Hawthorn Ridge Mine – The German experience, Somme, 1st of July 1916

The account below is a translated extract from the regimental history of Infanterie-Regiment No. 119, which was published in 1920 and based on the regimental war diary kept by the Reichsarchiv in Potsdam. Written and compiled by former officers of the regiment, it contains a fascinating account on the fighting that took place on the first of July 1916. The regiment itself being the one affected by the explosion of the Hawthorn Ridge Mine. 

IR119, subordinated to 26th Reserve Division, spent World War I on the Western Front. It fought in the Battle of the Frontiers and then participated in the Race to the Sea, fighting in the Somme region. It occupied the line in the Somme/Artois region into 1916, facing the British offensive in the Battle of the Somme. It was relieved from the Somme in October 1916 and spent the winter of 1916-1917 in the Artois.

In 1917, it fought in the Battle of Arras. In 1918, it fought in the German Spring Offensive and against the subsequent Allied offensives and counteroffensives. Allied intelligence rated the division as first class.

This post is dedicated to the 8355 men of the Regiment who were killed or wounded in World War 1. 

Soldiers of IR119 in May 1915.

Soldiers of IR119 in May 1915.

Hawthorn Ridge Mine – The German experience, Somme, 1st of July 1916

Hawthorn Ridge Crater (trees at the right), photographed as seen from the German lines.  ©Nick J Stone

Hawthorn Ridge Crater (trees at the right), photographed as seen from the positions of IR119. ©Nick J Stone 2012

Looking down Hawthorn Ridge Crater ©Nick Stone 2012

Looking down Hawthorn Ridge Crater ©Nick Stone 2012

“All those who fought at the side of the comrades now dead, will remember them with the same unbreakable loyalty that tied us together in the field and in the face of the enemy” – Regimental history of IR119

Our regimental positions were ready to be stormed, but everyone was in cheerful spirits even if the preliminary bombardment, which had lasted 7 days, had left its mark on the nerves of the men. Many weeks of hard labour strengthening and reinforcing our positions had paid off. 7 days of constant shelling had cost the regiment only 20 dead and 83 wounded. A couple of days earlier 10th company had taken a prisoner who had told us about an impending attack that was going to start of the 1st of July.

The men spent an uneasy night under constant shelling. In the morning the artillery fire ceased. Enemy aerial activity began to increase as did the number of observation balloons on the horizon. The enemy trenches were bustling with activity.
At 0630h the enemy artillery opened up again with a force we had not yet experienced. Within minutes everything around us was covered in hot clouds of smoke, dust, screaming explosions and seething pieces of shrapnel. Everyone knew that the attack was about to begin.

The men were ordered to prepare themselves, check their rifles and supply themselves with ammunition and hand grenades. At 0800 hours the artillery stopped and silence settled around Beaumont-South. Whistles could be heard and the English started to advance in dense waves. The men left their dugouts and shelters and prepared to greet them.

Our own artillery was called in by telephone and by firing red signal flares. The effect of our rifle and machine gun fire was lethal, cutting down the first wave of attackers and sending the others diving into cover. In section B5 the English managed to break into our trench, but a counter attack from the flank threw them out again. Two Lewis machine guns were captured and were at once set into use against their former owners. Another breakthrough down in the Ancre valley was repelled after an intense fighting with hand grenades.
The enemy had now taken cover in shell holes and a firefight had developed, during which the English sent wave after wave against our trenches. By now our artillery had increased its activity sending the enemy to take cover in the hollow that led down toward the Ancre. When this hollow was targeted by our heavy mortars the attackers finally started to retreat towards their initial positions. At 1000h the attack on 1st Batallion had been repelled.

Beaumont (North)

Beaumont-North was the scene of brutal fighting as the village had been designated to be the primary target of the English attacks. When the attack in the south started our positions in the north were still being pounded with artillery.

At 0815h a huge explosion occurred, the earth was shaking and it was clear that this was not a result of the shelling. A terrible rain of earth and stone was coming down on us and a gigantic cloud of dust and smoke was rising into the air, just in front of where 9th company was positioned. The English had dug a tunnel towards a protruding corner of our defences which they called the Hawthorn redoubt and had blown a huge mine below it.

More than three groups of the 1st Platoon of 9th company were killed outright. The dugouts next to them collapsed, trapping the men of four other groups inside. Only two groups could be rescued in time.  (a German platoon/Zug had a strength of 30 to 40 men. A group consisted of 10-12 men)  The explosion had left a crater with a diameter of 50 to 60 meters and a depth of 30 Meters and had set the signal for the start of the attack.

Visibility was good. The sun could be seen reflecting on English bayonets. Their columns advancing down from Auchonvillers, carrying bridges and wooden planks with them to cross our trenches with. Eight dense waves were coming towards us. Horse artillery and Cavalry could be observed around Auchonvillers ready to pursue us once the attack of the infantry had been successful. Near the sugar factory English staff officers were observing the assault.

10th and 11th company greeted the English with a withering hail of machine gun and rifle fire, effectively stalling the attack. In the section of 9th company, which had been taken out of action by the mine, brave English bomb-throwers and machine gunners managed to break into our trenches towards the left of the huge crater.
Here, 3rd platoon was still trapped inside a large dug-out whose four exits had collapsed when the mine was blown. One of these exists was just being opened up by one of the men. Behind this man were Leutnant Breitmeier and Oberleutnant Mühlbayer.

Vizefeldwebel Davidsohn described what happened next :

“The English had managed to break into our trench. We had only just opened the exit of the dug-out when they were upon us. A bayonet thrust killed the man who was holding the shovel, his body fell down the stairs of the dug-out tearing the men that were just in the process of getting out down again. I had no rifle with me but managed to fire a signal flare into the face of one of the attackers. The English answered by throwing some hand grenades which forced us to withdraw”.

In the hope of getting rescued by their comrades the men inside the dug-out ignored all calls to surrender. Unteroffizer Aicheler, of 2nd MG-company, holding his machine gun now threw himself onto the attackers. The English fought him back with hand grenades, but Aicheler did not retreat. He managed to pin the English down and to take two light machine guns, which the enemy tried to set up, out of action. For this deed Aicheler was later awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class.

The situation at the mine crater was critical as there were no reserves left inside the village. If the English would manage to break through the whole position north and south of Beaumont was about to fall, but help was on the way.
In the second trench two platoons (7th and 12th company) received the order to reinforce the endangered section. They hurried forward, took cover inside some shell craters and opened fire on the enemy. To the right of the mine crater the English attack stalled in the crossfire put up by the riflemen and machine guns of IR121 who fired across the trenches, being in a flanking position, behind the village, in an area known as the “Bergwerk” (Mine/Pit) . Their fire did not stay without effect. The attack began to stall, the English hesitated and started opened fire on the new threat in their flank. An enemy plane dropped bombs on 12th company which exploded without doing any harm.

In the meantime the English still occupied the trench section left of the mine crater. Vizefeldwebel Mögle of 7th company tried to push them out by the use of hand grenades, but was unsuccessful. An English machine gun, positioned on the lip of the crater overlooking our trench, fired on everything that moved. A number of comrades had already been killed by headshots. It was silenced when Unteroffizier Heß and Rapp managed to shoot its crew.

Having realized what was happening near the crater, Leutnant Blessing of 10th company who was watching from the second trench, assembled a handgrenade-squad (Schütze Brose, Fauser, Hermann Lutz, Gottlob Lutz and Kappelmann) and led the men against the enemy. When Vizefeldwebel Mögle saw the 6 men of 10th company advancing he also led his remaining men (of 7th and 12th company) into the attack. A short and intense close combat developed in which the English were annihilated. Their leader, a most brave Lieutenant was wounded and taken prisoner. The soldiers of 3rd Platoon, still trapped in their dug-out were finally rescued.

An enemy machine gun was now getting into position not 15 meters from the trench. Schütze Hermann (7th company), who had first noticed it, jumped out of the trench, killed its crew with 5 shots from his pistol and captured the enemy machine gun.
The platoon of 9th company, who had just escaped from the collapsed dug-out now fanned out to man the defences. Just in time to open fire on yet another wave of attacking english infantry supported by machine-guns. On a stretch of not even 100 meters in width the enemy had assembled 10 Maxim and Lewis machine guns and at least one mortar.

In the combined fire of 7th, 9th, 10th and 12th company the final enemy attack broke down. The English fell back behind the cover of the mine crater. They had just reached the safety of cover when a machine-gun of 5./IR121 opened up on them from the valley. It was then the enemy broke and started to retreat towards his lines. At 1130h everything was over…

On the first of July the regiment lost 101 dead (including 8 officers) and 191 wounded.

