Flying the Me-262 in Combat

As Me-262 pilots gained more experience in flying the Me-262 in combat, all were in agreement that special measures should be taken to protect them at the beginning and end of their flights. For one thing, there was a need for the airfields to be more effectively disguised. The pilots concurred that the huge nets over the hangars and other installations were fairly effective, but they felt that overall, the camouflage could be improved.

The runways were the worst problem. They were easy to spot from the air, and scorch marks left on the pavement by jet engine exhausts were a sure tipoff to enemy airmen flying reconnaissance. As much as possible, the pilots said, runways should be hidden when not in use.

For another thing, it would help to have piston fighters fly top cover when Me-262s were taking off and landing. It was obvious that the enemy had quickly become aware of the jets’ vulnerability at those critical times, and that was when they did their hunting. More 88mm flak batteries would be a good idea as well.

Admittedly, only a handful of Me-262s had been lost in combat so far, and some of those were destroyed by AA fire. One such incident had occurred when Lt. Rolf Weidemann was hit over Diest while on a bombing mission. Another was when German flak gunners in Holland mistook Unteroffizier Herbert Schauder’s aircraft for an Allied bomber and shot it down. But the others had been lost while the jets were just getting off the ground, or when they were on final approach.

The talk then turned to tactics. Once aloft, speed was a boon, of course—but it could also be a hindrance, especially if the pilot didn’t know the best way to use it. In a dogfight, the standard practice of scissoring was fine for a Bf-109 or an Fw-190, but not for an Me-262. An astute enemy flier would realize he could outmaneuver an attacking jet by turning inside it, which had been done a number of times. The pilots were aware that making abrupt turns was to be avoided. Bank too sharply in an Me-262 and you ran the risk of engine flameout. It had led to fatal accidents even in practice flights, and if you lost power in combat the game was up.

Therefore, whenever possible, an Me-262 should rely on a fast-closing attack from astern—that was when the jet was at its best. Baudach could attest to that, and so could many of the others. You wanted to line up on the enemy and give him a good squirt with the cannons before he knew you were there. Deflection shots were far more difficult, again because of the jet’s speed. And the Revi gunsight wasn’t much help, either. Any angle greater than 30 degrees usually insured a miss, thanks to the enemy’s ability to break quickly.

Attacks on bombers presented special problems, which were different from engaging a fighter. It was true that Feldwebel Lennartz had easily shot down a B-17 over Stuttgart back in August, but that was because the Fortress had been alone. That in itself was unusual, inasmuch as the bombers almost always flew in large fleets. Their standard battle formations comprised tight combat boxes, which enabled them to protect one another with massed machine-gun fire. An enemy squadron of twelve aircraft formed such a box, with four elements of three aircraft each. A group would have three squadrons, or 36 planes. A wing consisted of three groups, for a total of 108 bombers. On some raids the Allies would fly five or six wings, or even more. And now with hundreds of Mustangs escorting the bombers, the Me-262 pilots were heavily outnumbered.

Although they’d encountered heavies several times since Lennartz’s victory, the jets had claimed only a few kills. The pilots agreed that having to deal with large numbers of fighter escorts was the main obstacle, especially now that the Mustangs were ranging freely out in front of the enemy formations. And even when an Me-262 penetrated the fighter screen and reached the bombers, the jets’ speed was again a factor. Typically the bombers would be flying at about 350 kph, and an Me-262 attacking at more than twice that rate would have little time for a firing pass. If you weren’t a good shot, you had almost no chance to make a hit.

Some pilots felt it would be best to use the boom-and-zoom type of attack, diving on the enemy from above and firing, then pulling up and away. The angle of the dive would present the largest silhouette of the bomber, resulting in more of a target to shoot at. Others said it would be better to continue the dive after firing rather than risk a rapid pull-up. Or maybe boom-and-zoom would be all right if the dive were kept very shallow. The so-called roller coaster attack might also work, though it wouldn’t allow the pilot much time to fire with accuracy.

But what the pilots couldn’t dispute was that no matter how they did it, attacking a Fortress in an Me-262 was a lot better than in an Fw-190 or a Bf-109. Many of the pilots were veterans of such battles, and closing on the tail of an enemy bomber through a hail of .50-caliber bullets was not a pleasant task.

Most of all, the pilots wanted more aircraft. They realized the Messerschmitt plants were doing their best to produce them, but the supply was a trickle. With more Me-262s, they were sure they could blow enough of the Allies out of the sky to make a real difference.

And one other point. Supposedly they were at Lechfeld to form a special jet squadron, which was to be fully staffed with qualified pilots. Ideally, it would be led by a commander who knew his business, yet so far that person hadn’t appeared. When would he?

General Galland answered that question on 26 September, when he ordered Major Walter Nowotny to take charge of the unit. Nowotny had all the ability the Me-262 pilots could hope for, and all the credentials to prove it. Fine-featured and slim, with black hair and a cocky attitude, Nowotny was one of the Luftwaffe’s top aces. Only 23, he’d already posted 255 victories.

Most of the major’s record had been achieved on the eastern front, where his exploits were legendary. On several occasions he’d made multiple kills, knocking down five or six of the enemy in a single battle. And on one memorable day over Leningrad, he shot down ten Soviet aircraft.

He’d also displayed great personal courage. In a dogfight with Soviet I-53s off Riga Bay, his Bf-109 was riddled with machinegun bullets. The battered fighter crashed into the frigid waters, and Nowotny climbed out just as it sank. Cold and wet and bleeding from wounds, he spent three days and nights in a rubber dinghy before reaching shore.

On another sortie, near Novgorod, he destroyed four Ratas while refusing to bail out of his smoking Bf-109. Afterward he crash-landed, and leaped from the flaming wreck as it skidded along the ground. When he recovered from his wounds, he flew an Fw-190 and continued to run up his score.

In recognition of his heroism, Nowotny was awarded Germany’s highest decoration, the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. The Luftwaffe then assigned him to administrative duties, rather than risk losing him, but he hated being grounded and agitated constantly to get back into the air. He got his wish when he was sent to Pau for training in an Me-262. The aircraft was made for him. He loved the speed, and the sense that only the best of the best could fly this entirely new and superior type of fighter.

After he took command, the unit was officially dubbed Kommando Nowotny and moved to two airfields in northern Germany. One was at Achmer, the other at nearby Hesepe. Nowotny immediately set about expanding his outfit into a complete fighter gruppe. When at full strength, the gruppe would have three staffeln of 16 aircraft each. There would also be a Stabschwarm, or headquarters flight, consisting of four more. Thus Kommando Nowotny would eventually comprise 52 jet fighters.

Like a good commander, the major listened carefully as his pilots expressed their views. They said that because Me-262s needed a long takeoff run, the runways at Achmer and Hesepe were barely acceptable. Nowotny had them lengthened. Next, the pilots complained about inadequate camouflage. The major saw to it that new, better designed nets holding clumps of brush were made up. He had the nets arranged so that they could be positioned quickly over the airfields, including the runways when they were not in use. Then there was the problem of vulnerability when taking off and landing. Nowotny petitioned General Galland to send piston fighters, so there would be top cover for the jets over both fields. Galland transferred a gruppe of Fw-190s to Achmer. This was III/JG54, commanded by Hauptmann Robert Weiss.

There were four staffeln under Weiss. They were led by Hauptmann Karl Bottlander and Oberleutnants Willy Heilmann, Peter Crump, and Hans Dortenmann. All had extensive combat experience.

Their Focke-Wulf fighter was the D model. Pilots called it the Longnose Dora because it mounted a liquid-cooled 2100 hp Jumo 213A V-12 engine, rather than the air-cooled radial BMW. Armament was two 13mm MG131 machine guns and two 20mm MG151/20E cannons.

Finally, there was the need for more flak batteries. Nowotny applied pressure, and they were installed. The batteries were the latest type, which had been expanded from four 88mm cannons to eight. Each gun would fire 120 rounds per minute, lofting 10 kg shells as high as 10,600 meters, where they would explode in a burst of steel splinters.

The major drilled his pilots hard. He had them fly several times a day, practicing combat maneuvers. The sessions were not without misfortune, however. On 4 October, the Kapitan of 2 Staffel, Hauptmann Alfred Teumer, was on final approach when both his engines failed. The Me-262 slammed to earth, killing him. Nowotny replaced him with Oberleutnant Franz Schall, who had scored 117 kills while serving with I/JG52 in Russia.

The Kommando was still nowhere near full strength, when on 7 October, Nowotny led 11 of his charges to intercept American bombers attacking Magdeburg. The target was an aircraft production plant. When the Me-262s arrived, Nowotny saw that the oncoming bombers were B-24 Liberators. He estimated there were 300 of them, and probably more. They were flying at 6,500 meters, and escorted by P-47s that were apparently equipped with extra fuel tanks to increase their range.

The jets were the first on the scene, though the major knew from radio transmissions that controllers were sending squadrons of piston fighters as well. He could hear the excitement in the pilots’ voices. As he gained altitude in readiness to lead an attack, his flight was seen by the Thunderbolts. The American fighters came up to do battle, but were unable to climb as fast as the jets. Nowotny picked out a P-47, rolled over and dove on it.

The enemy pilot’s wingman must have warned him, because the P-47 broke left in a tight turn and Nowotny was unable to line up for a shot. As he flashed through the swirl of enemy aircraft, he was careful not to handle his Me-262 as roughly as he would an Fw-190, instead recovering gracefully and climbing once more. At that point, a flight of Bf-109s showed up, and the fighting immediately became a series of dogfights. Nowotny and the others in his Kommando tried to break through the P-47s, so as to get at the bombers.

Oberleutnant Franz Schall succeeded. He attacked a Liberator, making the type of shallow dive his fellow airmen felt would be most effective. When he fired his cannons he was only about two hundred meters above the B-24, and the shells hit the cockpit. Apparently the strikes killed the pilot and copilot, because the bomber flipped over and went into an inverted spin, out of control. Schall knew better than to watch it go down. Instead, he pursued another B-24, but had to break off because of machine-gun fire from the bomber and from others in the box.

As the enemy began their bomb runs, Oberfähnrich Heinz Russel ignored warnings about attacking too closely from the rear. He slipped in behind a B-24 and concentrated his fire on the tail. Because of his speed there was time to fire only a few shells, but they silenced the tail gunner and did enough damage to the aircraft to send that one down as well. Unfortunately for Russel, a P-47 caught him just as he was pulling up after firing at the bomber. Pieces of the jet were torn off by the Thunderbolt’s machine guns, and both its engines quit. Russel jettisoned his canopy and bailed out. The crippled 262 had slowed down, but it was still moving so fast that when Russel jumped, it was as if he’d run into a brick wall. Nearly senseless, he opened his parachute by instinct alone. When he landed he was bruised, but thankful to be alive.

Before fuel shortages forced the jets to withdraw, Feldwebel Lennartz again scored. The bomber he attacked had still not dropped its bombs, and when his cannon shells struck the B-24, it exploded.

Oberleutnant Paul Bley also lost his aircraft that day, but not to enemy gunfire. Instead he made too hasty a turn, which caused his engines to fail, and he was unable to restart them. He too bailed out, and like Russel, lived to rejoin the unit and fight again another day.

The P-47 that shot down Russel was flown by Col. Hubert Zemke, commander of the 56th Fighter Group known as Zemke’s Wolf Pack. In the confusion typical of those huge air battles, Zemke thought he had destroyed a Bf-109. It was only when his combat film was viewed that he learned that he’d scored one of the first aerial victories over an Me-262.

As for Nowotny, the major was more than satisfied by the way his pilots had acquitted themselves. They’d made a few mistakes, but by and large they were operating just as he’d hoped. And he was sure the best was yet to come.

On the same day as the Magdeburg raid, another battle took place near Achmer. It began when 8th Air Force Lieutenant Urban Drew of the 362st Fighter Group approached the area in his Mustang. Drew was the leader of the 375th Fighter Squadron, and he and his pilots were returning to base after escorting B-17s in attacks on targets in Czechoslovakia.

There had been reports of Me-262s operating in the vicinity, and Drew was keeping a sharp eye out for them. As he looked down, he was startled to see two twin-engine aircraft taxi onto a runway and take off. Drew realized at once what they were. He ordered his Deputy Squadron Leader, Captain Bruce Rowlett, to cover him.

Drew’s combat report described what happened next:

“Waited until both jets were airborne, then rolled over from 15,000 feet and caught up with one Me-262 when he was 1,000 feet off ground. I was indicating 450 mph. Me-262 couldn’t have been going more than 200 mph. I started firing from approximately 400 yards, 30 degrees deflection, and as I closed, I saw hits all over the wings and fuselage. Just as I passed him I saw a sheet of flame come out from near the right wing root, and as I glanced back I saw gigantic explosions and a sheet of red flame over an area of 1,000 feet. The other Me-262 was 500 yards ahead, and had started a fast climbing turn to the left. I was still indicating 440 mph, and had to haul back to stay with him. I started shooting from about 40 degrees deflection, and hit his tail section. I kept horsing back, and hits crept up his fuselage to his cockpit. Just after that I saw his canopy fly off in two sections, his plane roll over and go into a flat spin. He hit the ground on his back at 60 degrees angle and exploded violently. I did not see the pilot bail out. Two huge columns of smoke came up from the Me-262s burning on the ground.”

The first aircraft Drew destroyed had been flown by Leutnant Gerhard Kobert. The pilot of the second was Oberfeldwebel Heinz Arnold. The action was witnessed from the ground by Hauptmann Georg-Peter Eder, who had intended to lead the flight but was prevented from taking off because of an engine flameout.

For unexplained reasons, Hauptmann Robert Weiss’s Fw-190s were not in the air providing cover when Drew attacked. Also, the crews of the flak batteries were slow in reacting; it wasn’t until the two jets were piles of blazing wreckage that the gunners opened up.

When the 88mm shells began bursting, Drew ordered his wingman, Lieutenant Robert McCandliss, to join him in making evasive maneuvers at treetop level. Instead, McCandliss, who was on his sixteenth mission and had not yet achieved a victory, disobeyed and attacked the flak batteries. That proved to be a mistake. The gunners were only too happy to have a shot at the American pilot who dared strafe them. There were so many batteries in the area that all the crews had to do, was put up a barrage, and the Mustang flew straight into it. The last Urban Drew saw of McCandliss’s Mustang, it was afire from nose to tail and going down. There was nothing to be done for him; the squadron leader flew on.

Drew was not aware of it, but McCandliss had just enough altitude to bail out. He jumped clear, pulled his ripcord, and the chute blossomed. The hard landing sprained his ankles, but otherwise he was not seriously hurt. German troops quickly surrounded him and took him prisoner, and he spent the rest of the war in a Stalag Luft in eastern Germany.

When Drew returned to base, he was anxious to see his combat films, but to his irritation, the gun camera had malfunctioned and he could not verify his claims. The others in his flight had not seen the Me-262s destroyed, so they couldn’t back him up.

In the weeks following the attack at Achmer, the many small plants that were constructing components of the Me-262 increased their efficiency. As a result, the pace of assembly also improved, and the aircraft were turned out in greater numbers. Though most of these were the pure fighter, a few of the fighter-bombers were still being built, even though their performance in combat continued to be less than satisfactory. Not only were they unable to bomb with accuracy, they were also 100 kph slower than the fighters, which made it easier for enemy pilots to shoot them down.

Nevertheless, the Air Ministry was not willing to give up on the idea of the Sturmvogel as Hitler’s high-speed bomber. When Messerschmitt was ordered to come up with a new version, his team designed the Me-262 A/2a/U2. In this aircraft the entire forward section was removed, including the cannons, and a new nose made of glazed wood was fitted in its place. A bombardier lay inside the nose and focused on the target with a Lotfe 7H bombsight. Examples of the jet were sent to Lager Lechfeld for testing.

Flown by Gerd Lindner and Karl Baur, the Me-262 A/2a/U2 achieved good results. According to the test pilots’ reports, bombs dropped from altitudes as high as 5,000 meters landed with acceptable accuracy. But there were problems with the aircrafts’ aerodynamics, and the project stalled. Another version of the Me-262 the team designed was a trainer with two seats in tandem. This would enable instructors to fly with pilots being introduced to the aircraft. Not many of the two-seaters were built; most pilots new to the jet received only ground instruction, and learned by flying it.

