Fury for Real -- Patton's Raid on Hammelburg

The recently released movie Fury is worth seeing, if only because it addresses two aspects of World War II often ignored by movies -- the bloody fighting in Northwest Europe that raged in places other than Normandy, the Ardennes, and Holland, and the particular drama and horror of armored combat. Too bad, though, that the filmmakers chose to invent a story (and at times a rather unbelievable one) rather than tell a true tale. There is a dramatic, tragic, and true story from that period and place with many similarities to the fictional version. One that involved real tank fighting, featured a colorful cast of characters famous and not, and raised serious questions of morality and purpose. That saga is the 3rd Army’s failed prisoner rescue raid on Hammelbug Lager, in late March 1945.

Although a World War II buff since boyhood, I didn’t learn about the ill-fated raid until I was well into my twenties, serving as an Army JAG officer in Fulda, Germany. I rather randomly contacted an attorney in Texas to help a soldier out with a legal problem back home. The Texas lawyer had served with Patton’s Army in Europe and knew the area around Fulda. He asked if I’d heard of the Hammelburg Raid.  Though I’d passed by Hammelburg many times heading south on the A7 autobahn, I knew nothing about the battle there. It’s a fascinating story.    

It begins in North Africa in 1943 during the U.S. Army’s first (and disastrous) clash with Rommel’s Afrika Korps at Kasserine Pass. The aftermath of the battle is depicted in the famous opening scene of the movie “Patton.”  What that movie elides, is that among the many hundreds of American prisoners taken in that fight was Patton’s beloved son-in-law Lieutenant Colonel John Waters. 

Water’s remained in captivity for the next two years, shifted between various POW camps, until in early 1945 he was sent to Oflag 64 near Hammelburg, which lies in a picturesque region of Franconia. Meanwhile Patton’s 3rd Army had blasted its way over the Rhine and reached Frankfurt, in hard fighting, led by Patton’s toughest and most reliable tank division, the 4th Armored. Among many other exploits, the 4th Armored had led Patton’s famous 90 degree pivot during the Battle of the Bulge, and was the first unit to reach the beleaguered 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne. 

Patton had done his best to keep tabs on his son-in-law’s fate and location throughout the campaign, and was privy to intelligence that placed Waters at Hammelburg, barely 40 miles from his spearheads in Germany. The problem was that Patton’s superior, Omar Bradley, now ordered Patton to shift his axis of advance northward, and away from Hammelburg.

Why Patton ordered the raid remains a subject of controversy. In the failed raid’s aftermath, Patton denied launching it to rescue Waters. Patton claimed he feared that the Germans would murder all the camp’s prisoners, though there is no evidence that such thing was ever planned, much less imminent. Another theory is that the always glory-hungry general was jealous of MacArthur’s successful raid on Cabanatuan and wanted a rescue story of his own. Patton claimed after the war he received Bradley’s approval for the raid, though Bradley recalled things differently. 

At any rate, within the 3d Army, nobody but Patton championed the raid. Major General William Hoge, commander of the 4th Division tried to talk Patton out of it, to no avail.  With the die cast, Hoge assigned 30-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Creighton Abrams, his best combat command leader, to assemble a rescue team for the mission. Abrams, who was also opposed to the operation, wanted to lead it himself, with his entire combat command (a regimental sized force) but Patton demurred. Instead, Abrams was left to select a small force, to be led by Captain Abraham Baum, was a tough, experienced, and decorated tank officer, who like many officers under Abrams’ command, also happened to be Jewish, thus adding to his personal risk in a plunge behind German lines. 

Task Force Baum, consisted of about 300 tankers and armored infantrymen, riding aboard 18 tanks (medium and light)  and several dozen other vehicles (halftracks, jeeps, and trucks) some of which were empty in anticipation of transporting the freed prisoners.  In secret, the rescue force was to surge 40 miles behind German lines, liberate the POW camp, reverse course, and drive back to American lines. Along for the ride was one of Patton’s most trusted aides, Major Alexander Stiller, who told Baum that Water’s was at Hammelburg only after the mission had penetrated the first German defenses. 

Space doesn’t allow anything like a full description of the failed but heroic battle that followed. In summary, TF Baum first broke through the German front, fighting a tough battle against Panzerfaust-armed (a bazooka-like weapon depicted in Fury) German infantry in the town of Schweinheim. Then the Americans, driving as hard and fast as they could, engaged German troops again and again as the sped through the many towns and villages that lay between American lines and Hammelberg. 

