By the summer of 1943, Rudolf Witzig had returned to Germany. As he prepared himself for a new command, the Third Reich’s military prospects continued to crumble. In July, Hitler launched Army Groups Centre and North against the Soviet salient at Kursk in an attempt to eliminate it and shorten the Wehrmacht’s defensive line, while at the same time inflicting such heavy casualties on the Red Army as to regain the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front. The Kursk offensive sought to encircle and annihilate the Soviet troops in the salient, end German fears of a flank attack and set the conditions for a follow-on offensive east of Kursk towards Moscow and to the south-east towards the Don and Volga.
After the battle’s opening on 5 July, there followed a slugging match between German and Soviet tanks, artillery and infantry of unprecedented proportions and intensity. By 12 July, the German advance had stalled against intense Soviet resistance. The following day, Hitler called off the offensive to send German reinforcements to deal with the Allied landings in Sicily on 10 July and the imminent collapse of Italian resistance. Losses on both sides were heavy. Between 12 July and 23 August, the Red Army lashed back with a series of stinging counter-offensives against Army Group Centre that hurled the Wehrmacht back almost 150 km and liberated the city of Kharkov. As a result of their defeat at Kursk, Hitler and the Wehrmacht had lost the initiative on the Eastern Front forever. ‘With the Kursk offensive I wanted to reverse fate,’ Hitler bemoaned afterwards to one of his long-time personal aides, SS Sturmbannführer Otto Günsche. ‘I would never have believed the Russians were so strong.’ Stalin followed the battle of Kursk by launching new offensive operations in August and September, throwing the Germans back in the south an average of 240 km over a 1,000-km front and inflicting heavy casualties.
In October 1943, Witzig temporarily took command of the newly reconstituted Corps 21st Parachute Engineer Regiment, which was in the process of being formed, and of the regiment’s fully formed 1st Battalion, which had been formed around his Corps 11th Parachute Engineer Battalion:
I gathered what remained of my battalion once again in Wittenberg. There we reconstituted the battalion once more and, soon afterwards, were deployed to the centre of France. During the training phase we had to deal with French partisans and maquis, who were gaining in strength. They received their equipment and weapons from British agents, who also supported and led them.
Predominantly rural guerrilla bands of the French Resistance, the Maquis were primarily composed of men who had escaped into the mountains to avoid being conscripted by Vichy France into working as forced labourers in Germany. What began as loose groups of individuals became increasingly organized, initially fighting the Vichy French and the Germans to remain free. They evolved, however, into active resistance groups.
The spring of 1944 found Witzig’s Corps 11th Parachute Engineer Battalion deployed around Moulins in central France, conducting training of new personnel as well as engaging in anti-partisan operations. The Parachute Engineer Replacement Battalion in Decize had been subordinated to Witzig’s regiment. According to Witzig there were no other strong German formations in the area. The widespread presence of the Maquis had become a continuing source of irritation and frustration to the Vichy and German authorities and in the third week of March the Wehrmacht launched large-scale operations with massive air support against one group on the plateau of Glières after an attack by French Vichy militia had failed.
The fight with the partisans demanded [our] attention [wrote Witzig in his postwar history of the regiment], but was, however, limited to small engagements, which were conducted by individual companies. But at the beginning of the [Allied] invasion battle along the Channel coast, strong partisan formations made themselves felt in our area, which was under the control of the Vichy Government – tied to Germany by treaty – but which only the German military had the power to confront.
According to Karl-Heinz Hammerschlag, who served with Witzig in France, the two formations that formed the core of the battalion’s antipartisan operations were the 1st and the 4th Companies. A particularly strong group of French Maquis had established themselves at St-Amand, located approximately 60 km west of Moulins. St-Amand had previously been under the control of a Vichy French battalion. Witzig’s battalion received orders to quell the partisan force and ensure security and stability in the area. Using wood-burning buses with French drivers, Witzig prepared to deploy his battalion, but was certain the partisans had been tipped off to the operation. On 16 June 1944, the battalion deployed to St-Amand and advanced against the town on two sides in a double envelopment with orders to link up in the marketplace. Most of the partisans, though caught unprepared, managed to escape the trap. However, some equipment was left behind, including a rucksack, which Witzig appropriated and later used for hiking trips after the war. After the operation, while Witzig was speaking to the chief of police in front of the police station in St-Amand near the market square, a shot rang out, killing the Frenchman standing next to him: ‘A partisan probably shot from one of the houses around the marketplace. Perhaps the shot was aimed at me.’
