In the late summer and early fall of 1944, F. Leclerc's 2nd Armoured Division was confidently leading the Allied offensive in Lorraine. Colonel Paul de Langlade was the leader among leaders. His decisive actions threatened German units south of Nancy with encirclement.
The Germans decided to deliver a counterattack to correct matters. Now de Langlade, having scorned his enemy, had to deal with the consequences of his success.
Ready for defense
The Germans sent elements of the 112th Tank Brigade into battle, commanded by Horst von Usedom. The brigade was well equipped: 45 of its 109 tanks and SPG were the picky but deadly Panthers. Various sources count 600-800 infantrymen. The artillery department was lacking: von Usedom only had six AT guns and five howitzers at his disposal.
De Langlade's group was at a decisive disadvantage when it came to tanks. The French had 48 Sherman tanks, 5 light Stuarts, and 11 M10 Wolverine tank destroyers. These were no Panthers, but the French also had four times as much artillery and Allied aircraft ruled the skies. It would be incorrect to treat de Langlade's positions as inherently hopeless.
Two more factors played into the hands of the French tankers. One, thanks to intelligence and reports by locals, they were informed about movement of a large mass of German tanks. Second, it was long since Germany could provide high quality fresh tank units. The 112th brigade was composed of poorly trained recruits who had yet to smell gunpowder. Even with an experienced commander like von Usedom, it was hard to expect a miracle, especially since he made several critical mistakes during planning of the battle. Von Usedom split his tank spearhead, hoped in vain that weather would ground Allied aircraft, and neglected to perform reconnaissance.
On September 12th, 1944, the Germans paid for his mistakes.
The worst is yet to come
These events unfolded near the Dompaire village. The French controlled all hills around the settlement, with the Germans in the lowlands. The first to draw blood was the 4th Tank Squadron led by Lieutenant Jean Bailaud. In a quick engagement, they "traded" one Panther for one Sherman.
At 17:30, near a road from Dompaire to Epinal, a tank column commanded by Jacques Masseux engaged Panthers and German anti-tank guns in battle. Right from the march, the French were able to destroy a German gun. A French M10 named "Simun" snuck up close to the enemy among the trees and burned up a Panther with two shots, and not just any Panther but a command tank. A tank named Corsica also fired on the Germans, but its 75 mm shells ricocheted and a Panther's return fire set it ablaze. The crew received burns, but the fire was put out.
A Sherman named Languedoc engaged two Panthers at the same time at a range of 600-800 meters. The duel started out well, and the third shot knocked out a Panther. Seven shots were fired at the second tank, fruitlessly, while the Panther was able to knock out Languedoc with one shot. "Camargue" also received heavy damage. The French decided to retreat, as the silhouettes of their tanks and tank destroyers were lit up by the explosions. German tanks continued making their way to the hills south-west of Dompaire.
Darkness fell by 21:00. Both sides exchanged shots blindly. The skirmish continued all night. Meanwhile, the infantry entrenched on the wooded hills under cover from tanks and tank destroyers. De Langlade requested air support and received assurance that fighter bombers would take to the skies as soon as the weather improved. Meanwhile, the Panthers pulled up to Dompaire. French artillery fired upon all entrances into the village to discourage them all night, and de Langlade's tanks blocked all possible movement.
The Panthers wended up in a trap. The Germans were still certain they were up against an insignificant enemy force. Instead of trying to break out of the village while enemy aircraft were inactive, the crews of the 112th brigade took cover in warm houses to hide from the rain. No watchmen were posted. As a result, locals were able to contact the French and tell de Langlade about the location and actions of the Germans.
Hell on Earth
In the early hours of September 13th, French infantry with support from five Shermans knocked the Germans out of Lavieville, a nearby village. After that, the troops made their way to Dompaire, which housed the German Panthers. When American aircraft attacked, they indicated targets with flares.
Lieutenant Bailaud recalled that the air raid caused terrible panic among the enemy. Six P-47 fighters took advantage of the fact that the Germans had almost no AA assets and unloaded their rockets at the panicking soldiers, dropped Napalm and strafed them with machineguns. The planes even attacked tanks that were camouflaged in orchards or hidden in sheds, as even they were spotted by infantry.
