The End of the Panzer Divisions II

The battle of the Bulge was the end of panzer operations in the West. Afterward it became, in Manteuffel’s words, “a corporal’s war—a multitude of piecemeal fights.” It was not much of an exaggeration. Operation North Wind was originally intended to support the Ardennes offensive. Launched into Alsace in January, well after Watch on the Rhine had failed, North Wind burned out four more mechanized divisions to no purpose on any level, strategic, operational, or tactical. The American spearheads that pushed toward the Rhine in February and the British and Canadians that struggled through the Reichswald to their north encountered limited armored opposition, and most of that on company scale. As the Allies crossed the Rhine, encircled the Ruhr, and fanned out across a dying Reich, the scale diminished further.

At least so it appeared. Much of the time the Germans were shuffling the panzers from crisis point to crisis point in a near-random fashion defying close analysis. Regiments and divisions, reduced to cadres and skeletons, mounted counterattacks noted in their records and histories that had so little impact that they failed to make Allied war diaries except as last stands.

Panzer Lehr offers a good case study. After Houffalize it was withdrawn into reserve and rebuilt—numerically at least. The quality of the replacements was described as “bad”: poor training, no experience. Vehicles were in short supply. Most of the tanks were under repair or lying by the side of the road somewhere. When new ones arrived they had not been adequately inspected and tested at the factories. They had not been “driven in” due to the lack of fuel. For the same reason the quality of the new drivers was low. Without time for checkups and overhauling at unit level, non-operational losses were an ongoing problem even when moving from skirmish to skirmish.

Panzer Lehr next saw action in February, committed to the Reichswald in support of the hard-pressed 116th Panzer. Its counterattacks were repeatedly stopped by tank and artillery fire of an intensity the division had never experienced. Mobile operations did not occur, grumbled one commenter, because the enemy refused to engage in them! From the Reichswald, Lehr was ordered south against the US 9th Army. It was “urgently awaited” locally—but as a mobile antitank defense against the fast-moving Americans. Hitler wanted a full-scale counterattack—a mission the panzer regiment’s commander dismissed as “clearly unimaginable.” Instead Lehr went into the line around Rheydt and Mönchengladbach and took heavy losses from air strikes and ground attacks. It fell back to Krefeld too weak to defend the city.

For what it was worth, Panzer Lehr’s tank destroyers helped hold the Adolf Hitler Bridge across the Rhine until it could be blown. By then the division had only 20 serviceable tanks. Its panzer grenadier regiments had been reduced to battalion strength. Fuel shortages and breakdowns cost heavy vehicle losses. Communications equipment, a core element of the panzers’ effectiveness throughout the war, was in short supply. Replacements were so scarce the division was impressing stragglers. When, on March 7, Panzer Lehr Division was finally authorized to retreat across the Rhine itself, infantry strength was down to a single battalion. Two tanks remained operational. “It would be superfluous,” noted the commenters, “to describe the mood of the totally exhausted soldiers.”

Two days later a battle group of fragments, built around 18 freshly repaired or newly arrived tanks, was ordered to the Remagen bridgehead. Along with bits and pieces of the 9th and 11th Panzer Divisions, grandiosely titled “Corps Group Bayerlein,” it was expected to wipe out the bridgehead before the Americans could reinforce it. Bayerlein, Model—whose army group was responsible for the sector—and Hitler disagreed on the timing and direction of the attack. Albert Kesselring, who replaced Rundstedt as High Commander West on March 11, added his voice to the mix.

Hitler had convincingly insisted that the Russians were about to suffer a catastrophic defeat, after which the main German forces would redeploy and deal with the Western allies. All Kesselring had to do was hold on. How much of this Kesselring believed and processed through the generic optimism that gave him the nickname “smiling Albert” remains incalculable. What was certain was that the projected jump-off points for the attack kept falling into American hands before the Germans could get into position. First US Army made the subject moot on March 22 with an armored breakout to the northeast that joined 9th Army’s spearheads to encircle the whole of Army Group B.

The Ruhr Pocket matched anything achieved by the Russians: over 300,000 Germans in some kind of uniform with some kind of military identity, ranging from schoolboys carrying bazookas to the remnants of famous divisions like 3rd Panzer Grenadier, 116th Panzer, and Panzer Lehr. An attempt at breakout failed when the Americans again overran the assembly areas. Lehr’s records speak of “over-hasty withdrawals” and concede the division’s fighting spirit was broken. By April 5, 15 AFVs remained. One battle group was built around four of them, three squads of bazooka men, a dismounted panzer grenadier company, and a local-defense pioneer company with all of its men over 50 years old.

Ten days later, as the Americans continued to carve up the pocket, the division staff concluded further resistance useless. The last rounds were fired off; the last armored vehicles destroyed; and what remained of Panzer Lehr waited for the Ami tanks to come and get them. Walther Model committed suicide on April 21 after telling a group of stragglers to go home and wishing them luck. When Germany surrendered, the German army in the West included three mechanized divisions: two armored, one panzer grenadier. The once mighty had fallen a long way.

The military bureaucrats responded to disaster by shuffling paper. In October 1944 a new type of panzer grenadier battalion was introduced on a scale of one or two to each army and Waffen SS division. Its rifle companies rode bicycles instead of trucks. In March the armored force introduced the Panzer Division 45. It created the “mixed panzer regiment,” a battalion each of tanks and mechanized infantry plus support units: 40 tanks, half Panthers and half Panzer IVs. The other panzer grenadiers were now “partially motorized,” a euphemism for the riflemen moving on foot. Panzer divisions unable to meet even these reduced standards were to be converted to “battle groups.” Waffen SS panzer divisions lost two of their six infantry battalions, and two of the remaining four were to be equipped with bicycles. For practical purposes the new order remained a paper exercise. It nevertheless epitomized that demodernization of the Wehrmacht noted by so many scholars. And on March 28, Heinz Guderian was dismissed as Chief of Armored Troops and Acting Chief of Staff.

Guderian’s position had never been exactly stable, despite his involvement in screening officers accused of complicity in July 20, his acceptance of the brutal suppression of the Polish Home Army and the destruction of Warsaw, and his tail-wagging support for the army’s increasing Nazification. Requiring all General Staff officers to be “National Socialist officers” might be discounted as eyewash. But making the Nazi salute compulsory was more than a gesture—and was widely understood as such by all ranks.

After the war Guderian described his behavior as a set of compromises intended to encourage Hitler to listen to military reason. For Guderian that meant concentrating Germany’s resources on the Eastern Front. He understood that this was the least worst alternative. But the Western allies had in fact halted their offensive, and been halted, short of the Rhine. Guderian shared a common German sense that Anglo-American fighting power was sufficiently mediocre that, for a while at least, High Command West could hold on with limited reinforcements. And at worst there was still some space in the west to trade for time. The Ruhr, Guderian argued, was finished: bombed out. The Silesian factories, in contrast, were still producing and must be defended.

German intelligence reported over 200 Soviet infantry divisions and two dozen tank and mechanized corps from the Baltic to the Carpathians—eleven-to-one odds in infantry, seven-to-one in tanks, plus the massive forces deployed in Hungary that through December continued the pressure on Budapest. Guderian responded on two levels. He began transferring mobile divisions eastward, with the intention of forming a central reserve strong enough to wage a maneuver battle on the Reich’s frontier: the Lodz-Hohensalza area. That kind of fight, he argued, remained the strength of German soldiers and commanders. In any case it was the only chance for—what? Did Guderian share Hitler’s hopes for the kind of miracle that had saved Frederick the Great? Was he playing out a bad hand because of professional pride? Or was he concerned with scoring points against his internal opponents?

What is known is that by mid-December Guderian had managed to reposition fourteen and a half panzer and panzer grenadier divisions. All were understrength. Most had been reconstructed like their counterparts remaining in the west, with replacements drawn from anywhere and equipment assembled ad hoc—not much for a front of 750 miles.

What is also known is that Guderian continued to argue in vain for the withdrawal of Army Group North from Courland, where its two dozen divisions were operationally useless, and to advocate equally in vain for a general shortening of the lines in the east—a position supported by Harpe and Reinhardt, the senior officers on the ground.

What is finally known—not least because Guderian was at pains to tell his version of the story in postwar safety—is that on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Day, and January 9, Guderian met with Hitler, described the catastrophe looming in the east, and was blown off. Hitler dismissed the intelligence estimates as nonsense and ordered the responsible officer committed to an asylum. Guderian responded by calling the Eastern Front a house of cards that would collapse entirely if broken at any point. Hitler ended the dialogue by reasserting that the Eastern Front must make do with what it had.

When Guderian denounced the Führer’s “ostrich strategy,” he was being too generous. The ostrich is supposed to hide its head in the sand when confronting danger. Instead Hitler extended his neck—into Hungary. In early December, three rebuilt panzer divisions—3rd, 6th, and 8th—were dispatched to the theater as the core of a counteroffensive to recover ground lost in the autumn. That plan was forestalled first by predictable shortages of fuel and ammunition, then by a major Soviet offensive beginning in late December that set the stage for the war’s final large-scale clash of armor.

Operationally Stavka’s intention was to complete the capture of Budapest and open the way to Vienna. Strategically the aim was to fix Hitler’s attention. Budapest would prove a difficult nut to crack, but the design’s second half succeeded brilliantly. Hitler initially responded by sending south the two best divisions of Guderian’s painfully assembled reserve, Totenkopf and Viking: IV SS Panzer Corps under Herbert Otto Gille. Gille is one of the forgotten generals of the Waffen SS—perhaps because he fits neither of the familiar physical stereotypes: bar-room brawlers like Dietrich and Eicke or male models like Meyer and Peiper. Slightly built, wearing glasses, Gille looked like a middle-aged high-school science teacher. But he had commanded Viking for over a year and brought its survivors out of the Korsun Pocket, the first to wade into a flooded, freezing river at the head of a human chain. He led IV SS Panzer Corps ably in the autumn fighting around Warsaw, in the process winning Totenkopf’s collective respect: neither an easy task nor necessarily a positive recommendation.

More than any of his senior counterparts in the Waffen SS, Gille eschewed ideologically connected behavior and rhetoric. He projected an alternate image with long and respectable antecedents in German military culture:

a good comrade off duty but hard as he needed to be when it counted—a soldier doing a job. Now his job was to break through to Budapest. On the night of January 1 the panzers struck. Taking advantage of a collective post-New Year’s hangover on the Russian side, IV SS Panzer Corps advanced 30 miles and knocked out over 200 tanks. But with half their strength still under way and only 100 Panthers and Panzer IVs between them, Viking and Totenkopf had no chance to break into the city directly. Finding that out cost them 3,500 men and 40 tanks and assault guns.

A simultaneous attack by III Panzer Corps similarly foundered against resistance too strong to be broken by the hundred-odd tanks available, even though 25 were Tigers. Gille’s corps redeployed, went in again on January 9 around Esztergom, and broke into the rear echelons of the Soviets encircling Budapest. This time the SS got to within sight of the city towers. Gille called for a breakout. Hitler refused.

On January 12 the overextended SS again pulled back and shifted locations, this time south to Lake Balaton. On January 18 the corps attacked a third time, broke through on a 20-mile front, and advanced almost 40 miles the first day. The long 75s of “Guderian’s Ducks” proved their worth as the panzers drove forward across open country on hard-frozen ground. On January 20 the Waffen SS reached the Danube, and this time came within 15 miles of Budapest before the surprised Russians concentrated enough force to stop what remained of them.

Taken together, the three attacks had been another bravura performance by Hitler’s panzers, tactically on a level with the best of anything done in 1941-42. Gille and his men understood their efforts as a rescue mission, and had fought with reckless desperation even by Waffen SS standards. Once more, however, requests for a breakout were dismissed. Instead Hitler ordered the corps to withdraw.

The Führer saw Gille’s operations as an initial step in driving the Red Army back from Budapest and securing the oil fields that were the Reich’s last source of fuel. In mid-January he had begun removing SS divisions from the Ardennes for rebuilding. Most of what remained of Germany’s arms production was poured into that process. Once again sailors without ships, airmen with neither planes nor bases, found themselves wearing SS runes. Guderian’s expectation was that these refurbished shock troops would be transferred east. Instead, Hitler ordered 6th SS Panzer Army to Hungary for the offensive that, he informed his generals, would decide a war that was essentially about controlling resources.

Operation Frühlingserwachen (Spring Awakening) was the final showcase and last stand of the panzers. Six Waffen SS divisions were committed. Sixth SS Panzer Army had I SS Panzer Corps with Leibstandarte and Hitler Jugend: parent and child. The II SS Panzer Corps included Das Reich and Hohenstaufen, old and new avatars of Himmler’s personal army. Gille’s corps was initially assigned to Balck’s 6th Army, alongside III Panzer Corps with two of the army’s originals: 1st and 3rd Panzer Divisions. Put together, it added up to around 600 AFVs, the best available. Leibstandarte still boasted its battalion of 36 Tiger Bs. Hitler Jugend had an attached battalion of 31 Jagdpanzer IVs and 11 Jagdpanther.

But the transfer of men and material was disrupted at every turn by Allied air attacks, and the consequences of earlier attacks, on a railway network no longer capable of sustaining the rapid, reliable, large-scale troop movements of 1942-43. Not until March 6 was the main German attack ready—and then almost 300 of its tanks and assault guns reached the front only during the next week.

Hitler entertained hopes of not merely relieving Budapest, but crossing the Danube, continuing into Romania, and recapturing those oil fields as well. Reality was a last-ditch breakout attempt on February 11 by what remained of the city’s garrison. Fewer than 1,000 men reached German lines. The commander, seeking to escape through the city sewer system, was driven to the surface by flooding and unheroic ally surrendered the next day.

At least with Budapest gone the panzers were free to concentrate on their Soviet opponents—if they were able to reach them. The weather had broken in late February. Rain and melting snow softened the ground so badly that Balck established “road courts-martial,” with the power to execute out of hand anyone responsible for road maintenance who failed in that duty. Morale did not improve. Nor did the offensive make much initial progress as the heavier AFVs became bogged down on roads Dietrich described as “catastrophic” or sank up to their turrets in the marshy fields. The panzer grenadiers took heavy losses advancing on foot against a well-developed defensive system manned by no fewer than 16 rifle divisions. By the second day they had managed to open enough gaps for the panzers to move through. By the third day Hitler Jugend achieved a local breakthrough when a dozen of its heavy tank destroyers took out a Soviet antitank screen and the reconnaissance battalion’s half-tracks machine-gunned and drove over the fleeing Russians in a style reminiscent of eighteenth-century cavalry. But the advance stopped at the Sio Canal, connecting Lake Balaton with the Danube.

In the absence of air and artillery support, the panzers were compelled to push right up to the canal banks to cover the infantry as they crossed. That brought them into killing range of Soviet antitank guns, and AFVs were no longer expendable assets. Where they were forced to retreat, the rubber boats of the assault troops were easy targets. Elsewhere Das Reich and Hohenstaufen were stymied. Leibstandarte managed to establish a bridgehead, and its pioneers managed to put a bridge across the Sio. But field bridging equipment had long since failed to keep pace with the panzers’ increasing weight. The bridge promptly collapsed. Only heroic improvisation under heavy fire reopened it sufficiently to funnel forward tank destroyers able to counter the T-34/85s that for three days kept counterattacking what was in any case a foothold to nowhere. On March 15, Dietrich and his staff ordered a withdrawal, intending to shift the army’s Schwerpunkt to II SS Panzer Corps. On March 16 it ceased to matter.

