EXPERIENCES IN THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE
Knight's Cross holder Ludwig Bauer, Panzer-Regiment 33
I had the chance to interview Ludwig Bauer several times. In 2016 we actually filmed a lengthy interview with him for the then emerging HistoryHit network, but sadly that footage was lost and never shown. I do not share his opinions about the Malmedy massacre and believe them to be false, but I decided to include them here. The entire interview, conducted in several stages from June 2015 to January 2016 is about three times the length and I will publish another instalment later this year.
Ludwig, for a start please tell us a bit about yourself and your military career
I joined the Wehrmacht on 4 February 1941 as an officer aspirant and was posted to the 3rd company of Panzer-Ersatz-Abteilung 33 at St. Pölten-Spratzern in Austria. This was the Ersatz and Ausbildungs (replacement and training) unit of Panzer-Regiment 33. There I was trained on various Panzer models (II, III and IV) and later received special weapons training at gun layer. After training I saw action on the Eastern Front after being posted there in August 1941 during Operation Barbarossa. For reasons unknown to me I was posted to Panzerjäger-Abteilung 521, a tank hunter unit operating Panzerjäger I self propelled anti-tank guns. Basically a Czech 4.7 cm AT gun mounted on a Panzer I chassis. It was attached to 3. Panzer-Division. With this unit I had my baptism of fire. I fought in the Battle of Kiev where we took over 650.000 Russian prisoners and captured over 3000 guns and 800 tanks. I saw a lot of action there. In October, during Operation Typhoon, the attack on Moscow, our unit received four Panzer IIs as replacements. As I had been trained on that model I was assigned to one of the crews as a gunner. So my first “real” tank. We were mainly used for flank protection during major offensive thrusts. I fought at Smolensk, Mzensk and Tula where I was wounded when my Panzer was destroyed. After recovering from my wounds I was posted back to the Eastern Front in April 1942, this time to 1./Panzer-Regiment 33. The company had just received the Panzer III with the long 5 cm gun and I served as a gun layer in one of them. I then participated in the Battle of Voronezh, most certainly one of the most exhausting and difficult periods of my life. Harder even than the fighting at the Battle of Rzhev later that year. I finished my officers training and was promoted to Leutnant on 1 October 1943. I took command of a platoon in 3./Panzer-Regiment Nr 33 and saw action east of Krivoy-Rog. A hard time, inside the tank day and night facing one Soviet attack after the other. We stayed in that area for quite a while. In February 1944 we fought at the Bug near Arnautovka before, afer suffering heavy casualties we made our way south to Odessa and from there to Romania. We finally ended up in Nimes, France where the Division was to be refreshed. When the Allies landed in Normandy on 6 June 1944 our Division was just on a large-scale field exercise in the area of Arles-Aix. There were some major clashes with the American 3rd Army near Avranches in August 1944, yet Allied aerial superiority made any effective defence impossible. In Normandy the Division lost most of its tanks and vehicles, most of them by Allied air attacks. By the end of October 1944, after seeing limited action around Venlo, the Division was being refreshed in the Eifel, that was shortly before the Battle of the Bulge, or Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein. I later fought in Germany..in the Eifel, at the Rhine and in and around Cologne. The remains of our Regiment disbanded in a forest near Iserlohn on 16 April 1945. I was taken prisoner by the Americans a few day later.
I was released from US captivity in 1946. I joined the new German Army as a Leutnant of the Reserve in 1962. My military career ended in 1975 when I was a Generaloberst of the Reserve.
You said you were with 9. Panzer-Division in the Eifel in October 1944. Where was that?
The division was being refreshed in the area of Waldniel-Eiken. I remember it well, as there was a V1 launching site nearby. It was the first time in the war I saw these weapons in action. After losing most of our armour in Normandy we received new vehicles on 30 October 1944; Panzer IVs for 2nd and 3rd company. My lot, 1st company, was supposed to be issued with assault guns, which arrived a few days later.
Assault guns? In a Panzer regiment? Was that unusual? Were you unhappy with the decision?
It was what was available, but of course we are not happy with the decision. Mainly because that meant losing a member of our old crew. A tank was crewed by five men, an assault gun by four. That was a serious blow, as we were a close knit group.
There was a lot of debate, but there was no way around it. Later we found that the Sturmgeschütz III was actually more effective and safer than our Panzer IVs. Our company's losses were lower and we destroyed more enemy vehicles. Reason here was probably the lower silhouette of the vehicle which made it harder to spot. It was a great and very effective gun platform.
Did you need special training to operate the Sturmgeschütz?
We probably should have been given time to get used to our new mount, but time was something we did not have. We old tank crews did not have a lot of difficulties adapting to the changes. It was actually very similar to a tank. Only the limited field of fire was something we had to get used to. The gun, which was the same as the that on the Panzer IV, could only be traversed about 15 degrees to the left and right. Anything more and one had to turn the vehicle. One thing that seemed very important to us old tankers was to zero in our guns. This would have required firing a few live 75mm rounds, but the commander denied our request. By then our armour was well hidden away – camouflaged in a forest. I guess it was feared that the sound of gunfire could alert the enemy to our presence and result in aerial bombardment. We all feared that.
When did you learn about the upcoming offensive and by then, did you still think that this operation could be crowned with success?
Let me answer the last bit first! Yes! Not only did we believe it, we were entirely sure of it! I remember we were first learned about it on 17 December 1944 during an officers briefing. Oberstleutnant Weiß-Kafanke used some words there which I have not forgotten so far. “The Führer has asked us to do our very best and not to let him down.We only need to keep the enemy at bay for about three more months''. Three more months, then we would see the new miracle weapons and these would force the enemy to negotiate. I believed that. I was that kind of young officer: keen, energetic and looking at it today probably a little bit stupid. We all believed in it. There were hardly any senior officers in the companies, we were mainly young Leutnants and Oberleutnants. All the senior personnel was dead, wounded, and gone. By then the average length of survival for a Panzer officer was about 28 days; that is before he was killed or wounded. In the Infantry it was even worse, with about 19 days. We youngsters believed in the Führer, in the Fatherland. We knew the enemy was far superior in number of troops, tanks, artillery. He had endless supplies, total aerial superiority. Yet, believe me when I say we still knew we could beat him anytime on the ground when chances were more or less equal and when he wasn’t able to bring his air force to bear. We were an experienced lot, with lots of combat experience in the worst of conditions. We felt we could do it.
When did ‘your’ Battle of the Bulge begin and is there anything you’d like to talk about?
One thing is important. It may sound weird to you, but I do not remember many details of my time in the Ardennes. From the last weeks of December 1944 to about mid February 1945 I hardly left the tank. We were in constant action and had very little time to relax or sleep. We left the vehicle when there was a call of nature to follow and even that was sometimes done in a tin inside the fighting compartment. Sleep was measured in minutes not hours. Constant fighting, constant watch, constant movement. I remember long stretches of the time in the Ardennes as if in a dream. After a time it felt like someone remote controlled me. We just functioned. It is hard to describe to someone who has not experienced something like that himself.
How did you cope with these conditions? Did you get anything to make it easier for you?
You talk about Pervitin? No, we got nothing at all. We were only issued Pervitin twice during the war and that was in late 1941 and at the Battle of Voronezh in 1942. After that I never saw any of these pills. We were soldiers, we just had to cope with it.
So where did you see action?
We fought in the area of Bastogne, Noville and Foy. Later at Houffalize where there was severe fighting in January. The American 101st Airborne Division was one of our enemies in the sector of Foy and Houffalize. The fighting there was hard…very hard.
Did you have many casualties?
Yes, though losses in our company were not as bad as in the others. On 13rh of January Leutnant Rumpf was killed when his Panzer IV received a direct hit. I took over command of the company from him…There were many dead, I do not like to talk about it.
I remember that on the night of the 13th January Leutnant Becker ordered me to lead an attack on Foy with 1st company. That was initially successful, but no lasting success as the infantry could not follow up. I think Feldwebel Klotz and his crew were wounded there when their tank was hit. After that attack we withdrew to a position between Foy and Noville. The following day the Americans launched a counter attack with tanks and halftracks. I don't remember how many there were, but we were drastically outnumbered. We engaged the enemy with 6 StuGs and a proper tank battle developed, something that was rare on the Western Front. We destroyed most of the US armour without taking casualties. About 15 Shermans and a number of half tracks were destroyed during that engagement. Many of them were burning and in between them, on the ground, there were the bodies of dead and wounded US soldiers. Shortly afterward an American waving a Red-Cross flag hovered into view. I opened the command hatch and stood up to have a look at what was happening. By now a number of American half tracks and trucks marked with the Red Cross made an appearance. They were trying to evacuate their wounded and by doing so the whole column had to drive past my assault gun in a distance of about 100 to 150 metres. It was a very unusual spectacle, both for us and for the Americans. They went back and forth until all the bodies had been recovered and I remember that at the final time they went past, there was an American officer standing on the footboard of one of the vehicles. When he passed by he tried to stand at attention and gave me a military salute. An impressive gesture which I answered in kind. Yet after they had pulled out of sight I had a weird feeling in my guts, some instinct told me that something was fishy. I gave the order to start the engines and just as we had moved the first two hundred metres towards Noville a quite substantial enemy artillery strike hit the area which we had only just left. Of course I can’t prove anything, but I still feel slightly annoyed when I think about that.
