My commanding officers were: Col. John C. Welborn, commanding officer 33rd Armoured Regiment (deceased afterward): Lt. Col. Herbert M. Mills, commanding officer 1st Battalion, killed Hastenrath, November 17th, 1944; Capt. E. Gunderson, commanding officer I Company. Believed killed in attack on Hastenrath, November 16th, 1944.
Upon recovering from wounds received in Normandy, I was transferred from the hospital back to my original unit, I Company, 1st Battalion which, to the best of my recollection, was located in the town of Breinig. On November 9th the 1st Battalion moved forward to take up positions, awaiting the new Allied offense. I Company moved in position on the reverse slope of a small hill just short to the later departure.
I was a 1st Lieutenant in command of five sherman medium tanks. I Commanded the tank that was to lead and to guide the attack, all observations made and knowledge gathered during the attack on Hastenrath was on a rather limited scope. The responsibilities placed on the lead tank and the action it encountered prevented a broad knowledge of what was taking place with the tanks that were following. On the evening of November 16th the lead tank was destroyed on the outskirts of Hastenrath. Its crew members were taken prisoners. Therefore, no reports were received from the remaining tank commanders as to their action, their observations, or damage inflicted on the enemy. The planned attack by the 1st Battalion on Scherpenseel and Hastenrath is as follows: A 19 tank attack force, I Company with 17 medium tanks plus 2 medium tanks attached, one a forward observer's tank, the other a medium tank with mine frailing equipment.
This force was to proceed along the left edge of the battalion's sector, skirting the left flank of Scherpenseel, and heading directly down to Hastenrath. They were to hold until joined by elements of the 36th Armoured Infantry Regiment. At this point a 600 gun artillery barrage was to be laid on the town of Hastenrath. The infantry was to dismount from their armoured half-tracks, follow close in behind the tanks for protection. The tanks were to be led by the mine flailer. Once through the mine-field the tanks were to fan out with the infantry still close in behind. The barrage was then to be lifted. As soon as the tanks reached the first buildings, the infantry was to go around the tanks and lead the attack with the tanks supporting. The greater force of the infantry was to remain in their armoured half-tracks, follow the tanks through the mine field, proceed to the edge of Hastenrath, dismount and join the lead infantry units. Coordinated with this, F Company with other elements of the 36th Armoured Infantry Regiment produced a similar assault on Scherpenseel from the right flank. A Company would be held in reserve.
The Attack: Phase 1
Preparatory fire. On November 9th when I Company moved into position, the tanks were laid in parallel in the same manner artillery guns are laid in parallel in preparation for indirect fire. Note: The tanks were equipped with the same instruments as artillery guns, so that they could be used for indirect fire.
The following day one tank was issued extra high explosive shells, with the aid of an artillery spotting plane the gun adjusted on a pre-determined target. The target, a small wooded area, with a heavy concentration of German infantry. Once the gun had adjusted, it fell silent. The tanks were ready to go, each with 250 gallons of gasoline, over one ton of high explosives, 97 rounds for the tank gun, and 2,500 rounds for the 30 calibre machine guns. All we could do now as to wait. On the morning of November 16th, each tank was issued an extra 50 rounds of high-explosive shells; they were stored on the floor of the turrent.
Note: Three tanks with a newer gun with a much higher muzzle velocity could not join the remaining 14 tanks in the preparatory fire.
The correct azimuth reading and range were given to each gun. As the second hands swept down to H hour, thousands of guns along the entire front erupted. Our fourteen guns joined in. In less than five minutes we had fired 700 rounds on the predetermined target. We threw the empty shell cases out of the turrent, and were ready to `move out'.
Phase 2: The Attack:
As I Company moved forward, enemy artillery fire became increasingly heavy. Shortly after crossing the line of departure, one of our tanks struck the mine field and was disabled. However, we did not lose any time on the mine field, nor did we lose several tanks.
