OPERATIONS STRACHWITZ Part II

Once again the attack was rehearsed, this time twice. The road for the attack was narrow but could support a Tiger so they were to lead the assault. However they had to move in single file and would not be allowed to stop unless the whole column had to halt. As it was also the only passable road, the Russian had packed the culverts with explosives so the Graf had arranged for artillery to take out the explosives control bunker where the detonators were left. Failing this, his engineers were to cut the wires. For this operation, as with Strachwitz I, the infantry went into action without their bulky winter clothing to allow them freedom of movement. The winter clothing was bundled up and sent on to the troops in the evening. However fighting without their white camouflage clothing made them easier targets for the Soviets.

For this attack the Tigers were placed at the forefront with Otto Carius’ platoon of four Tigers at the tip of the spearhead. It was launched on  April, after a heavy barrage from Nebelwerfers, heavy artillery and 88mm anti-aircraft guns. Von Strachwitz observed proceedings at the very front, calmly leaning on his carved Volkhov stick as he waited for the breakthrough. The low-hanging trees made the barrage twice as effective as they prevented the blast effects escaping upwards causing severe casualties to the Russians cowering in their bunkers, particularly from the sheer effects of concussion, which was a feature of the Nebelwerfer rockets.

Some of the artillery fire landed near Carius’ Tigers, forcing them to move back and forth in the mine-infested terrain in order to avoid being hit. When the shots kept on coming despite his radio calls to cease, he was forced to fire a few rounds close to the artillery observers’ positions, obliging them to move and so give him some respite. A Russian anti-tank gun not observed in the confusion damaged one of his Tigers before being put out of action.

Heavy Russian return fire caused casualties among the infantry who were clumped together around the Tigers. The Tigers’ protection was illusory, as they attracted fire more than they provided shelter, but the infantry felt safer so they kept close, despite being actively discouraged from doing so. These were veteran hand-picked troops selected by the tankers themselves, as Otto Carius pointed out in his memoirs:

“The responsibility for the success of the operation lies squarely on the tank commander regardless of rank. Is everything clear?”

“Jawohl, Herr Graf”

The Oberst [Von Strachwitz] twisted his mouth into a sarcastic smile. It wasn’t unbeknownst to him, that we had allowed ourselves a few remarks about his desired form of address [Graf not Herr Oberst as regulation demanded]. None of them to be found in a handbook of good manners.

“Very well. So far it’s also been quite simple. But now a different question for the ‘Tiger’ people. What battalion do you want to fight with?”

We looked at each other, astonished by the generosity of this offer. We immediately agreed upon a light infantry battalion we had already worked with.

“Very well, that’s what you’ll have.”

With nightfall, Lieutenant Famula and his APCs brought up much-needed fuel, ammunition, and food, despite Russian attempts to stop him with interdictory fire and snipers who had infiltrated behind the lines.

The Russians vigorously counterattacked throughout the night, causing serious casualties. The seriously wounded were taken back for treatment in Famula’s APCs with the lightly wounded staying to help hold back the Soviets. Stukas, long since relegated to a primary night-attack role unless scarce fighter escort could be provided, tried to bring the battered infantry and tanks some relief, but their bombs had to be dropped well back to avoid friendly casualties. They also made little impression due to the softness of the ground, which absorbed the blasts. The heavy Tigers gradually sank ever deeper into the marshy soil, only extricating themselves with difficulty at daylight. One Tiger was damaged by the artillery fire and required towing. Von Schiller, the Tiger Company commander, was nowhere to be found so Otto Carius had to step in and continue with the mission. Another artillery barrage swept over them with one tank commander wounded after foolishly exposing himself from the turret. The column then moved towards Auware. Near the railroad station two assault guns from the Führer Begleit Brigade were attacked by a force of 20 Russian tanks. Corporal Rudolf Salvermoser, a gunner in one of the assault guns, described the action. They were in an ambush position and opened fire as the Russians approached:

Our first shot hit it, but didn’t do any damage. As soon as you shoot the loader puts in a shell right away and its ready. I knew the distance, just had to turn a few degrees or two and shoot again. Then we knocked it out. One after another they came out (from behind the trees). They had ten tanks. They shot but they missed. Its like they didn’t know what to do. It was a common saying in the German Army, “Don’t worry about the Russians, they always miss the first shot.” The guy next to us, he was about 100 yards away, he knocked out two. The third one started to back away when I shot it. The fourth one was further back already and I still hit it. One took off and my buddy chased him and knocked him out. The others all disappeared. We shot six tanks. They didn’t hit one of us. They were too slow. We were just faster and better. I told my commander Unteroffizier Hoffmann that I was just lucky that I hit them all. He said, “You were not lucky, you were trained to hit them all at the first time with the first shot.”

Salvermoser destroyed three T-34s and one KV-2, while the other assault gun under Unter-offizier Rahn destroyed three T-34s. It highlights how small numbers of German tanks and assault guns, could still defeat far larger Soviet forces. Elsewhere, Lieutenant Bölter and Sergeant Goring from the 502nd Tank Battalion engaged 35 Russian tanks and assault guns while giving support to the 8th Jäger Division. Bölter destroyed 15 enemy tanks and Goring seven. This brought Bölter’s total kills to 89, earning him the Knight’s Cross.

Overall the German surprise was so complete that in another battle group tanks from the Grossdeutschland Division overran a Soviet divisional headquarters. The divisional commander just barely escaped but his operations officer was caught, still partially undressed. Some of their anti-tank guns still had their barrel caps on, and many Red Army men were caught carrying out peaceful rear-area activities, having no idea that the Germans had gotten so close.

Skilfully combining armour, infantry, artillery and the Luftwaffe, von Strachwitz had eliminated the Eastsack with the well-crafted operation Strachwitz II. Both operations were well-planned and coordinated, gave Army Detachment Narva extra time for its defence, and prevented the Soviets from breaking out of their bridgeheads to cut off the German force and thence to sweep through Estonia. This now left Strachwitz III to address the Krivasso bridgehead on the German side of the River Narva, along with the capture of Krivasso. The Graf carried out his meticulous planning as usual, but was under no illusion as to the difficulty of the task. As he explained to his officers at a briefing:

Looked at superficially, this operation is very similar to both our previous ones. Only this time there are going to be considerably more difficulties… . We have already surprised the Russians twice in their bridgehead. They know this bridgehead is a pain for us. A third surprise will therefore probably not be possible. Especially as they know a new attack can only be carried out on this road. This naturally diminishes our chances of success compared to the previous operations where we were successful using the element of surprise.

He went on to tell them the advance road was narrow but could support a Tiger, so his intructions for the Tigers were similar to those in previous operations. As the Graf was addressing the officers his adjutant rushed in. Visibly annoyed, the Graf turned around. “What’s going on?” he snapped. The officer straightened up “Herr Graf. I would like to report that the announcement has been made in the news that the Führer has awarded you the Diamonds to the Knights Cross! If I may take the liberty I would like to be the first to congratulate you!” The other officers wanted to congratulate the Graf and celebrate but, as Otto Carius remembered,

Before we could say a word however the Graf made an abrupt sign of disapproval.

“First, the news is not an official source of information. Second, I don’t have any time for that now and don’t wish to be disturbed again.” That was meant for the adjutant, who turned beet red. He raised his hand to his cap and disappeared rapidly.

The Graf’s reaction did not imply that he was unimpressed by the award of Germany’s highest honour, but rather reflected his attitude to planning and combat. However he could still allow some levity when he rounded on Carius after the young officer told him that a ditch was impassable due to the surrounding marshy terrain.

“Take note of this Carius,” he said in a friendly manner. “If I say that the ditch doesn’t exist as an anti-tank ditch to me, then it doesn’t exist, do we understand each other?”

In my entire military career, I had never experienced such an elegant, and at the same time, unmistakable rebuff. Graf Strachwitz did not want to see an anti-tank ditch. So there was none there. Period—end of discussion. I was so nonplussed that I could only choke out a short “Yes sir!” Still smiling in his slightly caustic manner the Oberst nodded and continued his briefing.

Near the end of the briefing von Strachwitz turning towards Carius again:

“I’ve thought about the matter one more time Carius. Do you still foresee difficulties with the ditch?”

“Yes Herr Graf!”

“Well I don’t want to spoil your fun. Especially not when there really could be something to the matter. Do you have a suggestion?”

Otto Carius then suggested that wooden beams be taken on the APCs and used to ford the ditch, a solution that von Strachwitz quickly approved. He went on to note that he thought that deep down the Panzer Graf didn’t believe the operation would be a success and would much rather have called the whole thing off.

The attack commenced on 19 April, with eight Tigers leading, followed by Panzer IVs and APCs with an engineer APC behind the second lead Tiger. A squad of infantry rode on each of the tanks. Just prior to moving off, Carius’ loader had an accidental discharge from the hull machine gun wounding two infantrymen from the Fusilier Battalion. It was an inauspicious start to the operation. With the only hope of surprise now lost, the attack went in. Russian artillery quickly joined the fray while Illuyshin ground-attack planes made a quick appearance, only to be chased away by Focke Wulf 190s of JG54—the only fighter unit in the north—which shot down two. Stukas, under Lieutenant Colonel Klumey based at Tallinn, then swarmed in, but heavy Russian anti-aircraft fire kept them to a height which made their attacks ineffective, bringing down two of them.

The lead Tiger ran onto a mine, which immobilised it, bringing the entire attack column to a halt. Despite von Strachwitz enquiring several times why the attack was still stalled, the Tiger Company’s commander, von Schiller, did nothing, remaining bottled up in his tank. Finally von Strachwitz called von Schiller and Carius to his command post. Von Strachwitz was angrily swinging his Volkhov stick back and forth, then he let fly at von Schiller before placing Carius in command, ordering him to get the attack moving. This Carius did by simply moving the column around the obstructing Tiger, something von Schiller could and should have done himself.

The Germans quickly broke through the Russian lines, only to be halted by an anti-tank ditch. Von Strachwitz called a halt to allow the engineers to demolish the ditch so that the attack could resume the following morning. Russian artillery and mortars crewed by women fired a few salvoes to keep the Germans unsettled but no further action was taken.

During the night Russian bombers flew overhead on their way to bomb Narva, which was now nothing more than a pile of rubble, but still stubbornly resisting the Soviets’ best efforts to take it. Lieutenant Famula continued indefatigably with his nightly resupply efforts, earning high praise from an extremely appreciative Otto Carius.

The ditch was blown apart on the morning of 20 April. The Graf, sleeping in his pyjamas as was his usual practice, was not even disturbed by it. Like many senior commanders involved in a very long war the Graf allowed himself a few luxuries whenever circumstances permitted, not least of which were a good cigar and French cognac. For his part Carius was hoping the whole thing would be called off, but the attack went ahead, supported by Nebelwerfers whose rockets dropped short, landing on the Tigers and fusiliers waiting to move forward. For a full five minutes they endured the massive blasts, which tore the Fusilier Battalion apart, killing or wounding many. Only the heavily armoured Tigers escaped unscathed. Three Tigers were sent forward to cover the evacuation of the dead and wounded by Lieutenant Famula and his APCs. Now Otto Carius felt sure that the attack would be abandoned, but Graf von Strachwitz arranged for another battalion to be sent forward. The attack was to go ahead as planned.

A Russian assault gun opened up on Carius’ Tiger, and he survived a hit to his turret cupola solely because he had ducked down to light a cigarette. A little later, however, his tank was knocked out by another hit.

The attack had by now completely stalled. The Russians were simply too strong while the marshy ground, made worse by the spring thaw, curtailed movement so much that it was becoming impossible to move the attack forward. Elsewhere another battle group was equally stalled. The Tigers slowly pulled back, harried by Russian artillery fire as they towed their disabled tanks. A Russian bi-plane used for nuisance bombing flew over, dropping its bomb. Lieutenant Famula, standing alongside the road lighting a cigarette, was mortally wounded by shrapnel and died a short while later. The infantry was forced to give way and couldn’t hold the line. Reluctantly von Strachwitz gave the order to withdraw. Strachwitz III was over.

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