Tyler Machalk
10/25/18

Large document and photo grouping for Feldwebel Franz Muther – Panzer Regiment 25, Panzer Regiment Rhodos 

The earliest document in the grouping belonging to Franz Muther is his Lehrbrief from the Handwerkskammer zu Coburg. Franz was born 31 Aug 16 in Ahlstadt which is about 20 miles north-northwest of Coburg.

We discover that he underwent a 3.5 year apprenticeship under a master blacksmith named Artur Tommer. He became a certified blacksmith on 15 Oct 34.

 

The second document chronologically is a bicycle license issued to Franz on 5 Sep 37. It gives all manner of the description of his bike. It was certified by a man name Adolf Fischer in Coburg. 

Feldwebel Franz Muther’s Wehrpass was opened on 9 May 36 in Bad Killingen. It features young Franz wearing an RAD uniform with the Lager 3/284 patch showing (photo on page 1).

He served with this unit from 1 Apr 36 – 24 Mar 37. We also discover that he finished volkschüle and earned the SA Sports Badge.

He went on active duty 19 Nov 38 and immediately joined 4/PR 25 in Erlangen. He was with this company through 25 Aug 39 when he switched to 3 kompanie. During this time, he trained as a panzer driver and earned his Panzerfuhrerschein 14 Aug and then Wehrmachtfuhrerschein 30 Aug 39.

 

Below is a map of the vicinity around the panzer training area in Grafenwöhr dated 1939 and signed by Franz.

 

Franz’s photo album covering training, the war in France, and the start of Operation Barbarosa is included in the grouping. There are some fantastic photos – a small number of the 122 in the album are included in this write-up.

All photos in this document are from the album which is minty and comes with the original outer carton! 

In the left photo below is Franz second from the left during training. He is also shown with his wife Rosa while admiring his regimental stein. 

With the grouping comes Franz’s dogtag which matches the soldbuch and wehrpass entries. Interestingly, Franz listed his prewar occupation as a carpenter instead of blacksmith despite his apprenticeship.

His soldbuch was opened on 28 Aug 39 when he was already with 3/PR 25 which was a medium panzer company.

On 1 Oct 39, Franz was promoted to oberpanzerschutzen and then on 1 Jan 40 to gefreiter. From research we discover that the Regiment had 201 38t Czech tanks and 24 Mk IV tanks in May 1940 when the unit attacked France. They were assigned to the 7 PD which was commanded by Erwin Rommel.

They attacked through the Ardennes and was on the right flank of Panzergruppe Kleist. They had several tank battles with the thicker armored French and British tanks around Arras and did not do well in tank-to-tank combat.

They needed to rely on their speed and mobility rather than armor and firepower. 

Franz and his comrades were on the western boundary of the Dunkirk pocket and remained there until early Jun 40. After the BEF was evacuated, they pushed southwards to Rouen and then on to Cherbourg which it captured on 20 Jun.

Franz’s photo album has many photographs of the invasion of France. One of them apparently shows his Panzer III in a town. Close inspection shows a MP 18 on the deck! His weapons training certification shows he was trained on this very rare weapon! The bulkhead also has the unit emblem for the 7 PD. 

The war against France wasn’t without casualties, of course, and Franz’s album shows the funeral service for one of his comrades. The 7 PD suffered higher casualties in France than any other PD and lost 42 tanks – 26 of which were 38t’s.

The Division claimed to have destroyed or captured 460 French tanks and armored cars and took 97,000 prisoners.

With the conclusion of the conflict in France, Franz had a hospital stay 16-30 Aug 40 for Gastronomical issues. Apparently, this problem plagued him for years as he had another stay for it 22 Dec 42-9 Jan 43. Concurrent with that latter stay, he caught a contagious disease that isn’t specified in the soldbuch.

On 1 Oct 40, he was promoted to obergefreiter. 

The 7 PD was initially assigned to the Operation Seelowe plan for the invasion of Great Britain but that planned floundered when Rommel was reassigned to the Afrikakorps. On 1 Oct 40, Franz was again promoted – this time to Obergefreiter.

On 4 Jan 41, Franz was awarded the Panzer Assault Badge in Bronze (backdated to 21 Oct 40) for his service in France. In Feb 41, the unit was shipped from France to Bonn-Bad Godesberg for rest, training, and refitting.

On 10 May 41, Franz was transferred back to 4/PR 25 which was a medium panzer company. The regiment was still assigned to the 7 PD.

