You can’t write about aces of the past without mentioning the highest scoring tank ace of the entire Second World War – Kurt Knispel. By the age of 23 he had 168 confirmed kills, more than the famous Michael Wittmann, or the legendary Otto Carius. And if that alone wasn’t enough, he was also a rebel with a goatee and a tattoo, famously punching an SS officer after mistreating Soviet POWs.
Knispel (a Sudeten German from Czechoslovakia) volunteered to the Wehrmacht in 1940, at the age of 19, two years after his homeland was annexed to Germany with the Munich Agreement. He finished training in early 1941, serving as loader in a Panzer IV, the main German tank of the time. And just in time too to be thrown into one of the great meat-grinders of the time, as he first saw action during Operation Barbarossa AKA the invasion of Russia. Serving in Panzergruppe 3, he was part of the northern pincer movement around Moscow, aiming to capture the Russian capital. After the initial successes, the advancement came to a grinding halt, as the troops braced themselves for the unforgiving Russian winter.
It was during this section of the Russian campaign that Knispel claimed his first kills (destroying 12 enemy tanks by 1942) and also started to climb the ranks. He was relatively quickly promoted to gunner and also received the Iron Cross Second Class for his service. He made himself quite a name as well by not giving a damn about unconfirmed kills. He was notorious for giving the credit to others when it was not undisputedly his, and he maintained this attitude throughout the war. This was a huge deal by the way, as confirmed kills were the ground stones of the promotion system.
Early 1942 he was withdrawn from the front together with other successful tankers for training on the new powerful Tiger I tanks. As from here he served in the 1st Company of the 503rd Heavy Panzer Batallion (“Heavy” standing for the Tiger I formations), which remained his unit until the end of the war. He returned to the front just in time to take part in the Battle of Kursk, and this is where he really made his name – now already as a commander. During this time he destroyed 27 Russian T-34s in 12 days, which were one of the most successful tanks of the Red Army of that time. Famously he managed to take one of them out at a range of 3000 meters. For 50 enemy tanks destroyed, he received the Iron Cross 1st Class.
After the battle has been lost, the German forces were in full retreat, however Hitler’s refusal of the actual situation caused the forces to try to make a stand on indefensible lines. One of the disasters that occurred due to this was at the Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket, where some 50.000 troops got encircled by the Russian forces. Knispel was part of the German relief attempt and they had to be victorious in ferocious battles on extremely difficult – muddy terrain, but eventually they did manage to inch within a few miles of the trapped men. Unlike at Stalingrad, the German Command allowed for a retreat and some 35.000 troops could escape – something which is disputed from the other side ever since.
After this the war raged on with other – since forgotten battles at Vinittsa, Jampol and Kamenets-Podolsk (another successful outbreak). Knispel was always there up front and he did always deliver, racking up the kills constantly. During this time he also received the Panzer Assault Badge for participating in 100 battles…
Spring 1944 Knispel upgraded his tank again to the new Tiger II AKA the King Tiger – a truly fearsome metal beast of the time. With his new armor and his experience he was transferred to the western front to help in the defense of Caen, allowing the German forces to retreat after the allied breakout at Avranches. After his task was completed, he was sent back to the Eastern Front to fight against the invading Red Army. He fought a losing war, but commanding one of the toughest machines of the time allowed him to fight the overwhelming odds and keep on scoring kill after kill. Not that the enemy forces were not keen on taking him out, in just one battle he famously reported 24 direct hits on his Tiger II.
He battled through Hungary including Mezotur, Torokszentmiklos, Kecskemet, Cegled, Gyula and the wider Budapest-area. As the fronts collapsed all around him however, he was forced to retreat towards southern Czechoslovakia – his homeland. There was no more retreating from here, and after fighting through the entire Second World War on the front lines, he received a fatal hit in Wostitz in 1945, just 100 miles away from home. The war ended just 10 days later… His remains were lost until recent, when in 2013 he was identified in an anonymous grave and was re-buried at the military cemetery at Brno in 2014.
During his incredible carrier he scored 168 confirmed kills, though the actual number is more likely to be close to 200. Even with his records he never received the most famous Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross despite being nominated for it four times… This was due to his rebellious attitude towards the authorities, which was however mostly tolerated in sight of his success. At the same time his comrades described him as helpful and friendly, someone who never left anyone behind, no matter the circumstances.
This was the short but eventful life of Kurt Knispel – Tank Legend. He did not chase fame, records or recognition – he was just a very skilled soldier, trying to make it through of it all.