by Major General George B. Pickett
Reprinted By Permission Of The Author
The advance of the 42nd Tank Battalion (reinforced) which took place between 17-20 March 1945 in the Rhenish Palatinate is a good example of the reinforced tank battalion in exploitation. This action illustrates the following points inherent to most exploitation operations:
1) The necessity for carefully positioning the various elements of the team in the column in their order of probable employment.
2) The necessity and advantage of speed of movement on exploitation.
3) The value of armored engineer vehicles (tankdozers) in exploitation.
4) The necessity of adequate tank-armored infantry communication.
5) The necessity for transporting armored infantry on tanks in certain situations.
6) The vulnerability of the flanks of tank-armored infantry column on exploitation.
7) The effect of blown bridges over impassable streams on armored units.
8) The need of portable bridging by armored units on exploitation.
9) The necessity for rapid dismounted action by leading armored infantry elements when resistance and obstacles are encountered.
10) The need for extensive supply and maintenance support.
The Big Picture
On the 7th of March the US Third Army sent its 4th and 11th Armored Division spearheads eastward. The 11th Armored broke through north of Kellberg the same day. Advancing northeast with increasing rapidity it reached the Rhine at Andernach on the 8th of March and linked up with US First Army. The 4th Armored Division on its right drove seventy miles in 58 hours to seize Coblentz.
On March 15, the US Seventh Army attacked north through the Siegfried Line toward the Rhine. The 6th and 14th Armored Divisions of the Seventh Army pushed northeast, while the 4th and 11th Armored Divisions of the Third Army drove southeast to meet them. The envelopment of these two US Armies decimated the German First and Seventh armies, captured over 81,000 prisoners, and cleared the west bank of the Rhine south to Speyer.
11th Armored Division
The 11th Armored Division began its advance from the Moselle River near Bullay to Worms on the Rhine River on the morning of 17 March 1945. The zone assigned the Division for this breakthrough and exploitation was from 20 to 25 kilometers wide. It extended southeast from the Moselle River 40 kilometers to the Nahee River then turned east for seventy kilometers to the Rhine and Worms. The Nahee, Glan, and Alsenze River lines had to be forced during the advance. The Division Commander, Brigadier General Holmes E. Dager, selected two routes to provide for mutual support, to follow ridges providing favorable avenues of armored approach, and to avoid towns and defiles to the maximum extent possible. CCA and CCB were each assigned one of these routes as an axis; CCB on the right. Although the passage of an armored division through an infantry division requires careful coordination, the uninterrupted movement through the 89th Infantry Division was assured by establishment of road priorities for the 11th Armored Division units, coordination of assembly areas for the armored division units with the 89th Division units, and closely controlled traffic. This coordination was accomplished at division level but time prevented coordination at Battalion and Company level.
Combat Command "A"
CCA of the 11th Armored Division was directed to attack southeast along its axis, to protect the left flank of the division, and to seize any bridges found intact over the Rhine. Brigadier General Willard A. Holbrook, Commanding General of CCA, announced the following task organization for the operation
TF AHEETF BRADY
42nd Tank Bn (C Co)
63rd Armd Inf Bn (-A&B Co)
42nd Tank Battalion
Just prior to this operation, on 7-8 March 1945, the 42nd Tank Battalion had participated in the drive of the 11th Armored Division from Gerolstein on the Kyll River to Andernach on the Rhine north of Coblentz. The period 9 to 13 March had been spent in mopping up remnants of enemy resistance in the Plaidt, Thur, Nichernich, Kraft, and Andernach areas. The battalion was moved to Ettringen on 15 March for an extended maintenance period. It lasted exactly 32 hours. On the afternoon of March 16th the battalion was alerted for the move to Driesch in the vicinity of Bullay for the operation which is discussed in this article.
The morale and combat efficiency of the battalion were at their peak although the tank companies were understrength in personnel, using for the most part four-man tank crews. Almost every tank was short a bow gunner. Company D, the light tank company, was short twelve tanks which had not been replaced since the winter fighting in the Bulge. The Battalion S-3 was new at his job.
The plan of attack for the reinforced battalion was both simple and flexible. Reinforced Companies (teams) were formed, and the units were arranged in the march column in the order of their anticipated employment. The task organization and order of march of the reinforced battalion was as follows:
Advanced Guard (Team A):
Company A 42nd Tank Battalion
Company A 63rd Armd Infantry Bn
Armd Engr Detachment
Arty FO and team
Battalion Executive Officer
Liaison Officer from 490th Armored FA Bn
Battalion Reconnaissance Platoon
Co A 56th Armored Engineer Bn
Hqs Co 42nd Tank Bn—(Mortars, Assault Guns, Machine Guns)
Battery A 490th AFA Bn
Co B 63rd Armd Infantry Bn
Co B 42nd Tank Battalion
Artillery Fwd Observer Team
Company D 42nd Tank Battalion
Battalion Maintenance (Detachment Only)
March 17, 1945
The exploitation to the Rhine started in late morning, when the battalion began its movement into the Moselle valley. The front lines of the 89th US Infantry Division were passed at 1500. Troop A, 41st Cavalry, preceded the battalion until initial contact was made at Kirchberg at 1645, where a defended roadblock and an infantry position in the woods, three kilometers to the north, delayed the troops' advance. By 1800 the advance guard team under Captain Dale Howard (Company A, 63rd AIB) had reduced the roadblocks and secured the high ground overlooking Kirchberg. Due to the lateness of the hour, CG CCA ordered the battalion to halt for the night. A perimeter defense was established around the village of Kludenbach, and the combat elements were resupplied. CG CCA and his command group remained in Kludenbach at the CP of the 42nd Tank Battalion during the night 17-18 March. CG CCA directed that TF Ahee would resume its advance on the CCA axis at 0645 the following morning
March 18, 1945
At 0645 the attack resumed with Company A, 42nd Tank Battalion, and Company A, 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion (with 1st Platoon, Company A, 56th Armored Engineer Battalion attached) leading. The advance was delayed temporarily beyond Dickensheid by teller mines in the road. Captain Blackburn, the Armored Engineer Company Commander, was injured by a "schu' mine while supervising the removal of the mines, and was replaced by Lieutenant Fred Procter. The advance resumed as soon as the road was cleared. At 1025 the leading team approached Gemunden, which the German. had organized for defense. The approaches to town were covered by mortar and machine gun fire; but not by antitank fire. This weakness in the German defense enabled the leading team to enter the town with tanks leading, followed by mounted armored infantry. Once inside the built-up area, the armored infantry dismounted to clear the town. The leading team fought its way house by house through the town until they encountered a blown bridge at the far edge.
A ground reconnaissance and map study indicated that immediately beyond the next village, Gehweiller, the road entered a deep canyon, which extended to the Nahee River, a distance of about nine miles. Possession of the entrance and approaches to this canyon was essential for the successful accomplishment of the battalion mission. The TF Commander directed his executive officer to deploy Company B, 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion, and advance astride the road to Gehweiller After seizing Gehweiller, the dismounted advance was to continue to seize the heights at the entrance to the canyon. Company B seized Gehweiller without incident while Company A cleared out Gmunden. The main bridge in Gehweiller also was blown, but the battalion executive officer found a place east of town where vehicles could ford the stream easily.
During this reconnaissance for a crossing site, the Germans began to shell the town with two gun salvos of 150mm artillery. Meanwhile, back in Gemunden a passable route to Gehweiller was located along which the tanks and halftracks started to Gehweiller. After clearing mines from another bridge in Gehweiller, the advance was continued to Kellenbach where once again a blown bridge was encountered. The approaches to town were covered by 150mm direct fire, mortar fire, and automatic weapons fire. Direct fire from the tanks of Company A, 42nd Tank Battalion, destroyed the two 150mm howitzers which were located on the hillside east of the road. The mortar fire proved ineffective, since the tank-armored infantry elements were in the canyon and the mortar shells were striking far up on the canyon walls. Company A, 63rd Armored Infantry, cleared the town; the tanks could not support this attack since they were unable to deploy in the defile outside of Kellenbach.
