Motorcycle BMW R-12 attached to a reconnaissance unit, of the elite Division Grossdeutschland, in the background a Sd.Kfz. 222 Leichter Panzerspahwagen. Juan Carlos Ciordia
The German reconnaissance units were the eyes and ears of the armored units and one of the essential elements for the effectiveness of the “Blizkrieg”. The BMW firm already produced motorcycles when the German army asked him to design a machine capable of crossing through all kinds of terrain conditions. BMW copied the technology developed by the firm Zundapp in its model KS-750, with which the third wheel of the “side-car” was attached to the rear wheel of the motorcycle, thus creating a true three-wheeled vehicle.
The Grossdeutschland Panzer Division was the German Army’s premier armoured formation. Staffed exclusively by volunteers, and attracting the cream of Germany’s young officers, it quickly established a reputation for excellence on the battlefield. But such elite status meant it was thrown into desperate battles against the Red Army on the Eastern Front, which gradually exhausted its reserves of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and men.
After Hitler launched his armies at the Soviet Union in June 1941, he increasingly called on so-called “fire brigade” units to spearhead vital attacks or plug gaps in the line after overwhelming Soviet attacks had shattered the German front after 1943.
While the panzer divisions of the Waffen-SS are most commonly thought of as the “Führer’s fire brigade”, the German Army also created its own elite armoured force. Originally only a motorized infantry regiment, Grossdeutschland grew in the space of six years into a panzergrenadier division and then into a huge armoured corps, nominally containing four divisions and two brigades. The Grossdeutschland Panzer Corps was destined never to fight together, and many of its units existed only on paper.
The very name Grossdeutschland, or Greater Germany, summed up the ethos of the unit. It was no ordinary line unit but the German Army’s premier fighting force, containing its most experienced and professional officers and soldiers. It became a matter of pride that the German Army could field elite units to rival the panzer divisions of the Waffen-SS. The name betrayed the ideological underpinning of the unit – its sole purpose was to lead and win Hitler’s war of aggression, first in western Europe and then Russia. Grossdeutschland was Hitler’s ambition to create a German state that dominated continental Europe. Those nations or races that had no place in the Führer’s plans were to be expelled or exterminated. By naming its elite unit after Hitler’s maniac scheme, the German Army High Command clearly demonstrated that it had signed up to their Führer’s crazed plans to create a “master race”. Except for a few small elements, from 1941 onwards Grossdeutschland units fought almost exclusively on the Eastern Front against the Red Army.
The Early Years
The origins of the Grossdeutschland lie in the German Army’s Watch or Guard Troops, which were formed in 1934 to secure the High Command’s buildings in Berlin. When the Waffen-SS was formed, the army decided to form a rival elite force and the Guard Troops were expanded into a regiment, soon to be named Motorized Infantry Regiment Grossdeutschland. This regiment, four battalions strong, was lavishly equipped with trucks, light artillery, mortars and flak and anti-tank guns.
It saw action for the first time during the campaign in France and then spearheaded the German invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941. Later that summer, it was in the thick of the action as German troops surged into the Soviet Union, advancing into central Russia and then moving south into the Ukraine as part of the force sent to encircle the huge Soviet army defending Kiev. After a brutal winter, holding the front against the Soviet counteroffensive around Moscow, it lost almost 1000 dead and more than 3000 wounded, but established its reputation as the one of the Wehrmacht’s most professional and effective fighting units.
In the spring of 1942, orders were issued to expand the regiment into a motorized infantry division, complete with 14 Panzer III and 42 Panzer IV tanks, 21 StuG III assault guns, as well as dozens of SdKfz 251 armoured halftracks, Marder 76.2mm self-propelled anti-tank guns, 88mm flak guns, and towed 170mm and 150mm heavy artillery. The vast majority of the division’s infantry still had to travel in soft-skinned trucks and halftracks, so would dismount just outside enemy machine-gun range before going into action on foot. One company of the panzer battalion was equipped with the new Panzer IVF2, which sported the then new L/43 long cannon that was designed to defeat the heavy armour of the Soviet T-34 tank.
