by Christopher Miskimon
The German Ardennes Offensive was in full swing during Christmas 1944. The 2nd SS Panzer Division was pressing its assault around the Belgian town of Manhay. Opposing them were the soldiers of the US 3rd Armored Division. The unit had sent Task Force Kane, a mixed force comprising Stuart and Sherman  tanks along with artillery and engineer support, reinforced by paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne. This group took positions in the villages of Lamormenil and Freynaux. They spent December 23rd beating off attacks by German Volksgrenadiers. By the next day, the east side of Freynaux was protected by three Shermans and a pair of Stuart tanks along with 45 dug-in reconnaissance troops from the 83rd Recon Battalion. They sat on the west side of a stream meandering east of the village.
At dawn on Christmas Eve, another German attack hit the Americans, this time supported by several assault guns. The attack was beaten off but the determined GIs would have little respite from the ordeal. Coming their way was a battlegroup led by two companies of Panther tanks . Panzergrenadiers were riding on the backs of each tank to save precious fuel. In the lead was a platoon of Panthers commanded by Untersturmfuhrer Fritz Langanke. As the battlegroup advanced, it slipped through a gap in the American lines at about 0800 and was prepared to go past Freynaux. Informed that the village was lightly defended, the German commander decided to clear it anyway. He sent Langanke’s platoon to do the job.
German Forces Sweep In: Gunner Sergeant Jim Vance Takes Charge
The four Panthers approached the town but diverted to a ford across the stream when the bridge appeared to be mined. The American recon troops heard the tanks coming and rushed to warn their own tankers. As the Panthers crossed a field past the stream, Sherman D-31 was in position near the village cemetery. This was the platoon leader’s tank, but he was away at a meeting, so gunner Sergeant Jim Vance took charge. He knew he needed a flank shot against the well-armored panzers, so he waited. Langanke’s tank was closest to him and a bad shot, but the next tank in line was soon lined up in Vance’s sights. With a crash, his shot rang true, setting off an ammunition fire in the Panther.
The Panzergrenadiers jumped off the tanks and dove for cover. Another Panther exposed its thin belly armor when it crested a small rise. Vance’s second shot set that Panther afire as well. Another Sherman soon joined in, hitting a third panzer that began to Langanke parked his tank behind a rise and desperately searched for the source of the enemy fire.
Another Sherman Joins the Battle
Another Sherman, D-34 led by Platoon Sergeant Alvin Beckmann, joined the battle but Langanke spotted the tank’s read end sticking out from behind its position. The German gunner quickly put a round through its engine. Like the Panthers, the Sherman caught fire as well. The firing gave away Langanke’s position and his tank was now the target of every US tank and cannon in Freynaux. The German gunner returned fire but only hit the wall the American tanks sheltered behind. Soon the Panther had taken ten hits on its glacis plate. None of them penetrated, but they did crack the welds on the tank’s armor, forcing Langanke to withdraw across the stream.
While all this went on the third Sherman, D-32, commanded by Sgt. Recce Graham, spied another group of Panthers moving past Freynaux toward another objective. Unable to fire on Langanke’s platoon, which was hidden by the terrain, Graham instead opened fire on the second group. At the extreme range of 2,000 yards, his gunner hit a Panther in the side with his second shot, causing its ammunition to explode. A third shot went through the rear armor of another Panther, knocking it out as it tried to respond to the attack.
Superior Tactics Win the Day
The short duel ended with a German retreat. Four Panthers and one Sherman littered the battlefield. While the Sherman was generally considered inferior to the Panther, the GIs had held through good tactics and solid defensive positions. Though it was not the last attack of the day, at dusk the Americans still held Freynaux. They stood up to the best the Nazis could throw at them; their duel on Christmas Eve was one step toward throwing the enemy back.
Originally Published December 24, 2014