The 707th Tank Battalion in Support of the 28th Infantry Division
The 28th Infantry Division, supported by the 707th Tank Battalion, relieved the depleted 9th Infantry Division in the vicinity of Germeter on October 28 1944, and prepared to continue the assault to the Roer River dams. Previous to the fall of Aachen on October 21, the bulk of Gen Hodges’ 1-A forces were engaged in the reduction of the city. After that date he was able to regroup his divisions for the attack to seize crossings of the Roer River. The VII Corps was to make the main effort to cross the Roer near Düren while, as a necessary preliminary to this crossing, the V Corps was to seize the dams in the vicinity of Schmidt.
The objective assigned to the 28-ID by the V Corps was the area Vossenack – Strauch – Schmidt. Schmidt was an important communications center located astride an east-west road which the 1-A wanted for Main Supply Road (MSR), and in addition was on a ridge overlooking the Schwammenauel Dam (Rurtalsperre Schwammenauel), one of the vital Roer dams. East of the division and in the center of its sector lay the town of Vossenack atop an east-west ridge surrounded by woods. To the north lay the Hürtgen – Brandenberg – Bergstein ridge which dominated the Vossenack ridge as did also the ridge on which lay the towns of Schmidt and Kommerscheidt.
The 28-ID plan of attack provided for the 109-IR to be committed on the north flank in the direction of the town of Hürtgen; the 110-IR on the south toward Simonskall, and the 112-IR in the center to take in turn, the towns of Vossenack, Kommerscheidt and Schmidt. The 707-TB, commanded by Lt Col Richard Ripple was to support the attack. This battalion had joined the 28-ID on October 6, and up to the time of the Hürtgen operation had soon very little combat. In this operation, the 707-TB fought mostly in support of the center regiment. In front of the division on both, north and south, were dense forests cut by deep draws and hiding numerous defenses such as pillboxes, AT and AP mines, plus other types of man-made obstacles. In the center was the open ridge on which lay the town of Vossenack. Southeast of Vossenack and separating it from Schmidt was the Kall River running through a steep wooded gorge. This river was crossed only by a steep Wooded trail which connected Vossenack and Kommerscheidt and which was to become the MSR for the forces south of the Kall River.
Before the attack, the division G-2 estimated that to the immediate front the enemy had approximately 3350 men, to the north 1940, and to the south 1850, all fighting as infantry, under control of the 89.Infantry-Division. Reserves capable of rapid intervention wore estimated at 2000 not committed and 3000 from less active fronts. The attack, which was scheduled to jump off on October 31, was delayed daily because of bad weather and was finally made on November 2. Adverse weather continued but it was decided the attack could no longer be delayed.
Action on Vossenack
As previously mentioned, the town of Vossenack lay astride a road which ran along the top of an open ridge. The town was about a city block wide and two thousand yards in length. Near the center of Vossenack the church formed a prominent landmark and overlooked the deep draws from the surrounding woods which reached up to the outskirts of the town on the north, east, and south.
On November 2, at 0900, after an hour of artillery preparation, the 2/112-IR, jumped off from the vicinity of Germeter. Moving down the the ridge George Co was on the left, Fox Co on the right with Easy Co following in reserve. In support of this attack was Charlie Co 707-TB. The 1st Plat. under Lt William S. Quarrie, plus two tanks from the 2nd Plat., attacked with George Co. The three remaining tanks of the 2nd Plat. with Lt James J. Leming in command attacked with Fox Co. Lt Joseph Novak’s 3rd Plat. with Easy Co was to assist in mopping up the objective or to come to the aid of the other tank platoons if required. The attack progressed satisfactorily and the infantry was on the objective shortly after 1000.
The tanks, however, had trouble from the start. The 1st Plat. sergeant’s tank had a track blown off while moving through a gap in an American laid protective minefield. Next, Lt Quarrie’s tank became mired in the soft ground. Capt George S. West, commanding the tank company, saw the difficulty, came forward, and placed the lieutenant in his tank, and the platoon moved on. The last tank of the 2nd Plat. wont too far south and was knocked by Panzerschreck fire. The platoon commander, Lt Leming, who was having trouble with his tank gun, radioed the 3rd Plat. for assistance. One section came forward and was, sent toward the eastern end of the town. After totting his gun in action, Leming moved forward, only to have his tank immobilized by a German nine. Meanwhile, Capt West left his own tank to Lt Quarrie and commandeered a 3rd Plat. tank which struck a mine in Vossenack shortly afterward and was put out of action. He then mounted a Battalion Headquarters tank which was in the town performing forward observation for the battalion Assault Gun Platoon. The difficulties of command under the conditions which faced Capt West can be appreciated. His platoons were in support of three different infantry companies; he could only act as an expediter and to do this he required both transportation and communication.
