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Liberation of Belgium, Elements of the 41st Armored Infantry Regiment (2nd Armored Division), enter the city of Soignies on September 12, 1944. (NARA via EUCMH)

By the evening of Sept 15, 1944, Gen Joseph Lawton Collins’ US XIX Corps had established a bridgehead on the east bank of the Meuse River in the vicinity of Maastricht, Holland. Both, Gen Leland Hobbs’ US 30-ID and CCA of Gen Ernest N. Harmon’s US 2-AD had moved into the bridgehead and were ready to advance east. The US 30-ID had the mission of giving flank protection to the US VII Corps, whose attack in the vicinity of Aachen, Germany, constituted the current main effort of the US Forces to the east. The US 2-AD mission was to protect the area west of the Vaart Canal and Combat Command B had begun to advance in the area east of the Meuse River. Between the Vaart Canal and the Meuse River, however, lay a narrow corridor, extending halfway across the US XIX Corps front and completely in enemy hands. Obviously, this had to be cleared out before the US 2-AD could, with safety, continue its advance east of the Meuse. The US XIX Corps ordered the US 2-AD to clear the enemy from this corridor.

At 0500, Sept 16, the mission was turned over to Col Wm. M. Stokes, then commanding the northern force of Combat Command A (US 2-AD). At the time its force had the mission of securing the US XIX Corps boundary on the north and the division’s front along the Vaart Canal. This Combat Group, Task Force Stokes, consisted of the following units:

– HQs Co 66th Armored Infantry Battalion
– 3/66th Armored Infantry Battalion
– Maj Harold D. Hansen’s American Norwegian 99th Infantry Battalion (S)
– 65th Field Artillery Battalion
– one Platoon of Able Co, 17th Armored Engineer Battalion
– a Detachment of Able Co, 48th Armored Medical Battalion

To help Col Stokes with his additional assignment, he was given the:

– 82nd Armored Recon Battalion
– Baker Co, 17th Armored Engineer Battalion

So, Task Force Stokes, as the combined force was called, completely cleared this critical corridor between Sept 16 and Sept 18. This 3-day period caused 918 enemy casualties and suffered only 93 casualties itself. The success of the operation was due to sound planning, good field tactics, and unusually fine cooperation between tanks and infantry. Both tank and infantry commanders agreed on this point. Col Stokes turned over the 82-ARB, Baker 17-AEB, and his Task Force, with the 82-ARB, 1 Plat George 66-AIR, and 1 Plat Able 99-IB-(S), got back to his former mission, the security along the US XIX Corps’ northern boundary and the Vaart Canal. The rest of the Task Force was ordered into assembly areas.

The first pre-requisite was a complete recon of the Vaart Canal for possible crossing sites. Most of it had already been reconnoitered. The job was completed on the morning of Sept 16. It showed that between Maastricht and the northern boundary of the Corps there were two bridges left. An old wooden one at Smeermaas in the immediate northern vicinity of Maastricht which was capable to support heavy armored vehicle traffic. The other one, located at Neerharen had been partially wrecked by the Germans. Infantry in a single file could get across it, but major repairs would be necessary if vehicles were to use it. Col Stokes felt that although he could put tanks across the Smeermaas bridge and thus give the infantry some support from the very beginning, he could not depend on this bridge for his Main Supply Road (MSR). Its wooden construction made it very vulnerable to destruction either by bombs or demolition charges. Furthermore, it was in the middle of a closely built-up town and hence, in Col Stokes’ opinion, presented an easy mark for saboteurs.

The repair of the bridge at Neerharen would have been very hazardous given of the enemy’s ability to observe all movement in its vicinity from the high ground east of the Meuse River. Col Stokes concluded that he would have to install a bridge for his MSR either at Reckheim or further north. Col Stokes considered three possible plans of action:

– 1, the canal bridge at Reckheim and work north up the corridor
– 2, the canal bridge in the vicinity of Lanklaer and advance south to Maastricht
– 3, the canal bridge in the center of the corridor and work part of his Task Force north and part south.

Col Stokes chose the first alternative because he would have friendly troops in his rear instead of hostile forces in unknown strength; he could bring the small force up from Smeermaas to establish a bridgehead east of the canal for the crossing of the bulk of the infantry at Neerharen, and the enlarged force could make a bridgehead in the vicinity of Reckheim large enough for a Tank Battalion to maneuver in. The decision to employ tanks in attacking up the corridor was based on the following considerations:

– 1, tanks were available
– 2, the speedy accomplishment of the mission was essential
– 3, the enemy had had sufficient time to prepare hasty field positions
– 4, the enemy was believed to be holding the corridor in considerable strength because more than 500 troops had been reported to have crossed onto the corridor at Boorsheim on Sept 13 and about 500 SS troops or even more were reported to have recently reinforced the Meeswyck area.

No information on the presence of AT weapons was available, with the exception that recon had failed to disclose any enemy in the narrow part of the corridor at Smeermaas and for 1000 M north thereof. North of this point the enemy’s defenses were unknown except for dug-in machine-gun positions on the reverse slope of the east bank of the canal up to Lanklaer. Since the corridor varied from 30 to 250 M wide for another 2000 M, it was unwise to send any large tank force across the wooden bridge at Smeermaas. As a result of this decision, Col Stokes felt that there were two distinct phases to the reduction of the corridor:

– 1, the establishment of a bridgehead across Reckheim, which would have to be an infantry job primarily
– 2, the attack north of Lanklaer

The latter would have to move fast to prevent hostile reinforcements from coming onto the corridor, particularly at the narrow neck in the center; hence, it would have to be primarily a tank attack. Following this reasoning, the tanks taking part in the attack on Sept 16 and 17, were attached to the 99-IB (S); whereas on Sept 18, most of the 99-IB (S) (Able and Charlie Cos) were attached to the 3/66-AIR. As it turned out, this made little difference in the way in which the chain of command operated.

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