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Patton's Secret Strike Toward Hammelburg Germany : March 1945

BA University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) Geography & History

Patton's Third Army Strikes Deep into Germany

The story begins in North Africa in February 1943, where the United States Army suffered a dramatic defeat at the hands of Rommel's Africa Korps. Among the many American prisoners taken at the Battle for Kasserine Pass were General George S. Patton's son-in-law, Lieutenant Colonel John K. Waters. Waters would remain a captive of the German Army for the next two years. In early 1945 he was sent to a POW camp near Hammelburg as the Allied armies pushed Germany to the edge of defeat. At that time Patton's 3rd Army was blasting its way across Europe, and in early 1945 it was battling its way over the Rhine River.

The 4th Armored Division, the vanguard of the 3rd Army, its iron fist, led the way for Patton's Army as it began to thrust deep into the heart of Germany. The 4th Armored Division became famous to all Americans as it led Patton's famous push to relieve the beleaguered 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. It was the first unit to reach the desperate outpost. During his army's march across western Europe Patton had done his best to keep abreast of his son-in-laws fate. As his army crossed the Rhine, he was aware that his son-in-law was at prisoner of war camp at Hammelburg, just forty miles away from the tip of the 4th Armored Division's spearhead as it plunged into Germany.

On the day that the Third Army crossed the Rhine River, Patton would write his wife informing her his army was headed toward his son-in-law's POW camp. The camp was located just 80 miles east of Mainz on the Main River, which Patton's troops crossed on March 25, 1945. The city was founded by the Romans in the 1st century BC serving as a military fortress on the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire. Mainz was heavily damage during the war, its citizens had experienced more than 30 air raids which had destroyed about 80% of the city's center. Mainz was made famous as the home of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the moveable-type printing press, who early the 1450s manufactured his first books in the city, including the Gutenberg Bible. Patton knew if his raid Hammelburg failed, he would be severely criticized by his superiors, but he believed the fear of criticism shouldn't prevent an attempt to save American prisoners of war. He expressed his concern that the POWs at the camp could possibly be murdered in the chaos surrounding the last days of the Reich.

John Knight Waters

Patton's son-in-law after the Second World War he would command American forces in the Pacific during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. He was capture by German forces during the Battle of the Kasserine Pass Feburary 1943.

Patton's son-in-law after the Second World War he would command American forces in the Pacific during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. He was capture by German forces during the Battle of the Kasserine Pass Feburary 1943.

General George S. Patton (Old Blood and Guts)

General George Smith Patton, was born November 11, 1885 in San Gabriel California to a privileged family with an extensive military background. Patton would attend the Virginia Military Institute, and later attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. He would become a United States Army General, who commanded the Seventh Army in Sicily, and afterward the Third Army in the European theater of the Second World War. Patton's philosophy was leading from the front, and his ability to inspire his troops with vulgarity-ridden speeches for which he would become famous for attracted much attention upon him. His emphasis on rapid and aggressive offensive action proved effective on the battlefield in the Second World War.

He became well known for his breakout into France after the Normandy landings in the summer of 1944. Many Americans believed his tactics had won the war in Europe. In March 1945, George S. Patton was the most popular field commander since Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Army of Potomac to victory in the American Civil War. His endurance, stamina and uncomplaining nature, his willingness to take the extra step endeared him to his soldiers. Patton never grew tired of proving his courage to himself and his soldiers. He was an American and as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, " No kind of greatness is more pleasing to the imagination of a democratic people than military greatness, a greatness of vivid and sudden luster, obtained without toil, by nothing but the risk of life."

But soon after the end of the war in Europe his fate took a tragic turn. Patton was injured in a strange auto accident on a road outside Mannheim Germany, near the Rhine River on December 8, 1945. Patton was the only passenger hurt that cloudy cold day in what essentially was described as a "fender bender". He would die in agony just 12 days later on December 21, 1945. Patton was buried at the Luxemburg American Cemetery and Memorial in Hamm, Luxemburg with other wartime casualties of the Third Army.

