Third Panzer Division: From the Spree to the Bug 1939 Part I

August 1939 approached. The weather was warm and sunny. There was a lot of activity in the fields and pastures; the harvest needed to be brought in. Who knew when the next bad weather would come? But the sun still smiled down from the clear blue skies.

The headquarters and staff sections were filled with secretive and fast-paced work. The adjutants and liaison officers ran around with serious faces, and even the clerks and staff noncommissioned officers became unapproachable. The first batch of reserve officers arrived in the garrisons at the beginning of August. The soldiers, who had been called up for eight weeks, had given up hope of being released. It was the same picture every year. The annual maneuvers were around the corner. But this time, there was no real anticipation; the reports coming in from east of the Reich frontier were too serious.

In July, at the Bergen-Belsen Training Area, the division had activated the logistical units that belonged to it in accordance with its mobilization plans. They received the designation Divisions-Nachschubtruppen 83 (Division Support Element 83). By the beginning of August, ten truck columns had been established. That was followed by the division rations section under the direction of Stabszahlmeister Flitner. The division bakery company was under the command of Hauptmann Nagel. There was also the division’s meat-processing platoon, the field post office (Feldpostinspektor Mollweide), and the two maintenance companies.

On 17 August, the whistles of the noncommissioned officers in charge pierced through the hallways of the barracks and the living areas: “Load up!” Later on, the company commanders revealed the march objective of the movement that had been ordered: the training area at Groß-Born. The elements of the division gradually moved out of their various garrisons. The advance parties of the rifle regiment left Eberswalde the next day, with elements of the motorcycle battalion following on 19 August and the armored regiments the day after that. That was followed by the artillery. Everyone thought to himself: Were we really just going to Groß-Born? Only a few actually knew that the Army High Command had already taken the preliminary measures for a mobilization. That meant that the formations capable of “moving out expeditiously” were to be prepared to move. That included all motorized divisions.

As the forces marched out, the family members of the soldiers gathered to bid farewell, as did the civilian employees of the mess halls, the canteens, and the administrative elements.

Many career officers and noncommissioned officers had to depart from the divisional elements during that period. They were transferred to new commands, activating formations and schools. It was not easy taking leave of their units. Now that the time had come to prove themselves, their common experiences and common efforts had to be given up. Reserve officers and noncommissioned officers took their places. Some of them were from the times of previous exercises and the march into the Sudetenland, thus allowing them to find a bridge to foster trust and understanding.

The commanders of the 4th and 5th Batteries changed within the 2nd Battalion of the division artillery. Major Wöhlermann and Hauptmann Hellmers gave up their commands to Hauptmann Haselbach and Oberleutnant Nebel (promoted to Hauptmann on 27 August). Major Burmeister assumed command of the 2nd Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 6.

The march route of the individual elements of the division took them past Stettin, across the Oder, and through Pomeranian Switzerland (pommersche Schweiz, the hill country of lower Pomerania, now Poland). On 22 August, a rumor spread through the march serials of a non-aggression pact between Germany and Russia. That evening, the rumor was confirmed. By then, all elements of the division were at the training area. The next few days were spent with the daily duty routine and passed quickly. Weapons and equipment were maintained; classroom instruction alternated with drill. Engineers instructed other formations with regard to electrically detonated obstacles and disarming them. No one thought that a military confrontation was possible.

Suddenly, on 25 August, marching orders arrived. The code word was “Tannenberg.” At 1800 hours, the formations assembled in the camps for a final formation. The commanders discovered from the division that the surreptitious mobilization was to take place, with D-Day being 26 August. The die had been cast.

The march east started. The border was to be reached that same evening. The motorcycle battalion took the lead as far as Barkenbrügge. The armored brigade was to pass through at that point. The lead elements reached the border east of and to both sides of Preußisch Friedland around 2300 hours. The motorcycle battalion staged in the forests along the border. Its 1st Company screened along the railway line to Königsberg.

At 2345 hours, orders to halt arrived.

The lead elements were promptly pulled back ten kilometers; the artillery set up in the thick woods forty kilometers west of the border. No one knew exactly what was going on. The rumor started to circulate slowly that the attack had been called off. It was said that the government had made new proposals to Poland with regard to regulating the Danzig and corridor problems and that it was waiting for the Polish response.

In an order that must be considered a masterpiece of planning, the German Army in the East—around half a million strong at this point—had to be halted at and over the border. The division set up a bivouac site in the Friedland area. The days spent in the camp were certainly a test of nerves for the forces, but they also represented a bit of a breather after the feverish preparations. Hardly any traces of normal duty activities could be seen. The only thing was pulling guard. On 27 August, an order prohibiting the sending of mail was imposed for the next few days. Portions of the companies were detailed to assist in the harvest in the surrounding farmlands. Some colorful evening celebrations took place, with the one hosted by the 2nd Battalion of the divisional artillery on the evening of 28 August in Peterswalde counting among the most impressive. The highlight of the evening was a singing competition, which the choir from the 5th Battery won. Gefreiter Salchow was an entertaining master of ceremonies who was not afraid to inject some political humor. The 2nd Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 6 also held a singing competition, with the 6th Company taking the prize.

On the evening of 26 August, the motorcycle battalion returned to the border area again to secure the staging area of the division. The 3rd Company of Oberleutnant Adler advanced as far as a line running from the Grünkirch customs building to Grunau. Within the company, the platoon of Leutnant Arent, who was the Reichsbühnenbildner in civilian life, was positioned on the right. Leutnant Stadie’s platoon was in the middle and Leutnant Schmidt’s platoon on the left. Across from them were the Polish village of Wilkowo and Hill 162, which featured a tall wooden watchtower.

Contrary to expectations, everything remained quiet on the Polish side, even though some movement could be identified. One antitank gun and one machine-gun position could be identified. There was little to be seen of civilians. On the German side, all traffic was forbidden between 2200 and 0500 hours. During that time, the patrols and engineers were active, cutting tank lanes through the barbed wire.

All of a sudden, around 0100 hours on 29 August, advance parties from the III./Infanterie-Regiment 25 of the 2. Infanterie-Division (mot.) showed up. It was part of a deception, whereby the armored division was being pulled back from the front. The motorcycle battalion moved to the forestry office at Linde. The next day passed quietly. It rained. There was no change in activity on 31 August, either. In the midst of all the quiet, orders arrived around 1600 hours: “Be prepared to move!”

As it started to turn dark on that rainy day, the columns began to move forward again. The tanks moved into the area on both sides of Grunau, followed by the rifle regiment. Just after midnight, an attack order arrived. The war was on!

To that end, the 4. Armee had moved up to the border in Eastern Pomerania. The commander in chief was General der Artillerie von Kluge. It was directed for the field army to force a crossing over the Braha, rapidly reach the west bank of the Vistula in the Kulm–Graudenz area, and eliminate the Polish forces in the corridor. The main effort of that aspect of the operation was the XIX. Armee-Korps (mot.). The commanding general, General der Panzertruppen Guderian, was the creator of the German armored force. Oberst i.G. Nehring, a longtime assistant to Guderian in the creation of the Panzertruppe and prewar commander of Panzer-Regiment 5, was his chief of staff.

The corps consisted of the 2. Infanterie-Division (mot.) of Generalleutnant Bader and the 20. Infanterie-Division (mot.) of Generalleutnant Wiktorin, in addition to the 3. Panzer-Division of Generalleutnant Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg. Also attached to the corps was the 23. Infanterie-Division of Generalmajor Graf von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt, which was its operational reserve.

As the formation with the most combat power of the corps, it was to be employed as its main effort. That aspect had already been determined at a conference at the headquarters of the 4. Armee in Kolberg. According to the decision made there, the division would advance up to and into the Tuchel Heath, with its armored brigade in the lead. It was intended for the reinforced reconnaissance battalion of the division to advance as far as the Vistula after the bridge over the Braha had been taken. The long, open flanks were to be screened by the motorized rifle divisions. The first mission given to the division: “Reach the Braha east of Prust in the vicinity of Hammermühle and continue the advance to the Vistula in the vicinity of Schwetz!”

To execute that mission, the division received the following assets in attachment: Panzer-Lehr-Abteilung (Major von Lewinski), Flak-Regiment 101, and a flight of army utility aircraft. At the start of hostilities, the armored brigade had 324 Panzer I’s and Panzer II’s at its disposal. By contrast, the Panzer-Lehr-Abteilung was already fielding some of the first Panzer III’s and Panzer IV’s.

What did things look like from the Polish side? It goes without saying that the Polish government was prepared for the German attack and had already initiated mobilization of its own forces for some time. Starting in the spring of 1939, it had started to systematically “ripen up” its military and populace for the possible confrontation with Germany. The Pomeranian Army of General Bortnowski had completed its movement into the corridor by the end of August. The field army was organized into western and eastern groups. The Eastern Group of General Boltuc had the mission of protecting the western flank of the Modlin Army with its 4th and 16th Infantry Divisions. In addition, it was directed to defend along a line running Straßburg–Graudenz in the event of a German offensive. The Western Group of General Skotnicki was directed to hold the corridor, including the flanking position of Bromberg–Nakel, with its 9th and 15th Infantry Divisions, as well as the Pomeranian Cavalry Brigade. The 27th Infantry Division was the field army’s operational reserve. Its orders were to eventually march on Danzig with the 13th Infantry Division, which would be brought in from Thorn.

The morning of 1 September 1939 dawned . . .

An early-morning fog appeared eerily in the woods; it was already perceptibly cold. There was an unearthly disquiet everywhere. The rattle of engines that quickly died off . . . the almost silent marching of columns . . . whispering and cursing, the light clinking of weapons . . . the division was ready. The officers continuously looked at their watches. The hands seemed to move imperceptibly slowly. Then: 0445 hours! There was a wailing from somewhere, but our artillery was still silent.

All of a sudden, the tank engines howled, tracked rattled, motorcycles roared. It was as if all unrest and all doubts had been lifted all at once and wiped away. The 3. Panzer-Division of Berlin and Brandenburg was marching into war as the lead division of the 4. Armee.

The small tanks were the first ones to make their way through the lanes created in the wire obstacles by the engineers. It was the light platoon of the I./Panzer-Regiment 6 of Oberleutnant Buchterkirch. The mission: “Conduct reconnaissance in the attack zone of the regiment and press through across the Prust to secure the railway crossing!”

Tank after tank followed, with the Panzer-Lehr-Abteilung in the lead. Following close behind, dispersed across a wide frontage, was the rest of the armored brigade. Interspersed were a few squads of riflemen, mounted in the few SPW’s6 that were available. The rifle brigade followed closely behind the armored elements in two groups. Oberst Angern, the brigade commander, led one group, while Oberst Kleemann was in charge of the second one. The riflemen crossed the border on foot. The motorcycle battalion started moving through the barbed wire at 0500 hours and was committed behind the armored regiments.

Panzer-Regiment 5 rolled forward on the righthand side of the attack zone, followed closely by the motorcycles of the 2./Kradschützen-Bataillon 3. The battalion’s 3rd Company followed it, leading a Flak battery, the 1st Company of the motorcycle battalion, and the 4th and 5th Batteries of the divisional artillery into sector. Panzer-Regiment 6 was employed on the left-hand side of the attack zone; its 1st Company was on the right, the 2nd Company on the left, and the 4th Company following. The remaining motorcycle elements, the 2nd and 3rd Companies of the divisional engineers, and a light Flak battery followed the tanks. Guderian rode at the front in an SPW among the regiment’s tanks.

Fog cascaded over the terrain. Despite that, the tanks rolled forward across the potato and stubble fields. There wasn’t a Polish soldier to be seen anywhere. Only the civilian populace could be seen in individual farmsteads along the way, some raising their arms in greeting, others glancing fearfully out from behind windows.

Oberleutnant Buchterkirch’s tanks had already advanced fifteen kilometers when a column of horse-drawn carts suddenly appeared in front of the entrance to Zahn. It was guarded by a few horse-mounted soldiers. The first Poles! The Oberleutnant immediately opened fire. The tanks that were following close behind did likewise. There was confusion among the ranks of the enemy, with a few horses bolting and tossing their riders. Trains vehicles flipped over. After a few minutes, the enemy column scattered. The tanks rolled on. Behind them were the first Polish dead.

The morning fog slowly grew denser. Hardly anything could be seen. But that also meant the enemy could not see the tanks. Oberleutnant Buchterkirch had his tanks form up in column. The tank engines howled and the march continued at maximum speed. Klein Klonia was passed and the Prut reached without encountering any trace of Polish resistance. At 0915 hours, the tanks were positioned along the railway line east of Prust. All of a sudden, a few vehicles appeared in the fog. They were the lead vehicles of the divisional reconnaissance battalion. Nothing had as yet been seen of the enemy. A single motorcycle approached along the roadway. Machine guns bellowed; the motorcycle stopped, with two men jumping off and raising their hands, flabbergasted. They were Polish officers, the first prisoners.

Farther to the rear, Panzer-Regiment 6 had also encountered enemy forces. Around 0600 hours, its tanks were outside of Zahn. Visibility was poor, even though the sun was starting to peek through. A creek was crossed, followed by a large tract of marshland, which caused the first losses. A heavy tank got bogged down and churned itself ever deeper into the marshland with its running gear. A few minutes later, the same fate befell two other vehicles. The other tanks passed them, unconcerned. The maintenance contact teams were summoned forward by radio. The artillery liaison officer, Oberleutnant Weymann, also had bad luck. When he moved onto the Zahn–Großlossburg with his armored vehicle, the rear track came off the running gear. The disabled vehicle was discovered by a Polish bicycle patrol, which approached the vehicle’s crew, which had dismounted and was working on the track. But before the Poles could become dangerous, German tanks appeared and shot the patrol to pieces.

The clocks showed 1000 hours, when the fog lifted all at once. The 7th Company of Panzer-Regiment 6 (Hauptmann Friedrichs), moving on the left, suddenly encountered strong defensive fires coming a patch of woods jutting out near Gross Klonia. The Poles had dug in and become invisible in the woods and were firing antitank guns at pointblank range at the tanks. Two vehicles were hit and immobilized immediately, while the others went into cover behind in the rolling terrain. The company attempted to bypass the patch of woods, but was forced to halt again by the enemy’s fires. The riflemen bringing up the rear also ran into Polish infantry fire, with the result that it was impossible to advance in that sector.

