704th Tank Destroyer Battalion (SP) – Normandy – France – 1944

US M-10 Tank in St Lo, Normandy, France, 1944
US M-10 Tank in St Lo, Normandy, France, 1944

Report : Employment of 4 TD Bns in the ETO
Officers Advanced Course – Armored School
704th Tank Destroyer Battalion (SP)

Maj William F. Jackson, Maj John E. Wales III, Maj Marshall B. Garth, Maj John A. Rankin, Maj Alfred L. Dibelia, Maj Robert Hall, Capt George F. Sawyer, Capt Robert L. Perley, Capt James L. Higgins

704th Tank Destroyer Battalion

On July 11 1944, the 704th Tank Destroyer Battalion left the marshaling area in southern England and boarded LCT’s at Southampton. On the following day the battalion beached on Utah Beach on the Normandy coast of France. Shortly afterwards the battalion joined the recently arrived 4th Armored Division. On the morning of July 17, the battalion left the beach area with the 4th Armored Division and went into a defensive position in the vicinity of Raids, France. The battalion was in general support of CCB, 4th Armored Division with the mission of furnishing indirect fire for the front line armored infantry battalions. The battalion took up firing positions in fields approximately one half mile behind the armored infantry battalions. The battalion remained under control of its own battalion commander and his staff. It was assisted in its fire missions, which consisted of firing at enemy observation posts, snipers in buildings and church steeples, and area targets in the orchards, by the forward observers of the 4th Armored Artillery battalions and by the mortar platoon leaders of the armored infantry battalions. Although much firing was done, the extent of damage was never ascertained. Through the month of August and early September the 704th moved with the 4th Armored Division in the exploitation phase of the Battle of France.

During this exploitation the 704th lost its integrity as a battalion operating under command of its battalion commander. It was decentralized and its units were attached to Combat Commands of the 4th Armored Division :

– one company was attached to Combat Command A
– one company was attached to Combat Command B
– the remaining company and the Bn Hqs were attached to the Reserve Command

In this manner of attachment the company commanders remained at the Combat Command command post and received their orders from the Combat Command commander or his representative. In turn the company commanders would transmit their orders to their platoon leaders whose platoons would normally be supporting a reinforced tank battalion. The battalion commander and his staff kept in close touch with his company commanders by personal visits to the Combat Command command posts. Supply, evacuation, and replacements were executed through the logistical channels of the 4th Armd Div.

Undoubtedly one of the most descriptive and typical examples of the use of tank destroyers with both the infantry and armored units was the action of the 704th during the Battle of Arracourt, France. There the speed, maneuverability and firepower of the tank destroyers were exploited in their fullest; with results that were successful beyond even the highest hopes of the backers of this type of anti-tank tactics.

The general situation was as follows : During the early part of September the Third Army was making rapid progress against what appeared to be a somewhat confused German Army. The unrelenting pressure exerted against the enemy lines was practically impossible for the Germans to contain for more than brief periods of time. Without a doubt the Americans were on the move; and they had every intent of keeping the offensive rolling.

On Sept 16, Gen George S. Patton got his Corps Commanders together and gave them two important objectives as their next missions. The XX Corps was to advance as rapidly as possible and seize Frankfort. The XII Corps’ mission was the capture of Darmstadt and the establishing of a bridgehead east of the Rhine River. The XV Corps was to follow the XII Corps and be prepared to take Manheim on order.

The tentative target date for the XII Corps attack was set for Sept 18. The maneuver plan was a column of divisions with the 4th Armored Division in the lead. It was decided to strike between Sarreguemines and Saarbrucken.

As was stated, the penetrating force was to be the 4th Armored Division. It was to be followed by Gen Paul Baade’s 35th Infantry Division whose mission was to send one regiment to accompany the armor, and to use the remainder in widening the gap. Gen Horace McBride’s 80th Infantry Division was told to mop up any remaining pockets of enemy resistance, got behind the attacking column, take Saarbrucken, and continue on to the Rhine River.

