Winter Clothing German Army before Moscow 1941

One of the often-repeated misconceptions about this campaign goes that because the Germans planned and counted on the war in the east being a short one, they didn’t take steps soon enough to begin the manufacture of needed winter uniforms and gear. Yet anyone who’s spent a winter anywhere in Europe north of the Alps knows an army doesn’t have to go to Russia to experience a need for seasonal equipment and clothing. That equipment and clothing in fact existed, and in the needed amounts, but they existed in the wrong places at depots in Germany far from the front.

The transportation infrastructure east of the Soviet-German border was less developed than that west of it, and the destruction caused by the invasion did nothing to improve capacity. One official of the German Railway Authority noted gloomily in a report to Berlin in August 1941 that, no matter how often commanders made the point to combat troops about the desirability of capturing Soviet rolling stock intact, there seemed nothing the soldiers enjoyed more than shooting up trains.

At first the decrease in carrying capacity eastward could be made up by directly trucking (and hauling in horse-drawn wagons) the materiel from the depots to the front. The Luftwaffe could also be counted on to keep key spearhead units in supply via air drops. But as the distance from the border to the front increased beyond the 300-400 kilometer mark, the efficiency of those stopgaps rapidly fell.

The situation can be likened to an individual’s blood flow on a cold winter day. In the abdomen, close to the heart itself, the blood-carrying arteries are many and thick; but the farther one goes toward the extremities, the scarcer and finer the transport arteries become. The result is the fingertips and toes get cold.

On a vastly larger scale, that was what was happening to the German army in the east by late October, as they got ready to carry out their final offensives around Leningrad, Moscow and Rostov. By then they were far enough from the Reich’s logistical heart to be down to mere capillary carrying capacity. In terms of movable tonnages, the Germans were faced with the choice of shunting forward enough of all kinds of supply to sustain their forces for less demanding defensive operations, or bringing up enough ammunition and POL (petroleum, oil, lubricants) supplies, at the cost of everything else, to allow for continuation of the attack. The decision, made in the well heated rooms of high command headquarters, seemed obvious.

Even under such constraints, though, one of the radio-telephone conversations between Hitler and Gen. Heinz Guderian in late December is instructive in showing how a good army can make one kind of supply serve another purpose. Guderian was complaining to Hitler about having trouble stopping the Soviets’ T-34-led breakthroughs. The Führer asked why he didn’t use the 88mm Flak guns to destroy them as in previous encounters. The general explained the ground was now frozen so hard he needed to save his artillery rounds to blast holes for the infantry to sleep in at night. Experience had already shown if he didn’t get his Landser below ground level they’d freeze to death.

The panzer men also proved masters of innovation during the winter crisis. They got by the necessity of painfully starting each tanks’ cold engine from scratch by designing a ”cold water exchanger,” which pumped warmed coolant from one engine to another. They also devised track extenders, called “east chains,” which increased their narrow-treaded machines’ mobility across snow and ice (though even the best east chains failed to bring the panzers up to the T-34’s fabled cross-country mobility standards).

Taken on its own, then, the Russian climate was important, but probably not decisive, in bringing about the German failure.

One of the often-repeated misconceptions about this campaign goes that because the Germans planned and counted on the war in the east being a short one, they didn’t take steps soon enough to begin the manufacture of needed winter uniforms and gear. Yet anyone who’s spent a winter anywhere in Europe north of the Alps knows an army doesn’t have to go to Russia to experience a need for seasonal equipment and clothing. That equipment and clothing in fact existed, and in the needed amounts, but they existed in the wrong places at depots in Germany far from the front.

The transportation infrastructure east of the Soviet-German border was less developed than that west of it, and the destruction caused by the invasion did nothing to improve capacity. One official of the German Railway Authority noted gloomily in a report to Berlin in August 1941 that, no matter how often commanders made the point to combat troops about the desirability of capturing Soviet rolling stock intact, there seemed nothing the soldiers enjoyed more than shooting up trains.

At first the decrease in carrying capacity eastward could be made up by directly trucking (and hauling in horse-drawn wagons) the materiel from the depots to the front. The Luftwaffe could also be counted on to keep key spearhead units in supply via air drops. But as the distance from the border to the front increased beyond the 300-400 kilometer mark, the efficiency of those stopgaps rapidly fell.

The situation can be likened to an individual’s blood flow on a cold winter day. In the abdomen, close to the heart itself, the blood-carrying arteries are many and thick; but the farther one goes toward the extremities, the scarcer and finer the transport arteries become. The result is the fingertips and toes get cold.

On a vastly larger scale, that was what was happening to the German army in the east by late October, as they got ready to carry out their final offensives around Leningrad, Moscow and Rostov. By then they were far enough from the Reich’s logistical heart to be down to mere capillary carrying capacity. In terms of movable tonnages, the Germans were faced with the choice of shunting forward enough of all kinds of supply to sustain their forces for less demanding defensive operations, or bringing up enough ammunition and POL (petroleum, oil, lubricants) supplies, at the cost of everything else, to allow for continuation of the attack. The decision, made in the well heated rooms of high command headquarters, seemed obvious.

Even under such constraints, though, one of the radio-telephone conversations between Hitler and Gen. Heinz Guderian in late December is instructive in showing how a good army can make one kind of supply serve another purpose. Guderian was complaining to Hitler about having trouble stopping the Soviets’ T-34-led breakthroughs. The Führer asked why he didn’t use the 88mm Flak guns to destroy them as in previous encounters. The general explained the ground was now frozen so hard he needed to save his artillery rounds to blast holes for the infantry to sleep in at night. Experience had already shown if he didn’t get his Landser below ground level they’d freeze to death.

The panzer men also proved masters of innovation during the winter crisis. They got by the necessity of painfully starting each tanks’ cold engine from scratch by designing a ”cold water exchanger,” which pumped warmed coolant from one engine to another. They also devised track extenders, called “east chains,” which increased their narrow-treaded machines’ mobility across snow and ice (though even the best east chains failed to bring the panzers up to the T-34’s fabled cross-country mobility standards).

Taken on its own, then, the Russian climate was important, but probably not decisive, in bringing about the German failure.

Rußland – bei Targowi Sawod
Vormarsch unserer Truppen durch die Winterlandschaft vor Moskau. Die Wege sind gefroren und trotz der Kälte geht es leicht vorwärts.
Kriegsberichter Cusian

The German army, so often portrayed as centred on armoured formations, had even more horses in the Second World War than the British army had in the Great War. The horse was the ‘basic means of transport in the Germany Army.’ German rearmament in the 1930s involved mass purchase of horses such that by 1939 the army had 590,000, leaving 3 million others in the rest of the country. Each infantry division needed around 5,000 horses to move itself. For the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, 625,000 horses were assembled. As the war progressed the German horse army got ever larger as the Wehrmacht pillaged the agricultural horses of the nations it conquered. At the beginning of 1945 it had 1.2 million horses; the total loss of horses in the war is estimated at 1.5 million. Could it be that the Great War and the Second World War saw more horses in battle than any previous war? Could it be that the draught horse-to-soldier ratio also increased, despite the use of other forms of transport? Certainly the Wehrmacht embarked on its march to Moscow with many times more horses than Napoleon’s Grand Armee. Indeed, it took longer to get there.


Luftwaffe to Russia 1941

During the early part of 1941, first in a trickle and then, in May, a flood, the bulk of the Luftwaffe – with the exception of a few combat units, notably Kampfgeschwader 40 with its Condors and two Jagdgeschwader left in France – moved east in preparation for the attack on Russia. The force was scheduled to return to France to renew the attack upon Britain about six weeks after the beginning of the offensive in the east – Hitler’s estimate of how long he expected the Russians to be able to hold out. In the event, when the bombers did return to France, it was as only a shadow of their former strength.

So ended the three-phased attack calculated to knock Britain out of the war. First, there had been the attempt to wipe out the Royal Air Force and so leave the nation defenceless to attack from the air. Then when that failed the Germans had tried by break the will of the British people by day (the second phase) and night (the third phase) attacks on centres of population. That failed too. And the whole time the Luftwaffe and the steadily expanding U-boat arm strove to sever Britain’s umbilical chord – the shipping which brought in her vitally needed foodstuffs, raw materials, and armaments from the USA and the Empire. The British had taken the measure of the Condors; it was to take somewhat longer to master the U-boat threat but this, too, was done.

To what extent can the Battle of Britain be considered to be a turning point of the war? Certainly it did not mark the beginning of the end of the Luftwaffe, for that force continued in being and was still to achieve triumphs as great as any it had gained during the first year of the war. But what was significant was that for the first time the main body of the Luftwaffe had been committed and had failed; the force was trained and equipped as a tactical air arm, and when it was used as a strategic weapon it was almost bound to fail. And in the process it suffered severe losses in aircraft and – far worse – trained men. The myth of the invincibility of the Luftwaffe had been exploded for ever.

The Germans, and Hitler in particular, had long regarded the Russians as a latent source of danger. And inspite of the non-aggression pact which existed between the two nations, there was little trust between them. The Russian advances westwards since 1939, when they had occupied the whole of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, and also parts of Poland, Rumania and Finland, served to confirm Hitler’s belief that sooner or later Germany was bound to find herself at war with Russia.

Between 1939 and May 1941 the strength of the Russian army had increased from sixty-five to 158 divisions, and the majority of these were located along her western frontier. Ostensibly these forces were manning defensive positions; nevertheless, they were regarded in Germany as an implied threat. Also during this period, the Russian armed forces had been undergoing an extensive reequipment programme, while the General Staff was at last recovering from the drastic thinning of its ranks suffered during Stalin’s savage purge in 1938.

Whether or not the Russians really did intend to invade Germany will not be known for certain. What matters is that Hitler thought that sooner or later they were going to attack, and thus resolved to get his blow in first.

It was at the end of July 1940, after the end of the campaign in France but well before the opening of the Battle of Britain, that Hitler had first ordered planning to begin for the attack on Russia. By the middle of November 1940 the operational planning staffs of the Luftwaffe had started on detailed studies. Meanwhile air force works units were engaged in bringing the relatively primitive airfields in occupied Poland up to German standards for all- weather operations.

At this time Göring tried his hardest to turn Hitler away from his chosen course. On one occasion the Luftwaffe commander is recorded as saying: `My Führer, the ultimate decision is yours to make. May God guide you and help you to prove that you are correct in the face of this opposition! I, myself, am forced to oppose your viewpoint on this matter. May God protect you! But please remember that it will not be my fault if I cannot carry out our plans for the expansion of the Luftwaffe.’ Hitler replied: `You will be able to continue operations against England in six weeks.’ Then Göring pointed out: `The Luftwaffe is the only branch of the German armed forces that has not had a breathing space since the beginning of the war. I said at the beginning of the war that I was going into battle with my training units, and now they have all been used . . . I am not at all certain that you can defeat Russia in six weeks. The ground forces cannot fight any more with¬ out Luftwaffe support. They are always screaming for the Luftwaffe. There is nothing that I should like better than that you are proven right. But, frankly, I doubt that you will be.’

Göring’s impassioned appeals were in vain; the Führer refused to be swayed. Had not a few brave but ill- equipped Finns come near to defeating the Russians during the Winter War of 1939?

At first the invasion of Russia was to have had the code-name `Fritz’; later this was changed to `Barbarossa’, after the crusading Germanic Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. The attack was to have opened early in May 1941, but the unusually late thaw that year resulted in a `mud season’ which lasted until the end of that month. As a result the operation had to be put back to the third week in June.

In order to maintain secrecy regarding the German intentions, most of the flying units assigned to the Barbarossa operation were kept back in the occupied territories in the west or in Germany until the beginning of June 1941. Then, within a space of three weeks, the various Gruppen moved swiftly into the bases previously prepared for them. As soon as they landed the aircraft were taxied to their dispersal areas, where they were carefully camouflaged.

