Task Force Baum, Patton’s disastrous operation to free his son-in-law from a prison camp

Normally, when a war is long enough, a multitude of actions of all kinds are recorded: large-scale campaigns, large and small battles, ambushes, quick commando interventions… Sometimes very imaginative operations are attempted that, if successful, extol their author and make him a tactical genius. The bad thing is when they go wrong and then the criticism and the responsibility of the casualties fall on him. That is what happened to the famous General Patton in the spring of 1944, when the mission sent to liberate a concentration camp ended in a resounding defeat that, moreover, was unnecessary because the place fell into Allied hands just nine days later.

George Patton had been made a major general in April 1941. In 1943 he replaced Lloyd Fredendall and was promoted again to lieutenant general, receiving command of American forces in North Africa. His success earned him command of the VII Army with which he was to invade the western half of Sicily while Montgomery dealt with the eastern, although the rivalry with the British -who had already come from the African campaign- led him to hasten the actions of him.

It was one of those blows that characterized him, sometimes for the better (he was effective and his charisma excited his men) and other times for the worse (the controversial Biscari massacre, the slap to a soldier with combat stress). In fact, his friend Omar Bradley had to get him out of trouble before the dismissal demands that were frequent due to the incidents caused by his peculiar personality.

However, in the summer of 1944, with the Allies already advancing through France, he was entrusted with the Third Army, with which he gained almost a thousand kilometers in just a couple of weeks. After the failure of the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes, in which Patton played a decisive role, the map of operations was already placed in German territory and that was when the strange episode of the concentration camp occurred.

It was between March 26 and 29, 1945. Patton tasked Lt. Col. Creighton Abrams, his most capable and aggressive armor commander, with forming a battle group for a special mission. Abrams offered him all the Combat Command B of the Fourth Division that he commanded and which was made up of two battalions with artillery support, but the general considered it excessive and in the end a group was formed with an infantry company and two tanks, totaling three hundred and three men, eleven officers , sixteen battle tanks (ten Sherman and another six light) and other auxiliary vehicles (half-tracks, self-propelled, jeeps, an ambulance…).

Since the commander of the armored vehicles was on leave, Abrams suggested for command the young Captain Abraham Baum, a New York Jew born in the Bronx in 1921. A veteran of the Normandy landings, where he had been wounded when he stepped on a mine, he himself would tell that when he was ordered to report to Patton and he explained the purpose of the mission, he couldn’t help but wonder What the hell am I doing here? Thus, the force under his command received the name of Task Force Baum.

The question that the officer asked himself was not free; In fact, his mission was truly unique, having to go more than eighty kilometers into enemy territory to locate a camp where thousands of American prisoners were being guarded and return with them in case the Germans decided to kill them before the Allied advance. Here comes the time to make an paragraph and explain the situation.

The field in question was called Camp Hammelburg (by the neighboring city, located three kilometers away) and in the First World War it had been used as a military training area, being converted to accommodate prisoners in the Second. It actually consisted of two subcamps, the Stalag XIII-C and the Oflag XIII-Bthe first for soldiers and the second for officers, the latter being the objective of the Task Force Baum.

Why? Patton would later explain that he feared for their lives, because although the Germans were not used to killing prisoners, there had been some cases (the most recent being Malmedy, in the Ardennes, where eighty-four US captives were machine-gunned and finished off). in cold blood for him Kampfgruppe Peiper of the 1st SS Panzer Division). However, another more controversial version circulated about the general’s true motives for organizing that mission: he wanted to save his son-in-law, the husband of his daughter Beatrice.

The field during World War I/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

His name was John Knight Waters and he was a lieutenant colonel. He had been captured in Tunis the previous year and initially sent to the Oflag 64 from Schubin, Poland. But in January 1945, faced with the unstoppable advance of the Red Army, all the prisoners were transferred (that is to say, because most of them had to make the journey of more than five hundred kilometers on foot) to the Oflag XIII-B of Camp Hammelburg, until then intended exclusively for Serbian officers. With the arrival of the new inmates, the Serbs concentrated on one side and the Americans on the other, leaving the place saturated.

And it is that five thousand soldiers gathered there, of which fourteen hundred were from the United States, according to the record made by the highest ranking command, Colonel Paul Goode. With such congestion and given the progress of the war, the prisoners were not exactly in good condition (although neither were their guards): they had to be distributed among seven buildings with five rooms, each of them housing rooms in which forty people were crammed.

At least the human heat perhaps served to face that terrible winter in which temperatures dropped below seven degrees below zero, since it hardly received coal every three days and it was necessary to look for firewood in the surroundings. The food was not good either and the initial diet that the prisoners received, calculated at around 1,700 calories, was gradually reduced due to supply difficulties and the increase in the prison population until it was just over 1,000 calories. This caused serious health problems, aggravated by poor hygienic conditions, which resulted in an epidemic of dysentery.

