I admit that when it comes to games I tend to lose interest once the internal combustion engine is involved (Ion drives don’t count) however with books it’s a completely different matter as there is nothing better than a good memoir and WW2 gets its own shelf in my library. I have recently read two very similar books both by German tank commanders and both in almost identical units. The second book is called ‘Panzer Ace’ by Richard von Rosen and which I will write about later but what
I will probably do is to refer to the two books as I go along in each review because it is interesting to compare the two styles and the difference in content.
Both authors were in Heavy tank battalions, Carius in Panzer-Abteilung 502 and Von Rosen in 503 and both saw action on the western and eastern fronts.
Tigers in the Mud is quite a well known book and is regarded as one of the better WW2 memoirs, it was initially published in 1960 so I have been a bit slow in getting around to reading it but in my defence I have been rather busy.
It starts with a brief description of how Carius joined the army, in his case the infantry and there is very little on his initial training, he describes himself as small in statue and skinny which meant he was only in the army due to being drafted in mid 1940. At this time there was no rushing of the training regime so he saw no action in the fall of France and in October he volunteered for the tank corps. Despite having no mechanical knowledge he was surprisingly accepted adding that his CO was only to happy to get rid of the skinny half pint.
His unit is involved at the start of the Russian campaign where he is a loader in a Panzer38t, by July 8th his tank is hit and he receives his first wound.
|Carius and Pz 38t|
We are now at page 9, I said it was brief. I really wish there was more on his early experiences as no one really writes about the lighter tanks much, probably due to being dead.
As appears common in both books, wounded tankers if not patched up at the front get re-allocated to new units or new equipment or to training. He writes little of what happened to him until August 1941 when Carius is promoted to sergeant and sent on an officer training course which he fails so in February 1942 he is sent back to his old unit and where he does achieve promotion to tank commander however it’s not made clear what they are armed with during this period.
Home on leave in January 1943 he is transferred to the 500th Replacement battalion and gets to see his first Tiger (page 21)
|Carius’ 1st Tiger tank during training|
After training they are sent to the Russian front around Leningrad, it is now July 1943 so in three years its not that clear how long he has actually seen action, again this theme of short bursts of activity followed by long periods training or recovery in case of wounds runs through both books.
Small snippets of information are widely scattered throughout, for instance he mentions that his early Tiger has a demolition charge fitted inconveniently next to the commanders’ position along with some hand grenades, these are all soon removed and replaced by a bottle of schnapps and that they were using captured Russian tactical notes about Tigers for their own training because they still hadn’t received the correct manuals yet.
|502nd Heavy tank battalion insignia|
He then breaks the book down into a series of actions that he was involved in and these are the bulk of the book. There is much more combat detail than you would normally see in WW2 memoirs and the first detailed account covers the fighting along the Newel and Narva and takes up over a hundred pages.
After this (June 1944) he is given sick leave and whilst recovering he is told of his award of the Knights Cross however sick leave lasts only two to three days and he gets immediately recalled to the front.
June /July 1944 has another fifty pages about fighting in and around Dunaburg (its on the Latvia/Lithuania border) and this is where he wins the Oak Leaves for his Knights Cross when he and another Tiger knock out twenty-three Russian tanks, many of which were the new Stalin versions, he then pulls back, deploying his six tanks in ambush and they knock out another twenty-eight tanks along with numerous trucks and other vehicles.
|Carius giving a briefing|
The Heavy tank battalions rarely operated as a full unit instead the individual companies were usually split up and sent to wherever the greatest danger was, quite frequently without much support, Carius gives an account of having to defend a village, at night, on their own:
“Soon the village was under extremely heavy fire. The Russians had noticed that it was occupied and wanted to `clean up’ the affair before they advanced further to the west. Their methods showed, however, that they certainly didn’t suspect an entire `Tiger’ company in the village.
I saw muzzle fire in the woodline. It moved farther to the right from flash to flash. Those had to be tanks moving along the woodline. They wanted to reach the road at the opposite end of the village. Obefeldwebel Zwetti was in position there. Behind him was von Schiller’s tank. I radioed to Zwetti.
With the help of a flare, I could determine that a T34 was moving no more than 50 metres away from Zwetti. Due to the firing, we couldn’t hear any motor noises. Because of that, the enemy had already made his way to the village. Zwetti shot his neighbour into flames, but we saw in astonishment a second T34 in the middle of the village street, right next to von Schiller.
It often proved fatal to the Russians that they kept completely buttoned up. Because of that, they could scarcely see anything, especially at night. They also had infantrymen riding on the tank, but even they didn’t recognise the situation until too late. Von Schiller wanted to turn his turret but in the process hit the Russian tank with his cannon. He had to back up first in order to be able to knock it out. I didn’t feel confident enough to shoot. One of the craziest situations I ever experienced!
After Zwetti had finished off another three tanks, the Russians pulled back. Apparently, the losses they suffered were enough. We stayed in radio contact for the rest of the night and could hear the Russians quite well on one channel. That meant they couldn’t be too far from us.”
|Otto Carius (left) and Oberfeldwebel Zwetti|
However on July 24th Carius whilst out on reconnaissance patrol was very seriously wounded, his normal practice whenever his company moved to a new area or prior to attacking or defending would be to check the area out first and usually, despite direct orders not to do so, would do it in a Kubelwagen (APC’s were supposed to be used). Unfortunately he had run out of Kubal’s so he borrowed the medic’s motorcycle and sidecar and on the way back ran straight into a Russian patrol who shot him up. Hit several times and with a Russian officer standing over him he was only saved by two Tigers coming up to see what was happening, The Russian quickly fired three times, missing twice and then ran off.
|Otto Carius in Kubelwagen|
It wasn’t until October that he was fit enough to attend his Oak Leaves award ceremony, this award was usually only presented by Hitler himself but he had transferred the task to Himmler. He tells of this event, a special dinner was held and then a private meeting with Himmler who quizzed him on the war and especially about tanks, he also invited him to make any request he wished. Carius asked to be returned to duty immediately and to be sent back to his old unit; Himmler offered him instead promotion to captain in the SS which Carius refused.
|Himmler presents Carius with his Oak Leaves|
With more hospital time and recovery leave it was the end of December 1944 when he reported to the Paderborn replacement depot for re-assignment, he was instructed to report to a training company but using a letter Himmler had given him he managed to get posted to a combat unit instead.
This turned out to be the 512th Heavy AntiTank Battalion with Jagdtigers and the rest of the book is about his time fighting in the Ruhr pocket mainly against the Americans until forced to surrender.
|JagdTiger from 512th AT Battalion|
His story finishes on Page 231 however there are another seventy pages of combat reports which he either kept or had access later to and following this there are photostats of his commendations, letters/telegrams and newspaper cuttings.
I have deliberately omitted a lot of the detail and anecdotes but there are several general points I would like to make about what Carius has written.
1. He does have a problem with how the ordinary German soldier was treated after the war; this is mainly at the start of the book but does crop up occasionally later on.
2. He is very strong on tank commanders staying up for as long as possible when in combat, I think you can see from the quote above what his views are on ‘buttoning up’. Recently I have seen this doctrine raised as a detrimental effect in some writings on German tank tactics, being called foolhardy or suicidal so it was interesting to hear from someone who had to make this decision in actual combat.
3. The shear paucity of infantry that accompanied his tanks on most operations. During the fighting on the Narva he went to liaise with a company of infantry who he was to assist in defending a position, there were just twenty-five men and that was only because they had received replacements the day before, in one counter attack his infantry support was eight men.
4. Every bridge has to be checked prior to crossing and we are not just talking about road bridges as there usually tended to be only one tarmacked road in the vicinity, combat engineers would be sent to strengthen any key crossings prior to attacks or they would accompany the Tigers and improvise as they went.
5. How many tanks were ever actually available at any one moment. On page 307 amongst the AAR’s there is a company report for each day in July 1944 on the total tank numbers, how many were combat ready and the number returned from repair, it’s usually under 50% available .
6. The Jagdtiger period was most interesting as by this time Carius was operating with inexperienced crews and officers, the number of basic mistakes they made is most enlightening. Poor driving, immobilised vehicles, not fitting the travel lock on the gun barrel knocked it out of calibration, not lowering the gun until trying to engage the target and then turning the tank to escape instead of just backing up.
7. Carius doesn’t come across as an ardent Nazi (I wouldn’t expect this anyway if I wanted to sell a book) but he has that fanaticism (maybe not the right word) that you sometimes see effecting people; at the end of the war whilst fighting in the Ruhr pocket it is obvious that no one really wants to fight on but he does and continues to try and hold back the enemy for as long as he can.
8. This is his view on the Americans:
“Practically all our Kubels were disabled so we therefore decided to fetch a replacement from the Americans. No one should think this a heroic deed. The Yanks slept in the houses at night, as was proper for ‘combat soldiers’. Who was going to disturb them anyway! At the most one sentry was located outside but only if there was good weather.
The war started in the evenings only whenever our troops pulled back and they then followed. If, by chance, a German machine gun actually fired then the air force was requested as backup, but not until the next day.”
”I spotted one enemy tank that quickly scuttled behind a house. For once I wanted to try out our 120mm cannon. I took a chance and fired at the house with a delayed fuse, after the second shot the American tank went up in flames.
The Yanks now came to life of course, we were soon in the middle of heavy artillery fire and the bombers appeared , there were no casualties but one of my tanks was disabled when it drove into a bomb crater “
All very sensible in my opinion.
This is getting a bit long so to quickly wrap things up; the field reports are most interesting as one of them is from the maintenance Platoon which lists all the problems that they have experienced so far with the Tigers and of course like all good reports includes suggested solutions to each problem; for example three or four 18T prime movers are needed to tow one Tiger and the tow bars are too weak anyway, uphill you need five! This activity to recover damaged vehicles is a frequent occurrence in both books and usually takes place at night.
|“Recovery of Tigers in easier times”|
The company after action reports and daily reports very rarely mention Carius as they cover all three companies so this adds to the book.
The two books I guess are quite similar but I would still buy both, they are both well written and both skip along quite briskly, Tigers in the Mud has more battle action described and both have interesting photos especially Von Rosen's who has around 400 although not all are of vehicles but he does get to play with King Tigers!
(Just before I sent this off to the editor I found the link below which gives a full timeline of all of Otto Carius’ activities so it might differ a bit from my memory)
Paperback, Kindle and audio CD
Readable pages: 308 + letters and citations
Best Paperback price 27th August 2019 = £10.63 ABE Books
This has been a Mr Steve presentation.