The Chieftain's Hatch: The 645th TDB Defends Anzio

This is part two of a series of articles about the anti-tank defense of the Anzio beachead. For part one, click here.

The saga of the 645th Tank Destroyer Battalion in response to the German push of 16-20 Feb 1944 is illuminated by particularly detailed reporting in the unit histories. Units used at first included the Infantry Lehr Regiment, 3rd Panzergrenadier and 715th Divisions, then 26th Panzer,  and 29th PanzerGrenadier divisions were thrown in, plus other supporting assets. I've translated the WW2 grids and placed them on a map, so when there is a number in brackets after an event, look for the associated location on the map for the day. Feel free to right-click on an image  and open in a new tap for the full-sized version.

Overview, to give you a sense of where this is going on

B company got off to a bad start on the 16th. One M10 hit a mine, was then taken under artillery fire, and burned. (1)  A platoon leader’s jeep broke down nearby, and had to be run over by an M10 to prevent capture, and then artillery set one of their ammunition 6x6 trucks on fire. The report stated “The fire was extinguished with a loss of four rounds of HE ammunition, the truck was salvaged”. I am struggling to envision the concept of fighting a fire on an ammunition truck with equipment on hand in a line unit, especially if four rounds had gone off. (Presumably propellant, not charge). I am equally struggling to wonder how the individuals involved managed to run to the fire with balls the size they apparently had. C company got off to a better start, the first kill being claimed by a 3rd platoon vehicle, a Tiger at 3,800 yards. Four rounds APC and 6 HE were fired into its side, the crew abandoned (3). The remarks for the engagement state that the vehicle was still there 26 hours later, so it is perhaps worth observing at this point that “knocked out” or ‘killed’ does not necessarily mean “destroyed”. As I’ll discuss later, the Germans did recover some vehicles. It is also worth noting ahead of time the prodigious use of ammunition which you will read. Be it due to accuracy, armor, or just lack of visible effect, the TD crews were more than willing to use whatever amount of ammunition it took to achieve a satisfactory conclusion: Supply was not noted as a particular problem. 2nd Platoon burned two Tigers and an SPG, listed as ‘possibly a Ferdinand’ (2) at about 1630. The gun commander, a Sgt Kirk claimed the last as a definite Ferdinand, 4 rounds APC, 3 HE, of which the third, 6th and 7th hit at nearly 3km. The Ferdinand was killed first, they then engaged the second vehicle, which took cover behind a knocked out Sherman (Note, the AAR specifically uses “Sherman”, not “M4”, which is a bit of a rarity). Hit in the hull on the fourth round, two more rounds were put into it. The third tank in the column was estimated at 3,200 yards, and took 11 rounds APC and 3 HE before the TD crews were satisfied.  The 7th or 8th round into the side stopped it. If I am reading the AAR correctly, Sgt Kirk claimed all the kills. It seems likely that Kirk did indeed do all the damage, as Harry Yeide’s book indicates that, for some reason, only the one vehicle was present at the time.

All hell broke loose on the 17th, starting with a dawn artillery barrage on 1st platoon A company’s position. The starting positions for the various units of the 645th  on the morning 17th are shown on the map as best as I can determine. 2/B fired 20 rounds on a group of tanks at 2,000 yards, 19 HE and one APC, but could only claim a “probable” kill on a Tiger after hitting its hull and turret sides. (14). 1st of B is listed in the battalion report as probably killing a Tiger with 7 rounds HE and 13 APC, but no grid is given and the specifications of the engagement are not in B company’s reporting. 1/A got its first kill, a Pz IV by 9am, firing 8 rounds HE at its side at nearly 4km (!). Presumably the use of HE was required to observe the fall of shot, but they claimed the vehicle was burning when they were done. (4). They lost a TD to an unknown cause later. By the end of the day, they also claimed to have hit a Tiger at 2,000 yards by using 2 rounds AP, 1 APC and 2 HE. Since they claimed the HE in the track stopped the Tiger, and it was reported as stopped but not burning, one must presume it was a repairable knock-out (13).

View from "The Factory" in the foreground, South to the beachhead.  Flat and featureless

2/A had a 1 for 1 exchange, a Pz III for an M10 burned. The range was 350-400m, three rounds fired into the tank’s side. The panzer burned, nobody got out.(5) Later that day, the remaining vehicles engaged a group of three Tigers and two Pz IVs. For the loss of an M10 hit in the engine and limped to the rear, the can openers got two Tigers. The first round of AP at 350-400 yards at the broadside of a Tiger turret stopped the first one, but 4 HE, and 1 more AP and 2 APC were fired until it was confirmed to be burning. Nobody got out. The second tank, also hit broadside on the hull, a total 1 AP, 3 APC and 6 HE were used until it burned. Two men got out, only to be felled by .50 cal fire. Same location as the PzIII (5).

