Reading for War
'Manstein: Hitler's Greatest General' by Mungo MelvinBy James Davis February 13, 2019
Junior Armour officers flock to Erich Von Manstein’s Lost Victories because of the deeds of its author. Unfortunately, the reader of Lost Victories is nagged by the idea that Manstein emphasises his role in the tactical achievements of the Wehrmacht and downplays its alleged involvement in war crimes. This is not surprising, just human. Further, when Lost Victories was published in 1958, anyone who could confirm or deny Manstein’s version of events was dead, discredited or prudently mute.
Mungo Melvin’s 'Manstein: Hitler’s Greatest General' is an objective alternative and should be read instead of Lost Victories. Melvin’s book is effectively in three parts.
In part one Melvin brusquely outlines Manstein's development as a member of the German General staff and his service in Corps and Army Headquarters as a junior officer in World War One. In the interwar years Manstein commanded a Division before resuming duty as a staff officer. It was after the surrender of Poland to Germany in 1939 that Manstein made his name by opposing Colonel-General Franz Halder’s (Chief of the General Staff of Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH)) “Fall Gelb” for the invasion of France. In a separate meeting with Hitler, Manstein argued that the main axis of assault on France should be in the south through the Ardennes. Subsequently, Hitler directed Halder to develop this idea as the Sichelschnitt Plan (Sickle Cut) that subsequently defeated the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force. Melvin analyses the victory circumspectly and notes that Manstein’s plan, for all its operational brilliance, did not create conditions for Germany to conclude the war.
The second part of the book describes the period following Manstein's command of a Panzer Corps and his promotion to command of the 11th Army. Following the 11th Army’s campaign in the Crimea to capture Sevastopol, Manstein assumes command of Army Group South. Melvin’s descriptions of Manstein’s Crimea campaign and his “back handed counter offensive” between the Donets and the Dnieper Rivers illuminate his unique capacity to command large groups of forces. During this time the relationship between Manstein and Hitler also declined as the Wehrmacht retreated.
Manstein is removed from command in 1944 and the last section of the book focuses on his arrest and trial by the allies, and his contribution to the development of the Bundeswehr following his release from prison in 1953.
The immediate advantage that Hitlers Greatest General enjoys compared to Lost Victories is that Melvin is not Manstein. Melvin uses operational logs, diaries of Manstein’s personal staff and interviews to compliment and challenge the version of events Manstein portrays in Lost Victories. Melvin is no soft touch; his investigation of Manstein’s testimony before a British military court in 1949 and fitness for strategic leadership is acute and sustained. Melvin balances these criticisms with warm descriptions of Manstein’s method of command which are some of the real gems of the book. The following description of Manstein at work in 1943 is a good example:
‘His method of command was simple. On return from a busy day visiting subordinate formations and units, often starting at dawn, he would share his impressions with staff, receiving in return an update from his chief of staff. He would then give his direction for the next day, normally contained in a corps operation order. Before it could be issued, he and his staff waited for the Army order to make sure that his actions were consistent with its intent, this rarely occurred before 2300.’
The other strength of Melvin’s work is the analysis of the relationship between Manstein the person and Manstein the military leader. The best example of this is the book’s exploration of Manstein’s principled management of Hitler, concurrent with his rebuff of the conspirators plotting against the fuehrer. Melvin convincingly demonstrates that Manstein’s character, and an apolitical commitment to the Wehrmacht were the bedrock of his capacity to manage competing demands on his loyalty. Melvin also demonstrates Manstein’s qualities as a person through descriptions of his interaction with his personal staff. A demanding, undemonstrative, quietly spoken officer; Manstein built his stock by listening, delegating work and sharing his thinking.
In summary, readers with limited experience of operational and strategic planning will find Melvin’s book a gentle introduction to these topics in a well known context. This, and Melvin’s objective analysis of Manstein, makes this an ideal book particularly for officers and soldiers who may have previously read Lost Victories.
About the reviewer: James Davis is an Armour Officer. He is currently employed as the Australian Army Liaison Officer to the United Kingdom Land Forces.