Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Best Commanders in the German Wehrmacht of WWII; Part II

One of the great misnomers about the German Army during WWII was that it was far more proficient on the offense than it was on the defense. Many historians point to the awesome power of the German blitzkrieg in the first three years of the war to denote its initial battlefield success but then attempt to correlate their long retreat in the second half of the war to an inability to transition from offensive maneuver to an effective, defensive posture.  This has given rise to the belief that the renowned German General Staff was an institution that tailored its martial instruction solely for the purpose of winning wars through offensive maneuver. But nothing could be further from the truth. Although the army’s commander-in-chief Adolf Hitler was certainly an avid proponent of offensive warfare and consistently implored his military underlings to carry out offensive operations, the German Army was to prove just as effective and resilient on the defense as it was sleek and overpowering on the offense. This too was a valuable compliment to the benevolent, instructional influence of the German General Staff institution, which proved just as adept at honing its staff’s defensive skills as it was in tutoring offensive maneuver. 

It was the German Army’s steely resilience on the defense that most affected the sheer destructiveness of the war in the European Theater and greatly prolonged its duration. How else are we to explain the failure of the German Army to completely collapse after such devastating blows were thrust upon it on its eastern, western and southern fronts? Within a period of three months in the summer of 1944 the Allied armies completely destroyed two whole German army groups, consisting of six of their largest field armies, yet they were unable to prompt the wholesale breakthrough in the German front that would have occasioned the fall of the Nazi regime. A back and forth pendulum of successive blows fell upon the German Army in that summer; first Operation Bagration eviscerated Germany’s Eastern Front by eliminating more than 300,000 troops of Army Group Center from the army’s order of battle; followed by the stunning breakout of Western Allied forces from the Normandy bridgehead that shattered the German 7th Army and much of their 15th Army in the bottleneck of Falaise; as well as the powerful Jassy-Kishinev offensive in Romania, which shattered Army Group South and the 6th and 8th German Armies. Yet the German war machine, however mortally wounded it was, still managed to fight on for nine more months and effected four more powerful counteroffensives before it finally collapsed. 

The skill and determination of Germany’s wartime commanders in the field had a huge impact in the preservation of cohesion among its core components and frontline troop’s will to resist. The fact that the German Army continued to offer up strong resistance despite the numerous, catastrophic injuries it had incurred was not only a tribute to the fighting prowess of the German soldier, but was a testament to the in-depth training, organizational development and benevolent influence ingrained from the General Staff institution. German history had bestowed upon the German Army an all-encompassing, martial directive that inculcated its command echelons with the ability to master all aspects of war and its most applicable tactical derivatives. Many of these commanders excelled at their profession, not because they were ardent Nazis or warmongers, but because they were astute and disciplined students of the military principles set forth from more than 200 years of institutional research and development in the art of fighting wars. This is what set apart the German Army of WWII from every other standing military formation on the planet. The following officers are just a few of the most acclaimed commanders that exhibited the high-quality of combat proficiency which the General Staff institution endeavored to sculpt and create. 

11.) Gen. Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin: This accomplished military aristocrat was a perfect example of the type of all-encompassing, universal soldier the General Staff institution endeavored to create. Senger mastered the role of the behind-the-scenes, intellectual counsel of the chief of staff officer yet he proved equally effective when elevated to his own field command. Senger’s most notable achievement during the war was the almost super-human vigor he elicited from his troops in defense of the Italian peninsula against the Western Allied armies of Field Marshal Harold Alexander in the Mediterranean Theater. Senger led the XIV Panzer Corps in their dynamic defense of the German Gustav Line and held the Allies from taking the high ground of Monte Cassino for nearly six months in 1944. The high ground of Monte Cassino overlooked the key pass in the Appenines chain that formed the corridor into the Italian capital of Rome. Senger’s group repulsed more than four separate Allied attempts to storm the mountain and kept superior American, British and French forces bottled up on the Gustav Line while inflicting nearly five times more casualties on his more powerful opponents. Being the devout Roman Catholic he was, Senger endeavored to save the hallowed antiquities housed in the Fifth Century Benedictine Monastery atop Monte Cassino; even going so far as to negotiate a temporary cease-fire so all the ancient treasures could be whisked away to safety. Senger was also instrumental in delaying the Allied taking of Sicily and organized a highly effective evacuation of German troops across the Strait of Messina when the further defense of Sicily became untenable. Earlier in the war he led the 17th Panzer Division during Manstein’s Operation Winter Tempest, the attempt to rescue the German 6th Army from encirclement at Stalingrad. Senger’s division would come the closest to affecting the breakout of the 6th Army before they were abruptly halted by Manstein because of more pressing threats developing on the German front. But his determined and resolute defense of the Italian Peninsula was one of the primary reasons why the Western Allies were never able to achieve the decisive breakthrough on Germany’s Southern Front that it eventually did in the west and the east. 

12.) Col.-Gen. Hans Hube:  This great panzer commander was affectionately dubbed simply “The Man”, because of his troop’s genuine confidence in his ability to master all the numerous adversities they came up against. Hube oversaw the formation of the 16th Panzer Division from scratch, during the run-up to Operation Barbarossa and then gallantly led it through one of the most harrowing but distinguished advances of all the tank formations in Germany’s Army Group South. In 42’, Hube’s division spearheaded the stunning advance to the Volga River and he skillfully defended it from destruction when it was temporarily surrounded after far outrunning its supporting formations. He then took over the XIV Panzer Corps, which he led through most of the brutal Battle of Stalingrad. Hube was one of the luckier 6th Army officers who were evacuated from the pocket after the Soviet counterattack, though he had to be forcefully placed on the departing aircraft to keep him from remaining with his ill-fated troops. After the debacle at Stalingrad Hube reorganized the XIV Panzer Corps in Sicily and led a determined defense of the evacuation perimeter at Messina before moving onto the Italian mainland and then skillfully confounding the Allied landings at Salerno. In early 1944 he was promoted to command of the 1st Panzer Army during its arduous retreat from Southern Russia and the Ukraine. During the course of that long, debilitating affair Hube oversaw the rescue of thousands of German troops caught in the Korsun-Cherkassy pocket and then cleverly led his army’s fight out of their own incapacitating encirclement from the Kamenets-Podolsky pocket later in the spring. Hube was killed in a plane crash after returning from a visit with the fuehrer in Berlin, where he was awarded the prestigious Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds; just one of twenty-seven other German soldiers to receive Germany’s highest battlefield decoration of the Second World War.