According to Hammerschlag, another noteworthy incident took place at about the same time. A group of suspected partisans had been captured by Witzig’s men and these were brought to the market square to be presented to him. Before this could be done, however, the paratroopers, wearing Wehrmacht uniforms due to a shortage of their unique airborne smocks, came under fire and the prisoners bolted. Witzig’s men began firing at the escaping prisoners and, after they disappeared, into the bushes and trees close to the edge of town. After the firing died out, Witzig and his men laid out the dead policeman in the police station. ‘It remained only for me to visit the Vichy battalion and warn its commander to prevent such occurrences in the future,’ wrote Witzig. ‘Then we left St-Amand. As long as we remained in Moulins the peace in St-Amand held.’ As the battalion received notice to prepare to deploy to Lithuania and East Prussia the incident was quickly forgotten. Nonetheless, it would have serious repercussions for Witzig and haunt him long after the war.
In the meantime, the much-awaited Allied invasion of France, Operation Overlord, began just after midnight on 6 June 1944, when paratroopers of the American 82nd and 101st and the British 6th Airborne Divisions landed on the flanks of five invasion beaches in Normandy. The paratroopers were followed by assault landing forces totalling eight divisions on five beaches. By the end of the day, those divisions were firmly established on the European continent. And by the end of June, the Allies had landed more than 850,000 men in France. At the beginning of the invasion, the newly formed II Parachute Corps had been ordered to move to the St-Lô area. The corps had been formed at the end of 1943 and placed under the command of Generalleutnant Eugen Meindl. At the time of the invasion, Meindl commanded the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Parachute Divisions, in addition to various support units, including intelligence, reconnaissance and assault-gun detachments and a parachute training depot of battalion size. Meindl positioned the 3rd and 5th Parachute Divisions to the north-east and west of St-Lô, respectively, while the understrength 2nd Parachute Division was ordered by General Student to defend Brest in Brittany.
Shortly after the Allied landings in Normandy, the German situation on the Eastern Front turned even more desperate. In June, Stalin had unleashed his summer offensive in Belorussia, Operation Bagration, catching Army Group Centre and the entire German High Command by surprise. On the morning of 22 June, the third anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, some 2.4 million Red Army soldiers, supported by 36,400 artillery pieces and mortars, 5,200 tanks and assault guns, and 5,300 aircraft, opened an attack aimed at nothing less than the encirclement and complete annihilation of Army Group Centre. Stalin’s marshals expected to encounter some 1.2 million German soliders, supported by 9,500 artillery pieces, 900 tanks and assault guns, and 1,350 Luftwaffe aircraft. The Red Army thus outnumbered the Wehrmacht by at least six-to-one in tanks, four-to-one in artillery pieces and combat aircraft, and two-to-one in personnel.
Within days, the Soviets had hurled the Germans back and, by the end of July, Hitler’s armies were in headlong retreat, fighting desperately to avoid encirclement and complete annihilation. Bagration had torn a 400-km gap in the German front and only the wings of the reeling Army Group Centre, in the southern Baltic States, were still able to resist the Russian onslaught. In the north, the Third Panzer Army and the Second Army were all that remained between the Russians and East Prussia. In a frantic attempt to shore up faltering German resistance, Hitler sent out Field Marshal Model to take command of the remnants of Army Group Centre. At the same time, Model retained command of Army Group North Ukraine. Model, the Wehrmacht’s youngest field marshal, was known as ‘The Führer’s Fireman’ for his ingenuity in salvaging apparently hopeless situations. He was one of the few officers remaining who enjoyed the complete trust of Hitler. Colonel-General Heinz Guderian praised Model as ‘a bold inexhaustible soldier . . . the best man possible to perform the fantastically difficult task of reconstructing a line in the centre of the Eastern Front’.
