Panthers in the Snow II

M36 90mm Tank Destroyer, 703rd TD Battalion, 3rd Armored Division, near Malempré, Belgium, 16 December 1944, the first day of the Battle of the Bulge.

So the 3rd Armored Division was very close, and arriving just in time, too. There were a hell of a lot of panzers out there. Ridgway hadn’t served with Maurice Rose. But he’d heard of him, and later thought Rose “one of the most gallant soldiers I have ever known.” It takes one to know one.

For the first time during Rose’s command tenure, the Spearhead Division was working for someone other than Joe Collins at VII Corps. These paratrooper generals seemed crazy-brave; Rose could relate to that. Ridgway was Collins’s West Point classmate and like Lightning Joe, the airborne commander missed combat in World War I. Ridgway had sure made up for that in Sicily, Italy, and now in northwest Europe. But he’d been a division commander then. Trying to hold the north side of the Bulge represented Ridgway’s first corps-level operation. Frankly, he’d inherited a mess, with bits and parts of units intermixed with the Germans.

That worked for Ridgway. An airborne assault starts by dumping men and gear out of the sky, often at midnight. In concept, the parachutists and glider teams land right on predetermined targets. In too many cases, drops degenerated into 52-pickup, with little groups of paratroopers improvising, adapting, and overcoming. So the situation in the Ardennes looked a lot like the night jump in Normandy: find American units and stick them together like Legos. Hold that line. That was what Ridgway did, and it’s about all he could do. Later diagrams of the situation on December 20, 1944, depict a neat wall of American divisions, the 9th, 2nd, 99th, 1st, 30th, 82nd, and now 3rd Armored. The reality was much, much more jumbled.

The XVIII Airborne Corps owned only two-thirds of the 3rd Armored Division, as Combat Command A remained glued to the road net south of Eupen chasing German para-ghosts. Given constant reporting about German jumpers, spies, saboteurs, and even hostiles in American uniforms—all of them grounded in some kind of truth—CCA was stuck. To block any German lunge toward the Stavelot fuel stocks or the Meuse River bridges to the north, Combat Command B passed directly to the command of the 30th Infantry Division, their higher headquarters from the Mortain battle back in August 1944. This left Maurice Rose with the 83rd Recon and Combat Command Reserve at Hotton, hanging out in the breeze. There were more U.S. forces on the way. But for now, the only things west of them were more Meuse River crossings.

And soon enough, the Germans.

This would be a tank battle, a big one. The Spearheaders had clashed with enemy panzers many times: Mortain, Rânes/Fromental, Mons, the West Wall. But these encounters usually featured a handful of panzers and dozens of American tanks. Now on the forest roads near Stavelot and Hotton, the odds would be pretty nearly even. That got Rose and his G.I.s thinking.

More than half of the enemy panzers running around the Ardennes were Mark IVs or their turretless assault gun cousins. Those 28-tonners mounted a long 75mm cannon that outranged a Sherman’s shorter 75mm, although not by a lot. At five hundred yards or so, it was a fair fight. The 3rd Armored Division’s forty-eight Shermans with 76mm barrels could ventilate the front end of a Mark IV out to a thousand yards. If only Mark IVs showed up, great. But there were other denizens lurking.

The opposing menagerie’s apex predators were only too obvious, the dreaded Tigers and Panthers. Both overmatched 3rd Armored Division’s tanks. Among the American tank crews, men spoke with respect of Tigers and Panthers, as well they might.

Although the Tiger was often reported, especially by nervous G.I. new arrivals, facts seldom caught up with allegations. Tigers came in two versions, the 63-ton Tiger I and the 77-ton Tiger II, also called the King Tiger or Royal Tiger. These massive, sluggish giants overstressed bridges, cracked pavements, and sometimes struggled in mud. But when they moved out, they struck with power. Both used 88mm cannons deadly to a Sherman at 2,000 yards. Tiger frontal armor could ward off Sherman projectiles, although if it caught an angle just right, the U.S. 76mm gun round might penetrate at about a hundred yards or so. Fortunately for the Allies, the Germans fielded few of these behemoths. Only 1,393 Tiger Is and 458 King Tigers were produced during the entire war, and most went to the Russian front. These monsters could be found in special heavy tank battalions. Only two Tiger battalions fought in the Ardennes. Combat Command B of the 3rd Armored Division met one of these outfits.

