Chapter 13


Unteroffizier Robert Poensgen, war correspondent with the 4. Panzer-Division

27 March 1945. What can words say when the heart wants to speak? It was an oppressive weight that bore down on all of us: the General is dead!

You back home also grew to know what war is. You cowered unsettled in bunkers and basements. Bombs burst above and around you, and you waded through sprays of fire. The cold monsters of enemy tanks rolled past you in the streets, and the march of foreign soldiers echoed in the ashes of the razed cities. You fled in endless columns in the face of the waves of the enemy. Perhaps you understand what our mood was like at the front when the war robbed us of our leader. After death took the General from us, it grasped for the very last thing we had—the courage of desperation.

You don’t understand why I say so much about the death of a single man, when thousands gave their lives daily? Because this one man was the last thing we—the 5,000 soldiers of the 4. Panzer-Division in the Danzig bridgehead—had to hold on to in the raging, unleashed Hell. If you attempt to understand, then you will be able to grasp why the effort was made to hide the death from 5,000 soldiers. But it was in vain. No measures could prevent the horrible news of his death from filtering through. You have to understand why that news had, as a consequence, the fact that groups of fighting men, who had previously held out bitterly, suddenly turned weak and important positions were lost. It is only then that you will understand that in hours such as those in that unparalleled battle of attrition that it is not materiel that dominates, but men.

I knew the General for nearly a year. It was the same amount of time that he led our 4. Panzer-Division.

It was in May 1944. The days of Kovel were already behind us, and the glasses in the bunkers of the division staff clinked in honor of the departing commander, who had been summoned to a higher position. Next to Generalleutnant von Saucken, whose Oak Leaves and Swords glittered between his gold-embroidered collar tabs, was his successor, Oberst Betzel, the former commander of our artillery regiment, Panzer-Artillerie-Regiment 103.

The cool gray eyes almost looked a little cold looking into the festive surroundings. It might have been that he was thinking of the great responsibility that lay ahead of him or the fact that he was sad to see the General go.

He was certainly well aware that he would have a damned difficult time in being a worthy successor to an armored commander, who was well known throughout the army.

At first, things were quiet. For an entire month, the vehicle of the Oberst, which then bore the black-white-red triangular pennant of the division commander, rolled through peaceful countryside. He saw soldiers training and firing at targets; he saw tanks, which had every bolt gleaming; and guns that seem to have already forgotten the roar of battle.

But then, in the last days of June, the radio sets crackled and the motorcycle messengers stirred up the dust along the roads. Time to move! Herr Oberst, show us what you can do!

On 1 July, at the same time that the division was rolling towards the great summer fighting in White Russia, the division tailor was sewing the collar tabs and shoulder boards of a general officer on the uniform of the commander.

There was no toast, no ceremonial formation . . . hardly anyone among the troops in the field heard about the promotion. They were decisively engaged in the fight against the gigantic approaching enemy.

The forces were not familiar with the actual orders that they carried out, but the simple soldier, the man who doubted, questioned and was always ready to complain, knew that it was a firm hand that led him.

The simple soldier did not spend a lot of time thinking about the how and the why. It was simply something that was. But he also went into battle with confidence that someone was there who thought and ordered with him in mind. It was no different with the officers. In their case, however, their knowledge was based more on facts. Every day, they read the orders in their entirety or in excerpts that the newly promoted General had signed in his clear and firm signature.

His deep bass voice was a lubricant against the rough waves of excitement. As a result, there was an over-all satisfaction with him that settled in.

July was a difficult month for everyone. Pull back . . . halt . . . pull back . . . halt! Every day, ten to twenty kilometers back. In the morning, there was a cohesive front. In the evening, the division jutted into the assaulting mass of the enemy. Graves and destroyed vehicles marked the path of the division. Despite that, it remained a cohesive whole, both to the outside and on the inside. At no time did the General lose control. That was saying something in that July 1944 in the center of the Eastern Front, when regiments, divisions, corps, and even entire field armies were shattered under the vicious blows of the enemy.

