Panzer Lehr began forming in 30 December 1943 and moved to the Nancy–Verdun area in January 1944 to complete the process. It was formed from several elite training and demonstration units. Most of the division's original cadre was drawn from Panzertruppenschule I and Panzertruppenschule II, the Panzerwaffe's major training units. These training and demonstration units were some of the most experienced and highly trained troops in the Panzerwaffe, with almost all having seen combat in the East, North Africa, Sicily or Italy and many having received decorations for bravery. As a result of this, Panzer Lehr was considered an elite unit from the time of its formation.
In early 1944, Panzer Lehr was transferred to Hungary for further training as well to serve in Operation Margarethe, the occupation of the country by German forces. The division absorbed the 901st Panzergrenadier-Lehr-Regiment while there. It then returned to France to await the Allied invasion as a part of the OKW's armored reserve, along with the I SS Panzer Corps and the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Gotz von Berlichingen. These units could only be released with Adolf Hitler's personal authorization.
Panzer Lehr's panzer regiment had a battalion each of Panther and Panzer IV available. Moreover, all the battalions in both panzergrenadier regiments were transported by tracked, armored vehicles, such as the Sd.Kfz. 251 halftrack. This is in contrast to ordinary Wehrmacht panzer divisions, where only the first battalion in the first panzergrenadier regiment was equipped with halftracks, with the remaining battalions equipped with trucks. The division's engineer and reconnaissance formations were also equipped with armored vehicles, the armored reconnaissance battalion having a company of the new Sd.Kfz 234/2 Puma armored cars. The division's panzer regiment also had the 316. Funklenk-Panzerkompanie (abbreviated 1./s.Pz. Kp. 'Funklenk' 316) ("316th Remote Control Panzer company")[note 1] attached while in Normandy; this company was originally equipped with ten Tiger I tanks, and was allocated the first five of the new Tiger II tanks that are not used in Normandy since it broke down en route and been replaced by 9 Sturmgeschütz self-propelled guns, which fought at Tilly and St. Lo until destroyed, at which point the 316th Company was disbanded. The division's panzer regiment had a total complement of 208 operating tanks and assault guns (10 Panzer III, 9 StuG III, 97 Panzer IV, 86 Panthers and 6 Tigers) as of 6 June 1944 plus nine tanks and assault guns under repair (1 Panzer III, 1 StuG III, 2 Panzer IV, 3 Panthers and 2 Tigers). It also had 31 Jagdpanzer IV in its Panzerjäger battalion. Another unique feature of this formation was that its panzergrenadiers were, for a large part, dressed in the grey, short, double-breasted tunic similar to the one worn by Sturmgeschütze units, instead of the standard M1942 tunic worn by other German Army (Heer) units.
The Caen battles
When the Western Allies launched the amphibious invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944, Panzer Lehr, as a part of the strategic armored reserve (Panzer Group West), was held back from the fighting during the crucial first days. It was soon released, reached the front, and was committed to battle against the British and Canadians on June 8. It was placed in the front line adjacent to the 12th SS Hitlerjugend Division, where it defended Caen and fought several British offensives to a standstill.
On 13 June 1944, an attack by the 22nd Armoured brigade group of the British 7th Armoured Division outflanked Panzer Lehr's defences around Tilly-sur-Seulles and cut through the German lines, taking the village of Villers-Bocage and threatening Panzer Lehr's rear. Elements of Panzer Lehr, the 2nd Panzer Division, and the 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion were committed to defeating the British penetration. The ensuing Battle of Villers-Bocage saw the British withdraw to their start lines after two days of inconclusive fighting. By 17 June, Panzer Lehr had been forced to withdraw.
Like all German armoured units engaged in Normandy, Panzer Lehr suffered heavy losses in its transport from Allied air attacks.[note 2] By the end of June, the division's armoured component was severely depleted. Despite this, it continued to hold against the British and Commonwealth forces, engaging in heavy fighting near the town of Tilly-sur-Seulles.
By the end of June, the Panzer Lehr Division had suffered 2,972 casualties and reported the loss of 51 tanks and assault guns, 82 halftracks and 294 other vehicles.[note 3]
The Saint-Lô battles
On 1 July, Panzer Lehr had only 36 operational Panzer IV tanks (additional 29 in short term repair and 10 in long term repair); 32 operational Panther tanks (additional 26 in short term repair and 8 in long term repair) and 28 operational Jagdpanzer and Sturmgeschutz (9 more in short term repair and 1 in long term repair). On 7 July, the division was ordered to pull out of Tilly-sur-Seules and head west to provide support to the divisions resisting the American advance near Saint-Lô. The area around Saint-Lô consists of small fields with high ancient hedgerows and sunken lanes, known as bocage. The bocage made it extremely difficult for armor to maneuver and provided superb defensive positions to the infantry on either side of the battle.
On 10 July, Panzer Lehr launched a counterattack against elements of the American 9th and 30th infantry divions around the village of Le Dézert. American M10 tank destroyers knocked out 30 of the Panzer Lehr's tanks and forced the remaining tanks to withdraw over the
Vire Canal to relative safety.
Over the next two weeks, the division fought a defensive battle of attrition against the numerically superior Allied forces. On 19 July, Saint-Lô fell to the Americans. Six days later, the Americans launched Operation Cobra, their breakout from the Normandy lodgment. By that time, the division has only 2,200 combat troops remaining and 12 Panzer IV and 16 Panthers fit for action and 30 tanks in various states of repair behind the lines. The operation was preceded by a massive aerial bombardment by over 1,500 allied bombers. Panzer Lehr was directly in the path of attack and the division suffered about 1,000 casualties during this bombardment. The division also lost at least 14 assault guns and 10 tanks. Despite strong initial resistance, by 27 July the German defenses has been penetrated. On the same day, Bayerlein reported that Panzer Lehr was "finally annihilated."
On 1 August, the Panzer Lehr had 33 tanks and assault guns operational and a further 44 in workshops. and so on August 17 after a fighting withdrawal, it was ordered back to Alençon for rest and refitting. The division was subsequently called back to Germany for rest and refitting. During August, the division suffered 1,468 casualties.
Within seven months of its formation, the division was reduced to a combat-ineffective unit with only 20 remaining tanks. At one point, in September, it consisted only of a panzer grenadier battalion of company strength, an engineer company, six 105mm howitzers, five tanks, a reconnaissance platoon, and an Alarmbataillon (emergency alert battalion) of about 200 men recruited from stragglers and soldiers on furlough in Trier. After spending a month refitting in the Saar, the division was moved to Paderborn, receiving 72 tanks, 21 assault guns and replacements, to compensate for the losses suffered in Normandy.
Operation Wacht am Rhein
In early November, Panzer Lehr was transferred to Hasso von Manteuffel's Fifth Panzer Army, part of Field Marshal Walter Model's Army Group B in preparation for the planned winter offensive, Operation Wacht am Rhein, commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge. On 21 November, the partially refitted Panzer Lehr was ordered out of its assembly area to counterattack the American forces driving towards the Saverne Gap. At that time, it has a strength of 34 Panzer IV and 38 Panther tanks. The counterattack stalled, and Panzer Lehr was called back out of the line, much reduced in strength.
The time spent refitting Panzer Lehr and several other units which had been committed prematurely meant that the operation had to be delayed. During the run up to the offensive, Panzer Lehr was kept in reserve, along with the Führer Begleit Brigade. On 15 December, the day before the offensive began, Panzer Lehr was still severely understrength, with only one of its two tank battalions ready for action, the other restored to its parent unit, the 3rd Panzer Division. Both of its panzergrenadier regiments were at 80 percent of its authorized strength. It had only 57 tanks (30 Panthers and 27 Panzer IV) and 20 Jagdpanzer IV/70's by the time the attack jumped off. In compensation, it was reinforced by two tank destroyer battalions and an assault gun brigade. The division's armored reconnaissance battalion was its only organic unit up to strength.
Wacht am Rhein opened on 16 December 1944, and Panzer Lehr moved out from the start positions in the center of the German line. The 26th Volksgrenadier Division was to clear the way for the division, but they soon became bogged down and the Panzer Lehr found itself moving forward at a crawl. The situation worsened over the next two days, with the 901st Panzergrenadier Regiment being halted by the Americans along the road to Wiltz, and the 902nd encountering heavy resistance in the town of Hosingen.
On 18 December, the assault got back underway. The 26th Volksgrenadier Division had secured the bridge over the Clerf River, opening the way to the road and rail-hub of Bastogne. Panzer Lehr's armored reconnaissance battalion raced ahead, attacking towards Wiltz before rejoining the division on the route to Bastogne. The horse-drawn 26th Volksgrenadier had gotten itself mixed up in Panzer Lehr's column, greatly slowing the advance.
