American Knights: The Untold Story of the Men of the Legendary 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion, by Victor Failmezger, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, U.K., 2018, $16
When the United States entered World War II, the ground forces it deployed to Europe faced a revolutionary combat threat: Germany’s tanks, which had played a large role in overrunning Poland in just three weeks and crushing France with relative ease.
The U.S. Army’s answer was to create a wholly new specialized unit, christened the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion. Once the unit had developed its doctrine, training and equipment, the Army hurled it into the breach in North Africa and then into Europe to help Allied forces confront the Panzerwaffe.
Drawing on previously unpublished letters, memoirs and diary entries, retired U.S. Navy officer Victor “Tory” Failmezger relates the history of the unique unit through the eyes of nine soldiers who served with the 601st in Europe. One of the nine was the author’s uncle, Army Lt. Tommy Welch, and it was Failmezger’s discovery of some 150 of Welch’s wartime letters home that served as the genesis of his book.
Failmezger details the formation of the 601st, the unique training it undertook, the weaponry it used—primarily the iconic M10 tank destroyer—and, finally, the unit’s tooth-and-nail fight across North Africa, north into Italy and France, and then deep into Germany.
American Knights is packed with more than 80 photos, many of them personal images belonging to the families of 601st troops, though their reduced print size makes it difficult to fully appreciate them. Another minor complaint is Failmezger’s fondness for reams of statistics, lists and other minute details, resulting in dense stretches of dry text. Regardless, the narrative shines through with generous servings of the experiences of the soldiers of the 601st, told in their own words.
“I’m firmly convinced that someone is looking after me these days, because if there weren’t someone, I’d sure be wearing a halo now,” Welch wrote home after the 601st pushed into Italy and saw bloody fighting near Monte Cassino.
American Knights ably fleshes out this unique chapter in the annals of U.S. Army armored warfare, and Failmezger includes several interesting appendices, including comments from 601st troops on the combat performance of their mainstay M10 and a coda detailing the postwar lives of the book’s nine principal voices.