Battle of Arracourt
|Battle of Arracourt|
|Part of World War II|
Arracourt commemorative monument
|United States||Nazi Germany|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Col. Bruce C. Clarke, CCA||Hasso von Manteuffel|
||5th Panzer Army
|Casualties and losses|
|25 medium tanks
7 tank destroyers
|86 tanks and assault guns|
The Battle of Arracourt was a major clash between U.S. and German armored forces near the town of Arracourt, Lorraine, France, between 18-29 September 1944, during the Second World War. As part of a counteroffensive against recent U.S. advances in France, the German 5th Panzer Army had as its objective the recapture of Lunéville and the elimination of the U.S. XII Corps bridgehead over the Moselle River at Dieulouard. With local superiority in troops and tanks, the Germans anticipated quick defeat of the defending Combat Command A (CCA) of the U.S. 4th Armored Division. Against German expectations, due in part to poor tactics and the terrain, the 4th Armored Division's CCA, in concert with U.S. tactical air forces, defeated two Panzer brigades and elements of two Panzer divisions.
For the battle, the German Fifth Panzer Army had an actual strength of 182 tanks (75 Panzer IVs and 107 Mark V Panther tanks), with an additional 80 self-propelled assault guns, for a total of 262 vehicles. It initially comprised two panzer corps headquarters, the 11th Panzer Division, and the 111th and 113th Panzer Brigades. The 11th Panzer Division, while battle-experienced, was badly in need of tanks, having lost most of its complement in earlier fighting; conversely, the two panzer brigades had the newest Panther tanks and fresh crews, but had virtually no battle experience, and insufficient training. The need to quickly respond to the sudden advance of the 4th Armored, as well as inadequate fuel supplies, had left the crews with shortened training schedules and little proficiency in tactical maneuvering in large-scale, combined arms operations.
At the time of the battle, the U.S. 4th Armored Division's Combat Command A (CCA), under Colonel Bruce C. Clarke, consisted primarily of the 37th Tank Battalion, the 53rd Armored Infantry Battalion, two armored field artillery battalions (the 66th and 94th), and a towed 155 mm howitzer field artillery battalion, the 191st. Also present were elements of the 35th Tank Battalion, the 10th Armored Infantry Battalion, the 704th Tank Destroyer Battalion, the 25th Cavalry Squadron, the 24th Armored Engineer Battalion, and the 166th Engineer Combat Battalion. CCA formed part of the 4th Armored Division under General John S. Wood, who was in turn under the command of General Manton S. Eddy of the U.S. XII Corps.
In addition to a numerical advantage over CCA, the 5th Panzer Army's Panther tanks were superior to U.S. M4 Shermans in both armor protection and main gun range. Only in close air support did U.S. forces enjoy a significant advantage. Earlier sorties by U.S. fighter bombers caused some German panzer units to fail to arrive in time for the battle, as they were preemptively damaged or destroyed in separate encounters with other Allied forces.
On 18 September, with the weather deteriorating and heavy fog settling in, U.S. tactical air forces were unable to locate and destroy advancing German armored units. However, while shielding the German advance from air observation and attack, the weather also handicapped the 5th Panzer Army. Poor visibility combined with a lack of motorized scouting and reconnaissance units in the new "Panzer Army" formations prevented German armored forces from properly coordinating their attack, which soon degenerated into a disjointed series of intermittent thrusts.
The first German attack, mounted by the 111th Panzer Brigade, fell on the 4th Armored Division's Reserve Command and the XII Corps' reconnaissance group at Lunéville on 18 September 1944. In sharp fighting, the understrength U.S. forces, augmented by reinforcements from both the U.S. 4th and 6th Armored Divisions, managed to beat back the attack. Generals Wood and Eddy, believing the Lunéville engagement to be only a local counterattack, initially decided to proceed with a planned corps offensive; however, reports of increased German activity throughout the night of 18–19 September led to postponement of the attack. The Fifth Panzer Army, having failed to take Lunéville quickly, simply bypassed it, and began moving north to strike at CCA's exposed position in and around Arracourt. The battle that resulted was one of the largest armored engagements ever fought on the Western Front.
