In one particularly hard-fought battle, Witzig’s battalion was mentioned in communiqués for destroying 27 Soviet tanks and stopping the advance of an entire Red Army tank division. On 25 July, the battalion covered a movement to, first, the Kaunas–Daugavpils road and, later in the evening, still further to the north-east to Jonava and entrenched there. ‘A few days ago a strong concentration of enemy tanks was observed and reported in this area,’ reported Witzig, ‘so it was assumed a major attack was imminent.’ The 1st Battalion, 21st Parachute Engineer Regiment, was attached to a battle group commanded by a Colonel Theodor von Tolstorff for this deployment. Tolstorff was, according to Witzig, an excellent officer, and he would win the Swords and Diamonds to the Knight’s Cross the following year as commander of the 340th Volksgrenadier Division.
As had been so often the case, one of Witzig’s companies was detached from the battalion and Witzig was forced to defend with his three remaining companies. The ground on which the battle was fought was open, although the battalion’s flanks were covered by a large forest. The 1st Company, commanded by Lieutenant Kubillus, deployed on the left of the Kaunas–Daugavpils road, while the 2nd Company, commanded by Lieutenant Walther, deployed on the right as it was clear that the Soviets would focus their attacks on this road. Elements of Lieutenant Schürmann’s understrength 4th Company were attached to the 2nd Company, while the remainder served as a battalion reserve. The 3rd Company, commanded by Lieutenant von Albert, was detached from the battalion to serve as a corps reserve in the rear. According to Witzig, several assault and anti-tank guns were deployed with the battalion, located at the edge of a wood and in battle positions in a cornfield, but were not attached to it. The battalion’s own T-mines, stored in stacks of a hundred, had been left in the woods in forward positions. Witzig notes that every squad was equipped with anti-tank weapons of some sort, including at least one Panzerschreck and three to five Panzerfausts.
The Panzerschreck (‘Tank Terror’) or Ofenrohr (‘Stovepipe’) was similar to the American Bazooka rocket-launcher. More than 1.5 metres long and weighing more than 11 kg it was a handful for any soldier to carry, much less use effectively. However, its 88-mm, 3-kg, anti-tank rocket was capable of stopping any Allied tank at ranges of up to 120 metres. The Panzerfaust, on the other hand, was the world’s first truly disposable anti-tank recoilless launcher. Weighing only 6 kg and easy to use, this shoulder-fired launcher shot a hollow-charge anti-tank grenade, which could pierce 200 mm at ranges of 30–80 metres. This was literally point-blank range against a tank and it took a great deal of raw courage, steady nerves and patience to use the weapon effectively. By 1944, both weapons had acquired a fearsome reputation. In the last year of the war, the Allies would find themselves losing hundreds of vehicles a week to the Panzerschreck and Panzerfaust.
During the night of 25/26 July, Witzig’s companies entrenched in fighting positions optimized for anti-tank defence, with two to three men in each position. To defend against surprise attacks, a string of forward outposts had been established, especially in the 1st Company sector. These preparations all took place against a backdrop of the constant sound of Russian tanks moving into place just forward of the battalion’s positions. ‘The defensive position was too exposed,’ complained Witzig, who was convinced that the Russians would attack in strength. The battle began that night, with a combat patrol by the 4th Company, which surprised and captured a Soviet tank crew and a commissar. A short time later, a Russian patrol evened the odds by capturing two outposts of the 2nd Company. Shortly afterwards, a third outpost disappeared. ‘Another outpost was gone,’ remembered Witzig. ‘Only the soldier’s rifle was left in his foxhole.’ The sound of tanks massing continued throughout the night and at the crack of dawn the next day they were visible across a wide front some 1,200 metres from the battalion’s positions.
At the break of dawn on July 26, 1944 the men of the battalion were aware that a day was starting that would demand the greatest efforts from them. With a provoking directness an armada of steel and iron, aware of its superiority, deployed so that even the bravest individual felt depressed. Countless T-34 tanks, artillery pieces and the dreaded ‘Stalin Organ’ [multiple rocket launcher] and assault guns were deployed to break through the defensive positions of the parachute engineers. Yet not one round was fired. There was an uncanny silence on both sides, the calm before the storm.
The silence, however did not last long. ‘And then, flashes from the other side, from thousands of barrels simultaneously’, and shells were pounding the German positions unmercifully: ‘Again and again, pounding, hammering, shattering, pulsating, bursting and cracking,’ recorded Witzig. The incessant barrage lasted for an hour without any reduction in intensity, inflicting numerous casualties on the battalion. As it began to lift, Witzig’s men noticed that the German assault guns had abandoned their battle positions and were nowhere to be seen. But there was nothing that could be done, for the Russian tanks, heavily laden with foot soldiers, were already advancing on the paratroopers through the smoke and the dust with more infantry running alongside the tanks.
Witzig’s men held their fire until the first line of enemy tanks were only twenty metres away, then unleashed a devastating barrage of antitank rounds. At this range, nothing, not even the thickly armoured Josef Stalin tank, was immune from the deadly German volley:
The men of the 1st [Company] took heart and set themselves against this colossus. It came to furious fighting directly on the highway. Lieutenant Fromme fired his Panzerfaust at a T-34 which ground to a halt, engulfed in flames. He himself was wounded. Then Lieutenant Kubillus, the company commander, who had hastened to the highway after realizing the focal point of the attack, went down seriously wounded. Sergeant Weber took command of the company. He himself blew apart three tanks, which stood burning and shattered in front of the company foxholes. Then he saw Sergeants Scheuring, Hüchering and a few other engineers, whom he could not recognize because of the dust and smoke, obliterate another three tanks. Within a short period, the men of the 1st Company, using Panzerfausts and Ofenrohr, had turned fifteen tanks into burning, smouldering iron.
As the enemy tank attack was broken up, leaving dozens of T-34s and Soviet assault guns engulfed in flames, the Russian infantry sprang from their carriers to the ground, intent on making the paratroopers pay. Instead, they were cut down at close range by MG 42s. Caught in the open and without their tanks to suppress the machine guns, the Red Army soldiers were slaughtered. Within minutes, the first Russian attack had collapsed under the massed and accurate anti-tank and machinegun fire of Witzig’s parachute engineers. But the battalion, in turn, suffered heavy losses, with the 1st Company reduced to thirty men.
In the meantime, to the south of the Kaunas–Daugavpils road the 2nd Company, reinforced with the understrength 4th Company, was having a more difficult time containing the Russian assault. A group of some fifty T-34s succeeded in fighting their way through the company positions and cutting off the road behind the two companies. ‘The mounted infantry were taken under fire first and forced to jump off,’ wrote Witzig. ‘Engineer Stauss engaged a tank with his Ofenrohr and suddenly a second tank was also on fire. But the remainder rolled westward without bothering about their infantrymen left behind.’ The German assault guns, which might have defeated the Russian tanks, had already left the battlefield and these had been followed by the surviving anti-tank guns, leaving the paratroopers to fight unsupported. ‘I engaged the tanks which were passing close by my right as the Russians did not attack head on,’ remembered Sergeant Hans-Ulrich Schmidt, from Hamburg, relating his escape in the midst of the advancing Red Army:
After the first echelon passed by, I discovered about five Russian soldiers on every T-34. At the same moment another T-34 showed up about 100 metres to the right of me. I fired one shot with my Ofenrohr and hit it, but after two minutes it began moving and firing again. I charged my Ofenrohr with a second shell immediately as I heard the noise of battle behind me. I tried to establish contact to the right and left of me, but no one had remained in their positions. So I left the position and ran back into the cornfield behind me. Here I found myself between several Russian tanks, which surrounded me. I raised my Ofenrohr, aimed and fired, but the electrical firing trigger failed. One of the tanks discovered me and fired with its gun. I was knocked to the ground by the blast of the shell and hit my forehead against the Ofenrohr. That was my salvation. I pretended to be dead and the tanks moved on. After they were out of sight I ran as fast as I could to the rear, concealed by the cornfield.
