776th Tank Destroyer Battalion

Combat History

The 776th Tank Destroyer Battalion was activated at Fort Lewis, Washington, on 20 December 1941. The unit which served as the basis for its formation was the Provisional Antitank Battalion of the National Guard’s 76th Field Artillery Brigade, which had been called into Federal service (on active duty) in April of the same year.

At the time of formal activation, the 776th’s personnel were Guardsmen from the following units and areas:

Headquarters Company: Battery G, 183rd Field Artillery Regiment; Pocatello, Idaho, as well as individual soldiers from Headquarters Battery, 76th Field Artillery Brigade and from the 183rd and 188th Field Artillery Regiments.

Company A: Battery G, 188th Field Artillery Regiment; Minot, North Dakota.

Company B: Battery H, 188th Field Artillery Regiment; Lisbon, North Dakota.

Company C: Formed in January, 1942, consisting of personnel from the other companies within the battalion.

Recon Company: Battery H, 183rd Field Artillery Regiment; Rexburg, Idaho.

Initially, the battalion was equipped with truck-drawn 75mm guns of WWI vintage. In April, 1942, the Battalion was reequipped with half tracks mounting the same type of 75mm gun on which the Battalion’s soldiers were already highly trained. Additional equipment included 37mm antitank guns mounted on M1937 weapons carriers and .50-caliber machine guns.

M3 Self-Propelled Gun. Nothing more than a half-track with a WWI-vintage 75mm field gun welded to the back deck, this was nevertheless an improvement over the truck-drawn 75s first issued to the 776th upon formation. (US Army Military History Institute)

The Battalion departed Fort Lewis in late July 1942 for further training at Fort Hood, Texas. Fortunately for the soldiers of the Battalion, in November 1942, the M-10 Tank Destroyer was issued to the 776th to replace the primitive and obsolescent weapons with which they had previously trained. With its 76mm gun, the M-10 was, at that time, the most heavily armed armored vehicle possessed by the Western Allies, capable of outgunning all but the newest of German tanks or tank destroyers.

Its men and equipment departed the New York Port of Embarkation on 14 January and arrived in Casablanca, French Morocco, eleven days later. In late February, the Battalion moved to Algeria, and in March, it was committed to combat in Tunisia.

The 776th experienced its baptism of fire at the battle of El Guettar, the first major victory by the US Army against the Germans. Throughout the next two months, often attached to the 1st Armored Division, the 776th saw a great deal of action against the veterans of Army Group Afrika, as they took part in most of the important battles of the Tunisian campaign.

The veterans of the 776th next saw combat in Italy, where they went ashore at Salerno in mid-September 1943. Attached to the 34th Infantry Division, the Battalion conducted extensive reconnaissance and countermine support for the infantry and indirect fire missions in reinforcement of the Red Bull Division field artillery.

Subsequent Battalion operations in Italy included the fiercely-contested assault crossing of the Volturno River, the infamous and costly battle for San Pietro, the crossing of the Rapido, and the legendary battle for Cassino.

After a brief period off the line in March/April, the 776th was attached to the 85th Infantry Division and participated the great drive on Rome. After the fall of Rome, the Battalion supported the 34th and 91st Infantry Divisions and the 1st Armored Division as the Fifth Army continued its offensive up the “boot” of Italy.

In early September 1944, the Battalion was relieved from assignment to Fifth Army and ordered to embark from Naples for France, where it would be reassigned to the Seventh Army. Before the 776th left Naples, however, it was reequipped with the most powerful antitank weapon in the Allied inventory: the M36 “Slugger” tank destroyer, mounting a high velocity 90mm main gun.

776th TD Battalion Slugger, displaying its powerful 90mm main gun. (Informal History of the 776th TD Battalion)

After a two-day passage of the Mediterranean from Nisidia, Italy to Marseilles in early October, the Battalion marshalled and began the movement by train and truck convoy to the front near Lunéville. On 30 October, the 776th was attached to the 44th Infantry Division nearby.

