Heinz Wilhelm Guderian (German: [guˈdeʀi̯an]; 17 June 1888 – 14 May 1954) was a German general during World War II. He was a pioneer in the development of armoured warfare, and was the leading proponent of tanks and mechanization in the Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces). Germany's panzer (armoured) forces were raised and organized under his direction as Chief of Mobile Forces. During the war, he was a highly successful commander of panzer forces in several campaigns, became Inspector-General of Armoured Troops, rose to the rank of Generaloberst, and was Chief of the General Staff of the Heer in the last year of the war.
Early life and education
Guderian was born in Kulm, West Prussia (now Chełmno, Poland). From 1901 to 1907 Guderian attended various military schools. He entered the Army in 1907 as an ensign-cadet in the (Hanoverian) Jäger-Bataillon No. 10, commanded at that point by his father, Friedrich Guderian. After attending the war academy in Metz he was made a Leutnant (full Lieutenant) in 1908. In 1911 Guderian joined the 3rd Telegraphen-Battalion of the Prussian Army Signal Corps. On October 1, 1913, he married Margarete Georgen with whom he had two sons, Heinz Günter (Aug 2nd 1914 – 2004) and Kurt (17th September 1918 – 1984). Both sons became highly decorated Wehrmacht officers during World War II; Heinz Günter became a Panzer general in the Bundeswehr after the war.
During World War I he served as a Signals and General Staff officer. This allowed him to get an overall view of battlefield conditions. He often disagreed with his superiors and was transferred to the army intelligence department, where he remained until the end of the war. This second assignment, while removed from the battlefield, sharpened his strategic skills. He disagreed with German surrender at the end of World War I, believing the German Empire should continue the fight, writing "the most the Allies can do is to destroy us"
Early in 1919, Guderian was assigned to serve on the staff of the central command of the Eastern Frontier Guard Service. This Guard Service was intended to control and coordinate the independent Freikorps units in the defense of Germany's eastern frontiers against Polish and Soviet forces. In June 1919, Guderian joined the Iron Brigade (later known as Iron Division) as its second General Staff officer. The regular German army had intended that this move would allow the army to reassert its control over the Iron Division; however, their hopes were disappointed. Rather than restrain the Freikorps, Guderian's anti-communism caused him to empathize with the Iron Division's efforts to defend Prussia against the Soviet threat. The Iron Division waged ruthless campaign in Lithuania and pushed into Latvia; however, traditional German anti-Slavic attitudes prevented the division's full cooperation with the White Russian and Baltic forces opposing the Bolsheviks. During the division's advance on Riga, it committed numerous atrocities as part of its ideological mission to "cleanse and clean"; these events are omitted by Guderian in his memoirs.
After the war, Guderian stayed in the reduced 100,000-man German Army (Reichswehr) as a company commander in the 10th Jäger-Battalion. Later he joined the Truppenamt ("Troop Office"), which was actually the Army's "General-Staff-in-waiting" (an official General Staff was forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles). In 1927 Guderian was promoted to major and transferred to the Truppenamt group for Army transport and motorized tactics in Berlin. This put him at the center of German development of armoured forces. Guderian, who was fluent in both English and French studied the works of British maneuver warfare theorists J. F. C. Fuller and, debatably, B. H. Liddell Hart; also the writings, interestingly enough, of the then-obscure Charles de Gaulle. He translated these works into German.
In 1931, he was promoted to Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant-Colonel) and became chief of staff to the Inspectorate of Motorized Troops under Generalleutnant (Lieutenant-General) Oswald Lutz. In 1933 he was promoted to Oberst (Colonel).
During this period, he wrote many papers on mechanized warfare, which were seen in the German Army as authoritative. These papers were based on extensive wargaming without troops, with paper tanks and finally with armoured vehicles. Britain at this time was experimenting with tanks under General Hobart, and Guderian kept abreast of Hobart's writings using, at his own expense, someone to translate all the articles being published in Britain.
In October 1935 he was made commander of the newly created 2nd Panzer Division (one of three). On 1 August 1936 he was promoted to Generalmajor, and on 4 February 1938 he was promoted to Generalleutnant and given command of the XVI Army Corps.
During this period (1936–1937), Guderian produced his most important written work, his book Achtung - Panzer! It was a highly persuasive compilation of Guderian's own theories and the armoured warfare and combined-arms warfare ideas of other General Staff officers, expounding the use of airpower as well as tanks in future ground combat.
The German panzer forces were created largely on the lines laid down by Guderian in Achtung - Panzer!
