Patton’s Last Gamble: The Disastrous Raid on POW Camp Hammelburg in World War II, by Duane Schultz, Stackpole Books, Lanham, Md., 2018, $29.95
Much has been made in recent years of Gen. George S. Patton’s successful rescue of hundreds of Lipizzaner horses from ravenous Soviet troops in the closing months of World War II. Rather less attention has been paid to a similar effort Patton undertook to liberate a POW camp behind German lines. The latter travesty is the subject of veteran author Duane Schultz’s new book.
In late March 1945, within weeks of war’s end, Patton ordered Capt. Abraham Baum to lead a task force 50 miles east of the front lines to liberate American officer POWs held in Oflag XIII-B near Hammelburg in Bavaria. To accomplish his mission Baum was given one company of M4 Sherman medium tanks and one platoon of lighter M5A1 Stuarts from the 37th Tank Battalion, a company of armored infantry, a recon platoon and an assault gun platoon, as well as command and supply elements amounting to 314 men and 57 vehicles. Patton’s aide and fixer, Maj. Alexander Stiller, joined the task force, ostensibly to gain combat experience. That was an absurd explanation, as Stiller had already seen battle in both world wars. Moreover, he outranked Baum, his ostensible commander.
The task force had trouble breaking through German lines, was repeatedly delayed by unexpected concentrations of enemy troops and was ambushed by Hetzer light tank destroyers on the approach to Hammelburg. In the end, two dozen would-be rescuers were killed, the survivors captured, and no prisoners rescued.
Schultz offers two explanations for the bizarre episode, both reflecting poorly on Patton. First, and most damning, was that the general’s goal was not to free any old American POWs, but rather one specific prisoner—his son-in-law, Lt. Col. John K Waters, the husband of Patton’s beloved daughter Bea. In that scenario Stiller went along to identify Waters, as the two had met, not because the elder officer needed combat experience.
Schultz also suggests the raid was Patton’s attempt to one-up his Pacific rival, Douglas MacArthur. Two months before Patton launched Task Force Baum, MacArthur’s troops had rescued 552 Allied POWs and civilians from a Japanese camp near Cabanatuan City in the Philippines. As that theory goes, Patton feared MacArthur’s media star was rising faster than his own and was determined to recapture the spotlight.
Either way, the members of Task Force Baum seemingly suffered and died for Patton’s purely personal motives, arguably the most heinous thing a commander can do to his men.