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We've Got Our Orders
The order to form a task force to go to Hammelburg, 50 miles behind enemy lines, began its journey down through the chain of command of the United States Third Army late on the night of 25 March 1945. The order originated with Lieutenant General George S. Patton, commander of the Third Army, who sent it to Major General Manton Eddy, commander of XII Corps. Eddy, in turn, chose the 4th Armored Division to carry out the mission and drove over to the division's forward command post.
The 4th Armored was the best division in Eddy's command. It had seen a lot of action and had always succeeded brilliantly. Because it had spearheaded so many of Patton's spectacular attacks, it was called "The Point.'' The 4th and the 101st Airborne were the only divisions in the European Theater of Operations to have been awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation by order of the President. Every member of the 4th felt that the division was invincible.
Major General John "Tiger Jack'' Wood had trained the division. He believed in planning armored attacks carefully and executing them violently. The purpose of an armored force, he taught, is to terrify enemy infantry. A line of fifty attacking tanks is infernal. It comes upon soldiers with treads grinding, uprooting defenses, the big guns booming destruction, the machine guns spraying a deadly barrage. Behind the armor infantry follows to mop up anyone who escapes the tanks. Even an enemy unit armed with a Panzerfaust (bazooka) or an antitank gun is in danger of annihilation. If it does succeed in knocking out a tank, another forty-nine are left to grind inexorably toward its position. The armored force also has the advantage of surprise because of its extreme mobility. General Wood never let his command forget that the Nazis had conquered Europe by virtue of the Blitzkrieg, lightning fast attacks of armor with air support. In order to increase speed and maneuverability, American tanks carried much lighter armor plate than their German counterparts.
Now the 4th had a new commander. He was Brigadier General William M. Hoge, fifty-one. A tall, spare, blue-eyed Missourian, Hoge was a stern and demanding officer. He had been given command of the 4th Armored Division only four days before, after serving with distinction in the 9th Armored Division. When Eddy explained Patton's order to form a task force, it angered Hoge. Not only had his division finished thirty-six hours of intense combat taking the Aschaffenburg bridge across the Main River, but he had also received the order to move the division north along with the rest of the Third Army. It was too much. How was he to move his battle-depleted force and, at the same time, put together a special task force (which would have to consist of exhausted troops) and send it 50 miles eastward? Hoge told Eddy that the order was impossible to obey. He assumed that that was the end of the matter.
Manton Eddy returned to Third Army headquarters and explained Hoge's reluctance to General Patton. Patton called Hoge directly. "Bill,'' Patton announced without preamble, "I want you to put this little task force together. Now get on it.''
Hoge resisted. "We'd be encroaching on the Seventh Army zone.''
"I've cleared this with Bradley,'' Patton countered, citing the authority of General Omar N. Bradley, 12th Army Group commander.*
Stubbornly, Hoge tried again. "My people are exhausted. The division is only at half strength as it is.''
Patton's tone changed abruptly and he utterly surprised Hoge by saying, "Bill, I promise I'll replace anything you lose--every man, every tank, every half-track. I promise.''
Hoge had never liked Patton. He found the controversial commander to be mean and vainglorious, his habit of browbeating his subordinates unnecessarily a nettlesome, distracting waste of time. Hoge knew replacements were not the equal of tested troops. Green troops were more easily disoriented by the confusion of battle and more likely to become disheartened. Seasoned, battle-tested combat groups also owed much of their effectiveness to the confidence they had in their comrades and in the units around them.
But Hoge was acutely aware that he was a new division commander, junior to other division commanders. There was no way he could succeed in resisting the will of George S. Patton. He capitulated and told his caller, "I'll get Abrams of Combat Command B right on it, sir.''
Lieutenant Colonel Creighton Abrams, thirty years old, was one of the youngest combat commanders of ground forces in Europe. Many swore that the burly, intense soldier with the cherubic face was the 4th Armored Division. He was tough, brave, resolute and aggressive in battle, yet humane; his desire for success was coupled with a genuine concern for the welfare of his men. When Hoge called Abrams, he knew that the young officer would raise many of the same objections he himself had raised. Sure enough, when he described the mission, Abrams resisted.
"Fifty miles is a long way to go, sir, for that small a force. If we have to go that far, I want my whole command to go. Hell, a combat command can go anywhere.'' Indeed it could. Varying in strength from 3,500 to 5,000 men (depending on the rates of casualties and replacements), it consisted of a battalion each of infantry, armor and artillery, plus medical, engineering, reconnaissance and service elements--a formidable force.
"No,'' Hoge replied, "it has to be a small force. And Army says it has to go tonight.''
"I'd like to talk to Army, sir.''
"Don't worry, you'll get your chance,'' Hoge said. "General Patton is planning to come down to your command post later this morning.''
While waiting for the visit of General Patton, Abrams realized that his objections and suggested alternatives would be overruled. Still, he would try. In the meantime, he began making plans. He started by reviewing the casualty reports and equipment status of his command in the aftermath of the battle for the Aschaffenburg bridge. After considering his battalion commanders, Abrams chose Lieutenant Colonel Harold Cohen of the 10th Armored Infantry Battalion to lead the task force.* So that Hal would not be totally surprised by the order and so that he could begin resupplying his units, Abrams sent him a brief message. "Prepare your battalion for a special combat mission for General Patton. ETD 1700.''
Cohen was exhausted. In the last five days, his 10th Armored Infantry Battalion, following the 37th Tank Battalion, had found three bridges across the Main River. Cohen had watched helplessly as the Germans blew each bridge when the column started across. On the third one, a tank was in the middle of the bridge when it collapsed. Cohen tried not to think about the five tankers falling, falling, falling inside their tank to their deaths in the river below.
*General Hansen's Third Army Diary confirms Patton's position, although Bradley contradicts this statement in his autobiography.
*West Pointer Lieutenant Colonel Graham L. Kirkpatrick, the former CO of the 10th AIB had resigned from the army for several years, and had entered the business world, where he had been favorably impressed by the ability of the many Jews with whom he had come in contact. When he rejoined the army, before the outbreak of the war, he tried to utilize as many Jewish officers as he could on his staff. He was wounded shortly after his unit landed, but this accounts for the preponderance of Jewish officers in his battalion. General Arthur West of the 4th Armored Division had similar feelings as he was aware that Jews had more motivation and hatred for the enemy.