13.) Col.-Gen. Hermann Hoth: The battlefield exploits of “Papa” Hoth were some of the most celebrated achievements in the German Army during the Second World War. He may have been Nazi Germany’s most prolific commanding general, having commanded some of the most storied blitzkrieg formations in the army’s highly triumphant early years of operations. Hoth was first and foremost, one of the German Army’s most acclaimed panzer commanders. He led the XV Motorized Corps during the German invasions of Poland and France, supervising the celebrated exploits of Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division and administering the decisive blow which destroyed the Polish Army. During Operation Barbarossa Hoth led the 3rd Panzer Group in one of the most renowned armored advances of the Second World War. His group assisted in orchestrating three of the most legendary enemy encirclements in military history, bagging more than one million Soviet POW’s at Minsk, Smolensk and Vyazma, before moving on to command of the 17th Army in the Ukraine. When Hitler set his sights on Southern Russia in 1942, he gave one of the most important operational commands to Hoth, as the leader of the tank-heavy 4th Panzer Army. This army made one of the more prolific advances in Germany’s Case Blue enterprise in the summer of 1942. Hoth’s panzers advanced more than 300 miles across the Don River before being redirected by Hitler onward to the Volga River at Stalingrad. Hoth’s headquarters was the only army formation that was spared from destruction when the Soviets counterattacked and entombed the 6th Army inside Stalingrad. Because of this Hoth was perfectly positioned to lead the rescue attempt into the Stalingrad pocket when Manstein commenced Operation Winter Tempest; the failed attempt to relieve the 6th Army in December of 42’. But when Manstein aimed to halt the stunning progression of the Soviet advance after Stalingrad, he assigned Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army to deliver the decisive blow of his celebrated ‘backhand stab’ counterattack at Kharkov, which instantly put a halt to the Soviet offensive. His distinguished career was abruptly cut short after Hitler dismissed him following the German debacle at the Battle of Kursk, although Hoth’s group acquitted itself better than any other German formation in that fruitless endeavor. Hoth’s formations traveled farther and probably faster than any other German unit in the Second World War.

14.) Gen. Hermann Balck: Sometimes military genius can be exercised during just one decisive engagement of a military commander’s otherwise inconspicuous career. In the case of German panzer general Hermann Balck that distinguished performance came at the height of one of the German Army’s most desperate moments on the Eastern Front. Following the Soviet counterattack that entombed the 6th Army in Stalingrad, the Axis formations along the Don Front had completely collapsed. The Soviet juggernaut had ripped open a massive hole on the Eastern Front and sent Germany’s Axis allies from Romania and Italy reeling back in disarray. As much as German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein labored to put together a makeshift force that could halt the enemy advance, he was unable to bring continuity to his ad-hoc defenses because of a critical dearth of operational mobility. Enter Gen. Hermann Balck’s 11th Panzer Division! After undergoing a more than 200-mile march to the threatened sector, Balck put into motion one of the most stupendous performances by a single panzer division in the whole war. As the Soviet 5th Tank Army approached the critical German defense line along the Chir River, Balck’s 11th Panzer Division performed a masterpiece of defensive maneuver. Remaining in a constant state of motion for more than two weeks, Balck’s panzers rushed from one threatened sector of the 40-mile front to another and gradually stabilized the German line, which allowed Manstein to undertake a separate operation to free the 6th Army in Stalingrad. In the two weeks of perpetual combat Balck’s unit endured it had destroyed more than a thousand enemy tanks and artillery pieces; captured more than 3,000 enemy troops and completely halted the progression of the Soviet’s Operation Neptune, autumn counteroffensive. Balck’s tactical operations during the crisis on the Chir River was one of the most masterly command performances by a divisional commander in the Second World War and earned him the coveted  Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. Although he later commanded with distinction the acclaimed Grossdeutchland Panzergrenadier Division, the XLVIII Panzer Corps, the depleted 4th Panzer Army, the revamped 6th Army and army group commands on the Western Front, he was never able to match the stunning achievements of operational command he so skillfully executed at the head of the 11th Panzer Division in the autumn of 1942. 

15.) Gen. Dietrich von Saucken: Was another skillful, maneuver specialist whose many battlefield exploits served to preserve the fighting integrity of the German Army during its most challenging ordeals on the Eastern Front. He was a cavalry officer of aristocratic descent with impeccable humanitarian and chivalric qualities, which conspicuously accentuated his anti-Nazi persona. His cavalry beginnings made him a natural candidate for transition to the panzer arm, which he eagerly upheld in commanding the 4th Motorized Infantry Brigade during the invasions of France and Greece. His success in these operations brought him continued recognition with the panzer arm and quickly elevated his service to command of the 4th Panzer Division during the brutal Battle of Moscow. After being severely wounded during the battle for the Soviet capital, Saucken served in a number of training roles in the army’s esteemed panzer arm before reuniting with the 4th Panzer Division on the eve of the Battle of Kursk. It was there at the end of that war-changing battle that the distinguished, mechanized maneuver talents of Dietrich von Saucken became widely heralded throughout the army’s panzer fraternity. His expert handling of the division’s motorized components allowed them to engage on multiple fronts at a single time, which went a long way in halting the progression of Soviet counterattacks in the Gomel sector that nearly swallowed up Germany’s 9th and 2nd Armies. After the Soviet’s devastating Operation Bagration destroyed Army Group Center, Saucken took command of a makeshift assemblage of surviving German units designated as Kampfgruppe von Saucken and made a heroic stand to hold open a corridor across the Berezina River so thousands of stragglers could make it back to friendly lines. During the Soviet’s equally devastating Vistula-Oder offensive, Saucken was once again designated to lend his extraordinary talents in improvised defensive maneuver to thwart the Soviet tank spearheads from cutting off the retreating German Army east of the Oder River. But his most acclaimed operational exploit was in defense of the German province of East Prussia when his 2nd Army made a gallant, sacrificial stand against the invincible Soviet juggernaut in order to preserve an escape corridor for German civilians to evacuate the Hel Peninsula during the closing days of the war. Saucken was designated to lead some of the most difficult and thankless assignments in Germany’s debilitating, final withdrawal on the Eastern Front but his astute management of the limited forces at his disposal always ensured that the enemy would pay a horrific price for their advancement. He was the last recipient of the war to be honored with the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds.

16.) Col.-Gen. Josef Harpe: Sometimes an officer’s most prominent contributions to an army’s success comes not on the battlefield, but on the training grounds and lecture halls of the services most accredited learning institutions. As one of the original proponents of the German Army’s conversion to a more mobile, tank-driven army, Harpe became one of the foremost advocates of mechanized maneuver warfare. Along with Gen. Heinz Guderian, Harpe was one of the army’s expert, conceptual strategists in blitzkrieg operations. Whereas Guderian displayed his illustrious talents on the battlefield, Harpe spent a good deal of time training Germany’s original tank commanders from the training grounds at the prestigious Panzertruppenschulles at Munster and Wunsdorf. It wasn’t until Operation Barbarossa that Harpe’s innovative talents in mechanized warfare were put to the test as the commander of the new 12th Panzer Division. Harpe’s division cut a swath of destruction through northeastern Poland and Byelorussia as the spearhead unit of the LVII Panzer Corps in Gen. Hermann Hoth’s 3rd Panzer Group. Between June 1942 and October 1943, Harpe led the XLI Panzer Corps in the central part of the Eastern Front, engaging primarily in anti-partisan operations outside of Smolensk and Vyazma, until it took part in the Battle of Kursk as part of Field Marshal Walther Model’s 9th Army. In September 1944, Harpe took command of Army Group A defending the important Galician corridor. His formation took the brunt of the Soviet Lvov-Sandomierz offensive yet Harpe was able to organize a largely effective fighting retreat of his more mobile, mechanized units to the detriment of the slower-moving infantry formations. He was in charge of this grossly decimated unit when the Soviets struck again in early 1945 with their Vistula-Oder offensive. Soon thereafter he was sacked by Hitler for the army group’s undeserved failure to halt the Soviet advance. Gen. Harpe was one of the unsung heroes of the German Army’s highly acclaimed proficiency in mechanized maneuver warfare and one of the founding fathers of blitzkrieg tactics. He remains to this day, a giant in the evolution of armored warfare. 

17.) Gen. Walther Nehring: Was another great tactician in the field of mechanized maneuver warfare who was compelled to utilize his inherent, offensive skills more in a defensive role to delay the inevitable collapse of German resistance on the Eastern Front. But he did this with unceasing regularity in the tumultuous final year of the war and forced the Red Army to pay a heavy price for their numerous battlefield victories. Nehring began the war as Gen. Heinz Guderian’s aggressive chief of staff in the XIX Panzer Corps during the German invasions of Poland and France. After a brief stint as a staff officer on the Eastern Front, Nehring succeeded Field Marshal Erwin Rommel as the commander of the illustrious German Akrika Korps. He led the Afrika Korps in its last offensive operation in the North African Theater during the failed Battle of Alam Halfa, in which he was severely wounded in an Allied strafing attack. But Nehring quickly redeemed himself through his clever maneuvering of German panzer forces in Tunisia during the defeat of Allied forces at Medjez el-Bab and the stunning recapture of Djedeida one month later. In 1944 he took command of the XXIV Panzer Corps, where it was widely recognized as Germany’s most effective unit during its desperate defense of the occupied provinces of Galicia and Silesia. Guderian vigorously applauded the defensive exploits of Nehring’s XXIV Panzer Corps in his postwar memoirs and singled out his former chief of staff as being Germany’s most capable and efficient field commander in the last eight months of combat on the Eastern Front. In March of 45’, he succeeded Gen. Gotthard Heinrici as the commander of the 1st Panzer Army and promptly led it with amazing versatility and resilience through its futile, but effective final month of existence on the warfront. Nehring’s 1st Panzer Army was the last organized German formation to cease resistance in the war. It managed to inflict more than twice as many casualties on the enemy as they had suffered themselves, even though the Red Army’s superiority in manpower and tank strength was a staggering 12:1 advantage. Nehring’s vigorous defense outside of Prague enabled many of the army group’s component formations to surrender to the American Army rather than their vengeful Soviet enemies.

18.) Gen. Walther von Seydlitz-Kurzbach: Sometimes a military commander’s most celebrated achievements on the battlefield are purposely understated because of later behavior deemed treasonous or unbecoming of an officer’s better judgment. Case in point would be American Revolutionary War General Benedict Arnold, whose numerous battlefield exploits on behalf of the American Revolution were promptly expunged from his army’s historical record when he chose to collude with enemy Fifth Column conspirators. So too was the distinguished career of Gen. Walther von Seydlitz-Kurzbach relegated to the scrapheap of inconsequential, military infamy for his abrupt decision to surrender his general staff headquarters to the Red Army in the Stalingrad pocket and his later anti-Nazi broadcasts to the remaining officers of the doomed 6th Army, inducing them to surrender en mass rather than continue the fight on behalf of such a decadent regime. But this turncoat general deserves at least perfunctory recognition for his highly distinguished handling of German infantry forces in the brief time he held command in the Second World War. He was perhaps one of the German Army’s most capable infantry commanders during its dynamic success in the early years of the war. Seydlitz commanded the 12th Infantry Division during the invasion of France and was often cited in his army’s most distinguished dispatches for his adept handling of infantry forces under quite vexing circumstances. During Operation Barbarossa the 12th Infantry Division ran headlong into the heart of Soviet frontier forces on the east bank of the Niemen River and fiercely pushed them back across Lithuania until it had conquered the strategic crossroads town of Daugavpils and pushed their way across the Dvina River. But Seydlitz’ most commendable performance came at the head of the German infantry forces caught blind-sided in the Demyansk pocket when the Soviet counterattack around Moscow expanded to encompass the stalled German advance on the Leningrad axis. Seydlitz quite calmly and cunningly led the six German divisions caught in the pocket in one of the most harrowing but successful breakout attempts of a trapped German army in all of WWII. His clever coordination of artillery forces and mobile, logistical assets allowed his outgunned infantry forces to successfully stampede an exit corridor out of the pocket with minimal casualties to his frontline forces. Seydlitz-Kurzbach’s performance under pressure in the Demyansk pocket was widely acclaimed to be the most prolific use of a purely infantry army in an alternatingly defensive-offensive undertaking in all of WWII.

19.) Col.-Gen. Eberhard von Mackensen:  This humble, aristocratic officer had heavy shoes to fill when he was admitted into the German General Staff. His father was none other than Field Marshal August von Mackensen, one of the unsung heroes of Imperial Germany’s vanquished army from the First World War. But the younger more than held his own by managing to carve out a rather successful track record in Germany’s panzer arm, even though he had little initial training with the army’s mechanized troops in the run-up to WWII. He began the war as the Chief of Staff in Germany’s 14th Army under Gen. Wilhelm List, charged with the conquest of Poland’s southern frontier in Galicia. List’s staff—with Mackensen in tow—then moved onto the 12th Army headquarters for the invasion of France and the Low Countries. But it was during Operation Barbarossa that the resourceful talents of Mackensen made their greatest impact, as the commander of the powerful III Panzer Corps in Kleist’s 1st Panzer Group. Mackensen’s panzer formation made one of the most glorious romps across Ukraine and Southern Russia; traveling farther than any other panzer formation on the Eastern Front. But it was never a cakewalk! The III Panzer Corps had to fight their way through some of the most solid Soviet defenses on the frontier and fell increasingly behind some of the other more celebrated panzer formations to the north. Once it unhinged the stalwart Soviet defenses in Galicia, Mackensen’s panzers became a mobile wrecking-ball for the next two years until they were finally stopped in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. In that span they played an intricate part in the almost complete destruction of the Red Army. Mackensen’s panzer corps assisted in the haul of Soviet POW’s in the Uman, Kiev and Mariupol pockets, which brought close to one million enemy forces into captivity. It broke the Soviet siege of Kharkov in the spring of 42’ by engendering the destruction of two Soviet field armies in the Izyum salient. Later in the summer Mackensen’s panzers took the first Caucasus oilfield at Maikop and then went on to the farthest reaches of Asiatic Russia. When Kleist was promoted to command of the higher army group, Mackensen took his spot as commander of the 1st Panzer Army; which turned out to be a far different undertaking for it entailed a wholesale retreat of German forces through the lands Mackensen had already conquered as leader of the III Panzer Corps. He finished the war as the commander of the 14th Army in Italy but his career was cut short when Hitler had him sacked for refusing to sanction the mass execution of Italian partisans in Rome.

