Oberst Heinrich Eberbach, commander of the 5. Panzer-Brigade and, as of 5 January 1942, acting commander of the 4. Panzer-Division

On 30 September, our tanks broke through the Russian positions at Gluchow. The heavy enemy combat vehicles there were eliminated by means of fire to the flanks or rear. In an exceptional assault, they raced 200 kilometers by 3 October, when they took the metropolis of Orel against extremely tough Russian attacks from the air and resistance by an enemy airborne regiment.

What fell into the hands of the division in Orel in terms of supplies were enough to last the entire 2. Armee six weeks. The morale of the men, who had achieved that success, was confident; they were certain of victory.

But from 4 to 7 October, during the advance on Mzensk, our tanks encountered a Russian tank brigade, which was exclusively outfitted with heavy tanks—T-34’s and KV-I’s. The steel giants were overwhelmingly superior to our Panzer III’s and Panzer IV’s. The Russian crews were well trained and well led.

I had to give my soldiers, who were accustomed to victory, the order to pull back twice in order to avoid being destroyed. Friendly casualties were high; morale had sunk. The road network had been softened up by rain; indeed, it seemed bottomless. The snowstorm that immediately followed added even more to an already difficult situation. For the first time, Russian rocket launchers were used in battle.

After slight gains, the attack of the entire 4. Panzer-Division bogged down on 9 October.

When the division finished reorganizing and another attack on Mzensk was ordered for 10 October, I could see in the eyes of my men that they thought the attack had no chance of success and that their trust in me as their commander was shaken for the first time in the campaign, since I had not refused to carry out the order.

When the city was taken on that same day by the tank brigade, it was only thanks to a desperate attack in a snowstorm. For the next few days, it remained uncertain whether Mzensk and its important bridgehead over the Suscha could be held against the superior Russian numbers. The 4. Panzer-Division no longer had the combat power to drive the Russians from the dominant high ground north of the city, which featured dug-in tanks in its defenses in some cases.

Despite a success gained through deceiving the enemy, the feeling of superiority over the enemy had been shaken to the core for the first time in the war. How had it been possible for the supreme command not to know about the existence of the new Russian tanks? Why hadn’t the tank development plans long since proposed by Guderian been realized? How was the fight to be continued against the T-34’s, the KV-I’s and the KV-II’s with our worn-out crates?

It was not until the entire 2. Panzer-Armee had been concentrated that the Russian front could be rolled up despite the mud period, assisted effectively by Stukas and by bypassing the enemy positions on the high ground. The concentrated armor forces of Generaloberst Guderian then struck to the north. The wheeled vehicles, however, remained bogged down in mud up to their axles.

The troops had the feeling that no one in higher headquarters knew anything about the mud period in Russia and no one gave much thought as to what effect it was having. The losses in materiel were large. The city of Tula, which was right on our path, could not be taken, despite all efforts, because the artillery did not have enough tubes up front and not enough ammunition was coming forward as a result of the mud. It was not until there was a freeze that the advance continued, bypassing Tula.

At the beginning of December, despite all of the difficulties, the lead elements of the 2. Panzer-Armee were outside of Kashira, sixty kilometers south of Moscow. With their last drops of fuel, the remaining tanks of the 4. Panzer-Division reached the Serpuchow-Tula road. At that point, only fifteen kilometers separated them from the lead elements of the XXXXIII. Armee-Korps, which were advancing east to link up with us and finish the encirclement of Tula.

The thermometer registered 40 below. The XXXXIII. Armee-Korps never came. Instead, the shrunken 4. Panzer-Division was ceaselessly attacked from the north by fresh Siberian divisions that had been brought in from the east.

As cold as it was, the tanks would not start; the gun optics fogged over and iced up; the oil in the guns, automatic weapons and engines was as stiff as artificial honey. The recoil mechanisms jammed; the bolts of the machine guns, submachine guns and rifles no longer moved. The troops were exposed to that cold and the knee-deep snow without winter uniforms. The widely extended front, with Tula to the rear, could not be held. Guderian had to issue orders to retreat.

Retreat without fuel? That’s impossible! That meant the tanks, the prime movers and the guns all had to be blown up; that the trucks with all of their valuable contents had to be abandoned! The telephones were ringing off the hook. We couldn’t pull back. That meant losing all of our heavy equipment! Reply: pull back . . . pull back immediately! Blow up or set immobilized heavy weapons and vehicles on fire!

The officers and men could not comprehend what was happening. Destroy our own tanks . . . guns . . . Flak? No, that couldn’t be true! That would be a unique triumph for the enemy and a moral catastrophe for us of the first magnitude. And how were we supposed to defend ourselves then? Were our men supposed to stop T-34’s with their rifles and pistols? A look at the map had to show the higher officers the absurdity of the order!

Despite all that, the disengagement from the enemy succeeded. There was still enough fuel there for a tank company and for a few prime movers and guns. They provided for a disciplined retreat, together with the riflemen.

The men, who no longer had any vehicles, requisitioned panje ponies and sleds. They loaded the machine guns and mortars on them, which they did not want to throw away. It paid dividends that a large portion of the Panzertruppe originally came from the cavalry.

We reached the Suscha, in spite of all of the difficulties. The infantry established a defensive position on the hills north of Mzensk. But we knew that the German front line was pulling back everywhere. We knew from bitter experience what that meant at 40 below.

To the north of the 2. Panzer-Armee, an entire Russian field army had broken through to the west through a gap that emerged as a result of the withdrawal. Portions of a German division had been encircled in Suchinitschi. The Russian forces were advancing far to the rear and deep flanks of our field army. Would the enemy be able to take Brjansk, cut off our supplies and encircle our army? The partisans were already making the woods to our rear treacherous and laying waste to some supply trains.

You had to think about the fate of Napoleon’s Grande Armee. The conversations of Napoleon with Caulaincourt during the flight from Moscow made the rounds among the officers. We had become all too well acquainted with the Russians. Don’t fall into their hands alive! You carried a pistol in your pants pocket. Seven bullets for the Russians and one for yourself!

For the first time, we discovered we were not invincible. For the first time, we saw the supreme command fail us. We were burnt out, exhausted and frozen to the bone.

And it was just at that moment—on 1 January 1942—that the supreme command took away the man who had led us from victory to victory and who enjoyed our complete trust, the commander in chief of the 2. Panzer-Armee, Generaloberst Guderian. Even during the retreat, he had kept our personnel losses to bearable levels thanks to his superior tactics. The man, who had pointed out the mistakes of the supreme command on numerous occasions and who had become a thorn in the side, was relieved and sent away as a scapegoat.

What we did retain, however, was an unprecedented comradeship that permeated the ranks and a loyalty to our company, our regiment and our division, which had become our homeland in enemy territory.

The men did not despair. That was the miracle. They trusted their officers. And whenever they looked into the eyes of their soldiers they knew that they could still rely on them whenever they were prepared—as they always had been up to then—to always and everywhere take care of the men entrusted to them. In plain terms, it meant that the leaders of those little companies had to always come up with something in order to get out of that damnable situation. And for the immediate future, we were still helplessly exposed to the Russian winter.

A new front had to be established. But it was storming and snowing. The temperatures were almost always 30 to 40 below, and even 50 below was no rare reading.

The cold had long since forced us into the panje huts, in which the Russian families coexisted with the chickens, the pig, the bugs and the lice in a horrible but nonetheless warm stink. The vermin would not leave us alone. It was only due to the fact that we were completely exhausted that we were able to sleep at all.

We slowly learned that you had to carry the bolts of your machine guns and rifles in your pants pockets and that petroleum instead of grease had to be used. Every company “procured” a number of snow overgarments. The men quickly learned how to protect themselves from frostbite. They checked each other out to make sure ears and noses were not turning white. They saw how the Russians used paper to keep warm and did the same. Some even started wearing Russian sheepskin coats or felt boots.

