Field marshal Karl Rudolf Gerd von Rundstedt (1875-1953), the senior German field commander in World War II, directed the German war effort on the Western front from 1942 to 1945.
Gerd von Rundstedt was born on Dec. 12, 1875, in Aschersleben near Magdeburg. His family was of old Prussian nobility with a long military tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. His father was a general, and his brother was a major. Rundstedt received all of his education in military schools, and in 1891 he entered the Prussian infantry. In 1906 he received his first general-staff assignment.
In World War I Rundstedt took part in the Battle of the Marne in the autumn of 1914, and then he alternately served on the Eastern and Western fronts in army corps chief of staff positions. By the end of the war he had become the chief of staff of the 15th Army Corps with the rank of major. From 1919 to 1932 Rundstedt held several staff and command positions related to the secret rearmament of Germany. During the time of troubles preceding the take-over of Adolf Hitler, he held, as a lieutenant colonel, the politically sensitive position of commander of the Berlin Military District. In this capacity in July 1932 he executed the eviction of the duly elected Social Democratic government of Prussia on the order of the German chancellor, Franz von Papen. A few weeks later Rundstedt advanced to commander in chief of the entire Army Group I (Berlin and central Germany).
During his term as Army Group I commander in chief, Rundstedt did much to improve and reform the infantry, most notably through the reequipment and reorganization of infantry commands into small, self-sufficient units, or Einheiten. By 1938 he had become increasingly alarmed at Hitler's policies toward the general staff and at the growing war preparations, and he expressed these concerns by signing an officers' petition circulated by the chief of the general staff, Gen. Ludwig Beck. In October 1938 Rundstedt asked for and obtained permission to retire.
Even before the outbreak of World War II, however, Rundstedt was recalled from retirement. In the invasion of Poland (1939), he commanded the group of German armies in the south that swept through Galicia toward Warsaw with brilliant precision. In the German attack on France in May 1940, Rundstedt led the vital drive of the centrally located Army Group A through the Ardennes and behind the French fortifications of the Maginot Line. He was rewarded for his brilliant success with a promotion to the rank of field marshal on July 19, 1940. In the summer of 1941, Rundstedt commanded the southern group of German armies in their rapid advance into Russia. He overwhelmed the army of Marshal Semyon M. Budyenny on the southern flank of the Soviets and subsequently occupied the mineral-rich Ukraine. Once again, however, the field marshal expressed disagreement with Hitler's plans and demanded a general retreat of his forces to the Mius Line. In the ensuing quarrel, Rundstedt offered his resignation, which was accepted in December 1941.
Following the entry of the United States into the war in December 1941 and the consequent increase in the likelihood of an Allied invasion of the Continent, Hitler once again turned to Rundstedt, and on March 1, 1942, Hitler appointed him commander in chief West. After the sinking of the French navy in November, Hitler added military commander of France to Rundstedt's titles. In this capacity Rundstedt prepared French defenses against an Allied invasion, which, however, he was unable to prevent. After the landing on June 6, 1944, Rundstedt withdrew German troops to the Seine River, which brought his dismissal and replacement on July 6. After his successor failed to reverse the situation and committed suicide, Rundstedt once again returned to the position of commander in chief West in September. In the following months he oversaw the declining fortunes of the German defense and watched with great consternation as Hitler's last gamble, the Ardennes offensive (Battle of the Bulge), failed in December 1944.
Thoroughly disenchanted and quite ill, Rundstedt entered final retirement on March 13, 1945. He was captured by American troops in Bavaria on May 1 and was turned over to the British for trial. Because of Rundstedt's poor health, his trial never took place, and on May 26, 1946, he was released from a British military hospital. He died in Hanover on Feb. 24, 1953.
One major biographical source on the field marshal is the work of an admiring friend, Gen. Guenter von Blumentritt, Von Rundstedt: The Soldier and the Man, translated by Cuthbert Reavely (1952). A section on Rundstedt is in Siegfried Westphal, The German Army in the West (1951).
Messenger, Charles, The last Prussian: a biography of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, 1875-1953, London; Washington: Brassey's; N.Y., N.Y.: Macmillan (distributor), 1991.