Third Panzer Division: From the Spree to the Bug 1939 Part I

August 1939 approached. The weather was warm and sunny. There was a lot of activity in the fields and pastures; the harvest needed to be brought in. Who knew when the next bad weather would come? But the sun still smiled down from the clear blue skies.

The headquarters and staff sections were filled with secretive and fast-paced work. The adjutants and liaison officers ran around with serious faces, and even the clerks and staff noncommissioned officers became unapproachable. The first batch of reserve officers arrived in the garrisons at the beginning of August. The soldiers, who had been called up for eight weeks, had given up hope of being released. It was the same picture every year. The annual maneuvers were around the corner. But this time, there was no real anticipation; the reports coming in from east of the Reich frontier were too serious.

In July, at the Bergen-Belsen Training Area, the division had activated the logistical units that belonged to it in accordance with its mobilization plans. They received the designation Divisions-Nachschubtruppen 83 (Division Support Element 83). By the beginning of August, ten truck columns had been established. That was followed by the division rations section under the direction of Stabszahlmeister Flitner. The division bakery company was under the command of Hauptmann Nagel. There was also the division’s meat-processing platoon, the field post office (Feldpostinspektor Mollweide), and the two maintenance companies.

On 17 August, the whistles of the noncommissioned officers in charge pierced through the hallways of the barracks and the living areas: “Load up!” Later on, the company commanders revealed the march objective of the movement that had been ordered: the training area at Groß-Born. The elements of the division gradually moved out of their various garrisons. The advance parties of the rifle regiment left Eberswalde the next day, with elements of the motorcycle battalion following on 19 August and the armored regiments the day after that. That was followed by the artillery. Everyone thought to himself: Were we really just going to Groß-Born? Only a few actually knew that the Army High Command had already taken the preliminary measures for a mobilization. That meant that the formations capable of “moving out expeditiously” were to be prepared to move. That included all motorized divisions.

As the forces marched out, the family members of the soldiers gathered to bid farewell, as did the civilian employees of the mess halls, the canteens, and the administrative elements.

Many career officers and noncommissioned officers had to depart from the divisional elements during that period. They were transferred to new commands, activating formations and schools. It was not easy taking leave of their units. Now that the time had come to prove themselves, their common experiences and common efforts had to be given up. Reserve officers and noncommissioned officers took their places. Some of them were from the times of previous exercises and the march into the Sudetenland, thus allowing them to find a bridge to foster trust and understanding.

The commanders of the 4th and 5th Batteries changed within the 2nd Battalion of the division artillery. Major Wöhlermann and Hauptmann Hellmers gave up their commands to Hauptmann Haselbach and Oberleutnant Nebel (promoted to Hauptmann on 27 August). Major Burmeister assumed command of the 2nd Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 6.

The march route of the individual elements of the division took them past Stettin, across the Oder, and through Pomeranian Switzerland (pommersche Schweiz, the hill country of lower Pomerania, now Poland). On 22 August, a rumor spread through the march serials of a non-aggression pact between Germany and Russia. That evening, the rumor was confirmed. By then, all elements of the division were at the training area. The next few days were spent with the daily duty routine and passed quickly. Weapons and equipment were maintained; classroom instruction alternated with drill. Engineers instructed other formations with regard to electrically detonated obstacles and disarming them. No one thought that a military confrontation was possible.

Suddenly, on 25 August, marching orders arrived. The code word was “Tannenberg.” At 1800 hours, the formations assembled in the camps for a final formation. The commanders discovered from the division that the surreptitious mobilization was to take place, with D-Day being 26 August. The die had been cast.

The march east started. The border was to be reached that same evening. The motorcycle battalion took the lead as far as Barkenbrügge. The armored brigade was to pass through at that point. The lead elements reached the border east of and to both sides of Preußisch Friedland around 2300 hours. The motorcycle battalion staged in the forests along the border. Its 1st Company screened along the railway line to Königsberg.

At 2345 hours, orders to halt arrived.

The lead elements were promptly pulled back ten kilometers; the artillery set up in the thick woods forty kilometers west of the border. No one knew exactly what was going on. The rumor started to circulate slowly that the attack had been called off. It was said that the government had made new proposals to Poland with regard to regulating the Danzig and corridor problems and that it was waiting for the Polish response.

In an order that must be considered a masterpiece of planning, the German Army in the East—around half a million strong at this point—had to be halted at and over the border. The division set up a bivouac site in the Friedland area. The days spent in the camp were certainly a test of nerves for the forces, but they also represented a bit of a breather after the feverish preparations. Hardly any traces of normal duty activities could be seen. The only thing was pulling guard. On 27 August, an order prohibiting the sending of mail was imposed for the next few days. Portions of the companies were detailed to assist in the harvest in the surrounding farmlands. Some colorful evening celebrations took place, with the one hosted by the 2nd Battalion of the divisional artillery on the evening of 28 August in Peterswalde counting among the most impressive. The highlight of the evening was a singing competition, which the choir from the 5th Battery won. Gefreiter Salchow was an entertaining master of ceremonies who was not afraid to inject some political humor. The 2nd Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 6 also held a singing competition, with the 6th Company taking the prize.

On the evening of 26 August, the motorcycle battalion returned to the border area again to secure the staging area of the division. The 3rd Company of Oberleutnant Adler advanced as far as a line running from the Grünkirch customs building to Grunau. Within the company, the platoon of Leutnant Arent, who was the Reichsbühnenbildner in civilian life, was positioned on the right. Leutnant Stadie’s platoon was in the middle and Leutnant Schmidt’s platoon on the left. Across from them were the Polish village of Wilkowo and Hill 162, which featured a tall wooden watchtower.

Contrary to expectations, everything remained quiet on the Polish side, even though some movement could be identified. One antitank gun and one machine-gun position could be identified. There was little to be seen of civilians. On the German side, all traffic was forbidden between 2200 and 0500 hours. During that time, the patrols and engineers were active, cutting tank lanes through the barbed wire.

All of a sudden, around 0100 hours on 29 August, advance parties from the III./Infanterie-Regiment 25 of the 2. Infanterie-Division (mot.) showed up. It was part of a deception, whereby the armored division was being pulled back from the front. The motorcycle battalion moved to the forestry office at Linde. The next day passed quietly. It rained. There was no change in activity on 31 August, either. In the midst of all the quiet, orders arrived around 1600 hours: “Be prepared to move!”

As it started to turn dark on that rainy day, the columns began to move forward again. The tanks moved into the area on both sides of Grunau, followed by the rifle regiment. Just after midnight, an attack order arrived. The war was on!

To that end, the 4. Armee had moved up to the border in Eastern Pomerania. The commander in chief was General der Artillerie von Kluge. It was directed for the field army to force a crossing over the Braha, rapidly reach the west bank of the Vistula in the Kulm–Graudenz area, and eliminate the Polish forces in the corridor. The main effort of that aspect of the operation was the XIX. Armee-Korps (mot.). The commanding general, General der Panzertruppen Guderian, was the creator of the German armored force. Oberst i.G. Nehring, a longtime assistant to Guderian in the creation of the Panzertruppe and prewar commander of Panzer-Regiment 5, was his chief of staff.

The corps consisted of the 2. Infanterie-Division (mot.) of Generalleutnant Bader and the 20. Infanterie-Division (mot.) of Generalleutnant Wiktorin, in addition to the 3. Panzer-Division of Generalleutnant Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg. Also attached to the corps was the 23. Infanterie-Division of Generalmajor Graf von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt, which was its operational reserve.

As the formation with the most combat power of the corps, it was to be employed as its main effort. That aspect had already been determined at a conference at the headquarters of the 4. Armee in Kolberg. According to the decision made there, the division would advance up to and into the Tuchel Heath, with its armored brigade in the lead. It was intended for the reinforced reconnaissance battalion of the division to advance as far as the Vistula after the bridge over the Braha had been taken. The long, open flanks were to be screened by the motorized rifle divisions. The first mission given to the division: “Reach the Braha east of Prust in the vicinity of Hammermühle and continue the advance to the Vistula in the vicinity of Schwetz!”

To execute that mission, the division received the following assets in attachment: Panzer-Lehr-Abteilung (Major von Lewinski), Flak-Regiment 101, and a flight of army utility aircraft. At the start of hostilities, the armored brigade had 324 Panzer I’s and Panzer II’s at its disposal. By contrast, the Panzer-Lehr-Abteilung was already fielding some of the first Panzer III’s and Panzer IV’s.

What did things look like from the Polish side? It goes without saying that the Polish government was prepared for the German attack and had already initiated mobilization of its own forces for some time. Starting in the spring of 1939, it had started to systematically “ripen up” its military and populace for the possible confrontation with Germany. The Pomeranian Army of General Bortnowski had completed its movement into the corridor by the end of August. The field army was organized into western and eastern groups. The Eastern Group of General Boltuc had the mission of protecting the western flank of the Modlin Army with its 4th and 16th Infantry Divisions. In addition, it was directed to defend along a line running Straßburg–Graudenz in the event of a German offensive. The Western Group of General Skotnicki was directed to hold the corridor, including the flanking position of Bromberg–Nakel, with its 9th and 15th Infantry Divisions, as well as the Pomeranian Cavalry Brigade. The 27th Infantry Division was the field army’s operational reserve. Its orders were to eventually march on Danzig with the 13th Infantry Division, which would be brought in from Thorn.

The morning of 1 September 1939 dawned . . .

An early-morning fog appeared eerily in the woods; it was already perceptibly cold. There was an unearthly disquiet everywhere. The rattle of engines that quickly died off . . . the almost silent marching of columns . . . whispering and cursing, the light clinking of weapons . . . the division was ready. The officers continuously looked at their watches. The hands seemed to move imperceptibly slowly. Then: 0445 hours! There was a wailing from somewhere, but our artillery was still silent.

All of a sudden, the tank engines howled, tracked rattled, motorcycles roared. It was as if all unrest and all doubts had been lifted all at once and wiped away. The 3. Panzer-Division of Berlin and Brandenburg was marching into war as the lead division of the 4. Armee.

The small tanks were the first ones to make their way through the lanes created in the wire obstacles by the engineers. It was the light platoon of the I./Panzer-Regiment 6 of Oberleutnant Buchterkirch. The mission: “Conduct reconnaissance in the attack zone of the regiment and press through across the Prust to secure the railway crossing!”

Tank after tank followed, with the Panzer-Lehr-Abteilung in the lead. Following close behind, dispersed across a wide frontage, was the rest of the armored brigade. Interspersed were a few squads of riflemen, mounted in the few SPW’s6 that were available. The rifle brigade followed closely behind the armored elements in two groups. Oberst Angern, the brigade commander, led one group, while Oberst Kleemann was in charge of the second one. The riflemen crossed the border on foot. The motorcycle battalion started moving through the barbed wire at 0500 hours and was committed behind the armored regiments.

Panzer-Regiment 5 rolled forward on the righthand side of the attack zone, followed closely by the motorcycles of the 2./Kradschützen-Bataillon 3. The battalion’s 3rd Company followed it, leading a Flak battery, the 1st Company of the motorcycle battalion, and the 4th and 5th Batteries of the divisional artillery into sector. Panzer-Regiment 6 was employed on the left-hand side of the attack zone; its 1st Company was on the right, the 2nd Company on the left, and the 4th Company following. The remaining motorcycle elements, the 2nd and 3rd Companies of the divisional engineers, and a light Flak battery followed the tanks. Guderian rode at the front in an SPW among the regiment’s tanks.

Fog cascaded over the terrain. Despite that, the tanks rolled forward across the potato and stubble fields. There wasn’t a Polish soldier to be seen anywhere. Only the civilian populace could be seen in individual farmsteads along the way, some raising their arms in greeting, others glancing fearfully out from behind windows.

Oberleutnant Buchterkirch’s tanks had already advanced fifteen kilometers when a column of horse-drawn carts suddenly appeared in front of the entrance to Zahn. It was guarded by a few horse-mounted soldiers. The first Poles! The Oberleutnant immediately opened fire. The tanks that were following close behind did likewise. There was confusion among the ranks of the enemy, with a few horses bolting and tossing their riders. Trains vehicles flipped over. After a few minutes, the enemy column scattered. The tanks rolled on. Behind them were the first Polish dead.

The morning fog slowly grew denser. Hardly anything could be seen. But that also meant the enemy could not see the tanks. Oberleutnant Buchterkirch had his tanks form up in column. The tank engines howled and the march continued at maximum speed. Klein Klonia was passed and the Prut reached without encountering any trace of Polish resistance. At 0915 hours, the tanks were positioned along the railway line east of Prust. All of a sudden, a few vehicles appeared in the fog. They were the lead vehicles of the divisional reconnaissance battalion. Nothing had as yet been seen of the enemy. A single motorcycle approached along the roadway. Machine guns bellowed; the motorcycle stopped, with two men jumping off and raising their hands, flabbergasted. They were Polish officers, the first prisoners.

Farther to the rear, Panzer-Regiment 6 had also encountered enemy forces. Around 0600 hours, its tanks were outside of Zahn. Visibility was poor, even though the sun was starting to peek through. A creek was crossed, followed by a large tract of marshland, which caused the first losses. A heavy tank got bogged down and churned itself ever deeper into the marshland with its running gear. A few minutes later, the same fate befell two other vehicles. The other tanks passed them, unconcerned. The maintenance contact teams were summoned forward by radio. The artillery liaison officer, Oberleutnant Weymann, also had bad luck. When he moved onto the Zahn–Großlossburg with his armored vehicle, the rear track came off the running gear. The disabled vehicle was discovered by a Polish bicycle patrol, which approached the vehicle’s crew, which had dismounted and was working on the track. But before the Poles could become dangerous, German tanks appeared and shot the patrol to pieces.

The clocks showed 1000 hours, when the fog lifted all at once. The 7th Company of Panzer-Regiment 6 (Hauptmann Friedrichs), moving on the left, suddenly encountered strong defensive fires coming a patch of woods jutting out near Gross Klonia. The Poles had dug in and become invisible in the woods and were firing antitank guns at pointblank range at the tanks. Two vehicles were hit and immobilized immediately, while the others went into cover behind in the rolling terrain. The company attempted to bypass the patch of woods, but was forced to halt again by the enemy’s fires. The riflemen bringing up the rear also ran into Polish infantry fire, with the result that it was impossible to advance in that sector.

The regiment ordered a general halt in order to wait for the other formations to close up. The 2nd Battalion of the division, which was following the armored regiment, was ordered forward. Likewise, the 1st Company of the motorcycle battalion, under the command of Oberleutnant von Cochenhausen, which had heretofore not had any enemy contact, was ordered to attack.

Things were getting urgent. The 7th Company had already lost a number of vehicles. The first soldiers of the division killed in the war were lost during that engagement: Leutnant Nienaber, Gefreiter Fromm, Gefreiter Hopp, and four Panzerschützen (Meyer, Litmann, Godenschweig, and Kirschke). The 5th Battery of Artillerie-Regiment 75 (Hauptmann Haselbach) went into position in a potato field and took the patch of woods under fire from 800 meters. The shells exploded in the crowns of the trees, and soon there were smoke and flames above the wood line. Some of the Poles fled their positions, others approached the Germans with raised hands. After the artillery observers saw that two enemy antitank guns had been destroyed, they ordered a stop to the artillery fires.

The 2nd Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 6 made only slow progress. Every Polish pocket of resistance had to be eliminated individually. Feldwebel Wolschina of the 6th Company distinguished himself in that round of fighting by his aggressive advances. As a result, he became the first soldier of the regiment to receive the Iron Cross, Second Class.

By then, the motorcycle infantry had arrived. Oberleutnant von Cochenhausen had his company deploy and enter the thick woods. It was difficult to advance. The underbrush was thick and large trees and branches, knocked over or off by gunfire or felled, blocked the way. There were still Polish riflemen everywhere putting up a defense. While clearing the woods, the company suffered its first soldier killed in action; Leutnant Hiltmann and a junior noncommissioned officer were wounded.

At that point, the armored regiment was able to continue its march in the direction of the Brahe. All of the motorcycle battalion had closed up around Willkowo in the meantime. A motorcycle patrol under Unteroffizier Petreins from the 3rd Company was dispatched in the direction of Gross Klonia. A solo rider, Kradschütze Löwenstein, brought the news that the route was clear of the enemy. At that point, the battalion headed out in the direction of Bagnitz.

Panzer-Regiment 5 made faster progress. Moving through Prust, Hauptmann Edler von der Planitz’s tank company reached the Brahe shortly after 1100 hours. By then, Buchterkirch’s platoon had advanced along the railway line, where it was promptly taken under fire from the elevated embankment by numerically superior Polish forces. The regiment’s tanks arrived in time to assist. Leutnant Rommel’s platoon was directed by Buchterkirch in an attack on the embankment and the enemy antitank guns. The tanks overran everything that got in their way, but they were finally stopped by a field position protected by wire. They were wedged between the creek and the marshland, and they had to take up fire from exposed positions. All ammunition was expended after ten minutes. Fortunately, the regiment’s 1st Company (Hauptmann Nedtwig), which had been called forward, arrived by then. The other tanks were able to pull back under its covering fires.

Schützen-Regiment 3 had moved out in the morning with the tanks, but its main body remained behind the advancing fighting vehicles. In searing heat, the riflemen marched and rode across the broad, flat terrain. In the villages that were predisposed to the Germans, the soldiers were greeted heartily. The greetings were especially heartfelt in Lossberg. Men, women, and children stood on the streets, waving flags. Who knew how long and where they might have hidden them?

The two armored regiments, which had worked their way forward to the Brahe, halted along its western banks. The vehicles and men were somewhat the worse for wear and waited for the rest of the divisional elements to close up. By that afternoon, they were thirty kilometers deep in enemy territory, along with the elements of the reconnaissance battalion that had been attached. They had driven a wedge into the Polish Army.

But to the right and the left of that wedge, there were powerful elements of the Polish 9th Infantry Division that were threatening the flanks. An actual threat materialized from the north from the Tuchel Heath. A Polish cavalry brigade attacked the left wing of the division.

The troops charged with drawn sabers. It was a scene straight out of the opening days of World War I. Unfortunately, the Polish cavalryman did not want to believe or were not allowed to believe that the German tanks were made out of steel and not wood and cardboard. The machine-gun fire from the tanks wreaked havoc among the ranks of the enemy riders. But they did not give up. The rode back, reorganized, and attacked again.

In the meantime, friendly artillery had gone into position in the open fields between Bagnitz and Prust. Its fires completely destroyed the Polish cavalry charge. Elements of the rifle regiment were also there. The heavy machine-gun section of the regiment’s 1st Company was able to thin the enemy’s ranks with well-aimed fire. Hauptmann von Bosse’s 1st Battalion assumed a flank guard mission north of Gross Klonia.

Third Panzer Division: From the Spree to the Bug 1939 Part II

By early afternoon, the division had reached its day’s objective. The commander went to the corps headquarters to make his report. Everything seemed to be going according to plan.

The commanding general was not satisfied. Guderian ordered the crossing of the Braha that very afternoon. He wanted to remain on the enemy’s heels—just as he had always preached.