Surviving Panthers attempted to retreat to the south-east, towards Damas, but their path was blocked by four M10s commanded by Lieutenant Morris Allong. M10 "Storm" knocked out a Panther with three shots from a kilometer away. The second Panther noticed the tank destroyer and approached to 300 meters to fire. M10 "Thunderstorm" rescued its friend, setting the Panther ablaze with two shots. The crew of Sherman tank "Armagnac II" distinguished themselves in this battle, one of the few that had a 76 mm gun. It alone faced four Panther tanks, driving south-east of Dompaire. Fire from 1500 meters proved ineffective. Taking cover behind buildings, the tank halved that distance and came in from the flank, burning up two Panthers. During that battle, Armagnac's crew fired about 70 shots.
French howitzers rained 250 shells on the Panthers and infantry that attempted to climb the hill. Senior Sergeant Andre Thomas (2nd battery, 40th North African Artillery Regiment) recalled: "I noticed a Panther between the trees on the road to Epinal. Our gun made its first shot. Then another, then a third... The German tank deployed a smokescreen and aimed for the railroad embankment. We kept shooting. I saw a flash and the tank caught fire... but later it turned out that one of the M10 crews claimed that Panther."
At 15:30 on September 13th, aircraft hit German tanks again. When the planes left, the remaining Panthers tried to break out east from Dompaire. A warm welcome was prepared for them. The north and eastern outskirts of Dompaire were controlled by three M10s and two Shermans, hiding in the cemetery. The Shermans fired first. One German tank took a hit to the turret and was engulfed in smoke, the crew of another lost their cool and abandoned a perfectly functional tank. M10 "Mistral" joined in, adding one knocked out Panther and one burned up one to their tally. A third tank tried to hide behind trees, but took two hits and rolled into a ditch.
Soon after the Panthers attempted another breakthrough eastward. This time, another "windy" tank destroyer, "Sirocco", excelled. With four shots, its gunner knocked out two tanks. The third got away, cloaked in a smokescreen.
How did the remaining tanks of the brigade fair, the 46 PzIVs? Turns out, not much better.
The PzIVs were supposed to deliver an attack through Ville-sur-Illon. In the early afternoon, de Langlade's HQ received a call from a woman who introduced herself as Julietta la Rose. She told him that many German tanks with infantry were moving out towards Ville-sur-Illon. De Langlade understood that they were aiming for the rear of the troops that encircled Dompaire and urgently sent a group of M10s and Shermans to Ville-sur-Illon.
Two Shermans took up positions in the fruit orchard south-west of the town. One of them was knocked out while changing positions. The Allies were left with two tanks, the same number of tank destroyers, and a couple of Jeeps with machineguns. "A shot, second, third. The best shot was fired from 3000 meters. The shell hit a PzIV right as it was leaving the forest. Over a dozen German tanks advanced across the field. Our hidden M10s opened fire. The Germans fired back, but not one shot hit the mark."
Having lost seven tanks, the Germans decided to retreat, even though they still had the numerical advantage. Instead of tanks, they sent grenadiers with anti-tank rockets. In this critical moment, the Jeeps covered the tankers.
At 16:00, American airplanes were seen in the sky. Even though they spent their rockets attacking Dompaire, they still had enough .50 cal rounds to shower the Germans with. The enemy retreated, but renewed the attack at dusk and entered Ville-sur-Illon. They did not go further since word reached them about the catastrophic defeat of the Panther battalion, their main force.
Meanwhile, ask darkness descended on Dompaire, French infantry scoured the city, blowing up intact tanks hidden in sheds and capturing surviving tankers and infantrymen.
September 13th, 1944, was a complete disaster for the German 112th Tank Brigade. About 350 dead, 1000 wounded, and several lost guns, not to mention the tanks. The situation was nightmarish even by German records: "On September 13th both tank groups lost 34 Panthers and 26 Pz.Kpfw. IV" Colonel von Luck wrote. French losses were negligible in comparison: 44 dead, 2 Stuarts and 6 Shermans lost. The battle at Dompaire was a black record for the Wehrmacht. On September 13th they took the heaviest losses of any single day of fighting on the Western Front in 1944-45.
Original article by Stanislav Chernikov.