This was the general plan for a rapid advance to the Rhine, but as usual, the Germans had ideas of their own. They were already on the march to launch a counterattack with elements of their Fifth Panzer Army, which most certainly was going to interrupt the execution of the Third Army’s plans.

On September 18, Gen John S. Wood, commander of the 4th Armored Division, issued orders for the resumption of the advance on the following day :

– CCB to move from Delme on Saarbrucken
– CCA was to move from the Arracourt area along the center road in the XII Corps zone (Morhange, Puttelange) and by using subsidiary roads on the south flank towards Sarreguemines

But the Germans did a little attacking of their own on Sept 18 at Luneville, forcing CCA to send a task force to help CCR whose position at Luneville was being menaced. And so, on the night of Sept 18, the 4th Armored Division was situated as follows :

– CCR had thrown off the German attack with minor losses and was holding its position
– CCB was deployed near Fresnes-en-Saulnois, ready for its attack on Saarbrucken on the following day
– CCA, minus the task force it had sent to CCR, was assembled about 12 miles southeast of Arracourt

Since our first account of tank destroyer action concerns itself with the tank destroyers attached to CCA the details as to the position of units of that command are of importance. The sector assigned to CCA was an extended one, reaching from Chambrey south nearly to the Marne-Rhine Canal. The protection of the north flank between Chambrey and Arracourt was the responsibility of an armored infantry battalion reinforced with a company of medium tanks.

Another medium tank company, C Co, 37th Tank Battalion, was the combat outpost at the crossroads at Lezey, about 4 or 5 miles northeast of Arracourt, CCA Headquarters, the attached field artillery, and a platoon of tank destroyers were grouped in and around Arracourt. The attached engineers held the south flank. It seems that at this time, the night of the Sept 18, CCA was additionally told to protect the city of Nancy.

Reports from air observers and ground reconnaissance patrols had stated that elements of a German Panzer Division, the 111. Panzer Brigade, and units of the 15. Panzer Grenadier Division were concentrating to the southeast of Arracourt. It was thought that the Germans were preparing an attack against the bridgehead at Nazncy; hence, the mission of the protection of Nancy for CCA.

What was actually occurring was that the German 113. Panzer Brigade, with 42 Panther tanks of the Mark V Battalion, and the 113. Panzer Grenadier Regiment, had moved from Bourdonnay in a successful night march, reorganized its advance guard near Ley, and was pushing its way toward Bezange. At this point it is of extreme importance to talk about the weather, for it actually played a major role throughout the fighting.

There was a seemingly permanent heavy fog coupled with mist and rain at intervals. Actually, the fog was so dense at times that visibility was to all practical purposes non-existent. This fog played a dual role in that it protected the German armor from air attack, but at the same time permitted American armor to fight at close quarters where the larger range of the German Panther tank gun was of no advantage.

The stage was now set for action. It was early in the foggy morning of Sept 19. German armored units were generally known to be in the area. CCA was deployed as described previously, and was preparing for its own advance while awaiting the return of the task force it had sent to the aid of CCR at Luneville. Capt Evans, the commander of C Co, 704th TDB, the company attached to CCA, stated that at this time his mission was that of supporting the anti-tank mission of the tanks, and when necessary, to furnish protection for the combat trains going to and from the Division Supply Point. The first reported contact with the German armor occurred near Lezey where C Co, 37th Tank Battalion, was out posted. A section of M-4 tanks were in position just south of Lezey when suddenly out of the dense fog which permeated the area appeared a Panther tank, hardly 75 yards from the two American tanks. The Panther, and two additional German tanks were destroyed almost within a matter of seconds; the remaining German tanks turned away in a southerly direction. Now Lt Leiper and the 3d Plat of Capt Evans’ company of the 704th TDB enter the picture with their brilliant action against the German armored thrust.

As told by Lt Leiper, this is what happened :

For some time prior to Sept 19 1944, C Co, 704th TDB was assisting in manning the combat outpost on the high ground north of Arracourt. Its Command Post was located at Xanrey and the company had two platoons placed on the line on the ground east of Moyenvic and its 3d Plat in reserve with CCA Headquarters in Arracourt. Their system was alternating the platoons every three days to give each one some rest from the guard detail. The 51st Armored Infantry was deployed along the Moyenvic line and the tank destroyers were being used as an infantry support team. Along the same line, but just west of Lezey was Capt Tanner with tanks of the 35th Tank Battalion.

