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Albert Kesselring

[kes-uhl-ring]

Albert Kesselring (30 November 1885 - 16 July 1960) was a Luftwaffe Generalfeldmarschall during World War II. Nicknamed "Smiling Albert", he was one of the most skilful generals of Nazi Germany. He commanded air forces in the invasions of Poland, France, the Battle of Britain and Operation Barbarossa. As Commander-in-Chief South, he was overall German commander in the Mediterranean theatre, which included operations in North Africa. Later, he conducted a stubborn defensive campaign against the Allied forces in Italy. In the final campaign of the war, he commanded German forces on the Western Front. After the war he was tried for war crimes and sentenced to death but the sentence was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment. He was released in 1952, after having been elected federal leader of the neonazi association Stahlhelm, Bund der Frontsoldaten while still in prison. Although never a member of the Nazi Party, he never dissociated himself from the crimes perpetrated by his command during the war, nor disowned his loyalty to Adolf Hitler, He was one of only two Generalfeldmarschalls to publish his memoirs, entitled Soldat Bis Zum Letzten Tag (A Soldier To The Last Day).

Early life

Albert Kesselring was born in Marktsteft, Bavaria on 30 November 1885, the son of a schoolmaster and town councilor, Karl Kesselring and his wife Rosa.

He matriculated from the Classical Grammar School in Bayreuth in 1904 and joined the German Army as an officer cadet (fahnenjunker) in the 2nd Bavarian Foot Artillery Regiment. Based at Metz, this regiment was responsible for the forts there. He was to remain with this regiment until 1915, except for periods at the Military Academy from 1905 to 1906, at the conclusion of which he received his commission as a lieutenant, and the Artillery School from 1909 to 1910.

He married Luise Anna Pauline Keyssler (d. 26 January 1957) in 1910. The couple adopted Ranier, the son of his second cousin Kurt Kesselring in 1913.

Great War

Kesselring was transferred to the 1st Bavarian Foot Artillery, which formed part of the Sixth Army, in 1915. In 1916 he was transferred again, to the 3rd Bavarian Artillery. In 1917, he was posted to the General Staff, serving on the Eastern Front on the staff of the 1st Bavarian Landwehr Division. In 1918, he returned to the Western Front as a staff officer with the II and III Bavarian Corps.

During the Great War, Kesselring frequently smoked up to twenty cigars per day. He quit smoking in 1925. He drank sparingly.

Between the Wars

At the conclusion of the war, Kesselring was involved in the demobilisation of III Bavarian Corps in the Nuremberg area, at the conclusion of which a warrant was issued for his arrest for his alleged involvement in a putsch against the command of III Bavarian Corps.

From 1919 to 1922, he served as an artillery battery commander. He joined the Reichswehr on 1 October 1922 and was posted to the Military Training Department at the Reichswehr Ministry in Berlin. He remained at this post until 1929, when he returned to Bavaria as commander of Wehrkreis VII. In his time with the Reichswehr Ministry, Kesselring was involved in the organisation of the army, trimming staff overheads to produce the best possible Army with the limited resources available. He was involved in the reorganisation of the Ordnance Department, laying the groundwork for the research and development efforts that would produce new weapons. After another, brief, stint at the Reichswehr Ministry, he spent two years in Dresden as a lieutenant colonel with the 4th Artillery Regiment.

Against his wish, Kesselring was discharged from the army on 1 October 1933 and became head of the Department of Administration at the Reich Commissariat for Aviation (Reichskommissariat für die Luftfahrt), the forerunner of the Reich Air Ministry. As chief of administration, he had to create his new staff from scratch. He was involved in the re-establishment of the aviation industry and the construction of secret factories, forging alliances with industrialists and aviation engineers.

At the age of 48, he learned to fly. Kesselring believed that a first-hand awareness of all aspects of aviation was crucial to being able to command airmen, although he was well aware that latecomers like himself did not impress the old pioneers or the young aviators. He qualified in various single and multi-engined aircraft and continued flying three or four days per week until March 1945. At times he flew over the concentration camps at Oranienburg, Dachau, and Buchenwald.

Following the death of Walther Wever in an air crash, Kesselring became Chief of Staff of the Luftwaffe on 3 June 1936. As chief of staff, Kesselring oversaw the expansion of the Luftwaffe, the acquisition of new aircraft types such as the Bf 109 and Ju 87, and the development of paratroops. His main operational task was the support of the Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War. However, his tenure was marred by personal and professional conflicts with his superior, General Erhard Milch, and Kesselring asked to be relieved.

The head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, acquiesced and Kesselring became the commander of Air District III in Dresden. On 1 October 1938, he was promoted to General der Flieger and became commander of Luftflotte (Air Fleet) 1, based in Berlin.

World War II

Poland

In the Polish campaign, Kesselring's Luftflotte 1 operated in support of Army Group North, commanded by Generaloberst (Colonel General) Fedor von Bock. Although not under von Bock's command, Kesselring worked closely with Bock, and considered himself under Bock's orders in all matters pertaining to the ground war. Kesselring strove to provide the best possible close air support to the ground forces, and used the flexibility of air power to concentrate all available air strength at critical points, such as during the Battle of the Bzura. He attempted to cut the Polish communications through air attacks against Warsaw, but found that even 1,000 kg bombs could not guarantee that bridges would be destroyed.

Kesselring was himself shot down over Poland by the Polish Air Force. In all, he would be shot down five times during World War II.

For his part in the Polish campaign, Kesselring was personally awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross by Adolf Hitler.

