Heinrich Eberbach I

Heinrich Eberbach

On 24 November 1895 Heinrich Eberbach was born in Stuttgart, the son of a salesman. At the age of six his father died prematurely and his widowed mother, who was left to bring up five children, did not have an easy time. The young Heinrich was not a good pupil at school. Lessons had little interest for him and he was only really happy in the open air, spending his time hiking and exploring the countryside around his home town. Although he was not a devoted scholar, he took the matriculation examination at the end of his studies and passed. For a boy whose expressed interest it was to become a soldier, he had, by passing the matriculation examination, taken the most important step to gaining an officer’s commission. He did not wait long after gaining his matriculation certificate and on 1 July 1914 was accepted into the 180th Württemberg Regiment, which was garrisoned in Tübingen.

Upon the declaration of war in the autumn of 1914, Eberbach’s regiment went on active service in the Vosges mountains of southern France. A month later, in September, the 180th Regiment was taken from that sector of the battle line and posted to northern France and to the Cambrai-Thiepval sector. Here the regiment was involved in heavy and close fighting, with a lot of bayonet work. For his service during this period Eberbach was awarded the Iron Class 2nd Class, and this was followed a few days later by his promotion to the rank of Corporal. In the fighting he was wounded in the upper thigh, but he refused to leave his men and go into hospital. During January 1915 he was promoted to the rank of Ensign and only a month later received his commission.

Throughout the summer of 1915 Eberbach was with the 180th in the great battles that were the milestones of that year, and during the French offensive of September, in the Champagne region, his platoon lay in the front line. French infantry attacked the German positions, but the first wave was flung back by the fire of the 108th. Then touch was lost with the neighbouring unit and the French surged through the gap and began to surround Eberbach’s platoon.

In such circumstances it might have been wise to retreat, but Eberbach knew that German Field Service regulations laid down that any ground lost to the enemy had to be regained in an immediate counter-attack. If he and his men could hold out they would soon be brought out of the encirclement. For nearly half a day the platoon fought hard against the attacking enemy. Then ammunition began to run low and it looked as if everything was lost. Eberbach decided to make one great effort, break through the encircling ring and regain touch with the rest of his battalion. Placing himself at the head of his dwindling band of men, he led them at a charge across the torn-up ground. He and his little group had not gone far before the French opened fire upon them. Eberbach was struck so hard on the left side of his face that he was knocked unconscious to the ground. When he came to he found that he and his men were prisoners. The wound he had received had carried away his nose.

Nevertheless, he determined to make his escape, but for his failed attempt he was held in a punishment camp. He did not leave there until December 1916, when he was sent to Switzerland in exchange for a badly wounded French soldier. During his time in Switzerland he learned that he had been awarded the Württemberg Order of Frederick with Swords 2nd Class. Eberbach underwent a series of operations and the surgeons built an artificial nose that partially restored his damaged face. He was returned to Germany in August 1917, and he was decorated with the Iron Cross 1st Class for his action of September 1915.

Eberbach returned to active service in October 1917 and was transferred to the 146th Regiment, which was in Macedonia. With that regiment he was posted to Palestine and many times demonstrated his courage and prowess. One happy coincidence for him was that while in prison in France he had learned Turkish, and because of his fluency in this language he was soon attached to the Turkish 8th Army in Tulkerim. When the Turkish front collapsed in September 1918 and the units began to give way, Eberbach was given command of the rearguard of the Turkish Army, a demonstration of the trust the authorities had in him. One of his first acts was to withstand a series of attacks by British cavalry. For five days he and his men—a mixed collection of Turks, Austrians and Germans—held the line, but then he went down with malaria and was taken prisoner again. It was Eberbach and men like him who aroused feelings of respect in such former enemies as Lawrence of Arabia, who was astounded that the morale of the Austrians and Germans did not break although they were fighting in a hopeless situation in an alien land far removed from Central Europe.

Eberbach was to receive the same sort of respectful treatment from his former enemies after the Second World War. These former enemies were the officers of the American 35th Tank Battalion. However, that second peacetime greeting lay more than two decades distant. Let us stay with Heinrich Eberbach as he rests in a British military hospital in Cairo, and then follow him through his time as a prisoner of war in Egypt and his return home to Germany. There in 1919 he became engaged to Anna Lempf, who had nursed him in 1917 when he was recovering after the severe wounds to his face. Eberbach was not retained in the Army of the Weimar Republic and, like so many of his contemporaries, enlisted into the Württemberg police force. He rose steadily in rank and by June 1933 had gained his majority. Two years later he re-entered the Army and was posted to Schwerin to the newly raised anti-tank battalion that was stationed in that town. Promotion came quickly in the Army of the Third Reich, and in the autumn of 1937 Eberbach was raised to the rank of Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant-Colonel) and then, a year later, was given command of the 35th Panzer Regiment, a component of the 4th Panzer Division.

