Download FREE briefings. Have an account? Please log in. Text Size: A A A

In the Desert and Beyond

Books

In the Desert and Beyond

The 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion fought across North Africa, Italy, France, and Germany.

By Christopher Miskimon

It was nearly dawn on the morning of March 23, 1943, when a motorcycleand sidecar bearing two soldiers of the 10th Panzer Division blundered into the American lines in front of the town of El Guettar in Tunisia. One soldier was immediately captured and the other wounded. The prisoner quickly revealed a German attack was coming at 0500, just a few minutes away. The American scouts soon spied a square formation of Nazi tanks and self-propelled guns advancing toward them in the dim light of early morning. The Yank scouts quickly fell back toward their parent unit, the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion.

Am KnightsMore than a hundred German armored vehicles with infantry in support approached the battalion. The Americans’ main weapons of defense that morning were 31 M3 tank destroyers, half-tracks toting 75mm antitank guns. A half-dozen M6s, trucks mounting tiny 37mm guns, supported them in a battle line some two miles long. They were dug in along a ridge and ready, positioned directly in front of the 1st Infantry Division’s artillery. Infantry units occupied hills on both flanks. The artillery opened fire on the approaching German tanks, but their crews only opened their formation.

Just outside the tank destroyers’ range, the panzers split into two groups. The first, with 30 tanks, went left and started up the highway toward El Guettar. This group soon ran into A Company, 601st, who poured fire into the German flank. Within minutes eight tanks were knocked out and the Germans fell back, towing four of their disabled tanks with them. The rest of the panzers moved toward B and C Companies dug in along the ridge. Lines of tanks with infantry advanced as if they were on parade. The Americans opened fire with armor-piercing rounds, pelting the Germans in a deadly hail. Forward observers soon took over, calling out distances and directions to the enemy. With an idea of where to aim, a half-track would pop up to the ridgeline, fire, and then back down the ridge before the enemy could return fire.

The Germans kept up the attack, and soon the Americans were so busy they could not back down the ridge or risk being overrun. They stayed visible and covered each other as best they could. The fighting went on until noon with several tank destroyers lost. More attacks would come later in the day, including a ruse using Germans in American uniforms and driving a captured half-track. By the time the fighting was over, the 601st would lose 27 of its tank destroyers but was credited with knocking out 37 enemy tanks and helping turn the tide of the attack. The novice U.S. Army held its own at El Guettar.

The concept of the tank destroyer was still new and relatively untested in 1943. The doctrine worked well at El Guettar but soon showed its flaws elsewhere. Nevertheless, large numbers of tank destroyer battalions were already in service and so they were kept in the fight, seeing use not only in their assigned role but also as hasty artillery, assault guns to support the infantry, and sometimes as improvised transport with gangs of men loaded atop their engine decks for quick advances. The story of one of these battalions, the 601st, is fully revealed in American Knights: The Untold Story of the Men of the Legendary 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion (Victor Failmezger, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2018, 448 pp., maps, photographs, appendices, notes, bibliography, index, $16.00, softcover).

Numerous diaries, letters and interviews were used to make this account, but the author primarily focuses on nine men who served in the unit to tell its story. The book begins with the 601st’s formation, training, and equipment before launching into its time in combat, which ranged from North Africa to Italy, France, and then Germany, where it was present for the final battle of the European War. It is an effective, time-honored format for such a book, and it works well here. The reader is treated to an effective blend of the author’s prose and the words of the participants, making the work a pleasure to read and easy to follow.  While the tank destroyer concept was ultimately proven flawed, the bravery and dedication of the tank destroyer men was validated over and over throughout the war.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *



Issue Previews

The Battle of Waynesboro: Jubal Early’s Last Stand

The Battle of Waynesboro: Jubal Early’s Last Stand

His army reduced to shambles, Confederate General Jubal Early waited uneasily at Waynesboro, Virginia, to do battle one last time with Phil Sheridan.

Walking in the Footsteps of Heroes

Walking in the Footsteps of Heroes

In this season’s WWII Quarterly, Flint Whitlock shares with us his experiences touring the battlefields of Italy.

Recollections of The Fighting at Spotsylvania Court House

Recollections of The Fighting at Spotsylvania Court House

John O. Casler remembers well his role at Spotsylvania Court House with the Stonewall Brigade.

Manned Submarines: Italy’s Daredevil Torpedo Riders

Manned Submarines: Italy’s Daredevil Torpedo Riders

Numerous nations developed manned submersibles to attack enemy shipping during World War II and achieved some notable successes.

facebook gplus twitter youtube rss

Enter Your Log In Credentials

Forgot your Password?

×
.