Guderian could easily be mentioned in the same sentence as Caesar or Napoleon. While Rommel and Montgomery stole the limelight in WW2 it was Guderian who they watched, studied and secretly admired.
Perhaps second only to Rommel as a famous German general, Guderian is well-known for his development and application of the concepts of armoured warfare in the 1920s and 1930s.
- Early Years
- A Junior Officer
- Development of Armoured Warfare Concepts
- A New way of Thinking
- The 1930s
- The Eve of War
- Poland – September-October 1939
- Low Countries and France – May-June 1940
- Panzer Leader
- Russian Front
- Appointed as Inspector general of the Armoured Troops
- Chief of the General Staff
- Post War and Legacy
Heinz Guderian (1888-1954) was a Prussian officer who served in both the First and Second World Wars.
He was instrumental in the significant early successes of the German army’s application of “blitzkrieg” warfare in Poland, France and in Russia. He wrote two significant books about armoured warfare.
Read More: The Ten Worst Tanks of WW2
In 1937 he wrote “Achtung-Panzer”, which represented his theories on the potential power of armoured warfare and the employment of tanks en masse. After the Second World War he wrote “Panzer Leader”, his autobiography.
Heinz Wilhelm Guderian was born on 17 June 1888 in the town of Kulm (now Chełmno in modern day Poland) on the River Vistula. His father, Friedrich, was an officer in the 2nd Pomeranian Jäger Battalion and his mother was a teacher. His grandparents were landowners in the region. He had a brother, Fritz, who was born in 1890.
His early family life revolved around his father’s military career. In 1891 they were posted to Colmar (now in Eastern France, 60km north of Switzerland) and then to Saint-Avold in Lorraine, now in Eastern France but then belonging to Germany.
He and Fritz were sent to a Spartan military boarding school (both the boys apparently expressing a desire for military education) at Karlsruhe, further up the River Rhine.
A Junior Officer
Heinz went to another cadet school in Berlin until 1907, when, aged 19, he completed his studies – history, mathematics and languages – and was commissioned as an ensign-cadet (Fähnrich) into the 10th Hanoverian Jäger Battalion, garrisoned at Bitche, also in Lorraine.
This was either a stroke of luck or undue influence was brought to bear – the 10th Hanoverian was commanded by his father.
As he says in his biography, he then lived the “happy life of a junior officer”. He studied at the Metz (also now in France) war school, was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in January 1908 and was posted to Goslar in the Harz mountains in 1909.
He married Margarete in 1913 and in August 1914 he had his first son, Heinz. A second son, Kurt, followed in 1918.
There is little information about his service in the First World War. It seems to have been primarily a variety of staff positions, with little front line combat. What appears significant is that he was involved in several signals and telegraph unit postings, which likely had an impact on his understanding of the role of effective communications.
Development of Armoured Warfare Concepts
Following Germany’s defeat in 1918, the Treaty of Versailles required that Germany have no more than 100,000 soldiers in its armed forces. Guderian was one of them, but this meant promotion prospects – indeed any sort of advancement – was likely to be limited.
By January 1920 he was back in his old battalion in Goslar, in charge of one of the infantry companies.
But in January 1922 he was put in command of the Inspectorate of Transport Troop, to revise and organise the way in which motor transport units were employed.
This gave him an awareness of the value of mobile forces and the need for armoured protection for such units. Guderian began to read other nation’s literature on armoured units: Fuller, Liddell Hart, Martel. Even an unknown French officer called Charles de Gaulle.
And an Austrian officer, Ludvig von Eimannsberger. Some analysts now feel that Eimannsberger deserves more credit for influencing Guderian and German panzer development than he actually received at the time. Eimannsberger’s own book on tank warfare came out in 1934, three years before Guderian published “Achtung-Panzer!”.
Many generals at the time – in all European nations – remained unconvinced by the notions of massed armoured formations. The cavalry arm, in particular, was often reluctant to embrace the new. But Guderian managed generally to hook up with likeminded German commanders as they considered the challenges and extensive potential of mechanised manoeuvre warfare.
A New way of Thinking
Guderian’s thinking evolved and began to crystallise around several core concepts: use of large scale armoured units (divisions rather than battalions), punching deep holes through the enemy front lines and rapidly exploiting them, combining tanks with other units that could all move at the same speed and in coordination with airpower.
It was Guderian who noted a crucial principle of armoured warfare as early as 1929:
“…I became convinced that tanks working on their own or in conjunction with infantry could never achieve decisive importance…what was needed were armoured divisions which would include all the supporting arms needed to allow the tanks to fight with full effect.”
This effectively meant putting everything on tracks – infantry units, self-propelled artillery, engineers, anti-tank guns, anti-aircraft guns, reconnaissance, logistics and headquarters.
In 1931, Guderian was given command of one of the early motorised battalions and was able to experiment with armoured cars and motorcycles. But still there was resistance to these new ideas. General Stulpnagel confided in Guderian: “we will never see German tanks in operation in our lifetime.”
There were also physical limitations – dummy guns, wood, canvas and notional exercises without troops had to substitute for real armour.
Actual production of tanks themselves was at a slow pace and the vehicles – we’re thinking of the Panzer Mk I and II here – were light – underpowered, under-armoured and under-gunned. As Guderian himself wryly observed of the Panzer Mk I with its twin machine gun armament and 13mm of armour:
“Nobody in 1932 could have guessed that one day we should have to go into action with this little training tank…”
The Eve of War
But progress was coming. When Hitler was shown an exercise with the Pz I, motorcycles and armoured cars, he was impressed and reportedly exclaimed:
“That’s what I need. That’s what I want to have.”
In 1935 the first panzer divisions were formed – the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions. Guderian was given command of the 2nd Panzer Division. He was only a colonel at the time – generals normally commanded divisions.
In August 1936 he was made up to Major General and in 1937 his book of armoured warfare theories, “”Achtung-Panzer!” was published.
The “dry run” for the blitzkrieg that was to allow Hitler to conquer Western Europe took place on 13 March 1938, with the “Anschluss”, the German annexation of Austria into “Greater Germany”.
This was a military operation that put Guderian’s armoured units through their paces. Although the move into Austria was unopposed – indeed, it was warmly welcomed in most quarters – the movement of hundreds of armoured vehicles in a coordinated manner posed all manner of command, control and logistical challenges. Guderian noted problems with planning moves over hundreds of kilometres, vehicle breakdowns, and the lack of fuel deports and maintenance units.
But, broadly speaking, Guderian – and, crucially, Hitler himself – were happy with the performance of the fledgling Panzer formations. A further bloodless “dry run” operation came later that year, at the expense of Czechoslovakia.
Guderian’s XVI Corps included 1st Panzer Division and 13th and 20th (motorised) infantry divisions moved into the Sudetenland region of Western Czechoslovakia.
The years 1939-1941 saw the Guderian’s theories of tank employment fully vindicated in the heat of battle. We do not need to revisit the campaigns in detail here. But it is worth briefly pausing to recognise that the term “Blitzkrieg” was not a German recognised expression of doctrine at the time.
The Germans did not use it. If anything, it came from the media. Instead, German military doctrine emphasised the use of initiative of its soldiers at all levels of command.
And “Klotzen nicht kleckern” was an expression closely associated with Guderian. It means something in the vicinity of “boot them, don’t spatter then” and encapsulated Guderian’s emphasis on the massed concentration of armoured force applied at one point, rather than, as the larger and (on paper at least) better equipped, French Army of 1940 was about to find out, spreading your armour thinly along the entire front line and subordinating them to infantry support.
Poland – September-October 1939
Guderian led XIX Corps for the attack on Poland. Again, it comprised a panzer division and two infantry divisions, one of which was motorised. In many ways he was fighting for his home soil – Kulm was now part of Poland. Both of his sons were also fighting in the campaign.
The attack took most Polish units by surprise. Resistance was patchy, often brave, but poorly coordinated. The Polish forces were outclassed by the speed and initiative shown by the German panzer units. Guderian led from the front, visiting as many units and commanders as possible, generally accompanying 3rd Panzer division. In “Panzer Leader” he makes the following claim:
“Incidentally it may be noted that I was the first corps commander ever to use armoured command vehicles in order to accompany tanks onto the battlefield”
The campaign lasted only five weeks. Afterwards, Guderian was awarded the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross by Adolf Hitler. On reviewing unit performance, four of the “light divisions” were upgraded into fully-fledged panzer divisions.
