Karl Rudolf Gerd von Rundstedt (December 12, 1875 - February 24, 1953) was a Generalfeldmarschall of the German Army during World War II. He held some of the highest field commands in all phases of the war.
Born in Aschersleben in the Province of Saxony into an aristocratic Prussian family, von Rundstedt joined the German Army in 1892, then entered Germany's elite military academy in 1902 – an institution that accepted only 160 new students annually and weeded out 75% of the students through exams. During World War I he rose in rank until 1918 when he was a major and was chief of staff of his division.
After the war, von Rundstedt rose steadily in the small 100,000 man army and in 1932, was appointed commander of the 3rd Infantry Division. Later that year he threatened to resign when Franz von Papen declared martial law and ordered his troops to eject members of the Nazi Party from state government offices. In 1938 he retired after it was understood that Werner von Fritsch - Commander-in-Chief of the German Army (OKH) - was framed by the Gestapo.
In September 1939 World War II began, and von Rundstedt was recalled to lead Army Group South during the successful invasion of Poland. Turning to the West, he supported Manstein's "armored fist" approach to the invasion of France, and this was eventually selected as Fall Gelb. During the battle he was placed in command of seven panzer divisions, three motorized infantry divisions, and 35 regular infantry divisions.
By May 14, 1940, the armored divisions led by Heinz Guderian had crossed the Meuse and had opened up a huge gap in the Allied front. General von Rundstedt had doubts about the survivability of these units without infantry support, and asked for a pause while the infantry caught up; the halt allowed the British to evacuate their forces to Dunkirk. Later Rundstedt forbade an attack on the Dunkirk beachhead, allowing the British to fully evacuate it. This turn of events has raised eyebrows over the years. Von Rundstedt and others subsequently argued that the decision was Hitler's and stemmed from his belief that Britain would more readily accept a peace treaty if he magnanimously spared what remained of her expeditionary force.
Von Rundstedt was promoted to field marshal on July 19, 1940 and took part in the planning of Operation Sealion. When the invasion was called off, von Rundstedt took control of occupation forces and was given responsibility to develop the coastal defenses in the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
In June 1941 von Rundstedt took part in Operation Barbarossa as commander of Army Group South, where he led 52 infantry divisions and five Panzer divisions into the Soviet Union. At first his progress was slow, but in September AG South captured Kiev in a double encirclement operation made possible by Stalin's unreasoning refusal to abandon it, even though the Dnieper had been crossed both north and south of it. The Germans claimed a fantastic haul of 665,000 Russian prisoners based on the encircled divisions' nominal, pre-combat strength as revealed by captured Soviet records. The Soviets reported that owing to previous losses - also exaggerated by the Germans, yet not subtracted by them from their tally of Soviet prisoners - the encircled divisions possessed merely 452,000 men and that, of those, 150,541 made their way out of the pocket before the lumbering German infantry divisions caught up with the armor and the ring of encirclement was consolidated. Thus "only" 300,000 men were permanently trapped, whether captured or killed. After this von Rundstedt moved east to attack Kharkov and Rostov. He strongly opposed continuing the advance into the Soviet Union during the winter and advised Hitler to call a halt, but his views were rejected.
In November, von Rundstedt had a heart attack, but he refused to be hospitalized and continued the advance, reaching Rostov on November 21. A counter-attack forced the Germans back. When von Rundstedt demanded to be allowed to withdraw, Hitler became furious and replaced him with General Walther von Reichenau.
Hitler recalled von Rundstedt to duty in March 1942, placing him once again in command of the west. There he proved tardy, so much so that as late as the autumn of 1943, no fortifications worthy of mention existed along the entire Atlantic shore. It was only after Erwin Rommel's appointment as von Rundstedt's ostensible subordinate that fortification work began in earnest. During the debates preceding the landing von Rundstedt insisted that the armoured reserves should be held in the operational rear so that they could all be rushed to whatever sector the Allies happened to land in. Geyr von Schweppenberg, the armoured commander, supported him. Rommel, by contrast, insisted that the armoured forces must be deployed very near the shoreline, just beyond the reach of allied naval artillery, since Allied command of the air would preclude moving them from further than that. Badly affected by his experiences in Africa, Rommel believed that Allied air operations would prohibit movement during the day and even gravely inhibit movement at night. Rundstedt was convinced that a landing as far west as Normandy was out of the question and that very little armour should be committed there. Ultimately, the armoured divisions were dispersed and only two were spared to the northern French shore, west of the Seine, with only one assigned to the Normandy sector, with disastrous consequences once the invasion began. After the D-Day landings in June 1944, von Rundstedt urged Hitler to negotiate a peace settlement with the Allies. Hitler responded by replacing him with Field Marshal Günther von Kluge.
As a result of the July 20 Plot, which outraged von Rundstedt, he agreed to join Guderian and Wilhelm Keitel on the Army Court of Honour that expelled hundreds of officers suspected of being opposed to Hitler, often on the flimsiest of evidence. This removed them from the jurisdiction of the military and turned them over to Roland Freisler. Many were executed.
In mid-August 1944, von Kluge committed suicide and Fieldmarshall Model was given command of OB West for eighteen days before he was relieved of duty and von Rundstedt was once again placed in command in the west. He quickly rallied the troops just in time to fight Operation Market Garden, winning the battle. Although he was Commander of the Western Forces during the Battle of the Bulge, he was opposed to that offensive from its inception and essentially washed his hands of it. He was relieved of command once again in March 1945 after telling Wilhelm Keitel that Hitler should make peace with the Allies, rather than continue to fight a hopeless war.
Rundstedt was captured by the US 36th Infantry Division on May 1, 1945. During his captivity, he was reportedly asked by Soviet interrogaters which battle he regarded as most decisive. They expected him to say "Stalingrad", but von Rundstedt replied "The Battle of Britain". Annoyed, the Soviets "put away their notebooks and left. While being interrogated, he suffered another heart attack, and was taken to Britain, where he was held in captivity in a Prisoner-of-War Camp in Bridgend, South Wales. He was charged by the British as a war criminal. The charges against him concerned his involvement in mass murders in occupied Soviet territories. On October 10 1941, his subordinate, Walther von Reichenau, the 6th Army's commander, had issued his infamously bloodthirsty "Reichenau Order". Upon receiving a copy, Rundstedt, much impressed, immediately sent the document to his other army commanders, presenting it as a model for orders he expected them to issue to their troops. He was also recorded as being very helpful to Einsatzgruppen. When questioned on the matter and presented with damning testimony from an Einsatzgruppe commander, Rundstedt could do no more than say that it was impudence for the SS man to "talk this way about a field marshal", yet he proved unable to challenge this or documentary evidence. Ultimately, he never faced trial, allegedly because of his poor health, though the American prosecution team suspected that political considerations underlay the British decision. He was released in July 1948, and lived in Hanover until his death.