Since the bridge in Kellenbach had also been blown by the retreating enemy, it was necessary to locate a crossing point for the vehicles. A ford was found about half a mile east of the blown bridge. Company B, 42nd Tank Battalion, was immediately directed to cross the ford and prepare to move cross-country into Konigsau which was the next town down the canyon. The distance from Kellenbach to Konigsau was about a thousand yards as the crow flies but the road and stream meandered in such a winding course that the road distance was slightly over a mile. The attack on Konigsau proceeded without delay. Co B, 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion, climbed the west wall of the canyon and advanced down the ridge line to seize the high ground west of the village. Co A, 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion, waded the stream in Kellenbach and advanced astride the only road. Co B, 42nd Tank Battalion, moved cross-country to the ridge east of Konigsau to support the attack of both rifle companies by direct fire. The attacking force was commanded by the executive officer 42nd Tank Battalion since the Commander of TF Ahee and CG CCA were holding a conference in Kellenbach, discussing the numerous bridging difficulties along the route of the battalion.
The attack on Konigsau illustrates the difficulty of having tank and dismounted infantry units converge on a common objective from different directions without adequate infantry-tank communication. As the advance progressed a large antitank and antipersonnel minefield was discovered east of the town, which was by-passed. Company B, 42nd Tank Battalion, arrived on the high ground east of Konigsau long before the dismounted troops. Company B, 63rd Armored Infantry, had difficulty in advancing down the ridge west of Konigsau due to the difficult footing. The advance of Co A, 63rd Armored Infantry, proceeded against no opposition until a large farmhouse about two hundred yards from town was encountered. The resistance was neutralized by tank fire of Company B, 42nd Tank Battalion.
After firing on the position in this farmhouse, Company B started to move into Konigsau. Its advance was coordinated with the advance of Company A, 63rd Armored Infantry; but the tanks pulled ahead of the infantry and the leading tank elements entered the town alone The Company B tankers of the 42nd Tank Battalion halted inside the built-up area to wait for the advancing infantrymen, who soon entered and cleared the town. Company B, 63rd Armored Infantry, occupied the ridge west of Konigsau while Company A, 63rd Armored Infantry. cleared to the far edge of the town.
A Blown Bridge
Meanwhile a blown bridge in the center of Konigsau had halted the advance of the tank company. A ford beside the blown bridge proved passable to tanks, but not halftracks and wheeled vehicles. This situation was reported by the battalion executive officer to the battalion commander who directed the executive officer to continue the attack with the forces then in Konigsau. The executive officer requested that Company A, 42nd Tank Battalion, be sent forward to join forces in Konigsau.
The reinforced tank battalion was then divided into two parts. The tank and armored infantry rifle companies, less their half tracks and antitank platoons, were in Konigsau. The Armored Infantry's vehicles, their antitank platoons, the headquarters vehicles of the 42nd Tank Battalion, and the battalion machine gun, mortar, assault gun, and reconnaissance platoons were back at Kellenbach or on the road leading into it. Company A, 56th Armored Engineers, was repairing the bridge in Kellenbach. The battalion executive officer in Konigsau directed that Company A 63rd Armored Infantry, mount the tanks of Company B 42nd Tank Battalion, and proceed at once down the canyon. When Company A, 42nd Tank Battalion, arrived in Konigsau, Company B. 63rd Armored Infantry mounted its tanks and the force moved out rapidly.
Heading down the canyon the force encountered a blasted mountainside about three miles west of Dhaun. Company A, 63rd Armored Infantry, dismounted and advanced along the southwest side of the canyon wall in the direction of a castle. Captain John Meggesin, the commander, immediately employed a tankdozer to start clearing the rubble. This vehicle more than proved its value during this period. It prepared ford crossings, filled craters, and pushed debris from streets and roads. In this particular situation, it cleared over five tons of rubble from the road. In about 45 minutes the road was open again. Lieutenant Colonel Ahee rejoined the leading elements about 1500 and resumed personal control of the action. While the tankdozer was clearing the rubble, a two-man patrol was sent forward down the road on captured bicycles to see what was ahead. This was the first and last use of bicycles by the battalion.
The leading elements resumed the advance at 1600. About one mile west of Simmern, another blasted mountainside and blown bridge was encountered In his headlong flight the enemy had spilled a truckload of "schu" mines all over the road and shoulders with no effort being made to conceal them. While the engineers cleared these mines Company A, 63rd Armored Infantry, advanced along the west canyon wall into Simmern. Captain Dale Howard reported the town secured at 1945. Company B, 63rd Armored Infantry, meanwhile secured the high ground surrounding the blown bridge near Dhaun and protected Company A, 56th Armored Engineers, during the clearing of the mines and rubble and the repairing of the bridge.
March 19, 1945
In the small hours the road was cleared and the bridge repaired. The remainder of the reinforced battalion moved into Simmern. The day's advance totaled 16 miles. During the night, Company A, 63rd Armored Infantry, dispatched a patrol to reconnoiter the defenses of Martinstein and to determine if the bridge across the Nahee River was intact. The patrol had a fire fight with a German force and was unable to enter the town. It withdrew to Simmern, carrying two wounded, one of whom died on arrival at the Company CP.
The problem of seizing a bridge across the Nahee River appeared paramount to the battalion commander. The decision was made to rush the town of Martinstein with a fast, highly mobile force to seize the bridge and cut the wires leading to any prepared demolitions before the bridge could be blown. At 0640 four 1/4-ton trucks of the reconnaissance platoon under Sergeant Hess, left Simmern and rushed Martinstein at top speed. The defenders appeared to be surprised by the onrushing vehicles; but just as the leading vehicle crossed the bridge, the Germans blew it. Hess was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for this action. Although unsuccessful, this incident so completely confused the defenders that Co B, 63rd Armored Infantry, and Co B, 42nd Tank Battalion, advanced into the town against only slight opposition. Colonel Ahee sent this team to Sobernheim to seize a bridge over the Nahee which the civilians reported still to be intact.
At Sobernheim these Companies encountered heavy mortar and automatic weapons fire, but the tanks and the mounted armored infantry shot their way through town to the river. Here, to their chagrin, they found that the bridge had already been blown. The armored infantry then dismounted to clear the town. However, very few prisoners were taken since the main German defenses were found to be south of the river. The Battalion executive officer and Major Mitchell, 56th Armored Engineer Battalion accompanied by a rifle squad, reconnoitered for a crossing site between Sobernheim and Martinstein without success. However, back in Martinstein, Lieutenant Colonel Ahee located a ford in the center of town which was passable to full track vehicles only. Reconnaissance showed that half tracks and wheeled vehicles could be winched across singly but only with great expenditure of time.
Scrapping at Martinstein
Throughout the morning Martinstein had been heavily shelled by nebelwerfers. Company A, 63rd Armored Infantry, had occupied the buildings adjacent to the river and engaged in a sharp fire fight with the German defenders who were occupying a factory building and a farmhouse on the opposite bank. Between Sobernheim and Simmern the south bank of the Nahee was heavily defended. The heaviest defenses seemed to be opposite Sobernheim and in the town of Merxheim. The movement of the leading tank-armored infantry team to Sobernheim had been unopposed; however the Germans later moved self-propelled guns into position at Merxheim and began to fire at vehicles moving between Sobernheim and Martinstein.
About 1300, Company A, 42nd Tank Battalion, began fording the river at Martinstein covered by Company A, 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion. This happened to be a unique river crossing for the tanks established the initial bridgehead covered by infantry fire, just the opposite from normal procedure. When the tanks began the fording operation, the Germans deserted their position around the farmhouse and retreated to Merxheim. After crossing, the tanks immediately came under heavy mortar and nebelwerfer fire jamming the turret of one medium tank. At 1230, Company B, 63rd Armored Infantry, and Company B, 42nd Tank Battalion, were withdrawn from Sobernheim in order to cross at Martinstein. When these companies were opposite Merxheim, a half-track and a tank recovery vehicle were destroyed by antitank fire. Lieutenant John Knight, motor officer of B Company, 42nd Tank Battalion, was in the tank recovery vehicle, but escaped unhurt. This was the third armored vehicle shot out from under him, yet he had escaped injury.
