Pages Menu

Categories Menu

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

The Panzer Graf

By Wild Bill Wilder

In the long run, however, the enemy would overpower the German Sixth Army. Even the skills of the Count could not keep his crews invulnerable. Sheer weight of numbers began depleting Strachwitz’s tanks and men. There seemed to be no end to them. A few days later Strachwitz was seriously wounded and evacuated by air. He would not be at Stalingrad when the rest of the German forces surrendered to the Soviets.

Once Strachwitz had been nursed back to health, he was given the command of one of the newly forming heavy tank battalions, equipped with the new monster Mark VIe, “Tiger” tank.  He was soon back in the thick of battle, this time with the top-notch Gross Deutschland Division, this time in the boiling “kessel” known as Kharkov.

Being the key to movement to the east or west, Kharkov became one of the most contested cities in military history. It would swap hands four times during the German-Russian conflict. It was early 1943 and General von Manstein, against the Fuhrer’s directive, skillfully evacuated Kharkov and let the enemy overextend himself. He would then take the city back for himself.

{default}

Late one evening Strachwitz was visiting one of his advanced observation posts and saw for himself the sudden appearance of dozens of Russian tanks as they crested the hill and descended into the valley. They were headed right toward him and his forces. The Count ordered his tanks to hold their positions. When the Soviet armor finally stopped, waiting for the dawn, Strachwitz got his forces in order.

When the first rays of daylight began to change and pierced the blackness, the Russian tanks cranked their engines and began to move. The Tigers of the battalion still had not been detected. Once more the audacious master of deception had fooled the enemy. Waiting can be perhaps the most trying element of war, but the Count’s men were well disciplined and waited for the order to fire. When it came, the gates of hell seemed to open up before the Russian tank crews.

As the German 88’s cracked sharply in the early morning, they cut a path of death through the Soviet tanks. Within minutes over 18 enemy tanks were destroyed. The tank crews still alive immediately began to withdraw their vehicles. As was his custom, however, the Count would not allow this. He continued to pursue the Russians as they sought to leave the battlefield and before the day had ended, the entire Soviet tank force had been destroyed. Only one of the Tigers suffered any significant damage, but it was repaired by German mechanics brought forward by Strachwitz before darkness came. For this victory, he would earn his “Swords” to add to his other awards.

On April 1st, 1944, the Panzer Graf was promoted to Major General, the first time a reserve officer in the Wehrmacht had received such honor. Strachwitz was worthy of the rank and proved once again a leader that led, not followed. He continued to place himself at the head of his tank columns, leading them into battle.

In the fall of that same year, after commanding for a short period the 1st Panzer Division, Strachwitz was given an even greater command. He was appointed Commander (armor) of Army Group North. Once again his tactical brilliance came to the fore. Scraping together whatever he could to form “Fire Brigades,” Strachwitz continued to shore up the crumbling German defenses. Again and again he was able to accomplish the impossible. In Army Group North a new saying arose, “Strachwitz is here – he’ll sort it out!” This was the cry of more than one battlefield commander when the Panzer Graf came to the rescue.

In late 1944 the Count, still conducting himself as a warrior instead of a military paper-pusher, executed victories far out of proportion to his resource. George Forty details a series of actions with Strachwitz in his Tiger for which he would receive the rarely awarded “Diamonds” addition to his Iron Cross. Only a handful of German soldiers and tankers would be awarded this highly distinguished medal during the war.

In an effort to recapture the Latvian port near Riga, Strachwitz took a small force of ten Tiger tanks and fifteen half-tracks full of Panzergrenadiers in a large loop around Tuccum. Surprising an entire battalion of T-34s in the town, all lined up neatly, he availed himself of the gunnery officer of the battleship Lutzow and had the big 11” guns destroy many of the Russian tanks. Strachwitz and his men finished off the rest, used the captured enemy fuel and supplies from a Russian supply area.

From there he took a small force, headed north surprised a Soviet armored Corps by getting behind it. He positioned his four Tiger tanks well and watched as the Russian tanks rolled onward. This was a favorite tactic of the Tiger tank commanders. When the time was right, the Panzer Graf had his tanks open fire. It created havoc among the Russian tanks. They thought they were being fired on from the front and did not realize the shells were coming from their flanks. Soon dozens of Russian tanks were left twisted smoking hulks.

The Russian commander, with more Germans at the front of his column, thought he was surrounded by a much larger force and surrendered his entire corps. Leaving some infantry and halftracks to control the situation, Strachwitz continued on his war odyssey, reaching Riga, entering the town and capturing it. A group of high ranking German officers later entered the city, noticed the Panzer Graf sitting atop the turret of his Tiger and shouted, “Nice going, Lieutenant!” Strachwitz wore no rank badges in combat. Laughing, Strachwitz answered them, “You’re not talking to a lieutenant. I’m only a general.”

As a result of this action, Strachwitz and his small Kampfgruppe would take 18,000 Soviet prisoners, 28 batteries of artillery and dozens of vehicles, including tanks, SP guns and many trucks.  Such actions seem impossible to many westerners who fail to grasp the enormity of the war in the east.

Very late in the war, while being driven to the headquarters of one of the divisions under his command, he was badly hurt in an automobile accident. In spite of the severity of his injuries, including many broken bones and a fractured skull, the good count was not about to succumb to an untimely death outside of combat.

His determination brought him back into the action just before the end of the war. Still on crutches, he formed a new command of anti-tank fighters at Bad Kudova. He eventually surrendered to the western Allies by traveling to Bavaria. Once freed from a prisoner of war camp, the Count had to start his life all over again. His family had been killed or dispersed with no way to find them. His properties had been seized by the Soviets and now lay in their zone of control.

The Count gradually rebuilt his life, remarried, had more children and found a new home in Bavaria. The last years of his life were spent in quiet with those whom he loved. He had earned the respect of friend and foe alike as a formidable opponent and a true gentleman. When he passed away in 1968, officers of the Bundeswehr mounted an honor guard around his casket as a salute to a fallen hero.

Pages: 1 2 3

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *