HITLER’S CRUCIAL MEASURES were already underway. On September 4 at the Führer’s headquarters deep in the forest of Gör-litz, Rastenburg, East Prussia, sixty-nine-year-old Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt prepared to leave for the western front. He had not expected a new command.
Called abruptly out of enforced retirement, Von Rundstedt had been ordered to Rastenburg four days before. On July 2, two months earlier, Hitler had fired him as Commander in Chief West (or, as it was known in German military terms, OB West—Oberbefehlshaber West) while Von Rundstedt, who had never lost a battle, was trying to cope with the aftermath of Germany’s greatest crisis of the war, the Allied invasion of Normandy.
The Führer and Germany’s most distinguished soldier had never agreed on how best to meet that threat. Before the invasion, appealing for reinforcements, Von Rundstedt had bluntly informed Hitler’s headquarters (OKW—Oberkommando der Wehrmacht)* that the Western Allies, superior in men, equipment and planes, could “land anywhere they want to.” Not so, Hitler declared. The Atlantic Wall, the partly completed coastal fortifications which, Hitler boasted, ran almost three thousand miles from Kirkenes (on the Norwegian-Finnish frontier) to the Pyrenees (on the Franco-Spanish border) would make “this front impregnable against any enemy.” Von Rundstedt knew only too well that the fortifications were more propaganda than fact. He summed up the Atlantic Wall in one word: “Humbug.”
The legendary Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, renowned for his victories in the North African deserts in the first years of the war and sent by Hitler to command Army Group B under Von Rundstedt, was equally appalled by the Fuhrer’s confidence. To Rommel, the coastal defenses were a “figment of Hitler’s Wolkenkuckkucksheim [cloud cuckoo land].” The aristocratic, tradition-bound Von Rundstedt and the younger, ambitious Rommel found themselves, probably for the first time, in agreement. On another point, however, they clashed. With the crushing defeat of his Afrika Korps by Britain’s Montgomery at E1 Alamein in 1942 always in his mind, and well aware of what the Allied invasion would be like, Rommel believed that the invaders must be stopped on the beaches. Von Rundstedt icily disagreed with his junior—whom he sarcastically referred to as the “Marschall Bubi” (“Marshal Laddie”); Allied troops should be wiped out after they landed, he contended. Hitler backed Rommel. On D Day, despite Rommel’s brilliant improvisations, Allied troops breached the “impregnable” wall within hours.
In the terrible days that followed, overwhelmed by the Allies, who enjoyed almost total air supremacy over the Normandy battlefield, and shackled by Hitler’s “no withdrawal” orders (“Every man shall fight and fall where he stands”), Von Rund-stedt’s straining lines cracked everywhere. Desperately he plugged the gaps, but hard as his men fought and counterattacked, the outcome was never seriously in doubt. Von Rundstedt could neither “drive the invaders into the sea” nor “annihilate them” (the words were Hitler’s).
On the night of July 1, at the height of the Normandy battle, Hitler’s chief of staff, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, called Von Rundstedt and plaintively asked, “What shall we do?” Characteristically blunt, Von Rundstedt snapped, “End the war, you fools. What else can you do?” Hitler’s comment on hearing the remark was mild. “The old man has lost his nerve and can’t master the situation any longer. He’ll have to go.” Twenty-four hours later, in a polite handwritten note, Hitler informed Von Rundstedt that, “in consideration of your health and of the increased exertions to be expected in the near future,” he was relieved of command.
