Operation Barbarossa

Otto Skorzeny, Hitler’s favorite commando

Born in Austria, Otto Skorzeny was brought up in a middle-class Viennese family. Foreign languages were one of his passions, and he spoke perfect French and passable English, besides his native German. Another passion of young Skorzeny was fencing. He was known as an excellent fencer and participated in 15 duels. One of them left him with a big scar on his cheek, something he was very proud of.

The political turmoil of the 1930s was an excellent opportunity for a young and charismatic man like Skorzeny. He joined the Nazi Party and was involved in Anschluss of Austria. He saved the life of Austrian President Wilhelm Miklas when a group of Nazis tried to kill him.

Source:express.co.uk

After the invasion of Poland, Skorzeny tried to join Luftwaffe, but was rejected because he was too tall (1.92 m, 6 ft 4 in) and too old (31 years) for pilot training. Instead, he joined the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler as an officer-cadet. LSSAH was an SS regiment tasked with the protection of Adolph Hitler.

Scorzeny was part of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. He was wounded in 1942 and after recovering was given a staff position in Berlin. He used the time to develop his idea of commando warfare deep behind the enemy lines and trying to sell the concept to German High Command. The plan worked and he was given the command of a newly created special forces unit Waffen Sonderverband z.b.V. Friedenthal.

Their first mission came soon after. Operation François was aimed at sabotaging Allied supply routes to Soviets through Iran by using Qashqai people, who were in conflict with the Tehran government. Scokzeny sent his men on a parachute insertion in Iranian mountains, but the support of the native population was deemed insufficient, and the operation was canceled.

Skorzeny redeemed himself and his unit in Operation Eiche (“Oak”). The raid on the Gran Sasso, as it was also known, was an operation to rescue Benito Mussolini from his imprisonment, after his fall from power in Italy. It was a complete success and earned Skorzeny Hitler’s admiration.

Source:argunners.com

After that, he was tasked with Operation Long Jump, a plan to assassinate Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt during the Tehran conference. The operation was discovered by the Soviets and Skorzeny was forced to abort.

His next mission was the attempted capture of Yugoslav partisan leader, Josip Broz Tito. His location near the town of Drvar was discovered, and Sonderverband z.b.V. Friedenthal (renamed to SS-Jäger-Bataillon 502) was to parachute in the area and kill or capture him. During the preparation for the mission, Skorzeny visited Zagreb and discovered that the mission was compromised by Germany’s Croat allies. He proposed the operation to be canceled, but he was overruled. Just like he predicted, the operation was a disaster and a majority of German forces involved were destroyed. Tito easily escaped Drvar and continued his struggle against Germans.

In 1944, rumors that Mikos Horty, Hungarian dictator was secretly negotiating with the Allies and was making plans to sign a separate peace reached Berlin and Hitler sent Skorzeny to Operation Panzerfaust. Its aim was to kidnap Hungarian leader’s son, Mikos Norty Jr. and blackmail him into stepping down from his position in favor of Ferenc Szálasi, who was loyal to Hitler. The success of this operation led to Skorzeny being promoted to Obersturmbannführer (equivalent to lieutenant colonel).

As a part of the German offensive in what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge, Otto Skorzeny devised Operation Greiff, a plan to infiltrate a group of commandos and capture two crucial bridges essential for the success of German assault. The attack failed and many of his commandos were caught and shot for breaching the laws of war by using enemy uniforms. Skorzeny spent the rest of the was commanding troops as acting General-Major. He was captured in May 1945 by the Americans.

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It took almost two years before Skorzeny was brought to trial. He was acquitted of charges but remained in custody until 1948, when he escaped and after hiding in Bavaria for 18 months fled to Spain. In 1952 he started working as an advisor for the Egyptian army, helping to train them for war with Israel. Among others, he trained Yasser Arafat, the future Palestinian leader.

Skorzeny spent some time in Argentina, advising Juan Perón and acting as a bodyguard for his wife, Evita Peron. In 1970 he was diagnosed with cancer and underwent a surgery that left him paralyzed from the waist down. In just six months, he regained the control of his legs and started walking again. Otto Skorzeny died from lung cancer in 1975.

Source: ww2gravestone.com

Elisabeth Volkenrath – One Of The Cruelest Female Guards In The SS

Born as Elisabeth Mühlau on September 5, 1919, future Mrs. Volkenrath was a daughter of a forest worker. Together with her five siblings, she lived in a small town Schönau an der Katzbach in Silesia, present-day Świerzawa in Poland. Elisabeth was never the one for school, and her lack of education left her with only a few options once she grew up. In 1941, she joined the SS and was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp as Aufseherin or female guard. She was trained in her duties by Dorothea Binz, one of the most notorious female guards in the SS. Elisabeth did her best to surpass her teacher in cruelty towards prisoners in her career, and she has succeeded for the most part.

In 1942, Elisabeth was transferred to Auschwitz Birkenau camp, a part of Auschwitz complex that consisted of several main and 45 satellite camps. The newly-built facility was originally intended for the housing of Soviet prisoners of war, who began arriving at Auschwitz after the Operation Barbarossa started in July 1941. Out of the first contingent of 10,000 Soviets that arrived in October 1941, by March 1942 only 945 were still alive. This prompted Hitler to re-designate Auschwitz Birkenau as a labor camp and extermination camp. Approximately 1.3 million people passed through the camp during its existence, mostly Jews.

Source:ww2gravestone.com

In 1942, she contracted Typhus, but unfortunately for many prisoners, she managed to survive. Elisabeth met her future husband SS-Rottenführer Heinz Volkenrath in Auschwitz. He was working as an SS-Blockführer. The couple married in 1943. In November 1944 Elisabeth Volkenrath was promoted to Oberaufseherin (supervising wardress) and placed in charge of all female camps in Auschwitz.

When Soviet troops approached the camp in January 1945. Germans issued evacuation orders. Elisabeth Volkenrath accompanied prisoners on their death march to Bergen-Belsen camp. She resumed her duties as Oberaufseherin in that camp until it was liberated by the British troops in April 1945. Elisabeth Volkenrath was arrested and tried at Belsen Trial, with many other SS members and prison staff. Among others, she was accused of killing an old woman by pushing her down the stairs. Woman’s crime was approaching Volkenrath and asking her for work.

Elisabeth Volkenrath was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. She was executed by the hangman Albert Pierrepoint, the most efficient executioner in British history, on December 13, 1945. Pierrepoint was brought from Britain to execute the most notorious Nazi criminals after their trials.

Source: ww2gravestone.com

How did Michael Wittmann, Panzer Ace Died?

Michael Wittmann was a legendary tank commander who died in the final years of war. On August 8, 1944, Kurt “Panzer” Meyer was driven in his car to Cintheaux, France, where the front line has been set. The Brits were pushing their attack, and Meyer was in command of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitler Youth which was standing in the way of the enemy.

Hitlerjugend division was an elite SS Panzer group, whose members were mostly drawn from Hitler Youth organization. Highly motivated and well equipped, unlike the regular Wehrmacht units, they were committed several war crimes on their way to Normandy. They were fighting against Allied forces since June 7th, the day after the invasion, and have suffered heavy losses. Panzer Meyer was looking for an opportunity to return the favor to the enemy, and at Saint-Aignan-de-Cramesnil he thought he finally found it.

When they arrive at the sight, they saw complete chaos. The Germans were fleeing for their lives, and Meyer wanted to change the course of the battle. He exited his car and rallied the troops, and the German forces were back in order. After a while, he and Major Hans Waldmuller drove near the village of Gaumensnil and what they saw from the top of the barn shocked them. The British armored divisions were waiting for the continuation of the attack. They had it all – tanks, half-tracks and Bren carriers that spread from miles in the distance.

It was up to Meyer to stop the Brits, and he knew that the entire region could be lost should they breach the Nazi defenses. It was clear that he didn’t have enough troops to hold them off, so he attacked instead. It was a move in desperation, but Meyer was aware that he would delay the British attack, which could give enough time for the German enforcement to arrive. Meyer had about 20 tanks from SS Panzer Regiment 12, and those were Panzer IV models. However, to balance the odds, heavy Tiger tanks of the 2nd Company were used as well and Michael Wittmann was in command. Even though it seemed a good idea to Meyer, his orders would send Wittmann to his grave.

Who was Michael Wittmann?

Source:militaryimages.net

Wittmann was born on April 22, 1914, just before the start of the World War I and he was just a son of a farmer. He served in the German Army for two years, and he enlisted in the SS. In the first months of the war, Wittmann served in the 1939 Polish campaign and the Balkan invasion in 1940. He became the sergeant in the Operation Barbarossa when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. It didn’t take a long time for Germans to realize that Wittmann had a knack for destroying enemy tanks which is why he joined division’s Tiger tank company.

