Everyone remotely interested in WW2 should have seen that. (English subs). Best german made TV documentary on the subject. Used to be on my old blog – now moved it here. 5 Parts, each about an hour in length.
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 it. To 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
6 divisions initially
|2nd Shock Army
|700 artillery pieces
|4600 artillery pieces
Casualties and losses
|12,000 killed, about 30,000 wounded||33,940 dead and missing,
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.”
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).”
I am still trying to transfer all the posts of my old blog over to this one. I did this one in March 2012 during a long stretch of boredom. The post is dedicated to Hauptmann Walther Hofmeister, my grandfathers Feldwebel.
Attached to this post you will find a link to his photoalbum.
Hofmeister has been mentioned on my blog before (“Men against tanks“). but he has a prominent place in the division and in my records aswell (my grandfather served in Hofmeisters Squad/Platoon from August 1942 to January 1943).
Hauptmann Walther Hofmeister
Start of military service: March 1940
Promotions: Schütze (1940), Gefreiter (March 1940), Unteroffizier (June 1942), Feldwebel (officer candidate – December 1942), Leutnant (January 1943), Oberleutnant (November 1943), Hauptmann (posthumously, May 1944)
04.06..1942-31.12.1942: Platoonleader (Truppführer) in 4./Infanterie-Regiment 22
01.01.1943-04.04.1943: Squadleader (Zugführer) in 4./Infanterie-Regiment 22
23.04.1943-18.05.1943: Assistant Batallion Adjutant in I./Infanterie-Regiment 22
19.05.1943-17.09.1943: Batallion Adjutant in I./Infanterie-Regiment 22
18.09.1943-30.09.1943: Company Commander, 3./Infanterie-Regiment 22
01.10.1943-28.01.1944: Batallion Adjutant in I./Infanterie-Regiment 22
Awards: Black wound badge (1st of October 1941), Iron Cross 2nd Class (13th of November 1941), Infantry Assault Badge (28th of December 1941), Tank Destruction Badge (4th of July 1942), Iron Cross 1st Class (14th of July 1942), Eastern Front Medal (1st of August 1942), Silver wound badge (29th of January 1943), Close Combat Clasp in Bronze (30th of July 1943).
While acting as batallion adjutant Hofmeister became a close friend of the legendary Theodor Tolsdorff. This coupled with his bravery in combat ensured fast promotion and would have made Hofmeister a likely candidate for the German Cross in Gold or even the Knights Cross. acting as batallion adjutant Hofmeister became a close friend of . This coupled with his bravery in combat ensured fast promotion and would have made Hofmeister a likely candidate for the German Cross in Gold or even the Knights Cross.
He was killed by a headshot while repelling a soviet attack on the village of Skitka (Ukraine).
After Hofmeisters death, Theodor Tolsdorff wrote a letter to Hofmeisters wife:
“As your husbands commanding officer, I have the sad duty to inform you that he has died a hero’s death. He was killed by a headshot on the 28th of January 1944 in the village of Skittka, about 15 kilometers south-west of Lipovec. He died instantly. We have buried him, together with other comrades, in the village of Romanoff-Mutor. This village lies about 2 kilometers south of Skittka. On the map you will find it south-west of Pogrebishche, a village that has been mentioned in the Wehrmachtsbericht. With this letter, the regiments officers and me would like to express our deepest condolences.
As I knew your husband so well, I know what this loss must mean to you. He was my best friend when he was serving as my adjutant. He set an example with his bravery and recklessness and was highly respected by his comrades and his superiors. He knew how to win the hearts of those around him and because of this he was highly valued and loved by everyone.
I know that words can not take the pain from you, but please remember that he gave his life for your and your child’s future.
I greet you with the deepest sympathy. You servant, Theodor Tolsdorff, Major.”
Private and military documents of Hauptmann Walther Hofmeister.
Divisional war diaries : NARA T315 R3/R4/R11
This bit of info used to be on my “old” blog (1infanteriedivision.wordpress.com), just pulling it over. It was once part of my series on the 2nd Battle of Lake Ladoga, which I will republish with added information later this year.
Inside the original war diaries of “1. Infanterie-Division” there is a torn out magazine page taken from a 1943 edition of “Der Völkische Beobachter“. It shows two photos taken during the Second Battle of Lake Ladoga. Normaly propaganda/news magazines do not give any details on where exactly photos were taken.
“On the 14th of January 1943 men of a Propaganda-Kompanie visit our trenches to collect material for the press and the Wochenschau. We are proud that they chose to visit the east-prussian Fusiliers.”
(“Tapfer und Treu” – Regimental newspaper of FR22, April 1943)
The page kept in the divisions diaries has handwriting on it noting that the photos taken, show soldiers of 1. Infanterie-Division and more precisely “1st Batallion, Füsilier-Regiment 22″. They were taken by members of “Propaganda-Kompanie 621” in January 1943. The war diaries also note that PK-Kompanie 621 recorded a film of which parts were used in the “Deutsche Wochenschau“. I spent weeks looking through the relevant editions of the Wochenschau to find that strip of film showing the men of Füsilier-Regiment 22. I was just about to give up the search when I saw this frame appear on my screen.
It’s the same tank, as is the object in the foreground. We are looking at the trenches of Füsilier-Regiment 22 during the Battle of Lake Ladoga! Whats even better is that due to this I can now present a short strip of film shot during the battle.
Meet the men my grandfather would have known, his comrades, the soldiers of Füsilier-Regiment 22. It is a shame that he never had the chance to see these recordings.
37mm AT guns are those of Panzerjäger-Abteilung 1, 8.8cm Flak gun is probably from Heeresflak (Army) Abteilung 280.
On my shelf there is a pile of machine-typed letters I “inherited” in 2009. They were passed on to me by a member of the association of former “Poznan Fighters” (Verband der ehemaligen Posenkämpfer) and were written by former Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe soldiers between 1964 and 2004, soldiers that fought in the Battle of Poznan in 1945.
The association, which disbanded in 2008, was special, Its sole purpose was to keep the memory of the battle alive and by collecting and evaluating as many eye-witness reports as possible, to locate the graves and final resting places of the comrades that went missing in February 1945. At its peak it had about 500 active members most of which supplied reports of their experiences in the battle to the associations archivist. It is these letters, all neatly copied by typewriter which now lie in front of me. They give a fascinating insight about what happened in these two fateful days within the Fortress of Poznan.
This month and the next I will start to translate a selection of them to post them on my site. They have never been published before and I hope you will find them as fascinating as I do. The tales of the ordinary german soldier, tales of combat, death, survival, fear and comradeship. I will try to publish one or two letters each week, depending on how much spare time I have.
There is very little photographs of the battle so please excuse the lack of them within the short history published here. I have been in a rush when writing this history and it is only a rough account on what happened, just to give all readers a basis when I publish the first letters. Further information can be found in these books;
- Maciej Karalus und Michał Krzyżaniak: Poznań 1945. Bitwa o Poznań w fotografii i dokumentach. Der Kampf um Posen in Bild und Dokument. Battle for Poznan in the photograph and documents (= Festung Posen 1945). Verlag Vesper, Poznań 2010
- Manfried Müller: Posen 1945., Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutsche Feldpost 1939-1945 e.V.
