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

The 3. Panzer-Division no longer took part in the fighting for the fortress. Instead, it went around the city with the majority of its forces to then thrust south. Its new objective was Wlodawa. This time, the reconnaissance battalion, Panzer-Regiment 5, and the 3rd Battery were in the advance guard. The terrain appeared monotonous and gray to the men of the advance guard. The rain of the last few days had softened up the roads and the pastures. There was hardly a tree to be seen; only sandy soil and more sandy soil, with small, dirty localities here and there. There were few people to be seen, and those that were encountered were shy and uncommunicative. They were quite different from the White Russians, who had been encountered at Bialystok and Hainowka.

The division moved in Kampfgruppen on Tomaszowka. The armored cars encountered an energetic defense when they arrived there towards noon on 16 September. The tanks were called up by radio. The commander of the I./Panzer-Regiment 5, Major Wendenburg, ordered the 2nd Company forward. The nineteen tanks caught up with the lead elements at the Przaborowo rail station. The commander of the lead element reported that it was impossible to advance any farther, because the terrain, with many woods and lakes, was full of Poles. Prisoner statements indicated that the organizational staff directing the retrograde movements of the entire Polish Army was located there.

Hauptmann Schmidt, the tank company commander, assumed command of the available motorcycle infantry and turned to the east on the path leading from behind the rail station. Leutnant Nitschke took over the lead with his tanks. To his right was Lake Sielachy. Then Percszpa came into view. The small village was ablaze. The riflemen discovered enemy soldiers and smoked them out. The Leutnant left a few men with their motorcycles back at the entrance to the village and gave them orders to reconnoiter the southwest in the direction of the railway embankment. The tanks raced through the village and reached the woods to its south. By then, it was already fairly dark, so the Leutnant and his men had to wait until the rest of the company closed up.

Just outside of the crossroads at Tomaszowka, movement was identified. Nitschke sent a short burst in that direction, which immediately caused the activities to cease. The 2./Panzer-Regiment 5 turned onto the road leading to Tomaszowka. There was no break in the action. The battery, following to the rear, was unable to maintain contact in the darkness and went into position along the railway embankment. The engineers mounted up on the tanks, which then moved into the woods.

When an enemy armored car turned up on a trail by surprise, it was shot to bits in short order. But there were more and more movements along the road by the minute. Hauptmann Schmidt had his vehicle pivot sharply right and take anything that blocked the route under fire. Trucks, horse-drawn wagons, pontoon equipment, and many other major items of equipment and materiel went up in flames. The Polish drivers fled into the protection of the woods on both sides of the road as quickly as they could. The speedometers on the tanks registered forty-five kilometers an hour, and the pace picked up from there. The Wlodawa–Kowel telegraph line was disrupted by knocking over the poles; horse-drawn columns were scattered and vehicles destroyed.

Just as the darkness of the night made further progress impossible, the company reached Tomaszowka. A single antitank gun, which was positioned not far from the rail station and took the German tanks under fire, was put out of commission. The tankers had only been able to identify the gun by its muzzle flashes. Some batteries were firing from somewhere into the burning village, but the tanks had moved through it by 1945 hours.

Hauptmann Schmidt and Leutnant Nitschke fired white signal flares. The signals were made out by Wachtmeister Gaebler, the forward observer from the 3rd Battery, and understood: Shift the fires forward! On that day, the battery fired some 350 rounds.

Hauptmann Schmidt’s 2nd Company was not satisfied with what it had achieved. There was still fuel in the tanks, so it continued south. The route turned increasingly worse by the minute. The motorcycle infantry were no longer able to keep pace and fell back. The tanks rattled on by themselves. It was difficult to stay oriented in the darkness. The movement grew slower, since woods and marshland became the next obstacles.

During the night, Major Wendenburg assembled his tanks as best he could. The 4th Company took over the lead. The officers moving out front had to illuminate their way with flashlights. At some places, Polish trains vehicles were passed. As it started to turn first light around 0300 hours, the battalion was outside of Opalin. The village was swarming with Polish soldiers. Since the battalion was almost out of fuel—the 2nd Company was already stranded—Major Wendenburg had his forces turn eight kilometers to the west. He had his battalion set up an all-round defense on a small rise. Patrols were sent out in all directions to maintain security.

