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PANZER CREWMAN 1939-45

Soon, the first enemy vehicles came into view and at a range of some 200 m were immediately engaged by Barkmann's 7.5-cm gun. The road was soon strewn with burning trucks, fuel tankers and armoured personnel carriers. Two M4 Shermans arrived to give support but were quickly taken out by Barkmann's accurate gunfire. Artillery support and an air-strike by fighter bombers were called up, and Barkmann's Panther was soon at the receiving end of some heavy punishment. His driver had received a neck wound, and both he and the radio operator were trapped in their positions by jammed hatches. A track had been blown off and Barkmannn's position was beginning to look extremely perilous. Nevertheless he continued to engage the enemy until a total of nine M4 Shermans lay blazing in front of him, alone with numerous other vehicles.

The award document for Barkmann's Knight's Cross, awarded for his distinguished achievements at what has become known as 'Barkmann Corner' during the battles in Normandy. (Barkmann)

Eventually, Barkmann managed to coax his Panther, with only one track, away from the scene towards a near by village where the jammed hatches were forced open and the driver and radio operator freed. For this action at a site that became known as 'Barkmann Corner', Barkmann was decorated with the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.

Later that same year, Barkmann saw action in the Battle of the Bulge as Hitler launched his ill-fated counter-attack through the Ardennes. On 24 December 1944, whilst advancing towards Manhay, Barkmann became separated from the main body of his unit. As he advanced along a snow-covered road, which was heavily wooded on each side, he spotted a tank.

Visibility was not good, but the sloping glacis plate on the tank he saw led him initially to believe it was the Panther of one of his comrades. It was only as he was almost abreast of the other tank that he spotted that the interior light glowed red. The Panther's was green. The tank was an American M4 Sherman. Barkmann immediately ordered his gunner to engage, but the extremely long barrel of the Panther could not be swung round far enough to train on the enemy, it simply hit the Sherman's turret as it traversed. The two tanks were far too close, so Barkmann quickly ordered his driver to reverse. As soon as the turret could traverse far enough, the Panther opened fire at point-blank range destroying the enemy. Continuing along the road, Barkmann met two more M4s, which swiftly fell victim to his Panther.

Eventually, Barkmann found himself emerging into a large clearing in the woods where he was shocked to see nine more Shermans lined up close to each other, their barrels all pointing towards him. Barkmann halted in a position where die lead enemy tank blocked the view of the others, and prepared to take on all nine Shermans, Instead of a battle ensuing, however, Barkmann was amazed to watch as the American tank crews, on sighting the Panther, fled their vehicles and ran off into the cover of the woods. Rather than take the time to eliminate each of the abandoned Shermans, Barkmann decided to leave them to his comrades following some way behind and continued apace.

The enormous size of Barkmann's Panther can be gauged in relation to the size of its crew members in this shot of '401' (Barkmann)

As he moved on, Barkmann was joined by enemy vehicles, which emerged from the forest onto the main road and were blissfully unaware of the enemy in their midst. Eventually, as Barkmann passed through a congested crossroads full of enemy vehicles, including numerous tanks, some of the .Americans began to realize there was a Panther loose among them. Suddenly, a jeep came careering down the road towards him, its passenger gesticulating wildly. Apparently lie too was unaware that the tank he was approaching was an enemy, thinking he was merely ordering one of his own tanks to clear the road. Barkmann, in a quandary, decided all he could do was to press on at full speed and hope to pass the enemy column before they could react. He ordered his driver to full speed ahead. The jeep's crew, now realizing the reality of the situation, leapt from the vehicle as it was hit head on by the 45-ton Panther. The impact caused the Panther to slew off the road, colliding with a Sherman. Its main drive sprocket became tangled with the Sherman's tracks and the Panther's engine stalled. Enemy small-arms lire began to pepper the outside of the German tank. The crew was in no danger from this fire, but the arrival of a Sherman with a well-aimed shot at the Panther's thinner rear armour would have spelt disaster. Despite the perilous situation, Barkmann's driver calmly set about restarting the engine, slowly reversed out of the entanglement with the Sherman, and set off forward again at lull speed. With the turret traversed to the rear, Barkmann calmly dispatched the Shermans that attempted to follow. He eventually reached safety. Monitoring the enemy radio transmissions, Barkmann could savour the panic his appearance had caused, as reports of his 'Tiger' were relayed. It is not surprising that, in a confused battle situation, the Allies had mistaken his Panther for a Königstiger, as both tanks had similar hulls and only the overall size and turret shape was noticeably different.

A further photograph of Barkmann and '401Note how the running gear has become caked with mud. The rough finish on the tank itself is 'Zimmerit', a paste intended to prevent magnetic charges being attached to the tank by enemy infantry. All the Panzer men in the photo wear one-piece camouflaged overalls. (Barkmann)

Barkmann's comrades soon followed, destroying the Shermans that had been abandoned by their crews in the forest clearing. Unlike many of his fellow Panzer aces. Barkmann survived the war and returned to his hometown of Schleswig-Holstein, where he became Burgermeister.

Despite its technical teething problems, the Panther was one of the finest medium tanks ever produced. In the hands of experts such as Barkmann, it was a truly awesome weapon.


A letter of congratulations received by Barkmann from the Inspector General of Panzertroops, Generaloberst Guderian, congratulating him on the award of his Knight's Cross. (Barkmann)

Michael Wittmann at Villers Bocage

One of the most frequently cited Panzer actions of the Second World War was Michael Wittmann's celebrated attack on elements of 22 Armoured Brigade, part of 7th Armoured Division, the famous Desert Rats, as they approached the town of Villers Bocage on their advance towards Caen on 13 June 1944.

Wittmann's unit, sell were SS-Panzer Abteilung 101, had just arrived in the sector, having travelled fast from the Belgian border on its way to assist the Panzer-Lehr Division. Wittmann, a 30-year-old Bavarian with the rank of SS-Hauptsturmführer, was commander of 2. Kompanie and was already an accomplished ace with over 100 kills to his credit. Resting briefly to carry out mechanical repairs to their hard-pressed Tigers, the Germans became aware of an approaching British armoured column.

The Tigers were parked up along an older road running parallel to the new main road down which the British were travelling, and the Germans were well concealed by bordering hedges and trees. Wittmann lost no time in mounting an attack. In fact, he was so keen to get moving that he initially jumped into a Tiger that was still suffering mechanical problems.

SS-Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittmann, whose legendary exploits on both Eastern and Western Fronts ensured him lasting fame as the greatest tank ace of them all.

The Tigers crossed over onto the main road and entered the village from its opposite end, heading straight towards the British, some of whose tanks were already in the town. The massive frontal armour protection of the Tiger brushed aside all fire aimed at it, even at almost point-blank range, as Wittmann calmly drove along the British column, destroying vehicle after vehicle. Two British Cromwell tanks managed to reverse into side streets from which, with luck, they might have managed a shot into the Tiger's thinner side armour, but luck was not on their side. One was disabled by a paving stone lodging in its running gear and was knocked out by Wittmann's Tiger. The other managed to re-enter the main road in a position behind the Tiger, from where a lucky shot might well have knocked out the German tank. But, Wittmann had by now reversed direction and was facing the second Cromwell, which he swiftly despatched, Wittmann's rampage was only halted when a lucky shot from a six-pounder anti-tank gun damaged his Tiger's running gear. Wittmann and his crew abandoned their tank and escaped on foot. In this first stage of the battle, Wittmann had personally accounted for 12 tanks, nine half-tracks, four carriers and two anti-tank guns.

