|A PANTHER IN RETREAT IN NORMANDY|
A PANTHER IN RETREAT IN NORMANDY
By Fritz Langanke
(Herr Langanke was a Mark V Panther tank commander and officer candidate in 2d company, 2nd SS Panzer Regiment 'Das Reich' in June-July of 1944 in Normandy)In his own words Transcribed by Mark Bando
The last July days in 1944 brought the final decisive battles at the foot of the Cotentin Peninsula. Breakthrough, encirclement, breakout, made the situation for fighting units and rear echelon, extremely involved. Single actions became ever so more the main fighting activities. Desperately, commanders of all levels tried to keep their units under control, execute orderly disengagement's, and withdraw to new defense lines. Failing and steadfastness, panic and determined performance of one's duty, giving oneself up and surpassing ourselves in hopeless situations, all these features transformed these days into a cauldron of whirling and overwhelming events. And every man fate had thrown into these stupendous happenings, will keep this period especially in his remembrance.
During that dramatic stretch of time, I was platoon leader in 2d company SS Panzer Regiment 'Das Reich'. We had crashed through the American encirclement in a fierce night attack northwest of Percy, wandered about between German and American columns in the Villedieu/La Haye-Pesnil area, and had finally made it the following night to get to our regimental command post, somewhere north of Villedieu. The promise of our C.O. Ostubaf. Enseling to be allowed a good rest after more than two days without nearly any sleep at all wasn't worth anything. About three hours later, after refueling and refilling of our ammunition, I had to drive alone with my tank to a crossroads as a safeguard.
After close to two days with heavy shelling and fighter bomber attacks, we withdrew further east. We passed the Foret de St Sever and early next morning, I was again standing at a crossroads waiting for the Americans. Supposedly, at the right side of the road, paratroopers were in position. On the left side, infantry from the 2nd Panzer Division, I knew from the days before, were expected to form a defensive line. I took position on the right roadside, thoroughly camouflaged (without camouflage you were pretty soon the victim of the plans that made any movement on the roads at daylight nearly impossible). Sometime later, my infantry friends from Wien showed up; the small rest of a battered battalion. I had a lot of trouble to persuade them to dig themselves in about 100 to 150m in front of me, where the terrain was favorable. Shortly thereafter, a second "Panther" came as support. It was my company C.O., Ostuf Schlomka. Both of us then drove into the orchard of the farm that was right beside me, left of the street. I was standing at the right corner of the orchard, close to the farm building, and Schlomka at the left corner, maybe 50m apart. That was good hiding against the planes. I could observe the road 200-300m. About 100m in front of us, a lane took off the road in a sharp angle, and led then to the side, close in front of our orchard.
In the late morning, fog came up and the visibility was poor. The take off point of the lane was barely visible. All of a sudden, an American tank came in sight, slowly driving down the road, the commander standing upright, looking out of the turret. With the hand traverse, my gunner tried to turn the turret as fast as possible, the loader helping by operating the auxiliary traverse handle. We couldn't use the hydraulic power traverse system, because the motor wasn't running. Shortly before the tank disappeared behind the farmhouse we fired, but we didn't reach the vehicle. Meanwhile, we had started the motor in a hurry, backed up our Panther and rushed to the road that was quite a bit elevated compared to the surrounding ground. We turned the turret already to the right, went up the road slope, thereby overturning a roadside tree with the left track, so as to have some protection against being made out immediately by other American tanks we felt sure would be there, further down the road. We felt our chances to get on the road at all were slim, but we made it.
As soon as we tipped to normal level we knocked out the tank that had passed us and was standing about 50m distant. A hit in the motor destroyed it. The commander, still standing in his turret and watching the terrain in front of him, could jump out and get away. Using our track brake, we pulled our vehicle round so as to face the other Americans with the turret in normal position. Two we could make out in about 150m distance, one on each side of the road. We knocked them out with just one round each. We could see soldiers running between these tanks and were about to fire at them when we could see they had the hands up. So we assumed it was Americans surrendering to our infantry, left of the road. Later on, we learned it had been the other way around; our infantry had surrendered to the Americans, who later on had withdrawn again. For some time, I stayed on the road, waiting for possible further American drives. After awhile, our Regimental C.O. appeared. He inspected the various roadblocks established by our regiment. Of course, he was happy about our action.
Suddenly, a jeep with a Red Cross sign drove up to us, with a surgeon and two medics. The surgeon got out of his car and came to us to look after the crew in the knocked out tank. The medics were busily using their walkie talkies. Since they had meanwhile found out everything about our positions, we couldn't let them go back. They were taken to the command post of Rgt 'DF', as prisoners.
