Guderian: The Most Modern Major General of World War II?
"In fact, when I know what is meant by "mamelon" and "ravelin",
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I'm more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by "commissariat",
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery –
In short, when I've a smattering of elemental strategy – (bothered for a rhyme)
You'll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.
"For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General."
- Gilbert and Sullivan, "The Pirates of Penzance."
That the Germans of the Third Reich - the loyal ones - were brutal monsters who caused death and destruction everywhere they went is beyond argument. There are no redeeming features to the brutality that they spread across a continent, they caused too much suffering even to be pitied, much less admired.
|After the war, Heinz Guderian wrote memoirs that are incisive and relatable.|
However, here and there appears a figure from that morass of depravity and intolerance who at least has a few human qualities that can be appreciated from a distance. Call it the common touch, call it personality, call it charisma, call it what you will - it is undeniable if you feel it.
|The General being decorated, 1939, Halder in the foreground, Hoth behind.|
Heinz Wilhelm Guderian (17 June 1888 – 14 May 1954), in my estimation, was one such man. There is much talk about the best this and the best that, and I must admit that it is going just a bit too far to say that Guderian was the best General, even the best German General. Rommel was better at leading from the front, Manstein was better at textbook attacks, Hoth was better at fluid, dirty dust-ups, Heinrici was better at the defense, Model was better at converting disaster into opportunity - and that is just on the German side.
To put it politely, Heinz Guderian was not a master strategist like a Manstein. What Guderian was best at is a little more difficult to quantify. While he may not have been the best general of the war, he was the most, well, ironic general.
He seemed to know it was all rubbish, but it was his only rubbish, and he was going to be the best in the world at his own particular pile of rubbish come what may.
No, that is not a quality that you will find in the Code of Military Regulations or in your standard forum run-down of 'best this or that' where everyone has an opinion based on something they read or think they know about this battle or that, but it is something you may begin to notice if you study the man.
Guderian was from Kulm, now Chelmno, Poland. He was a military brat, one of those insufferable fools who wound up as a cadet in the outfit of his own father and thus, no doubt, received all sorts of special treatment. Naturally, as a scion of Prussian arms, he wound up at the Metz war academy and graduated in 1908 as a Leutnant.
|Guderian in 1908|
World War I was kind to Guderian. He began it as a Signals Officer in the 5th Cavalry Division, and finished it on the General Staff Corps. That may not sound like such a big deal, but during World War I, it was like being the first man on Mars. "The proudest moment of my life," he later recalled, and he meant it. Any other soldier would have said the same thing.
|Common parade of German Wehrmacht and Soviet Red Army on 23 September 1939 in Brest, Eastern Poland at the end of the Invasion of Poland. At centre is Major General Heinz Guderian and at right is Brigadier Semyon Krivoshein.|
However, Guderian was no wallflower. He was disputatious, and that was not a quality treasured in Ludendorff's command castle. Guderian soon was banished to the army intelligence department, which from the war results never got much of a workout from 1914-1918. Still, it kept Heinz busy and out of everyone's hair.
German soldiers were never very happy between wars, or at least that is how it appears from their biographies. Most likely due to his stint on the General Staff, Guderian was retained in the Reichswehr (Army) in the rump force permitted by the Treaty of Versailles. This practically assured that he would become a major figure in World War II, because those so selected - only 4,000 officers - had a huge head start on everyone else and no interruption in their careers.
|Lieutenant Colonel Heinz Guderian (right) with other officers on the Western Front, 1915.|
Promotions followed - slowly - and Guderian wound up on the General Staff again, though this time it wasn't called that because the General Staff had been outlawed. In 1927, Guderian was almost randomly given command of Army transport and motorized tactics in Berlin - heck, someone had to do it - and this provided the springboard for his later fame.
Besides being in the right time at the right place, Guderian also understood English and French to a certain extent. This proved quite handy, as the British at that time were considered the leaders in armoured warfare, so their writings on the subject were quite useful. The sad truth from the German perspective was that German tanks were a joke. The few that were built during the Great War resembled Bavarian castles and accomplished virtually nothing on the battlefield, with no mobility and little firepower.
|Hitler in Poland by Heinrich Hoffmann -- General of Armored troops Guderian making his report.|
Most likely because of his ability to read these foreign works and implement their ideas, Guderian showed special aptitude with the glorified tractors that constituted tanks in those days and was promoted to become the chief of staff to the Inspectorate of Motorized Troops. He began not only reading papers on armoured warfare, but writing them. His theories were tested in secret war games held in the Soviet Union of all places.
|Quite probably the most widely read and admired war manual ever written. Guderian's books are well worth picking up.|
His superiors noticed Guderian's growing competence at handling tanks, and in October 1935 he was promoted to command of the 2nd Panzer Division. This was another huge leap forward in his career, as there were only three such divisions in the entire Wehrmacht and Goering was still relatively young. During this time, he wrote a classic manual on tanks called "Achtung - Panzer!" that was published in 1937 and which you can buy from Amazon. It not only served as the foundation of the later Blitzkrieg, but remained popular in stores around the world for decades after the war (I know, because I saw them on the racks).
The kernel of Guderian's theory was brilliant in its simplicity. There was a lot of confusion during the interwar years about how best to use tanks, confusion which wreaked havoc in the Soviet tank forces. Should they be in their own formations, or spread out throughout the army to help out the common grunts? Guderian solved this question once and for all, and he got it right the first time. It was one of the most perceptive solutions to a military problem in the history of warfare.
|German Generals Heinz Guderian and Reinhardt, Karlsbad, Sudetenland, Germany, circa Oct 1938. Heinz appears to be in a good mood (Ang, Federal Archive).|
The answer that Guderian came up with was to concentrate all available armoured power in one gigantic convulsive thrust designed to punch a hole through the enemy lines. The tanks then would be followed by the infantry and artillery. This breakthrough point was called the "point of attack" ("Schwerpunkt"). Rather than have the tanks alone, however, Guderian devised an "all arms" strategy whereby the panzers would be accompanied by sufficient additional troops and arms to magnify the effect of their firepower and rapidly expand the breakthrough.
|"Fast Heinz" Guderian in his command vehicle during the invasion of France. This photo clearly shows the Enigma machine which was essential to the Blitzkrieg - and also, unknown to the Germans, its Achilles Heel.|
The key to the whole thing was communication with and between the troops to exploit fleeting opportunity. This remained German doctrine until the final days of the war, though it became less effective with time. These tactics were adopted by virtually every other army as well, though the Soviets often used another strategy which more resembled the Ludendorff strategy of 1918 which involved successive blows over a broad front.
|Guderian at his command truck during the Battle of France, communicating by Enigma machine (Erich Borchert, Federal Archive)|
By the time of the Polish campaign in September 1939, Guderian was in charge of the XIX Corps. The invasion was swiftly completed, and Guderian, who had personally showed Hitler some of the results, then switched over to the Western Front. His Corps burst through the French at the traditional site of French defeat, Sedan, and continued straight on to the coast. It all happened so fast that Guderian earned the nickname "Schneller Heinz" ("Hurry-up Heinz"), commonly translated as "Fast Heinz." Guderian was in position to destroy the British at Dunkirk, but Hitler issued his infamous stop order and Guderian was denied the glory of the kill.
|Guderian at a map briefing in Russia, 1941|
After a year's rest along with the rest of the army, Guderian went east again. Now he was in command of an entire Panzergruppe named after him (later renamed Second Panzer Army). These Panzer Armies were the most fearsome forces of their day when at full strength, and remained powerful to the end of the conflict. Guderian led a rapid advance in the middle of the line, but there were so many Russians to capture that the speed of the attack quickly fell off. Large Soviet forces were making an obstinate - but obviously hopeless - stand at Kiev off his right flank. Guderian wanted to leave them to static troops to capture, and Hitler ordered Guderian to break off the advance and help capture the city with his mobile units. As usual, Hitler could not resist the prestige of bagging a major Soviet city quickly despite the cost, a dangerous tendency which would later show up at Stalingrad. It was a militarily expedient but strategically disastrous decision.
|General Heinz Guderian, commander of Germany's Panzergruppe 2, chats with members of a tank crew on the Russian front. September 3, 1941. (AP Photo)|
Guderian knew that breaking off the advance on Moscow was a terrible decision and made sure that everyone else knew it, too. He was still the obstinate fool who had been such a nuisance on the General Staff during the Great War, and being right was no excuse for being rude to his superiors. He half-heartedly sent some forces south while keeping many on the road to Moscow. This whole process wasted weeks of perfect campaigning weather and allowed the Soviets temporarily to regain the initiative in the center of the line. Finally, with the weather starting to turn, Kiev was done - huge bags of Soviet prisoners were sent back to the camps - and Guderian had the chance to head back to the real prize: Moscow.
|Guderian with Hermann Hoth, Russia, Summer of 1941. Guderian and Hoth were two of the best tank commanders of all time, and both suffered huge career reverses due tangentially to action around Kiev. (Vorpahl, Federal Archive)|
Guderian drove up hard from the south, and managed to get his forces further east than anyone else. However, dug-in Soviet forces remained a stubborn irritant in his left flank at Tula, and an annoying river still stood between him and Moscow. The Soviets had built a ring of defenses around the city using all the inhabitants they could find. Ultimately, the attack faltered and then failed as equipment froze and supplies grew thin.
|Soviet troops in a trench outside Moscow|
Many ascribe the failure to Stalin's importation of Siberian troops, but the attack had stalled even before most of them began fighting. Overall, it must be stated that the Soviet army and troops handled the winter conditions much better than the Germans - after all, it was equally cold on both sides of the line.
