HITLER’S LAST TRIUMPH I

In just five weeks of bitter fighting during the summer of 1944, Rokossovsky’s troops stormed over 450 miles and were within reach of Warsaw. The Polish capital looked a tempting prize for Stalin as a culmination of Operation Bagration’s remarkable success, but his summer offensive was beginning to lose momentum. Rokossovsky’s 1st Byelorussian Front was at the very limit of its supply lines; ammunition and rations were exhausted, as were his men.

Rokossovsky, at this stage, enjoyed a 3:1 superiority in infantry and 5:1 in armour and artillery. He had at his disposal nine armies: one tank army, two tank corps, three cavalry corps, one motorised corps and two air armies. Against this, Field Marshal Walter Model’s 2nd Army could muster barely five under-strength panzer divisions and one infantry division, while the battered 9th Army had just two divisions and two brigades of infantry.

In many ways, Hitler’s defence of Warsaw echoed that of Minsk. The eastern approaches of the Polish capital were protected by a 50-mile ring of strongpoints. The only difference was that, this time, Model had sufficient mobile reserves with which to parry Rokossovsky’s armoured thrusts. He had gathered his wits and, more importantly, sufficient men with which to thwart Rokossovsky’s oncoming tide. Model’s defences coalesced around his panzer divisions with around 450 tanks and self-propelled guns. Over the next week, things would start to go badly wrong for Rokossovsky and his men would experience their first major setback.

Rokossovsky’s Lublin–Brest Offensive was conducted from 18 July to 2 August 1944 as a follow-up to Bagration and to support General I.S. Konev’s Lvov–Sandomierz Offensive by tying down German forces in central eastern Poland. It culminated in the major tank Battle of Radzymin. To the north of Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front, Rokossovsky’s 8th Guards, 47th and 69th Armies supported by the 2nd Tank Army, and the Polish 1st Army struck from the Kovel area toward Lublin and Warsaw, thereby making Army Group North Ukraine’s position untenable.

It seemed appropriate to Stalin that eastern Poland should be liberated as part of Byelorussia, as that is how Hitler had treated it. For administrative purposes, parts of German-occupied Poland had been lumped in with western Byelorussia. When Hitler divided prostrate Poland with Stalin in 1939, he also annexed the region south-west of East Prussia (Wartheland) to the Reich, while the Reichkommissariate of ‘Ostland’ (an area incorporating Minsk and the Baltic States) and ‘Ukraine’ governed parts of eastern Poland, and the ‘rump’ in the middle was run as the Generalgouvernement.

In mid-1944 north of Warsaw, Model turned to Heinrich Himmler’s Waffen-SS for assistance in stabilising the front. The remnants of the 1st SS and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions had been shipped west after their mauling in the Kamenets–Podolsk pocket to re-equip and prepare for the anticipated Anglo-American landings in France. However, the tough 3rd SS and 5th SS Panzer Divisions remained in Romania and Poland rearming.

The 3rd SS was notified to move north as early as 25 June, but the disruption to the rail networks and roads meant that it took two weeks to get to north-eastern Poland. Arriving on 7 July, it found the Red Amy was already striking toward the Polish city of Grodno, threatening the southern flank of Army Group Centre’s 4th Army and the northern flank of the 2nd Army.

Deployed to Grodno, the 3rd SS were given the task of creating a defensive line for the 4th Army to retire behind. Spectacularly, the division held off 400 Soviet tanks for eleven days before withdrawing south-west toward Warsaw. Joined by the Hermann Göring Panzer Division at Siedlce, 50 miles east of the Polish capital, they held the Red Army for almost a week from 24 July, keeping open an escape corridor for the 2nd Army as it fled toward the Vistula. Three days later, the Red Army threw almost 500 tanks to the south and by 29 July it was at the very suburbs of Warsaw.

The 5th SS arrived in western Warsaw on 27 July and trundled through the troubled city to take up positions to the east. The next day, Stalin ordered Rokossovsky to occupy Praga, Warsaw’s suburbs on the eastern bank of the Vistula, during 5–8 August, and to establish a number of bridgeheads over the river to the south of the city.

As instructed, the Soviet 2nd Tank Army and 8th Tank Corps attacked westward along the Warsaw–Lublin road toward Praga. About 40 miles south-east of Warsaw, in the Garwolin area, the 2nd Tank was opposed by two advanced battalions of Genera Fritz Franek’s 10,800-strong 73rd Infantry Division. Holding the north bank of the Swidra River, they were backed up by the Hermann Göring Panzer Division 12 miles east of Praga.

In addition, four panzer divisions (3rd SS, 5th SS, 4th and 19th Panzer) which were poised to counter-attack now defended the approaches to the Polish capital. The men of 19th Panzer were veterans of the Eastern Front, having fought on the central and southern sectors from June 1941 to June 1944, before being shipped to the Netherlands for a refit. Hasso Krappe, an officer with 19th Panzer, recalled the fighting around Warsaw, ‘Over the next two weeks the battles centred on the region north of Warsaw [between the Bug, Narev and Vistula], and on the Varka, which has gone down in military history as the “Magnushev Bridgehead”.’

Franek’s division had endured a rough time during its career, having taken part in the invasions of Poland, the Low Countries, France and Greece before entering the Soviet Union via Romania. It fought at Nikolayev, Cherson, Sevastopol and the Kuban bridgehead. Suffering heavy losses near Melitopol, the 73rd Infantry was withdrawn only to be trapped by the Red Army in Sevastopol in May 1944 and re-formed in June in Hungary under Franek.

Franek’s men and the Hermann Göring bore the brunt of the powerful attacks launched by two Soviet Tank Corps. Garwolin was partially captured during the night of 27/28 July and the 73rd fell back. Despite the presence of elements of 19th Panzer and the Hermann Göring, by noon on 29 July the Soviet 8th Tank Corps had secured Kołbiel and Siennica. About 26 miles from Warsaw at Minsk Mazowiecki, Lieutenant General N.D. Vedeneev’s 3rd Tank Corps broke the German defences, and at Zielonka, General Franek and some of his staff were captured.

Brest-Litovsk fell to Rokossovsky on 28 July and with his troops at Garwolin, three German divisions tried to escape toward Siedlce, south-east of Warsaw. They were surrounded between Biała and the river and crushed, with 15,000 killed and just 2,000 captured. In Moscow, Stalin and his commanders were very pleased with Rokossovsky’s efforts and on 29 July he was nominated a Marshal of the Soviet Union.

Captured German documents showed that the 5th SS Reconnaissance Unit was deployed near Minsk Mazowiecki; units of the Hermann Göring and the 73rd Infantry were holding the Cechowa and Otwock sector of Warsaw’s outer defences; 19th Panzer was defending the approaches to Praga and the 3rd SS were in the Okuniew and Pustelnik suburban areas.

When the 2nd Tank Army’s 16th Tank Corps struck toward Otwock along the Lublin road, the 19th Panzer counter-attacked with forty panzers and an infantry regiment but were unable to hold, and by the evening the Soviets were a mere 15 miles from Warsaw. They were now poised to assault the key defences of Okuniew. The 8th Tank Corps opened the attack, only to be stalled by determined German air and artillery fire.

In the meantime Vedeneev, bypassing German defences, drove them from Wołomin and Radzymin, just 12 miles north-east of Warsaw, where he took up defensive positions along the Dluga River. Having outstretched his supply lines and outrun the rest of the Soviet 2nd Tank Army, Vedeneev was in a dangerously exposed position. The 39th Panzer Corps was in the area and the panzer divisions were coming together in the direction of Radzymin-Wołomin.

Rokossovsky’s forces were quick to react to this threat and attempted to alleviate the pressure on Vedeneev with a diversionary attack. At dawn on 31 July, followed by heavy air and artillery bombardment, the Soviet 8th Tank Corps threw themselves at the Germans who fell back toward Okuniew. The 5th SS counter-attacked in a westerly direction with fifty panzers from Stanislawów, in an effort to link up with the Hermann Göring and 19th Panzer, who were fighting a tank battle with the Soviets at Okuniew and Ossow.

The 5th SS were repulsed and on the evening of 31 July the Soviets took Okuniew, but could not budge the enemy from their strongpoint at Osos. North of the Soviet 8th Tank Corps, the 3rd Tank remained unsupported and, like the 16th Corps, endured a day of heavy attacks from German armour, artillery and infantry. The commander of the Soviet 2nd Army was in an impossible position; his units were enduring heavy casualties; he was short of supplies and his rear was under threat.

Rokossovsky simply could not fulfil his orders to break though the German defences and enter Praga by 8 August – it was simply not possible. On 1 August, at 1610 hrs he ordered the attack to be broken off just as Model launched his major counter-attack. On 2 August, all Red Army forces that were assaulting Warsaw were redirected. The 28th, 47th and 65th Armies were sent northwards to seize the undefended town of Wyszków and the Liwiec River Line. Crucially, this left the 2nd Tank Army without infantry support. This situation was compounded when the 69th Army was ordered to halt while the 8th Guards Army under Vasily Chuikov ceased the assault, to await a German attack from the direction of Garwolin.

Model began to probe the weak spot in Rokossovsky’s line between Praga and Siedlce. His intention was to hit the Soviets in the flank and the rear, and soon, to the north-east of Warsaw, the 39th Panzer Corps was counter-attacking the 3rd Tank Corps and forcing it back to Wołomin. The 3rd SS, Hermann Göring and 4th and 19th Panzer Divisions struck south into the exposed Soviet columns.

The Hermann Göring’s 1st Armoured Paratroop Regiment launched their attack from Praga toward Wołomin on 31 July, heralding the much larger effort to halt the Red Army in its steps before Warsaw. From the south-west, along the Warsaw–Wyszków road attacking toward Radzymin, came the 19th Panzer, while from Wyszków the 4th Panzer acted in support.

The next day, from Węgrów pushing toward Wołomin, came the panzers of the 5th SS. At the same time the 3rd SS was launched into the fray from Siedlce toward Stanislawów with the intention of trapping those Soviet units on the north-eastern bank of the Dluga. General Nikolaus von Vormann, appointed by Guderian to command the 9th Army and bringing up reinforcements from the 2nd Army’s reserves, also launched a counter-attack. Using men of the 5th SS and 3rd SS attacking from the forests to the east of Michałów, he drove the Soviet 8th Tank Corps from Okuniew at 2100 hrs on 1 August and linked up with 39th Panzer Corps from the west.

By 2 August, the 19th followed by 4th Panzer were in Radzymin and the Soviet 3rd Tank Corps was thrown back toward Wołomin. The following day, the Hermann Göring Panzer Division rolled into Wołomin. Pressed into the area of Wołomin, Vedeneev was completely trapped. Attempts by the 8th Guards Tank Corps and the 16th Tank Corps to reach him failed with the former suffering serious casualties in the attempt.

After a week of heavy fighting, the Soviet 3rd Tank Corps was surrounded; 3,000 men were killed and another 6,000 captured. The Red Army also lost 425 of the 808 tanks and self-propelled guns they had begun the battle with on 18 July. By noon on 5 August the Germans had ceased their counter-attack and the battle for the Praga approaches had come to an end. Two German divisions had to be transferred south to deal with the Soviet threat there.

Vedeneev’s corps was destroyed and the 8th Guards Tank Corps and the 16th Tank Corps had taken heavy losses. The exhausted Soviet 2nd Tank Army handed over its positions and withdrew to lick its wounds.

Post-war Communist propagandists cited the Battle of Radzymin as evidence that the German counter-attack prevented the Red Army from helping the Warsaw Uprising. Stalin clearly did not hold Vedeneev responsible. He remained in charge and the 3rd Tank Corps was honoured by being designated the 9th Guards Tank Corps in November 1944. It was not until 25 August that Rokossovsky would inform Stalin that he was ready to have another go at Warsaw.

After such heavy fighting north-east of the Polish capital, it is easy to see why Stalin saw the Polish Home Army’s Warsaw Rising as of little consequence to the overall strategic scheme of things. General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowsky, commander of the underground Polish Home Army, ordered his men to rise up against the German occupation of Warsaw on 1 August. Two days later, Stanislaus Mikołajczyk, who had been appointed prime minister by the exiled Polish government in London, gained an audience with Stalin in the hope of getting help for the Warsaw Rising. Stalin showed little faith in the Home Army’s fighting capabilities:

What is an army without artillery, tanks and an air force? They are even short of riles. In modern warfare such an army is of little use. They are small partisan units, not a regular army. I was told that the Polish government has ordered these units to drive the Germans out of Warsaw. I wonder how they could possibly do this, their forces are not up to that task.

Rokossovsky was ordered to go over to the defensive and watched the Germans systemically crush the Poles for two whole months. Likewise, the Red Air Force, which was just 100 miles away, did very little. At Kraków, the capital of the Generalgouvernement, the Wehrmacht garrison was 30,000 strong, twice that of Warsaw, which had a much bigger population. In addition, there were some 10,000 armed German administrators in the city. As a result, there was no secondary Home Army rising in Kraków.

Just 12.5 miles south of Warsaw, Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army crossed the Vistula on 1 August at Magnuszew. He held onto his tiny bridgehead despite determined counter-attacks. By the 8th, the bridgehead contained three Soviet corps. Holding the northern shoulder of the bridgehead and preventing the Soviets from expanding it was a Volksgrenadier Brigade and a battalion of panzers, while to the south were the 17th Infantry Division.

General Zygmunt Berling’s Soviet-trained Polish 1st Army had reinforced Rokossovsky during the spring of 1944. This was, in fact, the second Polish army to be formed in the Soviet Union and was the military wing of the so-called Union of Polish Patriots, which had come into being with Stalin’s approval in 1943. The earlier army of General Władysław Anders had managed to slip Stalin’s grasp in 1942, getting itself redeployed to fight with the British in the Middle East and Italy.

Berling was ordered to cross the Vistula at Puławy on 31 July on a wide front to support other elements of the Soviet 69th and 8th Guards Armies crossing near Magnuszew. Two Polish divisions gained the west bank on 1 and 2 August, but by the 4th they had suffered 1,000 casualties and were ordered to withdraw. They were then assigned to protect the northern part of the Magnuszew bridgehead.

When Berling joined Rokossovsky he had 104,000 men under arms, comprising five infantry divisions, a tank brigade, four artillery brigades and an air wing. Many recruits who were former POWs from 1939 saw it as a way of getting home, although Stalin kept them on a tight political leash. Berling, like Rokossovsky, was a career soldier having served with the Austrian and Polish armies. The fact that Stalin had spared him and that he had not stayed with Anders made him appear a turncoat to many of his countrymen. Berling was also given the onerous task of endorsing Stalin’s lie that Hitler had perpetrated the massacre of Polish officers in Katyn Forest.

When Poland was partitioned by Stalin and Hitler under the Non-Aggression Pact, 130,000 Polish officers and men immediately fell into the hands of the Red Army (although, in total, some 250,000 soldiers were eventually moved into the Soviet Union as POWs). Stalin had a long memory and a score to settle with the Poles (in 1920 they had defeated the Red Army), and he also wanted to destroy the basis for any future opposition to the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland, which would act as a buffer against post-war Germany. Stalin had acted swiftly and brutally.

He rounded up every Polish officer in his part of pre-war Poland (now the western Ukraine and western Belorussia) and in early 1940 he ruthlessly organised their slaughter. In April–May 1940, 15,000 Polish officers and policemen were evacuated from camps at Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Ostachkov and turned over to the NKVD in the Smolensk, Kharkov and Kalinin regions. With Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the Polish government in exile signed an agreement with Moscow – the provisions included raising a Polish army in the Soviet Union. However, of the 15,000 Polish officers held by the Soviets, only 350–400 reported for duty. Like the kulaks and Red Army officers before them, the Polish officer class had been ruthlessly butchered.

Stalin’s duplicity in his treatment of Poland and the Polish Army knew no bounds. In December 1941, Generals Wladyslaw Sikorski and Anders plus the Polish ambassador met with Stalin to discuss the whereabouts of approximately 4,000 named Polish officers who had been deported to Soviet prisons and labour camps. Stalin initially claimed rather disingenuously that they had escaped to Manchuria. He then changed tack, suggesting they had been released, adding, ‘I want you to know that the Soviet government has not the slightest reason to retain even one Pole’. What he meant was ‘even one living Pole’.

Hitler announced that he had found the mass grave of up to 4,000 Polish officers in the forest of Katyn, near Smolensk, in April 1943. The Germans continued to dig, unearthing an estimated 10,000 bodies, and Hitler set up a Committee of Inquiry which ‘proved’ the Poles had been shot in 1940 by Stalin’s NKVD. The Soviets dismissed the claim as propaganda, calling it ‘revolting and slanderous fabrications’.

Hitler’s discovery had strained Soviet–Polish relations even further, allowing Stalin to undermine the validity of the Polish government in exile in London as a prelude to establishing a Communist government in Warsaw. As far as Stalin was concerned, Poland came within his sphere of influence and he had every intention of it remaining so. On retaking Smolensk, Stalin set up his own commission which stated categorically that the men had been killed in 1941 while road-building for the Germans.

HITLER’S LAST TRIUMPH II

On the morning of 2 August 1944, Rokossovsky went to view the Polish capital and got a good indication of the Polish Home Army’s efforts, recalling:

Together with a group of officers I was visiting the 2nd Tank Army, which was fighting on that sector of the front. From our observation point, which had been set up at the top of a tall factory chimney, we could see Warsaw. The city was covered in clouds of smoke. Here and there houses were burning. Bombs and shells were exploding. Everything indicated that a battle was in progress.

Why did Rokossovsky not try for a bridgehead at Warsaw if the Red Army had established footholds at Magnuszew, Puławy and on the upper Vistula near Sandomierz? To have done so would have been far tougher than in the Radom region, way to the south. Sandomierz had cost them dearly, plus Stalin saw Warsaw as anchoring the Germans’ line on the Narev and Bobr and, in turn, East Prussia and knew they would fight bitterly to defend this. Without the Baltic States secured, Hitler could strike from East Prussia against the flank and rear of the Red Army once it was advancing beyond the Vistula.

Also, by now Rokossovsky was facing twenty-two enemy divisions, this included four security divisions in the Warsaw suburbs, three Hungarian divisions on the Vistula, south of Warsaw, and the remains of six or seven divisions which had escaped from the chaos of Belostok and Brest-Lotovsk. At least eight divisions were identified fighting to the north of Siedlce, amongst them two panzer and three SS panzer or panzergrenadier divisions. Stalin was waiting in the wings with his own Polish government and armed forces.

Marshal Zhukov blamed Polish leader Bor-Komorowski for a lack of co-operation with the Red Army:

As was established later, neither the command of the Front [Rokossovsky] nor that of Poland’s 1st Army [Berling] had been informed in advance by Bor-Komorowski, the leader of the uprising, about forthcoming events in Warsaw. Nor did he make any attempt to co-ordinate the insurgents’ actions with those of the 1st Byelorussian Front. The Soviet Command learned about the uprising after the event from local residents who had crossed the Vistula. The Stavka had not been informed in advance either.

In light of Rokossovsky’s efforts to the north-east and south-east of Warsaw in the face of the tough Waffen-SS, this is largely true.

In Warsaw, General Reiner Stahel’s 12,000-strong garrison included 5,000 regular troops, 4,000 Luftwaffe personnel (over a quarter of whom were manning the air defences) and the 2,000-strong Warsaw security regiment. Wehrmacht forces in the immediate area numbered up to 16,000 men, with another 90,000 further afield. Army Group Centre was to have a limited role in fighting the Warsaw Rising. General Vormann, commanding the 9th Army, sent 1,000 men to Praga to help hold the Poniatowski Bridge. An additional three battalions were also sent to help to assist the Hermann Göring Division in clearing a way through the city to the Kierbedz Bridge.

With the Wehrmacht fully tied up fending off Soviet attacks, it was left to the reviled SS to stamp out the Polish rising, involving military police units and SS troops under SS-Standartenführer Paul Geibel supported by factory and rail guards. Geibel also managed to scrounge four Tiger tanks, a Panther tank, four medium tanks and an assault gun off the 5th SS to strengthen his forces. A motley battle group under SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Reinefarth, supported by thirty-seven assault guns and a company of heavy tanks, was also assembled to crush the Polish Home Army in Warsaw.

SS reinforcements included SS-Brigadeführer Bratislav Kaminski’s hated Russian National Liberation Army Brigade. Kaminski supported SS-Oberführer Oskar Dirlewanger’s Anti-Partisan Brigade. This consisted of two battalions of criminals, three battalions of former Soviet POWs, two companies of gendarmes, a police platoon and an artillery battery. Additionally, Colonel Wilhelm Schmidt supplied men drawn from his 603rd Regiment and a grenadier and police battalion.

All the forces in Warsaw were placed under SS-Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who had been overseeing the construction of defences on the Vistula near Gdańsk. He was the nemesis of partisan forces in the east. Von dem Bach-Zelewski was soon to find that both Kaminski and Dirlewanger’s men were atrociously disciplined. Their brutality in Warsaw was to horrify even the battle-hardened SS, and von dem Bach-Zelewski thought they were the lowest of the low, remarking, ‘The fighting value of these Cossacks was, as usual in such a collection of people without a fatherland, very poor. They had a great liking for alcohol and other excesses and had no interest in military discipline.’

On 5 August 1944, Dirlewanger and Kaminski’s troops counter-attacked the brave Polish Home Army. For two days, they ran amok. After the war, the German officers involved disingenuously laid the blame firmly on the shoulders of Kaminski and Dirlewanger.

On 19 August the Polish Home Army’s efforts to fight its way through to those forces trapped in the Old Town came to nothing and it was clear they would have to be evacuated to the city centre and Żoliborz district. About 2,500 fighters withdrew via the sewers, leaving behind their badly wounded. It was now only a matter of time before the SS crushed resistance in the city centre and cleared resistance between the Poniatowski and Kierbedz Bridges.

To ward off a wider encircling movement by the Red Army to the north, Model deployed the 4th SS Panzer Corps with the 3rd SS and 5th SS moving into blocking positions. From 14 August, the Soviets attacked for a week but the SS successfully held off fifteen rifle divisions and two tank corps. Also in mid-August, Model relinquished his command of Army Group Centre and hastened to France to take charge from Günther von Kluge in a vain attempt to avert the unfolding German defeat in Normandy.

Stalin’s great offensive that had commenced in Byelorussia on 23 June 1944 had all but ended by 29 August. By the 26th, the 3rd SS had been forced back to Praga, but a counter-attack by them on 11 September thwarted another attempt to link up with the Polish Home Army. It was the 3rd SS and 5th SS who had the dubious honour, along with Stalin, of consigning Warsaw to two months of bloody agony.

From 13 September, the Red Air Force spent two weeks conducting 2,000 supply sorties to the insurgents. The supplies were modest, including 505 anti-tank rifles, nearly 1,500 sub-machine guns and 130 tons of food, medicine and explosives. By the time Berling’s Polish 1st Army was committed for the battle for Praga, time was running out, with Żoliborz under attack by elements of the 25th Panzer Division and just 400 insurgents left holding a narrow strip of the river.

Berling recklessly threw his men over the river at Czerniaków, but tragically could make no headway against determined German resistance. He landed three groups on the banks of the Czerniaków and Powiśle areas and made contacts with Home Army forces on the night of 14/15 September. His men on the eastern shore attempted several more landings over the next four days, but during 15–23 September those who had got over suffered heavy casualties and lost their boats and river-crossing equipment.

On 22 September, Berling’s men were ordered back across the Vistula for a second time. There was hardly any Red Army support and out of the 3,000 men who made it across just 900 got back to the eastern shores, two-thirds of whom were seriously wounded. In total, Berling’s Polish 1st Army losses amounted to 5,660 killed, missing or wounded, trying to aid the Warsaw Uprising.

After sixty-two days of fighting, and having lost 15,000 dead and 25,000 wounded, the Polish Home Army surrendered in Warsaw on 2 October. Up to 200,000 civilians had been killed in the needless orgy of destruction. After the surrender, 15,000 members of the Home Army were disarmed and sent to POW camps in Germany, while up to 6,000 fighters slipped back into the population with the intention of continuing the fight. However, the vengeful Himmler expelled the rest of the civilian population and ordered the city be flattened.

Crushing the Poles had been a pointless exercise which cost Hitler 10,000 dead, 9,000 wounded and 7,000 missing. It was clear from the fatalities outnumbering the wounded that no quarter had been given. However, German morale was given a much-needed boost, which had them believing their feat of arms, rather than Stalin, had halted Rokossovsky at the very gates of Warsaw.

Rokossovsky would not occupy the Polish capital for another six weeks, leaving Hitler triumphant before Warsaw. It was to be his last real victory of the war.

At the height of the fighting on the Eastern Front in 1944, 63 per cent of Hitler’s divisions and 70 per cent of his manpower were tied up fighting Stalin’s Red Army. It also accounted for 57 per cent of all his panzers and assault guns, 71 per cent of all guns and mortars and 51 per cent of all operational aircraft. The other two active fronts in France and Italy accounted for just 30–35 per cent of Hitler’s total combat strength.

Despite holding the Red Army before Warsaw and crushing the Polish rising, it was hard to see how Hitler’s Wehrmacht could survive the twin calamities of Byelorussia and Normandy. The enormous loss of manpower urgently needed addressing. While German industry worked wonders reconstituting the shattered panzer formations thanks to Albert Speer’s weapons factories, new infantry divisions were also desperately required. In autumn 1944, Hitler ordered the creation of almost eighty Volksgrenadier divisions. These had fewer infantry battalions and heavy weapons than regular infantry divisions, but issuing them with more sub-machine guns and assault rifles than usual compensated for this.

Initially thirty-five skeleton divisions were refitted and another fifteen new ones created. To the OKW’s displeasure, for propaganda purposes Hitler insisted on naming them Volksgrenadiers (People’s Grenadiers) and placing them under the auspices of the SS. The German Replacement Army was soon gathering men from disbanded army units and convalescing in hospitals, as well as surplus Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine personnel. Old men and teenagers previously considered unsuitable were also rapidly conscripted.

There was constant competition between the army, Waffen-SS and Luftwaffe for resources that created a wholly unnecessary duplication of effort. The OKW would have preferred that all available men were used as combat replacements for existing army units, rather than creating new ones. The army had struggled to gain control of Göring’s twenty-two weak Luftwaffe field divisions in late 1943. By which time the damage was done, as they were standing units and the men could not be transferred. Himmler’s Waffen-SS controlled another thirty-eight elite divisions, which operated outside the army’s chain of command.

The creation of the Volksgrenadier units caused Allied intelligence some confusion, as Hitler’s home guard was known as the Volkssturm. This resulted in the firepower of the Volksgrenadier divisions being greatly underestimated. They were sent to fight on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. However, fifteen divisions were assigned to Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive. Guderian would rather have seen them and the re-formed panzer divisions all sent east to hold the Oder, but it was not to be.

Panzers in Italy I

Italian officers stood dumbfounded before the German General Westphal. He had just delivered an ultimatum: they must not resist Hitler’s occupation of their country or Rome would face the wrath of the Luftwaffe. The Italian leader Benito Mussolini had first courted his Nazi counterpart in 1939 with the Pact of Steel; now the marriage was ending in an acrimonious and dramatic divorce. By the late summer of 1943 the Italians were wavering in their commitment to the Axis cause and Hitler needed to secure Italy and the Balkans against the encroaching Allies. At this point Field Marshal Albert Kesselring pulled off an audacious coup: ‘Smiling Albert’, with few forces to hand, browbeat, demoralised and bluffed the Italians into allowing him to occupy Rome and disarm them without even firing a shot.

In a letter to his wife dated 10 September 1943 Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who had fought so long beside the Italians in Libya and Tunisia, said with genuine regret:

The events in Italy have, of course, long been expected and the very situation has now arisen which we have done all we could to avoid. In the south, Italian troops are already fighting alongside the British against us. Up north, Italian troops are being disarmed for the present and sent as prisoners to Germany. What a shameful end for an army!

