Tanks Against Forts at Różan

Captain Collin received the attack order just before noon on September 5. It was quite brief. His company was instructed to capture two old forts dating from World War I on the western outskirts of the small town of Różan in northern Poland. The mission was clear and did not require much elaboration. Instead, Collin could instruct his platoon commanders. In addition to Lieutenants Parow and Schnelle, who both were platoon commanders in Collin’s company, two more platoons, commanded by Lieutenants Friese and Stöhr, were attached for the mission.

From positions northwest of Sielun, situated approximately 5 km from Różan, Collin’s company and the battalion it formed part of would attack. The attack would unfold along the road to the west of Sielun and Różan. After crossing a creek, the battalion would advance to a point west of Różan, where Collin’s company would turn left and attack two forts numbered 2 and 3 by the Germans.

After instructing his subordinates, Collin mounted a tank. The regiment had been in action from the very first day of the war and had suffered losses; several tanks had either been knocked out by enemy fire or suffered breakdowns. Usually, Collin commanded from a specifically designed command tank based on the Panzer I chassis. A fixed super-structure had replaced the revolving turret to accommodate a radio operator and sets for receiving and transmitting radio messages. In the original Panzer I, the interior was so crammed that only a receiving set could be accommodated. Such a limitation was, of course, wholly unacceptable to a commander, but it had sufficed for basic training and the Panzer I had been envisaged for such purposes. However, Collin’s command tank had been damaged and taken to a workshop. He thus chose to lead from a Panzer II, whose vexed commander had to climb into a Panzer I.

Like Collin’s normal command tank, the Panzer II had a crew of three, including the commander. The driver was positioned forward in the hull in both vehicles, but the tasks to be performed in the turret differed. In the Panzer II, the commander had to aim the gun in addition to his other duties. The radio operator doubled as loader of the 2-cm gun. This was far from ideal, but the small size of the Panzer I and Panzer II precluded better solutions.

Favorable fall weather had characterized the previous days. Except for some mist at dawn, visibility had been very good and the ground remained dry. Good weather reigned on September 5 too, when Collin’s company began to move south. The commanders saw the sun ahead as they moved with their heads up through the turret hatches. They proceeded somewhat cautiously, perhaps remembering the debacle near Mława on the first day of the war.

After advancing slightly more than 1 km, Collin’s company reached higher ground, where a halt was ordered. He observed the terrain closely through his field glasses. No sign of the enemy was seen, but fires were evidently raging in Różan. The church had been spared up to now, but Collin saw the flames reach it. Some of the villages closer to Collin’s company were also ablaze.

While Collin considered what might lie ahead, he also glanced at the flanks. To the right, he could see tanks from Captain Hoheisel’s company move forward into positions in line with his. Hoheisel’s unit was also mainly equipped with Panzer Is and IIs, supplemented by a few heavier tanks. Crackling voices in the headphones interrupted Collin’s thoughts. The battalion commander, Major von Gersdorff, had called for Hoheisel, but as all the company commanders used the same frequency, Collin overheard the conversation. The problem discussed was the poor reconnaissance, which meant that it was not clear where the creek ahead could be crossed. After a brief conversation, von Gersdorff decided to send the heavy tanks—Panzer IIIs and IVs—forward to reconnoiter the creek, which was difficult to see due to its wooded banks.

Perhaps the Germans had hoped to reach the creek undetected, but the large dust clouds created by the tanks would almost certainly arouse the suspicion of the Poles. No fire was directed at the Germans, but the dust must have been visible from a great distance. To make matters worse, the German commander began to despair as no ford had been found, and thus the entire attack might stall.

It was too early to call off the attack. As they were not fired upon, the German commanders dismounted from their tanks and reconnoitered the creek on foot. Collin instructed Second Lieutenant Stöhr to guard the flank with his platoon while the search for a ford proceeded. Despite their efforts, the Germans could not find a suitable ford, but there was perhaps still one chance. Collin believed the creek could be crossed at a particular spot provided the muddy banks were reinforced. The tankers quickly had to stand in as lumberjacks. Armed with axes, they attacked the trees along the creek. The heat and sunshine made them sweat as the strenuous work proceeded, but after one hour they had reinforced the banks sufficiently to allow the tanks to cross the water barrier.

The men were allowed a rest before the tanks crossed, while some of the officers crossed the creek on foot and approached a haystack to observe the terrain ahead. Major von Gersdorff, Captain Hoheisel and Captain Collin could clearly see the landscape in front of them. They saw the two windmills that marked the entrance to the town on their maps, thus concluding that they were on the right track. Forts number 1 and 2 were supposed to be located close to the windmills, according to the information available to the German officers. When looking to the left, they could also see infantry from the SS-Regiment Deutschland advancing towards Różan. Artillery shells began to explode around the windmills.

Major von Gersdorff issued attack orders. Collin’s company would attack on the left wing. There was still time for Collin to personally instruct his platoon commanders, except Stöhr, whose flanking mission had taken him too far away. At the haystack, Collin gave the necessary orders and pointed out the targets that could be seen from there.

Supported by the tree trunks, Collin’s tanks negotiated the muddy banks and took up positions south of the creek, waiting for the final attack order. They did not have to wait for long. At around 2 p.m., the order “Forward!” was heard in the headsets. The drivers revved the engines, which roared loudly. The squeaking sound from the tracks indicated that the attack had begun. The terrain ahead was rather open, but undulating. The tankers had to navigate carefully to avoid exposing their vehicles unnecessarily.

The German formation successfully reached a position west of the forts they were to capture. They stopped here as buildings, haystacks and vegetation might have been concealing Polish defenders. There were no friendly forces ahead of the German tanks and so there was no risk of fratricide as they opened fire against suspected targets. Collin tried to observe the effectiveness of the fire, but it was difficult to judge if it had had the intended effect. Unfortunately, Collin’s gun malfunctioned. Evidently dust had caused some part of the mechanism to jam.

Suddenly Collin was ordered to attack immediately. The intractable gun had not yet been attended to; armed only with a machine gun, Collin moved forward with the other tanks in his company. Very soon, a Polish antitank gun opened fire on the German left flank. Lieutenant Schelle immediately ordered his gunner to return fire. The dull and yet sharp sound from the gun revealed that a 7.5-cm shell left the barrel. The exploding shell threw up earth, stones and debris, but, as is common in war, it was difficult to know with certainty what effect the bursting shell had resulted in. Schelle remained stationary and continued to fire while the other tanks thrust forward.

Soon, von Gersdorff countermanded the attack order. Instead, Collin was to disengage and attack further south. Such a maneuver was not uncomplicated, but Collin managed to assemble his company and set it in motion southwards. The tanks crossed the northernmost of the two roads that ran west from Różan. At that moment, they took fire from Polish positions closer to the town.

Lieutenant Parow drove past Collin and took up a firing position. Collin watched as Parow fired three or four rounds before ordering his driver to continue forward. With the malfunctioning gun pointing straight forward, Collin’s tank began to move, but almost immediately Collin saw a shell hit the turret of Parow’s tank. Collin had hardly grasped what had happened before four men bailed out of the stricken tank and took cover. Another shell hit Parow’s tank within a second. Collin drove closer to the damaged tank to identify the men who had abandoned it. He first saw the loader, then the radio operator. Slightly later, he saw Private Köhler bandaging a bleeding man who Collin recognized as Private Boehlke. At this moment, Collin realized that Parow had been killed.

The sight of Parow’s damaged tank, as well as the men who had abandoned it, paralyzed Collin. Köhler, who attended the wounded Boehlke, had the presence of mind to wave Collin forward as his tank was in the line of fire of the Polish antitank weapons. Despite this, Collin remained numb until he had somehow absorbed the sight of Parow’s tank and the four crewmen. Not until then could he bring himself to order the driver forward, thereby continuing the attack past the second of the two roads from Różan.

Suddenly, an NCO from the SS-Regiment Deutschland and a few of his men jumped aboard the tank. Collin warned them against this, but they took no notice of his advice; instead, the NCO asked Collin to close the hatch so he could obtain an unobstructed field of fire. “Madmen but brave,” Collin and the radio operator, Guhl, said to each other.

An extended period of firing and short movements followed. Collin cursed the machine gun that malfunctioned. Guhl provided some consolation by handing Collin a lit cigarette, and the driver, Dörfle, offered him schnapps from his hip flask. Subsequently, Collin realized that the SS-NCO had disappeared. Guhl believed that he had been hit.

Collins finally passed fort 3 and approached fort 4, which meant that he and several other German tankers reached a point where they could look down into the depression where the river Narew flowed. They could see the road bridge and the open terrain on the eastern side of the river. Collin opened the turret hatch and found an SS-lieutenant on his tank. Except for four other SS-men on board a Panzer IV, no other infantry seemed to have accompanied Collin’s tanks.

Collin’s thoughts were abruptly interrupted by Polish fire. Despite the crammed interior of the tank, Collin ensured that the SS-officer came into the protection afforded by the thin armor of the Panzer III. The exhausted infantry officer was offered a cigarette and some schnapps. Unfortunately, he became entangled in the cable to Collin’s headset and pulled it off. Collin had hardly managed to get his equipment in order before another order crackled in the headphones; his company was ordered to attack towards Różan, northward along the river—a mission he deemed unsuitable.

It was quite late, and the sun had begun to set. It was so low that Collin was blinded when he turned his face west. Despite the poor visibility, the attack would continue. Collin’s company proceeded, passing an obstacle, but then Polish antitank weapons opened up at long range. Fortunately for Collin, the Polish fire was short. He turned the turret clockwise, but suddenly he heard the SS-officer behind him moan. The officer was being squeezed by the revolving turret basket. At that same moment, the engine coughed and died. Collin was nearly overwhelmed by his rising fears, but he and his crew managed to connect the reserve fuel.

The battalion commander, Major von Gersdorff, drove along side Collin’s stationary tank and shouted, “Why don’t you move?” A moment later, Collin’s driver started the engine and received orders from Collin to drive towards the dust cloud surrounding the other tanks. He objected as the dust made visibility very poor; at most, the driver would accept moving forward at a very slow pace. Collin urged him on and said that he would give the driver ample warning of obstacles as he could see more easily from his position in the turret. The tank resembled a drunken elephant staggering forward, but the attack was effectively aborted. Collin had to drive hard to catch up with his platoons, which headed east. Thus the German unit passed along the Polish forts, which began to fire at the flank of the tanks.

Collin finally caught up with one of his light platoons, but he had no idea where to find the rest of his company. He saw a few heavy tanks, but he did not know whether they belonged to his company or another. There was also a risk of friendly fire as the dust accumulated on the tanks to such an extent that the white crosses of the German tanks were hard to see. Collin’s fears were soon realized, but not as he had anticipated; one of the heavy German tanks opened fire on German infantry, but the shell did not hit. Collin raised his fist and drove in front of the muzzle of the other tank to stop it from firing.

At this stage, Collin and his company had again reached the two roads running west from Różan, which clearly showed that they were heading back. The dust made it impossible to see Parow’s damaged tank, but Collin could at least see the battalion commander’s tank driving down into a depression and disappearing. Collin ordered one of his platoon commanders, Lieutenant Stöhr, to follow the battalion commander. One moment later, the ground shuddered as artillery shells exploded around the tanks. The tanks increased their speed in an attempt to escape north.

When Collin let his eyes drift to the right, he suddenly saw something that made him doubt the accuracy of his senses—German tanks formed up as if they were on a peacetime parade. Collin tried to make them move by using the radio, but this was met without any apparent success. The tanks finally assumed a formation better-suited to the realities of war and proceeded to the area where the creek could be forded.

As the evening became ever darker, Collin reached the creek and realized how exhausted he was after more than five hours of uninterrupted action. Gradually, he came to realize that the battalion had suffered dearly. Some of the light tanks were towed by their heavy brothers, but eleven tanks that had been hit were left behind. Additionally, some that had suffered mechanical breakdowns or had become stuck in difficult terrain remained behind. Those still capable of moving forded the creek in the light from burning houses. Some exhausted SS-infantry rode on the tanks.

After crossing the creek, the battalion created a hedgehog defense, but it soon received orders to move to the area west of Sielun, from where the attack had begun. Collin found the path to the staging area far too winding—his tank was very low on fuel—but eventually they reached it. When the arduous journey had been completed, the officers gathered and discussed the casualties and the pointlessness of the attack while the men bivouacked. Food was offered, but few of the officers and soldiers had much of an appetite after the depressing experience. The exhausted tankers were sent to some barns to sleep, while the baggage men defended the area during the night.

The Battle of Różan featured but one of the many examples of a German army that went into war without being properly prepared. At Różan, light tanks attacked fortifications, while the coordination between tanks, infantry and artillery was very poor. In this particular case, the Panzer division had been formed at very short notice by putting together components from the Army as well as the SS. This did not facilitate coordination, but Army divisions also suffered from shortcomings.

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