The Panzer Graf
Those who have even a cursory knowledge of the use of armor in World War II immediately recognize the name of Michael Wittmann. He, with his daring solo attack on units of the British 7th Armored Division at Villers Bocage on June 12th, 1944, would go down in history as one of the best “tank aces” of the war. There were, however, numerous other tank commanders that, though largely unknown, performed almost miraculous service in the Panzerwaffe.
Such a man was Generalleutnant Hyazinth Graf Strachwitz von Groß-Zauche und Camminetz. His service to Germany was mostly on the East Front against the Russians. That in itself could account for the fact that so many westerners have not heard the name. He would eventually become known as simply “Der Panzer Graf (The Tank Count).” This name came primarily as a result of his aristocratic and military heritage.
Strachwitz was born in Gross Stein of Silesia on July 30th, 1893. He was the firstborn of the family and thus inherited the name "Hyazinth," which had been passed down to the oldest son for over 700 years. Ten of his own family had died while valiantly fighting against the Mongols in the 13th century. With such a military background it was only natural that Strachwitz would also inevitably become a member of the German Imperial Army. Kaiser Wilhelm II sponsored him for a commission in the Garde du Corps cuirassier regiment when he came of age.
“Tanks must not be allowed to stand still. They must be
permanently on the move and always led from the front.”
He was educated at the prestigious Lichterfelde Cadet Academy, where he became close friends with another of noble blood, Manfred von Richthofen. This was the same Richthofen who would become known to the world as “The Red Baron,” with his “Flying Circus.” He would become the top flying ace of the war. Strachwitz was not only one of the most intelligent in his class, but he was gifted with many physical skills. If the 1st World War had not exploded in Europe in 1914, he had already been considered as a candidate for a number of events, including horseback riding, marksman, swordsman and athlete.
Another of the Panzer Graf’s character traits was an almost inordinate boldness. He had no hesitation in doing the most unconventional if the situation demanded it. When the First World War did break out, Strachwitz was one of the first to offer himself for service. He specifically requested long-range patrol work behind French lines. His performance, though brief, was spectacular. It read like a novel. He was able to secure and pass on valuable intelligence on the enemy and also performed various acts of sabotage against the French. He had a number of close calls, barely escaping capture. On one occasion he and his men found themselves soaked to the skin in one of their operations. They stripped to dry themselves and their uniforms when they came under attack by French colonial forces searching for them.
The Count was able to procure civilian clothes for himself and his men (he spoke fluent French), but was captured shortly after. Having been taken prisoner in civilian attire, Strachwitz was put on trial as a spy, but was acquitted. He was, nevertheless sent to a penal colony instead of a prisoner of war facility. His health deteriorated rapidly. When moved to a POW camp, he attempted to escape but suffered serious injuries. Finally he feigned madness in such a way as to be committed to an asylum where he spent the remainder of the war.
The years following the end of World War One were tempestuous ones for the Count. Germany was being parceled out to surrounding countries. When Poland laid claim to part of the territory that belonged to the Count’s family, Strachwitz again went to war, this time against the Poles.
During this time Strachwitz had retained his commission as a reserve officer in the Reichsheer’s Cavalry Regiment. In 1934 he attended some Army maneuvers of the newly forming German Army. He was captured with the idea of armored forces, their mobility and potential. This type of action fit the Count’s personality well. It only took a moment for him to decide that this would be the branch of the military in which he would serve.
His application was accepted and he joined a large number of young Germans who would form the beginnings of Germany’s first “Panzer” division. He became a lower ranking officer in the 2nd Panzer Regiment. The Count served with that unit in battles in Poland, France and the Balkans.
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