Unlike Tigers, Panthers proved all too available in the Ardennes. Spearhead Division units ran into these big panzers in several clashes. The almost unstoppable Tiger might bring on night sweats. But the numerous Panthers offered a more likely threat. They moved in packs, hit hard, and died hard, too.

A Panther weighed just under 50 tons. Although clearly heavier than the 33-ton Sherman, a Panther rode on wide tracks that spread the weight better, a quality known as ground pressure (12.3 pounds per square inch, compared to 15.1 for a Sherman). Panthers employed a long 75mm gun that outperformed the Tiger’s 88mm weapon inside a thousand yards. A Panther main gun round could rip through a Sherman from any aspect. If surviving American tanks returned fire, the Panther’s heavy sloped frontal armor shrugged off both U.S. 75mm and 76mm shots, although those cannons could now and then get a lucky hit inside a hundred yards. American Sherman tank guns had a good chance of penetrating the sides or back even a thousand yards out. Of course, that presumed the Americans maneuvered successfully to gain those advantageous positions. If you manned a Sherman hunting Panthers, these raw statistics certainly gave you pause.

Folk wisdom in the ranks of the 3rd Armored Division said a Panther enjoyed a five-to-one edge over a Sherman. Put another way, Americans expected to trade one platoon per Panther. German panzer men understood the terrible arithmetic. “One of our tanks is better than ten of yours,” they snorted. “But you always have eleven!”  Such metrics might be OK for the ones marking the charts way up at First Army, Twelfth Army Group, or SHAEF. But those getting “traded” certainly didn’t appreciate the exchange rate.

So how did Shermans beat Panthers?

Rather than simply swap like for like, at 5:1, 10:1, or even 1:1, Maurice Rose and his men learned to use all their panoply of armaments. As Rose expressed in a formal report that went to General Eisenhower, “We compensate for our inferior equipment by the efficient use of artillery, air support, and maneuver.” It was the familiar prescription. Send a bullet, not a man. Rose believed in it, taught it, and insisted on it. He was right there to make sure it worked.

But Rose also knew there were things that simple side by side number-crunching missed. Shermans stayed in action; they were fixable and robust, with nine out of ten running most days. Panther crews struggled to keep their elegant machines operational. The strong German panzers often fell off the line of march, burdened by inadequate transmissions and a lack of spare parts. German mechanics counted 29 percent of their Panthers in the shop as the Ardennes offensive began. Of forty-seven abandoned Panthers examined by American technical teams after the Battle of the Bulge, twenty had no battle damage. They’d simply stopped working.

The Americans also stuck to the path blazed by innovators like Eli Whitney and Henry Ford: interchangeable parts and standardization. From 1939 to 1945, the Germans fielded four main battle tanks: the Mark III, the Mark IV, the Panther, and the Tiger (two versions), not to mention a bewildering variety of related and unrelated assault guns, obsolescent Mark I and Mark II models, borrowed foreign equipment, and experimental “wonder weapon” variants. None of these things was much like the other. The Americans, however, went with the Sherman and only the Sherman. In the 3rd Armored Division, the M7 self-propelled howitzer and the attached M10 and M36 tank destroyers all built on the basic M4 Sherman design, and thus shared engines, transmissions, parts, and tools. Even the 17-ton M5 Stuart light tank shared some common items.

This standardization lent itself to fairly fast and uniform fleet upgrades. Stateside arsenals provided the M4A3 Sherman with the improved 76mm cannon and the higher horsepower Ford V-8 engine. Front-line mechanics developed the sharpened metal bow forks that uprooted the Norman hedgerows. With winter coming, divisional ordnance teams also installed mass-produced end connector extenders. Sort of the tank equivalent of snow tires, these modifications widened the Sherman’s treads, reducing the ground pressure to 12.4 pounds per square inch, similar to that of the Panther. The troops called these track growers “duck feet.” They’d come in handy in the snowy Ardennes.

