THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE – AN INTERVIEW WITH GERMAN PANZERTRUPPE VETERAN LUDWIG BAUER
What was the supply situation like? Did your unit suffer from lack of fuel or ammunition?
I know of course that there were grievous supply problems during the Battle of the Bulge, especially so when the weather allowed the Allied air forces to operate. Yet personally I did not experience any shortages. I remember that our company was once ordered to relieve a unit of Panzer IVs, I think they were from the Hitlerjugend Division, in the area of Bastogne. When we arrived there we were short on fuel so a Hitlerjugend Hauptsturmführer came over to tell us that we could take 150 litres each from his Panzers. Another time I was under orders to lead my company into an attack on US positions…again I have forgotten where. Then we were so low on fuel that I knew that we would run out before being able to return to our own lines. I declined that order, which was accepted without problems. Ammunition was never short.
What types of enemy armour did you face in the Ardennes and how do you rate them?
In the Ardennes I encountered Shermans of all types, US tank hunters…Hellcats or Wildcats, US light tanks, armoured cars and halftracks. The backbone of the US tank units was the Sherman. That was a good and capable tank. Especially in Normandy and the Bulge where the terrain made engagements on long distances rare.
What was the average combat distance in these theatres of war?
About 500 to 600 meters. On that range the gun of the standard Sherman of that time could effectively engage our Panzer IVs and Sturmgeschütze.They were relatively fast and mobile and most important they had endless supply of them! Our guns were better, in general more powerful and with better range. Our optical equipment was better too. With the 75/L48 gun of the StuG and the Panzer IV we could engage enemy armour on ranges of about 1000 meters without even having to calculate trajectory. You just had to point the gun on the target and fire. The shell would hit where you aimed it. Of course the long 75 of the Panther was even more lethal. They caught fire quickly when hit and one thing I have often observed on Shermans is cracked armour. Even a glancing hit with a powerful gun could crack the cast armor of a Sherman open. That did not happen on our tanks. The major weakness of American tanks though..and I am sorry I have to say that, but their major weakness was the crews.
Would you care to explain?
Well, I do not like to talk about it as todays people are easily offended. Just let me say that some of the things we pulled off in the West, we could never have done in Russia. There was a certain lack of…well…how to say that…
Let me give you an example. I have witnessed a lot of times that US tank crews bailed out after being hit. Just hit! A non-penetrating hit. That means the tank was still working and the crew healthy and alive. That would have been totally unthinkable in the East. Some units could fight ferociously, but most…well…
Near Cologne I once witnessed a US Sherman crew surrendering to a Landser who was pointing a Panzerfaust at them. He jumped out of a foxhole and pointed his weapon at the tank when suddenly the hatches flew open and the crew climbed out. Engine still running. Not a shot was fired. That was probably a drastic exception, but in general the Americans lacked the ferocity and willpower we encountered regularly on the Eastern Front. That also applied to their infantry.
So combat in the east was different to that in the west?
It was. All the classic doctrines of armoured combat which we could effectively apply in the East did not work in the west. In the west allied air and artillery power ruled supreme. Our Luftwaffe was virtually non existent. Major movements during the day and on open ground where largely impossible, as was maneuvering in combat. Whenever the western Allies ran into resistance of any kind, or even only expected resistance they pulled back, waited for reinforcements to pull up and in the meantime they plastered us with artillery fire and air attacks. They were cautious, I would say overcautious. A mistake in my opinion as this strategy always left us the time to fall back and to establish new defensive lines. It all lasted a lot longer than it should have done.
How do you rate the German troops in the West in 1944, I am thinking about the newly raised Volksgrenadier Divisions here.
Of course many of these units were far being elite fighting forces, but believe me they were not commanded by idiots. They could all efficiently engage the enemy if needed. In general our doctrine of mission-type tactics (Auftragstaktik) gave us the edge in ground engagements. In the German Army we were told what to do and not how to do it. The ways to achieve success were left to junior commanders on the ground. In the Allied armies officers were told what to do and how to do it, making them inflexible in combat as they had to ask or wait for new orders when things did not go as planned. On our side this concept of operational freedom worked on all levels, from army to platoon commander. Success was rewarded, not following orders. This was practiced in all units of the German Army and even though effective use of Auftragstaktik very much depended on the experience and training of the officers and troops it continued to be one of our major assets. Morale was strong, especially in an experienced unit like ours.
Did you unit take prisoners and how did the process of “taking” prisoners work?