As more Me-262s went into service, American fighter pilots kept them busy in dogfights, which prevented many of the jets from attacking the bombers. As a result, most of their victories, as well as their losses, occurred in combat with Mustangs and Thunderbolts. Leutnant Schreiber also had success in engagements with Lightning F-5s, shooting down two of them in one battle on 29 October.

For Schreiber, the day was memorable for another reason as well. The Lightnings belonged to the RAF 7th Photo Recon Group, and were accompanied by Spitfires. After Schreiber got his second kill he pulled up in a climbing right turn, and his Me-262e collided with a Spitfire. Both aircraft burst into flames. The British pilot, Flight Lieutenant Wilkins of RAF 4 Squadron, was killed. Although singed and only halfconscious, Schreiber jumped from the burning wreckage and popped his chute. He landed intact, and a day later was back in the air.

Also on 29 October, Feldwebel Büttner and Oberfeldwebel Göbel of Kommando Nowotny ran across a flight of P-47s that were shooting up a train. The low-flying Thunderbolts made perfect targets. Each pilot chose one and dove on it, taking care not to pick up too much speed. One quick burst of cannon fire from the cannons was all that was needed. As the two P-47s spun in, the others quickly rose to give chase, but all they saw were wisps of exhaust smoke as the jets pulled away and disappeared.

With additional Me-262s becoming available, General Galland was eager to establish more units with them. In the first of these, KG54 was given the new designation KG(J)54, and received its jets at the beginning of November. I Group of this unit was established at Giebelstadt, and a second part of it, designated IIKG(J)54, was sent to Neuburg. A training unit was also formed, and stationed at Lechfeld, with Hauptmann Eder appointed commander. The pilots assigned to the unit were all veterans, so instruction simply covered the characteristics of the aircraft. Eder would lead them in combat when he thought they were ready.

A major problem was the growing shortage of J2 jet fuel. Pilots were limited to one hour of flying circuits of the field, two hours of aerobatics, one hour of cross-country, one hour of flying at high altitude, and two hours of practicing formation flight. Many accidents occurred, most of them fatal.

By then American pilots were encountering Me-262s with increasing frequency. On 1 November, three wings of 8th Air Force bombers were en route to bomb Gelsenkirchen, a city on the Rhine, when they were attacked by four jets of Kommando Nowotny. The B-17s and B-24s were escorted by Mustangs of the 20th and 352nd Fighter Groups, as well as Thunderbolts of the 56th Group.

The bombers were flying at 8,500 meters, a higher altitude than usual. But the Me-262s were still higher, and despite the enormous disparity in numbers, the jets dove in with cannons blazing. Oberfeldwebel Willy Banzhaff sent his shells into a Mustang of the 77th Fighter Squadron, killing the pilot, Lt. Dennis Allison. Other Mustangs gave chase, but they had no hope of catching the Me-262. Banzhaff could have escaped altogether, but he committed a tactical error. Instead of continuing his dive, he pulled up. A P-47 pilot, W.L. Groce, shouted into his mike: “Spread out, and we’ll get him if he turns!”

Banzhaff did, climbing and swinging left. Groce and Lieutenant W.T. Gerb of the 352nd poured machine gun and cannon fire into the jet, and its port engine became wreathed in flames. The aircraft went into a spin, and Banzhaff bailed out.

Groce then followed an order that had recently been issued by the USAAF High Command. He came about and fired at the German who was hanging defenseless in his parachute harness. This was a practice Luftwaffe pilots could not believe was happening, but it was. Many Americans as well could hardly believe the order, and refused to carry it out. Fortunately for Banzhaff, Groce missed.

But Banzhaff’s good luck was not to last much longer. On 3 November, he and another member of Kommando Nowotny were flying near Hesepe when they were spotted by the pilot of a Hawker Tempest Mk. V. One of the most powerful piston-engine fighters of the war, the Tempest mounted a 2,400 hp Napier Sabre engine and was armed with four 20mm Hispano cannons. RAF Wing Commander J.B. Wray was at the controls, and reported:

“I was flying at about 18,000 feet when I sighted two Me-262s. They were camouflaged blue-grey and were flying in a southwesterly direction. They saw me and turned in a wide arc to port. I had already launched an attack, opening to full throttle and diving. My speed was in the region of 500 mph. I closed to about three hundred yards on the starboard aircraft and opened fire with a four-second burst, hitting the tailplane. The Me-262 continued on course and started to pull away, but before he got out of range I fired again. Suddenly a large piece flew off the aircraft and he flicked over onto his back and disappeared downwards into cloud in an inverted position. I followed, but the thickness of the cloud made it impossible for me to maintain contact.”

Wing Commander Wray did not learn until after the war that the jet had sustained fatal damage. It crashed at Hitfeld, and its pilot, Willy Banzhaff, was killed.

On 5 November, Me-262s of Kommando Nowotny attacked another fleet of 8th Air Force bombers. Feldwebel Büttner shot down a Mustang and a Thunderbolt, and Oberfeldwebel Baudach also destroyed a Thunderbolt. Nevertheless, they were unable to penetrate the fighter screen and get at the heavies.

By then a few more American fliers were learning the best way to engage the jets. Among them was a pilot who in later years would become one of the world’s most famous airmen. He was Charles E. Yeager.

Rommel in Italy 1917

Theodor Sproesser and Erwin Rommel
Major Sproesser was Rommel’s commanding officer in Italy during WWI. He received his Pour Le Merite with Rommel for their daring and unrelenting pursuit of the Italians. 
He (Sproesser) was promoted to Oberstleutnant on the 1st of March 1920 having entered the Reichsheer following the end of WW1. Promoted to Oberst on the 1st Feb 1922 he became the commandant of Glatz and retired as a Generalmajor on the 31st of March 1925. He died in 1932. 

Around Tolmein, zero hour on the 24th October 1917 loosed an attack with several prongs. The main thrust was directed against high ground west of the Isonzo. Two German divisions and an Austrian division radiated out of the bridgehead and over the river, striking up the steep flanks and spurs that lead to the high ridges. Again the initial bombardment was highly effective, smashing the Italian cordon around the bridgehead. By nightfall, despite stiff resistance at some points, the attackers had captured the summits that expert in mountain warfare, Lieutenant General Krafft von Dellmensingen, identified as keys to Italian control.

North of Tolmein and east of the Isonzo, an Austrian division overran the fragile lines below the summit of Mount Mrzli, which the Italians had tried so hard to capture since 1915. With Badoglio’s artillery standing silent, the Italians were rolled back towards the valley bottom, where six German battalions advanced on both sides of the river, meeting little resistance. By noon, the rain had turned to sleet and the Germans occupied Kamno, a hamlet halfway to Caporetto.

Around midday, between Kamno and Caporetto, the Germans clashed with a platoon of the 14th Regiment, 4th Bersaglieri Brigade. One of the Italians involved in that firefight, Delfino Borroni, is the last Italian veteran of the Twelfth Battle, still alive at this time of writing. His regiment reached Cividale on the 22nd and marched through the rainy night to the second line. They got to Livek, overlooking the Isonzo, very early on the 24th. Wet and hungry, the men found a store of chestnuts in one of the buildings and roasted them over a fire. Corporal Borroni (b. 1898) gorged himself, and had to run outside at the double. As he crouched in the bushes, trousers round his knees, the commanding officer called his platoon to fall in. ‘Fix bayonets, boys, we’re going down!’ They crept towards the valley bottom in the darkness and waited for several hours, wondering what was going on. Eventually the Germans loom out of the mist. In Borroni’s memory, they are a grey swarm, a cloud. With the advantage of surprise, the Italians take them all prisoner: a detachment of some 80 men. The next German unit arrives at noon with machine guns and forces the Italians back up the hill to Livek.

At 12:15, as Borroni and his men are ducking the machine-gun fire near Caporetto, Cadorna is still asking how many guns the Second Army can spare for the Third Army, to parry the expected thrust on the Carso.

The enemy reaches the edge of Caporetto at 13:55. A few Italian officers try to stem the flood of troops retreating through the town. Those with rifles are pulled out of the crowd; the rest are allowed to go on their way, so as not to clog up the streets. When the men see this, they start throwing away their rifles. They look as if they hate the war more than the enemy. At 15:30, the retreating Italians blow the bridge over the Isonzo. Caporetto is captured half an hour later, along with 2,000 Italian prisoners. When German bugles sound in the main square, the Slovene citizens pour onto the street ‘to welcome their German liberators’    

The right flank of the force that attacked westwards out of Tolmein at 08:00 was formed by the Alpine Corps, a specialist mountain unit of division size, comprising Bavarian regiments and the Württemberg Mountain Battalion. The WMB included nine companies, staffed and equipped to operate autonomously. One of the company commanders was a 25-year-old lieutenant, a born soldier and natural leader, clearheaded, physically tough and avid for glory. His name was Erwin Rommel. Twenty-five years later, he would be one of the most famous soldiers in the world, admired by Hitler, adored by his men and respected by his enemies. This morning, Rommel was poised to grasp the sort of opportunity that does not come twice in a lifetime. His company of 200 men, deployed on the outer edge of the formation, was tasked to protect the right flank of the Bavarian Life Guards as they attacked the Kolovrat ridge opposite Tolmein.

Moving to the jump-off line, he is surprised by the lack of interdiction fire. The Italian heavy batteries were active on the 23rd; what has happened to them? His company reaches the Isonzo ‘frozen and soaked to the skin’ by heavy rain. They could be stopped by machine guns, but there are none. Again, the preparatory shelling has done its job; the surviving Italians emerge from the rubble with hands high and faces ‘twisted in fear’.

Rommel traverses up the hillside while the Bavarians to his left attack the hill head-on. The trees have not yet shed their leaves, and the undergrowth is dense. This gives cover from the Italian lines above – all the more welcome as the Württembergers have no artillery support: the Austro-German batteries are all helping the frontal attack. Advancing at the speed of the machine gunners, each carrying more than 45 kilograms, the company ‘worked its way forward in the pouring rain, moving from bush to bush, climbing up concealed in hollows and gullies’. They capture a series of isolated Italian forward positions. ‘There was no organised resistance and we usually took a hostile position from the rear. Those who did not surrender fled head over heels into the lower woods, leaving their weapons behind.’

Moving on, they find intact batteries, deserted by their crews. Fuelling themselves with Italian rations, they press on to the crest of the Kolovrat. Here they encounter their first real obstacle: Hill 1114, well fortified and defended, is the next bump or summit on the ridge, blocking their advance. The Bavarians are already on the saddle below the hill, and their commander tries to assert himself over the Württembergers. Rommel insists that he takes orders from his battalion commander (who, conveniently, is far behind).

Overnight, his mind works on the problem ahead. A frontal attack on the hill would need artillery support. A bold alternative occurs: he could lead a small detachment in a flanking movement around Hill 1114, then break on to the ridge above the enemy stronghold and continue the attack along the ridge, leaving the Bavarians to mop up. This plan – in effect, a local application of infiltration tactics – appeals to ‘the aggressive officers and men’ of the WMB. It has another advantage, too: ‘A successful breakthrough west of Hill 1114 would have an effect on the positions lower down.’ In other words, isolating the enemy would demoralise him. This reasoning, characteristic of Rommel, gives a measure of the Germans’ advantage.

Rommel looks up at the ridge, sparkling in the sunrise on 25 October. The battalion commander has arrived and approved his plan. He leads his detachment along the hillside, traversing below the ridge. They stumble on an enemy outpost, fast asleep in a clump of bushes. His tally of prisoners is mounting. The Italians higher up the ridge are no better prepared; the possibility of being attacked before lower positions have fallen has not occurred to them.

Beyond the next summit, called Kuk, the ridge falls sharply to the village of Livek. The Italians on Kuk expect a frontal attack. Instead Rommel swerves out of view across the southern flank of the hill, bypassing Kuk entirely. The German machine gunners sweat and gasp in the noonday sun. Soon he can look down onto Livek, swarming with Italians trying to fend off the German units that are pressing up the hillside from the Isonzo valley. Beyond Livek, the ridge rises again towards the goal: Mount Matajur, overlooking Friuli. Whoever captures Matajur will win the Pour le Mérite, the Blue Max, Prussia’s highest military honour.

As his detachment catches up, he decides that Mount Kuk can be left to others. He moves down to the road connecting Livek to the rear, and starts to capture Italian traffic. ‘Everyone was having fun and there was no shooting,’ Rommel recalled gaily. ‘Soon we had more than a hundred prisoners and fifty vehicles. Business was booming.’ Things get more serious when a bersaglieri unit hoves into sight. After a fierce exchange of fire, he and his 150 Württembergers convince the 50 officers and 2,000 men of the 4th Bersaglieri Brigade to surrender.

Nervous tension kept Rommel awake. Before midnight, a report arrived that Italian troops were moving towards a hamlet higher up the ridge. Enemy reinforcements could prove fatal to his endeavour; Rommel scrambled out of his sleeping bag and led his detachment (now seven companies) up a narrow path to the hamlet. ‘The great disk of the moon shone brightly on the slope, steep as a roof.’

The next Italian line lay above the hamlet, apparently still unoccupied. Rommel decided to encircle the line. ‘I felt that the god of War was once more offering his hand.’ Despite heavy fire from positions on Mount Cragonza, the next hill along the ridge, Rommel’s assault teams climbed around the village unscathed until they looked down on the unsuspecting Italians. ‘We shouted down and told them to surrender. Frightened, the Italian soldiers stared up at us to the rear. Their rifles fell from their hands.’ The Württembergers did not fire a shot. Without pausing, they attacked Cragonza. By 07:15, it was theirs.

It is late morning on the 26th, and Rommel looks up at Hill 1356, the last bump on the ridge before Matajur (1,641 metres). Using a heliograph, he signals a request for German batteries on the other side of the Isonzo to target the hill. As the Italians react to the accurate bombardment, he swings south, turns the Italians’ flank and attacks from the rear. The Italians rapidly withdraw, and Rommel halts. Hundreds of Italian soldiers are standing about on the hilltop, nearly two kilometres away, ‘seemingly irresolute and inactive’. As the crowd swells into thousands, he makes a lightning decision. ‘Since they did not come out fighting, I moved nearer, waving a handkerchief’, with his detachment spread out in echelons behind him. ‘We approached within 1,000 metres and nothing happened.’ The enemy ‘had no intention of fighting although his position was far from hopeless! Had he committed all his forces, he would have crushed my weak detachment.’ Instead, ‘The hostile formation stood there as though petrified and did not budge.’

The Germans have to follow a road through a wooded cleft that separates them from the summit. Rommel and a small team hurry ahead, reducing the Italians’ time to recalculate the odds. Far ahead of his detachment, he breaks cover and walks steadily forward, waving his handkerchief and calling on the Italians to lay down their arms. ‘The mass of men stared at me and did not move. I had the impression that I must not stand still or we were lost.’ When the gap between them has narrowed to 150 metres, the Italians rush forward, throwing away their rifles, shouting ‘Evviva Germania!’ They hoist the incredulous Rommel on their shoulders. Both regiments of the Salerno Brigade surrender en masse. Their commander sits by the road with his staff, weeping.

Rommel never understood the Salerno Brigade’s behaviour. Twenty years later, he still marvelled at their surrender, given that ‘even a single machine gun operated by an officer could have saved the situation’. He could not conceive the condition of infantry who had been bundled to the top of a mountain and ordered to defend it to the death against some of the best soldiers in the world, without benefit of proper positions, artillery support, communications or confident leadership. Nor, to judge by his memoir, was he aware of the Italian infantry’s experience since 1915. The seeds of the Salerno Brigade’s defeat were sown long before October 1917.

An order arrives from Rommel’s battalion commander: he must pull back to Mount Cragonza. He decides the major must be poorly informed about the situation ahead, and ignores the order. The stakes are too high, and success will justify his disobedience. The conquest of Mount Matajur is relatively simple. He and his men surprise an Italian company from the rear, near the rocky summit, then divert the force on the summit while Rommel circles around. Before the Germans have set up their machine guns for the final assault, the Italians surrender. By 11:40, Matajur is in German hands. In little over two days, Rommel and his men have covered 18 kilometres of ridge, as the crow flies, involving nearly 3,000 metres of ascent, capturing 150 officers and 9,000 men at a cost of 6 dead and 30 wounded. Operating in harmony with the landscape, moving at extraordinary speed, Rommel’s men swooped along the hillsides, weaving across the ridge between Italian strongholds, mopping up resistance as they went, protected as well as empowered by their own momentum.

The Württembergers gaze around at ‘the mighty mountain world’, laid out in radiant sunshine. The last ridges and spurs of the Julian Alps slope down to the lowlands of Friuli and the Veneto. There is Udine amid fertile fields. Far away to the south, ‘the Adriatic glittered’. Like Rommel’s own future. He wore the cross and ribbon of the Blue Max around his neck until the day in 1944 when Hitler, suspecting him of complicity in the so-called generals’ plot, gave him a choice: commit suicide, be buried as a hero and save your family, or be arrested, executed and disgraced. As on the sunlit mountains long before, he did not flinch.

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Type 64 designed by Ferdinand Porsche

Only three of the Type 64 were ever built.

A DREAM DEFERRED

There can be no disputing that Porsche is among the most important marques in post-war racing history, winning countless sports car and endurance events while developing one of the most celebrated model lines ever conceived. Even seasoned enthusiasts, however, have rarely considered the existence of a genetic forebear of the fabled brand that predated the first Porsche 356 by nearly a decade.

The heart and soul of the company’s fantastic history, of course, can be traced to the founder, Prof. Dr. Ferdinand Porsche. The eldest Porsche famously cut his teeth at Austro-Daimler and Mercedes-Benz before engineering some of the interwar era’s greatest rear-engine creations, including the dominant Auto Union race cars and, at the other end of the spectrum, the Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle.

Prof. Dr. Ferdinand Porsche was a fiery and uncompromising personality who regularly challenged corporate boards with difficult ideas, one of the reasons his résumé consisted of so many different stops. In September 1938, during his successful consultancy with the early state-run Volkswagen, Prof. Dr. Porsche proposed a sports car version of the Beetle, then known as the KdF-Wagen. As evidenced by Porsche design drawings, the Type 114 was imagined with three different displacements, highlighted by a mid/rear engine placement just ahead of the rear axle. A far cry from the state’s vision of a car for the common man, Porsche’s sports car was rejected by the Deutsche Arbeitsfront board, and the idea was shelved.

The Type 114 obviously made an impression, though—two weeks later Volkswagen itself commissioned Porsche to formulate a similar solution that would address the Beetle’s poorly performing narrow tires. VW had built several versions of the KdF already, including the military-grade Kübelwagen and Schwimmwagen, and the proposed sports car was to be the tenth different body design applied to the KdF’s Type 60 chassis. The concept was therefore dubbed the Type 60K10, though Porsche internally classified the project as the Type 64.

Under the supervision of Erwin Komenda, Karl Froelich drafted formal plans that were then developed into a wooden scale model, which was wind-tunnel tested at Stuttgart University by Josef Mickl. These same three Austrians had contributed to Porsche’s Auto Union grand prix cars and the KdF-Wagen. They would soon become major forces in the creation of the Cisitalia grand prix race car and Porsche’s own 356 and 550 models.

BERLIN TO ROME

Very similar in profile, the Type 114 and the Type 64 exterior drawings are easily recognizable as the basis of the Gmünd 356 coupe that was to follow, and therefore can be viewed as the earliest expression of Porsche’s singular design evolution. Despite this flurry of activity, both ideas seemed destined to remain in a draftsman’s file, were it not for the announcement in the spring of 1939 of a 940-mile road race from Berlin to Rome to be run that September. Several manufacturers lined up to compete in this public-relations showcase of the Axis pact, and Dr. Porsche accordingly received an order from the National Socialist Motor Corps (NSKK) to produce three Sport KdF-Wagen examples, and the Type 64 was resuscitated.

Though unconfirmed, it is believed that Reutter Karosserie was retained to build alloy coachwork for the Type 64, which featured a narrow two-seat cockpit, wheel spats front and rear, and a dual spare-wheel compartment under the front trunk lid (a contingency for the Beetle’s easily damaged tires). A split windshield and sliding-door windows completed the lightweight body, which was smoothly fastened to the outer skin in a series of more than 2,000 rivets.

As the third owner was impressed to discover, the Type 64’s build was more characteristic of contemporaneous aircraft specifications than anything commonly found on a Volkswagen Beetle. Though the chassis began with the KdF-Wagen’s basic layout of a steel-pressed backbone, it was modified in shape and flanked by rectangular tubular frames made of aircraft-gauge duralumin. To these frames were welded a floor pan and underbody made of lightweight alloy.

The standard 985 cc VW engine was rebuilt with dual Solex carburetors, larger valves, and higher compression, combining to develop 32–40 hp (substantially improving upon the standard factory output of 23.5 hp). A low curb weight of just 1,346 pounds helped the torquey motor deliver fast starts, as noted by several people who have driven the Type 64. With the first example completed in August 1939, the advanced race car would have been well on its way to a position on the Berlin-Rome starting grid had World War II not broken out within the following month.

THE WAR YEARS

As the property of Volkswagen, the first completed Type 64, chassis no. 38/41, was appropriated by Dr. Bodo Lafferentz, the head of the German Labour Front, although he damaged the car in an accident in 1939. In a board meeting in late September 1939, Ferry Porsche proposed that the company continue building the second and third cars for testing and experimentation purposes despite the race’s cancellation, and the second of the proposed three examples was completed three months later. This car surely suffered the most ignominious fate when, in the waning stages of the war, it was commandeered by members of the U.S. Seventh Army’s “Rainbow” division, who cut off the roof and drove the resulting “cabriolet” into the ground, leaving it as scrap after blowing the engine.

In June 1940 the third body was completed but apparently not mounted on any chassis until after Lafferentz’s accident in the first car. At this point 38/41 was repaired at Porsche. Corroborating this account is correspondence from Mathé to Porsche of numerous concerns with the Type 64 after he purchased it. These complaints accurately refer to the damage sustained in the accident and the subsequent repairs made by Porsche. Regardless, 38/41 would become the sole surviving example of the three planned cars, and it lives on today as proudly offered here.

For much of the remainder of the war, this Type 64 was used by Prof. Dr. Ferdinand Porsche in his travels around Germany as one of the regime’s most important engineers. He was regularly chauffeured by his driver, Josef Goldinger, from his home in Zell am See and once made a trip from Berlin to the Volkswagen headquarters in Wolfsburg, during which the car averaged an impressive 83 mph. By 1944 Germany was relocating most of its war production infrastructure to escape the wrath of the Allied bombing campaign, and Dr. Porsche’s eponymous workshop was famously moved to Gmünd, Austria, and his Type 64 along with it.

In the power grab that immediately followed World War II, Prof. Dr. Ferdinand Porsche was imprisoned by French authorities who sought to exploit war criminal charges in the name of underlying political agendas. The professor’s son, Ferry Porsche, assumed control of the company and use of the Type 64 as his own personal car. Ferry Porsche continued to drive it regularly after the war, especially for bouts between Zell am See, Gmünd, and Stuttgart. Legend has it that he once drove his mother from Zell am See to Gmünd over the highest Austrian mountain pass, Grossglockner, after which she praised the excellent seating in the car.

The now one-of-a-kind race car was entwined in the company’s nascent history, as the younger Porsche sought capital to post bail for his father’s release. This was accomplished by assuming a lucrative contract to build a grand prix car for Cisitalia. Porsche’s resulting bond with the local Austrian racing scene was to lead to the Type 64’s impressive post-war life, which included 46 years of single ownership.

P O R S C H E

In 1947, with the Type 64 in need of some attention as Ferry’s personal transportation and the face of the young company, it was decided to refresh the car’s body, a task that was entrusted to none other than Pinin Farina. After the engine was rebuilt at Gmünd headquarters, it is believed that Ferry Porsche himself applied a new wide-font scripted badge of the Porsche name to the car’s nose, creating the blueprint for the iconic marque script that exists to this day.

In July 1948, just prior to a local race at Innsbruck, Ferry Porsche made a public demonstration of his 356 roadster—the famous Porsche Number 1—to help promote the company’s new sports car model. The Type 64 was used as a chase car and was seen closely following the 356. One of the contestants of the race, a well-known Austrian private racing driver and lubricant producer named Otto Mathé, took notice. Mathé had enjoyed racing motorcycles in the 1920s and early ’30s until a bad accident in 1934 left him without the use of his right arm. The fierce competitor refused to quit racing, however, and switched to motor cars, driving hand-tuned specials to numerous class wins across Austria during the 1950s. His exploits behind the wheel would go on to inspire a younger generation of Austria’s drivers, as later noted by Jochen Rindt and Niki Lauda, who considered Mathé a childhood hero.

Mathé was smitten with the Type 64 during his encounter with it, and in 1949 Porsche agreed to sell him the car. To accommodate shifting with his left hand, the privateer converted the Porsche to right-hand drive and initially modified the engine’s displacement so that he could race in the 1,100 cc class. He also replaced the Volkswagen-based cable-braking components with a hydraulic system sourced from a Fiat. After retiring early at the Austrian Alpenfahrt (a two-day rally of 800 miles through Tyrolean Alpine roads) in 1949, the Type 64 returned to the event in 1950 and emerged with a roaring class win.

Less successful attempts at the 1951 Austrian Alpenfahrt prompted Mathé to install a 1.3-liter engine in 1952, and in this guise the car performed admirably at various rallies during the 1952 season, including the Strassenrennen and the Gmündner-Berg-Rennen. In combination with the performance of his other race cars, Mathé racked up an impressive 22 victories during the 1952 season.

From 1953 onward the Austrian driver increasingly preferred a Carrera-powered special called the Fetzenflieger, and the Type 64 received a mild restoration before becoming the centerpiece of Mathé’s personal museum at Innsbruck. Despite several attempts by the increasingly successful Porsche company to buy the Type 64 back for heritage purposes, Mathé could never be tempted to sell the car. Both Ferry Porsche and his legendary PR man Fritz “Huschke” von Hanstein negotiated between 1957 and 1964 with Otto Mathé to get the car for the newly built Porsche Museum. More than 40 original letters on file provide evidence of their attempts to buy or even exchange the car for a 356 or 904 Porsche. As later reported in the April 1989 issue of Excellence magazine, he even began referring to the important Porsche as der Ahnherr, or “the ancestor.”

Abwehr II Department – Brandenburgers

Date Founded: October, 25, 1939
Date Disbanded: September, 11, 1944
Mission When Founded: Military special operations as detailed below.
Mission During the War: Same
Jurisdiction: Global
Headquarters: Berlin (staff). Generalfeldzeugmeister-Kaserne, Brandenburg/Havel (main barracks). Later several smaller barracks scattered over Germany and Austria, including Rathenow/Havel (airborne), Admont/Steiermark in Austria (mountain) and Swinemünde on the Baltic Sea (coastal raiders), later at Langenargen (Lake Constance). Subunits were headquartered at various times at Baden-Unterwaltersdorf (near Vienna), Freiburg im Breisgau (Black Forest), Allenstein (East Prussia), Ploesti (Romania) and Gatron (Libya)
# of Personnel: 320 in October 1939, full division with several independent smaller units attached in late 1944
Annual Budget: N/A

Hauptmann Dr. Theodor von Hippel

History/Profile: The term Brandenburger (the men from Brandenburg), while slightly sloppy, is used here to describe a German Army special forces unit that changed its size, composition and name continually during its short history. The unit had its origins in several small and secret formations which played a part in the first stages of the war, notably the invasions in Czechoslovakia and Poland. They consisted mainly of people born and raised as minorities in these countries, and operated behind the lines in advance of the main forces.

The driving force behind the creation of what was to become the Brandenburg units was Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr (the military intelligence agency operated by the Wehrmacht). Abwehr Abteilung II/Ausland, the department responsible for foreign intelligence and sabotage, created the Baulehr-Kompanie zur besonderen Verwendung 800 (construction/training company for special applications no. 800) shortly after the start of the war, incorporating men from the earlier units as well as other suitable volunteers. Since the original barracks were located near Brandenburg, a small town to the west of Berlin, the unit would soon earn the nickname “Brandenburg”, and the men “Brandenburger”. The unit was to become a tactical tool of the Abwehr. Actual command lay in the hands of the Wehrmacht, though, which sometimes led to problems, as many newly transferred officers had no real clue what the unit was doing.

At least in the early years, all men were competent in at least one foreign language, and thoroughly trained in special military operations. Specialized training was provided at the Kampf- und Abwehrschule Quenzsee near Brandenburg, a training facility operated by the Abwehr and also used for the instruction of spies and saboteurs. The curriculum concentrated on foreign languages, demolitions, communications, covert insertion including parachuting, and small-unit tactics. Furthermore, riding, driving and piloting skills were offered. Weapons familiarization included working Allied equipment such as T-34 and M-4 Sherman tanks. A few men were pilots, and one mission in North Africa used a captured Spitfire fighter as recon aircraft. Some received special instruction at the laboratories of the Abwehr in Berlin-Tegel, where secret equipment such as long-term detonators, forged papers, concealments, etc. was prepared.

Typical operations included long range reconnaissance, the destruction or seizure and protection of communication centers, bridges and supply facilities such as oil refineries, the formation of bridgeheads through insertion by overland vehicles, parachute, attack boats or U-boats, and similar missions only achievable by a small force operating in secrecy. The men often operated in disguise, which could mean anything from quickly donning foreign great coats and steel helmets to a complete disguise, down to beards, circumcised willies and forged papers.

Siegfried Grabert (11 January 1916 – 25 July 1942) was a highly decorated Major der Reserve in the Wehrmacht during World War II. He was also a recipient of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves. The Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross and its higher grade Oak Leaves was awarded to recognise extreme battlefield bravery or successful military leadership. Siegfried Grabert was killed on 25 July 1942 during a commando operation to destroy a dam between Rostov and Bataisk. He was posthumously promoted to Major der Reserve and on 6 November 1943 was awarded the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross.

Brandenburger were used in many operations, in many areas. They operated in Denmark (during the invasion), Norway (“Unternehmen Widar”, during the invasion), Finland, Spain (“Unternehmen Felix”, planned seizure of Gibraltar), France, Belgium, the Netherlands, England (notably prior to the abortive “Unternehmen Seelöwe”, the planned invasion), Italy, Greece (especially the airborne landing on Crete), Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and the rest of the Balkans, Russia, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Iraq and other countries of the Middle East, Afghanistan, India and South Africa.

Unit set-up varied widely according to the mission, from 2-men teams over companies (about 300 men, the most usual deployment size) to complete battalions. A squad had twelve men. Methods of insertion also varied, some of the more bizarre missions including: the flight of the Afghanische Kompanie (about 20 men) via civilian aircraft in neutral markings from Austria to Afghanistan (two tonnes of equipment, including a disassembled 20×138mmB Rheinmetall FLAK30 AA gun, had earlier been smuggled into the country in 30 diplomatic pouches!) in 1940. Another interesting one was the covert insertion of a five-man team via U-boat to South Africa in 1943.

While Admiral Canaris and other leaders of the Abwehr are believed to have created the Brandenburger as a means of getting at an efficient private army, this idea soon failed – most members of this unit, while not necessarily fanatical loyal to Hitler and his Nazi ideology, were extremely patriotic and nationalistic. Many had lived abroad when the war started, and reached Germany on dangerous and adventurous ways, breaching the British blockade, only to serve their country. These men were not loyal to the head of the Abwehr, but to their immediate commanders and their country only. In 1943, when being enlarged to division-size, its mission was changed to provide an always available force under direct command of the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH – Army High Command).

After the failed assassination of Hitler in 1944, operations of the Abwehr were delegated to the SD. In September 1944, it was decided that the unit’s special operations capability was no longer required. The Division “Brandenburg” was transformed into a conventional motorized infantry division, while 1,800 soldiers joined the ranks of Otto Skorzeny’s Jagdverbände, combat units with similar missions that were earlier carried out by the Brandenburger. When the war ended, some of those with good English-language skills were hired by the British Commandos and later given British passes. Most of these emigrated to African countries after their service with the British. Many others joined the French Légion Étrangere.

Baulehr-Kompanie zbV 800 “Deutsche Kompanie”
Founded on October, 25, 1939. Knowledge of a foreign language was mandatory. Most members were Germans who had lived in Eastern and South-eastern Europe, such as Silesia, the Sudetenland etc, and were fluent in the languages spoken there.

