Spanish arquebusier



1568. Battle of Jemmingen. Spanish arquebusiers. Angel García Pinto for Desperta Ferro magazine

Gonzalo de Córdoba, (1453-1515).

“el Gran Capitan.” Castilian general who reformed the tercios, reducing reliance on polearms and bringing more guns to reinforced pike formations that could operate independently because of their increased firepower. He fought in Castile’s civil war that attended the ascension of Isabel to the throne. Next, he fought in the long war to conquer Granada. He was sent to Naples from 1495 to 1498 to stop the French conquest. He lost to Swiss mercenary infantry at Seminara, but adjusted his strategy and slowly pushed the French out of southern Italy. He used the same tactics in Italy that worked in Granada: progressive erosion of the enemy’s hold over outposts and the countryside, blockading garrisons, and avoiding pitched battles where he could. He fought the Swiss again, and won, at Cerignola (1503), handing them their first battle loss in 200 years. He beat them again that year at their encampment on the Garigliano River. Between fighting the French and Swiss he fought rebellious Moriscos in Granada and against the Ottomans in behalf of Spain and in alliance with Venice. He retired in 1506, well-regarded as a great general of pike and arquebus warfare.


“Third.” The name derived from the tripartite division common to early modern infantry squares, especially the main infantry unit in the 15th-16th-century Spanish system. Tercios started at 3,000 men, but heavy tercios could have up to 6,000 men each, formed into 50 to 60 ranks with 80 men to a file. They were super-heavy units of armored and tactically disciplined pikemen, supported by arquebusiers and lesser numbers of heavy musketeers on the corners. To contemporary observers they appeared as “iron cornfields” which won through shock and sheer mass rather than clever maneuver. Others saw in the tercio a “walking citadel” whose corner guards of clustered arquebusiers gave it the appearance of a mobile castle with four turrets, especially after the reforms introduced by Gonzalo de Córdoba from 1500. He wanted the tercios to better contend with the Swiss so he added more pikes at the front but also many more gunmen to replace the older reliance on polearms. These formations might have only 1,200 men. The new tercio was still heavy and ponderous on the move, but it was a more flexible unit with much greater firepower that could dig in for defense or advance to destroy the enemy’s main force as circumstances suggested. This reform first paid off at Cerignola (1503). At Pavia (1525), tercios destroyed the French under Francis I. For two generations after that most opponents declined battle against the tercios whenever possible, and they became the most feared infantry in Europe. They remained dominant for nearly a hundred years. Their demise came during the Thirty Years’ War when more flexible Dutch and Swedish armies broke into more flexible, smaller regiments. These units smashed the tercios with combined arms tactics that also employed field artillery and a return to cavalry shock.


Also “arkibuza,” “hackbutt,” “hakenbüsche,” “harquebus.” Any of several types of early, slow-firing, small caliber firearms ignited by a matchlock and firing a half-ounce ball. The arquebus was a major advance on the first “hand cannon” where a heated wire or handheld slow match was applied to a touch hole in the top of the breech of a metal tube, a design that made aiming by line of sight impossible. That crude instrument was replaced by moving the touch hole to the side on the arquebus and using a firing lever, or serpentine, fitted to the stock that applied the match to an external priming pan alongside the breech. This allowed aiming the gun, though aimed fire was not accurate or emphasized and most arquebuses were not even fitted with sights. Maximum accurate range varied from 50 to 90 meters, with the optimum range just 50-60 meters. Like all early guns the arquebus was kept small caliber due to the expense of gunpowder and the danger of rupture or even explosion of the barrel. However, 15th-century arquebuses had long barrels (up to 40 inches). This reflected the move to corning of gunpowder.

The development of the arquebus as a complete personal firearm, “lock, stock, and barrel,” permitted recoil to be absorbed by the chest. That quickly made all older handguns obsolete. Later, a shift to shoulder firing allowed larger arquebuses with greater recoil to be deployed. This also improved aim by permitting sighting down the barrel. The arquebus slowly replaced the crossbow and the longbow during the 15th century, not least because it took less skill to use, which meant less expensive troops could be armed with arquebuses and deployed in field regiments. This met with some resistance: one condottieri captain used to blind and cut the hands off captured arquebusiers; other military conservatives had arquebusiers shot upon capture. An intermediate role of arquebusiers was to accompany pike squares to ward off enemy cavalry armed with shorter-range wheel lock pistols. Among notable battles involving arquebusiers were Cerignola (April 21, 1503), where Spanish arquebusiers arrayed behind a wooden palisade devastated the French, receiving credit from military historians as the first troops to win a battle with personal firearms; and Nagashino, where Nobunaga Oda’s 3,000 arquebusiers smashed a more traditional samurai army. The arquebus was eventually replaced by the more powerful and heavier musket.

Arquebus vs archery

In terms of accuracy, the arquebus was extremely inferior to any kind of bow. However, the arquebus had a faster rate of fire than the most powerful crossbow, had a shorter learning curve than a longbow, and was more powerful than either. An arquebusier could carry more ammunition and powder than a crossbowman or longbowman could with bolts or arrows. The weapon also had the added advantage of scaring enemies (and spooking horses) with the noise. Perhaps most importantly, producing an effective arquebusier required a lot less training than producing an effective bowman. During a siege it was also easier to fire an arquebus out of loopholes than it was a bow and arrow.

On the downside, fired ammunition could not be picked up and reused like bolts and arrows. This is a useful way to reduce cost of practice ammunition or resupply yourself if you control the battlefield after a battle. The arquebus was more sensitive to humid weather. Gunpowder also ages much faster than a bolt or an arrow—particularly if improperly stored. Also, the resources needed to make gunpowder were less universally available than the resources needed to make bolts and arrows. A bullet must fit a barrel much more exactly than an arrow or bolt must fit a bow so the arquebus required more standardization and made it harder to resupply by looting bodies of fallen soldiers. It was also significantly more dangerous to its user. The arquebusier carries a lot of gunpowder on his person and has a lit match in one hand. The same goes for the soldiers next to him. Amid the confusion, stress and fumbling of a battle arquebusiers are potentially a danger to themselves. Early arquebuses tended to have a drastic recoil, they took a long time to load unless using the ‘continuous fire’ strategy, where one line would shoot and reload while the next line shot. When wet the guns were near useless; they also tended to overheat. During repeated firing, guns could become clogged and explode causing pieces of metal and wood to break off, which could be dangerous to the gunner and even those around him. Furthermore, the amount of smoke produced by blackpowder weapons was considerable, making it hard to see the enemy after a few salvoes. Prior to the wheellock the need for a lit match made stealth and concealment nigh impossible, particularly at night. Even with successful concealment the smoke emitted by a single arquebus shot would make it pretty obvious where a shot came from – at least in daylight. Bows and crossbows can shoot over obstacles by firing with high-arcing ballistic trajectories in order to reach the enemy when he has some frontal but no overhead cover (such as when your own troops are in melee with the enemy) — albeit with much less accuracy. An arquebus cannot do this.





Reich and Reichsarmee




At the beginning of February 1763, the Reichstag formally ended the Reichskrieg and declared the Reich to be neutral, which the Prussian representative Erich Christoph von Plotho declared Prussia would respect. This ended a long period of growing ambivalence and uncertainty. The liberation of Saxony remained the Reichstag’s only war aim. Increasingly, as other powers developed wider war aims, many German princes began to question their participation in the conflict. They had no interest in becoming mere auxiliaries in an Austro-Russian war to dismember Prussia or in a British war against France.

For some, the Battle of Rossbach (5 November 1757) marked the turning point, since the Reichsarmee was caught up in a battle against France that had little to do with rescuing Saxony. Bavaria and the Palatinate withdrew their troops in the following spring. Others became concerned at the way in which the conflict seemed to be turning into a religious war, with Protestant princes particularly perplexed at finding themselves on the `wrong’ side.

The Reichsarmee itself was nowhere near as ineffective as nationalist tradition held, though it was admittedly never large enough to operate as an independent force. The main losers at Rossbach were the French, whose 24,000 men were joined by only 11,000 Germans, of whom nearly 4,000 were Austrians. In subsequent battles, Reich troops were also dependent on an Austrian main force and prospered or suffered accordingly. Their last engagement was a severe defeat at the hands of Prince Henry of Prussia at Freiberg on 29 October 1762. By then, the Reichsarmee had dwindled from its initial notional strength of just over 32,000 to some 16,000. Following the Austro-Prussian truce in November, they were the last troops in the field, deserted by both France and Austria. The Reichstag’s decision to end its war was inevitable; the emperor ordered the disbanding of the imperial army on 24 February.

The existence of the Reichsarmee throughout the conflict probably made little difference in military terms. It did, however, serve as a physical reminder of the interests of the Reich, as distinct from both Austria and Prussia. That it remained in existence continuously was above all the achievement of the princes’ representatives at the Reichstag itself, who argued again and again for its renewal. Not for the first time, this much underestimated assembly of ambassadors demonstrated that it had developed an esprit de corps and a sense of identification with the interests of the Reich that helped individual representatives hold many a wavering prince to a consistent line. Indeed, though it was not represented at the peace talks, the Reich alone among all participants in the war achieved its war aims: the restitution of Saxony and the status quo in the Reich. That outcome reflected the way that the majority of German princes and their representatives at Regensburg had ignored the blandishments of both of the major German combatants.

Each side invested heavily in war propaganda. In 1756, Frederick attempted to claim that this was a religious war unleashed by Catholic Austria and Catholic France against Protestants in the Reich, and that Vienna aspired to transform the Reich into a hereditary Habsburg monarchy. Prussian propaganda variously sought to present Frederick as the injured party, as the defender of German liberty, as the guardian of all German Protestants, and as someone seeking to defend the Reich against Catholic oppression and Habsburg tyranny. The Austrian alliance with Germany’s perpetual enemy, France, was also emphasized, though Prussia was scarcely in a position to moralize on that score. Vienna reciprocated with the claim that Frederick was attempting to unleash a Protestant onslaught on the Catholics in the Reich and that his aim was ultimately secession from it.

Behind the propaganda lay more simple realities. Frederick intended to retain Silesia and possibly gain other territory. Indeed, throughout the war Frederick formulated a series of plans that would have secularized the north German bishoprics and divided them between Prussia and Hanover. Austria intended to regain Silesia and smash Prussia. The papacy in vain encouraged Vienna to think of the war as an opportunity to re-Catholicize the Reich. In 1764, however, a report prepared in Vienna reviewed the struggle of the period since 1740 as `a test of the strength of the Protestant nation against the Catholic nation’.

Claim and counter-claim inflamed passions at a time when confessional tensions ran high at the Reichstag over other problems. At root, however, the Reichstag was under no illusions. An attempt to turn a debate about a planned peace conference in Augsburg in 1761 into a religious issue failed when even some representatives of Protestant princes voted with Saxony, which argued that this was simply not the kind of issue on which the itio in partes principle had to be applied. That the congress never took place at all was due to the prevarication and lack of commitment of the major foreign powers, some of whom still hoped for a major military victory that would put them in a strong bargaining position. The true nature of the conflict in the Reich was clear to most at the Reichstag. Silesia was of no more concern to that body now than it had been in 1740. Almost all feared the restless and unpredictable aggression of the expansionist Prussia monarch. The Habsburg emperors had, after all, been contained on many occasions; for holding the emperor in check was a well-practised tradition of the Reich.

The persistence of the Reichsarmee and the consistency of Reichstag policy also formed a counterpoint to another remarkable manifestation of the conflict. The Prussian king’s audacity, his occasionally inspired military leadership, and his sheer dogged determination to survive against overwhelming odds turned him into a hero. In Prussia itself, support for Frederick II was extraordinary, and the King rapidly achieved a degree of personal popularity never experienced by any predecessor.



25th Regiment of Foot. A lengthy period of service in Minorca (1768-80) was followed in 1782 by an expedition to Gibraltar, which was under attack by Spain. In the same year the Regiment was retitled ‘The 25th (Sussex) Regiment of Foot’. It was thought that the addition of an English county name would stimulate recruiting! ‘Lady Louisa Lennox with her husband’s Regiment, 25th Regiment of Foot’ with Lord Lennox beside her, and Fort St Philip, Port Mahon, in the background, c1771. Oil on canvas, one of a set of six unsigned oil paintings on canvas attributed to Giuseppe Ignacio Maria Chiesa (1720-89), c1769-71

Invaded by Britain’s Royal Navy in 1708 during the War of the Spanish Succession, Minorca temporarily became a British possession. Britain took possession in 1713 under the terms of the Article XI of the Treaty of Utrecht. Under the governorship of General Richard Kane, this period saw the island’s capital moved to Port Mahon, and a naval base established in that town’s harbour.

During the Seven Years’ War, France captured the island after the Siege of Fort St Philip (1756), following a failed British relief attempt. Thanks to the Treaty of Paris (1763), the British returned to the island again following Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War. During the American War of Independence, the British were defeated for a second time, in this instance by a combination of French and Spanish forces, which regained the island after a long siege of St. Philip’s Castle in Port Mahon on 5 February 1782. The British ceded the island back to Spain the next year in the Treaty of Versailles. Minorca was invaded by the British once again in 1798, during the French Revolutionary Wars, but it was finally and permanently repossessed by Spain by the terms of the Treaty of Amiens in 1802. The British influence can still be seen in local architecture with elements such as sash windows.


As the rest of the Balearic Islands, Minorca was not occupied by the French during the Peninsular War, as it was successfully protected by the Royal Navy, this time allied to Spain.

The French invasion of Minorca in April 1756 was the event that finally sparked a formal declaration of war between France and Great Britain. The Royal Navy had a major base at Port Mahon on Minorca and another at Gibraltar, and they were under orders to intercept any French movement in the Mediterranean and to observe French preparations in the port of Toulon. There had been reports that the French were preparing an invasion fleet against Great Britain from various bases, and Admiral John Byng was sent to the region with an additional 10 ships of the line to protect the two naval bases. The Royal Navy had already deployed many ships of the line to protect commerce between the West Indies and North America, as well as to intercept any French shipping either dealing in commerce or reinforcement of overseas garrisons. The British had 2,500 troops on the island of Minorca, while the French, under the command of Admiral Count Augustin de la Gallissonniere, had assembled an invasion force of 12 ships of the line and 15,000 soldiers.

The French had landed and invested Port Mahon by the middle part of April. By 8 May they had opened fire on the defenders of Port Mahon, the same day that British reinforcements left Gibraltar. When news of the French invasion reached London, Great Britain acted, formally declaring war on France on 17 May 1756. The naval battle of Minorca occurred on 20 May; Byng’s squadron by this time numbered 13 ships of the line. The British had five ships heavily damaged, and the French pulled away and blockaded Port Mahon. Byng felt that the reinforcements he had on board were not sufficient to lift the siege of Port Mahon, and he returned to Gibraltar, forcing the garrison on Minorca to surrender on 28 May. Admiral Byng was later tried by court martial, convicted of not doing his utmost, and shot.

Siege of Fort St Philip


The Rebirth of the German Cavalry


Late 19th century Prussian Cuirassiers

The countryside around Konitz simmered in the warm September sun. The fields were not planted. There were no rivers and few trees. An occasional, gentle rise in the landscape was all that interrupted the drab flatness of the area. Located in the Baltic province of West Prussia, far from the burgeoning cities and metropolises of industrializing Imperial Germany, Konitz offered the added attraction of its isolation. This was probably what appealed most to Prince Friedrich Karl, nephew of the old emperor and the empire’s first inspector general of the cavalry. Indeed, the prince, turning more irascible and peculiar with every year since the great Wars of Unification, did not like outsiders to observe his annual cavalry exercises.

