German Army Frontline Leadership

This picture shows what appears to be the command detachment of a German infantry platoon. In the foreground, to the left of the radio operator, sits the Zugführer or platoon commander. His shoulder straps are obscured, but it can be assumed he is either an Oberleutnant or a Leutnant. His second in command, an Oberfeldwebel (Master Sergeant), can be seen sitting on an ammunition box in the centre, while one of his squad leaders (an Unteroffizier, or Corporal – wearing an Iron Cross) sits on the edge of the trench smoking a cigarette and taking notes. From the captured Russian PPSh-41 submachine guns dotted around the position it can be assumed that these men are somewhere on the eastern front.

Out in the field army, professionalism was at the heart of the way the German Army’s officer corps conducted military operations. The men who commanded Hitler’s armies were all career professionals who had trained their whole lives to lead men into battle. It was a matter of professional pride that they conducted themselves to the best of their ability and their units or headquarters acquitted themselves in a way that enhanced their military reputations. The respect of their peers was very important to German officers.

The German Army may have been outnumbered by its opponents, but it was very rare for its units in the field to be outfought. Free of the Führer’s meddling, commanders went about their trade with efficiency and some panache. Efficient staff work was not an end in itself. The German Army believed its purpose was to provide commanders with the ability to judge accurately the flow of battle, make rational decisions, and then execute any measures needed. German headquarters were generally very efficiently run. Commanders were provided with up-to-date battlefield information and were able to have their concepts of operation efficiently translated into workable orders, which were then effectively transmitted to subordinate units.

Below the army group level the army’s command system was very robust, proving its worth time and time again, in combat situations that would have led other armies to collapse. Command and control procedures were tried and tested, with every commander and headquarters knowing their missions and responsibilities. This was not just a case of having detailed orders, but of ensuring subordinates had a clear idea of the bigger picture so they could act according to their own initiative if they lost contact with higher headquarters. The famous Eastern Front panzer general Hermann Balck, for example, commander of the 11th Panzer Division, always liked to be present as his counterattacking tanks engaged the enemy to ensure that his subordinates made the most of opportunities when they arose.

As the war progressed, Hitler tried to control his generals to an ever-increasing degree. He blamed them for the increasing number of defeats being suffered by the German Army, and wanted to ensure the war was fought the way he wanted. In the icy wastes of Russia or in the African desert it would appear to be easy to disobey the “mad orders of the Bohemian corporal.” But as the long line of sacked and disgraced generals grew during 1942 and 1944, it was becoming increasingly risky to disobey Führer orders. Careers, salaries, and families were at risk. Manstein estimated that out of 17 army field marshals only one, Keitel, and only three of 36 colonel-generals managed to avoid being sacked during the course of the war. With the execution of some 35 generals and hundreds of more junior army officers after the failed July 1944 Bomb Plot, it was a very brave man who risked the displeasure of Hitler.

There was still a core of German officers who right to the end put the lives of their troops above loyalty to the Führer. When trapped in the Soviet city of Kirovograd with his XLVII Panzer Corps in January 1944, General Fritz Bayerlein, an experienced Africa Corps veteran, simply turned the radios off in his headquarters. He knew that he would receive a “stand-fast” order from Hitler. However, he ordered his troops to break out to the west. “Kirovograd sounds too much like Stalingrad for my liking,” was his comment on the situation as he saved his command from certain destruction. Likewise, General Theodor Busse, Manstein’s old chief of staff in Army Group South, ignored orders to fight to the last and broke out of a pocket south of Berlin in the dying days of the war with 40,000 men of his battered Ninth Army, who were mostly ill-equipped and short of ammunition. By then even good staff work was not enough to save Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich.

Junior Commanders

Far from being automatons, German junior officers were trained to be adaptable to deal effectively with the enemy and the terrain over which they conducted operations. They were the cement that held the German Army together and kept it fighting.

On the outer ramparts of the Third Reich in the final days of the war, the burden of holding together the battered remnants of the army fell upon the shoulders of a small band of veteran colonels and majors. When divisions were decimated time and again by massive Allied firepower or rolled over by Soviet tank hordes, small groups of German soldiers led by determined commanders formed ad hoc battle groups to try to close the breach in the frontline.

The German Army’s junior officer corps, i.e. between the rank of Oberst (colonel) and Leutnant (2nd lieutenant), was the backbone of Hitler’s war machine, and it was the vital link between the Führer, the Wehrmacht’s high command, and the ordinary soldiers. It was largely due to the junior officers that Hitler’s army kept fighting in spite of the overwhelming odds it faced.

