In 1944, the Army Crushed Hitler's Best Panzer Tanks in a Battle for the Ages

In 1944, the Army Crushed Hitler's Best Panzer Tanks in a Battle for the Ages

Here is the story. 

Rather than a balanced combined arms unit, such as that fielded by the German Army’s panzer divisions deployed at the outset of World War II, the new panzer brigades contained mostly tanks and panzergrenadiers. They sorely lacked sufficient artillery, engineer, and logistical assets. Designed for quick counterattacks, they were ill suited for sustained periods of frontline combat.

 

The first of these brigades were numbered 101 to 110. They actually were similar to a regiment in strength and had only one tank battalion. Their armor included 36 PzKpfw Panther medium tanks and 11 Pz IV/70 tank destroyers. These brigades’ infantry component consisted of 2,100 panzergrenadiers in six companies transported in SdKfz 251 half-tracks that mounted 20mm cannons.

In response to the shortcomings of the first series of panzer brigades, a second series designated 111 to 119 was fielded in August 1944. These contained two battalions of tanks, one of which had 36 Pz.Kpfw V Panthers and the other of which had 36 Pz.Kpfw IVs. The infantry complement was expanded to a regiment of two panzergrenadier battalions of three companies each, as well as a heavy weapons company. In addition, each brigade had one armored reconnaissance company, assault gun company, and engineer company. Due to the shortage of SdKfz half-tracks, most of the 4,800 troops in these brigades had to travel in trucks, which severely limited the cross-country capability of the brigade.

Manteuffel, tasked with using Panzer Brigades 106, 111, 112, and 113 in the attack against

Patton’s forces in Lorraine, was particularly concerned about the combat reliability of these units. He had little confidence in their fighting ability due to the absence of any artillery in the brigades, a lack of radio equipment for communications, and insufficient armored recovery and maintenance services. He also pointed out that the men in the new panzer brigades had not been trained in combined- arms tactics.

Lieutenant General Walter Kruger, who led LVIII Panzer Corps, was deeply critical of the battle worthiness of the new panzer brigades. “Panzer Brigades 111 and 113 … were makeshift organizations,” he wrote. “Their combat value was slight. Their training was just as incomplete as their equipment. They had been given no training as a unit and they had not become accustomed to coordinating their subunits.” His disgust for the caliber of troops sent to the front from rear-echelon formations was evident in his description of them as “barrel-scrapings.” The concerns of the senior panzer leaders involved in the forthcoming mission about the usefulness of the panzer brigades to be employed did not bode well for its success.

Knobelsdorff was so alarmed in early September by the approach of Patton’s Third Army to the Moselle River that he wanted to launch an immediate spoiling attack against Walker’s XX Corps before it could cross the river. Knobelsdorff intended to send Colonel Franz Bake’s 106th Panzer Brigade against Maj. Gen. Raymond McClain’s 90th Division on the extreme left flank of Third Army. But before he could send the 106th Panzer Brigade into action, Knobelsdorff had to promise Hitler that he would return it to First Army’s reserve within 48 hours.

The 106th Panzer Brigade, which was organized in two groups, moved under cover of darkness on the night of Sept. 7-8 toward the American flank. With the arrival of darkness, the attack groups split up at Audun-le-Roman. The first attack group drove northeast toward Landres, and the second attack group turned southeast toward Trieux.

Having failed to reconnoiter the enemy’s position, at 2 AM the first attack group rumbled past McClain’s headquarters, which was situated on a wooded hill south of Landres. Curious as to the nature of the traffic, a member of the crew of a Sherman tank guarding the headquarters realized after an hour that it was a German column. He alerted nearby artillery crews. The Americans knocked out a half-track, but one of the German Panthers blew up the Sherman. A number of American artillerymen were killed in the sharp firefight. The first attack group disengaged and continued south.

McClain immediately issued orders to his infantry battalions to engage the Germans. The U.S. 712th Tank Battalion started up its Shermans and they caught up with the back of the first attack group column and fired on it. Meanwhile, U.S. bazooka teams from a tank destroyer platoon prepared to engage the Germans at first light.

