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The Chieftain's Hatch: Tanks in Cities, Part II

Harry Yeide concludes his two-parter on examples of the learning process the US Army's armor community undertook in WWII for urban fighting: -The Chieftain

US Army Tanks in Cities, Part 2

Aachen: Capturing an Imperial City

By late September 1944, US First Army had reached the German border and its defending Siegfried Line, or West Wall, near Aachen, which from about 768 to 814 had been the seat of the Emperor Charlemagne. Aachen’s streets had thus witnessed the passage of armor, but that of knights on horseback.

Aachen would be the first major German city to fall to the Allies and a superb demonstration of the fact that one could, in fact, use tanks effectively in urban warfare. First Army’s VII Corps attacked from the south, while its XIX Corps formed the other jaw of a pincer to the north. Once the two corps had encircled Aachen, the 1st Infantry Division was to storm the city.

To the north, in the XIX Corps sector, the attack to break through the Siegfried Line and envelope Aachen kicked off on 2 October, spearheaded by the 30th Infantry Division and the attached 743d Tank Battalion. The 2d Armored Division stood by as the exploitation force.[i] The doughs moved forward and easily penetrated the fortifications. The tanks, however, sank into mud just across the narrow Würm River—which they crossed using a culvert-type hasty bridge designed by the battalion’s own Captain Miller and the engineers—and it was not until nightfall that the Shermans were able to close with the infantry. By 7 October, the division had carved out a bridgehead beyond the West Wall that was four and a half miles deep and six miles wide.[ii]

The good news ended there, and the struggle around Aachen became the bloodiest experienced by the 743d Tank Battalion after the battle of the hedgerows in Normandy. German resistance became ferocious as reinforcements arrived. Nine more days of heavy fighting were necessary before a 30th Infantry Division patrol hooked up with 1st Infantry Division troops on Ravel Hill, completing the encirclement of Aachen.[iii] During October, the 743d Tank Battalion lost twenty of its Shermans, one light tank, and one assault gun while destroying three Tigers, eleven Panthers, five Mark IVs, twenty antitank guns, two armored cars, and two heavy artillery pieces. The battalion suffered thirteen officers and sixty-two enlisted men wounded in action, twenty enlisted men killed in action, and seven enlisted men missing in action during the period—nearly all from the medium tank companies.[iv]

In the VII Corps zone, the 3d Armored Division attacked in the center, with the 1st Infantry Division (745th Tank Battalion attached) on the left oriented to envelop Aachen from the south, and the 9th Infantry Division (746th Tank Battalion attached) on the right. Seeking to regain momentum, the 1st Infantry Division launched its drive to close the ring around Aachen on 8 October. Hitler ordered the defenders, some 4,000 men backed by assault guns, to hold the historic city—the seat of Charlemagne’s First Reich—at all costs.

Once the 1st and 30th Infantry divisions closed the ring around Aachen, subduing the city fell to Col. John Seitz’s 26th Infantry Regiment, which had only two battalions available for the job. The assault force was substantially outnumbered in terms of men, but it enjoyed a huge advantage in armor, artillery, and air support. The regiment attacked from east to west through the city.

 

 

 

Lieutenant Colonel Derrill Daniel’s 2d Battalion, 26th Infantry, backed by tank destroyers from Company A, 634th Tank Destroyer Battalion, and tanks from the 745th Tank Battalion, had the dubious honor of clearing the south and center of Aachen. While dug in on the outskirts prior to the assault, Daniel had used the tanks as “snipers” against machine-gun nests and the tank destroyers to blow up buildings suspected of harboring OPs.[v] But now he had to take the buildings—a lot of them.

 

A “Jumbo” assault Sherman fires at a target in Aachen during the pre-attack bombardment of the city in early October 1944. The Jumbo carried much thicker armor than a standard Sherman and could withstand more punishment. (National Archives, Signal Corps film)

 Daniel’s battalion had been conducting limited attacks for days to clear structures along the outskirts before moving into the city itself. Initially, Daniel assigned a mixed force of three or more Shermans and two tank destroyers to support each infantry company. The armor’s job was to blast ahead of the infantry, drive the enemy into cellars, and generally “scare the hell out of them.” Tanks and tank destroyers had prearranged infantry protection, but small arms fire forced the doughs to move cautiously, dashing from door to door and hole to hole.

Lieutenant Colonel John Corley’s 3d Battalion, meanwhile cleared a factory district on the east side of the city, and Shermans and M10s played backup. When the doughs came under fire, a tank or tank destroyer returned fire until the riflemen moved in and cleared the building with grenades.

The two battalions launched their attack on the city proper on 13 October. Companies F and G from 2d Battalion each had three Shermans and one M10 attached, while Company H had three tanks and two tank destroyers. The armor had difficulty negotiating embankments along the main rail line that cut across 2d Battalion’s front. Several successfully slid down a ten-foot bank, while others went under the tracks near the Aachen–Rothe Erde train station only fifteen yards from the main underpass, where the men could see German demolitions installed.[vi]

Daniel soon developed a more frugal tactical approach for the urban fighting: One or two tanks or tank destroyers went into action beside each infantry platoon. The armor would keep each successive building under fire until the riflemen moved in to assault it. The crews normally fired HE rounds on fuse-delay through doors, windows, or thin walls to explode inside. They usually shot with no target visible, just in case a foe lurked there. Each armored vehicle expended an average of fifty rounds of HE daily.