Throughout the war the German Army was keen not to dilute its officer corps by directly promoting noncommissioned officers (NCOs) from the ranks, although in extreme conditions field promotions did occur. All potential officers first served in the ranks prior to selection for officer training before being given the appointment as “aspirant officer.” The basic educational qualification was set high, which meant that many NCOs were unable to progress into the officer corps. Potential officers who were selected during their basic recruit training had to have passed the university entrance examination, but more senior potential officers were exempt from this requirement. After serving several months in a unit under supervision, the aspirant officer would be dispatched to the Officer Training School at Doberitz near Berlin for a six-month basic officer training course. The majority of officers commissioned prior to the start of the war were conscripts, who were released to return to civilian life after their two years of national service.

In the early war years, the majority of colonels and majors had been professional soldiers in the old Reichswehr. They were the last of the old guard, and many were either aristocrats or the sons of career military families. The rapid expansion of the army and first wave of heavy casualties in Russia and Africa in 1941–42 meant that by the time Germany was forced on the defensive after Stalingrad and Kursk in 1943, these men were leading divisions or serving as staff officers at high-level headquarters. As they rose in command their places were taken by men who had risen through the ranks to now lead frontline battalions and regiments.

The burden of leadership thus fell on men who had been commissioned as young lieutenants in the early years of Hitler’s rise to power and then progressed through officer training during the 1930s. This infusion of reserve officers after 1943 transformed the German Army officer corps from a peacetime professional force into one that reflected German society as a whole. The reserve officers were almost all from lower-middle-class stock, or university-educated professional classes. Nazi control of the German education system in the 1930s meant that this generation of officers was almost totally indoctrinated with the Führer’s racist ideology. In some divisions, this meant that more than a quarter of all officers were members of the Nazi Party.

Mission Command

A major contributing factor to the battlefield success of the German Army was the fact that its officer corps was trained in what is now known as Mission Analysis or Auftragstaktik. German officers of all ranks were trained to be able to fight without detailed orders, to make do with just a brief statement of their commander’s intentions. The commander told his subordinates what he wanted achieved, not how to do it. Subordinate officers were expected to be able to think on their feet and adapt their brief orders to meet the requirements of the situation on the ground.

German Auftragstaktik techniques differed fundamentally from the more rigid command procedures adopted by the Allies. The latter relied on what the Germans called Befehlstaktik, or detailed direction of all troops. The differences in command procedures were largely responsible for the ability of the Germans to recover from the brink of disaster time and time again.

After 1943, Allied forces regularly broke through German lines in massive set-piece attacks involving huge artillery barrages and air support. These were tightly choreographed operations and junior subordinates were allowed little freedom of action. However, these attacks invariably became bogged down or deflected. Allied commanders often showed little initiative. They just waited for further orders, for reinforcements, or for new supplies to come forward, leaving the weakened attacking troops vulnerable to counterattack.

This was the point at which the German command doctrine came into its own. It gave the commander on the ground the freedom of action to do what was necessary to stop the attack, without reference to higher command. In many cases, of course, such reference upwards was actually impossible, because the artillery bombardments or air strikes had severed communications with higher headquarters.

For the execution of Auftragstaktik, command procedures required highly trained, experienced, and confident commanders. Central to German officer training at this time was the concept that the aspiring commander should be trained to take over the job of his immediate superior. So company commanders had to be ready to take over command of their battalion if its commander was incapacitated. Likewise, platoon leaders had to be prepared to take over from their company commander if he was killed or injured.

Periods of work in staff posts then prepared officers to command a combined-arms battle group or Kampfgruppe. A working understanding of how infantry, tanks, antitank guns, artillery, mortars, combat engineers, and aviation could work together was developed through staff training and on maneuvers. Training courses started with instruction on the capabilities of the various arms and equipment found in the Germany Army, then progressed to training exercises without troops where students were given tactical problems to solve, and they walked the ground with instructors discussing the best solution. Students then graduated to full-scale field exercises with demonstration troops. On these exercises students were swapped around between command appointments to give them experience of working with different arms and equipment.

The Kampfgruppe concept was so successful for the Germans because it grew from an all-arms combat doctrine, centered on the idea of unity of command, or Einheit. The German Army had long since dropped the idea of single-service combat units. Every corps, division, regiment, and battalion contained different types of weapons and sub-units. On the battlefield it was routine for further mixing of weapons and types of unit to occur as Kampfgruppen were formed for specific missions and then disbanded when they were completed. In the Allied and Soviet armies the forming of all-arms units was constantly being frustrated by arguments about command relationships, such as tank commanders not wanting to be under the orders of the infantry. In the German Army, the role of the Kampfgruppe commander was clear cut: he was the boss, period.

There were well-practiced procedures for establishing Kampfgruppen and transferring command of sub-units to them. It was usual to build a Kampfgruppe around an existing battalion or regimental headquarters to ensure all the necessary planning and communications capabilities were readily available for the Kampfgruppe commander. While a specific Kampfgruppe might be centered on a specific battalion or regiment, it was usual for a variety of supporting sub-units to be thrown in the pot to round out its combat capabilities. These generally included combat engineers, communications units, antitank guns, assault guns, medical support, logistic units with additional ammunition and combat supplies, reconnaissance troops, military police for traffic control, intelligence specialists, heavy mortars, rocket launchers, artillery planning staff, and observers. The latter were of particular importance because they determined the level of fire support available for a specific operation.

The most successful German battalion and company commanders were usually in their late twenties or early thirties. They motivated their men by leading from the front, sharing the privations of their frontline troops. Examples of these men included Dr. Franz Bake, who achieved fame as the commander of a Kampfgruppe of Panther tanks that led the rescue attempt to open a route to the Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket in February 1944. They also had to convince their troops that they had their interests at heart and were not going to waste their lives in stupid or fruitless operations. But in the extreme conditions on the Eastern Front, commanders also had to act ruthlessly to maintain discipline. The point at which units cracked under pressure was difficult to judge, but if panic was to be nipped in the bud then sometimes waverers had to treated harshly. This was particularly the case when units were in danger of being surrounded. After Stalingrad in 1943, ordinary German soldiers were very frightened of being trapped in pockets, or Kessels, and units occasionally collapsed when Soviet troops got behind them. This symptom became known as “Kessel stress,” and the Germans thought it had to be dealt with carefully if commanders were to keep their units fighting to give them a chance to break out or launch a counterattack against the enemy.

Although desertions were rare, especially in Russia where the local population was almost universally hostile to the Germans, officers were regularly urged to take harsh measures against ill-discipline. Field court martials were increasingly common as the war progressed. Junior officers were empowered to shoot on sight any soldiers who wavered in the face of the enemy, or were spotted crossing over to enemy lines. However, at the end keeping the troops fighting was an increasingly difficult task as the ordinary soldier’s faith in the Führer started to waver.

Heinz Guderian, architect of the Wehrmacht’s panzer arm, directs the Second Panzer Army from his personal command vehicle in 1941. Guderian, like many German commanders, preferred to direct operations from as close to the frontline as possible. His vehicle is fitted with a large radio and an enigma cipher machine for communications with high command and other units in the field. Waiting close by are several motorcycle dispatch riders, ready to carry messages to units in the thick of the fighting.

High Command

The German Army contained some of the most gifted generals to see service in World War II, but continual interference from Hitler, who distrusted many of his “defeatist generals,” diluted their effectiveness and damaged the German war effort.

The Prussian General Staff was a feared institution in the years leading up to World War I because of its reputation for professionalism and efficiency. After that war it was blamed by the victorious Allies for leading Germany down the road of aggression, and in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles the organization was outlawed.

Hitler’s military high command structure was a very different beast from that of Bismarck or Kaiser Wilhelm II. He was determined to retain control over the armed forces, and to do so on February 4, 1938, he set up the Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht – OKW) to replace the old War Ministry. With the consent of service chiefs Hitler became supreme commander of the armed forces, and thereafter the German Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres – OKH) was gradually reduced to being an instrument of the Führer’s will, rather than the source of sound military advice and imaginative planning. Through skillful political maneuvering, Hitler watered down the powers of the army general staff because he did not want it to be an alternative power base to his Nazi Party.