It was directed that the motorcycle battalion move first across the Brahe with all of its available companies. The 2nd Company, together with support from the engineers, succeeded in crossing the river on rubber boats and floats about three kilometers south of the railway line. The 3rd Company followed shortly thereafter. That same night, the 1st Company established a bridgehead on the east bank of the Kamionka. The bridgehead was held until the arrival of the rifle platoons.

The reconnaissance battalion forced the river in a surprise attack directly outside of Hammermühle. The bridge was taken. The tanks that followed took a Polish bicycle company that was hastily arriving to defend the bridge prisoner.

By then, it had turned midnight. Hammermühle and the farmsteads all around it were blazing like torches. To both sides and the rear, pyrotechnic flares were being shot skyward, a sure sign that the division was well ahead of the remaining forces of the corps. Oberleutnant von Manteuffel did not allow his motorcycle infantry any rest. His men were able to reach Swiekatowo. That was as far as they got; the battalion set up an all-round defense in the woods. That same night, there was a wild firefight. A large Mercedes suddenly showed up with headlights on, driving right into the encampment of the 1st Company. The German guards were just as surprised as the two Polish officers in the car. The Poles entered captivity with glowering faces. A few minutes later, they received company in the form of a mounted patrol that also rode into the bivouac site without a clue.

Major Freiherr von Wechmar’s reconnaissance battalion received orders during the night to continue advancing east, along with the attached 2nd Battery of the artillery regiment and some tanks from the Panzer-Lehr-Abteilung. The next objective for the newly formed advance guard was the Vistula.

As it started to dawn on the second day of the war, the reconnaissance and motorcycle battalions continued their advance east. They knew that the armored brigade and the rifle regiment would close up behind them. The division had created a strong second wave in the form of a Kampfgruppe under Generalmajor Stumpff. It consisted of the II./Panzer-Regiment 5, the II./Panzer-Regiment 6, the II./Artillerie-Regiment 75, and the remaining elements of Kradschützen-Bataillon 3. The elements of the rifle regiment that remained behind in Kamionka moved out and into the Tuchel Heath around 0800 hours. The gigantic expanses of woods had an eerie quality to them. No one knew what could be hiding in them.

The Poles then upset the apple cart a bit with regard to the German plans. Strong elements from the Polish 9th and 27th Infantry Divisions, as well as the Pomeranian Cavalry Brigade, conducted a surprise attack on the German bridgehead at Hammermühle early in the morning and established themselves along the road to Swiekatowo. That meant that the advanced elements of the division were threatened with being cut off. Even worse, a loss of the bridgehead would have negative effects on the continued attack of the entire corps.

That morning, only Hauptmann Beigel’s 1st Company of the engineer battalion was arrayed along the Hammermühle. The division commander, unaware of what was happening, continued toward the front in order to receive the reports from the formation commanders. All of a sudden, heavy machine-gun fire flared up from the nearby woods. The enemy fires increased in intensity by the minute. Generalleutnant von Schweppenburg; his adjutant, Major von Wietersheim; and an assistant operations officer, Oberleutnant von Levetzow, had to take cover immediately. The headquarters of the division and of the divisional artillery, which arrived a short while later, also got caught in the fire. The division’s command-and-control ability was lost for a short while on that day. The two headquarters and the accompanying radio operators from the divisional signals battalion suffered their first casualties. The officers had no choice but to bound back across the 100 meters of open meadowland to get to a steep downward slope to the rear. They were received there by the combat outposts of the rifle regiment.

That did not accomplish much, since Polish fires started to impact there as well and stymied every attempt to pull back and occupy better positions. Although the engineers attempted an immediate counterattack into the thick woods, they were unable to dislodge the well-entrenched enemy.

The division commander had the Kampfgruppe of Oberst Kleemann, which was still relatively far back, brought forward to relieve the beleaguered force. Unfortunately, that battle group had changed its direction of march just a few minutes previously and had not turned its radios back on to receive. As a result, hours passed. The division commander had no idea at that point where his individual battalions and regiments were.

Finally, German soldiers appeared from the west. They were not formations from the 3. Panzer-Division, however. Instead, it was the reconnaissance troop of Rittmeister von Götz from the divisional reconnaissance battalion of the 23. Infanterie-Division, which was in the second wave.

The Polish attack not only cut off the command-and-control elements of the division that morning, it also hit the elements of the division that had already ranged well to the east. During the night, the 2nd Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 6 had assumed the mission of screening the bottleneck between the lakes at Swiekatowo. The enemy thrust early that morning slammed right into that area with full force. The 5th and 6th Companies were able to turn back the first attack effort until 0900 hours. Two platoons from the 6th Company particularly distinguished themselves in the engagement. They were the platoons of Leutnant Graf von Kageneck and Leutnant von Diest-Koerber. Also worthy of note were the achievements of Unteroffizier Wehrmeister and Gefreiter Deuter, who were in the thick of things with their fighting vehicles. Nonetheless, that company suffered its first five dead in that fighting: Feldwebel Fiedler, Unteroffizier Fleher, Gefreiter Schreiber, Oberschütze Feldhahn, and Panzerschütze Bischoff.

By noon, the enemy had pulled back to his original line of departure. Due to a lack of fuel, the friendly vehicles were not able to attack him. When the commander of Panzer-Regiment 6 brought up reinforcements in the afternoon, the 2nd Battalion attacked to the north and was able to drive the enemy back. At the same time, the 5th and 8th Companies screened the flank to the east. The 6th Company attacked identified enemy antitank-gun positions and put the guns out of commission. The 5th Company was also able to eliminate some antitank guns—three in all. In the process, it rescued a platoon from the 4th Company, which had advanced the farthest north but had also shot off all of its ammunition. By late afternoon, all threats had been eliminated and the battalion moved out to continue east after rearming.

The 1st Company of the motorcycle battalion was immediately ordered back to Hammermühle, as was the 1st Company of the rifle regiment. The 2nd Battery of the divisional artillery turned its guns around 180 degrees and fired with everything it was capable of.

Hauptmann Boehm’s riflemen moved as quickly as they could to Hammermühle. Along the way were ammunition vehicles and baggage trains that had been overrun by the tanks, as well as the corpses of horses and of Poles killed in action. General Guderian appeared and encouraged the soldiers, waving them on. After moving four kilometers through woods, a halt was ordered. Polish artillery held up any further movement and was raking the road with heavy fire. The company’s vehicles were brought forward, and the march continued through Johannisberg and Stansilawa to Koritowo.

All of a sudden, General von Schweppenburg was standing in front of the men. He personally directed the 3rd Platoon of Feldwebel Hillinger against the enemy battery.

Panzer-Regiment 5 then moved out to attack Gross Lonk. On the far side of Koritow, the fighting vehicles ran into the artillery positions of the enemy. Disregarding the intense fires and brave resistance, the tanks plunged into the Polish lines and individually took out the guns. That did not occur without perceptible losses, however.

The 1st Company of Kradschützen-Bataillon 3 assumed the mission of protecting the division command post with one of its platoons. The remaining two platoons advanced into the woods north of Hammermühle. Two Polish infantry companies were wiped out in tough fighting. The two platoons lost two dead and four wounded in that engagement and only had thirty men altogether by the end of the evening. The batteries that were brought forward fired over open sights. The 3rd Battery lost Hauptwachtmeister Hippe in the process, the first Spieß of the division to be killed, an indicator of the toughness of the fighting and also the bravery of the enemy. By evening, the division had mastered the dangerous situation with its own forces. It was then able to rapidly move its elements to the east across the Brahe.

In the meantime, the motorcycle battalion had taken Klonowo with its remaining two companies and a few tanks from the Panzer-Lehr-Abteilung. Unconcerned about the sounds of fighting to their rear, the motorcycle infantry and reconnaissance troopers continued their advance east. The sun blazed mercilessly that day, with rain following in the afternoon. The tanks and riflemen moved, marched, and advanced. The roads were poor and frequently only had a single lane. All of the traffic had to work its way around that. The roads became clogged and there were unpleasant stops. The reconnaissance battalion was far ahead of the division and moved right through the middle of enemy detachments, which were equally shocked and surprised and incapable of offering a defense. Major von Wechmar intended to reach the Vistula before the onset of darkness. But intertwined enemy columns or vehicles and trees that had fallen victim to Stukas blocked the way. The enemy was not falling back uniformly. Resistance around Rozana was especially hard.

The reconnaissance battalion was unable to advance any farther. The armored car crews, supported by the 1st Battery of the artillery regiment (Leutnant Hoffmann), had a hard fight on their hands at the Poledno Estate, which was being defended by Polish cavalry. The advance guard suffered its first officer casualties. The commander of the 2./Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3, Rittmeister von Prittwitz und Gaffron, the former adjutant to Generaloberst von Fritsch, was wounded in the stomach. The brave officer refused to be operated on at the main clearing station, insisting that the surgeons operate on the more severely wounded first. Leutnant Adam died on the battlefield at the head of his reconnaissance platoon. Once stopped, the battalion “circled the wagons” with its vehicles, the village of Rozana, set alight by air attacks and artillery, forming a backdrop.

The motorcycle battalion pivoted from its movement east to head south in order to help the reconnaissance battalion. But the motorcycle infantry were not able to get beyond the line reached by the armored cars. In contrast, the divisional engineers had more success in the effort to take Rozana. They had been directed there by the division commander. Major von Mertens led his engineers in the assault on the shot-up and burning town and took possession of it that night.

The 2nd Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 6 also moved out in the evening (around 2000 hours). Hauptmann Bernewitz’s 8th Company advanced as far as Polskie-Lakie. At that point, the tanks encountered a surprisingly strong antitank defense. Three friendly tanks were knocked out. The battalion then pulled back 1,000 meters, set the village alight, and then set up an all-round defense for the night.

The division could be satisfied with its achievements that day. Its formations had not only stymied the efforts of the Poles to break through, but they had also broken into the front of the Corridor Army. The corps brought the 23. Infanterie-Division across the Brahe and employed it to the left of the division.

The 1st Battalion of the rifle regiment assumed the flank guard mission for the division during the night. The plucky riflemen succeeded in orienting themselves in the dark woods and fields and taking up good positions. They throttled all attempts by the Poles to find a gap in the German lines. The division discovered with certainty that its tanks had advanced so far into the corridor that elements of the Polish forces had been bypassed.

The night was very cool. That was especially noticeable after a humid summer’s day, as the past one had been. Something else had a negative impact on the soldiers as well: hunger and thirst. The supply elements were still far to the rear as a result of the rapid advance and the poor road network. They had barely gotten beyond Hammermühle. Some of the men found the courage to sneak across the fields in an effort to milk some cows that had gone astray. Among artillery circles within the division, that night was always referred to as “the hour of the Ortsbauernführer.”

The advance started all over again at 0400 hours across the entire frontage of the division. The march route ran parallel to the Vistula along the Poledno–Drozdowo road. The reconnaissance and motorcycle battalions were the first to move out, followed by the armored brigade (at least those elements that had been refueled). The 2nd Company of the motorcycle battalion, which was in the lead, received heavy fire from Drozdowo shortly after moving out and bogged down. The battalion commander quickly brought his 3rd Company forward and employed it north of the road, along with the 1st Company, which was still exhausted from the previous day. The 1st Company approached the railway embankment behind Belno. Oberleutnant von Cochenhausen intended to let his men rest after that. It remained an intent. A transport train steamed in. The motorcycle infantry forced it to halt; 4 officers and 128 enlisted personnel were taken prisoner.

All of the remaining elements of the division also advanced against numerically superior Polish forces. The enemy field army command had recognized the situation it was in—the rapidly growing threat of encirclement—and was doing everything in its power to pull its division across the Vistula on the road leading to Kulm.

The armored brigade attacked at first light from Swiekatowo in the direction of Heinrichsdorf and Biechowoko toward the northwest in an effort to interdict the retreat routes. Both of the division’s armored regiments and the attached Panzer-Lehr-Abteilung moved at “full speed ahead.” But it was soon discovered that the Poles had placed very strong antitank defenses at the entrance to every village. As a result, there was hard fighting that was not without casualties.

Panzer-Regiment 6, moving on the right, crossed the Terespol–Tuchel road, with Hauptmann Schneider-Kostalski’s 2nd Company eliminating three Polish machine-gun tanks in the process. Defiles then held up further advance. The regiment pivoted to the left and ran into elements of the advancing Panzer-Regiment 5. Enemy infantry continued defending everywhere after being bypassed by the tanks and made life difficult for the riflemen following.

The tanks reached the Terespol–Oslowo area and then pressed on to the east, but the following formations ran into strong enemy forces. Only the 4th Battery of the artillery regiment was able to successfully stay on the heels of the enemy. The remaining battery received considerable fire from the village of Heinrichsdorf. Hauptmann Haselbach assumed command of the forces in the area and had the 5th and 6th Batteries unlimber in a depression. Patrols were sent out in all directions. Sections under Wachtmeister Rademacher and Unteroffizier Himmel searched the nearby farmsteads, while Leutnant Grotewald occupied the industrial area of Heinrichsdorf with the ammunition section of the 4th Battery, which had been left behind.

The Poles tried to open the road to Terespol with all the means at their disposal. But it was already too late at noon on that hot summer day to accomplish that, even though elements of the Polish 9th Infantry Division—especially elements of the 16th Cavalry Regiment, as well as the 25th and 35th Infantry Regiments—fought bravely. By then, the rifle regiment was able to join the developing fray by moving via Poledno and Drozdowo.

At 1240 hours, the artillery took the Poles attempting to break out under heavy fire. The effect along the road was horrific. Horses bolted, soldiers ran head over heels into the fields, and limbers and trains vehicles flipped over. They were followed by fires from Hauptmann Haselbach’s 5th Battery and Leutnant Jaschke’s 6th Battery (Jaschke was acting battery commander). Hauptwachtmeister Reinig of the 6th Battery identified a Polish battery going into position along the northern edge of Heinrichsdorf. He brought up the spotting gun of the battery. The gunner, Wenzel, had the target in range with his second shell. A few minutes later, the enemy battery was silenced. For his efforts, Hauptwachtmeister Reinig later became the first soldier of the artillery regiment to receive the Iron Cross, Second Class.

The rifle regiment attacked at just the right time to interdict the hard-fighting enemy. Heavy fighting ensued; it was conducted by the Poles with the courage of desperation. The 1st and 3rd Rifle Companies assaulted along the road in the direction of Polskie. Hauptmann von Lany, the commander of the 3rd Company, and Leutnant von Heydebreck, his platoon leader, were killed. The 1st Company lost its first man with Schütze Krämer.

By then, the Poles had had enough. There was no way to get out. In addition to twenty artillery pieces and six antitank guns being destroyed, there were vehicles, ammunition wagons, machine guns, horses, and articles of equipment scattered everywhere. The rifle regiment took 36 officers and 800 men prisoner that afternoon; fifteen artillery pieces were among the spoils of war.

The division did not allow itself to be distracted from its objective by the fighting to encircle the enemy forces. The reconnaissance battalion received orders to take Schwetz, while the motorcycle battalion was sent in the direction of Liepo–Biala–Taszarko. Fortunately, the advance of Infanterie-Regiment 96 of the 32. Infanterie-Division on the right side of the division was starting to make its presence felt. Despite that, Polish cavalry sections continued to surface across the front and created temporary disruptions here and there. There no longer appeared to be unified command among the Poles; operations seemed to be left up to the individual unit and formation commanders.

Around 1000 hours, the II./Panzer-Regiment 6 crossed the Czerna-Woda at F.W. Dedienke. The lead tanks identified the rapid movement of trains, one after the other, four kilometers away. Oberstleutnant Rothenburg, who was up front with his tanks, ordered Hauptmann Schneider-Kostalski to block the reported rail traffic along the stretch between Derispol–Oslowo. The tanks moved along the sandy road as far as the rail line without encountering any resistance. The railway crossing guard shack was locked up and the gate crossing lowered. Schneider-Kostalski was undeterred. He ordered: “Panzer marsch!” The gate flew in the air with a crash. A cloud of smoke could be seen to the south. Schneider-Kostalski had his company take up firing positions on the far side of the line. The train’s engineer must have noticed the movement, however, since the train slowed and finally stopped. The company commander opened fire at 250 meters. With the first round, the locomotive’s boiler exploded with a monstrous cloud of smoke. The doors to the passenger cars opened everywhere. Polish soldiers jumped out and attempted to flee into the nearby woods. The tanks of the 4th and 7th Companies showed up at that moment and joined in the engagement. Sixty Polish soldiers were sent back as prisoners. They were the last men of a battalion that had boarded the train.

The three tank companies immediately took up the advance on Lakowicz. At Krapjewitce, they were able to scatter horse-drawn trains elements. Once past Polskie-Lakie, they encountered Polish cavalry and antitank elements. The 2nd Company encountered its first enemy tank on the Rozana–Bledno road at 1100 hours; it was knocked out at 300 meters with two rounds.

The armored brigade reached the training area at Schwetz in the afternoon and continued its advance north. Toward 1800 hours, the tanks took Oslowo. The forces reorganized for the attack on the Grupa Training Area. The rear areas also had to be secured, since there were still strong Polish forces in the area around Terespol. Those forces did not remain quiet; they continued to fight to break free. Leutnant Lange, the adjutant of the artillery’s 2nd Battalion, was captured by the enemy during a patrol. He was stabbed, but he lived to tell the tale.

Major von Wechmar’s reconnaissance battalion pressed past Schwetz at the onset of darkness without regard for the scattered enemy groups. He immediately pressed along the Vistula to the north with all of his troops. To help keep the movement fluid, the division sent the engineer companies of Major von Mertens, which had just become available, and Hauptmann Reinke’s 3rd Battery, after the reconnaissance battalion. The engineers and the artillery made it into Schwetz, but the Poles then started a stubborn defense there. There was a danger that the engineer battalion might be encircled. The engineers had to defend from all directions and lost contact with the remaining elements of the division. Despite that, it was able to prevail. In the end, the battalion occupied and held Schwetz. The 3rd Battery captured a war chest in the city hall.

The Polish command knew what was at stake. Energetic officers rallied their men again and again to bravely defend. As a result, the German rifle companies did not advance any farther that night. As a result, Generalleutnant von Schweppenburg ordered the 1st Battalion of the rifle regiment pulled back to Poledno. The division operations officer, Major von der Borne, expressed a contrary opinion. He believed the riflemen should remain where they were. But the division commander wanted to lead his forces in a traditional cavalry style: pull the forces back tonight so that they could be used to conduct a “fencer’s leap” the following morning. As a result, he ordered the battalion back and directed it to hold Poledno “to the last bullet,” as the pivot point of the entire division.

Only Panzer-Regiment 5 was able to score a success that evening. It did not remain in Oslowo; instead, it pushed its companies along sandy routes through the dark woods as far as Dubielno, which was reached around 0200 hours.

That meant that the encirclement of the enemy forces fighting in the corridor was just around the corner. The division could see the blazing fires and hear the sounds of fighting in the nearby fortress of Graudenz, which had fallen to the East Prussian 21. Infanterie-Division that day. The XIX. Armee-Korps (mot.) was only a few kilometers from the borders of East Prussia.

The Polish Pomeranian Army had been split in two in three days of fighting. The field army headquarters was located in Thorn at that point and was attempting to establish contact with the Modlin or Posen Armies with its remaining regiments.

General Guderian went to the division headquarters during the night and ordered the advance to continue, irrespective of the condition of the beleaguered men and vehicles. The Poles could not be given any time to cross the Vistula west of Graudenz. Correspondingly, orders were sent to all elements of the division to move out at first light again.

Third Panzer Division: From the Spree to the Bug 1939 Part III

The reconnaissance battalion started its movement along the Vistula in the direction of Graudenz at 0400 hours. The armored cars and motorcycles moved without regard for the scattered enemy elements, which were still offering a defense from out of individual farmsteads and barns. The men of the division had only one objective: to establish contact with their East Prussian comrades as soon as possible. Whoever fell back had to fend for himself. The disabled vehicles had to be repaired with only the means available. Fortunately, the Poles were no longer in a position to offer energetic resistance. Most of them automatically raised their hands in the air as the vehicles raced past them. Only a burst of machine-gun fire was necessary to fish them out of their hiding places—trenches, haystacks, houses, and gardens—where they had spent the cold night in order to try to find a place that morning to get over the river somewhere and head south.

The movements of the reconnaissance battalion took place on the right wing of the division; the main effort of the day’s efforts was to be in the center, however. The armored brigade, reinforced by the motorcycle battalion and the 2nd and 4th Batteries of the divisional artillery while it staged during the night, received orders to cross the Matave quickly and attack the Grupa Training Area from the west along a broad front. The enemy was to be driven east to the Vistula, where Oberst Angern, with elements of the rifle brigade and the reconnaissance battalion, had been directed to interdict him. Oberst Rothenberg was entrusted with the screening of the division north of Schwetz. In addition to Panzer-Regiment 6, he had the I./Schützen-Regiment 3, the 1./Pionier-Bataillon 39, the I./Artillerie-Regiment 75, and the 6./MG-Bataillon 59 at his disposal. Of those forces, the 2nd Battalion of the armored regiment (Major Burmeister) would face a few dangerous situations over the course of the next few hours.

The elements of the division that were still hanging back were collected into a Kampfgruppe under the command of Oberst Kleemann. It was directed for Kleemann’s elements to move as expeditiously as possible to follow the armored brigade, ferreting out the Polish forces still hiding in the woods and fields in the process. Since the movement of the entire force was delayed, Hauptmann Beez decided to race forward with a hastily assembled advance party. That small element, to which Leutnant Behrend, Leutnant Franzke, and Inspektor Tries were also a party, collected almost 300 prisoners in a short period. Leutnant Behrend ensured the prisoners were properly transported to the rear, while the rest continued moving toward the increasingly loud sounds of fighting coming from Grupa.

The armored brigade moved out around 0400 hours and portions crossed the creek in their first attempt. The Poles did not open fire until the following elements arrived. The brigade suffered considerable casualties, particularly in the streets of Grupa proper, where the enemy had barricaded himself in houses and set up strong antitank-gun positions. Oberstleutnant Wimmer assumed command of the motorcycle, antitank, and artillery elements left behind. Despite the more unified command of those forces, the Poles still thwarted every attempt to cross the creek by means of well-placed artillery fire. It was not until four light tanks of the armored brigade turned around and rolled up the Polish positions from the rear that it was possible to cross the water obstacle.

Hauptmann Hinniger’s 2nd Battery was the first unit that could be guided through. It was high time, since the tanks and riflemen that were attacking Grupa had run into a bind. The Polish forces—later, it was discovered that there were nearly 20,000 men there—were attacking with the courage of desperation in order to break out of the encirclement.

Oberst Angern led the forces of the division that were arrayed around Grupa. The tank attack on the training area was not making any progress due to heavy and well-aimed antitank-gun fire. The friendly companies needed to be pulled back. The 1st Company of the motorcycle battalion also bogged down in the Polish fires. The company commander, Oberleutnant von Cochenhausen, was badly wounded.

The 3rd Company of the motorcycle battalion (Oberleutnant Adler) pulled back from the crossroads east of Grupa and worked its way back in the woods to the south as far as Hill 87. The company was subjected to an intense infantry attack. The numerically superior enemy approached the company, which was fixed in place, by leaps and bounds. If the position were broken through there, then the enemy would create a gap from which to escape.

Oberst Angern gave responsibility for the southern portion of the sector to Oberstleutnant Wimmer, who arrived in Grupa-Dola at 0745 hours. At the time, the 3rd Company of the rifle regiment, the 3rd Company of the motorcycle battalion and elements of two tank and one machine-gun company were positioned there. Wimmer brought the heaviest firepower with him—his 2nd Battery. To the right of the road leading from Grupa to the training area, the battle group had contact with the 2nd Battalion of the rifle regiment (Oberstleutnant Dr. Ehlermann). That battalion’s 7th Company was widely dispersed in the vicinity of the observation posts of the 2nd Battery and was exchanging fire with Polish snipers.

The 2nd Battery then opened well-aimed fire on identified Polish positions. That enabled Oberleutnant Adler and his men to disengage from the enemy. His company left behind three dead (Unteroffizier Bruns, Unteroffizier Fiss, and Unteroffizier Petreins), as well as four men missing (two Gefreite and two Schützen). Wimmer employed the freed-up motorcycle infantry on the right, where the Poles also attacked.

The battery fired off all but twenty of its rounds. In the broken terrain, the machine gunners had no fields of fire and had to allow the enemy to approach to pointblank range. Fortunately, elements of the two tank companies arrived at that point. But they also had little ammunition left. The enemy recognized his advantage and pressed ever more energetically by the minute against the German positions. Both of the brigade commanders, Generalmajor Stumpff and Oberst Angern, had to employ their messengers in the defense of Grupa. The time moved inexorably forward . . . if a miracle did not happen soon.

And miracles do happen.

The 4th Battery of the artillery regiment arrived from the Matave just in time and unlimbered at the edge of the woods. Its fires forced the enemy to call off his attacks for the time being. Fortunately, the ammunition section of Inspektor Tries also arrived. The guns once more had ammunition and started to fire with everything they had. Hauptmann Lorenz, the commander of the 1st Battalion, then arrived with the 1st Battery.

At that point, the Poles gave up on their intent of breaking out in the direction of Graudenz. The Poles only conducted limited attacks, but they were all turned back, since large portions of the rifle regiment had also arrived and started to get committed to the fighting. On that afternoon of 4 September, the division had also passed its baptism of fire in the defense. Generalmajor Stumpff was able to report that to the commanding general, who arrived late in the afternoon. Because Stumpff became ill, however, he had to give up command of the armored brigade temporarily. Oberst Rothenburg assumed acting command, with Major von Lewinski taking over Panzer-Regiment 6. The commander of the latter regiment’s 1st Battalion, Major von Boltenstern, also took ill and had to be relieved by Major Schmidt-Ott.

The motorized elements were gradually withdrawn from the encirclement over the next few hours and replaced by infantry, since the other divisions of the corps had closed up to the division by then and established contact. They assumed responsibility for finishing the encirclement of the Polish Corridor Army.

The ethnic German villages between Graudenz and Schwetz served as the quartering area for the division. The cannoneers and riflemen were especially warmly welcomed in Wiag. The rear-area services, supply elements, and maintenance companies were brought forward through Swiekatowo to Stanislawie. The tanks, trucks, and motorcycles were in desperate need of maintenance, but it could only be conducted hastily, since the fighting in the corridor was not yet over.

The majority of the division did not see action on 5 September. The neighboring infantry divisions did not allow the Poles to break through and forced them to give up the fight that day. The first battle of encirclement of World War II was over.

Despite the “peaceful” hours of that day, the division was not idle. The artillery occupied positions to assist in fending off any potential enemy attacks. The maintenance companies were brought up closer to the motorized elements and quartered in the former Polish military facilities in Schwetz. The engineer battalion, which was never employed as a complete entity up to that point—it had been parceled out to all of the battle groups of the division—built a bridge over the Vistula at Weisshof. The motorcycle battalion combed the bottomlands of the river for scattered Polish elements. Its 3rd Company screened along the embankment, while a reinforced platoon under Leutnant Schmidt became the first element of the division to cross the Vistula to Graudenz.

On 6 September, the first German formations were moved to the eastern portions of East Prussia. They were to conduct a new assault from there. The XXI. Armee-Korps took Graudenz. In the next two days, the XIX. Armee-Korps (mot.) was to follow, crossing the bridges at Käsemark (north of Dirschau), at Mewe, and at Topolno.

The corps situation on the evening of 6 September was as follows. The 20. Infanterie-Division (mot.) was already marching across the bridge at Käsemark in the direction of Elbing and had already reached Bartenstein with its lead elements. The 2. Infanterie-Division (mot.) was preparing to cross at Mewe, while the 3. Panzer-Division remained west of Graudenz behind the latter motorized infantry division.

The division moved out on 7 September with its lead elements. The columns once again experienced the “beauty” of the Polish road system under their wheels. It seemed to the soldiers that ever since that area had come under Polish control, not a single spade had been turned to maintain the roads. The deep sand and the broad craters made the march difficult. Many vehicles became disabled, because the gas lines or the suspension springs broke. The men of the maintenance companies were not idle.

The movement led north. In the shadow of the Ordensburg at Mewe, all of the divisional elements crossed on a pontoon bridge constructed by the engineers over the broad, calm waters of the Vistula. At Kurzebrack, to the west of Marienwerder, most of them saw for the first time in their lives the four-meter-wide access to the Vistula provided to the Germans. At that point, the men of the division were in East Prussia, a beautiful province with large tracts of woods, broad hills, vast fields, and quiet lakes.

The movement took place under magnificent sunshine through the resplendent cities of Marienwerder, Rosenberg, Auerswald, Deutsch-Eylau, Osterode, the Tannenberg Memorial, Allenstein, Guttstadt, Lötzen, and Arys. The long route of 380 kilometers was covered in three days. But no one felt the hardships. The weather put on a sunny face. The reception in the individual localities was indescribable. All people, especially the youth, could not contain themselves in decorating the vehicles with flowers and cheering the soldiers.

Guderian requested that his corps be directly allocated to the field army group. He intended to range far to the east on the left wing of the 3. Armee, reach the Bug at Brest, and encircle the Polish field armies in Eastern Poland. Generaloberst von Bock picked up on the idea; in the end, the Army High Command approved the operation.

When the Polish front in front of the 3. Armee started to waver, the XIX. Armee-Korps (mot.) was employed on the left wing to conduct a bounding pursuit. Guderian gave his divisions the following intermediate objectives:

20. Infanterie-Division (mot.)—through Zambrow to the Bug crossing at Nur

10. Panzer-Division—to Bielsk via Bransk

3. Panzer-Division—to the area north of Bielsk

2. Infanterie-Division (mot.)—to be brought forward into the area around Zambrow–Bielsk

The long-range objective for all of the formations remained the fortress of Brest-Litowsk.

Sunday, 10 September, was a day of rest for the division at the large training area at Arys. The sun smiled warmly on the soldiers. As it started to disappear behind the hills and woods, marching orders arrived. The individual formations left the training area one after the other until about midnight and headed to the southeast to the border. That same night, Polish territory was entered for the second time by the forward elements of the division. The main body of the division crossed the border at Szczuczyn. Panzer-Regiment 6 followed the next day. It had moved out with the following vehicles: 55 Panzer I’s, 55 Panzer II’s, 3 Panzer III’s, 6 Panzer IV’s, 132 trucks, 60 staff cars, and 114 motorcycles.

That meant that the time for cursing had started all over again for the drivers of the tanks, staff cars, trucks, prime movers, and especially the motorcycle riders. “Roads” was not the right word, and the entities that were so marked on the maps would not even have qualified as routes of the worst order back in the homeland. But there was to be no rest. There was only one objective and one mission: Forward!

Wasosz and Przytuly were a few of the places on the route before the columns reached the broad bottomlands of the Narew. The terrain came across as monotonous and bleak; there was something of the unearthly quality of the steppes of the Far East about it. The whitewashed wooden houses of the villages came across as simple structures and the people there as poor and raggedy. For the first time, the soldiers saw faces that expressed neither joy nor sorrow, just a resignation to fate.

The engineers had already constructed a pontoon bridge over the Narew at Wizna, since the large bridge there had been blown up, and its remnants were lying in the water. The crossing went very slowly, since the heavy prime movers had to be guided individually. The planks were only as wide as the heavy vehicles, and it cost a lot of sweat on the part of those drivers to make it across in one piece.

The lead elements—the reconnaissance battalion and the motorcycle battalion—crossed the river in the course of the day, while the artillery crossed during the night. The supply elements were still far to the rear. Moving from Schwetz, they did not follow up until 13 September, when the fighting elements were already deep in Poland. They quickly closed up with the fighting elements, however.

The division did not remain in the Wizna area; it ordered the immediate continuation of the march in the direction of Jedzewo, the large transportation hub south of the river. There was nothing to be seen of the enemy yet. Only the destroyed bunkers, the wire entanglements, the foxholes, and the artillery and bomb craters gave witness to the fact that the 10. Panzer-Division, moving ahead of the 3. Panzer-Division, had to take this area in a fight.

Once again, the reconnaissance battalion and the motorcycle battalion, reinforced by engineers and artillery, had taken the point. The objective for both battalions was Sokoly. But soon after it had moved out, the motorcycle battalion was pivoted sharply to the west.

“Polish forces are attacking the corps headquarters in the vicinity of Wysokie-Masowieki!”

The motorcycle infantry did their utmost to come to the aid of Guderian. When they reached Zambrow late in the afternoon, their efforts had been overcome by events. The commanding general was unharmed and was happy to see the enthusiasm of his soldiers.

Despite that, the battalion did not get any rest, even though the night brought rain with it. The battalion was employed by Guderian against Wysokie, where it was to throw down the gauntlet and cut off the enemy fleeing from the direction of Lomscha. When Oberstleutnant von Manteuffel and his men entered the completely destroyed village of Wysokie, they were too late. The battalion then returned to the command and control of the division.

The 20. Infanterie-Division (mot.) had thrown back the enemy south of Zambrow and pushed him right into the arms of the 21. Infanterie-Division and the 206. Infanterie-Division, which were advancing from the west on Andrzejewo. The Polish 18th Infantry Division met its end there.

The general situation for the XIX. Armee-Korps (mot.) on the evening of 11 September was as follows: the 20. Infanterie-Division (mot.) was south of Zambrow and fighting; the 10. Panzer-Division was advancing from Bransk in the direction of Bielsk; the 3. Panzer-Division was still right to the north of it; and the 2. Infanterie-Division (mot.) was rolling in the direction of Bielsk from the north.

In order to protect its open flank, the division formed a Kampfgruppe composed of engineers and the platoon of Wachtmeister Rademacher of the 5th Battery of the artillery regiment and employed it at Jedzewo. The terrain was completely open and flat. The remaining elements assaulted in generally southerly direction. The reconnaissance battalion, supported by the 6th Battery, advanced as far as the area southeast of Sokoly. The advancing armored cars were suddenly attacked from some woods by Polish cavalry and had to halt. The battery went into position in some vegetated terrain in the nick of time and shot the attacking Poles to pieces at 2,500 meters. When snipers appears during the continued advances in some woods, fire was opened for the second time under the direction of Oberleutnant Kersten and Leutnant Krause, allowing the battalion to continue its march. During its move through Sokoly, the rifle regiment was fired upon by civilians in ambush positions. The riflemen immediately searched the poverty-stricken houses.

Bielsk was reached on 12 September and taken in the face of weak resistance on the part of the Polish 35th Infantry Division. The tanks moved to the Brest–Bialystock rail line and blocked all traffic. Elements of other formations took up the mission of guarding the east flank of the division, which was growing ever longer. The primeval forests of Bialowieza spread out on the far side of the rail line. The czar located his hunting lodge there once, and the last bison of Europe lived in its thickets.

The motorcycle battalion sent two patrols into that area. Unteroffizier Voutta moved into the thick woods with his men, and Gefreiter Steffen was sent to Hainowka. Steffen’s group was lured into an ambush, but it was able to fight its way out and establish contact with the 1st Company of the rifle regiment, which was screening the road east of Bielsk. Hauptmann von Bosse, the commander of the rifle regiment’s 1st Battalion, immediately initiated a reprisal operation against Hainowka. The 4th Battery of the artillery regiment went into position against Hainowka with one of its platoons, under the direction of the battery commander, Hauptmann Nebel. It returned to Halody toward noon.

The advance over the next few days headed toward Brest-Litowsk. The motorcycle battalion was once again in the lead, with its 3rd Company the tip of the spear. The motorcycle infantry rattled carefree into the village of Zabinka, only to find themselves confronted by an armored train at the rail station. Before Leutnant Schmidt could issue orders, the armored trains started spewing fire. At the same moment, things turned lively in the town. Machine guns and carbines started hammering away from the houses. The motorcycle infantry had no other choice but to turn and pull back as quickly as possible. The accompanying artillery forward observer, Leutnant Jaschke, and his men were also fired upon. Vehicles exploded, wounded moaned, and the radio equipment ripped apart. It was a devilish situation. The situation went from bad to worse when four Polish tanks appeared out of nowhere and enemy antitank guns also started firing.

The 6th Battery then raced in and took the town under fire. Leutnant Jaschke, Unteroffizier Killat, and Gefreiter Mieritz directed the fires of the battery by means of a radio set that had been brought quickly forward. The armored trains steamed away. When the first shells destroyed the enemy’s pockets of resistance, he gave up. The motorcycle infantry were able to take Zabinka by 1400 hours. Once again, the town appeared to be dead. Only the four disabled tanks and the burning houses indicated the severity of the fighting. The 7th Company of Panzer-Regiment 6 arrived in time to fend off an immediate counterattack by Polish cavalry. The entire 2nd Battalion then cleared the battle area.

The motorcycle battalion assumed the mission of securing the town and formed a bridgehead over the Muchawiec. The forward observers from the artillery, Leutnant Meyer and Oberwachtmeister Berlin, appeared there. They directed the fires of the friendly batteries against a Polish battery at Zamoszany, which was protecting the rail line.

The division did not allow itself to be distracted from its objective, the fortress of Brest. By the afternoon of 14 September, Panzer-Regiment 5, the reconnaissance battalion, and the 3rd Battery of the artillery regiment were east of the city, in an effort to cut it off from that side. (Fate would have it that the division would once again move out from the same spot on 22 June 1941.)

Guderian’s intent was to attack Brest with his division on 15 September. He led his four major formations up to the fortress in a night march, leaving only the 2. Infanterie-Division (mot.) to protect the broad flank of the corps in the direction of the Bialowies Forest. The lead elements of both the 10. Panzer-Division and the 20. Infanterie-Division (mot.) made it to the fortress on 14 September.

The division moved out to attack from the east. To that end, it formed a Kampfgruppe consisting of elements of Panzer-Regiment 6, the motorcycle battalion, the engineer battalion, the 6th Battery of the artillery (Oberleutnant Kersten), and a platoon from the 4th Battery (Leutnant Stiller).

The battle group moved out around 0345 hours in its attack on Brest. Its mission was to take Fort III. The city was reached without a shot being fired. The Poles did not defend Fort III, either. The 2nd Company of the motorcycle battalion (Hauptmann Pape) rested in the fort. The forces continued unscathed as far as the central train station and occupied the high rail overpass.

From the overpass, the enemy was nowhere to be seen in the immediate area; however, the guns at the citadel were firing with everything they had and there was a lively exchange of fire at the rail yards. The motorcycle infantry screened the southern part of the city, where they were also under constant fire from the citadel.

Contact was established with the 20. Infanterie-Division (mot.), which was attacking from the north. The III./Infanterie-Regiment 86 of that division maintained the contact. The batteries of the 3. Panzer-Division were attached to Oberst Weidling—former commander of Artillerie-Regiment 75 and current commander of the divisional artillery of the motorized infantry division—in an effort to provide unity of command for fire support.

The first attack of the 20. Infanterie-Division (mot.) around 1430 hours against the citadel did not succeed. A bit later, the III./Infanterie-Regiment 86 and Pionier-Bataillon 39 attempted an attack with a limited objective against the eastern edge of the fortress. The Polish defensive fires also forced the German attackers to ground there as well. Small groups from Schützen-Regiment 3—for example, the 2nd Platoon of the 1st Company—attempted to conduct reconnaissance-in-force efforts against the southern part of the fortress, but they were also turned back. The 2nd Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 6 attacked the citadel, which was being placed under heavy German artillery fire, from the east. The 2nd Company (Hauptmann Schneider-Kostalski) and the 4th Company (Hauptmann Weiß) approached the fortress from the southeast. Around 2200 hours, the armored regiment received orders to call off the attack. Both battalions disengaged from the enemy during the night.

The motorcycle battalion remained in the city that night to screen its southern sector. The 1st Platoon of the 3rd Company (Leutnant von Brauchitsch) screened the prison, where civilian and military prisoners taken the previous day were being housed. The battalion was pulled out of Brest on the morning of 16 September and quickly returned to direct divisional control. The division proper was moving in the direction of Wlodawa. As a result, only two batteries of the divisional artillery remained behind. They continued to support the attack of the motorized infantry division on the citadel. Their fires were directed by Leutnant Meyer, assisted by his radio operators, Unteroffizier Göhler and Kanonier Elsholz. The fires were so effective that all three men later received the Iron Cross, Second Class.

Third Panzer Division: From the Spree to the Bug 1939 Part IV

The 3. Panzer-Division no longer took part in the fighting for the fortress. Instead, it went around the city with the majority of its forces to then thrust south. Its new objective was Wlodawa. This time, the reconnaissance battalion, Panzer-Regiment 5, and the 3rd Battery were in the advance guard. The terrain appeared monotonous and gray to the men of the advance guard. The rain of the last few days had softened up the roads and the pastures. There was hardly a tree to be seen; only sandy soil and more sandy soil, with small, dirty localities here and there. There were few people to be seen, and those that were encountered were shy and uncommunicative. They were quite different from the White Russians, who had been encountered at Bialystok and Hainowka.

The division moved in Kampfgruppen on Tomaszowka. The armored cars encountered an energetic defense when they arrived there towards noon on 16 September. The tanks were called up by radio. The commander of the I./Panzer-Regiment 5, Major Wendenburg, ordered the 2nd Company forward. The nineteen tanks caught up with the lead elements at the Przaborowo rail station. The commander of the lead element reported that it was impossible to advance any farther, because the terrain, with many woods and lakes, was full of Poles. Prisoner statements indicated that the organizational staff directing the retrograde movements of the entire Polish Army was located there.

Hauptmann Schmidt, the tank company commander, assumed command of the available motorcycle infantry and turned to the east on the path leading from behind the rail station. Leutnant Nitschke took over the lead with his tanks. To his right was Lake Sielachy. Then Percszpa came into view. The small village was ablaze. The riflemen discovered enemy soldiers and smoked them out. The Leutnant left a few men with their motorcycles back at the entrance to the village and gave them orders to reconnoiter the southwest in the direction of the railway embankment. The tanks raced through the village and reached the woods to its south. By then, it was already fairly dark, so the Leutnant and his men had to wait until the rest of the company closed up.

Just outside of the crossroads at Tomaszowka, movement was identified. Nitschke sent a short burst in that direction, which immediately caused the activities to cease. The 2./Panzer-Regiment 5 turned onto the road leading to Tomaszowka. There was no break in the action. The battery, following to the rear, was unable to maintain contact in the darkness and went into position along the railway embankment. The engineers mounted up on the tanks, which then moved into the woods.

When an enemy armored car turned up on a trail by surprise, it was shot to bits in short order. But there were more and more movements along the road by the minute. Hauptmann Schmidt had his vehicle pivot sharply right and take anything that blocked the route under fire. Trucks, horse-drawn wagons, pontoon equipment, and many other major items of equipment and materiel went up in flames. The Polish drivers fled into the protection of the woods on both sides of the road as quickly as they could. The speedometers on the tanks registered forty-five kilometers an hour, and the pace picked up from there. The Wlodawa–Kowel telegraph line was disrupted by knocking over the poles; horse-drawn columns were scattered and vehicles destroyed.

Just as the darkness of the night made further progress impossible, the company reached Tomaszowka. A single antitank gun, which was positioned not far from the rail station and took the German tanks under fire, was put out of commission. The tankers had only been able to identify the gun by its muzzle flashes. Some batteries were firing from somewhere into the burning village, but the tanks had moved through it by 1945 hours.

Hauptmann Schmidt and Leutnant Nitschke fired white signal flares. The signals were made out by Wachtmeister Gaebler, the forward observer from the 3rd Battery, and understood: Shift the fires forward! On that day, the battery fired some 350 rounds.

Hauptmann Schmidt’s 2nd Company was not satisfied with what it had achieved. There was still fuel in the tanks, so it continued south. The route turned increasingly worse by the minute. The motorcycle infantry were no longer able to keep pace and fell back. The tanks rattled on by themselves. It was difficult to stay oriented in the darkness. The movement grew slower, since woods and marshland became the next obstacles.

During the night, Major Wendenburg assembled his tanks as best he could. The 4th Company took over the lead. The officers moving out front had to illuminate their way with flashlights. At some places, Polish trains vehicles were passed. As it started to turn first light around 0300 hours, the battalion was outside of Opalin. The village was swarming with Polish soldiers. Since the battalion was almost out of fuel—the 2nd Company was already stranded—Major Wendenburg had his forces turn eight kilometers to the west. He had his battalion set up an all-round defense on a small rise. Patrols were sent out in all directions to maintain security.

The motorcycle battalion left Kampfgruppe Wendenburg and turned west toward the Bug. The Poles expected an attack there, however, and had blown up the bridge over the Bug in time. That meant that the men of the division had to remain on the east bank of the river in order to wait for the engineers coming forward.

The next day was one of decision. The motorcycle infantry crossed the river on inflatable craft and floats and entered the city of Wlodawa from the northeast. The 2nd Battalion of the divisional artillery had already been firing on the northern portion of the city since the morning, concentrating on the military facilities. The enemy resistance had been weakened by the well-placed fires, with the result that it did not prove too difficult for the motorcycle battalion and elements of the rifle regiment, which had been brought forward, to take the city in its entirety that morning. Major Burmeister’s 2nd Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 6, which also closed upon the city, was not needed to enter the fray. Two platoons from the 6th Company of the armor regiment, those of Leutnant Graf von Kageneck and Leutnant von Diest-Koerber, were sent west to reconnoiter around 1500 hours. After both platoons had forded the broad but shallow riverbed and moved out of Wlodawa after moving through it, they were immediately engaged by heavy enemy artillery fire and had to pull back to behind the forward combat outposts of the riflemen.

It was not until the afternoon of 17 September that the Poles had reorganized their forces. They attacked from the wooded terrain west of the city to retake it. A storm that broke out at the same time prevented the German defenders from offering a proper defense. The artillery was unable to join directly into the fray. Instead, it was limited to firing on targets that had been previously identified by the forward observers. The companies of the rifle regiment finally gathered themselves, and their rifle and machine-gun fire tore big gaps in the ranks of the Poles. The 3rd Company of the motorcycle battalion was committed to a flanking effort outside of the city, and the 6th Company of Panzer-Regiment 6 (Hauptmann von Winterfeld), which was quickly called forward, was finally able to bring the enemy attack to a complete standstill. According to prisoner statements, nine companies had been involved in the enemy’s effort.

The enemy then gave up on Wlodawa and pulled back into the thick woods south of the city.

After Tomaszokwa was occupied, the 1st Company of the rifle regiment advanced farther along the railway line. The final meters leading up to the Bug were a race against death. It was certain that the Poles had prepared the large bridge for demolition. The riflemen and engineers took long strides across the railway ties, and the risky venture succeeded. They got across the bridge, reached the railway guardhouse on the south bank of the river, and formed a small bridgehead. It was 0030 hours.

The engineers immediately set about searching for charges. Despite the darkness, they found some and started the laborious task of removing them.

At first light, the 3rd Platoon of the 1st Company attacked Orchowek, which was burning. Obergefreiter Janik was killed. Because the village had completely burned down, the riflemen dug bunkers and dugouts next to the rail line. Although the Poles attempted to reduce the small bridgehead a few times during the day with infantry and cavalry, their attacks were always turned back.

From the area where it had encamped, the 1st Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 5 had observed enemy groups attempting to flee since early morning, by swimming across the Bug. The tanks were unable to prevent those attempts, however, since they were stranded due to a lack of fuel.

Major Wendenburg had sent out two patrols during the night that had been directed to blow up the bridges over the Bug. The numerically strongest patrol made good progress. Feldwebel Hass took the lead with his medium tank. Following behind him was the commander’s tank of the 4th Company. Leutnant Brandt and an engineer Unteroffizier had also mounted it. Leutnant Zorn brought up the rear with the two remaining light tanks and the rest of the engineer squad.

The movement of the patrol took it through Huszcza and Rowno in the direction of Wilzcy–Przewo. Along the route, a few vehicle columns were shot up. The crews of the two light tanks watched over the prisoners. After a few minutes, however, they simply let the Poles flee, after their weapons had been taken away. The prisoners would only have been a burden for the patrol. The enemy received the patrol in Przewo with heavy small-arms fires. But Leutnant Zorn, Leutnant Brandt, and the engineers fought their way through the middle of the enemy to the wooden bridge, which they set on fire. The two light tanks held down the Poles on the far side with well-aimed fires.

The tankers even managed to capture a Polish 7.5-centimeter field piece from 1917. Leutnant Zorn limbered the piece to his tank and started to bring it back. Unfortunately, his fighting vehicle became immobilized after a few minutes with running gear problems.

The heavy commander’s tank with the engineer officer went forward as far as the rail line. Just as Leutnant Brand was starting to place a demolition charge on the tracks, a transport train started to approach. Fortunately, its locomotive was knocked out by the tank, thus blocking the line. As a result, this mission was also accomplished.

Leutnant Wisniewski, who led the second patrol, returned around 1000 hours and reported that the railway bridge had been successfully blown up. As a result, the immobilized tank battalions had at least cut off the retreat route over the Bug to the Poles.

It was not until 1600 hours that the regimental logistics officer, Hauptmann Hackermann, arrived and reported that fuel was on its way. It took another hour before the fuel arrived. Major Wendenburg immediately had his battalion form up.

It approached the village of Przewo as it started to turn dark. The tanks did not allow themselves to be held up by either the hastily emplaced road obstacles or by the heavy flanking fires coming from the woods. The 1st Company thrust through the burning village, while the 2nd Company took down the Polish resistance in the woods. The sole heavy tank of the battalion overran everything and reached the rail line. It encountered an enemy battery there, which forced the tank to pull back. The tankers saw that the train that had been engaged that morning by the patrol was still there, making all traffic impossible.

Major Wendenburg had his companies assemble between Przewo and Rowno. In the process, the tank companies encountered the lead company of the rifle regiment. It was the 8th Company, along with Major Zimmermann. The riflemen were immediately employed screening in the direction of Przewo. The tank battalion set up an all-round defense.

On 17 September, the reconnaissance battalion received the mission to blown up the Kowel–Chelm rail line at Luboml. The 2nd Battery of the artillery regiment and some engineers were attached in support. The movement of those elements took place on sandy, softened and seemingly endless roads to the southeast. There were still individual occurrences of enemy resistance, but they were quickly eliminated by a few bursts of fire from the machine guns on the armored cars. There wasn’t a true engagement until it started to turn dark, when the battalion approached Scack. The Poles had dug in there in the houses and gardens.

Major Freiherr von Wechmar had his companies halt and wait until the battery had closed up. The guns unlimbered in an open field and took the locality and individual pockets of resistance under direct fire. After a few minutes, the enemy was silenced, and the companies were able to take the locality in an envelopment. The battalion set up defenses for the night, putting out security in all directions.

The Kampfgruppe was ordered to break camp at first light on 18 September. The march continued relentlessly, and Luboml was reached that same morning. The reconnaissance battalion encountered a large grouping of enemy forces. The armored cars moved into position behind hills and ditches. The riflemen took up the infantry fight and the artillery battery fired. But the enemy no longer had any desire to become engaged in protracted and casualty-intensive fighting. First individually and then in ever-larger groups, the enemy surrendered. In the end, the 400 men of Kampfgruppe Wechmar counted almost 3,000 Polish prisoners. The reconnaissance battalion had accomplished its mission, transitioning to a screening mission.

The tanks of the division continued their own advance about 0700 hours that morning. But the enemy had pulled his forces across the Bug during the night and only put up minimal resistance. Przewo, the railway embankment, and the railway bridge were taken practically without a fight. The tanks advanced across the river and established a small bridgehead. The 6th Battery of artillery arrived and assumed the direct-support mission. Three Unteroffiziere—Killat, Grothe, and Schröder—discovered the gun that had been captured the previous day and included it in the firefight.

At 1357 hours, the division ordered the bridge to be blown up. At that point, the battalion moved back across the river without any enemy interference. At that point, the enemy started to get continual reinforcements. Starting at 1530 hours, strong artillery fire started to fall on the friendly positions. The division was concerned about its Kampfgruppe, which had ranged far forward, and sent out the following radio message in the afternoon: “If the tactical situation requires it, pull back to Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 in Luboml, since larger regular-army formations are moving from west to east. Report your decision.” Major Wendenburg reported back shortly: “Position will be held!”

Far ahead of the other major formations, the 3. Panzer-Division was the southernmost division of the field army group at that point. Correspondingly, it had covered more ground than any other German division during the campaign. The division was closer to the elements of the 10. Armee approaching from the south than it was to its sister divisions within the corps. The division commander ordered the 2nd Battalion of the rifle regiment (Oberstleutnant Dr. Ehlermann) to break through to Heeresgruppe Süd. Attached to Ehlermann’s battalion were the 6./Panzer-Regiment 6, the 1./Artillerie-Regiment 75, and the 1./Panzerabwehr-Abteilung 39. The lead elements of the southern field army group were trying to take Chelm from three sides with the 4. Infanterie-Division, the 4. leichte Division, and the 2. Panzer-Division.

The reinforced rifle battalion moved out right on time. Forward movement was made difficult by the clogged roads, blown-up bridges, and recurring resistance form Polish formations that were led by especially brave officers. They had established themselves skillfully along wood lines and the outskirts of villages. The fights for Osowa and Malinowka were especially hard for the rifle companies. Leading the way in an exemplary fashion, Hauptmann Wellmann stormed the last village with his 6th Company. The battalion worked its way forward slowly and had to bring down new enemy strongpoints in sacrificial fighting. During that fighting, the 2nd Battalion suffered the heaviest losses of the entire division for the campaign. Since night had fallen in the meantime, the idea of a continued advance was discarded.

A motorcycle infantry patrol under the command of Unteroffizier Panzlaff was sent farther south, however, reaching the area just outside of Chelm. The expected forces of the 10. Armee attacking from the south were not there. The Wehrmacht High Command reported a linkup between the two field army groups, but none ever took place in the campaign.

The division instructed the Ehlermann’s battalion not to continue its operation and to pull back slowly on the direction of Wlodawa. The division pulled back the rest of its battle groups to Wlodawa as well. They were widely dispersed over a large area. It wanted to protect the force and not cause unnecessary casualties, since the Polish Army was already in a state of dissolution. Ehlermann evacuated the positions his reinforced battalion had taken near Chelm and pulled back under sharp pressure from individual Polish formations. Hauptmann von Winterfeld’s tank company provided the Kampfgruppe with the requisite covering fires. Four German fighting vehicles were lost that day. Around 1000 hours, Major Wendenburg received similar orders: He was to pull back to Luboml and link up with the reconnaissance battalion. Around 1600 hours, the two advance guards of the division linked up.

All forces of the division that were east of the Bug left their forward positions and pulled back across the river, as ordered. There had been no encounters with the Red Army anywhere, but the senior commanders took precautionary measures to ensure that the encounters took place without any friction.16

In order to mark the German lines for Russian aircraft, the division ordered recognition panels set out.

The fighting slowly abated. That meant that there was some movement between and within the fronts. The Polish soldiers no longer knew what they should do. Unarmed, they gave up by the hundreds, so as not to fall into the hands of the Red Army. For example, Hauptmann Eikmann’s maintenance company took in some 1,500 prisoners in the Puchaczewo area from 19 to 21 September. Leutnant Müller of Panzer-Regiment 6, who went deer hunting in some woods, wound up bringing in 165 prisoners. The civilian populace was also on the run.

The elements of the division assembled in Wlodawa. For many of the soldiers, the village became a place to recover. They saw an actual city for the first time, which stood out considerably in its appearance from the dirty villages that had been crossed through and fought for up to that point. Its two churches, the Baroque Roman Catholic one and the Orthodox one with its characteristic onion dome, dominated the landscape of the city. Its populace was composed of Poles, White Russians, and a large number of Jews.

After the forces had rested a bit and the men could wash off the dirt and grime from the many days of dust and rain, they had a pleasant surprise. The first field mail arrived.

The return march for the division was set for 21 September. The individuals left their quartering areas around Wlodawa at first light and moved along the road back to Brest. The large city had already been decorated with red flags with the hammer and sickle and black-white-red flags. The first Russian soldiers had arrived; they were assigned to a tank brigade.

The march then continued twenty-five kilometers to the demarcation line, moving through Widomla–Giechanowiec–Zambrow and on to Lomscha, where the divisional formations arrived on 22 September. For the fourth time in a month, the German border was crossed just south of Johannisburg. The men forgot about the hardships of the campaign that was behind them. The friendly and tidy East Prussian villages, the nice people, and the thoughts of reuniting with loved ones back home put wind in the sails of all the soldiers.

The division quartered in the area around Bartenstein. The individual companies and detachments were quartered privately in the surrounding localities. Everyone felt as though they were on maneuvers. The XIX. Armee-Korps (mot.) was disbanded on 26 September,17 and the last general order from the field army group was issued a few days later. That signaled the end of the campaign in Poland.

Leibstandarte in Poland

The invasion of Poland was sparked by Hitler’s order of 31 August 1939. The next day, Stukas, panzers and infantry struck across the frontier at dawn. Here was the birth of a new sort of war: the Blitzkrieg, or ‘lightning war’, in which the Leibstandarte was soon to take part.

His hold on Austria and Czechoslovakia secured, Hitler turned his attention to Poland, his next intended target for conquest. Hitler’s deep-seated hatred of Poland was inherited. As early as 1922, General Hans von Seeckt, regarded as the ‘father’ of the Reichswehr, had declared: ‘Poland’s existence is intolerable, incompatible with the essential conditions of German life. Poland must and will go.’

By diktat of the peacemakers of Versailles, the German province of East Prussia on the Baltic Sea had been separated from the rest of the Reich by a corridor which gave Poland its sole access at Danzig (Gdansk). On 21 March 1939, the Führer turned up the heat: Danzig must be restored to Germany, which must have the freedom to build road and rail links to East Prussia across Polish territory. As was to be expected, Poland refused. The war clouds began to gather.

Hitler, however, seeking freedom to act against Poland, still shared a fear that had long haunted German military thinking: the spectre of fighting a war on two fronts. This was relieved by the signing of the Nazi–Soviet Pact during the night of 23 August 1939. Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav Molotov, put their signatures to a 10-year non-aggression pact, cemented by an agreement that Poland should be conquered and then divided. For the Poles, it was a death knell.

INVASION

As early as April 1939, Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) had issued its Directive for the Uniform Preparation for War in 1939/40. After some delay, Hitler gave his armies the final signal for invasion at dawn on 1 September. One of the most significant passages of the OKW directive had stated that the destruction of the Polish Army would be carried out through surprise attack. This was a sign that here was the start, not simply of a conflict, but of a new sort of war. Clausewitz, the German military theorist, many of whose pronouncements had been hitherto regarded as holy writ, had proclaimed over a century before: ‘Blood is the price of victory. Philanthropists may easily imagine that there is a skilful method of disarming and overcoming the enemy without great bloodshed and that this is the proper tendency of the Art of War … That is an error that must be extirpated.’

But this was 1939, the era of Blitzkrieg, or lightning war, with victories being delivered not in rivers of blood, but in tactics of speed and shock delivered with all the resources of new technology. The battlefield would belong to highly mobile forces, to the Panzers, their divisions thrusting deep into any enemy’s defences and cutting up troops into separate pockets. Before that would come bombing cover from screaming Stuka dive-bombers.

The start of the blitz invasion of Poland, which was designated Case Weiss (Case White), found the Poles under attack from three separate directions. In the north of the country, General Fedor von Bock’s 4th Army attacked from Pomerania in the west, while his 3rd Army came from East Prussia, in a giant pincer movement. The aim was to cut off the Polish corridor at its tip. Then came the swing south to attack Warsaw. Still further south, under General von Rundstedt, the 8th and 10th armies struck east from Silesia for Warsaw, while 14th pushed east for Cracow (Kraków) and Lwow (Lvov).

MASSIVE FORCES

The German muscle appeared impressive. In the east alone were to be positioned 27 infantry divisions, six Panzer divisions, four light divisions and one cavalry brigade. Another 16 divisions were to be created on mobilisation. But all was not entirely well – not least because of opposition among the more hidebound sections of the Wehrmacht, who distrusted with a sneer the ‘tank troops’ with their pretensions of technical superiority. Expansion of the army had taken place over just four years and the supply of equipment, particularly to the Panzer divisions, had been deficient: tanks were equipped with machine guns rather than cannon. Against that, though, was superiority in the large number of independently operating armoured and motorised units. The unknown factor was how they would conduct themselves in battle.

The extension of German territory which had been brought about by the occupation of Czechoslovakia dangerously exposed the southern flank of Poland. The Polish army, with an instinct for trouble, had increased its army’s infantry strength from 30 to 39 divisions. All other units had been reinforced; the air force had been reorganised with a bomber brigade and a pursuit brigade. Plans were in place for the bulk of the armed forces to be mobilised within 72 hours.

But it was a case of too little, too late. The 400 aircraft of the Polish front line were largely obsolete. A motorised force of 225 modern tanks included 80 obsolete ones. In a scarcely better state were its 534 reconnaissance carriers and 100 armoured cars of obsolete types. Only one of the 12 cavalry brigades was armoured, and the artillery did not compare favourably in calibre or range with its German counterpart either.

As early as the middle of June, the Leibstandarte, which had returned to the Berlin area two months previously, had received its orders. Sommerübung (summer exercise) called for combat readiness by 1 August 1939. In preparation for their first blooding in battle, Sepp Dietrich’s men moved out of Lichterfelde, leaving behind a sprinkling of reserve, training and security troops. They arrived in the assembly area around Hundsfeld-Kunersdorf, north of Breslau, with an injunction from Himmler ringing in their ears: ‘SS men, I expect you to do more than your duty.’ In captivity after the war, Dietrich was frank: ‘The Führer’s order was to kill without mercy the entire Polish race. We were the Führer’s men. We had our order. We pressed ahead.’

The battle experience of this former NCO had been in the infinitely different environment of World War I. Up to the invasion of Poland, all had been but theory: attending courses for motorised regimental commanders at Zossen and for Panzer division commanders at the tank school at Winsdorf. Dietrich was now faced with an apprenticeship in this new war, encouraged by the fact that during the previous June, Hitler had finally railroaded the vocal critics within the army and declared that the SS-VT would be organised as a division. An artillery regiment had been raised at Juterborg with drafts from the Leibstandarte, Deutschland and Germania.

Leibstandarte was part of Army Group South. Von Rundstedt, as group commander, soon found work for Dietrich’s men under the control of 17th Infantry Division. Since there was a lack of reconnaissance strength for the left wing of the 10th Army, Dietrich’s men filled this need, acting as the link between 8th and 10th armies, under the commands of Generals Johannes Blaskowitz and Walter von Reichenau.

The first task of the Leibstandarte, approaching from the vicinity of Breslau, centred on a key height lying behind the Prosna River, which lay on the path from Breslau where there was a fortified frontier line. It faced several echelons of Polish infantry and artillery. Adrenaline ran high within 8th Army with the commencement of hostilities at 0045 hours on 1 September. Just before the start, some newly enlisted men who had not yet been able to recite the Leibstandarte oath of loyalty were ordered to do so before moving into battle. These were fresh-faced young SS men, virgins among what all too soon would be killing fields. One of their number had already written home:

‘I am writing this by very poor light … Today we shall be at war with Poland unless the Poles see sense. Tomorrow I shall be a complete soldier. Personal thoughts I have expelled from my mind; only one single thought remains – Germany.’

Advance was speedy: some five or eight kilometres (three or four miles) within 75 minutes. The Leibstandarte reached the German–Polish border at 0445 hours and the first crossing took place at Gola, where the bridge over the Prosna was seized, breasted by the SS troops in the face of easily overcome opposition from the Polish 10th Infantry Division with their 37mm (1.49in) guns. Ahead lay Boleslavecz and, beyond it, Wieuroszov, the town where the Leibstandarte was to link up with the 17th Infantry Division on its left. Attempts to halt the advance proved costly for the Poles; by 1000 hours, Boleslavecz was in German hands and there were columns of prisoners in their field grey, the Eagle of Poland shining in the welt of their field caps.

The countryside, much of it dense birch forests, had concealed Poles with machine guns who knew their own territory well; there were dismounted attacks on the long columns of Leibstandarte vehicles. At the end of the day, however, Dietrich’s men had swept up all their objectives: 10th, 17th and 25th Polish Infantry Divisions, together with those of the Wielpolska and Wolwyska Cavalry Brigades. These men had fought hard counterattacking, often hand-to-hand. One Leibstandarte man recalled: ‘They came into the attack in long lines, not quite shoulder-to-shoulder but very close together. They had a battle cry – a long drawn-out hurrah and we could also hear the officers shouting.’ First German casualties – the overall count was seven killed and 20 wounded – had included the crew of an armed reconnaissance car, victims of a Polish mine.

THE ATTACK CONTINUES

The link-up with 17th Infantry Division was to be followed by an assault on the Warta River in the vicinity of Burzenin. A six-man machine-gun crew from 1st Company Leibstandarte was ordered across a partially blown wooden bridge to the other side of the river to report on the likely strength of opposition. One of the crew later recalled the sudden, totally unexpected appearance of Sepp Dietrich in forage cap, his insignia of rank concealed by a motorcyclist’s long coat. As the men moved towards the bridge, Dietrich himself followed, passing disassembled machine-gun barrels and ammunition canisters. Before melting into the darkness, he called out with a chuckle: ‘Good luck and don’t be afraid. You’re not going to drown, just get a wet arse.’

But it was not a happy experience for the Leibstandarte, who encountered resistance both from enemy firepower and the sandy soil which held up its vehicles. Another blow to the men’s pride was the knowledge that elements of 10th Army were already crossing the river. It was not until late on 4 September that the crossing was finally made in its entirety.

Casualties by now were mounting, which did little for the morale and, just as seriously, the discipline of the Leibstandarte. Major General Loch, commanding 17th Infantry Division, complained of wild firing by the Leibstandarte and a propensity for torching every village during its progress. It was made clear that such a practice was objected to on strict military operational considerations, not sentiment. Burning villages held up the tempo of the tactics of fire and movement, as well as depriving the troops of shelter when it was needed. Still, advance there was by the young volunteers, with the Poles being swept up before them. The riposte to the Leibstandarte was vicious, due to the combined Polish forces of 30th Infantry Division, 21st Infantry Regiment and the armoured cars of Wolwyska Cavalry Brigade.

FURIOUS RESISTANCE

The Leibstandarte moved on towards the town of Wieuroszov, where the Poles attacked using every scrap of cover, including every bush which seemed to serve as a machine-gun cover. With his fellows, one member of 1st Company ran into a knot of Poles clad in civilian trousers beneath their army coats, their refuge a grain field. But the advance was unstoppable: 10th Army achieved a breakthrough north of Chestakova. Units from two panzer divisions pressed their advantage between the Lodz and Kraków armies, storming across the Pilica River on the headlong thrust towards Warsaw.

The next 8th Army objective was Lodz, with its heavily defended approaches. Two Leibstandarte companies, 1st and 2nd, encountered stiff opposition and suffered heavy casualties, despite tank support. Polish anti-tank fire prevented the advance of the panzers; units were ordered to disengage from the Poles so that the artillery could conduct fire preparatory to a fresh attack. By 1800 hours on 7 September, despite outnumbering the Germans, the Poles had been overwhelmed and had abandoned the town. The next target was Pabianice, a small market town and road–rail junction on the river, where the Poles succeeded in keeping at bay Leibstandarte’s 1st Battalion. The battalion, supported by another from 23rd Panzer Regiment, made little headway beyond the town’s western outskirts.

This particular engagement provided another instance of the advantages that the defenders enjoyed on their own territory. Well-camouflaged Polish riflemen had the marksmanship skills of huntsmen, well used to taking up positions in trees and picking off the enemy below. The Leibstandarte’s countermeasures included raking trees and bushes with rifle fire and lobbed grenades. This was also an area of vast fields of sunflowers and maize; men on both sides took to stalking one another through the tall plants. There were some ingenious instances of camouflage. One Leibstandarte man reported:

‘The Poles are devilishly cunning … They had dugouts with crops growing on the roof and were almost invisible and hard to detect. We had to stalk them like characters from a Karl May Wild West novel. When we found a dug-out we blew it up with bundles of grenades. Some of them may have been linked by tunnels; a combat report had mentioned this … We captured more than 50 and it took us hours before we had wiped out this nest …’

The Poles were also helped by reinforcements from those who had originally withdrawn in the face of 10th Army’s advance. These men were able to launch fierce counterattacks, at one point even threatening Dietrich’s own headquarters, before an entire infantry regiment was sent to his aid.

Early progress by the Leibstandarte was successful, but it was forced to detour from the advance on Pabianice, which was heavily defended. ‘Hitler’s own’ suffered the indignity of being extricated from this danger spot by the intervention of Infantry Regiment 55 of the 10th Division. By the early hours of the 8th, Pabianice had fallen, but Leibstandarte received scant kudos for this achieved objective. Major General Loch redoubled his criticism: the training and conduct of the SS men had been shown to be severely deficient. Rescue measures in such circumstances could not be afforded. The Leibstandarte constituted a liability, therefore it should be withdrawn into reserve. Although this did not happen, even so, it was removed from 8th Army and sent to Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s 4th Panzer Division in von Reichenau’s 10th Army.

After a move to prevent Polish forces from escaping from an entrapped pocket down the Grodisk–Masczovoc road, south-east of Warsaw, the 1st Battalion moved on to Oltarzev, a town on the way to the Polish capital. The plight of Polish forces was made increasingly perilous by the arrival of the battalion’s artillery component. Polish columns perished along with their vehicles under murderous German fire. By now it was evening, and the mist which gathered was made even more of a hazard by the smoke from the guns.

The engagement which followed resembled a tableau from some earlier war, with troops of horse artillery storming out of the smoke. They came straight into the path of the guns, which were soon being turned on columns of civilians who had sought to withdraw safely under the protection of the Polish Army. But still there was no admission of defeat by the Poles. As one German eyewitness stated: ‘They came with their heads held high as if they were swimmers breasting the waves.’

Von Reichenau’s 10th Army reeled north, forming a block along the Bzura, west of Warsaw; on the same evening, the Leibstandarte joined it on the southwestern outskirts of the capital. The other two divisions took up positions to capture Blonie, east of 1st Battalion and also on the way to the capital. The battle of Warsaw, which the Poles had declared a fortress, was about to begin. With it came the personal control of von Rundstedt himself, with the order that 8th and 10th Armies annihilate all Polish forces that remained between the Bzura and Vistula. Von Reichenau’s spearhead reached the outskirts of Warsaw in eight days, having travelled 225km (140 miles). There it halted, a solid, immovable steel door. From East Prussia to the northwest, Guderian’s armoured corps arrowed towards Brest-Litovsk, capturing the town on 14 September and making contact with the armour of General Paul Baron von Kleist coming up from the south.

HEAVY LOSSES

The Poles, however, were not ready to admit defeat. They launched counterstrokes; heavy street fighting involved 4th Panzer Division on the outskirts of Warsaw. Although the division’s commander, Lieutenant General Georg-Hans Reinhardt, was optimistic that the bulk of Polish resistance had been annihilated, in reality, men had been forced back with heavy losses, including around half their armour. The Leibstandarte joined the division and, for the next few days, the two fought together in a bitter battle. For virtually the first time since the ‘asphalt soldiers’ had relinquished textbook training and blackboard lecturing for the real thing, Leibstandarte was on the defensive. The result was the overrunning of 6th Company of the 2nd Battalion and the death of its commander, Haupsturmführer Seppel Lange. Strong forces in the Poznan and Pomorze armies launched a counterattack to the south-east across the Bzura River which ran west of Warsaw and into the Vistula.

The German armoured vehicles disregarded the efforts of engineers working desperately to complete bridges, driving headlong down the steep eastern bank into the waters of the Bzura under a storm of Polish artillery. The weather was atrocious; tanks were stuck in muddied exit points and those which made it were puny in number until the arrival of reinforcements.

Lieutenant General Reinhardt’s optimism that all serious resistance had been eliminated was premature. There was still the Polish garrison within Warsaw to the east, prepared to resist with everything it had. An attempt on 8/9 September to take the city by assault had come to nothing. German forces then had to withdraw to the Bzura river sector.

VITAL SECTOR

Some idea of the importance that the Germans attached to taking out the sector can be gauged by the fact that von Rundstedt himself took charge of the offensive. A prime role was assigned to 16th Corps, with Leibstandarte as an important adjunct. On 14 September came the order to seal off the eastern exit from the Bzura pocket with an attack northwards to the Vistula, a goal not achieved until five days later.

The Polish army faced annihilation. It was clear that Warsaw was a spent force. The path there could only be taken by men rendered exhausted by the forced marches and vicious battles. Their arrival temporarily boosted the morale of those in the capital, but the arrivals were soldiers who had abandoned their equipment and had no prospect of finding any within the city. The bombardment from German 305mm (12in) mortars was not long in coming. For many days, in the words of one German eyewitness, this bombardment formed ‘the voice of Warsaw’.

Another event on 17 September helped to hasten the fate of the Poles: the Russians had begun their invasion from the east. The Bzura pocket was sealed by the Leibstandarte, but its duty was not over. Polish forces had withdrawn to the fortress area of Modlin, guarding the approach to Warsaw from the north; Leibstandarte was ordered to join 15th Corps to aid its reduction. The Polish army was by now a spectacle of Goya-esque horror. Another firsthand Leibstandarte account reads:

‘Our advance took us across that part of the battlefield which had been held by the so-called Pomorze army. The whole area was a scene of death and destruction. The bloated bodies of men and animals blackening under the hot sun, smashed carts, burnt-out vehicles and those most tragic victims of war, the wounded horses, waiting for the mercy shot. Everywhere there was evidence of a beaten army covering the ground …’

Such survivors as there were huddled into the garrison forts of Modlin, which their General Thomme was soon to yield, adding 31,000 to the tally of Polish prisoners of war. The forts were pulverised by German artillery. On 25 September, the men of the Leibstandarte were able, in good visibility, to witness the dive-bombers of 4 Air Fleet finish the work. Two days later, Polish forces contacted General Blaskowitz and the surrender of Warsaw was signed at 1315 hours the next day. About 2000 soldiers and 10,000 civilians had perished in the siege.

Dietrich’s command had, for the most part, been within orthodox military parameters. There were exceptions. Most notable among these was the arrest of Hermann Müller-John, the Leibstandarte band’s director of music, who had rounded up a number of Polish Jews and had them shot by members of his band without any judicial investigation. His army superiors brought a charge against him, but the intervention of Hitler resulted in an amnesty a year later. This expunged from the record all other atrocities known to have been committed during the Polish campaign. At the war’s end, and fearing postwar reprisals, Müller-John committed suicide, along with various members of his family.

SUCCESSFUL DEBUT

As for the Polish campaign as a whole, it was widely felt that the Leibstandarte, its components mere battlefield fledglings, had conducted itself creditably. But criticism from the Wehrmacht would not go away. There were snide references to ‘ornamental policemen’, but these were muted since it was realised that Hitler would almost certainly turn a deaf ear to to any censure. There was also the realisation that any criticism of the elite guard would do the originator’s career no good.

Hitler, as was always the case, had taken a close personal interest in how the SS-VT, and the Leibstandarte in particular, had fared. According to Otto Dietrich (no relation to Sepp), Press Chief of the Reich and State Secretary to the Propaganda Ministry, during the Polish campaign, the Führer had marked on a large map the terse notation ‘Sepp’, which served as a marker on the progress of Leibstandarte.

Hitler’s mood altered drastically, though, when he learnt the extent of the Leibstandarte casualties: 108 killed, 292 wounded, 14 lightly wounded, 3 missing and 15 accidental deaths. This was unacceptable, as he made plain at a meeting in his headquarters train at Gross, Pomerania. According to Walther Warlimont, one of Hitler’s most trusted officers, Dietrich, refusing to be cowed, had protested vigorously that the Wehrmacht support his men had the right to expect had seldom been forthcoming. Indeed, the Wehrmacht had been happy enough to throw them into battle under the most disadvantageous circumstances. General Walther von Brauchitsch, the Wehrmacht Commander in Chief, riposted that the Leibstandarte was untrained for battle and had no knowledge of strategy. Then had delivered the final sneer: ‘They had to pay the price for being policemen dressed up in army uniforms.’

According to Warlimont, it was now Hitler’s turn to be angry. He ‘thumped the map table and said he was sick of the everlasting feud between the Army and the SS and would stand no more of it. They would either learn to work together or there would be wide plans for alteration to command.’ Much to the disappointment of Dietrich and his men, there was to be no immediate return to Berlin. Instead, they were to go to Czechoslovakia in order that they might relieve SS Der Führer. This unit was in turn sent not to Berlin, but to the West Wall, the fortifications designed to protect the Third Reich in the west.

Hitler’s mood altered drastically, though, when he learnt the extent of the Leibstandarte casualties: 108 killed, 292 wounded, 14 lightly wounded, 3 missing and 15 accidental deaths. This was unacceptable, as he made plain at a meeting in his headquarters train at Gross, Pomerania. According to Walther Warlimont, one of Hitler’s most trusted officers, Dietrich, refusing to be cowed, had protested vigorously that the Wehrmacht support his men had the right to expect had seldom been forthcoming. Indeed, the Wehrmacht had been happy enough to throw them into battle under the most disadvantageous circumstances. General Walther von Brauchitsch, the Wehrmacht Commander in Chief, riposted that the Leibstandarte was untrained for battle and had no knowledge of strategy. Then had delivered the final sneer: ‘They had to pay the price for being policemen dressed up in army uniforms.’

According to Warlimont, it was now Hitler’s turn to be angry. He ‘thumped the map table and said he was sick of the everlasting feud between the Army and the SS and would stand no more of it. They would either learn to work together or there would be wide plans for alteration to command.’ Much to the disappointment of Dietrich and his men, there was to be no immediate return to Berlin. Instead, they were to go to Czechoslovakia in order that they might relieve SS Der Führer. This unit was in turn sent not to Berlin, but to the West Wall, the fortifications designed to protect the Third Reich in the west.

“Grief” in Combat

In last few months of the war the He 177 was used on the Eastern Front and for the first time pattern bombing was used. Horst von Riesen, by now Kommodore KG 1, led his Geschwader against the railway centre of Velikye Luki, some 480km west of Moscow. It must have been an impressive sight-a Stab of four aircraft followed by three Gruppen of 27 aircraft in vics at about 6,000m. But the time for Luftwaffe strategic missions was past: most targets were well out of range. Quite apart from any other considerations, fuel was by now so short that such missions were out of the question. Von Riesen was then ordered to send his huge bombers out on anti-tank sorties. After losing several aircraft, with no commensurate return in tanks destroyed, the order was rescinded.

Beset by technical difficulties in development, the He 177 had a troubled history in service. Overly demanding design requirements of long range, high speed, heavy bomb load, and dive bombing capability didn’t help. Although the He 177 entered service in 1942 it was far from operational. In an assessment of the aircraft on 9 April 1942, the newly activated Erprobungsstaffel 177 reported that the Greif had good flying characteristics, but had unacceptable engine troubles and problems with its airframe strength. As an emergency measure it was used to supply the encircled 6th Armee at Stalingrad, where it was found to be unsuited for the transport role, carrying a little more cargo than the smaller, more reliable Heinkel He 111, and proving useless for the evacuation of wounded. As a result the He 177s reverted to bombing and flak-suppression missions near Stalingrad. Only 13 missions were flown, and seven He 177s were lost to fire without any action attributable to the enemy.

As the war progressed, He 177 operations became increasingly desultory. Fuel and personnel shortages presented difficulties, and He 177s were sitting on airfields all over Europe awaiting new engines or engine related modifications. Of the 14 He 177 sent out during Operation Steinbock, one suffered a burst tire, and eight returned with overheating or burning engines. Of the four that reached London, one was lost to night fighters. These aircraft were brand new, delivered a week before the operation and not fully flown in, because the air unit had moved to a new airfield the day before, and lacked sufficient maintenance personnel and material. Constant attacks against Luftwaffe long-range combat units in France made continuous operations difficult.

While Steinbock was unsuccessful, the He 177 did achieve some successes. They typically carried two 1,800 kg (3,970 lb) and two 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) bombs. Climbing to 7,000 m (22,965 ft) while still over German territory, the He 177s approached the target in a shallow dive, each aircraft throttled back, the pilot putting his aircraft into a gliding descent to take it across the bomb release-point at about 4,500 m (14,760 ft). After releasing the bombs the pilot re-opened the throttles, but continued the descent at approximately 200 m (656 ft) per minute. The bombers typically re-entered German airspace at an altitude of 750 m (2,460 ft), and headed back to base. By such means, the He 177s were able to keep up speeds of about 600 to 700 km/h (370 to 430 mph) during their withdrawal phase. The higher speed and constant change of altitude made interceptions difficult, increasing the survivability of the aircraft, but decreased accuracy. With an average loss rate of 60% for all types of bomber used in Operation Steinbock, the He 177’s loss rate below 10% made them the most survivable bomber in the campaign.

During operations on the Eastern Front in early 1944, often carried out in daylight at about 6,000 m (19,690 ft) or higher, losses were relatively light. The Soviet Air Force, equipped mainly for low-level interception and ground-attack roles, was able to do little to hinder the high-flying bombers.

In common with most German bombers, the He 177 was grounded from the summer of 1944 as Allied bombing crippled German fuel production. The He 177 can be compared with the Boeing B-29 Superfortress[citation needed] which also took about two years to have its problems ironed out, after which it found success. However the He 177 was never to achieve its full potential.

Heinkel He 177 Greif

In the Second World War, the greatest deficiency in the Luftwaffe was the lack of a true strategic bomber. The He 177 was the nearest the service ever got to it, although compared to contemporary British and American heavy bombers it was far short of ideal. The 1938 specification stated a warload of 2,000kg over a radius of 1,600km at a speed of 500kph. This aircraft duly emerged as the He 177, which made its first flight on 19 November 1939, piloted by Carl Francke, the man who ‘sank’ the Ark Royal.

In an attempt to improve performance by minimising drag, it was powered by two pairs of coupled engines, which gave only half the frontal area of a conventional four-engined bomber, for the same power. In concept this was not too far removed from the ill-fated British Avro Manchester, which used two monster 24-cylinder Rolls Royce Vultures which were effectively two 12-cylinder engines mounted above and below a common crankshaft-and with much the same results: unreliability, overheating, and in-flight fires. But whereas the Manchester was quickly abandoned in favour of the more conventional Lancaster, the Luftwaffe persevered. This was a major error. Losses due to engine fires were unsustainable, and while a handful of He 177s entered service, notably with I/KG 40 from July 1942, delays mounted while solutions to the problems were sought. Eventually they were found, but by then it was far too late.

The He 177 was used to carry up to three Hs 293 missiles in the antishipping role; it was also used during ‘Steinbock’ and on the Eastern Front, but never on true strategic missions. One aircraft was modified to carry a nuclear weapon, ready for when and if this should be developed. A German engineer is said to have remarked: ‘If we succeed in this, we shall rule the world!’

Maximum speed 488kph; cruising speed 415kph; service ceiling 8,000m; range 5,000km plus.

Air War Over Iraq

Frank Wootton’s painting “The Battle of Habbaniya, May 1941” shows Hawker Audaxes and Airspeed Oxfords bombing Iraqi artillery along a high plateau within firing range of the Royal Air Force’s No. 4 Service Flying Training School. (Wealdown Limited Editions, UK)

In May 1941, British forces were fighting to keep Iraq in Allied hands — a struggle that belatedly involved German and Italian aircraft as well.

By Kelly Bell

At 2 a.m. on April 30, 1941, officials in the British Embassy in Baghdad were awakened by Iraqi military convoys rumbling out of the Rashid Barracks, across bridges and into the desert toward the Royal Air Force (RAF) training base near the Iraqi town of Habbaniya. They immediately sent wireless signals to the air base’s ranking commander, Air Vice Marshal Harry George Smart. With his base not set up or prepared for combat, Smart initially could think of little to do other than sound the general alarm — neglecting to announce the reason. The base speedily degenerated into a madhouse of scared, sleep-sodden, bewildered cadets, instructors and sundry other personnel.

In the spring of 1941, the RAF’s No. 4 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) at Habbaniya held just 39 men who knew how to fly an airplane. As May began, however, those instructors — few of whom had combat experience — and their students found they were the principal obstacle to a military operation that might well have brought Britain to its knees.

There are those who call the fight for Habbaniya airfield the second Battle of Britain. Fought half a year after the exhaustively chronicled 1940 air campaign that blunted German hopes of neutralizing or conquering England, this Mideastern shootout was at least as crucial to the outcome of World War II — yet few have heard of it.

The prize over which the campaign raged was crude oil. Although Britain had granted Iraq independence in 1927, the British empire still maintained a major presence there, since Britain’s oil jugular passed through that Arab kingdom. On April 3, 1941, militant anti-British attorney Rashid Ali el Gailani led a coup d’état that set him up as chief of the National Defense government. This Anglophobic barrister’s dearest ambition was to expel by military force all Englishmen from the Middle East. He set about enlisting the assistance of like-minded Egyptians who vaguely promised to organize an uprising of their army in Cairo. He contacted German forces in Greece — which had just fallen to the Third Reich — to inform them of his intentions and solicit their support. He also let Maj. Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, newly arrived in Libya, know they could count on the support of pro-Axis Vichy French forces in Syria to provide easy access to Iraq. Finally, he told the Germans he would secure for them unrestricted use of all military facilities in Iraq, whether or not they were held by the British.

Until Rashid Ali’s coup, British forces in the region — falsely comforted by the 1927 treaty, by which Iraq and the United Kingdom were technically bound as allies — anticipated little trouble beyond scattered anti-British riots by civilians. Rashid Ali’s pro-Axis overtures set Prime Minister Winston Churchill at odds with his commander in the Middle East, General Sir Archibald Wavell. Wavell insisted that he had his hands full as it was, between evacuating Greece, preparing for an expected German invasion of Crete and dealing with Rommel’s recent North African offensive. Churchill recognized the threat that an Axis inroad in Iraq would pose to the empire. It could deprive Britain of crude oil from the fields in northern Iraq, sever its air link with India and encourage further anti-British uprisings throughout the Arab mandates.

As a first response, the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Indian Division landed at Basra on the night of April 29, with the rest of the division soon to follow, along with the aircraft carrier Hermes and two cruisers. On learning of that development, Rashid Ali mobilized his Iraqi army and air force supporters and dispatched them to seize Habbaniya air base.

Situated on low ground next to the Euphrates River less than 60 miles from Baghdad, Habbaniya was overlooked 1,000 yards to the south by a 150-foot-high plateau. Beyond that was Lake Habbaniya, from which British flying boats evacuated the base’s civilian personnel, including women and children, on April 30. The base’s cantonment housed 1,000 RAF personnel and the 350-man 1st Battalion of the King’s Own Royal Regiment. There were also 1,200 Iraqi and Assyrian constabulary organized in six companies, but the British could only rely on the four companies of Assyrian Christians, who devoutly hated Iraqis of different extraction. Aside from 1st Company, RAF Armoured Cars, with its 18 outdated Rolls-Royce vehicles, the principal weaponry available to the base was its aircraft, the most potent of which were nine obsolete Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters and a Bristol Blenheim Mk.I bomber. The other planes at the school comprised 26 Airspeed Oxfords, eight Fairey Gordons and 30 Hawker Audaxes. Aside from the unsuitability of its aircraft for combat, Habbaniya’s greatest vulnerability lay in its dependence on a single electric power station that powered the pumps necessary to supply its base with water.

During the chaos following the alarm, the Iraqis arrived and set up artillery along the plateau running along the far side of the base’s landing field. This was a ghastly surprise for Air Vice Marshal Smart, who sent out an Audax trainer to reconnoiter at daybreak on April 30. The crew’s initial report was that the highlands were alive with what looked like more than 1,000 soldiers with fieldpieces, aircraft and armored vehicles. At 6 a.m. an Iraqi officer appeared at the camp’s main gate and handed over a letter that read: “For the purpose of training we have occupied the Habbaniya Hills. Please make no flying or the going out of any force of persons from the cantonment. If any aircraft or armored car attempts to go out it will be shelled by our batteries, and we will not be responsible for it.”

Such comportment of forces on a “training exercise” struck Smart as disquietingly inappropriate, so he typed out the following reply for the courier: “Any interference with training flights will be considered an ‘act of war’ and will be met by immediate counter-offensive action. We demand the withdrawal of the Iraqi forces from positions which are clearly hostile and must place my camp at their mercy.”

Smart next had his ground crews dig World War I–style trenches and machine gun pits around the base’s seven-mile perimeter, pathetic defenses against aerial attack and shelling from elevated positions. That left the cadets and pilots to arm, fuel and position their aircraft in 100-degree heat. The young men shoved their planes into the safest possible locations — behind buildings and trees, where they were still vulnerable.

Habbaniya’s RAF base commander, Group Captain W.A.B. Savile, divided his airplanes into four squadrons. The Audaxes were organized as A, C and D squadrons, under Wing Commanders G. Silyn-Roberts, C.W.M. Wing and John G. Hawtrey, respectively. B Squadron, under Squadron Leader A.G. Dudgeon, operated 26 Oxfords, eight Gordons and the Blenheim. In addition to the squadrons, Flight Lt. R.S. May led the Gladiators as a Fighter Flight from the polo ground. Although most of the planes were old, there were an impressive number of them. Of the 35 flying instructors on hand, however, only three had combat experience, and there were even fewer seasoned bombardiers and gunners. Smart selected the best of the cadets to bolster those numbers, while the ground crews installed racks and crutches for 250-pound and 20-pound bombs on the trainers.

On the evening of April 30, the British ambassador to Iraq radioed Smart that he regarded the Iraqi actions up to that point as acts of war and urged Smart to immediately launch air attacks. He also reported he had informed the Foreign Office in London of the Habbaniya situation and that His Majesty’s diplomats both in Baghdad and London were urging the Iraqis to withdraw — without response.

Habbaniya received four more wireless messages in the small hours of May 1. First, the ambassador promised to support any action Smart decided to take, although Smart would likely have preferred to have a high-ranking military figure giving him that backing. Second, the commander in chief, India (Habbaniya was still part of India Command), advised Smart to attack at once. The third dispatch was from the British commander in Basra, announcing that because of extensive flooding he could send no ground forces, but would try to provide air support. Smart finally heard from London: The Foreign Office — again, civilians — authorized him to make any tactical decisions himself, on the spot.

Meanwhile, by May 1 the Iraqi forces surrounding Habbaniya had swelled to an infantry brigade, two mechanized battalions, a mechanized artillery brigade with 12 3.7-inch howitzers, a field artillery brigade with 12 18-pounder cannons and four 4.5-inch howitzers, 12 armored cars, a mechanized machine gun company, a mechanized signal company and a mixed battery of anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns. This totaled 9,000 regular troops, along with an undetermined number of tribal irregulars, and about 50 guns.

Supporting those ground forces were elements of the Royal Iraqi air force, including 63 British, Italian and American-built warplanes equal to or newer than those at Habbaniya. Number 1 (Army Co-operation) Squadron at Mosul had 25 airworthy Hawker Nisrs, export variants of the Audax powered by Bristol Pegasus radial engines. Number 4 (Fighter) Squadron at Kirkuk possessed nine Gladiators. At Baghdad No. 5 (Fighter) Squadron had 15 Breda Ba.65 attack planes, while at Rashid No. 7 (Fighter-Bomber) Squadron could field 15 Douglas 8A-4s, as well as four Savoia S.M.79B twin-engine bombers purchased from Italy in 1937. On paper, at least, the Iraqi air force had the RAF outclassed at Habbaniya.

Smart contacted his ambassador in Baghdad to issue an ultimatum for the Iraqis to start withdrawing from Habbaniya by 8 a.m. on May 2. In that way should they refuse to heed the deadline, the whole day would be available for combat. Smart was still unsure of how far London would support him if he engaged the armed forces of a country not clearly defined as an Axis power. His maddening uncertainty was tardily banished by a May 1 telegram from Churchill: “If you have to strike, strike hard.”

That emboldened the harried commander to make the first move. He had learned from a radio message that 10 Vickers Wellington bombers from No. 70 Squadron had arrived at Basra. With expectations of their support, he would launch an airstrike at dawn on May 2. Although an aerial assault against well-dug-in armored forces had never succeeded before, Smart was upbeat, remarking, “They should be in full retreat within about three hours.”

Smart refused to withdraw the aircrewmen and least-experienced students from the trenches despite their doubtful ability, even bolstered by 400 Arab auxiliaries, to stop an armored charge. Knowing that their ground crews’ availability to service returning machines would be critical in the fight to come, Smart’s squadron commanders furtively toured the perimeter late on the night of May 1 and led the necessary personnel away from their fighting positions.

At 4:30 on the morning of May 2, 1941, the first flying machine cranked its engines on Habbaniya airfield. Thirty minutes later 35 Audaxes, Gordons and Oxfords were showering bombs on the Iraqis, joined by Wellingtons of Nos. 70 and 37 squadrons from Basra. The Iraqis were well dug-in on broken ground that provided good cover and concealment, so the British saw few potential targets at first. The Iraqis, unable to draw beads on the airplanes in the darkness, retaliated by shelling the air base, but the gun flashes gave away their positions. The Audaxes dropped explosives on the anti-aircraft gun pits while the Wellingtons’ turret gunners strafed them. The Iraqi anti-aircraft gunners used many tracers, again marking their positions for the British airmen to attack or avoid. After bombing from just 1,000 feet for maximum accuracy, the British carefully scanned the plateau for suitable future targets.

As soon as an aircraft landed, one of its two crewmen (they alternated) would hurry to the operations control room, report on the results of his raid and suggest targets for the next flight. Meanwhile, the other crew member would oversee ground personnel in making repairs, refueling and rearming the aircraft. The planes’ engines were generally kept running. As soon as the first crew member returned with a new assignment, the two would board their machine and return to the fray.

The Wellingtons performed well on the first day, but being big they attracted the eagle’s share of groundfire as well as half-hearted attacks from two Iraqi Gladiators and two Douglas 8As. One damaged “Wimpy” was forced to land at Habbaniya and then set on fire by Iraqi artillery shells; nine other damaged bombers were declared unserviceable when they returned to Basra. Groundfire brought down an Oxford flown by Flying Officer D.H. Walsh, and Pilot Officer P.R. Gillespy’s Audax failed to return.

Smart’s estimate that the Iraqis would cut and run within three hours proved seriously overoptimistic. By 12:30 p.m., after 7 1/2 hours of almost-constant aerial assault, they were still shelling the base, and at 10 a.m. their air force had joined in, destroying three aircraft on the airfield. One of the Gladiator pilots, Flying Officer R.B. Cleaver, was trying to intercept an S.M.79B when his guns failed, but Flying Officer J.M. Craigie caused a Ba.65 to break off its strafing attack.

By day’s end, the British had flown 193 recorded operational sorties — six per man. The RAF had lost 22 of its 64 aircraft, and 10 pilots were dead or critically wounded, but only a crippling injury was deemed sufficient to send a man to the infirmary.

Although the Iraqis had been sorely hurt and showed no inclination to launch a ground attack, they were still firmly ensconced atop their elevation with a variety of fieldpieces trained on the smoking flying school. Furthermore, that afternoon Iraqi troops invaded the British Embassy in Baghdad and confiscated every wireless transceiver and telephone, leaving the only two significant English outposts in the region isolated from each other.

By that evening, Dudgeon and Hawtrey were the only squadron commanders not dead or hospitalized. They decided that the next day Hawtrey would command all remaining Audaxes and Gladiators from the base’s polo field, which was visually screened from the artillery by a row of trees. Dudgeon would direct all Oxfords and Gordons from the cratered landing field.

Meanwhile, the Committee of Imperial Defense had transferred command of land forces in Iraq to Middle East Command, compelling Wavell to assemble whatever elements he could spare into a relief unit, called Habforce, to march the 535 miles from Haifa to Habbaniya. Rashid Ali’s leaders also appealed for help, but the Germans were preparing for their invasions of Crete and the Soviet Union, and the Italian response was slow. Only the Vichy French in Syria agreed to send arms and German-supplied intelligence to the Iraqis. They also promised the use of Syrian airfields to any aircraft that the Germans or Italians were willing to commit to Iraq.

On May 3, Smart, noting that the Iraqi artillery had not caused as much damage as he feared it would, called for the RAF to launch some preemptive strikes against the Iraqi air bases. Three Wellingtons of No. 37 Squadron bombed Rashid, also claiming to have shot down a Nisr and damaged another. The Iraqi airmen struck back, but Cleaver attacked an S.M.79B, which he last saw diving away with its left engine smoking. One of the Gordon pilots, Flight Lt. David Evans, developed a novel and risky but effective method of dive-bombing. After the ground crewmen had affixed fuzes with a seven-second delay to the 250-pound bombs, he would remove the safety devices. That meant that if a bomb came loose from its fitting, it would probably explode seven seconds later. After takeoff, Evans would climb to about 3,000 feet and scan Iraqi positions. Then, diving at about 200 mph, he would yank back on the stick and drop a bomb from six to 10 feet over the target — too close to miss. Seven seconds later, just as Evans made it to a safe distance, the bomb would obliterate the target and rattle his teeth. This method so terrified the Iraqis that they took to their heels without bothering to fire at the plunging Gordon.

Although Rashid Ali’s troops kept shelling Habbaniya, they balked at storming the base. Their confidence was further undermined by the arrival of four Blenheim Mk.IVF fighters from No. 203 Squadron on May 3. Eight of No. 37 Squadron’s Wellingtons bombed buildings and strafed aircraft at Rashid on May 4 but lost a plane to a combination of 20mm groundfire and an Iraqi Gladiator of No. 4 Squadron. The Wellington crew was taken prisoner. Two Blenheim Mk.IVFs from Habbaniya also strafed Iraqi aircraft at Rashid and Baghdad airfields. At that same time, six Vickers Valentias and six Douglas DC-2s of No. 31 Squadron were flying troops into Iraq and ferrying out civilian evacuees. One of the DC-2s flew into Habbaniya with, among other supplies, ammunition for a couple of World War I–era fieldpieces that for years had stood as ornaments outside the officers’ mess. To the garrison’s surprise the old guns proved still operable, and when they opened up on the plateau, the Iraqis were convinced the British were being reinforced with artillery. The trainers only flew 53 sorties that day, but they also flew night missions to deprive their besiegers of sleep.

Still, the defenders were suffering much worse than their foes seemed to realize. After four days of combat, just four of the original 26 Oxfords were still battle-worthy. The Audax, Gladiator and Gordon contingents were similarly depleted. Pilots were also becoming even scarcer, as half-trained cadets died in action or suffered from cracked nerves.

On May 6, an Audax returned from a dawn reconnaissance mission with news that the Iraqis were withdrawing. That encouraged Colonel O.L. Roberts of the 1st King’s Own Royals, commander of ground forces at Habbaniya, to mount an assault, backed by the Audaxes, to drive the enemy from the plateau. The timing was perfect — the Iraqis, their morale broken at last, suddenly abandoned the heights in a disorderly withdrawal down the Baghdad road toward Fallujah. Meanwhile, six Wellingtons from No. 37 Squadron hit Rashid again.

That afternoon the British spotted a column of Iraqi reinforcements approaching from Fallujah, which soon ran into the forces retreating from Habbaniya. In complete disregard for military procedure, both groups stopped on the highway, and personnel jumped from their vehicles to confer, leaving all their trucks, tanks and armored cars parked in plain view. At that point, Savile hurled every remaining Audax, Gladiator, Gordon and Oxford he had — 40 aircraft — at the bunched-up mass of vehicles. The young airmen in their old planes knew they would not have a better — or another — chance like this, and they made the most of it with all the shells and bombs they could carry. The two airstrikes took two hours, with the British flying 139 separate sorties. One Audax was damaged by groundfire, but they left the Iraqi convoy in flames.

Habbaniya also came under Iraqi air attack, and two Gladiator pilots were wounded by bomb splinters on the polo ground. One Gladiator intercepted a Douglas 8A and, after firing two bursts, drove it off.

Armed ground personnel and Arab auxiliaries ventured from the airfield and rounded up 408 demoralized Iraqi prisoners, including 27 officers. Counting those POWs, Rashid Ali lost more than 1,000 men that day, compared with seven British killed and 10 wounded.

The next day the British could find no trace of the enemy near Habbaniya. A lone Nisr attacked at 10:45 a.m., but a Blenheim Mk.IVF of No. 203 Squadron shot it down in flames. The British also raided the airfield at Baquba, during which Pilot Officer J. Watson, piloting a Gladiator, encountered an Iraqi Gladiator, attacked it from behind and last saw it in a steep dive. Back at Habbaniya, ground personnel eventually found and shot up a few Iraqi machine gun nests in the village of Dhibban just east of the airfield.

In the previous five blazing days, Habbaniya’s makeshift air force had flown 647 recorded sorties, dropped more than 3,000 bombs of various sizes, totaling over 50 tons, and fired more than 116,000 machine gun rounds. The British lost just 13 airmen killed, 21 critically wounded and four to emotional collapse. It was a smashing victory over Rashid Ali, who now faced the British reprisal with a demoralized army and an air force that barely existed.

On the day that this motley fleet of RAF antiques was reducing the combined Iraqi forces outside Habbaniya to junk, Luftwaffe Colonel Werner Junck was in Berlin being briefed by Chief of Air Force General Staff Hans Jeschonnek. The colonel’s new mission was to organize a special force called Sonderkommando Junck, to be sent to Iraq. When Jeschonnek stated, “The Führer desires a heroic gesture,” Junck asked precisely what that meant. Jeschonnek replied, “An operation which would have significant effect, leading perhaps to an Arab rising, in order to start a jihad, or holy war, against the British.” The Germans were unaware that their erstwhile Mideast allies had already been soundly defeated and that Habbaniya’s garrison was at almost that very moment receiving a message from Churchill: “Your vigorous and splendid action has largely restored the situation. We are watching the grand fight you are making. All possible aid will be sent.”

Twelve Messerschmitt Me-110Cs of the 4th Staffel (squadron) of Zerstörergeschwader (destroyer wing) 76 (4/ZG.76), two Me-110Cs of ZG.26, seven Heinkel He-111Hs of 4th Staffel, Kampfgeschwader (bomber wing) 4, and a transport contingent of 20 Junkers Ju-52/3ms and a few Ju-90s were hastily decorated in Iraqi markings. They began flying to Mosul via Greece and Syria on May 11. In an ill-fated start, one He-111 was fired on by Arab tribesmen as it approached Baghdad airport. That plane landed with Major Axel von Blomberg, the Luftwaffe liaison officer to Rashid Ali, dead.

On May 12 British reconnaissance planes discovered several German aircraft in Iraq, and on the 14th one of No. 203 Squadron’s Blenheims spotted a Ju-90 at Palmyra airport in Syria, confirming Vichy French cooperation in violation of its nominal neutrality. British aircraft — including Curtiss Tomahawks of No. 250 Squadron, in the first combat sorties ever flown by P-40s — attacked Palmyra the same day. It was the first round of hostilities that would ultimately lead to the British invasion of Syria in June.

Habbaniya struck at the Luftwaffe first when Flying Officer E.C. Lane-Sansom, of No. 203 Squadron, strafed Mosul at 3:15 a.m on May 16. At 9:35 a.m. three He-111s bombed Habbaniya and were themselves attacked by a Gladiator. Caught in the German gunners’ crossfire, Flying Officer Gerald D.F. Herrtage’s fuel tank was hit, and though he bailed out before his Gladiator exploded in flames, his parachute became tangled. Herrtage’s death was not in vain, however — one Heinkel’s engine was disabled, resulting in a crash-landing before it reached Mosul. The Germans launched no further bombing attacks, though that one had done more damage to Habbaniya than all the previous Iraqi airstrikes combined.

On May 17, Habbaniya was reinforced by the arrival of four more Gladiators of No. 94 Squadron and four modified, extra-long-range Hawker Hurricane IIC cannon-equipped fighters. While flying their No. 94 Squadron Gladiators over Rashid at 7:55 that morning, Sergeants William H. Dunwoodie and E.B. Smith attacked the two ZG.26 Me-110s just as they were taking off. Smith’s quarry crash-landed southeast of the air base with both engines on fire, while Bill Dunwoodie’s disintegrated in a fiery midair explosion.

Habforce finally reached Habbaniya on May 18. The base was no longer threatened, but Smart had suffered a nervous breakdown, and by some reports also been injured in a motor vehicle mishap. He was sedated, loaded onto a DC-2 with women and children evacuees and flown to Basra. Smart’s emotional collapse was hardly surprising — he was primarily a school administrator, not a soldier — yet until Churchill’s tardy response, every military officer above him had avoided taking any responsibility for whatever happened at Habbaniya. Air Vice Marshal John Henry D’Albiac took over command of the RAF in Iraq. Besides attacking the Germans at Mosul, 200 miles away, Habbaniya’s aircraft helped British forces at Fallujah fight off a succession of Iraqi attempts to retake that town.

On May 20 Habbaniya’s Gladiators and Hurricanes dueled with four ZG.76 Me-110s over Fallujah. Sergeant Smith was jumped by five Me-110s and narrowly escaped, but his Gladiator was sufficiently damaged for the Germans to credit it to future night fighter ace Lieutenant Martin Drewes, as his first of an eventual 52 victories. The fighting for Fallujah reached its peak on the 22nd, when the Iraqis, backed by light tanks, made a determined effort that resulted in heavy casualties to both sides. Habbaniya’s planes flew 56 sorties in support of the British, attacking a column of 40 vehicles moving up to reinforce the Iraqis, but losing one Audax to return fire. Removing the Lewis machine gun from its rear mounting, Flying Officer L.I. Dremas — a Greek pilot-in-exile — and his gunner fought a running gun battle with the Iraqis until, aided by local levies, they reached British lines.

Another Gladiator was brought down by groundfire on May 23, but again the pilot evaded capture and reached friendly lines. Meanwhile the Italians, after delays and only grudging help from the Vichy French, finally flew 11 Fiat C.R.42 biplane fighters of the 155th Squadriglia (squadron) to Rhodes, reaching Kirkuk on May 26. From there they began strafing British troops, who by then were marching from Fallujah toward Baghdad. As Habbaniya-based planes were supporting the British advance on May 29, they were attacked by two Fiats, which forced an Audax to land damaged, with its pilot wounded. Wing Commander W.T.F. “Freddie” Wightman of No. 94 Squadron dived on one of the C.R.42s and shot it down, with the pilot, a 2nd Lt. Valentini, bailing out and taken prisoner.

On May 30, Habforce, now numbering 1,200 men with eight guns and a few RAF armored cars, lay just outside Baghdad, facing an Iraqi division. The RAF’s now-undisputed control of the air made a great difference, however. The Iraqis refused to engage the dreaded British, and the RAF took over Baghdad’s airfield. Realizing that the game was up, Rashid Ali fled the capital after embezzling his soldiers’ monthly payroll of 17,000 dinars. His followers followed suit, and Iraq’s pro-British royal government was restored soon thereafter.

The Italians, too, were sufficiently forewarned to depart Kirkuk for Syria on the 31st, burning two Fiats that were too damaged to fly out. Sonderkommando Junck had a more ignominious departure, the last of its surviving personnel escaping overland to Syria on June 10, leaving behind the wrecks of all 14 Me-110s, five He-111s and two transport planes. Those losses were far less damaging than the pounding their prestige had taken in the eyes of the Arabs they had hoped to convert to the Axis side. A quick, sizable German incursion in support of Rashid Ali would have likely succeeded, but Adolf Hitler was too preoccupied with the looming invasion of the Soviet Union to pay much attention to events in obscure Iraq.

The implications of the Habbaniya battle are staggering. But even the folks back in Mother England, distracted by the capture of German Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, took little notice at the time. Nonetheless, history has an obligation to give full credit to the handful of pilots of No. 4 SFTS, who in five days had secured Britain’s vital oil supply, as well as denied Nazi Germany a foothold in the Middle East.

For further reading, try: Dust Clouds in the Middle East, by Christopher Shores; Hidden Victory, by Air Vice Marshal A.G. Dudgeon; and Gloster Gladiator Aces, by Andrew Thomas.

This article was written by Kelly Bell and originally published in the May 2004 issue of Aviation History.

Reinforced Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 2 seizes the Isthmus of Corinth I

General der Flieger Student hurried back to Berlin from the Semmering and with the staff of XI.Flieger-Korps commenced planning for the conquest of Crete, despite the fact that they still lacked a definitive directive. Meanwhile, the force under Generalleutnant Süßmann in Bulgaria became involved in Marita. Probably as a result of Hitler’s fear that the Corinth Canal could be blocked by the enemy, the OKL, the OKH and Armeeoberkommando 12/AOK 12 on 22 April, were tasked by the OKW to examine the possibilities for an operation by parachute troops against the Isthmus of Corinth. As the OKH and AOK 12 had beforehand reported about the importance of the canal and the only bridge which crossed it for the operations of ground forces and had spoken in favor of a parachute-assault against it, the decision was made on this very day, to go along with its execution.

The OKW directed the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe to commence with preparations. The aim of the operation was the seizure of the bridge across the Corinth Canal so as to enable the troops of 12.Armee to quickly enter the Peloponnese. A task beyond this aim, in particular the blocking of the Isthmus against forces of the British expeditionary corps, withdrawing from the north, had not been laid down explicitly, as the seizure and retention of the only bridge across the Corinth-Canal would anyway lead to this blocking.

The commander-in chief of Luftflotte 4, Generaloberst Löhr, issued the order for the execution of the operation still on 22 April and tasked with it Detachement Süßmann which was available on short notice. The overall control of the operation was assigned to General der Flieger Freiherr von Richthofen, commanding the VIII.Flieger-Korps. The general was strongly opposed to it as he considered the engagement of his flying formations against the anticipated evacuation operations of the British expeditionary corps as a priority and saw detrimental consequences for the supply of his corps in the temporary loss of the air transport formations, but had to accept the decision taken by the highest command level. However he determined that the airborne assault by Detachement Süßmann was to be conducted only after the Heer had seized Thebes, which was only 60km away from the Corinth Canal. Prior to the commencement of the planning process for the airborne operation, the situation in the Greek theatre of war had developed as follows:

After hard fighting and with considerable losses, the defense of northern Greece undertaken by Australian and New Zealand forces was overcome by parts of the reinforced 5.Panzer-Division and the 6.Gebirgs-Division. However the skillfully fighting defenders had managed to escape the danger of an impending envelopment of their left flank by mountain and motorcycle-infantry with the majority of their forces. The German command had remained ignorant of the decision of the British commander-in-chief Middle East, General Wavell, made known to the King of Greece on 21 April, to evacuate the British expeditionary corps from the Greek mainland. The Germans had clearly perceived withdrawal movements but had remained in the dark about the further intentions of the enemy, in particular, whether, protected by the Gulf of Patras, the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronian Gulf, he would continue the defense on the Peloponnese. Therefore the air operations of VIII.Flieger-Korps were initially directed against this region. During the afternoon of 23 April VIII.Flieger-Korps succeeded in destroying most of the still operational British Hurricane fighters on the airfield at Mykene (the remaining six aircraft were transferred to Crete the next day), allowing it to achieve unrestricted air superiority over southern Greece. It now could direct its efforts against the evacuation of the British expeditionary corps, which in fact had commenced in the night 24/25 April. However this task turned out to be complicated as the embarkation of the troops of the enemy took place simultaneously at several locations, sometimes away from ports and always during the hours of darkness. Moreover, the troops assembled for embarkation disciplined themselves so skillfully during daytime that they were seldom detected from the air.

At noon on 25 April the advance detachment of the 5.Panzer-Division entered Thebes. Thereby the precondition for the airborne-undertaking of Detachement Süßmann, as determined by General der Flieger Frh. von Richthofen, was achieved. South of Thebes, at Tatoi, a New Zealand brigade group once more blocked the advance of 5.Panzer-Division but was forced to retreat during the course of 26 April. Covered by the rearguard actions of the New Zealanders, an Australian brigade group of almost 6,000 men was embarked at Megara, about 30km away from Tatoi, during the night 25/26 April. By the morning of 26 April nearly all of the troops which had been designated for embarkation from ports on the Peloponnese, among them three brigade groups, had been brought across the Corinth Canal. In the night 25/ 26 April General Wilson, the commander-in-chief of the expeditionary corps, had moved his headquarters to Myli, about 45km south of Corinth and, despite the losses of large amounts of heavy equipment and supplies, had expressed his satisfaction about the present course of the evacuation operation. The German 12.Armee, after resistance around Thebes was broken, had been directing the efforts of its most forward troops towards Athens, about 25km away.

