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Hans Graf von Sponeck
12 February 1888(1888-02-12) – 23 July 1944 (aged 56)
Place of birth Düsseldorf
Place of death Germersheim
Allegiance German Empire German Empire (to 1918)
Germany Weimar Republic (to 1933)
Nazi Germany Nazi Germany
Service/branch Heer
Rank Generalleutnant
Battles/wars World War I
World War II
Awards Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross
Relations Theodor Graf von Sponeck (brother)
Hans von Sponeck (son)

Hans Graf von Sponeck or Hans Emil Otto Graf Sponeck (February 12, 1888 – July 23, 1944) was a German General-Leutnant during World War II who was imprisoned for disobeying orders and later executed.

Contents

Early history

Sponeck was the youngest of four children, and only son, of Emil August Joseph Anton Graf Sponeck and Maria (née Courtin). He was born in Düsseldorf, Rhine Province, just months before his father's death at age 38. Hans spent his early years with his mother in Freiburg, Breisgau. This was near the "Burg Sponeck" which had given his family its title name.

Sponeck entered the cadet corps in Karlsruhe at 10, and became the "head cadet" at 17. He received his commission in 1908 at age 20 with rank of Lieutenant. He was also a gymnast and a soccer player. He was promoted to Captain in 1908. He married in 1910 and had two sons by this marriage.

During the First World War

Sponeck was a front line officer and battalion adjutant during World War I, and was wounded three times. In 1916 he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Afterwards he was awarded both orders of the Iron Cross with Leaves. Between 1924 and 1934 he served on the General Staff HQ and later as full colonel, commanded Infantry Regiment at Neustrelitz. In 1937 Sponeck entered the German Air Service under Hermann Göring to establish the new Air Commando Units.

Second World War

On 1 March 1938 Sponeck was promoted to Major-General. During the Werner von Fritsch affair Sponeck was called as a character witness but was roughly put down by Göring as Court President. Sponeck became commander of the 22nd Infantry Division with 42nd Army Corps training as airborne infantry divisions as paratrooper (fallschirmjäger) regiments. The German airborne assault on the Low Countries began on 10 May 1940 with Generals Kurt Student and Hans Sponeck. Sponeck led the German troops in the failed Battle for the Hague and Von Sponeck was almost caaptured, only to be saved by occurence of the strategic bombardment of Rotterdam on the 14th of May 1940, that led the the Dutch capitulation. He was wounded and on his return to Germany was further awarded with Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross and promoted to Lieutenant General by Adolf Hitler.

Eastern Campaign

Before dawn on 22 June 1941 the offensive against the Soviet Union was launched. Hans Sponeck was part of the 11th Army in the south attacking in the direction of Crimea. On Sponeck's return from injury leave, von Manstein gave him command of 46. Infanterie-Division which had taken the Kerch Peninsula on the extreme east tip of the Crimean Peninsula.

On 26 December 1941 the Russians launched an invasion of Crimea. Their plan was to land seaborne troops at Kerch and Mount Opuk, supported by later landings at Theodosia with 42,000 troops. On December 28 the battle in eastern Crimea had developed in favour of the Germans with them having eliminated one of the two Soviet beachheads around the town of Kerch. Sponeck requested permission to retreat to avoid being cut off and captured and so to regroup, but was denied three times. On 29 December the Russians landed additional forces on the southern coast at Theodosia and Sponeck had only 30 minutes to decide on his actions. On his own initiative, as a trained Prussian officer, he gave order for his 10,000 men to retreat. In temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius, in a howling snowstorm and icy winds, the battalions of the 46th Infantry Division marched west. The column was some 120 km long. The soldiers marched for 46 hours with only the occasional rest for coffee, to warm up. Many suffered frostbite, and most of the horses starved. Much of the Divisions heavy equipment, including its artillery, remained behind on the frozen road.

On 31 December Sponeck's 46th Infantry arrived at the Parpach neck, where they established a defensive line. The following day, 1 January 1942, the Russians attacked again and were held back by Sponeck's men. The arrival of a rail-mounted unit finished off sixteen Russian T-26 tanks. Sponeck and his forces held off the Russians long enough until reinforcements arrived.

Arrest and trial

On 23 January 1942 Lieutenant General Hans Graf Sponeck's trial took place in front of the Court President Hermann Goering. It did not go well for Sponeck and the court found him guilty of disobedience of a superior officer. Sponeck maintained that he had acted, as taught, on his own initiative against orders, in order to avoid the destruction of his Division. He was however given the death sentence by the court, but Adolf Hitler commuted the sentence to six years in prison. Hans Sponeck was to serve as an example to those who disobeyed Hitler's new order of no retreat. Sponeck was sent to Germersheim Fortress where he was held as a prisoner. He was allowed into town occasionally and his wife visited him for one week per month in the Fortress, with their five year old son (Hans-Christof von Sponeck, later United Nations Diplomat & Assistant Secretary General to Kofi Annan).

20 July 1944 Plot

On 20 July 1944 Sponeck heard on his radio of the bomb attempt on Hitler's life. Heinrich Himmler was given the position of Reichs Security Official and Sponeck was one of the first on his list as a suspected anti-Nazi. Himmler gave the order for Hans Graf von Sponeck to be executed by firing squad on 23 July 1944 in Germersheim, Germany. Sponeck was allowed Holy Communion before his execution. In a letter to his wife he wrote "I die with firm faith in my Redeemer". Pleading the innocence of his actions in the Kerch peninsula, he went to the firing squad boldly, as witnessed by the priest present, and requested not to be bound or to be blindfolded. Facing the firing squad his last words were: "For 40 years I have served my Germany, that I love, as a soldier and an officer. Today, when I lay down my life, I die in the hope of a better Germany!" Sponeck was buried in Germersheim and while no citations or speeches were permitted at his grave, they did allow the Lord's Prayer to be said. After the war, Sponeck's mortal remains were exhumed and his last resting place was the Soldiers' Cemetery at Dahn in the Palatinate forest.

Last requiem

StolpersteinSponeck.jpg

On 23 July 1999, the 55th anniversary of the execution, Sponeck's son by his second marriage, Hans-Christof Graf Sponeck, who was just six years old when his father was executed, held a requiem at his father's grave. Hans-Christof Graf Sponeck served as Assistant Secretary General and Diplomat, United Nations, until his retirement a short time ago.

Note on name

Graf is a historical German noble title equal in rank to a count or a British earl. Today, in Germany, Graf is considered part of the name, and no longer to be considered as a title.

External links

Military offices
Preceded by
Generaloberst Adolf Strauß
Commander of 22. Infanterie-Division
10 November 1938 – 10 October 1941
Succeeded by
General der Infanterie Ludwig Wolff
Preceded by
General der Pioniere Walter Kuntze
Commander of XXXXII. Armeekorps
10 October 1941 – 29 October 1941
Succeeded by
General der Infanterie Bruno Bieler
Preceded by
General der Infanterie Bruno Bieler
Commander of XXXXII. Armeekorps
November 1941 – 31 December 1941
Succeeded by
General der Infanterie Franz Mattenklott
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