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Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma
Born (1891-09-11)11 September 1891
Died 30 April 1948(1948-04-30) (aged 56)
Place of birth Dachau, Bavaria, German Empire
Place of death Dachau, Allied-occupied Germany
Allegiance German Empire German Empire (to 1918)
Germany Weimar Republic (to 1933)
Nazi Germany Nazi Germany
Service/branch Condor Legion
Years of service 1912–1945
Rank General der Panzertruppe
Unit 20. Panzer-Division
Battles/wars World War I
Spanish Civil War
World War II
Awards Knight's Cross of the Military Order of Max Joseph
Spanish Cross In Gold with Swords and Diamonds
Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross

Wilhelm Josef Ritter[1] von Thoma (11 September 1891 – 30 April 1948) was a German officer who served in the First World War, in the Spanish Civil War, and as a General der Panzertruppe in the Second World War. He was also a recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.

Early life

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 23 September 1912, 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 1 October 1913 to 1 August 1914.

First World War

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At the outbreak of the First World War on 2 August 1914, Thoma took to the field with the Bavarian 3rd Infantry Regiment. On 25 September 1914 he was grazed by a shot to the head during a battle on the Somme in France. He was treated at the front and remained with the troops. On 28 September he was ordered to command his regiment's 11th Company. On 2 October he was wounded again, when he was hit by shrapnel in the right elbow.

On 24 January 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 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 12 October 1915, Thoma was wounded by a gunshot to the chest and spent five days in hospital.

In early 1916, now a Lieutenant, Thoma was sent back to France and fought from 28 February to 17 May in the Battle of Verdun—often described[by whom?] as one of the most brutal battles of modern times.[citation needed] In June, Thoma was sent east again, to fight in the German conquest of Romania. On 4 June 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 5 July 1916, that 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 11 November 1916.

Returning to the Western Front, Thoma was 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 4 to 8 April 1917, he was attached to a training course with Field Airship Detachment 14, Colmar. From 4 to 9 February 1918, he was attached to the 62nd Course at the Army Gas School in Berlin, and from 23 to 27 March 1918, he attended the 6th Leader Course in Wörth.[vague]

Returning to the front on 25 April 1918, Thoma was wounded by a grenade fragment in the right wrist during the Battle of Kemmel, Belgium. On 2 May 1918 he was appointed leader of the 3rd Machine Gun Company of the Bavarian 3rd Infantry Regiment, and on 14 May 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 18 July. On this date, Thoma was captured by American troops, probably Major General Charles P. Summerall's U.S. 1st Infantry Division, while leading the first Battalion in a bitter defence of his division's right flank. Thoma remained in French and American captivity until 27 October 1919.

Weimar Republic

After the war, Thoma remained in the German Army. From 28 October 1919 to 9 February 1920, he was placed on leave following his release from captivity. On 10 February 1920 he was transferred to Reichswehr-Schützen (Rifle) Regiment 42 of Reichswehr Brigade 21 commanded by Oberst Franz Ritter von Epp. From 11 February to 1 April 1920 he acted as leader of the Recruiting Post Office of Reichswehr-Brigade 21 (listed as Brigade "Epp" in Thoma's service record). From 17 to 25 May 1920 he was deputy battalion adjutant, and from 29 May to 10 June he was deputy captain on the staff of Regiment 42. On 1 January 1921 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 15 May 1921, Thoma was put in command of the 6th Company of Infantry Regiment 19. On 1 July 1922 he was transferred to the 7th (Bavarian) Motorized Battalion as battalion adjutant. Thoma took part in the suppression of the Nazi uprising (Adolf Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch) in Munich on 8 to 23 November 1923. On 27 November 1923, he was appointed a 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[vague]

at Grafenwöhr. On 1 April 1925 he was named commander 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 1 February 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 6 to 31 October 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 (75 kW) chassis at Daimler-Benz in Berlin.

Panzer Commander

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 re-armament. With his extensive experience in mechanised military formations, Thoma was a logical choice to head one of the world's first completely mechanised units. On 1 August 1934, 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 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.

