The Real Fury: Patton’s Disastrous 1945 Raid to Rescue His Son-in-Law

 

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By the afternoon of March 27th, Baum and his men had made it to Oflag-XIII-B, but had been fighting through the increasing number of German troops most of the way. Only about half his men were in fighting shape, the rest dead, wounded or exhausted.

Still, the unit carried out its mission and began the assault on the camp. Mistaking the grey-clad Serbian prisoners for German troops, they fired rounds into their half of the camp, killing many of them. The German general in charge of the the camp quickly realized they were outnumbered and done for and asked Waters to negotiate an end to the fighting. As Waters and several others approached Baum’s force, a German guard who, understandably, didn’t realize what they were up to, shot Waters in the buttocks.

As the fighting ended and Baum took a gander at the prison, he soon realized there were many more officers than he could take back to Allied territory. He prioritized to officers of higher rank and said that anyone else was welcome to walk beside the column on the return journey or fend for themselves through the countryside. Most prisoners, too weak for such a trial, elected to stay behind. Waters, of course, was now in no shape whatsoever to travel and was being treated by Serbian doctors, including the former chief surgeon of the Yugoslavian Army, Colonel Radovan Danic.

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John K. Waters photographed many years later as a U.S. general

On a dark, moonless light, Baum led his column back towards safe territory. Lights seldom could be used, lest the Germans spotted them. All engines were frequently turned off to hide in silence. Sometime in the night, Germans used a captured U.S. Sherman tank and spoke in English over the radio to lure them in. Though Baum and many were able to escape, they lost four  Sherman tanks of their own to German attacks

Running dangerously low on fuel, Baum ordered his force to stop until daylight, when they could more easily navigate. But as they waited, the Germans encircled their position. Just after dawn on March 28th, as the column readied themselves to drive through hell, shots erupted from every direction.

All was lost in a few short minutes. Baum was shot in the groin and taken to Oflag-XIIIB along with many others. Thirty-two men are listed as killed in action and 247 as wounded, missing, or taken prisoner. Just 35 men made it back to the U.S. position.

With their front lines continuing to collapse, the Germans evacuated Oflag-XIIIB, leaving behind all those who couldn’t walk, including Waters and Baum. Baum’s task force had punched a hole in the German line which allowed U.S. troops to pour in and take more ground, speeding their advance.

Also, the mission distracted German troops, so that Patton’s Third Army was able swing North with greater success than it would have otherwise (another reason Patton claimed he ordered the mission when General Dwight D. Eisenhower furiously reprimanded him for it).

On April 6th, nine days after the raid, U.S. forces liberated Oflag-XIIIB, freeing Baum and Waters. Baum was personally awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by Patton. Any higher-level award would have required an investigation and Patton was more than happy to put the whole incident behind him.

By Colin Fraser for War History Online