9th Army Encircled

21 APRIL 1945

The opportune arrival of Lieutenant-General A.A. Luchinsky’s 28th Army from the 2nd Byelorussian Front on the night of 20 April enabled Koniev to fill the gap between 3rd Guards Tank Army pushing on Berlin and 3rd Guards Army both besieging Cottbus and engaged with the German V Corps beyond it as far north-west as Baruth. He therefore allocated the 28th Army all his available transport with instructions to send one division, the 61st Guards Rifle Division, to the support of the 3rd Guards Tank Army, and to deploy two other rifle divisions in the woods around Baruth by the evening of 21 April. The rest of the army was to deploy between Zossen and Baruth by 23 April. This screening force was to block off 9th Army’s exit routes with strong defences against tanks and infantry to thwart any possible break-out to the west or south-west. Koniev was also very conscious of the vulnerability of his tank armies on the main communications route, the Dresden– Berlin autobahn.

Baruth, the nodal traffic point on the east–west flow of the Baruther Urstromtal (glacial valley) with its swamps and streams, was recognized as the critical exit point for a German break-out from the Spreewald.

Much as he would have liked to concentrate on Berlin, Koniev had other urgent responsibilities, as he described:

The difficulty of my position, as commander of the front, was that operations were developing simultaneously in several directions and each of these directions required attention and supervision. Fighting for Cottbus was still going on in the north, while in the centre, after the liquidation of the Spremberg area of resistance, our troops were confidently advancing towards Berlin and the Elbe. On our left flank, however, in the Dresden direction, we were still having a hard time of it, and this distracted me very much from our main attack.

Koniev was also responsible for 6th Army besieging Breslau well in his rear, but there he could urge restraint. He also sent his Chief of Staff, General Petrov, to deal with his problems on the southern flank.

By evening the leading elements of 3rd Guards Tank Army had come close to the outer sections of the Berlin Defence Area, and some of their scouts reached Königs Wusterhausen from the south, thereby effectively completing the encirclement of the German 9th Army. Although, as they were on the other side of the water complex from Colonel-General Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army, the troops of the two Soviet fronts remained unaware of their proximity to each other.

Meanwhile 4th Guards Tank Army’s 5th Guards Mechanized Corps continued to be heavily engaged in the Jüterbog area. The vanguard of 10th Guards Mechanized Brigade, having bypassed the town through the woods to the north during the night, reached the northern perimeter of the Altes Lager at daybreak and was met by fire from anti-tank guns, SPGs and Panzerfaust-armed infantry, which were shortly reinforced by the arrival of a troop of tanks coming from Treuenbrietzen. The brigade commander, Colonel V.N. Buslaiev, then sent off 51st Guards Tank Regiment to secure the right flank in the Niebel– Treuenbrietzen area, while the main body engaged the Altes Lager defences. These were overrun by the end of the morning with Soviet claims of four German tanks and two armoured personnel carriers (APCs) destroyed. Some large camps were then discovered nearby containing prisoners of war and forced labourers from Russia, Poland and France.

The local Volkssturm units, which had been deployed in defence of Treuenbrietzen the previous evening, disbanded themselves on the morning of 21 April, leaving the town’s anti-tank barriers open and unguarded. The first of 51st Guards Tank Regiment’s tanks arrived at 1700 hours and by 1900 hours twelve had passed through the town heading for Wittenberg with about a company of infantry on board. The inhabitants had expected American, not Russian troops, and some had already hung American flags from their windows, but these were soon replaced with white ones when the locals realized the identity of the intruders. Some elements of the Friedrich Ludwig Jahn Division, which were in the town, hastily withdrew to the western outskirts after losing an SPG and then came under Soviet artillery and mortar fire. They then mounted a counterattack, but this was repulsed with the loss of two tanks.

While this was going on, another part of Lieutenant-Colonel E.I. Grebennikov’s 51st Guards Tank Regiment took Niebel without a fight that afternoon after having bypassed Treuenbreitzen well to the east.

On 3rd Guards Tank Army’s line of advance on 21 April 1945 we have this account from Willi Klär, from Kummersdorf Gut, where the German Army’s main artillery testing ranges were located. The complex included barracks, workshops, stores, a secret atomic and chemical warfare research laboratory complex, its own railway station and sidings, as well as some military and civilian accommodation. However, apart from the military families living on site, most of the civilians employed here lived in the main village, a new settlement resulting from the increased activity arising from Hitler’s military expansion and located a kilometre away to the north-east off the Sperenberg road. (This should not be confused with the main village of Kummersdorf, which lies immediately beyond Sperenberg several kilometres north of the military installation, although ‘Kummersdorf ’ to most German soldiers meant the ranges at Kummersdorf Gut.)

Our village was spared the bombing attacks on Berlin. Only once an aerial mine landed near the railway level crossing near Schönefeld village and some incendiaries landed between the water tower, market garden, barracks and our village, but did little damage. The aircraft came from the direction of Luckenwalde, where they had dropped some bombs. A house and seven barns were set on fire in the nearby village of Horstwalde by incendiaries dropped by the same aircraft.

There were no proper air raid shelter facilities for those living in the village or near the ranges, only the cellars of their houses and some slit trenches covered with concrete slabs and sand. There was one in front of the old folks’ home. The constant air alerts were frightful and made the people exhausted, putting their nerves on edge.

On 20 April 1945 all the men and youths still remaining in the village were rounded up to stop the advance of the Red Army, which had already reached Baruth. During the night of 20/21 April the Volkssturm had to dig foxholes in the cleared ground beyond Lindestrasse, Birkenallee and Am Ring. They were supposed to stop the tanks with their rifles.

Soldiers were deployed on the ranges from the forest warden’s lodge, where the command post was located, along the main road to Schönefeld. The first enemy tanks approached the Königsgraben on the Horstwalde road early on the morning of 21 April.

An engine-less Tiger tank and a 75-mm anti-tank gun had been deployed in defence of the bridge over the Königsgraben but, after a brief exchange of fire, the crews abandoned them in face of the overwhelming numbers of the enemy.

None of the modern weapons being tested on the ranges were brought into use on 21 April, or our losses would have been even greater.

The soldiers deployed on the ranges also abandoned their positions after a short exchange of fire. Most of the local inhabitants who had been deployed in the defence outside the village were captured. Some died a hero’s death and a few were able to escape, withdrawing to the Elbe, only to return home a few weeks later exhausted and half-starved.

Some of the ammunition stores were blown up as the Red Army approached on 21 April, as were the two industrial railway bridges over the main line to Sperenberg, and the industrial railway bridge over the main road to Sperenberg, in order to check the advance.

Three teenage youths, a young woman and four men over normal military age were killed during the fighting on 21 April. Most of the women and children had already fled on the evening of 20 April, or in the early hours of 21 April, to the observation bunker on the east range and remained there for a few days, returning to their homes once things had quietened down.

Orders from Hitler for 9th Army, which were received by Heinrici at 1720 hours, were to hold on to the existing defensive line from Cottbus to Fürstenberg, and from there to curve it back via Müllrose to Fürstenwalde. At the same time a strong front was to be established between Königs Wusterhausen and Cottbus, from which repeated, vigorous and coordinated attacks were to be made, in cooperation with 12th Army, on the deep flank of the Soviet forces attacking Berlin from the south.

General Busse’s Spreewald concentration now became a focus of round the clock attention for Air Chief Marshal A.A. Novikov, who devoted a large part of the resources of his 2nd, 16th and 18th Air Armies to the harassment of the 9th Army pocket, with as many as 60 to 100 aircraft in action at a time.

With 9th Army were tens of thousands of refugees from Germany’s eastern provinces who had been camping out in the woods since their arrival in the area during the winter. The Nazi Party authorities had been reluctant to initiate evacuation for fear of being accused of defeatism, with the consequence that civilians continued to remain in the combat area until the Soviet onslaught caught them out, as General Busse himself complained. However, fear of the Soviet invaders led to evacuation on a vast scale where no stable front existed, as in the preceding winter when the Soviet forces had swept across from the Vistula to the Oder. Many of the refugees seeking shelter in the Spreewald came from the part of Germany east of the Oder, including the Warthegau province, part of which had been seized from Poland in 1939 and re-settled with ethnic Germans from the Baltic states, other parts of Poland, Bessarabia and Romania. Organising themselves in community-related treks, these refugees took what they could of their worldly possessions in horse-drawn wagons, or pulled them along in the four-wheeled type of handcart then common to German households for conveying heavy loads. The refugees were mainly women, children and the elderly, all able men of military age having long since been taken into the armed forces, and all others up to the age of 60 having more recently been conscripted into the Volkssturm.

In February 1945 the Nazi Party authorities had established a system for passing these refugees on, allowing them to stay overnight in the villages on their route but having them move on by 1000 hours the next day, only those who had fallen ill being allowed to remain. Halbe itself was accommodating about 1,000 refugees per night. It seems that a large number of those who had no relatives to head for, or who had chosen not to leave their fate to the authorities, had decided to camp out in the comparative safety of the Spreewald.

With the collapse of the 9th Army front, the number of existing refugees was greatly augmented by those fleeing their homes from the Fürstenwalde–Frankfurt–Cottbus area as the troops withdrew. Although there was sufficient food for everyone, internal communications rapidly deteriorated, and troops and civilians became hopelessly mixed in their predicament as the perimeter of the pocket contracted. Ammunition and fuel were in particularly short supply and when the artillery began running out of shells on 21 April, Colonel-General Heinrici at Army Group Weichsel advised General Busse to find some means of disengaging from the Soviet forces and to forget Hitler’s orders about holding on to the Oder.

Consequently, General Busse started making preparations for a break-out as suggested by Heinrici. The redisposition of the newly acquired V Corps was part of his plan. As soon as the Frankfurt garrison could withdraw into his lines, V Corps and V SS Mountain Corps were to start a simultaneous withdrawal from their Oder/Neisse positions in two bounds, going back on either side of Friedland to the line Staupitz–Beeskow–junction of the Spree and the Oder–Spree Canal.

The imminent danger to his northern flank caused Busse to decide to use Colonel-General Helmuth Weidling’s LVI Panzer Corps with the SS Panzergrenadier Divisions Nordland and Nederland to establish a screen along the line of the Spree west of Fürstenwalde, behind which those of his formations still on the Oder could withdraw westwards, but he was unable to bring himself to issue the necessary orders as this would have been in defiance of Hitler. He thus remained dependent upon the thinly spread 32nd SS Volunteer Grenadier Division’s battlegroup deployed south of the Spree to cover his north-west flank.

Part of Lieutenant-General Werner Marcks’ scattered 21st Panzer Division arrived opportunely in the Halbe area, and was sent to establish a new line of defence along the chain of lakes between Teupitz and Königs Wusterhausen facing west. As the men drove north through the Spreewald, they caught glimpses of the Soviet forces moving parallel to them on the autobahn. Marcks only had with him what remained of the 1st, 5th and Workshop Companies of the 22nd Panzer Regiment, Major Brand’s 21st Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion, the two battalions of the 125th Panzergrenadier Regiment and the 1st Company of    the 192nd Panzergrenadiers, elements of the 220th Armoured Engineer Battalion, the staff and two battalions of the 155th Armoured Artillery Regiment Tannenberger, and the 305th Army Flak Battalion. The remains of the 10th SS Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion Frundsberg, which was following these elements of 21st Panzer Division, then took up north-facing defensive positions just outside Königs

Ernst-Christian Gädtke, then serving with the 32nd SS Tank-Hunting Battalion in Riessen, near Fürstenberg, gives us some idea of the atmosphere in the ranks as 9th Army’s withdrawal began:

At 0500 hours we were alerted and ordered to prepare to move off. As we packed up the rumours started flying around. The Russians were said to be before Berlin.

At roll-call we were given no explanations as usual, only confirmation that the Russians were before Berlin and that we were to defend it. We left at 0530 hours for Fürstenwalde and Rauen.

In the damp, foggy, early spring morning, our tank-hunting company with its four assault guns rattled off to the west, complete with the supply section.

After the highly-charged garrulousness of the previous day, a grim silence now reigned. The speech had been knocked out of us, and the silence was quite profound. No one dared say what he was thinking or feared, as everyone now accepted the terrible truth that defeat was inevitable. Nevertheless, the step in thinking from foreboding to certainty was one that I did not take. I continued to do what I had been doing for so long now, as did so many others; I just suppressed what I didn’t want to accept.

So our journey to the west was somewhat despairing, grim and silent. The morning was foggy and became cloudy, remaining like that all day. The engines thundered monotonously, the tracks rattled, squeaking and screaming whenever we took a bend. We crouched down dumb and grim-faced in our hatches. The gun was overloaded and packed with infantry, who crouched under their tent-halves and clung on as usual. Everything was grey. We drove through villages and small market towns – there, too, everything was dull and grey. People stood on the streets in Müllrose, watching us pass with doubt and uncertainty. Could we have dispelled their anxieties and fears as we passed through, or were we no longer any use as defenders of the fatherland? We should have looked back at them full of confidence, but we couldn’t.

By afternoon we were in Rauen. The Russians were said to be already in Fürtstenwalde, north of the Spree.

In his diary, SS-Lieutenant Bärmann of the same unit gave some indication of the confusion arising out of the redeployment on the northern flank of 9th Army that day. He wrote that the battalion command post was first established in Bad Saarow that morning, then moved back east to Alt Golm. He conducted a reconnaissance of the road from Alt Golm to Saarow, finding the route blocked with troops of all kinds who did not know what was ahead of or behind them. He then drove west to Friedersdorf to try and locate Battlegroup Krauss (based on 32nd SS Division’s tank-hunting battalion) but it had already moved on. On his way he met SS-Captain Paul Krauss, commander of the battalion, in Niederlehme and went on with him to Wernsdorf.

Behind the lines, Märkisch Buchholz was declared a fortress and prepared for all-round defence. Of vital importance here were the three bridges leading out of the town where the River Dahme connected with the Dahme Flood Canal that helped drain the Upper Spreewald. One was on the Halbe road next to the weir on the upper stretch of the canal and two across the lower stretch leading into the Hammer Forest, one of which carried Reichstrasse 179.

Meanwhile a Waffen-SS unit occupied Halbe and expressed its intention to defend the village, come what may. The local Volkssturm unit had already prepared an anti-tank barrier on the east–west running high street, and another on the street south leading to Teurow. The inhabitants prepared for the coming fighting, realising that their village lay on the main route to the west. Many prepared dugouts in the woods around, or prepared to take to their cellars, while concealing their valuables by burying them in boxes.

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12th Army to the Rescue

23 APRIL 1945

Field Marshal Keitel reached General Wenck’s headquarters in the woods east of Magdeburg with some difficulty at about 0100 hours on 23 April. Wenck’s 12th Army, whose boundary extended from the junction of the Havel and Elbe Rivers in the north to below Leipzig in the south, consisted of the following formations:

XXXIX Panzer Corps, under Lieutenant-General Karl Arndt, which had been sent into the Harz Mountains to support 11th Army and had been virtually destroyed within five days. Its remnants had only been re-assigned to 12th Army on 21 April.

XXXXI Panzer Corps, under Lieutenant-General Rudolf Holste, which was based near Rathenow, and consisted of miscellaneous units, some of which were survivors of the Rhine battles.

XX Corps, under Lieutenant-General Carl-Erik Koehler, which was currently engaged in containing the minor American bridgeheads near Zerbst and consisted of:

Theodor Körner RAD Infantry Division

Ulrich von Hutten Infantry Division

Ferdinand von Schill Infantry Division

Scharnhorst Infantry Division

XXXXVIII Panzer Corps, under General Maximilian Freiherr von Edelsheim, which constituted the army reserve near Coswig, and consisted mainly of miscellaneous units culled from the Leipzig and Halle areas.

Keitel first briefed Wenck on the general situation as he knew it, and then gave him Hitler’s orders for 12th Army. Keitel waited for Wenck to draft out his orders, as he wanted to take a copy with him back to the Führerbunker and he also wanted to deliver the orders in person to General Koehler’s XX Corps, which was to provide the bulk of the attacking force. At dawn he reached one of Koehler’s infantry divisions, which was already preparing for the operation, and addressed the assembled officers.

The 12th Army’s specific orders read:

By extensively disregarding the Elbe defences between Magdeburg and Dessau and on the Mulde front between Dessau and Grimma, an assault group of at least three divisions is to be formed in the area west and south-west of Treuenbrietzen with the task of striking at the Russian forces attacking Potsdam and the southern outskirts of Berlin along the line Jüterbog–Brück towards Zossen and Teltow … 9th Army has orders to hold the line Cottbus–Peitz–Beeskow and, if necessary, to keep east of the line Lübbenau–Schwielochsee, in order to release forces for an attack towards Baruth from the east.

What Keitel failed to realize was that Wenck, unlike his immediate superiors, had formed a very clear appreciation of the situation and had no illusions about the future, which he saw as a simple choice between captivity in either the east or the west. There was no doubt in his own mind which was preferable and he regarded his primary task as that of holding a door open for a general exodus from what would become the Soviet Zone of Occupation.

It became obvious to me that this man [Keitel] and with him the Supreme Commander-in-Chief [Hitler], whom he advised, were long since out of touch with what was happening in this war. After consulting with my staff, I decided to go my own way from then on. We had already started to do so some weeks before, when we stopped demolition squads from destroying supply depots in our area. Now, however, was the time to lead the army guided solely by what we knew ourselves. We could not free Berlin with our forces, but we could help vast numbers of people by opening a way to the west for them with a determined attack. By attacking from the Belzig area towards Potsdam, it would be possible to free the 20,000 troops encircled there. It did not seem impossible for 9th Army to get out of its pocket after such a thrust. Apart from this, the columns of refugees moving behind our front to the west would gain a few extra days time in which to reach the Elbe and escape the Russians.

Wenck was fortunate in that many supply barges from all over the country had been trapped and stranded in his sector, so that he had no shortage of supplies, including motor fuel. Although he dutifully reported all this, no attempt was made by the OKW to have this windfall distributed.

By 1100 hours Keitel was back in Krampnitz, where he conferred with Jodl and had a brief rest before they set off for the Chancellery together. At the afternoon war conference Keitel reported to the Führer on his trip and General Krebs announced that 12th Army was already on the move. Hitler asked if 9th and 12th Armies had established contact yet, but there was no information available on this point and Krebs was directed to tell 9th Army to get on with it. Before departing, Keitel again tried, without success, to persuade Hitler to leave Berlin.

This conference clearly illustrates the air of fantasy in which Hitler and his staff operated and which Keitel did nothing to dispel. He must have been fully aware that neither army was ready to act immediately and yet said nothing to this effect. In fact, Wenck did not expect to be ready until the 25th, by which time his formations would be redeployed for the attack and he hoped to have recovered some of his armour from west of the Elbe to assist him. In the meantime Wenck was acutely conscious of the threat from the south-east, where 1st Ukrainian Front was making rapid progress in his direction.

At 1300 hours the signal authorising 9th Army’s withdrawal was sent by Army Group Weichsel. General Busse purportedly used this order to implement his own intended and already initiated redeployment towards the west without openly opposing Berlin. To this end, he reported the following measures taken in fulfilment of his task that day:

  1. Withdrawal of the eastern and north-eastern fronts on the general line Burg–Butzen–Schwielochsee–Spree in one move during the night of 23/24 April.
  2. V Corps to take over command of the eastern front from the right wing (Königs Wusterhausen) to Burg inclusive. V SS Mountain Corps to take over command of the eastern front from Burg to the Kersdorf locks (2 km west of Briesen) …
  3. Released forces: 342nd Infantry Division, one reinforced battlegroup from 35th SS Police Division (deployed until now north of Guben), one battlegroup from the Frankfurt Fortress Garrison (about two regiments) already with XI SS Panzer Corps. No artillery as yet.
  4. For the intended assault group to unite with 12th Army within the sense of the new plan: 21st Panzer Division’s battlegroup, 342nd Infantry Division, elements 35th SS Police Division, one SS armoured reconnaissance group (105th SS Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion of V SS Mountain Corps under SS-Major Fucker). Earliest start 25 April.

Busse later claimed: ‘Thus my headquarters had freedom to adjust its forces itself with a view to a rapid redeployment for a break-out to the west.’ However, his subsequent behaviour indicates that he was in fact still attempting to comply with superior orders. Unlike Generals Heinrici and Wenck, he failed to see that his primary concern should have been the fate of his men and the accompanying refugees dependent upon him.

The problem here was that Busse, like many of his contemporaries, basically owed his successful military career to Hitler, to whom he was now in thrall, a situation further exacerbated by the consequences of the failure of Colonel Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg’s assassination plot of 20 July 1944, which had imposed an even greater subservience on commanders and the General Staff. A major obstacle to independent action, as previously mentioned, was the personal oath of allegience to Adolf Hitler that the obsequious commander-in-chief, General Werner von Blomberg, had imposed on the Wehrmacht immediately following the death of President von Hindenburg on 20 August 1934, which many continued to think of as binding, even when the failure and criminality of the regime had been exposed.

Busse had enlisted in the German Army as a potential officer in December 1915 and ended the First World War as a substantive second lieutenant. His war service had obviously attracted official attention, for he had been awarded the Knight’s Cross with Swords of the Hohenzollern Order, the Kaiser’s equivalent of the British royal family’s Victorian Order. His subsequent service with the Reichswehr saw painfully slow progress with promotion to captain not achieved until 1933, but then came rapid acceleration to major in 1936, lieutenant-colonel in 1939 and full colonel in 1941, by which time he was on the General Staff. He then served as Chief of Staff to Army Groups Süd and Nordukraine on the Eastern Front, achieving the rank of major-general and then lieutenant-general in 1943, and being awarded the German Cross in Gold on 24 May 1942 and the Knight’s Cross on 30 January 1944. Busse had been given command of 122nd Infantry Division in July 1944, and then, on 1 August 1944, I Corps with Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner’s Army Group Nord, which was trapped on the Courland peninsula and condemned to extinction by Hitler’s refusal to allow evacuation. He would therefore have been mightily relieved to have been flown out and then given command of the shattered 9th Army as a general of infantry on his own home ground around Frankfurt on 21 January 1945.

The withdrawal of Busse’s troops from their eastern and southern fronts was relatively well protected by the geographical features, particularly the dense waterways of the Lower and Upper Spreewald areas, which formed an ‘L’ from Leibsch via Lübben to Cottbus. The Soviets were unable to follow closely enough to endanger the German troops. However, V Corps’ 342nd Infantry Division, fighting an isolated action in the Burg–Cottbus area, was overrun that afternoon. Meanwhile, V Corps headquarters, which had been made responsible for 9th Army’s southern flank on 22 April, reported having established a perimeter defence along the line Löpten–Teupitz–Halbe, south of which a regiment of 35th SS Police Division held the line down to Lübben with the Engineer Training Battalion beyond.

The Soviets were able to gain the south bank of the Spree near Fürstenwalde, and also to close up to the Oder–Spree Canal. The remains of the 561st SS Tank-Hunting Battalion held fast on the autobahn east of Fürstenwalde in the Biegen, Briesen and Kersdorf areas, enabling the Frankfurt Garrison and the remains of 286th Infantry Division and SS Regiment Falke to get through. The 712th Infantry Division was still holding out at Petershagen, the 169th at Alt Madlitz, and Battlegroup Nederland at Falkenberg. Elements of the Kurmark Division prevented Soviet penetration of the woods on either side of the Scharmützelsee.

It was different on the northern flank, where conditions had become worse since the withdrawal of LVI Panzer Corps into the capital. Despite constant counterattacks being mounted, not all the planned lines could be held. In some areas the hard-pressed divisions and battlegroups had to withdraw as much as ten or fifteen kilometres before they could hold.

A soldier of the 32nd SS Motorized Artillery Regiment, which had been covering the withdrawal from just north-east of Beeskow, described the situation:

The concerned expressions, but also the good wishes of the civilian population, gave us many problems. The civilian bush telegraph was faster than our marching speed. They knew that Ivan was only a few hundred metres behind us. We were often begged to take on the protection of a place, and civilian clothing was offered us. With very heavy hearts, we marched on with our unit. Many old soldiers watched us with tears in their eyes.

That evening HQ 9th Army, which had already issued its orders for the withdrawal, received revised orders to: ‘… hold on to the largest possible area between the autobahns leading to Berlin from Frankfurt and Cottbus, and to cooperate with 12th Army’s attack from Treuenbrietzen to the north-east against the Soviets attacking Berlin from the south.’

To do this would mean holding fast on the northern flank in the first case, something which was already beyond 9th Army’s ability. General Busse, whose staff had meanwhile moved from Bad Saarow to the Scharmützelsee railway station at the southern end of the lake, later wrote:

The traverse of a distance of 60 kilometres as the crow flies to the 12th Army, right through the rear communications area of 1st Ukrainian Front’s northern wing, would only have been possible providing the thrust was so rapid that the enemy were unable to mount effective countermeasures. The troops would have had to keep moving day and night. They could only have done this if the effectiveness of the strong Russian air and tank forces could possibly be reduced. The wide expanse of woodland from Halbe via Kummersdorf to north of Luckenwalde offered the only possibility for this. This became more apparent with 12th Army’s disappointing announcement that it was not attacking to the east, but to the north, towards Beelitz, so there was no longer any question of a thrust being made to meet us. Nevertheless, the High Command still ordered that 9th Army, following a successful break-out, was immediately to wheel and attack the rear of the enemy on the southern outskirts of Berlin. This order 9th Army neither heeded nor acknowledged.

    We had to go about things in accordance with our intention to get as many troops away as possible from the Russians’ grasp. Our firm resolve was to breach the encirclement on either side of Halbe and break through to south of Beelitz using the cover of the woods.

The 21st Panzer Division was now deployed south from Karlshof, two kilometres north-west of the autobahn junction, with a series of strongpoints stretching to the west of Ragow and Mittenwalde down to Teupitz, and was heavily engaged all day. On its right, the land link to Berlin was reduced to a corridor barely four kilometres wide and already under artillery surveillance. Behind them in Königs Wusterhausen were the remains of the 32nd SS Volunteer Grenadier Division’s battlegroup, which had been forced out of Wernsdorf and Niederlehme on the Spree–Dahme line by Chuikov’s troops. A field hospital in the town, many of whose citizens were already displaying white flags, came under repeated attack from Soviet aircraft.

During the day elements of 128th Rifle Corps of the Soviet 28th Army continued to arrive to take part in the operation but one formation, 152nd Rifle Division, was caught up near Mittenwalde in what was thought to be a break-out attempt by 9th Army. Whatever the cause, 152nd Rifle Division was still fighting in the Mittenwalde area that night and does not appear to have rejoined its parent formation for another day or two. The two other corps of 28th Army, 3rd and 20th Guards Rifle Corps, were also heading north towards Berlin, but were diverted to assist with the encirclement of 9th Army. As an additional safeguard, 25th Tank Corps was moved into the area of Duben as a mobile reserve.

The 4th Guards Tank Army continued closing in on Potsdam and closing the gap with 1st Byelorussian Front’s 47th Army encircling Berlin from the north, but made no attempt to cross the line of the Havel, which seems to have been its operational boundary. The 6th Guards Mechanized Corps split off at Beelitz, wheeling west towards Brandenburg and Paretz (near Ketzin), taking Lehnin that day.

By the end of 23 April the Soviet 13th Army had almost reached the Elbe at Wittenberg. Koniev decided to detach its 350th Rifle Division to 4th Guards Tank Army to assist with the screening of Potsdam, and to take over its reserve corps at Luckau as his front reserve and locate it at Jüterbog, where it would be more centrally placed to meet anticipated contingencies.

Further south the bulk of 5th Guards Army closed up to the Elbe around Torgau on a wide front that day, thus cutting the remains of the Third Reich in two. Koniev decided to leave only 34th Guards Rifle Corps in that area to await the arrival of the Americans on the opposite bank, and pulled back 32nd Guards Rifle and 4th Guards Tank Corps into the second echelon prior to striking a counterblow at the German forces on his southern flank. These had now penetrated some thirty kilometres towards Spremberg, separating the 52nd and 2nd Polish Armies and creating havoc in their rear areas.

Although he had just sufficient troops to cope with this emergency in the south, it is clear that Marshal Koniev’s forces were extremely finely stretched at this stage. His active northern front extended in a great loop from Cottbus in the east to Wittenberg in the west, via Berlin, Potsdam, Brandenburg and Beelitz, and he had only a very small reserve in the centre to counter the real threat posed by the German 9th and 12th Armies. It was therefore even more remarkable that he should personally concentrate, with the key members of his front staff, solely on 3rd Guards Tank Army’s penetration of Berlin and the race for the Reichstag.

That evening Lieutenant-General Gerhard Engel’s Ulrich von Hutten Infantry Division set off from the River Mulde with two grenadier regiments, supporting artillery and SPGs, in convoys of vehicles confiscated from construction battalions, factories, rear area units and Nazi Party sources, acting in accordance with orders to establish as big a bridgehead as possible in the Wittenberg area and to hold on as long as possible against the advancing Soviet forces.

The LVI Panzer Corps’ headquarters had moved across the Spree and the southern branch of the Teltow Canal during the night into the suburb of Rudow. Sometime during the day, General Weidling’s chief of staff, Lieutenant-Colonel Theodor von Dufving, telephoned an old friend from his cadet days, Colonel Hans Refior, now on the Berlin Defence Area staff, to ask for news. Refior was surprised when von Dufving told him that the corps was seeking to rejoin 9th Army and had no intention of defending the capital, but enabled von Dufving to re-establish contact with 9th Army Headquarters. General Weidling then spoke to the chief of staff, Colonel Hölz, who gave him orders to secure 9th Army’s northern flank.

From another source Weidling learnt that a general had been sent to Döberitz to arrest him on Hitler’s instructions, so he tried to contact Krebs for an explanation. Eventually he was summoned to report to the Führerbunker at 1800 hours, where he saw Krebs and General Burgdorf. They received him most coolly at first, but once they had heard his account they agreed to put his case to the Führer immediately. Weidling then told them that he was moving his corps south towards Königs Wusterhausen that night in support of 9th Army in accordance with General Busse’s instructions, but Krebs said that these orders would have to be cancelled as LVI Panzer Corps was needed in Berlin. Weidling saw Hitler shortly afterward and was shocked by the Führer’s appearance and obvious deterioration. When he emerged from this interview, Krebs informed him that, with immediate effect, he was to take over the defence of the city’s south-eastern and southern defence sectors with his corps. LVI Panzer Corps would not be rejoining 9th Army.

THE LEUTHEN PROJECT

When the Russian armies poured across Germany’s eastern borders in the beginning of 1945, the Army High Command introduced a major improvisation, the LEUTHEN Project, which constituted a radical change in the Army’s replacement and training policy. To the German mind Leuthen, a small town in Silesia where Frederick the Great had won a major battle with improvised forces, was the symbol of a victorious last-ditch stand. It was probably for this reason that the Army selected the term Leuthen to designate this project. The plan foresaw that all training units of the entire replacement army were to be transferred and assigned to the field forces as soon as the code word LEUTHEN was transmitted to them. In immediate proximity of the front these training units were to be subjected to a more realistic combat training than they could possibly receive in the zone of the interior. Moreover, they were to serve as security forces in rear area positions or defense lines. The original idea was therefore both sound and practical, but it should have been put into effect much sooner, when the front was still stable. What actually prompted the execution of the LEUTHEN Project at that late stage, whether it was still the original intention as officially proclaimed or rather the steadily deteriorating situation on the fighting fronts, must be left to conjecture. In reality all the LEUTHEN units were immediately committed and thrown into the thick of fighting in critical situations.

What did the LEUTHEN units look like? In every Wehrkreis there were a number of training and replacement units of various arms which were under the command of division staffs. The men who had completed their training and were ready for combat duty were in the replacement units. The training units were composed of recently inducted recruits who were to be prepared for combat by undergoing an eight-week basic training course. Upon receiving the code word LEUTHEN, the division staffs were to move out with all training units that had completed one to seven weeks of training.

One of the units alerted in this manner was the Special Administrative Division 413 which consisted of several training battalions, a regimental headquarters, an artillery battalion with an odd assortment of guns, and elements of an engineer and a signal battalion. As a tactical unit, the division was really no more than a reinforced infantry regiment commanded by an elderly general with a small staff. Needless to state, it was absolutely incapable of any combat assignment. The cadre up to the division commander consisted of personnel unfit for combat because of sickness, injury, or for lack of tactical qualifications. Most of the noncommissioned officers had suffered combat injuries of such severity that they were barely fit for garrison duty. Some of the men were entirely untrained, others had completed one half to three quarters of their basic training. Some of them were unarmed because the number of weapons provided for training units did not suffice to arm every soldier. In addition, the various formations had absolutely no organic transportation. There were no more horses than those needed for the normal garrison functions and the division had no field kitchens since the food had always been prepared in the permanent garrison kitchens. The clothing and equipment were equally defective. Quite a few soldiers, for instance, could not be issued garrison belts. In general, everything was in exactly the condition to be expected from a home station in times of stress where shortages have become the rule rather than the exception.

When the LEUTHEN division moved out it was therefore no more than an improvisation of the poorest sort. This might not have mattered so much had the division undergone a rigid training schedule far behind the lines. But even while it was on the approach march to its destination, one of its battalions was shifted from the Main River valley to Hammelburg where a small enemy armored force had broken through. The remainder of the division was immediately sent into combat and annihilated.

In summarizing, one may state that the LEUTHEN Project was doomed from the outset because it was applied in a situation for which it was entirely unsuited.

OTHER DESPERATE MEASURES

In view of the extremely heavy losses of manpower, the shortage of weapons, and the precarious condition of the transportation system, the situation of the German Army became so critical that the need for improvisations grew even more urgent during the last few weeks of the war. The organizational improvisations of that period were a far cry from those introduced during earlier stages. In many cases the selection and training of replacements was makeshift. Equipment of all types was totally inadequate and consisted of whatever was left over or could be picked up. Since no guns were available, the organization of new artillery units was practically impossible. Whatever new infantry units were organized during this period were of limited capability in the field. In Bavaria, for instance, the last regular activation of a new infantry division took place in November 1944. What followed thereafter was pure improvisation, not so much because of the shortage of trained replacements, but because of the inadequate supply of weapons and equipment.

Although the organization of new divisions had become impossible, replacement units were sent to the front until the beginning of March 1945. Then even this function could no longer be accomplished. Each Wehrkreis assumed command over its replacements, organized a few emergency infantry battalions and transferred them to the nearest tactical command. Many well-trained soldiers were still available but, because of the serious shortage of infantry heavy weapons, it was no longer possible to organize entire machine gun companies. The battalions were therefore composed of a small battalion staff and four rifle companies. Each company had one machine gun platoon with two heavy machine guns and a few locally requisitioned wood-gas-burning trucks, one of which carried a cook stove. The few artillery battalions organized during this period were composed of a great variety of guns. No two batteries were alike and every section had guns of different caliber.

During that period occurred a very significant incident which demonstrated the effects of the improper utilization of administrative personnel. Several first-rate panzer battalions were in the process of rehabilitation at the Grafenwoehr troop training grounds in Bavaria. When enemy armored spearheads approached the area, a corps commander responsible for a near-by sector of the front ordered the staff of the training center to assume the tactical command of the panzer battalions and stop the enemy advance. The commander of the training center was a general well along in years who had always handled administrative assignments very competently but had never during his long career commanded a panzer unit. His staff was composed of elderly reserve officers and ordnance specialists. Their leadership spelled disaster for the panzer battalions.

The numerous organizational improvisations introduced during that period were only stop-gap measures applied in time of extreme emergency. Since most of them were adopted to overcome purely local critical situations they are of little consequence in a study of this type.

Hess and Goebbels Gun Batteries at Dieppe

19 August 1942

One of the most controversial raids of the Second World War was the raid on Dieppe, which took place on 19 August 1942. By the end of the day, thousands of Allies were dead, wounded or taken as prisoners of war. The Dieppe Raid has since been the subject of much debate, but within the overall operation there were countless acts of great bravery, including those of British commandos at two mighty gun batteries that simply had to be silenced.

The origins of the Dieppe raid were to ease the pressure on the Eastern Front and prevent Germany from committing more resources to the east. The Americans and Russians had both urged Britain to open a second front, but Britain, already heavily engaged in North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Far East, did not have the resources to conduct and sustain a large-scale offensive in north-west Europe. Nonetheless, Winston Churchill had made it clear that he wanted to conduct a major operation during the summer of 1942. Senior military commanders agreed. If the Allies were to eventually carry out a full-scale invasion of mainland Europe, it was essential for a division-size operation to be carried out against a German-held port on the northern coastline of France. To do so would not only help gain a better understanding of large-scale amphibious landings, but would also determine whether the Allies were capable of maintaining forces ashore once a landing had taken place.

A number of ports were considered, but while most were rejected for one reason or another, Dieppe was accepted as a possible target. A coastal town built along a cliff overlooking the English Channel, it was a relatively short distance for raiding forces and so it was possible to make the crossing under the cover of night. Dieppe was also within range of RAF Fighter Command and so raiding forces could be given significant cover from the air.

In April 1942, Mountbatten gave the order for his staff at Combined Operations to commence planning for the raid, which was to be supported by a large array of naval and air assets. One option drawn up was to land a mix of tanks and infantry either side of Dieppe and to then capture the town using a pincer movement over the two headlands flanking the port. Another option was to land tanks and infantry directly onto the beach at Dieppe in a frontal assault, supported by landings on either side of the town. Two heavy artillery gun batteries protecting the approaches to Dieppe – the Hess Battery at Varengeville to the west and the Goebbels Battery at Berneval-le-Grand to the east – would be captured by airborne troops landing ahead of the main attack.

After much discussion it was decided to proceed with the second option, the frontal assault, which would be preceded by a heavy aerial bombardment. Codenamed Operation Rutter, the attack was planned for early July when tidal conditions would be just right for the assault. It would test the feasibility of capturing a port in the face of opposition, understand the problems of operating the invasion fleet, and test the equipment and techniques of the assault.

The scale of the operation meant there were insufficient resources amongst the British Army’s commando units to carry out the raid. Therefore, regular army troops would need to be involved, and because there had been increasing pressure from the Canadian government for its troops to take part in operations, the Canadian 2nd Infantry Division was selected as the main attacking force.

Intelligence reports suggested that Dieppe was not heavily defended and the beaches were suitable for the landings. The plan was for two Canadian battalions to assault the main beach, supported by Canadian tanks and engineers, after two other Canadian battalions had landed earlier to attack German gun batteries overlooking the main beach. The British 1st Battalion of the Parachute Brigade were to be dropped to attack the two coastal batteries at Varengeville and Berneval-le-Grand, with a further Canadian battalion acting as a reserve to be committed when and where necessary.

The date for Rutter was narrowed down to the first week of July but, after weeks of training, the combination of unsettled weather and the fact the Germans had spotted and attacked the large gathering of ships required to transport the assault troops across the Channel, resulted in the operation being cancelled.

Although Rutter had been cancelled, its planning was not entirely wasted. The decision to remount the raid, this time called Operation Jubilee, meant plans were resurrected. The main objectives remained largely unchanged, with the only difference being that the large German coastal batteries would be attacked and captured by a seaborne assault, rather than from the air: 4 Commando was tasked to destroy the Hess Battery at Varengeville while 3 Commando was to destroy the Goebbels Battery at Berneval-le-Grand.

Along stretches of the south coast of England the commandos began training for the raid. They would be required to assault the two coastal gun batteries at dawn while the main landings took place on five different beaches along a 10-mile stretch of the coast. A total of 5,000 Canadians and a further 1,000 British troops, including the army commandos and a unit of Royal Marine commandos, and 50 American Rangers were to be supported by more than 230 Royal Navy ships and landing craft and nearly 70 RAF squadrons. It would be the largest amphibious raid of the war.

Tasked with capturing and then destroying the Goebbels Battery, codenamed Operation Flodden, 3 Commando was to be led by Lieutenant Colonel John Durnford-Slater, who had led his men in the raid at Vaagso the year before. His plan was for his force of just over four hundred men to land in two groups on two beaches, codenamed Yellow-One and Yellow-Two, either side of the battery and near the village of Berneval-le-Grand. The Goebbels Battery was known to house three 170mm and four 105mm guns and, situated half a mile inland, it was protected from the sea by steep cliffs. Durnford-Slater would lead the main element ashore on Yellow-One while his second-in-command, Major Peter Young, another veteran of Norway, would land with two troops plus a mortar section on Yellow-Two. The two groups would then carry out a co-ordinated pincer attack against the battery using gullies to conceal their position.

Meanwhile, 4 Commando, led by Lieutenant Colonel Simon Fraser, the fifteenth holder of the title Lord Lovat, who had also served in Norway, would be carrying out an assault on the Hess Battery under Operation Cauldron. The Hess Battery consisted of six 150mm guns in a concrete emplacement just over half a mile inland from the coastal cliffs. Intelligence reports had estimated there were around two hundred men at the battery, with a further two infantry companies in support nearby. The emplacement was surrounded by concrete defences, landmines, concealed defensive machine-gun posts and layers of barbed wire, and was also protected from air attack by an anti-aircraft gun emplacement.

With less than three hundred men, Lovat had a smaller force than Durnford-Slater but he also decided to land his force on two beaches. One group, consisting of C Troop and one section of A Troop, plus a mortar detachment, would be led by his second-in-command, Major Derek Mills-Roberts, and land on the beach at Varengeville. The beach Mills-Roberts had been allocated, codenamed Orange-One, was overlooked by a cliff, but offered two gullies leading to the top, although these were known to be full of barbed wire and other obstructions. The commandos were to scale the cliff in front of the battery and take up a holding position in a wood, half a mile inland, ready to mount a continuous barrage of fire against the front of the battery while the second group, led by Lovat, carried out the assault on the battery. His group, consisting of B and F Troops, was to land on the beach at Quiberville, called Orange-Two. The beach was just over a mile to the west and at the mouth of the small River Saane. It was further away from the battery but the commandos were expected to move quickly inland along the river and then eastwards to the top of the cliffs, where they could attack the battery and its garrison from the rear, although this line of approach was known to be protected by machine-gun posts and barbed wire. The remaining section of A Troop was to be held as a mobile reserve between the two beaches and used as required. Once the battery had been destroyed, the commandos would withdraw using the landing craft at Orange-One.

Having left their temporary bases in Sussex and Dorset, the commandos were transported to their embarkation ports for crossing the Channel; 3 Commando at Newhaven and 4 Commando at Southampton. While 4 Commando’s crossing passed uneventfully, the same was not true for the men of 3 Commando. Shortly before 4.00 am, and still about an hour from the coast of France, their landing group was illuminated after being spotted by an armed German convoy in the Channel. The commandos immediately came under intense fire. Their landing craft quickly scattered as they came under attack by fast German S-boats that had been escorting a German tanker. Some of the landing craft were forced to turn back, while others were sunk, effectively halting 3 Commando’s main attacking force. They had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time and had been unfortunate to have been spotted.

Remarkably, though, not all of the landing craft of this group had been sunk or had turned back. Six managed to regroup and continued towards their landing beach. Furthermore, the chance encounter mid-Channel seems to have gone unreported to the coastal defences. To the crews of the German patrol boats, they assumed they had come across a planned raid against their convoy and nothing more. The landing craft of Peter Young had also survived intact and completed the crossing on its own. Determined to press on with the attack, the commandos landed just to the west of Yellow-Two slightly before 6.00 am.

Making their way quickly across the beach, Young then located a gulley leading to the top of the cliffs. Undeterred by the barbed wire and other obstructions that filled the gulley, the commandos reached the top. The Goebbels Battery was already firing on the main landing force, now just a few miles away, but with only eighteen men there was little Young could do. The commandos managed to reach a position within 200 yards of the battery, but a full frontal assault was clearly out of the question; it would have meant certain death.

Young decided the best they could do was to harass the battery as much as possible and to prevent it from inflicting serious damage on the attacking forces. Splitting his men into three small groups, he directed his commandos to cut telephone wires to disrupt communications and continue to fire on the battery for several hours as a constant distraction to the gunners. This seemed to have some effect as no Allied forces were believed to have been lost to the battery. After a couple of hours and hopelessly outnumbered, as well as being all but out of ammunition, Young finally gave the order to withdraw; all his men would make it off the beach and safely back to England.

Meanwhile, the group of six other landing craft that had survived the encounter mid-Channel, a total of around a hundred men, including a handful of US Rangers, had landed on a beach to the east of Yellow-One and opposite Le Petit Berneval. But it was now 5.30 am and they were half an hour behind schedule. The delay of thirty minutes had made all the difference between darkness and first daylight, and the landing craft had been spotted by the German defences. As enemy rounds clattered against the landing craft, causing a number of casualties on board, the commandos were quick to get ashore and reach the safety of a nearby gulley. Having then scrambled to the top, Captain Geoff Osmond had contemplated making a limited assault on the battery as planned, but German reinforcements had already arrived in the area. With such a small force it would have been a suicidal attack but the commandos did manage to take out German defensive positions at Le Petit Berneval. However, as they made their way towards the battery the commandos came under a devastating attack and casualties started to mount.

The survivors of 3 Commando had now been ashore for just over an hour but any hope of continuing the attack was abandoned. The order was given to withdraw to the beach and re-embark. But that was impossible. The commandos were now pinned down. Although the landing craft had managed to return to the beach to pick up the survivors, none of the commandos arrived. Eventually, after waiting as long as they dared, the crews of the landing craft left. Unbeknown to them at the time, the commandos they had come to pick up were still pinned down. Those commandos that were still alive were unaware that there was now no chance of getting away. Although some did make a break across open ground in an attempt to reach the beach, many were cut down. Those that did reach the beach arrived to find their only chance of escape had gone; only burnt-out landing craft were there waiting for them. With no option, Osmond surrendered his men to the surrounding forces.

Although 3 Commando’s raid had been disastrous, their colleagues in 4 Commando had been more fortunate. They had set sail from Southampton in the landing ship HMS Prince Albert and although they had heard 3’s mid-Channel encounter a few miles to the east, their crossing had been uneventful. Having then transferred to their landing craft for the assault as planned, the first group of 4’s commandos, led by Mills-Roberts, landed unopposed on Orange-One at around 4.50 am and just before daybreak. They were then able to quickly scale the cliffs and take up their positions, where they were to wait until 6.15 am before commencing their barrage of fire against the battery from the front – the second group were to commence their main assault from the rear fifteen minutes later.

Meanwhile, Lovat’s second group had not been quite so lucky. Their landing was met by heavy machine-gun fire from two pillboxes overlooking the beach. Calling for support from the mobile reserve section of A Troop to deal with the enemy positions, Lovat quickly led his two troops off the beach and towards the rear of the battery, where they took up their positions ready for the assault. Behind him, the commandos of A Troop soon dealt with the pillboxes and quickly made their way towards the first group, where they were to join up with the rest of their troop.

For Mills-Roberts and the commandos of the first group, the peace and quiet of the early summer morning was suddenly shattered and the ground shook when the battery unexpectedly opened fire. The convoy carrying the main assaulting troops had been spotted a few miles away and the battery was now engaging the ships. Mills-Roberts decided to wait no longer. Although it was not yet time he decided to engage the battery immediately. Mortars, Brens and rifle fire – everything the commandos had – rained down on the battery; it was the first the Germans knew that the commandos were even there.

A short distance away, Lovat and his group heard the firing. They were making their way towards their assault positions but the going was tough across heavy ground. Leading F Troop was Captain Roger Pettiward. One of 4 Commandos’ true characters, Pettiward was a complete gentleman by nature. From a privileged background, and educated at Eton, he had been an adventurous and well-travelled artist before the war, achieving much fame as the cartoonist Paul Crum. Alongside him was his second-in-command, Lieutenant John MacDonald, and 24-year-old Major Pat Porteous, the son of an army brigadier and a former artillery officer, who was acting as the liaison officer between the two assault groups carrying out the attack.

As the commandos of F Troop moved quickly between cottages and an orchard towards their assault position, they were suddenly caught by a heavy burst of enemy machine-gun fire. Pettiward and MacDonald were both killed instantly. As Porteous continued the advance towards the guns he was hit, the bullet passing through his palm and entering his upper arm. Undaunted, he continued until he reached his assailant, disarming him and then killing him with his own bayonet; thereby saving the life of one of the sergeants on whom the German had now turned. With Pettiward and MacDonald dead, and the troop sergeant major wounded, Porteous took command. Without hesitation, and in the face of overwhelming enemy fire, he dashed across the open ground to take command of the remaining commandos of F Troop. Rallying them, he then led them to their forming-up position where they fixed bayonets ready for the assault.

A pre-planned strike by Allied fighters arrived exactly on time to strafe the battery. It was now 6.30 am and Lovat signalled the assault. The covering fire then ceased and the commandos of the second group attacked. While Captain Gordon Webb led B Troop towards their objective of the battery’s buildings, the wounded Porteous led F Troop’s charge towards the guns, now less than a hundred yards away. Porteous was immediately wounded for a second time, shot through the thigh, but despite his wounds he continued to lead the men straight to the guns. He was one of the first to reach their final objective, but he was then hit again and finally collapsed from the loss of blood just as the last of the guns was captured. His most gallant conduct, brilliant leadership and tenacious devotion to duty was supplementary to the role he had been given for the assault and was an inspiration to his unit. It was later announced that Pat Porteous was to be awarded the Victoria Cross, one of three VCs to be won during that day.

Demolitions experts then destroyed the six guns with explosive charges while the commandos of B Troop searched the battery buildings and gathered anything of interest for intelligence. The commandos had been ashore for two hours and it was now time to leave. Carrying their wounded, the commandos withdrew to Orange-One where they were evacuated from the beach by landing craft under the cover of a smokescreen. It was still only 8.30 am. Then, having crossed the Channel without incident, apart from some ineffective enemy fire on leaving the beach, the men of 4 Commando arrived at Newhaven shortly before 6.00 pm. It had been a very long day.

As for the main assault on Dieppe by the Canadians, it was a total failure. The naval bombardment had not supressed the enemy defences, the tanks were unable to advance over the shingle beach and the infantry had suffered heavy casualties. Of the main assault force of 6,000 men, over 1,000 were killed and more than 2,000 were captured and taken as prisoners of war (a total casualty figure of some 60 per cent of the attacking force). Naval losses were also severe, with more than 500 casualties, plus the loss of a destroyer and over 30 landing craft. Allied losses in the air were also significant, with around a hundred aircraft lost, more than on any other day of the war. Furthermore, none of the objectives had been met: the assault by 4 Commando on the Hess Battery at Varengeville had been the only success of the whole operation. Even so, 45 commandos had not returned, 17 of whom had been killed, although German casualties were estimated to be around 150.

The assault by 4 Commando was later described as ‘a classic example of the use of well-trained troops and a thoroughness in planning, training and execution.’ For his leadership of the raid, Lord Lovat was awarded the DSO and his second-in-command, Major Derek Mills-Roberts, was awarded an MC, as was Captain Gordon Webb.

The men of 3 Commando had also fought with courage, aggression, resilience and dogged determination at Dieppe, but the fight had proved costly, with 140 killed, wounded or taken as prisoners of war; the majority of whom had been killed or captured trying to make it back to the beach. Amongst those killed was 22-year-old Lieutenant Edward Loustalot, a US Ranger attached to 3 Commando. He was the first American to be killed on European soil during the war and one of three rangers killed at Dieppe; Loustalot had been cut down by enemy crossfire while attacking a machine-gun post at the top of the cliff.

For his courage and leadership of the eighteen commandos of 3 Commando, who had landed in the single landing craft to the west of Yellow-Two and had then harassed the battery for some three hours before withdrawing safely back to England, Peter Young was awarded the DSO. His action was later described by Vice Admiral John Hughes-Hallett, the naval commander of Jubilee, as perhaps the most outstanding action of the whole operation.

Although the raid had ended up in a disastrous loss of life, the events at Dieppe would influence Allied planning for later landings in North Africa, Sicily and, ultimately, in Normandy on D-Day. The losses at Dieppe were claimed to be a necessary evil and Mountbatten later justified the raid by arguing that lessons learned were put to good use later in the war: stating that the success at Normandy was won on the beaches of Dieppe, and every life lost at Dieppe in 1942 spared at least ten more in Normandy in 1944. Churchill also claimed that the results of the Dieppe raid fully justified the heavy loss. To others, however, especially the Canadians, it was, and remains, a major disaster.

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Report, July 1944

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, professional soldier, decorated veteran of the First World War, was well liked by the National Socialist leadership and for a time commanded Hitler’s headquarters military guard. In the Second World War he acquired fame as commander of 7th Panzer Division in the campaign in the west in 1940. From 1941 he was the best known general in the German forces fighting in North Africa, and he finally commanded Army Group B in France when Allied forces had landed there in 1944. By this time, he was a sworn enemy of Hitler and ready to collaborate with the conspirators who planned the uprising of 20 July 1944. The events of that day might have taken a different turn had Rommel not been severely wounded on 17 July 1944. When Rommel’s involvement in the conspiracy was revealed, Hitler gave him the choice of suicide, or a trial followed by kith-and-kin imprisonment of his family.

In the document printed below, Rommel confronted Hitler with an ultimatum. He did so through proper channels, that is to say, through his superior, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, Supreme Commander West. Kluge sent the ultimatum to Hitler and addressed to the Führer his own assessment of the situation, which fully supported and partially repeated that of Rommel.

COPY3

The Commander-in-Chief of Army Group B

H.Q., 15.7.44

Considerations of the Situation

The situation on the Normandy front grows more difficult daily and is approaching a severe crisis.

Due to the severity of the fighting, the enemy’s enormous use of material, above all artillery and tanks, and the effect of the enemy’s unrestricted command of the air over the battle area, our own casualties are so high that the fighting strength of the divisions is rapidly diminishing. Replacements from home come only very sparingly and, with the difficult transport situation, take weeks to reach the front. As against casualties of around 97,000 men (including 2,360 officers) – that is, on average 2,500 to 3,000 men per day – replacements to date number 10,000 (of which around 6,000 have actually arrived).

Material losses the deployed troops have incurred are also uncommonly large and could be replaced up to now on only a very small scale, for example, so far 17 tanks as against losses of 225.

The newly arrived infantry divisions are raw, unused to battle, and – with their small establishment of artillery, armour-piercing guns, and close-combat anti-tank guns – not in a state, after hours of barrage and heavy bombing, to successfully repulse major enemy offensives for any length of time. As the fighting has shown, with this use of material by the enemy, even the bravest troops will be smashed piece by piece, losing men, arms, and territory.

Through the destruction of the railway system and the threat of the enemy air force to roads and tracks up to 150 km behind the front, supply conditions are so difficult that only the barest essentials can be brought up, and it is necessary to exercise the greatest economy in everything, above all in artillery and mortar ammunition. These conditions are not likely to improve, as enemy action is steadily reducing available transport capacities, and enemy activity in the air is likely to become more effective as the many airfields in the bridgehead area are taken into use.

No new forces of any consequence can be brought into the Normandy front without weakening the front of the 15th Army [on the Channel] or the Mediterranean front in southern France. The front of the 7th Army alone urgently needs 2 fresh divisions, since the troops there are exhausted.

On the enemy’s side, fresh forces and quantities of war materiel flow to the front every day. The enemy supplies are undisturbed by our air force. Enemy pressure is becoming steadily stronger.

In these circumstances, we must expect that the enemy in the foreseeable future will succeed in breaking through our thin front, especially that of the 7th Army, and thrust deep into France. I may refer to the enclosed reports of the 7th Army and the 2nd Paratrooper Corps. Apart from the Panzer Group West’s sector reserves, which for the time being are tied down by the fighting on their own front and, due to the enemy’s command in the air, can only move by night, no mobile reserves are available at 7th Army for defence against such a break-through. Action by our air force will have, as before, very little effect.

The troops are everywhere fighting heroically, but the uneven struggle is nearing its end. In my opinion, it is necessary to draw conclusions from this situation. As Army Group Commander-in-Chief I feel myself in duty bound to speak plainly on this point.

[F.d.R.d.A.]

signed Rommel

General Field Marshal.

Unternehmen Sonnenwende[Operation Solstice]and its Impact on the Soviet Command

Numbers of Soviet tanks and antitank guns were destroyed by German Tiger II heavy tanks of 503rd SS Heavy Tank Battalion, but the German heavy tanks also took losses.

Soviet IS-2 in Stargard, 19 March 1945

The Vistula-Oder campaign had ended almost as suddenly as it had begun. As Zhukov’s 1st Byelorussian Front and Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front hurtled toward the Oder, they encountered stiffening resistance on their flanks. For Konev, the threat came from his left (southern) flank, from German forces in Silesia; for Zhukov, it came from Pomerania on his right (northern) flank. In the first weeks of February, German garrisons were resisting Zhukov’s advance stubbornly inside a number of older fortresses like Thorn (Toruń), Schneidemühl (Pila), Deutsch Krone (Wałcz), and Arnswalde (Choszczno). As always, Soviet fronts attempting to fight deep battle weakened a bit more each day, as each forward bound took them farther from their base of supply. Konev, too, found the going much slower the more deeply he advanced into the urban and industrial districts of Silesia.

Moreover, a new German army group appeared on Zhukov’s maps: Army Group Vistula, assembled in Pomerania on January 24. The new formation was a typical late-war creation, made up of broken units from the Vistula Front (remnants of General Busse’s 9th Army), as well as from East Prussia (the 2nd Army of General Walther Weiss), along with a newly formed 11th SS Panzer Army under SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner. All these formations were thrown together hastily and were vastly understrength, and the entire army group barely possessed the fighting strength of a corps. Guderian and Hitler wrangled over the commander, with Guderian recommending Field Marshal Maximilian Weichs. The Wehrmacht currently had two army group staffs in the Balkans (Weichs’s Army Group F and General Alexander Löhr’s Army Group E), and Weichs seemed the logical choice—a man with “soldierly” qualities who was “clever, upright, and brave,” as Guderian put it. “If anyone could master the situation, Weichs could.” Being soldierly was the last thing Hitler cared about by this point in the war, and he instead proposed Himmler, then commanding Army Group Upper Rhine in the wind-down phase of Operation Nordwind. Weichs, the Führer said, “made a tired impression” and “didn’t appear up to the mission,” which was how he felt about the entire officer corps by now. Himmler was hopeless as a commander, but just as in Alsace, he was able to terrorize enough officials and civilians to fill the ranks and to scrounge up scarce supplies, even if he hadn’t the faintest idea of what to do with either one.

At any rate, Soviet reconnaissance patrols detected increasing activity out of Pomerania, and Zhukov had to detach troops from his forward drive to protect his northern flank. That task had originally been the mission of his neighbor to the right, Rokossovsky’s 2nd Byelorussian Front. Tough fighting in East Prussia had diverted Rokossovsky to the north, however, leaving Zhukov’s long flank open and vulnerable. On February 15, 1st SS Panzer Army actually launched a counteroffensive south from the Stargard region. Operation Sonnenwende (“Solstice”) looked impressive enough on the map—a three-pronged advance with every division and mechanized formation that the Germans could scrounge. The quality was mixed, including the 281st Infantry Division, a converted security formation just evacuated from Courland, and the 4th SS Polizei Panzergrenadier Division, which despite its name had almost no heavy weapons. Much of the army’s fighting strength lay with the III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps under General Martin Unrein. The corps consisted of three non-German volunteer divisions of the Waffen-SS, recruited from nationalities that were acceptably “Aryan,” according to National Socialism’s bogus racial theories:

11th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nordland—Norwegian and Danish

23rd SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nederland—Dutch

27th SS Volunteer Division Langemarck—Flemish

Another of the participating formations, XXXIX Panzer Corps, contained a foreign volunteer division, the 28th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division Wallonien, consisting of French-speaking Belgians, or Walloons. Commanded by the Belgian Rexiste leader Léon Degrelle, this “division” was never larger than a brigade and perhaps less than that in Sonnenwende.

Despite the disparate nature of the manpower, the planning was solid enough. Guderian had won a point with Hitler in the prebattle planning stage, urging the Führer to appoint Himmler’s chief of staff, General Walther Wenck, as the actual field commander (Feldkommando) for the offensive. Where Himmler was uncertain and indolent, Wenck was energetic and capable and, at forty-four years old, the youngest general in the German army. He launched the attack on a 30-mile front, with XXXIX Panzer on the right, III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps in the center, and the ad hoc Korpsgruppe named for General Oskar Munzel providing flank protection on the left. The timing and precise location of the attack caught forward units of the Soviet 61st Army by surprise. With its assortment of Danes, Norwegians, and Flemings in the lead, Sonnenwende drove south seven miles and actually managed to relieve the besieged German garrison of Arnswalde. But this relatively impressive opening soon petered out into tough positional fighting over the next two days—the last thing the Wehrmacht could afford. The infantry component—German and non-German alike—was half-trained, and the precious Panzers suffered heavy and irreplaceable losses to Soviet antitank guns, mines, and artillery. Bad luck also played a role. After briefing Hitler personally on February 17, Wenck was driving back to headquarters. His exhausted driver had been on duty for two days straight, so Wenck took over, promptly fell asleep at the wheel, and slammed into a bridge. He spent the next few weeks convalescing in a hospital, and Sonnenwende never did get restarted. Whether Wenck’s presence would have made difference is an open question, but losing a good commander days into an operation is rarely a positive.

Failure or not, the counterstroke had an impact. Sonnenwende gave both Zhukov and the Stavka a case of the nerves. Final victory was in sight, so this was no time to be courting senseless risk. With a major river (the Oder) in front of Zhukov and unknown troubles brewing on his flanks, the time had come to halt. Konev’s front, as well, was going to be needed for the drive on Berlin, and he could hardly fight in Berlin and Silesia at the same time. Put simply, before the two Soviet fronts could strike at Berlin they had housecleaning duties to tend to on their flanks. Zhukov, along with Rokossovsky’s 2nd Byelorussian Front, spent the next two months squashing the remains of German resistance in eastern Pomerania (Hinterpommern—“Pomerania east of the Oder”). The campaign featured a tricky degree of interfront cooperation, with Zhukov’s right wing and Rokossovsky’s left wing doing most of the fighting. At first, the two fronts drove straight north, heading toward Kolberg and Köslin. After reaching the Baltic coast and splitting the province in two, Zhukov wheeled left toward Stettin and the mouth of the Oder, while Rokossovsky wheeled right toward Danzig and the Gotenhafen fortifications. By now, the German civilian population in this region was on the move, with hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes, desperate to evade rampaging Soviet tank columns. All the German military formations in Pomerania took in immense masses of civilians. Indeed, helping civilians flee to the west became the army’s unofficial raison d’être for continuing the war to the bitter end.

While Zhukov reduced Pomerania, Konev fought a bitter campaign to reduce German resistance in Silesia. On February 8, 1st Ukrainian Front launched a vast, two-pronged operation out of the Steinau and Ohlau bridgeheads (the Lower Silesian Operation). Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner of Army Group Center had two understrength “armies” under his command in Silesia: 17th Army standing opposite the Ohlau bridgehead and 4th Panzer Army guarding Steinau. Both were the remnants of German forces smashed on the Vistula, however, and Schörner had “only about as many field divisions as Konev had armies,” in the words of one analyst. Both German forces gave way within hours, and Konev’s tank armies were motoring 40 miles past their starting line by the end of the first day. Rather than push west toward Germany, however, Konev decided first to encircle Breslau, diverting 1st Guards Tank Army from its original westward axis, wheeling it 180 degrees to the east, and looping it around Breslau from the south. Breslau was encircled (and would withstand a siege and assault for three full months, until May 6—outliving even Hitler himself). But Konev’s decision gave the Germans just enough time for elements of 4th Panzer Army to firm up their defenses along the Neisse River (Lausitzer Neisse, or “Lusatian Neisse”). Konev’s attempts to establish bridgeheads over the Neisse led to fierce fighting against the six German divisions on the western bank and resulted in a bare sliver of a lodgment between Forst in the south and Guben in the north.

Konev now faced a German army immediately to his west (4th Panzer) and a second immediately to his south (17th) and was, for the moment, “contained inside a right angle of German forces.” He had pushed up to the Neisse on a 60-mile front and encircled Breslau, but German forces were still in the field and still active, launching a pair of small but vigorous counterattacks at Lauban (March 2) and at Striegau (March 9) that, although failing to achieve lasting success, served notice to Konev that the front was still active. Moreover, activity on his deep-left flank seemed threatening. Here lay Armeegruppe Heinrici (later, 1st Panzer Army), and once again Konev couldn’t concentrate on the Berlin axis far to the west when a threat lay this deep on his opposite flank. He now decided to redeploy 4th Tank Army from the Neisse front and insert it into battle 100 miles to the southeast in Upper Silesia. On March 15, he launched another massive offensive (the Upper Silesian Operation), both sides battling away in the mountains and industrial districts north of Mährisch-Ostrau (Moravska Ostrava). The initial breakthroughs managed to encircle the German LVI Panzer Corps southwest of Oppeln. The corps managed to break out of the ring—just in time for 4th Ukrainian Front to join the offensive on March 22—launching an attack on 1st Panzer Army from the east. Heinrici parried both thrusts, and the Soviets called off their offensive on March 31. They had pushed back, but not destroyed, 1st Panzer Army, and that may be all they wanted to do in the first place. Konev had neutralized the threat from Silesia, but it had taken him nearly two months, almost exactly the time Zhukov needed to overrun Pomerania.

Operation Solstice [OoB]

 

Luftwaffe preparations for the Ardennes Offensive

The situation for the Luftwaffe was not encouraging. Fuel was the main concern within the Luftwaffe with aircraft availability a close second. The general policy was one of a concerted effort to conserve fuel and assets. This resulted in a stockage of reserve fuel and ammunition as well as an increase in serviceable aircraft. The past few months of near uninterrupted Allied air superiority caused many problems for the Luftwaffe. Despite these problems, Marshal Herman Goering, Commander of the Luftwaffe, was able to equip and recommitted fifteen decimated Luftwaffe units by the end of October. The strength of twin-engine fighters increased by 25 percent from the beginning of the year, however, monthly German losses averaged 1,800 single-engine fighters in the West alone. This, along with the increase in deliveries, resulted in only a slight increase in actual availability of aircraft. The readiness emphasis on fighters was accomplished at the expense of the bomber and reconnaissance arms of the Luftwaffe.

Regardless of the number of planes, the desperate situation in aviation fuel limited use of the new planes. As mentioned earlier, aviation fuel production was suffering and stocks were being depleted. The shortage of fuel had two primary effects. First, pilot training was cut from 250 hours to 110 hours. Secondly, as a result of pilot and fuel shortages, Luftwaffe planes were only able to engage Allied missions over Germany on an average of four days a month compared to the Allies who conducted missions on a daily basis. At the start of the offensive, Luftwaffe Command West had a strength of 2,292 planes of all types of which only 1,376 were operational.

In September, there were seventy-five serviceable airfields within a 125-mile radius of the Ardennes Offensive staging area. However, within the first four weeks of the build-up, thirty-four of the airfields were rendered unserviceable or partially unserviceable by Allied air interdiction. Poor soil conditions inhibited the repair of damaged airfields. To make matters worse, none of these airfields was suited for winter operations. These conditions forced the Luftwaffe to consolidate aircraft at a few bases. Additionally, the Germans wanted these forward airbases to conserve fuel and provide maximum time on station for ground support. This consolidation resulted in overcrowding of aircraft and gave Allied aircraft a target-rich environment when attacking these airbases.

By December 1944, the Luftwaffe received 527 Me-262 jet fighters. The Luftwaffe fielded the first Me-262 units this same month. However, technical problems and an effort to conserve aviation fuel resulted in a lack of pilot training. This would result in the Me-262 having no significant influence on the war much less the Ardennes Offensive.

Approximately 75 percent of single engine fighters in the Luftwaffe were located on the Western Front—an amount of approximately 1,500. Of these, approximately 70 percent were serviceable. German production of single engine fighters for October was 850 ME-109s and 650 FW-190s. Production of twin engine fighters was 240 aircraft with the majority being Me-110s, which were used mainly as night fighters. The strength of the Me-110s had grown to over 700 by November. Approximately 225 bombers were located in the area and were used for night bombing of Allied supply lines.

During the preparations and build-up for the offensive, the Luftwaffe was mainly used for reconnaissance. Planes were also used to fly up and down the front to attempt to drown out the sound of vehicles moving into place on the final few days before the assault.

Such was the situation in Luftwaffe preparations for the Ardennes Offensive. Although there was a rather large number of fighters and bombers in the area, restrictions on fuel usage would limit the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe during the build-up. This situation resulted in the Ardennes Offensive being the first offensive the Germans launched without air superiority. As the offensive would unfold, the results of the unprepared Luftwaffe would be fatal.

Operation Bodenplatte

The ever-lengthening lines of communication made the problems of keeping such massive armies supplied too great until such time as the port of Antwerp could be opened. This was not done until early November, and the Allied offensive ground to a halt. This, coupled with worsening weather, gave the Luftwaffe a breathing space, in which the fighter arm was expanded using pilots from disbanded bomber units and re-equipped with new aircraft. At this stage the Jagdflieger was of very mixed worth; undertrained and inexperienced pilots, leavened with old stagers who were very dangerous but too few in number, equipped with fighters that were basically good, and in some cases excellent, but were only effective in the right hands. From October 1944, they were increasingly handicapped by a shortage of fuel.

Allied fighter units advanced to bases near the German border, which enabled them to range deep into Germany. From this point on, fighter operations became inextricably linked with the American long-range escort missions, even though they were not an integral part of them.

What amounted to the last throw of the Luftwaffe came at dawn on 1 January 1945, with Operation Bodenplatte. This was an all-out assault on Allied airfields on the continent by 800 or more fighters. While this destroyed almost 300 Allied aircraft, Jagdflieger losses were horrendous; many irreplaceable fighter leaders went down during this operation. The attack caused a hiatus in Allied fighter operations, the brunt of the air fighting for the next week or so being borne by the Tempests of 122 Wing, which had escaped the onslaught. The Jagdflieger never recovered. From this moment on they were encountered in the air only infrequently, though the fuel shortages meant that those met with were more than likely to be Experten. In spite of this, a handful of Allied fighter pilots managed to build up respectable scores, even though opportunities were few.

German losses were 159 pilots KIA, 53 captured, 19 wounded.

The Luftwaffe lost 300+ Planes and 212 pilots never returned, among the pilots lost were 3 Kommodoren, 6 Gruppenkommandeure and 10 Staffelkapitane. Men the Luftwaffe would not be able to replace.

281 aircraft lost with 60-100%, 35 with under 60 %

The Luftwaffe crews knew a large-scale action was going to take place but not the date. The crews were also not participating in a happy hour the day/night before.

The Pathfinders that led the day fighter force consisted of Ju 88G-6 Nachtjägers from several night-fighter staffels, as well as at least one Me 262 from KG 51.

Effect on Ardennes German Army Operations

Hitler and the OKW hoped to give Field Marshal Walter Model’s troops further relief from Operation BODENPLATTE (Base-plate). The majority of the Luftwaffe’s fighters had been concentrated for use in WACHT AM RHEIN and BODENPLATTE, which left the home front extremely vulnerable. Germany was now more powerless than ever to resist the waves of Allied bombers.

BODENPLATTE had little positive effect on the operations of the German army units. After the divisions under Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery also attacked the breakthrough area from the north on 3 January, and consequently threatened to encircle many German units, the OKW ordered a general retreat. The front was gradually withdrawn, though not without considerable losses. In late January/early February 1945 Model’s troops, or what was left of them, found themselves back in the same positions they had taken up on 16 December. During its final stage, the German retreat was speeded up further by the beginning of the Soviet Vistula offensive on 12 January. The OKW was now forced rapidly to throw motorized units at the eastern front, since most of the armaments and personnel had been poured into Army Group B since November 1944. The lack of these troops now made itself felt in the east, and their absence allowed the Red Army to advance rapidly westwards.

Even though Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D Eisenhower did not succeed in his intention of trapping the German panzer units in the Ardennes, the Allies could look back on a respectable victory. The German attack had collapsed after only a few days, and the Germans had suffered heavy losses (10,749 dead, 34,225 wounded, and 600-700 armoured vehicles lost).