Thoma's promotion within the new armoured formations was rapid. On 15 October 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 9 to 14 December 1935, Thoma took 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 Nationalists led by Francisco Franco and used the war as an opportunity to test his new air and armoured units in action. From 23 September 1936 to 8 June 1939, 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]).[2]

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. 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 Spanish Civil War ended, on 8 June 1939, Thoma was assigned to Berlin as a staff officer. From 1 August to 18 September 1939, he was transferred to the staff of Panzer Regiment 3 of the 2nd Panzer Division and was then 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 at Tarnów. Continuing its advance from Rzeszów, the corps then seized a bridgehead on the San River at Jarosław whence the 2nd Panzer Division advanced northeast to Zamošč. The 2nd Panzer Division then engaged Polish forces at Rawa Ruska, Kulikow, Zolkiew, Tomaszów, and Krasnobród before ending its advance and retiring behind the San River that served as the German–Soviet demarcation line in that sector. Thoma received the 1939 Bars to both of his First World War Iron Crosses for his performance during the campaign.

From 19 September 1939 to 5 March 1940, he acted as commander of Panzer Regiment 3 in the 2nd Panzer Division in the rank of Colonel (Oberst). On 17 July 1941 he was assigned the leadership of the 17th Panzer Division on the Eastern Front in the rank of Generalmajor (Brigadier).

Operation Barbarossa

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 26 June 1941, near Stolpce), the 17th Panzer Division was engaged in the invasion of the Soviet Union as a component of Army Group Centre. On 17 July 1941 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 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." Thoma led the division until 15 September, when Generalleutnant Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, since recovered from his wounds, resumed command.

On 15 September 1941 Thoma was made Army High Command Leader Reserve, his duties being determined by the Commander of Wehrkreis (Military District) III, Berlin. On 14 October 1941 he was made Commander of the 20th Panzer Division on the Eastern Front. Succeeding Generalmajor Horst Stumpff as divisional commander, Thoma led his new command on the drive on Moscow that began on 15 November 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 counterattacks, and lack of reserves slowed the advance. On 6 December, 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, 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 15 January 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, Thoma relinquished command of the 20th Panzer Division to Generalmajor Walther Düvert.

North Africa

Having been promoted to Generalleutnant in August 1942, on 1 September 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 31 August 1942, Nehring had been wounded when a British aircraft bombed his command vehicle during the Battle of Alam el 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 1 September 1942, various sources indicate that Thoma did not actually arrive in North Africa to assume command until 17 September.

On 23 October 1942, the decisive Battle of El Alamein commenced when Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery's British Eighth Army began its offensive against the German-Italian Panzer Army in Egypt. 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 from Germany where he had been on sick leave. Rommel arrived on 25 October and resumed command of Panzer Army Afrika. Thoma was promoted to General der Panzertruppe (full General) on 1 November.

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 3 November, 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, Thoma declared it "madness" and, with his German Afrika Korps grinding itself to pieces in desperate counterattacks 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 4 November 1942, 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, 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 Thoma was probably seeking his own death in battle, while other staff officers quietly speculated that he had gone to the front deliberately to surrender. That evening, 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." Thoma was then taken to the Pyramids of Giza by his captors, when he expressed regret that he would leave Egypt without seeing them.[3]

"I saw it once[4] with Feldmarschall Brauchitsch, there is a special ground near Kunersdorf [sic] ... they've got these huge things which they've brought up here. ... They've always said they would go 15 km into the stratosphere and then. ... You only aim at an area. ... If one was to ... every few days ... frightful. ... The major there was full of hope--he said 'Wait until next year and the fun will start!"[5][citation needed] of POW Thoma's voice to POW Ludwig Crüwell c. fall 1936,[4] captured after the First Battle of El Alamein (July 1942) and recorded/translated from German by British captors, 22 March 1943).[5]


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For the remainder of the Second World War, Thoma was a prisoner of war in British captivity. Over the next several years, Thoma was held in several senior officer prisoner of war camps in Great Britain, including Trent Park (Barnet, Middlesex), Wilton Park (Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire), Grizedall Hall (Hawkshead, Lancashire) and Island Farm (Bridgend, Glamorgan). Thoma was subject to surveillance by the Secret Intelligence Service and while speaking to another general officer, he was recorded discussing rockets that were being tested at Kummersdorf West while in the company of Generalfeldmarschall Walther von Brauchitsch, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, and other technical program details.[6] Following his indiscretion, further British reconnaissance flights over Peenemünde in May and June 1943 brought back unmistakable images of rockets at the facility which was the developing guided missiles and long-range ballistic missiles better known as the V-1 flying bomb and the V-2.

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 Thoma, the German camp leader, was "...highly thought of by the English. Relations between him and the guards is excellent."[citation needed] Churchill's high regard for Thoma is evident from his many later quotations of Thoma's opinions on strategic matters, especially in his book about the war. After Montgomery invited Thoma to dine with him in his private trailer, Churchill remarked: "I sympathize with General von Thoma: Defeated, in captivity and... (long pause for dramatic effect) dinner with Montgomery."[citation needed]

In 1945, 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:

  • 20 November 1942: Transferred to Trent Park Camp 11 sorting camp
  • 21 July 1946: Transferred to Camp 160 Military Hospital from Camp 300
  • 20 July 1946: Held on strength of Island Farm Special Camp 11 from this date (UM/M/1879/PW1)
  • 23 September 1947: Transferred to Island Farm Special Camp 11 from Camp 99
  • 25 November 1947: Repatriated.

Only a few months after his repatriation, Thoma died of a heart attack in 1948 in Söcking, Germany.[citation needed]


"I am actually ashamed to be an officer"—regarding his witnessing of German atrocities in Russia.[7]

"The Italians are good workers, but they are not fighters. They don't like noise."— on the value of Italian troops in North Africa.[8]


Decorations & Awards


  1. Regarding personal names: Ritter was a title, before 1919, but now is regarded as part of the surname. It is translated as Knight. Before the August 1919 abolition of nobility as a separate estate, titles preceded the full name when given (Prinz Otto von Bismarck). After 1919, these titles, along with any nobiliary prefix (von, zu, etc.), could be used, but were regarded as part of the surname, and thus came after a first name (Otto Prinz von Bismarck). There is no equivalent feminine form.
  2. "Panzers in Spain". Retrieved 5 May 2013. 
  3. "Murray Wrobel Obituary". The Times. 2013. Retrieved 15 October 2013. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 In the summer of 1936, Wernher von Braun and Walter Riedel had started to think of a much larger rocket than the A1 & A2 models,a and by the middle of 1937, the Peenemünde rocket facility was nearly complete.b
    a. Ordway, Frederick I, III; Sharpe, Mitchell R (1979). The Rocket Team. Apogee Books Space Series 36. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell. p. 32. ISBN 1-894959-00-0. 
    b. WGBH Educational Foundation (1988 release). "NOVA: Hitler's Secret Weapon (The V-2 Rocket at Peenemunde) (documentary--VHS video 5273)". VESTRON Video. ISBN 0-8051-0631-6. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Jones, R. V. (1978). Most Secret War: British Scientific Intelligence 1939-1945. London: Hamish Hamilton. p. 333. ISBN 0-241-89746-7. 
  6. PBS show "Secrets of the Dead," Episode "Bugging Hitler's Soldiers," transcript at
  7. "The Genocide Generals: secret recordings explode the myth they knew nothing about the Holocaust". Daily Mail. London. 21 July 2007. 
  8. B. H. Liddell Hart, The German Generals Talk (1948, reprinted 1979), p. 158
  9. Dates from 1936-1942: Neitzel, Sönke: Abgehört. Deutsche Generäle in britischer Kriegsgefangenschaft 1942-1954, Propyläen Verlag, Berlin 2005, p. 473.

External links

Military offices
Preceded by
Generalmajor Karl Ritter von Weber
Commander of 17th Panzer Division
17 July 1941 – 15 September 1941
Succeeded by
Generalleutnant Hans-Jürgen von Arnim
Preceded by
Generalleutnant Georg von Bismarck
Commander of 20th Panzer Division
14 October 1941 – 30 June 1942
Succeeded by
Generalleutnant Walter Düvert

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