Besides having a more reliable tank, the Americans also had better tankers. Rose certainly thought so. “There is no question in my mind,” he wrote, “but what [sic] our gunnery is far superior to that of the Germans.” While a few wily panzer aces still manned the German turrets, by 1944 most of the enemy’s crews consisted of men who’d driven only a few hours or fired but a few live rounds in slap-dash training. The Spearheaders had no shortage of fuel or ammunition to teach new guys the ropes. Rose realized that experienced G.I. tankers learned to go for side and rear shots at less than 800 or more than 1,000 yards. Sometimes it came down to a face-off on a one-lane farm trail. That sort of thing got very sporty.

See first, shoot first, hit first. So preached the old-hand tank sergeants. A postwar U.S. Army study of armor engagements in 1944–1945, including the Battle of the Bulge, confirmed the validity of this mantra. Tank vs. tank fights tended to exemplify the formula Thomas Hobbes ascribed to life expectancy in primordial times: nasty, brutish, and short. The side that got off the first round won, tending to knock out four opponents for each friendly loss. German hits came at an average of 946 yards out. Americans struck their targets at an average range of 893 yards, pretty much the same. The moving vehicle was at greater risk, as motion enabled detection. Stationary defenders hit first in 84 percent of these brief, violent clashes of armor. Winning such quick smash-ups depended on smart, well-trained crews.

The Americans had them. A Sherman relied on the teamwork of five soldiers. Intercoms in their helmets let the men talk back and forth. Two G.I.s worked the hull: the driver, who kept the tank going in the right direction, and his assistant, who manned the radio and fired the .30 caliber bow machine gun. Three soldiers handled turret duties. The loader found the right main gun projectile—armor-piercing, high explosive, or white phosphorus incendiary/smoke—and placed it in the breech; he also fed ammunition to the machine guns. The gunner sighted on the target and fired both the main cannon and its coaxial .30 caliber machine gun. The tank commander (TC) stood high in the turret, usually with his hatch open. He ran the crew. The TC also fired the big .50 caliber heavy machine gun, a weapon that had no German counterpart. The .50 caliber could tear up dismounted troops, shred wooden and masonry walls, eviscerate trucks, and even hole thin armor plate, as on German half-tracks. In a pinch, you could man a Sherman with but a driver, gunner, and TC. Assistant driver and loader were apprentice positions. When the Spearheaders had to retrain infantry replacements as tank crewmen the newcomers normally started in those introductory roles.

Sergeants formed the vast majority of 3rd Armored Division’s TCs. Running a tank absolutely constituted NCO business—blue collar, hands-on, no-nonsense, life and death. The need for quick reflexes, upper body strength, athletic agility in cramped quarters, and endless endurance made tanking a young man’s game. The 3rd Battalion, 32nd Armored Regiment’s Staff Sergeant Lafayette G. “War Daddy” Pool, twenty-five years old in 1944, was considered an elder. Among the greatest of the many fine TCs in the division, Pool earned the Distinguished Service Cross, knocked out dozens of panzers—258 by one count—and had two Shermans shot out from under him before he finally lost part of his right leg in West Wall fighting on September 15, 1944. War Daddy Pool’s experiences provided plot elements for two Hollywood movies, The Tanks Are Coming (1951) and Fury (2014). Not all Spearheader TCs measured up to Pool. But even aspiring to that level set a high bar.

You couldn’t lead men like Pool by babbling on the radio from a heated tent. The sergeant TCs respected officers who fought from a tank. The NCOs expected their lieutenants and captains to lead by example. So, too, with armor battalion majors and lieutenant colonels like Bill Lovelady and Sam Hogan, who commanded from the turret. As Pool’s experience warned, this was an exceedingly risky business. It explains the many Spearhead Division tank battalion commanders killed and wounded as the war ground on.

