The Hammelburg Raid

 

In March 1945 Lieutenant-General George S. Patton jr. was commanding general of Third US Army. He was the most popular general since Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War hero. Many people thought that his tanks had won the war in Europe alone. One of his divisions crossed the Rhine river in assault boats in the night, 22 March 1945. Again Patton was faster then his rival the British Field-Marshal Berhard Law Montgomery. The divisions of the Third US Army spearheaded with high speed to the River Main line.

Lieutenant-General George S. Patton jr.

(Photo: US National Archives)

In this situation, where the war in Europe was almost won, 4th US Armored Division received an strange order from XIIth US Corps to form a Task Force to liberate a prisoner of war camp at Hammelburg about 80 km behind the enemy lines. The so called “Operation Hammelburg” was a secret and controversial operation which was planned and realized during a running campaign. It was ordered by Patton personally and commanded by Captain Abraham J. Baum between 26 - 28 March of 1945. Captain Baum was given the mission of penetrating the German lines and liberating US-POWs in camp OFLAG XIII-B, near Hammelburg. Officially it was a rescue mission but the true reasons behind it was to liberate Patton's son-in-law, LTC John K. Waters, a POW who was captured 1943 at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia.

Lieutenant Colonel John K. Waters

Lieutenant Colonel John K. Waters

(Photo: Pat Waters)

Camp Hammelburg, located just outside the town on a hill, had been built 1895 as training installation for the Royal Bavarian Army. It had been a POW camp during World War One. After 1935 it was a training camp and military training area for the German Army again. In World War Two the German Army used parts of camp Hammelburg again for two POW camps.

OFLAG XIII-B Hammelburg (Photo: Carl Wolfram)

OFLAG XIII-B was a large POW camp for officers. OFLAG XIII-B first occupants were Serbian officers. In January 1945, after the Battle of the Bulge, camp was hastily split into two compounds. One for Serbian officers and the other for the American officers. The camp was established inside Camp Hammelburg.

The accommodation for the POWs was in solid stone buildings. There were an estimated 3,000 Serbians and 1,500 Americans. There was another large camp called STALAG XIII-C. It housed NCOs and enlisted men. It consisted of three compounds, one for British and Commonwealth soldiers, one for American soldiers and one for Soviet soldiers. The camp was established near the Camp Hammelburg, at the road leading to the Military Training area. The POWs were housed in wooden barracks. Their numbers are estimated with about 10,000 men, a large number of them worked in so called Working Commandos in nearby villages.

Barbed wire fence with guard tower - OFLAG XIII-B

When the Soviets Army continued their westward advance toward Germany in the winter of 1944, the POW camp OFLAG 64 in Shubin (Poland) was evacuated on 21 January 1945. In the cold winter, 1,290 American POWs were marched into the German Reich, their destination Camp Hammelburg. Among them was John K. Waters, husband of Beatrice Patton - General Patton’s daughter. Colonel Paul Goode, was the Senior American Officer at the camp. He wrote a list of men in camp for the International Red Cross, which helped U.S. Intelligence to keep track where the officers were. Traveling 340 miles - mostly by foot - in seven weeks, the men finally arrived on a train at  Camp Hammelburg on 9 March 1945. When the POWs from Shubin arrived at OFLAG XIII-B, the number of Americans in the camp increased to over 1,500. The conditions in the camp were miserable for the prisoners. 

On 26 March 1945, LTC Creighton Abrams, commanding officer of Combat Command B - 4th US Armored Division, assigned one company of medium tanks (M4 Shermans) and one platoon of light tanks (M5A1 Stuarts) of the 37th Tank Battalion and one company of armored infantry (M3 Halftracks) and command & supply elements, a recon platoon (Jeeps) and an assault gun platoon (M4A3 105 mm) of the 10th Armored Infantry Battalion to the special task force. All in all the Combat strength was 314 soldier and 57 vehicles. Captain Abraham Baum was chosen to lead the mission. The start was scheduled on 2100 hours the same day, after a heavy artillery bombardment on the village Schweinheim. General Patton sent his aide, Major Alexander Stiller, to join the mission, to make sure that LTC Waters could be identified and taken back. But nobody in the task force new this yet.

Captain Abraham J. Baum (photo taken in 1948)

On the evening of 26 March 1945, Task Force Baum waited behind a hill in the American bridgehead east of the Main and south of Aschaffenburg. Two companies of tanks and infantry tried to punch a hole in the German frontline at Schweinheim. The attack was scheduled for 30 minutes, but they encountered heavy resistance and lost two tanks. It took hours until Baum's task force could move out in the early morning hours and finally break through the German lines. The task force made good time along the Reichsstraße 26 through the Spessart Forest. They passed through the town of Lohr and later destroyed German trains. Baum didn´t know, that the area was the assembly area for a German Division. About 0800 hours , the column reached Gemünden. The German troops were surprised by the arrival of the Americans. The town was bombed a day before and had no telephone connection, so no warnings were received. Despite no warning, a company of German combat engineers gave heavy resistance. A bridge was blown and Task Force Baum lost three tanks and a platoon of infantry, which was captured by the Germans. 

Task Force Baum ran in heavy resistance at Gemünden

Task Force Baum pulled out and had to find an alternative route to bypass the town. Captain Baum radioed for air support. They went north along the Sinn River and found another bridge at Burgsinn. They picked some Germans to guide them towards Hammelburg. Afterwards they liberated some 200 Russian POWs.  About 1400 hours, they reached again the Reichsstrasse, leading towards Hammelburg. The task force was now over six hours behind schedule. Between Burgsinn and Gräfendorf the column was detected by a German spotter plane. The pilot reported the strength and position of Task Force Baum, which enabled the Germans to organize countermeasures.

 

Before it reached Hammelburg, Task Force Baum ran into a German ambush. The German had directed HETZER tankdestoyers to Hammelburg, where they awaited the American tanks. In the battle that followed in the Saale Valley, Captain Baum lost four halftracks  and three Jeeps. Under cover by fire from Sherman tanks, the rest of the task force went on to reach Camp Hammelburg on the hill. By 1600 hours, Task Force Baum arrived at the hill and stopped at a distance to the camp. Some of the German guards put up resistance. The Serbian compound received fire from the Americans, because the Serbian officers, in their grey uniforms, were mistaken as Germans. LTC Waters and three men, including a German officer, volunteered to exit the camp, to notify the Americans of the mistake. While approaching the American column, a German soldier shot Waters in the abdomen, because he thought they would surrender the camp. Waters was taken back into the camp hospital and treated for his wounds by a Serbian doctor.

US tank crash the fence of OFLAG XIII-B (14th US Armd Div)

While loosing 30 % of men and vehicles, Task Force Baum had reached its destination. The liberated POWs came cheering out the camp and greeted their liberators. Captain Baum quickly realized that the camp contained far more than 300 men, as planned for. He discussed the situation with Colonel Goode and told him that he could not take all the prisoners back. The others could make their own choice to walk back, or to stay until the final liberation would come.

 

After a long rest, Task Force Baum left the camp at 2000 hours. Meanwhile the Germans had encircled the area. Task Force Baum to the southwest, and after a few kilometers ran into a German roadblock. Then they moved to the north, to discover another German roadblock. The only way left now was a route to the west. Captain Baum didn’t realize that the area they were passing through was a German training ground, with ranges.

 

Near Hessdorf, they reached the Reichsstrasse and turned to the north, hoping to reach the 4th US Armored Division again. In the next village - Hoellrich, Task Force Baum ran into an German ambush. The first tank was hit by a German Panzerfaust. Then the Germans moved the disabled tank into a garden and used it against the other following American tanks. Three other American Sherman tanks were destroyed.

 

The rest of the Task Force Baum regrouped again, after pulling back to a clearing near Hill 427 in the early morning hours. Captain Baum didn't know that on top of this hill was an German observer post, which reported Baum's moves the whole day. Some of the halftracks were abandoned, to have enough fuel for the remaining vehicles. With just enough fuel to make it back to the American lines, Captain Baum waited for daylight to travel with visibility. Captain Baum spoke with Colonel Goode, that the way back would be a fight, and too many of the POWs would be killed. Colonel Goode saw the situation and  told his men that they would be unable to reach the American lines on their own. He advised them that most of the walking wounded should head back to camp. Colonel Goode himself decided not to slow the task force and so began the march back under a flag of truce.

Hill 427 - Reussenberg

Baum gave the order to move out shortly after dawn on 28 March 1945. Just as the column started out, it immediately received fire from all directions. During the night, the Germans had moved more troops into the Hammelburg area while the task force was resting. In the morning, Hauptmann Walter Eggemann resumed command of the counter attack. About 0900 hours, they opened fire with tank destroyers and mortars on first sign of mobilization by the Americans. Knowing there was no way to escape, Captain Baum ordered every man for himself. The fight lasted about 20 minutes before the survivors, who hadn’t escaped into the woods, were lined up as fresh POWs.

 

Captain Baum escaped but was soon captured by the Germans. He was shot in the leg after trying to continue fighting. He joined LTC Waters in the Camp hospital. There they waited after the camp was liberated by the 14th US Armored Division on 5 April 1945 - just 10 days after the failed liberation by Task Force Baum. Ironically, the failed mission and the injury made sure that John K. Waters was liberated sooner. Otherwise he would have been marched off to another camp further into Germany with the rest of the POWs. After being back to the 4th US Armored Division, Captain Baum received the Distinguished Service Cross on 10 April 1945.  

 

The mission was a total failure. Of the  314 officers and men, 26 were killed during the raid. Only a few made it back to the American lines, the rest was taken prisoners by the Germans. The force's  57 vehicles were all destroyed or captured by the Germans. General Patton stated later that he didn't know for sure, that his son-in-law was in Camp Hammelburg. He said that his goals were to liberated American POWs and to bluff the Germans about the Third Army's direction of attack. In his own war memories General Patton stated later: "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."

2002 © Copyright Peter Domes -  Date of last change: 2013-09-23