On the night of Sept 18, the 3d Plat, C Co, with Lt Leiper in command, was brought back to Arracourt after being relieved from its tour on the line. It had spent an extra day on the front and was tired and ready for a little rest. There had been no anti-tank action on the line, but the machine guns of the tank destroyers had been used effectively against enemy night patrols attempting to pierce the area. And so the platoon bedded down, with no forethought of any action in the immediate future.

About 0730 of Sept 19, Lt Webb, the Communication Officer of CCA, rushed in to Lt Leiper and told him to alert his platoon immediately but could offer no explanation as to the reason for the emergency. A short time later, Capt Dwight, a liaison officer from the 37th Tank Battalion hurried in and asked if the platoon was ready. By this time Lt Leiper was sure something big was up, and his thoughts were confirmed with the arrival of Col Clark, CCA commander, who ordered the platoon to follow Capt Dwight to a certain Hill 279 and take up positions there as an outpost.

But further than that, Lt Leiper had no idea as to the enemy situation or as to what was occurring in the immediate area. Probably no one knew exactly what was happening, except that there were a lot of German tanks rumbling around the zone.

Lt Leiper and his platoon followed Capt Dwight on the road to Rechicourt. It is interesting to note that Lt Leiper, as platoon leader, did not ride in a tank destroyer, but rode at the head of his platoon in a jeep. This type of guidance had been decided upon by the tank destroyer Battalion Commander in England who had reasoned that it gave the platoon leader a better chance to direct the actions of his tank destroyers; whereas, if he were squeezed in one of the tank destroyers he would be more apt to fight the one tank destroyer rather than the five.

As they reached Rechicourt, enemy fire started coming in from the east, and Capt Dwight jumped from his jeep to ask Lt Leiper if he thought it was direct fire; and it certainly was. Again, the rain and fog made it impossible to determine exactly where the shooting was coming from. The platoon continued through Rechicourt and was relieved to recognize an American jeep barreling down the road from Bessingen.
Lt Leiper turned his platoon off the main road in Rechicourt and started north on a narrow lane for about one thousand yards to the vicinity of Hill 246. They then started cross country up toward Hill 279 which had woods to the front and the right.

As the hill was approached, Lt Leiper, who was still in front with his jeep, was startled to see the muzzle of a German tank gun sticking out through the trees at what seemed to be less than 30 feet away. He immediately gave the dispersal signal and the many months of continuous practice proved its worthiness as the platoon promptly deployed with perfect accord. The lead tank destroyer, commanded by Sgt Stacey, had evidently seen the German tank at the same time as Lt Leiper, and opened fire immediately. Its first round scored a direct hit, exploding the German tank. The flames of the burning tank revealed others behind it in a V-formation, and Sgt Stacey’s next round hit a second German tank, but immediately afterwards he had his own tank destroyer knocked out by fire from a third German tank. This enemy Mark IV was taken under fire by the No. 2 tank destroyer, and was destroyed. The maneuver and fire of the 3d tank destroyer got another German tank as it tried to back out of the unhealthy situation, and a fifth enemy tank was destroyed almost immediately thereafter.

The entire affair was over in a matter of minutes, and as soon as the shooting had stopped, Lt Leiper ordered the platoon to the area to make sure the enemy tanks were all out of action and to be certain that there were no more there. The box score for that short action stood at 5 German tanks destroyed, and one tank destroyer knocked out of action. The tank destroyer had been hit on an angle along the base of its gun barrel and through the gun shield. The ricocheting round had bounced around the interior of the tank.