By this point in the battle, there were Russian soldiers to the front, on the right flank and behind the battalion’s position. Now it was only a matter of breaking contact with the Soviets as quickly as possible, withdrawing before the battalion could be encircled and annihilated, and regrouping on defensive positions to the west. But the Soviet tanks which had broken through had been followed by masses of Russian infantry, which attacked the German paratroopers as they sought to cross the 2 km of open ground to reach the safety of the forest and cover. Now it was the Russian machine guns which fired unremittingly, mowing down the German paratroopers as they sought to escape. Few made it. Only twelve unwounded survivors of the 1st Company made it to the battalion rally point, along with only ten men from the 2nd Company. Major Witzig led the remnants of his battalion through the forests, bypassing the Soviets and avoiding battle until the survivors reached the German lines.
We set out towards the north under heavy fire along a small trail [remembered Private Anzenhofer]. For some time we strayed through the forest in column formation led by Major Witzig, meeting remnants of the battalion. The commander led us, through Russian tank and crowded troop formations, back to our own lines without further losses. To this day, everyone who survived still gives him credit.
Witzig himself had only praise for his men, especially his medical personnel, as he wrote after the war:
Their sense of duty saved the lives of hundreds of German and Russian soldiers. Only someone who has been in the inferno of death and destruction can measure how these men fought. Selfless and fearless, animated by the thought of helping their wounded comrades, no matter which uniform they were wearing and bringing them back safely as quickly as possible.
Many of the German medics were killed or seriously wounded, while others disappeared, never to be seen again.
Over the course of the next several days, other paratroopers rejoined the battalion, which, according to Witzig’s account, numbered sixty-five men. Witzig used these to establish blocking positions and prevent the Russians from breaking through. This remnant of Witzig’s battalion was committed again and again in a futile attempt to stop the Red Army. By the end of August, the 1st Battalion, 21st Parachute Engineer Regiment, had a total strength of 8 officers and 274 men. Of these, however, only 4 officers and 184 men were frontline soldiers. Karl-Heinz Hammerschlag, who fought under Witzig in Lithuania, remembered that from a battalion of more than 1,000 men in the summer of 1944, only 30 remained by September. ‘We had no tanks, no field artillery, no anti-tank artillery and no Luftwaffe,’ he told the author. ‘We fought mostly with Panzerfausts and anti-tank mines.’
Still, other intense battles followed near Memel and elsewhere in October. In the end, the unit’s losses were so heavy it had to be pulled out of the line. Its few surviving officers were sent to fight on the Western Front, while the surviving rank and file were dispersed among the other parachute battalions. Witzig bade farewell to his men in order to take command of the newly formed 18th Parachute Regiment of the 6th Parachute Division. Lieutenant Tiemens, Witzig’s adjutant for many years and the commander of the intelligence platoon, departed with Witzig, as did Lieutenant Heise, the medical officer and other officers, NCOs and soldiers who had served with Witzig. At the same time, Lieutenant von Albert departed to take command of the 2nd Replacement and Training Battalion in Güstrow. Others, including Lieutenants Fromme and Ackermann and Officer Candidate Wehnart, were sent to form the core of the newly reconstituted 2nd Parachute Engineer Battalion, to be commanded by Captain Siegfried Gerstner. The remainder, including the bulk of Witzig’s 3rd Company, formed the core of the new 6th Parachute Engineer Battalion, commanded by Major Stipschütz:
This was the end of the battalion, which endured along with the 1st Parachute Engineer Battalion, as the Corps Parachute Engineer Battalion, then as the 1st Battalion, 21st Parachute Engineer Regiment, for the longest time of all. Elements deployed to El Alamein under Ramcke and Rommel and it was one of the strongest and most reliable units during the long-lasting defence in Tunisia and on the Eastern Front in Lithuania.
In another account Witzig recalled that:
Schirmer stayed there [in the Baltics] with his battalion until the very end, when he was attached to the Fallschirmpanzerkorps Hermann Göring . . . while I and the rest of my battalion were detached in the late autumn of 1944. My battalion, the pieces of it, was dissolved. They used it to build three new battalions that were necessary for the Fallschirmjäger divisions in Holland.