During the transition of missions from the penetration of the Saverne Gap to the pursuit of German units withdrawing toward the Ensemble de Bitche in the Maginot Line in early December, using Panzer Lehr Division Panthers it had previously knocked out, the 776th Tank Destroyer Battalion conducted two evaluations to determine the effectiveness of two common US infantry anti-tank weapons, namely the2.36-inch (60mm) rocket launcher (the “bazooka”) and the 57mm Anti-Tank Gun. The results, which were disseminated throughout the Seventh Army, were important for determining the character of anti-tank defenses to be built in late December, when the Seventh Army was forced to assume a defensive posture later due to the impact of the German offensive in the Ardennes.

As the divisions of XV Corps (44th and 100th Infantry and 12th Armored Division) approached the Maginot Line and the German border in early December, the enemy stubbornly delayed by forming strongpoints around key road junctions. Advancing along the rolling hills where the Saar River plain meets the western edge of the Low Vosges Mountains (on the left flank of the 100th Infantry Division), the 44th was opposed by elements of the 11th Panzer and 25th Panzer-Grenadier Divisions. These experienced, tough German units ultimately occupied positions in pillboxes and forts of the Maginot Line to the west of Bitche.

M36 Slugger of the 776th TD Battalion parked near a badly damaged Maginot Line casemate, December 1944. (An Informal History of the 776th Tank Destroyer Battalion)

The most formidable Maginot position occupied by the Germans in this sector was Fort Simserhof, a major Maginot fortress (gros ouvrage). A combined arms team built around the 44th’s 71st Infantry Regiment attacked Fort Simserhof from 14 - 19 December, and M36 tank destroyers from the 776th TD Battalion played a key role in this attack.

Two destroyers were sited about 2,000 yards from one of Simserhof’s blocs, and were used as 90mm “sharpshooters” tasked with the mission of destroying the enemy ensconced in the impenetrably thick, steel-reinforced concrete fortifications by firing 90mm rounds through the narrow firing and observation apertures. This unusual mission was accomplished by elements of A/776th, even as the rest of the Battalion was performing its more traditional anti-armor missions.

It was during this period that elements of the 776th first provided support to the 100th Infantry Division during its parallel assault on Fort Schiesseck , another Maginot fortress two kilometers east of Simserhof. On 18 December, M36 Sluggers from 3rd Platoon, A/776th fired at a bloc of Fort Schiesseck as Combat Team 398 was continuing its assault, begun on 14 December.

Just after the fall of Forts Simserhof and Schiesseck, all Seventh Army offensive’ operations were halted due to operational requirements generated by 12th Army Group’s reaction to the Germans’ Ardennes Offensive, well to the north. To cover the area about to be vacated by Third Army in their attack north to relieve the pressure on First Army in Belgium and Luxembourg, the entire Seventh Army had to go over to the defensive and shift its positions to the west.

Still supporting the 44th Infantry Division, the 776th took up defensive positions between Sarreguemines and Rimling commencing 22 December. In addition to occasional direct fire anti-armor missions, the battalion fired its 90mm main guns in reinforcement of DIVARTY, 44th Infantry Division.

776th TD Battalion Slugger in hulldown position in the snow, December 1944. (Informal History of the 776th TD Battalion)

Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, the German 1st Army commenced their last offensive in the west, Operation .NORDWIND The 44th Infantry Division was attacked by the 19th and 36th Volks-Grenadier Divisions, and by elements of the 17th SS-Panzer Grenadier Division, heavily supported by armor. Over the next ten days, the crews of the 776th TD Battalion engaged and destroyed Panzer IVs, Sturmgeschütz III and IV assault guns, Hetzer tank destroyers, half tracks, and a wide variety of other German armored vehicles.

A Sturmgeschütz III Assault Gun after a catastrophic kill by a 776th TD Battalion Slugger, January 1945. (NA)

The heaviest action for the 776th occurred on the 44th’s eastern flank, between Rimling and Gros Réderching, where the 17th SS, supported by at least 70 assault guns and a company of Panthers from the 21st Panzer Division, pushed hard to break through to the south and east to encircle the 100th Infantry Division and regain the Saverne Pass.

