Saturday, July 9, 2016
Erich von Manstein
Who was the best general of World War 2?
There is only one right answer:
Erich von Manstein:
Ever wonder why France fell in six weeks?
The answer is this man. Literally, it was 100% this dude’s idea. Had it not been for Manstein, the German army probably would have fought the Franco-British to a stalemate in the summer of 1940 rather than pulling arguably the greatest battle of maneuver in human history.
In other words, if there’s any one person who could be held responsible for Germany’s greatest military success of the entire war, it’s Manstein.
Manstein was unique among German generals. Despite his Prussian credentials, Manstein was more akin to Loki than Thor. German generals have always favored the direct approach. Clausewitz exemplified this thinking, the best plan is a simple one, the best battle is a pitched battle.
Manstein didn’t buy that. Much like a judo master, Manstein sought to use the strengths of his enemies against them. He was a master at getting the enemy to do what he wanted them to do so as to play right into his hands.
His first masterpiece was to also be his greatest: the defeat of France in six weeks.
Battle of France, Summer 1940: Manstein’s first and greatest masterpiece
When France and Britain declared war on Nazi Germany upon the invasion of Poland, the Germans were caught completely flat footed at the strategic level. Hitler had lost the bet. He was counting on the French and British overlooking the grab on Poland just as they did with Czechoslovakia. By his own time table, war with France wasn’t scheduled until 1944/45.
German high command, Oberkommandwehrmacht (OKW) had no feasible plan for defeating either France or Britain. In 1940, at the strategic and economic level, Germany was weaker relative to France than it had been in 1914. The Germans had fewer modern tanks, fewer modern aircraft (if you also count the RAF), and fewer divisions than in 1914.
They also had the Maginot Line to deal with if they wished to launch an offensive directly at France without going through the Low Countries where the British had already deployed.
The best that OKW could propose was a replay of the Schlieffen Plan of 1914. They argued that with all their divisions in the West this time, they should be able to punch through the Anglo-French armies in the Low Countries and advance on Paris. But few even at OKW had much confidence in this estimation.
This plan was unimaginative to say the least and ignored all the lessons the Germans had learned in Poland. The idea in Blitzkrieg was to hit the enemy where he was not expecting it. The Schlieffen Plan would have been the exact opposite. The Anglo-French had expected a German push through the Low Countries, this was the battle they had anticipated and planned for the past two decades.
Then came Manstein.
Manstein saw the true value of the Schlieffen Plan, that value being deception. If the Anglo-French were expecting it, then let them believe they are right. And once they’re on the hook, decapitate them.
By a small miracle, Manstein was able to get this plan, something that had been ignored by OKW, onto Hitler’s desk. Hitler loved it. He immediately saw that it was a far better alternative to what OKW was proposing.
Manstein’s plan is best described as “fishing”. He sent Army Group B, mostly infantry, into a Schlieffen Plan attack through northern Belgium. This was the bait. Confirmation bias then comes into play and the Allies swallow the bait hook, line and sinker. The Franco British elite divisions move into Belgium and prepare to replay 1914.
Except it wasn’t 1914. To the south, at the neck of the Allied armies, Manstein launched the “Sickle Cut”, Army Group A, mostly tanks. This force pushed through the Ardennes Forest and cutoff the head of the Allied armies, trapping them in Belgium.
The British were pushed into the sea at Dunkirk, and the French mostly surrendered. An attempt was made to resist along the line of the Loire River, but it soon became obvious to the French that further resistance was futile.
The famous “Sickle Cut” maneuver of German Army Group A
A Panzer III B pushing through the Ardennes summer of 1940. The Germans were able to quickly clear paths through the dense forest allowing a heavily mechanized force to pass through.
Siege of Sevastopol, Fall 1941 to Summer 1942: the world’s greatest fortress city breached
In the Fall of 1941 the Germans began their yearlong siege of the ancient fortress port city of Sevastopol. The plan was to take it by Christmas 1941, as a Christmas gift for Hitler. This was not to be.
Sevastopol was a tough nut to crack. Not only could it be supplied and reinforced from the sea by the Black Sea fleet, it was ringed by an extensive series of bunkers, tunnels, trenches and curtain walls many meters thick. The Anglo-French-Ottoman forces spent the near entirety of the Crimean War sitting outside her walls.
Manstein arrived in September 1941 to take command of the 11th Army. He ordered a land based attack on the fortifications, made considerable progress, but he soon called a halt as he began suffering unacceptable losses.
The Soviets, having mastery of the Black Sea, achieved multiple landings on the Crimean Peninsula in an attempt to outflank Manstein’s army. But they were no match for the “hook nosed” Prussian. Manstein performed another one of his famous bait-and-cut maneuvers, encircling a much larger Soviet army, forcing the surrender of 170,000.
He then turned his attention to the fortress city itself. Special-purpose railways were built to within 30 km of Sevastopol’s walls so that this monster could be brought in:
Dora, the 800 mm super heavy howitzer was employed by Manstein at the Siege of Sevastopol. It proved quite effective at absolutely terrorizing the defenders.
Dora and her sister guns devastated the walls of the fortress and left its defenders in utter shock and awe. Then Manstein hit the defenders where they least expected it: from the sea. A small amphibious landing threw the defenders into panic, allowing the land assault to finally take the fortress on July 4, 1942.
Manstein was still far from done in southern Russia. Just a few hundred kilometers to the east there lay the battle that would turn the tide of the war in Europe: Stalingrad.
From Stalingrad to Kharkov, Winter 1942 to Spring 1943: Manstein saves the German army from the brink of annihilation
Despite his best efforts, Manstein was unable to rescue the 300,000 men of the 6th Army trapped in Stalingrad. The stupidity of Hitler combined with the might and inexhaustible resources of the Red Army made the task impossible.
With the 6th Army gone, Manstein was faced with an attack from roughly half the entire Red Army commanded by Zhukov. The Soviets smelled blood in the water and sought the complete destruction of all German forces in the Ukraine.
Even counting the remnants of the Italian, Romanian and Hungarian armies, Manstein was still outnumbered 5 to 1 in men, and more than 10 to 1 in tanks. Moreover his forces were utterly demoralized, under supplied and certain of defeat.
Manstein never lost his cool. In what he would later recount as his finest hour, Manstein did judo with the Soviet Goliath; he beat the giant using its own strength against it.
Manstein made small tactical withdrawals to pull the Soviet armored spearheads in, over-extending them, and then slicing and dicing them up with the elite Waffen SS panzer divisions he now had at his disposal. Zhukov’s dreams for a total German collapse were dashed in a matter of weeks. The Soviets suffered appalling losses, especially in tanks. The Germans regained the initiative and actually managed to retake the strategic city of Kharkov through bloody street-to-street fighting.
Waffen SS Panzergrenadiers of the 1st SS Panzer Division at Kharkov, spring 1943.
This victory at what would become known as the Third Battle of Kharkov, cemented Manstein’s reputation as a miracle worker. But alas… Hitler wasn’t going to just let Manstein win his war for him.
The Battle of Kursk, Summer 1943: Manstein’s final “lost victory”
As a result of the Third Battle of Kharkov, a massive bulge was formed in the frontline centering on the town of Kursk. Manstein advised Hitler to do the obvious, attack immediately while the Germans still had the momentum. They could cut off the bulge at its base, trap hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops and rip a massive hole in the center of the Soviet lines.
Hitler, for once, declined to attack. Not because he thought the German army wasn’t ready of that the timing wasn’t right… no, it was because he wanted to wait for his new toys to reach the frontline:
Ferdinand Heavy Tank Destroyer: just 90 were ever built. This monster was the result of recycling.
The chassis comes from the 90 Tiger prototypes built by Porsche before they were even awarded the contract. Since they never got the contract, the prototypes were rebuilt as tank destroyers by mounting a massive 88 mm L/71 gun. The frontal super structure and hull had over 200 mm of armor, making the beast immune against any and all Soviet guns. Even the side and rear armor of 80 mm thick was impervious against the T-34’s 76 mm gun.
It wasn’t until July 1943 that Hitler finally felt he was ready. Like a little kid, his new toys were all lined up and ready to go, hundreds of new Panthers, Tigers and all 90 Ferdinands were all ready for battle.
