Thursday, October 27, 2016

“Ride of the blazing Panthers!”

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel arrived at the headquarters of Panzer Lehr just as the Canscots were retaking Putot. He was quickly briefed on the situation, and was informed of the devastating effects of naval fire, which had ‘cut to pieces’ units of the division, including a vital heavy weapons company. Rommel ordered Panzer Lehr to shift west and organize an attack to retake Bayeux. General Witt, the 12th SS commander, reported that his Panzer battalion was waiting for dusk to attack Bretteville and Norrey. This attack was intended to secure the start line for a full-scale divisional thrust to the coast. Rommel approved these plans and departed for his headquarters.

The battlegroup preparing to attack the Reginas consisted of two companies of Panthers, a motorcycle company, and two batteries of self-propelled howitzers. Kurt Meyer was in command. His plan called for a direct attack down the main highway into the village. How tanks with few infantry were to accomplish this was quite unclear. The Panthers, ‘staggered one behind each other,’ came under flanking fire from 3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, which carefully waited until the lead tanks were at the edge of Bretteville. Three Panthers were destroyed before this approach was abandoned. Just before midnight, two Panthers groped their way down the main road into Bretteville. Lt.-Col. Matheson described the result:

One came opposite battalion headquarters and was struck by a PIAT bomb, fired from behind a stone wall at 15 yards range, safe from the tank’s huge gun. It halted for a moment started again and after 30 yards was hit by a second PIAT. It stopped, turned around and headed out of town. A third PIAT hit finished it off so that it slew around out of control running over a necklace of 75 grenades which blew off a track. The crew dismounted and attempted to make off but were killed by small arms fire. During this incident the second Panther had remained farther up the road. Seeing the fate of its companion it commenced to fire both 75mm and MG wildly down the street like a child in a tantrum doing no damage whatsoever except to set fire to the first Panther. Rifleman Lapointe, J. E. with great coolness and determination was instrumental in knocking out the first tank. 

Meyer now employed his self-propelled artillery and one company of Panthers as a fire base, shelling the entrance to Bretteville while his second Panther Company swung left in an attempt to enter the village from the south. At Cardonville, they encountered Dog Company and were soon involved in pounding the Regina company with everything they had. But as Acting Major Gordon Brown, Dog Company’s commander, noted: ‘Tanks without infantry and at night made no sense. They could take ground and batter buildings, cause some casualties and generally terrorize us but without infantry they could not hold what they had captured.’

Back in Bretteville, the situation was even more frustrating for the Germans. The motorcycle company had suffered heavy losses, and the Panther crews with their limited visibility found night fighting in the streets of Bretteville confusing and pointless. German veterans of the Eastern Front knew that ‘the tactic of surprise, using mobile fast infantry and Panzers, even in small numerically inferior Kampfgruppen, had often been practised and proven in Russia.’ But as Hubert Meyer notes in his history of the 12th SS: This tactic, however, had not resulted in the expected success here against a courageous and determined enemy, who was ready for the defence and well equipped. Through good battlefield observation, the enemy had recognized the outlines of the preparations for the attack and drawn his own conclusions. The deployment of D Company to Cardonville had prevented a breakthrough by 2/26 from the farm south of the rail line to Bretteville, only 1000 meters away. The antitank defences all around the village were strong enough to thwart all attempts by Panzers to by-pass the town to the south and north. The surprising use of parachute flares with glowing mag- nesium light blinding the Panthers and clearly outlined them to enemy Pak. The enemy was especially strong in the defence and could not be taken by surprise. He fought with determination and courage.

The disastrous attack of 8-9 June, which cost 12th SS a further 152 casualties as well as six tanks, did not persuade ‘Panzer’ Meyer that his operational doctrine was flawed. He ordered a new assault concentrated on Norrey, which he now believed to be the key to unlocking the Canadian defences. The 3rd Panzer Company of 12th Panzer Regiment, which had not participated in the previous attack, was to cross the railway line and advance on Norrey shortly after noon on 9 June, when the skies would, it was hoped, be free of fighter-bombers. The first battalion of Mohnke’s 26th Regiment was to advance simultaneously on Norrey from the south.

The operation turned into a nightmare for the Hitler Youth. The infantry were quickly hammered back into their slit trenches by artillery and mortars. The Panthers drove on Norrey ‘as a body at high speed without any stops’ until the lead tank was hit. Then another Panther had its turret torn off. Five more were lost in the next few min- utes; the remainder withdrew at full speed. A single 17-pounder Firefly of the First Hussars accounted for seven of the Panthers, which had advanced on Norrey with their vulnerable side-armour exposed.

Even this costly setback did not persuade 12th SS to abandon piecemeal attacks on the Canadian positions. The next morning, the pioneer battalion tried to follow the ‘heaviest possible barrage’ into Norrey. Charlie Company of the Reginas used its own weapons and the divisional artillery to crush the attack. Four attempts to capture Norrey had failed at a cost of more than three hundred Hitler Youth. Their divisional historian later noted:

This village together with Bretteville, formed a strong barrier, blocking the attack plans of the Panzerkorps. For this reason, repeated attempts were made to take these positions through a number of attacks. They failed because of insufficient forces, partly because of rushed planning caused by real or imagined time pressures. Last but not least they failed because of the courage of the defenders which was not any less than that of the attackers. It was effectively supported by well constructed positions, strong artillery, antitank weapons and by tanks. 

While 7th Brigade was successfully defending its sector, other units of the Second British Army were engaged in offensive operations aimed at securing their D-Day objectives. Montgomery proposed an attack on Caen, with 51st Highland Division pushing out of the Orne bridgehead and 7th Armoured advancing from Bayeux to Villers-Bocage and Evrecy. If these operations were successful, 1st British Air- borne Division was to seize ground south of Caen and complete the encirclement.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Ferocious Beast — Six Little-Known Facts About the Tiger Tank

Ferocious Beast - Six Little-Known Facts About the Tiger Tank

By Ben Hollingum, THE PANZERKAMPFWAGEN VI or Tiger tank was never a common sight on the battlefields of World War Two. During the roughly two years that the vehicle was in production, only 1,347 were built - a number that is lower than the monthly production figures for the M4 Sherman and Soviet T-34 at the height of the war.

Tank Clash – The German Panther vs. the Soviet T-34-85

Tank Clash - The German Panther vs. the Soviet T-34-85

WHEN THE PANTHER TANK first appeared on the battlefields of the Eastern Front, the Soviets did not have an effective weapon to counter it. They had a new medium tank in development (the T-43) but, having been commissioned in 1942 to counter the Panzer IV ausf.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

German Recovery Vehicles

The schwerer Zugkraftwagen 18t or heavy 18-tonne recovery vehicle, SdKfz 9. Although a bulky and powerful prime mover, three of them were required to tow a Tiger!

From January 1944, all PzKpfw IIIs returned for overhaul were to be converted into Bergepanzer; a box top replacing the turret. 
In January 1944, it was ordered that all pz Kpfw III returned for overhaul be converted to Bergepanzer. The production plan called for fifteen to be converted in March, thirty in April and thirty in May. These vehicles were to be used with the Panzerbergeanker (1 achs) (=armoured recovery anchor; 1-axle) (Sd Ah 40). This large anchor was placed at an appropriate location, and the Bergepanzer pulled the vehicle to be recovered, via a reduction tackle attached by cable to the anchor. 
A large wooden box body was mounted on top of the former fighting compartment. A derrick crane, like that on the Bergepanther, was provided with mounting locations on the rear engine covers. The wide Ostkette (= East track; for Russia) tracks were generally used. 
Issued to the Workshop Company of the Panzer detachments equipped with the pz Kpfw IV or Sturmgeschutz III or IV. In February 1945, 130 Bergepanzer III were listed as available.

For the most part, the standard tank recovery vehicle remained the heavy-duty 18-ton prime-mover (Zugkraftwagen). The heaviest of the half-tracks, two at least were required for towing a Panther and three for a Tiger. About 2,500 were built by the firm of Famo at Breslau and Warsaw between 1938 and 1944. 