Western Europe

Kesselring's Luftflotte 1 was not involved in the preparations for the campaigns in the West, remaining in the East on garrison duty, establishing new airbases and an Air Raid Precautions network in occupied Poland. However, after an aircraft made a forced landing in Belgium with copies of the German invasion plan, Generalfeldmarschall Hermann Göring relieved the commander of Luftflotte 2, General der Flieger Hellmuth Felmy, of his command, and appointed Kesselring in his place. Kesselring flew to his new headquarters at Münster the very next day, 13 January 1940. As Felmy's chief of staff had also been relieved, Kesselring brought his own chief of staff, Generalmajor Wilhelm Speidel, with him.

Arriving in the West, Kesselring found Luftflotte 2 operating in support of von Bock's Army Group B. He inherited from Felmy a complex air plan requiring on-the-minute timing for several hours. While initial air operations against the Netherlands went according to plan, and Kesselring's fighters and bombers soon gained the upper hand against the small Dutch air force, the paratroopers ran into stiff opposition. On 14 May 1940, responding to a call for assistance from General der Flieger Kurt Student, Kesselring ordered the carpet bombing of Rotterdam city centre, leveling it and leaving around 80,000 people homeless. As result of this terror bombing, aimed at crushing the resistance of a city while it was about to surrender anyway, the British immediately abandoned the policy they had adopted earlier, which limited RAF air bombing to strictly military targets.

After the surrender of the Netherlands, Luftflotte 2 attempted to move forward to new airfields in Belgium while still providing support for the fast moving ground troops. Hitler's decision to halt the panzertruppen left the burden of stopping the Allied evacuation of Dunkirk to Kesselring's fliers, who were hampered by poor flying weather and staunch opposition from the British Royal Air Force (RAF).

For his role in the campaign in the west, Kesselring was promoted to Generalfeldmarschall (Field Marshal) on 19 July 1940.

Battle of Britain

Following the campaign in France, Kesselring's Luftflotte 2 was committed to the Battle of Britain. Luftflotte 2 was initially responsible for the bombing of southeastern England and the London area but as the battle progressed, command responsibility shifted, with Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle's Luftflotte 3 taking more responsibility for the night-time Blitz attacks while the main daylight operations fell to Luftflotte 2. He was involved in the planning of numerous raids, including the Coventry Blitz of November 1940. Kesselring's fliers reported numerous victories, but failed to press home its attacks and achieve a decisive victory. Instead, the Luftwaffe employed the inherent flexibility of air power to switch targets.

Invasion of the Soviet Union

Although earmarked for operations in the east, Luftflotte 2 remained in the west until May 1941, partly as a deception measure, and partly because new airbases in Poland could not be completed by the 1 June 1941 target date, although they were made ready in time for the actual commencement of Operation Barbarossa on 22 June 1941. Kesselring established his new headquarters at Bielany, a suburb of Warsaw.

Luftflotte 2 operated in support of Army Group Centre, commanded by von Bock, continuing the close working relationship between the two. Kesselring's mission was to gain air superiority, and if possible air supremacy, as soon as possible while still supporting ground operations. For this he had a fleet of over 1,000 aircraft, about a third of the Luftwaffe's total strength. The German attack caught large numbers of Soviet Air Force aircraft on the ground. Faulty tactics - sending unescorted bombers against the Germans at regular intervals in tactically unsound formations - accounted for many more. Kesselring reported that in the first week of operations Luftflotte 2 had accounted for 2,500 Soviet aircraft in the air and on the ground. Even Göring found these figures hard to believe and ordered them to be re-checked. As the ground troops advanced, the figures could be directly confirmed and were found to be too low. Within days, Kesselring was able to fly solo over the front in his Focke-Wulf Fw 189.

With air supremacy attained, Luftflotte 2 turned to support of ground operations, particularly guarding the flanks of the armoured spearheads, without which the rapid advance was not possible. When enemy counterattacks threatened, Kesselring threw the full weight of his force against them. Convincing the army that air support should be concentrated at critical points took time, as units were all to inclined to call for air support. Kesselring strove to improve army-air cooperation with new tactics and the appointment of Colonel Martin Fiebig as a special close air support commander. By 26 July, Kesselring reported the destruction of 165 tanks, 2,136 vehicles and 194 artillery pieces.

In late 1941, Luftflotte 2 supported the Operation Typhoon. Raids on Moscow proved hazardous, as the Moscow had good all-weather airfields and opposition from both fighters and anti-aircraft guns was similar to that encountered over Britain. The bad weather that hampered ground operations from October on hampered air operations even more. Nonetheless, Luftflotte 2 continued to fly critical reconnaissance, interdiction, close air support and air supply missions.

The Mediterranean and North Africa

In November 1941, Kesselring was appointed Commander-in-Chief South and was transferred to Italy along with his Luftflotte 2 staff, which for the time being also functioned as his CinC South staff. Only in January 1943 did he form his headquarters into a true theatre staff and create a separate staff to control Luftflotte 2. As a theatre commander, he was answerable directly to OKW and commanded ground, naval and air forces, but this was of little importance at first as most German units were under Italian operational control. In October 1942, Kesselring was given direct command of all German armed forces in the theatre except for Generaloberst Erwin Rommel's German-Italian Panzer Army in North Africa, including General der Infantrie Enno von Rintelen, the German liaison officer at Commando Supremo. Kesselring's command also included the troops in Greece and the Balkans until December 1942, when Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm List was appointed CinC South East with responsibility for this area.

Kesselring strove to organise and protect supply convoys in order to get the German-Italian panzer army the resources it needed. He succeeded in creating local air superiority and neutralising Malta. Through various expedients, Kesselring managed to deliver a greatly increased flow of vital supplies to the Afrika Korps in Libya. With his forces thus strengthened, Rommel prepared an attack on the British positions around Gazala, while Kesselring planned an airborne attack on Malta with the Folgore Parachute Division and Ramcke Parachute Brigade.

For the Battle of Gazala, Rommel divided his command in two, taking personal command of the mobile units while leaving the infantry of the Italian X and XXI Corps under General der Panzertruppe Ludwig Crüwell. This command arrangement went awry on 29 May 1942 when Crüwell was taken prisoner. Lacking an available commander of sufficient seniority, Kesselring assumed personal command of Gruppe Crüwell. Flying his Fieseler Fi 156 to a meeting, Kesselring was fired upon by an enemy force astride Rommel's line of communications. An air strike by every available Stuka and Jabo followed in short order. Kesselring attributed the failure of the initial infantry assaults to capture Bir Hakeim to faulty ground-air coordination but he was more impressed with the results of the attack on Tobruk, for which Kesselring brought in additional aircraft from Greece and Crete.

In the wake of the victory at Tobruk, Rommel persuaded Hitler to authorise an attack on Egypt instead of Malta, over Kesselring's objections. The parachute troops assembled for the Malta operation were sent to Rommel. Things went well at first but, just as Kesselring had warned, logistical difficulties mounted and the result was the disastrous First Battle of El Alamein, Battle of Alam el Halfa and Second Battle of El Alamein.

Kesselring considered Rommel to be a great general leading fast-moving troops at the corps level of command, but felt that he was too moody and changeable for high levels of command. For Kesselring, Rommel's nervous breakdown and hospitalisation for depression at the end of the African Campaign only confirmed this.

Tunisia

The Allied invasion of French North Africa precipitated a crisis in Kesselring's command. He ordered Walther Nehring, the former commander of the Afrika Korps who was returning to action after recovering from wounds received at the Battle of Alam el Halfa, to proceed to Tunisia to take command of a new corps (XC Corps). Kesselring ordered Nehring to establish a bridgehead in Tunisia and then to press west as far as possible so as to gain freedom to manoeuvre. By December, the Allied commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was forced to concede that Kesselring had won the race; the final phase of Operation Torch had failed and the Axis could only be ejected from Tunisia after a prolonged struggle.

With the initiative back with the Germans and Italians, Kesselring hoped to launch an offensive that would drive the Allies out of North Africa. At the Battle of the Kasserine Pass his forces gave the Allies a beating but in the end strong Allied resistance and a string of Axis errors stopped the advance. Kesselring now concentrated on shoring up his forces by moving the required tonnages of supplies from Sicily but his efforts were frustrated by Allied aircraft and submarines. An Allied offensive in April finally broke through, leading to a collapse of the Axis position in Tunisia. Some 275,000 German and Italian prisoners were taken. Only the Battle of Stalingrad overshadowed this disaster. In return, Kesselring had held up the Allies in Tunisia for six months, forcing a postponement of the Allied invasion of northern France from the northern summer of 1943 to that of 1944.

Italian Campaign

Sicily

Kesselring expected that the Allies would next invade Sicily, as a landing could be made there under fighter cover from Tunisia and Malta. Kesselring reinforced the six coastal and four mobile Italian divisions there with two mobile German divisions, the 15th Panzergrenadier Division and Hermann Göring Panzer Division, both rebuilt after being destroyed in Tunisia. Kesselring was well aware that while this force was large enough to stop the Allies from simply marching in, it could not withstand a large scale invasion. He therefore pinned his hopes on repelling the Allied invasion of Sicily on an immediate counterattack. Although his troops gave the Americans "quite a battering" and the Luftwaffe destroyed a Liberty ship filled with ammunition, the counterattack failed to destroy the Allied position.

Kesselring flew to Sicily himself on 12 July to survey the situation and decided that no more than a delaying action was possible and that the island would have to be evacuated. Nonetheless, he managed to delay the Allies in Sicily for another month. In the end, the evacuation was perhaps the most brilliant action of the campaign. In spite of the Allies' superiority on land, at sea, and in the air, Kesselring was able to evacuate not only 40,000 men, but 96,605 vehicles, 94 guns, 47 tanks, 1,100 tons of ammunition, 970 tons of fuel, and 15,000 tons of stores. He was able to do so because he was able to achieve near-perfect coordination between the three services under his command while his opponent, Eisenhower, was not.

Allied Invasion of Italy

With the fall of Sicily, OKW feared that Italy would withdraw from the war but Kesselring remained confident that the Italians would continue to fight. OKW regarded Kesselring and von Rintelen (who spoke fluent Italian) as too pro-Italian and began to bypass him, sending Student to Rome, where his I Parachute Corps was under OKW orders to occupy the capital in case of Italian defection, and Rommel to northern Italy. Benito Mussolini was removed from power on 25 July 1943, and Italy did withdraw from the war on 8 September. Mussolini was rescued by the Germans in "Operation Oak" (Unternehmen Eiche), a raid planned by Kurt Student and carried out by Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny on 12 September. The details of the operation were deliberately, though unsuccessfully kept from Kesselring. "Kesselring is too honest for those born traitors down there" was Hitler's assessment. Italy now effectively became an occupied country, as the Germans poured in troops.

Kesselring was ordered to withdraw from southern Italy and consolidate his forces with Rommel's Army Group B in Northern Italy, where Rommel would assume overall command. Kesselring was appalled. This would expose southern Germany to bombers operating from Italy; risked the Allies breaking into the Po Valley; and was completely unnecessary, as he was certain that Rome could be held until the summer of 1944, based on his assumption that the Allies would not conduct operations outside the range of their air cover, which could only reach as far as Salerno. Kesselring submitted his resignation on 14 August 1943. Hitler refused to accept it.

Although his command was already "written off, Kesselring intended to fight. At the Battle of Salerno, he launched a full-scale counterattack against the Allied landings there with Generaloberst Heinrich von Vietinghoff's Tenth Army. Once again his forces gave the Allies a beating. His troops failed to throw them back into the sea only because of the decisive support offered to the Allies by their naval artillery, but gained the time that was their actual objective. Already Kesselring, in defiance of his orders, was preparing a series of successive fallback positions on the Volturno Line, Barbara Line and the Bernhardt Line. Only in November 1943, after much fighting, did the Allies reach his main position, the Gustav Line. According to his memoirs, Kesselring felt that much more could have been accomplished had he had access to the troops held "uselessly" under Rommel's command.

In November 1943, Kesselring met with Hitler. Kesselring gave an optimistic assessment of the situation in Italy and gave reassurances that he could hold the Allies south of Rome on the Winter Line. Kesselring further promised that he could prevent the Allies reaching the Northern Apennines for at least least six months. As a result, on 6 November 1943, Hitler ordered Rommel and his Army Group B headquarters to move to France to take charge of the Atlantic Wall and prepare for the Allied attack that was expected there in the Spring of 1944. On 21 November 1943, Kesselring resumed command of all German forces in Italy, combined Commander-in-Chief South, a joint command, with that of Army Group C, a ground command.

"I had always blamed Kesselring," Hitler later explained, "for looking at things too optimistically... events have proved Rommel wrong, and I have been justified in my decision to leave Field Marshal Kesselring there, whom I have seen as an incredible political idealist, but also as a military optimist, and it is my opinion that military leadership without optimism is not possible.

War Crimes

According to his own apologetic memories, Kesselring strove tirelessly to avoid the physical destruction of many artistically important Italian cities, including Rome, Florence, Siena and Orvieto. He boasts that, in some cases, historic bridges - such as the Ponte Vecchio (literally "Old Bridge") were booby trapped rather than blown. It must be said, however, that all the other historic Florentine bridges were blown on his orders and that, in addition to booby-trapping the old bridge, he ordered the demolition with explosive charges of the ancient historical central boroughs at its two ends, in order to retard the Allied advance across the Arno river.

In the same vein, Kesselring noted his support for the Italian declaration of Rome, Florence and Chieti as open cities. In the case of Rome, this was in spite of there being considerable tactical advantages to be had from defending the Tiber bridges. These declarations were never agreed to by the Allies as the cities were not demilitarized and remained centres of government and industry. Despite the repeated declarations of "open city", Rome was bombed more than 50 times by the Allies, whose air forces hit Florence as well.. As matter of fact, in response to the Allied landing at Anzio, Kesselring declared Rome - which the Germans had militarily occupied since 10 September 1943 to be "war zone" starting from 22 January 1944, which resulted in the widespread usage of the city bridges at night by German motorized columns headed to the frontline and the imposition of martial law in a city of over a million of inhabitants till its liberation by the US Fifth Army, on 4 June 1944.

Kesselring tried to preserve the monastery of Monte Cassino by avoiding its military occupation (it offered a superb observing point over the battle field) but was unsuccessful, as the Allies never believed the monastery was not being used (or would not be used) to direct the German artillery against their lines. On the morning of 15 February 1944 142 B-17 Flying Fortress, 47 B-25 Mitchell and 40 B-26 Marauder medium bombers deliberately dropped 1,150 tons of high explosives and incendiary bombs on the abbey, reducing the historic monastery to a smoking mass of rubble, a war crime under Section 56 of Hague Convention (1907) which forbid "all seizure of, destruction or willful damage done to institutions of this character, historic monuments, works of art and science". The salvaging of the historical archives, and artworks from the monastery and delivery to safeguard places in Italy - a personal initiative of two officers with the Hermann Göring Division - was duly documented and filmed by German propaganda teams, thus scoring a major propaganda coup once the ancient cloister was destroyed by the Allies, depicted as barbarians. Kesselring was aware that some artworks taken from Monte Cassino for safekeeping had wound up in the possession of Hermann Göring.

Kesselring had some German soldiers shot on the spot for looting.

In Rome on 23 March 1944, 33 German-Italian policemen of the Polizeiregiment Bozen (from Bolzano-Bozen) and two civilians were killed by a bomb blast. In response, Hitler ordered that ten Italians should be shot for each policeman killed. Kesselring interpreted this to mean the execution of condemned criminals and passed the order on as such to Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen, the commander of the Fourteenth Army, who was responsible for the sector including Rome. The task eventually fell to Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler who, finding there were not so many condemned prisoners available, made up the numbers as he thought best. The result was the Ardeatine massacre.

Other massacres were carried out by the Hermann Göring Panzer Division at Stia in April, Civitella in Val di Chiana in June and Buchini in July 1944, by the 26th Panzer Division at Padule di Fucecchio on 23 August 1944, and by the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division Reichsführer-SS at in Sant'Anna di Stazzema and Marzabotto.

Kesselring forced into slave labor the Jews of Rome - as he had earlier done with those of Tunis - on the construction of fortifications. He needed a large labor force, given the magnitude of the logistical challenges he was facing. When ordered to deport the Roma Jews, Kesselring announced that no resources were available to carry out such an order. Hitler then transferred responsibility to the SS. Around 8,000 Jews of Rome were ultimately deported. During the German occupation of Italy, the Germans were believed to have killed some 46,000 Italian civilians, including 7,000 Jews.

Cassino and Anzio

The Allied attempt to break through the Gustav Line in the Battle of Monte Cassino met with early success, with the British X Corps breaking through the line held by the 94th Infantry Division and imperilling the entire Tenth Army front. At the same time, Kesselring was receiving warnings of an imminent Allied amphibious attack. Kesselring rushed his reserves, the 29th and 90th Panzergrenadier Divisions to the Cassino front. They were able to stabilise the German position there but left Rome poorly guarded. Kesselring felt that he had been out-generalled when the Allies landed at Anzio.

Although taken by surprise, Kesselring moved rapidly to regain control of the situation, summoning Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen's Fourteenth Army headquarters from northern Italy, the 29th and 90th Panzergrenadier Divisions from the Cassino front, and the 26th Panzer Division from Tenth Army. OKW chipped in some more divisions from other theatres. By February, Kesselring was able to take the offensive at Anzio but his forces were unable to crush the Allied beachhead, for which Kesselring blamed himself, OKW and von Mackensen for avoidable errors.

On 11 May 1944 General Sir Harold Alexander launched Operation Diadem, which finally broke through the Gustav Line and forced Tenth Army to withdraw. In the process, a gap opened up between Tenth and Fourteenth Armies, threatening both with encirclement. For this failure, Kesselring relieved von Mackensen of his command, replacing him with General der Panzertruppe Joachim Lemelsen Fortunately, General Mark Clark, obsessed with the capture of Rome, failed to take advantage of the situation and Tenth Army was able to withdraw to the next line of defence, the Trasimene Line, where it was able to link up with the Fourteenth army and then conduct a fighting withdrawal to the formidable Gothic Line north of Florence. There, Kesselring was able to halt the Allied advance.

Casualties of the Gothic Line battles included Kesselring himself. On 25 October 1944, his car collided with an artillery piece coming out of a side road. Rumours said that the field marshal was okay but the gun had to be scrapped. Kesselring suffered serious head and facial injuries and did not return to his command until January 1945.

Central Europe

Once recovered from the car accident, Kesselring relieved Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt as Commander-in-Chief West on 10 March 1945. On arrival, he told his new staff, "Well, gentlemen, I am the new V-3".

Given the desperate situation of the Western front, this was perhaps not only a sign of Kesselring's proverbial optimism - witnessed by all of his collaborators during the war and till its very end - but also a further evidence of Hitler's hypnotic influence on his Field Marshal: as the Germans were routed everywhere, Kesselring still described as "lucid" Hitler's analysis of the situation, according which the Germans were about to inflict a historical defeat upon the Russians, after which the victorious eastern German armies would be brought west to crush the Allies and sweep them from the Continent. Therefore, Kesselring was determined to "hang on" in the West until the "decision in the East" came.

The Western Front at this time generally followed the Rhine River with two important exceptions: the American bridgehead over the Rhine at Remagen, and a large German salient west of the Rhine, the Saar-Palatinate triangle. Consideration was given to evacuating the triangle, but OKW ordered it held. When Kesselring paid his first visit to the German First and Seventh Army headquarters there on 13 March 1945 the army group commander, Oberstgruppenführer Paul Hausser and the two army commanders all affirmed the defence of the triangle could only result in heavy losses or complete annihilation of their commands. General der Infanterie Hans Felber of the Seventh Army considered the latter the most likely outcome. Nonetheless, Kesselring insisted that the positions had to be held.

The triangle was already under attack from two sides by Lieutenant General George Patton's Third Army and Lieutenant General Alexander Patch's Seventh Army. The German position soon crumbled and Hitler reluctantly sanctioned a withdrawal.

According to Albert Speer, on the night of 18 March 1945 Kesselring was present at a meeting in the "Führer's shelter" (Führerbunker) below the Reich Chancellery (Reichskanzlei) and informed Hitler that the German civilians in Saarland were being a hindrance to his troops movement, as they frequently and desperately tried to prevent the Army from entering their villages, fearing destruction would result during the ensuing battle with the advancing Allies. Hitler then ordered him the immediate, forced evacuation of all civilians from the Region and, when Kesselring objected that he had not trains or others transports available to carry on the order, the Führer ordered him to force them to leave on foot, which Kesselring did without further discussion.

The First and Seventh Armies suffered heavy losses: around 113,000 Germans casualties at the a cost of 17,000 on the Allied side. Nonetheless, they had avoided encirclement and managed to conduct a skilful delaying action, evacuating the last troops to the east bank of the Rhine on 25 March 1945.

As Germany became cut in two, his command was enlarged to include Army Groups Centre, South and South-East on the Russian Front, and Army Group C in Italy, as well as his own Army Groups G and Upper Rhine.

On 30 April, Hitler had committed suicide in Berlin. On 1 May, Karl Dönitz was designated German President (Reichspräsident) and the Flensburg government was created. One of new President's first acts was the appointment of Kesselring as Commander-in-Chief of Southern Germany, with plenipotentiary powers.

Chaotic surrender

Meanwhile, SS Obergruppenführer Karl Wolff and Colonel General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, heads of the Nazi Police in Italy and Army Group C respectively had almost concluded a preliminary surrender agreement with both the Allies and the Italian Partisans, in partial implementation of the secret Operation Sunrise, arranged since early March 1945 with the OSS chief in Switzerland, Allen Dulles. Kesselring was aware of these negotiations, having previously consented to them, although he did not inform his own staff of them. (He did, however, later inform Hitler.) At first he did not accept the agreement and, on 30 April, relieved both Vietinghoff and his Chief of Staff, General Hans Röttiger, putting them at disposition of the OKW. They were replaced by General Friedrich Schulz and his Chief of Staff was named General Wenzel.

The next morning, 1 May, Röttinger reacted by placing both Schulz and Wenzel under arrest, and summoned General Joachim Lemelsen to take Schulz's place. Lemelsen initially refused, as he was in possession of a written order from Kesselring which prohibited any talks with the enemy without his explicit authorization. By this time, Vietinghoff and Wolff had concluded an armistice with the Allied Commander in the Mediterranean Theatre, Field Marshal Harold Alexander, which became effective on 2 May at 14:00. Lemelsen reached Bolzano, and Schulz and Wenzel got back in control, this time agreeing with the officers pushing for a quick surrender. The German Armies in Italy were now utterly defeated by the Allies, who were rapidly advancing from Garmisch towards Innsbruck.

Kesselring remained stubbornly opposed to the surrender but was finally won over by Wolff only on the late morning of May 2, after a two hour long phone call to the Field Marshall at his headquarters at Pullach..

North of the Alps, Army Group G followed suit on 6 May. Kesselring now decided to surrender his headquarters. He ordered SS Oberstgruppenführer Paul Hausser to supervise the SS troops to ensure that the surrender was carried out in accordance with his instructions. Kesselring then surrendered to an American major at Saalfelden, near Salzburg, in Austria on 6 May 1945. He was taken to see Major General Maxwell D. Taylor, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, who treated him courteously, allowing him to keep his weapons and field marshal's baton, and to visit the Russian-front headquarters of Army Groups Centre and South at Zeltweg and Graz unescorted. Taylor arranged for Kesselring and his staff to move into a hotel at Berchtesgaden. Kesselering met with Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers, commander of the Sixth United States Army Group and gave interviews to Allied newspaper reporters.

On 15 May 1945, Kesselring was taken to Mondorf-les-Bains where he was incarcerated.

Post-War

With the end of the war, Kesselring was hoping to be able to make a start on the rehabilitation of Germany. Instead he found himself placed under arrest. At the Nuremberg Trials, Kesselring testified in the trial of Hermann Göring. Kesselring's offers to testify against Russian, American and British commanders were declined.

Trial

By the end of the war, for most Italians the very name of Kesselring had become synonymous with the oppression and the terror which had characterized the German occupation of the Peninsula for almost two years since Italy had signed the armistice on 3 September 1943 and, by declaring war on Germany, had become "co-belligerent" with the Allies on 13 October of the same year. The Field Marshal - whose signature became infamous for being reproduced on almost all the posters and printed orders announcing the draconian measures adopted by the German occupation - was at the top of the list of German officers blamed for a long series of atrocities perpetrated by the German forces, which had been so gruesome in some instances to push even Benito Mussolini to file several protests to Rudolf Rahn, German ambassador to the RSI, stressing that the killings were so indiscriminate to include known fascists among the victims, most of whom were innocent, thus increasing the popular support for the Partisans and the hate for the Germans.

Despite the Moscow Declaration signed during the Moscow Conference on 30 October 1943, had stipulated in its fourth statement on "Atrocities" - largely drafted by Winston Churchill - that "those German officers and men and members of the Nazi party who have been responsible for or have taken a consenting part in the above atrocities, massacres and executions will be sent back to the countries in which their abominable deeds were done in order that they may be judged and punished according to the laws of these liberated countries and of free governments which will be erected therein", and that the same statement expressly mentioned Italy among the countries entitled to put on trial these criminals, the British did not transfer to the Italian Justice any of the top German officers in their custody - including Kesselring - to account of the atrocities perpetrated under their orders in the Peninsula. In turn, a number of junior officers (all of them below the rank of General, like Herbert Kappler) were transferred to the Italians, who had abolished the death penalty since 1944.

The British - who had been a driving force in moulding the war crimes trial policy that culminated in the Nuremberg Trial since its conception - had concluded their investigations since late 1945 and planned to hold two major trials against the top German war criminals who had perpetrated their crimes during the Italian campaign: one - to be held in Rome - against those accused for the Ardeatine massacre (the commander of the Army Group South, Field Marshal Kesselring, the commander of the Fourteenth Army, General Eberhard von Mackensen, the commander of Rome, General Kurt Mältzer, the Gestapo commanders SS Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler and SS Brigadeführer Wilhelm Harster), and another - to be held in Venice - against nine Generals (including Kesselring) who participated in a general plan to terrorise the population by reprisals and the shooting of civilians.

In his memoirs, Kesselring claims that some of these shootings could have been carried out by communist partisans in German or Fascist uniforms. In several decades, however, not a single evidence surfaced supporting Kesselring's claim that Italian partisans perpetrated atrocities in German or Fascist uniforms, while the current historiographic research has debunked the myth that the Wehrmacht had "clean hands", and most if not all atrocities had been carried out by the SS and the Einsatzgruppen.

In the middle of the fluid international situation that would eventually bring to the Cold War, however, the British gradually changed their mind and, as time passed, the initial plan for trials became less ambitious. The trial for the Ardeatine massacre was convened in Rome only against von Mackensen and Mältzer (both sentenced to death on 30 November 1946, later commuted to life imprisonment).

The planned major trial for the campaign of reprisals did never take place, and a series of smaller trials was held instead in Padua.

All these trials were held based on the Royal Warrant of June 18 1945, thus essentially under British Common Military Law, and not under the Charter proposed for the Nuremberg Trials, including the trial against Kesselring, which began on 10 February 1947 in Venice, the day Italy signed the Paris Peace Treaty, thus resuming its full responsibilities as sovereign state.

The Field Marshal was tried before a British Military Court presided by Major General Edmund Hakewill Smith and composed by five senior Officers and a Judge, Colonel Stirling. Colonel R.J. Halse - who had already obtained the death penalty for von Mackensen and Mältzer - was the Prosecutor. Kesselring was defended by Hans Laternser, a skillful German lawyer who had represented several defendants at the Nuremberg Trials.

Kesselring was arraigned on two charges: first, the shooting of 335 Italian hostages (the Ardeatine massacre) in reprisal of the attack of Via Rasella in Rome, in which 33 German-Italian soldiers were killed and second, his command to kill Italian civilians (and to offer cover for the culprits) as reprisals in a number of cases, bringing to 1,413 the total number of the victims he was called to account for.

Kesselring did not invoke the "Nuremberg defence". Rather, he maintained that his actions were legal.

The verdict was "culpable" on both charges, the court finding Kesselring's actions as criminally unlawful. On 6 May 1947 the Court found him guilty for both charges and sentenced him to death by firing squad. Kesselring had 14 days to appeal against the verdict. The court left open the theoretical and abstract question on the legality of killing of innocent persons as a reprisal.

Death penalty commutation, early pardon, and liberation

Scarce two years after the end of the war, and with the materialization of the Cold War, Churchill was already and actively undermining the very same policy he had drafted less than four years before with the aforementioned Moscow Declaration, although he had made it clear to Stalin at the time that executions were not what he had in mind.

As soon as the death verdict against Kesselring had been pronounced, Churchill branded it as too harsh and immediately intervened in favour of the Field Marshal by telephoning the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. The call was followed by a written complaint to the same effect. Another letter was sent by Harold Alexander, who expressed his favourable opinion of his German colleague on the grounds that, according to him, Kesselring - in the war as a whole - had "fought fairly", and that, for the war crimes, "the real people to blame were the SS of Hitler's Headquarters". (Later Alexander admitted having expressed such an opinion knowing none of the details of the crimes in question.). In his memoirs Alexander paid tribute to Kesselring as a commander who "showed great skill in extricating himself from the desperate situations into which his faulty intelligence had led him". Although Alexander quoted Kesselring's memoir, he made no mention of war crimes.

Attlee transferred the pressure coming from such prominent figures onto General Sir John Harding, who had succeeded General Alexander as commander of British forces in the Mediterranean in 1946. Harding elaborated a complex and controversial post-judicial revision of the trial (even arguing that the war criminals judged by the Italian Courts for the same incidents did not face death, as this penalty had been banned in Italian Law since 1944) and commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment on 29 June 1947. Similar provisions were taken in favour of all the other German Generals who had been sentenced to death, including Mältzer, von Mackensen and Max Simon. In November 1947 he was transferred from Mestre prison (near Venice) to Wolfsberg in Carinthia and then to Werl prison, in Westphalia, along with von Mackensen and Mältzer, where they worked assembling paper bags.

Upon re-gaining the prime ministership in 1951, Winston Churchill gave priority to the quick release of the Nazi war criminals remaining in British custody, following a policy more discretely pursued since 1947, when he had promptly intervened to save Kesselring's life.

The pressure increased during the summer of 1952, coinciding with the looming question of the ratification by West Germany of the European Defence Community Treaty. A lobby including Harold Alexander - now Minister of Defence - and Basil Liddell Hart strove to this end, also echoing the calls in the same direction coming from the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the press campaign orchestrated in West Germany for the liberation of most war criminals. Alexander in particular had gone to great lengths to falsely emphasize health issues and, almost incredibly, the "melancholy" experienced by jailed war criminals to justify their release. Anthony Eden who - as Foreign Secretary - had taken over responsibility after the withdrawal of the British High Commission from the International Military Tribunal, with the clear approval of Churchill, and based on the tactics suggested by Alexander - which included adequately priming prison doctors on which medical aspects concentrate on - decided to release Kesselring on 15 July 1952, allegedly because he needed urgent hospitalization for an "exploratory operation" on a throat cancer. A similar path was followed in August for the Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, who needed a cataracts operation.

Following their operations, both were conveniently left at liberty for an indefinite convalescence period, and were not to set foot again in jail or, as the German press proclaimed, in a "dungeon"..

To make it more than clear to the German public opinion the path taken by the British government towards the war criminals, however, a more explicit gesture was deemed to be necessary. Therefore, on 24 October 1952 Eden signed an act of clemency.

Kesselring - officially pardoned in consideration of his allegedly ill throat - immediately after his release addressed a rally of veterans (including the fanatic Green Devils who had fought under his command at Monte Cassino and a number of former Nazi leaders), calling for the wholesale liberation of all war criminals. Afterwards, he lived an active public life for another eight years, mostly rallying ex-Nazis as leader of the neo-Nazi organization Stahlhelm, Bund der Frontsoldaten) at the head of which had been elected while still in prison.

Stahlhelm leadership

In 1952, while still in prison, he was elected at the head of the extreme right-wing German nationalistic association, the Stahlhelm, Bund der Frontsoldaten, remaining its leader till his death. He was also elected honorary head of ex-servicemen's associations of the Afrika Korps and Luftwaffe.

His memoirs were published in 1953, as Soldat bis zum letzten Tag (A Soldier To The Last Day). They were reprinted in English as A Soldier's Record a year later. Although written while he was in prison, without access to his papers, the memoirs formed a valuable resource, informing military historians on topics such as the background to the invasion of the Soviet Union. When the English edition was published, Kesselring's contentions that the Luftwaffe was not defeated in the air in the Battle of Britain and that "Operation Sealion" - the invasion of Britain - was thought about but never seriously planned were controversial, but the latter is widely accepted today. In 1955 he published a second book, Gedanken zum Zweiten Weltkrieg (Thoughts on the Second World War).

Interviewed by the Italian journalist Enzo Biagi soon after his release in 1952, Kesselring defiantly described the Marzabotto massacre - in which almost 800 Italian innocent civilians had been killed - as a "normal military operation". It was the worst massacre of civilians committed in Italy during World War II, and Kesselring's definition caused outcry and indignation in the Italian Parliament. Kesselring reacted by raising the provocation and affirming that he had "saved Italy" and that the Italians ought to build him "a monument". In response, on 4 December 1952, Piero Calamandrei, an Italian jurist, soldier, university professor and politician, who had been a leader of the Resistance, penned an antifascist poem, Lapide ad ignominia ("A Monument to Ignominy"). In the poem Calamandrei stated that if Kesselring returned he would indeed find a monument, but one stronger than stone, comprising Italian Resistance fighters who "willingly took up arms, to preserve dignity, not to promote hate, and who decided to fight back against the shame and terror of the world." Calamandrei's poem appears in monuments in the towns of Cuneo and Montepulciano.

As Stahlhelm leader Kesselring incessantly advocated - both in private and in public, even addressing public rallies of veterans - the liberation of all convicted German officers, and reaffirmed his opinion that German officers did not commit any crimes, and that were not criminals, as well as expressed his hope that the Nuremberg Principles would be abolished in the interest of "all soldiers of the world.

Since his release from prison, Kesselring strongly stigmatized what he regarded as the "unjustly smirched reputation of the German soldier". In November 1953, testifying at a war crimes trial, warned that "there won't be any volunteers for the new German army if the German government continues to try German soldiers for acts committed in World War II." Kesselring enthusiastically supported the EDC, and suggested that the "war opponents of yesterday must become the peace comrades and friends of tomorrow", despite having never disowned Nazism. On the contrary, Kesselring declared that he found "astonishing" those who believe "that we must revise our ideas in accordance with democratic principles . . . That is more than I can take."

According to Press reports and the American Jewish Year Book, Kesselring toured Austria in March 1954, again on grounds of alleged health problems, and was warmly welcomed by Neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic groups. As the Field Marshal program included addressing former inmates of an internment camp for Nazis, thus causing embarrassment to the Austrian government, the Interior Minister Oscar Helmer asked him to leave the Country. Kesselring ignored this request and completed his program before leaving, as per his original plan, a week later. According to the same sources, even in 1958 Kesselring's opinion that executing men who "had endangered the striking power of the Wehrmacht" was not a crime was still quite influential in Germany: on the these grounds, the SS General Max Simon was acquitted before a German Court for having executed German citizens who - during the last days of the war - had disarmed the local Hitler-Jugend members in Brettheimer in order to prevent a hopeless last-ditch defense.

Kesselring died at Bad Nauheim, West Germany, on 16 July 1960 at the age of 75. He was given a quasi-military Stahlhelm funeral. Members of Stahlhelm acted as his pall bearers and fired a rifle volley over his grave. His former chief of staff, Siegfried Westphal spoke for the veterans of North Africa and Italy, describing Kesselring as "a man of admirable strength of character whose care was for soldiers of all ranks." General Josef Kammhuber spoke on behalf of the Luftwaffe and Bundeswehr, expressing the hope that Kesselring would be remembered for his earlier accomplishments rather than for his later activities.. Also present were the ex SS-General Sepp Dietrich (one of the closest men to Adolf Hitler), the ex Chancellor Franz von Papen, the Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner, the ex Grossadmiral and Reichspräsident Karl Dönitz, the ex Major and staunch Holocaust denier Otto Remer (who had played a key-role in stopping the 1944 July 20 Plot), the SS-Standartenführer Joachim Peiper and the ex Ambassador Rudolf Rahn.

Critical assessment of Kesselring's pardon in Germany

War crimes trials, the recent past, and rearmament policies connected to the inclusion of West Germany in the NATO alliance were thoroughly worked out before the post-war German public opinion when it came to the question of the moral evaluation of Kesselring, which was characterized by a largely unilateral take in his favour.

The nearly 400-page monograph Kesselrings letzte Schlacht ("Kesselring's last battle"), by the historian Kerstin von Lingen, developed from her PhD thesis and first published in 2004, describes in detail how a massive press campaign for his pardon was staged in Germany under the motto Freiheit für Kesselring! (Freedom for Kesselring!).

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung proclaimed that "An Innocent cannot be pardoned". The campaign reached its high point when the magazine Stern joined the effort in 1951, under the slogan Nicht Gnade, sondern Recht (Not grace, but Justice). Kesselring's defence of art treasures, and the declaration of Rome as "open city" were focused on, while the extermination of entire Italian villages, including women, children and old people, that was perpetrated based on the order he had issued on 17 June 1944, was suppressed.

In Adenauer's Germany the "force field of anti-communism and Cold War" caused reinterpretation "of the war criminal as an honourable man caught in a dungeon". The benign responsiveness of the Allied justice system to the campaign in favour of Kesselring, in its findings, created the false impression of a "victor's justice".

Even among English and American war participants, Kesselring, also known as "Smiling Albert", enjoyed an astonishingly positive reputation for a long time.

Notes

References

  • Atkinson, Rick (2007). The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944. Henry Holt and Co..
  • Belote, Howard D. (2000). Once in a Blue Moon: Airmen in Command; Lauris Norstad, Albrecht Kesselring and Their relevance to the Twenty First Century. Alabama: Air University Press, Maxwell Air Force Base.

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