CORPS FIRE-BRIGADE

It had been quiet in Kovel sector for eight days. The enemy’s efforts slackened noticeably and there were rumors that the Red Army was preparing a major offensive. The high commands of the armed forces (OKW) and the army (OKH) were convinced that it was going to come in the Kovel-Ternopol area and would thus be directed mainly against Army Group North Ukraine. Following the pitiless and desperate fighting southwest of Kovel during the winter and spring of 1944, intelligence confirmed the buildup of enemy forces opposite Army Group North Ukraine. No one knew that this was an elaborate ruse on the part of the Soviets. They had simulated a massive buildup by running numerous empty trains into this area. As a result, the German command decided to launch a major asault to clear the situation in the Kovel area. The attack, which was proposed by Feldmarschall Model (the commander in chief of Army Group North Ukraine), required the transfer south of significant tank forces from Army Group Center.

In Army Group North Ukraine’s sector a total of eight panzer and two panzer-grenadier divisions were supposed to prevent the enemy from breaking through Lvov and Warsaw to Königsberg and cutting off both Army Group North and Army Group Center.

As part of this concentration of forces on 8 May the Panzer Regiment Wiking was withdrawn from Fortress Kovel and was moved to Maciejow as corps reserve. At 4:30 P.M. on that May day—exactly one year before the end of the war—Standartenführer Hannes Mühlenkamp reported to the command post of the LVI Panzer Corps. The corps, which was commanded by General Hossbach, had been reduced to the 4th Panzer Division, the 101st Mountain Division and the 26th and 131st Infantry Divisions. The corps’ chief of staff, General Staff Oberst von Bonin, explained the situation to Standartenführer Mühlenkamp:

“Mühlenkamp, as your regiment is the armored reserve group I am giving it the job of conducting reconnaissance for counterattacks by the 4th Panzer Division and the 26th, 131st and 342nd Infantry Divisions. You are to scout all the roads thoroughly and establish contact with the named divisions immediately.”

The Panzer Regiment Wiking had become the “corps fire-brigade.”

The Soviet offensive began early on the morning of 22 June 1944. The Germans were taken completely by surprise, for instead of Army Group North Ukraine the attack struck the entire front of Army Group Center.

Thirty-eight German divisions (not one of which was a panzer division) manning an arc-shaped sector of front 1,100 kilometers long faced an onslaught by 185 Russian divisions with approximately 2,500,000 men attacking on a 700-kilometer front. This huge army was spearheaded by 6,100 tanks and self-propelled guns. 45,000 guns began the offensive with a barrage that lasted up to 14 hours. 7,000 Soviet aircraft of all types, including the feared Il-2 “Butchers,” supported the attack. Never before had the Russian theater seen such a concentration of men and arms.

Facing this tremendous military force were 500,000 German troops, of whom 400,000 were in defensive positions. At this critical hour Army Group Center lacked the armored divisions which had been transferred to the northern Ukraine. It lacked the heavy weapons which were necessary to halt the Russian steamroller.

At approximately 10 P.M. on 22 June 1944 the decimated II Battalion was handed over to Hauptsturmführer Reicher. At that point in time none of the men were aware of the catastrophe that was taking place to the north of them. All remained quiet in the Kovel area. This was exactly the opposite of what the OKH had predicted. The experts had made a fundamental miscalculation. In no way was Kovel the beginning or the end point of the Soviet offensive.

Bit by bit reports of the catastrophic events of the Russian offensive trickled through to the officers of the Mühlenkamp regiment. When the regiment was then moved into a quartering area west of Kovel and was subordinated to the LVI Panzer Corps again, everyone was convinced that things were going to “get going” there too.

The units moved into their old quartering areas near Maciejow and Tupaly. There followed a time of hectic transfers and subordinations, however the tank crews were unaffected. There were several minor actions in the period until 6 July, but then all hell broke loose in the Kovel area again. The men of the Panzer Regiment Wiking were called upon to fight one more battle near Kovel, which would demand the utmost of all of them.

“Gentlemen, the situation of Army Group Center forces us to also withdraw our lines step by step. On 6 July we fall back to the Red Line, one day later to the Green Line, and so on. ‘Battle Group Mühlenkamp’ will remain in the Kovel area to cover our withdrawal movements until all of the infantry units have gone. Standartenführer Mühlenkamp, your job is to hold the enemy until the infantry has reached the new line and dug itself in.” Hannes Mühlenkamp now had a clear picture of the situation. Army Group Center’s situation was desperate. On 5 July it had just six infantry divisions left. The huge pocket between Minsk and Baranovichi had been closed and it could be only hours before the last divisions were destroyed.

At 1:15 P.M. II Battalion reported through Obersturmführer Nicolussi-Leck that enemy infantry assembly areas had been located in the Dolhonosy area.

“Place artillery fire on those assembly areas,” ordered Mühlenkamp. The few guns available now tried to destroy the enemy positions, but the blows they inflicted on the enemy were little more than fly bites.

Russian bombers flew over the positions and bombed II Battalion’s assembly areas. At 2:45 P.M. it was reported to Hauptsturmführer Reicher, the new battalion commander, that the enemy was attacking from the wood northeast of Nowe Koscary with seventeen tanks and infantry.

Just as he was about to issue the order for a company to prepare to head for the threatened area, the entire “Battle Group Mühlenkamp” received the following radio message from LVI Panzer Corps: “The battle group is to transfer into the Smydin area immediately.”

That was at 2:50. Ten minutes later the regiment’s operations section and II Battalion, Panzer Regiment Wiking departed for the assigned area. Two-and-a-half hours later the battle group, which was still corps reserve, readied itself in a wood south of Smydin. The regiment’s armored pioneer company received orders to immediately scout bridges and roads for the Panthers. Hauptsturmführer Schliack, the company commander, set to work at once.

While the period of Battle Group Mühlenkamp’s preparations had been relatively quiet, during the night of 6 July the sporadic artillery fire intensified all along the front. The first enemy attacks followed, on the left sector of the division’s front. At 4:35 A.M. the Division Ia called. He said: “The enemy attacked during the night from the wood northeast of Kruhel towards Kruhel and has broken into the main line of resistance. He is now contnuing to advance south from the eastern outskirts of Kruhel towards the wooded area west of Novy Koscary and has already destroyed two forward antitank guns. There exists the danger that the enemy will advance farther to the west towards Krasnoduby.”

The first II Battalion tanks went into action, but it soon became apparent that the enemy was not going to attack on this day, for his tanks only felt their way forward, apparently seeking a weak spot. Further withdrawals followed during the night, but at 4:30 A.M. 7th Company was ordered into the Smydin bridgehead and subordinated to III Battalion, Germania Regiment. The rest of the operational Panther battalion took shelter in Maciejow. During this night the enemy artillery fire intensified to near barrage level. Shells howled down on the assembly areas and plowed up the ground. Miraculously only minor damage was done and there were no serious casualties.

A message arrived from the 4th Panzer Division: “Maximum readiness! The enemy will probably soon begin his breakthrough attempt at this spot.”

Mühlenkamp passed the word for everyone to remain on defensive alert. Days earlier he had reported an amazing discovery to General Hossbach and his chief of staff: “The terrain facing our front, which is considered too swampy for tanks to cross, has been drying up so much that tanks can drive 100 meters farther every day. A surprise attack must be expected soon.”

But Oberst von Bonin, who usually received such information by telephone or telex, obviously did not take the report seriously. On 6 July General Hossbach came and together with Mühlenkamp watched a test drive a Panther. These firsthand investigations and their results were more persuasive than the dissenting views of his chief of staff. In fact the swamps had dried up so much that a general attack by the enemy had to be expected. Furthermore, increasing tank noises had been heard from the forests southwest of Kovel in recent nights. The enemy was believed to be massing strong armored forces there.

“What do you think the enemy will try, Mühlenkamp?” the commanding general asked the battle group commander.

“I expect that the enemy will try to break through to the Bug in the direction of Cholm in one go. That would explain the strong concentration of tanks opposite our front. Afterwards the enemy will try to close the bag around our entire corps.”

“Is that your whole supporting argument?”

“Reconnaissance results also clearly point toward it. I must therefore request that I be allowed to redirect my tanks, which might be simply overrun here in the forest positions, to more favorable positions.”

“Well, we will see,” said General Hossbach. The general drove back to his corps headquarters and only after much back and forth was the order for the requested change of positions issued by the chief of staff, Oberst von Bonin.

Mühlenkamp moved his panzers into the back slope position in the Maciejow area. This was his only chance of stopping the expected armored assault by the enemy. The move was carried out during the afternoon hours of 6 July. Prior to this, however, 8th Company determined that the enemy was massing infantry forces in front of it in the Dolhonosy area.

A heavy air raid struck the German main line of resistance at 12:15 P.M. on 7 July. Heavy bombs fell southeast of the tank assembly area. This had to be the attack!

“Attention, enemy tanks ahead!”

The commander of the Eighth had been the first to spot the 17 heavy tanks and following infantry which had set off from the wood south of Novy Koscary.

“To all tanks: fire at will!”

The first armor-piercing shells were fired at the enemy. Several Russian tanks were disabled with track and roadwheel damage, while others caught fire before they could open fire on the defenders’ favorable position. The surviving Soviet tanks pulled back. Then came hundreds of bombers and close-support aircraft. They attacked the positions, but fortunately Mühlenkamp, the consummate chess player, had moved his tanks elsewhere. The attack forced the infantry to take cover. Bombs howled earthward and explosions shook the ground. The “butchers” raked the German positions with cannon and machine-gun fire. The attempt to force a breakthrough was in full swing.

Now the main force of Soviet tanks—more than 400 vehicles—attacked north of Maciejow. Their direction of advance was due west. They rolled past the Panthers of II Battalion waiting in their hull-down positions. The tank commanders and gunners could scarcely believe their eyes when they saw this seemingly endless mass of steel.

“Olin, where are you?” Have you reached your position?” Mühlenkamp called to the Finnish Obersturmführer. The latter had remained with the panzer regiment after the Finnish battalion had returned to the division.

“Olin to commander: have reached the special position, see the tanks, are in good firing range.Request permission for my five Panthers to fire.”

“Let the first ten pass by. Then knock out the first and the last, the rest will be stuck.”

“As you order, Standartenführer.”

Seconds later Mühlenkamp heard and saw the flash of gunfire from the direction of the Finn’s position and soon the first Soviet tank was in flames. Thirty seconds later the tenth was knocked out and Olin’s Panthers destroyed the rest in succession. The full attention of the Soviet tank units was then directed at Olin, and it was at that moment that Mühlenkamp acted.

“All tanks open fire. Maximum rate of fire, aim carefully!”

The Panthers in the hull-down position fired their 75-mm guns almost simultaneously. After the first salvo the battlefield resembled a huge junk yard. Dozens of enemy tanks lay on the plain, shot-up, burning, ammunition exploding. Then the second salvo went out, inflicting the same devastation and soon fifty of the at least 400 enemy tanks were in flames or disabled wrecks. The Panthers fired for thirty minutes and for thirty minutes the Soviet tanks attempted to escape. They rolled into ravines but were pursued and knocked out. When the sound of battle ebbed, 103 enemy tanks, including some of the newest and heaviest types, lay destroyed on the battlefield.

Mühlenkamp’s report of the destruction of 103 enemy tanks appears to have met with disbelief from General Hossbach, for he sent Oberstleutnant Peter Sauerbruch to count the knocked-out tanks on the battlefield. When the officer was finished he had counted—103 wrecks. At least 150 more enemy tanks had been damaged in this duel of armor and had sought shelter in the forests. The regimental commander of one of these units was found in his shot-up tank. Found on him was a situation map, on which was marked the main direction of the Russian tank attack: Kovel-Cholm-Bug!

The Soviet tank units had been ordered to avoid costly battles and instead drive through as quickly as possible and at all costs seize the sole still intact bridge over the Bug, and establish a bridgehead for the infantry on the far side. Had the enemy succeeded in accomplishing this, all of the Hossbach corps and possible even the entire 4th Panzer Army would have been lost. Mühlenkamp had averted this threat with his tactical chess move and had inflicted a severe blow on the enemy. For the second time he had saved Kovel and the German front there. For this feat he was recommended for the Oak Leaves and he was awarded the coveted decoration on 29 September 1944.

The second great defensive success at Kovel was announced in the Wehrmacht communique of 11 July 1944 and the battle group of the Wiking Division under Standartenführer Mühlenkamp was identified by name.

Several days later in an interview for German radio, Mühlenkamp revealed the secret of his success: “Standartenführer,” they asked him, “your battle group was deployed to cover the withdrawal movements here in the Kovel area. This movement has since been completed with no pressure from the enemy and was also planned without pressure from the enemy. How did you manage to turn this plan into reality?”

“The Soviets appeared here with masses of tanks such as, to my knowledge, had never been seen before. They had new guns and heavier armor. But this battle of a few against many demonstrated the superiority of our new Panther tank. It is especially significant that not one of our tanks became a total loss in this tough battle.

This is due to the bravery and steadfastness of our crews as well as to the quality of our equipment. They are all men who have been with me for years and whose soldierly behaviour and accomplishments are beyond praise. My special thanks go to these brave tank soldiers, and I am glad that I can speak to you at this place once again.”

The following members of the Waffen-SS were decorated with the Knight’s Cross or a higher grade of this decoration for their actions in the Battle of Kovel:

Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds:

Herbert Gille, SS-Gruppenführer, on 20/4/1944

Knight’s Cross with Swords:

Hans Dorr, SS-Sturmbannführer, on 9/7/1944

Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves:

Johann Mühlenkamp, SS-Standartenführer, on 21/9/1944

Knight’s Cross:

SS-Obersturmführer Karl Nicolussi-Leck, on 9/4/1944

SS-Obersturmführer Otto Schneider, on 4/5/1944

SS-Untersturmführer Alfred Grossrock, on 12/8/1944

SS-Sturmbannführer Franz Hack, on 14/5/1944

Advertisements

Focke-Wulf 190 A-6/R11 – all weather and night fighter

p1

fw190a6_3v

Fw 190A-6/R11 – all weather and night fighter, with exhaust glare shields, landing light, autopilot device PKS 12 and heated windscreen windows.

Some planes mounted a FuG 217 Neptun J-2 radar. Generally, these planes used droppable fuel tanks mounted on the ETC 501 bomb rack.

The Fw190A-6 was essentially a Fw190A-5 airframe with greater strength added to the wing structure to accommodate the escalation in weight resulting from constant upgrading. Wing armament was improved by replacing the A-5’s drum fed 20mm outboard cannons with heavier belt fed 20 mm cannons with longer barrels. The wing root cannons and fuselage mounted machine guns remained unchanged.

The majority of A-6s were deployed in the West in Defence of the Reich missions against Allied bomber formations, with some finding their way to Nachtjäger (night fighter) units defending against nocturnal RAF bomber attacks. Some A-6 nachtjägers were equipped with FuG 217 Neptun radar (the R11 Rüstsätze, or field conversion) to help pilots locate bombers in the dark. During 1944 the single-engined night fighters were gradually replaced by twin-engine radar equipped aircraft like the Ju.88G and Bf110G.

xswqwsewdcewrfe

Dirty Weather Fighter

FW 190 A-8/R2    Bomber-destroyer with two outboard MK 108 30 mm cannon

FW 190 A-8/R11  Dirty weather fighter with BMW 801 TU/TS ‘Dirty weather’ fighter with special radio and automatic pilot.

FW 190 A-8/R12  Combination of R2 and R11 with BMW 801 D-2

FW 190 A-9/R2    Bomber-destroyer with two outboard MK 108 30 mm cannon

FW 190 A-9/R11  Dirty weather fighter & BMW 801 TS ‘Dirty weather’ fighter with special radio and automatic pilot.

FW 190 A-9/R12  Combination of R2 and R11

FW 190 D-9/R11  Dirty weather fighter with FuG 125 VHF radio beacon receiver

FW 190 D-12/R11  Dirty weather fighter

FW 190 D-13/R11  Dirty weather fighter

R2: Addition of an MK 108 cannon pod mount under each wing (as fitted to the FW 190A-6 and A-8)

R2: Outboard wing mounted MK 108 cannon (as fitted to the FW 190A-7, A-8 and A-9)

R2: Addition of wing mounted MK 108 cannons and a fuselage center line mounted WGr (Werfer-Granate) 21 rocket (as fitted to the FW 190A-8)

R11: Addition of FuG 125 VHF radio beacon receiver, PKS 12 autopilot, and window heaters (as fitted to the FW 190A-8 and A-9) and D-series airframes (also used for the Ta 152).

R12: Addition of FuG 125 VHF radio beacon receiver, PKS 12 autopilot, window heaters and wing mounted MK 108 cannons (as fitted to the FW 190A-8)

FuG 125 – which is known as “Hermione” device was a VHF radio beacon receiver, the frequency range from 30 to 33.3 MHz was, the device weighed about 10 kg and had a range of 200 km

The PKS 12 was probably the world’s first operational autopilot for single-seater fighter aircraft and was envisaged to be used in all-weather interceptors. It was used operationally in versions of the Bf 109, Fw 190 and Ta 152 fighters (and probably tested on some other types as well).

7 June: 709th Infantry Division

by Generalleutnant Karl Wilhelm von Schlieben

On the evening of 6 June I reported by telephone to the Commanding General, General der Artillerie Marcks, on the development of the situation with regard to the 1058th Grenadier Regiment and my plans and preparation for 7 June. The Commanding General expressed his approval, particularly of my intention to increase the fighting power of the regiment by the assignment of the two motorized artillery battalions and the self-propelled gun company of the 709th Light Battalion. Into the evening of 6 June I learned that the commander of the 922nd Grenadier Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Müller, who had been assigned to the 243rd Division on the west coast, had been transferred by the “Senior Officer of the Garrison on the Cotentin Peninsula,” Generalleutnant Hellmich, with regimental troops of the 922nd Grenadier Regiment, the 3rd Battalion 922nd Grenadier Regiment, one battalion of the 920th Grenadier Regiment, and the engineer battalion of the 243rd Infantry Division, to Montebourg by night-march (night of 6–7 June). The regiment was to advance south with its left wing along the St-Floxel–Fontenay-sur-Mer–Ravenoville road. I do not remember what its mission was. I presume it was to prevent a widening of the enemy bridgehead to the north and to support the left flank of the 1058th Grenadier Regiment.

I also had moved the 3rd Battalion of the 729th Grenadier Regiment, commanded by Major der Reserve Elbrecht, who was killed in action later on, from the area of Height 180.2 southwest of Cherbourg to the area east of Montebourg.

Generalleutnant Hellmich also dispatched the 3rd Battalion of the 243rd Artillery Regiment (less the 10th Battery) from the west coast via Bricquebec to Valognes. The two batteries took up position during the fight of 6 June near Écausseville (3½ kilometers south of Montebourg). They were assigned to Regimental Staff Seidel and supported the attack of the 1058th Grenadier Regiment on 7 June.

In the night of 5 June the Seventh Army assault battalion was placed into such a difficult position by an encircling movement that its commander decided to withdraw west to the Montebourg–Neuville-au-Plain road. There the battalion supported the 1058th Grenadier Regiment, which throughout that day had fought with varying success to capture Ste-Mère-Église.

On this day a number of enemy tanks made their appearance. The fire of large-caliber enemy naval guns and strong mortar fire added further to our discomfort. The heavy fire of the naval guns also prevented an attack by Regiment Müller (3rd Battalion 922nd Regiment, 1st Battalion 920th Regiment), which had been tired by its night-march, from making progress.

In the afternoon of 7 June, at a location north of Neuville-au-Plain, I gained the impression that the 1058th Regiment was no longer even able to capture Ste-Mère-Église, much less hold it against the fire of the enemy naval guns and tanks. The AT Battalion of the 709th Division had suffered considerable losses, but on the other hand had achieved good results. Enemy tanks fired from Neuville at the highway leading to Montebourg. Together with retreating units of the 1058th Regiment, men of the Seventh Army assault battalion and artillerymen of the 3rd Battalion 243rd Artillery Regiment, I succeeded in stopping the beginning of a panic caused by the enemy armor and to establish a makeshift defense line on both sides of the Montebourg–Ste-Mère-Église high road, 1,200 meters to the north of Neuville-au-Plain. It lacked, however, any antitank defense.

During the afternoon of 7 June I clearly saw that the enemy beachhead could no longer be eradicated by counterattacks of local reserves. This would require an organized attack with strong artillery support and a Panzer formation, and for this purpose the strong enemy air forces and naval guns would have to be neutralized. But the enemy air forces and navy were entirely unopposed. Neither our own Luftwaffe nor Navy rendered any assistance.

Therefore I decided to assume the defensive, and try to prevent the enemy from breaking out of his beachhead in a northerly or northwesterly direction. My impression, which was that the enemy intended to advance quickly north from his beachhead at Ste-Mère-Église and try to capture Cherbourg, proved later on to be correct. On 6 June an operational order of the American VII Corps was washed ashore. In substance the order said that the US VII Corps with four divisions (of which two airborne divisions were in the first wave) had the mission of turning to the north from the Quineville–Carentan beachhead, which was protected on the south, and of taking Cherbourg from the landward side while … At that time I hoped that Panzer Group West, which had been mentioned in orders before the invasion, could appear supported by 1,000 German fighter planes (this figure had actually been given me before the invasion) in order to stamp out the enemy beachhead.

I organized a task force under Colonel Rohrbach, the commander of the 729th Grenadier Regiment. I did not assign this task to the commander of the 919th Grenadier Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Keil, who was closer, as at that time I expected further landings between Quineville and St-Vaast-la-Hougue. Nevertheless I took away his third battalion, assigning it to Colonel Rohrbach, to whom furthermore the 100th Smoke Battalion (less one battery), which was employed at Morsalines with the beach as its field of fire, was attached.

In the evening of 7 June there was a makeshift defense line on the Montebourg–Ste-Mère-Église road, 1,200 meters north of Neuville-au-Plain and on the Fontenay-sur-Mer–Ravenoville road, without support on either flank. The 1058th Grenadier Regiment had suffered badly and was in a confused condition. Its commander, Colonel Beigang, was and remained missing.

At this time the absence of a corps headquarters staff near the front was badly felt. The divisions received little orientation on the major situation. It was difficult to get in touch by telephone with LXXXIV Corps headquarters at St-Lô. The distance was 60 kilometers and the enemy was in between. On the evening of 7 June I decided to weaken the garrisions of the bases and islands of resistance of the seafront, which had not been attacked, and to leave only emergency garrisons there. Such a measure had been provided prior to the invasion by a printed directive. When the catchword “emergency garrison” was given, only a few men remained at the bases and islands of resistance, whereas all the others assembled inland in reserve.