Patton near Aachen 1945

General Patton with the Supreme Allied commander Dwight Eisenhower and General Bradley meet in Aachen Germany 1945.

General Patton with the Supreme Allied commander Dwight Eisenhower and General Bradley meet in Aachen Germany 1945.

Captain Abraham Baum

Captain Abraham Baum led his task force on a death ride behind German lines which began March 26, 1945.

Captain Abraham Baum led his task force on a death ride behind German lines which began March 26, 1945.

Captain Abraham Baum's Task Force

The Hammelburg Raid is a dramatic story that featured a colorful cast of characters some famous, and some not so famous, raising serious questions of morality and purpose. The order to form a task force to capture Hammelburg, some 50 miles behind enemy lines, began its journey down through the chain of command late on the night of March 25, 1945. The die was cast when Patton ordered the commander of the 4th Armored Division to assemble a force to rescue the prisoners at the POW camp in Hammelburg, Germany. A small select force was put together led by Captain Abraham Braum, a tough decorated tank officer, who was also Jewish, thus adding a great personal risk in a attack so deep behind German lines. Captain Braum's troops were part of the 4th Armored division considered by many as the best division of Patton's Third Army. The division had seen a lot of action and had always succeeded brilliantly on the battlefield. Because it had the point of the spearhead on so many of Patton's spectacular attacks, it was called "The Point." The 4th Armored Division and 101st Airborne Division were the only divisions in the European Theater of Operations to have been awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation by order of the President. Every soldier in the 4th Armored Division felt it was invincible.

Captain Baum was chosen to lead the raid on Hammelburg, on March 26, 1945. Task force Baum would consist of 16 Sherman tanks, a platoon of light tanks, 27 halftracks, 3 motorized assault guns, 7 jeeps, and a total of 300 soldiers.The Sherman tank was the main battle tank for American Army during the Second World War. By the end of the Second World War over 57,000 M4 tanks, called the Sherman, would be sent to the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. The Sherman tank burning in this picture just above was knocked out by the German anti-tank weapon, the panzerfaust. The danger of using this weapon was the you had to get within 100 feet of your target putting yourself in extreme danger before it was effective.

The largest problems facing Task Force Baum would be the lack of maps and the Volksstrum (the peoples storm) who defended their approach to the POW camp. Announced officially on October 18, 1944, the Volksstrum was not part of the regular German Army, but was established by the Nazi party on the orders of Adolf Hitler. It consisted of males between the ages of 16 and 60 years of age who were not already serving in some military unit as part of a German Home Guard. The Volksstrum was part of the Nazi's attempt to overcome their enemies military strength by force of will, as they termed it Total War.

The raid began on the night of March 26, 1945, with the task force attacking toward the villages of Schweinheim and Aschaffenburg. Baum's task force was shocked to find both villages had been reinforced by determined German units, including cadets and staff from the SS officer candidate school in Aschaffenburg. Although Patton's army had conquered vast territory, the Germans had resisted all the way, always retreating in order. German units on the Western Front were seasoned troops, well supplied and well trained, fanatical and brave. These troops gave the populace of Schweinheim added support, where civilians unattached to military units fought courageously together. Old ladies dropped grenades from rooftops and young boys and old men manned machine guns putting up a defense with the fury of experienced killers.

The Path to Hammelburg

The map showing  the path of Task Force Baum.

The map showing the path of Task Force Baum.

The Raid on Hammelburg

The plan was for the rescue force to strike 60 miles behind German lines toward Hammelburg, liberate the POW camp, and return back to American lines. Also along for the ride was one of Patton's most trusted aides, a former Texas Ranger Major Alexander Stiller, who would inform Baum that Patton's son-in-law Waters was at Hammelburg only after they had breached the German lines.

