"Panzer ace" ("tank ace") is a contemporary term used in English-speaking popular culture to describe highly-decorated German tank ("Panzer") commanders and crews during World War II. While not prevalent in World War II within the Wehrmacht, it was most common in the Waffen-SS to reward its successful personnel, as the SS organisation was far more attuned to the propaganda imperatives of Nazi Germany. These commanders were credited with the destruction of large numbers of tanks and other armoured vehicles. The British and United States did not recognise any of their tank commanders for "tank kills", though some were responsible for destroying a large number of enemy tanks.
The term "Panzer ace" has become prominent in contemporary popular culture, especially in the United States or as part of the uncritical portrayal of the Waffen-SS in English-language militaria and popular history works. The term is featured prominently in English translations of the works by German author Franz Kurowski. His fictionalised Panzer Aces series focuses on highly-decorated tank commanders, such as Michael Wittmann and Franz Bäke.
In recent years, several historians, including Sönke Neitzel and Steven Zaloga, began a critical examination of the combat performance of highly decorated German tank crews during the war. Zaloga concluded that "Panzer ace" is a romanticisation of reality, as it is neither possible to correctly determine "tank kills" in the heat of the battle nor is it possible to separate individual performance from technological or battlefield advantage, mixed with propaganda.
During World War II the concept of "Panzer aces" received little attention. To the extent that the concept existed, it was mainly advanced by the Waffen-SS as part of its contributions to Nazi Germany's propaganda campaigns. In most units of the Wehrmacht's ground force (Heer), tank crews and commanders generally received awards for mission performance rather than tank kills.
German highly-decorated tank commanders were most often soldiers who served in units equipped with Tiger I or Tiger II tanks between mid-1943 and mid-1944. The Allies did not have any tanks capable of easily defeating the Tigers during this period. Few soldiers who operated Panther tanks at this time received the same high decorations as these tanks were more vulnerable to Allied tanks and less mechanically reliable than the Tiger. Historian Dennis Showalter has suggested that the confidence which the crews of Tigers and the operators of other relatively advanced weapons had in the capabilities of their equipment may have reinforced their ideological conditioning, and encouraged them to take risks in combat.
The United States Army did not adopt the concept of "tank aces" during World War II, with proposals to do so being rejected. However, some US Army tank commanders such as Lafayette G. Pool and Creighton Abrams were responsible for the destruction of large numbers of German tanks and other armoured vehicles. A 1943 New York Times story labelled Chinese Major General Hoo Hsien-Chung as a "tank ace" for the actions of a force under his command during the 1938 Battle of Taierzhuang.
Similarly, the British Army did not recognise any tank aces. Opportunities for British commanders to destroy large numbers of enemy tanks were limited as the various tanks operated by the Army generally did not outclass German tanks. Some British Sherman Firefly tank commanders were responsible for destroying multiple German tanks. The Soviet Red Army also regarded destroying tanks as not being an act of particular heroism for its tank commanders, as the main role of its armoured units was to support infantry.
The German author Franz Kurowski covers "Panzer aces" in several of his uncritical and hagiographic accounts. Published in the U.S. by J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing in the 1990s and by Stackpole Books in the 2010, his popular series Panzer Aces describes fictionalised careers of highly-decorated German soldiers during World War II. A veteran of the Eastern front (as a member of a propaganda company), Kurowski is one of the authors who "have picked up and disseminated the myths of the Wehrmacht in a wide variety of popular publications that romanticize the German struggle in Russia", according to The Myth of the Eastern Front by historians Ronald Smelser and Edward Davies.
The most famous German "Panzer ace", and according to military historian Steven Zaloga, "the hero of all Nazi fanboys", Michael Wittmann, is credited by Kurowski as having destroyed 60 tanks and nearly as many anti-tank guns in the course of a few days near Kiev in November 1943. The book also describes the actions of "Panzer ace" Franz Bäke in the Cherkassy Pocket. In Kurowski's retelling, after fighting unit after unit of the Red Army, Bäke is able to establish a corridor to the trapped German forces, and then "wipes out" the attacking Soviets. In another of Kurowski's accounts, while attempting to relieve the 6th Army encircled in Stalingrad, Bake destroys 32 enemy tanks in a single engagement.
The concept of what constitutes success in tank battles has received considerable attention in recent years. The historian Sönke Neitzel questions the numbers of tanks destroyed attributed in popular culture to various tank commanders. According to Neitzel, numbers of successes by highly decorated soldiers should be approached with caution as it is rarely possible to determine reliably in the heat of the battle how many tanks were destroyed and by whom. The Wehrmacht's intelligence service on the Eastern Front, the Fremde Heere Ost (FHO), routinely reduced the reported number of Soviet tanks being destroyed by 30 to 50 per cent in their own statistics to make up for double counting and repairable vehicles. Zaloga considers these numbers to be reasonably accurate tallies of actual Soviet tank losses.
As of December 1942, the German high command routinely reduced the reported number of Soviet tanks being destroyed by 50 per cent in their own statistics. At the time of the Operation Citadel and during the subsequent Soviet counteroffensives in the Summer of 1943, German combat units claimed 16,250 tanks and assault guns to be destroyed. According to Zetterling, the high command was a little too drastic with its 50% reduction, and the reducing by 42% would have been more accurate to assess the cost of the fighting. The Battle of Kursk, as a part of the Operation Citadel, continues to attract popular interest as the "Greatest Tank Battle of All Time." Recent historical revision have scaled down the size of the action, and memoirs such as penned by Erich von Manstein and Friederich Wilhelm, along with German unit histories that have dominated our understanding of the batte for "far too long". As a result, when historians like Glantz and House tried to set out to debunk the myths surrounding Kursk, their conclusions are coincidentally unsatisfying and based on incomplete data.
The military historian Steven Zaloga has also noted that "tank kill claims during World War II on all sides should be taken with a grain of salt". Zaloga uses the term "tank ace" in quotation marks in his 2015 work Armored Champion: The Top Tanks of World War II. He notes the "romantic nonsense" of the popular inclination to imagine a tank versus tank engagement as an "armoured joust" – two opponents facing each other – with the "more valiant or better-armed [one] the eventual victor". In reality, most tank to tank combat involved one tank ambushing the other, and the most successful tank commanders were generally "bushwhackers" with "a decided advantage in firepower or armour, and often both".
Zaloga uses Wittmann's career to illustrate the point of the battlefield advantage. He credits Wittman with "about 135" tanks destroyed, but points out that Wittmann achieved 120 of these in 1943, operating a Tiger I tank on the Eastern Front. Having advantages both in firepower and in armour, Tiger I was "nearly invulnerable in a frontal engagement" against any of the Soviet tanks of that time. Wittman thus could "kill its opponents long before they were close enough to inflict damage on his tank". Zaloga concludes: "Most of the 'tank aces' of World War II were simply lucky enough to have an invulnerable tank with a powerful gun". He has also written that "the considerable attention paid to German tank aces in recent years obscures the fact that they were an exception to the rule and that most of the anonymous young German tankers in late 1944 were thrown into combat with poor training".
Historian John Buckley has also criticised accounts of Wittman's career, arguing that "many historians through to today continue to repackage unquestioningly Nazi propaganda" by repeating false claims that Wittman's tank single-handedly defeated a British offensive in Normandy. In reality, this tactical success was achieved by the entire unit Wittman formed part of, but was attributed only to him as part of a propaganda campaign.