It was in the last weeks of the War, in April 1945, that one small detachment, Commando Unit DORA II of the SS 500th Bewahrungs Battalion, fought its last and most memorable battle. To overcome the shortage of trained infantrymen and of adequate weapons in the months and weeks of Germany’s military decline more and more use was made of small groups of dedicated, hard and skilful men who were prepared to undertake operations of the most hopeless sort to help save their native country. The name of one of these men, Otto Skorzeny, was, to his contemporaries in the German Army, synonymous with cool bravery and daring. This account, however, is not Skorzeny’s but that of an SS company which had formerly been part of his commando battalion. This had been split up to form a closely woven network of small groups charged with the task of blocking the advance by the Red Army, as it made that great thrust towards Berlin which STAVKA intended would end the war in Europe. Separated from the parent SS commando, the next step had been the conversion of this assault company into a para-commando and then into an anti-tank company. These were not, however, conventional gunners with conventional anti-tank guns but a group of determined tank hunters, individual destroyers of enemy machines who went out with hollow charges and other close combat weapons to launch themselves at the Soviet vehicles, to clamber onto the moving machines and to plant their explosive charge firmly so that it exploded and destroyed its victim. There were other methods of killing the Red armour of which a favourite one was to rise from the ground, to stand in a wave of tanks, to select a victim and then to smash it with the missile from a single-shot rocket launcher.
The soldiers who, in this particular account, carried out this type of dangerous mission were men of long experience and years of combat on the Eastern Front. They were led by Untersturmführer Porsch. Born in 1924, he had joined the Waffen SS in 1941 and before he was nineteen years of age was a Company Commander who had been awarded the Iron Cross First Class. The actions which are here recounted won for him the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross to add to the other visible emblems of his bravery. On his upper left breast glittered the assault badge in gold and on his right breast pocket was the German cross in gold. Then there was the golden badge for close combat, a mention in the Army’s book of honour and no fewer than four tank destruction badges.
In the fighting which marked the last days of April 1945 in Brandenburg the heights of Seelow were lost to the Germans, and the Russian forces, following the classic Blitzkrieg tactics, had probed for and found a gap through which their tanks had driven and had by-passed the few remaining pockets of German resistance in and around the town of Seelow. One of those pockets was that which held the DORA II and soon it had become clear from the volume of Russian fire as well as from its direction that the SS unit was outflanked and in a salient. The Soviet spearheads were now far to the west and to destroy this remaining opposition in Seelow part of an armoured regiment of JS tanks and T 34s was sent in.
A Red tank squadron charged with the tanks fanned out, and far beyond the range of DORA II’s close quarter weapons opened fire upon the SS detachment. The commander and his grenadiers accepted the losses which the Soviet tank gun and machine gun fire inflicted upon them, holding themselves ready for the time when the great machines would approach to within killing distance. Porsch named his men, allotted to them the tank they were to destroy and then the two groups of combatants met in battle. On the one side the human with his explosive charge or rocket launcher, whose only defence was mobility, against, on the other side, an opponent heavily armoured and strongly armed.
One JS tank which rolled towards the small group of men who made up the company headquarters suddenly swung on its tracks, halted and began to burn. A Panzerfaust had torn into its vitals and fire consumed the vehicle so quickly that none of the crew escaped. This first ‘kill’ was the signal for a general mêlée as the men within the tanks and the men outside them fought to destroy each other.
A sudden change of direction was made by the Russian commanders aiming to take DORA II in flank but this failed when their machines were caught and destroyed by Skorzeny’s group holding position on Porsch’s right. Vehicle after vehicle stopped, ‘brewed up’ or blew up. In Porsch’s company area six were on fire and the remainder pulled back to allow waves of Red Army infantry to storm forward, hoping to achieve the victory which the tanks had been unable to gain.
The MG 42s whose rate of fire had been increased to over 2,000 rpm came into action, swinging backwards and forwards along the brown-coated files, smashing the cohesion of the attack and destroying it before the assaulting Russian regiment had had time to shake out into tactical formation. The killing was prodigious and the survivors of the crumpled Red battalions pulled back and withdrew out of range of this small group of determined defenders.
For the outflanked German groups in the salient there was only one course of action and the exhausted detachments were pulled back, but not to rest. DORA II was ordered to move on Lebus and there to attack a Soviet tank group which was concentrating around the town. The road forward was choked with retreating troops and columns of refugees who hindered the advance so that it was not until just before dawn that the small SS column of men and machines reached the objective; they had arrived too late. The town had fallen and under the relentless pressure of massed Soviet tank assaults DORA II and its flank detachments were pushed further and further back. But there were successes even on that black day.
The company scored its 100th kill and Porsch his twelfth and thirteenth victims. At nightfall the detachment rested in a farm set some 300 metres behind the main German firing line which was held by men of a dozen, mixed sub-units separated from their parent bodies. At some time during the night the front line was driven or taken back and Porsch was awakened to the news that his unit was now almost alone, was unprotected and that the farm courtyard was full of Russians. These were killed and then a cautious reconnaissance showed the village to be empty of all German troops except for a detachment of about eighty assault engineers who joined forces with Porsch’s 100-strong company. This mixed group filled the gap and formed a temporary battle line. Later again during the night a group of grenadiers from the Dutch SS Division Nederland came up as reinforcements and with this increase in strength the German commander felt his group strong enough and they struck forward in a counter attack.
The company continued to score victories. The 125th victim was gained and Porsch destroyed his seventeenth. Other attacks by the German group pushed back the Russians in the Neu Zittau area and during one thrust on 20 April Porsch and his men, mounted on bicycles, smashed through the Soviet line held by a whole battalion, reached and then captured its headquarters staff of fourteen officers and some women.
On 26 April Porsch was informed that he had been awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross and as if to set a seal upon this decoration he destroyed with Panzerfaust and machine pistol fire a pair of Russian anti-tank guns which had sought to halt his company’s advance. Later during that day his bicycle- mounted troops, accompanied by a handful of men from the SS Division Frundsberg made a swift assault upon a battery of mortars whose fire was particularly destructive and wiped out most of the Soviet battery. Eight mortars were captured.
The very success of the advance which the SS group had made was its downfall, for then it once again formed a small salient which was under constant and heavy bombardment. Then Soviet troops cut the neck of the salient. By this stroke the German force became a pocket, cut off from the main body and surrounded on all sides by the Soviet enemy. The defiance which it still maintained attracted to it soldiers from every type of German front-line unit and of every rank: men who had been cut off from their own formations. Women and children, old and young entered into this tiny enclave of German-held territory, enduring the bombardments, the aerial assaults, the privations and shortages and often sharing with the soldiers the common end of death. The civilians would endure anything just as long as they could stay with the pocket now trying to fight its way through line after successive line of Soviet defences. Death and wounds continually reduced the number of fighting men. The dead were hastily buried and then the pocket rolled on to meet and overcome in fierce fire fights some new Russian obstacle between it and the main German line.
Pressure built up as the Red Army closed its fist around Porsch’s little SS group, reduced now to only forty-eight men. Between Markisch-Buchholz and Töpchin the last act was played out when a Soviet infantry battalion invested the group. In such a hopeless situation surrender was the only logical military decision and the officers of army units in Porsch’s sector decided to capitulate. The SS commander put the situation very cogently to his men: “We can none of us expect to emerge alive from this situation and to be taken prisoner is the only way out. If any man wishes to surrender along with the army group he is free to do so and I shall not condemn him as a coward.” No man of DORA II made a move to join the Army soldiers and the young commander, deeply affected by this display of loyalty, went from man to man shaking each warmly by the hand.
The soldiers of the Army unit moved off waving their white flags; the civilians had already been dispersed and now on the stricken field of Töpchin only the SS remained. Seven of them fell in the first of a series of attacks which the Red battalion then launched. At the end of the second Soviet assault eighteen of the group had been killed. All day the noise of battle echoed across the open fields of Brandenburg but by last light the Red infantry and artillery had still not subdued the defiant SS.
First light on 28 April opened with a mortar barrage and at 09.00hrs the Soviets, considering that the time had come to administer the coup de grâce to DORA II, sent in their battalion, only to have it driven back once again. But no success against the Soviet battalion, no Russians drawing back from the fury of German gunfire could disguise the fact that the end was now very near. One SS man, his legs shattered by bomb blast, bade his comrades goodbye and blew his life away with a hand grenade. A mortar bomb destroyed three more of the little group and, in another shell hole, two more badly-wounded men ended their lives by committing suicide.
The Soviet battalion was re-organised and under a mortar barrage came in again to the assault. A quick check among the SS men showed that only one round of ammunition remained. Its owner shook hands with the survivors of the little group for the last time, raised a pistol to his temple and fired. Although there was no more ammunition left Porsch still chose to attack. Not for nothing had he gained the nickname of ‘Old man forwards’, and he led his last eleven men into their final assault, to meet oncoming Red infantry.
The SS men followed Porsch’s upraised Volkov staff as they had done for so many years and then the struggle was hand to hand as the last eleven closed with the Russians. Porsch’s staff rose and fell as it smashed the heads of his opponents and he cut a path through the Red Army men. Then he was down. It was all over but there still remained one last defiant gesture. Porsch and those of his group who still remained alive secured from the Soviet commander permission to bury their dead. In a final act of comradeship these were laid, in SS fashion, side by side; their faces to the rising sun and with their weapons at their side. To conclude the little ceremony the final few of DORA II sang the SS anthem, and then, turning, they trudged off into the grey anonymity of a prisoner-of-war camp.