A tank retriever which came into the town to evacuate Lt Leming’s tank was hit and immobilized by German artillery fire. Thus, by 1300, five tanks and one retriever were out of action which reduced the effective strength of the company by roughly one-third. Most of those tanks were recoverable, but they were of no immediate value to the infantry which they were supporting. At 1600, the company returned to an area within 400 yards of Germeter and spent the night in that location, remaining on call from the infantry.
At about 0500, the next day, the tank company moved forward, and occupied supporting positions on the north and east edges of Vossenack. The company remained in these positions encountering no enemy activity until heavy artillery began to land about 1200. All tanks expect three were ordered back into Germeter. The three remaining, were these of the 1st and 2nd Platoon’s leaders and the battalion headquarters tank ordered to stay in the town for communication purposes. The command tank of the 1st Platoon was still immobilized but could be used in this capacity. At about 1230, hostile artillery fire came down on the battalion headquarters tank, knocking it out and at 1530, the only operative tank in Vossenack was ordered back.
No further tank action occurred until the following morning when the 2nd Plat. was used in fire support role for one of the battalions of the 110-IR to the south. The mission was completed by 0705 and the platoon returned to company control. At 1030, on the request of the infantry commander in Vossenack, the four tanks of the 1st Plat. went forward to neutralize small arms and machine gun fire coming from the woods north of the town. The tanks moved in and fired High Explosive (HE) shells, at ranges of 150-200 yards, neutralized the enemy fire, and returned to Germeter at 1100. Again at the request of the infantry, one section of the 2nd Plat. plus the company commander in his tank wont back into Vossenack, where the 2/112-IR, was still holding at considerable cost. The eastern end of the town and the eastern slope of the ridge where the infantry had dug-in was subjected to continuous battering artillery which took its toll of casualties and undermined the morale of the defenders. The western end of the town was relatively quiet except for troops passing through en route to Kommerscheidt. Medical and other vehicles continued to use the route through Vossenack to the south.
While the three tanks were engaged in counteracting small arms fire at the direction of the infantry, Capt West’s tank backed into a crater and broke a drive shaft. He ordered the other tanks back and stayed with his own until he was towed back by company maintenance. At 1815, Lt Quarrie with three tanks of the 1st Plat. moved to the position occupied by Fox Co. He spotted tracer fire coming from a draw east of the town and radioed the position to the battalion assault guns, which fired into this draw until the divisional artillery took this mission over. A German POW later stated that this fire broke up a counter attack which was forming in the draw, indicating the advantage of having an assault gun platoon organic to the tank battalion. Lt Quarrie remained with Fox Co all night while the balance of the tanks were in Germeter.
Capt West, moved at 0700, November 5, with Lt Leming’s three tanks to positions from which they could fire into the woods north of Vossenack on mortar and enemy small arms locations. Here one tank received a direct HE hit which killed the driver and destroyed the 75-MM gun. The other tanks returned to Germeter at about 1000. At 1400, Lt Leming went forward with his platoon in order to repel a reported counter attack. Capt West, accompanied this platoon which moved up to support George Co. Lt Quarries’s platoon continued to support Easy Co. The entire eastern end of the ridge came under intense heavy artillery fire, and by 1500, both platoons were receiving heavy fire and withdrew to Germeter apparently without orders. Capt West, in his tanks, remained in turret defilade behind George Co. At 1730, Lt Quarrie again reported to Fox Co with an extra tank borrowed from the 2nd Plat. He remained with them all night, returning to Germeter early the next morning.
After Lt Quarrie reported back, Lt Col Ripple received orders to get all available armor into Vossenack to stop am enemy counter attack; Baker and Charlie Cos, 707-TB, were committed. Baker Co initially sent its 1st Plat., under Lt Carl A. Anderson, into town. This platoon was soon followed by Capt George S. Granger, the company commander and the 3rd Plat., under Lt Danforth Sherman. Charlie Co, with its eight tanks, came last. The situation was described by the tankers as one of complete confusion. Many of the infantry were running to the rear out of the town. None of the tankers know where the front lines were, or where the counter attacking enemy was located. The 1st Plat., Charlie Co, occupied a position northeast of Vossenack and fired to the north until about 0900 when it pulled back to Germeter. Meanwhile, in Baker Co, Lt Anderson evacuated the crew of a damaged Charlie Co tank by placing one man from the crew in each of his tanks and returning with his entire platoon to the Line of Departure. Although he asked for and received permission from Capt Granger to make this evacuation, there seems to be no sound reason for taking all of those tanks out of action at a time when presumably they were badly needed. He soon returned to Vossenack, however, and relieved the 2nd Plat., Charlie Co, by 0930. When the Company 3 tankers first entered Vossenack they knew nothing about the ground and less about the situation. As a result they fired first into buildings occupied by the friendly infantry and caused come casualties. They also fired perilously close to the 3rd Plat. of Charlie Co and some tank destroyers which were in the town. During all of this time Capt Granger was trying to locate the infantry battalion commander to get an intelligent picture of what was happening.
Whether or not there was a German counter attack is uncertain from the available accounts. Lt Novak’s, Charlie Co, 3rd Plat., is credited with stopping some German infantry approaching the town from the east and southeast. The one fact that can definitely be reconstructed is that the American infantry defenders having been subjected to unceasing artillery and mortar fire for five days, had reached the limit of their endurance. When the first shouts of counter attack went up, panic spread like wildfire and the men left their holes and ran to the rear. When Capt Granger located the infantry battalion CP he found that the battalion commander, though present, was a combat fatigue casualty and that a captain on his staff was in actual command.
In the initial action of Baker Co in Vossenack it is of interest to note that requests and orders sent to Baker Co came from Capt West’s of Charlie Co rather than from their own tank or infantry battalion commander. Capt West was in town at the time Baker Co was committed, but the accounts indicate that even he did not know the infantry situation. Capt West was killed at about 0900 by an enemy shell which landed in the turret of his tank. Capt Granger took command of the tanks of both companies and kept his 1st and 3rd Plats in the vicinity of Vossenack the remainder of the day. Artillery fire knocked out three tanks and the only direct action against the enemy was the destruction of a small infantry counter attack. At 0900, Lt Quarrie, Charlie Co, came forward and relieved the tanks of Baker Co for the night.
This day’s action at Vossenack is a graphic illustration of the dangers attending such vague orders as those sending tanks into the town. The communication and coordination necessary between the tanks and infantry had completely broken down. When Capt West was killed the remaining tanks were under the command of Capt Granger who was not familiar with the terrain and who was also occupied in trying to establish contact with the local infantry defenders. By this time the foot troops in Vossenack consisted largely of engineers of the 1171th Engineer Combat Group (two battalions) supporting the 28-ID. During the night, Gen George A. Davis, assistant division commander, visited the town and ordered the engineers to retake the eastern end which had been abandoned by the infantry and reoccupied by Germans in undetermined strength. About 0300, the following day, Lt Quarrie’s tank was disabled by a direct hit on the turret while another tank of his platoon was hit in the engine compartment. Lt Quarrie was not injured, however, and at 0500 he was called to the engineer CP for his recommendations as to the employment of tanks in the engineer counter attack to take place that morning. He explained that he was to be relieved by Lt Johnson of Baker Co, but recommended that tanks not be used on the left (north) flank of the town because of its vulnerability from the high ground at Hürtgen and Brandenberg.
At 0730, Lt Johnson, accompanied by Lt Anderson and Capt Granger arrived. Lt Anderson led Quarrie’s platoon back to Germeter, and Quarrie followed with Capt Granger after orienting Johnson on the engineer plan. At this time the engineers held a north-south line through Vossenack at about the center of the town. Lt Johnson’s platoon was to move up the right (south) flank of the town immediately after the artillery barrage which heralded the engineer attack. One company of engineers was to attack from house to house up the main road of the tow with Lt Johnson’s tank firing two rounds into each house before the assault. This plan succeeded and the engineers were able to retake the entire town.
Despite direct and indirect artillery fire, bombing and strafing from friendly planes, casualties to the tanks where largely from other causes. One was immobilized by a mine, another became bogged in a shell hole, while a third became inoperative because of a broken gas line. An incident occurred here which emphasizes the necessity for dependable communications. A garbled radio message caused the engineers to withdraw from the eastern end of the town under the impression that they were ordered to hold north-south line through the church. They did this without notifying the tanks and then called on artillery and mortar fire on the eastern end of the town. This fire fell around Lt Johnson and his tanks until he succeeded in getting it moved farther east. The vacant part of the town was again occupied by friendly troops and the tank platoon remained in position until relieved by Lt Anderson and his platoon at 1800. This platoon immediately received direct artillery fire from its right front and Lt Anderson ordered his tanks to move back, intending only that they back out of the line of fire. At this point his radio failed and because of the loss of contact the rest of his platoon returned all the way to Germeter. He started back after his platoon, but en route he met Lt Col Henbest, commanding the 2/109-IR, which had been ordered to relieve the engineers of the defense of Vossenack. The colonel told him that he and Capt Granger had decided to keep the tanks in Germeter since they could move up easily when desired, and their presence only drew unwelcome artillery fire.