On the 19th, the division's panzer regiment ran into a roadblock near
Neffe, held by troops of Combat Team Cherry of the U.S. 10th Armored Division. After initial success, Panzer Lehr's follow up attack resulted in heavy casualties. Combat Team Cherry pulled out, and the way to Bastogne was open again. However, the majority of the division's armor had been sent north to Mageret to support 26th Volksgrenadier. After the taking of Mageret, a local informed Bayerlein, the division's commander, that a column of about 50 American tanks and infantry was seen moving to
Longvilly. Bayerlein ordered his troops to halt and set up a roadblock, giving him a chance to regroup and reorganize his troops. By the time that Panzer Lehr moved out again and reached the town of Bastogne, the US 101st Airborne Division (Screaming Eagles) had already secured it. Panzer Lehr was then divided, with half the division left to help 26th Volksgrenadier Division capture Bastogne, while the rest of the division, including most of its armor, were to continue on to the Meuse.
Over the next few days, the Kampfgruppe helping 26th Volksgrenadier, made up mostly of the 901st Panzergrenadier Regiment, wore itself out in successive attacks on the town of Bastogne. As the remainder of the division sped east, it enjoyed some minor successes, including the capture of a large American convoy, but it was brought to a halt by fierce resistance near St. Hubert, and was soon drawn into heavy fighting south of Bastogne. On the 21st, Manteuffel pulled Panzer Lehr out of the fight for Bastogne and grouped it with the 2nd Panzer Division and 116th Panzer Division Windhund for an assault on Dinant and the Meuse.
Assault on Dinant
After a day spent on reorganising the attack, Panzer Lehr finally got underway. It fought its way through St. Hubert and the road to Dinant and the Meuse again seemed open. On the approach to Rochefort, the next town on the road to Dinant, Bayerlein, who was leading his division's vanguard in person, shouted to his men -
- Also los, Augen zu, und hinein! ("OK, let's go! Shut your eyes and go in!")
The assaulting unit, the 902nd Panzergrenadier Regiment, was met by a wall of fire. Nor was the advance to become any easier thereafter. On 23 December, the division fought all day to reduce the town of Rochefort, suffering heavy casualties. The Americans finally withdrew – their only casualties 25 men killed and 15 men wounded, after holding off an elite panzer division for an entire day.
Bayerlein later compared the defence of Rochefort to that of Bastogne. Panzer Lehr made two rescue attempts to save 2nd Panzer and succeeded in retaking
Humain, but unable to go any further. After another failed rescue effort by 9th Panzer, Panzer Lehr was ordered to fall back. Of the 2nd Panzer Kampfgruppe, only Major Cochenhausen and 600 or so of his men managed to escape on foot, abandoning almost all of the division's armor to the advancing Allies. The Meuse would not be reached; Wacht Am Rhein had failed.
Relief of Bastogne
The remnants of Manteuffel's strike force were pulled back for one final attempt to take Bastogne. Panzer Lehr began to move into its new positions, after US 4th Armored Division, the spearhead of George Patton's US Third Army, began its attack to relieve Bastogne and a corridor to the surrounded 101st Airborne was created. Panzer Lehr was then involved in the unsuccessful operations to close the corridor, and finally the exhausted division was pulled out of the battle. Panzer Lehr had once again been virtually annihilated.
The Netherlands to Ruhr Pocket
After the failure of the Ardennes offensive, Panzer Lehr was refitted once again, though not to anywhere near the lavish standard of its earlier incarnations. Many of the veterans were dead, and the Panzer Lehr of early 1945 bore little resemblance to that of June 1944.
The division was moved north, into the Rhineland, where it was engaged fighting Bernard Montgomery's Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group again during Operation Veritable, serving under the First Parachute Army. The Panzer Lehr saw very heavy fighting, and again sustained heavy losses. By 15 March, Panzer Lehr had only 6 Panzer IVs, 29 Panthers and 14 Jagdpanzer IVs available. When the U.S. 9th Armored Division captured the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, Panzer Lehr was sent to crush the bridgehead. The attack was unsuccessful. The Allies' ground and air superiority inflicted heavy casualties on the division. By then, it was reduced to just 300 men and 15 tanks. Engaged in a fighting retreat across northwestern Germany, the division was trapped in the Ruhr Pocket and the remnants of the once powerful division were taken prisoner by the US 99th Infantry Division on 15 April.