Tiger was one of the Hitler’s wonder weapons, intended to decisively tip the scales of war in German favor. The tank was a formidable opponent, armed with an 88-mm gun that could pierce anything Allied and Soviet forces could throw against it. Its frontal armor of 100mm meant that not many of its enemies’ tanks could do the same to it. Not everything was great about it, as it was extremely difficult to maintain in the field, it was considered a garage queen. It was also a gas-guzzler, which severely limited its usefulness. The Tiger was so notorious for its breakage that more of them were abandoned due to mechanical failures than they were destroyed by the enemy. He fought at the Battle of Kursk, the most famous tank battle of the World War II.

He received the Knight’s Cross for destroying more than 90 enemy tanks, and he became the commander of the famous company. The Germans moved their forces to Normandy to prevent the enemy invasion, and Wittmann was there as well. His Tiger Tanks caused serious damage to the Allied forces. In the battle near the French village of Villers-Bocage Wittmann’s Tiger was disabled by the British forces, but not before it destroyed a lot of tanks and antitank units. It was one of the most famous tank engagements in the history of warfare. In the span of 15 minutes, Wittmann and his crew destroyed 14 tanks, 15 armored personnel carriers, and two anti-tank guns. Nazi propaganda exploited the battle to its maximum, calling Wittmann panzer ace. For his efforts, he was promoted to SS-Hauptsturmführer (the equivalent of the rank of captain) and awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords.

Operation Totalize and the Ambush

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The city of Falaise was important for both sides, and the British offensive, called Operation Totalize, was a large action which involved a lot of Allied forces. The complex operation, which we will not study in greater details, went well for the Brits and Canadians who managed to pierce the German lines to a depth of six kilometers. Meyer and Hitler Youth were somewhere on the front lines, and the gap was felt. Remember those tanks and armed divisions Meyer saw from the top of the barn? They were waiting for an airstrike that was planned to completely destroy the Nazis.

At that time Wittmann was just a few minutes away, and he joined the two superiors as they were planning what to do next. As he was preparing for a counter-attack, Wittmann and the two other men saw the first enemy plane fly overhead, dropping the flares. That meant that they had to rush it. And they started moving towards the Allied forces in their tanks.

As they progressed, they were showered with artillery fire which couldn’t do much damage. Occasionally, they would stop to shoot at the Sherman tanks around 1,800 meters away. They managed to destroy some of them, and they continued moving northwest. However, Wittmann and his column of tanks were unaware that A Squadron of the Northamptonshire Yeomanry was to their northeast, hidden in the orchards. Meanwhile, Meyer watched the tanks move, and that was about the time when the bombing started.

In the orchards, Lieutenant James was leading the troops which consisted of three standard Shermans and one Firefly. The Firefly was a British version of the U.S. made Sherman tank. The main difference between Firefly and standard Sherman was a British QF (quick firing) 17-pounder gun mounted in the turret. It was one of the few weapons on Allied side that could reliably penetrate the front armor of German Panther and Tiger tanks. It allowed British armored units to hold their own against superior German units and was one of the most feared tanks fielded on the battlefield in the World War II. They did see Wittmann advancing, but they were waiting for Captain Boarman to arrive so that they could launch an attack. The Tigers were drawing closer, and they were at about 800m from James’ troops. Although Firefly was capable of destroying these tanks, the Shermans still had to wait for them to come closer. And so they waited. Everything was ready to start the attack. The Allied tanks adjusted their position to become more efficient, and they were waiting for the command. Firefly became exposed. After the first few shots, one of the Tigers was already in flames. However, instead of continuing, the Firefly withdrew to take cover within the trees, and it was a smart decision because the Germans missed.

Wittmann’s Death

Source:warfarehistorynetwork.com

The commander of the Firefly was injured, and he couldn’t command the tank. Instead of that, James decided to try his luck in the Firefly which was the best tank they had at that point. They adjusted the position and they were ready for another strike. The tank fired, and for a few moments, they didn’t know whether the shot was on target or not. It turns out that they hit the tank with Wittmann inside and thus ended the life of one of the greatest tank commanders.

However, the battle was far from over. The British forces continued to attack the German Tigers and managed to destroy them. The combat between the tanks is the complex one. Although the Germans had better tanks, they couldn’t do much damage when they were on the attack. Tigers were amazing when stationary and defending, and up to some point, Wittmann was definitely aware that he was going to his grave. As the war progressed, the German tanks had less and less success, especially in the Western front. Their losses were growing significantly, and they couldn’t do anything to stop the Allied forces that pushed the Nazis all the way back to Germany.

