THANKS to Bridport historian Jane Ferentzi-Sheppard for sending us this reminder of the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the Leopoldville – it is a story dear to her heart at her father was in the US 66th Infantry Division involved.

Ten years ago the 60th anniversary was marked with tree planting.

Ms Ferentzi-Sheppard said: “I am in touch with the owners of the Piddlehinton Enterprise Park and the trees that were planted 10 years ago are coming along and we plan a commemoration there at the end of January.

“We hope to put a board there explaining who the 66 Division were and what happened to them.”

This is their story: In later November 1944, part of the US 66th Infantry Division arrived in Dorset, these included the 262, 263 & 264 Infantry Regiments, they were joined by the rest of the Division including reconnaissance, medical, artillery and special troops and a band on December 12, bringing the total to 5,500.

The men were stationed all over West Dorset, including Piddlehinton Camp, Marabout Barracks, Maumbury Rings and Poundbury in Dorchester, Bridport and Lyme Regis. They spent the time training in the Dorset countryside preparing to cross over to France and join the Allies.

They were nicknamed the Black Panther Division because of their very distinctive shoulder patch.

The Division was activated in July of 1943 and had done extensive training in the US, but was always losing men to be back up troops for the troops in Europe, so many of those who came to Dorset were very young, 18 to 21 years old and having only recently joined the army.

There were opportunities to meet the local girls, as this invitation to a party suggests. The young men threw themselves into a social life in rural Dorset. On December 8, Company I, 262 Infantry held a ‘Hello England’ party.

The notice read, The boys of Company I are at it again.

They’re reeling and rocking and filled with vim.

They’re giving a party to celebrate, and would like to have you for a date.

So put on your party clothes, and come on down.

And we’ll show you how to go to town.

Everyone was getting ready to celebrate Christmas in Dorset and several Christmas parties for local children were being planned, some had even spent a few days in London.

The events in the Ardennes on December 16 meant the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ had begun and the Division’s time in England was drawing to a close.

At Piddlehinton many small parties had been arranged for the evening of 23rd December, to which local girls had been invited, there was to be a good supply of beer and dance music.

A Christmas tree had transformed the mess hall and the cooks had begun roasting the turkeys when the order to pull out arrived.

John Koch, 18, Company D, 262 Infantry Regiment, from Indiana, remembers the three weeks of training in the beautiful rolling fields around Dorchester.

He was on guard duty at the Keep, Marabout Barracks, on the morning of 23 December 1944 when they were put on alert and told they were going to be shipped out.

At noon the order came for them to be ready to move out by 6pm that evening. Trains were waiting in Dorchester to take the troops to Southampton.

By 2am on Sunday 24th December John Koch was standing on the pier at Southampton. Two ships were waiting the SS Leopoldville and HMS Cheshire for the troops to board one was nearer than the other.

By sheer chance John and his group who had been standing round singing Christmas Carols, chose the nearer ship, the Cheshire. Little did they know this choice would change their lives for ever.

There had been confusion in the loading of the men and when they arrived in Southampton some were separated from their squads and companies, others were returning from leave.

Men from the 264 and 262 Regiments except Companies A,B,C & D of the 262, were on the Leopoldville, the 263 Regiment and the rest of the 262 were on the Cheshire.

The ships were filled to capacity with about 2,500 troops each aboard. They were joined on the crossing by a small convoy of British ships which included HMS Brilliant.

The sea was rough and crossing long, suddenly about five miles out of Cherbourg tragedy struck.

The Leopoldville was hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat.

There was a delay in getting rescue ships there and the ship sank with the loss of 763 GIs, some 493 bodies were never found.

The destroyer HMS Brilliant came alongside, Bob Clothier from Maiden Newton remembers how difficult it was.

He said: “Ropes were thrown at the Leopoldville and we encouraged the men to jump. We rescued as many as we could but the sea was very rough and the two ships kept banging against each other, but we took about 750 survivors.”

The story of the Leopoldville disaster remained untold for nearly 50 years, families had no idea what had happened to their loved ones.

Information remained classified and only slowly came to light.

The Division was now not a full combat team so were sent to relieve the 94th Division in the St Nazaire and Lorient areas of Brittany instead of to the Ardennes.

Some 28,000 Germans were defending their submarine bases and pens. The Division was involved in frequent ambush patrols for prisoners to interrogate and reconnaissance patrols to learn about gun positions. Fierce fighting took place until the official surrender on the 10 May, 1945. The Division was then moved to Germany on occupation duty, then to Marseille and sailed home on 27th October 1945. The total casualties for the 66 Division were 1,947 and 268 wounded.

On December 23, 2004, 60 years to the day that the troops left, 800 trees were planted at Piddlehinton Camp, now an Enterprise Park, in memory of those young GIs who lost their lives on Christmas Eve 1944.

Bob Clothier (HMS Brilliant) was a guest and planted one of the trees. I planted a tree on behalf of the ‘Panther Veterans Organisation’ and the American Embassy was represented by Lt Col Rich Gibbons who expressed gratitude on behalf of the US government for what had been done in memory of the American soldiers who died. The beech trees will be a permanent memorial to those ‘boys’ who visited Dorset for five short weeks in 1944.

This article was published in the book ‘Remembering World War II – West Dorset at War’,dedicated to the men of Co B, 262nd Infantry Regiment and John Koch, Co D, 262 who all boarded the Cheshire that night and changed their lives forever and to those 763 GIs who lost their lives on the Leopoldville.