The platoon withdrew about five hundred yards to a defiladed position behind a small rise. Security sections were posted around the perimeter and the damaged tank was sent back under its own power so that the injured could get medical care immediately. The assistant driver had been killed at once, and all the others except the gun sergeant had been wounded by the ricocheting shell. After this engagement Lt Leiper stated that he no longer permitted the assistant driver to stay in the tank destroyer when action was imminent. He served no practical purpose then as assistant driver but just sat around and waited; and Lt Leiper decided that to place a man in such a position uselessly was not good thinking; and therefore he put the assistant drivers at other tasks when fighting was close.

The tank destroyers were placed in position as near as possible in the direction that the enemy was thought to be. The fog stayed in all the low areas continuously – and it was still raining. Lt Leiper and his sergeant made a reconnaissance of the area for the next hour trying to find the enemy locations. They succeeded only in receiving small-arms fire from the left and in hearing tanks moving about on the right of their positions.

Shortly after returning to the platoon defense area, Lt Leiper and some of his men saw a number of tanks moving on the crest of a hill some twenty five hundred yards away in the area between Bessingen and Rechicourt. They were able to see them because the fog was confined to the valleys and low spots. Because it was known that the 1st Plat of C Co was in the area fire was withheld initially. However, when the sixth tank was counted it was obvious that they must be German, and the platoon opened fire. Either four or five of the tanks – they were Mark IVs – were knocked out. At this time the attached field artillery battalion under Lt Col Parker opened fire on the tanks who were accompanied by infantry, and the enemy was dispersed.

More time of tense waiting went by a liaison plane was seen overhead dodging in and out of the clouds. The plane was that of Maj Carpenter, who had figured out a method of attaching bazookas to the wings. They saw him dive behind them into the fog and fire his bazookas. The flash from the exploding bazooka shells revealed three German tanks that had obviously circled around the 3d Plat and were making their way up the back of the hill to their positions.

Lt Leiper pulled a tank destroyer around and brought its fire on the tanks destroying two of them before the 3d one’s fire hit the right sprocket of the tank destroyer knocking it out of action. Lt Leiper signaled for another tank destroyer to come up with a tow to pull the damaged tank destroyer back, but before the plan could be put into action the second tank destroyer was also hit – this one through the gun shield. It was reported that most of the tank destroyers that were destroyed were knocked out by hits on the gun shield, and it was thought that this was probably due to the fact that the gun blast made it a good target point.

Lt Leiper pulled back his one remaining tank destroyer to defilade, dismounted his other men and set up a perimeter defense using the machine guns from the damaged tank destroyers. There the platoon stayed until about 1500 when far to the right near Rechicourt the 1st Plat of C Co 704th made its appearance. For some unknown reason several German tanks came out of a wooded area and attempted to cross the cemetery near Monocourt making perfect targets of themselves. Before they could get back to cover two of them were stopped by hits in the rear of their tanks by the 3d Platoon’s last tank destroyer. Then the enemy infantry tried an attack but the emplaced machine guns changed their minds immediately. Finally, Maj Hunter, with a platoon of tanks from the 35th Tank Battalion arrived and relieved the dead-tired but still determined members of the 3d Plat who went back to Arracourt for their well earned rest. Capt Leach, Company Commander of B Co, 37th Tank Battalion stated that the entire Combat Command was amazed at the terrific fight put up by the tank destroyer platoon and confirmed the fact that fifteen German tanks had been destroyed by the platoon’s fire during that day.

On September 20 1944, CCA was ordered to continue toward Sarreguemines. However, after several hours of road marching, CCA received word that German tanks had returned to Arracourt which CCA had just left (actually, only eight German tanks had returned). CCA dispatched a company of tanks and one platoon of tank destroyers to take care of the Germans. This was done as ordered, with the entire force of German tanks destroyed.

On September 21, CCA received orders to utilize the remainder of the day and the next day for a rest period. This was needed as a result of the tank battles around Arracourt, and for preparation for an attack against Chateau-Salins.

However, on the morning of Sept 22, the Germans attacked CCA on its left flank which was being protected by the 25th Reconnaissance Squadron, Mechanized. C Co 704th TDB was dispatched to drive the Germans off. C Co took the situation in hand, and again against numerically superior Germans destroyed seven tanks, and then caused the remainder of the force to go into a disorganized retreat.

While C Co 704th had been with CCA, A Co 704 was attached to CCB, 4th Armored Division, and Headquarters 704th was attached to Reserve Command, 4th Armored Division. A Co worked with CCB in the area from Drouville-Sallones on the 16th of September and remained there until Sept 21 when it moved near Fresnes-en-Saulnois.

On Sept 24, the enemy was encountered near Drouville-Sallones and four tanks were destroyed. No tank destroyers were lost. Capt Ryan was wounded in this action and evacuated and on the 25, Lt Preneta from B Co was assigned to command A Co. On the 27th of September A Co rejoined the battalion in the vicinity of Arracourt.

Headquarters 704th and B Co 704th were in bivouac on the 16th of September 1 miles southeast of Luneville. Its mission was the protection of the left flank of CCR which had been scheduled to attack and take Luneville. However, it was discovered that Luneville was already occupied by friendly troops; and so the 704th went into bivouac on the high ground northwest of the city on Sept 17 and stayed there until Sept 20.

During this period the 3d Plat, B Co, 704th moved to Luneville, which was under heavy artillery fire, in order to outpost the city against German armored columns which were approaching from the east. The 1st Plat, B Co, 704th was given the mission of supporting the 10th Armored Infantry Battalion which was located on the high ground north of the city. In the eastern area of Luneville, 3d Plat, B Co fought throughout the night and destroyed 3 MK V tanks. On the 19th the platoon destroyed one MK V tank, one heavy SP gun, one heavy machine gun and crew, and took five prisoners.

In the afternoon of Sept 19, both the Battalion Headquarters bivouac area and the position of the 1st Plat B Co, 704th wore shelled, Lt Col Bailey, the battalion commander was killed by enemy mortar fire in Luneville. Headquarters 704th and B Co, 704th were relieved on the afternoon of the 19 and moved twelve miles north to the vicinity of Serres. On Sept 20, these units moved again – thistime to the vicinity of Arracourt where Lt Col H. P. Heid Jr assumed command. B Co, 704th took positions guarding the right flank of CCA. On the 20, the company destroyed 5 MK V German tanks and on the 22, the 2d Plat, B Co, 704th destroyed 3 more enemy tanks near Rechicourt

As a discussion and condensation of the activities of tank destroyers in general there are several points which can be broughtout;

(a) From the employment of Capt Evans’ company at Arracourt, it is noted that tank destroyers were used in platoons under company control, supporting an outpost line, and moving from place to place looking for enemy tanks or other suitable targets of opportunity. B Co had a similar mission when it was told to support the 10th Armored Infantry Battalion north of Luneville

(b) Tank destroyers fought in tank destroyer versus tank actions as shown by the fighting of Lt Leiper’s platoon near Rechicourt, A Co’s action near Drouville-Sallones, B Co’s fight with German tanks when guarding the right flank of CCA

  • (c) Missions of flank and outpost security were prevalent for tank destroyers as described throughout the battles

    (d) During the battles at Arracourt the Battalion Commander of the 704th lost complete control of his battalion. The control of his detached companies was established at Combat Command Headquarters. However, the tank destroyer Company Commanders did conduct close liaison with the tank destroyer platoons when they supported other units. Both Maj Miller, executive officer of the 704th and Lt Col Bidwell, a later battalion commander of the 704th, confirmed the above use of tank destroyer units. Additionally, they both thought that throughout the battles near Arracourt the tank destroyers were well employed under combat command control since the higher headquarters had a better picture of the overall situation and could dispatch tank destroyers to the right place at the appropriate time

    (e) It was also generally agreed that the tank destroyer missions at Arracourt could not have been as well performed by heavy tanks, such as M-26’s, inasmuch as the tank destroyers were able to utilize speed and maneuverability over rough and muddy terrain over which M-26 tanks would have been unable to move. It was also stated that the open turrets of the tank destroyers were both a psychological and an actual discouraging feature to the crews inasmuch as they were always exposed to artillery air bursts and infantry grenades.

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