Excellent story and great retelling!!! Connecting the item with the real history is what makes finding a relic truely worthwhile!!! A class act sending this hero of the battle information of your find, as well as the story. Thankyou for sharing it with all of us!I apologise for the length of this report but the research I did after recovering the sign is so interesting its worth recounting in full here. The photos at the end show the two signs, the battle damaged one then closeup photo's of the bullet holes and the final picture is signed by Fritz Langanke taken on the day he received the awarded of the Knights Cross (RK) 27 Aug 1944.
Several years ago on one of my annual Normandy trips I was uncovered two partially buried original 1930’s French enamel road signs.
When home I traced their original position by locating the village names then working back along the roads the distances shown to find the cross roads called La Valtolaine just 2 km North of the village of Roncey.
Now in my distant memory I could remember reading about an action that took place at the La Valtolaine road junction, but I couldn’t remember the details. But what really interested me was three bullet holes in one of the signs. One through the front likely German 7.92 and a 2 larger calibre probably .30 or .50 cal US from the back. Through research I discovered a fascinating history that made me realise what an interesting find I'd made.
The action involving La Valtolaine Cross roads led directly to the awarding of the Knights Cross to Leutnaut Fritz Langanke 2nd SS ‘Das Reich’ Panther Commander.
After 6 weeks of heavy fighting since the D Day landings the allies were still holed up in the bridgehead. But in the West the Americans had time to build up reserves and consolidate their position ready to begin an offensive. The German troops facing the Americans had been continually whittled away to bolster the Caen sector where a huge battle of attrition fought against the British, Canadians and Poles was still continuing.
The Americans in the West seized the moment and broke through the German lines Operation Cobra had begun. The front was shattered and small pockets of German troops soon formed fighting to breakout toward the East. The routes of advance followed the roads south many meeting in the centre of the town of St Lo. The Germans realising its strategic importance stopped their retreat and fought to bar the town and its roads to the US forces. Following two weeks of heavy fighting in which the picturesque town was destroyed the Americans were finally able to say it was in their hands, St Lo fell on the 18/07/44. But due to the severe damage caused in the battle it took the American forces a couple of days to bulldoze away through the town and repair the roads before their advance could continue.
But when it did it enabled General Lawton Collins VIIth Corps to exploit the hole now blown in the German MLR (Main Line of resistance) and rush all forces South. General George Patton’s famous Third Army was ready to exploit the gap created by Collins Corps. The Cobra offensive was now unstoppable.
The Elite 2nd SS Das Reich, the 17th SS Gotz von Berlichingen and elements of the 6th Fallstirmjager (Parachute) regiment held the German line between St Lo and Periers as well as other mixed units toward the rear. The Corps Commander Paul Hauser could already see the hopeless position his troops were currently in. So he issued orders for them to withdraw 6 km East by night to re-establish a new MLR near the village of Percy.
This withdrawal as fate would have it, took place at the same time across the same ground as the American forces advanced south, so each Army was cutting across the others route which created immense confusion with neither side knowing who was in the next field, village or road to their front or rear. It was to become a night of complete confusion with fire fights erupting all over.
The South Eastern route taken by the German forces inevitably meant that many converged on the village of Roncey because the road network they followed passed through Roncey with its 5 road junction in the centre.
German troops reaching the Village early, were able to pass through unhindered but as the night wore on, a huge bottle neck occurred as different units arrived on different roads trying to push their way through before first light. Horses, Trucks, Panzers, Ambulances, Artillery Pieces and troops. Everything was mixed in and desperately trying to get through before morning, because they knew that day light would bring the dreaded allied Jabo’s fighter bombers.
As the long shadows of sun up reduced and the early morning light filtered through the inevitable occurred,. Swarms of American P47 Thunderbolts swooped out of the sky and raced along the stalled mixed columns destroying anything in sight. With only sporadic anti aircraft fire it was ‘A fighter bombers Paradise’. But for those trapped in the maelstrom it was ‘Hell on Earth’ their ‘Gotterdamerung’. Every house was flattened as was the church and many vehicles were destroyed in the vicinity of which 77 were armoured. By this time only small groups were able to make an escape cutting across country.
Fritz Langanke was interviewed after the war about his recollections of this time. He said that during his efforts to bring his tanks out of the Roncey Pocket he saw some of the most intense combat of his service in the SS. ‘After the first attacks the road was blocked for good, the planes could then quite calmly pick off target after target since there was no defence‘. ‘For us on the ground it was terrible, even artillery started to shell us !’. Here we had quite a lot of combat capacity and yet no chance to use it‘, ‘it was just being smashed‘. ‘Our Division lost 2/3 of its weapons and equipment in the pocket !’.
