Gerd von Rundstedt was a senior officer in the German Army during World War Two. Rundstedt was already an old man by the time World War Two started in 1939 but he was to play an important role in the attack on Poland and the attack on Western Europe in the spring of 1940.
Rundstedt was born on December 12th 1875. He was born into a military family and it became an expectation that Rundstedt would follow the same route. He joined the German Army in 1892 aged 17. When World War One started in August 1914, Rundstedt held the rank of captain. He had already attended the War Academy in Berlin and in November 1914, he was promoted to the rank of major, a rank he held throughout the war.
A career officer, Rundstedt stayed in the ‘Reichswehr’ after the war and the military settlements contained in the Treaty of Versailles. He held a number of staff positions and was promoted to lieutenant general in November 1927 and became a full general in October 1932. On the same day as he was promoted to general (October 1st), Rundstedt was also made commander of the 1st Army Group.
For four years Rundstedt had witnessed the slaughter of the infantry in World War One. In the 1930’s he was now in a position where he could dedicate his professional life to ensuring that such a slaughter would never happen again. He took a keen interest in modern infantry tactics and equipment so that casualties in any future war would be kept to a minimum. On November 1st 1938 Rundstedt retired from active service having witnessed the rise of a new modern and well-equipped German Army. He was nearly 63 years old when he retired.
However, on June 1st, 1939, Hitler recalled Rundstedt for active service. He was given command of Army Group South for the campaign against Poland. It was this group that captured Warsaw.
After the success of the Polish campaign, Rundstedt was given command of Army Group A for the Spring attack in Western Europe. The overwhelming success of this attack sealed his position and favour with Hitler who promoted Rundstedt to field marshal on July 19th, 1940.
Rundstedt was given the command of Army Group South for the attack on Russia in ‘Operation Barbarossa’ in 1941. His primary target were the oil fields in the Caucasus. He resigned his commission on December 3rd 1941 when Hitler refused to give him permission to make a tactical withdrawal to the Mius line so that he could regroup his men and equipment before taking on the Russian forces once again. Hitler’s constant meddling in the Eastern Campaign was a constant source of anger amongst the senior officers in the Army but no one dared to challenge Hitler. Rundstedt did what he could to show his anger by his resignation.
Rundstedt was recalled on March 1st 1942 when he was appointed Commander-in-Chief West, a position he held for most of the rest of World War Two. In this position he spent a great deal of time and energy developing the Atlantic Wall in preparation for the expected Allied invasion. Rundstedt faced the difficulty that the actual technicalities of developing the Wall were left to the Todt Organisation and they did not consult Rundstedt on anything that they did. Rundstedt was very critical of the Atlantic Wall as it stood in the summer of 1942. He believed that the Wall had one intrinsic weakness. Each of the Wall’s fortresses was built a number of miles from the other. They were linked by a series of lines between them. It was these link lines between each fortress that so concerned Rundstedt and he gave the Wall a life expectancy of 24 hours once the Allies started their invasion. In particular he believed that these link lines were open to sabotage by the French Resistance who would, he assumed, play an important part in the expected landings.
One aspect of command that Rundstedt could do nothing about was the fact that Erwin Rommel, a junior officer to Rundstedt, was allowed to dilute any order given out by Rundstedt as he had the ‘ear’ of Hitler. Rundstedt and Rommel had different views on how to defend the French coastline but Rundstedt’s should have prevailed. But in the area of France where Rommel held sway they did not.
After the Allied success on D-Day, Rundstedt complained that he could not control the battles being fought around Normandy as a result of Hitler’s constant interference. Rundstedt, supported by Rommel, wanted to withdraw his forces from the coastal area and regroup before countering the Allied advance. Hitler refused to allow any such move. Rundstedt also advised Hitler to seek a negotiated peace with the Allies after it became clear that there was not going to be any successful attempt by the German Army to force the Allies back into the Channel. Hitler was not prepared to listen to such talk and he replaced Rundstedt with Field Marshal von Kluge.
The Americans captured Rundstedt on May 1st 1945. While under arrest, Rundstedt had a heart attack and was sent to South Wales to recover. He remained in Britain until 1948. The Russians and Americans wanted him tried as a war criminal for alleged crimes committed during the invasion of the USSR. In fact, there was no trial and the Americans believed that his release from incarceration was more for political reasons, in view of the Cold War, as opposed to anything else.
Gerd von Rundstedt returned to Hanover and died on February 24th 1953