Panzer Lehr Division

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Panzer-Lehr-Division
SS Pz Lehr divisional insignia.svg
Divisional insignia of Panzer Lehr
Active 1944–45
Country  Nazi Germany
Branch Army
Size 14,699 (June 1, 1944)
Equipment Panther
Sd.Kfz. 251
Sd.Kfz 234/2 Puma
Engagements Battle of Normandy
Battle of the Bulge
Commanders
Notable
commanders
Fritz Bayerlein

The Panzer-Lehr-Division, commonly known as Panzer Lehr, was a German armored division during World War II, one of the most elite units in the entire German Wehrmacht. It was formed from January 1944 onwards from various units of elite training and demonstration troops (Lehr = "teach") stationed in Germany, to provide additional armored strength for resisting the anticipated Allied invasion of western Europe. Its great weakness was that it concentrated the cream of Germany's tank commanders/instructors in a single unit, which risked their annihilation should the division suffer heavy losses. Due to its elite status it was lavishly equipped in comparison to the ordinary Panzer divisions of the Wehrmacht. It was the only division to be fully armoured with tanks and halftracks such as the SdKfz 250 and the SdKfz 251, though on several occasions it fought almost to destruction, in particular during Operation Cobra.

Panzer Lehr is occasionally referred to as the 130 Panzer-Lehr-Division, since a number of its constituent units were numbered 130, and in most other Panzer divisions those units were numbered to match the division's number.

History[edit]

Panzer Lehr began forming at Potsdam in November 1943 and moved to the NancyVerdun area in January 1944 to complete the process. It was formed from several elite training and demonstration units. Most of the division's original cadre was drawn from Panzertruppenschule I and Panzertruppenschule II, the Panzerwaffe's major training units. These training and demonstration units were some of the most experienced and highly trained troops in the Panzerwaffe, with almost all having seen combat in the East, North Africa, Sicily or Italy and many having received decorations for bravery. As a result of this, Panzer Lehr was considered an elite unit from the time of its formation.

In early 1944 Panzer Lehr was transferred to Hungary for further training, and absorbed the 901st Panzergrenadier-Lehr-Regiment while there. It then returned to France to await the Allied invasion as a part of the German Seventh Army's armored reserve.

Panzer Lehr was one of the best equipped divisions in the Panzerwaffe.[citation needed] Its panzer regiment was filled with the latest models of the Panther and Panzer IV available. Moreover, the first battalion in both panzergrenadier regiments were armored (as opposed to only the first battalion in the first regiment in ordinary panzer divisions), as were the division's artillery and reconnaissance formations – the armored reconnaissance battalion having a company of the new Sd.Kfz 234/2 Puma armored cars. The division's panzer regiment also had the 316. Funklenk-Panzerkompanie (abbreviated 1./s.Pz. Kp. 'Funklenk' 316) ("316th Remote Control Panzer company"[note 1]) attached while in Normandy; this company was originally equipped with ten Tiger I tanks, and was allocated the first five of the new Tiger II tanks but it is believed none of them were in fact engaged in Normandy having broken down en route and been replaced by 9 Sturmgeschütz which fought at Tilly and St. Lo until destroyed at which point the 316th Company was disbanded.[1] The division's panzer regiment had a total complement of 237 tanks. Another unique feature of this formation was that its panzergrenadiers for a large part were dressed in the grey, short, double- breasted tunic similar to the one worn by Sturmgeschütze- units, instead of the standard M1942 tunic worn by other German Army (Heer) units.