Nominally, provision was made in a 1944 tank regiment for two Bergepanzer III recovery tanks and four 35-ton Bergeschlepper towing tanks (probably an early designation for the Bergepanthers). The Bergepanzer III, based on the PzKpfw III Ausf M, N and J, was nevertheless something of a rarity - only to be found in Panzer Regiments 3, 16 and 130 and SS-Panzer Regiment 9 in Normandy. 

Altogether 271 were built by Alkett of Berlin who were responsible for more than half the production of the PzKpfw III.

The heavy tank battalions, with their Tigers, normally had Bergepanthers, which were rarer still. There were two in schwere Panzer Abteilung 503 and one in schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 101 but none in schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 102. The Bergepanther (SdKfz 179) was produced by Demag to meet the Armaments Ministry's requirement for a heavy-duty recovery vehicle able to cope with the Tiger and Panther. Between 1943 and 1944, 347 were built by Demag and MNH. The vehicle was a conversion of the Panther Ausf D and G, with the turret removed and housing a winch and its motor in a square open-top compartment with mild steel sides which could be extended upwards with wood flaps and had a tarpaulin cover. At the rear was a massive spade anchor, operated by the winch, to hold the vehicle down during the actual recovery operation. For lifting work there was a jib that could be fixed on either side of the hull roof and on the front plate mount. The fuel capacity of the Bergepanther was increased to 1075 litres.


Directly evolved from the Carro Armato 8ton of 1935 vintage and of similar dimensions, with the same diesel engine and 37mm gun. It differed in having superior sprung bogie suspension, the 37mm gun remaining in the superstructure. Impetus for its adoption came after early operations by Italian-equipped Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 had shown up the inadequacy of the little CV 35 light tanks. A redesign of the Carro Armato 8ton prototype was ordered, Ansaldo and Fiat being asked to build 100 of the new vehicles under the designation Carro Armato M11(8T). First deliveries were made in early 1939 and were completed by 1940. The M 11/39 was of riveted construction with rear engine, front drive, side access doors, and the manually operated turret was offset to the left. There was a stowage box formed within the hull at the rear. Owing to its very light armour and small size the M 11/39 was obsolescent by the lime it went into action in Libya in 1940. 

Many vehicles were swiftly knocked out and the type was withdrawn from service early in 1941. 11tons; crew 3; 37mm gun plus 2 MG; armour 6-30 mm; engine (diesel V8) 105hp; 21mph; 15.5ft x 7.08ft x 7.33ft. Other users: Few captured and used temporarily by Australian forces in the Western Desert, early 1941.

M11/39s in Compass
A handful of surviving M11s were used at Tobruk - a brisk Italian counterattack there being led by a few M11s. There were 9 M11s in running order inside the fortress, forming what was left of the 1st Battalion, 4th Tank Regiment, under Capt. V. La Rosa. Most officers of the Battalion were killed or wounded in action. An M11 platoon instead was employed in the Derna sector, January 1941, against the advancing Australians of Robertson's brigade. According to the Australian Official History the tanks played practically no role in the battle as their crews were put out of combat by sniping fire while they were standing outside their tanks. 

Additionally, my understanding of the organisation of the two M11/39 battalions in Nth Africa is three companies of two platoons of 5 tanks each and a platoon commanders tank and a battalion HQ company of 2 tanks making 35 tanks in each battalion. The 24 tanks in East Africa were two coys of 11 tanks and an HQ coy of two tanks. At the start of Libyan campaign, the Italian army have on hand a lot of L battalion and only two M11/39 battalions. This two battalion were: 1st and 2nd armoured battalion M 11/39 of 32. o Reggimento Fanteria Carrista of 132. a Ariete Armoured Division. They have a theoretical composition of 37 tanks (each) subdivided in two companies of 13 tank each. An Hq company with 10 tanks and a single Hq tank. For the Sidi Barrani offensive the Italian HQ grouped this two armoured battalion with other L battalion to form two provisional "ad hoc" "Raggruppamenti carristi" with this composition: 1. o Raggruppamento carristi with battaglioni carri L 21. o, 62. o and 63. o and 1. o battaglione carri M11/39 2. o Raggruppamento carristi with battaglioni carri L 9. o, 20. o and 61. o and 2. o battaglione carri M11/39 The 2. o battaglione carri M11/39 and the 60. o battaglione carri L 3/35 give, a company each to "Raggruppamento Maletti" to form a provisional tank battalion. After the Sidi Barrani offensive 23 M11/39 tank went to the divisional repair station for repair. At the start of December in Marsah Lucch the Italian HQ start to group some tank battalion to for a provisional armoured brigade. This one grouped: 1. o battaglione carri M 11/39, 3. o battaglione carri m 13/40, 21. o e 60. o battaglione carri L and some Bersaglieri and artillery units. 

At the start of Compass offensive, the 2nd battalion M 11/39 (with only 22 tank) was attached to "Raggruppamento Maletti". The unit was entirely destroyed between December/9/1940 and January/5/1941 1941. The 1. o battaglione carri M 11/39 with only 5 tanks was detached to Ain el Gazala airport. All its "out" tanks went to Tobruk for repair. With the loss of Tobruck all these tanks were lost. After some days also the remnants of 1. o battaglione carri M 11/39 were lost. I believe 322a Compagnia carri M11 had some in service in AOI until May 1941. More or less. 

Africa Orientale Italiana
The Italian tanks at Agordat were L3 tankettes and a small number of M11/39s (there were 24 M11/39s in all in East Africa in June 1940). The tanks clashed frontally, with predictable results.
The last operational mention of M11 tanks in Africa Orientale Italiana (AOI, Italian East Africa) I know about is the battle of Agordat, January 1941. I have seen a photo of a relinquished M11 "in Massawa" (so reads the caption): Massawa fell in April 1941. I am unsure, though, whether M11s took actually part in some fighting near Massawa or elsewhere after Agordat. - For the defense of Massaua, only 2x L3 tankettes of 1a Compagnia were available (not sure they had any useful role!); they had recently been sent from Asmara, probably after repairs.  No mention of M11/39 at Massaua.  But it could be that some damaged M11 had been afterwards transported to Massawa by the Allies and photographed there. – 

There were many small scale engagements involving the M11/39 of 322e Comp., but I was thinking of its participation in the Raggruppamento motorizzato "Buonamico" (a hodge-podge of small motorized units commanded by Colonel Giuseppe Buonamico), and then with the 25th Colonial Division late in the AOI campaign. 

In late April 1941, General Gazzera ordered a diversionary attack towards Adama.  322a Comp. was part of this, with 10x M11/39, but the advance was stopped short.  The column was exposed to air attacks, but apparently the tanks saw no serious action there. At the Bubissa river (11 May 1941), the M11 made a successful counterattack though (see Gazzera, p. 128). And later (19 May), near the Billate river, the M. 11 (reduced to 5) were involved in a fight against South-African troops.  25th Col. Division commander, Colonel De Cicco, was killed while riding upfront on a M. 11 (along with the crew); he was awarded posthumously a "Medaglia d'oro alla valor militare" (Gazzera, p. 103; Le operazioni in AO, II, p. 401). 322a Comp. disappeared at Soddu (22 may), along with the remains of 25th Col. Div. 

Some M11s were used in the Battles of the Lakes, but I believe 10-12 were used along with some L3s and armoured cars. The South African Official history has quite a bit of information concerning operations in this area. HQ coy it should be two tanks making 35 tanks per M11 battalion a total of 70 tanks in Libya and 24 tanks in IEA and 6 left back in Italy which I gather were sent to the Adriatic some time later in the war. Italian and German OH's clearly state 74x M11/39 sent to Libya and 24 to East Africa. Try again. Here's some more information on the AOI M11/39's that might be of interest: 

24 were present at start of campaign along with 36-39 tankettes 10 were lost at Agordat (1 medium tank damaged /destroyed Bubissa hill after being hit by artillery fire May 1941 3 medium tanks captured at Colito 19 May 1941 6 medium tanks plus 4 tankettes captured at Soddu 22 May 1941 additionally 9 tankettes were captured at Dadaba 13 May 1941.

Download British 1943 Report on M11/39

Monday, January 11, 2016

Kursk Ferdinands

At the start of the offensive the Panzertruppen on the Eastern Front were organized as shown in the Order of Battle dated 7 July 1943. Heeresgruppe Mitte on the north side of the Kursk salient had 89 Ferdinand in schwere Panzer-Jaeger-Abteilung 656.

Production of the Porsche VK 4501 design had been ordered before the trials as a safeguard against the failure of the Henschel design. As 90 vehicles were already in hand when the result of the trials was announced, it was decided to utilise the chassis as the basis of a self-propelled carriage for the 8.8 cm L/71 gun. This equipment was designated Panzerjager Tiger (P) Ferdinand Sd Kfz 184; it was subsequently redesignated 8.8 cm 43/2 L/71 Ausf pz Jag Tiger (P) Elefant früber Ferdinand. The original name "Ferdinand" had been adopted in honour of the designer, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche.

schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653
On 1 April 1943, Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung 197 was redesignated as schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 at Bruck an der Leitha in Austria. It is also transferred from the assault artillery branch to armor. The officers, noncommissioned officers and soldiers of the former Sturmgeschütz Abteilung 197 formed the cadre for the redesignated battalion. The commander was Major Heinrich Steinwachs. Oberst Hoffmann-Schoenborn, the senior officer of the assault artillery branch, bid farewell to the assault artillerymen on 14 April 1943 in a solemn ceremony. The arrival of new personnel brought the battalion up to a strength of almost 1,000 men. In May 1943, it received the Ferdinand tank destroyer (Sd. Kfz. 184) as its combat vehicle.

After leaving the assault artillery branch, schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 relocated to NeusiedeI am See. The battalion was billeted in the old Hungarian Hussar barracks. The Army High Command ordered the first production batch of 45 Ferdinand delivered to Rouen (France). The battalion provided the transport personnel. The battalion's sister formation, schwere Panzerjäger- Abteilung 654, had been at Rouen since mid-April 1943. This battalion received its complement of vehicles first. After delivering the Ferdinand, the transport personnel from schwere PanzerjägerAbteilung 653 returned to Neusiedel.

Schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 moved to Russia aboard 11 transport trains (transport numbers 326281-326291) from 9-12 June 1943. The loading site was Parndorf (Austria). The battalion moved through Brunn, Modlin, Brest-Litovsk, Minsk, Briansk, Karatchev and Orel to its staging area. The detraining site was the Smiyevka train station, 35 kilometers south of Orel. From there, the individually arriving companies moved to their assembly areas (Davidovo for the 3./schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653; Gostinovo for the 2./schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653; and Kuliki for the l./schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653). The companies occupied those areas until 30 June 1943. Additional technical training was conducted there, and the vehicle commanders received terrain orientations. 

Starting on 1 July 1943, the attack forces of the 9. Armee began moving in small groups to their forward assembly areas behind the front (Ssorotschi Kusty). All vehicles refueled and rearmed there. On 2 July 1943, the vehicles moved forward another 15 kilometers and occupied positions in the town of Novopolevo. During the evening twilight of 3 July 1943, the Ferdinand of schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 moved to their start point in Glasunovka, directly on the Orel-Kursk rail line. Schweres PanzerjägerRegiment 656 assembled there as part of the XXXXI. Panzer-Korps (General der Panzertruppen Harpe). The Regimental Commander, Oberstleutnant Ernst von Jungenfeld, spoke to the assembled soldiers on the evening of 4 July 1943.

After a mighty artillery barrage and heavy bomber attacks by the Luftwaffe, the Ferdinand of the battalion, along with the infantry of the 292. Infanterie-Division and the 86. Infanterie-Division, moved forward along a broad front. Behind them, in the second wave, were the Sturmpanzer (assault tanks) of Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 216-150 mm assault howitzers on a Panzer IV chassis and referred to after the war as the Brummbar ("Grizzly Bear")-and the assault guns of Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung 177 and Sturmgeschütz- Abteilung 244. The objective was the first network of Russian positions on Hill 257.7, named "Tank Hill", which was the cornerstone of the Russian defensive networks at Malo-Archangelsk and Olchovatka. The barren terrain was very heavily mined and the radio-controlled explosive-charge carriers employed there were unable to accomplish the task. The Ferdinand of schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 made very slow progress through the minefield. Many vehicles were immobilized with broken tracks and damaged idler arms. The commander of the l./schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653, Hauptmann Spielmann, was severely wounded by a Russian antipersonnel mine while dismounted and guiding his driver, Unteroffizier Karl Gresch. Oberleutnant Helmut Ulbricht took assumed acting command of the company.

With only 12 operational Ferdinand remaining, schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 reached its objective for the day at 1700 hours on 5 July 1943. During the next two day, the Ferdinand took part in extremely difficult operations around the town of Ponyri. Major Steinwachs then had to order a recovery day for the battalion, because all the vehicles were effectively out of action and in dire need of repairs.

The Russian 3rd Tank Army-four corps with 1,460 tanks and 21 divisions; a total strength of 230,000 men-received orders on 11 July 1943 to conduct the offensive at Orel. The prelude concentrated on the XXXV. Armee-Korps under General der Infanterie Rendulic. Schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 moved to Rendulic's sector during the night of 13/14July 1943 and occupied defensive positions. On 14 July 1943, the 36. Panzergrenadier-Division was the target of a frontal attack by almost 400 Russian tanks. The Ferdinand of schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653, together with the antitank elements of the mechanized infantry division, became rescuers of the highest degree. Despite a lack of both time and familiarity with the terrain, a consolidated battle group of all three tank-destroyer companies, under the command of Leutnant Heinrich Teriete, succeeded in repulsing the attack. 

Leutnant Teriete received the Knight's Cross to the Iron Cross on 22 July 1943 for the destruction of 22 Russian tanks during this engagement. (Teriete's driver was Alois Schafer and his gunner was Kurt Titus.)

The first combat lessons for the Ferdinand, from the mechanical viewpoint, were written by Heinz Groschl, attached to schwere PanzeIrjäger-Abteilung 653 from the Porsche Company as an advisor, in a report to the Porsche Company dated 26July 1943 Source: Federal Archives / Freiburg Military Archives): 

Our vehicles have been in combat for three weeks and, along with the previous kilometers, have covered an average total of 500 kilometers each. I have accumulated enough information to present you with a picture of the positive and negative qualities of our vehicles. I concur with the majority of the gentlemen in the battalion that the weapon has been successful, and it is a universal regret that there are so few of them available. With an average of 15 enemy tanks destroyed per vehicle, we can certainly speak of success. I must stress above all things that this figure could have been considerably higher. Unfortunately, the majority of the vehicles are always undergoing repairs. This condition becomes worse with every passing day, because the already insufficient supply of repair parts has been exhausted with the increasing wear on all parts. There has been practically no re-supply of repair parts to speak of. There are 17 vehicles missing from the original total of 44. Seven of these have been transferred to other battalions on orders from the regiment. The other 10 were total losses. 

Has proved itself almost impervious to rounds. Except for one penetrating hit to the side near the rear ventilation motor housing, (76 mm) and besides many scars, everything has remained intact. It should be mentioned that even the single penetrating round did not have any ill effects. Practical experience has shown however, that the engine gratings are a weak area. Along with Molotov cocktails, a direct hit from artillery or a [bomb] on or near the gratings can set the vehicle ablaze. Shrapnel penetrates the fuel tank or damages other important parts, such as water lines. The temperature in the engine compartment was so high that the fuel actually began to boil within its containers in isolated instances. Attaching winches, equipment and cables to the outside of the vehicle was wrong. It should have been predicted that these items would be destroyed in a short amount of time.

The main gun works extremely well, but is almost constantly in need of repair. Panels break off the tube for inexplicable reasons and the casing ejector does not function. The casings are often extracted with a hammer and chisel. Moving into combat with an unsupported gun tube knocks lateral and vertical traverse devices out of alignment to such an extent that up to 20 centimeter deviations exist at the muzzle of the gun tube. The lateral traverse devices often jam when the vehicle becomes hot. The alignment must be reset after a short time in combat. The forward gun tube support is sometimes shot away during combat. Stabsfeldwebel Brunnthalter has given the commander of schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653 a more detailed report for him to forward.