In February 1943, 21-year-old Waffen/Armed SS tank commander Rudolf von Ribbentrop was outside a Russian village when he spied a horse-drawn vehicle approaching in the distance, as he noted later in his wartime combat diary.
“I realized that the sleigh was occupied by about 10 Russians, all armed to the teeth. I wasn’t even carrying a pistol, as it hindered me getting into and out of the tank quickly. Instinctively, I struck the driver in the face as hard as I could, and began to beat the Russian, who was as shocked as I, with my bare fists. I did this only because I believed that the Russians would have no time to shoot at me in the confusion.
“While the Russians were trying to escape from the tangle of arms and legs and get clear, I dove away from the milling throng to avoid being hit by my own tanks, which had meanwhile opened fire on the Russians. I fell into the snow. One of the Russians stopped and fired two bursts from his submachine gun. I felt a heavy blow in the small of my back, which completely knocked the wind out of me.”
This performance was typical of the brave, resourceful, and aggressive “Rudi” von Ribbentrop, a man who’d enlisted as a simple volunteer in the Waffen SS on Sept. 1, 1939---the first day of Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland---even though his father, Joachim, was the foreign minister of the Third Reich under the Nazi Fuhrer/Leader, whom the youngster had gotten to know at his own family dinner table before the war.
His father---a veteran of the First World War---had married his mother, Anneliese Henkell, the daughter of a wealthy German wine tycoon whose family business flourishes in Germany’s Fifth Reich to this day. Rudi was born to them in Wiesbaden on May 11, 1921, and later served as a member of Baldur von Schirach’s HitlerYouth before joining the Waffen SS, considered to be the elite of the Nazi Party and Reichsfuhrer/National Administrator SS Heinrich Himmler’s embryonic armed forces that would grow into Nazi Germany’s second army by the end of the war.
When his father was German Ambassador to the Court of St. James in London in 1936, Britisher Sir Robert Vansittart tried to get Rudi into “Eton for the coming half,” according to Joachim von Ribbentrop biographer Michael Bloch: “Ribbentrop was particularly keen on this idea since he believed…that Eton would show Rudolf ‘how English boys live, and he will be able to teach the Hitler Youth.’ …The Eton authorities rejected Rudolf on the grounds that he was too old and had been put down far too late, which Ribbentrop naturally interpreted as a snub by the British establishment.
“Rudolf was enrolled as a day-boy at Westminster School in London, where he made himself unpopular by giving Nazi salutes and extolling the glories of the new Germany.” Adds von Ribbentrop biographer John Weitz, “Annelies and Joachim von Ribbentrop were devoted to their firstborn,” who as an adult possessed movie star quality good looks for both those times and these.
Rudolf von Ribbentrop began his military career as a recruit in the Replacement Battalion of the Germany Standard unit, and for the Polish campaign was transferred to the 11th Company, based at Munich. Its commander was the legendary Standarten Leader
SS Gen. Felix Steiner, and in October 1939, young von Ribbentrop was transferred again, to the field regiment, located in the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia that Hitler had proclaimed when he occupied Czechoslovakia the previous March.
On Apr. 30, 1940, he left Berlin on an unauthorized one-day trip to celebrate his father’s birthday at a meal that included the Fuhrer’s presence as well, and Hitler spoke of the coming German Blitzkrieg/Lightning War in the West, as Rudi recalled in his diary: “I myself hoped that the attack would begin soon, as I had heard…that all suitable leadership candidates were being sent on to the next course at the officer candidate school in Braunschweig…”
Rudi wanted to go fight in the West instead, and for the valid, simple reason: “It was not our intention to go to an officers’ candidate course without frontline experience and then have to command men who had such experience.” Impulsive and forthright, he brought the matter up personally to his father’s strong supporter within the ranks of the Nazi Party, Himmler, who “Clapped me on the shoulder and declared dryly, ‘You will do as you are ordered.’”
Undeterred, von Ribbentrop went to see his regimental commander, Gen. Steiner, who slapped him on the back and said, “Believe me, son, you will have plenty of time to get into this war! When you are an officer, come back and see me, because I will probably be forming a new division,” and then entered his command car to head off for the Western Front in France. When his father’s intervention with Himmler failed to change his status, Rudi simply called a taxi and took off for the front to find his regiment, which he did on May 10-11, 1940, just as the attack in the West was launched.
Roaring across invaded Holland, volunteer Ribbentrop led a bayonet charge against a French patrol that surrendered to him. When his regiment entered the Dutch town of Bergen op Zoom, they encountered some enemy soldiers about to withdraw. “I entered a farmhouse that was full of Dutch soldiers. I suddenly found myself facing a Dutch lieutenant….I shouted to him, ‘Hands up!’ He answered my bluff in fluent German…and ordered his men to lay down their weapons.”
Volunteer von Ribbentrop was to serve in the 11th Company throughout the campaign in the West, winning the Iron Cross Second Class and a promotion to Sturmann/Acting Corporal for bravery in the face of the enemy. He also received his first wound---a bullet fragment in his upper right arm, “Which had originated from a bullet which shattered on striking the gravel. My two comrades, who had been pinned down with me by the motorcycle, had both been killed. Sadly, I stood before them. They had been killed to my left and right. Fate had spared me.”
Later, he made an inflatable boat attack under enemy machine gun fire that he survived, only to be greeted by an irate Himmler on an inspection tour of his unit: “So, you managed to get your own way after all, but then see to it that you go to Braunschweig!”
He arrived there on May 31, 1940 with his Iron Cross and Wound Badge in Black, ready to attend classes at the SS Officer Candidates School: “I had done it. No one can say of me that I had been transferred to the Junkerschule instead of seeing action because I was the son of a minister. The problem of ‘kinship liability,” as I called it, began not after 1945, but was already then, and had to be met with skill and---on occasion---with stolidity”
He completed the course successfully, and was commissioned on Apr. 20, 1941 (Hitler’s 52nd birthday) as an Untersturmfuhrer/Second Lieutenant and was given the command of a platoon in the 1st Company, Reconnaissance Battalion North, which was sent to join Alpenkorps/Alpine Corps Gen. Edouard Dietl’s Mountain Corps Norway. On the invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941, the unit was sent to Finland as an aide to Nazi Germany’s ally in the new war against the Soviet Union, the Finnish Army.
His service in SS Battle Group North gained him Finland’s Freedom Cross, Fourth Class, and on Sept. 2, 1941, von Ribbentrop received his second wound when a bullet fractured a bone in his left forearm. He was sent to Himmler’s personal SS hospital at Hohenlychen in the Reich to recuperate, and left for a short home leave in February 1942, after he was reassigned to the newly formed Panzer Regiment of the Lifeguard SS Adolf Hitler, the Fuhrer’s own elite bodyguard unit, founded in 1933.
He began his service with the LSSAH as a motorcycle reconnaissance platoon leader, and transferred to the 3rd Company as a platoon leader. After a brief period on the regimental staff as an operations officer, von Ribbentrop was posted to the 6th Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Panzer/Armored Regiment commanding a tank platoon during SS Gen. Paul Hausser’s unauthorized first retreat from the Russian city of Kharkov in 1943.
During this series of battles, von Ribbentrop was wounded for the third time: shot in the right shoulder blade as well as the left shoulder, plus a minor lung wound.
The ardent young Nazi tank leader was never happier than when leading his panzers across the snow covered steppes of Russia from the open turret of what was always his,the lead armored vehicle. Indeed, after this third wounding, he strenuously objected to being flown out by a light Storch/Stork aircraft for recovery back home in the Reich because he felt that a private soldier had more right to that space than he. The medical officer, calling him a “stubborn ox” (according to author Franz Kurowski in his work Panzer Aces), did as Rudi wished in the end.
Once, when his tank turret was unserviceable, the so-called “stubborn ox” helped stave off a Red Army infantry attack by utilizing his panzer’s still working machine gun only. He was promoted to the rank of company commander on March 1, 1943, and Kurowski provides a vivid account of why: “Through his field glasses, von Ribbentrop could see that the Soviets were assembling for their final assault. ‘Maximum speed! Everyone follow me!’ ‘Everyone’ was two panzers that had joined the platoon leader, whose tank was already rolling toward the main body of the enemy. ‘Spread out and open fire at your discretion!’ ordered von Ribbentrop.
