The Combat History of 21. Panzer Division, Werner Kortenhaus

The Combat History of 21. Panzer Division, Werner Kortenhaus

This edition is the end result of three phases of work. The author, Werner Kortenhaus, served in the division in Normandy and Alsace-Lorraine, and decided to write a history of his company in the 1950s. This expanded into a history of his entire division, tracing its career from Normandy to the final days on the Eastern Front, but this version was only produced in small numbers. The author continued to research the topic, and produced a massive two-volume revised but still typed edition in 1989-90 based on his decades of research. This was then published in German in 2007. The third stage is the translation, which includes a number of useful footnotes and comments, some providing references and others discussing the author's rare errors.

The original 21 Panzer Division fought in North Africa, and was effectively destroyed at the end of that campaign. The division was reformed as the 'new' 21. Panzer Division, and it is that 'new' division that this book covers. The division made its combat debut in Normandy in June 1944, and played a major part in the D-Day campaign, the battle of Normandy and the eventual retreat across France, fighting against British and Commonwealth troops. Next was a spell on the western German border, fighting American troops in Alsace and Lorraine. Finally the division was rushed east in an attempt to stabilise the situation around Berlin. The division thus fought all three of Germany's main opponents of this period. It was also virtually wiped out twice more - once at the end of the battle of Normandy and in the Falaise Pocket and again during the last days of the fighting south of Berlin.

The book is filled with valuable sections. Near the start is a discussion of the German weather forecasts for Normandy in June 1944, often used to excuse Rommel's absence on D-Day. The author proves that the forecasts were actually quite good, and didn't in any way exclude the possibility of invasion. This suggests that Rommel felt free to go home for a few days because he didn't really expect the invasion to take place in Normandy. This section also includes a good example of the use of footnotes - the author was rather scathing about the German Navy's refusal to put to sea on 5 June, but this was based on a lack of understanding of the type of vessels available to the local naval commanders. A useful footnote explains the real situation, but the original text is left intact so we see the author's exasperation with his naval colleagues.

The German command structure before D-Day is exposed as deeply flawed. One was result was that just before the invasion 7.Armee was placed on a heightened state of alert due to a reasonable weather forecast, while at the same time 21.Panzer was stood down from the same state! It was also amazing just how many senior German commanders were away on 6 June - Rommel is the best known, but Admiral Kroncke was away, the commander of 7.Armee was conducting exercises, so most of his senior commanders were away from their HQ and the commanding officer of the division itself was in Paris on 'personal affairs' (actually visiting his mistress).

There is also a good account of the fighting in the Falaise pocket written from inside the pocket itself, describing the chaos that developed as the German army attempted to escape. We also see how the German high command got confused during the retreat across France, issuing a series of orders to form new defensive lines on positions that had already been lost.

This is a detailed but very readable divisional history, with good material on the context of the division's own battles. Kortenhaus's original text is very impressive. He writes from the German point of view, but without the bias so common in similar works (avoiding the 'dastardly' Brits vs 'heroic' Germans tone you often find). Allied troops are 'the enemy' throughout, and in the original text the Germans were 'us', but this is only a reverse of the language found in British unit histories.

1 - Reconstitution of the 21. Panzer Division
2 - The Battle in Normandy
3 - The Fighting in Alsace and Lorraine
4 - Action on the Oderfront and the End in the Halbe Pocket

Author: Werner Kortenhaus
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 384
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2014

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