Friday, 12 September 2014

The Devil’s General: The Life of Hyazinth von Strachwitz, "The Panzer Graf" - Raymond Bagdonas

Title: The Devil’s General
Author: Raymond Bagdonas
ISBN: 978-1-61200-222-4
Publisher: Casemate Publishers
Pages: 357
Photos/Maps: 39/8

Author Raymond Bagdonas has written his first book on a subject of fascinating depth, that of the life and operational experience of Hyazinth von Strachwitz, "The Panzer Graf". Coming from a long line of aristocratic, strongly Catholic Germans, von Strachwitz, while largely unknown today, was a man of exceptional leadership and operational/tactical acumen. A veteran of the First and Second World Wars, he served first as a cavalry officer and later as a Panzer commander.

A consummate commander and leader, he was awarded the Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Class for bravery within the first six weeks of the commencement of WW1 before being captured and spending the remainder as a POW. Following his release, he was thrust into the mayhem that was postwar Germany as a member of the Selbstschutz Oberschleisen (a Silesian Freikorps unit) fighting Polish separatists in Eastern Germany. Following the stabilization of the country and the rise of the Nazi Party, von Strachwitz joined the SS and received a reserve commission. This led to a re-activation with a reserve cavalry regiment and a return to uniformed service.

Technological advancements within the German military led to cavalry units being replaced with tanks (panzers); thus commenced the legend of the “Panzer Graf”. Over the next eleven years, von Strachwitz would become a master Panzer Commander, ultimately becoming the most highly decorated Regimental Commander in the German Army. Over the course of his WW2 career he was the recipient of the Knight’s Cross with Diamonds, Oak Leaves and Swords (one of only 27 recipients within the German military), the German Panzer Assault Badge in Gold for 100 Engagements (14 awarded in total throughout the war) and the Wound Badge in Gold (five or more wounds). Personally credited with 150-200 destroyed enemy tanks, he fought with the 16th Panzer Division, Grossdeutschesland Panzergrenadier Division (GD) and the Panzerverband Strachwitz .

Following his incarceration as a Colonel General of Panzer Troops by the Americans for 18 months during which he drafted a number of treatise on his experiences fighting the Russians, a penniless von Strachwitz and his wife moved to Jordan in order to assist in the training and modernization of the Jordanian military. Ultimately returning to Germany, he passed away in 1968 and was interred in Grabenstatt.

Bagdonas has done a commendable job given the limitations of access to information and primary source documents. Much of the original unit documentation that covered von Strachwitz’s early years was lost when 16th Panzer was destroyed at Stalingrad and follow-on unit documents were lost in the confusion of the later years of the war. Therefore, a significant amount of Bagdonas’s narrative is anecdotal or subjective in nature based upon secondary and tertiary sources. Where this becomes more noticeable is when he makes observation or comments for which, in my opinion, there should be additional commentary or identification of source. For example, he makes the observation in his narrative that numerous US interrogators utilized torture in their quest to break prisoners following Germany’s surrender in 1945; what is missing is the source where he found this information.

Bagdonas’ writing and flow are very good and the reader is easily engaged with his informative style. Additionally, he provides numerous anecdotal information that add depth to the commentary. His discussions about why the GD did not have a chaplain, the competition between the fusilier/grenadier regiments and the unique challenges relating to utilization of a combined arms unit such as GD when the expertise of the Commander did not always translate into effective use of all unit elements, are all examples of this.

I felt that his use of appendices added greatly to the provision of information surrounding von Strachwitz’s accomplishments. The bibliography that he provides is very useful in identifying additional sources to the reader on the various engagements in which the Panzer Graf was engaged.

Bagdonas notes that von Strachwitz left no memoirs or notes; so gathering and drafting a comprehensive biography was extremely difficult. I feel that he has done a commendable job and that the book may serve future generations as an example of an individual who responded to the call of his nation twice and served in an honourable and selfless way throughout. As a leader, commander and officer, von Strachwitz was an individual to emulate.

Although, it feels that the narrative is, at times somewhat shallow as it relates to the subject of von Strachwitz, I would still recommend this book for its publication quality, its photo/map inserts and the information that the author provides about this noteworthy historical figure.