The dozen tanks that had been saved were whitewashed. But their tracks, much too narrow for the Russian winter, caused them to still bottom out in the snow. The riflemen had to create a path for them. It was not until that was done that they could follow behind like assault guns and give cover. In contrast, the Russian T-34 moved unimpeded through the snow, leaving a white flag of snow spray behind it as it moved.

The trains, which had shrunk in size due to the loss of so many vehicles, were combed for soldiers who were suitable for frontline employment. The men coming from the trains already had experience in Russia, thus providing us with our best replacements.

We learned from the Russians how to emplace mines in the snow. We also discovered that good, old wire provided the most secure and best form of communications in that kind of cold, even if the partisans frequently cut it.

A few excerpts from the surviving daily logs of the 4. Panzer-Division will shed some light in a sober fashion on our situation:

8 December 1941: Fuel for the continued march to the rear presently available only within Artillerie-Regiment 103.

9 December 1941: Due to a lack of fuel, the II./[Schützen-Regiment] 33 cannot be rushed to help the 296. Infanterie-Division. Catastrophic road network conditions.

11 December 1941: The I./Artillerie-Regiment 103 has been disbanded in order to plus-up the II./Artillerie-Regiment 103. The road has been cleared of snowdrifts and iced-over portions made trafficable.

12 December 1941: One platoon of tanks—three vehicles—sent to support the 296. Infanterie-Division.

13 December 1941: Urgent request to the commander of the 296. Infanterie-Division: Recover stuck tanks under all circumstances.

14 December 1941: Panzer-Kompanie Wollschläger (rest of Panzer-Regiment 35) has only eight Panzer III’s operational. Two tanks had to be blown up in the sector of the 296. Infanterie-Division. Roads and trails completely iced over.

15 December 1941: Heavy snowstorm. Reinforced Schützen-Regiment 33 establishes a passage point for the 3. Panzer-Division north of Lapokowo along the Ssolowa River.

16 December 1941: Over the last few days, the number of vehicles has sunk again. If continued marches off the roads are required, then additional considerable losses must be assumed. A large portion of the vehicles still left have to be towed. . . .

After extensive combat, the 296. Infanterie-Division is completely burnt out and apathetic. It is to be assumed that the Russians will break through there.

17 December 1941: Strong enemy forces advancing through a gap in the sector of the 167. Infanterie-Division. The II./[Schützen-Regiment] 33 has been attached to the 112. Infanterie-Division and is turning back enemy attacks.

20 December 1941: Elements of the [divisional] artillery without transportation constitute 500 men at this point.

21 December 1941: Contagious sicknesses among the Russian populace in numerous localities.

23 December 1941: Screening line south of Orel occupied. Improvement of the positions underway. Snowdrifts. Another company of the II./[Schützen-Regiment] 33 disbanded due to low personnel strength.

During the last week of December, strong Russian forces advanced on Kosjolsk. The forces of the 4. Panzer-Division that were still mobile were directed to Kosjolsk to occupy and hold it. The order could not be executed, because the forces remained stuck in the snow on the way from Belew to Kosjolsk. The men suffered terribly day and night as a result of the cold.

The dismounted elements of the 4. Panzer-Division had grown to 2,000 men in the meantime. As much as was possible, they were consolidated into sled battalions. Artillerie-Regiment 103 had only three heavy and six light guns left.

The 4. Panzer-Division was pulled back to Belew and Bolchow to serve as the “fire brigade” for the LIII. Armee-Korps.

A Russian rifle division had crossed the Oka east of Bolchow and was advancing towards it. The road used to supply all of the infantry divisions north of Bolchow was under fire. Our division was directed to throw the enemy back across the Oka. Could it do that with the emaciated forces it still had available?

