The 10.Panzer-Division was also ordered to Tunisia in response to the Allied landings in French North Africa. The bulk of Panzer-Regiment 7 landed in Tunis in the period from 27 November to 5 December 1942. Ships carrying most of the 5.Kompanie and 8.Kompanie were sunk on 3 December 1942. In total, 2 Pz.Kpfw.lI, 16 Pz.Kpfw.lIl, 12 Pz.Kpfw.lV, and 3 Pz.Bef.Wg. were lost in transit out of the original 21 Pz.Kpfw.ll, 105 Pz.Kpfw.lll, 20 Pz.Kpfw.IV and 9 Pz.Bef.Wg. shipped with Panzer-Regiment 7.
In addition to the Panzers sent to Tunisia with the units, from 1 November 1942 to 1 May 1943 a total of 68 Pz.Kpfw.III and 142 Pz.Kpfw.lV had been shipped to North Africa as replacements, of which 16 Pz.Kpfw.III and 28 Pz.Kpfw.lV were reported as having been sunk in transit. But these reinforcements were insufficient to deal with the combined tank strength of the American and British forces. Worn down by attrition (only 44 Pz.Kpfw.lIl, 25 Pz.Kpfw.IV and 1 Tiger were reported as operational in the last strength report compiled on 4 May), the last of the Panzer units had surrendered in Tunisia by 13 May 1943.
The 10th Panzer Division was first formed on 1 April 1939 in Prague, as a composite unit made up of previously established units throughout Germany. Many of these units were transferred from the 20th Motorized Division, the 29th Motorized Division, and the 3rd Light Division. By fall of 1939, the division was still forming, but was nonetheless committed to the 1939 Invasion of Poland before the process was complete. For that reason, the 10th Panzer Division remained in reserve for most of that campaign. It was moved from Pomerania in August into Poland, where it was hastily given control of the 7th Panzer Regiment, the 4th Panzer Brigade and several SS units.
The division completed its formation by winter of 1940. It consisted of the 10th Rifle Brigade with the 69th and 86th Rifle Regiments, the 4th Panzer Brigade with the 7th and 8th Panzer Regiments, and the 90th Artillery Regiment.
Once complete, the division was sent to France to participate in the Battle of France. Committed to the XIX Motorized Corps, the 10th Panzer Division was committed to the southern axis of the fight, with the 1st and 2nd Panzer Divisions as well as Infantry Regiment Großdeutschland. It advanced through Luxembourg broke through the French lines at the Muese River near Sedan, all the way to the English Channel in its first engagement. At Sedan, the division remained briefly in reserve to protect the German bridgehead across the river from French counterattack. From there, the division pushed allied forces from the ports in the Flanders region, before engaged in mopping-up operations in western areas of France after the French surrender. Following this, the division engaged in occupation duty and training in France.
In March 1941, the division was recalled to Germany, and moved to the border with the Soviet Union in June of that year in preparation for Operation Barbarossa. Once the operation was launched, the division fought in engagements at Minsk, Smolensk, Vyasma, and the Battle of Moscow. It remained in the region during the Russian winter offensive of 1941-1942, holding Juchnow, near Rzhev, against repeated Russian counterattacks from January to April 1942. By 1942, the division had suffered massive casualties and losses, forcing it to be withdrawn to rebuild.
The division was sent to Amiens, France for rehabilitation. Here, it was reorganized, eliminating the brigade headquarters because the division had been so badly mauled it no longer needed them. In 1942, the division was rushed to Dieppe, where it played a minor role in countering the Dieppe Raid by Allied forces. Once the Allies landed in North Africa, the 10th Panzer Division was placed in occupation duty in Vichy France, and rushed to the African Theater in late 1942 as soon as transport became available. It landed in Tunisia and participating in the Battle of Kasserine Pass and several of the other early battles with units of the United States Army, newly committed to the war. In December 1942, the division, now a part of Fifth Panzer Army, consolidated defenses around Tunis, and the battle-weary troops were able to form a line against the advancing allied forces.
The division remained fighting during the early months of 1943. At that time, when the Axis line collapsed in May 1943, the division was trapped. It surrendered on May 12 and was never rebuilt.
Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg
In September 1942, the Chief of the General Staff of the O.K.H., Generaloberst Franz Halder, a close friend of von Stauffenberg, was succeeded by General der Infanterie Kurt Zeitzler. von Stauffenberg did not think much of him but Zeitzler highly respected von Stauffenberg and considered him ‘a good future corps and army commander’. Such promising officers were rare and therefore, von Stauffenberg was promoted to Oberleutnant on January 1st, 1943. Shortly after, without consulting von Stauffenberg himself, he was transferred to the post of chief of operations (Ia) of the 10. Panzerkorps in North-Africa. Zeitzler officially declared: “I wanted him to gain experience as a staff officer and troop commander in order to prepare him for his future task as commander of a corps and an army” The decision for his transfer was also made based on the wish to get the outspoken and explicit officer away from the eastern front where he caused increasing unrest. The supreme command wanted to save him from the claws of the SS and SD. von Stauffenberg regretted the necessity but he told his new divisional commander that the German soil was gradually becoming too hot for him.
On February 15th, von Stauffenberg, full of energy, officially embarked on his task in the Afrikakorps. At that moment, the 10. Panzerdivision was in combat near Sidi-Bourzid and the Casserine Pass where the freshly arrived American 2nd Corps got their baptism of fire. For the Americans, the operation ended in disaster but after Major-general George Patton had assumed command, the Germans were driven back.
On April 7th, the same day British-American troops from the west made contact with General Montgomery’s 8th Army (Bio Montgomery), von Stauffenberg assisted in the organization of the German withdrawal to the Tunisian coastal town of Sfax. His staff car zigzagged through a long line of trucks and soldiers when the column was attacked by a number of American P-40 fighter bombers. Numerous vehicles and soldiers were hit. As his driver wound his way through the wreckage, von Stauffenberg stood upright in his car, giving directions when he was targeted by the .50 machineguns of the P-40s. His hands raised above his head, he jumped out of the car but at that moment he was hit by the bullets. He was found later on, semi conscious, lying beside his overturned and burnt out car. He was gravely injured: both eyes were damaged by bullets and his right arm was all but shot away, just as two fingers of his left hand. One of his knees was hit and shrapnel lodged in his back and in his legs. He was rushed to the nearest field hospital in Sfax were he was immediately operated upon. The remains of his right hand were amputated just below his wrist, as well as his left ring finger and little finger. His left eye was also removed.
As Montgomery was approaching Sfax, von Stauffenberg was transferred to the hospital in Cartago. En route, the ambulance frequently came under fire from Allied aircraft. The physicians feared the worst and von Stauffenberg was flown to Munich. He was running a high fever, his entire body was bandaged and his chances of survival appeared slim. While in hospital, the Oberleutnant was being visited by many high ranking officers, including Zeitzler. Many family members came by as well, such as his wife, his mother and his uncle Nikolaus Graf von Üxküll-Gyllenband. von Stauffenberg talked to him about his growing awareness he had been spared to fulfill a certain task in his life. Because of this mission, his will power to recuperate was extremely strong. He was discharged from hospital as early as July 3rd.
von Stauffenberg regained the sight in his right eye and he taught himself to write again with his three remaining fingers, albeit arduously. From then on he wore a black patch over his left eye but later on, he had an artificial eye made. He also had deep scars in his face and his hearing was impaired. Despite his handicaps, von Stauffenberg did not consider himself disabled. After a bit of practice, he managed to dress himself again with his three fingers and his teeth only. He could hardly recall what he had done with all of those ten fingers when he still had them, he remarked jokingly.
The military historian Matthew Cooper described the German Panzer arm of service as: ‘a failure. A glorious failure … but a failure nonetheless … The significance of this failure was immense. The Panzer Divisions, the prime offensive weapon, had become indispensable … in both tactical and strategic terms … Upon the fortunes of the armoured force was based the fate of the whole army …’. ‘He concluded that the fault for the demise of the Panzer arm lay in the hands of Hitler and the Army commanders, ‘who failed to grasp the full implications of this new, revolutionary doctrine and consistently misused the force upon which their fortunes had come to depend’. Another reason was the neglect of equipment and organizational requirements, which stunted the Panzer arm’s potential in the field.
Hitler was impressed by armour operating in conjunction with other arms. In 1933, after witnessing a demonstration of mobile troops, he had been very enthusiastic, although armoured theory and practice were not new in the Germany Army. Indeed, it would be true to say that Germany’s armoured force was born on the steppes of Russia during the 1920s. Among other prohibitions, the conditions of the Versailles Treaty forbade the German Army from having armoured fighting vehicles. To circumvent this restriction, the governments of republican Germany and the Soviet Union entered into a conspiracy: the Soviet Union would grant a vast area of land upon which the German military commanders could practice manoeuvres, while in another part of that territory, factories would be set up to construct the armoured fighting vehicles which German experts had designed and which the German commanders needed for their manoeuvres. A great number of German senior commanders and armour theorists went to Kasan in the Soviet Union and developed the skills required in handling armour in the mass and in conducting exercises using aircraft. Between them, the Army and Luftwaffe commanders evolved and developed the concept of Blitzkrieg.
This collaboration between Germany and Russia lasted until 1935, when the Nazi government withdrew the Panzer and Luftwaffe detachments from Soviet territory. Thereafter, it was on German soil that tank design and construction was carried out. The first types of Panzer had been given the cover name ‘agricultural tractors’, to hoodwink the officers of the Armistice Commission, and because that name fitted In with conventional German military thinking that armoured vehicles would be used principally to bring supplies forward across the broken and difficult terrain of the battlefield. This negative attitude towards the strategic employment of armour as a separate arm of service was common to many generals of the high command: one even went so far as to say: ‘The idea of Panzer divisions is Utopian.’ But the protagonists advanced their ideas, and a Mechanized Troops Inspectorate was set up in June 1934. Hitler’s repudiation of the Treaty of Versailles brought the expansion of the German Army, and with it the beginning of an armoured force. As early as July 1935, an ad hoc Panzer division successfully carried out a training exercise which demonstrated that the movement and more particularly, the control – of major Panzer units was practicable. Even further than that, a general staff exercise had studied the employment of a whole Panzer corps in action. The year 1935 also saw the birth of a new arm of service when the Armoured Troops Command was created, which was followed by the raising of the first three Panzer divisions. The Armoured Troops Command had, as yet, no real authority, for armour was not considered to be an equal partner with the infantry, cavalry and artillery arms.
General Guderian was given the post of Chief of Mobile Troops, and took over the development and training of the entire mechanized force of the Army. As a consequence, he had direct access to Hitler. During 1938, two more Panzer divisions were created, as well as a command structure which allowed the Panzer arm – in theory, at least – to be one of the partners in the Field Army.
It was one thing to be accepted as a partner, it was another to be equipped for that role. The Panzers which the armoured divisions needed were issued to non-Panzer units, and another hindrance was that tank quality was poor. The majority of machines in the armoured force were Panzer I and II types, which were not only obsolete, but were under-gunned and under-armoured. A third negative factor was the raising of three light (mobile) divisions in November 1938. These, together with a fourth division, were created instead of Panzer divisions.
It was not until 1940 that the OKW placed all German armour within the framework of its Panzer divisions. This favourable situation was of brief duration, for by the middle years of the war one-fifth of the AFV strengths still remained outside a divisional framework. One final factor was that the German leadership neglected to plan for new types of replacement tanks. Apart from the existing III and IV types, no preparation was made to produce adequate stocks of tanks or other armoured vehicles or any new marks of Panzer. It was not until 1943 that top priority was given to AFV production. Total production of Panzers in the second month of the war, September 1939, was only fifty-seven machines. Clearly, there was a need for improvement.
German superiority in the matter of Panzer operations during the war owed nothing to the number or quality of the machines it fielded, but was rather the product of superior organizations and training. The campaign in Poland did not see the Panzer force being used in the way that Guderian and the other theorists had planned. It was, instead, the speed with which the whole German Army moved – not just that of the Panzer divisions – which brought victory. For the Polish campaign, the German Army had fielded 2,100 tanks, and lost 218 of them. More serious than the 10 per cent battle loss was the high rate of mechanical failure, which kept 25 per cent of the machines out of action at anyone time. There had been no improvement by 1940, when the war in the west opened. For that campaign, out of a total of 2,574 machines, fewer than 627 were of the heavier Panzer III and Panzer IV types, and 1,613 were the obsolete Panzer I and II. Nevertheless, as Guderian recorded, the Panzer force fought its battle more or less without interference from the OKW, and as a result, achieved dramatic successes.
One of the few examples of Hitler’s direct interference was when he halted the Panzer divisions outside Dunkirk, an act which allowed Britain to withdraw the bulk of its Army. As a result of the experiences gained through the victory in the west, it became clear that the Panzer arm of service would soon rise to become a partner equal to the infantry. Hitler was determined to invade the Soviet Union, but needed to increase the number of Panzer divisions. To achieve that growth, he could have decided to increase the output of German tank factories. Instead, he deluded himself that numbers equalled strength, and raised the number of armoured divisions from 10 to 21 by the simple expedient of halving the AFV strength of each division. Thus, each division was made up of a single tank regiment numbering 150-200 machines. Hitler was convinced that a Panzer division fielding a single armoured regiment had the striking power of a division which fielded two regiments. It was a fatal mistake, particularly since Panzer production in the first six months of 1941 averaged only 212 vehicles per month. The total number of machines available for the new war against Russia was 5,262, of which only 4,198 were held to be ‘front-line’ Panzers, and of that total, only 1,404 were the better-armed Panzer III and IV. Those vehicles, good as they were, were soon to be confronted by the Red Army’s superior T 34s and KV Is. Although inferior in every respect, the Panzer llls and IVs were forced to remain in front-line service until the Panzer V (Panther) and the Panzer VI (Tiger) types could be rushed into service. An example of the blindness of the general staff towards armour requirements was shown by General Halder, who seemed to be satisfied that 431 new Panzers would be produced by the end of July 1941, although this was less than half the number of machines lost during that period. Throughout the war, replacements never equalled the losses suffered.
To summarize: German industry was not equipped for the mass production of AFVs, and the ones which were produced for the Army were inferior to those of its opponents – certainly until the Panther and the Tiger came into service. Although the Panzer arm fought valiantly to the end, from 1943 it was firmly on the defensive, except for a few isolated offensives. The greatest mistake was that the supreme commander, Hitler, would accept no limitations upon his strategic plans, and sent major armoured formations across vast areas of country without consideration for the strain upon crews or machines and the drain upon the petrol resources of the Reich, and then committed those tired crews and worn-out vehicles to battle against unequal odds. Because of those and many other factors, Matthew Cooper must be seen as correct in his verdict that the Panzer arm was a failure.
The Panzer divisions of the German Army were eventually numbered 1-27, 116, 232 and 233. The establishment also contained named Panzer divisions, as well as light divisions, which were later upgraded to Panzer status. When general mobilization was ordered, the Army had five Panzer and four light divisions on establishment.
The infantry component of the 1st Panzer Division was Schützen Regiment No.1, made up of two battalions, each of five companies; the 2nd Panzer Division incorporated the 2nd Schützen Regiment, with two battalions, each of five companies; the 3rd Panzer Division had the 3rd Schützen Regiment, also with two battalions, each of five companies; the 4th Panzer Division’s infantry component was the 12th Schützen Regiment, with two battalions, each of four companies; and the 5th Panzer Division had the 13th Schützen Regiment, with two battalions, each of four companies.
The organization of the light divisions was not standard. The 1st Light Division had Cavalry Schützen Regiment No.4, which was reorganized into a motorized infantry brigade, with a single infantry regiment, a recce battalion and a tank regiment. The 2nd Light Division had Cavalry Schützen Regiments Nos 6 and 7, formed into two motorized infantry regiments, a recce regiment and a battalion of tanks; the infantry regiments were made up of two battalions, each of which fielded four squadrons. The 3rd Light Division had Cavalry Schützen Regiment No. 8 on establishment, formed into a motorized infantry regiment of two battalions, each fielding two squadrons; the divisional establishment was completed with a motorcycle battalion and a Panzer battalion. The 4th Light Division fielded Cavalry Schützen Regiments Nos 10 and 11, forming two motorized infantry regiments and a Panzer battalion; each of the motorized regiments was composed of two battalions, both of these fielding four squadrons.
In the months between the end of the Polish campaign and the opening of the war in the west, the four light divisions were upgraded to Panzer division status, and were numbered 6-9. Three motorized infantry regiments were taken to create the 10th Panzer Division. Other infantry regiments were used to increase the strength of the first three Schützen regiments to three battalions, as well as helping to create the 11th Schützen Regiment.
The number of Panzer divisions on establishment was increased from 10 to 20 during the autumn of 1940, and that number was further increased during 1941, with the 21st Panzer Division being raised for service in Africa. During the winter of 1941/2, Panzer divisions Nos 22, 23 and 24 were raised. The 24th was created by conversion of the 1st Cavalry Division, whose mounted regiments were renamed and renumbered Schützen Regiments Nos 21 and 26.
On 5 July 1942, the Schützen regiments of Panzer divisions were renamed Panzergrenadier regiments, and there was a change in organization, with the disbandment of the machine gun company which had been on the strength of each battalion. Panzer Divisions Nos 25, 26 and 27 were formed during 1942. Ten divisions were destroyed on the Eastern Front and in Africa, the 14th, 16th and 24th were lost at Stalingrad, while the 22nd and 27th suffered such severe losses that they had to be broken up. The 14th, 16th and 24th Divisions were then re-raised in France. In Tunisia, the 10th, 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions were lost, as were the 90th Light Division and the 164th and 999th Light Africa Divisions. The 15th and 90th Light were re-raised as Panzergrenadier divisions. The 21st Panzer was also re-raised in its former role. Neither the 164th Light nor the 999th Light were re-formed.
Most of the Panzer divisions on establishment were reorganized along the lines of a ‘Panzer Division 1943 Pattern’. In this, the first battalion of each division became armoured Panzergrenadiers, able to fight from their armoured vehicles. The first three companies of the battalion had a war establishment of 4 heavy and 39 light machine guns, 2 medium mortars, and 7.5 cm and 3.7 cm guns. No.4 Company had three heavy PAK, 2 light infantry guns, six 7.5 cm and 21 machine guns.
The first, second and third companies of the battalions in the new-pattern division each had 4 heavy machine guns, 18 light machines guns and 2 medium mortars. No.4 Company had 4 heavy mortars, 3 heavy PAK and 3 machine guns. No.9 – the infantry gun company – had 6 guns mounted on tracks. No. 10 Company was the pioneer company, and was equipped with 12 machine guns and 18 flame-throwers. During 1943/4, the 18th Panzer Division was broken up, and units were taken from it to create the 18th Artillery Division. During this period the ‘Panzer Lehr’ Division was raised, and three reserve Panzer divisions were used to create the 9th, 11th and 116th Panzer Divisions. The military disasters of the summer of 1944 brought about the creation of Panzer Brigades 101-113, which were used to reinforce Panzer or Panzergrenadier divisions which had suffered heavy losses.
During the autumn of 1944, the Army followed the pattern of the SS in combining two Panzer divisions into a permanent corps structure. Until that time, Army Panzer Corps HQs had been administrative units, to which divisions had been allocated as required. Army Panzer corps were then created, and ‘Grossdeutschland’, ‘Feldherrenhalle’ and XXIV Panzer Corps were created. The first named contained the ‘Grossdeutschland’ Panzergrenadier Division, the Panzergrenadier Division ‘Brandenburg’ and the ‘Grossdeutschland’ Musketier Regiment. The ‘Feldherrenhalle’ Corps had 1st and 2nd Divisions of that name, and the XXIV Panzer Corps contained the 16th and 17th Panzer Divisions, as well as the 29th Panzer Fusilier Regiment.
The final reorganization of the Panzer arm of service saw the creation of the ‘Panzer Division 1945’. This was an internal rearrangement which created and fielded a Panzer battle group because there was insufficient fuel to move all the Panzer vehicles, and only the machine gun company and the heavy weapons company were mobile.
Of the twenty merchant ships that sailed from Hvalfjord with PQ 13 on 20 March, ten had been lost at sea or in the hell of Murmansk and with them had gone 180 men. PQ 13 was the first Russia-bound convoy to be put to the German sword and the mauling it received was only a curtain-raiser for things to come.
Those ships that survived returned to the west as and when the opportunity arose. Two of them, the River Afton and Mana, had made it through with QP 10. The Tobruk, Lars Kruse and Scottish American, were destined to lie in Murmansk until the autumn but the other five, the Dunboyne, Eldena, Mormacmar, Ballot, El Estero and Gallant Fox, all United States Maritime Commission ships, were assigned to sail with Convoy QP 11.
QP 11 left the Kola Inlet on 28 April and was made up of thirteen British and American ships, including the five PQ 13 survivors. This convoy was even more heavily escorted than its predecessor, having with it no fewer than six destroyers, HMS Amazon, Beagle, Beverley, Bulldog (SOE), Foresight and Forester, the corvettes Campanula, Oxlip, Saxifrage and Snowflake, and the armed trawler Lord Middleton.
The sailing of QP 11 did not go unobserved by the enemy. The convoy had been sighted by a patrolling U-boat of the Ulan Group late on the 29th. Nervous of the presence of so many destroyers and corvettes, the U-boat called for reinforcements and settled down to shadow the convoy. One of those alerted by the shadowing boat’s signals was Kapitänleutnant Max-Martin Teichert in U-456, then 250 miles north-north-west of the Kola Inlet and conveniently right in the path of QP 11. Teichert, who saw action against PQ 13, albeit without success, had been at sea since the beginning of the year and was running low on fuel and stores. When news of the convoy came in Teichert was at the stage of considering a return to base with nothing to show for the patrol. He was more than willing to wait for a chance to open his score.
Two days out of Murmansk, on the 30th, QP 11’s defensive screen was strengthened by the arrival of the 10,000-ton Edinburgh, one of the two new Town-class cruisers, formidable ships mounting twelve 6-inch and twelve 4-inch guns, with side armour designed to withstand 8-inch shells, and a top speed of thirty-two knots. The Edinburgh was playing a dual role, in that as well as acting as independent escort to QP 11, she was a bullion carrier for the Soviet Government, having on board $20 million in gold, a payment to America for arms received. In retrospect, it might be asked why, when carrying such a huge shipment of gold through enemy-dominated waters, the Edinburgh was not sailing alone and at full speed, instead of playing nursemaid to an eight-knot convoy. It can only be assumed that the Admiralty was confident that the extra destroyers would be sufficient to protect her. Subsequent events were to prove its confidence to be misplaced.
Edinburgh, commanded by Captain Faulkner and with Admiral Bonham Carter on board, took up station twenty miles ahead of the convoy, steering a zig-zag pattern and using her radar to search ahead and around. Two hours after joining the convoy, neither her radar scanner nor her lookouts saw U-456’s periscope break surface to starboard. Teichert’s two torpedoes both found their mark, one exploding in the cruiser’s forward boiler-room with devastating results, the other slamming into the cruiser’s stern, destroying her rudder and two of her four propellers. This was Trinidad and PQ 13 all over again, only this time the damage was not self-inflicted.
Although Edinburgh had suffered widespread damage above and below decks, she was still seaworthy and, when the furore had died down, she was taken under tow by the destroyer Forester. Escorted by Forester’s sister ship Foresight and two Russian destroyers now familiar to the Allied ships, Gremyaschi and Sokrushitelny, Edinburgh began a slow return to Murmansk.
Teichert had not gone away but was following in the wake of the sad procession, waiting for the opportunity to finish off the Edinburgh. The escorting destroyers were doubly vigilant and although Teichert made several attempts to get into position to deliver the coup de grâce, each time U-456 was detected and driven off, on one occasion narrowly escaping being sunk. It is probable that the damaged cruiser would not have reached the Kola Inlet, had it not been for the arrival on the scene of three German destroyers of Zestörergruppe ‘Arktis’, the Hermann Schoemann, Z-24 and Z-25. The ‘Z’ boats, still smarting from the drubbing they received in the attack on HMS Trinidad a month earlier, were anxious to redeem themselves. They first fell in with QP 11 and quickly learned that there were no easy targets for their guns here. After a fierce battle with the convoys escorting destroyers, the German ships were forced to retire, having sunk only the Tsiolkovsky, a small Russian merchantman.
Twenty-four hours later, the German destroyers found the crippled Edinburgh and with a depleted escort, for the Gremyaschi and Sokrushitelny were both running short of fuel and had gone on to Murmansk. The enemy made the mistake of thinking they had found a soft target but they were forced to think again. The Edinburgh may have been badly damaged and had lost many men, but she still had the ability to hit back. While Foresight and Forester tackled Z-24 and Z-25, Edinburgh took on the Hermann Schoemann and punished her so hard that she eventually sank. Most of her crew were taken off by Z-24 and Z-25, but fifty-six men were left on rafts, and were later picked up by U-88.
There was a price to pay for the victory. Forester had been severely damaged in the clash with the German destroyers and had sustained heavy casualties. She now lay stopped and helpless under the guns of Z-24 and Z-25. She was saved from complete destruction by the intervention of Foresight, who made smoke and placed herself between the enemy and her crippled sister. In doing so, Foresight received two direct hits which left her with only one gun in action and her decks littered with dead and wounded. Among the dead was Captain Sloan of the Lancaster Castle, who had lost his ship to the German bombers in Murmansk and was returning home as a passenger in the destroyer.
With Foresight also in trouble, Forester, still lying stopped and unable to manoeuvre, was an easy target for two torpedoes fired by one of the two German destroyers – which one was not clear – but luckily, for Forester at least, the torpedoes were set too deep and passed underneath her. Unfortunately, one man’s luck is often another’s misfortune, and so it was for HMS Edinburgh. She then happened to be passing on the other side of Forester and was directly in line of fire of the enemy’s torpedoes. The cruiser being of deeper draught, one of the torpedoes found a target in her hull. This was the death blow for Edinburgh. Already severely weakened by U-456’s torpedoes, she broke her back and looked to be in imminent danger of going down. At great risk to themselves, the minesweepers Harrier and Gossamer, who had been detached to help in the defence of QP 11, went alongside Edinburgh, one to port and the other to starboard, and took off the cruiser’s crew. While the rescue was going on, much to the relief of the British force, Z-24 and Z-25 decided that they had had enough and withdrew.
Edinburgh was a floating wreck, but she stubbornly refused to sink on her own, and two days later Foresight was forced to put an end to her with a torpedo to avoid her bullion falling into German hands. The cruiser went down, taking with her the bodies of fifty-six men and the five and a half tons of gold locked in her strongroom. Her survivors, many of them injured, were taken back to Murmansk in the minesweepers.
With the exception of the burnt-out wrecks of the merchantmen, all that now remained of PQ 13 in Murmansk was HMS Trinidad and she had, by this time, been patched up, ironically with steel plates brought out from Britain by Edinburgh a month earlier. It now fell to Trinidad to carry home as many of Edinburgh’s survivors as she could cram into her mess decks. She sailed from the Kola Inlet on 13 May, accompanied by Foresight and Forester, themselves hurriedly patched up, and the two bigger and more modern destroyers Matchless and Somali. In effect, Matchless and Somali were escorting three lame ducks on what they hoped would be a high-speed dash to the nearest British shipyard capable of carrying out more permanent repairs. However, the top speed of this all-naval convoy would be dictated by the damaged ships and was never likely to exceed twenty knots, but between them the ships mounted a very considerable array of guns and they had no slow-steaming merchantmen to look after. They also had the added reassurance that, should they get into trouble, the Home Fleet covering force, led by the battleship Duke of York was not too far over the horizon.
It seems certain that the Germans had advance notice of the sailing of the homeward bound British warships, for within a few hours of their sailing from the Kola Inlet two enemy aircraft were shadowing the convoy. As the days were now almost twenty-four hours long, there would be no darkness in which the ships could hide, only a brief period of twilight around midnight to mark the passing of the night. For Captain Saunders on the bridge of the Trinidad, the scenario was all too familiar. He was not surprised when an hour later two U-boats were sighted, lying off out of range like cruising sharks waiting for the opportunity to strike.
The first indication of a major attack in the offing came at 21.00. Trinidad’s radar began picking up echoes of aircraft approaching from the south-west, a few at first, then formations. The bombers were on their way and this time it was evident that they would not be attacking in ones and twos. Saunders hoisted the signal ‘Prepare to repel enemy aircraft’, and every gun capable of being elevated to the sky – and in the five ships that was a considerable number – was manned. In Trinidad, the Edinburgh survivors, having no action stations to go to, reluctantly sought cover below decks.
The weather could not have been more favourable for the attacking aircraft, patchy cloud and good visibility, and as the reports came through from the radar office of the increasing numbers of echoes showing up on the screen, Saunders began to have serious concern for the safety of his ship. The repairs carried out by the Russians in Murmansk were, at best, makeshift, and he had grave doubts about his ability to manoeuvre at speed to avoid the bombs about to fall from the sky. At the same time, he had no way of knowing how well his men would fight. They had been through the worst kind of ordeal in the two months past, and with seventeen of their shipmates killed in an accident that should not have happened, their morale might not be as high as it should have been.
Any doubts Saunders had about his men were swept away when the first wave of Stukas dropped out of the clouds, the roar of their engines rising to a frightening pitch as they pounced on the cruiser. Trinidad’s eight 4-inch guns and massed batteries of pom-poms opened up as one, throwing up a lethal curtain of steel through which the German pilots were forced to fly, but they still pressed home their attack. The Stukas were followed by the heavier, twin-engined Ju88s and Trinidad, twisting and turning, was bracketed by dozens of bomb bursts that filled the air with spray and flying shrapnel. Saunders, conscious all the time of the vulnerability of the welded patch on his hull, manoeuvred the 8000-ton cruiser with the light touch of an ocean yachtsman, always judging the fall of the bombs right, and always altering in time to turn a certain direct hit into a near-miss.
The destroyers with Trinidad also came in for their share of the bombs, for the sky over the five ships was full of diving and weaving planes. They were being kept at bay by the massed guns of the ships, upwards of fifty smoking barrels hurling shells skywards, backed by batteries of light and heavy machine guns. The sky was filled with bursts of black smoke and lines of flaming tracer. No one on either side had any illusions but that this was a fight to the death, with the advantage on the German side. There were now twenty-five Ju88s involved, each carrying up to twelve 500lb bombs, and to those on the receiving end in the ships there seemed to be an endless queue of aircraft lining up to blow them out of the water.
The attack went on for two hours without pause but, although the bombs fell from the sky like rain, the ship handling of the British captains and the thunder of their guns played havoc with the enemy’s aim. There were near-misses in plenty but no direct hits. Trinidad, the main target of the bombers, seemed to be continually hidden by the spray thrown up by bombs bursting all around her. Saunders, by this time acting more by instinct than judgement, continued to throw his ship around, but was worried that sooner or later, probably sooner, the patch on her hull would give way, for some bombs were landing within fifty feet of her. Then a new and far more dangerous threat appeared on the horizon.
The cry of ‘Torpedo bombers bearing Red 90!’ sent a chill down Saunders’ spine. He swung round to see a line of ten aircraft low on the water coming in from the south. He snatched up his binoculars and as the planes came nearer he identified them as Heinkel 111s, twin-engined bombers, a type widely used in the Battle of Britain, but now adapted to carry two 1600lb torpedoes. Once again, Trinidad was the primary target but now her guns were split, some depressing to meet the new threat, the others continuing to ward off the bombers, who now, perhaps sensing their victim was about to meet her end, intensified their attacks.
The destroyers came to Trinidad’s aid, using their 4-inch guns to put a wall of fire between the cruiser and the torpedo planes. The barrage was too much for the Heinkels, who swerved away, broke up into two formations and came in from two different directions, hoping to divide the fire of the ships. The guns beat them off again, only two Heinkels getting through to launch their torpedoes at Trinidad. Saunders was easily able to comb the tracks of the four missiles, which sped harmlessly past on either side of the cruiser.
Captain Saunders might now have been forgiven for thinking that things were unlikely to get much worse. Then one of the destroyers reported sighting four U-boats on the surface to the north and east – jackals waiting to pounce on a wounded prey. The situation was developing into a potential disaster for the British ships and some were beginning to wonder what the Germans would throw at them next. Capital ships, perhaps? Saunders was not given the luxury of speculation, for the Heinkels were coming in again, all ten of them in line abreast on Trinidad’s port beam.
Watching the Heinkels skimming over the wave-tops, untouched by the shells and bullets kicking up the water ahead of them, Saunders kept a cool head, waiting for the right moment to take evasive action. This came when he saw the enemy torpedoes hit the water and a line of feathered wakes came racing towards him. He brought the Trinidad round to port under full helm to comb the tracks as he had done before. In doing so, he ran straight into a stick of four bombs dropped by a Ju88.
The Ju88, in its turn, ran into the combined fire of Trinidad’s AA guns and turned into a ball of fire, but not before its bombs had found their mark. The effect of four 500lb bombs exploding in and around the cruiser was catastrophic. One bomb landed just forward of her bridge, smashing its way through the deck to explode with terrible effect in the petty officers’ mess deck. The area was completely wrecked and several fires were started. Two other 500-pounders narrowly missed the forecastle head but exploded close enough alongside to lay open the hull to the sea. The fourth bomb also landed outboard, sliding down the hull plates on the port side before exploding directly under the ill-used welded patch on Trinidad’s hull. The patch that had so far held firm, was torn off and the sea poured into the magazine and cordite compartments below ‘B’ turret.
The Trinidad was sorely hit, many of her complement lay dead or wounded and fires burned above and below decks, but her engines still turned, her steering still functioned, and some of her guns still fired. Damage and fire control parties were at work and Saunders decided it would be wiser to carry on at full speed, rather than slow down and become an easy target for the German planes. His ship was listing heavily, but she was brought upright again by filling ballast tanks and, although considerably lower in the water, she steamed on.
The Heinkels continued to concentrate their attacks on the Trinidad, intent on finishing her off, but Saunders was still weaving from side to side, frustrating their efforts. Meanwhile, the fires were out of control and water still poured into the shattered hull. Whether the sea or the fires would claim the ship first was anybody’s guess.
At around midnight, when it seemed to Saunders that he and his ship could take no more, he became aware that the German planes were going away, probably having run out of bombs and torpedoes. Now, at long last, he was able to draw breath, to reduce speed and take stock of the situation. Reports reaching him on the bridge, which itself was rapidly becoming untenable as the house below was ablaze, soon confirmed the hopelessness of his ship’s position. The Trinidad was slowly being consumed by the fires, and so many of her crew were dead, injured or trapped by the fires, that the fight to keep her afloat had been lost. Saunders decided to abandon ship before the U-boats moved in to finish the work begun by the planes.
The cruiser was stopped and all her surviving crew assembled on the quarterdeck – nothing could be done for those trapped below. Matchless came alongside first, taking off the wounded that could be reached, while the other destroyers circled to keep the U-boats at bay. Foresight and Forester then each took their turn, easing alongside the burning ship with hoses rigged to beat off any flames jumping across. Trinidad was now listing dangerously to starboard, adding to the difficulties of the evacuation. And as if things were not bad enough, a lone Heinkel had come back and seemed intent on sending the cruiser to the bottom while she lay helpless. Fortunately, in the finest tradition of the Royal Navy, two men, Commissioned Gunner Richard Bunt and Gunner Charles Norsworthy, were still manning one of Trinidad’s 4-inch turrets to give cover to the survivors. Training the turret manually – all the electrics were out – they waited until the Heinkel had settled on its torpedo run and fired both guns. The two shells skimmed over the water and exploded directly under the incoming aircraft. The Heinkel was lifted bodily and it banked away with smoke and flame pouring from its fuselage. Its torpedo hit the water but went off at an angle, passing astern of the cruiser.
Trinidad’s guns now fell silent and the last of her survivors scrambled aboard Somali, which had taken her turn to come alongside. Captain Saunders was the last man to leave the ship. The destroyers then withdrew and circled slowly, silent witnesses to the death throes of a very gallant ship. Trinidad, however, although burning furiously and lying low in the water, stubbornly refused to sink. Eventually, it was left to Matchless to put a torpedo in her. Only then did HMS Trinidad, her battle ensigns still flying, concede defeat and slip slowly below the waves, taking with her into the icy depths of the Barents Sea the bodies of eighty men, twenty of whom were the injured from the Edinburgh.
The four British destroyers, Foresight and Forester, Matchless and Somali, crammed with survivors, set course to the north-west at full speed, anxious to be clear of the scene of the sinking as quickly as possible. It was certain that the German planes would be back and all four ships were running low on ammunition. As they hurried away at twenty knots – this was all Foresight and Forester, both still suffering from damage received when defending Edinburgh could manage – a signal was sent requesting cover from ships of the Home Fleet.
The JU88s were back within an hour and the agony began all over again. The destroyers spread out and, twisting and turning, their guns hammering out defiance, they each fought their individual battle with the enemy. This time they were severely hampered, as their decks were full of Trinidad’s survivors and there were many injured below decks. But, yet again, the German bombers scored no hits and after a while they were driven off by the withering fire put up by the British ships.
There was a much appreciated lull, during which the destroyers pressed on to the west, but they were soon receiving somewhat vague signals reporting that unidentified German cruisers, accompanied by destroyers, had left a Norwegian fjord and were heading north towards them. It was well known that the Tirpitz, Scheer, Hipper and Prinz Eugen were holed up in the fjords and the conclusion drawn in the destroyers was that one or more of these ships, along with some big Narvik-class destroyers, was on the way to intercept them. Exhausted though they were, the men of the British ships stood to their guns. They were now dangerously short of ammunition, but the thought that the odds were stacked too heavily against them did not deter them. They would fight to the last.
A tense hour passed, then a number of unidentified ships were sighted on the horizon. It was assumed this must be the German force, and while the hampered Foresight and Forester, covered by Matchless, altered away to the north, Somali, the only one of the four with a full complement of torpedoes left, turned to engage the enemy. Somali, a 1870-ton Tribal-class destroyer, mounting six 4.7-inch, two 4-inch guns and four 21-inch torpedo tubes, had a top speed of thirty-six and a half knots, and might have held her own against the Narvik-class destroyers. If there was anything heavier in the German force she was likely to be blown to pieces before she was close enough to fire her torpedoes. It was only to be hoped that she would buy time for the others to escape.
As Somali steamed south at full speed, signal lamps winked out from the ‘enemy’, who identified themselves as ships of the British 10th Cruiser Squadron, much to the great relief of Somali and the other destroyers. They were the light cruiser Nigeria, flying the flag of Rear Admiral Burroughs, the heavy cruisers Kent and Norfolk, and the light cruiser Liverpool. The newcomers closed around the destroyers and the whole, now very formidable force set course for Iceland. The reported German ships failed to make an appearance, probably warned off by the reconnaissance plane now shadowing the British ships. This aircraft was also most certainly responsible for the reappearance of the German bombers, this time in even greater numbers. Over the five hours that followed, the Stukas and Ju88s pressed home their attack with a determination bordering on desperation, but the combined firepower of the eight British warships was such that not one bomber succeeded in scoring a hit. Finally, at around noon on 15 May, with the distance to the German airfields becoming greater and greater, the Luftwaffe accepted defeat and the bombers flew away.
The loss of two first-class cruisers within two weeks of each other was a serious blow to the Royal Navy, already heavily committed elsewhere. With summer coming on, with its twenty-four hours of daylight and clear weather on the Arctic route, Churchill was reluctant to continue with this costly supply operation. He was urged to withdraw escorts from the North Atlantic, but out there the Navy was already stretched to breaking point attempting to stem a haemorrhage running at over 100 ships a month being sunk by the U-boats.
The clamour from the Russians for more tanks, more guns, more planes was loud and unrelenting, and with good reason. By the close of 1941, the German armies had made huge inroads into Russia, being halted only by the severity of the winter. Some ground had been regained by the Soviet forces, even so, by the spring of 1942, the front lay from Leningrad in the north, southeastwards to within 100 miles of Moscow, and then southwards to Rostov on the Don. As summer advanced, Hitler was determined to break through into the Caucasus, his goal the oilfields of Baku, and had already massed 100 divisions, eight of these armoured, supported by 1500 aircraft, all poised ready to strike when the time was right. In response, the Russians were planning a massive counter-attack, possibly before the German armies made their move, hence their demands for ever more supplies from the Allies. Stalin’s plea to Churchill, sent on 6 May, was unusually restrained: ‘I am fully aware of the difficulties involved and of the sacrifices made by Great Britain in this matter. I feel however incumbent upon me to approach you with the request to take all possible measures in order to ensure the arrival of all the above-mentioned materials in the U.S.S.R. in the course of May, as this is extremely important to our front.’
Stalin was referring to the ninety or more merchant ships lying in Iceland and north British ports loaded with supplies for Russia, most of which had crossed the Atlantic from America and was still awaiting delivery. The hold-up was highly embarrassing for Churchill, who replied: ‘I have received your telegram of May 6, and thank you for your message and greetings. We are resolved to fight our way through to you with the maximum amount of war materials. On account of the Tirpitz and other enemy surface ships at Trondheim the passage of every convoy has become a serious fleet operation. We shall continue to do our utmost.’
Obviously, it was the threat of the Tirpitz anchored in Trondheim fjord and within easy reach of the convoys that worried Churchill most. He was not alone in this, for the thought of this 42,000-ton battleship, the most powerful warship afloat, being allowed near the thinly defended merchant ships was frightening. And backing up the Tirpitz’s 15-inch guns were the pocket battleships Admiral Scheer and Lützow and the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, not to mention, sheltering in fjords further north the Narvik-class destroyers, whose 5.9s had previously caused havoc amongst the convoys. British long-range bombers were flying frequent sorties against Trondheim, but these planes were operating at the extreme limit of their range and the defences of the fjord were so strong that little was being achieved. The Tirpitz and her consorts remained a major threat to the convoys to Russia.
The arrival in Scapa Flow of a United States task force made up of the brand new battleship Washington, the aircraft carrier Wasp, two heavy cruisers and six destroyers, helped to tip the balance. The American ships, impressive though they were, lacked experience of convoy work, but they were extra guns and the enthusiasm of their crews was unquestionable. Their availability persuaded Churchill to attempt to clear the backlog of ships for Russia, which by this time had reached 107 ships now loaded, or being loaded in ports in the US and Britain. Convoy PQ 16, the largest convoy to Russia yet to be attempted, sailed from Hvalfjord on 21 May.
PQ 16 comprised thirty-six merchant ships, twenty-one American, nine British, five Russian and one Dutch. Among the British ships was a new innovation, the CAM (Catapult Aircraft Merchant) ship Empire Lawrence. CAM ships were selected merchant ships which carried a specially adapted Hawker Hurricane fighter mounted on a catapult on the forecastle head. Once launched, the fighter could not be brought back on board, leaving the pilot with the only alternative of bailing out or ditching alongside the nearest ship and hoping to be picked up. It was an expensive idea, but was proving successful as an answer to the Focke-Wulfs that shadowed convoys in the Atlantic. How the CAM ship would fare in the Arctic was yet to be seen.
The strength of PQ 16’s escort indicated the importance attached to this convoy. As before, armed trawlers accompanied the ships until they were clear of Iceland, then the ocean escort joined from Seydisfjord. In PQ 16’s case, this was made up of the British destroyers Achates, Ashanti, Martin, Volunteer and Ledbury, the Polish destroyer Garland, the corvettes Honeysuckle, Hyderabad, Starwort and Roselys (Free French), the auxiliary anti-aircraft ship Alynbank and the submarines Seawolf and Trident. Cruiser cover was provided by the British heavy cruisers Kent and Norfolk, the light cruisers Liverpool and Nigeria, accompanied by the destroyers Marne, Onslow and Oribi. The distant covering force was Anglo/American, comprising the battleships Duke of York and USS Washington, the aircraft carrier Victorious, the cruisers London and USS Wichita, and the destroyers Blankney, Eclipse, Faulknor, Fury, Icarus, Intrepid, Lamerton, Middleton, Wheatland and USS Mayrant, Rhind, Rowan and Wainright.
Against such a massive escort the German surface ships very wisely decided not to venture out of their fjords, but PQ 16 did not escape the U-boats and aircraft, some 260 of the latter mounting a series of attacks on the convoy. The U-boats claimed one merchantman, while the bombers sank six ships, including the CAM ship Empire Lawrence, whose Hurricane justified its existence by shooting down one attacker and damaging another before ditching. Four other merchantmen and the Polish destroyer Garland were damaged.
With twenty-nine out of thirty-six ships reaching their destination, PQ 16 was judged to be a success and it was the precursor of even greater efforts to clear the backlog of loaded ships for Russia. But the German capital ships hiding in Trondheim fjord would still prove a threat to be reckoned with.
During early March Admiral Schmundt ordered four U-boats west of Bear Island to attack the expected PQ12 convoy south of Jan Mayen, U377 and U403 requested from Narvik to join his waiting patrol line. Together with U589, they formed the Blücher group on 11 March, although U377 emerged almost miraculously unscathed after she was attacked in error by a flight of Junkers Ju87 dive-bombers near Moskenstraumen shortly after leaving port.
On 10 March the U-boat group Umhang was formed, comprising U436, U454 and U456 north-west of the entrance to the White Sea, but failed to successfully engage the enemy during its six-day existence. Hackländer’s U454 did report the sighting of ten steamers, four destroyers and two escort vessels on 12 March but was unable to achieve a firing position before losing contact and the information came too late for Luftwaffe intervention. Fellow Umhang boat U456 also attempted to attain a favourable attacking position but was unable to do so before the convoy disappeared from sight. U454 had been in Trondheim as part of the screen for Tirpitz’s move north and to allow shipyard repairs. Sailing back into action on 24 February, Matrosengefreiter Josef Kauerlost was lost overboard in high seas only two days after departure. Dönitz was fiercely critical of the Umhang boats’ dispositions so close to Murmansk, citing their lack of manoeuvre room in such proximity to the coast as the primary reason for their inability to attack. To operate effectively a U-boat needed space to outpace its target, running surfaced beyond the horizon and then lying in wait across the convoy’s predicted path.
PQ12 sailed from Reykjavik on the first day of March under escort by HMS Renown, Duke of York, Kenya and six destroyers, with additional heavy forces sailing from Scapa Flow to rendezvous south of Jan Mayen Island. It was a formidable show of Royal Navy strength and Tirpitz sailed four days later to attack, escorted by destroyers and torpedo boats. A U-boat screen, combined with Luftwaffe reconnaissance, engendered confidence that PQ12 could be found and attacked. To add to the impending maelstrom, westbound convoy QP8 sailed from Murmansk, expecting to pass the inbound traffic near Bear Island. However, despite the number of vessels at sea, the two fleets managed to probe the seas around Bear Island without making any contact before Tirpitz returned to Norway, shadowed and unsuccessfully attacked by British carrier-borne aircraft. A single slow Russian freighter straggling from QP8 – 2,815-ton SS Ijora – was found by destroyer Friedrich Ihn and sunk with torpedoes, while U134 and U589 were both ordered south-east of Jan Mayen in a final attempt to find the elusive convoy. Both the U-boat and Luftwaffe reconnaissance had failed completely: PQ12 safely reaching Murmansk on 12 March.
Of course, unbeknownst to the Kriegsmarine, British code-breakers had managed to provide intelligence that enabled the re-routing of PQ12 out of harm’s way. The vaunted Enigma code used by all branches of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS had been broken in various stages. The U-boat service, though perhaps the most security conscious of all the Wehrmacht, was no exception at this point in the war; Enigma messages that provided plans and locations were read and decoded within hours. Though the introduction of a new rotor and expanded cipher in February 1942 would see an intelligence ‘blackout’ for most of that year, by December this new Enigma’s cipher – ‘Shark’ – had also been mastered. The scale of advantage offered to Allied forces by the breaking of the Enigma codes can barely be overstated.
The Blücher U-boat group was moved north into the Arctic Ocean near Petermann Land while Umhang disbanded; U405 and U592 waited south-east of Franz Josef Land and soon grouped with incoming U586 to form the Wrangel group though the middle of March remained unsuccessful:
One of the principal tasks of the Navy is to disrupt enemy supplies to Murmansk and Archangelsk in order to safeguard northern Norway and support Army operations against the Soviet Union. This task is not being fulfilled at the present time. Supplies are being shipped to Russia almost undisturbed … So far very few U-boats (three or four at the most) have been committed in the Arctic area. Experience shows that possibilities for successful U-boat operations definitely exist. British convoys to Murmansk and Archangelsk are forced to sail through an area, which the ice border limits to from 180 to 200 miles at the most. (The distance between the southern tip of Bear Island and the latitude of the North Cape is 190 miles; the distance between the North Cape itself and Bear Island is 228 miles.) Assuming that the enemy will approach the Norwegian coast no closer than 100 miles because of German forces, only a strip about 100 miles wide remains to be watched. It is impossible to patrol this area and attack enemy convoys with two or three U-boats. However operations by six U-boats would be very promising. In cooperation with air reconnaissance it must be possible effectively to hamper, if not entirely disrupt, enemy shipping in the Arctic area. The depth of the water is favourable for U-boat warfare … Therefore it is not possible to withdraw the submarines from Iceland or the Arctic Ocean, for example for promising operations off the U.S. coast; on the contrary, convoys to Russia should be considered a particularly valuable target for our U-boats. To intercept them it is much better to station several submarines in the Arctic area (Bear Island – North Cape) than in the Iceland – Hebrides area. The Naval Staff therefore makes the following suggestions to the Chief, Naval Staff:
a. The Arctic Ocean submarines of the Admiral, Arctic Ocean should be increased to at least 10 or 12 (including those in Narvik).
b. Submarines east of Iceland should be increased to five or four.
c. Submarines stationed northwest of the Hebrides should be withdrawn.
Fresh determination to intercept PQ convoy traffic spurred a strong U-boat and destroyer commitment against PQ13. The fact that Tirpitz only narrowly evaded damage from aircraft resulted in Hitler ordering extreme caution in the use of major surface units if there was any possible presence of an enemy carrier. Regardless, the convoys had to be stopped:
Most reports concerning British and American plans agree that the enemy is trying to maintain Russia’s power of resistance by means of great quantities of supplies and to open a second front in Europe in order to divert German forces from Russia. The regular heavy convoy traffic from Scotland to Murmansk or Archangelsk can serve both purposes. Therefore we must consider the possibility of enemy landings on the Arctic coast, in which case the nickel mines in northern Finland which are indispensable to us are most likely to be attacked. This remark introduces the Führer directive, which stipulates that all available means should be used to disrupt sea communications between the Anglo-American powers and Russia in the Arctic Ocean, which are practically intact so far, and to overcome the enemy’s supremacy at sea which extends into our own coastal waters.
PQ13 became the focus of Jürgen Oesten’s new U-boat command. To locate the incoming convoy U435, U589, U454 and U585 were ordered to patrol sectors of the AC quadrant close to the Murman coastline. PQ13 left Reykjavik on 20 March; sixteen freighters and a fleet oiler were escorted toward Murmansk by three whalers, due for transfer to the Soviet Navy as minesweepers, as well as three Royal Navy trawlers, two destroyers and a light cruiser. They left the convoy between 23 and 25 March, escort duties then taken over by two Soviet destroyers and the Royal Navy’s 6th Minesweeping Flotilla from 27 March.
The returning convoy QP9 cleared the Kola Inlet on 21 March, headed first for Iceland then onward to the United Kingdom. Two days later the U-boat group Ziethen formed: U209, U376, U378 and U655 lying north-west of Tromsø in the Norwegian Sea, waiting for PQ13 or outgoing QP9. It was here that Kaptlt Adolf Dumrese’s U655, on its first war patrol, was sighted by minesweeper HMS Sharpshooter south-south-east of Bear Island. The Halcyon-class minesweeper had come from the United Kingdom to Archangelsk with PQ5, assigned to carry out local duties in Russian waters, including ASW sweeps, minesweeping and local convoy escort. Sailing with the nineteen ships of QP9 – some returning empty, others carrying chrome, timber, potassium chloride and magnesium to Britain – Sharpshooter signalman Kenneth Hendry remembered the voyage:
We left the Kola Inlet as senior escort for the return convoy QP9, together with the destroyer Offa and two trawlers … and we were stationed ahead, doing the usual zigzag sweep. All was quiet until the evening of our third day at sea. It was dark but visibility was reasonable when the showers cleared.
I went on watch at 8pm. The weather was fairly calm but with frequent snow showers, keeping you on your toes at the end of each leg of the sweep to ensure that you were still on station and that none of the merchant ships was uncomfortably close, which often occurred in such conditions …
It was about 8.25pm and we had just turned and settled on to another ‘leg’ with a snow shower clearing ahead of us, when there was a hail from the leading-gunner closed up on the four inch on the foc’sle. Two or three cables away and about 10 degrees off our starboard bow we saw a U-boat lying beam-on with, as far as could be seen, no one on deck or in the conning tower. The Officer of the Watch called the captain and I sounded off action stations. The captain (Lieutenant-Commander David Lampen RN) immediately called the engine room for emergency-full-ahead and the ‘Stand by to ram!’ – and we had just begun to gather speed when we struck the U-boat just abaft the conning tower. She turned across our bow, listing, and bumped down our port side, obviously sinking as she went, and finally disappeared into the gloom astern. It was all over very quickly. Sharpshooter had stopped engines, damage control parties had already been mustered and I was ordered to signal by lamp to any ship I could see, ‘Have rammed U-boat – think I am sinking – please stand by me’. I managed to flash the signal to two merchant ships coming up astern but they were probably too preoccupied with avoiding us to read the signal. Later damage control parties reported that the forward mess deck was shored up and the pumps were coping, and Offa came alongside. She was instructed to take over the convoy and leave us to proceed at slow speed independently. The next few days as we limped along were pretty worrying, but the weather proved kind and we eventually reached Iceland.
Dumrese’s U655 rolled over with the impact and sank stern first, no trace of her or her forty-five crew remaining except for two lifebuoys and what the British observers took to be a canvas dinghy. The Russian convoys had sunk their first U-boat.
Although QP9 escaped attack, elements of PQ13 were found by U376 who immediately began shadowing and sending position reports. The voyage had been uneventful until 24 March when the convoy encountered an Arctic storm that raged for four days and nights and dispersed the convoy over a straggling distance of 150 miles. The nineteen merchants gradually formed small groups for mutual protection: one of eight ships and one of four, while the remainder proceeded independently. One of the latter, 4,815-ton SS Raceland carrying tanks, trucks and aircraft, was found by the Luftwaffe on 28 March and sunk by two near misses that ruptured the hull. The entire crew abandoned ship in two boats, but only one containing twelve men reached the shore where Norwegian civilians rescued them and took them to the Kriegsmarine hospital in Tromsø. The 7,008-ton SS Empire Ranger was also hit and sunk by the Luftwaffe that same day, all forty-seven crewmen abandoning ship and rescued by the German destroyer Z25, one of three from the 8th Zerstörerflottille that had been added to the attack on PQ13.
The following day the German destroyers attacked in appalling visibility and strong snow flurries, sinking the 4,687-ton SS Bateau before coming under attack by destroyer HMS Fury and cruiser HMS Trinidad in the early hours. Z26 was badly damaged and later sank following further attacks by the Royal Navy and Russian destroyer Sokrushitelny. Ironically, HMS Trinidad was disabled by one of its own torpedoes after the weapon’s gyroscope froze and sent it circling. As the German destroyers disengaged, so too did the British: Trinidad limping for the Kola Inlet. From the sinking Z26 the remaining German destroyers rescued eighty-eight survivors while U378 took eight others aboard and headed for Kirkenes.
On 30 March, U-boats that had been hastily grouped into the new pack Eiswolf finally succeeded in attacking the scattered convoy. They had already suffered at the hands of convoy escorts during the preceding days; the retreating U378 depth charged by HMS Fury and U585 was forced to abort its patrol after depth charge damage to all forward torpedo tubes. Worse was to come for Kaptlt Ernst-Bernward Lohse’s battered U585 as it headed for Kirkenes but blundered into a German mine that had broken free from its mooring in the ‘Bantos A’ barrage. The U-boat was destroyed with all forty-four crew finally listed as missing on 8 April.
Oberleutnant zur See Friedrich-Karl Marks’ U376 found and torpedoed straggling 5,086-ton SS Induna at 8.07 a.m. The convoy’s vice commodore’s ship, Induna, had attempted to corral five other vessels into a group after the storms had abated. Sixteen men, who had prematurely abandoned the freighter Ballot after damage by Luftwaffe bombs, were taken aboard – the remaining crew taking the damaged Ballot into Murmansk. Separated from the remainder of PQ13, Induna was accompanied by whaler HMS Silja before both became stuck in ice the following day. Once freed, the steamer took Silja in tow, the small warship’s fuel almost exhausted. In heavy seas the following night the tow parted and once again Induna was alone. Unbeknownst to the merchant’s master, William Norman Collins, Kaptlt Heinrich Brodda’s U209 had sighted the steamer and missed her with two torpedoes at 5.52 a.m. Undeterred, Brodda gave chase in order to fire again.
At 8.07 a.m. Marks hit Induna with one of three torpedoes, the freighter catching fire and slewing to a stop. A coup-de-grâce torpedo sent the boat under, bow first. Marks did not linger at the scene as lookouts sighted a nearby periscope, presumed to be Russian. It was, however, Brodda: beaten to the punch by his flotilla mate after his prolonged chase. Forty-one survivors abandoned ship in two lifeboats, but only thirty living men were later rescued by a Russian minesweeper. Austin Byrne was a DEMS gunner aboard Induna:
Have you ever thought of anyone you would like to have a word with, someone famous perhaps or someone from your schooldays? Well I would pick the most wonderful man, who I consider that I have ever met. Sadly I do not know his name; all that I know is that he is buried in the Naval Cemetery in Murmansk, North Russia … We had been adrift for four days in the lifeboat, after the submarine U376 had torpedoed the Induna on the 30th March 1942. This man was not a crewmember of the Induna but was aboard the Ballot when she was sunk, and you could say that they were very unfortunate in ‘being in the wrong place at the wrong time’.
The long-range German planes found the ships and homed in on the destroyers for an attack, this was beaten off by the cruiser HMS Trinidad, but then the JU88 and high level Focke Wulfes attacked with bombs. The Ballot suffered some very near misses from a dive bomber attack and lost steam which caused her to drop astern of the convoy, a lifeboat was lowered with sixteen men aboard and they were picked up by the Whaler Silja which was herself on passage to be turned over to the Russians, she was one of three that had been sent, one was sunk and the other turned over in the ice. A few ships went north to get near the ice, but the Induna got stuck and while the other ships sailed on, the Silja stayed and as she was a small ship with limited room, the men from the Ballot walked over the ice onto the Induna. The Silja then ran out of fuel so the Induna took her in tow but at about 10 pm the tow broke and the two ships parted.
The next morning … the Induna was torpedoed in the number five hold right under a load of aviation spirit and the explosion turned the deck into a burning mess. We were sent to boat stations and a few people started to run through the fire, whilst some on the stern jumped into the sea and away from the flames. The last man was one of those rescued from the Ballot and he had no shoes on so his feet were ripped open by the cargo of barbed wire which we were also carrying, and he was leaving bloody footprints as he made his way to the lifeboat station, the Mate then lowered the boat to deck level and myself with some others were ordered into the boat, this was when we saw this man coming towards us, his hair was burnt off and his face and hands were badly burnt, as his jacket and trousers were also burning we rolled him into the boat and beat out the flames.
The boat was lowered into the sea and as we rowed away another torpedo smashed into the ship, which then sank with all the men who were still aboard. We were in the lifeboat for four days in terrible weather, after all it was winter in the arctic and we were in the Barents Sea. The burnt man had few clothes and he sat in the boat with the seas breaking over him and we covered him with a blanket and a spare coat, the other six in the boat were of no help, so the gunner and myself did all of the baling. We tried to talk to this man but the poor soul could hardly talk, but I did get out of him that he came from America. The seas broke over him and a coat of ice formed on him which got thicker as time went by, but never once did he moan but just sat quietly and all that he ever asked for was the occasional cigarette, which I would light for him and put it into his mouth, he would then try to move his head when I should take it out, and that was all that he asked for, a few times a day he would say ‘gunner, can I have a cigarette?’
This went on for the four days that we were adrift, and then at dusk on the fourth day we sighted land, when we told him he asked ‘gunners will you please turn the boat so that I can see it’, and this we did, his next words were ‘put an oar into my hands and I can rock my body to help’, at this time his hands were twice as thick as they should be, with his fingers drawn and bent with the cold, all black with knuckles burst and covered with scabs, and still he wanted to help!
Then we saw the rescue boats and were picked up, as I was pulled aboard I saw a Russian sailor down in the lifeboat looking at him and a rope being passed down, I do not know how they got him out of the lifeboat as I was taken to the bridge. The next time that I saw him was after one of the females in the Russian crew called to me, she was having difficulty with the cabin boy, a seventeen-year-old lad called Anderson, who was frozen bent double, and having cut his jacket off I saw that he was black to the waist, when she saw this the Russian said to leave him.
After a few tots of vodka I was taken to see the burnt man, who put out his hand to me and said as best he could ‘We made it kid’, words that I will never forget from a man who was now suffering from both burns and terrible frostbite. The next day we arrived in Murmansk and were put into the Russian Hospital, where I went to sleep and when I woke up I was told that the cabin boy had died and later that the American had also died from his injuries. Who was he? I will never know for certain but there is a grave in Murmansk to an unknown sailor from the Ballot, a man who died with dignity, a man who anyone can be proud to say ‘I met that man’. His family can also be proud of him, but the sad part is that no one in America knows anything about him.9
The second ship to be sunk by U-boat from PQ13 was 6,421-ton American merchant Effingham, one of the small group of vessels temporarily gathered by Induna following the storm. Kapitänleutnant Max-Martin Teichert’s U456, on its first war patrol, attacked two straggling merchants at 10.36 a.m.; a spread of three torpedoes missed Honduran Mana, but a fourth hit Effingham amidships on the port side, bringing her to a stop. The cargo was general war supplies but also a heavy load of explosives so the crew abandoned ship as she began to settle by the stern, two men falling overboard and drowning. A stern tube coup de grâce missed, after which the damaged freighter was lost from vision in a snow squall. Teichert’s crew hastened to reload all torpedo tubes and attempt to find the damaged steamer. Meanwhile Kaptlt Siegfried Strelow’s U435 found the American, missing with an initial salvo of two torpedoes and hitting with a third while attacking surfaced in driving snow; the ship exploded and sank following a final torpedo hit in the bow. Thirty-one of the forty-three crew were later rescued.
Although other ships of the convoy were chased by U-boats, there were no further attacks: most ships docking in Russia on 30 March and the final straggler entering harbour on 1 April. The Germans too had suffered heavily: one destroyer and two U-boats destroyed for the destruction of five merchant ships – two to the Luftwaffe, one to a destroyer and two to U-boats. German surface ships in Norway already contended with severe fuel shortages and the decision was made that henceforth destroyers would only be used against enemy convoy traffic if the enemy’s location was definitely known and conditions for success favourable. Although PQ13 had gotten off comparatively lightly, the loss of over 25 per cent of the convoy was unacceptable. Both the Home Fleet commander, Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Tovey, and the first sea lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, argued strenuously that the PQ convoy size should be radically reduced so as to provide a smaller target to locate. With extreme pressure from Washington to move supplies to Russia, Churchill was given no other option than to insist that the convoys remain as they were if not become larger.
It was not only the Kriegsmarine threat that had increased for the Murmansk run. The Luftwaffe had begun to strongly reinforce their presence in northern Norway and by June could muster 103 Ju88 bombers, 42 He111 torpedo bombers, 15 He115 torpedo bombers, 30 Ju87 dive-bombers as well as 8 Fw200, 22 Ju88 and 44 Bv138 reconnaissance aircraft.
During April the Soviet Navy amplified its submarine attacks off Nordkyn and Makkaur, despite the nights getting increasingly shorter with the Arctic spring. U-boats too had been bolstered in anticipation of PQ14, expected in mid April. Two U-boat groups were formed: Naseweis comprising U334, U592 and U657 stationed off Jan Mayen, and Bums comprising U334, U377, U403, U589, U591 and U592 west of North Cape. By 9 April fourteen U-boats were at sea within the Arctic, a further five in port scattered between Kirkenes, Narvik and Trondheim. The U-boat groups morphed as they waited for the incoming convoy, eight boats forming Robbenschlag, directed to new patrol areas by Oesten in Kirkenes. On 9 April PQ14’s 24 merchant ships were spotted by Luftwaffe reconnaissance, the sixteen ships of outbound QP10 shortly thereafter. With a sparse escort, the decision was taken to send destroyers against QP10, as well as Robbenschlag boats, three U-boats finding and beginning to shadow the convoy on 12 April. While the destroyers failed to make contact and aborted their mission, the U-boats opened their attack in heavy seas.
At 0.59 a.m. on 13 April Seibicke’s U436 fired torpedoes while submerged, hitting what he estimated was a 4,500-ton steamer: 5,823-ton Russian steamer Kiev, laden with chrome and timber, sinking within seven minutes and the crew abandoning ship in three lifeboats. Five crewmen were lost, a fifth female crewmember later dying from wounds after rescue by escorting ASW trawler HMT Blackfly. Half an hour later Strelow’s U435 also torpedoed a steamer from QP10: the 6,008-ton Panamanian El Occidente hit in the engine room and nearly breaking in half, sinking so rapidly that no lifeboats could be launched. The ship was carrying only a part cargo of chromium ore as ballast, twenty crewmen killed and a further pair rescued by HMS Speedwell. The U-boats then lost contact with QP10 in the heavy weather, Strelow later finding the abandoned 5,486-ton steamer Harpalion that had been damaged by Ju88 attack earlier that day. Three G7a torpedoes were fired, the third striking the ship astern and sending her under with its 600-tons of ballast mineral ore. One further ship had been sunk by the Luftwaffe before the convoy passed out of range, further U-boat attacks having been frustrated by bad weather and Robbenschlag ordered to abandon the hunt and focus attention on PQ14.
Ironically, the inbound convoy was largely defeated not by the Luftwaffe or Kriegsmarine, but by the weather. During the night of 10 April PQ14 encountered heavy ice south of Jan Mayen and was scattered by the elements. Many ships suffered ice damage and others failed to rejoin the convoy body, so much so that sixteen ships returned to Iceland, leaving only eight to continue under escort by the cruiser HMS Edinburgh and twelve other warships. Luftwaffe attacks yielded no results and only Kaptlt Heinz-Ehlert Clausen’s U403 from the ten-boat strong Blutrausch successfully hit the convoy commodore’s ship SS Empire Howard north-west of North Cape on 16 April. The ship, carrying 2,000 tons of war materials, went down in less than a minute – thirty-seven of the sixty-two crew rescued by escorting trawlers and commodore Captain E. Rees RNR among those lost. U376 also launched a torpedo attack against HMS Edinburgh, although despite recording the sound of three detonations, all shots missed. It was a meagre result for the U-boats, thwarted by a combination of aggressive escorts, bright skies and bad weather.
In Britain further entreaties from Tovey to reduce the PQ convoy size at least until pack ice had receded fell on deaf ears and PQ15 of twenty-five heavily escorted merchants sailed in late April for Murmansk. The political pressure on supplying the Soviet Union remained intense and Royal Navy operational considerations relegated to secondary concern. Within the Kriegsmarine too, there was concern at the U-boat operations within the Arctic, not least of all the difficulties caused by operational control being split between Schmundt’s post as Admiral Nordmeer and Hermann Boehm as Marineoberkommando Norwegen. Schmundt’s authority – and therefore that of Jürgen Oesten – only covered boats within a central band of the Arctic Ocean, those operating further west falling within Boehm’s authority. Both officers agreed that this was unwieldy and untenable. They reasoned that Schmundt’s authority should extend over a larger operational area representing an ‘organic whole’, so that he himself would be in the position to commit forces over a greater region allowing more streamlined and unified planning. Schmundt’s command area was soon extended eastward approximately from the line of the Lofoten Islands–Jan Mayen and Schmundt was given operational responsibility guided only by directives from above. The post of Admiral Nordmeer was placed directly subordinate to MGK Nord, thereby eliminating tedious links in the command chain.
Such directives were soon forthcoming from SKL demanding improved operations against the PQ convoys. U-boats were to be stationed further west to locate and attack traffic earlier and if convoy location reports were good and the convoy proceeding on large zigzag courses, U-boats were instructed to attack from a deeply echeloned patrol line slowly moving west. Heeding Dönitz’s admonitions, the narrow approaches of Kola Bay were not to be patrolled by U-boats but the Luftwaffe instead.
The fresh instructions yielded little against PQ15 or its reciprocal convoy QP11 that left Murmansk on 28 April. Nine boats of the Strauchritter group were gathered in the Barents Sea south of Bear Island, two of them passing from Boehm’s western waters command into Schmundt’s direct control. During the night of 29 April, in high seas and driving rain, Kaptlt Heino Bohmann’s U88 made contact with QP11, 150 miles north-east of Vardøe. Soon thereafter Kaptlt Heinrich Timm’s U251 and Kaptlt Hans-Joachim Horrer’s U589 also gained contact. At 6.03 a.m. the following morning Bohmann fired a spread of three torpedoes toward the convoy, recording a single detonation after nearly four and a half minutes of running time, although no ship was recorded as hit. Bohmann was confident that he had at least damaged a large steamer, while other U-boats reported that the heavy sea made it impossible to attack while submerged. Neither U405 nor U713 – the boats previously under Boehm’s control – east of Jan Mayen made contact and Schmundt ordered them into the waters between Bear Island and the North Cape to await PQ15.
Meanwhile at 11.42 a.m., U456 sighted the westbound HMS Edinburgh, deduced to be part of QP11’s escort. Radioing a contact report, Seibicke’s U436 was also able to find Edinburgh and fire a fan shot of four torpedoes at the zigzagging target, missing with all of them and later badly damaged by retaliatory depth charges from QP11 destroyers and forced to return to Trondheim. Teichert’s U456 clung onto the fast moving cruiser and at 4.18 p.m fired torpedoes, scoring two hits in spite of the bad weather making aiming difficult. Edinburgh was reported aflame and listing heavily though still afloat: three destroyers arriving to shepherd the damaged ship back to Murmansk. With heavy seas causing attack periscope problems, a frustrated Teichert was unable to mount another attack and was ordered to remain as contact boat to bring U88 to the scene.
HMS Edinburgh had been sailing some 20 miles ahead of the convoy, carrying £5 million in Russian gold bullion as payment to the United States for war materials, when Teichert’s torpedoes hit the starboard side, nearly severing the ship’s stern. HMS Foresight and Forester accompanied by two Soviet destroyers arrived to shield the crippled ship and begin towing back to port while Teichert continued to shadow. Ultimately, three of the German Arctic destroyers, who had sailed against QP11 but been forced away from the convoy, engaged the crippled cruiser and its depleted escort after the Soviet ships had departed to refuel. Z24 hit the cruiser again while the destroyer Hermann Schoemann was herself hit by fire from Edinburgh. The two Royal Navy destroyers also suffered damage before the battle ended: the doomed Edinburgh was sunk by a British torpedo and Hermann Schoemann by a German; 200 German crewmen were rescued by Z24 and sixty were plucked from a life raft by U88 and taken to Kirkenes. U456 had attempted one final attack after the destroyer action had finished, but was forced underwater and depth charged to such a degree that Teichert asked permission to return to Kirkenes, encountering wreckage from the sunk cruiser while en route, including rising oil, life rafts and pith helmets.
Contact with QP11 was maintained despite icebergs and bad weather and at 3.13 a.m. on 1 May Horrer’s U589 fired two torpedoes and hit 2,847-ton Soviet motor merchant Tsiolkovskij, badly damaging the ship that was later sunk by the retreating Z24 and Z25.
Meanwhile PQ15 had come under Luftwaffe attack, including six KG26 He111 torpedo bombers during the early morning half-light of 3 May: the first time these aircraft had been used in action. They claimed three ships sunk and another damaged, though in reality two were sunk and one damaged. This damaged ship was 6,153-ton freighter Jutland, subsequently found on 3 May by U251. Kapitänleutnant Timm had fired his first torpedo in anger two days previously against an escorting destroyer, but missed. A little past midnight on 3 May, Timm’s lookouts sighted Jutland emerging from a cloud bank and Timm dived to attack the ship; three torpedoes fired at a range of 3,500 metres, one hitting the ship whose cargo included 500 tons of cordite and 300 tons of ammunition. The resulting explosion was clearly audible as the freighter virtually disintegrated. Jutland had in fact already taken damage from Luftwaffe bombs and been abandoned when Timm attacked, but escort forces still homed in on U251 and depth charged the boat until Timm crept clear. The following day U703 passed the scene of the sinking and found large amounts of wreckage and six empty lifeboats. The remaining merchants of PQ15 reached Russia unscathed, U-boats foiled by aggressive escorts and intense depth charging.
Results had been disappointing and the lengthening hours of daylight robbed U-boats of their greatest ally: darkness. Despite Dönitz’s continued requests to return the boats to the Atlantic, the commitment of Arctic U-boats remained in force, though Dönitz at least agreed that they be used for convoy interception rather than support for land operations. During the night of 27 April, Soviet troops had landed in three places behind the Wehrmacht’s front line along the coastline of Motovski Bay. Urgent army appeals for Kriegsmarine help were denied: particularly calls for U-boats to harass Soviet landing craft, deemed too small to be targeted by torpedoes and too fast for gunfire while U-boats would expose themselves to extreme risk operating so close inshore.
Throughout the war on the Eastern Front, the German cavalry played a more active and traditional role than in France. With localized exceptions, World War I from the Baltic coast to Rumania remained a war of movement. It could not be otherwise. Between Riga and the mouth of the Danube lay an airline distance of more than eight hundred miles (nearly 1,300 km), but the front could never be measured in airline distances because it included many hundreds of miles more in twists and turns. One theater of operations that was of central importance to Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia alike, namely Russian Poland, by itself measured more than 200 by 250 miles (320 by 400 km). Completely entrenching such vast distances was simply impossible. The front would always be “in the air” somewhere. Consequently, “both sides attempt[ed] vast and daring maneuvers against the enemy’s flank and rear, just as they would in a later war from 1941–1945.” For the success of any such maneuvers, the cavalry’s mobility remained critically important.
At the war’s beginning, the Russian army mobilized no fewer than thirty-seven cavalry divisions. On the German side, by dramatic contrast, there was only one, at least in East Prussia. This was the venerable 1st Cavalry Division, whose regiments were based at Königsberg, Insterburg, and Deutsch-Eylau. This division, along with eleven neighboring infantry divisions, comprised about one-tenth of Germany’s mobilized strength in 1914. Though the numbers of German cavalry would grow enormously during the war on the Eastern Front, the initial disparity was owing not only to Russia’s having to fight both Germany and Austria-Hungary and therefore needing more cavalry but also to the German General Staff’s assigning East Prussia a secondary status in prewar planning. Primary attention and the accompanying resources went to the massive attack against France and Belgium in the West. This particular German cavalry division, however, not only comprised storied Prussian regiments; it would also subsequently be maintained as part of the Reichsheer during the interwar period and go to war again on horseback in 1939.
