America Built The M26 Pershing To Defeat Nazi Tanks, But It Failed Badly

America Built The M26 Pershing To Defeat Nazi Tanks, But It Failed Badly

It arrived too late.

In its drive for Cologne between the Roer and Rhine, VII Corps would traverse 35 miles of good tank country except for the area of the Hambach Forest, which stretched between Duren and Elsdorf. Defending the vast Hambach wooded region were two depleted infantry divisions and Lt. Gen. Fritz Bayerlein’s ad hoc panzer corps made up of the remnants of the 9th and 11th Panzer Divisions and the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division.

 

In its drive from the Roer, 3rd Armored, with the 13th Infantry Regiment, 8th Infantry Division, attached, formed five mobile task forces, four of which were made up of one tank battalion, one armored infantry or standard infantry battalion, and a platoon of tank destroyers and engineers. The division’s left was made up of two such task forces under Combat Command B leader Brig. Gen. Truman E. Boudinot. Their immediate objective was the important road junction at Elsdorf.

The First Pershing Destroyed

February 26, 1945, was a cold day with rain falling on the muddy secondary roads upon which the 3rd Armored Division was traveling. Boudinot’s Combat Command B was split into two elements, Task Force Welborn on the left aiming for Elsdorf and Task Force Lovelady on the right heading for the village of Berrendorf. The former group was led by Lt. Col. John C. Welborn. Within his 1st Battalion, 33rd Armored Regiment was one of the new Pershing tanks, No. 38, christened Fireball by its crew. Fireball took the lead as Task Force Welborn bore down on Elsdorf. Ironically, this Pershing was originally one of Task Force Lovelady’s complement of four attached to Company F, 2nd Battalion, 33rdArmored Regiment. How it ended up spearheading Welborn’s advance has never been explained.

The deserted village of Elsdorf had been prepared for defense by the Germans with log roadblocks set up at each western approach, a few antitank guns on the outskirts of town, and some German soldiers deployed within the hamlet.

As dusk arrived, Fireball reached the edge of Elsdorf and halted in front of a log barricade on the Steinstrass Road near a level railway crossing. Upon seeing the arrival of the Pershing, the German infantrymen panicked and quit their posts. This encouraged the Pershing’s crew to try to cross the log barrier by driving over it. As the American tank tried to pass over the wooden obstacle, three Tiger I tanks from Heavy Panzer Battalion 301, attached to 9th Panzer Division, entered Elsdorf from the east and moved through the village toward its western end. Two of the Tigers stopped halfway through the village, while the third, No. 201, continued to scout ahead in the dark.

Meanwhile, as Fireball tried to barge its way over the log roadblock, an American M4 drove up and stopped just behind the Pershing. Suddenly, the night sky was torn by an explosion as the newly arrived Sherman was ripped apart by either German Panzerfaust or artillery fire. The flaming U.S. tank silhouetted Fireball perfectly in the darkness, allowing the Tiger to fire three fast rounds at only 100 yards. All three German shells hit the Pershing, knocking it out of action and killing two of its crew.

In seconds the first Pershing on the Western Front had been destroyed in action. However, the jubilation the Tiger crew must have felt at its victory over an unknown American tank type was short lived. Reversing violently to change position after shooting the American, the Tiger got hung up on a pile of rubble, its front still facing the roadblock. After several vain attempts were made to free the Tiger from its trap, the German crew abandoned the vehicle.

“Just Like Shooting Ducks”

The U.S. attack on Elsdorf continued next day with support from Allied fighter bombers. By noon, after fierce fighting, the village was cleared of the enemy. The afternoon of February 27 saw the Wehrmacht launch a counterattack to retake Elsdorf with four Tigers and two MK IVs leading the advance. Fortunately for the Americans, Task Force Lovelady, under Lt. Col. William B. Lovelady, was just to the southeast and in an excellent position to blunt the German attack.

