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Text by MARTIN WINDROW, Color plates by MICHAEL ROFFE. YEAR 1972
Defeat followed defeat, yet each time the sheer professionalism of the Panzertruppen somehow fended off final collapse. Rebuilt at enormous cost in effort and scarce material, the tank armies were hurled with criminal stupidity into the vast tank-trap of the Kursk salient in July 1943. Through the gutted wrecks of the Tigers crashed a new Soviet offensive - yet that too was halted, and far back to the west a line was somehow cobbled together. Always outnumbered, always short of every necessity; hounded now by an Allied air superiority, both strategic and tactical, which menaced the tanks from factory floor to company dispersal; always trying to hold too long a line with too few men and machines; still the Wehrmacht did not collapse. In the summer of 1944 the stubborn resistance of the forces in the West taught the British and American armies that this could still be a long war. The Panzertruppen, the core of all German operations, used every skill learnt in five years of war to offset their constant material weakness. Simultaneously a great Soviet offensive began the final rolling-up of the Eastern Front, and by the end of the year Germany's armies were everywhere standing on German soil. Yet they still managed to scrape together the resources for the numbing attack in the Ardennes, in which, as always, the tank crews played a vital part. The failure of that offensive was due to no failing of their soldiers, but to the weakened state of their nation; Germany could no longer supply her forces with the basic necessities, could no longer find the fuel or the pilots for air support, could no longer mount diversionary attacks on other fronts.
The Panzers advance - a characteristic view of Germany's finest striking force. (Imperial War Museum)
Inevitably, in early 1945, there followed the final annihilating invasion of Germany. The Wehrmacht was a skeleton, a tragic, ludicrous shadow of its former might. Its military, its political, its human wretchedness was absolute. Yet Kenneth Macksey, in his book, Panzer Division, records an incident which might stand as an epitaph for the Panzertruppen. On the Klistrin-Berlin highway, on 22 March 1945, virtually the only effective mobile formation standing between the Red Army and the battered capital prepared to make its last stand. It consisted of twenty-seven Panther and twenty-eight Tiger tanks of an unnumbered, nameless 'scratch division' - for those days, a remarkable force. Attacked after a lengthy artillery barrage by massed infantry and armour, the German force not only survived, but consistently out-thought and outfought the Russian formations thrown against them. When they withdrew in good order they left the Russians in retreat, and more than sixty Russian wrecks smoking on the battlefield. This incident is typical of the unbroken morale, undiminished skill and unshaken determination of the Panzertruppen even at the end.
Took part in Polish invasion, September 1939, and the assault in the West, 1940. June 1941 - early 1943, Russia, north and central sectors. After a few months in France, transferred to the Balkans in June 1943. July and August 1943, in Greece. November 1943, northern Ukraine. Took part in the counter-offensive following the Orel defeats, November and December 1943. Summer 1944, transferred to the Carpathians. For the remainder of the war the division was engaged in Hungary and Austria, distinguishing itself at Debrecen. Surrendered in eastern Austria.
Main combat units: 1939: Panzer Regt. 1, Rifle Regt. 1, Rifle Regt. 113, Artillery Regt. 73, Motorcycle Bn. 1, divisional units numbered 37.
1940 Panzer Assault Badge, awarded in silver to personnel of tank units who fought in three actions on three different days. Later a bronze version was authorized for armoured reconnaissance personnel, and as the war dragged on later types with 'modernized' tank motifs appeared; the numbers of engagements amassed were acknowledged by badges with the figures '50', '75' and '100' in small plaques at the base of the wreath.
1940: Panzer Regt. 2 added to establishment; this unit was transferred in October 1940 as cadre for new 16. Panzer Division. Final strength: Panzer Regt. 1, Panzergrenadier Regt. 1, Panzergrenadier Regt. 113, Artillery Regt. 73, Panzer Aufkl. Abt. 1, divisional units numbered 37.
After the take-over of Austria the division was moved to Vienna. Took part in Polish invasion, 1939, and in French campaign, 1940. Returned to Germany, August 1940. September 1940 - February 1941, stationed in Poland. March-May 1941, engaged in Balkans and Greece. Returned to France, then transferred almost immediately to Russia, taking part in drive on Moscow with Army Group Centre. 1942-3, Russia, notably at Smolensk, Orel, Kiev. January 1944, rest and refitting near Amiens, France. Heavily engaged on Invasion Front, summer 1944. December 1944, played important part in southern claw of Ardennes offensive. Early 1945, fighting along the Rhine. May 1945, surrendered at Plauen.
Main combat units: 1939: Panzer Regt. 3, Rifle Regt. 304, Artillery Regt. 74, Motorcycle Bn. 2, divisional units numbered 38. September 1940: cadre for new 13. Panzer Division supplied as Panzer Regt. 4. Final strength: Panzer Regt. 3, Panzergrenadier Regt. 2, Panzergrenadier Regt. 304, Artillery Regt. 74, Panzer Aufkl. Abt. 2, divisional units numbered 38.
Fought in Poland, 1939; France, 1940. Returned to Germany for refitting. June 1941 - February 1942, Russia, Army Group Centre. February 1942, transferred to southern sector. Took part in drive into Caucasus, summer 1942. 1943, heavily engaged around Kharkov in summer; moved into Dnepr sector, September 1943. Cited for distinguished service in Dnepr Bend sector, January 1944. Heavy fighting in Ukraine and Poland throughout 1944. January 1945, moved to Hungary; surrendered at Steyr, Austria, April 1945.
Main combat units: 1939: Panzer Regt. 5, Panzer Regt. 6, Rifle Regt. 3, Artillery Regt. 75,
Motorcycle Bn. 3, divisional units numbered 39. October 1940: Panzer Regt. 5 transferred as cadre to 5th Light Motorized Division, and Panzergrenadier Regt. 394 added. Final strength: Panzer Regt. 6, Panzergrenadier Regt. 3, Panzergrenadier Regt. 394, Artillery Regt. 75, Panzer Aufkl. Abt. 3, divisional units numbered 39.
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