At the beginning of Jun 41, the Division was shipped from Bonn by rail to East Prussia where it arrived at Insterburg (modern day Chernyakhovsk) after 3 days’ travel. At this time the Regiment had a total of 278 tanks of which 28 were Mk IVs and 167 were 38t’s – one of which is shown in Franz’s photo album below.

On 22 Jun 41, at 03:05, the Division began the advance moving to the northeast with the objective of Vilnius, Lithuania. PR 25 managed to win both bridges over the river Njemen intact at Olita. Here they received hostile fire coming from the Soviet 5 Tank Division. 

Despite suffering heavy casualties, they were able to establish bridgeheads on both crossing points. The Soviets launched heavy counterattacks with armor support. The northern bridgehead was defended by the Franz’s Abteilung and the enemy counter-attacks lasted until nightfall. At day's end, the Soviets withdrew eastward after suffering the loss of 82 tanks. PR 25 lost almost 50% of its armor in this battle. 

On 23 Jun Franz and his comrades continued the advance, but they were hampered by poor roads and dense forests with numerous blocking posts and large forest fires. They were able to capture the important bridge at Chasbiejewicze 10 km west of Vilnius intact and subsequently secured the dominant ground southeast of Vilna.

On 24 Jun the city of Vilna was captured after being enveloped from the north and south. After that, the Division received a new direction of advance, eastwards to Minsk.

On 26 Jun PR 25 reached the town of Radaškovičy, Belarus where they encountered enemy resistance. Working tirelessly in the days before and suffering severe losses in the process, the division's soldiers were completely exhausted. However, there was no time to rest as reconnaissance reported a gap in the enemy lines and a night attack was ordered.

Franz and his comrades carried out a rapid penetration and halted at Smalyavichy where they waited for the bulk of the division. With this attack, the northern arm of the Minsk pocket was closed. Quickly recognizing this threat, the Soviets counterattacked with a tank division reinforced with an armored train.

On 27 Jun, PR 25 destroyed the armored train and a transport train loaded with 20 tanks, 15 trucks, 5 anti-tank guns and 6 howitzers. However, this was achieved with heavy losses for the Germans. As a result of the serious losses, the regiment was reorganized into 2 Abteilungen: the I./PR 25 and the III./PR 25. The II/PR 25 was dissolved. 

On 28 Jun the city of Minsk fell. 7 PD continued to support the infantry divisions until the complete destruction of the encirclement on 30 Jun. 

In early Jul 41, the 7 PD carried out reconnaissance patrols to find a crossing point over the Beresina River. On 3 Jul, they found at least one intact bridge near Lepel. The bulk of the division crossed the river on 5 Jul. Now the Division was fighting against the so-called "Stalin Line" located between the Dvina and Berezina rivers. They faced strong resistance from the Soviets when they deployed 3 divisions (2 were tank divisions) but the attacks were successfully repulsed causing high casualties.

On 10 Jul, the Soviets began to retreat and the Germans advanced rapidly managing to capture the city of Vitebsk and establishing a bridgehead on the Dvina River on 11 Jul. Franz apparently played a significant role in this action; for this he was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class on 16 Aug.

On 12 Jul, the Division reached Smelewa, located about 30 miles southeast of Vitebsk, where PR 25 again suffered serious losses. On 14 Jul the division captured Demidov. 

On 15 Jul, after a brilliantly executed attack by the I/PR 25, the division reached a point west of Jarzewo, just north of the highway Minsk-Smolensk-Wjazma. Thus began the siege of Smolensk.

On the afternoon of 18 Jul, a strong Soviet counterattack with about 100 tanks was successfully repulsed. A new enemy offensive action was shattered by artillery fire which destroyed as many as 30 tanks.

In another attack against the division's northern flank, 25 additional hostile tanks were destroyed.

On 21 Jul, the Division reported the following losses of tanks: Pz.Kw I – 7, Pz.Kw II - 24; Pz.Kw 38(t) - 112; Pz.Kw IV - 15; and Pz.Befw. - 8. During the following days, the Russians continued to press the defensive lines of the division along the Wop River, particularly in Jarzewo. There the Russians carried out several attempts to break out but were repulsed by counterattacks by PR 25.

On 26 Jul 41 the Division launched an attack towards the south and the PR 25 reached the Dnieper River. On 5 Aug 41, the Battle of Smolensk finally reached its conclusion and 7 PD was relieved by an infantry division.

