'Across the Havoc of War, a Great General'

By Bell, William Gardner | Army, March 2004 | Go to article overview

'Across the Havoc of War, a Great General'


Bell, William Gardner, Army


Participants in war have little time or inclination to express their opinions of an enemy. At the apex of government, Prime Minister Winston Churchill's tribute to Gen. Erwin Rommel (quoted above) before the British House of Commons in January 1943 stands out as one of the few daring and deserving national pronouncements of any conflagration. On the other hand, my estimate of the enemy from platoon and company levels on the fighting front in the Italian Campaign was different in character. Only the peace and good will of the postwar era opened the way to an interesting relationship with a number of notable German generals of wartime fame.

If one looks back down the generational trail, it becomes apparent that war is a variable phenomenon in human history. In the centuries of historical conflict, national relationships have regularly bounced back and forth, with friends becoming enemies, opponents becoming allies, epoch by epoch.

In 1945 the War Department sponsored the preparation of a history of the U.S. Army and its Air Force in World War II. A group of historians was assembled to write the history of the service, including the operations of the entire establishment as well as those of the field forces. Initial estimates envisioned the preparation of a hundred volumes. The authors would be given access to all of the Army's records and to enemy records as well. President Roosevelt and senior Army officials gave the project their full support.

One of the overriding considerations in developing the story from "the other side of the hill" was the requirement to arrange for extensive interrogation of senior enemy participants. Preeminent in this phase of cooperation was the study conducted by Col. Harold E. Potter, Chief of the Historical Section of the U.S. Army's European Theater of Operations.

Col. Potter assembled a unique group of senior German generals, all free of involvement in ongoing Nuremberg proceedings in war crimes cases. Among them were such noted individuals as Heinz Guderian, Albert Kesselring, Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin, Hasso Eccard von Manteuffel and Guenther Blumentritt.

With Col. Potter as a conduit, 1 began the process of touching base with selected individuals. My approaches were both official and personal. As editor of the Cavalry Journal and its later incarnation as Armor, I was attracted to the possibilities of appropriate material for the magazine.

Obviously, my first target was Gen. Heinz Guderian, recognized as Germany's leading tactician in the field of armored warfare-author of a 1937 book on mechanized warfare, commander of tank forces in German campaigns in Poland, France and Russia, and Army chief of staff in the closing months of World War II. I hoped to persuade him to do a piece on mechanized warfare in the postwar era.

Guderian responded favorably to my request, sending me an article on "The Role of the Tank in Future Ground Warfare." Despite a caveat that he was "not up to date with the technic of the fighting tank," his article was well accepted by Armor's readership, while his celebrity enhanced the journal's professional standing. On the private side, he graciously signed my copy of his memoir, Panzer Leader.

My approach to Field Marshal Albert Kesselring was close to home in both professional and personal senses. In October 1944, I had joined the 88th Infantry Division on the front line in Italy's North Apennines Mountain. I was, of course, completely unaware that Kesselring was commander in chief of German forces in Italy. And certainly it was unlikely that he was personally aware that I was the leader of the 2nd Platoon of Company G, 2nd Battalion, 350th Infantry, and, on the night of October 20, led my platoon in a sharp firefight on the slopes of Mount Grande, knocking out a German halftrack towing an antitank gun and possibly pushing his troops back a bit toward the Po Valley and Bologna.

Nevertheless, our personal situations led me to send a copy of his recently published book, Memoirs of Field Marshal Kesselring, to him in Germany in the hope that he would sign it. …

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