The CG of CCA was present at the ford when the German AT fire from Merxheim started and was the first to locate the guns. He mounted an artillery M-7 and adjusted fire on the enemy guns, driving their crews away or killing them. Throughout this incident, the fording operation went on uninterrupted, although it was somewhat disconcerting to ford a river while a gun duel was in process only fifty feet away.
The reinforced battalion reassembled across the river and immediately assaulted Merxheim. The town was covered by overwatching tanks while Company B, 63rd Armored Infantry, assaulted and cleared the town. The German opposition to the river crossing disintegrated with the fall of Merxheim. The enemy survivors were observed fleeing into the surrounding hills. This success was dampened by the loss of the rifle company commander, who was wounded in the leg.
Once again conditions appeared favorable for a rapid advance. The battalion commander ordered all wheeled vehicles and half-tracks to be left in Martinstein until a suitable crossing could be prepared. Plans were made to provide for these vehicles rejoining the battalion.
Only scattered resistance was encountered after the capture of Merxheim. However, a race through the wooded hills in the direction of Meisenheim afforded several amusing incidents.
Friend or Foe?
The Germans had attempted to block the narrow road at several points by igniting ammunition trucks. By-passing a burning truck load of ammunition has its thrills. The failure of the burning ammunition trucks to slow down the advance prevented the Germans from being able to organize any resistance in the hills. As the battalion was climbing down out of the hills toward the plain surrounding Meisenheim, the most amusing event of the campaign occurred. The leading tank commander saw an armored vehicle running down the road in front of the advance guard. He reported a "German Tank" to his company commander and speeded up to overtake it. However it turned out to be a tank recovery vehicle quite lost, from the 41st Tank Battalion of CCB, 11th Armored Division.
The advance continued rapidly to the outskirts of Meisenheim. where a case of mistaken identity almost caused CCA and CCB to start a war of their own. As the leading tank approached Meisenheim, freshly dug foxholes were observed around the road junction between the battalion and the town. The advance guard would have opened fire and rushed these outposts if the battalion commander had not stopped them. He had seen a partially concealed U. S. half-track in time to halt the leading team and send out a patrol to investigate. The CCB unit turned out to be Company A, 55th Armored Infantry Battalion.
CCB had actually by-passed Meisenheim and was about six miles northeast of the town. By this time the 42nd Tank Battalion had outrun all the other CCA units except the 490th Armored Field Artillery. CG CCA and his command group, accompanied by two light tanks, moved out to join the battalion. The 11th Armored assembled in the Meisenheim area for the night.
Back at Martinstein, a 96-foot treadway bridge was completed at 2140; and the wheeled vehicles and halftracks started across the Nahee to rejoin the battalion at Meisenheim. The day's advance had totaled 17 miles, all of which was made after the assault of the defenses of the Nahee River line.
March 20, 1945
The reassembly of the reinforced battalion at Meisenheim was delayed by remnants of enemy forces situated on the high ground south of the Nahee, who attacked the half-track and wheeled vehicle column about 0200. The road was covered by mortar and automatic weapons tire. Since the force which was rejoining had only the truck drivers and the antitank platoons of the armored infantry rifle companies, the movement of the column was considerably restricted, yet it reached Meisenheim in time for the battalion to resume the advance at 0700.
CCA followed CCB to Rockenhausen, where the reinforced battalion turned off through a dangerous gap between two high wooded hills, to reach the outskirts of Dannenfels at 1105, where determined German resistance was encountered. Company B, 63rd Armored Infantry immediately attacked with artillery support along the high ground on the south of the road leading to town. Tanks were unable to deliver effective fire on the German road blocks and antitank guns, due to the lack of approaches south of the town. AT fire covered the only approach into the north side of the town. Nevertheless the progress against the German defenses of Dannenfels continued. During the mop-up phase of this attack the 33rd F A Brigade placed a TOT on the town after the armored infantry men had taken shelter in the cellars. When the fire lifted, the house to house fighting resumed at feverish intensity.