Low Countries and France – May-June 1940
The panzer units, along with the rest of the Wehrmacht went through a brief period of rest and refitting before they were focused onto planning and preparations for an attack westwards.
There was considerable debate and concern, given the trauma of the First World War, regarding the best way to attack France and knock her out quickly rather than bogging down into trench warfare.
A new version of the 1914 Schlieffen Plan – a right hook into Belgium – was planned. However, in February 1940 a German military aircraft carrying secret documents had to force land in Belgium, causing much of the plan to be uncovered.
A new approach was needed, this time through the Ardennes, to catch advancing British and French forces in the rear, as they moved forward to assist Belgium. The task was daunting – crossing several rivers, with the objective of the Atlantic coast.
Despite the combined Anglo-French armoured forces numbering approximately 4,000 vehicles to Germany’s 2,000, Guderian – at least from the 1952 hindsight of “Panzer Leader” – professed confidence in victory.
He cited the poor mood of the French people generally and the Army specifically. He pointed to the defensive, cautious and inflexible approach of the French Army commanders.
On 10 May 1940, German panzer spearheads moved into Luxembourg and Belgium. Guderian again commanded XIX Corps. Again he led from the front in an armoured vehicle to keep abreast of developments and provide immediate instructions to the commanders on the ground. Advances that took months and years in the 1914-18 war were now taking place in hours and days.
As with Poland, the Germans frequently encountered brave and determined resistance but the mobility and flexibility of the German armoured forces allowed this to be outflanked and bypassed.
The sheer speed and success of the advance caused Hitler and some of the generals some concerns. This led them fearing their flanks were terribly exposed. This worry was exacerbated by a bold but unsupported British tank counter-attack at Arras.
In “Panzer Leader”, Guderian grumbles about Hitler’s decision to stop the panzers from moving into Dunkirk. But, ultimately, the French army was shattered and the British army suffered an ignominious evacuation at Dunkirk.
And, of course, it was in Russia that the Blitzkrieg and Guderian came unstuck. The reasons were many and you can more or less take your pick. Extreme distances, extreme weather, extreme resistance, intensive logistical challenges. Wear and tear on vehicles, the superiority of the T-34 and Russia factories to mass produce them, partisans, mounting casualties replaced by lower grade troops, an unqualified dictator at the helm…
And there is another revealing irony. Despite the innovations and demonstrable capability of the German Panzer forces, even until the end of the war, the German army was disproportionately dependent upon horses for logistics and mobility.
Russia was a challenge many levels beyond what had been achieved in Poland and France. Hitler’s generals would all have known this.
After the war, Guderian wrote of the early 1941, pr-Barbarossa, period:
“…I could only now hope that Hitler was not seriously planning an attack on the Soviet Union…Renewed studies of the campaigns of Charles XII of Sweden and of Napoleon I clearly revealed all the difficulties of the theatre…it also became increasingly plain to see how inadequate were our preparations for so enormous an undertaking…the surprising speed of our victory in the West, had so befuddled the minds of our supreme commanders that they had eliminated the word ‘impossible’ from their vocabulary…”
This time, Colonel-General Guderian commanded an entire panzer army group, comprising three panzer corps, the XXIV, XLVI and XLVII. At first the victories came thick and fast.
Fast-moving panzer encirclements netted hundreds of thousands of prisoners throughout the summer and autumn. But the rain, mud, ice and snow brought the Germans to a halt outside Moscow. Under pressure from Russian counter-attacks, Guderian gave orders to retreat to a more defensible line.
This triggered a series of arguments with his superiors – and with Hitler himself. Hitler remained averse to withdrawals throughout his career as the supreme commander of the German army. Guderian was sacked and transferred into the reserve officers’ pool.
Appointed as Inspector General of the Armoured Troops
And there he languished, one of the foremost experts in, and exponents of, armoured warfare, until early 1943. He did not hold a front line command again.
But his talents were still recognised. Hitler grudgingly brought him back. His role was to organise and coordinate the development and growth of the panzer forces.
Read More: The Largest Battles of World War Two
This included the introduction of new types of armour, boosting armoured vehicle production and streamlining the vast array of different vehicle and weapons systems. This included captured equipment from other nations the Wehrmacht now fielded.
