Let’s focus today on the Reich’s best-equipped and strongest division: the Panzer-Lehr Division.
Anticipating the Anglo-American invasion of France for 1944, German high command ordered the creation of a new armored division in the West to bolster their strength on this front and repel the Allies. This division, Panzer-Lehr, was formed from December 30th, 1943, in the Nancy-Verdun-Lunéville area, in Eastern France. Although given the designation “130. Panzerdivision” on April 4th, 1944, it never stuck and the unit was always referred to, even in official documents, as Panzer-Lehr Division. For this division was quite unique …
‘Lehr’ means ‘teach’ in German, and the new division was called that way for it was formed mostly from personnel drawn from armored training and demonstration troops, although staff & support service personnel were also transferred from 137. Infanterie-Division which had been disbanded due to heavy losses sustained on the Eastern Front. This means that the division was almost entirely composed of veteran instructors & Ostkampfer (Eastern Front veterans), hence was considered elite from its creation. This shows through its equipment, for Panzer-Lehr was lavishly equipped with more or better equipment than any other armored division in the Reich: Tiger E, Königstiger, Puma, Jagdpanzer IV, its infantry battalions entirely mounted on half-tracks (against 1/4 for other Panzerdivisions), … Panzer-Lehr was without a doubt the best equipped and most powerful armored division of the Third Reich.
Fritz Bayerlein was chosen to lead this elite unit into battle. A WW1 Bavarian veteran, he took part in the campaign in Poland (1939) and France (1940) as a staff officer under no less than Heinz Guderian. In late 1941, he shipped to North Africa as chief of staff of the Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK), Rommel’s Panzergruppe Afrika‘s armored fist in the desert. Bayerlein struck a good relationship (at least, at first) with the Desert Fox, and was rewarded with promotions, awards & responsibilities. The DAK suffering a high casualty rate, Bayerlein was given temporary commands well above his ranks to fill the gaps, commanding the while DAK for some time, and ending up the Tunisia campaign as chief of staff of the whole german-Italian forces in North Africa, and de facto commander of all its German component. Although his skills and reputation might have been inflated after the war, Bayerlein was nonetheless an experienced panzer commander.
Less than three months after its creation, Panzer-Lehr was already used for Unternehmen Margarethe, the occupation of Hungary which, although allied to Germany, was conducting secret negotiations to switch to the allied side. This bloodless operation was used as training by Panzer-Lehr. while pursuing its formation.
With Hungary’s prime minister replaced by one more amenable to German views, Panzer-Lehr was moved back in France, and D-Day found it in the Chartres-Orléans-Le Mans area. There, as part of Panzegruppe West, it could only be released under Hitler’s personal authorization.
FIGHTING FOR CAEN …
As is now common knowledge, this authorization never came in time to allow those divisions to be engaged against the allied bridgehead on June 6th, Hitler and his senior advisors considering Normandy as a diversion and still expecting the main blow to come in the Pas-de-Calais area. Only at 4 PM on June 6th were 12. SS-Panzer & Panzer-Lehr rushed toward Normandy, much too late. Driving his division all night to avoid allied planes, Bayerlein expected to be able to hide during daylight, but he was ordered to keep moving. And thus the Lehr‘s drive to the front became a nightmare: under constant attacks from allied fighter-bombers, the division sustained its first casualties but, more importantly, was seriously delayed.
Finally assembled in Normandy, Panzer-Lehr was engaged from June 8th in the Caen sector. On June 13th, it took part in the battle of Villers-Bocage, already mentioned in our Aces’ DevBlog. Panzer-Lehr spent all June covering Caen, fighting off British penetrations. Between June 26th & July 5th, the division was gradually relieved on its position by the 276. Infanterie-Division. In a month of fighting, it had lost 490 killed, 1.809 wounded & 673 missing.
… THEN FOR SAINT-LÔ
The respite was short, though: on July 7th, Panzer-Lehr was ordered back to the front, but this time in the American sector, to defend Saint-Lô. The division was to have the dubious honor of taking part in both of the Normandy campaign’s meatgrinders.
On July 11th, the division launch a counter-offensive to recapture the village of Le Desert, lost three days earlier by 2. SS-Panzer. The offensive went well at first, Panzer-Lehr breaking before dawn through the American 39th Infantry Regiment‘s lines and overrunning one of its battalion’s HQ. But then they met M10 Wolverines 899th & 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion. In the ensuing battle, fought in the dark by the muzzles flashes of both sides’ guns. By morning, the M10 had delayed, stopped even, the Panzer-Lehr long enough for American reinforcements to join the fight: 9th Infantry Division, 3rd Armored Division, more TDs, US Air Force, … By the end of the day, Bayerlein and his superiors had to admit defeat and pull back, especially since the loss of Hill 192, captured in the meantime by the American 2nd Infantry Division, was bringing the Allied closer from Saint-Lô.
From then on, the division went on the defensive yet couldn’t prevent the American entering the ruins of the Norman city on July 19th. By then, Panzer-Lehr was a mere shadow of its former self. But the worst was still to come: Operation Cobra, the major American breakout from bocage country, was planned to drive exactly through the division’s new positions outside of Saint-Lô.On July 25th morning, and for one hour, over 1.500 US Air Force‘s B-17 & B-24 bombers as well as about 1.000 fighters & fighter-bombers, unleashed one of the greatest carpet-bombing of the war. About 5.000 bombs per square kilometer. And right on the receiving end was Panzer-Lehr, or what remained of it at that moment. Yet, despite later claims by Bayerlein, it doesn’t seem that casualties, either in men or vehicles, were very high. But the breakdown of communications between units and a great number of shell-shocked men disrupted the division’s ability to oppose the American charge. Despite strong pockets of resistance still fighting two days later, including artillery elements engaging American tanks in direct combat, Panzer-Lehr‘s positions didn’t form a continuous line, and Allied troops were able to penetrate or bypass them.
Although Bayerlein later claimed that his division was “annihilated” that day (Cobra), it still had 11.000 men & 33 serviceable tanks or assault guns ready by August 1st. Out of that number, a Kampfgruppe Hauser was formed to support the Fallschirmjäger while the rest sent to Alençon for refitting, where a second Kampfgruppe was formed with replacements, repaired vehicles and stragglers rejoining their units. For the rest of the campaign, or by that point, the retreat toward the Seine, then Germany, Panzer-Lehr was split in two or three independent Kampfgruppen supporting local units.
Once in Germany, Panzer-Lehr was refitted but once again, the respite was short and it had to fight-off American penetrations near Saverne. Which meant it was only incompletely refitted when the Ardennes counter-offensive began. By a combination of factors (traffic jams, the inability of 26. Volksgrenadier-Division to clear the way quickly, American resistance, … and even Guderian’s gullibility), Panzer-Lehr‘s advance was very slow, much too slow: when it finally reached Bastogne, the American 101st Airborne had just gotten there ahead of us. Against the odds, the Battered Bastards of Bastogne managed to hold the town, and Panzer-Lehr soon found itself facing Patton’s men coming to the rescue. When it was finally pulled out of Belgium, Panzer-Lehr had to be rebuilt again, yet as a mere shadow of its former self.Used as a “fire brigade”, it was sent against the British in the Ruhr, then the Americans at the Remagen bridge. Both counter-attacks ended in failure, and the division, trapped in the Ruhr pocket, surrendered on April 15th.
THE PANZER-LEHR DIVISION INGAME
With only a few light vehicles and a weak economy in Phase A, Panzer-Lehr has to be patient. Although lacking in hitting power in early game, it can nonetheless rely on a strong recon tab, including several SdKfz 234 heavy armored recon cars, enough to fight a delaying action until phase B or even dispute some key positions. Just like the US 3rd Armored, Panzer-Lehr also has the (pricey) advantage of having all its infantry “gepanzert“, that is “armored”: from phase A to C, the whole of its infantry tab arrives with SdKfz 251, but for a few commanders in Kubelwagen.
It has to wait for phase B for things to get much better, with the tank tab, so empty in phase A, now offering what’s best in the German arsenal: Panzer IV, Panther & Bef.Panther, Tiger E & Bef.Tiger E, … Many of them experienced or even elite. Yet, its economy still doesn’t allow for a massive armored charge, choices will have to be made. Yet, once in phase B, one will start finding himself unconsciously humming Panzerlied in expectation of what’s to come …
In Phase C, you get even more of each tank and/or more experienced ones, and even the dreaded late Königstiger (H). But mostly, you’ve got the economy to match the price of such expensive toys. The best phase C economy actually, on par with the US 3rd Armored.