In this fighting, several units of the 776th were subordinated to the elements of the 100th Infantry Division. On 8 January, 1st Platoon of A/776th was attached to Combat Team 397 and went into action in the vicinity of Rimling, which was being attacked in force by elements of the 17th SS. On the following day, a crew from this platoon, under Lieutenant John C. Britz, knocked out a “Hunting Tiger” (Jagdpanzer VI, or “Jagdtiger”) from Heavy Tank Destroyer Battalion 653, the first such vehicle ever knocked out on the Western Front. This behemoth armored vehicle—at 79 tons, the heaviest ever committed to combat in the 20th century—was completely destroyed by hits from the 90mm main guns of the M36s in A/776th. (Interestingly, in a history of Battalion 653 which appeared in 1997, the veterans of this unit claim that the vehicle was destroyed by a bazooka hit.)

Captain Jack Rothschild, 776th TD Battalion, examines the wreckage of the first Hunting Tiger ever destroyed on the Western Front, killed by the crew led by Lieutenant John C. Britz. Near Rimling, January 1945. (NA)

On the same day, 1st and 2d Platoons of B/776th were also attached to CT 397 and went into action in the vicinity of Rimling. Over the next few days, they covered elements of 2d and 3d Battalions, 397th Infantry, as they withdrew from Rimling, where, for over a week, the infantry had been fighting while surrounded on three sides. In the process, at least one more Panther was destroyed by a B/776th crew, at the extreme range of 3,000 yards.

On 11 January, B/776th was attached to the 398th Infantry, occupying defensive postiions in depth near Guising and Bettviller. This company remained there for the next eight days, providing heavy anti-tank firepower along the Rimling - Rohrbach and Rimling - Petit-Réderching armor avenues of approach, and firing harassing and interdiction missions into Rimling.

Even as elements of the 776th were providing important combat support to the 100th, some of its crews were providing training support that would prove invaluable to the Division in the days to come. Starting on 16 January, one crew from Company A and two from Company B were detailed to train personnel from the 824th Tank Destroyer Battalion (Towed AT Gun) in the operation and maintenance of self-propelled tank destroyers. By March, the 824th would turn in its 3-inch (76mm) towed anti-tank guns with their half-track prime movers, and be reequipped with M18 “Hellcat” tank destroyers; thus equipped and trained by the veteran 776th, they would support the 100th Infantry Division in its drive through the Siegfried Line and across the Rhine, and provide critical support in vicious fighting during the assault crossing of the Neckar River at Heilbronn in April.

By 19 January, the 776th TD Battalion was once again attached in its entirety to the 44th Infantry Division. Its destroyer crews spent the next two months conducting desultory indirect fire missions in reinforcement of the 105mm and 155mm howitzers of the 44th’s Division Artillery.

Finally, on 15 March 1945, the battalion was attached to the 63rd Infantry Division to support its penetration of the Westwall, or as the Allies called it, the “Siegfried Line.” Companies A and C were awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for their part in the furious battle to breach the Reich’s last line of defense on 16 and 17 March 1945.

After a brief rest in late March, the 776th was again attached to the 44th Infantry Division for the final drive across Germany. Between 26 March and 8 May, the Battalion covered hundreds of miles from Fischbach, Germany to Mannheim, Heidelberg, Fohrbach, Ehrbach and Ulm, before crossing the Danube and heading into Austria. V-E Day found the 776th in the East Tyrolian village of Ehrwald, Austria, in the shadow of the Zugspitz Mountain.

In its 550 days in combat, the 776th Tank Destroyer Battalion only supported the 100th Infantry Division for less than two weeks, but they were critical ones. Elements of the 776th provided crucial heavy anti-tank firepower exactly when it was needed most—when the 100th was facing its only major German armored attack in its own six months of grinding combat in the European Theater. However, the highly experienced veterans of the 776th also indirectly aided the 100th by imparting their knowledge gained in the sands of North Africa, the mountains of Italy, and the bitter snows on the edge of the Vosges Mountains to the anti-tank gunners of the 824th Tank Destroyer Battalion, which supported the Century Division during its last two months of combat in Germany.

Hailing mostly from small towns in the Great Northwest and upper Midwest United States, but later including replacements from all over the nation, the citizen-soldiers of the 776th Tank Destroyer Battalion forged a sterling record with which the veterans of the 100th Infantry Division can be proud to have been associated.