In this connection the complete lack of mobility of the stationary infantry divisions was particularly unpleasant. Men who had been assigned to the northeast coast had to walk more than 30 kilometers to reach the area south of Montebourg. Supplying them became a problem, as each company had only horses for its field kitchen, which, however, had to feed the emergency garrisons remaining at the bases.

Although the daily reports of higher headquarters mention fighting by the 709th Infantry Division at Montebourg, it must be made clear that during the first days after the enemy landing the bulk of the division was tied to its bases and islands of resistance along the coast from the mouth of the Vire river half way to Cherbourg–Cap de la Hague. The bringing up of the men from the bases and islands of resistance, which had not been attacked, was made more difficult still because the enemy air forces completely patrolled the high roads and fired unopposed at the smallest formations. Not even single men or cyclists could move freely on the road in broad daylight. I myself was fired on on 9 June by two P-47 fighter-bombers at a few seconds’ intervals when driving to a troop unit. My car was burned and I had to walk several kilometers. In this way the enemy air surveillance was a great handicap to the German commanders and their troops. Even if a motor vehicle was not hit, it was not possible to drive straight to the destination in broad daylight, as again and again the car had to be stopped and the personnel take cover quickly when enemy fliers attacked.

SMS Lützow: The Skagerrak Battle

One of the only photographs extant that clearly shows the shape of Lützow’s fore funnel after it was fully jacketed.

German Battle Cruiser SMS Lützow Hipper’s Flagship badly damaged by British shell fire.

For the sake of consistency, the times from the Lützow war diary have been altered from summer time to MEZ/CET, a difference of one hour, to match the times given in the official history.

At 02.00 on Wednesday, 31 May the weather in Schillig Roads was cloudy and rainy, with the wind in the NNE. Lützow, with the I AG following, ran out to sea in accordance with Operational Order 6, with the IX TBF as an anti-submarine screen. The day passed quietly until at 15.20 a report was received from the small cruiser Elbing about a smoke cloud to the SW. At 15.26 Lützow went onto course WSW at ‘utmost power’. At 16.08 the I AG was running at 23kts on course NW, and at 16.20 speed was increased to 25kts to chase the British light cruisers. Then large warships came in sight to port ahead. At 16.23 they were made out as British battlecruisers and six minutes later the order was given for fire distribution from the right, as Vizeadmiral Hipper intended to fight the enemy on a northerly course, even though this would take him away from the support of the High Sea Fleet. At 16.28 the enemy ships were observed sending the recognition signal ‘PC’, and then two minutes later at 16.30 they made a turn so that Vizeadmiral Hipper also turned and went onto a SE course at 21kts. Then speed was reduced to 18kts to allow the II AG to catch up.

The wind had changed to the SW, force 2–3, it was sunny, and there was a slight haze. Fire distribution was ordered from the left, ship against ship, and at 16.48 Lützow opened fire on the leading British ship, Lion, at a range of 168hm. During the entire battle Kapitän zur See Harder remained outside the conning tower on the unprotected bridge so he could gain a better overview of the battle, and was accompanied by Signal Offizier Leutnant zur See Schönfeld. Half a minute later the British returned fire, with Lion and Princess Royal firing on Lützow. Korvettenkapitän Paschen, the I Artillerie Offizier, wrote:

For the entire battle Lützow fired with turret salvo fire, forward and aft alternating, a method of fire which I cannot praise highly enough. Both guns worked as one, loaded as one and were directed by one man. After loading all was quiet in the turret. The gunnery leader changed the direction, as and when required. The muzzle smoke collected at the end of the ship, which is most unfavourable for observation conditions. [There was a] 22-second flight time. Impact. 12/16 left, ahead of the bow. 12 to the right. Salvo! A shock from turrets C and D. Impact, over, midships. 8 down, salvo! Over! 8 down, salvo! – straddle! A hit near the bridge! A sigh of relief, and then continue.

Lion was hit twice, at 16.51 and 16.52. Then at 16.57 Lützow was finally straddled, but at 17.00 struck Lion with a hit which penetrated Q turret and blew the roof off. The turret was put out of action and twenty-eight minutes later a huge cordite fire erupted with flames going mast-high, and only the fact that the magazine had been previously flooded saved Lion from destruction. At around 17.00 Lützow suffered the first two hits, both on the forecastle deck. A short time later, at 17.05, Lion sheered out of line and disappeared from sight. She had suffered six hits from thirty-one salvos, whilst Lützow had been hit three times. Target was changed to Princess Royal.

At around 17.15 Princess Royal hit Lützow in the forward dressing station, killing or wounding everyone there. Of the four physicians and doctors aboard Lützow during the battle, two were killed and one was wounded. Then, as the British 5 Battle Squadron approached the I AG and opened fire, at 17.44 Vizeadmiral Hipper ordered the battleships to be taken under fire. In the same minute Lützow hit Barham abreast the aft conning tower. However, relief was now at hand as the German main body came in sight and at 17.51 course north was ordered. So far Lützow had hit the enemy ten times, whilst suffering four hits in return. Of the nine shell-hits on Lion, four did not detonate.

After turning to the north Lützow targeted Lion, and obtained three hits between 17.59 and 18.02. When Lion had passed out of range target was changed to Barham. Nevertheless, observation of the target became increasingly more difficult as visibility deteriorated for the Germans. At 18.13 a 15in shell from Barham struck the armoured belt just ahead and below the port I 15cm casemate. At 18.25 another two 15in shells hit Lützow, striking together between the funnels, and destroyed the main and reserve wireless stations, causing heavy loss of life. Vizeadmiral Hipper was instantaneously deprived of his link with his Reconnaissance Groups and with the Flottenchef. Then, at 18.30, the Panzerkreuzer was struck by another 15in shell, this time from Valiant, which hit to port between the IV and V 15cm casemates. At 18.45 a 13.5in shell from Princess Royal struck the superstructure below the conning tower.

Around this time the British 3 Battlecruiser Squadron unexpectedly arrived in the east and the German I AG had to turn towards the east to counter this new threat. However, soon 1 and 3 Battlecruiser Squadrons began to direct heavy fire on the I AG and at 18.59 Vizeadmiral Hipper carried out a battle turn onto the opposite course, to withdraw from this fire and to close on his main body. At 19.05 Lützow hit Lion again and then at 19.10 the I AG turned back to the NE and took position at the head of the German line. Virtually nothing could be seen of the British forces through the smoke and haze.

Then, at 19.16, part of the British 1 Cruiser Squadron, Defence and Warrior, which had been firing on the small cruiser Wiesbaden, suddenly became visible to the I AG. Korvettenkapitän Paschen wrote:

Then something unexpected happens. From right to left a ship passes through the field of view of my periscope, improbably large and near. From the first glance I make out an older English armoured cruiser and give the necessary commands. Someone pulls me by the arm: ‘Don’t shoot, that is the Rostock!’ But I see clearly the turrets on the forecastle and stern. – ‘Passing battle. Armoured cruiser, 4 funnels. Bow left. Left 30. Measurement! 76hm, salvo!’ Five salvos fall in swift succession, of them three straddle, and then what happened to the battlecruisers was repeated, and the ship blew up in full view of both fleets. The English main body also has Defence in sight at this time, although to us they are invisible and remain so.

Defence sank at 19.20.

Whilst fighting the 1 Cruiser Squadron, Lützow was hit twice at 19.19 by Lion. One shell struck far forward above the bow armour. The other went through the port casemate roof deck and passed forward to detonate just aft of B turret. During this time Lützow was also evading torpedoes fired by British destroyers, and in return hit Onslow twice, and Acasta twice.

With the 1 and 3 Battlecruiser Squadrons enveloping the German head of the line, Lützow came under increasingly heavy fire. Korvettenkapitän Paschen described it thus:

the English battlecruisers require our entire attention. They stand to port aft 130hm away, as we have swung onto an easterly course, and for us are barely recognisable. And then it began, which made everything before look like a game. Whilst the target of our guns was hidden from me by smoke, I gave the direction to the aft position, when suddenly a hail of hits struck from port aft and port ahead. There was nothing to see other than red flashes, not the shadow of a ship.

Between 19.26 and 19.34 Lützow was hit eight times, all from Invincible and Inflexible. The most devastating of these hits were two 12in shells that struck the forward broadside torpedo room and two 12in shells that struck the bow torpedo room. One shell struck below the armour in the broadside room, the other struck the lower edge of the 100mm-thick forward belt. Both penetrated the broadside room. The two other shells struck the bow torpedo room below the waterline. The entire forecastle ahead of frame 249 and below the waterline immediately filled with water. Speed was reduced to 15kts and then 12kts to reduce pressure on bulkhead 249, but water quickly leaked from compartment XIV into compartment XIII through the joints of bulkhead 249 and through speaking tubes.

Then at 19.30 one of Lützow’s assailants suddenly became visible. Korvettenkapitän Paschen wrote:

Meanwhile we had turned onto a southerly course, and suddenly an English battlecruiser of the Invincible type appeared out of the haze clearly and relatively near, four points to port astern. I cannot say strongly enough what satisfaction I felt, to finally have this pest presented before my eyes, and as quick as lightning the commands were given out. But already a dark object slides between my periscope and the opponent: the corner of the admiral’s bridge, which limits the angle of vision of my periscope object lens to about 10°. ‘Has the aft position measured?’ – ‘Jawohl! 100hm!’ – ‘Direction aft position!’ Kapitänleutnant Bode gives brief and clear orders, and to the inexpressible joy of the whole ship, 15 seconds later our guns crash out again, with the exception of B turret. I heard everything myself through the headphones; what Bode and the artillery transmitting station said, and now also saw the opponents again. ‘Over! 4 down, salvo! Straddle! Salvo!’ As the sound of the fall of shot indicator screeched, the columns flickered out of the water around the enemy and again the beautiful and unmistakable dark red flares up.

Invincible had been struck on Q turret and the shell had detonated inside, blowing off the turret roof. A great explosion followed almost immediately as the magazine exploded and the ship broke in two and sank within ten to fifteen seconds. The magazine of A turret is also thought to have exploded. The two halves of the ship came to rest on the shallow bottom and were clearly visible above the water for some time. The time of the explosion was 19.32. Derfflinger had also been firing on Invincible and it had taken just two minutes to destroy her, whilst Defence had been sunk in just three minutes.

At 19.45, whilst still under heavy enemy fire, the torpedo boat G39 was called alongside and Vizeadmiral Hipper and his staff disembarked to move to another flagship. Lützow was down by the bows and was unable to maintain speed and the wireless had been destroyed. The heavily damaged cruiser took course at slow speed off to the SW to withdraw from the enemy fire, but at 20.15 she came under a particularly pernicious and destructive fire. The British battleships Monarch and Orion hit Lützow a total of six times between 20.15 and 20.30 at a range of approximately 169hm. One shell struck turret B, putting it out of action, another struck the right gun of turret A, showering the turret in splinters. A further hit struck the starboard belt armour below B barbette. Another struck the casemate armour of the IV starboard casemate. A further hit struck the deck aft of C turret and destroyed the aft dressing station. Stabswachtmeister Behrens wrote:

Then a report arrived that a heavy hit had penetrated the aft dressing station from above and exploded there. Obermaat Meyer, wounded, brought this report forward to me. His wound did not appear too bad, and briefly after his report he sat down and began to smoke. In reality he was badly wounded by a splinter and succumbed to this wound 14 days later.