It was while with his Panzer regiment that Eberbach again went to war. The first campaign was against Poland, and the 4th Panzer Division formed part of Rundstedt’s Army Group South. The opening operations ran smoothly until 4 September, when it was realised at Army Group level that a concentration of Polish divisions was withdrawing in a south-easterly direction under the pressure of Army Group North and posed a threat to the flank of Rundstedt’s army group. To confront this danger von Rundstedt changed front by swinging his forces round to face the Polish host. While the mass of Army Group South was preparing itself to contest the advance of the Polish divisions, the 4th Panzer, with Eberbach’s regiment in the van, struck for the Polish capital, and at 1715 hours its vehicles entered Warsaw. But armour, however skilfully handled and directed, is not a successful medium in urban warfare, and Eberbach’s regiment was quickly taken out of the Polish capital and redeployed to support the Leibstandarte SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Infantry Regiment which was fighting in the great bend of the Bzura river against a mass of nine divisions of the Pomorze Army. This was a bitter battle. It was not one of mopping up the defeated enemy, but one fought against soldiers who not only were defending their homeland but were determined to smash their way through the closing ring of German forces in order to support the main army inside Warsaw. The withdrawal of the 4th Panzer Division from the Warsaw sector weakened the German encircling ring and the Poles were quick to exploit this fault. On 12 September the Polish 4th and 16th Infantry Divisions attacked the German units barring the way to Warsaw, but were driven back with heavy loss.

At first light on 13 September Eberbach’s regiment, supported by the Leibstandarte, attacked in order to relieve the pressure that was being exerted on the other formations of the 4th Panzer Division. Slowly the balance began to turn against the Poles, and Army Group South started to close in and to destroy the enemy in the bend of the Bzura. In that advance the Polish 28th and 30th Infantry Divisions were struck and forced back towards Modlin. Along the Bzura there was now a solid mass of German armour, which was used to isolate the Polish units and to fragment them.

Eberbach’s 35th Panzer Regiment went in and attacked the high ground at Btonie. For this operation he formed his armour into two columns, each of which was supported by an SS battalion. The assault rolled on, and against diminishing Polish resistance the small town of Kaputy was taken. There was to be no halt now. Eberbach ordered the units to keep moving at top speed. The fighting endured for a further few days and then, on 16 September, the 35th Panzer Regiment, supported by the 12th Rifle Regiment and the Leibstandarte SS, struck across the Bzura. Divisional engineer units had already begun to erect a bridge, but Eberbach was unwilling to wait for it to be completed and ordered his vehicles to wade across the wide but shallow river. As the units began to cross, rain fell and soon was of such an intensity that the armour was not able to negotiate the thick and clinging mud that had been produced, nor climb the bank on the Polish side. This meant that too few machines reached that side to go into the attack and it had to be postponed. By 1100 hours enough armoured fighting vehicles had been grouped and the attack began to roll again. The assault, now reduced to a single column, moved forward until Bijmpol was reached, and at that place Eberbach divided his force and deployed it to carry out a pincer attack. On the Polish side, General Kutzreba had concentrated the divisions of the Pomorze Army and had grouped his artillery in order to smash a way through the German lines and to reach Warsaw. The ensuing battle produced a crisis that was not mastered until Eberbach’s regiment, together with two battalions of the Leibstandarte, opened a counter-attack. Within an hour the German assault had broken through the Polish front—a movement that headed a general assault by Army Group South and which broke the Pomorze Army.

The most successful and destructive encirclement operation in military history to that date was concluded and had been fought out in the bend of the Bzura river. As his reward for the part that his Panzer regiment had played in the Polish campaign, Eberbach received the clasp to the Iron Cross 1st Class that he had been awarded during the Great War. Ahead of the 4th Panzer Division there now lay the prospect of a new campaign—the war in France and Flanders.

The war in the West ended in another German victory, and Eberbach’s Panzer regiment took a prominent part in the first part of the campaign—in Flanders and then in the fighting in the Dyle positions as well as in the capture of Armentières. That town was taken in a night assault—the first in German tank history. The role of his regiment in the operations during the subsequent Battle of France was no less glittering. The thrust through the Weygand Line at Péronne and then the charge which took the regiment up to and then across the Seine, near Romilly, was carried on to occupy the town before midnight. That success brought with it orders to drive to Locre, and this was accomplished by moving through Dijon and then making a swift advance to Lyon.

An example of Eberbach’s determination to win came when one of his Panzer battalion commanders asked for a day’s rest in order to service the vehicles, which were showing the strain of continual and daily use. Eberbach’s answer was a rejection which ended with the remark that one has to pursue a fleeing enemy and that if he, Eberbach, had under his command just the divisional field kitchens he would still continue to attack until the enemy had been brought to his knees. At the end of the campaign in the West, Eberbach was awarded the Knight’s Cross for the action at Romilly.

For Operation ‘Barbarossa’, the invasion of the Soviet Union, the German Army disposed four Panzer groups. One of each of these served with Army Groups North and South. Under the control of Army Group Centre there were two Panzer groups. In this account we are concerned with the 2nd Panzer Group, commanded by General Guderian, which had on its establishment three Panzer corps and one infantry corps. Each regiment of Guderian’s Panzer divisions had a higher than usual establishment of battalions—three instead of two. This higher establishment equipped his Panzer group with a total of 930 armoured fighting vehicles compared to the neighbouring Panzer Group von Kleist, which had only 750 machines on its establishment.

The 24th Panzer Corps, of which the 4th Panzer Division formed part, was placed on the left wing of Guderian’s group, and the campaign opened disastrously for Eberbach. In the advances of the first weeks he responded to a request from the 3rd Panzer Division for help and immediately changed his regiment’s line of advance to support the sister division. In the ensuing fighting the town of Baranovitch was captured in a coup de main. Despite this victory, the commander of the 4th Panzer Division threatened to charge Eberbach with dereliction of duty in disobeying his original orders. The charge was not proceeded with and Eberbach led his regiment in the capture of Stary-Bykor, one of the bastions of the Stalin Line, as well as in the capture intact of the bridges at Propaisk. It was the last-named, brilliantly executed Panzer action which led, perhaps, to Eberbach’s being named as commander of the 5th Panzer Brigade within the 4th Panzer Division. The storming career of Guderian’s Panzer group seemed to be unstoppable, and one after the other major Russian towns fell to the German thrusts.

A situation then developed in the fighting of mid-August 1941. The advance by the right, or inner, wing of Army Group Centre and the left, or inner, wing of Army Group South had been retarded by the terrain phenomenon of the Pripet Marshes. By contrast, the outer wings of both army groups had been more rapid. As a consequence, a vast salient had been created. The westernmost point of this was at Kiev and the eastern end was more than 120km past that city. The salient contained nearly sixty Red Army divisions, formed into five armies, and the possibility existed that that great mass of Red Army soldiers could be trapped and destroyed. But there was a difference of opinion at senior command level as to what was the correct course of action. Should the salient—this ulcer on the German flank—be left or should it be taken out? Among others, Guderian was of the opinion that the salient should be left unmolested until the thrust to take out Moscow had been made and had succeeded. The opposing voices claimed that this threat should be neutralised before the attack was launched against Moscow. That was the course of action that Hitler chose.

The battle plan was for an encirclement by units of both army groups. The Panzer formations of Army Groups South and Centre, already a long way to the east of Kiev, would swing inwards at Konotop (Army Group Centre) and at Kremechug (Army Group South) and encircle the Red Army formations. Meanwhile, the infantry of both army groups would play their part in compressing and destroying the Soviet forces. The task of Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Group was to advance eastwards and to capture the important railway junction at Konotop, for the Kiev-Moscow railway line was the channel that supplied the armies in the salient and it would be their principal line of retreat. The advance by Guderian’s Panzers was then to continue eastwards to take Romny. Here it was to turn southwards and to meet the Panzer force of von Kleist, which would be striking upwards from Kremechug. The meeting of the two Panzer groups would thus have encircled the Soviet troops of the South-West Front.

When the 13th Red Army was shattered on 17 August, the 2nd Panzer Group reached the Desna river. Guderian selected the 24th Panzer Corps to be the cutting edge of the offensive that was to drive southwards to meet von Kleist’s armour. Model’s 3rd Panzer Division, part of the 24th Panzer Corps, was to spearhead the corps’ assault with the 4th Panzer and 10th Motorised Divisions marching closely behind. Corps forced a crossing of the Desna river, established a bridgehead and then broke out of this to drive southwards and to capture firstly Shostka and then Voronezh.

On 28 August the careering advance halted. The two Panzer divisions had outrun their fuel supplies and were stranded, immobile, on the Ukrainian steppes. On the following day the corps commander regrouped his forces and, having refuelled them, sent them off again.

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