The up-gunned and up-armoured Panzer IVF2s would spearhead the Grossdeutschland’s advance during the coming summer offensive, dubbed Operation Blue by the High Command. Its aim was to smash the Soviet armies in southern Russia to open the way for German troops to seize the strategic oil wells in the Caucasus. Grossdeutschland was assigned to the Fourth Panzer Army, which was on the most northerly wing of five German armies.
During the advance to the River Don the Grossdeutschland panzer crews had a taste of the easy victories experienced during the Blitzkrieg years. The Soviet frontline troops put up the same lamentable performance as the year before and the Germans were soon motoring eastwards. A Soviet tank corps was ordered to counterattack and drive straight into the Grossdeutschland, only to be engaged and devastated by the Panzer IVs and IIIs. In the space of a week, some 200 Soviet tanks were knocked out and the Soviet counteroffensive was smashed, trapping 100,000 Red Army soldiers. But the attack was a desperate holding action and it worked. The bulk of the Soviet troops escaped and the Grossdeutschland spent the next six weeks chasing ghosts across the empty steppe. Fortunately for the division, it was diverted north to help Army Group Centre around the Rzhev salient rather than joining the Sixth Army for its doomed advance to Stalingrad. Nevertheless, it was not destined to have an easy time. The Rzhev salient pointed towards Moscow and Stalin had ordered a major offensive to destroy it. This was intended as a sequel to Operation Saturn that had trapped the Sixth Army. The Grossdeutschland panzer troops were formed into a hard-hitting reserve that rushed from one crisis point to another, as the salient held through a miserable winter.
In January 1943 Grossdeutschland was ordered to be pulled out of the line and moved south to join a major offensive to relieve the Sixth Army. By the time the division made it to its assembly area near Kharkov it was joined by the remainder of the newly formed Panzer Regiment Grossdeutschland, which boasted a full battalion of 42 Panzer IVs and a company of 9 new Tiger I heavy tanks. These 58-tonne (57-ton) monster tanks were armed with the deadly 88mm cannon that could destroy a T-34 at 2000m (2188yd). Almost as important, the new arrivals were led by the regiment’s commander, Colonel Count Hyazinth von Strachwitz, who was soon to become famous as the “Panzer Count”. He was already a hero from World War I, when he had led a German raiding party into Paris.
The division had only just escaped from encirclement in Kharkov, when the newly reinforced panzer regiment was ordered to lead a major German counterattack to turn back the Soviet winter offensive. Von Strachwitz led his panzers forward with considerable dash during March 1943, pushing forward at a great pace until it was engaged by the Soviet II Tank Corps. In the first clash of a bloody week, 46 T-34s were knocked out by the Grossdeutschland’s panzer regiment. The German offensive now started to gain momentum, with village after village falling to von Strachwitz’s panzers. The following day they ran into a network of Soviet anti-tank guns, called a “pak front” by the Germans, in prepared positions and backed by a large number of infantry bunkers. The Tigers came into their own, standing off and systematically blasting the anti-tank guns out of their bunkers. Flamethrower tanks then finished off the position.
As the attack rolled forward, on 16 March another 30 T-34s were destroyed by the panzers when they surprised a Soviet tank brigade in its assembly area. More Soviet tanks were thrown into the battle two days later, but von Strachwitz heard the tanks coming and quickly deployed his panzers to surprise the advancing Soviets. The panzers were driven into peasant huts to hide them and von Strachwitz ordered his gunners to hold their fire. Soviet tanks cautiously edged forward until they were actually inside the village. With nerves of steel, the panzer crews held fire for several hours. When the Soviet tanks exposed their side armour to the Germans, von Strachwitz fired his 88mm cannon, which took the turret off a T-34 with ease. This was a signal for the rest of the regiment to open up. In a few seconds, 18 T-34s were in flames. It was then that the Germans moved forward to attack. By the end of the day, 90 Soviet tanks had been destroyed. Soviet attacks continued for more than a week as several infantry divisions and tank brigades were thrown at the Grossdeutschland lines. All these efforts were rebuffed with heavy losses among the attackers. At the end of March Colonel-General Heinz Guderian, the Inspector-General of the Panzer Troops, came to view the Grossdeutschland’s handiwork. With pride, von Strachwitz was able to show the father of the German panzers a tank graveyard north of Kharkov containing hundreds of smashed Soviet T-34s.
As heavy rains turned Russia into a mud bath, both the Germans and Soviets turned their attention to reorganizing and refitting their forces for the coming summer campaign season. The Army High Command was determined that Grossdeutschland would have the honour of spearheading Operation Citadel to cut off the Soviet defenders holding the Kursk salient, which jutted more than 80km (50 miles) into the German front. It became fashionable among aristocratic, middle-ranking officers to join the Grossdeutschland as a way to gain battle experience, medals and promotion. It was also seen as important to ensure the German Army was not totally eclipsed by the Waffen-SS. The rank and file soldiers were now some of the most battle-hardened on the Eastern Front, while a higher than average proportion of the junior officers were Nazi Party members.
Grossdeutschland was allocated two battalions of Panther tanks, the newest and most modern tank in the German arsenal. It was developed in response to the T-34 and featured sloped armour and a long-barrel 75mm cannon that was almost as powerful as the 88mm carried in the Tiger. Hitler considered the Panthers crucial to the success of Operation Citadel, and he repeatedly put back the date of the offensive to ensure that 192 of the new “wonder” tanks were ready to lead the attack.
The other elements of the division were also brought up to strength during this period with extra deliveries of tanks, until its two panzer battalions boasted 80 Panzer IVs and 15 Tigers. Enough armoured half-tracks to fully equip Grossdeutschland’s armoured infantry, combat engineer or pioneer and reconnaissance battalions were also delivered to the division, together with self-propelled 150mm Hummel and 105mm Wespe howitzers. Grossdeutschland was redesignated a panzergrenadier division in the days before the Kursk offensive. With four battalions of tanks, the division was the most powerful armoured formation on the Eastern Front in July 1943.
Grossdeutschland’s panzergrenadiers opened the division’s attack on the Kursk salient on 5 July. The first objective was a key piece of high ground needed to open a path for the panzers to roll forward to attack the Soviets’ southern flank. The Tiger company led the attack with the new Panthers poised close behind and almost immediately ran into a firestorm of anti-tank fire. An interlocking network of pak fronts had been built by the Soviets all around the Kursk salient. Several Tigers struck mines and had to slug it out with the Soviet anti-tank gunners. To try to move the offensive forward, the Panther tanks were committed, but many soon started to burst into flames. This was not as a result of Soviet fire or mines – the new tanks were proving to have teething troubles. They were, however, easily able to see off a counterattack by a Soviet tank brigade equipped with American-built General Lee tanks.
This set the pattern for the next six days. Rather than being a Blitzkrieg, Operation Citadel turned into a bloody war of attrition. Grossdeutschland panzergrenadiers and panzers struggled forward to breach line after line of Soviet defences. Each day they knocked out dozens of Soviets tanks and guns, and took hundreds of prisoners. The cost was grievous, though, with the Grossdeutschland Panzer Regiment only able to put 22 Panzer IVs, 38 Panthers and 6 Tigers into the field on 12 July. That was the day the Soviets committed their tank reserves. Hundreds of T-34s surged forward and penetrated the division’s front in several places. Panzer counterattacks restored the situation.
The German attack rolled forward again the following day, only to run into fresh pak fronts containing more than 100 dug-in tanks and anti-tank guns. This was just too tough a nut to crack. Grossdeutschland’s attack was now stalled.
During the course of the battle the division claimed to have destroyed more than 263 Soviet tanks, 144 anti-tank guns, 22 artillery pieces and 11 multiple rocket launchers. Grossdeutschland’s own tank losses were a modest 10 Panzers IVs and 43 Panthers, but scores of other vehicles were damaged and unfit for action. Less than a third of the tanks that went into action on 5 July were ready for action. Losses among the division’s panzergrenadiers were equally grievous.
