense of what the men of the Armored Divisions experienced as they fought to end the war, we can look to the Universal Newsreel Collection and see the stories the public was shown at the time. While there may not be specific footage of the 2nd Armored Division, these Universal News stories feature tank warfare in Germany during April 1945.
The Sherman Crab (aka Sherman M4 with Mine Flail) clears mines. Sherman tanks and infantry take Koblenz. [From 3:10 to 5:00] (Local Identifier: UN-UN-18-387)
Release date: April 5, 1945
Tank warfare, taking German POWs, and rocket attacks by The Third Army. [From 3:57 to 5:36] (Local Identifier: UN-UN-18-388)
Release date: April 9, 1945
Allied troops taking cities in West Germany, trying to keep the peace in conquered cities, and liberating work camps. [From 2:14 to 5:32] (Local Identifier: UN-UN-18-392)
Release date: April 23, 1945
The tank battles in Fury feature face-offs between the M4 Sherman and German Tiger tanks. Tank warfare was an integral part of the war in Europe and mechanization for the war effort occurred rapidly. At the start of the war, U.S. forces had only a handful of tanks in use even though light tanks had been in production since 1940. Medium M2 and M3 tanks, among others, soon went into production, first to supply to Britain, and later for use by the U.S. Army.
The new M4 Sherman rolled off the line in 1942 and was first employed in North Africa. Until the German Panzers up-gunned to 75mm L/48s in mid-1944, the M4 Sherman was clearly superior. New tanks introduced by Germany were a significant threat: the Panther and Tiger tanks had stronger armor and a longer firing range with more penetrating power and higher accuracy. The Shermans were not back on equal footing with German tanks until 76mm guns were added in December of 1944. While the Shermans were not as well armored as the German tanks they were much easier to maneuver and more adaptable so that tanks could be fitted with bulldozer blades (Sherman Dozer), rocket launchers (T34 Calliope), flame throwers (M4A3R3 Flame), and mine flails (Sherman Crab).
What is captured by Fury, that isn’t included in the Universal Newsreels is how horrific the conditions were that men faced at the end of the war. The Volkssturm protecting the towns in Germany, mainly made up of older men and Hitler Youth, were relentless and fanatical in their attempt to hold out against The Third Army. While the Allies won the day in the long run, they paid dearly for the honor in men, minds, and morale.