We were an armoured unit and usually had to keep moving. That meant if we took prisoners they were told to disarm and then to follow our route of advance backwards until they encountered the first German infantry. There they were to raise their hands as sign of surrender. It was a pretty straightforward process. If you ask this question because of Peiper and Malmedy, let me tell you that the whole story is fishy. In our regiment we did not shoot prisoners of war, I would personally have shot any men to open fire on defenceless prisoners. I met Jochen Peiper during the war and became friends with him after the war, when he worked for Porsche and I worked for BMW.
Did you speak about what happened at Malmedy?
Yes, often and in great lengths. Let me just say that I did not see anything go on on that crossroads. Neither did Peiper. There were a few Americans killed there during a short engagement. Prisoners were taken. After having been disarmed the tanks continued while the prisoners were sent backwards. When the next vehicles arrived at Malmedy some of prisoners had rearmed. Fire was opened. That’s in very rough terms what Peiper told me. I would have opened fire on an armed enemy. We all know what happened during the trials, today the facts are open and accessible if only one cares to look for them. Yet people still repeat the Malmedy story over and over. Jochen Peiper was probably the most impressive officer I have ever met. A highly experienced combat soldier of great charisma and strong character. Crimes were committed by individuals on both sides. Americans regularly executed German prisoners of war. Yet not a single one was punished for it. Being the only branch of the army wearing black uniforms with skulls on them we knew very well what could happen to us if we fell into enemy hands. Again these facts are easily available for everyone who wants to find them. That’s all I want to say at this point.
On a lighter note there is one story relating to a US prisoner of war that I will never forget..
Tell me about it!
I think it was in January, again in the area of Foy. With our assault gun we had to guard a crossroads shortly after a short engagement had been fought nearby. We were sitting in the assault gun, my hatch was opened and we were just in the process of smoking our last cigarettes and we heard the sound of someone knocking against the armour on the outside with the help of a rock or something similar. Expecting German soldiers outside I stood up and looked out only to see an American soldier, minus his helmet and weapons standing outside and addressing me in English. I did not understand a thing so i asked my radio operator, who had been working in a London hotel before the war and was fluent in English, to talk to him. He was very surprised to find out that he could hardly understand the American either! We were still communicating using hands and feet when suddenly we became of the target of an American mortar barrage. In a Hollywood version of events I would probably have shot the American at this point. Yet we pulled him into the cramped fighting compartment and buttoned up. There we slowly began to understand each other while the American kindly shared a package of his cigarettes with us. I remember he was a farmhand, I have forgotten where he was from. When the barrage ceased we told him into which direction to walk and for how long. He was to raise his hands when he encountered the first German infantry which would then take him prisoner. When he had disappeared in a wood behind us I tried to catch a bit of sleep inside the vehicle. After about one hour someone knocked on the outside of the tank. It was my American friend. He had walked into the direction we had shown him, but failed to meet any German infantry. We could not handle a prisoner ourselves, so without thinking further about it I told my radio operator to tell the American to walk into the opposite direction. There would be no need to raise his hands when he met American infantry and that he was free to return home. I have never seen such a smile again…
Again he trotted off, but this time he did not return. I have often wondered what became of him..
Did you take casualties from Allied air attacks?
My section didn’t, but there were losses inflicted by Allied fighter bombers. There was a period around Christmas 1944 when they were very active and again in mid January.
I was nearly done for by one myself around that time. I can’t remember the exact location, but again it was in the area of Noville/Foy. It was in the early morning hours and we were traveling down a paved road. I was standing in the commander’s hatch and I guess I wasn’t as alert as I should have been. Suddenly I heard an engine sound which clearly came from an aircraft. Looking up, the clouds had just begun clearing away and high above I could see the circling silhouette of a single aeroplane. Yet this was far away, or so I thought. We continued travelling down the road at high speed and just as we climbed a slope I could hear the engine sounds getting louder. As I have told you before we were all very, very tired and I guess I had somehow lost part of my senses that day. We went up the slope and down on the other side and just moments afterwards the engine sound became ear deafening. It all happened within seconds. An enemy fighter bomber came racing over the crest of the slope behind us and I swear it can’t have been more than 5 or 6 meters above ground. I remember screaming “Scheisse! Halt an Karl!” and my driver immediately reacted and the Sturmgeschütz halted. In the same moment one or two rockets smashed into the ground just a meter or so in front of our vehicle. The force of the explosion was enough to lift the front half of it 20 or 30 centimeters into the air. The fighter bomber, I think it was an English one, zoomed over our heads I thought it would rip off my head, then climbed and disappeared in the clouds.
I can tell you, we were all very much awake after that…
END OF PART TWO