When the German attack on Russia opened, shortly before dawn on the morning of 22nd June 1941, the strength of the Luftwaffe units engaged amounted to 2,770 aircraft.







The great pains the Germans had taken to maintain secrecy paid handsome dividends during the initial phase of the operations, and the Russians were taken by complete surprise. As always, the initial target for the Luftwaffe during this campaign was the opposing air force, and the Russian airfields along her western border were subjected to intensive air attacks.

For their attacks on the Russian airfields the Germans used for the first time a new type of fragmentation bomb, the 4-pound SD 2. These small cylindrical weapons, three inches in diameter, three and a half inches long, were carried in large numbers in special containers fitted to the attacking aircraft; a Ju 88 or a Do 17 could carry 360 SD 2s, a Bf 109 or a Ju 87 up to ninety-six. After being released in rapid succession the bombs’ casings opened up to form a pair of `wings’, and the individual weapons spun down to the ground rather like sycamore seeds. The bombs would scatter over the ground to cover a wide area, and the seven- ounce explosive charges would go off on impact. Against `soft’ targets like unprotected aircraft, these small shrapnel bombs proved to be very effective. Unhampered by the weak Russian defences, the Germans were able to make low-level attacks and plant the SD 2s accurately amongst the lines of parked aircraft.

The attacks on the airfields were successful beyond the wildest German dreams. Soviet combat aircraft were destroyed by the hundred as they sat out in the open in neat rows with no attempt at dispersal or concealment. The official Soviet postwar publication History of the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union records:

`During the first days of the war enemy bomber formations launched massive attacks on sixty-six air¬ fields in the frontier region, above all on those where the new types of Soviet fighters were based. The result of these raids and the violent air-to- air battles was a loss to us, as at noon on 22nd June, of some 1,200 aircraft, including more than 800 destroyed on the ground.’

But while the material damage inflicted on the Soviet air force was to be crippling in the short term, the losses in trained manpower were only light. As a result the long-term recuperative powers of the Russians were hardly affected. Moreover, the lack of a suitable German long-range bomber meant that the important Russian aircraft factories situated near or beyond the Ural Mountains were beyond reach.

With the Soviet air force out of the battle the Luftwaffe could revert to its usual task of supporting the army. The tried and tested methods of concentrating all available bombing aircraft – level as well as dive-bombers – against enemy communications, troop concentrations and even close support targets, was repeated after the pattern established in Poland, France and the Balkans. As in the past, the rapid advance of the German army through Soviet-occupied Poland and western Russia demanded the greatest mobility on the part of the short-range fighter and dive-bomber units; once again the Luftwaffe transport organisation proved equal to the task.

One of the outstanding features of the early part of this campaign was the lavish use the Germans made of aerial reconnaissance. As we have seen, more than a quarter of the entire Luftwaffe force committed at the opening of the offensive comprised reconnaissance types. Thus the German army commanders were able to get detailed and up-to-date information on enemy dispositions and movements in the rear areas, and generally in the fighting areas as well. The main problem in the actual combat zone was that of identifying friend from foe. Sometimes this was very difficult, especially when the Russians learnt not to leave their vehicles’ and run for cover at the approach of German aircraft. Reconnaissance aircraft were often lost to ground fire when their pilots brought them down to low altitude an an attempt to positively identify ground troops below. When they could the German ground units would mark their forward positions with swastika flags and coloured fabric panels laid out on the ground. This system was backed up by an elaborate and changing system of using coloured smoke and flare signals. For their part the Russians tried very hard to imitate the German identification signals, and sometimes succeeded. On several occasions attacks on Soviet troop concentrations had to be called off because the German aircrews were unable to make a positive identification in time.

Sometimes the situation on the ground was such that risks had to be taken, and inevitably air strikes did hit friendly forces on occasions. For example, on 1st August Luftwaffe bombers struck at troops of the German 23rd Division advancing on Kiev and caused `serious losses’. As long as army commanders demand close air support for their men there will be, in spite of all precautions, losses to friendly troops at times.

But if the reconnaissance picture the Luftwaffe presented to the German High Command was sometimes patchy, it was incomparably better than that available to their Soviet opposite numbers. In a campaign where the rapid movement of armoured forces was the order of the day, this advantage often proved to be decisive.

Over half of the operational strength of the Luftwaffe was concentrated in Russia during the initial stages of the attack, but because of the great length of the front – more than 1,000 miles – it was impossible to be strong everywhere. As a result the short- range fighter, bomber and reconnaissance units had often to switch their positions from one part of the line to another, in order to concentrate to support ground attacks wherever the army high command launched each successive offensive.

Throughout the summer and autumn of 1941, the Germans advanced deeper and deeper into Russia. In seven great encircling battles, at Minsk, Smolensk and Uman, at Gomel, Kiev. Vyasma and on the shores of the Sea of Azov, the Germans captured a total of two and a half million prisoners, more than 9,000 tanks and 16,000 guns. During these encircling operations the mouth of each pocket in turn was closed initially by only relatively weak German armoured formations, which had the difficult task of preventing the Russians from breaking out until the slower-moving German infantry divisions could get into position. At this time the Luftwaffe was able to play an important part by delaying the Russian attempts to break out, or to relieve their enveloped forces by means of attacks from, outside. However, these spectacular victories were not always bought cheaply, and the German method of employing all types of bomber for close support work had its own disadvantages. The Russian troops did not go to ground on the appearance of enemy aircraft, but instead opened fire on them with almost any weapon which came to hand. Over a period this policy caused the Luftwaffe very serious losses: between the beginning of the campaign and 27th September 1941 – just over three months – 1,603 German aircraft were shot down and a further 1,028 were damaged. Thus the total number of aircraft destroyed or damaged during this time, 2,631, was almost equal to the number committed to the campaign at its beginning. The losses of the cheaper aircraft – the dive bombers and the army co-operation types – were bad enough, but the steady drain on the more expensive He 111s and Ju 88s was such that replacements no longer kept pace with losses. Moreover, since most of the aircraft lost were over Russian-held territory at the time, losses in trained aircrew were severe; these were to prove the most difficult of all to replace. Gradually the fighting strength of the Luftwaffe was bleeding away.

For Generaloberst Ernst Udet, the head of the Luftwaffe aircraft development and production organisation, the magnitude of the losses over Russia proved to be the last straw. Throughout his tenure of this important office he had failed miserably to bring production up to the necessary levels: so long as the Luftwaffe maintained a strong reserve this was not so bad. but the heavy loss rates over Britain and then Russia changed all that. Moreover, the aircraft he had relied upon to replace the ageing He Ills. Ju 87s and Bf 110s. the He 177 bomber and the Me 210 fighter-bomber, were suffering serious teething troubles and both were close to failure. The mistakes made in the final two years of peace were now coming home to roost. The failure of Udet’s work to keep the Luftwaffe properly equipped. both in quality and in quantity, was now becoming clear to all. Udet’s health began to fail, and he suffered from haemorrhages and unbearable headaches. Finally, on the morning of 17th November 1941. he shot himself.

On Hitler’s orders the circumstances of Udet’s death were kept secret. That evening the German Information Bureau announced that;

‘The General in charge of Luftwaffe supplies. Generaloberst Ernst Udet. was killed on Monday the 17th November 1941. testing a new weapon. He died of his injuries on the way to hospital. The Führer has ordered a state funeral for this officer who died in so tragic a manner while in the performance of his duty. In recognition of his magnificent achievements in the First World War, of his sixty- two fighter victories and of the great services he rendered in building up the Luftwaffe, the Führer has perpetuated Generaloberst Udet’s name by bestowing it upon Jagdgeschwader 3.

Udet’s successor was Erhard Milch, who thus regained the position he had lost in 1938. Milch immediately began the thorough overhaul of the whole German aircraft industry, to cut out wasteful duplication and the inefficient use of manpower and resources. But such measures would not have much effect on the equipment situation in the short term.

There is an old Ukrainian proverb that runs `In the summer one bucketful of water will make one spoonful of mud; in the autumn one spoonful of water will make a bucketful of mud.’ When the autumn rains came in October 1941 the German troops advancing into Russia learnt the truth of the proverb. Previously firm ground turned into a morass, roads were covered in deep, sticky, mud. Movements by motorised fighting and supply units became possible only with the greatest difficulty. When their armoured thrusts slithered to a halt in axle-deep mud. the Germans were at the gates of Moscow and had almost surrounded Leningrad; they were never to take either of these cities.

Now the Germans were to pay a high price for the lateness of the spring thaw earlier in the year. For the Russians’ greatest ally, ‘General Winter’, struck soon after the autumn rains and before the Germans had gained the rapid and total victory so confidently predicted by Hitler. And, also in December 1941, the United States entered the war against Germany; this was to have far-reaching effects, but much later.

The severity of the Russian winter found the Luftwaffe ill-prepared. Apart from the lack of proper cold weather clothing, there was a sorely-felt lack of the equipment necessary to maintain aircraft under such conditions. Because the machines often had to be parked out in the open in temperatures as low as minus 20 F, aero engines and guns simply froze solid, and all manner of heating devices had to be improvised in the field to thaw them out.

Added to the unexpectedly harsh winter conditions and the heavy losses was the cumulative wear and tear of some of the most intensive air operations ever mounted. Most of the Luftwaffe combat units had been in action without a pause from June until the end of October. During this period the dive bomber Gruppen had maintained an average daily sortie rate of about seventy-five per cent of their establishment in aircraft, the fighters sixty per cent and the level bombers about forty per cent. Considering that this effort was kept up day in, day out, for more than four months, these figures are in each case quite remarkable; they go a long way towards explaining why the Luftwaffe was able to achieve so much during the initial stages of the Russian campaign.

By the end of 1941 the Luftwaffe had only about 1,700 aircraft of all types on the Eastern Front, thinly spread along the 2,000-mile long front which ran from the North Cape to the Black Sea. And, because of the difficulties of maintenance and supply, the serviceability in many of the already weakened flying units fell to as low as thirty per cent. The Germans desperately needed a short breathing space to recover from the previous months’ exertions. But they were not to get one, for early in December the Red Army launched its winter counteroffensive.

In the face of attacks by fresh Russian divisions specially trained and equipped for winter fighting, the exhausted German troops began to give ground. The spectre of what had befallen Napoleon’s Grand Army in 1812 hovered large and menacing. There can be little doubt that any German attempt to make a general withdrawal would have rapidly become a rout. In the face of this threat Hitler’s order to stand firm, whatever the cost, was undoubtedly correct. By the end of February 1942 the Germans had largely succeeded, in the face of powerful Russian pressure, in establishing a new defensive line, albeit a line critically thin in places.


Panthers of Army Group Centre 1945

Fighting in the Panther

For German tank crews, the interior of the Panther was a significant improvement on the Panzer IV, which had become more and more cramped as larger guns were shoehorned into the small turret. A Panther’s crew consisted of a commander, gunner, loader, radio operator, and driver. They were all hooked up to an internal intercom system, allowing communication over the roar of the engine and the sounds of battle.

The driver had arguably the hardest job of anyone in the crew. Being able to maneuver around the battlefield effectively without damaging the vehicle’s fragile drivetrain required a deft touch and skilled judgement. He sat on a low padded seat down in the front left compartment of the tank, separated from the radio operator by the tank’s enormous gearbox. Directly in front of him, only a few inches from his face, was the thick bulletproof glass of the viewport, and above that the eyepieces for the two periscopes. The seat was positioned close to the side of the hull, just above the hull floor. To the right of the driver was a control panel with the speedometer, fuel gauge, and other important instruments. The large rubber-tipped gear lever stuck out from the side of the gearbox roughly level with the driver’s hip while the steering levers (one for each track) hung down from mountings on either side of the viewport. The driver’s position was an awkward one, especially for taller men who had to uncomfortably squeeze their legs under the axle for the drive wheels in order to reach the pedals. It did, however, have the advantage of a large escape hatch positioned directly above the seat.