Baulehr-Battallion zbV 800 “Brandenburg”
On December 15, 1939, the company was enlarged to battalion-size. It consisted of four companies. A motorcycle platoon, a paratrooper platoon and several other specialized units such as the Afghanische Kompanie (undersized) were later attached.

1st Co. Baltenkompanie with ethnic Germans from Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Ukraine and Russia, all spoke Russian.
2nd Co. mainly men who had lived overseas, many being fluent in English, French, Portuguese and/or African languages.
3rd Co. Composed of Sudetendeutsche, who spoke Czech.
4th Co. Composed of Oberschlesier, who spoke Polish.

Lehr-Regiment zbV 800 “Brandenburg”
On October 12, 1940, the battalion was enlarged to regiment-size. The regiment consisted of three battalions plus some attached units.

I. Four companies (1.-4.)
1st Co. was the Baltenkompanie. Battallion Nachtigal (“nightingale”), a “legionary” unit consisting of Ukrainian volunteers, was attached. That unit’s “political leader” was Hauptmann Prof. Oberländer, Minister for Refugees in post-war West Germany. The unit was disbanded in summer 1941 as unreliable.

II. Four companies (5.-8.).
5th, 7th and 8th Co. were Gebirgsjäger. 5th Co. had three platoons, one each with men from Palestine, SW-Africa and Tyrol. 6th Co. was a Aufklärungskompanie (recon unit), and stationed undercover in Romania.

III. Five companies (9.-12., 15.).
12th Co. was the Englische Kompanie, whose members received special training for “Unternehmen Seelöwe”. In spring 1941, the Tropen-Kompanie was formed under Leutnant Fritz von Koenen from parts of the 11th Co. Most members had good knowledge of North Africa, its people and languages. The 15th (Light) Co. was made up of 127 of the best skiers of the German Army (including one gold medalist of the 1936 Olympic Games) and received further specialized training for operations in the Finnish-Russian border area against Murmansk. They also had 60 sled-dogs and 6 tracker/silent take-down dogs.

In 1941, the 13. (Sonder) und 17. (Sonder)-Kompanie were attached to regiment headquarters.

In summer 1942, the Küstenjäger-Kompanie was formed, a marine raider units composed mostly of people from the Caucasus. It was directly attached to regiment headquarters.

Arabische Brigade.
A volunteer force, fighting from 1940 onwards in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran, later with Kurdish allies in the Caucasus. It had only few German officers and was attached to the Deutsche Militär-Mission, Orient.

Deutsch-Arabische Legion.
Mixed German-Arabian membership, operated mainly in Tunisia.

Lehr-Division zbV 800 “Brandenburg”
Between late 1942 and January 1943, the regiment was transformed into a division, eventually including various specialized subunits such as U-boat crews, artillery, tank, antitank, combat engineer and air defense subunits. It was declared operational on April 4, 1943.

Tropen-Abteilung “von Koenen”
Five companies, based on the former Afrika-Kompanie and led by Fritz von Koenen. 5th Co. was a coastal raider unit (1.-5.).

Küstenjäger-Abteilung “Brandenburg”
Coastal raiders, trained by and many men originally from the Kriegsmarine (1.-4.).

Fallschirmjäger-Abteilung “Brandenburg”
Four companies of paratroopers (1.-4.).

Gebirgsjäger-Abteilung “Brandenburg”
Four companies of mountain troops (1.-4.).

1. Regiment “Brandenburg”
Consisted of three battalions.
I. Three companies (1.-3.) and one legionary company (4.)
II. Three companies (5.-7.)
III. Four companies (9.-12.)

2. Regiment “Brandenburg”
2nd regiment consisted of three battalions.
I. Three companies (1.-3.) and one legionary company (4.)
II. Three companies (5.-7.) and one legionary company (8.)
III. Three companies (9.-11.)

3. Regiment “Brandenburg”
3rd regiment consisted of three battalions.
I. Three companies (1.-3.) and one legionary company (4.)
II. Four companies (5.-8.) and the Italienische Kompanie
III. Four companies (9.-12.)

4. Regiment “Brandenburg”
4th regiment consisted of three battalions and several attached volunteer units.
I. Four companies (1.-4.)
II. Three companies (6.-8.) and one legionary company (9.)
III. Three companies (11.-13.)
Montenegrinische Legion (from May 1943) and Muselmanische Legion, both made up from Albanians, Bosnians, Macedonians and Montenigrinians of Islamic faith.
Indische Legion “Asad Hind” (Free India), a regiment-sized volunteer force made up from Indian students and prisoners of war. Trained in Germany, partly transported to India, rest served in air defense units.

14. Kompanie
15. (Leichte) Kompanie (Fallschirmjäger)
16. (Leichte) Kompanie (Fallschirmjäger)

5. Lehrregiment “Brandenburg”
5th regiment consisted of two battalions and one legionary battalion

I. Lehrbattallion
Four companies (1.-4.)
II. Gebirgsjägerbattallion
Four companies (5.-8.)
III. Legionärsbattallion “Alexander”
Two companies (1.-2.). 1. Kompanie (Weiss) was made up from volunteers from Belorussia and the Ukraine, 2. Kompanie (Schwarz) was composed of men from the Caucasus.

Panzer-Grenadier-Division “Brandenburg”
From September, 13, 1944, the unit was no longer used for special operations.

Weapons: The Brandenburger used whatever was available or seemed appropriate. In the early years, they had to do with various weapons which were not standard issue with the Wehrmacht, such as the Schmeisser MP28/II submachine gun and the Steyr MP16(ö) machine pistol. As the unit grew in size, and the operations changed to large scale motorized and later mechanized infantry assaults, the armament increasingly changed to standard Wehrmacht issue. At the same time, dedicated SpecOps weaponry such as sound-suppressed guns became available. Foreign equipment was often used. For example, during operations in the Finnish-Russian border area, Finnish Suomi Model 1931 and Soviet PPSh-41 submachine guns were issued. In 1943, organic squad weapons included: Walther P38 pistol, MP40 submachine gun, Sten MkIIS sound-suppressed submachine gun, MP43 assault rifle (sometimes with sound-suppressor), Mauser Kar98k rifle, MG42 general-purpose machine gun, rifle grenades, egg and stick hand grenades. The heavy weapons platoon provided more machine guns, 81mm Rheinmetall GrW34 mortars, 105mm LG42 recoilless rifles and 20mm FlAK38 anti-aircraft guns.

Equipment: On covert operations, all men were issued a poison pill to avoid capture.

Selected Reading:
Kurowski, Franz (2000): Deutsche Kommandotrupps 1939-1945. “Brandenburger” und Abwehr im weltweiten Einsatz. Motorbuch-Verlag, Stuttgart.
Skorzeny, Otto (1973): Deutsche Kommandos im 2. Weltkrieg. Band 1: Lebegefährlich. Helmut Cramer-Verlag, Königswinter.
Skorzeny, Otto (1973): Deutsche Kommandos im 2. Weltkrieg. Band 2: Wirkämpften, wir verloren. Helmut Cramer-Verlag, Königswinter.
Spaeter, Helmuth (1982): Die Brandenburger – eine deutsche Kommandotruppe zbV 800. 2. überarbeitete Auflage. Walter Angerer, München.

 By Hans-Christian Vortisch.


The End of the Panzer Divisions I

During the autumn of 1944, in the aftermath of the failed attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, and in the aftermath of the Red Army’s colossal breakthroughs in the East, the Nazi regime and the German people mobilized their last reserves of ferocity and fanaticism. The propaganda vision of a people’s community at arms and the free rein given to violence on both foreign and home fronts enhanced a pattern of exploitation and dehumanization already permeating German society from the factories to the countryside. Rationality gave way to passion and to fear as retribution loomed for a continent’s worth of crimes.

The Wehrmacht went out fighting and it went down hard. Like the German people, it neither saw nor sought an alternative. The prospective fate implied in the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender could assume terrifying form to men who had seen—and participated in—the things done “in the name of the Third Reich and the German people.” That meant reconstructing shattered divisions by placing officers at road junctions and impressing every man without a clear destination, even if cooks became tankers and sailors found themselves in the Waffen SS. It meant filling out ranks with teenage draftees and men combed out of the increasingly moribund navy and air force. It meant reequipment by an industrial system that continued to defy the best efforts of the Combined Bomber Offensive. It meant morale enforced by laws making a soldier’s family liable for any derelictions of duty. It meant field courts-martial that seemed to impose only one sentence: death.

Combine Eisenhower’s commitment to a continuous front with the relative weakness of Allied ground forces, and weak spots must inevitably emerge. The most obvious one was in the American sector: the Ardennes Forest, a static sector manned by a mix of green divisions and veteran outfits that had been burned out elsewhere. Hitler’s intention, shared and underwritten by High Command West, was to replicate the success of 1940 by striking through the Ardennes for Antwerp. The port’s capture would both create a logistical crisis for the Allies and divide the British from the Americans, opening the way to their defeat in detail and—just possibly—to a decisive falling-out between partners whose squabbling, egalitarian relationship was never really understood by German strategic planners who believed in client systems rather than alliances.

That the Allies still had absolute control of the air over the front, and that German fuel supplies were about enough to get their tanks halfway to Antwerp, did not concern the Führer. Nor were his generals excessively disturbed. The planners of High Command West preferred in principle a more limited operation: a double envelopment aimed at Liege. They were, however, never able to convince even themselves why Germany’s last reserves should be used that way. What was to be gained, except a drawn-out endgame?

At least the West was geographically small enough to offer something like a legitimate strategic objective. The Eastern Front presented only the prospect of a second Kursk, with the last of the panzers feeding themselves into a Russian meat grinder somewhere east of the existing front line. Panzer Lehr’s Fritz Bayerlein echoed many of his counterparts when he said he persuaded himself that the attack would succeed in order to give his orders credibility and sustain the aggressive spirit of his subordinates. If Operation Watch on the Rhine proved a Twilight of the Gods, then it would be a virtuoso performance as far as the army’s professionals and the zealots of the SS could make it.

By mid-December a buildup overlooked or discounted by confident Allied commanders gave the Germans a three-to-one advantage in men and a two-to-one advantage in armored vehicles in their chosen sector of attack. A new 6th SS Panzer Army had been organized in September under Sepp Dietrich. By this time in the Western theater the distinctions and antagonisms between army and Waffen SS had diminished, especially in the panzer formations, where the consistently desperate situation and the relatively even numbers of divisions made close mutual support a necessary norm. In the projected offensive, 5th Panzer and 6th SS Panzer Armies would fight side by side with few questions asked.

Part of the army panzers’ reconstruction involved reorganization. Both in Russia and in the West, the events of 1944 had resulted in serious losses of trained specialists and no less serious discrepancies between the numbers actually available in the combat units and those in the divisions’ rear echelons. One response was pairing panzer divisions by twos in permanent corps that would assume service and training responsibilities. Five were organized and saw action, against the Russians in the final campaign. More significant was the introduction on August 11 of the Panzer Division Type 1944. This gave each panzer grenadier regiment an organic pioneer company and each tank battalion organic maintenance and supply companies. Both changes acknowledged the decentralization that had become the panzers’ tactical and operational norm. Battalions consistently shifting rapidly from place to place and battle group to battle group would now be more self-sufficient. Divisions would now be better able to concentrate on planning and fighting—at least in principle.

The new panzer divisions were still authorized two tank battalions, each of as many as 88 tanks. Paper may be infinitely patient; reality is less forgiving. In the autumn of 1944, Allied heavy bomber strikes repeatedly hit most of the big tank manufacturing complexes: Daimler-Benz, MAN in Nuremberg, and the Henschel Tiger II plant in Kassel. Speer was able to sustain production, but only around half of the 700 Panthers and Panzer IVs scheduled for delivery in December reached the intended users.

The shortages also reflected decisions made in the Armaments Ministry. Speer had kept up tank production by transferring resources from the manufacture of other vehicles and by cutting back on spare parts. The latter dropped from over a quarter of tank-related contracts in 1943 to less than 10 percent in December 1944. Critical resources, like the molybdenum that made armor tough as opposed to brittle, were in critically short supply. Quality control slipped badly in everything from optics to transmissions to welding. The continued willingness of Germans to report for work despite the bombing is often cited. The on-the-job efficiency of men and women deprived of everything from their homes to a night’s sleep has been less investigated.

The increasing use of slave labor in war plants had consequences as well. Distracted, tired foremen and overseers were easier to evade. Risks that seemed foolhardy in 1943 took on a different dimension as the Reich seemed on the edge of implosion. Deliberate sabotage was probably less significant than hostile carelessness. But increasing numbers of panzers were coming on line with screws poorly tightened, hoses poorly connected—and an occasional handful of shop grit or steel filings deposited where it might do some damage. That was no small matter in contexts of frequently inexperienced crews and frequently nonexistent maintenance vehicles.

The immediate response was to reduce the number of tanks in a company to 14, and where necessary to replace those with assault guns of varying types. Even with these makeshifts, 15 panzer divisions still had only one tank battalion. Sometimes an independent battalion would be attached—Leibstandarte, for example, benefited by receiving the Tigers of the 501st SS as its de facto second battalion. Other divisions found themselves with new battalions equipped with Jagdpanthers or Jagdpanzer IVs, trained for antitank missions rather than tank tactics, or in the close cooperation with panzer grenadiers that remained the assault guns’ mission in an offensive.

Training and equipment were general problems in divisions preparing for the Ardennes offensive. Panzer Lehr, the army’s show horse, had its full complement of men, a third tank battalion equipped with assault guns, and one of the supplementary heavy antitank battalions. Das Reich, however, reported a large number of inexperienced recruits, and reported individual and unit training as at low standards. Leibstandarte described morale as excellent, but combat readiness above company level as inadequate. The 116th Panzer Division was short of armor, motor vehicles, and junior officers and NCOs. Second Panzer Division lacked a third of its vehicles: on December 14, one panzer grenadier battalion was riding bicycles. It was all a far cry from the spring of 1940.

In its final form, Watch on the Rhine6 incorporated three armies deployed on a 100-mile front under Model, commanding Army Group B since Rundstedt had been restored, at least nominally, to his former position in September. The balance of forces at the cutting edge, and their missions, demonstrated the army’s decline relative to the Waffen SS. Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzer was the spearhead, with Leibstandarte, Das Reich, Hohenstaufen, and Hitler Jugend as its backbone, and five army infantry divisions as spear-carriers and mop-up troops. Fifth Panzer Army would cover Dietrich’s left, and Manteuffel had the army’s armored contribution: Panzer Lehr, 2nd and 116th Panzer Divisions, plus four infantry divisions. Protecting his left flank in turn was the responsibility of 7th Army, with four infantry divisions and no armor to speak of.

Watch on the Rhine’s order of battle incorporated 200,000 men, 600 armored vehicles, almost 2,500 supporting aircraft—that number itself a triumph of concentration involving stripping the Reich’s air defenses. Radio silence was draconically enforced. Camouflage was up to Eastern Front standards. Parachute drops and sabotage units were expected to confuse surprised defenders even further. The offensive seemed structured to maximize what the Germans—the panzer troops in particular—considered their main strength: sophisticated tactical and operational expertise.

Model could in principle call on another ten divisions, but only two were panzers; the offensive would rise or fall with its starting lineup. The operational plan was Sichelschnitt recycled. Dietrich, at the Schwerpunkt, was to break through around Monschau, cross the Meuse around Liege, and strike full tilt for Antwerp. Manteuffel would cross the Meuse at Dinant and aim for Brussels. The panzers were expected to be across the Meuse before the Allies could move armor sufficient to counter them.

As so often before, however, German focus devolved into tunnel vision. None of the specific plans addressed the subject of Allied air power. The responsible parties similarly avoided addressing directly the fuel question. By comparison to the Western campaign’s early months, fuel supplies were impressive, but the Panthers and Tigers were always thirsty. Were the Americans likely to be so confused, so feckless, and so obliging as to leave their fuel dumps intact as refilling points? In the climate of December 1944, asking such a question suggested dangerous weakness of will and character.

