Command HQ 5. Panzer Army, 26 August 1944. From left to right: SS-Oberstgruppenführer and Panzergeneraloberst of the Waffen-SS Josef “Sepp” Dietrich (Oberbefehlshaber 5.Panzerarmee), Oberst iG Rudolph-Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff (Chief of the General Staff 7.Armee ), Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model Oberbefehlshaber West/ Heeresgruppe B, General der Panzergruppe Heinrich Eberbach (Oberbefehlshaber 7.Armee).
The Soviet High Command, belatedly realising that it faced a crisis, ordered counter-attacks to be mounted by troops outside the salient and by units inside it. The Command was determined to break the German ring and to open a passage through which the forces, encircled and trapped, could escape. But each succeeding day the German armoured ring was thickened and the Red Army’s efforts came to naught.
For the attack to be made at 0700 hours on 1 September, the corps commander ordered that his Panzer divisions advance and strike shoulder to shoulder. The motorised infantry led the assault, with the Panzer regiments on either flank and the anti-tank guns in the centre. The armoured wave met no serious opposition until it approached the tactically important road and rail bridges across the Essmayn river. The storm of fire from the Russian artillery struck the Germans and smashed their first assault. The armour withdrew, regrouped and then came on again.
Made aware from captured documents that one of his Panzer groups was striking near the junction of two Red armies, Guderian moved the two Panzer divisions of the 24th Corps and set them the task of smashing the Soviet front. The 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions stormed through the gap that had been created and by the middle week of September had completed the encirclement. Thereafter came the destruction of the Soviet forces, and this was aided by Stalin’s blundering order that the million Red Army men trapped in the salient were not to withdraw. No fewer than 665,000 of them were taken prisoner.
The Kiev operation had proved that Blitzkrieg worked well, and if there is one criticism of the operation it is that there was a weakness in the supply chain that allowed the Panzers to run dry and thus immobilised them. Against a flexibly minded army such an error would have been disastrous, but the Red Army at that time was rigid in thought and action.
After the capture of Konotop, Eberbach’s unit was given a rest period of six days and then, on 30 September, received orders to drive northwards and to capture Orel. The first town en route to that objective was Essmany, and during the drive to take out this place Eberbach’s brigade met and destroyed a major Red Army tank detachment. Then the advance continued on to take out the next target, the town of Ssevsk. As his armour drove towards the objective, Eberbach saw that the approach road was lined with anti-tank guns. He directed the fire of his Panzers with such success that they had soon broken down the opposition, had taken Ssevsk and had gained the objective given them—Windmill Hill. The brigade commander issued orders for the advance to be continued towards Dimitrovsk by a small battle group while he regrouped the main body.
The 13th Red Army had been attacked because it posed a serious threat to the flank of Guderian’s Panzer group. Its units were concentrated around Briansk, an important road and railway communications centre. Not only was it a road and railway hub, it was also a jump-off point for the German attack on Moscow. The 24th Corps broke through the front of the 13th Red Army in fine and dry autumn weather, and the 4th Panzer now took the lead in the pursuit battle that followed. The fuel situation was critical and the question was mooted whether Corps should continue to harry the Russians or whether it should concentrate, regroup and refuel. The corps commander and the commander of the 4th Panzer Division both advised Guderian to halt and regroup, but when he spoke to Eberbach on Windmill Hill he received a fresh and contradictory viewpoint from the brigade commander.
Guderian opened the discussion with the remark that he had been told that Eberbach’s Panzer brigade was having to halt. Eberbach responded that he was in pursuit of a fleeing enemy and that in such a situation one did not halt but continued to pursue the foe. In response to Guderian’s question on fuel supplies, Eberbach assured his superior that he had enough. Every vehicle driver had set aside a small reserve for such a contingency, and his brigade would continue to chase the retreating enemy. Assured by Eberbach’s confident words, Guderian ordered the pursuit to continue. The tanks of Eberbach’s Panzer brigade and the other machines of the 4th Panzer Division covered 130km during the day.
By 3 October Orel, a full 200km behind the Red Army’s front line, had been taken by Eberbach’s men. So unexpected was the arrival of the Panzers in Orel that the trams were still running and soldiers in the streets did not fire upon the German column. Then the weather changed. During the night of 6/7 October the first snows of winter fell, and by the following morning a thaw had melted the snow and thick mud covered the ground.
The advance then continued, and Mzensk fell to Eberbach’s Panzers. On the road that led towards the town the Soviets had placed a blocking force of a brigade of tanks, KV heavy vehicles backing and supporting a mass of T-34s. The battle was a hard one, and it soon became clear that Eberbach’s brigade would be outflanked and might be encircled. During the fighting his command vehicle was hit and the crew had to bail out. They walked through the explosions and fury of the battle carrying their wounded with them.
