Thoma led the 3rd Panzer Regiment in the 2nd Panzer Division during the invasion of Poland in September 1939, where he performed brilliantly. Following the conquest of Poland, he became director of Mobile Forces. Sent to North Africa to report on whether German forces should be dispatched there, he submitted a negative report but urged that, if a commitment were to be made, four armored divisions should be sent. Promoted to brigadier general in August 1940, he received command of the elite 3rd Panzer Division.
In July 1941, Thoma replaced Lieutenant General Hans Jürgen von Arnim as commander of the 17th Panzer Division in the Soviet Union and participated in the encirclement of Smolensk and Kiev. That September, he assumed command of the 20th Panzer Division in the Moscow region, a post he held until January 1942.
In September, having been promoted to head a corps as a major general, Thoma was ordered to North Africa in command of the Afrika Korps. He arrived there in time to participate in the October Battle of El Alamein, when British General Bernard Montgomery's Eighth Army took the offensive against Axis forces. On the death of General Georg Stumme, Thoma briefly commanded Panzerarmee Afrika and was promoted to lieutenant general. Adolf Hitler then ordered Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to return to Africa from sick leave and resume command. On his arrival on 25 October, Rommel criticized Thoma for his tactics.
Thoma had been slightly wounded in the fighting, and he reported to Rommel that he had only 35 tanks remaining. Rommel ordered a withdrawal, which Hitler countermanded. On 4 November 1942, complaining of Hitler's "unparalleled madness," Thoma donned a clean uniform, put on his medals, and climbed into a tank, racing from one point to another on the front lines in the thick of the battle. His tank was hit several times and caught fire, and Thoma was taken prisoner. That same night, he dined with Montgomery but refused to discuss German strategy in the battle. Released from prison in early 1948, Thoma died in Starenberg, Germany, on 30 April 1948.
Gene Mueller and Spencer C. Tucker
Liddell Hart, Basil H. The German Generals Talk. New York: William Morrow, 1948.; Pitt, Barrie. Year of Alamein, 1942. New York: Paragon, 1990.