The Unstoppable Panzer Count Strachwitz

Military Heritage Magazine & Warfare History Network

The Unstoppable Panzer Count Strachwitz

Using speed and daring, Hyazinth Graf Strachwitz achieved multiple victories on the Eastern Front in World War II.

The wide tracks of Soviet T-34s and colossal KV-1s crunched through the snow. Night had fallen west of Belgorod on March 15, 1943. The Soviet tank column was headed toward a village, looking for shelter for the night. Although the village appeared deserted, the Soviet commander was wary. For days now there had been heavy fighting, with the Nazis trying to recapture Kharkov from the Soviets. The T-34s fired incendiary shells, setting ablaze a few peasant huts. When nothing moved, the tanks rumbled into the village. The commander’s tank came to halt, unaware that the muzzle of a Tiger tank hidden in a barn was pointed straight at him. Flames shot out of the barn and an 88mm shell smashed into the command tank. Suddenly, the whole village erupted in cannon fire from hidden panzers. Everywhere Soviet tanks were bursting into flames. Panic gripped the Soviet tankers, for they had recognized the hand of enemy commander, Graf Strachwitz, the “Panzer Count,” whose exploits on the Russian front would make him a legend in World War II.

Strachwitz’s story began on July 30, 1893, in Grosstein Castle, when Countess Alexandrine of Matuschka gave birth to a boy sired by Hyazinth Graf Strachwitz von Gross-Zauche and Camminetz. As the first-born son in the family and like his father, the newborn was named after the 13th-century Dominican Saint Hyazinth. The Strachwitzes were an old and noble Upper Silesian family, traditionally allied to the Hohenzollern, the dynasty to which belonged the Electors of Brandenburg, the kings of Prussia, and the German emperor.

The young Strachwitz grew up on the agricultural and forest estates of his family, who were among the richest land owners in Silesia. Strachwitz attended the Volksschule and the Gymnasium1 of Oppeln. He began his cadet training at the Royal Prussian Junior Cadet School in Wahlstatt and then transferred to the renowned Central Cadet School at Berlin-Lichterfelde. Strachwitz had no problems with academics, excelled at sports and at horse riding, and was a superb fencer.

Strachwitz as a Cadet (Rõll, Hans-Joachim. Generalleutnant der Reserve Hyacinth Graf Strachwitz von Gross-Zauche und Camminetz. 2001)

In 1912 Strachwitz joined the elite Imperial Potsdamer Cavalry Regiment of the Garde du Corps. Before the year was over, Strachwitz’s horsemanship singled him out for further officer training at Hannover’s prestigious Cavalry School. Put in charge of sporting activities, Leutnant Strachwitz and many of his comrades eagerly prepared for the upcoming 1916 Olympics. It was not to be—World War I broke out in 1914.

Soldiers and civilians throughout Europe rejoiced at what they thought would be a short and glorious war. Everywhere people shook Strachwitz’s hand and invited him for beer and sausages. Leutnant Strachwitz exchanged his white Hussar dress uniform for a gray field one and rode off to war at the front of his squadron. Soon the dashing Hussars found themselves stuck in clouds of dust, raised by thousands of infantry and supply wagons.

Strachwitz’s regiment was part of the 1st Guards Cavalry Division and Generaloberst Karl von Bulow’s 2nd Army. Bulow was attacking through Belgium and headed toward the Marne. Carrying out reconnaissance, Strachwitz impressed both his men and his superiors. Even the latter addressed him as Herr Graf, as Strachwitz preferred. Because of his daring, the soldiers nick- named Strachwitz the “Last Horseman.” Soon Strachwitz was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class and recommended for the Iron Cross 1st Class.

With the German Army already in northeastern France by late August, Strachwitz volunteered to lead a deep reconnaissance toward Paris. Strachwitz set out early one morning with 16 of his own volunteers. The patrol avoided settlements and stuck to woods and fields but soon happened upon French cavalry. Saber in hand, Strachwitz scattered the chasseurs and freed some German prisoners.

At midday, the way  was blocked again. This time the obstruction was a large English camp. Strachwitz’s Hussars burst out of an adjacent forest and through the startled soldiers. With bullets zipping past them, the German cavalry disappeared through the other side as quickly as they had appeared. Strachwitz later joined up with two other German patrols and together they reached Melun by the following morning.

While trying to blow up a railway track, the Germans were stopped by French soldiers. Frightened by the rifle shots, the German horses bolted. Without horses and hunted down by increasing numbers of French and English, Strachwitz’s band became smaller and smaller. Strachwitz nevertheless managed to demolish rail tracks and a signal box near Fontainbleau, causing panic in nearby Paris.

With the way back to the German lines blocked by the alerted French, Strachwitz led his men south in hope of finding a lightly guarded section. They continued walking through muddy ground and pouring rain and they slept under the stars or, if lucky, in a barn. One week after another, Strachwitz’s little group eluded capture. On one occasion, Strachwitz escaped a French company by running up to the crest of a wooded hill. In plain sight, he shouted and pointed for his men to escape to the right. Once on the other side of the crest, Strachwitz and his men ran to the left. The pursuing French were fooled and ran to the right. Unfortunately, during the escape a bullet caught Oberleuntnant Schierstaedt. Seriously wounded, he needed help.

To appear less conspicuous, Strachwitz gave a gold piece to an astonished farmer for some civilian clothes. The count left a whole pouch full of gold when he took a cart and horse from an abandoned barn. Strachwitz needed the cart to transport Schierstaedt but was forced to abandon both when confronted by a French roadblock. The exhausted Germans sought refuge in a wood but were finally caught and overpowered by French Senegalese soldiers.

Strachwitz’s capture in October 1914 was the beginning of a long ordeal fraught with hardship. Because they had been caught in civilian clothing, the French regarded them as spies and saboteurs. Twice it looked like Strachwitz and his men would face the firing squad, but their sentence was five years at hard labor. At Avignon, Strachwitz underwent a year of torture and humiliation. Regaining his soldier’s status, Strachwitz was transferred to the German officer prison at Fort Barre. Strachwitz tried to escape by digging a tunnel but was caught. As punishment, he was chained up in the hold of a French ship to deter U-boat attacks. Strachwitz was emaciated by the time he was returned to Fort Barre. As soon as he recovered, Strachwitz joined Oberleutnant von Lossow in another escape attempt. The two climbed the wall, threw a guard off the parapet, and jumped down the other side. Strachwitz landed in barbed wire and tore his foot, but he and Lossow were free.

Strachwitz and Lossow hid in woods during the day, marching at night and avoiding settlements. After two weeks they reached the vicinity of Mont Blanc and the Swiss border. Unfortunately, Strachwitz’s painful wound had become infected. While climbing a rock face, Strachwitz slipped and sustained further injuries. After finding shelter in a cabin, he unsuccessfully pleaded with Lossow to abandon him. Detected by locals, the two fugitives were apprehended by gendarmerie.

Strachwitz ended up in the officer prison at Carcassonne in southwestern France where he recovered sufficiently to saw at the window bars with a homemade file. Betrayed by an informant, Strachwitz was thrown in solitary. His untreated wound got worse but proved to be his salvation when an inspecting Swiss doctor demanded that the fever-ridden Strachwitz be handed over to the Swiss Red Cross. As his health improved in a Geneva hospital, Strachwitz avoided being returned to France as a prisoner by faking mental illness. Confined at Herisau Institute, the mental anguish of the inmates nearly drove Strachwitz to suicide. After the war ended on November 11, 1918, Strachwitz was released.

With German Emperor Wilhelm II being forced to abdicate, Germany plunged into civil strife. Strachwitz arrived in Berlin where the fledgling republic was threatened by communist revolutionaries. Joining government loyalist troops, Strachwitz took part in the weeks of fighting that lasted into January 1919.

Silesia had been part of Prussia for nearly two centuries. Before Prussia it had been ruled by the Austrian Habsburgs, and before them by Bohemia; however, for most of the Middle Ages, Upper Silesia had been Polish. With the recreation of Poland after World War I, the Poles wanted Upper Silesia to become part of Poland again. Token French, English, and Italian garrisons were supposed to keep the peace between the Germans and the Poles but mostly stayed neutral or, in the case of the French, actively supported the Poles. During these uncertain times, Strachwitz remained active in the illegal militia while managing the family estate. In July, Strachwitz married Alexandrine “Alda” Freiin Surma-Jeltsch, who nine months later gave birth to their son.

Kamień_Śląski_pałac, formerly Grosstein Castle, the traditional family estate of the Strachwitz

In March 1921 Upper Silesia voted whether to remain in Germany or be ceded to Poland. Although the German vote won, the region that voted Polish was allowed to join Poland. Unsatisfied, militant Poles led by Wojciech Korfanty tried to seize the German territory as well. At Gross Stein, Strachwitz awoke to gun shots and the sound of refugees fleeing from the advancing Poles. Strachwitz brought his family, including his pregnant wife, to safety then hurried back to join the German resistance.

Korfanty’s nationalist coup in Upper Silesia ,17th August 1920

Although the Poles outnumbered the Germans, the Germans had more combat experience and were buffered by paramilitary Freikorps. Leading a counterattack, Strachwitz fought off eight Polish companies and retook his ancestral castle. The fighting climaxed on May 21, 1921, with the iconic Battle of Annaberg. While the Germans under General Karl Höfer and Bernhard von Hülsen attacked the Polish-held mountain from the front, Strachwitz sneaked his men around the rear. Strachwitz forced the Poles on the summit to surrender after a short but violent fight.

In the ensuing battles, the Germans repulsed more Polish attacks. Strachwitz captured an artillery battery and turned the guns against the fleeing Poles. The conflict was finally settled in 1922 with Germany retaining the western two thirds of Upper Silesia while the industrial eastern third was ceded to Poland. Strachwitz received the Silesian Order of the Eagle, second and first class.

During the interwar years, Strachwitz moved his growing family to Alt Siedel manor. He educated himself in forest management and modern methods of agriculture. In 1931 Strachwitz joined the Nazi Party, reckoning that doing so would benefit his Silesian homeland. Two years later he was admitted into the Schutzstaffel (SS), which was eager to have aristocrats in its ranks; however, Strachwitz never served in the SS and remained a reserve officer under the command of the new Wehrmacht. The latter made Strachwitz Rittmeister der Reserve (Cavalry Master of the Reserve) in 1936.

When Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Strachwitz was put in charge of supply and reinforcement for the 1st Panzer Division’s 2nd Panzer Regiment. Despite his rear-echelon position, he participated in the fighting and earned the Iron Cross Second Class. To help the wounded, Strachwitz allowed Gross Stein to be used as a military hospital. Back at Alt Siedel by mid-October, Strachwitz returned to his division at the end of the year.

During the six-week-long Battle of France in the spring of 1940, the 1st Panzer Division spearheaded General Heinz Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps’ fateful drive through the Ardennes to the English Channel. At the start of the offensive, a young officer asked Strachwitz if he hated the French. In spite of his bad experiences, Strachwitz replied that he had no hate and that he respected the French as soldiers, who ceased to be his enemy once they were defeated.

On the morning of May 14, French aircraft struck the German crossing of the Meuse Bridge. Strachwitz directed traffic and ordered the men to take cover. After the German break through over the Meuse, Strachwitz set out with his Kubelwagen and driver for a reconnaissance. Nineteen miles into French territory, they pulled up to a French signals garrison. Strachwitz got out of the car, calmly lit a cigarette, and demanded the surrender of the garrison in perfect French. He told the captain that his panzers were only minutes away. The bluff worked and 600 French soldiers surrendered. Strachwitz delivered the captives in their own new trucks. “Strachwitz, that devil”2 exclaimed General Friedrich Kirchner of the 1st Panzer Division upon learning of the feat. Promoted to major, Strachwitz was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class in June.

Strachwitz was on another excursion when he watched the embarkation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk. He was dumbfounded by Hitler’s order to halt the panzers in favor of air strikes. The miraculous British evacuation was soon eclipsed by the fall of France, however. Alongside the 2nd Panzer Regiment, Strachwitz was transferred to East Prussia and to the new 16th Panzer Division led by Generalmajor Hans-Valentin Hube.

The one-armed Hube clapped Strachwitz on the shoulder, granted Strachwitz’s frontline request, and assigned him the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Panzer Regiment, 16th Panzer Division. Strachwitz briefly took part in the invasion of Yugoslavia before being withdrawn to prepare for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.

Generalmajor Hans-Valentin Hube, commander of the 16th Panzer Division

At the outset of the invasion, the 16th Panzer Division was in the forefront of Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist’s First Panzer Group, which had as its initial objective the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. On June 26, Kleist was more than 75 miles into Soviet territory when Col. Gen. Mikhail Kirponos launched a spirited counterattack. In the hills west of the Ikwa River, 2nd Panzer Regiment sallied forth to intercept masses of Soviet tanks. Amid deafening explosions, fountains of earth, and clouds of smoke, an adjutant reported to Strachwitz that they were T-26 light tanks. Strachwitz’s binoculars zeroed in on more Soviet tanks in the woods to the rear. He ordered the heavier Mark IVs to counter the Soviet outflanking attempt. Soviet infantry swarmed through the panzers. A bullet grazed Strachwitz’s arm. Roughly bandaged, the wound continued to bleed into the cloth. At dusk, after hours of fighting, the Soviets were thrown back but the regiment had been cut off from the division.

It was only the first day of the largest tank battle of Barbarossa so far. The panzer guns proved to be nearly impotent against the new Soviet T-34s and KV-Is. The Germans made up for it with superior tactics, Junkers Ju-87 Stuka support, and tank-busting 88mm guns. Strachwitz drove back attacking tank packs, chased them into the night, and shot up Soviet batteries. The battle wound down at the beginning of July, with Kirponos withdrawing toward Kiev.

Lining up ready with shells for the 88, Deutsche Wochenschau Assault on Uman 1941

The First Panzer Group headed south, intending to link up with Seventeenth Army and trap Soviet forces in a pocket at Uman, 200 miles south of Kiev. During the ensuing fighting, Strachwitz had his panzers move their guns to a six o’clock position in Soviet fashion, which enabled him to ambush the enemy or wreak havoc behind their lines. Strachwitz sustained additional minor wounds in the head and the arm. The regiment had suffered as well. Its remaining panzers were combined into one battalion led by Strachwitz.

On August 3, while attempting to secure the bridge over the Southern Bug at Pervomaisk, Strachwitz’s panzer took a direct hit by an artillery shell. The radio operator was killed but Strachwitz and his remaining crew were able to crawl out of the smoking wreck. Fighting off Soviet infantry with MP-40s and grenades, Strachwitz climbed into the next panzer. He led his battalion to the wooden bridge that the Soviets were trying to blow up. The panzers opened fire to cover the German pioneers storming across. The Soviets pulled back, but they maintained a withering fire. The pioneers struggled to disassemble the demolition charges until Strachwitz sped across the bridge with his panzer.

The Battle of Uman ended in another German victory. Six weeks into Barbarossa, Strachwitz’s panzers had covered 440 miles but the steppes of the Ukraine seemed endless. Sixteenth Panzer Division pushed toward the Black Sea, where Nikolajew fell on the eve of August 16. Late in August, the division was back north, resting south of Kirovograd. On August 25, Hube awarded Strachwitz with the Knight’s Cross.

Restored to two battalions, Panzer Regiment 2 returned to action in September as part of the southern pincer of the Kiev encirclement. On September 16 the gigantic pocket of the Dnieper bend was closed 130 miles east of Kiev. Strachwitz’s battalion engaged Soviet troops desperately trying to break through to the east. When a Soviet division commander of German ancestry was captured, Strachwitz refused to take him prisoner unless the commander returned with his whole division. The next morning 7,000 men marched out of the nearby wood and into captivity. They were among the 663,000 Soviet prisoners captured at Kiev.

Strachwitz did his best to treat the prisoners well and also helped ailing farmers, women, and children. Often his men repaired local churches, further endearing him to the population. Unfortunately, Strachwitz’s goodwill and that of others like him was undone by Nazi terror in conquered areas. Most of the prisoners ended up starving to death or were executed, fueling hate and hardening resistance.

Upgraded to First Panzer Army, the former First Panzer Group attacked the Soviet Dnieper Front from the north in late September. On October 6 Strachwitz’s battalion captured the main road junction of Andrejewka, closing one of the last links of another huge encirclement. On October 9 the temperature dropped and falling snow obscured the view. Fighting to seal off penetrations, Strachwitz was again wounded in the head. Cutting short his field hospital stay, he returned to the front on the same day.

After the successful conclusion of the cauldron battle north of the Azov Sea, First Panzer Army pushed toward Rostov. The remaining panzers of the depleted 2nd Panzer Regiment were again amalgamated under Strachwitz’s command. At the end of October, rain, snow, and slush turned roads into swamps. Supplies slowed down and vehicles were stranded without petrol. While Strachwitz’s panzers underwent repairs at Uspenkaja, a Soviet bomber hit a camp of their own prisoners. Distraught at the bloody carnage, Strachwitz moved the Soviet prisoners farther behind the front lines.

The temperature plummeted, freezing anything stuck in the mud. Alongside 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking, the 16th Panzer Division engaged a Soviet counterattack. Strachwitz rescued a Wiking pioneer battalion cut off at Balabanow. By November 23, 2nd Panzer Regiment only had 20 panzers left and was forced to fall back to the west bank of the Mius River. Strachwitz left for Germany to recover from his many combat wounds. Meanwhile, the German Army withstood the fierce Soviet winter offensive of 1941-1942 and the extreme weather that wreaked havoc among the ill-equipped troops.

Strachwitz was back with his regiment in March 1942, promoted to Oberstleutnant and awarded the wound badge in silver. On May 12 the Soviets renewed their push for Kharkov. Kleist’s panzer army riposted, attacking from south of Izyum to slice off the southern pincer of the South West Front. On May 23, Strachwitz’s battalion met the 23rd Panzer Division south of Balakleya. Marshal Semyon Timoshenko’s armies were encircled. Alongside several officers standing on a small rise of ground, Strachwitz observed columns of Soviets trying to break out. Warned by his uncanny instinct, Strachwitz suddenly grabbed the arm of the adjacent Hauptmann Freytag von Loringhoven and jerked him downhill. In the next instant a shell exploded where they had stood, killing the others.

