Head for the Meuse! Part I

General der Panzertruppe Hasso von Manteuffel was angry. Several matters irritated the baron on 20 December, but no more so than his subordinate’s failure to take Bastogne on the evening of the 18th. He came over to Panzer Lehr’s HQ in person and berated Fritz Bayerlein for his stupidity in choosing a muddy track to Mageret ‘like an officer cadet who couldn’t read a map’. He blamed him for undue caution throughout the 19th and a ‘lack of fighting spirit’ within the division – accusations which could get a commander shot in the Third Reich of late 1944. Lüttwitz had little doubt that, had Bayerlein chosen an alternative route, he would have broken through the roadblocks of Teams Desobry or O’Hara, neither of whom were fully deployed, and gained the town easily – the 101st being off-balance, in the process of arriving and short of ammunition. Kokott’s Volksgrenadiers would have assisted in mopping up many of the straggling GIs in the vicinity. History suggests that Manteuffel and Lüttwitz were probably correct.

On the other hand, Heinz Kokott’s 26th Volksgrenadiers, struggling through the mud on foot with wagons and artillery drawn by 3,000 horses, had done a magnificent job of keeping up with the tanks. Henceforth their task would be to stay and subdue Bastogne, in place of the panzers which had by then begun to hurry westwards. In fact, Lüttwitz and Manteuffel had already recommended Kokott for promotion to Generalmajor, which came through on 1 January. Meanwhile, Bayerlein was instructed to leave one of his Panzergrenadier Regiments, the 901st, to stay behind with Kokott, while the rest of the division moved on. Part of Heilmann’s 5th Fallschirmjäger Division was also sent to Bastogne, but for the panzers – next stop, the Meuse!

The most northerly of Manteuffel’s three panzer divisions was Siegfried von Waldenburg’s 116th Panzer Division (the Windhund, or Greyhounds), which, accompanied by Oberst Rudolf Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers, belonged to Krüger’s LVIII Panzer Corps. The Windhund Division had fought hard at Lützkampen to the north of the 2nd Panzer in the initial assault on the 16th. Despite attempts to build a bridge at Ouren, on the night of 16–17 December and throughout the 17th, they crossed the River Our using 2nd Panzer’s bridge at Dasburg, captured Heinerscheid and Hupperdange on 17 December, destroying sixteen tanks and taking 373 prisoners (from Nelson’s 112th Regiment), for similar losses of their own. They were under constant pressure from their superiors, Fifth Army and LVIII Corps, to get westwards as quickly as possible, using the opportunity of the ‘German-friendly weather – fog and drizzle’, but a heavy mortar shell exploded in the middle of a circle of commanders, the division’s War Diary noted, killing twelve including ‘our excellent Division physician, Professor Bickert’.

By late on 18 December the 116th Panzer’s advance guard had entered Houffalize, capturing or destroying ‘many trucks and vehicles and one Sherman’ and seizing the Ourthe river bridges undamaged. Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers were making ‘quite an effort’ to keep pace with them, though at this stage, aware of the clock ticking, Army Group ‘B’ ordered the pace of advance accelerated. Manteuffel, meanwhile, was concerned about the division’s order of march. ‘Spearheads [are] too thin and narrow. When [you are] near the enemy, attack him from broader formations with fire. Heavy weapons throughout [are] much too far back. Armoured groups [must be] to the front everywhere, not just Panzergrenadiers by themselves.’ On this day the first complaints about fuel shortages surfaced in the war diary, ‘No fuel’, reported some of the artillery formations. ‘All units that have arrived have enough for 20 kilometres, the advance battalion for 10 kilometres. Roads in the back jammed. [Which prevented trucks bearing fuel from moving forward.] Nothing coming in. Some tanks usable only by siphoning.’

Just as Bayerlein was grinding down his atrociously muddy track into Mageret, Major Fritz Vogelsang, the 116th Division’s IIa (Adjutant for officers), with supreme optimism, reflected their experience of Belgian roads. He noted, ‘Now, everything is rolling smoothly in both directions, but above all, into the area of the breach … The weather is again misty, damp, cold and rainy. For our offensive it could not be any better! However, mud and dirt on the ruined roads and in the torn-up terrain almost remind one of Russian conditions! In most cases the grey of our uniforms show only in a few places between the layers of mud … The hole in the enemy front now finally seems to have been bored through. Merrily, the attack rolls west – hopefully for long!’

South of Houffalize, 116th Panzer came up against American units, where ‘a large number of tanks and motor vehicles were captured or destroyed’ along with 400 prisoners taken. There was, however, a cautionary note that ‘the division attack on the morning of 19 December suffered considerable delays due to lack of fuel’. Fortunately that evening they overran Gives-Givroule, where a large fuel and supply depot was captured, enabling vehicles to top up – but petrol was becoming an ever-present concern for the 116th’s commanders. By the evening of the 19th, Generalmajor Waldenburg had established his HQ near Bertogne, seven miles north-west of Bastogne, but the division was having to sideslip south-west to find intact bridges over the rivers. His formation was becoming dangerously spread out, a situation governed by centres of opposition, destroyed bridges and the road network.

The enthusiasm of the initial advance was caught in Adjutant Vogelsang’s record for 20 December, which also reflected the deprivations all German soldiers had suffered during the preceding couple of years. ‘The Americans are completely surprised and in constant turmoil. Long columns of prisoners march toward the east, many tanks were destroyed or captured. Our Landsers are loaded with cigarettes, chocolates, and canned food, and are smiling from ear to ear. The combat units were able to fill the gaps caused by missing vehicles in their convoys with captured ones. Along the roads are immense piles of artillery ammunition. I estimate the amount to be 25,000 rounds. How wonderful that this blessing will not fall on our heads!’

Even though his advance looked promising, Waldenburg had already run out of intact bridges west and south of the Ourthe, with no time and few facilities to build replacements. Risking the loss of a whole day, he reluctantly ordered his division to turn around, retrace their steps to Houffalize and cross to the north and east bank of the Ourthe river, and thence head for La Roche and Noiseux. These are journeys of a few minutes today, with scarcely a blink of the eye when a small local river is crossed. Back in 1944 the loss of a single bridge could send a whole division scurrying hither and thither, wasting their two most precious resources in short supply – time and fuel. This gave the Americans time to strengthen their defences, for example at La Roche, where twenty-four tanks were observed on the morning of 20 December, when before there had been none.

There was some compensation when at 4.00 p.m., in Samrée, when Waldenburg destroyed twelve tanks guarding a supply depot containing 26,400 gallons of fuel, neatly stacked in five-gallon jerrycans for ready use. The 16th Panzer Regiment’s War Diary recorded, ‘The successes of the last past days create great enthusiasm among our soldiers, especially since many prisoners were brought in …’ A beaming Manteuffel congratulated Waldenburg by radio on the 21st: ‘Appreciation and gratitude to your magnificent men, your commanders and to you. Your successes adhere to proud tradition.’ More succinctly, as the divisional adjutant put it, ‘The faces of the prisoners are full of disbelief and amazement’.

Yet the loss of time was crucial, for it allowed Major-General Maurice Rose’s 3rd Armored Division to deploy opposite the 116th on the 20th, followed by General Alex Bolling’s 84th ‘Railsplitters’ Infantry Division (also known as the ‘Hatchet Men’) on the 21st – both units of J. Lawton Collins’ US VII Corps. With the 84th were Harold P. ‘Bud’ Leinbaugh and John D. Campbell, both with Company ‘K’ of the 333rd Infantry Regiment (not connected with the artillery unit of the same number). As they arrived in Serinchamps, a hamlet due west of Marche, the local mayor told them, ‘this was 1940 all over again; he seemed sure of it. He seemed to take perverse pride in explaining that Rommel had personally led his panzers through the region en route to the Meuse four years earlier’. Looking at Company ‘K’s weaponry, the mayor asked about American tanks, clearly anxious they had more than rifles to halt the German armour. ‘The local phones were working’, the mayor told them, ‘and he’d received calls an hour earlier reporting panzers rolling through villages ten miles away.’ Behind them, along the west bank of the Meuse, Montgomery had started to position the British XXX Corps, with fifty tanks of the 29th Armoured Brigade defending the bridges at Namur, Dinant and Givet. Lieutenant D.H. Clark of the Royal Army Medical Corps remembered their Sherman tanks ‘rumbling past, massive and effective-looking; the drivers were Hussars who had fought in them all the way up from Normandy. The tanks looked like tinkers’ caravans, with cooking pots, wine flagons, bed rolls and miscellaneous loot dangling from the camouflage netting.’

On the shortest day of the year, 21 December, the Windhund Division lunged for the little bridge over the Ourthe at Hotton, which is where this study of the Bulge campaign began. There, the mixed bag of defenders, numbering no more than 200, armed with one 57mm anti-tank and two 40mm anti-aircraft guns, were now wiser and perhaps the attackers over-confident. The Americans were fortunate to have present some combat engineers, who not only prepared the bridge for destruction but hastily laid mines and overturned vehicles to make roadblocks.

Using the cover of a forest that came close to the town, at 08.30 a.m. seven of the Windhund’s tanks and half-tracks suddenly hit Hotton after the briefest of artillery barrages. The 116th Division’s War Diary noted that ‘Nobody was expecting an attack, though the village, especially the bridge, was well secured by enemy tanks [in fact there were only two present to begin with], anti-tank guns and sharpshooters. A platoon was guarding a pedestrian footbridge upriver at Hampteau. Due to the loss of Oberleutnant Köhn’s leading Panther and the wounding of several commanders by headshots, the attack, which was only escorted by weak infantry units, came to a halt. Köhn lost an eye and three men from his crew were killed. There was heavy fighting with enemy tanks, in which the opponent suffered heavy losses … our units in Hotton were under heavy fire all day.’

Although the Windhund had the advantage of surprise, and the two US tanks were destroyed, the assault came to a halt because the Germans were too cocky. Had the attack been properly coordinated between tanks and Panzergrenadiers, Waldenburg would have got his bridge. However, his panzers went in without a proper reconnaissance and pretty much alone, and were picked off one by one. The town was not well defended at all, though the Germans perceived it to be. A strong, well-planned attack would have removed the defenders in a trice and one is left with the impression of a botched attempt to take Hotton on 21 December. Failure to take the town in the morning led to US reinforcements from 638th Tank Destroyer Battalion and Bolling’s 84th Infantry Division arriving from Soy, to the north-east, at exactly the right moment in the afternoon, as the Germans tired, and eventually they began to outnumber the attackers.

The US defenders also dominated the terrain north-east of Hotton as far as Soy, and constantly threatened to outflank their attackers, who were compelled to use their armour in defence. Using up fuel by manoeuvring off-road remained a concern, although the almost empty panzer regiment had been able to refuel completely with the petrol captured at Samrée. Oberfeldwebel Pichler, commanding three Panthers, destroyed five Shermans at Soy, but the arrival of the 1st Battalion, 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment (to which the future Medal of Honor-winner Melvin E. Biddle was attached), and a company of tank destroyers on 22 December emphasised the fact that any further German advance by way of Hotton was out of the question.

By 22 December the 116th Division’s attack at Hotton had culminated, although the Fifth Army orders received that night commanded ‘Bypass resistance, only [lightly] cover the flanks, bulk [effort] remains the advance towards Maas [the Meuse]. Continue to confuse, split up, surround, reconnoitre in force, and deceive [the Americans]’. However, the reality of the campaign was already apparent. The assault was hopelessly behind schedule. The Hotton attack emphasised just how alert the US Army in the once-sleepy Ardennes had become.

To the 116th Division’s north, the Sixth Panzer Army remained stuck on the Elsenborn Ridge, and General Lücht’s LXVI Corps on their immediate right had just finished fighting for St Vith (it was captured on the night of 21–22 December). On their left, Panzer Lehr had reached Rochefort (south-west of Marche) and 2nd Panzer Division, Bande (between Marche and La Roche); part of Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzer Corps was still delayed at Bastogne. Behind them, Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers were attacking at Dochamps, midway between Manhay and Marche, while reinforcements in the form of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich were attacking the Baraque de Fraiture crossroads, north-east of La Roche.

At the same time, 2nd Panzer Division was pulling away on its dash to the Meuse, largely because it had managed to avoid American strongpoints after Bastogne. Viewed from the air (which was not yet possible), Lauchert’s division would have looked like a finger, stretching for seven miles north-westwards, from Bastogne towards Dinant. However, there were no units to guard its flanks, for both Panzer Lehr to its left and 116th Panzer on its right had encountered tougher opposition and fallen behind. The 2nd Panzer was having to use some of its own combat power to protect its flanks, which inevitably slowed its advance. The further it lunged towards the Meuse, the weaker its spearhead became. The freezing weather took its toll on vehicles as well as people.

Hans Behrens, a wireless operator in a Panzer IV following behind with Generalleutnant Harald Freiherr von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzer Division, recalled of his opponents, ‘The Americans came amiss as they had rubber pads on their tank tracks, and when the roads were icy, they just slid all over the place … Roads were just six inches of solid frozen gleaming ice … One saw an unending succession of lorries that had crashed out of control … On the camber of a road two men could slide one [panzer] sideways by merely pushing it.’ Due to widespread American knowledge of the massacre of GIs by Waffen-SS soldiers at Malmedy on 17 December, panzer crewmen like Behrens also learned that US troops had taken to shooting SS men automatically on capture. This often extended to tank crews, whose black panzer uniform and death’s head badge was frequently mistaken for membership of Himmler’s legions. Behrens spent the Bulge dreading capture. The reaction of Company ‘K’ of the 333rd Infantry was that ‘the SS was going to have to pay, and pay heavily’. They ‘just wanted to start killing Germans’.

Already it was apparent that the Americans were reacting far quicker than expected, both in terms of delaying the advance but also in terms of flooding the area with reinforcements. The daily report from Army Group ‘B’, Model’s headquarters, acknowledged that ‘the continuous action of the 116th Panzer Division and the 2nd Panzer Division, under difficult terrain conditions and heavy enemy resistance, has caused combat effectiveness to drop heavily’. In fact, the Windhund Division started 22 December with no battle-worthy tanks at all, but six replacement panzers arrived at midday, with twenty-seven soon following from the repair workshops. Some personnel began to trickle through to replace casualties, but shortages of fuel and ammunition still concerned the divisional staff.

Two last (and largely pointless) attempts were made to seize the bridge at Hotton at midnight on the 22nd and 02.15 a.m. on 23 December, using a battalion of Panzergrenadiers supported by tanks, after which responsibility for Hotton was handed to Oberst Rudolf Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers (in whose ranks sixteen-year-old Grenadier Werner Klippel was serving) and the 116th Windhund disengaged. The latter were now weak from casualties, equipment losses and lack of fuel, but some troops slipped south towards Marche, discovering that US blocking forces were in place, ready to meet them.

On Saturday, 23 December, Manteuffel had his three panzer divisions ready to strike for the Meuse; on the left, Panzer Lehr was about to attack Rochefort. In the centre, 2nd Panzer was closest to the Meuse, though strung out and not concentrated, with its advance guard four miles east of Celles and only eleven miles from the river line. The 116th Panzer was still fixed in the Hotton–Marche area. Behind these three panzer divisions, the second echelon of von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzer Division, in company with Remer’s Führer-Begleit-Brigade and part of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, were struggling forward, but all of these formations suffered from the same afflictions – superior Allied numbers, lack of fuel and ammunition and the crushing weight of hostile air power when the weather permitted.

Just as Manteuffel had skilfully rebalanced his forces and was poised to strike at the Meuse, the weather changed. The 23rd saw the first good flying conditions since the campaign began and the skies soon filled with Allied aircraft. The 116th War Diary lamented, ‘continuous air raids on supply roads and towns of the rearward areas. No Luftwaffe.’ They were there, but perhaps not visible to the 116th on the ground.

Men of the US 333rd Infantry Regiment recorded, ‘Hundreds of planes, German and American, but mostly American as far as we could tell, crisscrossed the sky, leaving long contrails from horizon to horizon. The dogfights were fascinating. Near noontime five smoking planes went down simultaneously. Flight after flight of low-flying Thunderbolts, Mustangs and Lightnings roared overhead toward the German lines. The planes gave a big boost to our morale … They were like geese in the sky.’ Lloyd Swenson was a twenty-year-old B-26 bomber pilot whose squadron had been getting ready to abandon its airbase on the Franco-Belgian border ‘because the Germans were getting so close. We couldn’t take anything with us, except our uniform and a toothbrush. Then on the twenty-third the fog lifted and it was a bright, clear day.’ In the morning his squadron of twin-engined B-26 Marauders, ‘a medium-range bomber, fast and very maneuvrable with a crew of five’, was assigned a mission to destroy a vital rail bridge supplying the Bulge. Thirty-six aircraft from the 387th Bomb Group set out with Swenson, who remembered ‘a few miles off Bastogne about twenty-five Messerschmitt 109s hurtled into our formation. As they did some of our P-51s [Mustang fighters] responded to our Mayday call. Over the intercom the tail gunner described the dogfight but I had to keep my eyes on flying the plane.’

Down below, the Windhund Division noted, ‘Across the entire western horizon the countless streaks of white vapour trails moved across the sky, an impressive, but scary show. The air was filled with uninterrupted humming. The number of bombers, fighter-bombers and fighters could not be counted!’ No sooner had Swenson returned from his bombing mission (in which five from his group of thirty-six were shot down) than he was assigned another in the afternoon to hit a communications centre at Prüm, just behind the German lines. Flak and fighters took a heavy toll of Allied aircraft that day and forty-one Ninth Air Force B-26s were shot down – ‘by far the blackest day in Marauder history,’ added Swenson. The following day, equally good for flying, he added another two missions over the Ardennes and eventually accumulated sixty-one before returning home.

Despite air attacks, Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr ground forward through that Saturday and when darkness fell he and fifteen panzers had reached the outskirts of Rochefort, where Companies ‘K’ and ‘I’ of the US 335th Regiment (belonging to the Railsplitters’ 84th Division) were waiting in defence. Few of the inhabitants had fled and numbers were swollen with refugees; none of the 4,000 civilians had anywhere to go but huddle in their cellars. The Lehr assaulted the town through the night of 23–24 December, as Obergefreiter Schüssler recalled: ‘Dismount! The panzer we had been riding on rolled forward a bit, hit a low garden wall and knocked it over. The enemy machine-gun which had fired at us disappeared with a crunching impact … An arrow of tracers turned on us and threw us behind the cover of another wall. My machine-gun shuddered in my hands. The bolt ate the belt of ammo and spat out the empty cases. It fell quiet abruptly … We reached a back courtyard. As I was running I saw the brilliant flashes of bursting mortar rounds; I saw the “dark mice” [as he dubbed the mortar rounds] descend and impact on the roof. A hand grenade flew over our heads into the room where the Americans were. Its ear-deafening blast made us hit the deck. The enemy guns, set up on sandbags along the windows, fell silent.’

Head for the Meuse! Part II

The Americans in Rochefort put up a tough fight, but the town fell an hour after first light, with fewer than 150 of the two US infantry companies escaping. During the 24th, Panzer Lehr found themselves following the march route of 2nd Panzer Division; around Humain (north of Rochefort) they found the burned-out half-tracks of an entire Panzergrenadier company; ‘the battle-group directed to Buissonville encountered ten knocked-out German tanks right outside the village,’ recorded the Division. Christmas Day found the headquarters of Panzer Lehr in St Hubert (south-east of Rochefort), a town of 3,500, where they received a concerted Allied bombing campaign from noon. ‘The wrecks of divisional vehicles smouldered after the attacks … Through his binoculars the commander [Bayerlein] could see gliders heading in towards Bastogne, which was being supplied by air.’ Meanwhile, an American patrol watched a Panzer Lehr convoy heading towards Rochefort, which reflected a typical mix of German and impressed US vehicles, including ‘one company of infantry, five German tanks, two Sherman tanks, fifteen half-tracks, two American Jeeps, one American 2½ ton truck, and three German ambulances’.

By 24–25 December, the 116th Panzer Division was essentially fixed along the terrain between Hotton and Marche by General Alex Bolling’s US 84th Infantry Division and its accompanying 771st Tank Battalion. In continuous skirmishes, the latter were able to split the panzer division into separate battlegroups and sub-units, around the villages of Verdenne, Marenne, Menil-Favay and Hampteau south of the Marche–Hotton road. The panzers were unable to fight as larger formations because of the strength of US troops in the vicinity, minefields and air support the GIs had on call. Early on 24 December the hamlet of Verdenne and its château were attacked and taken by Major Gerhardt Tebbe’s 16th Panzer Regiment with a platoon (five) of Panzer IVs under Leutnant Grzonka, and another of four Panthers, led by Hauptmann Kuchenbach, supported by a weak battalion of Panzergrenadiers. Major Tebbe, an Ostfront veteran, who would be awarded a German Cross in Gold for his leadership in the Bulge and command panzers again in the future Bundeswehr, had already been obliged to abandon one of his Panthers along his line of march, in Houffalize. It is still there, mounted on a concrete plinth overlooking the right side of the road as you drive in from the direction of Bastogne and Noville.

Company ‘K’ of the 84th Division was detailed to investigate the Verdenne area, for the German incursion threatened to sever the important Marche–Hotton road, running south-west to north-east, effectively the 84th’s front line and crucial to their scheme of defence. Assured of support from Shermans of the 771st Tank Battalion, and under a clear Christmas Eve sky with ‘the feel of snow in the air, the ground lightly frozen and covered with frost’, they set off down a track which connected Verdenne with Bourdon, a mile to the north. ‘Just ahead a tank loomed out of the darkness, its huge bulk filling the narrow road, branches pressing in on either side brushing its steel plates. Sergeant Don Phelps went forward to liaise with the tankers, pounding on the side of the hull with his rifle, “Hey, you guys, open up!” The hatch opened slowly, a creak of metal, and the head and shoulders of a man appeared. “Was ist los?” Machine-guns started to chatter, tracers lit up the sky, tank guns fired, mortar rounds exploded, and Company ‘K’ scattered – and leapt straight into the foxholes of the Panzergrenadier battalion protecting their tanks. Major Tebbe reckoned he may have had around forty panzers and half-tracks hidden in the woods at this point. The German salient near Verdenne “had been discovered in a curious way”.’

When this began, Major Gerhardt Tebbe, the panzer commander, recalled to me that on Christmas Eve he was in his Befehlspanzer (command tank), studying his maps. The radio relayed a programme from Cologne Cathedral where the bells were ringing in the festive season. Suddenly his reverie was broken by gunfire nearby, and he slammed shut his turret hatch.24 On Christmas morning, some of the Railsplitters noticed ‘Two German soldiers came stumbling forward toward our positions in the half-light, hands held high, yelling “Nicht schiessen!” (“don’t shoot!”). We discovered that they actually understood very little German, and they finally made us understand they were Ukrainians, drafted into the German army.’

Their appearance in this sector puzzled intelligence staff, but they turned out to be from Oberst Rudolf Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers, by far the weakest German formation in Herbstnebel, whose ranks included many older men from garrisons in Norway, with waif and strays from Russia and Ukraine. It is a sad reflection that many East European Volksgrenadier ‘volunteers’ never got the opportunity to surrender in this way. When suddenly faced with a figure in field grey waving his arms about and shouting incoherently (few Volksdeutsche had a good grasp of German, much less English), most nervous, trigger-happy GIs tended to shoot first and ask questions later.

At the end of Christmas Day, Verdenne had been cleared and 289 Windhund prisoners taken, though nine panzers counter-attacked in the afternoon, each one of which was destroyed by waiting Shermans. By then, many of the Windhund’s sub-units were scattered and encircled by stronger US forces in the Verdenne area. On 26 December, the 84th Hatchet Men went on to ambush an armoured column at Menil-Favay. The leading panzer ran over a pile of anti-tank mines which exploded with such force so as to blow the tank on to its side, ripping a hole in its belly armour, and killing the crew; this blocked the advance of the vehicles behind, leading to the destruction of twenty-six Windhund vehicles, including six tanks.

With US infantry and tank attacks proving too costly to subdue the 116th Panzer Division, the Americans used artillery instead. Their opponents noted, ‘the deployment of American guns was overwhelming’ – there were about 150 US cannon of varying calibres, including 155mm guns and eight-inch howitzers – which broke up every German attempt to break out. The 84th Division thought it ‘the heaviest, most devastating bombardment we had ever witnessed. When the fire stopped, the cries for help from wounded and dying Germans carried clearly to our lines. We admitted to ourselves that we were sorry for the poor bastards up there.’ Eventually, on hearing that further reinforcement or relief of the Windhund was not possible, Waldenburg ordered the vehicles in the Verdenne pocket abandoned and the division went over to the defensive. Remer’s Führer-Begleit-Brigade had almost reached him and the Hotton area, with Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzer trailing behind – both with a view to continuing the push westwards – when Berlin switched Remer back to Bastogne on Hitler’s personal whim.

There is nothing remarkable about the Verdenne woods today, except that they are full of the defensive trenches and foxholes dug by both sides, where old ammunition boxes, mortar fragments and shrapnel still litter the forest floor.

The 2nd Panzer Division, which had advanced further, was in a similar predicament, being spread out in scattered battlegroups between an area south-west of Marche and as far as Foy-Notre-Dame, near the Meuse, which Hauptmann von Böhm’s Reconnaissance Battalion reached at midnight on 23 December. At the same moment a jeep manned by three Americans failed to stop at a joint Anglo-US manned checkpoint on the east bank of Meuse, at Dinant. When the vehicle careered through the Rocher Bayard feature – a narrow slit in the rock through which a Sherman could just squeeze – by a prearranged signal Sergeant Baldwin of the 8th Rifle Brigade (a British infantry battalion), a few hundred yards further on, pulled a necklace of anti-tank mines across the road, blowing up the jeep and killing its occupants. All three were found to be wearing US helmets and greatcoats over German uniforms; in their pockets were found very detailed plans of the Allied defences. These were almost certainly not Skorzeny commandos, but a scouting patrol of 2nd Panzer Division sent on ahead in an improvised disguise.

Lauchert immediately pushed forward another battlegroup of Panzergrenadiers, tanks, artillery and engineers under Major Ernst von Cochenhausen, which reach Celles soon after. As with the Windhund along the Marche–Hotton line, 2nd Panzer was, in the words of its War Diary, ‘hindered in its mobility through lack of fuel’. In other words, the Germans could advance no further. In two groups, Böhm at Foy and Cochenhausen at Celles, they dug in and virtually waited to be counter-attacked, but all the while hoping that 9th Panzer Division would break through behind them, or Panzer Lehr or the Windhund Division to their left and right flanks. The Germans’ right flank was unguarded because 116th Panzer had not been able to move forward beyond Hotton, and the left was similarly unprotected because Panzer Lehr also lagged behind.

Thanks to intelligence gathered by two former Belgian army officers, Baron Capitaine Jacques de Villenfagne and his cousin, Lieutenant Philippe le Hardy de Beaulieu, who, dressed in white from head to toe and wearing white gloves, trekked through the crystal-clear night in minus 30 degrees of frost to map the panzers’ positions, British troops in nearby Sorinnes were furnished with the exact locations and precise strengths of Kampfgruppe von Böhm. During 24 December, Shermans of Lieutenant-Colonel Alan Brown’s British 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (3 RTR) stationed on the east bank of the Meuse duelled cautiously with the forward tanks of Böhm’s Kampfgruppe; at the same time rocket-firing Typhoons and P-51s harassed the Germans. Aerial observers also appeared in the skies, directing ground artillery onto targets with great accuracy. It was also obvious the latter were short of fuel as each Panther was seen to be towing up to three trucks.

