Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Fighting for Chatkowo

Heinrich Eberbach, Commander of the 5. Panzer-Brigade
The 4. Panzer-Division had reached the last attack objective assigned to it in 1941—the Tula-Serpuchow road—on 4 December, with its lead tank elements approaching from the east. The XXXXIII. Armee-Korps had been directed to advance there from the west, thus encircling Tula. Only 5 kilometers separated the two corps; from there, it was only an additional 80 kilometers to Moscow. But the thermometer sank to -37 [-34.6]. Guderian’s light infantry from Goslar, who were supposed to link up with us, were bled white and got frostbite. And we did not have any fuel to advance any farther in their direction. The engines would not turn over, the optics were fogged up on the inside and the breechblocks of the guns no longer could be opened.

The Siberian divisions attacked us from the north. They had been brought forward by the Russians, wearing their wonderful winter uniforms. Just to the south of our brigade command post were 60 Russian T-34’s, ready to crush us. Did they have any fuel?

At that point, the corps issued the order to retreat. Despite the desperate situation, no one wanted to believe it. In three years of war, we had only attacked. And retreat without fuel? That meant we had to blow up our magnificent old Panzer III/IV tanks, our guns, and our vehicles, which could not overcome the icy slopes. No, we did not want to go back. And we said it loudly and not just once. But the order was firm: Blow up the tanks and the guns and immediately initiate the retreat.

It was only gradually that we heard about the situation facing the German field armies. They were having to pull back everywhere in the face of the more than 40 Siberian divisions and the newly formed Russian tank brigades.

Retreat as far as Mzensk! Vehicles of all types were in the way. The temperature as always between -20 and -40 [-4 and -40]. The shadows of Napoleon’s Grande Armée hung over us. The infantry still had their thin little overcoats on; bread froze in your pants pocket, where you also placed your rifle and machine-gun bolt.

But there was also bright spots. The combat forces of the 4. Panzer-Division had clothed themselves thanks to the Siberian forces. When it was so cold out, you accepted the lice as part of the bargain. Suddenly, we had long columns of sleds pulled by panje horses—a motorcycle that wouldn’t start anymore on one; an infantry gun on another.

As a result of the retreat, a gap of 40 kilometers was torn open between the XXXXIII. Armee-Korps and the XXIV. Armee-Korps (mot.). A flood of Russian forces poured into the area between Belew and Kaluga. If they reached Smolensk and Rosslawl, there would be no more supplies for us.

Even if the Landser did not know that, the retreat shook their self-confidence.

The regiments had long since been consolidated into battalions. Despite that, the companies only had end strengths of between 40 and 60 men. Panzer-Regiment 35 had only one company. The black men without tanks were supposed to be employed as infantry.

Kradschützen-Bataillon 34 was consolidated with Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 7. The most combat-proven armored reconnaissance men were employed as infantry. Rittmeister Bradel led that unit. Even in the most humble of circumstances, he always looked spic and span.

Our artillery had barely half of its guns left and just a third of its prime movers. The situation was similar with regard to the engineers and the antitank battalion.

On top of all that was the fact that they had taken away the commander-in-chief of our 2. Panzer-Armee, the brilliant General Guderian, with whom everyone had felt a kinship. He had ordered the retreat on his own initiative, wherever it had been necessary to spare blood. For this, he had lost his command.

The leather footgear was sheer torture at -40 [-40]. In some cases, we could get felt boots from Ivan, but it was only the combat forces who could do so. The rear-area services were still stuck like the infantry in their tattered summer uniforms.

Logistics was no longer working, because the trucks had been worn out and they would no longer start up when it was so cold. That often led to shortages of ammunition and rations. Signals communications was also lacking, because many of the trucks had been lost and the equipment also had snags in the cold weather.

For that reason, the landlines took on a greater importance. But laying lines during that type of weather and in snow that came up to your chest cost unbelievable energy. Wherever the sleds could not get through, the heavy weapons had to be carried.

The transition from motor transport to horse transport was also difficult—from mechanic to the driver of horses. Frequently, the panje horse had a different mind than its master, who first had to learn how to handle the animal and take care of it. The noncommissioned officers, who had transferred in from horse regiments, received unexpected honors.