“Hitler’s most outstanding quality was his will power,” commented Colonel-General Heinz Guderian. “By exercise of his will he compelled me to follow him. This power of his worked by means of suggestion and, indeed, its effect on many men was almost hypnotic. At the OKW almost nobody contradicted him: the men there were either in a state of permanent hypnosis, like [Field Marshal] Wilhelm Keitel [OKW chief], or of resigned acquiescence, like [Colonel-General Alfred] Jodl [OKW operations chief]. Even self-confident individuals, men who had proved their bravery in the face of the enemy, would surrender to Hitler’s oratory and would fall silent when confronted by his logic, which it was so hard to refute.” Another less charitable critic called Keitel “Hitler’s unthinking and irresponsible yes-man.”

Guderian fails to point out that the officer corps as a whole largely welcomed Hitler and his Nazi Party. Drawn mainly from established military families, from the nobility, or from the professional middle classes, it was traditionally conservative and anticommunist. In addition, senior commanders were loathe to break the oath of loyalty to their Führer, even when the tide of war had turned against Germany. In mid-July 1944, for example, there were over 2,000 generals in the army; only 35 took an active part in the Bomb Plot against Hitler.

In the army, field marshals commanded theaters and army groups, while below them an army was led by a Generaloberst (general) or a General der Infanterie or Panzertruppe (lieutenant-general). A division was commanded by a Generalleutnant (major-general) or a Generalmajor (brigadier), while individual regiments were led by an Oberst (colonel). On paper, the OKW was supposed to coordinate the activities of all different armed services, but it never grew much beyond being Hitler’s personal planning staff. The services reported to the OKW on operational matters, but the heads of the services rarely met together except at formal sessions to receive their orders from their Führer. The OKW was not a joint chiefs of staff organization where the service chiefs met and presented agreed planning options or military advice to their head of state. “In democratic states the branches of the armed forces and various aspects of the war economy were firmly coordinated, but in Germany there was a strange separation into independent powers,” recalled Major-General F.W. Mellenthin, staff officer. “The army, the navy, the air force, the SS, the Organization Todt, the NSDAP [Nazi Party], the commissariats, the numerous branches of the economy all worked separately, but received their orders directly from Hitler. The reason for this strange and sinister phenomenon was undoubtedly Hitler’s craving for power and his distrust of any independent force. The old motto ‘divide and rule’ was carried to its logical absurdity.”

Divide and Rule

Paranoid about threats to his power, Hitler was happy for the air force, army, navy, and industrial barons to be at loggerheads and dependent on him to arbitrate their squabbles. Added to this potent brew of personal and professional rivalries, Hitler created his own private army: the Waffen-SS. By the end of the war it had grown to almost 40 divisions, as well as several independent armies and corps headquarters. In the field the Waffen-SS was subordinate to Wehrmacht tactical headquarters, but had its own logistic, administrative, rank, and promotion systems. It reported direct to Heinrich Himmler’s SS organization or personally to the Führer.

Throughout the war generals such as Erwin Rommel, Heinz Guderian, and Erich von Manstein repeated petitioned Hitler to change this chaotic and inefficient command structure to maximize Germany’s scarce resources and streamline operational planning. Hitler refused every time to follow this advice. By 1943 he had lost confidence in his generals. He dubbed them either “pisspot strategists” or “defeatists.” The July 1944 Bomb Plot further undermined his opinion of the higher echelons of the officer corps. He was convinced that at the first opportunity the generals would try to make a compromise peace with the Allies. Therefore, the only way for Germany to remain locked into his titanic struggle with its opponents was for him to keep total control of the direction of the war, even down to the smallest detail. He was not prepared to be reduced to the status of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who became a tool of the general staff. Germany’s supreme warlord was not going to give up the reins of power just because it might help his generals tidy up their frontlines.

Hitler’s desire to centralize all decision-making did not stop within the OKW level of command. He divided Europe into a number of operational theaters, commanded by generals who were all working to do down their rivals. The biggest war zone, the Eastern Front in Russia, was nominally run by the OKH. Its area of responsibility was, in turn, carved up into large army groups. The most famous were Army Group North, Center, and South. They respectively looked after the Baltic and Leningrad, the front opposite Moscow, and the Ukraine. Hitler left the OKH staff to deal with routine administrative details, but on strategic matters he dealt directly with the army group commanders. In late 1941, Hitler appointed himself commander in chief of the OKH, effectively formalizing his micromanagement of the war in Russia. The side-tracking of the OKH into the Russian theater command signaled the demise of the old-style general staff. The German Army’s leadership was locked into the Eastern Front and the OKW did not rise to the task of providing an alternative focus for the German armed forces. Indeed, Hitler deliberately designed it that way.