On 22 October Eberbach was given command of the 8th Panzer Regiment, which was reinforced with an armoured battalion taken from the 18th Panzer Regiment. The battle group was given orders to take Tula. Eberbach moved his group by night and it struck into the back of the Russian defenders of Mzensk, smashed a Red tank armada and by employing superior tactics destroyed the superior Russian force. When news of the victory was reported to Guderian he increased Eberbach’s battle group with elements from the 75th Artillery Regiment, the 3rd Rifle Regiment and the whole of the ‘Grossdeutschland’ Infantry Regiment. He issued the order to the reinforced battle group that it was to stop for nothing but must capture Tula at best possible speed.
By now the autumn rains had set in, but despite the adverse weather conditions Eberbach used the road northward to gain the objective. Whole detachments of his command lay immobile, trapped in the thick slime. By 28 October the battle group lay only 4km outside the town, and Eberbach proposed to seize it in a night operation. But his proposal was rejected and the attack did not roll until 0530 hours on the 30th. The delay in mounting the operation had given the Soviets time to strengthen their defences, and the first Panzer attack gained only half a kilometre of ground before a mass of anti-tank fire forced it to halt. Then, through the smoke of the Red artillery bombardment, the first wave of T-34s rolled towards Eberbach’s battle group. The fighting between the Russian armour and the German Panzers lasted all day, and even when the Stukas were brought in the losses they suffered halted any further air attacks. The battle group went over to the defensive.
The wastage in these defensive battles was such that by mid-November the units of Eberbach’s command had sunk from a nominal strength of 300 machines to less than 50. In addition to Russian defensive fire, the bitter cold—minus 22 degrees was recorded on 13 November—immobilised the German formations. Despite these disadvantages, Eberbach took up the attack again and his group fought its way into Uslovaya and then to Venev. Moscow was now only 60km distant. The temperature sank to minus 40 degrees and, despite the biting cold, the attack was carried on until 3 December, when the Tula-Serpukov road was reached and cut.
It was the final, dying effort. Only two days later the army on the Eastern Front was forced to retreat. A vast number of AFVs for which there was no fuel had to be blown up to prevent their falling into the hands of the Red Army. For the efforts that his units had made, Eberbach’s name was recorded in the Wehrmacht’s book of honour, and on the last day of 1941 he was awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross. Further, on 1 March 1942 he was promoted to the rank of Generalmajor (Brigadier-General) and was given command of the 4th Panzer Division.
Throughout the winter of 1941/42 Eberbach remained with his regiment, fighting the defensive battles that marked that bitter period. The strain of command took its toll, and on 15 April 1943 he had to be rushed into hospital with a kidney haemorrhage. Towards the end of November Eberbach was entrusted with the temporary command of the 48th Panzer Corps, and he led it in the first battles for Stalingrad. Within two days he was wounded again, this time in the chest by a shell splinter, which kept him in hospital until 1 February 1943. During this time he was promoted to the rank of Generalleutnant (Major-General) and upon his return to duty was given the post of Inspector of Armoured Troops in the Home Army. On 8 August came his promotion to General of Panzer Troops, and in October he returned to active service with a Panzer corps in the battles around Zhitomir. A month later he was entrusted with the command of Army Group Nikopol. His spell of duty in that post came to an abrupt end when he was again taken into hospital with another kidney haemorrhage at the beginning of December and was then evacuated to a convalescent centre in Germany.
Upon returning to duty, he took up, once again, the post of Inspector of Panzer Troops, leaving when he was given a new appointment with Model’s army group. In the first week of July 1944 he left the Eastern Front for a posting to the Western Front, where he was named Supreme Commander of Panzer Group West facing the British 21st Army Group in Normandy. His first action on reaching France was to discuss with Hans von Kluge, the new Supreme Commander West, the current situation and the plans which had been drawn up to counter and to defeat the Allied invasion. Hitler had already sacrificed two of his top commanders for their failure to throw the Allies back into the sea. On 3 July the Führer had accepted Gerd von Rundstedt’s offer to give up his post as Supreme Commander West on health grounds, and on the same day he removed Geyr von Schweppenburg from his post as Commander of Panzer Group West. It was to the command of that Panzer group that Eberbach now succeeded.
