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An American halftrack rumbles through the wreckage of Roncey. During his escape, Langanke’s column stumbled upon several halftracks, destroyed them and drove off their crews. (NATIONAL ARCHIVES)

Six weeks after the Normandy landings, the British Second Army still struggled to take Caen and the U.S. First Army was mired in the Cotentin Peninsula’s dense hedgerow country. The American seizure of St. Lô on July 18, 1944, set the stage for Operation Cobra, which kicked off the breakthrough of the German lines on July 25.

By the evening of July 27, elements of the 3rd Armored Division’s Combat Command B were near Camprond in a drive to cut off German units north of the Coutances-St. Lô Road. Farther south, elements of the 2nd Armored Division had reached Notre Dame-de-Cenilly. On July 28th, tanks of the 3rd Armored approached Savigny and Cerisy-la-Salle and elements of the 2nd Armored Division threatened St. Denis-le-Gast and Lengronne. The next day, spearheads of the 3rd Armored had flanked Roncey, which lay to their south, and cut the Coutances-Lengronne Road, while the 2nd Armored advance units entered St. Denis-le-Gast and reached Lengronne. American possession of those forward positions was tenuous at best, given the chaos of battle and the ebb and flow of territory gained and lost. Even though the Germans were now in full retreat, they resisted tenaciously as they withdrew.

Fritz Langanke was one of the German soldiers who fought against the Allies with great determination during the retreat. At the time of the Normandy campaign, the 25-year-old veteran of seven years’ service in the SS was an officer cadet in the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich. It was during his efforts to bring his tanks out of the Roncey Pocket that he saw some of the most intense combat of his service in the SS and earned the respect of his senior officers, who would eventually award him the coveted Knight’s Cross. Langanke was interviewed for World War II Magazine by George J. Winter Sr.

World War II: Where were you at the start of Operation Cobra?

Langanke: Early on the night of July 28, 1944, I was attached with my platoon of four Panthers of the 2nd Company, SS Panzer Regiment Das Reich, to the reinforced 3rd Battalion of SS Regiment Deutschland, which was part of our division. The American encirclement of the bulk of those German units that had been north of the main American breakout thrust from St. Lô was nearly complete. The Roncey Pocket was closing. Our task force, led by the commander of the 3rd Battalion, Major Helmut Schreiber, was ordered to take the route via Cerisy-la-Salle and Notre Dame-de-Cenilly toward Percy, where a new defense line was to be established. Many of the infantry fragments of divisions that roamed around in that area, as well as stragglers, were to be taken along. This was an absolutely unrealistic order.

WWII: Orders being orders, what did you do?

Langanke: I took the lead, and Schreiber sat on my tank. The lanes and roads were plugged with vehicles of all kinds. Eventually, we got things started. On the east side of Notre Dame-de-Cenilly we could hear the noise of battle. At the end of the night we had reached la Croix-Marie, close to the road that led from Villebaudon via Lengronne to Brhal. This crossroads was already blocked, and there was some shooting. Schreiber ordered me to clear this junction so we could continue. In front of us vehicles had driven up close and packed the road. All of them were staff or maintenance cars; none were combat units. Most of the drivers and crews had left their vehicles in panic. I drove along the side of the vehicles and called out to make way for my tank. But whether I begged, swore or hollered, only a few drivers reacted. I pushed a car or a bus to the side here and there, and slowly proceeded. Then there were two or three open radio vehicles right in the middle of the road, and I had to drive over them. Being an old radio operator, I tore two or three radio sets out of their fastenings and tossed them on the rear of our hull before we flattened the cars.

WWII: Were you able to clear a route through?

Langanke: We reached the area of the one-sided fight and shortly drove off the American infantry into a field to the left. Back on the road we were hit by a round from an anti-tank gun and were deeply shocked. The driver and radio operator cried, ‘We are burning, we can’t see anything anymore.’ Here, for the first time in the war, we experienced phosphorus shells. It must have been a towed gun, because I couldn’t see any armor. We backed up a couple of meters and crawled into a small side lane. Just around the corner and out of sight we ran our tank up onto a big heap of ammunition boxes and other junk, thereby killing the motor. Several attempts by the driver to start the motor were in vain. We didn’t dare let the Panther roll forward down that heap because we would be helpless in sight of the enemy. We had to crank up the motor. I jumped out of my turret and put some boxes together so I could stand on them. I stuck in the crank at such an angle that I could force down its handle with my stomach and push it up with my arms. I did this several times as quickly as possible, and finally the motor turned over. Fear increases your strength considerably; normally you needed two men for this action. We then rushed around the corner and, firing with cannon and machine guns, we eliminated the anti-tank gun. The way was now free, and we returned to the head of our column. All that had taken some time, and under the impression that we couldn’t break through the roadblock, Schreiber had decided to turn back, swing to the west and try another route south. I pleaded with him not to do that, pointing out the traffic jams and the fact that, come daylight when aircraft were overhead, there would be no movement at all. He insisted, and I had to obey, of course. At the next corner, we talked to the leader of a small battle group that had already been in contact with the enemy. He was confident he could hold his position. He was too optimistic.

WWII: Was it still dark when you were done with all this?

Langanke: The night was gone by now, and we moved in full daylight. Pretty soon aircraft dotted the sky. First they were busy north and south of us, and we were able to drive another three to four kilometers in the next hour or so, thereby passing St. Martin-de-Cenilly. Then our route was taken care of — after the first attacks, the road was blocked for good. The planes could then, quite calmly, pick target after target. Since there was no defense, it must have been a picnic for those guys in the air. For us on the ground it was terrible. To make it even worse, artillery started shelling us. Here we were with quite a bit of combat capacity and no chance to use it, just being smashed. Our division lost about two-thirds of its weapons and equipment in the pocket. When all was over in the afternoon, I guess the same number of vehicles as were destroyed could still have moved. But the jam on the road was complete. Just before the first attack on our column, we had reached a point some 200 meters from the Hambye-Roncey Road near la Valtolaine. In front of us a burned-out tractor with a big artillery piece and other vehicles blocked the way. Schreiber jumped off our Panther and tried to find out what was going on in front of us. He ran across the Hambye-Roncey Road, but American troops had established a roadblock at that point, and he couldn’t come back. From then on, the rest of the men relied on me.
German Marder III self-propelled guns sit idle amid the ruins of Roncey following the fighting. (NATIONAL ARCHIVES)

WWII: Were there no other officers present at that point to take command?

Langanke: Yes, but this was an unusual and unexpected situation. Normally the next rank took over, but this was different. It just happened. Somebody had to do it, and I was the guy on whose tank Schreiber had sat.

WWII: Now that you unexpectedly found yourself in command of this ad hoc force, what did you do?

Langanke: After the first couple of attacks, the radio sets on the back of my Panther caught fire. I quickly opened the back hatch of the turret, leaned out and pushed the ignited stuff off the vehicle. I burned one hand, but it wasn’t too bad. What was real bad was that the planes had seen one tank left down there, seemingly still operable and with the crew in it. They now concentrated on us. It was finally a considerable number that dealt exclusively with us. The continuous rattle of the bullets on all sides of the turret drove you crazy. Then a big bang! In the turret roof there was a hole, where a discharger for smoke grenades should be installed. When that piece of equipment was not available, this opening was covered with a round plate fastened with four bolts. We had such a lid. The enormous number of bullet impacts had broken the bolts and flung the lid away. Daylight in the turret! The loader and myself had the same reaction. We grabbed our blankets, turned them together into a kind of cone and wedged them into the hole so it served as a backstop. Twice, the impact of so many projectiles threw our contraption down, but luckily we had it in again before more bullets rained down on us.

WWII: Can you describe the scene around your tank?

Langanke: Some 20 to 30 meters in front of us a group of paratroopers had been mowed down by the first air attack. Among those pilots must have been some extremely queer characters. Time and again they buzzed this group and fired into the dead bodies. They flew just above the treetops, so they must have seen all the details. Slowly the limbs were torn off, the intestines were spilled. It’s one of the most terrible impressions I remember from the war. The gunner had a view out of the tank with his sighting telescope and its narrow field of vision. That, unfortunately, was pointed at this group of dead soldiers. In this tremendous stress we all had to suffer, the horrible sight tipped the scale, and he cracked up. Hollering and swearing, he wanted to get out. He was for a short while out of his mind. I drew my pistol and stuck the barrel in his neck, hollered back at him and told him to stop playing the crazy idiot. He immediately got back to normal. This man was one of the finest comrades we had, absolutely reliable, sturdy and imperturbable. But I am sure every man exposed long enough to really extreme pressure will have a weak moment.

WWII: Clearly the pressure was mounting. How did you keep your group together?

Langanke: I had to change the situation somehow. We started the motor, turned to the right and hit the hedgerow regardless of the danger for our drive sprockets and reduction drives. Behind the hedgerow there was a very big orchard where we could hide. The planes strafed and bombed that area for a while but then lost interest and gave up. Soon thereafter, one of the roaming soldiers told us that close by, in a bunker at a farmhouse, a regimental commander of some infantry and 10 or 12 officers sat together. I assumed they were discussing what action to take to cross the Hambye-Roncey Road and continue their retreat. I told my crew I would run over and find out how we could join this group. Still close to my tank, I got caught in a burst of artillery fire. All around me shells fell. I felt forlorn, hit the ground and started crawling around in an absolutely senseless way. It was my breakdown. When I had myself under control again, I first ascertained that my crew hadn’t seen me. Most probably there is no closer and unrestricted comradeship than in a tank crew that has to live and fight together through real hard times. If they had watched me crawling, those nice guys would have asked me — in a mighty compassionate way, of course — what kind of beetles I was trying to catch or was it moles or other nonsense like that.

