This article may lend undue weight to certain ideas, incidents, or controversies. (December 2017)
"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, among others, have examined the combat performance of highly decorated German tank crews during the war. Zaloga concluded that "Panzer ace" is a romanticisation of reality, 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, mixed with propaganda.
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, and neither did the British Army. The Soviet Red Army did not regard destroying tanks as an act of particular heroism for its tank commanders. However, the Soviet Military Review magazine noted: "The tankmen's heroic deeds were popularised over the radio, in special orders of the day, in newspapers and leaflets, and in indivdual 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.
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.
- Zaloga 2008, p. 38.
- Showalter 2002, p. 142.
- Zaloga 2008, p. 46.
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- 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
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- Zaloga 2015, pp. 3.
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- Zaloga 2015, p. 312.
- Zaloga 2015, p. 134.
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- Zaloga 2015, pp. 3–4.
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- Zaloga, Steven (2015). Armored Champion: The Top Tanks of World War II. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books. ISBN 978-0-8117-1437-2.
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