Friday, July 15, 2011

Beyond the Book - Q & A with Dr. Wolfgang Sterner, Panzer Tank Commander

During World War II, Dr. Wolfgang Sterner commanded a variety of German medium tanks from the Pz.Kpfw. III to the Panther. 

In the following interview with Michael Green, author of Panzers At War, Dr. Werner describes his time in service with the Panzertruppen during World War II.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ 

GREEN: What made you want to be a tanker in the German army? 

STERNER: The story is easy. I wanted to be a tank officer from the very beginning. Instead, I ended up, in spring 1942, as an officer aspirant [cadet] in an infantry unit. Then, to my surprise, nine months later I was transferred to a tank unit. They moved me right away to a field-training unit on the Russian front in the Orel area to Panzer Regiment 33. For the next three months, I received intensive training in tanks and their tactics.

What I did not know at the time was all these preparations were made for the oncoming campaign of what you call the ‘Battle of Kursk.’ We were in the framework of the 9th Army and our division, the 9th Panzer Division, was in the center of the northern attack force, the XXXXVII Panzer Korps. I was commander of a Mark III medium tank with a 50mm long gun, later a Mark IV with the 75mm long gun. Our battalion had around 80 tanks at that time, Mark III and Mark IV.

GREEN: Tell me about the Pz.Kpfw. IV tank. How did it compare to the Soviet T34 medium tank? 

STERNER: The question cannot be answered that easily. The improved Mark IV tank with a long-barrel 75mm gun and extra armor, including side skirts, was a reliable tank, and it was the workhorse of the German army. But, the T34 was still better in several ways. It was much faster. It had tremendous maneuverability under Russian conditions, and the gun on the tank was pretty good, too, but otherwise we were on even terms. We were better because each of our tanks had radio communication so that the tank could be better led. This was very important in a tank battle. With good communications and the proper leadership, you could easily take advantage of the right situation, which the Russians couldn’t do. That was our main advantage over the Russian tanks. Their big advantage was that they usually had many more tanks.

GREEN: While serving in the Pz.Kpfw. IV tank, did you ever think it would have been nicer if you had been equipped with the newer Panther tank?

STERNER: At the time, in summer 1943, we knew about the Panther, but it was a completely new tank unproved in battle. It looked very impressive. Later on, a year later or so, of course, I was in favor of the Panther. It was an excellent tank in many ways. From the mechanical point, there still existed problems. Generally, the situation with our tanks was that they had superior guns and they had superior sights and superior radio communications, etc., but the mechanical parts wore out more easily. Therefore, greater numbers were not ready for combat due, not to the result of any enemy actions, but to mechanical breakdowns. 

GREEN: Could you describe how it felt to be inside of tank in the middle of battle? 

STERNER: Before the battle begins, you tense up tremendously. Normally, this will end when the battle starts, since you will be too busy to be tense. Still, in the background, you will always have butterflies in your stomach, but it’s getting less and less because you are ‘too damn busy’ as a tank commander to observe, to give orders and take orders, and the main thing is for survival. You do many things just because you have the right feeling; if you don’t function well you are dead. Your eyes are popping out of your head in order to observe the battlefield to see whether any danger is reported or to watch out for your other tanks.

Of course, you have tension; whether you call it fear or not, I don’t know. It’s not that you are tension-free, but if you want to stay in control of yourself you must be able to reduce this tension to a degree that you are fully functional. This is especially true if you are in command of a tank. If you don’t have that control, then you are not a tank leader at all.

As a tank leader, you generally yell at people; they look to you and if they see you are shaking up there or getting nervous, they lose confidence in you. So, you try to be as calm as possible all the time. It’s not easy, I tell you that. Now, in a tank, of course, you communicate to most of them, to the driver and to the radio operator, only by your communication system. The gunner, of course, you can touch, and the loader, but the communication is important. And they talk to you, they help you to observe.

You stand there and watch the other tanks move and protect them by fire as they change their positions. When you break through the enemy positions, then all your tanks move and shoot like crazy. But, you usually don’t hit anything, but psychologically the effect is tremendous. Tanks are running on and firing, and the shock effect on the enemy is very great.

Then, of course, the stress inside a tank is tremendous. It’s humid, smelly, the fumes of the gun make you choke. You know that any minute, any second, you might get hit somewhere, and you always fear that you are trapped in that damn thing and you will burn to death and won’t get out. That’s the major fear among all tankers, that you’ll be burned alive in your tank. Even if you get out of your burning tank, you may be killed by the enemy infantry. But, it’s still better to fight for your life outside your tank than burn to death within it.

GREEN: Did you lose any tanks in battle? 

STERNER: Yes, in all my tank life, I lost three tanks by burning out. In the first battle, I had hits. I was hit several times but not to the degree that the tank burned or blew up. Sometimes, you see the rounds coming. But, you cannot tell exactly where it hits you. You are aware the tank is being hit some place because it shakes considerably, and then you ask around and the crew reports back. But, if you are hit to a degree that the tank burns, that’s different. Then you hear and see an explosion at the time the high-velocity projectile will penetrate into the crew compartment; it depends on the type of ammunition. The damage inside the tank is caused by the impact, the fragments of plate knocked off during penetration, and their own effects when they bounce around inside the tank. In such cases, the tank looks inside like a slaughterhouse, blood all over.

The first time I was in a Mark IV, we had to counterattack a major Russian attack of T34s and heavier tanks. We were fighting tank against tank, and they got me. We were in firing position and we had stopped, since we couldn’t fire accurately on the move in those days. Then we got the order from our platoon leader: ‘You start firing from the left and we start from the right side, and then you are on your own.’ Then you give orders to your gunner and he turns the turret in the direction of the enemy. The battle starts and you fire and fire until you think you hit an enemy tank. They don’t always blow up right away. But, if you see him stop firing, you assume a hit. Although sometimes they start firing again, then you fire again. During such a battle, I was hit by a T34. He caught me from the side. My tank began to burn. The members of the crew escaped, though wounded.

Being hit in a tank while in battle, I would compare it to a big car crash. It’s a tremendous shock and noise inside the tank. The tank becomes dark or you see flames, [and] the engine stops. Then you hear the crying of the wounded people if they are still able to cry. The smell of course, and the flumes, first impels you to open your hatch, because the tank will blow up in seconds. As a tank commander, however, you shouldn’t do that without checking on your crew. You must always try to save the wounded inside your tank if possible at all. If you don’t do that, you will lose the leadership of your crew very soon. Sometimes you have no choice, if the tank starts to burn all over right away you must get out quickly. Losing your crew or part of it in such manner is really hard to take.

GREEN: Did German tankers ever play dead on the battlefield to lure unsuspecting enemy tanks within firing range? 

STERNER: Possible, but this is not a technique that was officially taught to us. This was not, you know, in a chapter of German tank training manuals. A tank alone is like a sitting duck. If you were temporary disabled in the tank, or you had problems with your gun and you had a chance to fight again, you would do it. It is completely dependent on the individual tank commander and the general situation, of course. 

GREEN: Was it normal practice in combat to shoot at the crew of an enemy tank when they were forced to leave their vehicle? 

STERNER: Every nation does that. Out-coming tank crews are target number one, if they try to escape. So did we. Of course, nobody thought much about that. In the next moment, there might be another enemy tank, and then they are shooting at you and they are trying to kill you. So, in battle, there is no mercy on either side. The basic law of combat: ‘kill or be killed.’ 

GREEN: After seeing how the Russians fought, did you see any differences in the way the Americans, the British, or the Canadians used their tanks? 

STERNER: The tactics the Western Allies used were completely different from the Russians. They made only very careful moves. Their tanks were rarely used for mass breakthroughs like the Russians often did. They were only used in step-by-step operations, to drill themselves through the German lines and to wear us out. From their point of view, it probably was the right tactic saving blood. From a German tanker’s point of view, they moved very carefully, maybe sometimes too carefully. The moment they recognized us and we started to fire, usually they stopped and moved backwards into hiding, and then the fighter-bombers would come. In most cases, they wouldn’t face us. They didn’t have to face us; they did it the other way. 

GREEN: Could you describe American World War II tank tactics from your viewpoint as a German tank commander? 

STERNER: I can tell you about American tactics because I experienced them over and over again. When they attacked us, their tanks usually came first. Sometimes they had infantry on top of them if they felt relatively safe. Usually, they came rather slowly. They would move from one position to another, some tanks moving while others gave them fire protection. After my first rounds, they usually tried to take cover and then to figure out our position. If they considered the enemy fire too heavy, they pulled back. They would then call in these small, slow-moving artillery observation planes. We hated those like hell because there was no possibility for us to shoot them down. If you fired at them, you would give away your position; besides, with our machine guns, we couldn’t reach them anyway. We didn’t have enough antiaircraft, 2cm [20mm] with which to hit those planes. When you saw them, you knew you were in trouble—you knew what was coming. Then pretty soon, it was coming—either heavy artillery fire, or planes, or both. 

GREEN: What did you fear more, the artillery or the fighter-bombers? 

STERNER: The fighter-bomber, definitely, because they were constantly over us if the weather allowed it, making it practically impossible to move during daytime. They made any movement damn near impossible. With artillery fire, you took your chances. Heavy artillery fire shakes you up. But, it does not harm your tank so much. It is a strain on the nerves because it makes an entire tank shake, but you could maneuver and move to a different position.

But if a fighter-bomber spotted you, you were usually finished. Not all the time; sometimes they ran out of ammunition, or sometimes they had to turn back because their fuel was gone or the weather became worse. If they had lots of fuel and lots of ammunition and the skies stayed clear, they kept coming after you, over and over again, until the bitter end.

On one occasion, I lost three of my tanks to six American fighter-bombers. We had performed an attack through a small German village. Only a few Panther and Mark IVs were left to do the job. When we started, we were rather successful pushing through and wiping out any American resistance. It was cloudy, then it cleared up, and in that moment, the fighter-bombers were above us. It was a road with a wooded hill on the left side. On the right side was wet swampy ground—no way to escape. They started to circle and then came down—six planes, one after the other with rockets and bombs. First, they hit and destroyed two tanks of my task force. A little bit later, my tank was hit, too. It burned and exploded.

GREEN: Did they hit you with bombs or rockets? 

STERNER: Rockets, I saw them coming. They had the rockets under the wings. I believe three or four under each one. If it hits you directly behind the turret or on the turret, then of course you had no chance. The explosion was so strong that it threw me, standing in the turret, out of the turret. I was unconscious for a short time. Two members of my crew died in the tank. One became seriously wounded, and one escaped almost unharmed.

1 comment:

  1. der lügt, wie er kurze beine hat