Heinz Guderian

Heinz Guderian

Heinz Guderian, the son of an army officer, was born in Kulm, Germany, on 17th June, 1888. He joined the German Army and was commissioned in the Jaegers in 1908 where he became a communications specialist. He fought in the First World War and afterwards was a member of the right-wing Freikorps group.

In 1922 Guderian became Inspector of Motorized Troops. He began to study the experience of tanks during the war and was greatly influenced by the ideas of British military writers such as Basil Liddell Hart and John Fuller. As a result of his studies he was employed as a teacher of tank tactics.

Guderian was appointed commander of a motorized battalion in 1930. While in this post he developed one of companies as a tank scout company, one as a tank company and one as an anti-tank company. Guderian also developed a radio-communication system that enabled communication between tank officers.

In 1934 Guderian was appointed chief of staff of the Motorized Troops Command and the following year he took over the 2nd Panzer Division. The other two panzer divisions were commanded by generals whereas Guderian was only a colonel.

In Feburary 1938, Guderian was promoted to lieutenant general and the following month was involved in the occupation of Austria. Later that year Adolf Hitler appointed Guderian to the new post of Chief of Mobile Troops. However Guderian had difficulty persuading his senior officers about the importance of tank warfare in any future conflict. Franz Halder, the Chief of General Staff told Guderian that the infantry would always play the most important role in any future war.

Guderian led the attack on Poland in September 1939 and his rapid success created shockwaves throughout the world. Despite this easy victory Guderian objected to the planned Western Offensive. When Hitler ordered the plan to go ahead, Guderian, who served under General Paul von Kliest, attacked at great speed and crossing the crossed the Meuse near Sedan on 14th May.

Kleist now ordered Guderian to halt until the arrival of General Siegmund List and his 12th Army. Guderian disagreed with Kleist's view that the panzers needed the support of the infantry. After a heated argument with Kleist, who had the support of his superiors, Gerd von Rundstedt and Heinrich von Brauchitsch, on 17th May 1940, Guderian threatened to resign. Kleist responded by sacking Guderian.

Adolf Hitler was unwilling to lose this brilliant commander and General Siegmund List was ordered to intervene and managed to persuade Kleist that Guderian should return to duty. Guderian got his way and Kleist's troops rushed ahead and reached the English Channel at Abbeville on 21st May 1940.

Boulogne was taken on 23rd May but later that day Hitler called a halt arguing that the rapid advance was jeopardizing the whole campaign. Kleist supported Hitler's decision but Guderian was furious who rightly argued that this stopped the German Army cutting off the escape of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk.

Promoted to general for his achievements in France, Guderian led the 2nd Panzer Group during Operation Barbarossa. Working closely with Herman Hoth, Guderian's troops took Minsk and Smolensk. In July 1941 he moved into the Ukraine where he captured Kiev before moving on Moscow.

That winter the German Army lost 100,000 soldiers through frostbite. "They did not necessarily die of it, but lost limbs or had their ears, toes and fingers turn black, ballooning like cauliflowers, and had to be hospitalised, and were out of the battle." Guderian recorded a temperature of minus 36 degrees: "Our men just stand about miserably burning the precious petrol to keep warm... Several times we found sentries fallen asleep, literally frozen to death... Many men died while performing their natural functions, as a result of a congelation of the anus".

Guderian was shocked by the stout resistance of the Red Army and as the severe Russian winter set in he made a limited withdrawal to better defensive ground. Guderian then returned to Germany where he argued with Adolf Hitler about the tactics being employed. After further disagreements with General Fedor von Bock and General Gunther von Kluge, On 25th December 1941 Guderian was dismissed from office.

After the defeats at El Alamein and Stalingrad, Hitler decided to recall Guderian and on 1st March 1943 he become commander of Germany's Armoured Troops. Guderian was unable to repeat earlier successes and in July 1943 lost one of the largest tank battles in history at Kursk.

On 21st July 1944, Guderian replaced General Kurt Zeitzler as commander of the General Staff. As a result of the July Plot Guderian demanded the resignation of any officer who did not fully support the ideals of the Nazi Party. Over the next few months Guderian sat with Gerd von Rundstedt and Wilhelm Keitel on the Army Court of Honour that expelled hundreds of officers suspected of being opposed to the policies of Adolf Hitler. This removed them from court martial jurisdiction and turned them over to Roland Freisler and his People Court.

Although willing to carry out a purge of the German Army, Guderian continued to argue with Adolf Hitler over strategy and on 28th March 1945 he was dismissed from office.

Guderian was captured by the US Army on 10th May 1945. Despite claims in the Soviet Union and Poland that Guderian was a war criminal, he was released from captivity on 17th June 1948. Heinz Guderian died on 17th May 1954.

Primary Sources

(1) After the war Hasso Manteuffel commented on the contribution made by Heinz Guderian to the development of German military ideas.

Guderian favoured from the beginning the strategic use of panzer forces - a deep thrust into the enemy, without worrying about a possible threat to his own unprotected and far-extended flanks. That was why he planned to transport all supporting elements of the panzer forces (infantry, artillery and engineers) in a similar way - that is, on tracks - and why the supply services (petrol, ammunition, food) were organically incorporated with the fighting troops. This enabled them to accompany, and keep up with the tank core until fused with it - at the same tune assuring Guderian's own supplies for three to five days.

It was Guderian - and at first he alone - who introduced the tank to the Army and its use as an operative weapon. It was certainly not the General Staff. During my term in the War Ministry (in the Inspectorate of Panzer Forces) I was well acquainted with Guderian's struggle on behalf of the use of this weapon. In the best sense of the word, this new weapon bears the stamp of his personality. Its successes during the war are due to him.

In peacetime he at first stood alone when he insisted that the 'break-through' of tanks should be pressed long and deep, and at first without regard to exposed flanks. On countless journeys and in countless conferences he injected this idea - even into the actual tank commanders.

If Guderian was not always successful in carrying out his theories everywhere during the war, it was due to the struggle against the mistrust of so many elderly officers who knew nothing, or little, about tanks.

He was the creator and master-teacher of our Armoured Forces - and I lay particular stress on the word 'master'.

(2) Heinz Guderian was consulted by Erich von Manstein when he was developing what became known as the Manstein Plan.

Manstein asked me if tank movements would be possible through the Ardennes in the direction of Sedan. He explained his plan of breaking through the extension of the Maginot Line near Sedan, in order to avoid the old-fashioned Schliefien plan, familiar to the enemy and likely to be expected once more. I knew the terrain from World War I, and, after studying the map, confirmed his view. Manstein then convinced General von Rundstedt and a memorandum was sent to O.K.H. (on December 4th). O.K.H. refused to accept Manstein's idea. But the latter succeeded in bringing his idea to Hitler's knowledge.

On February 7th, a war-game took place at Coblenz under the direction of General Halder, in order to discuss the Manstein plan. My proposal to attack as soon as possible over the Meuse with the panzer corps alone, and without waiting for the infantry, was heavily criticized by Halder. He judged an organized attack over the Meuse impossible before the 9th or loth day of the campaign.

A second war-game at General List's headquarters (12th Army) had the same negative results. General List examined the question of stopping the panzers after the arrival on the Meuse and waiting for the infantry to cross the river. General von Wietersheim (XIV Corps) and I protested against this solution. But in the end General von Rundstedt laid down that the panzer divisions should only gain bridge-heads over the Meuse and that no further aims should be aspired to. That was on March 6th. It became clear that General von Rundstedt had no clear conception of the capability of panzer forces. Manstein was needed there!

(3) Heinz Guderian was interviewed by Basil Liddell Hart after the war for his book The Other Side of the Hill (1948)

On December 20th, 1941, I had a five hours' discussion with Hitler at his headquarters in East Prussia, in order to inform him of the situation of the and Panzer Army under my command. The mission given to this army was to encircle

Moscow from the south and south-west, and then to push forward to Gorki (300 miles beyond Moscow). In view of the condition of the troops and the supply possibilities this task could not be fulfilled.

I tried to convince Hitler of the correctness of my report - but without success. I got the impression that the reports from the front did not reach him unaltered, and suggested to him that he should relieve the officers of his operational staff and appoint officers with fresh experience from the front line. After tile audience, Hitler told Keitel: "This man, I have not convinced.

A few days later, Field-Marshal von Kluge, who succeeded Field-Marshal von Bock as Commander-in-Chief of the Central Army Group, reproached me that I had disobeyed Hitler's orders not to continue the retreat from Tula to the Susha-Oka position - a semi-fortified position which could have been held in spite of the extreme cold of that winter. Von Kluge was wrong - but his report to Hitler was sufficient to induce the latter to send me home. I was removed from command on December 25, 1941.

(4) General Freiherr von Geyr, on Heinz Guderian as a military commander.

Sixty per cent of what the German Panzer Forces became was due to him. Ambitious, brave, a heart for his soldiers, who liked and trusted him; rash as a man, quick in decisions, strict with officers, real personality, therefore many enemies. Blunt, even to Hitler. As a trainer - good; thorough; progressive. If you suggest revolutionary ideas, he will say in 95 per cent of cases: 'Yes': at once.

(5) After the war Wilhelm von Thoma wrote about Heinz Guderian and the Western Offensive.

The French tanks were better than ours, and more numerous - but they were too slow. It was by speed, in exploiting the surprise, that we beat the French.

All the tank officers wanted to see Guderian in charge of the panzer army that carried out the thrust through the Ardennes. Kleist had not the same understanding of tanks-he had earlier been one of the chief opponents of them. To put a sceptic, even a converted sceptic, in supreme charge of the armoured forces was typical of the way things were done in the German Army. But Guderian was regarded as a difficult subordinate. Hitler had the deciding voice in the issue, and he approved Kleist's appointment. Nevertheless, Guderian was called on to carry out the actual break-through, which he did on the same lines that he had practised in the 1937 Army Manoeuvres. After that he continued to lead the drive to the Channel. He concentrated all his thought on exploiting success, and took the attitude 'to hell with what is happening behind'. That thrustfulness was decisive, because it gave the French no time to rally.

It was commonly said in the German Army that Guderian was always seeing red, and was too inclined to charge like a bull. I don't agree with that opinion. I had personal experience of serving under him on the Smolensk front in 1941, where opposition was very stiff, and I found him a very fine commander under those difficult circumstances.

(6) After the war Heinz Guderian compared French tanks with those available to German commanders in 1940.

The French tanks were better than ours in armour, guns and number, but inferior in speed, radio-communication and leadership. The concentration of all armoured forces at the decisive spot, the rapid exploitation of success, and the initiative of the officers of all degrees were the main reasons of our victory in 1940.

(7) Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich (1970)

The German army in Courland was hopelessly cut off. Guderian tried to convince Hitler that this position should be abandoned and the army transported across the Baltic Sea. Hitler disagreed, as he always did when asked to authorize a retreat Guderian did not give in. Hitler insisted, the tone sharpened, and finally Guderian opposed Hitler with an openness unprecedented in this circle. With flashing eyes and the hairs of his mustache literally standing on end, he stood facing Hitler across the marble table. Hitler, too, had risen to his feet

"It's simply our duty to save these people, and we still have time to remove them!" Guderian cried out in a challenging voice.

Infuriated, Hitler retorted: "You are going to fight on there. We cannot give up these areas!"

Guderian held firm: "But it's useless to sacrifice men in this senseless way" he shouted. "It's high time! We must evacuate those soldiers at once!"

What no one had thought possible now happened. Hitler appeared visibly intimidated by this assault. Strictly speaking, he really could not tolerate this insubordination, which was more a matter of Guderian's tone than his argument But to my astonishment Hitler shifted to military arguments, maintaining that a withdrawal to the ports was bound to result in general disorganization and even higher losses than continuing die defense. Once again Guderian vigorously pointed out that every tactical detail of the retreat had already been worked out and that carrying out the operation was quite possible. But, Hitler stuck to his decision.

Was this clash the symptom of disintegrating authority?