A certain stability, or at least consistency, returned to Italy in the middle of the tenth century when Otto, the Saxon King of Germany, claimed the throne of Italy through his wife Adelaide (the daughter, widow and jilter of three previous kings of Italy) and made himself King of the Lombards. Following Charlemagne’s example, he travelled to Rome in 962 and had the pope crown him emperor, thus inaugurating three centuries of rule over Italy by three dynasties of German emperors – Saxon, Salian and Swabian (usually known as Hohenstaufen) – with brief interludes supplied by members of the Welf and Supplinburger families. The gallery consisted of one Lothair, two Fredericks, three Conrads, four Ottos and seven Henrys.

The rulers styled themselves rex romanorum et semper augustus (‘king of the Romans and ever emperor’), and the coronations that their realms required indicate both the complexity of their roles and the difficulty in fulfilling separate duties as kings of Germany, kings of Italy and Holy Roman emperors. After being elected by the German princes, they were crowned kings of Germany at Charlemagne’s beloved Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) and became then also known as kings of the Romans. Later they crossed the Alps to receive the iron crown of the Lombards at Pavia, Monza or Milan. The last stage of the process was the journey to Rome, where they were crowned emperors by the pope.

The German Empire stretched from the Baltic and the North Sea to the Adriatic and the Tyrrhenian. Such a distance, with a lot of mountains in between, forced emperors to spend long periods on the road. An emperor might be in Italy, quarrelling with the pope over ecclesiastical appointments, when an outbreak of civil war in Germany made him hurry northwards; after settling that crisis, he might have to scuttle back across the Alps to confront the rebellious cities of Lombardy or go even further south to deal with a military threat from Byzantium or the Norman kingdom of Sicily. Even so, emperors managed to find time for outside interests such as campaigning in Poland and participating in four of the Crusades. A predictable consequence of such frenetic activity was the neglect of Italy.

The emperors had their judicial and fiscal institutions in Italy; they also had their supporters among the magnates and bishops, whom they relied on for the administration of the cities. Yet the absence of their overlord enfeebled the institutions and the bishops and encouraged magnates to do what they liked to do anyway: plot and switch allegiances. Such a structure was ill-equipped to administer the new Italy of the eleventh century, in which agricultural wealth, the expansion of trade and a rise in population were transforming societies and economies. The growth and prosperity of the cities gave their citizens the desire and self-confidence to run the affairs of their own communes. Unwilling to accept that they should remain loyal to an absentee foreigner with doubtful rights of sovereignty, they were soon electing their own leaders, running their own courts and raising their own militias. The emperors, distracted by incessant wars in Germany, made concessions that left the communes virtually autonomous. By the late eleventh century their rule over the Lombard and Tuscan cities had become almost nominal.

Frederick Barbarossa (Redbeard), the Duke of Swabia who became emperor in 1155, was determined to reverse the drift. A relentless warrior, with grandiose notions of his rights and his dignity, he later became renowned as a symbol of Teutonic unity, a hero to German romantics and an inspiration for Adolf Hitler, who code-named his invasion of Russia ‘Operation Barbarossa’. He regarded the Ottos as successors to the Caesars and himself as successor to the Ottos. As he claimed his position to be equivalent to that of Augustus, he considered the kings of France and England to be inferior rulers. As for Italy, he was intent on reclaiming the so-called ‘regalian rights’ which lawyers in Bologna conveniently assured him he possessed. These included the rights to appoint officials in the cities, to receive taxes on fish and salt and to collect money from tolls and customs. He wanted the cash and was determined to get it; he also enjoyed the prestige acquired from the submission of others.

The defiance of Milan, the largest Italian city, inspired Barbarossa to invade Italy, which he did half a dozen times. His pretext – and perhaps it was a little more than a pretext – was that he was coming to the rescue of those pro-imperial towns, such as Como and Lodi, which earlier in the century had been devastated by the Milanese. He captured Milan in 1162 and destroyed it. He also obliterated the town of Crema, one of its allies, after besieging it with exceptional brutality: hostages from Crema were tied to the front of his siege towers so that the defendants could not avoid hitting their relatives and fellow citizens with arrows.

Barbarossa’s actions led to the foundation of the Lombard League, formed by sixteen cities in 1167 to defend themselves against his imperial armies. An early confrontation was avoided, however, when more urgent matters forced the emperor to return to Germany, and he did not come back at the head of a new army for several years. Despite the defection of a couple of cities, the League won a great victory against him in 1176 at Legnano near Milan, its infantry forcing Barbarossa’s German cavalry from the field. It was a historic moment for the peninsula, perhaps the most united moment between the death of Theodoric and the creation of modern Italy. When patriots of the nineteenth century scoured their history for heroic events to depict, Legnano was a popular choice for literature and painting; it also inspired one of Verdi’s least memorable operas, La battaglia di Legnano, in which the chorus opens the evening with the words

Long live Italy! A holy pact

binds all her sons together.

At last it has made of so many

a single people of heroes!

Unfurl the banners in the field,

unconquered Lombard League!

And may a shiver freeze the bones

of fierce Barbarossa.

His humiliating defeat forced Barbarossa to negotiate, and at the Treaty of Constance in 1183 he conceded the rights of the communes to elect their own leaders, make their own laws and administer their own territories. Concessions made by his opponents were nominal or unimportant: among them were an oath of allegiance and a promise to give a sum of money to future emperors as they proceeded to Rome for their coronations. As the historian Giuliano Procacci noted, ‘the communes recognized the overall sovereignty of the emperor, but kept the sovereign rights they held’. Barbarossa died seven years later, drowned in an Anatolian river on his way to join the Third Crusade, but his Italian ambitions lived on in the person of his grandson, the Emperor Frederick II, who made equally futile attempts to cow the cities of northern Italy.

The wars between Barbarossa and the communes were part of a longer and wider struggle between the Holy Roman emperor and the papacy, which had supported the Lombard League. As with so many conflicts on Italian soil, this one thus became internationalized, several popes calling in German and French princes to assist their cause. Competing factions in the Italian communes soon acquired labels of bewildering foreign origin. Papal supporters were known as Guelphs, called after the Bavarian Welf family that produced Otto IV, briefly an emperor in the early thirteenth century, as well as, later and less relevantly, the Hanoverian kings of Great Britain. Their opponents, the pro-imperial Ghibellines, took their appellation from an even more obscure source, the Salian and later Hohenstaufen town of Waiblingen, a name sometimes used to denote members of the house of Swabia. In their endless medieval struggles, however, Italian Guelphs and Ghibellines were motivated far more by local factors than by remote loyalties to popes and German emperors.

When Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, it was clear that the Franks, who had rescued the papacy from the Lombards, were the senior partners in the alliance. Yet Leo’s successors tried to reverse the roles by claiming the right to choose who would be emperor. By the eleventh century they were insisting that the emperors acknowledge they received their thrones from the pope, who, as Christ’s vicar on earth, was the highest authority in Christendom. Power was involved along with pride and prestige. Gregory VII, pope (1073–85) and later saint, insisted that only he had the right to invest the clergy with abbeys, bishoprics and other ecclesiastical offices: secular rulers who disobeyed him were excommunicated. The Emperor Henry IV, who planned to continue the policy of his father (Henry III) of appointing and dismissing popes as well as bishops, reacted by deposing Gregory and calling him ‘a false monk’. In retaliation the pope excommunicated the emperor and encouraged his subjects to rebel. Alarmed by threats to his rule in Germany, a contrite Henry then apologized to the pope, waiting for three days in the snow outside the castle of Canossa until Gregory finally absolved him from excommunication. Within three years, however, they were again at odds, and Henry was deposed and excommunicated once more. This time he responded by seizing Rome and setting up an anti-pope who crowned him emperor, but he was soon expelled by the real pope’s Norman allies, who burned much of the city. The feud between Henry and Gregory was not a unique one: these medieval centuries abound with examples of emperors dethroning popes and of popes deposing and excommunicating emperors as well as other monarchs.

Another ingredient in the dispute between pope and emperor was the status of the Norman kingdom of Sicily. The south of Italy was already very different from the north, more rural and feudal, more ethnically varied, its life determined by the Mediterranean and its peoples in a way unknown to the cities of the Po Valley with their ties to Europe beyond the Alps. Under authoritarian rulers, who liked to direct the economy themselves, and living uncomfortably beside a feudal baronage, the towns had little chance to prosper as their counterparts could do further north; the few that had recently flourished, such as the port of Amalfi with its merchants in Egypt and on the Bosphorus, soon withered. Like the north, the south had its Romans, Lombards and Franks, but it also contained large numbers of Byzantine Greeks and Muslim Arabs as well as a significant Jewish minority. This multicultural, multi-confessional amalgam was unexpectedly welded into a kingdom by a small band of knights from Normandy whose descendants ruled it, flamboyantly and on the whole successfully, for nearly 200 years.

Norman adventurers, seeking work as mercenary soldiers, had begun arriving in the south early in the eleventh century. Pope Benedict VIII hired some of them to fight the Byzantines in Apulia, and before long a few of the knights, notably the remarkable Hauteville brothers, were receiving lands from grateful employers. Fearing that these Normans were becoming too strong, a later pope led an army against them but was defeated and taken prisoner by one of the five Hautevilles, Robert Guiscard, in 1053. Making the best of it, the papacy agreed soon afterwards that, in return for recognizing papal sovereignty over the south, Robert Guiscard could call himself ‘Duke of Apulia and Calabria and future Duke of Sicily’. The adjective ‘future’ soon became redundant when the new duke, assisted by his equally talented younger brother Roger, advanced down Calabria and invaded Sicily in 1061. Thereafter, Robert Guiscard concentrated on conquering the mainland north, capturing Bari and ending Byzantine rule there in 1071, while Roger (later known as ‘the Great Count’) overcame the Arabs of Sicily, taking Palermo in 1072 and completing his conquest of the island in 1090. After the deaths of the two brothers, the Great Count’s son, another Roger, united the Hauteville territories and, following the capture of another pope, was recognized as Roger II, King of Sicily.

The new king was one of the finest rulers of the Middle Ages, a broadminded and farsighted man of wide culture and much administrative ability. He refused to join the Second Crusade because religious toleration was fundamental to his rule, and he insisted that the laws and customs of the peoples of his kingdom should be respected. Fluent in Greek and Arabic, he presided over the most intellectual and cosmopolitan court in Europe, and the architecture he loved – a blend of Saracen, Norman and Byzantine – is still visible in Palermo, in the Palatine chapel with its mosaics and in the red domes of the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti. He returned Sicily to the prosperity and influence it had not enjoyed since the days of the ancient Greeks – and to which it would not return again. He made of the Mediterranean’s largest island a microcosm of what the sea might be but very rarely is, a space where cultures, creeds and peoples meet in a climate of mutual tolerance and respect.

The popes treated the Normans much as they treated the emperors: cajoling and pleading when they needed them, fighting and trying to depose them when they did not. Robert Guiscard and Roger II both suffered excommunication. When the Hautevilles and the Hohenstaufen (Barbarossa’s family) became dynastically united in 1186, the hostility became almost permanent. Roger was succeeded by his son William I, another talented and successful Hauteville, unjustly known by his foes among the barons as William the Bad, and by his grandson, William II, called ‘the Good’ because he was more lenient to those perennially annoying subjects. Since Barbarossa after Legnano was no longer a threat to Italy, the second William decided to marry his aunt Constance to the emperor’s heir, the future Henry VI; as his own marriage was childless, a son of this union might thus add the crown of Sicily to the titles of King of Germany, King of Italy and Holy Roman emperor. The prospect of an emperor ruling lands both north and south of the expanding papal states naturally alarmed Pope Celestine III, who first promoted a rival claimant (an Hauteville bastard) to the Sicilian throne and then tried to thwart Henry’s plan to have his son Frederick elected King of Germany. He failed when Frederick was chosen by the electors at the age of two in 1196, but the deaths of the boy’s parents before he was four, together with Constance’s choice of the next pope (Innocent III) as her son’s guardian, postponed an inevitable struggle.

The infant became the charismatic Frederick II, a monarch whose cultural range makes his fellow rulers of the period seem brutal, boorish and philistine in comparison. Hailed as stupor mundi (‘the amazement of the world’), he was lauded in his time as a linguist, law-giver, builder, soldier, administrator and scientist; as an ornithologist he wrote a masterly book on falconry and dismissed the notion that barnacle geese were hatched from barnacles in the sea – an example of deductive reasoning rather than observation because he had no opportunity of studying the breeding habits of the geese inside the Arctic Circle. Yet the adulation, like the appellation, was excessive. The comparison with contemporary kings may stand, but he was not as wise a ruler or as cultured a man as his maternal grandfather, Roger II. He was justly famous as a champion of religious tolerance, yet his skills as a builder, architect and linguist have been exaggerated. In any case, whatever his talents, he failed to solve the three great inherited problems of his position: relations with the papacy, relations with the Lombard cities, and the relationship between Sicily and the empire.

Frederick antagonized the papacy early in his reign by crowning his baby son King of Sicily and, a few years later, making sure he was elected King of Germany. When he himself was crowned emperor in 1220, at the age of twenty-five, he assured the papacy that the crowns would remain legally separated. Yet the assurance did not convince a subsequent pope, Gregory IX, once a friend of St Francis and St Dominic but now a dogmatic and irascible leader of the Church. In 1227 he excommunicated Frederick after an outbreak of plague had forced the emperor to abandon a crusade; when the expedition was resumed a year later, the pope was so enraged that an excommunicant was leading it that he launched an invasion of Sicily while its king and his army were away campaigning triumphantly for Christendom. Frederick soon returned from the Holy Land, where he had crowned himself King of Jerusalem, defeated the papal armies and forced Gregory to come to terms and absolve him from excommunication.

The truce between the two men lasted for almost a decade after 1230, but the pope did not relinquish his ambitions to remove the Hohenstaufen from Sicily and to promote a new dynasty for the empire. Frederick’s invasion of Sardinia in 1239 gave him a pretext to excommunicate the emperor once again and build alliances with the pro-Guelph cities of the north. Gregory died in 1241, yet his vendetta was continued, with matching vindictiveness, by a successor, Innocent IV, who deposed Frederick, called him a precursor of the anti-Christ and urged the German electors to supply a new emperor.

Stupor mundi may have been unlucky in his relations with the papacy but he was unwise in his dealings with the Lombard cities. Claiming that northern Italy legally belonged to him, he was determined to succeed where Barbarossa, his paternal grandfather, had failed. In 1226 he summoned an imperial assembly to Cremona, most loyal of Ghibelline towns, and announced his intention ‘to restore regalian rights’. His ambitions predictably led to a revival of the Lombard League, and most of the Po Valley cities banded together to resist him for the last quarter-century of his life. Frederick defeated the League at the Battle of Cortenuova in 1237 but then overplayed his hand by demanding an unconditional surrender, which the cities refused to give him; the following year he was humiliated by his failure to capture Brescia after a lengthy siege. Despite military successes in 1240–41, when he captured parts of the Papal States, and in 1246, when he suppressed a rebellion in the south, the campaigns achieved nothing durable. Even more humiliating than Brescia was the siege of Parma in 1248, when the apparently beleaguered garrison unexpectedly stole out of the town and ransacked Frederick’s camp while he was out hunting.

The emperor died in 1250 and, after the brief reign of his son Conrad, his southern territories were claimed by his bastard child Manfred. Another talented descendant of the Hautevilles, Manfred was a poet, a scientist and a diplomat wiser than his father in his dealings with northern Italy. Yet Frederick’s death had not halted the papacy’s efforts to eliminate the house of Hohenstaufen and to find a new monarch for the kingdom of Sicily. In 1266, after the entreaties of several popes, Charles of Anjou, a brother of the French king, victoriously invaded: Manfred was killed in battle, and the last male Hohenstaufen, Conrad’s teenage son Conradin, was executed.

Charles made himself unpopular in Sicily, chiefly by transferring his capital from Palermo to Naples, and he was ejected by the islanders following the uprising in 1282 known as the Sicilian Vespers. In his place the throne was offered to King Peter of Aragon, whose wife was a daughter of Manfred. Peter’s acceptance and reign may have given some solace to supporters of the Hohenstaufen, but Aragonese rule presaged the long decline of the island. Already cut off from north Africa and the Arab world, it was now detached from France and Italy, although over the centuries the southern mainland – known as ‘continental Sicily’ – was from time to time reunited with island Sicily to be called eventually the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Yet from the end of the thirteenth century the island was effectively an outpost of Spain, tied torpidly to Iberia for over 400 years. Like Sardinia, it received viceroys but little attention from its Hispanic rulers.

Frederick’s rule had resulted in the extinction of his dynasty and the impoverishment of Sicily, which had to pay for his wars. Another casualty was the idea of uniting Italy under a single ruler, which is what he wanted and which no one tried to make a reality again for another six centuries. The beneficiaries of his failure were the cities of Tuscany and the north, which could now pursue their cultural and communal development – as well as their local rivalries – without much external interference. The defeat of a cultured monarch of the south thus led to a cultural efflorescence of the north.

Pz Kw V Panther Ausf D (Sd Kfz 171)

The VK 3002 (MAN), which was known unofficially as the Panther during the course of its development, was well shaped but was too heavy and too high to be a medium tank replacement for the Pz Kw IV. As usual the constant modifications called for during development increased the original weight from 35 tons until it finally reached 43 tons. After 20 vehicles had been built with the specified frontal armour 60 mm thick, an increase of the nose armour to 80 mm was ordered. The engine originally planned, the Maybach HL 210, was no longer considered powerful enough and was replaced by the more powerful HL 230 P 30. This was basically the same engine but its capacity had been raised from 21 to 23 litres by enlarging the cylinder bore. This engine was put into all production vehicles and was used until the end of the war. The HL 230 P 30 was a short V-12 petrol-driven engine producing 700 hp at 3000 rpm. In service however it was limited to 2500 rpm. Maybach used an eight-bearing crankshaft which just fitted the limited area of the Panther engine compartment. Together with several other licensees (including Daimler-Benz and Auto-Union) Maybach produced nearly 1000 of these 700 hp engines each month.

As the Pz Kw V differed radically from the Pz Kw III and IV, newly developed mechanical units had to be fitted because of the increased weight and the alterations to the hull shape. The hand-operated AK 7-200 type gearbox had seven speeds, all with synchromesh. It. was intended for an engine producing 800 hp at 3000 rpm and a torque of up to 175 mkg. The weight of the gear with clutch and crown wheel was 750 kg. An LAG 3/70 H dry clutch was fitted. New steering gear and steering brakes were developed by MAN. Steering was effected by Argus disc brakes, operated hydraulically. Each track could be halted separately when the steering brake was used to steer the tank, after the epicyclic brake had been released and the steering clutch disconnected. In addition to this, when the epicyclic brake was released the direct gear of the epicyclic could be driven, via a steering clutch and a pair of pinions, against the’ direction of the main drive. In this way the relevant track was retarded and the vehicle travelled in each gear through a curve of fixed radius. Hence the description “single radius steering gear”.

The bogies were carried on double torsion bars which lay transversely, each radius arm having two hair-pin-shaped torsion bars. This arrangement gave the Panther the best designed suspension of all German tanks. One disadvantage was the amount of space taken up by this type of springing. The bogie wheels were of the interleaved disc type with rubber tyres. Front sprockets and rear idlers, which also acted as tensioning wheels, together with two hydraulic shock absorbers and a return roller each side, completed the suspension. The unlubricated, 86-link track, designed for the original 35-ton prototype, was 660 mm wide and the width was not increased in the heavier production model. To increase the adhesion on icy surfaces the track was fitted with non-skid ribs, which were placed between the links. Chassis, hull and superstructure were integral and comers of the armour-plated hull were interlocked.

In addition to the 7.5 cm 42 L/70 gun there were two MG 34s. Seventy-nine rounds of tank gun ammunition were carried and the fuel supply of 720 litres was in five tanks. Power take-off to traverse the 8-ton turret was taken from a main shaft which lay between the two half shafts. This main shaft was mounted in a housing and worked the turret drive and the two oil pressure pumps for the steering mechanism.

Initially the specifications called for a fording depth of 1900 nun and a submersible depth of up to 4 metres. Full waterproofing was never fully developed however, and in consequence it was not 100 per cent effective on production vehicles.

In the Marks III, IV and VI the crews’ kit was carried in stowage boxes on the rear turret walls, but in the Panther these were fitted left and right of the lower hull plate.

Production of the Panther began in November 1942 at the MAN factory, and its official designation was “Pz Kw V Panther Ausf D (Sd Kfz 171)”. In the first production model the wireless operator’s bow MG aperture was of the shutter type. Some of these early machines had the commander’s cupola fitted on the left hand side of the turret. The combat weight was 43 tons.

The Panther’s importance in the re-equipping of armoured units is evident from the fact that the production programme, which went into operation immediately, called for an output of 250 vehicles per month. A revised production programme dated September 1942 increased the monthly output to 600 Panthers up to and including the spring of 1944.

It was clear from this ambitious scheme that additional manufacturers would have to be brought into the production programme. The first production vehicles very quickly showed the teething troubles resulting from over-hasty development. Representatives of the industry and of the troops continually warned against putting these new vehicles into service prematurely. There were not only the usual teething troubles of a new design, but deep-rooted problems which could only be eradicated after thorough tests and fundamental alterations, and the armoured units had little confidence in the vehicle. The increased weight, which was greater than the original specification laid down, led to excessive wear of gears and shafts and the more powerful engine stretched the transmission to its limits. In this and the suspension were the main weaknesses of this otherwise very successful vehicle. In a speech at Hider’s HQ in March 1943 Guderian emphasised that under no circumstances could the Panther be expected to enter service earlier than July 1943. The results of troop trials at Erlangen and Grafenwohr only confirmed this.

Despite these deficiencies tank battalions equipped with Panthers were ordered to take part in the Kursk Offensive or Operation Citadel. All the gloomy mechanical predictions were fully realised. Most of the vehicles unloaded in Orel and driven to Byelograd broke down en route. Engine fires caused by insufficient cooling and damage to gears and tracks ruined the outstanding potential of the armament as the vehicles were continually being taken out of service because of mechanical troubles and in some cases did not reach the battlefield at all.

These mechanical troubles made the first production batch of Panthers, almost without exception, unfit for front line service. In 1944 an official High Command memorandum acknowledging these weaknesses said: “… the mechanical weakness of the cross shaft on the Pz Kw IV and V led to such high unserviceability that the demand for replacement parts could not be met, despite the great efforts of the factories, without interfering with production…”

In February 1943 the Maschinenfabrik Niedersachsen-Hannover were brought into the Panther production programme. Henschel produced 200 Panthers between March and November 1943. From mid-1943 onwards Daimler-Benz went over to mass production of the Panther. The following firms took part in the production of armour and turrets: Dortmund-Hörder Hüttenverein of Dortmund, Eisenwerke Oberdonau of Linz, Ruhrstahl of Hattingen, Böhler of Kapfenberg, Bismarckhütte of Upper Silesia and Harkort-Eicken of Hagen. Numerous other component suppliers took part in the Panther building programme and production was given the “SS” priority rating.

Air Battles Kursk 1943 I



The Luftwaffe

To support this mighty armoured phalanx, the Luftwaffe had assembled 1,800 aircraft, representing some two-thirds of all aircraft available in the east. In support of Ninth Army Luftflotte 4, had allocated 1st Luftwaffe Air Division, while the whole of Luftflotte 6 was available to support the southern thrust. On the crowded airfields around Orel, Belgorod and Kharkov were grouped the Heinkel He 111s and Junkers Ju 88s of KGs 3, 27 and 55; fighter units were drawn from JGs 3, 51, 52 and 54, flying Focke-Wulf Fw 190A-5s and Messerschmitt Bf 109G-6s. Although the Soviet Air force had made great strides, the Luftwaffe still held the edge, both in the quality of its fighters and the expertise of its pilots. Of particular importance, was the first deployment, en masse, of the Schlachtgeschwader units flying Fw 190s and Henschel Hs 129s. ‘Citadel’ also saw the last, widespread use of the Stukagruppen in the classic dive-bomber role.

The German Luftwaffe, consisting of two Luftflottes (air forces) with a total of 2,050 aircraft, were made available. Because Operation CITADEL called for a two-prong attack against the Russian stronghold at Kursk, Army Group Center was supported by Luftflotte 6 commanded by General Ritter von Greim; Army Group South was supported by General Otto Desslach’s Luftflotte 4.


On the Russian side, three air armies were made available to defend the Russian salient. The Sixteenth Air Army under Marshal S. I. Rudenko supported the Central Front, the Steppe Front was supported by Fifth Air Army under Colonel General Goryunov, and the Voronezh Front was supported by Air Marshal S. A. Krasovski’s Second Air Army.

Air operations began the first day when long-range radar alerted the Germans to a preemptive attack by the Second Air Army on airfields around Kharkov. The Germans, preparing for preemptive strike of their own, were able to get all serviceable aircraft airborne. The Russian force of 450 airplanes, expecting to catch the Germans by surprise, took heavy losses when it ran into waiting German fighters, giving the Germans air superiority in that sector.

The Battle of Kursk saw Germans using aircraft to make up for losses suffered at Stalingrad and in Africa. Specialized Junkers Ju 87G Stukas and Henschel Hs 129Bs were used as flying artillery to compensate for weak ground artillery. Their formations were responsible for killing hundreds of Russian tanks. On the Russian side, Ilyushin Il-2M3 Shturmoviks armed with 37mm cannons were used with devastating effect against German armor.

In addition to the flying antitank weapons, the Germans armed their Focke-Wulf Fw 190As with SD-1 and SD-2 antipersonnel containers that rained down fragmentation bomblets on infantry and artillery positions. The Russians concentrated on antitank operations and getting as many aircraft as possible into the fighting. In the end, quantity overshadowed quality. The Luftwaffe, unlike the Russians, did not have a steady supply of replacements for men and materiel. In order to bring the 1st Division to its pre-invasion strength, all other air units on the Eastern Front had to be stripped of every available aircraft.

By 9 July, with the German attack faltering on the northern prong of the offensive, 50 percent of Luftflotte 6’s forces were shifted southward to support a possible breakthrough. In the end, Operation CITADEL fell short of its goals, and the offensive was suspended with the U. S. invasion of Italy. The combat initiative passed into Soviet hands and was never relinquished.

Fourth Panzer Army/Army Detachment ‘Kempf’/Voronezh Front

Vatutin had already decided that the German offensive was imminent, following the advance of the whole of Fourth Panzer Army on the afternoon of the previous day to a new position that allowed them to place artillery observers overlooking the Soviet defences. As on the Central Front, interrogation of prisoners in the early hours of the 5th had elicited sufficient information to persuade Vatutin to order 6th and 7th Guards Armies at 0230 to loose off their own 600-gun barrage, to disrupt the assembling German units. At 0330 hours the German artillery replied with a tremendous barrage along the entire front of Fourth Panzer Army. Official reports later stated that the Germans fired more shells in this barrage than they had throughout the entire Polish and French campaigns combined.

As the first reports came in from Chistyakov’s 6th Guards, the numbers of Luftwaffe aircraft supporting the advancing Fourth Panzer Army clearly indicated that a major plank in the Soviet plan had gone awry. An attempt by 2nd Air Army to destroy Luftwaffe aircraft on their airfields around Kharkov only moments before they were due to take off was forestalled when a Freya long-range radar station registered the massive incoming air strike. The Fw 190s and Bf 109s of JGs 3 and 52 were scrambled at the very last minute and managed to catch the Russian air armada short of the bases. In what was to be the largest air battle of the war, a huge melee involving more than 500 aircraft began. Russian losses, though not grievous, were sufficient to give the Luftwaffe air superiority over the battlefield during the first day of the offensive. More than 2,000 sorties were flown on the 5th in support of Fourth Panzer Army.

At 0400 Fourth Panzer Army went over to the offensive along the entire thirty miles of its front between Belgorod and Gertsovka. The panzers rumbled over the paths through the minefields that the sappers had spent most of the night clearing. In all, the 700 tanks and assault guns of two panzer corps smashed a huge mailed fist at Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army in the hope of destroying it and driving through the Soviet defences by the end of the day. Such expectations quickly broke down in the face of the sheer scale of the Soviet defences and as a consequence of other factors beyond the control of the planning staffs.

II SS Panzer Corps – 5 July 1943

II SS Panzer Corps had broken through the anti-tank barriers and artillery positions of 52nd Guards Division and had penetrated some twenty kilometres into the defensive zone.

On the right wing of the Corps, in the fading light of the summer evening, assault units of SS Totenkopf supported by Tigers seized an important 69th Army command post in the village of Yakhontovo. Apart from amply demonstrating the elan associated with the Waffen-SS units, the comparatively rapid progress of the Corps through the Soviet lines was brought about by a remarkable combination of concentrated firepower on the ground and very close air support. Without doubt the 41 Tigers available to the Corps on the 5th endowed the Panzerkeil of the SS Panzer Corps with great destructive power.

Overhead, relays of ground-attack aircraft blasted a corridor for the advancing SS divisions. In the forefront of the German air strikes was a number of Ju 87Gs equipped with 37mm twin cannon, under the command of the famous pilot Hans Rudel. Apart from the ubiquitous Stuka, Fw 190s dropped SD-1 and SD-2 high-fragmentation bombs on the Soviet defences along the line of march, wreaking havoc among the anti-tank gun and artillery crews. In addition, Hs 129s armed with a belly-mounted 30mm cannon shot up Soviet armour and artillery positions. In this way the very heavily fortified Soviet villages of Berezov, Gremuchi, Bykovo, Kozma-Demyanovka and Voznesenski, all lying along the line of march of the SS Panzer corps, fell relatively quickly to the combined air and ground assault. The virtual air superiority enjoyed by the Luftwaffe over the southern part of the salient was a high price for the Soviets to pay for the failure of their preemptive strike on the German air bases earlier in the day. As dusk fell, the SS Panzer Corps was well placed to exploit its gains, but the Corps’ losses had been heavy, the ‘Leibstandarte’ alone losing some 97 killed and 522 wounded. Along the entire length of Fourth Panzer Army’s front the going had been very hard, but the Germans had managed to split 6th Guards Army’s front in two places. It looked as though Hoth’s plan, notwithstanding the slower than anticipated rate of advance, could still be carried out.

Air Battles Kursk 1943 II


Kursk Battle. Attack of the Hs-129, piloted by Lieutenant Ort.


Battle of Kursk – Aviation Art by Nicolas Trudgian.

9th Army Sector

The days-long contest for the agricultural village of Ponyri and Hill 253.5. The fighting for this small settlement was likened by Germans and Russians alike to a miniature ‘Stalingrad’. Lying along the railway running from Orel to Kursk, its local importance was as a collection and distribution point for produce and machinery for the collective farms in the vicinity. For six days this ramshackle village became the focal point of immense efforts by both sides. The Germans hoped that by committing strong armoured forces the settlement could be taken, which would allow the panzers to break into the open country beyond the village, and then roll up the Soviet defence lines. The Soviets were determined to prevent this and fed in strong reserves to bolster their position.

Units of 292nd Infantry division had captured the railway embankment and the northern part of the village on the opening day of the offensive, but by the 6th the struggle for control of the settlement was sucking in large numbers of German units. To support 292nd Infantry Division’s endeavour to storm the remainder of the village, Model fed in 9th and 18th Panzer Divisions and 86th Infantry Division. The Soviets reciprocated in kind, feeding in more artillery, mortars and howitzers. As in the approaches to Olkhovatka, many of the tanks were dug in to bolster the already formidable defences around the settlement. On the 7th a German attack by some 300 panzers clashed head-on with the T-34s of 16th and 19th Tank Corps. In Ponyri itself, ferocious hand-to-hand fighting took place with heavy fire support from tanks, artillery and SP guns, as both sides contested the salient features. From 6 to 9 July a see-saw struggle for control of the schoolhouse, tractor depot, railway station and water tower, took place. As elsewhere, German massed tank attacks impaled themselves upon the minefields and were shattered by the massed fire from T-34s, anti-tank guns and tank-hunting units with their anti-tank rifles and ‘Molotov’ cocktails. On the 9th the Germans attacked again, using half-a-dozen Ferdinand SP guns as fire support, in a bid to take Hill 253.5, to the immediate north-east of the village.

The Russians were certainly right in their perception that Olkhovatka was still Model’s principal target. Notwithstanding the losses of the 6th, he proceeded to reorganize his units and on the 7th was again ready to send in his panzers and infantry to effect the breakthrough. The determination to achieve this objective, can be measured by the very rapid re-deployment of nearly 50 per cent of Luftflotte 4’s aircraft from the southern part of the salient, to support Ninth Army’s drive. By 0900 the Soviets could see the masses of German armour and their attendant armoured personnel carriers, deploying for the attack. Model’s assumption was that the sheer weight of the German armoured fist must in the end break through, and in the fallacy of that assumption lay the key to the Red Army’s victory on this battlefield. Although the Soviets were experiencing frightful losses from a concentration of firepower never before experienced, the defences were fulfilling the purpose for which they were designed. Each German attack was sucking in more and more armour, to replace the shattered and blackened hulks that now littered and marked the German advance. Despite the damage the Germans were inflicting on the defenders, the central task of ‘bleeding white’ the German armour was being realized.

As the artillery and Luftwaffe bombarded the defences, the attack resolved itself into two thrusts: 2nd and 20th Panzer Divisions heading for Samo-durovka-Teploye-Molotychi and, farther to the east, 18th and 19th Panzer Divisions bringing pressure to bear on Olkhovatka once again. Although Rokossovsky had reinforced these positions, the addition of von Saucken’s 4th Panzer Division to the thrust towards Samodurovka saw the Soviet line finally crack along that axis, when some 300 panzers, massed on a very narrow frontage, finally crashed through the Soviet positions. The following day the Germans maintained the pressure, deploying four panzer divisions supported by 6th Infantry Division along the entire length of a 10-mile line stretching from Samodurovka to Pervyye Ponyri. Fourth Panzer Division was now launched alongside 2nd and 20th Panzer Divisions against the Soviet defences around Teploye. During the next three days a seesaw battle for control of the village raged, both sides feeding in large numbers of tanks and infantry with powerful air support and artillery. Even the Tigers of Abteilung 505’s third regiment were unable to penetrate the defences. Although the Germans finally took the village, the three attempts to storm the heights beyond were thrown back by ferocious resistance. Panzer attacks wilted in the hurricane of artillery fire called down upon them.

4th Panzer Army Sector

At dawn on 8 July the Germans resumed their push with ‘Grossdeutschland’ thrusting to take Syrtsevo. An attack by Soviet 40th Army was weathered. In the late morning some forty T-34s of General Krivoshein’s III Mechanized Corps sortied from Syrtsevo in a desperate bid to stop the German advance, but ran across the guns of the Tiger company of ‘Grossdeutschland’. In the battle that followed ten T-34s were destroyed and the survivors rapidly vacated the battlefield as the German armour moved forward. Around the fortified town the defenders began to waver, at which units of ‘Grossdeutschland’ and 3rd Panzer Division drove forward to take advantage of the growing confusion and panic. Shortly after noon the town fell and the Soviet forces pulled back across the River Pena. A rapid follow-up by the divisional reconnaissance battalion, supported by an assault gun battalion, pushed forward to the town of Verkhopenye. The significance of this town lay in its bridge across the Pena which the Soviets were determined to hold. A major tank sortie of at least forty T-34s and M-3s was launched against the German units. The battle raged for three hours, the German assault guns accounting for 35 Soviet tanks by late afternoon.

To the south, history of a different sort was being made. Very late in the evening of 7 July, the commander of Soviet 2nd Guards Tank Corps was ordered to assemble an armoured force with infantry support and strike westwards, from its position in the woods, around the village of Gostishchevo. Its task was to assault the deep flank of the SS Panzer Corps, with a view to cutting off its supply route. Quite by chance, as this completely unsuspected Soviet unit was emerging from woodland and deploying for attack with infantry in support, it was spotted by Hauptmann Meyer who was leading a flight of Henschel Hs 129s in a routine reconnaissance of the area. The Henschels devastated the T-34s with their 30mm cannon. Fw 190s of Battle Formation ‘Druschel’ flew in support, dropping anti-personnel bombs on the infantry. Within an hour fifty shattered T-34s littered the battlefield. It was the first time in the history of warfare that a tank formation had been destroyed solely from the air.

10 July: Ninth Army/Central Front

Although German forces had continued to assail Ponyri throughout 9 July, the failure of the assault on Teploye and the Olkhovatka heights on the 8th caused Model to spend the day regrouping his forces. He intended to attack again on the 10th and had already moved forward 10th Panzer Grenadier and 31st Infantry Divisions to support the continuing assault on Ponyri. These divisions were his last reserve units, and their committal would mean that he had no forces available in the event of an emergency. While there may have been some in Ninth Army who still thought it possible to breach the Soviet lines with one last effort, the tone of the telephone conversation between Zhukov and Stalin early on 9 July was such that apparently the Soviets were already convinced that the Germans no longer had the resources to achieve their objective. It was decided that the Bryansk Front and the left wing of the Western Front would launch an attack on the German forces in the Orel Bulge on 12 July to force the Germans to draw off forces from Ninth Army. Central Front would then begin its own counteroffensive in the hope of catching the German forces off balance before they had time to organize their own defences. Although Rokossovsky realized that his troops would have to face a few more days of German fury, it was accepted that would be the last, desperate, flailing attempt of an Arm that was in reality already defeated.

Under a leaden sky, in wind and driving rain, the final German attempt to break through to Kursk from the north began. Once again the objective was the Olkhovatka heights. Preceded by a tremendous artillery barrage and massed air support from Stukas and Heinkel He 111s, the 300 panzers of 2nd and 4th Panzer Divisions deployed to assault the last Soviet defences strung along the ridge. On the bare plateau before the Soviet positions were the same minefields and other defensive obstacles with which the German soldiers had become so painfully familiar during the previous five days. The infantry, on foot on this occasion, were rapidly left behind by the panzers and found themselves exposed on terrain devoid of any natural cover. Here they fell prey to the dug-in Soviet infantry, massed artillery fire and air attack. Losses began to mount rapidly. Many panzers were destroyed by T-34s, either dug-in or functioning as mobile fire points. Others repeatedly turned back to give their infantry cover and support, but were destroyed by anti-tank gunners sited invisibly in the cornfields. Although some local successes were attained, by evening the attack 72 had shot its bolt and Model ordered Ninth Army over to the defensive, except at Ponyri. In a little over six days Model had lost more than 400 tanks and 50,000 men to effect a penetration that nowhere exceeded more than fifteen kilometres.

The Battle of Tannenberg 1410 Part III

What the grand master did not understand was the need to remain calm and rational. When scouts reported to him that the invaders had gone as far as Gilgenberg and had burned the city, inflicting indescribable outrages on the citizens, Jungingen’s temper flared. No more positional warfare – he would march on the foe by night and attack by surprise at dawn. When the grand master set his army in motion he was taking a risk that he could have avoided. The best-informed German chronicler, Posilge, described the recent movements of the two armies thus:

The grand master with his forces and the guests and mercenaries rode against the king to the border near Drewenz, near Kauernik, and the two armies camped opposite one another. Because the king of Poland did not dare cross the Drewenz, he went toward Gilgenberg and took that city and burned it, and they struck dead young and old and with the heathens committed so many murders as was unholy, dishonouring maidens, women, and churches, cutting off their breasts and torturing them, and driving them off to serfdom. Also the heathens committed great blasphemies on the sacraments; whenever they came into the churches they ground the host in their hands and threw it under their feet, and in that way committed their insults. Their great blasphemies and insults went to the hearts of the grand master, the whole order, and to all the knights and men-at-arms among the guests; and they rode with righteous indignation against the king from Lubov to Tannenberg, to the village in the district of Osterode, and came upon the king without warning, having come in great haste fifteen miles by daybreak on the 15th of July. And when they could see the enemy, they formed their ranks and held the enemy in sight for more than three hours. The king meanwhile sent the heathens out to skirmish, but the Poles were altogether unready. If they had attacked the king immediately they would have won honour and booty, but that, unfortunately, did not happen; they wanted to call him out to fight chivalrously with them. The marshal sent the king two unsheathed swords with the heralds.

