IN JUNE THE SOVIETS LAUNCHED THEIR GREATEST OFFENsive of the war to date. Named Operation Bagration after the Russian marshal who was mortally wounded at the battle of Borodino against Napoleon in 1812, its objective was nothing less than the destruction of Army Group Centre, which it accomplished in a masterly manner. This army group, under the sycophantic and largely incompetent Field Marshal Busch, had been fighting a fairly static battle of attrition while the major events were playing out in the south. Busch had been warned of the massive Soviet build-up opposite his lines, which formed a tempting bulge or salient. He requested permission for a withdrawal to shorten his line but this was refused and, reassured by Hitler, he elected to wait for developments.
The storm broke on 22 June, the third anniversary of Barbarossa, when four Soviet fronts—comprising some 200 divisions and 6,000 tanks and assault guns supported by 7,000 aircraft—smashed through the central front. Four German armies—consisting of 38 infantry divisions, one panzer division, two panzergrenadier divisions, two Luftwaffe field divisions and seven security divisions—were almost obliterated. German casualties numbered some 350,000 men, of whom 150,000 were taken prisoner, many of whom would perish in the gulags. The 4th Panzer Army alone lost 130,000 of its 165,000 men while 3rd Panzer Army lost ten divisions. A huge gaping hole appeared in the German front. It was Germany’s greatest defeat of the war.1 The Russians admitted to losing 178,000 dead and missing and 590,000 wounded. Busch, at OKW headquarters when the blow struck, threw himself on the map table showing his army group’s massive defeat, sobbing uncontrollably. That was about all he could do, for Hitler summarily dismissed him on 28 June, despite the fact that he had done no more than follow orders.2 The Führer replaced him with Walter Model who had been promoted to field marshal on 18 March 1944, the youngest in the German Army.
Along with Operation Bagration, the Russians launched a major offensive against Army Group North on 22 June. The attack forces consisted of four fronts—the Leningrad Front under General Govorov, 3rd Baltic Front under General Maslennikov, 2nd Baltic Front under General Eremenko and 1st Baltic under General Bagramyan. These fronts totalled 1,200,000 men with 2,500 tanks against the German 16th and 18th Armies and Army Detachment Narva, which together had only 540,000 men and some 300 tanks.
The 1st Baltic Front launched the initial attack to drive a wedge between Army Groups Centre and North. The gap created was some 97 kilometres, which needed to be bridged or closed. With Army Group Centre rapidly collapsing, Hitler ordered the 12th Panzer and 212th Infantry Divisions from Army Group North to try and shore up Army Group Centre, leaving Army Group North in a very vulnerable position without any complete armoured division of its own. On 11 July the Russian 2nd Baltic Front attacked Sixteenth Army’s left flank where Rudolf Sieckenius was commanding the 263rd Infantry Division. On 14 July the 3rd Baltic Front struck the right flank of Eighteenth Army and by 20 July both German armies were in full retreat, with only Army Detachment Narva still grimly holding on.
At Daugavpils the indomitable 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion encountered the super-heavy Stalin tanks with their massive 122mm guns for the first time, knocking out 17 of them in a single day’s fighting. The defence of Narva was so stoutly maintained that the Russians halted their attacks there on 29 July. However this did not prevent them from advancing elsewhere, thrusting into central Lithuania, to be checked at Siauliai by a small battle group for three days before resuming their advance for some 160 kilometres north to take Jelgava, so cutting the last rail link between Army Groups North and Centre.3 A Russian mechanized force then lunged ahead to take Tukum on 30 July. On 1 August the Reds reached the Gulf of Riga just west of the city, thereby cutting off 30 German divisions in Latvia and Estonia. Meanwhile, Narva had fallen after a heroic resistance, the defenders withdrawing to the so-called Tannenberg Line. Immediate steps were taken to close the gap between the German army groups with pincer attacks to cut through the neck of the Soviet salient. The main thrust was to come from the Third Army led by the Austrian Colonel General Raus, spearheaded by the XL Panzer Corps. This corps had the 4th, 5th and 14th Panzer Divisions as well as the Grossdeutschland Panzergrenadier Division, having some 400 tanks in total.4 Grossdeutschland, 14th and 4th Panzer were particularly hard-fighting units, with the latter two fighting bitterly in the Baltics until the end of the war.
On 5 August, the Soviet 2nd and 3rd Baltic Fronts resumed their offensive but were considerably weaker, having lost 1,325 tanks since 22 June. General Schorner, who had taken command of Army Group North on 24 July, resorted to draconian methods in order to hold the line. A formidable and personally brave officer who had been awarded the Pour le Mérite in World War I, and achieved renown for his command of the Nikopol pocket in January/February 1944, he was nevertheless an ardent Nazi, and a thug to rival Georgy Zhukov. He resorted to demoting soundly efficient officers on the spot for minor infractions, real or imagined, and summarily shooting front-line soldiers found in the rear without documented reasons. He even stripped officers and men of hard-earned combat decorations, all to instill discipline through fear. Hitler liked him, his men hated him, and in the end he deserted them, escaping in a light aircraft wearing civilian clothes.
Graf von Strachwitz, after his third operation had been abandoned, continued to carry out some of his characteristic actions against the Soviets. He conducted a raid deep behind enemy lines with a small column of tanks. He shot up and destroyed supply columns, headquarters and rear-echelon units that sat smugly in the rear, oblivious to any threat from the overstretched and retreating Germans. He also came across a tank laager that the Russians hadn’t even bothered to camouflage or provide security for. The tanks were not placed defensively so were easy prey for the rampaging Germans. It was gunnery practice, pure and simple. Nor were the crews spared, being machine-gunned without mercy. Tanks could be mass-produced but it took months and years to create experienced, combat-wise and efficient tank crews.
He was invariably mistaken for a Russian tank column, allowing him to move with impunity alongside and around the Russians. The few times he was challenged it was always too late for the Russians to put up effective resistance or cause him any casualties. He simply shot up the units who challenged him. So angry did the Soviets become at his depredations that they put a price on his head that would have made anyone who killed him wealthy for the rest of their life.
He took part in various actions, most often with ad-hoc units, including an attempt to relieve Vilnius, the surrounded Lithuanian capital holding out against merciless Soviet assaults. His actions enabled Major Theodor Tolsdorff who was defending Vilnius to evacuate thousands of German wounded from the city, an action which earned him the Swords to the Knight’s Cross and a promotion to colonel. Tolsdorff would later join von Strachwitz in the elite group of Diamonds wearers.
On one occasion von Strachwitz let the Russians know—via a radio message he knew they would intercept—where and when he was going to attack them. They promptly set up an ambush for him at that location, enabling the Graf to infiltrate the Soviet lines some distance away, then curve around to catch his would-be ambushers in their flanks and rear. But instead of simply attacking, he carefully reconnoitred the ground, noting the positions of each Russian tank and anti-tank gun pointing towards the expected direction of his approach. Each target was allocated to one of his tanks, with ranges carefully calculated. At first light he gave the order to fire, and every shot fired was an instant hit. The Russian tanks, including some Shermans still being used this late in the war, were blown away, turrets shot off, burning and destroyed, as most hits were to their weak points at the sides and rear. Five tanks went up in flames, then another five were brewed up, followed by a further four, all in rapid succession. Concealed anti-tank guns were taken out with high-explosive rounds.
Confusion, fear and panic broke out among the Soviets. Their first thought was of an aerial attack as Rudel’s Stukas had been active over the northern front. Eventually the Soviet infantry spotted their antagonists and warned their tankers, who broke cover to counterattack. This left them in the open and vulnerable as they sought to acquire targets. More and more of them were blown away without getting in an effective shot in reply, with most firing in panic in the general direction of the German attack. The surviving anti-tank guns had to be turned around by hand, a difficult task at best and almost impossible while under machine-gun and high-explosive fire. The infantry, at the frantic urgings of their officers and commissars, made an attempt at assault, but were smashed by machine-gun and cannon rounds. The survivors fled or dived for cover. Von Strachwitz ordered his panzers forward to provide a more difficult target and acquire better firing positions through manoeuvre. His gunner needed little direction as there was a plethora of targets, so he calmly directed the other tanks as well as his own for the best advantage. In a short while it was all over, with the Graf quickly returning to his own lines before retribution, especially from the air, could overtake him. It was about this time that signal intercepts were picked up with the Russians warning that the “Devil’s general” von Strachwitz was in the area and was to be avoided until reinforcements could arrive. This and the price on his head—as much as his decorations and promotions—were testimony to his tactical genius and effectiveness.
In late July his ad-hoc panzer division was disbanded, having distinguished itself on the Narva front and southern flank of Army Group North. The continuous Soviet offensives necessitated its reactivation but this time with different forces. His promised three divisions were still not forthcoming, despite several requests, as they were simply not available, unsurprising given the desperate situation on both the Eastern and Western Front at this time. Any reserves were scrapings from the bottom of the barrel, or stripped from other formations that also desperately needed them. One man on a bicycle was considered a reinforcement, and if he was a veteran it was considered a miracle. By way of compensation General Guderian eventually managed to scrape together 10 tanks and 15 APCs to add to Panzerverband Strachwitz II. It wasn’t three divisions, but it was the best he could do. These tanks were not from reserves, as there weren’t any, but came from other units, which disliked parting with them.
Von Strachwitz’s Panzerverband II had at its core two brigades. These were Panzer Brigade 101 under Colonel Meinrad von Lauchert—with whom he had fought at the battle of Kursk and who had served as his son’s commanding officer in Panzer Regiment 15 of the 11th Panzer Division—and SS Panzer Brigade Gross, named after its commanding officer, SS Sturmbannführer Martin Gross, an experienced panzer commander who had also fought at Kursk with the SS Leibstandarte Division, earning his Knight’s Cross at the epic German victory of Prokhorovka where his division destroyed several hundred Soviet tanks.
Von Lauchert’s Panzer Brigade 101 consisted of Panzer Battalion 2101 with its tanks being provided by Battalion 102 at Neuruppin and from the 18th Panzer Division, consisting of three companies. It also had a Panzer-grenadier Battalion designated 2101, which was insufficient, as a panzer brigade normally had two or three infantry battalions. In addition it fielded a light anti-aircraft platoon barely adequate for the task, an engineer company and various support and supply units. Its headquarters staff came from Armoured Brigade 108 and Panzerjäger Regiment 656. This cobbled-together unit was sent into combat three weeks after its formation with training incomplete. Nevertheless the brigade had some very experienced and competent officers in its ranks. These included its panzer battalion commander, Knight’s Cross holder Frederich-Wilhelm Breidenbach, and Guido von Wartenburg who had been awarded the Knight’s Cross in 1943. He was killed at Riga on 16 September 1944. The Brigade’s engineering maintenance officer, Lieutenant (Eng.) Römer, was a holder of the Knight’s War Service Cross, a high non-combat efficiency decoration.
SS Panzer Brigade Gross initially had 30 tanks, mainly obsolescent Panzer IIIs with some old Panzer IVs and a solitary Panther. A Tiger company detached from the 103rd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion was also added, although at one point the brigade had only one operational Tiger. Eventually its tank strength reached that of a battalion with four companies. To those 30 tanks were added two panzergrenadier battalions, an armoured reconnaissance battalion under Hauptstürmführer Runge, together with support units. So by 16 August it numbered some 2,500 men, who were a mixed bunch of veterans, ex-Luftwaffe personnel, and even an officer from neutral Sweden, Unterstürmführer Wolfgangeldhalbiez, who was subsequently wounded outside of Riga. He survived, returning to Sweden in 1945, and died in 1984. Another Swede was SS Obersharführer Johan Westrin who had served in both the Finnish and Swedish armies before joining the Waffen SS. He was killed along with five men of his squad when they ran over a land mine near Saukenai, Lithuania, in September 1944. On 18 August it was attached to the Graf’s Panzerverband Strachwitz, which in turn was attached to the XXXIX Panzer Corps of General Raus’ Third Panzer Army. Support units belonging to this essentially ad-hoc panzer division included the 337th Signal Battalion, 3rd Battalion of the 19th SS Artillery Regiment, and the divisional staff of the 337th Infantry Division. Welding together this eclectic mixture required excellent command skills and a strong personality.
The attack to close the yawning gap between the army groups and reconnect them was codenamed Operation Doppelkopf. It was set to commence on 20 August but was launched on 16 August in perfect weather, with the morale of the troops, who were on the attack at last, high. Unfortunately there was no central focus of attack, as there were four separate spearheads dispersed along a front of 100 kilometres. General Knobelsdorff’s XL Panzer Corps, with the Grossdeutschland Panzergrenadier Division and the 7th and 14th Panzer Divisions, attacked the southern flank of the Soviet salient. General Dietrich von Sauken’s XXXIX Panzer Corps assaulted the centre with the 5th Panzer Division, and the northern flank with the 4th and 12th Panzer Divisions. Graf von Strachwitz’s Panzerverband was to strike the northern flank, near Saldus, break through there to take Tukum, then move on to Riga. General Erhard Raus thought that without a central point of attack, and given the strong Russian reserves, the attack had little chance of success. This, apart from Graf von Strachwitz’s battle group’s success, proved to be the case. The 7th Panzer Division under General Major Karl Maus took Kelmi after some savage fighting with heavy casualties on both sides.
Grossdeutschland, now under Hasso von Manteuffel, advanced as far as Siauliai where its panzers bogged down in the swampy ground. General Martin Unrein’s 14th Panzer got itself caught up in ferocious forest fighting, so overall von Knobelsdorff’s XL Panzer Corps only gained some 40 kilometres. General Karl Decker’s 5th Panzer Division gained 20 kilometres to advance into a forest where its advance guard was surrounded and was only extricated with some difficulty by the main body. It was then pushed back to its start line by a Russian counterattack. General Sauken’s XXXIV Panzer Corps fared even worse. Its two panzer divisions, the 4th and 12th, encountered such heavy Russian resistance that they could only manage some 10 kilometres before being halted.5
Graf von Strachwitz’s divisional attack plan called for Panzer Brigade 101, with an attached SS panzer grenadier battalion from SS Panzer Brigade Gross, to clear the area around the railway station at Berzupe, being followed by Panzer Brigade Gross. They would then divide into two axes of advance, with Panzer Brigade 101 on the right and Panzer Brigade Gross on the left. Panzer Brigade 101 would then attack the Russians at Biksti towards Berze. Panzer Brigade Gross would leave some security units in Dzukste and to guard the Velkroai–Silisi road, then attack the western part of Tukum, advancing from the south. Both brigades would then advance through Kummern or along the coast to meet up with Battle Group Kieffel holding the Riga sector.6
Graf von Strachwitz commenced his attack on 4:00 a.m. on 20 August. He was in the lead tank ready to intervene or alter the plan on the spot. Despite strong Russian resistance everything proceeded roughly to plan. Steaming along the coast nearby was the veteran German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, with the destroyers Z-25, Z-28, Z-35 and Z-36. Also with the small fleet were the torpedo boats T-23 and T-28.7 The battle cruiser was returning to combat duty, having been a training ship for cadets since April 1943. Commanding her was Captain Hans Jurgen Reinicke, who had taken command on 5 January 1944. The ship itself had been lucky, surviving many encounters with the enemy. It had sallied out with the Bismarck and helped in the destruction of HMS Hood, but had already left the Bismarck when that ship was caught by the British fleet and sunk. It took part in the dangerous dash along the English Channel in 1942, survived a bomb hit in Brest 1941, a torpedo hit from the British submarine Trident, a collision with the light cruiser Leipzig and various aerial attacks from British and Soviet aircraft. It was the only major German warship to survive the war, only to be destroyed during atom bomb tests at Kwajalein Atoll in 1946.
Thinking laterally, Graf von Strachwitz made contact with Prinz Eugen requesting gunfire support from the fleet against the enemy tank force he knew was occupying his target, Tukum. Reinicke readily agreed, although this was the first time the Prinz Eugenhad engaged enemy ground forces.
The Graf pushed on with his force to get close to his target before the bombardment began. A gunner from Panzer Brigade Gross describes his part in the action. He was in his unit’s only operational Tiger, which was itself marked as not ready for combat, nor was it watertight:
During our trip to the staging area we encountered our first problem. As we reached a small river, one of us got out to direct the driver over a narrow wooden bridge. The wooden planks were quite thick, but would the bridge hold? The bridge was checked out and slowly the Tiger tank was directed on to the span … Right in the middle of the bridge it happened! With a very loud crack and an equally loud knock, we fell into the stream! Besides a few scrapes and bruises, plus the shock of the fall, we were all right. Members from Grossdeutschland were able to pull our tank from the stream so that we could continue our trip to the staging area near Tuckum …
The first day at the staging area was a particularly hard one for us. We had already lost our tank commander from a shot to the head earlier in the day when our second tank commander died in the afternoon in the same manner. Our third tank commander was an SS Unterscharführer who had recently joined our group from the Luftwaffe.
We were not even together for fifteen minutes when the order came to move out. We had been ordered to advance in the direction of Tukum, without infantry support, in order to observe the effects of the heavy shelling on that town by the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. To this day I cannot understand that order. After crossing slightly fallen ground we had to rise again among some huge shell holes, before reaching the city. In the process, we were able to knock out a few anti-tank positions.
Suddenly, we found ourselves in the middle of a huge lumberyard. Cut wooden planks were stacked up high for as far as the eye could see. We just as quickly began to receive small arms and antitank rifle fire from all directions. We could only see directly in front of us through the gun sights and machine gun slits. Just vaguely, covered up by smoke and piled wooden planks, we recognized the turret of a T-34 tank!
Our reaction time was faster than the enemy’s (much to our relief!). One round was all it took and the enemy tank smouldered where it stood, lying in wait, damaged. We then proceeded to clear a path through the enemy infantry by firing high-explosive shells and bearing machine-gun fire on the enemy infantry hiding all around us. Moving forward a few hundred metres, we moved through a narrow winding alley. At that moment another T-34 came into our gun sights. The T-34 was so close that its 76mm gun was now within effective range and capable of knocking out our own tank.
Sweat was pouring from all of us the situation reached its zenith. We quickly loaded the first round and just as quickly fired the armour-piercing shell. “A miss! Shit! Load again before they burn us.” The first shot had knocked out a telephone pole next to the T-34. Luckily for us the sun was directly in their eyes. Our next shot blew off the turret of the T-34 with a loud bang, sending it skyward about twenty feet.
Our mission was practically over by then, as most of the town had been cleared of the enemy.8
At 8:02 a.m. the Prinz Eugen’s guns fired their first exploratory shots, having launched its three Arados seaplanes to observe the fall of shot. Gunnery Officer Schmalenbach’s task of directing fire was made more difficult as the ship had to constantly change course to avoid becoming an easy target for submarines or aircraft. A thick mist covered the ground so he had to rely on a map and his own calculations as the Arados could not report the fall of shot. The first salvo from the ship’s eight 203mm guns—which took nearly 90 seconds to reach its target—crashed right onto the centre of the town. Eleven more followed, hitting the railway yard and station and destroying the town square, where an entire Soviet armoured brigade had parked its tanks. The entire brigade was blown away; 48 T-34s were utterly destroyed, their tank crews perishing in the inferno. The Russians targeted the circling seaplanes, but did not bring any down, although Lieutenant Stoll’s aircraft was holed by machine-gun fire.9 The destroyers then added to the bombardment. Each carried five 127mm guns, in all firing 150 shells at the Soviets.10 After the seaplanes were relaunched at 10:00 a.m., the bombardment shifted to the south-east of the town, and later to destroy a gun emplacement north of the town. Russian fighters finally appeared and attacked the seaplanes. Despite their slower speed, their manoeuvrability enabled them to escape back to the Prinz Eugen virtually unscathed.