On the opposite side of the gearbox sat the radio operator. His position was the mirror image of the driver’s position, except he had a ball-mounted MG34 in front of him where the driver had a vision port. His only view outside the tank was through the twin periscopes mounted into the roof just above the top of the glacis plate. His bulky radio was mounted over the gearbox to his left. In battle he was supposed to operate the hull machine gun, but his most important role was usually to keep the tank commander updated on orders from the platoon leader. Although it wasn’t officially part of the role, most radio operators also acted as spotters for the gunner, reporting on where shots fell and relaying corrections.

The floor of the turret was about 30cm higher than the floor in the front compartment, meaning that there was only a small opening between the two sections of the interior. The turret crewmembers – gunner, loader, and commander – could only really communicate with the other two using the intercom.

The gunner sat on a low seat mounted to the turret floor behind the driver. He had an extremely uncomfortable and cramped position, with the breech of the main gun almost pressing against his right shoulder. The gunner controlled the turret’s hydraulic traverse mechanism using a pair of foot pedals, but usually had to fine-tune any powered movement with manual adjustments using a wheel on the left of his seat. The ergonomics of his controls were poorly thought through – the turret traverse pedals were at an awkward angle to the seat and the optical sight for the gun was placed so close to the breech that the gunner usually had to remove, or partially remove, his headphones to get his eye up to the eyepiece.

One major disadvantage of the Panther’s design was that the gunner had no periscope, limiting his vision to just what he could see through the narrow field of view provided by the optical sights. This often slowed down the process of target acquisition as he had to scan around to find a target. In experienced crews the commander learned to give very specific references for the location of his intended target, though even then target acquisition was much slower than in a Sherman or T-34. This delay was more than made up for by the astonishing accuracy made possible by the high-quality Leitz TZF 12a gunsight. This design had a 5x magnification and well-designed crosshairs that made it possible to quickly gauge the range and speed of a target. Its only flaw was that it had no forehead guard on the eyepiece, meaning that any gunner to tried to line up a target while the tank was in motion risked jabbing himself in the eye.

In the event that the tank was hit, the gunner typically had the lowest chance of survival. To get out he had to either scramble under the gun and squeeze out of the rear escape hatch or climb up onto the commander’s seat and out through the cupola. If either man had been killed or injured in the attack there was often not enough room for him to get past.

The loader had the simplest job of anyone in the crew, though also the most physically demanding. He had to load the gun with the ammunition specified by the commander quickly and efficiently. In lengthy engagements, this often meant scrambling around pulling heavy shells out of the various secondary storage bins around the interior of the tank. He had a fold-down seat, but in combat had to stand up – an awkward and uncomfortable position for most men as the roof of the turret was only 1.6m high (5ft 3in). His position was relatively open, however, compared to that of the rest of the crewmen, meaning that he was usually the most likely to escape (through the rear hatch behind his position) if the tank was hit.

The most important member of the tank’s crew was the commander. He sat on an elevated seat that was mounted to the interior of the turret just behind the gun. If he wanted to put his head out of the open cupola for a better view of the battlefield, he had to stand up on a metal footrest just under his seat. With his head in the cupola, he had a 360-degree view that enabled him to make tactical decisions about the placement of the tank and decide which targets the gunner should engage. The skill of the commander was often what decided if a Panther crew lived or died. Poorly trained commanders often lost their tanks (and frequently their lives) in their first battles, while others, like Panther ace Ernst Barkmann (82 kills) of the 2nd SS Panzer Division “Das Reich”, survived the whole war.

Overall Assessment

The Panther is often hailed as the finest tank of World War II. On paper, this is undoubtedly true. It had a higher top speed, more powerful gun, and thicker armor than any commonly-fielded Allied tank. Moreover it cost only slightly more than the Panzer IV and was simple enough to be constructed in large numbers unlike the heavy Tiger I and Tiger II.

Look a little more closely at the Panther’s specifications, however, and serious flaws can be seen. The armor, though impressive, was not well distributed. The massive glacis plate was offset by dangerously thin side armor which could be penetrated by almost any Allied tank or anti-tank weapon. Similarly, the high top speed and good cross country performance came at the cost of fuel efficiency, making the vehicle prohibitively expensive to operate.

This is before one even begins to consider the appalling mechanical reliability problems that plagued the Panther throughout its operational life. Panther units were rarely able to keep more than 35 percent of their nominal tank strength operational for prolonged periods (compared with close to 90 percent readiness in T-34 units). This negated, to a significant degree, the advantage of numbers that its relatively cheap construction was supposed to enable. Although the Panther was a more common sight on the battlefield than the Tiger I or II, it was never as common as it needed to be to turn the tide.

The Panther was ultimately a success on the tactical level, but a failure on the strategic level. In a straight gunnery duel, the Panther almost always prevailed over its enemies. In war, however, there is no requirement to fight on even terms. The Panther’s lack of strategic mobility meant that it was far easier for Allied units to simply bypass areas where Panthers were active. As the Panther was only able to operate for a very short time without the support of its extensive logistics organization, encirclement meant defeat. When forced to take to the roads and retreat, the Panther sustained heavier losses to its own mechanical flaws than it ever did to enemy action. Although exact figures are hard to come by, it is thought that around half of all Panther losses during World War II were the result of immobilized vehicles being blown up by German forces as they retreated.

On 20 April 1945 First Ukrainian Front was putting its armor across the Spree north and south of Spremberg. South of Spremberg the Fourth Panzer Army still had a vestige of a front; north of the city almost the whole Third Guards Tank Army was across the Spree. Schörner reported that he had “hopes” of stopping Konev’s southern thrust toward Bautzen. He intended to try again to close the front on the north, but, he added, “The laboriously organized defense in depth has only in a few places accomplished what one was forced to promise oneself from it.”

On 21 April 1945 Fourth Panzer Army made some local progress in a counterattack northwest of Görlitz. Hitler saw in it the makings of a major thrust that would close the 40-mile gap between the Army Group Vistula-Army Group Center flanks, and from that illusion he derived a “basic order” which Krebs transmitted to the army group by phone in the midafternoon. The “successful” attack at Army Group Center would soon close the front at Spremberg; therefore, it was “absolutely necessary” to hold the corner post at Cottbus. (Ninth Army had taken command the day before of Fourth Panzer Army’s left flank corps at and north of Cottbus.)

Battle of Bautzen (1945)

Marshal Konev found himself faced with a major battle on his rear. During the night of the 22nd, a large German force of two infantry divisions and 100 tanks from the Fourth Panzer Army attacked north-west from the area around Bautzen, on First Ukrainian’s left flank, some 40km (25 miles) north-east of Dresden and 25km (15 miles) west of Garlitz. Driving towards Spremberg, the German armour sliced into First Ukrainian’s side, exploiting the weak seam between 52nd Army and the Second Polish Army. The Polish divisions, which were protecting the left flank of Zhadov’s Fifth Guards Army, were thrown into chaos as the Germans ripped into them and blasted their supply and communications lines. For two days the ‘Garlitz Group’ hacked its way north, towards Spremberg, and appeared to be on the verge of cracking the Soviet ring around the trapped Ninth Army. If it could succeed, there was a reasonable hope that the pressure on Berlin’s south side could be lifted, and the city perhaps saved long enough for a negotiation with the West.

Konev recognised the threat to his position (and his hopes for playing a major role in the city’s capture), and responded quickly. First Ukrainian’s Chief-of-Staff, General I. E. Petrov, was dispatched to the embattled lines to re-group and re-order the chaotic situation. After making his review and issuing his orders, Petrov left Major General V. I. Kostylev behind to co-ordinate the defensive effort. Kostylev, First Ukrainian’s Chief of Operations Administration, performed his job brilliantly, immediately re-establishing contact with the cut-off Second Polish Army, and mounting a counterattack with 52nd and Fifth Guards Armies. By the evening of the 24th, the German thrust had been brought to a halt.


Four major Wehrmacht formations formally swore loyalty to the Dönitz regime on 2 May. In Norway, General Fritz Böhme gave Dönitz his allegiance – along with the eleven divisions and five brigades under his command, totalling some 380,000 men. These were fresh and properly equipped troops, capable of putting up a considerable fight against the Western Allies. On the same day, Army Group Courland also offered its oath of loyalty to Dönitz. More than 200,000 German troops were still holding out in this corner of Latvia, along with a Latvian SS division of some 15,000 men. General Dietrich von Saucken’s Army Group of East Prussia, the battered remnants of the German 2nd and 4th Armies, holding out along the Bay of Danzig and the Hela Peninsula – a gathering of around 100,000 Wehrmacht troops – did the same. And finally, and most importantly, Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner’s Army Group Centre – stationed in eastern Czechoslovakia – also confirmed its allegiance. Schörner’s army group totalled some 580,000 men.

Ferdinand Schörner was a fanatical Nazi who, like Dönitz, soared high in Hitler’s favour in the last months of the war. His rise had been meteoric. In the summer of 1939 he had been a mere lieutenant colonel and regimental commander. By the end of the war he was commanding entire army groups, first as colonel general and then as field marshal. The Führer said of him in April 1945:

`On the entire front, only one man has proven himself to be a real field strategist – Schörner. Schörner had to endure the worst attacks, but he has maintained the most orderly front. When Schörner had terrible equipment he put it in order again. He has achieved excellent results from every task given to him: he can take over a chaotic situation and imbue its defenders with fresh spirit and determination.’

Hitler specially honoured Field Marshal Schörner in his will, sending him a copy of his last testament and appointing him commander of the German army (a post Schörner was never able to take up). In fact, Schörner’s successes, such as they were, were founded on excessive brutality and fanaticism. He executed more soldiers for cowardice than any other German commander. He sacked divisional, corps and army commanders he did not consider tough enough and established squads of military police to round up stragglers behind the front. His unflattering nicknames included `Wild Ferdinand’, `the Bloodhound’ and `the Legend of a Thousand Gallows’.

The source of most concern was Army Group Center, because it was the largest single force still on the Eastern Front, because it had the farthest to go to reach the Allied lines (of those that had any chance of doing so at all), and because no one knew how Schörner would react to the surrender. Schörner had reported on 2 May 1945 that he had a tight hold on his troops and was starting to manufacture his own ammunition and motor fuel. The last that had been heard from him was that he intended to fight his army group through to the line of the Elbe and Vltava (Moldau) before surrendering. On the 8th an OKW staff colonel with an American officer escort went to Schörner’s headquarters. The colonel reported that Schörner had ordered the surrender terms observed but claimed he did not have the means to make certain they were carried out everywhere. The colonel “assured him that the command difficulties would be brought to the attention of the Americans and the OKW.” The OKW need neither have worried that Schörner would attempt a last-ditch battle nor have hoped that he would find a means to extricate his army group. Schörner deserted his troops on the 8th and in civilian clothes flew a light plane out of Czechoslovakia. He was arrested in Austria ten days later by First Panzer Army troops and turned over to the Americans

Schörner’s War

Those who see the Wehrmacht as an army of brilliant operators like Guderian, Rommel, and Manstein need to clear a space in the memory palace for one field marshal whom we have all but forgotten. Ferdinand Schörner was the typos of the late-war Nazi general. He came to the fore late in the conflict, holding a series of increasingly hopeless commands as Germany’s strategic situation deteriorated: Army Group A and Army Group South Ukraine in the spring of 1944; Army Group North (later renamed Army Group Courland) in the summer; Army Group Center in January 1945, which he led until the end. He never won a battle, but failure wasn’t fully his fault. While Schörner was competent enough in a technical sense, nothing short of nuclear weapons could have evened up the fight on the Eastern Front against a Soviet army vastly superior in numbers and equipment.

