Gerd von Rundstedt
General Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, one of the greatest German
generals, personified the traditional Prussian image during the Second
World War. He was looked upon for strength and leadership against Hitler,
by those that did not support the regime. He epitomized all that was
good of the Prussian Junker class, yet few forgave him for not taking
an active part in the resistance against Hitler. (Messenger xiii)
Gerd von Rundstedt was born on December 12, 1875 at Aschersleben, a
small town on the eastern edge of the Harz Mountains. He was christened
Karl Rudolf Gerd, but was always called by his third forename (Messenger
3). As a child, he showed much interest for music and drawing, the latter
skill would help him during the strain of captivity in Britain during
World War II. Since their had been a long military tradition in the
von Rundstedt family, it was almost pre-ordained that Gerd would join
the Royal Prussian Army. (Messenger 4)
In 1893, Rundstedt became an officer in the army and during World War
I he became chief of staff of an army corps and an assistant in the
reorganization of the Turkish general staff. Rundstedt remained in the
army after the war and took part in Germany's secret rearmament both
before and after Hitler came to power (Messenger 9). In 1938, he retired
as senior field commander, and returned to active duty to command an
army group in the Polish campaign at the outbreak of World War II.
After, on the Western Front, he took part in the plan that defeated
France in 1940 and headed the Army Group "B" in the final
blow that led France to its final fall. Yet, he did make a mistake by
making an order to end German armour, which eventually allowed the British
to escape from Dunkirk (Messenger 10). In 1941 during the invasion of
the Soviet Union, he took charge over the German southern wing, which
swiftly overpowered the Ukraine. Yet, after a Soviet counteroffensive
forced a retreat, Hitler dismissed Rundstedt from his position. (http://normandy.eb.com/normandy/articles/Rundstedt_Gerd_von.html)
Yet, when Germany was struggling greatly, Hitler realized that he needed
to place confidence back in the army, thus he decided to bring back
Rundstedt. Hitler knew that the old Rundstedt, who was almost seventy
years old, represented "the old Germany and the military tradition-with
its devotion to duty, political conservatism, professional exclusiveness,
and contempt for amateurs in strategy as represented by Hitler (Hart
71)." Rundstedt had always believed that the power of the infantry
needed to be revived along with their confidence in themselves. He regarded
tanks "as useful servants, not as the future masters, of the battlefield
(Hart 73)." Rundstedt believed that more importance should be placed
in the motorization and multiplied fire-power to improve the capacity
of the existing arms. He knew that the entry of the United States into
the war could result in Britain's invasion of the continent; he was
not willing to take this risk (Hart 75).
At this point Rundstedt was compared to Hindenburg and Ludendorff, yet
Rundstedt was far abler than a combination of the two (Hart 71). He
had great devotion to the German Army, yet he despised politics. He
was as forceful as the other two leaders, yet he was lean, austere,
and thoughtful in appearance.
Hitler made Rundstedt Commander-in-Chief of the West. Under him Erwin
Rommel was placed as army group commander on the Channel Coast. Yet
they both had differing views on which was the best way to meet an invasion
(Hart 51). Rundstedt believed in defence in depth and a powerful counter-offensive
when the invaders were fully committed. Rundstedt also believed that
the main Allied offensive would come direct across the Channel at the
part between the Somme and Calais. Rundstedt's plan to hold the reserves
back and then launch a massive stroke, was greatly praised by many generals,
and many thought it would have been very beneficial had it been executed.
Once the Normandy ordeal had begun, Rundstedt believed that the invasion
would come across the narrower part of the Channel, between Le Havre
and Calais. He believed the invasion would occur on either side of the
Somme. He saw this as the best point for invasion since it was closest
to Germany (Hart 241). Essentially, he believed that the allies would
take the best line. Yet, he failed to realized that this would probable
be the last path they would take, since it would be the one that would
be the most protected. Rundstedt did not think that the Allied landings
would be in Normandy. Yet, both Hitler and Erwin Rommel, calculated
that the Allies would make their landings in Normandy. (Hart 242)
Even after the landings at Normandy, Rundstedt did not have much faith
in his defeating the Allies. His account of the situation was very discouraging
" The Allied Air Forces paralyzed all movement by day, and
made it very difficult even at night. They had smashed the bridges
over the Loire as well as over the Seine, shutting off the whole area.
These factors greatly delayed the concentration of reserves there-they
took three or four more times longer to reach the front than we had
reckoned." (Hart 244)
At this point Rundstedt made clear that he thought the war should come
to an end. This is why, once again, Hitler removed him from command.
For a while, Rundstedt was overshadowed by Rommel. In fact, Rundstedt
avoided talking to Hitler directly. He also kept away from Keitel and
Jodl-he saw them as 'yes' men, preferring to delegate his views to Blumentritt
(Messenger 191). Age was against him and he had failed to personally
interact with the soldiers as many of the younger generals had done.
" Rundstedt was an eminent strategist, a master of the rules
of war, but in the last few years he has lost with advancing age the
creative impulse and the clear sense of responsibility to the nation.
Symptoms of his lapse were sarcastic comments or indifference. Of
course, he despised Hitler, and referred to him in all private conversations,
as Hindenburg did, with the nickname "the Bohemian Corporal".
But he seemed to think that the height of wisdom was to make studied
representations and write grave situation reports. He left action
to others. When Rommel sought to move him to send joint demands to
Hitler, Rundstedt exclaimed: "You are young. The people know
you and love you. You do it!" it was not only as a general that
Rundstedt withdrew into himself. His character, personality and mobility
were failing, and at a time when supreme efforts were demanded, Rundstedt
remained unknown to the soldier at the front, while Rommel ceaselessly
exerted his remarkable powers of leadership on the soldiers personally,
sparing himself not at all." (Messenger 190-191)
Rundstedt's greatest battles were fought with Hitler. Their views differed
greatly. Rundstedt believed that Hitler's long monologue at the Fuhrer
Conferences, was a waste of time. He felt that the leader did little
to address the true situations that faced the west. (Messenger 197)
They had opposing views on many things and this is why Hitler took him
off command several times.
Many soldiers, knowing Rundstedt's repugnance to Nazism, looked to him
for a rise against Hitler. Yet, many who knew him well, confess that
he was extremely straight forward, and very strict in his concept of
the soldierly code of honour. Few of those that knew him well believe
that he could have effectively gone against Hitler- taking into consideration
his age, the number of spies following him, and his lack of subtlety.
Liddel Hart, B.H. The German Generals Talk. William Morrow and
Company, Inc. New York: 1975.
Messenger, Charles. The Last Prussian. Macmillan Publishing Company.
New York: 1991.