Hitler spent Christmas Eve, der Heilige Abend, in the Führerbunker at the Ziegenberg Adlerhorst complex, elated that 2nd Panzer was so close to the Meuse. The flag noting their position was duly moved on the situations map. He disregarded the fact that they were out of fuel and under air attack. In the afternoon, his staff remembered, he had stood outside the command bunker, watching as thousands of tiny specks glittered in the winter sky overhead. They were American bombers, heading eastwards to bomb the heartland of the Reich.

Knowing that two battlegroups of his division were dangerously exposed, Lauchert asked for permission to withdraw his forward elements and regroup. His request did not get beyond Manteuffel, who knew that neither Model nor Hitler would permit it. Afterwards, Lauchert’s chief of staff, Oberstleutnant Rüdiger Weitz, recorded, ‘During the night the front line elements sent urgent calls for reinforcements and supplies of ammunition and fuel. More and more reports came in stating that the enemy was constantly reinforcing and was, in some cases, on our own supply road. The process of marching on Dinant had come to a halt.’

On Christmas Day, Major-General Ernest N. Harmon’s US 2nd Armored Division attacked Lauchert’s exposed right flank at Foy-Notre-Dame, squeezing it between two task forces to the north and south. The US 82nd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion and 3 RTR also attacked from the west, forward of the Meuse. Major Noël Bell, serving with the British 8th Rifle Brigade, watched from a nearby vantage point. ‘A squadron of P-38 Lightnings roared over us and circled low, determined to have a festive Christmas Day. Three Panthers, a certain amount of transport and a large number of entrenched infantry … were subjected to merciless and incessant attack from the Lightnings which soon began to dive to rooftop height with machine-guns blazing, dropping bombs at the same time.’

The result was that Kampfgruppe von Böhm was surrounded, smashed and the survivors forced to surrender. After the Christmas Day battle, General Harmon reported that he ‘destroyed or captured eighty-two tanks, sixteen other armoured vehicles, eighty-three guns, and 280 motor vehicles. Twenty vehicles were captured and pressed into Allied service, including seven US trucks seized only days earlier. Harmon had taken the “panzer” out of the 2nd Panzer Division.’ The fact that only 148 men, including Böhm himself, were taken prisoner out of the thousand-plus personnel illustrated the crushing blow that had descended on the Reconnaissance Battalion of the 2nd Panzer Division. It had ceased to exist.

For the Führer’s last Christmas, Oberscharführer Rochus Misch told me in 1993, Hitler’s staff at the Adlerhorst conjured up a small Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas tree) complete with candles, under which lay modest gifts of cigarettes, of which the Führer disapproved, Stollen (fruit cake) and chocolates (he had a sweet tooth), wrapped in newsprint or bright paper. All present realised that any wistful references to the Christkind (Christ Child), a Krippenspiel (nativity play) or the Weihnachtsmann (St Nicholas or Santa Claus), who delivered a sack full of presents to good children, belonged to a different era, and were banned. The headquarters staff, secretaries and generals toasted one another with champagne; Hitler shared the intoxication of the moment, although he had not drunk alcohol: he was already high on the success of his armies. Yet the only Christmas present for which the Führer wished, victory in the Ardennes, was already unattainable.

‘That evening the Americans occupied the Farm Mayenne (formerly home to a Panther platoon)’, wrote Noël Bell. ‘Foy Notre Dame was a smouldering ruin in which half of “B” Squadron 3 RTR and the Americans leaguered for the night, after going round the village and getting Germans out of cellars, like ferrets after rats.’ Several Catholic GIs were recorded as lining up to confess their sins – with the aid of a pocket dictionary – to Father Coussin, a veteran of the Great War and the priest of Celles.

Tactically, Lauchert had overstretched 2nd Panzer, which was in any case out of fuel. The unrelenting pressure for progress came from General von Lüttwitz, who hovered nearby, protective of the division he had commanded from February to September in 1944, and forever breathing down Lauchert’s neck. Today, one of the 2nd Panzer Division’s Panther tanks has survived the attentions of the post-war scrap dealers, and – minus its road wheels and tracks – stands guard outside the crossroads in Celles, where a series of signboards with maps explain the battle in detail, reminding passing motorists how close the Fifth Panzer Army came to their goal of reaching the Meuse.

Thus the spearhead of the entire Herbstnebel campaign had been halted and blunted. The Army Group War Diary noted, ‘On 25 December, the attack by Army Group “B” was the target of strong enemy counter-attacks from the north and west against spearheads of the Fifth Panzer Army. The back-and-forth battles lasted the whole day.’ Panzer Lehr observed that their divisional logistics elements suffered terribly over 24–25 December. Every drop of gasoline had to be brought forward by vehicle and the division lost thirty fuel trucks during their march to the front, not including those bogged down in the mud, broken down or caught in accidents. ‘A Flak battery that attempted to reply to an attack of P-38 Lightnings simply disappeared under a hail of bombs. Hardly any men of the battery survived and the division’s armoured maintenance workshops were swept up in a maelstrom of fire.’

By the time Army Group ‘B’ ordered the Sixth Panzer Army to disengage from the Elsenborn Ridge and strengthen the effort of Fifth Army on 25 December, it was too late. On his own initiative, Bayerlein withdrew the forward elements of Panzer Lehr back into Rochefort during the night of 25–26 December. This was an acknowledgement that Hitler’s original plan of putting most weight on the German right, favouring the Waffen-SS, had been a disaster, and that Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army sector had always shown the greatest promise.

This was not just because of Manteuffel’s fighting qualities and judgement as a commander, but because the terrain was far better suited and offered more alternatives to fast-moving armoured troops. Surprise was the major advantage the Germans possessed and that had largely been thrown away by the length of time the panzer formations took to bridge their river lines during the first couple of days. Had the Fifth Army possessed Dietrich’s bridging equipment, engineering assets and weight of artillery support, enabling it to bridge efficiently and effectively on 16–17 December, it might have made the Meuse, but even then would not have managed to get much beyond.

On 26 December, 116th Panzer Division was ordered ‘onto the defensive’, in theory to await the arrival of second echelon relief units, but in reality acknowledging that the offensive was over. The battle would thenceforth be to retain whatever gains had been made. ‘The Other Fellow’, as Bradley habitually referred to his opponents, ‘reached his high-water mark today’, he reported to Bedell Smith at Ike’s headquarters. On this day Major Fritz Vogelsang, the 116th’s Divisional Adjutant, noted, ‘This morning, fighter-bombers and bombers turned La Roche into a smoking pile of rubble. Our anti-aircraft guns were able to shoot down some of the attackers … if only the weather would turn bad again!’ Vogelsang also assessed the accumulated personnel losses since the 16th, as at least 1,907 killed or wounded, 1,278 taken prisoner and an unspecified number missing; a total of 113 armoured vehicles of all types had been destroyed – only seven tanks and four tank destroyers were still battleworthy.

‘The Division lost much of its combat value, inner strength, quality, speed and flexibility of leadership. It will be able to compensate for these losses through its reserves, but not for those valuable officers, including a large number of battalion commanders, adjutants and company commanders and most of the junior leaders … of special impact is the loss of fifteen radio and three other armoured communications vehicles … Losses are so high that the two Panzergrenadier regiments, where all four battalion commanders became casualties, have to be considered as nearly destroyed.’ The combined battle strength on 29 December of the two Panzergrenadier regiments totalled 1,184 out of the nearly 5,000 who started the campaign. Divisional headquarters came in for some harsh treatment on the same day; in despair, as Major Vogelsang recorded, ‘Fighter-bombers appeared and took care of some of the few houses … Then artillery planes began to circle and directed well-controlled fire from heavy guns. Explosions everywhere! Finally it became too uncomfortable; nobody can conduct a paper war from a foxhole!’

Heavy Tank Battalion 503 with Army Group Don in Southern Russia

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Panzer VI Tiger of the Schwere Panzer Abteilung 503, tank number 123, winter camouflage. Near Rostov-on-Don January 1943

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On 27 December 1942, OKH sent Heavy Tank Battalion 503 to Army Group Don to assist in stabilizing the front. This unit was needed to help protect Rostov so that the 1st and 4th Panzer Armies and other German units in the Caucasus could withdraw across the Don River to the Donets River, where the high command planned a new defensive line.

This battalion arrived at the beginning of 1943 and Army Group Don immediately assigned it the mission of securing bridges across the Manytch River for use by withdrawing forces. By this time there was not a continuous front in the area. German forces defended a series of blocking positions and strongpoints in an attempt to stop the Soviet advance. These were located at key points at road or railroad junctions and major river crossings. The fighting was characterized by rearguard actions, while the main body of troops took up new positions farther back.

Heavy Tank Battalion 503 participated in this fighting from 1 to 17 January 1943, primarily securing important river crossing sites. Due to the fluid nature of the battlefield, however, they were sent from one important area to another, and in one instance covered 65 kilometers in one day.

Probably the battalion’s largest single employment occurred on 6 January 1943 when the battalion, supported by 2d Battalion, Panzer-Grenadier Regiment 128, attacked towards Stavropol. The 1st Company attacked frontal – ly with the battalion of panzergrenadiers, while the 2d Company attacked from the left flank. Altogether, the battalion fielded 17 operational Tigers out of 20 assigned and 20 Panzer IIIs out of 31. During the engagement, the Tigers knocked out 18 Soviet tanks and destroyed an armored car and five antitank guns. The enemy retreated, and during the pursuit the battalion lost its first vehicle during the entire engagement, a Panzer III, to artillery fire.

Possibly the most important mission given this battalion was its attack to reduce a Soviet penetration at Vessely. The battalion fielded 11 Tigers and 12 Panzer IIIs and was again supported by the 2d Battalion of Panzer-Grenadier Regiment 128, as well as by a battery of light howitzers. The attack began in the early morning of 9 January 1943. German forces made three attempts to achieve their objective during the day, but the Soviets repulsed all attacks.

The battalion managed to destroy eight T-34s during the attack, but also lost two Tigers and one Panzer III to enemy fire. In addition, the nine other Tigers were so badly damaged that the battalion had only one operational Tiger at the end of the day. Two of these Tigers were sent back to Germany for general repairs. In the space of six hours, one of these received 227 hits from antitank rifles and was struck 14 times by 57mm and 11 times by 76mm antitank rounds. It is a testament to the vehicle’s durability that despite this damage, the Tiger still traveled back 60 kilometers under its own power.

On 14 January 1943, the 2d Company, Heavy Tank Battalion 502 was attached to Heavy Tank Battalion 503. This became the only instance where three Organization D companies were combined under the control of a single battalion. This arrangement lasted only eight days because of losses to the battalion, however; on 22 January 1943, the battalion disbanded the 2d Company. The battalion integrated the remnants of this company into the 3d Company, and continued to operate with only two Organization D companies.

After partially rebuilding its strength, Army Group Don assigned the battalion missions that involved securing the important railroad centers around Rostov. The battalion participated in many minor local counterattacks that forced it to operate in company- and platoon-sized units. These elements operated with a wide variety of other units, usually in a subordinate role. In accomplishing these missions, the battalion demonstrated excellent flexibility in command and control and in company and platoon organizations, repeatedly changing command relationships and composition to accomplish the mission.

During this fighting, the battalion integrated Tigers and Panzer IIIs in many different ways. On two occasions the battalion formed a light company consisting of a company’s worth of Panzer IIIs and a heavy company equipped with Tigers and the remainder of the Panzer IIIs. This light company primarily covered other units’ withdrawals, but did participate in an attack of 8 February 1943 in the northwestern sector of Rostov, where it destroyed 12 enemy tanks and three antitank guns. The battalion commander employed this light company because of the difficult terrain, consisting of many ditches, across which the attacks were carried out.

From 19 February to 22 February 1943, the light company, starting with eight Panzer IIIs and two Tigers, conducted local counterattacks and occupied covering positions in the vicinity of Rostov. During this four-day period, the company destroyed 23 T-34s and 11 antitank guns while losing one Tiger and one Panzer III. After an engagement on 22 February 1943, the battalion had only two Tigers and five Panzer IIIs operational and withdrew to an area near Taganrog to refit. This battalion was not employed again until Operation Zitadelle in July 1943.

During the almost two months of combat with Army Group Don, Heavy Tank Battalion 503 destroyed more than 71 enemy tanks and 55 antitank guns. In so doing, they lost around 13 Panzer IIIs and had three Tigers knocked out due to enemy actions. Another Tiger was destroyed while waiting at the Budenny rail station for transport back to Germany for factory repair when the battalion was forced to retreat to Rostov. A total of four Tigers were so badly damaged in combat that they were transported back to Germany. This means that this battalion destroyed 23.6 enemy tanks for the loss of each Tiger, or 4.4 enemy tanks for the loss of any type tank, Panzer III and Tiger.

Heavy Tank Battalion 503 was much more effective than the units around Leningrad and in North Africa in recovering disabled Tigers. During combat that always involved retrograde movements, its soldiers destroyed only one Tiger to avoid capture. Additionally, this Tiger had already been recovered and loaded on a rail car for transport back to Germany. This battalion’s leadership was very reluctant to destroy its own vehicles and did everything possible to recover Tigers. In one instance, three Tigers broke down in a withdrawal; instead of destroying them, the crews stayed with the vehicles until they could be recovered, which was over 30 hours later. Diary entries are filled with examples of operational vehicles towing damaged vehicles back to the maintenance platoon to be repaired. In another instance, while the rest of the unit withdrew, six 18-ton recovery vehicles and two other Tigers recovered a Tiger that broke through the ice of a stream.

Despite the great efforts of the recovery elements, this battalion still suffered from a low operational readiness rate of its Tigers. On average, the battalion only maintained around 35 percent of its Tigers in operational condition. Probably one of the main reasons for Tigers being in need of repair was from damage due to enemy fire. Another reason may have been the great distances that the unit had to traverse. In one instance, the 2d Company conducted a 107-kilometer roadmarch in ten and a half hours. This unit did not lose any vehicles to maintenance breakdowns during the roadmarch, however, probably because the company commander ordered a maintenance halt every 20 kilometers.

