Hans Graf von Sponeck
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|Hans Graf von Sponeck|
12 February 1888|
|Died||23 July 1944
|Allegiance|| German Empire
World War II
|Awards||Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross
Knight of Justice of the Order of Saint John
|Relations||Hans von Sponeck (son)|
Hans Graf von Sponeck (12 February 1888 – 23 July 1944) was a German general during World War II who was imprisoned for disobeying orders and later executed. In Ukraine Sponeck and his units participated actively in massacre of Jews and Romani people, as well as in reprisal actions against civilians and in the killing of captured Red Army uniformed soldiers.
Sponeck was born on 12 February 1888 in Düsseldorf, Rhine Province. 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 married on 29 September 1910 and had two sons by this marriage.
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.
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.
Invasion of the Soviet Union
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 20 June 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 to 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 of Henichesk, Melitopol and Berdiansk, thereby protecting the eastern flank of the 11th Army.
On 7 October 1941 Sponeck ordered his division to work closely with the SS's Security Police and Sicherheitsdienst (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 14 October 1941. On Sponeck's return on 3 December 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 Crimea. In Feodosia, within the area of Sponeck's command, 1,052 Jews were executed on or around 10 December 1941 by units of Einsatzgruppe D with the active cooperation and participation of the local military field commander and military police. On 10 December 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 of 42,000 troops. On December 28, after having eliminated one of the two Soviet beachheads around the town of Kerch, the battle in eastern Crimea had developed in favour of the Germans. Nevertheless, 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 what to do next. On his own initiative, he gave order to 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 von 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 to a superior officer. Sponeck maintained that he had acted against orders, on his own initiative, 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 not to retreat. Sponeck was held prisoner in the Germersheim Fortress where he was allowed into town occasionally; his wife visited him in the fortress for one week per month with their five-year-old son Hans-Christof.
20 July 1944 Plot and execution
On 20 July 1944, Sponeck heard on the radio of the 20 July failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. Even though Sponeck had no contact with the German military resistance, Josef Bürckel, Gauleiter of Gau Westmark where Germersheim was located, pressed Heinrich Himmler, who was the Reichs Security Official, to have Sponeck executed in retribution for the assassination plot. On the orders of Himmler, Sponeck was executed by firing squad on 23 July 1944.
Sponeck was buried in Germersheim and no citations or speeches were permitted at his grave. After the war, Sponeck's remains were transferred to the Soldiers' Cemetery at Dahn in the Palatinate Forest.
Awards and decorations
- Iron Cross of 1914), 1st and 2nd class
- 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
- Grimmer-Solem 2013, pp. 34-9.
- Grimmer-Solem 2013, pp. 44-5.
- "Generalleutnant Graf Hans Emil Otto von Sponeck". Historic.de. Retrieved 22 February 2012.
- Robert M. Clark, Jr. (2003). The Evangelical Knights of Saint John. p. 46. ISBN 978-0972698900.
- Deutsch, Harold (1974). Hitler and His Generals: The Hidden Crisis, January - June 1938. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. p 248. ISBN 978-0816606498.
- Pipes, Jason. "Hans Graf von Sponeck". feldgrau.com. Retrieved 12 November 2015.
- Grimmer-Solem 2013, pp. 28-9.
- Neitzel, Sönke (2005). Abgehört: Deutsche Generäle in britischer Kriegsgefangenschaft 1942–1945. Berlin: Propyläen. p. 258. ISBN 978-3549072615 (in German).
- Wettstein, Lothar (2010). Josef Bürckel: Gauleiter Reichsstatthalter Krisenmanager Adolf Hitlers, 2nd ed. Norderstedt: Books on Demand. pp. 538–540. ISBN 978-3839117613 (in German).
- Grimmer-Solem 2013, pp. 28–9;Grimmer-Solem 2013, pp. 34–9;Grimmer-Solem 2013, pp. 44–5]]
- Grimmer-Solem, Erik (2013). "'Selbständiges verantwortliches Handeln': Generalleutnant Hans Graf von Sponeck (1888–1944) und das Schicksal der Juden in der Ukraine, Juni–Dezember 1941" ['Autonoumus and responsible action': Lieutenant General Hans von Sponeck (1888-1944) and the fate of Ukrainian Jews, June–December 1941]. Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift (in German). 72 (1 - December 2013). See review (in English).
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