German Army: I Cavalry Corps 1944-5

The dissolution of the German army’s 1st Cavalry Division in the autumn of 1941 seemed to mark the end of that army’s formal cavalry tradition. True, the mounted squadrons of divisional reconnaissance battalions remained, but the presence of horse-mounted maneuver-units capable of independent action under the control of higher-echelon command appeared over for good. As things turned out, “for good” lasted for about twelve months. In fact, throughout the period from November 1941 to December 1942, various mounted units continued in existence in addition to, and sometimes amalgamated from, divisional reconnaissance squadrons. In July 1942, for example, an improvised cavalry brigade was authorized by the then-commander of Ninth Army, General Walther Model. It had the mission of helping eliminate Red Army forces, some 60,000 strong, still occupying a salient in the dense, swampy forests behind Ninth Army’s lines, a result of the latter’s near encirclement in the earlier winter fighting in the Battle of Rzhev. Comprised of elements of the reconnaissance battalions of the eight divisions under Model’s command, the brigade included three cavalry regiments of one or two horse-mounted troops (companies) and three to four bicycle-mounted troops each. There was also a combat-engineer company, a medical company, and one motorized and one horse-drawn logistics column. Each cyclist troop’s immediate supplies were carried in a two-wagon detachment hauled, as usual in Russia, by the ubiquitous panje horses. For their part, the troopers in the mounted elements rode regular military horses. The brigade remained a light formation, however, in that tanks and anti-tank units were seconded to it as required. Its organic artillery consisted of six (per regiment) of the same 75-mm guns typical of the 1st Cavalry Division before 1941. In its one major combat operation, from 2–13 July, the “Cavalry Brigade Model” as it was unofficially known successfully maneuvered and fought its way through more than ten miles of seemingly impenetrable terrain while the tanks of the panzer division to which it was attached sometimes found themselves literally stuck in their tracks. And while postwar German analysis admitted that the operation would likely have been successful even without the brigade’s presence, that same analysis concluded that the cost to Ninth Army in men, matériel, and time would almost certainly have been greater owing to the inability of either purely infantry or armored formations to move as effectively as the brigade had done.

The Cavalry Brigade Model’s example may also have served as inspiration for another effort to resurrect the mounted arm when, later in 1942, then Rittmeister Georg Freiherr (Baron) von Böselager managed to convince the commander of Army Group Center, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, that horse-mounted cavalry might still be useful on a fulltime basis, despite the 1st Cavalry Division’s having been disbanded the year before. Given the terrible winter of 1941–1942 and the biannual rains, with all of the difficulties in maneuver that such weather always brought the German army on the Eastern Front, Kluge eventually agreed. Possessing a sort of provisional character, this “Cavalry Unit Böselager” was subsequently created by an army-group order in January 1943.

Born in Hesse in 1915, Böselager came from a military family and in his youth became a successful competitive rider. In due course, he found his way into the army, and he became an enthusiastic cavalry officer even as he continued to compete in both show jumping and flat racing.4 His original regiment, the 15th Kavallerie-Regiment, was one of those that became part of the infantry’s reconnaissance forces. In this case, his regiment became the eyes of the 6th ID. It was in his capacity as a squadron commander of the resulting 6th Reconnaissance Battalion that he made his case to Kluge.

Lieutenant General Gustav Harteneck

General der Kavallerie Gustav Harteneck later wrote:
While the Corps was still in the process of being transferred, we were once again ordered to take up stationary positions, to our great disappointment. The cavalry divisions of the Waffen-SS were fighting in the metropolis of Budapest. Every cavalryman knows that no good could come of that, and, as it turned out, nothing did. The SS divisions were encircled … My Cavalry Corps launched a night attack in an attempt to relieve them, but it was too late, and the Russian forces were too powerful. Although we managed to fight out way to the city limits, only 100 or so cavalrymen, under the command of the famous rider Staff Colonel von Mitzlaff, were able to break through to us. The subsequent battles, in the course of which my Corps was under the command of 6th SS Panzer Army, might have turned out quite differently had the two SS cavalry divisions been deployed to full advantage as cavalry divisions, instead of being ordered to hold Budapest

By the end of March 1943, this unit was expanded to the size of a regiment and designated, because of its army-group assignment, Cavalry Regiment Center. Army Groups North and South followed suit shortly thereafter. Thus, even though the 1st Cavalry Division had earlier disappeared, the cavalry tradition lived on in at least an ad hoc fashion. That fashion, however, was soon formalized. The then-chief of staff of the army, Colonel-General Kurt Zeitzler, authorized a full-fledged cavalry corps under the initial command of Major General Oswin Grolig and, shortly thereafter, Lieutenant General Gustav Harteneck, former commander of the 9th Cavalry Regiment in 1939–1940 and chief of staff of Second Army in 1943–1944. Orders establishing the I Cavalry Corps were issued on 25 May 1944, and the corps was supposed to be ready for operations (verwendungsbereit) by the beginning of August. Curiously enough, the Cavalry Corps first saw the organizational light of day in the very same region where both the 1st Cavalry Division and the 8th Waffen-SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer had already served, namely in the neighborhood of Pinsk in the western reaches of the Pripet Marshes. It was here that the Corps received assignment of its principal maneuver elements from the German army: 3rd and 4th Cavalry Brigades (outgrowths of the earlier Cavalry Regiments North, Center, and South). Also assigned was the 1st Royal Hungarian Cavalry Division. That division still carried the designation “royal” in light of the fact that Hungary remained a nominal monarchy, though it had been ruled since the 1920s by a regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy de Nagybánya. It was at Pinsk, too, that General Harteneck assumed command of the Cavalry Corps on 22 June, the third anniversary of the beginning of Operation Barbarossa.

Despite this continuing threat of a breakthrough, the Cavalry Corps earned highest recognition for its accomplishments between the Rivers Bug and Narew. On 2 September the commander of Second Army, General Weiß, forwarded to Harteneck a statement that he (Weiß) had received from the commander of what remained of Army Group Center, Generaloberst (Colonel-General) Georg-Hans Reinhardt. In the ten days preceding the end of August, Second Army had managed, according to Reinhardt, to hold off at least thirty Soviet infantry divisions; three armored brigades; and numerous independent armored and assault-gun regiments. The steadiness and bravery of the German horsemen and infantry was “above all praise” (über jedes Lob erhaben). Combat leadership had been excellent, and these qualities manifested themselves even more strongly in light of the fact that air support from the Luftwaffe had been minimal. The Cavalry Corps was therefore singled out for Reinhardt’s “unreserved recognition” (uneingeschränkte Anerkennung) in that it had carried the heaviest burden of the defensive battles. Nevertheless, Reinhardt also made clear that further fighting awaited the cavalrymen and their comrades: “Inspired by this spirit,” he wrote, “we can await the coming battles with confidence.” But such confidence demanded a great deal of faith, for on the same day that Reinhardt issued his statement, the Cavalry Corps reported a total combat-strength of a mere 9,022. Fully one third of these (3,504 altogether) were the officers and men of the Corps’ principal maneuver elements, the 3rd and 4th Cavalry Brigades.

