Unteroffizier Robert Poensgen, war correspondent with the 4. Panzer-Division
15 March 1945. Together with other elements and the courage of desperation, our 4. Panzer-Division, bled white and emaciated, conducted an unequal fight against time and Russian superiority for the Baltic still-free ports of Danzig and Gotenhafen.
Streams of refugees rolled in from all directions of the compass: Down from East Prussia across the sand spit along the outer edge of the Vistula lagoon; up from West Prussia from the south; from Pomerania from the southwest. It was a grim picture of misery. Mothers carried dead children in limp arms. Dead people lay on the ox carts next to hastily assembled personal items, the wounded and the sick.
They had arrived through snow squalls and ice storms…across ice bursting under Russian artillery fire in the lagoon. Many died en route. They had been decimated by Russian aircraft and plundered by Polish partisans. Their eyes mirrored terror, sometimes insanity.
And the Russians, confident of victory and their numerical superiority, marched irresistibly north and west in the direction of Berlin. Their attack waves surged mercilessly; they had the leaflet from Ilja Rosenberg in their pockets, which had been countersigned by Stalin: “Kill the Germans, wherever you meet them! Kill! Kill! Kill!”
Who would want to remain there; who would want to be at the mercy of the Red Army?
That the war was lost was a fact known then by even the dumbest person. There was nothing to be picked up: No decorations, no promotions, just a dead, cold ass. That was the general take on the situation.
It was a merciless struggle for survival—for your own and for the hundreds of thousands who were placing their trust in us, who were begging us with their eyes, who looked at us accusingly, who were being chased along the roads to the sea, and who squatted and waited and waited for ships that would take them west and away from the hell around them.
Kill! Kill! Kill! The Russian tank tidal wave came rolling at us with that thought in mind: From the south, from the southeast, from the southwest. Everything was headed for Danzig. In fairness to the Soviet fighting forces, it must be said that most of them were more humane than that most inhumane order of that horrible war.
That was the situation on 15 March 1945, when Oberleutnant Gerlach was issued orders by Oberst Christern to move to the Oliva–Neue Welt1 area with the five remaining operational Panthers of his company. They were to hinder an impending Russian armored assault in the sector of the389. Infanterie-Division.
Shortly before departure, one of the Panthers had to be detached to another Kampfgruppe of the regiment, which only had Panzer III’s and in whose sector Josef Stalins had been reported as approaching.
During the movement, two additional Panthers were lost to mechanical problems, because the fuel that had been used contained too much water. Shortly before the onset of darkness, Gerlach reached the new area of operations with two Panthers and received orders to support the night attack of the fusilier battalion2 on Neue Welt. After destroying the reported enemy tanks, he was to block the narrows between the bodies of water at Neue Welt.
The fusiliers moved out around 2000 hours. It was already pitch black. The attackers were received by heavy fire. You could clearly make out the sounds of a lot of tank main guns firing.
By then, it had also been determined that there were no fewer than twenty-four Russian tanks in the village of Neue Welt, including eight Josef Stalins. It had been directed for Gerlach to attack against that oppressive numerical superiority with his two Panthers! He tried to get the unequal operation scratched, since it would probably end in the Russian’s favor with about a 95 percent probability, no matter how much courage was shown. But the attack had to be conducted, no matter the cost. The overall situation required it.
“Write your wills, comrades!” That was the only advice Gerlach could give his tankers. There was no way you could call him a pessimist or a laggard, either. He had already participated in some 150 tank engagements. But this operation seemed to be a suicide mission to him. There were no beginners in the two Panthers. They were battle-seasoned pros. They had all decided to exercise their duty to the bitter end, but to also make their lives cost as much as possible in the process. They did not feel they were heroes . . .
The fusiliers had approached to the village outskirts. They knocked out an enemy tank and an antitank gun with Panzerfäuste. They received such heavy fire, however, that they had to pull back some. Of all times, Gerlach’s vehicle then suffered a mechanical problem. He had to send it back with its crew. He only took his proven radio operator, Unteroffizier Kupfer, with him, since there was a less experienced soldier in the vehicle he boarded. Otherwise, a bunch of old hands in the vehicle: The gunner, Unteroffizier Lang; the loader, Oberschütze Heinrich; and the driver,Obergefreiter Bauer.
The vehicle snuck up along the rail line all by itself toward the village. The motor was throttled down, so as not to draw attention to the vehicle.
As an experienced tanker, Gerlach knew that he had to get a good start on things, if he wanted to survive the unequal engagement. He was protected from enemy view by a snow fence. On the railway tracks to his left, there were freight cars. Even if it turned light, the shadow cast by his tank would not stand out on the horizon.
About 400 meters from the village, the tank bogged down in the soft earth. It took all of the driver’s skills to get the vehicle out again. As a result of the unavoidably louder engine noises, the Russians had been alerted. They fired blind in the suspected direction, but they were unable to see or hit the well-concealed Panther.
Gunner Lang fired. Taking up a sight picture on the muzzle flash, and got an assault gun with his first round. It and the house immediately behind it caught fire and illuminated the surrounding terrain for some distance. Three more tanks were identified within the area of the illumination. They had been posted at the edge of the village to screen.
Since the Panther started to receive heavy and aimed fire, it pulled back a few hundred meters to a better hull-down position. Gerlach’s crew succeeded in knocking out three tanks and two antitank guns, whose rounds had been passing uncomfortably close over the Panther.
As it started to turn light, Gerlach moved his vehicle further back into the hull-down opposition. He then observed the village through the scissors scope he had. The Russian tanks were clumped together between the houses. Heavy artillery and mortar fire commenced.
Toward noon, a second vehicle arrived. It was under the command of Oberfeldwebel Palm, a long-time “tank cracker.” Palm’s crew set two enemy tanks on fire in the course of the afternoon, including one Josef Stalin. Gerlach was able to put another Josef Stalin out of commission and completely knocked out an assault gun. A few antitank guns also paid the ultimate price.
The rest of the day passed, as well as the second night. The Russians did not dare to venture out. It was not until the next day that the Soviets attempted to attack further to the right with infantry. Gerlach immediately moved to the threatened sector.
While he took charge of engaging the enemy tanks that appeared, his radio operator, Unteroffizier Kupfer, directed the fires against the Russian infantry. Not only did the two German tanks completely eliminate a Russian rifle company during this engagement, they also knocked out another five Stalin tanks, an additional heavy tank of another type, three assault guns, and a heavy antitank gun.
On the following day, Gerlach was employed in the same sector with both Panthers. From a good high-ground position, another two Stalin tanks, two assault guns and two antitank guns were knocked out in bitter duels. Three more Stalin tanks were set on fire.
The degree of the physical strain and demands that can be placed on someone who is involved with life-and-death fighting for days on end, can be gauged by the fact that Oberleutnant Gerlach fell fast asleep during a conference at an infantry command post.
The “kills” registered during the three days of fighting: twenty-one heavy and super-heavy enemy tanks without a single friendly loss. One should also not lose sight of the fact that most of those combat vehicles were superior to the Panther in weaponry, armor and range. The more skillful leadership and the seamless teamwork among all of the old tankers had prevailed. What had really counted most, however, was the iron will of the five men behind the armored plate to hold open the path to salvation for the children, the women and the wounded.