Von Rundstedt, the senior and most dependable field marshal in the Wehrmacht, was incredulous. For the five years of war his military genius had served the Third Reich well. In 1939, when Hitler cold-bloodedly attacked Poland, thereby igniting the conflict that eventually engulfed the world, Von Rundstedt had clearly demonstrated the German formula for conquest—Blitzkrieg (“lightning war”)—when his Panzer spearheads reached the outskirts of Warsaw in less than a week. One year later, when Hitler turned west and with devastating speed overwhelmed most of western Europe, Von Rundstedt was in charge of an entire Panzer army. And in 1941 he was in the forefront again when Hitler attacked Russia. Now, outraged at the jeopardy to his career and reputation, Von Rundstedt told his chief of staff, Major General Gunther Blumentritt, that he had been “dismissed in disgrace by an amateur strategist.” That “Bohemian corporal,” he fumed, had used “my age and ill health as an excuse to relieve me in order to have a scapegoat.” Given a free hand, Von Rundstedt had planned a slow withdrawal to the German frontier, during which, as he outlined his plans to Blumentritt, he would have “exacted a terrible price for every foot of ground given up.” But, as he had said to his staff many times, because of the constant “tutelage from above,” about the only authority he had as OB West was “to change the guard in front of the gate.”*
From the moment of his recall and his arrival at the end ofAugust at the Rastenburg Wolfsschanze (“Wolf’s Lair”), as it was named by Hitler, Von Rundstedt, at the Führer’s invitation, attended the daily briefing conference. Hitler, according to the Deputy Chief of Operations General Walter Warlimont, greeted his senior field marshal warmly, treating him with “unwonted diffidence and respect.” Warlimont also noted that throughout the long sessions Von Rundstedt simply sat “motionless and monosyllabic.”* The precise, practical field marshal had nothing to say. He was appalled by the situation.
The briefings clearly showed that in the east the Red Army now held a front more than 1,400 miles long, from Finland in the north to the Vistula in Poland, and from there to the Carpathian Mountains in Rumania and Yugoslavia. In fact, Russian armor had reached the borders of East Prussia, barely a hundred miles from the Führer’s headquarters.
In the west Von Rundstedt saw that his worst fears had been realized. Division after division was now destroyed, the entire German line thrown helplessly back. Rear-guard units, although surrounded and cut off, still clung to vital ports such as Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne, Le Havre, Brest, Lorient and St. Nazaire, forcing the Allies to continue bringing supplies in from the distant invasion beaches. But now, with the sudden, stunning capture of Antwerp, one of Europe’s greatest deep seaports, the Allies might well have solved their supply problem. Von Rundstedt noted, too, that the tactic of Blitzkrieg, perfected by himself and others, was being borrowed with devastating effect by Eisenhower’s armies. And Field Marshal Walter Model, the fifty-four-year-old new Commander in Chief, West (he took over on August 17), was clearly unable to bring order out of the chaos. His front had been ripped apart, slashed in the north by tanks of the British Second Army and the U.S. First Army driving through Belgium toward Holland; and, south of the Ardennes, armored columns of the U.S. Third Army under General George S. Patton were heading for Metz and the Saar. To Von Rundstedt the situation was no longer merely ominous. It was cataclysmic.
He had time to dwell on the inevitability of the end. Almost four days elapsed before Hitler allowed Von Rundstedt a private audience. During his wait the Field Marshal stayed in the former country inn reserved for senior officers in the center of the vast headquarters—a barbed-wire-enclosed enclave of wooden huts and concrete bunkers built over a catacomb of underground installations. Von Rundstedt vented his impatience at the delay on Keitel, the chief of staff. “Why have I been sent for?” he demanded. “What sort of game is going on?” Keitel was unable to tell him. Hitler had given Keitel no particular reason, short of an innocuous mention of the Field Marshal’s health. Hitler seemed to have convinced himself of his own manufactured version for Von Rundstedt’s dismissal on “health grounds” back in July. To Keitel, Hitler had merely said, “I want to see if the old man’s health has improved.”
Twice Keitel reminded the Führer that the Field Marshal was waiting. Finally, on the afternoon of September 4, Von Rundstedt was summoned to Hitler’s presence, and, uncharacteristically, the Führer came to the point immediately. “I would like to entrust you once more with the western front.”