On 19 Aug, the Division was put back on alert and ordered to reject a Soviet penetration in the front of the 161 Infanterie Division. The German front was re-established there the following day through a well-executed counterattack by the PR 25, SR 7 and Flak Abt 94.

On 21 Aug 41 the Russians managed to establish a bridgehead over the Wop and the division again eliminated the danger but at the cost of heavy casualties. Approximately 30 German tanks were destroyed as they overran the enemy positions and were attacked from the rear.

On 26 Aug 41 the 7th PD was again engaged in battle, this time to remove a Soviet bridgehead by Boldino manned by infantry reinforced with 50 tanks. The bridgehead was eventually eliminated by 6 Sep after the German suffered very heavy losses. At the end of this action, the entire 7 PD only had 130 remaining tanks of which only 14 were Mk IVs. 

After the engagement at Boldino, the Division was taken off the line to regroup and refurbish.

On 19 Sep the division began preparations for the final attack on Moscow. For this operation, the 7 PD was part of the LVI Panzerkorps in the 3 Panzer Armee, along with the 6 PD and the 14 Infanterie  Division (Mot.). After a bridgehead was established over the Moskva-Volga canal, the PR 25 advanced eastward to the Wjasma, Klin area.

As is well known, the Soviets counterattacked at Moscow and drove the Division back to Rshew where it remained in fairly static defensive positions from Jan-May 42. 

In Jun 42, Franz and his comrades were relocated to France which was a welcome relief from the struggles they encountered while being continuously engaged for 11 months on the Eastern Front. On 20

Aug 42, Franz was awarded the Ostmedaille for his service in the winter of 41/42. As a result of the gastritis formerly mentioned and the “contagious disease”, Franz was assigned to Genesenden Kompanie/Pz Ersatz Abteilung 25 which was a convalescent company from 16 Dec 42-18 Mar 43. This unit was located in Bamberg.

He was subsequently assigned to replacement and training units with Panzer Ersatz Abteilung 25 from 19 Mar-24 May 43. On 14 May 43, he was deemed medically fit for tropical service which played a large role in his next assignment.

On 25 May, he was assigned to duty on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes near Turkey with 2/Panzer Abteilung Rhodos. Rhodes was a Greek island that was occupied by an Italian garrison of 40000 soldiers. Shortly after his arrival there, Franz had a brief hospital stays for tonsillitis 20-24 Jun 43. On 1 Jul 43, Franz was promoted to Unteroffizier.

Franz’s unit was stationed about 7 miles from the city of Rhodes and the German presence there was between 6,000 and 8,000 men. The Germans had 4 panzergrenadier battalions; a reconnaissance unit with 1,500 men with armed sidecars and 60 armored cars; Franz’s tank battalion with over 25 Panzer IVs; 4 batteries of self-propelled guns (Wespes and Hummels); 5 88mm Flak batteries placed near the air bases; and a unit of about 300 Greeks in German uniform. Overall, the German forces had about 150 armored fighting vehicles, including Panzer IIs, Panzer IVs, StuG IIIs and 15 150mm self-propelled guns.

On 8 Sep 43, the armistice between Italy and the Allies took the Italian leadership and soldiers in Rhodes completely by surprise. The German commander asked the Italians for permission to freely move his forces in order to be able to quickly oppose a possible British landing, but received a strong refusal at midnight. 

On 9 Sep, there were sporadic skirmishes between the Germans and Italians. Swift action against the Regina Division led to the capture of the commanding general who ordered his men to surrender. The Germans then captured the Maritsa air base. The Italians counterattacked with artillery fire which destroyed the German tanks that had occupied the airport, but also hit the Italian planes that were still there. When the noise of the shelling was heard in the harbor, the Italians captured a German vessel named Taganrog. The Germans on board were taken prisoner and brought to the city. A new Italian crew was placed aboard the ship, and the next day it left Rhodes for Symi. Meanwhile, the German successfully attacked the artillery shelling the air base.

On the night of 9/10 Sep, 2 British majors and a sergeant with a portable radio parachuted onto Rhodes and met with the Italian commander. They explained that it would be at least a week before any British reinforcements would arrive. One of the majors was given a letter from the Italian commander asking for assistance, and was subsequently evacuated to Symi Island on a torpedo boat.

Early on the morning of 10 Sep a German motorized formation moved towards Maritsa, although its advance was slowed by artillery fire from Mount Paradiso and Mount Fileremo, where isolated Italian Army units remained in action. In the afternoon the Maritsa battery, which was firing on the tanks that occupied the Maritsa air base, returned fire against some German 88 mm guns; together with the Melchiori battery and some mortars, they silenced the German guns, inflicting heavy casualties and losing 6 men. In the evening, German troops captured the positions on Mount Paradiso and Mount Fileremo. 