Following several days of relative quiet on the Corps’ sector of the front, the Soviet advance resumed. In the meantime, the elements of the Corps had been withdrawn to “Defensive Position East Prussia II” hard by the Narew. As the name of the new positions indicated, the cavalrymen were now for all practical purposes defending the prewar German homeland. Furthermore, they were also defending the final redoubt of the Prussian-German cavalry tradition. The emotional significance of both facts was surely lost on no one. Not coincidentally, and in order to stoke the defensive effort, the specter was raised once again of threatening Asiatic hordes, a threat overlaid with the veneer of an all-devouring communist menace. On 12 September General Harteneck issued a directive to all commanders aimed at increasing the Corps’ defensive effectiveness. The Cavalry Corps now stood on the Reich’s very borders in positions dug by German men and women, German boys and girls. They’d dug with the sure hope that Corps’ soldiers would protect them and their homes from the Red Terror. Not one trooper or infantryman would be allowed to withdraw without orders, and only then if live enemy fire forced him from his position. Cowardice would be summarily punished with armed force if necessary. Commanders at every level would remain at their posts to the last possible moment, always leading from the front. Every position to a depth of six miles (10 km) behind the lines was to be dug in (einzubunkern) for protection from Soviet artillery fire. No man, no horse, no vehicle was to be without a foxhole or antishrapnel revetments. Furthermore, the Corps’ horses, such as those of the 4th Brigade that Harteneck noted specifically, were to be kept hidden in woods and not kept in villages, evidently to protect them from aerial attack and long-range artillery-fire. But even as these preparations continued, so too did combat training for unit leaders and technical specialists such as combat engineers, radiomen, and machine-gunners. Almost incredibly, at the same time Harteneck also ordered that even riding, driving, and horse-feeding training was to continue, with 55 officers and men being ordered to Fordon near Bydgoszcz (Bromberg), 160 miles (257 km) in the rear for that purpose.

No doubt surprisingly, the next several weeks passed with relatively little large-scale fighting, though regular and sometimes intense contact with Soviet troops continued. The Corps’ positions along the west bank of the Narew came under regular artillery and light weapons fire from Soviet forces on the other side of the river, the latter’s objective being to expand several bridgeheads that they’d managed to achieve on that stream’s western bank. On the Germans’ side, time was spent improving defensive positions and scraping together replacements from stragglers in the rear. In addition, yet another infantry division, the 292nd ID, was attached to the Corps on 22 September. This gave the Corps a total of three nominal infantry divisions on its TOE and brought its total combat-strength at the end of that month to 14,283 (a figure approximately representing the strength of a normal division of the German army in 1939). Since 29 June, the Corps’ units had killed a reported total of 8,942 Soviet troops, almost 40 percent of whom had fallen at the hands of the troopers of the 3rd and 4th Cavalry Brigades.

During the period roughly between 1 October and 31 December, the Red Army entered a time of regrouping and resupply following its crushing summer offensive against German Army Group Center. During the Soviets’ operational pause, the Cavalry Corps was now at least able to catch its breath, even if replacements continued to be hard to come by. In that late fall of 1944, the Corps continued to hold its positions along a forty-odd-mile stretch of the Narew between Rozan and Nowogrod. Because of the continuing Soviet pressure and the inevitability of a renewal of the Red Army’s drive toward Berlin, it also began another reorganization and redeployment of its various elements. One of the most significant of those reorganizations was the detachment of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade. It was moved to Fourth Army whose center of gravity at that moment lay to the east of the Masurian Lakes, the very lakes where Russian armies had come to grief in 1914. This transfer was noteworthy not only in that it meant that the Red Army’s forces had reached, and in many places crossed over, the borders of East Prussia. The transfer also meant that the Cavalry Corps had to temporarily relinquish fully half of that operational component that gave the Corps its very name and character, namely horsemen. With the 3rd Brigade’s departure for duty with Fourth Army, the Corps retained the 4th Cavalry Brigade as its only dedicated mounted element. The remainder of the Corps’ strength consisted in this period of four infantry divisions. They, of course, still had their horse-drawn logistics and artillery trains, along with various mounted reconnaissance elements. Before year’s end, other formations, both infantry and armored, would also be assigned to the Corps for various and usually brief periods of time. These included a scratch force named “Combat Group Hannibal.” About 1,400 strong, it comprised personnel from the 4th SS Police Regiment. The entire Corps would also be transferred briefly to the command of Fourth Army, even though its defensive positions remained the same.