The officers killed were:

Oberleutnant Anton Mühlbayer, Leutnant Karl Sieber, Leutnant Otto Schrempf, Leutnant Karl Sütterlin, Leutnant Otto Frech, Leutnant Erwin Rothacker and Leutnant Hermann Moll

In the course of World War 1 the regiment lost 8355 men killed, wounded or missing.
The account now switches its attention to the fighting near Y-Sap, but I am going to stop here. Locating the regimental histories, transcribing and translating these reports eats up a massive amount of time. I have access to about 200 regimental histories like this. I have always wondered if there would be a market if I were to offer some of them in an English version, as it would give the English-speaking reader a chance to have a look across No Man’s Land. Any feedback about this would be most welcome. 

Men of IR119 in Summer 1915

Men of IR119 in Summer 1915

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Operation Spark – The second Battle of Lake Ladoga, January 1943. Experiences of a German Division.

On the 12th of January 1943 my grandfather (4./Füsilier-Regiment 22) was buried alive when a soviet artillery shell exploded close to his dugout. The explosion made his eardrums burst, he had a severe concussion of the brain and spent the next 15 hours buried under meters of earth in total darkness. When night set in his comrades managed to dig him out. This frightening experience changed him forever. It was the first day of what became known as the “Second Battle of Lake Ladoga”. Even if its bloody long already, this article is not completed yet. More details and reports will be added when I find the time.

In the next series of posts I am going to offer a closer look on the Second Battle of Lake Ladoga and 1st Infantry-Divisions role in itTo do thistranslated official battle reports and eye-witness accounts found inside tthe war diaries of the german 1st Infantry Division and other german sources. But first, as usual, let’s have a look at the general history of the battle.

Russian map of the operations conducted from the 11th to 30th of January 1943

The second Battle of Lake Ladoga; Operation Iskra (Russian: операция «Искра», operatsiya Iskra; English: Operation Spark) was a Soviet military operation during World War II, designed to break the German Wehrmacht’s Siege of Leningrad. Planning for the operation began shortly after the failure of the Sinyavino Offensive. The German defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad in late 1942 had weakened the German front. By January 1943, Soviet forces were planning or conducting offensive operations across the entire German-Soviet front, especially in southern Russia, Iskra being the northern part of the wider Soviet 1942–1943 winter counter offensive.

Sinyavino in October 1942

The operation was conducted by the Red Army’s Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts, and the Baltic Fleet during January 12–30, 1943 with the aim of creating a land connection to Leningrad. The Soviet forces linked up on January 18, and by January 22, the front line was stabilised. The operation successfully opened a land corridor 8 kilometres (5.0 mi)–10 kilometres (6.2 mi) wide to the city. A rail road was swiftly built through the corridor which allowed more supplies to reach the city than the Road of Life across the frozen surface of Lake Ladoga, significantly reducing the possibility of the capture of the city and a German-Finnish linkup. The success led to a much more ambitious offensive operation named Polyarnaya Zvezda (Polar Star) less than two weeks later. That operation had the aim of decisively defeating Army Group North, lifting the siege altogether, but it achieved only minimal progress. Soviet forces made several other attempts in 1943 to renew their offensive and completely lift the siege, but made only modest gains in each one. The corridor remained in range of German artillery and the siege was only over on January 27, 1944.

Timeline of the german advance on Leningrad

The siege of Leningrad started in early autumn 1941. By September 8, 1941 German and Finnish forces had surrounded the city, cutting off all supply routes to Leningrad and its suburbs. However the original drive on the city failed and the city was subjected to a siege. During 1942 several attempts were made to breach the blockade but all failed. The last such attempt was the Sinyavino Offensive. After the defeat of the Sinyavino Offensive, the front line returned to what it was before the offensive and again 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) separated Leonid Govorov’s Leningrad Front in the city and Kirill Meretskov’s Volkhov Front. Despite the failures of earlier operations, lifting the siege of Leningrad was a very high priority, so new offensive preparations began in November 1942. In December, the operation plan was approved by the Stavka and received the codename “Iskra” (Spark). The operation was due to begin in January 1943.
By January 1943, the situation looked very good for the Soviet side. The German defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad had weakened the German front. The Soviet forces were planning or conducting offensive operations across the entire front, especially in southern Russia. Amidst these conditions, Operation Iskra was to become the first of several offensive operations aimed at inflicting a decisive defeat on the German Army Group North.

The area south of Lake Ladoga is heavily forested area with many wetlands (notably peat deposits) closer to the lake. In addition the forest shielded both sides from visual observation. Both of these factors greatly hindered the mobility of artillery and vehicles in the area, providing a considerable advantage to the defending forces. One of the key locations were the Sinyavino heights which were some 150 metres higher than the surrounding flat terrain, which were one of the few dry and clear areas, and in addition provided good observation. Since the front line had changed very little since the blockade was established, the German forces had built a dense defensive network of strong points, interconnected by trenches and protected by extensive obstacles and interlocking artillery and mortar fire. The Neva river and marshes were partially frozen in winter which allowed infantry to cross it, but not heavy vehicles.


Die Deutsche Wochenschau 1943-03-17 – Contains footage showing fighting south of Lake Ladoga (Starting at 12:45).

The Germans were well aware that breaking the blockade was very important for the Soviet side. However due to the reverse at Stalingrad and the Soviet offensive at Velikiye Luki to the south of Leningrad, Army Group North was ordered to go on the defensive and was stripped of many troops. The 11th Army, which was to lead the assault on Leningrad in September 1942, and which had thwarted the last Soviet offensive, was transferred to Army Group Center in October. Nine other divisions were also reassigned to other sectors

At the start of the Soviet offensive, the German 18th Army, led by Georg Lindemann consisted of 26 divisions spread across a 450 kilometres wide front. The army was stretched very thin and as a result had no division-level reserves. Instead, each division had a tactical reserve of one or two battalions, and the army reserves consisted of portions of the 96th Infantry Division and the 5th Mountain Division. The 1st Air Fleet provided the air support for the army.

Five divisions and part of another one were guarding the narrow corridor which separated the Soviet Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts. The corridor was only 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) wide and was called the “bottleneck”. The German divisions were well fortified in this area, where the front line had been virtually unchanged since September 1941, and hoping to repel the Soviet offensive.

The plan for Operation Iskra was approved in December. The orders from the Stavka were:

“With the combined efforts of the Volkhov and Leningrad Fronts, defeat the enemy in the area of Lipka, Gaitolovo, Dubrovka, Shlisselburg, and thus penetrate the Leningrad blockade. Finish the operation by the end of January 1943.”

This meant recapturing the “bottleneck” and opening a 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) corridor to Leningrad. After that, the two fronts were to rest for 10 days and resume the offensive southward in further operations.
The biggest difference from the earlier Sinyavino Offensive was the location of the main attack. In September 1942 the Soviet forces were attacking south of the town of Siniavino, which allowed them to potentially encircle several German divisions, but also left the army open to flanking attacks from the north, and it was this which ultimately caused the offensive to fail. In January 1943 the offensive was conducted north of Siniavino, closer to the Ladoga Lake shore, which removed the threat of flanking attacks and increased the probability of success, but forced the Soviets to abandon the idea of encircling most of the German forces in the “bottleneck”.
The offensive was to be conducted by Leningrad Front’s 67th Army and Volkhov Front’s 2nd Shock Army commanded by Major General M.P. Dukhanov and Lieutenant General V.Z. Romanovsky respectively. The 8th Army, commanded by Lieutenant General F.N. Starikov, was to conduct a limited offensive on the 2nd Shock Army’s flank and defend elsewhere. 13th and 14th Air Armies provided air support.

The two fronts spent December training and preparing for the offensive, and received significant reinforcements. These included not just replenishment and additional rifle divisions and brigades, but also significant additional artillery and engineer units, which were vital for breaching the heavy German defenses. Specialized winter units included three ski brigades and four aerosleigh battalions. To ensure the Soviet forces had air superiority, which they had lacked in the previous offensive, the air strength in the area was increased to a total of over 800 planes, predominantly fighters. Large tank forces could not operate well in the swampy terrain, so the tank forces were used primarily as battalions reinforcing divisions or slightly larger brigades, which were to operate independently.
Originally the operation was due to begin on January 1, but poor ice conditions on the Neva caused the offensive to be delayed until January 10–12. A number of measures were taken to prevent the details of the operation being revealed to the Germans. Only a limited number of senior officers were involved in the planning, all redeployments took place in bad weather or at night and simulated attack preparations were made elsewhere to confuse the German side.

On January 10, the Stavka sent Georgy Zhukov as its representative to coordinate the battle. The rifle divisions occupied their jumping-off positions on January 11, and first echelon tanks moved into their advanced positions early on January 12.
The night before the start of the operations, the Soviet night bombers attacked the German divisional headquarters and artillery positions to disrupt the German command and control. The bombers also attacked German airfields and communication centres to disrupt the flow of reinforcements. Operation Iskra began at 9:30 on January 12, when the two Soviet fronts began their artillery preparation, which lasted for 2 hours 20 minutes on the western side and 1 hour 45 minutes on the eastern side of the bottleneck. The Soviet attack started five minutes before the artillery preparation finished with a Katyusha barrage, to fully exploit its effects.

German field defences near Lake Ladoga

The Leningrad Front forces achieved their greatest success between Shlisselburg and Gorodok 1. Here, the Soviet 136th and 268th Rifle Divisions with supporting tanks and artillery captured a bridgehead approximately 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) wide and 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) deep. At 18:00 the sappers constructed bridges near Mar’ino to allow second echelon troops to advance. However attacks further south, near Gorodok only resulted in the capture of the first line of German trenches. The attack further north at Shlisselburg failed. By evening, the Front command decided to exploit the formed bridgehead and troops attacking Shlisselburg across the Neva were redeployed there and started attacking it from the south.

Situational Map – Battle of Lake Ladoga (1)

The Volkhov Front attack saw less success as the forces of the 2nd Shock Army managed to envelop but not destroy the German strong points at Lipka and Workers Settlement No. 8. The latter was an impressive defensive position with a garrison of 700 men and 16 bunkers. Heavy flanking fire from these strong points prevented any further advance, but the 2nd Shock Army penetrated the German defenses 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) between these points. Further south, between Workers Settlement No. 8 and Kruglaya Grove the advance was 1–2 kilometres (0.62–1.2 mi) deep, while even further south, the flanking attacks by the 8th Army only managed to capture the first line of German trenches.
The German side reacted by deploying their reserves to the region throughout the night. One improvised battle group consisting of five battalions from the 96th Infantry Division, supported by artillery and four Tiger tanks moved to Gorodok No. 2 to reinforce the 170th Infantry Division to the west. Another similar battle group using battalions from the 96th Infantry Division was sent to Workers Settlement No. 1 to support the 227th Infantry Division.

Situational Map – Battle of Lake Ladoga (2)

The next five days saw very heavy fighting as the Soviets slowly advanced through heavy German defences and repelled German counterattacks. On January 13, bad weather prevented the Soviet side from employing their air force. That day they gained almost no ground and incurred heavy losses. The German side, after their counterattacks had failed to throw back the Soviet troops, started further reinforcing the area by assembling battle groups using portions of divisions from the quiet parts of the front. These included battle groups from the 1st Infantry Division, the 61st Infantry Division, the 5th Mountain Division and the SS Police Division. On January 14 the weather improved enough to allow air support again and the Soviet advance resumed, albeit at a slow pace. To speed up the encirclement of the strong point at Lipka, the Soviet side used the 12th Ski Brigade which crossed the ice of the Ladoga Lake and attacked the German rear lines. By the end of the day the German forces in the Lipka and Shlisselburg areas were almost completely cut off from the rest of the German forces.

Throughout January 15–17 the Soviet fronts fought towards each other, capturing the strong points at Workers Settlements Nos. 3, 4, 7, 8, and most of Shlisselburg. By the end of January 17 they were only 1.5–2 kilometres (0.93–1.2 mi) apart between Workers Settlements Nos. 1 and 5.

On January 15, Govorov was promoted to colonel general.
On January 18, at 9:30 the lead elements from the 67th Army’s 123rd Rifle Division and 2nd Shock Army’s 372nd Rifle Division linked up near Workers Settlement No. 1, thus technically breaking the blockade and marking an important date in the Siege of Leningrad. German forces north of the settlement were cut off. Group Huhner, made up of two battle groups under the Lieutenant General Huhner, commander of the 61st Infantry Division, was supposed to hold the corridor between Workers Settlements Nos. 1 and 5 but was no longer able to do it. Later that day the Soviet forces captured Workers Settlement No. 5 after repelling a strong German counterattack. The lead elements from the 67th Army’s 136th Rifle Division and 2nd Shock Army’s 18th Rifle Division linked up to the north of the settlement at 11:45. Group Huhner became cut off too and was ordered to break out through the forested area toward Siniavino before the main Soviet forces arrived and made a breakout impossible. Group Huhner abandoned its artillery and heavy equipment and ran “the gauntlet of fire” before reaching Siniavino on January 19–20. The breakout was costly for both sides. By early afternoon, the Soviet forces cleared Shlisselburg and Lipka from German forces and started liquidating the forces remaining in the forests south of Lake Ladoga.
During January 19–21 the Soviet forces eliminated the encircled German forces and tried to expand their offensive southward towards Siniavino. However the 18th Army significantly reinforced its positions there with the SS Police, 21st Infantry, and soon after the 11th Infantry and 28th Mountain Divisions. The Soviet forces captured Workers Settlement No. 6 but were unable to advance any further.


Situational Map – Battle of Lake Ladoga (3)

There were no changes in the front line after January 21 as a result of Operation Iskra. The Soviet forces were unable to advance any further, and instead started fortifying the area to thwart any German attempt at re-establishing the blockade. On January 22, work started on the rail line linking Leningrad to the rest of the country through the captured corridor. The plan from the GKO written on January 18, ordered the construction to be finished in 20 days. The work was completed ahead of schedule and trains began delivering supplies on February 6, 1943. The operation officially ended on January 30.

Situational Map – Battle of Lake Ladoga (4)

Operation Iskra was a strategic victory for the Soviet forces. From a military perspective, the operation eliminated the possibility of the capture of the city and a German-Finnish link up, as the Leningrad Front was now very well supplied, reinforced and able to co-operate more closely with the Volkhov Front. For the civilian population, the operation meant that more food was able to reach the city, as well as improved conditions and the possibility of evacuating more civilians from the city. Breaking the blockade also had a significant strategic effect, although it was overshadowed by the surrender of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad only a few days later. Notably, the first Tiger tank captured by the Soviets was taken during this battle. It was undamaged and evacuated by the Soviet forces for evaluation.

Situational Map – Battle of Lake Ladoga (5)

Also the victory led to promotions for Govorov, who was promoted to colonel-general on January 15, and Zhukov, who was promoted to marshal of the Soviet Union on January 18. In addition Govorov and Meretskov were awarded the Order of Suvorov 1st Class on January 28. The 136th and 327th Rifle divisions were awarded the designation of 63rd and 64th Guards Rifle Divisions, while the 61st Tank Brigade was designated the 30th Guards Tank Brigade. For the German side, the battle left the 18th Army very stretched and exhausted. Lacking sufficient reinforcements, the command of Army Group North made the decision to shorten the front line by evacuating the Demyansk salient. The salient had been held throughout 1942, despite being encircled for a few months, as it was an important strategic bridgehead. Together with the Rzhev salient (which was also evacuated in spring 1943), it could potentially be used to encircle a large number of Soviet forces. However, in the situation that had developed, retaining it was no longer possible.
Nevertheless despite these conditions, the Stavka knew that “Operation Iskra” was incomplete, as the corridor it had opened was narrow and was still in range of the German artillery, and the important heights and strong point at Siniavino were still under German control. This led Zhukov to plan a much more ambitious offensive operation named Polyarnaya Zvezda (Polar Star). The operation had the aim of decisively defeating Army Group North, but faltered early on. The Soviet forces carried several other offensives in the area in 1943, slowly expanding the corridor, making other small gains before finally capturing Siniavino in September. However, the city was still subjected to at least a partial siege as well as air and artillery bombardment until January 1944, when the Leningrad-Novgorod Offensive broke through the German lines, lifting the siege completely.

Units involved

German                                                                  Soviet

18th Army:
6 divisions initially
2nd Shock Army
8th Army
67th Army
Total:20 divisions,
15 brigades

Strength

700 artillery pieces
50 tanks
4600 artillery pieces
650 tanks
900 aircraft

Casualties and losses

12,000 killed, about 30,000 wounded 33,940 dead and missing,
81,142 wounded


Most of the footage is staged, still interesting material.

To the soldiers of 1st Infantry Division, the soviet offensive came as no surprise. Since the beginning of January 1943 unusual enemy troop movements had been noticed, which became even more obvious on the 9th and 11th of January. Something nasty was looming ahead. On the 12th of January 1943, at 0730 in the morning, there began the second Battle of Lake Ladoga. The Divisions positions were pounded by a massive two-hour barrage from 60-70 enemy artillery batteries and rocket launchers. When the curtain of fire was lifted, four soviet divisions, one naval brigade and four enemy tank battalions, supported by ground attack aircraft and fighter planes went into the attack. Three more divisions were kept in reserve. What followed were three weeks of grim fighting with machine guns, rifles and handgrenades.

“They came in waves, yelling their war cries just as in medieval times. Thousands of them, again and again. In their brown uniforms they made perfect targets on the white snow. I remember seeing soviet officers using their rifle butts to club their own men forward. We just mowed them down. It was slaughter.”
(Grenadier Schuhmann, Grenadier-Regiment 1 in “Ostpreussische Kameraden, April 1959) 

A report about the fighting on the first three days of the battle was written by the commanding  officer of Grenadier-Regiment 1, Oberst von Keussler, on the 27th of January.

“Rod Forest” (Stangenwald), “Stalin Height” (Stalin-Höhe), Bohemian Forest (Böhmer Wald), “Strongpost Ortmann” (Stützpunkt Ortmann) and the “Pear” (Birne) are Divisional designations for certain sectors of the battlefield. When you take a look at the above map the “pear” can be found where 1st company of Grenadier-Regiment 1 is located (marked as “1./1.” on the map).
Oberst Friedrich von Keußler

“The observations made on the days before the battle had left us in no doubt that the enemy intended to attack soon.  In front of our trenches enemy troop movements can be discerned. Around the area of the “Lake”, inside the “Rod Forest” and on the southern slope of the “Stalin height” the enemy moves groups of up to 150 men without any intention to hide or camouflage these movements.  Inside the enemy trenches large assemblies of men can be spotted. On the 11th of January 30 enemy soldiers were counted in a trench section forty meters long. Every day in the previous week we had been hearing the sounds of tank and lorry engines from  the direction of a supply road running close to the “Rod Forest”.

These assemblies were targeted by our artillery and infantry guns with good effect.  On the 10th and 11th of January enemy artillery begins a continuous shelling of our positions. The way the fire was directed leaves us in no doubt that the enemy is adjusting his guns. Soviet ground and aerial reconnaissance begins to increase. On the 6th, 8th, 9th and 10th enemy probing attacks are repelled by the regiment.

First page of the original report

In the early morning hours of the 12th enemy deserters report that an attack is imminent and the regiment is put on the alert. Earlier on, the battalions had already reported that the enemy had been using black flags to mark 8-10 meter wide paths through his own minefields. At 0730h a most vigorous artillery barrage of all calibers is brought down on the  regiments positions. Never before have we experienced such a violent and tremendous fire.  One continuous explosion, the sounds of discharge and impact seemingly melting into one. The enemy targets our main line of resistance, communication trenches, supply roads and barracks in the rear. It is obvious that his reconnaissance had done a good job. All ground-return telephone circuits are destroyed. Due to the heavy fire it is nearly impossible to eliminate interferences and to repair the circuits. This in turn forces us to rely on radio communication during the battle. In the meantime brisk movement can be observed in the enemy trenches. In front of “Strongpoint Ortmann” two enemy tanks are spotted, behind “Stalin Height” another three.  All the time our own artillery and infantry guns are laying down barrage and destructive fire onto discerned enemy movements and assembly areas with good results.

At 0930h the enemy, supported by 20 tanks, opens the assault on our regiments positions. 12 tanks rush forward towards the “Pear”. The remaining 8 start to attack the seam between I. and II. Batallion. These attacks are carried forward without any infantry support. Shortly before reaching our trenches the enemy tanks turn north, driving parallel to them while keeping up a continuous, suppressive fire. It is obvious that they had been ordered to keep our heads down to allow their infantry to close in. At 0940h waves of soviet infantry start to attack. Only the first wave is wearing white winter camouflage. Gaitolowo and the regiments left wing are attacked by another six tanks, this time mounted by infantry. The strength of the soviet infantry in the first waves is an estimated 600-700 men. All in all about 1500 men participate in the first attack. During the assault the enemy stops shelling our frontal positions, but continues to pound our rearward areas.  As soon as the enemy infantry attacks our men start a brisk defensive fire with all available weapons which, coupled with our own artillery fire, tears huge gaps into the waves of soviet infantry.  On the right wing, where some of our machine gun positions and foxholes have been destroyed by artillery fire, the enemy manages to force a small breakthrough.  The point of breakthrough is at once sealed and the soviet infantry annihilated by a reserve group of 1st Coy. By 1015h this section of the line is firmly back in our hands.

Soviet infantry attacking

In front of I. Batallion 80 dead russians can be counted. 4 enemy tanks have become stuck in front of it and another is forced east by our AT fire. The reminder turns north towards II. Batallion. In front of II. Batallion the enemy assault has been stopped aswell. The 12 tanks attacking II. Batallion have been forced to retreat. 9 of them  drive north, joining another 6 tanks attacking our left wing. We manage to separate the tanks from their accompanying infantry which is destroyed soon afterwards.
Two of the tanks are destroyed by an AT gun of our right neighbour. Two others in close combat. Others are taken out by artillery fire and mines. All in all 12 enemy tanks lie immobilized in front of our left wing. The crews bailing out of their vehicles are annihilated. 
Enemy armour in the area of the “pear” now turns to attack our left wing aswell. The remains of the soviet infantry pluck up the courage to follow and get destroyed in the process. The tanks now open a concentric fire on the pickets in front of the left wing, which at once fall back towards the main line of defence. The enemy keeps on feeding reinforcements into his attacks on the regiment. All are repelled. At 1300h  artillery fire begins to increase again. The enemy seems to concentrate most of it on the area of the “pear” which is the best target for a flanking attack. New enemy assembly areas close to the “Rod Forest” are targeted by our own artillery. I. Batallion gets reinforced by the regimental pioneer platoon. 3./Pioneer-Batallion 1 is put under our command and we also get reinforced by four assault guns of Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung 226.  At 1330h the regiment gets attacked by enemy ground attack aircraft with cannon and bombs, without taking serious losses. By 1500h enemy infantry, supported by two tanks start to assault the “Pear” again. Shortly after passing the “Stalin Height” both tanks get immobilized by our artillery while the enemy infantry gets torn to pieces in the defensive fire of our machine-guns.  By sunset the enemy artillery barrage gets weaker and soon afterwards turns into lighter harassing fire.  At 1900h the enemy starts to send out small groups of up to 15 soldiers to probe our defences. All are spotted and destroyed. By 2200h it has become quiet again. Now and then the enemy artillery continues to harass our positions. Small groups of enemy infantry inside the “Bohemian Forest” get thrown out by our men. Three enemy tanks hiding with them retreat towards the russian positions but get immobilized by mines. After clearing the forest our pickets return to their old positions.  Twenty destroyed and immobilized tanks are standing in front of the regiments trenches. Four of them are still manned and keep on firing sporadically. During the night they get completely destroyed by the assault guns of Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung 226.


13th of January

During the night the enemy continues to harass our positions with sporadic artillery fire. At 0245h
an enemy probing attack in strength of about 30 men is repelled. At 0800h enemy artillery fire increases to a tremendous level which reaches its peak at about 1000h. At 0930 the company on the far right gets attacked by five waves of enemy infantry. The attack breaks down in our defensive fire before even reaching the wire-entanglements. At 1000h 500 soviet infantry, supported by two tanks attack the regiments left-wing and centre. The tanks get immobilized by artillery fire.
The enemy infantry gets stopped about 200 meters in front of our trenches.
 Enemy tanks attacking from the direction of “Stalin Height” turn north when II./A.R.1 starts shelling them with smoke rounds.  Apparently the enemy is shifting his forces to attack our left hand neighbour (Grenadier-Regiment 43).  At 1300h enemy artillery activity gets weaker. Small groups of our soldiers are sent out to rebuilt defences and to  evacuate the wounded. 
“Strongpoint Ortmann” gets attacked by 30 enemy infantry which get annihilated in front of our wire entanglements. Soon after sunset an assault gun of Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung 226 destroys three immobilized tanks, two of which burn out completely.
Enemy attempts to recover damaged tanks from the battlefield get thwarted by our artillery. The whole day the enemy kept attacking us with ground attack aircraft. The enemy again suffered terrible losses, including two tanks.

Rare photograph taken by a member of 1./Grenadier-Regiment 1 inside the “Pear” during the battle. The black dots in the distance are destroyed soviet tanks.

After a quiet night the soviets continue their attacks on the 14th of January. At 0630h 100 enemy soldiers work their way towards the defences on our right. A few man even manage to reach our wire-entanglements. After loosing about 25 men killed the soviets retreat back towards their lines. At 0930h, after a short but massive artillery strike, the regimental lines get attacked by about 1000 soviet soldiers supported by 12 tanks. After a bitter fight the enemy attack is stalled in front of our wire-entanglements. The enemy suffers brutal losses. The tanks retreat back towards the soviet lines. One hits a mine and starts burning. 

Only minutes afterwards our right-wing gets attacked by another 250 men. Again we repel everything the russian throws against us.  The left-wing gets attacked by strong soviet forces, efficiently supported by tanks. Two more tanks coming down “Stalin Height” get destroyed by artillery fire. Our left-wing pickets retreat towards our main line of defence. One anti-tank gun of 14th Coy. manages to destroy five enemy tanks. The enemy infantry attack disintegrates soon afterwards. 
At 1200h small groups of soviet infantry pinned down in front of our positions try to retreat towards “Stalin-Height”, but get annihilated by well-aimed rifle fire.
Another attack by 250 soviet soldiers collapses in our own artillery fire before having the time to develop. The soviets take severe losses. Without using cover they cross the flat ground in front of our positions, walking straight into our defensive fire. 
Attacks by smaller formations of about 100 men follow at 1300h, 1325h and 1500h. Again they meet with no success. Retreating russian soldiers get taken down by well-aimed fire.

By the end of the third day of fighting the all positions are firmly in our hand. 

31 destroyed tanks and about 1500 dead soviets lie in front of the regiments lines. Considering the fact that the regiment was subjected to continuous shelling and repeated attacks by armour and infantry our own losses are low.

Due to the courage of each of the regiments officers, NCOs and men the regiment fulfilled its duty to defend with great success. It shares this success with the comrades of II/A.R.1 (2nd Batallion, Artillerie-Regiment 1), who always had a special bond with us. The moral of the men during the  battle was excellent.

Tanks destroyed in front of the regimental positions

The enemy lost 31 tanks in front of our regiment.

17 Tanks were immobilized by defensive fire and mines.
14 Tanks were completely destroyed.
( 5 by 14./Grenadier-Regiment 1, 4 by Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung 226, 2 by 14./Grenadier-Regiment 43, 1 by Panzerjäger-Abteilung 1, 1 by Unteroffizier Schimanski of 8./Grenadier-Regiment 1 in close combat and another one by a tank-destruction squad of Grenadier-Regiment 43)

Losses of Grenadier-Regiment 1, 12th-14th of January 1943

Losses of Grenadier-Regiment 1 (12th to 14th of January 1943)
Killed: 8 NCOs, 35 men
Wounded (brought to field hospital): 1 Officer, 13 NCOs, 131 men
Wounded (staying with the regiment): 1 Officer, 14 NCOs, 56 men

Ammunition expenditure 12th-14th of January 1943 (s.S = schweres Spitzgeschoss (8×57), L= Leuchtspur/Tracer, S.m.K.=Spitzgeschoss mit Kern (8×57, steel core), Pz.Spr. =AT-HE, Pz-H1=AT-Hollow Charge, Gew.Gr= Rifle grenade)
Grenadier-Regiment 1, Weapons lost during the fighting (12th-14th of January 1943) – le.Mg = light machine gun, s.M.G. = heavy machine gun, le.Gr.W.=light mortar, s.Gr.W.=heavy mortar, Pak=AT gun, le.I.G.=light infantry gun

Footage taken from a french newsreel, showing soldiers of 28. Jäger-Division in combat south of Lake Ladoga in January 1943

The following passage has been taken from a report and tactical evaluation of the battle, written by Oberst Ulrich Iffland, commanding officer of Füsilier-Regiment 22

“The attack started on the 12th of January 1943 at 0730 with an intense artillery barrage which soon spread out from north to south. After three hours waves of enemy infantry, supported by tanks began to advance. Defensive fire of our heavy guns and infantry weapons broke the attacking infantry, but the tanks continued to advance reluctantly. All were destroyed or immobilized by medium and heavy AT guns and in close combat in front of, in and behind our main line of defence.
During the following days the attacks continued to be carried forward in the same style. The momentum of the enemy infantry assaults slackening with each attack.
Enemy armour fought without cohesion. not knowing where to go, changing direction often. Obviously they missed their supporting infantry. Soviet tank crews taken prisoner reported that all tanks had been operating without radio which explains why 15 enemy tanks attacked a single company. It was impossible for them to deliver a coherent attack. After entering combat individual tanks fought courageously, effectively targeting our advanced saps, pickets, weapon emplacements and trenches with well-aimed, effective fire and inflicting serious losses. Even the crews of immobilized tanks continued to defend themselves from inside and outside their vehicles. 
During the defensive battle the regiment repelled all attacks directed at it by the soviet 73rd Naval Brigade and a reinforced tank batallion. The enemy lost over 500 dead. 18 soviet tanks were destroyed and another 8 immobilized. 
Soviet prisoners reported that the soviet tank batallion had been nearly wiped out. The 73rd Naval Brigade lost close to 75% of their men killed and wounded.”

Newspaper of Fusilier-Regiment 22 “Tapfer und Treu”

Fusilier-Regiment 22 (and 1. ID in general) was considered to be an elite formation of the Wehrmacht. During the war the regiment published its own newspaper (1942-44). It was published every 4-5 months giving information on what the regiment had experienced and it also kept track of the whereabouts of former officers and NCOs of the regiment.  It was given to active and former soldiers of the regiment and the families of soldiers killed in action.
The newspapers title was “Tapfer und Treu – Was wir erlebten” (Brave and loyal – what we experienced). “Brave and loyal” being the regimental motto. In one of the 1943 editions Oberst Iffland wrote another account of the battle:

“We have been stationed in this area for some time now and the war had, as usual, quite a lot of surprises ready for us. Some days were quiet and uneventful, others saw grim fighting and hard work in snow, ice and meltwater. Courage, the willingness to make sacrifices, obedience, endurance, comradeship and faith are the weapons we rely on.  Warfare on this front has its own face, the open landscape stretches for miles as far as the eye can see. It’s the terrain of the soviet sniper, who targets all our movements and disturbs all work done in the trenches and on the main line of defence. Our own snipers repay in kind. Our armourers cut armor plates from destroyed enemy tanks and rip out the armoured glass from shot down aircraft to strengthen our machine gun positions, the trench mirror is our best friend. The war here reminds us of the last great war in the trenches of the western front. 

On the 3rd of January we can observe unusual movements on the soviet side. Columns of lorries and tanks. Up to the 9th of January enemy intentions stay unclear. On the 10th and 11th enemy artillery activity increases. The Soviet is adjusting his guns.
On the 11th the enemy leads a probing attack against the centre of our lines and enemy artillery fire increases further. In the night we hear the sound of engines, drunk yelling and singing on the enemy side and suddenly at midnight it gets quiet. Not a sound can be heard.

We know enough and the regiment is set on alert. Everywhere we check and clean our weapons, ammunition and handgrenades are brought forward and the AT units get briefed and shifted. It is going to start soon.  At 0630h we recieve a radio message from Grenadier-Regiment 1. Enemy deserters have reported that the enemy is about to attack us in force. At 0730h we get hit by the most intense artillery fire we had experienced so far. Artillery, mortars, tanks, infantry guns and rocket launchers begin to pound our main line of defence, our rearward lines of communication and supply roads. Only minutes afterwards all communication circuits are destroyed. We have to rely on radio communication. At 1000h waves of soviet infantry begin to attack our trenches. Our own artillery stops them dead in their tracks, but some russians have already underrun their field of fire. We start to annihilate them with rifles, machine guns and handgrenades. While Hauptmann Penkwitt, who is commanding I. Batallion during the absence of Tolsdorff, continues to shred the soviets to pieces, the enemy (with two batallions supported by eleven tanks) leads another attack against the positions of 6th company.   AT guns positioned on the main line of defence and in the depth behind it soon destroy nine of the tanks, two more are destroyed by Fusiliers in close combat. The men of II. Batallion, led by Major Reich, are fighting like lions, undeterred by the tanks they destroy the enemy infantry. Two Fusiliers manning a machine gun get overrun by an enemy tank. They let it pass over their foxhole and continue to fire at the advancing infantry, ignoring the tank completely. All the time enemy artillery and ground attack planes punish our lines. But the fight has already been decided. At 1200h the attack has been repelled. The soviets leaving hundreds of their men and 11 tanks on the field….”

“Our men and weapons did their work properly. Only small groups of the attacking naval infantry manage to retreat to their dirty trenches. Our Fusiliers never lost their iron courage and superiority, sending the soviet soldiers and their assault formations straight into hell. We lost many a loyal brother in arms, but their sacrifice was not in vain…

The attacks continue to the 20th of January when the enemy shifts his attention to our neighbouring divisions in the north. May the enemy continue to assault us and our sister regiments as he likes, the east-prussian fusiliers and grenadiers will stand their ground…Here we stand and here we hold!  (“Hier stehen wir, hier halten wir” – Motto of the east prussian Infantry).”

Baptism of Fire – Gora Kamienska, Poland 1939 – Experiences of 1. Infanterie-Division

ATTACKING THE GORA-KAMIENSKA: “STALLING THE BLITZ” – THE BATTLE OF MLAWA
2nd and 3rd of September 1939

Joachim von Kortzfleisch, “1a” of 1.Infanterie-Division

On the 1st of September 1939 at 0445h 1. Infanterie-Division crossed the border into Poland. The intelligence reports concerning the strength of Polish forces soon proved to be wrong. The only noticeable resistance was met at the bridges at Janowo (two platoons of Infantry), which was easily brushed aside. As I. AK had failed to break through the Polish defences at Mlawa on the 2nd of the September, the Division got the order to push forward on both sides of the road to Grudusk and then, using all available artillery as support, to take the strong fortified positions on and around Gora Kamienska on the north-eastern flank of Mlawa. As this action is considered to be a part of the “Battle of Mlawa”, let’s have a look at that first.

The Battle of Mława, otherwise known as the “Defence of the Mława position”, took place to the north of the town of Mława in northern Poland between September 1 and September 3, 1939. The whole battlefield, with the exception of the fortified positions around Gora-Kamiensk was (and still is) flat as a table. It was one of the opening battles of the Invasion of Poland and World War II in general and fought between the forces of the Polish Modlin Army under Gen. Krukowicz-Przedrzymirski and the German 3rd Army under Gen. Georg von Küchler. As a result of the Treaty of Versailles, the new German-Polish border was located only some 120 km north of Warsaw, the Polish capital city. In 1939 the Polish Modlin Army, led by Brigadier General Emil Krukowicz-Przedrzymirski, was thought of as the main defensive force guarding Polish borders from the north. It was dislocated along the border with East Prussia and was to stop the enemy forces advancing towards Warsaw, the Modlin Fortress. Shortly before the war, a decision was made to strengthen the Polish defences by construction of a line of field fortifications and concrete bunkers to the north of Mława, in the centre of the army’s positions.

Soldiers of the Waffen-SS during the Battle of Mlawa, 1939

The main line of defence of the army was located along the line of Narew and Vistula rivers. There were a number of 19th century fortifications in the area, but the plains to the north of it were almost defenseless. To ease the delaying actions in case of a war with Germany, the Polish General Staff decided that the Modlin Army should be transported to the border with East Prussia and should defend the line for as long as possible. Afterwards, the units under command of General Przedrzymirski-Krukowicz were to withdraw to the south and defend the line of Narew and Vistula rivers, together with the forces of Narew Independent Operational Group.

Aerial view of part of the Mlawa fortifications

After the Polish secret mobilization had started in March 1939, the 20th Infantry Division was assigned to the Modlin Army and transported to the area of Mława. In addition, the army commander was assigned a number of trainloads of concrete and other construction materials and several combat engineering battalions. It was decided that a line of fortifications should be constructed in the area held by that division. On June 19 of that year, the project was ready and was finally approved by Marshal of Poland Edward Rydz-Śmigły on July 3.

Iron railway tracks used as an effective defence against german armour.

The line of trenches and concrete bunkers, shielded by anti-tank trenches and obstacles, was to be constructed along a low glacial hill overlooking the valley of the Mławka river, to the north of the town. The river itself could be blocked by a dam to enhance the defensive valor of the area. In the center, a swampy terrain of the Niemyje Marshes was located, which was virtually impassable to enemy armored vehicles. This swamp divided the area into two separate flanks. The western section was to be reinforced with 68 concrete bunkers while the eastern, much shorter, with 25.

In peacetime the 20th Division was located in Baranowicze. In case of a war with the USSR, it was planned as the first-line unit to defend a line of German World War I fortifications built there in 1915. Because of that, most of its soldiers had experience in defending fortified positions.

Another shot of Waffen-SS soldiers (Standarte Deutschland?), during the Battle of Mlawa

The construction of bunkers in the western section of the front, near the town of Mława, was started on July 14. It was carried out mostly by the soldiers themselves, under the command of the head of the 20th engineering battalion, Maj. Juliusz Levittoux. The construction of the eastern flank bunkers near the village of Rzęgnowo started on August 12. Soon the soldiers were joined by a number of civilian volunteers, helping to dig the trenches. However, the positions were not finished until the outbreak of World War II and many of the bunkers were not completed.

Polish 37mm AT gun

At noon on September 1, 1939 the Polish line of defence manned by the 20th Infantry Division was attacked by the 1st Army Corps under General Walter Petzel. Although the attacking forces were equipped with tanks and supported by warplanes, the initial assault was repelled by Polish-made 37mm AT guns, the commander of German Third Army, ordered his units to attack the Polish forces several times in a row, but all attacks were broken and in the late evening the Germans were forced to withdraw to their initial positions.

The effect of an anti-tank ditch, near Mlawa, 1939

The following afternoon the German units started a heavy artillery bombardment of the Rzegnów position on the right flank of the Polish forces. After two hours of constant artillery fire, the assault was started and, in the result of close combat, the Polish defenders started to waver. The counterattack of the Polish 79th Infantry Regiment was unsuccessful and the commander of the Polish Modlin Army ordered the 20th Division to extend further eastwards and prepare the defence of its right flank between the villages of Dębsk and Nosarzewo. At the same time the 8th Infantry Division, until then held in reserve near Ciechanów, was ordered to prepare a counterattack.

Mlawa after the battle

The 8th Division arrived in the area in the early hours of September 3. As the Mazovian Cavalry Brigade operating further eastwards was also endangered by German armoured troops, the army commander ordered the division to split its forces and attack in two directions: towards Grudusk east of Mława and towards Przasnysz. However, conflicting orders and German diversants operating in the rear disrupted both attacks and led to chaos in the Polish ranks. In the evening the division was mostly destroyed and only the 21st Infantry Regiment of Colonel (later General) Stanisław Sosabowski managed to withdraw from the fights towards the Modlin Fortress. Despite this, the German attacks towards both flanks of the 20th Infantry Division were unsuccessful.

Panzer III of Division “Kempf” advancing on Mlawa

On September 3 the German engineers finally managed to cut through Polish antitank barriers. According to several Polish sources, German units used the local civilians as human shields, which allowed them to finally capture several bunkers on the left flank of the Polish forces, but were unable to push forwards. On the right flank, in the Rzegnów section of the front to the east of the swamps, the attacks were more successful and in the late evening elements of German Wodrig Corps finally broke through the lines of the 79th Infantry Regiment to the rear of the Poles. This widened the front gap in the area ofGrudusk. General Emil Krukowicz-Przedrzymirski, facing the risk of his forces being outflanked and surrounded, ordered the 20th division and the remnants of the 8th to withdraw towards Warsaw and Modlin, finally abandoning the fortified positions.

Polish prisoners of war after the Battle of Mlawa, 3rd of September 1939

But lets rewind the clock to the 2nd of September 1939, and have a look at the role of 1.ID in the Battle of Mlawa and more precisely at the north-eastern corner of the fortress of Mlawa, to the Gora-Kamienska (Kamienska hill) and the efforts of the Division to take it.

ATTACKING THE “BASTION” OF GORA-KAMIENSKA: “BAPTISM OF FIRE”
2nd of September 1939

It is a miracle that we managed to take the Kamienska position without long preparations and in a relatively short period of time!
(General von Kortzfleisch, commanding officer of 1.ID, 3
rd of September 1939)

The bastion of Gora-Kamienska lay half way between Krzynowloga-Mala and Grudusk towering over the surrounding terrain with a height difference of around 60 meters.
The bastion and the adjoining fortifications in the forest south of Szumsk had been developed to a strong cornerstone of the Mlawa defensive positions. It had been vested with trenches, double-apron entanglements, timber shelters and six concrete bunkers allowing for enfilading fire. Its forefront was further defended by advanced pickets and multiple minefields. The positions were defended by the the 79th Polish infantry regiment (commanded by ppłk. Konstanty Zaborowski) and supported by about seven batteries of artillery.

Remains of the bunker on the northern slope of the Gora Kamiensk.

The commandinig officer of the polish 79th Infantry Regiment, Płk. Konstanty Zaborowski

The Division attacked in a pincer movement. The reinforced Infanterie-Regiment 1 attacked from the north via Dzierzgowo-Szumsk. The remainder on both sides of the road Krzynowologa-Rzegnowo. During the attack IR1 fulfilled the role of tying up enemy forces in forest south of Szumsk.
At 1500h the main force began its advance, having to cross about 2 kilometers of open ground. The advance was covered by concentrated artillery fire on the Kamienska positions.
In order to make the artillery fire more efficient an observation balloon was launched , which was flying in the neighbourhood of Rzegnowo and directing artillery fire of 1 ID. In the church tower in Dzierzgowo 1ID located their second observation post but this was soon detected by Polish forces and destroyed by one troop of 20 pal (20 light artillery battalion).