Units
  • Panzer-Lehr-Regiment 130
  • Panzergrenadier-Lehr-Regiment 901
  • Panzergrenadier-Lehr-Regiment 902
  • Panzer-Artillerie-Regiment 130
  • Feldersatz-Bataillon 130
  • Panzeraufklärungs-Lehr-Abteilung 130
  • Heeres-Flak-Artillerie-Abteilung 311
  • Panzerjäger-Abteilung 130
  • Panzer-Lehr-Pionier-Bataillon 130
  • Panzernachrichten-Abteilung 130
  • Panzer-Versorgungstruppen 130

Normandy[edit]

The Caen battles[edit]

When the Western Allies launched the amphibious invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, Panzer Lehr, as a part of the strategic armored reserve (Panzer Group West), was held back from the fighting during the crucial first days. It was soon released, reached the front, and was committed to battle against the British and Canadians on June 8. It was placed in the front line adjacent to the 12th SS Hitlerjugend Division, where it defended Caen and fought several British offensives to a standstill. The division was involved in the heavy fighting for "Hill 112" near Caen.

On June 13, 1944, an attack by the 22nd Armoured brigade group of the British 7th Armoured Division outflanked Panzer Lehr's defences around Tilly-sur-Seulles and cut through the German lines, taking the village of Villers-Bocage and threatening Panzer Lehr's rear. Elements of Panzer Lehr, the 2nd Panzer Division, and the 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion were committed to defeating the British penetration. The ensuing battle, notable in part for the actions of German tank ace SS-Obersturmführer Michael Wittmann of the 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion, saw the British withdraw to their start lines after two days of inconclusive fighting. By the 17 June, Panzer Lehr had been forced to withdraw.

Like all German armoured units engaged in Normandy, Panzer Lehr suffered heavy losses in its transport from Allied air attacks.[2] By the end of June the division's armoured component was severely depleted. Despite this, it continued to hold against the British and Commonwealth forces, engaging in heavy fighting near the town of Tilly-sur-Seulles.

Up to the end of June, the Division had suffered nearly 3,000 casualties and reported 51 tanks and assault guns lost along with 82 half-tracks and nearly 300 other vehicles.

The Saint-Lô battles[edit]

On July 2 Panzer Lehr was ordered to pull out of Tilly-sur-Seules and head west to provide support to the divisions resisting the American advance near Saint-Lô. The area around Saint-Lô consists of small fields with high ancient hedgerows and sunken lanes, known as bocage. The bocage made it extremely difficult for armor to maneuver and provided superb defensive positions to the infantry on either side of the battle. Upon reaching this location the division found itself up against the U.S. 83rd Infantry Division. After several holding battles, Panzer Lehr attacked towards Pont-Hebert, which it captured and held against several American counter-attacks.

On July 11 Panzer Lehr attacked towards the village of Le Desert, deep in the bocage. M10 Tank destroyers and Allied air attacks destroyed 20 tanks, and the division's remaining tanks withdrew over the Vire Canal to relative safety.

Over the next two weeks the division fought a defensive battle of attrition against the numerically superior Allied forces. On July 19, Saint-Lô fell to the Americans. Six days later the Americans launched Operation Cobra, their breakout from the Normandy lodgment. The operation was preceded by a massive aerial bombardment by over 1,500 allied bombers. Panzer Lehr was directly in the path of attack, and the division suffered heavily during this bombardment. After the bombing run, the Panzer Lehr came under massed artillery fire of approx. 1000 pieces of artillery of different calibres. After these bombardments, the 1st U.S. Infantry Division attacked the Lehr Panzers, along with 238 Shermans from the 2nd and 3rd U.S. Armoured Division.

The seriously depleted Panzer Lehr could not hope to halt the 140,000 man assault, and so, on August 5 after a fighting withdrawal, it was ordered back to Alençon for rest and refitting. Two battle groups, dubbed Kampfgruppe von Hause and Kampfgruppe Ritgen were formed from the remaining battle-ready men and tanks and these units remained in combat and operated side by side with German Fallschirmjägers. Later, when Kampfgruppe Hauser pulled back towards Fontainebleau to rest and refit, division commander Bayerlein ordered the rest of the division to follow. The division was subsequently called back to Germany for rest and refitting.

Within seven months of its formation, the division was reduced to a combat-ineffective unit with only 20 remaining tanks. After spending a month refitting in the Saar, the division was moved to Paderborn.

The Ardennes[edit]

Operation Wacht am Rhein[edit]

In early November Panzer Lehr was transferred to Hasso von Manteuffel's Fifth Panzer Army, part of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt's Army Group B in preparation for the planned winter offensive, Operation Wacht am Rhein, commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge. On November 21 the partially refitted Panzer Lehr was ordered out of its assembly area to counterattack the American forces driving towards the Saverne Gap. The counterattack stalled out, and Panzer Lehr was called back out of the line, much reduced in strength.

The time spent refitting Panzer Lehr and several other units which had been committed prematurely meant that the operation had to be delayed. During the run up to the offensive Panzer Lehr was kept in reserve, along with the Führer Begleit Brigade. On December 15, the day before the offensive began, Panzer Lehr was still severely understrength, with only one of its two tank battalions ready for action. In compensation it was reinforced by two tank destroyer battalions and an assault gun brigade. The division's armored reconnaissance battalion was its only organic unit up to full strength.

Wacht am Rhein opened on December 16, 1944, and Panzer Lehr moved out from the start positions in the center of the German line. The 26th Volksgrenadier Division was to clear the way for the division, but they soon became bogged down and the Panzer Lehr found itself moving forward at a crawl. The situation worsened over the next two days, with the 901st Panzergrenadier Regiment being halted by the Americans along the road to Wiltz, and the 902nd encountering heavy resistance in the town of Hosingen.

Bastogne[edit]

On December 18, the assault got back underway. The 26th Volksgrenadier Division had secured the bridge over the Clerf River, opening the way to the road and rail-hub of Bastogne. Panzer Lehr's armored reconnaissance battalion raced ahead, attacking towards Wiltz before rejoining the division on the route to Bastogne. The horse-drawn 26th Volksgrenadier had gotten itself mixed up in Panzer Lehr's column, greatly slowing the advance.

On the 19th the division's panzer regiments ran into a roadblock near Neffe, held by troops of Combat Team Cherry of the U.S. 9th Armored Division. After initial success Panzer Lehr's follow up attack resulted in heavy casualties. Combat Team Cherry pulled out, and the way to Bastogne was open again. However, the majority of the division's armor had been sent north to Mageret to support 26th Volksgrenadier. After the taking of Mageret a local informed Bayerlein, the division's commander, that a column of about 50 American tanks and infantry was seen moving North. Unaware that in reality only a couple enemy tanks were in the vicinity and mislead by the sounds of battle coming from the clash between the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich and the 9th U.S. Armoured Division, Bayerlein ordered his troops to halt and set up a roadblock, giving him a chance to regroup and reorganize his troops. By the time the Panzer Lehr moved out again and reached the town of Bastogne, the US 101st Airborne Division (Screaming Eagles) had already secured it. Panzer Lehr was then divided, with half the division left to help 26th Volksgrenadier Division capture Bastogne, while the rest of the division, including most of its armor, were to continue on to the Meuse.

Over the next few days the Kampfgruppe helping 26th Volksgrenadier, made up of mostly the 901st Panzergrenadier Regiment, wore itself out in successive attacks on the town of Bastogne. As the remainder of the division sped east it enjoyed some minor successes, including the capture of a large American convoy, but it was brought to a halt by fierce resistance near St. Hubert, and was soon drawn into heavy fighting south of Bastogne. On the 21st, Manteuffel pulled Panzer Lehr out of the fight for Bastogne and grouped it with the 2nd Panzer Division and 116th Panzer Division Windhund for an assault on Dinant and the Meuse.

Assault on Dinant[edit]

After a day spent on reorganising the attack, Panzer Lehr finally got underway. It fought its way through St. Hubert, and the road to Dinant and the Meuse again seemed open. On the approach to Rochefort, the next town on the road to Dinant, Bayerlein, who was leading his division's vanguard in person, shouted to his men -

Also los, Augen zu, und hinein! ("OK, let's go! Shut your eyes and go in!")

