Panzer ace

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"Panzer ace" ("tank ace") is a contemporary term used in English-speaking popular culture to describe highly decorated German tank ("Panzer") commanders and crews during World War II. While not prevalent in World War II within the Wehrmacht, it was common in the Waffen-SS to reward its most successful personnel, as the SS organisation was far more attuned to the propaganda imperatives of Nazi Germany. These commanders were credited with the destruction of large numbers of tanks and other armoured vehicles. The British and United States militaries did not recognise any of their tank commanders for "tank kills", though some were also responsible for destroying a large number of enemy tanks.

The term "Panzer ace" has become prominent in contemporary popular culture, especially in the United States or as part of the uncritical portrayal of the Waffen-SS in English-language militaria and popular history works. The term is featured prominently in English translations of the works by German author Franz Kurowski. His biographical Panzer Aces series focuses on highly-decorated tank commanders, such as Michael Wittmann and Franz Bäke.

In recent years, German historian Sönke Neitzel and American military historian Steven Zaloga, amongst others, have examined the combat performance of highly decorated German tank crews during the war. Zaloga concluded that "Panzer ace" is a romanticisation of reality, as it is neither possible to correctly determine "tank kills" in the heat of the battle nor to separate individual performance from technological or battlefield advantage, mixed with propaganda. In contrast, British historian Robert Kershaw argues that the large number of tanks destroyed by some German commanders can be attributed to the skills they gained through years of combat.

Wartime perceptions[edit]

During World War II the concept of "Panzer aces" received little attention. To the extent that the concept existed, it was mainly advanced by the Waffen-SS as part of its contributions to Nazi Germany's propaganda campaigns. In most German Army (Heer) units, tank crews and commanders generally received awards for mission performance rather than tank kills.[1]

A Tiger I tank during the Battle of Kursk in June 1943. Most of the successful German tank commanders served in units equipped with Tigers during this period.[1]

German highly-decorated tank commanders were most often soldiers who served in units equipped with Tiger I or Tiger II tanks between mid-1943 and mid-1944. The Allies did not have any tanks capable of easily defeating the Tigers during this period. Few soldiers who operated Panther tanks at this time received the same high decorations as these tanks were more vulnerable to Allied tanks and less mechanically reliable than the Tiger.[1] Historian Dennis Showalter has suggested that the confidence which the crews of Tigers and the operators of other relatively advanced weapons had in the capabilities of their equipment may have reinforced their ideological conditioning, and encouraged them to take risks in combat.[2]

The United States Army did not adopt the concept of "tank aces" during World War II, with proposals to do so being rejected.[3] US Army tank commanders such as Lafayette G. Pool and Creighton Abrams were responsible for the destruction of large numbers of German tanks and other armoured vehicles.[3] The US Army's weekly magazine Yank featured several successful tank commanders such as Pool. The March 1945 Yank described Pool as "the ace of American tankers" and stated that "[he] is an almost unbelievable document of total victory." [4][5] A 1943 New York Times story also labelled Chinese Major General Hoo Hsien-Chung as a "tank ace" for the actions of a force under his command during the 1938 Battle of Taierzhuang.[6]

Similarly, the British Army did not recognise any tank aces.[7] Opportunities for British commanders to destroy large numbers of enemy tanks were limited as the various tanks operated by the Army generally did not outclass German tanks. Some British Sherman Firefly tank commanders were responsible for destroying multiple German tanks.[8] The Soviet Red Army regarded destroying tanks as not being an act of particular heroism for its tank commanders, as the main role of its armoured units was to support infantry.[9] However, the Soviet Military Review magazine noted: "The tankmen's heroic deeds were popularised over the radio, in special orders of the day, in newspapers and leaflets, and in indivdual talks with servicemen. Some tank whose crews had distinguished themselves most in action, were given, by order of tank formation commanders, the name of Russian generals or of the heroes of the units, who had fallen fighting for their country."[10] The most successful award recipient of the Hero of the Soviet Union was published in accommodation of a portrait photo.[11]

Overall, Allied Newspapers devoted a lot of space to aircraft and Naval tallies, human interest stories, and the Eastern Front, but paid little attention to Tank combat.[12]

Contemporary use[edit]

