"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 argues that "Panzer ace" is a romanticisation of reality mixed with propaganda, 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
The United States Army did not adopt the concept of "tank aces" during World War II, with proposals to do so being rejected. 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. 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."  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.
Similarly, the British Army did not recognise any tank aces. 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. In the opinion of George Forty, the Soviet Red Army did not regard destroying tanks as an act of particular heroism for its tank commanders, as the main role of its armoured units was to support infantry. According to Russian military historian Mikhail Polikarpov, in contrast to the German model, the Russian concept was based on the heroic acts or deeds the soldier achieved. The Soviet Military Review magazine notes further: "The tankmen's heroic deeds were popularised over the radio, in special orders of the day, in newspapers and leaflets, and in individual 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." The most successful award recipient of the Hero of the Soviet Union was published in accommodation of a portrait photo. Overall, English 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
The concept of what constitutes success in tank battles has received considerable attention in recent years. 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. 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 in their own statistics to make up for double counting and repairable vehicles. Zaloga considers these numbers to be reasonably accurate tallies of actual Soviet tank losses.
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.
The historian Steven Zaloga opines that "tank kill claims during World War II on all sides should be taken with a grain of salt". 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".
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". Zaloga concludes: "Most of the 'tank aces' of World War II were simply lucky enough to have an invulnerable tank with a powerful gun". 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".
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.
Author Robert 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 a flying ace. He says some tank aces like Wittmann encapsulate what cumulative skills from years of combat in multiple campaigns may achieve.
British author George Forty writes 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. Forty notes that the expertise and bravery of tankmen who had achieved high numbers of "kills", such as Michael Wittmann, was also a factor. He points out that there were tank commanders, like Buck Kite and Lafayette Pool, who still had success in their tanks despite them being inferior to the tanks they opposed.
- Zaloga 2008, p. 38.
- Showalter 2002, p. 142.
- Zaloga 2008, p. 46.
- United States. Dept. of the Army. Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, Issue 44, p. 25
- Tank Aces: From Blitzkrieg to the Gulf War, pp. 25-26
- "Chinese Tank Ace in Cairo". The New York Times. 30 March 1943. p. 8. Retrieved 2 October 2016.
- Perrett 2012.
- Hart 2007, p. 49.
- Forty 1997, p. 60.
- Mikhail Polikarpov, "Покушение на священные миражи" lit. Debunking Myths, 2004. Translation: "It is noted that the German and Soviet propaganda models were fundamentally different. At the heart of the German model was the "ideal warrior", destroying enemies in large numbers. Wittmann was an ideal tankman, Rudel was a superhero for bomber aviation, Hartman (and a whole group of Aces) – for fighter pilots. The success of a soldier is measured in downed fighters, destroyed tanks. Each soldier had to be equal to the "ideal warrior."
"In the Soviet propaganda model, the concept was based to the theme of achievement (Kosmodemyanskaya, Matrosov, Gastello). The heroic deed of the soldier was extolled in a specific – often unequal – battle, often ending with the death of this soldier. The reality and circumstances of some of the textbook exploits of Soviet soldiers committed in the battles of the Great Patriotic War have also recently been disputed."
- Soviet Military Review, Issue 4, April 1972, p. 34. Moscow: Krasnaya Zvezda Publishing House
- Soviet Military Review, Issue 4, April 1972, p. 35. Moscow: Krasnaya Zvezda Publishing House
- Kershaw, Robert "Tank Men: the Human Story of Tanks at War", Hodder, p. 331.
- Smelser & Davies 2008, pp. 175–176, 251.
- Smelser & Davies 2008, pp. 5, 159.
- Smelser & Davies 2008, p. 179.
- Zaloga 2015, p. 3.
- Smelser & Davies 2008, p. 176.
- Neitzel 2002, p. 413.
- Zaloga 2015, p. 312.
- Zaloga 2015, p. 134.
- Zetterling, Niklas; Frankson, Anders (2000). Kursk 1943: A Statistical Analysis. London: Frank Cass. p. 126.
- Zaloga 2015, pp. 3–4.
- Buckley 2013, p. 70.
- Kershaw, Robert "Tank Men: the Human Story of Tanks at War", Hodder, p. 332.
- Forty, George "Tanks Aces: Bliztkrieg to the Gulf War", Sutton Publishing, p. 84.
- Forty, George "Tanks Aces: Blitzkrieg to the Gulf War", Sutton Publishing, p. viii.
- Buckley, John (2013). Monty's Men: The British Army and the Liberation of Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-13449-0.
- Hart, Stephen A. (2007). Sherman Firefly vs Tiger: Normandy 1944. Oxford: Osprey. ISBN 1-84603-150-8.
- Forty, George (1997). Tank Aces: From Blitzkrieg to the Gulf War. Stroud: Sutton. ISBN 0-7509-1447-5.
- 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. 61: 403–429.
- Perrett, Bryan (2012). Iron Fist: Classic Armoured Warfare. London: Hachette. ISBN 1-78022-524-5.
- 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 978-1-84603-292-9.