The motorcycle battalion left Kampfgruppe Wendenburg and turned west toward the Bug. The Poles expected an attack there, however, and had blown up the bridge over the Bug in time. That meant that the men of the division had to remain on the east bank of the river in order to wait for the engineers coming forward.

The next day was one of decision. The motorcycle infantry crossed the river on inflatable craft and floats and entered the city of Wlodawa from the northeast. The 2nd Battalion of the divisional artillery had already been firing on the northern portion of the city since the morning, concentrating on the military facilities. The enemy resistance had been weakened by the well-placed fires, with the result that it did not prove too difficult for the motorcycle battalion and elements of the rifle regiment, which had been brought forward, to take the city in its entirety that morning. Major Burmeister’s 2nd Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 6, which also closed upon the city, was not needed to enter the fray. Two platoons from the 6th Company of the armor regiment, those of Leutnant Graf von Kageneck and Leutnant von Diest-Koerber, were sent west to reconnoiter around 1500 hours. After both platoons had forded the broad but shallow riverbed and moved out of Wlodawa after moving through it, they were immediately engaged by heavy enemy artillery fire and had to pull back to behind the forward combat outposts of the riflemen.

It was not until the afternoon of 17 September that the Poles had reorganized their forces. They attacked from the wooded terrain west of the city to retake it. A storm that broke out at the same time prevented the German defenders from offering a proper defense. The artillery was unable to join directly into the fray. Instead, it was limited to firing on targets that had been previously identified by the forward observers. The companies of the rifle regiment finally gathered themselves, and their rifle and machine-gun fire tore big gaps in the ranks of the Poles. The 3rd Company of the motorcycle battalion was committed to a flanking effort outside of the city, and the 6th Company of Panzer-Regiment 6 (Hauptmann von Winterfeld), which was quickly called forward, was finally able to bring the enemy attack to a complete standstill. According to prisoner statements, nine companies had been involved in the enemy’s effort.

The enemy then gave up on Wlodawa and pulled back into the thick woods south of the city.

After Tomaszokwa was occupied, the 1st Company of the rifle regiment advanced farther along the railway line. The final meters leading up to the Bug were a race against death. It was certain that the Poles had prepared the large bridge for demolition. The riflemen and engineers took long strides across the railway ties, and the risky venture succeeded. They got across the bridge, reached the railway guardhouse on the south bank of the river, and formed a small bridgehead. It was 0030 hours.

The engineers immediately set about searching for charges. Despite the darkness, they found some and started the laborious task of removing them.

At first light, the 3rd Platoon of the 1st Company attacked Orchowek, which was burning. Obergefreiter Janik was killed. Because the village had completely burned down, the riflemen dug bunkers and dugouts next to the rail line. Although the Poles attempted to reduce the small bridgehead a few times during the day with infantry and cavalry, their attacks were always turned back.

From the area where it had encamped, the 1st Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 5 had observed enemy groups attempting to flee since early morning, by swimming across the Bug. The tanks were unable to prevent those attempts, however, since they were stranded due to a lack of fuel.

Major Wendenburg had sent out two patrols during the night that had been directed to blow up the bridges over the Bug. The numerically strongest patrol made good progress. Feldwebel Hass took the lead with his medium tank. Following behind him was the commander’s tank of the 4th Company. Leutnant Brandt and an engineer Unteroffizier had also mounted it. Leutnant Zorn brought up the rear with the two remaining light tanks and the rest of the engineer squad.

The movement of the patrol took it through Huszcza and Rowno in the direction of Wilzcy–Przewo. Along the route, a few vehicle columns were shot up. The crews of the two light tanks watched over the prisoners. After a few minutes, however, they simply let the Poles flee, after their weapons had been taken away. The prisoners would only have been a burden for the patrol. The enemy received the patrol in Przewo with heavy small-arms fires. But Leutnant Zorn, Leutnant Brandt, and the engineers fought their way through the middle of the enemy to the wooden bridge, which they set on fire. The two light tanks held down the Poles on the far side with well-aimed fires.

The tankers even managed to capture a Polish 7.5-centimeter field piece from 1917. Leutnant Zorn limbered the piece to his tank and started to bring it back. Unfortunately, his fighting vehicle became immobilized after a few minutes with running gear problems.

