Black Panthers – the 761st Tank Battalion in The Battle of the Bulge

Black Panthers – the 761st Tank Battalion in The Battle of the Bulge Black Panthers
The 761st Tank Battalion in The Battle of the Bulge
With Mike McSwiney

The 761st Tank Battalion was the first African-American armored unit to see combat in the US Army. The courage of the men of this unit – facing not only the German war machine but doing so while facing prejudice and bigotry both at home and from many members of the Army's higher command – is nothing short of inspiring. Because of their heroism and outstanding service record, the 761st Tank Battalion offered an opportunity to create a unique American armored list for the new The Battle of the Bulge compilation.

The Battle of the Bulge
In December 1944 the German forces were supposed to be on the back foot, so their desperate push in the Ardennes took the Allies by surprise. Desperate defence by the American and British Commonwealth forces gradually turned to counterattack as they fought to erase the 'Bulge'.

Learn more about The Battle of the Bulge here...

Battle of the Bulge: Allied Forces on the German border, September 1944 – February 1945

Sources

When creating a new list, I always start with the unit history itself and try to make not only the organization but any special rules characteristics of how the formation actually performed in the field. Fortunately, the 761st has been the subject of several books which have focused on the unit's history on both military and sociological levels.

Unit veteran Trezzvant Anderson published the first full work on the Battalion in 1945 entitled Come Out Fighting: The Epic Tale of the 761st Tank Battalion, 1942-1945, and several other works have followed, including The 761st Black Panther Tank Battalion in World War II by Joe Wilson, Jr. and Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anthony Walton.

While compiling the list, I was also able to consult some extant primary sources detailing the unit's inventory of tanks at key points in the war.

Black Panthers – the 761st Tank Battalion in The Battle of the Bulge
Initially formed in March 1942 as a part of the African-American 5th Tank group, the 761st began with basic infantry training before transitioning to their tanks. Because the Army never actually intended to use the formation in combat (as many senior commanders had no faith in the ability of African-American soldiers in combat roles) the unit would spend the next two years in training and serving as the opposing force for tank destroyer units during their own training. The Battalion therefore had far more experience with their vehicles than any other U.S. armored unit before their baptism by fire in combat.

Black Panthers – the 761st Tank Battalion in The Battle of the Bulge

Despite official misgivings about the use of African-American soldiers in combat roles, the 761st distinguished itself during its years of training with many commanders commenting on the quality of the unit. While at Fort Hood, Texas, the 105mm assault gun section gained a reputation for extreme accuracy, often ranging in with one shot and destroying a target with the second. The commanders were so delighted with their performance, that the section received additional training with the full gamut of ammunition types available for the 105mm. This level of mastery is simulated in the game with the Superior Fire Control rule.
Black Panthers – the 761st Tank Battalion in The Battle of the Bulge Superior Fire Control
The Assault Gun Platoon of the 761st Tank Battalion was legendary for its accuracy. They were often known to range in on a target with the first round and destroy it with the second round. Because of their aptitude, they received several extra weeks of training with all available ammunition types before departing for the ETO.

Sherman Assault Gun Platoons from the 761st Tank Battalion may re-roll their first attempt to range in on a target.

Severe losses during the Normandy breakout created an acute need for combat-ready armored units to continue the advance in France. It was at this point that military need finally trumped racial prejudice, and the 761st was given a chance to prove itself. Arriving in France at Omaha Beach on 10 October, 1944, the unit would not actually see combat until 7 November as a part of Patton's Third Army.

Two ratings: FT and FV

The army lists for the 761st Tank Battalion have two ratings, Fearless Trained and Fearless Veteran, although the Trained version passes skill tests as if they were Veteran. The Fearless rating is representative of the unflinching professionalism and bravery routinely displayed by the unit.

Black Panthers – the 761st Tank Battalion in The Battle of the Bulge

The tankers would advance under fire that had caused other veteran armored units to withdraw. They would leave the relative safety of their tanks and clear obstacles. They would continue to fight even after pieces of their tanks had been blown off by enemy fire. 

Whether a unit is Trained or Veteran in Flames Of War is a function comprising multiple variables, including the unit's actual level of training, experience, the quality of officers, and how a unit was deployed. 

The 761st had more actual training time than any other formation in the U.S. armored corps. For much of this time, the battalion was exceptionally well-led as well. Lt. Colonel Paul L. Bates was a strong officer unencumbered by the racial prejudices so common among his contemporaries. He believed in his men and their ability. Unfortunately he was injured at the outset of the 761st's first battle in November 1944, and immediate leadership fell to Major Charles Wingo, a staunch racist who fled the battle once he realized he was in command. 

Black Panthers – the 761st Tank Battalion in The Battle of the Bulge
Over the next several months the 761st would find itself often commanded by senior officers of questionable quality who would time and again needlessly put the Battalion in harm's way, leading to many unnecessary casualties. This unusual combination of high skill coupled with high losses is analogous to other Flames Of War armies like the First Special Service Brigade and the Hero Tankovy lists. Therefore during the period when the 761st was poorly led by senior command, the list is Fearless Trained, but in recognition of the skill of the individual members of the unit, they pass skill tests as if they are Veterans using the Well Drilled special rule
Well-Drilled
Upon arrival in the ETO, the 761st Tank Battalion was arguably the best-trained tank unit in the American military (Lord knows they’d had enough time to train!). Their ability to out-manoeuvre and out-fight other tank units and even tank destroyer units in manoeuvres is well-documented. Their 105mm battery simply didn’t miss and ranged-in on a target in one round. The members of the unit were expert drivers and could not only cross terrain other tankers feared to tread, if they did bog down, they generally extracted themselves quickly. Unfortunately higher command frequently put the 761st in harm’s way (often unreasonably so), and their casualties were high.

Teams from a Fearless Trained 761st Tank Battalion Tank Company’s HQ, Combat Platoons, and Weapons Platoons pass all Skill Tests on a result of 3+. In addition, when firing Bombardments, they roll to hit as though they were rated as Veteran.

In February 1945, Lt. Colonel Bates returned to the unit and would lead it for the rest of the war. During this time the battalion therefore enjoyed superior leadership and greater success in the field. No longer was the unit put in harm's way heedlessly and needless casualties were reduced. Although the unit received several replacements at this time as well, the overall skill of the unit didn't appear to drop based on their battlefield performance. The unit is therefore rated Fearless Veteran from February 1945 until the end of the war.

Black Panthers – the 761st Tank Battalion in The Battle of the Bulge

In addition to their dedication, the men of the 761st Tank Battlaion were also versatile and adaptable. During training, each crew member of the 761st was cross-trained on all of the different crew positions in the tank so they could cover any combat role if the need arose.

This versatility extended to the platoon level as well, where lower-ranking tank commanders would on occasion commandeer more senior NCO's tanks if they had better tactical knowledge of the battle situation. In recognition of this level of tactical flexibility, the 761st uses the German Mission Tactics rule under the name "I See Them, We'll Fight Them."

“I see ‘em. We’ll fight ‘em.”
Not only was every member of the 761st cross-trained in all tank crew positions, but the initial lack of strong senior leadership led to each member of the 761st being able to take over in a pinch. On numerous occasions even junior NCO’s who lost their tank would commandeer the tank of a senior NCO if they believed they had superior tactical knowledge of the situation. Even after being severely wounded in the leg when his tank was destroyed by enemy fire, Ruben Rivers commandeered a new tank, saying “I see ‘em. We’ll fight ‘em.” He continued to fight on for several days before being killed in action.

Tank Platoons, Light Tank Platoons, and Sherman Assault Gun Platoons belonging to the 761st Tank Battalion use the German Mission Tactics special rule (see page 242 of the rulebook).

Perhaps no one exemplified this spirit better than Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers. Despite losing a tank to a mine, seriously wounding his knee, Rivers simply took command of another tank and continued to fight on despite his injury developing a serious infection. When his unit came under fire on 19 November 1944, he covered his platoon's withdrawal identifying the anti-tank gun firing on them stating, "I see them, we'll fight them." The Germans ultimately zeroed in on his vehicle destroying his tank and killing him. For his heroism, Rivers was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Medal of Honor

Black Panthers – the 761st Tank Battalion in The Battle of the Bulge

The men of the 761st Tank Battalion served with distinction, yet returned to a country that far too often greeted them with discrimination and marginalization. However, their sterling combat record planted the seed that would soon result in the integration of America's armed forces.

In honor of these men, I have tried to compile a list that is different enough from the normal U.S. Armored lists to have its own flavor while staying true to the unit's history. Hopefully you, the players, will enjoy fielding this fascinating unit on the tabletop as much as I enjoyed researching and writing the list!

~ Michael

WWPD

You can read more from Michael about the 761st Battalion briefing on WWPD...