Overall, Heavy Tank Battalion 503 was very successful in its operations around Rostov. This unit played a large part in protecting the key road and rail networks that allowed the 1st Panzer Army to retreat. Some historians attribute the actions of this battalion to preventing the Soviets in breaking through to Rostov and cutting the road and rail lines.

116.Panzer-Division

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Origin: Wehrkreis VI

Composition: 1944: Pz. Gr. Rgt. 60, Pz. Gr. Rgt. 156, Pz. Rgt. 16, Pz. Aufkl. Abt. 116, Pz. Art. Rgt. 146. Pz. Jag. Abt. 228, HFlakart. Abt. 281, Pi. Btl. 675, Nachr. Abt. 228, Kdr. Pz. Div. Nachsch. Tr. 66.

Commanders: Oberst Gerhard Müller (28. III.-30. IV. 1944, m. d. F. b.), Gen. Lt. Gerhard Graf von Schwerin (1. V.-13. IX. 1944), Oberst (Gen. Maj.) Siegfried von Waldenburg (14. IX. 1944-V. 1945).

116. Pz. Div. was raised in France on 28 March 1944 from the remnants of 16. Pz. Gr. Div. and 179. Res. Pz. Div.

The division was stationed north of the Seine River when the Allies landed. But it was not committed until the end of July. According to the written testimony of its commander, Count von Schwerin, it was being held in reserve for the “20 July plotters” and that is why it was not thrown into the battle of Normandy although quite close to the front. It finally moved into the combat zone at the end of July. In August, it counter- attacked in the Mortain sector but failed in its attempt to cut off the Americans. It was caught in the Falaise pocket and only managed to break out by suffering heavy casualties.

In mid-September, the division fought in the Aix-la- Chapelle region. It was around this time that its commanding officer, General von Schwerin, was relieved of his command for ordering the division to evacuate the town of Aix. In September-October 1944, it was part of I. SS-Pz. K. (7. Armee). It was repatriated to re-form in the Düsseldorf area. It joined Pz. Brig. 108 but, owing to shortages, the number of tanks per company was restricted to 14. Its strength was increased to 11,500 men. In November, it left for the Cologne area, then was engaged in the Ardennes as part of 5. Pz. Armee. It sustained heavy losses during that offensive. In January 1945, it retreated to Cleves, and fought in Holland, making a vain attempt to halt the advancing British and Canadian troops (February 1945). 116. Pz. Div. ended the war in the Ruhr pocket where it was wiped out.

In its one-year existence, 116. Pz. Div. produced 13 Knights of the Iron Cross.

116 PANZER DIVISION IN THE HUERTGEN FOREST

An interview with Genmaj Rudolf von Gersdorff – C of S, 7 Army Genmaj Siegfried von Waldenburg – Cmdr 116 Pz Div 1.

Q : What was the mission of 116 Pz Div when it was committed in the Vossenack – Schmidt area?

A : (Waldenburg) The immediate task was to halt your attack and then counterattack with the mission of clearing the American penetration. (Gersdorff) At Army level, we felt that the effort should divide itself in two phases. First, we wanted to cut off and destroy your troops southeast of the Kall, using principally 89 Inf Div. and the tank regiment of 116 Pz Div. Secondly, by using the reminder of 116 Pz Div., we hoped to drive you off the heights at Vossenack and eventually re-establish the front in the woods west of Germeter. For us, it was advantageous to fix the battle line in the forest as it limited the use of your air power and your tanks.

1. Q : Was our attack a surprise in timing and / or direction? A : (Gersdorff) We knew, generally, that an attack was forming. Our agents in Roetgen reported the presence of numerous reserves and artillery observation planes, but we did not know the specific date. We believed the main thrust would be headed northeast through Huertgen onto Dueren. At the same time, we believed you would send a force through Schmidt and go for the Dams. The tremendous artillery preparation, of course, showed your hand and we know the attack was on. (Interviewers’ Note: See Gersdorff’s account of “Kriegsspial of Model.”)

1. Q : (Interviewers’ Note: The account of 116 Pz Div’s action is contained in ML – 1039) When your reconnaissance battalion drove from Mestringer Muehle, did 89 Inf Div launch an attack from the south to join them?

A : (Waldenburg) I believe so. Our elements did make contact, but 89 Inf Div was very weak at the time and no strong link was formed. A patrol from my reconnaissance battalion, consisting of an officer and 4 or 5 with a radio, made its way to this point of woods south of Vossenack (Ed: coordinates 0232). From here, they could easily observe movement from Germeter to Vossenack and adjust artillery fire.

1. Q : Our troops in Vossenack, having been shelled almost continually for four days, were unnerved by the quiet on the morning of 6 Nov 44. Was the absence of an artillery preparation a planned tactic?

A : (Waldenburg) Yes. We hoped to gain surprise.

1. Q : Did your troops find stiff resistance from our forces in Vossenack?

A : (Waldenburg) Yes. There was hand – to – hand combat. We did get many prisoners, but the farther we went, the more resistance stiffened. During the attack, we smoked the Germeter area. Finally, when your armour and reinforcements arrived, we could not get beyond the church.

1. Q : Did you plan to renew the attack on 7 Nov 44?

A : (Waldenburg) Yes. As a matter of fact, I believe the artillery preparation for our attack caught your troops as they were getting ready to attack us. Your troops (Interviewers’ Note: 146 Engr C. Bn) that retook Vossenack with those tanks did an excellent job.

1. Q : After we had repulsed your second effort to take Vossenack on 7 Nov 44, we brought up an infantry battalion to replace the engineers. The relief was made hurriedly and the infantry, on 8 Nov 44, was not ready for action. Did you plan another attack for that day?

A : (Waldenburg) Unfortunately, you didn’t notify me of this situation. No, our troops were very tired and had suffered heavy casualties.

A : (Gersdorff) You must remember this Vossenack fight was considered the second phase of our action, so most of our concern was across the Kall; then too, we could not move tanks up to Vossenack.

A : (Waldenburg) I tried to build a road from Huertgen through the woods towards Vossenack, but it was not suitable. A couple of assault guns got through, but the heavier, bigger tanks became stuck in the mud.

1. Q : At this time, we committed a new regiment (Interviewers’ Note: 12 Inf Regt of 4 Inf Div (US)) in the woods above Germeter. They were to attack towards Huertgen. Was this area under your control? A : (Waldenburg) Initially, my zone was south and east of there, but on 6 or 7 Nov 44, this area also became my responsibility. On 10 Nov 44, while you were attacking west to clip off the Weisser Weh salient, I launched an attack. Following a heavy artillery preparation, elements of both 156 and 60 Pz Gren Regts, followed by some engineers, were committed and cut off your troops. They passed through the engineer battalions who were holding the line.

Q : On 13 Nov 44, after two unsuccessful efforts to improve the situation of the isolated force, we made a withdrawal. Not a shot was fired. Were you aware of this?

A : (Waldenburg) Yes. We got a report on what you were doing, but the local commanders said the woods were so thick and the debris so prohibitive that they could not stop you.

1. Q : Having failed to cut off the Wiesser Weh salient at its base, we finally began on 14 Nov 44 to attack directly up it. How strongly was it defended at that time?

A : (Waldenburg) We merely maintained patrols behind the wire obstacles and mine fields. All this time I was making daily requests to be relieved from this sector. It was not suitable for the employment of a panzer division.

A : (Gersdorff) We also wanted to withdraw the unit so that it could be refitted for the Ardennes Offensive, but we had no one to fill the hole. Finally, we managed to relieve a battalion at a time. The Division Artillery stayed on an extra three or four days so that you would not notice a slackening in the fire and realize what we had done.

1. Q : On what date did your troops leave the Vossenack area?

A : (Ed: probably answered by Waldenburg.) Approximately 13 Nov 44.

1. Q : What do you estimate as your casualties in the battle for Schmidt and Vossenack and in the fighting between Germeter and Huertgen and between Huertgen and Kleinhau?

A : (Waldenburg) Without data of any kind, it is, unfortunately, impossible for me to give a detailed description of the looses suffered by the Division in the fighting in the Huertgen Forest and at Schmidt. The casualties in personnel, especially of officers and non-commissioned officers, were heavy. The two panzer grenadier regiments were particularly hard hit and the reconnaissance battalion to a lesser degree. The panzer regiment, as far as I remember, suffered only small losses in the Schmidt area, with only three or four tanks being put out of action. The artillery had hardly any casualties or any losses in material. The antiaircraft battalion lost two guns through air attacks. Even though the losses in personnel of the Division could be made up on the whole by fresh replacements before the Ardennes Offensive, the casualties in officers and non-commissioned officers and enlisted men with battle experience could no longer be replaced. This lack of experienced personnel made itself felt considerably in the Ardennes campaign. Weapons lost or put out of action generally could be completely replaced. The motor vehicle situation, however, had further deteriorated and the Division moved into the Ardennes Offensive with only about 60% of the vehicles it should have had.

1. Q : How seriously did your engagement in the Huertgen Forest affect your efficiency and strength for the Ardennes Offensive?

A : The loss of experienced leaders and battle – hardened veterans was certainly felt. Our losses in material were replenished, except in trucks. In that category, we went into the Ardennes at only 60% of our T/O strength. Source: Foreign Military Studies – Ethint -56 (Headquarters United States Army Europe – 15 Dec 1945)

HQ Army Group B – 1944

Paris, Rommel, von Rundstedt, Gause und Zimmermann

Alfred Gause (right), with Erwin Rommel (left) and Gerd von Rundstedt. Bodo Zimmermann is in the background

The detailed organisation of Rommel’s Head-quarters, i.e., the Offizierstellenbesetzung des Oberkommandos der Heeresgruppe B. Here are details of the list of the members of the Headquarters, prepared by the HQ adjutant on 15 May 1944. There were changes after that date, one of the most major alterations being the dissolution of the Quartermaster Division (Oberquartiermeister Abteilung) under Colonel Heckel at the end of May 1944, just a few days before the invasion. But probably the most important happening among the staff was the arrival of General Hans Speidel, to take over from Alfred Gause as Chief of Staff on 15 April 1944. As has already been mentioned this was basically because of domestic problems which had occurred between Lucie Rommel and Gause and his wife who had been staying with her after their own house had been bombed. Matters came to a head when Gause gave the faithful old Captain Hermann Aldinger a dressing-down for arriving late for work in the garden – Rommel had given his adjutant the task of directing the landscaping of the new garden – while Frau Gause had got more and more on Frau Rommel’s nerves. Eventually she could stand it no longer and wrote to Rommel demanding that he replace Gause. Uncharacteristically Rommel, to quote historian David Irving, who says in Trail of the Fox that he ‘ … meekly complied, writing to her on 17 March: “Let’s draw a line underneath it all… I am going to … Of course, it’s a tough decision for me to have to change my chief at a time like this.”‘
Chief of Staff. The new Chief of Staff was in fact the perfect man for the job. A bespectacled academic, his aesthetic, almost professorial, exterior belied his undoubted ability as a fighting soldier of some experience, although, as we shall see, this was not a view held by everyone. General Dr Hans Speidel was born on 28 October 1897 in Metzingen, Württemberg, so he was a Swabian like Rommel which gave them an instant rapport. He had joined the army on 30 November 1914, seen active service during the Great War in the same brigade as Rommel and had been accepted into the Reichsheer post-war. In 1932 he had taken ‘leave of absence’ from soldiering to become a Doctor of Philosophy and then a teacher and professor at Göttingen University. In 1933 he was Assistant Military Attaché in Paris. In September 1939 he had been the la of 33rd Infantry Division, then la of IX Army Corps. He then served on von Küchler’s staff in Eighteenth Army during the invasion of the Low Countries. He became COS to Otto von Stülpnagel in Paris 1940-1, then served on Fifth Army’s Staff in 1942 and was COS of Eighth Army in Russia in 1943 as a Major-General. It was while he was serving in Russia during Eighth Army’s difficult and heroic withdrawal, that Hitler had personally presented him with the Knight’s Cross. He became Rommel’s Chief of Staff in April 1944 and the two men quickly established a harmonious working relationship – despite the fact that Jodl (at OKW) had warned Speidel prior to his joining Army Group B to beware of Rommel’s pessimism which he described as his ‘African sickness’ (Afrikanische Krankheit)\ Speidel was also one of the most hard-working German officers as far as trying to arrange an armistice with the West. He knew of, and was in touch with, many of the leaders of the conspiracy to over-throw Hitler, but was not actually involved in any of the murder plots. He also involved Rommel in a very minor way in the subterfuge. Arrested on 7 September 1944, after refusing to destroy Paris, and accused of being implicated in the plot against Hitler, he was brought before a Court of Honour on 4 October, but managed to baffle even the most searching Gestapo questioning despite the fact that he had actually been involved. Speidel not only successfully protested his innocence, but also managed not to betray anyone, so despite everything – including Keitel’s saying that Hitler believed Speidel to be guilty – he was declared innocent and released after some seven months in custody. So after the war he was able to tell the Allies exactly what happened. Also a holder of the German Cross in Gold, Speidel was made a Lieutenant-General in the Bundeswehr in 1955 and promoted to full General two years later to become C-in-C NATO Ground Forces.

Rommel’s Staff

Aides. At the start of this period of Rommel’s career, he had a new young personal aide, one Lieutenant Hammermann – David Irving describes him as being ‘much-decorated and one-eyed’, but he was soon replaced by Captain Helmuth Lang on Colonel Rudolf Schmundt’s advice. Schmundt, who was Hitler’s senior Wehrmacht Adjutant, is reported to have said that Rommel needed an ADC who was a major, a highly decorated panzer officer and a Swabian. Elderly, mild and bespectacled, Lang was all these (except that he was only a captain), having won a Knight’s Cross on the Eastern Front as a tank commander. He would remain with Rommel to the bitter end, keeping the Field Marshal’s personal diary in which Rommel entered his private thoughts, as well as the official record (Tagesberichte des Oberbefelshabers), which concerned not only Rommel’s activities, but also the day to day work of the Headquarters, details of visitors, etc. Unlike Rommel’s headquarters in North Africa or France 1940, there was no Nazi liaison officer at HQ Army Group B.

Staff Officers. The la was Colonel Hans-Georg von Tempelhoff, suave, handsome, fair-haired, with an English wife. In his mid-thirties, a veteran of the Eastern Front, he had known Rommel since before the war and was a trusted friend from their days in Italy, when he had often talked about peace. Von Tempelhoff usually accompanied the Field Marshal on his tours and was with him immediately before and after his visits to the Führer. In Knight’s Cross David Fraser explains how von Tempelhoff witnessed Rommel’s ‘… alternations of ebullience and depressed return to reality after his meetings with Hitler’, and even the nationality of von Tempelhoff’s wife (she was English) would count against Rommel in Hitler’s suspicious mind. His deputy was Major Winrich ‘Teddy’ Behr, whom Ruge describes as being: ‘an excellent type of younger officer of the general staff’. He had served in both Russia and North Africa, winning the Knight’s Cross whilst commanding the 3rd Company of 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion of the DAK, on 15 May 1941. His company knocked out the very first enemy armoured car to be destroyed by German forces in North Africa. Later, von Tempelhoff would have both Major Eberhardt Wolfram and Major Neuhaus on his staff. Wolfram would accompany Rommel on some of his last car journeys, but it would be Neuhaus who would be with Rommel and the faithful Lang, on 17 July 1944, when their car was strafed. In addition, as far as personnel work was concerned, von Tempelhoff was assisted by a Colonel Freyberg.

The Ic was Colonel Anton Staubwasser, who had been serving in the ‘Foreign Armies West’ in OKH before joining Army Group B, being so assigned because he was an expert on the British forces. He had been a student of Rommel’s at Dresden and David Irving describes him as being ‘honest and mild-mannered’. He laboured under difficulties because, apart from a few clerks and two interpreters, he had to rely on OKH for data, who were of course being fed the ‘Fortitude’ deception plan. He often accompanied Rommel on his walks with his dogs in the woods around La Roche-Guyon. Artillery. Colonel Hans Lattmann was another old family friend who had the greatest admiration for the ‘Desert Fox’. Rommel would do his best to help him when his family later got into serious trouble with the Nazi authorities – his brother, Major-General Martin Lattmann, holder of the German Cross in Gold, had deserted to the Russians at Stalingrad. This family skeleton in the cupboard was also going to be held as another black mark against Rommel by the ever-suspicious Gestapo.

Engineer. ‘Bushy-browed’ Lieutenant-General Dr Wilhelm Meise, holder of the German Cross in Silver, was an extremely able engineer, who had a great admiration for Rommel’s own abilities in the field of engineering. David Fraser describes him as being ‘indefatigable’. Meise wrote about Rommel later saying that in his opinion Rommel was ‘… the greatest engineer of the Second World War. There was nothing I could teach him. He was my mas-ter.’ He also often went hunting with Rommel.

Signals. Chief Signals Officer was 54-year-old Lieutenant-General Ernst Gerke who had also served in North Africa as Chief Signals Officer of Panzerarmee Afrika in early 1943.

Air. Just as the Kriegsmarine was represented by Vice-Admiral Ruge, so there was a Luftwaffe Liaison Officer at La Roche-Guyon – Lieutenant-Colonel Wolfgang Queisner. Although Rommel often had harsh words for the Luftwaffe (reflecting his dislike of Goring), he approved of Queisner who fitted in well with the army officers.

Rommel’s staff car. The Field Marshal spent a great deal of time in his staff car, touring his Army Group area. The car was normally the powerful Horch and it was while travelling in it that he was strafed. It was being driven by his personal driver Oberfeldwebel Daniel, with Feldwebel Holke as air sentry (known as the ‘Observer’), riding in the back. Ruge comments that Rommel often drove the car himself and then Ruge’s own driver (Leading Seaman Hatzinger) had trouble keeping up with him on the flat, straight roads and only managed to catch up on the hills!

Rommel’s dogs. Rommel had always had a fondness for dogs – not just for hunting with, although he normally chose terriers – but also as companions. While in France he was given a year-old terrier named Ajax, by the Todt Organisation, which he then took home to Herrlingen as it was a good watchdog and barked loudly. Sadly it was run over in May 1944. He also had another terrier called Elbo, which he kept at the château.

Panzer-Abteilung 302 (fkl)

Borgward B IV z Panzer-Abteilung 302.

Panzerabteilung 302 (Fkl), was a radio-controlled tank battalion that had 24 StuG III assault guns used as control vehicles and about 50 Goliath and B IV remote control demolition vehicles. The Goliath would prove particularly useful in destroying Polish barricades, but there were not enough to go around.

One of three Panzerbefehlswagen IVs from the staff of Panzer-Abteilung 302 (Fkl).

At the turn of August-September 1944, a new remote-controlled assault vehicle unit, Panzer-Abteilung 302. (Fkl), was formed in France, equipped with explosive-bearing B IV Sprengstoffträger tracked vehicles. On August 1, the battalion disposed over 24 StuG 40s (Sturmgeschütz 40 Ausf. G), 10 transport carriers (Sd Kfz 251) in different versions, and 180 B IV Sprengstoffträgers.

In the beginning of August, the unit was reinforced with a further six StuG 40s, and two Panzerbefehlwagen IV command vehicles (Panzerbefehlwagen IV = an ordinary PzKpfw IV plus additional radio equipment). The battalion’s commander was Major Reinel and its companies were led by 1st Lieutenant Dettman (Company 1), Lieutenant Weichard (Company 2), and 1st Lieutenant Faßbeck (Company 3).

In August, likely between August 6 and 17, the battalion was transported by train to the Eastern Front in Poland. Companies 2 and 3 arrived first. On arrival, Panzer-Kompanie 311 (Fkl) was attached to the battalion as a reinforcement unit and designated as 4. Kompanie (Company 4), Panzer-Abteilung, 302. (Fkl), and 1st Lieutenant Bachman was assigned its command. In Warsaw, Sturmpanzer-Kompanie 218 z. b. V – which was already fighting in Poland’s capital and was equipped with 10 Sturmpanzer IV Sd Kfz 166 Brummbärs. – was operationally attached to the company.

Most of the information pertaining to the battles in which Panzer-Abteilung 302. (Fkl) participated is found in Marcus Jaugnitz’s comprehensive account, “Funklenk-panzers” (Winnipeg, 2001). The descriptions of the unit’s combat operations in Warsaw, however, are notably fleeting and include many details which are already well known. Also, the book lacks information concerning losses, even though it contains photographs of destroyed vehicles. Given this situation, the wealth of reproduced photographs is an especially valuable source of information about the fighting in Warsaw.

The unit was off-loaded at West Station (on or about Aug. 9-10 and the days following immediately thereafter) which at that time was the central location for disembarking units that were en route to the frontline area east of Warsaw. Necessary equipment repairs were carried out in the Kraftfahrpark on Ulica Gniewkowska and in the workshops on Ulica Jana Kazimerza. The two photographs of the command vehicle, Panzerbefehlswagen IV with 7.5 cm Kwk L/48 in the book “Funlenk-panzers” by Marcus Jaugnitz (Winnipeg 2001), are taken at Warsaw’s gas facility on Ulica Dworska (now Ulica Marcina Kasprzaka) and on Ulica Prądzyńskiego. Interestingly enough, the terrain’s topography in the year 2001 is essentially identical to its topography in 1944!

StuG 40s from Panzer-Abteilung 302. (Fkl) were first sent into battle on August 11, 1944 in the area around Ulica Chłodna and Ulica Krochmalna, where they reinforced Dirlewanger’s unit. Tracked B IV vehicles also attacked the Polish positions on Ulica Ciepła. A particularly tragic episode took place on August 13, when a B IV vehicle exploded on Ulica Podwale. At about 1300 hours, two StuG 40s from Company 3, Panzer-Abteilung 302. (Fkl), attacked the barricades that protected the Old Town from attack from the south. The Germans set about methodically pounding the resistance fighters’ positions, which were manned by Battalion “Gustaw.” Suddenly, a tracked B IV drove out from behind the StuG 40s and sped towards the barricade blocking-off Ulica Podwale. The resistance men threw “Molotov cocktails” on this Sprengstoffträger. B IV which caught fire. The driver opened the turret hatch and tried to flee but was shot down by resistance fighters. At that point, the StuG 40s withdrew towards Ulica Krakowskie Przedmieście. The B IV’s fire was extinguished on the orders of Lieutenant “Pająk” from Battalion “Gustaw”. The vehicle was declared to be unarmed. Captain “Gustaw” ordered that the B IV should be left where it was and that the men manning the barricades should withdraw to Ulica Podwale. During the night, the B IV should then be properly examined by engineer troops and, if possible, be towed behind the insurgents’ positions.

A reconnaissance band from Battalion “Gustaw’s” “Orlat” company, which had captured the vehicle, tore down part of the barricade. Riflemen, Henryk “Szczawiński” Paczkowski and Zugmunt “Czymbo” Salwa started the engine and drove the B IV along Ulica Podwale toward Ulica Długa through an enthusiastic crowd of civilians and resistance fighters. The vehicle stopped at the crossing of Ulica Podwale and Ulica Kilińskiego. When one of the resistance men went to the front of the vehicle and – in lifting the hatch to the explosives’ storage hold – unleashed a devastating explosion. It’s not clear if the B IV was equipped with a time-set dentonating device, or if the explosion was set off by remote control, or if someone had simply placed a mechanical trigger under the hatch. One hundred people were killed at the explosion site; both resistance fighters and civilians, and many other people were injured. A number of sources, as for example, A. Borkiwicz, Powstanie Warszawskie, (Warsawa 1958), estimate 500 killed and 350 injured. Today, it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions as to the actual intent of the Germans. Perhaps it was planned that the B IV’s driver would drive up to the barricade and then just leave the explosive charge there, as it would have been impossible to take the vehicle over the notably high barricade (estimated to be 2.5 to 3 metres high). Perhaps the B IV itself was left intentionally (with a detonating device activated by opening the hatch?), but in that case, what were the driver’s chances of fleeing from the vehicle without being shot on sight when the enemy was positioned only a few metres away?

On the evening of August 20, a B IV from Company 1, Panzer-Abteilung 302. (Fkl), started out from Ulica Świętojerska, and shielded by a StuG 40, came rolling towards insurgent positions on Ulica Nalewski which were defended by “Chrobry I”. This time the attack ended in unmitigated total defeat. The B IV was destroyed by a Polish anti-tank-gun, 5 cm pak 38, which had been captured on Ulica Stawki. A shot was fired-off from a distance of 20 meters, exploding and literally driving the B IV into the wall of Simon’s Passage on impact. In addition, a shower of hand grenades was rained down on the B IV. The driver somehow managed to flee. From the wreck that night, the resistance fighters managed to carry away five blocks of compressed explosive with a total mass weight of approximately 500 kgs to the Arsenał building. The projectile had apparently destroyed the B IV’s detonating devices and the explosive material could not be detonated. In this way, the resistance fighters learned about the true role of the B IV.

The battalion was later to concentrate its operations to the area surrounding Piłsudski Square and Theatre Square (op. cit. pp. 426-428 and 431-435). From there, StuG 40s and B-IVs carried out many assaults on the area around the Old Town, Ulica Krakowskie Przedmieście, Ulica Krówelska, Danzig Station (a StuG 40 fell into the Legion Fortress’s moat, photo op. cit. p. 437)), and the National Mint, as well as the area around Mostowski Palace, Ulica Tłomackie and Krasiński Square. The unit’s losses during the fighting were heavy. A report from September 1, 1944 (op. cit. 404) reveals that over this period the unit had only 6 StuG 40s and 65 B IVs in service (normally: 40 StuG 40s and 144 tracked B IVs). In other words, a loss of Stug 40s approaching 85%, and 54 % of all B IVs! The above information indicates that the de facto combat role of Panzer-Abteilung 302. (Fkl) was as an assault unit, providing direct, close support to the German infantry. Here, the question arises whether the crews of the StuG 40s had the requisite experience of combat in an urban setting. When the fighting for the Old Town was nearing its end, the battalion fought in the Centre district and participated in the intense fighting for Czerniaków (probably a company which was stationed on Aleja 3 Maja in Powiśle by the Poniatowski Bridge). A photograph of the destroyed house on Ulica Okrąg 2 (op. cit. p.433) confirms that the unit participated in the fighting for Powiśle and Czerniaków.

During the period September 10 – 13, a portion of the battalion participated in the fighting in Praga (photo: p 437 op. cit., a StuG 40 moving across a railway bridge by the Citadel). Thanks to photographic evidence, it is possible to confirm that this unit participated in at least two further battle sites. One photograph shows two destroyed StuG 40s from Company 3 on Ulica Krakowskie Przedmieście in the vicinity of the Holy Cross Church, another shows a Stug 40 on Ulica Puławaska abreast Ulica Odyńca. On p. 443 (op. cit.) the unit of a StuG 40 and a Brummbär on Ulica Puławska 51 can be identified. On September 24, Captain Nolte was appointed the battalion’s commander During the last days of the uprising, the battalion cooperated with Brummbärs from Sturmpanzer-Kompanie 218. z.b.V. in Mokotów (Ulica Puławska, Ulica Woronicza), along with conducting independent operations in, among other areas, the vicinity of Królikarnia.

After the uprising, the battalion remained in the Warsaw area for a short while and was thereafter, beginning on October 7, transported to East Prussia. During the fighting in Warsaw, the unit lost a dozen StuG 40s – among these, from Company 3 alone: two vehicles which were destroyed on Ulica Krakowskie Przedmieście; one on Ulica Rybaki, and lastly, two more in the area of the National Mint – one on Ulica Krochmalna and one on Ulica Chłodna close by Ulica Żelazna.

