Unternehmung Höhensturm

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Detail from the regimental history of the 5. Garde-Regiment zu Fuß, which suffered heavy losses at Zonnebeke on 4 October 1917.

Unternehmung Höhensturm was intended to create a buffer against a renewed British attack. The front line was reinforced with further fighting units and machine guns. It was a strategy diametrically opposed to the established principle of defence in depth.

By chance this German operation coincided almost exactly with the Allied attack of 4 October 1917. As a result, German losses at Zonnebeke were extremely high.

Garde-Infanterie-Division 4 to Zonnebeke

In late September 1917 the German 4. Garde-Infanterie-Division (GID4) was sent to Flanders, having seen heavy fighting in France. When the first of the troops arrived in Torhout on 24 September, they were assured of a long period of rest.

But then the fighting in Flanders escalated. The division was moved up to Ypres, towards the place where an Allied breakthrough was feared most: Zonnebeke.

On 28 September two regiments of the GID4 took over the front between Zonnebeke and Molenaarelsthoek: the Garde-Grenadier-Regiment 5 (GGR5) in the north and the Garde-Regiment zu Fuß 5 (GRzF5) in the south.

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Prussian emblem of the 5. Garde-Regiment zu Fuß.
"In the connected line of shell holes, countless dead and pieces of equipment of all kinds lie amid the rubble of houses. Tree stumps show that a small wood also stood here. Zonnebeke is now nothing more than a big heap of stones."
The GRzF5 on taking over the front at Zonnebeke, 28 September 1917

Calm before the storm

Höhensturm was initially planned for 3 October, but eventually the morning of 4 October was chosen. The two infantry regiments in Zonnebeke were supported by the much depleted Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment 212 (RIR212).

Day and night, medical, supply and munitions units were busy behind the front preparing for the battle. Huge amounts of corrugated iron, chevaux de frise and ammunition were brought forward. Aircraft and ground observation were used in an effort to form an image of enemy deployments. Meanwhile, far behind the front, special exercises were held.

After the preparatory barrage, RIR212 was to advance out of no man’s land. The chateau lake was expected to cause difficulties because the attackers had to make their way around it. Another problem was presented by the British defences in the ruins of the village. Flamethrowers were to be used against them.

16 MZ07212 R© MMP1917, MZ 07212
Zonnebeke, October 2, 1917.
DIG MZ 03379 002© MMP1917, MZ 03379
Australian insignia, found in the grounds of the Zonnebeke Chateau.

Dawn of a black day

The men at the front at Zonnebeke had no rest for days on end. They were constantly bombarded with gas and explosives and they requested relief, but with Unternehmung Höhensturm in prospect their request was refused.

The conditions did not improve. The evening of 3 October saw the end of a long period of beautiful, dry weather when a heavy storm broke out, accompanied by drizzle and several cold showers of rain. Although this did not create a sea of mud, the terrain did become slippery and sticky, which had an immediate impact on the supply lines to the front.

Meanwhile the German army leadership received indications that the Allies intended to resume their offensive on 2 October. Although there was no attack, increased shellfire on 3 October suggested that something was in the air. Nevertheless, the German high command persisted. In complete darkness and shrouded in thick fog, the attacking troops moved forward to their jumping off positions.

17 E00914© Australian War Memorial, E00914
Australians relaxing at the brick kiln. In the background are the ruins of the village, the church and the chateau.
"Fog, smoke, flashes of light, one fountain of mud after another as far as the eye could see, crackling, roaring, an incessant din was hammered into your ears, while live embers from exploding projectiles could be felt. [...] That human life prevailed there at all remains an eternal mystery."
Feld-Artillerie-Regiment 46 on the fighting during Höhensturm, as seen from their observation posts on the high ground before Passchendaele.

All hell breaks loose

On the other side of the front, Australian troops had taken up battle positions. Their objective was clear: to seize the high ground to the east of Zonnebeke. The timing of the Battle of Broodseinde coincided almost precisely with the German counterattack.

On 4 October at around half past five in the morning, the German preparatory barrage began. It caused many casualties among the waiting Australians. They held their ground, but many believed that plans for the attack had been discovered.

Then, shortly before the German attack, the Allied barrage began. The shelling was so heavy that even experienced German soldiers declared afterwards that they had never known anything like it. Despite these appalling conditions, RIR212 moved forward into no man’s land as ordered at six o’clock sharp, ready to attack. But then, just a few minutes before Höhensturm was due to begin, the Australians stormed forward.

Jas Rothenburg© MMP1917
Tunic belonging to Karl Rothenburg, who withstood the inferno at the south-eastern edge of the chateau grounds.
Karl Rothenburg
Karl Rothenburg1
Karl Rothenburg1

Karl Rothenburg

Karl Rothenburg

Karl Rothenburg was born on 8 June 1894 in Fürstenwalde, the son of high school teacher Georg Rothenburg and Alwina Sittmann. After his Abitur, Karl became a teacher. He joined the 3rd Company of the 5. Garde-Regiment zu Fuß (GRzF5) as a "one-year volunteer". He attended basic training at Spandau near Berlin. He first fought at the siege of Namur. A battle that took place at the beginning of World War I. Afterwards, he was sent east with his unit. First they were deployed near the Masurian Lakes, in northern Poland. Then they moved to southern Poland. On 21 December 1914, he was promoted to Unteroffizier. In the autumn of 1915, GRzF5 returned to the west. Meanwhile, he was promoted to Offizier Stellvertreter. On 18 November 1915, he was promoted to second lieutenant der Reserve. At the Westhoek front, he fought on the Somme in the summer of 1916 and became acting commander of the 2nd Company. In spring 1917, he became permanent commander of this company.

The Allies are convinced that the capture of the ridge at Broodseinde will be decisive for their Flemish offensive. The capture is initially scheduled for 6 October. But with autumn weather approaching and a higher risk of bad weather, the attack is brought forward two days. Near Zonnebeke, the German Flandern I-Stellung is in full view of the opponent. This makes supplying troops and equipment extremely difficult. The German army command is forced to take drastic measures: a major counterattack at Zonnebeke christened Unternehmung Höhensturm (Storm at High Altitude). The operation turns into a catastrophe. Hundreds of Germans are killed and a multitude are taken prisoner of war or wounded.

Between 25 September and 10 October 1917, GRzF5 was also deployed near Zonnebeke, around and in the castle grounds. On 25 September, the German front and hinterland were heavily shelled by British artillery. In the early hours of 26 September, word seeped through that the Allied attack could break out at any moment. During the Battle of Polygon Forest, the German regiments are overwhelmed.

Relief follows on September 28. At 4am, for GGR5, the relief is finished. It will be until the evening before GRzF5 will also take up its positions. On arrival, the unit writes the following: "In der Trichterstellung liegen zwischen Häusertrümmern zahlreiche Tote und Geräte aller Art. Baumstümpfe zeigen an, dass einst hier auch kleine Wäldchen standen. Zonnebeke ist nur noch ein großer Steinhaufen." (In the crater site, numerous corpses and all kinds of material lie among the rubble of the houses. Tree stumps indicate that small groves also once stood here. Zonnebeke is now just a big pile of stone rubble).

On 3 October, Zonnebeke is once again under heavy fire. Even far behind the front line, streets and remains of farms are machine-gunned from aircraft. The German artillery falls short. Some shells fall on their own front line.

On the eve of Operation Unternehmung Höhensturm, scheduled for 4 October, another internal relay follows at dusk. The I./GRzF5 takes over the front. In Bereitschaft, GRzF5 now occupies the 10. and 11. Company in front with the 12. and 9. Company positions. Despite heavy losses, Karl survives the confrontation.

In the spring of 1918, Karl Rothenburg took part in the 1918 Spring Offensive. On 29 March, he was wounded by shrapnel in his right hand. For his achievements in the battles of March and April, he was awarded the Knight's Cross of the House Order of Hohenzollern on 23 May 1918. Charles was decorated with the Pour le Mérite, the highest award for bravery within the German army. He remained commander of 2./5.G.R.z.F. until he left the army on 20 December 1918.

When the Wehrmacht was established in early 1935, Rothenburg requested reactivation of army service. He became a major in the Kampfwagen-Regiment 1. Rothenburg was promoted to Oberstleutnant on 1 April 1938. A year later, he became commander of Panzer-Regiment 6. As tensions ran high on the European continent, he was promoted to the temporary rank of Oberst (colonel) in 1939. His regiment then became involved in the heavy fighting of Minsk in late June 1941. Karl was wounded by an explosion from a burning armoured train. Some soldiers offered him to be evacuated but he refused. Not wanting to further weaken his depleted regiment, he opted to ride back to the rear. On his way through enemy territory, he was killed on 28 June 1941. After his death, he was promoted to major general.

My story

Belated insight

The commander of the German attack heard at the last moment that there was an exceptional amount of movement among the opposing forces. He realized that the British offensive was about to start. But it was too late to pull back. He had no choice but to carry out the attack, knowing full well what was going to happen.

At the same time something remarkable happened on the Australian side. In order to secure adequate communications during the advance, small groups of the 22nd and 25th Battalions had to move around the chateau lake shortly before the attack began. They collided almost immediately with German troops, who stood ready with bayonets fixed.

Major Page of the 25th Battalion found himself in a tricky position. He was taken prisoner to the south of the lake. An exploding shell caused confusion, allowing time for Page to grab his revolver and escape. Lieutenant John McIntyre, who was using a compass to point the way for a platoon of the 22nd Battalion, had no such luck. He was killed after shooting several Germans. A few of his comrades managed to return to their starting positions, shocked by what they had seen.

  • 18a Tony Crossley Scan009© Collection of Tony Crossley
    Aerial photograph of the chateau grounds in early October 1917. Detail: troops to the west of the chateau lake.
  • 18b Tony Crossley Detail© Collection Tony Crossley
    Detail from the aerial photograph of the chateau grounds in early October 1917. Detail: troops to the west of the chateau lake.
John McIntyre

John McIntyre

John McIntyre

John McIntyre was born in November 1894 in Clementston, Australia, the son of Archibald Neal and Mary Jane McIntyre. His father died in 1912. John worked as a grocer before enlisting in the army at Wonthaggi, Australia on 6 February 1915. After passing the medical examination, he was assigned to the 22nd Australian Infantry Battalion. In August 1915, John left for the European continent. He made a stopover in Gallipoli before arriving in France.

In the days leading up to the Höhensturm, the battalion relieved the 4th on the front at Zonnebeke. The machine guns and snipers were deployed at Molenaarelsthoek, in the south-eastern part of the castle park. The weather conditions were not to be underestimated. Rainfall made the ground wet and soggy. In addition, moonlight on the night of 3 to 4 October played a role. It was a dark night with little light. The assault troops were pushed forward, beyond the first Jump-Off line.

Just before the time of the attack, which was scheduled for 6am, there was a meeting between the Australian and German troops. Charles Bean wrote the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914 - 1918. In it, he discusses this moment in detail. The castle pond is an obstacle for both the German and Australian armies. Therefore, to ensure liaison between advancing troops, a platoon of the Australian 22nd Brigade must move around the south bank of the pond to link up with the 25th Battalion north of it. In his Official History, Bean describes the moment Second Lieutenant McIntyre lost his life: "[...] showing the platoon the way with a compass, shot several German soldiers with his revolver before he himself was shot through the head." Some men from the 22nd battalion eventually returned, in shock at what they had witnessed.

John Albert McIntyre died in the early hours of 4 October 1917. He has no known burial place, as the chaos of the fatal day was great. A memorial cross was erected at the Aeroplane Military Cemetry at Ypres.



Chaos broke out immediately among the Germans. Some resisted strongly, but most of the Australian units were able to move forward relatively smoothly. They too suffered heavy losses. As they crossed the ridge, in full view of the German machine guns that were deployed in depth, they were fired upon with great ferocity.

The speed at which events unfolded caused communication problems and confusion. Couriers did not always reach their destinations and were sometimes ignored. The sight of British helmets through binoculars was even interpreted at headquarters as the approach of the first prisoners of war.

The seriousness of the situation dawned on the German army leadership only slowly. When they eventually recognized how bad things were, they tried to save what they could with scarce reserves. They started to doubt whether the Allied advance in Flanders could be stopped.

The heavy shelling and great losses prevented the Germans from launching a solid counterattack. The fresh troops were mainly deployed to close gaps in the front and to strengthen the defences.

19 BO 1463© NARA, BO-1463
German prisoners of war in Sint-Jan near Ypres on 4 October.
"The whole of the Flemish ground shook and seemed to be in flames. This was no longer a barrage, it was as if hell had been let loose. What were the horrors of Verdun and the Somme compared to this colossal eruption of force!"
The German Garde-Infanterie-Division 4 on the start of the Allied barrage of 4 October 1917.
Wilhelm Lincke
Forum Axishistory Lincke1917
Forum Axishistory Lincke1917

Wilhelm Lincke

Wilhelm Lincke

Friedrich Wilhelm Albert Lincke, son of Friedrich and Constance Lincke, was born in Hanover on 12 February 1874. As commander of II. Bataillon, Reserve-Infanterie Regiment No. 212, he took part in Operation Höhensturm on 4 October 1917. This counterattack near Zonnebeke was to drive the Allies out of the ruins of the village and give the Flandern I-Stellung on the Broodseinde ridge east of Zonnebeke some breathing space. On the Broodseinde ridge, above Zonnebeke, the Flandern I-Stellung was in full view of the Allies. This made supplying troops and equipment extremely difficult. The German army command was forced to take drastic measures: a major counterattack planned on 4 October near Zonnebeke was christened Unternehmung Höhensturm ('Höhensturm' means 'thunderstorm at high altitude').

The Allies launched an attack at the same time. They were convinced that the capture of the ridge at Broodseinde would be decisive for their Flemish offensive. The capture was initially planned for 6 October. But with autumn approaching and a greater chance of bad weather, the attack was brought forward two days, also on 4 October. In the run-up to the attack, the men of RIR 212 made their way to their departure positions under cover of fog and mist. On 4 October 1917, German artillery launched a powerful barrage as planned at 5.35am. In places, the artillery fell short and hit their own lines. The German barrage remained unanswered and scouts reported large British troop movements. Major Lincke became alarmed and rightly feared that the continuation of the British offensive was approaching. He argued that it was better to take up a defensive position and break off RIR 212's attack. The regiment was to withdraw east of Zonnebeke behind the ridge, where it could await the Allied attack. As soon as the British attacked, the regiment could counterattack with full force. With some luck, some ground could be gained in the process. But Major Lincke could no longer repel the attack. He had insufficient telephone connections and could no longer consult with the other commanders. A few moments before the attack, it was impossible to send couriers anymore. For a moment he considered withdrawing his troops from the attack centre to the Flandern I-Stellung. But he had to abandon this idea, as the units on both his wings would then surely be easy prey for the opponent. Fully aware of what was about to happen, he had no choice but to join the other two battalions in the attack. RIR 212, was located along Foreststraat, between Zonnebeke and Molenaarelsthoek. I./RIR212 on the right flank, moved around Castle Pond, in the middle II./RIR212 went along Retaliation Farm, south of II./RIR212 part of III./RIR212, would advance towards Molenaarelsthoek. As RIR 212 flowed through the lines of the 4. Garde-Division, Major Lincke's fears were realised, and Allied drumfire hit RIR 212 in the field. Wilhelm was seriously wounded in his left forearm by a shell hit. Lieutenant Bansee and Lincke's orderly, Simon Weege, bandaged the arm and were able to stem the bleeding. Meanwhile, the Australians were approaching fast. Young Weege and Major Lincke were captured at the command post of II./RIR212, at Beselarestraat, just east of Romulus Wood. Leutnant Bansee was shot while trying to reach the lines of RIR 212. Orderly Weege was deployed as stretcher bearer and separated from Major Lincke, who was taken to Ypres and then to Poperinge, where he was nursed. He would spend the rest of the war in captivity in England. Major Lincke was quite impressed by the Allied war machine and began to doubt whether Germany could sustain this war for long against this preponderance of men and material:

"What I saw behind the English front raised serious doubts in my mind for the first time whether we would be able to bring the war to a successful conclusion against these enormous amounts of men, material and organisation."

The German counterattack had ended in disaster. Thousands of Germans were killed, made prisoners of war or carried off wounded. Yet 4 October did not mark the Allies' dream breakthrough; the German defences in Flanders had not collapsed, indeed German resistance intensified as soon as the Allies reached the crest of the hill, the German barrage and fortified positions had taken their toll. The Australian divisions suffered a devastating 6,500 casualties.

My Story

From standing firm to standing still

From the ridge the Australians looked out on a region that had been hidden from them for more than two years. Before them a green landscape stretched ahead, with in the distance smoking chimneys, small woods and lines of trees stroked by the wind. There were even grazing cattle.

For the first time in years it seemed as if the Allies were on the verge of a decisive breakthrough. Yet the army leadership was wary. The next attack was planned for 9 October. That gave the Germans time to regroup. Meanwhile the weather turned and it started to rain. What followed was the exhausting fighting at Passchendaele.

During the winter the Allies tightened their grip on Zonnebeke. Duckboards were laid, and in and around the village shelters were built and guns were positioned. During the German Spring Offensive of April 1918, Zonnebeke was cleared by the British. On 28 September 1918, Belgian troops drove the Germans out for good.

20 E00834© Australian War Memorial, E00834
The ruins of the church, the chateau and its outbuildings. To the right, in the background, a few Australians gaze at the remains of the chateau.
Sydney Barker
Foto Barker S
Foto Barker S

Sydney Barker

Sydney Barker

Sydney Barker, a former student, was born in 1898 in Hunslet, West Yorkshire, England. He was the son of Charles and Agnes Barker. He enlisted in Leeds. He served in the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment), 1/5th Battalion, part of the 147th (2nd West Riding) Brigade of the 49th (West Riding) Division.

On November 19, 1917, the battalion relieved the 1/5th West Yorkshire as battalion in support to left front line battalion on the divisional front on the Broodseinde Ridge just north of Beselare. A company was established at Tokio Ridge, B and C company were on the Westhoek Ridge and D company was on Anzac Ridge. On November 20, A Coy’s position on Tokio Ridge was heavily shelled most of the day. The other Coy’s were intermittently shelled during the day.

Sydney, aged 19, was killed in action on November 20, 1917. Private Barker was initially buried where he fell, near De Knoet Farm (28.D.28.b.20.30). After the war, his remains were exhumed and reinterred in the Perth China Wall Cemetery, Plot V, Row J, Grave 6.

Place of death
"Big shells were falling accurately on the nearer roads and farms, and some of the buildings were beginning to blaze. Nearer still […] Germans were running, a few close ahead, lower down fully-equipped men in groups, making between the heavy shell-bursts for shelter in the woods, some turning now and then to shoot."
Official Australian war historian Charles Bean describes what the Australians saw from the ridge on 4 October 1917.
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