You Must Go Where the Iron Crosses Grow
Moe: Alright Mutton head, let's get this straight. Are you German?
Larry: So you ARE German?
Curly: Czech!If you are fair-minded, you can honor former enemies who performed to high standards without reference to the cause for which they fought. The famous "Red Baron" Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen from World War I is an example, as are Robert E. Lee from the American Civil War and Erwin Rommel from World War II.
|Knispel could look as heroic as anyone - when he wanted to. He didn't want to very often.|
German tank ace Kurt Knispel (20 September 1921 – 28 April 1945) did not outlive the war. He did not have the opportunity to write fancy memoirs or serve in the post-war Bundeswehr or do all the things that soldiers can do to establish their names in the popular memory. Kurt Knispel is pretty much forgotten except by students of the war.
|This is a colorized capture from a late-war propaganda film.|
However, Knispel is justly legendary among true war historians, if not the general public. It is true that Knispel did not die heroically in a major battle that acquired notoriety; he did not command large armies and lead them to their glorious doom; he did not receive a state funeral or have Goebbels fabricate some heroic fantasy about his passing. Instead, Kurt Knispel died in a meaningless confrontation in the middle of nowhere, when people across an entire continent were in turmoil. It was a time when there was no one left to care, and Knispel wound up in an unmarked mass grave.
Knispel is reputed to have destroyed more enemy tanks - Soviet, British and American, in his case - than anyone else in history. How many? Nobody knows exactly. It really doesn't matter. It was a lot. Quite a lot. And likely more than anyone thinks. You don't fight constantly for years against overpowering odds, in close combat day after day with each enemy determined to blow you up, without destroying your share. Knispel spent most of his career on the Russian Front, the hardest zone of the war.
|Veterans of a tough war. Knispel is loaded with ammo and ready for anything. I believe he is talking to his friend and CO Hans Fendsack, but my source does not provide his name.|
Kurt Knispel was born in the heavily German Sudetenland (Zlaté Hory (Zuckmantel)) region of Czechoslovakia. This basically was a lost part of Germany after World War I, and folks there had a somewhat confused or murky status. Many considered them entirely German despite their nationality, and, if truth be told, they often acted like it. Knispel was a common fellow who followed his father, which was customary, into the automotive manufacturing trade. After its long status as part of Czechoslovakia, the region reverted to Germany again after the Munich agreement of 1938.
At first, this didn't affect Knispel, who continued with his attempts to work in an auto factory. Upon completing his apprenticeship, though, Knispel applied to join the armored forces of the German Heer. It was not a time for normal trades, and Knispel likely was just one step ahead of the draft board anyway. He chose tanks, perhaps because of his training in motor vehicles. Knowing how engines worked and so forth certainly would come in handy in the armored service.
|That is Knispel (right) with his tank commander Hans Fendsack. Fendsack fell in Normandy. Obviously, they were great friends, a friendship forged in blood and steel.|
Basic training was at Sagan in Lower Silesia, then part of Germany and now part of western Poland not far from the Oder River. After learning the basics of German ordnance such as the machine gun MG 34 and Pistole, and receiving practical training on Panzer I, II and IVs, Knispel was accepted on October 1, 1940, mustering into the 3rd Company of the 29th Panzer Regiment, which was serving in the 12th Panzer Division. He trained as a loader and gunner in a Panzer IV, the main German battle tank of the time, until June 11, 1941. This was propitious timing, as shortly after his graduation the Germans were about to begin something big.
|You can tell that when Knispel meant business, he meant business.|
Knispel's first commander in a Panzer IV was a Lt. Hellman. Their division was part of Panzergruppe 3, LVII Army Corps. This corps was part of Army Group Center during the first season of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia, which opened on June 22, 1941. Panzergruppe 3 formed part of the northern pincer around Moscow during Operation Typhoon, the attempt to capture Moscow. It was the part of the attack which came the closest to success. The capture of Klin and Solnechnogorsk, northern suburbs of Moscow, by Panzergruppe 3 on November 25 were among the last German successes of 1941. Resistance suddenly stiffened and the German axis of attack shifted to the center, but that soon failed as the Russians counterattacked. The Panzergruppe (renamed Panzerarmee on January 1, 1942) then had to fall back steadily from the city, battling out of encirclement to form river lines further west.
Knispel suffered through the brutal winter of 1941-1942 on the front lines with everyone else, avoiding the frostbite and death from an enemy action that awaited many of his comrades. He won the Iron Cross 2nd Class sometime during this period. Third Panzer remained in the northern stretches of the front, and Knispel steadily accumulated kills, having 12 credited to his name by the end of 1942. The Germans were positively anal about requiring confirmation of kills, giving proper credit where due and withholding it were there was no proof. The entire promotional system was based on this, so there was intense pressure to be accurate. Thus, any such number of kills is a minimum figure and most likely represents a great deal more "actual" combat successes than the number indicates. Knispel also personally acquired a reputation for being uninterested in claiming credit that wasn't absolutely certain and gladly deferring to others for kills that likely were his. He was a great guy to have in your outfit.
|Top German tank aces. Kurt Knispel had more victories than anyone else. You don't top a list like this by accident.|
Just a note about the Wehrmacht in general: there were two separate tracks for gaining status, the promotion system, and the medal route. Your rank, of course, was always important. However, for true status - the kind that made ordinary guys look at you with true respect and not just salute - the second track actually was more important. While more nebulous, it included more than just medals. For instance, being mentioned in a Wehrmacht communique - read out over the radio to the entire Reich and singling out only a few men each night of the millions serving - was one of the highest honors any soldier of any rank could receive.
Kurt Knispel, for reasons mentioned elsewhere in this article, was denied the medals he deserved. However, he was the only non-commissioned officer of the German tank arm to be named in a Wehrmacht communique. The only one.
|Knispel belongs in the company of the true legends. Here is Hans-Ulrich Rudel at the time of the Luftwaffe's surrender. Behind him is Adolf Galland, another legend.|
I am going to hammer this point home about status because it is so important. To prove it, I will give a couple of on-point examples from the life of another legend. Luftwaffe pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel was an Oberst (Colonel), which was no big deal in terms of rank. However, Rudel also happened to be the greatest ground-attack aviator of all time, setting all sorts of records that will never be broken, and everyone knew it. He lost his right leg on a mission... and went right back to flying missions during the Reich's last days because he could make a difference. Rudel was so honored by his comrades that in 1976, long after Germany had turned against Hitlerism in spirit as well as law, Rudel was invited to speak at a veteran's event. This invitation created a huge scandal that cost some Bundeswehr Generals their jobs. This did not diminish Rudel at all in the eyes of those who admired him.
Then, years later, at Rudel's funeral in December 1982, German pilots made a covert (and highly illegal) fly-by in Phantom jets during Rudel's funeral - once again at high risk to themselves and their careers. The simple rank and file, who never had even served with Rudel or likely fully understood his achievements, wanted to honor a legend, and they did. I doubt they would have done that for just any General or Field Marshal.
Simply having a rank is not going to make people go the extra yard for you, to show true respect. Kurt Knispel earned that kind of admiration. You can't buy it, you can't have it awarded to you. Instead, you must earn it where it counts. You must go where the Iron Crosses grow.
|Kurk Knispel receiving some kind of award. Everybody had lots of medals now, time was growing short.|
Ok, back to Knispel's life. New tanks were being introduced, so Knispel and other successful tankers were sent back to school at Putlos to learn about them. The main addition was the Tiger 1. Knispel's training group was designated the 1st Company of the 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion, with "Heavy" a designation for Tiger tank formations. A talented gunner, Knispel is said to have knocked out an enemy tank at 3000 yards - an almost magical feat. Knispel, now a tank commander, then took part in Kursk, where he reputedly destroyed 27 Russian T-34 tanks in 12 days. This won him the Iron Cross 1st Class for having a total of 50 enemy tanks destroyed. Contrary to popular belief, Kursk was not a German defeat due to enemy action. However, it turned into one after major German tactical victories due to the sheer preponderance of forces and the need for defenses elsewhere, both to the north and south.
|Tank duty was cold and lonely. Your tank was your home. It was better than sleeping in the open, but not by much. And they had to be run every four hours during the night.|
After Kursk, the Wehrmacht was in full retreat. However, Adolf Hitler refused to accept this fact and insisted on his troops "holding fast" on indefensible lines. One such occurrence was at the Korsun-Cherkassy pocket, the last part of the Dneiper line that Hitler had envisaged as an impenetrable wall beyond which the Soviets would not advance. It turned into nothing of the sort. In the middle of winter, after Kiev had fallen, a large part of Army Group South was encircled there. These forces under General Wilhelm Stemmerman, some 50,000 troops, faced another Stalingrad. Soviet Commander Georgy Zhukov was well aware of that precedent and rushed in heavy armored forces to form two rings around the trapped Germans. He basically dared the Germans to attempt a hopeless rescue attempt, as at Stalingrad. The Germans obliged.
|Knispel with his crew. Clearly a propaganda shot.|
Knispel's Tigers were attached to III Panzer Corps for the relief attempt and attacked toward the pocket from the southwest, with a separate group coming from the northwest. They made extremely slow progress, but the other relief attempt failed completely and Knispel's group turned into the only chance for the trapped men. The ground was muddy, and the tanks were burning up exorbitant amounts of fuel, which had to be hand-carried to them by men struggling through knee-deep mud. The Tigers finally managed to get within a few miles of the trapped men, just as Hoth had done at Stalingrad. There were vicious firefights for hilltops, with Knispel's men taking key ground but then unable to hold it. This time, though, unlike at Stalingrad, the German Generals and Hitler allowed the trapped Germans to break out. Some 35,000 men escaped (a figure disputed by the Soviets), and that was only possible due to some ferocious duels between Knispel and his comrades against heavy Soviet tank and artillery defenses. The Soviets were humiliated at seeing their presumably cornered prey escape and have denied the German success ever since.
Sometime after the Kamenets-Podolsk success in late March 1944, Knispel was transferred to the western front and given command of a new Tiger II, the most fearsome tank in any army. He participated in the defense of Caen, the German strongpoint that held open the lifeline for retreating German forces after the Allied breakout at Avranches. While forgotten by historians now, the determined defense of Caen was a huge success. After that situation was secure, Knispel returned to the East and fought in the Budapest area, scene of some of the hardest fighting of the last year of the war. Knispel was out there in his tank for every battle, and the Soviets were not being gentle to him: he reported 24 hits on his tank during one battle alone. There were some wild melees on the approaches to Budapest, including a major failed relief attempt that came much closer to success than it had any right to. By 1945 only the toughest German tanks stood a chance of success against the overwhelming forces arrayed against them. They gave the Germans a chance where otherwise there was none and kept craftsmen like Knispel alive. Those who like to argue that the heavy Tiger tanks represented wasted resources should ponder that.
|You don't allow pictures of yourself like this to be taken when you are in the Wehrmacht if you have any airs about you. Knispel probably willingly posed for this. "This is me, take it or leave it." The Germans took it.|
A Man like Kurt Knispel, a true Warrior, was not going to survive the war in a losing cause no matter how close to the end he made it. He worked like a maniac to save the situation when he could - and he did save it at times, his carefree attitude belying his pride in doing his duty. However, no man can alter the hands of fate. Eventually, the sands of time ran out. The enemy was about to enter Kurt Knispel's homeland, and he was all that stood between them and his family. He fell 100 miles from his home. There was to be no more retreating, no more fallback positions, and Kurt Knispel made his stand and bought his very own plot of ground. That is what it means, what it takes, to be a Warrior.
|Kurt Knispel's dog tags, re-discovered in his grave in 2013.|
Knispel always was out there fighting - somebody had to do it. He undoubtedly would grimace at anyone who brought up how many enemy tanks he had destroyed or how many battles he had participated in. There was no end but death, and each tank destroyed and each battle stripe he earned just brought that day nearer. He wore his hair long and detested any authority that got in the way of his job, but he was the best at what he did and they left him alone. There is some irony in the fact that his remains were finally identified by a tattoo that was only there due to his independent spirit, a rebellious nature that made him immortal. He quite rightly didn't care about silly things like foolish regulations, and that is what made him great and an inspiration to others.
Supposedly, Knispel was recommended for the Knight's Cross four times but was rejected each time due to his eccentric ways. The German brass much preferred the likes of Michael Wittmann, another tank ace who didn't last as long as the bearded Knispel but who "looked the part." There is no need to besmirch Wittmann, a truly bold (too bold, in the end) tank man, in order to praise Kurt Knispel. Knispel is credited with many more kills, but then, Knispel lasted eight months longer during a period of constant combat and so had more opportunities. The two simply had vastly different personal styles and backgrounds, and so one became a propaganda hero and one did not. It was asking a bit much for the Propaganda Ministry to make someone who technically was a Czech, and a wayward one (by their standards) at that, into a war hero.
|The ultimate posthumous award for Kurt Knispel: his own action figure.|
Awards were not Knispel's goal, he simply wanted to do his job and survive. While there is no indication that this is the case, the fictional figure of Oberst (Colonel) Steiner of "The Eagle Has Landed" could easily have been derived from Kurt Knispel - with parts of Oddball from Clint Eastwood's "Kelly's Heroes" mixed in. Knispel himself is said to have once assaulted a senior officer whom he saw mistreating Soviet POWs. War hero or no war hero, that easily could have gotten him shot or, like the fictional Steiner, sent to a punishment unit where death was a virtual certainty. He did it anyway, and he got away with it because the Germans needed him. That is what warriors do. When was the last time you risked your life on principle?
|Donald Sutherland seemed to be paying a covert homage to Kurt Knispel in "Kelly's Heroes," though he may not have realized it. The film was made in Yugoslavia, no doubt people there were familiar with Knispel (courtesy MGM).|
There is no need to glorify Kurt Knispel, and that is not the intent. He was a simple working stiff who was extremely talented and lucky for a very long time. Kurt survived when other perished, and only because of his skills. His luck, too, finally ran out, but only when his back was to the wall and further retreat was impossible. The bottom line is that Kurt Knispel had a natural talent for killing while abiding by the rules of war, and that's a fact. That does not make Kurk bad or good... just unique. Men like Kurt Knispel who do what must be done are what makes any army work, and indeed they are the life's blood of any organization, not just a military one.
Kurt Knispel would have made an awesome auto factory worker.
|Ich hatt' einen Kameraden.|