Such were the movements of the two armies. Jungingen had managed to bring his forces against the Poles and Lithuanians without warning, a considerable feat for any era. Then he wasted his advantage, letting the sleepless soldiers stand in battle order without food or drink until the enemy was ready. After that, he had his men dig camouflaged pits to trap the charging Polish cavalry, then ordered a withdrawal from that line so that the royal forces in the woods could have room to deploy in two lines in the open field against him. As a result, not only were his pits now part of the Polish defensive line, but his powerful artillery was now stationed at a place where it was ineffective; moreover, his infantry was standing where it was difficult to provide proper support for the massed bodies of knights. Even considering that the grand master could hardly expect the Polish knights to charge unless they had room to line up their units, this was poor generalship. Jungingen’s troops were tired, wet from a morning shower, hungry, and undoubtedly becoming nervous. Moreover, the day was unusually warm, and the men were not accustomed to heat. Nevertheless, Jungingen had a good chance of prevailing if only he could persuade the king to commit his troops to battle first, allowing the experienced knights the opportunity for one of their long-practised counter-strokes. The grand master’s pride, arrogance, and rashness were partly balanced by his courage and skill in battle – and he had a large force behind him. The masses of knights in the huge formations masked the poor placement of his supporting troops and gave him confidence in a total victory.

The sight of the armies forming their lines of battle was something that no participant ever forgot: the grand master’s elite corps of white-clad knights around his large white banner with the black cross, the colourful flags of the castellans and bishops; Jagiełło’s crowned white eagle on a red field; the archbishop of Gniezno’s white cross on a red field; the castellan of Cracow’s crowned bear; the Polish marshal’s lion-head breathing fire against a blue background; the Lithuanians’ white knight (Vytis) on a white horse; and the geometric symbol for Vilnius. The serried ranks of the infantry and bowmen paraded into place, accompanied by music; the artillery was dragged to whatever slight rise might give the cannon a better field of fire. Messengers rode back and forth, ordering units to make small changes in their stations, and officers encouraged their men to stand valiantly and fight bravely.

One cannot ignore the role contemporary values played in this contest. The grand master wasted his advantages by not attacking promptly, then delaying longer in order to send the chivalric challenge for battle – two swords. The king was meanwhile purportedly hearing masses, ignoring the requests by his commanders for instructions. Jagiełło had displayed excellent generalship in bringing his forces into the field, even considering the slowness of his advance after slipping away from the ford so cleverly; now he, too, seemed to let events run their course without his direction. Perhaps the king was using the religious services to delay the beginning of the battle, knowing that the German knights and horses would tire from wearing heavy armour; perhaps he was waiting for reinforcements; and perhaps he was paralysed by exhaustion and indecision. Historians’ arguments about this point will never be fully resolved. Perhaps genuine piety persuaded him that time spent in prayer was the most important activity he could undertake at that moment. Conventional religious practices were generally considered more important than cool-headed strategic or tactical decisions. ‘God’s will be done.’ His opponent, Jungingen, took time for prayer too. The German troops began singing their anthem, Christ ist erstanden (Christ is Risen). Meanwhile, the Polish and Lithuanian troops chanted their battle-song, Bogu rodzica dzewica (Virgin Mother of God).

The Combat

The knights with the two swords arrogantly presented them for the king’s use and Vytautas’, challenging them to come and fight. The king responded calmly, dismissed the heralds, then gave the signal for the battle to begin. While the Poles advanced in reasonably disciplined order, singing their anthem, the Lithuanians charged wildly and scattered the lightly armed units opposite them. Then the contending forces hammered away at one another for about an hour. Beyond this, there is little agreement in the various accounts. Apparently the Poles did not commit their major units, because the Germans remained on the defensive, awaiting an opportunity to charge ruthlessly into the rear of some retreating formation or gap in the lines.

The battle of Tannenberg is still being refought by historians today. Although the outline of the combat is very clear, German, Polish, and Lithuanian historians are not in agreement about the various actions which occurred during the battle, or even where the fighting took place on the broad field. The memorial chapel and mass graves have been located by archaeologists, but since some of those might indicate the slaughtered prisoners and wounded who perished over the following few days, there is no agreement even as to where the armies lined up. This much is agreed upon: the visiting crusaders were stationed on the left opposite the Lithuanians, presumably because they would be more motivated to fight against Tatar pagans than Polish Christians, but perhaps just because that was the most convenient posting; the Teutonic Knights held the centre and right of the line, opposite the Poles and their mercenaries.

The most important description of the battle is that of Jan Długosz, the Polish court historian. It is brief and tends to glorify the Polish contribution to the victory at the expense of the Lithuanian. In sum, he wrote that one wing of the ‘crossbearers’ defeated the horsemen under Vytautas after fierce fighting. Although Vytautas and the Smolensk regiments remained on the field, the Tatars fled, followed by many Lithuanians and Rus’ians. The German crusaders, seeing the wild flight of the enemy, assumed they had won a victory and left their positions to pursue them. This left a gap in the order’s lines. The Poles, meanwhile, had been holding their own against the Teutonic Knights. Now, seeing their opportunity, they pressed harder, and came in through the gap created on the left when the crusaders broke ranks to pursue the Tatars; soon the Polish knights had put the main battle force of the Teutonic Knights in great difficulty.

This generally accepted understanding of the battle has been modified significantly by a recently discovered letter written in 1413 by a well-informed noble or mercenary captain. Its finger-wagging admonition to keep the ranks of the knights firmly in hand supports an alternate version of the combat given by less well-known chroniclers, that a small number of crusaders attached to the Teutonic Knights had fallen for a tactical ruse by the Lithuanians, a feigned retreat that led pursuers into a trap sprung by Polish knights waiting on the flank. The Lithuanians and Poles then drove into the disordered lines and rolled up the crusader formation.

Jungingen, seeing the disaster unfolding, should probably have sounded the retreat. Nothing of the kind entered his mind, however. His hot blood raging, he gathered together all the knights he could into a wedge formation and charged directly for a slight height where he supposed the king would be found; certainly, he could see the royal banner flying there and a large number of heavily-armed knights. Jungingen did not lack the courage to stake everything on this one charge – he knew that the warhorses would be too exhausted to bear his men from the field if the attack failed. Perhaps he hoped that his charge, coming at a somewhat unexpected angle, would find the Polish forces insufficiently disciplined to change their formation quickly enough to meet him. He was wrong. Vytautas, seen at the centre of Matjeko’s painting, had seemingly been everywhere at once on his wing of the battlefield, performing fantastic and courageous feats; he now hurried over to the royal position with his men, perhaps to urge the king to reinforce the main battle lines with his reserves. In any case, Jungingen’s advance fell just short of the royal bodyguard. In vain, he yelled ‘Retreat!’ Surrounded and exhausted, Jungingen perished with a multitude of his best men. The rest of the cavalry, seeing him fall, fled in disorder. Panic quickly spread through the German ranks. The light cavalry from Culm seem to have led the flight. The Polish knights, once they had destroyed the main battle force, turned on the disordered surviving units as they tried to escape down the narrow roads and chewed them up one after another. The rearmost German knights were hindered in their terrified flight by the tangled units ahead of them. Unable to get past the masses of men, horses, and wagons, unable to fight effectively against an enemy coming up from behind, all they could do was to try to surrender or die fighting against hopeless odds. The crusaders on the victorious left wing came back booty-laden only to fall into the hands of those who held the battlefield. This was Długosz’s account of the battle; it quickly became the accepted story. Even the Germans agreed with Długosz, perhaps because he credited the Teutonic Knights with at least a partial victory, a rout of the pagan wing of the great army.

Polish historians emphasise royal generalship. They describe Jagiełło’s determination to participate in the combat personally, how the royal banner was brought to earth at one point, and how the king was saved from injury only by the last-moment intervention of Zbigniew Oleśnicki, the royal secretary, when a knight from Meissen, Luppold von Köckritz, charged directly for him. Mythology did not hesitate to turn this incident into a personal combat between Jagiełło and Jungingen. In short, according to Polish patriotic scholarship, Polish intelligence, courage, gallantry, and self-sacrifice had won the day.

Lithuanian historians disagree sharply with this interpretation of events. They insist that Vytautas’ men had made a tactical retreat, one common to warfare on the steppe, a ruse that tricked the crusaders from Germany into breaking ranks and dashing into an ambush. They regard the presence of Vytautas and the units from Smolensk fighting in the ranks of the victors during the decisive period of combat as proof that the main Lithuanian forces did not run away, but only lured the Germans into disordering their forces so badly that the way was open for the Polish attack. Credit for the victory should go to the grand prince, who inspired the tactics, who exhausted horse after horse in his relentless direction of the cavalry units, first on the right wing, then at the height of the fighting in the centre, when he brought the reinforcements that repelled Jungingen’s charge; not to his rival, Jagiełło, who was practically useless during the entire combat, unable to give commands or to inspire by personal example.

Modern scholars, despite new archaeological information and newly discovered archival material, have not come to complete agreement as to what transpired. Everyone agrees that Jungingen made mistakes in bringing his army onto the field of battle; everyone agrees that Jungingen and Vytautas were brave warriors who risked their lives in desperate combat; almost everyone agrees that Jagiełło, for one reason or another, chose to remain where everyone could see him, by his tent on the hill, and that the decisive moment of battle was when the crusaders’ attack on that position failed. All but the Lithuanians are practically unanimous in agreeing that a feigned retreat by an entire army was difficult and risky, although it was a common tactic for small units everywhere in Europe; also, if the retreat was a ruse, why was there no ambush of the pursuing forces? Or was there? More likely, the flight of the Lithuanian wing of the army was not planned. Jagiełło was, if anything, a cautious commander, and he would have understood that the retreat of an entire wing of his army would have been a disaster if the victorious crusaders had maintained discipline and charged with their full force into the gap left by the fleeing horsemen, then smashed into the flank of the royal forces. On the other hand, the forest at the rear of the Polish line, which would have hindered a retreat, may have shielded the central Polish battle formation from view or from an effective attack from the flank or rear. Because everyone agrees that the Teutonic Knights’ defeat resulted from the ill-disciplined pursuit of the Lithuanian forces, the dispute about the motivation of the Lithuanian units cannot be resolved to universal satisfaction: either there was a strategic retreat on the part of a significant fraction of Vytautas’ forces or those Lithuanians, Rus’ians, and Tatars had been driven from the field in defeat.

From the standpoint of observers at a distance of almost six centuries, the important fact is that the grand master’s lines were left in disarray, a situation that the Polish and Lithuanian units led by Vytautas exploited. Those scholars who put faith in the possibility of a ruse tend to inquire how many Tatars were in Vytautas’ levy, as if only steppe warriors could perform such a manoeuvre. Unfortunately, no contemporary source gives us more information about numbers than did Długosz, and not all scholars agree even upon the composition of the Polish and Lithuanian armies. But no matter. The Tatar contingent was not large, and it does not seem to have done any harm to its pursuers. Nor does it matter – the result was the same: the disruption of the German lines on the left wing led to a subsequent victory in the centre by the Polish forces. The Lithuanians had hitherto borne the brunt of the fighting, as the casualty figures substantiate, and they were still contributing significant pressure on the foe’s disintegrating lines.

The grand master must have considered ordering a retreat and rejected it; Jungingen’s decision to gamble everything on a massive charge at the royal tent might have been the best choice available. A chaotic retreat through the forest might have led to as complete a defeat as the army in fact suffered; and surely there would have been criticism that the grand master had missed his best chance to obtain a total victory over an enemy who was equally exhausted, certainly somewhat disorganised, and perhaps ready to collapse. Already thousands of Poles and Lithuanians had fallen in combat; some units had broken, and others were wavering. Had, by chance or skill, an arrow, spear, or sword brought down the king or great prince, the day would have belonged to Jungingen.

The total losses were almost beyond contemporary calculation: the oldest and also the lowest estimate was that 8,000 men died on each side. For the Teutonic Knights that meant that at least half the armed men perished. Thousands more became prisoners. Most of the order’s troops taken captive were put to the sword; only secular knights and officers were held for ransom. The dazed survivors gathered later, exhausted, wounded, and often without equipment, in the nearest cities and castles.

Jagiełło and Vytautas, for their part, were in no position to hurry with their armies into Prussia. Even though victorious, their losses had been heavy. The troops were fatigued; the horses were exhausted. The Lithuanians had fought for many hours, and the Poles had suffered, too, from the lack of sleep and drink, the tension of waiting, and the draining excitement of pitched battle. When the Germans fled, the Poles and Lithuanians had followed them for ten miles, cutting down those they overtook, and driving others into the swamps and forests to perish. When the victorious horsemen returned to camp they needed rest. Those with the most stamina went in search of booty, returning much later as exhausted as those who had been unable to move a foot from the battlefield. Meanwhile, the foot soldiers had been busy on the battlefield, gathering weapons, money, jewellery, and clothing, finishing off the wounded, slaughtering the lower-class prisoners, and burying the dead in mass graves. The Poles and Lithuanians needed a short pause to rest and to celebrate, possibly to pray, and to care for wounded and fallen comrades. Tatars and irregular troops rushed ahead to rob, rape, kill, and burn, starting panics that would hinder the organisation of regional defence.

There was no further effective resistance. The Teutonic Knights had lost so many castellans and advocates, so many knights, and so many militia units, that defences could not be manned. Those who survived had taken refuge wherever they could, often far from their assigned posts. The highest-ranking leaders had fallen almost to a man: the grand master, the marshal, the grand commander, the treasurer, and 200 knights. Marquard von Salzbach, the order’s expert on Lithuanian affairs and a former friend of Vytautas, was apparently taken prisoner by Jagiełło’s men, then beheaded by the grand prince. He had refused to be properly humble and submissive. Arrogant and proud to the end, unrepentant about having taunted Vytautas about his mother’s virtue, he and his companions had anticipated being treated in a manner befitting their status; nevertheless, when their fate was clear there is no indication that their courage flagged. They had understood from the beginning that there was no good in being Jagiełło’s and Vytautas’ former friends.

Some contemporaries believed that Tannenberg was a disaster to the crusading cause comparable to Nicopolis, but most simply marvelled at the huge losses in men, horses, and equipment. As the continuation of Posilge’s chronicle said: ‘The army, both cavalry and infantry, was routed completely, losing lives, goods, and honour, and the number slain was beyond numbering. May God have pity on them.’

That the defeat was so total and so final was hard for contemporaries to grasp. The news spread to courts where old men remembered the exploits of their youth in Lithuania – in Germany and France the disaster could hardly be believed; to bishops and burghers in Livonia, who were not sure whether to rejoice or mourn; to wives and families in Poland and Lithuania, who both exulted in their rulers’ exploits and gave thanks for the safety of husbands, brothers, and friends; to neighbouring rulers who may have hoped for another outcome of the war, one in which perhaps all the armies would have gone down in defeat together. Everyone demanded more information, and especially an explanation of how the Teutonic Knights could have suffered such an unexpected disaster. The responses were varied. The Teutonic Knights talked about treason, the numbers of the enemy host, and unfortunate tactics; the Poles were satisfied with courage, skill at arms, good generalship, and God’s favour.

The propagandists of the order worked hard to persuade contemporaries that the disaster was not as bad as it appeared, that it was the work of the devil through his agents, the pagans and schismatics – and most of all, that it was the fault of the Saracens. Moreover, they argued that now more than ever crusaders were needed in Prussia to continue God’s work. The Polish propagandists laboured, too, to present their interpretation of events, but they did not have the long-term contacts which had been developed in many crusading Reisen. Their praise of Jagiełło and his knights tended to awaken more sympathy for the hard-pressed order than was good for Polish interests. After the first impact of the news was absorbed by the European courts, after the first months of difficulty had passed, interpretations favoured by the order tended to prevail.

The modern reader, looking back on almost six centuries of events that dwarf the battle of Tannenberg without driving it from the public mind, hardly knows how to understand the negative attitudes toward the Teutonic Knights. Comparisons to Wilhelmine Germany of 1914 and to Hitler are unworthy of comment, though Germans of those generations thought of their acts as deeds of national revenge for the battle in 1410. In the context of twentieth-century events one is tempted to say that contemporaries of Tannenberg were right, that there is a divine justice operating in the world. In concluding that the Teutonic Knights had paid the price for having lived by the sword and swaggered in a world of pride, contemporaries found that Biblical admonitions came easily to mind: Tannenberg was God’s punishment for the Teutonic Order’s outrageous conduct. Pride had risen too high – Jungingen personified his order’s universally acknowledged tendency to arrogance and anger – and a fall had to follow.

The deficiencies of this method of justifying past events (Weltgeschichte als Weltgericht) should be obvious: if victory in battle reflects God’s will, then the Tatar domination of the steppe and the harassment of Polish and Lithuanian borderlands is also a reflection of divine justice; God punishes kings by sacrificing many thousands of innocent lives. Good Old Testament theology, but hard to fit into a New Testament framework. It is best that we do not tarry long in either the shadowy realm of pop psychology or dark religious nationalism, but move back into the somewhat better-lit world of chronicles and correspondence.

Conflicting views of modern historians about the battle of Tannenberg and its aftermath make for interesting if confused reading. One could summarise them roughly by saying that until the 1960s each interpretation reflected national interests more than fact. Since then, historians have become both more polite and less certain of their inability to err. Archaeology is beginning to shed light on the battlefield, giving promise that problems left by the literary sources may be more fully resolved. Political issues in Germany and Poland that seemed to depend on every imaginable historical justification have disappeared with the political parties that sponsored them, so that at last a quiet discussion about the past is possible. Most importantly, since the fall of Communism German and Polish historians have come to respect each other sufficiently to give real attention to one another’s ideas. There is, indeed, reason to hope that some day we may come to a better and more general agreement as to what really happened at Tannenberg and what it really signified.

The Other Panzer Division in Afrika – 10th Panzer Division


The 10.Panzer-Division was also ordered to Tunisia in response to the Allied landings in French North Africa. The bulk of Panzer-Regiment 7 landed in Tunis in the period from 27 November to 5 December 1942. Ships carrying most of the 5.Kompanie and 8.Kompanie were sunk on 3 December 1942. In total, 2 Pz.Kpfw.lI, 16 Pz.Kpfw.lIl, 12 Pz.Kpfw.lV, and 3 Pz.Bef.Wg. were lost in transit out of the original 21 Pz.Kpfw.ll, 105 Pz.Kpfw.lll, 20 Pz.Kpfw.IV and 9 Pz.Bef.Wg. shipped with Panzer-Regiment 7.

In addition to the Panzers sent to Tunisia with the units, from 1 November 1942 to 1 May 1943 a total of 68 Pz.Kpfw.III and 142 Pz.Kpfw.lV had been shipped to North Africa as replacements, of which 16 Pz.Kpfw.III and 28 Pz.Kpfw.lV were reported as having been sunk in transit. But these reinforcements were insufficient to deal with the combined tank strength of the American and British forces. Worn down by attrition (only 44 Pz.Kpfw.lIl, 25 Pz.Kpfw.IV and 1 Tiger were reported as operational in the last strength report compiled on 4 May), the last of the Panzer units had surrendered in Tunisia by 13 May 1943.


