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  There is nothing we like better than a mystery that involves old photos of tanks, the Internet, people all over the world, interstate phone calls and letters moving at the speed of US mail, nearly forgotten long ago days and message board arguments … did we mention global begging? Everyone involved had opinions, things to add and things to say. There was discussion and argument but in one key area, everyone agreed … there was something really interesting about …

Bill Heflin’s Panthers

Out of the Attic


Eaglehorse.org receives a few e mail messages each month from people sending corrections or additions to existing text, requests for larger or more clear copies of on line images and contact information requests for troopers whose names appear somewhere on the site. We comply whenever possible. A few weeks back, we received a message from Stephan from Belgium, a model builder and photo collector, asking for a 1200 dpi digital copy of the image of the German Panther tank wreck found in the 926th Signal Battalion Hidden Story. We had returned the original photograph to the contributor, Bill Heflin Jr., over a year ago; our “ file “ copy of the image was in 72 dpi size, suitable for the Internet but not worth much for image printing. Although we had not exchanged letters with Bill for many months, we wrote, explained the situation and asked to borrow the photograph once more. Powered by a 37 cent stamp and our best intentions, the letter set sail.

About a week later, a small package arrived from Maryland; Bill Heflin had not only sent the photo we requested but four other photos taken in the woods and meadows not too far from Manteuffel Kaserne that showed other destroyed Panther tanks he had photographed that same day in 1946. While there was plenty of time for the Town and Country Club at night, armed with his camera and good walking shoes, there was just too much to explore to stay in the barracks on a Summer day. Down from the attic and into the mail, Bill was more than happy to help out with his photos once more.

Although the photo safari had occurred almost fifty years ago, and much of the detail was lost, he did recall the site of the wrecks was within walking distance of the barracks but certainly not within the city limits of Bad Kissingen. In his note, Bill wondered if he had taken the only photos of those tanks, this seemed odd because he thought their location was generally known by the occupation troops in Bad Kissingen. Perhaps with the war over for only a year, destroyed German equipment in the countryside just wasn’t that novel. We sent the appropriately sized scans off to a very happy Stephan in Belgium and set about the task of sorting out the mystery of Bill Heflin’s Panthers. Although our conclusions are built largely on circumstantial evidence, here is our best effort to recall the tank battles that occurred within earshot of Bad Kissingen in 1945.

A Final Flickering: The End of the 2nd Panzer Division

As noted in The First Americans Hidden Story, combat operations in the former Eaglehorse area of Germany saw a major push by several US divisions from the W-SW to the NE in a corridor running from Frankfurt-Aschafenburg toward Meiningen. The plan then called for a turn almost due north, oriented on the central German cities of Erfurt and Jena. The objectives were to destroy remaining Nazi forces and link up with the advancing Soviets across a broad front. As part of this scheme, the US 3rd Infantry Division and 14th Armored Division were on the eastern flank of the drive; Bad Kissingen was a minor objective.

In late March-early April 1945, the German military still rallied forces to the defense although the outcome of the war was not in doubt. Severely depleted divisions, Volkssturm units of hastily trained old men and ad hoc battle groups made up of soldiers from troop training centers were hastily dispatched to defend key areas, set up ambushes and even conduct limited counterattacks. A part of this story, focused on the Task Force Baum raid on Hammelburg, is told in wonderful detail here .

In late March, what was left of the once powerful 2nd Panzer Division, commanded by Major General Meinrad von Lauchert had been rendered combat ineffective by constant American attacks. The division was penned against the western bank of the Rhine River. A highly decorated and skilled panzer commander, Lauchert ordered his command to cross the river by any means possible; for many, this meant rafts, small boats or as Leuchert supposedly did, by swimming.

After taking stock of the situation, Lauchert, who had brilliantly commanded the unit during both the Battle of the Bulge and then delaying actions once the US forces regained the initiative, saw no point in the continued fight. He said farewell to his small staff and began walking home to his family in Bamberg. His war career had started in that city as a company grade officer in Panzer Regiment 35, part of the 4th Panzer Division. Whatever the future may hold for the Reich, he intended to find his family. This left what remained of the 2 Panzer Division without a commander. The survivors notified their higher headquarters, organized themselves into march columns and headed east.

On 25 March, in the German state of Hesse, Major General Oscar Munzel, recently returned from the Eastern Front and currently assigned as the Commander of the Panzer School at Bergen, was directed to create a combat unit by assembling the school staffs and any available trainees from a wide array of training centers in central Germany. He moved into the combat unit chain of command and reported progress to 7th Army HQ. He also apparently was placed in command of the 2nd Panzer Division even though it was over 80 kilometers away and he had almost no communication with the unit.

