This profile is based on a copy of Ritter von Thoma’s microfilmed service record housed at the United States National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. Supplementary sources are listed below.

NAME: General der Panzertruppe Wilhelm Josef Ritter von Thoma

PW NO           59931
RANK:            General der Panzertruppe
CAPTURED:   Tel el Mampsra, west of El Alamein, Egypt

DATE:             4 November 1942

DATE OF BIRTH: 11 November 1891 (Born Wilhelm Josef Thoma, he received the personal,

                               non-hereditary title of nobility “Ritter von Thoma” upon award of the Knight’s Cross
                               of the Bavarian Military Max Joseph Order on 5 July 1916.)

PLACE OF BIRTH:   Dachau/Oberbayern/Bayern

DATE OF DEATH:    30 April 1948

PLACE OF DEATH:  Dachau/Bayern

NATIONALITY:        German

RELIGION:                Catholic

OCCUPATION:        Regular Soldier



NEXT OF KIN:         Starnberg, bei Muenchen, (American Zone)

Parents: Eduard and Sabine (née Klein) Thoma, died 21 November 1899 in Dachau and 4 May 1921 in München respectively.
: None (Bachelor).


A tough but likeable type, he is obviously a born enthusiast who lives in a world of tanks, loves fighting for the zest of it, but would fight without ill-feeling, respecting any opponent. In the Middle Ages he would have been perfectly happy as a knight-errant, challenging all comers at any crossroad for the honour of crossing spears with them. The advent of the tank in warfare was a godsend to such a man, giving him a chance to re-live the part of the mail-clad knight.

                       – B.H. Liddell Hart, The German Generals Talk (1948)


Commands & Assignments:

  • 1903-1912: Attended the Humanist Ludwigs-Gymnasium (High School) in München; attained his certificate of graduation from that institution.
  • 23 September 1912: Entered the Royal Bavarian Army as a Fahnenjunker in the Bavarian 3. Infanterie-Regiment Prinz Karl von Bayern.
  • 1 October 1913-1 August 1914: Detached to the War School in München.
  • 2 August 1914: In the field with the Bavarian 3rd Infantry Regiment.
  • 25 September 1914: Wounded (head grazed by a shot) during the Battle on the Somme, France/treated at the front and remained with the troops.
  • 28 September 1914: Leader of the 11th Company of the Bavarian 3rd Infantry Regiment.
  • 2 October 1914: Wounded (shrapnel hit in right elbow) during the Battle on the Somme, France/treated at the front and remained with the troops.
  • 24 January 1915: Regimental Adjutant of the Bavarian 3rd Infantry Regiment.
  • 12 October 1915: Wounded (chest shot) during the campaign in Serbia/spent five days in hospital.
  • 11 November 1916: Appointed a Knight of the Bavarian Military Max Joseph Order with effect from 5 July 1916. On 4 June 1916, the Russians unleashed the Brusilov Offensive against the Austro-German forces on the Eastern Front. Commanded by General Alexei A. Brusilov, the Russian Southwest Front consisting of four armies attacked along a nearly 200-mile front and by the end of the month had advanced almost 60 miles and taken some 350,000 Austrian prisoners. While the Austrians collapsed and fell back in retreat, the German units offered stiff resistance and maintained a disciplined withdrawal in the face of the Russian offensive. On 5 July 1916, Leutnant Thoma performed the deed that garnered him the Knight’s Cross of the Bavarian Military Max Joseph Order, the highest purely military decoration that could be bestowed on Bavarian officers for bravery in war. From Bayerns Goldenes Ehrenbuch (Bavaria’s Golden Honor Book):

After hard fighting during the combat between the Styr and Stokhod Rivers and despite the exhaustion of the troops, the Bavarian 11th Infantry Division was again assigned to the area of Ugli-Gruziatyn on 5 July 1916 since the Austrians were withdrawing. Leutnant Thoma and his regimental commander arrived for a situation briefing at the Austrian command post straight in the path of a new Russian attack. The Austrians flooded to the rear, the command post was vacated. Despite close combat, Thoma voluntarily held out alone and sent important messages to regiment and brigade. When the Russians approached the command post, Thoma, on his own initiative, rapidly gathered together a weak Austrian battalion, which, spurred on by his coolness and absolutely fearless bravery, drove the enemy back. He likewise beat back a second and third Russian attack preventing a Russian breakthrough and, by his courageous stand, gave the high command the time and opportunity to send appropriate reinforcements.

  • 4-8 April 1917: Detached to a training course with Field Airship Detachment 14, Colmar.
  • 4-9 February 1918: Detached to the 62nd Course at the Army Gas School in Berlin.
  • 23-27 March 1918: Detached to the 6th Leader Course in Wörth.
  • 25 April 1918: Wounded (grenade fragment in right wrist) during the Battle of Kemmel, Belgium/treated at the front and remained with the troops.
  • 2 May 1918: Leader of the 3rd Machinegun Company of the Bavarian 3rd Infantry Regiment.
  • 14 May 1918: Leader of the I. Battalion of the Bavarian 3rd Infantry Regiment.
  • 18 July 1918-27 October 1919: Prisoner of war in French/American captivity. [After the failure of the fifth and last of the German “Ludendorff Offensives” (15-17 July 1918), the French and Americans, backed by heavy French tank support, launched the first phase of the Aisne-Marne counteroffensive against the German lines southwest of Soissons on the 18th of July. On this date, Ritter von Thoma was captured by American troops, probably Major General Charles P. Summerall’s U.S. 1st Division, while leading the I. Battalion of the Bavarian 3rd Infantry Regiment in a bitter defense of his division’s right flank.]
  • 28 October 1919-9 February 1920: Placed on leave following release from captivity.
  • 10 February 1920: Transferred to Reichswehr-Schützen [Rifle]-Regiment 42 of Reichswehr-Brigade 21 commanded by Oberst Franz Ritter von Epp.
  • 11 February 1920-1 April 1920: Leader of the Recruiting Post Office of Reichswehr-Brigade 21 (listed as Brigade “Epp” in Ritter von Thoma’s service record).
  • 17-25 May 1920: Deputy Battalion Adjutant in Reichswehr-Schützen-Regiment 42 of Reichswehr-Brigade 21.
  • 29 May 1920-10 June 1920: Deputy Hauptmann on the Staff of Reichswehr-Schützen-Regiment 42 of Reichswehr-Brigade 21.
  • 1 January 1921: Transferred to Infantry Regiment 19 upon the formation of the new Reichsheer from the Übergangsheer or Transitional Army.
  • 15 May 1921: Leader of the 6th Company of Infantry Regiment 19.
  • 1 July 1922: Transferred to the 7th (Bavarian) Motorized Battalion as Battalion Adjutant. [Took part in the suppression of the Nazi uprising (Adolf Hitler’s “Beer Hall Putsch”) in München, 8-23 November 1923.]
  • 27 November 1923: Company Officer in the 2nd Company of the 7th (Bavarian) Motorized Battalion.
  • 22 March 1924-14 April 1924: Detached to a course for the leading and use of armored motor vehicle platoons.
  • 24 May 1924-7 June 1924: Detached as Leader of a motorcycle platoon to the exercises of Reiter [Mounted]-Regiment 18 at Grafenwöhr.
  • 12 January 1925: Delegated with the leadership of the 2nd Company of the 7th (Bavarian) Motorized Battalion.
  • 1 April 1925: Chief of the 2nd Company of the 7th (Bavarian) Motorized Battalion.
  • 9 August 1929: Detached to the staff of Group Command 2.
  • 1 October 1929: Transferred to Group Command 2 and detached to the Motorized Training Command of the 3rd (Prussian) Motorized Battalion.
  • 14-21 December 1930: Detached to Gas Protection Course E in Berlin.
  • 1 February 1931: Transferred to the 7th (Bavarian) Motorized Battalion and detached to the staff of the 7th Division as the Staff Officer for Motor Transport.
  • 1 March 1931: Transferred to the 7th (Bavarian) Medical Battalion and detached to the staff of the 7th Division as the Staff Officer for Motor Transport.
  • 6-31 October 1931: Detached to the Motorized Demonstration Staff in Berlin for participation in a course for the training and testing of military motor vehicle driving experts.
  • 25-26 November 1931: Participated in an examination of the assembly process of the Krupp-Daimler 100-horsepower chassis at the Daimler-Benz Firm in Berlin.
  • 1 May 1933: Transferred to the staff of the 7th Division.
  • 1 August 1934: Transferred to the Motorized Demonstration Command Ohrdruf. [Formed in 1934 at Ohrdruf, the Kraftfahr-Lehrkommando or Motorized Demonstration Command was Germany’s first dedicated tank unit and, in the words of Ritter von Thoma, was “the grandmother of all the others.” Initially composed of one battalion, the unit later gained a second battalion and was equipped with Germany’s first new tank, the small two-man PzKpfw I light tank armed with two machineguns. A second Motorized Demonstration Command was later established at Zossen. These two commands provided the nucleus from which several panzer regiments were born.] 