On the evening of March 26, 1945 Task Force Baum began its heroic journey across and behind German lines. Just the initial battle to break through the front line meant fighting a tough battle against Volksstrum forces armed with the deadly panzerfaust in the town of Schweinheim. Baum's attack was so aggressive that it penetrated far behind German lines quickly. It gave the German military the impression that it was a spearhead for a major American offensive.

In response to Baum's violent attack German generals began to move all available infantry, artillery, and armor against Baum's small task force. Despite desperate resistance all along the forty mile trek, including battling against an elite company of tank destroyers, Task Force Baum would reach the POW camp at Hammelburg on March 27, 1945, but with only half of his forces.

The task force was being continually shadowed by German observation planes while they advanced toward the camp. A German assault gun battalion lumbered into Hammelburg from the east just as Baum and his men approached the city from the west.

Baum's task force was whittled down by German troops using a very deadly small anti-tank weapon known as the panzerfaust. Toward the end of the war when Germany had very few tanks left to defend their homeland. To offset this shortfall the German Army handed out Panzerfaust to their home guard which consisted mostly of young boys and old men. The panerfaust was inexpensive and very effective against even the Allie armies most heavy tanks. Task Force Baum would lose half its tanks to this weapon during the battle. In the battle for Berlin the Red Army would also take heavy losses to this weapon.

A running gun battle erupted forcing Baum to take what prisoners he could and retreat back toward the American lines. Patton's son-in-law had been shot while attempting to make contact with Baum's forces, forcing them to leave him behind at the hospital at the POW camp.

Overwhelming German forces had moved into the area cutting off the retreat for Task Force Baum. Baum's small command fought to the last man, a small number of Baum's troops and freed prisoners would make the harrowing trek back to the American lines. Baum was shot in the groin while trying to flee back to American lines and was captured by German forces. He joined Waters at the POW camp in Hammelburg, which was liberated on April 6, 1945, just nine days after the failed mission. After Baum was evacuated, Patton would promote him to major, and personally pin the Distinguished Service Cross on his hospital pajamas. Patton put a lid on the heroic actions of Task Force Baum to save him from further embarrassment.

Sources

Baron, Richard. Raid: The Untold Story Of Patton's Secret Mission. Dell Publishing Random House Inc. 1540 Broadway, New York , New York,. 10036 1981

Schillare, Quentin W. An Example Of Late World War II Urban Combat In Europe. Army Command And General Staff ., Fort Leavenworth Kansas 1989.

Comments

Mark Caruthers (author) from Fayetteville Arkansas on June 18, 2015:

So true, that is why I didn't explore it further, just interested to see what you thought about the matter, just bad luck. It was fitting for him to be buried with him men near the field of battle.

CJ Kelly from the PNW on June 18, 2015:

I absolutely don't believe any of the Patton conspiracies. It was a car accident, plain and simple. The amount of personnel who would have been involved in such a complicated assassination makes this scenario unlikely. Also, he survived the car accident. Many conspiracy theorists conveniently forget that. Why take that chance?

Patton went hunting in the days after he was dismissed. Why not do it then? It could have been an accidental shooting. No one around except for one or two other people. Makes for a juicy topic.

Mark Caruthers (author) from Fayetteville Arkansas on June 18, 2015:

Thanks for the information. In my research I also found that Patton's death was clouded with mystery, could he have known too much about people in high places?

CJ Kelly from the PNW on June 18, 2015:

Good summary of the raid. I got to interview a survivor of the Raid and it was fascinating. He actually ended up Lt. Lyle Bouck (99th ID) for a time. But he said it hopeless. Anger was widespread. Totally unnecessary. Patton made a major blunder and he should be condemned for it.

But in my research I found something I did not know. His daughter, Bea, was a very bad alchoholic and suffered tremendous emotional problems. Letters from his wife about her were taking a toll on Patton. And I believe now, that this was the impetus for the raid. So Patton was a loving dad behind all the "blood and guts." Unfortunately, it led to a lot of unecessary deaths.

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