Wilhelm von Thoma

Wilhelm von Thoma : Nazi Germany

Wilhelm von Thoma was born in Germany in 1891. He joined the German Army and served throughout the First World War. He remained in the army and in 1934 took command of Germany's first tank battalion.

In 1936 Thoma was placed in charge of all ground troops supporting General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. He remained in Spain until August 1939 when he was given command of the 2nd Panzer Division in Germany.

Thoma took part in the invasion of Poland where he distinguished himself by carrying out a difficult wide movement through heavy woods and mountainous terrain and managed to take the Polish forces by surprise. Thoma's experience in Spain and Poland resulted in him being appointed Director of Mobile Forces in October 1940.

Thoma replaced Jurgen von Arnium as commander of the 17th Panzer Division and took part in Operation Barbarossa during the summer of 1941. Serving under Heinz Guderian Thoma played a significant role in the capture of Smolensk and Kiev. He also took part in the failed attempt to capture Moscow.

In September 1942, Thoma was sent to North Africa to take command of the Deutsches Afrika Korps while General Erwin Rommel was on sick leave. The following month General Bernard Montgomery launched the battle at El Alamein. Rommel immediately returned to the front but Thoma remained and was taken prisoner on 4th November when British ground troops broke through the German lines.

Wilhelm von Thoma remained a prisoner of war until just before his death on 30th April 1948.

Primary Sources

(1) Wilhelm von Thoma was interviewed by Basil Liddell Hart after the war for his book The Other Side of the Hill (1948)

It was wonderful to have real tanks for the first time in 1934, after being confined to tactical experiments with dummies for so many years. Until then our only practical experience was in an experimental camp that we had in Russia, by arrangement with the Soviet Government. This was near Kazan, and was particularly for studying technical problems. But in 1934 our first tank battalion was formed, at Ohrdruf, under the name 'Motor-Instruction Command'. I was in charge of it. It was the grandmother of all the others.

It was subsequently expanded into a regiment of two battalions, while two more were established at Zossen. They were equipped by degrees, rather slowly, according to the production of the factories - at first with me air-cooled Krupp tank, Panzer I, with only two machine-guns; the next year with the Panzer II, that had a water-cooled Maybach engine and a 20 mm gun; in 1937-38 came the first Panzer III and Panzer IV, which were both bigger and better. Meantime our organization was growing.

In 1935 two tank brigades were formed-one for each of the two armoured divisions that were then created. The German tank officers closely followed the British ideas on armoured warfare, particularly your own; also General Fuller's. They likewise followed with keen interest the pioneer activities of the original British tank brigade.

It may surprise you to hear that the development of armoured forces met with much resistance from the higher generals of the German Army, as it did in yours. The older ones were afraid of developing such forces fast - because they themselves did not understand the technique of armoured warfare, and were uncomfortable with such new instruments. At the best they were interested, but dubious and cautious. We could have gone ahead much faster but for their attitude.

It could be seen that Spain would serve as 'the European Aldershot'. I was in command of all the German ground troops in Spain during the war. Their numbers were greatly exaggerated in newspaper reports - they were never more than 600 at a time. They were used to train Franco's tank force and to get battle experience themselves.

Our main help to Franco was in machines-aircraft and tanks. At the start he had nothing beyond a few obsolete machines. The first batch of German tanks arrived in September, followed by a larger batch in October. They were the Panzer I.

Russian tanks began to arrive on the other side even quicker - at the end of July. They were of a heavier type than ours, which were armed only with machine-guns, and I offered a reward of 500 pesetas for every one that was captured, as I was only too glad to convert them to my own use.

By a carefully organized dilution of the German personnel I was soon able to train a large number of Spanish tank-crews. I found the Spanish quick to learn though also quick to forget. By 1938 I had four tank battalions under my command - each of three companies, with fifteen tanks in a company. Four of the companies were equipped with Russian tanks. I also had thirty anti-tank companies, with six 37 mm guns apiece.

