'Commence Operation Watchtower.'
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, September 1942
The last German Offensive in Austria was so improvised that many within the OKW and the Headquarters of OB Süd were later quoted as having said that it was a wonder that the Allies had fallen for the trap as completely as they had. When the first Soviet T-34/85 slammed into the weak forward units of the Allied front just as the last British Paras went into position in Romania it disabused even the last Allied soldier of any notion that the Axis in Austria were on their last legs. The plan wasn't even Rommel's brainchild originally as the Field Marshal had taken it from the OKW planning group in Munich and adapted it slightly. The speed with which Rommel had scraped together the troops from Eastern Europe and Southern Germany was what enabled him to maintain strategic surprise. By the time ULTRA intercepts had been pieced together into a coherent picture, the 1st King's African Rifle Division had already been smashed into a thousand pieces.
One attack was launched along the Southern Railway line, one along the Reichsautobahn Süd, and one sweeping through the relatively flat terrain in western Hungary, brushing aside the Anglo-Hungarian Forces there. The main objective of the third attack was mostly to draw Hungarian and British Forces away from the main fronts by trying to induce the belief that the objective wasn't to threaten the ling between the Allies and the Hungarians but rather that these units were going for the knockout blow by attacking Budapest directly.
All three attacks were launched within minutes of each other and relied more on surprise and speed than on numbers as Rommel's command was heavily outnumbered and the main wave of reinforcements wouldn't arrive in time for the 1942 campaign season, the switch made by the former Balkan Axis nations had made sure of that as several Divisions originally meant to reinforce Rommel directly were instead fighting the expanded Allied Pact in the mountains of South-Eastern Europe.
Instead of having six Panzer Divisions overall (of which three would have remained in reserve) Rommel only had two and Schwere Panzerabteilung 527. As planned these units formed the very spearheads of the attacks and when 7. Panzer and 11th Guards Tanks smashed through the positions of the 1st KARD and the 8th Infantry Divisions, shattering the left and right flanks of XXX and V Corps respectively the audacity of Rommel's plan paid off. German and Soviet motorized and mechanized Infantry swarmed through the gap created by the Armoured Spearheads and continued the envelopment of the two stunned British Divisions.
By ten in the morning, two hours after the first attack, Field Marshal Alexander was made aware that the Axis had punched a massive hole into his front and even though reports from the front were inconclusive for most of the day due to the chaos reigning in the Allied command structure that had grown complacent with the availability of ULTRA and the course of the war over the last year.
General Ritchie recovered fast. Almost as soon as he was torn from his breakfast that day he saw that he had to commit his reserves, all of them. Luckily for the British on that day I (BR) Armoured Corps and their Polish counterparts had been standing ready for the final assault on Vienna, so the first British counter-attack was launched a mere four hours after the first shots had been fired. However it was too late to save the 8th Division which by that time had dissolved into shrinking pockets of resistance that were eliminated one after another, with her commander having fallen victim to Soviet Artillery. The position of the 1st KARD was hardly any better, even though here 2nd Brigade had maintained a coherent front and was desperately holding a pocket centred around several crossroads that commanded a road right into the flank of the remaining units of the 8th Army.
Ritchie quickly realized that the position as it was was untenable, even though I (BR) Armoured Corps had managed to halt and for the moment contain the Axis penetration into the sector of the 8th Army, as soon as the Axis had recovered they would attack again and then his two Armoured Divisions would be overwhelmed by numbers, as the unclear situation in the air and the total chaos on the ground prevented effective application of air support. At 11:30 AM he sent his famous message to Alexander:
“8th Division and 1st King's African Rifle Division dissolved or in the process of doing so. All other line units in danger of being outflanked. All reserves already engaged. Am pulling back 8th Army towards Oberpullendorf.”
With that it was clear that Vienna would not be taken any time soon, because pulling the 8th Army back meant pulling the 6th, 11th and 9th Armies back too, in fact the entire Allied line would have to be pulled back towards one of the old Axis defensive lines which would likely rupture the front and leave the left flank of the Hungarian Army hanging in the air, but the rapidly developing situation didn't leave them much choice.
In the hills and mountains of Southern Austria the 2nd Royal Hussars had deployed in a wide, shallow arc that covered a critical road and crossroads that were the route of retreat for the 8th Army. Out east the remnants of 2nd Brigade KARD were still holding on and the stream of retreating allied troops over this road and a dozen other roads, mountain paths and semi-completed railway tracks to the north and south of their position wouldn't stop. Occasionally Allied and Axis aircraft battled overhead but none of the ordnance carried by both side's CAS aircraft had fallen nearby, the Regiment had not yet been spotted. 7th Armoured here and 1st Polish Armoured on their left flank were for the moment all that stood in the way of the advancing Axis forces. Colonel Jan Niemczyk VC was standing in front of Battleaxe, his tank and was sipping at a cup of army-issue tea while he watched the road that ran in-between the hills his Regiment was dug in on, waiting for either the enemy or the long-lost Infantry of the Royal Ulster Rifles, whatever arrived first.
The RUR were semi-permanently assigned to the 2nd Royal Hussars as Infantry support, so Niemczyk knew that they weren't missing because of negligence, the drinking contest with Lieutenant Colonel Quinn of the RUR last month had seen to that.
Up ahead he could see the Y-shaped crossroads where the two roads united into the one he was tasked with defending and he agreed with his expatriate second in Command, this was like Buford's position at the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, only that this time there would likely be no I Corps and no Army of the Potomac to come to their rescue.
Truth be told though, right now he would be happy to have even one of the shrunken Infantry Regiments of the time deployed around his tanks, because in a defensive position Tankers felt positively naked without Infantry.
What did arrive instead of Infantry was a motorcycle courier who peeled off from the column of men that was going down the road.
“Lance Corporal Weaver, 8th Division.” he said and threw a tired salute. “Sir, we have German heavy Armour and Infantry twenty minutes that way,” he motioned towards the general direction of Vienna, “and Soviet Armour and Infantry behind that. This group coming through now are the last ones, everything coming now is likely the enemy.” Without a further word the Corporal sped off and Niemczyk once more wished the Infantry was to arrive this instant.
He emptied the dregs of his tea into the grass and looked up at the trees that obscured his Regiment from view. He turned and climbed back into the turret of his tank. Wrestling himself past the breech of the 17 pounder he reached for the headset microphone of the wireless.
“Badger Actual to all Badger Stations, stand to, we are about have company. Watch out for enemy Infantry.”
Acknowledgement came in from all his vehicles.
“Badge Actual to Foxhole, come in.”
After three more tries he did actually make contact with Division.
“Badger Actual, this is Foxhole.”
“Foxhole, where is this support you promised us? Leprechaun is nowhere to be seen and I have reports of German and Soviet Heavy Armour and Infantry coming my way, over.”
“Leprechaun is working his way towards you, Badger, but the trails are wet.” came the reply, meaning that the road was clogged with men going one way, preventing the Royal Ulster Rifles from going the other at any speed. The result of panicked reactions by Corps and Division commanders.
“That's all well and bloody dandy, Foxhole, but doesn't help me when I have enemy Infantry coming out of my ears! Over.”
“Roger that, Badger. Be advised, we have Catapult four and six on call for you.”
Now that was good news. As was custom with the RAC at the time the Command troop contained a group of Artillery observers and this meant that the four men in two tricked out Armoured Cars could call upon two full batteries of guns.
“Glad to hear that, Foxhole. Any joy on the little Friends?”
“Negative, Badger Actual. Little Friends busy elsewhere.”
So no air support. Well, at least the blokes from the Royal Artillery had managed to scrape up a couple of guns for him to use.
They waited and waited and waited. Suddenly the external regimental frequency crackled into life.
“Badger Actual, this is Leprechaun Actual.” said a voice with a thick Belfast accent.
“Leprechaun Actual, this is Badger Actual. You are bloody damn late. Over.”
“Roger that, Badger Actual. Going into position now.”
And not a moment too soon. Even as the Northern Irish Infantry set up positions the opposing crest of hills roughly 500 yards away enemy scouting forces appeared.
German scouting forces moving through a retaken Austrian village
The tanks didn't open fire, but the movements of the Infantry were spotted and a few minutes later sporadic mortar fire began to fall in the fringes of the woods. Casualties were light but the troops redoubled their efforts to get at least some form of cover before the enemy attacked in force, and huddled in hastily dug shallow foxholes and between rocks and boulders on the slope below the line of tanks they awaited the enemy attack.
Still, the bane of a soldier's life were paper and waiting, and Jan was doing a lot of that for the next half hour.
He was awoken with a start and before he could demand to know who had let him sleep in the first place his gunner piped up.
“Colonel we have Gerries coming over the hill.”
He looked into the sights and saw that his gunner had been right. There were German Tanks coming across the crest of the opposing hill, and being more exposed than his own hull down tanks he could see their boxy shapes. At first he believed them to be Panzer Ivs, but soon realized that they were too big to be those.
Whatever they were, they were coming closer and closer and would soon come within 400 Yards when Jan intended to open fire.
He didn't know exactly what he was seeing there, but the 527th was not having a good day. On their march to the battlefield the three Porsche Tigers had broken down and had to be left behind, one with the suspension breaking under it's own weight before even coming off the train, another one where the main exhaust had not been fitted properly after the last maintenance (it was feeding the exhaust into the cabin) didn't go very far either and of course no fitting spare parts were to be had, whereas the third one had run afoul of a roving Belgian Mosquito and was now merrily burning away at the side of the road.
The Henschel vehicles didn't fare very well either, but here only two of them were not there as they were now standing in a creek with no hopes of getting out as the damaged bridge had collapsed under them, forcing the remainder to make a wide detour.
Germany's last heavy Tank then ran into yet another problem: At this close range the standard AP ammunition issued for the 17 pounder could easily penetrate the supposedly impenetrable frontal armour of the Tiger.
“FIRE AT WILL!” Colonel Niemczyk yelled both to his crew and his command.
“On target!” came the voice of his gunner.
The 17 pounder spat flame and the shell slammed into the gun mantle of one of the Tigers and exploded the ready ammunition and the round that the loader was already holding. It blew the turret right off and it rose into the air. The remaining five didn't fare very well. On one a track link snapped and the crew immediately bailed out only to fall prey to the Artillery that began to fall around the Germans who had somehow managed to loose contact with their own Infantry. Four more Tigers fell prey to the massed British guns, and within half an hour after getting the order to move the 527th had ceased to exist, taking the very concept of the heavy Tank with it as Hitler, when informed of the abysmal performance instantly cancelled further production and development, whereas Stalin cancelled Soviet efforts in 1943 after a very brave Zhukov pointed out that one could achieve more firepower by building the T-44 instead of further development of the KV series.
For the British however this victory didn't immediately solve things, because the offensive that Rommel had started was still going on and by the end of the day the 2nd Royal Hussars and the Royal Ulster Rifles were pulling back, along with the remainder of the 8th Army and the Allied front in Austria. However the sacrifice of the 1st King's African Rifle Division and of the 8th Division wouldn't be forgotten. The two units had been all but destroyed completely, but thanks to their sacrifice the bulk of the Army could withdraw.
Comments, questions, rotten tomatoes?
Can you tell that I dislike heavy Tanks as a rule?
 Codename for the RUR.