Friedrich Karl stood atop a tall observation platform. Next to him were veteran cavalry generals just as enthusiastic as he was about the great impact that mounted warriors would have in a future war. For a week, two cavalry divisions had maneuvered against each other, roaming widely through the countryside around Konitz. Now, to hold down costs, just one division remained. The generals’ binoculars focused on a spot about a mile away, where 3000 Teutonic horsemen were drawn up for battle.

That day’s exercise was a tactical drill. The attackers would hit the enemy’s flank, engaging his squadrons and beating them back. Assigned the task of breaking through were the Third East Prussian and the Fifth West Prussian Cuirassiers, their breastplates gleaming gloriously in the late summer sunlight. A second strike wave of lesser strength, about 100 meters behind the first, consisted mainly of lighter cavalry, including the famous “Blücher” Hussars of the Fifth Pomeranian Regiment. Their job was to protect the flank and rear of the first wave or to hurl themselves forward if a rout of the enemy was imminent—or if the Cuirassiers failed. Two regiments of Uhlan lancers stood in reserve about 400 meters behind the Cuirassiers. Barely visible from the platform was a regiment not assigned to this attack.

When the order was given, the Cuirassiers moved forward at a trot. After a few hundred meters the pace quickened to a slow gallop as the squadrons performed a diagonal echelon maneuver and prepared for the final charge into the enemy line. At this point Friedrich Karl swung his binoculars back to the left to observe the dispositions of the Hussars, the Uhlans, and the flanking regiment. Indeed, one of the main goals of the exercise was to coordinate the movements of the three waves with nearby units to maximize the advantages of attacking in great strength. The frown on the prince’s face was indication enough that these formations were not showing proper initiative in supporting the attack. Further irritation followed when he noticed that the charging heavy cavalry had pulled up short, thinking, apparently, that it was just a drill.

Friedrich Karl’s final report attempted to derive lessons that would be useful in the next maneuvers—and in the next war. “Three-wave tactics” would be effective in battle,” he wrote, but the battlefield itself was no place to improvise them. These tactics had to be practiced in peacetime exercises that simulated actual battle conditions—including charges of cheering Cuirassiers ridden through to the end—until the commands and their execution became routine. Unfortunately, the German cavalry had little wartime experience with massed attacks. The result was that supporting and neighboring units were unclear and confused about their roles. The main goal of a successful charge was for the charging division to attract all nearby cavalry into the fray “like iron drawn to a magnet.” Only a “well-schooled” cavalry division with good leaders would be “the cutting edge that decides a battle.”

The great cavalry exercises at Konitz in September 1881 were the high-water mark of a remarkable revival in the fortunes of the German cavalry. The golden era of mounted warfare that Friedrich Karl and his professional entourage revered had lapsed into legend more than a century earlier. At Rossbach (1757), Leuthen (1757), and Zorndorf (1758), Prussian cavalry generals had led successive strike waves of Cuirassiers and Hussars that justified the confidence and faith of their great warrior monarch, Frederick II. This tradition crashed to the ground, however, during the Napoleonic wars, nor was the succeeding generation kind to Prussia’s horsemen. Industrialism brought not only rifled steel cannons with greater range and accuracy but also mass-produced infantry rifles; the Prussian “needle gun”; and the French chassepot, which fired much more rapidly than the old muskets. Consequently, the cavalry was assigned no major role in Prussia’s wars against Denmark (1864) and Austria (1866). The three Prussian armies that descended on Bohemia in the latter campaign deployed their cavalry in the rear. These units saw only limited action in the last hours of the great battle at Königgrätz.

The turnaround began during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Indeed, a new cavalry legend was born as Germany’s three armies marched west into Lorraine to engage Marshal François Bazaine’s Army of the Rhine near Metz. Bazaine seized the initiative on 16 August against the German Second Army of Friedrich Karl, attacking him at Mars-la-Tour before the German First and Third Armies could offer support. Outnumbered and pounded by superior French artillery, the Second Army was in a precarious position. Orders for an attack were therefore issued to General Bredow’s cavalry brigade, consisting of one regiment of Cuirassiers and one regiment of Uhlans. Charging in one unsupported wave, the roughly 800 riders overran enemy infantry and artillery positions, penetrating some 3,000 meters before they were forced to retreat. The “Death Ride of Mars-la-Tour” had cost Bredow 379 men and 400 horses, but he had purchased valuable time for the Second Army. There were altogether eight cavalry charges during the battle, pitting cavalry against infantry, artillery, and opposing cavalry. Deciding the day, in fact, was a great clash of about 6,000 German and French riders. Although Mars-la-Tour was a bloody draw, Bazaine fell back to defensive positions near Metz, where the Germans attacked with greater success 2 days later.

The Siege of Badajoz: March-April 1812


Storming of Badajoz by Chris Collingwood.


The last siege of Badajoz conducted by Wellington’s army was typified by a failed main assault on the breech and a successful secondary assault on the castle. The Allies had failed to take Badajoz before, and the lack of an adequate British siege train, along with qualified engineer officers and engineer troops, would make infantry assaults the major instrument in the siege. The gallantry of the British infantry is legendary, and Wellington undoubtedly felt grief over the horrific losses. The skilled defence of Badajoz by General Phillipon and his garrison is contrasted with the amaterish way in which the British engineering arm conducted the siege. The heavy losses prompted the British to create the Royal Corps of Sappers and Miners.

There were four sieges of Badajoz during the Peninsular War, all taking place in 1811-12. The initial siege was undertaken by the French and was a success; it was followed by two failed British attempts. The fourth and last of these operations was also undertaken by the British. This time they carried the day, but it was a very bloody episode and the superb performance of the British infantry was marred by their disgraceful conduct afterwards. They indulged in a three-day orgy of rapine, drunkenness and plunder against an allied and friendly population that had not opposed the British siege operations in any way.

Wellington’s sieges in Portugal and Spain are not noted for the skill and thoroughness with which they were conducted. Many of them were failures, and those that succeeded were usually marked by heavy casualties incurred by the besiegers because the cities had to be taken by storm. Badajoz was one of the keys to Spain; it had to be taken so that the Allied army could continue into the interior and eventually into southern France. It stood on the Guadiana River and water formed a natural obstacle on two sides. The city was strongly fortified and had formidable outworks called the Pardaleras and the Picurina. Across the Guadiana was San Cristobal and the fortified bridgehead for the bridge over the river. The works were garrisoned by about 5000 men ably commanded by General Armand Philippon (1761-1836), who proved a redoubtable adversary.

Siege works were then opened against the eastern side of the fortress on 15 March 1812 amidst terrible weather that made construction difficult at best. The troops that worked on the first siege parallel laboured in water up to their waists and were under heavy French fire from the outset. The French sortied from the fortress on 19 March but were repulsed, and work continued.

Batteries were built to fire on the fortress and on 24 March six batteries opened fire on the Picurina as well as on the San Roque lunette. Additionally, artillery bombarded the main walls, or curtain, of Badajoz between the bastions of Trinidad and San Pedro.

Stolid Defence

Major-General Thomas Picton’s (1758-1815) division assaulted the Picurina on the night of 25 March and took it after a desperate fight; Picton’s casualties were heavy. The next day the British siege guns opened fire on Badajoz once more, this time bombarding the curtain between the Trinidad and Santa Maria bastions. The city wall was formidable however, and it was not until 5 April that two breeches were opened that were believed to be passable by an assault force. Still, Wellington ordered that another breech to be opened before an assault could take place.

Wellington underestimated the lengths to which the defenders had gone to make an assault upon Badajoz if not impossible, then at least as expensive as possible for any attacker. Obstacles had been built in the ditch to render it unusable as a customary rallying place. Although the walls had been breeched, the defenders had erected more obstacles within them and had shored up the defences behind the breeches to stop any penetration of the fortress.

Wellington had planned a main attack by two columns, consisting of the Light Division and the 4th Division, which would go for the breeches. A supporting attack against the fortress’s castle across the Roillas, which was flooded and could only be crossed by a dyke that was 60cm (2ft) under water, was to be made by Picton’s 3rd Division. Other, smaller supporting attacks were to be made on the Pardaleras, the San Vicente bastion and the San Roque lunette.