Converging on Dreisen
Soon after encountering the stubborn resistance in Dannenfels, the battalion commander directed Company A, 42nd Tank Battalion, and Company A. 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion, under command of the battalion Executive Officer, to move by an alternate route through the hilly, wooded area southwest of Dannenfels, to seize Dreisen and protect the battalion's south flank. This force cleared Stalheim and contacted elements of CCB, 11th Armored Division. near Dreisen. Meanwhile Company B, 63rd Armored Infantry, opened a hole in the defenses of Dannenfels, and the two forces of the battalion converged on Dreisen, which was seized at 1500 without opposition.
The advance continued from Dreisen with Company B, 42nd Tank Battalion, and Company A, 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion, leading. The battalion rushed through Marnheim and by 1547 had overrun Albisheim. At Marxheim a blown bridge and defended crossings of the Pfrimm River forced the battalion to take an alternate route just north of and parallel to the river. Between Marxheim and the next large village, Monsheim was a long steep ridge on the German side of the river. As the battalion advanced rapidly down the road parallel to the river, a long column of vehicles, horse carts, caissons and personnel was observed fleeing wildly in an attempt to cross the ridge to secure protection from tank fire. Although only the assault gun platoon halted and went into position to place 105mm direct fire on the fleeing enemy, each tank and half-track machine gun traversed right and fired on the enemy column. The carnage was terrible.
Horses, carts, men, and equipment were blown to bits and scattered over hundreds of yards. It was the worst slaughter ever inflicted by the 42nd Tank Battalion on the enemy during its entire combat career.
After knocking out the fleeing column, the advance continued rapidly to Monsheim, where another blown bridge was encountered. Company A, 63rd Armored Infantry, waded the Pfrimm and advanced dismounted into Monsheim to mop up. The battalion executive made a reconnaissance of the town and supervised the preparation for the defense. The battalion CP opened in Monsheim at 2330. The drive from Bullay to the Rhine was now complete. The day’s advance totaled thirty-three miles in sixteen hours, bringing the total distance of advance of the three-and-a-half-day period to almost seventy miles.
German Order of Battle
The study of the German units encountered during this period gives a good indication of the German order of battle in the Palatinate. On 17th of March the enemy forces in Kirchberg consisted of kampgruppes from the 150th Volksgrenadier Division. Most of the opposition consisted of roadblocks and a few mines. The opposition stiffened on the 18th and consisted primarily of defended roadblocks and AT fire from positions on favorable defensive terrain. Units encountered between Kirchberg and Simmern consisted of isolated battle groups of 159 VG, 179 VG, and 559 VG Divisions. Elements of Panzer Lehr Division, and the 6th Flak Bn (SS) were also encountered in small groups but did not display any organized resistance in depth. however, on the 19th of March, the Germans buckled down in excellent defensive terrain for a determined stand utilizing demolitions, antitank guns, panzerfausts, 4.7 inch rockets, nebelwerfers, and automatic weapons very effectively. Opposition to the battalion came from the 2nd Panzer Division, 5th Parachute Division, 6th SS Division "Nord", and kampgruppes (battle groups) from various Volks Grenadier Divisions.
The number of elements contacted during the advance indicates the confusion and chaos which armored units on exploitation can cause in hostile rear areas. This is further brought out by a comparison of losses of the 42nd Tank Battalion with those of the Germans. The 42nd suffered a total of twelve men killed and thirty wounded during this operation. German dead were estimated at five hundred, and by actual count the reinforced battalion captured over sixteen hundred prisoners. This does not include prisoners who surrendered in large masses to elements following the battalion. Material losses were similar; the battalion lost twelve vehicles during this operation, namely, seven medium tanks, one light tank, three half-tracks, and one 1/4-ton truck. German material losses were enormous. Included were: fifteen tanks, twenty-two towed antitank guns, nine artillery pieces, twenty-two mortars, eight nebelwerfers, forty-one trucks, a hundred and twenty horses, and thousands of wagons, carts, staff cars, and motor cycles. These losses include only that equipment destroyed or captured on the axis of advance and do not include tremendous amounts of material abandoned by the enemy off of the battalion’s axis of advance in his headlong retreat.