This brought about more arguments with the General Staff and Hitler. He was prone to fanciful and incoherent ideas, including a 100 ton “Maus” tank. Guderian busied himself with the introduction of the Tiger and Panther tanks.
He argued in vain against rushing the Panther into service in time for the battle of Kursk in July 1943. The crews were not yet fully trained, it was prone to breakdowns and other teething problems made it unfit for service.
The heavyweight Elefant tank, mounting an 88mm anti-tank weapon, based on an earlier Tiger tank prototype chassis, was another piece of equipment rushed in for Kursk. Without any machine guns, it was highly vulnerable to common foot soldiers armed with grenades, Molotov cocktails and anti-tank mines.
Chief of the General Staff
There was a large-scale “clear out” of senior officers after the July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler. Despite his disagreements with Hitler, Guderian was still apparently seen as reliable. He returned to senior military command in July, as the Chief of the General Staff.
His extensive “to do” list consisted primarily of plugging holes in frontlines with every decreasing resources. He was able to do little more than preside over a serious of defeats. These included the Western (France), Eastern (Russia) and Southern (Italian) fronts. Germany now headed towards an inevitable and brutal defeat.
On 27th March 1945, he had another stand-off with Hitler about resources, counter-attacks and a collapsing front line. The next day Hitler sent Guderian away on six weeks’ convalescent leave.
“Keitel advised me to visit Bad Leibenstein. It was very beautiful there. I replied that it was already occupied by the Americans. I thanked him kindly for his interest and remarked that I intended to choose my place of residence for myself and that I planned to pick a locality that would not be overrun by the enemy within the next forty-eight hours.”
Guderian went to the Tyrol and, as he noted:
“…there I sat down and waited for the end of the war.”
On 10 May 1945 – the fifth anniversary of the blitzkrieg against France, he was taken prisoner by the Americans.
Post War and Legacy
Guderian was investigated – like all senior officers – for war crimes and complicity in Nazi atrocities. No charges were made against him. Despite his disagreements with Hitler on practical military matters, he was often able to spend time with him and was invited to dine and engage with Hitler in very close-knit circles.
The view now – including based on secret recordings of Guderian while in captivity – is that Guderian favoured much of Hitler’s viewpoints, although there is no evidence of Guderian’s views on the Holocaust.
He came to be seen, like Rommel – as one of the “decent German officers”. However, if you command 150,000 troops on the Russian front, you are probably going to be connected to war crimes in some way.
Recent historical analysis tries to dispel the idea that the Wehrmacht was blameless and it was only the SS that committed atrocities. Nevertheless, the Americans declined to transfer him over to the Russians, which would probably have been a death sentence.
He did not live long after the war, dying in 1954. He published his memoirs “Memories of a Soldier” in 1952 – since re-titled into the slightly more marketable “Panzer Leader.”
This work is still read and studied intensively. There is an effusive foreword written by Basil Liddell Hart, praising the impact Guderian had on tank warfare. Much of this article is derived from this source.
But autobiographies must always be treated cautiously. Almost by definition, such works are self-serving, even if unintentionally. The tend to boost the contribution of the author, minimise others and ignore uncomfortable truths.
More recent analysis notes that Guderian’s progressive views on armoured warfare were not exclusive to him within the German army. The context in which the book was produced must also be considered. The defeat of Nazi Germany, the Nuremberg trials and the concern of the Western Powers over the very real threats from the Soviet Union, now absorbing half of Europe on its side of the “Iron Curtain”.
The West was keen to learn the lessons of the German panzer forces in fighting the Russians.
“Panzer Leader” is a fairly dry read, focused on the minutiae of day to day troop movements. This is certainly fascinating for students of armoured warfare. But there is next to nothing about emotions, feelings or views on Hitler and the Nazis.
But this is what you should expect from a man very much of his time and place. A forthright Prussian officer, from a land-owning and military background focused on service, duty and honour. He was loyal to the service of the German state with innovative ideas to improve the military capability of the army.
Perhaps if he had lived longer – he was only sixty-five when he died – into the age of TV and radio interviews we might have learnt more of his inner thoughts.
But I doubt it.