Stiffly erect, both hands on his gold baton, Von Rundstedt merely nodded. Despite his knowledge and experience, his distaste for Hitler and the Nazis, Von Rundstedt, in whom the Prussian military tradition of devotion to service was ingrained, did not decline the appointment. As he was later to recall, “it would have been useless to protest anyway.”*
Almost cursorily, Hitler outlined Von Rundstedt’s task. Once more Hitler was improvising. Before D Day he had insisted that the Atlantic Wall was invulnerable. Now, to Von Rundstedt’s dismay, the Führer stressed the impregnability of the West-wall—the long-neglected, unmanned but still formidable frontier fortifications better known to the Allies as the Siegfried Line. Von Rundstedt, Hitler ordered, was not only to stop the Allies as far west as possible, but to counterattack for, as the Führer saw it, the most dangerous Allied threats were no more than “armored spearheads.” Clearly, however, Hitler was shaken by the capture of Antwerp. Its vital port was to be denied the Allies at all costs. Thus, since the other ports were still in German hands, Hitler said, he fully expected the Allied drive to come to a halt because of overextended supply lines. He was confident that the western front could be stabilized and, with the coming of winter, the initiative regained. Hitler assured Von Rundstedt that he was “not unduly worried about the situation in the west.”
It was a variation of a monologue Von Rundstedt had heard many times in the past. The Westwall, to Hitler, had now become an idée fixe, and Von Rundstedt once again was being ordered “not to give an inch,” and “to hold under all conditions.”
By ordering Von Rundstedt to replace Field Marshal Model, Hitler was making his third change of command of OB West within two months—from Von Rundstedt to Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge, to Model, and now once again to Von Rundstedt. Model, in the job just eighteen days, would now command only Army Group B under Von Rundstedt, Hitler said. Von Rundstedt had long regarded Model with less than enthusiasm. Model, he felt, had not earned his promotion the hard way; he had been elevated to the rank of field marshal too quickly by Hitler. Von Rundstedt thought him better suited to the job of a “good regimental sergeant major.” Still, the Field Marshal felt that Model’s position made little difference now. The situation was all but hopeless, defeat inevitable. On the afternoon of September 4, as he set out for his headquarters near Koblenz, Von Rundstedt saw nothing to stop the Allies from invading Germany, crossing the Rhine and ending the war in a matter of weeks.
On this same day in Wannsee, Berlin, Colonel General Kurt Student, fifty-four-year-old founder of Germany’s airborne forces, emerged from the backwater to which he had been relegated for three long years. For him, the war had begun with great promise. His paratroops, Student felt, had been chiefly responsible for the capture of Holland in 1940, when some 4,000 of them dropped on the bridges of Rotterdam, Dordrecht and Moerdijk, holding the vital spans open for the main German invasion force. Student’s losses had been incredibly low—only 180 men. But the situation was different in the 1941 airborne assault of Crete. There, losses were so high—more than a third of the 22,000-man force—that Hitler forbade all future airborne operations. “The day of parachute troops is over,” the Führer said, and the future had dimmed for Student. Ever since, the ambitious officer had been tied to a desk job as commander of an airborne-training establishment, while his elite troopers were used strictly as infantry. With shattering abruptness, at precisely 3 P.M. on this critical September 4, Student emerged into the mainstream once again. In a brief telephone call, Colonel General Alfred Jodl, Hitler’s operations chief, ordered him to immediately organize an army, which the Fuhrer had designated as the “First Parachute Army.” As the astounded Student listened, it occurred to him that “it was a rather high-sounding title for a force that didn’t exist.”
Student’s troopers were scattered all over Germany, and apart from a few seasoned, fully equipped units, they were green recruits armed only with training weapons. His force of about ten thousand had almost no transportation, armor or artillery. Student didn’t even have a chief of staff.