WWII: Once you regained your composure, did you continue to the farm?

Langanke: I got to the bunker, snapped to attention and reported to the regimental commander and asked for orders. He didn’t have any for me, and I left the shelter. For the next two or three hours I was quite busy. I ran back 200-300 meters down the road looking for vehicles from our task force and others. Most of the men who had abandoned their vehicles were back now. I found two operable Panthers and one Panzerkampfwagen IV. With them I was able to move enough obstacles so that our halftrack and wheeled vehicles could pass. We formed quite a column. I told those with me that, come darkness, we would break out. I reported this fact to the regimental commander and checked in another two or three times. He finally told me not to make any noise and wait. He would, under cover of darkness, sneak stealthily through the American blockade with his infantry and all the stragglers, without shooting. I thought he was kidding me, because that was mere nonsense.

WWII: It sounds like that officer was losing his nerve.

Langanke: Shortly after my last encounter, some seasoned parachute noncoms came and said to me: ‘You poor bastard. You’re the only one around here who doesn’t know what’s cooking. Those guys don’t plan anything. They are going to surrender.’ I felt ashamed for my stupidity. I went over to the bunker and told them I would start with my column at 2200 that evening and the hell with them. Then two officers came to my tank. One, a major, was the commander of an assault gun battalion, and the other was his adjutant. They had camouflaged their two vehicles in a sunken lane close by. They asked me whether they could join our column. By that time I had given up wondering why an officer of his rank would ask a platoon leader, who wasn’t even an officer, if he could join instead of taking over command. I then drove with my tank back to the road and broke two passages through the hedgerow on the left side in order to pass the big gun and other destroyed vehicles in front of us. In the attempt to move the destroyed vehicles to the side of the road, one of my Panthers had broken a sprocket wheel and had to be abandoned.

WWII: What other preparations did you make for your anticipated breakout?

Langanke: I set up a march formation. First my tank with grenadiers on the left side and about 50 to 60 paratroopers on the right side as a safeguard against close combat fighters with bazookas. Then the two assault guns, the wheeled vehicles of our task force, various stragglers, self-propelled infantry guns and mobile flak followed. The rear was brought up by the Panzer IV and my second Panther. The frequency of our radio communication was set, and at 2200 hours we started. Of course, no scouts had moved at all before this.

WWII: Had the other three Panthers of your platoon been knocked out by that time?

Langanke: No. The second Panther that took part in the breakout was the only one from my platoon left. The commander’s name was Panzer. Sounds funny! The other Panthers were stuck in traffic or mechanically disabled. On the right side a farm was in flames. In the wavering light I thought I saw a Sherman in the field to the left. We fired twice and hit it, but it didn’t burn. Then I drove full speed across the Hambye-Roncey Road, where I expected stiff American resistance and, if I remember correctly, we rolled over an anti-tank gun. I shot into the lane that led into the main road from the other side and stopped. Passing the intersection, I saw two Shermans to my right side standing at right angles, sticking their heads into the hedgerow. Now I realized these were the machine guns that had fired at our paratroopers when we started and had wounded a number of them. We had to be quick to use the surprise effect, so I ordered the assault guns to rush to the crossing, turn right and knock out the two tanks that showed them their sides. They hesitated and started deliberating. I was enraged. I turned my turret and told them to start immediately or I would knock them out. They did, turned right and had no problems destroying the American tanks. I proceeded down the lane. To my right side there was a wider field with a hedgerow bordering it. Along this hedge a number of armored vehicles were parked, pointed toward the main road. I was lucky. We hit the last one, probably an ammunition carrier, and it was like fireworks at a summer festivity. The flare ammunition with the different colors was a fantastic sight. The whole area was illuminated, and I could easily pick out another four to six of these armored halftracks. I don’t remember the exact number. With all this, a great many soldiers of the infantry units behind the north-south road were encouraged to jump up and follow us. They did this in an unmilitary manner, with shouts and yells, firing in the air and the like. At first I was appalled, but then I realized it was quite useful. The Americans seemed to be completely surprised and even dumbfounded. They left a number of cars, which were taken over by Germans, and there was practically no further resistance. I drove on and maybe 150 meters in front of me an American tank raced from the right toward the road. We wanted to stop it, and that thing happened that all tank crews are most afraid of — you pull the trigger or push the button, and the gun doesn’t fire. Figuring that was the end for us, I turned my head and got an even bigger shock. From the south, four American tanks rushed onto the road that joined ours, which came from la Valtolaine. They turned back and disappeared at full speed. I again looked forward. That first tank had such momentum when it hit the road that it couldn’t stop in time and got stuck with its nose in the ditch next to the road. Only with great trouble could it get out, turn around and get away. We were sitting there in our Panther, not only undamaged but even unmolested and almost couldn’t believe it.

WWII: It sounds as if things were going your way.

Langanke: The column we had started with comprised about 300 men. By now it was around double that number. As we moved farther, our progress was made easier by a number of captured [Allied] vehicles. Some stragglers joined us, while others separated and chose different ways. We were a motley, mixed bunch. I figured that combat action would occur in this intersection area, which appeared to be more than a mere roadblock. I ordered the other Panther to take the lead, and I brought up the rear. Radio communication still worked, and we began our erratic wandering. We first reached Lengronne, continued to Crences, crossed the Sienne River and drove on to Gavray.

WWII: What did you find in Gavray?

Langanke: When we reached the town, it was under fire. Here our column became mixed with a number of other vehicles. Outside the town we continued without loss and turned toward St. Denis-le-Gast, but before reaching it, we left the road and drove to the bridge at la Baleine. As we approached, our movement nearly stopped. I climbed out of my Panther to find out the reason. Artillery fire, which continued sporadically, or bombing had damaged this bridge, the sides of which were partly destroyed. The drivers were very reluctant to go on it. I then took over, organized the approach to the bridge and directed each vehicle across. When our tank crossed, as the last vehicle, only half the width of the tracks found footing in some places. On the south side of the river, tactical signs of quite a number of units were installed, and the column could dissolve. Most of them now knew where to go. My self-appointed mission was finished. It was full daylight by now, and the first planes appeared. We drove into a lane that led up a hill, and at the first farm with an orchard we stopped. I told the crew we would now have a good nap after three nights of nearly no sleep at all. We crawled under our tank and were lost to the world around us. It was high noon when we were awake again, and we were alone.

WWII: What happened to the remaining Panther of your platoon, Panzer’s tank?

Langanke: Panzer went along with the vehicles from Deutschland and reached the regiment. My crew and I couldn’t continue after the river crossing, we were completely spent. The driver and gunner fell asleep every so often while we were moving, and I was totally exhausted. When I got all the vehicles over the river — which was a beastly business, with yelling, swearing and threatening — all my energy was gone. Physically and mentally we were just done, we couldn’t continue, we had to get some sleep. That was the reason we stopped alone at the orchard.

WWII: What happened after you finally woke?

Langanke: Some 100 meters away we saw a Panther on the right side of the lane pointed toward us. From the left side another lane joined ours. There, Americans must have come up the hill, because the Panther was knocked out. It had a hole in the gun mantlet.

WWII: Was this Panther knocked out before you went to sleep?

Langanke: I don’t know, but I can’t believe that the Americans were already there when we reached the farm. I went over into the field on the left and met some German soldiers. They told me that there were already plenty of American troops down in the valley, and you could hear it, too. I went back and then had a mighty strenuous afternoon. The sky now swarmed with planes. I would run ahead some 50-100 meters, watch the direction of the flight of the various groups of aircraft, give a sign when it was favorable for us to move, and then the tank would race to its new position. After some hours, shortly before dark, we met a supply column of our division, where we could partly replenish our fuel. In this area Americans must have been present, because there were no planes above. We had lost one wheel set from artillery fire, and the bogies had damaged several track links. With a one-kilogram standard explosive charge we blew off the damaged part and were lucky not to harm the other tracks and suspension parts. During the night we completely lost track of our direction. In the morning we arrived at Beauchamps. Then we found a road sign that told us we had only 15 kilometers to Granville. That gave us our orientation back. We turned and sneaked around Villedieu-les-Poêles, evaded American columns several times on the roads south of that town, turned north, then east of it and reported back to our regiment during the night of July 31-August 1, in the Percy area. The regimental commander had already heard about our action and was mighty glad to see us, all the more so as he now had one more operational tank. Before the night passed we were on the way to another roadblock.

For his part in ensuring that hundreds of soldiers and their equipment managed to escape from the Roncey Pocket, Fritz Langanke was recommended for the Knight’s Cross on August 7, 1944. He was awarded that medal on August 27, 1944.

This article was written by George J. Winter Sr. and originally appeared in the November 2003 of World War II. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of World War II.