Guderian: The Most Modern Major General of World War II?
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."
|After the war, Heinz Guderian wrote memoirs that are incisive and relatable.|
|The General being decorated, 1939, Halder in the foreground, Hoth behind.|
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.
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|
|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 the center is Major General Heinz Guderian and at right is Brigadier Semyon Krivoshein.|
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.|
Besides being in the right time at the right place, Guderian also understood English and French to a certain extent. This proved quite handy. The British at that time were considered the leaders in armored 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.|
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).
|German Generals Heinz Guderian and Reinhardt, Karlsbad, Sudetenland, Germany, circa Oct 1938. Heinz appears to be in a good mood (Ang, Federal Archive).|
|"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.|
|Guderian at his command truck during the Battle of France, communicating by Enigma machine (Erich Borchert, Federal Archive)|
|Guderian at a map briefing in Russia, 1941.|
|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 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)|
|Soviet troops in a trench outside Moscow.|
|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|
|Luftwaffe ace Werner Molders and Heinz Guderian, July 1941. The Luftwaffe was a key component of the Blitzkrieg advance to the gates of Moscow in 1941.|
|Guderian discusses strategy with General Wenck toward the end of the war.|
|Guderian hands out awards to soldiers, March 1945 (Ang, Federal Archives)|
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 a 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.|