What was the supply situation like? Did your unit suffer from lack of fuel or ammunition?
I know of course that there were grievous supply problems during the Battle of the Bulge, especially so when the weather allowed the Allied air forces to operate. Yet personally I did not experience any shortages. I remember that our company was once ordered to relieve a unit of Panzer IVs, I think they were from the Hitlerjugend Division, in the area of Bastogne. When we arrived there we were short on fuel so a Hitlerjugend Hauptsturmführer came over to tell us that we could take 150 litres each from his Panzers. Another time I was under orders to lead my company into an attack on US positions…again I have forgotten where. Then we were so low on fuel that I knew that we would run out before being able to return to our own lines. I declined that order, which was accepted without problems. Ammunition was never short.
What types of enemy armour did you face in the Ardennes and how do you rate them?
In the Ardennes I encountered Shermans of all types, US tank hunters…Hellcats or Wildcats, US light tanks, armoured cars and halftracks. The backbone of the US tank units was the Sherman. That was a good and capable tank. Especially in Normandy and the Bulge where the terrain made engagements on long distances rare.
What was the average combat distance in these theatres of war?
About 500 to 600 metres. On that range the gun of the standard Sherman of that time could effectively engage our Panzer IVs and Sturmgeschütze.They were relatively fast and mobile and most important they had endless supply of them! Our guns were better, in general more powerful and with better range. Our optical equipment was better too. With the 75/L48 gun of the StuG and the Panzer IV we could engage enemy armour on ranges of about 1000 metres without even having to calculate trajectory. You just had to point the gun on the target and fire. The shell would hit where you aimed it. Of course the long 75 of the Panther was even more lethal. They caught fire quickly when hit and one thing I have often observed on Shermans is cracked armour. Even a glancing hit with a powerful gun could crack the cast armour of a Sherman open. That did not happen on our tanks. The major weakness of American tanks though..and I am sorry I have to say that, but their major weakness was the crews.
Would you care to explain?
Well, I do not like to talk about it as today's people are easily offended. Just let me say that some of the things we pulled off in the West, we could never have done in Russia. There was a certain lack of…well…how to say that…
Let me give you an example. I have witnessed a lot of times that US tank crews bailed out after being hit. Just hit! A non-penetrating hit. That means the tank was still working and the crew healthy and alive. That would have been totally unthinkable in the East. Some units could fight ferociously, but most…well…
Near Cologne I once witnessed a US Sherman crew surrendering to a Landser who was pointing a Panzerfaust at them. He jumped out of a foxhole and pointed his weapon at the tank when suddenly the hatches flew open and the crew climbed out. Engine still running. Not a shot was fired. That was probably a drastic exception, but in general the Americans lacked the ferocity and willpower we encountered regularly on the Eastern Front. That also applied to their infantry.
So combat in the east was different to that in the west?
It was. All the classic doctrines of armoured combat which we could effectively apply in the East did not work in the west. In the west allied air and artillery power ruled supreme. Our Luftwaffe was virtually non-existent. Major movements during the day and on open ground were largely impossible, as was manoeuvring in combat. Whenever the western Allies ran into resistance of any kind, or even only expected resistance they pulled back, waited for reinforcements to pull up and in the meantime they plastered us with artillery fire and air attacks. They were cautious, I would say overcautious. A mistake in my opinion as this strategy always left us the time to fall back and to establish new defensive lines. It all lasted a lot longer than it should have done.
How do you rate the German troops in the West in 1944, I am thinking about the newly raised Volksgrenadier Divisions here.
Of course many of these units were far being elite fighting forces, but believe me they were not commanded by idiots. They could all efficiently engage the enemy if needed. In general our doctrine of mission-type tactics (Auftragstaktik) gave us the edge in ground engagements. In the German Army we were told what to do and not how to do it. The ways to achieve success were left to junior commanders on the ground. In the Allied armies officers were told what to do and how to do it, making them inflexible in combat as they had to ask or wait for new orders when things didn't go as planned. On our side this concept of operational freedom worked on all levels, from army to platoon commander. Success was rewarded, not following orders. This was practised in all units of the German Army and even though effective use of Auftragstaktik very much depended on the experience and training of the officers and troops it continued to be one of our major assets. Morale was strong, especially in an experienced unit like ours.
Did you unit take any prisoners and how did the process of “taking” prisoners work, what process or protocoll was there to be followed?
