Gefreiter Robert Poensgen, loader in Panzer-Regiment 33, 9. Panzer-Division
This crew really existed; only the names have been changed. I no longer remember the real names; perhaps that is just as good, since the story that I relate here does not exactly belong to the hall of fame for tanking.
It was somewhere between Orel and Brjansk in the late spring of 1943. Panzer-Regiment 33, which bore the Viennese statue of Prinz Eugen, the noble knight, as its coat of arms, had been thoroughly reconstituted after its employment along the Shisdra in early March—both in personnel and equipment. Once again, each company had its seventeen tanks, and a 4th Company had been added to each of the two battalions, with the result that the regiment had the impressive inventory of 140 fighting vehicles, including the respective command-and-control vehicles.
That armada had to train, train, and train yet again. With the exception of the higher headquarters, not a single soul was aware of Operation Zitadelle, the code-name for the large-scale operation in the center sector of the front, which was intended to bring about the breakthrough to Kursk. But everyone knew and felt it in his bones that something big was afoot.
The infantry and weapons training of the good old days was replaced by crew-level tank training, the “Combat Crew Drills,” as well as maintenance and combat training at platoon and company level. The drivers’ training course spit out new drivers by the dozens, and the radio operators were drilled in communications procedures.
All of the trains were combed through in the search for young soldiers and personnel of more senior rank capable of combat service, who still lacked front-line experience.
And so it came to pass that Stabsfeldwebel Hornig, who, it seems, had always been the leader of the rations point, suddenly had to reactivate and refresh the tank training he had enjoyed in peacetime. They gave him Unteroffizier Schindlmair as a gunner, who, up to that point, had been the driver of a prime mover in the recovery section. It was intended for him to take Oberschütze Berges under his wing as far as technical training was concerned. Berges was a nineteen-year-old “newbie.” Just like Baumeister, the loader, neither of them had heard a main gun fired before. Only the radio operator, Unteroffizier Jahn, had been in a tank previously. His downfall was more of the human kind. He was viewed from within the entire company as a self-opinionated troublemaker, which explains why he was gladly handed off to form a new crew.
That elite force took over an old Panzer III with a 5-centimeter main gun. From the battalion commander on down to the platoon leader, all were in agreement that initially nothing great was to be expected from this combination. It was decided at the very beginning to have Hornig and his crew move with the third wave and send them back to the trains whenever an experienced crew lost its vehicle to a mechanical problem or through enemy action.
Up to that point, Hornig’s crew did everything in its power to make a name for itself within the regiment. From a technical standpoint, everything looked good thanks to the tireless efforts and drills of the gunner. Otherwise, however . . . the Stabs -feldwebel was not only lacking in experience, he was also lacking in mental capacity. And because his radio operator soon figured that out and did not bother to hide the fact, the work environment, as one would say today, was extremely miserable.
Whenever the platoon was supposed to swing right, it was a sure bet that Hornig would head left. If there were a spot of marshy ground somewhere, the driver would find it with deadly accuracy and drive right into it. Whenever going into position along a reverse slope, Hornig would either pull up too short, so that the gunner would have pulverized the mound of dirt in front of his nose, or pull up too far, so that he stood out like a barn door in the countryside.
The day approached where the entire regiment was supposed to demonstrate what it had learned in front of the demanding eyes of the division commander: Attack by the regiment with the two battalions on a frontage of about 1,000 meters each.
All of the details were discussed exactingly; every tank commander had to know what he was doing in his sleep: Front man; wing man right; wing man left; distance from the lead man; direction of attack; intervals to the neighboring tanks; firing halts; and everything else that was part and parcel of it.
“Make sure you once again make the point clearly to all crews,” the regimental commander reminded emphatically at the last commander’s conference, “that the attack terrain increasingly slopes downward after crossing Hill 211 and finally ends in a steep cut off to a creek. The slope is to be negotiated only in first gear. You will turn off to the left at the waterway and follow it along the banks of the river. The division commander will follow the attack from his radio SPW and observe the negotiation of the regiment across the difficult steep slope from the far bank.”
The company commanders passed on those instructions and a few of their own as well. Leutnant Stängl buttonholed his Stabsfeldwebel separately: “Guide on the people in front of you! I will inform you by radio when it is time to shift down!”
The regiment offered a magnificent picture when the attack exercise took off. Tank after tank, as far as you could see. Wave after wave rolled over the unending pastureland, widely dispersed. It moved forward through fields of sunflowers and across ditches.