Panzer III on the Eastern Front 1941. It still has the 5-cm gun, which was to prove so inadequate against the Soviet T34s. (Robert Noss)

By the time Wittmann returned to his own troops, 1. Kompanie, commanded by SS-Hauptsturmführer Rolf Mobius, had arrived in support, as had a number of Panzer IVs from the Panzer Lehr Division. The time delay, however, had allowed the remaining British tanks and anti-tank guns in Villers Bocage to be set up in ambush positions. This time the Germans took losses, with four Tigers and three MkIVs being lost. The British position was, however, still extremely exposed and between 1700 and 2030 hours that evening they withdrew. Wittmann, acting alone in a single Tiger, and with no infantry support, had halted the advance of an entire armoured brigade and personally knocked out at least 25 enemy vehicles in the space of little over ten minutes. The Villers-Bocage incident is a prime example of the destructive power of a well-handled Tiger, but also highlighted its weakness to well-placed ambush forces that could threaten its weaker flank and rear armour.

For his achievement Michael Wittmann was decorated by the addition of the swords to the Knight's Gross of the Iron Cross with oakleaves which he already wore. He was killed in action on 8 August 1944 when his Tiger was hit by well-placed shots from a troop of Sherman 'Firefly' tanks of the Northamptonshire Yeomanry, equipped with a 17-pounder anti-tank gun, one of the few Allied guns capable of taking out a Tiger through its frontal armour. Although Wittmann's kills at Villers Bocage have often been exaggerated there can be no dispute that his achievements were considerable, and he is inextricably linked with the mythology of the Tiger tank. It is also interesting to note that the contributions of fellow crew members to his successes did not go unrewarded. Wittmann's gunner, Balthasar 'Bobbi' Woll, a true marksman, was decorated with the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross for his part in Wittmann's many successful exploits. Woll, who was not with Wittmann's crew on the fateful day when the great tank ace met his fate, survived the war. The Panzerwaffe had no shortage of Experten who, like the aces of the Luftwaffe, succeeded in running up quite exceptional scores of enemy destroyed. Names like Otto Carius, Albert Kerscher, Karl Bromann, and many others all contributed to the air of invincibility, and mythos of the heavy Panzers. That it was only a myth, however, is evidenced by the lame number of ace tank commanders who did not survive the war.

A knocked-out Panzer IV on the Eastern Front. The superstructure side armour appears to have been blown out by an internal explosion. (Robert Noss)

Escaping a stricken Panzer

Although crew members were afforded a measure of protection against small-arms fire, if their tank was hit and disabled, the crew would have to bail out swiftly. Enemy infantry would make every effort to pick off the crew as they tried to escape; only rarely taking prisoners. The commander, gunner and loader had the best chance of getting out from a stricken tank. For the driver and the radio operator, however, the success of any escape would depend on the position of the gun barrel, as at certain points in its traverse it prevented the hatch from being opened. If the hatch was blocked, the crewman would have to escape hack through the tank's cramped interior and out of the turret hatches. With the tank possibly on lire or just about to blow up, there was rarely time for these unfortunates to escape, and the mortality rate amongst drivers and radio operators was extremely high.

This Panzer IV was presumably not considered worthy of recovery but has already been cannibalised where it stands. The transmission housing has been removed and it has presumably been destroyed by fire, as the rubber tyres on the roadwheels have been reduced to ash. The entry hole from the enemy shell can be seen midway along the lower hull. (Robert Noss)

When a tank is hit by a high-velocity, solid shot, armour-piercing shell, the projectile depends on the energy imparted by its velocity to burn its way through the armour plate. The projectile, having pierced the tank's skin, will then ricochet around the interior shredding anything, including the crew, in its path. The attrition rate amongst tank crews was very high indeed, especially in the latter part of the war when it was not only enemy tanks and anti-tank weapons that Panzer crews had to (ear but also enemy fighter bombers, the dreaded Jabos (jagdbombers or fighter bombers). These planes took such a terrible toll on Panzers, particularly on the Western Front, that many tank units could only move tinder cover of darkness, or when excessive cloud cover or bad weather prevented flying. German losses in both tanks and trained crews were horrendous.

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