Just one problem. In the four months between when Manstein advised Hitler to attack and when he actually attacked, the Soviets had fortified the bulge into another Stalingrad.
Tens of thousands of Soviet antitank guns, tanks, and tank destroyers were waiting for the Germans to make their move. This was a pitched battle, the kind the Germans could never hope to win. Hitler committed his best remaining armored forces to the assault. He would never be able to do so again.
Manstein had given up trying to make Hitler see reason. All he could do now was to lead the southern pincer and drive head on into an enemy that was more than ready for him. This was the kind of fight Manstein loathed, a battle of pure attrition.
Despite this, Manstein proved once again he could do the impossible. Despite heavy losses, his panzer divisions managed to mostly keep to their attack schedules. This progress was made largely meaningless by the fact that his counterparts in the northern pincer had made almost no progress.
Six days into the assault and Manstein’s tanks reached the village of Prokhorovka…
It would be here that the greatest tank battle in history was fought. Hundreds of T-34s swarmed the German Tigers and Panzers. The Soviets knew they stood no chance of fighting the Germans at range, so the T-34s just charged, not even bothering to fire until they were within point blank range. T-34s even resorted to ramming the Tigers (which proved surprising effective).
The storm of steel lasted for three days before the Germans were finally able to take the village. But then… the attack was cancelled. The Allies had landed in Sicily, and the Panzer divisions were needed elsewhere. All of Manstein’s efforts amounted to nothing.
A knocked out and disassembled Ferdinand heavy tank destroyer being inspected by Soviet officers. The Ferdinand, rushed to Kursk, had a fatal flaw: no defensive machineguns. Soviet infantry were able to bum rush the giants and destroy them with satchel charges and mines. The surviving Ferdinands were retrofitted with machinguns and sent to Italy where they performed remarkably well in the mountainous terrain.
Dnieper to Korsun, Summer 1943 to Spring 1944: Once again, saving the Germany army from the aftermath of Hitler
Manstein lost most of his armor after the redeployment to Italy, but he had enough men left to beat a steady retreat across the Dnieper River following the Soviet counterattack at Kursk.
The Soviet advance continued unabated, but Manstein was able to keep the Wehrmacht intact as it steadily gave ground. When yet another pocket had formed at Korsun in Spring 1944, Manstein ignored Hitler flat out and ordered the units to breakout. He wasn’t about to let another Stalingrad happen under his watch.
Dismissal, relationship with Hitler, and… Jewish?
Manstein had done all he could for the German war effort in the East. Like any good general with brains he was soon dismissed by Hitler after his unauthorized withdrawal of the Korsun pocket.
In the final estimation, Hitler never trusted Manstein. He felt the man was too clever, too smug, and too good. Hitler had claimed Manstein’s success in France to be his own, lying that it was he, and not Manstein who came up with the plan. The only credit he gave to Manstein was that “he was the only one who agreed with my plan”. On the Eastern Front, the Fuhrer and his best general fought over every issue.
On top of all this was the lingering suspicion that Manstein was actually Jewish, or had Jewish ancestry. His birthname is actually Fritz Erich Georg Eduard von Lewinski. His famous “hooked nose” also raised suspicions. The SS conducted a secret investigation into this matter, but they never published their findings. And given that Manstein survived the war, we can assume the findings were negative.
Postwar: Nuremberg, the Bundeswehr and memoirs.
Despite his rhetoric about being 100% a soldier and 0% a politician, Manstein could not wholly escape the crimes of the Third Reich. Shadowing his forces in Russia was ever the Einsatzgruppen, the SS troops whose sole job it was to mass murder Jews, Roma, communists, and anyone suspected of partisan activity. Manstein claimed he had no knowledge of the activities of these units, but evidence proved otherwise.
He was sentenced to 12 years in prison by the courts, but he would be released in 1953 due to medical reasons and many in the British establishment vouching for his character.
In 1955 he was called forth by the new West German government to advise on the creation of the Bundeswehr. Manstein’s advice was taken serious and his proposals realized.
In that same year he published his memoirs:.
In it he holds firm to belief that the Eastern Front was an entirely winnable war had Hitler not been so stubborn, aggressive, and stupid.
He died in 1973 at the age of 85 from a stroke in his sleep.