The Soviets had been able to contain Spring Awakening without committing their sector reserves. Instead those forces were concentrated west of Budapest, on the German left flank and rear. On March 14, Gille’s corps reported the threat. On March 16, under cover of a heavy fog, a million men and 1,699 armored vehicles tore a 20-mile hole in the Axis defenses and kept going. Balck, an operational optimist, had been too engaged by Spring Awakening’s chimerical prospects to retain deployable German armored reserves. By the time he, Dietrich, and Hitler could agree on the timing and direction of a counterattack, its prospects were long gone and the situation had deteriorated to sauve qui peut.

Viking was almost surrounded. Its CO pulled back in defiance of Hitler’s order to stand fast, but it was Hohenstaufen’s intervention that enabled Viking’s remnants to withdraw. The IV and II SS Panzer Corps in turn held open a corridor long enough for most of the Germans cut off by the Soviet offensive to escape. That included all that was left of 1st Panzer Division—11,473 men and exactly one operational tank, as of April 1. Leibstandarte and Das Reich, the farthest east of the Panzers, managed to bring out the men able to walk.

Hohenstaufen’s panzer regiment alone accounted for more than 100 verified kills in the course of the fighting. But 6th SS Panzer Army was reduced to fewer than 100 AFVs. More than 1,000 tanks and assault guns, Hungarian as well as German, fell to the Soviets. Relatively few had been knocked out. It was empty fuel tanks, engine breakdowns, and “General Mud” that finished off the panzers. The Russians captured enough usable tanks to put them into service against their former owners.

The German front in the south was never reestablished. For the next six weeks, operations amounted to a fighting withdrawal to, then past, Vienna. The Germans still had some sting in their tails. The last remaining tanks of Leibstandarte, predictably led in person by Peiper, retook a few villages around Sankt Pölten. For the panzers, SS or army, the primary mission nevertheless became covering the retreat as long as possible, then, wherever possible, pulling back quickly enough to surrender to the Americans. But the story of those final days is best expressed in the myth of the chamber pot.

On March 27, Hitler, enraged by the failure of his chosen troops in Hungary, ordered Leibstandarte, Das Reich, Hohenstaufen, and Hitler Jugend to remove the cuff titles bearing their division names. The alleged response exists in many versions involving combinations of a chamber pot full of armbands and high decorations being sent to the Führer’s headquarters—sometimes accompanied by a severed arm, and sometimes by the injunction “kiss my ass.”

Reality was predictably less spectacular. The most credible version has Dietrich saying with tear-filled eyes, “So this is the thanks for everything,” and ordering the morale-killing message not to be passed to his men. The chamber pot and the epithet are gestures of defiance borrowed and adapted from Goethe’s Sturm und Drang play Götz von Berlichingen—a bit of wishful thinking by postwar SS nostalgists. Ironically, the divisions had been ordered to remove their armbands for security purposes when sent to Hungary. Many replacements never even received them.

From Stavka’s perspective, Hitler could not have been more obliging had he been on Stalin’s payroll. The Soviet High Command’s plan to finish the war dated from October, and involved two major offensives. The secondary attack would be mounted against East Prussia; the main one across Poland. In a decision with as many postwar implications as military aspects, Zukhov and Konev, personal and professional rivals since the war’s early days, were each assigned command of a front under Stalin’s direct command—objective Berlin.

Given the Soviets’ overwhelming numerical superiority, developed operational effectiveness, and improving logistical capabilities, the Germans could do little but play out the hand, as a trumped bridge player tosses meaningless cards onto the table. Even before Gille was transferred to Hungary, Guderian’s concept of a mobile defensive battle fought by a strong central reserve was arguably two years behind the times. Its potential was further diminished when the army group commanders concentrated four more mechanized divisions closely behind what they considered vital sectors. That approach, a variant of the Model model, was arguably only a year out of date. Its success depended on a far closer balance of quality and quantity than existed in 1945. The dispersed panzers were in fact a security blanket for an infantry who might stand to a finish—but whose chances of withstanding a major attack were limited to the point of being imaginary.

