Kampfgruppe Carius by David Pentland. (P)
Lake Ricu, Dunaburg, Latvia, 12th – 16th July 1944. Tiger I tanks of Albert Kersher and Otto Carius, of 2nd Company. Heavy tank Battalion 502, detached to help infantry units in the Karasino and Marruga areas to establish a firm front line.
The Tigers Roar, Malinava, Latvia, July 22nd 1944 by David Pentland. (PC)
1st Lieutenant Otto Carius commanding 2nd Company of the 502nd heavy tank Battalion, with eight Tigers, advanced towards the village of Malinava (a northern suburb of Dunaburg), to halt the Russian advance. Following a reconnaissance Lieutenant Otto Carius explained his plan to take the village. He decided to attack using only two tanks because there was only one narrow road leading to the village. Six Tigers therefore remained in the reserve while Lt Carius and Lt. Albert Kerschers (one of the most decorated commanders of sPzAbt 502) tanks moved towards the village. Speed was the essence and afterwards, Otto Carius recalls that the entire battle did not last more than 20 minutes. in this short time, Carius and Kerscher knocked out 17 of the new JS-1 Stalin and 5 T-34 tanks. Following this he deployed 6 of his tanks in an ambush against the remainder of the Soviet tank battalion advancing toward him, unaware of their lead companies demise. Surprise was complete and a further 28 tanks were destroyed along with their supporting trucks and vehicles, the complete battalion had been wiped out for no loss.
Outside Leningrad, the German troops still clinging to their defences closest to the city were in desperate danger. Hitler finally relented early on 20 January and authorised their withdrawal. In some cases, the withdrawal threatened to become a rout. The Soviet offensive continued on 21 January with major attacks towards Krasnogvardeisk and Luga. Küchler desperately demanded that he be allowed to pull back to the Panther Line, but Hitler insisted on a fighting withdrawal – otherwise, he argued, the Red Army would arrive at the defensive line with sufficient strength to force its way through. In vain, Küchler pointed out that his army, too, would suffer heavy losses in such an attritional withdrawal, and would then lack the strength to hold the Panther Line. Although Army Group North received some welcome armoured reinforcements, in the shape of 12th Panzer Division from Army Group Centre and the 70 Tiger tanks of Schwere Panzer Abteilung 502, it remained in a perilous position.
Under heavy pressure in the north, 9th Luftwaffe Field Division lost its commander, Oberst Ernst Michael, on 22 January, and he was replaced by Oberst Heinrich Geerkens, who had commanded the division’s Jäger Regiment 17. Two days later, he too was killed in action. Both men were posthumously promoted to Generalmajor. Meanwhile, with his forces driven out of their dense defensive positions, Lindemann informed Oberkommando des Heeres (the German Army High Command or OKH) that he intended to retreat further. OKH could either accept his decision, he wrote, or send someone to replace him. 13 Although Soviet spearheads continued to reach positions before the retreating Germans, the bulk of the German line fell back intact. The rearguard was made up primarily of infantry commanded by Oberst Paul Wengler of 227th Infantry Division, reinforced by several tanks from Schwere Panzer Abteilung 502. On several occasions, fast-moving Soviet forces cut the road behind them, but the Tiger tanks were practically immune to any light weapons these units could carry, and were able to reopen the line of retreat.
Otto Carius, a Tiger tank commander and one of the greatest German tank `aces’ of the war, recalled defending a village during a long, cold night:
Soon the village was under extremely heavy fire. The Russians had noticed that it was occupied and wanted to `clean up’ the affair before they advanced further to the west. Their methods showed, however, that they certainly didn’t suspect an entire `Tiger’ company in the village.
I saw muzzle fire in the woodline. It moved farther to the right from flash to flash. Those had to be tanks moving along the woodline. They wanted to reach the road at the opposite end of the village. Obefeldwebel Zwetti was in position there.
Behind him was von Schiller’s tank. I radioed to Zwetti. With the help of a flare, I could determine that a T34 was moving no more than 50 metres away from Zwetti. Due to the firing, we couldn’t hear any motor noises. Because of that, the enemy had already made his way to the village. Zwetti shot his neighbour into flames, but we saw in astonishment a second T34 in the middle of the village street, right next to von Schiller.
It often proved fatal to the Russians that they kept completely buttoned up. Because of that, they could scarcely see anything, especially at night. They also had infantrymen riding on the tank, but even they didn’t recognise the situation until too late.
Von Schiller wanted to turn his turret but in the process hit the Russian tank with his cannon. He had to back up first in order to be able to knock it out. I didn’t feel confident enough to shoot. One of the craziest situations I ever experienced!
After Zwetti had finished off another three tanks, the Russians pulled back. Apparently, the losses they suffered were enough. We stayed in radio contact for the rest of the night and could hear the Russians quite well on one channel. That meant they couldn’t be too far from us.
At the break of day, our infantrymen approached the T34 somewhat carelessly. It still stood directly next to von Schiller. Except for a hole in the hull, it was undamaged. Surprisingly, as they went to open the turret hatch completely, it was closed. Immediately thereafter, a hand grenade flew out of the tank and severely wounded three soldiers.
Von Schiller once again took the enemy under fire. Not until the third shot, however, did the Russian tank commander leave his tank. He then collapsed, severely wounded. The other Russians were dead. We took the Soviet lieutenant to division, but he couldn’t be interrogated any more. He succumbed to his injuries along the way.
…I remember how we cursed the stubbornness of this Soviet lieutenant at the time. Nowadays, I have another opinion.
Carius’ opinions of Soviet tanks and their commanders shed some light on how the numerically inferior German forces succeeded in holding their own for so long during the war: Our guidelines were:
`Shoot first, but if you can’t do that, at least hit first.’ The prerequisite for that, of course, is fully functioning communications from tank to tank and also among the crew. Furthermore, quick and accurate gun-laying systems need to be present. In most instances, the Russians lacked both of these prerequisites. Because of that, they often came out on the short end of the stick, even though they frequently didn’t lag behind us in armour, weapons, and manoeuvrability.
…The personal aggressiveness of the commander while observing was decisive for success against numerically vastly superior enemy formations. The lack of good observation by the Russians often resulted in the defeat of large units. Tank commanders who slam their hatches shut at the beginning of an attack and don’t open them again until the objective has been reached are useless, or at least second rate. There are, of course, six to eight vision blocks mounted in a circle in every cupola that allow observation. But they are only good for a certain sector of the terrain, limited by the size of the individual vision block.
Unfortunately, impacting rounds are felt before the sound of the enemy’s gun report. Therefore, a tank commander’s eyes are more important than his ears. As a result of rounds exploding in the vicinity, one doesn’t hear the gun report at all in the tank. It is quite different whenever the tank commander raises his head occasionally in an open hatch to survey the terrain. If he happens to look halfway to the left while an enemy anti-tank gun opens fire halfway to the right, his eye will subconsciously catch the shimmer of the yellow muzzle flash.
…No one can deny that the many casualties among the officers and other tank commanders were due to exposing their heads. But these men didn’t die in vain. If they had moved with closed hatches, then many more men would have found their deaths or been severely wounded inside the tanks. The large Russian tank losses are proof of the correctness of this assertion.