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The Battle of Kursk: Showdown at Prokhorovka and Oboian

WWII History Magazine and Warfare History Network

The Battle of Kursk: Showdown at Prokhorovka and Oboian

by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

With the German Sixth Army destroyed at Stalingrad, the Soviet juggernaut lunged west and southwest across the River Donets. The Soviets seemed unstoppable, recapturing the major city of Kharkov from the Germans on February 14, 1943. However, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was only waiting for the Soviets to overextend themselves.

Once the Soviet armor ran dry of fuel and low on ammunition, Manstein unleashed Army Group South’s riposte. Fresh panzer formations sliced into the startled Soviet flanks, ripping apart two Soviet Fronts (Army Groups). Manstein’s brilliant counteroffensive restored the southern front and culminated in an SS frontal assault and a triumphant recapture of Kharkov.

Meanwhile, to the north of the Donets campaign, the Soviet winter offensive was held at bay before Orel by Field Marshal Günther von Kluge’s Army Group Center. Operations everywhere then bogged down to a standstill as the Russian spring thawed the frozen earth and turned it to mud. The thick “rasputitsa” clung to steel tank tracks, to truck tires, to the hoofs of tired horses, and to the boots of exhausted soldiers.

The front was left with a gargantuan Soviet salient, 150 miles long and 100 miles wide, bulging around the town of Kursk between the two German army groups. The Kursk salient was consequently the target of the last, great German summer offensive, ending with the legendary tank battles in the environs of Oboian and Prokhorovka.

With the third summer of the German-Soviet war approaching, the Red Army war machine had grown more powerful while that of the Germans proportionally declined. Despite von Manstein’s recent victory at Kharkov, only the most fanatical senior German commanders, along with Hitler, believed that the Soviet Union could be decisively defeated. A stalemate, however, was still in the cards, but only if the Germans managed to retain the initiative. To do so, Col. Gen. Kurt Zeitzler, chief of Army general staff, proposed eliminating the Kursk salient.

In what came to be known as Operation Citadel, the Ninth Army of von Kluge’s Army Group Center would strike for Kursk from the north while his Second Army defended the western face of the salient. At the same time, von Manstein’s Army Group South would attack toward Kursk from the south with Colonel General Herman Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army and General Werner Kempf’s Army Detachment. Once the two German army groups met, the Soviet armies in the salient would be encircled and consequently destroyed. The Eastern Front would be straightened out, allowing German troops to be transferred to the West along with thousands of Soviet prisoners to toil in the Reich’s factories and on its farms. Such were the rewards of victory, and to achieve it Zeitzler counted on the new, vaunted Panther tanks and the Ferdinand or “Elephant” tank destroyer.

Germans attempted to reduce the Soviet salient around the village of Kursk, resulting in one of the greatest tank battles in the history of modern warfare. The Germans attacked from north and south, but were kept at bay after fierce fighting.-Warfare History Network

Hitler presented Zeitzler’s plan to his senior Army commander on May 3-4. Von Manstein argued that Citadel might have worked in April, when Hitler first signed the operational order, but now its “success was doubtful.”1 Field Marshal Walter Model, commander of the Ninth Army, cautioned that the plan was painfully obvious and that the Soviets were already preparing deep and strong defensive positions.

Von Kluge, who liked to curry favor with Hitler but was known as a fence sitter, supported Citadel but argued against any further delay, so if it failed he could not be blamed. Col. Gen. Heinz Guderian, the inspector general of armored troops, called the idea “pointless,”2 certain to result in heavy tank casualties. Furthermore, he made it clear that the Panthers and the Elephants were in no way ready for combat.

When Wilhem Keitel, Hitler’s chief of the armed forces high command, later argued for the attack on political reasons, Guderian spat back, “How many people do you think even know where Kursk is?”3 Hitler admitted the idea made his “stomach turn over,”4 but eventually not only decided in favor of Citadel but delayed it for two months until the new tanks were ready.

Historian Charles Winchester has aptly noted, “The idea that an offensive involving millions of men fighting across a battlefield half the size of England could be determined by a few hundred new tanks shows touching faith in technology.”5

Hitler’s delays played right into Soviet hands. Stalin heeded the advice of Marshal Georgi K. Zhukov, deputy commander of the Red Army, and Marshal Alesksandr M. Vasilevsky, chief of the Army general staff, to postpone a Soviet offensive until the Germans bled themselves dry on the Kursk defenses. And those defenses were awe inspiring. Half a million railcars rolled into the Kursk salient, pouring in division after division. Whole towns in the forward areas were evacuated. Three hundred thousand civilians, mostly women and old men, helped dig trenches and build fortifications. The southern shoulder of the salient alone boasted 2,600 miles of trenches and mine densities of 5,000 per mile of front, laid out to channel the panzers into the crossfire of antitank strongholds.

Soviet Marshal Georgi Zhukov strides to meet with subordinates. To his right, Aleksander Vasilevsky, chief of the Soviet general staff

The 48th Panzer Corps Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Friedrich W. von Mellenthin, poignantly summoned up the German predicament: “The Russians were aware of what was coming and had converted the Kursk front into another Verdun. The German Army threw away all its advantages of mobile tactics, and met the Russians on a ground of their own choosing. Instead of seeking to create conditions in which maneuver would be possible … the German Supreme Command could think of nothing better than to fling our magnificent panzer divisions against Kursk, which had become the strongest fortress in the world.”6 If this was not adversity enough, the Soviets had twice as many men, two and a half times as many guns and mortars, 900 more planes, and 750 more tanks than the Germans.