|Heinz Guderian gives a speech to the workers of the Henschel factory from the deck of one of the Tiger Tanks they produced. Kassel, 1943|
Hitler futilely ordered the troops to "stand fast," a tactic that actually sometimes worked during 1941 but seldom thereafter. Guderian, however, firmly believed doing that would lead to catastrophe, especially for his exposed forces. He retreated despite the orders to remain in place after a row at the Fuhrer bunker, using his usual veiled tactical movements to frustrate the orders from above that he had perfected during the summer. His superior, Feldmarschall Günther von Kluge, the commander of Army Group Centre, called him on it. Guderian was insulted and asked to be relieved. Hitler, in no mood to coddle even his best Generals while the entire Front was falling apart, granted his request at Christmas-time, 1941. Guderian went home "in disgrace."
|Luftwaffe ace Werner Molders and Heinz Guderian, July 1941|
Once again, being right was no defense. Guderian remained in the reserve pool - effectively unemployed - while German forces surged forward everywhere in mid-1942. Erwin Rommel understood the talent of his former commander on the West Front and recommended Guderian to replace him in September 1942 when Rommel fell ill. The Fuhrer was still in no mood to forgive Guderian, and the request was peremptorily denied.
|Guderian discusses strategy with General Wenck toward the end of the war.|
Stalingrad at the end of the year changed everyone's attitude, especially the Fuhrer's. Hitler realized that the 'fat was in the fire' and sent for Guderian. The army had noticed that German tanks and tactics were losing their superiority over the Soviets, and Hitler figured that what was needed was someone to reorganize the panzer arm. Guderian drew up a list of demands for his re-employment, and Hitler - obviously under tremendous strain after Stalingrad, for he never accepted such a thing before or after - agreed to them. Guderian became Inspector General of Armoured Troops," a somewhat nebulous position that gave him the authority to direct tank production and up-gunning of current tanks. Unfortunately for the German effort, it did not give him control over assault guns such as the Stug III and Hummel, which were increasingly popular weapons because they were cheap and effective. They remained the preserve of the artillery.
|Guderian hands out awards to soldiers, March 1945 (Ang, Federal Archives)|
The other Generals who did not respect him like Rommel all hated Guderian. He was a cantankerous (no pun intended) grump who met resistance everywhere. However, he was successful in rebuilding the Panzer forces, an achievement capped by the stunningly quick development of the Panther tank (Panzer V), often considered the best tank of the entire war, and the Tiger (Panzer VI). Both went from paper to battlefield use in about a year, at a time when tanks invariably took years to work up. It was one of the dramatic successes of the war by German industry and had a very real effect on the course of the war.
Guderian opposed the attack on Kursk in July 1943 because it was a clear mis-use of mobile forces against solidly prepared defenses, but the attack went forward anyway. After its inevitable failure, the panzer arm was in a shambles and the retreat was on. Guderian continued his effective work with the panzer arm, but Hitler loved to interfere in weapons development, usually with deleterious effects. Hitler, for instance, loved big guns, but Guderian knew that the Germans needed more guns, not bigger ones. If Guderian had his way, the Wehrmacht would have been supplied with more standardized weapons of fewer basic types, and generations of subsequent model-kit builders would have had much less material with which to work.
After the failure of the 20 July 1944 bomb plot on Hitler, which Guderian quite likely knew about but did nothing to stop, Guderian was summoned to Rastenburg and appointed Chief of Staff of the Army. It was a prestigious position, but under Hitler practically irrelevant. Hitler made his own decisions, and he decided everything. Guderian became just another guy in the room who only could oppose the Fuhrer, and that was never the guy you really wanted to be.
The war situation drifted on to its inevitable conclusion, and Guderian showed only that he was a better battlefront commander than swivel-chair strategist. Guderian eventually lost all patience and practically demanded his own dismissal by getting into a loud and obstinate argument with the Fuhrer. Hitler, though, rather than dismissing Guderian, simply put him on leave, but the war was over and Hitler dead before the leave was over. It was but the last of the many times that Guderian had argued with Hitler to his face, but Hitler knew the value of Guderian and tolerated his challenges as with no other General.
|Guderian wrote only two books, but they are both classics of the genre.|
Guderian surrendered on 10 May 1945, and was held in custody until 17 June 1948. He was never charged with war crimes, and British veterans took a liking to Fast Heinz. He consulted on the reorganization of the post-war army, the Bundeswehr, which was a big deal due to its status as the front line against the Soviet army. His classic memoirs, "Panzer Leader," were published in 1952 and you can buy them from Amazon. Heinz Guderian passed away at a scenic spot near Füssen, the site of the famous Neuschwanstein Castle, on 14 May 1954. His son, General Heinz-Günther, carried on the family's military tradition.