- Baumann, Günther. Posen ’45, Düsseldorf: Hilfsgemeinschaft ehemaliger Posenkämpfer, 1995.
- Duffy, Christopher. Red Storm on the Reich, New York: Athenum Press, 1991
- Szumowski, Zbigniew. Boje o Poznań 1945, Poznań: Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, 1985
“I have been quiet for more than 50 years, always waiting for someone to ask me for the truth. The few that came were grown up men asking me if Mattern got a Knights-Cross and what types of tanks we had in the city. Can you believe that?
For the last 50 years I have been thinking about the men I led against a soviet machine-gun position after breaking out from Fort Grolmann, their bodies lying stiff in the red snow around them. These images haunt me and up until now I have never spoken about it..” – extract from a letter written by WILHELM BECKMANN, Leutnant a.D., Schule V für Fahnenjunker der Infanterie Posen, 1997
The Battle of Poznan was fought in World War 2 as part of the Vistula-Oder-Operation of the Red Army. It began on the 25th of January 1945 after the german forces had been encircled and locked into the city and ended after heavy and brutal fighting on the 23rd of February 1945. About 15000 people were killed in the fighting and about 80% of the city were destroyed.
Between the 12th and 15th of January 1945 with a huge offensive in an area spanning from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathians the Red Army started what became known here in Germany as the “Endkampf im Osten“, the final Battle in the East. Within a few days, far superior soviet forces surging forward from their bridgeheads at the Vistula and Narev had forced large operational breakthroughs. These not only resulted in the flight and evacuation of millions of german civilians, but also in the complete destruction of Heeresgruppe A (Army Group A) positioned in the fore-field of the Warthegau. By the end of January 1945 the first soviet units had reached Küstrin. From there only 60 kilometers separated them from Berlin.
On the 18th of January Arthur Greiser, Gauleiter of the Warthegau, who only a few weeks earlier had declared that in his Gau “not a single meter of ground” would be given to the soviets had grudgingly given his permission to evacuate women and children from the eastern part of the Warthegau and its capital Poznan. By then most of the ethnic germans living in the area had already fled west. By the 23rd of January 1945 about 70000 germans had been evacuated from the city, many of them fleeing on their own, without support, defence and proper equipment. The majority of the polish population (an estimated 150.000 from a total 200.000) stayed inside the city.
Greiser himself had already evacuated himself and his staff on the 20th of January. Before that the city had been declared a “fortress” and its defenders had been informed that Poznan had to be held “at all costs”. Command of the “fortress” was given to Generalmajor Ernst Mattern, former commander of the Poznan garrison.
The precise number and names of the units defending Poznan have been hotly debated for years and many educated (and uneducated) guesses have been made. Looking at the Defenders a problem arises. Whereas as it’s quite clear what units were garrisoned in and around Poznan before the battle, the situation is very different once the it had started. There are no documents what units were actually used in the defence, which units were withdrawn from the fighting or which units evacuated/fled west. Add to this the fact that from January 1945 Poznan had been a beacon for scattered Waffen-SS and Army personnel and units fleeing west and that many of these were at once integrated into the defending forces.
In 1975 the polish historian Stanisław Okęcki estimated that there were around 32.500 defenders within the city whereas Zbigniew Szumowski speaks of more than 61.000 (basing his numbers on russian army sources dating from WW2). These numbers belong to the realm of fantasy. Generalmajor Mattern himself estimated that he had around 12.000 men under his command. Looking at the numbers published by the Asscociation of former Posen fighters (Bund der ehemaligen Posenkämpfer), the defenders numbered between 12.000 up to 15.000 men and personally I am inclined to trust these sources.
The “elite” core of the defending units was made up by 1.500 pupils of the Schule V für Fahnenjunker der Infanterie Posen (School V for infantry officer candidates Posen). The “pupils” were Wehrmacht NCOs who had earned their rights to become officers by distinguished service, bravery and/or their experience. In it grizzled Veterans shared rooms and benches with Junkers half their age. A mixed bunch, but being experienced and motivated a fundamental core of the defenders. Just before the battle all pupils were promoted to the rank of Leutnant (Lieutenant). During the battle they were put in command of companies, platoons and squads. Others acted as tactical advisors and were a welcome addition to the cities military command structure. Due to its fighting capacity Kampfgruppe (Battlegroup) Lenzer was another pillar of Poznans defences. Named after its commander Obersturmbannführer Wilhelm Lenzer is was made up from various Waffen-SS units that were inside the city when it was declared a fortress. Heavy firepower was provided by eight Flak batteries that were stationed inside the city. The reminder was made up by scattered elements of regular army formations, Policemen, five batallions of Landesschützen, a Volkssturm Batallion, Railway workers, Firemen and other service branches.
This colorful mix of units had access to up to (actual number is unkown) 30 StuG assault guns (StuG IIIs and StuG IVs destined to be delivered to Sturmgeschütz-Ersatz-und Ausbildungs-Abteilung 500), two Panthers (Panzer V) and one Tiger (Panzer VI) and a unknown number of self propelled Flak guns (mostly dual or quad 20mm guns). Artillery support was provided by eight batteries of Fortress artillery.
As I said, the actual number of Sturmgeschütze is unknown the only thing I know for sure is that there was at least one battery of SP Guns (StuG) of Sturmgeschütz-Ersatz-und Ausbildungs-Abteilung 500 operating close to and within the city (One Batterie = 10 assault guns).
The list below compiled by the Association of former Posen fighters is probably the closest we can get to the truth.
- Schule V für Fahnenjunker der Infanterie Posen
- Sturmgeschütz-Ersatz-und Ausbildungs-Abteilung 500
- SS-Kampfgruppe des Obersturmbannführers Lenzer
- Landesschützenbataillon 312
- Landesschützenbataillon 475
- Landesschützenbataillon 647
- Landesschützen-Ers.- und Ausb.-Bataillon 21
- Standort-Bataillon z.B.V. Posen
- Festungs-Infanterie-Bataillon 1446
- Festungs-MG-Bataillon 82
- Parts of MG-Bataillon 83 (Hptm. Krack)
- Füsilier-Kp. Wehrkreis III
- 1.-12. Versprengten-Kp. (12 coys of scattered soldiers)
- Festungs-Artillerie Gruppe West
- Festungs-Artillerie Gruppe Ost
- Festungs-Pionier-Kompanie 66
- Festungs-Pak-Abteilung 102
- Pak-Aufstellungsstab Lippolt
- Teile Festungs-Flak-Abteilung 829 (Heer)
- Flak-Abteilung Stüwe (Luftwaffe)
- Weitere Flak-Einheiten (various Flak units)
- Dolmetscher-Ers.-und Ausb.-Abteilung XXI
- Five Alarm Batallions:
- Flieger-Ers.-u.Ausb.-Bataillon 1 Posen
- Flieger-Bewährungs-Btl., Auffangstab Luftwaffe
- Polizeiverbände Posen, incl. Feuerschutzpolizei
- 1 Volkssturm-Bataillon (Götze), 2 Nachschub-Kompanien
- Werkschutz Fokke-Wulf, Werkschutz DWM, Teile Stalag (Factory Industrial Security, Focke Wulf Works)
- 1 techn. Kompanie, Sammel San-Park, Zentral-Ambulanz
- Wehrmacht-Übernachtungsheim und weitere Splittereinheiten (Wehrmachts Hostel personnel)
- Bewaffnete Eisenbahnerverbände (armed railway workers)
- Flak-Untergruppe Kurth, Adj. Schulz
- Schw.Fflak, Abt. 216/2 Hptm. Küster
The defenders made use of some of the surviving Festung Posen fortifications that had been built during Prussian rule in the 19th century. The Fort Winiary citadel stood on a hill to the north of the city centre. Around the perimeter of the city were 18 massively built forts, spaced at intervals of about 2 kilometres in a ring with a radius of about 5 kilometres. General Chuikov described the forts as
. . . underground structures each with several storeys, the whole projecting above the surrounding terrain. Only a mound was visible above ground — the layer of earth covering the rest. Each fort was ringed by a ditch ten metres wide and eight metres deep, with walls revetted with brickwork. Across the ditch was a bridge, leading to one of the upper storeys. Among the forts, to the rear, there were one-storey brick bunkers. These were clad in concrete almost a full metre thick, and were used as stores. The upper works of the forts were sufficiently strong to provide reliable protection against heavy artillery fire. . . . the enemy would be able to direct fire of all kinds against us both on the approaches to the forts and within them, on the rampart. The embrasures were such that flanking fire from rifles and machine-guns could be directed from them.
