Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was born on November 24th 1887. Manstein fought in World War One, during which he was promoted to the rank of captain and had a number of staff appointments on both the Western and Eastern Fronts. When the war ended, Manstein remained in the army and in 1921 was given command of the 6th Company, 5th Jaeger Regiment. In 1927, he was promoted to major. Manstein gained a reputation for being an efficient officer and by 1939 he was employed as a staff officer.
Manstein very much came to Hitler’s attention as he commanded with distinction in the German attack on the Ardennes in the spring of 1940 – his men were the first to reach the River Seine. He did participate in ‘Operation Barbarossa’ where his men advanced 100 miles in days. Manstein was given command of the 11th Army in September 1941. In July 1942, the 11th Army took part in the capture of Sebastopol and in recognition of his leadership, Hitler promoted Manstein to field marshal.
Manstein was given the onerous task of trying to break through to the 6th Army led by Paulus trapped in Stalingrad. Army Group Don found that this task was beyond them especially as Hitler had refused Paulus permission to withdraw his men. These men, if permission had been granted, could have linked up with an advancing Army Group Don and formed a more formidable opponent for Zhukov. As it was, the 6th Army was trapped and tens of thousands of men were lost in a battle that military historians believed changed the course of the war in Europe, as the German Army was simply not able to recover from such losses in manpower.
Unlike some of his senior commanders who were dismissed by Hitler for failure, Manstein was given command of Army Group South. Despite many problems with supplies and the constant attacks by partisan groups, Manstein achieved success when he retook Kharkov. However, this success was only short term and it was only a matter of time before the German Army was in full retreat.
Manstein’s withdrawal from the south west of the USSR was measured and cautious. He never allowed his army to become an undisciplined rabble that took part in a mass retreat. Manstein believed that if he could maintain discipline, his withdrawal could only serve the army better in the sense that they could use one of the large rivers in the Soviet Union as a barrier to regroup behind. In particular, Manstein targeted the River Dnieper as one that was sufficiently large enough for his army group to regroup on the western side to face the Red Army as it approached the eastern bank. Hitler was not impressed by what he viewed as defeatist tactics. He called Manstein a “pisspot strategist” and dismissed him. He spent the rest of the war in retirement.
After the war Manstein was questioned as part of the Nuremberg investigations. However, he was never charged with any crime. However, in 1948 he was arrested and tried in a British court for alleged war crimes committed in the Soviet Union – the accusations came from Moscow. Evidence was produced that atrocities were carried out in territory under his command and that he had signed an order that stated that all ‘Bolshevik/Jews’ should be wiped out. However, on the order signed by Manstein there was a rider at the end that he would tolerate no savagery against captured Soviets and that if any prisoners were to be executed for whatever reason, no army officer was to be present. However, this failed to impress the court and, tried as a common criminal as opposed to a former army officer, Manstein was sentenced to 18 years in prison in February 1950. This was later reduced to 12 years. He was released from custody on May 6th 1953 for medical reasons.
Erich von Mainstein died on June 11th 1973.