Just before the battle, an SS trooper in the coal black darkness outside of a command bunker thought to himself, “The mud might slow us down but it cannot stop us. Nothing will.”7 Alfred Novotny, a fusilier of the elite Grossdeutschland Panzergrenadier Division, was of the same mind: “We were totally convinced as soldiers that Kursk would turn the war around again, in favor of Germany. We, the Fusiliers and Grenadiers, would do it!”8 The high morale was due in part to the fact that the soldiers were unaware of what they were facing. The troops were “prepared to endure any losses and carry out every task given to them,” but “the Russians are masters at the art of camouflage. Inevitably their strength was considerably underestimated,”9 reflected Mellenthin.

Over 2 million men, 35,000 guns, 6,250 tanks and assault guns, and 4,900 aircraft were flung at each other by two merciless totalitarian regimes, each bent on the utter annihilation of its foe. The German attack in the south opened at 3 pm on July 4, 1943, followed 12 hours later by the attack in the north. Forewarned of the exact time of Model’s attack by intelligence operatives, Soviet commanders ordered their artillery to bombard Model’s front lines before his own artillery had a chance to open up. The Germans answered back with air strikes and with a short but intense bombardment.

Using the Tiger as an armored shield, German troopers observe the devastating impact of its 88 mm gun.

Tiger tanks, Elephant tank destroyers, and Brummbär self-propelled artillery battalions of the Ninth Army smashed gaps into the Soviet defenses and chewed up counterattacks by the Soviet Central Front. Through the gaps poured the panzer and infantry divisions, only to find another of eight skillfully defended defensive belts.

Not only were the Soviet defenses far thicker than anticipated, but Hitler’s beloved 89 Elephants, all fighting with Army Group Center, did not live up to expectations. Although their powerful, long L/71 88mm guns proved deadly to Soviet armor, the 67-ton Elephants were underpowered and lacked a machine gun for protection against enemy infantry. When attacked by Soviet close-combat infantry anti-tank units, some Elephant crews tried to fend off the Soviets by firing their MG-42 machine guns through the main barrel.

Another nasty surprise was the Central Front’s 12 new SU-152s. The front’s 152mm assault gun unit knocked out seven Elephants and 12 Tigers of Model’s attacking units, earning it the nickname Zveroboi (animal hunter). After a week of round-the-clock fighting, Model’s exhausted Ninth Army was nowhere near breaking into the open, having only penetrated nine miles.

SU-152 Zveroboi (animal hunter) waiting in ambush for German Tigers and Elephants

Soviet casualties were heavy, but they did not prevent Zhukov from launching an offensive in the Orel sector on Model’s northern flank on July 11. From then on, Model was hard pressed just to contain a Soviet breakthrough. Zhukov, who had failed to destroy Army Group Center in two previous winter offensives, remained fixated on its destruction. He should have paid more attention to the southern flank of the salient, where Von Manstein’s thrust made dangerous gains.

Alfred Novotny has never forgotten the 4th Panzer Army’s opening artillery barrage and the foul weather that accompanied it: “The first hours of the Kursk offensive still cause flashbacks 50-odd years later. Sometimes I think I can still hear the incredible loud noise of the German weapons … flak, artillery, mortars, Stukas, and Nebelwerfers. I cannot forget the endless, terrible rain, rain, and more rain. We were totally drenched, heavily laden down with equipment, knee deep in mud all around us.”10

The Soviet defenses facing Novotny and his comrades were as formidable as they were in the north, but the defending Soviet armies had more front line to cover and, unlike Model, Von Manstein used massed armor formations from the onset. A bombardment that used more shells than the French and Polish campaigns combined opened the way for Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army, the most powerful concentration of German armor under a single command during World War II.

The 4th Panzer Army blasted its way through the defenses of the Soviet 1st Tank Army and 6th Guards Army. The latter’s Guards distinction and the superior equipment that came along with it were indicative of its elite, veteran status. There were many Guards divisions at Kursk, and most of them had earned their distinction at Stalingrad.

Fighting with the 48th Panzer Corps on 4th Panzer Army’s left wing, the 200 Panthers at Kursk turned out to be a disappointment just like the Elephants to the north. Although the Panther eventually turned out to be arguably the best tank design of the war, at Kursk it suffered from mechanical problems and inadequately trained crews. By the second day of the battle, the Panthers, armed with high-velocity 75mm guns, were reduced to 50 in number. After five days, there were only 10 left.

The bulk of the fighting was left to the old workhorses of the German Army, the Panzer Mark IIIs and Mark IVGs with their new anti-tank rifle side skirts, the assault guns, and a relative few of the feared heavy Tigers, with their 88mm guns, to the defeat the Soviet armor. With their help, the battle-hardened veterans of General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s 48th Panzer Corps fought their way through swamps and streams and overcame mine-infested belts of trenches. Strongholds of camouflaged antitank rifle infantry, sappers with explosives, dug in heavy antitank guns, Soviet T-34 medium tanks, and tank destroyers awaited the German armor.

“The Mark V Panther medium tank was the German response to the outstanding performance of the Red Army’s T-34. The Panther sported sloped hull armor and a 75mm high velocity cannon”-Warfare History Network

Not only that, but the land sloped upward toward Kursk, giving the Soviets a clear view. Even so, Grossdeutschland managed to reach the outskirts of the villages of Kruglik and Nowosselowka by July 9. On the left wing of the 48th Panzer Corps, however, General Mikhail E. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army held up the 3rd Panzer Division in the woods north of Beresowka. To capitalize on this limited success, General Nikolay F. Vatutin, commander of the Voronezh Front, transferred two tank corps and a rifle division from his reserve to Katukov.

With its left flank dangerously exposed, Grossdeutschland abandoned its northward drive and swung to the southwest on July 10, to trap and destroy the enemy between Grossdeutschland and the 3rd Panzer Division. The diary of a Grossdeutschland soldier reads, “Squadron after squadron of Stukas come over to drop their deadly eggs on the Russian armor. Dazzling white flames indicate that another enemy tank has brewed up.”11

A Major Franz of the Grossdeutschland assault gun battalion sped toward the village of Kruglik when “at 300 meters from the village … I suddenly saw fiery red arrows coming toward us from the outskirts. There were explosions directly in front of the mass of advancing assault guns … we were under fire from a Stalin Organ.”12

General Andrei L. Getman remembered, “Many of our soldiers and commanders fell heroically in the five days of ferocious battle. Nevertheless, the corps continued to resist the enemy. Meeting organized fire resistance he ceased his attacks by nightfall.”13

That evening, the 3rd Panzer Division had joined the chaotic fighting among the groves and ravines that nearly eliminated the 6th Tank Corps. On July 11, the remnants of the 6th Tank Corps and the mauled 90th Guards Rifle Division pulled back to the west. The 3rd Panzer Division filled Grossdeutschland’s forward positions, allowing the latter to prepare for a renewed push to the north. It was not to be. During the night of the 11th, reinforced Soviet counterattacks flung the 3rd Panzer Division out of its new positions.

While Grossdeutschland dealt with the problems on its left flank, Knobelsdorff ordered the 11th Panzer Division to strike north along the road to Oboian and to the River Ps’ol. Its vanguard stood on the highest point on the way to Oboian. A soldier remembered, “One could see far into the valley of the Ps’ol River, the last natural barrier before Kursk. With field glasses the towers of Oboian could be made out in the fine haze. Oboian was the objective. It seemed within an arm’s reach. Barely 12 miles away.”14

Although bloodily slashed by the 11th Panzer Division, the Soviet defenders refused to give way. Not only that, but Vatutin gathered his forces for a massive counterstroke to “encircle and destroy the main German grouping penetrating to Oboian and Prokhorovka.”15 Victory for either side still hung in the balance, for, on the right wing of the 4th Panzer Army, the 2nd SS Panzer Corps was simultaneously on the verge of a decisive breakthrough.

The Battle of Kursk by Nicolas Trudgian

SS General Paul “Papa” Hausser’s cream of the Waffen SS armor reached the River Ps’ol. On his left flank, the 3rd SS Panzer Grenadier Division Totenkopf (Death’s Head) crossed the Ps’ol on pontoon bridges on the 10th and immediately engaged the Soviet 52nd Guards Rifle Division and the 11th Motorized Rifle Brigade. To avoid further bridging operations for his heavy tanks, Hausser’s two other panzergrenadier divisions advanced south of the river.

The 1st Leibstandarte (Bodyguard) SS Adolf Hitler and the 2nd SS Das Reich (The State) panzergrenadier divisions pushed eastward through Soviet artillery barrages and dug-in tanks of the Soviet 2nd Tank Corps and elements of the 5th Guards Army. Leibstandarte spearheads were already at the outskirts of the Prokhorovka on July 9. The SS formations were aided by initial German air superiority and by Vatutin’s massive, chaotic redeployments, which caused Soviet units to pull back in some areas.

By July 11, paratroopers had dug in and stiffened Soviet resistance. A trooper of the 9th Guards Airborne Division recalled, “The village of Lutovo shuddered from exploding bombs, shells and mines. The soldiers observed the enemy from foxholes. Infantry poured out of the armored transporters. The distorted faces of the Fascists bore witness … that their warlike ardor was roused by a large dose of schnapps. Submachine gunners opened fire on the run and concealed themselves behind the tanks. A squall of 3rd Battalion fire met the Fascists. The long bursts of [Soviet] heavy machine guns struck the infantry in the flanks.”16

Meanwhile, General Herman Breith’s 3rd Panzer Corps’ northward thrust east of the Donets was constantly thwarted by the 7th Guards Army and the 69th Army. Von Manstein urged Kempf to have Breith catch up to the 2nd SS Corps and cover its right flank. On July 11, the Tigers of the 503rd Heavy Panzer Detachment ripped through the Soviet 305th Rifle Division and tore into the 107th Rifle Division to its rear. The 6th Panzer Division lunged forward nearly eight miles, and the 19th Panzer Division also made good progress. Although Breith’s armored spearheads were still 15 miles from Prokhorovka, the remaining Soviet defenses were too weak to absorb another German assault. Unless Vatutin immediately rushed in reinforcements, Breith and Hausser would break through to Prokhorovka.