Let us now return to the story of the Task Force Baum. It was launched on the night of March 16 with obvious shortcomings, since it only had a handful of maps of the region to go around and the exact location of the Camp Hammelburg. As a German observation plane also discovered the column, it was necessary to add anti-aircraft material to it on the fly and there was some confrontation in which one was lost. Sherman. Even so, at sunset the next day they sighted the concentration camp.

The ensuing battle was short-lived, little more than token resistance, as the guards lacked equipment to deal with the tanks and most chose to flee. Even so, the Americans continued firing on the field until they realized a tremendous mistake: those soldiers in gray uniforms were not Germans but Serb prisoners. It was not the only nonsense that was going to be committed, as we will see.

Gunther von Goeckel, commander of the field, thought that an entire division was coming upon him and preferred to agree, asking Patton’s son-in-law to come out and explain to the attackers the slaughter that his men were doing among the Serbs. Waters accepted but had not gone even a bit of the way when a Teutonic soldier, who had perhaps not been informed, interpreted it as an escape attempt and fired at him, hitting him in the buttock. Waters had to be returned to the field to tend to his injury. Shortly after the Task Force Baum entered the enclosure and what had to be a moment of happiness for the captain to reach the first part of his objective turned into an unpleasant surprise.

And it is that Baum had been told that in the Oflag XIII-B there were three hundred officers and, instead, there were almost five times as many there. An impossible number to carry in their insufficient vehicles and with the aggravating circumstance that they could not go on foot either due to their unfortunate physical condition. So he decided that he would rescue only the highest ranking ones -about two hundred- and he gave the rest freedom to choose: try to keep walking, stay or try an escape on his own; some opted for the latter option and would be recaptured but most decided to remain there, Waters among them due to his injury.

The task force He started back at nightfall and trouble arose again. There being no moon and not being able to turn on headlights to avoid revealing his presence to the enemy, there was no choice but to send a reconnaissance jeep ahead to open the way; when danger was detected everyone turned off their engines and a rigorous silence was maintained. But it was very difficult to cross fifty kilometers in the opposite terrain without running into German patrols.

In fact, they were ambushed. It was on his way through Hölrich, where the veterans of the German Infantry Combat School (where a hundred non-commissioned officers were doing their internships to be promoted to officers) cleverly deceived them by speaking on the radio in English and luring the cars to troops armed with panzerfaust (personal anti-tank, similar to the bazookas Americans). With this ruse they managed to destroy four Sherman.

Baum managed to get his people out of the mousetrap and regroup them on a hill, already at dawn. But the night wandering and the battle had used up a lot of fuel and there was not enough left to reach his lines, so he decided to make the road in broad daylight and in a hurry to shorten it. Of course, the released prisoners could not keep up, so he advised them to return to the camp, which they did led by Colonel Goode waving a white flag.

But when the task force she resumed her march, a shower of fire fell upon her; the Germans had surrounded them during the night, further reinforced by half a dozen tanks Tiger. Knowing he had no choice, Baum rushed at them desperately and his column was all but pulverized. Baum managed to break through accompanied by two soldiers and several ex-prisoners but the rest fell on the spot and the survivors scattered into the forest, where they were trapped one after another.

German soldiers armed with panzerfaust/Photo: Bundersarchiv, Bild

The casualty count was grisly: only thirty-five men were able to return, leaving thirty-two dead and the rest captured (two hundred and forty-seven!). Likewise, fifty-seven vehicles were lost, including tanks, jeeps and others. Baum himself was wounded and, paradoxically, ended up in Camp Hammelburg. Ironically, the site was liberated by the 14th Armored Division nine days later.

Irony upon irony, Patton was able to get his son-in-law back since, convalescing from his injury, he was not taken by train to Nuremberg like the rest of the prisoners. Perhaps that is why he awarded Baum the Distinguished Service Cross, a medal that did not require a prior investigation that would undoubtedly have been very uncomfortable for him. Because although he always denied knowing in advance that Waters was in prison Camp Hammerburgalmost everyone assumed that he was aware, to the point of having included in the task force Major Alexander Stiller – who knew him – to identify him among the others.

In any case, he did admit to an irate Eisenhower the mistake of that failed expedition, which was due, he said, to his not having sent a large enough force. By the way, his son-in-law became a general and had a meritorious military career; he died in 1989. As for Abraham Baum, he was extraordinarily long-lived: he lived to be ninety-one years old, dying on March 2, 2013.


Sources

Task Force Baum (official website)/RAID! The Untold Story of Patton’s Secret Mission (Richard Baron)/The Hammelburg Raid revisited (Captain Tobin L. Green)/Task Force Baum and the Hammelburg Raid (Richard Whitaker)/Patton’s Third Army at War (George Forty)/Patton as military commander (H. Essame)/Wikipedia