Above battalion level, armor colonels and generals rarely led from a tank. They had to work with infantry, artillery, engineers, and service troops as well as tank crews. The U.S. Army’s organizational charts offered such senior leaders the choice of an M5 Stuart light tank, an armored car, a half-track, or a peep, plus affiliated security teams. Maurice Rose chose an utterly unarmored quarter-ton peep. The young tank sergeants knew the deal. They respected Rose’s guts. He went where they went. In armored combat, Rose’s way was like playing in an NFL football game wearing only a T-shirt. No matter your speed or savvy, sooner or later, you will get hit hard. But Rose and the TCs never talked about that, and it’s not likely they thought about it, either. That wasn’t healthy.

What was healthy was focusing on killing panzers. See first, shoot first, hit first. With Panthers, go for the flank and butt end. To do so, Rose’s NCOs and junior officers preferred to find a good site, squirrel away, and then bushwhack advancing panzers. Of course, that tactic worked if you knew the panzers were coming. On December 20, 1944, they most certainly were.

“Initiate intensive reconnaissance in the Hotton-Grandmenil sector, to locate the enemy, and to secure a line running east from La Roche to crossroads 576853 [a military map location southeast of Manhay], and to tie in with the 82nd Airborne Division on the left [east] and the 84th Infantry Division on the right [west].” Thus Matt Ridgway of XVIII Airborne Corps directed Maurice Rose to carry out a series of tasks that would be difficult under any conditions but verged on impossible given the 3rd Armored Division’s strength, disposition, and probable opposition.

Hotton and Manhay—these towns mattered. Hang on to them and the Germans couldn’t blitz north to the Meuse crossings. The enemy still might head west, but that was a long, long way to the Meuse River, let alone Antwerp. The forest thinned out with each mile you drove west. And sooner or later, this cruddy Hitler weather would give way to blue skies full of P-47 Thunderbolts. Rose figured all of that out on the dark, wet ride from Stolberg. When he reached Hotton and assembled the division staff in a hotel borrowed to house Omaha Forward, Rose didn’t ask for clever ideas. He gave orders.

With CCA and CCB busy elsewhere, Rose’s truncated division would be hard pressed to defend Hotton and Manhay, thirteen miles apart. So be it. The book said it couldn’t be done. But Maurice Rose chose to see opportunity. The Germans didn’t know how much, or how little, of the 3rd Armored Division stood in front of them. Rose went at it like a cavalry officer. He attacked.

Four task forces prepared for action on December 20, 1944. Each combined 83rd Recon scouts, tank companies, armored infantry, engineers, and self-propelled artillery. Rose picked the commanders. Lieutenant Colonel Sam Hogan of CCR went to the west, aiming to reach La Roche. Major John Tucker of the 83rd Recon took the center route toward Dochamps. Lieutenant Colonel Matthew W. Kane of CCR drove east toward Manhay. As backup, Lieutenant Colonel William Orr waited near Hotton; his battalion task force stood ready to go where needed. As for protecting Hotton town itself, Omaha Way Forward, a.k.a. “Combat Command Smith,” drew the mission. Along with the headquarters soldiers and the 143rd Armored Signal Company, Company E of the 23rd Engineers helped prepare defenses. Nobody else was left to do the job.

Sam Hogan recounted what he and his men had to go on. “The information of the enemy given to us was zero,” he wrote. “This was only a little less than usual.” This time, though, friendly information “was also zero, and this was quite a bit less than usual.” Hogan and his G.I.s anticipated meeting German units as well as displacing U.S. elements. All the Spearheaders expected panzers.

Task Force Hogan didn’t find any. Instead, when they reached La Roche, they met the division trains of the 7th Armored Division. When a reconnaissance team pushed south, they found a German roadblock. The enemy piled thick timber on a blind curve with a steep hill on one side and a drop-off on the other. A hidden antitank gun set afire the first American M8 Greyhound scout car, wounding the crew. With night coming on, that would do it. Hogan pulled his men into a night defensive coil around La Roche. The trains troops from the 7th Armored Division shared rations and cigarettes, a good end to a long day.