Patton’s Last Gamble
The Disastrous Raid on POW Camp Hammelburg in World War II
Stackpole Books, Guilford, Connecticut, 2018, 240 pages
Book Review published on: July 6, 2018
Many view Gen. George S. Patton Jr. as one of the finest generals, warriors, and tacticians this country has ever produced. He served with distinction from 1909 to 1945, fighting in the Mexican Expedition, World War I, and World War II. But despite his war record, Patton’s career is not without controversy. The slapping incident of an enlisted soldier in a field hospital in Sicily during World War II and inappropriate remarks to the media on more than one occasion are just two examples of incidents that cast shadows on an otherwise stellar career. However, it was at the end of World War II, less than six weeks before the Germans surrendered, that Patton arguably made his most controversial decision.
Duane Schultz, a psychologist, U.S. Army veteran, author, and professor, offers a detailed recounting of Task Force Baum’s attempt to liberate several hundred allied prisoners imprisoned at a camp in Hammelburg, Germany, in Patton’s Last Gamble: The Disastrous Raid on POW Camp Hammelburg in World War II. It is not the conduct of the operation that is controversial; it is the reason behind the operation that easily drew criticism from notables such as Gen. Omar Bradley, Carlo D’Este (Patton’s biographer), and then Col. Creighton W. Abrams Jr. (later the U.S. Army chief of staff). You see, Patton believed that his son-in-law, Lt. Col. John K. Waters (later commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific), was imprisoned at Hammelburg. Waters had been a prisoner of war since 1943 when he was captured in Tunisia.
Named for its commanding officer, Capt. Abraham “Abe” Baum, the task force departed on 26 March 1945 with a total of 293 soldiers and fifty-three vehicles. They departed with a shortage of maps, compasses, and gasoline; they would have to capture gasoline to return. Schultz meticulously narrates the forty-hour operation based on over 450 citations and a bibliography of seventeen print and thirty-seven online sources from memoirs, diaries, combat reports, and interviews with survivors. In great detail, he describes the fighting that begins in the town of Schweinheim and ends in the town of Hammelburg, some sixty miles behind enemy lines.
Task Force Baum would not return. They did not liberate any prisoners of war, and all members of the task force would either be killed, wounded, or become prisoners of war themselves. Following the surrender of Germany on 7 May 1945, elements of the Seventh U.S. Army would liberate the surviving members of the task force and the remaining prisoners of war at Hammelburg.
In its aftermath, Patton never publically admitted to knowing that his son-in-law was at Hammelburg. He defended the mission as a diversionary tactic, enabling the Seventh U.S. Army to continue its advance east until Germany surrendered. However, those close to Patton believed that Waters was there. Schultz offers that most historians criticize the mission because it failed to achieve its objectives. Other historians believe that the benefit of the diversionary tactic, the ensuing destruction of German equipment, and resulting chaos and reduced morale of the German forces was all worth the cost. Ultimately, an entry in Patton’s diary is telling: “I can say this, that throughout the campaign in Europe I know of no error I made except that of failing to send a combat command to Hammelburg.”
Students of military history, World War II, and Patton will find the book useful. Readers of all backgrounds will find the book a pleasure to read. The reader who finishes this book will learn more about Patton, World War II, and an obscure piece of its history.
Book Review written by: David D. Haught, Fort Belvoir, Virginia