Dziergowo church. 73 years ago used by 1IDs artillery observers.

III./IR43 attacked north of the road (Krzynowologa-Rzegnowo), followed by I./IR43 as a reserve. III./IR22 moved forward south of it, having II./IR22 as regimental and I./IR22 as divisional reserves. Heavy German artillery fire allowed for a fast advance. Having reached the villages of Ozumieck and R. Kosily the battalions came under frontal and flanking machine gun fire, effectively stalling the advance of III./IR43.

Rare color photo showing soldiers of IR43, Poland 1939

A report on his experiences of serving as a divisional reserve, can be found in a private letter about the Polish campaign, written by Hauptmann de la Chevallerie. He had been commanding 11./IR22 on the first day of the campaign, but when the officer commanding I./IR22 had been wounded, he was ordered to take over I. Batallion on the 2nd of September:

“At half past three in the morning I was woken by Leutnant Götz, once member of my company, now second adjudant to the CO of I. Batallion. “Herr Hauptmann, you are ordered back to the regiment to take over command of I. Batallion”. Even the classic Goethe quote* (see below) would not help me, so I got up and stumbled up to the regimental command post, joining I. Batallion shortly afterwards. We had been ordered to act as divisional reserve! I was swearing my head off, but to no avail. Notwithstanding that I also got hit by a fit of diarrhoea. Our Doctor called it a gastric flu, but I call it the worst kind of diarrhoea I have ever experienced! I also had a temperature. I guzzled down a dose of opium, quinine and tanalbin every 15 minutes, but dragged through the whole thing as well as I could. Not that we had much to do. Changing positions into a different wood every 2 or 3 hours, three kilometers away from the frontline. The boring fate of the reserves.
Now and then we hear the sounds of battle and we could observe steep a ridge, on which trenches and bunkers could be seen. The Kamienka ridge, which was defended by the Poles until the boys of II., but mainly III. Batallion cleared them out with handgrenades. My company had been in battle for the first time and put up a good show, losing four dead and five wounded (including 3 NCOs).”

* “Tell your captain that for His Imperial Majesty, I have, as always, due respect. But he, tell him that, he can lick me in the arse!” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Götz von Berlichingen”.

III./IR22 managed to break into the enemy trenches south of the road and to push forward to Zaboklik. Following that, IR22 (including all its reserves) received the order to swing into the attack on the Gora Kamienska.

II./IR22 (commanded by Major Knobelspieß) advanced in a fast pace, crossed the road between R. Kosily and Zaboklik and broke into the system of trenches north of the road. Forests, trenches and dugouts were cleared and two concrete bunkers on the north side of the hill were taken. Polish resistance was fierce, many of the Polish soldiers refusing to surrender. The Poles kept on firing on the German attackers until the last possible moment, but always retreating as so to escape close combat and being taken prisoner.

A description from the Polish point of view can be found in Ryszard Juszkiewiczs book “Bitwa pod Mławą” (Warsaw, 1987):

“When after violent fighting the pickets of the 79th Polish infantry regiment had been forced to retreat from their protruding positions towards the main defensive position around 12:00 AM, the artillery of Korps “Wodrig” once again began its bombardment – this time preparing for the main assault. This had already been preceded by strong artillery preparation (10 Abteilungen = 120 guns from 1. and 12. Inf.Div.) The artillery preparation against Kamienska Gora was coordinated and commanded by Generaloberst Werner von Fritsch himself (Commander of Art.Rgt.12). This heavy artillery fire on Kamienska Gora lasted for 8 hours (1200h-1800h). Under covering fire of their own artillery, German infantry already started to attack Polish positions around 1500h. Their 1. Inf.Div. was attacking from the direction of Szumsk towards Kitki and Kamienska Gora, while 12. Inf.Div. was attacking from the direction of Krzynowloga Mala towards “redoubt Zaboklik” and Kamienska Gora with “Czubak”.”

The officer commanding the AT gun company of the Polish 79th Inf.Reg. wrote in his diary:

Polish 37mm AT gun

“At 1500h the general German assault started. Units of the 1st and 12th German infantry divisions, supported by tremendous artillery fire and many tanks, launched an attack against the foremost edge of the defensive position of our regiment. Left wing of the regiment – I. battalion – holds its positions. Right wing of the regiment, the reinforced 9th company under Cpt. Hoppe on Kamienska Gora, and the platoon of cyclists from 11 puł. on the “Żaboklik” position are defending against massive enemy attacks. The regiment is fighting for its life. Waves of German infantry are advancing towards our positions, coming closer and closer. Our artillery (12 howitzers from 88 dac and 8 guns cal. 75mm from 59 dal) are defending by laying a curtain of fire in front of our positions. The first wave of Germans met with our minefield. Parts of human bodies, weapons and equipment get thrown up by their explosions. Our wonderful boys fought with all their strength, many of them making the final sacrifice – it was in vain…”

By 1800h II./IR22 had taken the peak of Kamienska hill. When darkness set in the whole hill was in possession of III./IR43 and II., III./IR22. The fall of the Gora Kamienska had sealed the fate of the fortress of Mlawa, which I.AK had failed to take the day before.
The most detailed description of the fighting for the Kamiensa ridge can be found in a report published in Germany by the end of 1939 for III./IR22. This batallion had borne the brunt of the fighting and the report evaluated strengths and weaknesses, tactical dispositions and summarised the lessons learned from it.

First page of the report

It opens with a description of the battlefield itself:
“The Gora Kamienska dominates the surrounding terrain. It commands an excellent view of the marching route Krzynowloga-Mala and on the assembly rooms in the forests north-east of it. To bring in heavy weapons an attacker can only use a single road. The slightly rising ground in front of it offers only minimal cover for an attack which is further limited by the flanking bunkers on the northern slope of the Gora Kamienska. With its well placed obstacles, well camouflaged observing posts and trench systems the Gora Kamienska is the massive cornerstone of the Mlawa defensive lines. Its not surprising that Polish officers that were taken prisoner there, reported that these defences were thought to be impregnable. Indeed it can be said that it would never have been taken if it had been defended by German soldiers.”

The reinforced III./IR22 began its attack on 0800h having its right flank close to the road Krzynowloga-Mala/Grudusk. When it reached the hamlets about 1000 meters southwest of Krzynowloga-Mala it recieved enemy fire from the area of Hill 195. This hill lies about 2000 meters southwest of Krzynowloga-Mala and was occupied by enemy pickets. The batallion kept on advancing in a fast pace and pushed the enemy out of his defensive positions. The Poles had retreated in a hurry, leaving large quantities of ammunition, clothing and equipment.

First stages; fighting the pickets

Gora Modern

Modern Sat view of the Gora Kamienska Battlefield

It was the first time III. Batallion had been in battle and the first time the new machine guns (MG34) and mortars (Granatwerfer 34) had been used in action. “The men were pleased about their own firepower, which was far superior to that of the enemy, even from an acoustic point of view. Any doubts we had on the MG34 were wiped out. The enemy retreated from the weight of our fire and the pressure of our attack. The will to fight and the effectiveness in combat showed that our hard training before the war had finally paid out”.

The batallion now pushed through the forest with the order to take defensive postions on its southwestern corner. This was done without encountering enemy resistance. When the edge of the forest had been reached, the men of III. Batallion could see Polish forces retreating across the the road to Grudusk. The order to follow the retreating enemy was cancelled by a regimental command. For now III. Batallion stayed in position.

“By now the massive Kamienska hill could be observed. To get information about enemy strength and dispositions small reconnaissance elements were detached. Leutnant Neumann with some men of 10th coy and Unteroffizier Sparing with a group from 11th coy went out to obtain that intelligence. In a daring and bold move, both men managed to push forward to the village of Kosily, not only under constant fire of the enemy but also that of our own artillery”

“The Gora-Kamienska had been surrounded by a triple barrier of wire entanglements interspersed with trip wires. Behind that a well developed trench system. The road Kosily-Zaboklik had been blocked with a row of obstacles (chevaux de frise). The northeastern slope, north of the road Krzynowloga-Mala-Grudusk was defended by a heavy machine gun position dominating the road northeast of Kosily. South of it was a well camouflaged bunker which enfiladed the southern side of Kosily and the first 300 meters of the road Kosily-Zaboklik. Also flanking this road, another well camouflaged bunker was observed on hill 173. These observations, coupled with the reconnaissance conducted before the start of the campaign, gave a clear picture of what lay ahead. A well constructed defensive system, defended by a determined enemy.”

Bunker on the Gora Kamienska

Assembling for the attack

The batallion was just digging in, to take cover from sporadic Polish artillery fire when it finally recieved the regimental order to attack the Gora-Kamiensk. The whole Division would take part in the attack, supported by all available artillery which was now concentrating its fire onto the enemy positions.