During World War I, the German army had developed the idea of breaking through a static front by concentration of combined arms, which they applied in their 1918 Spring Offensive. But they failed to gain decisive results because the breakthrough elements were on foot and could not sustain the impetus of the initial attack.
Motorized infantry was the key to sustaining a breakthrough, and until the 1930s that was not possible. Soviet marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky pursued the idea, but his doctrine was repudiated as contrary to Communist principles, and Tukhachevsky was executed in 1937.
Guderian was the first who fully developed and advocated the strategy of blitzkrieg and put it into its final shape. He summarized the tactics of blitzkrieg as the way to get the mobile and motorized armoured divisions to work together and support each other in order to achieve decisive success. In his book Panzer Leader he wrote:
In this year (1929) I became convinced that tanks working on their own or in conjunction with infantry could never achieve decisive importance. My historical studies; the exercises carried out in England and our own experience with mock-ups had persuaded me that the tanks would never be able to produce their full effect until weapons on whose support they must inevitably rely were brought up to their standard of speed and of cross-country performance. In such formation of all arms, the tanks must play primary role, the other weapons being subordinated to the requirements of the armour. It would be wrong to include tanks in infantry divisions: what were needed were armoured divisions which would include all the supporting arms needed to fight with full effect.
Guderian believed that certain developments in technology needed to take place in conjunction with blitzkrieg in order to support the entire theory, especially in communication and special visual equipment with which the armoured divisions in general, and tanks specifically, should be equipped. Guderian insisted in 1933, within the high command, that every tank in the German armoured force must be equipped with radio and visual equipment in order to enable the tank commander to communicate and perform a decisive role in blitzkrieg.
In World War II, Guderian first served as the commander of the XIX Corps in the invasion of Poland. He personally led the German forces during the Battle of Wizna and Battle of Kobryn testing his theory against the reality of war for the first time. After the invasion he took property in the Warthegau area of occupied Poland, evicting the Polish estate owners. Guderian told Manstein that he was given a list of Polish estates which he studied for a few days before deciding which to claim for his own; after the war he changed the dates and circumstances of situation in his memoirs to present taking over of the estate as legitimate retirement gift.
In the Invasion of France, he personally led the attack that traversed the Ardennes Forest, crossed the Meuse River and broke through the French lines at Sedan. During the French campaign, he led his panzer forces in rapid blitzkrieg-style advances and earned the nickname "Der schnelle Heinz" (Fast Heinz) among his troops. Guderian's panzer group led the "race to the sea" that split the Allied armies in two, depriving the French armies and the BEF in Northern France and Belgium of their fuel, food, spare parts and ammunition. Faced with orders from nervous superiors to halt on one occasion, he managed to continue his advance by stating he was performing a 'reconnaissance in force'. Guderian's column was famously denied the chance to destroy the Allied beachhead at Dunkirk by an order coming from high command.
In 1941 he commanded Panzergruppe 2, also known as Panzergruppe Guderian, in Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, receiving the 24th award of the Oak Leaves to his Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on 17 July of that year. From 5 October 1941 he led the redesignated Second Panzer Army. His armoured spearhead captured Smolensk in a remarkably short time and was poised to launch the final assault on Moscow when he was ordered to turn south towards Kiev (see Lötzen decision).
He protested against Hitler's decision and as a result lost the Führer's confidence. He was relieved of his command on 25 December 1941 after Feldmarschall Günther von Kluge, not noted for his ability to face up to Hitler, claimed that Guderian had ordered a withdrawal in contradiction of Hitler's "stand fast" order. Guderian was transferred to the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) reserve pool, his chances of being promoted to Feldmarschall, which depended on Hitler's personal decision, possibly ruined forever. Guderian would deny that he ordered any kind of withdrawal. Ironically this act of apparent insubordination is cited by his admirers as further proof of his independence of spirit when dealing with Hitler. Guderian's own view on the matter was that he had been victimized by von Kluge who was the commanding officer when German troops came to a standstill at the Moscow front in late autumn/winter 1941. At some point he so provoked von Kluge with accusations related to his dismissal that the field marshal challenged him to a duel, which Hitler forbade.
After his dismissal Guderian and his wife retired to a 2,000 acres (8.1 km2) sequestered country estate at Deipenhof in the Reichsgau Wartheland.