Hitler also directed all available German forces northward. The Führer and his commanders assessed the situation on the Eastern Front, where the Red Army was advancing as fast as its logistics allowed, as much more threatening than the Allied force trying to break out from Normandy. Hitler had hoped to concentrate Germany’s newly mobilized formations and manufactured weapons on defending Western Europe against an Allied assault, while the Eastern Front took care of itself. ‘The threat from the East remains, but an even greater danger looms in the West: the Anglo-American landing! In the East, the vastness of the space will, as a last resort, permit a loss of territory even on a major scale, without suffering a mortal blow to Germany’s chances for survival!’ he had proclaimed, in Führer Directive 51 of 3 November 1943. ‘Not so in the West! If the enemy succeeded in penetrating our defences on a wide front, consequences of staggering proportions will follow within a short time.’ But Hitler’s policy of concentrating his forces in the West was now in shambles. Thus, even as the Allies were fighting to break out of the lodgement they had established, the Germans were transferring elite formations eastwards towards the Baltic states.
While three of Student’s elite Fallschirmjäger divisions had been committed to containing the Allies in Normandy, other paratrooper formations were diverted to the Eastern Front in an attempt to stop the Soviet advance. These included Rudolf Witzig’s battalion:
After the start of the Anglo-American invasion we were not transferred to Normandy, but to Lithuania. The Russians had succeeded in breaking through there and separating Army Group North in the Baltics from [Army Group Centre] in East Prussia. This problem had to be solved quickly; therefore, once again, units were moved and transferred to get it done.
Witzig’s command would fight as part of Lieutenant-Colonel Gerhard Schirmer’s 16th Parachute Regiment, which had been virtually annihilated near Kiev earlier in the year and then reconstituted. Schirmer had commanded a parachute company as part of the German airborne assault on the Corinth Canal in Greece. Afterwards he commanded the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Parachute Regiment in the Peloponnese and on Crete, landing near Heraklion as the strategic reserve. For capturing Hill 296, a piece of key terrain in the battle, Schirmer was awarded the Knight’s Cross. In Tunisia he commanded the 5th Parachute Regiment’s 3rd Battalion in heavy fighting and later assumed command of the regiment after Colonel Koch had been put out of action. On 1 January 1944 Schirmer had been appointed to command the 16th Parachute Regiment. The regiment, deployed around Abbeville in France, had been brought up to full strength with four battalions in May and then received parachute training in June, with special emphasis on night drops.
The 954 soldiers of the 16th Parachute Regiment entrained for Vilnius, in the south-eastern corner of modern Lithuania, in July. The German High Command considered the defence of Vilnius imperative. If the city fell, it would be impossible to maintain contact between the two German army groups in the Baltic States and to stop the Red Army’s advance towards East Prussia. It had thus been declared a ‘fortress’ city by Hitler and was to be held to the last man. Schirmer’s regiment was subordinated to Field Marshal Model’s Army Group Centre and the Third Panzer Army. Under the direct control of Major General Stahel, an air-defence officer and commander of Vilnius, the 16th Parachute Regiment joined a hotch-potch of units in defence of the city, including the 399th and 1067th Panzergrenadier Regiments, an independent panzergrenadier brigade, the 16th SS Police Regiment, the 2nd Battalion, 240th Field Artillery Regiment, the 256th Anti-Tank Battalion and the 296th Flak Battalion. In addition, elements of the 731st Anti-Tank Detachment, with 25 Hetzer tank destroyers were also available, as well as the 103rd Panzer Brigade with 21 Panther tanks, the 8th Assault Gun Detachment and the 6th Panzer Division with 23 Panzer IV tanks and 26 Panthers.
