DAS REICH RITTERKREUZTRAGER
By Phil Froom
It had been a fairly mundane militaria fair with nothing much of interest to be had (within the bounds of my wallet anyhow) and I had decided to do one last circuit then go home. I noticed that one of the dealers had a ring binder on his stall with a lot of German documents in it and decided to have a quick look through them as German documents are one of my interests – most of the items were of little or no interest and I had about given up on finding anything of interest, when I came across two typed German documents in the same plastic folder. I understand a fair bit of military German now and was at least able to glean something from the letters – certainly sufficient to see if they were at a very reasonable price based upon what I thought was their content. How reasonable I was yet to find out… I asked the dealer how much he wanted for them and we eventually came to an agreement involving me exchanging some other German documents I had with me, for these two. I left seeing us both happy with our respective deals…
After showing the documents to a friend of mine who is fluent in German, he advised me that the documents related to the same individual, a certain SS Hauptsturmführer Karl-Heinz Boska of the 2nd SS Division Das Reich. Both documents related to the award of the Knights Cross to Boska on 16th December 1943 for an action in Russia. The two documents are of A4 size and in good condition. The first was seemingly the recommendation for the award, which had been signed and presumably initiated by the then commander of Das Reich Division at the time, SS Obergruppenführer Walter Krüger. It had then been sent to the office of Reichsführer SS, responsible for the authorisation and granting of SS high awards.
I decided to find out who Karl-Heinz Boska had been, who the others who had been involved with these documents had been and to research some of their history and the related history of the SS Das Reich Division. I was obviously keen to understand what Boska had done to earn his Knights Cross and hoped that a little research my help me to find out.
As it turned out, I did not have too long to wait, as having given a copy of the second document to my friend, he translated it for me and it appears to be some form of press release – possibly for the SS newspaper ‘Das Schwarze Korps’ - or maybe simply for the German press to boost morale at home. But it described in some detail how Boska had led a critical counter attack against a large Soviet force, which had launched a surprise attack in strength against the flank of Das Reich in Russia.
Having examined the documents again, I noticed that another Officer whose name I did not at first recognise had also signed both documents. After some further research I was able to identify him as SS Sturmbannführer Wilhelm Kment also ex-Das Reich.
Kment had been born on 8th March 1915. Had joined the SS and graduated from SS Junkerschule "Bad Tolz" in 1935 to become Commander of the Kradschutzen Company (Later 1 Komp SS Kradschutzen-Battalion) of SS Division "Reich", serving with them through the battles of Holland and France in 1940, and Yugoslavia and the invasion of Russia into October 1941. He then became commander of SS-Aufklarungsabteilung (reconnaissance troop) of "Reich" until January 1942 during which time on 23rd January 1942 he was awarded the German Cross in Gold. Somewhere around that time Kment had been seriously wounded in action - Possibly in the counter attack against Russian forces which had broken through around Rzhev, close to Gshatsk on the Eastern Front, where Das Reich were at that time engaged. The fighting was bitter and on 21st January the motorcycle Battalion alone lost 4 officers and over 70 other ranks killed in action with many others wounded. Possibly Kment had been one of those. This wound had been so serious it resulted in the loss of an arm. Therefore after convalescing Kment had been assigned to Himmler's Personal Staff (Personliche Stab Reichsführer-SS) as Decorations Officer responsible for processing awards of the German Cross and Knight's Cross for Waffen-SS members. This explains why he appears on Boska’s Knights Cross recommendation and other SS ones I have studied since. Finally between 1944 and 1945 Kment was assigned to 17th SS Panzer-Grenadier Division "Gotz von Berlichingen" although at a disastrous period for GvB Kment had still survived the war, passing away on 15th November 1984.
Karl-Heinz Boska was born on October 18th 1920 in Kiel, Holstein in Northern Germany. After formal schooling, he joined the Kradschützen Ersatz Battalion "Ellwangen" in September 1939, serving with the First Company, ultimately becoming part of SS-Verfüngs-Division in June 1940, serving with the 3rd SS.VT-Aufklärungsabteilung (reconnaissance troop), as a motorcyclist during the battles for France. After promotion to Sturmann on 1st November 1940, he stayed with the Company, as it became part of the newly formed Kradschützen Battalion (Motorcycle-Battalion). During the period following the fall of France, the Division was stationed in France preparing for the invasion of England. In March of 1941, the Division, now called Reich, was moved to Romania in order to take part in the invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece. In April 1941, Reich took part in the successful capture of Belgrade, the Capital of Yugoslavia. The Division was then moved to Poland to take part in the forthcoming invasion of the Soviet Union. By now Boska was a Zugführer within the Kradschützen Battalion of SS Division Reich.
By then Reich were deployed in the central sector of Russia and had seen fierce combat in the Beresivo and Yelna near Smolensk on the Desna River, as a possible result of those actions, on August 18th 1941 he was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class. Soon after on 1st September was promoted to Unterscharführer. By this time Boska must have been seen to have shown promise as Officer material as he was recommended to attend the SS Junkerschule for Officer training.
In January 1943 the newly equipped Das Reich panzer division, along with 1st SS Liebstandarte and 3rd SS Totenkopf Panzer Divisions were sent back into Russia forming part of Army Group South. During this period Boska was decorated twice more in quick succession, being awarded the Iron Cross First Class on 24th February then the Honour Role Clasp on 18th April. By summer 1943 Das Reich was fully committed in Russia and was already experiencing the first evidence of the catastrophe, which was ultimately to befall not only Das Reich but also the whole of the German Armed Forces in Russia, the overwhelming numbers standing against them in Russia and the seeming inexhaustible supply of men and Tanks available to the Soviet Armies...
On 4th July 1943, Das Reich was able to field 48 Panzer III's, 30 Panzer IV's, 12 Tigers, 8 Panzer III command tanks (Panzerbefehls-wagen III), 33 Sturmgeschütz III's, 10 Marders and 18 captured Russian T-34's, a fairly formidable force. So it was the following day on the 5th July that Das Reich committed that force to 'Zitadelle' the battle of Kursk. The battle was famed for many reasons and became legendary in the annuls of Das Reich history for the feats of its commanders and men, but is perhaps most notable as being the largest clash of armoured forces ever seen during the Second World war and for a significant number of years to come. Typically the Division it fought tenaciously and in over six hours of gruelling combat in the vicinity of Beresoff, Das Reich destroyed some 23 enemy tanks.
Das Reich was now engaged in heavy Combat daily and both the Divisions’ tally of kills and its own losses were mounting steadily. The Division made the enemy pay dearly for every Das Reich Panzer destroyed and between 5th and 16th July the division accounted for over 448 Russian tanks and SP guns, at a cost of just 46 Das Reich vehicles.
Boska was by now an Obersturmführer and Second Company Adjutant. Das Reich had now moved into the outskirts of Kharkov and the fighting became more intense and confused. In the desperate battles which followed through late August and early September, Das Reich destroyed a further 463 enemy armoured vehicles taking their tally well towards one Thousand Russian vehicles.
The Officers of Das Reich were achieving unbelievable feats of endurance supported by their exhausted men and battered vehicles as throughout September Das Reich Tigers continued to score heavily against Russian armour. At the end of the month Das Reich moved to the Dnjepr front, having destroyed 268 tanks in the Walki area, but their selfless feats of
Courage could only achieve so much. The Russian inexperience, poor vehicles, command and control and tactics could not last forever...
Late October 1943 Russian attacks grew more frequent as more and more Russian tanks took to the battlefields and the situation continued to deteriorate. On 1st November 1943, Hauptsharfuhrer Hans Soretz, First Platoon leader of the eighth company destroyed the Two Thousandth enemy armoured vehicle for the Division that year, giving some idea of the terrible odds the German forces in Russia now faced. Das Reich’s panzer regiment had claimed over One thousand one hundred of these kills with a loss of over 250 of its own tanks, but still a formidable 4:1 kill ratio!
On the morning of the 13th November near Bolschaja Grab, Soviet infantry mounted a large and dangerous surprise attack on the Second Company Headquarters. Enemy troops managing to close to less than 200 meters before being detected. Obersturmführer Boska, by now Company adjutant, immediately rallied and led 5 of his panzers in a ferocious counterattack which over the period of the desperate two hour battle destroyed 12 enemy anti-tank guns, 2 field guns and killed an amazing 380 enemy troops earning him an immediate recommendation for the Knights Cross from the then Divisional commander, SS General Walther Krüger. That same day Obersturmbannführer Hans-Albin, Freiherr Von Reitzenstein, the Panzer Regiment Commander was himself awarded the Knights Cross in recognition of the feats he and his men had achieved during the summer and autumn battles in actions at Bjelgorod, the Mius, Kharkov and Kolomak. During which period the Regiment destroyed 839 tanks, 18 assault guns, 334 anti-tank weapons and 32 other guns, soon afterward however, he was charged with misconduct whilst off duty and took his own life on 30th November. The new rising star of Das Reich, Sturmbannführer Christian Tychsen thereby assumed command of the Panzer regiment and ultimately replaced Heinz Lammerding as temporary CO of Das Reich, leading them through the destructive Normandy campaign until he was killed in action on 28th July 1944 by a US ambush on his Kubelwagen at a crossroads just north east of the village of Cambry.
By 26th November 1943 Das Reich’s Panzer strength was reduced to just 9 Panzer IV's, 2 Tigers, 7 Panthers and just 2 command tanks. Therefore in mid December 1943 the majority of the division with the exception of Kampfgruppe Lammerding was withdrawn to France to refit and re-supply, leaving some of their remaining serviceable tanks with other units. It was during this period that Boska must have been summoned to Bertchesgarten to receive his Knights Cross from Adolf Hitler. Das Reich was now laagered in the town of Montauban, just north of Toulouse in southern France, where whilst carrying out anti-partisan operations in France it learned of the Allied Invasion of Normandy. However the Divisional re-fit not being complete Das Reich remained in Montauban until August 1944 when it began its long journey north toward the invasion beaches of Normandy around 450 miles to the north.
It is during this drive North to the Invasion Front, that Das Reich committed two of the worst atrocities of the war in France: the massacres of civilians in the towns of Tulle and Oradour-sur-Glane. These two events were triggered as a result of repeated attacks by civilians on German forces and Divisional transport on the line of March, seriously hampering movement of the Division towards the Invasion front. Finally these acts of reprisal were justified by the Officer’s responsible on the basis of the murder of over 100 German soldiers after their of garrison had been forced to surrender near Tulle. Later the kidnap of one and kidnap and murder of another Das Reich officer close to Oradour-sur-Glane. However, these two acts of brutality ultimately made membership of Das Reich Division a virtual death sentence for all of its men should they be subsequently captured by the French.
By October 1944, Das Reich was badly mauled. The combination of constant ‘fire fighting’ against Allied armour thrusts and the devastating air attacks by allied fighter bombers again found the Division in serious need of refit and re-supply. Therefore in October 1944 elements of the Division withdrew to rebuild and retrain Das Reich.
On 11th November 1944 a briefly rested if perhaps less mature and certainly less well equipped Das Reich Division, which had been refitting in Sauerland, was hastily redeployed west to take part in operation ‘Watch on the Rhine’ in the Ardennes of Belgium. Perhaps better known as the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ in a final German attempt to advance rapidly on the port of Antwerp and drive a wedge between the US and British landing forces and destroy them in succession. Das Reich was at this time around ten percent below strength and its various Regiments lacked not only basic motor transport – the first Battalion of ‘Deutschland’ Regiment being forced to abandon its last few vehicles and take to bicycles – but fundamentally their Panzers were critically short of fuel. The operation was a disaster and by 16th January 1945 was effectively over. All ‘Watch on the Rhine’ had achieved was to further bleed morale and manhood from what was left of the beleaguered German forces.