Markus Jaugitz – Die Deutsche Fernlenktruppe (2 vol)
Thomas L. Jentz – Funklenk Panzertruppen (in AFV NEWS, Sept-Dec. 1986, Volume 21, No.3)
Thomas L. Jentz – Panzertruppen (2 vol)
Janusz Ledwoch – Warsawa 1: Pansar i upproret september-oktober 1944
Kjell Svensson – Tyska radiostyrda pansarfordon (in Pansar #4/1997)
Georg Tessin – Verbände und Truppen der deutschen Wehrmacht 1933-1945

Heinkel He 111 over Poland 1939

I./KG 1 ‘Hindenburg’ was the only Kampfgruppe still equipped with He 111Es upon the outbreak of hostilities on 1 September 1939

In the early hours of 1 September 1939 – the first morning of the world’s first Blitzkrieg – two-thirds of the Luftwaffe’s entire He 111 bomber force was being readied for a coordinated strike against Poland’s main military and naval airbases.

Seven of the twelve He 111 Kampfgruppen scheduled to take part in the operation were subordinated to Luftflotten 1 and 4, the two air fleets based in the eastern half of Germany facing the border with Poland. Two more were stationed in East Prussia, the province cut off from the rest of the Reich by the intervening ‘Polish Corridor’. The final three, forming part of Luftflotte 2, were stationed in northwest Germany. After completing their first mission, however, this latter trio were to land back on airfields around Berlin for temporary attachment to Luftflotte 1.

Such was the plan, but it was thrown into disarray by the weather. Dawn broke to reveal almost the entire region blanketed in low cloud and fog. Paradoxically, the only Gruppe to take off at 0430 hrs as briefed was the sole unit still equipped with the He 11 IE, Kolberg-based I./KG 1 ‘Hindenburg’. Its objective was the Polish Naval Air Arm’s seaplane base at Puck (Putzig), on the Baltic coast at the northern end of the infamous ‘Corridor’. A war correspondent flying in one of the bombers recorded his impressions of this first He 111 mission of World War 2:

‘Today, Friday, shortly after dawn, the Staffeln took off and headed eastwards. The rays of the rising sun reflected warmly on the camouflaged wings of the bombers. But it wasn’t long before the sun disappeared again behind a dense wall of fog that towered up into the sky ahead of us. It was only after a lengthy period of bad-weather flying, which demanded the utmost concentration from all the crews, that our formation reached the Polish land and naval air station at Putzig. There, Mother Nature was kind to us. The weather cleared just as we arrived over the target area, and even from our great height every detail could be made out.

‘I am sitting alongside the pilot on the folding seat that has just been vacated by the navigator/bomb aimer. He has clambered forward into the front of the nose and is now preparing for the bomb run. A moment ago I thought I heard a series of muffled thuds above the noise of the engines. Are the Poles actually shooting at us? While I am still pondering the matter, the pilot nudges me and points a finger upwards. He’s heard the explosions too. I feel a sense of satisfaction at being under fire for what would a combat mission be without some kind of response from the enemy!

‘Suddenly the aircraft gives a lurch. The bombs have left their magazines. I crane my neck to peer through the cockpit window and can see them tumbling down behind us, looking for all the world like beer bottles being thrown into a river from a high bridge.

‘The pilot pokes me in the ribs again and indicates the altimeter. We are flying at an altitude of 5000 metres and he’s leading our two wingmen into a gentle left-hand turn that will enable us all to see the results of our bombing. And, hurrah! It’s bang on target. The flickering flashes of bomb blasts straddle the seaplane base and surrounding areas. A few of our bombs have gone into the harbour, sending up huge fountains of water. Others have hit several large hangars. Columns of smoke rise into the air, grow bigger and start to spread. The attack has been a success.’

The primary target for I./KG l’s sister Gruppe, I./KG 152, was the Polish airfield at Torun (Thorn). But the slight sea breeze that had kept the fog at bay and had enabled I./KG 1 to take off from coastal Kolberg as planned did not penetrate the 30 km inland to I./KG 152’s base at Pinnow, near Reselkow. There, it was 0900 hrs before the ground mist cleared sufficiently to permit the He 111 Hs to lift off. They too were met by sporadic flak, but all aircraft returned to Pinnow without loss.

Further south still, Luftflotte 1 ‘s two other Gruppen – also scheduled to attack the Thorn airfields – had to wait even longer. On their forward landing ground at Schonfeld-Crossinsee the crews of I./KG 53 had been at readiness since 0230 hrs. But it was nearly midday before they took off to rendezvous with the Heinkels of II./KG 26 from nearby Gabbert. Both Gruppen then flew a second mission later that same afternoon, I./KG 53 going back to Thorn, this time to target flak emplacements and fuel depots, while II./KG 26 hit railway yards at Poznan (Posen). These two units also completed the day without loss, as too did the three Gruppen of KG 27 from Luftflotte 2, which carried out a massed raid on Warsaw by all 90+ of their available He 111Ps prior to coming under the temporary control of Luftflotte 1 for the remainder of the campaign.

In East Prussia one of the two He 111-equipped Gruppen of LG 1 was not so fortunate. II. and III./LG l’s main objectives for the day were airfields in the Warsaw area. The specific target for the nine machines of 5./LG 1 was an airfield near Modlin, but en route the Staffel reported coming under attack from ’25 Polish fighters’. Four bombers were damaged and a fifth shot down. Having lifted off from Powunden with the rest of II. Gruppe at about 0730 hrs, the luckless ‘Ll+KN’ may thus have the dubious distinction of being the first He 111 to be lost to enemy action in World War 2, for the only other known Heinkel casualty of 1 September was a machine of KG 4, whose three Gruppen were not cleared for take-off until very nearly 1300 hrs.

As the sole He 111 bomber presence under Luftflotte 4 in the far south, KG 4’s main effort was directed against the Cracow airfields. These were subjected to the combined weight of I. and III. Gruppen,, while II./KG 4 despatched a Staffel each to the airfields at Lwow (Lemberg), Lublin and Deblin. Although 5./KG 4’s raid on Deblin was reported as being ‘particularly successful’, it was from this mission that a machine had failed to return.

Marred only by the weather, the Heinkel’s operational debut in Poland was adjudged highly satisfactory. The second day of the campaign was a repeat of the first, with KG 4 attacking Deblin and the northern Kampfgruppen concentrating on targets in the ‘Polish Corridor’, Posen and Warsaw. Losses were again minimal, although three Polish fighters claimed a Heinkel apiece near Posen. But a disturbing number of reports were emerging of He 111s coming under fire from their own flak.

On 3 September, despite the declarations of war on Germany by Great Britain and France, the Heinkel force ranged against Poland was further reinforced by two more Gruppen of He 111Ps from Luftflotte 2. Departing their bases in northwest Germany, I. and II./KG 55 flew to airfields near Breslau to operate alongside KG 4 as part of Luftflotte 4.

By this time the initial strikes against Polish air bases were being scaled down. The Luftwaffe believed that it had already achieved its aim of neutralising the enemy’s air force. Although substantial damage had been inflicted, many of the Polish aircraft destroyed on the ground by bombing had been trainers and other secondary machines, some deliberately left out on display as decoys. The bulk of the Polish Air Force’s first-line PZL fighters had in fact been deployed to small satellite landing grounds just before the German invasion.

With the bombers now giving greater priority to the enemy’s communications and lines of supply, KG 55’s first mission – flown on the morning of 4 September – was directed against rail traffic in Kielce and Cracow. It was on this date too that Polish resistance on the ground, which had been strong up until now, began to show signs of weakening. The opening phase in the defence of Poland, the so-called ‘Frontier Battle’, was drawing to a close and Polish forces were falling back with the intention of forming a new line along the Vistula and San rivers.

It was a similar situation in the far north. There, the detested ‘Corridor’ – the cause of so much friction, both manufactured and otherwise, between Germany and Poland – was on the point of being eliminated. This would leave the invading Germans free to wheel southwards and advance on Warsaw. Another war correspondent provided an account of a raid on Bydgoszcz, a town at the base of the corridor, shortly before its fall on 5 September:

’15 minutes to go before take-off, which is scheduled for 1000 hrs. The usual early morning mist has lifted, and the bombers are bathed in sunlight. They are dispersed about the field, separated into Ketten and Staffeln, and groundcrews are carrying out last-minute checks. Small groups of NCOs are making their way across the broad expanse of open grass towards their aircraft, where they are joined by their officers returning from Staffel briefings.

‘We – that is the pilot, navigator/bomb aimer, wireless operator/upper gunner, flight engineer/ventral gunner, plus my good self as supernumerary camera operator/gunner – climb into our crate “C-Cäsar through the “bathtub”, the gondola on the underside of the fuselage. The crew take their places, the upper gunner wriggling into his revolving cradle seat and traversing his machine gun. Our leutnant, who acts as both navigator and bomb aimer, is already studying his maps.

‘Everything is in order. On the dot of 1000 hrs the chocks are pulled away from the wheels, 2400 horses begin to bellow as the pilot guns the engines and we start to roll. I catch a glimpse of the runway marshal waving his green and white flag and moments later we are in the air. To our left the other machines of the Staffel appear above the tiny wood bordering the field and close up on us. One last circuit. The small white dot tearing about on the grass below is the Staffel mascot, a cheeky little terrier who answers to the name of “Flox”. He’s obviously none too pleased that his many masters have deserted him and are making such an infernal din as they climb away into the sky.

‘We quickly gain height. At the head of the formation the Staffelführer’s machine sets course eastwards. The aircraft alongside us has already retracted its wheels. From the movements of its machine guns, I can tell that the gunners over there are also at their posts and already scanning the sky.

‘We break through a thin but dense layer of cloud. Above us a clear sky the colour of steel. Below us an enormous ocean of white cotton wool, its smooth surface broken here and there by towering cloud formations. We have already crossed the Reich’s border, but as yet there has been no sign of the enemy. I leave the cockpit and clamber down through the small fuselage hatch into the “bathtub”. The ventral gunner grins at me and gives me a hefty punch on the shoulder. The bruise that develops will be the only wound I have to show for flying this particular mission.

‘The cloud is beginning to break up a little. Now and again a village, a patch of woodland or a small lake can be seen, only to disappear again just as quickly. The Staffel continues on its way undisturbed. Nine grey-green specks suddenly pop up behind us out of nowhere. They rapidly overtake us and turn out to be German fighters, Messerschmitt 109s. As they cross our path they waggle their wings in greeting. We return the compliment, but in a slower and more sedate manner as befits a bomber.

‘It can’t be long now. Up in front the pilot and navigator have got their eyes glued to the Staffelkapitan’s machine. The clouds have thinned out even more now to reveal several larger towns. There! The leading aircraft is opening its bomb-bay doors. Our leutnant lies ready and waiting, peering intently into his bombsight. Now!

‘Large grey shapes tumble from the machine ahead. We immediately release our own bombs. Soon the first bombs can be seen exploding among buildings on the banks of a river. Now all the other aircraft are dropping their bombs, followed by glittering silver shoals of incendiaries.

‘By this time the Polish flak has opened up, but the enemy’s fire is confused and inaccurate. The whole affair has lasted little more than two minutes. We have reversed course, the clouds have closed in again beneath us and we are all safely on our way back to base.’

Between 4 and 6 September I./KG 1 and I./KG 152 moved up from their bases in Pomerania to forward landing grounds closer to the Polish border. The transfer resulted in each unit suffering its first casualty of the campaign. The loss of I./KG 152’s ‘V4+A13’ on 5 September has been variously attributed both to Warsaw’s flak defences and to PZL fighters. The former is perhaps marginally the more likely, as Polish fighter pilots initially described their victim as a Bf 110.

A more disturbing case of faulty aircraft recognition occurred the following day when a machine of I./KG 1 was shot down near Lodz with the loss of its crew. One source identified the culprit as a Bf 109D fighter of I./ZG 2 (although, understandably perhaps, there is no record of any Messerschmitt pilot submitting a claim for an He 111 on the date in question!). Such incidents were not uncommon in Poland, Heinkel crews frequently reporting instances of ‘friendly fire’, both from the ground and in the air. Fortunately, few proved fatal. But the situation was considered serious enough for many He 111 units to have grossly oversized crosses painted on the upper and lower wings of their aircraft.

I./KG 4 was also in action not far from Lodz on 6 September, losing three of their number – one to flak and the other pair to PZL fighters- while attacking bridges over the Vistula south of Warsaw.

With the campaign in Poland nearing the end of its first week, it was apparent that the demarcation line between Luftflotten 1 and 4’s areas of operations was becoming much less rigidly defined. The ground fighting in the north of the country was all but over and the Luftwaffe’s Kampfgruppen were beginning to direct their focus of attention to the south. Their main purpose now was to harry the retreating Polish army, stopping it from establishing a new defensive line along the Vistula and preventing any attempts to escape southeastwards into Rumania.

7 September thus witnessed not only LG 1 ‘s two East Prussian-based Gruppen targeting the railway network in central Poland, it also saw four of Luftflotte l’s He 111 units ordered to the southern sector. I./KG 1 and I./KG 152 left the Baltic coast area and transferred down to BreslauSchongarten, while II./KG 26 and I./KG 53 took up temporary residence at Nieder-Ellguth and Neudorf, also in Silesia. From here they were to fly low-level missions in direct support of the German army in the field.

This was a complete departure for the He 111s, whose primary role hitherto had been high-altitude bombing raids on fixed objectives. And these new missions were to expose another weakness in the basic Heinkel design. Although it had been the best of the trio of pre-war bombers tested by the Luftwaffe in terms of speed and bomb-carrying capacity, these attributes had been bought at the expense of arms and armour.