He pushed on through the carnage with his Panther and continues ‘we reached a point some 200 meters from the Hambye-Roncey Road near the La Valtolaine Junction. ‘In front of us a burned out tractor and big artillery piece together with other vehicles blocked the way‘. ‘Schreiber jumped off the Panther and ran forward to find out what was going on ?, he crossed the road but American troops had established a road block and he couldn’t get back‘, ‘from then on the rest of the men relied on me !’.
Fritz found himself in charge of an ad hoc force. After the first couple of attacks the radio sets he’d retrieved earlier and placed on the back of his Panther caught fire, he had to lean out of the turret hatch and pushed them off his vehicle, burning his hand in the process. Leaning out of the turret he was spotted by the Jabo’s above, who realised his tank was still operational. The Jabo’s dived down for repeated attacks wave after wave. Langanke remembered ‘It was finally a considerable number that dealt with us !’. ‘The continuous rattle of bullets hitting the turret drove you mad and then suddenly a big bang and day light !. The bullet impacts had broken the bolts of the smoke grenade discharger and flung it and the mounting plate away. Langanke and his loader had the same thought, instantly grabing their blanket rolls and wrapping them tighly into cones they stuffed them into the hole. Twice bullets knocked it down but they were able to replace it each time without being hit.
20 to 30 meters ahead were a group of dead paratroopers, who were killed in the first air attack, The planes flew low and could probably see they were dead but still kept firing into them. A terrible sight, the tank drivers telescope faced this scene, the bullets ripped the limbs off and spilled the intestines of the dead. Seeing this was just too much for the Driver and he understandably cracked, trying to escape and get out. But Fitz Langanke’s pistol in the back of his neck soon restored his composure, Fritz said of this man ‘he was one of the finest most reliable, sturdy comrades he had‘. But under this pressure it could have happened to anyone !.
Langanke realised they couldn’t sustain this for long and needed to find cover quickly, to the side was a bank and the Panther crashed up the bank and through the hedge to hide in an orchard. There were several more bombing attacks without hits and the Jabo’s soon left. On looking out, Troops already sheltering in the orchard advised him that close by was a bunker with Officers. Langangke dismounted and ran to the bunker being shelled and blown to the ground on route. He reported to the Regimental Commander and asked for orders but non were given ?. He dismissed himself and left the bunker to work on a way of breaking out. For the next two to three hours he passed back down the road looking for operational vehicles and men to form into a column. He found 3 Panthers including his and a Panzer IV and used them to clear obstacles to enable the half tracks and wheeled vehicles to get through. ‘We formed quite a column’ he said ‘come darkness we will break out’. He reported back to the Regimental Commander several times telling him what he was doing. The Regimental Commander finally told him to not make any noise and to wait, He told Langangke that he planned to sneak through the American Lines with his infantry and escape without having to fire a shot !. Langangke knew this would be impossible,
He walked out and soon met some seasoned Fallschirmjager non-coms who said ‘ you poor bastard you’re the only one who doesn’t know ?, They’re going to surrender !.
He returned to the Bunker and told the Officers he was breaking out with or with out them with his column at 22.00 and to hell with them. Soon after two officers of higher rank approached him from the bunker and asked if they could bring their two Assault Guns to join his column. His first thought was ‘they shouldn‘t ask ?‘, they should take command !. He wasn’t even an Officer and they were asking him !.
Soon holes were driven through the hedge by one of the Panthers to allow the other vehicles to by pass a destroyed artillery piece. But doing this damaged a sprocket wheel on the Panther so it had to be abandoned.
His column was set up in march formation, Langanke’s Panther lead from the front, he put Grenadiers to his the left and 60 Fallschirmjager on the right to safeguard against close combat with Bazooka’s. Behind were the two Sturmgeschutze assault guns, followed by the wheeled vehicles, various stragglers, self propelled infantry guns and a self propelled flak gun. The rear was guarded by the Panzer IV and the other Panther Commanded by an Officer with the unbelievable name of Panzer !. A total of around 300 men.
At 22.00 they set off with no reconnaissance. A farm to the right was burning and in its light a Sherman tank could be seen to the left in a field, Langanke’s Panther fired two shots that hit, but the Sherman didn’t burn. His Panther then accelerated and drove across the La Valtolaine Cross Roads.
At this point his Panther would have closely passed my the road sign on his right where it stood on the corner of the Hambye-Roncey Road. In crossing the junction at speed he crushed an American anti tank gun that was set up on the road. He then continued into the lane opposite, firing as he went and then stopped.
To his right, standing at right angles were two Sherman tanks camouflaged in a hedge, they had .50 cal M2 Browning machine guns on the turrets and had sprayed the supporting Fallschirmjager protecting his right side.