Poised to advance on the Lithuanian capital were elements of the Soviet 5th and 5th Guards Armies of the Third Belorussian Front. The Soviet attack on the city began on 8 July, with Russian tanks and infantry attacking across Lake Narocz towards the airfield, which was defended by the paratroopers. After bitter fighting, the Soviet 35th Tank Brigade took the airfield. Intense street fighting then commenced as the Soviets attempted to reduce German defences. By midday, the Red Army had fought its way into the city, overrunning the initial line of anti-tank obstacles and destroying a number of the ad hoc German battle groups. The following day, the Germans reported 500 dead and another 500 wounded. By 9 July, Vilnius was encircled. Two days later, the German High Command ordered a break-out. The following night, the defenders broke contact with the enemy and crossed the Vilnia River. Some 2,000 Landsers made it across. With the fall of Vilnius the Wehrmacht’s position in the Baltic States became untenable.
In the meantime, the 16th Parachute Regiment had been followed to the Baltics by Witzig’s 1st Battalion of the 21st Parachute Engineer Regiment, which arrived from France. The battalion, which had an authorized strength of 21 officers and 1,011 other ranks, had been conducting night parachute training at the Salzwedel airbase when it was alerted for movement to Lithuania. ‘By means of a railway movement of several days duration via Berlin and through the peaceful and marvellously sunny summer countryside of Brandenburg and West Prussia and then through East Prussia the battalion reached the border with Lithuania,’ wrote Witzig. ‘The first deployment took place in the Kaunas area.’ Witzig’s battalion reached their planned defensive positions between Schescuppe and Wilkowischen, located only 10 km from the East Prussian border, at the end of July and began to entrench. Within a few days of arriving, the unit was reinforced with an artillery detachment and elements of an assault gun brigade.
Due to the length of the front we were deployed from right to left as follows: Parachute Engineer Battalion, 2nd Battalion, 1st Battalion, and the 3rd Battalion with the 13th Company in reserve and an assault gun brigade [recorded Witzig]. After a while the regiment, which was only equipped with its infantry weapons, received four 75-mm anti-tank guns, which were distributed among the frontline battalions. This position was held the whole of August and September 1944.
Initially the Russians were nowhere in sight. Instead, the men of Witzig’s battalion witnessed the massive westward exodus of Nazi civilian leaders and their families fleeing for their lives to escape the advancing Red Army. The German population in the path of the Russians was thus left leaderless. ‘This was the beginning of the breakdown of law and order,’ remembered Witzig.
After changing positions several times, the battalion finally made contact with the Russians. Witzig’s 3rd Company relieved the 500th SS Parachute Battalion, a punishment battalion:
Only the commander and a few members of the staff had the required rank. All of the company, platoon, and squad leaders were demoted SS officers and NCOs, who wore only an arm badge with their official position. These men had conducted a jump in a coup de main against the headquarters of Yugoslav partisan commander Marshal Tito, only a few weeks earlier. Only with great effort and at the very last moment had he managed to escape.
On the day of their relief, the SS paratroopers bloodily repulsed a Russian tank attack.
On 20 July 1944, a bomb planted at Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters barely missed killing the leader of the Third Reich. In the confusion that followed the attempt, the vast majority of the Wehrmacht’s leaders swore their loyalty to the Führer, while those opposed to the regime were hunted down, cruelly tortured and brutally murdered. A small number committed suicide; only a few survived. Hearing the news at an impromptu parade complete with loudspeakers, Witzig and his men were stunned and felt betrayed. ‘Can you imagine how you would feel if you learned, fighting in the middle of a war, that someone had tried to kill your president?’ one veteran asked the author, when recounting the incident.
But the war went on. According to Witzig, the Red Army attacked his positions about once a week, usually in division strength. Twice Soviet armour, in regimental strength, broke through the German positions:
The majority of tanks, and especially the accompanying infantry, were destroyed by our forward companies in close combat, while the tanks which penetrated deeper were shot by our assault gun brigade. The position was reformed after each attack.
Witzig noted that the Soviets had a large superiority in artillery, which they used liberally. As a result, the terrain surrounding the German defensive positions ‘looked liked the World War I Verdun battlefield’. From time to time the artillery detachment attached to the regiment neutralized a Soviet battery, but it was a losing battle. Nonetheless, Witzig’s battalion, which was deployed as infantry, fought with great determination.