Germany’s Greatest General?

Guderian, Heinz Wilhelm

Guderian, Heinz Wilhelm (1888-1954), German general and leading theorist and proponent of tank warfare, who contributed greatly to the development of the blitzkrieg (lightning war) tactics used by Germany during World War II (1939-1945).

Guderian was born the son of an army officer on June 17, 1888, in Kulm, Germany (now Chelmno, Poland), and was educated in various military schools. In 1908 he was commissioned second lieutenant in the Jaegers, a group of professional soldiers, and later served at the War Academy in Berlin, Germany. He spent most of World War I (1914-1918) as a staff officer, where he developed a specialized knowledge of motorized transport, joining the general staff of the army high command at the rank of captain in 1918.

After the war Guderian developed an interest in tank warfare, although Germany’s much-reduced army was forbidden tanks by the Treaty of Versailles. In 1922 he became inspector of motorized troops. He began to study and develop the ideas of British military writers, such as Sir Basil Liddell Hart and Major-General John Fuller, who advocated armored formations that would operate independently but would be supported by air power and motorized infantry. These highly mobile armored units would quickly penetrate battlefields, encircling and trapping entire armies.

Guderian subsequently held several motorized commands. In 1935 his ideas received the full support of German dictator Adolf Hitler, despite opposition from many conservative officers who doubted the usefulness of tanks. With Hitler’s support, three panzer (tank) divisions were created, and Guderian was put in command of one of them. In 1938 Guderian’s panzers spearheaded both the annexation of Austria and the invasion of the Sudetenland. The following year Hitler promoted Guderian to general and appointed him chief of mobile troops.

In World War II Guderian commanded panzer corps in the German attacks on Poland in September 1939 and on Allied forces in Western Europe in May 1940. In the May attack, Guderian largely followed his own plan of attack, although he was under the command of General Paul von Kleist. Guderian attacked at great speed toward the English Channel, splitting the Allied armies in two. His attack led to the evacuation from Dunkirk of the British Expeditionary Force and the ultimate capitulation of France the following month.

In Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in June 1941, Guderian led a panzer army. Despite initial successes, strong Soviet resistance and the severe Russian winter convinced Guderian of the need to withdraw to better defensive ground. Hitler and Guderian’s superior, General Gunther von Kluge, disagreed, and on December 25, 1941, Guderian was relieved of command.

In March 1943, after Germany was defeated at Al ‘Alamayn (also known as El ‘Alamein) and the Battle of Stalingrad, Hitler recalled Guderian and made him inspector general of armored troops, with responsibilities for tank production. After the failed July plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944, Guderian became chief of the general staff. However, he argued with Hitler over strategy and in March 1945 was fired again. Guderian was later captured by the United States Army. He was released from captivity in June 1948 after U.S. authorities decided that he had neither direct responsibility for nor clear knowledge of war crimes. Both Poland and the Soviet Union, however, reportedly urged that he be charged with war crimes.

Guderian’s writings included Achtung! Panzer! (Attention! Tank!, 1937) and Erinnerungen eines Soldaten (Reminiscences of a Soldier, ; translated Panzer Leader, 1951). He died on May 17, 1954, in Schwangau bei Füssen, West Germany.

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