781st Tank Battalion

Combat History

The 781st Tank Battalion was activated at Fort Knox, Kentucky, on 2 January 1943 as a Light Tank Battalion. The officers and NCOs in the cadre included numerous veterans of service with other units, but many of the officers were fresh out of OCS. The majority of the soldiers were recent products of the Armored Replacement Training Center.

Most of the battalion’s first year was spent supporting testing by the Armored Force Board at Fort Knox, especially with evaluations of the M4A3 tank. The results of the evaluations indicated the superiority of the V-type eight cylinder Ford engine, and it was with exactly this type of vehicle with which the 781st was subsequently equipped, as were many of the rest of the US Army’s tank units.

In late 1943, the 781st was officially reorganized as a medium tank battalion, and transferred to Camp Shelby, Mississippi. There, it conducted platoon, company, and battalion training before being transferred to Fort Jackson, South Carolina. After honing its collective combat skills at Jackson, the battalion moved on the Camp Pickett for intensive exercises in combined arms operations, supporting the 78th Infantry Division in its pre-deployment training.

While the battalion (-) was training in the States, Company D, the light tank battalion, was training with the elements of the Canadian Army at Camp Wainwright, Alberta. The tactics and techniques for combined arms operations using smoke were later adopted by British and Commonwealth forces, and were put to use in northwest Europe during Operation VARSITY, the crossing of the Rhine River.

The 781st Tank Battalion staged at Camp Shanks, New York, and embarked on the USS La Jeunne in the New York Port of Embarkation on 13 October 1944, just one week after the 100th Infantry Division departed from the same location. The passage to Marseille took two weeks, and the battalion debarked to marshall and prepare for onward movement to front in the Vosges Mountains as part of the Seventh Army.

That deployment, however, was significantly delayed by the loss of 1,000 crates of the battalion’s equipment during the process of overseas. After waiting for weeks with no word of the equipment’s whereabouts, a complete battalion resupply had to be effected. As a result, it was 7 December until the battalion went into the line, with its companies attached to the 100th Infantry Division.

As the 100th pursued elements of the 361st Volks-Grenadier Division through the Low Vosges, the 781st’s maneuver elements were attached as follows: C/781st, plus one platoon of light tanks from Company D—397th Infantry; B/781st, plus one platoon of light tanks from Company D—398th Infantry; A/781st, plus one platoon of light tanks from Company D—399th Infantry.

Company A was the first to see action, taking part in the 399th Infantry Regiment’s attack on Lemberg. There, the deadly fire of German self-propelled automatic antiaircraft cannon was halted by A/781st tanks, which broke the defense by the 2d Battalion, Grenadier Regiment 953. Similar contributions were made by C/781st crews in support of the 397th Infantry’s assault against the defense by 1st Battalion, Grenadier Regiment 953 at Mouterhouse.

Sherman of the 781st Tank Battalion damaged in the 100th's assault on Lemberg, December 1944. (SOC)

After the twin strongpoints of Lemberg and Mouterhouse had been cleared of the enemy, the 398th Infantry, with B/781st attached, passed through its sister regiments and led the attack on the Maginot Line fortifications in the immediate vicinity of Bitche. The foremost of these fortifications, Fort Schiesseck, was a major Maginot Fortress, boasting guns of up to 135mm caliber in a combination of disappearing steel turrets and steel-reinforced concrete casemates.

As the assault guns from Headquarters Company contributed their 105mm rounds to the bombardment of the fortifications around Schiesseck, a tank fitted with a dozer blade, also from Headquarters Company/781st, helped neutralize some of the casemates by burying them under tons of earth after 398th infantrymen had rooted out the defenders, or forced them deep underground in the warren of galleries and tunnels that connected the various works of great Maginot fortress.

When the 3rd Battalion, 398th Infantry Regiment was recognized for its achievement in seizing Fort Schiesseck with the award of the Distinguished Unit Citation, 33 members of the 781st were also awarded the coveted emblem for their part in the assault.

As a consequence of the Germans’ Ardennes Offensive, which began on 16 December 1944, the Third Army had to suspend its offensive into the Saar and attack to the north and northwest to relieve the pressure on First Army. To cover the lengthy gaps that would otherwise be left by departing Third Army elements, the Seventh Army was forced to halt offensive operations and assume a geographically extended defensive front stretching from the Rhine to the Saar Valley to the west. On 21 December, the 781st Tank Battalion was detached from the 100th Infantry Division and its tank companies assigned to support different divisions. Over the course of the Germans’ last offensive of WWII in the west, Operation NORDWIND in January 1945, elements of the 781st supported five different divisions in some of the hardest fighting on the Western Front.

Elements of C/781st were the battalion’s first to enter Germany, in support of the 79th Infantry Division at Rechtenbach, just north of Wissembourg. When the 79th withdrew to more defensible positions along the Maginot Line on 3 January, Charlie Company tanks covering the withdrawal were the last to leave German soil.

Attached to the 276th Infantry Regiment of Task Force Herren (newly-arrived infantry echelons of the 70th Infantry Division, the rest of which was still stateside), Company B participated in the brutal combat around the village of Wingen-sur-Moder. In the wake of the destruction of VI Corps’ Task Force Hudelson, elements of two battalions of SS-Mountain Infantry Regiment 12, 6th SS-Mountain Division NORD successfully infiltrated through the hastily-constructed new defensive lines of both the 45th Infantry Division’s 179th Infantry and the 276th to seize Wingen and capture more than 250 members of the 179th. After three days of vicious combat, 4 - 6 January, the 276th (with 2d/274th Infantry and B/781st attached) managed to retake Wingen upon the withdrawal of the small remnant of Kampfgruppe Wingen to the north. Although no German armor was involved, Baker Company nevertheless lost two Shermans and four men killed to skillfully and courageously employedPanzerfaust teams; this was a very hard way to learn about the effectiveness of this weapon. As a result of these encounters, 781st crews began adding layers of sandbags to their tanks to neutralize the effects of the chemical energy warheads of the German antitank rockets.

Supporting the 232d Infantry Regiment of Task Force Linden (the infantry echelons of the 42d Infantry Division, attached to the 79th Infantry Division in the same fashion as Task Force Herren units were to the 45th), A/781st engaged German armored forces on the Alsatian Plain in the first weeks of January. At Gambsheim, where elements of XIV SS Corps crossed the Rhine in an attempt to link up with German forces attacking the Bitche area, and again at Sessenheim, Able Company crews found themselves in bitter and costly fighting. On 17 January, while supporting 1st/232d Infantry, A/781st crews destroyed two Panzer IVs during a counterattack to relieve an encircled infantry company in Sessenheim. Two days later, while supporting the 411th infantry Regiment’s attack in the vicinity of Sessenheim, the crews of A/81st encountered some of the heaviest armored vehicles to ever see combat—“Hunting Tiger” (Jagdtiger) tank destroyers of the 653d Heavy Tank Destroyer Battalion, mounting powerful 128mm main guns, protected by almost 10 inches of frontal armor. In this action on 19 January, Able Company lost six Shermans and sustained serious damage to two more in one eight minute engagement. The company lost 11 men killed or missing and fifteen seriously wounded before being able to disengage.

Other actions by elements of the battalion were more successful. For example, while attached to the 79th Infantry Division’s 79th Cavalry Recon Troop, the 1st Platoon of Company D surprised a battalion of Germans from the 553rd Volks-Grenadier Division in Stattmatten on 6 January. When the carefully coordinated attack was over, the Americans had seriously disrupted the German battalion, killing at least 60 and capturing 30 more, including the battalion commander and his staff. Three members of Company D were killed and one wounded in the lopsided victory.

After Operation NORDWIND had been contained, like most of the rest of the Seventh Army, the 781st Tank Battalion refitted, participated in reconnaissance and security missions, and prepared for the final push into Germany.

That final push, dubbed Operation UNDERTONE, began on 15 March 1945. The 781st was once again attached to the 100th Infantry Division, with one company of medium tanks supporting each of the three infantry regiments. Bitche was cleared against little direct resistance, although the artillery, rocket, and mortar fire was heavy. In all its centuries of war, no attackers—Austrians, Prussians, or Bavarians—had ever seized the fortress town by force of arms. Even in 1940, the Bitche garrison held out for a week after the rest of the French Army surrendered, capitulating only when the Germans threatened to start attacking unarmed French units elsewhere.

M4A3E8 of the 781st Tank Battalion leads Combat Team 398 elements through the Camp de Bitche, March 1945. (NA)

However, the whole Seventh Army was advancing on line from the Saar in the west to the Rhine in the east, and the Germans’ back was broken. After a siege that had begun with the attacks on the nearby Maginot fortifications in mid-December, Bitche was in American hands on 16 March 1945.