20.) Gen. Otto Wohler: Clearly not as renowned as his erstwhile wartime mentor Erich von Manstein, or the Rommels’ and Guderians’ of the German Army, Otto Wohler was still one of the most steady and coolest-under-fire commanders of the Second World War. His most distinguished postings began in late 1941 when he was specifically chosen by Manstein to serve as his chief of staff with the 11th Army, far down in the southernmost sector of the Eastern Front. Manstein considered his colleague to be an indispensable source of his army’s success during his brilliantly-led Crimean Campaign in the winter and spring of 1942. From there he went on to serve as Chief of Staff in Army Group Center under Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge and once again played an intricate part in that acclaimed officer’s overall success in stalwart defense of the German front on the Moscow axis. His experience and success paid off in early 1943 when Wohler was given his first field command at the helm of the I Army Corps, which defended the line in Russia along the critical bend of the Don River outside of Stalingrad. It wasn’t long before Wohler’s group faced their first critical challenge as one of the main targets of the Soviet’s Operation Saturn during the winter of 42-43’. This powerful offensive ripped open the Axis front along the upper Don River when Wohler’s neighboring formation, the Italian 8th Army abruptly turned heel and fled from the battlefront. Because of this Wohler’s formations were forced into a desperate fighting retreat for the next three months as overwhelming Soviet tank forces continuously pressured it from three sides. But Wohler’s coolness under fire allowed him to implement a rather effective, elastic defense between the Don and Donets Rivers while he gradually picked up more stragglers to reinforce his pockmarked front. Manstein later claimed that Wohler’s performance during those trying times in the winter and spring of 1943 was one of the greatest displays of crisis management on the Eastern Front. Under Manstein’s recommendation, Wohler’s group formed the core of a new German 8th Army, which Manstein’s former chief of staff competently led for the next year and a half. Although Wohler’s army was forced to make the debilitating retreat from Russia and Ukraine after the Battle of Kursk, his astute skills in defensive improvisation kept the unit’s fighting integrity intact however harrowing an ordeal they faced. Unfortunately, Wohler’s unit was the victim of another comprehensive failure by a neighboring Axis formation when the duplicitous Romanian 4th Army fled from the field at the start of the Soviet’s Jassy-Kishinev offensive. Wohler’s 8th Army was promptly swallowed up by concentric attacks from the Red Army for which Hitler brusquely sacked its commander.  

Honorable Mentions:

Col.-Gen. Heinrich von Vietinghof: A steady general of humble, aristocratic descent, Vietinghof made his greatest impact as the commander of the 10th Army in Italy, serving to confound the Allied advance up the peninsula with dogged determination and steadfast resistance. He was also a quite able panzer leader; serving as a corps commander in Gen. Heinz Guderian’s dynamic romp across Byelorussia during Operation Barbarossa.

Gen. Theodor Busse: Was given the thankless task of commanding the doomed 9th Army in defense of the Oder River during the Battle of Berlin. His exhausted and depleted forces took a hilltop position atop the Seelowe Heights and valiantly pounded the attacking Red Army for three days until they were eventually overwhelmed. During Busse’s sacrificial stand, the German 9th Army inflicted six times more casualties on the attackers, while gallantly saving hundreds of thousands of German civilians from the vindictive Red Army.

Gen. Hermann Breith: One of the outstanding mobile defense commanders in the German Army. Breith’s III Panzer Corps—a tank force in name only—made a harrowing, fighting retreat through Galicia and Poland while counterattacking every chance he could. His timely counterattack in the Baranow bridgehead brought the Soviet’s long 500-mile advance in the summer of 44’ to a grinding halt.

Gen. Joachim Lemelsen: Another distinguished panzer commander who fought with Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Group during Operation Barbarossa. His XLVII Panzer Corps made the critical attack behind the Red Army that brought about the capture of 350,000 Soviet troops in and around Smolensk. He also led the rugged defense of the Italian Peninsula as the commander of both the 10th and 14th Armies in 1944-45’. Lemelsen vigorously protested the horrific treatment of Soviet POW’s by the trailing SS formations on the Eastern Front and quickly fell out of favor with his Nazi masters. But he was considered too valuable to the German Army and continuously found employment in some of the most challenging theaters of the war.

Col.-Gen. Hans Reinhardt: Was another steady German general whose service was considered too invaluable to do without. Reinhardt led the 3rd Panzer Army for much of the war on the Eastern Front and later led the depleted remnants of Army Group Center after their destruction in 44’ from Operation Bagration. Reinhardt led a steadfast defense of East Prussia in the autumn and winter of 44-45’ and commanded the decisive attack to open up a corridor to the trapped Army Group North on the Courland Peninsula.                       

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Best Commanders in the German Wehrmacht of WWII; Part 1

Out of all the major combatants of WWII no one’s armed forces had as celebrated and illustrious a history as that of Germany. Ever since the allied Seventh Coalition routed Napoleon from the battlefield at Waterloo, Europe’s military development had been dominated by the armed forces of Imperial Germany, specifically the renowned officer institutions of the accomplished Prussian Army. The Prussian Army had been one of the best-trained and well-led, standing military formations in Europe. Under the tutelage of Frederick the Great the Prussian Army became the envy of all of Europe’s monarchical heads of state in the Eighteenth Century. Its lean and wieldy, rigidly-drilled, infantry formations regularly bested larger and more cumbersome armies on the field of battle. This made the relatively small state of Prussia one of the rising military powers on the continent. However, after Frederick’s death his storied, military incarnation stagnated due to peacetime neglect and administrative obstinacy. The Prussian Army’s military rout at the hands of Napoleon on the battlefields of Jena and Auerstadt heralded the wake-up call its lethargic leadership desperately needed. 