Seven Soviet armies now surrounded the 20-mile deep bulge that the armor formations and the following infantry divisions of 4th Panzer Army and the Kempf Army had bitten into the Kursk salient. To blunt the German advance and at the same time launch his massive counteroffensive, Vatutin rushed in Lt. Gen. Pavel A. Rotmistrov’s crack 5th Guards Tank Army. The 5th Guards Tank Army, along with the already committed 5th Guards Army, was transferred from Col. Gen. Ivan S. Konev’s Steppe Front. Konev’s Front was to lead the planned post-Kursk counteroffensive.

The early commitment of two of the Steppe Front’s armies shows how critical the situation had become at Prokhorovka. Stalin even ordered Zhukov to fly to the Prokhorovka area and personally oversee the two Fronts. Reinforced by two tank corps and self-propelled artillery units, Rotmistrov fielded a total of 850 tanks, including 500 T-34s. Vatutin ordered Rotmistrov, “On the morning of 12 July, together with the 1st Tank and 5th Guards Army, launch a decisive offensive to destroy the enemy southwest of Prokhorovka.”17

Silhouetted against a battle-scarred landscape, a German Tiger tank is seen in action at Kursk on July 13, 1943-Warfare History Network

At dawn on July 12, the 121 tanks and assault guns of the Totenkopf Division prepared to shatter the Soviet defenses and advance northeastward on the ridge line north of the Ps’ol. The day promised to be humid, and clouds hung over the horizon. Brutal, indecisive fighting against three Guards rifle divisions raged throughout the day.

South of Prokhorovka, Hoth was on the battlefield watching the ensuing carnage in Das Reich’s sector through a trench telescope. Das Reich was forced on the defensive because the delay of 3rd Panzer Corps exposed its right flank to Soviet attacks.

During the day, 50 Soviet armored vehicles drove along one of the balkas, or valley bottoms, past a group of T-34s lined up on the ridge. There were white crosses on the turrets of the T-34s on the ridge. These were captured T-34s of Das Reich, and they suddenly opened fire on the vehicles below.

The first Soviet vehicle in line was also the only one equipped with a radio, and it was hit immediately. One after another, the Soviet vehicles exploded in flames. In another area of Das Reich, a T-34 rammed into a field kitchen before being destroyed in close combat. On the 12th, SS 2nd Lt. Hans Mennel, in command of a Mark IV, knocked out his 24th Soviet tank during the fighting.

Between Totenkopf and Das Reich, the Leibstandarte launched its attack at 6:50 that morning. Soviet artillery and Katyusha rockets howled upon the German formations. The Leibstandarte’s panzergrenadiers struck eastward, north, and south of the railway line that led northeast toward Prokhorovka. Crewmen in black uniforms and camouflage jackets took last puffs on their cigarettes and climbed into their sand yellow and red-brown Mark IVGs. The 1st SS Panzer Regiment’s 67 tanks revved up their engines. Steel tracks clanged toward purple walls of smoke, flares from German reconnaissance planes, rising above the undulating ridge lines ahead. The smoke signaled a warning that enemy tanks were approaching.

The engine noise of the Red Army’s 18th and 29th Tank Corps roared from the direction of Prokhorovka. Hundreds of Soviet tanks in waves of 40 or 50, with Guards Airborne riflemen piled on top of them, rolled out of the town and surrounding area.

The Soviet tanks charged at great speed, colliding head-on with the SS grenadiers and SS Major Martin Gross’s 2nd Panzer Battalion. An SS 2nd lieutenant related, “They were around us, on top of us, and between us. We fought man to man, jumping out of our foxholes to lob our magnetic hollow charge grenades at the enemy tanks. It was hell! Our company alone destroyed 15 Russian tanks.”18

SS 1st Lt. Rudolf von Ribbentrop, son of the Nazi foreign minister, commanded a company of six Mark IVs, which drove down a slope to aid the hard-pressed panzergrenadiers. Ribbentrop’s company knocked out a handful of T-34s at 800 meters. The Mark IV, the most common German tank at Kursk, was not as fast as the T-34 or as heavily armored, but it had a superior gun and fire control. In the end, tactics and training proved decisive.

Soviet infantry, dead or alive, were hurled off the burning tanks. With its infantry seeking cover, the Soviet armor bravely sped on until the tanks of both sides sliced through each other. “There was neither time nor room to disengage from the enemy and reform in battle order or operate in formation. The shells fired at close range pierced not only the side armor but also the frontal armor,”19 witnessed Rotmistrov from his observation post on a hill.

“A T-34 began to burn,” reported Ribbentrop. “It was only 50 to 70 meters from us. At the same instant the tank next to me took a direct hit and went up in flames. His neighbor to the right was also hit and soon it was also in flames. The avalanche of tanks rolled straight toward us … from this range every round was a hit.”20

Ribbentrop knocked out four more Soviet tanks. On the last one, he scored a direct hit at 10 meters. He recalled, “The T-34 exploded, and its turret flew about three meters through the air, almost striking my tank’s gun.”21

Ribbentrop had turned with the waves of Soviet tanks that swept by him. Soon they were under withering fire from German assault guns and two more panzer companies lurking down the slope behind an antitank ditch. Amid the thick smoke and dust, the jumble of Soviet tanks and wrecked vehicles, Ribbentrop’s Mark IV remained unnoticed by the Soviet tanks around him. “Machine guns firing, we rolled through a mass of [Soviet] troops from behind,”22 he said.

Ribbentrop pulled his Mark IV into cover behind a destroyed T-34 and joined the slaughter of the Soviets tanks trying desperately to cross a bridge over the antitank ditch. “Burning T-34s ran into and over one another. It was a total inferno of fire and smoke, and impacting shells and explosions,”23 he remembered. A shell hit Ribbentrop’s turret, driving the gunner’s sight into his eye and inflicting a serious head injury. He was able to reach the safety of the German lines after he and his crew had knocked out 14 Soviet tanks.

Another scene from the battle of Kursk by Nicolas Trudgian

Meanwhile, north of Oktiabrs’kii, the Tigers of SS Captain Heinrich Kling’s 13th Heavy Panzer Company crushed through hedgerows and thickets. Suddenly, a wave of 60 Soviet tanks swept out of a wood less than a mile away. Second Lieutenant Michael Wittmann’s Tiger rocked from the recoil as his 88mm gun knocked out the first T-34. The Soviet tanks fired on the go, rapidly closing the distance. Four Tigers were hit and temporarily crippled.

Wittmann’s Tiger shuddered from two hits but remained unfazed although his radio operator received a wound in the upper arm. “Three o’clock, three hundred!”24 cried Wittmann. A T-34 appeared out of some bushes. It swung its 76.2mm gun toward Wittmann’s Tiger, but Wittmann’s gunner, Balthasar Woll, was faster. The 88mm muzzle flashed and blew the turret off the T-34.

Captain Hans Ulrich Rudel’s Stukas appeared above the dueling tanks. Oily black smoke spiraled into the sky. Like birds of prey, the Stukas howled down upon the Soviet tanks. Swarms of Soviet Yak fighters appeared, shooting up the slow Stukas. Then, Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters tore into the Yaks until the chaos and destruction on the ground was mirrored in the sky.

Famed Tiger Ace Michael Wittmann

Wittmann’s platoon of three Tigers pushed on through the storm of steel, through the flames and smoke of burning grass. He had passed Prokhorovka when Kling’s voice rang through the radio, “Achtung! Strong force of enemy tanks approaching from ahead! Many tanks!”25 Soviet tanks of the 181st Tank Brigade closed in from about a mile away, disappearing into a valley and then reappearing over a rise. The stationary Tigers’ guns opened and maintained a rapid rate of fire. Numerous Soviet tanks were blown to pieces, but the remaining machines kept coming. They had to close to within 800 meters to be able to penetrate the Tigers’ frontal armor.

Leading a group of 15 tanks, Captain P. A. Skripkin’s T-34 closed in on Wittmann’s platoon. “Forward, follow me!”26 he shouted. Skripkin fired a round into a Tiger’s side, disabling it. Wittmann’s Tiger responded by pumping two rounds into Skripkin’s tank. Skripkin was wounded, and his crew pulled him out of the burning T-34. The driver jumped back in, and like a flaming ball of fire his T-34 tore down onto SS Staff Sergeant Georg Lötzsch’s Tiger. Lötzsch steered straight toward the oncoming Soviet tank, slammed on the brakes and fired. The 88mm round hit the edge of the turret and ricocheted into the sky. The 30-ton T-34 rammed into Lötzsch’s Tiger, shaking the ground with its impact. Flames engulfed both tanks. Lötzsch kept his nerves and backed out just before the T-34’s ammunition exploded.

The Mark Vi Tiger tank, with its 88mm cannon, was perhaps the most feared weapon in the Wehrmacht arsenal; however, the mammoth tank was plagued by mechanical failures and an insatiable appetite for fuel-Warfare History Network

Despite horrendous losses, the Soviets kept up the pressure. From north of Oktiabr’skii to south of Storozheveo, the battle seesawed back and forth. The Leibstandarte’s efforts to advance were thwarted by packs of Soviet tanks and infantry. The 1st Panzer Regiment was forced back to Oktiabr’skii. By 6 pm, the 181st Tank Brigade, assisted by the 170th Tank Brigade, threatened to sever the link between the Leibstandarte and Totenkopf at the village of Vasil’evka. Meanwhile, at Storozhevoe, Leibstandarte grenadiers reeled under an avalanche of Soviet tanks and mounted infantry.

A tank destroyer crewman recounted, “Salvo after salvo of Stalin’s Organs rained down upon our positions, with artillery and mortar shells in between. T-34 after T-34 rolled over the hill … three … five … ten … but what was the use of counting?”27 At one point Soviet tanks penetrated to Komsomolets, threatening Leibstandarte’s command post and engaging its artillery regiment at point-blank range.

By mid afternoon the sky broke into heavy showers. Rain sizzled on swaths of smoldering tank carcasses, and roads turned into mud pits. Combat in the 29th and 18th Tank Corps sector ground to a halt. Both sides were too drained by the terrible ordeal to go on.

All along Vatutin’s front, the 4th Panzer Army advances on July 12th had been arrested or slowed down, but so had Vatutin’s own offensive. The cost had been extremely heavy. The 5th Guards Tank Army lost about 650 tanks, although only 250 or so of them were total write-offs. Gross’s battalion alone accounted for 90 Soviet tanks, earning him the Knight’s Cross. The 2nd SS Corps lost just over 60 tanks and assault guns completely destroyed. The SS owed part of its success to the one-eyed “Papa” Hausser who “untiringly led all day from the front,”28 inspiring his troops with “his presence, his bravery and his humor, even in the most difficult situations,” noted Hoth, whose recommendation earned Hausser the Oakleaves to his Knight’s Cross.

During the night, troopers dug in and prepared for renewed offensives on the 13th. Soviet and German soldiers alike felt that victory could be achieved if, somehow, the last bits of energy could be called forth. The following day, the weight of the battle in the 2nd SS Corps sector switched from the Leibstandarte to Totenkopf and Das Reich. With its remaining 54 tanks and 20 assault guns, Totenkopf continued to advance north of the Ps’ol, engaging two Guards rifle divisions and the 51st Guards Tank Regiment. Totenkopf reached its objective, the Prokhorovka-Kartasshevka road, but was forced to relinquish its gains due to serious attacks on its left flank and the Leibstandarte’s failure to keep abreast south of the river.

Northeast of Oktiabri’skii, the Leibstandarte was flung back by airborne troops and riflemen supported by Soviet tanks, antitank guns, artillery, and mines. Rotmistrov related, “The fire of our Katyushas always instilled terror in the Fascists. Suffering great losses, the enemy was forced to fall back, abandoning the burning tanks and the bodies of his dead soldiers and officers.”29 The Soviets went on the offensive, but just north of Komsomolets State Farm they were given a dose of the German’s own nebelwerfer rocket launchers.

South of the Leibstandarte, Das Reich captured Storozhevoe and reached the outskirts of Vingoradovka, giving the Soviets cause for concern. It looked like Das Reich might link up with the 3rd Panzer Corps, which was rapidly gaining ground due to a daring night coup by Major Franz Bäke of the 6th Panzer Division.

A T-34 had led a column of vehicles into the darkness behind Soviet lines. The guards at the trenches must not have looked closely, because the T-34s’ markings were painted over and replaced with a small cross. It was one of the score or so of T-34s in German service, and Bäke used it and favorable terrain to lead his battalion of German tanks past the Soviet sentries. Bäke’s battalion was the spearhead of Colonel von Oppeln-Bronikowski’s battle group whose objective was the Donets bridge at Rzhavets. However,  after six miles or so, the T-34 broke down, “no doubt moved by national sentiments”30  Bäke opined.

Soviet soldiers labored to dig 6,000 miles of defensive trenches prior to the commencement of Operation Citadel. More than 300,000 Russian civilians contributed to the effort-Warfare History Network

Abandoning the T-34, Bäke’s battalion crept onward while continuing to keep radio silence. The lead was now taken by a Mark IV.  The German column rumbled past stationary T-34s and anti-tank guns. Exhausted Soviet crews slept in the grass, secure in their knowledge that the front was far away.

Things got dicey when a column of Soviet tanks, some mounted with infantry, appeared heading in the opposite direction. In the darkness, the Soviets appeared to believe Bäke’s tanks were their own returning from the front, or did they? At first twenty-two tanks passed his unit, almost track to track, but then six or seven pulled out of the column, turned, rolled back and pulled behind Bäke’s panzers. Bäke turned his panzer to block the T-34s. Although his own command panzer had only a dummy gun for protection, Bäke ordered the rest of his unit to continue and to secure the objective bridge.

The T-34s ominously drew up in a semicircle while Bäke and his operations officer slipped out of their panzer. They crept up to the T-34s and attached hollow charges. A handful of infantry was hitching a ride on one of the T-34s. One of them noticed Bäke and raised his rifle. Before the surprised Soviet managed to pull the trigger, Bäke snatched the rifle from his hand and jumped into a ditch. One after the other, three explosions lit up the night while one of Bäke’s tanks knocked out a fourth T-34. A cacophony of German and Soviet machine-gun and tank fire erupted. When the rest of the battle group joined the attack, the startled Soviets withdrew across the nearby Donets bridge. They blew up the bridge behind them but could not prevent German grenadiers from wading across the river.

Franz Bake with adjutant Captain Herbert to right

The bridge was captured and repaired, leaving the 3rd Panzer Corps free to thrust northward. To stop them, General Kuzma Trufanov, deputy commander of the 5th Guards Tank Army, hurled one rifle division, two reinforced Guards tank and two mechanized brigades at the 3rd Panzer Corps. On July 13, while the 19th Panzer Division, and behind it the 7th Panzer Division, were trying to move out of the bridgehead, the 6th Panzer Division was busy fending off Trufanov’s divisions around Aleksandrovka to the east. That day, the 6th Panzer Division suffered a heavy blow from friendly fire. A German Heinkel He-111 bomber accidentally bombed 6th Panzer Division headquarters, killing 15 and wounding Bäke and his division commander, Maj. Gen. Walther von Hünersdorf, and 47 other officers.