The first week of combat in Poland had already revealed that the Heinkel’s relatively weak defensive armament made it vulnerable to determined fighter attack (something already hinted at in Spain). Now, low-level operations – usually carried out either singly or in Ketten of three aircraft – were to highlight the He Ill’s deficiency in armour and its susceptibility to an unlucky hit from light Flak or ground fire. By 8 September spearheads of the German army had reached the outskirts of Warsaw. The final outcome of the campaign could no longer be in any doubt, but the fighting was far from over and the Heinkel Kampfgruppen continued to suffer casualties. On 9 September I./KG 1 lost two of its He 111 E s to a combination of fighters and flak over Lublin. A machine of LG 1 was also lost on the same date, being forced to land behind enemy lines near Deblin.

Two newcomers to the Polish front had flown into East Prussia on 8 September. Temporarily detached from their parent Gruppen in northwest Germany, 2./KG 54 and 5./KG 28 undertook their first missions 48 hours later. All aircraft returned safely from a high-altitude raid on Polish troop concentrations near Warsaw on the morning of 10 September. But a low-level attack by the two Staffeln on enemy columns in the same area later that afternoon was met by heavy ground fire that brought down one of 2./KG 54’s He 111Ps.

The Polish army launched an ambitious counter-offensive along the River Bzura to the west of Warsaw on 11 September, but it was quickly and effectively brought to a halt, not least by the Luftwaffe’s ground-support units backed up by the Heinkels of KGs 1, 4 and 26. Elsewhere, the other He 111 Kampfgruppen continued to strike at retreating enemy troop columns. Attacked by PZL fighters over Przemysl in the far south on 11 September, a He 111P of KG 55 had been forced down between the opposing lines. All those aboard were rescued from no-man’s land by German troops.

The crew of a Geschwaderstab LG 1 Heinkel was not so fortunate. ‘Ll+CA’, which took a direct flak hit over Warsaw on 11 September, was to be the fifth and final He 111H lost by the Lehrgeschwader during the campaign, for the Luftwaffe High Command had already issued orders for the gradual withdrawal of the Heinkel Kampfgruppen from the fighting in Poland. And among the first to retire were II. and III./LG 1. They departed on 12 September together with II./KG 26 and I./KG 53.

The following day most of the remaining units participated in Operation Wasserkante (Northern seaboard), the last mass raid on Warsaw. It was carried out by a force of some 180 bombers, and laid waste to further large areas of the Polish capital. Then, on 14 September, bad weather closed in. Flying activity was reduced to a minimum for much of the next week. At least one more Heinkel raid was flown against Warsaw, however, as witness the following account:

‘Not to put too fine a point on it, the weather conditions were – to use an old flyers’ expression – “an absolute pig”. Every half-hour a slight break in the overcast. Every hour perhaps a brief glimpse of the sun. For the rest of the time an absolute “pea souper”, hovering above the field at anything from 200 to 600 metres. But the “weather frogs” – the meteorologists – knew better. According to them an area of good weather was approaching from the southeast. Take-off was therefore scheduled for 1310 hrs.

‘And so it turned out. On the dot of 1310 hrs the first Staffeln of our two Gruppen roared off. Our crew had drawn the short straw. We were assigned to bring up the rear of the whole formation and not only “lay our own eggs”, but also take aerial photographs to establish the results of our two Gruppen s bombing. To revert back to flying jargon, we were to be the “Aunt Sally” in the event of any attack from astern.

‘At least, we thought, we won’t have to worry too much about navigation. Just follow the bunch in front of us. But no such luck! By the time we had climbed to 400 metres every single machine ahead of us had been swallowed up in the murk. We were thus very much on our own as we too plunged into the milky-grey blanket of fog.

‘Our course was to take us to Praga, the eastern suburb of Warsaw, where, according to reports, the Poles were still holding out. At 2800 metres we finally emerged from the clouds. As we crossed into Poland we found ourselves flying above a fantastic white carpet. Bathed in bright sunlight, the tops of the clouds, like tightly packed balls of cotton wool, stretched unbroken in every direction.

‘Our navigator was beginning to look thoughtful. We had to be spot on target – not only to drop our own bombs, but also to make our photographic run. On top of that we had orders that, under no circumstances, were we to inflict any damage on the Polish capital’s diplomatic quarter, which was separated from our objectives by nothing more than the width of the River Vistula.

‘But we were in luck. Gaps began to appear in the clouds. And through one of them we could see in the far distance diagonally ahead of us the silver ribbon of the Vistula. It was unmistakeable, the river’s many sandbanks turning it into a filigree of individual channels all sparkling in the sunlight.

‘From our height of 4000 metres we dived quickly through the opening in the clouds and there spread out in front of us lay Warsaw. A brief glance took in the city’s four bridges – ideal marker points, as the railway stations we were after were situated on the right bank of the river level with them. Below us we saw the last Kette of our Gruppe just leaving the target area and retiring northwards, pursued by heavy and fairly accurate flak.

‘Once again fortune smiled on us. Despite the smoke hanging in the air we were able to line up our sights on the eastern railway station almost undisturbed. And by the time we came round again to take our photographs the enemy fire had died away completely. Mission accomplished!’

The bad weather of 15 September did not prevent I./KG l’s transfer from Breslau to Krosno, in southern Poland, on that date. The Gruppe’s He 111Es may thus have become the only Heinkel bombers to operate from Polish soil, although they carried out relatively very few missions during the 48 hours they were there. 15 September also saw KG 55’s only total loss of the campaign when a 1. Staffel crew failed to return from a raid on Dubno.

Poland’s fate was finally sealed by the Red Army’s invasion from the east on 17 September. By that time the He 111s’ part in the campaign was effectively over. On 18 September, while still pinned down at Breslau by the adverse weather, I./KG 152 was officially redesignated to become II./KG 1. The following day both I. and II./KG 1 returned to their home bases, as too did I./KG 4.

Since their Dubno mission of 15 September both Gruppen of KG 55 had also remained grounded by the atrocious conditions. The rain had poured down, turning their fields into ‘little more than mudholes’. But on 20 September the weather improved sufficiently to allow them to start withdrawing. 2./KG 54 and 5./KG 28 also returned to their parent Gruppen on 20 and 21 September respectively. The last He 111 Kampfgruppen of all to retire from the Polish campaign were II. and III./KG 4, which finally departed on 22 September.

The defenders of Warsaw were to hold out for five more days, and they suffered bombardment until the very end. However, with the Heinkels all back on their home fields, the final raids on the beleaguered Polish capital had to be carried out by Ju 52/3m transports, their crews reportedly ‘shovelling incendiaries out of their side loading hatches’.

ESCAPE TO THE CARPATHIANS

Army Group South Ukraine, 19 August-26 September 1944

The summer offensive against Army Groups Center and North Ukraine drove an enormous blunt wedge into the center of the Eastern Front. The flanks, reaching out to the Arctic Ocean and the Black Sea, still held up, but they were stretched taut and ready to snap under the slightest pressure. Though much of the strain was beneath the surface, it was not on that account any the less acute.

ARMY GROUP SOUTH UKRAINE

By 23 July, when Schoerner was called in the early morning hours to take command of Army Group North, Army Group South Ukraine had experienced more than two months of deepening quiet ruffled only by Schoerner’s strenuous training and fitness programs. The Russians had taken so many divisions off the front that the OKH directed the army group to do something about tying down those that were left.

The front had not changed since the Soviet spring offensive had stopped. On the left, in a very rough arc from Kuty to east of Iasi, Armeegruppe Woehler, Eighth Army with Rumanian Fourth Army sandwiched in its middle, held a sector—about half in the eastern Carpathians and half east-west across Moldavia north of Targul Frumos and Iasi. Sixth Army reached from east of Iasi to the Dnestr River below Dubossary and then followed the river to about the center of the Soviet bridgehead below Tiraspol, where it tied in with the left of Rumanian Third Army on the lower river line. Sixth Army and Rumanian Third Army formed the Armeegruppe Dumitrescu under the Commanding General, Rumanian Third Army, Col. Gen. Petre Dumitrescu.

Two large rivers, the Prut and the Siret, cut the army group zone from north to south, and the Russians were across the upper reaches of both. Rugged, wooded terrain in the Targul Frumos-Iasi area partly compensated for that disadvantage, at least as long as the army group retained enough German divisions to backstop the Rumanians. The biggest tactical change during the early summer was Army Group North Ukraine’s retreat deep into Poland, which left Army Group South Ukraine virtually stranded east of the Carpathians. Malinovskiy’s Second Ukrainian Front opposed Armeegruppe Woehler and Tolbukhin’s Third Ukrainian Front, Armeegruppe Dumitrescu.

At the time of the change in command, the Army Group South Ukraine staff’s foremost concern was to determine how dangerous were the strains beneath the thin veneer of the quiet front and what could be done before they reached the breaking point. Two days before he was transferred, Schoerner wrote Hitler that leading personalities in Rumania were wavering and trying to establish contacts with the Allies, and that Antonescu was losing his hold on the country. Schoerner thought a personal interview with Hitler might strengthen Antonescu’s position. On 25 July the army group staff drafted a report stating that after being forced to transfer 6 panzer divisions, 2 infantry divisions, and 2 self-propelled assault gun brigades in the past month, the army group could no longer hold its front against a full-fledged attack. The staff recommended that the army group be authorized in advance to pull back as soon as such an attack developed. That report was not sent, apparently because the estimate of the new commanding general, Friessner, was more optimistic.

RUMANIA

The most pressing worry for the moment was the internal condition of Rumania. Army Group South Ukraine, although entirely dependent on the Rumanian railroads and forced in large part to subsist off the local economy, had no executive authority in Rumania. Everything had to be decided between Bucharest and Berlin; and the army group staff by late July was convinced that on the most important question, Rumanian loyalty to the alliance, something was seriously out of tune. That Antonescu, on whose personal authority alone the alliance was based, no longer possessed that authority, seemed to be no secret to anyone in Rumania except three persons: the Marshal himself, Manfred Freiherr von Killinger, the German Minister to Rumania, and General der Kavallerie Erik Hansen, the chief of the German military mission. The latter two were the responsible German representatives in Rumania. Both von Killinger, a World War I U-boat commander and long-time Nazi turned diplomat, and Hansen, an energetic but inflexible officer, were blinded by their own faith in Antonescu. Consequently, they reinforced the already strong tendency in Hitler’s circle to confuse Antonescu’s personal loyalty with that of the Rumanian Army and people. The Army Group South Ukraine staff was certain that Antonescu was being kept in power only by his opponents’ rapidly diminishing unwillingness to take the risks of an attempt to remove him, and that the country, Antonescu included, was staying in the war solely because its fear of the Russians still slightly exceeded its desire for peace.

On 1 August, anticipating repercussions throughout southeastern Europe when Turkey broke diplomatic relations with Germany, which it did the next day, Friessner ordered each of his two armies to set up a mobile regiment that could be used to counter “possible surprises in Rumanian territory.” Strangely and, as it later proved, fatefully, the army group concentrated its attention almost exclusively on the dangers which would arise if Rumania defected. It did not pursue the, for it, equally vital question, What, if anything, remained of the Rumanian Army’s never very strong will to fight? And the Rumanians held 160 miles of the army group’s 392-mile-long front.

In the first week of August, Antonescu went to Rastenburg to talk to Hitler. The two met under a darkening cloud of German reverses in France and the East and in an atmosphere of mutual complaints and suspicions; yet, in the last analysis, neither had any real choice but to tell the other what he wanted to hear. In May, after more or less open negotiations in Cairo with the Americans, British, and Russians, Antonescu had rejected one set of armistice terms. When secret negotiations conducted at the same time in Sweden with the Soviet Union alone had brought a somewhat more lenient offer, he had again not been able to steel himself to take the plunge. The report on the conference at Fuehrer headquarters which reached Army Group South Ukraine described the results as “very positive.” Hitler had told the Marshal what was being done to restore the German situation, and both parties had promised each other “everything possible.” In the transmission, someone had added, “It now remains to be seen how far the promises will be carried out.”

Because many of the individual points to be discussed arose out of its presence on Rumanian territory and because the time appeared ripe for raising fundamental questions, the army group had sent its operations officer to Fuehrer headquarters while Antonescu was there. Friessner had sent along a letter for Hitler in which he stated that the army group could hold its front if it did not lose any more divisions but had to be prepared for all eventualities. He recommended giving the army group control of all German military activities in Rumania and the appointment of a single, responsible political agency with which the army group could collaborate. The operations officer, on Friessner’s instructions, told Guderian that the OKH would have to reconcile itself to permitting the army group to go back to a line on the Carpathians and lower Danube if the army group had to give up more divisions or if the Rumanians became unreliable. After talking to Hitler, Guderian replied that he “hoped” if events took such a turn to be able “to give the necessary order in time.” The prospect that such an order would be given, however, faded after the talks with Antonescu revealed that, even though he had argued in the spring for going back to the Carpathians-Danube line, he had in the meantime convinced himself that for Rumania to sacrifice any more territory would be fatal.

To Keitel the army group operations officer broached the question of having Friessner named Armed Forces commander in Rumania and proposed replacing Hansen with an officer “who would represent the German interest more emphatically.” Keitel appeared impressed at first but, after the talks with Antonescu, said he saw no need for any changes because Rumania would stand by Germany “through thick and thin” In sum, the tottering alliance was patched together for a last time at Army Group South Ukraine’s expense.

THE OFFENSIVE BEGINS

On 8 August air reconnaissance for the first time detected Soviet troop movements east of the Prut. Heavy traffic toward and light traffic away from the front confirmed that the troops were coming in, not going out. On the 13th the OKH took another division from the army group, bringing the total transfers since June to eleven divisions and the overall strength reduction to nearly one-third—much more, almost three-fourths, in terms of panzer divisions. On that day, too, a rumor that Antonescu had been overthrown touched off a spell of confusion and near panic in the army group rear area.

Armeegruppe Woehler reported on the 16th that the Russians would be ready to attack in a day or two, probably west of Iasi, to drive a wedge between Iasi and Targul Frumos. The Rumanians, the Armeegruppe declared, were “completely confident” (See Map 30.) By the afternoon of the 19th, after Second Ukrainian Front, Malinovskiy commanding, had launched artillery-supported probing attacks along the Armeegruppe Woehler front, the army group expected to be hit heavily the next day west of Iasi and predicted a secondary attack south of Tiraspol.