Through the benevolent intercession of highly skilled, officer administrators such as Gerhard von Scharnhorst, August von Gneisenau, Karl von Grolman, Hermann von Boyen and Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian Army went through a monumental, institutional reformation in the early decades of the Nineteenth Century. These reforms produced wholesale changes in the Prussian military that vividly indoctrinated its officer corps with a brand new approach to war and the fundamental running of the whole army enterprise during times of peace and war. These changes were put to the test at mid-century and the end result could not have been more striking. Under the brilliant guidance of Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke and within a period of ten years the Prussian Army fought three separate wars against France, Denmark and the Austro-Hungarian Empire and soundly whipped them all. The three magnanimous triumphs on the field of battle were the decisive events that brought about the unification of Germany in 1871. But even then the new imperial German empire revolved around its most dynamic, military progenitor; the exalted Prussian General Staff.

Germany’s military dominance derived from their centuries-long, institutional development ingrained from the beneficial instruction of its esteemed Prussian and later German General Staff. The General Staff institution was an arm of the Prussian Army ostensibly created to instill a degree of military instruction among a select few, officer candidates that went far beyond the customary training reserved for the conventional officer corps. This provided the commander in the field a benevolent counsel that could expand the range of tactical options available to him during the heat of battle. But the institution itself delved much deeper into the army’s overall development. It brought to its officer and NCO cadres a level of tactical and operational training that far surpassed the standard curriculums of every other military formation on the planet. Although it was ultimately defeated in the First World War and saddled with unbearable constraints to its further military development by the Treaty of Versailles, the intrinsic institutional directives set forth by the General Staff allowed the army to be reincarnated within a moment’s notice after the Nazis’ came to power and embarked on a vigorous military buildup. Thus the low to mid-level officers of the First World War were carefully ushered through the training system in the interwar years to become the higher echelon officers of the Second World War. The following group represents the cream-of-the-crop of command competence in the German Army and our following segments will deal with the air force, navy and Waffen SS. 

1.) Field Marshal Erich von Manstein: This old-school, Prussian aristocrat just may have been the most conceptually-sound and tactically brilliant field commander of the Second World War. His directing of offensive operations on the Eastern Front was often legendary and his tact and improvisation on the defensive were exceptional for a commander whose formations were regularly outnumbered and outgunned by 3, 4 and sometimes 5:1. Manstein was the German strategist extraordinaire, who brilliantly tweaked the old Schlieffen Plan for a German attack on France by funneling Germany’s panzer arm through the Ardennes Forest and then racing them onward to the English Channel. The complete destruction of the French Army in less than six weeks of battle confirmed Manstein’s standing as one of the premier, operational strategists in the infant field of mechanized maneuver warfare. He later authenticated that status by excelling in his first field command as leader of the LVI Panzer Corps during Operation Barbarossa. Manstein’s panzer troops conducted a lightning, 100-mile advance across Latvia and Lithuania in the first two days of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, before advancing into the depths of Northwestern Russia prior to his promotion as commander of the 11th Army. He led this army into the Crimea during the winter of 1941-42’ and then soundly whipped every Soviet formation thrown against it. His conquest of the Crimea was a masterpiece of operational planning and execution, made all the more commendable due to the onerous dearth of mechanized formations at his disposal. 

His legend as the German Army’s foremost tactician made him the logical choice to lead the German effort to save their 6th Army when it became encircled inside the city of Stalingrad. Although his newly-formed Army Group Don ultimately failed in its attempt to free the 6th Army from encirclement, Manstein must be given the lion’s share of credit for restoring Germany’s ominous position in Southern Russia during the winter of 1943 by conducting a skillful but strenuous, 500-mile fighting retreat from the Volga to the Donets Rivers. At the end of the retreat Manstein accentuated his reputation as a tactical genius by orchestrating his celebrated, “backhand stab” counterattack at Kharkov to halt the momentous advance of the Red Army for the next four months. He finished the war as the commander-in-chief of Army Group South, where he struggled to halt the crushing advance of the Red Army through the Ukraine, in the months after Germany’s defeat at the Battle of Kursk. His command of these armies throughout the winter and spring of 1943-44’ was a virtuoso performance in defensive maneuver, tactical improvisation and counter-ops management. It is widely believed that had Germany’s exhausted and beaten armies in the Ukraine been led by someone other than Manstein, they probably would have collapsed far quicker than they actually did.

2.) Gen. Heinz Guderian: The world’s stunning introduction to the devastating power of blitzkrieg probably would not have been made without the conceptual talents of Heinz Guderian. He was one of the great innovators in mechanized maneuver warfare who pioneered the breakthroughs in multiple-arms operations by integrating the stunning new developments in modern tank warfare with the enhancements of attack aircraft in the tactical role. As Nazi Germany’s world renowned tank guru, Guderian stood at the forefront of his army’s dramatic, blitzkrieg attack into Poland in 1939 after leading the XIX Motorized Corps’ assisting in the encirclement of Warsaw. Eight months later he led the renamed XIX Panzer Corps in the spectacular crossing of the Meuse River near Sedan, France; the first in a series of impressive military operations which would engender the collapse of the French Army in barely six weeks of fighting. During Operation Barbarossa Guderian commanded Panzer Group 2 in one of the most spectacular armored advances in military history. The group’s initial advance swept through Eastern Poland and Byelorussia in less than two weeks, while overrunning the cities of Brest and Minsk and assisting in two separate enemy encirclements that corralled more than half a million Soviet troops into captivity.

During the summer of 1941 Guderian’s panzer group was diverted to the south, where it entered the annals of military history by engendering the encirclement of 640,000 enemy troops in and around Kiev. It was then sent back to the north and once again assisted in another bag of captured prisoners around the Russian town of Bryansk, before moving on Moscow from the southwest. In all, Guderian’s panzer group accounted for the capture of nearly 1.5 million enemy troops in just the first five months of fighting in the Soviet Union. No other military formation in history has come close to achieving the operational success of Guderian’s panzer force. But it couldn’t stop the general from procuring the wrath of Adolf Hitler in December of 1941, when he was sacked from command for arguing one too many times with the fuehrer. However Guderian was called back to service in 43’ in an administrative role as Inspector of Panzer Troops. It was in this role that Guderian led the charge in the development of the new Pzkw V Panther tank and the enormous Pzkw VI Tiger tank, to boost the effectiveness of Germany’s aging panzer arm. In the summer of 1944 Guderian was hoisted to the top of the German Army hierarchy after being appointed as Chief of the German General Staff by Hitler. But his illustrious talents came way too late to have any type of mitigating effect on Germany’s deteriorating war effort. One month before the war ended he was once again dismissed by Hitler for consistently challenging the fuehrer’s military competence. Alas his fame is secure as one of the early pioneers in tank warfare, as well as one of its most successful commanders.

3.) Field Marshal Erwin Rommel: The charismatic and overachieving Erwin Rommel was perhaps Nazi Germany’s most revered and respected commanding general among its many WWII adversaries. A fearless leader of boundless, chivalric integrity, Rommel was the epitome of the hard-driving, modern tank commander who often led his unit right from the front. After biding his time at the beginning of the war as the commander of Adolf Hitler’s main security detachment, Rommel made a distinguished entrance into WWII by leading the 7th Panzer Division during the triumphant invasion of France in 1940. Rommel’s panzer unit quickly earned the celebrated moniker Ghost Division, because it frequently appeared out of nowhere on the front and regularly outran and outdistanced its neighboring formations. The success of the 7th Panzer during the initial fighting across the Meuse River was to propel Rommel’s fame to near legendary status among his countrymen and elevated him to the top of Hitler’s most favored generals. When Hitler’s favorite foreign leader, Benito Mussolini was in danger of losing his Libyan colony to the British Army in the North African desert, he summoned Erwin Rommel to take the reins of a newly created German Afrika Korps to augment the Axis position in Africa.

 From February 1941 to the beginning of 1943 Rommel’s name was to be elevated to near mythical status as the sly and resourceful, “Desert Fox”; a nickname coined by his envious British opponents for his often daring and ingenious military exploits. Even when the British finally forced him into retreat after the climactic Battle of El Alamein, Rommel conducted a near flawless, thousand-mile retreat back into Tunisia and then soundly whipped the Americans at the Kasserine Pass once he arrived there. In 1944 he was brought back to the mainland to oversee the German defenses on Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. Rommel’s vigorous input and meticulous attention to detail brought an instant boost to the lethargic German defenses along the coast, which would present a formidable obstacle for the Western Allied amphibious forces landing on Normandy in June 1944. Once the Western Allies had secured a bridgehead on the coast of Northern France, Rommel became one of many German officers disillusioned with the Nazi war effort. When his attempts to cajole his superiors into undertaking peace negotiations failed, he threw his lot behind the anti-Nazi resistance movement; only to be exposed and condemned to death by forceful suicide.

4.) Field Marshal Walther Model: Although this great German general’s status in posterity has been undeservedly scarred by his sympathies for fervent Nazism, his often brilliant military talents cannot be denied. He was one of the few Wehrmacht commanders who excelled at both offensive and defensive warfare and he was a master of improvisation; often overcoming enormous operational adversities to persevere through the most intolerable challenges. In the beginning of the war it was on the offensive where his youthful talents were first recognized, in leading the 3rd Panzer Division as part of Gen. Heinz Guderian’s illustrious panzer advance through Byelorussia and the Ukraine. It was Model’s 3rd Panzer Division that spearheaded Guderian’s drive into Ukraine, culminating with the encirclement of 640,000 enemy troops around Kiev in September of 41’. Model’s strict observance of Hitler’s “no retreat” order during the Soviet counterattack in front of Moscow brought him an instant promotion to command of the 9th Army, where his stalwart attention to detail in defensive fortifications swiftly cemented his reputation as a “defensive specialist”. His 9th Army was to become a virtual immoveable citadel on the Moscow axis for the next two years as Model repulsed every Soviet attack thrown against it. 

He would earn his moniker as the ‘fuehrer’s fireman’ for his industrious use of troops in defensive maneuver to thwart the series of Soviet counterattacks on the central axis of the Eastern Front in the winter of 43’-44’. Time and time again Model was called upon to exert his defensive talents on the most threatened part of the Eastern Front and his temporary fixes and ad-hoc improvisations usually managed to save the day. Later in 44’ he was called upon to fix the colossal rupture on the Western Front after the Western Allied breakout from Normandy. He quickly went to work in halting Montgomery’s audacious airborne assault in Operation Market Garden, and then he consolidated the German defenses behind the Siegfried Line. He was one of the high German commanders who vehemently opposed Hitler’s bold strike through the Ardennes Forest in 1944 although he passionately oversaw its initial success. Yet his fervent Nazism did not overcome his realist mentality and he stoically resigned his army’s fate to the powerful Allied armies after they had crossed the Rhine in the spring of 45’. True to his loyalty to Adolf Hitler, Model elected for suicide rather than lead his men into captivity following their encirclement in the Ruhr by the US Army.

5.) Field Marshal Paul Ewald von Kleist: Another old-school Prussian aristocrat who was brusquely called back from retirement when Hitler was scrambling to fill the senior ranks of his army’s wartime enterprise. The courtly field marshal was the epitome of an officer and a gentleman who aspired for a wartime posting not because of any staunch allegiance he had with the Nazis but because he relished the prospect of leading troops into the field of battle. He was the senior general in charge of Germany’s panzer arm during their audacious attack across Western Europe in 1940. Because of that success he was assigned to lead one of the four panzer armies designated for Operation Barbarossa. Kleist’s 1st Panzer Group had to fight through some of the most powerful Soviet tank formations defending the Ukrainian frontier but once he did his fast-moving panzer arm wasted little time in crossing three formidable river lines on the Bug, Dniester and Dnieper Rivers and corralling three quarters of a million Soviet troops into captivity, including the 640,000 prisoners taken at Kiev.

In 1942 Kleist led his re-designated 1st Panzer Army on the farthest eastern advance of any German army in WWII. It was this particular army that was tasked with taking the vital Caucasus oilfields; an operation that just may have succeeded had Hitler not diverted the bulk of his army’s strength toward the taking of Stalingrad. After the German withdrawal in 43’, Kleist took command of Army Group A and later Army Group South Ukraine and led them both with distinction during one of the most debilitating fighting retreats of the whole war. Kleist’s senior position during the war precluded him from taking on a more direct or tactical role in the battles that his units fought in nevertheless he was one of the most adept and resourceful, operational commanders in the German Army, as his overall success surely confirms. Kleist was the highest-ranking German officer to die in captivity, as a POW of the Soviet Red Army.

6.) Gen. Hasso von Manteuffel: This small and slender aristocratic officer’s size conspicuously belied his standing as one of the colossal giants in mechanized maneuver warfare. He was one of the most outstanding panzer commanders in the Second World War and inherited a dazzling array of debilitating wounds and permanent scars to show for his courageous skills in leading tank forces during the heat of battle. His commands ran the gamut of standing combat formations in wartime, from his adroit handling of a tank battalion on the Eastern Front in 1941 to his larger-than-life presence at the head of the 5th Panzer Army during the Battle of the Bulge. Manteuffel earned practically every wartime award, medal and ribbon in the German Wehrmacht, including the highly coveted Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. As the gallant leader of some of the most distinguished fighting formations in the German Army, such as the highly acclaimed 7th Panzer Division and the Grossdeutchland Panzergrenadier Division, Manteuffel’s battlefield antics persevered through some of the most notable and vicious battles in all three theaters of war his army was engaged in. 

As a division commander under FM Erwin Rommel in North Africa, Manteuffel’s unit consistently surprised the heck out of the Western Allied forces during the series of daring German counterattacks in Tunisia at the tail end of the North Africa Campaign. After transferring to command of Rommel’s former Ghost Division, he led the audacious German counterattack in the Ukraine which shockingly recaptured the fortress of Zhitomir and rescued its companion, 8th Panzer Division from imminent destruction. Manteuffel’s Grossdeutchland Pzg Division spearheaded the drive into Lithuania in July of 1944, which forced open a corridor into the surrounded Army Group North in the Baltic States. In December of 1944, after his promotion to command of the 5th Panzer Army, Manteuffel was relegated to a supporting role in the German attack through the Ardennes Forest. However, his unit thoroughly surpassed the progression of its more celebrated, neighboring formation, the 6th SS Panzer Army, wherein Manteuffel’s group seized the initiative as the main spearhead of the overall German offensive. During the closing days of WWII in Europe, Manteuffel took charge of the badly depleted 3rd Panzer Army and gallantly fought a fruitless delaying action along the Oder River in order to buy time for the evacuation of thousands of German war refugees caught in the path of the brutal Red Army. This selfless humanitarian gesture allowed the bulk of his exhausted troops to surrender to the Western Allies rather than the vengeful Red Army and saved thousands of German civilians from the brutal reprisals of its unforgiving, eastern enemy.

7.) Maj-Gen. Hyacinth Graf von Strachwitz: Out of all Germany’s ace panzer commanders in the Second World War none could match the exemplary record of Graf von Strachwitz. The “Armored Count”, a nickname he earned through his aristocratic heritage in the Silesian nobility, just may have been the greatest tank commander of them all. His dynamic escapades in command of some of the most successful tank regiments and battalions were legendary and his selfless devotion to the troops under his command was truly awe-inspiring. Wounded more than a dozen times throughout the course of the war, his superiors were sometimes forced to confine him to house arrest in order to keep him from returning to his unit too soon. He singlehandedly conceived and executed some of the most daring and outstanding tank operations in Germany’s illustrious panzer arm, often without the consent of superior officers. Even when the fortunes of war turned decisively against Germany, his bold exploits on the battlefield soundly contradicted his nation’s imminent defeat. After the war concluded, Strachwitz went into retirement as the most decorated tank commander of the Second World War and one of armored warfare’s truly majestic figures. 

The Armored Count’s legend was dutifully established during the Battle of France when he led a cadre of about a dozen supply and service troops—lost behind enemy lines—in the capturing of some 500 French POW’s on the outskirts of Sedan. After undertaking his first command of panzer troops in battle during the invasion of Yugoslavia, Strachwitz led the 1st Tank Battalion of the 16th Panzer Division during Operation Barbarossa. His unit repulsed the first Soviet counterattack of the war and then went on to secure the first bag of POW’s in Army Group South’s sector around Uman. Wounded twice in the fighting in Ukraine, Strachwitz prematurely released himself from medical care to partake in his unit’s celebrated linkup with Gen. Heinz Guderian’s advance from the north, which sealed the fate of more than 600,000 Soviet POW’s trapped around Kiev. During 16th Panzer Division’s glorious romp through Southern Russia in the summer of 1942, Strachwitz’ battalion was credited with destroying more than 200 Soviet tanks in a 48-hour period along the Don River. Strachwitz’ unit was the first German formation to reach the Volga River and during the long Battle of Stalingrad it was credited with destroying another 200 enemy tanks during the Soviet counterattack. It was probably the count’s greatest fortune that he was wounded on the outskirts of Stalingrad in October of 1942, thus he was spared the misfortune that ultimately befell his comrades in the 6th Army. In 43’ he was transferred to command of the Grossdeutchland Panzer Regiment, which he led in the recapture of Kharkov, before once again being severely wounded during the Battle of Kursk.

Strachwitz was called back to service in Estonia during the brutal fighting on the Narva Front in the spring of 1944. It was in this battle that he was to earn the coveted Knights Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds—the Wehrmacht’s highest award for battlefield valor—for his audacious leadership in command of a panzer battle group, which halted the powerful Soviet counterattack against Army Group North. Later in the year he was given command of another panzer battle group and tasked with breaking the siege of German forces trapped in the Courland pocket. In Operation Doppelkopf, Army Detachment Strachwitz was able to carve out a narrow corridor into the Courland pocket and break the siege; however the Armored Count was nearly killed in the process. Even this late in the war and after recuperating from life-threatening injuries, Strachwitz could not stay away from the battlefield. After begging his way into an administrative post in Field Marshal Ferdinand Schoerner’s Army Group South, Strachwitz conceived and created a cadre of ad-hoc, tank-hunting units; armed with only the panzerfaust, anti-tank missile, in order to compensate for Germany’s catastrophic lack of panzer forces so late in the war. He was in command of one of these units when he gallantly led them through Soviet lines so he could surrender to American forces rather than the dreaded Soviets. Unfortunately Strachwitz’ beloved Silesian homeland was forcibly annexed to Poland at the end of the war.

8.) Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt: The “Old Man” of the German Army was Nazi Germany’s most senior officer throughout WWII and perhaps one of its greatest strategic minds. Rundstedt was the embodiment of the old Prussian military caste system that had sculpted Germany’s rise to military power and he was one of that institution’s foremost advocates in preserving the system from Nazi interference; although he basically failed in that impossible pursuit. He held some of the highest commands throughout the war and played a decisive role in many of Germany’s earliest battlefield successes. Rundstedt led the Wehrmacht’s Army Group South on its triumphant romp across Poland in 1939; making the decisive call to halt the premature assault on Warsaw until his armies had neutralized the Polish Modlin Army along the Bzura River. During the attack on France the old field marshal directed the pivotal assault through the Ardennes Forest, which resoundingly corralled the best part of the French Army to their ultimate destruction along the channel coast. One year later he stood atop Army Group South during Operation Barbarossa and managed the capture of nearly one million Soviet troops in three separate encirclements at Uman, Kiev and Mariupol. Although he was the first senior general to be sacked by Hitler for ordering the withdrawal of German troops from Rostov, the fuehrer continuously brought back the aging strategist to mollify his shaky relationship with the army high command. 

He spent much of his time in the latter half of the war as the titular head of all German troops on the Western Front; trying in vain to get Hitler to release the precious panzer troops which might have put a halt to the Allied invasion of Normandy and attempting to dissuade the fuehrer from embarking on his reckless offensive in the Ardennes in 1944. Although he had little to do with the latter event, his near mythical repute among the Western Allies gave rise to their branding of Germany’s audacious assault as the “Rundstedt offensive”, especially when it started out so seemingly bad for the Allies. One of the field marshal’s most lasting contributions to the German Army in WWII was that many of its most successful generals, including Manstein, Kluge and Model, were to learn the tricks of their trade under the tutelage of Gerd von Rundstedt.

9.) Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge: ‘Clever Hans’ as he was known among his subordinates was one of the German Army’s most cunning and resourceful infantry commanders. As a senior general he held some of the highest commands in the German Army and played an intricate part in the Wehrmacht’s early success. Probably the biggest impediment to Kluge’s otherwise sterling resume` was that he never commanded any of Germany’s more illustrious panzer and motorized troops; languishing for years in command of common foot soldiers charged with doing much of the army’s unrewarding, dirty work. But these thankless tasks were allocated to nearly 80% of the standing army and no one was better at getting the most out of these troops than Gunther von Kluge. For more than two years he commanded the German 4th Army and led it through some of the most unenviable missions in the early war effort. Yet Kluge’s infantry consistently rose to the occasion while managing to keep pace with their more mobile counterparts in the panzer arm. In 1939, Kluge’s horse-drawn infantry was the first German unit to take casualties in the Second World War. But this didn’t stop them from seizing the Polish Corridor or destroying Poland’s Pomeranian Army. During the invasion of France Kluge’s 4th Army made the decisive advance into the Allied Dyle Line to hold the bulk of France’s best frontline units while the more celebrated panzer formations maneuvered behind them. But it was during Operation Barbarossa that Kluge’s talents made their biggest impact. His slow-moving infantry was charged with reducing no less than four huge, enemy pockets at Bialystok, Minsk, Smolensk and Bryansk, which netted more than one and a quarter million Soviet POW’s; accounting for roughly one-third of the prewar Russian Army. Much of the hardest fighting of the war occurred around these four pockets and Kluge had to continuously admonish the panzer commanders for straying too far from the front. 

When the Soviets launched their counterattack in front of Moscow the 4th Army was the most prepared out of all the German units that were targeted, which went a long way in preventing the attack from turning into a rout. Kluge’s adroit handling of his infantry army under such unbearable conditions brought him instant promotion to lead Army Group Center when Hitler had his predecessor sacked for the German reversal. For the next twenty-two months Kluge’s army group was a virtual fortress in the center of the Eastern Front; repulsing every Soviet attack thrown against it and keeping a million Red Army troops bottled up on the Moscow axis to safeguard Stalin’s capital. His tour on the Eastern Front was abruptly ended in October of 1943 when he was seriously injured in a motor vehicle accident. But he was brought back to duty in July 44’ to replace Rundstedt in command of German forces in the west. His exceptional military career ended barely one month later after committing suicide as he was about to be implicated for his role in the anti-Nazi resistance and their failed assassination of Adolf Hitler.

10.) Col.-Gen. Gotthard Heinrici: Despite all the Nazi boasts in deference to Field Marshal Model’s defensive prowess, it was Gen. Gotthard Heinrici who could best lay claim to being the German Army’s most brilliant defensive tactician. One could easily tender the opinion that Heinrici just may have been the greatest defensive commander in the Second World War. Like his colleague Manteuffel, Gen. Heinrici suffered from a slight, almost un-soldierly-like, frail stature yet the physical defect could not mask the ferocity he would display at the helm of command in the pitch of battle. Fighting most of the war on the brutal Eastern Front and during Germany’s debilitating withdrawal from Russia, Heinrici’s defensive stands became legendary and his improvised maneuvers under overwhelming fire and on the counterattack consistently facilitated a stability of unit cohesion almost unheard of in an army in perpetual retreat. He had an uncanny knack for correctly anticipating the start of a Soviet offensive, which he would always frustrate by pulling his frontline soldiers out of the line-of-fire during the initial artillery barrage and then swiftly sending the untouched formations back to meet the attacking infantry head-on. To appease Hitler’s refusal to authorize withdrawals on the battlefield, Heinrici mastered the tactic of the fighting retreat; often delaying his unit’s flight with staggered and fierce counterattacks against the attacker’s spearheads and aggressively utilizing his light to medium-range artillery. 

It was Heinrici who replaced Kluge at the helm of the 4th Army when the latter was promoted to army group command thus it was Heinrici that should be given the lion’s share of credit for stabilizing the German front during its most trying time in the winter of 41’-42’. The 4th Army’s magnificent stand along the Oka River in late December and January served to funnel the bulk of Soviet strength onto the northern flank and greatly aided the safe evacuation of the 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies, thus preventing the full collapse of the whole army group. He was in charge of this same army in 43' when it was forced into another pressing withdrawal from Western Russia but Heinrici's deft leadership under fire greatly preserved the unit's fighting integrity and once again prevented a Soviet attack from turning into a rout. Later in 1944 Heinrici led a brilliant, fighting retreat of the 1st Panzer Army across the Carpathian Mountains with two whole Soviet army groups in fast pursuit. His timely counterattacks and resourceful use of his depleted panzer forces greatly slowed the Soviet advance through Hungary and Slovakia and allowed the army to keep its fighting integrity intact for the duration of the war.

But Heinrici’s defensive talents were called upon for more pressing matters and in March of 1945 he was transferred from the 1st Panzer Army to oversee the monumental task of defending Berlin, as the commander-in-chief of Army Group Vistula. It was obvious that Hitler needed his best defensive general for the most critical defensive assignment of the war. Being the realist and anti-Nazi commander he was, Heinrici had no intention of fighting the catastrophic fight-to-the-death finish that Hitler envisioned. He even went so far as to countermand Hitler’s order to implement a ‘scorched-earth’ policy and lay waste to every building, bridge, factory and home in the Soviet’s path. When the Soviet’s attacked on April 16, Heinrici led a gallant and quite effective, initial delaying action along the Seelowe Heights, which brought untold misery and casualties to Marshal Zhukov’s invincible army. When his final defense line was penetrated, Heinrici respectfully marched his exhausted and beaten army remnants far to the west, thus saving the citizens of Berlin and Germany’s northern provinces the indignity of a far more destructive and prolonged, grand finale. Heinrici was a military leader of rigid, institutional fortitude and unabashed, chivalric integrity, unmatched in the Wehrmacht’s sometimes morally-suspect, higher echelons.