Paul von Kleist

Paul von Kleist : Nazi Germany

Paul von Kleist, the son of mathematics teacher, was born in Hessen, Germany, on 8th August, 1881. He joined the German Army in 1900 and the following year was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 3rd Royal Field Artillery Regiment.

Kleist attended the cavalry school in Hanover (1908-09) and the Berlin War Academy (1910-12). By the outbreak of the First World War Kleist was captain of cavalry (Rittmeister) of the 1st Prince's Own Hussar Regiment. He was sent to the Eastern Front and commanded a cavalry squadron at Tannenberg in 1914.

In October 1915 Kleist was promoted to staff officer with the 85th Infantry Division. He continued to serve in Russia and in 1917 became Chief of Staff of the Guards Cavalry Division. After the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in 1918 Kleist was transferred to the Western Front.

After the war Kleist was Staff Officer with the 13th Cavalry Regiment (1920-23), Instructor of Tactics at the Cavalry School at Hanover (1923-26) and Chief of Staff of the 2nd Cavalry Division (1927-28) where he replaced Gerd von Rundstedt. He then served as Chief of Staff of Wehrkreis III (1928-31) and in 1932 was promoted to the rank of major general.

Kleist was appointed general of cavalry in August 1936 and supervised Germany's military expansion in Silesia. He was known to hold anti-Nazi views and in February 1938 General Heinrich von Brauchitsch forced him into retirement.

On the outbreak of the Second World War Kleist was recalled to duty and during the invasion of Poland he commanded the XXII Corps under General Siegmund List. Kleist captured the oil fields near Lvov and linked up with General Heinz Guderian at Bug River on 17th September, 1939.

Although Adolf Hitler had doubts about Kleist's political loyalty he had a high regard for his military abilities and on 29th February, 1940, appointed him commander of the main panzer forces for the Western Offensive. Kleist began the offensive on 9th May, 1940. Following the Manstein Plan, Kleist's troops attacked through the wooded hills of the Ardennes.

Kleist wanted to move cautiously but General Heinz Guderian, who commanded the 1st, 2nd and 10th Panzer divisions, moved at great speed and 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 his 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 Heinz Guderian was furious who argued that this would stop the German Army cutting off the escape of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk.

In July 1940, Kleist was given command of the 1st Panzer Group and sent to invade Bulgaria. The attack was a success and he entered Belgrade on 12th April, 1941.

During Operation Barbarossa Kleist led five panzer divisions and nine other divisions. He drove into Ukraine destroying almost 20 divisions of the Red Army before wheeling north to join Heinz Guderian in the encirclement of Kiev. He then headed north and on 20th November 1941 entered Rostov. However, with the temperature dropping to -20 C, Kleist had difficulties with his tanks and under pressure from General Semen Timoshenko and his troops was forced to retreat.

Kleist returned to the offensive in the summer of 1942 when he penetrated Russian defences along the Kuban River before moving deep into the Caucasus. However, once again, he was forced to retreat during the winter and by February 1943, he was having difficulty holding on to the Crimea.

The Red Army launched a new counter-offensive in March 1944 and Kleist, now head of Army Group A, was pushed further back and had to set up his headquarters at Nikolayev near Odessa. Adolf Hitler had now lost confidence in Kleist and General Erich von Manstein. He remarked that "I can't trust Kleist or Manstein. They're intelligent but they are not National Socialists." On 29th March 1944, they were both recalled to Germany and sacked.

Kleist was arrested by the Gestapo after the July Plot. Although his cousin was one of the main conspirators they were unable to find any information that directly linked Kleist to the attempt on Hitler's life and he was released.

Kleist lived in retirement in the village of Mitterfels in Bavaria until being taken into custody by the US 26th Infantry Division on 25th April 1945. He was turned over to Josip Tito in Yugoslavia and in 1946 he was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment.

In 1948 Kleist was extradited to the Soviet Union and sent to Wladimir Prison Camp. Paul von Kleist died of arteriosclerosis at Wladimir on 15th October, 1954.

Primary Sources

(1) Paul von Kleist was interviewed by Basil Liddell Hart about Operation Barbarossa in his book The Other Side of the Hill (1948)

It was the same with the other high commanders. We were told the Russian armies were about to take the offensive, and it was essential for Germany to remove the menace. It was explained to us that the Führer could not proceed with other plans while this threat loomed dose, as too large a part of the German forces would be pinned down in the east keeping guard. It was argued that attack was the only way for us to remove the risks of a Russian attack.

We did not underrate the Red Army, as is commonly imagined. The last German military attaché in Moscow, General Kostring - a very able man-had kept us well informed about the state of the Russian Army. But Hitler refused to credit his information.

Hopes of victory were largely built on the prospect that the invasion would produce a political upheaval in Russia. Most of us generals realized beforehand that if the Russians chose to fall back there was very little chance of achieving a final victory without the help of such an upheaval. Too high hopes were built on the belief that Stalin would be overthrown by his own people if he suffered heavy defeats. The belief was fostered by the Führer's political advisers, and we, as soldiers, didn't know enough about the political side to dispute it. There were no preparations for a prolonged struggle. Everything was based on the idea of a decisive result before the autumn.

Hitler said we must capture the oilfields by the autumn because Germany could not continue the war without them. When I pointed out the risks of leaving such a long flank exposed, he said he was going to draw on Rumania, Hungary, and Italy for troops to cover it. I warned him, and so did others, that it was rash to rely on such troops, but he would not listen. He told me that these Allied troops would only be used to hold the flank along the Don from Voronezh to its southerly bend, and beyond Stalingrad to the Caspian, which, he said, were the easiest sectors to hold.

The primary came of our failure was shortage of petrol. The bulk of our supplies had to come by rail from the Rostov bottleneck, as the Black Sea route was considered unsafe. A certain amount of oil was delivered by air, but the total which came through was insufficient to maintain the momentum of the advance, which came to a halt just when our chances looked best.

But that was not the ultimate cause of the failure. We could still have reached our goal if my forces had not been drawn away bit by bit to help the attack at Stalingrad. Besides part of my motorized troops, I had to give up the whole of my flak corps and all my air force except the reconnaissance squadrons.

That subtraction contributed to what, in my opinion, was a further cause of the failure. The Russians suddenly concentrated a force of 800 bombers on my front, operating from airfields near Grozny. Although only about a third of these bombers were serviceable, they sufficed to put a brake on my resumed advance, and it was all the more effective because of my lack of fighters and of flak.

In the earlier stages of my advance I met little organized resistance. As soon as the Russian forces were by-passed, most of the troops seemed more intent to find the way back to their homes than to continue fighting. That was quite different to what had happened in 1941. But when we advanced into the Caucasus, the forces we met there were local troops, who fought more stubbornly because they were fighting to defend their homes. Their obstinate resistance was all the more effective because the country was so difficult for the advance.

(2) Paul von Kleist was very impressed with the Red Army during the Second World War.

The men were first-rate fighters from the start, and we owed our success simply to superior training. They became first-rate soldiers with experience. They fought most toughly, had amazing endurance, and could carry on without most of the things other armies regarded as necessities. The Staff were quick to learn from their early defeats, and soon became highly efficient.

Their equipment was very good even in 1941, especially the tanks. Their artillery was excellent, and also most of the infantry weapons - their rifles were more modem than ours, and had a more rapid rate of fire. Their T.34 tank was the finest in the world.