The day dawned hot and sunny on 20 August 1944. The Soviet artillery laid down heavy barrages on two fairly narrow sectors, one northwest of Iasi, the other south of Tiraspol. By the time the infantry of Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts jumped off, several Rumanian divisions were about to collapse.

Two of Armeegruppe Woehler’s Rumanian divisions protecting Iasi abandoned their positions without a fight. On the west side of the gap left by the Rumanians, German reserves threw up a screening line, but on the east the Russians continued south, turning into Iasi in the afternoon. South of Tiraspol the attack struck the Sixth Army-Rumanian Third Army boundary. Sixth Army’s right flank corps, the hardest hit, held its ground, but the Rumanian division tying in on the boundary collapsed, carrying with it its neighbor on the south. By day’s end Friessner realized that the Rumanian’s performance would fall below even their customary low standard. How far below he had yet to learn.

The two Ukrainian fronts—Marshal Timoshenko co-ordinating for the Stavka—had, according to the Soviet figures, superiorities of slightly less than 2:1 in troops, better than 2:1 in artillery and aircraft, and better than 3:1 in tanks and self-propelled artillery. All together Malinovskiy and Tolbukhin had 90 divisions and 6 tank and mechanized corps, 929,000 men.

The main effort, by Sixth Tank Army and Twenty-seventh, Fifty-second, and Fifty-third Armies, was in Malinovskiy’s sector northwest of Iasi. There Sixth Tank Army went in on the first afternoon, and by nightfall it and Twenty-seventh Army were driving for an operational breakthrough. On the right, north of Targul Frumos, Seventh Guards Army and the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov were poised for a thrust south along the Siret. Tolbukhin had the Thirty-seventh and Fifty-seventh Armies and two mechanized corps charging out of the Tiraspol bridgehead. On their left Forty-sixth Army had split its forces to envelop Rumanian III Corps on the lower Dnestr.

On the morning of the second day Friessner still thought the battle would develop about as had been expected. Although he did not have a clear picture of enemy strength, the army group’s intelligence seemed to confirm that the build-up had not been up to the previous Soviet level for an all-out offensive. Furthermore, the main effort was against Armeegruppe Woehler and there the second line, the TRAJAN position on the heights behind Iasi, was considered exceptionally good.

When Antonescu arrived at the army group headquarters in midmorning, Friessner told him that he would close the front below Tiraspol and, taking everything he could from Armeegruppe Dumitrescu, strengthen the north front enough to prevent a sweep behind the Prut. The Russians, he thought, could not bring as much strength to bear against Dumitrescu as they could against Woehler and, having gone deeper the day before than expected, would probably have to pause to regroup. Antonescu, formerly always the advocate of a flexible defense, insisted that the front, including Iasi, absolutely had to be held. He declared that he was personally answerable for every piece of ground lost and it was not the fate of Bessarabia that was being decided but the fate of the whole Rumanian people “forever.”

During the day every report from the front brought more alarming news than the last. In the north Iasi was lost and the offensive expanded west to Targul Frumos. Tanks of Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov drove through the TRAJAN position at a point near Targul Frumos, and tank-supported infantry drew up to it along most of the stretch west of the Prut. Armeegruppe Woehler reported that five of its Rumanian divisions had fallen apart completely. South of Tiraspol a 20-mile gap opened between Sixth Army and Rumanian Third Army.

In the afternoon Friessner decided to take Armeegruppe Dumitrescu behind the Prut and try to free enough German troops to reinforce Armeegruppe Woehler. The army group and the Operations Branch, OKH, agreed that would be only a first step in a withdrawal which could not end forward of the Carpathians-Danube line. Hitler, after being assured that Antonescu was now “letting himself be guided solely by military considerations” and therefore had no objections, gave his approval during the night. By then an order was out to Sixth Army to get everything it could behind the Prut immediately. The Sixth Army staff was among the first elements to go, because Russian tanks were already closing in on its headquarters at Komrat.

For the next two days the battle continued as it had begun. The Rumanians, even the supposedly elite Rumanian Armored Division, refused to fight. The Russians moved south fast behind the Prut and through the torn-open center of Armeegruppe Dumitrescu without the Germans being able to commit anything against them. Behind the Prut the Soviet tank points reached Barlad and Husi on the 23d. Third Ukrainian Front’s advance west carried past Komrat nearly to the Prut, and Forty-sixth Army turned its left flank southeast and on its right attacked across the Dnestr Liman to encircle Rumanian III Corps and one German division. The main body of German troops, the whole front from the Prut east of Iasi to Tiraspol, was falling back to the southwest fast but not fast enough to outrace the Soviet pincers closing behind it.

RUMANIA SURRENDERS

In the early evening on 23 August army group headquarters heard that Antonescu had been called to an audience with the King in the afternoon; the government had been dissolved, and Antonescu and its members arrested. Later the chief of staff talked to von Killinger, who had returned from the palace where the King had informed him that a new government had been formed and it intended to sign an armistice. One condition that would not be accepted, the King had assured him, was that Rumania should take up arms against the Germans. But the King’s broadcast that night was less reassuring. In it he stated that Rumania would join the United Nations against the common enemy—Germany—and, in what practically amounted to a declaration of war against Hungary, that Rumania denounced the Treaty of Vienna of 30 August 1940 which had awarded the Szekler Strip in Transylvania to Hungary.

The contradiction in the King’s statements apparently arose from the existence of two sets of armistice terms. Although the Rumanian Government in the public statement accepted the more stringent terms which had been offered by the three powers—the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union—at the negotiations which began that night in Cairo, the Rumanian delegation was instructed to secure amendments which would include the concessions the Soviet Union had offered in secret. The latter would have allowed Rumania to declare itself neutral in the conflict with Germany and, of much greater moment to the Rumanians, proposed arrangements which would assure the continued existence of an independent Rumanian state.

Shortly before midnight on the 23d, Friessner telephoned Hitler an account of the Rumanian coup and told him he had taken command of all Wehrmacht elements in Rumania and was going to take the front back to the Carpathians-Danube line. At midnight the Operations Branch, OKH, relayed an order from Hitler to smash the “Putsch,” arrest the King and “the court camarilla,” and turn the government over either to Antonescu or, if he were “no longer available,” to a pro-German general. On learning that von Killinger, Hansen, and the commanding general of the German air units in Rumania, General der Flieger Alfred Gerstenberg, were being held under guard in the legation, Friessner turned Hitler’s assignment over to an SS general whom he located in one of the installations outside Bucharest. The SS general reported at 0300 that troops would arrive from Ploeşti in an hour and a half and would then move into the city.

Before dawn Hansen called to tell Friessner that the Rumanian War Minister had declared that if the German measures against the new government were not stopped within air hour the Rumanian Army would turn its weapons against the German Army. Hansen added that he and the others with him were convinced the German forces were not strong enough to take Bucharest. When Friessner asked whether he was under restraint, Hansen replied that he was.

Friessner transmitted a résumé of the conversation to the Fuehrer headquarters along with a reminder that the King had allegedly promised not to fight the Germans. A few minutes later Jodl called to say that Hansen was not making a free decision, anyway the whole affair was bound to go awry sooner or later, so it was best to make a clean sweep right away. Almost simultaneously, a call came in from Gerstenberg, whom the Rumanians had released thinking he would attempt to stop the impending German action. He described the new Rumanian Government as a small, frightened clique, protected only by a thin screen of troops around the capital. Friessner thereupon gave him command in the Bucharest area.

At 0730 6,000 German troops began to march on the capital. Ten minutes later they met sharp resistance and were stopped. Shortly before noon, Gerstenberg admitted that so far he had not been able to get past the outlying suburbs. He had taken the radio station but nothing else worth mentioning. In the meantime, Friessner had learned that not a single Rumanian general was willing to go along with the Germans.

In the afternoon, on Hitler’s orders, Fourth Air Force bombed the royal palace and government buildings in Bucharest. The bombing not only gave the government an excuse for a complete, open breach with Germany, which it would probably have effected anyway, but also united national sentiment against the Germans. As the day ended, the deadlock around the capital continued while Gerstenberg waited for reinforcements from the Southeastern Theater. Friessner had asked for troops from Hungary as well, but the OKW had replied that it was also “getting strange reports” from that country.

SIXTH ARMY DESTROYED

The 24th and 25th were days of unmitigated disaster for Army Group South Ukraine. On the 24th the armored spearheads of Second Ukrainian Front took Bacau on the Siret River and crossed the Barladul downstream from Barlad. Sixth Army, all of it except service troops, was drawing together south and east of Husi. Parts of two corps were west of the Prut, but the main body was still east of the river. The army headquarters, which from its location in Focsani only had intermittent radio contact with its corps, wanted to command the whole force to turn south and try to escape across the lower Prut or the Danube. Friessner, assuming that the Russians would close the crossings before Sixth Army could reach them, ordered a breakthrough west past Bacau to the Carpathians.

On the 25th, when Rumania declared war, the destruction of the army group was nearly complete. It did not know what was happening to Sixth Army or what would happen to the numerous German units and installations in Rumania. Friessner told the OKH that what was left would have to retreat into Hungary and close the passes through the Carpathians and the Transylvanian Alps.

On the 26th Tolbukhin’s troops took Kagul, completing the ring around Sixth Army, and Malinovskiy’s forces began turning southwest across the lower Siret. From the right flank of the 3d Mountain Division in the mountains west of Targu Neamt to the mouth of the Danube 250 miles to the southeast, Army Group South Ukraine had no semblance of a front anywhere. In that fantastic situation Hitler intervened with an order to hold the line of the Carpathians, Focsani, Galatz, and the lower Danube.

The next day Malinovskiy’s spearhead across the Siret took Focsani. Headquarters, Sixth Army, after trying briefly to hold a line between Focsani and Galatz with rear echelon troops, fell back toward Buzau. Fragmentary radio reports from the army’s encircled divisions indicated that two pockets had formed, one, the larger (10 divisions), stationary on the east bank of the Prut east of Husi, the other (8 divisions) moving west slowly south of Husi. North of Bucharest the Rumanians had the German attack force surrounded. At Ploeşti the 5th Flak Division had lost the oil refineries and half of the city. Eighth Army, going back from the Siret, had barely enough troops to organize blocking detachments in the Oitoz Pass and the passes to the north. The mountains offered cover, but the deep flank, 190 miles in the Transylvanian Alps from the southeastern tip of Hungary to the Iron Gate, was entirely unprotected. The planes of Fourth Air Force were using their last gas to fly into eastern Hungary. On the south the Bulgarians, not officially at war with the Soviet Union and looking desperately for a way to keep the Soviet Army off their territory, were disarming and interning all Army Group South Ukraine troops who crossed the border.

RETREAT TO THE CARPATHIANS

During the night of 29 August OKH ordered Army Group South Ukraine to establish a solid front along the spine of the Transylvanian Alps and the Carpathians tying in with the Southeastern Theater at the Iron Gate and Army Group North Ukraine on the Polish border. Hungarian Second Army, forming in eastern Hungary, was placed under Friessner’s command.

The mountains, in fact, afforded the best defense line, provided that Friessner could muster enough strength to take and hold the passes on Rumanian territory in the Transylvanian Alps. How difficult that would be became clear the next day when he reported that of Sixth Army not a single complete division had escaped. What was left, the headquarters and service troops with some 5,000 vehicles, was jammed into the Buzaul Valley and was as yet by no means out of the Russians’ reach.

The army group had, all told, four full divisions; three had been on the left flank and not hit by the offensive and one had been on its way out of the army group zone and was returned after the offensive began. All the army group actually held was an intermittent front in the Carpathians. If the Russians decided to make a fast thrust north through the Predeal and Turnu Rosu Passes, the army group chief of staff added, “The jig will be up out here.”

On 30 August, Malinovskiy’s troops took Ploeşti and the next day marched to Bucharest. In carrying out Stavka’s orders, Malinovskiy, on 29 August, had split his forces. He had sent the Sixth Tank, Twenty-seventh, and Fifty-third Armies between the Danube and the Carpathians to clear southern Rumania to Turnu Severin. With the smaller half he undertook to force the Germans out of the eastern Carpathians. Fortieth Army moved against the relatively intact Eighth Army left flank. Seventh Guards Army and the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Gorshkov were to force the Oitoz Pass and push across the mountains toward Sibiu and Cluj.

When the Russians began to move west south of the mountains, Friessner decided he might yet have a chance to close at least the Predeal and Turnu Rosu Passes. (The Southeastern Theater Command had assumed responsibility for the Iron Gate.) The remaining pass, the Vulcan, was at the moment out of reach of both the Southeastern Theater and Army Group South Ukraine. At the same time, considering the chances of getting the passes slight, Friessner ordered the armies to reconnoiter a line on the Muresul River across the western end of the Szekler Strip.

On 5 September Hungarian Second Army attacked south from the vicinity of Cluj to close the Turnu Rosu Pass. The day before, air reconnaissance had picked up signs that Second Ukrainian Front was beginning to turn north, and Friessner had alerted the armies to get ready, if ordered, to act fast and get behind the Muresul in one leap. For the moment the order did not have to be given. Hungarian Second Army gained ground rapidly against feeble resistance by the hastily reconstituted Rumanian Fourth Army. (Rumanian First and Fourth Armies went under Malinovskiy’s command on 6 September.)

During the day Sixth Army brought its last troops out of the Buzaul Valley. But that and the Hungarians’ success were only minor bright spots on a predominantly dismal scene. After hearing nothing for several days, the army group was forced to write off as lost the five corps staffs and eighteen divisions in the two pockets. The Russians going west reached Turnu Severin, ten miles southeast of the Iron Gate, during the day. By evening Friessner had concluded he would have to take Sixth Army and Eighth Army behind the Muresul but decided to wait a day or two—long enough to mitigate the unfortunate contrast of German troops retreating while their Hungarian allies were advancing.