By the evening of September 15 1944, the XIX Corps had established a bridgehead on the east bank of the Meuse River in the vicinity of Maastricht, Holland. Both the 30th Infantry Division and Combat Command A, 2nd Armored Division had moved into the bridgehead and were ready to advance East. The 30-ID had the mission of giving flank protection to the VII Corps, whose attack in the vicinity of Aachen, Germany, constituted the current main effort of US Forces to the East. The 2-AD mission was to protect the area West of the Vaart Canal and CCB-2AD had begun to advance in the area East of the Meuse River. Between the Vaart Canal and the Meuse River, however lay a narrow corridor, extending halfway across the XIX Corps front and completely in enemy hands. Obviously, this had to be cleared out before the 2-AD could, with safety, continue its advance East of the Meuse. XIX Corps ordered the 2-AD to clear the enemy from this corridor.
At 0500, September 16 1944, the mission was turned over to Lt Col Wm. M. Stokes Jr, then commanding the North Force of CCA-2-AD. At the time its force had the mission of securing the XIX Corps boundary on the north and the division’s front along the Vaart Canal. This Combat Group, consisted of the following units :
– HQ, 66th Armored Infantry Regiment
– 3rd Bn, 66th Armored Infantry Regiment
– 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate)
– 65th Field Artillery Battalion
– Plat, Able Co, 17th Armored Engineer Battalion
– Detachment, Able Co, 48th Armored Medical Battalion
To help Col Stokes with his additional assignment, he was given 82nd Armored Recon Bn and Baker Co, 17th Armored Engineer Bn. Task Force Stokes, as the combined force was called, completely cleared this critical corridor on September 16, 17, and 18. During this 3-day period it caused 918 enemy casualties and suffered only 93 casualties itself. The success of the operation was due to sound planning, good field tactics, unusually fine cooperation between tanks and infantry. Both tank and infantry commanders agreed on this point. Col Stokes turned over the 82nd Armored Recon Bn, Baker Co, 17th Armored Engineer Bn and his Task Force, with the 82nd Armored Recon Bn, 1 Plat George Co, 66th Armored Regiment and 1 Plat Able Co, 99th Infantry Battalion (S), got back to his former mission, the security along the XIX Corps’ North boundary and the Vaart canal. The rest of TF Stokes was ordered into assembly areas.
The first per-requisite was a complete reconnaissance of the Vaart Canal for possible crossing sites. Most of it had already been reconnoitered. The job was completed on the morning of Sept 16. It showed that between Maastricht and the North boundary of the Corps there were two bridges left. An old wooden one at Smeermaas in the immediate Northern vicinity of Maastricht which was capable to support heavy armored vehicles traffic. The other one, located at Neerharen had been partially wrecked by the enemy. Infantry in a single file could get across it, but major repairs would be necessary if vehicles were to use it. Col Stokes felt that although he could put tanks across the Smeermaas bridge and thus give the infantry some support from the very beginning, he could not depend on this bridge for his Main Supply Road (MSR). Its wooden construction made it very vulnerable to destruction either by bombs or demolition charges. Furthermore, it was in the middle of a closely built up town and hence, in Col Stokes’ opinion, presented an easy mark for saboteurs. The repair of the bridge at Neerharen would have been very hazardous in view of enemy’s ability to observe all movement in its vicinity from the high ground East of the Meuse River. Col Stokes concluded that he would have to install a bridge for his MSR either at Reckheim or further North.
He considered three possible plans of action :
(1) the canal bridge at Reckheim and work North up the corridor;
(2) the canal bridge in the vicinity of Lanklaer and advance South to Maastricht;
(3) the canal bridge in the center of the corridor and work part of his Task Force North and part South.
