Operation Battle of Arracourt

The 'Battle of Arracourt' was fought between US and German armoured forces near Arracourt in the Lorraine region of eastern France (18/29 September 1944).

During the Lorraine campaign of World War II, within the context of a German counter-offensive against recent US advances in France, General Hasso von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzerarmee Army had as its objective the recapture of Lunéville and the elimination of the XII Corps' bridgehead over the Moselle river at Dieulouard.

With local superiority in troops and tanks, the Germans anticipated the quick defeat of Colonel Bruce C. Clarke’s defending Combat Command A of Major General John S. Wood’s US 4th Armored Division in Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army. With the benefit of superior intelligence, tactics and use of terrain, Combat Command A and Major General Raymond A. Quesada’s XIX Tactical Air Command defeated two Panzer brigades and elements of two Panzer divisions in the course of this 11-day battle.

For their offensive the Germans assembled 262 tanks and assault guns in a force which initially comprised two Panzer corps headquarters, Generalleutnant Wend von Wietersheim’s 11th Panzerdivision, Generalmajor Heinrich-Walter Bronsart von Schellendorf’s (from 22 September Generalmajor Theodor Bohlmann-Combrinck’s) 111th Panzerbrigade and Oberst Freiherr von Seckendorf’s (from 22 September Oberst Burmeister’s) 113th Panzerbrigade. Though experienced, the 11th Panzerdivision was short of tanks, having lost most of its complement in earlier fighting, while the two Panzer brigades had new PzKpfw V Panther battle tanks but fresh crews with virtually no battle experience and insufficient training: they had received only two weeks of training and could not read maps appropriately. The need to respond quickly to the 4th Armored Division’s sudden advance and a shortage of fuel left the crews with little time for training and no proficiency in tactical manoeuvre in large combined-arms operations.

Clarke’s Combat Command A of the 4th Armored Division in Major General Maton S. Eddy’s XII Corps comprised the 37th Tank Battalion, the 53rd Armored Infantry Battalion, the 66th and 94th Armored Field Artillery Battalions and the 191st Field Artillery Battalion. Also on hand were elements of the 35th Tank Battalion, the 10th Armored Infantry Battalion, the 704th Tank Destroyer Battalion, the 25th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, the 24th Armored Engineer Battalion, and the 166th Engineer Combat Battalion.

The 5th Panzerarmee outnumbered Combat Command A in tanks and was equipped with Panther tanks, superior to the US M4 Sherman medium tanks in frontal armour protection and main gun range, but inferior to the US tanks in their slower turret traverse rate and their lack possible of stabilised guns. In terms of close air support, the US forces enjoyed an overwhelming advantage, and earlier missions by US fighter-bombers had caused some Panzer units not to arrive in time for the battle as they were damaged or destroyed in separate encounters with other Allied forces.

On 18 September, with the weather deteriorating and heavy fog becoming prevalent, the US tactical air forces were unable to locate and destroy advancing German armoured units. However, while shielding the German advance from air observation and attack, the weather also handicapped the 5th Panzerarmee. Poor visibility combined with a lack of motorised scout and reconnaissance units in the new German formations and units, and this prevented the German armoured forces from properly co-ordinating their attack, which soon degenerated into a disjointed series of intermittent thrusts.

The first German attack, mounted by the 111th Panzerbrigade, fell on the 2nd Mechanized Cavalry Group and the 4th Armored Division’s Reserve Command at Lunéville on 18 September. There was sharp fighting in which the understrength US forces, augmented by reinforcements from both the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions, managed to beat back the attack, destroying two dozen German tanks and assault guns. The commander of 4th Armored Division, Wood, and his corps commander, Eddy, believing the Lunéville engagement to be only a local counterattack, initially decided to proceed with a planned corps offensive, but then reports of increased German activity throughout the night of 18/19 September led to postponement of this attack. Having failed to take Lunéville quickly, the 5th Panzerarmee simply bypassed this French town and began moving to the north to strike at Combat Command A’s exposed position in and around Arracourt. The resulting battle was one of the largest armoured engagements ever fought on the Western Front.

Combat Command A’s dispositions around Arracourt consisted of a thinly held salient, using an extended outpost line of armoured infantry and engineers, supported by tanks, tank destroyers and artillery. At 08.00 on 19 September, company-sized elements of the 113th Panzerbrigade penetrated Combat Command A’s outposts on the east and south faces of the command’s salient. Two US tank destroyer platoons and a medium tank company engaged the Panzers in a running fight that extended into the vicinity of Combat Command A’s headquarters, where a battalion of 105-mm (4.13-in) M7 Priest self-propelled howitzers engaged the Panzers with close-range direct fire.