Much to the consternation of the Germans, the Americans stood their ground rather than retreating. A battle unfolded at dawn when the first attack group split up to attack the town of Mairy from two directions. The town was vigorously defended by the 1st Battalion, 58th Infantry, which had 3-inch antitank guns. Additionally, the Americans were supported by 105mm howitzers. The panzer grenadiers attacked into the town on halftracks, but they could not dislodge the Americans.

After nearly three hours of hard fighting, the Germans began to disengage. One half of the attack group was able to retire, but the other half was targeted by the U.S. artillery where it was positioned in a sunken road west of Mairy and completely destroyed.

The second attack group pushed west from Trieux toward Avril, but the Americans were at Avril in force. They used their antitank guns to repulse a half-hearted attack by the Germans probing their positions. The defeat of the 106th Panzer Brigade in the Battle of Mairy left it badly crippled and of limited use during the forthcoming Battle of Arracourt.

Four days later, elements of Brig. Gen. Holmes E. Dager’s CCB, 4th Armored Division and infantry from the 35th Infantry Division crossed the Moselle south of the railroad hub of Nancy. The following day, September 13, Combat Command Langlade, named after its commander French Colonel Paul Girot de Langlade, part of Haislip’s XV Corps, foiled a spoiling attack at Dompaire by Panzer Brigade 112.

After its defeat at Dompaire, the 112th Panzer Brigade was in no shape to engage in combat for the time being. In addition, the 107th and 108th Panzer Brigades were withdrawn from Lorraine and placed in reserve to help defend the German city of Aachen against an imminent attack by the U.S. First Army. These events would seriously weaken the offensive Hitler had envisioned to serve as a hammer blow to Patton’s Third Army.

Not only were the forces marked to participate in Manteuffel’s main attack altered, but the scheme itself was changed just before it was to be launched. With Patton’s tanks in control of Luneville and the German forces assembled northeast of the town, Manteuffel aimed his assault against the American southern flank toward the town of Arracourt, which lay 10 miles north of Luneville. Hitler’s ambitious panzer attack of mid-September had devolved from its ambitious objectives of striking Patton in the flank, cutting his lines of communication, and destroying him to the much lesser goal of eliminating the spearhead of the U.S. Third Army.

On September 14, the foot soldiers of the 80th Infantry Division of the XII Corps spilled over the river to the north of the city. That same day, 4th Armored Division’s CCA, led by Colonel Bruce Clarke, reached the east bank of the Moselle just below Nancy. Eddy asked Clarke if he felt it was safe to cross his CCA to the east bank. Clarke passed along the query to Lt. Col. Creighton W. Abrams, who commanded the 37th Tank Battalion attached to CCA. “That is the shortest way home,” said Abrams, pointing to the east bank.

Clarke approved the order and Abrams’ tank battalion crossed the river. Once across it continued its lightning advance and by nightfall had driven 20 miles into the German rear. The American advance beyond the Moselle threatened to create a breach between the German First Army and General of Infantry Friedrich Wiese’s Nineteenth Army to its south. This would enable Patton’s tanks to race across the German border and into the Saar Basin. OKH realized that the unrelenting pressure from Patton would require an immediate and vigorous counterstrike against his army.

By mid-September 1944, Wood’s 4th Armored Division had a complement of 163 tanks supporting its 15,000 troops. The well-trained division, which had only been in combat since late July, had been fortunate not to have sustained heavy casualties. The 4th Armored Division had encountered few German tanks since it broke out of Normandy and sped across France. This was because it had not faced determined German panzer units until it reached Lorraine. As a result, the 4th Armored’s troops had no real experience facing German tanks.

On September 19, Manteuffel finally unleashed the armored offensive in Lorraine that Hitler had been demanding since late August. The morning of the attack dawned as it had the last several days with intermittent rain and thick fog in the low-lying areas. The terrain around Arracourt was agricultural, with gently rolling hills and tracts of woods. While the hills were not particularly high, some of them offered good vantage points for surveying the surrounding farmland. These vantage points would play an important role in the coming fight.