The Untold Story of the Men of the Legendary 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion
Osprey Publishing, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2015, 352 pages
Book Review published on: March 30, 2017
In February 1944, German forces attempted to expel Allied units that had established a beachhead in the vicinity of Anzio, Italy. The American Fifth Army was attempting to envelop the German Tenth Army with the seaborne assault at Anzio and it was critical to maintain this foothold. In the Third Infantry Division’s area of operations, the eastern half of the beachhead, Lt. Tom Welch and his crew singlehandedly defeated a German armor attack by destroying five Panzer Mark IVs with their M10 Wolverine tank destroyer. Their effort, as well as many others, defeated the German offensive. It was an audacious victory, but the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion’s tour was far from over.
Victor Failmezger recounts this and many other battles in the book American Knights, which tells the story of the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion. The battalion moved and fought from North Africa, through Italy, France, and Germany, and finally to Austria. The tour lasted 550 days; the battalion participated in four amphibious operations and ten campaigns by the time Germany surrendered. Failmezger describes the battalion’s journey through the stories of tankers, including Welch, Sgt. Boriello, and Sgt. Nowak. There are others, and their accounts address the typical routines and hardships in addition to the tense moments of battle they faced when countering German Panzers with their tank destroyers.
The book engages the reader with its accounts of the battalion and other U.S. Army forces that took the long way to Germany. Failmezger does a nice job giving historical context to the soldiers’ stories, explaining events at the tactical, operational, and strategic level, as well as providing sketch maps to help the reader understand and visualize the 601st Battalion’s operations. The author also provides several appendices on the battalion’s equipment and organization, the tankers’ opinions on their tank destroyers, and the Germans’ tanks and assault guns they fought against. The tankers’ accounts are excellent, however, there is limited discussion on how their tactics evolved through the war. This was a missed opportunity, which may disappoint some readers, since tank destroyers were in existence for only a few years in the Army’s history.
While the accounts of battle are the centerpiece, the book is a testament to the U.S. military’s impressive logistical and transportation efforts during World War II. With the east coast of the United States more than 4,500 miles away, the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion was reliably sustained through two theaters of operation, able to move 2,400 miles by land and sea. They also went through two major equipment changes; they fought with the M3 Gun Motor Carriage in North Africa, then were up gunned to the M10 for operations in Italy and France, and transitioned to the M36 just before going into Germany. The level of support was remarkable given the fact that the U.S. military simultaneously sustained operations through Normandy and the Pacific Theater of Operations.
Overall American Knights is an excellent book. At first glance, it appears to be an interesting account of tank destroyers in World War II, but it become more than that by the second chapter. Readers will be impressed with the battalion’s actions in battles at El Guettar, the Vosges, Colmar, and Nuremberg, and inspired by the men who persevered through these events.
Book Review written by: Dirk C. Blackdeer, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas