I Drove A Nazi Tank (Nov, 1941)
Every time I see the word maneuver I think of this.
I Drove A Nazi Tank
by Ernst Freiherr von Jungenfeld
German Tank Corps Commander
(The following remarkable story, containing an eyewitness account of the first actual tank battle ever staged, is translated from the “Berliner Illustriete Zeitung.” Although written from an obviously German viewpoint, it is published because of its highly instructive value to all students of mechanized warfare—The Editor.)
IT IS May 9, 1940.
We get our orders at five o’clock in the afternoon to be ready to roll in six hours. At first, we thought it was just for manoeuvres, but this time it is the real thing—and, at 11 p.m., we start to move!
Our objective is Aachen, and we clatter and rumble along in the pitch blackness in order to be there before midnight. We make it in good time, and two hours later the general order comes through.
“The tank division,” it reads, “goes forward in three columns across the Dutch frontier, and is to reach the Maas Bridge, near Maastricht, as quickly as possible. Parachute troops are being landed at the Albert Canal, and we must rush to their help and seize the bridges. We will do as we did in Poland, where the tanks were always in the front line.”
We advance, despite resistance. The Dutch must have believed the fairy-tale that our tanks were worthless, for they try to attack them with machine-guns. But a few shots reduce them to silence. Their defenses are simple and weak. We now halt, as the enemy is firing with artillery. The bridge is blown up, so we must find another way. Lieut. Wollschlager advances toward the enemy position and fires in all directions with his heavy gun until the enemy is silenced. The first division has by now found another way, and we go via the Gulpener Berg to Margraten. There a narrow bridge must be crossed by all vehicles. A nearby wooden bridge looks all right, and several tanks take it, but it is mined and two blow up, fortunately the crews miraculously escaping injury.
Our tank engineer, Lieut. Krause, nicknamed “Pikra,” discovers fifty-two large Dutch anti-tank mines. In places, artillery, anti-aircraft and tanks all meet on their way to the front. All with one thought—to the Maas and to the enemy!
The hills are passed and the Maas plain lies ahead. On the opposite side are hills on which is situated the celebrated Fort Eben Emael, which will try to stop our advance. But Eben Emael is silent, to our great joy. We are nearly in sight of Maastricht when we hear three terrific explosions, and we surmise the Dutch have blown up the bridges over the Maas and so halted our advance.
We reach them at 8:30 to protect the men who are building pontoon bridges; for on the other side of the Maas lies the Albert Canal, where our parachute comrades are fighting side by side with air-borne troops. Their fight is hard, but their greatest achievement is that an important bridge over the Canal falls into our hands undamaged, and, pro- tected by the fire of our tanks, our troops join those on the other side of the river. At the end of the first day, even though the Maas bridges were blown up, Eben Emael is silent and in our hands, the bridges over the Albert Canal are undamaged, Maastricht is occupied, and the enemy’s path to the German industrial centres is barred!
The tank regiment settles down for the night under the poplars near the Maas, and the pioneers start to build a bridge over the Maas.
Three days later we learn that a large- scale attack with several tank divisions is to take place. That is the day of the tank battle near Merdorp, and in the annals of German war history it is called the first actual tank versus tank battle. “The Army Corps attacks” is the order of the day, and at 10 a. m. we leave our positions.
We are now in Belgian territory, northwest of Luttich, and take up our positions behind the artillery. At 11 a.m. the artillery start firing and prepare our attack. Observation-posts, where our reconnaissance aircraft have seen enemy positions, are specially attacked. At noon suddenly our friends of the air, the “Stukas,” appear. They cruise like hornets round the enemy, searching for their objectives and doing reconnaissance work and find out where to unload their dangerous cargoes.
German “Stukas” rarely miss their targets, and the bombs fall where they are intended!
At 12:30 the “Stukas” have done their work. All bombs are dropped and everywhere clouds of smoke and flame form the “Stukatierten” villages. Meantime artillery fire continues at full strength. Punctually at 12:45 all the tank divisions move on and the attacks starts. Fields and pastureland lie ahead of us. The country is hilly and everywhere cut into sections by barbed-wire entanglements. Woods and small groups of trees are not to be seen anywhere. A wonderful sight greets us. German tanks attacking the enemy can be seen all around us!
So we cross the fields, mowing down the barbed-wire, and surmount the difficulties of some of the hollow paths. Soon the scenery changes and we come to woods and villages. All positions which might prove dangerous to us are kept under our artillery fire, and we leave them alone on either side of the road. All this time not a single shot is fired either from our tanks or the enemy’s, and we hope for as easy a day as yesterday.
Suddenly the enemy starts firing from Merdorp!
A short halt and we examine the scene through our field-glasses. French tanks are ahead. At last the moment has come for the new German tank to go into action. The enemy is that of the west with his huge tanks of last war and on the other side the newest creations of German technicians and German inventors manned by the fanatically keen German men of the new German tank regiments.
A dramatic attack begins.
Both sides fire hard with all their guns. This happens in a semi-circle round Merdorp. One cannot judge the effect yet. The enemy changes position from time to time, but as yet no appreciable losses are sustained by them. Even our tanks, with their heavy guns, have not achieved the hoped-for success, and so we decide to leave Merdorp on our left and to push forward to another position. In perfect formation, the regiment goes forward, but the enemy makes use of this to attack the infantry, which follows us, and to leave the village of Merdorp.
