Manteuffel was an armored warfare expert who excelled at World War II combat on two European fronts.
On March 2, 1945, General Hasso-Eccard Baron von Manteuffel was ordered to report to Adolf Hitler as he left command of 5th Panzer Army following the Battle of the Bulge on the Western Front to assume his new position commanding 3d Panzer Army on the Eastern Front. At the moment Manteuffel entered the audience room, Hitler was in the midst of one of his increasingly frequent tirades directed at Germany’s military commanders. “All generals are liars!” he screamed.
Manteuffel, whose wiry but diminutive stature concealed an iron will and exceptional moral courage, refused to be bullied by the Nazi dictator. “I beg you to tell me when General Manteuffel or any of his subordinate generals has ever lied to you,” he countered. Hitler, typically surrounded by sycophantic toadies who meekly endured his outbursts, was taken aback that a general had stood up to him. Visibly chagrined, he could only reply that he did not include Manteuffel among the generals who had been untruthful to him. (See Battlefield Leader, November 2013 ACG.)
This was not the first time nor would it be the last that Manteuffel’s courage, both moral and physical, was put to the test. Yet in each instance, the general whose exceptional skill in armored warfare earned him the nickname “Panzer Baron” passed with flying colors.
Manteuffel, the son of a Guards officer from an aristocratic lineage of Prussian military officers, was born January 14, 1897, in Potsdam, Germany, near Berlin. At age 11, he enrolled at the Cadet Institute at Naumburg, and three years later, he entered the Senior Cadet Institute at Berlin-Lichterfelde. Upon graduation, Manteuffel joined the Imperial German Army as an officer candidate in the famous Zieten Hussars Regiment at Rathenow. Standing only 5 feet 2 inches tall and slightly built, he became an excellent horseman and jockey.
As a lieutenant, Manteuffel gained his first combat experience in April 1916 on World War I’s Western Front while fighting with 5th Squadron, 3d Hussar Regiment, attached to 6th Prussian Infantry Division. On October 12, he received a shrapnel wound in the right thigh during the Battle of the Somme. After recuperating for four months, he was assigned as a General Staff officer for 6th Infantry Division.
When the German Revolution broke out at the end of the war in November 1918, 6th Infantry Division was assigned to protect the Rhine River bridges against revolutionaries and to safeguard the German army’s withdrawal from occupied territories. During this time, Manteuffel was ordered to protect the Cologne crossing. On December 20, he returned to Rathenow, assigned to 3d Hussar Regiment’s replacement squadron for postwar demobilization.
Manteuffel considered working in industry, but his uncle convinced him to stay with the military. In January 1919, Manteuffel joined the Freikorps, a group of volunteer units secretly armed by the German government to suppress Bolshevik revolutionaries within Germany and to fight Poles along the country’s disputed eastern border. (See “Germany’s Secret Army, 1918-20,” January 2013 ACG.) He became second adjutant of “Freikorps von Oven” in Berlin.
When the democratic Weimar Republic was formed in 1919, Manteuffel joined the new German government’s 100,000-man Reichswehr and was assigned to 25th Cavalry Regiment at Rathenow. He received squadron command in 3d Mounted Regiment as a lieutenant, becoming one of the youngest squadron commanders in the army.
Although energetic and enthusiastic, Manteuffel suffered from severe migraines; yet he never allowed the pain to affect his leadership or behavior. While he was friendly and courteous when dealing with others, he also was clear and direct, leaving no uncertainty as to what he meant when he spoke.
Despite his relatively junior rank, Manteuffel published a pamphlet to improve military training. The Squadron Commander drew upon his experience in teaching horsemanship and animal care and included his recommendations for training mounted troops. Although senior cavalry leaders were unreceptive to new views, Manteuffel continued to offer fresh ideas.
In 1935, while serving as commander of the Motorcycle Rifle Battalion, 2d Panzer Division, Manteuffel drew the attention of division commander General Heinz Guderian, whom he found to be spirited and keenly informative in promoting the new panzer arm. Manteuffel understood that achieving success with the new “steel cavalry” required courage and the ability to sense the pulse of armored combat, and that speedy command decisions could make panzers incredibly flexible weapons of war. From Guderian, he learned to command well forward to sense the battle and gain control in action, but also to remain in contact with his headquarters at all times.
Guderian later pulled Manteuffel to the higher-level Inspectorate of Armored Troops staff. By February 1939, Manteuffel was course leader at the Panzer Troop School in Berlin-Krampnitz, where he impressed upon trainees the importance of independent action within the guidance of operating procedures and integrated team efforts (known as auftragstaktiks, or mission orders).
WORLD WAR II EASTERN FRONT: ROUND ONE (JUNE 1941-MAY 1942)
Chafing at being stuck behind a desk during the early 1939-40 campaigns of World War II, Manteuffel requested command of a frontline battalion. His request was granted in May 1941, and he became commander of 1st Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 7th Panzer Division, on the eve of the June 22 invasion of the Soviet Union, known as Operation Barbarossa.
During Operation Barbarossa, 7th Panzer Division (famous as the “Ghost Division” for its achievements under the leadership of Erwin Rommel in defeating France in 1940) was commanded by Major General Hans von Funck as part of Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 3d Panzer Group in Army Group Center. The division attacked across the Memel River in Lithuania and after taking Vilnius entered Russia. It advanced through Minsk and Vitebsk before participating in the capture of Smolensk in July.
On August 25, Lieutenant Colonel Manteuffel took command of 6th Infantry Regiment, 7th Panzer Division, when the regiment’s commander was killed in action. A month later, 7th Panzer was part of Operation Typhoon, Army Group Center’s drive to capture Moscow before the onset of winter. Advancing from the north as a pincer around Moscow on November 28, Manteuffel’s 6th Infantry Regiment captured the bridge across the Volga-Moscow Canal at Yakhroma, less than 22 miles from the Kremlin. However, the German offensive failed at Moscow’s gates, and Manteuffel reluctantly withdrew his battleweary men across the canal.
On December 5, the Red Army launched a major winter counteroffensive starting north of Moscow and targeting 3d Panzer Group, the most serious German threat to the Soviet capital. The enemy counteroffensive took German leaders by surprise, as they had presumed the Soviets were out of major reserve forces. Two days later, 3d Panzer Group reported its troops were no longer capable of mounting substantial combat operations and found it impossible to seal off enemy penetrations.
By mid-December 1941, 7th Panzer Division reported a “fit for duty” fighting strength of only 200 men and just five operational tanks. Manteuffel led his soldiers in a difficult retreat from the canal, pulling back about 300 miles to Gzhatsk. During the withdrawal, his force held makeshift rallying lines in the daytime and at nighttime marched to the next rallying line. Despite the German army’s reverses, Manteuffel’s fighting skills and courage were recognized December 30 with the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross medal and a promotion to colonel.
In January 1942, when Manteuffel’s combat group reached the defense lines between Vyazma and Rzhev, 9th Army commander General Walther Model ordered Manteuffel to attack a strong Russian force near Rzhev. However, Manteuffel stopped the assault soon after it began when his soldiers became bogged down in kneedeep snow and were exposed to heavy enemy fire and left without adequate food, fuel or supplies.
A few hours later, Model appeared on the battlefield threatening to have Manteuffel court-martialed. Manteuffel tried to explain his actions, but Model stomped away. Only the intervention of 7th Panzer Division’s commander saved Manteuffel from being tried. In May when the division was ordered to rest and refit in France, the commander sent Manteuffel with the advance party, thus removing him from Model’s fury.
NORTH AFRICA (NOVEMBER 1942-MAY 1943)
After serving as commander of 7th Grenadier Brigade, 7th Panzer Division, Manteuffel was reassigned in December 1942 to Tunis, North Africa, this time facing the Western Allies. He was placed in command of a provisional force consisting of a paratroop regiment, a panzer grenadier regiment, a paratroop pioneer battalion, and an Italian infantry regiment, plus reconnaissance, anti-tank and artillery units. Designated “Division Manteuffel,” the force was positioned on the right flank of the Axis line in Tunisia.
On February 26, 1943, General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s 5th Panzer Army launched Operation Ox Head, a series of attacks intended to expand the Tunis bridgehead. Covering the panzer army’s right flank, Division Manteuffel advanced westward to secure the hills commanding the Sedjenane-Djebel Abiod road. After capturing Sedjenane from British and French troops on March 3, the division paused for replacements and then renewed the attack. Manteuffel’s force finally seized its objective, pushing British 4th Infantry Division back 20 miles. A surprise enemy counterattack, however, repulsed Manteuffel’s division and it suffered heavy losses.
After enduring four weeks of incredibly intense and continuous combat, Manteuffel, now a major general, collapsed in the field from illness and exhaustion and was evacuated for hospitalization in Berlin and Heidelberg. Remnants of Division Manteuffel surrendered to Lieutenant General Omar Bradley’s U.S. II Corps in May 1943.
EASTERN FRONT: ROUND TWO (AUGUST 1943- AUGUST 1944)
After recuperating through the summer of 1943, Manteuffel was called to an interview with Hitler. He took the opportunity to ask for command of 7th Panzer Division, an Eastern Front unit he knew well, and the führer granted his request. However, during Manteuffel’s time in North Africa, the strategic situation on the Eastern Front had changed dramatically. With the loss of German 6th Army at Stalingrad and the failure of Operation Citadel at Kursk, Germany and its allies were permanently forced onto the defensive in the East.
Manteuffel assumed command of 7th Panzer Division in mid-August while it was part of III Panzer Corps, Army Detachment Kempf, then in the throes of opposing a major Red Army counteroffensive in the area of Kharkov and Belgorod. Four days into his new command, Manteuffel went forward to orient himself on the battlefield but was wounded when a Soviet fighter aircraft strafed his command vehicle. Although he had several rocket splinters in his back and was in serious pain, he insisted on being treated at the front and remaining with his troops.
The Red Army’s advance raced the German army’s withdrawal to the Dnieper River, the best possible defensive line for Army Group South. The panzer unit of Manteuffel’s division was transported to a railway bridge northwest of Kiev in an initial attempt to halt a Red Army breakthrough in early November 1943, but the enemy already had penetrated to the Zhitomir-Kiev highway.
In tough, concentrated fighting around Kiev in late November, Manteuffel’s division counterattacked to recapture Zhitomir and to extricate the encircled 8th Panzer Division by penetrating behind the Soviets, attacking their staff and signal centers, and spreading among their troops the fear of being cut off. (See Battle of Zhitomir map.) Manteuffel’s fighting prowess in this highly mobile armored warfare battle earned him the sobriquet “the Lion of Zhitomir” as well as the oak leaves to the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.
Manteuffel’s obvious brilliance in armored combat prompted another summons to meet with Hitler. On Christmas Day 1943, the führer asked Manteuffel to take charge of Grossdeutschland Division, Germany’s strongest panzer grenadier unit. On February 1, 1944, Manteuffel assumed command of the division, leading it in major defensive battles west of the Dnieper River near Kirovograd and then withdrawing it through Ukraine and into Romania in late March.
On April 8, Marshal Ivan Konev’s 2d Ukrainian Front attacked toward Targul-Frumos in Western Romania. The following day, Manteuffel’s Grossdeutschland Division concentrated at Jassy, 40 kilometers to the east. Two days later, the division’s 120 tanks (including 40 PzKw V Panther and 40 PzKw VI Tiger tanks) struck a major Russian infantry-armor-artillery force. Manteuffel, in his typical style, maneuvered to cut off elements of the Soviet main force and then pushed on to the high ground west of Targul-Frumos, forcing three Red Army divisions to fight their way out of an encirclement. His division recaptured Targul-Frumos, thereby halting a Russian charge to the vital Ploesti oil fields.
At the end of April, Grossdeutschland Division held off Soviet spoiling attacks and restored the German defensive line. But in early May, 2d Ukrainian Front with 5th Guards Tank Army renewed the Soviet offensive. Manteuffel’s defensive scheme was to attack the strong enemy armored forces (which, as usual, were heavily supported by artillery) with the massed tanks of Grossdeutschland Division’s panzer regiment employing highly mobile tactics. The division’s two infantry regiments had to defend themselves as best they could against enemy attacks, even if they were bypassed and outflanked.
During these battles, the Grossdeutschland Division’s units encountered the Soviet’s new JS-3 “Stalin” heavy tanks. Manteuffel recalled that although these tanks were formidable with their 122 mm main guns, heavy armor and low silhouettes, they were also slow and unwieldy. He believed his panzers’ mobility and maneuverability could counter the enemy tanks’ technical superiority, warning, “In a tank battle, if you stand still you are lost.”
In a battle involving 500 German and Soviet tanks, Manteuffel’s division fought like a largescale raiding force, with several of his panzer fighting groups penetrating the enemy formations. “The Russians were repulsed,” Manteuffel recalled, “and only 60 of their tanks got away, most of them damaged. I lost only 11 of mine.”
Grossdeutschland Division fought several defensive battles against numerically superior forces in the areas of Jassy and Targul-Frumos through early June 1944. As one historian noted, divisions such as Grossdeutschland “rose like phoenixes from the carnage of one battlefield to appear intact and deadly on another battlefield only days later.”
After a rest and refit in Romania through midsummer, Grossdeutschland Division was sent to East Prussia in late July to battle the Red Army’s direct line of advance on Germany. Upon arrival, the division was immediately ordered to counterattack before it was prepared. This premature attack resulted in heavy casualties and the loss of 82 tanks, which greatly diminished Grossdeutschland Division’s famed fighting effectiveness.
Hitler was particularly enraged at the loss of his precious panzers, but in a meeting with the führer, Manteuffel pointed out that Hitler’s headquarters had ordered the disastrously premature attack. The dictator redirected his anger at his headquarters staff, and Manteuffel remained in command.
WESTERN FRONT (SEPTEMBER 1944-FEBRUARY 1945)
In early September 1944, Hitler promoted Manteuffel to general of panzer troops (U.S. equivalent is lieutenant general), moving him ahead of more senior officers. Along with the promotion came command of 5th Panzer Army on the Western Front. The assignment was unusual since Manteuffel had not yet led a corps and was instead moving directly from division command to army command.
For the next several weeks, 5th Panzer Army fought a series of battles in Lorraine against Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s U.S. 3d Army. However, on October 18, Manteuffel and his principal staff officers were called to Field Marshal Model’s headquarters to receive a secret briefing on a major offensive personally conceived by Hitler. This massive attack in the rugged Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg was aimed at reversing Germany’s losing fortunes in the West. Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army would attack along the axis of Bastogne-Namur, cross the Meuse River and then swing north to Antwerp. Its mission was to protect the southern flank of the main attack, which would be delivered by 6th Panzer Army under the command of SS General Josef “Sepp” Dietrich.
Manteuffel, like the other commanders involved in Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive, objected to the führer’s overly ambitious plan. They considered Hitler’s grand scheme unachievable at that stage of the war, recommending instead a more limited offensive. Yet the only concession Manteuffel could extract from Hitler was that 5th Panzer Army’s attack along a 28-mile-wide front would be launched without a massive artillery preparation, which Manteuffel believed would only alert the Americans.
The German Ardennes Offensive, soon to become famous as the Battle of the Bulge, achieved complete surprise when it hit the overextended American front line on December 16, 1944. However, the defenders proved more tenacious than the Germans had expected. Moreover, the Ardennes’ limited road network significantly slowed the German advance, particularly at the important road junctions at St. Vith and Bastogne, which proved to be critical choke points vigorously defended by outnumbered U.S. units.
Ultimately, German spearheads advanced too slowly to force a catastrophic breakthrough, which allowed American commanders to begin rushing massive reinforcements to the region. Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army did not reach its first-day objectives until midnight on December 17, yet it made better progress than Dietrich’s 6th Panzer Army did in its main attack. (See Battle of the Bulge map.)
Although Manteuffel’s army managed to push elements of its 2d Panzer Division almost to the Meuse River, the effort proved too little, too late. With U.S. units firmly holding the northern and southern shoulders of the Ardennes salient and with American reinforcements quickly arriving (eventually, 600,000 U.S. troops were committed to the battle), the German offensive was stopped by December 24.
