War is an anonymous pursuit. While a few commanders and generals are emblazoned in the history of the world, the vast majority of combatants in battles through history and around the globe are fought by the nameless and faceless. No one panegyrizes Private Joe Smith. If there was ever a pursuit human beings are good at it’s forgetting. That all said, there was a major tank battle that happened some two months after the Allies invaded Normandy that few even recall. It was called the Battle of Arracourt, fought from the 8th of September 1944 to the 19th of September in a small French town in the province of Lorraine west of the Moselle River. There, many Americans and British and Canadian tankers lost their lives in a battle found no where in US textbooks.
It was an unusual battle in that the technical tank versus tank aspect most decidedly went to the Germans here who had better tanks than the US and the British but were largely outnumbered. “Quantity is a quality all its own,” Stalin said. The few thousand Mark V Panther tanks were coming off the assembly line headed to the Eastern Front. But the Allied advance of 4th Armored Division under General George Patten were moving so fast the Germans had to turn them westward to stem the rapid advance of the Allies pushing to invade Germany proper over the Moselle River.
The Commanders on the one side were the illustrious and strident George S. Patton and Bruce Clarke. On the other side was Von Manteuffel. The Americans and Brits and Canadians were fighting in the M4 Sherman tank, a 35 ton high profile and lightly armored tank produced in good numbers. Manned by a commander, a gunner, loader and driver, the light and agile M4 weighed 35 tons and could travel up to 25 miles per hour. It had 2 inches of steel plating armor, not enough actually to stop any German tank round and fired a short-barreled 75 mm round effective at 800 yards. Facing it was the Mark V Panther tank. It had 3 inches of armor face plating a 76mm high velocity round that could penetrate any M4 armor at 200 yards. The 60-ton Panther was the best tank on the battlefield at Arracourt, just badly outnumbered. Patton knew he was outgunned tank to tank. He also knew he had faster, more maneuverable tanks, air power and anti tank guns and artillery. An M4 on the flank of a Panther could fire a round that would penetrate the side or side armor. So if a lightly armored M4 out maneuvers a Panther it prevails. The Germans made about 6000 Panthers. Most of them ended up on the Eastern Front. The US produced 49,000 Shermans. The Soviets produced 85,000 T-34s. You see, it makes no sense to make every thing perfect at the expense of the mission.
On the 16th of August 1944 Patton sent his 4th Armored division and infantry Eastwards. They raced into attenuated German lines and sent the Nazi’s in full retreat just looking for a place to turn around and fire. It was one of the most rapid advances of a modern Army. Armies fight on their stomach so said Napoleon. Perhaps. Tanks however run on petrol. The Allies made a classic error; they out ran their supply line. Patton’s 500 mile venery across the European theater ran out of gas. So on the 1st of September 1944, the 4th Armored Division had to halt.
Each moment that passed allowed the Germans to regroup and dispose a counter attack. During the five days they waited, the Germans decided they would throw everything they had at the advancing 4th Armored division tanks and troops to force them back to the Moselle. Manteuffel felt if he attacked hard enough with enough surprise he could drive them off.
The Lorraine is a gorgeous pasture, rolling hills and streams and farms and gardens. As a location on the border of France and Germany, it has hosted armies for centuries. In the few months since the Normandy landings, almost 300,000 Germans had died. They lost over 200 tanks and had also lost command of the skies over Western Europe. With roughly 300 Panzers, mostly Mark Vs, the Nazis counter attacked westward to Arracourt.
The Germans were creating new fighting until up to the bitter end. One of them was the Panzer Brigade with Mark IVs and Mark Vs. This unit attacked the Allied in good number on September 19th 1944. They took the Allied tankers by surprise and knocked out dozens of 4th Armored tanks. That day there was low cloud cover and so no help from P-47s or P-51s. However 8 M18 Hellcat anti tank guns knocked out 20 Panzers ambushing the vulnerable Panthers from the side.
On the very next day in clear weather, the US air force 405th Fighter Group decimated the Panthers in Lorraine outside of Arracourt.
At the end of the battle, the US lost 32 armored vehicles. The Nazis lost 85. The Shermans proved no real match for the Panzers. However war is not fought with one weapon. Air cover, tank destroyers, infantry, mines, artillery, these are all the death of tanks. The P-47s and the artillery and the lack of gas and the maintenance problems with German high performance tanks were the death of German armored power in the late summer of 1944.