3rd Platoon was in the fight as well, at 10am engaging a group of six tanks, killing a Pz IV and a Pz III definite, and one possible for the loss of one M10 burned. The report indicated the use of 10 rounds APC and 50 rounds HE in order to achieve this at 1,100 yards. The explanation provided by one of the gun commanders, Sgt Ryder, was that in order to get the hits on the tanks, they first had to demolish the buildings that were between the TDs and the targets. They then saw a mortar at 900 yards and took it with four rounds HE. (6) . 3rd platoon also claimed a personnel carrier, presumably a halftrack, at 1,900 yards, one round HE one AP, but no time or location is given.

C company were not entirely quiet either. In three separate engagements that morning, 2nd Platoon claimed four Tigers and a Pz IV. The first engagement (8), in the battalion report, does not seem to be listed in the platoon’s detailed reporting, but the battalion’s report indicates one two Tigers killed, one burning, one not. A short while later, a Pz IV wandered into their sights, and Sgt Ward, obviously envious of platoon-mate Sgt Kirk’s tally from the day before, started to redress the imbalance by using 8 rounds APC to knock it out at 3,800 yards. He only claimed the 8th round fired to be the knock-out round, and at that, he believed that the tank was just stuck in a ditch, the crew bailed out (The Battalion’s report lists this tank as burning). The third engagement was on a column of three Tigers, a Pz IV and a wheeled vehicle. At 3,800 yards, with some pretty crack shooting, the first round of APC fired by Sgt Kirk’s gunner hit the side of the third Tiger and set it alight (9). Another gun, the commander’s name is too faded to read but is neither Kirk nor Ward, fired 6 rounds of APC (he claimed the 6th round hit the hull), before its target started to withdraw, falling into a ditch and rolling over. (“Capsised” was the word used in the report). The M10 put another half-dozen AP rounds into it once it had capsized, just to make sure. However, they lost the M10s anyway as they were unable to withdraw with them when the friendly infantry had abandoned their positions. The marshy ground meant that it took time to extricate the vehicles when it was time to go, and the loss of the covering infantry meant that that amount of time was not available to the crews. The crews took the firing pins with them, in the hope that the ground would be re-taken and they could re-unite themselves with their guns the next day.

The US forces were liberally equipped with artillery support as well, and the Commander of A company is listed as having destroyed the following by calling for fire:

Tank. (10). 3 Tanks (11) Possibly the same as those from (8), being double-counted. Tiger, Seems to be the same grid as (5), so possibly also a double-count. Pz III (12).

The unhorsed gunners of 2/C/645th returned to their vehicles in the early morning of the 18th, but, again, the infantry withdrew leaving the platoon to disable the guns. They turned themselves into a rifle platoon and spent the rest of the day helping out the infantry.

Also busy that morning were 3rd platoon of A company, engaging a platoon of four Pz IVs one destroyed, one disabled. Specifications of the engagement are unavailable (15). However, return fire dropped a building on top of an M10, which had to be abandoned. Two Tigers were later engaged and reported probably destroyed, one took 2 AP and 2 HE at 1,100 yards in the side. (16). The day did not end well for 3rd platoon: Enemy advances elsewhere forced a withdrawal, but the escape routes for the vehicles were cut off by the enemy. The destroyermen disabled their guns, abandoned the vehicles, and left on foot.

About noon, a section of 1st platoon, C Company engaged a Tiger platoon at 400 yards, broadside. A gunner, Cpl Placzek , obviously a believer in there being no kill like overkill, started with three rounds HE, then three APC, followed by 9 rounds HE, mainly in the lower hull, until the Tiger was burning. Then he put 5 rounds HE into another Tiger, and listed it as “damaged, probable”. In the engagement, they lost an M10. (21). Later that day, at 1,800 yards, another gun under Sgt Hargis, took on a broadside Pz IV with 7 rounds AP. He claimed five hits, four in the hull and one in the turret, and that after the turret hit, the PzIV stopped firing back, and withdrew. So in his report, he lists it as a “damaged”. The Battalion report indicates that there was a further Tiger kill by this unit, so it is possible that the “damaged Pz IV” became a “Killed Tiger”. It’s also possible that one engagement was omitted from each report. No grid was given for either engagement.

