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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Old Dog Learning New Tricks.

Seek, Strike and Destroy was the motto and tactical doctrine of the US tank destroyer battalions. The US had come up with a silly idea that their tank destroyers would pursue enemy tanks around the battlefield using superior mobility and firepower to obliterate them. All nations had some weird doctrinal concepts before they experienced modern combat. In many cases these doctrines were failures. Seek, Strike and Destroy was no exception, at the first major battle the US Army took part in at Kasserine Pass the US forces were roundly thrashed. However, a glimpse of a new way of warfare for the tank destroyer battalions was seen just a few weeks later at the end of March 1943.
The US Army was now on the offensive once again, supporting Montgomery's 8th Army. The US armour was pushing forward, aimed at the Atlas Mountains to threaten the flank of the German lines. Their infantry was screening the flanks. A battalion of Rangers had pushed the flank of the armoured attack outwards, throwing the Italians backwards and out of the town of El Guettar on the 18th of March. Shortly afterwards the men of the 18th Battalion, 1st Infantry Division took over. The Italian forces took up position in the high ground at the end of a valley securing the pass. From the high ground to El Guettar there are a series of gently rolling small hills and wadis. The area is banked on three sides by high ground and a marshy salt flat called the Choett el Guettar on the other. One of the main hills in the area between the settlement of El Guettar and the Axis held high ground is Hill 336, which the Americans occupied.
As well as the 18th Infantry Battalion, there was also the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion. They were equipped with the less than fearsome M3 GMC half-tracks, armed with US copies of the French M1897 75mm gun. These were stationed on the high ground, off to one flank, and able to sweep the entire valley with fire, albeit at very long ranges. There was also a considerable number of US artillery in the area, and the 601st's primary mission was to support the infantry in keeping Axis forces from sending infantry teams to attack the guns.
At 0500, on the 23rd of March, the German 10th Panzer Division had manoeuvred to strike at the base of the US push and launched an attack down the El Guettar valley. Luckily one of the basics of tactics is to have screening elements forward, these acted exactly as they should have. At about 0430 reconnaissance troops forward of the US line began to see the shapes of infantry moving. At one position a German motorcycle with sidecar acting as reconnaissance for the Germans blundered into the US picket, a quick burst from a submachine gun wounded the rider and damaged the motorcycle and netted two POW's. The recon screen could see more infantry and around sixteen tanks approaching so they opened fire with everything they had, but soon they had to withdraw. This valuable warning had allowed the defenders time to wake up and man their positions and start to get their minds prepared for the arrival of the German Panzers. 

The German plan was simple, a Panzer Grenadier assault onto Hill 336 covered by direct fire from the start line, while the main thrust of the tanks rolled down the road into El Guettar. The assault on Hill 336 went well and after a vicious bout of close combat fighting the US was thrown off the hill. At least some of the US artillery was overrun at this point as well. The 601st had begun to fire as soon as possible, however infantry teams began to flank their position, working to within 50 yards, causing the left hand most platoon to withdraw. This left the Germans able to flank the rest of the company. On the right-hand side of the line another of the company’s platoons was slamming rounds into the approaching Panzer IV's. Here the mediocrity of the M1897 gun began to show. One vehicle scored five hits on the approaching Panzers, but only two were knocked out. In another engagement a M3 GMC hit a Panzer with six rounds before obtaining a kill. Equally first round kills could be obtained as was proved shortly afterwards by another member of that platoon. German fire was coming back at them, and a Panzer IV's 75mm gun could kill a M3 GMC at any range and the lightly armoured half-tracks were taking losses. The platoon commander of 1st platoon had a lucky escape when a Panzer IV's shell hit his engine block, from the flank, disabling his half-track and enabling him and his crew to escape unharmed.

One by one the tank destroyer platoons began to retreat, either from their position becoming flanked, or from losses. One platoon withdrawing under pressure lost one vehicle to a US landmine, one had its tyres shot out, and one suffered a mechanical failure in its gun. Equally most vehicles were running out of ammunition due to the large number of shots required to obtain a kill.
A trio of knocked out M3 GMC's at El Guettar
Landmines work both ways however, the US had laid a dense mine field from Hill 336 to the edge of the Choett el Guettar. At about 0700 as the 601st was withdrawing the Germans began to hit these landmines, losing eight more tanks in short order. With the German advanced slowed and stalled the remaining artillery began to bombard the Germans. Pinned in the minefield the Germans were taking a ferocious beating and began to withdraw, even managing to tow away several damaged tanks. The few remaining vehicles of the 601st were low on ammunition so eight Jeeps were dispatched to the rear, six returned full loaded with ammo.
Destroyed German armour at El Guettar
 Another welcome addition that soon arrived was the 899th Tank Destroyer Battalion, equipped with the vastly more capable M10. As well as more infantry, and a lot more artillery came into battery. The Germans tried another assault late in the afternoon; however, they were met with a rain of shells from the massed guns behind the line. The Germans stalled in the minefield and were utterly decimated before falling back. The next day the 10th Panzer Division reported only twenty-six operational vehicles. The 601st was largely destroyed as well, however. But the stubborn defence from a fixed position had caused far more devitalisation on the Germans.
A destroyed M3 GMC at the Vehicle Collection Point after the battle.

Panzer IV at the VCP.
After the battle most of the vehicles at the VCP were demolished by US Engineers. We can see here what appears to be a Tiger, meaning at least one of these tanks were knocked out in the fighting. Reports state that two Tigers were knocked out.
The 601st was re-built with M10's and took part in Salerno, Anizo and Torch landings and also took part in the Colmar Pocket reduction, before being converted to M36's. They fought through the Siegfried Line and ended the war occupying Berchtesgaden.

Image Credits:
historynet.com and globeatwar.com