Key point: Patton's tanks went toe-to-toe with the Nazis at the Battle of Arracourt. Here's how the fight went down.
Scouts for the U.S. Third Army on foot and in armored vehicles cautiously approached the town of Luneville on the east side of the Moselle River in the rolling hills of north- eastern France on September 15, 1944. As the lead M8 armored car of C Troop, 42nd Cavalry Squadron reached the outskirts of the fog-shrouded town, a shell fired from a German 88mm gun slammed into it. The startled Americans quickly fled the area.
Although no one knew it at the time, the shot heralded the beginning of the Battle of Arracourt, an 11-day armored fight between U.S. Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army and German General of Panzer Troops Hasso von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army.
Over the next four days, the 4th Armored Division of Maj. Gen. Manton Eddy’s XII Corps fought against Generalleutnant Eberhard Rodt’s 15th Panzergrenadier Division for control of Luneville. On September 16, the Americans vigorously attacked the town from the south, fiercely opposed by panzergrenadiers who had been reinforced a day earlier by six tanks and an equal number of antitank guns. The Germans were forced from the town, and the Americans formed a defensive cordon around the city.
On September 17, the Germans made a concerted effort to reclaim Luneville. Their efforts were thwarted by the cavalry troops and tanks and armored infantry from Combat Command R, U.S. 4th Armored Division. The fight for the town heated up on September 18 as two battle groups from Colonel Heinrich von Bronsart-Schellendorf’s 111th Panzer Brigade, supported by units from Generalleutnant Edgar Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzer Division, attacked Luneville from the southeast. At the same time, Colonel Erich von Seckendorf’s 113th Panzer Brigade struck the Americans from the northeast. By 12 PM, reinforcements from Combat Command A, 4th Armored Division in the form of Task Force Hunter, which comprised a company of tanks, infantry, and tank destroyers, arrived and drove the Germans from Luneville and the surrounding area. However, fighting for the town continued on September 19 when the 15th Panzergrenadier Division returned to cover the withdrawal of German forces from the town.
In the struggle for control of Luneville, 1,070 Germans were either killed or captured and 13 armored fighting vehicles were destroyed. American losses amounted to several hundred GIs dead and wounded, and the loss of approximately 10 armored fighting vehicles. With Luneville secured, Patton’s Third Army planned to use the entire 4th Armored Division as its spearhead in a rapid advance toward the German frontier.
At U.S. Third Army headquarters, the American reaction to the German attack at Luneville in mid-September was one of little concern. The enemy effort was so weak and disjointed that the Americans believed it was merely a poorly coordinated local counterattack. Although Third Army intelligence knew of the presence of the 111th Panzer Brigade in the area, it did not know of the 113th Panzer Brigade’s whereabouts, nor did it have any hard evidence that a large enemy armored attack was planned for the immediate future.
Activated in April 1941, the 4th Armored deployed to France in July 1944 and was commanded by Maj. Gen. John S. Wood. The division’s main fighting units were three brigade-sized formations known as Combat Command A, B, and R (which stood for reserve). Each was organized around a single tank battalion composed of 53 Sherman M4 medium tanks and 17 Stuart M5A1 light tanks, an armored infantry battalion of three companies totaling 1,000 men transported on M2 and M3 armored half-tracks, and an armored field artillery battalion with 18 self-propelled 105mm guns. The 4th Armored Division was augmented by the independent 704th Tank Destroyer Battalion. This unit controlled three companies with a total of 36 M18 Hellcat tank destroyers. A divisional reconnaissance squadron composed of four troops in 48 M8 armored cars gave the American armored divisions a solid scouting asset, which by 1944 was better than the much-diminished reconnaissance battalions attached to German panzer and panzergrenadier divisions.
Although the Americans were unaware of it, the 4th Armored Division’s intended advance over the next 11 days would be disrupted and blocked by a German armored counterattack that was second only to the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 as the largest armored contest between U.S. and German Armies in the European Theater of Operations. The Lorraine armored battles proved to be classic meeting engagements where both sides were simultaneously conducting offensive maneuvers with neither side possessing any significant numerical or distinct defensive advantage. The U.S. Third Army commanders did not realize, as the third week of September began, that the fight for Luneville put up by the Germans occurred because that was where the German offensive in the Lorraine was supposed to be launched.