Having been briefed on the situation, Eberbach drove to meet Rommel and to discuss with him the defence of the Caen sector. Caen was the prime objective of the Normandy campaign, and it had been expected to be taken in the first week’s fighting. Among the divisions defending Caen was the 12th SS Panzer Division ‘Hitler Youth’, and Eberbach visited that formation on 7 July. He arrived shortly after an air raid had struck at divisional headquarters and in time to evaluate reports of the fighting that was taking place along the divisional front and to issue orders for a tank battalion from the 21st Panzer Division to support the 16th Luftwaffe Infantry Division. Throughout the following days Eberbach was engaged in fighting a defensive battle in Normandy, plugging gaps in his front that the Allies—predominantly the British 21st Army Group at this stage of the fighting—had created. All the intelligence summaries reported that Montgomery was building up his forces to open another major offensive. The British commander issued Directive M 505, setting out his plan for the future development of the campaign. He intended to relieve pressure upon the US front by a new offensive in the area of Caen. One result of this was the operation which has passed into British military history under the code-name ‘Goodwood’. In that battle Eberbach demonstrated his skill at handling armour both in defensive as well as in offensive operations.
Eberbach’s Panzer Group West had under its command for the ‘Goodwood’ operation the 86th Corps with the 711th Infantry Division holding the coastal sector from the Seine to the Orne estuary. The 346th Infantry Division defended the ground from Franqueville Plage to north of Touffreville. The 16th Luftwaffe Infantry Division together with the 192nd Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 21st Panzer Division lay to the north of Touffreville from Colombelles and held the line to the Orne bridges to the south of Caen. The 1st SS Panzer Division with the 272nd Infantry Division was positioned from the Orne bridges to the south of Caen and to the west of Eterville.
German intelligence sources expected that the main British effort would fall in the area held by the 16th Luftwaffe Division, which had already suffered heavy casualties in the fighting of the previous weeks. Eberbach ordered the division to be supported in the rear areas to prevent any British breakthrough and disposed the troops to reinforce the Luftwaffe division. These were two battalions of a Panzergrenadier regiment, together with an SP battalion, a battalion of Panzer IVs and one of Tiger tanks. Farther behind the Luftwaffe division were artillery units echeloned in depth.
Eberbach spoke to von Kluge on 17 July and advised him that a major attack was anticipated for the following day and that it would be made by means of three main thrusts. As he had expected, the Allied assault opened at 0525 hours on the morning of 18 July, with the usual artillery barrage by the British and Canadian batteries made upon known and suspected German artillery positions. During this hurricane of fire 1,600 Allied heavy bombers flew towards the western flank of the German positions and smashed the front of the 16th Luftwaffe Division. The air bombardment extended as far back as the forming-up line of the Panzer divisions. Close behind the aircraft came the tanks of the 11th Armoured Division, their advance covered by a barrage from about 700 guns whose fire was supported by a bombardment from ships lying out to sea. That armoured spearhead rolled over the stricken Luftwaffe division, but then it was met by Panzers that Eberbach had ordered forward.
The fighting which ebbed and flowed all day to the east and to the south of Caen ended when at last light the British armour went into laager with many of the day’s objectives still not taken. The next major armoured operation came in at around midday on 19 July, and was repeated on the 20th. Then rain began to fall with an intensity not formerly met in the campaign, and the adverse ground conditions that it caused forced Montgomery to break off the ‘Goodwood’ offensive. The bridgehead east of the Orne had been extended, but this was all that had been gained. Eberbach had demonstrated his successful tactical and strategic command of the German Panzer force in the West. During ‘Goodwood’ the British and Canadian armies lost 570 armoured fighting vehicles and did not gain the objectives for which they had striven.
On 9 August 1944 Eberbach’s headquarters was moved to Mortain at the Führer’s direct wish, according to von Kluge. The Americans had broken through the German lines at the base of the Cherbourg peninsula and the Führer had conceived the idea that an armoured thrust could not only seal off the breakthrough but go on and roll the Americans back to the invasion beaches. It was to be Eberbach’s mission to accomplish this military miracle.
Hitler grouped the Panzer divisions in that part of Normandy and formed them into Panzer Group Eberbach. Hitler and the OKW were confident that he, with his great experience of armoured operations, would bring the offensive to a successful conclusion. But even Eberbach’s skill could do nothing in the face of US tank superiority. He was able, at least, to bring out the Panzer divisions engaged in the Mortain offensive and to regroup them to form a new assault unit. This he led in a limited thrust to bring out some of the units trapped in the Falaise pocket.
On 14 August Eberbach took over command of the 7th Army. The few troops under his command were the burnt-out remnants of the divisions that had once held Normandy. He resolved to build a new front along the line of the Seine river and it was on 31 August, while he was on a reconnaissance in that operation, that he was taken prisoner by units of the British 2nd Army.
Eberbach’s health in the immediate post-war period broke down in December 1945, and he was moved during the autumn of 1947 to a US prisoner-of-war camp in Neustadt. He was released from the camp on 8 January 1948 and spent the following months in hospital. Discharged at last, he took up honorary work with a Protestant religious charity and was then associated with commemoration services for wounded and missing soldiers.