Kershaw in his book "Tank Men" refers to a "Tank Ace" being the minority of tank commanders that accounted for the most amount of destroyed enemy armour, saying it is roughly analogous with Flying ace [13]

The German author Franz Kurowski covers "Panzer aces" in several of his hagiographic accounts. Published in the U.S. by J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing in the 1990s and by Stackpole Books in the 2010, his popular series Panzer Aces describes fictionalised careers of highly-decorated German soldiers during World War II.[14] A veteran of the Eastern front (as a member of a propaganda company), Kurowski is one of the authors who "have picked up and disseminated the myths of the Wehrmacht in a wide variety of popular publications that romanticize the German struggle in Russia", according to The Myth of the Eastern Front by historians Ronald Smelser and Edward Davies.[15]

The most famous German "Panzer ace", Michael Wittmann, is credited by Kurowski as having destroyed 60 tanks and nearly as many anti-tank guns in the course of a few days near Kiev in November 1943.[16] According to historian Steven Zaloga, Wittman was credited with about 135 tanks destroyed - although 120 of those were made on the Eastern Front from a virtually impregnable Tiger tank. After the war, Wittmann gained a cult status among admirers of the Wehrmacht, the Waffen-SS and tank warfare.[17] Kurowski's book also describes the actions of "Panzer ace" Franz Bäke in the Cherkassy Pocket. In Kurowski's retelling, after fighting unit after unit of the Red Army, Bäke is able to establish a corridor to the trapped German forces, and then "wipes out" the attacking Soviets. In another of Kurowski's accounts, while attempting to relieve the 6th Army encircled in Stalingrad, Bake destroys 32 enemy tanks in a single engagement.[18]

Analysis[edit]

The concept of what constitutes success in tank battles has received considerable attention in recent years.[1] The historian Sönke Neitzel questions the numbers of tanks destroyed attributed in popular culture to various tank commanders. According to Neitzel, numbers of successes by highly decorated soldiers should be approached with caution as it is rarely possible to determine reliably, in the heat of the battle, how many tanks were destroyed and by whom.[19] The Wehrmacht's intelligence service on the Eastern Front, the Fremde Heere Ost (FHO), routinely reduced the reported number of Soviet tanks being destroyed by 30 to 50 per cent[20] in their own statistics to make up for double counting and repairable vehicles.[1][20] Zaloga considers these numbers to be reasonably accurate tallies of actual Soviet tank losses.[21]

At the time of Operation Citadel and during the subsequent Soviet counteroffensives in the Summer of 1943, German combat units claimed 16,250 tanks and assault guns destroyed. According to Zetterling, the high command was a little too drastic with its 50% reduction, and a reduction of claims by 42% would have been more accurate.[22]

The historian Steven Zaloga opines that "tank kill claims during World War II on all sides should be taken with a grain of salt".[1] Zaloga uses the term "tank ace" in quotation marks in his 2015 work Armored Champion: The Top Tanks of World War II. He notes the "romantic nonsense" of the popular inclination to imagine a tank versus tank engagement as an "armoured joust" – two opponents facing each other – with the "more valiant or better-armed [one] the eventual victor". In reality, most tank to tank combat involved one tank ambushing the other, and the most successful tank commanders were generally "bushwhackers" with "a decided advantage in firepower or armour, and often both".[23]

The grave of "Panzer ace" Michael Wittmann and his tank crew in 2007

Zaloga uses Wittmann's career to illustrate the point of the battlefield advantage. He credits Wittmann with "about 135" tanks destroyed, but points out that Wittmann achieved 120 of these in 1943, operating a Tiger I tank on the Eastern Front. Having advantages both in firepower and in armour, Tiger I was "nearly invulnerable in a frontal engagement" against any of the Soviet tanks of that time. Wittmann thus could "kill its opponents long before they were close enough to inflict damage on his tank".[23] Zaloga concludes: "Most of the 'tank aces' of World War II were simply lucky enough to have an invulnerable tank with a powerful gun".[23] He has also written that "the considerable attention paid to German tank aces in recent years obscures the fact that they were an exception to the rule and that most of the anonymous young German tankers in late 1944 were thrown into combat with poor training".[1]

Historian John Buckley has also criticised accounts of Wittmann's career, arguing that "many historians through to today continue to repackage unquestioningly Nazi propaganda" by repeating false claims that Wittmann's tank single-handedly defeated a British offensive in Normandy. In reality, this tactical success was achieved by the entire unit Wittmann formed part of, but was attributed only to him as part of a propaganda campaign.[24]

In contrast to this, military historian Robert Kershaw says some tank aces like Wittmann encapsulate what cumulative skills from years of combat in multiple campaigns may achieve.[12]

British expert George Forty advocates that some German tanks (in particular the Tiger 1) were often better armoured and armed than their allied counterparts, which often helped the survivability of crews, enabling them to either win engagements or at least survive encounters so as to be able to fight again.[25] However, like Kershaw, Forty notes that the expertise and bravery of tank aces who had achieved high numbers of "kills", like for instance Michael Wittmann, was also a factor. [26]. Forty also points out that there were tank commanders, like Buck Kite and Laffeyete Pool, who still had success in their tanks despite them being inferior to the tanks they opposed. [27]

Contributing Factors to Success[edit]

There are numerous factors established by writers in the field, that contribute to the success of a tank ace (and tank crews generally), though not all of them agree. Training was one issue, with writers establishing the difference in quality of training depending on the country. George Forty concludes that German tank training had the edge on other nation's training, at least partially because they had started training programs before the other countries, though he notes they still had their problems. [28]. In comparison, he notes that Russian training was seen by some as inadequate, as it was too short.[29]. He noted that for instance, Russian crews drove on the peaks of hills to avoid rough terrain, however this made them more visible targets. They continued to do this throughout the war, with no training or experience correcting this. [30]

The difference in armour and firepower is undeniably a factor. Though at times the Germans found themselves to be at a disadvantage (initially against the Matilda II in North Africa and against the T-34 in 1941 in Russia) [31] the introduction of the Tiger 1, and the advantages it had over over other tanks it commonly engaged, meant that Panzer aces had an advantage over many allied tanks, eg Russian T-34s. [23] , [32]. The Tiger 1 had an advantage over many tanks it encountered, in terms of both armour and firepower. It held that advantage up until the end of the war, when the heavier US M26 Pershing, British Comet (tank) and the Russian Joseph Stalin (IS-2) were introduced. [33]. Successful German tank aces were often in Tigers, including Kummel[34], Wittman [35] Strachwitz [36] and Otto Carius [37][37] Johannese Bolter and Martin Shroif [38]. The Panther and Tiger cause consternation in Allied tank crews, and the 75mm gun of the early model Sherman tank was seen as inadequate against these tanks. [39]. However, Kershaw points out that having a technical advantage over the enemy in terms of armour isn't absolutley decisive. The French had superior tanks in terms of armour and firepower to the Germans at the start of the war, however the training and doctrine of the French armoured forces was inferior and patchy compared to the Germans. [40]

Both British and German veterans also noted that a good crew working together, helped success in tank combat [41]. Panzer ace Michael Wittmann noted the importance of a good crew as being necessary for an effective tank. In particular, he noted the importance of the gunner, and when he was honoured with the knights Cross award for tank combat, he said he would only accept it if his gunner, Bobby Woll, was also honoured in the same manner. [42]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g Zaloga 2008, p. 38.
  2. ^ Showalter 2002, p. 142.
  3. ^ a b Zaloga 2008, p. 46.
  4. ^ United States. Dept. of the Army. Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, Issue 44, p. 25
  5. ^ Tank Aces: From Blitzkrieg to the Gulf War, pp. 25-26
  6. ^ "Chinese Tank Ace in Cairo". The New York Times. 30 March 1943. p. 8. Retrieved 2 October 2016. 
  7. ^ Perrett 2012.
  8. ^ Hart 2007, p. 49.
  9. ^ Forty 1997, p. 60.
  10. ^ Soviet Military Review, Issue 4, April 1972, p. 34. Moscow: Krasnaya Zvezda Publishing House
  11. ^ Soviet Military Review, Issue 4, April 1972, p. 35. Moscow: Krasnaya Zvezda Publishing House
  12. ^ a b Kershaw, Robert "Tank Men: the Human Story of Tanks at War" Hodder p 331
  13. ^ Kershaw, Robert "Tank Men: the Human Story of Tanks at War" Hodder p 332
  14. ^ Smelser & Davies 2008, pp. 175–176, 251.
  15. ^ Smelser & Davies 2008, pp. 5, 159.
  16. ^ Smelser & Davies 2008, pp. 179.
  17. ^ Zaloga 2015, pp. 3.
  18. ^ Smelser & Davies 2008, pp. 176.
  19. ^ Neitzel 2002, p. 413.
  20. ^ a b Zaloga 2015, p. 312.
  21. ^ Zaloga 2015, p. 134.
  22. ^ Zetterling, Niklas; Frankson, Anders (2000). Kursk 1943: A Statistical Analysis. London: Frank Cass. p. 126. 
  23. ^ a b c d Zaloga 2015, pp. 3–4.
  24. ^ Buckley 2013, p. 70.
  25. ^ Forty, George "Tanks Aces: Bliztkrieg to the gulf war" Sutton Publishing p 84,
  26. ^ Forty, George "Tanks Aces: Blitzkrieg to the Gulf War" Sutton Publishing p viii
  27. ^ Forty, George "Tanks Aces: Blitzkrieg to the Gulf War" Sutton Publishing p viii
  28. ^ Forty, George "Tank Warfare In World War Two" Magpie Books 1998, page 48
  29. ^ Forty, George "Tank Warfare In World War Two" Magpie Books 1998, page 50
  30. ^ Forty, George "Tank Warfare In World War Two" Magpie Books 1998, page 50
  31. ^ Showalter, Dennis "Hitler's Panzers: The lightning Attacks that revolutised Warfare" Berekely Caliber, 2009 p 165
  32. ^ Forty, George "Tanks Aces: Bliztkrieg to the gulf war" Sutton Publishing p 84,
  33. ^ Forty, George "Tanks Aces: Blitzkrieg to the Gulf War" Sutton Publishing p 84
  34. ^ Forty, George "Tanks Aces: Blitzkrieg to the Gulf War" Sutton Publishing p 97
  35. ^ Forty, George "Tanks Aces: Blitzkrieg to the Gulf War" Sutton Publishing p 104
  36. ^ Forty, George "Tanks Aces: Blitzkrieg to the Gulf War" Sutton Publishing p 95
  37. ^ a b "Otto Carius". The Times. 12 February 2015. Retrieved 12 June 2015. 
  38. ^ Tucker-Jones, Jones "Tiger I and Tiger II" Pen and Sword Military, 1988, page 9
  39. ^ Prods, John "Normandy Crucible: The Decisive Battle that shaped World War II in Europe" p 81
  40. ^ Kershaw, Robert "Tank Man" Hodder, 2009 p 95
  41. ^ Forty, George "Tank Warfare In World War Two" Magpie Books 1998, page 133, 135
  42. ^ Forty, George "Tank Warfare In World War Two" Magpie Books 1998, page 106

Bibliography[edit]

  • Buckley, John (2013). Monty's Men: The British Army and the Liberation of Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300134490. 
  • Hart, Stephen A. (2007). Sherman Firefly vs Tiger: Normandy 1944. Oxford: Osprey. ISBN 1846031508. 
  • Forty, George (1997). Tank Aces: From Blitzkrieg to the Gulf War. Stroud: Sutton. ISBN 0750914475. 
  • Kershaw, Robert (2008). Tank Men: the Human Story of Tanks at War. London: Hodder. 
  • Neitzel, Sönke (2002). "Des Forschens noch wert? Anmerkungen zur Operationsgeschichte der Waffen-SS". Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift (de). 61: 403–429. 
  • Perrett, Bryan (2012). Iron Fist: Classic Armoured Warfare. London: Hachette. ISBN 1780225245. 
  • Showalter, Dennis Edwin (2002). "More Than Nuts and Bolts: Technology and the German Army, 1870–1945". The Historian. 65 (1): 123–143. 
  • Smelser, Ronald; Davies, Edward J. (2008). The Myth of the Eastern Front: The Nazi-Soviet War in American Popular Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-83365-3. 
  • Zaloga, Steven (2015). Armored Champion: The Top Tanks of World War II. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books. ISBN 978-0-8117-1437-2. 
  • Zaloga, Steven J. (2008). Panther vs Sherman : Battle of the Bulge, 1944. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 9781846032929.