World War II: Colonel General Heinz Guderian

Colonel General Heinz Guderian. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Colonel General Heinz Guderian was German military officer who helped pioneer blitzkrieg warfare using armor and motorized infantry. A veteran of World War I, he elected to remain in the service during the interwar years and published his ideas on mobile warfare as the book Achtung - Panzer!. With the beginning of World War II, Guderian commanded armored formations in the invasions of Poland, France, and the Soviet Union. Briefly falling out of favor, he later served as Inspector-General of the Armored Troops and Acting Chief of the General Staff. Guderian ultimately surrendered to American forces on May 10, 1945.

Early Life & Career

The son of a German soldier, Heinz Guderian was born at Kulm, Germany (now Chelmno, Poland) on June 17, 1888. Entering military school in 1901, he continued for six years until joining his father's unit, Jäger Bataillon No. 10, as a cadet. After brief service with this unit, he was dispatched to a military academy at Metz. Graduating in 1908, he was commissioned as a lieutenant and returned to the jägers. In 1911, he met Margarete Goerne and quickly fell in love. Believing his son too young to marry, his father forbade the union and sent him for instruction with the 3rd Telegraph Battalion of the Signal Corps.

World War I

Returning in 1913, he was permitted to marry Margarete. In the year before World War I, Guderian underwent staff training in Berlin. With the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, he found himself working in signals and staff assignments. Though not at the front lines, these postings allowed him to develop his skills in strategic planning and the direction of large-scale battles. Despite his rear area assignments, Guderian sometimes found himself in action and earned the Iron Cross first and second class during the conflict.

Though he often clashed with his superiors, Guderian was seen as an officer with great promise. With the war winding down in 1918, he was angered by the German decision to surrender as he believed that the nation should have fought until the end. A captain at the end of the war, Guderian elected to remain in the postwar German Army (Reichswehr) and was given command of a company in the 10th Jäger Battalion. Following this assignment, he was shifted to the Truppenamt which served as the army's de facto general staff. Promoted to major in 1927, Guderian was posted to the Truppenamt section for transport.

Colonel General Heinz Guderian

  • Rank: Colonel General
  • Service: German Army
  • Nickname(s): Hammering Heinz
  • Born: June 17 1888 in Kulm, German Empire
  • Died: May 14, 1954 in Schwangau, West Germany
  • Parents: Friedrich and Clara Guderian
  • Spouse: Margarete Goerne
  • Children: Heinz (1914-2004), Kurt (1918-1984)
  • Conflicts: World War I, World War II
  • Known For: Invasion of Poland, Battle of France, Operation Barbarossa

Developing Mobile Warfare

In this role, Guderian was able to play a key role in developing and teaching motorized and armored tactics. Extensively studying the works of mobile warfare theorists, such as J.F.C. Fuller, he began to conceive of what would ultimately become the blitzkrieg approach to warfare. Believing that armor should play the key role in any attack, he argued that formations should be mixed and contain motorized infantry to aid and support the tanks. By including support units with the armor, breakthroughs could be quickly exploited and rapid advances sustained.

Espousing these theories, Guderian was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1931 and made chief of staff to the Inspectorate of Motorized Troops. A promotion to colonel quickly followed two years later. With German rearmament in 1935, Guderian was given command of the 2nd Panzer Division and received a promotion to major general in 1936. Over the next year, Guderian recorded his ideas on mobile warfare, and those of his compatriots, into the book Achtung - Panzer!. Making a persuasive case for his approach to war, Guderian also introduced a combined arms element as he incorporated air power into his theories.

Promoted to lieutenant general on February 4, 1938, Guderian received command of the XVI Army Corps. With the conclusion of the Munich Agreement later that year, his troops led the German occupation of the Sudetenland. Advanced to general in 1939, Guderian was made Chief of Fast Troops with responsibility for recruiting, organizing and training the army's motorized and armored troops. In this position, he was able to shape panzer units to effectively implement his ideas of mobile warfare. As the year passed, Guderian was given command of the XIX Army Corps in preparation for the invasion of Poland.

World War II

German forces opened World War II on September 1, 1939, when they invaded Poland. Putting his ideas into use, Guderian's corps slashed through Poland and he personally oversaw German forces at the Battles of Wizna and Kobryn. With the conclusion of the campaign, Guderian received a large country estate in what became Reichsgau Wartheland. Shifted west, XIX Corps played a key role in the Battle of France in May and June 1940. Driving through the Ardennes, Guderian led a lightning campaign that split the Allied forces.

Heinz Guderian
Heinz Guderian during the Battle of France. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-769-0229-12A / Borchert, Erich (Eric) / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Breaking through the Allied lines, his rapid advances constantly kept the Allies off balance as his troops disrupted rear areas and overran headquarters. Though his superiors wished to slow his advance, threats of resignation and requests for "reconnaissances in force" kept his offensive moving. Driving west, his corps led the race to the sea and reached the English Channel on May 20. Turning south, Guderian aided in the final defeat of France. Promoted to colonel general (generaloberst), Guderian took his command, now dubbed Panzergruppe 2, east in 1941 to participate in Operation Barbarossa.

In Russia

Attacking the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, German forces made quick gains. Driving east, Guderian's troops overwhelmed the Red Army and aided in the capture of Smolensk in early August. Through his troops were preparing for a rapid advance on Moscow, Guderian was angered when Adolf Hitler ordered his troops to turn south toward Kiev. Protesting this order, he quickly lost Hitler's confidence. Ultimately obeying, he aided in the capture of the Ukrainian capital. Returning to his advance on Moscow, Guderian and German forces were halted in front of the city in December.

Heinz Guderian
Hienz Guderian during Operation Barbarossa, 1941. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-139-1112-17 / Knobloch, Ludwig / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Later Assignments

On December 25, Guderian and several senior German commanders on the Eastern Front were relieved for conducting a strategic retreat against the wishes of Hitler. His relief was facilitated by Army Group Center commander Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge with whom Guderian had frequently clashed. Departing Russia, Guderian was placed on the reserve list and retired to his estate with his career effectively over. In September 1942, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel requested that Guderian serve as his relief in Africa while he returned to Germany for medical treatment. This request was refused by the German high command with the statement, "Guderian is not accepted."

With the German defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad, Guderian was given new life when Hitler recalled him to serve as Inspector-General of the Armored Troops. In this role, he advocated for the production of more Panzer IVs which were more reliable than the newer Panther and Tiger tanks. Reporting directly to Hitler, he was tasked with overseeing armor strategy, production, and training. On July 21, 1944, a day after the failed attempt on Hitler's life, he was elevated to Army Chief of Staff. After several months of arguments with Hitler over how to defend Germany and fight a two-front war, Guderian was relieved for "medical reasons" on March 28, 1945.

Later Life

As the war wound down, Guderian and his staff moved west and surrendered to American forces on May 10. Kept as a prisoner of war until 1948, he was not charged with war crimes at the Nuremburg Trials despite requests from the Soviet and Polish governments. In the years after the war, he aided in the reconstruction of the German Army (Bundeswehr). Heinz Guderian died at Schwangau on May 14, 1954. He was buried at Friedhof Hildesheimer Strasse in Goslar, Germany.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Colonel General Heinz Guderian." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). World War II: Colonel General Heinz Guderian. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Colonel General Heinz Guderian." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).