Field Marshal Walther Model fought in the attack on Poland (September 1939), the attack on Western Europe (Spring 1940) and in ‘Operation Barbarossa’ (June 1941) – the attack on the Soviet Union. Walther Model gained a reputation for being a competent and capable commander with an ability to do a lot with very little – an important quality as the war progressed.
Walther Model was born on January 24th 1891. He joined the German Army in 1909 and fought during World War One. He quickly gained a reputation for being an effective leader and after deciding to stay in the army after the Treaty of Versailles, Model was steadily promoted. By the outbreak of World War Two, Model was Chief-of-Staff to IV Corps, which participated in the invasion of Poland. For the planned attack on Western Europe, he was made Chief-of-Staff to the 16th Army.
For the attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 (‘Operation Barbarossa’) Model commanded the 3rd Panzer Division. It was this unit that led the thrust to the River Dnieper – ad beyond it. It was this air of success and competency that persuaded Hitler to promote Model to commander of the XLI Panzer Corps with the rank of general. In January 1942, Model was given the command of the 9th Army.
Model had many strengths but he was considered to be an expert in ‘flexible defence’. Model had no problem with the concept of a tactical withdrawal if that allowed his men the necessary time to reorganise themselves to either counter an enemy attack or to use as a springboard for an attack itself. However, to Hitler the whole idea of a tactical withdrawal was anathema and a sign of cowardice. It was this stubborn refusal to consider what most army generals considered a normal part of tactics that brought Hitler into conflict with his generals. However, as they had taken an oath of loyalty to Hitler, this conflict was invariably done in whispers – though for the 1944 July Bomb Plot, it spilled out into an outright attempt to kill Hitler.
In October 1943, Model was given the command of Army Group North. This had faltered in its attempt to take Leningrad (St Petersburg) and Hitler became convinced that Model was the man to give this army a shot in the arm. To inspire Model even more, Hitler promoted him to field marshal on March 1st 1944.
Model’s skill in defence was seen once again when he replaced Manstein as head of Army Group South on March 30th 1944. In this southern sector of the eastern front, Model blunted the Soviet advance into the Carpathians and hence into Hungary. In June 1944, Model was given command of Army Group Centre where he was equally successful in holding up the Soviet advance into Warsaw. However, Model was always fighting a better-equipped army that had one common purpose whereas the German army was split. With more limited supplies than his enemy, Model did as well as could have been expected up against a rampaging enemy and a commander-in-chief who had little concept of the tactics and strategies that were required on the Eastern Front.
On August 14th 1944, Model was given the command of the German army in Western Europe. Two months after D-Day, the Allies had gained a good hold of Normandy where Allied forces were successfully engaging the Germans in northern France. With air superiority and command of the Channel, the Allies could supply their armies with a degree of ease. However, the constant bombing raids by Bomber Command and the USAAF, combined with the sabotage of key communication routes by the French Resistance, meant that the German army could never match the Allies for supplies.
The short-term success of the Ardennes attack was the last major success of the German army in Western Europe in World War Two. The advance of the Allies into Western Germany was unstoppable. Model’s army had to pull back to beyond the Ruhr. On April 15th 1945, Model disbanded his army command and on April 21st he shot himself rather than surrender to the Allies.