Wilhelm Josef Ritter von Thoma (September 11, 1891–April 30, 1948) was a German officer who served in World War I, in the Spanish Civil War, and as a General der Panzertruppe in World War II.
Von Thoma was born in Dachau
in 1891. From 1903 he attended the humanist
Ludwigs-Gymnasium (secondary school
) in Munich
and attained his certificate of graduation in 1912. He began his military career when he joined the Royal Bavarian Army on September 23
, as a Fahnenjunker (cadet)
with the Bavarian 3. Infanterie-Regiment (3rd Infantry Regiment) “Prinz Karl von Bayern.” He attended the War School in Munich from October 1
, to August 1
First World War
At the outbreak of the First World War on August 2
, von Thoma took to the field with the Bavarian
3rd Infantry Regiment. On September 25
he was grazed by a shot to the head during a battle on the Somme
. He was treated at the front and remained with the troops. On September 28
, he was ordered to command his regiment’s 11th Company. On October 2
, he was wounded again, hit by shrapnel
in the right elbow.
On January 24, 1915, he was made regimental adjutant of the Bavarian 3rd Infantry Regiment, which was transferred east to the Russian front, being based initially in Galicia, Austria-Hungary. Here von Thoma participated in many actions, including the taking of Brest Litovsk. In October 1915, he was sent to the Serbian front to assist Austro-Hungarian forces in their offensive against Serbia. On October 12, 1915, von Thoma was wounded by a gun shot to the chest and spent five days in hospital.
Von Thoma was sent back to France in early 1916 and fought from February 28 to May 17 in the Battle of Verdun—often described as one of the most brutal battles of modern times. In June, Thoma was sent east again, to fight in the German conquest of Romania. On June 4, 1916, the Russians unleashed the Brusilov Offensive against the Austro-Hungarian and German forces on the Eastern Front. It was during this offensive, leading a rearguard action on July 5, 1916, that Leutnant von Thoma performed the deed that garnered him the Knight’s Cross of the Bavarian Military Max Joseph Order, the highest purely military decoration that could be bestowed on Bavarian officers for bravery in war. The appointment was announced on November 11, 1916
Returning to the Western Front, von Thoma was then withdrawn for a time from front-line service to undertake various training courses in preparation for the great German offensive in the west of spring 1918. From April 4 to 8, 1917, he was attached to a training course with Field Airship Detachment 14, Colmar. From February 4 to 9, 1918, he was attached to the 62nd Course at the Army Gas School in Berlin, and from March 23 to 27, 1918, he attended the 6th Leader Course in Wörth.
Returning to the front on April 25, 1918, von Thoma was wounded by a grenade fragment in the right wrist during the Battle of Kemmel, Belgium. On May 2, 1918, he was appointed leader of the 3rd Machine Gun Company of the Bavarian 3rd Infantry Regiment, and on May 14 was put in command of his regiment’s I Battalion. After the failure of the fifth and last of the German Ludendorff Offensives in July 1918, the French and Americans, backed by heavy French tank support, launched the first phase of the Aisne-Marne Counteroffensive against the German lines southwest of Soissons on July 18. On this date, von Thoma was captured by American troops, probably Major General Charles P. Summerall’s U.S. 1st Infantry Division, while leading the I Battalion in a bitter defence of his division’s right flank. He remained in French/American captivity until October 27, 1919.
After the war, von Thoma remained in the German Army. From October 28
, 1919, to February 9
, he was placed on leave following release from captivity. On February 10, 1920, he was transferred to Reichswehr-Schützen (Rifle) Regiment 42 of Reichswehr
Brigade 21 commanded by Oberst Franz Ritter von Epp
. From February 11
to April 1
, 1920, he acted as leader of the Recruiting Post Office of Reichswehr-Brigade 21 (listed as Brigade “Epp” in von Thoma’s service record). From May 17
to 25, 1920, he was deputy battalion adjutant, and from May 29
to June 10
he was deputy captain on the staff of Regiment 42. On January 1
, he was transferred to Infantry Regiment 19 upon the formation of the new Übergangsheer
(Transitional Army) set up under the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles
On May 15, 1921, von Thoma was put in command of the 6th Company of Infantry Regiment 19. On July 1, 1922, he was transferred to the 7th (Bavarian) Motorized Battalion as battalion adjutant. Von Thoma took part in the suppression of the Nazi uprising (Adolf Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch) in Munich on November 8 to 23, 1923. On November 27, 1923, he was made company officer in the 2nd Company of the 7th (Bavarian) Motorized Battalion. Over the following ten years, he participated in many training courses on mechanized warfare, prefiguring his later role as a tank commander. In 1924 he attended a course for the leading and use of armoured motor vehicle platoons and was made leader of a motorcycle platoon to the exercises of Reiter (Mounted)-Regiment 18 at Grafenwöhr. On April 1, 1925, he was named chief of the 2nd Company of the 7th (Bavarian) Motorized Battalion and in October 1929 he was transferred to Group Command 2 and attached to the Motorized Training Command of the 3rd (Prussian) Motorized Battalion. In December 1930 he was detached to a Gas Protection Course in Berlin. On February 1, 1931, he was transferred to the 7th (Bavarian) Motorized Battalion and attached to the staff of the 7th Infantry Division as staff officer for motor transport. Later he was moved again to the 7th (Bavarian) Medical Battalion and attached to the staff of the 7th Division as staff officer for motor transport. From October 6 to 31, 1931, he was detached to the Motorized Demonstration Staff in Berlin for participation in a course for the training and testing of military motor vehicle driving experts. In November 1931 he participated in an examination of the assembly process of the Krupp-Daimler 100-horsepower chassis at Daimler-Benz in Berlin.
After the Nazi Party gained power in 1933, the German government greatly expanded and heavily invested in the military, and armour was given particular emphasis during this period of rearmament. With his extensive experience in mechanised military formations, von Thoma was a logical choice to head one of the world’s first completely mechanised units. On August 1
, he was transferred to the Motorized Demonstration Command Ohrdruf. This unit was formed in 1934 at Ohrdruf
, the Kraftfahr-Lehrkommando (Motorized Demonstration Group) and was Germany’s first dedicated tank unit and—in von Thoma’s own words, the “grandmother of all the others.” Initially composed of one battalion, the unit later gained a second battalion and was equipped with Germany’s first new tank, the small two-man Panzer I
light tank armed with two machine guns. A second Motorized Demonstration Group was later established at Zossen
. These two groups provided the nucleus from which several panzer regiments were born.
Von Thoma’s promotion within the new armoured formations was rapid. On October 15, 1935, he was appointed commander of the II Battalion, Panzer Regiment 4, 2nd Panzer Division. This date marked the official formation of Germany’s first three armoured divisions. The 1st Panzer Division commanded by General der Kavallerie Maximilian Freiherr von und zu Weichs an der Glon at Weimar; the 2nd Panzer Division commanded by Oberst (later Generalmajor) Heinz Guderian at Würzburg; and the 3rd Panzer Division commanded by Generalleutnant Ernst Feßmann at Berlin. From December 9 to 14, 1935, von Thoma was detached to the Army and Luftwaffe Signals Course at the Halle/Salle Signals School—presumably to learn how to coordinate the movements of air and armoured units.
Spanish Civil War
The Spanish Civil War
broke out in July 1936 with an uprising by rightist Generals against the leftist Popular Front
government. Hitler intervened on the side of the rightists nationalists led by Francisco Franco
and used the war as an opportunity to test his new air and armoured units in action. From September 23
, to June 8
, von Thoma was sent by the Army High Command to Spain as Commander of Group “Imker” (Beekeeper), the ground contingent of the German Condor Legion
. Arriving in Spain in early October 1936, the personnel of Group “Imker” were originally volunteers from Panzer Regiment 6 “Neuruppin” of the 3rd Panzer Division. Tasked with training Franco’s Spanish Nationalist officers and men in tanks, infantry tactics, and artillery and signals employment, Group “Imker” maintained two, then three panzer training companies equipped with Panzer I light tanks (panzer units were codenamed Group “Drohne” [drones]).
After completing their training, the Spanish troops took custody of the tanks, at which time a new shipment of Panzer Is arrived from Germany. Additionally, Group “Drohne” made use of large numbers of the superior Russian tanks captured from Republican forces (the T-26 tank was particularly prized). While ostensibly in Spain in a training capacity, the German Army instructors also rotated to the front to provide further technical advice to the Spanish and to engage in direct combat operations. Von Thoma was a frequent visitor to the combat zones; for instance leading an armoured assault on Madrid personally during the Battle of Madrid in November 1936. He later claimed to have taken part in 192 tank actions in Spain.
After the war ended, on June 8, 1939, von Thoma was assigned to Berlin as a staff officer—duties determined by the General der Panzertruppe. From August 1 to September 18, 1939, he was transferred to the staff of Panzer Regiment 3 of the 2nd Panzer Division and, at the same time, assigned the leadership of the regiment.
Second World War
The Second World War
began with the invasion of Poland
in September 1939. The 2nd Panzer Division commanded by Generalleutnant Rudolf Veiel
took part in the invasion as a component of General der Kavallerie Ewald von Kleist
’s XXII Army Corps (Motorized). Attacking from its staging area in the Orava
Valley in Slovakia
, von Kleist’s corps advanced to south of Kraków
and took river crossings on the Dunajec River
. Continuing its advance from Rzeszów
, the corps then seized a bridgehead on the San River
whence the 2nd Panzer Division advanced northeast to Zamošč. The 2nd Panzer Division then engaged Polish forces at Rawa Ruska
, Kulikow, Zolkiew
, and Krasnobród
before ending its advance and retiring behind the San River that served as the German–Soviet demarcation line in that sector. Von Thoma received the 1939 Bars to both of his First World War Iron Crosses
for his performance during the campaign.
A rapid series of promotions followed for von Thoma. From September 19, 1939, to March 5, 1940, he acted as commander of Panzer Regiment 3, the 2nd Panzer Division. On March 5, 1940, he was promoted to General der Panzertruppe (General of the Tank Troops) in the Army High Command. On July 17, 1941, he was assigned the leadership of the 17th Panzer Division on the Eastern Front.
Commanded by Generalmajor and Doctor of Engineering Karl Ritter von Weber (acting commander in place of Generalleutnant Hans-Jürgen von Arnim
who had been wounded on June 26
, 1941, near Stolpce
), the 17th Panzer Division was engaged in the invasion of the Soviet Union
as a component of Army Group Centre
. On July 17
, 1941, von Thoma assumed temporary command of the division after Generalmajor von Weber—a fellow holder of the Knight’s Cross of the Bavarian Military Max Joseph Order—was severely wounded near Krassnyj, south of Smolensk
(he died two days later). Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, the Commander of Panzer Group 2
, remarked on von Thoma’s appointment to the 17th Panzer Division in his memoirs, Panzer Leader
: “He was one of our most senior and experienced panzer officers; he had been famous for his icy calm and exceptional bravery both in the First World War and in Spain, and was now to prove his ability once again.” Von Thoma led the division until September 15
, when Generalleutnant Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, since recovered from his wounds, resumed command.
On September 15, 1941, von Thoma was made Army High Command Leader Reserve, his duties being determined by the Commander of Wehrkreis (Military District) III, Berlin. On October 14, 1941, he was made Commander of the 20th Panzer Division on the Eastern Front. Succeeding Generalmajor Horst Stumpff as divisional commander, von Thoma led his new command on the drive on Moscow that began on November 15, 1941. Despite the onset of a brutal winter, the Germans doggedly advanced on Moscow from the north and the south in an attempt to close pincers around the Russian capital. However, the increasing cold, fierce local counter attacks, and lack of reserves slowed the advance. On December 6, the Russians launched the first of a series of major counter offensives that forced the Germans back from Moscow. By the end of the month, von Thoma had received the coveted Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross for organizing and holding a new defensive position on the Ruza River despite being closely pursued by strong Soviet forces. On January 15, 1942, Hitler finally bowed to the inevitable and authorized his freezing and exhausted armies to slowly pull back in measured stages to the Rzhev-Gzhatsk-Orel-Kursk Königsberg Line. After continuing to serve on the Moscow front, von Thoma relinquished command of the 20th Panzer Division to Generalmajor Walther Düvert.
On September 1
, von Thoma was transferred to North Africa and given leadership of the German Afrika Korps
for the duration of the absence of the commanding general, General der Panzertruppe Walther Nehring. In the early morning hours of August 31
, 1942, Nehring was wounded when a British aircraft bombed his command vehicle during the Battle of Alam Halfa
. Temporary command of the corps passed briefly to Nehring’s chief of staff, Oberst Fritz Bayerlein
, until later in the morning when Generalmajor Gustav von Vaerst
relinquished command of the 15th Panzer Division
to assume leadership of the Afrika Korps. Although formally appointed to command on September 1
, 1942, various sources indicate that von Thoma did not actually arrive in North Africa
to assume command until September 17
On October 23, 1942, the decisive Battle of El Alamein commenced when Lieutenant General Bernard Law Montgomery’s British Eighth Army began its offensive against the German-Italian Panzer Army in Egypt. Von Thoma briefly took command of the combined Axis army after its commander, General der Kavallerie Georg Stumme, suffered a fatal heart attack during the heavy British bombardments at the start of the battle. At the time, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel was en route to from Germany where he had been on sick leave. Rommel arrived on October 25, and resumed command of Panzer Army Afrika.
In the face of rapidly mounting losses and dangerous penetrations into his lines, Rommel prepared to withdraw his army to Libya. However, Hitler intervened and, on November 3, issued the astonishing order for Panzer Army Afrika to remain and fight where it was. Ominously, Hitler concluded his order with these sober words to Rommel: “As to your troops, you can show them no other way than that to victory or death.” Appalled at this controversial order, von Thoma declared it “madness” and, with his German Afrika Korps grinding itself to pieces in desperate counter attacks and virtually bereft of tanks, he mounted one of the tanks of his headquarters guard unit and drove to the apex of the battle.
On November 4, 1942, von Thoma was captured by the British at the hill of Tel el Mampsra, west of El Alamein, Egypt. With his tank hit several times and on fire, von Thoma dismounted and stood quietly amongst a sea of burning tanks and the German dead scattered around the small hill where he was taken prisoner by Captain Allen Grant Singer of the 10th Royal Hussars (Prince of Wales’s Own). Rommel later opined that von Thoma was probably seeking his death in battle while other staff officers quietly speculated that he went to the front to deliberately surrender. That evening, von Thoma dined with General Montgomery at his headquarters to discuss the battle. B.H. Liddell Hart later recorded Thoma’s reaction to Montgomery’s revelations over dinner: “I was staggered at the exactness of his knowledge… He seemed to know as much about our position as I did myself.”