The heavy commander’s tank with the engineer officer went forward as far as the rail line. Just as Leutnant Brand was starting to place a demolition charge on the tracks, a transport train started to approach. Fortunately, its locomotive was knocked out by the tank, thus blocking the line. As a result, this mission was also accomplished.

Leutnant Wisniewski, who led the second patrol, returned around 1000 hours and reported that the railway bridge had been successfully blown up. As a result, the immobilized tank battalions had at least cut off the retreat route over the Bug to the Poles.

It was not until 1600 hours that the regimental logistics officer, Hauptmann Hackermann, arrived and reported that fuel was on its way. It took another hour before the fuel arrived. Major Wendenburg immediately had his battalion form up.

It approached the village of Przewo as it started to turn dark. The tanks did not allow themselves to be held up by either the hastily emplaced road obstacles or by the heavy flanking fires coming from the woods. The 1st Company thrust through the burning village, while the 2nd Company took down the Polish resistance in the woods. The sole heavy tank of the battalion overran everything and reached the rail line. It encountered an enemy battery there, which forced the tank to pull back. The tankers saw that the train that had been engaged that morning by the patrol was still there, making all traffic impossible.

Major Wendenburg had his companies assemble between Przewo and Rowno. In the process, the tank companies encountered the lead company of the rifle regiment. It was the 8th Company, along with Major Zimmermann. The riflemen were immediately employed screening in the direction of Przewo. The tank battalion set up an all-round defense.

On 17 September, the reconnaissance battalion received the mission to blown up the Kowel–Chelm rail line at Luboml. The 2nd Battery of the artillery regiment and some engineers were attached in support. The movement of those elements took place on sandy, softened and seemingly endless roads to the southeast. There were still individual occurrences of enemy resistance, but they were quickly eliminated by a few bursts of fire from the machine guns on the armored cars. There wasn’t a true engagement until it started to turn dark, when the battalion approached Scack. The Poles had dug in there in the houses and gardens.

Major Freiherr von Wechmar had his companies halt and wait until the battery had closed up. The guns unlimbered in an open field and took the locality and individual pockets of resistance under direct fire. After a few minutes, the enemy was silenced, and the companies were able to take the locality in an envelopment. The battalion set up defenses for the night, putting out security in all directions.

The Kampfgruppe was ordered to break camp at first light on 18 September. The march continued relentlessly, and Luboml was reached that same morning. The reconnaissance battalion encountered a large grouping of enemy forces. The armored cars moved into position behind hills and ditches. The riflemen took up the infantry fight and the artillery battery fired. But the enemy no longer had any desire to become engaged in protracted and casualty-intensive fighting. First individually and then in ever-larger groups, the enemy surrendered. In the end, the 400 men of Kampfgruppe Wechmar counted almost 3,000 Polish prisoners. The reconnaissance battalion had accomplished its mission, transitioning to a screening mission.

The tanks of the division continued their own advance about 0700 hours that morning. But the enemy had pulled his forces across the Bug during the night and only put up minimal resistance. Przewo, the railway embankment, and the railway bridge were taken practically without a fight. The tanks advanced across the river and established a small bridgehead. The 6th Battery of artillery arrived and assumed the direct-support mission. Three Unteroffiziere—Killat, Grothe, and Schröder—discovered the gun that had been captured the previous day and included it in the firefight.

At 1357 hours, the division ordered the bridge to be blown up. At that point, the battalion moved back across the river without any enemy interference. At that point, the enemy started to get continual reinforcements. Starting at 1530 hours, strong artillery fire started to fall on the friendly positions. The division was concerned about its Kampfgruppe, which had ranged far forward, and sent out the following radio message in the afternoon: “If the tactical situation requires it, pull back to Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 in Luboml, since larger regular-army formations are moving from west to east. Report your decision.” Major Wendenburg reported back shortly: “Position will be held!”

Far ahead of the other major formations, the 3. Panzer-Division was the southernmost division of the field army group at that point. Correspondingly, it had covered more ground than any other German division during the campaign. The division was closer to the elements of the 10. Armee approaching from the south than it was to its sister divisions within the corps. The division commander ordered the 2nd Battalion of the rifle regiment (Oberstleutnant Dr. Ehlermann) to break through to Heeresgruppe Süd. Attached to Ehlermann’s battalion were the 6./Panzer-Regiment 6, the 1./Artillerie-Regiment 75, and the 1./Panzerabwehr-Abteilung 39. The lead elements of the southern field army group were trying to take Chelm from three sides with the 4. Infanterie-Division, the 4. leichte Division, and the 2. Panzer-Division.

