The Germans during World War 2 were arguably history’s greatest villains. Driven by such vile engines as greed, ambition, and weaponized racism, the Nazis envisioned a world subservient to their idealized vision of the Ubermensch. Alas, the non-Aryan majority of the world’s population had a few things to say about that.
Despite their dark irredeemable ethos, the Nazis during the course of WW2 developed some of the most advanced weapons the world had ever seen. What began as a grand war of conquest ultimately devolved into a desperate struggle for national survival. The prospect of having your lands and your families ravaged by an invading army can be a powerful motivator. As I type these words the Russians are learning that timeless lesson yet again in Ukraine.
The Germans gifted the world with the first examples of the assault rifle, optimized combat submarines, operational jet fighters, and surface-to-surface ballistic missiles. While German military innovations have shaped the world for seventy years, in no place has the Nazi martial mythos been more profoundly manifest than in their tanks. The German Panther and Tiger tanks struck fear in the hearts of Allied servicemen wherever they fought. While much of this stemmed from propaganda and wartime rumors, the Panzerkampfwagen Mk V and VI were undeniably revolutionary combat vehicles.
My wife once told me that any political aspirations I might once have had went out the window the first time a photograph was published of me wearing a Waffen SS uniform. I do indeed maintain both an SS uniform as well as that of a wartime German fallschirmjager in my writing closet. I use this kit as props for my literary efforts. I am, however, living proof that you can admire a nation’s military acumen and sundry martial accouterments while still harboring the requisite disdain for their dark politics and twisted worldview. Just as well, the American political Left would be rendered frankly apoplectic by a Will Dabbs Presidency anyway.
The Waffen SS or Armed SS was a curious army within an army during World War 2. SS stood for Schutzstaffel, and it was originally imagined as Hitler’s personal bodyguard. By the end of the war, the Waffen SS had consumed 900,000 troops divided into 38 combat divisions. However, particularly toward the end, some of these divisions were more like Kampfgruppen or small battlegroups. They were divisions in name only.
While the Waffen SS has been rightfully reviled for committing battlefield atrocities, they were some seriously snappy dressers. SS troops pioneered the use of camouflage uniforms, and the black mufti of the SS panzer corps just strikes a visceral chord. Ever on the prowl for outstanding Nazi soldiers to use to inspire the folks back home, Joseph Goebbels and his propaganda machine made good use of dashing young SS panzer officers. One of his favorites was Oberscharfuhrer Ernst Barkmann.
Ernst Barkmann was born in 1919 in Kisdorf in Holstein and was raised on a family farm. In 1936 Barkmann volunteered for the SS-Standarte Germania. At the ripe age of 17, Ernst Barkmann was an SS trooper.
Barkmann invaded Poland with the 9th Kompanie as a machine gunner and was wounded. Two years later he was wounded again during Operation Barbarossa near Dnieprpetrowsk and awarded the Iron Cross (Second Class). After he recovered he did a brief stint as an instructor before volunteering for service with the 2d SS Panzer Division Das Reich. While manning a Panzerkampfwagen Mk III, Barkmann fought during the Battle of Kharkov in early 1943, earning the Iron Cross (First Class) for his efforts. By the middle of 1943, Barkmann had transferred into one of Hitler’s new wunderwaffe or wonder weapons.
Barkmann’s new mount was the Panzerkampfwagen Mk V Panther. This highly advanced German medium tank was designed to be the answer to the ubiquitous Russian T34. Sporting a high-velocity, long-barreled, tank-killing 75mm gun along with unrivaled speed and maneuverability, the Panther was hoped to be able to sweep the battlefield of Russian armor. Reality, as is so often the case, was a different beast entirely.
By early 1944 it had become apparent that the Allies were planning an amphibious invasion of France. Barkmann and his 2d SS Panzer Division were therefore transferred from the Eastern Front to the Bordeaux area of Southern France to await the invasion. Immediately after the invasion on June 6, 1944, Das Reich advanced to St. Lo to contest the advance of the American 9th and 30th Infantry Divisions along with the 3d Armored Division. The stage was set for a simply epic scrap.
What follows is drawn from several sources, some of which include the Waffen SS itself. Combat on such a scale as this is the most frenetic of human pursuits, so the details are frequently tainted by the fog of war. Add to this that the Germans were desperate for heroes, and you have the recipe for exaggeration. However, historical records show that American forces did indeed burn through Sherman tanks at a simply breathtaking clip. Regardless of the specifics, Ernst Barkmann and his Panther crew comprised an undeniably effective tank-killing machine.
