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B Kompanie 153.
Our NATO partner unit in Germany was B Kompanie, 153rd Panzer Battalion. Near the end of my tour in Germany I was assigned to augment another platoon that was missing a tank (the one that ended up upside down which hadnít been replaced yet) for a ĎPartnership Shootí. Iím not sure who I had for a crew. I had been to the 153rdís kaserne in Koblenz once and met some of the people. They seemed very professional.
Sometime in the early winter we loaded up our tanks on rail cars and headed off for Koblenz in earnest. This was supposed to be fun, and that is pretty much the way it turned out. Iíve mentioned this trip in other stories, like the ďIce HoleĒ, but enough happened to make me think I might not be able to do it justice in one article. Weíll see.
After two years in Germany, I found that I knew very little about the Bundeswehr. As understanding grew, there were a few things I would have changed, but Iím sure that they felt the same way about us. The 153rd had fairly old Leopard I tanks (lots of miles, lots of rounds fired) but they were very well maintained. They didnít use camouflage paint at the time and I think they were a dark gray in color, with white interior. They used the NATO standard L7A1 gun/cannon but the breech was horizontal instead of vertical, and the extractors didnít pull the shell case all the way out of the breech after the gun fired. The loader was on the left, like our tanks, but instead of just ramming a round into an empty breech after a shot, he first had to pull the empty shell casing back down the loading tray until it dropped into a canvas bag. They carried less than 50 rounds as opposed to the M60A1s I was used to that carried 63. They did have a small circular hatch in the side of the turret that I assume was for getting rid of spent shell casings. The machine guns were nice. (This is before our Army started retrofitting with the Belgian MAG 248 (9?) which was a really excellent machine gun.)
The engine was a 10 cylinder Mercedes Benz diesel, dual (not two stage) turbocharged, I think, and cooled by both oil and water radiators. They were well designed for maintenance and I saw demonstrations where they would pull an engine and replace it in less than 45 minutes. (I donít think I ever came close to that with one of my tank engines, but I blame that on the amount of time it took to get lift.) These tanks had disc brakes by the way, more on them later, an automatic transmission with four speeds forward and four in reverse(?), and a driverís compartment offset to the right of the centerline when looking at the tank from the rear. The suspension was by torsion bar and a LOT tougher than the M60A1ís. They were quite powerful and maneuverable. The gearshift was very short with a shift knob that was less than two inches in diameter. This is distinct contrast to the M60A1, which has a gear shift lever that is probably four feet long. Another odd feature was that the space between the driverís legs had a padded column in it. I suppose this was to keep the driver in place during high-speed maneuvers or crashes. They also had rear-view mirrors that were normally stowed flat against the front deck.
I think we were in Koblenz for a day and a half. We had the opportunity of eat at the 153rdís mess hall twice, and even that was interesting. NCOs ate on one side of the mess hall from real china and silverware. The cooks actually brought our food to us. The ORs ate on the other side of the mess hall ate out of mess kits which was a problem for use because our people hadnít brought theirs. We definitely werenít used to that. Our mess halls were for all ranks, even officers when they felt like eating there. We all ate off trays, and no one was served at the table. This reminds me that an OR served me at a training range once, while I was out in a tank. It was a Bludwurst sandwich, but served on real china. Unfortunately, I was not able to eat the bludwurst, but the bread was good. I found this episode astonishing.
I went to the staff club with my German counterpart that night, (I was an acting Master Gunner and he was the real Master Gunner for his unit although he was the same rank I was) and caused a fight between two German Staff NCOs just by being there. I guess I need to say a little more about their Master Gunner, who spoke no American. He gave me his black tankerís beret that night, but I couldnít wear it because the current division policy was baseball caps. (One of my ex-wives has it now, I think.) He also told me that he was the driver in the famous Ďflying Leopardí picture. The one showing a Leopard I completely off the ground and obviously moving at high speed. He also said that he was told to do it for the photo, but wished that he hadnít, because the two front torsion bars broke when it came down and that they were a real bitch to change. I wonder if they could have been more difficult than ours were?
The next day was embarkation day. The fist thing that happened was that we were taken through a line at the mess hall to select what we would eat during the trip. I was amazed. We always got a choice between ĎCí rations and ĎCí rations, delivered to the train. I nearly had an anxiety attack trying to pick out food from a wide variety of items whose labels I could not read. I think I took a lot of bread because it was identifiable. Donít get me wrong. Iíve eaten many strange things in many strange places, but I had always been able to see them at some point before I put them in my mouth. I didnít want to make that train ride with nothing but squirrel testicles, or something equally unusual, as my only source of food, especially since I had no idea where we were going or how long the trip would be.
Americans and Germans both were quite interested in how the others got their tanks onto the rail cars. It turned out that the two methods were nearly identical. There were no mishaps, and we were off.
We finally arrived at Bergen-Hohen, The German equivalent of Fort Knox, Kentucky, where their tank crewmen are trained. It was considerably colder than Koblenz. We headed straight for the ranges and set up camp in tents. After all of the tents were up, the Kompanie canteen was opened. Another unexpected surprise. They had beer in the field. We liked beer. Unfortunately, we went through their entire beer supply for the exercise in about two weeks, which made us a lot less popular. All that was left, until they got an emergency re-supply, was ĎApfelkorní which caused many serious Ďmorning afterí headaches in our unit. We also had a turret mechanic (many of them were not very tightly wrapped) make a big spectacle one night after a few too many.
Showers were a problem for us for some reason. The German crews would mysteriously disappear most nights for an hour or so and come back in their issue athletic suits smelling clean and fresh. We were shaving every day and taking Ďwhoreísí baths, but we certainly werenít clean. The mystery was finally resolved and we were told that we were going to be able to take showers one night. We were trucked off to a barracks somewhere and let loose in a shower room. It was a disaster. We were so dirty that the drains quickly became clogged and the shower room over flowed into the rest of the barracks. The occupants, who looked a lot like recruits, started coming by to look at the mess with haunted eyes. But we were clean, and felt so much better. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to those poor people, whoever they were.
I also took the opportunity to visit Bergen-Belsen on a rare day off, and I would rather not say anything about that place except that I have never felt anything like the feelings I had there, anywhere else. Given a choice I canít imagine that anyone would ever live there again. It was as if something invisible, but still crushing, was in the air.
We got to see a lot of really interesting things at Bergen-Hohen. I saw my first Leopard II on a tank trail there and it looked very good. I also saw my first Chieftain tank there. I was told that they were from a Canadian unit, and noticed that they put out a lot of white smoke from the exhaust. I was told that the engine design had a slight flaw so that water had a path into the combustion chambers after the engines had some wear on them. (Does anyone know what the real story is?) We also saw some French AMX-30s fire. I hate to say it but I was not impressed. It appeared that they used a Russian style three-tank platoon that fired as a unit rather than individually. We didnít get close to them but I also got the impression that I would have had trouble getting my roly-poly butt out of the TCís hatch.
I got to drive a Leopard I for a short distance. I liked it, but when I tested the effectiveness of the disc brakes the TC got banged about pretty well. It stopped dead, from about 20 miles per hour. M60A1 brakes donít do that. I didnít try any of the reverse gears except first.
The big moment for me was when I was allowed to give a class on using range cards, with shots fired. In a wartime situation it was possible that a unit from the Bundeswehr would take over positions from us, or vice versa. That would mean turning over our range cards, so we needed to have some common ground. Iíve mentioned range cards before. They are luminescent pieces of plastic that the TC sketches the local terrain on, with notations about range and elevation to prominent features. Note that a tank using a range card has to be parked in exactly the same spot as the tank that made the range card, within a very few inches, in order to make it effective.
It appeared that the 153rd didnít spend much time using range cards, as my unit hadnít when I joined it, and didnít realize how useful they can be. My task for the demonstration phase of the class was to fire one round from an M60A1, at night, with no illumination, using a range card and hitting a hard target at about 2000 meters. Then I had to replace the M60A1 with a Leopard and hit the same target, with one shot, using the same range card. I have to admit that even I was impressed with the results, but I put a lot of time and thought into the preparations. I fired the first round from my tank where I was both gunner and TC and I was the loader/advisor for the Leopard. I did not cheat, even a little bit. I wanted this to be a real demonstration of a very real capability.
I set up the position during the day as is usual. I spent some time doing research and putting together the German crew. (The TC was our interpreter and the gunner was their Master Gunner who outranked the TC. I donít know anything about the driver except that he was very precise. I considered gun tube droop, which would probably not be a factor because of the amount of time since the sun had gone down. I considered gun tube memory, which would not be a problem because the last round that each gun had fired was the same, and the same as the rounds we would be firing that night. I considered the wear on the two gun tubes, which was considerably different, but would only require a half mil of extra elevation on the Leopard. I had picked the firing spot especially because it was very flat. There were a few other issues that escape me now, but I felt pretty confident. The German turret mechanics spent the afternoon taking all of the slop out of the traversing and elevation mechanisms and checking sights, which wouldnít be needed, and firing circuits. The only thing I didnít like was that the target was so close. I think it would have been a better demonstration with another thousand meters of range, but, realistically, because of the amount of moisture in the air in Germany on most days, it is very hard to engage targets at really long ranges. You just canít see them that well.
So I got my two hits and everyone said ďOooo!,Ē and ĎAaaah!í at the appropriate times, and it was all over. Time to head home. It was a bit strange serving that horizontal breech, but I could have gotten used to it.
There are two things I would like to mention about the German army of that period. The first was their draft. Most draftees were only required to spend a little more than a year on active duty, long enough for one gunnery qualification. On the other hand, with few exceptions, all of the long service personnel were tank commanders. I read last night, in a recruiting advertisement for the Royal Tank Regiment, that the loader/radio operator is senior to the driver or gunner, which came as a bit of a shock. American crews, when I was in, took a different path. The junior man was the loader and the TC operated the radio, among other things. The driver was senior to the loader but usually someone who we felt wouldnít stay in long enough to become a gunner. The gunner was second only to the TC, and, in many cases, actually was the TC except under circumstances where an officer needed a ride.
In German crews it was probable that the only person in a crew that had been through more than one gunnery qualification was the TC, yet they had some of the most sophisticated fire control equipment I have ever seen, operated by the gunner. German TCs on Leopard Is did not range to the target, the gunner did, and had several alternative ways of doing it. I doubt that I would have been able to pick it up in a year. I think that this may be why we (the Americans) ended up being a little disappointed with the scores that the 153rd got for qualification. (Keep in mind that we fired the same course with them.)I spent so much time trying to learn how to range to targets accurately that, when I got out, I was diagnosed with self induced amblyeopia(?) which means that I no longer had binocular vision because I ignored anything that my left eye saw. It took me over a year to get over that.
The other thing is something that will probably draw a howl from all over the world. I was lead to believe that it was not possible to become an officer in the Bundeswehr without coming up through the ranks. This makes a great deal of sense to me. Our interpreter with the 153rd was a sergeant and an officer candidate. The only difference between him and other Sergeants was that he wore a small patch on one of his shirtsleeves. (I canít remember what it looked like.) He was treated like any other Sergeant except that he had more duties than they did, including pursuing a military education on his own time. America has produced some great military leaders that did not come up through the ranks, and a few that did. Having spent my career as a non-officer, I think that the German system was better.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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