Nevertheless, Student’s men, Jodl explained, were urgently needed in the west. They were to “close a gigantic hole” between Antwerp and the area of Liege-Maastricht by “holding a line along the Albert Canal.” With all possible speed, Student was ordered to rush his forces to Holland and Belgium. Weapons and equipment would be issued at the “railheads of destination.” Besides his paratroopers, two divisions had been earmarked for his new “army.” One of them, the 719th, Student soon learned, was “made up of old men stationed along the Dutch coast who had not as yet fired a single shot.” His second division, the 176th, was even worse. It consisted of “semi-invalids and convalescents who, for convenience, had been grouped together in separate battalions according to their various ailments.” They even had special “diet” kitchens for those suffering from stomach trouble. Besides these units, he would get a grab bag of other forces scattered in Holland and Belgium—Luftwaffe troops, sailors and antiaircraft crews—and twenty-five tanks. To Student, the expert in paratroop warfare and supertrained airborne shock troops, his makeshift army was a “grotesque improvisation on a grand scale.” Still, he was back in the war again.
All through the afternoon, by telephone and teletype, Student mustered and moved his men out. It would take at least four days for his entire force to reach the front, he estimated. But his toughest and best troops, rushed in special trains to Holland in what Student called a “blitz move,” would be in position on the Albert Canal, as part of Model’s Army Group B, within twenty-four hours.
Jodl’s call and the information he himself had since gathered alarmed Student. It seemed apparent that his most seasoned group—the 6th Parachute Regiment plus one other battalion, together totaling about three thousand men—probably constituted the only combat-ready reserve in the whole of Germany. He found the situation ominous.
Frantically, Field Marshal Walter Model, Commander in Chief, West, tried to plug the yawning gap east of Antwerp and halt the disorderly retreat from Belgium into Holland. As yet no news of Von Rundstedt’s appointment as his successor had reached him. His forces were so entangled, so disorganized that Model had all but lost control. He no longer had contact with the second half of his command, Army Group G in the south. Had General Johannes Blaskowitz, its commander, successfully withdrawn from France?Model wasn’t sure. To the harassed Field Marshal the predicament of Army Group G was secondary. The crisis was clearly in the north.
With dispatch and ferocity, Army Group B had been split in two by armored columns of the British and Americans. Of the two armies composing Army Group B, the Fifteenth was bottled up, its back to the North Sea, roughly between Calais and a point northwest of Antwerp. The Seventh Army had been almost destroyed, and thrown back toward Maastricht and Aachen. Between the two armies lay a 75-mile gap and the British had driven through it straight to Antwerp. Plunging along the same route were Model’s own demoralized, retreating forces.
In a desperate effort to halt their flight, Model issued an emotional plea to his troops.
… With the enemy’s advance and the withdrawal of our front, several hundred thousand soldiers are falling back—army, air force and armored units—troops which must re-form as planned and hold in new strong points or lines.
In this stream are the remnants of broken units which, for the moment, have no set objectives and are not even in a position to receive clear orders. Whenever orderly columns turn off the road to reorganize, streams of disorganized elements push on. With their wagons move whispers, rumors, haste, endless disorder and vicious self-interest. This atmosphere is being brought back to the rear areas, infecting units still intact and in this moment of extreme tension must be prevented by the strongest means.
I appeal to your honor as soldiers. We have lost a battle, but I assure you of this: We will win this war! I cannot tell you more at the present, although I know that questions are burning on your lips. Whatever has happened, never lose your faith in the future of Germany. At the same time you must be aware of the gravity of the situation. This moment will and should separate men from weaklings. Now every soldier has the same responsibility. When his commander falls, he must be ready to step into his shoes and carry on …
There followed a long series of instructions in which Model “categorically” demanded that retreating troops should immediately “report to the nearest command point,” instill in others “confidence, self-reliance, self-control and optimism,” and repudiate “stupid gossip, rumors and irresponsible reports.” The enemy, he said, was “not everywhere at once” and, indeed, “if all the tanks reported by rumormongers were counted, there would have to be a hundred thousand of them.” He begged his men not to give up important positions or demolish equipment, weapons or installations “before it is necessary.” The astonishing document wound up by stressing that everything depended on “gaining time, which the Führer needs to put new weapons and new troops into operation.”
Virtually without communications, depending for the most part on radio, Model could only hope that his Order of the Day reached all his troops. In the confusion he was not even sure of the latest position of his disorganized and shattered units; nor did he know precisely how far Allied tanks and troops had advanced. And where was the Schwerpunkt (main thrust) of the Allied drive—with the British and Americans in the north heading for the Siegfried Line and thence across the Rhine and into the Ruhr? Was it with Patton’s massive U.S. Third Army driving for the Saar, the Siegfried Line and over the Rhine into Frankfurt?
Model’s dilemma was the outgrowth of a situation that had occurred nearly two months earlier at the time of Von Rund-stedt’s dismissal and Hitler’s swift appointment of Von Kluge as the old Field Marshal’s successor. On sick leave for months from his command in Russia, Von Kluge happened to be making a courtesy call on the Führer at the precise moment when Hitler decided to dismiss Von Rundstedt. With no preamble, and possibly because Von Kluge happened to be the only senior officer in sight, Hitler had named the astonished Von Kluge Commander in Chief, West.
Von Kluge, a veteran front commander, took over on July 4. He was to last forty-four days. Exactly as predicted by Von Rundstedt, the Allied breakout occurred. “The whole western front has been ripped open,” Von Kluge informed Hitler. Overwhelmed by the Allied tide pouring across France, Von Kluge, like Von Rundstedt before him, found his hands tied by Hitler’s insistent “no withdrawal” orders. The German armies in France were encircled and all but destroyed. It was during this period that another convulsion racked the Third Reich—an abortive assassination attempt on Hitler’s life.
During one of the endless conferences at the Führer’s headquarters, a time bomb in a briefcase, placed by Colonel Claus Graf von Stauffenberg beneath a table close to Hitler, exploded, killing and wounding many in the room. The Führer escaped with minor injuries. Although only a small elite group of officers were involved in the plot, Hitler’s revenge was barbaric. Anyone connected with the plotters, or with their families, was arrested; and many individuals, innocent or not, were summarily executed.* Some five thousand people lost their lives. Von Kluge had been indirectly implicated, and Hitler also suspected him of trying to negotiate a surrender with the enemy. Von Kluge was replaced by Model and ordered to report immediately to the Führer. Before leaving his headquarters the despairing Von Kluge wrote a letter to Hitler. Then, en route to Germany, he took poison.
When you receive these lines I shall be no more [he wrote to the Führer]…. I did everything within my power to be equal to the situation … Both Rommel and I, and probably all the other commanders here in the west with experience of battle against the Anglo-Americans, with their preponderance of material, foresaw the present developments. We were not listened to. Our appreciations were not dictated by pessimism, but from sober knowledge of the facts. I do not know whether Field Marshal Model, who has been proved in every sphere, will master the situation. From my heart I hope so. Should it not be so, however, and your new weapons … not succeed, then, my Führer, make up your mind to end the war. It is time to put an end to this frightfulness…. I have always admired your greatness … and your iron will … Show yourself now also great enough to put an end to this hopeless struggle….
Hitler had no intention of conceding victory to the Allies, even though the Third Reich that he had boasted would last a millennium was undermined and tottering. On every front he was attempting to stave off defeat. Yet each move the Führer made seemed more desperate than the last.
Model’s appointment as OB West had not helped. Unlike Von Rundstedt or, briefly, Von Kluge, Model did not have the combat genius of Rommel as support. After Rommel was badly wounded by a strafing Allied plane on July 17, no one had been sent to replace him.* Model did not at first appear to feel the need. Confident that he could right the situation, he took on Rommel’s old command as well, becoming not only OB West but also Commander of Army Group B. Despite Model’s expertise, the situation was too grave for any one commander.
At this time Army Group B was battling for survival along a line roughly between the Belgian coast and the Franco-Luxembourg border. From there, south to Switzerland, the remainder of Model’s command—Army Group G under General Blaskowitz—had already been written off. Following the second Allied invasion on August 15, by French and American forces in the Marseilles area, Blaskowitz’ group had hurriedly departed southern France. Under continuous pressure they were now falling back in disarray to the German border.