Now it was frighteningly clear to me that all the doctors and specially trained medical personnel were dead or injured. The vision earlier seen: the commander of the ship, surrounded by the four doctors, came before my eyes, and now the present situation; both dressing stations knocked out or destroyed by heavy artillery hits and connected with that the injuries to doctors and specialist medical personnel, and destruction of the greater part of the medicines and medical equipment.

Because there was no alternative the badly wounded were simply taken to a Zwischendeck compartment and laid out.

The final hit during this period sent the top of the main mast crashing down on deck.

Lützow was veiled in a smoke screen laid by four escorting torpedo boats and at 20.40 the enemy ceased fire as Lützow crept off to the SW at just 3–5kts. At 21.13 it was reported to the bridge that there were 1,038 tonnes of water in the ship. At 21.35 it was attempted to run at a higher speed, but this had to be abandoned because the bulkhead between compartment XII and XIII could not stand the pressure. Then at 22.05 the first enemy destroyer attack against the fleet was observed to port ahead at a range of about 60hm. At 22.15 there were approximately 2,395 tonnes of water in the ship.

By 23.12 Lützow and four escorting torpedo boats were in grid square 018 epsilon, course SSW, speed 13kts. The draught forward was 13m. The ship quickly sank deeper and deeper by the bow and by 00.05 on 1 June water was washing about the barrels of A turret and the draught was approximately 15m. By 01.00 the pumps could no longer hold the port diesel dynamo room drained. The forward group of pumps had failed as the ‘leak’ pump room was flooded and the pipes in the forecastle were shot through. Water began to penetrate boiler room VI. Even though revolutions were maintained for 7kts the speed achieved was just 5kts. As related by Korvettenkapitän Paschen the battle to save the ship was slowly being lost:

I still held out hope for the ship, but at about 2am in the morning the commander called the senior Offiziere to a conference, and the First Offizier reported 7,500 tonnes of water in the ship, and gave his view that at the longest we could remain afloat was until 8am in the morning. The news was a bitter blow. Our beautiful ship! However, it must be so; the forecastle was now 2m under water; through the open casemates the water entered the battery in streams, and poured through the torn deck into the Zwischendeck. The large forward oil boiler room had to be abandoned to save the men.

The last figures from damage control indicated that there were 4,209 tonnes of water below the armoured deck, and 4,142 tonnes above, giving a total of 8,351 tonnes, but this was still increasing and the draught forward was approximately 17m. Shortly after 02.00 an attempt was made to steer the ship stern first, but this failed because the propellers were already too far out of the water. Likewise an attempt to tow the Panzerkreuzer with torpedo boats was abandoned. Kapitän zur See Harder ordered ‘Fires out’ and gave the order to abandon ship. However, tragically, there were some men trapped in an air pocket in the flooded bows. A Leutnant zur See wrote:

I had to think of the six poor stokers that were still alive when the ship sank. They sat in the forward diesel-dynamo switch room, just like a diving bell, and could not get out. They had called me once, as I had a connection with them, and reported that the water was slowly rising in their room. It was held by pumps at a certain height. They maintained their courage and optimism until the last. They were still trapped.

The four torpedo boats that had remained with Lützow – G40, G38, V45 and G37 – were now called alongside. Three at a time, they lay contiguously alongside to starboard to take off the crew. Kapitänleutnant Jung wrote:

The survivors assembled on the quarterdeck. Above them fluttered the battle flag, shot to pieces by the enemy shells. Where there was no longer any Offiziere, the senior Unteroffizier took command. Still it was a black night. Only in the east the hesitating dawn appeared, heralding the new day. The address of the commander was short and concise. He concluded with the request that we be proud of SMS Lützow and her crew today for their selfless and extraordinary service for the Fatherland. Then three cheers were called for the ship and Kaiser.

‘And now go to the boats!’ The last words of the commander were almost paternal, sounding out of the dark. They touched the deepest emotions of all of his subordinates.

Kapitän zur See Harder was the last to leave the ship. Korvettenkapitän Paschen wrote:

The disembarking of the crew was exemplary; first all wounded, then quietly, all the remaining. When we cast off as the last boat, I could see in the first of the morning gloom the ship as follows: turret A under water, B an island. The bridge stood in water to the upper deck. The stern was approximately 2m higher than usual.

On the orders of the commander the torpedo boat G38 fired a torpedo to scuttle the cruiser, but the draught aft was so reduced and the torpedo ran under the sinking ship; a second struck amidships and Lützow lay slowly over to starboard and capsized. The time was 02.47. Her position was 56° 15’ N, 5° 52’ E.

The torpedo boats steered to Horns Reef light vessel. In the grey dawn there was a brief firefight with three enemy destroyers steering to the SW, and soon after with two British light cruisers and about six destroyers, which, however, did not take up the pursuit. G40 received a hit in the starboard turbine and was towed by the other boats, and thereby could only run at 10kts. Upon receiving news of these events the II FdT (Führer der Torpedoboote), Kommodore Heinrich, made a turn at about 09.45, on his own initiative, and took Regensburg and three boats of the IX TBF to meet the tow unit near Graa-Dyb light vessel. Some of the Lützow crew were transferred to Regensburg and reached Wilhelmshaven during the evening. During the battle Lützow is reported to have lost 116 Offiziere and men, but this number climbed subsequently to a final figure of 128, as in the days following the battle other crew, including Stabarzt Gelhaar and Obermaat Meyer, died from their wounds.

Damage Suffered During the Battle

As the Panzerkreuzer Lützow was scuttled and sank on the morning after the battle, the detailed hit descriptions found with the other cruisers are absent, and the order and location of hits must be reconstructed from reports and an excellent hit diagram. This deals with the hits from bow to stern, but we shall look at them in chronological order.

Hit One

At 17.00 a 13.5in shell from Lion struck the forecastle near the capstans and made a large hole. The explosion shook turret A and it rocked from side to side. Three men in the working chamber were knocked out but later recovered. Poisonous gases entered the gun barrels and when the breeches were opened the gases entered the turret and rendered three men unconscious.

Hit Two

Likewise at 17.00, this 13.5in shell-hit from Lion also made a large hole in the forecastle deck, and later these two hits allowed great quantities of water to enter the ship.

Hit Three

A heavy-calibre shell from Princess Royal struck between A and B turrets at 17.15 and destroyed the forward combat dressing station.

Hit Four

Hit number four was also at 17.15 from Princess Royal and struck the belt armour aft at approximately frame 120. The shell did not penetrate the thick armour, but the ship was shaken and vibrated powerfully.

Hit Five

At 18.13 a 15in shell fired from Barham struck the belt armour around frame 210 just below the waterline. The shell shattered on the armour, but the plate was displaced and allowed the two outer wing compartments to fill with water.

Hits Six and Seven

At 18.25 two 15in shells from Barham struck the superstructure between the two funnels and destroyed the main and reserve wireless stations. With this hit the shell hoist to the starboard III 15cm cannon temporarily failed, but was soon re-switched and operating again.

Hit Eight

A 15in shell from Valiant struck at 18.30 between the IV and V port 15cm casemates. The shell burst above the armoured deck without causing serious damage.

Hit Nine

At 18.45 a 13.5in shell from Princess Royal struck the superstructure side to port just below the conning tower, causing minor damage.

Hit Ten

At 19.19 a 13.5in shell from Lion struck the forecastle far forward.

Hit Eleven

Also at 19.19, a second hit from Lion – this time the shell struck the port casemate roof and penetrated before passing forward to detonate just behind turret B. A fire was started amongst the damage-control material stored there, which created a lot of smoke.

Hits Twelve and Thirteen

At 19.26 Lützow was struck by two 12in calibre projectiles, from either Invincible or Inflexible, below the waterline. One shell struck the broadside torpedo room below the armoured belt; the other struck the lower edge of the 100mm-thick armour and likewise penetrated the broadside torpedo room.

Hits Fourteen and Fifteen

At 19.29 two further 12in shells from the same antagonists struck the bow torpedo room below the waterline and bow armour. As a result of these four hits the entire forecastle beneath the armoured deck immediately filled with water. The bulkhead at frame 249 came under huge pressure and speed had to be reduced, first to 15kts, then 12kts and finally just 3kts. Bulkhead 249 was not completely watertight and water penetrated compartment XIII and then XII. Later on water finally penetrated into compartment XI, the forward boiler room. The draught forward quickly increased to 12m.

Hit Sixteen

At 19.27 a 12in projectile from either Invincible or Inflexible struck the upper deck of the forecastle, producing a large hole in the deck.

Hit Seventeen

A 12in shell from either Invincible or Inflexible struck the belt armour near its lower edge to port at approximately frame 165, below the IV 15cm casemate. The projectile penetrated the armour and was found wedged on the Böschung (sloping armour) without detonating. Gas pressure damaged the IV 15cm cannon and rendered it unserviceable.

Hit Eighteen

At 19.30 a 12in shell struck the belt armour above the waterline between the port III and IV casemates and shattered without detonating.

Hit Nineteen

At 19.30 a 12in shell struck the port side net shelf just below the V 15cm cannon and detonated.

Hit Twenty

At 20.07 a heavy shell struck the port casemate and put the port combat signal station out of action. The signal personnel were killed and a fire resulted.

Hit Twenty-one

At 20.15 a 13.5in shell from either Orion or Monarch struck the right barrel of A turret and detonated just outside the gunport. Splinters showered into the turret, the aft hoop was torn off the barrel of the right 30.5cm gun, which was jammed. The left gun was protected by the splinter shield inside the turret and remained serviceable.

Hit Twenty-two

Likewise at 20.15, a 13.5in shell from either Orion or Monarch penetrated the deck between C and D turrets. The aft dressing station was badly hit and there were heavy casualties amongst the wounded and medical personnel. In addition, the electrical cable to D turret, which ran above the armoured deck in this position, was severed so that D turret had to resort to hand training. Nevertheless, before Lützow sank the electrical personnel successfully restored the cable connection.

Hit Twenty-three

At 20.16 a projectile from either Orion or Monarch struck to starboard in the area of B turret barbette, causing the flooding of the starboard I 15cm gun munitions chamber.

Hit Twenty-four

At 20.17 a 13.5in shell from either Orion or Monarch struck the 250mm-thick armour of the starboard side of turret B, which was still traversed to approximately 280° to port. The aft lower right side wall was penetrated, leaving a calibre-sized hole approximately 0.25sq m in size. The shell was kept out but the punched-out piece of armour was found on the right gun carriage cradle. The loading facilities and right upper hoist were destroyed and men to the rear of the gun were killed. A fore charge on the right upper powder hoist burned, but a main charge directly above it did not. The turret Offizier, Kapitänleutnant Fischer, was killed by toxic gas, whilst others escaped, although some suffered burns.

The right hydraulic pump in the powder handling room was destroyed.

Hit Twenty-five

Sometime between 20.15 and 20.30 a heavy shell struck the upper main mast above the observation position. Inside the aft conning tower a deafening impact was heard directly beside the tower as the upper mast fell from a great height.

Below is a copy of Kapitän zur See Harder’s combat report. Not all of his observations and impressions are entirely accurate. (The times used are summer time.)

‘Lützow’ survivors. Wilhelmshaven, 8 June, 1916. B. N°. Gg 14.

Battle-Group Langkeit in the fighting east of the River Oder, January 1945

Willy Langkeit (2nd from left)

Willi Langkeit was wounded in the fighting that took place in that area around Schaulen. He was hospitalized and sent to the homeland to convalesce, where he was placed in charge of the division’s replacement brigade in Cottbus. But he was not there for long.

By the end of January 1945, he was again leading armored forces, this time an element composed of forces from the replacement brigade, as well as cadre from the armor school in Wünsdorf. The Kampfgruppe was dispatched to the Eastern Front, where it reported to General der Infanterie Busse’s 9. Armee, which was facing the Soviets approaching the Oder.

At the time of Langkeit’s arrival, the Soviets were rapidly advancing with two large armored forces in the Oder-Warthe Bend, the main effort directed at Frankfurt an der Oder and Küstrin. Immediately after his arrival, Langkeit received orders to move through Frankfurt towards Reppen and bring the Soviet forces there to a standstill. It was imperative that the high ground east of the Oder, which dominated the entire region, remained in German hands.

Langkeit advanced with his forces, reached the high ground and turned back the Soviet forces. Langkeit’s actions were one of the few bright spots in the otherwise dismal situation facing the Germans all along that sector of the front. Busse later wrote about Langkeit’s operation:

The failure of the Soviet effort in that sector was primarily thanks to the noteworthy bravery of Oberst Langkeit, who personally got involved with complete disregard for himself and, as a result, helped rally the forces that had been hastily assembled and had not yet developed any cohesiveness. I personally witnessed his exemplary actions.

Langkeit’s feat of arms prompted Busse to submit the armor officer for promotion to Generalmajor ahead of his peers: “for recently demonstrated leadership performance and again demonstrating extraordinary bravery.”

On 20 April, the Armed Forces High Command approved the recommendation, especially since Langkeit had also been taking all of the forces pouring into his sector to form a new division-Panzergrenadier-Division “Kurmark”-which he was also earmarked to command. Indeed, he seemed the perfect choice for the upcoming struggle that was to decide the fate of Germany.

Generalmajor Langkeit experienced the final weeks of the war with his ad hoc division, first fighting his way out of encirclement west of the Oder and then taking it to Beelitz to the rear of General der Panzertruppen Wenck’s 12. Armee. During the last days of April, he received the third level of the Tank Assault Badge for having participated in 75 or more armored engagements.

On 7 May 1945, the young general went into captivity with his division, surrendering to U. S. forces.

Following the war, Langkeit entered the Bundesgrenzschutz-Federal Border Protection Service-in 1951. He helped form the coastal protective services of that agency and led them for a long time as a Brigadegeneral.

Willy Langkeit passed away in Bad Bramstedt on 27 October 1969.

#

It was not on the Western Front alone that the armies of the Third Reich suffered military defeats in the autumn and winter of 1944. An Allied advance in Italy, slow but maintained, drove the German defenders from below Cassino, northwards and almost to the plain of Lombardy, while in Greece Loehr’s Army Group began its long overdue withdrawal. Every theatre of operations had witnessed disasters but it was on the Eastern Front that Hitler’s hosts suffered their severest defeats in that autumn of reverses.

By the end of 1944, the vast expanse of Soviet territory which the Wehrmacht had conquered during 1941 and 1942, had been retaken by the Red Army until only a thin buffer, the western half of Poland, separated the spearhead forces of the Red Army from Germany’s eastern provinces. The Soviet summer offensive of 1944, Operation “Bagration”, had smashed Army Group Centre (soon to be renamed Army Group “A”) and had brought the Russian forces to the province of East Prussia which STAVKA was now preparing to take out in a major offensive. The once powerful Army Group North, by this time reduced to just a handful of divisions in Courland, had been forced back until it had the sea behind it and the Russians to its front and on both flanks.

Colonel-General Guderian, Chief of the General Staff at OKH, demanded that Hitler use the 30 experienced divisions in Courland to break through the Russian encirclement and to link up with other German formations in East Prussia where they, and the forces in East Prussia, would threaten the northern flank of any Soviet advance towards Berlin. Hitler rejected Guderian’s demand with the result that by December 1944, the encircling Red Army was so strong that an attempt at a link-up between the German forces in Courland and those in East Prussia had absolutely no chance of success. Guderian then proposed that Army Group North be evacuated by sea from Courland and moved to bolster the last remaining German-held sectors of western Poland. That suggestion, too, was turned down by the Fuehrer.

General Gehlen, head of the General Staff Department (Foreign Armies East) and a recognised expert on the Soviet Union, produced figures which showed that the Red Army’s Supreme STAVKA had planned for its nine military fronts to launch attacks between the Carpathian mountains and the Baltic Sea. The first blow would be undertaken by the 2nd and 3rd Byelo-Russian Fronts against East Prussia. The second blow would be launched from a start line in the bend of the Vistula by Zhukov’s 1st Byelo-Russian and Koniev’s 1st Ukrainian Fronts. STAVKA’s strategy on that sector, was to isolate and destroy Army Group A (formerly Army Group Centre) and to advance as far as the River Oder, a distance of some 300km. The STAVKA effort would employ 2.25 million soldiers on just Zhukov’s and Koniev’s Fronts. Between them they would control 163 infantry divisions, 32,143 guns and 6,500 AFVs. On the narrow but vital Baranov sector of the Vistula bend where the main attack was to be made, the Soviets enjoyed a superiority over the Germans of 9:1 in infantry, 6:1 in armour and 10:1 in guns. The Order of Battle of Army Group A was 9th and 17th Infantry Armies and 4th Panzer Army, controlling a force of 30 infantry, four Panzer and two motorised divisions. Strong though that Army Group seemed to be, most of its divisions were burned out and they were, in any case, too few in number for the battle which lay ahead.

In an effort to increase front-line strengths, Guderian ordered a thorough comb-out of rear echelon units and this, together with a regrouping and a thinning-out of formations produced 14 divisions. These he formed into a strategic reserve for he proposed, when the current Russian offensive eventually lost its momentum, as it must do after the mighty advances of the previous autumn, to launch a counter-offensive. That riposte would not be able to match the Red Army’s effort in size and weight, but the Chief of Staff was confident that it would gain Germany a valuable breathing space. Guderian was not able to deploy and use that strategic reserve as he wished. Hitler who had planned the offensive on the Western Front, which has become known as the Battle of the Bulge, promptly ordered that Eastern reserve to be sent westwards, assuring his Chief of Staff that its divisions would be returned as soon as it was clear that the Battle of the Bulge was being won. Hitler also comandeered all the construction and road building battalions which Guderian had assembled, together with the heavy artillery he had brought together to support the sectors of the battle line which in his opinion were most under threat. With the removal of so many of the formations essential to its defences the Eastern Front, already under strength, was so dangerously weakened that it would be certain to shatter when the new, major, Russian assault was launched.

Gehlen then reported that the Soviets had concentrated in their 90km-wide bridghead at Baranov, in Poland, five infantry armies and six armoured corps as well as a number of independent infantry and armoured formations. The imbalance of forces had now risen in favour of the Red Army to 11:1 in infantry, 7:1 in AFVs and 20:1 in artillery. The Russian superiority in artillery was so high that the local commanders could mass 250 guns on each kilometre of front. Back in the Ardennes it had become clear by the end of December that Hitler’s gamble had failed and that the German forces, which had advanced in the first days of the Battle of the Bulge, were now withdrawing in disorder. Guderian demanded the return of his Panzer divisions to enable Army Group A to meet the imminent Russian offensive. Hitler refused and instead reduced Guderian’s forces still further by despatching Panzer Corps Gille, Guderian’s sole reserve in the bend of the River Vistula, southwards into Hungary where he planned to open a new offensive.

The Chief of Staff sent Hitler a final piece of intelligence: “The new Russian winter offensive will open on 12 January”. Still the Supreme Commander refused to reinforce the Eastern Front. Then in the early hours of that day a barrage opened on the Baranov sector which lasted from 01.30 to 06.00hrs. When it ceased a deep silence endured for 30mins after which the bombardment began again. Behind the barrage as it marched across the cratered landscape, special Red Army detachments, punishment units put in as a human sacrifice, advanced to kill those German soldiers who had survived the shellfire. Behind the so-called “Strafbats”, an armada of tanks rolled forward followed by divisions of conventional Red Army infantry. That huge assault broke through the front of 4th Panzer Army and crushed all but the most minimal resistance in the front line sectors. Here and there a German machine gun went into action against the flood of Soviet soldiers marching across the open plains. But it was only machine guns which retaliated. Not one piece of German artillery had survived to fire back at the oncoming Russians. However, the rear units of 4th Panzer Army were not affected by the Russian attack and were able to retreat westwards.

Realising, at long last, the need to take action on the Vistula sector Hitler ordered the elite “Grossdeutschland” Panzer Corps, together with a few divisions from Hungary and the Western Front, to restore the situation in 4th Panzer Army’s area. It was a movement undertaken by too few forces and too late in time. Zhukov’s armies were advancing along a thrust line which aimed directly at Frankfurt-am-Oder and were moving with such speed that the probability existed they would reach the east bank of the river before the slower-moving German units and would destroy them before those units could cross to the safety of the west bank. Supreme STAVKA had planned the battle of Berlin as the final operation of the war in Europe and, to prepare the ground for that advance, Zhukov ordered his armies to race for the Oder and to establish bridgheads on the river’s western bank — springboards out of which the Red Army would make the advance to the Reich’s capital.

 

The race to the Oder can be said to have begun when, in the second week of January 1945, Zhukov’s armies stormed across the Vistula. Within a matter of days there was no longer a solid German battle line in that area. On 20 January, Colonel-General Schoerner, the new commander of Army Group A, committed 11th and 24th Panzer Corps to a counterattack to knit up the ruptured front of 4th Panzer Army. It was an effort too weak to achieve any sort of success. The Red Army counter-attacked 24th Corps and cut it off. It then became a “wandering pocket” trying to fight its way back to the German lines. “Grossdeutschland” was ordered to rescue 24th Corps and its assault made such good ground that by 22 January the advance guards from both formations had gained touch.

The Eastern Front was collapsing and, faced with that catastrophe, the only solution which suggested itself to the Reich’s leadership was that the creation of a few large and flexible battle groups would have greater offensive/defensive potential than several smaller battle groups. The latter had always lacked heavy weapons and had also experienced difficulties in the matter of supplies and replacements. In accord with that solution High Command directed “Grossdeutschland”, resting after its rescue mission, to create a strong all-arms battle group. Kampfgruppe Langkeit was created on 26 January 1945 and its chief infantry constituent, Corps Panzer Grenadier Replacement Brigade, was a unit unusual for that time since it was at almost full establishment. The other component of Langkeit’s KG was Major Petereit’s Alarm Group Schmeltzer, which also had sufficient soldiers to flesh-out the new, elite and very specialist battle group.

To counter the Russian race to the Oder, the German military commanders, lacking sufficient men or weapons, had only the advantages of familiarity with the terrain and an awareness that their officers and men were determined to defend their native soil. It was believed that a system of field fortifications had been set up to the east of the Oder, resting upon a chain of lakes, the so-called Tirschtiegel positions. A water barrier, such as a lake system, has the advantage that it compels an attacker to advance across areas of ground — land bridges — which the defenders can hold in strength. In the case of the Tirschtiegel positions this was not the case. There had been almost no work undertaken and responsibility for constructing the trench lines had been left to Nazi Party political officers who had deserted their posts and fled as the Reds approached. Such positions as had been constructed were rudimentary — a few trench lines, dug-outs and in some places an anti-tank ditch. All showed evidence of hasty and unplanned work. A second line of trenches and dug-outs was in a worse state than the first line, with only the most basic work begun but not completed. The military commanders withdrawing into the Tirschtiegel positions were thus faced with the dual problems that they must not only somehow find sufficient labour to complete the trench systems, but must also man those positions before the Soviet offensive reached them. The only military units immediately available were local militia and Volkssturm detachments, made up of poorly armed men who would be no match for Zhukov’s veterans. In an effort to fill the defence lines with troops the High Command raised units out of any available bodies of men. In some cases officers were appointed to take up Staff positions in formations which had been given grandiose titles but which had no troops. To begin with it was a nightmare scenario but slowly the efficiency and pragmatism of the German military system manifested itself and order was produced out of chaos.

The newly-created Kampfgruppe Langkeit was one of the formations which should have manned the Tirschtiegel positions. Its infantry component was renamed Kluever’s Panzer Grenadier Regiment, with Schmeltzer’s Alarm detachment, three Grenadier companies and a machine gun company forming its 1st Battalion. The men, although chiefly young recruits, had veteran instructors, officers and NCOs. Schoettler’s 2nd Battalion had three Grenadier companies, a machine gun and a mortar company. Few of that battalion’s rank and file were “Grossdeutschland” soldiers. No 7 Company, for example, was made up of men from other units who had been taken off trains passing through Cottbus, and taken onto the strength of the “Grossdeutschland” unit. The battle group’s artillery component had been, to begin with, just two heavy field howitzers. Then a battery of light field howitzers was formed and, finally, a light Flak battery with four 2cm guns, four twin-2cm guns and four 3.7cm motorised anti-aircraft pieces, came onto strength. A small SP gun detachment was also created. To obtain AFVs, Langkeit was not so much pragmatic as piratical. He comandeered machines from the factories in which they had been made and requisitioned other vehicles from the “Grossdeutschland” training depots. Many of these latter were powered by charcoal gas engines, others had no turrets and some had no guns — in short, the only factor which made them AFVs was the plating they carried. Nevertheless, Hudel, commanding the Panzer detachment, had soon created an HQ squadron, a Panzer company, a recce platoon, two tank destruction troops each armed with Panzerschreck rocket launchers, and two more troops armed with Panzerfausts. There was also an anti-tank company and a motor cycle company.

During the night of 26-27 January the Kampfgruppe, in no way completely raised or forming a homogeneous group, began to move towards the front. The divisional history records that despite the obvious shortcomings and deficiencies in equipment, the morale of the men marching out to give unequal battle was first-class. They were determined to win, even though they knew the enemy was vastly superior to them in number and equipment. Langkeit was ordered to concentrate his Kampfgruppe around Reppen and then to strike north-eastwards into the flank of the Red Army forces advancing upon Stettin. Following on from that operation the KG was next to take up its allotted positions in the Tierschtiegel defences. A few days later the entire battle group set out for Reppen, to undertake its first mission, to attack the flank of the Red Army advancing towards Stettin.

On its approach march it was surprised and attacked by strong Russian forces. The principal reason for the surprise encounter was that Langkeit had been given no information on the location of the Soviet forces. His battle group fought back and restored the situation and was then advised that Bittrich’s SS Corps was encircled somewhere near Sternberg. On 30 January, Langkeit sent a battle group, the 2nd Battalion of his Panzer Grenadier regiment, to break through the Soviet encirclement and to bring out Bittrich’s trapped formations. The battalion reached Pinnow and formed two small motorised battle groups to carry out the rescue operation. The Grenadiers were heartened as they carried out their attack to hear the sounds of small arms and artillery fire, believing these to be made by the SS. About midday the true explanation of those battle noises came when Soviet tanks appeared from the north-east and began firing into Pinnow. Patrols then reported to Langkeit that Russian armour and infantry, outflanking the Kampfgruppe to the north, were making for Reppen. Langkeit decided that his priority was to bring out the SS Corps and ordered 2nd Battalion to continue with its attack. By last light on 30 January, the Panzergrenadiers had smashed the Red ring and gained touch with the SS. Not long after that an independent tank-destroyer company of armoured vehicles also broke the encirclement, was immediately taken onto the strength of Bittrich’s group and went into action.

Covered by a rearguard formed by 2nd Battalion, the remnant of SS Corps, escorted by the tank-destroyer company, then pulled back towards Frankfurt. Langkeit’s 2nd Battalion then prepared to defend Reppen. Meanwhile, the situation in which the main body of the Kampfgruppe was placed had deteriorated with the report that Russian forces had now outflanked it both to the north and the south. There could now be no question of an advance to Sternberg and 1st Panzergrenadier Battalion, backed by 88mm guns and other artillery weapons, moved towards Reppen to reinforce the 2nd Battalion.

It had a nightmare journey. The Reppen road was blocked by columns of slow moving refugees who panicked when JS tanks appeared on the crest of the ridge north of the road and opened fire upon them. North of the road where there was good going, the Red Army commander concentrated the mass of his tanks. To the south of the road where thick woodland made the terrain unsuitable for armoured operations, he put in his infantry. At a point well behind Langkeit’s Kampfgruppe, Russian tank columns cut the road so that the battle group which had been put into action to smash one encirclement was now itself in danger of being surrounded and cut off. It was also dangerously split up. The 2nd Panzergrenadier Battalion was in Reppen, 1st Battalion was on the road to that place and the heavy vehicles and tanks of the main body were isolated from both those battalions.

Langkeit formed that main body into two columns and intended to lead them in a mass charge to break the Soviet ring. Such an attack did not and, indeed, could not, succeed because the columns could not deploy off the road and into open country. Trapped fast among the civilian carts they were the principal targets of Soviet infantry and tank gun-fire from north and south of the road — fire that smashed down into the press of carts and people and created enormous casualties. Here and there a few Panzers forced their way out of the press of civilian carts and charged the enemy road blocks but died in the concentrated fire of the Soviet tank guns. Back in Reppen the Panzergrenadiers of 2nd Battalion, squatting in their slit trenches, patiently endured strafing from the air and barrages from mortars and from tank guns. The houses in the town were soon in ruins. The Red commander, thinking that the German troops were now either dead or demoralised, ordered tanks and infantry to mop up the remnants. His decision gave the Panzergrenadiers the chance at last to exact revenge for the punishment they had suffered. A wave of 10 T34s was shot to pieces by the 88s and a Red Army infantry battalion which came in against No 6 Company was wiped out almost to a man. But it was clear the battalion’s ability to resist was nearly at an end and Langkeit ordered it to destroy its vehicles and fight a way through to the main body. During the night of 31 January, covered by a barrage, the heavy weapons were destroyed and the Grenadiers and artillerymen marched to join the main body.

The situation in which the KG was placed was desperate and Langkeit decided to make a break-out attempt through the woods south of the road. Once his units had grouped in the forest they would be faced with a difficult, tiring march but the Russian infantry in the woods were less strongly armed than the tank units on the main road. It should, therefore, be easier for the Kampfgruppe to fight its way through and escape. The battle group’s last surviving eight-wheeled armoured car went into the forest to reconnoitre the route and, although the first reports were encouraging, the situation deteriorated again during 1 February. The units filtering along forest rides and secondary roads, once again became closely entangled with civilian columns and came under fire from Soviet infantry forces which had now entered the woods in strength. Langkeit’s light Flak groups, heavy machine guns and Pak poured fire along the edge of the forest to beat back the Red Army units and to aid the slow-paced withdrawal. Stuka aircraft of Colonel Rudel’s tank-busting squadron were brought in to aid the escape but their efforts had little success.

Langkeit’s “O” Group during the night of 2 February, heard a bleak report. The guns were down to two rounds each and the break-out through the woods had not succeeded. He proposed that the Kampfgruppe make a swift, direct thrust along the road. This might succeed so long as it was covered by a strong rearguard. Spearheaded by a Panzer detachment, the first attack was made in the early hours of the morning of 3 February, but failed to smash through. Meanwhile, on the northern side of the road, 1st Grenadier battalion attacked and destroyed the Russian forces opposing them in hand to hand combat and drew the attention of the Red commanders to that sensitive area. That gave the chance for the “Hetzers” of the tank destroyer unit and the last of Hudel’s Panzers to carry out a second, and this time successful, thrust up the road. By 14.00hrs the Soviet ring had been ruptured and the westward withdrawal began. It was a shortlived move. At Kunersdorf more Soviet tanks had cut the road but, once again, the Panzer/SP group struck and destroyed them. During that battle Sergeant Riedmuller won the Knights Cross for destroying four T34s with successive shots and when the lie of the land prevented him from destroying the fifth, climbed out of his Panzer and “killed” it with a Panzerfaust.

A stream of military and civilian vehicles was now pouring through the broken ring and 2nd Battalion gave flank protection to the main body of the battle group as it pulled back towards Frankfurt. The artillery units, positioned in the streets of Damm, a suburb of that city, fired barrages to cover the retreating formations. Some detachments of KG Langkeit were first held in Damm but were then ordered to cross to the Oder’s western bank and take up defensive positions there. The remainder of the battle group continued to hold the bridgehead.

That eastern group fought bitterly to prevent the capture of Kunersdorf airfield which the Soviets needed as a forward base for the next stage of their offensive. In that fighting the bridgehead group suffered severe losses and even their most determined defence and skillfully mounted attacks could not prevent the Red Army from eventually crushing the Damm perimeter. On 3 February, an order was issued upgrading Kampfgruppe Langkeit to “Kurmark” Panzergrenadier Division. It is at this place, therefore, that we leave the battle group and consider another one which fought in the east when the Third Reich was in its death throes.

Grossdeutschland was sent to rescue the trapped units, but the front around them was crumbling. In response, the OKH was prompted to created some large Kampfgruppen to provide greater flexibility in defence. One of these new battle groups, Kampfgruppe Langkeit under the command of Oberst Willi Langkeit, was formed on 3 February 1945 and was made up from the Corps Panzergrenadier Replacement Brigade which was almost at full strength and Alarm Group Schmeltzer. It was organised as a Type 44 Panzergrenadier Division, with its Panzergrenadier battalions organised on the 1945 model, with three self-propelled gun companies equipped with Jagdpanzer 38s and one company with Pz IVs. The artillery battalion was organised from the 3rd Battalion, 184th (mot) Artillery Regiment. The Panzergrenadier regiment apparently had only a staff, a staff company, and two Panzergrenadier battalions. The order of 4 February 1945 gave the division an authorised strength of 4,559 men including 128 Hiwis.

Witnesses to the End…

Tiergarten Flak Tower – Generation 1 – (Flakturm Tiergarten) with twin 12,8 cm Zwillingsflak 44, Berlin, 1945.

The Flakturm (Flag Tower) is a concrete bunker that is placed in a city. The bunker was provided with a space where people (in the largest tower itself was room for 20,000 people) could shelter during bombings and there was space for storage of goods. The bunker was equipped with Flak anti-aircraft gun (Flak is the acronym for Flugabwehrkanone, also called Fliegerabwehrkanone).
These large towers were built during the Second World War in the cities Berlin (Germany), Hamburg (Germany) and Vienna (Austria).
Each Flak tower complex consisted of a G-Tower (Gefechts-Turm) and L-Tower (Leit-Turm).
The complexes consisting of 3 generations:
Generation 1:
G-Tower – 70.5 x 70.5 x 39 meters – with eight 128 mm guns and several 20, 30 and 37 mm guns.
L-Tower – 50 x 23 x 39 meters – usually equipped with sixteen 20 mm guns.
Generation 2:
G-Tower – 57 x 57 x 41.6 meters – equipped with eight 128 mm guns and sixteen 20 mm guns.
L-Tower – 50 x 23 x 44 meters – equipped with forty 20 mm guns
Generation 3:
G-Tower – 43 x 43 x 54 meters – with eight 128 mm guns and 32 pieces of the 20 mm gun.

X

With Allied forces advancing from the west, east and south and a northerly route of escape cut off by the sea, the noose was finally closing around Hitler’s “1,000-year” Reich. Berlin, of course, was to be the scene of final destruction and in the last two weeks of the war in Europe the Germans prepared to defend their capital as best they could.

The east side of Berlin was strongly fortified, with three separate lines of anti-tank defences. In the city centre, every street was to be turned into a strong point. Hitler had hoped to make Berlin into a fortress and it was certainly given many of the relevant features. Ringed around the city were three structures which echoed the castles of medieval times. These were the flak towers, three huge concrete structures with walls so thick that not even the heaviest artillery shells could penetrate them. The first, known as the Humboldt Tower, after the famous German oceanographer, was located just off the Brunnenstrasse in the north of Berlin. The second was just to the east of the city centre, on Landsberger Allee, and the third was in the south-west of the city centre, at the Zoo.

The original purpose of these flak towers had been to serve as anti-aircraft gun platforms to protect Berlin against the frequent Allied bombing raids. Each of the enormous gun towers had a satellite tower a short distance away from where artillery observers controlled the anti-aircraft fire. After the Russians beat off a last desperate stand on the Seelow heights east of Berlin, pouring down such a weight of artillery fire that the defenders had to retreat, the last natural obstacle into the city was open to them. Now the onus was on the defence ring hastily thrown up around Berlin and on the flak towers, which were virtually impregnable.

In 1945, with the dreaded Russians almost at the gates, these defences were to protect not only Berlin, but also the heart of the Nazi regime, located in a bunker close to the Chancellery building on Wilhelmstrasse. They were also meant to preserve the nearby key city landmarks of the Brandenburg Gate, the famous Unter den Linden and the Reichstag on Königsplatz.

In his bunker, Hitler was obsessed with dreams of glory that would never come true. At the start of 1945 he had dismissed as ridiculous fantasy the idea that the Red Army was about to launch a major offensive into Germany and even at this late hour clung to the illusion that forces commanded by SS Lieutenant-General Felix Steiner were going to link up with the surviving German forces north of Berlin and strike a decisive blow against the Russians. Steiner had no more than a ragbag of forces, the grandly named Group Steiner, that was incapable of even scratching the Russian advance. The Russians simply brushed them aside as they completed their encirclement of the Nazi capital.

Finally, Hitler turned to Colonel-General Gotthard Heinrici, commander of the Army Group Vistula, including the Ninth Army, which, he fancied, was going to march into Berlin any day and save the Reich and its Führer from the communist devils. Heinrici was an experienced professional from a family with a military tradition going back eight centuries. He was supposed to be responsible for the defence of Berlin, but he knew a lost cause when he saw one. Like Schörner, he ordered his troops away from the capital, advising them to surrender to the British or the Americans. Hitler ineffectively dismissed Heinrici on April 28 and returned to his illusions. He spent his time moving flags on a large map, apparently believing that they represented real military forces. He remained unaware that his new mighty “armies” consisted of a few small groups and defenders holed up in Berlin’s flak towers.

Hannau Rittau was a gunner in the Zoo flak tower. He was prepared to do all he could to defend Berlin, his birthplace, but like Heinrici, he knew it was hopeless:

You could see what was happening, the Russians were drawing closer and closer to Berlin and when they started firing on Berlin with their artillery we said, “Well, this is the end!” But I was born and raised in Berlin and we had to defend our home, just as we had to defend our country. That’s what we tried to do.

I was lucky to get into the tower at the Zoo. There was an army and an air-force hospital on one floor, though in the end we had wounded solders and civilians on all the floors. I think there were 3,000 people in this tower. My job was to drive the ambulance and bring the wounded to the tower from outside, so it was easy for me to stay there.

The tower came under determined Russian attack for two days and two nights. Despite the safety Rittau and the others had found in the tower, it was a frightening experience:

The Russians were firing at the tower all the time. The noise of the exploding artillery against the walls was terrible, the walls shook all the time. They couldn’t get through because the concrete of the tower was so thick and strong.

Even so, at one o’clock in the morning of May 2, the tower was surrendered to the Russians. We were told to stay at our stations, which we did. The first thing I remember after that was the door opening. A Russian tank driver came in and said, “Everybody kaput, everybody kaput, ja? Everybody kaput, ja? Don’t be frightened, Russian soldiers are good. The bad things you’ve heard about us were all propaganda.” And out he went again. That was our first contact with the Russians.

A few hours later the Russians came round looked at everybody. The wounded soldiers were lying on the floor, we had no beds, the wounded were on blankets on the hard floor. The Russians started stealing their watches, as they did with everybody. They were very interested in watches. We looked after the wounded, as we had done before. We had enough food in the tower because there was enough food storage in there for the whole of Berlin.

Although the Russians did not appear to be particularly dangerous or violent, Rittau decided to escape from the tower:

I tried to get out, because we hadn’t seen any fresh air all the time, you never saw daylight in this tower. I was on the third floor. I went downstairs and there was just one Russian standing on guard there. I gave him a cigarette. That seemed to please him. I was in hospital dress, all in white, so that he could see that I was a member of the hospital team. I looked around, and then went back into the tower again.

During the next two days, all of a sudden they starting making lists. The Russians came around asking, “What’s your name? What’s your grade? What was your last regiment?” “Oh, oh!” I thought to myself.

This is getting dangerous. I’d better get home!”

It was May 6 by now. The Russians on guard were so used to seeing me that they didn’t notice when I slipped out of the tower. It was easy. I did the same thing again, I was wearing my uniform, but I had removed all the insignia. I pulled on my white hospital dress over it, went out the door and walked away, just like that! Of course, I tried to keep out of sight of any Russian soldier in the street who might ask me, “Where is your pass or your pay book?” or goodness knows what, and I walked home. Although my parents’ house was quite close to Berlin, I didn’t arrive until seven in the evening, after 10 hours.

Walking all the way, it took a long time because I tried to avoid any Russians wherever I could see them. I just ducked away out of sight and waited until they had passed by.

Ulf Ollech, formerly of the Luftwaffe, was in a rather more exposed position than Rittau. He helped to man an artillery battery in the environs of Berlin. Members of the Volkssturm, the citizens’ militia, were also there. This body, consisting of Hitler Youth and older men up to the age of 65 or more, had been specially trained with the Panzerfaust, also known as the Faustpatrone. This was a deadly anti-tank weapon which fired a hollow-charge projectile effective at 33 yards. In the battle for Berlin, groups armed with the Panzerfaust went hunting for Russian tanks and destroyed so many of them that the wreckage littering the streets actually obstructed the Russian advance.

Ollech was, however, disturbed at the idea that the Panzerfaust and their other weapons were going to kill people:

I was only 17, but suddenly I had to shoot at human beings in order to preserve my own life. We were trained with artillery, and were stationed on one of Berlin’s arterial roads, the Prenzlauer Allee, it was called. Work began at 0700 hours – practice with the artillery and training, training, training. Then we were transferred further to the north-east, to the eastern edge of Bernau. We set up positions on the road, but were then transferred at night to a place called Malchow, where we had a free field of fire on the road closer to Berlin, near the Weissensee – a free field of fire towards this road.

The Volkssturm troops were in the trenches in front of us. Behind us were residential areas with trees and houses and gardens, so that we were well camouflaged; and we expected, quite rightly, that the Red Army would come along this road straight past us. We had to be patient. During the course of one day, in terrible weather and soaking rain, walking through the trenches meant that you carried the mud and filth with you. We spent the night there, half awake, half asleep, and the next morning, when the sun rose, we heard they were advancing along this road. Because it was an asphalt road, the Russians could see exactly whether or not someone had been laying mines there. But it was free of mines and so they advanced.

Four T-34s, two Shermans and an assault tank came along. The road had a small bend and before the first tank had reached this bend, we started firing. We had an artillery gun, which had a velocity of 1,200 metres per second, the only gun in the world from which the shell left the barrel at such speed. That meant that the discharge and impact, especially at a distance of 200, perhaps 300 metres, was so short that you thought the discharge and the impact were the same sound. The tanks were all destroyed and the Red Army infantry at the rear of the tanks dispersed.

The wrecked tanks glowed red throughout the night and the ammunition inside exploded. We spent that night there, and the next morning the weather was dry, we discovered that the infantry units, in the shape of the Volkssturm, had gone, vanished. They were supposed to be in front of us and we had seen them the day before, but now they were nowhere to be seen.

That, of course, scared the wits out of us, because we knew that if the Red Army infantry had come at us overnight, we could never have fought them off. The next morning we ate a little and drank some tea, and then we got the order to retreat with our unit into the town proper, because the Red Army, primarily the infantry, but also the tanks, had already gone around us and broken through into the suburbs.

Ollech’s part in the battle of Berlin ended in one of Berlin’s flak towers, which was under siege by the Russians:

We retreated and retreated and we finally ended up in a flak tower – there were three of them in Berlin – and we got ourselves over to one of them. It was surprisingly comfortable. The food was good – I had the most glorious pea soup I had ever tasted in my life – and each of us had a plank bed, a cupboard, and everything was in first-class condition. We kept guard outside for four hours, then two hours inside.

The Russians started firing at the tower with their tanks. You could hear them. Their shells went “Clack-clack” as if someone was knocking on a door. That wasn’t good enough for the Russians, so they brought up some 15cm howitzers. They managed to make tiny holes in the concrete. There were windows which were closed from the outside with heavy steel doors, I imagine that they weighed tons, and the Russians succeeded in hitting the upper hinge of one of the doors, which burst. One of them broke off, twisted off the other one and hurtled downwards. Apart from that, the flak tower wasn’t badly damaged at all.

They then brought up a light artillery piece. A tank attack at night followed; they knew that we were lying in relays in the surrounding trenches. We had never experienced a tank attack at night before, and that was perhaps the most awful experience, because they attacked and we sought cover, and fought them off. Next morning we saw Russian corpses hanging over the edges of the trenches, with their machine guns dragged halfway. The Russian MGs were on wheels. You could hear when they were being pulled across a street because they rattled, “rat-a-tat-tat”.

Then came April 30, when we learned that Hitler and his wife had committed suicide. Hitler had once said: “I am National Socialism, if I no longer exist, there will be no more National Socialism; in other words, everything was focused upon him. We young men were very upset. We’d believe him when he’d said that. We’d grown up with it. We felt he had let us down. It was like losing an all-powerful father. What was going to happen to us now? we wondered.

It seemed hopeless for us to carry on. On May 2 we surrendered the flak tower.

Hydra Part I

Peenemunde by Frank Wootton.
August 17th – 18th 1943 – German fighers and British bombers battle above the research station at Peenemunde to decide the fate of the Nazi V weapons.

Peenemünde Museum

Last night in clear moonlight our bombers undertook a massive raid on Peenemünde approximately sixty miles northwest of Stettin, the largest and most important air research and development institute in Germany. Our aircraft encountered a great many enemy night fighters, several of which we shot down. Mosquito bombers raided targets in Berlin.

RAF Headquarters announcement, 16 August 1943.

