“They formed a pitiful spectacle: eight hundred POWs who had spent forty-five days being shuffled across Germany from camp to camp during the coldest winter in living memory. They carried rough wool Wehrmacht blankets rolled around their emaciated bodies, backpacks made from old Hessian sacks, homemade portable stoves, and each other as they hobbled into the American compound at Hammelburg. … They were veteran Kriegies from Oflag 64 in Szubin, Poland, who had walked more than three hundred miles to reach Hammelburg.”
That’s the introduction given us in The Longest Winter by Alex Kershaw as he prepares us for the subject of Today’s History Lesson.
Leading these men was Colonel Paul Goode, who had been captured in July of 1944 in Normandy after surviving the heavily contested landings of Overlord’s Omaha Beach. Conditions for the men in Stalag XIII (no, not this Stalag XIII) were terrible. Poor sanitation led to dysentery as surely as the poor diet led to malnutrition. Mix in the brutal cold that often left the men’s barracks at around 20°F, and it’s easy to see that these men were ripe for rescue.
And that’s what General George Patton decided he wanted done. Recent rescue missions carried out in the Philippines at places such as Los Banos and Cabanatuan (which we’ll discuss next year) had seen remarkable success, and the often irascible general believed he could do better. He bragged that “this is going to make MacArthur’s raid on Cabanatuan peanuts!”
The mission ended up an unmitigated disaster, though it really wasn’t the fault of Captain Abe Baum, who had overall command of the operation. Task Force Baum (as it came to be called) had to travel 70 miles behind enemy lines with a relatively undersized force of 16 light and medium tanks, two dozen half-tracks, and about 300 men.
The mission began on March 27, 1945, which was just a few days after the idea was hatched. That meant “minute” logistical details didn’t get worked out. Little things like the actual location of the camp (locals would have to provide that information), how many prisoners were actually in the camp, and assembling a force big enough to deal with a local German counterattack. But other than that…
Task Force Baum actually made it to the Stalag that afternoon, but arrived at just half strength because the time required to find the camp meant it was exposed to more enemy fire than expected. And once the remnants arrived, they found not just the 300 officers they were supposed to rescue, but hundreds of additional prisoners, most too weak and sick to walk. They loaded up as many of the officers as possible, and told the rest to follow as best they could.
The task force didn’t begin its return trip to American lines until after dark, by which time the Germans had begun to descend on Task Force Baum. And then came the worst possible outcome, as the Germans eventually surrounded Baum’s forces. The resuce mission scattered, losing all of its tanks and having most of its men captured (or in the case of the freed POWs, recaptured).
And of course, it wouldn’t have been a Patton-sized mission without some level of controversy, and this had that aplenty. There is solid evidence that Patton knew one of the prisoners in Stalag XIII was Lt. Colonel John Waters, his own son-in-law. The logical conclusion is that Patton ordered this rescue mission, putting the lives of hundreds of men in danger, simply for the sake of one man.
In the end, no one was rescued, a bunch of good men were killed or captured, and Colonel Waters (who was wounded in the rescue attempt) couldn’t even leave the POW camp and had to be left behind. And what’s more, elements of the 14th Armored Division arrived in the area less than two weeks later, freeing many of the men.
It was just a bad decision by a General known for taking risks that sometimes worked really well and occasionally didn’t. He had promised Captain Baum a Medal of Honor for pulling off the mission. Of course, once the mission failed, Patton (desirous of avoiding the investigation a Medal of Honor required) gave his Captain a Distinguished Service Cross. He also earned a stern rebuke from an angry General Eisenhower for himself.
Recommended Reading: The Longest Winter