The Mediterranean theater was largely the domain of the Luftwaffe for the last two years of the war, through the appointment of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring as commander in chief of Army Group C in Italy. His success in bogging down tens of thousands of Allied troops meant that Hitler largely left him to his own devices.

From 1942 to 1944, northwestern Europe was the domain of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. At 67 he was appointed commander in chief West with responsibility for France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. As the Allied invasion drew near in the spring of 1944, Hitler imposed a myriad of layers of command under Rundstedt, which reported directly to the Führer, to ensure that the old field marshal had no real influence over events on the ground.

The Balkans were a major theater of operations for the Germans, soaking up more than 600,000 troops during 1944. For the last two years of the war, Maximilian Baron von Weichs, promoted to field marshal in January 1943, was tasked with keeping a lid on Greek, Albanian, and Yugoslav partisans.

The army groups usually contained a number of armies. They were the real engine houses of Hitler’s war machine and were usually located far enough away from the Führer’s Wolf’s Lair headquarters to allow commanders and their staffs to have a degree of independence in how they conducted operations. Some of the most famous German generals, such as Erich von Manstein, Walther Model, Hans Kluge, and Rundstedt, commanded army groups in Russia.

Army group commanders were, in effect, the first command level where Hitler’s “divide and rule” policies started to lose their effect. Luftwaffe, Waffen-SS, and naval forces assigned to an army group commander were under his operational control. Command and personal relationships between senior commanders at this level were generally good, allowing the formulation of coherent plans and efficient conduct of operations.

Within army groups, it was also possible for commanders to conduct operations without overreliance on radios, which were very vulnerable to the British “Ultra” interception and decoding systems. Manstein’s success in Russia in 1943 and 1944 is attributed, in part, to his belief in face-to-face briefings with his corps and divisional commanders on future operations. The British lost track of Manstein’s counterattack at Kharkov in early 1943 and were unable to provide the Soviets with any warning of the field marshal’s plans. The Soviets dangerously overextended themselves and were sent reeling backward, losing Kharkov, thousands of tanks, and tens of thousands of men to Manstein’s counterattack.

Manstein built his Army Group South, formerly Army Group Don, headquarters into one of the most effective in the Wehrmacht. Its battles in southern Russia and the Ukraine from December 1943 through to March 1944 achieved almost legendary status. Against seemingly overwhelming odds, time and time again Manstein and his staff saved the southern flank of the Eastern Front from disaster.

By the summer of 1944 Hitler had greatly reined in his army group commanders, with Rommel, for example, finding he had little freedom of action during the Battle for Normandy after the D-Day landings in June 1944. Rommel, as commander of Army Group B, in theory had command of two armies, the Seventh and Fifteenth, but Hitler refused to release the latter to move to Normandy because of his belief that Allied troops were poised to cross the Channel and invade the Pas de Calais. Hitler also issued orders that none of the panzer divisions in France could move without his personal approval. Not surprisingly, the “Desert Fox” believed he was fighting with one arm tied behind his back.

While individual German divisions put up heavy resistance in their respective sectors, Rommel’s army group was never able to conduct effective large-scale operations. Though Allied air supremacy played a major part in limiting his freedom of movement, it is also clear that Army Group B never really got into its stride. “Ultra” intelligence also meant the Allies could preempt many of Rommel’s moves.

The main frontline field headquarters were army, corps, and divisions. These were usually made up exclusively of German Army units and here the last vestiges of the old general staff tradition lived on. The army and corps were headquarters that could be assigned a variety of types of units, such as panzer, infantry, or panzergrenadier divisions, along with specialist artillery, rocket, or assault gun units. Units would be assigned to these headquarters, depending on the particular mission they were given. They would then be taken away once the mission was completed.

The German staff system operated very differently from its Allied or Soviet counterparts, which placed great emphasis on the role of the commander himself to formulate ideas and issue very detailed orders.

A German army, corps, or divisional headquarters staff was a specific unit in its own right, with its own transport, communications, administrative, supply, and protection units. The smooth running of a headquarters depended on the efficiency of these support units, particularly the communications personnel who ensured the staff could remain in contact with higher headquarters and subordinate units at all times.