The first target for III./IR22 was the village of Zaboklik, the second target the road Rzognowo-Borkowo. 11th coy, supported by a parts of the mortar company, was to attack from its positions in the forest north of hill 169, in the direction of Kosily-Zaboklik.
10th coy, supported by two mortar squads and a platoon of heavy machine guns, was to support this attack. An assault platoon of 9th coy was to attack the bunker on hill 173, the remains of 9th coy were to support 10th coy under the command of Hauptmann Todtenhaupt. Another target for 11th coy was the village of Rzegnowo, while 10th coy was to attack the ground northeast of it. Two light infantry gun platoons were to cover the advance of the companies.

For the attack the soldiers of the batallion had to leave all unnecessary equipment behind. Handgrenades were stuck into belts and double the normal amount of ammunition was issued. The report tells us that:

“The Gora is now covered in smoke and flame and the air is filled with the roar and thunder of constant artillery fire. The commander has a look at his watch. Five minutes to go, four, three, two, now its only one minute. Then the shout “1oth company attack!”.

Like one man everyone rises and moves forward into the attack. 10th coy advances in a long skirmish line led by its commander Hauptmann Rogalski, 11th coy is moving forward aswell, followed by the reminder of 12th coy, whose heavy weapon sections had been distributed on the other companies. The assault squad of 9th coy is working its way the bunker on hill 173.”

“The enemy artillery fire is ineffective. There are a few losses inflicted by shrapnell, but so far the advance is going well. In the front of the advance, heavy machine gun platoons move forward, ammunition carriers carry boxes full of cartridges, the signal platoon the heavy cable drums. About 500 meters southeast of Kosily the Batallion wades into enemy machine gun fire. Still casualities are light. The thin lines moving from cover to cover, using every furrow. “



“Our own artillery fire began to grow weaker, with the result that enemy machine gun fire increased considerably. The batallion had to halt, every soldier going down into full cover. Luckily a wire connection to the regimental command post could be established and the artillery could be called in again. It’s only due to the couragous behaviour of Unteroffizier Schicktanz that our communications to the command post were never broken, even on the move ”

Under cover of the attached mortar sections and heavy machine guns,10th and 11th coy managed to push forward into the dead angle of Kosily village, now temporarily secure from flanking and frontal enemy fire. Still when entering the village casualities begin to rise, when some soldiers fall victim to Polish anti infantry mines. For the next step, the companies of III./IR22 had to continue the advance over a plain field, under constant frontal and flanking fire from the Polish bunkers which the artillery was not able to suppress. As the neighbouring divisions were not able to send units to support the attack, the commander of III. Batallion decided to push forward under cover of the weapons available to him. By committing two 37mm AT guns of 14th coy (Oberleutnant Tolsdorff) which targeted the enemy bunkers and positions with direct fire and the reminder of the heavy company (12th coy) under Feldwebel Marquardt and Unterfeldwebel Langer the assault on the Gora Kamienska began to gain momentum.

General Theodor Tolsdorff, shooting star of the Wehrmacht in 1945, 6 years before commander of IR22s AT company

Casualities began to rise. Hauptmann Marquardt (commanding 10th coy) got wounded, squadleader Feldwebel Kanapin, and Gefreiter Mornigkeit got killed. Another 11 men of 10th coy got wounded. 11th coy lost the Füsiliere Braun, Kuklen and Oschkenlat who were killed and another 7 soldiers wounded. Still the attack did not stall. Some motivation came from the fact that by the late evening, signal flares and the sounds of machine gun fire could be observed on the batallions right. Its neighbour, Infanterie-Regiment 43 had joined the attack on the Goras other side.

Remains of trenches on the Gora Kamienska

Modern Satellite view of the area

11th coy managed to clear the roadblocks on the southern slope of the Kamienska and captured a Polish anti-tank gun which they now used against its former owners.
An assault platoon commanded by Feldwebel Kleinschmantat worked its way towards the bunker on the right side of the road (2). 10th coy had crossed a wire entanglement and broke into the enemy trenches behind that. The assault squad of 9th coy had been pinned down by enemy flanking fire. When the commander of 9th coy, Hauptmann Todtenhaupt, noticed that he personally took the lead. Lying down and crawling, he led the squad through enemy fire until it had reached a potato field about 300 meters in front of Bunker 4. From here the soldiers had enough cover to move forward one by one.

Bunker 4 was attacked from the left side. Light mortars and machine guns provided enough suppression for the soldiers of 9th coy to get into range to use handgrenades. When it was finally taken no enemies could be found, the Poles had retreated in the last possible moment, leaving behind ammunition crates and equipment.

Bunker 4 – 73 years later

The “new” machine gun in action – MG34

One of these battlegroups led by Leutnant Neumann managed to push forward to the village of Rzegnowo. On the hills northwest of it the Poles seemed to have held some units in reserve. From this position they now started a strong counter attack supported by light tanks which forced Neumanns battlegroup back to western side of Zaboklik. In the meantime, at about 1830h, 10th and 11th coy, together with parts of 9th coy had also reached Zaboklik. Everywhere in the village machine guns and mortars were brought into position. Supplies were alarmingly low and single soldiers were sent back to collect ammunition from the dead and wounded.
Without artillery support and low on ammo the commander of III./IR22 decided to hold Zaboklik and to organise a defence. Parts of II./IR22 had in the meantime arrived in Zaboklik aswell, and with these, six defensive groups were formed.

View from the outskirts of Zaboklik towards Bunker 4

The counter attack was carried out by the 2nd batallion of the 79th polish infantry regiment, supported by elements of its 3rd batallion and a company of TK Tankettes commanded by Lieutenant Mieczyslaw Kosiewicz.
The situation for the German defenders was critical. In the previous combats the straw on the fields behind the batallion had started to burn. Smoke and fire was everywhere. This made is difficult to bring in ammunition and to bring out the wounded. The soldiers of the Polish 79th Regiment were fighting most couragously, coming extremly close to the German positions. The left flank of Zaboklik was unguarded and IR22 always in the danger of getting outflanked. The fighting lasted through most of the night. On midnight a company of IR43 arrived, finally guarding Zabokliks left flank. In the early morning, the Poles retreated.

Captured TK Tankettes

1. Infanterie-Division (IR43/IR22) had taken the Gora-Kamienska and repulsed a counter attack at Zaboklik. The brunt of the fighting had been taken by III./IR22 which, after the fighting, had 12 soldiers killed in action and 20 severely wounded. Not much, considering that it had assaulted a fortified position and defended against a counter-attack by two Polish batallions and one company of tankettes.
The north eastern flank of the fortess of Mlawa had been crushed. 1. Infanterie-Division had gone through its baptism of fire and was able to try out new weapons and tactics.
According to the combat report of III./IR22 the new MG34s had been a complete success, as had the new ammo type “SmK(H)”. These 7.92mm rounds had a tungsten alloy core instead of an iron one. This gave the round an excellent armor piercing capability (13 mm for 30° impact angle). Every riflemen was issued with 10 rounds of this expensive ammo. The report states that enemy tankettes turned and retreated after being fired at with SmK(H).

It also notes that the ammo consumption of the MG34 was far worse than expected. The machine gun companies running out of ammo after only two hours of battle, having exhausted half of the batallions reserves! It advises to fire in shorter bursts, as many Polish dead had 6 or more bullet wounds. It was noticed that it was impossible to suppress concrete bunkers sufficiently by the use of artillery only and that without the use of 14th coys AT guns (firing directly) the attack would have stalled.

The battle of Mlawa had cost the Wehrmacht 1800 soldiers killed and another 3000 wounded. Polish losses being about 1200 killed and another 1500 wounded. Although the Mlawa position was finally abandoned on the 4th of September, the German forces suffered substantial losses and it was not until September 13, when they finally managed to reach the Modlin Fortress, located less than 100 kilometres to the south.

For the 1. Infanterie-Division Gora-Kamiensk had been a baptism of fire. Six years of total war still lay in front of them.

Sources used to compile this article:

– Major W. Richter, Die 1. (ostpreussische Infanterie-Division), Munich 1975
-Rudolf v. Tycowicz, Das Infanterie-Regiment 1 – Ein Erinnerungsbuch, 1966
-War diaries of 1.Infanterie-Division (US National Archives)
– Combat report of III. Batallion, Infanterie-Regiment 22 “Bericht über den Kampf an der Gora Kamienska“, Bundesarchiv
– Hauptmann von la Chevallerie (commanding officer of 11th company, III. Batallion), Handwritten report on the campaign in Poland, Bundesarchiv
– “Ostpreussische Kameraden”, various magazines of the organisation of former members of 1.ID (1955-64)