The Prinz Eugen was not the only supporter the Panzer Graf had. His old aerial comrade-in-arms, Hans Ulrich Rudel, was also flying support missions around the northern front and the Tukum area with his tank busters. On one tank-hunting mission his Stuka was hit:
Now I see straight in my line of flight a black moving mass: the road, tanks, vehicles, Russians. I at once yell: “attack!” Already at almost point-blank range the defence looses off a concentrated fire from in front of me, twin and quadruple flak … I am flying at 90 feet and have bumped right into the middle of the hornet’s nest … I twist and turn in the craziest manoeuvres to avoid being hit, I shoot without taking aim … Now I climb a little as I reach the vehicles and tanks and soar over them. I feel I am sitting on eggs and waiting for the smash. This is bound to end badly; my head is as hot as the metal screaming past me. A few seconds later a telltale hammering. Gadermann yells: “Engine on fire!” A hit in the engine … Flames lick the cockpit.11
Rudel tried to climb so they could bail out, but the aircraft was too badly damaged and they crashed. The tree canopy slowed the aircraft, which then broke up on impact. Rudel was badly injured, but the actions of Gadermann and nearby soldiers meant that he went on to fly again, supporting von Strachwitz again in the battles for Upper Silesia.
When von Strachwitz finally entered Tukum with 10 of his tanks he was confronted by a scene of complete devastation: wrecked tanks everywhere, some burning, some upside down, others just scattered lumps of twisted metal. Blackened bodies lay around the tanks and buildings, while here and there staggered a dazed and disoriented survivor. A few Russian tanks had survived, but these were swiftly put out of action, their shaken crews incapable of meaningful resistance. Von Strachwitz left a few APCs from the SS Panzer Grenadier Battalion to secure the town. He then moved off to engage a force of 60 Russian tanks and lorry-borne infantry that had been sighted. He took them completely by surprise. The infantry, along with a number of T-34s, surrendered in the mistaken belief that they were surrounded, which was just as well as they totalled several thousand men.12 The Russians were convinced that they had been facing a superior force, and to excuse their failures, the 51st Army reported that von Strachwitz had used over 300 tanks for his attack on Tukum and that the Germans had launched amphibious landings from the Prinz Eugenfleet.13
Due to mechanical breakdowns and having left some panzers to guard his prisoners and secure his booty, the Graf moved east to Sloka, encountering only light resistance on the way. With a much-diminished force—only nine Panthers—the Panzer Graf moved towards Eighteenth Army, which he reached on 21 August, making contact with the men of the SS Nordland Division. Contact had now been established between Army Groups North and Centre. The 52nd Security Division was sent to provide a security screen around the narrow breakthrough corridor Graf von Strachwitz’s forces had forged. Unfortunately the situation would not last, with Army Group North being cut off in the Kurland peninsula, fighting on there in three epic battles to the end of the war.
Battle Group Kieffel attacked from Riga with the 81st and 93rd Infantry Divisions, along with some guns from Sturmgeschütz Brigades 202, 909 and 912. The German attacks took them to Dobele, which they assaulted on 23 August. By this time Panzer Brigade Gross was down to 720 men, three Panthers, five Panzer IIIs and IVs, 20 APCs and three captured T-34s.14
When an exhausted Graf von Strachwitz finally entered Riga he emerged from his panzer dishevelled and sweat-stained, his face black from the cordite. Some generals nearby chorused: “Bravo Lieutenant! Well done!” Von Strachwitz walked stiffly over: “Not Lieutenant, I’m a General like you gentlemen. Just a little dirtier that’s all.” He finished with a grin, taking some delight at the look of astonishment on their faces.15
Von Strachwitz was subsequently involved in a fire-brigade role, moving his ever-dwindling force to wherever it was needed. He was also involved in reorganising panzer and panzer grenadier units, taking into account their losses, reinforcements required, and the needs of the front. While necessary, it wasn’t a task he particularly enjoyed, preferring active combat duties. In fact he couldn’t keep away from attacking the enemy. At one point he played his old trick again: warning the Russians of an impending attack, then striking his would-be ambushers from the flank and rear. He used T-34s captured at Tukum to lead his panzer column, enabling him to move relatively easily behind enemy lines. He took part in actions west of Siauliai in Lithuania, and along the Latvian–Lithuanian border.
