Panzer-Lehr From Bastogne to Rochefort


Kampfgruppe 901, consisting of Panzergrenadier-Lehr-Regiment 901, 6./ Panzer-Lehr-Regiment 130, III./ Panzer-Artillerie-Regiment 130 and probably Sturmgeschützbrigade 243 was attached to the 26 th Volksgrenadier-Division for the battle of Bastogne effective 22 December 1944 to 6 January 1945. Its initial sector extended from a bridge across a stream southeast of Mont via Marvie and Remoifosse to a rural road from Salvacourt to Bastogne.

On 22 December Kampfgruppe 901 supported the 26th Volksgrenadier’s 39th Infanterie Regiment in its attack on Villeraux (Villeroux?) with an armoured group that advanced from the area south of Remoifosse to the Hazy woods. Assenois was cleared of American forces in the evening and Senonchamps captured, narrowing the ring around Bastogne. However, American forces of Patton’s 3rd Army were already exerting pressure from the south.

A reconnaissance patrol from the American 4th Armored Division of the American III Corps drove through the 5th Fallschirmjäger Divisionis screen of the westward advancing Panzer Lehr forces, setting several German vehicles on fire at an intersection three kilometres northwest of Remichampagne.

On 23 December, the 26th Volksgrenadier Division continued to attack. The attached Kampfgruppe 902 prepared for an evening assault on Marvie. During the day, American forces took Chaumont, to the south, endangering the 26th Volksgrenadier Division command post in Hompré. Generalmajor Kokott commandeered ‘four heavy tanks’, presumably Panthers of the II./ Panzer-Lehr-Regiment 130 en route from the workshop to the front, and put together a Kampfgruppe which succeeded in repulsing the American forces.

Somewhat delayed, Kampfgruppe 901’s attack northward on the Arlon–Bastogne highway took a large part of Marvie in extremely heavy fighting. The fighting continued throughout the night. The next day, both sides claimed that they were holding Marvie. In fact, the Americans still held houses in the northern fringe, the Germans the southern portion.

On 24 December Kampfgruppe 901 held the positions it had achieved, while securing the Bastogne–Arlon highway to the south with tanks, mines and other obstacles. 5th Panzerarmee informed the Generalmajor Kokott that, in addition to the 26th Volksgrenadier Division, he would have the use of the 15th Panzergrenadier-Division (which, in the event, turned out to be reduced to the use of merely one Kampfgruppe of about one-and-one half battalions of infantry and 20 tanks, the remainder being needed to help the 2nd Panzer Division at the ‘thin end’ of the wedge driving toward Dinant and the Meuse) to mount a major attack on Bastogne on 25 December.

On 25 December the action at Bastogne shifted to the northwest sector, with a major German attack between the Marche road and Champs. The attack got off to a promising start, as German tanks with infantry broke through the American lines in two locations, but the American lines closed tightly behind them, sealing off the penetration, the infantry separated from the tanks or swept from the tanks they were riding on by intense machine gun and rifle fire. All the German tanks were destroyed and the penetrating forces eliminated, with little information on their fate reaching German lines.

On 26 December, while Kampfgruppe 901 held its positions astride the Bastogne–Arlon highway, facing south, the American relief force linked up with the defenders of Bastogne. In the evening of 29 December, as command of the sector south of the Wiltz River passed to the XXXIX Panzer Korps, Kampfgruppe 901 was attached to the 167th Volksgrenadier Division. In an attempt to support a vain attack by the new Korps via Lutrebois to sever the newly opened supply route, the Panzer Lehr Panzer company was badly battered.

The American relief of Bastogne also cut the supply routes for the main body of Panzer Lehr Division 130, which had advanced toward Rochefort. Henceforth, logistical support for all German forces west of Bastogne was via a single road upon which Allied air concentrated its fury.

On 2 January the Americans attacked on a broad front in the Neffe area, entering Wardin, Neffe and Magéret, only to be forced back again by German counterattacks in a snowstorm on 3 January. Kampfgruppe 901’s sector then quieted down until, on 6 January, the Kampfgruppe, now mere remnants, a few officers, about 100 men and five Panzer IV, was ordered, after its relief, to return to its parent division. After two nights march, it rejoined Panzer Lehr Division 130 on 8 January.


On 21 December the 2nd Panzer Division captured the bridge over the Ourthe River at Ortheuville. Although the 26th Volksgrenadier Division relieved Kampfgrruppe 902 near Neffe, fuel shortage allowed only the Advance Detachment (Kampfgruppe von Fallois), along with Panzer-Pionier-Bataillon 130 and Sturmgeschützbrigade 243 to resume the westward advance.

Initially following Aufklärungsabteilung 26 to Hompré, the Advance Detachment turned westward there, making contact with the enemy near Tillet and Moircy, capturing an American supply column with 60–80 lorries and, in the evening, encircling the American 58th Field Artillery Battalion near Tillet.

After supporting the defenders at Longvilly, eight self-propelled howitzers of the 58th Armored Field Artillery Battalion had withdrawn to a new position near Tillet. When the American artillery battalion was cut off by the Panzer Lehr reconnaissance battalion in the afternoon of 21 December, the drivers and gunners dug a circle of foxholes around their guns and vehicles. Thwarted in an initial attempt to breakout, as ordered, during the night, the battalion returned to its position and fought valiantly throughout the day of 21 December with their guns and from their foxholes. By the end of 22 December only one of the eight self-propelled howitzers was still in firing condition when the battalion’s commander, Colonel Paton, ordered destruction of all equipment and for the men to break out. Shielded by trees and moving in small groups through the falling snow, most of the American battalion made it back to VIII Corps lines.

On 22 December, leaving Kampfgruppe 901 behind at Bastogne, the main body of Panzer Lehr Division 130 moved out toward St. Hubert and, more distant, the Meuse River. The lead elements of Kampfgruppe 902 crossed the main Bastogne–Arlon road at noon. Overcoming light opposition, the Division made rapid progress via Morhet–Remagne–Moircy–Hatrival. Despite breaks in the clouds and clear intervals the column proceeded without attack from the air.

Fuel shortages began to interfere as the first tank ran dry west of Moircy, already having to draw on the spare gas cans carried by the wheeled Steyr troop-carriers. The hope for captured fuel in St. Hubert proved illusory.

Forced to wait for fuel to arrive, the Division made a delayed start from St. Hubert in the morning of 23 December. The Division advanced on Rochefort by two routes, the Advance Detachment (reinforced Aufklärungs-Lehr-Abteilung 130 under Major von Born-Fallois) moving via Masbourg–Fourrieres (Forrières), Kampfgruppe 902 via Grupont–Wavreilles (Wavreille). Generalleutnant Bayerlein rode with the Advance Detachment.

As early as 23 December reconnaissance patrols reported an increasing American presence on the Division’s south flank. Also, the 5th Fallschirmjäger Division, shielding to the south, was under mounting pressure as Patton’s relief force battled toward Bastogne and, at the same time, ruptured Panzer Lehr Division 130’s supply lines. The relief force linked up with the Bastogne defenders on 26 December.

By nightfall the leading company reached the hills south of Rochefort. Patrols sent to Rochefort reported that the town was undefended. Apparently the patrols did not enter the town.

The report was incorrect. The first of the divisions being assembled for the American General ‘Lightning Joe’ Collins’ VII Corps, which was to attack the flank of the advancing German forces from the north, was the American 84th Infantry Division, whose leading elements arrived in Marche two hours before midnight in the night of 20/21 December. The main body of the division was still coming out of the line near Geilenkirchen and would arrive within the next 24 hours.

One of the ubiquitous small forces of American engineers that so often played crucial local roles in the Ardennes battle delayed the 2nd Panzer Division in its capture intact of the Bailey Bridge over the Ourthe River at Ortheuville. Capture of the bridge was not followed by a renewed advance, however, for the 2nd Panzer Division then had to wait for fuel to arrive. Its tanks had run dry. This delay on 21 and 22 December allowed the American 84th Infantry Division to reach Marche. A small detachment of the American 51st Engineer Combat Battalion manned a small roadblock at a crossroads just three miles from the Ortheuville bridge named Barrière de Champlon. During the extra time provided by the delay they felled trees to strengthen the block and blew a large crater in the road.

When enough fuel had arrived to enable the 2nd Panzer Division’s Aufklärungsabteilung to resume its advance by nightfall of 22 December, the light tanks and armored cars of the reconnaissance battalion bypassed the roadblock using trails through the woods. However, when the main body of the 2nd Panzer Division finally got moving on 23 December its heavier vehicles had to wait an additional four hours while pioneers constructed a bypass around the crater.

Upon arriving in Marche, where he set up his headquarters in the late afternoon of 21 December, the commander of the 84th Infantry Division, General Bolling, learned that elements of the German 116th Panzer Division had already attacked the bridge over the Ourthe River at Hotton. By midnight of 21/22 December General Bolling had the entire 84th Infantry Division and attached 771st Tank Battalion assembled and deploying along a line of defense.

Realizing that his division’s assembly position was endangered by the German advance he immediately committed his 334th Infantry Regiment in front of the Hotton–Marche highway, with the 335th defending in front of the town of Marche, its line refused to protect the division’s open southern flank. Colonel Fraser, commanding the 51st Engineers Combat Battalion, requested aid from the 84th Infantry Division for his detachment that was defending the Hotton bridge. However, when the troops that Bolling sent from his 334th Infantry Regiment arrived at the Hotton bridge, they found that the detachment of the 51st Engineers Combat Battalion that had been guarding that bridge, aided by a few men of the arriving 3rd Armored Division, had halted the enemy and saved the bridge in a praiseworthy feat of arms.

Marche was as critical a transportation hub as Bastogne, astride two important paved highways, the main road north to Liège and the main road, N 4, to the Meuse crossing at Namur with an offshoot to Dinant. General von Manteuffel needed Highway N 4 as a first-class highway leading through easy tank-country directly to the Meuse at Namur for his 5th Panzerarmee’s advance. The 2nd Panzer Division was advancing toward Marche. Panzer Lehr Division 130 was advancing via lesser roads that converged via Rochefort, seven miles southwest of Marche, on Namur from southeast of Highway N 4. Rochefort was on the Liège–Sedan highway. Secondary hard-surface roads led west, north and southwest from Rochefort, offering another, though less favorable, route to the Dinant crossing of the Meuse by way of Ciergnon and Celles.

At noon on 22 December an order arrived from the American XVIII Airborne Corps, (General Collins’ VII Corps had not yet assumed command) instructing General Bolling to block all roads east, southeast and south of Rochefort until the American 3rd Armored Division could extend its flank to that area.

The 2nd Panzer Division’s delay allowed General Bolling to send a rifle company to Rochefort, followed later by a motorized infantry battalion, the 335th Infantry Regiment’s 3rd Battalion (minus two companies, one left in Hargimont, where it had run into German forces en route to Rochefort, and another sent on past Rochefort to scout villages further south)), and for a task force of the American 3rd Armored Division’s Combat Command A to arrive, strengthening General Bolling’s force.

During the day of 22 December General Collins and some of the corps troops of the VII Corps arrived in the new corps area southwest of Liège.

As Kampfgruppe 902 approached Rochefort, the 335th Infantry Regiment’s 3rd Battalion had, in addition two platoons of 57 mm antitank guns from the regimental anti-tank company, a platoon of the 309th Engineer Combat Battalion, a platoon of the 638th Tank Destroyer Battalion and a platoon of the 29th Infantry Regiment that had been defending the cable-communications repeater station at nearby Jemelles.

Based on the erroneous report that Rochefort was undefended, Bayerlein, who was personally supervising Panzer Lehr’s attack, allowed the Kampfgruppe to approach Rochefort through a defile between two commanding hills, without first securing the hills.

Heavy fire halted the attack at its onset. Generalleutnant Bayerlein immediately ordered a withdrawal, sent a platoon of tanks around behind the town to cut it off and prepared his forces for a deliberate midnight assault.

Rochefort was large enough so that the American force could not prevent the Germans from entering it. After a night of house-to-house fighting, the American forces were ordered to withdraw, having achieved the desired delay. The closely-engaged men of the battalion had difficulty disengaging, but most succeeded eventually in making their way back to Marche by circuitous routes.

After taking Rochefort, there was nothing left between Panzer Lehr Division 130 and the Meuse but another battalion of the 84th Infantry Division, which was ordered to withdraw from its position in the valley of the Lesse River during the night. However, while sending reconnaissance patrols to check out the Lesse River valley, Generalleutnant Bayerlein chose to delay again in Rochefort to give his exhausted troops a chance to rest and enjoy the special rations that had arrived for Christmas.

On 23 December skies cleared over the Ardennes and Allies air joined the battle in full force, flying over 7,000 sorties in the next four days.

General von Lüttwitz and General von Manteuffel met on the night of 23 December and agreed that the Americans now held Marche in strength, eliminating Highway N 4 as a feasible route to the Meuse at Namur. Since the 2nd Panzer Division had already bypassed Marche to the south, and Panzer Lehr Division 130 could now reach the valley of the Lesse River via Rochefort, the 5th Panzer Armee would now have to use that less favourable route from Rochefort to the Meuse at Dinant, a distance of only 14 miles.

However, the two Panzer divisions were now at the thin end of a long wedge with both flanks seriously exposed to the gathering American forces. Both divisions had already started shedding elements as they advanced to cover their flanks. German hopes rested on the possible arrival of the 9th Panzer Division sometime in the next day or two, as well as some part of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, which had already been, in part, committed at Bastogne. If the 116th Panzer Division succeeded in cutting and crossing the Marche–Hotton highway east of Marche and then Highway N 4, that would also prevent the Americans from concentrating their forces against the German spearhead. In the event, hard fighting and massive artillery support thwarted the German attempt to cross the Hotton–Marche highway and, in so doing, also scuttled the attempt to cover the vulnerable north flank of the 2nd Panzer Division.

Henceforth, Panzer Lehr’s actions can only be understood in relation to those of the 2nd Panzer Division as the Division’s drive to the Meuse was transformed into a last-ditch effort to save the cut-off elements of its desperate partner in the XLVII Panzer Korps.

The reconnaissance Abteilung and the leading Kampfgruppe of the 2nd Panzer Division, consisting of one Abteilung of the division’s 3rd Panzer Regiment with about 40 Panther tanks, 25 self-propelled guns–most of the division’s artillery–and Panzergrenadiers of the division’s 304th Infanterie Regiment in half-tracked SPW’s, bypassed Marche to the south and advanced through Humaine and Buissonville westward toward Dinant on the Meuse. The remainder of the 2nd Panzer Division was stretched all to way back to south of Marche with the dual missions of continuing the westward advance and of protecting XLVII Panzer Korps northern flank. Leading elements of the Aufklärungsabteilung reached Celles, only six miles from Dinant and the Meuse crossing, before daylight on 24 December.

At just about that time Combat Command B of the powerful American 2nd Armored Division began to arrive in Ciney, about six miles northeast of Celles. In the meanwhile, one of the two task forces of the 2nd Armored Division’s Combat Command A, under orders to reach Rochefort, passed through Buissonville after the passage of the 2nd Panzer Division force, the remainder of CCA joining its advance on parallel roads. A long German column approaching Buissonville was shot to pieces.

Nearby the 24th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron of the 4th Cavalry Group moved into Humain. With Buissonville and Humain in American hands, the 2nd Panzer Division route of advance was blocked, the Aufklärungsabteilung and leading Kampfgruppe cut off. The only route left for the German advance was the highway through Rochefort up the valley of the Lesse River, the road in front of the Panzer Lehr Division.

In the meanwhile, the 2nd Panzer Division Aufklärungsabteilung resumed its advance. The Kampfgruppe following it, however, was forced to halt in the village of Conjoux, two miles back from Celles and wait for fuel, its tanks almost dry.

After losing one tank to a mine at Celles, the German reconnaissance battalion then ran into five British Sherman tanks of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, which was defending the west bank of the Meuse at Dinant. Losing two vehicles to British fire and running out of petrol, the reconnaissance battalion went for cover among the houses of the nearby village of Foy-Notre Dame, only three miles from the Meuse. A single German tank, knocked out in the garden of the curé of the village of Foy-Notre Dame, marked the western limit of the German armoured advance. That was the closest any significant German force got to the Meuse crossings. General Model ordered the men of the Aufklärungsabteilung to leave their immobilized vehicles and continue to the Meuse on foot. That order was ignored.

At this point the main body of the German 2nd Panzer Division was blocked in its advance, its Aufklärungsabteilung and leading Kampfgruppe separated and cut off by strong American forces. Also, good flying weather exposed the 2nd Panzer Division, especially its leading elements that had been cut off and its supply columns, to savage and relentless aerial attack.

General Ernest Harmon, commanding the American 2nd Armored Division requested permission to attack the vulnerable German 2nd Panzer Division.

Field Marshal Montgomery was concerned about a possible major German attack. He felt that the enemy had the forces for another major breakout. Accordingly, in the afternoon of 24 December, he released General Collins from his mission to attack and authorized him to withdraw his forces, if necessary, to a line from Hotton northwest to the Meuse River at Andenne, twelve miles downstream (north) of the bend at Namur. General Collins, however, was only ‘authorized’, not ordered, to withdraw his forces. He also had been given unrestricted use of all his divisions. Having secured written orders to cover himself against recriminations, he gave General Harmon the go-ahead to attack.

The Germans were not yet aware of the arrival of the American 2nd Armored Division. Still hoping to attain the goal of the Meuse River, early on Christmas Day General von Lüttwitz, commanding the XLVII Panzer Korps ordered Panzer Lehr Division 130 to recapture Humain and Buissonville, reopening the 2nd Panzer Divisions’s line of communications and best route to the Meuse while the main body of the 2nd Panzer Division forced its way through to its cut-off elements.

All this was part of a larger plan to revive the offensive toward the Meuse. The 6th Panzer Armee was to rapidly advance its II SS-Panzer Korps to take over the fighting east of the Ourthe River on the right. The 116th Panzer Division of 5th Panzer Armee’s LVIII Panzer Korps was, after taking Vendenne and Marche, to move north to take Baillonville and then wheel left, advancing through Pessoux to Ciney, covering the 2nd Panzer Division’s right flank and giving breadth to the drive on the Meuse. The 9th Panzer Division was, on its arrival, to move in on Panzer Lehr’s right. In the event, none of the elements of this plan materialized.

On 25 December the American 2nd Armored Division launched its attack on the German 2nd Panzer Division, a two-pronged envelopment to destroy the German forces believed to be in the Celles area. The day was clear and the attack received some of the best tactical air support ever seen in the war. The 2nd Armored Division’s Combat Command B constituted two task forces that attacked southwest from Ciney, converging on Celles where they enveloped Kampfgruppe von Cochenhausen (reinforced Panzergrenadier-Regiment 304). By day’s end there was little left of the Kampfgruppe. At the same time the 2nd Armored Division’s 82nd Reconnaissance Battalion, supported to its right by the British 29th Tank Brigade, attacked Kampfgruppe von Böhm, (the Aufklärungsabteilung and part of the division’s artillery), destroying it with the help of close air support. Farther east, the 2nd Armored Division’s Combat Command A advanced south, cutting the 2nd Panzer Division axis of advance near Buissonville and Humain.

As ordered, Kampfgruppe 902 (von Poschinger) set out at midnight of 25/26 December for Humain, the Advance Detachment (Kampfgruppe von Fallois) for Buissonville. Kampfgruppe 902 drove the American 24th Cavalry Squadron out of Humain, but the Advance Detachment ran into the American 2nd Armored Division’s CCA which stopped it cold before Buissonville. Highway N 4 remained blocked, the 2nd Panzer Division Aufklärungsabteilung and forward regimental Kampfgruppe cut off from each other and from outside aid as they were annihilated by the American 2nd Armored Division and Allied air forces.

During the night of 25/26 December Panzeraufklärungs-Lehr-Abteilung 130 (Advance Detachment) was relieved in Humain by a Kampfgruppe from the 9th Panzer Division and returned to the Division at Rochefort.

On 26 December further German attempts by the 9th Panzer Division Kampfgruppe and by the remainder of the 2nd Panzer Division to break through to the cut-off elements of the 2nd Panzer Division failed. When the cut-off elements, bereft of fuel, finally received belated permission to withdraw, abandoning all their equipment, about 600 men made it back the following night to their own lines in Rochefort.

That marked the end of the German advance. The defunct Panther in the garden of the curé in Foy–Notre Dame was the western-most German tank, the last flotsam cast up at the high-water mark. Charles B. MacDonald put it very well when he said (A Time for Trumpets), ‘…the Germans in front of the Meuse on Christmas Day and the next day suffered ‘one of the most serious things that can possibly happen to one in battle’–as Tweedledee explained to Alice–getting one’s head cut off.’ Hitler still refused to admit that his forces could not reach the Meuse, but he placed immediate priority on the elimination of Bastogne. General von Manteuffel tacitly shifted his emphasis from continuing the drive for the Meuse to capturing Bastogne. Suddenly Panzer Lehr Division 130 and the truncated 2nd Panzer Division were out of the limelight. The 2nd Panzer Division was pulled back through Rochefort. Panzer Lehr Division 130 was shifted southeast to Remagne, five miles northwest of the Neufchâteau–Bastogne Highway where, no longer strong enough to attack, it would stubbornly hold a sector of the front while others struck the left flank of the corridor linking Bastogne with Patton’s Third Army to the south.


Breakout of the Admiral Graf Spee

5 August-29 September 1939: ‘The Curtain Lifts’

In his first War Directive, dated 31 August 1939, Hitler stressed the importance of leaving ‘the responsibility for opening hostilities unmistakably to England and France’, adding that should either country begin operations against Germany, German forces should simply hold the frontier and do nothing to compromise the defeat of Poland. Specifically, however, ‘The Navy will operate against merchant shipping, with England as the focal point . . .’ In fact contingent operations had already begun in late July, placing German naval forces in a position to respond to any hints that Britain might rally in support of Poland and to remove key units from the remote possibility of any enforced British blockade.

Secretly therefore, on 5 August, the German naval tanker Altmark, commanded by Kapitän zur See K.H. Dau and loaded with stores, food and ammunition, left Wilhelmshaven. The following day, in brilliant sunshine, she passed through the Strait of Dover, word of which was passed to the Admiralty, a first twitch of the curtain as it lifted upon the drama. The Altmark, a grey, black-funnelled tanker, was not a German-registered merchant ship, instead she flew the distinctive ensign of the Reich Service and was government owned. She doubled the South Foreland and Dungeness, then headed west, out of the Channel and across the North Atlantic, bound for Port Arthur on the Texan coast. Here she was to load 9,400 tons of diesel oil, ostensibly consigned to Rotterdam, but in truth to be held ready to operate in support of the Admiral Graf Spee.

The Panzerschiffherself was recalled from torpedo-firing exercises for a dry-docking on the 17th. While her bottom was cleaned and anti-fouled she was topped up with operational stores and a team of cypher decoding specialists from the B-Dienst service joined the ship, with some officers of the German naval reserve – men whose normal service in merchant ships had acquainted them with British trade routes, the nature of British-flagged shipping to be found on them and the familiarity to distinguish rapidly the identity, type and even the name of ships the Admiral Graf Spee would encounter.

Meanwhile, to augment this, on 19 August five U-boats sailed from Kiel, with a further nine leaving Wilhelmshaven; they had all been allocated ‘waiting positions’ in the North Atlantic.

Then, in the late afternoon of the 21st the Admiral Graf Spee, under the command of Kapitän zur See Hans Langsdorff, slipped seawards from Wilhelmshaven, heading north, to pass by way of the Iceland Faeroes Gap into the vast wastes of the Western Ocean. Two more U-boats, one of which was U-30 commanded by Kapitänleutnant zur See Fritz-Julius Lemp, and a second fleet-tanker, the Westerwald under Fregattenkapitän Grau, followed. She was intended to operate in support of Kapitän zur See Wennecker’s Deutschland, which left on 24 August and headed for a station off Cape Farewell, the southern tip of Greenland. Should any reaction emanate from London as events east of Germany unfolded, a show of muscle along Britain’s vaunted sea frontier might achieve a similar climbdown as had the Führer’s blandishments at Munich, but Hitler had taken no such precautions in the events leading to the Munich Crisis of 1938. In the operational orders issued to Langsdorff and Wennecker on 4 August it was clearly stated that: ‘The political situation makes it appear possible that, in the event of a conflict with Poland, the Guarantor Powers (England and France) will intervene’, and the Luftwaffe had been ordered to take advantage of any ‘favourable opportunities to make an effective attack on massed English naval units, especially on battleships and aircraft carriers’.

By the 25th, as the hours were counted down to the invasion of Poland, Norddeich Radio had transmitted a warning to all German merchant ships, alerting them to the possibility of war. The danger of British interception of German merchantmen on the high seas was critical. Two days later a second message followed, urging all merchant shipping to reach the Fatherland within four days, failing which they should head for a neutral or pro-German friendly port.

However, alarmed by intelligence, the British began seeking assurances that no military operations were in train. In Scapa Flow, the Royal Navy’s anchorage in the Orkney Islands, the Home Fleet was ordered to raise steam. Under Admiral of the Fleet Sir Charles Forbes the battle squadrons slipped their moorings and headed seaward in a show of strength and determination. Britain’s traditional first weapon of defence was already mobilized. Hitler faltered as the possibility became a probability, postponing his invasion; but he was unable to stay his hand for long. German forces began their advance into Poland at dawn on the 1st September; that evening a first British ultimatum was delivered from London. During the 2nd, as the overwhelmed Polish forces fought valiantly, refusing to cave in, intense diplomatic activity sought to halt Hitler. Then, on the morning of the 3rd, Great Britain and France rallied to their Polish ally and declared war.

While Forbes was ordered to carry out a sweep in the Iceland/Faeroe Gap in search of German merchant ships, particularly the liner Bremen, and HMS Somali, Captain Nicholson, of the 6th Destroyer Flotilla captured the Hannah Boge 350 miles south of Iceland, the waiting Panzerschiffs and U-boats, by a conspicuous and swift interdiction of British merchant shipping, might still prevent a declaration of war in support of a dying ally amount to full-blown hostilities. But then, on the very evening of the day on which a betrayed Neville Chamberlain had declared Britain and her empire at war with Germany, Lemp sank the British passenger liner Athenia off Malin Head.

Hitler had expressly forbidden the sinking of passenger liners and although Lemp was afterwards exonerated from charges of disobedience on the grounds that he believed the Athenia to have been an Armed Merchant Cruiser, the attack convinced the Admiralty that the Germans had embarked on unrestricted submarine warfare. Although initially far from perfect, merchant shipping was immediately organized in convoy, as much against the firepower of surface raiders, Hilfskruizers (fast cargo liners heavily armed as commerce raiders) and Panzerschiffs, as against the torpedo of the U-boat. But convoy could only be extended across the North Atlantic and south to Gibraltar and Sierra Leone. British merchantmen, owned by hundreds of private shipping companies, traded worldwide. For a sea officer of the Third Reich determined to interdict the enemy’s supply routes, there were opportunities galore not in the North, but in the South Atlantic.

In contact – but not in company – with Dau, Langsdorff headed south for his ‘waiting station’ off Pernambuco (modern Recife) on the shoulder of Brazil but adjacent to the so-called Atlantic Narrows.

Grossadmiral Raeder had prepared his small but modern navy for a war on trade to the best of his ability and in spite of the shortfall in time the Führer had assured him he would have. He knew, as Stephen Roskill pointed out after the war, that: ‘The effectiveness of surface raiders depends not only on the actual sinkings and captures which they accomplish but on the disorganization to the flow of shipping which their presence, or even the suspicion of their presence, generates’. Raeder’s first principle was, therefore, concealment; his second deception. Langsdorff and Wennecker were expected to take advantage of the vast areas of open ocean uncrossed by the traditional trade routes and far beyond the reach of air reconnaissance. It would be in such wild spots that the Panzerschiffs would rendezvous with their supply tankers. For the Admiral Graf Spee, a cruising ground in the South Atlantic had been chosen. Here two major British supply routes offered alternative targets. The route from the Rio de la Plata, much favoured by fast, frozen meat-carrying ships, would prove one area rich in pickings. The other, to and from the Cape of Good Hope, not only exposed the traffic to Cape Town, but also some services from Australia and India which, by taking in East African ports, favoured the Cape route rather than the transit of the Suez Canal. Not only did these twin major arteries of British imperial trade allow Langsdorff a choice of targets, but they could be struck anywhere along their attenuated lengths. He was to avoid their concentrated choke-points, for at such foci strongest naval protection would most likely be found. But both routes bore a mass of shipping, from the fast reefers, mentioned earlier, to the equally fast passenger and mail liners, cargo liners with valuable ladings of outward general cargo and homeward loads of produce from all over the world including tanks of Tung and palm oils, latex and tallow. There were also the heavily burdened tramp ships with their homogenous bulk cargoes of coal, steel, sugar, wheat, iron and manganese ore, loads of flax and rubber, their deck-cargoes of flammable esparto grass and timber. Nor did these ships trade directly between Great Britain and her partners, but provided shipping services to other nations. Disruption of these would have wider political implications detrimental to invisible earnings for the British economy. Moreover, to throw any pursuit off his trail, Langsdorff could disappear into the Southern Ocean and double either of the great capes, to reappear in the Pacific or the Indian Oceans, or to descend on the British and South African whaling fleet in the waters south of the Falklands. As his operational orders summed up: ‘The enemy is not in a position to carry his complete import requirements in escorted convoys. Independent ships can therefore be expected.’

Although specifically ordered to obey the Hague Convention and respect the Prize Regulations applied to cruiser warfare against unarmed civilian merchantmen, Langsdorff was to strike and withdraw, to keep the enemy guessing, to disguise his ship by means of wood, canvas and paint. The hoisting of neutral naval ensigns as they approached a victim was approved under international law, provided the belligerent ensign was run up prior to fire being opened. Above all, Langsdorff was to avoid any contact with British naval forces. If these should be encountered by accident and ‘even if inferior, are only to be engaged if it should further the principal task (i.e. war on merchant shipping)’. This, Langsdorff was to discover, was not merely more difficult than the staff officers in the Seekriegsleitung supposed when drafting his instructions, but would prove the very crux of the matter and the cause of his undoing.

His master, Erich Raeder, sensed this, and presciently wrote a reflection on the situation on 3 September, the very day that war broke out. Of his surface forces, the Grossadmiral said that they could ‘do no more than show that they know how to die gallantly . . .’ Specifically the achievements of the Deutschland and the Admiral Graf Spee, ‘if skilfully used, should be able to carry out cruiser warfare on the high seas for some time’. He added, just before he asked Korvettenkapitän Heinz Assman to countersign the document: ‘The Panzerschiffs, however, cannot be decisive in the war…’

Despite – or perhaps because of – these misgivings, Raeder had given his commanders the greatest possible latitude, allowing them the untrammelled judgement of the man-on-the-spot. Moreover, by way of encouragement, provided ‘operational possibilities were exhausted’ they might, in extremis, run into a neutral port where, however, they must ‘without fail [. . .] ensure that on no account the ship falls into enemy hands’. Having held out the carrot, Raeder could not conceal the stick: ‘I shall act without mercy against any commander who compromises the honour of the Flag and is found lacking in that energy which alone can bring success and achieve a position of respect for the Kriegsmarine. Rather death with honour than strike the Flag!’

Langsdorff’s escape undetected into the Atlantic was a model of careful navigational passage-planning, hugging the Norwegian coast as though on an exercise, taking a wide sweep north of Fair Isle and the Shetlands and passing through areas where shipping might be encountered during the hours of darkness. In this he was fortuitously assisted by a suspension on the 21st of the North Sea air patrols which had been a feature of British naval exercises during August. On the 23rd the Admiral Graf Spee was north-west of Bergen, she then slowed down until, on the 24th off Stokksnes, Iceland, she increased speed and swung south and west. Four days later, east of Cape Race, Newfoundland, she was heading due south, to meet the Altmark. Securing to a line trailed astern of the tanker, they passed a hose and topped up with fuel. Some unwanted material was disposed of and two 20mm guns were transferred to the tanker for her own defence. The two ships then proceeded south in company, sing-songs being organized to raise morale so that, by Sunday, 3 September, the Admiral Graf Spee was north-west of the Cape Verde Islands, adjusting her speed and making small and local alterations of course to avoid being seen by any merchantmen.

The first positive news of war came from a B-Dienst intercept of the BBC’s broadcast from Rugby. Langsdorff had forbidden his officers to listen to the BBC but the German signal notifying them of war arrived within the hour. Soon afterwards came an instruction not to attack French shipping – by which his ship would assuredly be reported – in an attempt by Hitler to divide the Western Allies. B-Dienst intercepts also informed him that British naval precautions were in hand, convoy arrangements were already made and naval forces were being built up at Freetown, Sierra Leone, the southern rendezvous point for North Atlantic convoys. Finally, further disheartening news came in the wake of Lemp’s precipitate action in sinking the Athenia: the immediate organization of convoy, but the otherwise quiescent attitude of the British and French persuaded Berlin – still trying to avoid a hot war with Britain – that commerce raiding was ‘inadvisable at present’. Maintaining radio silence the Admiral Graf Spee was to move father south, to ‘hold back and withdraw . . .’

Three days later, midway between Freetown and Trinidad, she altered course south-eastwards to her new ‘waiting position’, a vast scalene triangle with its dart-like and shallowest angle pointing at the Cape of Good Hope many miles away, but lying between the two major trade routes in the South Atlantic and where she and the Altmark arrived on 10 September. The two ships ran under reduced engine revolutions, biding the outcome of events upon the plains of Northern Europe. On 11 September Langsdorff secured his isolation by flying-off his Arado 196 floatplane to provide notice of any shipping and, with boats ferrying stores between the two ships, began a replenishment from the Altmark. While this was in hand the Arado sighted two vessels one of which they thought to be a British cruiser. To their horror it appeared to alter course and to head for the position of the Admiral Graf Spee and her consort. Hoping his aeroplane had gone unobserved but maintaining radio silence, the Arado pilot banked steeply and headed for home.

Immediately on receipt of this intelligence, Langsdorff aborted the replenishment and, recovering his boats and the Arado, sped away; Dau took Altmark on a diverging course. The alarm had been caused by HMS Cumberland, on her way from Plymouth to reinforce Commodore Henry Harwood’s cruiser squadron then off Rio de Janeiro. The abrupt and purposeful alteration of course had been merely a routine change from zig to zag as the Cumberland carried out standard anti-submarine procedure along a median rhumb-line. Langsdorff had no such comforting assurance, however, and his B-Dienst people were put to the task of diligent interception of British naval signals to discover whether or not their presence was known to the enemy.

Meanwhile, far away Hitler and the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht vacillated over what to do next. On the 23rd the Führer, Keitel, Raeder and their respective staffs met at Zoppot to consider the situation vis-à-vis the Western Allies. Insofar as the Deutschland and the Admiral Graf Spee were concerned it was appreciated that, despite the support of the Westerwald and Altmark, their supplies were finite and they could not be asked to remain undetected indefinitely. There was also the awkward question of morale. Against this the second wave of U-boats would shortly be sent to sea and therefore an intensification of ‘war against merchant shipping’ should be initiated ‘at the beginning of October’. To this the Führer agreed. Accordingly, on 26 September, the Deutschland and the Admiral Graf Spee were ordered to operate against the British. French shipping – of less importance both to France and to the German war-effort – remained inviolate.

With the mask off, Langsdorff considered his position, helped by appreciations from Berlin and his B-Dienst specialists on board. He was aware that, on the 2nd October a Pan-American Neutrality Zone would be declared by the American government, warning the European belligerents that no attacks on shipping within 300 miles of the coast of the Americas would be tolerated. He also knew that Mussolini’s Italy would not, as she was bound to by treaty, come into the war at the side of her fellow Fascists, which meant that the British still had unrestricted access to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. He also learned of the dispositions of the British Royal Navy.

The Royal Navy was not far away. Prior to the outbreak of war, during an increase in international tension between the European powers, the Royal Navy had mobilized. As noted the Home Fleet was on a war footing prior to 3 September and, during extensive exercises in August, the Reserve Fleet had also been mobilized. Immediately on the outbreak of war, in addition to instituting convoy for all merchant ships on the home coasts and Western Approaches, the British declared a blockade of Germany. Its first acts were to intercept homeward-bound German merchantmen, hence Nicholson’s capture of the Hannah Boge off Iceland and Forbes’s unsuccessful sweep in search of the Nord-Deutscher Lloyd liner Bremen, which was already safe in Murmansk and from there by way of neutral Norwegian waters reached the Fatherland. Despite errors, such as that of the British submarine Triton sinking the British submarine Oxley, the blockade was effective, if only in that German ships preferred to scuttle themselves to avoid capture. Most notably, however, the liner Cap Norte, ‘which was carrying reservists from South America to Germany was successfully seized’, but not until 9 October (she afterwards became the troopship Empire Trooper). Farther afield, off the Rio de la Plata and in the first two days of the war, the British cruiser Ajax, flying the broad pendant of Commodore Henry Harwood, intercepted the German freighters Carl Fritzen and the Olinda. Off the West African coast the Neptune caught the Inn. Neither Harwood nor Vice Admiral D’Oyly Lyon, the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic, nor their masters in the Admiralty in London had an inkling that a powerful German raider lay in the offing between.


Hyazinth Graf Strachwitz Von Gross-Zauche Und Camminetz was the most decorated regimental commander, and one of the most effective panzer leaders, in the German Army.

He was one of only 27 men in the entire Wehrmacht to be awarded the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. Of these he was the only one to receive grades of the decoration for both bravery and his command abilities, which led to the significant outcomes which merited the award. The other Diamonds recipients received awards for either their bravery and combat accomplishments, such as Erich Hartmann for his 352 aerial victories, or for their skill in command, such as Hans Hube and Walter Model. In the latter cases their men did the actual fighting and the award was as much for the units under their command as for them.

Von Strachwitz’s rapid rise during World War II from a lowly captain to a lieutenant general, equivalent to a major general in the UK and US armies, was nothing short of extraordinary, and this in an army not lavish in granting promotions.

He fought in nearly all of the major campaigns—the invasions of Poland, France and Yugoslavia, and the important campaigns and battles in the east including Operation Barbarossa, the battles of Kiev, Stalingrad, Kharkov, and Kursk, the Baltic States and finally of Germany and his beloved Silesia—his service being almost a microcosm of World War II in Europe. In the course of these battles, not only did he win renown—becoming a legend among those who fought on the Eastern Front who gave him the title Panzer Graf (Armoured Count)—but was also wounded 14 times, probably was probably unique amongst the ranks of Germany’s senior officers and a testament to his leading from the front.

Such an extraordinary record of courage and command would have made him unique in any army of World War II. Yet he is a man of mystery, with very little known about him and nothing of substance yet been written. He is mentioned in countless books, articles and websites, but at most is only given a brief biographical outline, and even this is often inaccurate in parts. Günter Fraschke wrote a German-language biography in 1962, which, if largely factual, was nevertheless discredited for its inaccuracies and sensationalism and rejected by the Panzer Graf himself.

Unfortunately the Panzer Graf himself wrote no memoirs; left no diary, and any notes and papers were lost along with his home in 1945. His records of service in the 16th Panzer Division were destroyed along with the division in the battle of Stalingrad in 1943. After a period of distinguished service with the elite Grossdeutschland Division, he served as commander of several ad-hoc units, some bearing his name, in a period when records, if kept at all, were scanty, or lost. It all makes for a rather threadbare paper trail. His comrades-in-arms have now all passed away, so there are no witnesses to his many battles and exploits.


After the Battle of Kursk, it took the Graf several months to recover from his wound, including weeks of convalescent leave. The question then arose as to his deployment. It seems clear that he did not wish to return to the Grossdeutschland Division, and General Hörnlein equally did not want him back. The two did not got on, and the Graf had not covered himself with glory at Kursk as he had done in previous battles. Nevertheless the Panzer Graf’s undoubted talents could not be wasted. A divisional command was the next step for him, which meant that he was under consideration to take over the Panzer Lehr Division. This superbly equipped formation had been established from demonstration and training units trialing and demonstrating new weapons and tactics. All its infantry regiments were mechanized with armoured personnel carriers while its equipment tables were far more lavish than that for a standard panzer division, which for instance only had one battalion equipped with APCs with the remainder being truck borne, and here also both APCs and trucks were often in short supply.

He didn’t get this command, which instead went initially to Fritz Bayerlein. This may have been for several reasons. The least favourable was that the Graf’s personality, outlook and tactical approach did not make him suitable for a standard divisional command, which required a great deal of preoccupation with logistical and administrative matters as well as controlling a diverse range of formations not necessarily connected with direct combat, such as signals, transport, supply, medical, engineering and administration. Perhaps von Strachwitz was considered too much a hands-on front-line combat commander to have his abilities diverted by the numerous non-combat tasks often required of a divisional commander. Equally, tying down such an independent-minded commander to the chains of divisional and corps structures would not be the best use of his talents. Being independent with a regiment was a far cry to acting independently with a whole division. Perhaps the deciding factor was that the Graf could be better used for special missions or in a fire brigade role. His skill clearly lay in achieving a great deal with very little. He was one of the few commanders who could make a very real difference through his sheer presence and ability. Putting it bluntly, any reasonably competent general could achieve fair results with a well-equipped panzer division. However, very few commanders could manage a superlative result with little or few resources.

In any event, he was passed over for Panzer Lehr. The division was later deployed in Normandy, and had von Strachwitz been in command it might well have caused the Allies more difficulties than it did under its actual commander, General Fritz Bayerlein, a dilettante who had established his reputation as Erwin Rommel’s Chief-of-Staff in North Africa. His handling of Panzer Lehr during the Allied invasion of France was average, bordering on the lacklustre. He displayed none of the flair and imagination of von Strachwitz or other commanders such as Bäke, von Manteuffel or Raus, so that the superb division underachieved under his control. Later, during the Ardennes Offensive, Hasso von Manteuffel, Bayerlein’s army commander, went to great lengths, to avoid promoting him to command the XLVII Panzer Corps after its commander, General von Luttwitz, had mishandled it, being held up unduly at Bastogne. Bayerlein, as the senior divisional commander, was next in line to command a corps but, unwilling to make the promotion, von Manteuffel left well enough alone, a scathing indictment of Bayerlein.

So in April after being awarded the Swords to his Knight’s Cross as the twenty-seventh recipient, Graf von Strachwitz was sent to Army Group North, which had been grossly under-resourced almost since its inception. Of all the army groups, its performance in achieved objectives could be considered the most successful, despite getting little in the way of resources or reinforcements, especially in armoured fighting vehicles. The Russians themselves admitted after the war that Army Group North had fought the hardest, especially when compared to Army Group Centre in the later years.

In January 1944 the Soviets launched their Leningrad-Novgorod offensive, pushing the Germans back to the River Nava. They hoped to annihilate Army Detachment Narva and sweep through Estonia, utilising it as a base for a quick thrust into East Prussia. This army detachment, a euphemism for an understrength army, comprised seven infantry divisions, one panzer-grenadier division and three Waffen SS divisions of European volunteers—11th SS Panzergrenadier Division Nordland, 4th SS Panzergrenadier Division Nederland and the 20th SS Estonian Division—along with sundry smaller units including Estonian border guards and the wholly German 502nd Heavy Panzer Battalion under Major Jahde. The foreign volunteer SS divisions performed heroically at Narva, accumulating no fewer than 29 Knight’s Crosses. The 502nd Heavy Panzer Battalion, with 70 Tigers, was a highly effective unit with several tank aces, including Lieutenant Otto Carius (150 tanks destroyed), Lieutenant Johannes Bölter (139 tank kills), Albert Kerscher (106 kills), Johann Muller and Alfredo Carpaneto (50 kills each). Its total kills for the war were 1,400 Russian tanks of all types, for a loss of only 107 Tigers, a kill/loss ratio of 13.08:1, the second best kill/loss ratio of any Tiger battalion after Grossdeutschland’s battalion which achieved 16.676:1.3 Bölter and Carius were originally NCOs who had climbed through the ranks. This was one of the factors of the German Army’s success, promoting a great number of officers from the ranks of distinguished NCOs, with officer candidates having to serve in the ranks to prove themselves.

The Soviets’ winter offensive was successful in breaking the 900-day siege of Leningrad on 27 January, with the Germans making such a hasty withdrawal that they left behind 85 guns which had been shelling the city. Two German divisions were destroyed with the Russians capturing 1,000 prisoners and 30 tanks. After a period to regroup the Soviets resumed their offensive in February, forcing the Germans back to the Panther Line, which was more illusion than a fortified defensive line. The Germans now stood on the River Narva in Estonia to await the next Soviet onslaught. Here, the III SS Panzer Corps, led by the redoubtable SS General Felix Steiner, set up defensive positions across 11 kilometres east of the town of Narva. It would be the scene of intensely savage fighting.

The Russian Eighth Army did, however, manage to establish two bridgeheads across the river on 23 February, which became known as Eastsack and Westsack. These threatened to unhinge the German line. The Germans had very little in the way of armour to eliminate them, with the 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion deploying four Tigers against Westsack and two against the Eastsack. On that day the battalion destroyed its 500th Russian tank. The battalion’s 2nd Company alone destroyed 38 tanks, four assault guns and 17 other guns between 17 and 22 March.

Although the Germans lacked a large armoured force they did have the Panzer Graf, who could achieve more with a handful of tanks than any other commander in the German Army. Hitler also sent General Model to take over Army Group North without any reinforcements. When asked what he had brought with him he confidently replied “Why, only me gentlemen.” So the Panzer Graf was not the only one expected to perform miracles. Perform miracles they both did. The Graf was initially promised three divisions, which would have made him feel confident about his task, but they never arrived. Along with the promise of panzers the Graf was given the grandiose title of armour commander of Army Group North which would have been more impressive had he any sizeable armoured formations to command. As it was he had to make do with what was available: the 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion with just 12 Tigers still operational, Battle Group Böhrendt with a few assault guns and Panzer IIIs, units of the Feldernhalle Division with a few Panthers, and some Panzer IVs from the SS Nordland Division. His infantry was supplied by Grossdeutschland’s Fusilier Regiment mounted in APCs. Grossdeutschland also provided some tanks and Nebelwerfer rocket launchers. As a last-minute reinforcement Hitler sent over a battalion from his escort brigade, which was literally the last reserve he had available. The Russians had entire armoured and infantry corps sitting idly in reserve while the Germans could only scrape up a battalion that wasn’t urgently needed, so parlous had the German manpower and weapons situation become.

The Graf’s mission was to eliminate the Soviet Narva bridgeheads. His actions have been generally categorized as operations Strachwitz I, II and III. He chose the Westsack for Strachwitz I and spent a great deal of time preparing for it. As always, good reconnaissance was paramount along with intelligence from radio intercepts and prisoner interrogations. Most prisoners, including officers, were willing to talk, as were German captives, the very real fear of being executed proving a strong motivating factor. Leaving nothing to chance he also had his troops rehearse the attack. The training exercises were conducted with live ammunition with several casualties incurred as a result. Careful reconnaissance led him to give the Tigers a secondary supporting role due to the marshy nature of the terrain. He had to rely on his lighter Panthers, Panzer IVs and assault guns for the spearhead. After careful consideration von Strachwitz decided to attack Westsack from the west. He reasoned, correctly, that the Russians would be expecting an attack from the east as this had a good road and the German artillery had good observation points from the nearby Blue Hills. As well, a regiment of the German 61st Infantry Division was entrenched in a salient there, called the boot.

At 5:55 a.m. on 26 March, von Strachwitz launched his attack on the Westsack. It was preceded by, for what was for this period of the war, a heavy artillery and Nebelwerfer barrage. The panzers followed, supported by the infantry of Grenadier Regiments 2,44 and 23 from the East Prussian 11th Infantry Division, a hard-fighting unit commanded by General Lieutenant Helmuth Reymann. Eight Tigers had been ordered to support the infantry but they were forced to withdraw due to the softness of the ground. The Graf’s decision not to use the Tigers at the forefront had proven correct.

Ferocious fighting took place in the trackless swamps and forests with heavy casualties on both sides. The German officer losses were especially severe with all platoons and most companies being led by surviving NCOs. The Graf led from the front as usual, a familiar figure in his bulky sheepskin coat, bringing chocolates and cognac to comfort and encourage his troops. He also brought with him several Iron Crosses Second Class, which he awarded on the spot to the best fighters. When not accompanying him, his adjutant Lieutenant Famula was close behind ensuring that ammunition, food and fuel arrived on time wherever they were needed.

So vital was this operation that the Graf received Stuka support, a fairly rare event given the stretched resources of the Luftwaffe. This proved a mixed blessing however, with one bomb landing on the narrow track on which the German tanks were advancing. One minute later and it would have wiped out von Strachwitz himself. The Stuka pilots had great difficulty in finding their targets amongst the trees, and the bombs were less than effective in the forested terrain.

Early progress was good with a large number of prisoners taken, but the Russians were not prepared to give ground easily. On 27 March they counterattacked, pushing the Germans back with their first onslaught. They continued their attack into the night. This led to some very frightening close-quarter combat in the pitch-black woods. The next morning the Russians commenced a sustained artillery bombardment causing heavy casualties, many caused by the wood splinters from the fractured trees, so that companies of normally over 100 men were reduced to platoons of fewer than 30. Von Strachwitz summoned reinforcements, but they too suffered heavily from the Soviet artillery fire, arriving already badly depleted.

Immediately after the artillery barrage the Russians sent in their infantry in massed attacks which penetrated the thinly manned German defences at several points. The Luftwaffe sent in ground-attack aircraft but failed to dislodge the Russians. Several batteries of Nebelwerfers added their weight to the fire, blasting the Russian positions in a crescendo of shattering explosions. The Graf then ordered a counterattack, which threw the demoralised Russians back with cold steel. He pushed forward with everything he had to maintain the momentum. The Russians fought back tenaciously, but were steadily forced to give ground. When driven out of their trenches their resistance turned into a precipitous retreat with many surrendering. The retreat turned into a rout. They left behind some 6,000 dead and 50 guns, along with the large quantities of equipment on the battlefield. In addition, the Germans took some 300 prisoners. Against those Soviet losses the Germans suffered 2,200 dead or missing. It was a superb if costly victory at a time when the Germans were in retreat, or barely holding on along the rest of the front.

On 1 April Hyazinth von Strachwitz was promoted to the rank of major general. For a colonel of the reserve this was a very unusual promotion, and may have been unique. His monthly salary increased by around 50%. He wasn’t as fortunate as some generals, General Guderian for instance, who received a large amount each month on top of his ordinary salary as a personal gift from Adolf Hitler. Other generals and field marshals, such as von Kluge, also received monetary gifts, as well as landed estates.

The Panzer Graf’s next operation was Strachwitz II, the elimination of the Eastsack bridgehead. He knew the Russians were expecting him to attack as he had attacked the Westsack. So he did the opposite, attacking at East-sack’s northern tip to surprise them. This attack also took meticulous preparation, which was becoming his trademark. As Otto Carius stated in his memoir, Tigers in the Mud, regarding the planning for Strachwitz III, “his careful, methodical planning amazed us once again” and that “the Graf was a master of organisation.” This would seem at odds with his devil-may-care cavalrymen’s approach, but it shows that, despite his reputation for dashing raids and slashing cavalry-style attacks, he was a calm calculating man, and it was this, together with his boldness, that made him such a formidable commander and adversary.


Once again the attack was rehearsed, this time twice. The road for the attack was narrow but could support a Tiger so they were to lead the assault. However they had to move in single file and would not be allowed to stop unless the whole column had to halt. As it was also the only passable road, the Russian had packed the culverts with explosives so the Graf had arranged for artillery to take out the explosives control bunker where the detonators were left. Failing this, his engineers were to cut the wires. For this operation, as with Strachwitz I, the infantry went into action without their bulky winter clothing to allow them freedom of movement. The winter clothing was bundled up and sent on to the troops in the evening. However fighting without their white camouflage clothing made them easier targets for the Soviets.

For this attack the Tigers were placed at the forefront with Otto Carius’ platoon of four Tigers at the tip of the spearhead. It was launched on  April, after a heavy barrage from Nebelwerfers, heavy artillery and 88mm anti-aircraft guns. Von Strachwitz observed proceedings at the very front, calmly leaning on his carved Volkhov stick as he waited for the breakthrough. The low-hanging trees made the barrage twice as effective as they prevented the blast effects escaping upwards causing severe casualties to the Russians cowering in their bunkers, particularly from the sheer effects of concussion, which was a feature of the Nebelwerfer rockets.

Some of the artillery fire landed near Carius’ Tigers, forcing them to move back and forth in the mine-infested terrain in order to avoid being hit. When the shots kept on coming despite his radio calls to cease, he was forced to fire a few rounds close to the artillery observers’ positions, obliging them to move and so give him some respite. A Russian anti-tank gun not observed in the confusion damaged one of his Tigers before being put out of action.

Heavy Russian return fire caused casualties among the infantry who were clumped together around the Tigers. The Tigers’ protection was illusory, as they attracted fire more than they provided shelter, but the infantry felt safer so they kept close, despite being actively discouraged from doing so. These were veteran hand-picked troops selected by the tankers themselves, as Otto Carius pointed out in his memoirs:

“The responsibility for the success of the operation lies squarely on the tank commander regardless of rank. Is everything clear?”

“Jawohl, Herr Graf”

The Oberst [Von Strachwitz] twisted his mouth into a sarcastic smile. It wasn’t unbeknownst to him, that we had allowed ourselves a few remarks about his desired form of address [Graf not Herr Oberst as regulation demanded]. None of them to be found in a handbook of good manners.

“Very well. So far it’s also been quite simple. But now a different question for the ‘Tiger’ people. What battalion do you want to fight with?”

We looked at each other, astonished by the generosity of this offer. We immediately agreed upon a light infantry battalion we had already worked with.

“Very well, that’s what you’ll have.”

With nightfall, Lieutenant Famula and his APCs brought up much-needed fuel, ammunition, and food, despite Russian attempts to stop him with interdictory fire and snipers who had infiltrated behind the lines.

The Russians vigorously counterattacked throughout the night, causing serious casualties. The seriously wounded were taken back for treatment in Famula’s APCs with the lightly wounded staying to help hold back the Soviets. Stukas, long since relegated to a primary night-attack role unless scarce fighter escort could be provided, tried to bring the battered infantry and tanks some relief, but their bombs had to be dropped well back to avoid friendly casualties. They also made little impression due to the softness of the ground, which absorbed the blasts. The heavy Tigers gradually sank ever deeper into the marshy soil, only extricating themselves with difficulty at daylight. One Tiger was damaged by the artillery fire and required towing. Von Schiller, the Tiger Company commander, was nowhere to be found so Otto Carius had to step in and continue with the mission. Another artillery barrage swept over them with one tank commander wounded after foolishly exposing himself from the turret. The column then moved towards Auware. Near the railroad station two assault guns from the Führer Begleit Brigade were attacked by a force of 20 Russian tanks. Corporal Rudolf Salvermoser, a gunner in one of the assault guns, described the action. They were in an ambush position and opened fire as the Russians approached:

Our first shot hit it, but didn’t do any damage. As soon as you shoot the loader puts in a shell right away and its ready. I knew the distance, just had to turn a few degrees or two and shoot again. Then we knocked it out. One after another they came out (from behind the trees). They had ten tanks. They shot but they missed. Its like they didn’t know what to do. It was a common saying in the German Army, “Don’t worry about the Russians, they always miss the first shot.” The guy next to us, he was about 100 yards away, he knocked out two. The third one started to back away when I shot it. The fourth one was further back already and I still hit it. One took off and my buddy chased him and knocked him out. The others all disappeared. We shot six tanks. They didn’t hit one of us. They were too slow. We were just faster and better. I told my commander Unteroffizier Hoffmann that I was just lucky that I hit them all. He said, “You were not lucky, you were trained to hit them all at the first time with the first shot.”

Salvermoser destroyed three T-34s and one KV-2, while the other assault gun under Unter-offizier Rahn destroyed three T-34s. It highlights how small numbers of German tanks and assault guns, could still defeat far larger Soviet forces. Elsewhere, Lieutenant Bölter and Sergeant Goring from the 502nd Tank Battalion engaged 35 Russian tanks and assault guns while giving support to the 8th Jäger Division. Bölter destroyed 15 enemy tanks and Goring seven. This brought Bölter’s total kills to 89, earning him the Knight’s Cross.

Overall the German surprise was so complete that in another battle group tanks from the Grossdeutschland Division overran a Soviet divisional headquarters. The divisional commander just barely escaped but his operations officer was caught, still partially undressed. Some of their anti-tank guns still had their barrel caps on, and many Red Army men were caught carrying out peaceful rear-area activities, having no idea that the Germans had gotten so close.

Skilfully combining armour, infantry, artillery and the Luftwaffe, von Strachwitz had eliminated the Eastsack with the well-crafted operation Strachwitz II. Both operations were well-planned and coordinated, gave Army Detachment Narva extra time for its defence, and prevented the Soviets from breaking out of their bridgeheads to cut off the German force and thence to sweep through Estonia. This now left Strachwitz III to address the Krivasso bridgehead on the German side of the River Narva, along with the capture of Krivasso. The Graf carried out his meticulous planning as usual, but was under no illusion as to the difficulty of the task. As he explained to his officers at a briefing:

Looked at superficially, this operation is very similar to both our previous ones. Only this time there are going to be considerably more difficulties… . We have already surprised the Russians twice in their bridgehead. They know this bridgehead is a pain for us. A third surprise will therefore probably not be possible. Especially as they know a new attack can only be carried out on this road. This naturally diminishes our chances of success compared to the previous operations where we were successful using the element of surprise.

He went on to tell them the advance road was narrow but could support a Tiger, so his intructions for the Tigers were similar to those in previous operations. As the Graf was addressing the officers his adjutant rushed in. Visibly annoyed, the Graf turned around. “What’s going on?” he snapped. The officer straightened up “Herr Graf. I would like to report that the announcement has been made in the news that the Führer has awarded you the Diamonds to the Knights Cross! If I may take the liberty I would like to be the first to congratulate you!” The other officers wanted to congratulate the Graf and celebrate but, as Otto Carius remembered,

Before we could say a word however the Graf made an abrupt sign of disapproval.

“First, the news is not an official source of information. Second, I don’t have any time for that now and don’t wish to be disturbed again.” That was meant for the adjutant, who turned beet red. He raised his hand to his cap and disappeared rapidly.

The Graf’s reaction did not imply that he was unimpressed by the award of Germany’s highest honour, but rather reflected his attitude to planning and combat. However he could still allow some levity when he rounded on Carius after the young officer told him that a ditch was impassable due to the surrounding marshy terrain.

“Take note of this Carius,” he said in a friendly manner. “If I say that the ditch doesn’t exist as an anti-tank ditch to me, then it doesn’t exist, do we understand each other?”

In my entire military career, I had never experienced such an elegant, and at the same time, unmistakable rebuff. Graf Strachwitz did not want to see an anti-tank ditch. So there was none there. Period—end of discussion. I was so nonplussed that I could only choke out a short “Yes sir!” Still smiling in his slightly caustic manner the Oberst nodded and continued his briefing.

Near the end of the briefing von Strachwitz turning towards Carius again:

“I’ve thought about the matter one more time Carius. Do you still foresee difficulties with the ditch?”

“Yes Herr Graf!”

“Well I don’t want to spoil your fun. Especially not when there really could be something to the matter. Do you have a suggestion?”

Otto Carius then suggested that wooden beams be taken on the APCs and used to ford the ditch, a solution that von Strachwitz quickly approved. He went on to note that he thought that deep down the Panzer Graf didn’t believe the operation would be a success and would much rather have called the whole thing off.

The attack commenced on 19 April, with eight Tigers leading, followed by Panzer IVs and APCs with an engineer APC behind the second lead Tiger. A squad of infantry rode on each of the tanks. Just prior to moving off, Carius’ loader had an accidental discharge from the hull machine gun wounding two infantrymen from the Fusilier Battalion. It was an inauspicious start to the operation. With the only hope of surprise now lost, the attack went in. Russian artillery quickly joined the fray while Illuyshin ground-attack planes made a quick appearance, only to be chased away by Focke Wulf 190s of JG54—the only fighter unit in the north—which shot down two. Stukas, under Lieutenant Colonel Klumey based at Tallinn, then swarmed in, but heavy Russian anti-aircraft fire kept them to a height which made their attacks ineffective, bringing down two of them.

The lead Tiger ran onto a mine, which immobilised it, bringing the entire attack column to a halt. Despite von Strachwitz enquiring several times why the attack was still stalled, the Tiger Company’s commander, von Schiller, did nothing, remaining bottled up in his tank. Finally von Strachwitz called von Schiller and Carius to his command post. Von Strachwitz was angrily swinging his Volkhov stick back and forth, then he let fly at von Schiller before placing Carius in command, ordering him to get the attack moving. This Carius did by simply moving the column around the obstructing Tiger, something von Schiller could and should have done himself.

The Germans quickly broke through the Russian lines, only to be halted by an anti-tank ditch. Von Strachwitz called a halt to allow the engineers to demolish the ditch so that the attack could resume the following morning. Russian artillery and mortars crewed by women fired a few salvoes to keep the Germans unsettled but no further action was taken.

During the night Russian bombers flew overhead on their way to bomb Narva, which was now nothing more than a pile of rubble, but still stubbornly resisting the Soviets’ best efforts to take it. Lieutenant Famula continued indefatigably with his nightly resupply efforts, earning high praise from an extremely appreciative Otto Carius.

The ditch was blown apart on the morning of 20 April. The Graf, sleeping in his pyjamas as was his usual practice, was not even disturbed by it. Like many senior commanders involved in a very long war the Graf allowed himself a few luxuries whenever circumstances permitted, not least of which were a good cigar and French cognac. For his part Carius was hoping the whole thing would be called off, but the attack went ahead, supported by Nebelwerfers whose rockets dropped short, landing on the Tigers and fusiliers waiting to move forward. For a full five minutes they endured the massive blasts, which tore the Fusilier Battalion apart, killing or wounding many. Only the heavily armoured Tigers escaped unscathed. Three Tigers were sent forward to cover the evacuation of the dead and wounded by Lieutenant Famula and his APCs. Now Otto Carius felt sure that the attack would be abandoned, but Graf von Strachwitz arranged for another battalion to be sent forward. The attack was to go ahead as planned.

A Russian assault gun opened up on Carius’ Tiger, and he survived a hit to his turret cupola solely because he had ducked down to light a cigarette. A little later, however, his tank was knocked out by another hit.

The attack had by now completely stalled. The Russians were simply too strong while the marshy ground, made worse by the spring thaw, curtailed movement so much that it was becoming impossible to move the attack forward. Elsewhere another battle group was equally stalled. The Tigers slowly pulled back, harried by Russian artillery fire as they towed their disabled tanks. A Russian bi-plane used for nuisance bombing flew over, dropping its bomb. Lieutenant Famula, standing alongside the road lighting a cigarette, was mortally wounded by shrapnel and died a short while later. The infantry was forced to give way and couldn’t hold the line. Reluctantly von Strachwitz gave the order to withdraw. Strachwitz III was over.

The Spanish Civil War to Poland: Panzer Doctrine

The Spanish Civil War appeared to consign much of this to that airy empire of dreams Heinrich Heine had described as the Germans’ true home. Its operations were characterized by the use of tanks both epi sodically and in small numbers. While occasionally as many as fifty or sixty might appear at one spot, fifteen or twenty was the usual norm on both sides. Rough terrain and poor roads limited movement. Poorly trained infantry eschewed the risks of staying close to tanks; the things drew fire. Not surprisingly, tanks proved disproportionately vulnerable to antitank guns—especially the light, handy 37mm types just coming into widespread use. When tanks did manage a local breakthrough, their next move usually involved turning around and fighting back to their own lines. Even the apostle of mobility, B. H. Liddell- Hart, concluded that the lessons of Spain were that the defense was presently dominant, and that few successes had been gained by maneuver alone. The French and Russian armies came institutionally to similar conclusions. So did most of the rest of Europe.

The widespread negative judgments on tanks may have reflected as well the image of the war, assiduously promulgated on the Left, as a struggle between Spain’s common people and its “establishment.” In that context the tank invited definition as a quintessential Fascist weapon. Songs and stories consistently described tanks and aircraft pitted against “guts and rifles,” with the latter combination ultimately triumphant. Within armies, even hard-shelled social and political conservatives might well take heart from this apparent reaffirmation that men, not machines, determine victory.

The Germans nevertheless continued on their pre-Spain course. It has been suggested that they did indeed react to the difficulties encountered by the Spanish and Italians in effectively employing armor. Instead of deciding the thing was impractical, however, they concluded that “of course these people can’t do it.” Robert M. Citino offers a more nuanced paradigm when he states that the Spanish Civil War was not a proving ground and “the Spaniards were not guinea pigs.” The Germans on the ground had neither the numbers of tanks, nor the tank technology, nor the degree of control to impose any of their ideas on the Nationalist high command in a systematic fashion. In contrast to the aircraft of the Condor Legion, the crews of the three dozen Panzer Is initially sent to Spain in October 1936 were restricted to training missions and observation—at least in principle. In fact, the tankers, whose strength eventually increased to three companies, regularly spent time at the front and were regularly rotated back to Germany. Their commander, a future general but then merely Major Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, personally led the Nationalist armored attack on Madrid in November 1936, and claimed to have participated in 192 tank engagements.

The men coming back from Spain were an invaluable conduit of lore from the sharp end to the grass roots of the panzer regiments. The wider results of their experience were summarized in a General Staff report of March 1939. The Nationalists, the document concluded, never used tanks in strengths larger than a company, and then only for infantry support. The corresponding restrictions on their movement made light tanks in particular vulnerable to even rudimentary antitank defenses. That, in turn, enhanced the need for gun-armed vehicles. Whenever possible, the Soviet tanks used by the Republicans were salvaged and welcomed for their high-velocity 45mm guns. And there was good reason for the German armored force’s emphasis on unit morale and individual moral fiber. The report mentioned that an initial enthusiasm for armored service among the Spaniards quickly evaporated when it became known what the inside of a burned-out tank looked like. By the end of 1938, rumor described captured Russian tanks as being crewed by pardoned criminals or men given a choice between prison and making a single attack in a tank.

This was hardly sufficient data to justify completely revamping the Wehrmacht’s approach to armored war. German professional literature regularly featured warnings against overemphasizing the Spanish experience. In more practical terms, the armor lobby was by now too firmly entrenched to be dislodged by internal means.

Higher-unit training in the peacetime panzer divisions continued to emphasize maneuvering and controlling tanks in large numbers. On June 1, 1938, the panzer divisions got their own manual, Richtlinien für die Führung der Panzerdivision. Emphasis on combined arms had not yet produced the closely integrated battle groups characteristic of the war’s later years. Instead the pattern was the panzer regiments leading and the motorized infantry acting in support, somewhat along the lines of the British armored divisions of 1943-44.

To a degree, that reflected the progress of training: Tank and motorized formations had to become comfortable in their own skins before they could begin to work in genuinely close harmony. But teething troubles notwithstanding, in the fall maneuvers of 1937, the 3rd Panzer Division put on an impressive show, breaking the enemy flank, successfully assaulting a bridgehead from the rear, then shifting again to disrupt logistics and headquarters systems—all in close cooperation with Luftwaffe elements.

Armored force theorists made a correspondingly forceful case for the concentration of the panzer divisions into a corps, and the concentration of that force at the operational Schwerpunkt, the vital spot, of the opening campaign. Heinz Guderian’s 1937 book Achtung—Panzer! is widely credited with structuring and popularizing that perspective. The book was in fact written on the recommendation of Lutz, who sought to make armored warfare’s case in a public context. It was derivative, a compilation of Guderian’s previous lectures and articles, but made up in conviction what it lacked in cohesion. Never lacking in an eye to the political sector, Guderian cited the Four-Year Plan, controlled by Hermann Göring, to support the argument that Germany would soon be able to produce enough synthetic fuel and artificial rubber to be freed from its current dependence on imports. He quoted Hitler’s affirmation of “the replacement of animal power by the motor [which] leads to the most tremendous technical and consequently economic change the world has ever experienced.”

Guderian’s concluding peroration that “only by providing the army with the most modern and effective armaments and equipment and intelligent leadership can peace be safeguarded” resonates ironically in the context of Hitler’s 1938 purging of the army high command and his subsequent reorganization of the armed forces’ command structure, culminating in his assumption of supreme command. The book, however, was widely discussed, and sold well enough to pay for Guderian’s first car—an amusing sidebar given his support for motorization.

Armored force doctrine and training placed increasing emphasis on ground-air cooperation. The long-standing myth that the Luftwaffe was essentially designed for close support of the land forces has been thoroughly demolished by, among others, James Corum and Williamson Murray. During World War I, the German air force had nevertheless paid significantly more specialized attention to ground support than its Allied counterparts. The Germans developed armored, radio-equipped infantry-contact machines for close reconnaissance. Used in twos, threes, and larger numbers, German Schlachtstaffeln (battle squadrons), each with a half dozen highly maneuverable two-seater Hannover or Halber stadt attack planes, proved devastatingly effective at shooting in attacks from the summer of 1917. In the later stages of the 1918 spring offensive, aircraft were used to parachute ammunition to frontline infantry. The experience of being on the receiving end of tank-infantry cooperation at the hands of the BEF in the war’s final months drove home the lesson: close air support was a good thing for an armored force.

During the Weimar years the Reichswehr worked closely with the civil aircraft industry and the civilian airlines to keep abreast of industrial and technological developments. Under the guidance of Hans von Seeckt, German officers developed intellectual and doctrinal frameworks for air war in general and air-ground cooperation in particular. As early as 1921, regulations stressed the importance of using attack aircraft in masses against front lines and immediate rear areas. Maneuvers used balloons to represent forbidden aircraft, and emphasized unit-level antiaircraft defense with machine guns and rifles in lieu of the banned specialized weapons. In Russia, from 1925 to 1933, the air school at Lipetsk successfully functioned as both a training base for pilots and a testing ground for aircraft.

The initiation of full-scale rearmament and the creation of the Luftwaffe as an independent service temporarily combined to take air and ground on separate paths in the mid-1930s. Luftwaffe theorists accepted using fighters for direct support of ground forces as a secondary mission, but emphasized the greater importance of interdiction behind—well behind, as a rule—the fighting front. That attitude began to change as reports from the Spanish Civil War highlighted not merely the potential but the ability of aircraft to have a decisive effect on ground operations—especially against troops poorly trained, demoralized, or even temporarily confused. Nationalist or Republican, it made no difference.

Luftwaffe officers were increasingly expected to know army tactics and doctrine; to participate directly in army exercises and maneuvers as air commanders; to instruct the army in the nature and missions of air power. At the focal point of the new relationship was the armored force. Luftwaffe doctrine insisted air support must be concentrated at decisive points, not dispersed across fronts and sectors. This concept meshed precisely with the panzer commanders’ emphasis on concentration, speed, and shock.

Implementation took three forms. One was the creation of specialized tactical reconnaissance squadrons assigned at corps and division levels, and the parallel development, from field army headquarters down to panzer divisions, of a system of air liaison officers to report ground-force situations to air officers commanding the supporting reconnaissance squadrons and the antiaircraft units.

The Luftwaffe’s second contribution was close support. As early as the 1937 maneuvers, an entire fighter group, 30 aircraft, was placed at the disposal of a single panzer division. The obsolescent Henschel Hs 123 biplane, a failure in its intended role as a dive-bomber, found a second identity as a ground-attack aircraft whose slow speed and high maneuverability made its strikes extremely accurate. The Junkers 87 Stuka dive-bombers, deployed in small numbers to Spain, manifested near pinpoint accuracy and had a demoralizing effect out of proportion with the actual damage inflicted. Given the right conditions, it seemed clear that a few Stukas could achieve better results than entire squadrons and groups of conventional bombers. Throughout 1938, Stukas and Henschels exercised with panzer formations in an increasing variety of tactical situations. In the air and on the ground, the same conclusion was being drawn: Close air support, especially in the precise forms normative for dive and attack planes, could become “flying artillery fire,” bringing the tanks onto initial objectives and keeping them moving not merely at tactical but perhaps operational levels as well.

No less significant was the Luftwaffe’s third contribution: the development of a maintenance and supply system mobile enough to keep pace with the armored columns and keep the relatively short-ranged close support aircraft in action even from improvised airfields. Turnaround time and sorties mounted are better tests of air-power effectiveness than simple numbers of planes. It would be a good few years before the panzer divisions would have to wonder where the Luftwaffe was. It would be striking just ahead of them.

Colonel Hans Jeschonnek was appointed Luftwaffe Chief of Staff in February 1939. A bomber officer with—limited—unit experience, he nevertheless recognized both the importance and the difficulty of integrating close air support to ground operations. He understood as well the desirability of keeping air assets under Luftwaffe control—not as easy as it might seem even with Göring as chief, given the army’s historically dominant position in Germany’s military system. Jeschonnek’s response was to organize a specialized ground-support force. In the summer of 1939 he began consolidating the Stuka groups into a Nahkampfdivision (close-combat division). Its commander was Wolfram von Richthofen, cousin of the Red Baron, who had extensive Spanish experience and was among the Luftwaffe’s leading dive-bomber enthusiasts. Eventually the division would expand into a full and famous corps. But with more than 300 first-line combat aircraft on strength in September 1939, it was already the world’s largest and most formidable ground-support air element.

The panzers experienced the differences between the most rigorous maneuvers and the least demanding field conditions in March 1938. That was the month when Hitler bullied the right-wing government of Austria into accepting Anschluss, or union, with the Third Reich—a more fundamental violation of the Versailles settlement than rearmament had been. He convinced the rest of Europe to accept it through the application of diplomatic smoke and mirrors. The 2nd Panzer Division was ordered to join the Wehrmacht forces assigned to occupy the Reich’s new province. The new mobile forces had deliberately been held back from earlier “flower occupations” of the Rhineland and the Saar. Now Guderian had two days’ notice to march his division from its garrison in Würzburg the 250 miles to the soon-to-be-former border, and then enter Vienna in presumed triumph.

The result was one of the most monumental compound fiascoes in the entire history of mechanized operations. Guderian, a master at presenting himself in the best possible light, could find nothing good to say about the inadequate planning, inadequate maintenance, and inadequate logistics that left broken-down tanks stranded on every major road out of Würzburg and constrained the survivors to refuel from obliging Austrian filling stations whose low-octane gas fouled engines so badly that many vehicles required major overhauls at the end of the march. Perhaps it was just as well that the division remained in Vienna once the garrison-shifting generated by the Anschluss was completed. In any case, Guderian stood at Hitler’s side when the Führer spoke in his hometown of Linz, and basked in his pleasure at the sight of the tanks the mechanics were able to keep going.

Hitler’s instructions of May 1938 for the Wehrmacht to prepare for an invasion of Czechoslovakia escalated the prospects of a general war Germany had little chance of winning. Ludwig Beck resigned as Chief of the General Staff in August. His successor, Franz Halder, inherited the outlines of a generals’ plot to seize Hitler’s person as soon as he issued orders for an invasion of Czechoslovakia. Some senior army officers, including Beck, had grown sufficiently dubious about the risks of Hitler’s freewheeling foreign policy in the context of Germany’s still-incom plete rearmament that they had developed plans for a “housecleaning.” These plans involved eliminating Nazi Party radicals, restoring traditional “Prussian” standards in justice and administration, and putting Hitler firmly under the thumb of the military leadership. Should that last prove impossible and the Führer suffer a fatal accident—well, no plan survives application, and the state funeral would be spectacular.

Whether anything would have come of it remains a subject of speculation. The agreements secured from Britain and France at the Munich Conference of September 1938 left Czechoslovakia twisting in the wind, and hung any potential military conspirators out to dry. Czechoslovakia’s western provinces, the Sudetenland, were ceded to the Reich without a shot fired. Those who had urged caution on the Führer were correspondingly discredited.

These events had less direct impact on the armored force than might have been expected. On an operational level, the main problem was seen as breaking through formidable Czech border defenses—a task for infantry, artillery, and aerial bombardment that brought more conventional generals to the fore of planning. Internal attention was further diverted by a major reorganization. In addition to forming the corps headquarters authorized for the light and motorized divisions, the former Mobile Combat Troops Command became XVI Corps, with the three panzer divisions under its direct command. Three new divisions were added to the order of battle. The 4th Panzer Division formed at Würzburg to replace the 2nd. The 4th Light Division was built around elements of the former Austrian army’s Mobile Division in Vienna. And in November, the 5th Panzer Division was organized at Oppeln, in Silesia, with many of its recruits coming from the newly annexed Sudetenland.

A number of the tank battalions already existed as separate formations, part of Beck’s program for providing direct support to infantry divisions. The restructuring nevertheless meant more rounds of reas signments and promotions. The three mobile corps were assigned to a new army-level command created in 1937: Group 4, under Walther von Brauchitsch—the stepping-stone to his appointment as commander in chief of the army a few months later. Lutz briefly commanded XVI Corps, then was put on the retired list in 1938. This has been described as a forced retirement, a response at higher levels reflecting criticism of the way the armored force seemed to be developing as an army within the army.

This argument is supported by Brauchitsch’s character and branch of service. He was an artilleryman, and while a solid professional, was neither a forceful personality like Guderian nor a smooth operator in the pattern of Lutz. Lutz’s removal from the scene, however, can also be interpreted in wider contexts, as part of a housecleaning of senior ranks reflecting both Hitler’s desire for more malleable generals and the High Command’s belief in the need for fresh blood.1 Lutz was one of those who had openly questioned the Führer’s policies as excessively risky. Lutz was also sixty-two, the same age as Gerd von Rundstedt, also retired in 1938—arguably a bit over the line for field command in the kind of war he had done so much to create. Lutz was unlikely to step down of his own accord, though allowing him to learn of his new status from a newspaper article was unmistakably déclassé.

The appointment of Guderian as Lutz’s successor in command of XVI Corps also suggests that Lutz was not singled out for removal on either political or professional grounds. The German army, like its counterparts before and since, had an ample number of sidetracks for officers identified with mentors who made career-ending slips. But in 1938 the Inspectorate of Motorized Combat Troops and the Inspection for Army Motorization were combined into a single agency with the mouth-filling title of Inspection Department 6 for Armored Troops, Cavalry, and Army Motorization (In6). Its focus was to be on nuts and bolts: training, organization, technology. At the same time, an Inspectorate of Mobile Troops was established to develop doctrine and tactics, supervise the schools, and advise both the army high command and In6 on the operational aspects of mobile war. The post was offered to Heinz Guderian.

The appointment had a back story. The new Inspectorate seems to have been Brauchitsch’s idea. Hitler approved. Guderian initially turned down the post on the grounds that it lacked any real authority; he could only make recommendations. When Hitler informed him that his advisory responsibility meant that, if necessary, he could report directly to the Führer in his capacity as Commander in Chief of the Wehrmacht, Guderian changed his mind. A promotion to General der Panzertruppen (Lieutenant-General) further sweetened the deal.

This account has been challenged by Guderian’s friend, General Hermann Balck. Balck describes a cabal involving Brauchitsch and the General Staff to kick Guderian upstairs, or at least sideways, in order to minimize the effect of what was considered his “tunnel vision” on the subject of army motorization. Some support for that unverifiable hypothesis is offered by Guderian’s initial assignment in the new mobilization scheme: command of a second-line infantry corps in the western theater. In 1940, Erich von Manstein would receive a similar assignment for the same reasons: as an obvious slap on the wrist, and as a warning against excessively close contact with the Führer. In Guderian’s case, however, that contact was a bit too valuable to waste, given the growing indications that one of the Third Reich’s alleged “two pillars” was significantly overtopping the other.

At least that seems to have been the opinion of Brauchitsch’s successor as commander of Group 4. Walther von Reichenau stood out among the army’s generals as an admirer of Hitler, and assiduously cultivated his own back channels to the Führer. He was unlikely to seek to choke off Guderian, especially since the two men were much alike in aggressive temperament and blinkered vision.

Guderian’s driving energy was immediately put to use. Lutz was no weakling, but his chief talents had been as a negotiator and a facilitator. The panzer divisions suffered from constant teething troubles, expected and unexpected. The senior formations were still very much works in progress. In a 1938 exercise, the staff of the 1st Panzer Division created a foul-up beyond the generous tolerance for maneuver mistakes. Perhaps energized by Hitler’s presence, Guderian not only blasted the regiment’s officers but ordered some punitive transfers “to encourage the rest.” Guderian also struggled mightily with the cavalry in an effort to wean them away from a historic commitment to screening and reconnaissance. On the technical side, Guderian iterated and reiterated the importance of radio communication—increasingly with aircraft as well as vehicles. Though initially unable to provide every tank with a transmitter, he did make sure each had a receiver.

With the occupation of the rump Czech state in March 1939, Guderian and the armored force simultaneously acquired a windfall and a problem. The windfall reflected Bohemia’s history as a center of arms design and manufacture under Habsburg rule. The Czechoslovak government cultivated that heritage, and in the 1930s produced two state-of-the-art designs. The TNHP 35 weighed a little more than 10 tons with 35mm of armor on the front and 16mm on the sides. It could do 25 miles per hour on roads, was high-maintenance but easy to operate, and, best of all, carried a high-velocity 37mm gun. The TNHP 38 was even better. At 10 tons with 25mm of frontal armor, it was more maneuverable than the 35, carried the same 37mm gun, and on the whole was roughly equal to the Panzer III, which was still backed up on German production lines.

The Germans’ initial problem was adapting their new tanks to Wehrmacht requirements. The armored force took over about 200 of what were rechristened the 35(t), for Tsechoslowakei, and began the extensive modifications necessary, particularly in radio equipment, to make them suitable for German service. The 38(t) was just coming into production when the Germans marched in and began testing the design. In May 1939 the Weapons Office contracted with the Czech factory to manufacture 150 of them. They were the first of a long line of 38(t)s that would serve throughout the war in a variety of roles. None, however, would be ready for service by September 1, 1939.

On the organizational side, on November 24, 1938, von Brauchitsch issued a sweeping directive for the development of the army’s motorized forces. It projected a final goal of nine panzer divisions, to be met by converting the four light divisions in the fall of 1939. Each army corps would have a motorcycle battalion; each field army would receive a number of motorized reconnaissance battalions. Independent armored brigades were projected as well, to support conventional infantry divisions or cooperate with motorized ones—the latter a possible foreshadowing of the panzer grenadier divisions. Finally, a number of independent companies equipped with “the heaviest kind of tanks” would support infantry attacks against fortifications.

On April 1, 1939, the General Staff ordered the creation of four new panzer divisions—effective, ironically, on September 19. In practice, that meant raising and training the tank units and supporting formations necessary to upgrade the light divisions. At the same time, the armored force was allocating the revamped Czech tanks and the Panzer IIIs and IVs also beginning to enter service. As if that was not enough, the panzers were increasingly drafted for display purposes; parades in Berlin and other German cities were designed to impress not only foreign observers but a German population that cheered Hitler’s bloodless victories and yet retained a vivid collective memory of World War I.

Whatever the tanks may have provided in terms of intimidation and reassurance, Guderian and his generals were less than pleased at the waste of time and energy. The fall maneuvers, however, were expected to compensate. For the first time the armored force was to take the field in strength: XVI Corps would control three panzer divisions, the 4th Light Division, and a motorized division. Deploying that force would require implementing the first stages of mobilization for the units involved. To test the concept of the air-ground combat team on a similar scale, the Luftwaffe would provide its new tactical support force. The exercises were never held. Instead, on September 1, 1939, the panzers went to war for real.

Luftwaffe Air War Poland 1939

In the war that began on 1 September 1939 air power played a crucial role from the start. The Germans considered a massive opening attack on Warsaw, but bad weather forced them to attack alternative targets. The Luftwaffe’s most important contribution in the Polish campaign lay in quickly gaining air superiority; the Poles were skilled opponents, but they possessed obsolete aircraft which were no match for those of the Germans.

Luftwaffe bombers struck particularly at cities and transportation links, which thoroughly disrupted the Polish mobilization. A small number of Luftwaffe aircraft directly supported the drive of the German panzer forces which completely broke the Polish army apart in the first week of the campaign. Close air-support strikes were mostly successful; however, one Wehrmacht battalion, bombed for several hours by the Luftwaffe, suggested that courts martial might be in order.

Attempts were made to intercept German Dornier Do 17 reconnaissance aircraft which violated Polish airspace from the spring of 1939. Fighter units were ordered in July 1939 to establish fighter posts (‘ambushes’) along the routes of the reconnaissance aircraft flights. 1 Pulk Lotniczy organised posts along the border with East Prussia, a total of 2 sections. Dywizjon III/I used airfields near Bialystok and Grodno, and Dywizjon IV/1 near Suwalki. Aircraft of 2 Pulk organised posts at Wieluri, Czltstochowa and Zawiercie along the Western border. Aircraft of 4 Pulk provided posts near Bydgoszcz, while 3 and 5 Pulk maintained aircraft at readiness at their permanent airfields. During July the aircraft were scrambled many times to intercept and visual contact was sometimes established with German aircraft, but due to the high altitude at which the Dorniers operated, and their superior speed with respect to the P11c fighters, none was ever shot down, and at the end of July these posts were abandoned. Also at the same time Soviet reconnaissance aircraft violated Polish airspace, but there is no written record of any contact with Polish interceptors.

In the early hours of 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, spearheaded by a total of almost 2,000 Luftwaffe aircraft, nearly half of which were bombers. By 27 September the Polish campaign was concluded. It had apparently proved the ‘invincibility’ of the Luftwaffe, which had completely overwhelmed the poorer-armed and less modern Polish Air Force, had given copy-book support to the German ground forces, and had clearly been the supreme factor in such a quick victory. Yet the cost had not been light. Against fierce but hopeless opposition in the air and from the ground, the Luftwaffe had lost at least 750 men and nearly 300 aircraft, with a further 279 aircraft counted as overall strength losses due to serious damage. The Polish Air Force, with less than 800 aircraft on 1 September, had sustained a loss of 333 aircraft in action. Considering that the gross strength of the Luftwaffe at the end of August 1939 was hardly more than 4,000 aircraft of all types – perhaps only half of which could be truly regarded as first line ‘attack’ machines – the loss rate during some three weeks of the Polish campaign, against ill-prepared and inferior opposition in the context of aircraft, gave serious pause in the minds of the more perceptive Luftwaffe heads of staff. Replacement of such casualties quickly was virtually impossible; such resources were simply not available immediately. With France and the Low Countries already designated as ‘next’ on Hitler’s agenda for conquest, the querulous doubts in many Luftwaffe chiefs’ minds prior to the Polish venture now assumed a level of deep concern.

This concern was exacerbated by the knowledge that Germany now had Britain and France as declared enemies. Only men like Göring or other Hitler-sycophants could believe that the Luftwaffe was fully prepared for any long-term aerial assault or struggle; the force was still in its adolescence, and had been built on the narrow platform of tactical air power. Its aircraft were too standardised in role to be capable of undertaking every possible task that would present itself during any sustained aerial conflict. The quality of its air and ground crews was never in question; all were peacetime-trained and thoroughly professional, while among the Staffeln and staffs was a hard core of combat-tested veterans of both the Spanish Civil War and the Poland campaign. Its aircraft presented a mixed picture. The standard fighter was the angular Messerschmitt Bf 109, on a par or clearly superior to almost any other fighter in the world in 1939. Its stablemate Bf 110 two-seat Zerstörer (‘destroyer’) was the apple of Göring’s eye for the moment, but within a year would demonstrate forcibly its unsuitability for the ‘escort fighter’ role imposed upon its unfortunate crews. Of the frontline bombers, the already notorious crooked-wing Junkers Ju 87 dive-bomber was basking in the limelight of apparently deserved fame for its large contribution to recent operations, yet it too would reveal its feet of clay when faced with determined fighter opposition in the months ahead. Of the other bombers the porcine Heinkel He 111 and slender Dornier Do 17 predominated, both twin-engined, medium-range designs of relatively mediocre performance, and poorly armed for self-defence. Only the emerging Junkers Ju 88 offered slight hope of improved bomber performance, although even this excellent design was not intended for long range operations. The one great omission from the Luftwaffe’s offensive air strength was a truly heavy, long range bomber. The only design projected for filling this gap was the troublesome Heinkel He 177, which was conceived in 1938 but did not commence operations until August 1942.

Notwithstanding the eventual failure of many of the 1939 Luftwaffe’s operational aircraft types, the contemporary morale of the German air crews and their upper echelon staffs was very high. The rapidity with which Poland had been vanquished appeared to suggest that the Blitzkrieg tactical war was a sure-fire key to victory, an opinion echoed in the staff rooms of many of the Allied services of the period. If there were doubts about the future efficacy of the Luftwaffe they existed mainly in the minds of individual senior officers and strategists; no such gloomy thoughts pervaded the ranks of the firstline Staffeln. The high casualty rate against relatively ‘soft’ air opposition during the Polish Blitzkrieg was mostly attributed to inexperience on the part of younger air crews, a modicum of sheer bad luck, or simply the exigencies of war. There lingered no lack of confidence in men or machines. If there were any queries among the Luftwaffe crews these pertained to how they might fare against the French air force and, especially, the British Royal Air Force when the inevitable first clashes occurred over the Western Front. Led or commanded by veterans who had fought the Allies in the air during the 1914–18 war, all the young Luftwaffe crews had been trained and inculcated with the fighting traditions created by the now-legendary names in German aviation annals. Inbred in that tradition was an almost unconscious respect for the fighting qualities of the Engländer – would they now acquit themselves against the contemporary generation of RAF fliers with the same courage and honour as their forebears …?

Operational Method

Thus far the war has been, in the air, a strange one. It has been strange in several ways. People had expected the Blitzkrieg to break in full fury in the west, but as yet no thunderbolt has fallen there. Poland felt its impact and crumpled under the stroke, though conditions there seemed, prima facie, unfavorable for the successful conduct of a lightning war. The course of the conflict has not, in fact, followed the book. There have been a number of surprises. In the operations at sea, for example, it was confidently expected that aircraft, not the submarine, would be the chief danger to maritime commerce. The airplane, we were told, would harry and dragoon belligerent and neutral shipping in the narrow waters into which the busy lanes of ocean traffic converge. Actually, the air arm has not been particularly effective at sea, though British aircraft have taken a hand with some success in hunting the submarine. That, however, had been foreseen.

Certainly the achievements of the German air force in Poland fulfilled the expectations of the most sanguine adherents of the blue sky school. In conjunction with the mechanized ground forces it dominated the situation from the first. The lists were set for a tourney between the old order of warfare and the new. Germany’s strength lay in her possession of the most modern instruments of mechanical destruction. Poland was, in comparison, a nineteenth century Power. Her cavalry was her pride. One could imagine her gallant horsemen galloping with Jeb Stuart or Sheridan in Virginia. Indeed, her great masses of cavalry might have thundered their way to victory in the still more appropriate setting of the medieval era. As it was, they were a sheer anachronism. Confronted by armored cars and tanks, hammered by high explosive from the air, they were only flesh for the slaughter. The twentieth century won all along the line. The Polish defeat was a tragedy, but an inevitable one.

German intelligence had estimated the front-line strength of the Polish air force at some 900 aircraft. In fact on 1 September the figure was nearer 300, made up of 36 P37 `Los’ twin-engined medium bombers, 118 single-engined `Karas’ P23 light reconnaissance bombers and 159 fighters of the PZL P11c and P7 types. Light gull-winged monoplanes, with open cockpits and fixed undercarriages, they had been an advanced design in the early 1930s but were now hopelessly outclassed by the Luftwaffe’s modern aircraft. Neither the PZL P11c nor the P7 could get high enough to intercept the high-flying Do17 reconnaissance aircraft.

On the opening day of hostilities, however, the German attack came in at low level, aiming to knock out the Polish air force on the ground. The Luftwaffe failed to achieve its objective as during the last days of peace the Polish air force had dispersed its aircraft to a number of secret airfields. On the morning of September 1 not one Polish squadron remained at its pre-war base. As a result only 28 obsolete or unserviceable machines were destroyed at Rakowice air base.

At first the methods by which she won it were, apart from the fact that the aggression itself was utterly unjustified, fair enough in themselves. Herr Hitler had announced to the Reichstag on September 1 that he would not war against women and children. He was speaking, it will be noted, less than four weeks before the time when women and children were to be slaughtered and mutilated in Warsaw. “I have ordered my air force,” he said, “to restrict itself to attacks on military objectives.” Replying to President Roosevelt’s appeal that civilian populations be spared the horrors of air bombardment, he defined his attitude to this question in terms which, coming from another, would have presaged the waging of a humane and chivalrous war: ” . . . that it is a humanitarian principle to refrain from the bombing of non-military objectives under all circumstances in connection with military operations, corresponds completely with my own point of view and has been advocated by me before. I, therefore, unconditionally endorse the proposal that the governments taking part in the hostilities now in progress make public a declaration in this sense. For my own part, I already gave notice in my Reichstag speech of today that the German air force had received the order to restrict its operations to military objectives.”

That the German air force did confine itself more or less to military objectives in the opening phase of the war is supported by a certain amount of independent evidence. Mr. H. C. Greene, the correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph, reported in that journal from Cernaŭti on September 10 that military objectives such as bridges, roads, railways and aerodromes had been aimed at almost exclusively, though terrible losses had fallen on the civil population as a result of the attacks. On September 6, Mr. Butler, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, stated in reply to a question in the House of Commons that the information in the British Government’s possession showed that the German bombing attacks had in general been directed against objectives serving a military purpose and not indiscriminately against the civil population; but he also was careful to add that the latter had at the same time suffered heavy casualties. Soon, however, evidence began to accumulate that other than military objectives were being attacked and that, in fact, methods of terrorization were being adopted by the German Luftwaffe.

It is true that one must always accept with caution reports from belligerent sources concerning excesses or outrages committed by the enemy. There is inevitably an element of propaganda in such reports. Further, newspaper correspondents on the spot are apt to be impressed by what is told them and are not in a position usually to know or state the other side of the case. Some of the Polish announcements were certainly examples of exaggeration, excusable, no doubt, but still unreliable. For instance, a communiqué of September 2 stated that individual farms and farmers had been bombed — a somewhat improbable occurrence. On the other hand, it is even more improbable that the reports from many quarters about the ruthlessness of the German air force were entirely devoid of foundation. We have, in fact, unbiased evidence sufficient to convict without any need for dependence on ex parte testimony.

Unquestionably, there were numerous instances of bombing objectives which by no possibility could be termed military. Among them was that of the village of Tomaszow, which was the victim of “a particularly vicious bombing” according to a message to the Times of September 11 from its special correspondent on the Polish frontier. Other instances were attested by Dr. Oskar Zsolnay, a Hungarian official trade delegate who had been in Lwów and who described in a Budapest paper a large number of bombing raids on that city, nearly all of them directed against non-military objectives. Some of the most important evidence was supplied by the American Ambassador to Poland, Mr. Biddle, who on September 8 furnished the State Department with particulars of cases in which non-military targets had been attacked: they included his own villa, more than ten miles outside Warsaw, a sanatorium, a refugee train, a hospital train and a hut for Girl Guides. “It is also evident,” he added, “that the German bombers are releasing the bombs they carry even when they are in doubt as to the identity of their objectives.” Again, on September 13, Mr. Biddle reported that the village to which he had then moved and which was, he said, “a defenseless open village” had been attacked by German bombers. On September 20 the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Information said in the House that reports from the British Ambassador to Poland supported the evidence of Mr. Biddle on the bombing of open towns.

One may perhaps feel some hesitation in accepting without reservation the statement in the Polish communiqué of September 15 that the bombardment of open towns by German aircraft had “assumed the character of a systematic destruction of all built-up areas or cities without any connection with military operations,” but there can be no reasonable doubt about the fact that a great number of non-military objectives were bombed. Beyond question many villages were deliberately attacked and a number of them destroyed. In Warsaw itself the Belvedere and Lazienki Palaces, the Seym (Parliament) building, the Soviet and Rumanian Embassies, the Latvian Legation, a number of churches and some hospitals had been wholly or partly demolished from the air even before the intensive bombardment from air and ground began on September 25. The final state of the city was still more tragic. The correspondent of a Danish newspaper who visited it after the surrender reported that scarcely a house was undamaged and in several districts, especially the suburb of Praga, not one house was left standing. The devastation was due in part to artillery fire, but the bombs of the aircraft contributed very materially. Inevitably the losses suffered by the civil population were heavy in the extreme. It is perfectly clear that if the Germans did in fact attempt to bomb only military objectives, they failed in that attempt most lamentably. The more likely explanation is that no such attempt was made. The city was bombed indiscriminately, subjected, in fact, to a display of Nazi Schrecklichkeit. The destruction was intended as an object lesson. “I should like the gentlemen of London to see what a city looks like when it has been through what Warsaw suffered,” said the German wireless announcer on October 4. “These gentlemen ought to see what might happen in their own country if they persist in their mad warmongering.”

The fiction that only military objectives were bombed was kept up in the German reports. A communiqué issued by the High Command on September 25 stated: “Important military objectives in Warsaw were successfully attacked in power-dives by German aircraft.” It is a sufficient commentary upon this to record that when Warsaw asked for an armistice on September 27, 16,000 soldiers and 20,000 civilians lay wounded in the hospitals. There is little doubt, indeed, that Warsaw was subjected to a bombardment, from ground and air, of which the purpose was psychological, or more bluntly, to terrorize. That particular type of bombardment is nothing new in the practice of German arms. It was tried on many occasions in the Franco-German War of 1870-71. At Strasbourg, for instance, the civilian quarters of the city were shelled by siege batteries in order to “induce the inhabitants to compel the governor to surrender the fortress.” The effect was simply to stiffen the determination of the garrison and the inhabitants to resist.

Exactly the same tactics were employed at Warsaw nearly seventy years later, and the same effect was produced; the morale of the city was unbroken, for it was lack of ammunition and supplies, not loss of courage, which finally made surrender inevitable. Methods of frightfulness defeat their aims when used against a determined people. Herr Hitler announced in his speech on September 19 that the British blockade might force him to make use of a “weapon by which we [Germany] cannot be attacked.” The fresh resort to Schrecklichkeit here foreshadowed, whether it referred to the poison gas or to bacteriological warfare or merely to massed attack from the air on cities, will not effect its object. On that point there can be no doubt whatever.

The major role which the German air force played in the conquest of Poland is no proof that it will achieve similar successes in the west. Poland was, in comparison with Germany, very weak in the air. That her air force, was able to resist as well as it did testifies to the gallantry of its personnel. It is the more regrettable that its achievements were magnified by some absurd propaganda. The statement in a communiqué of September 3 that 64 German machines were brought down on that day for the loss of 11 Polish machines was entirely unbelievable. The announcement a little later that Berlin had been bombed was no less unconvincing. There is no escape from the conclusion, on the known facts, that Poland was wholly outclassed in the air.

Soviet Operations in Eastern Poland

The Soviet operations in eastern Poland had been anticipated in the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Stalin’s delay in attacking Poland was in part due to uncertainty over the reaction of the Western Allies, the unexpectedly rapid pace of the German advance, the distraction of military operations in the Far East and the time needed to mobilise the Red Army. Besides the dramatic events in Poland, Stalin was preoccupied with the undeclared war between the Soviet Union and Japan, which culminated in the decisive Soviet victory at Khalkin Gol in September 1939. An armistice was signed with Japan on 15 September, and Soviet intelligence correctly reported that German formations were already operating east of the proposed Soviet-German demarcation line. As a result, Stalin was forced to act sooner than planned.

The decapitation of the Soviet officer corps by the purges of 1937 and 1938 hindered a major military operation of this scale. The Red Army general staff estimated it needed several weeks to fully mobilise. The German advance had proceeded much more quickly than the Soviets had anticipated, forcing a hasty commitment of the ill-prepared Red Army to secure the spoils of the treaty agreement. The Red Army had expected the German operation to be an updated version of the First World War pattern: a series of border clashes until both sides mobilised and deployed their main forces for decisive battle. They had overlooked the possibility that Germany would strike from a fully mobilised posture against their smaller and only partially mobilised opponent. The planning was already well in place as the Red Army general staff had prepared plans in 1938 for intervention under various scenarios during the Munich crisis.

The Red Army was organised into two fronts and deployed no less than 25 rifle divisions, 16 cavalry divisions and 12 tank brigades with a total strength of 466,516 troops. The Red Army’s tank forces sent into Poland actually exceeded the number of tanks and armoured vehicles of the Germans and Poles combined, amounting to 3,739 tanks and 380 armoured cars. The Red Air Force was also committed in strength, totalling about 2,000 combat aircraft. Fighters, consisting mainly of I-16 and I-15bis, made up about 60 per cent of the attacking force, along with medium bombers such as the SB accounting for another 30 per cent of the force. The remainder of the combat elements were army co-operation types like the R-5 biplane.

Polish defences had been stripped bare in the east. Normally the border was guarded by the Border Defence Corps (KOP) with about 18 battalions and 12,000 troops along the Soviet frontier. These forces were little more than light infantry with very little in the way of artillery support. Furthermore, many of the units had been ordered westward as reinforcements, leaving only a token force behind. The force ratio was ludicrously one-sided, roughly one Polish battalion per Soviet corps.

Red Army mobilisation was chaotic at best. Due to the upcoming harvest, it was difficult to fill out the units with their usual supply of war-mobilisation trucks from the civilian sector. As a result, Soviet formations, even tank brigades, seldom had even half of their table-of-organisation in support vehicles. There was also a shortage of spare parts for most types of vehicle including tanks. Although the Red Army order of Battle presents the picture of a conventionally organised force, in fact, the Soviet formations were often deployed in a haphazard fashion, loosely configured as regional groups. Indeed, there are substantial disparities in the historical records about which units participated and under which command, due to the haste under which the operation was prepared. As a result of their belated and haphazard mobilisation and the almost non-existent opposition they faced, the Red Army relied on its cavalry and armoured forces to sweep rapidly into Poland. Horse-mechanised groups were created with tank brigades supporting cavalry divisions.

There was considerable confusion on the Polish side when news of the Soviet invasion first began to filter through. At first there was some hope that the Soviets might be intervening to aid Poland, a delusion that was quickly exposed when word arrived of armed clashes. Nevertheless, the high command on the evening of 17/18 September ordered that the KOP and other units along the frontier were not to engage Soviet forces except in self-defence or if the Soviets interfered with their movement to the Romanian bridgehead. However, the order was not widely received. Instead the commander of the KOP, Brigadier-General W. Orlik-Ruckemann, ordered his troops to fight. Skirmishes between the KOP and Red Army units took place all along the frontier, especially near several of the major cities such as Wilno and Grodno, and along the fortified zone in the Sarny region. The heaviest fighting, not surprisingly, took place in Galicia in south-eastern Poland, since regular Polish army units were gravitating towards this sector near the Romanian frontier.

Galicia was one of the few areas where there was any significant aerial combat between the Polish air force and the Red Air Force. This occurred mostly on the first day of the Soviet invasion, as the surviving Polish air force units had been ordered to escape into Romania. Surviving Polish fighters had been subordinated to the Pursuit Brigade, which was headquartered near Buczacz to the south-east of Lwow. During the first contacts on 17 September, Polish fighters downed an R-5 and two SB bombers, and damaged three further Soviet aircraft. The following day the Pursuit Brigade was evacuated to Romania taking with it 35 PZL P. 11 and eight PZL P. 7 fighters; the last remnants of the combat elements of the Polish air force. A number of Soviet aircraft were lost in subsequent fighting, mostly to ground fire. According to recently declassified records, only five aircrew were killed during the fighting, attesting to the relatively small scale of Soviet air losses in this short campaign.

Fighters Over Poland


During the summer of 1939 the Polish air force found itself dealing with repeated violations of its airspace by photoreconnaissance Do17s of the Luftwaffe, and the experience of the P11c, the principal Polish fighter, was not encouraging. Unable to reach either the speeds or the altitudes of the German intruders, the P11c was clearly obsolescent by this time, and the intruders were able to evade the Polish fighters’ attempted interceptions virtually at will. In preparation for the conflict which by this stage was widely anticipated, the Polish Air Force had been reorganized in the spring, with around a third of the available fighters concentrated around Warsaw and the remainder allocated to the various armies. By the end of August most of the operational aircraft had been dispersed to concealed airfields in preparation for the assault, which duly began before dawn on September 1. Because of heavy fog on the opening day of the war, German plans were changed, with the intended mass attack on Warsaw postponed in preference to raids against airfields and other tactical targets. Flying low to locate the airfields, the bombers of Luftflotte 4, allocated to the advance against Kracow in the south, gave the defending fighters a chance at interception.

Built by the Pánstwowe Zaklady Lotnicze (National Aviation Establishment) and first flying in August 1931, the PZL P.11 was the descendant of a series of clean monoplanes designed by Zygmunt Pulawski, incorporating a unique gull wing that was thickest near the point where four faired steel struts buttressed it from the fuselage sides. When the first PZL P.1 flew on September 26, 1929, it thrust Poland to the forefront of progressive fighter design. In 1933 Poland’s air force, the Lotnictwo Wojskowe, became the first in the world to be fully equipped with all-metal monoplane fighters as the improved P.6 and P.7 equipped its eskadry. When the production P.11c, powered by a 645-horsepower Škoda-built Bristol Mercury VI S2 nine-cylinder radial engine, entered service in early 1935, it still rated as a modern fighter, with a maximum speed of 242 miles per hour at 18,045 feet and a potent armament of four 7.7mm KM Wz 33 machine guns, although its open cockpit and fixed landing gear were soon to become outdated. By 1939 the P.11c was clearly obsolete, and efforts were already under way to develop a successor to replace it within the year. Poland did not have a year, however—on September 1, time ran out as German forces surged over her borders.

A morning fog over northern Poland thwarted the first German air operation, as Obltn. Bruno Dilley led three Junkers Ju 87B-1 Stukas of 3rd Staffel, Sturzkampfgeschwader 1 (3./StG 1) into the air at 0426, flew over the border from East Prussia and at 0434—eleven minutes before Germany formally declared war—attacked selected detonation points in an attempt to prevent the destruction of two railroad bridges on the Vistula River. The German attack failed to achieve its goal and the Poles blew up the bridges, denying German forces in East Prussia an easy entry into Tszew (Dirschau). The “fog of war” also handicapped a follow-up attack on Tszew by Dornier Do 17Z bombers of III Gruppe, Kampfgeschwader 3 (III./KG 3).

Weather conditions were better to the west, allowing Luftflotte 4 to dispatch sixty Heinkel He 111s of KG 4, Ju 87Bs of I./StG 2, and Do 17Es of KG 77 on a series of more effective strikes against Polish air bases near Kraków at about 0530, Rakowice field being the hardest hit. Assigned to escort the Heinkels was a squadron equipped with a new fighter of which Luftwaffe Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring expected great things: the Messerschmitt Me 110C-1 strategic fighter, or Zerstörer.

The Me 110 had evolved from a concept that had been explored during World War I but which was only put into successful practice by the French with their Caudron 11.A3, a twin-engine, three-seat reconnaissance plane employed as an escort fighter in 1918. The strategic fighter idea was revived in 1934 with the development of the Polish PZL P.38 Wilk (Wolf), which inspired a variety of similar twin-engine fighter designs in France, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Japan, and the United States.

Göring was particularly enthralled by what he dubbed the Kampfzerstörer (battle destroyer), and in 1934 he issued a specification for a heavily armed twin-engine multipurpose fighter capable of escorting bombers, establishing air superiority deep in enemy territory, carrying out ground-attack missions, and intercepting enemy bombers. BFW, Focke-Wulf, and Henschel submitted design proposals; but it was Willy Messerschmitt’s sleek BFW Bf 110, which ignored the bombing requirement to concentrate on speed and cannon armament, that won out over the Fw 57 and the Hs 124. Powered by two Daimler Benz DB 600A engines, the Bf 110V1 was first flown by Rudolf Opitz on May 12, 1936, and attained a speed of 314 miles per hour, but the unreliability of its engines required a change to 680-horsepower Junkers Jumo 210Da engines when the preproduction Bf 110A-0 was completed in August 1937.

