Oberfeldwebel Hermann Bix, tank commander in Panzer-Regiment 35
The Rearguard by David Pentland.
reussisch Stargard, East Prussia, February 1945. Following the departure of the platoon’s two other vehicles, after expending all their ammunition, the single Jagdpanther of Oberfeldwebel Hermann Bix remained to cover the withdrawal of all supporting infantry in the area. Hidden behind a muck heap, with only twenty armour piercing and five high explosive shells remaining he made the attacking Soviet Shermans pay a heavy price, destroying sixteen of their number before he too fell back out of ammunition.
We were really upset when we did not receive the accustomed and promised Panzer V’s and were issued instead the Jagdpanther, which could not be sent to an assault-gun battalion as a result of the general chaos.
Out of necessity, we then took a closer look at the new gear. The crates did not have a turret. You had to roughly aim the entire vehicle, which meant you were sort of exposed. But looked at in another light, the steel colossus had a pronounced low silhouette, which housed an excellent 8.8-centimeter main gun. The cannon had enormous penetrating ability, a legendary range and a captivating hit probability.
As a result, we quickly forgot about the unaccustomed lack of a turret on the vehicle and familiarized ourselves intensively with its advantages. We soon had opportunity enough to test that out completely.
End of February 1945. I was east of Preußisch-Stargard with three Jagdpanther. I was screening the withdrawal of our grenadiers and the establishment of a new defensive front further to the rear. Everything was moving back. The only thing that remained were dark mounds of dirt, the abandoned field positions. I was in a small locality with my vehicle, located behind a pile of manure. It was in such a manner that I could still observe and the main gun was above the pile. The flat superstructure of the vehicle only jutted a small amount above our cover.
Oberfeldwebel Dehm was behind me with one other Jagdpanther. The two of them had hardly any ammunition left. Without rounds, the two vehicles were only a burden to me. I therefore directed them to pull back a bit.
As the fog slowly started to lift, two Russian tanks appeared very, very carefully on the hill in front of us and felt their way closer slowly. When they arrived to within about 1,200 meters, I determined that they were neither T-34’s nor KV-I’s. Instead, they were combat vehicle of an American type. From experience, I knew that they could be knocked out at that distance relatively easily. We lit up both of them, and Ivan didn’t stick his nose out any more for some time.
A group of tankers, who had lost their tanks, were screening in the village. That meant that I was safe against surprises to either the right or the left, since there was only a limited field of vision from the vehicle proper. Besides, you can’t have eyes everywhere.
About a half an hour after knocking out the two tanks, I heard tank noises off to the right and identified two Russian tanks that wanted to bypass our village. My 8.8-centimeter main gun fired so accurately at that distance that there was hardly any such thing as a near miss. In short order, the two tanks were burning. At that point, I knew the Russians were feverishly trying to find a “weak spot” to be able to thrust through. It was imperative that I was attentive to the entire sector, since I was the only one in the area. The two remaining vehicles had taken off with my permission, since they had expended all of their ammunition.
My gunner reported to me that we only had five high-explosive and twenty antitank rounds left.
Leutnant Tautorus had to be out there somewhere, since he was screening in a neighboring sector. I reported to him by radio that I was being constantly attacked by enemy tanks, that I was all by myself and that I had little ammunition left. I received orders to hold up the Russians for as long as possible, since the infantry behind us had not yet finished establishing its positions.
In the meantime, my security on the ground also had to depart so as not to lose contact to the rear. That meant I could no longer observe what was going on to the right or left. Ivan could march there in parade formation and three across, and we would not see him.
I then observed the slope in front of me more exactly and determined that the Russians were openly bringing two antitank guns into position there. What was that supposed to mean? Were they trying to grab me by the collar? I had high-explosive rounds loaded and gave a fire command. Rums! Well lookie there! Bits of wood and fabric were flying through the air. The bastards had pulled a fast one and brought fake guns into position to get us to fire and determine where we were positioned. Pretty clever! And we fell right into their trap. I wasn’t going to be the butt of a joke a second time. I wasn’t going to expend any more of our valuable ammunition, if more wooden antitank guns showed up on the slope.
I kept as quiet as a church mouse. I even had the vehicle pull back a bit so that there was no way I could be seen from the front. It was only when I stuck my head out of the fighting compartment that I could see over our cover. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I saw a long column moving at speed directly towards my position. The lead vehicles were 1,200 meters away. Tanks in front and supply vehicles behind them.
