Hans Graf von Sponeck
|Hans Graf von Sponeck|
12 February 1888|
|Died||23 July 1944
|Allegiance|| German Empire
|Battles/wars||World War I
World War II
|Awards||Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross
Knight of Justice of the Order of Saint John
|Relations||Theodor Graf von Sponeck (cousin)
Hans von Sponeck (son)
Hans Graf von Sponeck or Hans Emil Otto Graf von Sponeck (12 February 1888 – 23 July 1944) was a German Generalleutnant during World War II who was imprisoned for disobeying orders and later executed. He was the father of Hans von Sponeck.
Sponeck was the youngest of four children, and only son, of Emil August Joseph Anton Graf Sponeck and Maria (née Courtin). He was born on 12 February 1888 in Düsseldorf, Rhine Province, just months before his father's death at age 38. Hans spent his early years with his mother in Freiburg, Breisgau. This was near the "Burg Sponeck" which had given his family its title name.
In 1898, Sponeck entered the cadet corps in Karlsruhe, and became the "head cadet" at 17. He received his commission on 19 March 1908 with rank of Lieutenant. He was also a gymnast and a soccer player. He was promoted to Captain in 1908. He married on 29 September 1910 and had two sons by this marriage.
First World War
Sponeck was a front line officer and battalion adjutant during World War I, and was wounded three times. In 1916 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Afterwards he was awarded both classes of the Iron Cross with leaves.
Between 1924 and 1934, he served on the General Staff HQ and later, as full colonel, commanded an infantry regiment at Neustrelitz. In 1925, Sponeck was admitted to the Order of Saint John (Bailiwick of Brandenburg) as a Knight of Honor.
Sponeck commanded Infantry Regiment 48 at Döberitz until late 1937 when he transferred to the Luftwaffe to establish paratrooper units. During the course of the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair, Sponeck was recalled by contemporaries as having suggested his willingness to lead his troops in support of army commander-in-chief Werner von Fritsch if called to do so, though no such plan ever came to fruition.
On 1 February 1938, Sponeck was promoted to major general. During the trial of General von Fritsch, Sponeck was called as a character witness but was roughly put down by Göring, who was serving as Court President. Nevertheless, Sponeck became commander of the 22nd Infantry Division with 42nd Army Corps training the troops as airborne infantry (Fallschirmjäger).
Second World War
On 1 February 1940, Sponeck was promoted to Generalleutnant. The German airborne assault on the Low Countries began on 10 May 1940, led by Sponeck and General Kurt Student. Sponeck led the German troops in the failed Battle for the Hague and was almost captured, only to be saved by the bombardment of Rotterdam on the 14 May 1940 which quickly led to the Dutch capitulation. He was wounded, and on his return to Germany was further awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross by Adolf Hitler.
Before dawn on 22 June 1941, Operation Barbarossa was launched beginning the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Sponeck commanded the 22nd Infantry Division as part of the 11th Army in the area of Army Group South attacking in the direction of the Crimean Peninsula. Two days before the invasion, on June 20, 1941, Sponeck's general staff gave orders to the division that any Jewish Red Army prisoners of war should be identified and separated from the rest of the Soviet prisoners. With the start of the invasion, Sponeck's division operated from the Romanian frontier driving into Bessarabia, Transnistria and then the southern Ukraine, taking part in heavy fighting at Beryslav to establish a bridgehead across the Dnieper River to Kakhovka in late August 1941. This enabled the 11th Army to advance southward toward the Crimean Peninsula but resulted in heavy losses for the division. In preparation for the invasion of Crimea, Sponeck's division was ordered in September and early October 1941 to pursue the Red Army east and north along the Sea of Azov to the cities Henichesk, Melitopol and Berdyansk, thereby protecting the eastern flank of the 11th Army. On October 7, 1941 Sponeck ordered his division to work closely with the SS's Security Police and SD by rounding up, identifying, and handing over Jewish civilians. Mass shootings of Jews by units of Einsatzgruppe D of the Security Police and SD are documented in both Henichesk and Melitopol shortly after these cities were occupied by the 22nd Infantry Division in October 1941. In Melitopol alone 2,000 Jewish men, women and children were massacred. In later English captivity at Trent Park, one of General von Sponeck's subordinate senior officers, Colonel (later General) Dietrich von Choltitz, admitted frankly in a surreptitiously recorded conversation that he had taken an active part in the work of killing Jews during the German invasion of the Soviet Union.
Because of sciatica and intestinal trouble, General von Sponeck took sick leave from his division on October 14, 1941. On Sponeck's return on December 3, 1941, Manstein gave him command of the 42nd Army Corps (with command of the 46th Infantry Division), which had taken the Kerch Peninsula on the extreme eastern tip of the Crimea. In Feodosia, within the area of Sponeck's command, 1,052 Jews were executed on or around December 10, 1941 by units of Einsatzgruppe D with the active cooperation and participation of the local military field commander and military police. On December 10, 1941, General von Sponeck ordered that all Jews found within his area of command were to be treated in principle as partisans, marked with the Star of David, and "deployed as labor." He also ordered that any Red Army soldiers captured, even those in uniform, were to be shot immediately and approved reprisal actions against civilians for any local partisan activity or sabotage.
On 26 December 1941, the Red Army launched an invasion of Crimea. Their plan was to land seaborne troops at Kerch and Mount Opuk, supported by later landings at Feodosia with 42,000 troops. On December 28 the battle in eastern Crimea had developed in favour of the Germans with them having eliminated one of the two Soviet beachheads around the town of Kerch. Sponeck requested permission to retreat to avoid being cut off and captured and so to regroup, but was denied three times. On 29 December the Russians landed additional forces on the southern coast at Feodosia and Sponeck had only thirty minutes to decide on his actions. On his own initiative, he gave order for his 10,000 men to retreat. In temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius, in a howling snowstorm and icy winds, the battalions of the 46th Infantry Division marched west. The soldiers marched for 46 hours with only the occasional rest for coffee, to warm up. Many suffered frostbite, and most of the horses starved. Much of the Divisions heavy equipment, including its artillery, remained behind on the frozen road.
On 31 December Sponeck's 46th Infantry arrived at the Parpach neck, where they established a defensive line. The following day, 1 January 1942, Red Army attacked again and were held back by Sponeck's men. The arrival of a rail-mounted unit finished off sixteen soviet T-26 tanks. Sponeck and his forces held off the enemy long enough until reinforcements arrived.
Arrest and trial
On 23 January 1942, Lieutenant General Hans Graf Sponeck's trial took place in front of the Court President Hermann Göring. It did not go well for Sponeck and the court found him guilty of disobedience of a superior officer. Sponeck maintained that he had acted, as taught, on his own initiative against orders, in order to avoid the destruction of his division. He was nevertheless given the death sentence, but Adolf Hitler (on Manstein's proposal) commuted the sentence to seven years in prison. Hans Sponeck was to serve as an example to those who disobeyed Hitler's new order of no retreat. Sponeck was sent to Germersheim Fortress where he was held as a prisoner. He was allowed into town occasionally and his wife visited him for one week per month in the fortress, with their five year old son (Hans-Christof von Sponeck, later a United Nations diplomat and Assistant Secretary General to Kofi Annan).
20 July 1944 Plot and execution
On 20 July 1944, Sponeck heard on his radio of the bomb attempt on Hitler's life. Heinrich Himmler was given the position of Reichs Security Official. Even though Sponeck had no contact with the German military resistance, the Gauleiter of the area around Germersheim, Josef Bürckel, pressed Himmler to have Sponeck executed in retribution for the assassination plot. Subsequently, Himmler gave the order for Sponeck to be executed by firing squad. This was carried out at 7:13 am on 23 July 1944 in Germersheim, Germany. Sponeck was allowed Holy Communion before his execution. In a letter to his wife he wrote "I die with firm faith in my Redeemer". Pleading the innocence of his actions in the Kerch peninsula, he went to the firing squad boldly, as witnessed by the priest present, and requested not to be bound or to be blindfolded. Facing the firing squad his last words were "For forty years I have served Germany, which I have loved with my entire heart, as a soldier and an officer. If I must let myself die today, I die in the hope of a better Germany!" Sponeck was buried in Germersheim and while no citations or speeches were permitted at his grave, they did allow the Lord's Prayer to be said. After the war, Sponeck's mortal remains were exhumed and his last resting place was the Soldiers' Cemetery at Dahn in the Palatinate forest.