The attacks jumped off at 8 p.m. on 6 April. The assaults on the breeches were expensive failures, the defenders not only causing the attacking columns horrendous casualties but also taunting the attackers throughout the fighting. The performance and sacrifice of the British officers and men was exemplary, but the defence was too professional and savage, and the breeches were choked with British killed and wounded.

Picton’s attack on the castle at first failed, and Picton himself was wounded. He rallied his men, however, and they gained a foothold on the lower walls. Scaling ladders were raised and the British poured over the parapet. Again, resistance was savage, but the British fought through adversity, taking the castle but with heavy casualties. The San Vicente bastion was also taken, and the heart went out of the defenders.

General Philippon and the garrison withdrew into San Cristobal, where they surrendered the next day. Badajoz thereby fell, and the British troops who had behaved so well in the mayhem of the breeches now went wild and sacked the city. The orgy continued until it finally burned itself out and order was restored. The same would happen when San Sebastian was taken the following year.

Captain Darryl Hollands – Steamroller Farm 1943

The previous evening a German counter-offensive had cut the road between El Aroussa and Medjez el Bab. The commander of Y Division, a scratch force holding this sector of the front, had no idea of the enemy’s strength and he decided to probe the area of Steamroller Farm, four and a half miles to the north, and the pass lying immediately beyond. The troops detailed for the task included a company of the 2nd Coldstream Guards, A Squadron 51 RTR, equipped with Churchills, and a troop of field guns. Hollands, a quiet man with immense resources of physical courage, had already been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal when, as a sergeant, he had rescued a pilot from a burning aircraft at Dunkirk; now, he was commanding A Squadron’s 1 Troop.

As the force approached Steamroller Farm it was apparent that it was heavily defended and the squadron came under fire from an anti-tank gun screen sited beyond an intervening wadi. A fierce fire fight ensued, during which the tanks were also dive-bombed by a Stuka squadron. At this point the squadron commander, Major E. W. H. Hadfield, was ordered to break through ‘at all costs’ and secure the high ground around the pass. Hadfield now had only nine of his Churchills left and he felt that these would be sacrificed to no purpose if they were committed to such an attack. Nevertheless, he had to comply in some way and ordered 1 Troop to advance on the objective, forgetting that casualties had reduced its strength to a single tank, Hollands’ own Adventurer.

The chances of survival, let alone success, were very slim, and in these circumstances Hollands’ reaction was to give himself up for dead, get on with the job, and do as much damage as he could in the process. Adventurer moved forward, only to find the way ahead blocked by the wadi. Hollands told his driver, Trooper John Mitton, to reverse some little distance, and then swung the tank towards the road on the right, which crossed the wadi on a causeway. This placed the vehicle broadside on to the enemy, but fortunately the latter’s view was interrupted by scrub and their shots cracked harmlessly past. Reaching the road, Adventurer turned left, heading for the causeway, and had just rounded a bend where the scrub ended when it came face-to-face with an Eighty-Eight at thirty yards’ range. The tank rocked to a standstill and got in the first shot, wrecking the gun.

Hollands set off again, believing that he had had his share of luck for the day. Adventurer roared across the causeway, turret traversed left towards the enemy. The road began to climb and, rounding a double bend, Mitton braked sharply when he encountered a barrier of camouflage. For the second time in minutes he was confronted by the yawning black muzzle of an Eighty-Eight. It suddenly vanished within a huge belch of flame. From within the vehicle came a clatter of falling equipment. The round had simply scoured its way along the top of the turret, tearing away the extractor fan casing and smashing the rear stowage bin. In the turret the gunner was frantically struggling to bring the main armament to bear but was thwarted by a loose round that was temporarily fouling the traverse gear. The black muzzle belched flame again, but for some reason the second round missed completely. Meanwhile, Trooper Hank Howsen, the hull gunner, was methodically loading a fresh belt into his Besa machine-gun. He snapped the cover shut, pulled back the cocking handle, laid the weapon and fired a long burst through the Eighty-Eight’s camouflage. The gun crew took to their heels pursued by Adventurer with Hollands firing his Thompson sub-machine-gun and hurling grenades at them from the turret.

Having twice survived sudden death by a whisker, Hollands was fighting mad. Clearing his jammed traverse gear, he turned left off the road and headed for some infantry positions on high ground near pine trees, overrunning slit trenches on the way to the crest. From this, he could see that the enemy had parked their transport, amounting to 27 vehicles, further along the road behind a spur, and his gunners set them ablaze. As Adventurer was now completely alone in the heart of the German position he asked Hadfield to reinforce him as quickly as possible. However, so intent was Hollands on his work of destruction that he was barely aware of the passage of enemy aircraft overhead at about 1730. They dropped paratroops to reinforce the garrison of Steamroller Farm, with the result that A Squadron found itself even busier than before. Hadfield could spare only one tank, that of Lieutenant J. G. Renton, who set off along the same route.

Meanwhile, Hollands had become involved in a very personal duel. A German in a camouflaged slit trench immediately ahead of Adventurer kept bobbing up and shooting at the tank with a rifle grenade thrower. Two belts of Besa and three armour piercing rounds failed to solve the problem. Mitton recalls that when a fourth AP was fired into the ground just short of the trench, ‘It seemed to vanish in a cloud of smoke and dust. The net flapped wildly, breaking free from the blast. When the dust settled the German crawled out, stood looking dazedly at the tank, turned slowly, dropped his rifle and staggered away.’ No one aboard was inclined to take the matter further.

At this point two PzKw IIIs appeared close to the head of the pass. Hollands was unable to depress his main armament sufficiently to engage them but Renton had now come up alongside and his gunner, Trooper Nicholson, put three rounds into each. Shortly after 1800 Hollands received the order to withdraw. Hardly had the move begun than his radio failed completely and with it the intercom. Climbing out of the turret, he sat on the front of the vehicle, directing Mitton with hand signals through the open visor. When they stopped briefly to put two AP rounds into the second Eighty-Eight, the engine stalled and refused to restart. Renton overtook and the two crews attached a tow chain under mortar and machine-gun fire, Renton being wounded as he scrambled back aboard. Adventurer’s engine started at the first pull and the two tanks succeeded in reaching their own lines, picking up the crew of a burning Churchill on the way.

As the combined force was clearly too small to capture the objective, it was ordered to withdraw by the commander of Y Division. A Squadron’s losses amounted to three killed, eleven wounded, three tanks destroyed, two disabled and the rest damaged to a greater or lesser degree. At first, no one was inclined to believe Hollands’ and Renton’s story, but three days later the infantry took possession of the area and reported even greater damage than had been claimed, including two PzKw IIIs, eight anti-tank guns, two light anti-aircraft guns, two mortars, 25 assorted vehicles and up to 200 personnel casualties. The Fight at Steamroller Farm had effectively destroyed the enemy’s chances of taking El Aroussa; an intercepted radio message from the German battlegroup commander, who was evidently unfamiliar with the characteristics of the Churchill, justified his withdrawal on the grounds that he had been attacked by a ‘mad tank battalion that had scaled impossible heights.’ Hollands received the Distinguished Service Order, Renton the Military Cross and Mitton the Military Medal.

Panthers in the Snow I

COUNTERPUNCH by Nicolas Trudgian

On 24 December 1944 at Hèdrée, Belgium, General Rose of the 3rd Armored Division put out the warning: there can be no retreat from the German onslaught “or there will be a war to be fought all over again”. His “Spearhead” tankers of Easy Company, 32nd AR, took the message to heart.

With this message ringing in their ears, they went on the offensive, cutting the N4 road and buying time for reinforcements to reach the Battle of the Bulge. The Allied counterpunch also continues in the skies above as P-38s of the 370th FG as they to hunt their targets.