To the west, Grossdeutschland’s northward advance on July 13 was cancelled due to renewed Soviet onslaughts against the 3rd Panzer Division. For a while all contact with the 3rd Panzer Division was lost as the Soviets recaptured Beresowka. On Grossdeutschland’s right flank, the 11th Panzer Division was also unable to press forward due to intense Soviet counterattacks. Rain and muddy roads also hampered the supply of the troops.

Soviet T-34 tanks, supported by thousands of Red Army soldiers, advance rapidly during a counter-attack at Kursk -Military History Network

Despite the setbacks, Hoth and Kempf continued to have full confidence in victory. Hitler had other ideas. The Führer summoned his army commanders to his Wolf’s Lair headquarters in East Prussia. Hitler told them that the Allies had landed in Sicily on July 10 and that Citadel must be called off immediately to enable the transfer of troops to Italy. Kluge agreed because he was already embroiled in Zhukov’s Orel counteroffensive.

Von Manstein, who had originally argued against the whole Kursk operation, pressed for the attack to continue, saying, “To break off the battle now would probably mean throwing away victory.”31 Von Manstein still had the fresh 24th Panzer Corps with 112 tanks in reserve. He wanted to wear the Soviets down through attrition and thereby forestall major Soviet offensives elsewhere.

“We were now in the position of a man who has seized the wolf by the ears and dare not let him go,”32 was von Mellenthin’s impression. Hitler, however, had made up his mind. Four days later he ordered the withdrawal of the 2nd SS Panzer Corps followed by the transfer of Grossdeutschland to Army Group Center. Until then, von Manstein did his best to destroy as many of the enemy as he could.

On July 14 and 15, Grossdeutschland and the 3rd Panzer Division beat back two tank corps, a Guards corps, and Soviet rifle divisions to recapture the territory lost on the 12th. Throngs of Soviet infantry were sent fleeing to the west to be caught in a barrage of murderous German artillery fire. For the Soviets, however, the most dangerous situation was a linkup between the 2nd SS Panzer Corps and the 3rd Panzer Corps. If this happened, the Soviet salient between the two German corps would be closed and the five Soviet divisions therein trapped.

Despite their recent wounds, both Bäke and Hünersdorf were back leading the 6th Panzer Division on another attack on Alexandrowaka. Bäke himself knocked out two Soviet tanks and an antitank gun while his battle group destroyed another 29 tanks and 25 antitank guns. Hünersdorf’s luck, however, ran out. A sniper shot him in the head on July 14, killing him.

Russian infantry service field artillery and fire small arms at attacking Germans in defense of the Kursk salient- Military History Network

That same day in the Das Reich sector, grenadiers fought house to house in the village of Belenichino, destroying 12 Soviet tanks in close combat. SS Lance Corporal Simon Grascher remained glued to the ground in a storm of small caliber, grenade, and antitank fire. The flanking fire of two T-34s was decimating his company. Spurning the dangers, Grascher fought his way forward. He overcame two bunkers and a number of machine gun nests to destroy one of the T-34s with his last hollow charge. Grascher knocked out the second T-34 by throwing a grenade in the temporarily opened hatch. Grascher was killed in the fierce battles that followed, receiving his Knight’s Cross posthumously.

Men like Grascher kept a heavily reinforced Trufanov from being able to do more than slow down the contact between Das Reich and the 7th Panzer Division on July 15. Trufanov did, however, buy the time for most of the Soviet divisions to slip out of the closing German pincers.

By July 16, Hoth and Kempf were finally in a position to resume the push for Kursk. Although their divisions were largely intact, they were battered and their men were worn down, and 60 miles still lay between them and Model’s northern pincer. Von Mellenthin stated, “Gross Deutschland was dangerously weak after heavy fighting lasting for 10 days, while the Russian striking power had not appreciably diminished. In fact, it seemed to have increased.”33

Indeed, the remaining 27th and 53rd Armies of Konev’s Steppe Front alongside the fresh 4th Guards Tank Corps and 1st Mechanized Corps, with nearly 400 tanks, were closing in on Oboian and northwest of Prokhorovka. How they would have fared against von Manstein’s reserves is a matter of speculation, for on July 17, von Manstein began his withdrawal. Zhukov noted, “Because of the exhaustion of our own First Tank Army and the Sixth and Seventh Guards field armies, the enemy was able to pull his main forces back to the Belgorod defense line by July 23.”34 Inevitably, most of the German divisions were soon drawn into new battles against Soviet offensives elsewhere.

As exemplified by the e´lan of the German panzer formations at Oboian and Prokhorovka, the Germans inflicted deep wounds on the Soviets at Kursk while remaining themselves relatively unscathed. Together, Army Group Center and Army Group South lost 323 tanks and assault guns irreparably destroyed during the Kursk battles. Personnel losses amounted to 50,000 men killed, wounded, or missing. Red Army personnel losses amounted to at least 177,000, with combat losses between 20 and 70 percent of the units committed. Soviet tank and self-propelled assault gun losses amounted to 1,614 vehicles irreparably destroyed.

