In February 1943, the U.S. Army had its first major engagement with the forces of Nazi Germany, ending with their disastrous defeat at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the ‘Desert Fox,’ had gotten the better of them in what would be his last major victory against the Allies.
Following the engagement, newly promoted Allied Lieutenant General George S. Patton took over command of the U.S. II Corps from Major General Lloyd Fredendall, who was blamed for the battle’s outcome. For Patton, his new command also allowed him to deal with a family problem—his son-in-law, Lieutenant Colonel John K. Waters had been taken prisoner during the battle. It was to be nearly two years before Patton had the chance to free his son-in-law.
It was only in 1945 that Patton was reunited with his daughter’s husband and not before one of the more glaring blunders of his career: a seldom recalled, total flop of a mission behind enemy lines called Task Force Baum.
Task Force Baum was a mission to rescue Waters. Though there is controversy over whether Patton truly knew if his son-in-law was held at the specific POW camp he was sending over 300 men on an absurdly dangerous mission to liberate, the facts and testimony make a strong case that he did. This was a reckless action by any standards.
A letter Patton sent to his wife the day the task force left on its mission, references Waters as being at the POW camp. He also sent his personal aide, Major Alexander Stiller, on the mission, who would have been able to identify Waters.
Patton was in command of the U.S. Third Army, the far right flank of the Allied forces pushing into Germany. By late March 1945, Patton’s troops were crossing the Rhine and the POW camp at Hammelburg was about 50 miles to the East and behind the current German line. As Patton was ordered to swing his forces North, he planned a raid to liberate the camp.
Patton claimed he was worried about the Germans executing the American POWs, but nevertheless, nobody else thought the raid was a good idea. Though he claimed he had approval from his superior, General Omar Bradley, Bradley claimed differently.
Command of the mission fell to Lieutenant Colonel Creighton Abrams, another officer opposed to it, who wanted a regimental-sized force to take on the job. Patton, though, only approved a group of just over 300 men and officers with some medium and light tanks and other vehicles. Captain Abraham Baum, a battle-hardened officer in Patton’s neigh-unstoppable 4th Armored Division, was selected to lead these men to Hammelburg, to rescue about 300 U.S. officers held as POWs, and return.
The POW camp, Oflag XIII-B, at Hammelburg had just endured a brutal winter. German officers and guards hardly had enough coal for their fires to keep their own rooms above 20F (-7C). Prisoners, U.S. and Serbian officers, were on starvation rations and many didn’t even have the strength to walk.
Waters had just arrived in the camp earlier in March having completed a forced march from another POW camp in Poland, 340 miles (547 km) in the freezing cold.
Late on March 26th, Task Force Baum headed out with 303 men, 11 officers, 16 tanks, 28 half-track personnel carriers, and 13 jeeps and other small vehicles. They only had a few maps and not even an exact location for the camp they were trying to find so; progress was very slow through the night and they had to ask directions from locals.
Furthermore, the Germans knew they were there. In fact, they believed the force cutting dozens of miles into their lines was the spearhead of a major U.S. assault. They quickly directed all available troops and armor to the area to hunt them down and fend off the attack.