Rolf Hertenstein was born in Frankfurt am Main and grew up in Bad Homburg, Germany, where his parents owned the second largest hotel in town. More excited by a future in the automobile industry than running a hotel, Hertenstein volunteered for the German army in November 1937 so that he could select the branch of the armed forces he would do his military time in. Service in the Panzerwaffe (armored force) would ensure that he would have an opportunity to work with engines as well as be a member of what was regarded as an elite branch of the service. After being inducted, he was assigned to the 2nd Panzer Division, which at that time was commanded by Major General Heinz Guderian, one of Adolf Hitler’s most accomplished armored theorists.
Transferred with his division to Vienna, Hertenstein was part of the armored force that rolled across the Polish border in September 1939 and demonstrated to a shocked international community the awesome power of Germany’s mechanized tactics. After the lightning campaign of conquest as a noncommissioned officer in the 4th Panzer Regiment, Hertenstein attended officer training school in Wünsdorf and was commissioned a lieutenant in April 1940. As a newly minted officer, he returned to his division in time to take part in the invasion of France. In an interview with World War II Magazine, Hertenstein discusses his early days with the Panzerwaffe and the Wehrmacht‘s first victories.
World War II: Although you were already a veteran soldier, the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, was your first taste of combat. Can you describe some of your experiences during that campaign?
Hertenstein: I don’t remember if we saw any action that first day. At this point I was an Unteroffizier [corporal], and the gunner in a Panzer IV. We had a crew of five men, and Lieutenant Heinz Meyer commanded our tank; he was also our platoon leader. I had a funny feeling when we first attacked. There would be no flowers thrown to us in Poland. It was serious this time. We started out south of Krakow and went east toward Lemberg [Lwow]. The Polish roads weren’t as good as Germany’s. They had fewer paved roads. Poland was more rural and agricultural than industrial at that time. I vividly remember our first duel with a Polish antitank gun on the first or second day of the campaign. It was pretty well camouflaged at the edge of a forest about 600 or 700 meters away. They fired at us but missed. It was now a question of who would hit the other first. I had seen the flash of their gunfire, so my second round hit them.
Panzer Regiment 3 was our sister regiment in the division, and they had heavy losses that day or the next. I believe on the second day of the war they fought against a Polish officers’ school. Those Poles fought very hard.
WWII: There is very little available in English on the campaign in Poland, and much of what is accessible gives the impression that the Germans just rolled over their opposition. It sounds like this is not necessarily the case.
Hertenstein: One night near Lemberg, our company had to do some reconnaissance. A night patrol was very unusual, because we couldn’t see out of our panzers very well in the darkness. I don’t remember why we were traveling at night. In front of us was a Panzer II that was commanded by an older lieutenant from the reserves. Lieutenant Striegler was a World War I veteran. The night was pitch-dark. We were traveling on a road for a while when, all of a sudden, a big searchlight was turned on us. We were blinded by it, but I don’t recall if we were fired on or not. Lieutenant Striegler yelled at us to fire, but I told Lieutenant Meyer that I couldn’t shoot because I would hit the tank in front of me. That panzer had to move to the side and get out of the way. Lieutenant Meyer told them to move over, but when they did, their panzer went into a ditch and threw one of its tracks. But now I had a clear view. I fired once with the gun and also with the machine gun. The light went out and that was the end of it. I don’t think we moved any farther that night, and we received no fire from the other side. I assume it was some kind of Polish military unit with a searchlight, which was probably used in an anti-aircraft battery.
WWII: Did you have any other close calls with the enemy?
Hertenstein: Later that day, we were alerted again, so we moved in another direction. There were some Polish troops trying to get through to the south. In a nearby village, our supply company had been attacked by these Polish forces. We were sent there, and on the village’s main street there were fires, and soldiers were shooting in all directions. We really didn’t know what was going on. There were a lot of dead horses in the town. I always felt sorry for those poor creatures. When the horses died, they would swell up after a while. It’s not a nice picture. Our tank was on the left side of the road. On the other side was a Panzer III, which was similar to our panzer in size but it had a smaller, 37mm gun, and was commanded by Lieutenant Weichselbaum. We were both going up the road. It was foggy, and there was a lot of smoke around us because of the burning thatched-roof houses in the village. We advanced slowly because we couldn’t see anything on the road. Suddenly, through the fog and smoke, we saw a flash in front of us. A Polish artillery shell zipped between our two tanks, which were maybe four or five feet apart. Lieutenant Meyer ordered me to fire, but I told him I couldn’t see the enemy. I had the turret straight ahead at 12 o’clock, but as I turned it a little to the left, I saw another gun flash from their position as they fired another shot. Again, the round went between our two panzers without hitting us. I fired our gun once, and then it was quiet. After a while we carefully moved forward. On the side of the road there was a Polish 37mm antitank gun surrounded by its dead crew. The gunner had just been putting the next shell into the gun, and that round might have been the end of us. That is one of the active memories that I have of the campaign in Poland.
WWII: Despite the opposition, the campaign was an amazing success, and the Polish army was destroyed in three weeks. How did it end for you?
Hertenstein: We were near Lemberg, and that is when the war with Poland came to an end for us. We had to pull back. We went beyond the demarcation line in Poland that we shared with Russia in the east. We never saw any Russians at that point, so we didn’t have any direct contact with them. I participated in about six attacks in Poland. It was a short campaign anyway. It lasted about 2 1/2 to three weeks. We then returned to Vienna.
WWII: Given the speed of the offensive, did you ever feel that the campaign was more than you bargained for? Did the morale of those around you ever suffer?
Hertenstein: Our morale was excellent. When you see pictures of the beginning of World War I the soldiers were given flowers, and they were glad to be in the war. It wasn’t like that for us. We thought: “Well, there is a war on now. That’s what we’re here for.” We weren’t really excited, nor did we want a war, because you could be one of the fatalities. As long as we were ordered to fight, we did what we were supposed to do.
WWII: The invasion of Poland was really the first test for the armored vehicles that Germany had developed between the wars. How do you think the Panzerkampfwagen Marks I, II, III and IV performed under combat conditions?
Hertenstein: At that point, they were sufficient. As I had mentioned, I was in a Panzer IV, the heaviest tank we had at that time. The majority of our tanks were the small Panzer I that had a two-man crew (a driver and a gunner) and two machine guns in the turret. They weighed about 6 or 7 tons. Their armor was relatively thin, and they could barely stop rounds from rifles or machine guns. The Panzer II was a little better. It weighed about 10 tons and had a three-man crew, including a radio operator who sat in the back as the third crew member. It had a 20mm automatic cannon and a machine gun in the turret. I didn’t like it much. We got the first Panzer IIIs and IVs in the summer of 1938 after we annexed Austria. Originally our company had three Panzer IIIs and three Panzer IVs. I was in the 5th Company of the regiment. It was called a “heavy” company because of the large tanks we had. In the beginning the Panzer III had a 37mm gun, which was later upgraded to a 50mm cannon. It originally weighed about 20 tons. Some versions had two machine guns in the turret besides the gun, plus another machine gun for the radio operator. It had the same size cannon as an antitank gun, and it was considered to be armor piercing. Originally the Panzer IV played a supporting role in battle. The idea was to use this tank and its 75mm gun to give fire protection from the heavier guns on the other side. They were supposed to go into position and give cover for our lighter tanks. We had three different types of ammunition for the 75mm gun: high explosive, armor-piercing and smoke rounds so we could lay a smoke screen. Our Panzer III and IV tanks were superior to anything the Poles had. The Poles also had fewer tanks than we did. They had a tank that weighed 8 to 10 tons with a 37mm cannon. I believe it was a copy of a British tank.
WWII: What was your assessment of the Poles themselves during the campaign?
Hertenstein: The Poles generally fought well, but their equipment was very inferior to ours. They just didn’t have a chance. Their air force was knocked out very early in the war. The Polish tanks were as good as our little Panzer I, but against our Panzer IVs they were useless. The armor on a Panzer IV wasn’t that thick, but the IV had a 75mm cannon, which was about 3 inches in diameter. It was a much larger gun than the ones on the Polish tanks.
WWII: Your leader, Adolf Hitler, and his government had initiated the war. How did you and those around you feel about the Nazis at this time? Were you sympathetic?
Hertenstein: At that point, most of us were supportive, to whatever extent we thought politically. We didn’t have that much political indoctrination, but we did have some. Prior to the war we had to serve two years in the armed forces. The vast majority of us were willing to spend those years in the military; after all, it was for our country.
WWII: To justify his invasion, Hitler had SS soldiers in Polish uniforms “attack” a radio station at Gliewitz. To add authenticity to the charade, inmates from concentration camps were killed and dressed in Polish uniforms. Did most of the soldiers you served with believe this ruse?
Hertenstein: Yes, I think so at that time.
WWII: Did Britain’s and France’s subsequent declaration of war on September 3, 1939, come as a shock?
Hertenstein: We were surprised and unhappy about it. We really didn’t know what our leaders were doing. At that point we hoped the war could be settled before it expanded. The war was over very fast in Poland.
