Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma

Wilhelm Josef Ritter von Thoma (11 September 1891 – 30 April 1948) was a German army officer who served in World War I, in the Spanish Civil War, and as a general in World War II. He was a recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.

Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma
Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1972-083-25, Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma.jpg
Born(1891-09-11)11 September 1891
Dachau, Kingdom of Bavaria, German Empire
Died30 April 1948(1948-04-30) (aged 56)
Dachau, Bavaria, Allied-occupied Germany
Allegiance German Empire (to 1918)
 Weimar Republic (to 1933)
 Nazi Germany
Service/branchCondor Legion
Years of service1912–42
RankGeneral der Panzertruppe
Unit20. Panzer-Division
Battles/warsWorld War I
Spanish Civil War
World War II
AwardsKnight's Cross of the Military Order of Max Joseph
Spanish Cross In Gold with Swords and Diamonds
Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross

Thoma is known for his indiscretion while a POW in the British captivity, when he unwittingly revealed the existence of the V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 weapons programmes. He was subject to surveillance by the British intelligence and while speaking to another German officer, was recorded discussing rockets that were being tested at Kummersdorf West, which he had observed while on a visit that also included Generalfeldmarschall Walther von Brauchitsch, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army. British reconnaissance flights over Peenemünde Army Research Center in May and June 1943 brought back unmistakable images of rockets at the facility; the subsequent bombing of the site severely disrupted the programme.

Military careerEdit

Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma was born in Dachau in 1891 as son of a Bavarian tax official and became career officer with the Bavarian Army. Thoma took part in the first World War with 3rd Bavarian Infantry Regiment (part of 2nd, then, from 1915, 11th Bavarian Infantry Division) on the Western (1914/15/16/17/18) and Eastern Front (1915/16), the Serbian Campaign (1915) and the Romanian Front in 1916/17. During the Second Battle of the Marne in July 1918 he was captured by French-American forces and became Prisoner of war until September, 1919. He was decorated with the Knight's Cross of the Bavarian Military Max Joseph Order, the highest military decoration for bravery in the Bavarian Army and was awarded the noble title of Ritter. After the war, Thoma remained in the new German army, the Reichswehr.[1] During the Spanish Civil War, he served in Spain commanding the ground element of the Condor Legion, following the Nazi Germany intervention on the side of the Nationalists led by Francisco Franco. During the 1941 Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, Thoma led the 17th Panzer Division and then the 20th Panzer Division, which took part in the Battle of Moscow. In December 1941, Thoma received the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. In September 1942 Thoma was transferred to serve with the Afrika Korps in North Africa, where he took part in the Second Battle of El Alamein in October 1942.

"I saw it once with Feldmarschall Brauchitsch, there is a special ground near Kunersdorf [sic] ... they've got these huge things which they've brought up here. ... They've always said they would go 15 km into the stratosphere and then. ... You only aim at an area. ... If one was to ... every few days ... frightful. ... The major there was full of hope--he said 'Wait until next year and the fun will start!", POW Thoma's voice to POW Ludwig Crüwell, captured after the First Battle of El Alamein (July 1942) and recorded/translated from German by British captors, 22 March 1943).[2][3] (By the middle of 1937, the Peenemünde rocket facility was nearly complete.)[Note 1][2][Note 1]

Under British surveillance as POWEdit

On 4 November 1942, Thoma was captured by the British forces and for the remainder of the war he was a prisoner in several senior officer prisoner-of-war camps in Great Britain, including Trent Park, Wilton Park, Grizedale Hall and Island Farm. Thoma was subject to surveillance by the Secret Intelligence Service and while speaking to another POW, General Ludwig Crüwell, was recorded discussing rockets that were being tested at Kummersdorf West, which he observed while on a visit that also included Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and other technical programme details.[6]

Following his indiscretion, further British reconnaissance flights over Peenemünde in May and June 1943 brought back unmistakable images of rockets at the facility which was developing guided missiles and long-range ballistic missiles better known as the V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 ballistic missile. When reconnaissance and intelligence information regarding the V-2 became convincing, Churchill's War Cabinet directed the first planned raid (Operation Hydra), the attack of Peenemünde in August 1943, as part of Operation Crossbow, the Anglo-American campaign against the Vergeltungswaffe, the German long-range weapons programme.[7]

In late 1945, Waffen-SS commander Kurt Meyer, captured in Belgium in September 1944 while commanding the 12th SS-Panzer Division "Hitler Jugend", arrived at Trent Park and noted that Thoma, the German camp leader, was "...highly thought of by the English. Relations between him and the guards is excellent".[8] Churchill's high regard for Thoma is evident from his many later quotations of Thoma's opinions on strategic matters, especially in his book about the war. After Montgomery invited Thoma to dine with him in his private trailer, Churchill remarked: "I sympathize with General von Thoma: Defeated, in captivity and... (long pause for dramatic effect) dinner with Montgomery".[9] Thoma died of a heart attack in 1948 in his home town of Dachau.



  1. ^ a b In the summer of 1936, Wernher von Braun and Walter Riedel had started to think of a much larger rocket than the A1 & A2 models,[4][5]



  1. ^ Mitcham, p. 155
  2. ^ a b Jones 1978, p. 333.
  3. ^ Secrets of The Dead, Bugging Hitler's Soldiers, Full Episode, PBS (YouTube). PBS. 2013. Retrieved 23 November 2013.
  4. ^ Ordway & Sharpe 1979, p. 32.
  5. ^ WGBH Educational Foundation (1988). NOVA: Hitler's Secret Weapon (The V-2 Rocket at Peenemunde) (documentary--VHS video 5273). VESTRON Video. Event occurs at 20:00-22:00. ISBN 0-8051-0631-6.
  6. ^ PBS show "Secrets of the Dead," Episode "Bugging Hitler's Soldiers," transcript at https://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/bugging-hitler%E2%80%99s-soldiers-program-transcript/950/
  7. ^ Neufeld, Michael J. (1995). The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemünde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era. New York: The Free Press. p. 198.
  8. ^ Meyer 2005, p. 344.
  9. ^ Hayward 1998, p. 105.
  10. ^ Scherzer 2007, p. 743.


  • Hayward, Steven F. (1998). Churchill on leadership executive success in the face of adversity. New York, N.Y.: Three Rivers Press. ISBN 030777452X.
  • Jones, R. V. (1978). Most Secret War: British Scientific Intelligence 1939-1945. London: Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 0-241-89746-7.
  • Mitcham, Samuel W. (2000). The Panzer Legions. United States: Stackpole Books. ISBN 978-0-8117-3353-3.
  • Meyer, Kurt (2005). Grenadiers. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole. ISBN 9780811731973.
  • Scherzer, Veit (2007). Die Ritterkreuzträger 1939–1945 Die Inhaber des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939 von Heer, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm sowie mit Deutschland verbündeter Streitkräfte nach den Unterlagen des Bundesarchives [The Knight's Cross Bearers 1939–1945 The Holders of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross 1939 by Army, Air Force, Navy, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm and Allied Forces with Germany According to the Documents of the Federal Archives] (in German). Jena, Germany: Scherzers Militaer-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-938845-17-2.
Military offices
Preceded by
Generalmajor Karl Ritter von Weber
Commander of 17th Panzer Division
17 July 1941 – 15 September 1941
Succeeded by
Generalleutnant Hans-Jürgen von Arnim
Preceded by
Generalleutnant Georg von Bismarck
Commander of 20th Panzer Division
14 October 1941 – 30 June 1942
Succeeded by
Generalleutnant Walter Düvert