Private Philip E. Crossland (1914–1944)

Philip E. Crossland (Courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives)
HometownCivilian Occupation
Wilmington, DelawareWorker at Bethlehem Steel Company’s Harlan Plant
BranchService Number
U.S. Army42082760
TheaterUnit
EuropeanCompany “K,” 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division
Military Occupational SpecialtyCampaigns/Battles
745 (rifleman)Battle of Brest

Early Life & Family

Philip E. Crossland was born at 726 East 10th Street in Wilmington, Delaware, early on the morning of September 3, 1914. He was the third child of John Earl Crossland (1883–1948) and Florence M. Crossland (née Russell, 1883–1963). His father was listed as a carpenter at the time of his birth, as a railroad shop coppersmith by 1920, and by 1930 as a car builder for a steel company (Bethlehem Steel according to his obituary).

Philip Crossland had an older sister and an older brother. He also had three younger brothers and a younger sister. The family was recorded on the census on January 6, 1920, living at 804 East 17th Street in Wilmington. They were recorded there again on the next two censuses.

The 1940 census listed Crossland as having completed two years of high school, while his enlistment data card from 1944 listed one year of high school. According to articles in Journal-Every Evening, after attending Warner Junior High School, Crossland worked at a bakery in Wilmington and then spent eight years working at the Bethlehem Steel Company’s Harlan Plant in Wilmington. Crossland was recorded as a “helper fitter” at a steel company when he was recorded on the census on April 3, 1940. Later that year, when he registered for the draft on October 16, 1940, the registrar described him as standing about five feet, 10 inches tall and weighing 138 lbs., with red hair and blue eyes. Curiously, Crossland’s enlistment data card listed his occupation as “Semiskilled occupations in manufacture of automobiles.” It is possible that the person coding the card was confused because the Harlan Plant was involved in manufacturing railcars.

Two of Crossland’s brothers also served in U.S. Army and a third in the U.S. Navy during World War II. One of them, Elmer Chandler Billingsley Crossland (1919–1990), was wounded during combat in France during the summer of 1944.


Military Career

Crossland was drafted in early 1944. He was inducted into the U.S. Army in Camden, New Jersey, on January 17, 1944. In her statement to the State of Delaware Public Archives Commission, his mother indicated that her son went on active duty at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in February 1944 and attended basic training at Camp Blanding, Florida. She wrote that he was briefly stationed at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, before he went overseas to England, where he remained about a week before moving to France.

The 29th Infantry Division landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day: June 6, 1944. The division suffered appalling casualties during the Normandy campaign. Of the 13 known Delawareans who were killed serving with the 29th Infantry Division during World War II, 10 of those men died in just the 63 days between D-Day and August 8, 1944.

The strategic picture in Northwest Europe changed drastically during the three months preceding Crossland’s arrival at the front. Allied forces managed to establish a beachhead but were bottled up in Normandy for seven weeks after D-Day. The breakout from Normandy which began with Operation Cobra on July 25, 1944, followed by the invasion of the South of France during Operation Dragoon on August 15, 1944, had sealed the fate of German forces in France; all that did not withdraw would eventually be either captured or killed. Despite their isolation, the Germans garrisoning the major ports in Brittany continued to resist, keeping those harbors closed to Allied shipping and buying time for the rest of their forces to retreat.

On August 7, 1944, American forces reached—but could not capture—the most important Breton port, Brest. Allied planners considered the capture of Brest indispensable in supplying the armies in northwest Europe. Most of the 29th Infantry Division began moving west to Brittany from Normandy on August 22, 1944, arriving on the outskirts of Brest the following day. American intelligence also discounted reports by the French Resistance, resulting in planners underestimating the strength of the German garrison. The 29th, 2nd, and 8th Infantry Divisions attacked Brest on August 25, 1944. It was slow going. Brest was surrounded by pillboxes and trenches, and, like in Normandy, fortified hedgerows.

In theory, the Americans had a logistical advantage since the Germans had to rely on the food, fuel, and ammunition that they had already stockpiled. However, the lion’s share of Allied supplies was going to support offensives well to the east. What was available had to travel overland from Normandy or by relatively small L.S.T. (Landing Ship, Tank) from England, but so long as the Germans still held the major Breton ports, the Allies could not bring in large supply ships. Artillery shells were in particularly short supply by the end of August, making it difficult to keep up the pressure against the German garrison.

Damage following combat outside Brest (Official U.S. Army Signal Corps photo courtesy of the Maryland Museum of Military History)

On August 30, 1944, Crossland and 46 other enlisted men transferred from the 48th Replacement Battalion into Company “K,” 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division. His Military Occupational Specialty (M.O.S.) was 745 (rifleman), as were all but three of the others.