Pershing No. 40, under the command of Sergeant Nick Mashlonik, moved forward. At 1,000 yards and while on the move, the Pershing killed a dug-in Tiger with four rapid high velocity armor-piercing rounds. Mashlonic was just getting started. He remembered, “Three other German armored vehicles were leaving Elsdorf and were on the road to my right. I waited until all of them were on the road with their rear ends exposed and then I picked off each one with one shell each. Just like shooting ducks.” The sergeant’s achievement confirmed the effectiveness of the Pershing’s firepower.

By the end of the 27th, Elsdorf was firmly in American hands. This allowed division maintenance to retrieve Fireball and take it back to Duren for repairs. The tank returned to duty on March 7.

While one Pershing was lost at Elsdorf due to enemy action, another of Combat Command B, 3rd Armored Division, experienced mechanical trouble and was withdrawn from the front on March 1. It had broken down as it crossed a Bailey bridge over the Erft Canal four miles east of Elsdorf. That same day, Pershing No. 22, attached to Company A, 14th Tank Battalion, 9th Armored Division, was disabled by a 150mm artillery shell southeast of Duren, killing its commander.

On March 6, Pershing No. 25, from Company H, 33rd Armored Regiment, 3rd Armored Division, was knocked out of action in a northern suburb of Cologne by an 88mm round fired from a German Nashorn tank destroyer at 300 yards. The crew bailed out safely, but the hit set off the stored ammunition, burning out the turret. That same day, as the Americans tightened their grip on Cologne, elements of the 3rd Armored Division neared the Dom Cathedral in the city’s center. One final short skirmish with a lone Panther tank in the cathedral square started as the German hit a Sherman tank, killing three crewmen. A Pershing down the street immediately reacted, exchanging cannon shots with the German. The Panther burst into flames after being struck three times. Two of its five crewmen were trapped in the vehicle and burned to death.

Pershings at Remagen

While the tankers of the 3rd Armored Division, including the first Pershing tanks sent to Europe, saw fighting in World War II and completed the capture of the city of Cologne, others of the original 20 machines rushed into action in February 1945 were experiencing their own trials in combat. On the morning of March 7 in the Bonn-Remagen area about 13 miles northeast of the bridge at Remagen spanning the Rhine River, the new commander of Company A, 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, 9th Armored Division, Lieutenant Karl H. Timmermann, was called to the command post of the 14th Tank Battalion, which was spearheading the 9th Armored Division’s move toward the Rhine. There the young junior officer was instructed that he and his company would act as the vanguard for the entire advance, and that Company A, 14th Tank Battalion, with its new Pershings, would support his unit.

Timmermann’s men soon started on their way toward the Rhine and the Ludendorff railway bridge that crossed it at Remagen. At 11 am they ran in to an ambush as German infantry fired panzerfaust antitank weapons. In response, an M26 was brought to the head of the American column, where its cannon fire not only quickly dispersed the threatening enemy but forced their surrender as well. Once near the bridge at Remagen and seeing that the Ludendorff structure had not been destroyed by the Germans, Timmermann contacted his superiors. At 1 pm Brig. Gen. William M. Hodge, leader of Combat Command B, 9th Armored Division, arrived and ordered Timmermann to seize the town of Remagen and try to secure the bridge. Pershings provided fire support.

At 3:20 pm Timmermann moved up to the bridge and gave the traditional “Follow me” gesture. As he and his 120 men moved onto the span, a Pershing fired at one of the bridge towers ahead of the assault team to silence German machine-gun fire. Soon another Pershing opened up on an enemy machine-gun positioned on a half-submerged barge moored 200 yards upstream. With an American toehold on the east bank of the Rhine, the first U.S. tanks rolled across the great river at midnight. Although the Pershing crews insisted on crossing first, they were not authorized since the bridge was considered too weak to support the M26’s weight. As a result, the first U.S. armor to cross the river was the lighter M4 Sherman along with even lighter tank destroyers.

Matira and Irwin: An Experienced Sherman Crew

With World War II in Europe nearing its conclusion, the Pershing tank displayed one last example of its battlefield prowess. On April 21, 1945, near the town of Dessau, Germany, at the junction of the Mulde and Elbe Rivers, a tank versus tank contest occurred. It was truly a heavyweight bout. An American Super Pershing slugged it out with a German King Tiger.