3rd Armored Division under Maurice Rose

Be careful what you wish for. Despondent over the bloody impasse in and around the West Wall, Lieutenant General Omar Bradley wanted the Germans to quit ducking and covering and defending every ramshackle pillbox to the last man. Come out and play. Come out into a mobile scrum in more open terrain where American firepower could tear them up.

At 5:30 a.m. on December 16, 1944, the Germans obliged.

“Well, Brad, you’ve been wishing for a counterattack,” said Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s SHAEF chief of staff. “Now it looks as though you’ve got it.”

“A counterattack, yes,” replied Bradley. “But I’ll be damned if I wanted one this big.” The Twelfth Army Group commander got it anyway, courtesy of Adolf Hitler, no less. A winter offensive employing almost every viable mobile unit the Germans had left—no rational top commander would undertake such a massive gamble. But a megalomaniacal Austrian-born lance corporal? Why not?

The Germans struck hard against the First Army. Shielded from the Allied air armada by foul “Hitler weather,” the foe slammed into the southernmost 99th Infantry Division of the ill-used V Corps—still ensnared in the Hürtgen Forest—and tore up the strung-out VIII Corps: the brand-new 106th Infantry Division and the Hürtgen-ravaged 28th and 4th. The four U.S. divisions thinly outposted an eighty-mile front, the same Ardennes region that Bradley told himself wasn’t suitable for tanks. Poor Bradley. The map done him wrong again. Now three German field armies, a thousand panzers and a half million men, were on the move. The enemy envisioned going all the way to the just-opened port of Antwerp. Cut up the Americans, cut off the British, and possibly, at least in Hitler’s febrile mind, force the Allies to the bargaining table. Based on the thunderclap opening, Hitler’s troops might pull it off.

What now, Brad?

A book man to his bones, and fortunately not prone to panic, Bradley thought back to what he’d learned at West Point, Benning, and Leavenworth. Contain the breakthrough. Hold the shoulders. Block the foe’s leading panzer outfits at the major road junctions. Anchor on the high ground and rivers. And when the skies cleared—if that happy day ever came—tear ’em up. To do these things, Bradley needed more forces.

Here the Allied broad front approach, the U.S. 90-division force cap, and the British manpower shortage left the cupboard rather bare. Eisenhower had very little to offer his classmate Bradley. The SHAEF reserve consisted of XVIII Airborne Corps with the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne divisions. Both divisions were refitting after the September “bridge too far” operation in Holland. Although composed of well-led, hand-picked, highly trained volunteers, the airborne outfits were small (authorized 8,596 soldiers vs. a standard U.S. Army infantry division’s 14,253 men) and undergunned, with no tanks, no tank destroyers, and no standard field artillery. They’d have to pick up reinforcing units en route and make do. That was something at which the paratroopers and glider men excelled.

With the airborne troops en route, Bradley had to reconfigure his other chess pieces. Twenty-First Army Group to the north probably had nothing to provide; Monty had been borrowing U.S. divisions all through the fall of 1944. Sixth Army Group to the south had their own fish to fry and nothing to spare. So Bradley turned to his own three armies: the Ninth north of Aachen, the First with a gaping hole in its south end, and Patton’s Third Army fighting in the Saar. Bradley tapped the Ninth for the 7th Armored Division to speed toward the German penetration; the Ninth later sent the 30th Infantry Division, the 84th Infantry Division, and the 2nd Armored Division as well. Patton’s Third Army also received word to cough up the brand-new 10th Armored Division. Being Patton, and having already divined the German counteroffensive before it launched, the Third Army commander prepared to pivot his forces 90 degrees and attack into the south flank of the German forces. When the time came, Patton would be ready.

What about Hodges? His forces had taken it right in the teeth. But two-thirds of his First Army lay north of the German push. A good general would immediately march to the sound of the guns, moving right to the point of crisis to see and be seen, to steady the line. Not Hodges. The First Army commander did what he did best. Nothing. The fateful 16th of December passed calmly at the Hotel Britannique in Spa. The maps looked OK, and the bulk of the reports weren’t too alarming. The fact that a great many updates from the embattled VIII Corps were missing raised some eyebrows—that obviously wasn’t a good sign. Even so, the First Army commander didn’t stir from his headquarters. Indeed, Hodges kept his normal office schedule, to include hosting military visitors from SHAEF and going to bed on time. The general was nursing a head cold.

When looking at transcripts of fragmented radio messages from American headquarters in the Ardennes, Hodges told staff officers that the German offensive thrusts “were only what the General called ‘spoiling attacks’—to take the pressure off the important V Corps drive towards the Roer River dams.” The general assessed the German advances as being “in large patrol strength and others in battalion strength.” As a precaution, after calls from Joe Collins and the other corps commanders, Hodges consented to put the 1st Infantry Division, regrouping off-line, on six-hour alert for possible movement to the Ardennes. Hodges thought he might send a regiment off to backstop the hard-pressed 99th Infantry Division on the critical northern shoulder of the enemy offensive. The First Army commander was “neither optimistic nor pessimistic.” He was just Hodges. In later years, some would point to all of this as evidence of Hodges’s phlegm, resolution in the face of peril. Could be. Inertia became him.

Along with notifying the 1st Infantry Division to prepare to truck south, Hodges also sent an order putting the 3rd Armored Division on six-hour notice to go, too. It appears that the directive to ready the 1st Infantry and 3rd Armored divisions represented the First Army commander’s personal decision. Hodges picked the 1st Infantry Division because it was behind the front and available. He picked the 3rd Armored Division because of Maurice Rose.

Four days earlier and a lifetime ago, before the German onslaught, Hodges invited Major General Maurice Rose to the VII Corps command post near an abandoned segment of the West Wall. Joe Collins was there, of course. With hardly any preliminaries, the reticent First Army commander genuinely surprised Rose with an impromptu presentation. As a junior officer read the citation, Hodges stepped directly in front of his taller subordinate and pinned on the Distinguished Service Cross, America’s second-highest valor award. Only the Medal of Honor stands higher. The citation referred to Rose’s “extraordinary heroism” and “intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty” from September 6 through September 9, 1944, during the advance across Belgium. As Hodges’s aide wrote afterward, Rose was “one of his [Hodges’s] favorite generals.” That constituted a very exclusive set given Hodges’s dour demeanor and disinterest in most of those he outranked.

The unexpected honor meant a great deal to Rose, as it would to any soldier. United States Army generals collect many medals, and in World War II that certainly held true. Most generals received the Distinguished Service Medal, prestigious no doubt, but presented for carrying out demanding responsibilities, not for valorous acts. Wiseacre G.I.s referred to it as the “generals’ good conduct medal,” the star-level version of a medal normally given to an enlisted soldier with a clean disciplinary record. Some World War II generals were awarded Silver Stars. Then Brigadier General Rose had one from Sicily to go with the two he’d received as a colonel in North Africa. He’d earned all three of them. Others seemed a bit gratuitous. Bradley, for example, received a Silver Star for “gallant actions” in 1945, although it’s not clear exactly what he did. Bravery comes in many forms.

The Distinguished Service Cross, though, came from a different category. That one resonated up and down the ranks. Hodges earned the award in 1918, and the First Army commander never approved a recommendation lightly. You could argue, as some Spearheaders did, that Rose deserved the medal more for the Rânes fight, or the contested Aisne River crossing, or Mons, or the bloodletting at the West Wall. No matter. Hodges signed what someone put on his desk, and did so without a second thought. With Maurice Rose, soldiers from general to private could vouch for his battlefield presence. They might not—indeed did not—know the man. But they knew where to find him.

Now with flotillas of German panzers crawling all over the floor of the Ardennes Forest, Rose got the call. It came late and garbled, transmitted from First Army through VII Corps. At 5:30 p.m. on December 18, 1944, Combat Command A moved out. They had orders to motor southwest and take up positions south of Eupen, Belgium. The Spearheaders hadn’t been in that neck of the woods since September. If the intelligence analysts had it right, enemy panzers were headed that way to link up with a German parachute drop.