I had surveyed the terrain in front of me and divided it into certain sectors with the ranges carefully determined. That meant I could afford to wait until the lead tank was 800 meters from me before firing an antitank round.
I don’t know why, but my great gunner did not hit the tank with his first round. Instead, he got a big tree on the edge of the road. The trunk broke in the middle and the crown collapsed on the lead tank with its thick branches. The tank then careened into the roadside ditch, since it had lost its ability to see. It remained there, immobilized.
The tanks that followed closed up and halted, but they did not identify me. One after the other, they all traversed their turrets to the right and fired like the fire department into the dark mounds of the abandoned infantry positions.
At that point, it was easy pickings, since the sides of the turrets were facing my direction of fire. But we also had to take careful aim, since we only had a few rounds. And if one of the tanks was left after we fired all of our ammunition, things could turn ugly for us.
Correspondingly, I had the middle tank in the column engaged first. It immediately went up in flames after the first round. The next one was the tank at the end of the column. Rums! It was also burning. Then we shot up the rest effortlessly, one after the other, since all of them were positioned there as if on a gunnery range.
We knocked out eleven Russian tanks in the column in ten minutes. The rest of them got bogged down in the ditch after attempting to turn around in a panic. They were then covered by the flames and smoke of the tanks burning in a long column.
When I ordered the trucks to be taken under fire, the gunner reported that there were only two rounds left. Even the machine-gun ammunition had been used up. That meant it was high time to disappear from there, since even the best tank is of no value without ammunition.
We moved back slowly, but the ground there was soft and had been churned up. It was not possible to turn where we were. As a result, we had to back up, meter by meter in order to get out of view of the column that gradually started to come to life.
Our engine howled at the strain we were putting on it. We were only a few meters from firm ground, but the tracks would not grip whenever the driver gave it just a little bit too much gas. I then got the shock of my life: A Russian tank was 300 meters away from us off to the right in the village. It had probably snaked its way through the terrain without being observed by us. It had infiltrated its way among the houses. It probably did not think there was any German tank there. Regardless of what the case may have been, it then identified us. And I had to watch as it traversed its turret towards us. We couldn’t do the same, unfortunately, since our otherwise admirable Jagdpanther had no turret, just like all assault guns. The Russian stopped. I knew it was a firing halt. I cried out . . . no, I screamed: “Back up and swing left! Halt! Shift right in place!”
But our crate was in the muck and only obeyed very slowly, much too slowly. I got nervous: “Shift right in place . . . faster . . . faster!”
The crew caught my disquiet. It started asking me excitedly what was going on. The loader, who thought the jig was up, reminded me: “Only two antitank rounds left!”
My heart started to palpitate; I started to feel strange. We just could not get into firing position. Only the driver knew exactly what was going on, since he knew my commands whenever we got into a firing position.
I didn’t want to admit it . . . but I had to . . . that we simply weren’t going to be able to get into firing position, since the steel giant was only moving centimeters in the mud bath. The main gun of the Russian tank was pointed directly at us. Was I seeing right, or was I seeing things? The main gun was a bit too high.
A jolt went though my bones. I suddenly got my head above water. I followed every movement of the Russians. Not a detail escaped me. And then they made a decisive mistake. The driver thought he had time to bring his tank forward a bit, since it was too low in the back. At that point, it started to churn up the ground, with the rear deck going lower and lower, since the ground there was also soft and like a morass.
A few seconds ago I had been ready to give up: “Hermann, get right with heaven, since everything is about to be over!” At that point, I saw my chance. Keep calm I told myself. Our fighting vehicle turned slowly. We were finally in a firing position. The main gun was ready and was at the proper elevation. The gunner took up an exact sight picture. Our counterpart continued to sink deeper and deeper. I saw how he was busy trying to use all of the tricks of the trade to depress his main gun more.
All of a sudden, a turret hatch flew open on the enemy tank. Two hands came out and waved. What was that supposed to mean? Did the crew want to surrender or was it attempting to confuse us? We were used to all sorts of things. No, I couldn’t take a risk. We fired our next-to-last round into the differential, in any event. The crew bailed out: one, two, three, four men. Very well then! The last round thundered straight into the Russian tank, and it immediately started to burn. Number 16 that morning.
Time to get to the rear! A tank without ammunition in the sixth year of war wasn’t worth a tinker’s damn.
So . . . you have to have luck . . . and eyes in your head . . . and a Jagdpanther . . . and a great crew!