If we take as the first rule of generalship “do no harm,” however, then Schörner was a disaster. His art of war consisted of loyalty to Hitler. He was a true believer, a fanatic about holding out to the end, even as things fell apart. Of all the Führer’s minions, Schörner was the most enthusiastic, a National Socialist if ever there was one. Schörner’s bedrock conception of command was to shoot or hang large numbers of his own men for “cowardice” in order to terrorize the others into obeying him. He led through fear—flying his little Fieseler Storch aircraft around the rear areas of his army groups, landing suddenly in a divisional or corps area of responsibility, and handing down death sentences on the flimsiest of evidence—all the while staring down at his immaculately manicured fingernails. The phrase “der Ferdl kommt!” (“Here comes Ferd!”) always meant trouble for the rank and file. He once scolded his chief of staff that “you handle the operations, I’ll keep order,” and in the weeks after the attempt on Hitler’s life he opened staff meetings by asking, “How many men did you hang today?” It is no surprise that Goebbels admired Schörner for his “political insight” and for his “entirely new, modern methods.” To be specific:

He takes special aim at the so-called regular stragglers. By “regular stragglers,” he means those soldiers, who always seem to understand how to remove themselves from their unit in critical situations and vanish back into the rear under some kind of pretext. He deals with such figures quite brutally, has them hanged from the nearest tree wearing a placard that says, “I am a deserter and was too cowardly to protect German women and children.”

“Naturally,” Goebbels concluded, “this has a terrifying impact on other deserters or those who are thinking about it.”54 Hitler, too, appreciated these methods and named Schörner his successor as Commander in Chief of the Army—Nazi Germany’s last.

Like all tyrants, Schörner assembled a posse of thugs around him who did the dirty work. His security troops once came upon a tank workshop where a crew was waiting to get its reconnaissance vehicle fixed. The crew’s actions seem logical enough, but Schörner had the vehicle commander shot for “malingering.” On other occasions, as at Lednice on May 7, 1945, Schörner was reportedly present when his military police shot twenty-two German soldiers for “standing around without orders.” Hitler had been dead for a week by then and the war was all but over, but Schörner was still executing his own men to encourage the others.

Schörner’s excuse for his crimes was that he had to maintain discipline in the ranks so that his army group could escape to the west (toward the Americans) rather than be overrun by the Soviets. His strategy was an organized flight to the west, a maneuver that had to proceed systematically. Just two days before the murders at Lednice, Schörner had issued his last order of the day to Army Group Center. Excoriating the “traitors and cowards” in their midst, he urged his men to be steadfast. “In these hard days, we must not lose our nerves or become cowardly,” he declared. “Any attempt to find your own way back to the homeland is a dishonorable betrayal of your comrades and of our people . . . and will be punished.”

Powerful words—and stirring words! A few days later, on May 9, Schörner bundled himself into his little Storch and flew away, abandoning his post and leaving the men of Army Group Center to their fate as Soviet prisoners. The commander who hanged “traitors” and “cowards” from lampposts and fences and who let his men know that “they might die at the front, but they definitely would die in the rear” had apparently reached his limit, making us wonder whether all the threats, all the abuse he heaped on others, all the summary executions were not merely a compensatory mechanism for some inner weakness. Schörner managed to fly to the safety of American lines, but US troops handed him over to the Soviets, who put him on trial and put him in prison for the next ten years. Schörner did his time next to some of the very men he had left in the lurch—and they didn’t hesitate to let him know what they thought of him. Released in late 1954, he returned to West Germany, provoking angry outbursts from many former soldiers and their families. He went on trial there, too, and spent four more years in prison.

In the end, Schörner had proven his loyalty, but only in the narrowest sense. He had stayed loyal to Hitler to the very end and beyond. To his troops, however, he had shown only callousness, if not outright cruelty. Consider this admonition toward Germany’s former generals from a German author in 1949:

How astonishing that the generals always speak only of their soldierly duty to those above them, never of their duty to those soldiers whose lives are in their hands, the blood of their own nation. No one can demand that you kill a tyrant if your conscience forbids it. But mustn’t we demand the same care and seriousness toward the lives of each of your subordinates?

A particularly good question—and not only for Schörner! Let us recall that he wasn’t the only one “guilty of the senseless death of German soldiers” in the last year of the war. World War II will always be “Hitler’s war,” but Hitler had an officer corps filled with hundreds and thousands of Schörners: the key enablers who helped their Führer launch the war, fight it, and keep fighting it long after any hope of victory had vanished.

Until five minutes past midnight.


Luftwaffe pilots and crew exhaustion in the Battle of Britain

“Target London”

”This is the best Luftwaffe bomber painting I have ever seen…it captures the atmosphere exactly”

Hajo Herrmann K.C.O.S.

In September 1940, the final phase of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe turned its attention away from the RAF’s airfields and made London its target. This fascinatingly detailed painting depicts a devastating raid which took place on September 15th when more than one hundred Heinkel 111 and Dornier bombers swarmed over the docklands and the East End. Believing the RAF to be down to their last 50 fighters, the Luftwaffe had not expected much opposition, and so were greatly surprised to be met by no fewer than 28 squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires. One He111 of KG53 is seen here having been hit, before struggling back to France. Many others were not so fortunate and, by the end of the day, the German losses were so great that Hitler postponed the invasion of Britain indefinitely.

Luftwaffe pilots were given leave, but usually only after a number of months in the front line. By the second week of October, Siegfried Bethke was one of only four pilots remaining from those far-off days of May, and one of those was home on leave. Several of the new pilots he had sent back for being ‘too soft’. One of the other originals was struggling with Kanalkrankheit – the combat fatigue version. ‘Rothkirch is not adding up,’ he noted – he had flown just eight missions in two months. ‘He’s always “sick”. A pathetic figure.’ A few days later, Hauptmann Helmut Wick returned from Berlin, where he had been awarded the Eichenlaub – ‘Oak Leaves’ – to his Knight’s Cross, an award given for forty victories. Hitler himself had placed it around his neck. Wick reported back all that he had been told. Both Hitler and Göring, he said, still hoped the Luftwaffe would completely destroy the British fighters in a few days of good weather. Siegfried thought that impossible. ‘It is also hoped,’ he noted, recording much of what Wick had told him, ‘that through the blockade, there will be serious disruptions to supplies in England. Unfortunately, not enough submarines off the west coast of England.’

At Coquelles, as losses mounted, the evening debates were becoming increasingly tense. It was not helping these young pilots to endlessly discuss tactics at night. With leave so infrequent, they needed to use the time off from operations to try and put the fighting to one side and relax – but there was little chance for that, it seemed. The biggest complaints came from the NCO pilots, who felt strongly that too many of the commanders were glory hunters only interested in getting medals. It did not seem fair to them that awards should only be handed out for aerial victories, when it often took more bravery to sit at the back of the formation, keeping watch over the glory boys’ backsides. Ulrich had quite a lot of sympathy – he had never thought much of the special treatment given to men like Dolfo Galland.

Of greater concern to him as a senior member of the Staffel was the loss of pilots as well as the shortage of aircraft. At the beginning of the western campaign, their Gruppe had had thirty-six experienced pilots with at least three years in the Luftwaffe under their belts. Now they were getting new boys straight from fighter school, and unlike in Fighter Command, there was no structure in place by which they could be given further training before being thrown into the front line. He and Kühle did their best to take care of these fledglings until they had acquired a bit more experience but this was not always possible.

At the end of September, a new NCO pilot arrived with minimal flying time and only a tiny amount of air-to-ground gunnery. He had never flown using oxygen and had no idea how to use his radio. Ulrich gave him around ten hours of extra ‘tuition’, taking him and some of the other new boys out across the Channel to shoot at shadows or at the old lighthouse at Dungeness. But they could not be kept off operations for ever so Ulrich took his particular charge and made him his wingman. Climbing out over the Channel, the Gefreiter struggled to keep up and it was clear he had no idea how to manage his propeller pitch control. Eventually, Kühle ordered him home, but instead of heading for France, the new boy made for Dover. Ulrich raced after him, catching up just before they reached the balloon barrage. Only by violently rocking his wings did Ulrich manage to make him understand, and then he led him back. It was one of only two missions he missed all through the battle. ‘They were supposed to be replacements,’ noted Ulrich, ‘but in the event they were more of a problem for us than reinforcement for the Staffel.’

This simply put greater pressure on the more experienced ones. There were increasingly more cases of Kanalkrankheit in the 2nd Staffel too. Ulrich had noticed that Oberfeldwebel Grosse, a Condor Legion veteran, had begun to fly back home more and more frequently with ‘engine trouble’. ‘It seemed you could just wear out like any other machine,’ noted Ulrich. ‘And that is where things were going wrong; we just weren’t getting a break.’

It was much the same for the bomber crews. Hajo Herrmann bombed the port at Great Yarmouth on 5 October, then London three nights later, and the night after that, and the night after that. And again two nights later and for another three nights on the trot. By 18 October, he had carried out twenty-one attacks on London alone, and nearly ninety combat missions since the start of the war, a truly astonishing number, and way, way more than his British counterparts would ever have been expected to fly. That night, as he took off with two 1,000 kg bombs beneath him, his left tyre shredded on some bomb splinters that had not been cleared after an earlier attack by Bomber Command, and he crashed, wrecking the aircraft. Fortunately the bombs did not explode, but Hajo was pulled from the wreckage unconscious. He had broken a lumbar vertebra and strained another and suffered some cuts and concussion. When he came to he wept uncontrollably. ‘Why, I don’t know.’ Then he spotted a Knight’s Cross on the bedside lamp. The doctor told him the Reichsmarschall had personally awarded it to him three days earlier. He had forgotten the occasion completely.

Peter Stahl was flying over London almost as often as Hajo, and often three nights running, something that would never have been demanded of Bomber Command crews. His Staffel was also struggling with inexperienced new crews. On 16 October, during yet another night attack on London, four crews failed to return and two crashed on landing, although the men escaped alive. But six aircraft out of nine was a terrible night of losses. In the bus back to their quarters afterwards they discussed what point there was in sending out hundreds of aircrews every night without any hope of reasonable results. ‘And tomorrow,’ noted Peter, ‘the communiqué of the OKW will state that our brave aircrews have flown another major operation and despite bad weather conditions, have inflicted devastating blows on various vital targets. Our own losses were only “minimal”!’

There was no leave for Hans-Ekkehard Bob either, who as a Staffel commander was very much expected to lead the way. On constant front-line duty since the opening of the western campaign, he had now been given even greater responsibilities, for on 2 October Kesselring had visited JG 54 and ordered Trautloft to form one of his Staffeln from each Gruppe into a Jagdbomber – fighter-bomber – unit, and from the third Gruppe had chosen Hans’s 7th Staffel for the task. The Jabo pilots – as they were known – of Erpro 210 had all been carefully trained in such operations, but Hans and his pilots had never ever carried out such a task; many doubted it was really possible. There was only one way to find out, and Hans opted to be the first to try and fly with a 250 kg bomb strapped underneath the plane. It was a nerve-wracking experience, but worked. The key now was to get the men trained as Jabos as quickly as possible. On 4 October, four of Trautloft’s best pilots, Hans included, took off for a practice mission to Dungeness – the ruined lighthouse was becoming a favoured marker for the Luftwaffe pilots. The results were not encouraging, but after more practice it was decided that attacking in a low, shallow dive produced the least inaccurate results. Hans later bombed Tilbury Docks in London, but the Jabos were not really very effective. The Me 109 was simply not designed for such a role and the pilots had not been given enough training. Even experienced Experten like Hans could not suddenly become fighter-bomber marksmen overnight.

