Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The destruction of the 106th Panzer Brigade

Forrest Dixon and Fred Lemm (not sure which is which) with a
knocked-out German tank from the 106th Panzer Brigade

   Early in the morning of Sept. 8, 1944, at about 2 a.m., a fight broke out between the 712th Tank Battalion, which was guarding the 90th Infantry Division artillery command post, and the German 106th Panzer Brigade.
   Of the many tank battalion veterans I interviewed over the years, most of them believed that the German armored column was simply traveling at night and had no idea that it had stumbled upon the artillery command post. The firing in the middle of the night eventually died down, and resumed at first light.
   It's a shame that so many of the tankers have passed away thinking this was the case. This is for you, Don Knapp, a veteran of the battle of Mairy. Apparently the 106th Panzer Brigade knew exactly what it was doing, and just got whupped, at great cost to the 712th, which lost several tanks and men in the battle.
   Not only has the destruction of the 106th Panzer Brigade made into a French board game, but I recently discovered this article, written by a German historian. The article is excerpted below, but the full article can be found at:

The Destruction of the 106th Panzer Brigade


Surprising the enemy, Panzer-Brigade 106

Panzer-Brigade 106 was made up in July 1944 from the remnants of the Panzergrenadier-Division "Feldherrnhalle", which was routed during the Russian offensive in June 1944, and shaped into condition near the eastern city of Danzig. Nobody less than the famous Colonel Dr. Franz Bäke commanded this early unit of the succession of Panzer-Brigades. He was supported by experienced and highly decorated commanders, but the bulk of the troops consisted of inexperienced men and due to lack of fuel there had been little practice with the tanks. The training area could suggest deployment in the East, but in early September the brigade found itself as a reserve in the First Army sector in Lorraine. It was destined for the Lorraine counterattack against Patton's Third Army later that month.

In the beginning of September the frontline in Lorraine was stretching along the river Moselle from Nancy to Thionville. The Americans tried to establish bridgeheads over the river Moselle in weak sectors of the German defence. Their plan was to advance to the industrial area in the Saar. Although the German First Army's line of defence was thin it managed to fend off most of the American probing attempts to cross the river on 5th and 6th of September.

After this little success the commander of the First Army, Colonel-General Otto von Knobelsdorff, felt confident enough for a counterstroke on the stalled American forces. When the headquarters of Hitler gave away Panzer-Brigade 106 for 48 hours, Knobelsdorff had his armoured fist. His plan was to attack the exposed flank of the U.S. 90th Infantry Division north of Thionville. Knobelsdorff and Bäke were both seasoned officers who gained a lot of experience in Russia. They were confident that an armoured blow on the exposed flank and deep infiltration within American ranks would cause enough panic to make their units collapse and run, like the Russians would in similar circumstances.

Panzer-Brigade 106 found itself already in the sector of Luxembourg from the beginning of September. After the arrival of supporting infantry Panzer-Brigade 106 was send into action in the early morning of September 8th. There had been no beforehand reconnaissance, nor did the Germans know the exactly whereabouts of the American positions. Bäke split up his force in two parallel moving armoured columns infiltrating into the Americans position without actually knowing where to strike. The western column began to spread out just as the Americans start to spot the German intruders. Instead of fleeing in confusion when confronted with this German night attack with tanks the Americans rallied and start to counter the threat.

Now the German forces were scattered in the countryside while the Americans began to rally their forces to strike back. The American infantry was armed with numerous kinds of anti-tank weapons and closely supported by divisional tanks and artillery. Scattered American tanks fired upon the column, while infantry was taking positions at road crossings to block German movement. Now the Germans were harassed by tanks and pounded with artillery.

At dawn the net of American forces around the western column started to get tight and escape was impossible. Bäke lost control over his units as they desperately tried to escape from the deadly trap which was closing around them. Villages and dense woods formed an excellent killing ground, because the Americans could knock out the mighty German tanks from close range. The eastern column tried to come to assistance of the western column, but this move was too late as the Americans were alerted and awaiting the attack. The eastern column was ambushed, suffering heavy casualties and the attack was soon broken off.

At the end of its first day of combat Panzer-Brigade 106 was routed and had lost most of its tanks and infantry in the process. At least 750 men were taken prisoner by the Americans and 21 tanks and tank destroyers of the initial 47 were permanently lost, next to more than 60 half-track carriers – it lost three-quarter of its combat effectiveness and actually ceased to exist as a unit capable of any offensive operations.

This case showed the weaknesses in the deployment and the tactics of the Panzer-Brigades. Firstly, the attack was carried out without proper reconnaissance or knowledge about the American positions. Secondly, the Panzer-Brigade was send into battle without clear objectives. These two mistakes were the result of the wrong assumption that a night attack with tanks would surprise the Americans and made them run. This major underestimation of the morale and fighting capabilities of the American forces proved fatal, because the Americans not only had the will but also the means to counter the attack. Besides these mistakes it was not a wise decision to commit inexperienced troops of an untested unit in a night attack against seasoned and well-organised troops.

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  I'm currently working on two books simultaneously. One, tentatively titled "War As My Father's Tank Battalion Knew It," will include a substantial chapter on the battle at Mairy based on the many accounts I've recorded. Watch for more details. Thanks for reading.

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