An offensive operation, carefully planned and executed with aplomb, restored the ripped-apart front. Then there was a single jump more than 100 kilometers to the rear. Swinging out widely, the division hit the Soviet III Tank Corps outside of Warsaw with a deadly blow.

The location of the fighting changed; the men remained the same. Latvia then became the ground, across which the tanks of the division rolled. Attack on Autz; opening of the supply routes to Riga; establishment of a cohesive front. The large-scale Russian offensive in the north came to a standstill.

During those days, General von Saucken met up with Betzel again. The commanding general presented his successor with the Knight’s Cross on 7 September 1944.

The men thought: Now we have a proper General. Ever since Poland, there had not been a commander of the division, who had not received the prestigious award. And they were proud of it, since they knew that they had contributed their part in his getting the award.

Fall passed. A Soviet breakthrough to the Baltic cut the Latvian front off from the territory of the Reich. The “Kurland bridgehead” developed. Operation followed operation. The 4. Panzer-Division was always and everywhere in the thick of things. Maintain composure—that was the highest imperative at the time.

The third Kurland battle was raging. The ranks of the old fighters had been thinned. A young crop took its place. Like thunder, the bellowing bass of the General could be heard: “Here, boy, get down here . . . you have cover here!”

The bursts of the Russian machine guns and the earth fountains from the impacting rounds crashed down on the lightly armored and shaking vehicle, where the erect General stood erect.

At the end of January, the 4. Panzer-Division was moved to the highly threatened homeland by ship. Offering tough and bitter resistance, coupled with thousands of tricks, the division stood in the path of the advancing Russians in the Tuchel Heath and in East Pomerania. Betzel’s tactic of forming points of main effort proved itself over and over again.

On 12 March, a telegram from the Army High Command arrived at the command post in Zappot: “In recognition of his service and his heroic devotion to duty, I award General Betzel the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross.”

The division was overjoyed, but it had to be celebrated quietly, since it was once again fighting with an enemy, who was superior in terms of numbers of men and materiel. The fighting was for Danzig this time, a city for which the disastrous war had started and around which the final main effort would be formed. Once again, the commander was Betzel; this time, the commander in chief of the field army was Panzer General von Saucken, who had entrusted the command of the division to Betzel ten months earlier.

Danzig was hell on earth. A city that had previously shown no signs of war had been transformed in the space of a week into a field of rubble. The remnants of three divisions dug into that rubble. They knew there were hundreds of thousands of refugees to their rear and still among them. The soldiers had to protect them with their bodies from the flood of the surging Russian waves. They knew that for every hour they offered resistance, hundreds would find their way into ships and to safety. And the divisions fought and held. All contact with the corps and the field army was lost. With a single voice, the division commanders named General Betzel as the leader of Kampfgruppe Danzig and voluntarily placed themselves under his command.

The pile of rubble called Danzig lay under a fearful hail of bombs and heavy-caliber artillery. Untold numbers of Russian tanks ground their way through the streets with clattering tracks and against the German defenders, who had to pull back, step-by-step, against the oppressive numbers as the result of a lack of fuel and ammunition.

General Betzel went from regiment to regiment, battalion to battalion, all the time in order to take the necessary steps at the spot they were required. He had his vehicle halt in the vicinity of the freight yards. He jumped like a grenadier from cover to cover through the inferno of the barrage. There was a command post in the basement of a shattered house, an outpost at the door.

“Come on, go down a few steps towards the basement. The air’s too iron rich up here!” the General muttered.

“Herr General, you’re outside, too!” the man replied.

A few minutes later, the General left the command post and was springing back towards his SPW. He had almost reached it, when the horrified outpost soldier, who had returned to his duty station and was looking back towards the General, saw the broad-shouldered figure in the colorfully camouflaged jacket collapse under a pitch-black, flame-spewing cloud that came from the impact of a heavy shell.

The General was lying close to his vehicle. A large piece of shrapnel had hit his head. The life of a great troop leader was suddenly extinguished. It was 1600 hours on 27 March 1945.

The grief for our commander, our comrade, and our friend choked us. Despondency descended on all who heard the news. A heavy burden fell on all of us. What can words say when the heart wants to speak?

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