German Field Marshals
A chronological review of the German field marshals of World War 2
13 minutes read.
Twenty four men were promoted by Adolf Hitler to the highest military rank during World War 2.
Some of them were fanatic Nazis, some were not.
Some were brilliant military leaders, the final product of two centuries of Prussian-German militarism, and some were not.
In order to better understand their roles in World War 2, let's review them in the chronological order of their promotion, in the context of the war's progress :
At the summit of success
In the summer of 1940, four weeks after France capitulated, adding to Hitler's then unbroken series of swift conquests, and with Great Britain in "hopeless military situation", as Hitler defined it then,
the exuberant Hitler decided that it was the right moment to reward a dozen of his top generals for their achievements so far,
to further motivate them for the victories to come, and to increase their loyalty, by promoting them to the highest military rank of Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall in German).
Nine of the new field marshals, seen in the picture above with Hitler and Goering, were from the Army :
- Fedor von Bock - as an Army Group commander, von Bock achieved the greatest German victories in Poland (1939), in the West (1940), in the invasion of Russia (1941), and in the 2nd major German effort, in South Russia (1942). But when he opposed Hitler's decision to split forces in the southern campaign, Hitler sacked him. He remained at home until the end of the war, when he was killed by an air strike four days before the end.
- Walther von Brauchitsch - the head of the German Army general staff in the first two years of the war, he realized the futility of arguing with Hitler, who started considering him a defeatist and a coward. But only after suffering a heart attack, followed by two requests to be relieved of duty, Hitler relieved him, taking the role of head of the Army general staff to himself, until the end of the war, despite being at the same time the head of state, and also lacking the professional training and experience for the task.
- Wilhelm Keitel - the head of the German supreme command during the entire war, in charge of all the armed forces, Keitel did not argue with Hitler, and became nothing more than a high ranking yes-man at Hitler's side.
- Guenther von Kluge - a very successful army commander in the campaigns in Poland, France, and Russia, he later replaced the sacked von Bock in command of the central Army Group in the East front. In October 1943 he was severely injured in a car accident, and spent a year recovering. After the allied landing in Normandy, he replaced Field Marshal von Rundstedt as supreme commander in the West front, but few weeks later, after his role in the attempts to assasinate Hitler was discovered, he died, apparently shot after refusing to commit suicide.
- Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb - an Army Group commander in the West front, he later commanded Army Group North in the invasion of Russia, heading to Leningrad. But Stalin sent the brilliant Georgy Zhukov, his most talented general, to command Leningrad's defense, and the city held, despite a long and horrible German siege. Hitler accused von Leeb of cowardice and senility, and accepted his resignation.
- Wilhelm List - an army commander in the invasion of Poland, then France, he commanded the conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece. In summer 1942 he commanded an Army Group in the deepest and farthest German advance into Russian territory, in an attempt to reach the oil fields of the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea. But after advancing 400 miles, and with insufficient forces and supplies due to the split effort, there and in Stalingrad, progress stopped, and Hitler sacked List, who spent the rest of the war at home.
- Walter von Reichenau - a fanatic Nazi, he commanded an army in the invasions of Poland, France, and Russia, where in January 1942 he suffered a stroke, and died.
- Gerd von Rundstedt - older and senior than the other field marshals, and apolitical, he was dismissed from service before the war, but recalled when the war started. He brilliantly commanded an Army Group in the invasions of Poland, then France, then Russia, with tremendous battlefield achievements.
But when he asked Hitler for permission to make a local tactical retreat, in order to secure his line, Hitler sacked him, replacing him with the fanatic von Reichenau. Four months later he was recalled for service again, as the supreme German commander in the West front. Two years later, when The Allies successfully invaded the West front in Normandy, he understood the strategic severity of Germany's military situation, and told Hitler that he must negotiate for peace, at least with the western allies. In response, Hitler sacked him again, but recalled him for service again two months later, again as supreme commander of the West front, fighting a hopeless defensive campaign against significantly superior US and British forces. In march 1945, two months before the end, he suggested again that Germany should negotiate for peace, and was sacked for the last time.
- Erwin von Witzleben - an anti-Nazi who participated in the secret plots against Hitler since before the war, von Witzleben brilliantly commanded an army in the invasion of France. He was promoted in 1941 to commander of the West front, but retired a year later for medical reasons. In the July 20th 1944 plot, he was supposed to become supreme commander of the armed forces, and after the plot failed, he was executed.
And three were from the Luftwaffe (Air Force):
- Albert Kesselring - commanded both large ground forces and large air forces, which is very rare, and successfully in both. Originally an artillery officer, in World War 1 and later, in 1933 he was transferred to what was to become the new German Air Force (Germany was forced to fully dismantle its Air Force after World War 1). Believing that first-hand knowledge was essential, he learned to fly at age 48, and was qualified as a fighter pilot. He kept flying regularly when he was later the commander of large ground forces, and used to patrol over the front in a single seat fighter. When the war started, he commanded an Air Fleet (the largest air unit, equivalent of an Army) in the invasions of Poland, then Russia, and at the end of 1941 was made supreme commander of all air units and airborne units in the southern front, I.e. the Mediterranean and North Africa. In the summer of 1943, when The Allies invaded Sicily, Hitler made him supreme commander of all German forces in Italy, ground, air and naval. He skillfully commanded a successful defensive campaign across Italy, which slowed The Allies advance for nearly two years, until the end of the war.
