Gerd von Rundstedt

Gerd von Rundstedt : Nazi Germany

Gerd von Rundstedt, the son of a military officer, was born in Aschersleben, Germany, on 12th December 1875. He joined the German Army and served throughout the First World War. By 1918 he had reached the rank of major and was chief of staff of his division.

After the war Rundstedt rose steadily in the small 100,000 man army and in 1932 was appointed commander of the 3rd Infantry Division. Later that year he threatened to resign when Franz von Papen declared martial law and ordered his troops to eject members of the Social Democratic Party from state government offices. However, Rundstedt eventually agreed to carry out the task.

In February 1934, Rundstedt joined with General Wilhelm Leeb to block the pro-Nazi Walther von Reichenau who General Werner von Blomberg wanted to succeed Kurt Hammerstein-Equord as head of the German Army. He also tried to protect General Werner von Fitsch when he was ousted after false claims were made about his sexuality.

Rundstedt was unhappy with the growing power of Adolf Hitler over the army and resigned from office on 31st October 1938. Although 64 years old, Rundstedt was recalled to the army on the outbreak of the Second World War and in September 1939 led Army Group South into Poland.

In 1940 Rundstedt was quick to see the merits of the plan devised by Erich von Manstein to invade France. With his support the Manstein Plan was eventually used as part of the Western Offensive. Rundstedt led seven panzer divisions, three motorized divisions, and 35 infantry divisions during the invasion of France.

By 14th May, 1940, the German tanks led by General Heinz Guderian had crossed the Meuse and had opened up a a fifty-mile gap in the Allied front. Rundstedt had doubts about the aggressive tactics of Guderian and argued that his tanks should halt and wait until infantry divisions could catch up. Rundsteadt did not fully understand Blitzkrieg tactics and wanted a conventional assault on the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Adolf Hitler agreed and this decision stopped Guderian cutting off the escape of the British and French troops from Dunkirk.

Rundstedt was promoted to field marshal on 19th July 1940 and took part in the planning of Operation Sealion. When the invasion of Britain was called off Rundstedt took control of occupation forces and was given responsibility to develop the coastal defences in Holland, Belgium and France.

In June 1941 Rundsdet took part in Operation Barbarossa when as commander of Army Group South he led 52 infantry divisions and five panzer divisions into the Soviet Union. Unlike those forces led by General Wilhelm Leeb and General Fedor von Bock, Rundsdet made slow progress during the first few weeks of the campaign.

In September 1941, Rundsdet took part in the capture of Kiev where 665,000 Russian prisoners were taken. After this he moved east to attack Kharkov and Rostov.

Rundsdet strongly opposed continuing the advance into the Soviet Union during the winter. He advised Adolf Hitler to call a halt but his views were rejected.

At the beginning of November 1941, Rundsdet had a heart-attack. However, he refused to be hospilized and continued the advance and reached Rostov on 21st November, but a Red Army counter-attack forced the Germans back. Hitler was furious and blamed Rundsdet for the defeat. When Rundsdet demanded he should be allowed to withdraw he was sacked and replaced by General Walther von Reichenau.

Adolf Hitler recalled Rundsdet to duty in March 1942 and was sent to France where he was given reponsibility of defending the Atlantic coast. Known as the Atlantic Wall, Rundsdet organized the building of permanent fortifications with huge naval guns along 1,700 miles of coastline.

After the Normandy landings Rundsdet urged Hitler to negotiate a peace settlement with the Allies. Hitler responded by replacing Rundsdet with General Gunther von Kluge.

As a result of the July Plot Rundsdet agreed to join Heinz Guderian 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.

Rundsdet was captured by the US 36th Infantry Division on 1st May 1945. While being interogated he suffered another heart-attack. He was taken to Britain where he was held in captivity. During this period he was interviewed by several military historians including Basil Liddell Hart and Brian Horrocks .

Gerd von Rundstedt was released in July 1948 and lived in Hanover until his death on 24th February 1953.

Primary Sources

(1) Gerd von Rundstedt was interviewed by Basil Liddell Hart about Operation Sea Lion in his book The Other Side of the Hill (1948)

As the first steps to prepare for an invasion were taken only after the French capitulation, no definite date could be fixed when the plan was drafted. It depended on the time required to provide the shipping, to alter ships so they could carry tanks, and to train the troops in embarking and disembarking. The invasion was to be made in August if possible, and September at the latest. The military reasons for its cancellation were various. The German Navy would have had to control the North Sea as well as the Channel, and was not strong enough to do so. The German Air Force was not sufficient to protect the sea crossing on its own. While the leading part of the forces might have landed, there was the danger that they might be cut off from supplies and reinforcements.

The responsibility of commanding the invasion fell to me, and the task was assigned to my Army Group. The 16th Army under General Busch was on the right, and the 9th Army under General Strauss was on the left. They were to sail from ports stretching from Holland to Le Havre. The 16th Army was to use ports from Antwerp to Boulogne, while the 9th Army was to use the ports between the Somme and the Seine. No landing was to be made north of the Thames.

We were then to push forward and establish a much larger bridgehead along an arc south of London. It ran up the south shore of the Thames to the outskirts of London, and then south-westwards to Southampton Water.

(2) After the war Gerd von Rundstedt explained why the German Army failed to conquer the Soviet Union in 1941.

Long before winter came the chances had been diminished owing to the repeated delays in the advance that were caused by bad roads, and mud. The 'black earth' of the Ukraine could be turned into mud by ten minutes rain - stopping all movement until it dried. That was a heavy handicap in a race with time. If was, increased by a lack of railways in Russia - for bringing up supplies to our advancing troops. Another adverse factor was the way the Russians received continual reinforcements from their back areas, as they fell back. It seemed to us that as soon as one force was wiped out, the path was blocked by the arrival of a fresh force.

(3) On 30th November 1941, Gerd von Rundstedt received orders not to withdraw from the Mius River in the Soviet Union. Rundstedt sent a wire that resulted in him being dismissed from office.

It is madness to attempt to hold. In the first place the troops cannot do it and in the second place if they do not retreat they will be destroyed. I repeat that this order be rescinded or that you find someone else.

(4) After the war Gerd von Rundstedt explained his clash with Adolf Hitler over the withdrawal to the Mius River in November 1941.

When I wanted to break off the battle and withdraw to the Mius River, Field-Marshal von Brauchitach agreed, but men an overriding order came from the Fuhrer, which forbade any such withdrawal. I wired back that it was nonsense to hold on where we were, and added: "If you do not accept my view you must find someone else to command." That same night a reply came from the Fuhrer that my resignation was accepted - I left the Eastern Front on December 1st, and never returned there. Almost immediately afterwards the Fuhrer flew down to that sector; after seeing the situation, he changed his mind and sanctioned the step-back. Significantly, the Mius River line was the only sector of the front that was not taken during the winter of 1941-42.