The fire mission came on the hilltop. Move, halt, fire, move. Small practice demolitions detonated between the tanks. It was the perfect representation of a battle. And in the middle was Hornig’s tank. No rounds left his main gun, since his breech-block had jammed once more. The gunner, loader and radio operator worked together to clear the jam until the sweat was rolling down their foreheads.
Hornig dropped up and down in the turret as if on an elevator: Sometimes down below to take a look around in the fighting compartment and sometimes above to orient himself within the formation. He was completely beside himself, since his platoon leader had to have noticed for some time that something was not quite right on board once again.
Barges received no order to take a firing halt and, as a result, gradually landed up among the vehicles of the 2nd Company moving in front. He careened around restlessly and tirelessly in the middle of the combat formation. He moved in front of the right-hand tank so that it had to turn away in order to be able to fire at all.
Leutnant Stängl bellowed for all he was worth, but it was all in vain. It had to be all in vain, since the frantic Hornig had long since ripped the plug of his headphones and throat microphone out of the connector. Correspondingly, he could neither hear nor make himself understood.
In his excitement, he had also let his company get completely out of his sight and imagined he was hanging way back. He then reached the hill with the first wave.
Finally, the main gun fired again, and Hornig’s tank then started firing the practice ammunition for all it was worth. The order that had been issued some time back to cease firing did not reach him, after all.
The driver thought it was terrific to be able to race ahead and bet his prestige on being able to push his way to the front. That was not too difficult, since the other vehicles had already shifted down in accordance with their orders and were moving down the steep slope very slowly.
It occurred to the Stabsfeldwebel in the turret—much too late, but he did think of it nonetheless—what he had been lectured about. “Slower . . . slower . . . downshift . . .” he kept yelling into his dead microphone. All of hell’s curses were poured onto the driver. But he did not hear anything, since the intercom system had also been interrupted. The tank commander kicked the gunner who, in turn, kicked the driver, but it only had the effect of him speeding things up.
And then the critical juncture arrived. The slope suddenly seemed to disappear for Obergefreiter Berges. Far, far below, he saw the creek. On the far side of it was an extended village. Desperate, he stepped on the brake and attempted to shift down but was unable to get the gear engaged. And then things took off! The speed continued to increase, the tank swayed, the gearbox howled and the crew braced itself with its arms and legs. The empty casings, along with everything else that wasn’t nailed down, danced and rolled through the fighting compartment.
Hornig’s crew was the first one to reach the valley floor, well ahead of the rest of the regiment. It was practically a miracle that the tank did not do a headstand. It slammed into the road in front of it at full speed. The shock absorbers blew out and two torsion bars broke. The crew tumbled around in the fighting compartment.
That was followed by the river embankment! A mighty leap and, for a few seconds, twenty-four tons of Krupp steel flew through the air before the waves of water slapped together over Hornig’s tank. But the water was not too deep. There was a crashing impact. The fighting vehicle plowed through the river like a fast boat, propelled by its own momentum. It reached the far bank and was tossed onto land, like Poseidon in his day, and covered the invited guests and the uninvited gawkers with brown water and gray muck. It was exactly the spot where the division commander and his staff had taken up position.
The unfortunate tank then plowed through the collection of vehicles and between the terrified and scattering villagers and into a garden, where it rammed the corner of the house behind it. It turned right with a jolt and then entered the kitchen without knocking. The cloud of dust that arose from the clay ovens, which received a direct hit, looked like the impact of a 15-centimeter shell. It was not until then that the enormous momentum was used up and Hornig’s tank, dripping water, remained stationary, covered with dirt and pieces of wood, at the foot of the opposite embankment. A single roadwheel came spinning along behind it. The remnants of the turret stowage bin and two bundles of shelter halves swam in the creek.
Embarrassed, bleeding, and lacerated from a number of places, black and blue . . . the crew crawled out the various hatches and staggered towards the medics racing up.
The tank silently disappeared the next day to the maintenance facility. I cannot say whether it was ever possible to restore it to a combat-ready condition.
By the skin of his teeth, Stabsfeldwebel Hornig escaped a court-martial and soon found himself back at his rations point. The remaining men of that glorious crew survived their wounds. After a while, they were distributed among other crews back at the trains. Later on, without exception, they proved themselves.
One thing did stay with them for almost as long as there was a Panzer-Regiment 33. If one of them did something even a little bit out of the ordinary, then someone would point a finger at him and someone would say maliciously: “Man, there’s one of those unlucky bastards . . . you know . . . the guys who . . .”
And so it came to pass that the story of the unlucky ones came to pass and remained unforgotten, unforgotten to this very day.