On 11 Sep German air strikes damaged the Majorana battery and put the Navy radio station out of action.

The Germans threatened to bomb the city of Rhodes if the Italians didn’t cease hostilities throughout the island, release any German prisoners, and unconditionally surrender the Italian forces.

Although Italian army units continued to resist and the city and harbor were still in Italian hands, only 4 artillery batteries remained in action, and a German bombing of the city was certain to cause civilian casualties.

It was decided to negotiate a surrender.

Italian troops reacted with anger and incredulity to the news of the surrender, as in some areas they had successfully contained the German attacks, and believed that the Germans were running out of fuel and ammunition. Some German units had been forced to surrender during the battle and had been imprisoned in the Italian barracks; they were now released and given back their weapons, much to the indignation of the Italian soldiers who had fought against them.

The Italian surrender confronted the Germans with the problem of how to handle such a large number of prisoners with no ships available for their immediate removal. On 19 Sep 43, between 1,584 and 1,835 Italian prisoners were herded onto the captured Italian ship Donizetti, which then sailed for mainland Greece.

During the voyage the ship was intercepted and sunk by HMS Eclipse, unaware of her human cargo, with no survivors. On 12 Feb 44 the old steamer Oria, crammed with prisoners from Rhodes, ran aground during a storm and sank off Cape Sounion; only 21 prisoners were rescued, while at least 4,062 were lost in the sinking.

Overall, about 1,580 Italian soldiers managed to escape from Rhodes after the surrender; 6,520 were declared missing after the war. Most of them had died in the sinking of the ships that carried them to Greece while others starved to death in German prison camps on the island due to famine between 1944 and 1945.

Ninety were executed after the surrender, forty of them without trial.

Isolated episodes of resistance continued during the German occupation, both by Greek civilians and some Italians who had escaped capture.

On 27 Oct 43, Franz was reassigned to the Stabskompanie Panzer Abteilung Rhodos where he remained until the cessation of the war.

On 9 Mar 44, Franz received a Fuhrerpacket even though he never left the island. These were typically given to soldiers when they went home on leave, of course. 

On 1 Apr 44, there is a very odd rank change recorded in both Franz’s soldbuch and wehrpass. He was designated as a “Handwerker” or craftsman. Perhaps because of blacksmith and carpentry work before the war, he was able to use these talents on the island. Of all of the wehrpasse and soldbucher I’ve come across I’ve never again seen this “rank”. 

On 17 October 1944 the division was formally dissolved. A smaller number of divisional units remained on the Island and Panzer Abteilung Rhodos was amongst them. These units underwent quite a bit of hardship with very little supplies and being isolated from other German forces while occasionally being bombarded by the British. These soldiers’ isolation is exemplified by the fact that Franz’s last leave was given in Feb 43 – before he was ever assigned to Rhodes.

Franz had another hospital stay 26 Oct – 4 Nov 44 for malaria. It’s surprising how apparently common the disease was – nearly every soldbuch I have for soldiers serving in southern Europe indicate this. Included in the document grouping is an uber-rare copy of the Regimental newspaper “Wacht auf Rhodos” dated 9 Feb 45. 

Nearing the end of the war, Franz received his final promotion to Feldwebel on 1 May 45. Franz and his remaining comrades on Rhodes surrendered to British Forces on 8 May when the German surrender was announced. 

After Franz surrendered, he was moved to a British internment camp in Egypt. Included in the grouping are a number of pieces of correspondence sent by Franz to his wife Rosa who was still living in Coburg. 

Obviously, Franz was a skilled craftsman from all of the other documentation in the grouping. There is additionally a testimonial from his captors attesting to this fact dated 5 May 48.

Franz was finally released from captivity on 26 Aug 48 and apparently arrived in Coburg on 3 Sep. The discharge certificate has a tremendous number of transit camp stamps on it. 

After Franz returned home, he re-assimilated into civilian life. Here is his Driver License from 1948 and unused ration stamps from 1950 that are the last items in this grouping. 

Franz passed away in July 2006 shortly before his 90th birthday in his hometown of Coburg. His wife, Rosa, was still alive at his death. 


All work above was put together and researched by Jason Karlen. Thank you for allowing your work to be shared on Freedom2collect.






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