“Erich von Lewinski, called von Manstein: His Life, Character and Operations – A Reappraisal” by Jörg Muth
Posted by T. Kunikov on July 28, 2007
I am in fairly regular contact with the author, and since I consider this piece by him as something definitely worth reading, I’d like to reproduce it here from the “Axis History Factbook” (which can be found here: http://www.axishistory.com/index.php?id=7901):
Born a soldier?
Erich was born in Berlin on 24 November, 1887. On this day the parents Eduard and Helene von Lewinski Immediately sent a telegraph to the sister of Helene, Hedwig von Manstein and her husband Georg: ”Today a son was born to you”. Both families had a special agreement: The tenth son of the Lewinskis, Erich, would be given to the von Mansteins and raised as their son, because they had no children at all.
Most of little Erich’s male ancestors – of both families – had been soldiers, both his fathers made the rank of General – Fieldmarshall and later Reichspräsident von Hindenburg was his uncle. In his autobiography Erich states that it was his wish also to become a soldier, but maybe he had simply no choice at all. By the age of 13 he went to the Kadettenanstalt in Berlin Lichterfelde. Erich liked the life there very much and stated that he was made a “Herr” by the education there. In contrast the captain of his class also wrote about the Kadettenanstalt in bitter words and called it a school for slaves.
All the cadets from noble families were required to function during the winter months as pages at the court of the Emperor William II. They had to help Ladies to climb down from their coaches and also had to serve food and wine. Erich got to know the high nobility of his time and was immensely impressed. This seems to be quite usual for a little boy, but it seems odd when a man of seventy devotes so many pages of his autobiography to the details of the gowns of the Ladies and the parties, but leaves out much more important events in his life. This however is a characteristic of Erich von Manstein’s writings: to describe the pleasant but petty things in detail, while neglecting the less agreeable but more significant matters.
In 1906 he achieved his Abitur (A-Level) like a normal pupil, which was then and is now, the prerequisite for becoming an officer in the German Army. Erich was a very small, even fragile boy at nineteen, but he became accepted as “barely fit for service”. Every other decision would have been unthinkable with his two fathers being Generals and his uncle von Hindenburg. Erich came as Fähnrich (Ensign) to the 3rd Guards-Regiment on Foot – Hindenburg’s old and very prestigious unit. The officers of the Guards Regiments of that time were not well liked by the ordinary citizens and their fellow officers of the other Regiments. People saw the Guards as vain and arrogant and they judged their duty as much too easy, because they paraded and were often invited at the court of the Emperor or to parties of wealthy citizens. In 1913 Erich went to the war academy in Berlin, the school for future staff officers.
Paper Pusher or War Hero?
When the war broke out he was regimental adjutant (something like an aide-de-camp to the Reg. CO) of the 2nd Guards Reserve Regiment. When he, by his own account, was at the front of the charge against an enemy position, right alongside his CO and the flag bearer, he was badly wounded. There is, however, no other account of this heroic action. After six months Erich recovered, but never went to the front lines again. Instead he went to divisional staffs which were far away from the fighting. At the end of the war von Manstein held the position of 1st Staff officer (called Ia in German Army term) of the 213th Infantry-Division (ID) – roughly similar to an operations officer.
Incredibly, the description of his war time experiences covers only one page in the first book of his autobiography.
On the 1st January in 1920 Erich went on a hunting holiday to Silesia, were he met the nineteen year old Jutta Sybille von Loesch. Nine days later they became en-gaged and six months later they married. Their daughter Gisela was born in 1921, the eldest son Gero one year later. He lived only 20 years and died on the eastern front. The youngest son Rüdiger was born in 1929 and so was barely too young to go to war.
After a brief time as company and battalion CO Erich rotated back to staff positions. In 1934, when von Manstein was Chief of Staff of the Wehrkreis III, the first cruel laws were passed which segregated and discriminated the Jews in Germany. Now every officer had to get a “Ariernachweis” (proof of Aryan origin) and those officers who had Jewish ancestors had to leave the Reichswehr. Much more important for all soldiers was the law which forbade all Jewish soldiers to wear their war decorations. Ten thousands of them had fought, bled and died bravely for Germany in WWI and now they would not even be allowed to display the proof of their service for their country. Even the dumbest racist must wonder about the accusations that the Jews wished harm to Germany but went to war and gave their lives to defend the same country. But incredibly no one wondered about or questioned this philosophy of hatred.
Because one of his friends discovered that his mother was half Jewish and he had to leave the Reichswehr, Erich wrote a letter to General Walther von Reichenau and asked to made exceptions for those officers whose parents were half Jewish and who were already in the Reichswehr. He did not oppose the exclusion of future aspirants with Jewish ancestors. In the years after the war the existence of the letter was often used to show von Manstein’s attitude against racism and even von Manstein mentions the letter in his autobiography to draw attention to his bravery. But only the second part of the letter was quoted. Here is the beginning:
“There is no doubt that we [meaning all officers] affirm the national socialism and the race thought [Rassegedanke, meaning the that there are differences in races and the German race is the superior and the Jewish race the inferior ]…
It should be mentioned first that of course the Aryan ancestry and marriage in the Wehrmacht are naturally since 30.01.1933…
No one denies that the occupations of judges, lawyers, doctors were flooded by Jews and Half-Jews…
There is no doubt that a rigorous cleansing was necessary…”
Only after writing this, and similar statements, did he try to convince von Reichenau that he should leave officers who have Half-Jews as parents at their positions. Von Manstein was mistaken in his assumptions that because he was a rising star in the staff officer corps and had relatives in high rank he would be untouchable. He did manage to preserve his military career, but very barely escaped a disciplinary rebuke, which would have seriously affected it.
In 1935 von Manstein received the Promotion to Generalmajor and became Chief of the 1st Operations Department in the General Staff (not to be confused with the Chief of Staff of Operations). He invented a plan to secretly triple the Infantry- Divisions in the Reichswehr – in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. His superior General von Hammerstein-Equord gave him the task of creating all the war games and exams for the staff officers.
In this position Erich von Manstein made some enemies. After the conclusion of the war games he insisted on his solution and refused to consider the different approaches of others, which had traditionally been common. When he explained his solution his comrades usually felt his arrogance hard to bear. Though his rank was not higher than theirs he acted as if that were the case. He always had the better position because his immediate superior gave the marks for the participants of the war-game and relied on his opinion.
One year later von Manstein became Quartermaster I and as such deputy of the Chief of Staff. He expected to become a very young Chief of Staff soon.
Unexpectedly for von Manstein, he was rotated to command the 18th ID in 1938 in the wake of the Blomberg/Fritsch crisis. He described himself as a martyr because of his loyalty to von Fritsch and named this as the reason for changing his assignment from General staff to the command of an Infantry-Division. The truth is he was over-due for a field command.
A year later von Manstein was informed that “Case White”, the invasion of Poland, would be imminent in the near future. Because of this he transferred as Chief of Staff to the Heeresgruppe Süd (Army Group South) ,commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt. Von Manstein had no problems with the attack on Poland be-cause he thought “the Polish mentality made us no hope to reverse the unreasonable borders drawn by the treaty of Versailles”. After the defeat of Poland, Hitler visited the HQ of the Heeresgruppe Süd. When he saw the pompous decorations and mass of food in the officers hall he turned around, sat outside with the troops and shared their field kitchen soup. As a former enlisted man Hitler gave a clear demonstration of his opinion that the higher staff members too often focused on their perks and privileges. In his book “Lost Victories” von Manstein in the typical staffer’s manner often describes his accommodations – usually castles or large mansions – in the smallest details. We rarely read the same level of detail from his visits of the front lines.