- Erhard Milch - in 1940 he successfully commanded an Air Fleet in the airborne and naval invasion of Norway, and in the invasion of France, but in late 1941 was returned to an administrative role, in charge of the German military aviation industry.
- Hugo Sperrle - the commander of the pre-war Legion Condor, the German air expeditionary force in the Spanish civil war, he excelled as an Air Fleet commander in the invasion of France. With his Air Fleet stationed in northern France after the French surrender, he played a key role in the Battle Of Britain. He argued against the German change of strategy during the battle, from attacking the Royal Air Force to bombing British cities, but was overruled by Goering. The change relieved the tremendous pressure from the Royal Air Force, allowing it to recover, and that cost the Germans the Battle Of Britain, the 1st major German setback in the war. Sperrle remained in France, commanding a smaller secondary force while the German focus moved East, to the Russian front. In 1944 he was made supreme commander of German air forces in the West, but the forces at his command were a fraction of what he commanded in 1940, and ridiculously outnumbered.
At the tipping point
In the middle of 1942, Hitler's Germany had already failed in its two main efforts, the effort to defeat Great Britain in the West front in summer 1940, and the effort to defeat the Soviet Union (Russia) in the East front in summer 1941.
Now, a year later, and with the harsh Russian winter over, Hitler was making a 2nd major effort against these two great enemies, but this time in secondary areas of the vast war front, and with smaller forces.
At that time, optimistic and hopeful of success, and after he already sacked several field marshals, Hitler promoted some of his most brilliant and most successful generals to field marshals.
That didn't change the course of the war, which was already unstoppably turning against Germany.
- Erwin Rommel - a brilliant tactician, and perhaps the most famous German Field Marshal, Rommel commanded an armored division in the invasion of France in 1940.
In 1941 he was sent to North Africa as the commander of a small Corps in order to assist the Italian Army there, which was badly beaten by British forces based in Egypt. In the North African desert campaign Rommel succeeded well beyond expectations, and was praised by both the German side and the British side. But outnumbered, and at the end of severely disrupted maritime support lines, he could not win that campaign. Shortly before the German surrender in North Africa he was relieved for medical reasons, and later promoted to command an Army Group along the French Atlantic coast, where an Allied invasion was expected. Six weeks after the invasion at Normandy, Rommel's car was hit by allied air strike and he was injured. Three days later the attempted assassination of Hitler failed. When Rommel's role in the plot was discovered, Hitler, worried of the implications of executing his most popular Field Marshal as one of the plotters, offered him to commit suicide, in return for not punishing his family too.
Rommel committed suicide and was buried with full military honor, allegedly after dying from his injury by the earlier allied air strike.
- Erich von Manstein - a strategist and tactician, both in Blitzkrieg attack and in mobile defense, von Manstein was greatly appreciated by German soldiers of all ranks.
An Infantry Division commander in 1939, he was promoted to the staff of von Rundstedt's Army Group, and played a key role in planning the invasions of Poland and France.
In the invasion of Russia he commanded an Armor Corps, then an Army.
On November 19, 1942, two days after the Russians started their gigantic surprise attack which encircled the German forces at Stalingrad, von Manstein was given command of an Army Group.
Other than three large counter attacks, von Manstein was forced to fight a continuous mobile campaign of retreat battles over a vast area, which he did very skillfully.
By March 1944, Hitler could no longer emotionally tolerate von Manstein's retreats, regardless of reason, justification, or skill, and von Manstein was sacked.
- Georg von Kuechler - an Army commander in the invasions of Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Russia. When von Leeb's Army Group North failed to conquer Leningrad, Hitler replaced him with von Kuechler, who was a fanatic Nazi. After two more years of siege, Leningrad still held, and when in January 1944 the Russians counter attacked, and von Kuechler asked for permission to retreat, in order to prevent the encirclement of Army Group North, Hitler sacked him too.
Fighting a lost war
Just seven months later, when the German forces in Stalingrad surrendered, in what was the most catastrophic German military defeat ever, it became clear to all that Germany was fighting a lost war.
In response, Hitler promoted new field marshals, but this time not to motivate them for future victories, but rather to reward them for heroic failed efforts, for what was his fault.
- Friedrich Paulus - a staff officer with no field command experience, Paulus was surprisingly given command of an Army in late 1941. In the 1942 summer offensive, his Army reached Stalingrad, on the West bank of the huge Volga river.
Paulus' attempts to conquer the city have failed, and the German armies were concentrated at the city, leaving long and thinly defended flanks.
When the Russians counter attacked at these flanks, the vast German force at Stalingrad was encircled, trapped, doomed.
