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Osprey American Knights: The Untold Story of the Men of the Legendary 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion

ISBN Number:
9781472824875
Published:
Monday, August 6, 2018
Publisher:
Osprey Publishing
Retail Price:
$16.00
Reviewed By:
Joseph McDaniel

American Knights: The Untold Story of the Men of the Legendary 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion

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The ease with which the German Army defeated superior French and British forces in the Battle of France caused the U.S. Army to take a critical look at tank and anti-tank warfare. For a number of reasons, it was decided to develop two separate armor forces - tanks and tank destroyers, with separate doctrine, organization, training, and equipment. Shortly after the U.S. entered WW II, the 1st Provisional Antitank Regiment was re-designated as the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion (TD Bn). 

U.S. Navy Commander (Ret) Victor Failmezger, using letters written by his uncle, Lieutenant Thomas Peter Welch, who served in the 601st TD Bn, along with personal papers of other 601st officers and men, unit records, and other sources, has written this book to tell the story of the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion during almost 550 days of combat, mainly through the words of his uncle and eight other men: Joseph Borriello (engineer), Charles Colprit, Bill Harper, Edward Josowitz, Rudy Larson, Harold Lundquist, Thomas Morrision, John Nowak, and Thomas Welch.

Vital Statistics

Format - Paperback, portrait format. Also available as hardback, eBook, ePDF, or XML.

Page Count - 448 pages

Size -  5" x 7.50"

Photos - B/W only

Extras - Maps, data table for the M10 only, TO&E charts, footnotes, bibliography, index

What's Between the Covers

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Above - table of contents

This is not a book describing tank destroyer technical characteristics, nor are there any line drawings or detailed photographs with descriptions of differences of the various TDs. The typical armor modeler will not find any answers here to questions about interior colors, exterior stowage, or other issues frequently discussed in on-line forums or at club meetings. The maps and the black and white photographs in this book (see example below) are very small. While the photos are mostly sharply focused, the modeler will need to use a good quality magnifying device in order to pick out any details. Maps generally show a very broad overall view of the battle or country.

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Photos, with a penny and quarter for size comparison

 

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Map 1 - Progress of the 601st through Tunisia 1942-1943

Chapter 1, Seek, Strike and Destroy, provides a brief history of the how and why of tank destroyer development, briefly mentions Welch's assignment to officer training school, and describes the experience of traveling on ship to England and training there.

Chapters 2, North Africa, and 3, Vindication in North Africa, follow the 601st TD Bn and its men as they undergo their baptism of fire in North Africa. Initially issued the M3 and M6 Gun Motor Carriages, the TD men suffered their first defeats and casualties, but quickly learned how to fight and contributed to the defeat of German forces in North Africa. Because the 601st was training on the newly arrived M10 Tank Destroyers, with the exception of some men who volunteered as guards for POWs, the 601st did not participate in the Sicily invasion and combat.

Chapter 4, Italian Mud!, is where Lt. Welch joins the 601st and promptly is sickened by malaria, spending 5 weeks in hospital. The 601st participated in the invasion of mainland Italy, near Salerno, supporting Darby's Rangers. After the Allies broke out of the beachhead, the 601st was more or less permanently assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division for the rest of the war. Next came Naples. Around this time, Lt. Welch arrived and was assigned as 1st Platoon Leader, B Company, where he earned the reputation as "a very aggressive lieutenant and was always looking for something to shoot at." The rest of the chapter covers the slow progress of Allied forces over the Volturno River and up the peninsula, where more 601st soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing in action.

Chapter 5, Stalemate at Cassino, begins with a description of Welch's actions, resulting in a Bronze Star for him and a fellow soldier, who rescued injured soldiers. The Allies continue to slowly struggle towards Cassino, while also suffering from the severe conditions of the Italian winter of 1943/44. During this advance, Lt. Welch is blown out of his TD and rendered unconscious for three days, receiving a Purple Heart. Shortly afterwards, the 601st was pulled out of the line to rest and refit. Unfortunately, they then endured daily attacks by the Luftwaffe. The battalion reorganized during this time, turning in 53 vehicles and losing two officers and 193 enlisted men, possibly to infantry units as replacements. The chapter concludes with the 601st training for the amphibious landing at Anzio.

Chapter 6, Anzio, describes the landings and first days, and the outcome of the decision to not push further inland before the Germans rushed reinforcements to the beachhead and bottled up the landing forces. One episode involving Lt. Welch with two of his TDs and two half-tracks was an effort to break through German lines to rescue the 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions which had been surrounded by the Germans near Cisterna. All but one TD were disabled and abandoned, survivors crawling and running back to the Allied lines. The remaining TD, commanded by Sergeant Nowak, continued firing while rescuing Rangers, resulting in an Oak Leaf Cluster to Sgt Nowak's Silver Star. Lt. Welch was once again blown out of his TD and spent three days, unconscious, in a field hospital.

Chapter 7, Push Them Back into the Sea, continues relating conditions and fighting at Anzio: bombings, repeated German attacks, Anzio Annie, illness, weather. Life for men in the 601st was barely better than that of the infantryman. Of some interest is the story of how Lt. Welch and Sgt Larson, with one M10, destroyed four PzKpfw IV and one PzKpfw VI with 40 rounds in an hour, then later the same day, destroyed two more German Panzers. Men of the 601st also engaged and destroyed Ferdinands and Tiger Is in increasing numbers.