In September 1942, when Erwin Rommel was recuperating in Germany from health problems, he suggested Guderian to OKW as the only one who could replace him temporarily in Africa, the response came in the same night: "Guderian is not accepted". Only after the German defeat at Stalingrad was Guderian given a new position. On 1 March 1943 he was appointed Inspector-General of the Armoured Troops. Here his responsibilities were to determine armoured strategy and to oversee tank design and production and the training of Germany's panzer forces. He reported to Hitler directly and bypassed much of the Nazi bureaucracy. For Guderian it was a personal triumph but in the vicious power struggle of Nazi governance and management even Guderian found his power limited. His assignment of duties signed by Hitler himself read in its opening paragraph:
The Inspector General of Armoured Troops is responsible to me for the future development of armoured troops along lines that will make that arm of the Service into a decisive weapon for winning the war.
A footnote then defined "armoured troops" as "anti-tank troops and heavy assault guns" resulting in the fact that 90% of assault gun production would be outside of Guderian's control and left to the Artillery Generals.' When it came to the climactic Operation Citadel (The Battle of Kursk) Guderian conversed with Hitler on May 14, 1943: Guderian: "My Fuhrer, why do you want to attack in the East at all this year?" Hitler: "You are quite right. Whenever I think of this attack my stomach turns over."''
Though Hitler was committed to the attack based on political reasons to maintain the aura of German initiative on the Eastern Front he shared many reservations on military grounds with Guderian. When Keitel explained the political importance of the offensive Guderian remarked "How many people do you think even know where Kursk is? It's a matter of profound indifference to the world whether we hold Kursk or not..." The Battle of Kursk would lead to an attrition battle that would take the strategic initiative from the Germans on the Eastern Front for the remainder of the war.
According to Guderian, Hitler was easily persuaded to field too many new tank designs, and this resulted in supply, logistical, and repair problems for German forces in Russia. Guderian preferred large numbers of Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs over smaller numbers of heavier tanks like the Tiger, which had limited range and could rarely go off-road without getting stuck in the Russian mud.
In Panzer Leader, he conceded that he was fully aware of the brutal occupation policies of the German administration of Ukraine, claiming that this was wholly the responsibility of civilians, about whom he could do nothing. "GUDERIAN: I'm for racial purity", statement recorded at Hitler's Midday Situation Conference, September 1, 1944.
On 21 July 1944, after the failure of the July 20 Plot in which Guderian had no involvement, Guderian was appointed chief of staff of the army (Chef des Generalstabs des Heeres) as a successor to Kurt Zeitzler, who had departed July 1 after a nervous breakdown. During his tenure as chief of staff, he let it be known that any General Staff officer who was not prepared to be "a National Socialist officer" was not welcome on that body. He also served on the "Court of Military Honour," a drumhead court-martial that expelled many of the officers involved in the July 20 Plot from the Army before handing them over to the People's Court.
However, he had a long series of violent rows with Hitler over the way in which Germany should handle the war on both fronts. Hitler finally dismissed Guderian on 28 March 1945 after a shouting-match over the failed counterattack of General Theodor Busse's 9th Army to break through to units encircled at Küstrin; he stated to Guderian that "your physical health requires that you immediately take six weeks convalescent leave," ("Health problems" were commonly used as a facade in the Third Reich to remove executives who for some reason could not simply be sacked, but from episodes Guderian describes in his memoirs it is evident that he actually did suffer from congestive heart failure.) He was replaced by General Hans Krebs.
Later life and death
Together with his Panzer staff, Guderian surrendered to American troops on 10 May 1945 and remained in U.S. custody as a prisoner of war until his release on 17 June 1948. Despite Soviet and Polish government protests, he was not charged with any war crimes during the Nuremberg Trials, as his actions and behaviour were thought to be consistent with those of a professional soldier.
After the war he was often invited to attend meetings of British veterans' groups, where he analyzed past battles with his old foes. During the early 1950s he was active in advising on the redevelopment of the West German army: Bundeswehr (see Searle's Wehrmacht Generals).
Guderian died on 14 May 1954 at the age of 65, in Schwangau near Füssen (Southern Bavaria) and is buried at the Friedhof Hildesheimer Strasse in Goslar.
In 2000, a documentary titled Guderian, directed by Anton Vassil, was aired on French television. It featured Guderian's son, Heinz Günther Guderian, (who became a prominent General in the post-war German Bundeswehr and NATO) along with other notables such as Field Marshal Lord Carver (129th British Field Marshal), expert historians Kenneth Macksey and Heinz Wilhelm. Using rarely seen photographs from Guderian's private collection, the documentary provides an inside view into the life and career of Guderian and draws a profile of Guderian's character and the moral responsibility of the German general staff under Hitler.
The Enigma machine belonging to Guderian is on display at the Intelligence Corps museum in Chicksands, Bedfordshire, England.