Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb

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Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-L08126, Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb.jpg
Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb
Born (1876-09-05)5 September 1876
Landsberg am Lech, Bavaria
Died 29 April 1956(1956-04-29) (aged 79)
Füssen, West Germany
Allegiance
Years of service 1895–1938; 1939–1942
Rank Generalfeldmarschall
Battles/wars
Awards

Wilhelm Josef Franz Ritter von Leeb (5 September 1876 – 29 April 1956) was a German field marshal during World War II. His younger brother, Emil Leeb, rose to the rank of General der Artillerie during World War II. In 1940, after the Fall of France, he was promoted to field marshal during the 1940 Field Marshal Ceremony.[1]

Youth[edit]

Born in Landsberg am Lech, Upper Bavaria as Wilhelm Leeb, he joined the Bavarian Army in 1895 as an officer cadet. After being commissioned a lieutenant of artillery, Leeb served in China during the Boxer Rebellion. He later attended the Bavarian War Academy in Munich (1907–1909) and served on the General Staff in Berlin (1909–1911). Promoted to captain, Leeb served as a battery commander in the Bavarian 10th Field Artillery Regiment at Erlangen (1912–1913).

World War I and after[edit]

Von Leeb in October 1937

At the outbreak of World War I, Leeb was on the General Staff of the Bavarian I Corps, then served with the Bavarian 11th Infantry Division. Upon promotion to major, Leeb was transferred to the Eastern Front in the summer of 1916. The following year, he was appointed to the staff of Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria. On 29 May 1916, for his military achievements on May 2, 1915, Leeb received the Knight's Cross of the Military Order of Max Joseph. This was the Bavarian equivalent of the Prussian Pour le Mérite, and its receipt elevated Leeb to the ranks of nobility: on 21 June 1916, he received a patent of nobility, which changed his name by adding the title "Ritter" ("knight") and the German nobiliary particle "von" ("of").

After the war, Ritter von Leeb remained in the Reichswehr, the 100,000-man army permitted Germany under the Treaty of Versailles. In 1923, he was involved in putting down the Nazi Beer Hall Putsch. Then, before the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, von Leeb commanded Wehrkreis VII ("Military District VII", which covered Bavaria) as a major general.

World War II[edit]

Hitler was not fond of von Leeb because of the general's anti-Nazi attitudes, and retired von Leeb in 1938 after promoting him to the rank of colonel general. But von Leeb was recalled to duty in July of the same year and made commander of the 12th Army, which took part in the occupation of the Sudetenland. Afterwards, he was pensioned off again.

In the summer of 1939, von Leeb was again called back into service and given command of Army Group C. Before the Battle of France, von Leeb was the only German general to oppose the offensive through the (neutral) low countries, especially Belgium, on moral grounds. He wrote: "The whole world will turn against Germany, which for the second time within 25 years, assaults neutral Belgium! Germany, whose government solemnly vouched for and promised the preservation of and respect for this neutrality only a few weeks ago."[2] During that battle, his troops broke through the Maginot Line. For his role in this victory, von Leeb was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal in 1940 during the 1940 Field Marshal Ceremony and awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.

Now having Hitler's confidence, von Leeb was given command of Army Group North and responsibility for the northern sector in Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. Von Leeb was to destroy the Soviet units in the Baltic region and capture all Soviet naval bases on the Baltic Sea. When the invasion began on June 22, 1941, von Leeb's armies met with outstanding success against an overwhelmed Soviet force. By the end of September, his army had advanced 900 kilometers into the Soviet Union and surrounded Leningrad. He was ordered to halt his advance, and transfer 4th Panzer Group (with five panzer and two motorized divisions) and the VIII Air Corps to Army Group Center.

Relieved of command[edit]

Von Leeb and Georg von Küchler at an observation post, October 11, 1941

Despite halting his advance under orders of Hitler, the Nazi leader impatiently commented, "Leeb is in a second childhood; he can't grasp and carry out my plan for the speedy capture of Leningrad. He fusses over his plan of assuming the defensive in the northwestern sector and wants a drive in the center on Moscow. He's obviously senile, he's lost his nerve, and like a true Catholic he wants to pray but not [to] fight."[citation needed]

An old-school German general, von Leeb did not take well to having his command managed from afar by Hitler, whom he considered an "armchair general". In January, 1942, von Leeb asked Hitler to relieve him of his command, and Hitler complied. It was officially announced that von Leeb had stepped down due to illness, not because of his defeat. Colonel-General Georg von Küchler assumed command of Army Group North, and Hitler never employed von Leeb again.

Dates of rank[edit]

Awards and decorations[edit]

Relations with National Socialists[edit]

Grave at the Sollner Waldfriedhof (Nr. 17-W-2)

Von Leeb's attitude towards the Nazi regime was ambivalent: in spite of his open contempt for Hitler and the dictator's cronies, he did accept a present of 250,000 Reichsmarks for his sixty-fifth birthday in 1941. In 1944, von Leeb allowed the Nazis to use his popularity for propaganda purposes, when he was presented with a great Bavarian estate worth 638,000 Reichsmarks. After the failed July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944, von Leeb sent an affirmation of loyalty to the Führer, although ostensibly this was in order to save his own life and that of his family.

Photograph of Field Marshal von Leeb taken during a recess in the IMT Nuremberg commission hearings.

After the War[edit]

Von Leeb was tried by an American military tribunal in Nuremberg in the High Command Trial. Due to a confusion of documents, von Leeb was found guilty on one of four charges and sentenced to three years imprisonment; but he was released after the judgment because he had already spent more time in custody. He spent his last years living quietly with his family. Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb died in Füssen on 29 April 1956, following a heart attack.[3]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Regarding personal names: Ritter was a title, translated as Knight, not a first or middle name. Before 1919 preceding the first name, former titles are with people alive after 1919 dependent parts of the surname, thus preceding the main surname and not to be translated. There is no equivalent female form.
  2. ^ William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1960. p.647
  3. ^ Moll, Otto E. (1961): Die deutschen Generalfeldmarschälle 1935–1945. Rattstatt: Erich Pabel Verlag, p. 112

References[edit]

  • David Glantz, "The Battle for Leningrad", 1941–1944, Lawrence, KS, 2002.
  • Kemp, Anthony (1990 reprint). German Commanders of World War II (#124 Men-At-Arms series). Osprey Pub., London. ISBN 0-85045-433-6.
  • Mitcham, Samuel (2003). Hitler's Commanders.
  • Pavlov, Dmitri V. Leningrad 1941: The Blockade. Translated by John Clinton Adams. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1965.
Military offices
Preceded by
General der Infanterie Adolf Ritter von Ruith
Commander of 7. Division
1 February 1930 – 1 October 1933
Succeeded by
none
Preceded by
Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock
Commander of Heeresgruppe Nord
20 June 1941 – 17 January 1942
Succeeded by
Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler