It had been quiet in Kovel sector for eight days. The enemy’s efforts slackened noticeably and there were rumors that the Red Army was preparing a major offensive. The high commands of the armed forces (OKW) and the army (OKH) were convinced that it was going to come in the Kovel-Ternopol area and would thus be directed mainly against Army Group North Ukraine. Following the pitiless and desperate fighting southwest of Kovel during the winter and spring of 1944, intelligence confirmed the buildup of enemy forces opposite Army Group North Ukraine. No one knew that this was an elaborate ruse on the part of the Soviets. They had simulated a massive buildup by running numerous empty trains into this area. As a result, the German command decided to launch a major asault to clear the situation in the Kovel area. The attack, which was proposed by Feldmarschall Model (the commander in chief of Army Group North Ukraine), required the transfer south of significant tank forces from Army Group Center.
In Army Group North Ukraine’s sector a total of eight panzer and two panzer-grenadier divisions were supposed to prevent the enemy from breaking through Lvov and Warsaw to Königsberg and cutting off both Army Group North and Army Group Center.
As part of this concentration of forces on 8 May the Panzer Regiment Wiking was withdrawn from Fortress Kovel and was moved to Maciejow as corps reserve. At 4:30 P.M. on that May day—exactly one year before the end of the war—Standartenführer Hannes Mühlenkamp reported to the command post of the LVI Panzer Corps. The corps, which was commanded by General Hossbach, had been reduced to the 4th Panzer Division, the 101st Mountain Division and the 26th and 131st Infantry Divisions. The corps’ chief of staff, General Staff Oberst von Bonin, explained the situation to Standartenführer Mühlenkamp:
“Mühlenkamp, as your regiment is the armored reserve group I am giving it the job of conducting reconnaissance for counterattacks by the 4th Panzer Division and the 26th, 131st and 342nd Infantry Divisions. You are to scout all the roads thoroughly and establish contact with the named divisions immediately.”
The Panzer Regiment Wiking had become the “corps fire-brigade.”
The Soviet offensive began early on the morning of 22 June 1944. The Germans were taken completely by surprise, for instead of Army Group North Ukraine the attack struck the entire front of Army Group Center.
Thirty-eight German divisions (not one of which was a panzer division) manning an arc-shaped sector of front 1,100 kilometers long faced an onslaught by 185 Russian divisions with approximately 2,500,000 men attacking on a 700-kilometer front. This huge army was spearheaded by 6,100 tanks and self-propelled guns. 45,000 guns began the offensive with a barrage that lasted up to 14 hours. 7,000 Soviet aircraft of all types, including the feared Il-2 “Butchers,” supported the attack. Never before had the Russian theater seen such a concentration of men and arms.
Facing this tremendous military force were 500,000 German troops, of whom 400,000 were in defensive positions. At this critical hour Army Group Center lacked the armored divisions which had been transferred to the northern Ukraine. It lacked the heavy weapons which were necessary to halt the Russian steamroller.
At approximately 10 P.M. on 22 June 1944 the decimated II Battalion was handed over to Hauptsturmführer Reicher. At that point in time none of the men were aware of the catastrophe that was taking place to the north of them. All remained quiet in the Kovel area. This was exactly the opposite of what the OKH had predicted. The experts had made a fundamental miscalculation. In no way was Kovel the beginning or the end point of the Soviet offensive.
Bit by bit reports of the catastrophic events of the Russian offensive trickled through to the officers of the Mühlenkamp regiment. When the regiment was then moved into a quartering area west of Kovel and was subordinated to the LVI Panzer Corps again, everyone was convinced that things were going to “get going” there too.
The units moved into their old quartering areas near Maciejow and Tupaly. There followed a time of hectic transfers and subordinations, however the tank crews were unaffected. There were several minor actions in the period until 6 July, but then all hell broke loose in the Kovel area again. The men of the Panzer Regiment Wiking were called upon to fight one more battle near Kovel, which would demand the utmost of all of them.
“Gentlemen, the situation of Army Group Center forces us to also withdraw our lines step by step. On 6 July we fall back to the Red Line, one day later to the Green Line, and so on. ‘Battle Group Mühlenkamp’ will remain in the Kovel area to cover our withdrawal movements until all of the infantry units have gone. Standartenführer Mühlenkamp, your job is to hold the enemy until the infantry has reached the new line and dug itself in.” Hannes Mühlenkamp now had a clear picture of the situation. Army Group Center’s situation was desperate. On 5 July it had just six infantry divisions left. The huge pocket between Minsk and Baranovichi had been closed and it could be only hours before the last divisions were destroyed.
At 1:15 P.M. II Battalion reported through Obersturmführer Nicolussi-Leck that enemy infantry assembly areas had been located in the Dolhonosy area.
“Place artillery fire on those assembly areas,” ordered Mühlenkamp. The few guns available now tried to destroy the enemy positions, but the blows they inflicted on the enemy were little more than fly bites.
Russian bombers flew over the positions and bombed II Battalion’s assembly areas. At 2:45 P.M. it was reported to Hauptsturmführer Reicher, the new battalion commander, that the enemy was attacking from the wood northeast of Nowe Koscary with seventeen tanks and infantry.
Just as he was about to issue the order for a company to prepare to head for the threatened area, the entire “Battle Group Mühlenkamp” received the following radio message from LVI Panzer Corps: “The battle group is to transfer into the Smydin area immediately.”
That was at 2:50. Ten minutes later the regiment’s operations section and II Battalion, Panzer Regiment Wiking departed for the assigned area. Two-and-a-half hours later the battle group, which was still corps reserve, readied itself in a wood south of Smydin. The regiment’s armored pioneer company received orders to immediately scout bridges and roads for the Panthers. Hauptsturmführer Schliack, the company commander, set to work at once.
While the period of Battle Group Mühlenkamp’s preparations had been relatively quiet, during the night of 6 July the sporadic artillery fire intensified all along the front. The first enemy attacks followed, on the left sector of the division’s front. At 4:35 A.M. the Division Ia called. He said: “The enemy attacked during the night from the wood northeast of Kruhel towards Kruhel and has broken into the main line of resistance. He is now contnuing to advance south from the eastern outskirts of Kruhel towards the wooded area west of Novy Koscary and has already destroyed two forward antitank guns. There exists the danger that the enemy will advance farther to the west towards Krasnoduby.”
The first II Battalion tanks went into action, but it soon became apparent that the enemy was not going to attack on this day, for his tanks only felt their way forward, apparently seeking a weak spot. Further withdrawals followed during the night, but at 4:30 A.M. 7th Company was ordered into the Smydin bridgehead and subordinated to III Battalion, Germania Regiment. The rest of the operational Panther battalion took shelter in Maciejow. During this night the enemy artillery fire intensified to near barrage level. Shells howled down on the assembly areas and plowed up the ground. Miraculously only minor damage was done and there were no serious casualties.
A message arrived from the 4th Panzer Division: “Maximum readiness! The enemy will probably soon begin his breakthrough attempt at this spot.”
Mühlenkamp passed the word for everyone to remain on defensive alert. Days earlier he had reported an amazing discovery to General Hossbach and his chief of staff: “The terrain facing our front, which is considered too swampy for tanks to cross, has been drying up so much that tanks can drive 100 meters farther every day. A surprise attack must be expected soon.”
But Oberst von Bonin, who usually received such information by telephone or telex, obviously did not take the report seriously. On 6 July General Hossbach came and together with Mühlenkamp watched a test drive a Panther. These firsthand investigations and their results were more persuasive than the dissenting views of his chief of staff. In fact the swamps had dried up so much that a general attack by the enemy had to be expected. Furthermore, increasing tank noises had been heard from the forests southwest of Kovel in recent nights. The enemy was believed to be massing strong armored forces there.
“What do you think the enemy will try, Mühlenkamp?” the commanding general asked the battle group commander.
“I expect that the enemy will try to break through to the Bug in the direction of Cholm in one go. That would explain the strong concentration of tanks opposite our front. Afterwards the enemy will try to close the bag around our entire corps.”
“Is that your whole supporting argument?”
“Reconnaissance results also clearly point toward it. I must therefore request that I be allowed to redirect my tanks, which might be simply overrun here in the forest positions, to more favorable positions.”
“Well, we will see,” said General Hossbach. The general drove back to his corps headquarters and only after much back and forth was the order for the requested change of positions issued by the chief of staff, Oberst von Bonin.
Mühlenkamp moved his panzers into the back slope position in the Maciejow area. This was his only chance of stopping the expected armored assault by the enemy. The move was carried out during the afternoon hours of 6 July. Prior to this, however, 8th Company determined that the enemy was massing infantry forces in front of it in the Dolhonosy area.
A heavy air raid struck the German main line of resistance at 12:15 P.M. on 7 July. Heavy bombs fell southeast of the tank assembly area. This had to be the attack!
“Attention, enemy tanks ahead!”
The commander of the Eighth had been the first to spot the 17 heavy tanks and following infantry which had set off from the wood south of Novy Koscary.
“To all tanks: fire at will!”
The first armor-piercing shells were fired at the enemy. Several Russian tanks were disabled with track and roadwheel damage, while others caught fire before they could open fire on the defenders’ favorable position. The surviving Soviet tanks pulled back. Then came hundreds of bombers and close-support aircraft. They attacked the positions, but fortunately Mühlenkamp, the consummate chess player, had moved his tanks elsewhere. The attack forced the infantry to take cover. Bombs howled earthward and explosions shook the ground. The “butchers” raked the German positions with cannon and machine-gun fire. The attempt to force a breakthrough was in full swing.
Now the main force of Soviet tanks—more than 400 vehicles—attacked north of Maciejow. Their direction of advance was due west. They rolled past the Panthers of II Battalion waiting in their hull-down positions. The tank commanders and gunners could scarcely believe their eyes when they saw this seemingly endless mass of steel.
“Olin, where are you?” Have you reached your position?” Mühlenkamp called to the Finnish Obersturmführer. The latter had remained with the panzer regiment after the Finnish battalion had returned to the division.
“Olin to commander: have reached the special position, see the tanks, are in good firing range.Request permission for my five Panthers to fire.”
“Let the first ten pass by. Then knock out the first and the last, the rest will be stuck.”
“As you order, Standartenführer.”
Seconds later Mühlenkamp heard and saw the flash of gunfire from the direction of the Finn’s position and soon the first Soviet tank was in flames. Thirty seconds later the tenth was knocked out and Olin’s Panthers destroyed the rest in succession. The full attention of the Soviet tank units was then directed at Olin, and it was at that moment that Mühlenkamp acted.
“All tanks open fire. Maximum rate of fire, aim carefully!”
The Panthers in the hull-down position fired their 75-mm guns almost simultaneously. After the first salvo the battlefield resembled a huge junk yard. Dozens of enemy tanks lay on the plain, shot-up, burning, ammunition exploding. Then the second salvo went out, inflicting the same devastation and soon fifty of the at least 400 enemy tanks were in flames or disabled wrecks. The Panthers fired for thirty minutes and for thirty minutes the Soviet tanks attempted to escape. They rolled into ravines but were pursued and knocked out. When the sound of battle ebbed, 103 enemy tanks, including some of the newest and heaviest types, lay destroyed on the battlefield.
Mühlenkamp’s report of the destruction of 103 enemy tanks appears to have met with disbelief from General Hossbach, for he sent Oberstleutnant Peter Sauerbruch to count the knocked-out tanks on the battlefield. When the officer was finished he had counted—103 wrecks. At least 150 more enemy tanks had been damaged in this duel of armor and had sought shelter in the forests. The regimental commander of one of these units was found in his shot-up tank. Found on him was a situation map, on which was marked the main direction of the Russian tank attack: Kovel-Cholm-Bug!
The Soviet tank units had been ordered to avoid costly battles and instead drive through as quickly as possible and at all costs seize the sole still intact bridge over the Bug, and establish a bridgehead for the infantry on the far side. Had the enemy succeeded in accomplishing this, all of the Hossbach corps and possible even the entire 4th Panzer Army would have been lost. Mühlenkamp had averted this threat with his tactical chess move and had inflicted a severe blow on the enemy. For the second time he had saved Kovel and the German front there. For this feat he was recommended for the Oak Leaves and he was awarded the coveted decoration on 29 September 1944.
The second great defensive success at Kovel was announced in the Wehrmacht communique of 11 July 1944 and the battle group of the Wiking Division under Standartenführer Mühlenkamp was identified by name.
Several days later in an interview for German radio, Mühlenkamp revealed the secret of his success: “Standartenführer,” they asked him, “your battle group was deployed to cover the withdrawal movements here in the Kovel area. This movement has since been completed with no pressure from the enemy and was also planned without pressure from the enemy. How did you manage to turn this plan into reality?”
“The Soviets appeared here with masses of tanks such as, to my knowledge, had never been seen before. They had new guns and heavier armor. But this battle of a few against many demonstrated the superiority of our new Panther tank. It is especially significant that not one of our tanks became a total loss in this tough battle.
This is due to the bravery and steadfastness of our crews as well as to the quality of our equipment. They are all men who have been with me for years and whose soldierly behaviour and accomplishments are beyond praise. My special thanks go to these brave tank soldiers, and I am glad that I can speak to you at this place once again.”
The following members of the Waffen-SS were decorated with the Knight’s Cross or a higher grade of this decoration for their actions in the Battle of Kovel:
Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds:
Herbert Gille, SS-Gruppenführer, on 20/4/1944
Knight’s Cross with Swords:
Hans Dorr, SS-Sturmbannführer, on 9/7/1944
Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves:
Johann Mühlenkamp, SS-Standartenführer, on 21/9/1944
SS-Obersturmführer Karl Nicolussi-Leck, on 9/4/1944
SS-Obersturmführer Otto Schneider, on 4/5/1944
SS-Untersturmführer Alfred Grossrock, on 12/8/1944
SS-Sturmbannführer Franz Hack, on 14/5/1944