Barkmann was born in the town of Kisdorf in the Kreis (county) of Segeberg in Holstein. His father was a farmer, and after attending school, Barkmann followed in his father's footsteps and began working on the family farm. Barkmann enlisted in the SS as a foot soldier and was assigned to SS Standarte Germania, Headquartered in the North German city of Hamburg, Standarte Germania (SS-equivalent for Regiment) was posted to East Prussia in anticipation of hostilities against Poland where it was to act as a part of 14. Armee. With the outbreak of war on 1 September 1939, Barkmann saw action with this formation in the Invasion of Poland, serving as a machine gunner with the 9./III.Battalion. He fought well during the campaign, receiving a promotion to Rottenführer. Receiving the Infantry Assault Badge, he was also wounded during the campaign, and received the Wound Badge in black.
In October 1939, the Germania was used to form a part of the SS-Division Verfügungstruppe. In May 1940, Barkmann took part in the Invasion of France as a part of the division. In late 1940, the Germania was detached from the division to form a cadre for a new division, the SS Division Wiking. The division was to comprise a large number of European volunteers. Barkmann served with the division during Operation Barbarossa, before being seriously wounded near Dnipropetrovsk in July, 1941. He spent the remainder of 1941 convalescing, and received the Wound Badge in silver. In early 1942, Barkmann was posted as an instructor to a unit in the Netherlands where he was responsible for training European SS volunteers. Barkmann requested a transfer to the newly formed Waffen-SS panzer arm. In winter 1942/43 he was sent back to the Eastern Front to join the second company of I./SS-Panzer-Regiment Das Reich, a part of 2.SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Das Reich. Upon arrival at the front, Barkmann was posted as gunner to SS-Rottenführer Alfred Hargesheimer's PzKpfw III ausf J/1 tank.
The Das Reich was attached to Obergruppenführer Paul Hausser's SS-Panzerkorps, under the overall command of Generalfeldmarschall Manstein's Army Group South. The SS-Panzerkorps was to form the vanguard of Manstein's efforts to halt the Soviet advance near Kharkov. Barkmann served with the regiment during the large-scale mobile operations to annihilate Mobile Group Popov. During these battles, Barkmann proved to be an excellent gunner. He was promoted to Unterscharführer and given command of his own Panzer III in time to take part in the ensuing Third Battle of Kharkov, scoring several kills. In July 1943, his division next took part in Operation Citadel, the operation to destroy the Kursk salient. Barkmann saw action during the mammoth tank battles around Prokhorovka. During the offensive, the Heer's Grossdeutschland Panzer Division had been equipped with the state-of-the-art Panther Ausf. D tanks. Their combat debut was poor, with many vehicles suffering mechanical problems before entering combat.
After the failure of the offensive, as the division was rapidly transferred to the Mius river line, where along with 3.SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Totenkopf it was engaged in ferocious defensive battles. In August, Barkmann was transferred to the fourth company, equipped with the new Panther D's, which had by now overcome their early mechanical problems. As a commander in 4./I./2.SS-Panzer-Regiment Das Reich, Barkmann was responsible for the destruction of many enemy tanks. In the course of these operations, he was awarded both classes of the Iron Cross. The Das Reich division remained on the Eastern Front until January 1944. Early in February, the division was ordered to France to refit and to form a part of Panzergruppe West, the armoured reserve for the expected allied invasion. Leaving its remaining armour behind for other divisions to use, the Das Reich was posted to the Bordeaux region. With the exception of several skirmishes with partisans, the refit was uneventful. Barkmann, along with the rest of the I Battalion of the panzer regiment, was equipped with new model Panthers.
Operation Overlord, the expected Allied invasion, was launched on 6 June 1944. When the division was released for action by Führer headquarters, it was placed on high alert and remained in southern France in case of secondary invasions there. When it became clear that the Normandy invasion was the major Allied effort, the division was ordered north to the front. The division's transit to the front was marked by heavy Jabo and partisan attacks. Barkmann and the panzer regiment were not involved with the massacre of Oradour-sur-Glane, perpetrated by a Panzergrenadier unit of the division.
The division finally reached the front in early July and was thrown into action against the American forces near Saint-Lô. Barkmann, in his Panther Ausf A (Nr. 424) saw heavy fighting against American M4 Shermans and M5A1 Stuarts in the bocage. The narrow sunken roads and impassable hedgerows of the bocage meant that the Germans could establish a deadly defensive line and that the American matériel advantage could not be exploited. Barkmann claims he inflicted heavy casualties on the advancing Americans and halted a major armoured advance at Le Lorey near Le Neufbourg. This conflicts with US accounts for the area that mention an action with the Unit protecting the flank of the main US advance on Marigny (Troop A, 4th Cavalry Squadron) where 2 M5 tanks, 2 M8 AC and 6 GP were destroyed. For his claims Barkmann was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes). After the launch of Operation Cobra, the Das Reich avoided encirclement in the Falaise Pocket and, alongside the 9.SS-Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen, fought to hold open an escape route for the trapped German forces. After the collapse of the pocket, the Das Reich fell back towards the West Wall. During the retreat, Barkmann was involved in many desperate rearguard actions, destroying many American vehicles.
Promoted to Oberscharführer, the rank he held to the end of the war, Barkmann continued his successful career and took part in the Ardennes Offensive in December 1944, where on December 25 he was seriously wounded. During the Ardennes Offensive, Barkmann's Panther Ausf G (Nr 401) drove into the group of American tanks from the US 2nd Armored Division. Despite being outnumbered, Barkmann managed to knock out a few Sherman tanks. One Sherman rammed Barkmann's Panther but did not cause much damage, although both tanks got stuck and the Panther's engine stalled. After a few minutes, Barkmann's mechanic managed to restart the engine and Panther retreated with a blocked turret. Despite the damage, Barkmann knocked out a pursuing Sherman and retreated to safety, although his Panther was beyond repair.
In March 1945, Barkmann was once again fighting against the Soviets, near Stuhlweissenburg, where he knocked out four T-34s and brought the total score of the Das Reich Division for the war so far to 3000 enemy tanks destroyed. At the time, Das Reich was exhausted by non-stop fighting and lack of replacement tanks. Barkmann's unit had only nine fully operational vehicles, of which three were soon lost to Soviet Josef Stalin tanks. The remaining six Panthers were ordered to link up with the remnants of the Panzer Regiment of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler commanded by Standartenführer Jochen Peiper. By April 1945, Barkmann saw action south of Vienna, Austria. There his Panther was hit by mistake from friendly fire and Barkmann along with most of his crew members were wounded. Later on, his Panther became disabled in a huge bomb crater and was destroyed by its crew. Ernst Barkmann was able to reach British zone of operation where he was made a prisoner of war. Following the war, Barkmann settled in Kisdorf, Germany, where he was the long-time fire chief. Barkmann also served as the town's mayor.
Summary of SS career - Dates of rank
- SS-Unterscharführer (01.09.1943)
- SS-Oberscharführer (01.08.1944)
Awards and decorations
At the time of his capture in 1945, Barkmann was authorized the following awards:
- Eastern Front Medal
- Wound Badge in Black
- Wound Badge in Silver (19 July 1941)
- Wound Badge in Gold (?)
- Infantry Assault Badge in Silver
- Panzer Badge "25"
- Iron Cross (1939) 2nd Class, 1st Class
- Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on 27 August 1944 as SS-Unterscharführer and Panzer commander in the 4./SS-Panzer-Regiment 2 "Das Reich"