Fedor von Bock

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Fedor von Bock was born in Kuestrin, Brandenburg province, on December 3, 1880, the son of Moritz von Bock, a distinguished Prussian general. He spent his childhood in the old fortress city of Kuestrin on the Oder River, quartered in buildings dating back to Frederick the Great. He spent hours playing on the banks of the fortress moat, imbibing the lessons of history—especially Prussian military history. All of this left an indelible mark on his development and character. All he ever wanted to do in his entire life was reach the top ranks of the army, and indeed he had a lifelong contempt for anything that was not Prussian or military. He once confessed that the only kind of art to which he could respond was the performance of a brass band. Indifferent to good food or drink, he could fast for days and still execute his duty in a demanding—indeed, fanatical—manner. He grew up to be overly serious, extremely ambitious, arrogant, opinionated, and humorless. One officer recalled that his “piercing gray eyes, in a severely lined face, look through you, their appraising regard not softened by any amiable pretense . . . his cold detachment would just as well become a hangman. . . . If he has a mental awareness of spheres of life other than that of the Army, and human beings other than those in uniform, he gives them no consideration.”

Capable but not brilliant, von Bock threw himself into his career with a fanatical zeal. Educated in cadet schools at Potsdam and Gross Lichterfelde, he was commissioned into the elite 5th Potsdam Foot Guards Regiment in 1898. He became a battalion adjutant in 1904 and regimental adjutant in 1906. After attending the War Academy, he joined the General Staff as a provisional member in 1910 and became a permanent member in 1912, the year he was promoted to captain. He then became Ib (General Staff officer, supply) for the elite Guards Corps, a post that he held when the war began. In September 1914, he became Ia (chief of operations) of the Guards Corps, before joining the staff of the 11th Army on the Eastern Front in May 1915.2 In January 1916, Bock temporarily assumed command of a battalion in the Prussian 4th Foot Guards Regiment. He led this unit with such fanatical courage that he won the Pour le Merite in the process. The official citation did not state the circumstances leading to the award, but it did not use the usual adjective “conspicuous” when referring to his bravery; instead, it described his courage as “incredible”: almost unique praise for the Imperial German Army.

After his tour as a battalion commander, Bock became first General Staff officer (Ia) of the 200th Infantry Division, a reserve unit of southern Germans not up to the standards of the Guards. Here Bock was almost universally hated by the other officers of the staff. This was a trend that would endure: none of Bock’s staff officers ever liked him or had much respect for him, largely because he took credit for their ideas himself. Nevertheless, Bock was promoted to major at the end of 1916, and the division did well on the Russian Front. A 1918 American intelligence report called it “one of the best divisions in the German Army.”

In April 1917, Bock returned to France as Ib on the staff of Army Group Crown Prince, which was commanded by Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, with whom he was friendly. On July 27, 1917, he became the chief of operations, working under Rupprecht’s chief of staff, Count Frederick von der Schulenberg.

Following the armistice, von Bock served on the Army Peace Commission and then became an associate of Hans von Seeckt, commander-in-chief of the Reichsheer. As chief of staff of Wehrkreis III in Berlin, Major von Bock was involved in the clandestine activities of the Black Reichswehr, a secret organization of illegal military formations operating under the disguise of volunteer civilian laborers. In September 1923, this group got out of hand and rebelled against the Weimar Republic, forcing General von Seeckt to suppress it by force of arms. At the ensuing trial, the recently promoted Lieutenant Colonel von Bock was called to the witness stand, where he denied any knowledge of the Black Reichswehr. He was lying, of course, but he got away with it, as did Kurt von Schleicher and Baron Kurt von Hammerstein. The left-wing press also accused Bock of being involved in several political murders conducted by the Femegerichte (Secret Court), another illicit right-wing organization. Again, however, they were unable to prove their allegations.

Bock’s subsequent Reichsheer career was less controversial. He became commander of the II Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment at Kolberg, Pomerania (now Kolobrzeg, Poland) (1924–1926); commander of the 4th Infantry (1926–1929); commander of the 1st Cavalry Division at Frankfurt/Oder (1929–1931); and commander of Wehrkreis II at Stettin (1931–1935). He was successively promoted to full colonel (1926), major general (1928), lieutenant general (1931), and general of infantry (1931), the rank he held when Hitler came to power.

General von Bock was a non-Nazi but certainly not an anti-Nazi. He wholeheartedly supported Hitler’s military policies and was not concerned with his domestic or foreign policies; as a result Bock was considered acceptable by the Fuehrer and his Nazi Party cronies. When many of Bock’s colleagues and peers were relieved or forced into retirement on the thinnest of pretexts, Bock would not lift a finger to help them or utter a single word of protest. Hitler thus saw him as a willing tool. Bock, of course, was well aware that the removal of senior generals only helped him move up the professional ladder. He was given command of Army Group 3 at Dresden in 1935 and was promoted to colonel general on March 1, 1938.

Bock’s army group (temporarily redesignated 8th Army) was in charge of the occupation of Austria in 1938 and had the task of incorporating the units of the former Austrian Army into the German Army. Here Bock’s true personality came out again. He openly displayed his contempt for everything Austrian, including his own war decorations from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which he referred to as “scrap iron.” During this period, Hermann Goering invited him to parades, ceremonies, and other social events celebrating the Anschluss. Bock, however, considered Hitler’s deputy a civilian and therefore beneath him. He rejected all invitations, without even the pretense of politeness. Because of Bock’s lack of social adroitness, Hitler soon had to transfer his difficult general back to Dresden. His own patrimony notwithstanding, Hitler himself held many Austrian traits in low regard, however, so Bock’s attitude was not to count against him.

Later in 1938, Bock commanded some of the forces that occupied the Sudetenland. He was accompanied by his nine-year-old son, who was wearing a sailor’s suit and a beret. He wished, Bock told foreign journalists, to impress the boy with “the beauty of and exhilaration of soldiering.” Shortly thereafter, another general ran afoul of the Nazis, and Bock was summoned to Berlin to replace Gerd von Rundstedt as commander-in-chief of Army Group 1.

For the 1939 invasion of Poland, Bock’s headquarters was redesignated Army Group North, and it had a strength of about 630,000 men. Rundstedt was called out of retirement to command the other army group used in Poland (Army Group South) and had the major responsibility for the campaign. Bock nevertheless relished his role, for he liked Poles even less than south Germans or Austrians. He overran the Polish Corridor and drove all the way to Brest-Litovsk in eastern Poland, where he linked up with the Soviets. By early October Bock had successfully completed all his assignments and was on his way to the Western Front.

According to the original German plan, Bock’s headquarters (now designated Army Group B) was supposed to direct the major effort against the Western Allies. Unfortunately (from Bock’s point of view) the German plan was an unimaginative rehash of the Schlieffen Plan, which had failed in 1914. Bock wrote a memorandum criticizing it, and Hitler agreed. Then, early in 1940, Erich von Manstein proposed a superior plan, which envisioned Rundstedt’s Army Group A delivering the main blow. Subsequently adopted, the Manstein Plan left Bock with a vital but secondary mission: drive into the Low Countries with enough vigor to convince the Allies that his was the main attack. That he succeeded in this mission no one can doubt. His two armies (the 18th and 6th) overran Holland and most of Belgium and finished off the remnants of the French forces at Dunkirk, taking tens of thousands of prisoners in the process.

During the second phase of operations in the West, Bock, with three armies and two panzer groups under his control, overran western France. After the French capitulated, Bock was promoted to field marshal on July 19, 1940. After this he briefly commanded occupation forces in France but made himself so obnoxious that Hitler transferred him back to Poland, where he directed defenses on the Eastern Frontier. The dour field marshal was ill with stomach ulcers much of the winter.

By now even Fedor von Bock was sick of the excesses of the Nazi regime and went so far as to knowingly tolerate having members of the anti-Hitler conspiracy on his staff. These men hoped to gain his support in a coup d’état against the Nazi government but were doomed to disappointment. Bock’s attitude was characteristic: “I will join you if you succeed but will have nothing to do with you if you fail.” Bock did not modify this position for the rest of the war.

Field Marshal von Bock was opposed to the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941; nevertheless, his headquarters (now called Army Group Center) had the most important objective of the campaign—Moscow. Initially he was assigned 51 of the 149 German divisions committed to Operation Barbarossa, including nine panzer and seven motorized divisions. Despite his pessimism over Germany’s chances, Bock initially did very well in the invasion—perhaps even showing a flash of military genius in the process. Less than a week after the campaign began, Bock’s panzer spearheads closed in on Minsk, 170 miles behind the Soviet frontier. Hitler grew nervous at his own success and suggested that Bock switch to a much shorter envelopment. Bock protested so strongly against this timidity that Hitler let him have his way. Minsk was surrounded on June 29, and the battle ended on July 3. Bock had captured 324,000 men and captured or destroyed 3,332 tanks and 1,809 guns.

Spearheaded by his two panzer groups under Hermann Hoth and Heinz Guderian, Bock’s forces continued to win victory after victory in several major battles of encirclement. In the Smolensk pocket, which was cleared on August 5, he took 310,000 prisoners and captured or destroyed 3,205 tanks and 3,120 guns. At the battle of Roslavl, which ended on August 8, he took 38,000 prisoners and captured or destroyed 250 tanks and 359 guns. The Gomel pocket had yielded 84,000 prisoners, 144 tanks, and 848 guns by August 24. By the last week of August, Bock had advanced more than 500 miles and was only 185 miles from Moscow. He had inflicted more than 750,000 casualties on the Soviets and captured or destroyed some 7,000 tanks and more than 6,000 guns, while Army Group Center had lost fewer than 100,000 men. The road to the Soviet capital was open when, much to von Bock’s disgust and over his protests, Hitler shifted the focus of the war to the north and south, against Leningrad and Kiev. Bock was forced to give up four of his five panzer corps and three infantry corps—giving the Soviets the time they desperately needed to organize the defense of their capital, their most important city.

It was one of the greatest mistakes of the war.

Field Marshal von Bock had little choice but to go over to the defensive in early September, while Stalin poured reinforcements into this critical sector. After a series of fierce attacks, he forced Bock to evacuate the Yelnya salient, but otherwise Army Group Center held its line against continually worsening odds. By the end of September, Bock was facing 1.5 million to 2 million men.

After the fall of Kiev in early September, Hitler considered going into winter quarters, but Bock, Brauchitsch, and Luftwaffe Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, among others, argued against it. Bock still felt that he could capture Moscow, despite the exhaustion of his men, the worn condition of his tanks, and the questionable campaign weather.

Bock got off to a good start in the double battle of Vyazma-Bryansk, which Carell calls “the most perfect battle of encirclement in military history.” Beginning on September 30, Bock smashed and encircled 81 Soviet divisions in two huge pockets. Although several Russian units succeeded in breaking out before the battle ended on October 17, Bock nevertheless captured 663,000 men and captured or destroyed 1,242 tanks and 5,412 guns. The offensive was halted only by heavy rains, which immobilized the German advance.

Bock was now only about 70 miles from Moscow, but the first snows had already fallen, and the Russian roads had turned into rivers of mud. Motorized supply columns could make only about five miles per day, and there were more than 2,000 vehicles stuck on the unpaved Moscow Highway alone. Furthermore, OKH was unable to provide the troops with winter clothing. Rundstedt and Leeb, the other two army group commanders in the East, now wanted to go over to the defensive, but Bock stubbornly insisted that the drive be resumed as soon as the ground froze and he could bring up food and ammunition.

The advance resumed on November 15. Struggling forward without winter clothing in temperatures below zero, with 70 percent of their vehicles inoperative, the German soldiers made a magnificent effort and pushed to within six miles of the Kremlin. Moscow could not be taken, however, and Bock’s stubbornness had placed his entire army group in jeopardy. Exhausted and at the end of a long and tenuous line of communications, the forward German divisions simply could not be supplied. Many units lived on a diet of horse meat for days at a time.

Stalin launched his counteroffensive on December 6. Despite Hitler’s orders that all units stand and if need be die where they were, Army Group Center was slowly pushed back in heavy fighting. Some divisions were forced to abandon all their artillery, while some panzer divisions lost almost all their tanks because there was not enough fuel to withdraw them. Soon 9th Army was in danger of being encircled, and it looked as if Army Group Center might be destroyed. Casualties were appalling.

Fedor von Bock had suffered his first defeat. As disaster closed in on his divisions, Bock’s reaction was to contact Colonel Rudolf Schmundt, Hitler’s personal adjutant, and complain about his deteriorating health, especially his stomach ulcers. He asked Schmundt to relay the details of his illnesses to Hitler, which Schmundt no doubt did. Two days later, on December 18, 1941, Field Marshal Keitel telephoned and said that Hitler suggested he take an extended leave to restore his health. Bock jumped at the chance. He was replaced that same day by Field Marshal Guenther von Kluge.

One month later, on January 17, 1942, Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau died, probably from a heart attack. The next day Hitler summoned Bock (now miraculously recovered) to Fuehrer Headquarters and offered him command of Army Group South, which Bock quickly accepted. By March, the Red Army offensives on this sector had been halted, largely because of Soviet troop exhaustion, supply failures, and deep snow. Now both sides began a race to build up supplies for a renewed offensive in the spring.

Bock’s command in 1942 was characterized by much greater caution than before. The field marshal obviously had been affected by his defeat at Moscow. When the Soviets launched their spring offensive on May 12, Hitler rejected several nervous requests from Bock and did not authorize the commitment of his reserves until May 17, when the Reds were within 12 miles of Kharkov. As a result, Army Group South won a major victory, capturing 240,000 men and capturing or destroying more than 1,200 tanks and 2,000 guns. The German forces suffered only 20,000 casualties. Hitler, however, was understandably unhappy about the lack of nerve Bock had displayed before Kharkov.

Hitler now began the second phase of his summer offensive (Operation Blue) by ordering Bock to clear the Don in preparation for drives against Stalingrad and the Caucasus. Bock was openly critical of this plan because it relied too heavily on undependable foreign armies to guard the flanks of the German advance. He nevertheless attacked with more than a million men on June 28. In contrast to 1941, however, his advance was very slow, and he appeared to be preoccupied with the security of his left flank. Against Hitler’s orders, he allowed himself to be pinned down in a prolonged battle at Voronezh—a fruitless battle, which he continued even after Hitler ordered him to break it off. As a result, several large Soviet formations escaped across the Don, and the expected large haul of prisoners did not materialize. For this reason Hitler relieved Bock on grounds of illness on July 15 and never employed him again. Privately Hitler told Rudolf Schmundt that he still admired Bock but could work only with commanders who obeyed orders to the letter.

In early May 1945, with Hitler dead and the Russians already in Berlin, Fedor von Bock received a telegram from Manstein, informing him that the Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz was forming a new government in the vicinity of Hamburg. The ambitious Bock left for that city at once—even this late in the war angling for a new command. Accounts of his death vary. On or about May 4 his car was on the Kiel Road when it was attacked by a British fighter-bomber. According to some accounts, British soldiers found his bullet-riddled body several days later, along with those of his wife and daughter. Other reports have that Bock was still alive when the British arrived. He was rushed to the Oldenburg Naval Hospital, where he died without regaining consciousness. He was 64 years old.

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