In parallel to the wasteful deployment of Das Reich in the Ardennes, in a series of futile detached unit fire fighting actions, the general military situation had seriously deteriorated. In answer to the latest crisis, in late February 1945 Das Reich’s Panzer Regiment was redeployed to Hungary in an attempt to counter enemy thrusts developing in that area. In early December Soviet forces had crossed the border and had reached the Danube only thirty Kilometres from Budapest, a desperate struggle for Budapest ensued and after a see-sawing of advantage – the City fell to the Soviets on 12th February.
This released those Russian forces laying siege to the City to continue their ever-westward thrust towards the Reich and ultimately, Berlin. However of more immediate danger to the German Armoured units was that if the Hungarian oilfields at Nagykanizsa fell, Germany would be deprived of its last supply of Oil and therefore fuel of any kind. The oilfield had to be protected at all costs (by now a familiar term to Das Reich Commanders). The German High Command thereby launched another offensive in Hungary in an attempt to push the Russian forces back. Those remaining German forces in Hungary fought desperately to halt the Russian onslaught, but it was now becoming obvious that all was lost and the German forces could now do little but delay the inevitable and make the Russians pay dearly for every meter of land they took.
The German offensive failed and by the end of March the Red Army was pushing the beleaguered German units – Das Reich amongst them – back toward Vienna - and their final annihilation. By late March the Division had been driven back south of Komorn and by the 28th, Das Reich's Panzer Regiment had only 5 Panzer IV's, 2 Panthers, and 5 Jagd-Panthers left fit for combat and little fuel with which to run them. The Division now began the last retreat, as it pulled back northwest into Vienna.
By 4th April 1945 Vienna was surrounded on three sides and it was the intention of the Russian commanders to seize the bridges over the Danube, unite their forces and sweep across Austria and Czechoslovakia towards Germany. It was Das Reich, which were assigned the defence of those all-important bridges. For nine days the Division fought against hopeless odds, launching vicious hit and run attacks on the superior Soviet forces, but all the time being forced back until their final bridgehead surrounded the Floridsdorfer Bridge. Between 9th and 12th April matters deteriorated further and although the Soviet forces were prevented from crossing the Danube, they were inflicting critical losses on Das Reich with anti tank, mortar and artillery barrages and intense sniper fire.
After the death of Hans-Albin, Freiherr von Reitzenstein, Boska became the 6th Company Commander until the last weeks of the war when he replaced Dieter Kesten as II. Abteilungskommandeur after his death in the fighting for Vienna on 7th April 1945, thus becoming the last II. Abteilungs Commander. At this time Karl-Heinz Boska was commanding the last eight tanks of the 6th Company who were at that time detached and supporting the Panzer Grenadiers of 4th Panzer division in the Prater area. The situation was now critical. It was felt that the positions in the Prater could not be maintained later than 12th April as Soviet forces from 2nd Ukrainian Front were closing from north of the Danube towards the Reichsbruecke. The General Commander of 4th Panzer Division told Boska, to support the withdrawal of his troops and then return with his Panzers to his own Regimental lines, which were then in the area of the Floridsdorfer bridge. Upon his arrival, he found the Panzer maintenance unit was available and had them work on his own vehicles, most of which were damaged to some degree. He then reported to the Regimental Commander who told Boska to deploy two of his vehicles on the exposed Eastern perimeter where the withdrawal of 4th Panzer had left them exposed. Boska took up a defence position on the north bank of the Danube, just west of the Floridsdorfer Bridge where he found two tanks of 2nd Company were already situated, which he took under his command.
The panzer regiments’ commander, was then ordered by the wounded Divisional commander; Standartenführer Lehmann, to send some tanks back across the bridge to provide final support for he bridgehead until the evacuation planned for the next night could take place. Boska stated later that he made “the strongest possible protest” to Lehmann, arguing that the bridge was far too narrow to support his Panthers, was under direct enemy observation and fire therefore his Panzers would be forced to cross very slowly and carefully, becoming sitting ducks for the Soviet gunners…. Lehmann however, maintained that this action was indeed necessary to support the bridgehead regardless of the potential risk, leaving Boska to consider how this act of apparent suicide could be achieved with minimal loss of life – including his own – The enemy situation made the lighter Panzer IV and remaining Jagdpanther unsuitable, one being too lightly armoured, the other too large and heavy for the badly damaged bridge. Boska stated that he could not possibly force his men to undertake such a dangerous mission, so left his own command Jagdpanther, took over the Panther and crew of Obersturmführer Wahlmann and selected two other Panthers to support him.
