16. Panzer-Division: Kharkov 1942

Gen. Maj. Hans Valentin Hube Divisional HQ

Commanders: Gen. Maj. Hans Valentin Hube (1. VI. 1940-14. IX. 1942), Gen. Maj. Günther Angern (15. IX. 1942-2.11.1943), Oösffi. Burkhart Müller-Hildebrand (3-28.11.1943, m. d. F. b.), Oberst (Gen. Maj.) Rudolf Sieckenius(5. lll.-31. X. 1943), Oberst (Gen. Maj.) Hans Ulrich Back (1. XI. 1943-14. VIII. 1944), Oberst (Gen. Maj.) Dietrich von Müller (15. VIII. 1944-18. IV. 1945), Oberst Kurt Treuhaupt (19. IV.-V. 1945).

16. Pz. Div. was raised on 1 November 1940 from 16. lnf. Div.(mot.). It was given Pz. Rgt. 2, drawn from 1. Pz. Div. The general staff of its 16. Schützen-Brigade was disbanded in November 1942.

In December 1940, the division set off for Rumania. Codenamed Lehrstab-R II, it was subordinated to the German military mission at Bucharest and trained the Rumanian army. It was held in reserve (as part of L. A. K., 12. Armee) during the invasion of the Balkans in April 1941. In June 1941, it took part in the invasion of the Soviet Union as part of XIV. and XXXXVIII. A. K. (mot.) (Pz. Gr. 1, Army Group “Süd”). It fought in the Ukraine, took part in the battle of Uman, captured Nikolaiev and was later engaged at Kiev. It was on the Mius at the launching of the Soviet counter-offensive of the winter of 1941-42. In the spring of 1942, it took part in the offensive on the Don and the Volga (Operation “Blau”) with XIV. Pz. K. attached to 6. Armee.

A German account describes action on 18 May 1942:
‘With the Donets line gained, 257th Infantry Division and 101st Light Infantry Division took over the eastern flank cover for the deep thrust by the armoured striking groups, a thrust aimed at the creation of a pocket. The 16th Panzer Division, acting as the spearhead of Lieutenant-General Hube’s striking force, drove through the Russian positions with three combat groups [Kampfgruppen] under von Witzleben, Krumpen and Sieckenius. They then drove on, straight through, into the suburbs of Izyum. At 12.30 hours on 18 May, tanks and motorcyclists of the Westphalian 16th Armoured Division were covering the only major east-west road crossing the Donets at Donetskiy. Combat group Sieckenius, the mainstay of which was 2nd Battalion, 2nd Panzer Regiment, turned left and drove on westward, straight into the pocket. The main blow of Operation ‘Friderikus’, however, was to be dealt by General of Cavalry von Mackensen with his III Panzer Corps. He attacked with 14th Panzer Division from Dresden in the centre and with the Viennese 100th Light Division and the Bavarian 1st Mountain Division on the right and left respectively. The Russians were taken by surprise and routed in the swampy Sukhoy Torets river. Barvenkovo was taken. A bridge was built. The 14th Panzer Division crossed over and pushed on toward the north. Eddying clouds of dust veiled the tanks. The fine black earth made the men look like chimney-sweeps.

The 14th Panzer Division took Protopopovka on the 20th 1942, which reduced the mouth of the bulge between there and Balakleya to twelve miles. The bridgehead was then 8 miles wide but only a mile or two across. The III Panzer Corps main force, still on the westward orientation, gained almost twelve miles, however, with disappointing results. The object was to smash Fifty-seventh Army in the western end of the bulge, but the outer ring of the front there was held by Romanian divisions and they showed little determination and less enthusiasm. One of the Romanian division commanders had sent himself home on leave when he heard the attack was about to start. Having an alternative that he also preferred, Kleist began turning the 16th Panzer Division, 60th Motorised Division and 1st Mountain Division around after dark and sending them into the Bereka bridgehead behind 14th Panzer Division. On Bock’s urging, Paulus agreed to shift the 3rd and 23rd Panzer Divisions south from the Volchansk salient and thus partially to reconstitute his former ‘Friderikus’ force. Bock observes, ” . . . tonight, I have given orders aimed at completely sealing off the Izyum bulge. Now everything will turn out well after all!”

On 21 May the Germans began to transfer 23rd and 3rd Panzer Divisions from Kharkov to deliver an attack from the Andreevka region against Chervonyi Donets and link up with Group Kleist. At the same time, having concentrated two Panzer divisions (14th and 16th), one motorised division (60th) and two infantry divisions (389th and 384th) in the Petrovskaia, Krasnyi Liman and Novonikolaevka region, the Germans attacked powerfully to the north. By the close of the day, German infantry and tanks had succeeded in seizing Marevka and joined battle for Protopopovka. 6th Army units repelled German attempts to penetrate to Dmitrievka and Katerinovka.

On 22 May the enemy delivered his main attacks – to the north against Chepel using formations from Group Kleist and to the south from the Chuguev salient employing units of 23rd and 3rd Panzer Divisions – in order to link up with Group Kleist so that both of these groups would reach the lines of communication of our forces operating in the Barvenkovo salient. Having concentrated up to 230 tanks of 14th and 16th Panzer Divisions in the Protopopovka and Zagorodnoe region on the night of 22 May, the Germans renewed their offensive on the morning of 22 May in the general direction of Chepel and Volobuevka. By the close of the day, having penetrated deeply into our forces, the Germans reached a front running from Chepel through Volobuevka, Gusarovka, Shevelevka, Aseevka, Novopavlovka, Zapolnyi and Krasnaia Balka to Marevka.

A German account cryptically recorded the day’s actions and correctly identified the perilous consequences for Timoshenko’s command:

‘In co-operation with the Panzer companies of Combat Group Sieckenius, the Bereka River was crossed. Soviet armoured thrusts were successfully repulsed. In the afternoon of 22 May, 14th Panzer Division reached Bayrak [south of Balakleia] on the northern Donets bend.

‘This was the turning point. For across the river, on the far bank, were the spearheads of Sixth Army – companies of the Viennese 44th Infantry Division, the “Hock-und-Deutschmeister”. With this link-up, the Izyum bulge was pierced and Timoshenko’s armies, which had driven on far westward, were cut off. The pocket was closed.

Too late did Timoshenko realise his danger. He had not expected this kind of reply to his offensive. Now he had no choice but to call off his promising advance to the west, turn his divisions about, and attempt to break out of the pocket in an easterly direction, with reversed fronts. Would the thin German sides of the pocket stand up to such an attempt? The decisive phase of the battle was beginning.’

On 23 and 24 May, fierce battles continued in the Barvenkovo bridgehead. The German command strove to widen the corridor which cut off Soviet forces operating in the Barvenkovo salient from the crossings over the Northern Donets River.

What the German command had to do was clear. The only question remaining on 23 May was, ‘Could they do it?’ Again, a German source recounts the German command’s challenge:

‘Colonel-General von Kleist was faced with the task of making his encircling front strong enough to resist both the Soviet breakout attempts from the west and their relief attempts mounted across the Donets from the east. Once more it was a race against time. With brilliant tactical skill, General von Mackensen grouped all infantry and motorised divisions under his command like a fan around the axis of 14th Panzer Division. The 16th Panzer Division was first wheeled west and then moved north towards Andreyevka on the Donets. The 60th Motorised Infantry Division, the 389th Infantry Division, the 384th Infantry Division and the 100th Light Infantry Division fanned out toward the west and formed the pocket front against Timoshenko’s armies as they flooded back east.

‘In the centre, like a spider in its web, was Gen Lanz’s 1st Mountain Division; it had been detached from the front by von Mackensen to be available as a fire brigade.

This precaution finally decided the battle. For Timoshenko’s army commanders were driving their divisions against the German pocket front with ferocious determination. They concentrated their efforts in an attempt to punch a hole into the German front, regardless of the cost, in order to save themselves by reaching the Donets front only 25 miles away.’

It fought at Stalingrad with XI. A. K. Encircled along with all the rest of 6. Armee, it was wiped out in January 1943. Its commanding officer, Generalmajor Günther Angern, committed suicide on 2 February.

In March 1943, a second 16. Pz. Div. was formed in France in the Vitré-Mayenne-Laval sector from the remnants of the division reinforced by verst. Gren. Rgt. (mot.) 890. It was dispatched to Italy in the Taranto sector (June 1943) then placed in the reserve in the Sienna sector until September. It later moved on to the Salerno sector just before the American landing in Sicily. It took the brunt of the American attack, inflicting heavy losses on the attackers, meanwhile losing two thirds of its own strength during the fighting. The division continued to fight to the north of Naples until the end of the year 1943, when it set off for the southern sector of the Eastern front. It arrived in the Bobruisk sector in December 1943 and took part in the defensive battles in the Parichi area. It was involved in the counter-thrust west of Kiev, a battle in which it was severely tested. It then retreated to the Baranov sector on the Vistula. During the summer of 1944, it fell back across Poland. In October, it was stationed at Kielce where it was reformed. In January, it was sent back to the Baranov sector where it fought hard until it was pushed back to Lauban (March 1945) then Pilsen (Plzen) and Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary) (April 1945). It was then assigned to LIX. A. K. (1. Pz. Armee, Army Group “Mitte”), by which time it was down to the size of a Kampfgruppe. One part of this Kampf gruppe surrendered to the Russians, the other to the Americans…

From 1941 to 1945, 16. Pz. Div. produced 33 Knights of the Iron Cross (including 10 from Pz. Rgt. 2), 3 with Oak Leaves and one with Swords (Dietrich von Müller, divisional commander, on 20 February 1945, n° 134).

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Merkur

A Junkers Ju 52 3mg4e moving supplies in preparation for Operation Mercury [Merkur ].

The most eminent weakness during the preparation of Merkur was the misjudgment of the numerical strength and the combat value of the forces mustered for the island’s defense. The occupation of the island by the 14th British Brigade and some air-defence units immediately after the begin of Italy’s attack against Greece had clearly been recognized by the Germans. Approximate figures for the forces of the British expeditionary corps which had been evacuated from the Greek mainland, also existed although it remained unclear how many of its troops were on Crete. It was also known that the soldiers of the expeditionary corps had left all of their heavy weapons behind on the Greek mainland. The transports, which in the first two weeks of May had entered Souda Bay and had departed again, had been estimated to be involved in the continuation of the evacuation process. In particular Generaloberst Löhr, the overall commander for Merkur and his chief of staff, Generalmajor Korten, had rated the strength of the Commonwealth troops on Crete as low. They had been strengthened in their perception by an appreciation of the situation by Admiral Canaris for the higher commands in Athens in early May, which had stated that the majority of Commonwealth troops had already left Crete and that the Cretan authorities were awaiting the Germans, in order to disarm the remainder should these not have left the island by then.

The essential reason for the erroneous estimate of the enemy situation on Crete has to be seen in the incapability of the German air reconnaissance to lift the veil on the dispositions of the defenders. During the preparation phase of the German attack, these had executed their movements almost exclusively in the hours of darkness, had masterly camouflaged their positions and had restricted the fire of air-defence guns at the airfields to but a few guns. It was first of all the insufficient performance of the air reconnaissance for all of the main initial objectives of the parachute force that an inaccurate picture of the enemy was generated there. Student seems to have relied on this information as he did not urge Luftflotte 4 to intensified air reconnaissance efforts. For Heraklion and Rethymnon, despite his negative experience from the landings around Den Haag in the previous year, this incorrect picture evidently let him accept the direct parachute assault option against the airfields. The losses were therefore considered acceptable compared to the anticipated achievements. The situation was quite different for the drop zones south-east of Maleme and the heights at Galatas. Here air reconnaissance had almost completely failed to detect the extensive and densely occupied positions of the enemy, into which III./SturmRgt. and the majority of III./FschJgRgt.3 were dropped with disastrous results.

At the end of this examination it should, however, not remain unnoticed that the air-reconnaissance may not always have been flown with the highest degree of determination. Serving as justification for this position are the facts that only four reconnaissance aircraft had been lost during the preparation for and execution of Merkur and that the direction of withdrawal of the main force of the enemy had remained undetected for almost three days.

Almost all studies about the battle for Crete rightfully comment on the extraordinarily high losses of the German parachute force. After correction of the by far exaggerated data in the initial documentation of the former enemy, based on a year-long elucidation by the Bund Deutscher Fallschirmjäger, it is now possible to state with a high degree of certainty that 3,162 soldiers of the German parachute force lost their lives in the battle for Crete. About 2-300 probably died additionally of their wounds in medical installations after their evacuation to the Greek mainland.

In the German military-historical literature, the valuation of these losses, depending on the intention pursued by the publication, ranges from the certainly wrong statement that they have caused the decline of the Fallschirmtruppe in its role as desired by Student to the rather precarious reflection, measured only by the overall losses of the enemy and the results of undertaking Merkur. Most of these examinations have their merits, adding pieces to the overall mosaic and thereby contributing to the final verification of the fatal losses among the German paratroopers. Regarding the magnitude of these, none, however, has actually come to the conclusion that reliance on incomplete and faulty intelligence as to the strength, morale and dispositions of the enemy, paired with an overassessment of the own fighting abilities and a certain amount of recklessness of the commanding officers for Maleme, Heraklion and Rethymnon had resulted in operation plans whereby about one third of the initially assaulting forces were dropped over areas with exceptionally strong defences. The parachuting of the two companies of FschJgRgt 2 and of parts of FschSanAbt 7 west of the Platanias on 21 May has to be added to this mistake. None of the more story-telling German descriptions of undertaking Merkur has also explained, how ignorance or disregard of the command principles for the attack, as laid down in number 323 of the then valid doctrinal Field Manual H.Dv. 300/1 – Truppenführung, which also applied for the use of parachute forces after landing, led to the dividing of the troops for the simultaneous seizure of two objectives at Heraklion and Rethymnon and the removal of almost one-third of the attacking force at Maleme from the direct influence of the task force commander. The most appalling effect of the deficiencies and faults during the planning and execution of the initial parachute assaults, therefore, was the loss of between 1,200 and 1,400 soldiers of the parachute force on landing without any tactical achievement. These numbers alone constitute a marked difference to the overall losses of 1,133 men in the reinforced 5.Gebirgs-Division – 321 killed, 324 missing (most of them at sea) and 488 wounded.

Student’s decision to employ Sturmgruppen Altmann and Genz for the neutralization of enemy air-defence positions outside the operation area of Kräftegruppe Heidrich proved to be rather pointless. As these groups had to come down in enemy-occupied terrain and, unlike Sturmgruppen Braun and von Plessen, were not backed up or relieved by paratroopers landing straight after them close by, they stood little chance of survival. Why these first-rate shock troops had not been used to initiate the assault against the heights at Galatas or to take out the air-defence weapons around the airfield at Heraklion and thus fulfil the same role as Sturmgruppen Braun and von Plessen at the airfield at Maleme, remains a mystery which can only be seen in conjunction with Student’s inappropriate ‘oil drop tactics’. It cannot be completely excluded, however, that Student, with the employment of Sturmgruppen Altmann and Genz, had yielded to an explicit request from VIII.Flieger-Korps, which had been worried about the heavy air-defence batteries around Souda Bay. There is, however, no doubt at all that the use of ‘oil drop tactics’ in an area where almost nothing was known about the enemy and which led to the annihilation of Kampfgruppe Mürbe, was the fault of General Student.

General Student’s decision to employ all parachute troops, who on 21 May could be gathered in the area around Athens, together with the SturmRgt. for the seizure of the airfield at Maleme, was his only viable option in the light of his picture of the general situation on Crete in the night 20/21 May. To rush all the paratroopers who had been left behind to Heraklion for the seizure of its airfield would have had little chances of success, as the division of the forces against two objectives and the disaster for the reinforced II./FschJgRgt.1 on 20 May had left Kräftegruppe Bräuer with but one parachute infantry battalion opposite the heavily-defended airfield.

However it was not Student’s decision to place the main effort on Maleme which deserves to be accentuated, but rather the courage and the leadership qualities of subordinate commanders, particularly those of Oberst Ramcke and Generalmajor Conrad. The unbroken aggressiveness of the leaders and soldiers of the reinforced SturmRgt. was fundamental to the success of Student’s decision. Despite heavy losses on 20 May the Regiment had wrested the western side of the airfield and the foot of Hill 107 from the enemy and had persistently continued to attack or to hold out in isolated positions. Nowhere on Crete was the education of the men of the parachute force for independent, determined action according to the intention of their superior leaders expressed stronger than during the fighting for Hill 107 and the airfield at Maleme. Nowhere, too, was the superiority of the German command principle “Führen mit Auftrag” (mission-oriented command and control) over the command method of the defenders, which was based on the continuous steering of all activities through the chain of command, more evident than at Maleme. Accustomed to hold fast on existing orders until the arrival of new ones, the commanders of the 5th (NZ) Brigade between Maleme and Platanias on 20 and 21 May had waited to see whether their proposals for further actions would be transposed into orders by headquarters. Always one step behind actual events, neither Brigadier Puttick nor Major General Freyberg were able to act in time. The absence of a counterattack from all units of the 5th (NZ) Brigade in the early morning of 21 May, independent of its outcome, should be regarded as the decisive failure of the superior commenders of CREFORCE in the battle for Crete, despite the gallantry of the troops.

The argument that the entire length of the northern coast of Crete had continued to make the protection against German sea-landings necessary even after the situation around Maleme had become critical appears unconvincing as a justification for the hesitant and piece-meal reaction of the commanders affected. During the preparation of the Germans for Merkur, Middle East Command had been very well aware of the more than meager possibilities of the enemy to conduct a sea landing on Crete in the face of the presence of the British Mediterranean Fleet, all the more, as support by strong naval forces of the Italians could be discounted. The efforts of the command of Admiral Süd-Ost prior to the start of Merkur to put together sea transport forces from the few suitable Greek ships certainly had not escaped the Allied intelligence services. Admiral Cunningham could plan on the basis that the slow German sea transports would also have to sail in the hours of darkness. However during this time they could be attacked by his naval units without the threat of interference by the Luftwaffe. He had directed his forces accordingly. Yet Freyberg had not totally relied on the capabilities of the British Mediterranean Fleet or had not been convinced of them in time. As a consequence he had ordered cover of the entire coastal strip between Maleme and the entrance into Souda Bay against sea landings. This order was strictly adhered to even after 20 May and after the attempt of a German seaborne-landing had already been repulsed. As is now understood, this attitude contributed to the failure of the last chance to turn the tables at Maleme. It should, however, not escape the reader’s attention that Major General Freyberg’s plans for defending Crete did include the British Mediterranean Fleet, as he had deployed no troops to the eastern area of the island as it was to be be protected by naval assets. It was here where Italian forces from Rhodes landed in considerable strength after they had skillfully utilized the protective umbrella of their own and German air forces.

The 33rd Waffen-Grenadier-Division of the SS Charlemagne (French No.1)

Henri Kreis. Former head of the PAK section of the Sturmbrigade in Galicia and Kriegkommandant of Radomyśl village, where he was seriously injured when fighting a T34 tank. Once recovered, he became an instructor at the SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Schule at Kienschlag. In March 1945 he commanded a reinforcement battalion at Wildflecken, as the division itself had already left for Pomerania. Attached to the 38th Nibelungen Division, he fought against the Americans in Bavaria with the rank of an Obersturmführer, although in this photograph he is still only an Unterscharführer. (DR)

Prisoners of the Charlemagne Division who were executed on 8 May 1945 at Karlstein by their fellow Frenchmen from the 2nd Armoured Division, commanded by General Leclerc, in American uniform and under orders from Paris. In the foreground from left to right are Waffen-Unterscharführer Jean Robert, then Waffen-Obersturmführer Serge Krotoff (of 2nd Bataillon, 57th Regiment), Paul Briffaut in army uniform and Waffen-Untersturmführer Raymond Daffas. The divisional archives had previously been piled onto trucks and destroyed in late April by the Bavarian peasant with whom they had been hidden, as a result of the American advance.

In the spring of 1944 a command was issued from the OKW to transfer all foreigners serving in the German Army to the Waffen SS. The attack against Hitler on 20 July accelerated this movement, particularly concerning the French. German high command decided to regroup the volunteers into a new SS French brigade, under the command of Colonel Edgard Puaud. The SS-Hauptamt [the administrative office of the SS] decided to bring the 638 French infantry regiment back from Russia. It was disbanded on 10 August 1944 and its members transferred to the Waffen SS. The LVF headquarters at Greifenberg now became the new brigade’s headquarters as well as the Französische SS-Grenadier Ausbildungs und Ersatz-Bataillon (French SS Grenadier training and reserve Battalion), commanded by SS-Obersturmbannführer Heinrich Hersche who had arrived from Sennheim. The Sturmbrigade, whose 1st Battalion had proved itself so valiantly in Galicia, arrived on 5 September and joined 2nd Battalion for training at the ‘West-Prussian’ SS-Trüppenbüngsplatz. Alongside them, 2,000-2,100 political soldiers were finishing their basic training there, under the command of SS-Oberstumbannführer Paul Gamory-Dubourdeau. In addition there were also men from the SS-Französische Flakbaterrie, who had not joined the Sturmbrigade in the fighting in Poland, 1,000-1,200 sailors from the Kriegsmarine and Kriegsmarinewerftpolizei who had landed at Greifenberg in mid-September, and around 2,000 men who were involved in the Schutzcommando and Todt Organisation, the NSKK, the Speer Legion and the Technische Nothilfe, which was part of the German Police. There were also other general German paramilitary units, although some had remained at their original training grounds with the permission of their leaders.

Two regiments were formed, with two battalions each comprised of four companies. The 57th Regiment was predominantly composed of former members of the Sturmbrigade, on the orders of Paul Gamory-Dubourdeau. The 58th Regiment was headed by Commander Eugéne Bridoux and contained the ex-Legionnaires. Either for religious reasons (the perceived paganism of the SS), years of combat fatigue, or because they felt the war was definitively lost, a few dozen men categorically refused to be transferred. Taking advantage of this opportunity to start on a clean slate, a purge took place removing 180 of these ‘undesirables’. In order to learn the fighting methods of the SS, a number of LVF officers and soldiers were sent on training courses. During their absence, the brigade left its quarters and headed for the SS-Truppenübungsplatz at Wildflecken. On 5 November, part of the French state militia had to withdraw from Germany and found itself also being incorporated into the brigade. During the winter of 1944-45, the Waffen-Grenadier (no longer the SS-Grenadier as those of the Sturmbrigade had been called) had to endure particularly harsh training as a result of the snow, the freezing temperatures, lack of equipment and clothes and poor diet. Desertions among the prestigious SS units, such as the Walloon or the Wiking divisions were very common, because their members wanted to join the fighting as soon as possible.

Given the title of ‘Division’, despite its reduced capacity (more than 7,300 men), the orders to depart for the East by train arrived on 16 February. Integrated with the 11th Army, the first men arrived on 22 February at Hammerstein in Pomerania and gathered in a nearby camp. Sent to the frontlines without any armoured support, heavy weaponry or radio equipment, and with all their assault rifles having been hijacked by another unit, the division’s casualties began to pile up. Different companies broke off to fight in isolated groups, with no communication with the rear lines as they were pushed backwards. The survivors retreated to Szczecinek and after this initial engagement, the division had lost around one third of its troops, most of whom were either wounded or evacuated. Five hundred were dead. After regrouping at Białogard, the units were merged together to form a frontline regiment with the freshest and most experienced soldiers, and a reserve regiment with a reduced combat role, due to the fatigue amongst the men. They were sent to protect the retreat of the German troops at the port of Kolberg. Once more the French faced fierce fighting trying to defend the city, forcing them to consider pulling back towards Białogard, which was still held by the Germans. Trapped on a plain south-west of the city, the 3,000 men of the reserve regiment were massacred by Soviet tanks. A few survivors were captured, while others took refuge in the nearby woods. Surrounded for days, the exhausted soldiers now had to finish their war as prisoners, having failed to cross the River Oder. Arriving in Międzyrzecz, in western Poland after a long and painful march, the men of 1st Battalion, who were the only ones left unscathed, managed to succeed in breaking the encirclement of Pomerania. The French regrouped on the outskirts of Anklam and waited for other survivors of the Division.

Stationed at Carpin, the combat units were once more reorganised and resumed their training. On 24 April SS-Brigadeführer Krukenberg, who was now in charge of the French, received a telegram from Hitler’s bunker announcing that he was to take up a new position in Berlin and must get there with a French assault battalion as quickly as possible. Having lost three vehicles en route, a French detachment arrived in Berlin, which by now was virtually surrounded by the Red Army. They were attached to the SS Nordland Division, commanded by Waffen-Haupsturmführer Henri Fenet. This division had distinguished itself in urban combat, repulsing many large-scale armoured vehicle attacks using the Panzerfaüst [German anti-tank weapon]. The very experienced French soldiers managed to officially take out sixty-two tanks as they gradually retreated to the ever-decreasing German-held zones. On the morning of 2 May, Fenet and his men finally reached Hitler’s bunker. They were hoping to find the last kernel of resistance, but instead realised that the battle was all but over. More fighting now commenced in order to avoid being taken prisoner, but one by one the men were arrested by the victorious Soviets, before resistance finally ceased at 3pm.

The remaining men who were still at the barracks at Greifenberg left and joined those at Wildflecken. Here they were divided into various units and separately retreated westwards, where some were subordinated into the 38th SS-Grenadier-Division Nibelungen. In the end, four members of the division were awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

Aufklärungs Afrika I

As with the Balkans, the North Africa theater was not an area of interest to Hitler. It was only after the disastrous mishandling of the Italian forces there and the effective destruction of the Italian 10th Army by the British that Hitler agreed to help his friend Mussolini by dispatching German forces to the beleaguered theater of war. The Germans arrived in early 1941 under the command of the legendary Erwin Rommel. Operations against the British were initiated by the end of March that year, starting a series of offensives and counteroffensives that earned the Germans and Rommel the begrudging respect of the British and have captured the popular imagination ever since. What started out as a small “blocking force” (the essentially ad hoc 5. leichte Afrika-Division) turned into a corps—the famous Deutsches Afrika Korps—that summer.

Rommel turned out to be a much more effective tactical leader on the battlefield than an operational planner. He constantly took risks, despite an extremely precarious supply situation, that frequently caused him to pause or even call off operations due to a lack of fuel and other logistical support. The German lines of communications extended across the Mediterranean, thus making the DAK the only German force to fight overseas. Despite the relatively close distance to friendly Italian ports, the waters were controlled by the British and a large percentage of materiel—including precious combat vehicles—was sent to the bottom of the sea. By October 1942, the British had the upper hand in sheer numbers and were able to force the German forces back toward Tunisia after the Second Battle of El Alamein. A few weeks later, Allied forces landed in Algeria and Morocco, causing the collapse of the Vichy forces stationed there and directly threatening the Axis forces pulling back from Egypt and Libya.

Instead of realizing that the fate of his forces in Africa was sealed, Hitler ordered more troops into the theater, expanding what had essentially been a reinforced corps into a Panzerarmee. Stalemate ensued through the winter of 1942–43, followed by local victories on the part of the Axis—most famously at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass—but the end was inevitable, and the Axis capitulated on 13 May 1943.

DOCTRINE

Fighting in the desert is often compared to naval warfare, given its vast expanses of open terrain, dotted with the occasional “island” of civilization. A narrow strip along the North African coastline was sparsely inhabited and home to most of the infrastructure, including the only improved roads, while the hinter-lands were desolate and largely uninhabited. This naturally occasioned fighting to control the coastal avenues, leaving the open desert for enveloping movements for forces to leapfrog their way forward.

The open flanks of the desert were the “homeland” of the reconnaissance forces of both sides. Since it was physically impossible to continuously man a static defensive line extending into untrafficable portions of the desert, strongpoints were established or standing patrols dispatched to serve as the “eyes and ears” of the higher-level commands. For that reason, the German reconnaissance battalions associated with the desert fighting—primarily Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot), Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 33 (mot), and Aufklärungs-Abteilung 580 (mot)—are prominently featured in histories of the campaign. It is interesting to note that these three reconnaissance battalions were often temporarily combined for operations, especially deception and economy-of-force missions. Because of the seesaw nature of the fighting, reconnaissance battalions were also used extensively as rear guards for the force whenever the German–Italian forces were pushed back. Due to their speed on the battlefield, they were also occasionally positioned behind Italian lines in an effort to provide moral support to their often wavering allies.

Since it was difficult to replace vehicles and other equipment, great value was placed on captured enemy stores and materiel. As such, the reconnaissance eventually came to have a battery of captured British guns added to its organizations. This was done unofficially—that is, through “command channels”—initially, but eventually the batteries became a KStN in their own right. That said, the forces in the desert often retained a sort of ad hoc organizational status since many of the changes that were applied to the organizations of the Panzertruppe on Continental Europe were never applied in North Africa.

FIRSTHAND ACCOUNTS

Among the first elements to be deployed in North Africa by an impatient Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel was Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot) of the 5. leichte Division. Almost as soon as they arrived by ship at Syrte on 16 February, the armored cars of the battalion, were sent forward to determine the size, location, and disposition of the enemy:

The Conquest of Cyrenaica

The first German combat forces, Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot) and Panzerjäger-Abteilung 39, arrived in Syrte on 16 February [1941]. On the same day, Generalleutnant Rommel assumed command of all German and Italian forces at the front. Deviating from his initial plan to establish a defensive line at Buerat, he proposed to the Italian High Command to employ a battle group east of Syrte, which would set up for defensive operations at En Nofilia. That formation, consisting of Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot) and an Italian battle group, had the mission of fending off small-scale attacks and, in the event of heavier attacks or the danger of being bypassed, to fall back to the positions at Syrte. In order to feign larger forces, dummy tanks were constructed.

Aerial reconnaissance reported concentrations of British formations on 18 February between El Agheila and Agedabia. En Nofilia was clear of enemy forces. At that point, the battle group was pushed further to the east and was able to take the important but salt-laden well there. Two days later, there was the first contact with the enemy. Armored scout sections from Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot) encountered British armored reconnaissance elements. At that point, Rommel wanted to know what forces were facing him. [The reconnaissance battalion] received orders to bring in prisoners. On 25 February—some sources state 24 February—armored reconnaissance sections ran into two combat vehicle sections of the King’s Dragoon Guards and a section of Australian antitank forces. Wechmar’s troops opened fire, destroying an armored vehicle, two small armored cars and a truck. Lieutenant Rowley of the Australian 6th Division and two soldiers from the Dragoons were captured with no friendly casualties.

The Armed Forces Daily Report of 26 February 1941 stated:

“During the morning hours of 24 February, a German and an English motorized scout section encountered one another along the Libyan coast southeast of Agedabia. A number of English motorized vehicles, including several armored cars, were destroyed and a few prisoners taken. There were no losses on the German side.”

This was the first mention of German forces being deployed on the African continent. Considering the important role reconnaissance forces played there, it is fitting that they were also the first combat elements mentioned. A reconnaissance officer, Hellmuth Schroetter, who was with the battalion from the beginning until the Second Battle of El Alamein, captured his impressions of that first meeting engagement:

In the vicinity of the Arco, the first contact took place between German and English forces on 20 February 1941. [This date is probably a typographical error in the German edition.] A battle group formed from motorcycle infantry and several armored scout sections had advanced east of the Arco without making enemy contact.

One of the armored scout sections received the mission to reconnoiter as far as the bottleneck at El Mugtaa, almost 70 kilometers east of the Arco. It was around 1500 hours and the section leader was contemplating turning around, when he suddenly thought he saw movement on the horizon. He then decided to take a closer look at the presumed enemy.

The same decision was reached by an armored scout section of the King’s Dragoon Guards, which had been employed west of El Agheila, when it thought it saw several fighting vehicles. And so it came to pass—a strange and stubborn “movement towards one another” with an armored car from each side on the Via Balbia [the improved coastal road that was of vital importance to both sides during the campaign] and a wingman following to either the left or right of the road. The enemy armored cars, weapons blazing, rolled past one another.

There was a quick turning around and, once again, they rolled towards each other. Both parties were determined to reach “his side” by force of arms. Afterwards, they took off in a flash towards their respective lines.

From a respectful distance behind a sand dune—only the turret jutted out over the top of the dune towards the enemy—both of the section leaders reported the strange enemy contact to their battalions, once their nerves had calmed down.

The German section leader thought to himself: Why wasn’t there any effect on the enemy from the 20mm ammunition? The hits were clearly seen because of the tracer elements. It was later determined that high-explosive ammunition had been loaded, and it simply shattered upon impact. The 20mm antitank rounds—solid shot, which would have penetrated the armor—had not been issued, since they were not considered “suitable for the desert.”

For his part, according to English sources, the section leader from the King’s Dragoon Guards thought he had seen 8-wheeled armored vehicles and Balkenkreuze.

My God! The Englishman thought. Those aren’t Italians, those are Germans! His superiors did not believe his observations, however.

On the German side, there was a quick reaction. General Rommel appeared at the location of Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot) and issued orders:

• Increased reconnaissance in the direction of El Agheila.

• Advance of the main body of the [battalion] beyond the Arco and as far as the roadhouse (a building located on the Via Balbia).

• Reconnaissance from there to the east and to the south.

Over the next few days, reinforced armored scout sections advanced further to the east, destroyed enemy armored cars and took prisoners.

Schroetter was part of that first encounter only after he had first been sent out into the desert with his motorcycle infantry to acclimate themselves:

As the platoon leader of a motorcycle infantry platoon, I received the mission . . . to reconnoiter 50 kilometers into the desert to the south/southeast. Our hearts were beating in our throats. We were directed to go out into the desert by ourselves for the first time. It was all so very strange to us still, and it appeared to offer little in the way of orienting us . . .

. . . An unending expanse and a flat surface tempted us to go fast. But caution was required, since the small runnels formed during the rainy period dried out later on in the sun and became rock hard. They gave short jabs to the chassis and posed a danger to the shocks and springs. We made our first few unpleasant discoveries and drove more slowly: It was at the slower tempo that we reached our objective, a certain “nothing” in the desert, 50 kilometers south/southeast of the battalion. We did not encounter the enemy. There weren’t even any wheel tracks, which might have indicated the presence of English vehicles.

By March, Schroetter and his men also participated in the first few engagements with the British that are generally recorded in histories of the campaign, the fighting around El Agheila, Marsa el Brega, and Agedabia:

After the desert fort of El Agheila had fallen into German hands on 24 March 1941, the motorcycle infantry company of Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot) assumed the screening mission there. The armored scout sections were sent in the direction of Agedabia and into the desert to the south to reconnoiter.

During that time, Panzer-Regiment 5 moved past us: Armored scout sections had reported enemy forces at Marsa el Brega.

There was no longer any talk of a “Blocking Formation,” as the 5. leichte Division had been referred to when it was sent to North Africa. Our small formation, the 5. Leichte Division, now received its honorable nickname: “Die 5. Leichtsinnige Division” (The 5th Foolhardy Division).

Aufklärungs Afrika II

The increasing resistance of English armored formations at Marsa el Brega was broken on 1 April by the attacks of the 5. Leichte Division. The Marsa el Brega area was a bottleneck, extending 13 kilometers between the dunes arrayed along the sea and the salt seas [to the south] that were difficult to negotiate by heavy vehicles. While Panzer-Regiment 5, supported by MG-Bataillone 2 and 8, advanced further along either side of the Via Balbia, our armored scout sections chased away English patrols along the sea and in the dunes. The motorcycle infantry company of [the battalion] was employed in the area between the sea and the Via Balbia. Widely dispersed, we went on the hunt across the largely dry salt seas and engaged English pockets of resistance. Generally, the resistance was slight. The English infantry mounted up on trucks that had been prepositioned and pulled back to Agedabia. A few English trucks got bogged down in the salt flats in the process; the mounted infantry was captured . . .

After his initial period of acclimation, Schroetter describes the routine of reconnaissance in the desert:

After their defeat in June 1941, the English pulled way back into Egypt. There was only a screen of armored reconnaissance sections left behind to observe.

For their part, the Germans also positioned armored scout sections to screen along the Egyptian-Libyan border. The two reconnaissance battalions, Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 and Aufklärungs-Abteilung 33, swapped out their scout sections arrayed in front of the strong-points every 14 days.

The following areas were designated as observation points: Point Bir Nuh; Point 205 (Sidi Suleiman); Point 204; and Point 200 (Fort Sidi Omar)

The armored reconnaissance sections were assigned one of those points, from which they had to conduct constant surveillance to their front. Small raids were allowed, but the mission dictated that the sections were not to allow themselves to be driven from their assigned points: Observe a lot; if necessary, fight; withdraw quickly and agilely, so as to show up in the flanks or rear at some other point. The “standing patrols” were required to be able to give information concerning the situation to their front at any time.

During that period—the beginning of September 1941—I was transferred to the 2nd Company, the armored car company [of the battalion]. I took over a light armored scout section. It consisted of three light armored cars, each weighing 4 tons. Two vehicles were outfitted with a 20mm automatic cannon and a machine gun; the third vehicle, a radio car, had the necessary radio equipment (40-watt transmitter) and a machine gun. All of the vehicles had all-wheel drive, with the front axle capable of being disengaged. All four wheels could also be engaged for turning.

So equipped, the scouting section was very agile and capable of cross-country movement. It was also extremely fast. In soldier jargon, they were like rabbits: The vehicles were too fast up front and too short in the rear to be knocked out. As a result of the low silhouette, the vehicles “disappeared” in the landscape; they were especially difficult to make out at long range.

The crew in the vehicle with the 20mm cannon consisted of the vehicle commander (also the patrol leader in the first vehicle), a gunner and a driver. In the radio vehicle, the crew was a vehicle commander, a radio operator and a driver. The vehicle commander also serviced the weapon.

When the missions were assigned, my section was given Point 205, the house ruins at Sidi Suleiman. As far as Capuzzo and around Sollum, I knew the terrain well from my previous operations. Nonetheless . . . what could I expect there?

I was being employed for the first time as the leader of an armored scout section. As the leader of a motorcycle infantry platoon, I was always connected to the company. Now I was on my own and responsible for an additional eight soldiers, whose well-being was dependent on my actions.

I reported to the commander and departed, moving along the Via Balbia in the direction of Capuzzo, the desert fort that had been so hotly contested. From there, we went in the direction of Sidi Suleiman, our objective.

Sidi Suleiman, a set of house ruins on top of a jutting piece of high ground, was a distinctive terrain feature. When there was good visibility, you could see from Hill 205 far out into the descending plain to the high ground almost 10 kilometers distant. The English scout sections were positioned there.

The lead of the scout section being relieved briefed me on the situation. There wasn’t much to be identified in the midday air that glimmered in the heat.

The English were on the high ground to the east and reconnoitered in the morning and the evening into the plains below. My predecessor recommended I do the same. He then disappeared to the west with his armored scout section, wrapped in a cloud of dust.

I checked out the immediate environment. We followed the tracks made by my predecessor. They provided information about his activities. In the light of the setting sun—it was to my back—I saw the clouds of dust being churned up by the vehicles of my English “colleague.”

I ventured towards him, somewhat cautiously, since I still did not know the terrain.

At a distance of about two or three kilometers—not a great distance for Africa—we faced each other. The English armored cars could be made out quite clearly in the evening sun. They were vehicles of a type we had not yet encountered.

We observed one another, the vehicles widely dispersed.

But what was the man in the vehicle in the middle doing? It was most likely the section leader. All of a sudden, the Englishman stood up on his vehicle and waved to us. Those English were sure polite. Standing on my vehicle, I also waved a friendly “good night” to him. A few artillery rounds impacting in the vicinity soon brought us back to reality. As night descended, we each pulled back to our respective high ground, one to the east and the other to the west.

We set out outposts around Sidi Suleiman and transitioned to nighttime rest. The stillness of the desert spread out before us. Not a sound was to be heard. The pale moon weakly illuminated the terrain in front of us.

At first light—it was around 0550 hours—we crawled out from under our blankets. The vehicles had to be warmed up. There was nothing to be seen of our Englishmen. We searched the horizon in vain for them. It wasn’t until around 0700 hours that we caught a glimpse of them on the eastern heights.

You could tell which scout section it was by the way they deployed. The one section leader kept two vehicles close together and positioned the third one somewhat off to the side. The other leader had his vehicles dispersed at exact intervals from one another. A third one kept two vehicles up front and the third one somewhat to the rear. Each of those sections received a corresponding nickname from us.

In the glimmering morning sun, which put me to a great disadvantage when observing to the east, we met in the plain. Once again, the Englishman stood on his vehicle and waved a friendly “good morning” to me. I replied in kind. Once again, there were artillery rounds in the vicinity, followed by a withdrawal by both sides to their respective high ground.

In the heat of the day, observation was very limited by the glimmering air. It took a trained scout’s eye to make out the three enemy armored cars in the mirage. The camel thorn bushes, which had taken on the appearance of “woods,” had three thin fir trees spiking out of them.

All of a sudden, an artillery round landed in Sidi Suleiman. Thank God we had always avoided that distinct feature during the day.

But who was that single round intended for? It was a single round . . . nothing followed. By chance, I looked at my watch. It was exactly 1200 hours, noon . . .

We couldn’t figure it out. From that time forward, we received that single round every day at the same time.

It goes without saying that the English took pains to prevent our forces from getting a glimpse into the area south and east of the general lines they occupied. As a result, our scout sections were frequently faced by three or more English patrols. As already described, the English often employed forward observers to direct the artillery employed behind the reconnaissance veil. Whenever reinforced patrols of the Germans advanced, the line of English scout sections would pull back like a wire screen. The enemy would then defend with artillery fire and self-propelled antitank guns, which were attached to the (English) scouts. They were also supported by low-level attacks by English fighters.

My first 14 days at the front as the leader of an armored scout section came to an end. It had been marked by mutual suspicion and lurking, by morning and evening “greetings” to one another that we both participated in and by the noontime impact of a single round on Sidi Suleiman.

Unlike the European theater, scouting sections frequently conducted operations at night:

Late in the afternoon of 17 December [1941], we were positioned with three scout sections in an area marked by high plateaus, deep defiles and flat wadis. It was an extremely broken piece of terrain in the area around Signali, south of Derna.

Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot) had the mission to occupy a new position far to the west in the vicinity of Mechili. A battle group left behind by the Battalion Commander had withdrawn from its delay position and was on the march in that direction. Widely dispersed, only our armored scout sections were holding the position. All around us, we identified advancing English vehicles. Truck columns, increasing in number, advanced in our direction. It was a sign that the enemy was feeling confident. We were already in danger of being bypassed when the order to withdraw reached us around 1700 hours. It was both a surprise and a relief. We assembled and moved out to the west through a wadi. The three armored scout sections had a total of nine 4-wheeled armored cars. Moving along the Tregh Enver Bey, we reached a plain around evening that offered good visibility.

As the evening sun was setting, we suddenly saw a column of English vehicles, tanks and artillery, crossing our path ahead of us. They were moving from south to north.

At first, we hoped that they were captured vehicles, but a radio inquiry to battalion revealed that we had English in front of us!

We debated what we should do. Should we wait until the enemy formation had moved further north? But it did not appear to be continuing its march. We could also see that additional units were closing in. We thus decided to wait until it was night and then attempt to break through. We observed the enemy formation, which had halted in the meantime. Around 2200 hours—the moon had not yet risen—we started to move out, one scout vehicle behind the other, nose to tail, in an effort not to lose contact with one another. We tensely paid attention to the vehicle in front of us. On the first vehicle, I was positioned on the fender in order to give the direction and direct the driver. On the other fender was my radio operator, who was supposed to reply to any challenges by English guards.

In the course of that night march—the drivers could hardly see their hands in front of their faces—the vehicles had to tolerate a lot. They bounced over gravel and piles of rocks. The drivers had to hold the steering wheels firmly in their hands. The commanders of the individual vehicles observed the route and the terrain from their turrets.

“A little more to the left . . . a little bit more . . . now some to the right . . . now straight . . . slow . . . just a tad left . . .”

So went the night.

We slowly snuck up to the resting English column. We saw the first few tanks and trucks in front of us. A guard called out to us. The answer my radio operator gave appeared to satisfy him. They didn’t appear to think there were any German soldiers in this area.

We got through the first “enemy contact” successfully. But we were still worried: Did everyone make it? Did a vehicle lose contact?

We were surprised that there was no enemy resistance. Didn’t the English realize what was happening? A column of armored vehicles certainly had to stand out! They seemed to feel safe, and the darkness of the night helped us on the one hand not to be discovered, even if it made life difficult for us on the other. We carefully and slowly pushed our way through the English vehicles that were all around us. We passed by the small tents that had been set up for the sleeping crews and went by artillery pieces, tanks, trucks and antitank guns. It wouldn’t be too long, it seemed. The massing of the vehicles was decreasing. We approached the outer edge of the English march column. None of the English guards had heretofore expressed any suspicions. It was not until the last vehicle of our column had left the English formation and was headed west, when one of the guards had second thoughts and fired a signal flare in our direction so as to better see who was “taking a Sunday drive.” We had reached the open desert by then and disappeared into the night, when some rounds were fired in our direction.

All alone on the battlefield, the scout sections often charted their own destiny. Initiative, confidence, and tactical ability were all in great demand when separated by great distances from the main body of friendly forces or defensive lines:

We soon encountered English patrols in that terrain, terrain that practically invited you to play a game of “Cat and Mouse.” The fact that they were there was determined from the vehicle tracks.

As a scout section leader, who had participated in uninterrupted operations for several months, you not only got a sense for terrain but for tracks. The depth, to which the tires of the vehicles had pressed into the ground, the degree of blowover from the sand and the direction of the tread of the tires told us who, when and in which direction the tracks had been left. The tracks we saw came from English armored cars that had to have passed through there that morning. We needed to be careful! The English could still be nearby.

Soon we were receiving enemy machine-gun fire from a dschebel [hill, derived from the Arabic] in front of us. Seeking cover behind another plateau, we tried, for our part, to get behind the English. The hunt on the plateaus had started. Sometimes, we suddenly saw the enemy in front of us. He appeared to be lurking for us around a corner. Other times, he was suddenly to our rear. We chased each other around the plateaus, engines racing and constantly being on alert. But neither party could deliver a decisive blow, even though a few machine-gun rounds ricocheted off the armor of my armored car.

Our mission required that we shake off the English. They lost sight of us.

Hilfskreuzer 33 Breakout Part I

Hilfskreuzer 33 (Auxiliary Cruiser / Raider) – Pinquin

Käpitan-zur-See Ernst-Felix Krüder

The sinking of HMS Andania by the patrolling submarine U-A was assumed by the Admiralty to be a deliberate diversionary action to cover the breakout of another German auxiliary cruiser. Three of these, Atlantis, Widder and Thor, all converted merchantmen, had already escaped into the Atlantic. While the Admirals may have been wrong in the interpretation they put on U-A’s actions, they were right in assuming another raider was about to emerge.

As the Andania slipped beneath the waves off Iceland at dawn on 16 June 1940, a thousand miles to the south-east, in the Gulf of Danzig, the sun was well above the horizon and giving the promise of a fine, warm day to come. Swinging to an anchor in a quiet reach of the gulf close to the South Middle Bank, the German cargo liner Kandelfels was in the final stages of her metamorphosis from harmless merchantman to ship of war. Her company livery was last to go, the smart black hull and gleaming white upperworks disappearing under a coat of sombre wartime grey.

The 7766-ton Kandelfels, built at Bremen in 1936 for Deutsche Dampschiffarts Gesellschaft, better known as the Hansa Line, had arrived in Hamburg from India on 1 September 1939, just as German troops crossed the border into Poland, signalling the start of the second European bloodbath in the space of twenty-five years. As soon as the last sling of cargo from the East was winched up from the Kandelfels’ holds, she was requisitioned by the German Navy.

A modern, twin-screw ship with a service speed of 17 knots and a low silhouette, the Kandelfels was ideally suited for recruitment to the Kriegsmarine’s elite squadron of Hilfskreuzers (auxiliary cruisers) soon to be unleashed on Allied merchant shipping in the distant oceans beyond the reach of the U-boats. Unlike the highly vulnerable British AMCs, stop-gap ships used for patrol and convoy escort work, the role of the Hilfskreuzers – there would be nine in all – was predatory. Fast and heavily armed, they would emulate the buccaneers of old, hiding in the shadows out of reach of the enemy’s warships and aircraft, picking off victims wherever and whenever the opportunity arose.

Unfortunately, the German grand plan for the conquest of Europe was initially so successful that an adjustment of priorities was necessary. The Kriegsmarine’s ‘grey wolves’ went to the back of the queue. Conversion of the Kandelfels from merchant ship to auxiliary cruiser was originally scheduled to take three months, but, owing to more urgent demands on dockyard space and workers, it was 6 February 1940 before she emerged from the Bremen yard of Weser AG. as Hilfskreuzer 33. Outwardly, she was still a merchant ship, but behind counterweighted steel shutters, capable of being raised in two seconds, were six 5.9-inch guns. Concealed by false ventilators, watertanks or packing cases were one 75-mm, one twin 37-mm and four 20-mm guns. Similarly hidden were two twin 21-inch torpedo tubes, two 3-metre range finders, two 60-cm searchlights, and in her holds two spotter aircraft. A quick change of identity could be effected by telescoping the foremast, raising collapsible bulwarks to heighten the forecastle and raising or lowering collapsible sampson posts.

In theory HK 33 was a formidable warship, but in reality her 5.9s were 40-year-old guns taken from the obsolete pre-dreadnought battleship Schlesien, her smaller guns of similar vintage. Her scout planes, too, were obsolescent; single-engined, open-cockpit Heinkel HE 59 floatplanes, known to be notoriously unstable on the water. To ensure her future success, she was in need of a dedicated and experienced crew, men willing to take the calculated risk without too much thought for their own self-preservation. In this respect, at least, she was well blessed.

In command of HK 33 was 43-year-old Käpitan-zur-See Ernst-Felix Krüder, a slim, taciturn man, who had risen to command from the ranks – rare achievement in anyone’s navy at the time. Krüder, with twenty-five years service in the German Imperial Navy, was an expert in mine warfare and had seen action at Jutland and in the Black Sea in the First World War. Between the wars he had served in the Inspectorate of Officers’ Training and Education, where he had gained a great deal of experience in handling men. With a clear, analytical mind and the ability to improvise, Ernst-Felix Krüder was an excellent choice to take an auxiliary cruiser with a crew of 345 into the unknown. Many of that crew were naval reservists from the merchant ships; Krüder’s first lieutenant, Leutnant Erich Warning, had been Staff Captain of the North German Lloyd liner Bremen, while his navigator, Leutnant Wilhelm Michaelson, was lately in command of the 14,700-ton liner Steuben. Expertise in the way of the sea and ships Krüder’s men had in abundance, but whether they had the aggression and determination to make war remained to be seen.

It was the custom for commanders of German auxiliary cruisers to name their own ships, and when HK 33 was commissioned on 6 February 1940, in a brief ceremony on board Krüder christened her Pinguin (Penguin). It was a choice which puzzled his crew, but then, unlike their captain, they were not yet fully aware of their ship’s ultimate destiny.

Over the seven weeks that followed, the Pinguin carried out trials on the River Weser, testing her engines, exercising her guns and initiating her as yet untried crew into the strange world of a ship that was half merchantman and half warship. Any faults found in the ship and her equipment were rectified and, having taken on ammunition, coal and provisions, the Pinguin passed through the Kiel Canal into the Baltic. There, in sheltered waters away from prying eyes, Krüder drilled his gun and torpedo crews relentlessly, until they reached the peak he judged would give them a fighting chance against the best guns of the Royal Navy. At the same time mine-laying exercises were carried out and boats’ crews were sent away at every possible opportunity, so as to perfect the launching, handling and retrieval of their craft. These men would play a vital role in the Pinguin’s coming adventure.

The raider, her skills honed to perfection, returned to Kiel on 26 May for a few persistent faults in her gear to be corrected and to top up her oil, water and stores. She also took on board five live pigs, which would be fattened up on scraps from the galley during the voyage. As many crew members as possible were given shore leave, their last on German soil for many months, perhaps years, to come. She sailed on 10 June and again headed east into the Baltic, arriving in the Gulf of Danzig on the following day. She was given a berth in the naval base of Gotenhaven – as the Polish port of Gdynia had been renamed by Hitler – and worked under the cover of darkness taking on mines and torpedoes. On 17 June, anonymous in her new grey livery, the Pinguin left the Gulf of Danzig with 380 mines and 25 torpedoes in her holds. She was on her way to war.

In the early summer of 1940, although Britain stood alone and under threat of invasion, she had not lost control of the North Sea. Cruisers and destroyers of the Home Fleet constantly patrolled these waters, while the RAF kept watch overhead and submarines cruised below the surface. The primary object of these forces was to keep a lookout for an enemy invasion fleet, but any German ships venturing out into the North Sea, particularly lone merchantmen, did so at extreme peril. They could expect no help from their own navy; Germany’s capital ships remained firmly tied up in port, and her light naval forces had taken such a severe mauling at the hands of the Royal Navy in the Norwegian campaign that they could offer little protection.

The Pinguin, with all her potential to wreak havoc on the high seas, was a special case, and on the morning of the 18th she rendezvoused off Gedser, southern point of the Danish island of Lolland, with the minesweeper Sperrbrecker IV and the torpedo boats Jaguar and Falke. The latter were powerful, well-armed ships of over 900 tons. The Wolf-class Jaguar carried three 5-inch and four 37-mm guns, and the Falke, a Möwe-class boat, mounted three 4.1-inch and four 37-mm. Both carried six 21-inch torpedo tubes and had a top speed of 34 knots.

The small convoy passed through the Great Belt, the main channel between the Danish islands, in tight formation, entering the Kattegat at around 2100. At midnight, off the island of Anholt, Sperrbrecker IV left, and the Pinguin continued north at 15 knots with Jaguar and Falke keeping close company. British submarines were reported to be very active in this area and there could be no relaxing of vigilance.

The sun had already risen again when, at 0400 on the 19th, the three ships rounded the northern tip of Jutland and moved into the Skagerrak. It was a perfect early summer’s day, with a clear blue sky and a fresh easterly breeze kicking up white horses on the water. The air was clean and salt-laden, and, after the long months of preparation, the unrelenting pressures of the rigorous training programme, the crew of the raider faced the open sea eagerly, masters of their own destiny at last.

Air cover in the form of a Dornier 18 flying boat and two fighters materialized at the seaward end of the Skagerrak and remained overhead until darkness closed in again. At midnight Pinguin’s escort was reinforced by two M-class minesweepers, who brought with them a Norwegian pilot. The enlarged convoy then entered the deep-water channel behind the maze of islands that fringe the Atlantic coast of Norway. Protected by the islands, Pinguin was safe from Allied warships, but the channels, although deep, were narrow and tortuous, requiring careful navigation.

The port of Bergen was abeam to starboard at 0800 on the 20th and here Jaguar and Falke parted company, their escort duties over. The Pinguin and the two M-boats continued north, entering Sörgulen Fjord, some 50 miles north of Bergen, at 1630 that afternoon. The raider went deep into the fjord to an anchorage, while her escort remained on guard off the entrance.

Hidden from the prying eyes of enemy aircraft by the densely-wooded, steep-sided slopes of the fjord, the Pinguin took on the disguise it was hoped would see her clear of the coast and into the Atlantic. Over the next thirty-six hours, with the help of shore labour, the raider was transformed into the Russian cargo ship Petschura, port of registry Odessa, her hull black with the Soviet hammer and sickle prominent on her sides. When the work was finished, the disguise was convincing, but, should suspicions be aroused, German intelligence had established there was a real Petschura, conveniently laid up in Murmansk and unlikely to put to sea for some time.

The Pinguin left Sörgulen Fjord at 0100 on 22 June. She was now under the control of the Operations Division of the Seekriegsleitung (SKL), the German Naval Staff in Berlin. Her orders were to break out into the Atlantic through the Denmark Strait and from there to proceed south to a position off Cape Verde, where she would rendezvous with and refuel and provision Hans Cohausz’s U-A. Fresh from his success in sinking the Andania, Cohausz had already moved south to cover the approaches to Freetown, now being used as an assembly point for Allied convoys.

Having serviced U-A, Krüder’s orders were to round the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean, and there begin his campaign against Allied merchant shipping. It was anticipated that his harvest would be a rich one, for, in the absence of U-boats, the British considered the Indian Ocean to be a safe area and most merchantmen were sailing unescorted. Additionally, Krüder hoped to create further mayhem by mining the approaches to ports on the south and east coasts of Australia, and, later, the west coasts of India and Ceylon. And, as if this programme was not ambitious enough, at the end of the year the Pinguin was to sail south into the chill waters of Antarctica to attack the British and Norwegian whaling fleets. It was with this most southerly operation in mind that Krüder had named his ship.

The night was very black when the Pinguin weighed anchor and was escorted out of Sörgulen Fjord by her minesweepers. Under a heavily overcast sky with rain squalls sweeping in from the sea, the darkened raider made her way carefully down the fjord following the dimmed blue stern lights of the M-boats. Within the hour she was face to face with her first enemy of the war, the open sea. Clearing the mouth of the fjord at about 0200, she found herself heading into the teeth of a strong SW’ly wind, which rapidly increased to a full gale. Rain squalls severely restricted the visibility and, in a rising sea and swell, the ship took on an awkward corkscrewing movement. For many of her crew, having spent too long ashore or in sheltered waters, the curse of seasickness was an unwelcome visitor.

As for the ship herself, although she rolled and pitched heavily, the weather held no real dangers. The same could not be said for her escorts. M-17 and M-18 were both under 700 tons and narrow in the beam, and, while they may have been at home in the comparatively quiet waters of the Baltic, out here in the open Atlantic their seaworthiness was tested to the extreme. Plunging from crest to trough, rolling violently and shipping green water overall, the minesweepers took a severe pounding as they struggled to keep up with the bigger ship. Some 16 miles out of Sörgulen, after consultation with Krüder, they turned back and ran for shelter.

There is little complete darkness in these high latitudes in summer and by 0230 the sun was again climbing to the horizon, bringing a grey half-light to the overcast and revealing row upon row of white-topped waves marching in from the south-west. Pinguin, steering due west, had the wind and sea on the port bow, a distinct advantage, but Krüder, anxious to clear the coast before full daylight, was pushing his ship hard. With her twin 900 horsepower diesels thrusting her through the water at full revolutions, she had worked up to 15 knots, but was pounding heavily as she met the oncoming waves. Krüder feared he might soon be forced to slow down to avoid damage to his forward guns.

The decision was made for him when, just before 0300, a sharp-eyed lookout on the bridge spotted a periscope breaking the surface half a mile on Pinguin’s port bow. It was followed seconds later by the submarine’s conning tower. This looked like an accidental surfacing, for almost immediately both conning tower and periscope disappeared again in a welter of foam. Krüder sent his men to their action stations.

Prior to sailing from Sörgulen Fjord, Krüder had been assured by SKL that all German U-boats in the area had been warned to keep well clear of the Pinguin’s track. In which case, this could only be a British boat lying in wait for German blockade runners. Mindful that the Pinguin was currently disguised as the Russian Petschura, Krüder hauled around to the north, hoping to give the impression he was heading for the North Cape and Russian waters. Ignoring the weather, he rang for emergency full speed and the Pinguin, now beam-on to the seas, surged forward, rolling heavily.

Almost immediately the submarine came to the surface again and gave chase, black smoke pouring from her exhausts. She was about 2 miles astern of the Pinguin, wallowing in the heavy seas, which broke clean over her, so that from time to time she almost disappeared from view. An Aldis lamp winked from her conning tower. ‘What ship?’ Pinguin’s yeoman read from the impatient flashes. Krüder, acting out his role as a non-English speaking Russian merchant captain, ignored the signal. A few minutes later the lamp flashed again. ‘Heave to, or we open fire!’

Krüder chose to ignore the order. He had the submarine dead astern, thereby presenting the smallest possible target. Moreover, the enemy’s movements in the sea were so violent as to make her a very poor platform from which to take aim. Pinguin pressed on at full speed and the submarine began to drop astern.

The German captain’s assessment of the situation proved correct when, a few minutes later, three underwater explosions were heard. No torpedo tracks had been seen, but it was certain that the enemy sub had fired a salvo, three torpedoes either hitting the bottom or missing the Pinguin and exploding at the end of their run. And that was that. The submarine held on doggedly for another hour, but she could not match the Pinguin’s speed. She fell further and further astern until she gave up and turned away.

Assuming that the British submarine would have reported sighting a suspect enemy ship, Krüder held a north-easterly course throughout the day, running parallel to the Norwegian coast at a distance of about 70 miles. At 0843 a Heinkel 115 float plane passed low overhead, the same aircraft, or another of the same type, appearing at 2100. Pinguin was being watched over from the air, otherwise she had the sea to herself.

Hilfskreuzer 33 Breakout Part II

Krüder now had a choice of two routes in his attempt to break out into the North Atlantic. He could either take the shortest way out, passing between the Faeroes and Iceland or continue north to round Jan Mayen Island, and thence south-west through the Denmark Strait. The latter route would add something like 700 miles to the passage, but Krüder, unaware that the Faeroes Channel was temporarily unguarded following the sinking of the Andania by U-A, opted for the longer northerly route. He was also not aware that, as a direct result of the loss of the AMC, the Admiralty had ordered the cruisers Newcastle and Sussex to reinforce patrols in the Denmark Strait.

At 2300, when on the latitude of Trondheim, Krüder altered course to 320° to head for Jan Mayen. It was Midsummer’s Night, with no real darkness, and, perversely, the foul weather that had provided invaluable cover for the Pinguin since sailing now took a turn for the better. The wind dropped to a mere fresh breeze, the sea went down and the rain cleared away. The heavy overcast remained, but visibility improved dramatically. Then, early on the 23rd, the wind veered to the north-east and the sun broke through.

With no darkness to hide his ship Krüder felt dangerously exposed to his potential enemies, but he had little choice. The only course of action open to him was to make all possible speed for Jan Mayen and take cover in the fog banks normally found shrouding the island at this time of the year. Once hidden in the fog, he could then bide his time, waiting for suitable murky weather to cloak his breakout through the Denmark Strait.

Krüder was to be disappointed, for the weather beyond the Arctic Circle is as unpredictable as in any other part of the globe. As the day progressed and the Pinguin pushed north-westwards, although the wind was light and the sea a flat calm, the hoped-for fog did not materialize. The air was in fact crystal clear, so clear that at 0400 on the 24th, when it was fully light, the tip of the 7,500-ft Beerenberg, Jan Mayen’s volcanic peak, was visible at a distance of almost 100 miles.

Although Jan Mayen was said to be uninhabited, except for a Norwegian weather station, Krüder was reluctant to close the land, but he had no other alternative. Pinguin rounded the northern side of Jan Mayen at noon with all her guns’ crews stood-to and the ship in a state immediate readiness. The weather remained stubbornly fine and clear, but if the raider was seen from the shore she provoked no reaction. Once clear of the island, Krüder set course due west, running for the ice edge off the east coast of Greenland, where the warm summer air flowing over the frozen sea was guaranteed to bring dense fog.

To the great relief of all on board, not least her commander, the Pinguin ran into falling visibility when she was within 100 miles of the Greenland coast. By 1925 she was in thick fog and feeling her way towards the ice edge at slow speed. The ice was sighted just after 2100 and Krüder altered to run south-westwards, parallel to the coast and keeping just to seaward of the ice. Visibility in the fog had improved to around 500 yards, just sufficient for careful navigation, but it was a nerve-wracking business. There were icebergs about and, although the ship was down to a crawl, the danger of collision with one of these drifting monsters was very real, but this was a risk Krüder was prepared to take in the interests of a quick breakout into the Atlantic. For the moment he was grateful for the sanctuary of the fog.

Pinguin’s luck ran out on the morning of the 25th after she had steamed only 75 miles to the south-west. The fog suddenly thinned, then lifted altogether, giving way to the unseasonal clear weather experienced earlier. Krüder was now sorely tempted to make a dash for the Denmark Strait at full speed, but, with British cruisers in the offing, this could be suicidal. The weather forecasts he was receiving from SKL, based on reports sent in by German weather ships which lurked in these waters disguised as trawlers, indicated that conditions were likely to worsen over the next few days as a warm front moved up from the south. Krüder reversed course and steamed back into the fog to await the promised deterioration in the weather. Once hidden in this silent world of swirling mist, he informed SKL of his decision, using a special shorthand code devised for auxiliary cruisers. A ten-second burst of morse was sufficient to pass his message, a signal so brief that it had faded before any of the network of British W/T direction finding stations constantly monitoring the airwaves could home in on it.

The waiting was long and tedious, with the Pinguin, her engines idling, patrolling up and down off the ice edge, her crew largely unoccupied but unable to relax, for the hidden dangers in this fog-shrouded wilderness were many. It was a morale-sapping situation that Krüder had hoped not to meet this early in the voyage. He was very much relieved when, on the morning of the 28th, the barometer began to fall steeply and the wind picked up, sweeping away the fog. In its place came low, overhanging clouds laden with heavy rain. The warm front had arrived.

Running on one engine and making 9 knots, the Pinguin moved south again. The wind settled down in the east, rising to force 6 and building up an ugly beam sea that soon began to send freezing spray flying over the raider’s bridge. The skies came even lower, so that morning became night again, and it seemed that the Pinguin had drifted from one bad dream into another, this one far more malevolent. The sea was short and she rolled jerkily, adding to the misery of those on board. And then the ice came back. It began with isolated floes, which posed no danger to the ship, but soon growlers, and then full-sized bergs, came looming out of the murk. It was a nerve-jangling experience that lasted an agonising twenty-four hours. When the wind eased and visibility improved on the afternoon of the 29th Krüder was exhausted and greeted the clearance with immense relief, even though it did leave his ship exposed to detection by British ships, who might now be patrolling this area in strength.

Krüder need not have concerned himself, for the Royal Navy was elsewhere engaged. When France signed an armistice with the German invaders on 16 June, it immediately became clear that something must be done to avoid her substantial navy falling into enemy hands. The French ships, which included six battleships and two battlecruisers, were tied up in Oran, Dakar and Martinique, and were given the choice of surrendering to the Royal Navy or being sunk where they were. In order to provide the show of force necessary to back up this ultimatum, units of the Home Fleet were called in, leaving much of the North Atlantic, including the Denmark Strait, without adequate cover.

Pinguin emerged from the Denmark Strait on the morning of 1 July, having sighted nothing more threatening than a few isolated icebergs. She was now relatively safe, free to lose herself in the broad reaches of the North Atlantic. Her rendezvous with U-A off Dakar was planned for 18 July, which gave her time to spare. Krüder decided to put this to good use, steaming south along the meridian of 35° West at reduced speed, thereby conserving fuel, and at the same time being on the lookout for any unescorted Allied merchantmen taking the northern route between Canada and Britain. His luck was not good, for in five days he sighted only one ship, and this turned out to be the British armed merchant cruiser HMS Carmania. Believing the Carmania to be faster and more heavily armed than the Pinguin, Krüder turned away and ran. There was no reaction from the other ship, which seemed not to have sighted the raider.

By midday on the 7th the Pinguin was approaching the USA–UK convoy route and it was necessary to proceed with extreme caution. Over the next two days clusters of masts and funnels were seen on the horizon from time to time and evasive action was taken. The weather was fine, with excellent visibility, and, in spite of the Pinguin’s low silhouette, there was always the risk that an inquisitive convoy escort might sight her and come racing over the horizon. The appearance of a Russian ship in these waters would certainly arouse suspicion and could easily result in a gun fight Pinguin might lose. Another disguise was needed, and on the 10th, in fine warm weather, all hands turned to with paint brushes and the Petschura’s bogus voyage ended as it had begun. By nightfall Pinguin had taken on the identity of the Greek cargo vessel Kassos.

As the Pinguin sailed on southwards to her rendezvous with the U-boat, 5000 miles away in the Indian Ocean an encounter took place which would have a profound effect on the war at sea.

On the morning of 11 July the 7506-ton British ship City of Bagdad, outward bound from the UK with a full cargo for Penang, was approaching Sumatra and nearing the end of her long voyage. At 0730 she sighted what appeared to be another British cargo vessel on her starboard beam. There was nothing unusual about this; she was near one of the crossroads of the Indian Ocean frequented by British merchantmen. Then, suddenly, the other ship went hard over and headed straight for the City of Bagdad. She passed close astern and then came round to run on a parallel course, keeping about 1½ miles off. A flag signal fluttered from her yards, but this was unreadable from the British ship, despite the close proximity. However, the suspicions of Captain Armstrong White, master of the City of Bagdad, were already aroused. He ordered his wireless operator to transmit the ‘QQQQ’ signal, indicating that they were being attacked by a disguised enemy merchant ship.

The ‘enemy merchant ship’ was in fact the Atlantis, ex-Goldenfels, sister-ship to the Pinguin, which had sailed from Germany in March under the command of Kapitän-zur-See Bernhard Rogge and had already caused considerable disruption to Allied shipping in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean.

The Atlantis ran up her shutters and opened fire as soon as the first urgent notes of the City of Bagdad’s transmission were heard. The raider’s guns pounded the British ship with salvo after salvo of 6-inch shells, until she was stopped and on fire with three of her crew lying dead and two others injured. A boarding party from the Atlantis then sank her with explosive charges.

The City of Bagdad might have been just another victim for the Atlantis to add to her mounting score but for one important omission by the British ship’s crew. In the confusion of the attack they failed to dump overboard the vital BAMS (Broadcasting for Allied Merchant Ships) code books. These were seized by the boarding party and sent back to Germany via Japan at the first possible opportunity. Within weeks Berlin was reading all coded signals to and from Allied merchant ships. It was some months before the Admiralty became aware that their ciphers had been compromised.

On 12 July, at the request of SKL, the Pinguin broke radio silence to report her position. She was then 700 miles north-west of the Cape Verde Islands, having been continuously at sea for almost three months. SKL’s reply contained the latitude and longitude of the proposed meeting with U-A on the 18th.

The rendezvous position was reached at noon on the 17th. It was a lonely spot midway between Africa and the West Indies and well away from the shipping lanes. Krüder stopped his ship and waited, growing increasingly anxious as the hours dragged by, for, although the Pinguin was in an empty ocean, there was always the risk that a British warship might appear on the horizon. He heaved a sigh of relief when, at first light on the 18th, a long, low grey shape materialized out of the morning mist. U-A was on time.

Unfortunately, the U-boat brought with her an unwelcome change in the weather. A fresh NE’ly wind blew up, raising a choppy sea that made it impossible for the transfer of supplies to take place. Krüder decided to head south in search of calmer waters, on the way passing 70 tons of diesel oil to the submarine, so that she would have sufficient fuel to reach Biscay should it not be possible to store her.

On the 20th the two ships reached a position 720 miles southwest of the Cape Verde Islands, where the sea was calm enough to bring U-A alongside the Pinguin. This was the first time ever that a U-boat had been stored at sea by a raider and the inevitable problems arose. It was soon discovered that the submarine’s hydroplanes prevented her from coming close alongside and most of one day was lost in rigging sheer legs to bridge the gap. The torpedoes, eleven in all, were ferried across using flotation bags. It was a slow operation, and it was not until the afternoon of the 25th that the transfer was completed.

The Pinguin then took U-A in tow and set course to the southeast to meet up with the track followed by Allied ships between South American ports and Freetown. Once on this line, U-A had orders to make for the approaches to Freetown and there lie in wait for ships entering and leaving the harbour. Freetown was the assembly point for UK convoys, so Cohausz anticipated he would find more than sufficient targets for his newly-acquired torpedoes.

The opportunity for action presented itself sooner than expected. At 2300 on the 25th the lights of a ship were sighted to port and on a converging course, and U-A at once cast off to investigate. Krüder, being only an interested spectator at this stage, held the Pinguin back in the dark to await developments.

After about an hour had passed, Cohausz returned to report failure. He had identified the ship as an Allied tanker, an easy enough target, but his first torpedo had been a ‘rogue’. It ran in circles before turning back to home in on the U-boat that fired it and Cohausz was forced to take violent evasive action to avoid being sunk by his own torpedo. By the time he regained control, the tanker had disappeared into the night, probably not even aware of its brush with disaster.

U-A was taken in tow again, but a heavy swell developed the next day and the towrope snapped. From then on the U-boat proceeded under her own power with the Pinguin keeping company. Cohausz took his leave at noon on the 28th when they were 850 miles to the west of Freetown. The raider, her supply and escort duties at an end, was now free to begin her own war.