  • 15 October 1935: Commander of the II. Battalion of Panzer Regiment 4 of the 2nd Panzer Division. [This date marked the official formation of Germany’s first three armored divisions: the 1st Panzer Division commanded by General der Kavallerie Maximilian Freiherr von und zu Weichs an der Glon at Weimar; the 2nd Panzer Division commanded by Oberst (later Generalmajor) Heinz Guderian at Würzburg; and the 3rd Panzer Division commanded by Generalleutnant Ernst Feßmann at Berlin.]
  • 9-14 December 1935: Detached to the Army and Luftwaffe Signals Course at the Halle/Salle Signals School.
  • 23 September 1936-8 June 1939: At the disposal of the Army High Command – Commander of Group “Imker” [Beekeeper], the ground contingent of the German Condor Legion in Spain. [Arriving in Spain in early October 1936, the personnel of Group “Imker” were originally volunteers from Panzer Regiment 6 “Neuruppin” of the 3rd Panzer Division. Tasked with training General Francisco Franco’s Spanish Nationalist officers and men in tanks, infantry tactics, and artillery and signals employment, Group “Imker” maintained two, then three panzer training companies equipped with PzKpfw I light tanks (panzer units were codenamed Group “Drohne” or Drone). After completion of their training, the Spanish troops took custody of the tanks at which time a new shipment of PzKpfw I tanks arrived from Germany. Additionally, Group “Drohne” made use of large numbers of the superior Russian tanks captured from Republican forces (the T-26 tank was particularly prized). While ostensibly in Spain in a training capacity, the German Army instructors also rotated to the front to provide further technical advice to the Spanish and to engage in direct combat operations. Ritter von Thoma was a frequent visitor to the combat zones; he later claimed to have taken part in 192 tank actions in Spain.]


Photos courtesy of
Francisco de Asís Romero y Medina
Von Thoma gives instructions to a Spanish official.
Province of Cáceres, October 1936
Cáceres, 18.10.1936
Franco and Ritter von Thoma.
Outskirts of Derio (País Vasco): (left to right)
Oberleutnant Willig,
Comandante Pujales,
Oberstleutnant von Thoma
General Sperrle
Oberstleutnant von Funck and von Thoma observe the artillery fire against the final republican positions. Bilbao, June 1937.

  • 8 June 1939: Allocated as a Staff Officer in Berlin – duties determined by the General of the Mobile Troops.
  • 1 August 1939-18 September 1939: Transferred to the staff of Panzer Regiment 3 of the 2nd Panzer Division and, at the same time, delegated with the leadership of the regiment. [In September 1939, the 2d Panzer Division commanded by Generalleutnant Rudolf Veiel took part in the invasion of Poland as a component of General der Kavallerie Ewald von Kleist’s XXII Army Corps (Motorized). Attacking from its staging area in the Orava Valley in Slovakia, von Kleist’s corps advanced south of Kraków and took river crossings on the Dunajec River at Tarnów. Continuing its advance from Rzeszów, the corps then seized a bridgehead on the San River at Jarosław from whence the 2nd Panzer Division advanced northeast to Zamošč. The 2nd Panzer Division then engaged Polish forces at Rawa Ruska, Kulikow, Zolkiew, Tomaszów and Krasnobród before ending its advance and retiring behind the San River that served as the German-Soviet demarcation line in that sector. Ritter von Thoma received the 1939 Bars to both of his First World War Iron Crosses for his performance during the campaign.]
  • 19 September 1939-5 March 1940: Commander of Panzer Regiment 3 of the 2nd Panzer Division.
  • 5 March 1940: General of the Mobile Troops in the Army High Command.
  • 17 July 1941-15 September 1941: At the same time, delegated with the leadership of the 17th Panzer Division on the Eastern Front. [Commanded by Generalmajor Dipl. Ing. Karl Ritter von Weber (acting commander in place of Generalleutnant Hans-Jürgen von Arnim who had been wounded on 26 June 1941 near Stolpce), the 17th Panzer Division was engaged in the invasion of the Soviet Union as a component of Army Group Center. On 17 July 1941, Ritter von Thoma assumed temporary command of the division after Generalmajor Ritter von Weber—a fellow holder of the Knight’s Cross of the Bavarian Military Max Joseph Order—was severely wounded near Krassnyj, south of Smolensk (he died two days later). Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, the Commander of Panzer Group 2, remarked on Ritter von Thoma’s appointment to the 17th Panzer Division in his memoirs, Panzer Leader: “He was one of our most senior and experienced panzer officers; he had been famous for his icy calm and exceptional bravery both in the First World War and in Spain, and was now to prove his ability once again.” Ritter von Thoma led the division until 15 September 1941, when Generalleutnant Hans-Jurgen von Arnim, since recovered from his wounds, resumed command.]
  • 15 September 1941: Army High Command Leader Reserve – duties determined by the Commander of Wehrkreis [Military District] III, Berlin.
  • 14 October 1941-1 July 1942: Commander of the 20th Panzer Division on the Eastern Front. [Succeeding Generalmajor Horst Stumpff as divisional commander, Ritter von Thoma led his new command on the drive on Moscow that began on 15 November 1941. Despite the onset of a brutal winter, the Germans doggedly advanced on Moscow from the north and the south in an attempt to close the pinchers around the Russian capital. However, the increasing cold, fierce local counterattacks and lack of reserves slowed the German advance. On 6 December 1941, the Russians launched the first of a series of major counteroffensives that forced the Germans back from Moscow. By the end of the month, Ritter von Thoma received the coveted Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross for organizing and holding a new defensive position on the Ruza River despite being closely pursued by strong Soviet forces. On 15 January 1942, Hitler finally bowed to the inevitable and authorized his freezing and exhausted armies to slowly pull back in measured stages to the Rzhev-Gzhatsk-Orel-Kursk line (Königsberg Line). After continuing to serve on the Moscow front, Ritter von Thoma relinquished command of the 20th Panzer Division to Generalmajor Walther Düvert.]
  • 1 July 1942: Army High Command Leader Reserve – duties determined by the Commander of Wehrkreis III, Berlin.
  • 1 September 1942-4 November 1942: Delegated with the leadership of the German Afrika Korps for the duration of the absence of the commanding general. [In the early morning hours of 31 August 1942, General der Panzertruppe Walther Nehring, the Commanding General of the German Afrika Korps, was wounded when a British aircraft bombed his command vehicle during the Battle of Alam Halfa. Temporary command of the corps passed briefly to Nehring’s chief of staff, Oberst Fritz Bayerlein, until later in the morning when Generalmajor Gustav von Vaerst relinquished command of the 15th Panzer Division to assume leadership of the German Afrika Korps. Although formally appointed to command on 1 September 1942, various sources indicate Ritter von Thoma did not actually arrive in North Africa to take command of the German Afrika Korps until the 17th of September.]  
  • 24-25 October 1942: Delegated with the leadership of Panzer Army Afrika. [Ritter von Thoma briefly commanded the army after its commander, General der Kavallerie Georg Stumme, suffered a fatal heart attack during the Battle of El Alamein. At the time, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel was en route to North Africa from Germany where he had been on sick leave. Rommel arrived on the 25th of October and resumed command of Panzer Army Afrika.]
  • 4 November 1942: Captured by the British at Tel el Mampsra, west of El Alamein, Egypt. [On 23 October 1942, the decisive Battle of El Alamein commenced when General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery’s British Eighth Army began its offensive against the German-Italian Panzer Army Afrika front in Egypt. In the face of rapidly mounting losses and dangerous penetrations into his line, Generalfeldmarschall Rommel prepared to withdraw his army into Libya. However, Adolf Hitler intervened and, on the 3rd of November, issued the astonishing order for Panzer Army Afrika to remain and fight where it was. Ominously, Hitler concluded his order with these sober words to Rommel: “As to your troops, you can show them no other way than that to victory or death.” Appalled at this controversial order, Ritter von Thoma declared it “madness” and, with his German Afrika Korps grinding itself to pieces in desperate counterattacks and virtually bereft of tanks, mounted one of the tanks of his headquarters guard unit and drove to the apex of the battle. With his tank hit several times and on fire, Ritter von Thoma dismounted and stood quietly amongst a sea of burning tanks and German dead scattered around the small hill of Tel el Mampsra where he was taken prisoner by Captain Allen Grant Singer of the 10th Royal Hussars (Prince of Wales’s Own). (Rommel later opined that Ritter von Thoma was probably seeking his death in battle while other staff officers quietly speculated that he went to the front to deliberately surrender.) That evening, Ritter von Thoma dined with General Montgomery at his headquarters to discuss the battle. B.H. Liddell Hart later recorded Ritter von Thoma’s reaction to Montgomery’s revelations over dinner: “I was staggered at the exactness of his knowledge…He seemed to know as much about our position as I did myself.”]
  • 4 November 1942-1946: Prisoner of war in British captivity. [Over the next several years, Ritter von Thoma was held in several senior officer prisoner of war camps in Great Britain including Trent Park (Barnet, Middlesex), Wilton Park (Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire), Grizedall Hall (Hawkshead, Lancashire) and Island Farm (Bridgend, Glamorgan). In late 1945, SS-Brigadeführer Kurt Meyer, captured in Belgium in September 1944 while commanding the 12th SS-Panzer Division “Hitler Jugend,” arrived at Trent Park and noted Ritter von Thoma, the German camp leader, was “…highly thought of by the English. Relations between him and the guards is excellent.” In 1945, Ritter von Thoma had one of his legs amputated at Wilton Park and was fitted with an artificial limb in Cardiff.]
    • 20 November 1942 transferred to Trent Park Camp 11 sorting camp.
    • 21 July 1946 transferred to Camp 160 Military Hospital from Camp 300.
    • Dated 20 July 46 - Held on strength of Island Farm Special Camp 11 with effect from this date (UM/M/1879/PW1)


    Letter sent 24/12/44 to the Camp Commandant: Major Topham

    • 23 September 1947 transferred to Island Farm Special Camp 11 from Camp 99
    • 25 November 1947 Repatriated

Decorations & Awards:

Notes on Decorations: A certain amount of conjecture exists regarding the award of the German Spanish Cross in Gold with Swords and Diamonds and the Spanish Military Medal with Diamonds to Ritter von Thoma. While he definitely received the medals in question, the debate centers on whether or not they were embellished with Diamonds. The Diamond embellishments are mentioned in at least one reference book: Virtuti Pro Patria: Der königlich bayerische Militär-Max-Joseph-Orden.

During World War I, Ritter von Thoma saw extensive combat service on the Western, Eastern and Serbian Fronts while assigned to the Bavarian 3. Infanterie-Regiment Prinz Karl von Bayern of the Bavarian 11th Infantry Division commanded by Generalleutnant Paul Ritter von Knueßl.

Western Front

Eastern Front

Serbian Front

Western Front

Eastern Front

Western Front

Movie Portrayals: