Attached to this post is an intriguing report on German general officer casualties, specifically, KIAs, in World War II. It was rare for an Allied general to be killed or wounded in combat, although there were some celebrated cases, including friendly-fire air-ground incidents. The article is loosely framed as a suggestion that the Americans’ Wehrmacht-inspired AirLand Battle doctrine of the 1980s might have led to a similar result, but that has a whiff of “added this to please the war college reviewers and fake contemporary relevance” to it. The paper is predominantly historical.
The numbers don’t lie: 136 German general-officer commanders -division, corps and army levels, the equivalent of American two-star-and-up generals — were killed in action in 1939-45. Several factors led to this: the Germans’ lead-from-the-front doctrine, the personal courage of the generals concerned, the greater lethality of WWII arms than had been the case in their junior officer days’ Great War, and the German’s whole-war-long shortage of combat commanders.
Wehrmacht doctrine emphasized personal reconnaissance, the general “showing the flag” or “showing his face” to the frontmost outposts, and other examples of personal, retail leadership. Was this a cause or effect of the Germans’ reduced proliferation of command radio nets than the Western Allies? Not clear. But the German general put his life on the line with his men; naturally, the enemy was eager to collect some of these scalps.
The personal physical courage of the generals seems beyond question. Among those old enough to have served in World War I, almost all bore valor decorations from the period. Even more received valor decorations in World War II, between taking command and being slain. It stands to reason that courage increases a soldier’s exposure to enemy fire. (Not always true, as fear, panic and timidity will put your trophy in the hunter’s bag sooner than courage, real or imitation, will).
They may have gotten wrong lessons from World War I. Sure, they learned the hazards of artillery fire against fixed trench lines, but they missed the lethality of modern fires against troops in motion. The lethality of air was not on their horizon; Great War strafing was a mere nuisance compared to systematic attacks by marauding Il-2s, P-47s or Typhoons. This is considerably ironic, when one recalls that the Blitzkrieg and the ground-attack aircraft and unit were largely German inventions.
And they were highly visible targets in highly distinctive uniforms.
Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS general officers died of everything from snipers (2 each) to tank main gun fire (2 more, both facing the Soviets), and one unlucky duck drove into a friendly minefield. But the real execution was done by artillery and air, with small arms a secondary contribution via ambushes, raids and in the hands of partisans. Each fallen general caused a local but rapidly recuperable loss of command continuity, but more serious was the contribution to the initial shorthandedness in GOs.
Bear in mind that the Germans had, throughout the war, excellent junior officers and NCOs. This ameliorated the consequences of such organizational beheading.
Here are some conclusions from the historical section of the paper:
First, most of the deaths occurred from quick unexpected attacks. Air bombardments, artillery barrages, hidden minefields, snipers, and partisan attacks were quite different than the deadly but more methodical operations these men had experienced in World War I.
Second, a great many deaths occurred in vehicles moving through the battle area. Such movement attracted air attacks and set up potential ambush situations. Although the commanders had to move by vehicle to control the battlefield better, it appears most did so without an adequate escort capable of discouraging some of the attacks. Much of this movement was done in hours of very good visibility which facilitated enemy air attacks. Some of their disdain for enemy capabilities may have resulted from Luftwaffe reports of friendly air superiority or the belief that a staff car was too small a target to be effectively engaged.
Finally, throughout the war German generals retained distinctive but dangerous markings of their grade. They continued to wear distinctive uniforms and flew vehicular pennants advertising their position. Both provided target information to snipers, ambushes, and partisans.
The Germans never identified this as a problem during the war and never developed training to prepare transferred GOs for the lethal battlefield that awaited them. It was truly an examination given before the lesson.
We found the Airland Battle stuff less convincing. It’s a pretty long reach, projecting GO casualties and consequent disruptions in American units in the event of The Big One breaking out. But the author’s idea of using wartime German experience to predict US experience is interesting.
Kevin was a former Special Forces weapons man (MOS 18B, before the 18 series, 11B with Skill Qualification Indicator of S). His focus was on weapons: their history, effects and employment. He started WeaponsMan.com in 2011 and operated it until he passed away in 2017. His work is being preserved here at the request of his family.
14 thoughts on “German Generals in WWII Led from the Front — and Paid”
We were well-accustomed to seeing general staff officers all the way up to Chief of Staff in the field. But it may be different because the IDF is much smaller, Israel operates in a much smaller AO, and all those officers came up through the ranks. But I can tell you for sure that when we saw Chief of Staff Raful (Rafael Eitan) in the field eyeballing the situation it encouraged us and filled us with pride.
As far as I know, the IDF also has a relatively high rate of general officers wounded or killed. My generation’s war was Lebanon ’82. One of the chief planners of that operation, Yekutiel Adam, was killed in the field in a firefight with PLO forces outside Damour.