The reinforced rifle battalion moved out right on time. Forward movement was made difficult by the clogged roads, blown-up bridges, and recurring resistance form Polish formations that were led by especially brave officers. They had established themselves skillfully along wood lines and the outskirts of villages. The fights for Osowa and Malinowka were especially hard for the rifle companies. Leading the way in an exemplary fashion, Hauptmann Wellmann stormed the last village with his 6th Company. The battalion worked its way forward slowly and had to bring down new enemy strongpoints in sacrificial fighting. During that fighting, the 2nd Battalion suffered the heaviest losses of the entire division for the campaign. Since night had fallen in the meantime, the idea of a continued advance was discarded.

A motorcycle infantry patrol under the command of Unteroffizier Panzlaff was sent farther south, however, reaching the area just outside of Chelm. The expected forces of the 10. Armee attacking from the south were not there. The Wehrmacht High Command reported a linkup between the two field army groups, but none ever took place in the campaign.

The division instructed the Ehlermann’s battalion not to continue its operation and to pull back slowly on the direction of Wlodawa. The division pulled back the rest of its battle groups to Wlodawa as well. They were widely dispersed over a large area. It wanted to protect the force and not cause unnecessary casualties, since the Polish Army was already in a state of dissolution. Ehlermann evacuated the positions his reinforced battalion had taken near Chelm and pulled back under sharp pressure from individual Polish formations. Hauptmann von Winterfeld’s tank company provided the Kampfgruppe with the requisite covering fires. Four German fighting vehicles were lost that day. Around 1000 hours, Major Wendenburg received similar orders: He was to pull back to Luboml and link up with the reconnaissance battalion. Around 1600 hours, the two advance guards of the division linked up.

All forces of the division that were east of the Bug left their forward positions and pulled back across the river, as ordered. There had been no encounters with the Red Army anywhere, but the senior commanders took precautionary measures to ensure that the encounters took place without any friction.16

In order to mark the German lines for Russian aircraft, the division ordered recognition panels set out.

The fighting slowly abated. That meant that there was some movement between and within the fronts. The Polish soldiers no longer knew what they should do. Unarmed, they gave up by the hundreds, so as not to fall into the hands of the Red Army. For example, Hauptmann Eikmann’s maintenance company took in some 1,500 prisoners in the Puchaczewo area from 19 to 21 September. Leutnant Müller of Panzer-Regiment 6, who went deer hunting in some woods, wound up bringing in 165 prisoners. The civilian populace was also on the run.

The elements of the division assembled in Wlodawa. For many of the soldiers, the village became a place to recover. They saw an actual city for the first time, which stood out considerably in its appearance from the dirty villages that had been crossed through and fought for up to that point. Its two churches, the Baroque Roman Catholic one and the Orthodox one with its characteristic onion dome, dominated the landscape of the city. Its populace was composed of Poles, White Russians, and a large number of Jews.

After the forces had rested a bit and the men could wash off the dirt and grime from the many days of dust and rain, they had a pleasant surprise. The first field mail arrived.

The return march for the division was set for 21 September. The individuals left their quartering areas around Wlodawa at first light and moved along the road back to Brest. The large city had already been decorated with red flags with the hammer and sickle and black-white-red flags. The first Russian soldiers had arrived; they were assigned to a tank brigade.

The march then continued twenty-five kilometers to the demarcation line, moving through Widomla–Giechanowiec–Zambrow and on to Lomscha, where the divisional formations arrived on 22 September. For the fourth time in a month, the German border was crossed just south of Johannisburg. The men forgot about the hardships of the campaign that was behind them. The friendly and tidy East Prussian villages, the nice people, and the thoughts of reuniting with loved ones back home put wind in the sails of all the soldiers.

The division quartered in the area around Bartenstein. The individual companies and detachments were quartered privately in the surrounding localities. Everyone felt as though they were on maneuvers. The XIX. Armee-Korps (mot.) was disbanded on 26 September,17 and the last general order from the field army group was issued a few days later. That signaled the end of the campaign in Poland.

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