Chapter 8, World War I All Over Again, describes how the Anzio beachhead, now containing six Allied divisions, settled into trench warfare, with an increase in disease. One highlight was two 601st crews picking up two experimental T-70 (M18 Hellcat tank destroyer), and reasons the crews did not like it (lightly armored, gasoline engine was a potential fire hazard, 76mm gun not as good as the M10's 3-inch gun, and "It looked like a Kraut tank on account of the bogey wheels").

Chapter 9, Breakout for Rome, describes the the Allied breakout from Anzio and the advance into Rome, during which especially heavy fighting claimed many 601st soldiers' lives.

Chapter 10, Here We Go Again, relates the soldiers' experience in a liberated Rome, followed by training for the invasion of Southern France, "the forgotten D-Day".

Chapter 11, France isn't Italy, starts with the strategic reasoning behind launching the second invasion of Europe, Operation Dragoon, covers the 601st fighting and losses during the advance through France to the German border.

Chapter 12, Conqueror of the Vosges, describes fighting in the towns and villages in the autumn rains, facing mines, antitank weapons, and hilly terrain. There is a brief description, along with the official citation, of the action resulting in the Medal of Honor for 601st TD Bn's Staff Sergeant Clyde L. Choate, who destroyed a PzKpfw IV with a bazooka after his TD was destroyed.

Chapter 13, Alsace, covers fighting in the Colmar pocket, and mentions again the problem that had faced TD units since the war began, namely, that the units were deployed in a piecemeal fashion, even sometimes as single tank destroyers, thereby decreasing their effectiveness. It was during this time that the Battle of the Bulge was fought to the north, resulting in some units being pulled back and shifted to the north. This time period also saw the "bitterest and bloodiest fighting", mainly due to the increased numbers of SS soldiers manning German defenses, as well as the fighting moving on to German soil. At the end of the chapter is a brief note that all four 601st companies had painted their vehicles white and crews drew white jumpsuits (Remember, the 2019 AMPS Convention Theme is "Snow"!).

Chapter 14, The Other Battle of the Bulge, details Lt. Welch's platoon's part in Operation Grandslam, the effort to eliminate the Colmar Pocket. Fighting was heavy, with severe losses on both sides. In one battle, considered to be the last one of Panzers versus tank destroyers in France, Welch lost four TDs, a Sherman tank battalion lost two tanks, and two infantry companies lost 94 men, while the Germans lost a Panther, a Tiger I, a Jagdtiger and a Jagdpanther. Sgt Larson, in a letter home, briefly describes the battle, which began at night and for him ended at noon when his TD was hit by a Ferdinand and set on fire. Also described here is the battle near the village of Holtzwihr for which 1LT Audie Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor; according to the author, 1LT Murphy fought his courageous one-man stand from one of two 601st M10s that had been knocked out earlier.

Chapter 15, Germany at Last, starts with a brief synopsis of the fighting to eliminate the Colmar Pocket, followed by the 601st being pulled from the front line after 185 days fighting. It was during this time that the 601st turned in their 36 M10s and drew 36 M36 tank destroyers, which was disliked because, like the M18, it had a gasoline engine and easily caught fire. After completing training on the new TDs, the 601st moved out and began the advance against the Siegfried line, fighting pillboxes, mortars, mines, and the obstacles, such as the dragon teeth. After breaking through the Siegfried Line, the unit began capturing large numbers of German soldiers, moving rapidly now. On March 21, 1945, Lt Welch was chosen to return to the United States as part of a troop rotation program, but ended up not returning to his unit because the war quickly drew to a close.

Chapter 16, It Finally Ends, starts with a brief description of the strategic and political developments affecting the course of the war, and then covers the 601st advance through Germany. The resistance put up by SS units and Hitler Youth was still fierce; though not well organized, the 601st still lost men killed and wounded in a number of engagements. The author asserts that a larger battle near Steinach on April 7, when Company A engaged 12 German Panzers, may have been the last major Panzer attack of the war, knocking out two Panthers, one Tiger, an antitank gun, and 15 enemy soldiers. This may have been the last such attack involving American tank destroyers, but undoubtedly the Red Army advancing on Berlin was still fighting fierce battles with a determined enemy that still had tanks and assault guns. Next, the 601st battles through Bamberg, then Nuremburg, Augsburg, and Munich, continuing to lose men killed and wounded. During the advance to Munich, elements of the 601st entered the Dachau concentration camp and discovered that horror.The 601st captured Salzburg, Austria without trouble, and the war against Germany officially ended. The rest of this chapter describes the occupation and demobilization process.

Epilogue provides brief descriptions of what became of the nine men whose stories were the basis for many of the events recounted in the book. The author describes how post traumatic stress disorder affected his uncle, Lt. Welch, and how Welch struggled to adjust after the war. This is a sobering and honest look at how war affects those who fight it.

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Sample Appendix page

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Sample Bibliography page

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Sample Notes Page

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Sample Index Page

This book does what it sets out to do - tell the story of the men of the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion, by focusing on nine officers, NCOs, and enlisted men. They started the war inexperienced, with weapons cobbled together, learned the bitter lessons of mechanized combat tactics in the very different environments and terrain of North Africa, Italy, Southern France, and Germany, and won. The descriptions of desperate battles, heroic acts, the siege at Anzio, how the men reacted to the fighting, and how it affected them makes for a compelling read. If you can overlook the lack of large photographs with the kind of details armor modelers relish, this book will provide you details about war as the men of the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion experienced it.

Highly Recommended for those interested in WW II United States Army Tank Destroyers, and especially the men who crewed them.

Thanks goes out to Osprey Publishing for this review book.

Reviewed by Joseph "Mac" McDaniel

 

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