Barkmann knocked out his first American Sherman on July 8. Four days later he eliminated two more and damaged a third. During this engagement Barkmann’s Mk V was set ablaze but later recovered. After a stint in the Division workshop, his Panther was ready for action yet again.
On July 14th Barkmann was tasked with recovering four other Panthers that had been cut off behind Allied lines. He succeeded in this chore and added another three Shermans to his tally. Two weeks later Barkmann’s tank had been hit by Allied fighter-bombers and repaired yet again. Now cut off from his Kompanie near Le Lorey, he was informed by retreating Wehrmacht troops of a column of fifteen American Shermans approaching along with sundry support vehicles. Alone and unsupported by other armor, Barkmann backed his Panther into a heavy copse of oak trees and waited.
During the subsequent engagement, Barkmann destroyed the two lead tanks along with a fuel truck before all hell broke loose. The Americans attempted to maneuver around the burning hulks only to be holed by the German’s vicious high-velocity 75mm gun. The bloodied Americans retreated and called in tactical air support to neutralize the rampaging Panther. In the air attack, Barkmann’s tank was damaged and two crew members were wounded. When two more Shermans advanced to administer the coup de grace he destroyed them both.
By the time the dust cleared Ernst Barkmann had destroyed nine Shermans and a variety of support vehicles. Historians have come to refer to this engagement as “Barkmann’s Corner.” For his performance during this battle as well as some audacious action over the following two days, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross.
The Panther was rushed into service in mid-1943 before its teething troubles had been fully explored. Powered by the same 690-horsepower Maybach V12 petrol engine that drove the Tiger I, the Panther was designed from the outset to be fast and maneuverable. However, at 45 tons, the Panther was markedly heavier than Allied medium tanks.
The Panther supported a five-man crew and was well-equipped for combat. The electrically-fired 75mm Kampfwagenkanone 42 L/70 high-velocity gun launched a 10.5-pound armor-piercing, composite rigid projectile at 3,700 feet per second that were capable of penetrating 194mm of steel armor plate at a 30-degree angle of incidence. Combat loadout was 79 rounds of main gun ammunition. Alongside the 75mm gun, the Panther also carried two MG34 belt-fed machineguns and 5,100 rounds of linked ammunition.
The Panther’s ZF AK 7-200 transmission incorporated seven forward gears and one reverse. The tank’s radically advanced double torsion bar, interleaved road wheels provided an unrivaled smooth ride and subsequent stable gun platform but were notoriously difficult to maintain. You had to remove two healthy wheels in the front to get to a single damaged wheel in the back . Despite its prodigious weight, the Panther had a maximum speed of 34 miles per hour and a road range of 160 miles.
Though I have seen a Panther up close I have never been inside of one. It seems to me like the turret would be terribly cramped given the immense size of the gun’s breech. Despite its well-documented reliability problems, the Panther was indeed one of the most capable tanks of the war.
The Rest of the Story
SS-Oberscharfuhrer Barkmann fought with distinction during the Ardennes Offensive that we came to know as the Battle of the Bulge. At one point, overwhelmed by American armored vehicles, Barkmann’s Panther was rammed by an Allied Sherman. The Panther’s engine stalled and the turret jammed, but Barkmann nonetheless destroyed the attacking Sherman before successfully restarting his engine and making his escape. On Christmas Day 1944 Barkmann was badly wounded yet again.
By March of 1945, Barkmann had recovered sufficiently to rejoin his unit fighting the Russians on the Eastern Front. Overwhelmed by the sheer weight of numbers, Barkmann’s SS panzers gave ground reluctantly. By April of 1945, Barkmann and his crew were fighting near Vienna, Austria. There Barkmann’s Panther was inadvertently hit by friendly fire, and he was wounded yet again. Soon thereafter his Panther was irreparably disabled and destroyed by its own crew. SS-Oberscharfuhrer Ernst Barkmann was able to make his way to the British lines where he surrendered.
Ernst Barkmann earned the Panzer Assault Badge for fifty successful armored engagements with the enemy. Barkmann and his crew were ultimately credited with destroying some 82 Allied tanks, 136 armored fighting vehicles, and 43 antitank guns. He eventually returned to Kisdorf where he lived out his days as fire chief and later Burgermeister. Ernst Barkmann died in 2009 at age 89. Despite the horrors inflicted upon the world by the Nazi regime, Barkmann was indeed an undeniably effective tank commander. Special thanks to www.worldwarsupply.com for the cool replica gear used in our reenactor photos.