The Heeresversuchsanstalt Peenemünde, HVP (Peenemünde Army Research Centre) was founded in 1937 as one of five military proving grounds under the German Army Weapons Office (Heeres Waffenamt). On 2 April 1936 the Reich Air Ministry paid 750,000 Reichsmarks to the town of Wolgast for the whole Northern peninsula of the Baltic island of Usedom. Wernher von Braun was the HVP technical director. The site had been suggested by his mother as ‘just the place for you and your friends’. One of his ‘friends’ – Dr Walter Thiel – the engineer heading the V-2 liquid oxygen propulsion department, was his deputy director. By the middle of 1938, the Army facility had been separated from the Luftwaffe facility and was nearly complete, with personnel moved from Kummersdorf.134 Several German guided missiles and rockets were developed by the HVP, including the V2 rocket (A4) and the Wasserfall (35 Peenemünde trial firings), Schmetterling, Rheintochter, Taifun and Enzian missiles. The HVP also performed preliminary design work on very-long-range missiles for use against the United States. That project was sometimes called the ‘V 3’. The Peenemünde establishment also developed other techniques, such as the first closed-circuit television system in the world, installed at Test Stand VII to track the launching rockets.135

In November 1938, Walther von Brauchitsch ordered construction of an A4 Production Plant at Peenemünde and, in January 1939, Walter Dornberger created a subsection of Wa Pruf 11 for planning the Peenemünde Production Plant project, headed by G. Schubert, a senior Army civil servant. By midsummer 1943 the first trial runs of the assembly-line in the Production Works at Werke Süd were made and after the end of July the enormous hangar Fertigungshalle 1 (F-1, Mass Production Plant No. 1) was just about to go into operation. However, in early 1943 two Polish slave janitors at the forced workers camp at Trassenheide more than a mile to the south of Peenemünde had provided maps, sketches and reports to Polish Home Army Intelligence and in June British intelligence had received two such reports which identified the ‘rocket assembly hall’, ‘experimental pit’ and ‘launching tower’. The Polish janitors were given advance warning of the attack, but the workers could not leave due to SS security and the facility had no air raid shelters for the prisoners.

Bomber crews were told that Peenemünde could alter the whole course of the war and had to be destroyed regardless of losses. Three aiming points, the HVP’s ‘Sleeping and Living Quarters’ (to specifically target scientists), the ‘Factory Workshops’ and finally the ‘Experimental Station’ had to be destroyed totally – if not that night, then the next night and the night after if necessary. ‘This’ recalled Warrant Officer Eddie Wheeler, a WOp/AG on 97 Squadron at Bourn, Cambridgeshire ‘did nothing to encourage us especially when we learnt that there would be no cloud and a full moon and the attack would be from as low as 12,000 feet or lower. These conditions would be ideal for the German night fighters so the RAF would adopt ‘spoof’ tactics by sending a small number of Mosquitoes to Berlin, giving the impression that that was the night’s target for the main force. Berlin was high on the RAF priority list and the Germans were very sensitive to attacks on their capital. It was hoped that their fighters would be concentrated nearer to Berlin and that by the time it was established that Peenemünde was to be the main target the first two waves of bombers would have completed their task and been on the way home. The third wave provided by 5 Group could, however, expect to have a hot time.

‘We took off at 2108 hours and climbed to 18,000 feet. Our primary target was the scientists’ quarters. The whole force would be directed by a Master Bomber, Group Captain John H. Searby on 83 Squadron at Wyton was selected for this task and he was to fly over the target for the whole attack giving a commentary and shifting the attack as was necessary. Forty minutes could elapse from first to last aircraft on target. Some aircraft were fitted with ‘Oboe’ ground controlled radar, other PFF aircraft with H2S but the conditions would allow for full visual attacks, providing smoke did not obscure the aiming points. From 08°E we started to throw out ‘Window’.

‘We began to lose height as we approached Rugen Island and saw many aircraft around us in the almost daylight conditions. Fortunately none were hostile so hopefully the Mosquitoes who had preceded us by one hour had lured the night fighters to the Berlin area. We sighted the target clearly at 11,700 feet. The enemy, in the hope of thwarting the attacking forces, had already started a smoke screen. Light flak started piping up from the target zone as we went in with our green TIs and 7,500lb bomb load. Peter reported direct hits on the living quarters and just then we suffered a direct hit from flak. Johnny shouted that we were going round in circles and could not fly straight and level. If the state of affairs could not be rectified we would have to consider bailing out – a prospect which did not appeal one bit. To jump with the possibility of either landing in the sea or amid a hail of bombs just wasn’t on. Bill beckoned me to follow him down the fuselage and with great trepidation I did so, regretting the fact that I was putting distance between me and my parachute. Bill indicated the trimming and aileron cables that had been severed by the impact. He busied himself with lengths of nylon cord and then Johnny said that he had recovered control of the aircraft. By now the target was a sea of flame and high explosions and we were intent on returning from whence we came with all speed.

‘The German defences were well alerted by now and fighters would be re-deployed from the Berlin area without delay. We felt sorry for the last wave of bombers entering the scene and who would have to take the full brunt of attacks in ideal night-flying conditions. Several aircraft were seen going down in flames. Seven hours after take-off we had the welcoming sight of Bourn and we hoped that the target had been well and truly plastered and that it would not be necessary to return again the next night, when the Luftwaffe would be ready and waiting to wreak their revenge.’

Pilot Officer John A. Martin DFC navigator on Pilot Officer ‘Mac’ McDonald’s Stirling crew on 218 Squadron at Chedburgh recalled:

‘During the attack we had a master bomber directing the dropping of the bombs. His call sign to us was ‘Raven’ and as soon as we were getting ready to do our run in to drop the bombs, he would call, ‘Raven aircraft, Raven aircraft, don’t drop the bombs, the TIs (target indicators) are falling into the sea.’ Because of this we had to go around and start our bomb run again. The next number of crews had had the TI problem rectified, by the time it came our turn the target indicators were again falling into the sea so we had to abort our bomb run and again go around to start our bomb run again. On our next approach I was in the astrodome looking out, when suddenly this fighter came up dead astern. I shouted ‘Rear gunner, fighter, dead astern.’ The rear gunner fired at the fighter and shot it down. I was still in the astrodome and saw the glow of engines coming towards us and shouted, ‘Rear gunner there is another one coming in.’ The rear gunner started shooting. We then heard, on the radio, ‘Saint, saint’. It was a Halifax that we were shooting at. We dived and got away from it. We dropped our bombs on target and returned back to base. We had a second pilot with us that night, Bunse was his name. I was sitting in the mess the next morning when Bunse came over to me and said: ‘Would you read that there, Paddy.’ The report was of a Halifax crew, being attacked from below and the flight engineer lost his foot in the incident. It seemed like the incident we had been involved in. That was an awful night, the night of that Peenemünde raid. Can you visualise 700 aircraft going round and round, aircraft here and aircraft there, TI going off in the middle of it. During the bomb runs there was radio silence, apart from the Master Bomber. The Master Bomber shouted over the radio, ‘Raven aircraft, Raven aircraft: don’t bomb now the TIs are falling into the sea.’ A wee voice from somewhere came up on the radio, ‘Raven, Raven, we’re Raven mad, would you drop those TIs.’ Target indicators were big flares which were dropped on the target and provided an easier located target, for the other aircraft on the raid, on which to aim their bombs. I can still see that fighter as if it was only yesterday, coming up and showing his belly to us, and air gunner McIlroy pumped his rounds into it and down he went. I can still see that fighter over Bremen with the bullets coming out of his main plane and I can still see Gamble throwing out the propaganda leaflets. He was quite a character.’

After dropping his bombs Sergeant John Anthony Logan ‘Jack’ Currie, the 21-year old pilot of Lancaster ‘George 2’ on 12 Squadron at Wickenby climbed away smoothly and headed to the west. ‘We had no way of knowing that the Nachtjagd controllers, aware now that the Berlin raid was no more than a feint, had redirected all their available Messerschmitts and Junkers to our homeward route.

‘The Lancaster’s electronics included a receiver that picked up transmissions from the Lichtenstein radar sets in the German fighters. The radar device was code-named Boozer, perhaps because the red lamp it lighted on the panel was reminiscent of a heavy drinker’s nose. At 18,000 feet over Stralsund, thirty miles west of Peenemünde, the roving eye picked the glow up straight away.

‘Rear gunner from pilot, I have a Boozer warning.’

‘Rear gunner watching out astern.’

‘Boozer also read transmissions from the ground-based Würzburg radars, which could be quite a nuisance when you were flying in the stream; at all times, however, you had to heed the signal. It was as well we did: seconds later, Lanham spoke again. ‘Fighter at seven o’clock low. Stand by to corkscrew.’

‘Standing by.’

‘Mid-upper from rear gunner. There could be a pair. I’ll take care of this one, you watch out.’

‘I didn’t like the sound of that remark. I would be difficult enough to evade one fighter in the moonlight, let alone two. I sat up straight and gently shook the wheel. Don’t get excited, George 2, but you might be doing some aerobatics any minute now.

‘Prepare to corkscrew port, Jack… corkscrew port… go!’

‘Going port.’

‘I used heavy left aileron and rudder, elevators down, held the diving turn through fifteen degrees, I pulled out sharply and turned hard to starboard halfway through climb. George 2 responded like a PT-17 – a PT-17 weighing twenty-five tons.

‘Foxed him, Jack. He’s holding off, level on the starboard quarter.’

‘Protheroe then came through. ‘Another bandit, skipper, four o’clock high, six hundred yards. It’s an Me 210…’

‘Lanham broke in. ‘Watch him, George here comes number one again. Corkscrew starboard … go!’

‘According to the navigator’s log, the combat continued for another eight minutes: to me it seemed longer. After each frustrated pass, the attacker held off, content to occupy the attention of one gunner, while his partner came on in. I longed to have the heat turned down – the sweat was running down my face – but I dared not interrupt the gunners’ running commentary. The sound of heavy breathing was sufficiently distracting and I knew that it was mine.

‘My wrists and forearms were reasonably strong, but I was no Charles Atlas and ‘George 2’ wasn’t feeling like a Stearman anymore. It occurred to me that these two fighter pilots were just playing games with us, biding their time until I was exhausted. Then they would rip the Lancaster to shreds. The sheet of armour plate behind me seemed pitifully small and there was a lot of me it failed to shield. If only our Brownings had a greater range; if only I could find a layer of cloud to hide in; if only the moonlight wasn’t quite so bright…

‘Corkscrew port… go!’

‘Throwing George 2 into another diving turn, I looked back through the window. There was the Messerschmitt again, turning steeply with me as the pilot tried to bring his guns to bear. I could see his helmet and his goggles, looking straight at me. Staring back at him I felt a sudden surge of anger and a change of mood. You’re not good enough, Jerry, I thought, to win this little fight. You’re a bloody awful pilot and a damn poor shot. ‘Well, for Christ’s sake, George,’ I squawked into the microphone, ‘shoot that bastard down.’

‘Instantly the Lancaster vibrated. At first the flashed dazzled me, but when Protheroe fired a second burst I saw the streams of tracer make a sun-bright parabola between George 2 and the fighter’s nose. The Messerschmitt rolled over and went down. The last I saw of that bloody awful pilot was a long trail of smoke, ending in the stratus far below.

‘I think you got him,’ I said. ‘Where’s the other one?’

‘Falling back astern,’ said Lanham.

‘He’s clearing off. Probably out of ammo or fuel.’

‘Good shooting, George. What kept you?’

‘Sorry, skipper. I had my sights on him all the time. I guess I just forgot to pull the trigger.’

‘Pilot from nav; let me know when you’re back on course.’

‘Roger.’

‘Bomb-aimer, skip. I was ready for the buggers, but they never came in bloody range of the front bloody guns …’