Col Stokes chose the first alternative because he would have friendly troops in his rear instead of hostile forces in unknown strength; he could bring small force up from Smeermaas to establish a bridgehead East of the canal for the crossing of the bulk of the infantry at Neerharen, and the enlarged force could make a bridgehead in vicinity of Reckheim large enough for a tank Bn to maneuver in. The decision to employ tanks in attacking up the corridor was based on the following considerations :
(1) tanks were available;
(2) speedy accomplishment of the mission was essential;
(3) the enemy had had sufficient time to prepare hasty field positions;
(4) the enemy was believed to be holding the corridor in considerable strength : 500 troops reported to have crossed on to the corridor at Boorsheim on Sept 13 and 500 SS troops reported to have recently reinforced the Meeswyck area.
No information on the presence of Anti Tank weapons was available, with the exception that reconnaissance had failed to disclose any enemy in the narrow part of the corridor at Smeermaas and for 1000 meters North thereof. North of this point the enemy’s defenses were unknown except for dug-in Machine Guns positions on the reverse slope of the East bank of the canal all the way to Lanklaer. Since the corridor varied from 30 to 250 meters wide for another 2000 meters, it was obviously unwise to send any large tank force across the wooden bridge at Smeermaas.
As a result of this decision, Col Stokes felt that there were two distinct phases to the reduction of the corridor :
(1) the establishment of a bridgehead across Reckheim, which would have to be an infantry job primarily
(2) the attack north of Lanklaer.
The latter would have to move fast to prevent hostile reinforcements coming onto the corridor, particularly at the narrow neck in the center; hence, it would have to be primarily a tank attack. Following this reasoning, the tanks taking part in the attack on the 16 and 17 of Sept were attached to the 99-IB; whereas on 18 Sept most of the 99-IB (Able and Charlie Cos) were attached to the 3rd Bn, 66-AIR. As it turned out, this made little difference in the way in which the chain of command actually operated. During the first two days of the operation Col Stokes sent most of his communications to Maj Harold D. Hansen, CO of the 99-IB, through Lt Henry W. Johnson, CO of How Co, 66-AIR. Lt Johnson relates that Maj Hansen was dismounted after the first 15 minutes; that he did not see him again during the operation; that his (Johnson’s) orders came from Col Stokes; and that in practice he communicated directly with his platoon leaders and they in turn with the infantry platoon leaders. On this point Maj Hansen said that communications were very difficult throughout the operation and that messengers had to be used much of time. But he emphasized that Col Stokes did not try to run the infantry. He is a tanker. He asked for my recommendations on the use of the infantry.
At about 1700 Sep 16, the 2nd Plat (5 M-4’s) of How Co, 66-AIR, the 2nd Plat (5 M-5’s) of Baker Co, 66-AIR, and all of Charlie Co, 99-IB(S), crossed the Vaart Canal on the wooden bridge at Smeermaas. Capt Herbert C. Merlin, Charlie Co’s CO, had made no specific arrangements with the tank platoon leaders regarding tank-infantry tactics. The 99-IB(S) had worked with the 3/66-AIR for or three days prior to this operation, and it was mutually understood that the infantry would be assigned to work with specific tanks. This was done. About 5 dough-boys were assigned to each light tank and about 8 to each medium. The spearhead of TF Stokes moved north in column, led by the light tanks.
It met an outpost screen about 1000 M north of the bridge but progressed almost to the bridge at Neerharen before meeting any resistance of consequence. More hostile force had concentrated in some woods. To clean it out, the tanks deployed, the lights mixed with the mediums, and the infantry dismounted. While the infantry protected the tanks from possible bazooka fire, the tanks took care of any hostile automatic fire that opened up. Resistance soon faded, but rear guards enabled a lot of Germans to get away. Near the Neerharen bridge the enemy occupied a pillbox. The tanks plastered it with 75-MM fire. This kept the defenders from manning their weapons and stunned them. After that the infantry had little trouble in capturing most of the occupants and killing a few who still showed signs of resisting. When the spearhead force had secured the east side of the Canal at this point, the rest of the 99-IB(S)(minus 1 Plat Able Co), then assembled in the vicinity of Neerharen and prepared to cross over. At this point the infantry was subjected to a 20 minutes concentration of hostile artillery, estimated to have been at least one battery of medium artillery. From the high ground east of the Meuse River the enemy had direct observation. To avoid bringing down a concentration on the bridge itself, it was necessary to rush the troops across a few at the time. The situation required leadership. For example, the 1st Plat of Baker Co was pinned down after suffering 4 casualties. T/Sgt Roland I. Asleson, the platoon leader, demonstrated outstanding leadership in rallying his platoon and getting them across the bridge.
It was now about 1900. Maj Hansen realized that the important thing was to get his force north out of the narrowest part of the corridor before dark. Fortunately, no AT weapons were encountered, only some foxholes along the east bank of the Canal, which were facing west. The tanks rolled up and pasted these positions with 75-MM and MG fire. When they lifted their fire, the infantry advanced and took TF Stokes’ first large bunch of PWs. The Baker Co’s CO, Lt Gunderson, was injured late in the day and had to be evacuated. Lt Murton Swenson became the company commander. By 2100 the troops had advanced into the broad part of the corridor and secured an outpost line stretching across it. The tanks were deployed inside the bivouac areas of the companies they work with.
The next morning Maj Hansen attacked at 0530 with Charlie Co on the left and Baker Co on the right. Able Co was kept in reserve, as it was short one platoon that was guarding the west bank of the Vaart Canal. The tank-infantry teams consisted of about one squad to a tank. Just as the troops were preparing to attack, the enemy opened up with fire from a stone wall or dike that ran at an angle across the corridor. This caused some delay, but then a mist developed, and under its cover the tanks followed by the infantry, advanced right up to the wall, receiving only inaccurate, sporadic fire. The enemy had fled. The tanks now turn left and go west nearly to the Canal in order to get around the wall. The infantry swung right and advanced northeast with troops on both sides of the wall. When they reached a woods in the vicinity of the road to Reckheim, they waited for the tanks to rejoin them, as Maj Hansen felt that a combined tank-infantry attack on the woods would be the cheapest way to reduce them. The tanks arrived after about an hour and the woods were overrun without difficulty.
There were three main fights on Sept 17 : at Uykhoven, Boorsheim, and Cothem. At Uykhoven, TF Stokes hit its really stubborn resistance which came from young GAF troops. Presumably by friendly artillery. All of the enemy’s prepared positions faced west. Our tanks and infantry flanked these positions by attacking from the south and overwhelmed the defenders by volume of their firepower. A considerable quantity of material was captured at Uykhoven. The rest of How Co 66-AIR, and its CO, Lt Johnson, now joined the task force, having crossed the canal at Smeermaas about 1000. Their arrival was tremendous help. The two infantry company commanders were enable to assign all their men to specific tanks, whereas previously there had not been enough tanks to go around. Their arrival also made possible a well-conceived maneuver whereby Boorsheim, Cothem, and the ‘neck’ of the corridor were secured simultaneously. Baker Co (less 1 Plat) of the 99-IB(S), and a Plat of How Co 66-AIR were sent to Cothem. Charlie Co 99-IB(S), and How Co (less 1 Plat) 66-AIR, left positions east of Boorsheim, while the platoon of light tanks and the remaining rifle platoon of Baker Co started to clean Boorsheim. When the two towns were about half cleaned out, Charlie Co 99-IB(S), and How Co (-) 66-AIR, hit straight for the corridor’s ‘neck’ (just east of Mechelen) and secured it with little difficulty. Control of this neck by the hostile forces that might have retreated to it from Boorsheim would have held up our advance and cost us dearly to force a passageway. About 100 PWs were taken in Boorsheim and about 150 at Cothem. Cothem was the harder fight, as there were more troops there and they were protected by fires from across the bend in the Meuse River. A few did escape in boats across the Meuse, but most fought as long as they could and then surrendered. Prisoners were still being gathered in from this area the next morning.