Before his fall from power Mussolini had wanted not additional German troops in Italy but rather German resources with which to replenish his exhausted and demoralised army. When Kesselring told Mussolini he was forming three new German divisions to help defend Italy, Mussolini remarked that they would make no difference and what he really needed was tanks and aircraft. His initial requests included 300 tanks, rising to enough equipment for 17 tank battalions and 33 self-propelled artillery battalions. The Germans scoffed at his demands.

While the campaigns fought during the Second World War in North Africa, the Eastern Front and northwest Europe were very much dominated by armoured warfare, the battles in Italy were not. The mountainous topography running the length of the Italian peninsula ensured that it was foremost an infantry war, with tanks playing a secondary supporting role. At the beginning of the campaign the mountainous terrain of southern and central Italy greatly impeded the Allied advance. When they were able to use the roads, after German demolition damage had been repaired and mines cleared, they still had to cover huge distances up zigzagging routes just to cover a few miles as the crow flies.

As well as Italy’s mountains and numerous rivers, the Allies also had to overcome a number of key German defensive positions known as the Bernhardt, Gustav, Senger, Caesar, Albert, Heinrich and Gothic Lines respectively. This was a job for infantry and artillery, not tanks. On top of this, the Italian weather was an additional curse on Allied operations. For over half the year there was rain and snow, both of which resulted in mud.

Only six Allied armoured divisions fought in Italy and not all at the same time. A single US armoured division served with the multi-national US 5th Army fighting in western Italy (though independent tank battalions were assigned to support the infantry units). This was the US 1st Armored Division, affectionately known as the ‘Old Ironsides’. This division was the founding unit of America’s tank force during the Second World War, supplying cadres for all the other fifteen US combat armoured divisions.

However, as pointed out, the US 5th Army was a multi-national force and at various times it was strengthened by the British 6th and 7th Armoured Divisions, the South African 6th Armoured Division and the Canadian 1st Armoured Brigade. In contrast, the key armoured units with the British 8th Army fighting its way up eastern Italy were the British 1st Armoured and the Canadian 5th Armoured Divisions. The Canadians were not very happy at being equipped with the 7th Armoured Division’s worn-out vehicles when the latter shipped back to Britain to take part in the Normandy landings.

Likewise, German panzer divisions were always thin on the ground in Italy. On the whole the German infantry divisions relied on the support of panzergrenadier units, which had fewer armoured fighting vehicles than the regular panzer divisions. The key armoured formation was the 26th Panzer Division, which transferred to Italy in 1943 and remained there for the rest of the war until its surrender near Bologna in May 1945. The 16th Panzer Division fought in Italy for six months between June and November 1943, seeing action at Salerno and Naples before being sent to the Eastern Front. The 24th Panzer Division was sent very briefly to northern Italy in the summer of 1943 on occupation duties.

Another panzer division that fought in both Sicily and on the Italian mainland was in fact a Luftwaffe or German Air Force unit, although in February 1943 it came under army control after General Heinz Guderian became Inspector-General Armoured Forces. This was the volunteer Hermann Göring Panzer Division that had its origins in the elite pre-war Luftwaffe Jäeger Regiment Hermann Göring. This had become a brigade in 1942 with a paratroop and air landing training role. Early the following year it became a panzergrenadier division and finally the Fallschirm Panzer Division Hermann Göring.

The Hermann Göring Panzer Division was destroyed in Tunisia but re-formed in southern Italy and Sicily and played a key role in the Sicilian campaign in July and August 1943. Escaping to the Italian mainland following the Allied landings on Sicily, it was given the title Fallschirm Panzer Division Hermann Göring, although the Fallschirm (‘Parachute’) designation was purely honorary. The division was heavily involved in containing the Anzio bridgehead from January 1944 onwards until the Allied breakout. In July it was transferred to the Eastern Front.

Five panzergrenadier divisions – the 3rd, 15th, 16th SS, 29th and 90th – saw long-term action in Italy. The 15th Panzer Division, having been lost in Tunisia, was reconstituted in Sicily as the 15th Panzergrenadiers and served there and on the mainland. Most of these units started life as motorised infantry divisions and were converted in 1943. On the whole they were equipped with turretless assault guns not panzers, though the Fallschirm Panzer Division Hermann Göring included a panzer and assault gun battalion. Once the Allies had broken out of their various bridgeheads, the low-profile assault gun proved to be an ideal weapon for the Germans’ defensive war in Italy.

Despite the Italian surrender on 3 September 1943, Field Marshal Kesselring seized power and stabilised the situation in Italy following the Allied landings at Salerno on the 9th.The Allied planners realised belatedly that they had lost a golden opportunity by not landing just south of Rome to pre-empt Kesselring’s take-over. Not only did the Germans successfully seize most of Italy, but also the Italian-occupied zones in Albania, the Balkans, Greece and Yugoslavia, thereby securing their potentially exposed flank. Considering the German defeat at El Alamein, the subsequent Torch landings and the Germans’ expulsion from North Africa and Sicily, Hitler must have been quietly pleased with how he had retrieved such a disastrous situation.

By early October Hitler had reinforced his forces in Italy with 27,000 troops that had escaped from Corsica and Sardinia. In the meantime Field Marshal Kesselring managed to keep the Allies at bay and disarm the Italian Army. He then brought the invaders to a halt 100 miles from Rome. Eight months were to pass before the Allies reached the Italian capital, and it would take another eight months before they managed to break out into the plains of northern Italy.

Four major offensives between January and May 1944 were required before the Gustav Line was eventually broken by a combined assault of the US 5th and British 8th Armies (involving British, US, French, Polish and Canadian Corps) concentrated along a 20-mile front between Monte Cassino and the western coast. The forces at Anzio did not break out of their bridgehead until late May. Even then the opportunity to cut off and destroy a large part of the German 10th Army was lost when the Anzio forces changed their direction of attack to move parallel with the coast to capture Rome. The Germans fought a highly successful and effective defensive war in Italy, which slowed down the Allied armour at every turn, until the very end of the Second World War.

The Luftwaffe’s Sicilian Panzers

Following the German and Italian defeat in Tunisia, the Allies turned their attentions to the Italian island of Sicily. The invasion of Sicily was not a foregone conclusion. Ideally, the Allies wanted to open a new front in western Europe, but at this stage simply did not have the resources in place to conduct a landing in northern France. Options on the table for the Allied planners included invasions of the Italian island of Sardinia or the French island of Corsica, with subsequent advances into northern Italy and southern France respectively. It was decided that an invasion of Sicily and an advance into southern Italy was the preferred option as it offered shorter and safer lines of communication with Allied forces in North Africa. Fighter cover could also be provided from Malta. Crucially this Sicilian ‘right hook’ alternative was intended to serve much grander goals.

Strategically, it was hoped that an attack on southern Italy would draw the Germans away from Normandy and the Eastern Front, but this led to differences of opinion among the Allies. The Americans saw the Italian campaign as a way to sap Germany’s strength from more important fronts, rather than as a major effort to defeat the Axis powers in Italy. The British, on the other hand, saw a push north through Italy and into Austria and southern Germany as a way of striking at Hitler. This was an important schism because it meant that in mid-1944, at a crucial moment in the Italian campaign, the Allied armies were drained of resources to support the fighting in France.

The Germans had two armoured formations deployed on Sicily: the Luftwaffe’s Hermann Göring Panzer Division commanded by General Paul Conrath and the 15th Panzergrenadier Division under General Eberhard Rodtfrom. These units could field a total of 159 tanks between them. They were reinforced by General Walter Fries’ 29th Panzergrenadier Division, which began to arrive in mid-July and came under General Hans-Valentin Hube’s 14th Panzer Corps.

In contrast, the Italian tank units were negligible, comprising a number of battalions of Renault R-35 tanks. The Italians had lost the bulk of their armour in the fighting in North Africa. Very limited numbers of armoured fighting vehicles remained scattered in Albania and Greece, while the few remaining medium tanks and assault guns were gathered for the defence of mainland Italy. They were so short of tanks that when Italian officers inspected the 6th Army formations on Sicily in June they confirmed that German armour would be needed to help defend the island.

The defence of Sicily was the responsibility of the Italian 6th Army, consisting of two corps, under General Alfredo Guzzoni. However, to confuse matters the specially designated Fortress Areas around the ports came under the Italian Navy. By early July Axis forces on Sicily numbered some 200,000 Italians and 62,000 German Army and Luftwaffe personnel. The Italians were organised into four frontline infantry divisions, while the rest formed immobile coastal divisions.

For the invasion the infantry divisions of General Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army were supported by the British 4th and 23rd Armoured Brigades and the Canadian 1st Tank Brigade. The latter, along with the Canadian 1st Infantry Division, was included at the insistence of William Lyon Mackenzie King, the Canadian prime minister. Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 7th Army’s principal supporting armoured units were the 70th and 753rd Tank Battalions and the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion, plus elements of the 813th Tank Destroyer Battalion. Under the US Provisional Corps was the US 2nd Armored Division. The US 45th Infantry Division was also supported by a tank destroyer battalion.

Overall command and planning for Operation Husky fell to General Harold Alexander’s 15th Army Group, which had the responsibility of getting Montgomery and Patton’s two armies ashore on southern Sicily. General Guzzoni’s 6th Army headquarters was based at Enna, in the centre of the island, while its subordinate commands consisted of General Matio Arisio’s 12th Corps to the west and General Carlo Rossi’s 16th Corps to the east. Reserves consisted of a single Italian division, the Hermann Göring Panzer Division and the 15th Panzergrenadiers. The poor weather meant the Italians were not anticipating any amphibious operations, so they were not on alert along the southern coast.

Operation Husky commenced on the night of 9/10 July 1943. By the evening of 10 July the assault divisions (three British, three American and one Canadian) had secured the port of Syracuse and were well established. Two days later Kesselring himself arrived to assess the situation and rapidly came to the conclusion that his troops were on their own. They needed reinforcing as quickly as possible, and in order to shorten the front line it was decided to abandon western Sicily. As a result a defensive line was established from San Stefano on the north coast via Nicosia, Agira and Cantenanuova down to Catania on the eastern coast.

As the only armoured division supporting the invasion, the US 2nd Armored was divided between two of the US 7th Army’s task forces. To the left Combat Command A (66th Armored Regiment) was with the 3rd Infantry Division coming ashore at Licata. The bulk of the division was to act as a floating reserve to support the central invasion around Gela.

In the face of counterattacks by the panzers of the Hermann Göring and Italian Livorno Divisions, plus Mobile Force E, reinforcements from the US 2nd Armored were put ashore in the shape of Combat Command B (3rd Battalion, 67th Armored Regiment). While forty panzers were overrunning the positions of the US 1st Infantry Division, the Shermans of the 2nd Armored struggled to get off the beaches. Four Shermans under Lieutenant James White finally reached the coastal highway and began to shell the Germans’ flank and they eventually withdrew with the loss of sixteen tanks.

At Licata, the westernmost US beachhead, Combat Command A suffered a major reverse when the Luftwaffe hit a landing ship carrying a company of Shermans, an infantry company’s vehicles and half the command’s HQ equipment. Nevertheless, on 11 July the division took Naro, only to be bombed by their own air force. On 16 July 2nd Armored was placed in reserve, and then went on to take part in General Patton’s attack on Palermo on the northern coast of the island. The division rolled into the city on 22 July. Once the island had been occupied, the 2nd Armored was sent to England to prepare for the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Kesselring’s Italian Coup

After the surrender of the Axis forces in Tunisia, the writing was on the wall for Mussolini, and his fate was sealed when Allied troops assaulted Italian soil with the invasion of Sicily. The fighting on the island triggered a political crisis in metropolitan Italy. Fifteen days after the invasion Mussolini was arrested in Rome and the new government under General Badoglio began to secretly negotiate with the Allies. Hitler was furious, and did not trust Badoglio’s claims that Italy would remain loyal to the German cause. General Jodl, Hitler’s Chief of Operations, urged caution but the Fuhrer knew the situation called for decisive action by his panzers before his southern flank became unhinged.

Just two days after Mussolini’s fall, Hitler convened an emergency conference and presented four military options for dealing with Italy if she should abandon the Axis cause. The first, Operation Eiche (Oak), envisaged a maritime or airborne rescue mission to secure Mussolini’s release; the second, Operation Student, was more ambitious and called for the seizure of Rome in order to reinstate Mussolini; the third, Operation Schwarz (Black), proposed the total occupation of Italy and the fourth, Operation Achse (Axis), planned for the capture or destruction of the Italian fleet. The last two were to be combined under the codename Axis.

By late July Hitler, fearing the worst, drafted War Directive 49 outlining the occupation of Italy and all her overseas possessions. The directive was never issued, but on 31 July a series of separate orders were sent out informing commanders of what they should do if the Italians dropped out of the war. Although Hitler was dissuaded from putting the 3rd Panzergrenadiers on the streets of Rome, he swiftly secured the Alpine passes between Germany and Italy, and between Italy and France. Eight divisions were assembled from France and southern Germany as Army Group B, ready to rescue those German forces in Italy.

Had the Italians acted decisively they could have sealed the Alpine bridges and tunnels and cut off the Wehrmacht already in Italy. The Italians had prepared the Brenner Pass for demolition, and had they blown the vital rail link it would have been out of action for at least six months. However, changing sides took time and Badoglio had to establish contact with the Allies and agree terms for an armistice before he could act against his former comrades in arms. Six precious weeks were to be wasted, leaving Italy vulnerable to Hitler’s counterstroke.

According to the German Intelligence Bureau established to monitor Italian troop movements in the north, the Italian Army was suffering a severe ammunition shortage. Field Marshal Rommel, placed in command of securing Italy, was not surprised: he already had a low opinion of Italian industry after his experience with the ill-resourced Italian forces in North Africa.

Belatedly the Italians moved the Alpine, Julia and Trentina Divisions to the Brenner. The road to the Italian naval base at La Spezia was also blocked. On 9 August Rommel wrote to his wife: ‘The situation with these unreliable Italians is extremely unpleasant. To our faces they protest their truest loyalty to the common cause, and yet they create all kinds of difficulties for us and at the back of it all seem to be negotiating. ‘The Germans also became alarmed by the Italian withdrawal of their occupation forces from southern France, and the movement of two Italian divisions from southern Italy to the north.

‘General Feuerstein reports that a critical situation developed on the Brenner about midday yesterday [1/8/43],’ recorded Rommel in his diary, ‘when the Italians tried to hold up the advance of 44th Infantry Division. General Gloria had given orders for fire to be opened if 44th Division attempted to continue its march.’ Fortunately the Italian troops on the ground chose not to obey the order and instead withdrew. The Italians concentrated 60,000 men in the Verona – Bolzano area but, in the face of the tanks of the 1st SS Panzer Division, which crossed the Brenner Pass on 3 August, chose not to deploy them. The panzers rolled over the frontier alert to possible resistance, but in the event the only casualties were two Tiger tanks, which did not like the concrete roads: one overturned and another caught fire. In truth, the 1st SS Panzer Division was a bit disorganised as all its armour had been left in Russia and it had to re-equip en route.

Rather than defend the whole of Italy, the Germans drew up plans for a defensive line in the Apennines well to the north of Rome. During August the 1st SS and 25th Panzer Divisions and five infantry divisions crossed the frontier. In central Italy the German 10th Army was activated; it was able to call on five divisions and another two near Rome. Up until the end of the Sicilian campaign, and the successful escape of four German divisions, Hitler only had two divisions covering the whole of southern Italy. The Italians were not pleased about the presence of these German troops and Kesselring’s Chief of Staff, General Siegfried Westphal, spent a great deal of time trying to smooth ruffled feathers.

On 15 August Rommel travelled to Bologna to discuss the situation with General Roatta, Chief of Staff of the Italian Army. To his alarm, German intelligence indicated that the Italians intended to either poison him or have him arrested; in response he took with him German panzergrenadiers to secure the conference building beforehand. Roatta claimed the withdrawal of Italian troops from southern France was to help fight the British, and that the Alpine division from southern Italy had moved simply north to resume garrison duties. He confirmed that a second division had moved also north, to secure the railways from sabotage. Roatta dismissed any ideas that these refitting formations were in any way a threat to German interests.

Roatta reiterated that the defence of Italian soil against the Allies must be left to the Italian Army, though the Germans could take over air defence. He also tried to get rid of the powerful 1st SS Panzer Division by suggesting it be sent to Sardinia; he also suggested that other German forces should be moved into southern Italy. The meeting broke up without agreement and the following day Italian representatives offering Italy’s unconditional surrender approached the British Ambassador in Madrid.

After securing Sicily in August, the Allies invaded mainland Italy at Reggio, Salerno and Taranto at the beginning of the following month. The Italians lost an estimated 2,000 dead, 5,000 wounded and 137,000 captured on Sicily, along with all their tanks. This final military disaster was a blow from which the Italian Army would not recover. By September the Italian Army had twenty-one divisions in mainland Italy, although half of these were of poor quality, plus four in Sardinia and another thirty-six overseas.To fend off a German takeover of northern and central Italy, the Italian Army had eight infantry divisions and two motorised/armoured divisions, supported by another eight (weak) infantry divisions. Against these forces the Germans could field about sixteen highly experienced divisions.

If the Allied invasion fleet gathered off Naples on 8 September had sailed north and put its forces ashore near the Italian capital, the Italian Army would probably have used its remaining tanks against the Germans and Hitler would have abandoned Kesselring and his eight divisions. Instead, fate took a cruel turn and the American 5th Army landed not near Rome but at Salerno, south of Naples. Kesselring’s HQ at Frascati, near Rome, lost all communication with the outside world on the 8th after an American air raid killed nearly a hundred of his staff.

Following the Italian armistice with the Allies on 9 September, Hitler issued the codeword Achse (Axis). When the Germans learned of the armistice through a BBC broadcast, Kesselring was alerted. For a day or two the fate of those German forces in central and southern Italy hung in the balance. A tense stand-off took place between two German divisions and five Italian divisions equipped with tanks near the Italian capital. During 1943 the Italian Army had received an updated version of their medium tank, designated the M15/42. By September just over eighty had been delivered and these were deployed around Rome.

General Westphal, trying to reach General Roatta at Monte Rotondo, found himself obstructed by troops from the Italian Grenadier Division. Fearing something was wrong, Westphal insisted on seeing Roatta, and upon his arrival the Italian general informed him that Italy had signed an armistice with the Allies. Returning to Frascati, Westphal acted quickly and with more aggression than Kesselring would have liked. He called a conference with the General Staff of General Carboni’s Italian Corps, which was responsible for Rome.

Once the Italian officers were gathered, Westphal expressed his regret that they were no longer comrades in arms (he had served alongside them in North Africa). He said they had two options: either to lay down their arms or to suffer Stuka dive-bomber attacks. In support of this threat, Field Marshal von Richthofen had eighty fighter aircraft at his disposal in Italy. The next day an Italian officer arrived and signed the surrender order for the Carboni Corps. Kesselring and Westphal heaved a sign of relief that their coup would be bloodless. The Wehrmacht took possession of two-thirds of Italy, including the industrial north, whose factories were soon put to work churning out arms for the German war effort.

Hitler’s next move was to ‘rescue’ Mussolini, and for this job he called on SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Otto Skorzeny. On 12 September Mussolini was snatched from the Hotel Albergo-Rifugo 100 miles from Rome. A German glider landed in the hotel grounds and disgorged a number of Waffen-SS commandos and an Italian general. The carabinieri guarding Mussolini were unsure what to do; some simply fled, while the others faced the quandary of whether to open fire on an Italian general, or indeed their former leader. At the behest of Skorzeny and Mussolini, they decided to lay down their arms.

Skorzeny hurried the former dictator to a small plane and he was flown to Vienna via Rome. A few days later he arrived at Rastenburg to meet his saviour. While Mussolini was full of gratitude, Hitler was displeased to find his one-time ally was less than enthusiastic about his plans to revive fascism in northern Italy.The disillusioned Mussolini found himself the puppet ruler of his German-occupied homeland, the so-called Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI). In reality, all he wanted to do was spend time with his mistress while Italy went to ruin.

Panzers in Italy II

Battle of the Bridgeheads

Having secured Sicily, the Allies invaded mainland Italy. The main assault, under the codename Operation Avalanche, took place on the western coast at Salerno, with two subsidiary operations taking place in Calabria and Taranto. The Salerno invasion force consisted of 100,000 British troops and 69,000 Americans, with some 20,000 vehicles borne by an armada of 450 vessels. The key armoured unit was the British 7th Armoured Division, while supporting forces also included the Royal Scots Greys and the 40th Royal Tank Regiment. The US 5th Army’s reserves included the US 1st Armored Division. Under Operation Baytown the Canadian 1st Armoured Division came ashore at Reggio di Calabria, supporting the British 8th Corps.

Following the Axis surrender in Tunisia, the British 7th Armoured Division was withdrawn to Tripolitania to refit. It did not participate in Operation Husky, and instead trained for a role in the amphibious assault on mainland Italy. The battle-hardened veterans of 22 Armoured Brigade were brought back up to strength and issued with new vehicles and equipment. They cast off most of their British tanks and were equipped almost exclusively with the M4 Sherman. Their divisional armoured car regiment had Daimler and Dingo armoured cars supplemented with White scout cars.

To beef up the division’s anti-tank capabilities, the Jeep troop was replaced by a self-propelled gun troop equipped with two 75mm guns mounted in White half-tracks to give immediate fire support. At the same time the 5th Royal Horse Artillery was issued with the Priest 105mm self-propelled gun to work in conjunction with the armoured brigade’s tanks. In light of the terrain in Italy, the engineers were trained to deploy new Bailey bridges and tank-mounted scissor bridges in order to keep the division moving.

Field Marshal Rommel had taken charge of Army Group B in mid-August with responsibility for all German forces in Italy as far as Pisa. Field Marshal Kesselring and Army Command South remained in charge in southern Italy. The newly formed German 10th Army under General Heinrich von Vietinghoff was activated on 22 August with the task of fending off an Allied invasion. This army controlled the 14th Panzer Corps (Hermann Göring Panzer, 15th Panzergrenadier and 16th Panzer Divisions) and the 76th Panzer Corps (26th Panzer and 29th Panzergrenadier Divisions). Most notably, the 16th Panzer Division was deployed above the Salerno plain.

Following Operation Baytown on 3 September 1943, Kesselring rightly deduced that the Calabria landings were not the main Allied effort and concluded that Salerno or Rome would be their main point of attack. He withdrew General Traugott Herr’s 76th Panzer Corps, leaving just a regiment of panzergrenadiers to hold the toe of Italy in the face of the British 8th Army.

On 9 September Operation Slapstick seized Taranto unopposed, followed by Bari and Brindisi. The assault at Salerno also commenced that day, although the Allies soon found elements of the 16th Panzer, Hermann Göring Panzer and 15th and 29th Panzergrenadier Divisions bearing down on them. Private J.C. Jones from the US 36th Infantry Division remembered,

Beyond the beaches in front of the 141st [Regiment], the relatively flat terrain was now invaded by five Mark IV (medium) tanks. The German armour rolled over the American troops who had taken cover in the irrigation ditches, firing continual machine-gun bursts into the prone men as they rumbled by. A platoon of B Company, led by Staff Sgt James A. Whitaker of Brownwood, Texas, was caught by these tanks.

By 13 September all German reinforcements were in position, including units from the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division, which had been north of Rome. That day they launched a counteroffensive, which was halted by naval gunfire and artillery. Two days later the 16th Panzer and 29th Panzergrenadier Divisions went over to the defensive, while the Hermann Göring Division achieved some success east of Salerno. On 15 September, carrying infantry on their backs, the Shermans of the 40th Royal Tank Regiment departed Salerno en route for Naples.

When the 7th Armoured Division arrived in Italy on 15 September in support of the US 5th Army, its units were soon confronted with poor roads, mountains and impassable rivers. They acted as the follow-up division supporting the British 46th and 56th Infantry Divisions at Salerno. By 16 September the British and American bridgeheads had linked up, with the US 5th Army pushing up the west coast and the British 8th Army advancing along the east coast. The 7th Armoured Division’s first real success was the taking of Scafati on the Sarno river. Having secured the town’s road bridge intact, divisional engineers then erected a Bailey bridge next to it. Forward elements of the 7th Armoured Division entered Naples on 1 October.

Once beyond Naples, the armour was able to fan out. By 5 October the 7th Armoured’s tanks had reached the Volturno river near Capua. The Germans, however, had blown all the bridges and were firmly dug in on the far bank. On 12 October the 7th Armoured Division, acting in support of an infantry assault, launched a diversionary crossing to keep the Germans preoccupied. The tanks managed to ford the river and help turn the enemy’s defences. The Germans, though, simply withdrew to their next defence line along the Garigliano river.

In light of the Allies’ superior firepower, both the 76th and 14th Panzer Corps had little option but to break off the battle. Nonetheless, the armoured formations of the 10th Army had come very close to overcoming the Salerno bridgehead. The initial conduct of the 16th Panzer Division and the Germans’ ability to redeploy their forces more quickly than the Allies could reinforce almost tipped the battle in their favour.

The whole of southern Italy was in Allied hands by early October, and they now faced a whole series of German defensive lines. These would buy the Germans time while they constructed the ‘Winter Line’ south of Rome. In November the 7th Armoured Division was pulled back behind Monte Massico as it had been earmarked to take part in the coming Allied invasion of Normandy. The men handed over all their Sherman tanks and equipment to the Canadian 5th Armoured Division and made their way to Naples ready to be shipped back to England. There they reequipped with British-built Cromwell tanks – with dire consequences.

By early November Hitler had dispatched Rommel to oversee the defence of northern France and Kesselring was left in charge in Italy with instructions to deny Rome to the Allies for as long as possible. It took the Allies until mid-January 1944 to force their way through the Volturno, Barbara and Bernhardt Lines to reach the Gustav Line – the centrepiece of the Winter Line.

The Allies launched their offensive in the south on 12 January 1944, with General Juin’s French Expeditionary Corps assaulting Cassino and the British 10th Corps attempting to exploit previous gains on the Garigliano river. Both assaults failed to break through the German Gustav Line, although limited progress was made.

A week later the US 2nd Corps attacked from the centre of General Mark Clark’s US 5th Army, attempting to cross the Rapido river, but after just two days the Americans were forced to call a halt. The breakthrough of the Gustav Line – the lynch-pin of the Allied plan, of which Operation Shingle (the Anzio landing) was a part – had bogged down. This lack of success at Cassino indicated there would be no progress towards Rome during March

Operation Shingle, launched on 22 January 1944, was an amphibious attack in the area of Anzio and Nettuno, designed to turn the German flank and compromise their defences. Some 36,000 troops and 3,200 vehicles poured ashore. British forces hitting ‘Peter Beach’ were backed by the 46th Royal Tank Regiment, while the American troops coming ashore on ‘X-Ray Beach’ had armoured support from the 751st Tank Battalion and 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion. Six days earlier the US 5th Army had struck the Gustav Line at Monte Cassino; although it failed to achieve a breakthrough, it drew German reinforcements in the form of the 29th and 90th Panzergrenadier Divisions away from Rome.

At Anzio the Allies soon found their way blocked by the Hermann Göring Panzer Division and a battle group from the 4th Parachute Division, which were holding the roads from Anzio to the Alban Hills via Campoleone and Cisterna. Just two days after the landings the Germans had over 40,000 troops in the area, with the 4th Parachute Division to the west, the 3rd Panzergrenadiers in front of the Alban Hills and the Hermann Göring Division to the east. The invasion forces were hemmed in by elements of the 26th Panzer and Hermann Göring Divisions, as well as the 3rd and 16th SS Panzergrenadier Divisions with about 220 panzers. In two weeks of fighting the Anglo-American forces suffered almost 7,000 casualties

By early February some 76,000 troops were facing 100,000 Germans under the control of the 14th Army and the 76th Panzer Corps and 1st Parachute Corps. The Germans launched a counterattack on 3 February and again on 16 February, with both sides fighting each other to a standstill. All the time the Allied forces at Anzio remained bottled up, they were tying up the valuable shipping that was keeping them resupplied. Due to the lack of progress, Lieutenant General Lucian Truscott replaced General Lucas as the commander at Anzio. Once again the panzers had triumphed.

