Week 1: Historical context
On the 6th of June 1944, the allies started an enormous military operation named ‘operation overlord’ on the Northern coast line of France in order to liberate Europe from the NAZI- occupation. This operation was a collaboration of American, Canadian, French, English soldiers. The plan was to liberate Northern France first via the coast line, and then push back the Nazi through Belgium and the Netherlands.
The Netherlands were taken into account because of the connection of the Rijn river into the industrial heart of Germany, the Ruhr area. It was a dangerous and massive operation. The landing in Normandy was tough and many soldiers lost their lives.
During the invasion of Normandy there was one unit that was an all black unit; the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion.
Watch the following video and describe what their task was during D-day
Matthew Southall Brown jr. was one of the members of this unit. On the blackliberators website his story is not yet translated but you can listen to a BBC interview with reverend Brown here:
- What does Brown mean when he says the USA had two armies?
- After the Battle of the Bulge, there was a demand for volunteers. Brown signed up because he was tired of the menial jobs the black soldiers were given. He tells about the derogatory treatment the soldiers were given and the crash training. Then he goes into combat to take out a German machine gun. Discuss his bravery:
- When the war was over the US soldiers returned to the USA where all soldiers hoped they would fall under the so-called G.I. bill. Learn more about the G.I. bill and it’s benefits on the internet and write it down.
- According to Brown, German PoW’s were better treated than black people, he talks about a bus story. He did not want to pick a fight then, but realized he had to take on another battle: what kind of battle is he referring to?
- How does Brown’s story relate to our research question?
The Battle of the Bulge
After the initial push back of the Germans, Hitler decided to launch an offensive attack in the Ardennes, known as the Battle of the Bulge. One of the German goals was to cut the supply lines for the allies. After D-day , the Us army had set up a supply line with army trucks driven by mostly black soldiers. The name of the line was the Red Ball Express. Henry Vanlandingham was one of these soldiers. Henry wrote a diary about his time in Limburg. He stayed in Berg. He writes about the segregation in the army and his interactions with the Dutch people. If you read his story, you will also learn that he had a daughter with a Dutch girl. We will have a separate lesson about the children of these soldiers.
You can read Henry's story here.
Henry Vanlandingham writes about a Dutch family he ‘adopted’; he made sure that the family of Frans got supplies and food. He felt at home in ‘The Berg’. He also discusses Dutch prejudism: what did the Dutch think about the Black soldiers at first?
- When the US army created a rest and recreation center in Valkenburg, the rules for Black soldiers changed. What does Henri say about this?
- How does Henry’s story relate to segregation in the US army?
For the US- army this became their biggest combat and many soldiers lost their lives. More importantly, the US-army had been segregated up till this moment; this meant that black soldiers and white soldiers did not fight and work together. Officially the black soldiers were not even allowed to carry weapons at first. After the Battle of the Bulge, the US army had taken an enormous hit, and black soldiers were asked to volunteer to the front.
By the end of December in 1944 the ‘2221 infantry negroe volunteers’ was formed and sent into combat.
Visit the article about the 2221 infantry negroe volunteers.
- Discuss how many soldiers died in this volunteer corps and how many are buried at Margraten cemetery?
- How was segregation still an important aspect in the army according to the text on the website?
- Try to explain how the 2221 volunteers corps might have helped the emancipation of black peoples in the USA after WWII.