About noon, the fog had dissolved and visibility was good again. I then drove back again to my orchard corner. Soon thereafter, heavy shelling set in, mainly concentrated on the orchard where we two Panthers were standing. For one or two hours, I had changed places with my gunner. His seat was much more comfortable than the one of the commander. One could lean one's head against the sighting telescope and sleep in a relative relaxed posture. And I definitely needed some sleep, all of us close to complete exhaustion.
We just had climbed back to our normal places when suddenly, a Sherman appeared on the road, swerved into the lane in front of us, and came rushing toward our orchard at full speed, its gun pointing straight at us. Our local situation must have been well known to that crew. We were so used to the standard pattern of American advance, after they had met resistance: first, plenty artillery, then even more planes, and then a tank spearhead, that we were completely surprised by this unbelievably plucky attack, since the number of fighter bombers harassing us had only been the "usual". The crew in the other "Panther" felt the same. Its gun was probably in a better position than ours. They let off but missed the Sherman. Now it was a race against death between the Sherman crew and ourselves. Their gun pointed straight at us but they had to correct the elevation. We had the right elevation but were desperately traversing to get the final lay. We were a little bit faster. I had my head out of the cupola and got the impression my eyes were exactly in line with the Sherman's gun barrel when we were ready to fire (again it was hand traversing, because the motor didn't run). Our first round destroyed the tank. All this happened within a few minutes, which seemed to everybody involved a space of time without end. The daredevil straight on drive, by a hair's breadth a success, came to an end some 40-50 meters in front of us. The commander was lucky enough to bail out and get away unwounded as far as I could see. This was the most daring and exceptional single action of the American soldier I have witnessed during the war.
The shelling having been reduced before the attack, gained momentum again and didn't allow us any time to take notice of our fluttering nerves. Slowly, it became unbearable in the vehicle. It was a very hot day. We had no food and nothing to drink. The strong enemy action forced us to keep all hatches closed and overfatigue was wearing us down. Time and again, one would doze off for a moment, to startle when your head hit on some part of the tank or piece of equipment. The worst thing was, I couldn't watch the surroundings any more.
Shell fragments and machinegun fire had made the cupola episcopes unserviceable. Time was dragging on uncanny slow. Everybody knew something must and would happen soon. But whatever one would have to face in such situations, your wish to let it happen, to get out of this intolerable tension, becomes stronger every minute. Every word, every movement of the crew gets in your nerves. More and more it is difficult to contain self discipline. Panic-like emotional outbursts get hold of the crew. You feel locked-up, hopeless, worn out. Suddenly, someone wants to bail out and get away. One is on the verge of breaking. But almost more serious is the status of total indifference, when you give a damn for the whole world and you are just dejectedly sitting there, awaiting some kind of end. To keep out of this mood, that takes the greatest effort.
I had just dozed off once more, when all of us became wide awake. Very strong bursts of machinegun fire hit our 'Panther' and we hear the second tank start its motor and get going. Then there is a tremendous bang on our vehicle, as if hit by a big calibre. I must somewhat open my hatch to find out what is going on. I see the other Panther is rushing through the orchard, onto the road, thereby knocking over trees. One fell on us; that was the big bang.
I thought the second tank had seen approaching Shermans and was gaining the road to engage them. So we hastened to follow them. All the while, we are under heavy machinegun fire. The radio communication didn't work. We could hear something, but we couldn't understand it. Our antenna was gone.
I realize I must be able to observe better. So I open fully my hatch, risking the danger for the whole vehicle. But, 'field of fire' has precedence over 'cover', (the basic military rule), and when you want to shoot, you first have to see something. At high speed, we nearly shoot ahead to the other roadside, swing the tank around to face the enemy and immediately get a whole burst of hits. Driver and gunner cry we can't see any more. Myself, watching over the rim of my cupola can make out what's going on. A number of Shermans are standing behind their knocked out comrade on the left roadside in a row, so that only the gun of each tank can shoot along the turret of the vehicle in front, and they are firing salvoes.
The events of the last minutes have driven out all fatigue, weakness and despair. Forced to action, you feel like newborn. The crew is back again to normal, cool and self-assured. It functions like a machine in good shape. Such moments of the very highest challenge let a man develop energy and abilities far beyond the every day level.
I realize immediately that we will be done in no time if we keep our position. Using the board radio I quickly told the crew, we drive in a sharp angle to the left roadside, to get cover by the knocked out tank. Then the Americans have to surround us, and they will come in sight, one after the other. That, we can handle. While moving sidewards, we will keep the tower straight toward the Shermans. That means the driver (without sight) gets his orders through the board radio, and the gunner (without sight too), reacts to shoulder tapping, left/right.