Along Model’s disintegrating northern front, where Allied armor had torn the 75-mile-wide gap in the line, the route from Belgium into Holland and from there across Germany’s vulnerable northwest frontier lay open and undefended. Allied forces driving into Holland could outflank the Siegfried Line where the massive belt of fortifications extending along Germany’s frontiers from Switzerland terminated at Kleve on the Dutch-German border. By turning this northern tip of Hitler’s Westwall and crossing the Rhine, the Allies could swing into the Ruhr, the industrial heart of the Reich. That maneuver might well bring about the total collapse of Germany.
Twice in seventy-two hours Model appealed desperately to Hitler for reinforcements. The situation of his forces in the undefended gap was chaotic. Order had to be restored and the breach closed. Model’s latest report, which he had sent to Hitler in the early hours of September 4, warned that the crisis was approaching and unless he received a minimum of “twenty-five fresh divisions and an armored reserve of five or six panzer divisions,” the entire front might collapse, thereby opening the “gateway into northwest Germany.”
Model’s greatest concern was the British entry into Antwerp. He did not know whether the huge port, the second-largest in Europe, was captured intact or destroyed by the German garrison. The city of Antwerp itself, lying far inland, was not the crux. To use the port, the Allies needed to control its seaward approach, an inlet 54 miles long and 3 miles wide at its mouth, running into Holland from the North Sea past Walcheren Island and looping alongside the South Beveland peninsula. So long as German guns commanded the Schelde estuary, the port of Antwerp could be denied the Allies.
Unfortunately for Model, apart from antiaircraft batteries and heavy coastal guns on Walcheren Island, he had almost no forces along the northern bank. But on the other side of the Schelde and almost isolated in the Pas de Calais was General Gustav von Zangen’s Fifteenth Army—a force of more than 80,000 men. Though pocketed—the sea lay behind them to the north and west, and Canadians and British were pressing in from the south and east—they nevertheless controlled most of the southern bank of the estuary.
By now, Model believed, British tanks, exploiting the situation, would surely be moving along the northern bank and sweeping it clear. Before long the entire South Beveland peninsula could be in their hands and sealed off from the Dutch mainland at its narrow base north of the Belgian border, barely 18 miles from Antwerp. Next, to open the port, the British would turn on the trapped Fifteenth Army and clear the southern bank. Von Zangen’s forces had to be extricated.
Late in the afternoon of September 4 at Army Group B’s headquarters southeast of Liege in the village of La Chaude Fontaine, Model issued a series of orders. By radio he commanded Von Zangen to hold the southern bank of the Schelde and reinforce the lesser ports of Dunkirk, Boulogne and Calais, which Hitler had earlier decreed were to be held with “fanatical determination as fortresses.” With the remainder of his troops the hapless Von Zangen was to attack northeast into the avalanche of British armor. It was a desperate measure, yet Model saw no other course. If Von Zangen’s attack was successful, it might isolate the British in Antwerp and cut off Montgomery’s armored spearheads driving north. Even if the attack failed, Von Zangen’s effort might buy time, slowing up the Allied drive long enough for reserves to arrive and hold a new front along the Albert Canal.
Exactly what reinforcements were on the way, Model did not know. As darkness fell he finally received Hitler’s answer to his pleas for new divisions to stabilize the front. It was the terse news of his replacement as Commander in Chief, West, by Field Marshal von Rundstedt. Von Kluge had lasted forty-four days as OB West, Model barely eighteen. Normally temperamental and ambitious, Model reacted calmly on this occasion. He was more aware of his shortcomings as an administrator than his critics believed.*Now he could concentrate on the job he knew best: being a front-line commander, solely in charge of Army Group B. But, among the flurry of frantic orders Model issued on this last day as OB West, one would prove momentous. It concerned the relocation of his II SS Panzer Corps.
The commander of the Corps, fifty-year-old Obergruppen-führer (Lieutenant General) Wilhelm Bittrich, had been out of touch with Model for more than seventy-two hours. His forces, fighting almost continuously since Normandy, had been badly mauled. Bittrich’s tank losses were staggering, his men short on ammunition and fuel. In addition, because of the breakdown of communications, the few orders he had received by radio were already out of date when Bittrich got them. Uncertain of the enemy’s movements and badly in need of direction, Bittrich set out on foot to find Model. He finally located the Field Marshal at Army Group B headquarters near Liège. “I had not seen him since the Russian front in 1941,” Bittrich later recalled. “Monocle in his eye, wearing his usual short leather coat, Model was standing looking at a map and snapping out commands one after the other. There was little time for conversation. Pending official orders, which would follow, I was told to move my Corps headquarters north into Holland.” With all possible speed Bittrich was directed to “supervise the refitting and rehabilitation of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions.” The battered units, Model told him, were to “slowly disengage from the battle and immediately head north.”*
The almost unknown Bittrich could hardly foresee the critical role his 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions would play within the next two weeks. The site Model chose for Bittrich was in a quiet zone, at this point some seventy-five miles behind the front. By a historic fluke, the area included the city of Arnhem.
*Armed Forces High Command
*“Von Rundstedt was hurt by the implication in Hitler’s letter that he had ‘requested* relief,” the late General Blumentritt told me in an interview. “Some of us at Headquarters actually thought he had, but this was not so. Von Rundstedt denied that he had ever asked to be relieved—or that he had ever thought of doing so. He was extremely angry—so angry in fact that he swore he would never again take a command under Hitler. I knew he did not mean it for, to Von Rundstedt, military obedience was unconditional and absolute.”
*Warlimont, Inside Hitler’s Headquarters, 1939-45, p. 477.
*According to Walter Goerlitz, editor of The Memoirs of Field Marshal Keitel (Chapter 10, p. 347), Von Rundstedt said to Hitler, “My Führer, whatever you may command, I will do my duty to my last breath.” My version of Von Rundstedt’s reaction is based on the recollections of his former chief of staff, Major General Blumentritt. “I said nothing,” Von Rundstedt told him. “If I’d opened my mouth, Hitler would have talked ‘at me’ for three hours.”
*Hitler took advantage of his most senior officer, Von Rundstedt, once again by making him President of the Court of Honor that passed judgment on the officers suspected. Von Rundstedt quietly acceded to the Führer’s request. “If I had not,” he later explained, “I too might have been considered a traitor.” Von Rundstedt’s explanation has never satisfied many of his brother generals, who privately denounced him for bending to Hitler’s request.
*Rommel, who was also suspected by Hitler of being involved in the assassination attempt, died three months later. While convalescing at his home, Hitler gave him a choice: stand trial for treason or commit suicide. On October 14, Rommel swallowed cyanide, and Hitler announced that the Reich’s most popular field marshal had “died of wounds sustained on the battlefield.”
*Twice Model informed Hitler of his inability to command both OB West and Army Group B. “We rarely saw him,” OB West’s Chief of Staff Blumentritt recalled. “Model hated paper work and spent most of his time in the field.” Lieutenant General Bodo Zimmermann, OB West’s operations chief, wrote after the war (OCMH MS 308, pp. 153-154) that though Model “was a thoroughly capable soldier,” he often “demanded too much and that too quickly,” hence “losing sight of what was practically possible.” He had a tendency to “dissipate his forces,” added Zimmermann, and “staff work suffered under his too-frequent absences and erratic, inconsistent demands.”
*Understandably perhaps, German records of this period are vague and often inexplicable. Commands were issued, never received, re-sent, countermanded or changed. Considerable confusion exists about Model’s order. According to Army Group B’s war diary, movement orders for the 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions were sent on the night of September 3. If so, they were never received. Also, it is recorded that Bittrich received his instructions forty-eight hours later to supervise the regrouping and rehabilitation of not only the 9th but the 2nd and 116th Panzer units. Curiously, the 10th is not mentioned. I can find no evidence that either the 2nd or 116th ever reached the Arnhem area. (It appears they continued fighting at the front.) According to Bittrich’s own papers and logs, he received Model’s orders orally on September 4 and duly directed only the 9th and 10th to proceed north. Both units, according to their commanders, began slowly withdrawing on September 5-6.