But Oberst von Saucken launched one of his famous pincers attacks with Schützen-Regiment 12 and Schützen-Regiment 33. The Russian division was delivered a devastating blow. A second Russian division suffered the same fate. Their remnants were tossed back across the Oka. Oberst von Saucken, who personally led these attacks, was badly wounded in the process. A serious loss for the division!

The spoils of war obtained from the Russian were considerable. Shedding some light on the over-all situation among the individual German divisions is the report of the 4. Panzer-Division concerning German weapons that were recaptured: four heavy and six light field pieces; one heavy and two light infantry guns; three heavy and two light mortars; and sixteen machine guns. As a result, the division was able to reduce its losses in weaponry considerably.

The losses we suffered did not reflect a tenth of those suffered by the Russians, but they were considerable, considering the shrunken state of our division: 6 officers and 81 enlisted personnel killed; 15 officers and 215 enlisted personnel wounded. Although a battalion of replacements made up the numbers, the fighters with experience in Russia were not so easily replaced.

On 7 January, the 4. Panzer-Division, whose acting commander I became after the wounding of Oberst von Saucken, received the following orders.

Two Russian infantry divisions and a cavalry division are marching from the northeast towards the deep flank of the 2. Panzer-Armee. Brjansk and even Roslawl, our logistics points, are threatened. The 4. Panzer-Division will be relieved in place east of Bolchow by the 17. Panzer-Division.

The motorized elements of the division—consisting of the division headquarters, the I./[Schützen-Regiment] 33 (sled battalion), the II./[Artillerie-Regiment] 103, Panzerpionier-Bataillon 79, Panzerjäger-Abteilung 49, and the 1st Battalion of Nebelwerfer-Regiment 53—will move from Karatschew to Chwastowitschi on 8 January. Employment to the north, initially in the direction of Kzyn, is planned. Oberst von Lüttwitz is in charge of bringing up the remaining elements of the division. But these orders were overcome by the continued successes of the Russians and the snowdrifts.

On 10 January, the Russians encircled Gruppe Gilsa in Suchinitsci (north of Brjansk). Oberst von Lüttwitz, commanding his reinforced Schützen-Regiment 12, advanced to free the encircled forces. His regiment, attached to the 18. Panzer-Division of Generalmajor Nehring, advanced from Brjansk to the north. The remaining elements assembled in Brjansk, whose defense was entrusted to the acting divisional commander (Eberbach).

Necessity forced the troop elements to be turned topsy-turvy. Individual battalions and even companies were attached to threatened divisions and remained there for weeks on end. For instance, attached to Gruppe von Lüttwitz was the III./Panzer-Regiment 18 (four tanks and dismounted elements) as well as a company from Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 27.

The first infantry divisions arrived from France, where they had had a relatively warm and comfortable existence. In some cases, they received good winter clothing on their way east. Despite that, the immediate jump into the hard Russian winter hit them mercilessly. They suffered considerably more cases of frostbite that the experienced Russia divisions. Until they had acclimated to fighting in Russia, there were occasional disappointing setbacks. Individual commanders were relieved.

It was imperative to defeat the Russian field army that had advanced north of Brjansk and establish a new front line. Would it be possible to do that in the face of such cold and the increasingly more severe snowstorms?

Gruppe Grolig, the reinforced Schützen-Regiment 33, was in Chwastowitschi. On 20 January, the divisional headquarters received orders to move there, assume command of Gruppe Grolig, and advance north while securing its own flanks. The 134. Infanterie-Division was directed to advance along the right, while the 211. Infanterie-Division was to the left. Attached or in direct support of the 4. Panzer-Division were:

Bataillon Bradel (consolidated Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 7 and Kradschützen-Bataillon 34)

Infanterie-Regiment 446 with two batteries in support, a total of 4 guns [134. Infanterie-Division]

III./Artillerie-Regiment 103 with an attached rocket-launcher battery

Pionier-Bataillon 41 with two companies and augmented by the 3./Kradschützen-Bataillon 40

Pionier-Bataillon 10 with two companies

Feldersatz-Bataillon 84 with two companies (140 men)

Panzer-Kompanie Wollschläger with eight Panzer III’s

Panzer-Kompanie Kestner with two Panzer IV’s, three Panzer III’s, and two Panzer II’s

Because of a blown-up bridge and temperatures of 44 below, the division headquarters did not reach Chwastowitschi until 21 January. The available forces were spread out around the surrounding villages. The intent was to secure them but also to provide sufficient warm quarters for the men.