With Operation Citadel bogged down the Soviets now launched their strategic reserves against the northern German attack force. It was soon reeling back in disorder, so Hitler ordered Grossdeutschland to be pulled out of the line to move north to restore the situation. The division had barely time to unload its vehicles and equipment from its railway flat cars when another massive Soviet offensive broke through the German lines around Kharkov, and so it was on its way southwards to help plug the gap in the line.
Holding the Line
Four Soviet armies had smashed open a breach 80km (50 miles) wide in the Fourth Panzer Army’s front and more than 2000 T-34s were motoring southwards. While the Waffen-SS panzer divisions Totenkopf and Das Reich attacked from the south, Grossdeutschland and 7th Panzer were to hit the northern flank of the Soviet advance. As the division gathered for its attack, the newly-formed Tiger battalion joined von Strachwitz’s regiment. He had more than 100 tanks, including some 40 Panthers, 40 Tigers and 30 Panzer IVs. The Grossdeutschland started to be called a “super panzer division”, even though it was officially still a panzergrenadier division, because it boasted the strongest tank force in the German Army.
Once committed to action, the division found itself engaged in a swirling tank battle against waves of hundreds of T-34s advancing across an almost flat steppe. Tigers and Panthers picked off the Soviet tanks at extreme range in cornfields, while the Grossdeutschland’s panzergrenadiers had to fight off human-wave attacks of Soviet infantry. Daily kill rates of 40–50 T-34s were recorded during this period, creating major problems for the division’s maintenance crews who had to institute a crash programme to repair worn-out tank cannon barrels.
The counterattack at Achtyrka was a major tactical success for Grossdeutschland, but the remainder of the German front was still weak and a retreat to the River Dnieper was ordered. Grossdeutschland formed the rearguard as Army Group South pulled back. The Soviets gave the Germans no respite, though, and they were soon across this mighty river barrier. For three months Grossdeutschland found itself being rushed from one crisis zone to another as the Soviet steamroller ground forward. By March 1944, the German front had been pushed back to the Romanian border and the Soviets at last seemed to run out of steam, giving the Germans a chance to reform and regroup their battered divisions. Grossdeutschland was now led by Lieutenant-General Hasso von Manteuffel, perhaps its most famous commander. Although only 1.5m (5ft) tall, the aristocratic officer was a bundle of energy and led his division from the turret of a Panther tank.
By late April, von Manteuffel had been able to concentrate his division around the border town of Targul Frumos and build up a strong defensive position. His panzergrenadiers were deployed forward, holding a network of trenches and bunkers to hold off the Soviet infantry. Artillery batteries were positioned to sweep the division’s front with fire, and 88mm flak guns were dug-in to deal with any enemy armour that broke through the frontline. Von Manteuffel held his panzer regiment, with 25 serviceable Panzer IVs, 10 Tigers and 12 Panthers, plus an assault gun battalion, with 25 StuG IIIs, in reserve. He located his command post on a hilltop overlooking the whole of his sector. The scene was set for a one of the classic defensive battles on the Eastern Front.
After spending a day blasting the German lines with rolling salvoes of artillery fire, the first Soviet tank attacks went in on 2 May. The panzergrenadiers on the frontline allowed the first wave of 25 T-34s to pass over their trenches and let the 88mms take them on. More than half fell to the flak gunners and the remainder were easily finished off by panzers. Another probe by 30 T-34s was destroyed for no loss by the assault gun battalion, which ambushed them from a hull-down position on a ridge just behind the German front.
The Soviets than committed seven of their Josef Stalin II heavy tanks armed with 122mm cannons, which began engaging von Manteuffel’s panzer group at more than 3000m (3282yd) range. The Tigers were called up to drive them off, but their 88mm rounds simply bounced off the armour of the new Soviet tanks. They had to advance to under 1800m (1969yd) before they managed to punch through the weaker side armour of four of the Josef Stalin tanks. Pursuing Panzer IVs destroyed them as they turned tail.
Another Soviet thrust managed to break into a village on the right flank of the division and then more T-34s surged into the breach. Von Manteuffel led a Panzer IV company to the critical sector, knocking out 30 Soviet tanks and driving off the rest.
For two more days, this pattern was repeated with massive Soviet tank and infantry attacks along the Grossdeutschland front. Time and again, von Manteuffel’s frontline troops held their nerve until the panzers rode to the rescue. On 5 May, the Soviets pulled back. They left the remains of 350 destroyed tanks, and von Manteuffel estimated a further 200 Soviet vehicles were damaged. Just 10 German tanks were lost.
The following month, in June 1944, the biggest Soviet offensive of the war smashed the German Army Group Centre and ripped open a huge gap in the Eastern Front. German troops were driven from Soviet territory and retreated back into Poland. By 1 August 1944 Red Army troops had reached the Baltic, cutting off Army Group North around Riga. The situation was desperate. Grossdeutschland was called upon to spearhead an effort to reopen a land route to the trapped troops.
After safely unloading from its trains, the division was first sent to destroy a Soviet Guards Tank Corps at Wilkowishken on the East Prussian border with Lithuania. Some 350 tanks and other Grossdeutschland armoured vehicles were launched into action, and soon found that they were up against hundreds of heavily armoured Josef Stalin tanks, backed up by SU 100 and SU 122/152 heavy assault guns. Avoiding a head-to-head fight, von Manteuffel manoeuvred his outnumbered tanks to fire on the weak side armour of the Soviet vehicles. The Soviets eventually withdrew, leaving some 70 tanks and 60 anti-tanks guns behind.
Towards the end of August, the division was ready to spearhead the drive to open a corridor to Riga. Some initial penetrations were made but the Soviet defences were just too strong. When the attack ground to a halt on 23 August, all the division’s tanks were out of ground to a halt on 23 August, all the division’s tanks were out of Panthers arrived could the panzer regiment be considered fit for offensive action.
The Soviets had by now gathered 19 infantry divisions and 5 tank corps to renew the offensive and when they struck in October, the weak divisions around Grossdeutschland collapsed. For several days the division was effectively surrounded. Under protection of its Tigers and Panthers, Grossdeutschland managed to form a rearguard to allow several other German divisions to pull back into Memel. Grossdeutschland then withdrew, with Soviet tanks hard on its heels. The town was dubbed a “fortress” by Hitler but this was a myth. It was a hell-hole, bombarded relentlessly by Soviet guns. Eventually its garrison, including the remnants of Grossdeutschland, were withdrawn by sea to East Prussia.
As it reorganized in East Prussia during December 1944, the division was ordered to detach several units to help form the Panzer Corps Grossdeutschland. On paper this was supposed to contain the original Grossdeutschland Division, the panzergrenadier divisions Brandenburg and Kurmark, the Luftwaffe panzer division Hermann Goering, along with the Führer Grenadier and Führer Begleit brigades. These units were never to go into action together. Combat losses and supply shortages meant they never received anything like enough equipment and men to replace the horrendous losses at the front. When the next Soviet offensive broke in the middle of January 1945, a much-depleted Grossdeutschland Division rolled into action for the last time. Heavy fighting raged for weeks in the woods and forests of East Prussia as the division steadily fell back towards Königsberg. On 17 March the last panzer counterattack was launched by three of the division’s Tigers to protect its precarious toehold on the Baltic coast. Their crews fought to the last to screen the evacuation of their comrades to the Samland peninsula. For almost a month the division’s survivors fought on here as infantry until they were finally evacuated by ship to Denmark. In the space of three months more than 17,000 Grossdeutschland soldiers were killed in action. Only a few hundred men of the division made it to the relative safety of British captivity.
It was typical of the Grossdeutschland Division that it went down fighting. As the German Army’s elite panzer unit it was created to spearhead Hitler’s war of conquest in the East. When the Blitzkrieg faltered, time and again the division was thrown into the breach to hold the Eastern Front together. Equipped with the latest and most powerful tanks Germany’s factories could build, Grossdeutschland’s panzer regiment regularly achieved amazing tactical success. Only in the autumn of 1944, when the Soviets fielded huge numbers of their monster Josef Stalin tanks, did the division’s panzer crews find themselves the prey rather than the hunters.