World War II offered a number of perilous job opportunities: airman in a B-17 over Europe, Marine in the Pacific, submariner on a U-Boat prowling the Atlantic. In all these, life was short, danger ever-present, and mortality high.
Here is another dangerous job: German general. German officers liked to fight aggressively, generating maximum force at the point of impact. The best way to lead, they believed, was from the front. And the Wehrmacht’s field commanders died in droves in this war—223 army generals by one count, an un-
usual phenomenon in the modern era.
Take a look at one month in this long war. June 1944 saw the Allies landing in Normandy. Although historians remember the fighting’s early phase for its hedgerow-slogging frustration and high losses, the real loser in the campaign was the German officer corps. Consider this list: General Wilhelm Falley of the 91st Air Landing Division; General Erich Marcks, commander of the LXXXIV Corps; General Fritz Witt of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend; General Heinz Hellmich of the 243rd Division; General Rudolf Stegmann of the 77th Division. These men were all competent, hard-driving commanders, schooled in the operational art and trusted by their subordinate officers and men.
They were also all killed in the first two weeks of the fighting in Normandy: Falley on D-Day itself, Marcks on the 12th, Witt on the 14th, Hellmich on the 17th, and Stegmann on the 18th. Allied air attacks killed Marcks, Hellmich, and Stegmann, 20mm shells stitching the latter two.
The “dead general” toll could easily have gone higher. On June 10, an RAF raid targeted Panzergruppe West’s Normandy headquarters, badly wounding the commander, General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg. Some say that Schweppenburg, a neophyte at operating under enemy air superiority, had inadequately camouflaged his headquarters. Schweppenburg’s chief of staff and at least 12 other staff officers died in the attack. And although the general survived, his headquarters was out of the fighting for the next two weeks, preventing the Germans from unleashing their Panzer divisions in a counterattack. A few weeks later, on July 17, another Allied air raid caught Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s staff car tearing along the road between Vimoutiers and Livarot, killing the driver and wounding Rommel so grievously that first responders thought the field marshal was dead.
June 1944 was also a fateful month on the Eastern Front, featuring the Soviet army’s great offensive in Byelorussia, Operation Bagration. Leading from the front was not the only thing that killed German generals here. The powerful Soviets literally destroyed three German armies—the 3rd Panzer, and the 4th and 9th Armies—within days. The Red Army’s rapid advance encircled German forces all over the map; many of the dead generals had perished trying to lead breakouts.
The fighting claimed two corps commanders early on; Generals Georg Pfeiffer (VI Corps) south of Vitebsk and Robert Martinek (XXXIX Panzer Corps) near Mogilev. It also took Martinek’s successor, General Otto Schünemann, the next day. Division commanders got hit, too, with Generals Robert Pistorius and Rudolf Peschel—commanders of the 4th and 6th Luftwaffe Field Divisions, respectively—dying in the Vitebsk encirclement. Sometimes it was just bad luck. In the follow-on Soviet offensive to Bagration, the Lvov Operation of July, Soviet armies encircled General Arthur Hauffe’s XIII Corps in the town of Brody. Hauffe surrendered, but as his Soviet guards frog-marched him into captivity, he stepped on a mine and was blown apart.
There is no mystery here. The dead German generals had been fighting enemies with more productive war economies and vastly superior logistics. In a war of men against fire, fire usually wins. The death toll was yet another price the Wehrmacht paid for waging global war on a shoestring.
Being a German general: the very thought gives me a heart attack. Which is precisely what happened to the commander of the German Seventh Army in Normandy, General Friedrich Dollmann, on June 29th, 1944.