The fighting continued – the Luftwaffe lost 379 aircraft in October and Fighter Command 185 – but the Germans were further away than ever from achieving air superiority. On 4 October, after all the blistering air battles of September, Fighter Command had, for the first time, more than 700 fighters ready to take to the skies. The Germans could keep coming over all they liked, but they were not going to win. Neither Göring nor Hitler had any idea of the true strength of Fighter Command, but they now began to accept that the great battle against Britain had failed – for 1940, at any rate. On 12 October, Hitler finally postponed SEALION until the following spring. Naval personnel and shipping were to be released, tugs and barges returned to their normal, much-needed roles, although many of the divisions allocated for the invasion were to remain along the coastal areas. All that effort, all that cost; it had come to nothing. Air operations over Britain would continue, especially the night bombing, but Hitler was now ever more set upon his next course of action. If Britain could not be brought to heel now, then she would once the Soviet Union had been absorbed into the Third Reich.

Last Flight

On the last Sunday in October, the 27th, Ulrich Steinhilper woke up early. His tent smelled musty, and it was cold; winter was on its way. With some effort, he pulled back the blankets and got up, staggering over to the makeshift washstand. He looked tired, he knew, his eyes dark, his cheeks thin. But he was tired. He had flown over 150 combat missions over England. On one day he had even flown seven sorties, excessive even by Luftwaffe standards.

He was on Early Alarm, which meant being at dispersal by dawn, mercifully later now that the days were rapidly shortening. Having shaved, he dressed, putting his trousers and shirt straight over his pyjamas, then with two others drove over to dispersal. A low mist hung over the greying stubble fields that were their runways. Smells of coffee and food came from the tented camp at one side of the airfield. Groundcrews stamped feet and rubbed hands to keep warm, while pilots smoked cigarettes.

Helmut Kühle, Ulrich’s Staffelkapitän, suddenly drove up in his car, having been to the morning briefing. ‘Protect the fighter-bombers,’ he told the waiting pilots. ‘Target London. Take off 09.05 hours.’

Ulrich now hurried over to his plane, Yellow 2, with its five stripes on the tail, one stripe for each of his victories. His mechanic, Peter, was already waiting for him on the port wing. Clambering up, Ulrich put on his harness with Peter’s help, then clambered into the tight cockpit. Reaching for the starter lever, he felt the aircraft rock gently as Peter began to wind up the eclipse starter before it could be engaged, so turning over the Daimler-Benz 601 engine. Pulling the starter, Ulrich felt the engine roar into life and then set the throttle lightly forwards so that he could complete his start-up checks. The other eight remaining Me 109s were all running now, then they began to emerge from their camouflaged dispersal pens. This was all that could be mustered from the entire Gruppe.

As he finished his taxi, Ulrich glanced around him, then pushed the throttle on to full power and felt the Messerschmitt surge forward. He lifted the tail as the machine bumped over the rough field, Yellow 2 bounced a little, then suddenly the jolting stopped as the plane became airborne. Retracting the undercarriage, he waited a few moments whilst his speed increased, then eased back the control column and began to climb away. Looking either side of him, he watched the position of the others and then they began to tighten up for the climb.

They met cloud over Kent, but as they approached London the sky cleared, just as the met officer had predicted. Everyone began scanning the sky, but nothing could be seen – yet. The engine in front of him throbbed rhythmically. It was noisy in any fighter, but with his headphones strapped close to his ears it became such a constant background thrum that he might as well have been flying in silence; and the silence in his headset only added to the tension he felt as he waited for the moment the British fighters would be spotted.

Ulrich continued searching the sky behind, in front, either side, below, but especially above. Suddenly a voice full of static crackled in his ear, ‘Raven calling! Raven calling! Eleven o’clock high! Eleven o’clock high. Condensation trails, same course.’ Ulrich looked up and saw them now, about 3,000 feet above, to their left, the vivid white contrails clear against the deep blue. The fighting had got higher in recent weeks. The Gruppe were already at 32,000 feet, which meant the Spitfires were now at 35,000, an incredible height. It was hard flying at those heights. The 109 did not like it and the pilots had to constantly change the propeller pitch and throttle to improve performance: with a fine pitch, they could increase the RPM and get more pressure from the engine’s supercharger, but by then switching to coarse pitch they could make up some speed, which was essential if they were to keep up with the rest of the formation.

But there was something up with Yellow 2. Ulrich was struggling to change pitch. Most probably condensation had begun to collect in the grease of the pitch-changing gear during the cold nights of the past week, and now, at 32,000 feet, it had frozen, which had affected the pitch control. For a moment, Ulrich thought about turning back but then dismissed the idea, opting instead to keep the pitch fine and run the engine at high revs and rely on the supercharger to help maintain speed. It meant the engine would be running at a level higher than the recommended RPM, but that happened all the time in combat. In any case, having made his decision to fly on, he did not have any other choice.

A pattern had emerged in this latest phase of the air battle. The Luftwaffe’s planes would assemble and set course for London. The Tommies, meanwhile, warned of the approaching raid, would climb up high and wait for them. They would then patrol the sky, and just as the German formations turned for home at their tactically weakest point and at the limit of the fighters’ range, they would pounce, from height with the sun behind them. Now, as the moment to turn for home approached, Ulrich waited for the order with increasing trepidation.

The Jabos began their attack, the radio suddenly full of chatter until there were so many different voices that the noise merged into a jarring whistling. Moments later and the formation was turning, but to the left, rather than the right, as they had been expecting. The eight machines of I/JG 52 quickly manoeuvred into their Rotte position, Ulrich’s wingman, Lothar Schieverhöfer, moving in beside and behind him. Suddenly someone shouted, ‘Out of the sun! Out of the sun!’ and Ulrich swivelled and craned his neck upwards to see a number of Spitfires diving down towards Lothar. Ulrich shouted out a warning and tried to move to protect his tail, only to see him doing the same. Behind, at least four Spitfires were stepped up, each lining up to fire. Ulrich now dived away, his revs way too high, so at 22,000 feet he levelled out, eyeing a safe-looking bank of cloud below. He was wondering whether Lothar had got away when suddenly there was a loud bang as something exploded on the left side of his machine, and as something clattered into his elevator his stick shook in his hands. Frantically looking around, he could see no sign of the enemy so decided it must have been his supercharger that had blown. Glancing at his instrument panel, he saw everything still appeared to be working, but his oil pressure was dropping dramatically. Air speed was around 400 mph in his shallow dive and he was still able to weave from side to side, so he pushed the stick forward, put the nose down, and dived down towards the cloud layer, reaching the milky mass at around 6,000 feet. Moments later he was out into the blindingly bright sun, but at least it enabled him to get a fix. If he was on course for home, the sun should have been ahead and slightly to the right, and so it was, so he slipped back into the protective shroud of the cloud.

He checked his instruments again and everything still seemed to be in order apart from the oil loss, but just as he was beginning to breathe a little more easily, he slid out of the cloud again and was horrified first to see the Thames estuary below – he thought he had made more distance – and then in front and slightly below him a formation of Hurricanes. Deciding attack was his only option, he checked the lights that told him his guns were armed and ready, then seeing four green lights switched on the gunsight. But this was not working – there was too much ice on the windscreen from his long dive. He would have to use the metal emergency sight, but as he removed his oxygen mask, he was suddenly gripped with fear – his engine was beginning to boil and if it came to a tussle he was not sure how long his machine would keep flying. Gently, and very slowly, he climbed back into the cloud.

His engine temperature was now 130 degrees. He could not understand why it was so high; his engine was losing oil, but that would not affect the cooling system. He was sure he had dived before the Spitfires had opened fire, but a bullet in the radiator seemed the only cause of his rapidly rising temperature gauge. ‘This is Owl 2a,’ he called over the radio, ‘have been hit in the radiator, will try to reach the Channel. Taking course from Thames to Manston. Please confirm.’ But there was no reply – just a hiss of static.

At 6,000 feet once more, and still in cloud, he switched off the engine, so that he was now gliding and blind flying. At 4,000 feet he emerged through the cloud once more, but still he continued his glide and decided to try another radio call. This time the ground station in the Pas de Calais replied. ‘Understood Owl 2a. Air-Sea Rescue will be notified. Only go into the water when absolutely necessary.’ He now heard Kühle’s voice too, telling him he would start searching the Channel immediately while the others would return, refuel then continue the search if necessary. Ulrich felt his spirits lift.

Now, at around 1,600 feet, he began to attract some light flak, so he decided it was time to restart the engine. It whirred into life immediately and he began to climb once more, the oil temperature still under control. In the clouds, he transmitted another fix to the ground station, but by now the temperature was beginning to rise alarmingly again so he cut the engine once more, hoping to repeat Hans-Ekkehard Bob’s trick of ‘bobbing’ back across the Channel.

But the engine’s power was fading, and he was soon struggling to gain any height at all. He had to open the throttle further – there was no alternative – but as he did so, the engine seized. There was no bang, no sudden explosion – just silence. With his machine dead, he knew he would have to jump. Having sent a last message, he briefly wondered whether he should perhaps try and crash-land instead but then madly decided he must not let his machine fall into enemy hands. No, bailing out was the only option. He ran through the emergency procedures: oxygen off. Throat microphone off. Remove flying helmet and headset. Reaching for the canopy jettison lever he pulled but it broke off in his hand. Trying desperately not to panic he shot a glance at his altimeter – he was now at only 800 feet. He needed to get out of there quickly – very quickly. He now tried to open the canopy as normal and as he pulled the lever and pushed, it burst open with a sudden rush of wind and cold air that forced the Perspex hood off its hinges so that it clattered noisily down the side of the fuselage. Gasping from the cold, he released his belts and pushed himself up into the incredibly strong 130 mph draught, but as he did so was buffeted backwards, wedging his parachute under the rear part of the canopy and catching his legs under the instrument panel. Frantically, he tried to claw his hands back down on to the control column in an effort to flip the machine over, but he could not reach. And now Yellow 2 was beginning its final dive. There was nothing for it: he would have to risk tearing his parachute or die. Leaning over to the right, with one last effort he pulled his legs free and up towards his body and suddenly he was rolling through the air, somersaulting past the tail of his Messerschmitt.

Still tumbling he pulled the parachute release but for a moment nothing happened, and in panic he began groping helplessly at the pack, only for the silk to burst out. As the main parachute opened, the secondary ’chute managed to get tangled around his left leg causing him intense pain so that he was hanging upside down, his leg feeling as though it was being pulled from his hip. Somehow, he managed to right himself and was relieved to discover his leg was still intact, although the pain was excruciating. Ahead he now saw Yellow 2 dive into the ground in the middle of a field of cows, which were scattering in all directions. He heard a soft thump as it hit the ground and then the ammunition began exploding.

The ground was now rising up to meet him, but fortunately he landed on his right leg and the ground was soft, and he was able to release the parachute harness with ease. He was lying beside a canal embankment. A short distance away, although out of sight, ammunition was still exploding. Looking around, he could see no-one. He felt desperately alone and helpless, and his throat began to tighten. He thought he might cry.

But then the moment passed as he began to discard his rubber dinghy, flare pistol, and sea water dye container. Suddenly a shot rang out and he quickly lay flat, pressing his head into the damp ground. Carefully raising his head again he saw a man in civilian clothes approaching him, an armband around his left sleeve and clutching a shotgun.

‘Get up!’ he yelled.

‘My leg is hurt!’ Ulrich replied. He tried to get up, but collapsed in pain.

‘I’ll come round to you,’ called out the man.

Ulrich sat there on the wet grass, waiting for his captor. Depression swept over him. He was twenty-two and a prisoner of war. The battle was over.

If there was ever a chance to stop the German Panzers, that chance came in the afternoon of 14 May 1940.

A French Char B1 tank in running condition at the Saumur Tank

Second Army Attempts an Operational Counterattack

Huntziger, commander in chief of the Second Army, very nonchalantly countenanced a German attack in view of his own considerable reserves. He was not really worried either when a message arrived during the afternoon of 13 May that the Luftwaffe had hit the French units around Sedan with devastating bombing raids. All he said was: “Well, they have to have their baptism of fire sooner or later.” Shortly after 1800, he was informed that forty German infantrymen had crossed the Meuse River at Wadelincourt. His laconic reply was: “There will be just that number of prisoners.” Not even the bad news about the catastrophic collapse of the 55th Infantry Division made him nervous. He knew that the counterattack by the reserve of the X Corps was bound to be launched any moment and expected that the situation would be stabilized as a result. This was not supposed to be just an initial probing attack, for immediately to the rear he had concentrated a mighty force with which to mount the counterstrike.

The subsequent action appears highly interesting inasmuch as this was the only French attempt at launching an operational counterattack throughout the entire western campaign. Normally, French countermoves were mostly uncoordinated and were mounted, at best, in a division context. In this case, however, two reinforced army corps were to be combined to launch a single overall operation against the bridgehead at Sedan. If Guderian had guessed the threat building up to the south behind the massif of Stonne, he would hardly have accepted the risk of breaking out of the bridgehead prematurely. The 10th Panzer Division that had been left behind to cover the bridgehead now faced the following overwhelming enemy strength.

(1) Flavigny Group (XXI Corps)

3d Armored Division

3d Motorized Infantry Division

5th Light Cavalry Division

1st Cavalry Brigade

(2) Roucaud Group

2d Light Cavalry Division

1st Colonial Infantry Division

3d Tank Battalion

(3) Remnants of X Corps

12th and 64th Reconnaissance Battalions

elements of the 71st Infantry Division, the 205th Infantry Regiment, the 4th Tank Battalion

The Second Army was able to assemble about three hundred tanks for this counterattack, and numerous armored reconnaissance vehicles in the cavalry units also joined them. With its 138 battle tanks, half of them Hotchkiss and Char B1 models, the 3d Armored Division alone would have sufficed to overrun the few outfits Guderian had left behind to protect the bridgehead. The most powerful German combat vehicle, the Panzer IV, had 30-mm thick armor, while the Hotchkiss tank had 45-mm of armor and the Char B even had 60-mm. The latter was thus just about invulnerable when engaging German tank and antitank guns. Its twin armament of 47-mm and 75-mm guns definitely made it superior to all German models. In an open field engagement—tank versus Panzer— Guderian’s 10th Panzer Division would not have had a chance against those giants. On 14 May, it only had about 30 Panzer IV models, and two-thirds of its combat vehicles were the lightweight Panzer I and II models that were unsuitable for engaging even light French tank types on account of their weak armament. The attempted French counterattack at Sedan is the best answer to the question of why the French failed to exploit the superiority of their tank arm in operational terms in this campaign.

Flavigny, commanding general of XXI Corps, was ordered to carry out the counterattack. For this purpose, the Roucaud Group and elements of X Corps were formally subordinated to him on 14 May. Huntziger had demanded that his army reserve mount its attack immediately following the attack by the reserve of X Corps so that any developing local success could be exploited immediately. The axes of attack of Bulson-Sedan as well as the intermediate objectives that had been ordered for 3d Armored Division and the 3d Motorized Infantry Division were extensively identical to those of the corps reserve. This meant that two counterattacks, echeloned in succession, were to be mounted in the same terrain: The first one on the tactical echelon and the second one on the operational echelon.

The counterthrust by X Corps reserve under Lafontaine moved in a strikingly slow fashion compared to the tempo of the German attack. The employment of the 3d Armored Division demonstrated even more clearly that French armor planned to attack with 1918 speed as if time had come to a standstill since then. One seemingly secondary technical feature that turned out to be particularly significant with regard to the employment of tanks during this campaign was the volume of the fuel tank. This is precisely what symbolized the differing tank philosophy of the two armies. The German Panzer Force was intended for operational missions. Accordingly, German Panzers had comparatively large fuel tanks that gave them operational combat range and enabled them to accomplish deep penetrations. The French tanks, on the other hand, had a tactical mission to accomplish in close cooperation with the infantry. The daily movement distance covered during the infantry advances of World War governed their fuel tank volume and their range. The 32-ton French Char B was extremely heavy for tank designs at that time. Its disadvantage was not only its lack of speed but also that, when operating in difficult terrain, it could be employed for only about two hours before it had to be refueled.

First Attempt at a Counterattack on 14 May. Initially, the 3d Armored Division was in a standby area near Reims. At 1600 on 12 May, General [Antoine] Brocard, the division commander, was given the mission of moving up to the front and initially of occupying a standby area near Le Chesne (a sixty-kilometer movement). It took until 0600 on 14 May for the last elements to reach the new assembly area. A dramatic conference took place that morning at 0500 at the XXI Corps command post. In view of the rather surprising German penetration, Flavigny’s superiors had been urging him to move with extreme haste. He told Brocard that the 3d Armored Division had to attack that same morning. Brocard thought that he had not heard the date right and requested that the attack be postponed by one day. He mentioned the following time requirements to justify his request:

refueling his tanks:

5–6 hours

marching to the starting position along the northern edge of the Bois du Mont-Dieu (a movement covering between fourteen and eighteen kilometers): 2–3 hours

refueling once more for the attack against Sedan, which was fifteen kilometers away: 2–3 hours

Flavigny, a tank expert, was rather annoyed by this time frame requirement, which in his opinion was excessive. He demanded that the jump-off line for the attack be taken up on that same day by 1200, but finally moved the time up to 1400. Now, the French army’s inadequate communications system revealed itself for what it was. Brocard’s order reached his headquarters only between 0800 and 0900. It took him from 1100 to 1300 to pass the order on to all units. The first French tanks did not start to move toward the Bois du Mont-Dieu until 1300. The Flavigny Group was finally ready to launch its attack at 1730. In the meantime, the Roucaud Group had also moved into its starting position to the east of Stonne.

This brings us to one of the decisive moments of the campaign in the west. If there was ever a chance to stop the German Panzers, that chance came in the afternoon of 14 May. The irony of history was that the attack would have been mounted at the best possible moment precisely because of the constant delays. To secure the bridgehead, the Germans no longer had the 1st and 2d Panzer Divisions available, while the 10th Panzer Division had not yet arrived. The French could thus have pushed into a gap. The 1st Panzer Division had, in the meantime, made a ninety-degree flanking movement to the west at Chémery and presented its unprotected flank to any attack that would have come from the south. A thrust into the soft underbelly would have hit the supply columns head-on, specifically at the moment when the Panzer units, which had pushed to the west, had run out of supplies. In the afternoon, the 1st Panzer Brigade reported that it had “no ammunition and no fuel.” On the other hand, the 10th Panzer Division at that time was still held up far to the rear engaging the bitterly resisting remnants of the French 71st Infantry Division and had not yet even reached its designated phase line east of Bulson. This meant that at that particular time the Germans essentially only had the Infantry Regiment Großdeutschland to defend the bridgehead against an attack from the south. The Germans would not have had the slightest chance of coping with an attack by Flavigny’s and Roucaud’s divisions.

The fighting spirit of these elite divisions was praised as “most magnificent” and “splendid” in the combat reports on 14 May. The French soldiers, especially the tank crews, were eagerly heading into their first engagement; they were spurred on by their officers. The commander of a tank battalion shouted to his men: “Forward men! We’ll whip them! Long live France!” But the attack order did not come. Now came the wearying wait. At last, a new order arrived during the evening hours. It had an almost paralyzing effect: The attack had been called off.

What had happened? On his way to the front, Flavigny over and over again heard tales of disaster as the panic-stricken soldiers streamed back, reporting hundreds and even thousands of attacking German Panzers. When he wanted to give the attack order on the afternoon of 14 May, some officers from the smashed 213th Infantry Regiment arrived and, horror-stricken, reported about the recently failed counterattack of the corps reserve. In addition, Flavigny was completely shaken up by the constant breakdowns and delays as his tank units tried to take up positions on the starting line. Thus, he canceled the attack at the very last moment. After the war he cited the rather astonishing justification for that decision of his: “I wished to avoid disaster.” In the rather thinly held Sedan bridgehead, the German soldiers would have had every reason to thank him for that.

Flavigny then committed an even more critical error. He decided to switch to the defense and ordered his formations, which really were supposed to attack from south to north, dispersed to the east and west. In so doing, he distributed his tanks on a line of twenty kilometers on both sides of the Ardennes Canal between Omont and La Besace. So-called bouchons (corks), composed of one heavy tank and two light ones, clogged all roads and passes. Thus, all French tank formations were broken up and scattered. Flavigny, the commanding general responsible for the counterattack, in this way managed to dissolve the French 3d Armored Division as a major unit capable of carrying out a military operation. This led to the complete dilution of an attack operation that, in the words of Huntziger, was to have been carried out “avec la plus brutale énergie sans aucun souci des pertes” (with the most brutal energy and in utter disregard of casualties).

The failure of the counterattack had been preprogrammed in the way Huntziger worded his attack order. In his Ordre général d’opérations No 24 (General Operations Order No. 24), dated 14 May at 0000, Huntziger had ordered troops (1) to take up the second prepared reserve position between La Cassine and Mont-des-Cygnes [southeast of Stonne] and to seal off the enemy penetration frontally; (2) after the enemy had been successfully blocked, to mount the counterattack as quickly as possible toward Maisoncelle, Bulson, and Sedan. That was a contradiction in terms because the defensive and offensive parts of the mission to “seal the gap and counterattack” (colmater et contre-attaquer) were mutually exclusive. Defending meant spreading the units out in a linear pattern along a front line. Attacking, on the other hand, meant concentrating all forces at one point in the form of a narrow and deep deployment pattern.

To this extent, it is psychologically entirely understandable that Flavigny—in view of the constant flow of bad news—initially concentrated on the defensive portion of the order, even though he was not at all attacked directly and thus was unable to seal off any enemy thrust. He also had the units of X Corps in front of him. The roots of the problem were much deeper. Many Frenchmen later considered the cause of the defeat in 1940 to be the word colmater (to seal off) or, rather, the wrong line of thinking concealed behind that order. Huntziger’s order was completely in consonance with the principles of command dating back to World War I.

At that time, the reaction to the German penetration attempts was (1) seal off the penetration frontally (colmater); (2) wipe out the attacker with artillery fire; (3) clear the terrain of enemy. This concept, which was aimed at restoring the linear cohesion of the front, appeared outdated in an era of a modern mobile warfare. In similar crisis situations, the Germans reacted not with any frontal blocking action but instead with a counterattack against the flank using their Panzers. Paradoxically, Flavigny’s attack quite by accident would have thrust into the exposed flank of Guderian’s Panzer Corps, if his rather respectable armored fighting force had moved just a few more kilometers to the north.

The Second Attempt at a Counterattack on 15 May. In the evening, when Georges, the commander in chief of the northeast front, learned of the Second Army’s so-called successful defense, he furiously told Huntziger: “The 3d Armored Division was put at your disposal to counterattack toward Sedan.”

The commander in chief of Second Army, on the other hand, allowed the night to pass without taking any action whatsoever. After all, he was busy moving his headquarters from Senuc to Verdun, which is about fifty kilometers farther to the rear. On the next morning, however, the right moment had passed because the front line along the Meuse River collapsed over a width of more than one hundred kilometers on 15 May, primarily on account of the disaster at Sedan. In the meantime, the 1st and 2d Panzer Divisions had continued their thrust to the west and were out of range. Moreover, the 10th Panzer Division was now fully available. Nevertheless, a resolute attack would inevitably have led to a crisis in the German operational command setup.