The GIs would then advance some 100 yards ahead of the armored vehicle to protect it from panzerfaust attack, searching buildings on both sides of the street for enemy troops. When the riflemen spotted an antitank gun, they gave the tank commander precise details so he could pull swiftly into position and dispatch it. Four doughboys were assigned to each tank commander to provide close-in support and act as runners to keep the tankers informed as to the infantry’s position.

At each intersection, the armor fired on all four corners before the infantry crossed the street. The presence of tanks gave the GIs greater confidence, as they knew that cannon and machine-gun fire were available in only seconds if the Germans opened up on them.

Only when a building was cleared and the doughs were safe from muzzle blast would the tank or tank destroyer fire on its next target. The process quickly produced tremendous teamwork. Light artillery, meanwhile, crept two or three blocks ahead of the advancing troops, while heavy artillery dropped beyond that.[vii]

Daniel established checkpoints at intersections and in larger buildings so that adjacent units could keep track of one another and stay in line. Each company was assigned an area, and each platoon usually was given a single street to clear. At cross streets, platoons worked about halfway down each block until they made contact with their neighbor.[viii]

 

Tanks and infantry clear a street in Aachen. (Signal Corps photo)

 George Mucha, a BBC correspondent following Daniel’s men, reported:

 The Americans were advancing methodically from street to street. Ahead of us, a few yards ahead, a Sherman tank sprayed the buildings with machine-gun fire.

Suddenly it stopped. There was a German machine-gun nest. We squeezed against the wall until the tank had dealt with this by firing its gun at point-blank range into the house. The street was shaking with the thunder of reports. Above our heads mortar bombs were whining through the air. It was raining. . . . Every ten yards a new house had to be searched from top to bottom for snipers; doors broken in, grenades thrown into suspect rooms.[ix]

 Because some structures, including many apartment buildings, were proving impervious to fire from tanks and tank destroyers, the 3d Battalion requested the help of a self-propelled 155mm gun. Division artillery agreed to send one forward. The first test of the 155mm rifle was most successful—one shot leveled a structure that had shrugged off tank and tank destroyer rounds. An enthused Colonel Seitz decided to obtain another gun for 2d Battalion.

The Germans finally surrendered on 21 October. Corley’s troops had reached the German CP and were using a 155mm gun against the outer walls. Oberst Gerhard Wilck, the garrison commander, surrendered at 1205 hours, commenting, “When the Americans start using 155s as sniper weapons, it is time to give up.”[x]

 

Manila: From Sprint to Slog

 

See my website: World War II History by Harry Yeide

See the book from which this article largely derives: The Infantry's Armor

Discuss on the Forum



[i] MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign, 231 ff.

[ii] Ibid., 260 ff; AAR, 743d Tank Battalion.

[iii] MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign, 306.

[iv] AAR, 743d Tank Battalion.

[v] “Clearing Area South of the Rail Road Tracks,” Combat Interviews, 1st Infantry Division, NARA.

[vi] “Clearing Area South of the Rail Road Tracks,” Combat Interviews, 1st Infantry Division, NARA.

[vii] Ibid. MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign , 310. Campbell, 50-51.

[viii] “Clearing Area South of the Rail Road Tracks,” Combat Interviews, 1st Infantry Division, NARA.

[ix] Desmond Hawkins, ed., War Report, D-day to VE-day (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1985), 212–213.

[x] “Clearing Area South of the Rail Road Tracks,” Combat Interviews, 1st Infantry Division, National Archives. Gefechtsbericht des I.SS-Btl. (Kampfgruppe Rink) für die Zeit vom 9. – 22.10.44, Ia KTB, LXXXI Armee Korps, National Archives. Rhineland. 15.

[xi] Robert Ross Smith, Triumph in the Philippines: The United States Army in World War II, The War in the Pacific (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1963), 18-19, 142. Luzon, the U.S. Army Campaigns of World War II Series (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, n.d., online reprint of CMH Pub 72-28, http://www.army.mil/cmh-pg/brochures/luzon/72-28.htm as of July 2006), 9.

[xii] Peter R. Wygle, “Santo Thomas Raid,” 1st Cavalry Division Association, http://www.1cda.org/santo_Thomas_raid.htm, as of March 2007. (Hereafter Wygle.)

[xiii] Luzon, 11. Wygle.

[xiv] Wygle. History, 44th Tank Battalion. Smith, Triumph in the Philippines, 220. AAR, 1st Cavalry Division.

[xv] History, 44th Tank Battalion. “The Flame Thrower in the Pacific: Marianas to Okinawa.” Smith, Triumph in the Philippines, 258-259.

[xvi] “Tanks Go Places ‘Tanks Can’t Go’ on Luzon,” Armored News, 18 June 1945, 4. AAR, 1st Cavalry Division. AAR, 37th Infantry Division. AAR, 129th Infantry Regiment.

[xvii] AAR, 129th Infantry Regiment. AAR, 37th Infantry Division. AAR, 754th Tank Battalion.

[xviii] History, 44th Tank Battalion.

[xix] “Requirements of the Tank Design and Operation in Relation to Effectiveness of Armored Personnel,” Pacific Warfare Board Report No. 60, 9 September 1945, NARA, RG 407, Special File, 4-7.60/45, box 24464. (Hereafter “Requirements of the Tank Design and Operation in Relation to Effectiveness of Armored Personnel.”)

[xx] History, 44th Tank Battalion.

[xxi] “Questionnaire for Armored (Tank) Units,” Pacific Warfare Board Report No. 74, 26 October 1945, NARA, RG 407, Special File, 4-7.74/45, box 24464. (Hereafter “Questionnaire for Armored [Tank] Units.”)

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