Even if that sounds quite impressive, By 1945 most of the defensive works in the city had become obsolete and gave only minimal defence to the firepower of the age. Only 30 years before they had already been classed as indefensible by Paul von Hindenburg.
Poznań lay on the main route between Warsaw and Berlin, and in German hands, was a serious obstacle to Soviet resupply efforts between Poznań and Berlin. Thus, the Red Army would have to clear the city of German troops before the final assaults designed to capture Berlin and end the war could begin.
On 21 January 1945 the Soviet 1st Guards Tank Army forced a crossing of the Warta River north of the city, but by 24 January these bridgeheads had been abandoned in favor of better bridgeheads south of Poznań. Meanwhile, Red Army tank units had swept north and south of the city, capturing hundreds of German aircraft in the process. Moving further west, the Soviet tank units left the capture of the city to other Red Army forces.
By 25 January, the Soviet 8th Guards Army had arrived and began a systematic reduction of the fortress. The following day, two of Poznań’s forts in the south fell to a hasty assault conducted by the 27th and 74th Guards Rifle Divisions. This initial success allowed Chuikov’s troops to penetrate the ring of forts and attack other forts from inside the city.
On 28 January, the German high command relieved Generalmajor Ernst Mattern as the fortress commander and replaced him with a dedicated Nazi, Generalmajor Ernst Gonell. Gonell imposed draconian discipline on the German garrison. In some instances, German troops attempting to surrender were shot by their own side.
Ultimately, the reduction of Festung Posen would consume the efforts of four divisions from Chuikov’s army and two divisions of Colonel-General V. Ia. Kolpakchi’s 69th Army. The 117th and 312th Rifle Divisions of the 91st Rifle Corps (69th Army) were deployed on the east side of the city. To the north, the 39th Guards Rifle Division of Chuikov’s 28th Guards Rifle Corps, and to the south, Chuikov’s 29th Guards Rifle Corps composed of the 27th, 74th, and 82nd Guards Rifle Divisions were arrayed against theFestung. By the southwestern suburb of Junikowo, the 11th Guards Tank Corps took up positions to block any German attempt at retreat.
Poznan was a major transportation hub lying close to the soviet route from Warsaw to Berlin. As long as the city was in german hands it was a major threat to the soviet lines of supply and because of that the soviets needed to take it. By the 25th of January the city was encircled, its defenders were trapped. On the same day Poznan was declared to be a Festung (Fortress) by Heinrich Himmler who also send a radio message promising the defenders, whose fate was already sealed, not to abandon them. The german army did not have the forces to relieve the besieged defenders and Himmler aswell has Hitler denied them any kind of help. On the 28th of January the soviet air force began a massive bombardment of the city while in the meantime soviet infantry began to move in, fighting its way forward from house to house. The ring around the defenders was tightening.
On the 30th of January Generalmajor Mattern was relieved of his command and exchanged with Generalmajor Ernst Gonell. Gonnel had been in command of the Fortress section “EAST” before that and had been in charge of the Officers cadet school V (Fahnenjunkerschule) before the Battle. Highly energetic and experienced he was everything that Mattern was not. According to period reports Gonell was sure that help was on the way and that the defenders would be relieved soon.
In the night from the 30th to the 31st of January 1945 around 1200 soldiers garrisoned inside Fort Grolmann (Fort VIII), now completely cut off and surrounded, received the order to break out. In small groups they tried reaching the german lines in the west. While that was going on the fighting inside the city continued. By then six soviet divisions (Four of 8th Guard Army and two of 69th Army) were fighting inside and around the city.
On the 5th of February they managed to take the provisional airfield “Zeppelinwiese” in the district of Weinern close to the citadel. A severe blow to the defenders as this airfield had been used by the planes of Luftflotte 6 to fly in supplies. Up until then 110 tons of ammunition and cables had been flown into the fortress and 277 wounded and an unknown number of women and children had been flown out of it.
By the time the airfield had been taken the soviets were already in control of a large part of Poznan. On the 11th of February Generalmajor Gonell (he only had been promoted two days before) sent a message to the Führers Headquarters that his troops were “weary and tired of battle and were slowly becoming apathetic as there was no hope of relief”
One day later most of the surviving defenders had fallen back to around and into the Citadel, the old prussian fortress, were the battle was reach its brutal crescendo. The german soldiers (around 2000 men) trapped and cut off east of the river Warta were more lucky. Having no chance to reach the Citadel they were allowed to try the breakout.
On the 18th of February the soviets began the assault on the citadel, the attackers crossing the citadels moat balancing on overturned ladders. When crossing they were taken under constant fire from the citadels redoubts. After three days of heavy fighting with flamethrowers and explosives the redoubts were silenced. On this day the defenders sent their last radio message telling the outside world that the citadel was about to fall. One day later, on the 23rd of February 1945 at 0300h Generalmajor Gonnel gave the order to cease-fire and to capitulate. Only a small number of german soldiers managed to slip through the soviet lines to escape. The reminder, the ones not killed at once, went into soviet captivity. Gonnel himself shot himself soon afterwards.
The Germans held out in Poznań for almost a month. Doubtlessly, their possession of the city complicated Soviet resupply efforts, but other influences had also convinced the Stavka to pause the Red Army advance at the Oder River instead of attempting to push on to Berlin in February 1945.
The battle left over half (90% in the city center) of Poznań severely damaged by artillery fire and the effects of infantry combat in the city blocks.