Georges once again urged Huntziger to make haste during a telephone conversation at 0715 on 15 May. That is when Huntziger at last went into action. At 0800 he gave Flavigny the mission impérative (express order) to mount a counterattack with his tank formations. That directive did not reach Flavigny until 0830. He summoned the commanding generals of the 3d Armored Division and the 3d Motorized Infantry Division to his command post at 1000 (note the time delay) and ordered them to continue the counterattack together with the neighboring divisions. He set a deadline of 1400. Now it turned out that it had been much easier to spread the French tanks out than to concentrate them again for a renewed attack. In some cases, the commanders simply did not know where their vehicles were. That was particularly noticeable when the widely scattered French tank units were to be refueled. In addition, most of the radios had failed because there had been no time in recent days to recharge the storage batteries.

The same drama of constant delays as the day before now began all over again. Flavigny ordered the attack to be postponed from 1400 to 1600 and then to 1830. But there was no end to the problems. Besides, it was impossible to maintain a constant hold on the key terrain around Stonne, which in the meantime the Germans had attacked several times. In the end, Flavigny, completely shaken up, canceled his attack order at 1815.

The 1st and 2d companies of the 49th Tank Battalion, however, had not been informed in time that the order had been canceled. Attacking all by themselves with their Char B tanks, they advanced from the northern edge of the Bois du Mont-Dieu toward Chémery without any artillery and infantry support. After only two kilometers they ran into a blocking position of German antitank guns between Artaise and Neuville. Now, the Germans were able to concentrate their defensive fire on these few tanks that had been pushed too far ahead. Although the Char B tanks had been hit several times, the Germans managed to put only two of them out of action. When the two French company commanders realized that they had attacked all by themselves, they ordered a retreat. Their German opponents ran into no end of surprises. First of all, they found to their amazement that their projectiles, with which they literally covered the French Char B tanks, bounced off the French armor almost without any effect. Then they could not figure out why these colossuses that threatened to overrun them suddenly turned around and drove away. This isolated thrust showed what the Germans would have run into if a French tank attack had indeed been mounted on a broad front. What Manstein and Guderian feared most was a French countermove immediately after the breakthrough at Sedan. The counteroffensive, which in the Flavigny’s words was to be pushed “avec le plus grand esprit de sacrifice” (with the utmost spirit of sacrifice), consisted merely of the mistaken thrust by two French tank companies that had not been informed in time that the attack order had been countermanded.

The Fighting for Stonne

The bitterest fighting during the campaign in the west erupted over the village of Stonne that changed hands 17 times between 15 and 17 May. Its geographic location tells us why, of all places, there was such furious fighting over this little village that numbered only a dozen farmsteads. The heavily wooded Mont-Dieu (God’s Mountain) rises steep and threatening just fifteen kilometers south of Sedan. This massif blocks the terrain to the south like a natural fortress. The village of Stonne stands exposed along the northeast edge, the highest and steepest point of this ridge. Right at the eastern edge of this settlement rises the conical Pain de Sucre, which the Germans called Zuckerhut (Sugarloaf), the best observation point far and wide, whose military significance had been recognized by the ancient Romans. Before the start of the campaign, the French had fortified the northern edge of this massif with pillboxes and barriers and had developed it into a blocking position. At the same time, they were able to exploit the terrain as a point of departure for an attack to the north. The struggle for this ridge at times took on the character of positional warfare of World War I. The French compared the “hell of Stonne” over and over again to the “hell of Verdun.” A German officer later said: “There are three battles that I can never forget: Stonne, Stalingrad, and Monte Cassino.” The fighting for Stonne was of great operational significance inasmuch as the Germans tried at this point to nip the French counterattack in the bud—a counterattack that was very dangerous to them. To that extent, it seems by no means an exaggeration to say that the Battle of Sedan was actually decided at Stonne.

Only two episodes will be picked out from among the confusing number of combat actions that took place after the decisive events of 15 May. In spite of the initial apparent success, these episodes clearly demonstrate one of the most important factors in the French defeat. The main body of two French tank battalions, supported by one infantry battalion, attacked the tiny village of Stonne around 0700 on 16 May after a forty-five-minute barrage from two artillery regiments. In the end, it was one single tank that took the village practically all by itself. Captain Billotte, commanding officer of the 1st Company, 41st Battalion, in his Char B Eure, broke through the German positions and pushed into Stonne. A German Panzer company from the 8th Panzer Regiment that had moved into positions on both sides of the village street now opened fire from all barrels. But the Char B drove smack through the column, shooting up all 13 German Panzers with its 4.7-cm and 7.5-cm guns and also wiping out two antitank guns. The Char B itself received 140 hits, but not a single one of the German projectiles penetrated its armor.

Char B Riquewihr of the 49th Tank Battalion spread even greater terror on the next day. Its commander, Lieutenant Doumecq, on that day was dubbed le boucher de Stonne (the butcher of Stonne) by his comrades. Around 1700 he attacked in the direction of Stonne. Some eight hundred meters to the northwest of the village, he ran into a column of German infantrymen who were seeking cover in a section of ditch along the way. When those infantrymen rather light-heartedly opened fire with their small arms, he simply rolled over the entire column. Then, firing wildly all around, he pushed into the village that was being held by men of the 64th Rifle Regiment. Those men panicked and fled from the village as they spotted the fire-spitting monster with its still-bloody tracks.

At this point the question arises: How could the inferior German Panzer force in just a few days simply overrun the French armored force, which had considerably more and better tanks and whose tankers in some cases fought with noticeable resolution? The most important answer has already been given with the example of Flavigny—the French did not know how to combine their tanks into a coherent action on the operational echelon. As demonstrated at Stonne, moreover, they could not do that even at the tactical echelon in the context of combined arms combat. Spectacular though the highly praised actions of Captain Billotte, Lieutenant Doumecq, and many others may have been, these were usually individual exploits that were nothing but piecework, as it were, and whose success in most instances could not be exploited.

The example of the feared French Char B tank demonstrated precisely the shortcomings of the French tank arm. To begin with, few tanks had radios. The quality of those radios was so poor that they frequently failed, especially in the case of protracted combat operations. In that way, the tank commanders were hardly in a position to coordinate their own operations not to mention joint actions with the infantry. On the other hand, almost all German Panzers were equipped with modern radios. Huge formations attacked as if governed by a single will. Whenever radio contact failed now and then, the principle of Auftragstaktik (mission-type tactics) took over. In that respect, what happened at Stonne was practically a tragedy. There were hardly any other major French units that fought with such self-sacrifice as the men of the French 3d Motorized Infantry Division and the 3d Armored Division. In the end, however, all this bravery was in vain because the French army was operating on the basis of an obsolete command system that had been handed down from World War I.

The History of the British Free Corps Part I

The German Waffen-SS “British Free Corps” (hereafter shortened to BFC), was the brainchild of John Amery. Amery, whose father was a Conservative MP in the English Parliament, found himself living within the shadow of his successful political parent and as such, he strove to excess to prove himself capable of making it on his own. With failures in these endeavors, it only drove him to more and he joined Franco’s Nationalists in Spain in 1936, being awarded a medal of honor while serving as a combat officer with Italian “volunteer” forces. Amery was a staunch anti-Communist and with all of his failings and money problems, he accepted the fascist doctrines of Germany. Following his tour in Spain, he resided in France, under Vichy rule. He ran afoul of the Vichy government (Amery was displeased with their mind set anyhow) and made several attempts to leave the area but was rebuffed. It was German armistice commissioner Graf Ceschi who offered Amery the chance to leave France and come to Germany to work in the political arena. Ceschi wasn’t able to get Amery out of France but later, in September of 1942, Hauptmann Werner Plack got Amery what he wanted and in October, Plack and Amery went to Berlin to speak to the German English Committee. It was at this time that Amery made the suggestion that the Germans consider forming a British anti-Bolshevik legion. So much so was Amery’s suggestions (in addition to the unit ) taken that Adolf Hitler himself made the motions for Amery to remain in Germany as a guest of the Reich and that Hitler thought highly of the idea of a British force to fight the Communists. The idea languished until Amery met up with two Frenchmen, friends of his, who were part of the LVF (Legion des Volontaires Francais ) in January of 1943. The two LVF men lamented about the poor situation on the Eastern Front but that they saw that only Germany was battling the Russians and thus, despite all, they should still lend support with their LVF service. Amery rekindled his British unit concept, wanting to form a 50 to 100 man unit for propaganda uses and also to seek out a core base of men with which to gain additional members from British POW camps. He also suggested that such a unit would also provide more recruits for the other military units made up of other nationals. It seemed that the Germans were already ahead of Amery and had already undertaken some consideration, a military order saying “The Fuhrer is in agreement with the establishment of an English legion…The only personnel who should come into the framework should be former members of the English fascist party or those with similar ideology – also quality, not quantity.” As it is to be seen, this last bit would prove to be very difficult to obtain.

With the go-ahead, Amery set down write two works which covered his German radio talks (which were allowed to be broadcast but with a disclaimer which stated his comments were not those of the German government) and that he suggested the unit be called “The British Legion of St. George”. Amery’s first recruiting drive took him to the St. Denis POW camp outside Paris. 40 to 50 inmates from various British Commonwealth countries were assembled. Amery addressed them, handing out recruiting material. The end result was failure. Still, efforts continued at St. Denis and finally bore some fruit. Professor Logio (an old academic man), Maurice Tanner, Oswald Job, and Kenneth Berry (a 17 year old deck boy on the SS Cymbeline which was sunk at sea ) came forward. Logio was released while Job was recruited away by the German intelligence, trained as a spy, and ended up being caught while trying to get into England and hung in March of 1944. Thus, Amery ended up with two men, of which only Berry would actually join what was later called the BFC. Amery’s link to what would become the BFC ended in October of 1943 when the Waffen-SS decided Amery’s services were no longer needed and it was officially renamed the British Free Corps.

With Amery’s initial recruiting methods being seen as a failure, another idea was to be tried in an attempt to woo POWs to join the BFC. Given the harsh conditions of POW camps in Germany and the occupied areas, it was decided to form a “holiday camp” for likely recruits from POW camps. Two holiday camps were set up, Special Detachment 999 and Special Detachment 517, both under the umbrella of Stalag IIId in the Berlin locale. These camps were overseen by Arnold Hillen-Ziegfeld of the English Committee. English speaking guards were used, overseen by a German intelligence officer, who would use the guards as information gatherers. But a Englishman was needed as possible conduit for volunteers and in this, Battery Quartermaster Sergeant John Henry Owen Brown of the Royal Artillery was selected. Brown was a interesting character. He was a member of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) but also a devout Christian. His ability to play both sides would serve him well. Captured on the beaches of Dunkirk in May of 1940, Brown eventually ended up in a camp at Blechhammer. Given his rank, he was made a foreman of a work detail and he also began to work into the confidence of the Germans. What Brown was doing, in reality, was setting up a black-market scheme, smuggling in contraband and using it to give to his men and also to buy off the guards. Later, Brown was taught POW message codes created by MI9 of the British intelligence service and he began to operate as a “self-made spy” as he called himself. With his status, he was called to be the camp leader of Special Detachment 517. At this time, another Englishmen, Thomas Cooper (who used the German version of Cooper, Bottcher, as his last name), arrived at the camp. Cooper, unable to obtain public service employ in England due to his mother being German, joined the British Union (the shortened name of the BUF) and eventually left England on the promise that he could get work in German with the Reichs Arbeits Dienst (RAD). As it turned out, this was not to be in the end and finally, he joined the Waffen-SS (who, unlike the Army, would take British nationalities). He was posted to the famous SS “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” (LAH), underwent basic training, then was placed into artillery training. This did not last for long and he was transferred to the infamous SS “Totenkopf” infantry training battalion. Trained all over again in infantry tactics, he was moved to the position of machinegun trainer with the 5th. Totenkopf Regiment and made an NCO, staying there until February of 1941 until moved to the Wachbattaillon Oranienburg unit outside Krakow, Poland. During this time, Cooper was reported (by post-war BFC men) to have participated in atrocities against Russian and Polish POWs and civilians, including the Jewish. In January of 1943, Cooper was transferred to the SS-Polizei-Division as a transport driver. The unit was posted to the Leningrad front and once in a Russian town called Schablinov, they were told they’d be put into the line to replace the mangled forces of the Spanish Blue Division. By February 13, 1943, the Russians went on the attack again and broke through the SS-Polizei lines. Cooper was wounded in the legs by shell splinters, evacuated out, and was awarded the Wound Badge in Silver, the only Englishman to obtain a combat decoration. During his recovery, Cooper came into contact with the camp and upon learning about the purpose, was given orders to join the project.

