The life and career of Heinz Guderian, the “father” of the blitzkrieg.
Guderian was born in Kulm, West Prussia (now Chelmno, Poland), on June 17, 1888. His father was Friedrich Guderian, a future Prussian general who died of natural causes as a brigade commander during the advance of 1914. Heinz was educated in the cadet school system and entered the service as a Faehnrich (senior officer-cadet) in the Hanoverian 10th Jaeger Battalion in 1907. At the time, his father was the battalion commander.
Heinz attended the War School at Metz (then part of Germany) in 1907, underwent officer training, and was commissioned second lieutenant on January 27, 1908. He remained with the 10th Jaeger until 1913, when he was transferred to the War Academy in Berlin, to attend General Staff training. This class never graduated, however, because World War I began in August 1914. Guderian was named commander of the 3rd Heavy Radio Section of the 5th Cavalry Division on the Western Front. Later he commanded the 14th Heavy Radio Section of the 4th Army in France (1914–1917) and was briefly attached to the Army High Command, again as a signals officer (1915–1916). He was promoted to first lieutenant in November 1914 and to captain in late 1915.
In the spring of 1917, Guderian had a series of orientation assignments as a supply officer (Ib) and intelligence officer (Ic) with various commands, including the 4th Infantry Division and X Reserve Corps, as well as a tour with the operations staff of Army Detachment C. In early 1918, he attended the abbreviated General Staff course at Sedan and, on what he later declared to be the happiest day of his life, graduated and became a General Staff officer. Guderian spent the rest of the war on the General Staff of the XXXVIII Reserve Corps and as Ia to the German commander in occupied Italy.
In the chaos after the armistice—what the Germans called “the war after the war”—Captain Guderian headed east, serving with border protection units in Silesia and with the Iron Division in the Baltic States (1919–1920). A right-wing officer and strong German nationalist, Guderian was very upset when General Hans von Seeckt, the de facto commander of the army, recalled the German forces from the Baltic. Guderian never forgave Seeckt, but the general was right—and was certainly more politically astute than Guderian.
After he returned to Germany, Guderian commanded a company in the 10th Jaeger, which was now stationed at Goslar in Lower Saxony. (Later it became part of the III Battalion, 17th Infantry.) Guderian commanded his company until 1922, when he was transferred to the 7th Motor Transport Battalion in Munich and then to the Department of Motor Transport Troops in the Defense Ministry. Here Guderian found his cause. He became the “Apostle Paul” on the idea of motorized and armored warfare, which he saw as the future. Collectively, they revolved around the word blitzkrieg, or lightning warfare. Despite opposition from certain senior generals and virtually the entire cavalry branch, Guderian advocated his ideas to anyone who would listen. He wrote articles for professional military journals, translated others, and even wrote a book on the subject. He also gained a great many converts—and made a great many enemies. He nevertheless continued to advance professionally, receiving promotions to major (1927), lieutenant colonel (1931), and colonel (1933).
Guderian’s cause received a major boost in 1933, when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Hitler considered himself to be a revolutionary and his party to be a revolutionary party. Naturally, he was favorably disposed toward revolutionary military ideas, such as the concept of the blitzkrieg, as advocated by Heinz Guderian. With the support of the Fuehrer, Guderian and his mentor and protector, General Oswald Lutz, the chief of the Motor Transport Inspectorate, Germany began to create panzer units. On October 15, 1935, the first three panzer divisions were activated. Colonel Guderian received command of the 2nd Panzer at Wuerzburg. He was promoted to major general in 1936.
Guderian led the 2nd Panzer until February 1938, when Adolf Hitler purged the army of many of its anti-Nazi leaders. Among those to go was General Lutz, who learned over the public radio that he had been involuntarily retired. Guderian was offered Lutz’s job: chief of the Panzer Troops Command, along with a promotion to lieutenant general. He was delighted to accept and did not lift a finger to help his former protector.
In 1938, Guderian led the XVI Motorized Corps in the occupation of Austria, after which he was promoted to general of panzer troops. The following year, he distinguished himself as commander of the XIX Motorized (later Panzer) Corps in the conquest of Poland. His greatest campaign, however, was in the conquest of France, in which he commanded seven of Germany’s ten tank divisions. His corps was upgraded to 2nd Panzer Group in November 1940, and he was promoted to colonel general on July 19, 1940.
The German Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Guderian’s panzers led the way from the very beginning and took part in some of Nazi Germany’s greatest tactical victories: Bialystok-Minsk (290,000 Russians captured; 3,332 tanks and 1,809 guns captured or destroyed), Smolensk (310,000 Russians captured; 3,205 tanks and 3,120 guns captured or destroyed), Gomel (84,000 Russians captured; 144 tanks and 848 guns captured or destroyed), Kiev (667,000 Russians captured; 884 tanks and 3,718 guns captured or destroyed), and Vyazma-Bryansk (663,000 Russians captured; 1,242 tanks and 5,412 guns captured or destroyed).2 As a reward for Guderian’s victories, the 2nd Panzer Group was upgraded to 2nd Panzer Army on October 5, 1941, but after Vyazma-Bryansk, with the Russian winter fast approaching, Guderian took part in Army Group Center’s last thrusts on Moscow and then faced Stalin’s winter offensive with seriously depleted forces.
As mentioned earlier, Guderian had made enemies. Perhaps the worst of them was Field Marshal Guenther Hans von Kluge. He and Guderian hated each other so badly that they had almost fought a duel before it was forbidden by Hitler. Guderian had been scathing in his criticism of Kluge’s conduct of operations as commander of the 4th Army in Russia, to which 2nd Panzer Group had briefly been attached. Nevertheless, on December 18, 1941, Kluge replaced Field Marshal Fedor von Bock as commander-in-chief of Army Group Center. His command included Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Army.
Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler began issuing his tactically irrational hold-at-all-costs orders. Guderian ignored them. Kluge promptly reported his disobedience to Fuehrer Headquarters. Heinz Guderian was relieved of his command on December 26. He held no further assignments until after the fall of Stalingrad.3
The destruction of Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army shocked Hitler to the point that he recalled Guderian from disgrace. On February 28, 1943, he named “Fast Heinz” the inspector general of Panzer Troops. He placed Guderian in charge of all replacement panzer, motorized, and mechanized forces and equipment, including the formation of new units.4 His authority encompassed such broad powers that he rivaled the chief of the General Staff as the leading officer within the army. Despite the opinion of some historians, Hitler’s decision to create this post was a poor one, because it further divided the army command. Meanwhile, Guderian attempted to rebuild Germany’s motorized forces, while he took part in the political infighting that characterized the Third Reich.
On July 20, 1944, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, Colonel General Ludwig Beck, and their colleagues launched a coup against the Nazi regime. Heinz Guderian came down solidly on the side of the Nazis and helped suppress the revolt. Afterward, suspension fell on many generals, among them Kurt Zeitzler, the chief of the General Staff of the army. The next day, Hitler replaced him with Heinz Guderian.5
After the war, Guderian wrote the World War II classic Panzer Leader. It is an extremely valuable historical work, but should be handled with care by the layman. Certainly Guderian presents himself in the best possible light and emphasizes his opposition to Hitler and the Nazis. Reality is somewhat different. He sat on the “Court of Honor,” which expelled dozens of officers from the army, so that they could be tried and executed by the Nazis’ People’s Court. Although he later spoke of the Court of Honor with great disdain, he voted with the rest. Also, within 48 hours of taking charge, he replaced the traditional army salute with the Nazi (Hitler) salute. He also aided in the spread of Nazi propaganda within the forces. On the other hand, he did oppose Hitler’s irrational tactical decisions at every opportunity. This led to a number of fierce altercations, which eventually resulted in Guderian’s dismissal on March 28, 1945. Berlin fell less than five weeks later.
By this time, Guderian’s estate had been overrun by the Soviets, and his wife had escaped one step ahead of the Red Army. Officially on leave, Guderian joined the staff of the inspector of panzer troops in Tyrol, Italy. He surrendered to the American army on May 10, 1945, and remained in POW camps until June 1948. He died of congestive heart failure at Schwangau in southern Bavaria on May 14, 1954. Guderian is buried in the Friedhof Hildesheimar Strasse in Goslar. His son Heinz (1914–2004), who was chief of operations of the 116th Panzer Division during the war, later became a general and headed the panzer inspectorate of the West German Army.