WHO WAS THE WAR’S worst general? The question isn’t easy to answer. We need to define our terms. Are we discussing operational bungling? Lack of initiative? Faulty timing? Different criteria yield different names.
So let us apply a minimal standard: humane behavior toward one’s own men. In that case, the winner of this race to the bottom, hands down, is German Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner.
Schörner came to the fore late in the conflict. As Germany’s situation was deteriorating, Hitler assigned him a series of increasingly hopeless commands: Army Group A and Army Group South Ukraine in the spring of 1944; Army Group North (later renamed Army Group Courland) that summer; in January 1945 Army Group Center, which Schörner led to the end.
He never won a battle, but that wasn’t all his fault. Schörner was competent enough technically, but nothing short of nuclear weapons could have evened up the fight against Soviet forces vastly superior in numbers and equipment.
However, this field marshal’s art of war consisted solely of loyalty to Adolf Hitler—who, true to form, eventually decreed Schörner his favorite general. The Munich native was a diehard true believer, even as things were falling apart. Of all the Führer’s fanatical minions, Schörner was the most enthusiastic, a National Socialist to the bone.
Worse, his bedrock command gesture was to shoot large numbers of his own men for “cowardice” to terrify survivors into obeying him. The phrase “der Ferdi kommt” (“Here comes Ferdi”) almost always meant trouble for the rank and file. “You handle the operations,” he scolded his chief of staff. “I’ll keep order.” He did so through fear, flitting in his little Fieseler Storch aircraft around his army groups’ rear areas. He would land suddenly in a divisional or corps area of responsibility and hand out death sentences galore on the flimsiest of evidence, all the while staring down at his immaculately manicured fingernails. In the weeks after the July 20, 1944, attempt on Hitler’s life, Schörner opened staff meetings by asking, “How many men did you hang today?” More than once, he shot dogs for barking too loudly.
Like all tyrants, Schörner enveloped himself in a posse of thugs who did most of his dirty work. His security troops once came upon a tank workshop at which a crew was waiting for mechanics to repair its reconnaissance vehicle; Schörner’s men shot the vehicle commander for “malingering.” At Lednice, Czechoslovakia, on May 7, 1945, Schörner was reportedly present when his goons shot 22 German soldiers for “standing around without orders.” Note the date: Hitler had been dead a week and the war was all but over, but Schörner was still murdering his men.
He rationalized these crimes on grounds that he had to maintain discipline to ensure that his army group could flee into American custody rather than have the Soviets overrun it. His strategy was an “organized flight to the West,” a maneuver that had to proceed systematically. Two days before the murders at Lednice, Schörner issued his last order of the day to Army Group Center. “In these hard days, we must not lose our nerves or become cowardly,” he declared. “Any attempt to find your own way back to the homeland is a dishonorable betrayal of your comrades and of our people, and will be punished.”
Blood-stirring words. Too bad that on May 9, Schörner abandoned his post. He boarded his Storch and flew off, leaving Army Group Center to the Soviets after all. The marshal who harangued his men to hang tough for the Führer—and hung them if they didn’t—turned tail and ran.
Schörner reached the American lines in Austria, where GIs did something that still makes me proud of this country. They handed the field marshal over to the Soviets, who tried him and imprisoned him for 10 years alongside the very soldiers he had left in the lurch. Freed in late 1954, Schörner returned to West Germany to a chorus of angry outbursts from many of his former soldiers and their families. The West Germans tried Schörner, too, and he spent four more years in prison.
All in all, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
Originally published in the November/December 2015 issue of World War II magazine.