Generalfeldmarschall

Gerd von Rundstedt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GFM v. Rundstedt wearing his tunic of  preference; the white piped uniform of Colonel-in-Chief of the 18th Infantry Regiment (over the tunic he wears a regulation General officer overcoat with standard red piped facings and shoulderboards with red underlay).

 

The von Rundstedt Image…

 

The original thought regarding the content of this website was to only offer a cursory overview of each of the Generalfeldmarschall of the Third Reich as so much has been written in such great detail, about each of these men.

 

The intent was to provide visitors with a brief overview of accomplishments that each GFM was well-known for in hopes of attaching some form of specific meaning to differentiate their achievements.  Rommel, of course, is inescapable as wherever one turns there is voluminous information on both Rommel the determined, overachieving commander, and Rommel the “hero”.  One might even say that he is one of the most well known General officers of all time, not just World War Two.  Some of it is borne by his reputation and successes as leader of the Afrika Korps….the chess match across the desert between Rommel and British Field Marshal Montgomery will be forever etched in the sands of history.  The balance endures by Rommel’s implication in the Hitler bomb plot, the eventual forced suicide and resulting relegation to hero status in post-war Germany and beyond.

 

Yet the more that has been learned and discovered about some of these men, the more one of them in particular has intrigued……that being GFM von Rundstedt.  Next to Rommel, von Rundstedt was equally respected and esteemed by the Allies, an honor very few high ranking Third Reich personalities enjoyed.  However there was always this impression of von Rundstedt as the very rigid, stoic German officer, who was all business, old school and completely lacking in personality.  In other words, the “Americanized” picture of the unmovable, emotionless German officer who followed every order to the minutest detail and expected the same of his subordinates.  Many of these preconceptions were unexpectedly dashed as further study uncovered a very interesting and compassionate leader, in whose personality only the camera lens seemed to disagree.

 

Rather than focus entirely on von Rundstedt’s military achievements and strategies (all of which are covered in the history books), instead we will address aspects of his personality that shaped the decisions he made and how he dealt with much of the adversity that was part of functioning as a military leader in the Third Reich.  There is good reason that GFM von Rundstedt was so well respected amongst the Allies during and after the war, and much of it is unknown to the casual Word War Two history enthusiast. 

 

 

Many thanks go to the von Rundstedt family who have so graciously supported these efforts by sharing their resources and answering numerous questions. A special thank you, as well, to Oberst Gunther Schrivenbach, who served on the staff of GFM’s von Rundstedt, Rommel and von Kluge, and so patiently put up with endless inquiries about “Prussian Field Marshals”.  Here follows, some of what has been discovered about this extraordinary and interesting man…….

 

 

 

GFM Gerd von Rundstedt – An Introduction to The Man

 

 

There is often one story or image out of someone’s life that forever defines their character to us and remains embedded in our memories to shape how we view them.  Public figures experience this on a much broader perspective and often as a result we have a more prejudiced view of them, based on the depiction provided to us buy the media.  Most who study World War Two history likely have a pre-formed image in their minds of GFM von Rundstedt as a grand, old Prussian aristocrat. Formally attired, seemingly emotionless and adhering tightly to the rigid, obedient German officer code.  A strict authoritative figure that appeared inflexible in policy and demanding in obedience.  Photographs show a very straight, firm, un-smiling German officer seemingly devoid of any sign of emotion or compassion.  This imagery and these impressions, however, could not be further from the truth.

 

In all that has been read and studied about von Rundstedt, there was one defining story that best sums up the true character and human being that was  the man behind the Generalfeldmarschall rank.  It is this;

 

 

 

While Field Marshal von Rundstedt had his Western Command HQ located at St. Germain outside of Paris in 1943, he would take a daily walk each morning through the city and the park.  Un-armed and accompanied only by his adjutant he would spend two hours on these walks during which he would regularly encounter local residents.  As the Field Marshal would approach a citizen coming down the sidewalk in his direction he would politely greet them and step down off the walk, into the street to allow them to pass….upon which the citizen would usually do the same and they would invariably bump into each other!

 

This simple respect for the citizenry and common man was a trait that is often overlooked in the military summary of his career and gives us an insight into a type of character one would not normally envision of the stereotypical ego laden German Field Marshal.  It is a degree of respect he not only showed for the common man, but also his superiors, peers and subordinates.  Gerd von Rundstedt was a man with much class, who exhibited much respect and consideration for those around him.

 

GFM von Rundstedt also had a sense of humor, an artistic background, loved gardening and fostered a very loyal staff of officers from which he kept no secrets.  Since he was a young boy he had a knack for doing voice impressions and enjoyed imitating the voice and dialect of many of the leaders, politicians and other senior officers, much to the enjoyment of his men.  Rundstedt also made sure the garden’s at his headquarters were well tended and un-disturbed by any military needs, leaving the engineers a difficult project to carefully craft a bomb shelter around his garden so as not to disturb a single plant.  He enjoyed a daily routine of taking his tea and going for walks in the park, always ensuring there was chocolate in his pockets for any French children he should encounter along the way.

 

To understand how Rundstedt so naturally dealt with the many daunting challenges he faced as one of Hitler’s top military commanders, one must first look at how he handled himself on a daily basis throughout his career with those around him. 

