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168 kills made him the most successful tank commander

With his crumpled shirt, goatee and long hair, Kurt Knispel (1921-1945) looked more like a hippie who had somehow failed to pass the conscientious objector exam in the late 1970s.

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168 kills made him the most successful tank commander

With his crumpled shirt, goatee and long hair, Kurt Knispel (1921-1945) looked more like a hippie who had somehow failed to pass the conscientious objector exam in the late 1970s. But this alternative did not exist at the time, because Knispel served in the Wehrmacht. It was thanks to his successes that he was still forgiven for his nonconformist appearance. Because Knispel was the most successful German tank gunner and commander of the Second World War.

You can think of him as a role model for Sergeant Rolf Steiner, whom US director Sam Peckinpah made the title character of his 1977 war film The Iron Cross. Knispel also messed with superiors, didn't think much of a smart demeanor, kept his cigarette in his mouth when officers spoke to him and despised bullies who were loyal to the line. In Kraków he is said to have beaten up an SS man when he was harassing captured Red Army soldiers.

Knispel, born in Salisfeld (Salisov) in the Sudetenland in 1921, had completed an apprenticeship in a car factory. Since he did not like the work, he volunteered for the tank force in 1940. His talent with the telescopic sight was soon noticed there, so that he was sent into the war against the Soviet Union as a gunner of a Panzer IV. He proved his ability to use the gun effectively even in an unfavorable position in defensive battles in the winter of 1941/42, when he shot down numerous Soviet vehicles. The elimination of twelve T-34 tanks during the summer offensive of 1942 earned him promotion to corporal.

After a lengthy hospital stay, Knispel was one of the first tank men to be called upon to train on the new heavy Panzer VI "Tiger". With this combat vehicle, the Wehrmacht was technically able to overtake the Red Army for the first time. By the end of the war only 2000 of these 57 to 70 tonne giants had been produced in various versions. But the kill rates of the heavy tank battalions, into which the Tiger tanks were grouped, were enormous.

In the great tank battle of Kursk in July 1943 alone, Knispel was able to claim 27 kills with the 8.8 cm cannon of his "Tiger". Once he shot down a T-34 from three kilometers away. But he was not promoted to officer. Knispel did not fit the mold of the National Socialist model soldier, whom Nazi propaganda liked to present as a hero of the battle.

Nevertheless, the regime would not and could not do without Knispel's talent. When the super-heavy battle tank VI II “Königtiger” came to the front in 1944, he was given command of one of these monsters. With him he fought in the west and in Hungary. Several times he covered retreating units by being the last to keep the pursuers at bay.

Although the "black baron" was once mentioned in the Wehrmacht report, the award of the Knight's Cross - although suggested several times - never materialized. Knispel was confirmed to have killed 168 enemy tanks, 126 of them as a gunner and 42 as a commander. About 30 other kills remained unconfirmed; he is said to have given some of these to younger comrades to boost their morale.

For comparison: Dashing model soldiers like Otto Carius (150 kills) or Kurt Wittmann (138 kills) were awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. All that remained for Knispel was the German cross in gold on the Tiger weapon and the lament in veteran reports that he "usually deserved the oak leaves and more". The fact that Nazi chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels never mentioned him in his daily notes says something about the strained relationship between the regime and its best tank commander.

Knispel almost managed to survive the war. On April 27, 1945 he was promoted to sergeant. A day later his tank was caught by Soviet tanks near Vlasatice in southern Moravia. MG shots hit his torso. Shrapnel killed him while he was being transported, just 100 kilometers from his hometown.

Knispel's grave remained missing. Until 2013 archaeologists discovered his remains with the dog tag in a mass grave in Vrbovec. They were buried the following year by the German War Graves Commission at the German military cemetery in Brno.

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