World War II: Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt

Gerd von Rundstedt
Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt was prominent German commander during World War II. After commanding Army Group South during the invasion of Poland, he played a central role in the defeat of France in 1940. Over the next five years, Rundstedt held a series of senior commands on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. Though he was removed as the commander-in-chief in the West following the Allied landings in Normandy, he returned to the post in September 1944 and remained in that role until the final weeks of the war.

Early Career

Born December 12, 1875 at Aschersleben, Germany, Gerd von Rundstedt was a member of an aristocratic Prussian family. Entering the German Army at age sixteen, he began learning his trade before being accepted into the German Army's officer training school in 1902. Graduating, von Rundstedt was promoted to captain in 1909. A skilled staff officer, he served in this capacity at the beginning of World War I in August 1914. Elevated to major that November, von Rundstedt continued to serve as a staff officer and by the end of the war in 1918 was chief of staff for his division. With the conclusion of the war, he elected to remain in the postwar Reichswehr.

Interwar Years

In the 1920s, von Rundstedt rapidly advanced through the ranks of the Reichswehr and received promotions to lieutenant colonel (1920), colonel (1923), major general (1927), and lieutenant general (1929). Given command of the 3rd Infantry Division in February 1932, he supported Reich Chancellor Franz von Papen's Prussian coup that July. Promoted to general of the infantry that October, he remained in that rank until being made a colonel general in March 1938.

In the wake of the Munich Agreement, von Rundstedt led the 2nd Army which occupied the Sudetenland in October 1938. Despite this success, he promptly retired later in the month in protest of the Gestapo's framing of Colonel General Werner von Fritsch during the Blomberg–Fritsch Affair. Leaving the army, he was given the honorary post of colonel of the 18th Infantry Regiment.

Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt

  • Rank: Field Marshal
  • Service: Imperial German Army ,Reichswehr, Wehrmacht
  • Born: December 12, 1875 in Aschersleben, Germany
  • Died: February 24, 1953 in Hanover, Germany
  • Parents: Gerd Arnold Konrad von Rundstedt and Adelheid Fischer
  • Spouse: Luise “Bila” von Goetz
  • Children: Hans Gerd von Rundstedt
  • Conflicts: World War I, World War II

World War II Begins

His retirement proved brief as he was recalled by Adolf Hitler the following year to lead Army Group South during the invasion of Poland in September 1939. Opening World War II, the campaign saw von Rundstedt's troops mount the main attack of the invasion as they struck east from Silesia and Moravia. Winning the Battle of Bzura, his troops steadily drove back the Poles. With the successful completion of the conquest of Poland, von Rundstedt was given command of Army Group A in preparation for operations in the West.

As planning moved forward, he supported his chief of staff's, Lieutenant General Erich von Manstein, call for a swift armored strike toward the English Channel which he believed could lead to the strategic collapse of the enemy. Attacking on May 10, von Rundstedt's forces made swift gains and opened a large gap in the Allied front. Led by General of Cavalry Heinz Guderian's XIX Corps, German troops reached the English Channel on May 20. Having cut off the British Expeditionary Force from France, von Rundstedt's troops turned north to capture the Channel ports and prevent its escape to Britain.

Chest up portrait of Gerd von Rundstedt in a German Army uniform.
Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-L08129 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Traveling to Army Group A's headquarters at Charleville on May 24, Hitler urged its von Rundstedt, to press the attack. Assessing the situation, he advocated holding his armor west and south of Dunkirk, while utilizing the infantry of Army Group B to finish off the BEF. Though this allowed von Rundstedt to preserve his armor for the final campaign in France, it allowed the British to successfully conduct the Dunkirk Evacuation.

On the Eastern Front

With the end of fighting in France, von Rundstedt received a promotion to field marshal on July 19. As the Battle of Britain began, he assisted in the development of Operation Sea Lion which called for the invasion of southern Britain. With the Luftwaffe's failure to defeat the Royal Air Force, the invasion was called off and von Rundstedt was instructed to oversee the occupation forces in Western Europe.

As Hitler began planning Operation Barbarossa, von Rundstedt was ordered east to assume command of Army Group South. On June 22, 1941, his command took part in the invasion of the Soviet Union. Driving through Ukraine, von Rundstedt's forces played a key role in the encirclement of Kiev and capture of over 452,000 Soviet troops in late September. Pushing on, von Rundstedt's forces succeeded in capturing Kharkov in late October and Rostov in late November. Suffering a heart attack during the advance on Rostov, he refused to leave the front and continued to direct operations.

With the Russian winter setting in, von Rundstedt advocating halting the advance as his forces were becoming overextended and hampered by the severe weather. This request was vetoed by Hitler. On November 27, Soviet forces counterattacked and forced the Germans to abandon Rostov. Unwilling to surrender ground, Hitler countermanded von Rundstedt's orders to fall back. Refusing to obey, von Rundstedt was sacked in favor of Field Marshal Walther von Reichenau.

Return to the West

Briefly out of favor, von Rundstedt was recalled in March 1942 and given command of Oberbefehlshaber West (German Army Command in the West - OB West). Charged with defending Western Europe from the Allies, he was tasked with erecting fortifications along the coast. Largely inactive in this new role, little work occurred in 1942 or 1943.

Gerd von Rundstedt and Erwin Rommel in German military uniforms standing near a window.
Field Marshals Gerd von Rundstedt and Erwin Rommel.  Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-718-0149-18A / Jesse / CC-BY-SA 3.0

In November 1943, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was assigned to OB West as commander of Army Group B. Under his direction, work finally began on fortifying the coastline. Over the coming months, von Rundstedt and Rommel clashed over the disposition of OB West's reserve panzer divisions with the former believing they should located in the rear and the latter wanting them near the coast. Following the Allied landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944, von Rundstedt and Rommel worked to contain the enemy beachhead.

When it became obvious to von Rundstedt that the Allies could not be pushed back into the sea, he began advocating for peace. With the failure of a counterattack near Caen on July 1, he was asked by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, head of the German armed forces, what should be done. To this he brusquely replied, "Make peace you fools! What else can you do?" For this, he was removed from command the next day and replaced with Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge.

Final Campaigns

In the wake of the July 20 Plot against Hitler, von Rundstedt agreed to serve on a Court of Honor to assess officers suspected of being opposed to the führer. Removing several hundred officers from the Wehrmacht, the court turned them over to Roland Freisler's Volksgerichtshof (People's Court) for trial. Implicated in the July 20 Plot, von Kluge committed suicide on August 17 and was briefly replaced by Field Marshal Walter Model.

Eighteen days later, on September 3, von Rundstedt returned to lead OB West. Later in the month, he was able to contain Allied gains made during Operation Market-Garden. Forced to give ground through the fall, von Rundstedt opposed the Ardennes offensive which was launched in December believing that insufficient troops were available for it to succeed. The campaign, which resulted in the Battle of the Bulge, represented the last major German offensive in the West.

Gerd von Rundstedt standing between his son Hans and an unidentified soldier.
Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (center) after his capture in 1945. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2007-0220 / CC-BY-SA

Continuing to fight a defensive campaign in early 1945, von Rundstedt was removed from command on March 11 after again arguing that Germany should make peace rather than fight a war it could not win. On May 1, von Rundstedt was captured by troops from the US 36th Infantry Division. During the course of his interrogation, he suffered another heart attack.

Last Days

Taken to Britain, von Rundstedt moved between camps in southern Wales and Suffolk. After the war, he was charged by the British for war crimes during the invasion of the Soviet Union. These charges were largely based on his support of von Reichenau's "Severity Order" which led to mass murders in occupied Soviet territory. Due to his age and failing health, von Rundstedt was never tried and he was released in July 1948. Retiring to Schloss Oppershausen, near Celle in Lower Saxony, he continued to be plagued by heart problems until his death on February 24, 1953.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II: Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).