General Franco wished to parcel out the tanks among the infantry-in the usual way of generals who belong to the old school. I had to fight this tendency constantly in the endeavour to use the tanks in a concentrated way. The Francoists' successes were largely due to this.

I came back from Spain in June, 1939, after the end of the war, and wrote out my experiences and the lessons learned. I was then given command of a tank regiment in Austria. I had been offered a tank brigade, but said that I preferred to polish up my knowledge of recent German practice by handling a regiment first, as I had been out of touch so long with what was happening in Germany. General von Brauchitsch agreed. But in August I was given command of the tank brigade in the and Panzer Division, for the Polish campaign.

(2) After the war Wilhelm von Thoma wrote about Heinz Guderian and the the Western Offensive.

The French tanks were better than ours, and more numerous - but they were too slow. It was by speed, in exploiting the surprise, that we beat the French.

All the tank officers wanted to see Guderian in charge of the panzer army that carried out the thrust through the Ardennes. Kleist had not the same understanding of tanks-he had earlier been one of the chief opponents of them. To put a sceptic, even a converted sceptic, in supreme charge of the armoured forces was typical of the way things were done in the German Army. But Guderian was regarded as a difficult subordinate. Hitler had the deciding voice in the issue, and he approved Kleist's appointment. Nevertheless, Guderian was called on to carry out the actual break-through, which he did on the same lines that he had practised in the 1937 Army Manoeuvres. After that he continued to

lead the drive to the Channel. He concentrated all his thought on exploiting success, and took the attitude 'to hell with what is happening behind'. That thrustfulness was decisive, because it gave the French no time to rally.

It was commonly said in the German Army that Guderian was always seeing red, and was too inclined to charge like a bull. I don't agree with that opinion. I had personal experience of serving under him on the Smolensk front in 1941, where opposition was very stiff, and I found him a very fine commander under those difficult circumstances.

(3) Wilhelm von Thoma claimed that there were five main reasons why Blitzkrieg tactics were so successful at the beginning of the Second World War.

1. The concentration of all forces on the point of penetration in co-operation with bombers.

2. Exploiting the success of this movement on the roads during the night - as a result, we often gained success by surprise deep in, and behind, the enemy's front.

3. Insufficient anti-tank defence on the enemy's part, and our own superiority in the air.

4. The fact that the armoured division itself carried enough petrol for 150-200 kilometres - supplemented, if necessary, with supply of petrol to the armoured spearheads by air, dropped in containers by parachute.

5. Carrying rations sufficient for three days in the tanks, for three more days in the regimental supply column, and three more days in the divisional supply column.

(4) After the war Wilhelm von Thoma was highly critical of the military tactics of Adolf Hitler.

Hitler had not interfered in the Polish campaign, but the immense public acclaim of 'his' strategy there, and still more after the French campaign, had given him a swelled head. He had a taste for strategy and tactics, but he did not understand the executive details. He often had good ideas, but he was stubborn as a rock - so that he spoilt the fulfillment of his own conceptions.

What we had was good enough to beat Poland and France, but not good enough to conquer Russia. The space there was so vast, and the going so difficult. We ought to have had twice as many tanks in our armoured divisions, and their motor-infantry regiments were not mobile enough.

The original pattern of our armoured division was ideal - with two tank regiments and one motor-infantry regiment. But the latter should be carried in armoured tracked vehicles, even though it entails more petrol. In the earlier part of the Russian campaign it was possible to bring them up in their lorries close to the scene of action before they dismounted. They were often brought up as close as a quarter of a mile from the fighting line. But that ceased to be possible when the Russians had more aircraft.

The lorry-columns were too vulnerable, and the infantry had to get out too far back. Only armoured infantry can come into action quickly enough for the needs of a mobile battle. Worse still, these clumsy lorries easily became bogged. France had been ideal country for armoured forces, but Russia was the worst-because of its immense tracts of country that were either swamp or sand. In parts the sand was two or three feet deep. When the rain came down the sand turned into swamp.