Fridolin Rudolph von Senger und Etterlin was born on September 4, 1891, in Waldshut near the Swiss border, a member of the petty aristocracy. Intensely Roman Catholic, he inherited from his mother deep religious and moral convictions that unswervingly guided him through life. Senger was also profoundly intellectual. In 1912, he became a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and acquired fluency in French and English. World War I interrupted his education in August 1914, and he was commissioned a lieutenant in the reserves. After four years of dedicated service, Senger remained in the postwar Reichswehr as a cavalry officer. He thus became one of few reserve officers selected to serve with the regulars. A professional soldier, Senger remained aloof from politics and studiously avoided the rising tide of Nazism. Tall, droopy-eyed, and physically unattractive, he was content to concentrate upon his passion- horses-and gained renown as a world-class equestrian. Senger subsequently studied for two years at the Cavalry School in Hannover, spent four years with the cavalry inspectorate in Berlin, and by 1938 had risen to colonel of the Third Cavalry. This regiment was descended from the proud Zieten Hussars, distinguished since the days of Frederick the Great, and he took particular pride utilizing its great silver kettles while on parade. Senger had since matured into an excellent field officer and easily passed entrance exams for the General Staff School, but he was refused because of his age. He nevertheless was delighted to remain with his horses until the advent of World War II. A dedicated soldier yet a devout Christian, Senger seemed strangely out of place while serving the Third Reich.
In September 1939, Senger led his cavalry regiment into Poland and saw active service. There he was profoundly shocked by SS atrocities against civilians and refused to partake in any revelry. “What can one do but stay silent,” he confessed. “Do they know what I am trying to say with my silence? Sometimes it seems to me that the boys feel my deep pain in my silence.” Senger later commanded a motorized brigade during the campaign through France in May 1940. He distinguished himself in the charge to the channel and captured Cherbourg just ahead of Gen. Erwin Rommel. He remained behind during the occupation, ensconced in a castle at Normandy and befriending the rural aristocracy of France. For two years Senger also employed his linguistic skills as the chief German liaison officer at Turin with the French-Italian armistice commission (by virtue of his knowledge of Latin, he easily mastered Italian), rising there to major general in September 1941. One year later Senger was reassigned to the Russian Front commanding the crack 17th Panzer Division. In this capacity he accompanied Gen. Hermann Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army during its unsuccessful attempt to relieve German forces trapped in Stalingrad. Failure there convinced Senger that Germany was destined to lose the war, and-to himself-he began questioning the rationality of his government.
Throughout the spring of 1943, Senger rendered excellent service during Field Marshal Erich Manstein’s drive through southwestern Ukraine, which rescued the First Panzer Army from imminent capture. That May he was summoned to Berlin for a personal audience with Adolf Hitler, where he received a promotion to lieutenant general. Despite this singular honor, Senger remained unmoved. “Of Hitler’s personal magnetism I felt not the slightest sign,” he emoted. “I thought only with disgust and horror of all the misfortunes which this man had brought upon my country.” The scholarly general was subsequently reassigned to Italy as chief liaison officer with Italian forces in Sicily.
Senger was actively involved in the defense of Sicily and helped orchestrate the successful withdrawal of German and Italian forces in July 1943. He then directed the removal of German forces marooned on Corsica and Sardinia, which was accomplished with consummate skill. However, after the fall of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and Italy’s armistice with the Allies in September 1943, Hitler ordered all Italian officers in German hands to be executed. Senger then curtly informed his superior, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, that he would not obey this order. Kesselring, in turn, did not inform Hitler of his defiance and the matter passed quietly. In October 1943, Senger took command of the 14th Panzer Corps in mainland Italy. He then established his headquarters at Roccasecca, birthplace of Saint Thomas Aquinas in 1225, in whose writing he took solace. By this time Allied forces under Gen. Mark W. Clark had landed at Salerno and were slowly pushing up the peninsula. It became Senger’s mission to halt their drive on Rome at any cost.
By November 1943, Senger assumed control of German defenses at Monte Cassino in the Apennine Mountains. This placed him 80-90 miles southeast of Rome, in rough, rugged terrain. And for a man with Senger’s classical background, it proved an area of intense personal interest. Monte Cassino was the site of the noted monastery of St. Benedict, a treasure of ancient Christendom harkening back to the year 529. This famous building was the inspiration for hundreds of other Roman Catholic retreats, was considered a work of art, and housed countless art treasures for safekeeping during the war. Nobody could have appreciated this more than Senger, for he carefully situated his defenses around that noble building, but never near it. His overall position, situated on steep, 1,700- foot-high peaks and manned by the elite First Parachute Division, would not require its use anyway. He nevertheless carefully evacuated all the monks and works of art as a precaution. The general fully intended to perform his duty yet was equally determined to spare this priceless relic from the ravages of war.
In December 1943, a combined Anglo-American force under Clark and British Gen. Harold Alexander had reached the valley and slopes before Monte Cassino in their drive to Rome. Their advance promptly halted after encountering the first belt of the so-called Gustav Line, masterminded by Kesselring to impede them. From their position high upon the slopes, the Germans easily observed Allied movements below them and called down a steady stream of accurate artillery fire. Cassino proved a difficult position to attack, a reality underscored on February 11, 1944, when Senger’s men handily repulsed a major American advance. Responsibility for breaking the German line next passed to New Zealand Gen. Sir Bernard C. Freyburg, who believed that the Germans used the ancient abbey as an artillery observation post. He therefore insisted that the position be bombed into rumble before another attack was attempted. Clark and Alexander agonized over what to do next, but at last they relented. On February 15, 1944, waves of Allied bombers dropped 450 tons of high explosives upon the ancient abbey, demolishing it. Around 300 civilians living in the villages below were also killed.
The bombardment of Monte Cassino sparked condemnation from Catholics around the world, including Senger, who had taken deliberate steps to preserve the artifact. Clark, himself a Catholic, was apologetic but felt that his hands were tied. Afterward, German paratroopers occupied the ruins, strengthening Senger’s already formidable position. The Allies experienced ample proof of this on February 11-15, 1944, when a second major attack by New Zealand and Gurkha troops was repelled with heavy loss. Senger expertly shifted his forces, deployed his guns, and bloodily repelled a third determined attempt on March 15-25. To break the impasse, Clark ordered a large-scale amphibious landing at Anzio near Rome, and Senger withdrew men from his front line to contain it. A fourth and final attack by Polish troops on May 18, 1944, finally carried Monte Cassino after even more heavy fighting. Casualties were horrendous, with some Polish battalions reporting losses of 70 percent! The Germans then quit their position and retired in good order to their next defensive line. All told, Monte Cassino was a masterful display of defensive tactics by Senger. His gallant stand halted a numerically superior force enjoying complete control of the air and inflicted more than 20,000 casualties on them.
Senger had thus far performed superbly, but his antipathy toward Hitler and the Nazis brought him under suspicion. After the failed July 20, 1944, bomb plot against the Hitler, he refused to cable congratulations or display any joyful manifestations over the Führer’s survival, and he became closely watched. Rome fell in August 1944, and Kesselring’s forces occupied a new defensive position called the Gothic Line. Senger’s next performance- moving obliquely across the Apennines with Allied forces in hot pursuit- was equally brilliant. At length he reached an agreement with Kesselring that the Gothic Line should not include the cities of Bologna, Pisa, Lucca, and Florence, for they were too heavily laden with artistic and historic artifacts. Taking the hint, the Allies also bypassed them during their advance. For the next six months Clark and his successor, Lucian K. Truscott, battered against formidable German defenses, taking heavy losses and making few gains. It was not until April 1945 that the Allies reached the foot of the Alps, and Senger was detailed to conduct peace negotiations. He then spent the next two years as a prisoner in England before being released in Holland.
After the war, Senger worked as a schoolmaster, a journalist, and a military commentator for Southwest German radio in 1952. He subsequently helped author the so-called Himmeroder Report, which outlined German rearmament and the creation of a new army, the Bundeswehr. Given his solid anti-Nazi credentials, Senger headed a military board that screened former Wehrmacht personnel to ensure they were untainted by the past. He determined that the new German army would reflect time-honored values of duty, honor, and integrity-the same high standards he himself abided by. This cultured aristocrat then penned a set of memoirs, which have been a hailed as a masterpiece of the genre. In them he agonized over Nazism, events at Cassino, and the senseless destruction of St. Benedict’s hallmark. The able, affable Senger und Etterlin died at Freiburg-im-Breisgau on January 4, 1963. Contemptuous of Hitler and the Nazis, he sought only to serve God and country to the best of his abilities.
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