Constantly exposing himself to enemy fire not only from mobile and dug in Red Army tanks, von Ribbentrop also was subject to the fate that befell many “open turret” commanders: Russian snipers hidden in buildings and trees. Moreover, when he won an honor or a military decoration, he believed in sharing the credit with his men whenever possible, asserting that they’d earned the honors as much as he had.
By the end of the war, his awards included the Iron Cross 1st Cross (March 18, 1943), the Wound Badge in Silver (May 1st), the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross (July 15th), and the German Cross (Aug. 25, 1944.)
Of his comrades he was to write, “These were the men in our tanks, each and every one a soldier through and through---and all completely fearless.”
His most successful day of the war came on July 13, 1943 during the epic tank Battle of Kursk, when he and his unit helped stop a Red Army tank assault with their own brand new Tiger tanks from Germany. He would later receive high praise from another famed SS tanker, Jochen Peiper: “I would gladly take your company into our bunch!”
Kurowski reported that von Ribbentrop’s command had knocked out 14 Russian T-34 tanks in a single engagement, leading SS Gen. Hausser later to come in person to inspect the scene: “It was later reported that he had marked the knocked out tanks with a piece of chalk and counted them in disbelief,” as von Ribbentrop noted in his diary
Having commanded 6th Company since March 13, 1943 (except for a brief period while training Luftwaffe/Air Force men as instant tankers), von Ribbentrop on Aug. 1st was transferred to the newly formed 12th SS Panzer Division Hitler Jugend/Youth, and was posted to the command of training two junior officer courses. Four months later, he was named commander of the 3rd Company, 1st Battalion, Panzer Regiment 12, and on June 3, 1944, heading back to Le Neubourg in France following a training exercise, his light Volkswagen/People’s Car command vehicle was strafed by a Royal Air Force Spitfire.
He described the harrowing incident in his diary thus: “I felt a light blow in my back…I realized that I must have suffered a spinal injury. I could feel nothing below my shoulder blades, resulting in a partial paralysis…The fighter was on us again. It was not only most
impressive to lay on the asphalt road and see and hear the enemy’s machine gun fire pass about a meter from my head and spatter into the car and the road, but it was also a helpless feeling to face the attack while totally defenseless. Fortunately we were not hit again. The Volkswagen had been riddled, but did not catch fire.”
Completely paralyzed by now and with a lung wound as well, von Ribbentrop believed that he was going to die, but incredibly survived yet again. His feeling returned, as his spinal column had only been grazed, not severed, as he’d feared.”
From a hospital bed at the Luftwaffe facility at Bernay (where a wounded Field Marshal Erwin Rommel would be brought after a similar incident on July 17th), von Ribbentrop learned the news that the D-Day invasion had begun on June 6th, and immediately returned to his unit and helped saved its command post in a fierce fight against the Allies. In a remarkable battle on July 8th against the Canadians, his 3rd Company destroyed 27 tanks, eight Bren gun carriers, and four anti-tank guns, which he was personally decorated for having led “at least” 25 known tank assaults in his career thus far.
On Sept. 1, 1944---during the breakout Battle of the Falaise Gap---von Ribbenrtop served as regimental adjutant once more, and it was in this capacity that he saw renewed action as well in the Battle of the Bulge against the Americans. On Dec. 20, 1944, he received his fifth wound when he was hit in the mouth by a shell fragment and was presented with the Wound Badge in Gold. In all, his panzers destroyed 24 American tanks before the offensive ground to a halt on Jan. 8, 1945 east of the Belgian town of Bastogne.
His unit was withdrawn from the line for a rest period and formed part of the 1st SS Panzer Corps under Hitler’s favorite Waffen SS field lord, Gen. Josef “Sepp/Joe” Dietrich. The men fought as tank-less infantry in both Hungary and Austria in the final desperate weeks of the war against their old foe, the Red Army. In late April 1945, he was honored further by receiving the command of Battle Group von Ribbentrop.
He surrendered his unit to the Americans on May 8, 1945, telling his men, “We can say with pride that at no moment during the war years or in those that awaited us afterward, did we surrender our dignity. The following words have been true for us and our dead comrades right up to the present day: They can treat us like dogs, but they cannot degrade us.”
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