Field-Marshal von Manstein’s pre-eminence as a commander was readily acknowledged within the German Army even before the end of World War II, and in the postwar world his military reputation was further enhanced by a generation of military historians from both the West and Germany. It is perhaps surprising then that Manstein has largely been ignored as a biographical subject, but Major-General Mungo Melvin has now addressed this problem. Melvin, an officer with extensive staff experience and strong German connections, is well placed to take on the role of Manstein’s biographer (he has also received co-operation from the Manstein family, who have provided many excellent photographs).
Erich von Manstein (1887-1973) was born into a Prussian military family, the son of General Eduard von Lewinski. But through a prior arrangement he was then adopted by his mother’s childless sister who was married to General Georg von Manstein, the young Erich taking his adoptive father’s name.
This arrangement seemed to work well and almost inevitably he followed a military career, joining the 3rd Prussian Foot Guards in 1906 and establishing a reputation as an officer of high promise. He was severely wounded in fighting on the Eastern Front in November 1914 and after recovering from his injuries spent the remainder of the war as a staff officer. During the interwar years he held a variety of command and staff appointments, rising to the rank of lieutenant general prior to the outbreak of World War II.
In 1939 Manstein assumed the post of Chief of Staff to Rundstedt’s Army Group A, and following the conquest of Poland he began planning how best to defeat the Allies in the West. Manstein was highly critical of the unimaginative plan proposed by the German Army High Command (OKH), which consisted of an advance through the Low Countries by Army Group B, with his own army group allotted a supporting role further south. In face of opposition from OKH, he argued for a daring armoured thrust – led by Army Group A – driving through the Ardennes to the Channel; this would take the Allies by surprise and crucially divide their forces in two. With the support of Hitler – who looked favourably upon most radical proposals – the plan was finally adopted, and, of course, proved a stunning success in May 1940.
With his star in the ascendant, Manstein was given command of a motorised corps for the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and in the following year directed the successful siege of Sevastopol, for which he received his field marshal’s baton. As Commander-in-Chief of Army Group South, Manstein lacked sufficient forces to save Stalingrad but his counter-attack at Kharkov (February-March 1943) checked the Red Army and stabilised the German front-line, then in imminent danger of total collapse. But his belief in mobile defensive operations ran counter to Hitler’s determination to hold ground at all costs, and after a series of arguments with the Führer he was sacked in March 1944, never to hold a command post again.
After the war, Manstein was convicted of war crimes on the Eastern Front, and although sentenced to serve 18 years’ imprisonment he was released in 1953. Thereafter he worked as a consultant to the formation of the German Bundeswehr before enjoying a long retirement, revered by the new German Army and military historians in the West.
Many contemporary commentators – notably Basil Liddell-Hart – believed Manstein’s original sentence to have been unduly harsh, but there can be little doubt that he connived at the atrocities being committed in areas under his command. And, as Melvin points out, while he repeatedly stood up to Hitler on military policy he was signally silent on moral matters. Indeed, he was an early exemplar of the myth that the Wehrmacht had fought an honourable, clean war, with the mass killings being the responsibility of the Nazis and their helpers. Melvin carefully weighs up the charges against his subject, and while sympathetic to the dilemmas faced by any career soldier in Hitler’s Germany, finds him wanting.
As to Manstein’s military career, Melvin expertly guides us through the development of the 1940 Sichelschnnitt plan and his great victories on the Eastern Front, especially the capture of Sevastopol and his masterpiece at Kharkov. Although Manstein was effectively forced into accepting his part in the failed Kursk offensive in the summer of 1943, Melvin is nonetheless critical of his handling of the operation, and it hard not to wonder why Manstein didn’t object more strongly from the outset to what was always a pitifully weak plan.
In conclusion, Melvin makes the telling point that Manstein was not so much a strategist but ‘a genius at the operational level’. In common with German generals in both world wars Manstein seemed unaware of the military picture at a global level, but as a battlefield practitioner he was second to none. Melvin paints a fine portrait of this rather enigmatic individual – where duty was all – and provides an enlightening analysis of the German Army at war and the Faustian pact made by its ambitious commanders with their diabolical master.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 654 pages, £30 (h/b)
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