From where the Sign stood and the described position of these Sherman tanks it is most likely that a couple of these bullets hit the road sign. The .50 cal machine guns caused many casualties to the Fallstirmjager. Some wounded who'd fallen in the road were crushed by the column as it rolled forward.
Langangke realised he had to act quickly to keep the initiative and surprise, so immediately ordered the two Stugs forward to turn right and hit the Shermans in the side. But the Officer Commanders hesitated and started to deliberate, He was furious at the delay and turned his turret toward the Stugs threatening to fire, and ordered them to start immediately or he’d knock them out. They did so and turned right and had no problem in destroying both Shermans.
Langangke’s Panther then proceeded down the lane. To his right was a large field with a hedge boarder, along this hedge he noticed several American armoured vehicles pointed toward the main road. He fired immediately and was lucky to hit the last one, it turned out to be an ammunition carrier. It went up like a fireworks display, flare ammunition of different colours flying all over the place, it was a fantastic sight. The whole area was illuminated and he could easily see another 4 to 6 American armoured vehicles along the hedge.
With this going on many German soldiers of infantry units behind the North South Hambye-Roncey Road jumped up and followed him in an unmilitary manner, they were shouting, yelling and shooting in all directions as they ran forward.
From where the road sign stood and the trajectory of the bullet it is likely that it was hit by the 7.92 round, fired from the positions occupied by the German troops as they rose to cross the Hambye-Roncey road firing wildly.
Langanke initially thought ‘This is no good what are they doing ?, but soon realised the Americans were completely surprised and dumbfounded and ran away abandoning their vehicles without any resistance. The vehicles were taken by the Germans and this included jeeps and halftracks.
Langangke’s Panther continued forward another 150m where he spotted another American tank racing from his right toward the road. They tried to stop it and fired but nothing happened !, a nightmare of all tank crews the fire mechanism had failed. His first thought was this is the end for us ?, and he instinctively turned his head to the South and got an even bigger shock. Another 4 American tanks were rushing along the road towards the La Valtolaine Cross Roads and his position. But luck was with him, they must have seen his Panther and rather than fight it out they stopped, turned back and disappeared at speed ?.
The first tank that he’d tried to destroy continued on but was travelling so fast that when it hit the road it couldn’t stop and slid gun first into the mud of a ditch on the opposite side. It was only with great trouble that the American crew freed themselves, turned and got away.
Afterwards he said ‘Here we were sitting in our Panther not only undamaged but unmolested by the whole incident’ He realised surprise had been on his side but also the reputation of the Panther tank.
His column had now grown from 300 to 600 many being carried in the American Vehicles. They continued on, German units joining them and others leaving to make their own route out. They were a mixed bunch a motley crew. Because his Panther could not fire he ordered ‘Panzers’ Panther forward from the rear to lead and he fell back to the rear. They reached Lengronne and then onto Cacrences and crossed the Sienne River and then onto Gavray
Gavray was under sparodic fire and more German vehicles joined them, They continued on without loss toward St Denis le Gast, Before reaching St Denis the column turned off the road to the bridge at La Baleine. Because of shelling drivers were reluctant to continue. So Langanke left his Panther and took control. He checked out the approaches to the bridge which had suffered shell damage and personally directed each vehicle individually across. He said it was a Beastly Business with yelling, swearing and threatening, in the end all his energy was gone. His Panther was the last to cross and in places the footing was only half the width of the track.
On the south side of the river, they found tactical direction signs in position for many units, so his column split up as the men now knew the routes to follow. His self appointed mission was over.
It was by now just getting light when the first American planes appeared in the sky, so they drove up the hill in a sunken lane stopping in the first orchard. They hadn‘t slept for three nights, so just climbed out and crawled under it the Panther and soon were asleep lost to this world. Waking later at midday they found they were now alone.
Surprisingly only 100m away was another Panther that had been knocked out while they slept. A german soldier advised them that the Americans were already across the bridge and working toward them.
The sky was full of Jabo’s but they managed to get away Langangke led his Panther out on foot watching for the waves of Allied Jabo’s coming in.
For his part in ensuring that hundreds of soldiers and their equipment escaped the Roncey Pocket Fritz Langanke was recommended for the Knights Cross on the 7th Aug 1944 and was awarded the medal on 27th Aug 1944. Luck had been on his side, the American front line had been just to the south of the road that his column had travelled along. The American troops with their backs to him assumed they were a column of their own troops and let them go.
Thats what I like about this hobby finding an interesting object and a little research can uncover some amazing history.
Fritz Langangke is still alive and a copy of my original transcript was sent to him.