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An M4 medium tank of the 47th Tank Bn., 14th Armored Division crashes into the prison compound at Oflag XIII-B, 6 April 1945.
Task Force Baum was a secret and controversial World War II task force set up by U.S. Army general George S. Patton and commanded by Capt. Abraham Baum in late March 1945. Baum was given the task of penetrating 50 miles (80 km) behind German lines and liberating the POWs in camp OFLAG XIII-Bmarker, near Hammelburgmarker. Controversy surrounds the true reasons behind the mission, which may have been simply to liberate Patton's son-in-law, John K. Waters, taken captive in Tunisiamarker in 1943. The result of the mission was a complete failure; of the roughly 300 men of the task force, 32 were killed in action during the raid and only 35 made it back to Allied-controlled territory, with the remainder being taken prisoner. All of the 57 tanks, jeeps, and other vehicles were lost. (Information provided by a wife of a POW states that the misson was actually to rescue the son in law of General Patton, and out of 300 men only 7 survived and were held prisoners until the end of the war (which was about a month later).

Camp Hammelburg

Camp Hammelburg, located just 1.8 miles (3 km) south its namesake town, was originally used as a military training ground before World War I and again before World War II. It was converted into two separate POW camps during the second war. One camp (Stalag XIII-C) was for Allied enlisted men, while the other (Oflag XIII-B) was used for Allied officers.

Originally, all of the Oflag camp’s occupants were Serb officers. The camp was later split into sections of Americanmarker officers on one side and Serbs in the other. Most of the American portion of the camp was hastily upgraded in January 1945 after an influx of POWs from the Battle of the Bulge, which began December 16 of the previous year.

As Sovietsmarker continued a westward advance toward Germany in the winter of 1944, the POW camp Oflag 64 in Schubinmarker, Polandmarker was emptied of its prisoners on January 21, 1945. In the dead of winter, 1290 POWs headed west into Germany, then south toward Hammelburg. Among them was Lt. Col. John K. Waters, General Patton’s son-in-law, who had been captured in Tunisiamarker in February 1943. Col. Paul Goode, the senior ranking officer at the camp, kept a list of the men in his ranks, which would have helped U.S. intelligence keep track of where the officers were. Traveling 340 miles—mostly by foot—in 7 weeks time, the men arrived at their destination on 9 March.

By the time the men from Schubin arrived at OFLAG XIII-B, the numbers in the officer camp swelled to over 1,400, though it was by far less than the estimated 14,000-man population in the enlisted men’s camp by that time.

Conditions at the camp were miserable for both the prisoners and their guards. The winter of 1944 was considered one of the coldest on record. The seven 5-room buildings each were crowded with two hundred men. One fifty-square-foot (5 m²) room was to house 40 prisoners on bunk beds, while coal was rationed out to heat the furnaces at a rate of just 48 briquettes per stove every 3 days. Although some men were able to scavenge for wood nearby, it still was not enough to keep the soldiers warm. The average temperature in the rooms at any time was estimated to be 20 °F (-7 °C).

Food was just as scarce as heat. Initially, the men in camps were given a diet of 1,700 calories (7,100 kJ) a day, well below the 2000 calories recommended daily allowance for men doing no work. This was cut even more as supplies ran low and the camp population increased, until an estimated 1070 calories (4,480 kJ) were distributed daily. Many men in the camp suffered dramatic weight loss of more than 50 pounds (23 kilograms) and atrophy of muscles because of the lack of food and subsequent immobility. Dysentery due to unsterile conditions and utensils further weakened many men in the camp.

Task Force Baum

General Patton assigned the mission to Combat Command B (CCB), 4th Armored Division, commanded by Lt. Col. Creighton Abrams. Abrams wanted to use his entire combat command (two battalions and supporting artillery) but was over-ruled, and instead one company of medium tanks, a platoon of light tanks and one company of armored infantry were assigned to the task force. The tank battalion commander tabbed to command the mission was ill and suggested that Baum, the battalion S-3, instead lead the task force, which set out on late evening of 26 March.

Task force organization

  • Company A, 10th Armored Infantry Battalion (Capt. Robert F. Lange) - 4 officers and 169 men mounted in 15 M3A1 half-tracks
  • Company C, 37th Tank Battalion (1st Lt. William J. Nutto) - 3 officers and 56 men mounted in 10 M4A3, M4A3-E, and M4A1 medium tanks, and 4 support vehicles
  • 3rd Platoon, Company D, 37th Tank Battalion (2nd Lt. William G. Weaver, Jr.) - 1 officer and 18 men mounted in 5 M5A1 light tanks
  • Command & Support Element, 10th Armored Infantry Battalion - 3 officers and 60 men mounted in one light tank, 12 half-tracks, and 10 other vehicles


Altogether the force numbered 11 officers and 303 men, 16 tanks, 28 half-tracks, and 13 other vehicles.

Raid to Hammelburg



On the evening of 26 March, the task force reached Aschaffenburgmarker, encountering heavy fire that 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 largest problem facing the force going into the mission was a lack of maps—15 for 57 vehicles—and lack of knowledge of the exact location of the camp, which would have to be obtained through questioning of the locals en route. This slowed the task force considerably, forcing it to take on more fire than anticipated. Furthermore, a German spotter plane shadowed the column as it neared the camp, which would help coordinate resistance to the task force. A few Jagdpanzer 38 “Hetzer” were sent as support.

By the afternoon of the 27th, tanks had arrived in sight of the camp. Some of the guards in the camp put up resistance, though many of them fled or put up surrender. The Serbian section of the camp received the brunt of American fire as it approached—likely due to the gray uniforms they wore making them appear to be Germans to the advancing columns. Waters and several men, including one German officer, volunteered to exit the camp to notify the Americans of the mistake. While approaching the American column, a German soldier putting up resistance shot Waters in the butt. He was taken back and treated for his wounds by Serbian doctor interned in the camp.

Roughly half of Baum’s forces made it to Hammelburg in fighting shape. Greeted by thousands of cheering prisoners, Baum quickly realized the camp contained far more than the 300 officers they were originally planning to liberate. After calculating losses, he determined no more than two hundred men would actually be able to be taken back to Allied-controlled land with their remaining fleet. It was decided that only field-grade officers (O-4 and above) would be allowed to ride back, while any remaining men who wished to march with the columns would be allowed to. Barely able to walk, the vast majority of POWs decided to stay behind. Waters, unable to be moved, would have to be left behind as well.

Moving out

The task force left the camp at 8 P.M. local time to cross back across the German lines. By then, further complications had surfaced. There was no moon out that night, so only artificial light could be used for navigation, which 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. Sometimes the tanks had to be turned off entirely to avoid detection by a growing German encirclement.

Nearing Höllrichmarker in the black of night, Task Force Baum encountered a German ambush. The first tank was hit by a German panzerfaust. Then a German drove this tank into a garden and used it against the other U. S. tanks. Four American Sherman tank were destroyed.

The remnants of the task force regrouped again after pulling back to a quiet area near Hill 427 in the early morning hours. Without enough fuel to make it back across the line by now, the task force waited for daylight to travel with visibility to maximize the distance they could travel. Goode, knowing most of the men would be unable to travel across the line on their own, advised that most of the walking wounded should head back to the Oflag. Colonel Goode himself decided not to slow the rest of the task force down and began the march back under a white flag.

Baum gave the order to move out shortly after dawn on 28 March. Just as the column started up, they immediately came under fire from all directions. Germans, having surrounded the hill during the night, opened fire on the first sign of mobilization. Knowing there was no way of fending off the attack, Baum ordered every man for himself. The battle lasted mere minutes before the survivors who hadn’t escaped into the woods were lined up as fresh POWs. Baum managed to escape with two soldiers into the nearby woods.

Aftermath

As Soviets were encroaching from the east, Americans began advancing into Germany days after the task force, with Germans moving POWs further away from combat zones. Those able to move were rounded up into unmarked boxcars and sent via train to Nuernbergmarker, then to other prisoner camps away from the front lines. The remaining men were left behind at Hammelburg.

Baum was shot in the groin while trying to flee back to allied lines and captured by German Home Guard. He joined Waters in the Serbian hospital at the Hammelburg camp, which was liberated by the 14th Armored Division on 6 April—just 9 days after the failed liberation by Task Force Baum. Ironically, the failure of task force did help set Waters free sooner: had he not been shot he would have been marched off to a camp further into Germany with the rest of the POWs.

Patton was alleged to have offered Baum a Medal of Honor for a successful completion of the mission. As a Medal of Honor warrants an investigation into the events behind the awarding of it, which Patton would not have wanted, Baum received just a Distinguished Service Cross. Patton awarded it to him personally.

It is disputed whether Patton knew his son-in-law was being held at the camp, but many at the camp and Abraham Baum believed so. Patton sent an aide, Major Alexander Stiller, with the task force, purportedly to identify Waters so he could be taken back with them. Diaries that Patton made publicly available indicate he was unaware of Waters’ presence there until after the task force had arrived, but a letter written to his wife just after the task force left indicates otherwise.

I sent a column to a place forty miles east of where John [Waters] and some 900 prisoners are said to be.
I have been nervous as a cat… as everyone but me thought it too great a risk….
If I lose that column, it will possibly be a new incident.
But I won’t lose it."
(The Longest Winter, p.
207)


A furious General Eisenhower reprimanded Patton for the incident. While Patton admitted the failure of the mission, he defended his actions due to fear that retreating Germans might kill the prisoners in the camp. Except for the Malmedy massacremarker during the Battle of the Bulge, the intentional killing of Americanmarker prisoners was uncommon. According to Patton, the mistake was sending a force too small to perform the mission, saying, "I can say this, that throughout the campaign in Europe I know of no error I made except that of failing to send a combat command to take Hammelburg.”

Sources

Dickinson, Walter R., "Combat History of the 19th Armored Infantry Battalion," Munich 1945.

"History of the 47th Tank Battalion: From New York o/Hudson to Muehldorf/Inn," Muehldorf, 1945.

See also



For a first-hand description from Donald B. Prell, a POW in Oflag XIII-B who was liberated and tried to find his way back to the US lines, only to be recaptured, log on to: http://www.indianamilitary.org/German%20PW%20Camps/Prisoner%20of%20War/PW%20Camps/Oflag%20XIII-B/Prell/Prell-Donald.pdf


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