TF Baum’s attack was so aggressive and penetrated so far so quickly, that the Germans came to believe that it was the spearhead of a major American offensive, and began to move all their available infantry, artillery, and armor against it.  Despite ferocious resistance along the entire forty-mile trek, including against a company of crack German armored tank destroyers, TF Baum  reached the POW camp, behind schedule, and having suffered heavy casualties, but intact. 

The Americans burst into the camp, only to find that the number of prisoners far exceeded the task force’s capacity to transport them back. Plus, Waters had been seriously wounded by a German guard as the American rescuers battled their way toward the prison, and had already been evacuated to a hospital. Without Waters, and with no way to transport most of the freed prisoners, Baum took what men he could and headed back west. 

But by this time overwhelming German forces had moved into the area and cut TF Baum’s line of retreat. After further terrible fighting Baum’s small command was wiped out, with most of its men killed, wounded, or captured. Only a small number of TF Baum survivors and freed prisoners made it back to American lines. Wounded several times, Baum was eventually captured as well.  

That captivity didn’t last long. TF Baum had cracked the German lines, and other American forces from the 7th Army were soon pouring through. Hammelburg was liberated a few days later, its prisoner rolls filled out with Baum and other survivors of the task force, less those prisoners who managed to escape. Waters survived too, and was eventually reunited with his happy if chagrined father-in-law. After Baum was evacuated, Patton awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross and saw him promoted to major. But Patton put a lid on the heroic actions of the rescue force, less it cause the 3d Army commander further embarrassment. 

Today the story of the Hammelburg raid is relatively well-known to World War II and Patton aficionados, but not widely otherwise. Though Hollywood has explored the successful and much easier Cabanatuan Raid, and any number of fictional tropes that mirror the experiences of TF Baum, the drama and heroism of that long ago real-life adventure deserves to be better known to the American public.

For those interested in exploring the Hammelburg story further there are many resources on the internet.  My own decade-old article on the Hammelburg Raid for World War II History Magazine is not one of them, but there are others that are  better, including a website dedicated to the raid. Baum’s own recounting of the mission in the book Raid is available as well, and the raid is discussed in in The Guns at Last Light,  the final volume of Rick Atkinson’s recent World War II trilogy.   

Abraham Baum died last year at the age of 91.

The recently released movie Fury is worth seeing, if only because it addresses two aspects of World War II often ignored by movies -- the bloody fighting in Northwest Europe that raged in places other than Normandy, the Ardennes, and Holland, and the particular drama and horror of armored combat. Too bad, though, that the filmmakers chose to invent a story (and at times a rather unbelievable one) rather than tell a true tale. There is a dramatic, tragic, and true story from that period and place with many similarities to the fictional version. One that involved real tank fighting, featured a colorful cast of characters famous and not, and raised serious questions of morality and purpose. That saga is the 3rd Army’s failed prisoner rescue raid on Hammelbug Lager, in late March 1945.

Although a World War II buff since boyhood, I didn’t learn about the ill-fated raid until I was well into my twenties, serving as an Army JAG officer in Fulda, Germany. I rather randomly contacted an attorney in Texas to help a soldier out with a legal problem back home. The Texas lawyer had served with Patton’s Army in Europe and knew the area around Fulda. He asked if I’d heard of the Hammelburg Raid.  Though I’d passed by Hammelburg many times heading south on the A7 autobahn, I knew nothing about the battle there. It’s a fascinating story.    

It begins in North Africa in 1943 during the U.S. Army’s first (and disastrous) clash with Rommel’s Afrika Korps at Kasserine Pass. The aftermath of the battle is depicted in the famous opening scene of the movie “Patton.”  What that movie elides, is that among the many hundreds of American prisoners taken in that fight was Patton’s beloved son-in-law Lieutenant Colonel John Waters. 

Water’s remained in captivity for the next two years, shifted between various POW camps, until in early 1945 he was sent to Oflag 64 near Hammelburg, which lies in a picturesque region of Franconia. Meanwhile Patton’s 3rd Army had blasted its way over the Rhine and reached Frankfurt, in hard fighting, led by Patton’s toughest and most reliable tank division, the 4th Armored. Among many other exploits, the 4th Armored had led Patton’s famous 90 degree pivot during the Battle of the Bulge, and was the first unit to reach the beleaguered 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne. 

