Hans Guderian, the most talented of the German tank generals during World War 2, had a large ego and this helped lead German to defeat at Moscow.
Guderian did not conceive the basic ideas of the Blitzkrieg, the strategy of mechanized units combined with air attack, using the elements of surprise, speed and flexibility to quickly thrust deeply and decisively into enemy territory attacking enemy headquarters, communications, and supply lines. No, the Blitzkrieg strategy was conceived more by two Englishmen - Liddell Hart and J. F. C. Fuller - in the twenties and thirties. Others also made contributions. Both Guderian and his soul brother, General Rommel, were students of Liddell Hart and Fuller. However, it was Guderian who was the driving force behind the practical application of the Blitzkrieg concepts and, in World War 2, it was he who shocked the world with how successful the concepts could be in actual combat situations, e.g., Poland and, in particular, France.
He who dares, wins. (Old German proverb)
Early in his life, Guderian was an unlikely candidate to spearhead a strategic revolution in warfare. He was not a War Academy soldier as were most German Generals. Guderian had entered the academy in 1914 but had to leave for active duty due to the breakout of World War I.
In 1922, Guderian was transferred into the Motorized Transport Department of the Inspectorate of Transport Troops, where he soon recognized the potential that motorization could offer the German military, particularly in view of the peace-treaty limits in numbers that had been placed on the German military. Quoting from " The German Army, 1933-1945" by Matthew Cooper:
"He understood that mobility could offset numerical inferiority. Although this was no new revelation, his interest was awakened, and his attention................. .......broadened to take account of the tank. By 1929 he had evolved the idea of strategic penetration by armored forces, and, in his own words, had become "convinced that tanks working on their own or in conjunction with infantry could never achieve decisive importance.....what was needed were armored divisions which would include the supporting arms needed to allow the tanks to fight to full effect.....The first strategic surprise attack will penetrate more or less deeply into enemy territory ........The first move of air and mechanized attack will be followed up by motorized infantry divisions. These will be carried to the verge of the occupied territory and hold it, thereby freeing the mobile units for another blow. In the meantime the attacker will be raising a mass army. He has the choice of territory and time for his next big blow....He will do his best to launch the great blow suddenly so as to take the enemy by surprise.........The armored division will no longer stop when the first objectives have been reached; on the contrary, .....they will do their utmost to complete the breakthrough into the enemy lines of communication...."
Guderian believed that tanks would be the best way to produce the armor, mobility, and speed necessary to accomplish the above objectives. "We believe that by attacking with tanks we can achieve a higher rate of movement than has been hitherto obtainable, and...........that we can keep moving once a breakthrough has been made." He was adamant that tanks should not be divided out among infantry divisions but should be concentrated within the armored divisions, i.e., panzer divisions.
It is not surprising that the armored division system proposed by Guderian and others met with considerable opposition from the German high command. According to Guderian, Generals Halder and Beck fought the panzer division hardest. He dubbed them 'Gentlemen of the Horse Calvary.' They, in turn, thought Guderian to be too much into "new developments" and too much a hothead. Guderian had a difficult time tolerating fools and apparently felt that anyone who disagreed with him fell into that category.
(Guderian and Halder were to clash again in Russia, and in that instance, it appears that Guderian was at fault - see later discussion.)
So, many of his ideas on the panzers did not get implemented. Some panzer divisions were created but these did not contain the degree of armourment that Guderian would have liked. Still, they were close enough to Guderian's objective that they could do a good job.
When mobilization was called for, Guderian was given command of a corps consisting of three panzer divisions. When World War 2 broke out, he put his theories into practice, first in Poland, and even more impressively, in France. The following is reproduced from the Blitzkrieg page of this web site:
"As in Poland, the Germans avoided attacking heavy concentrations of Allied soldiers. Instead they used the "indirect approach" always looking for soft spots. Sort of like a football back "running to daylight" instead of trying to run over people. The most audacious German general was General Guderian (reporting to General Runstedt, leader of Army Group A) who commanded a army corps of "only" three armored divisions. But nothing would stop him. When his Corps established a beachhead across the Meuse River, he was ordered to halt because he was moving too fast. After arguing with the more cautious German generals of higher rank, Guderian was told he could only widen the beachhead. Instead Guderian took advantage of the limited go-ahead and raced forward another 50 miles. Two days later, when he was halted again, he asked to be relieved of his command. A few hours later, he was restored to command and told he could make strong reconnaissance moves only. He took this as another go-ahead and raced forward with more speed than before."
It appears to me, the German upper command wanted to let Guderian continue his attack but didn't want any personal responsibility if he had problems with his rapid advances. It was OK for him to advance as long as he was disobeying orders.
Guderian continued his audacious attacks throughout the French campaign driving his panzer corps first to the English Channel and then, wheeling around, drove in the opposite direction all the way to the Swiss border. When he arrived there, the German higher command could not believe that he was actually there.
At the same time, Guderian's fellow Blitzkrieg expert, Rommel, was also impressively demonstrating the value of the armored divisions. The French didn't have a chance against those two.
After the fall of France, Guderian next appeared on the Russian front. where his initial exploits were similar to those achieved in France. Early on, his 2nd Panzer Group fought in tandem with the 3td Panzer Group of Colonel General Hermann Hoth. Working closely together - Guderian from the south and Hoth from the north - they formed a pincer that enveloped three Russian armies in the Minsk area. The trapped Russians fought hard but few could escape. When it was over, 300,000 Russian soldiers had surrendered and 2,500 Russian tanks had been captured. There was little wonder that General Halder, the overall German commander in Russia, unleashed Guderian and reportedly said, "he hoped officers like Guderian would disobey orders, if need be, in order to do 'the right thing.'"
Was it France all over again?
General Halder would come to regret the unleashing of Guderian. Guderian was an extremely confident (egotistic) man and took advantage of any opening given him. He was also one of Hitler's favorites. Hitler had long resented the German officer corps and Guderian was a soldier who, like Hitler, had risen from the ranks:
"The German officer corps was the last stronghold of the old conservative tradition, and Hitler never forgot this. His class resentment was never far below the surface; he knew perfectly well that the officer corps despised him as an upstart, as "the Bohemian Corporal" and he responded with a barely concealed contempt for the "gentlemen" who wrote "von" before their names and had never served as privates in the trenches."
Guderian was not above using (or threatening to use) Hitler's influence when things did not go completely his way. Even as he and his panzer group won battle after battle in Russia, he was becoming a difficult man to deal with. He would not tolerate "temporarily" loaning out one of his corps or panzer divisions or critical equipment as some, on occasion, wanted him to do. His panzer divisions were not to be touched. He was intolerant of other's views. Halder, his immediate superior, and the other German generals had to always consider what Guderian was going to think when they planned actions. They had to "walk on eggs" around him.
The situation in Russia eventually reached the point that Guderian's forces were fighting almost independently - going where they wanted to and not bothering to cooperate with other German forces in Russia. Almost a "mad dog" army as per some childhood games we used to play long ago. Guderian's behavior had to be tolerated because he was Hitler's pet and, also, because he kept scoring one success after another. Eventually, as some alleged, it may have been partly responsible for the failure of the Germans to capture Moscow in 1941.
Although Guderian agreed with the other German generals in Russia, that Moscow was to be the major target in 1941, they had been unable to convince Hitler to give up his quest for the Ukraine. So when Guderian was directed to keep at least part of his forces in place to help prepare the assault on Moscow, and to take the remainder to attack Kiev, a key to the Ukraine, Guderian refused to comply and requested of Hitler that he be allowed to keep his forces together. Hitler agreed. When Halder heard of this, he was infuriated and, according to Guderian, "suffered a complete nervous collapse" and began to heap all sorts of abuse on him.
While General Halder fumed, Guderian headed south with his entire panzer group and helped encircle Kiev and score another huge victory. As many as 600,000 Russian prisoners were taken. Very impressive but the clock was running and winter was approaching. The capture of Moscow might give the Germans a victory in the war (or at least a stalemate) and it certainly would have given them shelter for the winter. Any delay in the attack on Moscow, even for the chance to take 600,000 Russian prisoners, could not be tolerated. The Russians had plenty of replacements for manpower losses but there was only one Moscow. Guderian may have been partly responsible for Moscow staying in Russian hands.
So now, with Kiev out of the way, Hitler turned his attention to Moscow but precious time had been lost. Stalin had not wasted the time. He was getting Moscow ready for the forthcoming German attack. New Russian armies were on their way from the far east as Stalin had become convinced that Japan was not going to stab Russia in the back there. Stalin was planning to grind the Germans down at Moscow.
Guderian's panzer group returned from the Kiev battle and joined in the assault on the Moscow area. The panzers continued to score victories but it was getting hard now. The Russians had learned to fight plus the "lost time" in the Ukraine favored the Russians. Finally, winter struck with a vengeance and stopped the German offense 10 miles from Moscow. Guderian retreated without authorization, a wise military move but now he had no victory to save him. In December, Guderian, along with some other generals on the Russian front, was sacked by Hitler who apparently was looking for scapegoats.
This effectively ended Guderian's front line military career. He did act as Inspector of panzer training and, in 1944 after the failed plot against Hitler, Hitler appointed him to the General Staff of the armed forces and also appointed him to act as one of three judges on the court of honor to investigate the officers arrested in the plot. The court removed the accused generals from the military and transferred them for trial by the People's Court an action which meant certain death for the generals.
Guderian was a true Nazi, loyal to Hitler, but at the same time, he was one of the most innovative thinkers of all time in military tactics and strategy. Maybe, he was a little too independent! Had he followed orders a little closer, Moscow might have been taken and the war saved for the Germans.
But Guderian had to do it his way!
1. Germany in World War 2. Causes of World War 2, the major battles, German generals, & the fall of France.
2. German Battles of World War 2. The great battles of World War 2 which involved Germany. Guderian was in the early battles but was fired by Hitler after the failed Moscow battle.
3. German Generals World War 2. The top German generals of World War 2. Was Guderian the best German general?
4. American Generals of World War 2. American generals - Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, etc., - gave a good account of themselves in World War 2.
General Guderian was probably the finest military tactician
that ever lived surpassing even the legendary German general, Erwin Rommel, and
the equally legendary American general, George Patton, both of World War 2 fame. On the
other side of the coin, Guderian's massive ego and showboat personality were such that
he may have cost the Germans victory in Russia in World War 2.
Last updated: 02/26/17