Piercing the Gustav Line

The French took credit for the success of Operation Diadem, as it was they who turned the panzers.The French Expeditionary Corps started to arrive in Italy in November 1943 and by May 1944 was fully up to strength. Colonial Moroccan troops first really made their presence felt in Italy when General André Dody’s division tipped the balance during Operation Raincoat in mid-December 1943. His men helped push the Germans back to the Gustav Line, but overall the offensive failed to put the Allies in a strong position to support the forthcoming Anzio landings.

While the US 5th Army suggested advancing along the Ausente valley, it was the French General Juin who proposed attacking through the mountains while making no attempt to outflank Aurunci. To do this it was necessary to break out of the Garigliano bridgehead so the French could take Monte Majo and the Ausonia defile. General Clark, impressed by Juin’s boldness, agreed.

The 2nd Moroccan Infantry Division under General Dody was given the task of taking Majo and its three spurs. On the right was Brosset’s 1st Free French Division and on the left de Monsabert’s 3rd Algerian Infantry Division, which was tasked with securing Castleforte to open up the Ausente. Afterwards the Mountain Corps, comprising General Savez’s 4th Moroccan Mountain Division and General Guillame’s Group of Moroccan Tabors, could then push to the Aurunci massif.

On 13 May 1944, in the face of stiff German resistance, the Moroccans succeeded in breaching the Gustav Line at Monte Majo, one of its deepest (though most weakly defended) points. Ausonia was captured two days later. In particular, the fall of Majo unhinged the 14th Panzer Corps’ left wing, greatly contributing to the Allies’ success.

By 1730 on 23 May General B.M. Hoffmeister, commanding the Canadian 5th Armoured Division, felt a large enough breach had been achieved to commit his tanks. Unfortunately the division had to shift its axis of attack and got tangled up with the tanks of the 25th Armoured Brigade moving to rearm and refuel. By the time the mess was sorted out too much time had passed and Hoffmeister was unable to attack until early the next morning. This was to become an all-too-familiar problem.

His lead units kicked off at 0800 on 24 May. The vanguard was led by a composite group of tanks and infantry made up of squadrons from the British Columbia Dragoons, each supported by carrier-borne infantry from the Irish Regiment of Canada. This was known as Vokes Force (after the commander of the Dragoons, Lieutenant Colonel F.A. Vokes) and its mission was to establish a base midway between the Hitler Line and Melfa. A second Canadian composite group, Griffin Force, consisting of tanks from Lord Strathcona’s Horse (commanded by Lieutenant Colonel P.G. Griffin) and lorried infantry from the Westminster Regiment, was to pass through Vokes Force and take a crossing over the Melfa. A third leap was to be made by elements of the Westminsters who would consolidate the bridgehead, while the 8th Princess Louise’s Hussars would fight their way towards Ceprano.

Hoffmeister’s tanks were protected on the flanks by the British 6th Armoured Division moving on their right along Highway Six, and by the Canadian 1st Infantry Division on the left, whose tanks and infantry were to strike along the north bank of the Liri. It was during these operations that some of the few major tank-versus-tank battles of the Cassino campaign were fought. It was now that the Allies first came up against the Panzer Mk V Panther in Italy. On 15 May, after urgent appeals from General von Vietinghoff, a company of Panthers had been deployed to Melfa, where they arrived five days later, just in time to confront the Canadians.

Shortly after midday the tanks of the British Columbia Dragoons and supporting infantry reached their objective about 2 miles northwest of Aquino, and Griffin Force was ordered forwards. At 1500 the Strathcona’s reconnaissance troop crossed the Melfa. Vokes Force had brushed with the Panthers early on 24 May and remarkably had managed to account for three Panthers for the loss of just four Shermans.

A and C Companies of the Strathconas, trying to cross further north, managed to drive the Panthers to the far bank, but they lost seventeen Shermans and claimed just five panzers destroyed, not all of them Panthers. An infantry officer spoke of the Canadian tank crews with amazement: ‘I’ll never forget the way the tanks would keep coming and then one would get knocked out and then another and still they’d keep coming.’

Meanwhile the Canadians were unable to get any anti-tank weapons over to the Strathcona/Westminster bridgehead and the Germans launched three counterattacks with Panthers. Three tanks almost overran their positions but PIAT fire made the Germans lose their nerve and they wheeled away. Fortunately by 2100 some 6-pounder anti-tank guns had got over the river

In summing up the Melfa battles a staff officer in the Canadian 5th Armoured Division wrote:

As for the main obstacle of the German tanks … the only reason why it was possible to make headway against their qualitative superiority was by weight of numbers … General Leese [Commanding 8th Army] was prepared to lose 1,000 tanks. As he had 1,900 at his disposal, the Panther stood a fair chance of becoming an extinct species among the fauna of S. Italy. On our side losses had to be taken and replacements thrown in. Being somewhat up against it, the tankmen were compelled to improvise and make the most of what they had.

It was decided to throw everything up the Liri valley as soon as possible. The net result was that five divisions (Canadian 5th Armoured, British 6th Armoured, Canadian 1st Infantry, Indian 8th Infantry and British 78th Infantry) were all madly jostling for space. This meant that around 450 medium tanks, 240 light tanks, 50 self-propelled guns, 320 armoured cars, 200 scout cars, 2,000 half-tracks and 10,000 lorries were jammed along the roads in the valley. Operation Diadem turned into one enormous traffic jam that threatened to derail the offensive before it had even properly got under way. The military police trying to sort out the chaos were faced with an almost impossible task as tempers flared and vehicles bumped into one another. The slow-moving tanks consumed four times as much petrol as normal and the heavy traffic prevented extra fuel being brought up. It is hardly surprising that the Germans slipped the noose.

On 24 May the British 6th Armoured Division was held up for several hours waiting for the Canadian 5th Armoured Division to clear the roads. On the 29th and 30th, with Acre cleared and 13th Corps thrusting for Altari, an attempt was made to commit yet more tanks, this time the South African 6th Armoured Division. The plan was for the South Africans to replace the Canadians, but until they took over the Canadian positions all they did was add a few more thousand vehicles to the existing almighty traffic jam.

In the meantime the Germans did what they were best at and conducted highly successful local defensive actions. The 90th Panzergrenadiers at Ceprano and the 1st Parachute Division at Acre managed to hold the British at bay and kept the road to Rome closed until the end of May. The Allied command despaired of their tanks ever doing what they were supposed to do.

Meanwhile the German 14th Army conducted an orderly fighting withdrawal towards Rome. Diadem cost the British and American forces some 44,000 casualties, failed to destroy the Germans and condemned the Allies to another year of fighting around the Gothic Line from August 1944 to May 1945. The Germans lost 450 panzers, half the available armour in Italy, as well as 720 guns of various calibres. Four of Kesselring’s battered infantry divisions had to be withdrawn for refit and another seven were badly weakened. Nonetheless, four fresh divisions and a regiment of heavy tanks were on the way to help hold up the Allied advance.

The Italian capital was not secured until 4 June, and even then the Allies failed to encircle Kesselring’s withdrawing forces. South of Rome the Germans made one last desperate attempt to stop their 10th and 14th Armies losing contact. The diary of an artilleryman serving with the German 65th Infantry Division recalled: ‘The whole day Tommy [British troops] is attacking. We answer until the gun barrels are red hot. At 12.15 groups of enemy tanks are trying to break through at the Schotterstrasse [disused railway bed]. This attack collapses in our fire. At 1600 Tommy attacks again. Soon after that we receive orders to retreat.’ The 65th Infantry Division destroyed 168 Allied tanks in front of the Schotterstrasse and at Campoleone to the east. Yet still the Allies pressed home their attacks.

Raleigh Trevelyan, a British platoon commander serving with the Green Howards, recalled:

Sometimes a [Panzer] Mark IV tank or scout car would block main highways into Rome, and partisans would guide the Americans through back alleys.… At about 8pm Irish Dominicans at San Clemente near the Colosseum heard a commotion like big wheels grinding and went out to investigate. A line of American tanks was drawn up close to the walls of the college. Two of the Fathers walked along the tanks, but no soldier spoke or made a noise. Suddenly from the last tank there jumped an officer, who went down on his knees and asked for a blessing.

The tough Hermann Göring Division, though badly mauled, escaped. Unfortunately for Kesselring, this division was sent to Russia the following month. The British 8th Army struggling up the Adriatic coast by mid-September was being resisted by elements of ten German divisions. This did not greatly deter its advance on the Senio river and by the end of the year the key armoured formations of the German 10th Army, the 26th Panzer and 90th Panzergrenadier Divisions, had suffered ever heavier casualties. Only the arrival of the 29th Panzergrenadier Division alleviated the pressure on the exhausted 26th Panzer and staved off collapse.

Gothic Horror

Manned by Kesselring’s 10th and 14th Armies, the Gothic Line was the last major obstacle between the Allies and the Alps and it proved to be probably the best of all the German defences. The Italian landscape also once more assisted the Germans, for in the valley of the upper Tiber the mountainous backbone of the country twists northwestwards to join the Maritime Alps in Liguria. This forms a huge natural barrier between the flat lands of the northeast and central Italy. After Cassino and Rome fell, the series of delaying battles from Trasimere to Florence had bought the German engineers much-needed time. Unfortunately for the Allies, the French, who were their most experienced and effective mountain troops, were withdrawn to fight in southern France.

As it was the very last line in the series, the Germans had had much greater time to prepare it, not to mention the assistance of 15,000 conscripted Italian labourers. Although the Gothic Line was never finished, it still presented a formidable barrier. The positions included Panther tank turrets set in steel and concrete, bunkers, air raid shelters, gun emplacements, minefields and anti-tank ditches as well as an obstacle zone stretching for 10 miles.

The Germans had done everything conceivable to stop the Allied tanks. Anti-tank defences in depth blocked the approaches to Spezia on the west coast. From Carrara the line passed through the mountains north of Pistoia to the fortifications of the Futa Pass, which included anti-tank ditches and concrete casemates and tank turrets. Eastwards to the Adriatic foothills the defences were concentrated along the Foglia to Pesaro. There deep minefields, a tank ditch, pillboxes and tank turrets protected the coastal belt.

The Allies launched the imaginatively titled Operation Olive in late August 1944 with the 8th Army aiming to break through the sector of the Gothic Line held by General Traugott Herr’s 76th Panzer Corps (which did not contain any panzer or panzergrenadier divisions).Traugott’s positions were assaulted by the Polish 2nd Corps (which included the Polish 2nd Armoured Brigade), the Canadian 1st Corps (Canadian 5th Armoured Division and the British 21 st Tank Brigade) and the British 5th Corps (1st Armoured Division, 7th Armoured Brigade and 25th Tank Brigade).The attack fell into four phases: the advance to the Gothic Line, the penetration of its defences, the battle for the Coriano Ridge and the exploitation of this battle. The reality was that Italy was now very much a secondary theatre of operations, as the battle for Normandy was at its height, and the US 5th Army had lost seven divisions that were sent to take part in Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France, at the end of August. The US 5th Army and the British 8th Army had seen their strengths fall dramatically from 249,000 to 153,000 men, leaving them just eighteen divisions with which to overwhelm the fourteen divisions of the German 10th and 14th Armies.

The Germans rushed reinforcements forwards, including the 26th Panzer Division, but this did not stop the Allies breaking through and pouring towards Rimini on the east coast. The Germans, though, did not give up so easily and by 4 September the 29th Panzergrenadiers and two infantry divisions had arrived to bolster the German line, causing a slowing of the Allied advance towards the Gemmano and Coriano Ridges. The fighting here was some of the toughest of the entire Italian campaign. The Coriano Ridge battle between 12 and 19 September 1944 required both the British 1st and Canadian 5th Armoured Divisions to overcome the German defences.

By this stage the Germans had been able to bring in the 90th Panzergrenadier Division and the 20th Luftwaffe Field Division, giving them ten divisions with which to oppose the 8th Army. However, the German defence was overcome and on 21 September the 8th Army took Rimini and was at last in the valley of the River Po.

This advance had been at a terrible cost to both sides: the 8th Army suffered 14,000 casualties and the 76th Panzer Corps lost 16,000. In the British sector during September the Allies lost 250 tanks destroyed by the enemy and a similar number either bogged or broken down. Losses in manpower were such that battalions had to be reduced from four to three companies. Notably the 1st Armoured Division received such a terrible mauling that it virtually ceased to exist and was disbanded on 1 January 1945.

The British soon discovered that the Po valley was not the excellent tank country that they had hoped for. Instead it proved to be a boggy expanse covered in a series of watercourses that greatly suited the Germans’ finely honed defensive tactics.

On the left the US 5th Army now included the US 1 st, British 6th and South African 6th Armoured Divisions as well as the Canadian 1st Tank Brigade. Facing them was the German 14th Army, which included the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division. By the end of the first week of September the army reserve, consisting of the 29th Panzergrenadiers and the 26th Panzer Division, had been moved to the Adriatic front. On 18 September the British 6th Armoured Division took the San Godenzo Pass on Route 67 to Forli. A month later the US 5th Army gathered its strength for one last push on Bologna; however, the 29th and 90th Panzergrenadiers helped to put an end to any such ambitions, leaving the 5th Army stranded in the mountains over the winter.

Defeat on the Po

Mussolini made one last futile effort at the end of 1944. Carried out largely by Italians, the counterattack was launched in the Senio valley on 26 December. Some of the RSI’s remaining tanks may have taken part. The 8th Army, although exhausted and short of ammunition, easily stopped this attack.

On the west coast the Germans launched an attack in the Serchio valley, north of Lucca, and broke through to threaten the US 5th Army’s lines of communication with its base at Leghorn. The Germans were blocked with the assistance of a division detached from the British 8th Army. This delayed 5th Army’s planned attack towards Bologna and in turn brought the British 8th Army to a halt, because it had to conserve ammunition until the Americans were ready.

The requirements of the crumbling Eastern Front saw the departure of the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division from Italy in the New Year. Kesselring was appointed Supreme Commander West in March 1945 and replaced in Italy by General von Vietinghoff. German forces on the Italian front amounted to twenty-three divisions, with two others partly formed, and six Italian divisions. The 10th and 14th Armies, holding the left and right flanks respectively, each still had a nominal panzer corps.

By the spring of 1945 neither of the German armies had any reserves, although the battered 29th and 90th Panzergrenadier Divisions remained in von Vietinghoff’s Army Group Reserve. These units, plus the 26th Panzer Division, continued to fight tenaciously as they were slowly pushed northwards.

The Allied armoured divisions were involved in one last offensive against the Germans, dubbed Operation Grapeshot. This was launched with the aim of breaking out into the Lombardy plains. The 8th Army element of the attack was called Operation Buckland, and the US 5th Army’s contribution was Operation Craftsman.

Preparation for Grapeshot commenced on 6 April 1945 when the Germans’ Senio defences were subjected to heavy artillery bombardment. Three days later 825 heavy bombers attacked fixed positions beyond the Senio river; these were then followed by medium bombers and fighter-bombers. The latter struck at anything that moved, especially exposed armoured fighting vehicles and motor transport. The air attacks heralded the ground assault against the shell-shocked defenders, which rolled forwards at dusk that day. In support of the New Zealand 2nd Infantry Division were twenty-eight Churchill Crocodile flamethrowers and 127 Carrier Wasp flamethrowers. These scorched everything in their path and by nightfall of 10 April the New Zealanders had reached the Santerno, which they crossed the following day.

The American assault, also preceded by a massive bombardment of enemy positions by heavy bombers and artillery, opened on 14 April with the US 1st Armored Division supporting the US 4th Corps. The following night the US 2nd Corps, which included the South African 6th Armoured Division, attacked towards Bologna between Highways 64 and 65.

The 8th Army had forced the Argenta Gap by 19 April and the British 6th Armoured Division swung left to drive northwestwards along the Reno river to Bondeno, link up with the US 5th Army and encircle the Germans defending Bologna. Bondeno fell on 23 April and the 6th Armoured duly linked up with the Americans at Finale to the north the following day.

Despite Hitler’s instructions to stand fast, the Germans had no option but to fall back beyond the River Po. They finally sustained a deathblow trying to escape across the river, losing eighty tanks, 1,000 motor vehicles and 300 pieces of artillery. By this stage continuing the fight in Italy had become pointless. The official unconditional surrender in Italy was signed on 2 May 1945.The remaining panzers and Italian tanks were turned over to the Allies. The Italian campaign was over.

German AFVS Berlin 1945

General Helmuth Weidling, the commander of the LVI Panzer Corps, looked rather like a professorial version of Erich von Stroheim, only with hair.

On the morning of 23 April, Weidling rang the Führer bunker to report. General Krebs replied ‘with conspicuous coldness’ and informed him that he had been condemned to death. Demonstrating a remarkable moral and physical courage, he turned up at the Führer bunker that afternoon. Hitler was clearly impressed, so much so that he decided that the man he had wanted to execute for cowardice was the man to command the defence of the Reich capital. It was, as Colonel Refior observed, a ‘tragi-comedy’ typical of the regime.

Weidling’s LVI Panzer Corps was considerably reduced. Only fragments remained of the 9th Parachute Division. The Muncheberg Panzer Division was reduced to remnants, and although the 20th Panzergrenadier Division was in better shape, its commander, Major General Scholz, had committed suicide shortly after entering Berlin. Only the Nordland and the 18th Panzergrenadier Division remained in a relatively battle-worthy condition. Weidling decided to hold back the 18th Panzergrenadier Division in reserve for counter-attack. The other formations were distributed around the different defence sectors to act as ‘Korsettstangen’ — ‘corset-stiffeners’.

Weidling found that he was supposed to defend Berlin from 1.5 million Soviet troops with around 45,000 Wehrmacht and SS troops, including his own corps, and just over 40,000 Volkssturm. Almost all the sixty tanks in the city came from his own formations. There was also supposed to be a Panzerjagd battalion equipped with Volkswagens, each of which was fitted with a rack for six anti-tank rockets, but nobody could find any trace of it. In the central government district, Brigadeführer Mohnke commanded over 2,000 men from his base in the Reich Chancellery.

The most immediate threat which Weidling faced on the afternoon of 23 April was the assault on the east and south-east of the city from the 5th Shock Army, the 8th Guards Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army. That night, armoured vehicles which were still battle-worthy were ordered back to Tempelhof aerodrome to refuel. There, amid an expanse of wrecked Luftwaffe fighter planes, mainly Focke-Wulfs, the armoured vehicles filled up at a depot by the huge administration building. They received an order to prepare to counter-attack south-eastwards towards Britz. They were reinforced with a few King Tiger tanks and some Nebelwerfer rocket launchers, but the main anti-tank weapon of this force was the ‘Stuka on foot’, a joke name for the panzerfaust.

German Units identified at the Battle of Berlin. April-May 1945.

56th Panzer Corps:

20th Panzer Grenadier Division

18th Panzer Grenadier Division

9th Fallschirmjager Division

Muncheberg Panzer Division

11th SS Panzer Grenadier Division ’Nordland’

15th SS Grenadier Division’Latvian No 1’ (SS Volunteers)

33rd SS Grenadier Division’Charlemagne’? (SS Volunteers)

Sturmgeshultz Brigades; 249, 243, Stug-Lehr-Brig.I, II, III.

Guard Regiment’Grossdeutschland’ (2 Battalions)

SS Chancellery Guard Battalion-this unit designated either Wachtbattalion (mot) ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ or SS Fuhrer Begleit Kommando ‘Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler’

Some small units from the Naval School- ‘Gross Admiral Donitz’ Marine Battalion

Various Volksturm units. (92 battalions)

Total numbers.

24,000 regular troops.

60,000 Volksturm men.

6 plus Tiger II Tanks

Some French Tanks either Somua and/or H-35, One Russian T-35

Some Panthers and Pz IVH/J, with some Tiger I

StuG IIIG and StuH IIIG, with some JgPz IV

Estimate of German forces.

LVI Pz Kps as 13-15,000 men, the equivalent of two (2) divisions, Waffen-SS forces under Mohnke as half (1/2) a division, and the remaining miscellany of units as equating to some two (2) to three (3) divisions, a total of four (4) to five (5) divisions in all, with about 60,000 men and some fifty (50) to sixty (60) tanks.

1966 Estimate: 44,630 soldiers, 42,531 Volkssturm, 3,532 Hitlerjugend, RAD and Org Todt on the 23rd April.

RAF 119 Squadron

Fairey Swordfish Mk III NF374 of No. 119 Squadron RAF

In 1943, No. 415 Squadron RCAF was equipped with Albacores (presumably ex-FAA) before the Flight operating them was transferred and reformed as 119 Squadron at RAF Manston in July 1944. The squadron deployed later to Belgium and their Albacores were disposed of in early 1945, due to spares shortages, in favour of the inferior but ASV radar-equipped Swordfish Mk.IIIs that the squadron kept until the end of the war on 8 May. This was to combat German mini-submarines attacking Allied shipping entering the River Scheldt on its way to Antwerp Port.

On 19 July 1944 however, 119 Squadron was reformed by redesignation of a flight of No. 415 Squadron RCAF at RAF Manston, equipped with Albacore Mk.Is, taking over the aircraft as well as the squadron code, ‘NH’ (till this moment the aircraft of no. 119 sqn had only carried single-letter individual aircraft codes). They deployed to RAF Swingfield and (very briefly) RAF Beccles before being based at RAF Bircham Newton in September, flying anti-shipping patrols and hunting for German E-boats and R-boats. In October 1944 detachments of the squadron were sent to B.65/Maldeghem, B.63/St. Croix and B.83/Knocke-Le Zoute in Belgium and added German midget-submarines to its prey. In January 1945 they re-equipped with the ASV-equipped Swordfish Mk.III which aided in the hunt on midget-submarines, destroying three before their final mission was flown on 8 May 1945. The squadron disbanded at Bircham Newton on 25 May 1945.

Fairey Swordfish III NF374 ‘NH-M’ of 119 Squadron, RAF, Bircham Newton in January to June 1945.

Operations

Towards the end of 1944 the enemy began using midget submarines to disrupt Allied shipping in the northern Channel and the Scheldt estuary. These one or two-man boats generally carried two torpedoes strapped to their side, but had limited range and were somewhat unstable in rough water. Nonetheless, they had the potential to become a serious threat.

The Molch class were single-man boats of eight tonnes with a range of just 40 miles and no ability to recharge batteries at sea. They proved difficult to control and suffered heavy losses during combat operations. The six-and-a-half-tonne Biber-class boats were also single-manned and, once again, design flaws and hasty crew training resulted in heavy losses. The third and largest type of midget submarine was the Seehund class, also known as the Type XXVII, which had a displacement of 17 tonnes. Carrying a crew of two and with two torpedoes, they had a range of more than 200 miles on the surface or 63 submerged, and could dive to a depth of 160ft. The Kriegsmarine commissioned 137 of them and, with their light weight, they proved relatively immune to depth charge attack. To interdict Allied naval operations around the Dutch and Belgian coasts, having been evacuated from France, K-Flotille 261 – under Korvettenkapitän Hans Bartels, a 35-year-old Knight’s Cross holder – had set up forward bases at Poortershaven and Hellevoetsluis on the Maas estuary, though its main base was at Rotterdam.

As the deployment became known to Allied intelligence, hunting these dangerous small targets became the squadron’s main task, as Norman Williamson, Squadron CO, described. “Around this time the German Navy started to use small one-man and two-man submarines – Bibers – and also explosive motorboats to attack Allied shipping using the newly captured port of Antwerp. To offset this new threat we found ourselves hunting these targets by day around the Dutch islands of Schouen, Walcheren and so on, as well as carrying out the usual night divebombing operations. The daytime attacks against such targets were made at low level using depth charges.”

Eighteen Bibers left Poortershaven and Hellevoetsluis on the evening of 22 December, 1944 but the operation was a failure. By year’s end 31 of them had been lost against the sinking of a single merchant ship. It was not until 23 January 1945 that one of 119’s Albacores made the first aerial sighting of a mini-submarine, but in spite of an attack with six depth charges the vessel survived.

This was the last attack that the Albacore made on the enemy. With an increasing paucity of spares it was decided to re-equip the squadron with the type’s lineal predecessor, the Fairey Swordfish! This would give commonality with 819 Squadron, which was also at Knokke, though it was withdrawn to Bircham Newton in late February. Although ordered to convert to a new aircraft, Williamson was instructed to maintain his operational capability. This was achieved by sending several crews at a time back to Bircham Newton. There the Station Flight held a number of Swordfish IIIs for the training task, later formally established as 119’s Training Flight.

WO Gilbert Mills remembered the change. “The Swordfish, with its ghastly flywheel starter, fixed-pitch prop and lack of flaps – the angle of all four ailerons were altered instead – was far more elementary than the Albacore. Admittedly, we were given the MkIII version, equipped with a Pegasus XXX engine, but its extra power was more than offset by a large, ungainly bump under the nose housing the new `hush-hush’ MkIX ASV. This proved to be an excellent airborne low-level radar set, but its shape was not calculated to enhance the aerodynamics of the aircraft! We navigators had to get used to the ASV radar, which was excellent for the job of searching for small targets close in-shore. It was rather like AI and we could detect small targets if they were around at about 12 miles’ range, though it had a theoretical range of about 25 miles against ships. In good conditions it could also detect a RAF SWORDFISH U-boat snorkel, but only in very calm seas and at distances out to about five miles. The navigation techniques remained the same, however, though the Swordfish was considerably slower – and much windier! Thus, we had to keep a close hold on charts, navigation equipment and the like.

“Perhaps the most depressing thing about the `Stringbag’ from the crew’s point of view was its open cockpits instead of the comfortable enclosed cockpits of the Albacore. Believe me, sitting cramped for about three hours at 3,000ft over the North Sea in the small hours of a January night can be cold and miserable beyond imagination. My normal attire was aircrew `long john’ woollen underwear, shirt, thick woollen aircrew sweater, woollen scarf, battledress trousers and blouse, Irvin jacket, two pairs of gloves, two pairs of socks and fleece lined flying boots. As it was, one became so stiff with the cold that one had to be assisted by the groundcrew to climb out of the cockpit after landing.”

Williamson also remembered the training period. “The pilots had to practise a new technique for night dive-bombing, as the cockpit was behind the mainplanes as opposed to in front in the Albacore. The new technique was to track the aircraft so that the target appeared to move down the port side between two guidelines on the lower port mainplane. Once the target emerged from beneath the trailing edge between its marker lines, the pilot simply heaved the nose up and kicked in left rudder. The ensuing stall turn through 90° and the dropping of the nose brought the target – with luck! – on to the nose of the aircraft in the required angle of dive.”

Although antiquated in appearance, the ASV MkIX equipped Swordfish III was in many ways ideal for the squadron’s difficult night task. Painted black overall they became known on the squadron as `Blackfish’, and by the end of January 119 had fully converted. Action for 119’s `Blackfish’ came in early March as the Kriegsmarine continued to despatch its mini-submarines on operations. Few returned, however. For example, on 6 March 11 examples sailed but none made it home. During the night of the 9th Swordfish NF307/NH-G was lost, believed to have been shot down with the loss of Flt Lt Sutton and Fg Off Radford. Frank Sutton’s loss particularly affected the CO, who recalled wistfully: “Though tour-expired, many crews simply carried on, provided they were considered by the MO [medical orderly] and myself as fit to do so. Few left, most wishing to carry on with the last of the `Stringbags’ to the bitter end. One loss, however, grieved me greatly. My senior flight commander at this time was a man named Frank Sutton who, as a sergeant pilot, had flown one of the earliest Swordfish to enter squadron service in early 1935. I always promised him that, God willing, he would fly the last one when the war ended. Sadly, he was shot down in March 1945, some six weeks before the end of the war in Europe.”

This was the squadron’s only Swordfish to be lost on operations. Searches were flown through the night looking for the missing crew without success. These continued into the following day, resulting in what was undoubtedly the squadron’s most bizarre success.

A tractor pulls a Swordfish out of the hangar. With its engines running in the background is 119’s Anson I EG257, which sank a mini-submarine by `buzzing’.

