Monday, May 11, 2015

Panzermeyer at Kharkov

A briefing just prior to operations. Left to right: SS-Obersturmbannführer Meyer (commander, SS-Aufklarungs-Abteilung 1); a platoon leader in SS Panzer- Regiment 1; SS-Standartenführer- Dr. Besuden (division surgeon); SS-Obersturmbannführer Witt (commander, SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Regiment 1); and SS-Sturmbannführer Wünsche (commander, I. / SS-Panzer-Regiment 1).

Russia, February 1943. Panzermeyer and Sepp Dietrich in Kharkov

Our advance came to a halt in a brickworks just to the north of Kharkov. Just in the nick of time I noticed a good half-dozen enemy tanks in the gardens on both sides of the road. To our left a tank crew was busily engaged in removing the camouflage covering from a T-34. Machine-gun fire drove them back. The firing brought the remaining tank crews out of the houses. No one had counted on a German advance reaching that point. Despite that, it was starting to get dangerous for us. Stoll was just able to jump into another vehicle as his own had stopped. I saw the driver disappear into a haystack.

We had to go back. The first tanks moved into firing positions. We had to get out of there right away or we would come under fire from the Soviet tanks. We had advanced more than seven kilometers to the south and increased the Soviets' uncertainty. A Russian major with a stomach wound sat behind me. He really wanted to return with us. I admired the man; during the whole return trip I didn’t hear a word from him about his pain. Dr. Gatternig put the first dressing on his wound.

When we returned we found a mass of prisoners at Bolschaja Danilowka guarded by just a few soldiers. They were happy with their lot. Not a single one attempted to escape.

By midnight a considerable part of the Kampfgruppe was still missing but, during the hours of darkness, they closed up in dribs and drabs. The whole unit had assembled by 0500 hours and the entire Kampfgruppe was ready for operations.

As soon as the first gray light of the new day appeared we advanced once again in the direction of Kharkov. This time, however, it was more slowly. We rolled south, carefully scanning the terrain round us. Far to the right we could see attacking Soviets employed against the airfield. They were attacking Witt's regiment. In front of us we spotted attacking Soviet infantry that was laying as if nailed to the ground by machine-gun fire. We soon arrived at the brickworks again and found Stoll's driver uninjured. Bruno Preger had spent the night sleeping in the haystack.

The enemy tanks were still in firing positions. Five T-34s fell victim to our tanks and were soon ablaze. A Panzer IV received a direct hit and burst completely asunder. The same enemy tank that had destroyed it also scored a direct hit on my own vehicle from a range of less than fifty meters. It immediately killed my driver, Max Wertinger. The leader of our signals platoon, SS-Obersturmführer Heinz Westphal, also fell to the round; Helmut Belke was wounded and I lay unhurt beneath Max Wertinger's body. The Russian tank succeeded in escaping.

We fought our way forward, house to house. An enemy antitank crew was killed by a falling lamp post. Our tanks dominated the battlefield. Late in the afternoon of 11 March we were standing in the eastern part of Kharkov, having reached the road to Staryj.

At the moment of our victory a dangerous crisis surfaced. Our tanks had only a small amount of fuel left and could no longer be employed. They were assembled in a large graveyard and formed a "hedgehog" defensive position, creating a safe bulwark in the middle of Kharkov. From there we sent our feelers out along the Kharkov-Tschugujew road and attempted to block the Soviet's main line of retreat.

I had not had a report from the 2./SS-Aufklarungs-Abteilung 1 for some hours; it had been cutoff at the Kharkov Creek by enemy forces. Kompanie Bremer was fighting for its life and Olboetter was repelling enemy counterattacks from the east. In the cemetery we were having to defend ourselves against Soviets trying to break out. By the onset of darkness SS-Hauptscharführer Bruckmann had succeeded in bringing up fuel vehicles but, at the same time, he reported the road had been sealed off by enemy forces. (A few days later they were eliminated by elements of the 3. SS-Panzer-Division "Totenkopf'.)

Witt's regiment had broken into the town with a surprise attack from the north; it punched through to Red Square in heavy street fighting and had set up defensive positions for the night.

On 12 March the Kampfgruppe advanced several blocks and then blocked the road to Tschugujew once and for all. It was then the Soviet's turn to attack us. They wanted to overwhelm us. We were pressed together in a small area. Two platoons of Kompanie Weiser were cut off on the first floor of a school and defended themselves desperately against the Russian assault troops who had forced their way into the ground floor. An immediate counterattack under the command of Wünsche contributed to the elimination of the Russian assault troops. Once again the entire Kampfgruppe had been surrounded and was struggling in desperate fighting. A circle of burning buildings pinpointed our position in that sector of the city. By the onset of night I no longer had much hope that we could hold out until the following morning. The enemy was within hand-grenade range. While moving through our position, we suddenly spotted a tank that had pulled up right against the school building. We were less than twenty meters away from it when the tank commander leaned out of the turret trying to establish contact with soldiers on the ground. He died from Weiser's pistol round. The tank pulled away on rattling tracks with the top half of its dead commander's body hanging out of the turret.
On the night of 12 March the 2. SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Division "Das Reich" broke through the antitank ditch on the western outskirts of Kharkov and thus opened the way through to the city. The division arrived at the main train station on 12 March.

The enemy tried to break out of the encirclement en masse. He managed a stubborn resistance and dispatched new forces from northeast of the city in a relief attack. Jochen Peiper beat his way through to us with two SPW, thus establishing contact with the remainder of the division. His escort SPW was knocked out by a T-34, but he succeeded in bringing the men out to safety. We fought grimly and determinedly for each house until 14 March. By about 1800 hours we had captured the last two sectors of the city in the east and southeast. The tractor works fell on 15 March.

That same morning the 3. SS-Panzer-Division "Totenkopf' reached and blocked the narrows at Tschugujew after successful armor engagements to the north of Rogan. This blocking position had to be held over the next few days against strong enemy attempts to break out as well as counterattacks from the east. We were successful in either eliminating or capturing the bulk of the enclosed enemy forces and capturing all of his equipment.

With that, the decisive counterattack against the Russian winter offensive was completed, contact reestablished between the sectors of Heeresgruppe Slid, a considerable part of the Russian offensive strength destroyed and the rest badly beaten. In the pursuit against the enemy withdrawing to the east and north in the following days, the banks of the Donez were taken and, rounding out the victories of the SS-Panzer-Korps, Jochen Peiper captured Belgorod on 18 March. It was there that the linkup was established with Panzer-Grenadier-Division "Grossdeutschland". "Grossdeutschland" had been advancing from the west. In the past few days it had destroyed 150 Soviet tanks in heavy armor fighting.

The battle of Kharkov had been concluded victoriously despite considerable losses. In the great battle between the Donez and the Dnjepr the German grenadier had emerged victorious over the eastern hordes. Shortly before the summer offensive, I had to permanently take leave of the faithful grenadiers whom I had led for many years. I will never forget the departure from my comrades. I was ordered to report to the Armor School and then transferred to the 12. SS-Panzer-Division "Hitlerjugend."

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