1430 of the 1/B/645th opened up the scoring with a kill on a Tiger after expending 7 rounds HE and 13 rounds APC. S/Sgt Avant, the platoon sergeant, opined that the tank seemed to be attempting to draw fire under the cover of AT guns and was focusing on some M4s (which took losses), but in doing so placed itself broadside to the M10s.  (7)

1600, two M10s from 2/B/645th reacted to a report of twelve enemy vehicles heading South along the main road. Given the amount of times the Germans tried forcing the route, it’s odd that they weren’t permanently stationed to cover it. Regardless, they engaged three Tigers from the side at 800 yards (20). A total of 44 rounds HE and 4 rounds APC were used. The Germans reacted quickly, providing frontal armor to the TDs, but on the other hand, this meant that they were using the length of the tank to block the width of the road. The lead Tiger was knocked out first, then the third. The second tank withdrew with the others, but in doing so exposed its side. No survivors from any tank were observed to have gotten out. Return fire knocked out the platoon commander’s M10, but it was recovered and towed to the rear.

1500, 1st Platoon engaged a group of tanks at 1,500  yards. They claimed a Pz IV burned, and a Pz III blew up. They used 40 rounds to do it, combination of AP, APC, HE. (19). Responding artillery fire knocked out an M10.

1700, 2/A/645th lost an M10 to a mortar round which impacted on the turret rear, starting a fire which could not be extinguished.  A mortar also landed on an M10 of 3/B/645th, but the vehicle was salvageable and sent to the rear.

3rd Platoon of C company lists an engagement between four M10s and six tanks at over a mile as night approached, but unfortunately, no grid is given and the engagement is not mentioned for some reason in the battalion report, odd given that the gun crews reported this to be a particularly large and competent attack. The TDs were using buildings as cover, and would pop out to take shots. The enemy reacted as a group, mainly presented their frontal armor, never their rear. A Tiger would attempt to draw fire, and the other German vehicles would then take the likely points of appearance (the building sides) under fire to attempt to prohibit the TDs from pulling out to fire on them. The TDs claimed to have hit four vehicles. One at 2,500 yards, a broadside Pz IV. It seemed to stop, then popped smoke and took no further part in the action. Another Pv IV was taken on frontally at 2,000 yards. This one, the crew bailed, and were later seen attempting to strip the vehicle. A third Pz IV, also at 2,000 yards but this one broadside, listed as knocked out. It would appear that in this case, the crews were far too busy slinging shells to keep any particular track of how many of what type of shell were used at what target.  The only specific was kept by St Rhoads, who used 2 APC followed  by 6 HE to damage a Tiger in the rear hull at 3,000 yards, but even at that he could not confirm it as light was starting to fade to be definite. The remarks section makes mention of the delayed fuse HE round glancing off the heavy tanks before detonating.

The A company CO continued his barrages, claiming an SP Gun (17) and four tanks (18) in his report. The battalion report says he claimed 11 tanks, the SPG, two additional vehicles, but I have no information on them.

The battalion’s loss report for this period of engagement 16-18 indicates 20 M10s were put out of action, only three of which were immediately repairable.

Of the remaining seventeen, A company lost 9 of them. Three were knocked out by direct fire: one took three hits (two  track, one in a motor), one a single hit in the left motor by AP, and one two rounds direct fire HE in the rear, and were left in place when the unit withdrew. The one lost to a mortar was mentioned above. Another apparently self-destructed when transmission trouble started a fire which could not be controlled. Three were listed as “hit by direct and indirect fire and had house collapse on them” about half-way along Dead-End Road. The last was hit by small arms fire in the rear, and though towed away was found to be sufficiently damaged that replacement was more feasible at the time than repair. It seems clear from the various reports that buildings were commonly used by both sides for cover: Combined with the surprisingly long engagement ranges, the terrain is obviously fairly flat with a lack of vegetation. (Go check out the street view on Google Earth around the area of the Overpass or Dead End Road), bearing in mind that there has been much construction of buildings since), so it was often buildings or not much else.

An M4 demonstrating the need to use a house for cover/concealment due to the lack of anything else in the Anzio perimeter.

B company is listed as having lost the M10 on the first day, and two which were bogged down and had to be abandoned when the accompanying infantry withdrew and the TDs ran out of ammunition, they were on the main road vicinity of where event 7 took place. It is worth noting that “ground” is one of the items listed in the detailed engagement reports, and almost invariably “Soft” “bad going, especially for heavy vehicles” and “marshy” is listed.  C company is listed as being down five, one hit and burned by a tank, and the four 2nd platoon vehicles disabled and abandoned by the crews. In the battalion’s narrative report, it states that “the excessive number of M10s lost during these days, were caused by the infantry withdrawing without notifying the supporting platoons. The nature of the terrain and the marshy character of the ground necessitated much time and labor in extricating a destroyer once it had occupied a position. Due to the rapid retirement of our troops, and equal rapidity of the German thrust, these vehicles could not be saved”. On the other hand, the VI Corp report says that “only” 10-12 guns were lost because they were an SP unit, but then they were comparing to almost complete losses of a towed unit.

This was effectively the end of the major German push, things got much quieter. A company was down to three guns, they were turned into the battalion reserve.

The morning of the next day, the 19th, the TDs set up about location 21 at 5am, and basically nothing happened all day, until 2100. As with other units, they had set up amongst buildings for cover, and German heavy mortars rained down on them. Two buildings were collapsed onto M10s, burying man and machine alike. The two vehicles were eventually extricated.

The battalion’s report credits 3rd platoon C company with three Tigers (22), and then later an additional three plus one possible (23). The company report only makes reference to the possible, at 2,500 yards, but little additional detail. However, it was sufficient that the BN reserve (i.e. the three A company guns) was dispatched to intersection at Padiglione to backstop C company.

The last engagement from the battle occurred on the 20th, with 3/C/645th again involved (24). Multiple tanks were engaged at ranges from 2000-2700 yards. At 2,000 yards a PFC Nickel, one of the gunners, reported firing 3 APC and 2 HE at a Pz IV, putting a round into the front turret, and the second APC hit went through the side setting the tank on fire, the crew bailed. Another gun put 6 rounds HE onto another Pz IV, but the vehicle, with the others, laid a smokescreen and disengaged. The report indicates that the withdrawal was orderly, the vehicles covered each other well, and their camouflage was excellent.

That generally ended the unit’s engagement, the following week was quiet, and consolidation and replacement happened. The unit lost seven men killed, four missing, and seventy-one wounded, many of whom went through a British field hospital and got temporarily misplaced. One US prisoner was returned by the Germans: A carrier pigeon who somehow ended up caught by a German unit. The message was replaced with one “from the German forces” saying “We are returning herewith a captured pigeon as we have plenty of food”, and then it was sent back on its way.

Of course, this is only a microcosm of the engagements which occurred, but obviously the 645th took on a large portion of the German spear. The Tigers were of the 508th Heavy Panzer Battalion, 26th Panzer Division seem to have provided most of the other tanks. Now, of course, one immediately looks at the reported tally of some 14 Tigers destroyed plus four possible, and then goes over and compares notes with the German records. That a number of the Tigers claimed were in fact Panzer IVs, or that many of them were recovered and put back into the line (or both!) seems inescapable, given that the 508th doesn’t seem to have lost more than 8 written off for the nearly two weeks it was in the line, and the 645th wasn’t the only unit claiming them.

The TDs themselves were being used more as SP AT Guns than the mobile reactionary force that they were designed to be, but even with the problems of the M10s getting bogged down, they still seem to have manged to make themselves spread out a bit, providing flank shots. Indeed, almost all the targets were engaged from the side, as the German  vehicles were confined to the road. What perhaps also is interesting is how despite being spread out so that only a platoon's worth of guns could usually be brought to  bear at a time, they (in conjunction with infantry and artillery, the Germans had certain strong opinions on the allied artillery park at Anzio) were still able to defeat major thrusts.

If the ammunition expenditure seems prodigous, (Would the Germans be willing to use three dozen HE rounds to remove some buildings between the gun and the target?) wait until you see the numbers of rounds fired indirect by the TDs over the campaign. Note also that the TDs were more than willing to go for the full range of effects, AP and APC to get some punch-through, and HE to disable, set alight, or otherwise knock out a tank. The reality is that a tank usually doesn't react well to repeated impacts of anything, no matter the supposed penetration effects.

Anyway, we're going to move back  out to a higher level view in the next article of the series.

If you haven't figured it out yet, you can play the vehicles from this article in World of Tanks. Click here to go check it out.

And to go to the discussion forum, click Bob.