Combat Command A’s Brigadier General Doyle O. Hickey asked a reasonable question. For whom did he work? The answers, and non-answers, spoke volumes.

First Army Headquarters initially claimed direct authority, but that didn’t last long. With reports of German SS panzers only seven miles south of Spa—and those frantic messages weren’t that far off—First Army command post troops began a hurried withdrawal to a secure location near Liege. Although later writings downplayed the degree of panic, the departure proved precipitate. Liaison officers from subordinate units who arrived at the deserted Hotel Britannique saw classified papers strewn about and marked maps on the wall. Telephones remained active. Even a fully trimmed Christmas tree had been left behind. Apparently, with his staff packing up and his forces in disarray, a dispirited, sick (and sick at heart) Hodges spent some time with his head on his desk. At least he got something useful done that day.

None of that helped Hickey and CCA. Hickey checked with V Corps headquarters, an organization busy with German infantry and panzers trying to overwhelm the north goalpost of what G.I.s had begun to call “the Bulge.” Weeks later, that became the name American soldiers used to refer to the bitter Ardennes combat. For CCA, there’d be no confrontation on the rim of the Bulge. Not yet. Their role involved hunting down German paratroopers dropped overnight on December 17–18. With that mission from V Corps, Hickey’s troops went to work.

The German airborne task force included officers and NCOs who’d fought at Carentan way back on June 13. There were other experienced men in the ranks, and some of the Luftwaffe Ju-52 transport pilots showed ability. Most of those doing the delivering and making the jump, however, were neophytes. Nazi Party fervor only took them so far. Buffeted by winds and dumped out by unsure pilots, 1,200 German jumpers scattered all over the north side of the Bulge. Some were put out as far to the east as Bonn on the Rhine River. After the botched assault, at least 125 enemy paratroopers gathered near Monschau and tried to cause some mayhem. Their ambuscades unnerved American rear echelon troops and headquarters staffs, including those at Hodges’s First Army. So Hickey’s CCA got told to sort it out.

A few bands of enemy airborne men ended up in the forests near Eupen. There CCA infantrymen and tankers made short work of the Germans. The Americans spread out, seeking parachutes draped in the trees along the main road running south from Eupen. Combat Command A patrols gathered up mis-dropped enemy ammunition, mortar, and machine gun cannisters, limiting the German airborne men to their shoulder arms and a few hand grenades. After a few brief clashes, a good number of the Germans raised their hands. The more enterprising melted into the woods, presumably heading for home.

With CCA already gone, the rest of 3rd Armored Division moved out on December 19. Beginning at 1:15 p.m., Combat Command B began heading to Spa to join XVIII Airborne Corps and stop the powerful German panzer force that flushed First Army headquarters. Courtney Hodges’s staff got away OK, but just south of Spa near the village of Stavelot lay an open-air depot containing a million gallons of gasoline. While First Army service trucks scrambled to gather these valuable stores, it proved no quick process. If a Waffen SS panzer column grabbed the fuel, they’d have enough gasoline to cross the Meuse River, no problem. The Allied strategic bombers had gutted much of Nazi Germany’s oil industry. But these Germans were more than willing to settle for gasoline from Oklahoma and Texas. Individual U.S. corps-echelon engineer battalions, displaced antiaircraft batteries, groups of truck drivers, and other orphan units blocked key routes snaking north toward the vital Stavelot gasoline yard. Sent by truck from north of Aachen, the American 30th Infantry Division filtered into the area company by company. Combat Command B rumbled south to join this critical fight.

A few hours after CCB departed, Major General Rose received orders to take his remaining forces (Omaha Forward, Combat Command Reserve, the 83rd Recon, and the Division Trains) sixty miles south and west to Hotton, Belgium, south of CCA’s para-hunting and west of CCB’s evolving Stavelot fight. Rose, too, had orders to report to XVIII Airborne Corps.

The motor march started as the gray day faded to inky blackness. Snow and sleet drifted down steadily all night, coating much of the roadway with a glaze of ice. The frozen moisture made it very tough to see, and the small vehicular telltale markers—in order to disguise the move from Luftwaffe aerial snoopers, headlights were not used—barely showed up a few feet away. The entire armored column of 1,200-plus vehicles extended dozens of miles. An officer described the situation:

The movement was a pure nightmare. Despite the system of guides and sentries the MPs [Military Police] had worked out on short notice, there was still lots of confusion and a stop and start situation all night. The intervals were extremely erratic and often after prolonged stops the vehicles would get stretched out. When this happened, the vehicle in the rear would drive rapidly to catch up, but in the mist and darkness it often came upon another stopped vehicle and banged into the rear of it. If a two-and-half-ton GMC [General Motors Corporation] truck happened to hit a three-quarter-ton weapons carrier, it would simply knock it off the road. If a tank skidded into a jeep it would squash it flatter than a pancake. I made sure I didn’t get in front of a tank that night.

Right in front rode Maurice Rose in his open-topped peep. Darkness and rotten winter weather may have grounded Allied air squadrons. But the unmanned German V-1 buzz bombs kept at it. Several pulsed overhead as Rose and his long column moved south. Liege was a favorite target, and at least one hit near the new First Army headquarters, killing sixteen officers and NCOs and wrecking two trucks. The V-1s added another danger to a night already replete with them.

As Rose’s peep passed Liege, the general’s aide Captain Bob Bellinger heard a buzz bomb’s characteristic putt-putt engine cut out. Not good. Out of the inky wet sky came a whoosh of air then a brilliant blossom of fire and thunderous detonation less than a hundred yards away. The blast wave skidded the peep to a stop, tossing Bellinger out. The aide picked himself up—head ringing, but all parts attached and working. He got back in the quarter-ton truck. Rose mentioned a headache, but nothing else. Off they went toward Hotton. The division’s tanks and trucks followed in fits and starts.

Just before midnight, near Hotton, frigid road guards of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Battalion, 325th Glider Infantry Regiment met what they identified as the “armored ‘point.’” It was Major General Rose leading the way. The glider men weren’t that surprised. Their division commander, Major General James Maurice “Slim Jim” Gavin, was cut from the same cloth.

Gavin’s superior, Major General Matthew Bunker Ridgway, also led from the front. In Normandy in June 1944, both paratrooper generals stalked the hedgerows, rifles in hand. In Holland in the autumn, the pair did likewise. By then, Gavin commanded the 82nd Airborne Division and Ridgway commanded XVIII Airborne Corps. But in Holland the British ran the show; Ridgway was just stopping by to see his men. Gavin remembered Ridgway’s sangfroid under German bombardment. Even for Gavin, it was too much: “You don’t just stand there looking at tree bursts. I told him to go be a hero someplace else.”

Now someplace else was the Ardennes, and Ridgway’s lightly armed airborne forces faced multiple panzer divisions. The paratroopers and glider men needed tank backup. Having been required to ship his 101st Airborne Division off to Bastogne and glory, Ridgway wanted Maurice Rose’s 3rd Armored Division yesterday. The XVIII Airborne commander realized that “the 3rd Armored was far away and coming piecemeal.” In typical Ridgway fashion, late on December 19, the paratrooper general went forward personally to find Maurice Rose.

In a Belgian hamlet not far from Hotton, Ridgway walked through the dark streets. Blowing snow and freezing rain made the going tough, even on foot. The corps commander saw a collection of M8 armored cars and peeps parked at a corner. The helmeted G.I.s aboard huddled against the wind, hands on their weapons. Ridgway and his aide waved. No problem. A gloved soldier in an M8 turret waved back. As Ridgway passed the halted armored car, the general spied a yellow light shining through a slightly open door. He knocked, a wise idea when those inside and out have firearms. The door cracked wider.

In the small room, a few soldiers had a map spread on a wooden table. Flashlights lit up the crumpled sheet. The Americans were from the 83rd Recon. They didn’t seem shocked at all to see a two-star general. They were used to Rose popping up all over. Their lieutenant showed Ridgway the 3rd Armored Division’s route. Ridgway thanked the men and left.