Patton had done his best to keep tabs on his son-in-law’s fate and location throughout the campaign, and was privy to intelligence that placed Waters at Hammelburg, barely 40 miles from his spearheads in Germany. The problem was that Patton’s superior, Omar Bradley, now ordered Patton to shift his axis of advance northward, and away from Hammelburg.

Why Patton ordered the raid remains a subject of controversy. In the failed raid’s aftermath, Patton denied launching it to rescue Waters. Patton claimed he feared that the Germans would murder all the camp’s prisoners, though there is no evidence that such thing was ever planned, much less imminent. Another theory is that the always glory-hungry general was jealous of MacArthur’s successful raid on Cabanatuan and wanted a rescue story of his own. Patton claimed after the war he received Bradley’s approval for the raid, though Bradley recalled things differently. 

At any rate, within the 3d Army, nobody but Patton championed the raid. Major General William Hoge, commander of the 4th Division tried to talk Patton out of it, to no avail.  With the die cast, Hoge assigned 30-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Creighton Abrams, his best combat command leader, to assemble a rescue team for the mission. Abrams, who was also opposed to the operation, wanted to lead it himself, with his entire combat command (a regimental sized force) but Patton demurred. Instead, Abrams was left to select a small force, to be led by Captain Abraham Baum, was a tough, experienced, and decorated tank officer, who like many officers under Abrams’ command, also happened to be Jewish, thus adding to his personal risk in a plunge behind German lines. 

Task Force Baum, consisted of about 300 tankers and armored infantrymen, riding aboard 18 tanks (medium and light)  and several dozen other vehicles (halftracks, jeeps, and trucks) some of which were empty in anticipation of transporting the freed prisoners.  In secret, the rescue force was to surge 40 miles behind German lines, liberate the POW camp, reverse course, and drive back to American lines. Along for the ride was one of Patton’s most trusted aides, Major Alexander Stiller, who told Baum that Water’s was at Hammelburg only after the mission had penetrated the first German defenses. 

Space doesn’t allow anything like a full description of the failed but heroic battle that followed. In summary, TF Baum first broke through the German front, fighting a tough battle against Panzerfaust-armed (a bazooka-like weapon depicted in Fury) German infantry in the town of Schweinheim. Then the Americans, driving as hard and fast as they could, engaged German troops again and again as the sped through the many towns and villages that lay between American lines and Hammelberg. 

TF Baum’s attack was so aggressive and penetrated so far so quickly, that the Germans came to believe that it was the spearhead of a major American offensive, and began to move all their available infantry, artillery, and armor against it.  Despite ferocious resistance along the entire forty-mile trek, including against a company of crack German armored tank destroyers, TF Baum  reached the POW camp, behind schedule, and having suffered heavy casualties, but intact. 

The Americans burst into the camp, only to find that the number of prisoners far exceeded the task force’s capacity to transport them back. Plus, Waters had been seriously wounded by a German guard as the American rescuers battled their way toward the prison, and had already been evacuated to a hospital. Without Waters, and with no way to transport most of the freed prisoners, Baum took what men he could and headed back west. 

But by this time overwhelming German forces had moved into the area and cut TF Baum’s line of retreat. After further terrible fighting Baum’s small command was wiped out, with most of its men killed, wounded, or captured. Only a small number of TF Baum survivors and freed prisoners made it back to American lines. Wounded several times, Baum was eventually captured as well.  

That captivity didn’t last long. TF Baum had cracked the German lines, and other American forces from the 7th Army were soon pouring through. Hammelburg was liberated a few days later, its prisoner rolls filled out with Baum and other survivors of the task force, less those prisoners who managed to escape. Waters survived too, and was eventually reunited with his happy if chagrined father-in-law. After Baum was evacuated, Patton awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross and saw him promoted to major. But Patton put a lid on the heroic actions of the rescue force, less it cause the 3d Army commander further embarrassment. 

Today the story of the Hammelburg raid is relatively well-known to World War II and Patton aficionados, but not widely otherwise. Though Hollywood has explored the successful and much easier Cabanatuan Raid, and any number of fictional tropes that mirror the experiences of TF Baum, the drama and heroism of that long ago real-life adventure deserves to be better known to the American public.

For those interested in exploring the Hammelburg story further there are many resources on the internet.  My own decade-old article on the Hammelburg Raid for World War II History Magazine is not one of them, but there are others that are  better, including a website dedicated to the raid. Baum’s own recounting of the mission in the book Raid is available as well, and the raid is discussed in in The Guns at Last Light,  the final volume of Rick Atkinson’s recent World War II trilogy.   

Abraham Baum died last year at the age of 91.