A day before their final surrender, Hitler promoted Paulus to Field Marshal, explicitly expecting him to commit suicide instead of becoming the 1st German Field Marshal who surrendered to an enemy.
But Paulus, who rightfully felt betrayed by Hitler, who was the real one to blame for the Stalingrad catastrophe, preferred to surrender alive the next day.
- Maximilian von Weichs - a Corps commander in the invasions of Poland and France, and Army commander in the invasion of Russia, he commanded the Army Group which fought at, and in the area of, Stalingrad.
He warned Hitler of the danger in the over-extended and thinly defended flanks of his Army Group, West and South of Stalingrad.
But instead of accepting the warnings, Hitler dismantled von Weichs Army Group, transferring command of its units to others, and sent von Weichs to reserve.
After von Weichs' warning was realized in the catastrophe at Stalingrad, Hitler promoted von Weichs to Field Marshal.
Six months later he was given command of an Army Group in the Balkans, where he remained until the end.
- Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen - commanded an Air Corps of tactical dive bombers in the invasions of Poland, France, Belgium, Greece.
In the invasion of Russia he commanded an Air Fleet.
When the German armies were encircled at Stalingrad, Goering, Hitler's deputy and the minister of the Air Force, casually promised to Hitler that his Luftwaffe can supply the large besieged force by air.
There was no chance to succeed in this endeavour, but von Richthofen and his air crews tried anyway, bravely but hopelessly, at the cost of 500 lost aircraft and crews.
Two weeks after the besieged forces at Stalingrad had surrendered, Hitler rewarded von Richthofen for the heroic failed effort by promoting him to Field Marshal.
- Karl Doenitz - an innovative naval tactician, Doenitz rebuilt and commanded the submarine force of the German Navy since 1935 and during the war.
The main obstacles to fulfillment of the formidable potential of the submarine force, were the surface warfare minded head of the Navy, Grand Admiral Raeder, and the land warfare minded Hitler.
Because of them, most of the resources of the German Navy were hopelessly wasted on surface warships, which could not hope to defeat Great Britain at sea, instead of submarines, which could.
Finally, following the catastrophe at Stalingrad, Hitler decided to support Doenitz' approach. He was promoted to the highest naval rank of Grand Admiral and replaced Raeder as head of the Navy.
Since then, submarine production and submarine operations became the main effort of the Navy, but it was too late then for the submarines to win the war in the Atlantic.
At the end of the war, bitterly disappointed of both his long time political lieutenants and his field marshals, Hitler named Doenitz as his successor as the head of state, a role which Doenitz held for 8 days, between Hitler's suicide, and the final surrender.
- Ernst Busch - an Army commander in the invasions of France and Russia, in October 1943 he replaced the injured von Kluge as commander of the central Army Group.
Eight months later, the Army Group was crushed by a major Russian offensive, and Busch was sacked.
In March 1945 he was recalled to service, and for two months commanded an Army Group made of the beaten remains of the German forces in the West.
- Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist - an Armor Corps commander in the invasion of Poland, and an Armor Group (Army) commander in the invasions of France, Yugoslavia, Greece, Russia.
In 1942 and 1943 he commanded an Army Group in the fighting in southern Russia.
In March 1944 he was sacked by Hitler for allowing an Army under his command to retreat and save itself from destruction, despite an explicit order by Hitler not to allow that retreat.
- Walter Model - commanded an Armor Division in the invasion of Russia, then an Armor Corps, and an Army, with great success and tactical innovations.
In 1944 he replaced von Kuechler as commander of Army Group North and was promoted to Field Marshal, the 2nd youngest after Rommel.
He then commanded several Army Groups in Russia and then in France, very skillfully acting as Hitler's "fireman", using a strategy of counter attacks which was both successful in the battlefield and acceptable by Hitler, despite inevitably including retreats due to being massively outnumbered at that time of the war. In April 1945, in Germany's final collapse, even his skill couldn't achieve any more, and he committed suicide to avoid surrender.
Just before the end
At the last month of his war, and of his life, and with few dispersed and beaten remains still fighting, Hitler made the vain gesture of promoting the two last German field marshals of World War 2.
- Ferdinand Schoerner - a regiment commander in the invasion of Poland, he was promoted several times in rank and command during the war, becoming an Army Group commander in March 1944.
He systematically used extreme measures, including executions, against desertions and retreats, which increased with the increasing collapse of the German forces against massive numerical superiority at all fronts. He deliberately made his troops afraid of him more than of the enemy. His soldiers hated that, but Hitler and Goebbels adored him, and promoted him to Field Marshal in April 1945.
He was the only Field Marshal imprisoned for war crimes by both sides, first as a POW in Russia, and later in post-war West Germany, for his illegal executions of German soldiers.
- Robert Ritter von Greim - a fighter pilot and ace in World War 1, in World War 2 he commanded an Air Corps and later an Air Fleet.
Four days before Hitler's suicide, he summoned von Greim to his bunker, promoted him to Field Marshal, and made him supreme commander of the Air Force, instead of Goering.
By then, only very few scattered remains were left of that Air Force.
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