A brief period of rest followed the German victory at Izyum. Around this time Strachwitz took over command of the entire regiment, which from June 10 onward took part in the preliminary battles for Case Blue, the massive German summer offensive of 1942. Through drenching rainstorms and seas of mud, Strachwitz engaged more Soviet armor and fought off night attacks. The 16th Panzer Division captured the heavily fortified city of Kupjansk in mid-June. During the fighting, a shell splinter struck Strachwitz’s head. He had the wound provisionally treated, then quickly returned to his men.

On July 8, once more rested and refitted, 16th Panzer Division took part in Sixth Army’s drive for Stalingrad on the Volga River. Assault- ing the Soviet bridgehead over the Don River west of Kalach in late July, Sixth Army won its last great encirclement battle. Armor combat raged through the villages and on the heat- scorched grass steppes, mirrored by equally fierce aerial engagements in the sky above. Strachwitz was again wounded. His regiment breached one of the last Soviet defenses north of Kalach, enabling the linkup with 24th Panzer Division. During the battle, Strachwitz’s regiment knocked out well over 100 enemy tanks.

After waiting out a morning barrage of Soviet artillery and rockets on August 23 in a foxhole, Strachwitz led his panzers in XIV Panzer Corps’ final 35-mile drive to Stalingrad. Henschel Hs-129 and Ju-87 ground attack aircraft opened the way for 400 panzers, breaking all resistance. Upon approaching the northern suburbs, the Soviets used their heavy antiaircraft guns in a ground fire role against Strachwitz’s panzers. With the help of Stukas, Strachwitz destroyed 37 of these antiaircraft guns without suffering a loss. The Germans were shocked to discover that the mangled gun crews were women, poorly trained in engaging ground targets.

Strachwitz led his panzers down a street, driving along the edge in case the road was mined. A hidden antitank gun opened up, barely missing Strachwitz’s panzer. The Soviet gun was quickly knocked out, and Strachwitz kept going until he reached the high western banks of the Volga. He marveled at the spectacle of the city and river below. With the exception of the onion shaped cathedral spires of the old town, Stalingrad was a modern industrial city. Factories, smokestacks, and suburbs extended in a narrow strip along the Volga. Clouds of smoke from bombing Stukas and Soviet antiaircraft guns drifted over the whole scene. The river was full of boats against which Strachwitz directed his panzer cannons, sinking several vessels.

Ordered to help defend the northern industrial suburbs, Strachwitz hid his three companies at the bottom of a long hill. Multiple waves of Soviet armor obstinately attacked over the crest. At a range of 300 to 500 yards, the panzers knocked out more than 100 tanks in two days. “Our Panzer Count only needed to sit behind the front in his command tank, which had a wooden dummy gun, tallying up the knocked out enemy tanks reported by the companies,”3 said von Loringhoven. Heavy fighting for the northern sector continued through September into October, with Hitler insisting on capturing positions no matter what the cost. On October 13 Strachwitz’s panzer received a direct hit. Severely burned, Strachwitz was flown to the Reserve Hospital at Breslau. He was still recuperating when the Soviet counteroffensive in late November encircled the doomed German Sixth Army. Strachwitz pleaded to return to the front but, realizing the hopelessness of the situation, General Hube refused.

Strachwitz received the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross in December and a promotion to Oberst der Reserve on January 1, 1943. His new command was the panzer regiment of the elite Panzer Grenadier Division Grossdeutschland. On March 9 Strachwitz’s regiment joined Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s counterattack against the overextended Soviets at Kharkov. West of Belgorod, Grossdeutschland squared off against three Soviet tank corps.

Strachwitz in the cupola of a panzer (Warfare History Network)

The fighting included an intense night battle on March 15-16. Having seen the dark silhouettes of Soviet tanks against the snow converging on his position, Strachwitz hid his panzers, including three Tigers, in a deserted peasant village. In a horseshoe formation, camouflaged, dug in, or hidden in the thatched huts, the panzers waited until nightfall. The rumbling of as many as 50 Soviet tanks resounded through the dark. A few huts were hit by incendiary shells and burst into flames.

Strachwitz remained calm, letting the whole Soviet column enter the village. With a Soviet command tank within 70 meters, Strachwitz’s hidden Tiger fired and blasted the turret right off the T-34. The other panzers let loose, knocking out 18 T-34s and KV-1s in a few minutes. Strachwitz climbed on top of his turret and watched the inferno. “The Russians have recognized us, they’re broadcasting, ‘Watch out, it’s Strachwitz,”4 said Strachwitz’s radio operator. The Soviets desperately tried to pull out but were shot up in the process. The Soviet losses were only part of the more than 300 Soviet tanks destroyed or disabled by Strachwitz’s regiment between March 14 and March 19.

Strachwitz was awarded the Swords to his Knight’s Cross on March 28. His soldiers honored him by substituting Strachwitz’s name for that of the Napoleonic-era Lutzow in the popular soldier’s song “Lutzow’s Wild, Venturous Hunt.” Strachwitz took two weeks of hol- iday visiting Berchtesgaden with his wife Alda. Appearing on a radio show, Strachwitz accredited his successes to the close cooperation, the high skill level, and the total commitment of every single man in his regiment.

During Operation Citadel, the German summer offensive of 1943, Grossdeutschland fought as part of Fourth Panzer Army, forming the southern pincer during the Battle of Kursk. Morale among the soldiers was high, not the least because Strachwitz was fighting with them. “I remember how much talk there was among us that we had nothing to fear, because we had Graf von Strachwitz and his new, invincible Panther tanks with us,”5 said Grossdeutschland fusilier Alfred Novotny.

Heavy rain fell on July 5th, as massive artillery salvos opened the battle. Grossdeutschland fought its way through the deep Soviet defenses of minefields, antitank guns, and dug-in tanks north of Belgorod. Strachwitz took over command of Panzer Brigade 10, which included his own regiment and Panzerregiment 39 with its new Panthers, from July 7 to July 11. The fighting on July 7 alone accounted for 62 Soviet tanks and 55 antitank guns destroyed, but Soviet resistance stiffened toward the Oboyan Heights.

On July 9 Strachwitz received the news that his oldest son had been seriously wounded. The day after, Strachwitz was resting his arm on the breech lock when his new gunner fired prematurely; smashing the count’s arm. Receiving a plaster cast, Strachwitz hurried back to his regiment, led another attack, and received another light wound. Outraged at Strachwitz’s self-sacrifice, Generalleutnant Walter Hoernlein sent the count back to the field hospital.

Strachwitz returned to combat in August. The Battle of Kursk had meanwhile ended in a German defeat, forcing the German Army to withdraw ever farther westward. So severe was the fighting that Strachwitz only had one operational panzer by the end of September. By late December, Grossdeutschland was across the Dnieper River at Kirovgrad. Strachwitz received another serious wound, this time in the left arm. After being sent to Breslau hospital, he completed his convalescence at home

Early in January 1944, Strachwitz was promoted to Hoheren Panzerführer (Higher Panzer Commander) of Army Group North. The northern German front had fallen back to the city of Narva, the gateway to Estonia. Strachwitz sought to eliminate the Soviet bridgehead over the Narva River at Krivasso. The bridgehead was so large that it needed to be divided into three parts and eliminated one part at a time.

In 1944 Strachwitz, left, joined Army Group North where he led panzer forces in a fierce counterattack to eliminate the expansive Soviet bridgehead over the Narva River at Krivasso.

On March 26, Strachwitz attacked head-on as swampy wooded terrain precluded any outflanking. Spearheading the attack in one of the first three Panzer IVs, Strachwitz was nearly hit by friendly fire from a Stuka. The fighting continued through the night in dark, claustrophobic conditions. Walking stick in hand, wearing his trademark sheepskin jacket, Strachwitz was always at the front, keeping up on the latest battle developments and insuring sufficient supplies. He handed out cognac and chocolate, offered encouragement, and awarded Iron Crosses. It took several days of hard fighting until the Soviets were defeated.

Promoted to major general of the reserve on April 1, Strachwitz prepared for the attack on the next portion of the bridgehead. This time the terrain allowed the use of the Tigers of Heavy Panzer Battalion 502. “[Strachwitz] won our confidence from the very beginning,” commented Panzer ace Leutnant Otto Carius of Battalion 502. For Carius, Strachwitz “was one of those personalities who one could never forget.”6

Carius’s Tigers took the lead, shielding the fusiliers following behind. Soviet small arms fire ricocheting off the Tigers, but ripped into some of the fusiliers. Contact was established with German troops trapped in the pocket. At night, Soviets hidden in the forest ambushed German infantry and armored personnel carriers. Nevertheless, by April 9, after four days of intense fighting, the last Soviet resistance was eliminated.

Otto Carius reads a map while standing in the cupola of Tiger 217

The last of the bridgehead still remained, however, and it was nearly twice the size of the previous ones. Strachwitz directed the offensive via radio in a bunker, which the Soviets continued to shell. This time, though, the Soviets were alert, their defenses were too strong, and the spring melt had begun. After three days, on April 21, the offensive had to be called off.

In recognition of Strachwitz’s initial successes, Hitler presented him with the Diamonds to the Knight’s Cross. Strachwitz bluntly rejected Hitler’s request to eliminate the remain- ing bridgehead. “Panzers can’t drive in the swamp,”7 Strachwitz told Hitler. Strachwitz continued to lead infiltrating actions on the southern flank of Army Group North. Penetrating 90 miles into enemy territory, Strachwitz burst upon an unsuspecting Soviet tank lager, blowing up tank after tank and spraying their startled crews with machine-gun fire.