The regiment ordered a general halt in order to wait for the other formations to close up. The 2nd Battalion of the division, which was following the armored regiment, was ordered forward. Likewise, the 1st Company of the motorcycle battalion, under the command of Oberleutnant von Cochenhausen, which had heretofore not had any enemy contact, was ordered to attack.

Things were getting urgent. The 7th Company had already lost a number of vehicles. The first soldiers of the division killed in the war were lost during that engagement: Leutnant Nienaber, Gefreiter Fromm, Gefreiter Hopp, and four Panzerschützen (Meyer, Litmann, Godenschweig, and Kirschke). The 5th Battery of Artillerie-Regiment 75 (Hauptmann Haselbach) went into position in a potato field and took the patch of woods under fire from 800 meters. The shells exploded in the crowns of the trees, and soon there were smoke and flames above the wood line. Some of the Poles fled their positions, others approached the Germans with raised hands. After the artillery observers saw that two enemy antitank guns had been destroyed, they ordered a stop to the artillery fires.

The 2nd Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 6 made only slow progress. Every Polish pocket of resistance had to be eliminated individually. Feldwebel Wolschina of the 6th Company distinguished himself in that round of fighting by his aggressive advances. As a result, he became the first soldier of the regiment to receive the Iron Cross, Second Class.

By then, the motorcycle infantry had arrived. Oberleutnant von Cochenhausen had his company deploy and enter the thick woods. It was difficult to advance. The underbrush was thick and large trees and branches, knocked over or off by gunfire or felled, blocked the way. There were still Polish riflemen everywhere putting up a defense. While clearing the woods, the company suffered its first soldier killed in action; Leutnant Hiltmann and a junior noncommissioned officer were wounded.

At that point, the armored regiment was able to continue its march in the direction of the Brahe. All of the motorcycle battalion had closed up around Willkowo in the meantime. A motorcycle patrol under Unteroffizier Petreins from the 3rd Company was dispatched in the direction of Gross Klonia. A solo rider, Kradschütze Löwenstein, brought the news that the route was clear of the enemy. At that point, the battalion headed out in the direction of Bagnitz.

Panzer-Regiment 5 made faster progress. Moving through Prust, Hauptmann Edler von der Planitz’s tank company reached the Brahe shortly after 1100 hours. By then, Buchterkirch’s platoon had advanced along the railway line, where it was promptly taken under fire from the elevated embankment by numerically superior Polish forces. The regiment’s tanks arrived in time to assist. Leutnant Rommel’s platoon was directed by Buchterkirch in an attack on the embankment and the enemy antitank guns. The tanks overran everything that got in their way, but they were finally stopped by a field position protected by wire. They were wedged between the creek and the marshland, and they had to take up fire from exposed positions. All ammunition was expended after ten minutes. Fortunately, the regiment’s 1st Company (Hauptmann Nedtwig), which had been called forward, arrived by then. The other tanks were able to pull back under its covering fires.

Schützen-Regiment 3 had moved out in the morning with the tanks, but its main body remained behind the advancing fighting vehicles. In searing heat, the riflemen marched and rode across the broad, flat terrain. In the villages that were predisposed to the Germans, the soldiers were greeted heartily. The greetings were especially heartfelt in Lossberg. Men, women, and children stood on the streets, waving flags. Who knew how long and where they might have hidden them?

The two armored regiments, which had worked their way forward to the Brahe, halted along its western banks. The vehicles and men were somewhat the worse for wear and waited for the rest of the divisional elements to close up. By that afternoon, they were thirty kilometers deep in enemy territory, along with the elements of the reconnaissance battalion that had been attached. They had driven a wedge into the Polish Army.

But to the right and the left of that wedge, there were powerful elements of the Polish 9th Infantry Division that were threatening the flanks. An actual threat materialized from the north from the Tuchel Heath. A Polish cavalry brigade attacked the left wing of the division.

The troops charged with drawn sabers. It was a scene straight out of the opening days of World War I. Unfortunately, the Polish cavalryman did not want to believe or were not allowed to believe that the German tanks were made out of steel and not wood and cardboard. The machine-gun fire from the tanks wreaked havoc among the ranks of the enemy riders. But they did not give up. The rode back, reorganized, and attacked again.

In the meantime, friendly artillery had gone into position in the open fields between Bagnitz and Prust. Its fires completely destroyed the Polish cavalry charge. Elements of the rifle regiment were also there. The heavy machine-gun section of the regiment’s 1st Company was able to thin the enemy’s ranks with well-aimed fire. Hauptmann von Bosse’s 1st Battalion assumed a flank guard mission north of Gross Klonia.

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