It remains a mystery who killed Wittmann and destroyed his tank. Although the British forces fired from proximity, the Canadian units were also nearby, and they may have been firing on the panzers. What we know is that it was the state of complete chaos and the name of the man who killed Wittmann will remain a mystery. Of course, this battle became more notorious after the war. The controversies have arisen years after WWII ended, but the war diary of the Northamptonshire Yeomanry summed the battle up: “Three Tigers in 12 minutes is not bad business.”

Source: warfarehistorynetwork.com

Operation Bagration: Crushing Defeat of Nazi Germany

June 22nd, 1944 marked the third anniversary of the Operation Barbarossa, the devastating German attack on the Soviet Union. USSR came to the brink of destruction but managed to pull through. Three years later, the tables have been turned and it was Soviets’ turn to spring a massive assault against the Germans. 1.2 million soldiers, 4,000 tanks, 34,000 artillery pieces and 4,800 aircraft were poised for attack, waiting to be unleashed against an unsuspecting enemy. Just to put things into perspective, according to Glantz, German forces gathered for Operation Barbarossa in 1941 had 3,350 tanks and 2,770 aircraft.

Source:britannica.com

Not only did Soviets achieve almost 2:1 advantage in human forces, they completely outnumbered Germans in every other aspect. On the day of the attack, German Army Group Center, a main target of the Operation Bagration, had 495 tanks, some 2,500 artillery pieces, and 602 aircraft. The formation was a mere shadow of its former glory, with a majority of its tanks sent south to counter an offensive German command was expecting, due to Soviet “maskirovka.” It was a term denoting Russian military deception and in Operation Bagration it worked flawlessly, completely deceiving German High Command, preoccupied with the Soviet offensive against Finland and Allied invasion of Normandy. It wasn’t until the third day of the Soviet deception that Hitler and his generals understood the full scope of the operation. By then, it was too late to save Army Group Center and it soon ceased to exist as a fighting force.

A massive artillery strike on an undocumented scale, including Katyusha rocket launchers nicknamed Stalin’s Organs by the German soldiers, preceded the infantry and armored units assault at thin German lines on a 200 km front. It was a textbook example of the Soviet deep battle doctrine, which envisioned a constant forward movement, as wave upon wave of fresh troops were being thrown at the enemy positions. For Stalin and Soviet generals, who cared little about the lives of their soldiers, it was a perfect strategy, the one that allowed them to keep constant pressure on retreating German troops and not allowing them to set up a strong defensive position. Hitler’s insistence on defending until the last man and the last bullet only complicated the already hopeless situation, forcing German commanders to give up mobile defenses, perhaps the only tactic that offered at least some hope of slowing down the Soviet steamroller.

By June 28, component units of Army Group Center, Fourth, Ninth, and Third Panzer Army were either destroyed or encircled. Hitler replaced the Army group commander Field marshal Ernst Busch with Walter Model, but the change in command didn’t help German troops in the field. The second phase of Operation Bagration begun on June 29th and resulted in the liberation of Minks and Polotsk. By the first week of July, the entire German front has collapsed and Model was struggling to establish a new defensive line near Lida with whatever troops managed to survive the Soviet onslaught. These forces were destroyed by the third phase of the Operation Bagration, which saw Soviets advance to Vistula River, Baltic republics, and East Prussia. A huge chunk of Soviet land and population were recovered from under German control.

Source:warfarehistorynetwork.com

Officially, Operation Bagration ended on August 19th, 1944. It was one of the biggest battles of World War 2. Germans suffered between 300,000 – 550,000 casualties, including some 100,000 to 150,000 prisoners of war. It was the single worst defeat in terms of losses Nazis have sustained on the Eastern front. About one-quarter of the entire Eastern Front personal was lost. A fact that out of 47 divisional and corps commanders 31 were lost testifies to the magnitude of the German defeat. To make things worse, at the same time on the Western Front Allies managed to encircle and destroy Falaise Pocket, eliminating 60,000 German soldiers and 500 tanks.

Soviet suffered even worse losses. Some historians claim that there were as much as 800,000 Soviet casualties, with almost 3,000 tanks destroyed and more than 800 aircraft lost. The difference is that German losses were irreplaceable, both in terms of manpower and equipment. On the other hand, Soviet replaced their casualties in time for the next round of operations, which brought them at the gates of Berlin.

Source: nationalinterest.org