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The Fall of Ernst Udet and Gerd von Rundstedt

The Nazi Blame Game

“There were no preparations for a prolonged struggle. Everything was based on the idea of a decisive result before the autumn.”

—Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist, post-war comment about Operation Barbarossa

In November 1941, Nazi Germany was at its conquest apogee; and Operation Barbarossa was its most breath-taking achievement. But, instead of a crowning success, the invasion of the Soviet Union was exposing Nazi strategic failures – in the Luftwaffe and in the ground campaign.

The problem with the Luftwaffe was that it was a tactical air force increasingly tasked with a strategic mission. And blamed for that failing was its director of aviation armaments, Generaloberst Ernst Udet, who turned out to be the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time for the Luftwaffe.

Handsome, dashing, and a skilled raconteur, Udet was Germany’s greatest living fighter ace from World War I. Reichmarshal Hermann Goering appointed Udet inspector of dive bomber and fighter pilots in 1936, an astute move because he was an excellent pilot and trainer, and had in many ways been responsible for the development of the Germans’ Ju 87 Stuka that so terrorized enemies in the first few months of the war. Then Goering made a mistake; he also made Udet director of the technical department of the air ministry. As historian Leonard Mosely wrote, “Udet was bold, brave, and a first-class flier, he was unfortunately no planner.” Udet filled his staff with wartime friends unqualified for their design and production roles.

Goeriing and Udet, 1938

Goering and Udet in 1938, before the cracks started to show. Some of Udet’s poor decisions had already been made at this time, but would not begin to become evident until two years later. Even so, he became the scapegoat for appalling leadership lapses by Goering and arch-rival Erhard Milch. Bundesarchive photo

Accounts of Udet’s managerial incompetence began reaching Goering. As the man who hired Udet and who was himself a poor (and corrupt) administrator, Goering was in an awkward position and at first chose to ignore the problem. Albert Speer, who would later take over all war production, noted that, “Goering was not actually blind to reality. I would occasionally hear him make perceptive comments on the situation. Rather, he acted like a bankrupt who up to the last moment wants to deceive himself along with his creditors.”

By May 1941, Goering could no longer ignore the situation. Confronted with damning evidence that the Luftwaffe was understrength in aircraft for the upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union, in a cunning administrative move Goering expanded the authority of Luftwaffe Inspector General Field Marshal Erhard Milch at Udet’s expense. Administratively Milch was now between Goering and Udet, essentially Udet’s boss. In the dog-eat-dog world of Nazi politics, what this meant in practical terms was that Udet was a marked man, and his dismissal was only a question of time. Udet himself tried to resign in August, but Goering refused the request, knowing Udet’s resignation would reflect badly upon his own judgment and leadership. Meanwhile Milch began accumulating evidence of Udet’s incompetence. Things reached a head at a meeting on Nov. 12, 1941, where Messerschmitt officials produced documents showing falsified figures and altered orders. Whether it was Udet or, more likely, one of his subordinates who cooked the books was irrelevant. Udet was the man in charge and thus responsible. Five days later, Udet shot himself in his Berlin apartment. The circumstances of Udet’s death were kept secret, and he was given a state funeral attended by Adolf Hitler, Goering and other top officials.

The crisis in the ground campaign in the Soviet Union was a combination of the desire for a quick campaign and of a strategic tug of war between Adolf Hitler and the German Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres, or OKH). OKH favored a thrust to the Soviet Union’s political center, Moscow. Hitler emphasized the Clausewitzian doctrine of destruction of the enemy’s armies.

Von Rundstedt and Rommel, Paris

Von Rundstedt and Erwin Rommel in Paris, circa 1943. Both men fell into disfavor with Hitler, Rommel at the cost of his life later in the war. Bundesarchive photo

At the risk of oversimplification, the problem confronting OKH was one of scale. In both manpower and land, the Soviet Union was seemingly inexhaustible. For every Soviet army captured or annihilated, another soon appeared to take its place. And, the deeper the German armies went into Soviet territory, the more exposed were their flanks.

When it became obvious that Operation Barbarossa would not be a quick campaign ending before winter, senior Eastern Front commanders began reassessing their strategic options. One such commander was Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander of Army Group South. On November 10, he submitted a proposal to OKH that Army Group South’s operations be stopped “in order to preserve the troops’ striking power” for the following spring. About this same time, he suffered a heart attack, but refused to be evacuated.

When Marshal Semen Timoshenko’s Red Army drove von Rundstedt’s army out of Rostov on November 29, Hitler blamed von Rundstedt for the setback. Von Rundstedt tartly replied that OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, the German Military High Command) – in other words Hitler himself – was at fault for pursuing a poor strategy.

When von Rundstedt attempted to retreat to a better defensive position, Hitler on November 30 ordered von Rundstedt’s troops to stop and fight where they were. Von Rundstedt wired, “It is madness to attempt to hold. In the first place the troops cannot do it and in the second place if they do not retreat they will be destroyed. . . . I request that this order be rescinded or that you find someone else.” On Dec. 1, 1941, Hitler sacked von Rundstedt, officially for reasons of health, and replaced him with Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau. Other Eastern Front senior commanders would soon follow.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

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    Robert F. Dorr

    This is a terrific glimpse at an important part of history, the sort of thing that Dwight Jon Zimmerman does so well. At least Udet managed to live high for a time until he felt so abruptly. He may have been responsible for the idea that every combat aircraft in the Luftwaffe, regardless of intended mission, should be adapted for dive-bombing duty in the manner of the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka. This was impossible because even other aircraft that had been conceived from the outset as dive-bombers, including the Douglas SBD Dauntless, couldn’t really engage a target in full vertical mode the way a Stuka could. Those of us in the West are fortunate that the Reich had leaders like Goering and Udet, but if you look at our top brass today you have to wonder if we learned that mediocre talent and massive toadying aren’t the key to success.