PANZER COMMANDER IN THE ARDENNES – AN INTERVIEW WITH GERMAN PANZERTRUPPE VETERAN LUDWIG BAUER
At the time of this interview Ludwigs health made a personal visit impossible. It was conducted and recorded via the telephone on 27 November 2016
Ludwig, for a start please tell us a bit about yourself and your military career
I joined the Wehrmacht on 4 February 1941 as an officer aspirant and was posted to the 3rd company of Panzer-Ersatz-Abteilung 33 at St. Pölten-Spratzern in Austria. This was the Ersatz and Ausbildungs (replacement and training) unit of Panzer-Regiment 33. There I was trained on various Panzer models (II, III and IV) and later received special weapons training at gun layer. After training I saw action on the Eastern Front after being posted there in August 1941 during Operation Barbarossa. For reasons unknown to me I was posted to Panzerjäger-Abteilung 521, a tank hunter unit operating Panzerjäger I self propelled anti-tank guns. Basically a Czech 4.7 cm AT gun mounted on a Panzer I chassis. It was attached to 3. Panzer-Division. With this unit I had my baptism of fire. I fought in the Battle of Kiev where we took over 650.000 Russian prisoners and captured over 3000 guns and 800 tanks. I saw a lot of action there. In October, during Operation Typhoon, the attack on Moscow, our unit received four Panzer IIs as replacements. As I had been trained on that model I was assigned to one of the crews as a gunner. So my first “real” tank. We were mainly used for flank protection during major offensive thrusts. I fought at Smolensk, Mzensk and Tula where I was wounded when my Panzer was destroyed. After recovering from my wounds I was posted back to the Eastern Front in April 1942, this time to 1./Panzer-Regiment 33. The company had just received the Panzer III with the long 5 cm gun and I served as a gun layer in one of them. I then participated in the Battle of Voronezh, most certainly one of the most exhausting and difficult periods of my life. Harder even than the fighting at the Battle of Rzhev later that year. I finished my officers training and was promoted to Leutnant on 1 October 1943. I took command of a platoon in 3./Panzer-Regiment Nr 33 and saw action east of Krivoy-Rog. A hard time, inside the tank day and night facing one Soviet attack after the other. We stayed in that area for quite a while. In February 1944 we fought at the Bug near Arnautovka before, afer suffering heavy casualties we made our way south to Odessa and from there to Romania. We finally ended up in Nimes, France where the Division was to be refreshed. When the Allies landed in Normandy on 6 June 1944 our Division was just on a large scale field excercise in the area of Arles-Aix. There were some major clashed with the American 3rd Army near Avranches in August 1944, yet Allied aerial supriority made any effective defence impossible. In Normandy the Division lost most of its tanks and vehicles, most of them by Allied air attacks. By the end of October 1944, after seeing limited action around Venlo, the Division was being refreshed in the Eifel, that was shortly before the Battle of the Bulge, or Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein. I later fought in Germany..in the Eifel, at the Rhine and in and around Cologne. The remains of our Regiment disbanded in in a forest near Iserlohn on 16 April 1945. I was taken prisoner by the Americans a few day later.
I was released from US captivity in 1946. I joined the new German Army as a Leutnant of the Reserve in 1962. My military career ended in 1975 when I was a Generaloberst of the Reserve.
You said you were with 9. Panzer-Division in the Eifel in October 1944. Where was that?
The division was being refreshed in the area of Waldniel-Eiken. I remember it well, as there was a V1 launching site nearby. It was the first time in the war I saw these weapons in action. After loosing most of our armour in Normandy we received new vehicles on 30 October 1944; Panzer IVs for 2nd and 3rd company. My lot, 1st company, was supposed to be issued with assault guns, which arrived a few days later.
Assault guns? In a Panzer regiment? Was that unusual? Were you unhappy with the decision?
It was what was available, but of course we are not happy with the decision. Mainly because that meant loosing a member of our old crew. A tank was crewed by five man, an assault gun by four. That was a serious blow, as we were a close knit group.
There was a lot of debate, but there was no way around it. Later we found that the Sturmgeschütz III was actually more effective and safer than our Panzer IVs. Our companies losses were lower and we destroyed more enemy vehicles. Reason here was probably the lower silhouette of the vehicle which made it harder to spot. It was a great and very effective gun platform.
Did you need special training to operate the Sturmgeschütz?