Capt. Gunnarson immediately ordered the mine flailer into the mine field. The lead tank dropped in behind and followed. Each succeeding tank dropped in line and followed. The mine flailer was struck by an armour piercing shell and destroyed. Thoughts raced through the lead tank commander's head. If he ordered his tank around the mine flailer, he would take a hit from the same gun that destroyed the mine flailer. If any or all of his crews survived the hit, they would, as they crawled from their tank, be subject to small arms fire that covered the mine field. If they survived this and had not cleared the mine field, then would not last long in the minefield with all of its anti-personnel mines. With this thought in mind, he ordered his tank to pull around the
disabled mine flailer. They were clear of the mine field, and they did not take a hit. One of the other tanks must have silenced the gun. Orders were given to start the gyro stabilizers. This enabled the tank to fire accurately its tank gun and coaxial machine gun when the tank was on the move. As the tanks came through the mine field, they took up their attacking formation, allowing the maximum frontal fire as well as maximum flanking fire. They flashed out and destroyed a reinforced infantry company that was covering the mine field with small arms fire. In skirting the left flank of Scherpenseel it was necessary to go between the town of Scherpenseel and a fortified building with its network of defensive positions, as shown in aerial photographs. As the lead tank passed this building, at a distance of about 50 feet, two Germans appeared in a window, one with a rifle, the other with a Panzerfaust. They both fired. The tank commander who had had his head out of the turret hatch, ducked a fraction of a second in time. The bullet cracked by his head. The Panzerfaust struck the tank, rocking it. The penetration was in a non-vital spot, and did no damage. The commander hit the traversing switch, swung the gun around to the window, and fired two high-explosive shells. Through the dust and smoke it was apparent that the shells had inflicted a great deal of damage to the interior of the building. It was doubtful there were any survivors. The entire action took less than ten seconds. As the lead tank cleared the town of Scherpenseel, it found itself looking down gently sloping terrain to the town of Hastenrath in the distance. The tank commander slowly swept the town with his binoculars. He spotted a vehicle under an archway alongside a building. The distance was too great to determine whether it was a tank, a self-propelled gun, or a prime mover for an anti-tank gun. The round in his breach was high-explosive. He fired. It fell slightly short. The second round fired was armour-piercing. This struck the vehicle, setting it on fire.
The original plan of attack was to move down the slope directly to Hastenrath. As the tank moved forward, a loud clear voice commanded, "Turn right!" He obeyed. It was not until much later that he realized that it had been God that had spoken to him. He slipped in behind the town of Scherpenseel, using the buildings in the background to help cover the movement of his tanks. He spotted a slight movement behind the remains of a shelled-out building, as did the commander of the tank following on his left flank. Both fired. Debris and parts of an anti-tank gun flew in the air. The advance continued to the end of Scherpenseel. Here it made a ninetydegree turn and headed directly for Hastenrath. After following this new course a short distance, the lead tank found itself on the edge of a cliff. The cliff ran diagonally across the entire terrain. This had not shown on the aerial photographs. Photographs studied prior to attack and returned to my commanding officer.
The photographs had been taken at a time of day when no shadow was cast. The new line of advance had taken them to the lowest point of the cliff. Even here there was some doubt as to whether the tanks could negotiate the drop without turning end over end. The driver eased the lead tank forward, working his levers back and forth, causing the soft ground to crumble away under the tracks. The tank pitched forward, and slipped to the bottom safely. The remaining tanks followed with no difficulty. Had the original line of advance been followed, the tanks would have found themselves above a cliff they were unable to negotiate. The results would have been disastrous. When I Company reached Hastenrath, only the lead tank and three others remained from the original nineteen tank attack force.
It might be interesting to note that, when I Company began its assault that morning, only eight men were left from the original tank crews that left the United States. Of these eight, four had just returned from the hospital. Six of these were tank commanders. It might also be interesting to note the disposition of the six commanders. Sgt. Richardson, tank commander, tank destroyed on mine field. 1st Lt. Norbert Horrell, tank unit commander, tank was hit and blew up during the attack. The remaining four reached the objective at Hastenrath. They were: 1st Lt. Henry Earl, tank unit commander, Staff Sgt. Fred Nulle, platoon sergeant, Sgt. Mike Draganic, tank commander, Sgt. August Formslag, tank commander. Sgt. Nulle's tank and Sgt. Formslag's tank were sent to the left end of the town. Here they were to cover a road that approached Hastenrath from the rear. There was also a small ridge that died out about 50 yards from that end of town. They were to prevent any tanks, self-propelled guns, or anti-tank guns from slipping behind the ridge, and surprising I Company from the left flank. The lead tank, along with Sgt. Draganic's tank, took up position covering the main street, also covering a road that ran along the right side of town, preventing any armour from surprising I Company from its right flank. A report was sent to battalion stating they were on the objective awaiting the infantry, also requesting battalion bring another mine flailer with them. A reply was received stating that I Company was to hold its present position, and that battalion was trying to reach them. The battalion advance was down a gently sloping valley approximately two miles wide, flanked on each side by wooded ridges extending two to three hundred feet in height. The 1st Infantry Division was advancing down the ridge on the right side, the 104th Infantry Division advancing down the ridge on the left side. The two infantry divisions had encountered bitter fighting. Their advance was slow. The GTermans were making them fight for every foot of ground. Thus, I Company found itself well in advance, and could expect to receive enemy fire through an arc of 260 degrees. The lead tank commander while studying the wooded ridge on his right flank through
his binoculars, spotted a prime mover and anti-tank gun moving at high speed break from the cover of the woods into a clearing and back into the woods again. Its appearance had been so brief there had been no chance to take it uner fire. It was apparent that the Germans were beginning to close in from the flanks. A short time later the commander spotted a self-propelled gun, this time on his left flank. It was inching its way into position to fire from the crest of the ridge that ran to the left end of Hastenrath. He barked a command; the guns of the four tanks swung over onto the self-propelled gun which immediately backed off the crest of the hill and out of sight before a round could be fired. As minutes ticked away, tension mounted and mounted. Since the brief action by the enemy on each of the flanks all had been quiet. The town looked deserted, the whole countryside looked deserted, and yet nothing could be further from the truth. To make matters even more desperate, tha tanks held in an open field. There was no cover and no cover to he had. The lead tank commander peered from his open hatch, desperately searching for some movement. His gun was trained down the main street. From a pile of debris, not more than 100 yards away, came a tremendous blast at the same time an ear-splitting crack as an armour-piercing shell missed the top of the turrent and his head by inches. The gunner had seen the blast at the same time. The gun was slightly lowered and fired. The tank had a round in its breech. The antitank gun had to reload. The armour-piercing shell struck the debris exactly where the blast had been seen. The tank crew reloaded as fast as possible and fired a second shell, this time high-explosive, to make certain that the gun and its crew were destroyed. The action was over. The commander reflected. How could the gun have missed at point-blank range? He was certain the gun was not there originally or it would have fired while his gun was pointing to the left at the self-propelled gun. The crew, were lying down, must have worked the gun into position. They could do this, as the gun had a very low silhouette. Once in position, they were confronted with the problem of removing some of the debris. They could not do this by hand, as the tank crew would have seen them. It was evident that not much debris had to be removed, as the armour-piercing shell had only missed the top of the tank by a matter of inches.
The anti-tank gunner must have planned to pull the remaining debris away with his tremendous muzzle blast. This was an excellent idea. It would have worked, had it not been for the fact that the tank commander and his gunner were looking directly at the gun when it fired. While he was contemplating this, he studied the town of Hastenrath and the surrounding countryside. With his eyes barely above the hatch, he scrutinized every detail, constantly reminding himself to be alert and to look for any movement. As he was doing this, impatience set in. Where in the hell was the infantry? Why weren't they down here? Didn't they realize his tanks couldn't last much longer in this exposed position? The reason returned. He knew that the 36th Armoured Infantry Regiment was as fine an infantry regiment as there was anywhere. He knew, if anyone could get into them, they could. He remembered from experience that if you gave the Germans just 24 hours to dig in, you paid hell getting them out again. And here they'd had almost six weeks in which to dig in and prepare their defences. His thoughts were broken by a call from battalion requesting an ammunition report. He called his remaining three tanks for their reports. Then he checked with his loader as to their condition. The report was: "Just these six rounds on floor and one in the breach." "My God." He could vaguely remember firing forty or fifty rounds, but here they had fired ninety rounds! The reports began to come in. Two tanks had seven rounds each, the other six rounds. He called battalion, giving the report. There was a low whistling sound at the other end. And then: "We're trying to get in to you, and we'll try some way to get some ammunition down to you."