Combat Command A's dispositions around Arracourt consisted of a thinly-held salient, using an extended outpost line of armored infantry and engineers supported by tanks, tank destroyers, and artillery. At 0800 on 19 September, company-sized elements of the 113th Panzer Brigade penetrated CCA outposts on the east and south faces of CCA's salient. Two tank destroyer platoons and a medium tank company engaged the panzers in a running fight that extended into the vicinity of CCA's headquarters, where a battalion of self-propelled M7 105 mm howitzers took the panzers under direct, point-blank fire.
Poor tactical deployment of the German tanks soon exposed them to fire from American tanks, tank destroyers, antitank forces, and artillery (mainly M4 Sherman medium tanks, a handful of M5A1 Stuart light tanks, M18 Hellcat tank destroyers, and 105 mm (4.1 in) artillery units). As 5th Panzer Army was not equipped with integral scouting units, the German were forced to advance blindly against the Americans, whose positions were shrouded in thick morning fog. Reinforced with additional tank, infantry, and cavalry elements, and aided by the Germans' persistence in repeating the same plan of attack, CCA was able to locate and prepare for battle on ground of its own choosing. A combination of concealed defensive positions, command of local terrain elevations, and adroit fire-and-maneuver tactics allowed the 4th's CCA to negate the superior armor and firepower of the German AFVs. While the advancing Germans were continually exposed to American fire, U.S. armor was able to maneuver into favorable defensive positions, staying hidden until the German AFVs (the majority of which were Panther tanks) had closed to within effective range. The fog that had allowed German forces tactical surprise and protection from U.S. air attack also negated the superior range of their tank guns.
From 20 to 25 September, the Fifth Panzer Army fed the 111th Panzer Brigade and the understrength 11th Panzer Division into a series of disjointed attacks against the Arracourt position. On 20 September, German Panther tanks moved towards the headquarters component of the 4th Armored Division's Combat Command A, and several 4th AD support units were pinned down or trapped by the German advance. An Army observation pilot, Major "Bazooka Charlie" Carpenter took to the air with his bazooka-armed L-4 Cub, nicknamed Rosie the Rocketer, to attack the enemy. At first, Carpenter was unable to spot the enemy due to low clouds and heavy fog, which finally lifted around noon. Spotting a company of German Panther tanks advancing towards Arracourt, Carpenter dived through a barrage of German ground fire in a continuing series of attacks against the German panzers, firing all of his bazooka rockets in repeated passes. Returning to base to reload, Carpenter flew two more sorties that afternoon, firing no fewer than sixteen bazooka rockets at German Panther tanks and armored cars, several of which were hit. Carpenter's actions that day were later credited and verified by ground troops with knocking out two German tanks and several armored cars, while killing or wounding a dozen or more enemy soldiers. Carpenter's actions also forced the German tank formation to retreat to its starting position, in the process enabling a trapped 4th Armored water point support crew to escape capture and destruction.
On 21 September, with skies clearing, P-47 Thunderbolts of the 405th Fighter Group, 84th Fighter Wing of the U.S. XIX Tactical Air Command were able to begin a relentless series of attacks on German ground forces. In addition to missions of opportunity flown by XIX TAC fighter-bombers, CCA was able to call in tactical air strikes against German panzer concentrations. The 4th Armored's close relationship with the USAAF's XIX TAC and mastery of ground-air tactical coordination was a significant factor in destroying the offensive capability of the German armored formations.
By 24 September, most of the fighting had moved to Château-Salins, where a fierce attack by the 559th Volksgrenadier Division of the German First Army nearly overwhelmed 4th Armored's Combat Command B, before being routed by U.S. fighter-bombers. The following day, Third Army received orders to suspend all offensive operations and consolidate its gains. In compliance with corps orders, the entire 4th Armored Division reverted to a positional defense on 26 September. CCA withdrew five miles to more defensible ground, and CCB, relieved at Château-Salins by the 35th Division, linked up with the right flank of CCA. The Fifth Panzer Army, by now reduced to only 25 Panther tanks, pressed its attacks unsuccessfully for three more days, until clearing weather and increased American air activity forced the Germans to suspend their counteroffensive altogether and begin a retreat towards the German frontier.