We were an armoured unit and usually had to keep moving. That meant if we took prisoners they were told to disarm and then to follow our route of advance backwards until they encountered the first German infantry. There they were to raise their hands as a sign of surrender. It was a pretty straightforward process. If you ask this question because of Peiper and Malmedy, let me tell you that the whole story is fishy. In our regiment we did not shoot prisoners of war, I would personally have shot any men to open fire on defenceless prisoners. I met Jochen Peiper during the war and became friends with him after the war, when he worked for Porsche and I worked for BMW.
Did you speak to Wittmann about what happened at Malmedy?
Yes, often and in great lengths. Let me just say that I did not see anything go on at that crossroads. Neither did Peiper. There were a few Americans killed there during a short engagement. Prisoners were taken. After having been disarmed the tanks continued while the prisoners were sent backwards. When the next vehicles arrived at Malmedy some of the prisoners had rearmed themselves. Someone opened fire. That’s in very rough terms what Peiper told me himself. I too would have opened fire on an armed enemy. We all know what happened during the trials, today the facts are open and accessible if only one cares to look for them. Yet people still repeat the Malmedy story over and over. Jochen Peiper was probably the most impressive officer I have ever met. A highly experienced combat soldier of great charisma and strong character. Crimes were committed by individuals on both sides. Americans regularly executed German prisoners of war. Yet not a single one was punished for it. Being the only branch of the army wearing black uniforms with skulls on them we knew very well what could happen to us if we fell into enemy hands. Again these facts are easily available for everyone who wants to find them. That’s all I want to say at this point.
On a lighter note there is one story relating to a US prisoner of war that I will never forget..
Tell me about it!
I think it was in January, again in the area of Foy. With our assault gun we had to guard a crossroads shortly after a short engagement had been fought nearby. We were sitting in the assault gun, my hatch was opened and we were just in the process of smoking our last cigarettes and we heard the sound of someone knocking against the armour on the outside with the help of a rock or something similar. Expecting German soldiers outside I stood up and looked out only to see an American soldier, minus his helmet and weapons standing outside and addressing me in English. I did not understand a thing so I asked my radio operator, who had been working in a London hotel before the war and was fluent in English, to talk to him. He was very surprised to find out that he could hardly understand the American either! We were still communicating using hands and feet when suddenly we became the target of an American mortar barrage. In a Hollywood version of events I would probably have shot the American at this point. Yet we pulled him into the cramped fighting compartment and buttoned up. There we slowly began to understand each other while the American kindly shared a package of his cigarettes with us. I remember he was a farmhand, I have forgotten where he was from. When the barrage ceased we told him which direction to walk and for how long. He was to raise his hands when he encountered the first German infantry which would then take him prisoner. When he disappeared in the woods behind us I tried to catch a bit of sleep inside the vehicle. After about one hour someone knocked on the outside of the tank. It was my American friend. He had walked into the direction we had shown him, but failed to meet any German infantry. We could not handle a prisoner ourselves, so without thinking further about it I told my radio operator to tell the American to walk into the opposite direction. There would be no need to raise his hands when he met American infantry and that he was free to return home. I have never seen such a smile again…
Again he trotted off, but this time he did not return. I have often wondered what became of him..
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Did you take casualties from Allied air attacks?
My section didn’t, but there were losses inflicted by Allied fighter bombers. There was a period around Christmas 1944 when they were very active and again in mid January.
I was nearly knocked out by one myself around that time. I can’t remember the exact location, but again it was in the area of Noville/Foy. It was in the early morning hours and we were travelling down a paved road. I was standing in the commander’s hatch and I guess I wasn’t as alert as I should have been. Suddenly I heard an engine sound which clearly came from an aircraft. Looking up, the clouds had just begun clearing away and high above I could see the circling silhouette of a single aeroplane. Yet this was far away, or so I thought. We continued travelling down the road at high speed and just as we climbed a slope I could hear the engine sounds getting louder. As I have told you before we were all very, very tired and I guess I had somehow lost part of my senses that day. We went up the slope and down on the other side and just moments afterwards the engine sound became ear deafening. It all happened within seconds. An enemy fighter bomber came racing over the crest of the slope behind us and I swear it couldn't have been more than 5 or 6 metres above ground. I remember screaming “Scheisse! Halt an Karl!” and my driver immediately reacted and the Sturmgeschütz halted. In the same moment one or two rockets smashed into the ground just a metre or so in front of our vehicle. The force of the explosion was enough to lift the front half of it 20 or 30 centimetres into the air. The fighter bomber, I think it was an English one, zoomed over our heads. I thought it would rip off my head, then climbed and disappeared in the clouds.
I can tell you, we were all very much awake after that…