The main Soviet offensive made five miles in the first three hours of January 12. By the end of January 13, the breakthrough was 25 miles deep. The panzer divisions in its way were overwhelmed, able to do no more than fight for mere survival. Zukhov’s 26th Guards Rifle Corps evoked the panzers’ glory days by seizing a vital bridge before German engineers could throw the demolition switches. Warsaw fell on January 17, and Hitler’s blind rage led him to turn Guderian over to the Gestapo for interrogation, albeit briefly. On January 20, Konev’s spearheads entered Silesia. By January 31, Zukhov was on the Oder at Küstrin, 40 miles from Berlin.

The primary German response, initiated by Hitler, was to transfer the newly organized Grossdeutschland Corps from East Prussia. With Grossdeutschland, Brandenburg and Hermann Göring Divisions also under command, it went into action on January 16. But the trains carrying its rear echelon were intercepted by Soviet tanks; the best it was able to do was to serve as a rallying point for disorganized soldiers and fleeing civilians. Ever-dividing, ever-shrinking pockets, most coalesced around a couple of tanks, perhaps some half-tracks, and a company or so of panzer grenadiers, made their way toward the Oder, hoping above all to avoid attracting Soviet attention. The lucky ones beat Zukhov by a day or two.

To the north the Russian attack took five days to break through a German defense, enervated by the withdrawal of its armored reserve. As Russian tanks reached the Baltic, the Germans withdrew in the only direction open to them—eastward, into Königsberg. And the near-forgotten Courland Pocket, with its two forlorn panzer divisions, stood to, waiting for the Russians to finish it.

The Red Army’s pause at the end of January was in part to refresh its logistics, in part to secure its flanks, and in part to structure its internal priorities. The attacks into Pomerania and Silesia in February and March scarcely make a footnote to the story of Hitler’s panzers, apart from their success in screening a withdrawal- cum-evacuation into the relatively safe zone of the Sudetenland. The battle for Berlin was another matter. The Reich’s capital was defended by the Wehrmacht’s flotsam: boys and old men, convalescents and comb-outs, foreigners fighting with ropes around their necks, equipped with anything handy. Factories and rail sidings were full of armored vehicles that could not be moved for lack of fuel and fear of air attack.

Guderian’s hopes of forming new reserves by transferring divisions from the West and evacuating Courland were not much less delusional than the Führer’s. His plans for a local spoiling attack to disrupt the Russians on Berlin’s doorstep primarily featured winning a screaming argument with Hitler. The attack itself collapsed within days—a predictable outcome given its limited striking power.

The final Russian offensive began on April 16. It was still a Zukhov- Konev derby, with the final prize the Reichstag. Familiar numbers flash across the screen: 21st Panzer Division, 25th Panzer Grenadier, LXVI Panzer Corps, 3rd Panzer Army, SS Northland Panzer Grenadiers. All by now were shadow formations exercising ad hoc command over constantly changing orders of battle that meant nothing except in a wire diagram. The tanks and assault guns that remained went down by ones and twos, on streets and in neighborhoods with names all too familiar.

No narrative of the Reich’s final days can be called typical. Let one stand nevertheless for many. The 249th Assault Gun Brigade was evacuated from West Prussia, reorganized and reinforced, and picked up new guns in Spandau, at the factory itself. It went into action in Berlin on April 27. In three days it destroyed 180 Soviet AFVs—at least by its own reckoning—and had only nine guns left. They fought in the heart of Berlin: on Frankfurter Allee, around the Technische Hochschule, across Alexanderplatz. One of the officers was hanged by an SS flying squad, presumably for “cowardice.” Another received the Knight’s Cross for valor.

On May 5, Hitler’s death was announced. The CO called his men together, and it was decided to break out toward the Elbe. In the darkness, the brigade lost contact. Half cut its way through to the Elbe. The other half, three guns, came under Russian fire. The lead vehicle took a direct hit. The next one got stuck. The third came to help, saw the second gun blown apart, and was itself disabled. Its crew escaped. The 249th had fought to the last gun and the last round. Adolf Hitler had long been aware the war was lost. Instead of a glorious final victory, he sought a heroic downfall, a Wagnerian Götterdammerung. What he achieved was in macrocosm the fate of this single small unit: downfall in chaos.

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