The fight now becomes very sharp. The first division seizes the opportunity to attack the enemy in the flank, and with great dash destroys eight enemy tanks. We must acknowledge that the French tanks are strong and one must work hard to get the better of them. While the first division is fighting hard against the enemy flank, the second division is in front and disables many of the enemy machines. Even when enemy tanks are not entirely disabled, our fire is so intense that it forces the men to leave their tanks and surrender. We have discovered the enemy’s weak point—their lack of manoeuvrability and the fact that they fight singly and in loose formations, not together under one command. They cannot take advantage of strength of number!
New enemy tanks appear ceaselessly and our brave men have to fight without a halt. It is like being in a witch’s cauldron, and suddenly we hear that enemy tanks are attacking us in the rear. Some French tanks have been able to do this.
“Enemy in the rear, turn and attack.”
The command has never been given to us during our practices or the hundreds of exercises we made in peacetime. We do this as if we had always done it, and in a short space of time a tank of the fifth succeeds in setting an enemy tank on fire, and fired by this success we all throw ourselves on the enemy tanks and destroy them all. Our rear is now clear of enemy tanks, and we advance again.
New tanks rush at us from the direction of the water-tower of Jandrain. It looks as if for every enemy destroyed two new ones appear. On either side of us the regiments are fighting hard, and can only advance slowly. Our ammunition is giving out and it is sad to have to tell the other crews by wireless to be sparing with theirs or not fire at all. But our spirit is unbroken. The stronger the enemy, the more intense our desire to attack.
After a short pause the second division attacks the water-tower heights. It is very difficult to attack. First a plain has to be crossed under enemy fire, then the heights must be attacked whilst under enemy fire; he is well concealed and protected by thick hedges. I, with my company, are at the head of the attack, together with Lieut. Lekschat, the chief of the brave fifth division. We race across the plain and do not notice a little hollow path and dash straight into it. As our speed was great my driver almost faints with shock, but there is no time for such happenings, and to stop now would be fatal. So Private Durr pulls himself together and we continue.
On the way to the tower I succeed in disabling one tank and in setting another afire. In the meantime the eighth, with their heavy tanks have joined us, and together we attack under the leadership of Major Schlothane the last portion of the water-tower heights. As we storm them and think we are masters of the situation, we are fired at from all sides. The heights by the tower and to the left, Jandrenouille, and to the right, Jandrain, are strongly held, and the enemy fight with desperation. From the water-tower we now see that* there are two enemy observers on the water-tower, who, although realizing their desperate position, stick to their guns to the last and are found so riddled by our bullets that their dead bodies are like sieves. We established later that they never left their guns to the last.
I find myself in a disagreeable position, for I discover just as I reach the height that cleverly hidden behind a hedge an enemy tank directs his guns at me from the rear. I vanish down my tower and order the tank to be turned toward the enemy. The enemy does the same, and I fire, only to find that my gun has jammed. Our tank is hit by the enemy tank, but it is not serious, and we continue to try to mend the gun.
A second shot, and my wireless operator is severely wounded in the back and unable to work. Durr and I work feverishly to put the gun right, when a third shot hits us. Right in the petrol-tank, which is set on fire and a huge flame shoots up toward the tower. We cannot remain in the tank, and we do not yet know how we ever got out with our wounded comrade. We were, however, able to save him and to reach cover while the fighting around us was going on. Lieut. Wollschlager had observed our fight and rushed to our assistance, but at that moment his tank was also disabled, and he had to leave it and seek cover too. While we were being attacked numerous German tanks arrived and attacked our enemy, and his tank went up in flames. A terrific battle is in progress on which our victory depends.
We will not give in for we wish to win. But for that we will need munitions. As we do not know what the battlefield in the rear is like, we only send light elements of the regiment to fetch what we need. During this time we place our tanks in a defensive line and take a little rest. As the enemy fire does not abate, we send the third company, together with patrols, to Jandrain, and these, with the help of reconnaissance patrols, mopped up enemy posts and forced them to a fight. It is a difficult job, but under the leadership of Lieut. Pfifter the company, together with patrols and engineers, succeeded in occupying Jandrain and took 400 prisoners, four guns and five tanks, and so the enemy’s flank is silenced.
An enemy tank tries to escape, but is caught in a road and the crew taken prisoner. After a short period fresh munitions and equipment arrive. Now it will be possible to achieve victory.
We set forth again. We advance to Ramillies without difficulty. The enemy is thoroughly beaten and cannot fight any more. The first and second companies join and advance quickly to Ramillies. Major Schlothane during this march even ordered practice exercise which, considering the terrific battles we had been through, shows our strength and fitness. On the way to Ramillies, reached at dusk, we passed a great number of burning and destroyed French tanks, the victims of our fight on the height near the water-tower, and we see how excellent our fire was and outstanding the results achieved.
So the great fight, tank versus tank, resulted in a great victory for us. Our regiment not only beat the enemy and pushed him back, but penetrated deeply into his lines and we destroyed 53 French tanks in two days. The enemy was strong—much stronger than we—and his tanks heavier, yet our attack and the weight of our push and the fact that we were undaunted by obstacles resulted in a great victory and completely beat him. This was the end of the first tank battle in history. We are now ready for more!