In his book, Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy, Joseph Balkoski wrote:

Combat was hardest on the riflemen. Although members of 29th Division rifle companies amounted to only 5,211 men—37 percent of the division’s manpower—they suffered over 90 percent of the division’s casualties. Most 29th Division rifle companies that landed on D-Day had a near-complete turnover in personnel by mid-July.

Replacements had to quickly acclimate to both their new units and to combat. Balkoski explained:

Replacements were the army’s homeless. After a hasty separation from the units with which they had trained or fought, the lonely replacements found themselves in an unfamiliar repple depple [replacement depot], where they lost all sense of belonging to a cohesive military unit. Even new friendships made within the replacement depots were generally fleeting since it was unlikely that two buddies would be assigned to the same squad, or even the same platoon. Many replacements thought of themselves as nameless pieces of army equipment, like crates of ammunition, sent to the front and promptly consumed. […] “Being a replacement is just like being an orphan,” a rifleman recalled.

When Crossland arrived, 3rd Battalion of the 115th Infantry (including Company “K”) was the division reserve. His was among the first to experience a new approach to orienting replacements joining the 29th Infantry Division which Major General Charles H. Gerhardt (1895–1976) hoped would improve both their effectiveness and chances of survival.

In his book, From Beachhead to Brittany: The 29th Infantry Division at Brest, August – September 1944, Joseph Balkoski wrote:

At Gerhardt’s insistence, reserve units had to train nearly incessantly to sharpen their combat skills, a task that could hardly appeal to men in desperate need of rest—but which was obviously preferable to actual combat. [Major Randolph] Millholland’s 3rd Battalion, however, had a special role to fulfill because it would be the first 29th Division unit to carry out a major new policy recently formulated by Gerhardt, one that was designed to address the severe problems the division had experienced in Normandy with replacements. […] In its bivouac area near the town of Le Drévez, Millholland’s battalion would for the next few days test those ideas. Gerhardt’s directions to Millholland were specific:

NCOs [noncommissioned officers] and officers must be capable and energetic in conducting recruit training. The officer will supervise training in three prescribed battle drills, and one NCO will conduct each battle drill. One NCO will conduct training in bazookas and hand grenades, one NCO will conduct firing of rifle grenades, and one NCO will conduct firing of M-1 rifle and BAR [Browning Automatic Rifle]. Training will be for three days. The battalion will continue to train in hedgerow tactics and assault section organization and tactics.

On September 2, 1944, General Gerhardt attached 3rd Battalion of the 115th Infantry to another regiment in the 29th Infantry Division, the 175th Infantry, in order to break the deadlock on a strategic highpoint, Colline de Cocastel, known to the Americans as Hill 103. The 175th Infantry had begun their assault on the hill on August 26 and taken the summit four days later. The 175th weathered repeated German counterattacks, but neither side was able to dislodge the other. On the morning of September 3, 1944, 3rd Battalion, 115th Infantry launched their attack, with Company “I” and Crossland’s Company “K” in front. The assault was not directed at the hill itself but rather Penhoat to the southeast. 3rd Battalion’s move threatened to encircle the Germans remaining on Hill 103 and forced them to withdraw.

The Americans wasted no time in placing artillery observers atop the hill. Delighted by 3rd Battalion’s performance, General Gerhardt was determined to exploit the change in momentum, ordering them to attack the following night. They made little progress, but casualties were light.

A German pillbox at Brest which shrugged off multiple armor-piercing shells from tank destroyers and 57 mm antitank guns (Collection of Glover Johns, courtesy of the Maryland Museum of Military History)

As the American offensive continued, they gradually pushed the German defenders back to a ring of old French forts surrounding Brest. On September 12, 1944, the 115th Infantry attacked Fort Montbarey but was repulsed. (The fort finally fell four days later to an assault by another of the 29th Infantry Division’s regiments, the 116th Infantry, with the assistance of British Crocodile flame tanks, American tank destroyers, and a powerful explosive charge detonated by combat engineers.)

On September 15, 1944, the 115th Infantry attacked German fortifications near the fort. Balkoski wrote:

The 3rd Battalion, under the command of the highly respected Maj. Randy Millholland, also joined the fray in the afternoon of September 15 with orders from Colonel Smith to advance eastward from its reserve position at Coatuélen and swing in a wide arc around Fort Montbarey on its northern side. After successfully bypassing Montbarey, Millholland’s men entered the village of St. Pierre–Quilbignon against only light resistance, and there they turned sharply 90 degrees to the south, heading straight for an array of about two dozen massive subterranean oil storage tanks, about a half mile distant, which the French Navy had constructed long before the war on a narrow ridge overlooking Brest’s inner harbor. If they could capture that ridge, they would be just a long rifle shot away from the infamous submarine pens, which intelligence had reported was the nerve center of the enemy’s Brest defenses.