The thermometer registered 44 below again on 22 January. The villages of Dudorowskij and Moilowo were reported as enemy occupied by our patrols. Panzer-Kompanie Wollschläger advanced toward Dudorowskij and temporarily ejected the Russians from the village.

But a platoon from Infanterie-Regiment 446 in Jaschinskij, which had not set up sufficient security for itself due to the cold, was overrun by a Russian squadron, reinforced by partisans, and wiped out. Only two wounded men survived. In contrast, a night attack by the Russians on Kzyn, which was turned back, saw eighty Russians and numerous weapons left behind.

On 24 January, the 18. Panzer-Division, to which our Gruppe von Lüttwitz was attached, relieved Gruppe Gilsa and a number of wounded and sick in Suchinitschi.

Infanterie-Regiment 446, which was attached to the 4. Panzer-Division, took the village of Moilowo after hard house-to-house fighting.

On 25 January, the field army ordered the division to quickly take the village of Chatkowo. It was to be assisted by the I./Infanterie-Regiment 317 [211. Infanterie-Division], coming from Debrik. But the infantry battalion was still a great distance away, and the snowstorm barely allowed supplies to be brought forward.

Despite all that, the villages of Brussny and Ssusseja, which were heavily occupied, were taken on 28 January; Panzer-Kompanie Wollschläger advanced as far as Chatkowo. As the result of antitank guns and mines, it lost three tanks and was unable to reach Chatkowo, which was also heavily occupied.

On 29 January, heavy snowfall made any larger-scale movements impossible. The division urgently requested the support of a snowplow, since any further advance was unthinkable without it.

On 30 January, the division ordered an attack on Chatkowo for 31 January. It was to be conducted by Pionier-Bataillon 41, a sharp battalion, and the 3rd Company of Kradschützen-Bataillon 40, all supported by artillery and rocket launchers.

Debrik, located to the west of Chatkowo, was taken, but it had to be evacuated immediately, since the Russians had burned down all the houses. The attack on Chatkowo did not succeed, and the formations suffered two dead and fifteen wounded. A few prisoners were taken, however, and they stated that Chatkowo was occupied by the 1167th Rifle Regiment, which numbered about 2,000 men. The Russian regiment was also supported by heavy weapons.

It was imperative to take the village, which dominated the entire area, if we intended to establish a new front. More forces needed to be employed to that end. The attack had to take place from several sides and the artillery and other support of the operation had to be considerable. That meant that ammunition had to be brought forward, and all available guns brought into position.

Although Trosna was wrested from the Russians on 1 February, the continuing snowfalls and snowstorms made all of the roads untrafficable. The snow was already a meter high. The snowdrifts reached up to two meters and beyond. Once again, the division sent an urgent request for a snowplow. When would it come? Would it even come?

The attack on Chatkowo was planned down to the last detail and earmarked for 3 February. But the ammunition did not arrive. On 4 February, the snowplow, which had finally arrived, cleared the supply routes. Despite that, the chest-high snow continued to provide the division with concerns.

It was intended for reinforced Bataillon Bradel (Panzeraufklärungs-Abteilung 7 and Kradschützen-Bataillon 34) to advance through the woods east of Chatkowo and force its way into the village from there. Pionier-Bataillon 41, reinforced by the 2./Pionier-Bataillon 10 and the3./Kradschützen-Bataillon 40, was to attack Chatkowo frontally from the south. At the same time, it was intended for Infanterie-Regiment 317 to move out form Debrik, that is, from the west, to slam into Chatkowo.

The few tanks could only provide fire from the roads. The main effort of the attack was with Bataillon Bradel, since it was able to directly attack the first few houses in its part of the village from the woods. The engineers and the infantry, on the other hand, had to work their way forward across open terrain and deep snow.

Another concern was the command and control of the three attack wedges during the attack. Everything had been discussed in detail, but the terrific cold did not allow radio communications, since the batteries would immediately freeze. That meant wire had to be laid. But how often would the lines be shot up and ripped apart?

Under those circumstances, how could we risk such an attack operation? Because the possession of the village of Chatkowo was important. Moreover, we had learned over the previous weeks that the Russians would most likely not hold out against a well-planned pincers operation. Further, a seamlessly executed attack meant the enemy could be ejected without too high of casualties.

The attack, which was supposed to have started at 0800 hours, was delayed for an hour, because the artillery was still not ready to fire because of the high snow. By then, Bataillon Bradel had worked its way through the woods and close to the village. Waiting an hour at 35 below must have been a torture for the men. Finally . . . after an eternity, everything was ready. Bradel entered Chatkowo with élan, and our artillery did not husband its ammunition.

The acting division commander moved to the front on skis. He saw that the righthand attack wedge was moving slowly forward. Where were the other attack groups? The sound of heavy fighting could be heard coming from Debrik. That meant that the I./Infanterie-Regiment 317 was engaged. I hoped that the battalion commander was sending at least one company forward towards Chatkowo to support Bradel. But the landlines to him were broken. Bradel reported that his men were fighting numerically vastly superior enemy forces and that he urgently needed support. Where was the engineer battalion? The acting division commander skied to Ssusseja. The battalion was in readiness there. Through a misunderstanding, it had not moved out. The companies immediately started to move out. Drivers and clerks shoveled the road clear for the four tanks. It was 1100 hours.

The Front in March 1942.

There were still sounds of heavy fighting coming from Debrik—and there was still no communications. It was enough to drive you crazy! Finally, the signaleers got it fixed. The battalion had been involved in a merciless woodland fight, which was finally decided in its favor. The acting division commander ordered the battalion commander to finally attack in the direction of Chatkowo with at least some forces so as not to leave the men fighting there in the lurch.

The artillery reported that the Russians were pulling back to the north with at least two of their three battalions and two artillery pieces. Those forces were being effectively engaged by our howitzers. The infantry in Debrik might have been able to interdict those forces.

It was not until 1500 hours that the division could report that the eastern and western portions of Chatkowo had been taken. The central portion of the village was still occupied by weak forces; the northern part was still strongly occupied.

The infantry battalion reached the northwestern edge of the hotly contested locality. All of the battalions cleared the village in a bitter house-to-house struggle. By 1630 hours, Chatkowo was firmly in our hands. Bataillon Bradel, which had borne the main burden of the fighting, had lost three officers and sixty men. It was pulled out of the line and sent to Ssusseja. The artillery had fired 1,160 rounds, and it had been effective. The Russian casualties were considerably more than the German ones. The main thing, however, was the fact that the men had learned that they could still advance, even against strong enemy forces.

The possession of Chatkowo paid dividends. It allowed Duderowskij to be recaptured on 11 February with minimal casualties. On 12 February, Wessniny was retaken; Klinzy on the following day. On 23 February, even Tschernytschi was retaken by the 211. Infanterie-Division, supported by the 4. Panzer-Division.

Our forces were then able to establish a defensive position along the Resseta. The efforts by the Russians to achieve a breakthrough along the front of the 2. Panzer-Armee had been thwarted after hard fighting. As a result, the combat troops had won back their combat morale.

The unbelievable had been achieved by a colorful assemblage of ad hoc units. The German forces had caught themselves after a severe setback using only the bare necessities in materiel and under terrible weather conditions. Once again, they proved themselves to be superior to a brave and determined enemy.

Whether Obergefreiter, Hauptmann, or General, they had all done their part.

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