Oberleutnant Hans Schäufler and regimental signals officer in Panzer-Regiment 35, 4. Panzer-Division
In Fritz Brustal-Navel’s excellent book, Unternehmen Rettung,3 one reads the following: “At the edge of the bridgehead of Danzig/Gotenhafen, the remnants of the 2. Armee established a defensive ring. In front of it, some ten kilometers southwest of Danzig, was the 4. Panzer-Division, like a huge boulder. They all fought with their backs to the harbors in which the most terrible of scenes were repeated. The people raced to the water and to the ships in deathly fear.” What the famous “boulder” actually looked like at the time can be found in my diaries, which are paraphrased here.
Danzig, end of March 1945. The Russians were attempting with all means available and their concentrated power to take Danzig. The rounds from their enormous amount of artillery crashed almost ceaseless into our thin ranks. Rockets from Stalin organs hissed through the smoke-filled air. Mortar rounds of all calibers crumbled the already weakened walls of the suburbs of Oliva and Langfuhr. Bombers and fighter-bombers dropped their pernicious loads over us. We only took in what was happening around us in our sub-conscious. The dulled senses no longer registered the details. The measure of what was bearable had long since been reached. The Russian tanks advanced over and over again through the yellowish gray smoke. Protected by them, the Red infantry attempted to establish itself in the ruins.
Panzergrenadier-Regiment 33 no longer existed. The few survivors had been transferred to Panzergrenadier-Regiment 12, which continued to be led by Oberst Hoffmann.
The headquarters of Panzer-Regiment 35 was dissolved. It was no longer needed. The handful of operational tanks were consolidated into the 1st Battalion, which was led by Hauptmann Kästner. The battalion adjutant was Oberleutnant Grigat, the liaison officer Leutnant Badekow, the leader of the light platoon Leutnant Fintelmann and the battalion surgeon Dr. Rathke.
A tank destroyer company was formed out of the crews who no longer had tanks due to being knocked out or mechanically disabled. It was equipped with Panzerfäuste and pistols. Leutnant Schiller, who had only one arm left, led it.
Many of the rear-area services and command elements of the 4. Panzer-Division were dissolved or reduced in size. The men were fighting in the companies of Oberst Hoffmann.
Likewise, the cannoneers of Panzer-Artillerie-Regiment 103, who no longer had guns, and the combat engineers of Panzer-Pionier-Bataillon 79, who no longer had vehicles, fought among the thinned ranks of the 12th. Stragglers from all branches were collected and continuously fed to Hoffmann’s regiment. Despite that, it was not unusual to see companies with a trench strength of fifteen to twenty men.
So that was our “boulder”: a colorfully patched-together Panzergrenadier-Regiment 12 and a single tank battalion that had only a few operational vehicles and little ammunition.
But that cobbled-together bunch, that final offering, dug into the ruins of the dying city and defended every house like a fortress. The Russians assaulted, over and over again, and laid down barrage fires with heavy weapons. So much so, that none of the men had any time to think about it all.
The indigestible portion of this “crumb”4 was the unbroken will to deny the overwhelming enemy the way to the harbors and the docking points of the ferries, where thousands upon thousands waited, for as long as possible.
A defensive line had been established around the former regimental command post. We were in holes on a rise, which might have been the Zigankenberg, like the name of the locality below us.
Hauptmann Kahle and Hauptmann Scalmat, the always happy East Prussian, were killed in the houses of the command post.
Leutnant Graf5 von Moltke was a few hundred meters in front of us with his grouping of tanks, not allowing Ivan to approach by a single meter.
Oberst Christern prepared to depart; he was entrusted with the Kampfgruppe in Gotenhafen. The Russians had broken through as far as the Baltic on 22 March at Zappot. They had separated Gotenhafen from the rest of the defenses.
The commander said a hearty goodbye to each of the men, since he knew it was a permanent departure.
A yellow sulphuric smoke cloud hung over the roofs of the inner city. It kept turning darker and even more threatening. Oberst Christern left it up to me, whether I wanted to go to Gotenhafen with him or remain with the 1st Battalion as its signals officer. I could not make up my mind. In the end, however, I decided to remain with my comrades.
“But you’ll come with me a little way?”
I couldn’t turn him down, even though I had no great desire to go to the harbor through the hail of Russian shells raining down on Danzig. There were too many powerful experiences that bound us together. We had had our moments but, in the end, we had gotten along tremendously.
The commander mounted his radio vehicle for the last time. The radio remained shut off. Who were supposed to speak with, anyway? There was no longer a Panzer-Regiment 35.
There was rubble on the road. It was burning everywhere. The city was almost devoid of humans. The façade of an unscathed church rose in front of us. The Oberst asked for us to stop. He dismounted and asked the driver and me to accompany him into the church. That, too! What, after all, did he want there?
We walked into the semidarkness of a nave, which still had not suffered much from the war. The Oberst looked around him, searching. Then there was a subtle smile on his face. Gazing at me silently, he indicated I should sit on a pew. He then went with the driver and climbed the spiral staircase to the gallery.
I sat somewhat ill-at-ease on the heavy, brown-with-age oak pew and heard the seething of the war outside. All of a sudden, I was startled. The organ boomed, overpowered the melody of murder, and let me completely forget the war. A strange mood overcame me. The gloomy church appeared bright all of a sudden. I knew that the Oberst was a masterful and passionate musician, but I was hearing him play the organ for the first time. And how he played! From the melodic rush of the battle he transitioned slowly to more playful strains, which allowed me to remember the carefree days of peacetime. All of the misery around me sank: war and death; destruction and horror. The awe-inspiring melodies allowed me to believe in a future again.
Could there be a tomorrow for the War Damned? Would we experience a time when we no longer had to kill in order not to be killed ourselves?
I don’t know how look I listened and dreamed. The Oberst tapped me on the shoulder and brought me back to a rough reality. His face looked transformed.
We mounted the SPW without saying a word. Gradually, I started to hear the shooting again.
At the harbor, the Oberst said a short good-bye, turned away rapidly, and boarded the motorboat waiting for him. He didn’t wave, either. And I forgot to salute. He was looking straight ahead. In his thoughts, he was probably already contemplating his new mission.
The booming of the organ echoed in me for a long time. It drowned out the war and the suffering and the despair as we moved back by ourselves to our comrades in the SPW. Who of the two of us had drawn the better lot: the Oberst or me?
Command and control as practiced from up front in an armored vehicle—in this case, an Sd.Kfz 251 SPW.
As the Allies gained air superiority on all fronts—air supremacy in the West after June 1944—close-in air defense became increasingly important. Here is a half-tracked prime mover, well camouflaged and mounting a quad 20-millimeter rapid-fire cannon.
The tank commander of a Panzer V “Panther” observes his sector from a well-camouflaged vehicle.
A platoon of Panthers Ausf. G’s on the move. These are very late-production vehicles as indicated by the reinforced straight bottom section of the gun mantlet. This modification prevented shells from deflecting into the thinner armor of the top of the hull.
Despite the overall superiority of the Panther—some observers consider it the best medium tank of the war—the vehicle was not produced fast enough to keep up with attrition on all the fronts. In addition, chronic fuel and other logistical shortages toward the end of the war often forced the Germans to blow up their own vehicles rather than let them be captured by the Allies. Although this photograph was not originally captioned, the type of destruction sustained to the vehicle—splayed gun tube and tremendous damage in the engine compartment—indicates that it might have been demolished by its own crew.
1 Translator’s Note. Neue Welt was essentially a suburb of Danzig. It translates as “New World,” but since it is a place name, it has been retained in the original German.
2 Translator’s Note. In 1944, many of the infantry divisions redesignated and reorganized their reconnaissance battalions (Aufklärungs-Abteilung) into so-called Füsilier battalions. In essence, they remained reconnaissance battalions, but they were frequently augmented with additional firepower and mobility.
3 Translator’s Note. The title translates as Operation Rescue . There is no record of an English translation of this book.
4 Translator’s Note. The original German uses Brocken, which has two meanings. In the first instance, it is the “boulder” described at the beginning of the passage. In the second, it is the “crumb” mentioned here. Thus, the usage in the original German is ironic.
5 Translator’s Note. Graf = count.