Witzig’s elite parachute engineers had fought their last battle and learned that raw courage and skill were simply not enough in the face of the massive firepower and numbers the Red Army was hurling at the Germans. Even the Führer’s elite Fallschirmjäger had proven unable to stop the relentless westward onslaught of Stalin’s legions.
Nor was the damage confined to Army Group Centre’s front. On 20 August, while Witzig and his battalion were defending against the Red Army in the north, two German and two Romanian armies of Army Group South Ukraine disintegrated almost totally between the Black Sea and the Carpathian Mountains in the face of another overwhelming Russian attack. Romania now lay open to an advance by the Red Army, while German troops in Greece were cut off altogether from the Reich. The collapse of Army Group Centre and Army Group South Ukraine made August 1944 the Wehrmacht’s worst month of the entire war in terms of losses, with almost 278,000 German soldiers killed on the Eastern Front. Almost 170,000 more had been killed in July. And the number of Wehrmacht soldiers killed on the Eastern Front from July through September 1944 totalled almost 518,000, or 5,750 dead a day, the highest daily loss rate of the war.
Now Hitler’s network of alliances, from Scandinavia to the Balkans, began to unravel. On 25 August the Romanian people overthrew Marshal Antonescu, renounced their alliance with Germany and declared war upon Hitler and the Reich. This meant the loss of the desperately needed Ploesti oilfields to the Wehrmacht at a time when the German oil industry was being obliterated by the Allied air forces. To make matters even worse, on 25 August, Bulgaria began negotiations with the Russians for an armistice and demanded the withdrawal of all German military personnel from its territory. At about the same time, a serious insurrection broke out in Slovakia, while Finland prepared to declare its alliance with Germany at an end, as it too sought an armistice with the Soviet Union.
Soviet casualties were equally horrendous. The Red Army and 1st Polish Army had lost 180,000 men killed and suffered another almost 600,000 sick and wounded in Operation Bagration alone. But they had succeeded in shattering the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front and that success, in turn, forced the German High Command to transfer some 40–45 divisions to stem the Soviet onslaught and defend the Reich’s increasingly vulnerable eastern borders.45 In the meantime, the Western Allies were racing through France and into the Low Countries. On 25 August they moved into Paris; by 4 September they were in Antwerp, capturing the vital port undamaged. More ominously, Bagration also uncovered the roads to East Prussia and Berlin to an army fed on hate for the Germans and bent on vengeance. ‘Murder, arson, rape and devastation marked the trail of the Russian armies, excited as the latter had been by an unimaginable propaganda of hate,’ wrote Walter Goerlitz, in his authoritative history of the German General Staff:
Huge columns of refugees were moving westward. Often they were overtaken by Russian tanks, in which case they were massacred or crushed beneath their tracks. Ships carrying thousands of refugees were sunk by Russian submarines. All the horrors perpetuated in Russia by the S.S., all the deeds of shame committed in this ‘degenerate war’ of Weltanschauungen which Hitler had so impiously declared, were now revenged a hundred and a thousand fold, the innocent population of the German East being the victims. The culture which had taken centuries to build was buried within a matter of days.
But it was much more than ‘an unimaginable propaganda of hate’ that drove the Red Army soldier. It was unadulterated rage for the tremendous scale of death and destruction Germany and the Wehrmacht had inflicted on the Soviet Union and its people. ‘Everything, from the deaths of beloved friends to the burning of cities, from the hunger of the children back at home to the fear of facing yet another hail of shells,’ writes Catherine Merridale, in her masterful and uniquely insightful book on the Red Army soldier at war, ‘everything . . . was blamed on the Germans.’ One Russian soldier summed up what awaited the inhabitants of Hitler’s Third Reich: ‘We will take revenge, revenge for all our sufferings.’ Another wrote home: ‘We are clenching our fists and moving unrelentingly towards the west.’ With the Americans and British advancing in the west and the Russians pressing forward virtually unhindered in the east, the German people were about to reap the hate-filled whirlwind Hitler and his Wehrmacht had sown.