781st crews supported the 100th's infantrymen with more than anti-armor firepower. Here, a speeding sandbag-protected 781st M4A3 transports a squad of infantry into Germany. (SOC)

After crossing the Rhine at Mannheim/Ludwigshafen, the 781st rolled on with the 100th Infantry Division through part of the Rhineland, then the ancient region of Swabia. At Heilbronn, the Germans decided to make a stand in the rubble and ruins created by an RAF raid that mistakenly hit the city months before. With just a month left in the 12-year life of the Thousand Year Reich, the men of the 781st and the 100th Infantry Division paid dearly for that navigation error as a citizenry animated by the hatred engendered by the bombing of non- military portions of the city pitched in and helped convert the wreckage of their home town into a fortress in which several German units, aided by the local Volksturm militia, would truly make a “last stand.”

While B/781st supported the 398th Infantry’s bridgehead north of Heilbronn, the battle for the city itself raged between the infantrymen of both sides. For the first several days, German artillery deployed in the hills to the east of the city zeroed in on and blasted every bridge the engineers attempted to erect. As a result, the only way to get armor across the swiftly-flowing Neckar River into Heilbronn was with floatation kits. Although the kits worked, the eastern bank of the river was too steep for the M4A3s to climb, and three slipped to the river’s bottom.

German artillery emplaced in the hills east of Heilbronn destroyed several pontoon bridges almost as fast as they were erected, depriving the 100th's infantry on the east bank of the Neckar of desperately-needed armored support. (SOC)

 

With bridging not an option, 781st crews resorted to using floatation devices to cross the Neckar. Unfortunately, the steepness of the banks on the Heilbronn side of the river prevented the tanks from crawling out of the river; several sank into the swiftly-flowing current. (SOC)

Even moving the location of the bridge sites failed to resolve the problem as German artillery destroyed bridge after bridge and prevented vehicular reinforcement of the infantry.

This Panzerjäger V Jagdpanther ("Hunting Panther") heavy tank destroyer would have been trouble for the 781st's Sherman at almost any range . . . and was even worse news for Centurymen. Apparently, this one was completely destroyed by some very accurate 8" howitzer sharpshooting, adjusted from 100th DIVARTY spotter planes. (SOC)

From 4 to 8 April, all the 781st could do was to add its firepower—now strengthened by the recent addition of 4.5-inch rocket launchers to two Headquarters Company tanks—to the blistering combination of light, medium, and heavy artillery and mortars firing in support of the infantry in their costly block-by-block, building-by-building assaults on the east bank.

The rubble-strewn streets of Heilbronn provided excellent cover and concealment for the German defenders, many of whom had to be blasted out of their positions by 781st tanks. (SOC)

Finally, under cover of darkness on the night of 7/8 April, the engineers were able to complete a treadway bridge, and Company C crossed into Heilbronn commencing at 0630. The addition of American armor helped turn the tide, and by the end of 11 April, Heilbronn had been cleared of enemy. For its outstanding performance of duty in Heilbronn, Company C was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation.

A 781st M4A3 crosses a pontoon bridge into Heilbronn. (SOC)

Shortly after the fall of Heilbronn, the 781st was permanently detached from the 100th Infantry Division and reassigned to support the 103rd Infantry Division’s drive through Bavaria to the Alps. Passing first through Oberammergau and Garmisch-Partenkirchen, crews from C/781st drove their Shermans through the Brenner Pass to link up with elements of Fifth Army, which were completing the liberation of Italy.

After occupation duty in Austria, the 781st was shipped back to the States in July pending onward deployment to the China-Burma-India theater. Before that deployment could begin, however, the war ended and the 781st Tank Battalion was inactivated at Camp Campbell, Kentucky.

In the more than 2 1/2 years of its active duty service, the 781st Tank Battalion established a fine reputation with the 100th Infantry Division. In testament of this, on 14 July 1945, Major General Withers A. Burress, Commanding General of the 100th Infantry Division throughout its entire active service to that point, transmitted a message to the Commanding General, US Forces European Theater which read as follows:

 

During a large part of the combat activities of this Division, the 781st Tank Battalion was attached to it. I consider this battalion a superior combat unit. Its conduct was such that it gained the respect and admiration of the entire Division, and I have it from the Commanding Officer of that unit that it felt the same way towards this Division. I therefore request, in the interests of the combat efficiency of this unit, that, if feasible, the 781st Tank Battalion be attached to the 100th Infantry Division for any combat operations it may be called on to conduct.

 

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