One of the very earliest events on the Eastern Front also involved cavalrymen, though in this case they weren’t German. On 6 August 1914, several hundred men of a formation known as Pilsudski’s Legion—carrying their saddles—marched across the frontier of Russian Poland from Austrian Galicia near Cracow in the hopes of finding mounts. Wisely, they retreated when they were approached by Cossacks and eventually found their way into the Austrian army. The incident is revealing, for the Cossacks’ presence on the Eastern Front from the war’s outbreak reinforced the conflict’s likely intensity over the whole of that almost immeasurably vast area. From its beginning, the fighting in the east, unlike that in the west, carried overtones of “race war,” a feature reaching its gruesome extreme in the Nazis’ campaigns between 1941 and 1945. The prejudices between supposedly cultured Germans and supposedly barbarous Russians, with the Poles caught in the middle, were manifested from the beginning of the war of 1914. As early as 11 August, no less an authority than the director of the Prussian Royal Library in Berlin, Adolf von Harnack, pronounced that “Mongolian Muscovite civilization” once again loomed over the eastern horizon to threaten German lands just as had happened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
This conjuring of the ancestral Western European fear of the horsemen of the steppe could not have been clearer. As it turned out, the very next day Cossacks of Russian general Pavel Rennenkampf’s First Army crossed the East Prussian border, sacked the village of Markgrabovo, and ignited precisely the sort of panic that Harnack’s “Mongolian Muscovite” hordes had created in generations past. Intensifying the German reaction was the quasi-melding of Prussia’s identity with that of Germany as a whole, a process that had begun with Germany’s unification under the direction of Otto von Bismarck in 1870–1871. Though certainly not universal, this identification of Prussia with Germany made East Prussia’s violation by “asiatics” a national concern, not one limited to East Prussia itself. For a traditionalist unit such as the 1st Cavalry Division, Russian troops’ presence on German, and especially East Prussian, soil would pose a grave emotional threat. A prominent later commander in the post-1918 Red Army (and eventual Marshal of the Soviet Union) only reinforced the apprehension accompanying such a threat by evoking the memory of Mongols’ style of warfare. “The Russian Army,” boasted Mikhail Tukhachevsky, “is a horde, and its strength lies in its being a horde.” This image of rampaging barbarians who “would sweep into deutsches Kulturland” was hardly one to reassure East Prussians or other Germans either during World War I, the chaotic later days of the 1920s, or even in the 1930s or 1940s. As it was, the commander of the German I Corps in East Prussia in 1914, General Hermann von François, lamented the sorry plight of the “mad rush” of thousands of civilians away from the Russian horsemen and fretted that the refugees would impede his own armies’ efforts to contain the invaders. A senior staff officer who witnessed the invasion and who planned the defenders’ operations, Colonel (later General) Max Hoffmann, subsequently noted in his diary that never before had war been waged with such “bestial fury.” The Russians, he wrote with brutal succinctness, “are burning everything down.” Buildings not burned were plundered. One eyewitness, a captain in the Russian 1st Cavalry Division’s Sumsky Hussars, noted that in the campaign’s opening days around Markgrabovo, “[the] scene on the German side of the border was quite frightening. For miles, farms, haystacks, and barns were burning. Later on, some apologists…tried to explain these fires by attributing them to the Germans, who were supposed to have started them as signals to indicate the advance of our troops. I doubt this, but even if it were so in some cases, I personally know of many others where fires were started by us.” Not surprisingly, Russian cavalrymen, including the captain quoted here, helped themselves to the fine horses of East Prussia when in need of a quick replacement for blown, wounded, lame, or dead Russian mounts. Not a few of these horses came from the Prussian State Stud at Trakehnen, which lay almost directly in the path of the invaders. Some Cossacks also took human hostages from the civilian population, many of whom were deported to the east.
In resisting the Russian invasion, the German armies in East Prussia fought a successful series of battles between 17 and 23 August near Stallupönen and Gumbinnen. These towns lay due east of the provincial capital of Königsberg with Stallupönen being almost literally on the Russian border. Later, around Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes to the south and southwest, another string of even larger defeats would be inflicted on the Russians. In the fighting near Gumbinnen, the 1st Cavalry Division made a measurable contribution. Though they had sometimes failed to provide accurate intelligence of the Russian advance and been dismissed by the infantry as “frog stickers” because of the lances they still carried, the cavalrymen redeemed themselves. Flanking the Russians in good cavalry fashion, the German horsemen broke clear and played havoc with the Russians’ logistics and lines of communication. Having already served with the frontier defense (Grenzschutz) before its parent Eighth Army was activated, the 1st Cavalry Division had earlier fought at Stallupönen. Now, near Gumbinnen, it was in its element against a large but lumbering opponent advancing into the acute angle formed by the Gumbinnen-Stallupönen railway line and the River Inster. This opponent was the Russian Imperial Guard Cavalry Corps under the command of the Khan of Nakhitchevan. It had the mission of securing the Russian right wing. Fought to a standstill by German infantry and artillery around the village of Kaushen, the Russian cavalry faltered, and a gap opened in their front. Into that gap plunged the 1st Cavalry Division. The German horsemen broke through, and the ride was on—fully 120 miles (190 km) behind the Russian lines in barely three days’ time. It was a cavalryman’s waking dream for the division’s older officers. The division’s commander, General Brecht, had entered the Prussian army in 1867, and two of his brigadiers were well into their fifties. Still, the advance occurred in a fashion never duplicated on the Western Front after the first Battle of the Marne. It also created panic in General Rennenkampf’s headquarters. Proving themselves generally better horsemen than their Russian counterparts, the division’s troopers moved so far so fast into the Russian rear that they lost contact with their own forces. Consequently, the cavalrymen initially failed to get the subsequent orders for the great redeployment southwestward toward Tannenberg. As that redeployment got underway, however, the division was eventually given the cavalry’s other great task: to screen and protect the German movement and prevent the Russians’ taking advantage. Despite exhausted mounts, insufficient water, and reduced fighting strength, the horsemen had to harass and confound the Russians to keep Rennenkampf’s army from coordinating with General Alexander Samsonov’s to the southwest while the Germans pounced on the latter. Even though Rennenkampf continued to advance slowly but successfully toward Königsberg, the 1st Cavalry Division nevertheless managed repeatedly to put itself in the Russians’ way. Most importantly, this one cavalry division succeeded in frustrating the larger objectives of an entire enemy field army.
By stunning contrast, the Russian cavalry, three divisions strong between Gumbinnen and Tannenberg, not only failed to take any effective part in the former battle but also failed to exploit the real advantage of its own larger numbers in the latter. Nevertheless, and not a little unusually, it was the Russian 1st Cavalry Division that remained in constant reconnaissance-contact with the German 1st Cavalry Division’s horsemen and accompanying bicycle-mounted infantry, and that over a frontage of thirty-five miles. Thus the battles in East Prussia in August and September 1914 not only served to maintain the apparent viability of the German cavalry. They also had a much greater resonance, for they helped propel General Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff to the eventual supreme command of the German armed forces. These victories were ones that, according to one subsequent newspaper account, would for years haunt the children and the grandchildren of the Russian soldiers who’d been so thoroughly defeated there.
Somewhat later, in November 1914, several German cavalry divisions also played prominent roles in the German Ninth Army’s offensive into Russian Poland along a line stretching roughly northeast from Posen to Thorn. Aimed at the juncture between the Russian First Army and its neighbor to the southwest, the Second Army, the German offensive intended to relieve pressure on Austro-Hungarian forces to the south and simultaneously to forestall an impending Russian campaign aimed at the rich industrial region of German Silesia. While the Germans’ III Cavalry Corps stood in reserve and helped screen the southern end of Ninth Army’s line, the I Cavalry Corps comprising the 6th and 9th Cavalry Divisions had been assigned a more active role. Along with the accompanying 3rd Guards Infantry Division, the I Cavalry Corps had the mission of supporting Ninth Army’s broad southeasterly advance through the central lowlands along the left bank of the Vistula toward the Polish city of Lodz. Between 11 and 16 November, the Ninth Army, supporting the XXV Reserve Infantry Corps on the right wing of the German advance, covered more than fifty miles (80 km). On 17 November cavalry and reserve infantry were ordered to completely envelop Lodz to the south and west with attacks toward Pabianice. In doing so, they threatened the entire Russian Second Army at Lodz with encirclement and destruction. Unfortunately for the Germans, the Russian Fifth Army executed a heroic march northward to Lodz’s relief—two of the Russian infantry corps marched more than seventy miles (112 km) in forty-eight hours—and forced the German cavalry and reserve infantry to fight their way out the way they’d come. While the Russians could claim a victory in saving Second Army from destruction, the Germans could equally claim that Silesia had been preserved from invasion. In that strategic victory the horsemen of the I Cavalry Corps had played no mean part.
In 1915 the cavalry again played a significant role in a major German victory, this time in Lithuania. Having driven the Russians out of East Prussia at the beginning of the year in the Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes, German armies joined with their Austro-Hungarian allies to expel Russian forces from almost the whole of Poland in a gargantuan offensive during the spring and summer. These offensives included the dispatching of a strong cavalry force into Courland (Latvia) toward Riga in April and May as part of Army Group Lauenstein (later redesignated the Niemen Army after the river of the same name). The cavalry moved ahead with orders to destroy the Russian railways wherever the horsemen found them. Near the town of Mitau (Jelgava), the German riders captured a baggage train, ammunition wagons, and machine guns. To the south, they also cut the Russian railway on both sides of the junction at Shavli (Siauliai) before falling back temporarily. This ride was followed up in early September with a drive farther to the southeast toward Kaunas (Kovno) and Vilnius (Vilna). Three German cavalry divisions participated in this attack on Lithuania’s two largest cities. In this offensive, begun on 8–9 September, the German horsemen supported the advance on Grodno, cut the Russian railway linking Vilnius and Riga at Sventsiany, and raided into the Russian rear areas as far as Molodechno and Smorgon, though the Russians subsequently managed to drive them and other German forces back and thus avoid encirclement. Indeed, the first German troops to enter Vilnius were the troopers of the Death’s Head Hussars who reminded one native of the Teutonic Knights of five hundred years before, but without the cross.
Similarly, in Rumania in 1916 German and German-led cavalry again had a prominent part to play in a significant victory. In the immediate aftermath of Rumania’s declaration of war on the Central Powers in August 1916, Rumanian offensives had not only gained the passes of the Transylvanian Alps but also the easternmost portion of the Great Hungarian Plain. Anticipating such a Rumanian invasion, however, the German and Austro-Hungarian governments, supported by a willing Bulgaria, had already planned an invasion of their own. This took the form of a combined counteroffensive starting on 18 September to drive the Rumanians out of eastern Hungary. That successful effort was followed by a push across the Transylvanian Alps into both Moldavia and Wallachia by German and Austro-Hungarian forces, as well as an invasion across the Danube by German and Bulgarian troops into the southern Dobrudja. Pushing the Rumanians back through the Vulcan, Red Tower, and Predeal Passes, the flank of the descending left hook of German general Erich von Falkenhayn’s Ninth Army was covered in part by a mounted corps. On 10 November the force began its advance down the Jiu Valley and into the lowlands of Wallachia north of the Danube. This region of Rumania constitutes the southwestern extension of the Black Sea or Pontic Steppe, a vast, undulating grassland interspersed with trees and stretching all the way to the Volga. In many respects, it was ideal horse country for the cavalry, at least as good as the Polish plains around Lodz. By 21 November the advancing German horsemen and infantry had covered the more than sixty-two miles (100 km) to the important rail junction of Craiova, which quickly fell to the Germans. By 26 November, the German horsemen and infantry had advanced another thirty miles (48 km) and captured the one remaining bridge over the Aluta River (at Stoenesti) not destroyed by the retreating Rumanians. They thereby helped open the way for the drive on Bucharest. They also once again demonstrated the cavalry’s utility on the Eastern Front in a fashion impossible in France.
In spite of these successes, however, the Rumanian forces in Wallachia southwest of the capital managed to launch a fairly strong counterattack on 1 December against Falkenhayn’s forces and those of General (and Death’s Head Hussar) August von Mackensen attacking from below the Danube. Here, too, however, the German cavalry made a signal contribution. To help stem this Rumanian counterattack, Falkenhayn dispatched a combined cavalry-infantry force against the right wing of the Rumanians. The horsemen and their accompanying infantry struck the right flank of the Rumanians, broke through, and got into their rear areas. In true cavalry fashion the German horsemen set about sowing confusion and inflicting heavy casualties on the Rumanians. As a consequence, they created a sense of panic that forced a Rumanian withdrawal. Bucharest fell shortly thereafter, and the Rumanians evacuated the whole of the Dobrudja. Those Rumanian forces still holding the lines in the great bend of the Transylvanian Alps were thus threatened with being cut off from the south. As a result, their position became untenable, and they too were forced to retreat into Moldavia. The setting in of heavy winter rains and snow, however, prevented the Germans from pursuing their defeated enemies. The year 1916 ended with the Rumanians holding a rump territory in Moldavia adjoining the Russian frontier along the River Pruth. Nevertheless, the strategic victory to which the cavalry had contributed its fair share was enormous: Rumania was effectively knocked out of the war; German and Austro-Hungarian forces were released for service on other fronts; and, as in another war one-quarter century later, Germany now enjoyed unfettered access to large reserves of foodstuffs, oil, and other war matériel, including much needed horseflesh.
The enormous haul of goods resulting from the eastern victories of the years 1915 to 1917 was only reinforced in early 1918 by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which the Central Powers (read, Germany) imposed on a Russia already undone by revolution. Whatever else it did, the treaty brought to Germany a seemingly immeasurable area of conquest stretching away to the east and southeast. Included was the bulk of the Black Sea Steppe, while from the newly occupied Ukraine alone “Germany…obtained 140,000 horses during the war.” Bearing in mind that the Ukraine really only fell under German occupation as of March 1918, and that the armistice in France brought the fighting officially to a halt in November, the Germans’ requisition-process was harsh indeed but necessary in any case. General Erich Ludendorff evidently thought so. Remarking on the acquisition of horses in the newly occupied eastern lands and the protection of that resource by German troops, he said pointedly that Germany could not carry on the war on the Western Front without the horses from the Ukraine. Be that as it may, Germany’s armies were nonetheless defeated. However unwillingly, Germany was eventually forced to relinquish all of her conquests and a great deal more once the Allies delivered their own punitive settlement, the Treaty of Versailles.
On the afternoon of 22 April Hitler sent Keitel southwest of the city to give General Walther Wenck and his 12th Army orders to come to the rescue of Berlin and send the Red hordes packing. Keitel met with Wenck the next morning, 23 April, and blustered on at length.
Wenck was a soldier’s soldier, highly professional and a great inspiration to his men, and he knew perfectly well that he had been ordered to lead his men to futile destruction. He shrugged and rearranged the orders to conform to reality: the 12th Army would attack, but it would simply be a rescue operation to help survivors of trapped German forces to the east escape the grasp of the Red Army.
On 24 April, Wenck’s 12th Army to the southwest began its “relief operation”. One of his officers wrote: “Who would have ever thought that it would be just a day’s march from the Western Front to the Eastern Front?” There was no thought of defeating the Red Army, only to do everything that could be reasonably done to reach trapped German civilians and soldiers, and then withdraw west. Wenck hardly bothered to acknowledge most of the orders sent him, though communications and organization were in such a bad state that it wasn’t much trouble to ignore them.
In early April, General Walther Wenck, formerly Chief of Staff to General Guderian at the OKH and then briefly Himmler’s Chief of Staff at Army Group Vistula, was called back from convalescent leave for wounds sustained in a February automobile accident to take command of the newly organised 12th Army. He was given a two-part mission. His primary task was to shore up the rapidly receding western front between the armies of Field Marshals Ernst Busch and Albrecht Kesselring, Commanders in Chief North-west and West respectively, now taking a severe beating from the British and North American forces racing eastwards with barely a pause since the landings at Normandy in June 1944. But Hitler had also envisioned a plan whereby Wenck’s 12th Army would launch a massive counter-attack against General Bradley’s 12th Army Group, now making rapid progress toward the Elbe. The idea was to slice a 320km (200 mile) swath straight through General William Simpson’s Ninth Army to the Ruhr pocket, thereby releasing the 300,000 men of Model’s Army Group B and splitting the armies of Montgomery and Bradley. Hitler wanted to achieve this improbable feat by appropriating a Soviet trick. He instructed the officers of the new 12th Army to round up 200 non-descript Volkswagen automobiles and use them to infiltrate the enemy lines and disrupt the rear to effect the breakthrough.
Even if the plan had been realistic when formu- lated, it never got the chance to be tested: the front was moving too rapidly eastwards. Indeed, Wenck had some trouble catching up with his new head- quarters as it continually retreated to the East. He received a rude shock, and a quick education in the reality of the military situation when, on his way to assuming his new command, he attempted to stop in his hometown of Weimar to withdraw his family’s savings from the bank: American tanks from General George S. Patton’s Third Army were already there. Within two days of Hitler’s elaboration of his plan, on 13 April, the Allies succeeded in cutting Model’s forces in the Ruhr pocket in two and capturing the eastern half. Model had already told his troops that he was dissolving Army Group B on his own authority to save them the humiliation of surrender; it was left to each man whether to surrender individually, continue fighting, or attempt to make his way home through the Allied lines.
Wenck finally caught up with his headquarters near Rosslau, some 75km (46 miles) south-west of Berlin. Positioned along a 200km (125 miles) front from Wittenberge down the River Elbe to Leipzig, the 12th Army was supposed to have been made up of 10 divisions, some 200,000 soldiers, composed of Panzer Training Corps officers, cadets, Volkssturmer, and the remains of 11th Army, which had been involved in some ferocious fighting in the Harz mountains. But much of Wenck’s army, he quickly discovered, existed only on paper. Some of the units were still in the process of being organised but, at most, he had at his disposal roughly five and a half divisions, with 55,000 men. These were equipped with a few self-propelled guns, about 40 personnel carriers, and a number of fixed artillery positions at bridges and around cities like Magdeburg. The outlook was not encouraging. But the situation through- out what remained of the Reich was bleak, and Wenck, the Wehrmacht’s youngest general, faced it with surprising vigour and imagination. Determined to hold the Western Allies at the Elbe for as long as possible, while at the same time freeing up as many men as possible to help shield Berlin from the Soviets, he intended to use the most experienced of the 12th’s few and green forces as a sort of mobile shock troop, shuttling them from crisis to crisis. To this end he positioned his best forces in Magdeburg and other centrally located urban centres.
Wenck’s instincts for focusing on the cities were sound, though it didn’t require too much military genius to understand that this last stage of the war would be fought predominantly in large, urban areas. There had been some significant city battles fought already in this war, most notably in Stalingrad and Warsaw. But for the most part it had been a war of large-scale, mobile operations conducted in open terrain or before cites; the kind of warfare best suited to the era’s fascination with tanks and other mobile armour. But in April 1945, on the eve of the war’s final act, with Germany’s room for manoeuvring and building reserves rapidly disappearing, that kind of operational depth was no longer available. Inevitably, particularly given the Allies’ insistence on Germany’s unconditional surrender and Hitler’s inability to consider any kind of retreat or surrender, the final battle would almost certainly have to be fought inside the Third Reich’s capital.
To the north of Magdeburg, the US Fifth Armored Division was poised to seize Tangermunde, just over 60km (38 miles) from the western edge of Berlin. To the south, American forces had succeeded in crossing the Elbe at two points. The Second Armored Division had gained Schonebeck, although not before the Germans blew the bridge. Taking Combat Command D, Brigadier General Sidney Hinds managed to force a crossing at nearby Westerhusen, putting three battalions across by the evening of the 12th April and attempting to reinforce the bridgehead via an improvised cable ferry. On the morning of the 14th, however, armoured units of General Wenck’s 12th Army suddenly attacked with ferocious intensity. Wenck’s idea for mobile shock forces proved to be very effective, as his inexperienced but eager soldiers wreaked havoc on the Americans’ newly won positions. With the cable ferry knocked out in one of the first salvoes, the desperate GIs radioed for air support. Few planes were forthcoming, however, as the advance had been so swift that the airstrips had been left too far behind for effective support. By midday, General Hinds ordered a full retreat from the Elbe’s eastern bank, though it took days for all of the survivors to trickle back to the western bank. In the end, 304 men had been lost.
On Sunday 22 April OKW Chief of Operations, Colonel General Alfred JodI, offered a suggestion which seemed to pique Hitler’s interest. Convinced that the Americans were not going to advance any further east, JodI suggested that Wenck’s 12th Army, which had been facing them off on the Elbe, could march immediately to Berlin, link up with the Ninth, and at least prevent the complete encirclement of the city. Hitler agreed and dispatched Keitel to the western front. There, just past 0100 hours, with much bluster and waiving of his field marshal’s baton, Keitel ordered Wenck to leave his position on the Elbe and push with all speed towards Potsdam.
Soviet Marshal Konev was now particularly worried about Wenck’s 12th Army and the increasing pressure on the south-west sector, Treuenbrietzen. On 24 April, the same day that the ‘Garlitz Group’ was success- fully beaten back on the southern flank, Panzers from 12th Army’s 41st and 48th Panzer Corps smashed into the thinly stretched left flank of Lelyushenko’s Fourth Guards Tank Army. Simultaneously, units of the German 20th Army Corps launched an infantry attack, covered by artillery bombardment, aimed at taking back Treuenbrietzen, 35km (21 miles) south of Potsdam. The attack continued throughout the day and was repeated at night. The Soviets managed to hold their lines, however. Fighting with fierce determination, the 10th Guards Mechanised Brigade holding the town allowed the German troops to advance very close, and then opened up with heavy machine-guns, mowing the Germans down, while hidden tanks roared out of their ambushes and crushed the foot-soldiers underneath their treads. Responding to the armoured attack on Fourth Guards Tank’s flank, meanwhile, Yermakov’s Fifth Guards Mechanised Corps established a mobile anti-tank reserve unit from 51st Guards Tank Regiment and set up a number of fixed anti-tank positions and tank or artillery ambush sites. Yermakov also mobilised the Soviet PoWs just liberated from German concentration camps, issuing them with captured Panzerfausts and organising them into teams of 10-25 men in anti- tank strong-points.
The next morning, two German divisions supported by the 243rd Assault Gun Regiment again attacked the 10th Mechanised Brigade’s positions in Treuenbrietzen, while a separate attack was launched against the nearby Beelitz-Buchholz sector. Again, the Germans were held off, this time with the support of First Guards Ground-Attack Air Corps, which streaked out at low altitude and dumped anti- tank bombs on the Germans. With the arrival of 147th Rifle Division from the 102nd Rifle Corps (13th Army) and the 15th Rifle Regiment, the semi-encirclement of Treuenbrietzen was broken and the Soviets’ lines secured.
By 25 April Wenck was making no serious effort to reach Berlin, and certainly not to save Hitler.
On the city’s south-west side, the Potsdam garrison had fallen to Lelyushenko’s tanks on 27 April, and he was now pressing 10th Guards Tank Corps and 350th Rifle Division (from 13th Army) on towards the heavily manned ‘Wannsee Island’. The attack continued throughout the day, but without any significant progress. Meanwhile, as Sixth Mechanised Corps followed Lelyushenko’s orders to race further west to Brandenburg to cut off the potential escape route, they suddenly slammed into Wenck’s 12th Army. Although Wenck, it seems, was in no rush to push his way too far into the Soviet forces, he quickly launched further attacks into the Treuenbrietzen sector, leaving Lelyushenko’s left flank in an extremely difficult position, caught in a reversed front by Wenck’s forces to the west and the Ninth in the east.
The end of the battle for Berlin did not immediately mean an end to the war, although it could continue afterwards only in a disorganised, obviously futile manner. For most of the German units maintaining some form of military discipline and cohesion, their only thought was to get to the Elbe and surrender to the Americans or British. This was the case for the last formations to survive the battle for Berlin; Busse’s Ninth Army and Wenck’s 12th. For days, the Ninth had been fighting desperately to reach Wenck to the south-west of Berlin, and so gain an avenue to the Elbe. The First Ukrainian Front’s main concern was to take Berlin’s central district, rather than block the Ninth’s escape, but the fighting was still difficult, and made more so by the Ninth’s precarious supply situation; there was almost no ammunition left, and few weapons, and hundreds of civilian refugees had joined their columns. On 1 May, down to their last tank, Busse’s men were pushing forward with all they had, when they heard firing coming from behind the Soviets, who started breaking. Lieutenant General Wolf Hagemann leapt out of his tank with the only weapon available, a shotgun, and began pumping shells at the Soviets. Within minutes, the Ninth Army made contact with the 12th Army; of their original 200,000 men, 40,000 had survived. Generals Busse and Wenck, exhausted and filthy, walked silently up to each other and shook hands. By 7 May, both armies had made it to the Elbe and surrendered to the Allies.
The 12th Army was reconstituted on the Western Front near the Elbe River on April 10, 1945.
General of Panzer Walther Wenck
XX Corps – General of Cavalry Carl-Erik Koehler
Theodor Körner RAD Infantry Division
Ulrich von Hutten Infantry Division
Ferdinand von Schill Infantry Division
Scharnhorst Infantry Division
XXXIX Panzer Corps – Lt. Gen. Karl Arndt
(12 – 21 April 1945 under OKW with the following structure)
Clausewitz Panzer Division
Schlageter RAD Division
84th Infantry Division
(21 – 26 April 1945 under 12th Army with the following structure)
Clausewitz Panzer Division
84th Infantry Division
Hamburg Reserve Infantry Division
Meyer Infantry Division
XXXXI Panzer Corps – Lt. Gen. Rudolf Holste
Von Hake Infantry Division
199th Infantry Division
V-Weapons Infantry Division
XLVIII Panzer Corps – General of Panzer Maximilian von Edelsheim
Hitler’s surprise winter offensive commenced on 16 December 1944 under the cover of heavy cloud and snow that kept the enemy fighter-bombers at bay. The 1st SS and 12th SS Panzer divisions launched the 6th SS Panzer Army’s main thrusts. Their spearhead, formed by Kampfgruppe Peiper drawn from 1st SS, consisted of 100 Panzer Mk IV and Panthers, about forty formidable Tiger IIs and twenty-five assault guns. In addition Otto Skorzeny’s Panzer Brigade 150’s three Kampfgruppen were also assigned to the 1st SS and 12th SS Panzer and the 12th Volksgrenadier Division.
Directly in the line of the 12th SS Panzers’ northern attack was the Elsenborn ridge. It was here that the Germans were halted dead in their tracks by the US Army and the panzers singularly failed to contribute to the huge bulge cut into the Allied lines further south. The defending US 99th Infantry Division were well dug in and their artillery and anti-tank guns played havoc with the German advance. It also forced Kampfgruppe Peiper further south, and south-east of Elsenborn the 1st SS Panzer Division was held up. Key amongst the American anti-tank units were elements of the 612th Tank Destroyer Battalion equipped with towed 3-inch guns around Höfen.
Alarm was caused when a reconnaissance tank company from Kampfgruppe Peiper’s spearhead threatened Wirtzfeld on 17 December. Occupation of Wirtzfeld and the twin villages of Krinkelt-Rocherath would roll up the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions from the flank. If Peiper reached Bütgenbach and moved north to Elsenborn the two divisions would be caught in the rear, completely unhinging the American defences and trapping up to 30,000 men.
With the panzers making for Bullingen the Americans set up an improvized defence south of Wirtzfeld with clerks, cooks, drivers and military police. They were reinforced by divisional artillery under Brigadier-General John H. Hinds, who deployed a battery of 105mm field guns and another of heavy 155mm howitzers to cover the approaches to Wirtzfeld and Bullingen. The defenders also had some 57mm anti-tank guns and four half-tracks with quad .50 calibre machine guns.
Panzers and armoured half-tracks roared out of the mist on the Bullingen road at about 0800 hours on 17 December and crossed a ridge outside Wirtzfeld to be met by a hail of fire. At this point the Americans received welcome reinforcements in the shape of five self-propelled tank destroyers from the 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion. They destroyed four enemy vehicles in quick succession and the others withdrew to Bullingen.
Near Krinkelt-Rocherath the 12th Volksgrenadiers, suppor ted by 12th SS tanks, set about the 99th Infantry. Even in the face of five Tigers the Americans fell back grudgingly on the twin villages. In front of Rocherath the ground was littered with German dead and seventeen tanks. The streets of Krinkelt-Rocherath became a killing ground for the panzers, where they were caught by bazooka teams and hidden tanks and tank destroyers. American artillery and mines also took a toll, often leaving panzers disabled and at the mercy of bazookas. Remarkably two Shermans claimed five Tigers in Rocherath after the Germans became trapped on the narrow streets.
Nonetheless, tanks of the US 741st Tank Battalion covering the American withdrawal were destroyed by the advancing Panthers. Desperate to drive the Americans from Elsenborn the Germans threw themselves at Höfen and Monschau only to be stopped by US artillery fire. They renewed their attacks on the twin villages on 18 December, supported by Jagdpanthers of the 560th Heavy Anti-Tank Battalion.Armed with the 88mm gun they seemed unstoppable. However, Shermans from the 741st Tank Battalion as well as artillery and bazooka fire ensured the panzers did not break free to the open ridgeline. In the meantime two US infantry divisions moved to reinforce the defenders, who withdrew to the ridge.
Switching their emphasis, the 12th SS, supported by the 12th Volksgrenadier Division, attacked Domäne Butgenbach on the southern end of the ridge on 19 December. Two days later the 12th SS were halted by M36 tank destroyers of the 613th Tank Destroyer Battalion. The last German attack on the right took place on 22 December and was greeted by a devastating 10,000 rounds fired by US artillery.
Cole Barnard, a rifleman with the US 11th Armored Division, deployed southwest of Bastogne, recalled:
There are some interesting aspects to the attack and one of them was that Hitler had created a special brigade which would go along with the lead elements of the attack, get behind our lines, and capture the Meuse River bridges so they could hold those until the rest of the troops got up there.This brigade was outfitted with all captured American and British tanks. They had all captured American weapons and were all dressed in American uniforms.
Under Operation Grief Otto Skorzeny had been personally appointed by Hitler to command Panzer Brigade 150, tasked with capturing the vital Meuse bridges at Amay, Andenne or Huy before they could be demolished. Skorzeny was summoned to Hitler’s Rastenburg HQ on 22 October 1944, where he was congratulated on the success of his mission to Hungary and promoted from major to lieutenant-colonel. The Hungarian operation had used several hundred commandos from the 500th SS Parachute Battalion and the Jagdverbande. Skorzeny’s coup in Budapest, though, had hardly been subtle, as a company of massive Tiger II tanks had backed his seizure of Hungarian leader Admiral Horthy.
‘Stay awhile,’ said Hitler. ‘l am now going to give you the most important job of your life. In December Germany will start a great offensive. It may decide her fate.’ He outlined Operation Herbstnebel (Autumn Mist) or Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine), the forthcoming Ardennes counter-offensive. ‘He told me about the tremendous quantity of materiel which had been accumulated,’ noted Skorzeny ‘and I recall that he stated we would have 6,000 artillery pieces in the Ardennes, and, in addition, the Luftwaffe would have about 2,000 planes, including many of the new jet planes. He then told me that I would lead a panzer brigade which would be trained to reach the Meuse bridges and capture them intact.’
Despite Skorzeny’s repeated complaints, he found himself being supplied with German equipment rather than American. Skorzeny grumbled that‘he had to make up the difference with German vehicles.The only common feature of these vehicles was that they were all painted green, like American military vehicles.’ Initially his unit was equipped with five Panther tanks, five Sturmgeschütz or StuG assault guns, six German armoured cars and six armoured personnel carriers.
Skorzeny’s brigade was supposed to include two companies of panzers and by late November had been supplied with twenty-two Panther tanks and fourteen StuG assault guns, with the tank crews provided by the 6th Panzer Division. Panzerjäger crews for the StuGs came from Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion 655 and the armoured car crews came from the reconnaissance battalions of the 2nd Panzer Division and 90th Panzergrenadier Division. When they finally went into battle they seem to have deployed only ten Panthers and five StuGs.