Panthers in the Snow II

M36 90mm Tank Destroyer, 703rd TD Battalion, 3rd Armored Division, near Malempré, Belgium, 16 December 1944, the first day of the Battle of the Bulge.

So the 3rd Armored Division was very close, and arriving just in time, too. There were a hell of a lot of panzers out there. Ridgway hadn’t served with Maurice Rose. But he’d heard of him, and later thought Rose “one of the most gallant soldiers I have ever known.” It takes one to know one.

For the first time during Rose’s command tenure, the Spearhead Division was working for someone other than Joe Collins at VII Corps. These paratrooper generals seemed crazy-brave; Rose could relate to that. Ridgway was Collins’s West Point classmate and like Lightning Joe, the airborne commander missed combat in World War I. Ridgway had sure made up for that in Sicily, Italy, and now in northwest Europe. But he’d been a division commander then. Trying to hold the north side of the Bulge represented Ridgway’s first corps-level operation. Frankly, he’d inherited a mess, with bits and parts of units intermixed with the Germans.

That worked for Ridgway. An airborne assault starts by dumping men and gear out of the sky, often at midnight. In concept, the parachutists and glider teams land right on predetermined targets. In too many cases, drops degenerated into 52-pickup, with little groups of paratroopers improvising, adapting, and overcoming. So the situation in the Ardennes looked a lot like the night jump in Normandy: find American units and stick them together like Legos. Hold that line. That was what Ridgway did, and it’s about all he could do. Later diagrams of the situation on December 20, 1944, depict a neat wall of American divisions, the 9th, 2nd, 99th, 1st, 30th, 82nd, and now 3rd Armored. The reality was much, much more jumbled.

The XVIII Airborne Corps owned only two-thirds of the 3rd Armored Division, as Combat Command A remained glued to the road net south of Eupen chasing German para-ghosts. Given constant reporting about German jumpers, spies, saboteurs, and even hostiles in American uniforms—all of them grounded in some kind of truth—CCA was stuck. To block any German lunge toward the Stavelot fuel stocks or the Meuse River bridges to the north, Combat Command B passed directly to the command of the 30th Infantry Division, their higher headquarters from the Mortain battle back in August 1944. This left Maurice Rose with the 83rd Recon and Combat Command Reserve at Hotton, hanging out in the breeze. There were more U.S. forces on the way. But for now, the only things west of them were more Meuse River crossings.

And soon enough, the Germans.

This would be a tank battle, a big one. The Spearheaders had clashed with enemy panzers many times: Mortain, Rânes/Fromental, Mons, the West Wall. But these encounters usually featured a handful of panzers and dozens of American tanks. Now on the forest roads near Stavelot and Hotton, the odds would be pretty nearly even. That got Rose and his G.I.s thinking.

More than half of the enemy panzers running around the Ardennes were Mark IVs or their turretless assault gun cousins. Those 28-tonners mounted a long 75mm cannon that outranged a Sherman’s shorter 75mm, although not by a lot. At five hundred yards or so, it was a fair fight. The 3rd Armored Division’s forty-eight Shermans with 76mm barrels could ventilate the front end of a Mark IV out to a thousand yards. If only Mark IVs showed up, great. But there were other denizens lurking.

The opposing menagerie’s apex predators were only too obvious, the dreaded Tigers and Panthers. Both overmatched 3rd Armored Division’s tanks. Among the American tank crews, men spoke with respect of Tigers and Panthers, as well they might.

Although the Tiger was often reported, especially by nervous G.I. new arrivals, facts seldom caught up with allegations. Tigers came in two versions, the 63-ton Tiger I and the 77-ton Tiger II, also called the King Tiger or Royal Tiger. These massive, sluggish giants overstressed bridges, cracked pavements, and sometimes struggled in mud. But when they moved out, they struck with power. Both used 88mm cannons deadly to a Sherman at 2,000 yards. Tiger frontal armor could ward off Sherman projectiles, although if it caught an angle just right, the U.S. 76mm gun round might penetrate at about a hundred yards or so. Fortunately for the Allies, the Germans fielded few of these behemoths. Only 1,393 Tiger Is and 458 King Tigers were produced during the entire war, and most went to the Russian front. These monsters could be found in special heavy tank battalions. Only two Tiger battalions fought in the Ardennes. Combat Command B of the 3rd Armored Division met one of these outfits.

Unlike Tigers, Panthers proved all too available in the Ardennes. Spearhead Division units ran into these big panzers in several clashes. The almost unstoppable Tiger might bring on night sweats. But the numerous Panthers offered a more likely threat. They moved in packs, hit hard, and died hard, too.

A Panther weighed just under 50 tons. Although clearly heavier than the 33-ton Sherman, a Panther rode on wide tracks that spread the weight better, a quality known as ground pressure (12.3 pounds per square inch, compared to 15.1 for a Sherman). Panthers employed a long 75mm gun that outperformed the Tiger’s 88mm weapon inside a thousand yards. A Panther main gun round could rip through a Sherman from any aspect. If surviving American tanks returned fire, the Panther’s heavy sloped frontal armor shrugged off both U.S. 75mm and 76mm shots, although those cannons could now and then get a lucky hit inside a hundred yards. American Sherman tank guns had a good chance of penetrating the sides or back even a thousand yards out. Of course, that presumed the Americans maneuvered successfully to gain those advantageous positions. If you manned a Sherman hunting Panthers, these raw statistics certainly gave you pause.

Folk wisdom in the ranks of the 3rd Armored Division said a Panther enjoyed a five-to-one edge over a Sherman. Put another way, Americans expected to trade one platoon per Panther. German panzer men understood the terrible arithmetic. “One of our tanks is better than ten of yours,” they snorted. “But you always have eleven!”  Such metrics might be OK for the ones marking the charts way up at First Army, Twelfth Army Group, or SHAEF. But those getting “traded” certainly didn’t appreciate the exchange rate.

So how did Shermans beat Panthers?

Rather than simply swap like for like, at 5:1, 10:1, or even 1:1, Maurice Rose and his men learned to use all their panoply of armaments. As Rose expressed in a formal report that went to General Eisenhower, “We compensate for our inferior equipment by the efficient use of artillery, air support, and maneuver.” It was the familiar prescription. Send a bullet, not a man. Rose believed in it, taught it, and insisted on it. He was right there to make sure it worked.

But Rose also knew there were things that simple side by side number-crunching missed. Shermans stayed in action; they were fixable and robust, with nine out of ten running most days. Panther crews struggled to keep their elegant machines operational. The strong German panzers often fell off the line of march, burdened by inadequate transmissions and a lack of spare parts. German mechanics counted 29 percent of their Panthers in the shop as the Ardennes offensive began. Of forty-seven abandoned Panthers examined by American technical teams after the Battle of the Bulge, twenty had no battle damage. They’d simply stopped working.

The Americans also stuck to the path blazed by innovators like Eli Whitney and Henry Ford: interchangeable parts and standardization. From 1939 to 1945, the Germans fielded four main battle tanks: the Mark III, the Mark IV, the Panther, and the Tiger (two versions), not to mention a bewildering variety of related and unrelated assault guns, obsolescent Mark I and Mark II models, borrowed foreign equipment, and experimental “wonder weapon” variants. None of these things was much like the other. The Americans, however, went with the Sherman and only the Sherman. In the 3rd Armored Division, the M7 self-propelled howitzer and the attached M10 and M36 tank destroyers all built on the basic M4 Sherman design, and thus shared engines, transmissions, parts, and tools. Even the 17-ton M5 Stuart light tank shared some common items.

This standardization lent itself to fairly fast and uniform fleet upgrades. Stateside arsenals provided the M4A3 Sherman with the improved 76mm cannon and the higher horsepower Ford V-8 engine. Front-line mechanics developed the sharpened metal bow forks that uprooted the Norman hedgerows. With winter coming, divisional ordnance teams also installed mass-produced end connector extenders. Sort of the tank equivalent of snow tires, these modifications widened the Sherman’s treads, reducing the ground pressure to 12.4 pounds per square inch, similar to that of the Panther. The troops called these track growers “duck feet.” They’d come in handy in the snowy Ardennes.

Besides having a more reliable tank, the Americans also had better tankers. Rose certainly thought so. “There is no question in my mind,” he wrote, “but what [sic] our gunnery is far superior to that of the Germans.” While a few wily panzer aces still manned the German turrets, by 1944 most of the enemy’s crews consisted of men who’d driven only a few hours or fired but a few live rounds in slap-dash training. The Spearheaders had no shortage of fuel or ammunition to teach new guys the ropes. Rose realized that experienced G.I. tankers learned to go for side and rear shots at less than 800 or more than 1,000 yards. Sometimes it came down to a face-off on a one-lane farm trail. That sort of thing got very sporty.

See first, shoot first, hit first. So preached the old-hand tank sergeants. A postwar U.S. Army study of armor engagements in 1944–1945, including the Battle of the Bulge, confirmed the validity of this mantra. Tank vs. tank fights tended to exemplify the formula Thomas Hobbes ascribed to life expectancy in primordial times: nasty, brutish, and short. The side that got off the first round won, tending to knock out four opponents for each friendly loss. German hits came at an average of 946 yards out. Americans struck their targets at an average range of 893 yards, pretty much the same. The moving vehicle was at greater risk, as motion enabled detection. Stationary defenders hit first in 84 percent of these brief, violent clashes of armor. Winning such quick smash-ups depended on smart, well-trained crews.

The Americans had them. A Sherman relied on the teamwork of five soldiers. Intercoms in their helmets let the men talk back and forth. Two G.I.s worked the hull: the driver, who kept the tank going in the right direction, and his assistant, who manned the radio and fired the .30 caliber bow machine gun. Three soldiers handled turret duties. The loader found the right main gun projectile—armor-piercing, high explosive, or white phosphorus incendiary/smoke—and placed it in the breech; he also fed ammunition to the machine guns. The gunner sighted on the target and fired both the main cannon and its coaxial .30 caliber machine gun. The tank commander (TC) stood high in the turret, usually with his hatch open. He ran the crew. The TC also fired the big .50 caliber heavy machine gun, a weapon that had no German counterpart. The .50 caliber could tear up dismounted troops, shred wooden and masonry walls, eviscerate trucks, and even hole thin armor plate, as on German half-tracks. In a pinch, you could man a Sherman with but a driver, gunner, and TC. Assistant driver and loader were apprentice positions. When the Spearheaders had to retrain infantry replacements as tank crewmen the newcomers normally started in those introductory roles.

Sergeants formed the vast majority of 3rd Armored Division’s TCs. Running a tank absolutely constituted NCO business—blue collar, hands-on, no-nonsense, life and death. The need for quick reflexes, upper body strength, athletic agility in cramped quarters, and endless endurance made tanking a young man’s game. The 3rd Battalion, 32nd Armored Regiment’s Staff Sergeant Lafayette G. “War Daddy” Pool, twenty-five years old in 1944, was considered an elder. Among the greatest of the many fine TCs in the division, Pool earned the Distinguished Service Cross, knocked out dozens of panzers—258 by one count—and had two Shermans shot out from under him before he finally lost part of his right leg in West Wall fighting on September 15, 1944. War Daddy Pool’s experiences provided plot elements for two Hollywood movies, The Tanks Are Coming (1951) and Fury (2014). Not all Spearheader TCs measured up to Pool. But even aspiring to that level set a high bar.

You couldn’t lead men like Pool by babbling on the radio from a heated tent. The sergeant TCs respected officers who fought from a tank. The NCOs expected their lieutenants and captains to lead by example. So, too, with armor battalion majors and lieutenant colonels like Bill Lovelady and Sam Hogan, who commanded from the turret. As Pool’s experience warned, this was an exceedingly risky business. It explains the many Spearhead Division tank battalion commanders killed and wounded as the war ground on.

Above battalion level, armor colonels and generals rarely led from a tank. They had to work with infantry, artillery, engineers, and service troops as well as tank crews. The U.S. Army’s organizational charts offered such senior leaders the choice of an M5 Stuart light tank, an armored car, a half-track, or a peep, plus affiliated security teams. Maurice Rose chose an utterly unarmored quarter-ton peep. The young tank sergeants knew the deal. They respected Rose’s guts. He went where they went. In armored combat, Rose’s way was like playing in an NFL football game wearing only a T-shirt. No matter your speed or savvy, sooner or later, you will get hit hard. But Rose and the TCs never talked about that, and it’s not likely they thought about it, either. That wasn’t healthy.

What was healthy was focusing on killing panzers. See first, shoot first, hit first. With Panthers, go for the flank and butt end. To do so, Rose’s NCOs and junior officers preferred to find a good site, squirrel away, and then bushwhack advancing panzers. Of course, that tactic worked if you knew the panzers were coming. On December 20, 1944, they most certainly were.

“Initiate intensive reconnaissance in the Hotton-Grandmenil sector, to locate the enemy, and to secure a line running east from La Roche to crossroads 576853 [a military map location southeast of Manhay], and to tie in with the 82nd Airborne Division on the left [east] and the 84th Infantry Division on the right [west].” Thus Matt Ridgway of XVIII Airborne Corps directed Maurice Rose to carry out a series of tasks that would be difficult under any conditions but verged on impossible given the 3rd Armored Division’s strength, disposition, and probable opposition.

Hotton and Manhay—these towns mattered. Hang on to them and the Germans couldn’t blitz north to the Meuse crossings. The enemy still might head west, but that was a long, long way to the Meuse River, let alone Antwerp. The forest thinned out with each mile you drove west. And sooner or later, this cruddy Hitler weather would give way to blue skies full of P-47 Thunderbolts. Rose figured all of that out on the dark, wet ride from Stolberg. When he reached Hotton and assembled the division staff in a hotel borrowed to house Omaha Forward, Rose didn’t ask for clever ideas. He gave orders.

With CCA and CCB busy elsewhere, Rose’s truncated division would be hard pressed to defend Hotton and Manhay, thirteen miles apart. So be it. The book said it couldn’t be done. But Maurice Rose chose to see opportunity. The Germans didn’t know how much, or how little, of the 3rd Armored Division stood in front of them. Rose went at it like a cavalry officer. He attacked.

Four task forces prepared for action on December 20, 1944. Each combined 83rd Recon scouts, tank companies, armored infantry, engineers, and self-propelled artillery. Rose picked the commanders. Lieutenant Colonel Sam Hogan of CCR went to the west, aiming to reach La Roche. Major John Tucker of the 83rd Recon took the center route toward Dochamps. Lieutenant Colonel Matthew W. Kane of CCR drove east toward Manhay. As backup, Lieutenant Colonel William Orr waited near Hotton; his battalion task force stood ready to go where needed. As for protecting Hotton town itself, Omaha Way Forward, a.k.a. “Combat Command Smith,” drew the mission. Along with the headquarters soldiers and the 143rd Armored Signal Company, Company E of the 23rd Engineers helped prepare defenses. Nobody else was left to do the job.

Sam Hogan recounted what he and his men had to go on. “The information of the enemy given to us was zero,” he wrote. “This was only a little less than usual.” This time, though, friendly information “was also zero, and this was quite a bit less than usual.” Hogan and his G.I.s anticipated meeting German units as well as displacing U.S. elements. All the Spearheaders expected panzers.

Task Force Hogan didn’t find any. Instead, when they reached La Roche, they met the division trains of the 7th Armored Division. When a reconnaissance team pushed south, they found a German roadblock. The enemy piled thick timber on a blind curve with a steep hill on one side and a drop-off on the other. A hidden antitank gun set afire the first American M8 Greyhound scout car, wounding the crew. With night coming on, that would do it. Hogan pulled his men into a night defensive coil around La Roche. The trains troops from the 7th Armored Division shared rations and cigarettes, a good end to a long day.