Operation Hammelburg

(German town)

This was a US undertaking to liberate prisoners being held in Oflag XIII-B near the German town of Hammelburg (26/28 March 1945).

Task Force ‘Baum’ was organised under the command of Captain Abraham Baum on the specific instruction of Lieutenant General George S. Patton, commander of the US 3rd Army, to penetrate some 50 miles (80 km) behind German lines and liberate Oflag XIII-B. There is still considerable controversy about the real object of the mission which, according to some sources, was centred on the recovery of Patton’s son-in-law, Lieutenant Colonel John K. Waters, who had been taken prisoner in Tunisia during 1943.

The mission was a failure: the task force had some 314 men, and of these 32 were killed, 35 returned to Allied-controlled territory, and the other 247 or so men were taken prisoner. All of the 57 tanks, Jeeps and other vehicles used by Task Force ‘Baum’ were lost.

The military establishment some 1.8 miles (3 km) to the south of Hammelburg, was as a military training ground before World War I and again before World War II, and then during Worlds War II was developed as two separate prisoner of war camps: Stalag XIII-C held Allied enlisted men and Oflag XIII-B accommodated Allied officers.

All of Oflag XIII-B’s original occupants were Yugoslav officers taken during ‘Unternehmen 25’, but the camp was later split into two sections with US officers in one part and Yugoslavs in the other. Most of the US part of the camp was hastily upgraded in January 1945 after the arrival or officers taken in ‘Wacht am Rhein’ from 16 December 1944.

As the Soviet forces continued to advance from the east toward Germany in the winter of 1944/45, the Oflag 64 camp in Schubin, Poland, was emptied of its 1,290 prisoners on 21 January 1945, and these men moved largely on foot first to the west into Germany and then to the south toward Hammelburg. Among them was Waters and Colonel Paul Goode, the senior officer. The US officers travelled about 340 miles (550 km), and after seven weeks reached the Hammelburg camp on 9 March.

The new arrivals swelled the population of Oflag XIII-B to more than 1,400, while that of Stalag XIII-C was estimated to be more than 5,000. Camp conditions for the prisoners and guards alike were very poor, especially as the winter of 1944/45 was one of the coldest on record. Each of the seven buildings, each with five rooms, was crammed with 200 men at the rate of 40 prisoners per room on bunk beds, while coal for the heating was limited to 48 briquettes per stove every three days. Although some men were able to scavenge wood locally, it still was not enough to keep the soldiers warm, for the average temperature in the rooms was estimated to be -7° C (20° F). Food was as scarce as heat. Initially, the men in camps were given a diet of 1,700 calories per day at a time when 2,000 calories were recommended as the daily requirement for men doing no work. This allocation was cut as supplies ran low and the camp population increased, reached a low of about 1,700 calories per day. As a result many of the camp’s occupants lost as much as 30 lb (23 kg) in weight, and muscles atrophied for lack of food and the subsequent immobility. Dysentery further weakened many of the camp’s men.

Patton assigned the task of liberating the Hammelburg camps to Lieutenant Colonel Creighton W. Abrams’s Combat Command B of Major General Hugh J. Gaffey’s US 4th Armored Division. Abrams wished to employ his entire command (two battalions and supporting artillery) but was overruled, and the task force was allocated one company of medium tanks, one platoon of light tanks and one company of armoured infantry. The commander of the selected tank battalion was ill, and recommended that the mission be entrusted to Baum. Departing on its mission late in the evening of 26 March, the task force comprised Company A, 10th Armored Infantry Battalion (four officers and 169 men in 15 M3 half-tracks), Company C, 37th Tank Battalion (three officers and 56 men in 10 M4 Sherman medium tanks and four support vehicles), 3rd Platoon, Company D, 37th Tank Battalion (one officer and 18 men in five M5 light tanks), and Command & Support Element, 10th Armored Infantry Battalion (three officers and 60 men in one light tank, 12 half-tracks and 10 other vehicles). The task force thus had 11 officers, 303 men, 16 tanks, 28 half-tracks and 13 other vehicles.

The task force reached Aschaffenburg during the night of 26/27 March, in the process taking heavy fire which disabled several vehicles, including one of the Sherman tanks. It took until early the next morning to break through the bridgehead just past the German lines. The task force’s primary problem was a lack of maps (15 for 57 vehicles) and lack of concrete knowledge of the camp’s location, which had to be obtained through questioning of members of the local German population. This slowed the advance, which therefore came under greater fire than had been anticipated. A German spotter aeroplane also shadowed the task force as it neared the camp, and this made it easier for the Germans to co-ordinate their opposition, which was bolstered by the arrival of a few Jagdpanzer 38(t) Hetzer tank destroyers.

By the afternoon of 27 March, the US tanks had arrived in sight of the camp. Some of the camp guards resisted, but most surrendered or fled. The Yugoslav section of the camp received the brunt of the US fire as the task force, probably because the Yugoslavs wore grey uniforms and might have appeared to be Germans. Generalmajor Günther von Goeckel, the camp commandant, asked Waters to try to negotiate a truce. Agreeing, Waters and several men, including one German officer, volunteered to exit the camp to notify the Americans of their mistake. While approaching the US column, a German soldier not knowing of the truce mission shot Waters before the German officer could explain the situation. Waters was taken back and treated for his wounds by Yugoslav doctors in the camp.

About half of Task Force ‘Baum’ reached Hammelburg in fighting shape. Greeted by thousands of cheering prisoners, Baum quickly realised that the camp contained far more than the 300 officers they were originally planning to liberate. Baum now decided that he could evacuate no more than 200 men. It was decided that only officers of the rank of lieutenant colonel and upward would be allowed to ride back in the surviving vehicles, but that any other men prepared to march with the columns would be allowed to do so; the other option was to travel across country on their own to the US lines. Barely able to walk, the majority of the prisoners decided to remain where they were. Not fit enough to be moved, Waters was left in the camp.

The task force left the camp at 08.00 to break back through the German lines. By this time further complications had emerged. As they was no moon during the next night, the vehicles had to use their lights, and these could be spotted easily by the growing number of German troops in the area; only one reconnaissance Jeep was able to scout ahead of the column to find an escape route; and sometimes the tanks’ engines had to be switched off to avoid detection by what was now a growing German encirclement.

Near Höllrich and in pitch darkness, Task Force ‘Baum’ ran into an ambush laid by veterans of the infantry combat school in Hammelburg. The leading tank was hit by a Panzerfaust anti-tank rocket, then a German drove this tank into a garden and a second US tank answered the radio calls in English to lure more tanks into the ambush. The Germans used their captured Sherman to good effect against the other US armoured vehicles, and four Sherman tanks were knocked out.

The remnants of the task force regrouped after pulling back to a quiet area in the early morning hours. Now lacking the fuel to make it back across the line, the task force waited for daylight to travel with visibility it required to maximise the distance it could move. Knowing that most of the men would be unable to travel across the line on their own, Goode advised that most of the walking wounded should head back to captivity, so allowing the vehicles to move more rapidly, and himself led the march back to the east under a white flag.

Baum gave the order to move out shortly after dawn on 28 March, but just as it started to move, the column came under fire from all directions. The Germans had surrounded the area in the night, and opened fire as the Americans started to move. Baum knew that they was no way to beat the Germans off, and ordered every man to fend for himself. The battle lasted lasted only a few minutes before those who had not made good their escaped into the woods were lined up as fresh prisoners. Baum managed to escape with two soldiers into the nearby woods, as did a number of the ex-prisoners from the camp.

The US 3rd Army began to advance farther into Germany days after the task force’s abortive mission even as the Germans began to move prisoners of war farther from combat zones. Those able to move were loaded into unmarked railway wagons and sent to Nürnberg, then to other prisoner camps away from the front line. Those unable to move were left at Hammelburg.

Baum was shot in the groin while trying to escape back to the Allied lines, and after being taken prisoner joined Waters in the Yugoslav hospital at the Hammelburg camp, which was liberated by Major General Albert C. Smith’s 14th Armored Division on 6 April, a mere nine days after the failed liberation attempt by Task Force ‘Baum’.

Furious about the incident, General Dwight D. Eisenhower reprimanded, who admitted the failure of the mission but defended his action on the grounds that he feared that the retreating Germans might kill the prisoners in the camp. The only error Patton conceded was the decision not to send a full combat command.

Patton also claimed that the undertaking’s real objective had been to distract the Germans from the main wheeling manoeuvre to the north of Hammelburg by the main part of his 3rd Army. Patton insisted that the mission was in fact accomplished, as the diversion of German forces to Hammelburg had caused them to lose sight of his movement to the north, and that Task Force ‘Baum’ had actually fooled the Germans into believing that the 3rd Army would be continuing straight to the east.