The Struggle for an Invasion Plan
When Hitler ordered the attack on France in the same year, the officers of the Ober-kommando des Heeres (OKH, High Command of the Army) tried to block the plan. They did so not because they were against the attack in general but because they thought this attack came too soon. They felt much safer in a defensive position where they could stop the French offensive which they thought would come. But Hitler never thought defensively. After he put pressure on the operations department they for-warded a plan for “Case Yellow” – the attack on France. The plan clearly sheds light on the so often glorified professionalism of the Wehrmacht High Command: It simply resembled a modified Schlieffen-Plan (from WWI), with a heavy right wing again breaking through the neutrality of Belgium and the Netherlands to outflank the French Armies on the seaward side and a straight drive through upper France by other units. Even if the plan succeeded, France would not be defeated. It shows clearly that the strategic brilliancy of the German General Staff officers of that time was and is often vastly overrated. Unknown to the German High Command, but not surprising, the plan was nearly exactly the same the French High Command tried to defend against. Von Manstein, then Chief of Staff of the Heeresgruppe A, again under von Rundstedt, was amazed at seeing so little innovation. He devised a new plan (which will be discussed below), later known as the “double sickle cut”. The jealous Chief of Staff of the Army Generaloberst Franz Halder blocked the plan, though it was signed by the CG of the Heeresgruppe von Rundstedt, who backed his Chief of Staff all the way. Surprisingly, von Manstein was reassigned to command the 38th Infantry-Corps in the invasion. He suspected an intrigue by Halder to get rid of him and was very angry about the reassignment. It is not known if indeed Halder was responsible for the reassignment, which he may well have been. What is important is von Manstein’s reaction. He again immediately dressed in the cloak of the martyr and was disappointed by leaving his staff position and not even getting a Panzerkorps. For most officers it would have been a gift from heaven to lead real soldiers in an historical battle like this, no matter what unit they commanded.
Hitlers aide Oberst (Colonel) Rudolf Schmundt heard the rumors of von Manstein’s plan through one of von Manstein’s staff members. Major Henning von Tresckow acted as operations officer of Heeresgruppe A; later he would become famous for his involvement in the assassination attempt on Hitler. Schmundt and Tresckow were old buddies from their service in the Infantry-Regiment No. 9. When Schmundt was in-formed about the plan he immediately realised that this was the plan Hitler would like. Back in Berlin he proposed to the dictator to invite all the new corps commanders for a breakfast. When the event took place Schmundt innocently asked the commanders if they had any suggestions for refinements of the attack-plan. Von Manstein saw his chance and began to speak. Hitler was delighted with the plan and ordered it after some changes implemented as fourth and final deployment order for “Case-Yellow”. Von Manstein’s 38th Infantry-Corps didn’t start in the first wave of the attack but later chased the remnants of the French Army from the River Somme to the River Loire. The corps marched more than 500 kilometers. For his actions von Manstein was awarded the Knight’s Cross. After the surrender of France he was tasked with the training for “Operation Sealion” – the invasion of the British Isles. It was soon can-celled because Göring lost the Battle of Britain and Hitler shifted his interest to an attack of the Soviet Union. Von Manstein was nevertheless convinced that an invasion of Great Britain would have been successful.
The Attack on the Soviet Union, the Holocaust and the Defense of the Kertsch Peninsula
For the invasion of the Soviet Union von Manstein got the 56th Panzer-Korps, which attacked north-east in the direction of Leningrad. When the CG of the Eleventh Army died in a plan crash in September, von Manstein went to command this army, which was tasked with the invasion of the Crimean peninsula. In the wake of this army the infamous Einsatzgruppe D killed 90.000 people, mostly Jews. The direct contact to the Einsatzgruppe was the Chief of Staff of the 11. Army, the operations officer pro-vided them with transport and supply and the intelligence officer with “targets”. Though Manstein of course denied having known what his staff knew, this is hardly possible. Otto Ohlendorf – leader of the Einsatzgruppe – confirmed during the war crime trials that the commanders of the armies and army groups where he operated were fully briefed on his actions and no one ever complained. The leader of the Einsatzgruppe was in regular contact with von Manstein’s staff. Today we know not only that Ohlendorf spoke the truth but there are numerous orders and documents that link the staff and CG of Eleventh Army directly and indirectly to the mass murder of Jews and other people.
