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Interesting Question Re the Loss of Panther #126 at Wirtzfeld

Discussion in 'Western Europe 1943 - 1945' started by RichTO90, Nov 28, 2020.

  1. RichTO90

    RichTO90 Well-Known Member

    Aug 7, 2015
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    I've posted this at AHF and Missing Lynx without much response, so I'm curious what anyone here thinks.

    The “Spitze” for KG Peiper was commanded by SS-Obersturmbannführer Werner Sternebeck and consisted originally of a Halb-zug of two Panthers detached from 1. Kompanie leading, a Zug from Sternebeck’s 6. Kompanie (five Panzer IV), a Gruppe from 9. (Pionier) Kompanie, and the other half of the Zug from 1. Kompanie (two Panthers). However, the two leading two Panthers were lost almost immediately in the German minefield mistakenly run into at Lanzerath on 16 December, as was Sternebeck’s Panzer IV, so he climbed into the tank of the Zugführer Untersturmführer Asmussen. The trailing Halb-zug of Panthers took over the lead somewhere between Honsfeld and Büllingen. Peiper’s command tank suffered an engine failure about the same time.

    At Honsfeld, Sternebeck mistook some vehicles of the 14th Cav Gp for elements of Einsatzgruppe Greif, but beat a hasty retreat up the road to Büllingen instead of engaging when he realized his mistake, since that was what Peiper kept ordering him to do. The main body is what engaged the forces in Honsfeld, losing two Panthers, #232 of Unterscharführer Willi Kritzler and #235 of Unterscharführer Walter Puplik in the process to 3” towed TD guns.

    In the push into Büllingen on the morning of 17 December, Sternebeck lost another Panzer IV to a bazooka fired by one of the men of the 254th Engineer Combat battalion, which left him with two Panthers and three Panzer IV. Driving through the town he missed his turn and continued on the road to Krinkelt-Rocherath by mistake. The 1st Plat, C Co, 644th TD Bn engaged and quickly destroyed two Panzer IV, two Panthers, and one of the Pionier SPW south of Wirtzfeld in an extremely well-documented fight taking some 30 minutes (I originally posted 30 seconds, but that was from a transcript of a phone conversation with the Platoon Commander, Owen McDermott, in January 1988 when McDermott was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, a re-reading of the accounts of other participants I have not read in about 15 years cleared that up, as well as the number of rounds expended, which was 31 or 32). McDermott’s four M10 were positioned along a tree-lined secondary road that branched off of the Wirtzfeld road (it is little changed on Google maps today, except it is paved).

    Sternebeck’s Spitze had traveled north from Büllingen on the N658 about 1.4 kilometers to the junction with the road to Wirtzfeld after making its wrong turn, with the two Panthers leading, but continued to stay on the N658, heading for Krinkelt-Rocherath. McDermott allowed the two Panthers to pass before opening up on the second Panzer IV at 550 yards. Destroyer C-12, with Sergeant Tom Myers directing the fire from the rear deck, opened the action by firing 11 rounds at the second Panzer IV, before the SPW 251 and third trailing Panzer IV crested the slight ridge concealing them. The first round stopped the tank and the additional ten destroyed it, setting it afire and nearly blowing off the turret.

    The crew of the second Panzer IV managed to get off at least one round of HE that struck near C-12, severely wounding Myers in the abdomen and hand and also tossing him onto the destroyer’s stowed pickax, which impaled his back. However, C-9 hit the second Panzer IV with four rounds, halting it, and C-12 finished it with four more rounds.

    C-9 then fired four rounds at the second Panther at 800 yards (both Panthers were still heading for K-R, apparently unaware of what was happening to their rear). The first round stopped it, the fourth round set it on fire. It then shifted to the leading Panther, firing four more rounds at 900 yards, stopping it and setting it on fire. Finally, McDermott directed C-9 to fire four more rounds at the 251, which was near the lead Panther and apparently trying to recover the crew. It too was destroyed and McDermott fired C-9’s .50 at the milling Germans, killing an unknown number.

    The two Panzer IV, #613 of SS-Unterscharführer Heinz Femdling and #615 of Rottencharführer Peter Kasparek, and one of the Panthers, #123, are the subject of a number of photos by Signal Corps Sergeant Cook.

    Note that C-10 and C-11 did not fire.

    That left the Spitze, originally nine tanks and two SPW, with one tank and a single SPW. It is unclear if Sternebeck tried to engage McDermott’s TDs. When apprised of the detour and heavy losses Peiper ordered Sternebeck to return to his proper position leading the column. Sternebeck’s much reduced Spitze (although he was reinforced by a second Panzer IV #623 under Hauptscharführer August Tonk) rejoined after the refueling halt at Ligneauville and was back in position when Battery B, 285th FA Obs Bn was engaged by them at Baugnez Crossroads.

    For years now it has been assumed that Panther #126 is from 12. SS-Panzer Division, knocked out after slipping by the 38th Infantry defending Krinkelt. One problem with that is that McDermott's platoon was dispatched to Wirtzfeld from Krinkelt on the early morning of 17 December. They had been near Wahlerscheid, before they and the rest of Company C withdrew to K-R. So they drove down the N658 to their ambush positions. Their mission was to defend the southern outskirts of Wirtzfeld until noon, when it was supposed to be relieved by Company A (2 2d Plat). Except Company A was delayed six hours, so McDermott's platoon returned to K-R on the N658 at 1800, passing the four German tanks they knocked out on the way.

    Another problem is the well-known photos of Panther #126 as well as the two Panzer IV # 613 and #615 were all taken by T/4 Bernard Cook of the 165th Signal Photo Company, who walked from Krinkelt with photographer T/5 Jim Clancy to the scene the morning of 17 December, between 0900 and 1100 when they took the photos of #126 and Cook escorting "his" prisoner, who was found hiding in a ditch near #126. The two took the photos of the two Panzer IV a little later the same day, but there does not appear to be any photos of the second Panther or of the SPW. This was long before 12. SS-Panzer Division had approached the twin Villages.

    Yet another problem is that these events were witnessed and recorded by McDermott and other participants initially on 16 December in the Battalion Journal and then again in more detail on 3 January and then in correspondence in the 1980s and 1990s. One of the more interesting eyewitnesses was Lieutenant Charles "Carlo" Biggio, the Battery X/O of the 372d FA Bn, who was directed to march order one of his 155mm howitzers from its position at Wirtzfeld south to engage the German advance with direct fire. They went into action in "record time" about 100 yards north of Company C's position and got off one round at Panzer IV #615 only to realize it and the other German tanks had already been destroyed...the engagement had ended a few moments before they got there.

    So why the mismatch in accounts? Has anyone run across a photo of the second Panther or the SPW?

    Panther #126 SW Panther in 12th.SS Pz.Div.???

    Panzer IV #613 https://scontent-sea1-1.xx.fbcdn.ne...=1ea45ca6155598e1cae3b38f03dd127d&oe=5FE8B298

    Panzer IV # 615 https://scontent-sea1-1.xx.fbcdn.ne...=6ea0f1cd028fd289030778398d5c458b&oe=5FE746B9

    I just noticed even more interesting in the Facebook discussion mention of Panzer IV #631 hit in the cupola and killing the commander Oscha Wien, which gets even more confusing. The "other part of the road" and lack of a wreck leads me to believe that actually refers to the tank C-9 fired one round at the end of the engagement, claiming to have hit it, but it then withdrew to the reverse slope, i.e., in the direction of Büllingen. If so, then it wasn't the vehicle Sternebeck was in, since it was 3. Zug rather than 1. Zug like the other Panzer IV of the Spitze. So either the the Spitze was reinforced, but I suspect more likely the confusion in Büllingen was even greater than let on, since it looks like Sternebeck may have actually lost contact entirely with his leading troops as well as one of the tanks from one of the other platoons of the main body mistakenly attached itself to the Spitze.

    It seems very odd that no one before has noticed the discrepancy with the accepted narrative that the Panther #126 was from Panzer-Regiment 12., when the regiment first attacked the defenses at K-R a day and a half later.

    It was also pointed out to me that Clancy's prisoner in the photo is wearing a Heer tankers uniform, which could mean nothing, but is an indication of how much a hodge-podge equipment and personnel the SS was by this time.

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