The prolonged armored battle in Lorraine followed the collapse of Wehrmacht resistance in France and Belgium and the resultant swift advance of the Western coalition forces
across the breadth of France following Patton’s breakout from the Normandy bridgehead on July 30. While the overall Allied pursuit of the German Army toward the western margin of the Reich was most impressive, the Supreme High Command of the German Army (Oberkommando des Heeres, or OKH) was most concerned about the lighting speed of Patton’s Third Army.
Despite crippling fuel shortages that periodically retarded its progress, the Third Army managed to drive 400 miles from Normandy to the west bank of the Moselle River. The enemy forces defending Lorraine along the Moselle line belonged to General of Panzer Troops Otto von Knobelsdorff’s First Army, which comprised six infantry and three panzergrenadier divisions. For the most part, these divisions had been replenished with underequipped and poorly trained replacements. First Army possessed fewer than 200 armored fighting vehicles of all types. The Luftwaffe units supporting the First Army had only 110 aircraft.
While operating in Lorraine, Patton’s Third Army was composed of Eddy’s XII Corps, Maj. Gen. Walton Walker’s XX Corps, and Maj. Gen. Wade Haislip’s XV Corps. The Third Army brought to the Arracourt fight eight well-equipped divisions, including three armored and four attached tank battalions. The Third Army had 933 tanks, of which 672 were M4 Sherman medium tanks and 261 were M5A1 Stuart light tanks. In addition, the U.S. Army Air Corps backed up Third Army with 400 fighters and fighter bombers from its XIX Tactical Air Command.
In compliance with the wishes of the Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Patton was directed to liberate Lorraine and then breach the Siegfried Line defenses guarding Germany’s western frontier. Once those daunting objectives were achieved, Third Army was to cross the Rhine River and capture the cities of Frankfurt and Mannheim. This fatal stab into Germany would ensure the Allied capture of the Saar Region, which furnished coal and steel for the Hitler’s war machine.
Patton ordered his 4th Armored Division toward the German border on September 19. In
accordance with that plan, the division’s CCB was to push on from the Delme-Chateau-Salins area, 16 miles north of Luneville, to the city of Saabrucken, while CCA was to advance from its location at Arracourt, which was situated 10 miles north of Luneville, and capture the German city of Saareguemines.
To deal with the threat posed by Patton’s Third Army, Hitler ordered Manteuffel to launch a bold counterattack. Manteuffel had proven his skill at handling panzer forces on the Eastern Front where he commanded the 7th Panzer Division of Army Group Center during its advance toward Moscow in 1941. Manteuffel’s attack, which had a tentative start date of September 5, was to originate west of the Vosges Mountains and drive across the Langres Plateau toward the Moselle River. However, this proved impossible since Fifth Panzer Army’s headquarters was not able to redeploy from the northern sector of the front in the Netherlands to Strasbourg until September 9.
Moreover, Manteuffel had the enormous task of assembling his three panzer and three panzer grenadier brigades from a variety of different regions. This was a complex task given that some of them were deployed on the front lines. Because of Patton’s swift advance, the German attack ultimately was pushed back to September 15.
Frustrated by the series of delays, Hitler ordered the offensive to begin regardless of whether all of the allotted forces had arrived at the staging area. Fully realizing the unrealistic time table for the attack and the inadequate forces to be committed to it, Manteuffel was deeply skeptical that his attack would succeed. With so few battle-worthy panzer divisions in the Lorraine sector of the Western Front, the German attack on the U.S. Third Army would have to depend on the new panzer brigades that had been formed in the late summer of 1944. Nearly all of the Third Reich’s tank production during that time had been diverted to equip the new armored formations. Many of the new panzer brigades were slated for service on the Eastern Front. Indeed, Hitler had established the panzer brigade program in an effort to keep pace with the Soviet Union’s robust tank production. However, the concept of these new panzer formations on which Hitler placed such great hope was deeply flawed.