In the last week of March, with a small staff, he organized the consolidation of the Thuringen Panzer Brigade by road and rail. It was a daunting task, most of the units lacked all but the most basic equipment. At the Panzer School, Munzel had close to 40 operational tanks but could not get the transport to quickly move them to the Brigade assembly area near Fulda.

In groups of 300 to 400 men, the training staff units assembled and were organized on the fly. A Flak Regiment had lost its anti-aircraft cannon when their train was shot up by US forces at Hammelburg. They were redesignated as two infantry battalions. The NCO School provided a much needed cadre of combat experienced instructors, he thought of using them to “stiffen“ the units consisting or new recruits but finally decided to keep the NCOs as separate unit, his emergency combat reserve. NCO candidates from another school were leavened into the inexperienced units. He was offered over 500 officers from the Reserve Command Army Personnel Office but initially declined, seeing no point in sending them to slaughter but reconsidered and assigned 150 of them to help defend Schluctern.

The Brigade was desperately short of combat vehicles, a few platoons of light anti tank Hetzers were added, a few assault guns were found. There were almost no supply trucks and only a few horse drawn wagons. To make matters worse, the US forces were now applying pressure on the Fulda area and Munzel was ordered to commit the Brigade to combat.

Initially, Munzel was able to deploy a screen backed up by an anti tank company and some infantry units. He hoped to finish the organization of the Brigade, his tanks from Bergen failed to arrive and Hetzer unit from Wildflecken was caught on open roads and destroyed by US forces firing into a narrow valley. The combat pressure began to fragment his hasty defense near Fulda and for nearly 18 hours, he was out of touch with the situation, his staff car had broken down while he was in the front lines forcing him to walk back to his HQ.

On 2 April, the Brigade was in place along the Kinzig River valley, basically defending the Fulda area. The same day, the march columns of the 2nd Panzer Division arrived, their combat equipment was limited to what they could carry by hand. The following day a few other small combat units were added and Munzel no longer had contact with the German divisions operating on his flanks, they had withdrawn to the east and were in the Meiningen area. The American pressure resumed to his front, Munzel was directed to turn the command over to Colonel Carl Stollbrock and make his way to the Wehrmacht High Command-West in the Hartz Mountains.

This final change of command for the division has an interesting sidelight. Why did it occur? We can only speculate, there appears to be no written record, however, Munzel was very highly thought of and perhaps his friends in the High Command did not see the point in sacrificing his life for the dieing Reich. The move was fortuitous, Oskar Munzel survived the war, was instrumental in rebuilding the Bundeswehr in 1955 and rose to its senior command level. The wide array of units that Major General Oskar Munzel had assembled during the previous weeks were incorporated into the 2nd Panzer Division.

The new and final commander, Colonel Carl Stollbrock had recently departed his assignment with the Instructor Staff for Senior Armor Officers and then graduated from one of the final classes of the Division Commander‘s Course. The fortunes of war had seen the month long course move from its usual location in central Germany  to Bad Neustadt. In a wonderful twist of fate, as the division departed Fulda with a march route of Meiningen-Bad Neustadt-Bamberg, Stollbrock was locally available and now officially qualified to assume that level of command.

The 2 Panzer Division was first built in this region only nine years earlier. Stollbrock, following command of an anti tank battalion, had joined the division after its move to Austria and successfully commanded the 2 Kradschutzen Battalion in combat in Poland and France. Later, he was a staff officer, a regimental commander, an instructor and had briefly been the acting commander of the 26th Panzer Division. A lot had changed in a fairly short period of time and although the specifics are lost, it appears as though he assumed command of the division in Meiningen. The battalion he commanded in 1940 probably had more combat power than the division he now led. The specific mission of his unit is not clear. It was headed towards southern Germany or the mountains of Czechoslovakia, perhaps the final destination was the rumored “Nazi Alpine Redoubt“. The immediate mission was to avoid being trapped by American units trailing him from the west or approaching from the south.

The specific strengths of this unit are not accurately known, it probably numbered under five hundred men equipped with infantry weapons. There was very little transport, maybe a few trucks and the usual horse or donkey carts. Along the way, some light artillery had been added, a few anti tank guns, some rocket-artillery. Everything was streaming east away from Fulda. It was an armor division armed with rifles, hardly much more than a rifle regiment of recruits, training cadre and the hard core survivors of Lauchert’s last fight on the Rhine. As they neared Meiningen, a pleasant surprise, 12 late model Panther G tanks and crews from the Grafenwoehr Training Command joined the division. Colonel Carl Stollbrock, commander of the 2nd Panzer Division, once one of the premiere armor divisions of the Reich, finally had some tanks.

Why he chose to commit his last Panzers is a matter of speculation. His “division“ was passing through Meiningen and he may have thought he could briefly delay the American forces in some of the narrow valleys north of Bad Kissingen. If his subordinate commanders choose their terrain well, this might buy a few additional hours to further the escape. Maybe he felt he would soon loose the tanks to air attack if they continued with the march, he might as well commit them in ground combat where the terrain favored a defender. Perhaps the mission was a daring counter attack that lost its way. The fine detail on the German side of the map is lost.

The Winners Write the History, the Search for the Story

The German language sources at our disposal offered very little to help us further unravel the story of Bill Heflin’s Panthers. We had much better luck with the works of US historians. The same pages of Taggart’s The Third Infantry Division in World War II and Vernon Brown’s memoir of service with the Troop D, 94th Cavalry, 14th AD, Mount Up! We’re Moving Out! , that recalled the first American forces at Bad Kissingen also recall the clashes with German armor in the nearby countryside.

Many of the accounts were similar, scouts in jeeps or infantry forces were heading north-northeast in the areas just east and north of Bad Kissingen when they suddenly faced German Panthers with infantry in support. It may have been that the same ten or twelve German tanks were encountered by several different units until they ultimately were destroyed. Bill recalled the Panther hulks being within walking distance of Manteuffel Kaserne; we limited our search to events occurring with 12 kilometers of the barracks. Note that Taggart’s work was based on first hand accounts and hastily written after-action reports and Brown’s memoir was written forty years after the events, sometimes the recollections, map directions and flow of battle may contain understandable errors.

6-7 April 1945-General Situation

Regiments of the 3rd Infantry Division have fought a brief battle at Wildflecken Kaserne and move SE though light contact, towards Bad Kissingen. The 7th Infantry Regiment is tasked with the area east of Bad Kissingen while the 30th Regiment will secure the city and immediate surrounding area. The 15th Regiment is also in the area. The infantry are in trucks or amphibious “ ducks “, there is an attached M10 tank destroyer company, elements of the US 14th Armored Division are also in this exact same area.

Taggert (3rd ID)

Major Flynn’s 3rd Battalion, 7th Regiment, picked its way over the rough roads and rugged terrain to Stangenroth from where it jumped off to take the deserted villages of Premich and Steinach. Continuing north, the battalion approached a roadblock consisting of three Mark V (Panther) tanks, three anti tank guns and nearly a battalion of enemy troops southwest of Steinach. The battle rages all night long and into the next day, when two of the three tanks were destroyed by accurate fire of Company A, 601st TD, commanded by Lt. George Philipovich. The Germans brought down accurate artillery fire and salvos of Nebelwerfer rocket fire and rushed additional armor into the fray in an effort to stem the tide but finally retreated before the continuous pressure of the 3rd battalion. In all, the enemy lost twelve Mark V (Panthers) during the struggle.

Taggert reports that the battalions encountered other ambushes and localized counter attacks in the area but these were conducted without armor support. By 9 April, the division was moving through the Bad Neustadt area and swinging further east towards Schweinfurt.

Taggert reports that the battalions encountered other ambushes and localized counter attacks in the area but these were conducted without armor support. By 9 April, the division was moving through the Bad Neustadt area and swinging further east towards Schweinfurt.

Brown (Trp D-94th Cav / 14th AD)

April 6 began as just one of those days. Jumping off at first light, we raced through Paltz, Burkardorf, Stangeroth and Steiberg to Premich before we ran into trouble. … Leaving Premich, however, Troop met four Tiger tanks (I believe he incorrectly recalls the type, they are the same Panthers that Taggert recalled) with mounted infantry, coming the other way on a narrow mountain road, and in the action that followed we lost two more armored cars and two more Peeps (scout jeeps) Lieutenant George Bennett was killed, and popular SSG Dallas Schuler took over as Platoon Leader of the 3rd Platoon … we pulled back into Premich.

Happily, we had an M36 tank destroyer from the 636th TD Battalion attached to us for just such an occasion and he began to fire high velocity 90 mm armor piercing ammunition at the lead Tiger…. The gunner of the tiger began to fire back and the duel was on, to end when our gunner put the forth round in the ground just in front of the Kraut tank, in such a way that it ricocheted up into the crank case, smoke appeared from the engine, the crowd cheered wildly and the tank stopped where it was blocking the road which gave second thoughts to the others who pulled back.

We retuned to Stangeroth that night after calling for artillery fire on Premich.

After a night of mortar and rocket fire on their position, the men of Troop D and Vern Brown’s scout platoon headed north, by-passing the Germans encountered on 6 April.

Brown

The next morning, with the 1st Platoon at point, Troop advanced towards Sandberg arriving around noontime to find that there was a platoon of four or five Tiger ((I believe he means Panther)) tanks along with mounted infantry on the other side of a small bridge just east of the town. Troop HQ somewhere to the rear, found this difficult to believe as they had been assured the Krauts had cleared out of the area, and as our orders were to continue on through to the east, they opted to send Jim Taibi’s section of the 1st Platoon on ahead to scout the situation. The news that Troop intended to send two Peeps and an armored car out to meet a platoon of Tiger tanks all mounting 88 mm cannons, to say nothing of their supporting infantry did not sit will with those involved in the adventure … the day was saved by the arrival of a battalion from the 3rd Infantry Division, who promptly attacked down the road ably supported by M4 Sherman tanks, M36 tank destroyers and some ½ tracks … Troop departed in their favor and departed Sandberg for Zollbach.

For Vern Brown and the men of Troop D, the war ended about one month later, they went into temporary occupation duty in the Munich area. The 14th Armored Davison had liberated over 110 , 000 Allied POWs in the final weeks of the war.

A
t about the same time, in the small German city of Kotzting near the Czech border and to the northeast at Trochau inside of Czechoslovakia, the last men of the 2nd Panzer Division surrendered to local US forces. A few days earlier, the order had been given that any soldiers desiring to simply “ leave for home “ were free to go. The 2nd Panzer Davison, that had fought in Poland, France ((1940)), Greece, Russia, France (1944) and then the final defense of the Reich, ceased to exist.

Long Time Gone

Where exactly were the Panthers that Bill Heflin photographed in 1946? Between Brown and Taggert, we get two very good clues: just SW of Steinach and on the road leading east out of Premich. Geoff Walden, TACOM in Schweinfurt, is back from his second tour in Iraq and has agreed to check the locations to see if any of the horizon and tree lines in the photos can be matched in the modern day.   On the first pass through, nothing matched up, however, Geoff vowed to try a second time.  By the time Bill took his photos, the tanks had taken on a “picked over“ look, there may have been some souvenir hunters from the Army but much more would have been removed by local scrap collectors.

In immediate post war Germany, two ready sources of employment were recycling bricks, window and door frames from bombed out cities and collecting scrap steel from the battlefields. The once mighty Panthers that were part of the last combat operation of the 2nd Panzer Division would have slowly been whittled down, first by hand, then wrench and finally with acetylene torches until nothing remained … except for memories and Bill Heflin’s Panther photographs.

*UPDATE
Geoff Walden recently went and found the places where these tanks met their ends.  To view this update click here

Enter the Internet

We researched this story in part by begging at some of the outstanding World War II History and Armored Fighting Vehicle discussion forums available on the Internet. As with all things, one must be careful about the source, there is a lot of bad information on the Internet but the better, fact driven sites usually self-police and avoid the mud slinging and specious information that can live forever on “ rant “ sites. For factual and fascinating discussion of tanks and evolution of world wide armor forces, please see George Bradford’s AFV News,the forum is the first selection in the main menu, the major links will take you days to fully explore.

Without doubt the most extensive German military history English language web site and forum page is Jason Pipes’ one man monument to research. In an ocean of on line rant rooms, catalogues and porn, these sites represent the enormous power of the Internet.

We posted the images of the Panther tanks and asked for opinions on vehicle type and background associated with the last days of the 2 Panzer Division. After some argument and discussion, the consensus was that the tanks were the model G types, the final production version, see: http://members.tripod.com/~dietmagic/panther.html and http://www.achtungpanzer.com/intro.htm . The Feld Grau forums provided great detail on the Thuringer Panzer Brigade and we even met another US veteran from Daley Barracks on line … it’s a small world at lightening speed.

Interestingly in Europe over the past few years a wonderful mixture of historical research, backyard archeology and “ let’s go dig up some tanks!! “ thinking has led to many recoveries of once lost German and Soviet WWII era vehicles. Dedicated hobbyists armed with unit After Action Reports, metal detectors and bribes for local farmers have fanned out from Normandy to the former Stalingrad to seek battlefield relics. The former Soviet Union and Eastern block countries have proven to be a particularly ripe picking fields. On occasion, farmers simply buried tank hulks in convenient shell and bomb holes to get post war farming under way. In 2005 here come the guys with the Euros and the shovels!! Go here and click the “Come See the Battlefields“ icon.

In 1978, some of my NCOs who lived on the economy and had extensive German contacts mentioned they had heard of a tank battle that had taken place not too far from Bad Kissingen. The fight still lived at the Stammtisch in a few of the village Gasthauses; the older Germans recalled a victory. I made a mental note, vowed to see the area and then never followed through. Sometimes these things take a while and if you happen to stick a shovel in the ground by the road running east out of Premich, you never know what you might find.

 
 


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