Throughout the last half of October and the whole of November, Soviet artillery and aerial attacks continued as did ground combat, the latter sometimes intense and often at battalion strength. Though the widely anticipated, front-wide Soviet offensive did not occur, the Corps’ units suffered from this near-constant contact. As they had in the fighting retreat to the Narew, the Cavalry Brigades recorded many of those casualties. Alone in the period from 15 to 27 October, for example, the Corps’ two mounted brigades suffered 961 troopers of all ranks killed, wounded, and missing. And these losses occurred in a period when the Corps’ morning reports very frequently stated that the preceding day or night had passed quietly. The sacrifices in the mounted elements did earn another formal recognition. Second Army’s commander explicitly commended the “outstanding service” (hervorragende Bewährung) of the 3rd and 4th Cavalry Brigades and wrote further to General Harteneck that the cavalrymen had delivered the “best proofs of the cavalry spirit” (Beweise besten Reitergeistes geliefert haben) in the defensive battles. Presumably the cavalrymen appreciated the sentiment. Such glowing praise, however, wouldn’t provide the horsemen with fresh mounts or those mounts with feed (deliveries for the entire Fourth Army area had been stopped), much less gasoline for the Corps’ vehicles or ammunition for its artillery. Neither could Hitler’s ferocious order of 29 October to the Ostheer, which commanded every German soldier to do one of two things: “stand or die.” Perhaps, however, the troopers took greater comfort in the fact that dismal autumnal weather was now frequently grounding Soviet fighter-bombers. They certainly needed the respite. Both of the Corps’ mounted brigades had been much reduced. By the end of November, the 3rd Brigade’s combat-strength (2,054) was only about 41 percent of its total ration-strength (6,055). The 4th Brigade could show a slightly better percentage, namely about 50 percent (2,181 out of 4,350) even though its overall number of personnel was lower. Similar figures (approximately 50 percent) obtained in the Corps’ other units such as the now-attached 558th Volks-grenadier-Division.

Even as the Corps attempted to recoup the losses it had suffered since June, General Harteneck evidently attempted, and in keeping with Army-level directives, to ensure that whatever training could be done was done. In one order, for example, he indicated that certain veterinary personnel and feeding specialists were supposed to attend a three-day school for instruction in winterizing the Corps’ horses and care and maintenance schedules. Attendees would subsequently act as training cadre for other soldiers. More significantly, he’d also issued a four-page directive entitled “The Basics of Cavalry Leadership” on 5 November. In it Harteneck re-emphasized most of those doctrinal elements of the cavalry that had last been formalized in 1935 in Truppenführung, the same ones that General Kurt Feldt had stressed in his own repeated statements regarding the earlier 1st Cavalry Brigade/Division. Despite nearly six years of war and all of the vicissitudes that the war had brought to the German army’s mounted arm, the cavalry’s essential characteristics remained the same in Harteneck’s view: mobility, flexibility, audacity, tenacity. True, the last physical vestiges of the cavalry’s traditional weapons—sabers—had disappeared in 1940–1941. True, as well, at least since the invasion of the Soviet Union if not earlier, the German cavalryman was now essentially a dragoon. He rode to battle but fought dismounted. And now, in 1944, he just as often fought his battles alongside attached armored and infantry formations. Nevertheless, a stubborn cavalry spirit hung on, and Harteneck hammered it home in his directive, not only as regarded his men but also as regarded the Corps’ horses. He also made it clear at the end that he expected his commanders to inculcate a National Socialist bearing in the Cavalry Corps. Whether his statement regarding this matter rested on personal conviction or expediency in the wake of the attempted assassination of Hitler on 20 July 1944 cannot be determined from the directive itself. Furthermore, the degree of subsequent Nazi indoctrination of the Corps’ various formations after November 1944 cannot be reliably deduced from the documents at hand. Nevertheless, Harteneck’s insistence in this regard sheds a disturbing light on the Cavalry Corps’ leadership as it faced the chaotic last six months of the war. And in light of his repeated and fairly ruthless advocacy of summary courts-martial, his urging on of stringent political indoctrination at least seems consistent.