The three tanks moved forward together and halted short of the bridge, whilst Boska and the two other vehicle commanders went forward to carry out a final reconnaissance of the bridge before attempting to cross. They agreed that the tree Panthers should cross with large intervals between them. The second vehicle not moving forward until the first was half way across the bridge, the third following the same rules etc. Boska felt that it was likely the first Panther would be destroyed on the bridge and gave the order that in this event, the other two vehicles were to abandon the attempt to cross and withdraw. He also told the others that his tank would lead the attempt.
Boskas’ Panther set off slowly onto the damaged bridge and made it to the large hole in the centre without incident. At which point the second tank commanded by Ludwig van Hecke moved out onto the approaches of the bridge. Once Boska had passed the badly damaged centre of the bridge he ordered his driver to increase speed and head for the perimeter and cover. As he cleared the bridge at speed, his Panther drew intense Soviet anti-tank and tank-gun fire and upon crossing into Soviet territory the Panther was mortally hit on the driver’s side of the hull, killing both driver and radio operator. Almost immediately the vehicle began to burn furiously and Boska and the two surviving crew bailed out. In his haste to escape the inferno, Boska fell badly and shattered his right heel and was helped into cover by his men. The second Panther withdrew and any further suicide attempts were abandoned. The Panther burned for several hours, but eventually under cover of darkness Boska and his two-crew members crossed back over the bridge and formally reported to the Regimental Commander that the attempt had failed. Later that evening the situation become untenable, the bridgehead collapsed and was evacuated, the bridge itself was dynamited into the Danube on 14th April.
Das Reich continued to fight a series of vain rearguard actions as it fell back to the Reich, gradually eroding their numbers and strength further. Elements of the Division rescued the German civilians and families of the German forces in Prague shortly before armed insurrection and chaos broke out as Czech irregulars took to open battle with German forces and civilians alike.
Ultimately there was nowhere else to go and the various Das Reich units, which were now widely distributed in the field, were forced to surrender one by one. Those elements in Czechoslovakia were lucky enough to surrender to the Americans. The ‘Der Führer’ Regiment under Otto Weidinger surrendering with what dignity they had left in regimental march formation just outside Pilzen. Other Das Reich elements fighting in Austria also managed to surrender to the Americans. Although all SS units strived to surrender to the Western Allies, those still defending Dresden for example fell into hands of the Soviets – most never to return to Germany. Boska's war was over, but he had at least survived it and I believe is still living in Raisdorf, Germany. I did write to him once to see if he wanted copies of these two documents, but perhaps understandably received no reply. I have actually found it very difficult to find out very much about Boska, although much has obviously been written about Das Reich and its exploits.
Should anyone reading this have any further details of Boska's service or any photographs of him or his vehicles, I would very much appreciate hearing from you.
Bibliography and acknowledgments.
Das Reich: March of the Second SS Panzer Division Through France by Max Hastings, ISBN 003057059X.
Breakout at Normandy, The 2nd Armoured Division in the Land of the Dead - Mark Bando.
Das Reich by Phillip Vickers, Combined Publishing.
A History of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, Otto Weidinger.
Dan J. Reinbold, Historian and Webmaster - Das Reich Homepage (http://www.dasreich.ca/)
Jason Pipes, webmaster – Feldgrau (www.feldgrau.com),
Josh Shneider, Their Honor Was Loyalty! History of Waffen SS Knights Cross Holders, James Bender Publishing.
Geoff Walden, Webmaster The Third Reich in Ruins (www.thirdreichruins.com/)
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