maanantai 5. tammikuuta 2015

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

After the successful third battle of Kharkov, Groẞdeutschland was sent to Poltava for rest and refit. It received new modern self propelled artillery pieces like SdKfz 124 Wespe and SdKfz 165 Hummel to reinforce the artillery regiment. A brand new German tank, PzKpfw V Panther sub model D was sent to its first battle in the ranks of Groẞdeutschland. Panthers formed a panzer regiment with two battalions consisting some 200 tanks. Out of those 188 were ordinary battle tanks whereas 10 command and two recovery tanks (Bergepanthers) which supplemented the fighting force. Although these Panthers were quite an impressive formation, before the start of Operation Citadel no less than 26 tanks were out use due to mechanical problems and design faults. The Tiger Company of Groẞdeutschland grew into a full sized battalion of tree companies totalling 42 tanks. This made GD the only Wehrmacht panzer division to have Tigers and even more: it was stronger and more potent striking force than any other Wehrmacht division. That’s why it’s curious that Germans gave it on the 23rd of June, 1943 a new official name of Panzergrenadierdivision Groẞdeutschland.

Operation Citadel - the impossible way to Obojan

Before the operation would start Strachwitz was more than busy organizing battle drills and trying to merge Tigers and medium PzKpfw IV tanks as a co-operative force. As the operation started the Groẞdeutschland Division would serve under the Fourth Panzer Army commanded by Generaloberst Hoth.  To form the XLVIII Panzer Corps GD had the Third and Eleventh Panzers alongside. Strachwitz’s oldest son was still serving with the 11th Panzer so there would be two Strachwitzs fighting in the Kursk salient.  Fourth Panzer Army was to be the southern pincer to capture and surround the Red Army. It was also the strongest individual German battle formation on the field with nearly 1200 tanks.

Strachwitz doubted from the start the future success of Operation Citadel even the German deployment seemed powerful and unstoppable. He had learned to respect the tactical skills of Russians in a defence mode and in particular the Maskirovka, the camouflage and diversion. This time the Bliztkrieg styled pincer penetrations with rapid advances to the enemy rear areas would not take place.  The terrain would be unfavourable for the tanks and the width of the Panzerkeil, the tank wedge, would be only two kilometres.
Since the Operation Citadel is widely covered by numerous narratives, I’m going to have a focus on Strachwitz only. His unit had 360 tanks when the operation started on the 5th of July, 1943. After the first day of battle his tank core consisted of four PzKpfw II, 12 PzKpfw III, 51 PzKpfw IV and tree Tigers. The battle was fierce and the Germans tried all they could, but the well hoped breakthrough didn’t materialize. After three days of fighting Strachwitz still had 11 kilometres to reach Obojan, the divisional objective. At the same time they had nine battle worthy tanks left.

While on an armed reconnaissance mission on the no man's land on the 10th of July, 1943 Strachwitz saw an overpowering Soviet tank formation. This did not stop him to give orders to charge! Accurate German cannon fire blew up Soviet ranks. This, however, did not prevent losses on the German side either. The numerical superiority made the difference here. Soon one of the command tanks was in serious trouble. Strachwitz made a sudden rush with his tank to help the comrade at risk. This led him in a perilous situation between the enemy and German tanks.  In a hectic cannon fire duel, the Panzer Count lacked to notice his position inside the tank. This caused him severe injuries as the breech mechanism of the main gun hit him in the elbow as it reversed after a shot. The battle was over for him; he was evacuated and hospitalized for some time in Breslau.

PzKfpw IV, Strachwitz's workhorse in Kursk at display in the Parola Tank Museum
Foto © Historix

Strachwitz Operations in the Baltics

After his recovery Strachwitz did not return to the Groẞdeutschland Division. One of the principal reasons for this might be the open mistrust between him and the commander of the division General Hörnlein.  The two men didn’t get along too well, Hörnlein being an infantry man he could not understand or appreciate the cavalry way of thinking. For a while Strachwitz was a nominee for the leader of the other Wehrmacht elite division, the Panzer Lehr. In the end he was sent to the Army Group North to be a panzer commander of the entire army group. That, however, didn’t mean a considerable force. There was the Heavy Panzer Battalion 502 (Schwere Panzer-Abteilung 502, sPzAbt. 502) with its 12 remaining Tigers and a collection of various survived tanks.

Strachwitz was given a mission: to destroy three dangerous Soviet bridgeheads on the western banks of the river Narva in East Estonia.  These battles are known as the Strachwitz Operations I, II and III. As usual, Strachwitz carefully studied the enemy positions and rehearsed the oncoming action. The Operation I was launched on the 26th of March, 1944. It soon became a startling success. Russians were completely surprised and beaten. This is also what happened with the Operation II: both bridgeheads were eliminated with existing pontoon bridges across the river. Operation III proved to be a failure. Stiff Soviet resistance in Krivasso was too much for Germans and they had to break off the assault and withdraw. One of the Tiger aces, Otto Carius, in his memoirs “Tigers in the Mud” praised Strachwitz and his skilful leadership.

German war graves on the west bank of river Narva 2012
Foto © Historix

The Red Army launched a great summer offensive on the 22nd of June, 1944. Operation Bagration, as it was called by the Russians, started exactly three years after the German Operation Barbarossa. It was a devastating blow for the Germans: the entire Army Group Centre was destroyed and the Baltic States with the Army Group North were cut off and encircled. The destruction of the Army Group Centre was in fact ever bigger loss of materiel and soldiers for Germans than Stalingrad had been. Now it was time to resume a land connection to the Army Group North by launching a relief attack. Strachwitz with his panzer force joined the effort only to see how an enemy tank brigade of nearly 50 T-34 tanks was blocking the way in Tukums. Showing inventiveness and initiative Strachwitz asked the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, which was sailing nearby in the Baltic Sea, to help his panzers with the salvoes of the cruiser’s heavy 203 mm artillery. The floatplanes of the cruiser acting as fire observers and with Strachwitz’s guidance over the radio the centre of Tukums was blown up with the Soviet tank brigade.  Later Germans counted as many as 48 destroyed T-34s.  Germans had another asset as well, this one came from the sky: Hans-Ulrich Rudel with his Junkers Ju 87G (“Kanonenvogel") tank buster plane flew over the battlefield smashing enemy tanks with his twin 37 mm cannons. The land connection was, however, short lived and soon the Army Group North was again cut off; this time for good.

Junkers Ju 87G Tank Buster with 37 mm twin cannons

German radio intelligence service intercepted radio messages sent by Russians to warn their troops about the “Devils’s General” who was supposed to be nearby. Is there a better proof about the reputation Strachwitz had gained? In November 1944 Strachwitz was on his way with his adjutant in a VW Kübelwagen to attend a military conference at the HQ of the Army Group North. Suddenly in a turn the driver lost the control of the VW with serious consequences: the VW rolled over several times. The driver and the adjutant lost their lives instantly and Strachwitz got severely injured. He was hurriedly evacuated by the Ju-52 transport plane to hospital in Breslau.

Am Ende – The Last Battles 

Neglecting doctors orders and advise, Strachwitz left the hospital with crutches. Car accident had caused him to suffer broken legs and arduous headaches. That did not stop him to report at the HQ of the Army Group North and ask for commission. Finally he got his marching orders: he was to establish and train a new unit in Silesia. Panzerjäger-Brigade Oberschlesien was a unit of a new concept. It was based on a grim reality of war situation just before the collapse of the Third Reich. The unit was a collection of surviving soldiers from the decimated old units with miscellaneous weaponry. The core of the brigade was an infantry regiment with supporting branches, a small artillery detachment and some excellent Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyers.

Despite the chaotic situation and lack of proper logistic support Strachwitz's brigade could defend Silesia and cause havoc among the arrogant and sometimes carefree Soviets by using ambushes. Hans-Ulrich Rudel with his efficient Ju 87Gs assisted him for a while. Successful defence brought Strachwitz yet another promotion to the rank of Lieutenant general on the 30th of January, 1945. His joy must have been shadowed by the news of the death of his youngest son. Young Strachwitz had already lost one leg as a tank lieutenant, but had insisted to join the last battles to defend the area of the Reich. The final days of the war were at hand, so Strachwitz led his troops through the Sudetenland to Bavaria in order to surrender themselves to Americans.

War was over and Strachwitz as a POW in an American interrogation camp for high ranking officers. Conditions and treatment were harsh.  Bagnodas even mentions how Eisenhower had taken away the POW status from the German prisoners of war. They were treated as "disarmed enemies" which meant Germans were not treated according to the Geneva Convention protocols. While in prison camp Strachwitz received a shocking news: his wife had died in an accident with an American lorry. They had been married for 28 years but Americans did not let Strachwitz to attend her funeral. Finally the imprisonment was over and in June 1947 Strachwitz had to start a new life. This was the second time for him to return from imprisonment to Germany which had changed a lot. He was no longer a war hero, highly decorated General and being a nobleman served nothing. Instead he was a homeless and poor ex-prisoner. The family estate in Gross-Stein was gone.

For Strachwitz it was time to get married and accept the invitation of the Government of Syria to work as an advisor to reorganize the Syrian Armed Forces and especially its tank troops. He moved to Damascus in January 1949 to start working but just after six months he was forced to leave the country due to a CIA led coup. In the end he purchased a farmhouse in Bavaria and settled down. He lived a quiet life and organised a refugee foundation for the expelled people of Upper-Silesia. Der Panzer Graf died on the 25th of April, 1968. He was buried in Grabenstatt in a family grave with his first wife. In the funeral there was an honour guard present from the Bundeswehr.

"Be careful, the leader of the enemy forces is the Devil's General von Strachwitz himself. Avoid all contact if possible until the strengthening forces have arrived"

                                                        A Russian radio message intercepted by the Army Group North

It is quite a hard task to evaluate this book. The person in centre of the story did not leave much written sources behind him. Probably this is the reason why in the book there is a lot of background information about the war situation in the Eastern Front and about the units Strachwitz served with. Once in a while the reader loses his sights on Strachwitz in the middle of all this. Further more it is annoying to read the book in a novel format. This makes it tiresome, if not impossible to follow dates and find details. One reason I took the trouble to add into this series of blogs information about tank and gunnery technology was the fact that in the book one finds it very little. It would be fair to expect to see a good amount of technological facts and comparisons as well. 

I'm wondering what has happened as in the book there are some confusions or faults on historical time lines or military terms used improperly. For instance page 220 claims there are battalions in an artillery regiment. What are those T-17 tanks doing in this book on page 248? What exactly happened when on page 221 we are being told about the "attempted murder of Stauffenberg"? Finally, why on earth the short barrelled L/24 cannon was better for the PzKpfw IV than the longer barrelled and newer ones L/43 or L/48 like the page 170 claims? This may seem trivial, but in order to understand what happened and why all details must be correctly presented.  

Operation Citadel is the most widely described section, the hard road of Obojan. As Bagnodas is narrating operations in the Baltic he quotes the memoirs of Otto Carius. The birth of German Tank Forces in the latter part of 1930's is well presented. Notes, bibliography and pictures are fine but maps are rare, although one gets along with them. The lack of index is a disappointment.

With all its shortcomings the book is a valuable item in to a war historical collection. It is a story of a straight officer, nobleman and gentleman, a real patriot and his honourable life and battles. 

* * *


Carius, Otto (2003) Tigers in the Mud. Mechanicsburg: Stackpoole Books.

Rudel, Hans-Ulrich (2000) Stuka-lentäjä. Helsinki: Koala-kustannus.

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