Over 5,000 German troopers who fell in the battle are buried at Milostowo cemetery. Many others were killed by soviet soldiers after being taken prisoner. Many of them buried where they fell, months after the battle. An estimated 400-600 wounded soldiers were killed inside the cellars under the citadel by soviet flamethrower teams. Hundreds of the soldiers that managed to break out of the besieged city were never seen again, missing up this day. The Soviets are estimated to have lost over 12,000 men by the battle’s midpoint around 3 February 1945. The total number of soviet dead up the end of the battle is still unknown and realistic numbers were never made available.
A little early but today I remember another of my wifes great grandfathers. His story is a sad one and up to today he has no known grave and we do not have a lot of information on what happened to him in World War 2. This month and the next sees the 68th anniversary of the Battle of Poznan and I will use this article to publish a series of vivid eye witness reports or former Poznan fighters (Posenkämpfer).
Wilhelm Heinrich Höfmann was born on the 2nd of July 1897 in Mülheim in the Ruhr-Basin. His father and grandfather had been coal miners. In World War 1 (1915) Wilhelm joined Infanterie-Regiment No. 159 (8th Lothringian) fighting at Verdun, Ancre, the Somme and the Marne and was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class in August 1916 only a couple of weeks after his brother, serving in the same regiment, was killed in action
When the War ended Wilhelm joined the endless ranks of the workless, futureless and dispirited ex-soldiers. No work, no money, inflation and political instability forced him to take on day-jobs on building and construction sites a situation that remained unchanged up until 1923. In this year, thanks to a former army comrade, Wilhelm joined Duisburgs Police Force. There is not a lot of data left to reconstruct Wilhelms career with the german police as most original files were destroyed during a bombing raid in World War 2 .
In 1940 he was transferred to a Police Batallion in occupied Holland. In Stiens, Leeuwarderadeel, he fell in love with a dutch girl which he married in the same year. The couple had three daughters. In early 1944 Wilhelm was transferred to Poznan in occupied Poland. It was a chance he gladly took as it not only brought him better payment, he could also take his wife (and children) with him which were getting constantly harassed by their dutch neighbours and their own family for having married a german.
What follows is chaos and up until now I was not able to find out what really happened. There is only a few facts.
In January 1945 something happened that brought Wilhelm into serious trouble.
According to his wife and daughter he signed and stamped a passport for a polish citizen which allowed the holder to leave the house during curfew. Doing this was strictly against the rules, but the Pole had been a friend of Höfmanns family and by signing the passport Wilhelm had signed his own death warrant. The Pole was controlled by a german patrol one night and the signature and stamp in the passport was enough to bring Wilhelm into Jail.
By now soviet forces were closing on Poznan and having no other choice Wilhelms wife and children fled west, leaving their father and husband in captivity, awaiting trial.
What happened after that is not known to us. There are various possibilities. I sighted tons of archive material here in germany and spoke to dozens of former “Poznan fighters” (there used to be an association of veterans which fought in Poznan in 1945). No source brought light into Wilhelms fate.
He is missing since February 1945, one of the thousands of german soldiers, policemen and civilians which fought and died in the city in this month. The Battle of Poznan ranks among the most horrific battles of the War. What went on inside the city can not be described by words (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Pozna%C5%84_(1945))
There is a chance that Wilhelm was locked into the Poznan Citadel. If he was, then he might have met his end when the soviets took the citadel on the 23rd of February 1945. After taking the fortress soviet flame thrower teams entered the underground tunnels and cell blocks, burning and killing every prisoner found inside.He might have been released and taken part in the fighting within the city. A large proportion of the cities defenders was made up by police batallions and ad-hoc formed military units. Thousand of the defenders still lie in mass graves under the city.
Wilhelm is mentioned in the commemoration book of the Military cemetery of “Milostowo”.
Coming up on the weekend, unpublished reports by german soldiers that fought in the terrible Battle of Poznan
Polizei-Meister Wilhelm Heinrich Höfmann
Ur. 02.07.1897 r. w Mülheim, zaginiony w lutym 1945 r. w Poznaniu.
Wilhelm Höfmann został przeniesiony przez Policję z Duisburg do Poznania w 1942 r. W Poznaniu służył on do 1945 r. Jego rodzina (żona i dzieci) przeniosły się razem z nim do Poznania. Zgodnie z informacjami posiadanymi przez rodzinę, został on aresztowany i uwięziony z powodu wystawienia polskiemu robotnikowi przepustki bez wymaganego do tego pozwolenia. Pod koniec stycznia i na początku lutego 1945 r. rosyjskie oddziały zaczęły się zbliżać do Poznania. Wówczas rodzina Wilhelma Höfmann uciekła na zachód. Wilhelm pozostał w areszcie w Poznaniu. Jego rodzina nie otrzymała od tamtej pory żadnej informacji na temat jego losów. Wilhelm Höfmann jest od lutego 1945 r. uznawany za zaginionego. Bardzo bym się cieszył, gdyby osoby czytające tę stronę internetową pomogły mi odpowiedzieć na następujące pytania dotyczące wyżej przedstawionego stanu faktycznego: Cyz ktoś wie, gdzie dokładnie w Poznaniu byli przetrzymywani niemieccy aresztanci? Co działo się z więźniami przed i w czasie zdobywania miasta przez Rosjan? Zgodnie z niektórymi wypowiedziami, Niemcy dokonali egzekucji na aresztantach przed ewakuacją miasta. Zgodnie z innymi wypowiedziami, więźniowie zginęli z rąk Rosjan w czasie walk o Poznań. Czy ktoś posiada informacje na ten temat? Nazwisko Wilhelma Höfmann zostało podobno wymienione na znajdującej się w Poznaniu tablicy pamiątkowej. Czy ktoś z Poznania lub okolic mógłby sfotografować tę tablicę i udostępnić mi jej zdjęcie? Będę wdzięczny za każdą pomoc. Każda, nawet mała wskazówka bądź informacja jest mile widziana. Bardzo dziękuję.
ATTACKING THE GORA-KAMIENSKA: “STALLING THE BLITZ” – THE BATTLE OF MLAWA
2nd and 3rd of September 1939
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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, 3rd 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.
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).
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.
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:
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
“After the artillery barrage had stopped an eerie silence set in. It was pitch dark and snowing heavily…then we saw the purple signal flares rise into the night sky and prepared ourselves to defend against enemy tanks.”
(Interview with Obergefreiter Lemmler, 8./Füsilier-Regiment 22 in “Ostpreussische Kameraden”, 1955)
For the period of January and February 1943 the divisional war diaries (NARA T315 R8/R9) of 1. Infanterie-Division hold a series of highly interesting documents which relate to the experiences of soldiers who destroyed an enemy tank single-handedly by use of a hand-held weapon.
The infantry divisions of “HG Nord” (Army group north) in 1942/43 had a chronic shortage of larger caliber AT and Flak guns with which to combat enemy tanks effectively. This resulted in gaps in the defences, which made an inviting target for enemy armour. As always when somebody had to take the rap, that somebody was the infantry.
Satchel charges, hand and rifle grenades, AT mines, flash and smoke grenades and more importantly, huge courage were the tools that were needed to combat a tank effectively. The short reports found inside the divisional KTB (war diary) give a detailed and sometimes frightening view on the brutal confrontation of men against tanks…
The first report is by an NCO who I “know” quite well. Feldwebel Hofmeister was my grandfathers “Zugführer” (platoon leader). He was killed holding the rank of Hauptmann (Captain) in 1944. On my website you can have a look at his military documents and his photo album.
Date of action: 6th of June 1942
Tanktype: T34 Weapon used: 3 kilo charge
“As a pair we used the ground and craters to approach the enemy tank undetected. About 10 meters behind it, we ducked into cover and armed the charge. While the other man used his submachine gun to keep the heads of the tank crew down, I ran up to it and placed the charge on a slightly opened hatch. I then jumped back into cover and only seconds afterwards there was a tremendous explosion with the tank spewing up a huge jet of flame. It continued to burn for about 2 hours, having no visible damage on the outside.”
Date of action: 12th of January 1943
Tank type: T34 Weapon used: Concentrated charge (handgrenades)
“Gefreiter L. placed the concentrated charge onto turret hatch and ignited it. The turret hatch was smashed, crew killed with handgrenades.”
Wilhelm Schimanski (no rank given)
Date of action: 12th of January 1943
Tank type: T34 Weapon used: H3 (3 Kilo hollow charge)
“It was the 12th of January 1943 when I finished off this russian tank. It was demobilised by a mine about 10 to 15 meters in front of our trench, but continued to fire at our positions with his 7.62 cm gun and its machine guns. Jumping out of the trench I closed with it and attached an H3 to its rear. The H3 detonated with a vast explosion which tore a hole measuring about 3 to 5 centimeters into it. The tank burned out completly afterwards.”
Männer gegen Panzer (Men Against Tanks) is a 1943 German film, produced by Lehrfilm, which was used as a training film by the Wehrmacht. Its purpose was to show the German soldiers the different types of infantry anti-tank warfare. The duration of the film is 28 minutes.
The film consists of three parts. The first part shows a staged combined Soviet tank and infantry attack against entrenched German infantry. The attack is preceded by artillery and air strikes. The tanks, several T-34 model 1941/1942/1943 and a KV-1, are dealt with and destroyed by different means of improvised and dedicated anti-tank weaponry. Right and wrong approaches to destroy a tank single-handedly are displayed. At the end of the attack,Wilhelm Niggemeyer, a holder of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and four tank destruction badges, is shown in action, destroying the KV-1 with a mine.
The second part shows how rear-service troops must be prepared for anti-tank warfare, as they too can encounter enemy tanks. The third part presents the Grosse Gewehrpanzergranate, Kampfpistole42LP, Püppchen, Panzerfaust, Panzerschreck, their use and their effect against tanks.
The Soviet equipment used in the film, including uniforms and weapons, are authentic captured Soviet stock. The Soviet officer’s uniforms were made before the 1943 reforms of the uniform. The only exception are the aircraft used, the AT-6, which were captured in the Battle of France.
Part 1 of “Männer gegen Panzer”
Part two starts with a report written by a soldier of GR43. Its final sentence is hair raising.
Gefreiter Marius Pilz
Date of action: 21st of February 1943
“On the 21st of January 1942 a tank of the KW-1 type broke into our positions at the “Sicklemoor” near Pogostje. It drove into the direction of a bunker which held our batallions command post. When it was about 20 meters away it took two hits from a light infantry gun which was itself positioned about 6o meters away from the tank. The shots immobilised the tank and blew off its left track. One of our 5cm AT guns now opened fire on the tank, but 15 shots stayed without effect.
I crawled up to the KW1, climbed it and bent the tanks three machine guns by beating them with a shovel which I had found on the ground.
Thereupon the tank commander climbed out and surrendered. The remaining crew now opened fire with submachine guns through small holes, especialy made for this purpose.
I fetched some petrol from a motorbike which was standing nearby, poured it over the tanks engine compartment and ignited it by using a handgrenade. The tank burned out completely. Its crew did not surrender.”
Gefreiter Wilhelm Blum
Date of action: 14th of January 1943
Tanktype: BT Christies fast tank Weapon used: Hollow charge
“I attached the charge to the tanks engine, above the road wheels. The resulting detonation immobilised it. The crew was shot by covering riflemen.”
Gemerzki (no first name and rank given)
Date of action: 13th of January 1943
Tanktype: Tank similar to the T-26 only heavier. Precise identification is impossible. Weapon used: Rifle AT grenades / rifle grenade launcher
“The passing tank took seven hits on the rear and the turret. The second shot (to the rear) made it come to a halt. The others annihilated its crew. All shots penetrated the armour. ”
Männer gegen Panzer (Men against tanks) Part 2
Men against tanks, Part III.
“In the early morning hours I worked my way towards a tank that was standing inside a minefield in front of our positions. I climbed it from behind, so the crew could not hit me with machine guns. Suddenly a Coppola was opened and a head became visible.
I took the AT mine I carried and, as hard as I could, smashed it on the russians head.
I then armed the fuse, threw the mine into the tank and immediately jumped down into a nearby shell crater. In the same moment the mine exploded setting the tank ablaze.”
2nd of February 1943
Tank destroyed: T 34 (26 tons)
Below you will find some german wartime manuals and pamphelts on anti-tank fighting and the usage of the panzerfaust. The most famous being “Der Panzerknacker” (The tank cracker), a humorous manual on the subject, issued to some troops in 1944/45.
Oberst (then Hauptmann) de la Chevallerie left us a unique report on the first 8 days of the invasion of Poland (he was wounded on the 9th of September). The original report is stored in the Bundesarchiv (Militärarchiv) in Freiburg (Germany). Nobody knows exactly why he wrote it. It might have been written for a friend, it might also have been a draft for his memoires. Anyway, his writing style is quite unusual for a “prussian” officer (its not often that you find them telling you of their diarrhoea on campaign). I have already taken some its passages for two earlier blog posts and thought it might now be time to publish it in full. But first you should know something about the man:
“He seemed haughty and eccentric and I always had the impression that he was bored by everything that happened around him, but he took great care of his men and was an exceptional soldier.”
(Obergefreiter Adam Rehberg, IR22 – Letter to the author)
Oberst Botho Hermann Ludwig von La Chevallerie was born on the 1st of August 1898 in Hannover. During World War 1 he fought with Ulanen-Regiment 20, earning the Iron Cross First and Second Class. Not much else is known about his military career in the Great War. On the 6th of September 1918 he was taken prisoner by the british. He was released on the 1st of November 1919 and was discharged about three weeks later. He lived a civilian life up to October 1934 when he rejoined the army, taking over a company of Infanterie-Regiment 22 (1. Infanterie-Division) of the Gumbinnen Garrison. On the 1st of January 1939 he was commanding the 11th company of the regiment. During the Polish Campaign, on the 9th of September 1939, he was badly wounded (shot into the neck with the round entering the lungs) and was transported to Ortelsburg/Germany for medical treatment. De la Chevallerie took part in the Campaign in the West (commanding 3rd battalion, Infanterie-Regiment 43, 1. Infanterie-Division). When the battalion was transferred to 121. Infanterie-Division and redesignated III./Infanterie-Regiment 408he stayed in command and participated in the campaign against Russia. On the 28th of June he was wounded again (one shot to the head, two into the arm), near Kowno.
Only a day before he had earned himself the Knights Cross, when his battalion attacked russian positions in the forests near Rukla. The enemy there was strong, so originally the attack was supposed to be carried out by the whole division. Having been cut of from artillery support and all other units, de la Chevallerie attacked with a single battalion instead. By the end of the day, III. battalion had taken the soviet positions. Huge amounts of supplies, arms and ammunition were captured. He was awarded the Knights Cross on the 23. of July 1941.
After recovering from his wounds he took command of Infanterie-Ersatz-Bataillon 22 (regimental reserves) in Gumbinnen. In November 1943 (now a Major) we find him commanding Grenadier-Regiment 585 (320. Infanterie-Division) on the Eastern Front. Being wounded again on the 14th of November 1943, he succumbed to his wounds on the following day. He was promoted to the rank of Oberst posthumously.
“On the 21st of August we left the garrison, prepared as if going to war. I was lucky that only 20 of my men were reservists. Most of my NCOs were active soldiers and most of my reservists had served their two years in my company.
As squadleaders I had Leutnant Neumann, Oberfähnrich Koch (who had just left war academy) and my good, reliable Feldwebel Kudszus, who had just managed to rejoin the company before it marched out. He had been acting as drill sergeant in the reserve batallion and had spent the day before running around like a child waiting for christmas.
It was all very strange. We all had been issued live ammunition and handgrenades, but we still had our paybooks (Soldbücher) stored in a big box and everyone carried a red helmet band for “Autumn excercises”. Blanks had been left in storage, to be send to the “excercise grounds” if needed!
When we had reached the train station we deployed air defences (as if on maneuver), and loaded us and our equipment onto the trains. After we had finished, peace broke out again. Civilians, women and children flooded the platforms and everything looked just like a normal day as we had experienced it lots of times before.
Seven hours later we disembarked at Ortenburg and marched off into the direction of Willenberg. We had our first experiences with bad roads on campaign when our carriages, loaded with every wargear imaginable got stuck in knee deep sand. The wagons weighed up to five tons and with their low profile and rubber tires it was no wonder that only two horses had problems with them. After we had marched for about 30 kilometers we set up camp inside a forsest close to a small lake.
Tents were camouflaged and soon afterwards everyone was asleep. On the next day we were supposed to march into the regimental assembly areas to begin our excercises. Instead we recieved the information that these had been cancelled. That was good news and we spent the time swimming in the lake, cleaning weapons and caring for the horses. The company had eight vehicles. Three for arms and ammunition, three for luggage and other supplies, one kitchen wagon and one for air defence, mounting two MG34 machineguns. Three of them were drawn by requisitioned horses which were not bad, but a little bit on the weak side and being driven by naive reservists, whose only knowledge about horses consisted of sitting on the wagon, wildly shaking the reins and shouting “Hooah”.
We spent three days in our bivouac, using the time to train the horses and give driving lessons to the men. We excercised swimming, made endurance runs through the forest.
The lads of the machine gun company had used the money of their “Manure-Fond” (selling of horse manure to farmers) to buy a radioset and every day the batallion assembled around it. From this we heard that we were stationed in a state of readiness, two kilometers away from the border! The truth was that we were about 10 Kilometers away from it, lazy and in our underpants.
On the last day we heard that Scheidies (Batallion commander) was transfered to divisional staff. You have to know Scheidies to understand how hard this was for him. It would have been easier if this had happened before we marched out, but now, when everyone was eagerly expecting action the whole thing was unbearable. The only “good” thing about this buisnenss that I was to take command of the batallion, so at least the men didn’t have to cope with an outsider.
The following night we continued our march. Near Kannwiesen we again set up camp when I was called to the regiment. There I recieved orders to take the batallion to a forest about about two kilometers from the polish border. The border there was lined by the river Orschütz, 5-6 meters wide and about 2 meters deep. There were no bridges, only a couple of fords (where the water had a depth of about half a meter).
I returned to the battalion, the men equipped themselves with live ammunition and moved out to the target area. I was more than glad when we had reached it at about 0230h in the morning. Deep Masurian Pine forest, sand, sand and more sand, tiny roads and crossings every five minutes, which all looked exactly the same and half of them not being on any map, stuck vehicles and finally a disoriented artillery unit blocking our way with their wagons and guns. At 0300 in the morning I finally got in touch with an adjutant of the reconnaissance, who told as that X-Time was supposed to be at 0430h. That gave us about 90 minutes to lay down on the forest floor to catch some sleep. At 0330h I was woken an armed guard telling me that “Herr Oberstleutnant is coming”. And really, our Scheidies was back, carrying with him the message that all orders had been cancelled. Batallion was to move back and to await further orders. We had been told that the Poles were about to attack Gdansk and we were supposed to counter that by attacking him in return. Alas, the Poles did not do us that favor and, at least for the day, war was cancelled. We moved out again, made camp and spent the following days in a forest near Roggen, frying eggs on our entrenching tools, cleaning guns and waiting for what was to come.
On the 31st of August I was called back to the regiment. It was the same old song all over again. Scheidies (commander of 1st Btn.) was on leave and I had to take over. During the night we got the order to move into our attacking positions. The whole thing reminded me of the fable “The boy who cried wolf”, but an order is an order and we obeyed.
On the 1st of September (at three in the morning) we arrived, quite unenthusiastically, at the same spot where we had spent the nights of the 26th and 27th of August. The only difference being that now it rained cats and dogs. Shortly afterwards we received the order “X-Time 0445h”. As usual, nobody really believed that, but to everyone’s surprise, at precisely 0445h, our artillery fired a few salvos; loudly announcing the start of the war! I have to mention that this was no proper artillery fire, the first salvos were only fired to find the correct range. Still there was one interlude that needs to mentioned.
Major Domizlaff, commander of I./IR22. also known as “Borante”, who was massively disliked by old and young, had overzealous as usual, already crawled over the border and had only just been missed by one of our shells. He took a splinter into his arse! Harmless but painful. This story spread like wildfire throughout the division which was soon roaring with laughter.
We crossed the Orschütz at a ford, leaving some our supply vehicles behind as the ground was much to swampy for them to cross (they rejoined our column some days later, after getting two more horses per wagon). Not one shot was fired from the polish side. We had not expected that, after all we had been told about strong enemy forces in the area.
All we saw were quite a number of small, dirty villages and some old people, who took of their hats when we passed, looking even more afraid than we did. It started with sand and more sand. Also thick dust, sometimes red, sometimes grey. We could only see an actual road when inside a forest. Where there were no trees, there was the road. This changed when marching on open ground. You could only guess where to go. If we were lucky we could see the marks left by some farmers manure wagon, that was about it. What was marked a proper road on our maps wouldn’t have passed as a beaten track at home. No stones, no trees, no ditches, just dismally drab surroundings. It was terrible and most exhausting for the men.
Later in the evening we had reached a prominent ridge. The enemy must be there! But again, disappointment. An excellent defensive position and nobody was using it!
18 kilometers futher on, the sounds of battle! Our cavalry scouts had clashed with enemy pickets. The regiment went into the attack. I. Batallion at the front, II. Batallion on the left, III. Batallion on the right flank. The first moves went smooth as if on the exercise ground. Then III. Batallion was ordered to halt and I got called to the regiment again.
I rode over as fast as I could and was told that I. Batallion had met the enemy at the village of Skorupki. It was now being flanked by enemy forces on Hill 188, effectivly pinning the batallion to ground. We were ordered to attack Hill 188 from the north, supported by a section of light infantry guns of 13th coy. An artillery observer was going to contact me soon.
A nice and clear order. Going north we now saw the first dead poles lying on the roadsides. The artilleryman had contacted me as promised, I had told him of my plan and he had promised fire support. In the meantime we had spotted three enemy machine guns on the hill. After a march of about 20 minutes we were in the position to assault the hill, just in time to see its defenders fleeing as if in panic. Again no sign of resistance. The enemy just left his most formidable position without even trying to defend.
Still we were quite happy when we had reached the peak of the hill. Although we were not feeling quite as victorious as we would have liked. From up there we could see I. Batallion leaving Skorupki and in front of it, prominent on his white charger, our Scheidies. Because of Borantes wounded arse, he had been sent back to take charge of III. Batallion. I was delighted, as this meant I could go back to lead the lads of 11th company.
“Without rest we continued our march. Taking a southwesterly direction we crossed valleys and ridges, keeping up a fast pace and always in open order. We must not give the poles a minute of rest. As we had no vehicles we had to carry our heavy weapons aswell. A most exhausting business, even for the best trained men.
The sun set and we dug in. Guards and pickets were set up. It was cold, our coats were still on our baggage train. We were hungry aswell and our field kitchen was nowhere close. At this moment food and coats were about 18 hours behind us. There was no hay to cover ourselves with, so we laid down on open field in shallow pits and ditches. I was lucky to be lying on a flax field as I could use the plants to make myself a small pillow and a partial blanket. The other part of my blanket was provided by the Zeltbahn (tent square) of one of my NCOs (Unteroffizier Zibulski), which we shared like brothers even it was a little small for two grown men. I still slept like a log, up until at half past three in the morning I was woken by Leutnant Götz, once member of my company, now second adjutant 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 could hear the sounds of battle and later we could see a steep ridge, on which trenches and bunkers could be spotted. The Kamienka ridge, which was defended by the Poles until the boys of II., but mainly III. Batallion cleared them out with hand-grenades. My company had been in battle for the first time and put up a good show, loosing four dead and five wounded (including 3 NCOs).
The next day was a good day, as I was finally given the chance to fight. The regiment was attacking, but its left flank was open and unguarded. To cover it I got command of small detachment consisting of 1st coy., one squad of 4th (MG) coy., two light infantry guns of 13th coy. and two AT guns of 14th coy. With this respectable force I defended the regiments flank against an attack that sadly never happened. When shortly afterwards IR43 took over, I took over commanding the reserves again, following the regiment south-east, which at least gave me chance to have a closer look on the fortifications of the Gora-Kamiensk. We only had short rest of about an hour, before continuing our march through the night. This was disturbed by some sporadic and unaimed polish artillery fire, which was quite disturbing for some of the younger soldiers. I had seen far worse on the battlefields of the last war and knew we were not in any danger. I did not even dismount, as it was a lot easier to control the horse from the saddle. When we passed a few burning villages the artillery fire stopped as suddenly as it started.
The next morning we could see huge columns of enemy soldiers streaming south from the area of Mlawa. They were out of reach of our guns and obviously we had failed to pocket them in. We later heard that this was done on purpose, as the fleeing masses were enlarging the confusion in and around Warsaw.
There was only one thing for us to do. Marching until the feet were bleeding and the lungs burst. Fast pace and open order. 15 kilometers, shouldering heavy machine guns and mortars and carrying twice the normal supply of cartridges and hand grenades.
In the meantime our kitchen had caught up with us and I made a promise to myself not to let it go again. Then suddenly a road, at least it used to be one 100 years ago, and open ground in front of us. A one hour break to eat and rest. Another stretch of marching till midnight. Another rest, this time in a small hamlet. The men resting in a tiny barn, stacked like herrings in a tin. We had been marching for four days now. Only short breaks, no one had the time to wash. The stench in the barn was quite unpleasant, but at least it was warm.
At 0200 suddenly alarm! Only two hours of sleep. Everyone was cursing, but to no avail. Off we went again. The usual crappy roads and never-ending 25 kilometer stretch of marching. It was hot and we were sweating like the pigs. There was no water. The few wells we found were constructed for one goat and a couple of Poles. Not even enough for washing, although the Poles did not seem to take body hygiene to serious anyway.
For some reason the bandit managing our kitchen always had hot tea and coffee ready for us and we still got food supplies from the divisional baggage train. As I did not want to send our heavy kitchen wagon to fetch supplies we “organized” a small cart drawn by two nimble panje horses. Every day we had another use for that. We lived on the move and off the land. One day it was loaded with an old fusilier plucking dozens of chicken. The next time we were slaughtering a couple of piglets and a lamb on it. One day it was loaded with three Polish civilians peeling potatoes. Every day we took a different collection of Poles to do these jobs. We had run out of bread days ago, but with the supplies found on the way I was able to supply the men with two warm meals a day.
Later we came up to a proper farm estate. A good place to rest. This was the first proper Polish farm we had seen so far. Clean and large stables. They seemed to have bred pigs there. Lots of sows and piglets around. Not a soul to be seen. All light bulbs had been removed, the water supply had been cut. Again no chance to wash and shave. Most of us looked like a poor version of St. Peter and smelt like the other inhabitants of the farm. The pigs were well fed and even if the horses had been removed there must have been people around. Whoever they were, they managed to stay out of sight.
At dusk another break inside the usual tiny hamlets. Two hours of rest. The next morning after only three kilometers we reach a small jewish village called Makow. We get a surprising rest as there is a big traffic jam. Large parts of our division, including the reconnaissance unit needed to cross our old relation, the river Orschütz, again. This time by using a small makeshift bridge, everything was in chaos.
The city full of jews. The houses were so dirty that I would not have entered them even under threat of death. Most of the shops had been devastated by polish soldiers. Sweets and chocolates had been trampled on the ground. A german soldier would never do things like that. A german soldier would eat as much as he could and take the rest to eat it later.
Again no chance to wash. It was the 6th of September and the day ended like it had started. A small march of 20 kilometers, then a long rest in a forest. The roads had become even worse and again there was no lake or a drop of water to wash with, but at least we finally got a long rest. No enemy in sight and still heading south-east….
* “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”.
“The night was pitch black. Sandy ground everywhere, making marching a pain. A chausee was supposed to be somewhere in front of us. We passed a stuck supply column loaded with ammunition. One of our horses died of pure exhaustion this night. It was the most terrible march of the whole campaign.
Finally we reached the chaussee. Well, it probably had been a chaussee once, in the time of William the Conqueror. But at least we were marching on a road again.