On 23 July 1999, the 55th anniversary of the execution, Sponeck's son by his second marriage, Hans-Christof Graf Sponeck, who was just six years old when his father was executed, held a requiem at his father's grave. Hans-Christof Graf Sponeck served as Assistant Secretary General and Diplomat, United Nations, until his retirement a short time ago.
Awards and decorations
- Iron Cross of 1914), 1st and 2nd class
- Lifesaving Medal (Prussia)
- Military Merit Order, 4th class with Swords (Bavaria)
- Knight's Cross, First Class of the Friedrich Order with Swords (Württemberg)
- Knight's Cross Second Class of the Order of the Zähringer Lion with Swords (Württemberg)
- War Merit Cross (Lippe)
- Wound Badge (1918) in Silver
- Iron Cross of 1939, 1st and 2nd class
- Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross (14 May 1940)
- Graf-Sponeck-Strasse in the district of Bremen Neue Vahr named after him
- A plaque at Parkstrasse 3 in Neustrelitz, where he lived from 1935 to 1937 (1992)
- Memorial in front of his former official residence in Bremen Horn-Lehe (2007)
- General Hans Graf Sponeck Barracks in Germersheim named after him
Note on name
Graf is an historic German noble title, equivalent in rank to the French "count" or to the British "earl". In Germany today, however, Graf is no longer a noble title, so as a matter of law it is used only as part of the name of the person concerned.
- "Generalleutnant Graf Hans Emil Otto von Sponeck". Historic.de. Retrieved 22 February 2012.
- Pipes, Jason. "Hans Graf von Sponeck". feldgrau.com. Archived from the original on 2007-08-25. Retrieved 22 February 2012.
- Robert M. Clark, Jr., The Evangelical Knights of Saint John; Dallas, Texas: 2003; p. 46.
- Deutsch, Harold. Hitler and His Generals: The Hidden Crisis, January - June 1938. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1974. p 248.
- Erik Grimmer-Solem, "'Selbständiges verantwortliches Handeln': Generalleutnant Hans Graf von Sponeck (1888–1944) und das Schicksal der Juden in der Ukraine, Juni–Dezember 1941." Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift 72 (2013), pp. 28-29. http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/mgzs.2013.72.issue-1/mgzs.2013.72.1.23/mgzs.2013.72.1.23.xml?format=INT. Retrieved 13 February 2013
- Erik Grimmer-Solem, "'Selbständiges verantwortliches Handeln': Generalleutnant Hans Graf von Sponeck (1888–1944) und das Schicksal der Juden in der Ukraine, Juni–Dezember 1941." Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift 72 (2013), pp. 34-39. http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/mgzs.2013.72.issue-1/mgzs.2013.72.1.23/mgzs.2013.72.1.23.xml?format=INT. Retrieved 13 February 2013
- Sönke Neitzel, Abgehört: Deutsche Generäle in britischer Kriegsgefangenschaft 1942–1945 (Berlin: Propyläen, 2005), p. 258.
- Erik Grimmer-Solem, "'Selbständiges verantwortliches Handeln': Generalleutnant Hans Graf von Sponeck (1888–1944) und das Schicksal der Juden in der Ukraine, Juni–Dezember 1941." Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift 72 (2013), pp. 44-45. http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/mgzs.2013.72.issue-1/mgzs.2013.72.1.23/mgzs.2013.72.1.23.xml?format=INT. Retrieved 13 February 2013
- Lothar Wettstein, Josef Bürckel: Gauleiter Reichsstatthalter Krisenmanager Adolf Hitlers, 2nd ed. (Norderstedt: Books on Demand, 2010), pp. 538–540.
- "WW2 Military Cemetaries". Retrieved 26 February 2012.
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