The wide tracks of Soviet T-34S and colossal KV-1S crunched through the snow. Night had fallen west of Belgorod on March 15, 1943. The Soviet tank column was headed toward a village, looking for shelter for the night. Although the village appeared deserted, the Soviet commander was wary. For days now there had been heavy fighting, with the Nazis trying to recapture Kharkov from the Soviets. The T-34s fired incendiary shells, setting ablaze a few peasant huts. When nothing moved, the tanks rumbled into the village. The commander’s tank came to halt, unaware that the muzzle of a Tiger tank hidden in a barn was pointed straight at him. Flames shot out of the barn and an 88mm shell smashed into the command tank. Suddenly, the whole village erupted in cannon fire from hidden panzers. Everywhere Soviet tanks were bursting into flames. Panic gripped the Soviet tankers, for they had recognized the hand of enemy commander, Graf Strachwitz, the “Panzer Count,” whose exploits on the Russian front would make him a legend in World War II.
Strachwitz’s story began on July 30, 1893, in Grosstein Castle, when Countess Alexandrine of Matuschka gave birth to a baby boy sired by Hyazinth Graf Strachwitz von Gross-Zauche and Camminetz. As the first-born son in the family and like his father, the newborn was named after the 13th-century Dominican Saint Hyazinth. The Strachwitzes were an old and noble Upper Silesian family, traditionally allied to the Hohenzollern, the dynasty to which belonged the Electors of Brandenburg, the kings of Prussia, and the German emperor.
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The young Strachwitz grew up on the agricultural and forest estates of his family, who were among the richest landowners in Silesia. Strachwitz attended the Volksschule and the Gymnasium of Oppeln. He began his cadet training at the Royal Prussian Junior Cadet School in Wahlstatt and then transferred to the renowned Central Cadet School at Berlin-Lichterfelde. Strachwitz had no problems with academics, excelled at sports and at horse riding, and was a superb fencer.
In 1912 Strachwitz joined the elite Imperial Potsdamer Cavalry Regiment of the Garde du Corps. Before the year was over, Strachwitz’s horsemanship singled him out for further officer training at Hannover’s prestigious Cavalry School. Put in charge of sporting activities, Leutnant Strachwitz and many of his comrades eagerly prepared for the upcoming 1916 Olympics. It was not to be—World War I broke out in 1914.
Soldiers and civilians throughout Europe rejoiced at what they thought would be a short and glorious war. Everywhere people shook Strachwitz’s hand and invited him for beer and sausages. Leutnant Strachwitz exchanged his white Hussar dress uniform for a gray field one and rode off to war at the front of his squadron. Soon the dashing Hussars found themselves stuck in clouds of dust, raised by thousands of infantry and supply wagons.
Strachwitz’s regiment was part of the 1st Guards Cavalry Division and Generaloberst Karl von Bulow’s 2nd Army. Bulow was attacking through Belgium and headed toward the Marne. Carrying out reconnaissance, Strachwitz impressed both his men and his superiors. Even the latter addressed him as Herr Graf, as Strachwitz preferred. Because of his daring, the soldiers nicknamed Strachwitz the “Last Horseman.” Soon Strachwitz was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class and recommended for the Iron Cross 1st Class.
With the German Army already in northeastern France by late August, Strachwitz volunteered to lead a deep reconnaissance toward Paris. Strachwitz set out early one morning with 16 of his own volunteers. The patrol avoided settlements and stuck to woods and fields but soon happened upon French cavalry. Saber in hand, Strachwitz scattered the chasseurs and freed some German prisoners.
At midday, the way again was blocked. This time the obstruction was a large English camp. Strachwitz’s Hussars burst out of an adjacent forest and through the startled soldiers. With bullets zipping past them, the German cavalry disappeared through the other side as quickly as they had appeared. Strachwitz later joined up with two other German patrols and together they reached Melun by the following morning.
While trying to blow up a railway track, the Germans were stopped by French soldiers. Frightened by the rifle shots, the German horses bolted. Without horses and hunted down by increasing numbers of French and English, Strachwitz’s band became smaller and smaller. Strachwitz nevertheless managed to demolish rail tracks and a signal box near Fontainbleau, causing panic in nearby Paris.
With the way back to the German lines blocked by the alerted French, Strachwitz led his men south in hope of finding a lightly guarded section. They continued walking through muddy ground and pouring rain and they slept under the stars or, if lucky, in a barn. One week after another, Strachwitz’s little group eluded capture. On one occasion, Strachwitz escaped a French company by running up to the crest of a wooded hill. In plain sight, he shouted and pointed for his men to escape to the right. Once on the other side of the crest, Strachwitz and his men ran to the left. The pursuing French were fooled and ran to the right. Unfortunately, during the escape a bullet caught Oberleuntnant Schierstaedt. Seriously wounded, he needed help.
To appear less conspicuous, Strachwitz gave a gold piece to an astonished farmer for some civilian clothes. The count left a whole pouch full of gold when he took a cart and horse from an abandoned barn. Strachwitz needed the cart to transport Schierstaedt but was forced to abandon both when confronted by a French roadblock. The exhausted Germans sought refuge in a wood but were finally caught and overpowered by French Senegalese soldiers.
Strachwitz’s capture in October 1914 was the beginning of a long ordeal fraught with hardship. Because they had been caught in civilian clothing, the French regarded them as spies and saboteurs. Twice it looked like Strachwitz and his men would face the firing squad, but their sentence was five years at hard labor. At Avignon, Strachwitz underwent a year of torture and humiliation. Regain- ing his soldier’s status, Strachwitz was transferred to the German officer prison at Fort Barre. Strachwitz tried to escape by digging a tunnel but was caught. As punishment, he was chained up in the hold of a French ship to deter U-boat attacks. Strachwitz was emaciated by the time he was returned to Fort Barre. As soon as he recovered, Strachwitz joined Oberleutnant von Lossow in another escape attempt. The two climbed the wall, threw a guard off the parapet, and jumped down the other side. Strachwitz landed in barbed wire and tore his foot, but he and Lossow were free.
Strachwitz and Lossow hid in woods during the day, marching at night and avoiding settlements. After two weeks they reached the vicinity of Mont Blanc and the Swiss border. Unfortunately, Strachwitz’s painful wound had become infected. While climbing a rock face, Strachwitz slipped and sustained further injuries. After finding shelter in a cabin, he unsuccessfully pleaded with Lossow to abandon him. Detected by locals, the two fugitives were apprehended by gendarmerie.
Strachwitz ended up in the officer prison at Carcassonne in southwestern France where he recovered sufficiently to saw at the window bars with a homemade file. Betrayed by an informant, Strachwitz was thrown in solitary. His untreated wound got worse but proved to be his salvation when an inspecting Swiss doctor demanded that the fever-ridden Strachwitz be handed over to the Swiss Red Cross. As his health improved in a Geneva hospital, Strachwitz avoided being returned to France as a prisoner by faking mental illness. Confined at Herisau Institute, the mental anguish of the inmates nearly drove Strachwitz to suicide. After the war ended on November 11, 1918, Strachwitz was released.
With German Emperor Wilhelm II being forced to abdicate, Germany plunged into civil strife. Strachwitz arrived in Berlin where the fledgling republic was threatened by communist revolutionaries. Joining government loyalist troops, Strachwitz took part in the weeks of fighting that lasted into January 1919.
Silesia had been part of Prussia for nearly two centuries. Before Prussia it had been ruled by the Austrian Habsburgs, and before them by Bohemia; however, for most of the Middle Ages, Upper Silesia had been Polish. With the recreation of Poland after World War I, the Poles wanted Upper Silesia to become part of Poland again. Token French, English, and Italian garrisons were supposed to keep the peace between the Germans and the Poles but mostly stayed neutral or, in the case of the French, actively supported the Poles. During these uncertain times, Strachwitz remained active in the illegal militia while managing the family estate. In July, Strachwitz married Alexandrine “Alda” Freiin Surma-Jeltsch, who nine months later gave birth to their son.
In March 1921 Upper Silesia voted whether to remain in Germany or be ceded to Poland. Although the German vote won, the region that voted Polish was allowed to join Poland. Unsatisfied, militant Poles led by Wojciech Korfanty tried to seize the German territory as well. At Gross Stein, Strachwitz awoke to gunshots and the sound of refugees fleeing from the advancing Poles. Strachwitz brought his family, including his pregnant wife, to safety then hurried back to join the German resistance.