A while later a car came up, which took me, Scheidies and the officer in charge of the machine gun company up to the regiment. We were closing on the river Narew, about 2 kilometers south of the old russian fortress of Rozan and were to look for favourable spots to cross. Pioneers had brought in lots of rubber dingies and when the sun began to rise the battalion crossed the river. The bridges near Rozan had been blown, so we couldn’t take our vehicles with us. Again our payload began to rise. More ammunition, more hand-grenades and heavy weapons. On the other side discarded rifles, ammunition and helmets, but again no sign of enemy resistance, no sign that we were actually fighting a war.
We marched through a forest, companies spread out in open order but with reduced spacing as it was easy to loose one another in the dense trees. Through the forest, up a hill and down again. Loaded like mules with ammunition and equipment, steel helmets on and all under the burning sun. Always heading south-east and no end in sight.
In the evening we made camp and dug into a what we call a “hedgehog” position.
We had taken some dumb polish soldiers prisoner, who had put on civilian clothing, but had forgotten to remove their dog tags. They had been told that it would take three or four days until the first german soldiers showed up. Quite a surprise for them.
We did not win the war in Poland by feats of arms. We won because of the iron will and stubbornness of our infantry and their intensive peacetime training, which had enabled them to continue marching night and day with only minimal rest.
I was very pleased with my men, and I told them that I was. In these early days of September 1939, everything we had trained for since April 1935 had paid out.
It was not the 15 minutes of combat during the attack on the Gora Kamiensk that was hardest for the officers and men. For an officer it is most rewarding that he managed to motivate his worn out and footsore soldiers again and again. Minimal rest, one march after the other, through night and sun, through dust and dirt, each march at least 8 hours long, without loosing a single man. The NCOs did a wonderful job, keeping their lads in a pristine condition, motivating them by setting an example themselves. The best soldiers in the World.
The night was terribly cold, again I shared a Zeltbahn with Zibulski. In the morning the kitchen caught up with us. The Hauptfeldwebel supplied us with cigarettes, cigars, tobacco and sweets that he had “conquered” somewhere. With a big grin he covered me with a warm blanket, supplied me with a steaming pot of coffee, stuck a cigar between my teeth and said “get another 2 hours of sleep, we are to march out at 0500h“. Each single one of these gallant deeds was fantastic and couldn’t be weighed up in gold. For the first time in days I managed to get some proper rest. I smoked half the cigar and finished the rest later on horseback.
On the 8th of September we were told that our division and one cavalry brigade was to be part of the easternmost half of pincer movement designed to encircle Warsaw. The day continued like the others. Endless marches through sand and dirt.
Near a small stream we managed to wash and to shave. Fusilier Rohde, who had been a barber in Essen in his civilian life, professionally removed my beard. A pity, somehow I had become attached to it. When I reported “Company washed and shaved, ready to march out” to Scheidies, he couldn’t keep himself from grinning.
After this rest we continued marching, this time heading south. It seemed that the pincer was now being closed. In the evening we got the message that the first german soldiers had entered Warsaw. I could not believe it, as this would have meant that we had missed all the fun. I was quite happy when it turned out to be a false report. On the next morning myself, the regiments commander, the battalion commander and his adjutant, set out in a car to reconnoiter. Actually a foolish thing to do. We carried our pistols and the driver had a carbine, but that was not a lot of firepower to defend ourselves with.
We soon came to a village called Bojani, which we entered on foot. Civilians only. “Nje soldiers here, Nje soldiers”. The enemy had only just left the night before. Just behind Bojani the river Bug. Now we had to find a good place to cross, which we found later that day in the form of a ford. About a meter deep and sixty meters wide. Our cavalry brigade was supposed to be on the other side already and in contact with the enemy. Not a shot could be heard though. When we were in the process of crossing a brilliantly aimed polish artillery shell fell directly between three fully manned dinghies. By a small miracle no one got hurt. Having reached the other side, we set up a small bridgehead, distributed heavy weapons and marched on. Soon we came up to village inhibited by ethnic germans. Even if they looked poor as church mouses they cheered us and brought up bread, butter and water for the men”
“When the largest part of our regiment had crossed the river we finally went into combat. If enemy numbers were small, I was to attack and destroy the opposition. If enemy resistance was strong we were ordered to retreat to defend our bridgehead.
I did not see a single polish soldier. For me that meant that enemy forces were probably not strong. That meant we were going to attack. In front of us a stretch of forest with swampy ground, crossed by ditches and a wide canal. Right in the middle a good road leading south to a small bridge crossing the canal. So far, so good. We moved up the road at fast pace, each squad crossing the bride after the other. When we had crossed that we folded out again. One squad to the right, one squad to the left of the road, third squad at the rear. Heavy machine guns and mortars are shooting suppressive fire and move up slowly behind us. By then we had been targeted by polish artillery.
Open collars, remove neckties! Go! Go! Go!”. Be aggressive, just don’t slacken the pace. The men moved forward by squads, the others providing cover. How often had we trained just that on the exercise ground near the Pissa-Bridge. Only now I was not sitting comfortably on the parapet, criticising the men. I was trotting with them, passing out orders to move with my whistle. I was first over the bridge. German soldiers on the other side. Members of the bicycle company which was part of the cavalry brigade. “How good to see you guys, good have some infantry support over here!” To hear such words from a cavalryman was praise indeed. The cyclists had been pinned down by enemy fire. They also lacked heavy weapons.
As I had what they were lacking, we agreed to attack together. My men leading the assault, the bicycle lads covering our flanks. The ground covered with elder trees and more ditches. The Poles put up a skilful defence, using the ground to their advantage. We could not bring the firepower of the heavy machine guns to bear. It had to be a classic infantry attack, the soldiers using their speed and dexterity, their rifles, bayonets and hand grenades. Now and then one of our light machine guns had a clear field of fire. We get carried forward by the elation of having a fighting enemy in front of us for the first time in eight days! Soon the forest had been cleared. We continued our fighting advance. In front of me Zibulski jumped a ditch and got shot by polish soldier hiding in an underpass which crossed the road diagonally some way further up. The soldier was in an excellent position and was defending like a lion, alone as all of his comrades had run away.
Had there been three men and a machine gun, Neumanns squad would have ceased to exist. With rifle or pistol we could not get him, someone would have had to enter the ditch and the soldier was keeping that under constant, precise fire. We had to attack from the other side of the road with hand-grenades. When I crossed the road I got shot into the neck by a machine gun that was covering from the direction of Sadowne.
It was only luck, that in the heat of battle, I had opened my collar and removed my necktie. Otherwise the bullet would have carried half a pound of dirty linen into the wound. I fell to the ground, could not walk, my lungs began to hurt and I could only whisper. I was just able to see some lads finishing off the polish soldier in the underpass. My friend Zibulski, who had shared his blanket with me every night, had been shot in the thigh. The bullet had injured the main artery. He died on the same day after he had been carried to the main dressing station.
A field medic took care of us and got wounded himself, going down right beside me. We stayed under constant fire until the company finally managed to enter Sadowne. 11th coy had five men wounded, one dead.
Polish fire was badly aimed and frantic. The Polish soldiers were very different. Some fought like lions, with skill and full of courage. Others ran like sheep when the first shot was fired. With german officers they would have made excellent troops.