For the remainder of the war von Thoma was a prisoner of war
in British captivity. Over the next several years, von Thoma was held in several senior officer prisoner of war camps in Great Britain, including Trent Park
), Wilton Park (Beaconsfield
), Grizedall Hall (Hawkshead
) and Island Farm
The secret of Peenemünde
While in captivity von Thoma was subject to secret surveillance. Although the British Secret Intelligence Service
(SIS) had learned in 1939 that a German experimental station existed at Peenemünde
on the Baltic coast, its true function was not known. By the end of 1942, the SIS had received many fragmented and conflicting reports that the Germans were developing a long-range rocket program with probable launching sites in France. Additionally, aerial reconnaissance photographs taken in early 1943 revealed the recently built structures and a power station. Shortly thereafter, the SIS received a valuable tip from a most unusual source: On March 22
, 1943, von Thoma and Ludwig Crüwell
, another officer captured in North Africa, were heard discussing Germany’s rocket program while being held in London. With a microphone planted in the room, the SIS listened as von Thoma described a rocket test he had witnessed at Kummersdorf
West while in the company of Generalfeldmarschall Walther von Brauchitsch
, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, and other technical program details. Spurred on by this plausible information, further British reconnaissance flights over Peenemünde in May and June 1943 brought back unmistakable images of rockets at the facility. The Allies were on target: Peenemünde was the German centre for research and testing of the pilotless, guided missiles and long-range ballistic missiles better known as the V-1
“Buzz Bomb” (or “Doodlebug”) and the V-2
Activities in captivity
In late 1945, SS-Brigadeführer Kurt Meyer
, captured in Belgium in September 1944 while commanding the 12th SS-Panzer Division “Hitler Jugend”
, arrived at Trent Park and noted that von Thoma, the German camp leader, was “…highly thought of by the English. Relations between him and the guards is excellent.” Churchill’s high regard for von Thoma is evident from his many later quotations of von Thoma’s opinions on strategic matters, especially in his book about the war.
In 1945, von Thoma had one of his legs amputated at Wilton Park and was fitted with an artificial limb in Cardiff.
His record in captivity was as follows:
Only a few months after repatriation von Thoma died of a heart attack in 1948 in Söcking, Germany.
“I am actually ashamed to be an officer”—regarding his witnessing of German atrocities in Russia
- Fahnenjunker: September 23, 1912
- Fahnenjunker-Unteroffizier: January 25, 1913
- Fähnrich: May 20, 1913
- Leutnant: August 1, 1914
- Oberleutnant: December 14, 1917
- Hauptmann: February 1, 1925
- Major: April 1, 1934
- Oberstleutnant: August 1, 1936
- Oberst: April 1, 1938
- Generalmajor: August 1, 1940
- Generalleutnant: August 1, 1942
- General der Panzertruppe: November 1, 1942
Decorations & Awards
- Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross: December 31, 1941, Generalmajor, Commander of the 20th Panzer Division
- Bavarian Military Order of Max Joseph, Knight’s Cross: July 5, 1916, Leutnant, adjutant of the Royal Bavarian 3. Infanterie-Regiment “Prinz Karl von Bayern”
- Prussian Iron Cross, 1st Class (1914): June 3, 1915
- Prussian Iron Cross, 2nd Class (1914): October 17, 1914
- 1939 Bar to the Prussian Iron Cross, 1st Class: 1939
- 1939 Bar to the Prussian Iron Cross, 2nd Class: 1939
- Medal for the Winter Campaign in Russia 1941/1942 (“East Medal”) — It is unknown whether von Thoma actually received this medal before his capture, but his service on the Eastern Front during the winter of 1941–1942 fit the award criteria.
- Bavarian Military Merit Order, 4th Class with Swords: November 16, 1914
- Cross of Honor for Combatants 1914-1918: 1935
- Armed Forces Long Service Award, 1st Class]] (25-year Service Cross)
- Armed Forces Long Service Award, 3rd Class (12-year Service Medal)
- Austrian Military Merit Cross, 3rd Class with War Decoration: April 5, 1916
- German Spanish Cross in Gold with Swords and Diamonds
- Spanish Military Medal with Diamonds
- Spanish Campaign Medal
- Condor Legion Panzer Badge in Gold — This unique version of the standard silver badge was presented to von Thoma by the men of his command at the Nationalist Victory Day Parade in Madrid, Spain, on May 19, 1939.
- Wound Badge in Silver — World War I award: November 22, 1916 (von Thoma was wounded four times in World War I.)