Panzer leader Heinz Guderian stands out as one of history’s great military minds.
By Michael D. Hull
On May 21, 1940, a German army command car drove into Abbeville, France, and a much traveled general climbed out and gazed across the English Channel. Short and well-built, with a mustache and a pleasant smile, he basked momentarily in the realization of a warrior’s dream.
Drawn up in and around the precincts of Abbeville was the army corps of his creation–a powerful force of assorted armored vehicles that held undisputed possession of the town at the culmination of a performance that was unique in military history. With scarcely a pause, and advancing nearly 220 miles in 11 days, the corps had fought its way through the tangled Ardennes Forest, breached a fortified river line and defeated a major portion of the enemy’s best troops as it cut a swathe through France.
The opposing French and Belgian armies had been outmaneuvered and demoralized, and the exhausted, outnumbered British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had been forced to pull back toward Dunkirk. The rest of the Channel ports stood undefended and ripe for seizure. The Allied armies could only look on aghast at the prospect of total envelopment.
Panzer General Heinz Wilhelm Guderian arrived at the zenith of his career that sunny May day. Kenneth Macksey recounts the story of the father of modern tank warfare in Guderian: Panzer General (Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pa., $18.95). At negligible cost and with only three divisions, while aided by sporadic air power, Guderian had thrown the Allied armies into chaos and accomplished in a matter of days what the entire German army failed to achieve in 1914-18.
In the process, the innovative and energetic son (born in 1888) of a close-knit Prussian family elevated himself to eminence by developing a military concept in peacetime and bringing it to fruition during war. The force he created was intended to link speed with armored protection for the fighting men.
Tanks, a weapon-type that had barely demonstrated its potential before 1918, dominated the divisions Guderian led. The strategy he unleashed created two new terms in the military lexicon–panzer and blitzkrieg. Like the tank, the concept of the air-supported lightning armored thrust was actually a British invention. British Major J.F.C. Fuller’s theories on the mechanization of warfare were not, however, readily accepted by the military leaders in England. It was the German Guderian who embraced Fuller’s theories (the two met before World War II).
The pace of Guderian’s advance in May 1940 and the discreet selection of objectives baffled the conventionally minded strategists and tacticians of the German general staff, as Macksey points out in this masterly biography. The reaction of the Berlin hierarchy to Guderian’s success was euphoric. General Alfred Jodl, operations chief, reported that Adolf Hitler was “beside himself with joy, and he already foresaw victory and peace.”
But cautious leaders restrained Guderian for fear of his becoming overextended at the moment when one more swift advance would have completed the envelopment of the Allied armies. This decision, of course, enabled the Royal Navy and its supporting fleet of “little ships” to rescue the BEF from Dunkirk.
Few historians are better qualified to write a study of Guderian than Macksey, a 24-year veteran of the Royal Tank Regiment and the author of several acclaimed works on armor and military technology. This is a probing and literate examination of a brilliant maverick in search of ideals, a general who had the ability to turn inspiration into reality. Guderian’s genius and achievements transcended those of even Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, says Macksey. No other general in World War II–and only a few in history–have managed to impress so wide and intrinsic a change upon the military art in so short a time, and left such a trail of controversy in their wake.
Despite a weak heart, Guderian displayed great energy and driving power in planning–and leading–a battle. He drove himself hard, and his chiefs of staff sometimes had difficulty in keeping track of him or his orders. Walter Nehring said, “His thoughts would race ahead, and sometimes he had to be pulled back, and while he was a deep thinker, he was also liable to act without thinking.”
In an army well supplied with senior officers of outstanding intellect and enormous drive, Guderian won a pre-eminent reputation for seemingly inexhaustible spirits, inventiveness and an utter determination to have his way. He was robust and tenacious, an innovative and inspiring trainer and leader with the ability to draw the best out of his troops and squeeze the most from his superiors. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in his drive into the Ukraine in August and September 1941.
He pushed his men hard, but they knew where they stood with him, Macksey says. They responded to him because he fought at their side in a way that few commanders ever did. The soldiers were touched by his warm humanity, the essence of leadership.
Besides fashioning a comprehensive and intimate portrait of this outstanding officer, Macksey throws considerable light on German military leadership, strategy and tactics in World War II, and on the crucial campaigns in Poland, France and Russia. Macksey concludes that Guderian was a seer who visualized warfare of the future, a technician who created machinery that worked as near to perfection as is possible in war and a genius with an inspired ability to turn ideas into reality and action by powerfully influencing opinions, feelings, spirit and method. His last chief of staff, Colonel Wolfgang Thomale, called him “Germany’s best and most responsible general.”
Despite his uncompromising attitude and a tendency toward tactlessness and acid humor, Guderian was a man of exceptional intellectual integrity and honesty. Macksey believes that it is the transmitted warmth of Guderian, and his joy in camaraderie with others, that makes him “pre-eminent among great generals.” This was the man who could write tender letters to his wife, Margarete (“Gretel”), and who could pity Adolf Hitler, a man without “friendship with fine men, the pure love for a wife, affection of one’s own children.” Kenneth Macksey rates the highest praise for this incisive and rewarding biography.