When looking at the topic, two things become noticeable:
2) Michael Wittmann. Everywhere. Documentaries always focus on him, and you will always find him somehow. And that even though he only was the fourth most accomplished tank ace – how could that be?
So, let’s have a look at it. Why Germans, why Michael Wittmann?
- Why Germany?
While Germany was renowned for its Panzers, they really did not field many very strong tanks up until ~1942. And yet tiny Germany was able to hold against the Western Allies and Russia until 1945, and was able to achieve tank kill/loss rates of around 5:1 at the eastern and 4:1 at the western front.
The reasons for this far precede World War II. In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles decided that Germany alone was to blame for World War I, and prohibited Germany from having a strong military, including bans of tanks and limiting the army to a mere 100,000 soldiers. From this situation, the German military tacticians saw only one way for successful war planning: They needed a very efficient -Germany therefore trained its soldiers incredibly well- and hyper-mobile force which could overwhelm the enemy before he even mobilized his complete force. Motorized infantry in cooperation with combined arms (air force, artillery, and if possible tanks) would be able to achieve this.
In other words, the fundamentals of Blitzkrieg preceded even the first German tank.
From this line of thought, the national socialist tank programme starting in secret in the early 1930s focused on very skilled crews, which could make their own decisions and did not rely too much on commands from above.
As we all know, Blitzkrieg worked miracles in Poland, France and during the first summer in Russia. Germany overwhelmed all opponents, even though their armour of that time -PzKpfw I, II, III and IV in their early versions- were far inferior to even a T-34.
In Russia they encountered this tank, and realised that their armour up to this point was suddenly antiquated. From there on they spend many resources into building tanks that would not only win right now, but also dominate the battlefield for years to come. They knew that against the vast supplies of Russia and the USA, they would have to fight with great efficiency! Tanks such as Tiger, Panther and their successors and derivatives were born from this mindset.
The moment Tiger came, tank aces emerged. The highly skilled crews of Germany already had great numbers against the poorly trained Russian crews, but now they had a weapon that could destroy enemies from 2.000 meters and beyond with ease.
Tank aces like Carius, Knispel and Wittmann usually were tank soldiers who fought the war from the beginning. So we have highly trained soldiers with lots of combat experience, who now gain access to the best hardware out there.
- Germany knew they would need the best trained soldiers out there, which resulted in excellently trained tank crews.
- The Germans already had great experience in 1942 from four years of war, and then started building the most expensive, highest quality tanks there were.
- Great crews + Great tanks = Great results.
- Why Wittmann?
From my research and estimations, there appear to be three main reasons why Wittmann is so incredibly well known:
- He was good. However, this doesn’t explain it alone, as you can see from the charts there were three soldiers with higher kill numbers.
- Villers-Bocage. The most famous single-tank exploit there ever was; A single Tiger taking out dozens of western allied vehicles in a single encounter.
- Because he was a member of the SS, the Nazis loved using him for propaganda. Therefore, out of all tank aces there are the most records about him!
The third point might be the most important one. For anyone who does not know so well about the German army structure: The Wehrmacht was the actual army, while the SS was a political institution – basically a paramilitary unit of the NSDAP. When the nazis took power, they decided to form some elite SS units, which would recieve the best training and best equipment – and yet many historians claim that these units did not do all too well, mostly because they were not exactly a part of the Wehrmacht and therefore would encounter trouble in communications. Many Wehrmachts-Officers claimed they would rather see important equipment like the Tigers all gathered in hands of the real army.
From the tank aces you can find on the Panzer Ace List, you can see that Wittmann was the highest scoring member of the SS. And sadly, he also was a very dedicated Nazi. Hence the preference to focus all propaganda on him.
- What about the other Panzer aces?
From the number two of the list, Otto Carius, we happen to know a lot because he survived the war and wrote a book about it, called “Tigers in the Mud”. He is a valuable source for wartime experiences of German soldiers. Throughout the war he commanded a PzKpfw 38(t), Tiger, Tiger II and Jagdtiger.
About Kurt Knispel, the highest tank ace of all times, we sadly happen to know little. This has two reasons:
- While popular amongst his comrades, he was not well liked by the Nazis. He was promoted slowly, and denied many awards that were natural for other soldiers of such success.
- He died in 1945, when his Tiger II was surrounded by T-34s.
Knispel joined the war unusually late for a soldier of his achievement. He started in 1941 as a gunner in a PzKpfw IV. He managed to shoot down between 10 and 20 tanks during this time, and was quickly known as the best gunner of his division – a man who would frequently shoot and destroy the target before the commander even gave the order.
When in 1943 he became gunner of a Tiger, his kills quickly skyrocketed and his commanders contributed much of their success to his abilities. Knispel however was not a Nazi and while well-liked by his fellow soldiers and direct superiors, is rumored to have protected prisoners of war and to have been very loose about provisions, as you can see from his beard. For me this is even more reason to like him and (especially as a German) makes me a little sad that Wittmann takes the spotlight all the time!
Some interesting tidbits on SS Schwere Pz Abt. 503.
18 April 1945 blocking position on the road from Protzel to Bollersdorf opposite Ernsthof. A Soviet armor assault emanating from Gruhow is repelled, 64 Soviet tanks are knocked out for the loss of one Tiger 2.
19 April 1945 3 Tigers engage over 100 T-34/85’s and a company of JS 2’s. The first and last JS 2 are knocked out thus blocking traverse from the Soviet tank turrets. The three Königstigers wipe out the Soviets with Körner destroying over 39, Hauptscharführer Harrer destroys 25. The Tigers take on more ammo behind the main defensive line and relocate to Werneuchen.
In the late afternoon the 3 Tigers are attacked by 30 T-34’s, and with the assistance of another Tiger Untersturmführer Schäfer, all the soviet tanks are put out of action.
On this date Karl Körner, his 25th birthday scores his 76th kill in fighting against JS II’s at night with the usage of flares. Retreat toward Straussberg…….
30 April 1945, Georg Diers moves his Tiger 2 towards the Reichstag and knocks out around 30 Soviet T-34’s. Commander Turk remains at Potzdammer Platz and again repels another enemy attack when he is hit to his right track. A Bergepanther recovers his heavy tank…..