The Eleventh Army was able to clear the peninsula, but many Red Army units escaped to the harbor of Sevastopol, a heavily fortified city. In the middle of the preparations for the attack of the city von Manstein got disturbing news. The Red Army was landing in strength on two places on the eastern part of the peninsula. The defense laid in the responsibility of General Count Sponeck. He had only one division at his disposal which was even understrength to boot. Threatened from two directions, Sponeck radioed to Army HQ that he had to withdraw or he would be cut off and annihilated. Von Manstein ordered him to stay put. In all his publications von Manstein has lamented that Hitler and his staffers would never listen to the commander on the spot and how much would have been different if they had; yet at this point Manstein didn’t listen to his commander on the spot. As an officer responsible for the welfare of his men, von Sponeck ordered the withdrawal against direct orders. Again von Manstein tried to countermand this action but the Division was already on its way back. Just in time the unit slipped away from two Red Army pincers. On his forced march to safety von Sponeck lost much of his remaining equipment. A reinforced regiment and a Romanian division, in addition to Sponeck’s division, were necessary to defend against the Russians at the bottleneck of the peninsula. Three and a half new divisions were necessary to clear them out. Von Manstein nevertheless immediately relieved Sponeck from his command. Not because he didn’t obey an order or because he withdrew, but because “he was not the man to hold out such a situation”. It sounds like a weak excuse for a fatal decision. Had Manstein allowed his subordinate to withdraw, when the first request came, the division might have come home with most of its badly needed equipment. Because of the withdrawal von Manstein had to call off the attack on Sevastopol – an attack eagerly awaited by the High Command. The anger about this might have led von Manstein to overreact in a dangerous way. He not only relieved Sponeck but informed his superior, the cruel Walther von Reichenau. He in turn informed the OKH and that put Sponeck in the deepest trouble. A seasoned field commander would never directly impose a public disciplinary measure. It would have been easy to relieve Sponeck because of an injury or illness, and deal with him without letting other commanders know. Hitler immediately demanded Sponeck should be shot. Sponeck asked for a trial to explain his decision and was backed by other field commanders. Judges could only be found who would take part in the trial if the death sentence was removed from the possible penalties. Hitler agreed and Sponeck was officially dishonored and got six years imprisonment. A year later, at the anniversary of the occupation of Sevastopol, Manstein made a half-hearted attempt to put forward a memorandum to Hitler asking for mercy regarding the prisoner. The memo never made it to Hitler but was caught by officers surrounding the Chief of OKW, or by Wilhelm Keitel himself.
After the assassination attempt on Hitler three years later, Sponeck was shot together with about 4000 others who often – just like the Count – had nothing to do with the assassination. Sponeck’s widow was sent to a concentration camp, but survived.
Sevastopol fell in the first days of July 1942. The city wasn’t defeated by strategic brilliancy but competent engineer and artillery officers who used the heaviest weapon in the Wehrmacht’s inventory – the C and D Mortars with 60 and 80 cm barrels. Hitler immediately promoted von Manstein to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall (Fieldmarshall) and awarded to all soldiers who took part at the siege the Krim-Shield which they wore now as a badge on their sleeves.
After that von Manstein was tasked with the siege of Leningrad which was bypassed in the first weeks of the war and never taken thereafter – one of the many great strategic mistakes on the German side. The big city with its weapons industry posed a constant threat to the left flank of the Wehrmacht in Russia. Von Manstein battled various relieving forces around Leningrad, but before he was able to attempt to take the city – a task much more difficult than Sevastopol – the crisis around Stalingrad developed. The Sixth Army had advanced too far with insufficient supplies. Its units were stretched too thin to defend its lines. As former Quartermaster I of the General Staff of the Army Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus was perfectly aware of this, but had advanced nevertheless. The setting resembled an invitation for the Red Army to en-circle the Sixth Army. In November the Red Army broke through the Romanian Divisions – which had pleaded for anti-tank weapons and artillery but never got them – and isolated the Sixth Army in Stalingrad. At this time von Manstein got command of Heeresgruppe Don, which now included the encircled Army. Despite the claims in his book “Verlorene Siege” (Lost Victories) von Manstein never ordered Paulus to break out. Paulus himself was a typical staffer all his life, possessed a weak personality and had never led large units in battle. He waited so long with his decision to break out that the Sixth Army became immobile because of lack of gas and death of horses. The later half-hearted attempt to break through from the outside with the Fourth Panzer-Army can be described as too little too late.
