Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist ( 1881- 1954 )
Ewald Kleist was born in Braunfels an der Lahn on the 8th. of August 1881, and christened Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist. There had been three Field Marshals in his family, and the incredible number of thirty one family members had been awarded the prestigious Pour le Merite or Blue Max, no longer awarded post the Treaty of Versailles.
With such a tradition of service to their country it is little wonder that he too went on in his Army career to also be made a Field Marshal.
No breath of scandal here like some of his contempories, Ewald was the typical Prussian Officer, who was in favour of the monarchy being restored, but he had, with the rest of the Army sworn an oath of allegiance to Hitler in 1934, and he would stand by that oath.
Kleist was not amongst Hitler's favourite Army Officers, he was no " yes" man.
His early Army career.
War Academy Graduate.
In January of 1916 he became adjutant of a brigade, and in the following June went on to be adjutant of the division. He obviously was a good staff officer, as 1917 found Kleist Chief of Staff of the Guards Cavalry Division, and when the Russians caved in early in 1918, his division was moved to the Western Front.
He now had two sons, Johannes Juergen Christoph Ewald, born 1917, ( also called Ewald ) who followed his Father into the army and served in WW2 as a Captain in the Cavalry on the Eastern Front, the second son, Hugo Edmund Christoph Heinrich, born 1921, also served on the Russian front but as an agricultural specialist.
When the German Army went through its big expansion era in 1936, the 2nd. Cavalry Division was dissolved, but Kleist had his Head Quarters converted into the HQ Wehrkeis VIII, and on the 1st. of August 1936 he made it to General of Cavalry. He now had command of the 8th. 18th. and 28th. Infantry Divisions and the 3rd. and 4th. Frontier Zones. Until February 1938 he was responsible for Hitler's military expansion in Silesia, but his pro Royalist political views placed him out of favour, and he was forced to retire by von Brauchitsch.
Called back into service.
He did well, his troops capturing the oil fields near Lvov, as he linked with Guderian's forces near the River Bug, effectively dividing Poland in half.
He now moved to the Western front as Commander of the main panzer forces in the campaign against the Allied Armies. His task crucial for success of the German Army, to breach the line at the Meuse River and sweep to the English Channel. If he could achieve that objective, it would isolate the French and British north of Paris, and quickly win that battle. His panzers were quickly into Belgium, the French were slow to react, but then British and French forces flowed into Belgium and Holland, believing the main German thrust was coming through the low countries, just as Hitler had hoped to fool them.
Hitler asked Kleist did he wish to wait for List's infantry to arrive before he tackled crossing the Meuse in the vicinity of Sedan? His response was he intended to attack " at once without wasting time."
Kliest ordered Guderian to attack across the Meuse the next day, the 13th. of May 1940, Guderian said he had but 2 divisions available for this assault, and wanted to delay any crossing until his entire Corps had arrived. Kliest overruled him, indicating he should get on with it with what he had available. He was to cross the Meuse near Sedan. The French Opposition was not of high quality and morale was low, the river Meuse was crossed opening up a gap between the French 2nd. and 9th. Armies, a gap they were never to close.
False reports of German tanks on the Marlee Heights reaching the village of Sedan circulated in both the French artillery and infantry forces. In fact not a single panzer had crossed the river, Colonels in command ordered their men to retreat, then disappeared, as panic set in amongst the French defenders as they streamed westwards.
A counterattack was launched on the morning of the 15th. of May with some limited success, but Guderian had burst across the Bar River the day before, and he had the French Cavalry on the run to the south. The dash to the Channel was on. Guderian was told to halt whilst the bridgehead was consolidated, but he continued to rush westwards, and by the 16th. of May his advanced forces were more than fifty five miles west of Sedan.
In Paris, the government was in panic mode, not a single French division stood between them and the onrushing panzers, all reserves had been committed to Belgium and Holland on day one of this campaign. French officials decided to quit Paris for Tours, not knowing that Kleist had the Channel coast as his objective and not the French capital.
Runstedt in command of Army Group A was concerned at the head long rush westwards, somewhat fearful that his advanced forces may be cut off by the French, and he did order a 24 hour pause on the 16th. of May, so that the infantry might catch up and protect Kleist's flanks. Guderian reporting the day's progress informed Kleist he was continuing his advance tomorrow. Kleist considered this dispatch sheer insubordination, and ordered a halt and told Guderian to meet him at XIX Corps airstrip at 7 AM the next day.
At this meeting Kleist immediately tore a strip off Guderian for disobeying his orders, and Guderian did not take this reprimand quietly and demanded to be relieved of his command, so Kleist promptly sacked him. Historians may have looked at Kleist in a poor light for sacking such a tank genius as Guderian, but he did ask to be relieved and his superior obliged him on the spot.
Now List stepped into the act, telling Guderian the order to halt emanated from Hitler not Kleist, and that Guderian would not be allowed to give up his command, Army Group A expected the halt order to be obeyed, but a " reconnaissance in force" would be permitted. List now went off to smooth over Kleist.
