Germany – Third Reich: The Interesting Battle of France 1940 Iron Cross 2nd Class, Storming of the Brest Fortress, and later Orel Iron Cross 1st Class, Operation Bagration Silver Wound Badge Group of Award Certificates to Unteroffizier Josef Stranzinger, 3rd and 1st Companies, 81st Engineer Battalion, 45th Infantry Division, whose unit was heavily involved in the storming of the Brest Fortress on the opening days of Operation Barbarossa, being mentioned in the Divisional Commander's Report to the High Command, including in relation to lower charges from the roof of buildings on the Central Island of the Fort.
A scarce document grouping to an Engineer who saw service in the same unit from the time of the Occupation of the Sudetenland until at least October 1944 the time of his last award.
1) The 1st October 1938 Commemorative Medal awarded in Vienna on 10th August 1939 as a Pioneer, 81st Engineer Battalion. Signed for correctness by a Major and Battalion Commander on behalf of the General Officer Commanding XVII Army Corps and Commander in Chief Wehrkreis XVII
2) The Iron Cross 2nd Class awarded in the field on 22nd July 1940 as a Gefreiter, 3/81st Engineer Battalion. Signed by Materna as Generalleutnant and General Officer Commanding 45th Infantry Division. Materna was awarded the Knights Cross on 5.8.1940 as Generalleutnant and General Officer Commanding 45th Infantry Division.
3) The General Assault Badge awarded in the field on 30th July 1942 as an Obergefreiter, 3/81st Engineer Battalion. Signed by Kuhlwein as Generalmajor and General Officer Commanding 45th Infantry Division. Kuhlwein was awarded the German Cross in Gold on 19.1.1942 as Oberst and Commanding Officer 133rd Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division.
4) The Ostmedaille awared on 15th August 1942 as an Obergefreiter, 3/81st Engineer Battalion. Signed for correctness by a Hauptmann on behalf of the Battalion Commander.
5) The Black Wound Badge awarded in the field on 27th April 1943 for a wound received on 6th February 1943 as an Obergefreiter, 3/81st Engineer Battalion. Signed by a Major and Battalion Commander.
6) The Iron Cross 1st Class awarded in the field on 16th June 1943 as an Obergefreiter, 3/81st Engineer Battalion. Signed by Freiherr von Falkenstein as Generalmajor and General Officer Commanding 45th Infantry Division. Freiherr von Falkenstein was awarded the German Cross in Gold on 15.11.1941 as Oberst and Commanding Officer 103rd Rifle Regiment, 14th Panzer Division.
7) The Silver Wound Badge awarded in Dresden on 13th October 1944 for three wounds received on 6th March 1943, 2nd September 1943 and 25th August 1944 as an Unteroffizier, 1/81st Engineer Battalion. Signed by a Stabsarzt and Chief Doctor of the Reserve Hospital Dresden.
1) Josef Stranzinger’s score book for Rifle/Carabineer for the year 1939. He was holding the rank of Pioneer and was serving in 3 (motorised) Company, 81st Engineer Battalion.
2) Josef Stranzinger’s 1942 pocket diary with many handwritten entries which are very difficult to decipher. A clear entry is his date of birth which was 1st May 1917. His unit field post number was 29 096 which was 3rd Company, 81st Engineer Battalion. The many entries in the diary clearly show that his unit was on the East Front.
Josef Stranzinger was born on 1st May 1917 and was most likely Austrian, he was probably a member of the Austrian Federal Army that took part in the Occupation of the Sudetenland. At the start of the war Stranzinger served in Poland, before moving to the West in time to take part in the Invasion of France, where he was awarded an Iron Cross 2nd Class for an act of gallantry during the campaign. After the campaign in France the Division moved into Reserve before moving to the East in preparation in time for Operation Barbarossa.
At the outset of Operation Barbarossa 45th Infantry Division served as part of Army Group Centre, on the first day of the invasion it attempted to take the fortress at Brest Litovsk, after an initial heavy bombardment, the Division attempted to storm the fortress, the fighting on the first day was fierce, the Division losing 281 soldier killed in action. Heavy fighting continued over the next two days and at the end of the day of the 24th the Division had lost a total 368 killed, for the capture of between 4-5,000 Red Army Soldiers. By the evening of the 26th most of the northern Kobrin fortification except the east fort had been taken.
Generalmajor Fritz Schlieper wrote to the Army High Command on the fighting around the East Fort: ‘It was impossible to advance here with only infantry at our disposal because the highly organised rifle and machine gun fire from the deep gun emplacements and horse-shoe shaped yard cut down anyone who approached. There was only one solution – to force the Soviets to capitulate through hunger and thirst. We were ready to use any means available to exhaust them. Our offers to give themselves up were unsuccessful.’
After the initial shock, the fortress fought as one, with civilians attending to the wounded, and young children running as scouts and ammunition runners, despite the best efforts of German heavy artillery including 15cm Nebelwerfers the defenders hung on for much longer than the Germans expected.
In his detailed report Schlieper refers to Stranzingers Engineer Battalion: ‘the 81st Combat Engineer Battalion was given the task of blowing up a building on the Central Island. In order to put an end to the Russian flanking fire on the North Island. Explosives were lowered from the roof of the building towards the windows, then the fuses were lit. When they exploded we could hear the Soviet soldiers screaming and groaning, but they continued to fight.’
Schlieper goes on: ‘We only gradually managed to take one defensive position after another as a result of the stubborn fighting. The garrison of the so called ‘Officers House’ on the Central Island only ceased to exist with the building itself. The resistance continued until the wars of the building were destroyed and razed to the ground by more powerful explosions’
The fighting in Brest covered 5% of the entire losses of the Wehrmacht in the first 9 days of the invasion a testament to the ferocity of the fighting there. The defence of the fortress has gone down in Soviet legend with Brest being given the title ‘Hero Fortress’ in 1965 and two films being made covering it. The most recent one being Fortress of War which was released in 2010.
After Brest, the division went on to fight via Pinsk, Gomel, the encirclement battles near Kiev and finally on Tula as part of the attempt to capture Moscow in December 1941. 1942 saw the Division fighting in the area around Kursk and Orel, before being involved in the fighting at Voronezh in August, during this period Stranzinger was awarded the General Assault Badge and the Ostmedaille for his previous service during the winter of 1941-42.
On 6th February 1943, Stranzinger was wounded in the defensive fighting near Voronezh receiving the Black Wound Badge on 27th April for this, he was then also awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class for an act of gallantry in the area near Orel in June 1943. 45th Infantry Division subsequently saw heavy fighting in the Battle of Kursk in which it lost many casualties. Throughout the autumn of 1943 45th Infantry Division fought in the defensive battles that Army Group Centre was involved in fighting off a Soviet attempt to destroy Army Group Centre, although unsuccessful in its strategic aim, the offensive did achieve some notable successes including the recapture of Smolensk, during these defensive battles Stranzinger was wounded for a second time on 2nd September 1943. It is unclear when he returned to the front, but it is evident that he was involved in the defensive fighting that came about as the collapse of Army Group Centre as a result of Operation Bagration, during which he was wounded on 25th August 1944 and subsequently evacuated back to Dresden where he received the Silver Wound Badge on 13rd October 1944. It is unknown if he saw any further action or in the war or indeed survived his wounds, but the division went on to fight in the Vistula Bend and in Silesia.