On a rare occasion when Hitler visited von Manstein’s HQ in February, he became so frightened by a Russian spearhead which advanced on the town where he stayed that he gave von Manstein a free hand for his plans. The CG of army group south evacuated the southern bulge of his front line and used the freed units for a devastating counterattack to the north that not only shattered the Russian advance but also recaptured the city of Charkov.
Erich von Manstein, however, saw the only future solution in further “operating” and since Hitler did not permit him “to strike from the back hand” he supported the ill conceived Operation Zitadelle (discussed below), which ended in a disaster. The men and tanks lost in this operation would be bitterly needed in the weeks to come when the whole eastern front struggled for survival.
Like many of his comrades von Manstein dreamed that when the situation became even more desperate Hitler would listen to them and hand them sole power to lead the Wehrmacht as they wanted. The commanders of the Heeresgruppen however quarreled with each other about the best conduct of the war, while their soldiers where beaten back by the Read Army, step by step.
After repeatedly getting on Hitler’s nerves by writing letters and stating during briefings that his units needed to withdraw, von Manstein was relieved by the dictator. Von Manstein apparently welcomed that decision and was awarded with the swords to the Knight’s Cross at the end of March 1944. Seeing himself as the only possible savior of the Reich, von Manstein expected to be recalled and still dreamed of a military remiss that would allow a political solution. Both dreams were impossible to come true; the former because the Wehrmacht was already ruined and the latter because of the Holocaust.
End of active Duty, Trial and Rearmament
When the few German officers who conspired against Hitler got closer to an attempt at his assassination, many of the highest ranking commanders were informed. Like his fellow commanders von Manstein adopted a “wait and see” attitude and did not support the overthrow.
During the Nuremberg Trials von Manstein together with the lawyers devised a strategy that the officers would volunteer no information and only admit actions that were clearly proven, declare evident crimes as misdeeds of single persons, and in general display very poor memories. They got away with that strategy which laid the foundation for the myth of the clean General Staff that persists until to the present.
Great Britain intended to have her own major war crimes trial and as von Manstein was the only POW in good health in her possession, the ‘Manstein-Trial” began in 1949. By that time the political landscape had already changed, Berlin was under siege and many people did not think that a man who had portrayed himself as the savior of the civilization from the Bolshevik hordes should then stand trial. Even Winston Churchill contributed money to his defense. Von Manstein expected to get away as easy as the first time, but was to be disappointed. The prosecution was much better prepared than the first time, because there were more documents and eyewitness accounts available. His British defense attorney Lord Paget, who despite the fact that he had a Jewish assistant harbored racist sentiments, could apparently not believe that a fellow nobleman could possibly be involved in crimes of that extent. He had also not the faintest idea about the internal structure of the Wehrmacht and thus portrayed von Manstein as a heroic figure. The prosecution listed one and half dozen crimes with various sub topics ranging from ‘General Violation of the Rules of War’ to ‘Murder of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen‘. During the trials von Manstein re-vealed his true face. He was very eloquent when reading prepared statements, but – not at all accustomed to being questioned – lost his wit when the prosecutor interrogated him. After simple questions like “Did you know about the crimes committed by the Einsatzgruppen in the wake of your Army?”, von Manstein’s otherwise erect body would slump forward, his eyebrows began to fight each other and he would stutter a monologue of contradictions in a squeaky voice. To any onlooker, even without considering the evidence, it was clear: here is someone obviously telling lies.
The presentation of von Manstein’s secret army order issued at the end of 1941 in which he calls for the “atonement on the Jews”, the “rooting out of Jewish-Bolshevism” and similar phrases of hatred and racism caught him off guard. He claimed never to have seen it before. When the prosecutor revealed von Manstein’s signature under the order, the former commander of Eleventh Army stuck to his tale and speculated that his Ic (Intelligence Officer) might have drawn up the paper and he might simply have signed it without reading; this would have been an unprecedented action on his part.
There are two possible solutions which might have motivated von Manstein to issue such an order. From his earliest days as an officer he always had his eyes on the position of Chief of Staff. At the end of 1941 the Wehrmacht experienced the ‘winter crisis’ and von Manstein sensed that there would soon be scapegoats and open slots. The highest positions, however, would only be filled with people who were thought as being firm in their belief in National Socialism. With this secret army order he intended to demonstrate his devotion.
Of course, the other possible reason might have been that he simply believed what he wrote.
Von Manstein was found guilty in about half of the 17 charges against him and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment. Had today’s research been available to the judges, the sentence might well have been harsher.
The sentence was reduced to 12 years and Erich von Manstein was paroled in 1953, when the German Rearmament was already planned. By that time any eastern front expert was urgently needed and the past easily forgotten.
Only two years later von Manstein published his “Verlorene Siege” (Lost Victories), which would become one of the most influential books about the war and established with enormous eloquence the “Manstein-Myth” of the great captain who could have saved Germany if he only had gotten a free hand. Many outright lies and falsehoods in this book haven already been uncovered and a critical approach is called for when using it.
Erich von Manstein wrote various papers and memorandums for the German Department of Defense and was especially courted by the new Secretary of Defense Franz Josef Strauß. At von Manstein’s 80th and 85th birthdays the Inspector General and a formation of the Bundeswehr showed up to honor him, actions that rest heavily on the young army ever since. Only in recent years has the Bundeswehr been able to successfully claim a tradition of its own without referring to the Wehrmacht.
In the night of June 9, 1973, Erich von Manstein, called von Lewinski, died age 85 by a cerebral apoplexy. He was buried with military honors.
An Assessment of Operations and Leadership
Erich von Manstein was so often hailed a military genius and his operations are usually portrayed in awe. An unbiased reappraisal, however, sheds a different light on his abilities as commander, strategist and leader of men.
Case Yellow (Sickle cut)/The Attack on France
The proposal of the General Staff to attack France with a modified Schlieffen-Plan from WWI speaks volumes about its abilities, which are vastly overrated in historiography and especially the literature of the former members of this institution. It must be stated that ANY plan was better than this plan and von Manstein’s new proposal must be viewed in this context. Von Manstein’s plan was advantageous because it had a surprise concept, which the former plan totally lacked (in fact the French had their defenses exactly prepared for a new Schlieffen-like attempt).
There, however, were serious deficiencies:
Like with nearly all Wehrmacht operations plans there was no plan B and no worst case scenario. The overwhelming arrogance of the German High Command made it impossible for them to conceive of any possible failure. But the plan could only succeed if the spearheading units would cross the River Meuse after four days, because after that the onrushing French reserves would block any advance. This schedule was only met because energetic field commanders like Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel constantly disobeyed orders and drove on relentlessly.
The attack on France did not succeed primarily because of its strategic arrangement but rather because of the excellent tactical execution and the minds and the leader-ship of the officers commanding the spearheading units.
The Siege of Sevastopol and the defense of the Kertsch peninsula
There was no strategic brilliancy involved in the capture of Sevastopol. The main work was done meticulously by engineers and gunners, who had at their disposal the heaviest weapons in the German armory.
When a real leadership situation arose, von Manstein failed miserably. When his experienced commander on the spot, General Count Sponeck, called for withdrawal, von Manstein did exactly what he had claimed to despise of Hitler, that is, he interfered and countermanded. Von Manstein seemed to be unable to deal with the situation himself and in protecting himself, he made sure the whole blame fell on von Sponeck. The later was ultimately shot for his superior’s lack of leadership and judgment.
When Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus took command of Sixth Army he was – as former Quartermaster I – perfectly aware that his whole army lacked food, fuel and ammo. He nevertheless did not stand up and demanded a change of plans, but led the men who relied on him into the disaster of Stalingrad.
Erich von Manstein took command of the Army group Don to which Sixth Army belonged, when the latter was already encircled and the whole area was highly endangered.
The commander of army group Don possessed only few reserve units and the advances to the east and especially to the south – well beyond Rostock – had over extended his supply and security lines. It was known that the Red Army was massing units to counterattack. At least 143 units of brigade and division size were reported around the encircled army in Stalingrad. This Army now tied them down. As Marcel Stein, one of von Manstein biographers, correctly remarked, it must have had come to the army group commander’s mind that as long as the Sixth Army struggled for its survival these enemy units would not attack and endanger his Heeresgruppe. Perhaps von Manstein cold bloodedly traded the security of his army group for the life of the 200,000 soldiers in Stalingrad.
The death struggle of the Sixth Army’s soldiers gave him the time to consolidate his position and to shorten his lines. In a discussion with Hitler that lasted nearly a quarter of a day von Manstein was able to get the permission to withdraw parts of his southerly extended units and thus save his southern front line for the time being.
After Erich von Manstein had published his book “Lost Victories” in which he wrote that he always wanted the Sixth Army to break out and even ordered it to do so, Friedrich Paulus – then living a cozy life in the ‘German Democratic Republic’ while his soldiers suffered in the gulags – furiously went public and replied that “a commander who did never order nor support a break out could not write [what] he had after the war”.
On February 17, 1943, a rare event occurred: Hitler visited the “front”, or rather von Manstein’s HQ at Saporoshje. During the discussion of operations the situation became critical with Russian spearheads cutting important lines of supply and advancing to only 60 km from von Manstein’s HQ. Apparently Hitler got frightened and gave the CG of Army Group South a free hand in handling his units. This should have be-come von Manstein’s finest hour. He withdrew all his units from the southerly overextended bulge of his frontlines behind the River Mius, thus sucking the Russians into a void and creating a mobile strike force with the extracted units. This exchange of divisions was later romanticized and got the label of a ‘Rochade’, a chess move where tower and king roughly change places. The mobile strike force rushed from the south against the massive Russian offensive in the north, which was designed to cut of the greatest part of the German Army Group. This not only shattered the whole offensive but also resulted in the recapturing of the city of Charkov. Von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe executed one of the most successful flexible defenses and turned the counterstroke into an offensive of its own. All the gained territory, however, had to be abandoned later.
Operation Zitadelle, the last Offensive
After the disaster of Stalingrad Generaloberst Kurt Zeitzler, then Army Chief of Staff, planned on Hitler’s insistence a new offensive in the east for the battered Wehrmacht, in order to produce another victory, any victory. Zeitzler chose an opera-tion to shorten the frontlines in the area around Kursk and Orel, where the Wehrmacht would cut off the bulge existing in its lines and destroy the Russian units captured in it. The whole action, however, was utterly predictable to the Red Army. Von Manstein wanted to pull back the whole Eastern Front, thus free reserves and attack the Russian units advancing into the void. He called it “striking with the backhand”. Hitler of course would not allow any retreat and preferred a “striking with the forehand”. When this became clear to von Manstein he supported Zeitzler’s plan, because he hoped to draw in ill prepared Russian units and destroy them. About the discussion on the operation which took place on May 3, 1943, in Munich, there are – as usual – contradicting accounts. The gist is that when Walter Model, CG of Ninth Army, which would be the northern attacking pincer, made a presentation on how his units would attack and how difficult it would be because the whole area was fortified, Hitler wavered. The myth that German officers all disagreed with Hitler when it came to military operations is also not true in this case. OKW officers and especially Hans Günter von Kluge, Model’s superior, discounted his view. They wanted to attack, just like von Manstein. Zeitzler, the inventor of the plan, and Hitler, the motivator, now doubted the wisdom of their own plan. Heinz Guderian, then inspector of all armored troops, argued that no matter how successful the operation would run it would not run without casualties. The casualties would be the highest where the Wehrmacht could it the least afford – experienced soldiers and tanks. “Where is Kursk?”, he asked, “Who cares where it is and if we got it?”. So the worst thing happened: Hitler delayed the operation until the new Panthers and Ferdinands where available, which were, however, only prototypes and 70% of which would undergo technical breakdowns. In these delaying months Zeitzler and Guderian tried to convince Hitler to call the offen-sive off because by then the Russians had had all the time in the world to construct a nightmare of fortifications blocking an attack of which they knew the exact location and even which units would conduct it. The Wehrmacht’s notorious bad intelligence in turn failed to recon a whole two Russian Tank Armies in front of their own attacking forces.