On January 8, 1945, Hitler bowed to the inevitable and agreed to withdraw his armies behind the West Wall (Siegfried Line) fortifications. During the weekslong withdrawal, Manteuffel reported that his soldiers endured “the most difficult conditions of weather and terrain.”
EASTERN FRONT: FINAL ROUND (MARCH 1945-MAY 1945)
On March 2, 1945, with the resurgent Red Army preparing a massive, final offensive to overrun Eastern Germany and strike at Berlin, Hitler sent Manteuffel to command 3d Panzer Army, located east of the Oder River near Stettin. Manteuffel found 3d Panzer heavily engaged in defensive battles, and although he was ordered to conduct a counterattack, his battle-weary troops were in no condition to execute such an operation. He recalled, “The first impression that I gained of the army was downright depressing as it lacked virtually everything that was necessary for an effective defense.” Although it was a “panzer army,” it did not include a single panzer division.
On April 18, Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky’s 2d Belorussian Front opened its offensive against Manteuffel’s 3d Panzer Army. While 3d Panzer held its position for seven days, it was strained to the breaking point by the Red Army tide. Manteuffel had already used up his last reserves and had been forced to withdraw troops from his flanks to fill the center of his line.
On April 25, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel from Hitler’s headquarters visited the front, where he berated General Gotthard Heinrici for withdrawing Army Group Vistula and for allowing his forces to become disorganized. (See What Next, General? in the September 2011 ACG.) Keitel ordered Heinrici to rectify the situation and even to execute German officers and soldiers if necessary. Heinrici refused the order, whereupon Keitel immediately relieved him of his command and offered it to Manteuffel – who rejected the offer due to the shameless treatment of the highly respected Heinrici.
Manteuffel emphatically confirmed Heinrici’s evaluation of the situation, and Keitel responded that Manteuffel would be answerable to posterity for his attitude. Manteuffel retorted, “Until this day all members of my family employed in the service of the state, either as officials or as army officers, have accepted their delegated responsibilities. I have no intention of trying to escape full responsibility myself.” Keitel then left without another word.
At 10:30 p.m. on April 28, Manteuffel reported to Heinrici that half of his divisions and all of his supporting anti-aircraft weapons were in full retreat. He further said that he had not seen anything like it since the German army was defeated in 1918.
At the end of April 1945, Manteuffel found his army caught between the Western Allies and the Red Army. He sent his chief of staff to British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s headquarters with an offer to surrender along with his men. At first Montgomery refused the proposal, but the next day he sent a staff officer to inform Manteuffel that his surrender would be accepted only if the troops came over unarmed and with discipline fully maintained. Manteuffel complied with this requirement and on May 3, 1945, surrendered his army to British forces at Hagenow.
Manteuffel was held as an Allied prisoner of war from May 1945 to December 1946. He took part in the U.S. Army Historical Division Project to record military information from his combat experiences, particularly his operations in the Ardennes Offensive. After his release, he worked in industry and became a member of the Bundestag (German parliament) as a representative of the Free Democratic Party from 1953-57.
In 1959, a German court tried Manteuffel for having one of his soldiers shot in January 1944 during the war. Manteuffel had ordered the execution because the accused soldier had failed to prevent or report the Russians’ capture of two of his fellow soldiers. The court found Manteuffel guilty of manslaughter and sentenced him to 18 months in prison. However, due to public outcry and the efforts of German politicians, he was released after two months and pardoned.
Manteuffel’s distinguished post-World War II career included many speaking engagements, such as lecturing at West Point, addressing conferences of American general officers, and advising NATO planners. Manteuffel died September 24, 1978, while on a trip to Austria.
A wartime performance evaluation sums up the essence of Manteuffel as a battlefield leader: “Quick thinking, tactically able to take in the whole situation at a glance, always ready for action, brave and untiring. … A commander on whom one can rely in any situation.”
Colonel (Ret.) Richard N. Armstrong, author of “Soviet Operational Deception: The Red Cloak,” is an adjunct history professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Armchair General.