There was simply no way to make a Panther look like a Sherman, so Skorzeny’s men ingeniously opted to make them look like the Sherman’s tank destroyer cousin, the M10 Wolverine, based on a Sherman chassis but with a much more angular hull and turret. To do this the Panthers were disguised with sheet metal, painted olive green and given prominent white five-pointed American recognition stars. These, Skorzeny cynically noted, were only sufficient to: ‘deceive very young American troops seeing them at night from very far away.’
Once Hohes Venn was reached Skorzeny’s three Kampfgruppen were to pass round their assigned units, but things did not run smoothly and they got horribly tangled up at Losheim. Skorzeny realised by the evening of the second day of the offensive that Panzer Brigade 150 would simply not reach the Meuse bridges, so he suggested that his unit serve as a regular combat force. Under the direction of Colonel Wilhelm Mohnke he was ordered to help take Malmédy to open up the roads to reach Kampfgruppe Peiper.
Although the Germans destroyed 300 American tanks, Eisenhower countered Hitler’s offensive by moving the US 7th Armored Division to St Vith and elements of the 10th Armored and US 101st Airborne Divisions to Bastogne.The Panzer Lehr Division was not quick enough and the Gls beat them to the town. Although the 116th Panzer Division slipped between Bastogne and St Vith, Bastogne’s defenders held up 2nd Panzer. St Vith fell on 21 December, but heavy American artillery fire forced the two Panzer armies to become ever more entangled.
All three of Skorzeny’s battlegroups joined 1st SS Panzer and were thrown into the attack on Malmédy on the 21st. However, any chance of his Kampfgruppen achieving a level of surprise was lost after one of his men was captured the day before and spilled the beans. To make matters worse, Skorzeny’s planned attack lacked artillery support to soften up the defenders or conduct counter-battery fire when the American artillery inevitably retaliated. Luftwaffe fighter cover was also completely out of the question.
Predictably, Hauptmann Scherff and Kampfgruppe Y were met by such heavy shelling that he quickly broke off his assault. This was not the covert operation he had planned and trained for. On the left Willi Hardieck’s Kampfgruppe X attacked with two companies of infantry supported by five fake M10 tank destroyers. They pushed from Ligneuville, through Bellevaux and along the route de Falize, striking west of Malmédy. The main force headed toward the Warche River bridge and Rollbahn C. Trip-wire flares illuminating the early morning gloom quickly alerted the American defenders and the fake M10s ran into a minefield and the 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion command post, which was quickly surrounded and attacked.
Skorzeny watched from the hill on the route de Falise as one of his fake M10s, supported by German infantry in attack toward Malmédy, was driven off by an American anti-tank gun. The other nine tanks attempted to capture a bridge over the Warche in order to reach Stavelot, but the first tank was lost to a mine and began to burn. American infantry manning a roadblock were forced back, but when the Germans attempted to cross the bridge Gls armed with bazookas knocked out two more tanks. Two American tank destroyers then accounted for two further German tanks.
Skorzeny, seeing how things were progressing, ordered his men to fall back, but none of his remaining armour made it. One fake M10 coded B5 was disabled at Malmédy, another, B10, crashed into the café at La Falise. B7 got as far as the Ambléve Bridge at Malmédy but was brought to a halt by US bazooka fire. Several Sturmgeschütz in American markings were knocked out at Géromont.
A knocked-out snow-covered Sherman, belonging to the 5th Parachute Jäger Division, photographed outside the Hotel des Ardennes, epitomized the failure of Hitler’s Operation Grief. Skorzeny’s fake Shermans had got him nowhere. 2nd Panzer got closer to the Meuse than special Panzer Brigade 150 ever did.
Panzer Brigade 150 “Rabenhügel”
Formed on October 4, 1944 in preparation for action in the Ardennes Counteroffensive
This brigade, although called Panzer, was not part of the regular army’s panzer brigades. It was formed for one specific mission : infiltration! The idea put forward by Hitler, was that German soldiers in US uniforms and driving US vehicles would infiltrate the frontlines and seize crossroads and bridges for the following panzer troops. Although the idea was sound and based on apst experiences on the eastern front (the Brandenburg Commando’s), the lack of English-speaking soldiers and US equipment hampered the mission of the brigade. The force, commanded by SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny, was split up in two formations : Rabenhügel and Einheit Stilau.
Rabenhügel was formed from troops of
SS-Jagdverband “Mitte” (1 Kompanie)
SS-Fallschirmjäger Abteilung 600 (2 Kompanie)
Sonderverband “Jungwirth (2 Kompanie)
7. (reserve) Panzergrenadier Kompanie
11. Panzer Regiment (4. Kompanie)
Panzerjäger Abteilung 655 (1. Kompanie)
Panzer Aufklärung Abteilung 190 (1. Kompanie)
Panzer Aufklärung Abteilung 2 (1. Kompanie)
I./Artillerie Abteilung 40 (4. Batterie)
On January 23, 1944, the brigade was officially disbanded and the survivors returned to their parent formations
Formed on October 4, 1944 in preparation for action in the Ardennes Counteroffensive
About 150 of the best English-speaking personnel were formed into smaller detachments with specific missions:
4 Reconnaissance Detachments (3 – 4 men)
Wearing US Uniforms the 4 groups would reconnoiter deep into the US positions and send back any and all information of troop movements. Meanwhile they would pass on fake orders, reverse road signs, remove minefield warnings and cordon-off roads using white tape (minefield warning)
2 Demolition Detachments (6 men)
Also wearing US Uniforms the 2 groups would destroy fuel dumps, ammunition depots and small bridges (not on the intended route of advance)
3 Lead Detachments (3-4 men)
Also wearing US Uniforms the 3 groups were assigned to work with 1, 12 SS Panzer Division and 12. Volksgrenadier Division. Recognizable by their blue scarf, they would spread confusion in front of the divisions and lead them through lightly defended areas.
By December 18, 1944, the surprise effect was lost and the detachments were used as regular infantry. Although their number was small (44 men) their psychological effect was huge! All but 8 returned to the German lines (2 Recon detachments were captured and executed)
Mercenaries from Germanic states, best known for service with the British Army in the eighteenth century. “Hessian” is the generic term used during the American Revolution to describe German mercenary troops employed by the British.
Hessians at Trenton using the Rall Regiment flag (Both colors) in a painting by Don Troiani.
The use of mercenaries in the eighteenth century was quite common because it allowed the employing countries to maintain smaller armies in peacetime while allowing the supplying countries to gain much-needed national income. Mercenaries in Europe first became widely used at the time of the condottieri in Italy in the 1400s. The first well-known mercenary troops came from the Swiss provinces. By the 1700s the German states were the source of most mercenaries. Germany at that time consisted of some 300 individual states of widely varying size, all ruled by a king, duke, prince, or other aristocrat who inherited his position. As many of them felt the need to outdo their neighbors in expenditures, the hiring out of local armies was a ready source of income.
The outbreak of the Seven Years’ War placed major demands on Hesse-Kassel’s resources. While a member of Britain’s parliamentary opposition, William Pitt had been an eloquent and forceful critic of military subsidies. But as prime minister of a state at war, Pitt opened the treasurí to create an army on the continent whose regiments were largely German. Of the 90,000 men under arms in 1760, only 22,000 were British-2,000 fewer than the Hessian contingent alone. The Hessian soldiers once again proved themselves among Europe’s best. Under the overall command of Ferdinand of Brunswick, they played a central role as “His Britannic Majestís Army in Germany” and tied down superior numbers of French and imperial troops in an unheralded campaign, enabling Frederick of Prussia to outfight his enemies for seven years.
The Hessian people paid the price. Hesse was a major theater of operations for five campaigns-occupied, reoccupied and drained by requisitions, contributions and simple plundering by both sides. But as its tax base shrank, and the prospects of actually collecting taxes diminished, more and more English gold flowed into the treasury. The subsidy conventions concluded between 1702 and 1765 met a good half of Hesse-Kassel’s total budget. It was money gained without having to consult the Landtag, or diet, the assembly of merchants, townsmen and nobles who in principle controlled Hesse’s purse strings. Initially, subsidies had been used to maintain the army: soldiers supporting soldiers in accepted European fashion. But the kind of money the new treaties generated was becoming a different matter. Subsidies brought in foreign exchange, which could be used to support investment in commerce, industry and agriculture. Since they went into the military treasury, directly under the Landgrafs control, the government had a potentially powerful fiscal weapon against the diet-should it prove necessary.
Discipline might be harsh in principle, hut its weight fell primarily on the 10 percent that cause 90 percent of the problems in any military unit: the sullen, the stubborn, the stupid. Small wonder, then, that Hessian field regiments had little trouble keeping their ranks filled-or that many of the regulars saw even the voyage to America to help suppress a popular revolution as an adventure and an opportunity.
When mobilized, the Hessian army was an infantry force: around two dozen regiments of foot, field and garrison, supported by a few squadrons of s cavalry and two or three artillery companies whose pieces were I distributed as “regimental guns.” Each infantry regiment had a grenadier company composed of picked men and usually assigned to a separate grenadier battalion on active service. For the American expedition, the army added something new: a field Jaeger (hunter) corps of two companies. Foresters, hunters and the occasional poacher from all over Germany volunteered, attracted by high bounties and high pay, bringing their own rifles. Performing many of the duties of contemporary rangers, the Jaeger were widely considered the elite of the British army in North America.
An officer’s career in Hesse-Kassel was both honorable and a good way to share in the subsidy system benefits. The officer corps was characterized by long service-an average of 28 years for captains and majors of one regiment in 1776. It was primarily native-about half noble and the other half either bourgeois who began as “free corporals,” with the understanding that a commission was in the offing, or commoners promoted from the ranks. In contrast to most German states, Prussia in particular, an officer’s official status and precedence were based on his military rank and not his social origins. Senior appointments were, nevertheless, largely filled by aristocrats through the end of the period.
Elector Karl recognized the risk of professional stagnation in a small army. By 1771, 61 officers and cadets were studying academic subjects at the Collegium Carolinum, Hesse-Kassel’s foremost university. By the time of the French Revolutionary Wars, Hessian officers were among the leaders in developing new tactical doctrines. An officer who joined in 1777 described the change: “In my early youth, who could last longest at a drinking bout, who showed the most dueling cuts was held to be a fine fellow, and whoever had cheated a Jew was considered a genius. This fashion has completely changed.” A bit optimistic perhaps, but indicating an internal dynamic that produced solid leadership at regimental levels for an army designed to fight under alien high command.
During the American Revolution, the traditionally small British army needed supplementing. King George III was the first British-born monarch of the German house of Hanover, so there were close ties to German states. Six of the German states provided troops to King George, including Brunswick (5,700 men), Anspach-Bayreuth (2,300 men), Waldeck (1,200 men), Anhalt-Zerbst (1,100 men), Hesse-Cassel (17,000 men), and Hesse-Hanau (2,500 men). Owing to the predominance of troops from the last two related states, “Hessian” became the common description for any German soldier, although that was not appreciated by the other troops. Britain had hired German troops in the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and other conflicts, so the mixing of Anglo-German forces was hardly new. The employment contracts provided for the lion’s share of the purchase price to go to the ruler, while the soldier received the standard low pay of all enlisted men of that era. For a price of some £4.5 million, the British army received the services of almost 30,000 troops.
The troops may have been regarded as mercenaries, but the average soldier probably was not serving for personal gain. Many of the troops were forced into service, and many more were not even citizens of the state for which they served, as methods up to and including kidnapping were not uncommon in order to put men in uniform. Traditional tactics, like promising wealth and adventure or taking advantage of drunks, brought in men, as did visits to prisons. Discipline was harsh, but effective enough to train troops that were as good as any at the time. The infantry was obtained in this manner, although the cavalry tended to come from the upper classes.
Officers were aristocrats with little care for the welfare of their men. On the voyage from Europe to America, conditions for the enlisted men often were little better than on slave ships, with cramped accommodations and poor food.
The first action the German troops saw in America was in August 1776 at the Battle of Long Island. There they fought well but gained a bad reputation for slaughtering prisoners. It was in the months following William Howe’s capture of New York City, however, that the Hessian troops gained their first serious attention from the Americans. Howe ordered his army into winter quarters after defeating George Washington’s army at White Plains in October 1776. Placed in a large arc around New York City, the regiments were ordered to quarter themselves in outlying towns and wait for the spring campaign. A Hessian regiment un- der Johann Rall was billeted in Trenton, New Jersey. Under the provisions of the Quartering Act passed by Parliament in 1774, the local population was obligated to provide housing and supplies for the occupying troops. This was an odious law to the colonists and one of the “Intolerable Acts” that had provoked the Revolution. Its implementation by mercenaries did nothing to assuage the colonists’ ire. Washington, having just suffered three defeats, needed a victory to ensure recruits for the revolutionary army the following spring. He figured that beating the Hessians would rescue the population from a hated occupying force while restoring his flagging reputation for generalship at the same time.
Washington launched a surprise attack at dawn the day after Christmas 1776, and in a matter of minutes killed, wounded, captured, or scattered almost 1,500 men for a loss of but five of his own. This incident confirmed in the British a condescending attitude toward their allies, the Hessians, whom they thought overpaid and overrated. One British officer wrote to a friend hat “these Hessians are the worst troops I ever saw. Government has been Cheated by their sending one half Militia, and the greatest part of the others Recruits, very few Viterons amongst them, they are voted British pay, which their Prince Cheats them out of one half, they are Exceedingly dissatisfied at this, so that to make it up they turn their whole thoughts upon plunder. It was their attention to this Plunder, that made them fall a sacrifice to the Rebels at Trenton” (Lowell, 1884).
Hessian troops seemed to fight quite well when part of a larger force, but the only other time they fought alone was also a disaster. In 1777, as John Burgoyne made his way south from Canada in an attempt to control New York, he sent a force of Hessians to obtain supplies and horses near the town of Bennington, Vermont. They met a force of local militia that outnumbered their own 800 troops and who used the terrain to its best advantage, outfighting and outmaneuvering the Hessians. Once beaten, they staged a fighting withdrawal toward Burgoyne’s army and met with a 600-man relief force that had arrived too late to assist in the earlier battle. Both Hessian units found themselves swamped by Vermonters. When it was all over, the Hessians had lost 900 killed or taken prisoner.
Casualty replacement became an unexpected problem. British soldiers and diplomats promised quick victory. Instead, almost 19,000 Hessians, 7,000 more than the original contingent, crossed the Atlantic after 1776. Five thousand died from all causes, more than 80 percent from disease alone. Another 1,300 were wounded. Between 2,500 and 3,100 went missing. Many of those simply remained in the New World. Their number nevertheless suggested a significant degree of alienation from the subsidy system among those at its sharp end,
Other than these two defeats, the Hessians acquitted themselves fairly well in every major battle of the Revolution, up to and including the final battle at Yorktown in 1781. They remained in America until the signing of the peace treaty in 1783, but not all of them went home. The years they had spent in America affected many Hessians greatly, for they saw the American farmer working lush fields that were larger than many royal estates at home. The lure of good land, and the discovery of attractive and hard-working American women, convinced many Germans not to go home. The Duke of Brunswick encouraged many to stay in the new United States or in Canada. He could always raise more troops but did not want to pay transport for any more than necessary at that time. There was little reason to go home if one wanted to remain a mercenary, however, for their time was coming to an end. The American Revolution, soon followed by the revolution in France, began the creation of national armies using only citizen soldiers.
References: Hibbert, Christopher, Redcoats and Rebels (New York: Norton, 1990); Lowell, E. J., The Hessians, and the German Auxiliaries of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War (New York: Harper & Bros. 1884); Smith, Page, A New Age Now Begins (New York: McGraw- Hill, 1976).