Immediately upon the receipt of the mission to seize the bridge across the Corinth Canal by a parachute assault, Detachement Süßmann commenced with preparations for this operation. The staff of FschPiBtl.7 and two of its companies were summoned to Plovdiv from Dessau-Kochstedt as reinforcements. For their transfer, two provisional squadrons were formed from the Ju 52s placed at the disposal of the parachute-schools. As the distance from Plovdiv to the Isthmus of Corinth was beyond the range of the Ju 52, Larissa, located in the Thessalian Plain, was chosen as the jump-off base for the parachute assault. A transfer of the paratroopers by land to the base had to be excluded because of poor road conditions, the lack of motor transport and the probable short reaction time between the receipt of the order and its execution. The transfer by air, however, also posed considerable problems. In the meantime two air transport groups had been diverted to the support of the German forces in North Africa, quite a number of transport aircraft still remained detached to VIII.Flieger-Korps and the combat readiness of the Ju 52 formations had decreased due to overuse. Thus, only about 140 transport aircraft were available for the undertaking against the Corinth Canal. This meant that the parachuting of the complete Detachement Süßmann in one single flight was not possible. In addition to that restriction, the stores of aviation fuel on the airfield at Larrissa, also used by units of VIII.Flieger-Korps, were insufficient for multiple flights of the air transport formations to Corinth and allowed for the employment of only one air transport group for a resupply mission after the landing of the assault force. Even for the return flight of the Ju 52s from Larissa to their bases in Bulgaria, fuel had to be brought along.

During the morning of 25 April the order for the parachute assault on the morning of 26 April arrived at the command of Detachement Süßmann. General der Flieger Freiherr von Richthofen repeatedly had expressed his opposition against the undertaking and had justified it with the strained air transport situation and his view about the priority of the employment of his forces against the British evacuation fleet. Göring, however, took the side of Generalfeldmarschall List, who had requested the execution of the airborne mission.

Generalleutnant Süßmann delegated the direct command of the parachute assault to the commander of FschJgRgt.2, Oberst Sturm. As the preparations of the detachment had been completed for the greater part by the arrival of the execution order, the transfer of the elements planned for the actual parachute assault commenced without delay early in the morning of 25 April. Nevertheless this action took up valuable time until late in the evening, so that the last air transport squadrons touched down on the totally crammed airfield at Larissa in the darkness. There was almost no time for the rest or supply of troops, as final arrangements for the start of operations still had to be completed. At this time, the following units had arrived on the airfield: staff and signals platoon of FschJgRgt.2, I./FschJgRgt.2 (Hauptmann Kroh), II./FschJgRgt.2 (Hauptmann Pietzonka), one-third of 13./FschJgRgt.2 (guns), half of 14./FschJgRgt.2 (anti-tank), 3./FschFlaMGBtl.7 (less one platoon), the parachute engineer platoons Häffner and Brohm and half of 1./FschSanAbt.7. 3./FschArtAbt.7 was to follow in gliders with three guns. The remaining parts of Detachement Süßmann were initially to stay behind at Plovdiv-Krumovo.

In the course of the evening of 25 April Generalleutnant Süßmann moved with his forward command element to the command post of VIII.Flieger-Korps, which since 24 April had been in the seaport of Volos, about 45km south-east of Larissa. Against his instructions, Süßmann retained the two squadrons formed from the Ju 52 of the parachute schools, as they were urgently required to deliver aviation fuel from the Plovdiv area to Larissa. The tactical leaders of Gruppe Sturm were instructed about the terrain in the operational area as precisely as possible by means of maps and aerial photos. The intelligence produced the following picture.

The hub of the operation area was formed by the Corinth Canal, which was cut into the rocks of the Isthmus at its most narrow part, 6.4km in width. Built between 1881 and 1893 it connected the Saronian Gulf in the south-east with the Gulf of Corinth in the north-west. It was cut into the rock of the Isthmus up to 60m deep with almost vertical walls. It was 24m wide at its top and 21m at sea-level. The depth of the water was 8m. The villages Isthmia and Kalamaki were located on either side of its southern entrance. About 3km from its northern entrance the canal was crossed by its only bridge, a solid steel construction, being traversed by the road and railway line leading from Athens along the coast of the Saronian Gulf via Megara to Corinth on the northern coast of the gulf named after this town. North of these lines of communication and east of the canal the terrain descended from the 1,300m high Gerania Mountains, to the coast of the Saronian Gulf. Another road led from the settlement of Loutraki, located at the Gulf of Corinth, about 4km north of the bridge, toward the bridge-site. The town of Corinth with its about 20,000 inhabitants was built on the flat beach of the Gulf, a good 3km west of the bridge. Here, the road divided. One arm bypassed an airfield about 4km west of the town and led along the northern coast of the Peloponnese to Patras, on the Gulf with the same name. The other arm turned to the south and, bypassing the ruins of ancient Mykene, led through mountainous terrain to Argos, a town about 35km south of Corinth, then to Myli, on the coast of the Argolian Gulf and from there across the Peloponnese to the sea-port of Kalamata on the Messenian Gulf. Another airfield was located some distance south-west of Mykene. At Argos, a division of the road ran to the sea ports at Navplion and Tolon on the northern shore of the Argolian Gulf. Only a short distance west of the road division at Corinth, a mountain ridge with central massifs of more than 2,300m high rose steeply south of the coastal road and stretched toward the west.

On 25 April bombers and fighters of VIII.Flieger-Korps massively attacked the anti-aircraft positions of the enemy which had been detected in the vicinity of the Corinth Canal. Immediately after the decision to evacuate the Greek mainland, the command of the British expeditionary corps had concentrated its remaining anti-aircraft forces – 8 cannon 7.9cm, 8 cannon 3.7cm and 16 Bofors cannon 40mm – for the protection of retrograde movements, but also against possible German airborne attacks, on the Isthmus of Corinth, along the road to Argos and on the nearby airfield. Initially only the remainder of the 4th Hussars Regiment from the British 1st Armoured Brigade had been tasked with the surveillance of the northern coast of the Peloponnese, including the Corinth Canal on, a length of 110km. It had consisted of 12 light Mark VI tanks, six Bren Carriers and one armored car. On 24 April the New Zealand 6th Field Coy of engineers was summoned from Thebes and prepared the bridge across the Corinth Canal for demolition. Moreover it assembled some boats for the construction of ferries at the southern entrance of the canal, in case that the bridge was destroyed prematurely by the enemy.

On this day the command of all troops deployed at the canal was given to Brigadier Lee. His sector of responsibility included the terrain on either side of the canal and the areas around Corinth and Argos. He had been instructed to be prepared for German air-landings on the two airfields which were located in his sector. In the evening of 25 April, Brigadier Lee, who had retained some of the troops on their way toward the south and who had also received some reinforcements, in addition to the 4th Hussars and the air-defence elements, had at his dirposal: Three companies and two platoons from the Australian 2/6 InfBn, B-Coy/19th (NZ) InfBn, 6th (NZ) Field Coy and one platoon from the British 7th Armd Div Field Sqn. At about 0230hrs on 26 April C Squadron from the Cavalry Regiment of the New Zealand Division, still equipped with a few wheeled armored cars and reinforced with the remainders of the Bren Carrier platoons from the 22nd and 28th (NZ) Infantry Battalions, also arrived.

Brigadier Lee formed the so-called Isthmus Force for the direct defense of the bridge across the Corinth Canal. It was composed of B Coy/19th Infantry Battalion, 6th Field Coy, one platoon of 122nd Light Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment, the British engineer platoon and C Squadron/NZ Divisional Cavalry. The force was placed subordinate to the commander of B Coy/19th Infantry Battalion. This officer positioned one of his infantry platoons in the Gerania mountains, about 7km north-west of the bridge and deployed the remaining two platoons of his company in the hilly terrain about 500m north of the bridge. A company from 2/6 Infantry Battalion was also positioned in the area immediately east of the bridge. However the commanders of the two forces deployed east of the canal were not informed about each other’s presence. C Squadron/NZ Divisional Cavalry was in the process of setting up positions about 2km west of the western bridge ramp. In the immediate vicinity of this ramp four heavy anti-aircraft guns were being positioned. Some of the 37mm and 40mm guns were dispersed in positions around the bridge. Others were set up further to the west and south-west. 6th Field Coy prepared positions about 500m south of Corinth. Two of its squads, foreseen as demolition teams, were kept standing by about 1km north of the bridge, near the western bank of the canal. In the buildings between Corinth and the northern entrance of the canal the 4th Hussars established their command post. A company of 2/6 Infantry Battalion moved into a position on the slope about 3km south of Corinth, just north of the small village Examilia. The remainder of 2/6 Inf, the staff, one company and two platoons, together with a few heavy and some Bofors air defence guns, were deployed for the protection of the airfield near Mykene.

For direct defense along the Corinth Canal and the immediately adjoining terrain, Brigadier Lee had 900 soldiers from the expeditionary corps at his disposal. A considerable number of Greek soldiers, who had not felt bound to the capitulation arrangements of their high command, were also present some distance east of the canal, in the settlements south of it and in the area around Patras. Joint combat operations with the expeditionary corps, however, had not been planned.

On 26 April Gruppe Sturm took off for the parachute undertaking against the Isthmus of Corinth from the airfield at Larissa between 0430 and 0600hrs.

Oberst Sturm had organized his assault force in three sub-groups (Untergruppen):

Untergruppe Pietzonka, with II./FschJgRgt 2, 3./FschFlaMGBtl 7 (-), two anti-tank-guns from 14./FschJgRgt 2 and parachute engineer platoon Häffner. Missions: to seize the canal-bridge and to prevent its destruction; subsequently to protect against Corinth, to seize and retain the airfield west of Corinth and to seize the area at the northern entrance of the canal, preventing any shipping there.

Untergruppe Kroh, with I./FschJgRgt 2 (less 1st Company), half of 13./FschJgRgt 2 (2 recoilless guns), half of 14./FschJgRgt 2 (anti-tank) and parachute engineer platoon Brohm. Missions: to block the defile 4 km east of Kalamaki, to seize Kalamaki and the area north of the eastern entrance of the canal, preventing any shipping there.

Untergruppe Regimental Staff, with the staff and the reinforced signals-platoon of FschJgRgt 2, 1./FschJgRgt 2 and half of 1./FschSanAbt 7. Mission for 1./FschJgRgt 2: to assemble as reserve in the drop-zone of the sub-group west of the canal; protect toward the south and south-west.

The approach-flight of the air-transport formations – KGr z.b.V. 102 with Untergruppe Pietzonka, KGr z.b.V. 60 with Untergruppe Kroh, I./KG z.b.V. 1 with 3./FschFlaMGBtl 7 (-) and half of 14./FschJgRgt 2, I./LL-Geschwader 1 with Untergruppe Regimental Staff – was conducted across the Pindus Mountains in a height of more than 2.000m. The most forward section consisted of six Ju 52, towing the gliders with the 54 men of Leutnant Häffner’s reinforced 2nd platoon of 3./FschPiBtl7 aboard. It was to land at both ramps of the bridge 12 minutes ahead of the first wave of the paratroopers and to take possession of it. South of the Pindus mountain range the air transport formations, except the six towing aircraft, descended to 30m above the surface of the Gulf of Corinth and flew protected from observation by the morning haze over the water toward the east. The gliders unhooked the cables of the towing aircraft at about 20km distance from the objective at 1,200m height and commenced the dive. The Ju 52s with the main force aboard ascended to parachuting height in the vicinity of the drop zones and reduced their speed.

During the time of the approach flight of Gruppe Sturm, combat aircraft of VIII. Flieger-Korps attacked identified positions of the enemy on either side of the Corinth Canal. Only Me 110 fighters with machine-guns and dive bombers, due to their capability of hitting targets precisely, were used, to prevent an unwanted destruction of the bridge by bombs going astray. Some of the air-defence guns around the canal were thus put out of action and the crews of the remaining weapons, as well as the infantry in their field positions, were forced to take cover.

The six gliders with Häffner’s platoon aboard came down on either side of the bridge at about 0610hrs, coming in as air attacks ceased, and hidden against observation until the very last moment by the haze and the smoke from the impacting bombs. Five of them touched down about 100-200m from the bridge. The sixth glider, attempting a landing on the western ramp of the bridge, crashed into its foundation block. Both the pilot and the medical sergeant behind him were hurled onto the road. The remaining eight soldiers were stunned and injured by the impact, and initially unable to join the fighting although they managed to leave the glider. The crews of the other gliders fought through to the bridge site, taking only a few losses from scattered fire by the totally surprised defenders. Here, a number of them neutralized the few guards at the bridge and commenced to remove the explosive charges from the steel framework and cut the ignition cables, while others prevented the crews of nearby anti-aircraft guns from occupying their weapon pits, which they had left during the air attacks.

Shortly before 0640hrs the first wave of Gruppe Sturm was dropped – 2nd and 4th companies of I./FschJgRgt 2 and engineer platoon Brohm east of the canal; 5th and 6th companies of II./FschJgRgt 2 west of the canal.

West of the canal 5./FschJgRgt.2, under Oberleutnant Thiel, reinforced with a heavy machine-gun platoon from the 8th Company, was dropped first. With just the weapons on hand the paratroopers seized the railway station near the bridge, three air-defence positions nearby and a number of motor vehicles that had been abandoned by their drivers and passengers during the air attacks on the road to Corinth. Thereby a considerable number of enemy soldiers were captured. Subsequently the company set up positions along a perimeter around the western ramp of the bridge, at about 1km distance. 6./FschJgRgt.2, commanded by Hauptmann Schirmer, was dropped two minutes after 5./FschJgRgt.2. Its 1st Platoon under Leutnant Teusen put four light anti-aircraft guns out of action and set up for the close protection of the engineers working on the bridge immediately west of it. The other two platoons of the company advanced against the column of motor vehicles on the road toward Corinth, which had not been attacked by 5./FschJgRgt.2.

The staff and the signals platoon of II./FschJgRgt.2 jumped as part of the first wave of the battalion. Hauptmann Pietzonka suffered a double fracture of an ankle on landing and was carried to his command post, which was being established a short distance from the canal. Here, he tasked Hauptmann Schirmer with the tactical command of the battalion. During the mopping-up actions in the drop zone of the force around the command post, the battalion’s orderly officer, Oberleutnant Dohmes, was killed. Leutnant Schallnas from 3./FschFlaMGBtl.7 with his command section, jumped with the battalion-staff and shortly thereafter met the same fate.

East of the Corinth Canal, in the area of operations of I./FschJgRgt.2, Brohm’s parachute engineer platoon jumped first. Its mission was to seize the road and railway bridge about 4km east of Kalamaki and to prevent its destruction. However it was dropped incorrectly and came down in the defile about 10km north-east of Kalamaki, immediately on the shore of the Saronian Gulf. One of its squads landed in the water, whereby one soldier was drowned and two weapon containers were lost. Three other men were injured on the landing ground. Nevertheless, without further losses, the platoon overcame a number of Greek soldiers who had fired at them during the landing and captured 20 of them. Subsequently, platoon Brohm cleared the village of Aghia Theodori on the coastal road about 10km north of the canal from Greek stragglers. There it was joined by the 3rd Platoon of 2./FschJgRgt.2 under Leutnant Kühne. Together the platoons now advanced along the coastal road toward a barracks in the village of Kineta, about 6km further to the east. When this was found abandoned they moved on in the direction toward Megara. However by now they were continuously involved in firefights with Greek stragglers. Just west of Megara they successfully removed the explosive charges from a railway bridge. It was at this time that both platoons were ordered to fall back into the defile west of the village of Aghia Theodori and to act as combat outposts for Untergruppe Kroh. On the way to the new location the parachute engineer platoon unexpectedly became involved in a firefight with troops of the British expeditionary corps that were advancing from the east. Before it was able to disengage the platoon lost two killed and four wounded.

The 2nd and 4th companies of I./FschJgRgt.2, except two plane loads, were correctly dropped east of the canal together with the battalion-staff. The paratroopers first cleared the drop zone and then advanced toward the canal. Enemy infantry, to the strength of about a company, which were positioned east of the bridge, were quickly overrun and most of the soldiers of B Coy, 19th (NZ) Infantry Battalion were captured. The subsequent attack against a hill to the north met with stronger resistance.

While the fighting on both sides of the canal was ongoing and the parachuting of Gruppe Sturm continued, the engineers of Häffner’s platoon completed the removal of explosive charges from the bridge structure. These were piled on the bridge, to be carried away afterward. At this moment, at exactly 0700hrs, the bridge blew up in a tremendous explosion and plunged down into the canal. Several engineers who were still working on the bridge, and a military war correspondent, Sonderführer von der Heyden, who had accompanied the engineer platoon, were instantly killed. Some of the men from Teusen’s platoon, located in protective positions close to the western ramp of the bridge, were injured by steel splinters.

Despite the loss of the bridge the paratroopers continued with their missions. West of the canal, parts of the 5th and 6th companies that were advancing further to the west, come across the remainder of C Squadron/NZ Divisional Cavalry and the assigned two Bren Carrier platoons east of Corinth. As these were still in the process of recovering from the preceding air attacks they were surprised by the sudden onslaught of the paratroopers. Eight to ten of the armored vehicles were destroyed or captured in the first minutes and most of their crews were taken prisoner. However about 40 of the New Zealanders, with two armored cars and five Bren Carriers managed to escape toward the south along a sunken road, unobserved by the attackers. When this road ended at a deep ravine the vehicles were pushed over, denying them to the enemy. Their crews were later found by Greeks and conveyed across the mountains to Navplion. The company from 2/6 Infantry Battalion, which had been positioned north of Examilia, was not drawn into the fighting and was able to retreat on its own toward the south.

7./FschJgRgt.2, after the landing, dispatched two platoons against Corinth. On the way to the north-western entrance of the Corinth Canal the third platoon encountered some resistance from field positions and buildings along its western bank. Nevertheless the platoon succeeded in overrunning the command post of the 4th Hussars and capturing most of its personnel. In the meantime 8./FschJgRgt.2, two platoons from 3./FschFlaMGBtl.7 and two anti-tank-guns, that were the remaining parts of Untergruppe Pietzonka, also landed safely west of the Corinth Canal and secured their drop zones. The two anti-tank guns set up firing positions south of the road leading from the blown bridge toward Corinth. Hauptmann Pietzonka now assigned two-thirds of the 7th and 8th companies, one anti-tank gun and one light anti-aircraft gun to Hauptmann Schirmer with the mission to build a protective screen against the town. However the mission was quickly overcome by events, as the 6th and 7th companies from II./FschJgRgt.2 had already entered the outskirts of Corinth. Leutnant Rühle from 6th Company penetrated the town in one of the Bren Carriers, of which 6th and 8th companies had captured one each in working condition, despite the fact that it was occupied by a considerable number of troops. He managed to get hold of the town’s mayor and the Greek military commandant of Corinth and to escort them safely to Hauptmann Schirmer. After a short exchange of views with the latter the two Greek authorities declared themselves willing to hand the town over to the German officer in charge. They were then brought to the regimental command post, which had been set up at a road junction about 1.5km west of the destroyed bridge after the Regimental Staff had landed at 0730hrs. At 1100hrs Oberst Sturm met the two Greek officials and requested the unconditional surrender of Corinth by 1300hrs or else it would be attacked by dive bombers. The bluff worked and the Greek mayor surrendered the town unconditionally. Its occupation by German troops was arranged for 1300 hrs.