Their poor tactical deployment soon exposed the thinner side armour of the German tanks to the Shermans' 75-mm (2.95-in) guns, and the Shermans were thus able to flank the Panzers and knocked out 11 of them using the fog as cover. As the 5th Panzerarmee lacked integral scout units, the Germans were forced to advance blindly against the US forces, whose positions were shrouded in thick morning fog. Reinforced with additional tank, infantry and cavalry elements and aided by the Germans' persistence in repeating the same plan of attack, Combat Command A was able to locate and prepare for battle on ground of its own choosing. A combination of concealed defensive positions, command of local terrain elevations, and clever fire-and-manoeuvre tactics allowed Combat Command A to negate the superior armour and firepower of the German tanks. While the advancing Germans were exposed continually to US fire, the US armour was able to manoeuvre into favourable defensive positions, remaining hidden until the German armour had closed to within effective range and then inflicting heavy casualties. The fog that had allowed German forces tactical surprise and protection from US air attack now negated the superior range of their tank guns.

From 20 to 25 September, the 5th Panzerarmee ordered the 111th Panzerbrigade and the understrength 11th Panzerdivision into a series of disjointed attacks against the Arracourt position. On 20 September, Panther tanks moved toward Combat Command A’s headquarters, and several of the 4th Armored Division’s support units were pinned down or trapped by the German advance. A US Army pilot, Major Carpenter, took to the air with his bazooka-armed Piper L-4 Cub single-engined observation aeroplane to attack the Germans. At first, Carpenter was unable to spot the Germans as a result of the low cloud and heavy fog, which finally lifted at about 12.00. Spotting a company of Panther tanks advancing towards Arracourt, Carpenter dived through German ground fire in a series of attacks against the German armour, firing all of his bazooka rockets in repeated passes. Returning to base to reload, Carpenter flew two more sorties that afternoon, firing no fewer than 16 rockets at German tanks and armoured cars, several of which were hit. Carpenter’s actions that day were later credited and verified by ground troops with knocking out two Panther tanks and several armoured cars, while also killing or wounding a dozen or more German soldiers, and was eventually credited with destroying six German tanks, including two PzKpfw VI Tiger I heavy tanks. Carpenter’s actions also forced the German tank formation to retreat to its starting position, in the process enabling a trapped 4th Armored Division water point support crew to escape capture and destruction.

On 21 September, with the skies clearing, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt single-engined heavy fighter-bombers of the 405th Fighter Group, 84th Fighter Wing of the XIX Tactical Air Command were able to begin a series of relentless attacks on the German ground forces. In addition to missions of opportunity flown by the XIX Tactical Air Command’s fighter-bombers, Combat Command A was able to call in tactical air attacks against German armoured concentrations. The 4th Armored Division’s close relationship with the XIX Tactical Air Command and mastery of ground-air tactical co-ordination was a significant factor in the US destruction of the German armoured forces' offensive capability.

By 24 September, most of the fighting had moved to Château Salins, where a fierce attack by Generalleutnant Kurt Freiherr von Mühlen 559th Grenadierdivision of General Otto von Knobelsdorf’s 1st Army nearly overwhelmed the 4th Armored Division’s Combat Command B, before being routed by US fighter-bombers. On the following day, the 3rd Army received orders to suspend all offensive operations and consolidate its gains, nd in compliance with corps orders, the entire 4th Armored Division switched to the defence on 26 September. Combat Command A withdrew 5 miles (8 km) to more defensible ground, and Combat Command B, relieved at Château Salins by the 35th Division, linked with Combat Command A’s right flank. By this time reduced to only 25 tanks, the 5th Panzerarmee pressed its attacks unsuccessfully for three more days, until clearing weather and increased US air activity forced the Germans to suspend their counter-offensive altogether and begin a retreat toward the German frontier.

The 'Battle of Arracourt' was fought at the same time as the end of the 3rd Army’s rapid advance across France, which had been stopped short of entering Germany by the decision of the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, to divert fuel supplies to other forces. The delay allowed the Germans to regroup for the defence of the German border on the 'Siegfried-Linie'. Adolf Hitler was less than pleased with the results of the German offensive, however, and on 21 September replaced Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz with General Hermann Balck as commander of Heeresgruppe 'G'.

Arracourt was the largest tank battle involving US forces on the Western Front until the 'Battle of the Bulge' in the German 'Wacht am Rhein' offensive in December 1944/January 1945, and has been used as an example of how tactical situations and crew quality can be far more important factors in determining the outcome of a tank battle than the technical merits of the tanks themselves.

During the battle, the Germans suffered the loss of or severe damage to 73 tanks by P-47 fighter-bombers. In the Arracourt area, during September the 5th Panzerarmee lost 118 Panther battle tanks, 101 PzKpfw IV battle tanks and 122 Jagdpanzer and StuG tank destroyers and assault guns. The 3rd Army’s equivalent losses were 151 M4 Sherman medium tanks, 49 M5A1 light tanks and several dozens of M10 and M18 tank destroyers.