Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb

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Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-L08126, Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb.jpg
Field Marshal 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 of the Second World War, during which his younger brother, Emil Leeb, rose to the rank of General der Artillerie. In 1940, after the Fall of France, Leeb was promoted to field marshal during the 1940 Field Marshal Ceremony.[1]

Youth[edit]

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

First World War and after[edit]

Von Leeb in October 1937

At the outbreak of the First World War, Leeb was on the General Staff of the Bavarian Army's I Corps, then joined the Bavarian 11th Infantry Division. In the summer of 1916, upon promotion to major, Leeb was transferred to the Eastern Front. The following year, he was appointed to the staff of Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria. On 29 May 1916, for his military achievements on 2 May 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 the decoration elevated Leeb to the ranks of the minor nobility: on 21 June 1916, he received a patent of nobility, which gave him the rank and title of "Ritter" ("knight") and the German nobiliary particle "von" ("of") before his surname.

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

Second World War[edit]

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

In the summer of 1939, Leeb was yet again called back to active service and given command of Army Group C. Before the Battle of France, he 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, Leeb was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal during the 1940 Field Marshal Ceremony and was also awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.

Having gained Hitler's confidence, Leeb was given command of Army Group North and responsibility for the northern sector in Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. Leeb was to go on to destroy the Soviet units in the Baltic region and capture all Soviet naval bases on the Baltic Sea. When the invasion began on 22 June 1941, 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]

Leeb and Georg von Küchler at an observation post, 11 October 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, Leeb did not take well to having his command managed from afar by Hitler, whom he considered an "armchair general". In January 1942, Leeb asked Hitler to relieve him of his command, and Hitler complied. It was officially announced that 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 Leeb again.

Dates of rank[edit]

Awards and decorations[edit]

Relations with National Socialists[edit]

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

Leeb's attitude towards the Nazi regime was ambivalent; in spite of his open contempt for Hitler and the dictator's inner circle, he accepted a present of 250,000 Reichsmarks for his sixty-fifth birthday in 1941, and in 1944 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 20 July plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944, Leeb sent an affirmation of loyalty to Hitler, although ostensibly this was in order to save his own life and those of his family.

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

After the War[edit]

Leeb was tried by an American military tribunal in Nuremberg in the High Command Trial. Due to a confusion of documents, he 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 than three years 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 feminine 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