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General major Dr. Franz Bake
With the 6th Panzer Division in the East and West; Company Commander during the French Campaign
On 30 January 1940 the 6th Panzer Division, which had been formed from the 1st Light Division, left its garrisons in Germany. The division was commanded by Generalmajor Kempf, one of the pioneers of Germany's panzer arm. By 2 February the division had assembled in the Euskirchen area. The division headquarters was established in MYnstereifel.
In the west, German and French forces still faced each other across the frontier. The French promise of help to the Poles, which was to see French forces attack Germany no later than the beginning of the second week after a German attack on Poland, had proved to be a pipe dream.
France missed its opportunity to simply overrun Germany's weakly defended western frontier and end the war in 1939. When Britain and France declared war, Germany did not have a single panzer division in the west. With the return of Germany's six panzer divisions from Poland, any chance of a quick Allied victory disappeared for good.
The core of the new 6th Panzer Division was provided by the 65th Panzer Battalion, commanded by Major Thomas. This battalion, which had been part of the 1st Light Division, was joined by the two battalions of the 11th Panzer Regiment, which was commanded by Oberst Dipl. Ing. Wilhelm Phillips. The two battalions were commanded by Major Stephan and Major Koll. The period of quiet on the Western Front allowed the newly formed division to carry out regimental exercises commencing 18 October 1939.
On 1 March 1940 the 6th Panzer Division was moved into the Westerwald, where one weeklater it was incorporated into XXXXI Army Corps under General der Panzertruppe Hans-Georg Reinhardt. Also included in XXXXI Corps were the 8th Panzer Division and the 29th Motorized Infantry Division. The corps was one of three assigned to Operation Sichelschnitt (Sickle Cut), the German armored thrust through the Ardennes.
XXXXI Corps, together with XIX Army Corps under General Guderian and XIV Army Corps under Gen. Gustav von Wietersheim, made up Panzergruppe Kleist. Under the command of General der Kavallerie Ewald von Kleist, it was to drive through to the River Meuse. The Panzergruppe's vehicles all wore a large "K."
The Panzergruppe faced the difficult task of moving 41,140 vehicles of all types through the Ardennes over only four advance roads, which were also being used by the infantry units.
On 9 May the 6th Panzer Division's 11th Panzer Regiment was moved forward into the Mayen area; the main body of the division was still in the Westerwald, east of the Rhine.
The French campaign began on the morning of 10 May. The 6th Panzer Division moved westwards in four march groups, led by Oberst Freiherr von Esebeck, commander of the 6th Rifle Brigade, Oberst von Ravenstein, commander of the 4th Rifle Regiment, and Oberstleutnant von Seckendorff, commander of the 6th Motorcycle Battalion. The light columns and the combat train were under the command of Major Dr. Topf.
A general halt was ordered when the division came upon units of the 2nd Panzer Division, which were still waiting in their readiness positions. The division was held up for one day and crossed the Luxembourg frontier on 12 May, reaching the Belgian border at 1600.
The division's objective was the Meuse crossing at Montherme. The battle group commanded by Oberst von Esebeck led the way. The division Ia, Maj. Helmut Staedtke, requested "strong air support."
The requested air support arrived, but a unit of HE-111s dropped some of its bombs on the 76th Artillery Regiment's 4th and 8th Batteries, commanded by Major Aschoff and Major Graf respectively. This error resulted in twenty dead and twenty-six wounded, the division's first casualties of the French campaign.
The briefings for the Meuse crossing were conducted by General Kempf himself. Standing on a hill from which he and his staff could view the approaches to the Meuse and the river itself, he issued the attack orders to his unit leaders and battle group commanders. The assembled officers had a good view of the barbed wire entanglements and rifle pits as well as French artillery positions and bunker installations. Also visible were four armored cupolas on an island in the river.
The first attack went forward that afternoon. The crossing attempt failed, even though the infantry of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Rifle Regiment, received support from the tanks of 1st Company, 11th Panzer Regiment, which had been instructed to eliminate the enemy bunkers with direct fire. Nevertheless, part of the battalion did succeed in crossing the river, thanks to the efforts of its commander, Oberstleutnant Hsfer.
After darkness fell on 12 May, General Kempf personally committed 1st Battalion, 4th Rifle Regiment, and part of the 65th Panzer Battalion to force a crossing for the remaining units.