Panzer Brigade 101—under its new commander, Lieutenant Colonel Erhard Zahn, a Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves winner, who had taken over in late September—fought southwest of Riga. In October it fought defensively in Lithuania before retreating to East Prussia. It then fought at Wirballen and Goldap. It was disbanded in mid-November.
In November 1944, von Strachwitz left his ad-hoc division near Lake Vortsjarv—after attacking the Russian 1st Guards Army in the flank—and travelled towards Elva to visit a divisional headquarters for a briefing. Near Sangaste Manor, his Kubelwagon16skidded at high speed, then rolled over several times. His driver and aide were killed instantly, while he suffered horrific injuries. He had a fractured skull, broken ribs, legs and hands. The doctors at the aid post gave him up for dead, but his indomitable will kept him alive despite all expectations to the contrary. He was sent to a hospital in Riga until he was fit enough to be repatriated to Germany in a Ju-52 transport plane for rest and rehabilitation.
His injuries, though grievous, had one fortunate side effect: taking him away from Army Group North before it became trapped in the Latvia’s Courland Peninsula, where it fought until the end of the war with the remnants going into Soviet captivity. Had he remained with the army group he might well have shared the fate of his cousin, General Lieutenant Mauritz von Strachwitz, a Knight’s Cross winner and commander of the 89th Infantry Division, who became one of the 1,350,000 Germans who died in Russian slave labour camps from hunger, disease, exhaustion and neglect.
The same month as Von Strachwitz’s accident, his panzerverband was disbanded. An understrength division, combining both army and SS units, the panzerverband had achieved some significant, albeit temporary victories under von Strachwitz. General Eduard Raus maintained in his book Panzer Operations that the attacks by his panzer corps had drawn forces away from von Strachwitz’s front, making his victories possible. That may have been the case, yet the fact remains that von Strachwitz achieved the most with the smallest force available. It was the hallmark of his tactical ability and genius.
Following its disbandment, units of Panzer Brigade 101 were sent to reinforce the badly depleted 20th Panzer Division. Panzer Brigade Gross, after fighting in Tartu, around Lake Peipus and at Memel (Lithuanian Klaipeda), returned to Westphalia in Germany. Its remnants were used to reinforce other Waffen SS units preparing for the Ardennes offensive at the end of 1944.
1. Paul Adair, Hitler’s Greatest Defeat—The Collapse of Army Group Centre, June 1944 (Arms and Armour Press, 1994). See also Richard Brett-Smith, Hitler’s Generals (Osprey Publishing, 1976).
2. Busch managed to get himself reactivated, however, to continue his inglorious career, fighting the Allies as Commander-in-Chief North West in April 1945.
3. Samuel W. Mitcham Jr., German Defeat in the East.
4. Bryan Perrett, Knights of the Black Cross (Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1997).
5. General Erhard Raus, Panzer Operations (trans. Steven H Newton).
6. Antonio Munoz, Forgotten Legions—Obscure Combat Formations of the Waffen-SS (Paladin Press Col. USA, 1991).
7. German torpedo boats were in reality small destroyers, while their equivalent to the British and American torpedo boats were called Schnell Boots commonly referred to as E-boats.
8. Forgotten Legions, p.137.
9. Fritz-Otto Busch (trans. Eleanor Brockett), The Story of the Prinz Eugen (Robert Hale, London, 1960).
10. Abwehr Kämpf am nord Flügel de Ostfront.
11. Hans Ulrich Rudel (trans. Lynton Hudson), Stuka Pilot (Euphorion, Dublin, 1952).
12. Peter McCarthy and Mike Syron, Panzerkreig (Constable and Robinson Lou, 2002).
13. Prit Buttar, Between Giants, p. 226.
14. Antonio Munoz, Forgotten Legions.
15. www.leikon-der-wehrmacht.de and Helmut Schiebel (trans. Klaus Scharvey), A Better Comrade You Will Never Find (J.J. Fedorowicz, 2010).
16. The Kubelwagon was the German equivalent to the American jeep.