We probably should have been given time to get used to our new mount, but time was something we did not have. We old tank crews did not have a lot of difficulties to adapt to the changes. It was actually very similar to a tank. Only the limited field of fire was something we had to get used to. The gun, which was the same as the that on the Panzer IV, could only be traversed about 15 degrees to the left and right. Anything more and one had to turn the vehicle. One thing that seemed very important to us old tankers was to zero in our guns. This would have required firing a few live 75mm rounds, but the commander denied our request. By then our armour was well hidden away – camouflaged in a forest. I guess it was feared that the sound of gunfire could alert the enemy to our presence and result in aerial bombardment. We all feared that.
When did you learn about the upcoming offensive and by then, did you still think that this operation could be crowned with success?
Let me answer the last bit first! Yes! Not only did we believe it, we were entirely sure of it! I remember we were first learned about it on 17 December 1944 during an officers briefing. Oberstleutnant Weiß-Kafanke used some words there which I have not forgotten so far. “The Führer has asked us to do our very best and not to let him down.We only need to keep the enemy at bay for about three more months“. Three more months, then we would see the new mircale weapons and these would force the enemy to negotiate. I believed that. I was that kind of young officer: keen, energetic and looking at it today probably a little bit stupid. We all believed in it. There were hardly any senior officers in the companies, we were mainly young Leutnants and Oberleutnants. All the senior personnel was dead, wounded, gone. By then the average length of survival for a Panzer officer was about 28 days; that is before he was killed or wounded. In the Infantry it was even worse, with about 19 days. We youngsters believed in the Führer, in the Fatherland. We knew the enemy was far superior in number of troops, tanks, artillery. He had endless supplies, total aerial supriority. Yet, believe me when I say we still knew we could beat him anytime on the ground when chances were more or less equal and when he wasn’t able to bring his air force to bear. We were an experienced lot, with lots of combat experience in the worst of conditions. We felt we could do it.
When did ‘your’ Battle of the Bulge begin and is there anything you’d like to talk about?
One thing is important. It may sound weird to you, but I do not remember many details of my time in the Ardennes. From the last weeks of December 1944 to about mid February 1945 I hardly left the tank. We were in constant action and had very little to time to relax or sleep. We left the vehicle when there was a call of nature to follow and even that was sometimes done in a tin inside the fighting compartment. Sleep was measured in minutes not hours. Contant fighting, contant watch, constant movement. I remember long stretches of the time in the Ardennes as if in a dream. After a time it felt like if someone remote controlled me. We just functioned. It is hard to describe to someone who has not experienced something like that himself.
How did you cope with these conditions? Did you get anything to make it easier for you?
You talk about Pervitin? No, we got nothing at all. We were only issued Pervitin twice during the war and that was in late 1941 and at the Battle of Voronezh in 1942. After that I never saw any of these pills. We were soldiers, we just had to cope with it.
So where did you see action?
We fought in the area of Bastogne, Noville and Foy. Later at Houffalize where there was severe fighting in January. The American 101st Airborne Division was one of our enemies in the sector of Foy and Houffalize. The fighting there was hard…very hard.
Did you have many casualties?
Yes, though losses in our company were not as bad as in the others. On 13rh of January Leutnant Rumpf was killed when his Panzer IV received a direct hit. I took over command of the company from him…There were many dead, I do not like to talk about it.
I remember that on the night of the 13th January Leutnant Becker ordered me to lead an attack on Foy with 1st company. That was initially successful, but no lasting success as the infantry could not follow up. I think Feldwebel Klotz and his crew where wounded there when their tank was hit. After that attack we withdrew to a position between Foy and Noville. The following day the Americans launched a counter attack with tanks and halftracks. I dont remember how many there were, but we were drastically outnumbered. We engaged the enemy with 6 StuGs and a proper tank battle developed, something that was rare on the Western Front. We destroyed most of the US armour without taking casualties. About 15 Shermans and a number of halftracks were destroyed during that engagement. Many of them were burning and in between them, on the ground, there were the bodies of dead and wounded US soldiers. Shortly afterward an American waving a Red-Cross flag hoved into view. I opened the command hatch and stood up to have a look at what was happening. By now a number of American halftracks and trucks marked with the Red Cross made an appearance. They were trying to evacuate their wounded and by doing so the whole column had to drive past my assault gun in a distance of about 100 to 150 meters. It was a very unsual spectacle, both for us and for the Americans. They went back and forth until all the bodies had been recovered and I remember that at the final time they went past, there was an American officer standing on the footboard of one of the vehicles. When he passed by he tried to stand to attention and gave a me a military salute. An impressive gesture which I answered in kind. Yet after they had pulled out of sight I had aweird feeling in my guts, some instinct told me that something was fishy. I gave the order to start the engines and just as we had moved the first two hundred meters towards Noville a quite substantial enemy artillery strike hit the area which we had only just left. Of course I can’t prove anything, but I still feel slightly annoyed when I think about that.
END OF PART ONE