Losses to both the Germans and the Soviets in damaged armored vehicles and claimed kills were much higher than destroyed vehicles. By the time Wittmann’s Tigers disengaged on the 17th, Wittmann himself had accounted for 30 Soviet tanks and 28 antitank guns. From July 5-16, Das Reich alone knocked out 448 Soviet tanks and assault guns against a loss of 46 of its own. The 2nd SS Panzer Corps chalked up 1,149 Soviet tanks and other armored vehicles. The trend of high Soviet losses against those of the Germans would continue for a long time to come, and often at times be exceeded, as in future battles the Germans were usually on the defensive.

Nevertheless, the strategic consequences at Kursk were not lost on the German commanders. “Citadel had been a complete and most regrettable failure…with the failure of our supreme effort, the strategic initiative passed to the Russians,”35 reflected Von Mellenthin. Von Manstein commented, “When Citadel was called off, the initiative in the Eastern theater of war finally passed to the Russians.”36 Guderian agreed, “By the failure of Citadel we suffered a decisive defeat.”37

In an attempt to beat back a Red Army breakthrough near Belgorod, German artillery fires at the Soviet spearhead. In the foreground, a Waffen SS grenadier keeps watch over Soviet prisoners- Military History Network

Soviet propaganda naturally made the most of the Red Army victory by completely inflating the German losses. Zhukov wrote, “The picked and most powerful grouping of the Germans destroyed here [Kursk] … the faith of the German Army and the German people in the Nazi leadership … was irrevocably shattered.”38 Marshal Alexsandr M. Vasilevsky boasted of 500,000 German casualties. The massacre of Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army at Prokhorovka on July 12 was turned into the “Death Ride of the Fourth Panzer Army.” The Soviets claimed 400 German tanks destroyed that day and 3,100 German tanks destroyed during the whole Kursk battle. The reality was rather the reverse, and German morale remained high, both among civilians at home and among the soldiers at the front.

Only the relatively recent declassification of Waffen SS combat records and the public accessibility of Russian archival material has revealed the true nature of Kursk: a brilliant tactical victory for the Germans, but a decisive strategic victory for the Soviets.

 

“The Battle of Kursk: Showdown at Prokhorovka and Oboian” by L. H. Dyck was first published in World War II History Magazine September 2006 and republished on September 2016 at Warfare History Network . The  article above features additional images sourced from the net for educational, non-profit purposes only.

Notes

1, 2. Heinz Guderian, Panzer Leader (London: Arrow Books Limited, 1990), p. 30., 3, 4. Ibid., p. 309, 5. Charles Winchester,  Ostfront, Hitler’s War on Russia 1941-1945 ( Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1998), p. 106., 6. F. W. von Mellenthin, Panzer Battles (New York: Ballatine Books, 1973), p. 264., 7. A.J. Barker,  Waffen SS at War (Sheperton: Ian Allan Publishing, 1998), p. 72., 8. Alfred Novotny,  The Good Soldier (Bedford: Aberjona Press. 2003), p. 55., 9. F. W. Mellenthin p. 264.,10. Novotny p. 52-53., 11. Mellenthin p. 273., 12, 13. David M. Glantz and House Jonathan M., The Battle of Kursk (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1999), p. 152, 153., 14, 15. Ibid., p. 159., 16. Ibid, p. 173., 17. Ibib, p. 169., 18. Ibid., p. 185, Ibid., p. 188, Franz Kurowski, Panzer Aces (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2004), p. 178., 21. Ibid., p. 179-180., 22. Ibid., 180., 23. Ibid., p. 181., 24. Ibid., p. 312., 25. Ibid., p. 313., 26. Paul Carell, Scorched earth: The Russian-German war, 1943-1944 (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973), p. 77., 27. Glantz and House, p. 186., 28. Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. and Mueller Gene, Hitler’s Commanders (Lanham: Cooper Square Press, 2000), p. 281., 29. Glantz and House, p. 215., 30. Ibid. p. 199., 31. Carell, p. 88., 32. Mellenthin, p. 278., 33. Ibid. p. 276., 34. Zhukov Georgi R., Marshal Zhukov Greatest Battles (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 244., 35. Mellenthin, p. 277-278., 36. Glantz and House, p. 277., 37. Guderian, p. 312., 38. Ibid.,p. 278.

 

Sources

Barker A.J. Waffen SS at War. Sheperton: Ian Allan Publishing. 1998, Carell Paul. Scorched earth: The Russian-German war, 1943-1944. New York: Ballantine Books, 1973, Glantz David M. and House Jonathan M. The Battle of Kursk. Kansas: University Press of Kansas. 1999, Guderian Heinz, Panzer Leader. London: Arrow Books Limited. 1990, Kurowski Franz. Panzer Aces. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books. 2004, Mellenthin F. W. von, Panzer Battles. New York: Ballatine Books, 1973, Mitcham Samuel W. Jr. and Mueller Gene. Hitler’s Commanders. Lanham: Cooper Square Press. 2000, Novotny Alfred. The Good Soldier. Bedford: Aberjona Press. 2003, Winchester Charles, Ostfront, Hitler’s War on Russia 1941-1945. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. 1998, Zhukov Georgi R. Marshal Zhukov Greatest Battles.New York: Harper & Row. 1969.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

Notes

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.

Sources

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, https://www.britannica.com/place/Silesia#ref1231547, 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, http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-44435520.html, 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.