Sepp Dietrich might be an unrefined, unimaginative, hard-core Nazi, but he did not lack common sense. All the Waffen SS had to do, he later said sarcastically, was “cross a river, capture Brussels, and then go on to take Antwerp . . . through the Ardennes when the snow is waist-deep and there isn’t room to deploy four tanks abreast let alone armored divisions. When it doesn’t get light until eight and it’s dark again at four—and at Christmas.” Sixth SS Panzer Army had four days to reach the Meuse. Dietrich and his staff set the infantry divisions to breach US defenses on day one, December 16. When the hastily reconstituted army units faltered in the face of determined American resistance, the word was “panzers forward.” But Kharkov and Kursk were a long way back. The Waffen SS had made its recent reputation in defensive fighting. Experience in offensive operations had been diluted by expansion. Officer casualties had been heavy. From battalion to division, 6th SS Panzer Army correspondingly eschewed finesse in favor of head-down frontal attacks.

Tactical maneuver was further restricted by rain periodically freezing into snow as temperatures hovered in the low thirties. Fields already saturated by the heavy rains of early autumn turned into glutinous paste when the heavy German tanks tried to cross them. The alternative was straight down the roads and straight down the middle from village to village. Each attack was expected to put the finishing touches on an enemy that seemed on the ragged edge of breaking. Yet the “Amis” held on—and without the fighter-bombers grounded by the same weather that slowed the panzers.

For the sake of speed the SS neither used their reconnaissance battalions to probe for weak spots, nor their pioneers to assist the tanks. The tanks repeatedly pushed ahead and just as repeatedly lost contact with their infantry, only to run afoul of ambushed Shermans and M-10s, or bazooka teams taking advantage of relatively weak side armor. Even the 57mm popguns of the infantry’s antitank units scored a few kills. The panzer grenadiers, many of them half-trained recruits or converted sailors and airmen, were at a surprising disadvantage against American regiments, some of which had been in action since Normandy.

The 12th SS Panzer Division, on the German right, lost most of its Panthers in the first two days and made no significant progress thereafter. Its neighbor, Leibstandarte, similarly held up, responded by sending forward an armor- heavy battle group. It included most of the division’s striking power: a battalion each of Panthers, Panzer IVs, and Tiger Bs: together around 100 tanks, a mechanized panzer grenadier battalion, pioneers, and some self-propelled artillery. Its commander was Lieutenant-Colonel Jochen Peiper. He had been Himmler’s adjutant from 1938 to 1941 and had enjoyed the Reichsführer’s mentoring and patronage. He had developed into a hard-driving, charismatic risk-taker whose men followed him in good part because of his reputation as someone who led from the front and was the hardest man in any unit he led. Peiper was, in other words, an archetype of the kind of officer the Waffen SS nurtured in Russia and now turned loose in the West.

Peiper was also just the man to throw the dice for an entire panzer army. His mission was to reach the Meuse, capture the bridges before they were demolished, and hold until relieved. It was 100 miles over back-country roads that were little more than trails. Orders were to avoid combat when possible, and to tolerate no delays. The battle group’s movements were a model tactical exercise—at first. The panzers bypassed confused American rear-echelon troops, slipped between elements of American convoys, and overran American supply dumps. With his fuel low, Peiper refilled his tanks with 50,000 gallons of US gas captured without firing a shot.

The panzers captured a key bridge at Stavelot on December 18, and pushed through to the Amblève River. All they had to do was cross, and the way to the Meuse would be open. But an American engineer battalion blew the bridges Peiper was expecting to rush—in one case literally under the gun of a Tiger VIB. American tanks and infantry, moving faster than expected, retook Stavelot and cut the panzers’ line of communication. The sky was clearing, and the fighter-bombers returned to hammer Peiper’s columns relentlessly. The battle group was down to three dozen tanks, as much from breakdowns as from combat loss. Its infantry, exposed to the weather day and night in their open-topped half-tracks, on cold rations and broken sleep, were numb with cold and fatigue. Peiper requested permission to withdraw. It was refused. Relief attempts were stopped almost in their tracks. As the Americans closed in, Peiper made his stand at a village called La Gleize. After two breakout efforts failed, with his tanks out of fuel and his ammunition exhausted, on Christmas he led out on foot the men he had left. Moving by night, 800 survivors of the 6,000 who began the strike a week earlier made it back to Leibstandarte’s forward positions.

Peiper left behind about 100 of his own wounded and another 150 American POWs. The senior US officer later reported that the Germans had appropriately observed the rules of war. But from the operation’s beginning, Kampfgruppe Peiper and the rest of Leibstandarte had left a trail of bodies in its wake: as many as 350 Americans and well over 100 Belgian civilians. The consequences were epitomized by the GIs bringing in some prisoners from Peiper’s battle group who asked an officer if he wanted to bother with them. He said yes. Not everyone did. For the rest of the war it was not exactly open season on Waffen SS prisoners, but they surrendered at a higher degree of immediate risk than their army counterparts.

Pieper was not necessarily a liar or a hypocrite when he not only insisted at La Gleize that he did not shoot prisoners, but seemed surprised by the allegation. He is best understood as resolving a specific form of the cognitive dissonance that increasingly possessed the Wehrmacht in particular and the Reich as a whole. The question of whether someone, Peiper or a superior, somehow either gave orders to take no prisoners or made it clear that “no delays” was a euphemism for “no prisoners” is misleading. Since Normandy, a pattern had developed in which both sides processed refusing quarter, shooting prisoners, and similar frontline atrocities, as mistakes, misunderstandings, or part of “the filth of war”: fear, frustration, vengeance, the semi-erotic thrill of having an enemy completely at one’s mercy.

Inexperienced troops are more prone to be trigger-happy, and there was ample inexperience on both sides of the line in June 1944. Even a thoroughly ideologized German was likely to see a difference between more or less Aryan “Anglo-Saxons” and despised, despicable Slavs. Nor was there much to gain by making things worse than they had to be. Within the same few days in Normandy, elements of the Hitler Jugend murdered Canadian prisoners in cold blood, and other troops of the division negotiated a local truce with a British battalion enabling both sides to bring their wounded to safety. Such agreements were not everyday occurrences, but they did happen. An officer of 9th Panzer Division describes one of his men bringing a wounded American back to his own lines and returning laden with chocolate and cigarettes as tokens of appreciation. A story improved in the telling? Perhaps. But nothing similar was plausible even as a rumor in the East. And one Russian Front was bad enough.

What did transplant from the East was a frontline culture that since 1941 had developed into something combining convenience and indifference, embedded in a matrix of hardness. Hardness was neither cruelty nor fanaticism. It is best understood in emotional and moral contexts, as will focused by intelligence for the purpose of accomplishing a mission. It was—and is—a mind-set particularly enabling the brutal expediency that is an enduring aspect of war.

In commenting on Kurt Meyer’s trial and death sentence, a Canadian general asserted he did not know of a single general or colonel on the Allied side who had not said “this time we don’t want any prisoners.” In fact, there is a generally understood distinction, fine but significant, between not taking prisoners and killing them once they have surrendered. Recent general-audience works on the Canadians and Australians in World War I, for example, are remarkably open in acknowledging relatively frequent orders at battalion and company levels of “no prisoners” before an attack. Shooting or bayoneting unarmed men is another matter entirely. It might be called the difference between war and meanness.

James Weingartner highlights the discrepancy between the US Army’s judging of war crimes by Americans and its response to comparable offenses involving Germans. That was not a simple double standard. For the Americans, as for the British and Canadians, expedience and necessity remained situational rather than normative, on the margin of legal and moral systems but not beyond them. On the German side of the line, hardness transmuted expediency into a norm and redefined it as a virtue. Impersonalization and depersonalization went hand in hand. Interfering civilians or inconvenient POWs might not be condignly and routinely disposed of—but they could be, with fewer and fewer questions asked externally or internally. The French government was shocked and embarrassed to find Alsatians represented among the perpetrators of Oradour. Defended in their home province as “forced volunteers,” they were tried and convicted, but pardoned by Charles de Gaulle in 1953 for the sake of national unity.

The inability of the Waffen SS to break through on the north shoulder removed any possibility of success Watch on the Rhine might have had. Instead of exploiting victory, Das Reich and Hohenstaufen found themselves stymied by roads blocked for miles by abandoned vehicles out of fuel or broken down. While the SS ran in place, however, Manteuffel had used his infantry skillfully to infiltrate, surround, and capture most of the green 106th Infantry Division’s two forward regiments before sending his armor forward. The 116th Panzer made for Houffalize. Second Panzer and Panzer Lehr pushed through and over the 28th Infantry Division toward Bastogne, destroying an American armored combat command in the process.

The 101st Airborne Division got there first, dug in, and has been celebrated in story, if not song, ever since. The Germans originally hoped to take the town by a coup de main. When that proved impossible, Bayerlein argued that Bastogne was too important as a transportation center to be bypassed. Manteuffel was already concerned that his forward elements were too weak to sustain their progress; attacking Bastogne in force would only make that situation worse. He was also too old a panzer hand to risk tanks in a house-to-house fight against good troops. The Panzer Baron had begun his career in the horse cavalry, understood the importance of time for Watch on the Rhine, and decided to mask the town and continue his drive toward the Meuse.

That the choice had to be made highlighted the growing difficulty the panzers faced in being all things in every situation. In 1940, motorized divisions had been available for this kind of secondary collateral mission. In 1941, the marching infantry could be counted on to come up in time to free the panzers for their next spring forward. In 1944, 15th Panzer Grenadier Division did not arrive at Bastogne from army group reserve until December 24.

Fifth Panzer Army benefited from a cold front that set in on the night of December 22, freezing the ground enough for the Panthers to move cross-country. Soft ground, however, was the least of Manteuffel’s problems. His spearheads knifed 60 miles deep into the American positions, along a 30-mile front. Second Panzer Division, generally regarded by the Americans as the best they faced, got to within five miles of the Meuse on December 24—ironically near Dinant, where 7th Panzer had staged its epic crossing in 1940. But its fuel was almost exhausted. Model responded by ordering the division to advance on foot. Brigadier General Meinrad von Lauchert had been commanding the division only since December 13. He had been a panzer officer since 1935, led everything from a company to a regiment in combat, and recognized bombast. But he was not a sorcerer, and could not conjure fuel where none existed. Second Panzer was at the far end of its operational tether.

By platoons and companies, Americans fought bitter defensive actions throughout the sector—in one case holding out in a castle. Thirty-two men would be awarded the Medal of Honor from first to last during the Battle of the Bulge, and determination increased as word spread that the Germans were not taking prisoners. To the north, what remained of the 106th, a regiment of the 28th, and combat commands of 7th and 9th Armored Divisions, held another key road junction—St. Vith—for five vital days against first infantry, then the elite panzers of the Führer Escort Brigade from Model’s reserve. Not until 2nd SS Panzer Division advanced far enough to threaten the town from the north did the hard-hammered garrison withdraw.

In the process of working their way forward, elements of Dietrich’s panzers seeking to evade the clogged roads in their sector began edging onto 5th Panzer Army’s supply routes. Manteuffel ordered them kept off; the corps commander responded by establishing roadblocks whose men were authorized to use force to regulate traffic. There are no records of shots being fired, but army and SS columns remained entangled as tempers flared and cooperation eroded.

Model released some of his characteristic nervous energy by briefly directing traffic himself, while reassuring Hitler that the chances of victory remained great. But the overall supply situation was rapidly deteriorating. The clearing skies accompanying the cold front meant the return of allied planes en masse: an average of 3,000 sorties a day, disrupting operations and turning the movement of troops and vehicles to nighttime—including the vital fuel trucks.

Model had from the beginning recommended eschewing a drive to the Meuse in favor of a quick turn north to isolate and then encircle the dozen or so American divisions concentrated around Aachen. Dietrich’s staff had been clandestinely working on a similar backup plan since December 8. Manteuffel underwrote their thinking on December 24, when he phoned the High Command and declared Antwerp was beyond his reach.

Any lingering optimism was dispelled on Christmas when 2nd Panzer was attacked by its literal counterpart, the 2nd US Armored Division. The Americans encircled the panzers’ leading battle group, destroying it as artillery and RAF Typhoons frustrated relief efforts by the rest of the division supported by elements of the 9th Panzer, newly arrived from High Command reserve. Six hundred men escaped—walking and carrying no more than their personal weapons. It was getting to be a habit for the panzers. Two thousand more were dead or prisoners. Over 80 AFVs remained on the field, knocked out or with empty fuel tanks. The rest of the division fought on around the village of Humain, so fiercely that it took one of the new flame-throwing Shermans to burn out the last die-hards. On December 27, 2nd Panzer was withdrawn. On January 1, 1945, it reported exactly five serviceable tanks.

Panzer Lehr, on 2nd Panzer’s left, had moved more slowly and less effectively—due in part perhaps to a bit of self-inflicted fog and friction. Bayerlein missed a possible chance to reach the Meuse when, on December 22, he halted to rest his men and allow them to celebrate Christmas with the extra rations sent forward for the occasion. According to some reliable accounts, Panzer Lehr’s commander had also sacrificed a good part of December 19 flirting with a “young, blond, and beautiful” nurse in a captured American hospital.

The story invites comparison with the “yellow rose of Texas,” whose dalliance with Santa Anna allegedly distracted the Mexican general in the crucial hours before the battle of San Jacinto. But a harem of nurses would have made no difference as Allied reinforcements continued to arrive in the northern sector and Patton’s Third Army conducted a remarkable 90-degree turn north that took it into Bastogne on December 26.

Hitler was confronted with two choices: evacuate the salient and withdraw the panzers for future employment, or continue fighting to keep the Allies pinned down and draw them away from the industrial centers of the Ruhr and the Saar. Being Hitler, he decided on both. The infantry was left to hold the line, supported by what remained of the army’s panzers and, temporarily, the Waffen SS, for whom Hitler had other plans.

The operational result was two weeks of head-down fighting as American tanks and infantry hammered into the same kind of farm- and-village strong points that had so hampered Watch on the Rhine. Now it was German antitank guns ambushing Shermans whose relatively narrow treads restricted their off-road mobility in the deepening snow. Not until January 16 did Patton’s 11th Armored Division connect at Houffalize with elements of the 1st Army advancing from the north, forcing back Panzer Lehr despite its orders to hold the town “at all costs.” For the next two weeks the Americans pushed eastward as the defense eroded under constant artillery fire and air strikes. It was not elegant but it was effective. The Bulge from first to last cost the Germans over 700 AFVs—almost half of the number committed. About half the Panthers still in German hands were downlined for repair.

The End of the Panzer Divisions II

The battle of the Bulge was the end of panzer operations in the West. Afterward it became, in Manteuffel’s words, “a corporal’s war—a multitude of piecemeal fights.” It was not much of an exaggeration. Operation North Wind was originally intended to support the Ardennes offensive. Launched into Alsace in January, well after Watch on the Rhine had failed, North Wind burned out four more mechanized divisions to no purpose on any level, strategic, operational, or tactical. The American spearheads that pushed toward the Rhine in February and the British and Canadians that struggled through the Reichswald to their north encountered limited armored opposition, and most of that on company scale. As the Allies crossed the Rhine, encircled the Ruhr, and fanned out across a dying Reich, the scale diminished further.

At least so it appeared. Much of the time the Germans were shuffling the panzers from crisis point to crisis point in a near-random fashion defying close analysis. Regiments and divisions, reduced to cadres and skeletons, mounted counterattacks noted in their records and histories that had so little impact that they failed to make Allied war diaries except as last stands.

Panzer Lehr offers a good case study. After Houffalize it was withdrawn into reserve and rebuilt—numerically at least. The quality of the replacements was described as “bad”: poor training, no experience. Vehicles were in short supply. Most of the tanks were under repair or lying by the side of the road somewhere. When new ones arrived they had not been adequately inspected and tested at the factories. They had not been “driven in” due to the lack of fuel. For the same reason the quality of the new drivers was low. Without time for checkups and overhauling at unit level, non-operational losses were an ongoing problem even when moving from skirmish to skirmish.

