70th Tank Battalion in Support, Hürtgen Forest, the Bloody Triangle

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The 70th Tank Battalion in Support to the 4th Infantry Division

Supporting the major effort of the 1st Infantry Division in the VII Corps zone was the 4th Infantry Division, which fought through the Hürtgen Forest to protect the south flank of the Corps and to seize the crossings of the Roer at Düren and south thereof. The presence of the 4th Infantry Division and its attached 70th Tank Battalion was a well-guarded secret since they were to fight through a portion of the forest where no American troops had attempted an offensive since the 47th Infantry Regiment (9th Infantry Division) reached Schevenhutte two months previously. The immediate objective assigned to the division by the VII Corps was to seize the main Hürtgen – Düren Road, which would facilitate the capture of the Roer River dams and a crossing of the Roer River. Early, in November, Gen Eisenhower had told all commanders in the 4th Infantry Division : This is the big push of the war to break the German’s back. It is entirely conceivable that the war will be over by Christmas if this attack is successful.

On November 16 1944, the 70-TB, attached to the 4-ID, pushed off into what was to prove its most grueling battle in Europe. To understand what kind of unit the 70-TB was, it is necessary to see what experience it had prior to Hürtgen. The 70-TB had fought in Africa as a light tank battalion. In November 1943, it was transferred to England, re-designated as a medium tank battalion, and attached to the 4-ID for amphibious training. From England the battalion went to Normandy on D-Day, across France, and finally to the Hürtgen Forest still accompanying the 4-ID. The unit entered the Forest zone a tough battle-seasoned outfit with high morale and good esprit de corps. The experience of the 4-ID in the Hürtgen Operation was characterized by severe fighting and extreme weather conditions. The troops of the 4-ID found that all routes, fire breaks and trains were heavily mined and covered by automatic weapons fire.


Added to the casualties suffered in combat were large numbers of troops made helpless by trench foot. Companies which were brought up to strength by replacements would be found two days later with less than 50 strength remaining. Objectives were sometimes taken by companies consisting of 20, 25 or 45 men. In addition to the combats in the forest, it was necessary for the division to construct and maintain a road net within its zone, hampered by mud and unceasing artillery fire.

Planning the Attack – November 1-16 1944

The plan of attack called for the 8th Infantry Regiment to be committed on the left, the 22nd Infantry Regiment to take the center, and the 12th Infantry Regiment on the right flank. The 8-IR was given the mission of assisting the advance of the 1-ID on the north and of keeping contact with that division. The 12-IR had orders to attack north and northeast and envelop the town of Hürtgen and then close in on the 22-IR and continue the attack to the northeast. The 22-IR occupied a three-mile gap between the southern boundary of the 8-IR and the front line of the 12-IR. Because of the rugged terrain and the strength of the enemy defenses it was impossible for one regiment to attack on this broad front, so the 22-IR was to penetrate on a narrow front in the center of its sector, seize Grosshau (Großhau) then turn northeast to Gey. As planned this would result in the 8 and 22-IRs converging on the Roer, near Düren while the 12-IR covered the right rear.

The German front line crossed the division northern boundary 1000 yards east of Schevenhutte and ran due south to the salient occupied by the 12.Regiment north of Germeter. The Germans had been fortifying their position for two months rand had built a rigid line of barbed wire and extensive minefields across the entire front. Obstacles, bunkers and entrenchments had been built up in the south to a depth of one mile and in the northern portion to a depth of two miles. Initially facing the 8-IR and the 22-IR were about eight German battalions of the reinforced 275.Infantry-Division, a great number of reserves were available to the enemy, the bulk of two other divisions and elements of still others were encountered during the course of the battle. Nearly all of those were of poor to mediocre quality.

During the planning phase the American front line in the sector of the 4-ID was held on the north by elements of the 47th Infantry Regiment (9th Infantry Division) and on the south by the 299th Engineer Combat Battalion. There was no action along the front except for harassing artillery fire. Field Order #53, 4-ID, dated November 7, announced that the division would pass through these units on the line and attack with the 1-ID on its left to secure crossings of the Roer at Düren and south thereof. Everything was in readiness by November 10, but the attack was dependent on favorable flying weather. Every effort was made to preserve the secrecy of the impending attack; therefore, lines of departure for the regiments were 1000 yards west of the enemy lines. Six long days were spent in waiting for the weather to clear before the attack started. Despite this long wait there was no air action on the enemy defenses in front of the division as occurred in front of the 1-ID. It was felt that an air attack in such dense woods as faced the 4-ID would be impracticable.

Initial Penetration by the 8-IR (15-19 November)

On Wednesday November 15, final plans for the attack were completed by the 70-TB which had been ordered to make the following attachments : Able-70 and 2 Plats of Dog-70 were attached to the 8-IR; Charlie-70 and 1 Plat of Dog-70 were attached to the 22-IR, and Baker-70 was attached to the 12-IR. The Assault Gun Plat was attached to the 29th Field Artillery Battalion (1-ID).

Shumine - Holzmine - Box- (EUCMH)D-Day was November 16 1944. The weather was clear and cold. At 0115, a coded message received at 70-TB’s CP indicated that H-hour would be 1245. The 1st PLat, Doc Co moved out to join the 2/8-IR. This regiment was attacking in column of battalions, 2/8-IR leading without artillery preparation. The point selected for penetration of the enemy Main Supply Road (MSR) was just south of the east-west road which formed the south boundary of the 1-ID. The avenues of approach were fire breaks which were filled with concertina wire eight to ten feet high and heavily booby-trapped. In front of the wire the ground was sprinkled with Schu-mines and bouncing Betties, covered by crossed Machine Guns fires and probably registered by their 50-MM, 80-MM and 120-MM Mortars.


The Schumine 42 (Shoe-mine) (see photo above), also known as the Schützenmine 42, was a German anti-personnel mine used during World War Two. It consisted of a simple wooden box with a hinged lid containing a 200-gram (7.1 oz) block of cast TNT and a ZZ-42 no delay Detonating Device. A slot in the lid pressed down on the striker retaining pin, sufficient pressure on the lid caused the pin to move, releasing the striker which triggered the detonator. This mine was cheap to produce and deployed in large numbers. As an early example of a minimum metal mine, it was very difficult to detect with early metal detectors because the only metal present was a small amount in the mine’s detonator.


The attack started with infantry leading, and the tanks of the first platoon followed as support but were canalized to the fire break. When the infantry was hold up by the concertina wire the tank platoon moved up and fired on the enemy covering positions. One of the tanks threw a track, and in trying to make repairs the crew suffered three casualties from hostile mortar fire. Other crewmen of the tank platoon attempted to evacuate these men and were wounded themselves by the murderous fire. The infantry was forced to dig-in and the tanks withdrew to resupply. Thus, the 1st Plat of Dog-70-TB had the first of many casualties to be suffered by the battalion in the Hürtgen Forest.

During the morning other tank platoons moved out in support of their respective infantry battalions. During this first day of battle the assault gun platoon fired as a battery 471 rounds of 105-MM; the targets being designated by Field Observers of the 29-FAB. The 803-TDB, which had been attached to the division on November 9, was relatively inactive. Because of the poor roads and heavy woods the destroyers were unable to get close enough to the front lines to give any support.

On the second day the 1st Plat, Able-70-TB, moved out at 0930 to support the advance of the 2/8-IR, in continuation of its attack. The infantry was still held up by triple concertina wire covered by heavy fire in addition to AP mines and booby-traps. The medium tanks of this platoon made little better progress than had, the light tanks of Dog-70-TB in the previous day; they were stopped cold by heavy enemy fire. However, the TDs of the 803-TDB were able to render some support to the infantry.

The Hurtgen Forest Battle (EUCMH)

On the third day, the 1st Plat, Able-70-TB was still in support of the same infantry battalion and fired 76.2-MM High Explosive (HE) into the tangle of wire holding up the infantry and then pushed on across it with the infantry following in the tank tracks. Considerable progress was made. An unexpected ally appeared when a P-47 passing overhead joined in the battle. The tanks had their panels on display and the plane seeing the situation strafed the enemy lines. This caused some demoralization among the enemy and enabled the tanks and infantry to advance several hundred yards to breach the defensive MSR. A penetration of almost 1000 yards had been made on the third day of the battle; however, the advance could not be pressed further until the penetration had been broadened. With this in mind, the 8-IR decided to hold up and reorganize its positions. Two battalions were placed in the line with one held back in reserve.

The next several days the 70-TB spent in slugging at tho enemy. Small advances were made daily in most of the sectors assigned the infantry regiments, but it was tough going all tho way. The tanks and TDs continued to give the infantry all possible support commensurate with the poor road net and small number of passable trails. Supply and resupply was a gigantic task. During one period the only means of getting gasoline and ammunition to Charlie Co was by the use of a weasel. An interesting and effective way of getting fresh water to the tank companies was the use of three large 250 gallon water tanks captured from the Krauts. They were mounted on 2.5 ton truck which made a daily run to each company with the ration truck. The company kitchens were kept forward with the line companies during the entire operation. Personnel casualties were evacuated through the infantry battalions with which the tanks were working at the time.


The idea for the Weasel came from the work of British inventor Geoffrey Pyke in support of his proposals to attack Axis forces and industrial installations in Norway. Pyke’s plan to hamper the German atomic weapons development became Project Plough for which he proposed a fast light mechanized device that would transport small groups of commando troops of the 1st Special Service Force across snow. In active service in Europe, Weasels were used to supply front line troops over difficult ground when wheeled vehicles were immobilized. The first 2103 vehicles had 15 inch (380-MM) tracks, a later version had 20 inch (510-MM) tracks. The M-29 was amphibious, but with a very low free board; the M-29C Water Weasel was the amphibious version, with buoyancy cells in the bow and stern as well as twin rudders. M-29C could not operate in other than inland waterway conditions, so its use in surf or rough water was very limited but was used in the Pacific Theater of Operations.


Attack of Grosshau (Großhau) 22nd Infantry Regiment

On D-Day, the 22-IR in the center had been assigned the task of capturing Grosshau. After many days of hard slew fighting, on November 23, the regiment reached the edge of the woods facing the town and here consolidated their positions. On November 24, replacements were received bringing the regiment up to strength, and it was decided to attack the town on the following day. The regimental commander desired surprise in his attack and, therefore, ordered the 3/22-IR to envelope Grosshau from the north and without artillery preparation. 1/22-IR was to cover the left rear west of the town while the 2/22-IR was to make a secondary attack to the edge of the woods southwest of Grosshau. Charlie-70-TB, was to support the 3/22-IR in its attack because Charlie Co had been working with the 22-IR since November 16. On Saturday morning, November 25, Capt Lewis Taynton in command of Charlie Co, moved his tanks into positions to support the attack. The Germans greeted their movement into the attack position with heavy concentrations of artillery and mortar fire which caused many casualties among the infantry. At 1000, the 2nd tank platoon had to find a new attack position to the northwest since the infantry company which had been with them was reduced to four men. At 1115, the 13 remaining tanks and the 3rd Plat, Charlie Co, 803-TDB jumped off in the attack to Grosshau. This was scheduled to be a coordinated attack, but because of the terrific volume of artillery fire very few of the infantry were able to clear the edge of the woods. The tank company commander reported. seing only six men and one infantry officer.

The terrain between the woods and the town was open, rolling ground and almost immediately the tanks and TDs (employed as tanks) were fired upon by well placed AT Guns. Six of the tanks and two destroyers were knocked out by direct hits. The remaining destroyers and tanks withdrew to the edge of the forest, but there the rearward movement was stopped by fallen trees which artillery and AT Guns had knocked down. Trees fell across the top, in front, and sometimes in rear of the tanks. In the opinion of the company commander every tank was eventually hit either by direct or indirect fire of some kind. All the armor was forced to stay in the edge of the woods until nightfall when the trees were cleared away. One more tank was lost during the night by a hit from a large caliber artillery shell.

Meanwhile Charlie Co, 709th Tank battalion (which had arrived from the V Corps the day before) supported the limited objective attack of the 2/22-IR southwest of the town. The battalion secured its objective late in the afternoon. Since there was no longer any chance of a surprise attack on Grosshau, the town was shelled. The regiment decided to wait until the 12-IR and the 5th Armored Division (V Corps) came abreast. The regimental commander ordered tanks and destroyers to withdraw and assemble further back because as long as the tanks remained in the front lines they drew artillery, mortar, and AT fire.

The day following the ill-fated attack on Grosshau, a task force was formed from Charlie-70-TB, Charlie-709-TB, and Charlie-803-TDB. This force was attached to the 70-TB under the nominal command of the battalion executive officer, and it was sent to support the 2/22-IR facing Grosshau in the woods southwest of the town. During the day the group has moved into position to support the infantry. The tanks and TDs fired on enemy positions in the town and in the narrowed town of Kleinhau. They were subjected to enemy artillery fire all day but held their positions. For the next two days the task force poured fire on enemy positions in and around the two towns, from the sector of the 2/22-IR, which extended from the east-west road leading into Grosshau south about 1000 yards. One German SP Gun was knocked out when one of the sharp-eyed tank commanders of the 70-TB noticed movement in the woods south of Grosshau. The area between the woods, and the town was heavily mined with AT and AP mines, but because of the artillery and small arms fire covering these mines it was impossible for engineers to move forward to clear them. The dominating ridge in this locality ran through Kleinhau and east of Grosshau toward Gey. The possession of this high ground enabled the enemy to cover Grosshau and its western approaches, and to keep the 22-IR under devastating direct fire.

While waiting for the V Corps troops to come abreast, the regimental commander of the 22-IR decided on a plan to by-pass Grosshau to the north in the direction of Gey. This move together with the advance of the V Corps through Kleinhau would encircle Grosshau. On Wednesday, November 29, the plan was put in operation. The 2/22-IR continued to hold west and southwest of Grosshau while the 1/22 and 3/22 advanced northeast toward Gey. Just before noon the division commander disapproved the plan and ordered that Grosshau be taken that day. The only battalion in position to make an immediate attack on the town was the 2/22.

The hastily formed plan called for the infantry to advance followed by the tanks and destroyers of the task force. At 1500, the attack was launched, but almost immediately the infantry was pinned down by heavy concentrations of enemy fire. The tanks and tank destroyers then attempted to push out ahead of the infantry. The 1st Plat, Charlie-70-TB, which was leading attempted to breach the minefield. Two of the tanks struck mines and were knocked out. The remaining three, pushed out following closely the tracks of the first two and successfully broke through the mines. The company commander was following closely in his command tank and the four tanks arrived in the town almost at the same time as three TDs. The infantry of the 2/22-IR followed rapidly and eliminated the snipers in the cellars of the town.

During the attack, tank destroyers of Charlie-803-TDB neutralized two pillboxes and two machine gun nests by direct fire. They killed about 50 of the enemy and took 45 prisoners who were passed over to the infantry on arrival. The third platoon of this company gave direct fire support to the attack by firing HE, AP, and .50 caliber from their original positions. By 1900, Grosshau was completely in American hands, and the armor began to withdraw for refueling and resupply. This was accomplished by sending a few back at a time. As the last tank cleared the mine field on its way back the enemy detonated a large portion of the field by remote control, but no one was hurt. The 2/22-IR set up its CP for the night in the only building left partially standing in the village, using the basement which had been converted into a bomb shelter by the Germans. The tanks and the TDs returned to the town as they were refueled and went into a defensive position out posting the town for the night.

After the fall of Grosshau, the next objective of the 22nd Infantry Regiment was the wooded area between Grosshau and Gey. The armored task force formed by the three C Companies supported the infantry in the attack to the northeast and succeeded in either taking or controlling all of the open ground north and east of the town.

The German Counter Attack

On Saturday, December 2, just before dawn, the 1.Battalion of the German 963.Infantry-Regiment infiltrated through the front lines between the 2/22 and the 3/22-IR. Their objective, as later ascertained by G-2, was to recapture Grosshau. Initially their tactics were successful and they penetrated the front lines to a depth of about 500 yards. The armored task force was called forward immediately to assist in the American counter attack. As the tanks and destroyers advanced, they encountered the enemy but did not realize it until Panzerfaust and Panzerschreck teams began to attack them. Confusion reigned for several minutes while one tank was knocked out and burned and another damaged. Another tank was set afire, and except for one man the crew bailed out. The remaining crewman put out the fire and drove back to Grosshau, loaded another crew, and started back toward the fight. Meanwhile the infantry organized and together with the tanks systematically set out to destroy the enemy. By 1400, all the attackers had been destroyed or captured.

The front was reestablished and the armor moved back to a position southwest of town where they were resupplied. During this action several infantrymen including two company commanders were captured by the Germans and were taken to a farmhouse approximately 500 yards in front of the American lines. While the lines were being reorganized, a platoon of infantry moved out to the farmhouse, captured the German guards, and released the Americans without a fight. Throughout the remainder of tho day, the front lines of the 4-ID took a pounding from artillery and mortar fire. One small enemy counter attack in the sector
of the 12-IR was turned back. During the night, the entire front held and remained alerted for possible enemy action.

On the next day, the armored task force moved to an assembly area on the high ground northeast of Grosshau where it could act as mobile reserve to repel any hostile action in the regimental sector. No counter attack occurred but the tanks were subjected to sporadic artillery fire all day. The task force held its position until 1900 when the 22-IR was relieved in place bur the 330th Infantry Regiment of the 83rd Infantry Division.

Crews from the 744-TB (attached to the 83-ID) took over three tanks of Charlie-70-TB, in position on an change basis. These tanks were considered to be better adapted to woods fighting having reinforced armor and mounting short barreled 75-MM Guns. These were Sherman M-4A3E2 medium tanks and with their shorter barrels 360 degree traverse could be obtained without the guns striking trees. After drawing back from the front, Charlie-709-TB, and Charlie-903-TDB were relieved from attachment and reverted to their own battalion control. On Tuesday, December 5, Charlie-70-TB was ordered to move to Mondorf, Luxembourg followed by Charlie-903-TDB which also moved to Mondorf. The other companies of the Tank Battalion and Tank Destroyer Battalion were still attached to their respective regiments which had established defensive positions all along the division front. Artillery fire was the only action to be found along the front of the 4-ID. The entire division was relieved by the 83rd Infantry Division on December 12, and the 4th Infantry Division moved also to Luxembourg.

Summary

During the period from December 16 to December 12 1944, the 70th Tank Battalion fought in twenty-four active engagements. They were on or writhing a few hundred yards of the front at all times. Throughout the fighting, tanks were canalized to trails and fire breaks which were heavily mined and covered by fire. Many times wire and AP mines held up the infantry, and the tanks provided the only means of neutralizing these obstacles. They tore up the wire by firing into it or moved ahead of the infantry neutralizing AP mines and enabling the infantry to follow. The capture of Grosshau had proved a most difficult and costly engagement for the tanks. In the initial attack, six tanks of Charlie-70 were destroyed and two destroyers from the 903-TDB were lost. The TDs were employed as tanks during this action. In the later attack, which was successful, the destroyers and tanks were formed into a task force. At this time only six tanks and seven TDs remained of the two companies which had entered the Hürtgen Forest at 100% strength, and in the attack two more were lost.

On December 2, the enemy hurled a counter attack against the line northeast of Grosshau. The tanks which were in assembly 300 yards from the front sped forward to intercept the attackers. Before the tanks were aware that they were not among friendly infantry, one tank was destroyed and another damaged by bazooka fire. The next thirty minutes were a wild melee in which crewmen shot many of the enemy with carbines and pistols and drove then away from the tanks. Eventually the counter attack was halted and the tanks assisted the friendly infantry in the complete destruction of the attacking force. The battalion commander of the 903-TDB, Lt Col Charles W. Goodwin had this to say about the employment of TDs in the Hürtgen Forest :

    [… The policy of attaching destroyers to infantry commanders has again proven very unsatisfactory. Lower infantry commanders have no knowledge of the proper use of tank destroyers. In one action during this period our destroyers were ordered to charge a town abreast with tanks, resulting in two destroyers being destroyed. This, in my opinion, was drastic misuse of valuable men and equipment. Sacrifice is poor substitute for leadership. It is my recommendation that tanks destroyers be left under control of the trained and experienced tank destroyer officers. The job in the past and in the future is better done under these conditions …]

The 70th Tank Battalion losses in equipment were high and included 24 tanks lost as a result of enemy action. Of these, twelve which did not burn were later retrieved and either repaired or cannibalized for parts. Personnel casualties included one officer killed and eleven wounded while 11 enlisted men were killed and 67 wounded. During this period there were 46 non-battle casualties from various causes. The action of the 70th in the Hürtgen Forest has indicated that it is a terrific expense from the standpoint of materiel for tanks to fight in wooded areas. This is due to the restricted manoeuvre space available and the vulnerability to concealed AT weapons. However, many times the tanks offered the only means of enabling the infantry to advance. From a morale standpoint it is desirable to have a limited number of tanks supporting infantry as they advance through wooded areas. The psychological effect on ground troops as well as material assistance given makes up for all the handicaps tanks suffer in woods. If at all possible and if a few trails and open spaces are available for movement of tanks, they should in the future be utilized in platoon size units in attacks through the woods.



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