The assaulting unit, the 902nd Panzergrenadier Regiment, was met by a wall of fire. Nor was the advance to become any easier thereafter. On December 23, the division fought all day to reduce the town of Rochefort, suffering heavy casualties. The Americans finally withdrew – their only casualties 25 men killed and 15 men wounded, after holding off an elite panzer division for a whole day.[citation needed]

Bayerlein later compared the defence of Rochefort to that of Bastogne. The road was again clear and Panzer Lehr resumed its advance to Dinant, but slammed into Combat Command A of the US 2nd Armored Division near Buissonville. On Christmas Day 1944, on the plain beside the river Meuse, Manteuffel's three panzer divisions, together with the 9th Panzer Division from XLVII Corps, engaged the US VII Corps. The cloud cover had disappeared and allied air power came into play, bringing the panzer divisions to a virtual standstill. Panzer Lehr attempted several attacks, but all were halted by the overwhelming Allied air support.[citation needed]

Things did not go well for Manteuffel. A Kampfgruppe from 2nd Panzer, which had advanced far ahead of the main force, was cut off and out of radio contact. His divisions were forced to move only at night to avoid annihilation from the circling fighter-bombers. The majority of 2nd Panzer's armor, under Major von Cochenhausen, had become surrounded near the town of Celles-lez-Dinant. On December 26 Panzer Lehr made two attempts to relieve them, but was turned back by the Allied fighter bombers. After another failed rescue effort by 9th Panzer, Panzer Lehr was ordered to fall back. Of the 2nd Panzer Kampfgruppe, only Cochenhausen and 600 or so of his men managed to escape on foot, abandoning almost all of the division's armor to the advancing Allies. The Meuse would not be reached; Wacht Am Rhein had failed.

Relief of Bastogne[edit]

The remnants of Manteuffel's strike force were pulled back for one final attempt to take Bastogne. As Panzer Lehr began to move into its new positions, the US 4th Armored Division 12, the spearhead of George Patton's US Third Army, began its attack to relieve Bastogne – right through Panzer Lehr's designated positions. The few forward posts of the division were easily swept aside, and a corridor to the surrounded 101st Airborne was created. Panzer Lehr was then involved in the unsuccessful operations to close the corridor, and finally the exhausted division was pulled out of the battle. Panzer Lehr had once again been virtually annihilated.

The Netherlands - Remagen - Ruhr Pocket[edit]

After the failure of the Ardennes offensive, Panzer Lehr was refitted once again, though not to anywhere near the lavish standard of its earlier incarnations. Many of the veterans were dead, and the Panzer Lehr of early 1945 bore little resemblance to that of June 1944.

The division was moved north, into the Rhineland, where it was engaged fighting Bernard Montgomery's Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group again during Operation Veritable. Panzer Lehr saw very heavy fighting, and again sustained heavy losses. When the U.S. 9th Armored Division captured the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, Panzer Lehr was sent to crush the bridgehead. The attack was unsuccessful, though the division fought well and inflicted many casualties.[citation needed] The Allies' overwhelming numbers and constant air cover had reduced Panzer Lehr to a weak shadow of a division. Engaged in a fighting retreat across northwestern Germany, the division was trapped in the Ruhr Pocket and the remnants of the once powerful division were taken prisoner by the Americans when the pocket surrendered in April.

Commanders[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes
  1. ^ The 316th Radio Control Panzer Company was originally equipped with a mix of Tiger I and Tiger II heavy tanks, and remote-controlled demolition vehicles which could be operated from the Tigers. There is some dispute as to how many, if any, were actually in service during the Normandy Campaign.(BIV Demolition Units, Tiger Battalions!)
Citations
  1. ^ Panzer Lehr Division 1944-45 Helion WWII German Military Studies Volume 1: Steinhard
  2. ^ Willmott, H.P. p. 89 Quote: "Many examples of the experiences and losses suffered by German formations moving up to the front are well known. Panzer Lehr, for instance, on 7 June alone lost 84 half-tracks, prime movers and self propelled guns, 40 fuel bowsers, 90 soft-skinned vehicles and five tanks as it made its way from LeMans to Caen."
Bibliography