"First Company to me!" ordered Kempf. Oblt. Dr. Franz Bake, a still-youthful officer who had seen combat in the First World War, rolled forward in his Czech-built (Skoda) tank and reported to the division commander, who informed him, "We're driving to the Meuse! And as quickly as possible. One of your platoons will lead the way, the rest will follow close behind the infantry. We'll be driving with full lights!"
Dr. Bake saluted and ordered his 1st Platoon into the lead position. Then the division's second attack force rolled toward the Meuse. On the far side of the river near Montherme the French defenders suddenly saw a long column of lights moving at high speed toward the position where the River Semois emptied into the Meuse. General Potzert, who was commanding the 102nd French Fortress Division, called out in surprise: "It's a regular torchlight parade. If we had some bombers we could wipe out these attackers completely!"
The same thought had occurred to Dr. Franz Bake, who was enjoying his first opportunity to lead an armored company into action. During the Polish campaign he had seen the war from the sidelines as battalion adjutant and executive officer. Now he was commanding 1st Company. He was determined to put all he had learned into practice and justify the confidence placed in him by his superiors.
After the war General Kempf wrote that he, too, had been concerned about the possibility of French bomber attacks on his division. As he related to the author: "At the same time I saw in this rapid forward movement the possibility of achieving a crossing with the minimum possible casualties."
Fortunately, the general's concerns were unfounded. As dawn was breaking on 13 May, the Leutnant leading the forward platoon of Bake's company reported: "Before us is the Meuse, Herr Oberleutnant!"
Dr. Bake passed the report on to the general.
"Forward, Bake! Tanks to the front. Pioneer battalion likewise move forward through the gaps and ready the assault boats."
The mass of PzKfw.35(t) tanks rolled forward. Close behind the 1st Platoon was the general's command vehicle, and behind it the radio vehicle which kept the general in contact with the individual battle groups.
As the sun came up Dr. Bake could see before him the silvery, shimmering ribbon of the Meuse. The first French guns opened fire from the far side.
"Tanks and assault guns move forward to take out the artillery positions, bunkers, and machine gun positions!"
Close behind the tanks were the mounted pioneers, who were to take the infantry across the river under the covering fire and help capture the village of Montherme.
The tanks, armed with 3.7cm guns, rolled up the riverbank with the assault guns, which carried a short-barreled 7.5cm gun.
The first burst of machine gun fire smacked into the riverbank below the tanks. "Open fire on the machine gun nest at twelve o'clock!" ordered Dr. Bake.
Bake's gunner had already spotted the target. He made a slight correction and fired. The first shell flitted across the stream and struck just below the machine gun position. The second shot was a direct hit, which silenced the enemy gun.
Lined up along the bank, the tanks of Bake's company opened fire. The assault guns concentrated their fire on the French bunkers, aiming for the embrasures.
While this was going on, the pioneers and infantry were moving down to the edge of the river, carrying their inflatable boats above their heads. The boats splashed into the water and their outboard motors roared to life, driving them toward the center of the stream.
The French shifted their fire onto the boats. One of them took a burst of fire and collapsed. The men inside jumped into the water and swam for the other side.
"Rapid fire on the machine guns!" Dr. Bake instructed his tank commanders.
The eighteen tanks the company had on hand (four had been left behind with mechanical breakdowns) directed their fire at the French machine guns. Their high-explosive shells blasted away the French camouflage.
The assault guns drove to one side and opened fire on the French bunkers. The crash of gunfire merged with the sound of shells exploding on the far bank.
The assault by the German infantry struck the 42nd Demi-Brigade of the 102nd Colonial Division. Isolated French machine guns were still firing from Montherme. Now that the crossing had succeeded, the tanks and assault guns shifted their fire onto these.
Montherme was on fire. A short time later signal flares rose into the sky from the edge of the city, indicating to the panzer crews: "We are here!"
The tanks turned their fire once again to the far bank of the Meuse while the infantry moved into Montherme and occupied the city.
"Everyone across the river through the ford!" ordered General Kempf. The panzers rolled to the shallow crossing point which had been discovered earlier. One strayed from the prescribed route and sunk up to its turret. It was later recovered by a heavy tractor.
General Kempf, who had crossed the river with his troops, placed himself at the head of his division just behind the fast advance detachment and ordered the advance to begin at once. The armored elements quickly won ground toward the west.
The objective was the Mon Idee. Patrols and aerial reconnaissance had determined that the French were preparing to make a stand there. They hoped to employ their artillery and tanks to stop this raid by the 6th Panzer Division, one of the first German armored divisions to enter France.
General Kempf used his panzers to break through the French defenses. The Mon Idee line of defense was broken on the evening of 13 May. The 6th Panzer Division was now sixty-five kilometers west of the Meuse, deep in the enemy rear.
For this daring advance, on 3 June, Werner Kempf was awarded the Knight's Cross. With his division he had successfully translated the concept of the armored thrust, which he had been advocating for more than fifteen years, into reality.
The rest of the division's tanks, those which were unable to ford the Meuse, had to wait for the bridging of the river to be completed. Once across, they quickly caught up with the advance elements, engaging French forces that opposed the division.
The 1st Company of the 65th Panzer Battalion under Oblt. Dr. Bake was heavily involved in the battles of pursuit over the next three days, overcoming pockets of resistance that held up the advance. The company accounted for seven French tanks, two of which were credited to Dr. Bake.
On the evening of 15 May, XXXXI Army Corps issued orders for the continued pursuit of the shattered enemy on the sixteenth. The 6th Panzer Division was to set out at 0600, its objective Hirson. The troops were hoping for another quick breakthrough. However, this was not to be the case. During the night Panzergruppe Kleist received orders to halt and advance no farther. The order was partially withdrawn following a heated exchange between General Guderian and General Kleist. Nevertheless, the Panzergruppe remained inactive for at least twenty-four hours.
On 16 May, General Reinhardt ordered the "further pursuit of the beaten enemy." The 6th Panzer Division was to advance as quickly as possible to the River Oise and reach the crossings at Etreaupont and Marly.
General Kempf summoned Oberst von Esebeck and Oberleutnant Dr. Bake. His instructions to von Esebeck's battle group were: "Fastest possible advance toward Guise! Bake, you will form the battle group's breakthrough force, in case the enemy should offer resistance."
The attack was scheduled to begin at 1530. When his watch showed it was time, Bake raised his right arm and gave the order: "Panzers forward!"
The idling engines roared to life, and the eighteen tanks rolled forward. After driving for an hour, during which Bake scanned the terrain ahead while standing in his open turret hatch, the leading armored group suddenly came under machine gun fire from a wood to the right. Dr. Bake ducked inside his tank and closed the hatch cover.
"Combat readiness!" he ordered.
"Weapons loaded and secured!" reported his gunner. The other tank commanders also reported ready.
"Leutnant Mobbs, take two tanks, veer off to the right, and circle around behind the wood. Signal when you are in position."
Leutnant Mobbs read back the order and Dr. Bake watched as the two panzers drove off to the right and disappeared around the end of the wood.
"Open fire!" ordered the commanders when they were in range.
Bake's gunner targeted a machine gun. Two shots were sufficient to silence it. The remaining tanks deployed into a wedge and advanced by platoons, alternately halting and firing. A few moments later a flare rose from the far side of the wood. Bake ordered his tanks to advance as rapidly as possible.
While the two tanks positioned in the enemy's rear engaged the remaining machine guns, the rest of the company charged forward and broke all resistance.
Battle Group von Esebeck followed quickly. As darkness fell, von Esebeck gave orders for the tanks to close up and use only those lights absolutely necessary.
Dr. Bake drove at the head of his company. The tanks rolled past fleeing French troops, who cleared the road as soon as they heard the rattle of tracks and the roaring tank engines. They were beaten and offered no resistance. Von Esebeck's battle group had no time to take prisoners and left the French for the following infantry units.
The night march became dangerous, however, when the battle group approached Falvigny, a suburb of Guise. The motorcycles of the advance detachment suddenly came under machine gun and cannon fire from the village.
"Antitank guns to the front!" ordered von Esebeck. The 3.7cm antitanks guns of the 41st Antitank Battalion were brought forward. As soon as the antitank guns opened up, French heavy tanks began to fire from well-camouflaged positions. The first antitank gun was hit and knocked out of action. The 3.7cm guns soon demonstrated their ineffectiveness against the heavily armored thirty-two-ton French tanks.
Dr. Bake gave the order to attack. The tanks moved into favorable positions from which they could "charge past the enemy's heavy artillery" to Guise once the other forces were in place.