As December arrived, the Cavalry Corps received new orders, ones that took it far away from the Soviet avalanche that was to bury East Prussia beginning in January 1945. Unfortunately, those orders took the Corps to Hungary. There a similar fate awaited the remaining horsemen. Between 18 and 23 December 1944, the Cavalry Corps’ command elements and logistics units were loaded onto trains at Lyck in the southeastern corner of East Prussia. From there they traveled south. The 4th Cavalry Brigade went as well. There followed a circuitous route by rail through Posen, Beuthen in Silesia, and western Slovakia. Upon arrival in Hungary—from Lyck an airline distance of some five hundred miles (800 km) and much more by train—the Corps was assigned to the area north of the eastern end of Lake Balaton (Plattensee). Orders arrived on Christmas Day placing the Corps under the command of Sixth Army and, shortly thereafter, Second Panzer Army. Three days later the Corps, in turn, received command of the 1st and 23rd Panzer Divisions. From now on, the I Cavalry Corps was essentially an armored formation containing large horse-mounted and horse-drawn components. Its mission was to help stabilize the then S-shaped front stretching northward from Lake Balaton to the borders of prewar Czechoslovakia, to protect a vital oil refinery at Petfürdö and, possibly, to assist in the relief of Budapest, the Hungarian capital having been encircled by advancing Soviet forces on 24 December. By a curious twist of fate, the 8th Waffen-SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer found itself trapped in the city with the remaining German garrison. It had ended up there following its anti-partisan campaign in the Balkans in 1944 after being earlier withdrawn from Russia. There was even a second, nominal SS cavalry division, the 22nd Volunteer SS Cavalry Division (sometimes carrying the moniker Maria Theresa) in the city as well. In this last week of December, the Corps was in constant combat with Soviet forces attempting to solidify their lines while other Red Army units lay siege to Budapest, a siege that would continue until the city’s fall in February. Though the combat was sometimes heavy—regimental-strength attacks or better by Soviet forces—the cavalrymen and their sister armored divisions held, even though they had to do so without being able to call on reserves. At that moment, there weren’t any. As it turned out, the Cavalry Corps and the other German units in Hungary were aided by the fact that Soviet forces there went over to the operational defensive throughout January, February, and into March 1945.

In the meantime, and at that moment unbeknownst to the Corps, Hitler was planning what turned out to be his last operational offensive on the Eastern Front, code-named Operation Spring Awakening. Its objective would consist of the preservation of the oil fields north and south of Lake Balaton by Sixth SS Panzer Army (transferred from the Western Front) and Second Panzer Army, respectively. More airily, Hitler yet dreamed of the recovery of Budapest and the destruction of Soviet forces in Hungary. While the bulk of the offensive’s armored strength was comprised of the Sixth SS Panzer Army, the Cavalry Corps also took part. Officially it remained an element of Second Panzer Army but also seems later to have been temporarily assigned to Sixth SS Panzer Army. At some point between January and March, the 3rd Cavalry Brigade—or elements of it—rejoined the Corps. Furthermore, at least on paper, both it and the 4th Cavalry Brigade were re-formed as cavalry divisions by order of OKH effective 23 February 1945. They did not, however, receive reinforcements to flesh out the redesignation. Consequently, whether there would be enough men, equipment, vehicles, and horses for continued effective operations remained an open question. For instance, losses of horses by early 1945 were high enough to have drawn the attention of Hitler himself. In a conference with the head of Army Administration in the Army High Command, SS Obergruppenführer (General) August Frank, on 29 December 1944, Hitler had been informed that the attrition specifically of horses and vehicles could no longer be sustained. For the cavalrymen on the ground, the matter no doubt seemed clear enough, and though the Soviet forces facing them remained on the operational defensive, the fighting nevertheless continued.

For example, in an earlier effort to relieve the garrison encircled in Budapest, the Cavalry Corps’ troops had been heavily engaged. On 7 January, in bitterly cold weather, they’d punched a ten-mile-wide (13 km) hole in the Russian lines southeast of the city and had fought their way forward about the same distance. Nevertheless, and despite several days of intense fighting, neither they nor their counterparts to the northeast of Budapest could force their way into the city itself, though unsubstantiated reports maintained that some of the Cavalry Corps’ patrols reached the suburbs. By the end of January, the defenders remaining in the fortress of Buda on the Danube’s western bank, like their French counterparts in Paris in 1870, were reduced to eating horsemeat and bread. In the final attempted breakout on 11 February, fewer than 700 members of the garrison reached German lines. Total German losses in the city amounted to some 51,000 killed and 92,000 taken prisoner. The suitability of the cavalrymen for such a relief mission may be questioned, though the heavy armor of several of their formations (even if in depleted strength) now theoretically made their employment for such a task conceivable. Nevertheless, Harteneck and other commanders on the scene weren’t the only ones wondering whether mounted formations might still be useful. Once again, Hitler and his most senior commanders in Berlin seriously discussed, on 2 March, the defensive use of cavalry on the eve of the spring offensive that began seven days later. Though the Cavalry Corps had clearly shown in occupied Poland and on the borders of East Prussia what the cavalrymen could do on the defensive, the specific suggestion at Hitler’s conference—the employment of pro-German Cossacks—seems to have been more or less dismissed.

Ultimately, Operation Spring Awakening began on 5 March. Initially it made headway but in appalling conditions. Hampered from the outset by cold rain and flurrying snow, mud, a serious lack of fuel, and stiffening Russian resistance, the offensive had stuck fast by the middle of that month. The Soviets then responded by launching their own spring counteroffensive in reply. It would roll forward inexorably, and the Germans would retreat just as inexorably until their final surrender. Indicative of the changing fortunes in Hungary, the OKW on 16 March no longer reported news of German attacks but rather news of a “successful defense” and “counterattacks” along Lake Balaton. In other words, Spring Awakening had been stopped, and the German troops in it had gone over to the defensive. By 19 March OKW was reporting a “bitter defense” by German troops in the region. On 24 March the high command’s announcements indicated that “‘the Bolshevists’ forward attack groups had been brought to a standstill on both sides of Veszprém…after heavy enemy losses.” Lying just west of Lake Balaton’s northern end and on the edge of the Bakony Forest, the city of Veszprém happened to be defended by none other than the now redesignated 3rd and 4th Cavalry Divisions of the Cavalry Corps. Just as had been the case in East Prussia, the cavalrymen’s efforts in defense of Veszprém earned them notice, again at the highest levels. At a conference on 23 March, Hitler was specifically informed that the cavalry divisions, along with the 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen, had at least temporarily and successfully re-established “security” not only east of Veszprém but also along a nearby railway line. Successful or not, however, the Germans simply could not hold off the weight of the Soviets’ forward movement. And as the German armies retreated, they began slowly to disintegrate. On 10 April 1945, the New York Times’ war correspondent Hanson W. Baldwin reported that an unspecified number of German troops had effectively been isolated in a pocket around Vienna as the German army “melted away,” and by the end of that month OKW would have to admit in a public statement that German troops had been forced to withdraw to the southeastern borders of the Reich. These events were accompanied by reports that the Red Army was “storming the last German defenses in Vienna.” The city fell on 13–14 April, and the Soviet High Command reported 200,000 German troops killed or captured. Furthermore, other Soviet units had already begun their march up the valley of the Danube toward Bavaria.

As the Soviets advanced and shifted the brunt of their efforts to the drive on Berlin, the German retreat continued and followed two general routes. The Sixth SS Panzer Army and related forces moved more or less to the northwest. The Second Panzer Army, including the Cavalry Corps, moved generally southwest. This route took the Corps through Lower Austria and into the province of Styria. The cavalrymen, like the rest of the Second Panzer Army, were trapped by Russian armies advancing into the eastern province of Burgenland and the British Eighth Army marching steadily northward toward the Italo-Austrian border. Here the Cavalry Corps found itself when Germany’s unconditional surrender was signed on 8 May. On 10 May 1945, the Cavalry Corps also officially surrendered to British forces. Its reported total of 22,000 men and 16,000 horses—The (London) Times spoke of the “immense task” of collecting “vast hordes” of both men and horses from many different units—now went into Allied captivity. The day of the German horseman was done.

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