maanantai 24. marraskuuta 2014

Bagnodas, Raymond: The Devil's General - The Life of Hyazinth Graf von Strachwitz, "The Panzer Graf" - part I/3

Panzer vor! Feuer frei - Abschuss! In a nutshell, this is all what this book is about. However, Raymond Bagnodas has taken for himself a bit challenging task to depict the life of Count Hyazinth Strachwitz von Groß-Zauche und Cammienetz.  As we know all war diaries and other documents of the 16th Panzer division were destroyed alongside the division on the banks of Volga. Likewise during the chaotic last year of the WW II no war diaries could be maintained. Things being like this, it is hard to produce a comprehensive and solid biography. Bagnodas tries to evade this by describing general events on the Eastern front and within the current unit where the Panzer Graf is serving. This, in the end, however, leads into a strange composition where the reader occasionally lost his sights on the Panzer Graf.

There are plenty of books about famous German panzer aces, we have read about Michael Wittmann, Otto Carius or Heinz Guderian. This book, even with its flaws, is a valuable account on the life and amazing service career of the Panzer Graf in the Panzerwaffe. His life was unusually eventful, if even dramatic and for sure it took a lot of self-restraint and will power to pull through all the hardships that came along.  One major shortcoming of the book is definitely the low amount or near absence of the study of tank technology and its development alongside the world war. That's why I have augmented the review with some data concerning tank gunnery and ballistics.  

The early days

Hyazinth von Strachwitz was born in Gross Stein of Silesia on July 30th, 1893. His family were rich land owning aristocrats who had the 700 years old tradition of naming their oldest son after the Saint Hyacinthus of 1594. Thus, we may learn, the family was Catholic by the religion. Living in the German Empire it was quite obvious for young Hyazinth to choose military career in the Imperial Kaiser's Army. Furthermore, as it later became evident, he was well suited for the task. He graduated from the prestigious Lichterfelde Cadet Academy only to get a commission in the Garde du Corps cuirassier regiment as a leuntnant. He had made friends in the Lichterfelde, most notable of them was Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the future Red Baron. Another notable graduates before Strachwitz were Heinz Guderian, Erich von Manstein and Hermann Göring.

As the First Wold War broke out, it was  Strachwitz who just couldn't wait to get to the frontline action. This suited more than well his character, which was bold and ready to execute the most unconventional solutions if needed. His career in the Great War was spectacular, if brief.  As a cavalry scout he and his team spread havoc behind the French lines. Despite skill and courage he was caught as a prisoner of war by the French. To make matters worse, he and his men were wearing civilian clothes. Strachwitz was sent to a special camp to wait court marshalling for espionage. After unsuccessful escape attempts his treatment got very harsh and this led his health to deteriorate. In order to avoid his death the French sent him to Geneva to get special medical treatment for septicaemia. Treatment was a success and he got his strengths back. Strachwitz masked himself a lunatic to avoid bitter return to French POW camp. Swiss authorities swallowed the bait and send him to a Swiss mental asylum.  The Great War was over for him.

Germany didn't offer much for Kaiser's soldiers returning home after a war lost. The country was in a chaos: internal power struggle led into red revolutions. Strachwitz joined the Freikops cavalry guard and did fight to suppress reds in Berlin. Versailles peace treaty did set up territorial claims by the Poles and Czechs. In Upper-Silesia Strachwitz joined local Freikorps with his brother in order to protect Groß-Stein and Annaberg areas from the Polish mob. Weimar republic was weak and even more suppressed by the French and Brits not to intervene. After unsuccessful referendum clashes broke out between Freikorps and Polish militia. Multiculturalism led into a war.  Extremely fierce fighting took place around Annaberg hill, where there was a monastery and a hill top dominating the river Oder valley. Other voluntary forces, such as Oberland from Bavaria, came to help local Germans. Combined Freikorps and Oberland forces recaptured Annaberg and defeated Polish militia by the experience gained from the Great War trenches. With Oberland Korps fought some future top brass SS leaders, such as Heinrich Himmler and Sepp Dietrich. Strachwitz was personally very proud of his commitment and performance in the cadres of Upper-Silesian Freikorps and especially of the campaign of the Annaberg for the rest of his life.