Strachwitz wearing the prestigious Knights Cross with Oakleaves, Swords and Diamonds

There was no stopping the Soviet juggernaut, though, when, on June 22 Operation Bagration overwhelmed the undermanned and under-equipped lines of Army Group Center. Strachwitz was part of the relief attempt of Vilnius, making it possible to evacuate thousands of wounded soldiers before the city fell to the Soviets on July 13.

A significant event occurred that month at Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia. On July 20 Major Claus von Stauffenberg planted a bomb at the Wolf’s Lair in a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. At the time, Strachwitz was nursing a leg wound in Silesia. Many of Strachwitz’s acquaintances and friends were arrested and interrogated. The count tried to intervene but came under suspicion himself. When the Gestapo questioned Strachwitz’s Catholic religion and connections, Strachwitz admonished them for their Nazi atheism.

Strachwitz was soon needed back at the front. On August 1 the Soviets reached the Gulf of Riga at Tuckum, stranding 30 German divisions in northern Latvia and Estonia. In Operation Double Head, Third Panzer Army sought to reestablish contact by recapturing Tuckum and coming to the relief of beleaguered Riga. “If anyone can do it, it’s Strachwitz,”8 said Chief of Staff Heinz Guderian upon being informed that Strachwitz was to spearhead the attack.

On August 18, Strachwitz’s battle group advanced from of Frauenburg, East Prussia, crossing Lithuania on its way to Tuckum. Strachwitz’s command consisted of about 2,500 Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht soldiers and 60 panzers, mostly new Panthers from Panzer Brigade 101. There were also a couple of Tigers from the 103rd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion, Mark IIIs and IVs of SS Brigade Gross, and armored personnel carriers and flak units.

At a bridge west of Tuckum, the surprised Soviet battalion gave up without a fight. Reaching the outskirts of the city on August 20, Stra- chwitz called for support from the cruiser Prinz Eugen in the Gulf of Riga. Prinz Eugen’s 203mm guns and the guns of several destroyers zeroed in on Tuckum’s market square, obliterating dozens of parked T-34s. Strachwitz’s panzer entered the city, driving by charred tanks. Some were overturned and their crews dead and burned. As for the survivors, they were too dazed to fight back. A few remaining tanks were easily dispatched. With SS Brigade Gross holding Tuckum, Strachwitz intercepted an approaching Soviet convoy. Believing themselves surrounded, the whole convoy surrendered.


Still from Deutsche Wochenschau 1944

Strachwitz pushed on to Riga with his grenadier battalions and his nine remaining Panthers, as many of the Panthers had broken down. After further engagements in a wood, Strachwitz entered Riga on the August 21. Driving by cheering Latvians and German troops, the count’s Panther stopped in the marketplace right in front of a number of high-ranking officers. In his sweat- and dirt-stained overall, his face smeared in oil, Strachwitz emerged from the cupola. “Hurra, Leutnant, you have busted the cauldron,”9 called out an officer. To astonished gazes, Strachwitz replied that he was a full fledged general.

Grossly overestimating Strachwitz’s force, the Soviet Fifty-First Army claimed that Tuckum had been attacked by 300 tanks. In three days, Strachwitz’s small battle group had captured 18,000 prisoners and destroyed numerous artillery pieces, tanks, and antitank guns. The wounded could be evacuated out of Riga and contact had been reestablished, albeit only temporarily, with Army Group North.

On August 24, 1944, Strachwitz was nearly killed in a traffic accident. Knocked uncon- scious, he woke up two weeks later in Riga hospital. He could hear the Soviets firing artillery at the city. Some rounds hit the hospital, but Strachwitz’s injuries prevented his transport. It was not until early October, with the fall of Riga imminent, that Strachwitz was flown to Breslau. The doctors counted on keeping him hospitalized for eight months. Strachwitz left after only seven days, continuing his recovery at Alt Siedel.

With the Soviets surging into Silesia on January 16, 1945, Strachwitz showed up at Field Marshal Ferdinand Schorner’s Oppeln headquarters on crutches. Strachwitz asked to return to the front to defend his homeland. Even Schorner, who sent anyone remotely combat-worthy to the front, was stunned. Schorner needed someone to organize tank hunters armed with panzerfausts. Strachwitz undertook the effort. Within a few weeks, 8,000 men volunteered. The force included hardened veterans, returning wounded, and idealistic teenagers. The desperate nature of the final days of fighting was embodied by Strachwitz’s youngest son, Hubertus Arthur, who despite being a leg amputee, volunteered to return to the front and was killed on March 25.


After Germany’s surrender on May 8, Strachwitz ensured that most of his soldiers ended up in American captivity. A still limping Strachwitz surrendered to an American lieutenant in Felgen. The count looked so haggard that the lieutenant thought he needed medical help. Taken to the Allendorf, Strachwitz found himself in the company of several hundred German officers, including Guderian and Adolf Galland. They were treated well and used to gain records of the war and military tactics. Strachwitz spent two years in captivity, during which he received the disheartening news that his wife Alda had been killed by a U.S. military truck.

Upon regaining his freedom in the spring of 1947, Strachwitz no longer had a home to which he could return. His ancestral lands in Upper Silesia had been occupied by Russians who later handed them over to Poland. His tattered uniform and his medals were all that Strachwitz had left. In a fresh start to a new life, Strachwitz married again. His bride was the much younger Nora von Stumm. After two years abroad beginning in 1949, the couple eventually returned to Germany, settling in upper Bavaria. Strachwitz founded a refugee foundation for displaced Silesians and became a Knight of Devotion of the Order of St. John.

On April 25, 1968, the 75-year-old Strachwitz, who was a heavy smoker, succumbed to lung cancer. “It was because of his bravery, which served as an example to all officers and soldiers, that he carried the highest decorations of the Knight’s Cross, the Oakleaves, the Swords and the Diamonds,”10 said General Heinz-Georg Lemm of the Bundeswehr, himself a holder of the Oak Leaves and Swords, at Strachwitz’s funeral. Unlike most senior commanders of the Third Reich, Strachwitz was buried with full military honors.

Strachwitz’s motto was, “Panzers should not be standing around, they should be rolling along, either shooting at the enemy or attacking and pursuing.”11 With speed and daring and a knack for improvisation and organization, Strachwitz achieved victories against great odds. Strachwitz was wounded 14 times, but he proved as tough as the wild boar on the Strachwitz coat of arms. Guderian rightly considered Strachwitz to be one of the greatest panzer leaders.

One of the greatest panzer leaders, the incomparable Graf Strachwitz (Warfare History Network)


“The Unstoppable Count Strachwitz” by L. H. Dyck was first published by Military Heritage Magazine in July 2017, then re-published on their online website Warfare History Network in 2018. Since then it has been picked up by The National Interest and by Yahoo News which renamed the article “Russia Feared Hitler’s Panzer Tanks But They Might Have Feared Who Led Them Even More” and generated a considerable number of views. As the author I do not favor the later title, which to me seems provocative.  From a Russian standpoint, the title could be seen as belittling the courageous war efforts of the Soviet army- which deserves the lion’s share of the victory laurels against Nazi Germany. The article tells of the heroic deeds in battle of Count Strachwitz, by all accounts a man of honor, but in no way is it meant to glorify the regime he fought for.

The present article has been re-edited by the author and contains notes and sources as well as additional images from the net for educational, non-profit purposes only.


1. The gymnasium is a German high school that prepares students for university as opposed to the trades, 2. Hans-Joachim Rõll, Generalleutnant der Reserve Hyacinth Graf Strachwitz von Gross-Zauche und Camminetz (Würtzburg; Flechsig, 2001, p. 54), 3.  Ibid., p. 110, 4.  Ibid., p. 134, 5. Novotny Afred, The Good Soldier ( Bedford: Aberjona Press, 2003), p. 52, 6. Hans-Joachim Rõll, p. 139, 7. Ibid., p. 152, 8. Ibid., p. 153, 9. Ibid., p. 159, 10.  Ibid., p. 181, 11.  Ibid., p. 169.


Bagdonas, Raymond. The Devil’s General. Oxford: Casemate Publishers, 2013, Carrell, Paul , Hitler Moves East 1941-1943. New York: Bantam Books, 1967, Encyclopedia Britannica, Silesia,, Langer William L. , editor, The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of World History. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1972, Lucas, James, Hitler’s Enforcers. London: Brockhampton Press, 1999, Mitcham, Samuel W. JR., Hitler’s Field Marshals and their Battles. Landham: Scarborough House, 1990, Novotny Alfred, The Good Soldier. Bedford: Aberjona Press, 2003, Perret, Bryan, Knights of the Black Cross. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986, Rebentisch, Ernst, The Combat History of the 23rd Panzer Division in World War II, Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2012, Rõll, Hans-Joachim. Generalleutnant der Reserve Hyacinth Graf Strachwitz von Gross-Zauche und Camminetz. Würtzburg; Flechsig, 2001, Der Spiegel, Hyazinth Graf Strachwitz, Spiegel Online,, Stokesbury James L. . A Short History of World War I. London: Robert Hall, 1981., Williamson, Gorden, Knight’s Cross with Diamonds Recipients. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2006, Winchester, Charles, Ostfront. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1998.


Excerpts from “The Roman Barbarian Wars, The Era of Roman Conquest”

Excerpts from “The Roman Barbarian Wars, The Era of Roman Conquest.”

Ludwig H. Dyck

Telamon, the Battle for Northern Italy;

“We can imagine how the Boii and Insubres ambassadors stood in the midst of the seated circle of the Gaesatae Kings, Concolitanus and Aneroestes, by whose sides sat their warrior champions and their druid advisors. With eloquent tongue, the ambassadors offered a large sum of gleaming gold, which was but a paltry amount compared to what could be looted from the rich and prosperous lands of the Romans. The Boii, Insubres and Gaesatae, proud allies, would honor the deeds of the Gauls who long ago crushed the legions at the River Allia and made themselves masters of Rome for seven months! The heroic tales roused the Gaesatae’s lust for war. “On no occasion has that district of Gaul sent out so large a force or one composed of men so distinguished or so warlike,” wrote Polybius (Polybius, The Histories, II. 27.)”

The Barbarians Before Rome (oil on canvas) by Luminais, Evariste Vital (1822-96); Musee des Beaux-Arts, Dunkirk, France; Giraudon; French

“Death March of the Legions,” The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest;

“Provisions of food were gathered, mainly millet, barley and livestock. Ordinarily meat was too precious to be eaten on a regular basis. Now, however, the warriors would need all the strength they could get. Those too old would stay behind, to look after the very young and the remaining farm animals. Aged grandparents bid emotional farewells to sons, grandsons and daughters-in-law, who they might never see again. They trusted in their gods to give them courage and good fortune. Priests took sacred emblems from their holy groves and carried them into battle. The Germanic warriors would fight side by side with their family members. Fathers, sons and brothers were comrades in arms, families were their squadrons and clans were their divisions. From thousands of tiny settlements, bands of warriors hungry for loot and vengeance gathered and followed in Arminius’ wake.”

Knackfuss low pix
‘The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest,’ H. Knackfuss (Courtesy of School Museum Zetel and of Museum and Park Kalkriese).

Caesar against the Belgae, “The Bravest of the Gauls;”

As soon as the Roman baggage train appeared over the hillside, the entire Belgae army broke out of the woods. The Nervii formed the left wing, the Atrebates the right and the Viromandui in the center. The barbarians poured down the hillside like a human avalanche, unstoppable in its fury. The Roman cavalry and light troops were completely overwhelmed and scattered, barely even impeding the enemy charge. So fast were the barbarians that Caesar wrote, “almost at the same moment they were seen at the woods, in the river, and then at close quarters!” (Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, II. 19). The three-foot deep river proved scarcely more of an obstacle than the Roman cavalry. In no time the barbarians gained the river’s farther side to continue with seemingly unbroken momentum up to the entrenching Romans.

“The barbarian ambush would have sealed the doom of almost any other army caught in the same situation. But this was not just any army; it was the Roman legion in its prime, under the generalship of one of the great captains of history.”

Gaius Julius Caesar in battle by Mark Churms

Viriathus, Hero of Hispania;

“Galba came to the first group and asked them to lay down their arms in a gesture of good faith. The naïve Lusitanians did as they were told. Women with babes in their arms, old couples supporting each other and young warriors who clenched their fists, watched in helpless apprehension, as Roman soldiers with spades moved around them. The Romans dug as only Romans could until a vast trench surrounded the Lusitani. Swords slid out of scabbards as the legionaries moved in. Children cried, frantic women screamed and clung to their men who cursed in anger. Roman soldiers pushed their way through the panicked mob to single out the able bodied men and cut them down like sheep. The others were “saved” for the slave markets. The slaughter was repeated with the other two Lusitani groups. Of the plunder, the greedy Galba kept most of it for himself and only gave a little to his soldiers, even though he was already a man of great wealth.”

Copyright L. H. Dyck

Viriathus, Lusitani Freedom Fighter

As featured in

Ancient History Encyclopedia

Viriathus, Lusitani Freedom Fighter

by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

Viriathus (Eduardo Barrón)

Leader of the Lusitani resistance against the Roman Republic, Viriathus became Portugal’s First National Hero

Viriathus & the Lusitani surrender to Rome

The Lusitani were one of the large Celt-Iberian tribal groups of Hispania (Spain), the Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula. The Lusitani lands roughly equated with those of today’s Portugal. In 206 BCE, after Rome had appropriated the Carthaginian domains of southern Spain, the native Iberians rose up in revolt. The ongoing conflicts eventually spread to involve the free Celt-Iberian tribes to the north. The Lusitani started fighting the Romans in 194 BCE, raiding into Hispania Ulterior, (further Spain) the nearest of the two Roman Spanish provinces. When in 179 BCE hostilities finally ceased, it was largely due to the respect the Lusitani had gained for the Roman governor Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (the Elder). It was around this time that Viriathus was born.

Viriathus spent his childhood tending sheep in the hills and wild lands. When he became a teenager Viriathus likely started to join in local raids. Like other young Celt-Iberian warriors, he sought to prove his valor in the banditry that was common among the tribes. As Viriathus grew to manhood he watched his tribe’s relations with Rome deteriorate. The governors that had come to take Gracchus’ place were men of greed, who oppressed the neighboring tribes. After Lusitani complaints to the Roman Senate failed to improve the situation, the Lusitani resumed hostilities with Hispania Ulterior in 154 BCE. Viriathus would have been in his twenties at the time. In 153 BCE, some of the Lusitani even crossed the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) and struck into Africa. Two years later, the Lusitani inflicted a defeat on Hispania Ulterior’s Governor, Servius Sulpicius Galba. Probably Viriathus took part in at least some of these campaigns, his charisma and leadership gaining him a band of followers.

Although the Lusitani remained unbowed, the years of war had taken their toll. Almost certainly, Viriathus had lost relatives and close friends. Exhausted from having their homes burnt, their people killed or enslaved, the Lusitani sent envoys to Galba. He told them that he understood their reasons for making war. “Poorness of the soil and penury force you to do these things. But I will give my poor friends good land, and settle them in a fertile country, in three divisions” (Appian, Roman History, VI. X. 59, 60). Viriathus had heard of the great Gracchus from his elders. Perhaps Galba too was a man of his word.

Governor Galba betrays the Lusitani

Viriathus joined the men, women and children who gathered in the villages of Lusitania. They set out with their belongings, their carts, their livestock and their weapons, to meet up with others until scores became hundreds and hundreds became thousands. The year was 150 BCE and the Lusitani were surrendering to Rome. There were fully 30,000 of them when the Roman soldiers told the chieftains that the Lusitani should separate themselves into three groups. Escorted by legionaries and auxiliaries, the groups were led out of sight of each other.

Iberian Falcata Sword
Iberian Falcata Sword

Galba visited the first group, asking them to lay down their weapons to show their peaceful intentions. The Lusitani did as requested only to watch in apprehension as Roman soldiers dug a trench around them. The legionaries then forced their way through panicking Lusitani families. The Romans seized Lusitani of fighting age and killed them on the spot. A life of slavery awaited the others. Both the other tribal groups were dealt with in the same fashion. In what must have been a mad scramble to escape the slaughter, only a few escaped. Galba kept almost all of the loot and gave only a small amount to his soldiers. Back in Rome, the Senate was outraged at Galba’s disdainful behavior but were unable to reprimand him on account of his great wealth.

Viriathus leads the Lusitani to Victory

Among the survivors of Galba’s massacre was Viriathus, who swore vengeance on Rome. Viriathus became a young chieftain and in 147 BCE joined a Lusitani army raiding into Roman pacified Turdetania. Legate Gaius Vetilius responded vigorously, however, trapping the Lusitani against a river. Downcast, the Lusitani sent envoys with olive branches to Vetilius. They repeated their pleas for more fertile lands to settle on.

Vetilius agreed to the Lusitani demands but in turn demanded the surrender of their weapons. Viriathus would have none of it, reminding the tribesmen of Galba’s treachery. His words stirred their hearts and spirits so that they called upon Viriathus to take command of their entire army. Assembling the Lusitani cavalry, Viriathus led them in feint charges against the Roman lines. The skirmishing confused the Roman commanders and allowed the Lusitani infantry to flee the field.

At night, Viriathus and the cavalry slipped away to join his infantry. Vetilius came in pursuit but the heavily armored legionaries were unable to catch up with the lightly armed Lusitani. Viriathus kept just out of reach, drawing the Romans up the Barbesula River valley until the Roman column was strung out along a narrow pass, with a slope covered in thickets on one side and a cliff on the other. Here Viriathus sprung his trap, wheeling his cavalry around and attacking from the front while tribesmen hidden in the thickets stormed down the slope. The Lusitani threw javelins then closed in wielding short swords and the deadly falcata, the curved sickle-like swords that widened toward the tip. The Romans managed to fight their way out but not before losing over half their number. Vetilius was among the 4000 casualties.

As Viriathus’ renown grew, more and more tribesmen came over to his side. Here was a leader who even the Romans could not beat. Viriathus always divided the loot fairly, even distributing his own share to his bravest warriors. In a tale of his wedding, Viriathus was unimpressed by the gold and silver of his Romanized father-in-law. He leaned on his spear and ate little, offering sacrifices in the Lusitani way, then lifting his bride onto his horse and riding away into the hills.

In 146 BCE, Viriathus raided into the fertile Carpetani lands. Retreating before larger Roman forces, he wheeled back to strike at the strung out Roman column and inflicted severe casualties. The Romans named this feint and counter-strike method of fighting, the concursare. The same year Viriathus defeated another pursuing Roman army around Mt. Veneris (“Venus” mountain), harassed Roman garrisons in central Spain and captured Segobriga. Viriathus displayed the Roman standards throughout the hillsides. The Roman army commander, Claudius Unimanus left an account of the ferocity of the fighting:

“In a narrow pass 300 Lusitani faced 1000 Romans; as a result of the action 70 of the former and 320 of the latter died. When the victorious Lusitani retired and dispersed confidently, one of them on foot became separated, and was surrounded by a detachment of pursuing cavalry. The lone warrior pierced the horse of one of the riders with his spear, and with a blow of his sword cut off the Roman’s head, producing such terror among the others that they prudently retired under his arrogant and contemptuous gaze” (Orosius, Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, 5.4).

Attrition wears down the Viriathus

Rome’s victories in the Fourth Macedonian War (149-148 BCE) and the Third Punic War (149-146 BCE), freed additional resources up for the Spanish theater. In 145 BCE consul Fabius Maximus Aemilianus, of the renowned Scipio family, arrived in Hispania Ulterior with two green legions and allies totaling 15,000 foot and 2000 horse. Fabius took his time training his troops and limited them to skirmishes. In 144 BCE he engaged Viriathus directly, coming off the better and burning two cities to the ground. When Fabius was replaced by Quintus Pompeius the next year, Viriathus regained his winning streak, ambushing Quintus near Venus Mountain.

In 142 BCE, the fortunes of the war turned again when Fabius’ brother, consul Fabius Maximus Servilianus brought with him 20,000 troops and routed Viriathus near Itucci. In their next confrontation, Viriathus slashed back in one of his typical counter-strikes and inflicted 3000 casualties. Nevertheless, worn down by attrition, Viriathus fell back from central Spain to Lusitania. After him came Servilianus, who laid siege to the town of Erisana. Viriathus came to the rescue, trapping the Romans in a defile but then offering peace terms.

Viriathus’ only demand from Rome was that the Lusitani borders be respected and that the Lusitani become amici populi Romani -“Friends of the Roman People.” Although Servilianus accepted and the Senate ratified the terms, Roman pride found it hard to forgive a guerrilla leader who had humbled Rome. The Romans provoked the Lusitani until war erupted once more in 140 BCE. Servilianus’ brother, consul Q. Servilius Caepio, who took over in Hispania Ulterior, chased Viriathus through Carpentania, Lusitania and through the Vettones lands. The passage of the Roman forces was marked by destruction. When Caepio was further reinforced by Popilius Laenas from Hispania Citerior, the Lusitani were ready to plead for peace. Laenas was ready to grant it, but only if Roman deserters and all weapons were handed over. The Romans punished the deserters in Hispanic fashion, by chopping their rights hands off. Reluctant to turn over his weapons, Viriathus chose three close friends, Audax, Ditalco and Minuros to further negotiate.

During the age of Viriathus most of Spain remained covered in woodlands  (Photo by Esetena – Own work, wikipedia-commons).

The Murder of Viriathus

Viriathus, who for years had outwitted his foes, failed to recognize the enemy among those closest to him. After returning from the Romans, his three “friends” came to Viriathus’ tent at night. Telling the guard they urgently needed to confer with Viriathus, two of them held the sleeping Viriathus down while the third pushed a knife into his back. When the murder was discovered at daylight Viriathus’ followers were overcome with sorrow and anger. The three conspirators slipped away to the Romans. Having been paid a sum in advance, they now wanted the remainder of their payment but were told that Rome did not pay traitors. Back at the Lusitani camp, Viriathus body was dressed in rich garments and then burnt on a funeral pyre. Sacrifices were offered and warriors ran and rode around the pyre.

Although a warrior named Tantalus tried to reverse Lusitani fortunes, without Viriathus large numbers of Lusitani surrendered to Laenas in 139 BCE. Fortunately, Laenas proved a man of his word, allotting farmlands to some and deporting others to new regions. Lusitania, nevertheless, remained free of Roman dominion until the reign of Emperor Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE), when the conquest of all of Hispania was completed.

The Death of the Rebel, Viriathus (d.139)
The Death of the Rebel, Viriathus (d.139), Madrazo y Garetta, Raimundo de (1841-1920) ,Prado, Madrid, Spain.


  • Appian, Appian (Harvard University Press, 1913).
  • Dio Cassius, Roman History, Volume 2 (Havard University Press, 1914)
  • Dyck, L.H., The Roman Barbarian Wars (Pen and Sword, 2016).
  • Polybius, The Histories (Oxford University Press, 2010).
  • Wilcox, P., BARBARIANS AGAINST ROME Rome’s Celtic, Germanic, Spanish and Gallic Enemies (Osprey Publishing, 2000).

Brian Boru: Ireland’s Mighty Warrior King

Military Heritage Magazine & Military History Network

Brian Boru: Ireland’s Mighty Warrior King

by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

For more than six decades, Brian Boru was at the forefront of Ireland’s nearly endless wars. Clontarf, his ultimate victory, came at a heavy price.

In 941 AD, in the fortress of Kincora overlooking the River Shannon just south of Lake Derg, Queen Be Bhionn gave birth to a son, Brian Mac Cennétig. Brian’s father, Cennétig mac Lorcain, was a petty king of the Dal Cais clan of the district of Thomond, north of Munster. To the south of Kincora, another of King Cennétig’s fortresses, Béal Boruma, guarded a river ford. There the Dalcassians paid cattle tribute to the powerful Munster clan, the Eoganacht. It was from the name of the ford that the newborn received his surname Boru (tributes), a fitting moniker for one destined to receive the tribute of all Ireland.

The Brains and Brawn of Brian Boru

As a child, Brian sat at the hearth in his father’s great hall, listening to tales of ancient Irish heroes. Thus inspired, Brian began to practice with the throwing spear as soon as he was old enough to walk. It would take more than martial skills, however, for him to become a great lord. Young Brian was sent to the monks of Inisfallen, in the lake lands of Killarney, for instruction in religious matters, science, and law.

Ireland at that time was roughly divided into the regions of Ulster in the north, Connacht in the west, Meath in the middle, Leister in the east, and Munster in the south. Each region was dominated by a king and a major clan, but there were also numerous sub-kings and minor clans. Alliances were quickly made and unmade as the kings and clans constantly fought each other. Into this political cauldron were thrown the country’s longtime foreign occupiers, the Danes and Norwegians. First as Viking raiders, then as merchants and traders, the Norsemen had established coastal bases at Waterford, Wexford, Cork, Limerick, and above all at Dublin, the future capital of Ireland.

Viking settlements in 10th century Ireland (By Yorkshirian, wikimedia-commons)

When Brian was 11, the Eoganacht allied themselves with the Danes to defeat the Dalcassians. The war claimed the lives of Brian’s father and mother. Four years later, the Danes not only attacked the Dalcassians again, but also turned on the Eoganacht. In Munster, the Eoganacht surrendered territory after territory. In Thomond, by contrast, the Dalcassians led by their new king, Brian’s brother Mathghamhain, refused to submit. The Danes drove the Dal Cais resistance farther and farther into the ancient forests and barren limestone uplands of the Clare wilderness. Brian, now 17, fought at his older brother’s side. It was during these troublesome times that Brian married the first of several wives, Mor, who bore him three sons.

Brian the Warrior

Brian Boru: Ireland’s Mighty Warrior King
The Irish Scandinavians continued to live in Ireland after their defeat at Clontarf. Today, Viking artifacts and footpaths are being excavated in Dublin.

Viking ships pillaged up and down the Shannon’s shores at will, their Norse dragon ships pushing up waterways untried by the Irish. The ships’ shallow drafts, less than four feet, allowed the raiders to jump into the water and dash unexpectedly upon riverside villages. Defeat for the Dalcassians seemed inevitable until 962, when Osraighe, a tributary kingdom of Leinster, came to the rescue by inflicting a crushing defeat on the Norsemen. With his own forces worn out, Mathghamhain welcomed the opportunity to negotiate a temporary truce with the Vikings.

Brian, however, could not forget his slain parents and opposed any sign of weakness. With only a hundred followers, he carried on the war. From hidden mountain caves and woodland strongholds, Brian and his guerrilla fighters ventured forth, weapons ready, light bags of provisions slung around their necks. At night they sneaked up on Norse outposts along the Shannon’s banks. At Brian’s signal, javelins swooshed without warning into the Norse guards. Brian and his men sprang forth, wielding their fearsome battle-axes and cleaving off whole limbs at one blow. Others drew their short swords for close-in combat, often using one in each hand. The tall Norsemen fought back fiercely, their powerful blades swinging in great arcs to slice through the hide and tanned-leather armor of the Dalcassians.

Brian’s ambushes so unnerved the Danes that there were rumors of a large Dalcassian army massing in the hills. Brian and his hungry little band paid a heavy price for their successes, finding themselves hunted incessantly through the chilling, wet winter. Brian’s followers were reduced to only 15 men, but still he did not give up. Mathghamhain, meanwhile, rebuilt his power and subdued the Eoganacht. Eventually, Brian’s unbroken spirit won Mathghamhain back to his side. In 964, the two brothers took the fight to the Danes in Limerick.

There followed four years of war, culminating in the decisive Battle of Solchoid. The Irish held the higher ground and defended from behind the cover of low willow trees and shrubs. The Norsemen, under their leader Ivar, began their assault at sunrise, but the Irish lines refused to break. At midday, the Irish stormed down to slaughter their exhausted foes. Brian and Mathghamhain marched on Limerick in the dark. The city capitulated without resistance, and the Dalcassians butchered and burned without mercy. The spoils were plentiful, but Ivar escaped to the island of Inis Cathaigh.

Avenging the Death of his Brother

Solchoid paved the way for Mathghamhain’s inauguration as king of Munster in 970. The deposed Eoganacht smoldered with resentment and bided their time. Six years later, the Eoganacht king of Desmond, Maolmhuadh, ambushed Mathghamhain on a lonely mountain road and skewered his sword through Mathghamhain’s heart. When Brian heard of his brother’s death, he swore that Mathghamahain’s murderers “shall forfeit life for this deed, or I shall perish by a violent death.”1 First to feel Brian’s wrath was Ivar, whom Brian suspected had taken a hand in the murder. Ignoring the traditional sanctuary of St. Seanan on Inis Cathaigh, Brian killed Ivar in personal combat, then slaughtered two of his sons and looted his fortress and the surrounding islands. Brian killed two more of Maolmhuadh’s allies, the treacherous Donnabhan of Fhidhghinte and Harald, Ivar’s third son and the reigning king of Limerick. Limerick was sacked again amid much killing and looting. Maolmhuadh’s end came with his defeat at the 978 Battle of Bealach Leacht, after which he was tracked down and killed by Brian’s eldest son, Murchadh.

Brian Boru: Ireland’s Mighty Warrior King
Viking warrior Brodar catches a grieving Brian Boru in his tent after the Battle of Clontarf. Brodar killed both Brian and the hapless page boy looking on behind him.

King of Munster

Brian rode to the seat of the kings of Munster at Cashel. Under the royal tree of Maigh Adhair, he took the white wand—the royal symbol of justice—in his hand, and the royal diadem was placed on his head. In an oath of obedience, the assembled nobles of Munster placed their hands between those of Brian. The beginning of his reign was filled with battles, plundering, ravaging, and general unquiet. To face such troublesome times, Brian consolidated his position among the defeated Eoganacht, making allies of his former foes by marrying his daughter to Cian, son of the late Maolmhuadh. The marriage was a wise diplomatic move on Brian’s part, for Cian proved to be an unwavering ally.

As king of Munster, Brian faced new and more dangerous rivals. Munster and the Danes of Limerick may have been subjugated, but to the north there were more Norse strongholds and other powerful Irish kings. In 979 Brian recorded victories over the Danes of Waterford and King Ua Faolain of the neighboring Decies clan. Brian then instigated war with Leinster by demanding an 800-year-old tribute that Leinster owed the king of Munster. When Leinster refused to swear allegiance to Munster or to pay the required 300 gold-handled swords, cows with brass yokes, horses, and cloaks, Brian invaded.

War with Maol-Seachlainn

Meanwhile, the new high king of Ireland, 32-year-old Maol-Seachlainn mac Domnall II, was determined to quash anyone who questioned his authority. In 983, before he defeated the rebellious forces of Leinster and Dublin, Maol-Seachlainn veered into Munster. To warn Brian to stay put in Munster, Maol-Seachlainn uprooted Maigh Adhair. Instead, Brian riposted with a raid into Maol-Seachlainn’s realm of Meath. For the next 15 years, Brian and Maol-Seachlainn were at odds with each other. Evenly matched, they at first avoided fixed battle, instead choosing to plunder each other’s lands and prey on neighboring Irish kingdoms and Viking settlements. In 988 Brian showed himself a true opportunist when he enlisted the help of his erstwhile enemies, the Vikings of Waterford, to inflict a devastating defeat upon the king of Connacht at Lough Ree. To establish ties with the defeated King Cathal, Brian took Cathal’s daughter Dubhchobhlaigh as his wife. In 992 and again in 994, Brian’s forces met Maol-Seachlainn’s army in battle, but Brian was routed each time.

In 998, Brian and Maol-Seachlainn concluded a peace treaty, and the following year they faced the alliance of King Sigtrygg ‘Silkbeard’ Olafson of Dublin and King Maol Mórdha of Leinster. The fact that Maol Mórdha was also Sigtrygg’s uncle, while Sigtrygg himself was Maol-Seachlainn’s former stepson, showed just how closely tied the warring factions were. Sigtrygg hoped to engage Maol-Seachlainn and Brian in the open plains of Kildare, where his superior cavalry would give him the advantage, but he underestimated the speed of his foes. Brian and Maol-Seachlainn force-marched their men to intercept the Dublin-Leister army in the hills of Gleann Mama. Holding the higher ground, Brian and Maol-Seachlainn emerged victorious. Brian, not Maol-Seachlainn, claimed the battle honors, and Dublin subsequently submitted to Brian. For a week the city was sacked, yielding much gold, silver hangings, and other precious loot.

Murchadh dragged Maol Mórdha from hiding in a yew tree. Maol Mórdha’s life was spared and he was allowed to remain king of Leinster. Sigtrygg fared even better. Not only did Brian allow him to remain king of Dublin, but Brian gave him his daughter in marriage. Brian himself married the alluring Gormfhlaith, Sigtrygg’s mother and the ex-wife of Maol-Seachlainn. Gormfhlaith became Brian’s fourth wife (he also had 30 concubines). Brian hoped that his generous treatment of the defeated king and his newly forged marriage bonds would ensure Sigtrygg’s loyalty in the future.

His victory at Gleann Mama showed the rest of Ireland that Brian’s star was on the rise while that of Maol-Seachlainn was on the wane. Brian immediately turned on Maol-Seachlainn and led a great host of chiefs and forces toward Tara, a stronghold that dated back to Neolithic times and was the traditional parliament of the high kings until the 6th century. Tara remained an easily defended military position, overlooking the plains of Meath. Sent ahead of his main army, Brian’s Norse cavalry prematurely clashed with Maol-Seachlainn’s army and was nearly wiped out. Brian ignobly withdrew. King Cathal of Connacht consequently rebelled against Brian, but a year later, in 1002, Brian defeated him once again. Brian struck for Tara and demanded the high throne. By now he had intimidated all the other Irish kings. None came to fight beside Maol-Seachlainn, not even Maol-Seachlainn’s own kinsmen, the northern Ui Neill clan of Ulster. Maol-Seachlainn had little choice but to yield. At Cashel, Brian took up the diadem of high king and emperor of the Gaels. Three quarters of Ireland was now under his control.

Maol Mórdha Rises Against Brian

To cow any potential challengers, Brian built fortresses, strengthened the fortifications of Cashel, took hostages, and sent Murchadh on punitive raids. Although Cashel was his capital, Brian preferred to rule from his boyhood home, Kincora. He was fortunate that his sons proved loyal and did not turn on each other—or on him. In the subjugated Norse towns, trade with Europe flourished in slaves, wine, walrus tusks, spices, furs, and silks. From Brian’s vassal kingdoms, a ceaseless tribute of cows, hogs, cloaks, iron, and wine flowed into Munster. Decades of raids by Vikings, by Irish lords, and even by Irish abbots had caused much damage to the land. Brian used his growing wealth to improve roads, build bridges, restore old churches and monasteries, and build new ones alongside schools. For nearly a decade, minor feuds aside, Ireland enjoyed untypical peace and a cultural renaissance.

Trouble brewed when Brian became estranged from Gormfhlaith, who left Kincora to return to Dublin. Consumed by hatred for Brian, she egged on her son, Sigtrygg, and King Maol Mórdha to rise against Brian. Brian responded with a severe new tribute that sent Leinster into near-starvation and summoned Maol Mórdha to Kincora for a show of obedience. Coaxed into an argument by Murchadh, Maol Mórdha stormed out of the castle before consulting with Brian. A messenger sent after him by Brian was later found with his skull smashed in.

Whether the threat was real or imagined, Maol Mórdha reforged his alliance with Sigtrygg. Maol-Seachlainn, however, stayed loyal to Brian. He even sent his army against Dublin, but suffered a crippling defeat. In 1013, Brian and Murchadh arrived to plunder Osraighe and southern Leinster before heading on to Dublin. Early in September, Sigtrygg watched as Brian and Murchadh’s army set up camp outside the city’s landward walls. This time, however, Sigtrygg wisely did not sally forth. The fortifications of the Viking strongholds were more formidable than those of the Irish forts and, when resolutely defended, were beyond Brian’s or any other Irish king’s power to overcome. After more than three months of blockade, Brian’s forces stirred with mutiny because supplies were running low and the foul winter weather was on the way. Sigtrygg jeered as Brian’s humbled army broke camp, but he knew that Brian would return. In search of allies, Sigtrygg set off to the hall of Sigurd Hlodvirsson the Stout, the Norse earl of the Orkneys. In return for bringing a few hundred half-heathen, half-Christian men as reinforcements, Sigurd demanded Gormfhlaith’s hand in marriage and an Irish kingdom to rule. Gormfhlaith was pleased with her son, but counseled Sigtrygg to gather an even greater force. He found more help in the pirates of the pagan Dane, Brodar of the Isle of Man. The cunning Sigtrygg promised Brodar the same reward he had promised Sigurd. Brodar and Sigtrygg reckoned that, at the comparatively advanced age of 54, Sigurd could well die in battle.

Preparing for Battle

In the coming conflict, Brian depended on his loyal Munster warriors, as well as the Danish stewards of Waterford and Limerick. Only a few reinforcements strode forth from Connacht, and none came from Ulster. Fortunately for Brian, Maol-Seachlainn promised to help, and a new ally was found in Brian’s son-in-law, King Malcolm II of Scotland, who sent a small force commanded by Domhnall, the great steward of Mar. It was also heartening to hear that southern Leinster had refused to aid Sigtrygg and Maol Mórdha. With his 5,000 warriors, Brian still held numerical superiority over Maol Mórdha and Sigtrygg, who barely commanded more than 3,000 Vikings and Irishmen between them. Nevertheless, Brian had to act quickly to wipe out Dublin’s and Leinster’s newfound independence before the neutral Irish kings could turn against him.

Brian’s youngest son, Donnach, took a few hundred men to keep an eye on southern Leinster. Brian set up his own camp north of Dublin on a hillock in the Wood of Tomar. From there he could see the city to the south, its harbor thick with Norse longboats, and between Brian’s camp and the city, the sprawling tents and campfires of his enemies. Maol Mórdha, Sigurd, Brodar, and Dubhgall, Sigtrygg’s brother, had set up their camps near the little fishing weir of Clontarf. Sigtrygg remained in Dublin with a reserve force.

On Thursday, April 22, 1014, Brian sat down to take council with his lords. Tempers flared, and as a result Maol-Seachlainn withdrew his forces to Meath. The hot-headed Murchad might well have been to blame. Brian now no longer held the numerical advantage. He immediately sent word for Donnach to hurry back, but there was little chance his son would arrive in time. Brian’s hair was now silver, and he was 73 years old. He longed for days long gone, when the vigor of youth powered his sword arm. Too old to personally lead his warriors in battle, Brian would have to depend on Murchadh, who was unquestionably brave but also reckless. That night, Brian’s mind was haunted by worries. According to legend, a banshee visited Brian and warned him that he would fall in battle, and that “this plain shall be red tomorrow with your proud blood.”2 On the Viking side, Brodar, who was widely believed to be a sorcerer, prophesied that should they fight on Good Friday, Brian would die, but his army would be victorious. Whatever the truth behind such tales, Maol Mórdha, Sigtrygg, Sigurd, and Brodar all knew that they had to strike before Donnach returned.

Praying for Victory

Brian had lost none of his regal bearing as he reviewed his army at dawn of Good Friday. He looked to his brave Dalcassians, who Murchadh would use to spearhead the attack. Ready to fight beside Murchadh was his 15-year-old son, the crown prince Tordhelbach, and Murchadh’s brothers, Conchobhar and Flann. Behind them fluttered the banner of Brian’s nephew, Conaing, king of Desmond. Also present that day were the Eoganacht lords Cian and Domhnall, Domhnall, the great steward of Mar, King Tadhg of Connacht, and an array of lesser kings and princes. On his wings, Brian stationed his 10 Danish stewards and their troops.

Brian Boru: Ireland’s Mighty Warrior King
Murchadh, the eldest son of Brian Boru, races to capture the Danish standard. Like his father, Murchadh was a fearsome warrior. He died in hand-to-hand combat with Danish champion Amrud at Clontarf.

Brian’s army followed Murchadh’s blue banner to meet the oncoming Dublin-Leinster coalition at Clontarf. The latter advanced with Sigurd and Brodar’s Vikings in the lead, followed by the Danes from Dublin and, behind them, Maol Mórdha and his Leinster men. Murchadh recklessly initiated the attack by bolting ahead of the main army. Alarmed, Brian called for him to fall back into line. Murchadh replied that he would not retreat one step backward. Inspired by Murchadh’s valor, the rest of Brian’s army surged forward. Meanwhile, Brian knelt down before his pavilion to pray for victory. Below him the two armies collided in a deafening crescendo of clashing arms and battle cries. From behind their large round shields, protected by leather and ring-mail byrnies, the Danes slashed and thrust their axes, spears, and swords. Their Irish foes lacked armor but not spirit, and fought back with unbridled fury. There were few lulls in the fighting.

Engulfed in a semicircle, the Dublin and Leinster men slowly gave way to Brian’s battle-crazed Irish and Danish troops. Although their army fled around them, Sigurd and his guard stood like an unbroken bastion, the legend-shrouded Raven banner of the Orkneys fluttering at Sigurd’s side. One Viking warrior after another took up the banner, only to be cut down again by Murchadh’s relentless assault. The last hands to grasp the fateful Raven banner were those of its lord. Sigurd wrapped the banner around himself before he was decapitated by Murchadh with two powerful blows to the neck. Scarcely had Murchadh caught his breath from slaying Sigurd than there appeared the fierce Norse champion, Amrud, who had carved a bloody path through the Dalcassians. Murchadh grappled Amrud to the ground and tore away his sword. Murchadh leaned the pommel of the sword against his own breast and drove it three times into Amrud, piercing the earth beneath him. Gurgling blood, Amrud plunged his dagger blade into Murchadh, killing him simultaneously.

The  Battle of Clontarf by Hugh Frazer , Oil, 1826

Panicked Norsemen and Leinstermen threw themselves into the ocean, hoping to reach their longboats. Heedless of their own safety and hungry for blood, their pursuers followed them into the waves. The high tide carried both to their doom. His hands locked upon the hair of a Dane, Murchadh’s son Tordhelbach was washed upon the Weir of Clontarf. A stake shot through his body, and he drowned. The number of men killed on both sides was great. Conchobhar and Flann, King Tadhag of Connacht and Domhnall of the Eoganacht were among the 30 Irish chiefs and kings who died that day. Except for Sigtrygg and Brodar, all the Norse-Leinster leaders were slain among their annihilated army. Maol Mórdha and Conaing, king of Desmond, fell by each other’s hand.

From Dublin’s ramparts, the Danish women anxiously watched the battle. Brian’s proud daughter stood there too, and at sight of the Norsemen rout she mocked her husband Sigtrygg. “It appears that the foreigners have gained their their natural inheritance—the sea,”3 she scoffed. In anger, Sigtrygg hit her in the face, knocking out one of her teeth. Sigtrygg rode forth too late to rally his men and was lucky to flee back into Dublin alive.

“Now Let Man Tell Man That Brodar Felled Brian”

Brian Boru: Ireland’s Mighty Warrior King
An elderly Brian still shows the warrior fire in this 19th-century painting

On the battlefield Brodar stood panting, the muscles of his tall and powerful frame exhausted and his long black locks thick with sweat. The cuts and dents in his splendid coat of mail and crimson axe bore silent witness to the havoc he had inflicted on the Irish. Only two of Brodar’s men remained at his side, and on a whim he decided to lead them not to the sea but northward instead. Brodar hoped to circumvent the battle and reach his ship in safety that night. His route led him to the Wood of Tomar and Brian Boru’s camp. Brian, grieving over his sons’ fallen standards, had given up all hope and was dictating his will to his only companion, a page boy. Finding Brian, Brodar could scarcely believe his luck. Below them the Norse and Leinster pavilions lit up the darkening sky in flame. Brodar caught his breath—now was his chance for revenge. As Brodar fell upon him, Brian barely managed to draw his sword and slash its blade across Brodar’s leg. Ignoring the wound, Brodar smashed his axe into Brian’s skull. With a spurt of blood, Brian fell dead, and Brodar cried out, “Now let man tell man that Brodar felled Brian.”4 A second blow of his axe struck down the hapless page boy. Brodar did not survive Brian’s assassination for long. Found hiding in the wood by Brian’s men, his belly was cut open and he was wrapped around the trunk of a tree by his entrails.

When Donnach arrived from southern Leinster on Easter Sunday, only Cian of the Eoganacht remained alive to tell him of his father’s death and those of his older brothers. Brian was buried in a marble coffin at Ireland’s chief church, St. Patrick’s at Armagh, and for 12 days masses were held for Brian and Murchadh throughout the country. The Battle of Clontarf was immortalized as a heroic feat of Irish arms and the doom of the Vikings in Ireland. In reality, although Clontarf ended any chance of Norse dominance over Ireland, neither the Norse lords nor their trade disappeared from Ireland after the battle. In Dublin, Sigtrygg managed to stay in power until his death in 1042.

Clontarf did, however, spell the end to the ascendancy of the Dalcassians. Without the leadership of Brian and Murchadh, the weakened Dalcassians were unable to maintain their hold on Ireland. Maol-Seachlainn became high king again but was too old and weak to build on Brian’s final success. For the next 150 years the Irish reverted to their old habit of infighting. When the Normans invaded in the 1160 AD, there was no second Brian to rally the tribes. Ireland fell to the invaders, and Scandinavian influence too dwindled away. Brian’s death ended his dream of a united Ireland, but the memory of Brian Boru, Ireland’s mightiest warrior-king, remains unforgotten and unforgettable.

Military Heritage Dec 2006
“Brian Boru, Ireland’s Mighty Warrior King” by L. H. Dyck was first published in Military Heritage Dec 2006 and republished on Military History Network on Jan 19, 2016.



1. The Four Masters, edited by John O’Donovan, Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland (Dublin: Hoges, Smith and Co. 1856), p. 703.

2. Newman, Roger Chatterton, Brian Boru King of Ireland (Anvil Books: Dublin. 1983), p. 168, 169.

3. Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh CII.

4. Njal’s Saga 156. Brian’s Battle.


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