Brown, being a crafty and streetwise person, saw the real deal behind the camp and he correctly came to the conclusion that he was in a very unique position to both hinder the formation of the unit as well as obtain intelligence (and he also would make sure the men who came to the camp actually got a holiday). Brown set about winning the confidence of his German handlers and surrounds himself with trustworthy POWs and when the first batch of 200 POWs rolled into the camp, things did not turn out for the better. Brown and his men were doing their best to entertain the prisoners while Cooper and other pro-Nazi men worked the crowd, seeking ex-BUF members or other ex-Fascist group members as well as finding out attitudes about the Communists. However, this resulted in displeasure and many of the POWs wanted to be sent back to their camps. To try and qualm this, it was asked of the most senior British POW, one Major-General Fortune, to send a representative to the camp to inspect it and assure the men it was on the up-and-up. Brigadier Leonard Parrington was selected and was sent to the camp. He gave a speech, had a look at the facilities, and said it was indeed a holiday camp and not to worry. He did not know the real truth and took it for what it looked like. Brown did not feel safe in informing Parrington of the purpose of the camp. This visit was successful in calming the situation but when the POWs were sent back to their respective camps, only one confirmed recruit was gained, Alfred Vivian Minchin, a merchant seaman whose ship, the SS Empire Ranger, was sunk off Norway by German bombers. Others kept the BFC in mind as they were sent off. Brown, following the first batch, learned of the full scope of the project from Carl Britten. Britten said he’d been forced into the BFC by Cooper and Leonard Courlander. Brown was unable to persuade Britten to quit the BFC, but MI9 got a very revealing transmission from Brown.

A bombing raid against Berlin damaged a good portion of the camp prior to a second batch of POWs being brought in. It was decided to move the campmen to a requisitioned cafe in the Pankow district of Berlin, overseen by Wilhelm “Bob” Rossler, a Germany Army interpreter. Prior to the move, the BFC gained two members, Francis George MacLardy of the Royal Army Medical Corps ( he was captured in Belgium ) and Edwin Barnard Martin of the Canadian Essex Scottish Regiment ( Martin was captured at Dieppe in 1942 ). At this time, the BFC numbered seven. POWs continued to roll into the camp once repaired until December of 1944, when it was called to a halt. The reasoning was that the handling of the camp, as stated by Brown, was counter-productive to getting recruits for the BFC since the way the camp was run, fostered distrust. The reality was they had Brown as their front man, who was out for himself but also loyal to the Crown to continue his dangerous game of intelligence gathering and also deterring recruits from joining, which gained him, post-war, the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Oskar Lange, who was overseeing the camps, hit upon another idea to gain recruits, and, it was hoped give him more stature. The earlier holiday camps only entertained long term POWs. Lange’s idea, however, was to take newly captured prisoners, who were still in a state of confusion, and work on them while they were vulnerable. This new camp was in Luckenwalde. The camp was headed up by Hauptmann Hellmerich of the German intelligence and his chief interrogator was Feldwebel Scharper. Scharper was not above using blackmail to get what he wanted and his tactics included fear, intimidation, and threats to coerce prisoners into joining.

The first group of POWs to be taken to Luckenwalde were mainly from the Italian theater. One such case of Trooper John Eric Wilson of No.3 Commando illustrated the techniques used by the camp. Upon arrival, he was stripped, made to watch his uniform get ripped to bits, then was given a blanket to cover up with. Placed in a cell with only the blanket and fed 250 grams of bread and a pint of cabbage soup, he was only allowed out to empty the waste bucket. After two days like this, he was taken before a “American”, who was in fact Scharper. Wilson was asked his rank, name, number, and date of birth (to which Wilson lied about his rank, saying he was a staff sergeant) then returned to his cell. Left alone, a “British POW” would come in from time to time, offer smokes and conduct idle chit-chat. The end result was that the isolation and the mistreatment led to him holding on to the “POW” who showed kindness to him and when dragged before Scharper some days later and offered the choice of joining the BFC or staying in solitary, it can be understood that Wilson chose the BFC. With this initial success, it was deemed this method would be the gateway to expanding the BFC and in turn, 14 men were made to join, including men from such esteemed units as the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the Long Range Desert Group.

However, things fell apart when these men, told they would be joining a unit of thousands, ended up in the billets of the cafe and the unit amounted to a handful of men who were more out for the opportunity of freedom or Fascist in leaning. At this time, Edwin Martin attempted to take advantage of the discord (perhaps to atone for his role in the camp) to disrupt the BFC but it did not have the desired effect. Two of the men broke away from the cafe and get into the holiday camp 517 to report to Brown who then complained to Cooper. Cooper then addressed the men at the cafe billet and in turn, those who did not want to remain could leave (though, to prevent the truth about the BFC reaching the general POW population, these men were isolated in a special camp) and by December of 1943, the BFC had only 8 men.

In spite of the tiny size of the unit, the Waffen-SS continued to work on the BFC. The first step was to appoint an officer. Because of the nature of the BFC, the candidate had to be trustworthy, have a good understanding of English, and also be a skilled leader and have excellent administrative. This job fell to SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Hans Werner Roepke. A very educated man, Roepke’s grasp of English came from his time as an exchange student prior to the war. His military service included being a private in the Reichswehr, then as a law man with the Allgemeine-SS, before being called up to duty as a flak officer with the SS-Wiking division. He was made the commander of the BFC in November of 1943. Roepke’s first order of business was to determine just what goal of the BFC was and its principles. The first order of business was the name. “The Legion of St. George” was tossed out as being too religious and the “British Legion” was rejected as well since it was in use by a UK World War 1 veterans group. It was Alfred Minchin who suggested “British Free Corps” after reading about the “Freikorps Danmark” in the English version of Signal magazine. Thus, it was accepted (though, in correspondence, the unit was sometimes called the “Britisches Freikorps”) officially as the “British Free Corps”. That settled, Roepke moved on the purpose of the unit. All the current members told Roepke they wanted to fight the Russians (as you will see, this was more of telling the Germans what they wanted to hear) and so, with that settled, it was ordered that the BFC must swell to create at least a single infantry platoon, or 30 men. It was also decreed that no BFC member could be part of any action against British and British Commonwealth forces nor could any BFC member be used to intelligence-gathering. The BFC would be, until a suitable British officer joined the unit, under German command. Other things worked out included the fact that the BFC members would not have to get the German blood tattoo, they did not have to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler, nor were they subject to German military law. They would receive the pay equal of the German soldiers for their rank. Finally, it was decided to equip the unit with standard SS uniforms with appropriate insignia.

Roepke put in the order for the BFC to be moved to the St. Michaeli Kloster in Hildesheim and he also put in the order for 800 sets of the special BFC insignia to the SS clothing department. Officially, the BFC came into existence on January 1, 1944. By February of 1944, the BFC made the move to Hildesheim and the Kloster, which was a converted monastery, now the SS Nordic Study Center and also the barracks for foreign workers laboring for the SS. Prior to the move, things for the BFC men were pretty idle but after the move, recruiting was to be stepped up. Of the group who left the BFC in December, the rumor that they would be sent to a SS run stalag, caused some of them to rethink their decision and three of them returned. Two new recruits were gained, including Private Thomas Freeman of the 7 Commando of Layforce. Freeman was to be the only BFC man who did not receive any punishment post-war for his membership, as MI5 stated his only purpose for joining the BFC was to escape and also to sabotage the unit. At this time, Roepke ordered all of the BFC men to assume false names for official documents but some did not do so. The BFC were also issued their first SS field uniforms, but without any insignia. Tasks were now assigned to the BFC members as well, which lead to some factionalism. Despite having duties, the majority of the time was spent being idle once simple chores such as cleaning the billets and such were done.

This idleness was to Freeman a chance to ruin the BFC by going after those who weren’t Fascist or strong anti-Communist. By gaining them to his side, especially since the main pro-Nazi BFC men were often away from the barracks, Freeman sought to form a rift in the unit. He was able to go on one of the recruiting drives (which were still being carried out) and even get ahead of the line to being made the senior NCO of the BFC. Freeman’s purpose for going on the recruiting drive was to gain men for his own ends. It netted three men, though one left soon after, being returned to his camp.

In April of 1944, the BFC was issued its distinctive insignia, the three-lion passant collar tab, the Union Jack arm shield, and the cuff title bearing “British Free Corps” in Gothic-script. Britten, who had been tasked as the unit tailor, spent most of a day sewing all the items onto the BFC member’s tunics. On the morning of April 20, 1944 (which was Hitler’s birthday), the BFC was paraded in full uniform and addressed by Roepke who said that now that the BFC was full-fledged ( by being issued uniforms, weapons, and pay books ), recruiting can begin in earnest. Promotions were also handed out at this time, with Freeman getting his NCO slot. Following the parade, the BFC members went off to various camps throughout Germany and Austria. The idea was to send the men to camps which they had been formally interned in. The idea, however, was very flawed and did not help recruiting in the slightest. All told, this recruiting drive netted six new members. During one such drive, Berry confided in a camp leader about his predicament, the leader saying he should seek out the Swiss embassy in Berlin, which Berry did not follow up on. Two of these recruits, John Leister and Eric Pleasants, both not wanting to get involved with the war, got caught up in it when the Germans took over the Channel Islands and put them both the camps since they were of military age. While not initially taking up the BFC offer, they talked it out and if the BFC should return, they’d join up. Why? Because the both of them were tired of slim food rations, did not like being away from the company of women, disliked the camp life, and also because the both of them hated being deprived of their freedom for a war they wanted no part in. In fact, Pleasants even admitted to Minchin and Berry that he “was in it to have a good time.”

All of the drives found the BFC numbering 23 men. This worried Freeman because if the unit reached 30, then the BFC would be incorporated into the SS-“Wiking” division and sent into action. To prevent this, Freeman took it upon himself to stop it. He drafted a letter, signed by him and 14 other BFC men (mostly the newcomers), requesting they be returned to their camps. This threw the BFC into chaos and it took pressure from Cooper and Roepke to just have Freeman and one other instigator tossed out and into a penal stalag, both being charged with mutiny on June 20, 1944. Freeman escaped the stalag in November of 1944, making it to Russian lines where he was repatriated in March of 1945. Still, the BFC was rattled and tensions between members were evident, made worse by Cooper seeking to instill SS-style discipline and methods, which was alien to the Englishmen whose experience with the British army was more lenient. With Freeman gone, Wilson was made senior NCO, which was a mistake given Wilson had lied upon his capture about his rank, and thus had little experience leading men and had a large appetite for women, which only being with the BFC could provide him with the freedom to partake of the female virtues.