By Major Mungo MelvinThe man is not to my liking, but he knows something about [how] to get things done. —Adolf Hitler
Preview: Breakfast with Hitler
On 17 February 1940 in Berlin there occurred a simple, unassuming event that changed the course of world history. Manstein journeyed to the capital city of the Third Reich to breakfast with Adolf Hitler. That day would turn out to be extremely auspicious for both: the outcome of their meeting would help shape the German conduct of the war in the West. If Hitler accepted Manstein’s novel plan of attack, the fate of France, Belgium and Holland was surely sealed. Yet as Manstein strode up the wide entrance steps from the Vossstrasse and entered Hitler’s extravagantly imposing new Chancellery, designed by Albert Speer, it must have been a bittersweet moment. Damned by his critics within OKH, the Army High Command, this was Manstein’s golden opportunity to advance his personal point of view directly with the Fuhrer. It was the painful experience of most German senior officers to be so enthralled by Hitler that they would often fluff their lines and fail to press home their case. Manstein, never one to suppress a personal opinion based on professional insight, was determined to speak up. He was to do so here and on many subsequent occasions with Hitler, particularly during a later period of the war when serving as an army group commander on the Eastern Front (1942–44).
Manstein had been informed on 27 January that he would shortly assume command of XXXVIII Army Corps in Stettin, 200 kilometres north-east of Berlin. This move amounted to dismissal from his post as chief of staff of Army Group A, with its headquarters in Koblenz. Manstein had departed the ancient Rhine city on 9 February for a period of leave at home in Liegnitz pending his assumption of corps command. In most armies, a transfer from a staff to a senior command function would be extremely welcome to any rightfully ambitious officer with designs on the highest ranks. But Manstein was a product of the Prussian general staff system in which a ‘chief’ had the authority and duty to originate and direct the planning in his own right, as well as on behalf of his commander. Being chief of staff of a group of armies poised to mount the most powerful offensive of the war to date was indeed no ordinary staff position. And Manstein, as we shall see, was no ordinary soldier.
Manstein’s determined efforts to secure the high command’s agreement to his extraordinary sickle-cut (Sichelschnitt) plan incurred the displeasure of both of the commander-in-chief, Colonel General Walther von Brauchitsch and Colonel General Franz Halder, the German Army Chief of the General Staff. Although he desired a field command, in many respects Manstein had wished to remain in Koblenz under Colonel General Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander of Army Group A. This happy partnership of arms had already proved itself in the Polish campaign: an apparently ideal combination of a relaxed ‘handsoff’ commander with an energetic and highly competent chief of staff. Rundstedt, in a similar manner to Field Marshal Harold Alexander, relieved the tedium of high command with a passion for reading crime novels. In so doing they amused their more than competent staffs by trying to disguise their innocent distractions.
Whilst Rundstedt was certainly more than a distant figurehead, Manstein represented the principal intellectual stimulus and driving force. Thus the Rundstedt–Manstein partnership resembled that of Hindenburg and Ludendorff of the previous war. But whereas the latter duumvirate was able to impose a collective will on the Kaiser, neither Rundstedt nor Manstein– together or separately– ever achieved the same degree of influence on Hitler other than on some exceptional occasions. 17 February 1940 was one such event.
Meanwhile, Manstein’s banishment to command an infantry corps based in Stettin, a military backwater, was certainly no consolation prize. Halder had resolved to remove the irritant chief of staff in Koblenz from planning his ‘private war’ and to replace him with someone more compliant with the high command’s way of thinking. But if this act of constructive dismissal was designed to condemn Manstein to military oblivion, it failed spectacularly. Hitler had more than an inkling of Manstein’s operational idea, and was already thinking along similar lines in some respects. At this early stage of the war, Hitler’s intuitive political feel, his uncanny grasp of the strategically possible, was still holding–as was his predilection for the innovative and unconventional opening, as evidenced by his close involvement in the planning of the spectacular coup de main on the Belgian fort of Eban Emael on 10 May 1940.
During the previous autumn, the debate over the evolution of the campaign plan had raged between Headquarters Army Group A, OKH, OKW and the Fuhrer himself. It had proved a bitter clash of ideas, planning assumptions, egos and professional jealousies so typical of Nazi Germany, but one not entirely unknown in other military cultures. From Manstein’s personal perspective, the acrimonius haggling over the campaign plan must have seemed at times more challenging than the subsequent manoeuvre on the battlefield. His bitter feelings about his tenure as chief of staff at Koblenz are summed up poignantly in his description of this period as the ‘winter of discontent’. Whether it would be followed as in Shakespeare’s Richard III by a ‘glorious summer’ remained to be seen.
Against this background, it hardly surprises that Manstein’s crucial meeting in Berlin in the Reichskanzlei (Chancellery) was born of subterfuge. Hitler’s chief adjutant and personal staff officer, Colonel Rudolf Schmundt (later a lieutenant general who died of injuries received during the assassination attempt on Hitler at Rastenburg on 20 July 1944), was well aware of the tensions over the planning, and the resulting friction between Manstein and OKH. One of Manstein’s most gifted and trusted general staff officers, Lieutenant Colonel Henning von Tresckow, had invited his old friend Schmundt down to Koblenz previously and the two had tramped many a long walk in the surrounding countryside discussing future operations. Tresckow went on to become the youngest major general of the German Army and, heavily implicated in the resistance to Hitler, committed suicide after the failure of the plot to kill the Fuhrer in July 1944.
Returning to 1940, Manstein had used the Tresckow connection to influence Schmundt. When he reported his observations of Headquarters Army Group A’s thinking to Hitler, the Fuhrer expressed interest in seeing Manstein. But a way had to be found to invite the general to Berlin without incurring the suspicion of OKH. Manstein’s posting provided the ideal cover. Along with four other newly appointed corps commanders and a divisional commander, one Erwin Rommel, Manstein was ordered to attend a working breakfast. Manstein noted in his diary:
Reported to the Fuhrer with the others. Breakfast followed. [He displayed] amazing knowledge over military-technical innovations in all states. Afterwards I was detained for an hour to discuss operations. I presented the essentials of our memorandum to OKH. Had full agreement. Indeed an astonishing convergence of thinking from the same points of view that we had represented right from the beginning.
Manstein’s post-war memoirs were rather less effusive with respect to Hitler. Before the private session in Hitler’s study, the Fuhrer had discussed the implications of the Altmark incident over breakfast. The capture of the German supply ship by the British destroyer HMS Cossack within Norwegian territorial waters the previous day (16 February) provoked Hitler into a long discourse about the inability of ‘small states to maintain their neutrality’. These were prophetic words indeed as Germany invaded Norway based on that flimsy pretext without warning on 9 April 1940, and would fall on Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands a month later.
Immediately after the meeting of 17 February, Manstein wrote a detailed memorandum for the benefit of his former headquarters, setting out the key points of the discussion. His principal observation was:
The aim of the offensive in the West must be to bring about a decision on land [emphasis as in original]. For the limited objectives given in the present deployment order, the defeat of largest possible enemy groupings in Belgium and the seizure of parts of the Channel coastline, the political and military stakes are too high. The goal must be the final victory on land. Operations must therefore be directed [immediately] towards achieving a final decision in France, and the destruction of French resistance.
In a nutshell, he summed up what Sichelschnitt was all about: seeking a strategic decision through a novel operational method that would play to German strengths and exploit the weaknesses of her enemies.
At the heart of any campaign plan lies a fundamental ‘operational idea’, which provides the intellectual foundation and framework of any subsequent operations plan. Its design reflects the anticipated reactions of the enemy as much as the actions of friendly forces. As such it is much more than an opening gambit: far rather, the outcome is determined and realized through move and counter-move, playing greatly to the psychology of the parties involved. Though military science is required to calculate the forces required in time and space, the overall conception is above all a creative activity, the operational art. Operational ideas have an elusive quality: the successful ones are the mark of military genius that reflects a complex and rare blend of experience, intuition and understanding. Manstein’s name will forever be linked to his audacious plan for the defeat of Allied forces in Flanders and France. Like many great concepts, it had a difficult and painful gestation. As the later Field Marshal remarked, ‘Hard work and endeavour must always confront the ordinary mortal before he attains his goal. No ready-made works of art can spring from his brain as did Pallas Athene from the head of Zeus.’
An Operational Idea is Born
We must now return to Manstein’s work in Koblenz during the autumn of 1939. On 24 October 1939 the staff took up quarters in the fashionable Hotel Riesen–Furstenhof overlooking the Rhine, and took over the headquarters building of the 34th Division close to the Deutsches Eck, the confluence of the Moselle and the Rhine. The elegant hotel and the beautiful surrounding area were all very familiar to him: he had received some of his formative education before the First World War in the Prussian military school housed within the baroque palace at Engers, some 10 kilometres to the north. As he noted at the time, ‘In Engers, close by, I learned tactics. I would have scarcely believed then that I would apply such learning here as chief of an army group. But thank goodness the dreams of youth soar higher.’
Manstein had little time to dwell on such private memories or to indulge in Kaffee und Kuchen in the many pleasant Rhine cafe’s, for despite the prevailing drole de guerre there was serious business to be done. He had already started to think long and hard about the coming offensive in the West during an extended car journey from Liegnitz to Koblenz, drafting a personal appreciation, which he recorded on 24 October in his war diary.
In his estimate of the situation, he considered carefully the pros and cons of Germany launching an immediate offensive. On the plus side, Manstein cited that the ‘longer one waited, the stronger the English would become, and the Belgians and the French would have more time to develop their fortifications.’ Amongst the many factors that spoke for delaying the attack was the likelihood of bad weather that would impede the employment of Germany’s motorized formations. In that case, as he observed, ‘our trump card would be missing’. In terms of the enemy, a decisive factor ‘could be the undoubtedly low appetite for war amongst the French population, and in any final consideration, within its army’. Manstein saw advantage in provoking France to launch its own offensive. In the case of a German attack, however, ‘the French soldier will fight for the “sacred ground of France” as he has always done’. The best outcome would involve luring French and British forces into neutral Belgium, perhaps having to fight their way in and so dissipating effort. Hence from a military viewpoint, on balance everything appeared to indicate that Germany should attack ‘when we are fully ready to, and at a time of year that would facilitate our trump card, and not least when we can force our opponents to march into Belgium’. Manstein also sensed that the German Army’s offensive power would grow more quickly than the enemy’s defensive capability initially and hence there would be a narrow window of advantage in slipping – but not for too long – the coming offensive.
As to how to attack, Manstein was quite clear as to the requirement: ‘One must only employ the decisive offensive power of the Army in the pursuit of decisive success.’ Furthermore,
it should be clear that this [success] can not be achieved alone through the destruction of parts of the enemy’s armies and in gaining a chunk of the [Channel] coast. Forcing a complete decision on land against England and France is questionable at the moment as the prerequisite conditions in terms of command arrangements and of [sufficient] forces have yet to be achieved, excepting the [special] case of a refusal of the French soldier to fight. Above all, from the directives of OKH, however, it would appear that there is not the will to ‘go’ for a big victory. The belief in one is lacking. That’s what makes it so bad!
That autumn the war plans were refined continuously as the operation was delayed successively. Bad weather was not the only cause; profound disagreements within the German military chain of command, and between that and Hitler as its political (and increasingly military) director, hampered planning.
Before making any further assessment of Manstein’s personal role in the development of the campaign plan codenamed Operation Yellow, Germany’s strategic position in 1939–40 must be reviewed. After the stunning successes in Poland and subsequent ones in the West, the myth of Blitzkrieg emerged, fuelled by contemporary German propaganda and subsequently by a flood of post-war books and films. Modern historical research, however, has determined that Blitzkrieg was not a strategic concept that had been conceived before the war despite the demonstrations of German military prowess between 1939 and 1941. Although it appeared to be a fundamentally new way of making war, it was as much an operational improvisation based on sound tactics on the ground, effective close air support and good leadership as any original strategic approach. Neither the apparently invincible blending of armour, infantry, artillery and combat engineers into combined arms, nor the joint co-ordination of air and ground forces makes for a successful strategy. Manstein’s oft-quoted ability as a ‘strategist’ is itself based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of military strategy, of its linkages to the wider instruments of national power including the economic resources to conduct war and the gearing between its three levels: strategic, operational and tactical. If tactics form the steps from which operational leaps are assembled, a coherent strategy must shape and chart the guiding path. Manstein was first and foremost an ‘Operateur’, a genius at the operational level.
A national or ‘grand’ strategy seeks to balance the overall aims or ends with the military and other means available by determining the most appropriate ways of prosecuting a security and defence policy and, if deemed necessary, of conducting war. A state’s options for evolving such a policy are governed by its geostrategic position in which its geography, population and economic potential must be compared with that of its neighbours, whether friend or foe, and, in turn, with their allies. The German experience in two world wars demonstrates that no amount of tactical or operational virtuosity on the battlefield can make up for inherent strategic military, political and economic weaknesses. Likewise, the apparent advantage of operating on interior strategic lines, allowing the switching of forces between the Western and Eastern Fronts, cannot compensate for an overall lack of military resources, as events of the First World War had shown.
Conversely, tactical or even operational level setbacks can be overcome by the application of strategic military power, provided there remain sufficient time, space and forces to stabilize the situation such as to prevent outright defeat. Thus the side that appears to gain the upper hand in the initial stages of a war may be defeated subsequently through the application of superior strategic resources including armament production, typically but not necessarily on a coalition basis, and with the adoption (and refinement as necessary) of tactical and operational methods perhaps observed in one’s enemies. Germany was never in a position to effectively neutralize Britain’s sea power, her prize strategic asset. Further, as we shall see later, the Soviet Union was able to withstand (just) the German attack of June 1941, which culminated at the gates of Leningrad and Moscow in December. Yet the Red Army did not reach Berlin on the return match until April 1945. The Soviet Union, even west of the Urals, had the strategic depth and national resources that both Poland and France lacked.
In both world wars Germany sought operational solutions to its self-imposed strategic dilemma: how to win wars as quickly as possible before its opponents on two fronts recovered sufficiently to turn the scales. Although Manstein provided the original solution for the defeat of France, he was no grand strategist in the manner of his erstwhile mentor, Colonel General Beck, who had foreseen the possibility of eventual defeat if Hitler embroiled Germany in a world war. There was, as the noted German military historian Klaus-Jurgen Muller has pointed out, a ‘malicious irony’ in this: the fundamental idea for the victory in the coming campaign in the West came from none other than Manstein, a general of the Beck school. It appeared, but never proved, to be a warwinner.
The strategic problem facing Germany in autumn 1939 was political, economic and military in nature. On the one hand, would Britain and France throw in the towel after Poland’s defeat? Could further armed conflict be averted? Indeed, Hitler had pledged in his speech to the Reichstag in Berlin on 6 October 1939, no doubt for the benefit of both his foreign and domestic audiences, his determination to avoid war whilst holding out a prospect of an international conference to settle Europe’s peace and security problems, and to respect the neutrality of Belgium and the Netherlands in any case.
If an offensive campaign were to be required, any significant delay would benefit Britain and France more than Germany as their war economies were being built up and their defences improved. Despite an OKH study that had indicated that the German Army would not have sufficient strength to penetrate the Maginot Line until 1942, Hitler did not accept the caution of his generals as a brake on offensive action. Hitler was determined to defeat France (and so Britain) before Stalin intervened in the East, breaking their pact. As in 1914, Germany chose to seek victory first in the West. If Hitler had misjudged the political resolution of the Western Allies in not seeking an accommodation with Germany, he did not overestimate their limited military capabilities. Sensing French and British weakness, he decided to attack. Thus if the strategic end (to seek a decision in the West) was now fixed, the question was to find the appropriate operational way to achieve it with the tactical means and limited economic resources already to hand.
Whilst Germany attacked Poland, the French Army had mobilized and deployed to its defensive positions, including manning the Maginot Line that stretched from Luxembourg in the north to the Swiss border in the south. Facing the Belgian frontier in anticipation of a German attack were the four armies of the First Group of Armies, joined by the British Expeditionary Force–initially of two corps (just four divisions). In May 1940, a total of ninety-two divisions were able to meet the German offensive, including five motorized infantry, five light cavalry, three light mechanized and three armoured divisions–the latter raised in the first quarter of 1940. In the meantime, the British had expanded its field army in France to three corps (nine infantry divisions and a tank brigade) with a separate division (51st (Highland)) serving alongside the French in the Saar. That said, this second British Expeditionary Force in a generation represented a far less significant contribution to the Allied cause than in 1917–18 when no fewer than four armies (sixty divisions) of the British Empire had served on the Western Front. Meanwhile, the German Army had continued to expand over the winter of 1939–40 to 157 divisions, of which ninety-three (including ten panzer divisions) were employed on 10 May 1940 for the offensive in the West.
Once victory had been assured in Poland the previous September, OKH planned initially what appeared superficially as a rerun of the Schlieffen Plan of 1914. The main effort of the attack lay in a sweeping envelopment through northern Belgium towards the Channel coast. Manstein raised objections to it primarily from an operational as opposed to a strategic perspective. The distinction here is important: whilst Manstein sought better operational ways to achieve the desired victory, other generals opposed the strategic ends of an offensive war, and later, the crimes that were involved in its prosecution. In the autumn of 1939 the principal posts in OKH were filled by those who were against conducting any war in the West. These included Brauchitsch, Halder and Carl-Heinrich von Stulpnagel. Manstein, however, formed no active part of any political or military opposition aimed at unseating or killing Hitler at this – or indeed at any other – stage of the war.
Despite his contemporary and subsequent reputation as a strategist, an image polished skilfully in his memoirs, Manstein’s professional forte was fundamentally that of operational art. Simply put, his outstanding ability lay in the planning of major operations and campaigns, and not of wars themselves. Yet the distinction is crucially important. If Manstein was more capable than either Montgomery or Patton, he was not a grand strategist in the manner of the Briton, Field Marshal Alan Brooke (later, Viscount Alanbrooke) or the American, General George C. Marshall, who served their nations’ chiefs of staff committees so adroitly.
Manstein also appeared to understand his limitations at the strategic level, noting the inherent challenges when dealing with Hitler:
Whenever Hitler perceived he was not making any impression with his opinions on operational matters, he immediately produced arguments from the political or economic sphere. Since he had knowledge of the political situation or economic circumstances which a front-line commander did not possess, his arguments on such matters were generally irrefutable. As a last resort all one could do was to insist that if Hitler did not agree to the proposals or demands presented to him, things would turn out badly from a military point of view leading to even worse political and economic repercussions.
The future field marshal inspired confidence through his sheer competence at planning at the operational level, and his associated skill in the handling of higher formations. Most senior officers suffer fools badly, and Manstein proved no exception. In his case, however, it would be unfair to conclude that his outstanding military intellect triumphed over his rather blunt character.
Life with Manstein was often hard going, but not without its big compensations and little idiosyncrasies. On 31 October 1939, for example, he wrote home admitting that his most recent attempt to accompany his work with recordings of ‘good chamber music’ in order to escape ‘the marches and the imbecilic dance music pouring out on the radio when the inconsequential news is not on’ had failed as before. ‘If we allow this type of propaganda and entertainment to go on any longer’, he complained to Jutta-Sibylle, ‘we’ll all end up shaking our legs about.’
He attracted an intensely loyal personal staff precisely on account of his clear views and steadfastness in crisis. His thoughts and actions commanded widespread respect well beyond his area of responsibility. In any event, the strategic outcome of his operational idea was the defeat of France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and the eviction of British forces from continental Europe within a blitz campaign of six weeks’ duration. This was no small feat by any measure, and one not matched in immediate strategic effect by a Western Allied general against German forces during the whole of the Second World War, Eisenhower, Montgomery and Patton included. In terms of mastery of the operational art, Manstein had no peers outside the Soviet Union. Yet, as we shall see later, events on the Eastern Front during 1941–44 against the likes of Marshal of the Soviet Union Zhukov would test Manstein to his limits.
Meanwhile, returning to 1939, Hitler’s Directive No. 6 for the Conduct of the War, dated 9 October, set out the purpose of the offensive in the West as:
. . . to defeat as much as possible of the French Army and of the forces of the allies fighting on their side, and at the same time to win as much territory as possible in Holland, Belgium, and Northern France, to serve as a base for the successful prosecution of the air and sea war against England and as a wide protective area for the economically vital Ruhr.
In turn, OKH published its draft operational order on 19 October. Whilst on a short home leave before travelling to Koblenz, on the 21st Manstein had collected a copy of the OKH plan at the Army General Staff’s wartime headquarters at Zossen, south of Berlin. Thus he was able to start his personal analysis without delay, and was assisted subsequently by his small team of planners, including Blumentritt.
At that time, a distraction played on Manstein’s mind that reveals a little, arguably justified, personal vanity. He was hanging on news of the operational honours list from the Poland campaign. As is so often the case, those who consider themselves – perhaps unwisely – to be well deserving, may turn out empty-handed. Manstein hoped for a Ritterkreuz (Knight’s Cross) but was disappointed. He took out his frustration on his diary: ‘Despite two nominations by R[undstedt], I’m not on [the list]…. I’m used to disappointments in recent years…. Certainly, after the troops, fame is earned by the commander. But I would like to believe that my responsibility was big enough: I alone suggested the operations and wrote the orders.’ To his wife, he wrote:
In any event it remains a fact that the great successes of the army group have proved insufficient to recognize the contribution of the chief of the general staff. It would appear that the motto ‘be more than you appear’ is being applied more than ever. Based on this treatment, I’m thinking about applying for a command. I’ve got no desire to stay in a position that is treated as second-class.
Manstein had little time to ponder further on his future. Shortly after the army group staff’s arrival in Koblenz, a revised plan from OKH dated 29 October arrived. The main effort of the German attack remained being carried out by Army Group B to the north, in other words on the right wing of the German Army. The distinctions between the two plans are fine ones, but suffice it to say that Manstein had already drafted on 31 October a critical response to be directed to Brauchitsch under Rundstedt’s signature.
Manstein’s personal efforts to amend the campaign plan amounted to no less than six memoranda sent up the chain of command. Although he had made a considerable nuisance of himself, the German general staff system encouraged the use of the formal think-piece (Denkschrift) as a means to consider and promote operational ideas. The British official military history is mistaken in suggesting that Rundstedt was the originator of Sichelschnitt. Perhaps the author did not appreciate that, under the German general staff system, a chief of staff had the authority to originate thinking on behalf of his commander and to communicate directly to the chief of staff in the next higher echelon of command.
Following their successful partnership in Poland, Manstein’s relationship to von Rundstedt matured during the autumn of 1939. If Rundstedt remained a little distant to his chief of staff, the not insignificant age gap of twelve years was bridged to a certain extent by their mutual respect. There was no sense of the frostiness that was to accompany their later years together as British prisoners of war. During their time together in Koblenz, Manstein made some efforts to get closer to his commander. He accompanied Rundstedt on several of his daily walks along the Rhine promenade, failing in the process to convince his commander of the merits of investing in a proper winter coat rather than relying on a thin rubber macintosh. Already 65 years old in 1940, Rundstedt was a tough old warrior; his Spartan training as a cadet in the 1880s served him well in later years, including his detention as a British prisoner of war.
Brought out of retirement in 1938, Rundstedt served the entirety of the Second World War, albeit with a couple of breaks when sacked twice by Hitler, and on two occasions being recalled to duty. Like Manstein, Rundstedt was no Nazi. As traditional monarchists brought up to serve the Kaiser, both disliked Hitler, his entourage and regime. Manstein should have known better than to have enticed Rundstedt to visit a front cinema that included a showing of Goebbels’ weekly film review. The elderly, but certainly not yet senile commander, was not at all impressed by such banal propaganda and commented disparagingly throughout. For his part, Manstein was pleased that his boss’s pithy asides were not overheard.
The commander-in-chief’s personal manner also took some getting used to. ‘The good Rundstedt’, Manstein confided to his wife in early November, ‘sometimes swears rather too much.’ Exactly a month later, the old boy was at it again: ‘Yesterday evening he was swearing so much that I went off to bed without any further ado.’ So what had irritated Rundstedt so much? Manstein explained:
[His frustration] often concerns matters that he could change, if he were to get out more and deal with them. I’ve now ordered that a visit programme is to be organized for him that will concentrate on all those things that fret him. First of all it will achieve wonders, and secondly, he’ll have something positive to occupy himself with. You know what works with [difficult] children: ‘distract’!
It is doubtful that Manstein as an army group commander would ever have succumbed willingly to any such well-meaning therapy organized by his chief of staff.
It was the planning of the coming offensive that dominated both Rundstedt’s and Manstein’s thoughts and actions, rather than their working relationship. From a modern perspective, when one looks at the German operational design at this stage of the war in more detail, there is scant evidence to support the propaganda-driven, popular images of Blitzkrieg. Surprisingly, there is little prominence given to the role of the new armoured forces, the Panzertruppe, or of the air force (Luftwaffe), which had both shown their worth in Poland. Manstein based his objections to the OKH planning largely on its unoriginal scheme of manoeuvre in terms of the standard German operational metrics of forces, time and space, together with the need to achieve surprise and, vitally, to deceive the enemy as to the real intention of the campaign. He was thus careful to couch his arguments in broadly traditional terms, without overplaying his hand with respect to the anticipated combined shock effect of the Panzertruppe and Luftwaffe acting in close unison. Their potential in playing a decisive role in theWest became more appreciated as planning proceeded.
Rundstedt’s letter of 31 October 1939 to the commander-in-chief of the German Army reveals as much the operational insight of his own chief of staff as his own personal professional acumen. From this day onwards Rundstedt and Manstein fought a determined crusade for a new campaign plan, in which their unified aim was to switch the main effort of the German offensive from Army Group B to A, in other words to their area of responsibility. Their motivation for this change of emphasis would not appear to have been driven by any pursuit of personal prestige, in the manner that would later bedevil the planning and conduct of certain German, Soviet and Anglo-American operations. Rather, following the lead of Rundstedt, Manstein’s approach was ever strictly professional (sachlich). His arguments at this stage and later on in the war were presented in a terse third person singular without embellishment, a cold, compelling logic typical of his general staff schooling and tradition.
If the OKH strategic concept only offered the prospect of a ‘Teilsieg’, a ‘partial solution’, towards victory in the West, then it demanded revision and Manstein knew what was required. Specifically, Army Group A observed:
It is possible that an early success will be gained over Belgium and the Franco-British forces forward-deployed there. However, the overall success [of the campaign] will not depend on this initial outcome, but rest rather on whether a wider overall success can be achieved in striking and destroying the enemy forces in Belgium and north of the Somme altogether, and not only in attacking them frontally. Additionally, and sooner or later, a French counterattack from the south or south-west must certainly be contained.
On this basis, two complementary strands of Manstein’s integrated operational idea emerged: first, the envelopment of all Allied forces north of the Somme (having drawn a considerable proportion into Belgium); secondly, the defeat of any counter-move by French operational or strategic reserves.
Manstein’s creative genius lay in understanding that both objectives could be achieved in one bold manoeuvre, what became later known as the Sichelschnitt. If the German forces could traverse the Ardennes, break through the French defences and cross the river Meuse quickly enough, they should be able to develop sufficient momentum to exploit across the plain of Picardy to reach the deep objective of the Channel coast before the Allies would be able to react sufficiently. Deception would be achieved by telegraphing a main attack in the north (Army Group B) – waving ‘the Matador’s Cloak’ in Liddell Hart’s retrospective analogy. Simultaneously, the unexpected axis and strength of the main effort in the centre (Army Group A), directed at achieving crossings of the Meuse on the fifth day of the offensive in the vicinity of Sedan, would garner surprise. Only strong armoured forces could yield such an extraordinary result, together with concentrated close air support. Thus Manstein, ever the chess player, sought a decision as much based on the distraction and anticipated reaction of the Allies as on Germany’s opening gambit. It was this dynamic and largely intuitive approach that distinguished him from the more mechanistic thinking of the majority of his opponents and colleagues. Yet he too, later, was to be the subject of successful Soviet deception on the Eastern Front based on inadequate intelligence.
Manstein’s principal concern remained the threat of a French counterattack from the south, and particularly one involving the armoured reserves concentrated in the vicinity of Reims. Such were the stakes: decisive strategic gain could not be achieved without incurring appreciable operational risk. As he wrote, ‘The risk, but also the opportunity of [realizing] a great success, and one magnified if the enemy reinforces his north wing, lies with Army Group A.’ As ever, the expertise lay in calculating it and, above all, in converting theory into practice.
Manstein and Rundstedt recognized the intrinsic problem in realizing their scheme of manoeuvre: a lack of forces. From their point of view, the ends, ways and means calculus would not balance unless their army group were to be reinforced. Hence much of the subsequent correspondence and ensuing argument between Army Group A and OKH concerned two very closely related issues: first, about the intended object and method of attack and, secondly, over the requirement for reinforcements. With only Twelfth and Sixteenth Armies in Army Group A, there were insufficient forces to undertake the required operational tasks. Hence Manstein argued not only for a third army, but also for significant bolstering of the existing two.
Rundstedt’s three demands (drafted as ever by Manstein and his busy planning staff ) were: first, to shift the main effort of the German offensive in the West from the north to the centre, forming a powerful southern arm of attack; secondly, to propel on this axis strong motorized forces to ‘strike in the back’ of the Allied forces expected in northern Belgium; and thirdly, to employ an army offensively to defeat the anticipated French counterattack from the south. OKH, however, did not accept the ambitious scheme of manoeuvre presented by Army Group A. During a visit to Koblenz on 3 November, Brauchitsch dismissed the request for additional troops with ‘Yes, if (only) I had the forces available.’ From Manstein’s perspective, this statement confirmed that, at best, the army commander-in-chief had not concurred with the operational arguments, or, perhaps rather more worryingly, had not understood them. From now on, the personal rift between them deepened. It would have consequences for Manstein’s career.
In early November 1939 there was considerable despondency in Koblenz amongst the commander, chief of staff and operations staff of Army Group A. To be ignored by a superior headquarters at any time is a very awkward business, but it represents a particularly tiresome state of affairs when planning and conducting operations. This sense of frustration became acute when a summary of operational intentions sent by Army Group A to OKH on 6 November remained unanswered. OKH surprised the staff in Koblenz on 12 November, however, with a signal stating that Hitler had ordered a group of mobile troops to be formed within the army group. Based on Guderian’s XIX Corps, it comprised: 2nd and 10th Panzer Divisions, a motorized division, the Leibstandarte and the Infantry Regiment Grossdeutschland,ane´lite army motorized formation. The initial task of the new mobile group was twofold:
To defeat mobile enemy forces deployed into southern Belgium, and thereby lighten the task of Twelfth and Sixteenth Armies; and to gain a surprise hold of the west bank of the Meuse at, or south-east of, Sedan and so set the conditions for the continuation of operations, particularly in the event that the armoured formations allocated to Fourth and Sixth Armies fail to fulfil their promise.
So what had caused Hitler to direct OKH to provide these reinforcements? In his memoirs, Manstein ascribes this welcome development to the possible influence of his friend Colonel General Ernst Busch, commander-in-chief of Sixteenth Army, who was well aware of the army group’s thinking. He had recently presented his operational planning in person to Hitler and so the idea of an armoured thrust through the Ardennes may have come up in discussion then. In view of Busch’s later scepticism about the plan, some doubt must remain on this possibility. Alternatively, as Manstein conceded – rather generously perhaps in view of their later tense relationship – Hitler himself may have recognized the opportunity presented by such a manoeuvre. Manstein observed:
[Hitler] had a keen eye for the art of the tactically possible and spent much time brooding over maps. He may have spotted that a crossing over the Meuse was most easily achieved at Sedan, whereas the armoured forces of the Fourth Army would encounter much more difficult going further downstream. He may also have recognized that a crossing at Sedan would represent a promising spot (in the sense of an opening [sic] of the Meuse-line for the south flank of Army Group B) and wished – as ever – to pursue all tempting objectives simultaneously.
Guderian, commander of XIX Corps, meanwhile, was none too pleased about the dispersal of the armoured forces, which broke his famous maxim ‘Klotzen, nicht Kleckern’ (‘Clout, don’t dribble’). He came round to Manstein’s thinking when asked for his advice about the going for armour in the Ardennes and the possibility of crossing the Meuse in the vicinity of Sedan. As we have seen earlier, Manstein also knew the lie of the land intimately, having taken part in the German defensive battles in Champagne in the spring of 1917, in the Reims offensives in May and July of 1918, and having fought with the 213rd Infantry Division in the Sedan area during that autumn.
Guderian had attended a general staff war school at Sedan in early 1918 and thus was able to confirm on the basis of a detailed map study and his personal recollections from twenty-one years before that ‘the operation that [Manstein] had planned could in fact be carried out’. But Guderian attached a very significant proviso: ‘A sufficient number of armoured and motorized divisions must be employed, if possible, all of them.’ This was welcome grist to Manstein’s mill: not only did he have the supporting evidence from Germany’s leading proponent of armoured warfare, but also he knew that Hitler listened to Guderian’s advice. It should be recalled that Guderian and Manstein both attended the War Academy in Berlin in 1913, and although not close friends on intimate ‘Du’ terms, their mutual respect, bordering on admiration, is evident from their memoirs. After the war, Manstein declared graciously:
‘Ultimately it was [Guderian’s] elan which inspired our tanks in their dash round the backs of the enemy to the Channel coast.’
Despite the reinforcement of XIX Corps and Guderian’s personal encouragement, Manstein remained unimpressed with OKH. On 21 November, Brauchitsch and Halder visited Army Group A’s headquarters in Koblenz, along with the commander of Army Group B, Colonel General Fedor von Bock. In addition, the army commanders of both army groups were present, who were later invited to speak. Although an army group chief of staff, and with a lot to say, Manstein was not.
Undeterred by this personal slight, Manstein and his planning staff then refined their proposals for the coming offensive, including a carefully argued case for yet additional forces, in a memorandum released later on 21 November. As its more detailed successor of 6 December, this document would stand muster today in a command and staff college as a cogently formulated and succinctly articulated appreciation (or ‘estimate’) of the situation. In broad terms, the army group’s initial intent was based on achieving surprise by attacking through the Ardennes; driving through Luxembourg at best speed; breaking through the Belgian frontier fortifications before the French had time to organize an effective defence; and then defeating the French forces in southern Belgium. This major operation, it was planned, would set the conditions for both the continuation of the main attack beyond the Meuse west to the estuary of the Somme and the creation of an active offensive front to the south. More importantly, the surprise generated by the unanticipated axis of advance should be compounded by the unexpected tempo of attack. As the Allies found to their cost, the very speed of the German offensive was astonishing, if not bewildering, and was to have a paralysing effect on decision-making. Manstein’s greatest contribution was not in planning the preliminary operation to the Meuse, but rather in calculating what was required to achieve decisive success beyond it – into the operational and strategic depth of northern France.
Notwithstanding the day-to-day pressures as a busy chief of staff in Koblenz, Manstein still found the time to write regularly to Jutta-Sibylle, reflecting on personal and other family matters. As with many bright individuals frustrated at particular stages of their careers, he was prone to speculate on past events. He observed:
[In many respects,] it is depressing that I didn’t take over from Beck. Perhaps I would have managed to have manoeuvred OKH into a better position over matters of high command than it appears to be currently. I believe I would have achieved this through displaying greater initiative than Ha[lder], and by being more disposed to making early positive proposals rather than expressing concerns. But it remains questionable whether I would have succeeded.
One can have some sympathy with Manstein’s position. From a subordinate’s perspective there’s only one thing worse than having a less capable commander than you: if he’s not even bright enough to recognize the fact and to utilize your talents to best advantage. Nevertheless, whatever one may find to criticize in Rundstedt, he was shrewd enough to give Manstein the freedom to advance his own ideas for the benefit of the army group and for the campaign as a whole. That was Rundstedt’s prime legacy during the development of the campaign plan: he facilitated his chief of staff rather than the other way about. Within the German Army this rather odd arrangement could be made to work: in an Allied one it would be unthinkable.
Returning to the planning of the offensive, OKH remained unbending despite Headquarters Army Group A’s memorandum of 21 November. For the moment, Halder was still hindering any fresh thinking. Although Manstein was unsighted on the matter, Hitler by this date was already considering reinforcing Guderian’s corps, if required. There was not yet a conscious desire to adjust the focus of attack from north to centre (Army Group B to A), but rather an implicit acknowledgement that the main effort might have to be switched if Army Group B were not to make as rapid progress as anticipated. Thus the Fuhrer wanted to ride both horses and to back the emerging winner once the campaign was well under way – or as Manstein described it graphically, ‘following the hare’. Good in theory but hard in practice: a very real difficulty lies in achieving this kind of flexibility within the land environment. Once an initial deployment is set, armoured forces rarely can be rushed around the battlefield quickly enough to give substance to a newly designated main effort at the operational level. Switching air power (and now combat aviation) is often the only effective method.
In his next memorandum of 6 December, Manstein displayed his full powers of military estimation, requesting the necessary forces if Army Group A were to fulfil the operational promise that shone so brightly in his mind. A new army (the Eighteenth) was needed to advance through southern Belgium and then to thrust towards the lower Somme to attack into the rear of the enemy forces that were likely to engage Army Group B. A second army (the Twelfth) was required for committal in a southwesterly direction to defeat offensively any French counterattack. A third army (the Sixteenth), as previously envisaged, would cover the deep southern flank between the northern end of the main Maginot Line westwards towards Sedan.
Manstein set out his case for a grand total of forty divisions, including an army group reserve of four. Significantly, even at this advanced stage of planning, he requested only two corps of armoured and motorized troops (XIX and XIV Corps respectively). Whilst this represented the potential to build a main effort with Army Group A, it hardly constituted a concentration of a sufficiently large grouping of mobile troops to bring about the intended psychological shock effect on the Allies.
The key to gaining the necessary operational surprise was the rapid appearance of armour in strength at the Meuse and its undiminished impetus thereafter. However, the clear majority of the German mobile troops (including eight out of ten panzer divisions and two of the four motorized infantry divisions) remained with Army Group B under Manstein’s submission. The Sichelschnitt had yet to acquire its required cutting edge. The distribution of the armoured and motorized forces remained unchanged under Manstein’s next proposal of 18 December. It is thus abundantly clear that whatever Guderian’s advice as to concentrating these forces to form a clear Schwerpunkt (main effort), for some reason it had not been followed through.
The rationale for Manstein’s hesitation in demanding sufficient mobile forces to execute his plan is unclear, and is not explained in his memoirs. Perhaps he could not bring Rundstedt round to appreciating their potential, or he felt the time was not yet ripe to call for their subordination to Army Group A. In any event, Manstein did not call unequivocally for sufficient additional armour despite implying the requirement. Guderian, for his part, complained about Rundstedt’s lack of understanding of armoured warfare rather than that of Manstein. Indeed, Manstein under Beck’s direction had investigated the employment of panzer corps and even panzer armies during the general staff rides of 1935–36 and in the planning of Operation Green undertaken in 1937 prior to the invasion of Czechoslovakia the following year.
In Manstein’s own words in January 1940, Army Group A was still being denied the necessary armour that ‘must [come] under command from the outset if there were to be any chance of achieving surprise in southern Belgium and driving around the enemy in the direction of the Somme estuary’. It’s now clear that he was already thinking in terms of grouping a greater number of panzer divisions than hitherto within Army Group A, and most probably had this in mind all the while since discussing the matter with Guderian. As the expert military historian Karl-Heinz Frieser has pointed out, Manstein was only able ‘to shed his diplomatic self-restraint’ during the meeting with Hitler. He demanded ‘strong Panzer [forces] or none at all’. Critically, the fact remains that following the events of 17 February, sufficient armoured forces were switched from Army Group B to Army Group A.
War-gaming the Plan
In the meantime, other events had been conspiring to bring about a shift of operational direction. The disclosure of part of the German campaign plan (the so-called Mechelen incident) had represented a serious lapse in operations security. On 10 January, a Major Reinberger of 7th Airborne Division was flying in bad weather fromMu¨ nster to Cologne in a Fieseler Storch liaison aircraft. Against regulations, he had carried on his person the operation order of First Air Fleet. His pilot got lost, ran out of fuel and made a forced landing in Belgium. Although Reinberger tried to burn the document, at least part of it remained intact and fell into Belgian hands. Whilst there was no immediate change of plan, the German High Command could not dismiss the possibility of their intentions being made known to the Allies.
Brauchitsch visited Koblenz again on 25 January to attend a conference at Headquarters Army Group A that included the subordinate army commanders. Manstein presented once again his ideas, declaring that the insertion of XIX Corps alone through the Ardennes represented a half-measure, which would not achieve the desired success at Sedan. However, Brauchitsch refused to release the follow-on XIV Motorized Corps from the OKH reserve to Army Group A. Thus there would be no change of main effort until operations were under way, indicating to Manstein that the potential compromise of the plan had not yet caused a fundamental change in the thinking of the high command. Whether the professional disagreement between Brauchitsch and Manstein turned into a bitter argument bordering on insubordination, as has been suggested, remains to be substantiated.52 In any event, Manstein’s posting followed two days later – hardly a coincidence.
Before he left Koblenz, Manstein organized a war game on 7 February for Army Group A. The Kriegsspiel had long been a tool of the Prussian (then German) General Staff to develop and refine operational plans, rehearsing move and counter-move. During the play, it was observed that Guderian’s XIX Corps attacking alone over the Meuse at Sedan would prove problematical, to say the least. More armoured forces would be required. Manstein gained the impression that Halder, who was observing the game, ‘was at last beginning to realize the validity of our standpoint’. Significantly, Halder noted in his diary:
I think there is no sense in the armoured corps attacking alone across the Meuse on [the] fifth attack day. No later than [on the] third attack day, OKH must be able to decide whether it wants to launch a concerted attack across the Meuse or let the army groups slug it out on their own.
This war game marked Manstein’s formal farewell from Headquarters Army Group A. On the conclusion of the exercise, Rundstedt thanked his departing chief of staff in the presence of all the participants. Manstein was deeply moved by this friendly gesture, recording in his memoirs:
[Von Rundstedt’s] choice of words on this occasion reflected all the kindness and chivalry of that great commander. It was a further source of satisfaction to me that the two army commanders of our Army Group, Generals Busch and List, as well as General Guderian, not only deplored my removal but were genuinely dismayed by it.
Rundstedt left no record of this event, but Guderian wrote generously of Manstein’s departure:
Manstein . . . aroused such animosity in the High Command that he was appointed commanding general of an Infantry Corps. He requested that he at least be given a Panzer Corps: his request was not granted. As a result our finest operational brain took the field as a commander of a corps in the third wave of attack, though it was largely due to his brilliant initiative that the operation was to be such an outstanding success.
Manstein departed Koblenz on 9 February for a short home leave at Liegnitz prior to assuming command of XXXVIII Army Corps. On 13 February, Major General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Operations of OKW, recorded in his diary that Hitler wished to review plans for the offensive in the West. Jodl gave the Fuhrer a report that highlighted the opportunity of achieving surprise by attacking at Sedan. As previously noted, Halder had been coming round to the idea of generating a main effort with sufficient armoured forces within Army Group A. The war game in Koblenz had provided a major a change of heart: professional objectivity was beginning to triumph over his personal antipathy for Manstein.
On 14 February, Halder observed a second war game, held at Headquarters Twelfth Army at Mayen, during which the mounting strains between the participants became increasingly apparent. He recorded that ‘Guderian and vonWietersheim plainly show lack of confidence in success…. The whole tank operation is planned wrong!’ Meanwhile, the commander of Twelfth Army, Colonel General Wilhelm List, was ‘endeavouring to find new patterns of teamwork between armour, air force, and the conventional arms’. Guderian’s account of the war game confirms the tense nature of the discussions and the widening split opening up between him and more conservative thinkers who insisted that the infantry divisions needed to catch the armour up before forcing the Meuse. He criticized Rundstedt who did not have ‘any clear idea about the potentialities of tanks, and declared himself in favour of the more cautious solution’. Guderian’s exasperation was exemplified by ‘Now was the time when we needed Manstein!’
The German Army was surely exceptionally lucky to enjoy the twin talents from the War Academy class of 1913, who had worked closely together in the planning of the sickle-cut manoeuvre. Sadly, this happy partnership was not to be repeated. Manstein and Guderian went on to clash over the planning for the battle at Kursk in the summer of 1943, as we shall see later. It was significant that the German Army (and later the Red Army) paid enormous attention to war-gaming in a manner that was not replicated by the Western Allies at this stage of the war. Whilst the Germans investigated extensively and rehearsed diligently their plans (and that of their opponents) in the spring of 1940, the Allies did not. Montgomery, for one, complained about ‘a faulty command set-up’ and observed that,
G.H.Q. of the B.E.F. had never conducted any exercises, either with or without troops, from the time we had landed in France up to the day active operations began in May 1940. The need for wireless silence was given as an excuse; but an indoor exercise on the model could easily have been held. The result was a total lack of any common policy or tactical doctrine throughout the B.E.F.; when differences arose these differences remained, and there was no firm grip from the top.
There could not have been a greater contrast between the German Army and its opponents in the West in terms of organization and style of command. Despite the many personal and professional differences that surfaced during the planning and execution of the operation, the Germans had at the very least a common purpose, a unifying doctrine and associated training regime that was singularly absent in the Allies. This common framework of military understanding, far more than any particular technological advance, augmented by a clear determination and will to fight, and a readiness to accept casualties, provided the backbone of the German success in the campaign. Victory did not come about solely due to the incompetence of their enemies.
For the majority of Hitler’s generals, the coming campaign in the West offered ideal opportunities for recognition and advancement. In contrast, the future prospects appeared less promising for Manstein, given his relatively humble role in training an infantry corps in the East. Required to become largely a spectator in the campaign’s first act, Operation Yellow, he was lucky enough to gain a virtuoso role in the second, leading his corps in Operation Red, the completion of the defeat of France. Meantime, he had one important task to perform before assuming command of his corps: to meet Hitler in Berlin.
As we have already seen, the working breakfast at the Reichskanzlei on 17 February 1940 afforded Manstein the opportunity to brief Hitler on his operational idea and associated scheme of manoeuvre. By all accounts, the Fuhrer was enthused by Manstein’s suggestions, including the proposed employment of ‘strong armoured forces’. By this time, Halder was already working out the details required to put Manstein’s ideas into practice and to give them greater substance by providing more armour for Army Group A. After the war, he was to dispute Manstein’s essential contribution in challenging OKH’s original design and in proposing a new plan. In an interview of 1967, whilst praising Manstein’s military prowess – particularly on the Eastern Front – Halder maintained that ‘The plan for the French campaign – as it was executed – did not come from him.’ This view can be easily refuted: the fact that Halder claimed Manstein’s idea as his does not lend him any credibility. Success, as they say, has many fathers whilst failure has few.
In agreeing with Manstein, Hitler overcame temporarily his personal distaste of an old-style Prussian general staff officer in favouring the brilliantly unconventional operational idea. That Manstein’s plan to encircle the entire Allied northern wing along the Channel coast, which OKH (in reality, his rival Halder) had considered absurd and dangerous, now coincided with his own instinct to switch the main effort to the southern arm of attack merely confirmed the superior military judgement of the Fuhrer to his professional military advisors. Much as Hitler liked to live the myth that this brilliant idea was his (in a similar manner to Halder), there was an important distinction between Manstein’s farreaching operational level plan in pursuit of a strategic outcome and Hitler’s purely tactical inclinations towards Sedan.
There can be little doubt that the Fuhrer’s discussions with Jodl and Schmundt on 13 February had already primed his coincidental thinking about Sedan as the easiest place to cross the Meuse. In contrast, Manstein, as Frieser has rightly pointed out, was ‘thinking all the way to the Channel Coast’. Hence if Manstein shares with Halder and Hitler the credit for the adoption of Sichelschnitt in its final form, the original operational concept was very much his alone. As General Graf von Kielmansegg has made perfectly clear: ‘The idea was entirely and totally Manstein’s.’ Halder’s contribution thereafter from March to May 1940, whilst Manstein remained banished in Stettin, lay in defending the new plan against all objections.
Excerpted from Manstein: Hitler’s Greatest General by Major Mungo Melvin.
Copyright © 2010 by Mungo Melvin.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
MAJOR GENERAL MUNGO MELVIN is Senior Directing Staff (Army), Royal College of Defence Studies, London, and the author of Manstein: Hitler’s Greatest General. He has directed the British Army’s Strategic and Combat Studies Institute, managed the Higher Command and Staff Course at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, and served as Director of Operational Capability in the Ministry of Defense.