If Hans Günther von Kluge had been a man of more impressive moral stature none would have exemplified better than he the tragedy of the German generals under Hitler. As it was, there was a sad futility about von Kluge’s suicide, in his sixty-second year, in the summer of 1944 when his long career in high command was summarily ended. He had been summoned back to Berlin in disgrace by Hitler, which meant in effect a sentence of execution in the hysterical aftermath of the July Plot. Kluge told his driver to take him to Metz, but before that city was reached he was dead in the back of his car from poison.
Clouds had gathered over Kluge’s head on three counts: first, Hitler believed that the Field-Marshal had been in sympathy with the conspirators of 20 July, although nothing could be proved against him. Second, he was in disfavour for the failure of the Avranches counteroffensive, in which he had not really believed and which he had not been permitted to stage as early as he thought right; nor was his conduct of the defence of the Falaise pocket pleasing to Hitler, who had forbidden him to let Army Group ‘B’ break out of it on 15 August 1944, although Kluge decided that he would ignore that order. And third, and the clinching black mark, on 15 August Kluge had ‘gone missing’ from his headquarters for twelve hours when he was supposedly on his way to confer at Necy with General of Panzer Troops Heinrich Eberbach, commander of the so-called 5th Panzer Army. This absence aroused the darkest suspicions at Hitler’s headquarters, where it was put about that Kluge had been negotiating a surrender with the Allies and had arranged a secret battlefield rendezvous with them. This was absurd enough, but Hitler was prepared to believe it, and Army Group headquarters was ordered to report back every hour on Kluge’s whereabouts.
What had happened, in fact, was something liable to happen to any commander. Kluge’s car and radio trucks had been caught in an air strike, shot up, and he himself trapped in the chaotic night traffic of a defeated army. Hitler refused to believe this, which was why, on 17 August, Field-Marshal Walter Model from the Russian front turned up unexpectedly at Kluge’s headquarters with a personal note from Hider and orders to take over command.
Kluge wrote a last letter to Hitler, which reads as a pathetic and undignified apologia.
‘When you receive these lines I shall be no more. I cannot bear the accusation of having brought about the fate of our armies in the West by mistaken measures, and I have no means of defending myself. I am therefore taking the only action I can, and shall go where thousands of my companions have preceded me . . .
‘Both Rommel and I, and probably all the commanders here in the West with experience of battle against the Anglo-Americans with their preponderance of material, foresaw the present development. We were not listened to. Our appreciations were not dictated by pessimism but from the sole knowledge of the facts. I do not know whether Field- Marshal Model, who has been proved in every sphere, will still master the situation. From my heart 1 hope so. Should it not be so, however, and your new, greatly desired weapons, especially of the Air Force, not succeed, then, my Führer, make up your mind to end the war. The German people have borne such untold suffering that it is time to put an end to this frightfulness . . .
‘My Führer, I have always admired your greatness, your conduct in the gigantic struggle, and your iron will to maintain yourself and National Socialism. If Fate is stronger than your will and your genius, so is Providence. You have fought an honourable and great fight. History will prove that for you. Show yourself now also great enough to put an end to a hopeless struggle when necessary’.
The man who could write this to Hitler, whom he knew well and with whom he had frequently discussed and sometimes argued military matters, shows an astonishing naiveté. For ten years at least, Kluge had been among the senior ranks of the German Army (in 1939, after the 1938 ‘purge’, Kluge stood equal fifth with Blaskowitz in the Army List). Now here he was fawning upon the man who, most of all, was responsible for his subsequent misery.
Von Kluge ended: ‘I depart from you, my Führer, as one who stood nearer to you than you perhaps realized, in the consciousness that I did my duty to the utmost.’
Hider read this letter without comment, according to Jodl’s evidence at Nuremberg, then passed it to him without saying a word. He denied Kluge military honours at his funeral.
Von Kluge was an artillery officer, like many of Germany’s top generals. After serving in the Great War he went steadily up the ladder of promotion, and by 1935 was a Lieutenant-General commanding the VI Army Corps at Münster. The following year he became a full General of Artillery, and in 1939 was in command of Heeresgruppe 6 at Hanover. In the Polish campaign, and in France in 1940, von Kluge commanded 4th Army, first under von Bock in Army Group North, and secondly under von Rundstedt’s Army Group ‘A’ as a Colonel-General. In these campaigns Kluge established his reputation as a sound and shrewd strategist and as an energetic front-line commander. In France his 4th Army contained no less than ten Army Corps, four of them mechanized ones under great leaders such as Guderian, Reinhardt, Höpner and Rudolf Schmidt, with Hoth and von Kleist as Group commanders. With leaders such as this it would have been hard to go far wrong, but General Blumentritt, an acute observer, characterized Kluge as ‘a very energetic and active commander who liked to be up among the fighting troops’. Kluge was ‘impulsive’, he writes, ‘and, like Rommel, continuously at the front, never sparing himself’.
This extreme energy and considerable intelligence naturally brought Kluge to Hitler’s attention. He was among the dozen new Field-Marshals appointed in July 1940, and commanded 4th Army again under von Bock in the war with Russia. When Bock was dismissed in December 1941, von Kluge acceded to the command of Army Group Centre. He was to hold this appointment until October 1943, when, as a result of a car accident, he was sent on sick leave and replaced by Colonel- General Busch. What was his record in Russia like?
Despite his energy, Kluge had a reputation for coolness and even, at times, caution. Paul Carell in Hitler’s War on Russia tells a story of how, in July 1941, the dashing Guderian tricked von Kluge, who wanted Guderian to wait on the Dnieper for the infantry to come up, by giving false positions for his leading tanks. ‘Your operations invariably hang by a silken thread,’ Kluge told Guderian, but he let him have his way. But Carell calls Kluge’s encirclement battle at Vyazma later in 1941 ‘the finest example of a batde of encirclement in military history’.
At the end of 1941 Kluge got rid of Guderian, whom he had found hard to control, if not insubordinate. Their quarrel was not the end of the affair, for in July 1943 Kluge actually challenged Guderian to a duel with pistols, with Hitler as his second, until wiser heads intervened.
Kluge did not get on very well with Bock either; he could do little about this in view of the latter’s unbending temperament and ruthless way with dissenters. According to General Blumentritt, Kluge was not in favour, after Smolensk, of continuing the advance on Moscow. He much preferred his own idea that his 4th Army and Guderian’s tank forces should encircle the Russians around Kiev. Not least weighty in Kluge’s mind was the fact that he would then be serving under von Rundstedt rather than von Bock. On at least one occasion, on 30 October 1941, Kluge instead of Bock was called before Hitler to report on the general situation, since Hitler, while tolerating Bock, distrusted his staff. ‘Der kluge Hans’-Clever Hans-was on his way to becoming the messenger boy between Hitler and the Army commanders.
Kluge’s mistrust of the Moscow offensive may explain some otherwise inexplicable delays on his part. During November 1941 his 4th Army remained passive in the Nara River area, which had been reached on 24 October. There were, it is true, Soviet counter-attacks, and it had been agreed that Kluge should not join the main attack until the tanks of Guderian, Höpner, and Reinhardt had begun to draw off Soviet forces from the Nara, west of Moscow, to the northern and southern flanks. But towards the end of November, when Höpner and Reinhardt were in position north of the capital, Kluge should have moved. He did not, despite frantic telephone calls from Höpner daily requesting him to attack from the Nara and engage Russian forces west of Moscow. Eventually Höpner lost patience, and on 29 November ordered 78 Storm Division, which was only twenty-five miles from the capital, to attack, as 4th Panzer Army was going to press on regardless of what 4th Army did. In fact Kluge began his own attack on 1 December, but on a very small scale, and the Russians righty regarded Höpner’s thrust from the north as the dangerous one. On 3 December Kluge, whose only noteworthy success had been in the Naro-Fominsk area, called off his attack, and by then it was clear that Moscow would not fall.
Why Kluge did not attack much earlier, and in greater strength from the Nara positions, is unclear. By doing so he would have drawn off Soviet reserves which were committed against the Panzer formations, and given the tank commanders greater scope. As it was, Kluge’s inactivity or fumbling were such that the Russians could actually withdraw some troops from the Nara front. It may be that the ultimate responsibility was von Bock’s, but the episode was discreditable to Kluge. Höpner felt that he had been badly let down, and did not forbear to say so. On 3 December he told Kluge that if that was the best that 4th Army could do, then the offensive against Moscow should never have been resumed. Meanwhile his own 4th Panzer Army was at the end of its resources within twenty miles of the Kremlin, and he suggested that both he and Reinhardt should pull back thirty miles from their exposed positions to straighten the line.
Kluge did not take this rebuke well. Soon Höpner was to go, unsupported by Kluge, and so were some twenty other generals from Army Group Centre. It now seems extraordinary, and only due to Hitler’s whim, that it was von Kluge who was chosen to succeed von Bock. But so it was.
It was thus mainly as a defensive commander that Kluge confirmed his reputation in the winter of 1941-2 and later. Indeed he was to engage in no great offensive until the Kursk-Orel battle of the summer of 1943. He had to get Hitler’s permission, frequently refused, for any withdrawal, and became in effect the channel for requests to do so, usually for good tactical reasons, from his subordinates. The operations of Army Group Centre bore, after Moscow, no clear individual stamp of a powerful and commanding hand. The result was bad for the German Army and led to an unwillingness to take responsibility, and lack of confidence, in the junior commanders of Corps and divisions. On 15 January 1942 the able 9th Army Commander, Colonel-General Rudolf Strauss, through whose front in the Rzhev area the Russians had made a dangerous break-through, asked to be relieved. Strauss was ill; he was succeeded by one of the ‘new’ generals, General of Panzer Troops Walther Model, the former commander of XLI Panzer Corps, known to the troops as a lucky general and correspondingly popular.
A convinced Nazi, Model had not attained divisional command at the outbreak of war, but had been Chief of Staff to Busch’s 16th Army in France in 1940. He was a ‘thruster’ who was to have considerable influence on Kluge, who tended to be influenced by strong-minded men and by those who had most recently talked to him. In Halder’s view Kluge lived from hand to mouth in the light of the crisis of the moment. He basically believed in Hitler’s ‘hold-on’ strategy, but had not the strength to dispute fallacious orders hard enough.
A good example of how easily Kluge could be swayed is provided by Alfred Rosenberg. He recalled in his memoirs how Kluge, at whose Münster headquarters the Nazi philosopher had a speaking engagement in 1939, said to him afterwards: ‘Permit me, Herr Reichsleiter, to say a frank word. You were depicted to us as an especially fanatical person and I admit having had some misgivings. But what you have said is so interesting and reasoned that I am very grateful to you’. Rosenberg became quite a friend of Kluge, and visited him in the summer of 1942 near Smolensk, when Kluge confided that he disapproved of the activities of Gauleiter Koch, the overlord of the Ukraine. But Kluge did little about them.
Although his army Group contributed half of the forces engaged in the great tank battles of Kursk and Orel in July and August 1943, it is surprising that Kluge’s name is not more closely associated with those German failures. Kluge seems to have been skeptical about the plan for, like Manstein, the other Army Group commander involved, he thought it would have been better accomplished two months earlier. But he was not actually against it, as were Model, Jodl, and, most strongly of all, Guderian. The latter’s opposition may well have inspired Kluge to disguise his misgivings, for he eventually supported ‘Citadel’, perhaps also because his Army Group had been so long on the defensive. In the event, however, Kluge was the first to call off the attack. Whereas by 12 July von Manstein in the southern sector rightly thought that victory was in sight, Kluge had suspended aggressive operations in the north because the Russians had made a deep penetration of 2nd Panzer Army in the rear of Model’s 9th Army and were actively threatening Orel. Kluge decided that it would be useless to continue the battle and that his formations should be withdrawn to their starting lines. Rather surprisingly Hitler agreed with this, probably because the Allies had landed in Sicily on 10 July, and left Manstein in the southern sector to continue his effort alone. When Hitler ordered the withdrawal of the S. S. Panzer Corps for transfer to Italy-delayed, as it turned out–Manstein was unable to make further headway. ‘Citadel’ had failed for three main reasons: first and most important, it was too late; second, the Russians knew it was coming; and third, the new tanks and assault guns, the Panther, the Porsche and Henschel Tigers, and the Ferdinand, did not live up to Hitler’s high hopes. This was not surprising, since none of them had passed their final acceptance trials, and they were not ready, in the view of Guderian and Albert Speer, the Armaments Minister, for wholesale committal to action. The Porsche Tigers and the Ferdinands were exceptionally vulnerable because of lack of machine-guns in their armament to deal with infantry. The Panthers and Ferdinands had not been given enough ammunition; and the Tigers’ sophisticated engines required an exceptionally high standard of driving and maintenance to keep them in the field.
‘Citadel’ left von Kluge short of some 20,000 trained fighting men, and he became very concerned about casualties and thus hesitant about making counter-attacks. For the rest of the summer and autumn Army Group Centre was on the defensive, first at Orel, and later from the Kursk salient. In August Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzer Army on the left and Heinrici’s 4th Army in the centre were heavily attacked. Reinhardt made several complaints about his grave shortage of men, nearly every division being under strength. He was also skeptical of the efficiency of the 21 Luftwaffe Field Corps of four Air Force ground divisions under the parachute General Alfred Schlemm, who had been Student’s Chief of Staff for the Crete operation.
Schlemm’s ability was not in question, but Reinhardt thought his divisions under-trained, and their being under the Luftwaffe for administrative and certain command functions made his life difficult. He was proved right on 6 October when the 2nd Luftwaffe Field Division broke and ran, and the Russians were enabled to capture Nevel, in a critical area near Kluge’s boundary with Army Group North. Reinhardt had to use Lieutenant-General Clössner’s IX Corps to restore the situation, but was refused permission to counter-attack in conjunction with the 16th Army of Army Group North. This was yet another request which Kluge forbore to judge, but simply forwarded to O.K.H. Meanwhile, farther south, the Soviets under Generals Eremenko and Sokolovsky had made good advances between the Desna and Sozh rivers, and by 25 September had recaptured both Smolensk and Roslavl, the latter on the 4th Army front. By October Kluge had his hands full with the Russians pressing 4th Army west of the Sozh in the Orsha and Mogilev regions. On 14 October Kluge wrote to Hider complaining of a deficiency of 200,000 men in his Army Group, and of the poor standard of such replacements as did arrive. While his soldiers’ morale remained good, he said, the Russians could always put together enough forces to attain local superiority, and in sum Army Group Centre felt both isolated and neglected. Kluge was careful to stress his own faithfulness, but he received no answer, and in any case on 27 October he was invalided home because of his car accident. At least it can be said for Kluge that with limited resources he had made the best of a bad job.