Another World War breaks out

Between the two World Wars Strachwitz concentrated on management of his family estate and farming as a living. He did join in the Reichsheer’s Cavalry Regiment as a reserve officer and the Nazi party. Joining the party was a political statement against communism, Strachwitz did not have any racial agendas to follow. Rebirth of the German Army in 1934, now as the Wehrmacht, introduced Strachwitz with the idea of armoured warfare. He did like what he saw and in no time had his application accepted to join the ranks of the 1st Panzer Division and its 2nd Panzer Regiment. The 1st Panzer became his basic unit with which he soldiered from Poland until the Balkans campaign. This period did not mix him with frontline battles. Strachwitz was more than busy by keeping the tracks of panzers rolling and guns blazing by taking care of the logistic services. His time would come to prove himself as a true armoured warrior, for it was time to prepare the Wehrmacht for the execution of the Operation Barbarossa.

The main goal of the ambitious Operation Barbarossa was to terminate the ability and will of the Soviet Union to wage war against Germany. Just as von Clausewitz had formulated it. In order to achieve all this three huge army groups were established. The main striking capacity of army groups were four panzer groups. These were mechanized or at least motorized formations capable of independent fighting. The 1st Panzer Group, under command of von Kleist, was attached to the Army Group South. The 1st Panzer Group had five panzer and three motorized divisions. This meant they had some 600 Panzer III tanks, which at the time being, were the only battle worthy ones in the German inventory. Bagnodas doesn't analyze which sub-models Germans had in service at time, nor do we know exactly what sub-model of Panzer III was used by Strachwitz. The reader is forced to conclude technical details by combining individual fractions of data out of the text. It has its meanings to know which sub-model was used by the Germans since they confronted two brand new Soviet tank designs which caused them a lot of trouble, namely the KV-1 and T-34/76 tanks. Both of these were better armoured and armed than any German model. In order to fight these Soviet tanks with Panzer III, it certainly made the difference which sub-model was being used.


In the opening phase of Operation Barbarossa, summer and autumn 1941, Germans had two armament options to use for tank duels:  3,7 cm KwK 35/36 L/45 and 5,0 KwK 38 L/42 cannons. Early Panzer III models, Ausf E and early F, had 3,7 cm cannons which were totally useless against new Soviet designs - no penetration could be achieved at any distances. Panzer crews gave the cannon a nickname "Panzerknocker". Newer sub-models, such as Ausf F, G, H and to a some extent early J, had better performing 5,0 cm cannons. However, German panzer crews made a horrifying discovery: even with their 5,0 cm cannons they could achieve penetration only by shooting extremely and suicidal close distances or by aiming side or rear armour plates.  The best projectile Germans had, PzGr.40 with tungsten core,  had maximum muzzle velocity of 1050 m/s and it had average penetrating performance against rolled homogenous steel armour at 30 degree angle from the vertical as follows: 500 meters 55 millimetres and 100 meters 94 millimetres.  The frontal armour of  the T-34/76 was only 45 millimetres thick, but as it was laid back at 30 degrees angle, it was three times stronger than normal plate at 90 degree angle. This meant German panzers had to get within the range of 500 - 100 meters to ensure penetration.   

PzKfpw III Ausf H, this time in the Western Desert.

Next year Panzer III Ausf J late, L and M had even better and longer barrelled 5,0 cm KwK 39 L/60 cannons (muzzle velocity 1180 m/s, penetration at 30 degrees angles 500 m 72 mm and 100 m 130 mm). On the other hand, the Soviets had by that time increased the frontal armour of newer sub-models of T-34/76 from 45 mm up to 70 mm.  So even the new and more powerful cannon for the last tank versus tank models of Panzer III did not solve the basic shortcoming of its design: the lack of penetrating power. Panzer III, with all sub-models, was destined to be inferior to T-34/76 all its service life. This can be used as a statement to underline and emphasize the skills of Strachwitz as he had to fight and made his astonishing combat record with inferior equipment! 

PzKfpw III Ausf J with 5,0 cm KwK 39 L/60. 24. PD, 1942.
As the Operation Barbarossa finally started Count Strachwitz was serving in the ranks of 16th Panzer Division which was attached to XIV Panzer Korps. The main objective for the 1st Panzer Group was to cut through Soviet border defences and to advance deep into the Ukraine. At first 16th Panzer, commanded by General Hans Hube,  was kept in reserve. Strachwitz served as a commander of the second panzer battalion of the 16th Panzer's panzer regiment.  Usually battalion commander had a special Befelswagen, or command tank, which did not have a cannon but a machine gun and enforced radio equipment. Battalion commander  would follow up the front panzer company with his command tank. This did not suit Strachwitz.  Oh no, he  did not like the Befelswagen and used normal cannon equipped panzer instead. Besides he wanted to command his battalion by following the front panzer squad. Sometimes he was even in the very front panzer to monitor battlefield. What an extraordinary character he was indeed. In the heat of the battle he was often seen commanding his panzers half way out of the commander's turret. That was extremely dangerous practice, no wonder he was injured 14 times.

The advancing phase of the Operation Barbarossa was often pictured as hi-tech "Blitzkrieg" or lightning war by the German propaganda apparatus. That couldn't be further away from the front line reality in Ukraine. Soviets had concentrated their best troops against Germans namely in Ukraine, presumably to defend huge industrial capacity and vast grain fields of Ukraine. Advancing German troops met with fierce Soviet counter attacks and offensives, rain that virtually made roads pretty much useless and vastness of Ukrainian steppe. In the end of June 1941 there was a huge tank battle near Dubno with 250 German and 720 Soviet tanks. Actually it remained to be the biggest tank battle until 1943 Kursk offensive. Germans trying to encircle Dubno had to switch into defence mode as the Soviet 8th Motorized Corps, with two tank divisions with fearsome T-34/76 tanks, charged against surprised 16th Panzer. It was time for Germans to get encircled.  In fact, it was quite close for the 16th Panzer to get altogether destroyed by the Soviets. Strachwitz as leader of recon detachment had his day! As a former cavalryman he fully understood the meaning of movement and fire. Strachwitz quickly cut through Soviet lines and entered their rear area. There he, with his Panzer III tanks, caused havoc and panic over the surprised enemy.  Soviets started to lose momentum and initiative. Soon they turned their tanks 180 degrees and headed east. Hube and his 16th Panzer were saved. Actually Strachwitz was applying old cavalry lessons he had learned in France at the opening stages of the Great War - only this time he had switched horses to panzers.  

KV-1 model 1941.
Der Panzer Graf took part in the great encirclement battle of Kiev as a member of the southern panzer pincer force. Late in the autumn 16th Panzer had to help Waffen-SS Wiking Division in a dire straits near river Mius. The year 1941 ended for 16th Panzer in the carefully prepared winter position at the western banks of river Mius. 

Der Kessel - The Cauldron

Panzer Graf had had a leave in Heimat, or homeland, and as he got back to the 16th Panzer he was promoted to a rank of a Lieutenant Colonel of the reserve. It meant he was officially capable of commanding his panzer regiment if such a need should occur. Another significant development was the introduction of a new sub-model of the Panzer IV tank. The new Panzer IV Ausf F2 or even G was actually an up gunned version of the old basic construction. Former Ausf D or F1 had a short 7,5 KwK 37 L/24 infantry support gun.  It had very low muzzle velocity of 385 m/s and likewise poor armour penetration capability of just 39 mm at 500 m and respectively 41 mm at 100 m at angles of 30 degrees. Old Panzer IV could not fight and survive new Soviet KV-1 and T-34/76 models. On the other hand, by the German panzer doctrine, it was not even meant to fight other tanks - it was the duty of Panzer III. Old Panzer IV had a High Explosive Anti-Tank round, but it was primarily meant for self defence and against pillboxes. 

Old PzKfpw IV Ausf F1 and Ausf F2 with 7,5 cm Kwk 40 L/43.

The new Panzer IV variant gave enormous rise to the firepower with its long barrelled 7,5 KwK 40 L/43 cannon. Its muzzle velocity was  740 m/s and penetration ability was enough to enable it to meet its opponents on equal terms. At 500 m it could penetrate 91 mm and at 1500 m still astonishing 72 mm. This meant that Germans could destroy T-34/76 tanks at all normal combat distances. Some issues still remained: thin and unsloped armour as well as narrow tracks which limited manoeuvrability. And then, of course, the worst problem of all: German armaments industry couldn't meet the ever increasing demand of the fronts for new panzer deliveries.  In May 1942 16th Panzer was reinforced and thus it had 140 operational panzers. Odd enough, some of the panzers were already obsolete and not battle worthy Panzer II models. This was the composition for the 16th Panzer as it headed for its assignment in the Operation Blau, the conquest of rivers Don and Volga. At this stage the city of Stalingrad had no great significance - primary goal was to stop and harass all supply and raw material shipping down the Volga.

Bagnodas does not tell us any information about the model of tank which was used by the Panzer Graf on his way to Volga. Perhaps he already had the new Panzer IV Ausf F2 or G, since some of the described shooting ranges do imply that. During the advance he met with a cunning Soviet "weapon" near the river Oskol: mine dogs running towards trying to get underneath the panzers and detonate explosives carried on their backs. On the open steppe there were few hideouts and it didn't take long for a squad of Panzer IIIs to hunt down dog instructors. 

XIV Panzer Korps fought its way across river Don and was getting closer to Stalingrad. In the 23rd of August troops led by the Panzer Graf reached Gumrak airfield. Surprise was total, Soviets couldn't expect to see Germans so deep in their rear. Little did they know about the character of the Panzer Graf! Airfield was left in flames and smoke as Panzer Graf led his troops to carry on. Some estimates claim Panzer Graf had destroyed with his troops as many as 150 enemy aeroplanes. On a bold swing they pushed themselves through the northern districts of Stalingrad and industrial centre of Rynok all the way to the western banks of the mighty river Volga. Panzer Graf's battle group was the first German unit to reach their goal. The success came with a new danger and risk for the entire 16th Panzer. The division had made a tremendous advance of 80 km in a day, but at the same time motorized infantry divisions (3rd and 60th Mot) had stayed behind the progress. Despite of this 16th Panzer tried to capture the Tractor Factory (STZ) via Spartanovka. The effort was met with stiff Soviet resistance and even a counterattack made by brand new products out of the lines of the STZ,  T-34/76 tanks.

The main forces of the XIV Panzer Korps as well as the whole 6th Army were far behind the 16th Panzer. Situation started to develop threatening for the entire 16th Panzer so Hube had no other alternative than to organize a defensive perimeter and to stay firm. The entire division was encircled, to make matters worse the supply line had broken. For now on division had to rely on air supply by the Luftwaffe. The consumption of ammunition became seriously high and air drops couldn't fill the demand. As the petrol reserve got very low, Hube faced a grim decision to make. If division stays on the Volga, there is a risk of it being eliminated by the Soviets or if division attempts to brake west it will act against the Führerbefehl with all following consequences. For Hans Hube odds were all against. Before he and his subordinates, in a meeting to solve this dilemma, had to reach a decision, one of their own divisions, 3rd Motorized, fought its way through to isolated 16th Panzer. To make the day, 3rd Motorized had alongside a supply column of more than 200 lorries. 16th Panzer managed to accomplish what later was tried to handle by the entire 6th Army.  

The crisis for the 16th Panzer was yet not over by the arrival of the 3rd Motorized. There was still a huge gap of 50 km between the Volga bank and the main forces of the 6th Army. Defensive battles followed each other. Panzer Graf quite against his character was forced to stay on the defensive. Division lost its panzers and tankers ever increasing numbers. Yet not a straight and deceive victory was seen. Wearing street fighting had been going on for months and winter was coming. Then the inevitable happened: Soviets launched their Operation Uranus on November 19th which was to capture almost a hole German army encircled.  

Encirlement of the 6. Army in Stalingrad.

 Paulus, the commander of the 6th Army, sent all available panzer units to deal with the Soviet breakthrough. In a complete confusion German manoeuvres were doomed to failure. For instance the 16th Panzer was cut into two halves by the Soviet tank pincers.  Panzer Graf stayed inside the pocket or the cauldron of Stalingrad - Der Kessel. Sometime after the encirclement the Panzer Graf got seriously injured in one these chaotic battles. He did not want to be evacuated but to stay with his comrades. Eventually it was the order of his divisional commander Hans Hube that forced him to leave Der Kessel by airlift. The 16th Panzer stayed behind and perished with all hands, panzers, war diaries and archives.    


Culver, Bruce (1988) PzKpfw III in action. Carrollton: Squadron/Signal Publications, Inc.

Kantakoski, Pekka (1998) Punaiset Panssarit. Puna-Armeijan Panssarijoukot 1918-1945. Hämeenlinna: PS-Elso Oy.

Quarrie, Bruce (1989) Encylopaedia of the German Army in the 20th Century. London: Patrick Stephens Limited.

Teräsvalli, Timo (2010) The Parola Armour Museum - Guide Book. Hämeenlinna: Ilves-Paino Oy.



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