During this time the 246th Engineer Combat Battalion having floated sections of a heavy pontoon bridge down the Canal as far as possible during the night Sept 16/17, went to work as soon as the bridgehead east of Reckheim was secured. They moved the section into place and completed the bridge by 1330, approximately three hours after the securing of the bridgehead. The rest of the 3/66-AIR, then proceeded across the bridge.
While Boorsheim and Cothem were being cleaned out, Charlie 99-IB(S) and How (-)66-AIR secured a line south of the dike that goes across the corridor at Vucht. Able Co was brought up to tie in on the right of Charlie for the night. How 66-AIR, bivouacked in the vicinity, as did George Co, which had crossed the tread way bridge at Reckheim about 1600, along with the rest of 3/66-AIR. Baker 99-IB(S) and the light tanks out posted critical areas at the ‘neck’ and south thereof that night and the next day (see attached overlay). The narrowness of the corridor made this a necessary precaution against a hostile attempt to interfere with the line of communications and/or the new bridge at Reckheim. Baker Co was given the assignment because, according to Maj Hansen, it had taken quite a few casualties in the hard fighting from Uykhoven trough Cothem, while A Co was fresh. Able Co, however, was short one rifle platoon, and Lt Swenson of Baker Co speaks of only 16 casualties in his company during the operation. (Capt Donald E. Svarstad, Able Co’s CO, says that the reason Charlie Co suffered heavier casualties than Able Co on Sept 18 – approximately 40 against 12 – was that Maj O’ Farrell’s tanks were in such a hurry to get on that they left the infantry behind in places. The mopping up by Maj Zeien’s force was slower, but more thorough and caused less casualties).
On the third day of the operation, Sept 18, Able and Charlie Cos (20 M-4’s) took up positions northeast of the towns, five M-4’s approached the towns from the south and shot up everything in sight. The infantry, Charlie Co and the platoon from Able Co, then cleaned out most of the area. The infantry were unable to clean out the town completely in the time allotted to do this job. Col Stokes was pressing his subordinate commanders to get to Lanklaer, and the infantry were called away before they could finish the job. Belgian resistance groups gathered close to 100 additional PWs from the vicinity of Eysden after TF Stokes had gone on to Lanklaer. Some of the hostile defenders were paratroopers. They retreated to the north, only to encounter fire from the 20 tanks waiting for them. On the northern outskirts of Eysden they put up a stubborn fight. They could not escape. They would not surrender. Most of them were killed in their holes.
The rifle platoon of A Co now rejoined Maj Zeien’s force, though not the eight tanks of George Co. This gave Zeien five M-4’s and about 65 infantrymen (both George and Able Cos were under T/O strength). Maj Zeien put all the riflemen on the tanks – it came to about eight on each tank – and set out to reduce about seven square Kms on the east side of the corridor. Fortunately, resistance turned out to be extremely light until the force approached Stockheim. There the infantry dismounted and Maj Zeien’s force collaborated with Maj O’Farrell’s force in reducing the strongest resistance encountered during the entire three-day operation. Maj O’Farrell’s force had advanced north from Eysden astride the Eysden-Lanklaer road. One platoon of tanks and a platoon of infantry worked on the west side of the road, and the balance was in two columns east of the road. No resistance was met until the force drew near Lanklaer. There, approximately 300 yards south of the Lankaer-Stockheim road, the enemy had recently dug a line of trenches. They were the first hostile positions encountered which faced south. Though expertly camouflaged, they were not completely finished.
The positions were supported by two SP 88’s close to the road. These were the first AT weapons encountered by TF Stokes. While the bulk of Maj O’ Farrell’s group was getting into position to attack the enemy line, the left column tried to outflank the enemy on the west. No satisfactory route of attack could be found, so the column retraced its steps and started to cross the road separating it from the rest of the group. As it did so, it came into the field of fire of a 40-MM AT gun at the main intersection in Lanklaer. At a range of about 800 meters, the AT gun was knocked out by 75-MM fire, and the column proceeded safely across the road.
At about the same time other tanks of How 66-AiR, spotted the two SP 88’s and went after them. One of the two had not yet gotten into position and was an easy mark. The other for some reason did not get off a round before it, too was put out of action. This left the Germans manning the trenches without any AT protection except for three direct fire guns, of approximately 75-MM caliber, which were ‘dug in’ (i.e., firing in stationary positions) about 1000 M northeast of Lanklaer. These were well hidden by a grove of trees, and either for this reason or because it was raining, or both, neither the artillery FO nor the AOP could spot the guns. Fortunately, however, most of the rounds from these guns detonated on striking tree branches, and the shots that did come through were wild. H Co did not have one casualty from this fire, and one of the three guns was eventually knocked out somehow.
Maj Zeien’s force arrived about 1615 – approximately 45 minutes after Maj O’Farrell had reached the vicinity. The two forces attacked the enemy dug-in positions in their respective sectors, the tanks spearheading the attack. The German troops were from the 22. Flieger Regt. Most of them were young and fought to the bitter end. In many cases they remained in their trenches even after the tanks came right up to them, and it was sometimes necessary to get them out by WP grenades and by pistol fire from tank turrets. During this action on Sept 18 Lt George Heald, a platoon leader of Able 99-IB(S), accounted for four bazooka men, thus saving the tank with which his platoon was working. Four of the platoon members, however, were wounded by a fifth German. Lt Heald was in a position to get this man also, but his carbine jammed.
After the trenches were captured, the tanks crossed the Lankaer-Stockheim road and Maj O’Farrell’s tanks fanned west to cut off any enemy retreating from Lankaer, while his infantry and a few tanks went into town from the south and east. Maj Zeien’s force went clockwise around Stockheim, setting up road blocks at every road leading out of town. Then a small force went into town and found it virtually deserted. Lanklaer did not fall so easily. Additional paratroopers were there, and both in and on the western outskirts of the town they fought stubbornly until they were killed. By 1730 all resistance had ceased and the line Lanklaer-Stockheim secured. Lt Col Stokes, Maj O’ Farrell, Maj Hansen, and all of the tank and infantry company commanders involved in operation of TF Stokes are in agreement that the use of armor was the key factor in speed with which the mission was accomplished and the disproportionate number of casualties suffered by the enemy. Col Stokes says, ‘the enemy was very much surprised at our use of tanks. When the attack began in the late afternoon of 16 September, he had no AT weapons in the corridor.
Not until the end of the third day – around Lanklaer – did we hit anything bigger than a bazooka’. Maj O’ Farrell said : ‘the infantry took a good many casualties. But by themselves the dough-boys would have a terrible time. The krauts had a hell of a lot of automatic fire and the defense was extremely stubborn’. Maj Hansen emphasized the fast advance which the presence of the tanks made possible. The Germans, he felt had no time to prepare their defenses. “They had plenty of ammunition – they were burning piles of it as we came up to Uykhoven – but they had no heavy weapons in the corridor. Those at Lanklaer had been brought down from Maseyck to stop us. Then, too, our tankers were good. For example, when someone pointed out the AT guns at Lanklaer, they went right out after them and knocked them out. We picked up 75 or 80 prisoners afterwards in the rear areas. They said, ‘We can’t fight tanks’. I am sure that is what scared them. It was a tougher fight than Elbeuf for us, but without the tanks it would have taken a long time to clean that corridor. The tanks are only afraid of places like buildings and hedges where bazooka men can hide without being seen. If the tanks are working with infantry who are not afraid to stay up with the tanks, the combination can’t be beat. Of course, the infantry think tanks should always go ahead and often have to be booted’.
Tank-infantry teamwork. The tank commanders and infantry commanders interviewed tended to emphasize the work of their respective arms. There was no basic conflict, however, as to what generally happened: Each group of infantry followed wherever its assigned tank went; except that the tanks got stuck at a stream or dike, Major Hansen would order the infantry advance without the tanks to a designated objective. In other words, the infantry advanced and cleaned out objectives in the immediate wake of the tanks.