Greatest Tank Ace in World War 2
Although they never reached the fame of german flying aces like Erich Hartmann and Manfred von Richthofen (The Red Baron, WW1), the Wehrmacht tank aces played a huge part in Germany’s army during World War 2. They were feared by the enemy and helped boost the morale among german soldiers. Some of the most famous were Michael Wittmann and Johannes Bölter, but I have decided to focus on the most unorthodox and most controversial of them, Kurt Knispel. Not only was he the most unusual, but with his 168 confirmed tank kills, he was also the most lethal. Also check out The Greatest Fighter Pilot Ever, and The Greatest Sniper Ever.
Kurt was born 1921 in Salisfeld, Sudetenland in what was then Czechoslovakia. He grew up in a small village 200 km east of Prague, where he worked as an apprentice at an automobile factory. In 1940 he joined the German Army to serve in World War 2. Knispel completed basic infantry training, before learning his way around the different german tanks (Panzer I, Panzer II, Panzer IV) in Putlos. He was thrown into action in the summer of 1941, as a gunner on the Panzer IV in Operation Barbarossa (Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union).
A Panzer IV tank , the type Knispel used in World War 2
Knispel was part of the initial attack on Yarzevo all the way to the gates of Stalingrad. In 1943, Kurt was again transferred back to Putlos to become familiar with Germany’s new Tiger I tank. He then saw action in the great battle of Kursk, was relocated to help in the retreat of Normandy, before again being relocated to the Eastern Front. It was there, on 28 April 1945, he was fatally wounded and buried in Vrbovec, Czechoslovakia. Kurt died just 10 days before the war in Europe was over, only 23 years old. An interesting fact about Knispel is that even though he had 168 confirmed tank kills, by far the most in World War 2, he only reached the rank of Feldwebel (Seargent).
German Tanks in Operation Barbarossa
Kurt was often involved in conflicts with higher Nazi authorities. He assaulted Einsatzgruppen (Death squads) officers who mistreated POW’s, and in 1942 he knocked out an SS guard he caught beating a prisoner to death, in the Krakow train station. He was a man of high morale and integrity, and didn’t care for the decorations that so many others were chasing. His total kills stat may be as high as 195, but when there was a dispute around the claim of who had destroyed the enemy tank, Kurt always gave the credit to others.
His slow rise in the Wehrmacht hierarchy is also attributed to his general demeanor and appearance. With his worn out uniforms, long hair, beard and goatee he looked more like a hippie than a clean-shaven officer in the german army. His disputes with authority got so bad that he was almost thrown into military prison. Despite this, for his work as a loader, gunner and tank commander, Kurt Knispel was awarded the “Iron Cross: First Class“, “The German Cross in Gold”, and was the only non-commissioned officer of the German tank army to be named in a Wehrmacht communique (The daily military radio report in Nazi Germany). Kurt Knispel may not be as famous as some of the other World War “Superstars”, but in most people’s eyes he stands out as the greatest tank ace that ever lived.
Kurt Knispel was awarded the German Cross in Gold for his service