All this of course, split-second. While instructing the driver the second or third time "pull to the left", we are hit again by a salvo mainly on the sloped glacis, this time that hard that the welding seam between the front and sideplate of the hull sprang open, and the radio set (located on the gear box between driver and radio operator) was thrown out of its clamping fixture and didn't function any more. Meanwhile, we keep firing, whether with or without result, I can't say.
I order "straight on, straight on", but the driver, not hearing the order, continues pulling to the left. Pretty soon, our hull is nearly across to the road. That, I tell myself, is the end for us. Immediately, there is a big bang in our tank, although not too loud and the loader (Sturmmann Fahnrich from Duisburg) stands in a big flame. It was as if a great number of sparklers were burning. I only holler "bail out" and jump out of the cupola into the road ditch. I tumble over, lie for awhile on my back, and see immediately thereafter the gunner and loader jump out in the same way (the loader had only minor splinters in his back, and there his uniform was somewhat scorched). Only then we realized that we had been knocked out by a bazooka from the right side of the road, where the terrain was a little bit elevated, and not by the Shermans. Likewise, it became clear to us that we were surrounded by American infantry.
After the turret crew had bailed out, the Panther was covered heavily by automatic weapons fire, so that driver and radio operator were pinned down in the burning tank. Opening their hatches would have meant death for them. They had nerves of steel, pulled the Panther right close to the ditch, waited a moment until the fire slacked off, threw open the hatches simultaneously and made it to jump out, to join us in the ditch.
Now, the whole crew was lying on the roadside, panting with exertion, except for the minor scratches of the loader, miraculously unhurt. Most urgently, we wanted to get away, before our burning tank would blow up. But as soon as we raised our heads, we got fire from all sides.
Only then did we remember the other Panther and saw that it was standing a good 100 meters behind us. It's gun was defective and defenseless against the Shermans; he stayed a little outside their field of fire. Despite his precarious situation, Schlomka had not left us. It is evident without him, we would have been lost. Firing with both machineguns, he held down the Americans around us. After we understood what was going on, we mustered our last reserves and ran toward the Panther which, always firing, slowly drove back, until on a downward slope of the road, it found some cover.
To dodge the turret weapons was not too difficult, but to avoid the sheafs of fire of the hull machinegun, while running as fast as you could in a crouched posture, that needed nearly acrobatic skill. But when life is at stake and you are firmly determined not to give in, you can mobilize considerably more out of your tired body than can normally be expected. We reach Schlomka's tank and fall to the ground, completely done. While lying there, panting and recuperating, one explosion after another shook our burning Panther. But as long as we watched, the turret didn't come off.
Schlomka with his Panther stayed there to block the road, which for the time being was barricaded anyhow by our tank. With my crew, I started off for the command post of Rgt 'DF'. Shortly before we arrived there (in my memory, about 1 Km), we had to pass high ground with nearly no coverage. There, a group of fighter bombers caught us. Probably, they were on the way back to their advanced airfield and wanted to get rid of the ammunition they still had left. Fortunately, we were very close to a drainage trench under construction. It was narrow and deep. We threw ourselves into it and then, for awhile, the planes had a nice time target practicing. They attacked from all sides. They split in two groups, working like stunters, we in the middle. Fortunately, they were flying so low that their bullets (and there came a plenty), didn't hit us. The edges of the trench rumbled down on us, together with pieces of the clay tubes that were piled up at the side of the trench. It was definitely the last strain we could stand that day. Two or three times we thought the pilots would call it a day and disappear. But is was always a nasty feint. Every time we raced to the nearest grove, we had to turn around and were just lucky to hit our beloved trench just in time, before the firing started again. We could have reached them with a stone, and that flight altitude nearly cracked your nerves. It was late afternoon when this torture finally ended. One of our fighter friends was finally shot down by 2-cm flak when they passed over the Rgt 'DF' command post. He was lucky to come down unhurt in his parachute. Shortly thereafter, we reached the command post. We got some food, rested awhile and then proceeded to our maintenance and repair unit. Two, three days later, we started with an overhauled Panther to take part in the Mortain counterattack. Unfortunately, this tank had a couple mechanical flaws.
To this account of one phase of the Normandy battle, I want to add that besides me, only my driver survived the war. Loader and gunner drowned at my side as we tried to swim the Seine. After our fight at Elbeuf, that was already occupied by the U.S. 2nd Armored Division (we were able there to knock out 2 tanks of the 2nd Bn, 66th Armored Rgt), we crossed the Seine together with the rest of the III Btl Rgt Deutschland. Both comrades were poor swimmers and we had all reached the end of our physical possibilities.
The radio operator, later on my gunner, was the last man in 2nd company SS Pz Rgt Das Reich to die in WW2. He was killed as tank commander by Russian artillery fire close to St Polten, Austria. We buried him at the community graveyard at Erlauf.
This page was created February 1, 2022