The soldiers quickly learned to observe one another to prevent frostbite. For that reason, only two-man posts were manned, which had to be relieved every half hour due to the cold. Our enemy, on the other hand, was conditioned to the winter and used to the cold. He attacked with ski companies—also at night—and from the rear, camouflaged with snow jackets.

But there was no time to cry in our beer. Orel, the logistics base for two field armies, was being threatened. The Russians broke through the 112. Infanterie-Division at Christmas, and their men were massacred in a brutal fashion. As a result, our 4. Panzer-Division had to play “fire brigade” from 26 December 1941 to 1 January 1942 north of Belew and northeast of Bolchow.

The interplay between motorized and horse-drawn was quickly learned. When it was necessary, motor sergeants became feed masters. Instead of using grease, which turned hard in the cold, they used petroleum jelly to make the machine guns function.

The miracle happened: The thin ranks of the 4. Panzer-Division drove the enemy from village after village in temperatures ranging from -20 to -40 [-4 to -40] in a chest-deep snow. It took back the positions along the Oka. But then our new division commander, Oberst von Saucken, was badly wounded in the head. As he had so many times with his rifle brigade, he had been leading from the front. Oberst Eberbach was designated as his successor.

With their grim wit, on 1 January 1942, our Landser wished me Hals- und Bauchschuß.

Strong elements of the division—Kampfgruppe von Lüttwitz—received a new mission. Elements of an infantry division that had been brought in from warm France had been cut off and surrounded by the Russians 120 kilometers north-northeast of Brjansk. Gruppe von Gilsa, with 5,000 men and 1,000 wounded, had been encircled in Suchinitischi. The mission was to relieve them.

Starting on 16 January, Kampfgruppe von Lüttwitz—reinforced by two battalions of infantry, some artillery and engineers, and later joined by elements of Schützen-Regiment 12, which had been brought over from the Oka—attacked to the left of the 18. Panzer-Division. It moved into the areas designated as its attack objectives: Kotobitsch, Liudinowo, Simnizi and Slobotka. I can still remember seeing them move out in a snowstorm with icicles hanging from their eyebrows and noses, bent over close to their panje horses, if they had them. Despite everything, Kampfgruppe von Lüttwitz reached its attack objective on 22 January, moving through partisan territory and engaging in difficult house-to-house fighting. Gruppe von Gilsa was relieved, the wounded evacuated and Suchinitschi then abandoned. Kampfgruppe von Lüttwitz then transitioned to the defense.

In the meantime, Panzer-Regiment 35—minus any tanks—had assumed the duties of protecting the rail line from Brjansk to the north. The only tank company left was Wollschlaeger’s, with up to 10 tanks at any given time. Perhaps I should say old crates instead of tanks? After all, there were only a few Panzer III/IV’s among them. Later on, he was joined by Kästner’s company, when the hard-working maintenance facility repaired another six tanks.

The fighting was over small localities. At -40 [-40}, even the Russians could not stay outside forever. That meant the taking or destruction of the enemy’s quarters was of decisive importance.

All of our battalions established ski platoons. That meant we had motorized elements, sled elements, foot elements and ski elements. Such a force is not easily led. For newly arriving officers it seemed an impossible mission. But we adjusted to the task. On 8 January, the division reported to the corps that it consisted of 50% foot elements. There was an infantry company composed of artillerymen. Our Artillerie-Regiment 103 had only nine guns on that day; of those, five could not be moved because of the loss of prime movers. The antitank battalion had only three heavy and five light antitank cannon.

Our Panzer-Pionier-Bataillon 79 had only 10 squads. The I./Nebelwerfer-Regiment 53, which had been attached to us, had only four launchers and 120 rounds. The few supply vehicles we had left were often stuck in snow banks for up to 12 hours.

After releasing Kampfgruppe von Lüttwitz, the division assembled what was left of its forces in the area around Chwastowitschi in tiresome marches lasting until 21 January. Mission: Clear the west bank of the Reseta by thrusting to the north. The division had the following at its disposal:
Headquarters of Schützen-Regiment 33 (Grolig) with Bradel’s battalion
I./Infanterie-Regiment 446 from the 211. Infanterie-Division
Feld-Ersatz-Bataillon 84
3./Kradschützen-Bataillon 40
Artillery-Infantry Company of Artillerie-Regiment 103 (mot.)
Wollschlaeger’s and Kästner’s tank companies - Panzer III/IV
Regiment headquarters of Artillerie-Regiment 103 with six batteries
The I. and III./Artillerie-Regiment 134
1 Nebelwerfer battery
Pionier-Bataillon 41
Pionier-Bataillon 10 (minus one company)
3./Panzer-Pionier-Bataillon 79
3./Panzerjäger-Abteilung 49
Later on, these forces were joined by:
Regimental headquarters and the III./Infanterie-Regiment 446
I./Infanterie-Regiment 317
III./Infanterie-Regiment 445 (211. Infanterie-Division)

The field-replacement battalion had only 140 men; the I./Artillerie-Regiment 134 had only four guns. The strengths of the other elements were analogous. Infanterie-Regiment 446 had no experience in the east.

On 22 January, it was -44 [-47.2]. A platoon from Infanterie-Regiment 446 was wiped out by Russian cavalry and partisans. Tanks and infantry eliminated those enemy forces.

The enemy had placed strong forces in Dudorowskij, Moilowo and Brusny. On 23 January, strong enemy forces entered Kzyn. They were ejected by means of an immediate counterattack.

On 25 January, the corps proposed an attack on Chatkowo. It was -40 [-40]. The division expressed concern due to the continued difficult supply situation. On 26 January, the division commander conducted a leader’s reconnaissance—some of it on skis—on the terrain for the designated attack.

On 28 January, our 4. Panzer-Division took Moilowo, Ssuseja and Brusny through the commitment of the I./Infanterie-Regiment 446, Pionier-Bataillon 42, the 2./Pionier-Bataillon 10, the 3./Kradschützen-Bataillon 40, one artillery battery and Wollschlaeger’s company. During the effort to take Chatkowo by means of a coup de main, Wollschlaeger lost three Panzer IIIs to mines and antitank guns.

The snowstorm continued on 29 January. It slowed down all movement. Our reconnaissance on sleds had to be abandoned, since the horses were sinking up to their stomachs. The friendly forces on the right were the 134. Infanterie-Division and, on the left, the 211. Infanterie-Division.

On 31 January, it was directed that the 211. Infanterie-Division and our 4. Panzer-Division take Chatkowo. Pionier-Bataillon 41, reinforced by the 3./ Kradschützen-Bataillon 40 and supported by a battery of artillery and two Nebelwerfer, attacked Chatkowo at 0800 hours in a snowstorm. The attack made it into the outskirts, but then failed by 1600 hours, because the locality was defended by the entire Russian 1107th Rifle Regiment of the 232nd Rifle Division, supported by artillery and heavy weapons. The attackers had to wade through snow up to their stomachs. Losses: 2 dead and 15 wounded. The 211. Infanterie-Division was unable to take Klinzy.

The division reported: Large-scale offensive operations are no longer possible due to the high snow. Answer from the corps: New attack on Chatkowo. The enemy’s bridgehead over the Reseta had to be eliminated as soon as conditions allowed. The snowstorm continued to rage on 1 February. Despite that, the III./Infanterie-Regiment 445, reinforced by a company from Pionier-Bataillon 10, took Trosna. All available forces were used to clear snow along the supply routes. Helping in that effort as far as Chwastowitschi was a snowplow from the field army. The corps continued to press for an attack on Chatkowo.

Starting on 2 February, the following forces were moved forward to Ssusseja in stages: Headquarters of Schützen-Regiment 33 with the attached Kradschützen-Bataillon 34/Panzeraufklärungs-Abteilung 7, Pionier-Bataillon 41 and the I./Artillerie-Regiment 134. There, the following elements remained attached to the regiment: Wollschlaeger’s Panzer III/IV company, the 3./Kradschützen-Bataillon 40, the 2./Pionier-Bataillon 10 and the I./Nebelwerfer-Regiment 53. The following elements were moved to Milejewo: 8./Artillerie-Regiment 103 and a company from Pionier-Bataillon 10. Elements of the 211. Infanterie-Division were attached to Schützen-Regiment 33 for the attack. One can see from the organization the jumble of elements from different divisions, from which the smallest unit to the largest formation were thrown together out of necessity in order to plug the most dangerous gaps. The average snow depth off the roads on that day was one meter; drifts, including the roads, reached up to 1.8 meters, that is, higher than a man.

The snowstorm stopped on 3 February. Even with the snowplows from the field army, the clearing of the roads remained difficult. Even the Panzer III/IV were restricted to the roads under those conditions. Otherwise, they’d bottom out on their hulls. But the roads were mined. Bringing the artillery forward also proved difficult. For those reasons, the third attack on Chatkowo was postponed by the division for another day. The division command post was moved forward to Berestna. The division commander did not want to attack without sufficient ammunition. He wanted to do everything to ensure that the men entrusted to him were not confronted with a mission that was impossible to accomplish. As a result, all available forces were used to clear the roads leading to the front until the ammunition could roll forward.

The following participated in the attack on Chatkowo: Bradel’s reinforced battalion attacked from the east and the southeast; Buddeberg’s reinforced battalion (Pionier-Bataillon 41, 3./Kradschützen-Bataillon 40, the 2./Pionier-Bataillon 10 and a few heavy weapons from Infanterie-Regiment 446) attacked from a southwesterly direction and the I./Infanterie-Regiment 317 from the 211. Infanterie-Division attacked simultaneous from the west from Leschowo. Supporting the attack from the Ssusseja area were the I./Artillerie-Regiment 134 and the 8./Artillerie-Regiment 103 (mot.).

The preparations for the attack were made so that each of the three attack battalions would attack Chatkowo at 0800 hours. The division’s armored signals battalion established land lines to all three of the attack groups. The division commander moved forward on 5 February. He moved far enough forward on skis with his liaison officer that he was able to observe the attack starting at 1030 hours.

Chatkowo is a large village, split into several parts by defiles. Our artillery fired with exactness. The men of the motorcycle/reconnaissance battalion pushed their way towards the village from the east through the belly-high snow. The enemy defended with artillery, machine-gun and mortar fires. But the motorcycle infantry did not allow themselves to be held up. They entered the first houses. They slowly worked their way into the village with hand grenades. The enemy was strong.

Where was Pionier-Bataillon 41, which had so often proven itself? Where was the I./Infanterie-Regiment 317? Even at 1200 hours, nothing was to be seen of them from the observation post! If the motorcycle infantry and reconnaissance soldiers were left by themselves, then that magnificent battalion, which had already accomplished so much, would be left to be bled white. The division commander hastened back. With all of the signals means at his disposal and his liaison officers, he hounded the remaining battalions not to leave their comrades in the lurch. The artillery was informed of the nasty situation. That day, they fired 100 light and 160 heavy howitzer rounds.

In fact, it turned out that Pionier-Bataillon 41 had moved out from the south at 1100 hours. It was advancing slowly through the high snow and cleared the village from the west. The Panzer III/IVs were positioned in front of the mine obstacle. They could only function as artillery.

But the infantry was still bogged down along the wood line, even though the Russians were already pulling back to the north with two battalions and two guns so as not to get caught. The battalion finally attacked and reached the northwestern edge of Chatkowo at 1500 hours. The house-to-house fighting in the middle of the village and along its northeastern outskirts continued until 1630 hours, when Chatkowo was finally in our hands.

If the infantry had moved out at the right time, then a considerable victory could have been won. As it was, it was an ordinary victory, which was entirely thanks to Kradschützen-Bataillon 40/Panzeraufklärungs-Abteilung 7.

Oberleutnant Lembke in Kradschützen-Bataillon 40 was killed; two other officers were wounded and 60 noncommissioned officers and enlisted personnel killed or wounded. Despite the losses suffered by the weak battalion, it was able to wrest Chatkowo from a reinforced Russian regiment, thanks to its inner superiority and the example of its officers. The retreat was over. We had attacked again, despite winter and the loss of the equipment.

On 11 February, Infanterie-Regiment 446, reinforced by Kästner’s tank company, took Dudorowski. Wesniny and Stowrowo were taken on 12 February. The 211. Infanterie-Division took Klinzy on 13 February; on 15 February, Infanterie-Regiment 446 Simowka; on 16 February, the I./Infanterie-Regiment 445 Poljanskij. In each instance, both of our two tanks companies participated.

On 20 February, the corps ordered a transition to the defense. Chatkowo remained in the front lines and was improved accordingly. Just on 6 March 1942 alone, the Russians fired 360 artillery rounds on Chatkowo.

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