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Posted on May 4, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

The Panzer Graf

By Wild Bill Wilder

He performed well as a tank commander and his boldness knew no bounds. Early on he established a premise that he maintained throughout the war. “Tanks must not be allowed to stand still. They must be permanently on the move and always led from the front.” This dictum ruled his life as a tank commander throughout his career.

Though always courteous and respectful, Strachwitz was a fighter. He showed the enemy no mercy. He never let fear or adverse circumstances control his efforts.  During the campaign in France, Strachwitz, in his command tank, found himself cut off from their own forces and in a well-garrisoned French town. Knowing if he turned to flee, he would be cut down by a hundred French guns now trained on him.

So he dismounted from his tank, strode forward with confidence toward the sentries posted at the entrance to the town and demanded to speak to the French commander. Again in faultless French he announced to the French officer that unless he surrendered the garrison to him at once, his panzer regiment, hidden nearby would open fire. After a moment’s hesitation, the officer capitulated and had his men lay down their arms.

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By the beginning of Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia, Strachwitz had been promoted to Colonel and was leading a battalion of tanks across the Bug River. His divisional commander, Gen. Walthar Nehring, had hitched a ride with him. Once on the opposite shore, the Count took his commander to a rendezvous point with the rest of the divisional command and was off immediately. He and a number of his tanks quickly shattered some initial Soviet defenses and entered the rear area of the enemy’s lines, creating havoc. It was estimated that with a platoon of MarkIII tanks Strachwitz would account for over 300 trucks and other pieces of Russian equipment. With German tanks running amok in their rear, the soldiers panicked and headed east at top speed.

After six days of fast advances, the leading German tank columns of the 1st Panzer Group came under attack from a sporadic and poorly executed counterattack by four Russian Mechanized Corps, orchestrated by General Mikhail Kirponos, commander of the Southwest Front. It would be the largest single battle of tanks in history until the battle of Kursk two years later.

The Germans were hit hard repeatedly from both the north and the south in the Dubno area as the Soviets sought to cut off the leading German columns and annihilate them.  The Russian tanks, though more numerous and at times more powerful than the German ones, were poorly led and fed piece-meal into the fight.

By the afternoon of the 29th, it was apparent that the major effort by the Russians had failed. The Germans had been stopped, that was true, but it turned out to be only a temporary delay. It seemed that the Russians had gotten their fill of battle and were ready to back off, but not so, the “Panzer Graf.”  As the enemy tanks and infantry began withdrawing under the cover of night, they were followed closely by tanks of Strachwitz’s battalion.

Even though the last two days had been filled with fighting, burning tanks and fiery explosions, the Count, seemingly impervious to weariness and fatigue, led his men to hiding places near the Russian bivouac.

At first light, when the Russian’s forces began stirring, Strachwitz launched yet another attack, crushing the enemy and penetrating to the enemy artillery positions. It had been the Soviet artillery that had been one of the more serious problems in the earlier fighting and the Count was going to make sure that these guns would not be used against his brothers in arms again. Again the enemy suffered heavy casualties from the iron hand of Strachwitz. For this and other actions during this period, the Colonel was awarded the Knight’s Cross.

Before the end of the year, Strachwitz would be the recipient of another rarely given German medal, the German Cross in Gold. It had been instituted in September 1941. It had a two-fold purpose. It was to be awarded in cases of bravery that went above the reach of the Iron Cross 1st Class but not quite to the level of the Knight’s Cross. Strachwitz and a few others were awarded this medal after having already received the Knight’s Cross in recognition of their continued valor and service to their country.

By 1942, the Count was known to all as “The Panzer Graf.” He seemed to lead a charmed life and was always in the van of the advance. His tank would be the first piece of German armor to enter the city of Stalingrad in the fall of 1942. On that occasion his tank and those of his men made a deep penetration to the Russian airfield. There he wrought more havoc with estimates as high as 150 aircraft destroyed during the battle.

The Count was also present when the German Sixth Army found itself suddenly cut off and in danger of extermination. As the winter slammed into the fearful, half-frozen Germans within the Russian trap, Strachwitz and his panzers became a big part of the defenses. His tanks and men seemed to be always supplied. That was because the Count made one and another foray into and beyond Russian front lines to get the supplies he needed.

During this period he would be given the Oakleaves to add to his Iron Cross when he set up the perfect ambush for encroaching Soviet tanks. As was his custom, he had his men hide and make their tanks blend in with the countryside. As one after another of the enemy’s armor appeared and approached, Strachwitz held his tanks in check, not allowing them to fire until the right moment. When it came, it was a disaster for the Russians. In a series of brilliant maneuvers the tanks of the Count accounted for over 100 enemy tanks without losing a single one of their own.  It was a phenomenal exhibition of courage and cunning in the most adverse of circumstances.

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