Darkness slowed the 3rd Battalion’s progress, but escalating enemy resistance slowed it even more. At about 9 P.M., Millholland reported to [regimental commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Louis] Smith that he was “stopped by heavy fire from the right and front.”

The German submarine pens at Brest proved nearly impervious to Allied bombing but fell when the German garrison surrendered (Courtesy of the Maryland Museum of Military History)

The 3rd Battalion journal for that day provided further glimpses into the progress of the attack:

1855 “K” and “I” companies advanced 400 to 50 yards and met much resistance from heavy fire of all kinds. One platoon of “I” company is sent to the right flank of “K” company.

1950 “K” and “L” Companies request all the hand grenades that can be possibly gotten (300 sent)(at 1930)

2005 “K” Co. asks for artillery.

2150 “K” and “I” holding positions and digging in for the night.

A Company “K” morning report stated that Private Crossland went missing in action that day, September 15, 1944. In the chaos of combat, it was only a week later, on September 22, 1944, that a company clerk noted that Crossland was missing in action as of the 15th. It wasn’t until November 3, 1944, that word reached his company that Crossland had in fact been killed.

Ruins at Brest on September 19, 1944 (Official U.S. Army Signal Corps photo 111-SC-194574, Fold3)

Mere days after Crossland’s death, on September 18, 1944, the members of the German garrison began surrendering en masse. The Battle of Brest was a Pyrrhic victory for the Americans, as the Germans had enough time to demolish Brest’s port facilities so thoroughly that they were unusable for the remainder of the war. In the end, the Allies successfully supplied their armies without the Breton ports.

Private Crossland was initially buried at a temporary cemetery at Saint-James. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. After the war, his body was reburied at the permanent cemetery at the same location, now known the Brittany American Cemetery (Plot H, Row 14, Grave 5). He is also honored at Veterans Memorial Park in New Castle, Delaware.


Notes

Middle Name

Crossland’s middle name was listed as Ellory on his birth certificate (which was altered on August 14, 1945), Elroy on his 1940 draft card, and Ellery on the 1946 statement to the State of Delaware Public Archives Commission.


Acknowledgments

Special thanks to the Delaware Public Archives and Maryland Museum of Military History for the use of their photos.


Bibliography

“Airborne Officer Killed In Holland.” Journal-Every Evening, October 14, 1944. Pg. 1 and 4. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/93812663/crossland-mia/

Balkoski, Joseph. Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy. Revised ed. Stackpole Books, 2005.

Balkoski, Joseph. From Beachhead to Brittany: The 29th Infantry Division at Brest, August – September 1944. Stackpole Books, 2008.

“City GI Killed In Assault Against Leyte.” Journal-Every Evening, December 2, 1944. Pg. 1 and 3. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/93813412/crossland-kia/

Crossland, Florence M. Philip Ellery Crossland Individual Military Service Record, April 3, 1946. Record Group 1325-003-053, Record of Delawareans Who Died in World War II.  Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware. https://cdm16397.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15323coll6/id/18277/rec/2

Elmer Chandler Billingsley Crossland birth certificate. Record Group 1500-008-094, Birth certificates. Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware. https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-DTZW-NC6?i=270

“Florence M. Russell Crossland.” Find a Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/134431689/florence-m-crossland

“Harlan & Hollingsworth.” Builders of Wooden Railway Cars website. Updated April 9, 2006. https://www.midcontinent.org/rollingstock/builders/harlan-hollingsworth1.htm

Headstone Inscription and Interment Records for U.S. Military Cemeteries on Foreign Soil, 1942–1949. Record Group 117, Records of the American Battle Monuments Commission, 1918–c. 1995. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/9170/images/42861_647350_0538-00393

“John E. Crossland.” Journal-Every Evening, October 8, 1948. Pg. 23. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/93808155/john-e-crossland-obit/

“Journal 3rd. Bn., 115th Infantry September 13–17, 1944.” Maryland Museum of Military History, Baltimore, Maryland.

Philip Ellory Crossland birth certificate. Record Group 1500-008-094, Birth certificates. Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware. https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-69C9-YWH

“State Casualty List Includes Three Killed.” Journal-Every Evening, October 5, 1944. Pg. 1 and 14. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/108235654/elmer-crossland-wounded/

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6061/images/4295770-00209, https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6061/images/4295770-00210

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6224/images/4531892_01010

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2442/images/m-t0627-00551-00694

World War II Army Enlistment Records. Record Group 64, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://aad.archives.gov/aad/record-detail.jsp?dt=893&mtch=1&cat=all&tf=F&q=42082760&bc=&rpp=10&pg=1&rid=8294145

WWII Draft Registration Cards for Delaware, 10/16/1940–3/31/1947. Record Group 147, Records of the Selective Service System. National Archives at St. Louis, Missouri. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2238/images/44003_06_00002-01862


Last updated on September 2, 2022

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