The 13.Panzer-Division was formed from the 13.Infanterie-Division (mot.) on October 11th, 1940.
After being transferred to the Vienna area, the 13.Infanterie-Division (mot.)was upgraded to the 13.Panzer-Division by the addition of the 4.Panzer-Regiment. In November 1940, the 13.Panzer was sent to Romania as a “Lehrtruppe” under the aegis of “HeeresmissionRumaenien”, ostensibly to teach the Rumanian Army the ins and outs of Panzer tactics, but in reality to protect the Ploesti oil fields which were absolutely vital to the German war effort.
In May 1941 the division was returned to Germany to Upper Silesia, in the Beuthen area where it was re-enforced and underwent intensive training in preparation for Operation Barbarossa. Initially held in reserve, it crossed the river Bug on the Polish-Soviet frontier on June 23, 1941, behind the 44.Infanterie-Division. The 13.Panzer-Division (COGeneralmajor Duevert) was part of Heeres-Gruppe Süd, first headed byGeneralfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, then by Generalfeldmarschallvon Reichenau, and belonged to Panzergruppe 1 (later 1.Panzer-Armee)under the command of Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist (its components had the letter “K” painted in white on the rear of its tanks and motor vehicles) under the control of III.Panzer-Korps, led by General derKavallerie von Mackensen, son of Field Marshal von Mackensen of WWIfame.
The two rifle regiments of the division, the Schtz.Rgt.66 and theSchtz.Rgt.93, were organized into the 13.Schützen-Brigade whose CO was Oberst Traugott Herr, later to become a divisional commander. Advancing rapidly despite stiff Soviet resistance, it broke through the heavily-fortified Staline Line at Hulsk and fanned out into the wide expanses of south-eastern Ukraine. It captured Kremenchug, and on August 25, 1941, established the first bridgehead across the Dnepr river at Dnepropetrosk. It continued toward the Sea of Asov, reaching the Mius river by way of Mariupoland Taganrog, which had been taken by SS-LAH.
In November it fought its way into Rostov-on-Don, but had to withdraw to theMius line where it spent the next seven months, including the severe winter of 1941/42, in heavy defensive fighting. However, due to the dispositions of its outstanding G-1, Major i.G. Fritz Kraemer, later to become a major-general and G-1 of the V.SS-Panzer-Armee during the Battle of the Bulge, the division was able to hold its own, inflicting enormous casualties (the MG 42, which had recently been issued to the troops, proved its deadly worth with devastating effect) on the continuously attacking waves of Soviet infantry.
In late July 1942, at the beginning of the second phase of Operation Barbarossa, the 13.Panzer-Division, brought up to strength and replenished, notably with tanks and a company of the newly modified Marder III tank-destroyer (self-propelled 7.5 cm gun on Pz.II chassis which at long last replaced the totally outmoded 3.7 cm gun, known humorously as the “Panzeranklopfer” (the Pz.Jg.Abt. also had a company of 5 cm guns), the division began to march forward again.
On July 24, 1942, against fierce enemy resistance, it captured Rostov-on-Don, ably assisted by 5.SS-Pz.Div.Wiking as well as Stuka(Ju-87) dive-bombers of the 8.Fliegerkorps (General Wolfram von Richthofen), established a bridgehead across the river. A vital objective in this operation was to capture intact the Rostov-Bataiskrailroad dam with 5 bridges over the otherwise impassable Don delta which was absolutely essential if the advance was to continue south toward the Caucasus and the oilfields. This was successfully achieved by8.Kp./II.Btl./Lehr-Rgt.Brandenburg 800 z.b.V. (a special commando unit attached to the division) whose CO, Knight’s Cross holder Hptm. Siegfried Grabert, was killed leading his men.
The next assigned objective was Armavir on the Kuban river. For lack of any roads that could support armored vehicles, the division advanced in several columns abreast, through immense corn and sunflower fields that stretched to the horizon, bypassing without a fight long lines of hastily retreating Soviet troops. Huge dust clouds, lack of water, and extreme heat, comparable to that experienced by the men of the Afrikakorps, put a tremendous strain on both soldiers and equipment. The division reached the Kuban 10 km north of Armavir on Aug 3 and after establishing a bridgehead, continued west toward Maikop. In a daring raid, headed by Lt. Ernst Prohaska (who was killed in the action and awarded the Knight’s Cross posthumously) of the Brandenburgers who were dressed up as retreating Russians, the town was taken on Aug 9. The cherished oilfields nearby, however, had already been blown up by the soviets.
After repeated attempts to clear the mountain road leading west to the highway along the Black Sea coast had failed in the face of stubborn enemy resistance, the division was ordered to join the other two divisions of the III.Panzerkorps, (3.Panzer-Division and 23.Panzer.Division), in their advance south to the next oilfields near Grozny on the Terek River. This march, which was only lightly opposed by the enemy, took more than three weeks, primarily because of a constant lack of fuel. On August 29,1942, Voraus-Abt.13 of KradSchtz.Btl.43, under Major Stolz, reached the north bank of the Terek at Ischerskaja, about 20km from Grozny. On September10, 1942, Kampfgruppe Crisolli crossed the river into the bridgehead formed previously by 111.Infantry.Division, soon followed by the rest of the division. It was here that it met with stiff resistance by the Soviets holed up in fortified positions, as well as repeated attacks by infantry and heavy armor (T-34’s and KV I’s). These attacks put the anti-tank battalion to its first real test since the beginning of the campaign. Its Marder III’s(75mm SP’s on Pz.II chassis), however, proved their mettle: in three days of fighting 1./Pz.Jg.Abt.13 (Hptm. Barth) and II./Pz.Rgt.4 (Hptm. Gomille)destroyed 33 enemy tanks. While lending support to the two hard-pressed infantry divisions, the 111.Infanterie-Division and the 370.Infanterie-Division, the CO of Pz.Rgt.4, OberstOlbrich, was killed in action.
The next assigned objective was Elchetovo, the “Gate to the Caucasus”, a narrow gap between a mountain range and the Terek River. After heavy fighting, in which SS-Div.Wiking and the 370.Infanterie Division were also engaged, across rugged terrain that was almost impossible for any motorized vehicles to negotiate, through extensive minefields and under constant attack by Soviet fighter bombers, the division took the town on September 27, 1942. Stretched to its limits and short of supplies, the division did not have enough punching power to break through the Soviet defenses and advance further south toward Ordshonikidse, the real strategic objective. It was here that the Grusinian Highway began that led to Tiflis and beyond across the high passes of the Caucasus itself. From September 28 until October 21, 1942, the division was in defensive positions in and around Elchetovo. On October 22, it received new orders which called for a withdrawal back north to gain a new bridgehead heading west across the Terek, 50km southwest from the one at Mozdok. This was successfully achieved on October 26th, 1942. The division then wheeled south again with the same goal of capturing Ordshonikdse along a different route. Also attacking, on its right, was the 23.Panzer.Division and, providing flank protection to the west, was the 2.Rumaen.Gebirgs.Division, a very capable and respected outfit, which together with III./Pz.Rgt.4,took the important town of Naltschik on October 28th. This advance, like the one along the right bank of the Terek, was severely hampered by the difficult terrain (many small rivers had to be forded), minefields, heavy artillery barrages, as well as constant attacks by Soviet bombers and fighter bombers.
As fate would have it, during those difficult days the division had the assistance of two of Germany’s future top air aces. One was already renowned Major Hans-Ulrich Rudel (eventually with over 500 Soviet tanks destroyed to his credit), Stuka pilot and leader of I/StG 2 that cracked numerous enemy tanks and artillery positions in the area before it was transferred to the Stalingrad front in November 1942. The other was young Lt. Erich Hartmann of 7.III/JG 52 (destined to have a final score of 352 Soviet planes by the end of the war) who achieved his first kill, a Sturmovik, right above the lines of the 13.Panzer.Division on November 5th,1942.
On Oct 30, II./Pz.Rgt.4 and 1./Pz.jg.Abt.13 destroyed two Soviet armored trains near Ardon. After heavy fighting around the town of Gisel, the vanguard of the division reached the western outskirts of Ordshonikidsealong the edge of the airfield on November 9th, 1942, the very day Adolf Hitler gave his annual speech at Munich in which he claimed that Stalingradwas already in German hands. But like Stalingrad, Ordshonikidse could not be taken. The bulk of the division was stretched out in one long column many miles long behind the isolated combat teams of the Panzergrenadiere waiting to be reinforced so that the assault on the city could be pursued in strength. Since 23.Panzer.Division was hanging back because of difficult terrain, the Soviets were able to mount strong flank attacks both from the west and the east from behind to cut off the division and encircle it. In view of that imminent threat, the division was forced to abandon any further advances and turn around 180 degrees to avoid that danger. On November 11th, 1942, with the prize almost in its grasp, the division fought its way through a narrow corridor out of the Kessel that would have meant its certain destruction. Leaving behind and blowing up many vehicles that had become useless because of lack of fuel, but taking along every one of its 425 wounded, the division managed to get out, being met half-way by assault teams of II./Nordland of SS-Div.Wiking that had broken through the Soviet lines to aid in their rescue. Once again, the brotherhood of the two divisions manifested itself in this desperate life-or-death situation.
By November 15th, 1942, the 13.Panzer.Division. had reached relatively secure defensive positions. Even though it had not been able to achieve its assigned strategic objective, the men of the division got some satisfaction from the fact that their organization was recognized as one of the toughest Panzer divisions in the East, a division that had in fact reached the most southeasterly point along the entire Eastern Front. It received high praise from both the 1.Panzerarmee and the III.Panzerkorps HQ’s. In his special message to the division, Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist wrote: “What has been accomplished [in these past operations] by both officers and men signifies an extraordinary feat of arms. The division can justly be proud of this performance”. That performance was clearly reflected in the number of high decorations bestowed on it. From June 23rd, 1941, until the end of 1942, a total of one Knights Criss with Oak Leaves(Generalmajor Traugott Herr), 13 Knight’s Crosses, and 62 German Crosses in gold were awarded. It was indeed the highpoint of its career, but from now on only to be followed by an agonizing downward spiral in its fortunes.
It was the new and unexpected situation brought about by the massive soviet counterattack at Stalingrad that broke loose on November 18th, 1942, plus the concomitant threat of the Red Army cutting off the lines of communication of the German forces in the Caucasus at Rostov that led to their withdrawal, including that of the 13.Panzer.Division, into the Kubanbridgehead on the Taman peninsula. That operation began on New Year’sDay, 1943. Despite day and night attacks by pursuing enemy tanks and fighter-bombers (no protection from the Luftwaffe then), as well as horrendous road and weather conditions, the division reached the southern shore of the Sea of Azov near Krimskaja by mid-February, 1943. There it fought many defensive and offensive actions against superior enemy forces which took a heavy toll of the fighting strength of the division: the rifle regiments had shrunk to battalion size, the battalions to company size; the Panzer.Regiment had only 18 tanks left. This type of grueling fight went on for several months.
At the beginning of July 1943, the tattered remnants of the division were ferried across the Strait of Kertsch to the Crimean Peninsula. There it was partially refitted, especially with improved models of the Panzer IV. In August of 1943, it was transferred by rail to the Stalinoarea to support the weakened German divisions that were trying to hold the old Mius line. These infantry divisions were gradually being pushed back toward the Dnepr river. The 13.Panzer.Division, employed as a “fire brigade” like many other Panzer divisions at that stage of the war, now operated in individual mobile Kampfgruppen, made up of tanks, anti-tank SP’s, and armored infantry, fighting numerous delaying actions by actively engaging the enemy in stabbing counterattacks, causing him significant losses.
Eventually, the division wound up in the area of Cherson, near the mouth of the Dnepr. Here its task was to ensure the passage across the river of the4.Gebirgs.Division. On November 3rd, 1943, more than 15,000 vehicles of the two divisions made it safely across before the bridge was blown in the face of the enemy. To help close the 150km gap torn by the Soviets in the German defenses between Kremenchug and Dnepropetrovsk, the division was ordered to the area of Kriwoj Rog/Kirovograd where it succeeded in stemming any Sovietbreakthroughs in that sector of the front.
In February 1944, the division rendered valuable assistance in the escape of the German divisions trapped in the Tscherkassy pocket. In May, retreating before superior Soviet forces, it reached the area around Kishinev, at the Soviet-Rumanian border. Desperately fighting to stem the Soviet tide, it was forced back across the Pruth and Seret rivers, then to Calarasi on the banks of the Danube near its mouth into the Black Sea. From there, most of the remaining fighting units made their way into Hungary through the Carpathian pass at Buzau. Other remnants under General Troeger crossed the Danube into Bulgaria, only to be interned and handed over to the Soviets.
In September of 1944, the units that had made it to Hungary eventually reassembled at Oerkeny, southeast of Budapest, where they were joined by the 110.Panzer.Brigade to regain its status as a Panzer Division. Having lost most of its battalion and company commanders, the division received new officers and equipment, even though it had only half the strength of a Panzer division. The 13.Panzer was at this time renamed as the 13.Panzer-Division “Feldherrnhalle”, although there seems to be some debate as to if this title was accepted and/or used, but it is listed as such in many sources.
In the ensuing battles, 13.Panzer was severely tested, especially when on October 30th, 1944 the Red Army began its great offensive to capture Budapest. It could do little to prevent the complete Soviet encirclement of the city. As of December 18th, 1944, it was heavily engaged in the defense of Buda, the part of the city located on the western bank of the Danube. Its CO, Generalmajor Schmidhuber was killed in action. When the German counterattack, spearheaded by the 1.SS-Panzer.Division “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” and other SS-Panzer.Divisions, failed to lift the siege of Budapest inMarch, 1945, the division was finally crushed and it was every person for themselves to break out of the Kessel.
The few units of the division that had succeeded in escaping from the pocket, reassembled in the area of Neutra on the Gran river. On February 24th, 1945, these units were refitted into a newly organized unit and given a new name: the Panzer.Division “Feldherrnhalle 2”.
Knights Cross Holders