 

 

Relations with his Staff and the Common Soldier

Rundstedt had an open door policy on his staff and conducted business in a very relaxed atmosphere, earning their respect, trust and loyalty.  “I would say the the way he treated his post as C-in-C west is probably a good example of his nature…”, says former staff Communications officer, Oberst Gunther Schrivenbach, when describing the relaxed atmosphere. “I mean, as a staff officer, one was used to seeing their chiefs on their toes, rather than ‘mucking around’.  He was viewed as very competent.  I think the common soldier saw him as someone who would listen to them, and understand their worries and problems”.

 

This led to a very close and trusting relationship with his staff, one in which all meetings conducted with other senior officers were held openly in their presence.  Schrivenbach relates that “nothing was ever done behind closed doors in Rundstedt’s HQ, even a meeting with another General – the doors would be closed, but if one went into the room and overheard, it would not be a problem”. 

 

Rundstedt would freely share his thoughts and frustrations amongst the staff, both in regards to military strategy and other peers in the officer corps that were annoying him. “Some of the ways in which he referred to other officers was also amusing” added Schrivenbach, “he would mock them, especially my ex-chief, Rommel.  He would also sketch his thoughts.  For instance, he used to refer to Rommel as ‘field marshal cub’, in the sense that he was still only a ‘baby’ in comparison to other senior officers of the same rank, and the sketches would be of a bear cub”.

 

 

Oberst Gunther Schrivenbach

Pictured behind Rommel and holding field glasses, Schrivenbach served with Rommel through the entire Afrika campaign and up until 1944, when transferred to GFM von Rundstedt’s staff.

 

Rundstedt also made the time to get to know his officers as people.  “On a personal level, his talk was hardly ever about the military”, says Schrivenbach.  “He was interested in most things.  We often spoke about my archery abilities, which seemed to impress him highly”.  This led to Schrivenbach giving the Field Marshal archery instruction.  “Yes, and he wasn’t bad!” adds Schrivenbach.  His Staff officers in Paris were also permitted large ‘situation’ maps of the city utilizing colored dots to indicate popular spots visited, blue indicating good restaurants and red for where to find girls.  Upon inspection of the maps one day, Rundstedt directed their attention to the map and replied “Here, your red map isn’t nearly full!”

 

In addition to his staff, Rundstedt also related well to the common soldier and when visiting the front he would often search them out to get their impression of the situation.  

 

When asked to speak to the Field Marshal, these young men often could not control their excitement.  “Their faces would turn into a never ending grin and they would often blush”, recalls Schrivenbach.  “I remember one young officer addressed Rundstedt as Colonel, which was because of his collar tabs”. 

 

When visiting the Atlantic Wall, for instance,  Rundstedt would ask them “How did they see the defenses?”, “Did they think they would work?”, “What could they do to make them better?”.  One could only imagine what must have been going through their minds to have a Field Marshal asking for their advice on military tactics!

 

Dealing with the Fuhrer

While Rundstedt related well to the common soldier and his staff, his tolerance for politicians, statesmen, dignitaries and less respected senior officers was minimal.

 

When it came to dealing with Hitler in particular, von Rundstedt did not have regular communication and never spoke to him by phone.  Rommel, in comparison, spoke to Hitler on a daily basis, sometimes several times a day.

 

This lack of direct communication between the Fuhrer and the field marshal may seem strange considering the amount of power and decision making that was centered on these two men, but it is more a result of the friction between Hitlers delusional perception of the wartime scenario and Rundstedt’s duty-bound obligation to present a true picture of the situation.

 

 

Neither man particularly enjoyed the thought of confrontation and as such seemed to avoid lengthy contact.  Rundstedt could not bear dealing with Hitler’s denial and the Fuhrer did not want to be challenged on his strategy.  Hitler would go to great lengths to avoid or derail Rundstedt’s frank assessment of a grim situation.  Often he would invite the field marshal to a meeting, lay out a grand plan and then quickly dismiss von Rundstedt before he had an opportunity to provide any input or critique. 

 

Hitler, however, needed the respected figurehead that Rundstedt provided, a point proven by the fact that he sacked and then reinstated Rundstedt several times.  “I think, and I have always thought, that he was just there to please Hitler”, says Schrivenbach.  “Yet on every occasion he was revoked, it never bothered him too much”.  Hitler may not have liked hearing the truth from Rundstedt, but he certainly needed the field marshals abilities to smoothly navigate the myriad of overlapping responsibilities that would’ve confounded any other commander trying to manage the situation in the West.  According to Schrivenbach, Rundstedt felt that he could not truly influence the outcome of the war so he accepted it instead as his duty to manage as best he could the aspect of the war that he had been given.

 

Yet in spite of all these differences Rundstedt had with Hitler, the field marshal was still a loyal Prussian officer and had no part in the Hitler bomb plot.  “I knew about the plot” says Schrivenbach, “because Rundstedt had been asked to help – which he refused to do.  He refused to involve himself because a Prussian officers duty was to be loyal, and he thought it was wrong”.

 

 

 

To be continued…..

 

Also will be including an examination of von Rundstedt’s unique uniforms and insignia as the honorary Colonel in Chief of a Regiment.