The Journal of Military Operations has a good first person account of this (requires free registration):
Interesting and well-worth signing up for. As the Israeli command positioning algorithm goes, it was explained to me not long after the combat then-LTC Almog engaged in as follows: “Immediately behind the lead subordinate unit.” In other words, the company commander is not behind his van platoon, but that platoon’s van squad. The battalion commander is not between his first and second companies, but between platoons of his lead company. This seems to be a very Teutonic concept, but it’s long been a part of IDF culture. The officers seem to wear few distinguishing marks, perhaps in part from being forward so much that the men know them, and in part because of the generally levelling culture that seems embedded in the IDF. Whether that’s something particularly Jewish or Israeli or whether it stems from Israel’s founding and early domination by European socialists, beats me. I don’t know enough about Israel.
I’d say all of the above. They were all refugees looking for a home which automatically levelled the social pyramid. Throw into that some 1920ies socialist dreams and I guess Reichswehr and a few Wehrmacht veterans (yes, there were jews in the Wehrmacht) plus the majority then being ashkenazi, that is the european often yiddish speaking jews that had quite a lot of german culture rubbed off onto them. Resulting in a disciplined and “egalitarian” army.
And the higher ranks in the IDF don’t look very fancy. Just a different shoulder board and that is it. The rest of the uniform is identical to the newly drawn conscript in basic training.
Makes me wonder what is going to happen in the future when the sephardim (mediteranean jews) and the levante jews (name escapes me right now) that never left israel or the general area, are going to be the majority. The ashkenazim are very european in their procreational habits.
Levantine Jews are called Mizrahi.
Come for the guns, stay for the anthropology!
***The officers seem to wear few distinguishing marks, perhaps in part from being forward so much that the men know them, and in part because of the generally levelling culture that seems embedded in the IDF. Whether that’s something particularly Jewish or Israeli or whether it stems from Israel’s founding and early domination by European socialists, beats me. ***
There’s also an aphorism to that suggests that the side with the plainest uniforms usually wins I think it was a book or magazine article title [Infantry, maybe?] a couple of decades back, but I first heard the phrase from Charley Black, military Affairs writer for theColumbus GA Enquirerer. Mr. Charley knew his stuff.
I totally believe that.
I hope he was not the Charlie Black from SF that I know by reputation. (His reputation was so toxic that mention of his name was banned on one private SF messaging channel, for the same reason that mention of Jane Fonda was — it produced nothing but vitriol, and since nobody has a good word to say about either, why talk about ’em?)
Perhaps, the high mortality rate among German generals was simply the result of the ever present and characteristically German desire to die for Mein Fuhrer. Seriously, during WWII, the Germans did everything to suicidal excess. Why should the behavior of generals be any different?
This is not to argue with the conclusions of the article, but, sometimes, the explanation is confounded by factual details. The Krauts were fanatics, from the top down. That, and the Eastern Front was a meat grinder.
No, I have to disagree with that line about “fanatics from the top down”. There were elements of fanaticism in both the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS, but the reality is that most of the officers were not, particularly in the Wehrmacht. We like to project all kinds of things onto the German military that simply aren’t there, when you actually go looking, such as their “rigid authoritarianism”. Pure projection, in most cases.
Sad fact is, the Germans were just better at war, from the ground up to about operational level. Strategy and logistics? Not so much, but when you look at everything from minor tactics up to about the level where you start looking at campaigns, they did much better than any of our armies, until late in the war.
I’d like to pick your brain some time on the subject of bipods and tripods. Well really you and LRRP 52 really.
You two, especially WRT the lost art of machine guns thread on arfcom, are very much out of my league when it comes to your knowledge of what separates the good from the bad in tripod and bipod design.
I’ve sorta set out to see if it’s possible to do a lafette that’s not a lafette.
Be happy to help. I’m not sure how much I can do, from here, but… Your idea sounds interesting, on the face of it.
“Perhaps, the high mortality rate among German generals was simply the result of the ever present and characteristically German desire to die for Mein Fuhrer.”
Given the number of German Officers who wanted to assassinate Hitler you may be over estimating that…
“Was this a cause or effect of the Germans’ reduced proliferation of command radio nets than the Western Allies? Not clear.”
Probably a bit of both.
Be interesting to compare losses in the first world war eastern front.
The allies fought the slow steady grinding war of the western front, with plenty of time to plot intricate battles in the rear, and send those orders forward over huge wired communications systems.
The Germans fought that in the west, but also fought the much faster mobile war of the east.
I don’t think so, Bill. Suicide tactics are seldom effective, and the Germans were tactically and operationally effective. What did the Japanese get out of kamikaze attacks or banzai charges, except disproportionately creamed? What do the Arabs get out of splodydopes? They’re the laughingstock of the civilized world.