Time was literally killing them. They had been stationary now for almost an hour. During that time the Germans had attempted to move a self-propelled gun into position on the left flank. They had moved an antitank gun right uner their very noses. And what about the prime mover and anti-tank gun spotted on the right flank? They should be in a position by now. He toyed with the idea of moving on into town and fighting it out in the streets there. But even as he thought about it, he knew it was ridiculous, he was positive there was a mine field between his tanks and the town, and he wasn't about to loose one of his tanks to the minefield -that would be 25% of his force and 25% of his fire power. For what? Just to prove there was a mine field there? Even if they did get into town, they wouldn't stand much of a chance. Every doorway, every cellar opening, every window would be a likely base for a Panzeraust attack. Without the infantry, his tanks didn't stand a chance. His thoughts were broken by the good aufullest sound and by his tank being lifted off the ground and shaken. He was violently thrown against the gun-guard. Boun. cing from that, he slammed into the back of his gunner. As he scrambled to regain his footing, he knew that they'd been hit, but not penetrated. That meant that the gun that had fired, was firing at extreme range. As he peered out the hatch again, he knew that his chance for spotting the gun was very slight. He had to be looking right at it when it fired. Again he was violently thrown against the gun guard. Bouncing from this, he was wedged between the gunner's right shoulder and the side of the tank. Fighting once more to regain his footing, and to get his head out of the hatch, his thoughts went to his crew. My God, his men had courage! There they eat, knowing any second they could be killed or badly mangled. They knew what they were in for; they had seen the remains of other crews hauled from their tanks. It was much harder on them than it was on him. He was absorbed in the complete concentration of locating that gun. While all they could do was sit and stare at the interior of the tank or peer through periscopes which afforded them only limited vision., they took another hit. Secured this time by a better handhold, he was not thrown against the gun guard. The hit was low on the side. The interior of the tank was lit by a ball of fire ceused by the terrific friction of the penetration. A white hot eighteen pound projectile entered the empty ammunition rack under the floor. The earlier models of the M-4 "Sherma " medium tank did not store ammunition under the turret floor. The steel walls of the compartment prevented the molten metal from striking the interior of the hull and ricocheting throughout the tank. This saved the crew. The fact that the anti-tank gun was firing at extreme range, also saved the crew. The velocity of the projectile was so reduced, that the ammunition compartment was able to confine its effect. Still searching the countryside, he felt the shoulder of his gunner pushing him up from underneath. He had been so intnse on trying to locate the gun that he had forgotten they had to get out of the tank and get out fast! He boosted himself up and out onto the rear deck, allowing his crew to scramble out. His map case, no matter how dangerous it was, or how crazy, he had to get it. Dropping back inside, he felt for the map case. It was gone! He spotted it on the other side of the turret under one of the rounds. Diving under the gun he grabbed it -back across the turret, up and out. As his hands were on the front elope of the turret, his knees on the edge of the hatch, his legs and buttocks over the opening of the hatch, he heard a tremendous sound. Ignoring this, he half-slipped and half-tumbled to the ground, joining his crew.
After the war the tank commander received a letter from his platoon sergeant, Fred Nooly, who had been watching all of this. Fred stated in his letter that as he was just clearing the hatch opening, an armour piercing projectile struck the two open hatch covers directly behind his buttocks. The hatch covers simply vanished. Had he spent an extra second or two inside the tank, his escape would have ended in the hatch opening. He had to get his crew away from the tank. The gun had gotten the tank, now it would switch to highexplosives to get the crew. The only cover available was a cabbage patch a short distance away. They made a run for it. As they flung themselves down amongst the cabbages, his gunner yelled: "I've been hill" The wounded man lay only about ten feet away; the tank commander inched his way toward him. An automatic weapon opened up, cutting cabbage leaves off around his head. The leaves trickled down his cheek. When he stopped, the gun stopped, when he started,„ the gun started. This procedure continued until he reached the man's feet. Ten minutes to go ten feetl He had been hit in the arch of his foot, and the foot was pretty badly torn up, but the shoe was still on, holding everything in place. He knew that the wound was very painful, but it wasn't bleeding very much. He told this to the gunner, not the part about it being painful, he already knew that - only that it was not bleeding badly, and
that he would be okay. It would soon be dark, and they could make their move. My gosh . it was cold! The dampness of the ground had already seeped through his clothing, and it looked as though it was about to snow. Then he remembered: the artillery barrage. Surely they called that off - they must have, for where they were lying they wouldn't stand much of a chance under a 800 gun barrage, oh they must have called it off. That was something to think about. Suddenly he realized how quiet it was. The artillery had ceased firing, and it seemed as though no activity was going on around him. It was now dark enough. He signalled his crew to crawl over and join him. They lay with their heads in a circle. He explained if they were to crawl over to the rear of the tank, they could follow the tracks back to their own lines. The ground had been so soft, the tank had been sinking in four to five inches. He was going to crawl over and join his remaining three tanks. At this point they heard a voice say "Hands up!" They looked over to the bank by the road and saw a German helmet barely protruding above the bank and a pair of eyes staring at them. They yelled: "Come on over!" He ducked. Again his head protruded above the bank, again he said: "Hands up!" This time he was invited over with a string of swearwords. What in the world were they going to do with a prisoner? They had enough problems of their own. Again his head ducked. The next time his head protruded above the bank, two others joined him, each with a light machine gun, complete with stock, ammunition drum and bipod. He knew two other words: "You come!" But that wasn't necessary. The crew had already got the point. As they crawled towards the Germans, the tank commander heard six artillery guns fire. He knew that these were 3rd Armoured Division guns, as only armoured artillery had six guns to a battery. As they tumbled into the ditch, alongside the Germans, the bank completely erupted from the explosion of six 105MM shells. As they shook themselves free from the dirt, they tried to talk the Germans into coming back to their lines, stating that there was plenty of good food and cigarettes. A German with a pistol stuck it in the ribs of the tank commander, and said: "Raus!" On entering Hastenrath, he saw a prime mover still burning. He recognized that as the vehicle he had hit from Scherpenseel.
Later he found out that the damaged antitank gun that was lying nearby had been hit by his first round of high-explosives. The gun had been in position covering the road from Hastenrath to Scherpenseel. Here he had knocked out an anti-tank gun he didn't even know was there. The commander and his crew were led into the basement of the first house they came to. Once inside, he recognized that these houses were not ordinary houses. They were built as part of the German defence. The outside of the building appeared to be made from quarry stone. The basement was reinforced concrete. The entrance was zigzagged, so no one could fire directly into the basement, nor could they drop handgrenades inside. The German officer recognizing the tank commander's rank, ushered him to a desk and his crew to a nearby table.
It was indicated that they wanted them to empty their pockets. This done, the German officer politely gestured for the tank commander's map-case. A look of surprise crossed his face, as he went through the contents. This was replaced by a broad smile, as he spread the photographs out on his desk. And why shouldn't he smile? He was looking at a pretty girl, and he knew it. He looked up and pointed to the photographs, and said: "Frau?" The tank commander nodded. The German broke into even a broader smile. The photographs were replaced in the map-case, the map-case closed and returned to the tank commander. All personnal property was returned. Not a thing was taken, not even their cigarettes. The Germans were very polite and handled the affair in a business-like manner. There was an air of mutual admiration in the basement that night. It was indicated that the crew was to sit down.
The tank commander reflected: Was there any way he could have prevented his crew from being taken prisoners? As he thought on this, he realized that from the moment they came out of the tank until they rolled into the ditch alongside the Germans they had been in the open and could have been killed at any time. They definitely were wanted as prisoners. Then he thought of the six guns that had fired. Had an observer spotted the movement and mistaken them for Germans? If so, he certainly had laid his guns right in on the target. The Germans beckoned for them to move out. As they walked up the street of the shell-worn town, he hear his tank engines start, turn around and head towards their lines. Here he was so close to his tanks, and yet he couldn't reach them. A great feeling of disappointment and discouragement swept over him. After all the years of training and fighting in Normandy and fighting that day he ended up as a prisoner. He was no longer a part of the American fighting force. As they approached the building near the end of town, they were once again led into a basement. He had noticed that eyery building he passed seemed to be made from quarry stone. The building and basement he was now in was the same as the building he just left. This was going to be a tough town to take! The Germans indicated for them to sit on the floor. After a short time, a truck pulled up in front. They were led outside. The Germans were unloading large cans of hot food. Once unloaded, the captured crew mounted and was driven towards the rear of the lines. After a short drive, they pulled up to a farm house and were ushered inside. The tank commander finally located a German who could understand and speak English. He requested immediate medical attention for his wounded men. The German officer assured him that a vehicle was on the way to
remove him to a hospital. They were led down a hall to a furnished room, and told to wait. A door opened, and a German captain addressing the tank commander in perfect American said: "Lieutenant, would you step in here, please." They were joined by a German major who also spoke perfect American. The interrogation started in a casual off hand .manner. The tank commander was offered a glass of beer; he accepted, but only one. He would have liked more. The day's action had left him exhausted and extremely thirsty. When the questioning started, he replied with his name, rank and serial number. Further questioning - the same reply. After the third name, rank and serial number the Major said: "Lieutenant, we have time to kill until they come and pick you up. What would
you like to talk about?" The answer was a question: "How did you guys learn to speak American so well, and without an accent?" The answer was: The two of them had been sent to the United States, their mission to not only learn the language, but the customs, along with a good solid knowledge of American sports. The converstion was interrupted by a heavy explosion. The building shook, and the two men jumped. The tank commander allowed himself a slight smile. That must have been a 155 milimeter rifle, as there was no warning. All other American artillery pieces were howitzers. He noted as the conversation resumed, the two men stealing themselves against the next explosion. "You can't do this, it will only cause you to jump all the more." A second shell landed, this time closer, a concussion lifting the building slightly from its foundation, causing the Germans to jump even more. The tank commander allowed himself even a broader smile. As an attempt was made to continue the conversation, another shell landed, even closer. The men really jumped. The tank commander held his smile, the interrogation was over. To be fair, the men were rear echelon, and not accustomed to shell fire as he was, and he found it extremely nasty. That night he was so exhausted, he couldn't have jumped even if he had wanted to. He was led from the room, the door was closed, his tank crew was gone, and he sat alone. The end of a day at Hastenrath.
I Company of the 33rd Armoured Regiment was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its action at Hastenrath, November 16th, 17, 19th, `44. The disposition of the tank unit commander after his interrogation at the farm house may be of personal interest to you. He was taken to Duren, from Duren to Dusseldorf, from Dusseldorf to Stalag 11B outside of Hannover, from Hannover to Berlin where he experienced a British night bombing raid on the railroad station. This completed the cycle, as he had spent several nights in London under similar German bombing raids. From Berlin he was taken to Poznam in Poland. From there to Oflag 64 in the Polish Corridor. Later he escaped, spending two weeks behind the German lines. He met and joined a Russian patrol, but his stay with them was brief, as they were separated during a fire fight with the Germans. He spent another ten days behind the German lines. With the help of a Polish major he made his way to Bydgoszcz in Poland. From Dgoszcz to Poznan, from Poznan to Warsaw, from Warsaw to Kiew, from Kiew to Odessa, from Odessa to Port Said in Egypt. From there to the 5th Army Rest Camp in Naples, Italy.
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