Although more sluggish than single-seat fighters, the Bf 110A-0 was fast for a twin-engine plane, and its armament of four nose-mounted 7.9mm MG 17 machine guns and one flexible 7.9mm MG 15 gun aft was considered impressive. Prospective Zerstörer pilots were convinced that tactics could be devised to maximize its strengths and minimize its shortcomings, just as the British had done with the Bristol fighter in 1917. The Bf 110B-1, which entered production in March 1938, was even more promising, with a more aerodynamically refined nose section housing a pair of 20mm MG FF cannon. Later, in 1938, the 1,100-horsepower DB 601A-1 engine was finally certified for installation, and in January 1939 the first Messerschmitt Me 110C-1s, powered by the DB 601A-1s and bearing a new prefix to mark Willy Messerschmitt’s acquisition of BFW, entered service. By September 1, a total of eighty-two Me 110s were operating with I Gruppe (Zerstörer) of Lehrgeschwader (Operational Training Wing) 1 (I(Z)./LG 1) commanded by Maj. Walter Grabmann, and I Gruppe, Zerstörergeschwader 1 (I./ZG 1) under Maj. Joachim-Friedrich Huth, both assigned to Luftflotte 1; and with I./ZG 76 led by Hptmn. Günther Reinecke, attached to Luftflotte 4 along the Polish-Czechoslovakian border.

Intensely trained for their multiple tasks, the Zerstörer pilots, like those flying the Stuka, had been indoctrinated to think of themselves as an elite force. Therefore, the Me 110C-1 crewmen of the 2nd Staffel of ZG 76 were as eager as Göring himself to see their mettle tested as they took off at 0600 hours to escort KG 4’s He 111s. To the Germans’ surprise and disappointment, they encountered no opposition over Kraków.

During the return flight, 2./ZG 76’s Staffelführer, Obltn. Wolfgang Falck, spotted a lone Heinkel He 46 army reconnaissance plane and flew down to offer it protection, only to be fired at by its nervous gunner. Minutes later Falck encountered another plane, which he identified as a PZL P.23 light bomber. “As I tried to gain some height he curved into the sun and as he did I caught a glimpse of red on his wing,” Falck recalled. “As I turned into him I opened fire, but fortunately, my marksmanship was no better than the reconnaissance gunner’s had been, [for] as he banked to get away I saw it was a Stuka. I then realized that what I had thought was a red Polish insignia was actually a red E. I reported this immediately after landing and before long the colored letters on wings of our aircraft were overpainted in black.”

As the Stukas of I./StG 2 were returning from their strike, they passed over Balice airfield just as PZL fighters of the III/2 Dywizjon (121st and 122nd Eskadry), attached to the Army of Kraków, were taking off. By sheer chance one of the Stuka pilots, Ltn. Frank Neubert, found himself in position to get a burst from his wing guns into the leading P.11c’s cockpit, after which he reported that it “suddenly explode[d] in mid-air, bursting apart like a huge fireball—the fragments literally flew around our ears.” Neubert’s Stuka had scored the first air-to-air victory of World War II—and killed the commander of the III/2 Dyon, Kapitan Mieczyslaw Medwecki.

Medwecki’s wingman, Porucznik (Lieutenant) Wladyslaw Gnys of the 121st Eskadra, was more fortunate, managing to evade the bombs and bullets of the oncoming trio of Stukas and get clear of his beleaguered airfield. Minutes later, he encountered two returning Do 17Es of KG 77 over Olkusz and attacked. One went down in the village of Zurada, south of Olkusz, and Gnys was subsequently credited with the first Allied aerial victory of World War II. Shortly afterward, the wreckage of the other Do 17E was also found at Zurada and confirmed as Gnys’s second victory. None of the German bomber crewmen survived.

In spite of the adverse weather that had spoiled its first missions, Luftflotte 1 launched more bombing raids from East Prussia, including a probing attack on Okacie airfield outside Warsaw by sixty He 111Ps of Lehrgeschwader 1, escorted by Me 110Cs of the wing’s Zerstörergruppe, I(Z)./LG 1. As the Heinkels neared their target, the Polish Brygada Poscigowa (Pursuit Brigade), on alert since dawn, was warned of the Germans’ approach by its observation posts, and at 0650 it ordered thirty PZL P.11s and P.7s of the 111th, 112th, 113th, and 114th Eskadry up from their airfields at Zielonka and Poniatów to intercept. Minutes later, the Poles encountered scattered German formations and waded in, with Kapral (Corporal) Andrzej Niewiara and Porucznik Aleksander Gabszewicz sharing in the destruction of the first He 111. Over the next hour, the air battle took the form of numerous individual duels, during which Kapitan Adam Kowalczyk, commander of the IV/I Dyon, downed a Heinkel, and Porucznik Hieronim Dudwal of the 113th Eskadra destroyed another.

The Me 110s pounced on the PZLs, but the Zerstörer pilots found their nimble quarry to be most elusive targets. Podporucznik (Sub-Lieutenant) Jerzy Palusinski of the 111th Eskadra turned the tables on one of the Zerstörer and sent it out of the fight in a damaged state. Its wounded pilot was Maj. Walter Grabmann, a Spanish Civil War veteran of the Legion Condor and now commander of I(Z)./LG 1.

In all, the Poles claimed six He 111s, while the German bombers were credited with four PZLs; their gunners had in fact brought down three. Once again, Göring’s vaunted Zerstörer crews returned to base empty handed. When the Germans sent reconnaissance planes over the area to assess the bombing results at about noon, Porucznik Stefan Okrzeja of the 112th Eskadra caught one of the Do 17s and shot it down over the Warsaw suburbs.

As the weather improved, Luftflotte 1 struck again in even greater force, as two hundred bombers attacked Okecie, Mokotow, Goclaw, and bridges across the Vistula. They were met by thirty P. 11s and P.7s of the Brygada Poscigowa, which claimed two He 111Ps of KG 27, a Do 17, and a Ju 87 before the escorting Me 110Cs of I(Z)./LG 1 descended on them. This time the Zerstörer finally drew blood, claiming five PZLs without loss, and indeed the Poles lost five of their elderly PZL P.7s. One Me 110 victim, Porucznik Feliks Szyszka, reported that the Germans attacked him as he parachuted to earth, putting seventeen bullets in his leg. The Me 110s also damaged the P.11c of Hieronim Dudwal, who landed with the fuselage just aft of the cockpit badly shot-up; two bare metal plates were crudely fixed in place over the damaged area, but the plane was still not fully airworthy when the Germans overran his airfield.

For most of September 1, the Me 109s were confined to a defensive posture, save for a few strafing sorties. For the second bombing mission in the Warsaw area, however, I. Gruppe of Jagdgeschwader 21 was ordered to take off from its forward field at Arys-Rostken and escort KG 27’s He 111s. The Me 109s rendezvoused with the bombers, only to be fired upon by their gunners. When the Gruppenkommandeur (Group Commander), Hptmn. Martin Mettig, tried to fire a recognition flare, it malfunctioned, filling his cockpit with red and white fragments. Mettig, blinded and wounded in the hand and thigh, jettisoned his canopy—which broke off his radio mast—and turned back. Most of Mettig’s pilots saw him head for base, and being unable to communicate with him by radio, they followed him. Only upon landing did they learn what had happened.

Not all of the Gruppe had seen Mettig, however, and those pilots who continued the mission were rewarded by encountering a group of PZL fighters. In the wild dogfight that followed, the Germans claimed four of the P.11cs, including the first victory of an eventual ninety-eight by Ltn. Gustav Rödel. The Poles claimed five Me 109s, including one each credited to Podporuczniki Jerzy Radomski and Jan Borowski of the 113th Eskadra, and one to Kapitan Gustaw Sidorowicz of the 111th. Podpolkovnik (Lieutenant Colonel) Leopold Pamula, already credited with an He 111P and a Ju 87B earlier that day, rammed one of the German fighters and then bailed out safely. Porucznik Gabszewicz was shot down by an Me 109 and, like Szyszka, subsequently claimed that the Germans had fired at him while he parachuted down.

In addition to challenging the waves of German bombers and escorts that would ultimately overwhelm them, PZL pilots took a toll on the army cooperation aircraft which were performing reconnaissance missions for the advancing panzer divisions. Podporucznik Waclaw S. Król of the 121st Eskadra downed a Henschel Hs 126, while Kapral Jan Kremski shared in the destruction of another. After taking off on their second mission of the day to intercept a reported Do 17 formation at 1521 hours, Porucznik Marian Pisarek and Kapral Benedykt Mielczynski of the 141st Eskadra spotted an Hs 126 of 3.(H)/21 (3 Staffel (Heeres), Aufklärungsgruppe 21, or 3rd Squadron Army of Reconnaissance Group 21), attacked it and sent it crashing to earth near Torun. The pilot, Obltn. Friedrich Wimmer, and his observer, Obltn. Siegfried von Heymann, were both wounded. Shortly afterward, two more P.11cs from their sister unit, the 142nd Eskadra, flew over the downed Henschel, and one of the Poles, Porucznik Stanislaw Skalski, later described what occurred when he landed nearby to recover maps and other information from the cockpit:

The pilot, Friedrich Wimmer, was slightly wounded in the leg; his navigator, whose name was von Heymann, had nine bullets in his back and shoulder. I did what I could for them and stayed with them until an ambulance came. The prisoners were transferred to Warsaw. After the Soviet Union invaded Poland on 17 September, they became prisoners of the Russians, but were released at the end of October. When they were interrogated by the highest Luftwaffe authorities, Wimmer told them of my generosity. The Germans, who later learned that I had gone to Britain to fight on, said if I should become their prisoner, I would be honored very highly.

The observer, von Heymann, died in 1988. . . . I tried to get in touch with the pilot for three years. The British air attaché and Luftwaffe archives helped me to contact Colonel Wimmer. I went to Bonn to meet him in March 1990, and the German ace Adolf Galland also came over at that time. In 1993, Polish television went with me, to make a film with Wimmer. Reporters asked why I did it—why I landed and helped the enemy, exposing my fighter and myself to enemy air attack. I was young, stupid and lucky. That is always my answer!

I came back late in the afternoon and I had to land on the road close to a forest—Torun aerodrome had been bombed already. I then gave [General Dywizji Wladyslaw] Bortnowski, commander of the Armia Pomorze, the maps that I had captured from the Hs 126, which gave all the dispositions and attack plans of German divisions in Pomerania. He kissed me and said this was all the information his army needed.

On the following day, Skalski came head on at what he described as a “cannon-armed” Do 17 in a circling formation of nine and shot it down, then claimed a second bomber minutes later. Dorniers were not armed with cannon; but Me 110s were, and Skalski subsequently recalled that the Poles were completely unfamiliar with the Zerstörer—nobody had seen them in action until September 1. Moreover, I/ZG 1 lost a Bf 110B-1, its pilot, Hptmn. Adolf Gebhard Egon Claus-Wendelin, Freiherr von Müllenheim-Rechberg, commander of the 3rd Staffel, being killed, while his radioman, Gefreiter Hans Weng, bailed out and was taken prisoner of war (POW). Skalski’s “double” was the first of four and one shared victories with which he would be officially credited during the Polish campaign. Later, flying with the Royal Air Force, he would bring his total up to 18 1/2, making him the highest-scoring Polish ace of the war.

Although Poland was overrun in three weeks, its air force occasionally put up a magnificent fight, though its efforts were rendered inconsistent by poor communications and coordination. Polish fighters were credited with 129 aerial victories for the loss of 114 planes, and many of the pilots who scored them would fight on in the French Armée de l’Air and the Royal Air Force.

The fall of Poland terminated the career of the PZL P.11c, but only marked the beginning for the Me 110, which, after a further run of success, finally met its nemesis in the form of the Hurricane and Spitfire. Relegated to fighter-bomber and photoreconnaissance duties after the Battle of Britain, the Zerstörer would undergo a remarkably productive revival as a night fighter.

Poland’s main front-line fighter in September 1939 was the PZL P11c. Obsolete in comparison with the German Me109s, it nevertheless gave a good account of itself before Poland fell.

Poland was first in the firing line. Early in the morning of September 1 a force of about 120 Heinkel He111s and Dornier Do17s, escorted by Messerschmitt Bf110 fighters, were reported by Polish ground observation posts to be heading for Warsaw. The Luftwaffe had made giant strides since the first German pilots went into action with the Condor Legion in 1936. It now possessed 3652 first-line aircraft comprising 1180 medium twin-engined bombers (mostly He111s and Do17s), 366 Stuka dive bombers, 1179 Me109 and Me110 fighters, 887 reconnaissance aircraft and 40 obsolescent ground-attack Hs123s. Transport was provided by 552 Ju52s, and there were 240 naval aircraft of various types. For the Polish campaign the Luftwaffe deployed 1581 of these aircraft.

German intelligence had estimated the front¬ line strength of the Polish air force at some 900 aircraft. In fact on 1 September the figure was nearer 300, made up of 36 P37 `Los’ twin-engined medium bombers, 118 single-engined `Karas’ P23 light reconnaissance bombers and 159 fighters of the PZL P11c and P7 types. Light gull-winged monoplanes, with open cockpits and fixed undercarriages, they had been an advanced design in the early 1930s but were now hopelessly outclassed by the Luftwaffe’s modern aircraft. Neither the PZL P11c nor the P7 could get high enough to intercept the high-flying Do17 reconnaissance aircraft.

On the opening day of hostilities, however, the German attack came in at low level, aiming to knock out the Polish air force on the ground. The Luftwaffe failed to achieve its objective as during the last days of peace the Polish air force had dispersed its aircraft to a number of secret airfields. On the morning of September 1 not one Polish squadron remained at its pre-war base. As a result only 28 obsolete or unserviceable machines were destroyed at Rakowice air base.

The first air combat of WW2 took place during this action when Captain M Medwecki, commanding officer of III/2 Fighter `Dyon’ was shot down by a Ju87 soon after he took off. Another pilot, Lieutenant W Gnys attacked the Ju87 and later shot down two low-flying Dornier 17s – the first Polish kills. Warsaw too was attacked by Luftwaffe bombers and the first to be shot down, a low-flying He111, was destroyed by Lieutenant A Gabszewicz.

A more spectacular victory occurred later that day during a running air battle above Warsaw. Second Lieutenant Leopold Pamula shot down a He111 and a Ju87 but ran out of ammunition when the fighter escort came down on the P11s. Pamula rammed one Me109 before parachuting to safety. In the same battle Aleksander Gabszewicz had his P11 set on fire and had to bale out. On his way to the ground he was shot at by a fighter, an event experienced by other parachuting Polish pilots as the battles continued.

Despite the inferiority of the Polish fighters, they achieved at least a dozen victories on the first day of WW2, although they lost 10 fighters with another 24 damaged. This gave the Polish pilots some confidence. Even with their outmoded aircraft they seemed able to cope with the Germans. Their pilots found that one good method of attack was to dive head-on where a tail-chase was more or less out of the question. This collision-course tactic unnerved the German bomber pilots and was most effective in breaking up formations and inflicting damage on the Heinkels and Dorniers. The Polish fighter pilots unexpectedly found the twin-engined Me110s more dangerous than the single-engined Me109s. The first German kill of WW2 was in fact scored by a 110 pilot, Hauptmann Schlief, who shot down a P11 on September 1.

By mid-September German pincers from north and south had closed around Warsaw. Then on September 17 the Red Army intervened from the east, destroying the last Polish hopes. Warsaw surrendered on September 27 and the last organized resistance collapsed in the first week of October. Despite the obsolescent equipment of the Polish air force, and its inferiority in numbers, it had inflicted heavy damage on the Luftwaffe, which had lost 285 aircraft with almost the same number so badly damaged as to be virtually noneffective. Polish fighter pilots were officially credited with 126 victories, which indicates modest claiming by them, for Polish anti-aircraft fire claimed less than 90, leaving an unclaimed deficit of some 70 aircraft. The last German aircraft shot down by a Pole in this campaign was claimed on September 17 by Second Lieutenant Tadeusz Koc. The highest-scoring Polish pilot was Second Lieutenant Stanislaw Skalski, with 6 1/2 kills. The highest-scoring German, and Germany’s first `ace’ of WW2, was Hauptmann Hannes Gentzen, who scored seven victories in a Me109D.

A total of 327 aircraft were lost by the Polish Air Force. Of these 260 were due to either direct or indirect enemy action with around 70 in air-to-air fighting; 234 aircrew were either killed or reported missing in action. One of the chief lessons learned by the German bomber force operating over Poland (and as the RAF bombers were soon to discover) was that they were susceptible to fighter attack. The immediate requirement, therefore, was for the bombers to have heavier defensive armament and additional armor protection for their crews.


When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Stanislaw F Skalski was in his early 20s. and a regular Polish Air Force officer, flying PZL fighters with 142 Squadron. On the second day of the war, he destroyed two Dornier 17s, and by the end of the brief Polish campaign was the top-scoring fighter pilot with 6 1/2 victories. He escaped to England, and joined 501 Squadron RAF in the Battle of Britain, scoring four victories. In June 1941 he was made a flight commander in 306 Polish Squadron and shot down five more German aircraft. He received the British DFC, having already won the Polish Silver Cross and Cross of Valor. He then had a spell as an instructor before commanding 317 Squadron in April 1942, winning a bar to his DFC.

In 1943 he led a group of experienced Polish fighter pilots into the Middle East, flying Spitfire IXs attached to 145 RAF Squadron. This ‘Fighting Team’ or ‘Skalski’s Flying Circus’ as it was also called, operated during the final stages of the Tunisian campaign, Skalski adding three more personal kills. He was then given command of 601 Squadron – the first Pole to command an RAF fighter squadron. He received a second bar to his DFC as well as the Polish Gold Cross before returning to England.

As a Wing Commander in April 1944 he commanded 133 (Polish No 2) Fighter Wing, flying Mustangs, raising his score to 19 victories when he forced two FW190s to collide on June 24. He ended the war as a gunnery instructor, decorated additionally with the British DSO. Returning to Poland after the war he was imprisoned by the Russians; and, following his release, drove a taxi in Warsaw.

The MEKs – Marineeinsatzkommandos– German Naval Sabotage Units I

Frogmen at a display for Grossadmiral Dönitz (second right) showing an interested admiral – possibly Heye – his watertight Junghans diver’s watch/compass.

Development, Training, Structure

As with other light naval units, the MEKs were formed late in the war. As commandos and naval sabotage troops they operated behind enemy lines close to the coast, attacking harbour installations, bridges, ships, supply depots, ammunition dumps and other worthwhile targets.

The idea was never discussed at OKM until 16 September 1943, the motive for the deliberations being the operations by their British counterparts. During the period from February to July 1942, British forces had launched three commando raids of this kind between Boulogne and Le Havre and collected important intelligence on German defences. In the course of these raids a number of enemy personnel had been captured and paperwork confiscated by the Wehrmacht. This led to certain conclusions being drawn regarding the development, structure of commando units and the tactics of their operations. The evaluation laid the foundations for the equivalent German squads (MEKs – Marineeinsatzkommandos).

The first MEK came into being at Heiligenhafen on the Baltic at the end of 1943. The training camp was barracks immediately behind the beach. Later, as the company grew in size, the artillery barracks was used as a training ground. Oblt (MA) Hans-Friedrich Prinzhorn was the first commando leader. In the summer of 1942 he had been a member of an assault squad which crossed the Strait of Kerch in the Crimea to attack Soviet positions on the Kuban Peninsula. Before his move to the K-Verband, Prinzhorn had been an instructor at the Kriegsmarine flak training school. By the end of 1943 the first thirty officers and men of all ranks were installed at Heiligenhafen, and the training lasted into the spring of 1944. It followed the British commando-training manual very closely, a fact to be kept strictly secret. Each man was required to sign a pledge to this effect. There was no leave and it was not permitted to leave the confines of the camp. All civilian contacts had to be broken off.

The instructors were infantrymen and engineers with frontline experience particularly against the Soviets. Training in sniping and explosives handling was made as realistic as possible. Sports, swimming and judo instructors taught methods of unarmed combat and how to overwhelm enemy sentries silently: experts gave instruction in motor vehicles and radio, specialists taught the use of life-saving devices and oxygen breathing gear, linguists passed on their knowledge of the vernacular used by enemy soldiers. Each man had to be an all-rounder. Candidates who flunked the course were returned to their unit without ever having really understood the purpose of what had been taught at Heiligenhafen. After completing training, the successful men were distributed between the various MEKs.

The authorized strength of an MEK was one officer, 22 men and 15 vehicles (3 radio cars, two amphibious and one catering vehicle, the other vehicles being for transport, equipment and ammunition). Rations and ammunition was to be sufficient for six weeks. In January 1944 Kptlt (S) Opladen’s men were instructed in their missions and the first three units (MEK 60 – Oblt (MA) Prinzhorn, MEK 65 – Oblt Richard and MEK 71 – Oblt Wolters) transferred to waiting positions in Denmark and France. Subsequently each MEK, depending on its assignment, received an influx of personnel for special missions, e.g. one-man torpedoes, midget submarines, Linsen and assault boat pilots, canoeists and frogmen. An MEK might eventually be 150 strong.

MEKs existed before the K-Verband did. They had been set up by the Hamburg Abwehr office, to which they were accountable. These units were: MAREI (Kptlt (S) Opladen) and MARKO (Oblt Broecker). Both units were absorbed into the K-Verband as MEK 20.

As time went on other MEKs were formed. MEK 30 (Kptlt Gegner); MEK 35 (Kptlt Breusch, November 1944–March 1945, Kptlt Wolfgang Woerdemann, March 1945–End); and MEK 40 (Kptlt Buschkämper, August 1944–March 1945, Oblt Schulz, March 1945–End). This unit was formed at Mommark in Denmark on the island of Alsen (Gelbkoppel) with 150 men for special assignments.

Others were:

MEK 70 – nothing known

MEK 75 – KptzS Böhme

MEK 80: Kptlt Dr Krumhaar (March 1944–End)

MEK 85: Oblt Wadenpfuhl (January 1945–End)

MEK 90: Oblt Heinz-Joachim Wilke

There are said to have been other MEKs, e.g. MEK Werschetz and MEK zbV. Leaders of these units may have been Oblt Rudolf Klein, Lts Alexander Spaniel and Wilhelm Pollex amongst others.

The training of MEK men was carried out at a training establishment at Kappeln and Heiligenhafen. Hand-to-hand infantry fighting training was held at Bad Sülze/Rostock, Stolp and Kolberg in Pomerania. Kappeln had the following officer corps:

Commander: KKpt Heinrich Hoffmann

Chief at Staff: Kptlt Erich Dietrich

Adjutant: Lt Günther Schmidt

National Socialist Leadership Officer (after 20.7.1944): Lt Gustav Weinberger

Medical Officer: Kptlt Dr Rudolf Neuman

Company chiefs: Kptlt Friedrich Adler; Oblts Werner Schulz, Hermann Ibach, Eckehard Martienssen, Hans-Günter Beutner; Lt Gerhard Zwinscher

Training Officer: Oblt Hans Diem

At Heiligenhafen the training staff was:

Commander: Kptlt Friedrich Jütz

Camp commandants: Kptlt Heinrich Schütz, Oblt Eberhardt Sauer

Instructors: Oblt Hans-Friedrich Prinzhorn; Lts Erich Kohlberg, Hainz Knaup, Herbert Vargel, Kurt Wagenschieffer, Hermann Baumeister; Oberfähnriche Georg Brink and Anton Ibach.

MEK Operations in the West

In June 1944 the Allies at Caen in Normandy succeeding in crossing the Orne and Orne-Sea Canal to the east, and built a bridgehead posing a severe threat to German units. The Allies ‘pumped’ 10,000 men into this bridgehead. Their supplies were brought up over two intact bridges. Their AA defences were so strong that no attack by the impoverished Luftwaffe stood any chance of success. German engineers were unable to reach the bridges cross-country.

On Thursday 22 June 1944 the Battle for Caen began. It was General Montgomery’s intention to encircle Caen by crossing the high land with its dominant landmark Hill 112 south-west of the city and then the River Odon. This important sector was being stubbornly defended by 12 SS-Panzer Division Hitler Jugend led by SS-Oberführer Kurt ‘Panzermeyer’ Meyer. The demolition of the strategically important bridges was to be the proving test for MEK 60. Oblt (MA) Prinzhorn was given a platoon of frogmen from Venice. As the result of a road traffic accident, this platoon had been reduced in size from ten men to six. Its leader, LtzS Alfred von Wurzian, had been forbidden to take part in the operation because he was too valuable as an instructor.

The assignment was to destroy two bridges at Benouville which British airborne troops had captured in the early hours of the Invasion. The commandos consisted of two groups of three frogmen: Group One – Feldwebel Kurt Kayser, Funkmaat Heinz Brettschneider and Obergefreiter Richard Deimann; Group Two – Oberfähnrich Albert Lindner, Fähnrich Ulrich Schulz and a third man whose name has not been remembered.

The operation was scheduled to begin from Franceville at 2300 on the night of 14 August 1944. Each group was to take a torpedo – actually a time bomb package inside a torpedo-shaped container – to a specific bridge. Things started badly and got worse. When the 800 kg torpedoes were let down to the surface of the river on pulleys, they sank at once. No allowance had been made for the changed specific gravity in fresh water. Floats were improvised from empty fuel barrels to salve the torpedoes. The frogmen now entered the water, two to tow, one to steer, a torpedo.

Prinzhorn’s group, which was to attack the further bridge over the Orne, passed carefully below the enemy-held first bridge. It was another 12 kilometres to the main bridge, which all believed to be the crucial structure. Here they were to anchor their torpedo to the central pillar. After strenuous effort they attained their objective, moored the torpedo about a metre above the bottom on the central pillar and set the timer. Four hours later they were back at MEK. Too soon, as Prinzhorn was to discover. A revision of the map had brought to light the sorry fact that a third bridge, the real objective, had been omitted. The explosive had been set below the wrong bridge. It detonated punctually at 0530 hrs.

Events were equally dramatic for Lindner’s group. Towing the torpedo was sheer torment. Suddenly the third man lost his nerve as they swam past the enemy on the bankside. He could not be convinced to go on and swam to shore. The two midshipmen proceeded with the operation alone. After passing a wooden hindrance designed to intercept drifting mines they reached the first bridge, anchored the torpedo and set off for MEK on foot. When this bridge also blew up at 0530, the British scoured the area for the saboteurs. Once Lindner and Schulz had to hide up in a latrine trench to avoid capture. It was the following evening before they reached the canal, where a weaker current allowed them to swim back. The third man had attempted to make his way back independently, had been shot by the British and died of his wound in captivity.

At the end of August 1944 the Allies had pushed onwards and eastwards. They took Honfeur near Le Havre with its formerly German coastal battery Bac du Hode sited on the south bank of the Seine between Honfleur and Trouville. This battery now menaced the German garrison in Le Havre. A Naval artillery assault squad had set out cross-country to retake the battery and had been wiped out in a firefight with the British. MEK 60 now received orders to destroy the battery. After Prinzhorn had been frustrated by engine breakdown in an attempt to cross the Seine aboard an infantry assault boat, he obtained two Linsen speedboats from K-Verband. These were fitted with double noise-suppressors and could make eight knots at slow ahead.

On the night of 26 August 1944 the operation began. Aboard the Linsen were Prinzhorn, seven MEK men and a naval artillerist who knew the locality well. At 0050 the agreed light signals flashed out from Le Havre, and they paddled their rubber dinghies through a minefield to land. They came ashore too far west and had to negotiate the beach area on foot. By 0230 they were within 100 metres of the battery. The men slipped past the sentries and got into the bunkers. Hastily they set their explosives on the three heavy guns and in the magazine and fled. Four minutes later the charges exploded and the battery was destroyed.

At the end of August 1944 the German military resistance in France collapsed. Within a few days, fast Allied units had broken through northern France and into Belgium. Antwerp fell after a short battle and would not serve the British as a useful port for supplies. Although Antwerp lay well inland at the eastern end of the Scheldt, it was tidal and this influenced the port operations to a considerable extent. Besides an open harbour the city had a large network of docks. The Kruisschans Lock ensured that the water in the main harbour remained at a constant height. All ships arriving and departing had to pass through it.

MEK 60, now re-located in the Low Countries, was called upon again. Its task this time was to destroy the two principal locks – Kruisschans and Royers. Putting them out of commission would seriously disrupt Allied supply, reducing unloading capacity by five-sixths while it lasted.

After assessing the situation, it was clear that only an attack by frogmen held out any hope for success. The enemy had sealed off the last kilometre of the lock approaches with net barriers. The difficult currents in the Scheldt made it impossible for swimmers to do the whole journey there and back swimming. It was therefore decided to transport the frogmen to the lock entrance aboard Linsen boats. Both river banks were held by the enemy, but it was essential that the passage remained undetected. A dark, overcast night, or fog would be best. Moreover a foodtide was needed, the noise made by the engines pitted against the strong ebb would be too great. This would also ensure that the frogmen saboteurs would arrive at the lock gates at high water, enabling them to work below the walkway, beneath the feet of enemy sentries.

To blow up the 35-metre wide lock gate, K-Verband had developed a torpedo-mine. The necessary tonne of underwater explosive was to be carried in an elongated aluminium container the filling of which mostly ammonia gas – was calculated to ensure that the torpedo mine would float with 30 to 40 grams negative buoyancy just below the surface, where it would be easily manoeuvrable in calm water. Two men would swim towing the torpedo while the third steered it from astern. At the appropriate time the mine would be flooded by opening a pressure valve, sinking to the river bed: a button would start the timer running for the detonator.

The operation began on the night of 15 September 1944. The pilots of the two Linsen were Prinzhorn and Oblt Erich Dörpinghaus of K-Flotilla 216. With motors suppressed for noise the boats set off towing the torpedo mines. Visibility was barely 30 metres and both Linsen were soon lost to sight in the murk. The boats motored slowly upstream and separated in search of their individual locks. At the ten kilometre mark Dourpinghaus’ crew began peering through the gloom and thought they could make out the lock entrance.

While Dörpinghaus moored his Linse to a convenient post the three frogmen, Fieldwebel Karl Schmidt, Mechanikermaat Hans Greten and Maschinenmaat Rudi Ohrdorf slipped into the water and prepared the torpedo mine. With great effort they swam the last kilometre underwater towing their elongated charge. Suddenly Schmidt’s clothing snagged on a submerged object and tore. Now he had to wage a constant battle against buoyancy loss. The first major obstacles they overcame were a net barrier then a steel-mesh net: two more hindrances and they were at the quay wall. They moved along it until striking their heads against the lock gate, their objective.

They flooded the torpedo mine and accompanied its descent to the bottom, about 18 metres below. After activating the detonator they surfaced and swam off. Returning to the Linse Schmidt became so exhausted that he had to be towed by boat hook. Some 75 minutes later they were back with Dörpinghaus. Once the Linse set off a motor boat approached them suddenly from the fog. Dörpinghaus put the Linse to full ahead and quickly lost sight of the stranger. It was in fact Prinzhorn’s boat, his men not having succeeded in finding the Royers lock gate. At 0500 a tremendous explosion shook Antwerp harbour. The lock gate was wrecked and the passage of seagoing vessels had to be suspended for several weeks until the damage had been repaired.

In September 1944 the Allies concentrated on capturing the Dutch towns of Arnhem and Nijmegen by means of strong airborne operations.2 This was to be the springboard for the Allied advance to the north and west into the heartland of Germany. Whereas at Nijmegen 82 US Airborne Division had taken intact the bridges over the Waal (the main tributary of the Rhine delta), the British 504th Parachute Regiment had run into stiff opposition at Arnhem, and only on the north bank of the Waal had they been able to establish a bridgehead. On the road to Arnhem they were in possession of an area about three kilometres deep, but south of Elst their progress had been stopped by SS panzer units.

In order to destroy the important bridges, men from MEK 60 (Oblt Prinzhorn) and MEK 65 (Oblt Richard) were to form a special operational team to included Linsen and frogmen. After a thorough evaluation both officers concurred that 3 tonnes of explosives would be required for each of the mighty bridge pillars. This would need to be brought up in two 1.5-tonne torpedo-mines, each loaded with 600 kg of the special dynamite Nebolith. The pillars were over 11 metres tall and almost four metres in diameter. They would have to be forced upwards out of the jambs in which they were embedded, and only two simultaneous, violent explosions on opposite sides of the pillars could provide the necessary turning movement.

Two torpedo mines had to be joined for each tow: at the destination they would be separated and a packet of explosives placed either side of a pillar. Three bridges, one railway and two road bridges, were to be attacked. Two frogmen were sent to reconnoitre the length of the approach. They reported that the current was too strong for swimming in the return direction and they had had to walk back. An Abwehr liaison officer now arrived on the scene. Hauptmann Hummel was also known by the name Helmers and had been active as a commando leader at Valdagno and Venice. He mounted a major reconnaissance with two assault boats from Jagdkommando Donau crewed by Lt Schreiber, Bootsmaat Heuse and two junior NCOs, Krämer and Kammhuber. The loud engine noises betrayed them, and in an exchange of fire Heuse was killed. The British were now alerted and set up a foodlight barrier. The bridges were illuminated, the sentries reinforced and searchlight beams roved the region.

It seems probable that Hauptmann Hummel was the Hauptmann Hellmer mentioned in Skorzeny’s memoirs who not only led the operations but swam a reconnaissance himself:

The bridgehead extended for about seven kilometres either side of the bridge. The left bank of the Waal was occupied completely by the British. One night Hauptmann Hellmer swam the required reconnaissance alone … fortified by good luck, he swam between river banks occupied both sides by the enemy, and then returned to his own men.

On the night of 29 September twelve frogmen entered the Waal about ten kilometres upstream from Nijmegen and began towing the torpedo mines towards the bridges. The first group consisted of the experienced Funkmaat Heinz Brettschneider (MEK 60, Orne bridges operation) and senior privates Olle, Jäger and Walschendorff. The team was almost at the railway bridge, their objective, when they discovered about 200 metres before it a pontoon bridge, complete but for the central section, which was in the process of erection across the breadth of the river. They passed by the sentries unnoticed, and between the pontoon bridge and the railway bridge Brettschneider gave the signal to separate the explosive packets. The lines fore and aft were cut, the only tie being the long line which had to go round the pillar. Once all was set the swimmers set out on the walk back to base. An hour later the mines exploded – but the bridge held.

The two other groups towing four mines towards the road bridges fared no better. These eight men were: Obermaat Orlowski, Bootsmann Ohrdorf, Bootsmann Weber, Fieldwebel Schmidt, Steuermannsmaat Kolbruch, Obergefreiter Dyck and Gefreiten Gebel and Halwelka. One group drifted into a jetty, drawing the immediate fire of a British sentry. The attempt to link up the mines between the bridge columns failed because of the strong current. One of the men managed to open a valve and so sink the mine which exploded an hour later, blowing a hole of 25 metres diameter in the bridge. Of the twelve frogmen in the three groups only Brettschneider and Jäger reached the German lines at Ochten. The other ten were taken prisoner by the Dutch Resistance who were covering the south bank of the Waal.4

This action did not close the Nijmegen chapter. On 15 and 16 October 1944 two Marder one-man torpedoes and two Linsen set out with six torpedo-mines in tow. This force turned back nine kilometres short of the road bridge on account of technical problems. A second attempt with two operational and one reserve Linse on the night of 24 October was also called off after the mines sank one kilometre into the tow and exploded harmlessly five hours later. Subsequently paratroop-engineers made a bold attempt to destroy the road and pontoon bridges. The idea was to use mines to blow a channel through the Waal net barriers after which a float loaded with explosives would be moored to the bridge to blow a hole in the roadway overhead. The attack began on 20 November. Thirty-six mines were set adrift in the water between 1815 and 2000. Echo measuring devices would confirm the explosions in the net and the cable tension. The first operation failed because of a storm, and was repeated with eleven mines. At 0530 the float followed through and at 0657 an explosion occurred. Luftwaffe air reconnaissance photographs showed that a torpedo net had disappeared while large sections of the second and third barriers were no longer visible. The road bridge, though damaged, held however.