About 0500, on the morning of November 8, Lt Col Henbest called for tanks, and at 0600 Lt Anderson, with four tanks, moved into Vossenack and occupied positions at the western end of the town. His platoon moved in and around the town for the rest of the day except between 1200 and 1400 when he returned for resupply. He was relieved at 1200 by Lt Novak of Charlie Co, who remained in the town after Anderson’s platoon returned. Anderson’s main action during the day consisted of firing his tanks and adjusting artillery fire on moving targets and gun flashes. He also called and received an air strike on some enemy tanks which had been sighted. After dark both platoons returned to Germeter; Lt Novak came back on foot ahead of his platoon suffering from severe shoulder and leg wounds. November 8, marked the last of the action for Charlie Co in Vossenack. During the fighting here it had tried to keep one platoon in town with the infantry at all times. This effort was not usual in response to definite requests for armor for specific missions, but was rather an attempt to give continuous armored support.
At 0630, November 9, the 2nd Plat., Baker Co, numbering three tanks, moved into Vossenack. By now it was snowing and visibility was nul, At 0900, one of the sergeant tank commanders asked permission of Lt Johnson to return to Germeter. His gunner was almost hysterical from battle exhaustion and needed a rest. Permission was granted, and two tanks were left in the town. Later in the morning an officer (unidentified) from the artillery, walked over and asked the tanks to leave town. They did so, apparently without questioning the authority of the order. This concluded active participation of Baker Co, 707-TB, in Vossenack, although it remained on alert status in Germeter during November 9 and 10.
The action of the 707-TB at Vossenack is a perfect example of the unnecessary loss of lives and material occasioned by lack of mutual understanding between the armor and infantry arms; lack of efficient communication between these two arms or a failure to use such means; lack of exchange of tactical information between the arms on the lower levels. It was vital to the 28-ID to hold Vossenack since the division MSR to Schmidt passed through this town. If the tanks had been used as a mobile reserve and given complete, clear and concise orders when committed, the losses both to the armor and the infantry would have been less. The role of the engineers in this action should not be overlooked. Their mine reconnaissance and mine clearing activities did little to prevent the loss of tanks from mine damage. At a minimum, routes of counter attack should have been cleared early in the action in order for the infantry to receive maximum benefit from the armor in the mobile reserve capacity.
Action at Kommerscheidt and Schmidt
Concurrently with the action at Vossenack, troops of the 112-IR became involved in fighting at Kommerscheidt and Schmidt. These two towns are accessible from Vossenack only by a tortuous, twisted trail which passes through the forest and dips into the valley of the Kall River. This trail was a distinct obstacle for medium tanks, tank destroyers, supply and medical vehicles. It was narrow, unpaved, barely the width of a tank, and was characterized by sharp angled turns and rock abutments which hindered the passage of vehicles. These conditions were aggravated by the frequent rainfall occurring in early November. Schmidt, it will be remembered, was the objective of the 112-IR and of the 28-ID in the attack which began on November 2. Its importance was its control of a good road net and the fact that it dominated the Schwammenauel Dam on the Roer River. Since Vossenack had been taken with comparative ease on the first day, it was decided to pass the 1/112 and 3/112 through the 2/112 in Vossenack to attack Kommerscheidt and Schmidt respectively. This was a slight change in the original plan which contemplated the attack through Richeskaul. However, after an abortive attempt in this direction on November 2, the plan was changed as indicated. The new plan was successful and by night fall the 3/112 was in Schmidt, having taken it virtually unopposed, while the 1/112 was in and around Kommerscheidt also occupied with very little trouble. However, the attackers who had been so successful soon became the defenders of their respective towns without American armor forward to support them, Able Co, 707-TB, was the unit which was committed to the support of these troops and was reinforced by Charlie Co, 893-TDB (M-10’s). The difficulties which beset the tanks and TDs are brought out in the following account.
November 2 found Able Co, 707-TB, located in Germeter in a reserve role. Its mission was first, to support by fire the attack of Charlie Co with the infantry on Vossenack, second, to guard against a possible counter attack from Hürtgen and the north east, and third, to be prepared to support the 1/112 and 3/112, in their attack on Schmidt. After an inactive day, Capt Bruce M. Hostrup, the company commander, was called to the regimental CP at 1800. He was told that his company was to support the attack of the 3/112 which had the mission of securing Kommerscheidt and of driving on to seize, consolidate, and establish roadblocks in Schmidt. Next he met Lt Col Flood, C0 3/112, to discuss plans for the attack.
The tanks were to be employed as follows : 2nd and 3rd tank platoons to support Love and King Cos respectively as they attacked Kommerscheidt abreast, starting from the church at Vossenack; the 1st tank platoon to follow at about four hundred yards. The tanks with the leading companies were initially to lead the infantry and assist in cleaning out any Germans who might occupy the nose of the ridge. Next, they planned to fire into the woods while the infantry moved forward and finally, pull back to high ground from which they could fire directly into Kommerscheidt until the infantry reached the hill immediately north of that town. Although the assaulting infantry companies intended to lay wire as they advanced, the cease fire to the tanks was to depend on visual means only.
The attack jumped off at 0700, November 3, and wont almost as planned. Platoon leader, Lt John J. Clark lost his tank to a German mine. The rest of the tanks pulled back to the high ground, commended firing into Kommerscheidt as outlined, and lifted their fire when they were able to see the infantry moving in good formation up the high ground on the other side of the Kall River. The tanks then took advantage of what defilade was available and waited for word from the engineers that the trail between Vossenack and Kommerscheidt was passable. About 1700, word came from Lt Col Ripple that the engineers had reported the road clear, Capt Hostrup in one of his tanks reconnoitered the road and found that it was still impassable for tanks. After reporting this to Col Ripple, who relayed it to division headquarters, the captain as subsequently ordered to remain in place until morning. He was told that engineers would work on that road to Kommerscheidt all night. The tanks remained in this position the rest of the night during which time artillery and mortar fire hit several but caused no material damage. Three tanks were inoperative by this time, however, from other causes. Lt Clark’s had hit a mine, a second had thrown a track, and a third had bellied up on a sharp rocky ridge. The fire received during the night prevented retrievers from coming to their aid.
At daylight, Able Co again tried the trail to Kommerscheidt. Lt Raymond E. Fleig, leading the first platoon, started to move through the draw but as he reached the entrance his tank hit a mine and threw a track. This was 24 hours after the engineers had reported the road clear of mines. Lt Fleig reported to Capt Hostrup who told him to got his tank clear of the road because the company had to go through. Lt Fleig then began a battle with the terrain which resulted in a number of disabled tanks and denied tank support to the infantry in Kommerscheidt and Schmidt. In attempting to move his second tank around the first it slipped off the left side of the road and became mired in the soft ground. At this point his platoon sergeant using the command tank as an anchor winched the remaining three tanks of the platoon past the command tank and removed the stuck tank.
As soon as the lead tank was clear Lt Fleig took it toward the river, being forced at intervals to back and turn the tank in order to negotiate the turns in the trail. At the three switchbacks he was forced to direct the tank on foot. After crossing the stone bridge at the Kall he led his tank on foot nearly to the top of the hill north of Kommerscheid. He made a brief visual reconnaissance of his route, mounted his tank, and rode into town, arriving about 0730. There he reported to the CO of the 1/112, stating that he expected the rest of his company up by noon. The colonel told him that a German counter attack had driven part of the 3/112 out of Schmidt and asked him to take a position from which he could support a further withdrawal. Lt Fleig was joined about 0930 by his platoon sergeant with two tanks. All three tanks were placed in partial defilade covering Schmidt.
The Germans apparently no longer considered the defense at Schmidt effective and at 1100 counter attacked Kommerscheid with infantry and tanks. Lt Fleig destroyed two German Mark IVs and the other two tanks accounted for a third. Fleig then moved to his left where the defenders were giving way, engaged, and knocked out a Mark V Panther, after which he returned to the other American tanks and continued to fight with them until the attack was finally repelled at 1300. The tanks spent the remainder of the afternoon firing at two pillboxes west of Schmidt which the enemy was trying to reoccupy. Lt Fleig had been instructed not to fire into Schmidt as part of Mike Co, 122-IR was still there. At about 1500, these troops pulled out and Lt Fleig was ordered by the regimental CO to remain where he was. The colonel promised him infantry ground support adding that he expected another counter attack and stated that he felt if the tanks moved out of position, even for resupply, the infantry on the position would leave also. The expected night attack did not materialize, but artillery and mortar fire rained on the area.
During the time that Lt Fleig was engaged in Kommerscheidt, Capt Hostrup was desperately trying to reach the town with the remainder of Able Co. He had walked down the trail to assist the last of Lt Fleig’s platoon in crossing the Kall. The last tank of the platoon threw a track and became mired at the bottom of the draw. About this time Lt Clark in his platoon sergeant’s tank led his platoon forward. Not knowing the method which had been used to winch the 1st Plat. around the dead tank at the trail entrance, Lt Clark lost his tank off the road to the left when it tried to pass. Lt Clark and the sergeant dismounted to survey the situation when artillery fire killed the sergeant and wounded Clark. The next two tanks using the two immobilized tanks as buffers went straight through on the road. Upon reaching the first bad curve the tank in the lead slipped off the road to the left and threw a track. The next tank, about 150 yards behind, also slipped off the left of the road throwing both tracks. Thus there were three tanks blocking the MSR to Kommerscheidt with little chance of getting maintenance vehicles near them.
Capt Hostrup, later joined by personnel from his company maintenance section, worked on the vehicles and on the MSR. The center tank of the three was of most concern to the workers. its tracks were replaced time after time only to have it roll a few yards and lose its tracks again. The tankers in the draw also assisted the engineers in trying to dig bypasses out of the high right bank of the road to reopen it for traffic. These banks were largely stone, however, and even blasting failed to produce satisfactory results. During the day and night the work of the tankers and the engineers was continually interrupted by mortar and artillery fire and once the workers were delayed by the stream of infantry pouring back from Schmidt. Capt Hostrup kept Col Ripple abreast of the situation and received the promise of additional engineers.
By mid-night, the tank battalion S-4 was on the road waiting to take a supply train through to Kommerscheidt. Finally, acting on orders from tank battalion headquarters and with daylight approaching, Capt Hostrup and his men rolled the blocking tanks into the draw, permitting the supply trains to go through. At 0430, Capt Hostrup walked back up the road to his 3rd Plat. position and stayed there until 0600 at which time he returned to the MSR. He learned that the engineers had been able to get bulldozers in and that the road was passable. Returning to the 3rd Plat., he attached to the platoon the remaining two tanks of the 2nd Plat. and followed this group toward the road entrance. Lt Payne, commanding the 3rd Plat., halted to allow nine destroyers from the 893-TDB to move through ahead of him. Little difficulty was experienced with the road, and Lt Payne had his platoon on the hill north of Kommerscheidt by 0900. Capt Hostrup’s tank developed engine trouble south of the Kall and he radioed Lt Fleig to take command of all tanks in the area pending his arrival.
Lt Fleig with his three tanks helped the infantry beat off a small tank-infantry counter attack, which faltered after a German Mark VI Tiger had received seven direct hits from the American tanks. About 0900, the Germans counter attacked again, this time without tanks. The tank destroyers arrived in town during the second attack which was also beaten off. Lt Payne’s platoon then joined the defenders and the enemy counter attacked regularly at about four-hour intervals during the day. None of the attacks were successful. At dark the tank destroyers went to the rear to resupply, but the tanks again were ordered to remain in the town. Capt Hostrup’s tank, again operative, was at the regimental CP where the regimental CO wanted it for communication purposes. The division commander’s orders to the regiment that night were to hold Kommerscheidt at all costs.
At about 0330, a German counterattack cut the lightly defended MSR and the enemy roamed it practically at will. Part of the tank battalion S-4 section was cut off in Kommerscheidt. The infantry regimental CP moved south into the town and joined the 1st Battalion CP. At 0900, Able Co’s tanks protecting the south and southeast flanks of the town spotted another counter attack which was effectively broken up by artillery, tanks, and TDs. The tanks remained on a forward slope all day with the dug-in infantry but were forced to move continually in the face of direct fire and artillery from the excellent German positions near Schmidt, Harscheidt and Bergstein, consuming more of their now precious gasoline. Then night fell the tanks pulled in near the buildings of the town. Two of Lt Fleig’s tanks were sent to the rear, having received direct hits which jammed their turrets. Meanwhile, an unusual event was taking place. The tank battalion commander was appointed commander of a task force to be known as Task Force Ripple consisting of : (1) 3/110-IR (already weakened by fighting in the south of the division sector); (2) Able Co, 707-TB (already in Kommerscheidt); (3) Dog Co (light tanks), 707-IB; (4) Charlie Co, 893-TDB (also in Kommerscheidt but weakened by 3 or 4 destroyers) plus one platoon of Baker Co, 893-TDB.