Panzer Lehr next saw action in February, committed to the Reichswald in support of the hard-pressed 116th Panzer. Its counterattacks were repeatedly stopped by tank and artillery fire of an intensity the division had never experienced. Mobile operations did not occur, grumbled one commenter, because the enemy refused to engage in them! From the Reichswald, Lehr was ordered south against the US 9th Army. It was “urgently awaited” locally—but as a mobile antitank defense against the fast-moving Americans. Hitler wanted a full-scale counterattack—a mission the panzer regiment’s commander dismissed as “clearly unimaginable.” Instead Lehr went into the line around Rheydt and Mönchengladbach and took heavy losses from air strikes and ground attacks. It fell back to Krefeld too weak to defend the city.

For what it was worth, Panzer Lehr’s tank destroyers helped hold the Adolf Hitler Bridge across the Rhine until it could be blown. By then the division had only 20 serviceable tanks. Its panzer grenadier regiments had been reduced to battalion strength. Fuel shortages and breakdowns cost heavy vehicle losses. Communications equipment, a core element of the panzers’ effectiveness throughout the war, was in short supply. Replacements were so scarce the division was impressing stragglers. When, on March 7, Panzer Lehr Division was finally authorized to retreat across the Rhine itself, infantry strength was down to a single battalion. Two tanks remained operational. “It would be superfluous,” noted the commenters, “to describe the mood of the totally exhausted soldiers.”

Two days later a battle group of fragments, built around 18 freshly repaired or newly arrived tanks, was ordered to the Remagen bridgehead. Along with bits and pieces of the 9th and 11th Panzer Divisions, grandiosely titled “Corps Group Bayerlein,” it was expected to wipe out the bridgehead before the Americans could reinforce it. Bayerlein, Model—whose army group was responsible for the sector—and Hitler disagreed on the timing and direction of the attack. Albert Kesselring, who replaced Rundstedt as High Commander West on March 11, added his voice to the mix.

Hitler had convincingly insisted that the Russians were about to suffer a catastrophic defeat, after which the main German forces would redeploy and deal with the Western allies. All Kesselring had to do was hold on. How much of this Kesselring believed and processed through the generic optimism that gave him the nickname “smiling Albert” remains incalculable. What was certain was that the projected jump-off points for the attack kept falling into American hands before the Germans could get into position. First US Army made the subject moot on March 22 with an armored breakout to the northeast that joined 9th Army’s spearheads to encircle the whole of Army Group B.

The Ruhr Pocket matched anything achieved by the Russians: over 300,000 Germans in some kind of uniform with some kind of military identity, ranging from schoolboys carrying bazookas to the remnants of famous divisions like 3rd Panzer Grenadier, 116th Panzer, and Panzer Lehr. An attempt at breakout failed when the Americans again overran the assembly areas. Lehr’s records speak of “over-hasty withdrawals” and concede the division’s fighting spirit was broken. By April 5, 15 AFVs remained. One battle group was built around four of them, three squads of bazooka men, a dismounted panzer grenadier company, and a local-defense pioneer company with all of its men over 50 years old.

Ten days later, as the Americans continued to carve up the pocket, the division staff concluded further resistance useless. The last rounds were fired off; the last armored vehicles destroyed; and what remained of Panzer Lehr waited for the Ami tanks to come and get them. Walther Model committed suicide on April 21 after telling a group of stragglers to go home and wishing them luck. When Germany surrendered, the German army in the West included three mechanized divisions: two armored, one panzer grenadier. The once mighty had fallen a long way.

The military bureaucrats responded to disaster by shuffling paper. In October 1944 a new type of panzer grenadier battalion was introduced on a scale of one or two to each army and Waffen SS division. Its rifle companies rode bicycles instead of trucks. In March the armored force introduced the Panzer Division 45. It created the “mixed panzer regiment,” a battalion each of tanks and mechanized infantry plus support units: 40 tanks, half Panthers and half Panzer IVs. The other panzer grenadiers were now “partially motorized,” a euphemism for the riflemen moving on foot. Panzer divisions unable to meet even these reduced standards were to be converted to “battle groups.” Waffen SS panzer divisions lost two of their six infantry battalions, and two of the remaining four were to be equipped with bicycles. For practical purposes the new order remained a paper exercise. It nevertheless epitomized that demodernization of the Wehrmacht noted by so many scholars. And on March 28, Heinz Guderian was dismissed as Chief of Armored Troops and Acting Chief of Staff.

Guderian’s position had never been exactly stable, despite his involvement in screening officers accused of complicity in July 20, his acceptance of the brutal suppression of the Polish Home Army and the destruction of Warsaw, and his tail-wagging support for the army’s increasing Nazification. Requiring all General Staff officers to be “National Socialist officers” might be discounted as eyewash. But making the Nazi salute compulsory was more than a gesture—and was widely understood as such by all ranks.

After the war Guderian described his behavior as a set of compromises intended to encourage Hitler to listen to military reason. For Guderian that meant concentrating Germany’s resources on the Eastern Front. He understood that this was the least worst alternative. But the Western allies had in fact halted their offensive, and been halted, short of the Rhine. Guderian shared a common German sense that Anglo-American fighting power was sufficiently mediocre that, for a while at least, High Command West could hold on with limited reinforcements. And at worst there was still some space in the west to trade for time. The Ruhr, Guderian argued, was finished: bombed out. The Silesian factories, in contrast, were still producing and must be defended.

German intelligence reported over 200 Soviet infantry divisions and two dozen tank and mechanized corps from the Baltic to the Carpathians—eleven-to-one odds in infantry, seven-to-one in tanks, plus the massive forces deployed in Hungary that through December continued the pressure on Budapest. Guderian responded on two levels. He began transferring mobile divisions eastward, with the intention of forming a central reserve strong enough to wage a maneuver battle on the Reich’s frontier: the Lodz-Hohensalza area. That kind of fight, he argued, remained the strength of German soldiers and commanders. In any case it was the only chance for—what? Did Guderian share Hitler’s hopes for the kind of miracle that had saved Frederick the Great? Was he playing out a bad hand because of professional pride? Or was he concerned with scoring points against his internal opponents?

What is known is that by mid-December Guderian had managed to reposition fourteen and a half panzer and panzer grenadier divisions. All were understrength. Most had been reconstructed like their counterparts remaining in the west, with replacements drawn from anywhere and equipment assembled ad hoc—not much for a front of 750 miles.

What is also known is that Guderian continued to argue in vain for the withdrawal of Army Group North from Courland, where its two dozen divisions were operationally useless, and to advocate equally in vain for a general shortening of the lines in the east—a position supported by Harpe and Reinhardt, the senior officers on the ground.

What is finally known—not least because Guderian was at pains to tell his version of the story in postwar safety—is that on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Day, and January 9, Guderian met with Hitler, described the catastrophe looming in the east, and was blown off. Hitler dismissed the intelligence estimates as nonsense and ordered the responsible officer committed to an asylum. Guderian responded by calling the Eastern Front a house of cards that would collapse entirely if broken at any point. Hitler ended the dialogue by reasserting that the Eastern Front must make do with what it had.

When Guderian denounced the Führer’s “ostrich strategy,” he was being too generous. The ostrich is supposed to hide its head in the sand when confronting danger. Instead Hitler extended his neck—into Hungary. In early December, three rebuilt panzer divisions—3rd, 6th, and 8th—were dispatched to the theater as the core of a counteroffensive to recover ground lost in the autumn. That plan was forestalled first by predictable shortages of fuel and ammunition, then by a major Soviet offensive beginning in late December that set the stage for the war’s final large-scale clash of armor.

Operationally Stavka’s intention was to complete the capture of Budapest and open the way to Vienna. Strategically the aim was to fix Hitler’s attention. Budapest would prove a difficult nut to crack, but the design’s second half succeeded brilliantly. Hitler initially responded by sending south the two best divisions of Guderian’s painfully assembled reserve, Totenkopf and Viking: IV SS Panzer Corps under Herbert Otto Gille. Gille is one of the forgotten generals of the Waffen SS—perhaps because he fits neither of the familiar physical stereotypes: bar-room brawlers like Dietrich and Eicke or male models like Meyer and Peiper. Slightly built, wearing glasses, Gille looked like a middle-aged high-school science teacher. But he had commanded Viking for over a year and brought its survivors out of the Korsun Pocket, the first to wade into a flooded, freezing river at the head of a human chain. He led IV SS Panzer Corps ably in the autumn fighting around Warsaw, in the process winning Totenkopf’s collective respect: neither an easy task nor necessarily a positive recommendation.

More than any of his senior counterparts in the Waffen SS, Gille eschewed ideologically connected behavior and rhetoric. He projected an alternate image with long and respectable antecedents in German military culture:

a good comrade off duty but hard as he needed to be when it counted—a soldier doing a job. Now his job was to break through to Budapest. On the night of January 1 the panzers struck. Taking advantage of a collective post-New Year’s hangover on the Russian side, IV SS Panzer Corps advanced 30 miles and knocked out over 200 tanks. But with half their strength still under way and only 100 Panthers and Panzer IVs between them, Viking and Totenkopf had no chance to break into the city directly. Finding that out cost them 3,500 men and 40 tanks and assault guns.

A simultaneous attack by III Panzer Corps similarly foundered against resistance too strong to be broken by the hundred-odd tanks available, even though 25 were Tigers. Gille’s corps redeployed, went in again on January 9 around Esztergom, and broke into the rear echelons of the Soviets encircling Budapest. This time the SS got to within sight of the city towers. Gille called for a breakout. Hitler refused.

On January 12 the overextended SS again pulled back and shifted locations, this time south to Lake Balaton. On January 18 the corps attacked a third time, broke through on a 20-mile front, and advanced almost 40 miles the first day. The long 75s of “Guderian’s Ducks” proved their worth as the panzers drove forward across open country on hard-frozen ground. On January 20 the Waffen SS reached the Danube, and this time came within 15 miles of Budapest before the surprised Russians concentrated enough force to stop what remained of them.

Taken together, the three attacks had been another bravura performance by Hitler’s panzers, tactically on a level with the best of anything done in 1941-42. Gille and his men understood their efforts as a rescue mission, and had fought with reckless desperation even by Waffen SS standards. Once more, however, requests for a breakout were dismissed. Instead Hitler ordered the corps to withdraw.

The Führer saw Gille’s operations as an initial step in driving the Red Army back from Budapest and securing the oil fields that were the Reich’s last source of fuel. In mid-January he had begun removing SS divisions from the Ardennes for rebuilding. Most of what remained of Germany’s arms production was poured into that process. Once again sailors without ships, airmen with neither planes nor bases, found themselves wearing SS runes. Guderian’s expectation was that these refurbished shock troops would be transferred east. Instead, Hitler ordered 6th SS Panzer Army to Hungary for the offensive that, he informed his generals, would decide a war that was essentially about controlling resources.

Operation Frühlingserwachen (Spring Awakening) was the final showcase and last stand of the panzers. Six Waffen SS divisions were committed. Sixth SS Panzer Army had I SS Panzer Corps with Leibstandarte and Hitler Jugend: parent and child. The II SS Panzer Corps included Das Reich and Hohenstaufen, old and new avatars of Himmler’s personal army. Gille’s corps was initially assigned to Balck’s 6th Army, alongside III Panzer Corps with two of the army’s originals: 1st and 3rd Panzer Divisions. Put together, it added up to around 600 AFVs, the best available. Leibstandarte still boasted its battalion of 36 Tiger Bs. Hitler Jugend had an attached battalion of 31 Jagdpanzer IVs and 11 Jagdpanther.

But the transfer of men and material was disrupted at every turn by Allied air attacks, and the consequences of earlier attacks, on a railway network no longer capable of sustaining the rapid, reliable, large-scale troop movements of 1942-43. Not until March 6 was the main German attack ready—and then almost 300 of its tanks and assault guns reached the front only during the next week.

Hitler entertained hopes of not merely relieving Budapest, but crossing the Danube, continuing into Romania, and recapturing those oil fields as well. Reality was a last-ditch breakout attempt on February 11 by what remained of the city’s garrison. Fewer than 1,000 men reached German lines. The commander, seeking to escape through the city sewer system, was driven to the surface by flooding and unheroic ally surrendered the next day.

At least with Budapest gone the panzers were free to concentrate on their Soviet opponents—if they were able to reach them. The weather had broken in late February. Rain and melting snow softened the ground so badly that Balck established “road courts-martial,” with the power to execute out of hand anyone responsible for road maintenance who failed in that duty. Morale did not improve. Nor did the offensive make much initial progress as the heavier AFVs became bogged down on roads Dietrich described as “catastrophic” or sank up to their turrets in the marshy fields. The panzer grenadiers took heavy losses advancing on foot against a well-developed defensive system manned by no fewer than 16 rifle divisions. By the second day they had managed to open enough gaps for the panzers to move through. By the third day Hitler Jugend achieved a local breakthrough when a dozen of its heavy tank destroyers took out a Soviet antitank screen and the reconnaissance battalion’s half-tracks machine-gunned and drove over the fleeing Russians in a style reminiscent of eighteenth-century cavalry. But the advance stopped at the Sio Canal, connecting Lake Balaton with the Danube.

In the absence of air and artillery support, the panzers were compelled to push right up to the canal banks to cover the infantry as they crossed. That brought them into killing range of Soviet antitank guns, and AFVs were no longer expendable assets. Where they were forced to retreat, the rubber boats of the assault troops were easy targets. Elsewhere Das Reich and Hohenstaufen were stymied. Leibstandarte managed to establish a bridgehead, and its pioneers managed to put a bridge across the Sio. But field bridging equipment had long since failed to keep pace with the panzers’ increasing weight. The bridge promptly collapsed. Only heroic improvisation under heavy fire reopened it sufficiently to funnel forward tank destroyers able to counter the T-34/85s that for three days kept counterattacking what was in any case a foothold to nowhere. On March 15, Dietrich and his staff ordered a withdrawal, intending to shift the army’s Schwerpunkt to II SS Panzer Corps. On March 16 it ceased to matter.

The Soviets had been able to contain Spring Awakening without committing their sector reserves. Instead those forces were concentrated west of Budapest, on the German left flank and rear. On March 14, Gille’s corps reported the threat. On March 16, under cover of a heavy fog, a million men and 1,699 armored vehicles tore a 20-mile hole in the Axis defenses and kept going. Balck, an operational optimist, had been too engaged by Spring Awakening’s chimerical prospects to retain deployable German armored reserves. By the time he, Dietrich, and Hitler could agree on the timing and direction of a counterattack, its prospects were long gone and the situation had deteriorated to sauve qui peut.

Viking was almost surrounded. Its CO pulled back in defiance of Hitler’s order to stand fast, but it was Hohenstaufen’s intervention that enabled Viking’s remnants to withdraw. The IV and II SS Panzer Corps in turn held open a corridor long enough for most of the Germans cut off by the Soviet offensive to escape. That included all that was left of 1st Panzer Division—11,473 men and exactly one operational tank, as of April 1. Leibstandarte and Das Reich, the farthest east of the Panzers, managed to bring out the men able to walk.

Hohenstaufen’s panzer regiment alone accounted for more than 100 verified kills in the course of the fighting. But 6th SS Panzer Army was reduced to fewer than 100 AFVs. More than 1,000 tanks and assault guns, Hungarian as well as German, fell to the Soviets. Relatively few had been knocked out. It was empty fuel tanks, engine breakdowns, and “General Mud” that finished off the panzers. The Russians captured enough usable tanks to put them into service against their former owners.

The German front in the south was never reestablished. For the next six weeks, operations amounted to a fighting withdrawal to, then past, Vienna. The Germans still had some sting in their tails. The last remaining tanks of Leibstandarte, predictably led in person by Peiper, retook a few villages around Sankt Pölten. For the panzers, SS or army, the primary mission nevertheless became covering the retreat as long as possible, then, wherever possible, pulling back quickly enough to surrender to the Americans. But the story of those final days is best expressed in the myth of the chamber pot.

On March 27, Hitler, enraged by the failure of his chosen troops in Hungary, ordered Leibstandarte, Das Reich, Hohenstaufen, and Hitler Jugend to remove the cuff titles bearing their division names. The alleged response exists in many versions involving combinations of a chamber pot full of armbands and high decorations being sent to the Führer’s headquarters—sometimes accompanied by a severed arm, and sometimes by the injunction “kiss my ass.”

Reality was predictably less spectacular. The most credible version has Dietrich saying with tear-filled eyes, “So this is the thanks for everything,” and ordering the morale-killing message not to be passed to his men. The chamber pot and the epithet are gestures of defiance borrowed and adapted from Goethe’s Sturm und Drang play Götz von Berlichingen—a bit of wishful thinking by postwar SS nostalgists. Ironically, the divisions had been ordered to remove their armbands for security purposes when sent to Hungary. Many replacements never even received them.

