Osprey Publishing sponsored this post.
As German Panzers swept across Poland and France in 1939 and 1940, U.S. Army commanders observed from a distance — and worried. If the new world war drew in the United States, American troops would need some way to destroy those tanks.
One answer to the Panzer problem was a brand-new kind of unit — the tank-destroyer battalion. In his new book American Knights, out now from Osprey Publishing, historian Victor Failmezger tells the story of the very first tank-destroyer battalion, the 601st.
It’s a story of hasty preparation, a disastrous combat debut and, ultimately, victory for the 601st, the Americans and the Allies.
Failmezger took an interest in the 601st after learning of his uncle Tommy Welch’s service with the unit. “He didn’t talk about the war,” Failmezger said of his uncle. But Welch did write letters from the front — 150 of them. Failmezger combined the letters with personal accounts from eight other 601st veterans and archival research to produce a gritty, gripping account of lopsided warfare.
Lopsided, because upon its establishment in August 1941, the 601st was untested and poorly equipped. Its M-3 half-tracks and M-6 jeeps, fitted with 75-millimeter and 37-millimeter guns, respectively, were barely able to knock out a Panzer.
After some hasty training in North Carolina, the 601st embarked for North Africa, where in December 1942 the Allies were battling German field marshal Erwin Rommel’s dreaded Afrika Korps. North Africa represented the U.S. Army’s World War II combat debut in the European theater. It did not go well for the Americans, at first — and that includes the 601st.
The battalion suffered its first loss, Michael Syrko — a company clerk and farm boy from Pennsylvania — in an air raid, Failmezger writes.
An Italian fighter in the midst of the German planes was responsible. … Syrko had wanted nothing more than to return to tend his Pennsylvania farm. He was the first of the 111 men of the battalion who would lose their lives on the battlefield. Ten minutes after Syrko was hit, the enraged [tank-destroyer] men shot down their first aircraft: a British Spitfire. The irate pilot parachuted safely and was “captured” by the battalion. It was clear the men of the 601st had much to learn.
The 601st rolled into action in a series of chaotic, losing battles with the Afrika Korps. One February 1943 incident was illustrative:
The 601st was moving in a column to the west when a trigger-happy G.I. mistakenly fired his .50-caliber machine gun at four friendly aircraft, which then justifiably sprayed the U.S. troops. Next, Germany artillery started to zero in on the column and it was dispersed in a small valley among some Roman ruins. Then U.S. artillery commenced firing on the stopped vehicles. Immediately the Germans ceased firing as they now thought the vehicles to be friendly.
But the defeats earned the 601st and other American units valuable experience. And on March 23, 1943, the U.S. Army and its allies finally beat the Germans at El Guettar in Tunisia.
On the plain, the Germans were laid out in a square formation of Panzers and self-propelled 88-millimeter guns with infantry-carrying vehicles mixed among them. The 601st had thought its mission was to protect the artillery from an infantry attack, but now realized they were there to fight Panzers. After exchanging a few volleys with the onrushing 10th Panzer, Recon withdrew as planned, to augment A Company and to prepare for the coming Panzer onslaught.
There was sufficient moonlight to see vague outlines and shapes at 0500 but it was still dark when the Germans, with more than 100 Panzers, attacked. The odds were weighted against the Americans, roughly three Panzers to one tank destroyer. German artillery at the end of the valley suddenly opened fire and enemy tanks with the infantry close behind advanced. U.S. artillery, opening up in return, had little effect besides forcing the Panzers to spread out.
Just beyond [tank-destroyer] range, the huge group of Panzers split in two. About 30 Panzers broke left and continued up the highway towards El Guettar. Their main objective was to recapture the town. Immediately they found themselves in an awkward position, unable to maneuver between A Company’s three M-3s on their right and the soft marshy ground guarded by one M-3 on their left.
The supporting German artillery fired a lot of smoke, but when that cleared, A Company opened up. The Panzers had exposed their right flanks to the guns of A Company, now reinforced by Recon. The Germans were still 2,200 yards away, yet eight Panzers were stopped in their tracks and the attack was halted. The Germans withdrew, towing four of the disabled Panzers behind them.
Simultaneously, other Panzers attacked the dug-in tank destroyers of B and C Companies in front of the ridge. The Germans advanced in five lines broken into groups of five or six Panzers with between 15 and 20 tanks in a line. Over 100 Panzers, accompanied by infantry, advanced as though they were on a parade ground.
The [tank-destroyers] let the Panzers get close before opening fire with armor-piercing shells. Company forward observers warned when a group of Panzers was on the move and gave the approximate range and direction. Upon receiving this information the destroyers moved to the top of the sand ridge, fired quickly and then went back down the ridge. After a while the Panzers came so rapidly that the destroyers stayed on the ridge and fired as fast as they could.
The [tank-destroyers] mutually supported each other while defensively changing positions to make it harder for the German artillery and Panzers to hit them. Men not engaged in moving or firing the [tank-destroyers] fired at the German infantry with small arms and machine guns.
Despite substantial American losses, concentrated among the now antiquated M-3s, his concept had been sound. Together the tank destroyers and the artillery had wreaked havoc during the day, but at a cost. Twenty-seven of the 601st’s 36 guns (31 M-3s and five M-6s) were knocked out. Total casualties were 72, the battalion’s worse combat day during World War II; 14 men were killed in action or later died from their wounds.
But the enemy suffered, too — the 601st alone claimed to destroy 37 Panzers. “Some declare this was the decisive battle of the Tunisian campaign,” Failmezger writes. “Unquestionably it was the U.S. forces’ first armored victory of World War II.”
American Knights is on sale now.