Sgt. Mike Sovan, a Sherman tank commander, and his men had just crossed the Nied River in France during World War II as part of Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army when their third tank was shot out from under them.
“It was right after Thanksgiving in ’44. A German 88 (cannon) was waiting for us on the other side of the river. They knocked us out,” the old soldier said recalling the deadly fight along the river that ensued after his tank was blown apart.
The high-velocity German 88 millimeter projectile went in one side of their Sherman tank and came out the other side. Three of his buddies died. The lethal enemy gun was concealed along the river bank behind a wall in front of the oncoming 6th Armored Division’s tanks.
“Me and Jonesey, my loader, survived the hit,” Sovan recalled 60 years later. “Jonesey was from South Carolina. He couldn’t read or write, but he was the best damned loader I ever had.
“We jumped out of our knocked-out tank with our grease guns and some hand grenades. We took on the German gun emplacement. Before we hit the 88 we had to knock out the enemy machine gun nest protecting the artillery piece.
“We grenaded the machine gun nest and then we hit them with our grease guns,” he said. “After that we repeated the performance on the 88 crew. There were at least a half dozen Germans working the gun when we hit them.
“The battle was over in a couple of minutes.
“You don’t think much about what you’re doing while you’re doing it,” Sovan said. “When it was all over there were dead Germans everywhere. We sat down on the wall protecting the 88 and shook like hell Jonesey and me.”
For his action at the Nied River — eliminating the German machine gun position and taking out the 88 millimeter artillery piece—Sgt. Mike Sovan, A-Company, 15th Tank Battalion, 6th Armored Division of Patton’s 3rd Army received his first Silver Star.
It had been two years since he lost his first tank at the Kasserine Pass in North Africa. At the time he was a tank commander in the 1st Armored Division that took part in “Operation Torch,” the code name for the invasion of North Africa that began in November 1942.
Gen. Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps were dug in and waiting for the 1st Armored Division in the mountain pass. The “Desert Fox” out-generaled and out-gunned the green American troops. The 1st Armored’s tanks were no match for the Germans tanks with their heavier armor and bigger guns.
“We couldn’t go head-to-head with a Tiger tank. We were in open terrain when our tank got hit by an 88 from a Tiger,” Sovan recalled. “I never saw the German tank when I lost my first Sherman.”
He was lucky during that attack. Sovan and one other member of his tank crew escaped the carnage inside the Sherman. The other three crew members were killed by the enemy shell.
“I’ve got no use for that SOB (British Field Marshal Bernard) Montgomery,” he said emphatically. “He sent us up ahead through the Kasserine Pass like so much cannon fodder while he and his men regrouped and did nothing. We got chewed up by Rommel.”
Shortly after the American 1st Armored Division’s disaster at the Kasserine Pass in February 1943, Gen. Patton took command. The change in the division’s soldiers was swift under the leadership of “Ol’ Blood ‘n’ Guts.”
“It was the difference between night and day in generalship,” Sovan said. “Gen. Patton told his division commanders, ‘If you can’t do it, we’ll get someone else who can.’”
It wasn’t long after that Patton and his 1st Armored Division spearheaded the Allied offensive and ran the Germans out of North Africa. They escaped by ship to Sicily.
Patton was given command of the 7th Army and he followed Rommel to Sicily along with Gen. Montgomery and the English 8th Army. It was the first step in the invasion of the European Continent.
The American general with his armored legions partially encircled the island from the west side. His objective: take Messina, one of the island’s major cities, that was held by the Germans. Montgomery attacked the “Desert Fox” from the east with the English 8th Army.
“We had the Big Red 1, the 1st Infantry Division, with us in Sicily. They were good soldiers,” Sovan said. “We beat that SOB Montgomery to Messina, but I never made it.
“I lost my second tank just before Messina when it was struck by another 88 shell. I was hit in the stomach and arms by shrapnel and pretty well torn up,” he said.
“When I came to I was on an airplane headed for England. I don’t know what happened to the rest of my tank crew. I never saw them again. I spent the next six weeks in the hospital,” Sovan recalled.
When he was released from the hospital he was transferred to the 6th Armored Division in England that was preparing for the D-Day Invasion of Europe. Two weeks after that the first Allied troops hit the invasion beaches, Sovan and the 6th Armored were part of Patton’s 3rd Army that landed along the shore of Normandy, France.
“We were involved in the breakout at St. Lo. The 6th Armored turned south toward Brest. It took us 10 days to cover the 250 miles from St. Lo to Brest, fighting all the way,” he said.
Patton’s army then turned back north across France and headed toward Nancy, which became a major resupply depot for Allied forces in the middle of the country.
“We sat there at Nancy for two months waiting to be resupplied. Gen. (Dwight) Eisenhower took all our ammunition and gasoline and gave it to that damned Montgomery.”
It would be November 1944 before Patton and his 3rd Army started advancing again. This is when Sovan lost his third tank and received his first Silver Star.
“We could lose a tank in the morning and they would issue another one to us by the afternoon. That’s what beat the Germans,” the old tanker explained.
The soldiers of the Third Reich were overwhelmed by American industrial production.
They reached Metz in Southern France by late December ’44 when the Germans went on the offensive in the Ardennes Forrest launching the “Battle of the Bulge.” Before it was over more than a million soldiers on both side took part in the largest enemy offensive on the Western Front in World War II.
The 7th Armored Division took the 6th’s place at Metz. Sovan and his division headed toward Bastogne and the “Battle of the Bulge.” They were sent to rescue the American 101st Airborne Division encircled in the massive German offensive.
“On Christmas Day we were on our way to Bastogne. I was having Christmas dinner in my tank as we rolled along. It consisted of a can of cheese and a couple of biscuits—we called ‘em dog bones.
“When we reached Bastogne we replaced the 10th Armored Division. The 4th Armored had already broken through to the 101st Airborne,” he said.
“I was never as scared in my life as I was at Bastogne. It was freezing and I was afraid of dying from the cold. I don’t know how those 101st Airborne guys survived the cold and the snow in foxholes.”
After the German defeat at the “Battle of the Bulge,” Sovan and the 6th Armored continued advancing from town to town on their way into Germany. The division crossed the Rhine River near Worms. They fought their way through the dragon teeth, concrete pylon-type tank barriers, forming part of the Siegfried Line of enemy fortifications along Germany’s Western border.
It was more of the same for Sovan and his division as they advanced deeper and deeper into the Fatherland. They reached Leipzig, where Sovan received his second Silver Star.
“Leipzig was bristling with anti-aircraft guns. I think they manufactured ball-bearings needed for war machinery. It was loaded with German troops, too,” Sovan said.
Although he doesn’t like to talk about the engagement that resulted in his second Silver Star, Sovan did say, “I put my nose where it shouldn’t have been. We had a patrol that got in trouble. I took my tank out to rescue them.
“We got shot up, too. I don’t know where it came from, but our tank was hit by another 88. Only two of us survived the attack. The other three guys were killed,” Sovan said softly.
He looked down, tightly closed his eyes, grimaced and shook his head. The 88 attack on his tank near Leipzig was a lifetime ago, but it still brought back bad memories for the old soldier.
The 6th never took Leipzig, it bypassed the city and let the infantry solve the problem.
“Patton saw our mission as coming in and disrupting everything,” Sovan explained. “If enemy resistance was too much we went around it. We were to keep going.”
“We sat at the Elbe River for two weeks waiting for the Russians to arrive on the other side. It must have been late April or early May ’45 when they showed up,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe the bedraggled-looking outfits the Russians wore. They had horses pulling vehicles. I don’t know how they ever got to the Elbe.
“When they told us the war was over, you know what we all did? We laid down and went to sleep near the river. We were tired.”
Today he is long retired and lives in a mobile home park in Englewood, Fla. Sovan spends much of his time fishing in nearby Lemon Bay for trout, redfish and snook.
Reminiscing about Patton, Sovan said of his commander, “He was Superman. A lot of people didn’t like Patton, but we did because he got things done. He was gung-ho and that’s what won the war.”
Name: Mike Sovan
Address: Englewood, Fla.
Entered service: 1942
Age: 85 (at the time of interview)
Unit: 15th Tank Battalion, 6th Armored Division, 3rd Army
Commendations: Three Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, Bronze Star with V for Valor, four bronze service stars and a bronze arrowhead for four major battles and a beach landing; North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, Northern France, the Ardennes, Central Europe and Rhineland campaigns, European Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Good Conduct Medal
Spouse: Daisy Finch
Update: Sovan died on July 20, 2004. He was 86.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Wednesday, April 2, 2003 and is republished with permission.
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