March 29, 1945 – This Day During World War ll – Task Force Baum

March 29, 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-B, near Hammelburg. Controversy surrounds the true reasons behind the mission, which most likely was to liberate Patton’s son-in-law, John K. Waters, taken captive in Tunisia 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.
Camp Hammelburg, located just 1.8 miles (3 km) south from 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 American 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 16 December of the previous year.
As Soviets continued a westward advance toward Germany in the winter of 1944, the POW camp Oflag 64 in Schubin, Poland was emptied of its prisoners on 21 January 1945. In the dead of winter, 1,290 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 Tunisia 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 (547 km)—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 5,000-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 small 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.
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 overruled, 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.
On the evening of 26 March, the task force reached Aschaffenburg, 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(t) “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 surrendered. 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. General Gunther von Goeckel, the camp commandant, called for Colonel John K. Waters to try to arrange a truce. Waters agreed to act as intermediary. 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, an uninformed German soldier putting up resistance shot Waters in the buttocks before the German officer could explain the situation. He was taken back and treated for his wounds by Serbian doctors 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 do so, or they could try to travel cross-country on their own to the American lines about 50 miles to the west. Barely able to walk, the vast majority of POWs decided to stay behind. One of the few who took off on foot, attempting to make it to the American lines was Lt. Donald Prell. He was recaptured and taken to a POW camp south of Nürnberg. Waters, unable to be moved, was left behind in the camp.
The task force left the camp at 8 pm 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 Höllrich in the black of night, Task Force Baum encountered a German ambush laid by veteran soldiers of the German Infantry Combat School in Hammelburg (nearly 100 NCOs in officer training). The first tank was hit by a German panzerfaust. Then a German drove this tank into a garden and a second answered the radio calls in English to lure more tanks into the ambush. The Germans used their Sherman prize with good effect against the other U.S. tanks. Four American Sherman tanks 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. Colonel 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, as did a number of American POWs from the camp.

An M4 medium tank of the 47th Tank Bn., 14th Armored Division crashes into the prison compound at Oflag XIII-B, 6 April 1945 two weeks after the failed Task Force Baum raid.

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