Dog Co, 707-TB, was on a screening mission to the south and actually never joined the task force, nor did the extra platoon of tank destroyers. At 0245 on the morning of this cold November day, the battered infantry battalion of Task Force Ripple crossed its line of departure, Germeter Road Hürtgen. Its mission was to pass through the embattled defenders of Kommerscheidt, pick up the remainder of the task force, and recapture Schmidt. At daylight the weather, already cold, was made more disagreeable by rain. The 3/110-IR, under Lt Col Ripple, the Task Force commander, arrived at the wood line north of Kommerscheidt in time to witness a German counter attack on the town following a 30 minute artillery preparation. The size of the enemy force was estimated as from one to two battalions supported by tanks. Estimates of the number of hostile tanks vary from 6 to 30 (probably 12-15), but the observers in many cases were bordering on hysteria. The American infantry dug in about the town had had fire poured into their foxholes from dominating positions for several days. The enemy tanks were engaged by American tanks, TDs and bazookas. Three TDs and two of the defending tanks were knocked out. One sergeant tank commander, whose tank was shot out from under him, took over the crew of a TD which had lost its commander and fought until that too was knocked out. The defending armor began a withdrawal to the north losing two more tanks with thrown tracks. The infantry, battered and depleted by being under constant fire for five days, was also leaving. Finally one tank and two TDs remained and supported Charlie Co, 112-IR, holding the woods line north of Kommerscheidt, where the infantry battalion of Task Force Ripple was also located. The one remaining tank was Lt Fleig’s one.
After dark, Lt Payne took a patrol forward and carried back ammunition from his own immobilized tank to be used by Lt Fleig. The defenders of the woods line were required to beat off another counter attack during the night. This ragged force held the woods line during the following morning even though many of the troops had gone to the rear during the night. There was little activity on this day but the recapture of Schmidt was out of the question. About 1700, the force was ordered to withdraw north of the Kall and to destroy the remaining tanks and TDs. This terminated the action of Able Co, 707-TB, as a fighting force in the Hürtgen Forest. The remaining men of the company were led back to Germeter by Capt Hostrup, Lt Fleig and other officers. Able-707 had lost 15 off its 16 tanks and 32 men were missing. The key to the failure of the forces at Kommerscheidt and Schmidt was the failure of adequate and timely armored support. Because of the terrain and road net the armored support depended in turn on engineer support. We have seen that the bulk of the engineer group attached to the 28-ID was engaged in fighting in Vossenack. Even those who were assigned to make the MSR passable for tanks were required to provide their own security which reduced the number of men available to work on the road. The lesson learned here is that if armor is to support the infantry operation it must be made certain prior to the operation the armor can move to the vital area when needed. The loss of Schmidt was a bitter blow to the Allied cause and it was not recaptured until early 1945.
In spite of the inadequate road net resupply of the 707-TB became serious only in regard to Able Co in Kommerscheidt. Baker and Charlie Cos withdrew their platoons regularly from Vossenack and were able to effect resupply with relative ease. During the action at Kommerscheidt the battalion supply trains reached Able Co twice, one on the night of November 4-5 and again on the following night. The trains consisted largely of weasels which had been borrowed from the infantry, and even these versatile vehicles had difficulties with the MSR since they were pulling trailers. The trailers had to be unhitched and man-handled around the difficult turns of the MSR. Two way traffic was out of the question even though this road was the only route of medical evacuation for the troops south of the Kall. On both nights the troops of the tank battalion in Kommerscheidt received gasoline, ammunition, rations, water, and mail. On the second night part of the supply section including the S-4 and the HQs Co commander who had accompanied him were cut off when the Germans moved onto the MSR. They subsequently took part in the withdrawal described in the account of Able-707. It is interesting to note from a logistics as well as tactical point of view that Baker Co fired sustained indirect fire missions for a period of four days under the direction of the 28-ID. They were able to keep up their fire at a time when artillery ammunition to the division was rationed.
Evacuation of vehicles presented an unusual problem in that all of them had to be moved or repaired under fire. Under normal conditions the fighting has moved on when the maintenance crews conduct battlefield evacuation, but in the Hürtgen area, maintenance vehicles were vulnerable to the same enemy action that took toll of the tanks. The situation which developed on the MSR between Vossenack and Kommerscheidt demanded the presence of maintenance vehicles, but the condition of the road as well as hostile artillery made it almost impossible for these vehicles to be used.
No mention is made in the combat interviews of the battalion medical detachment; therefore, it is assumed that evacuation of the wounded was through infantry installations. There is an occasional reference to tanks evacuating their own mounded, and Lt Col Ripple admits that in the withdrawal from Kommerscheidt, many wounded were left behind because there was no way to get them out. Some were evacuated on improvised litters carried by soldiers who stripped themselves, of their combat equipment to perform this task. Able Co listed 32 men missing in this withdrawal and the infantry battalion listed about 150. The experience in Kommerscheidt is a grim commentary on the importance of clearing, maintaining, and strongly securing a main route of supply and evacuation. Although the ground distance to division rear installations was relatively short, the defenders at Schmidt and Kommerscheidt were, in effect, divorced logistically from the division. The terrain in a large measure was responsible for this, although the action of the enemy certainly played its part. Thus another bitter lesson was learned on the battleground of the Hürtgen Forest.