The offensive finally started on July 5 and bogged down, in the area of the Ninth Army, just as Model had predicted. The units of Army Group South, however, made good progress. The exaggerated apocalyptic tank battles so often described are a myth and today only serve to support book sales.
Despite the advances of the southern units it became clear that the Wehrmacht would never cut off the bulge. To the great dismay of von Manstein, who at least wanted to ruin the counter attacking Russian units, Hitler called the operation off.
The result was exactly as Guderian had predicted: It was really not important who owned Kursk and how many casualties the Russians had suffered in men and tanks -they were easily replaceable and those of the Wehrmacht were not. Single battles should never be fought if they don’t serve an achievable greater strategic goal. Even a consistent series of successful battles does not ensure the winning of a war.
The extreme opportunism von Manstein showed was explained by a psychologist with the fact that Erich von Manstein, was born a von Lewinski (old Polish nobility), and thus wanted to show everyone that he was true to his foster parents and a real Prussian. This theory, however, does not fit as the von Lewinskis and von Mansteins both already had high ranking officers in the army of Frederick the Great and there is no difference in that “quality” of nobility. Another theory, however, is that because he had two fathers, both in general rank, he did not need to please just one, but both and became an overachiever with an over-opportunistic attitude. He had as a young officer formed so strong a goal of achieving the highly coveted position of Chief of Staff that the means to achieve this goal became secondary.
Von Manstein pictured himself a genial chess player (thus the frequent use of words like ‘rochade’ or ‘remis’) who defeated the enemy only with his brains. Chess figures, however, don’t need ammo and food and they don’t freeze their feet off, but Wehrmacht soldiers did. The Fieldmarshal was rarely seen on the front lines but rather in his command train or in one of the cozy mansions he occupied as HQ. Ru-mor has it that junior staff officers were selected because of their ability to play Bridge in one of the nightly card game marathons that von Manstein liked so much. The staff career, the absence from the battlefield and the lack of contact to the enlisted soldiers possibly made for von Manstein’s many errors in judgment and leadership.
He knew, like the great majority of his comrades in high command and staff positions, about the Holocaust, at least to the extent of the actions of the Einsatzgruppen which killed hundreds of thousands of Jews and other innocent people. On some oc-casions, the Einsatzgruppen were directed by him or his staff. During the trials he revealed himself to be an intense Anti-Semite.
There can be no question that Erich von Manstein was one of the better strategists of the Wehrmacht’s high command which was not exactly rich in that species. The Wehrmacht excelled in battle because of the flexibility and professionalism of the front line unit commanders and its long-time trained soldiers and not because of strategic “geniuses”.
The praise which made Erich von Manstein “the best strategist” or “the deadliest enemy” comes from former enemies who have of course a reason to expand their own opponent to a master of warfare as they defeated him and thus are even greater than he.
More realistic are the contemporary assessments of former comrades who thought him to be a very capable man when planning operations but also nearly unbearably vain and opportunistic and lacking a “strong spine” when necessary. Heinz Guderian wrote that “Manstein never had a good day when eye in eye with Hitler”.
Erich von Manstein’s own book “Verlorene Siege” (Lost Victories) more than anything else advanced his reputation and presented him a genius of war. With enormous eloquence he refought the battle of WWII and twisted reality so well that the reader comes away with the strong impression von Manstein would have saved the Reich if only his genius had been recognized.
Because of that his abilities as a commander and leader of men are vastly overrated in the general public view and historiography.