Naturally Guderian took List's orders as a green light to keep up his advance, and he went off with his panzers as part of an "advanced" Corps HQ. But now he was careful how he set up his communications, so that higher head quarters were not able to intercept his messages.
Charles de Gaulle's French 4th. Armoured Division counterattack was made on the 17th. of May, although much was made of it later for political capital, it did little to stop the advance, and in fact was brushed aside.
The German Army renews its push to the Channel.
Now both sides of the battle field erupted into near panic, Hitler accusing his army advisers of advancing too rapidly, putting at risk the whole Western Front. The French Prime Minister Paul Reynard got rid of his 68 year old Marshal Gamelin, only to replace him with the 73 year old Marshal Maxime Weygand, and then bring in as his Vice Premier the 84 year old Marshal Henri Petain, a defeatist if ever there was one, and Weygand had a very strong dislike for the British, as he did for all politicians.
His first task as the new C-in-C was to go off to his bed, and not write a single order until the 21st. of May.
Britain's Lord Gort was already warning his government that an evacuation of his BEF may become a reality.
By the 20th. of May, a panzer battalion was sitting on the Channel at Noyelles, the " Panzer Corridor" was a mere 25 miles wide at its narrowist and some 156 miles long, but about 400,000 British and French troops were isolated in the Dunkirk Pocket.
Kleist made a mistake, he took the 10th. Panzer Division away from XIX Corps and put it in reserve on the 22nd. of May, just as Guderian was planning to use it to press on to capture Dunkirk, a reprieve for the hard pressed Allies. However Guderian pushed to the Channel ports to take both Calais and Boulogne on the 22nd. of May.
Now Runstedt interfered, ordering Kleist not to attack these ports until Arras was secured, five valuable hours were lost, and Kleist released the 10th. Panzers, and Guderian rushed it off to Calais so that his better equipped 1st. Panzer could go off to attack Dunkirk, the last remaining port through which the Allies might make their escape.
The scene looked bleak for the Allies caught in the Dunkirk Pocket, how might about 400,000 troops escape by the sea? the German Panzers closing in with a relentless push towards the port.
Now it was Hitler's turn to cast a spanner into the works, he issued his famous " HALT ORDER."
Some 337,000 British and French soldiers were snatched from the beaches in the " Miracle of Dunkirk."
But for this successful evacuation, the British may well have accepted the offer of Hitler for an armistice, and the whole outcome of WW2 may well have been changed, momentous times indeed!
Just mopping up in France
The First Panzer Group now deployed to Southern Poland in preparation for the planned invasion of the Soviet Union.
The Russian Campaign.
Although the Russian machines were in many ways technically superior to the German tanks, his troops broke the Stalin line on the the 6th. of July, having reached Rostov at the end of June.
Through July and August only about a 10 mile advance a day was achieved, not at all at the rate that Hitler had hoped for, Kleist now swung to the south, and linked with the German 17th. Army at Pervomaysk, trapping over 100,000 Soviet soldiers , with some 317 tanks and 1,100 guns destroyed or captured, a significent victory at the time.
Kleist's group reached the east bank of the Dnieper River on the 19th. of August, but a violent Russian counterattack pushed them back to the west bank, and it took another week before a Motorised Division could form a bridgehead on the far side of the river once more. Although the Russian forces tried to evict this foothold, with the aid of the Luftwaffe it was maintained, and Kleist pushed on, the 17th. Army crossed to the east of the Krenenchug River. By the 10th. of September Kleist took over this bridgehead from the 17th. Army and started to pour Kempf's XLVIII Panzers into the area.
The next day General Hans Lube's 16th. Panzer Group was able to break out of this bridgehead and punch through the defensive perimeter held by the Soviet 38th. Army, and head north for Romny.
The Soviet High Command totally suprised, Hube rushed northwards, covering 43 miles in just 12 hours, at 6.20 PM on the 14th. of September he joined up with Walter Model's 3rd. Panzer Group near Romny, they were 130 miles east of Kiev.
Kleist and Guderian had just achieved the largest encirclement in the war, and caught five Russian Armies, to bag 667,000 prisoners 3,718 guns, and 884 armoured vehicles all destroyed or captured, the entire Ukraine, the Soviet's food bowl lost.
An incredible achievement, and at that stage one would ponder and wonder how the Russian forces might ever recover from such a major defeat by German arms.
Kleist's Group upgraded.
Three Soviet divisions were accounted for at Novo-Moskovsk, and 1st. Panzer Army pressed on east and then south, part of this group reaching the Sea of Azov at Berdyansk on the 5th. of October, forming yet one more Soviet pocket at Chernigovka.
In another five days the 18th. Soviet Army was no more, its Commander dead, another 100,000 prisoners taken, and many guns and tanks destroyed.
The Mius River was reached, but now the rainy season took command, mud too much to pass, and Kleist was forced to halt until the ground froze over on the 17th. of November.
Kleist's headlong rush had depleted his fuel reserves and only 30% of the trucks that started off into Russia were still running, but he still managed to take the city of Rostov on the 20th. of November. It was a city of 500,000 people in 1941, and counter attacks by ten Soviet Army divisions were repulsed.
Kleist's left flank was very much exposed, but there was little that Runstedt could do to reinforce it, the Russians were very aware that they could ill afford to allow the Germans to hang on to Rostov, to use it as a springboard for their next 1942 summer offensive.
The Russians attack at Rostov.
Two days later Kleist had to withdraw his forces and sought permission to retreat right back to the Mius River, Hitler refused, but Rundsted authorised it anyway, only to be dismissed and relieved by Field Marshal von Reichenau.
But the new Commander sought approval from Hitler to allow Kleist to retreat, he could see no alternative, and his appeal was finally approved by Hitler within 24 hours.
Kleist suffered the ignominy of the first major German defeat on Russian soil, not to be either the last for either his country or himself.
The Russians advance.
Kleist had command of the 1st. Panzer and the 17th. Army for Operation Fridericus, leading to yet one more encirlement, and 239,000 Soviet troops and a large quantity of both guns and tanks were captured.
After this operation, Kleist's 1st. Panzer Army was moved south of Karkov to join up with List's Army Group A, and they were part of the forces to recapture Rostov on the 24th. of July. Now Army Group A made for the Caucasus and Baku oil regions and Army Group B pushed toward the Volga and Stalingrad. But this division of the German forces made them all too weak to achieve any of their objectives.
On the 9th. of September 1942, Hitler again interfered with his field commanders in Russia, he relieved Field Marshal List, to take command of Army Group A himself, but he was 1,000 miles away from the action still at his headquarters near Rastenburg in East Prussia. It looked like a recipe for disaster, this farce lasted only until the 21st. of November, when Hitler handed over command of Group Army A to Colonel General Ewald von Kleist.
Kleist warned his Fuehrer not to use the Italians, Hungarians and Rumanians to protect the flanks of the German 6th . Army, to no avail.
The Russians attacked the Hungarians both north and south of Stalingrad on the 19th. and 20th. of November and soon broke through to surround the 6th. Army, now Kleist was in trouble, for Stalin's forces were closer to Rostov than were Kleist's very exhausted troops, there was not much he could do to stop the Russians again getting control of Rostov.
This city was Army Group A's only land connection with all of the rest of the Russian front, but Hitler would not allow Kleist to retreat, until at last he relented on the 27th. of December.
Into the New Year, by the 30th. of January, the Soviets were only 19 miles from Rostov, but were held up by the last reserves of Manstein's Army Group Don, and the First Panzer Army had escaped. Kleist now neeeded to hold the Kuban across the Straits of Kerch at the Crimea, he was under severe pressure from 8 Soviet Armies, as the Germans tried to dig in, but Kleist held firm . For his defensive success, Hitler made Ewald a Field Marshal on the 1st. of February 1943, he had reached the absolute pinnacle of his Army career.
The Russian forces were trying to break through the Kuban line, and Kleist was advocating an evacuation of this area, in general ignored by Hitler, but finally on the 3rd. of September he ordered Kleist to put in train the much delayed evacuation.
Just in time, the Russains were close to the northern edge of the Crimea, if in place they could seal off the escape route and trap all of Kleist's Army.
But the Kuban foothold had done a fine job in employing about fifty Soviet Divisions against it, that might well have been more gainfully used elsewhere against theGerman invasion. Over some 34 days an incredible number of German troops, horses, vehicles and guns crossed the Straits of Kerch, the evacuation was completed by the 9th. of October, and a very sticky situation was avouded.
For some time Kleist was counselling his Fuhrer to pull right out of the Crimea, in fact he ordered on the 26th. of October that the peninsula was to evacuated, but Hitler counter manded it the same day.
Kleist was pushed back behind the Bug, and could not hold that line with his depleted forces, on the 26th.March, 1944 he took command of 8th. Army and issued orders to withdraw to the Dnestr, with or without permission from HQ's. His Chief of Staff advised him to get Hitler's go ahead, but he responded " Someone must lay his head on the block." he had obviously had a gutful of Hitler's interference with his Field Commanders.
When faced with a virtual fait accompli, Hitler gave his OK, providing Kleist held the bridgehead from Tiraspol to Odessa, the main supply port on the Crimea.
By the following day both the 6th. and 8th. Armies in full retreat from the Bug, and the Russian 8th. Guards and the 46th. Army were in close pursuit.
On the 30th. of March Hitler's personal aircraft landed at Kleist's air strip at Tiraspol to collect ther Field Marshal, then it flew on to Lvov, to gather up Erich von Manstein. That evening on the Obersalzburg, Hitler presented them both with the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords, and relieved them both of their commands.
Why then was Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist sacked?
In March of 1954 he was transferred to the Wladimir Prison Camp a place where German Generals were located, some 100 miles east of Moscow. He died here on the 15th. of October 1954, the only one of Hitler's Field Marshals to die in captivity, to be buried in an unknown grave somewhere in Russia.
One of the few Field Marshals prepared to stand up to Hitler and even to disobey orders if he thought it would save troops under his command, I believe he deserved a better end for his life post war than he received.
One of the old school who still supported a monarchy, but one of the best of Hitler's Field Marshals.