The 10th Panzer Division was first formed on 1 April 1939 in Prague, as a composite unit made up of previously established units throughout Germany. Many of these units were transferred from the 20th Motorized Division, the 29th Motorized Division, and the 3rd Light Division. By fall of 1939, the division was still forming, but was nonetheless committed to the 1939 Invasion of Poland before the process was complete. For that reason, the 10th Panzer Division remained in reserve for most of that campaign. It was moved from Pomerania in August into Poland, where it was hastily given control of the 7th Panzer Regiment, the 4th Panzer Brigade and several SS units.

The division completed its formation by winter of 1940. It consisted of the 10th Rifle Brigade with the 69th and 86th Rifle Regiments, the 4th Panzer Brigade with the 7th and 8th Panzer Regiments, and the 90th Artillery Regiment.

Once complete, the division was sent to France to participate in the Battle of France. Committed to the XIX Motorized Corps, the 10th Panzer Division was committed to the southern axis of the fight, with the 1st and 2nd Panzer Divisions as well as Infantry Regiment Großdeutschland. It advanced through Luxembourg broke through the French lines at the Muese River near Sedan, all the way to the English Channel in its first engagement. At Sedan, the division remained briefly in reserve to protect the German bridgehead across the river from French counterattack. From there, the division pushed allied forces from the ports in the Flanders region, before engaged in mopping-up operations in western areas of France after the French surrender. Following this, the division engaged in occupation duty and training in France.

In March 1941, the division was recalled to Germany, and moved to the border with the Soviet Union in June of that year in preparation for Operation Barbarossa. Once the operation was launched, the division fought in engagements at Minsk, Smolensk, Vyasma, and the Battle of Moscow. It remained in the region during the Russian winter offensive of 1941-1942, holding Juchnow, near Rzhev, against repeated Russian counterattacks from January to April 1942. By 1942, the division had suffered massive casualties and losses, forcing it to be withdrawn to rebuild.

The division was sent to Amiens, France for rehabilitation. Here, it was reorganized, eliminating the brigade headquarters because the division had been so badly mauled it no longer needed them. In 1942, the division was rushed to Dieppe, where it played a minor role in countering the Dieppe Raid by Allied forces. Once the Allies landed in North Africa, the 10th Panzer Division was placed in occupation duty in Vichy France, and rushed to the African Theater in late 1942 as soon as transport became available. It landed in Tunisia and participating in the Battle of Kasserine Pass and several of the other early battles with units of the United States Army, newly committed to the war. In December 1942, the division, now a part of Fifth Panzer Army, consolidated defenses around Tunis, and the battle-weary troops were able to form a line against the advancing allied forces.

The division remained fighting during the early months of 1943. At that time, when the Axis line collapsed in May 1943, the division was trapped. It surrendered on May 12 and was never rebuilt.

Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (right)

Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg

In September 1942, the Chief of the General Staff of the O.K.H., Generaloberst Franz Halder, a close friend of von Stauffenberg, was succeeded by General der Infanterie Kurt Zeitzler. von Stauffenberg did not think much of him but Zeitzler highly respected von Stauffenberg and considered him ‘a good future corps and army commander’. Such promising officers were rare and therefore, von Stauffenberg was promoted to Oberleutnant on January 1st, 1943. Shortly after, without consulting von Stauffenberg himself, he was transferred to the post of chief of operations (Ia) of the 10. Panzerkorps in North-Africa. Zeitzler officially declared: “I wanted him to gain experience as a staff officer and troop commander in order to prepare him for his future task as commander of a corps and an army” The decision for his transfer was also made based on the wish to get the outspoken and explicit officer away from the eastern front where he caused increasing unrest. The supreme command wanted to save him from the claws of the SS and SD. von Stauffenberg regretted the necessity but he told his new divisional commander that the German soil was gradually becoming too hot for him.

On February 15th, von Stauffenberg, full of energy, officially embarked on his task in the Afrikakorps. At that moment, the 10. Panzerdivision was in combat near Sidi-Bourzid and the Casserine Pass where the freshly arrived American 2nd Corps got their baptism of fire. For the Americans, the operation ended in disaster but after Major-general George Patton had assumed command, the Germans were driven back.

On April 7th, the same day British-American troops from the west made contact with General Montgomery’s 8th Army (Bio Montgomery), von Stauffenberg assisted in the organization of the German withdrawal to the Tunisian coastal town of Sfax. His staff car zigzagged through a long line of trucks and soldiers when the column was attacked by a number of American P-40 fighter bombers. Numerous vehicles and soldiers were hit. As his driver wound his way through the wreckage, von Stauffenberg stood upright in his car, giving directions when he was targeted by the .50 machineguns of the P-40s. His hands raised above his head, he jumped out of the car but at that moment he was hit by the bullets. He was found later on, semi conscious, lying beside his overturned and burnt out car. He was gravely injured: both eyes were damaged by bullets and his right arm was all but shot away, just as two fingers of his left hand. One of his knees was hit and shrapnel lodged in his back and in his legs. He was rushed to the nearest field hospital in Sfax were he was immediately operated upon. The remains of his right hand were amputated just below his wrist, as well as his left ring finger and little finger. His left eye was also removed.

As Montgomery was approaching Sfax, von Stauffenberg was transferred to the hospital in Cartago. En route, the ambulance frequently came under fire from Allied aircraft. The physicians feared the worst and von Stauffenberg was flown to Munich. He was running a high fever, his entire body was bandaged and his chances of survival appeared slim. While in hospital, the Oberleutnant was being visited by many high ranking officers, including Zeitzler. Many family members came by as well, such as his wife, his mother and his uncle Nikolaus Graf von Üxküll-Gyllenband. von Stauffenberg talked to him about his growing awareness he had been spared to fulfill a certain task in his life. Because of this mission, his will power to recuperate was extremely strong. He was discharged from hospital as early as July 3rd.

von Stauffenberg regained the sight in his right eye and he taught himself to write again with his three remaining fingers, albeit arduously. From then on he wore a black patch over his left eye but later on, he had an artificial eye made. He also had deep scars in his face and his hearing was impaired. Despite his handicaps, von Stauffenberg did not consider himself disabled. After a bit of practice, he managed to dress himself again with his three fingers and his teeth only. He could hardly recall what he had done with all of those ten fingers when he still had them, he remarked jokingly.

Counterattack at Arras 1940



By the evening of 20 May, Guderian’s panzer spearheads had reached Abbeville at the mouth of the Somme, and at this point their line was as thinned out as it ever would be. The Germans were vulnerable to a determined counterattack, but the only one that threatened the speeding panzers was by British tanks at Arras on 21 May. The Allies inflicted a stinging reverse on the SS Totenkopf division, but they quickly found themselves blocked by Rommel’s panzers. After a brisk battle, the British were driven back to their original positions and threatened with encirclement.


On the main front, there was a glimmer of hope. Georges, despite his pessimism, tried to organize a counterattack and positive results came from the advance of the 1st DLM and 1st North African Division in the Mormal Forest where the 5th Panzer Division was engaged. The DLM’s SOMU As discovered a number of abandoned Char B tanks, but were unable to establish contact with headquarters to recover these valuable vehicles. Throughout the rest of the campaign, the Germans continued to find a good number of abandoned French tanks which were unserviceable or simply had run out of fuel.

Prime Minister Paul Reynaud was meanwhile forced to make changes in his command. He finally decided to replace Gamelin with General Maxime Weygand who returned from Syria on 18 May, as Gamelin was trying to seal the German penetration. Meanwhile the Prime Minister was also faced with reorganization of his cabinet. He called on the old war hero Marshal Philippe Pétain to serve in his government and hopefully restore confidence. Nothing, however, could avert disaster. The Belgian king, ready to give up, withdrew his army to the last corner of his kingdom. British concern regarding the fate of the BEF and its survival intensified. By 19 May, the Germans were already establishing bridgeheads over the Somme River which was rapidly becoming untenable as a defense line for the French. The problem facing the French High Command was how to defend the ever-expanding front when already up to one third of its forces, including allies, were destroyed or trapped in the North.

Gamelin hoped to take advantage of the vulnerability of the German spearhead and send his troops against its shoulders which would disrupt the lines of communication behind the panzer units. He ordered the 2nd Army to launch an offensive action in the vicinity of Sedan, and commanded the units of the main body of the 1st Army Group to attack further southwards towards Cambrai. Before the preparations for these actions could be effected, Gamelin was replaced by Weygand on 20 May who decided to make his own evaluation of the fluid situation before going on the offensive. The French, now as ready as they could be, lost more time awaiting the decision of the new commander.

The day of 19 May only brought a few encouraging moments for the Allies as the overall situation of the 1st Army Group deteriorated. De Gaulle’s 4th DCR, now comprising about 150 tanks, struck again at the Germans, and this time hit Guderian’s left rear in the vicinity of Laon. Mines, anti-tank guns and Panzer IVs finally brought de Gaulle’s armor to a halt at Crécy (not the town where the French were defeated during the Hundred Years War). As on 17 May, the French division was hard hit again by the Luftwaffe. In a tragic error, the Armée de l’Air assigned to protect them didn’t show up until after the Stukas had turned back the French tanks because of a change in the scheduling. Though Guderian later claimed the action had given him some uncomfortable hours, the beaten attack was not hardly enough to stem the almost irresistible tide. The whole incident did demonstrate though just how effective French armored units might have been if only they had had a more adequate divisional organization and better coordination between units. Afterwards, the French Cavalry Corps attempted to reorganize its DLMs.

Despite the Allies’ best efforts, the Germans breached the line of the Escaut River adding to the difficulties of the encircled 1st Army Group. To make matters worse, the French abandoned the remaining three ouvrages of the Maginot Extension, fearing that these forts might suffer the same fate as La Ferté since they had not been designed to be defended in the same way as the Maginot Line Proper. As a result, the Germans firmly secured their flank at Sedan. To add to the woes of the French, both General Giraud, commanding the 9th Army, and General Bruneau, who had fought with his 1st DCR to the end, fell into German hands.

In a renewed offensive on 20 May, Guderian’s corps, in conjunction with Reinhardt’s and Hoth’s, overran the British 12th and 23rd Territorial Divisions holding the line of the Canal du Nord. General Gort had requested and received these two poorly trained divisions late in April to use mainly as a labor force. General Ironside had directed him to make sure they received additional training, but he failed to do so. The German breakthrough forced Gort to move them into the line in order to block the German drive to the sea, a hapless move since neither unit was assigned the three artillery regiments or the anti-tank regiment that were the normal components of a British infantry division. Their infantry battalions were also poorly armed. Each had three rather ineffective Boys anti-tank rifles, with five rounds of ammunition each and even then few of the men were experienced to operate them. For the moment, these divisions represented the only forces available to bar the German thrust. The 2nd Panzer Division quickly cut through the British line and soon reached the coast at Abbeville, sealing the trap for the 1st Army Group and the BEF. Meanwhile, the French command ordered the British 5th and 50th Divisions with the 1st Army Tank Brigade to prepare for Gamelin’s earlier planned attack together with the remaining armor of the French Cavalry Corps. Since the British were not able to load their tanks onto trains, they had to drive them most of the way out of Belgium, which gave rise to numerous maintenance problems.

On 21 May Weygand finally decided to launch assaults from both sides of the German spearhead in hopes of cutting it off and relieving the encircled units of the 1st Army Group. In other words, he simply followed Gamelin’s strategy, after having delayed its implementation. At a conference held at Ypres, Weygand ordered Billotte to launch an attack towards the south, in the vicinity of Bapaume, with the forces he had available. A similar operation would be initiated with units on the Somme. Billotte’s limited resources included the remnant of his DLMs. His last remaining DCR had been eliminated as a fighting unit. General Besson, commanding the French 3rd Army Group on the Somme, was still building up his new front with the 6th and 7th Armies. He had the 3rd DCR, which had been rebuilt from training units and depots, and the 2nd DCR with less than half of its original equipment, but neither of these units was ready for an offensive move. Weygand’s new orders to attack pushed the date back to 26 May, causing a delay which could have been avoided by going ahead with Gamelin’s original plans. No attacks took place in the end, partly because French morale had been shattered by 25 May.

During the day of 21 May, as Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps, after securing a bridgehead on the Somme, advanced on Boulogne and Calais, the British attempted to reinforce the motley French garrisons of those ports. The 20th Guards Brigade, consisting only of the 2nd Battalion Irish Guards, the 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards and an anti-tank battery arrived at Boulogne. It soon faced the 2nd Panzer Division. Another two battalions from the 30th Infantry Brigade, with the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment from the 1st Armored Division, a former motorcycle battalion and an anti-tank battery, completed the British force defending Calais. According to General Ironside, these were the last Regular Army troops left in England. Initially, Guderian sent the 1st Panzer Division against this force.

As Guderian’s panzers began to advance on the left wing of the German spearhead, the British began an offensive against Hoth’s panzer corps on the spearhead’s right flank. The weak British 1st Army Tank Brigade, with its 58 Mark I tanks armed only with machine-guns, and 16 of the slow but more formidable Mark II Matilda infantry tanks armed with 40mm guns, launched the only Allied attack of 21 May. The 3rd DLM, with its 60 SOMUA tanks, joined the British raid, advancing on their right flank as they moved south of Arras. Of the two British divisions assigned to this offensive, only two infantry battalions arrived. The Allied attack spread panic among the still green troops of the SS Totenkopf Division, convincing Rommel that his 7th Panzer Division was under attack by upwards of five divisions. The shaken general took personal control of the situation, throwing back the Allies at the battle of Arras. Rommel recounted that when his 6th Rifle Regiment failed to stop the British tanks with its anti-tank guns and began to take heavy losses, his divisional artillery intervened, bringing the attack to a stop and destroying 28 tanks. His 88mm anti-aircraft guns eliminated another seven light tanks and one heavy tank. Finally Rommel’s 25th Panzer Regiment joined in taking the British in the flank and rear. Seven more Matildas were knocked out for a corresponding loss of three Panzer IVs, six Panzer IIIs and a number of light tanks in the resulting tank battle. This action caused the Germans much greater concern than the 19 May attack of de Gaulle’s armored division, even though the latter could have inflicted more serious damage if it had succeeded in cutting off German supply lines.

On the evening of 21 May, after completing his conference at Ypres, Weygand found it impossible to return to his headquarters by air and had to take his leave from the isolated army group on a destroyer. Meanwhile, an automobile accident took Billotte’s life. This created further problems because his replacement, General Georges Blanchard, the commander of the 1st Army, lacked the authority and personality to direct the British and Belgian forces. Blanchard was unable to marshal the units needed for the planned offensive and his army group no longer had the needed mechanized units to stage an offensive, as many units had wasted away in piecemeal actions. The best the French could hope to achieve at this point was to maintain a defensive position. Since this would only be a temporary solution, the remnants of 1st Army Group were doomed.

Each day the situation grew worse. On 22 May, the French 1st Army’s V Corps began its own offensive. Instead of the required divisions, the V Corps mustered a single regiment with some armor support for the assault. The offensive thus degenerated into a raid in the direction of Cambrai. It achieved some success, reaching the outskirts of Cambrai only to be driven back by a superior German force. While it was again too little too late, the effort demonstrated that the French had the men and equipment for mechanized warfare, but lacked the proper leadership in the higher echelons.

The Paragon: General of Panzer Troops Dietrich von Saucken


Born: 16.05.1892 Fischhausen/Ostpreußen

Died: 27.09.1980 München/Bayem

Few officers in the German Wehrmacht personified the aristocratic Prussian Junker-officer as did von Saucken. The monocle’d general came from a long lineage of Prussian nobility dating back to the fourteenth century. He was one of the few high ranking members of the Wehrmacht who was neither intimidated by Hitler’s insane ravings nor hypnotized by his charisma when he – like many others- was summoned to the Fuehrer’s headquarters to explain why he had made a clever tactical withdrawal instead of ordering his troops to stay put and be massacred by vastly superior Russian forces.

Born 1892 in East Prussia as the son of a judge, von Saucken entered the Imperial Army in 1910 and served in the cavalry regiment “Kaiser Wilhelm I” as a Lieutenant. During WW I he was wounded seven times and finished the war with the rank of Captain. Between the wars he continued to serve with the Reichwehr in various cavalry detachments.

Dietrich von Saucken fought in Poland in 1939 with the cavalry (1st Cavalry Brigade). From fall 1940, he commanded the 4th Rifle Brigade (Schutzenbrigade 4) of 4th Panzer Division. He took the command of the division in December 1941. He was promoted to Major General in 1 January, 1942, but unfortunately he was wounded in the next day, a large chunk of his left eyebrow and forehead having to be removed. He came back to service in August 1942 to a post in training schools, was promoted to Lieutenant General in 1943.

In late 1944 he was G.O.C. Group von Saucken north of Minsk organising counterattacks to stop the Great Russian ‘Bagration’ Offensive. He commanded a Panzer Group on the Oder in 1945, and a Corps in East Prussia and South Poland consisting of the Grossdeutschland and Hermann Goring Divisions. In February 1945 von Saucken successfully smashed a way through the Russians, who had surrounded his command when the Vistula front collapsed, and led his Corps back to the Oder and safety near Steinau.

In March 1945 he was G.O.C. 2nd Army in Sopot, Gydnia and Danzig areas. His fellow-cavalryman Captain Gerhard Boldt has left a brilliant description of a meeting between Hitler and von Saucken in the Chancellory in March 1945. ‘Slim, elegant, his left hand resting casually on his cavalry sabre, von Saucken saluted and gave a slight bow. This was three outrages at once. He had not given the Nazi salute with raised arm and the words “Heil Hitler”, as had been regulation since 20 July 1944; he had not surrendered his weapon on entering the operations room; and he had kept his monocle in his eye when saluting Hitler….’ Guderian and Bormann, who were present, seemed turned to stone, but Hitler merely asked Guderian to brief von Saucken on conditions in East Prussia and the Danzig area, where he was to take over 2nd Army Group. Hitler then told the General that in the Danzig area he would have to accept the authority of Gauleiter Forster. Von Saucken stiffened and, still with eyeglass in place struck the marble table with the flat of his hand and said: “I have no intention, Herr Hitler, of placing myself under the orders of a Gauleiter!” Boldt adds: ‘One could have heard a pin drop on the carpet. It seems to me that Hitler shrank physically from the General’s words. His face looked even more waxen, his body more bowed than ever….’

Guderian and Bormann then tried to persuade von Saucken to be reasonable, but he would only reply, “I have no intention whatsoever of doing so….” Hitler, who seemed at last to have met his match in the matter of gazes, finally said in a weak voice: “All right, Saucken, keep the command to yourself.” After a few more minutes of discussion von Saucken left ‘with the merest hint of a bow’. Hitler did not shake his hand.

Guderian had a high opinion of von Saucken, whose abilities he thought ‘outstanding’. He records, in his book ‘Panzer Leader’, that in Eastern Germany in 1945 ‘Generals Nehring and von Sauken performed tasks of military virtuosity during those days that only the pen of a new Xenophon could adequately describe.’

He got Ritterkreuz mit Eichenlaub, Schwertern und Brillianten in 8 May, 1944. Dietrich von Saucken is definitely recognized by the OdR (Knight’s Cross winner association) as being the last man to receive the Diamonds, with his award dated May 8, 1945. After surrendering von Saucken went into Soviet captivity. Doenitz had sent an aircraft to evacuate von Saucken, but he refused to abandon his troops and went into captivity with them.

After his capture by the Russians, von Saucken refused to sign a false letter and was subsequently sentenced to 25 years of imprisonment and sent to a Siberian work camp. Here he was tortured and spent twelve months in solitary confinement. He returned to Germany in 1955 as a marked man and settled in Munich, where he took up amateur painting. He passed away in 1980.