Personnel were posted to a headquarters for specific tours of duty and they could only serve in key posts if they had passed very demanding staff examinations. Only those officers who had passed the highest level of the general staff corps exam could lead the top staff branches in a division or higher level of headquarters. Throughout the war the army maintained its staff officer career and promotion structure, with officers progressing from one staff job to another, and important interludes where they were posted to command frontline regiments or work as instructors at training depots and staff schools. The Germans tried never to fall into the trap of posting medically unfit or second-rate officers to man the headquarters of frontline armies, corps, or divisions. Attaining a staff posting in a frontline headquarters was a major career ambition for upwardly mobile German officers, and an essential requirement before moving on to high-level command and promotion to the rank of general.

German staff officers were expected to be physically fit and mentally agile. They had to be able to make visits to the frontline to find out what was going on and inspire subordinates by their example. Hiding at a safe rear headquarters was not considered proper officer conduct. Headquarters had to function around the clock, so an ability to do without sleep for long periods of time was a prerequisite for the successful German staff officer!

German headquarters operated a number of staff branches: operations, artillery or fire planning, intelligence, combat engineering, medical, supply, administrative, legal, mapping, and communications. The most important were staff officers for operations and artillery chiefs. The former were responsible for generating operations proposals to the commander and chief of staff. They then formulated specific orders when the commander had decided on the course of action to be taken.

The artillery commander had his own separate command post that was co-located with the army, corps, or divisional headquarters it was supporting. At divisional level, the artillery headquarters was permanently assigned, but in higher-level headquarters it was assigned according to the tactical situation to co-ordinate the fire from a large number of artillery units. It was not the job of the artillery command post to direct the fire of individual gun batteries, but to develop overall fire plans to support any operations. Centralized planning and de-centralized execution was the way the Germans employed their artillery. The artillery commander allocated observation posts to frontline units and then assigned them support from firing batteries. It was up to the observers to call down fire, depending on the situation on the ground. It was the job of the artillery commander’s staff to work closely with the operations branch of their parent headquarters to ensure the fire plan met the requirements of the commander’s battle plan. The artillery command post controlled its observers and firing batteries by means of a separate radio network or field telephone, to ensure requests for fire received an instant response.

Chief of Staff

The relationship between a commander and his chief of staff was the key to the effective running of a German headquarters. In British, American, and Soviet headquarters the chief of staff was really in charge of little more than the smooth running of the headquarters. In the German Army, he was in many ways the co-equal of his commander. The chief of staff had full authority to take command if his superior was away on leave or out of contact on a visit to the front.

A commander had to work hand-in-hand with his chief of staff to formulate plans and then execute them. The commander would usually spend most of his days at the front visiting units or leading particular operations from a small tactical headquarters, while the chief of staff stayed at the main headquarters monitoring the overall progress of the battle to ensure things went according to plan. During a crisis it was also not unusual for the chief of staff to be sent into the field to command ad hoc battle groups, or to put some “backbone” into wavering subordinates.

To its opponents, the German command system was held in awe. The successes of the Blitzkrieg years created a myth of German invincibility that lasted through to the end of the war. Hitler’s generals, particularly those who had masterminded major Allied defeats, such as Manstein in France in 1940 and Rommel in Africa, were seen as sorts of military supermen.

The reality of the German Army command system was less impressive and it was very uneven in quality. Overall strategic direction of the war was totally in the hands of Hitler by 1941. He had sidelined or sacked any senior generals who had tried to interfere in his conduct of the war. He surrounded himself with officers, such as Keitel and Jodl, who were willing to act as his messenger boys. Keitel’s justification when passing orders in March 1944 to have 50 British escaped prisoners shot showed his moral bankruptcy: “These escapees must be shot,” he told a reluctant subordinate. “We must set an example. We discussed it in the Führer’s presence and it cannot be altered.”

The OKW organization was never able to operate as a true joint headquarters. Its staff spent most of their time regurgitating reports from the front for Hitler’s daily conferences. When called upon to prepare plans for specific operations, it did little more than give the Führer’s ideas a veneer of military polish.

When these amateurish orders arrived at frontline headquarters, they were often the subject of great profession derision from the highly trained and experience staff officers who led the German Army. A veteran panzer general, Frido von Senger und Etterlin, recalled that one of Keitel’s pep talks to assembled frontline officers in May 1944 received a far from enthusiastic reception. “I was aware that certain officers were anything but enthusiastic at having to listen to such propaganda nonsense at a time when the situation was nothing short of disastrous. But these officers thought it best to conceal their feelings.” Fear of revolution had made the die-hard followers of Hitler keep an eye on “unreliable generals.”

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