The 707-TB permanently lost 31 medium tanks in the Hürtgen Forest Battle; Able : 15, Baker : 7, Charlie : 9. Most of these were due to mines or enemy shell fire. On the night of November 8-9, the battalion reached its lowest ebb with only nine effective medium tanks remaining. Dog Co, the light tank company, was not committed. In view of the vehicular losses the personnel casualties among the tankers seem rather light. The missing men of Able Co, doubtless included some dead and wounded, however, aside from these only three men were known to be definitely killed, one officer and six men wounded. Exact figures for Baker, are not available but after action reports indicate that they were rather light. Charlie, had two killed (including the commanding officer), one man missing in action, and one officer and eleven men wounded. From the standpoint of combat effectiveness, the above figures of tank casualties are important as is the fact that during the action many tanks were immobilized by thrown tracks or soft ground. Since under the prevailing conditions there was no way of rapidly returning these tanks to action, they were just as ineffective as if they had been completely demolished. At no time during the action at Vossenack, at Kommerscheidt, and particularly at Schmidt did the infantry have the tank support to which it was entitled.
The 707-TB was employed entirely in support of infantry, either offensively or defensively, but never in a separate armored action. Neither the battalion nor its companies were at any time employed in mass against a given objective. Admittedly, this was precluded by the terrain to a large degree rather than by tactical decision. In the light of present doctrine and with the advantage of hindsight, it appears that the tanks in support of the Vossenack defense could have been better employed as a counter attacking force and used only when it was necessary to repel a German attack. As they were actually used, they merely drew fire which they could not accurately return and were of no material value to the infantry, except possibly for morale considerations. Again with the advantage of hindsight it appears that early efforts to clear the road between Vossenack and Kommerscheidt of mines, to improve it with engineer work, and to hold it strongly would have paid immeasurable dividends to the 28th Infantry Division.
It is apparent that the job of the tank battalion commander attached to an infantry division is especially difficult. Although he can recommend the employment of his tanks, his recommendations frequently may be rejected. He usually finds his companies and platoons widely separated and can no longer effectively command his units. He must content himself with keeping contact with them and with higher headquarters, trying to see that his companies are supported logistically, and trying always to be in the position where he is needed most. In many instances he is reduced to acting as a relay station between his units and the supported
infantry or as a mere dispatcher.
In the European war many separate tank battalions made a distinction between whether they were attached to infantry units or in direct support, feeling that the latter allowed them more independence. Whatever justification may exist for this feeling, the only practical effect at company level is to weaken coordination. The new organization which finds the tank company organic to the regiment and the tank battalion organic to the infantry division.should eliminate this problem. The conclusions drawn are based on fighting in an area characterized by thick woods, deep ravines, and poor roads and complicated by rain, mist, and snow. Although the tank fighting in Vossenack was not in the forest, the presence of the surrounding woods determined the nature of the action. The forest limited visibility and maneuver, provided cover for the enemy AT weapons, and found the tanks in exposed positions to their great disadvantage. In the action at Kommerscheidt affected by the difficulties in clearing the MSR, woods and terrain decidedly influenced the outcome. To say that tanks should not have been employed at all in the operations of the 28-ID would be an improper conclusion for time and again their work was effective against the enemy and assisted the supported infantry. Rather, it is to be concluded :
(1) – Tanks should not occupy defensive positions in clear view from dominating terrain.
(2) – Adequate routes for movement, supply, and evacuation must be provided for tanks.
(3) – The inclusion of tanks in the infantry division and regiment is mandatory for effective command and communication.
(4) – Armor support was of material value to the 28th Infantry Division.
The 28th Infantry Division succeeded in getting elements south of the Kall River to Kommerscheid and Schmidt in its attempt to seize the Roer River Dams. Because the 707th Tank Battalion could not get sufficient armored support forward over the inadequate route from Vossenack to Kommerscheidt, the forces south of the Kall River could not hold their gains, and were driven back across the river. On November 14, the 8th Infantry Division in VIII Corps’ zone to the south began a mutual exchange of zones with the 28th Infantry Division, which was completed on November 19. Meanwhile, however, the VII Corps opened its major offensive to break out of the northern edge of the Hürgten Forest and seize crossings of the Roer in the vicinity of Düren.