To ferry crews and spares between Knokke and Bircham, 119 had an Avro Anson I, which was always flown unarmed. On the 11th it was being flown by Flt Lt Campbell, searching for Sutton and Radford. As the unit record states, “Having a keen eye, he spotted something suspicious in the sea 10 miles west of Schouwen, and on flying down to investigate identified the conning tower of a Biber. No RT, no WT, but remembering his early training he switched on his IFF to Stud 3 trusting that it would be picked up and understood, but it wasn’t. As the Anson was unarmed there was no possibility of attacking the midget, but a spot of `beating-up’ was attempted without, however, shaking the Jerry sufficiently to make him do anything silly.

“After several attacks it was eventually given up as a bad job, and the aircraft was just making for home when, lo and behold, another little Biber made its appearance about a mile away. Campbell tried out the same tactics, and this time success greeted his efforts for the `U-boat commander’ (as the subsequent newspaper story dubbed him) evidently didn’t like the feel of an aircraft roaring over him at 20ft, and on the third dive the pilot and observer glimpsed one large rump disappearing over the side of the U-boat. On the final return a figure was seen trying to struggle into a dinghy, the midget turning turtle and slowly disappearing beneath the waves.”

Based on Campbell’s report a Swordfish (coded NH-H) flown by Fg Offs Corbel and O’Donnell took off immediately, followed soon afterwards by NF377/NH-R in the hands of the CO and his navigator Fg Off Gardiner, to search for the mini-sub that was still at large. At 18.25hrs, just off the coast north of the island of Schouwen, Corbel and O’Donnell sighted the cupola of a Biber just surfacing, and as they circled it broke cover fully. Diving to attack, Corbel’s first depth charge exploded about 30 yards ahead of the vessel. It continued on course, though it turned sharply to port when a second depth charge landed off its starboard bow. A third was dropped, and the fourth exploded very close as its plume completely enveloped the Biber, which disappeared. Soon an oil slick was spotted. Corble dropped a flame float and the CO’s aircraft was homed in. Williamson dropped his four bombs in two attacks on the oil patch, “to make sure”. 119’s vintage biplanes had at last encountered their elusive foe. The daily report concluded: “Needless to say there was a great deal of tailwagging in the mess that night.”

Some Belgian civilians help the groundcrew lift a cradle holding a 250lb bomb before loading. On the left under the wing can be seen light series bomb carriers used to carry flame floats and flares.

These boats must have been among the 15 Biber and 14 Molch-class vessels that had sailed, most of which were lost. At 16.40hrs on the 12th, Swordfish NH-L attacked and sank a Biber just off The Hague, probably after it had left the entrance to the port of Rotterdam. An hour later the crew of NH-R found and sank another Biber off Schouwen. A further claim came the next night, possibly one of the three Seehund vessels lost to aircraft in March.

Patrols continued fairly uneventfully until the end of the war. Norman Williamson recalled: “I flew the last operational sortie of a Swordfish myself on 8 May 1945. The surrender of the German forces was due to come into effect at midnight, but the previous week we had been warned that a number of attacks on Allied shipping might be expected from German Navy fanatics in their midget submarines. I landed back at Knokke at 21.40hrs that evening, having made an attack on a Biber [.] 40 minutes earlier. As I came over the coast from the last Swordfish operational sortie of the war the celebration bonfire was already alight in the square in front of the Memlinc Hotel.”

Williamson’s attack was the final air attack of any kind during the war in Europe, thus enabling 119 and its vintage `Blackfish’ to claim a unique niche in RAF history. Patrols looking for possible rogue units were continued until the 11th. The squadron was ordered back to Bircham Newton on 22 May, Williamson recounting: “We left Knokke-leZoute in style, the entire squadron in formation, and maintained this over our old group headquarters – No 16 Group at Chatham – on our way to Bircham.”

No 119 Squadron was disbanded three days later and the Swordfish ended its career with the `light blues’ of the RAF. It is appropriate that the last words should be from its final commanding officer. “When the squadron was disbanded I myself took the ops records and so forth to the Air Historical Branch. I also took the original of the squadron crest signed by King George VI and J. D. Heaton-Armstrong, the Garter King of Arms. Very few people know that 119 had a crest. It consists of a sword crossing an anchor, both covered half-black and half-white signifying day and night operational roles, and the motto of course is `By Night, By Day’ in English. It was designed for me by one of the ops room squadron leaders on No 157 Wing when we were at Manston, the Hon – later Sir – George Bellow, who prior to the war was Chester Herald at the College of Arms. What better bloke to design a crest for you?”

K-Verbände operations

Adverse weather forced a suspension of K-Verbände operations until 6 March 1945 when Seehunds and Bibers were once more cleared for action. For the Bibers it was also another day marked by disaster as they gathered ready to put to sea. In the crowded harbour basin at Hellevoetsluis, ten minutes before the Bibers were due to commence departure, a pilot accidentally released his torpedoes sinking fourteen Bibers in the resultant explosion and damaging another nine. Only eleven Bibers were left in a seaworthy state following this fresh accident, but they all sailed for the Scheldt that evening. None of them returned. One was captured by a British motor launch off Breskens on 7 March, another sunk by coastal artillery fire off Westkappelle the following day, four found abandoned ashore on the coastline at North Beveland, Knocke, Domberg and Zeebrugge. The remaining five vanished without trace. Undeterred, the assault against Scheldt shipping continued with six Linsens leaving Hellevoetsluis on the night of 10 March to attack the Veere anchorage on the northern Walcheren coast. Sighted by shore batteries they were driven away by heavy fire, leaving two boats grounded behind them.

The following night a combined massed operation was launched by using fifteen Bibers armed with torpedoes and mines, fourteen Molchs and twenty-seven Linsens, all targeting shipping in the West Scheldt. The results were predictably disastrous; thirteen Bibers, nine Molchs and sixteen Linsens lost for no result. Of the Biber casualties, the RAF’s 119 Squadron off Schouwen sank two on 11 March.

During the afternoon F/LT Campbell took up the Anson on an air test cum /ASR flight (searching for an aircraft lost on 9 March) … Having a keen eye, he spotted something suspicious in the sea 10 miles east of Schouwen and on flying down to investigate identified the conning tower of a Biber. No R/T, no W/T, but remembering his early training, he switched his I.F.F. to Stud 3 trusting it would be picked up and understood but it wasn’t. As the Anson was unarmed there was no possibility of attacking the midget, but a spot of ‘beating up’ was attempted without, however, shaking the Jerry sufficiently to make him do anything silly. After several attacks it was eventually given up as a bad job, and the aircraft was just making for home when lo and behold! Another little Biber made its appearance about a mile away. Campbell tried out the same tactics, and this time success greeted his efforts for the ‘U-Boat Commander’ (as the subsequent newspaper story dubbed him) evidently didn’t like the feel of an aircraft roaring over him at twenty feet, and on the third dive pilot and observer glimpsed one large rump disappearing over the side of the U-boat. On the final return a figure was seen trying to struggle into a dinghy, the midget turning turtle and slowly disappearing beneath the waves. ‘Killer’ Campbell returned to make his report and Swordfish ‘H’ … immediately took off followed in a few minutes by ‘R’… to search for the U-boat that was still at large.

At 18.25hrs at position 51°48’N 03°31’E, Flying Officers Corbie and O’Donnell aboard Swordfish ‘F’ sighted the Biber’s cupola as it surfaced, and attacked with four depth-charge runs. The last exploded almost directly beneath the Biber which was enveloped in spray and disappearing, leaving just a thick oil slick on the disturbed surface of the sea. The second Swordfish then arrived and dropped four more depth charges on the oil streak to ensure the Biber’s destruction.

The following day Swordfish ‘E’ of 119 Squadron encountered Linsens for the first time, sighting three and diving to release depth charges and strafe the Linsens below, disabling one which was seen to be ‘lower in the water after the shoot up’ and later still found floating abandoned on the swell. Further Swordfish encountered more Linsens, attacking and then calling for support from two Tempest fighter-bombers of 33 Squadron who destroyed the sighted Linsens with strafing, a single survivor seen floating in the wreckage.

The run of success enjoyed by 119 Squadron continued that day as two more Swordfish encountered Bibers, both subjected to depth charge and machine gun attacks rewarded by both Bibers sinking and in once case a small yellow life raft observed amongst the oil slicks, the other leaving only wreckage and oil behind. The jubilation felt by the Swordfish crews was reflected in their Squadron Log Book: ‘Four Bibers in two days! Whizzo!’ Two days later Swordfish ‘D’, engaged on a similar anti-Biber patrol, arrived on the scene of a single Linsen being circled by a Warwick and Beaufighter. Soon a Walrus flying boat of 276 Squadron arrived and landed beside the solitary German to pluck him from his disabled boat.

While the Seehunds had helped carry the war back into British home waters, the Bibers and Linsens had continued their desperate onslaught in the Scheldt, sixty Molchs being held in reserve in Amersfoort. In the early afternoon of 9 April, 1945 five Bibers armed with a mine and torpedo each had sailed for the Scheldt estuary. Two were forced to return within two days with mechanical defects, one striking a mine and sinking en route, while the remaining three were lost without apparent success, Beaufighter pilots of 236 Squadron and Swordfish of 119 Squadron reported attacking and hitting Bibers within the area.

For the Biber pilots the emphasis moved completely to mine laying and on 11 April two Bibers sailed from Zierikzee to lay their mines before Sandkreek. One accomplished its mission successfully while the other was lost. Swordfish of 119 Squadron probably accounted for the missing Biber, their logbook entry echoing what had become regular reports for Allied airmen as they harvested a grim tally of Biber kills.

April 12: Swordfish ‘F’ … Scrambled to search for Bibers reported approximately 40 miles north of base. At 15.10hrs two were sighted in position 0051°54’N 0003°17’E, one stationary on surface, the other just surfacing about 50 yards away. The first Biber apparently attempted to submerge but the conning tower was still visible when ‘F’ attacked with four depth charges. The stick fell between the two, the first one being blown out of the water and left stationary on the surface. The second was not seen again.

Focke-Wulf 190 A-8 Series

The Fw190 was one of the most famous fighter aircraft of the German Luftwaffe. The A-8 version was produced in greater numbers than any other. The A-8/R11 version was also used as a night fighter.

A new model with different equipment. Most important were parts of the MW 50 injection system, used for short term engine power boost. A cylindrical tank of 118 liters capacity was mounted in the rear fuselage. In an emergency, it could be used as additional fuel tank. Tank installation shifted the center of gravity backward and, as a cure, the under-fuselage mounted ETC 501 bomb rack was moved 20 cm forward. This rack became a standard from the A-8 model. The plane was equipped with a FuG 16 ZY radio set that despite the circular radio navigation antenna Morane antenna, was mounted under the left wing. The outstanding element for differentiation between the A-7 and A-8 is the Pitot head moved from mid-wing leading edge to right wing tip. The Fw 190A-8, like previous models, could be equipped with different Rustsatz kits: R1, R2, R3, R4, R6, R7, R8, R11, R12; but R1, R3 and R4 were abandoned shortly thereafter and generally R2, R6, R7 and R8 kits were used. Some of the R11 and R12 modifications produced in small quantities had small differences in the equipment (e.g. MG 131 machine guns tube was covered by a plate for reflection limitation, some got more the more efficient BMW 801 TU engines and FuG 125 Hermine radio navigation device). The variant with radar most often had a FuG 218 Neptune J-3 device.

The FW-190A-8/U-11 would carry a BT 700 (700KG/1,543lb) torpedo. It was used against the Russian Black Sea Fleet in February 1944.

SG 113 Zellendusche – 3-tube battery based on the MK 103 cannons mounted in the rear fuselage. Firing was made by a photosensor impulse. – SG 117 Zellendusche – 6-tube modification of the previously described battery.

Rohrblock 108 – similar construction with 7 tubes based on the elements of the MK 108 cannon, fired by photosensor impulse. Probably, it consisted only of MK 108 cannons barrels with a single cartridge; after firing of the first barrel others were fired automatically by the recoil force of previous barrel. This kind of armament was used for bombers interception and was tested on the Fw 190A-8 (W.Nr. 733713), prototype designation V74.

SG …? Harfe – set of 3-4 15-barrel, unguided 20 mm missile launchers mounted in the rear fuselage on both sides. At least one prototype plane had such armament and was presented to Gen. Adolf Galland.

Ruhrstahl X-4 (Ru 334)- wire guided rocket missiles mounted on underwing racks, probably of the ETC 503 type. This armament was developed for destroying ground targets (tanks) and for bombers fighting (different warhead). It was tested on the F-8 version plane.

From 1944, production of fighter planes was sharply increased (so-called Jagernotprog ramm). This required higher production coordination and development of a cooperative network. As a result, the Fw 180 A-8 was produced in mass numbers in nearly all Focke-Wulf affiliated factories (production started also in Cottbus, Sorau, Poznan). A licence was sold to the NDW (Norddeutsche Dornier Werke) factory in Wismar. Smaller factories performed repair work and recycled the planes withdrawn from service units. They also produced smaller aeroplane parts. Special coordination committees secured efficient work systems and continuous parts delivery. As the result 1334 A-8 series planes were built.

K-Verbände Attacks against D-Day shipping I

The long-awaited Allied hammer-blow fell on Normandy’s sweeping coastline on 6 June 1944. There the ‘second front’ – a somewhat ironic term considering the bloody battles in Italy that had been raging since 1943 – was opened against the Atlantic Wall and Germany’s days as master of Europe were numbered.

All of the K-Verbände units to be deployed to France came under the jurisdiction of K.z.S. Friedrich Böhme who had been designated as Chief of Kommando Stab West during June. Böhme had had an interesting career, volunteering for the navy in 1916 and holding the appointment of instructor of heavy anti-aircraft weaponry at the Kriegsmarine artillery school in Swinemünde when war with Poland broke out on 1 September 1939. Given command of the destroyer Anton Schmidt that same month, he took part in the invasion of Norway in April 1940. In the course of the battle for Narvik his destroyer was torpedoed and sunk and Böhme, like hundreds of his comrades, found themselves ashore taking part in the fierce battle on land, Böhme acting as supply officer. After the German triumph in the Arctic port he was appointed Seekommandant Narvik, before reverting to command of the destroyer Z23 in August 1940. In May 1942 he served a year as naval liaison to Luftflotte 5 in Oslo, then transferring back to Swinemünde as commander of the artillery school at which he had been during 1939.

On 2 June 1944 Böhme was posted to Timmendorfer Strand to join the K-Verbände, appointed director of operations for 361, 362 and 363 K-Flotillas. As such he became operational commander of the K-Verbände in the Seine Bay, his headquarters situated in Villers-sur-Mer, 10km west of Trouville. The first units of the K-Verbände began arriving on the French Channel coast during the latter half of June as fighting raged amongst the bocage of Normandy. Attempted intervention by conventional U-boats of the Allied invasion fleet had resulted in spectacular failure as the near-obsolete Type VIICs succumbed to the saturating effect of Allied naval and air power. With his S-boats, torpedo boats and destroyers similarly doomed Dönitz turned to the only other weapons in his dwindling arsenal that may be able to have an effect, though he appeared to not have the same dubious faith that his commander in chief possessed:

‘Admiral Dönitz mentioned… difficulties when reporting to Hitler on 29 June 1944. At that time the Negers … were due shortly to begin operations on the invasion front.

‘We shall be able to start operations with the first explosive motor-boats soon as well,’ Dönitz said. ‘But all these weapons are naturally very dependent on the weather.’

Hitler was obviously unperturbed by this reservation. His hopes were high. ‘Of course,’ he declared, ‘the enemy warships – particularly the battleships – must be attacked, just as the merchant ships are. Just imagine it: if England were to lose six to eight battleships in the Seine estuary, the strategic consequences would be enormous.’

Dönitz looked at Hitler, aghast. Did he really believe you could sink battleships with one-man torpedoes? And six or eight of them!

The arrival in Normandy of the sixty Negers that comprised 361 K-Flotilla was accomplished by transport on an increasingly beleaguered railway system. With frequent targeting by Allied bombers much of the journey was made by road in ninety-two trucks from Rudolstadt in Thüringen, via Paris, and finally reaching Normandy where the first thirty Negers arrived at Trouville on the early afternoon of 28 June. From there they were moved to their operational base at Villers, the cumbersome trailers and their cargo hidden amidst the trees of Favrol Wood while the pilots were accommodated in a nearby Norman chateau. During transit by road the trailers and trucks had their naval licence plates blacked out, the carried equipment covered and camouflaged. Any identifying flotilla emblems were removed and the Kriegsmarine men exchanged their uniforms for standard Wehrmacht army uniforms.

A second batch of Negers arrived at the forest on 6 July after reaching their temporary base at Pont l’Eveque the previous day. However, their journey – like their predecessors’ – had been frequently disrupted by Allied fighter-bombers who exercised almost complete dominance of the skies over France. Little movement could be attempted by daylight lest the swarms of sharp-eyed pilots discovered them and strafed the convoy below. It was during one such attack on 30 June that Krieg himself was seriously wounded, his place taken as flotilla leader by Fähnrich Potthast who compensated for his lack of rank with experience aboard the Negers. Twelve Waffen SS volunteers also augmented the unit; men from Otto Skorzeny’s newly formed SS-Jagdverbände of hardened adventurers.

Indeed the K-Verbände remains the only Kriegsmarine unit to have admitted SS members knowingly into its ranks. However, this knowledge was not open to all. In June 1944 Böhme discovered this for the first time as is evidenced in his POW interrogation after the war’s end:

The presence of SS men amongst the fighting personnel of K-Verbände units first came to light in June 1944 when Böhme accompanied a party of eight men to Berlin to receive decorations. During the proceedings Skorzeny appeared and admitted that four of the men were members of the SS.

Böhme was subsequently informed by Admiral Heye that an arrangement had been made between himself and Skorzeny in May 1944 whereby K-Verbände would absorb SS men under sentence who would be willing to undertake suicidal actions (Totaleinsatz) on a voluntary basis as a form of probation.

The flotillas in KdK subsequently received a number of SS men from the Lehrkommandos without knowing their real origin

It is unclear how many SS men served in the K-Verbände and to which units they were definitely attached. At least twelve Waffen SS men are known to have joined 361 K-Flotilla, eight each in 362 and 363, six in 611, eight in MEK 80 and ten in Lehrkommando 700. Whether the SS volunteers were truly of a probationary nature or rather motivated by the high esprit de corps that marked Skorzeny’s unit can only be surmised, certainly the above text suggests the former, while knowledge of the SS commando unit’s actions during the war reflects the latter.

However, the Neger was not the only part of the K-Verbände to be deployed. A single Biber had also been shipped from Kiel via Aachen, Paris and Rouen for an attack against British-held bridges on the Caen Canal and Orne River. As we shall see later the proposed mission was aborted before the Biber could be deployed. As in Italy, it was the Linsen that would be first deployed in action.

After the absorption of the Brandenburg Regiment’s Küstenjäger battalion into the Kriegsmarine following their disappointing performance in explosive motorboats off Anzio, the initial cadre of the K-Verbände’s Lehrkommando 200 had been established in June 1944 on the south bank of the River Trave between Lübeck and Travemünde. Named ‘Blaukoppel’ the base hosted Kaptlt. Kolbe who commanded the training unit for the prospective Linsen pilots and crew. Among the fifty permanent staff of the Lehrkommando (at least twenty of them ex-Brandenburgers) was Obit. Taddey, a wireless expert, his experience crucial for the operation of the remote-controlled explosive Linsen. A small ancillary Linsen training centre was also established on Lake Müritz, named ‘Grünkoppel’ and comprising around 100 men and six Linsens.

While the initial batch of Linsens used by the K-Verbände was of Brandenburger origin, the Kriegsmarine had swiftly set about designing and constructing their own boats in a crash-building programme. The theory behind the units’ structure and operation was simple. Each Linsen combat unit (called a Rotte) would comprise a control vessel and two explosive craft (the group controlled by the group leader, or Rottenführer). The control boat carried three men, a pilot and two radiomen, one each to control the remotely-operated explosive boats. These carried a single pilot who would bail out of the craft when it was set on the correct path and be (hopefully) picked up by the control boat afterward.

The Linsens built for the K-Verbände measured 5.75m in length (25cm longer than the Brandenburg design) with a beam of 1.75m (5cm slimmer). The height of the craft measured only 80cm making it a small radar profile at best. The total displacement was a maximum of 1.85 tons. Beneath the engine cover amidships was a 3.6-litre, 95-horsepower Ford V8 ‘Otto’ engine that could push the boat at a speed up to a maximum rated 33 knots, though the 100 nautical mile radius of action was calculated for 15 knots. Two 5-litre containers held enough fluid to lay a smokescreen in action as the explosive boats hurtled towards their enemy carrying a charge of 300–400kg of explosives in the stern. Fitted around the bow of each explosive boat was a metal framework that was held 15cm away from the gunwale by spiral springs. If a pressure exceeding 80kg was exerted on these springs the metal framework would be forced against the gunwale closing a circuit that ignited a small charge in the bow. Blowing the bow off, this would enable the craft to sink while also starting a delay fuse to the main charge in the stern that was preset to between two and seven seconds. In theory this allowed the remains of the boat to sink beside the target ship where its subsequent detonation would cause the maximum damage.

In practice the three-boat unit would approach the enemy using stealth, until the explosive boats were close enough to begin their attack run. At the appropriate moment the two explosive boats would be accelerated to maximum speed and begin their attack. The pilots would make whatever adjustments were necessary before turning on two navigation lights visible only from astern, switching the controls to radio-control and throwing themselves overboard. In the control boat the radio operator used a small box that he cradled on his knee to control the now-pilotless explosive craft. There were six settings for the lever: starboard, port, stop engine, start engine, slow ahead and accelerate. The final control was a firing switch. The radio control equipment was much the same as that which had been developed by the Army for use in the ‘Goliath’ remote-control demolition charge carrier. By keeping the two navigation lights – one green towards the bow and a red stern light – in a vertical column, the operator knew that the boat was heading in a straight line towards the intended target. Production of the improved Linsen began at the end of May 1944 in Königsberg’s Empacher & Kalisch boat builders, soon farmed out to firms throughout Germany.

Kaptlt. Ulrich Kolbe’s Lehrkommando 200 despatched Linsens of Obit. Helmut Plikat’s 211 K-Flotilla from Germany on the day of the invasion, the unit arriving at Bolbec east of Le Havre on 19 June accompanied on their maiden posting by Kolbe himself. The entire flotilla numbered around 250 men, including the support staff commanded by flotilla engineer Lt (Ing.) Max Becker. The pilots were quartered in a luxurious villa that belonged to the Rothschild family at Molitor. The cutting edge of the unit numbered twenty-four Linsens, though the accompanying communications, armaments, transport and other logistical units (including a small flak detachment) considerably swelled its ranks. From Molitor they moved during the ensuing two days forward to Honfleur, which would be their operational base and from where they initiated operations.

The German K-Verbände faced a well-prepared and dauntingly massive enemy that was ready to face the novel German weapons all across the invasion front, as evidenced in this US Navy appreciation of Allied naval dispositions and the foe they faced:

Enemy naval forces within the Channel consisted of an indeterminate number of human torpedoes, self-exploding pilotless surface craft, sea mines to be laid by aircraft, and … 195 miscellaneous vessels.

To repel these enemy forces, the Task Force Commanders established an area screen … Manning the area screen required a careful phasing in the use of vessels. Until Allied forces arrived in the assault area, there was no screen. On arrival, a proportion of the escorts and patrol vessels took up screening patrols. Still later, other vessels, which had completed their initial tasks of boat control, close fire support, or some other job, took over patrol duties, while a proportion of the escorts returned to the UK in company with the convoys.

B. Eastern Task Force … [that bore the brunt of K-Verbände attacks]. The system of defence employed in the eastern area was the following: constant patrols to seaward by corvettes, trawlers and sometimes destroyers were carried out.

Every 24 hours one division of four destroyers was detailed as duty division for the entire area while two other destroyers were detailed as guard for areas O and J. By day, these destroyers performed such other tasks as were assigned, but they were subject to call in case an attack threatened. By night they were posted as directed by Captain (Patrols). In neither case did they actively patrol up and down the defence line. The plan was that Captain Patrols would vector them against enemy forces, whose presence was discovered by radar or other means.

During the hours of darkness or low visibility, this defence was augmented by a line of minesweepers anchored 5 cables apart along a defence line parallel to the shore and six miles to seaward.

This defence line was continued down the eastern flank by a line called the ‘Trout’ line, composed of LCGs and LCFs, anchored 1 cable apart. The duty of the minesweepers and Landing Craft on this defence line was to prevent all enemy ships and craft from entering the British Assault Area, to illuminate the outer areas when ordered and to counter attack any submarine detected.

Two or three divisions of MTBs were stationed, stopped but under way, to the Northeastward of the N.E. portion of the defence line; two or three sub-divisions of destroyers were stationed on patrol, to the north of the western half of the area, and sometimes to the northward of the MTBs; other light forces were stationed close inside the defence line, to act as reinforcements or as ‘pouncers’. BYMS and MMS were anchored as mine spotters, originally in the approach channels, but later in the lateral swept channel established within the area.

These defences were augmented by a smoke screen laid by specially fitted craft at dawn, dusk, and as required.

The enemy’s day activity was limited to one long-range torpedo attack, by torpedo boats from Le Havre, at 04.50 on D-Day … By night the enemy’s attack was more determined. On four occasions he operated torpedo boats, and on eight occasions E and R-boats, in the eastern Task Force area. On every occasion except one these forces were intercepted and forced to retire. In no case was any success obtained by enemy. The line LCG and LCF, anchored on the eastern flank took a heavy toll of the human torpedoes which attacked in July …

The Allies had also gained a huge advantage over the K-Verbände when during May 1944 they had penetrated the Enigma code net in use by Heye’s service. Named Eichendorff, and codenamed ‘Bonito’ by the Allies, the Enigma net had been instigated in March 1944 and was used until the end of the war. Though first broken by the Allies during May it was not until July 1944 that it was considered mastered by Allied cryptanalysts. The sole saving grace for Heye was that he and his commanders rarely mentioned specific areas or timings in their reports. Nonetheless it was a severe handicap, though one of which they were oblivious.

On the evening of 25 June the Linsens were readied for their first mission. Eight control and nine explosive boats were towed to sea by R-Boote of the 4. R-Flotilla (2. Sicherungsdivision). These motor minesweepers had been based in Boulogne-sur-Mer since the fall of France in 1940, their strength gradually eroded by years of insidious mine warfare and the sudden onslaught of Allied power in the prelude to D-Day. However, the remaining captains and crew were familiar with the local waters and several were pressed into service as towing vessels for the small Linsens. Unfortunately for German plans, the pilots of the explosive boats were not so skilled and as R46 eased from port with its tow, bad handling by the Linsen operator caused the little craft to veer wildly while running alongside the minesweeper, nudging the large craft’s hull with enough force to close the detonation circuit and explode it. Both were lost in the blast as well as a further two control Linsens and one explosive Linsen. As the explosions buffeted the remainder many fouled their towlines and in the increasing confusion the operation was scrubbed, the R-Boote and their charges returning to Honfleur the following morning. Two further attempted attacks were launched during June though they too ended in confused failure. Accidental rammings by the inexperienced Linsen operators – resulting in several sinkings and much damage, as well as defective weaponry saw both attempts turn into fiascos until on 30 June Böhme reported to Dönitz that the remaining Linsens of 211 K-Flotilla were no longer serviceable. Their planned deployment was postponed and instead the human torpedoes brought forward into action.

This time there was to be no repeat of the problematic launching suffered at Anzio. Two companies of Wehrmacht pioneers were commandeered and they prepared the landing site by first of all clearing a wide strip of the tangled coastal defences erected by the Germans and clearing a track along two sandspits that were almost completely dry at low water. From these promontories two wooden slipways were also prepared to provide a firm base on which to wheel the human torpedoes into the water. To avoid the unwelcome attention of the RAF the runways were covered in camouflage netting.