The final tally for the battle was as follows:
"Of the 262 tanks and assault guns deployed by the German units in the week of fighting near Arracourt, 86 were destroyed, 114 were damaged or broken down, and only 62 were operational at the end of the month. The 4th Armored Division's Combat Command A, which had borne the brunt of the 5th Panzer Army's counteroffensive at Arracourt, lost 25 tanks and 7 tank destroyers. As a division, the 4th AD lost some 41 M4 medium tanks and 7 M5A1 light tanks during the whole month of September, with casualties of 225 killed and 648 wounded." Zaloga (2008)
While Patton′s Third Army had succeeded in the early weeks of September in completing a limited advance toward Germany - despite orders to the contrary - the Battle of Arracourt signaled a temporary halt to the U.S. drive in southeastern France. On 22 September, Patton was informed that his fuel supplies were being restricted and that he would have to shift to a defensive posture. The fuel was required for other U.S. forces and for Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery′s Operation Market Garden, an attack by the First Allied Airborne Army and British Second Army intended to create a bridgehead over the Rhine river at Arnhem outflanking the German defensive line and encircle the key industrial area of the Ruhr.
Perceptions of the battle
An irony of the Battle of Arracourt is that the Germans believed, despite their heavy losses, that they had succeeded in their objective of stopping the advance of General George Patton′s Third Army, as the Third Army had come to a halt. Generalmajor Friedrich von Mellenthin—Chief of Staff of the 5th Panzer Army—summarized the situation:
"Quite apart from Hitler's orders, our attacks on the XIIth Corps at Gremecey and Arracourt appeared to have some justification. When Balck took over Army Group G on 21 September it looked as though the Americans were determined to force their way through to the Saar and the Rhine, and General Patton might well have done so if he had been given a free hand. At that time the West Wall was still unmanned, and no effective defense could have been made there. From our point of view there was much to be said for counterattacking the spearheads of the XIIth Corps to discourage the Americans from advancing farther. Although our attacks were very costly it appeared at the time that they had achieved their purpose, and had effectively checked the American Third Army.
In fact, Patton was compelled to halt by Eisenhower's order of 22 September. The Supreme Allied Commander had decided to accept Montgomery's proposal to make the main effort on the northern flank, clear the approaches to Antwerp, and try to capture the Ruhr before winter. Third U.S. Army received categorical orders to stand on the defensive. The rights and wrongs of this strategy do not concern me, but it certainly simplified the problems of Army Group G. We were given a few weeks' grace to rebuild our battered forces and get ready to meet the next onslaught."
Robert S. Allen′s 1947 work "Lucky Forward", a volume full of praise for General Patton and the Third Army's campaigns in 1944-45, does not mention the Battle of Arracourt at all. In the face of the initial German attacks, the Third Army was little troubled by them, and concentrated on its own advance on Sarreguemines. Subsequently, Patton and his staff had to focus on reorganization, in order to comply with Eisenhower′s order to halt their advance. But the actions at Arracourt, among others fought by the Third Army in September 1944, contributed to a shift in U.S. perceptions of the campaign:
"Yet by the end of September, the expectation of a rapid final offensive into the Reich had faded into a far less substantial hope than it had seemed when the Allies drove headlong across the First World War battlefields a month before. If the Germans could mount at Arracourt the most formidable tank attacks since the battles against the British around Caen, their recovery had exceeded the expectations of even Patton's sober G-2 -- and the West Wall still lay ahead everywhere, and unbroken."
The Battle of Arracourt was concurrent with the end of Third Army's rapid advance across France, which had been stopped short of entering Germany by Eisenhower's decision to divert fuel supplies to other forces. The delay allowed the German Army to regroup for the defense of the German border on the Siegfried Line. Adolf Hitler, however, was less than pleased with the results of the German offensive, and relieved the commander of Army Group G, Johannes Blaskowitz.
Since the U.S. victory at Arracourt proved to have no strategic value for the Allies, the tank-to-tank action there was long ignored by historians, or simply lumped together with the rest of Patton′s campaign in the Lorraine. It was not generally known as a named battle until later debate on the relative merits of Allied versus German tanks in World War II resurrected interest in the action. Arracourt was the largest tank battle involving U.S. forces on the Western Front until the Battle of the Bulge, and has been used as an example of how tactical situations and crew quality can be far more important factors in determining the outcome of a tank battle than the technical merits of the tanks themselves.
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A thesis presented to the Faculty of the Command U.S. Army and General Staff College In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Master of Military Art and Science