WWII: The 2nd Panzer Division returned to its quarters in Vienna after the campaign, but it was not long before plans moved forward for the invasion of France. How was your unit organized for the invasion and were any special precautions taken to mass troops along the border?
Hertenstein: I had been commissioned a lieutenant, and commanded half a platoon that consisted of two Panzer IVs. At that point, our heavy panzer company had four platoons of five panzers each. My platoon leader was my old recruiting officer and panzer commander in Poland, Lieutenant Meyer. I now had a different tank crew from the one I had in Poland. I don’t recall if we took any precautions [to avoid being detected] when moving our tanks to the western border.
WWII: Did Guderian’s XIX Motorized Corps, of which the 2nd Panzer Division was a part, encounter any significant opposition at the start of the invasion on May 10, 1940?
Hertenstein: On the first day of the invasion we rolled through Luxembourg and the southeastern corner of Belgium, then on to Sedan, France, on the Meuse River. There we had to wait on the eastern side of the river. The French had blown up the bridges, so we couldn’t get across. Up until then, we hadn’t seen any action yet. We were sitting on the hills above Sedan and the Stukas were relentlessly attacking the French fortifications. One group was dropping bombs while others approached or returned. This went on continuously all day long to soften up the other side. The Stukas had sirens that howled as they dove, and this often unnerved the enemy both in France and in Poland.
WWII: The panzers reached the Meuse two days into the invasion so it does not seem that this natural barrier held you up for very long. Can you describe what happened once the attack got going again?
Hertenstein: We crossed the Meuse after the infantry built a bridge across it. Then we fought our way through the fortifications there. This was the northernmost extension of the famous Maginot Line. The French had all kinds of bunkers there. Some of them had cannons of various sizes while others had machine guns. It was pretty harrowing; I don’t remember what our losses were. What we tried to do was to use our 75mm gun on any weapon that fired at us, regardless of what kind of weapon the French were shooting. We tried to hit the bunker openings and put them out of action. Since their weapons were fired from the front of the bunkers, we couldn’t circle around and destroy them from the rear. It was tough fighting. We slowly worked our way through the fortifications. Our duels with the bunkers in the Maginot Line were fought at various distances, from several hundred meters to less than 100 meters. It depended on when we saw them or when they opened fire on us. Some of them were very well camouflaged. I don’t recall how closely the infantry followed us, or how much air support we had during our direct attacks on these fortifications. Of course, we didn’t leave our tanks to clean out these bunkers. The infantry did that. I can’t say how many bunkers my tank hit or destroyed, but the fighting went on all day, and we were under very heavy French artillery fire in the late afternoon and evening. The Maginot Line may have been effective in a war like the First World War, but it lost a lot of its value in modern warfare as our attack had shown.
WWII: The French and British were stunned by how quickly the vaunted Maginot Line was rendered ineffective. After you worked your way through this concrete defensive line, what was your opposition like?
Hertenstein: The next day we broke through the French defenses and made a fast run for the English Channel. We didn’t encounter much heavy action once we were in the open, so we just kept advancing.
WWII: The pace of operations was spectacular. German formations were advancing faster and farther in a matter of days than their predecessors had done in years of bloody stalemate 20 years earlier. Did the speed present any problems for you?
Hertenstein: At one point [May 15] we were supposed to stop, because some strong British tank units were to come down from Belgium. I heard later that it was Hitler who wanted our advance to stop. General Guderian went to [Colonel] General [Gerd von] Rundstedt, who was our army group commander, and said he had to do some heavy reconnaissance to get us going. And that is what we then did, heavy reconnaissance! We went so far so fast that we captured a British supply depot, and got good British cigarettes. The French ones were terrible. At another point we entered a town but the British didn’t even have their live ammunition ready! They only had blanks, because they hadn’t expected us to advance so fast. We made the breakthrough to the Channel at Abbeville on May 20. My company particularly, and my unit, were the leaders in this push all day long. About 10 to 15 miles from Abbeville we ran out of gas. Our 1st Battalion, which had been following us, took the lead and arrived there first. They received the fame for being the first ones in Abbeville. We didn’t like this, but there wasn’t anything we could do about it.
WWII: The seizure of Abbeville cut off the French First and Seventh armies and the British Expeditionary Force around Dunkirk and pretty much ended any Allied hopes of saving France. Where did you go from there?
Hertenstein: From there we turned north. In Neufchatel, a small town south of Boulogne, we got involved in a hairy fight. Our 7th Company, which had Panzer IIIs, entered an intersection and received fire from both sides. The enemy was able to knock out one or more of the Panzer IIIs. We were the next company behind them, so we got orders to move out to the left from where the 7th was fighting. We tried to get in back of the antitank gun. I was in the first tank in my company, so I pulled over to the left and then entered a street parallel to our original direction of advance. The French had built a barricade of cars across it. It wasn’t a particularly wide street. We halted the tank in front of the barricade and thought about what we should do. Then the company commander called over the radio: “What are you waiting for? Climb over the barricade!” So I just pushed on. We sat right on top of the barricade with our tank, which weighed 20-plus tons. The barricade came down and then I moved on. I got to the crossroad and stuck the nose of our panzer out very carefully around a house. The French immediately hit the house’s corner with their antitank gun. I tried it again, but as soon as I had the tank’s nose out, they fired before I could even see anything. I tried this three times but couldn’t get anywhere. I reported this to my company commander over the radio. He then ordered me to return and go farther to the left. Unfortunately, I couldn’t turn the tank around because the street was too narrow, so I moved backward. As soon as I got over the barricade again the panzer wouldn’t move. Nothing we tried was able to move the tank, so we sat there. I reported back that our panzer wouldn’t move anymore, so we were told to stay where we were. We were sitting there all by ourselves as the company moved on.
WWII: Your tank was broken down and you were all by yourselves deep in enemy territory. It must have been a pretty lonely feeling. What did you do next?
Hertenstein: After a while I decided to see what was going on. I told my loader and the gunner to stay in the tank and give us cover. We had one or two machine-pistols, and each of us had Lugers. I told my driver and the radio operator to come with me, so we could comb through the buildings around there. We then jumped out of the tank. While my gunner followed us with the turret, we took about 20 French prisoners. I spoke some French from school, and they came out from where they were hiding. They knew there wasn’t much hope for them. We then looked at our panzer to see what was wrong. In the rear of the tank there is a wheel, a so-called Leitrad, over which the track runs to the bogie wheels on the track. This Leitrad is held on with a large ring nut on its axle. We looked at it—the whole wheel had come off. Machine gun fire had shot this ring nut to pieces, so there wasn’t anything to hold the wheel on anymore and it slipped off the axle. We didn’t know that we had been hit there. We couldn’t feel machine gun fire inside the tank, so we didn’t think that it had caused any damage. In the afternoon or evening our repair crew came and repaired the damage.
WWII: The French had a well-developed armored force at the start of the invasion, yet you seemed to encounter little or no real opposition from it, instead having a more difficult time with the French infantry and antitank guns. Why do you think that is?
Hertenstein: The French philosophy in tank warfare was different from ours. Our philosophy was that attacking was our best defense, so our panzer divisions were built around that. We had self-sustaining divisions that had everything we needed to break through the enemy’s defenses and to keep going, while other troops would fill in our flanks to give us cover afterward. We saw the heaviest French tanks once. I believe they were Char B.2s. It was a huge monster, the biggest tank we had ever seen. The armor looked very thick, and our gun just couldn’t penetrate it. We shot it out with some Renault 35B tanks, or whatever the model was. While we fought with these we didn’t encounter those real big monsters. The French tanks were slower than ours, particularly those really big ones.
WWII: Although your division’s capture of Abbeville had sealed the fate of the French and British forces trapped around Dunkirk, you were not there to see the town taken on June 4. What was the 2nd Panzer Division up to at that time?
Hertenstein: We soon continued on to Boulogne, which was defended fairly heavily. Our forces brought in the heaviest German artillery that I had ever seen. They were big mortars that fired at the citadel, which was sitting up on a hill. According to my records, I saw some action there, but I don’t recall any details of it. Our artillery pounded the citadel, and the city fell. We didn’t go farther north where the battle of Dunkirk was developing. Hitler didn’t want to use his panzers there since, according to him, it wasn’t an area where tanks could travel. We were then pulled back to the Champagne area north of Reims and prepared for the final push. From there we went in a southern direction and wound up close to the Swiss border. The first day or two, we attacked the Weygand Line where there was very heavy fighting. The French had hastily erected field fortifications there, not the type we encountered in the Maginot Line. We were under heavy artillery fire several times. We eventually broke through just like we did before. Then everything was open and we advanced rather fast.
WWII: You had been fighting relentlessly since May 10. It must have taken a toll on your men and their equipment.
Hertenstein: My tank started to have technical problems at that point. The division turned northeast before we got to Besançon, and headed toward the back of the Maginot Line. At the same time, German troops came across the Rhine and attacked the French defenses from the east. Being attacked from both sides, the French gave up, and France surrendered on June 22. That was the end of the campaign for us.
WWII: Although the campaign was quick, from time to time you did encounter some stiff resistance. Given the inevitable losses and the pace of the action, did morale among the troops ever falter?
Hertenstein: Morale was very high. We thought about World War I when hundreds of thousands of men got killed on both sides. At that time, if they gained three miles it was a big thing. In the best days of our breakthrough to the English Channel we advanced 60 to 100 miles in a day.
WWII: What did you think of your French opponents? How did they compare to the Poles?
Hertenstein: The French soldiers were all right, but they became very demoralized early on. They didn’t know what to do once we broke through their lines. That goes for our break-through to the English Channel as well as our breakthrough in the Weygand Line. The French lost coherence, and control of their units fairly early. When they stopped and fought, they usually did very well, but that was on an individual unit basis. You cannot do much to stop a well-organized force with an army that is very thoroughly demoralized.
WWII: One of the greatest criticisms leveled at the senior German leadership for their conduct of the campaign is that they allowed more than 330,000 soldiers to be evacuated from Dunkirk to Britain. Since your unit had had such a large part to play in isolating that force, what did you think of the evacuation?
Hertenstein: How could that happen? This is still one of the most discussed incidents of the war, except maybe the question of why Hitler sacrificed the Sixth Army in Stalingrad. We couldn’t believe it. Some of these questions are difficult to answer even now. I have read so much about it and why we did that. To what extent the reading of history books or reports has affected my own memory is difficult to distinguish. We knew one thing, the enemy forces in Dunkirk had lost most of their heavy equipment, such as heavy artillery and so on. We were wondering why Göring didn’t come in with the Luftwaffe and his Stukas and knock the hell out of the enemy when they were embarking. I believe there were two reasons that Hitler decided not to attack Dunkirk with the army. First, he believed Göring when he said, “I will take care of it, mein Führer.” Göring had a big mouth. By the way, we were kind of envious of the Luftwaffe. It got so much more than we could even imagine getting in supplies and so on. The second argument was that Hitler hoped to come to some sort of an arrangement with England, so he didn’t annihilate them at Dunkirk. To what extent this is the truth, I don’t know. We thought we should have gone on to Dunkirk because the British couldn’t defend themselves. We didn’t accept the argument 100 percent that the terrain couldn’t be traveled by our panzers. Of course, we weren’t there. The question remains, why did we let them get away? In that respect we were disappointed.
WWII: Even with the failure to stop the evacuation at Dunkirk, the victory in France was a remarkable achievement. There must have been some sense of satisfaction that you had defeated the nation that had imposed such harsh conditions on Germany at the end of World War I.
Hertenstein: I don’t know if one can say we felt a sense of revenge when France had to sue for peace, but up to a point, that was quite likely how we felt. At least we had a strong feeling of satisfaction to be victorious, and to have lost so few lives compared with the last war.
WWII: You had now participated in two successful campaigns and become an officer. You had also received the Iron Cross. Do you have any recollection of the particular action that resulted in your receiving this award and did you receive any other decorations for your service?
Hertenstein: I could not tell you today. I believe it was when I fought at the Maginot Line, once we were on the other side of the Meuse River. My grandfather, on my mother’s side, got his Iron Cross at Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71. I think I also got mine there. When I received it, my company commander told me that they had already recommended me for the Iron Cross in Poland but were turned down. Lieutenant Meyer got the Iron Cross Second Class, and the Iron Cross First Class in Poland. The Second Class Iron Cross was awarded before the First Class. There were relatively few soldiers who got the Iron Cross First Class in the Polish campaign. I just got a pat on the back. Generally, if a panzer commander got the Iron Cross First Class, his gunner would get an Iron Cross Second Class. Without his gunner the commander wasn’t worth anything anyway. The gunner was a significant part of the whole action. I also received the Armored Assault Badge [Panzerkampfabzeichen] that was awarded to those who had participated in three panzer attacks. They didn’t count the attacks we experienced in Poland, but started counting the battles with the campaign against France. All the men in my tank crew got the Armored Assault Badge. I participated in six armored attacks in France.
WWII: Did you remain in France after the campaign and have a chance to enjoy the fruits of your victory?
Hertenstein: After the campaign we went back to Vienna. There we participated in a victory parade in our panzers. The whole 2nd Division was there. I believe the parade was for our division commander, [Maj. Gen. Rudolf] Veiel. We drove through some of the big thoroughfares in Vienna, and quite a crowd was there. n
Robert Mulcahy’s interview with Rolf Hertenstein is provided courtesy of the Center for Oral and Public History, California State University, Fullerton. This article originally appeared in the March 2006 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!