From Stavka’s perspective, Hitler could not have been more obliging had he been on Stalin’s payroll. The Soviet High Command’s plan to finish the war dated from October, and involved two major offensives. The secondary attack would be mounted against East Prussia; the main one across Poland. In a decision with as many postwar implications as military aspects, Zukhov and Konev, personal and professional rivals since the war’s early days, were each assigned command of a front under Stalin’s direct command—objective Berlin.

Given the Soviets’ overwhelming numerical superiority, developed operational effectiveness, and improving logistical capabilities, the Germans could do little but play out the hand, as a trumped bridge player tosses meaningless cards onto the table. Even before Gille was transferred to Hungary, Guderian’s concept of a mobile defensive battle fought by a strong central reserve was arguably two years behind the times. Its potential was further diminished when the army group commanders concentrated four more mechanized divisions closely behind what they considered vital sectors. That approach, a variant of the Model model, was arguably only a year out of date. Its success depended on a far closer balance of quality and quantity than existed in 1945. The dispersed panzers were in fact a security blanket for an infantry who might stand to a finish—but whose chances of withstanding a major attack were limited to the point of being imaginary.

The main Soviet offensive made five miles in the first three hours of January 12. By the end of January 13, the breakthrough was 25 miles deep. The panzer divisions in its way were overwhelmed, able to do no more than fight for mere survival. Zukhov’s 26th Guards Rifle Corps evoked the panzers’ glory days by seizing a vital bridge before German engineers could throw the demolition switches. Warsaw fell on January 17, and Hitler’s blind rage led him to turn Guderian over to the Gestapo for interrogation, albeit briefly. On January 20, Konev’s spearheads entered Silesia. By January 31, Zukhov was on the Oder at Küstrin, 40 miles from Berlin.

The primary German response, initiated by Hitler, was to transfer the newly organized Grossdeutschland Corps from East Prussia. With Grossdeutschland, Brandenburg and Hermann Göring Divisions also under command, it went into action on January 16. But the trains carrying its rear echelon were intercepted by Soviet tanks; the best it was able to do was to serve as a rallying point for disorganized soldiers and fleeing civilians. Ever-dividing, ever-shrinking pockets, most coalesced around a couple of tanks, perhaps some half-tracks, and a company or so of panzer grenadiers, made their way toward the Oder, hoping above all to avoid attracting Soviet attention. The lucky ones beat Zukhov by a day or two.

To the north the Russian attack took five days to break through a German defense, enervated by the withdrawal of its armored reserve. As Russian tanks reached the Baltic, the Germans withdrew in the only direction open to them—eastward, into Königsberg. And the near-forgotten Courland Pocket, with its two forlorn panzer divisions, stood to, waiting for the Russians to finish it.

The Red Army’s pause at the end of January was in part to refresh its logistics, in part to secure its flanks, and in part to structure its internal priorities. The attacks into Pomerania and Silesia in February and March scarcely make a footnote to the story of Hitler’s panzers, apart from their success in screening a withdrawal- cum-evacuation into the relatively safe zone of the Sudetenland. The battle for Berlin was another matter. The Reich’s capital was defended by the Wehrmacht’s flotsam: boys and old men, convalescents and comb-outs, foreigners fighting with ropes around their necks, equipped with anything handy. Factories and rail sidings were full of armored vehicles that could not be moved for lack of fuel and fear of air attack.

Guderian’s hopes of forming new reserves by transferring divisions from the West and evacuating Courland were not much less delusional than the Führer’s. His plans for a local spoiling attack to disrupt the Russians on Berlin’s doorstep primarily featured winning a screaming argument with Hitler. The attack itself collapsed within days—a predictable outcome given its limited striking power.

The final Russian offensive began on April 16. It was still a Zukhov- Konev derby, with the final prize the Reichstag. Familiar numbers flash across the screen: 21st Panzer Division, 25th Panzer Grenadier, LXVI Panzer Corps, 3rd Panzer Army, SS Northland Panzer Grenadiers. All by now were shadow formations exercising ad hoc command over constantly changing orders of battle that meant nothing except in a wire diagram. The tanks and assault guns that remained went down by ones and twos, on streets and in neighborhoods with names all too familiar.

No narrative of the Reich’s final days can be called typical. Let one stand nevertheless for many. The 249th Assault Gun Brigade was evacuated from West Prussia, reorganized and reinforced, and picked up new guns in Spandau, at the factory itself. It went into action in Berlin on April 27. In three days it destroyed 180 Soviet AFVs—at least by its own reckoning—and had only nine guns left. They fought in the heart of Berlin: on Frankfurter Allee, around the Technische Hochschule, across Alexanderplatz. One of the officers was hanged by an SS flying squad, presumably for “cowardice.” Another received the Knight’s Cross for valor.

On May 5, Hitler’s death was announced. The CO called his men together, and it was decided to break out toward the Elbe. In the darkness, the brigade lost contact. Half cut its way through to the Elbe. The other half, three guns, came under Russian fire. The lead vehicle took a direct hit. The next one got stuck. The third came to help, saw the second gun blown apart, and was itself disabled. Its crew escaped. The 249th had fought to the last gun and the last round. Adolf Hitler had long been aware the war was lost. Instead of a glorious final victory, he sought a heroic downfall, a Wagnerian Götterdammerung. What he achieved was in macrocosm the fate of this single small unit: downfall in chaos.

French Divisions Pinned Down in the Maginot Line

1st Lieutenant Germer’s Engineer Assault Team Attack against Fort No. 505 at La Ferté, 18 May 1940

The vanquished contributes to a victory just as much as the victor.

Field Marshal Graf von Schlieffen

The missions of Army Group B and Army Group C were basically identical. They were to create a diversion away from the actual main effort in the center, in the sector of the Army Group A, and coax the strongest possible enemy forces away from the center toward the wings. Von Leeb, the commander in chief of Army Group C, thought that it would be incomparably more difficult to simulate the kind of strength that was not there. Most of his formations had rather inferior equipment and were more suitable for defense than for taking the mighty Maginot Line, opposite which they were positioned. Above all, this army group did not have a single Panzer formation. Its mission, therefore, was to attract the enemy’s attention to this area through deception measures, to tie down as many enemy divisions as possible.

Numerous elite formations that were to be moved to the central sector of the western front after the Polish campaign, were first routed to the south, either to First Army in the Saarbrücken area or to Seventh Army along the Upper Rhine. After these troops had moved into their final standby areas, an attempt was made to suggest the presence of Panzer Troops by using misleading tactical symbols, stories in the press about maneuver damage, and so on. This resulted in a rather strange masquerade, as part of which several officers had to put on the uniforms of the Panzer Troops and to make a big show in public. Finally, Army Group C got some limited-service Panzers that were now permanently run back and forth near the border.

Seventh Army was assigned the most important deception measure. With only four divisions, it was to cover the far-flung sector between Karlsruhe and the Swiss border. It was to simulate preparations for an offensive against Switzerland to envelop the Maginot Line from the south. Nowhere else along the front did the Germans employ such a repertoire of ruses of war. There were some very ostentatious train switching movements at the marshaling yards in Freiburg im Breisgau, where General der Artillerie [Friedrich] Dollmann, the army commander in chief, had his headquarters. Most of the time, however, these movements were carried out only in darkness so that the enemy’s agents would not notice that this was always the same military train. In that way it would also be very difficult to determine whether Panzers and big artillery pieces were really hidden under the canvas covers, as one might assume by the general outline. Hush-hush “headquarters” were set up in ostentatious mansions and spa hotels, although, in reality, only the very military-looking guards out front were genuine.

In the end, the southern portion of the Black Forest looked like a huge army camp because there were permanent German troop movements in the side valleys that were open toward Switzerland—all in keeping with precise instructions in the script for this show. These troop movements were so managed that they could be observed from the south and the Swiss guards conscientiously took down all observations on paper. The clanking noises of moving Panzers and the engine noises from vehicle convoys were heard over and over again near the border during the long winter nights. In reality, however, this noise was manufactured from loudspeakers and was played from tape. The German Counter-Intelligence Service, under Canaris, also participated in these deception measures with a specifically target-oriented disinformation drive according to which an attack through Switzerland was allegedly planned.

In reality, however, the German general staff never seriously considered an offensive through Swiss territory to outflank the Maginot Line to the south. Obviously, the German general staff had too much respect for the reputed Swiss bravery. According to the later Generalmajor Liß, at that time chief of the Foreign Armies West Section of Army Intelligence, this option was looked into within the army high command but was soon dropped. There was indeed a harvest from these deception measures. Thus, it happened that at the start of the campaign in the west thirty-six French divisions were concentrated in the area of the heavily fortified Maginot Line facing only nineteen divisions of Army Group C on the German side.

Immediately after the start of the German offensive, however, the French high command should have realized that there was no danger threatening on the right wing. Now the important thing would have been to employ many of the divisions, stationed needlessly behind the Maginot Line, as part of a countermove heading north. The real clincher came only at that particular point in time when Propaganda Minister Goebbels set the scene. The German troops had just broken through the front at Sedan when in a radio address he stated that “within twice 24 hours, there will no longer be any neutral states in Europe.” The way things looked at the moment that could only have meant an attack against Switzerland. Now the Wehrmacht Intelligence Service (Abwehr) launched a furious deception operation, employing numerous diplomats in various countries for the purpose of spreading rumors. The French and British were made so nervous that they began to prepare for the evacuations of their embassies in Bern. On 15 May, Colonel Gauché of the French Intelligence told the Swiss military attaché in confidence: “We know from an absolutely reliable source that the German attack against Switzerland scheduled for 16 or 17 May, in the morning, is firm.” The French leadership fell victim to a mirage: the German attack against Switzerland never took place.

The German general staff believed that the biggest threat was located along the northern wing of the Maginot Line, which extended to within just a few kilometers of Sedan. The Achilles heel of Sickle Cut was that the French could take many uncommitted formations out of this sector and employ them for a counterattack into the left flank of the Panzer Corps Guderian while shielded by the mighty fortification line. As mentioned earlier, von Bock, had remarked rather sarcastically to Halder: “You will be creeping by 10 miles from the Maginot Line with the flank of your breakthrough and hope that the French will watch inertly!”

But the enemy did indeed stand by and do nothing. This can be traced to the following operational chess move: The German Sixteenth Army initially only had the mission of providing a defensive screen for the left breakthrough flank of Panzer Corps Guderian. Its VII Corps, however, was to make a maximum effort and attack the left flank of the Maginot Line at La Ferté in order to tie down strong enemy formations here. The 71st Infantry Division was to attack Fort No. 505 that constituted the western corner post of that fortification line. The fight for La Ferté finally was played up as much as if the Battle of Verdun had to be fought a second time at this spot. So, Georges, the commander in chief of the Allied northeast front, already on the afternoon of 15 May had personally phoned the commanding general of XVIII Corps and appealed to him with these words: “You must hold at all costs the Inor-Malandry shoulder [at La Ferté]. The whole issue of the war may depend on it.”

The explosives that Germer had thrown inside caused a fire in the armored turret that spread immediately and, due to the heat generated, gradually caused the shells stored there to explode. The blast waves from the detonations ripped the steel doors open and made way for the fire. Thereupon, the occupants fled to the lower floors down to a connecting gallery that was 35 meters below ground and led to Block I of the fort, 250 meters away. In the end, Germer’s assault team also put out of action that fortification, with its steel gun turrets and observation cupola.

A fire also broke out inside, so that the occupants there had to flee to the connecting gallery. Now the disaster was complete. The situation of the trapped men resembled a disaster in a coal mine, where the fire from the higher galleries not only blocks the exit for the mine workers but also deprives them of oxygen. The air became increasingly worse so that the soldiers had to put on their gas masks. Again and again, blast waves blew through the galleries as more ammunition was ignited, knocking the trapped men to the ground. Finally, the electric lights also failed.

But there was continuous contact with the outside world via a field telephone. The French commander, 1st Lieutenant Bourguignon, requested permission to surrender the fort that the Germans had already put out of action because poisonous powder gases kept spreading more and more inside the system of galleries and tunnels. Because the explosions let up, there was still a chance of climbing up to one of the blocks and getting out into the open from there. His superiors required him to hold out—an order that a French historian later on described as a “monstrous absurdity.” The last contact with the trapped fort occupants took place at 0539 on 19 May. The French sergeant Sailly reported in a weak voice, interrupted by coughing: “I cannot stand it anymore. . . . The 1st lieutenant is next to me. . . . We will try to climb up again.” Several days later, after the smoke and the poison gases released during the explosions had evaporated, German soldiers climbed down into the underground tunnel system. There they found the corpses of the 107 men of the fort garrison who had died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning.

In their theatrical plays and novels, the French existentialists again and again gave full rein to their imagination in order to conjure up hopeless situations. But reality by far outdid them in the light of this drama that took place thirty-five meters below ground. Perhaps the real tragedy of 1st Lieutenant Bourguignon and his men was that holding on to Armored Fort No. 505 for such a length of time had not only become meaningless but, in an operational sense, was even counterproductive. After all, the VII Corps attack against La Ferté was primarily a deception maneuver to divert attention from the real point of main effort at nearby Sedan. When the Germans launched their attack on the fort on 16 May, a crack in the front line, amounting to far more than a hundred kilometers, already gaped north of La Ferté—the entire Meuse River line had collapsed.

Widening the breach by three or four kilometers to the south was bound to seem insignificant. The issue in this fight for Fort No. 505 that was fought so bitterly by both sides was something entirely different, that is, the myth of the “impregnability of the Maginot Line.” No French general could afford to give up even a small piece of it.

The irony of destiny, however, was that this myth fatally tripped up the French. After the breakthrough at Sedan, the situation was so desperate that the only chance was to strip the Maginot Line, which “almost defended itself,” of all personnel and to use the bulk of the formations not tied down here to attack the southern flank of the German breakthrough. Instead of shifting the troops, the French generals even dispatched reinforcements from the Sedan sector of all places to protect the Maginot Line. And so, the Char B tanks of the 41st Tank Battalion, 3d Armored Division, were taken out of the bitter fighting around Stonne and sent to mount a counterattack against La Ferté. The attempt to relieve the encircled Fort No. 505 failed.

This incomprehensible behavior cries out for a comparison to the situation in August 1914. The French supreme commander Joffre had concentrated his troops precisely on the wrong wing, that is to say, on France’s eastern border. Now the Germans who were attacking according to the Schlieffen plan had outflanked his left wing and threatened to hit him in the rear. In that situation, he did the only correct thing: He stripped the right wing that was protected anyway by strong border fortifications, such as the Maginot Line in 1940, and dispatched as many troops as possible by rail to the opposite wing. In doing so, he was even inclined, if necessary, to sacrifice the prestige target of Verdun and ordered artillery pieces to be withdrawn from there. In that way, he was successful in hitting the Germans by surprise in the flank and stopping them along the Marne River. For his successors, however, the Maginot Line had almost become an end in itself. To that extent, during the crucial phase, the nineteen moderately armed divisions of Army Group C were successful in checkmating the thirty-six French divisions that were protected by the Maginot Line.

The 1942 Summer Offensive in Russia I

The Germans planned to strike on a 350-mile front but not all at one time. Bock had to command no less than seven armies (two allied), and more would join him later. (Normally, an army group would never control more than four armies at once. In 1944-1945, the Western democracies hardly ever had an army group command controlling more than three armies on their whole front of no more than 600 miles.)

To control the growing force and increasingly widespread operations, another headquarters, Army Group A, under Field Marshal List would take over Army Group South’s southern wing and conduct the advance south to the Caucasus. Army Group South, redesignated Army Group B, would handle the Don-Stalingrad flank.

The left wing of Army Group B, or “Group Weichs,” comprised Maximilian von Weichs’s Second German Army, the Second Hungarian Army, and the Fourth Panzer Army. According to plans, it would strike from east of Kursk to the Don and, probably, over the Don to Voronezh, an important road and rail hub five miles east of the river, while the German Sixth Army drove north and east from Belgorod to meet it and form a pocket around Stary Oskol. While the Sixth Army and the Hungarians cleared the pocket, the Fourth Panzer Army would turn south along the west side of the Don with Sixth Army on its right. The First Panzer Army would then strike east from the Artemovsk-Izyum area to meet the Fourth Panzer Army between the Don and Donetz Rivers. This strategy was a late and not promising alteration of the original plan. Originally the main thrust on the right was to have been based in the Taganrog area by the Sea of Azov, but the Germans decided that First Panzer Army was too weak to operate so far from the other enveloping force and had insufficient bridging equipment. The change shifted the right pincer almost 150 miles north, close to the center rather than the right of Bock’s front, and reduced the chance of cutting off the Soviet forces before they escaped over the Don.

Farther south, Group Ruoff, comprising the German Seventeenth Army and the Eighth Italian Army, would pin down the Soviets in the coastal region. Right before the First Panzer Army jumped off, Army Group A would take over Group Ruoff and the Eleventh Army, which by that point was expected to have come up from the Crimea to take over a sector of the main front. The Italians and the Seventeenth Army would advance on Rostov and the lower Don from the west and converge with the two panzer armies, which would then come under Army Group A. Then they would drive on Stalingrad, along with Army Group B’s Sixth Army. The northern flank secured, Army Group A could safely head south for the Caucasus and the oil fields.

This complex, step-by-step plan would come apart fairly quickly. The Soviets did not play into the Germans’ hands this time, while logistics problems and command conflicts hampered the Germans.

The attack of Group Weichs on June 28 tore a hole right through the Soviets’ Bryansk Front, and the Sixth Army attacked on June 30. On July 2 the Sixth and Fourth Panzer Armies met, encircling parts of the Soviets’ Twenty-first and Fortieth Armies. The Soviets desperately tried to block the road to Voronezh, believing that the Germans wanted it as a jumping off point for a deep encirclement of Moscow from the southeast. Hitler, however, could not decide whether to take Voronezh, as Bock wished. Hitler finally let Bock go ahead as long as he did not waste time or entangle panzer and motorized divisions in city fighting. On July 6, the city fell without much of a fight. Although the move helped confuse the Soviets, it may have been a costly diversion of effort at a critical moment. In a more serious development—which Bock perceived as early as July 3, but most Germans, including Hitler, missed—not many Soviet units were caught west of the Don. On July 6, while hastily reinforcing around Voronezh to block the threat from there, the Soviets had ordered the Southwest and South Fronts to start a strategic retreat farther south.

Bock’s tying up of forces around Voronezh helped prevent the encirclement of the Twenty-first and Twenty-eighth Soviet Armies. Army Group A now officially took over its sector and received control of the First Panzer Army, which attacked eastward that same day, July 7. But it was too late to destroy the Soviet forces west of the Don. First Panzer Army and Group Ruoff encircled only rearguards of the withdrawing Soviets.

On July 9 and 10 the Fourth Panzer Army’s drive south was spasmodic and hampered by fuel shortages. The first phase of the German plan had been completed, but they had taken only 30,000 prisoners. Any chance the Germans had had of success in the 1942 summer campaign was probably already gone.

Hitler, fast losing confidence in Bock, began intervening in the conduct of operations and issued orders affecting even the movement of the corps. His ideas were frequently erratic. Over the next few months, Hitler’s actions in the eastern campaign were often so odd that they constitute probably the best evidence for the otherwise highly improbable thesis, occasionally advanced (notably by Robert Waite in The Psychopathic God), that he subconsciously sought defeat.

On July 9, he decided to have the Eleventh Army cross from the Crimea to the Kuban in early August and drive east to the Maikop oil fields instead of taking up a front on the mainland north of the Sea of Azov. It was a good idea, but he aborted its execution. On July 12, Hitler again intervened. He ordered the First Panzer Army to attack toward Millerovo and Kamenets-Shakhtinsky (the first place on the main north-south railroad in the Donetz Basin and the latter, a crossing of the Donetz), while the Fourth Panzer Army headed for the same places to trap the Soviets. While Hitler and the General Staff expected the Soviets to stand and fight for those objectives, Bock did not, warning that this move would pile up armor uselessly around Millerovo. The Fourth Panzer Army should be directed much farther east, instead, at Morozovsk on the Rostov-Stalingrad rail line. Hitler may have begun to suspect that Bock was right, but he was fed up with him, blaming him for earlier mistakes. On July 13, he ordered the Fourth Panzer Army transferred from Army Group B to Army Group A and fired Bock, replacing him with Weichs. As Bock had predicted, however, the two panzer armies largely “hit air,” taking only a modest number of prisoners and producing a traffic jam. Hitler believed that the Soviets in force were still present north of the lower Don but were farther west around Rostov. He belatedly and partially adopted Bock’s plan. He ordered the First Panzer Army to turn south, cross the Donetz, and drive on Rostov from the north, while the Fourth Panzer Army should drive south to Morozovsk, to and across the Don, and attack west, parallel with the First Panzer Army north of the Don.

On July 14 Hitler moved his headquarters from East Prussia to Vinnitsa in western Ukraine, indicating his intention to take even closer control of the fighting. Bad weather and difficulties in transporting fuel delayed the Panzer armies’ move down the Don, while the Soviet South Front and Southwest Front were fast retreating out of danger. (The new Stalingrad Front replaced the Southwest Front on July 12. Three reserve armies, which were not in good shape, reinforced the new front.)

On July 17, Hitler changed his mind. He ordered the Fourth Panzer Army to stop crossing the Don and instead follow the north bank, and sent the Seventeenth Army to attack farther south than planned, a move that involved lengthy regrouping. On July 19, he belatedly decided to follow Halder’s advice and ordered part of the Fourth Panzer Army, four divisions, to cross the Don after all. He also ordered the Sixth Army to resume its advance on Stalingrad and transferred some units to it from Fourth Panzer Army. All this was unusually erratic even for Hitler. He may have suspected that the Soviets had already retreated out of range. On July 2021, the Seventeenth Army and First Panzer Army found Soviet resistance around Rostov weakening and took the city, a place nearly as large as Stalingrad, on July 23. In a remarkable feat, the Second Battalion of the Brandenburg Regiment (the German Army’s special force) and the SS Viking Division took the main bridge over the Don intact, making possible a quick drive for the Caucasus. But the Soviet forces had escaped south of the Don, largely unscathed.

Hitler’s Directive 45, issued the same day, probably ended any remaining chance of reaching the Caucasus oil fields. Although the Germans had only taken slightly more than a tenth of the 700,000-800,000 prisoners they had expected to capture west and north of the Don, Hitler had convinced himself that they had actually smashed the Soviets. In view of the small number of prisoners taken, he must have assumed that the Soviets had all along been much weaker than anyone had dared hope; he had already ventured to suggest that possibility as early as June 25. He seems to have clung to this idea for at least another six weeks. Directive 45 declared that “only weak enemy forces have succeeded in escaping encirclement and reaching the south bank of the Don.” Army Group A would now encircle them south and southeast of Rostov and then clear the Black Sea coast while, at the same time, driving on Maikop. Then an advance would take place toward Grozny and the most important oil fields at Baku. Wildly overconfident, Hitler had cancelled the plan to send the Eleventh Army into the Kuban, opting instead for a much smaller, delayed crossing of the Kerch Strait. The Eleventh Army and most of its German divisions, with the superheavy artillery, would go north to eliminate Leningrad and its population. (Only the German Navy dared to differ with this idea, squawking about the destruction of Leningrad’s shipyards.) The Eighth Italian Army was also switched from Army Group A to take over part of the defensive front along the Don south of the Hungarian Army. This transfer denied the Caucasus drive Alpine divisions, which would have been invaluable in the mountains. While Army Group A struck into the Caucasus, Army Group B would take Stalingrad, with which Hitler became increasingly fatally fascinated. (As late as July 17, however, he had not insisted on capturing it.)

The Germans had split their forces and sent them against two different objectives at right angles to each other. It would have been hard to supply either advance or give them sufficient air support. Moreover, the southward advance, originally supposed to be the main one, was itself split between two objectives—the Black Sea coast and the oil fields. In practice, the Caucasus advance would become more and more subordinate to capturing Stalingrad. Aside from other diversions, Hitler transferred the Grossdeutschland Division to the west, where he feared an Allied landing. in France. Directive 45 has much claim as the death warrant for Germany’s last chances of success in the east.

THE CAUCASUS

A decreasing fraction of the Axis forces in the east carried out the drive for the oil fields, supposedly the objective of the whole campaign; but it might not have been possible to supply stronger forces even had they been available. Already, in late July, as it started south of the Don, Army Group A was not well supplied and suffered serious fuel shortages. Just one railroad running south from Rostov supported the German advance, and only airlifts were able to get fuel to the spearhead divisions.

The Soviets were worried. On July 28, Stalin issued his “not a step back” order, which, with surprising frankness, recounted the loss of territory and resources the Soviets had suffered. He forbade further retreats, backing this command with horrendous threats of punishment. The order, however, does not seem to have applied in the great isthmus between the Black and Caspian Seas. There, the Soviets fell back, often in disorder, but evaded the planned encirclement south of the Don. On July 29, Field Marshal List had urged canceling the planned move, for the Soviets were retreating too quickly to be trapped.

At this stage, the Germans were in the rare position of actually outnumbering the Soviet troops in both men and equipment. The battered Soviet Southern Front was absorbed by Marshal Budyonny’s North Caucasus Front, which was backed up, to the south and east, by Gen. Ivan Tyulenev’s Transcaucasus Front. The North Caucasus Front numbered no less than eighteen divisions, but some were in bad shape. The Soviets frantically mobilized local resources, forming new units in the Transcaucasus, where they thought the population was relatively dependable, while ruthlessly rounding up and deporting Muslim Caucasian mountaineers like the Chechens. Although the Germans supposed that the Caucasus had been cut off from the rest of the USSR, the Soviets had made the region self-supporting except for tanks and planes. Contact was maintained by sea, and between August 6 and September the Soviets shipped two guards corps and eleven separate infantry brigades to the Caucasus from Astrakhan.

The drive to the Caucasus steadily lost resources and priority. On July 31, Hitler transferred the Fourth Panzer Army and most of its units to Army Group B, which drove northeast on Stalingrad. Army Group A also had to cede a Romanian corps; nevertheless, it made surprising progress at first. Field Marshal List, despite the failure of the encirclement south of the Don, was quite optimistic in early August about reaching Baku, 700 miles from Rostov. But Army Group A was badly spread out, with twenty divisions on a front growing to a length of more than 500 miles, and operating on two divergent axes—the Seventeenth Army south through Krasnodar to the coast and the First Panzer Army southeast toward Grozny and Baku. The Seventeenth Army itself was split between an effort toward Novorossisk in the northeast and an attack toward Sukhumi-Batum in the southwest over the higher mountains. The first German penetration into the mountains on August 12 struck lightly guarded passes and took the Soviets by surprise, but they soon pulled back to a shortened front in incredibly rugged terrain. The Germans found themselves inching along narrow mountain trails through dense forests. Their clothing and equipment were unsuitable. Only mules, caterpillar-tracked motorcycles, and Schwimmwagens (amphibious Volkswagens) could get up the trails. The First Panzer Army also lost momentum. The Army Group steadily lost more units and air support to Army Group B. Three Italian mountain divisions were diverted to join Eighth Italian Army on the Don, while a panzer division, a flak division, and two rocket launcher brigades left for Stalingrad, along with most of Richthofen’s supporting planes.

Supplying even the remaining units was difficult. Moving fuel to the front was especially arduous. The Germans even used camels. The truck columns bringing up supplies themselves ran out of gas. The Germans resorted to the expedient of running trains over short stretches of open track, loading the trains from trucks at one end and shifting the cargo back to trucks at the other.

By mid-August, the First Panzer Army was pessimistic, and both German armies were slowing to a halt. The Germans took the least important oil field at Maikop only to find it thoroughly demolished. As early as August 26, List warned that his forces would have to take up winter positions soon and that he needed reinforcements and more air support.

The First Panzer Army tried to cross the Terek River, which the Trans-caucasus Front’s Northern Group held. The Terek was a formidable obstacle, being both wide (500 meters) and fast, and bordered by swampy ground. In a difficult operation, the Germans crossed the river and seized a confined bridgehead, but they could not exploit it. Soviet night bombers then smashed their newly constructed bridge. They shifted their effort farther west but were soon stopped. On October 1, the First Panzer Army called a halt until reinforcements could arrive.

On September 6, the Seventeenth Army had finally taken most of Novorossisk against heavy resistance by the Soviet Forty-seventh Army but did not get much farther. The weather became worse and worse. Hitler had become increasingly irritated at List, who he thought had picked the wrong mountain passes to attack, and there was some confusion about what he wanted List to do. On September 9, he fired List for supposedly not following orders, but he did not name a successor, in effect, acting as commander of Army Group A himself. The Seventeenth Army ultimately stalled on the Maikop-Tuapse road in early October. By then, even Hitler accepted that the advance was over until reinforcements could arrive, that is, after Stalingrad fell.

The First Panzer Army did launch a local offensive on October 25, biting out a Soviet salient around Nalchik that had threatened its rear. At first it was successful, making a surprising advance, but it was stopped on November 4. The leading panzer division had to fight its way back out of a trap.

COSTLY DIVERSION TO TUAPSE, 11 AUGUST–23 OCTOBER 1942

List had ordered Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps to continue the advance towards Neftegorsk with the SS-Division ‘Wiking’ and Henrici’s 16. Infanterie-Division (mot.), while de Angelis’ XXXXIV Armeekorps was moving up with 97. and 101. Jäger-Division to reinforce them. Kirchner intended to conduct a pincer operation on the Soviet oilfields located between Khadyzhensk and Apsheronsk, with ‘Wiking’ advancing from Belorechenskaya in the west and Henrici’s division advancing from Maikop in the east. After the oilfields were occupied, German forces would advance towards the port of Tuapse along two routes: the Belorochensk–Tuapse rail line, and the Apsheronsk–Lazarevskoye road. Initially, Soviet resistance was light; Budyonny had transferred Kirichenko’s 17th Kuban Cossack Cavalry Corps to block ‘Wiking’ but arrived too late to interfere with its opening moves. Cherevichenko had the 12th Army deployed on the main route to Tuapse, but it had few infantrymen and little artillery. Assisted by infiltrators from the 7. Kompanie of Brandenburgers, ‘Wiking’ was able to capture an intact bridge over the Pshekha River on 11 August, enabling two battalions from the SS-Regiment ‘Germania’ and its Panzer-Abteilung to advance 50km in three days to overrun the oilfields at Kabardinskaya. However, the captured oilfields were all burning and Soviet resistance suddenly stiffened. Kirichenko’s cavalry began harassing ‘Wiking’’s exposed right flank, which forced SS-Gruppenführer Felix Steiner to divert one of his regiments to screen that area until that mission could be handed off to the Slovak Fast Division. Steiner’s division was very spread out and he only had a few battalions committed to the advance along a narrow axis towards Tuapse. The terrain was increasingly mountainous and heavily forested, which enabled the Soviet 12th Army to focus its defence at Khadyzhensk. The efforts made by ‘Wiking’ to break through this Soviet blocking position on 15–16 August failed.

Nor did Henrici’s 16. Infanterie-Division (mot.) achieve much success. South of Maikop, he sent Kampfgruppe Brede south on 12 August, trying to approach Apsheronsk and the Neftyanaya oil centre from the east. However, Brede had to approach along a narrow, heavily forested mountain road and encountered one of 12th Army’s blocking positions. Brede attempted a hasty attack, but this was repulsed with heavy losses, including himself. Henrici was forced to bring up more troops and mount a set-piece attack on 13 August, but gained little ground. By 15 August, de Angelis’ XXXXIV Armeekorps began to conduct a forward passage of lines through Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps and assumed the lead, while Henrici’s division was relieved and sent south to rejoin von Kleist’s spearhead. The two German light divisions – 97. and 101. Jäger-Division – now assumed the lead in the offensive towards Tuapse, but Kirichenko was beginning to exert real pressure on the Belorechenskaya–Kabardinskaya road, so both SS-Division ‘Wiking’ and the Slovak Fast Division were retained to protect de Angelis’ right flank; the commitment of these two mechanised divisions to a supporting role for the better part of a month was an absurd error on List’s part.