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World War II: Field Marshal Walter Model

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World War II: Field Marshal Walter Model

Field Marshal Walter Model

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Walter Model - Early Life & World War I:

Born January 24, 1891, Walter Model was the son of a music teacher in Genthin, Saxony. Seeking a military career, he entered an army officer cadet school in Neisse in 1908. A middling student, Model graduated in 1910 and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 52nd Infantry Regiment. Though possessing a blunt personality and often lacking tact, he proved a capable and driven officer. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Model's regiment was ordered to the Western Front as part of the 5th Division. The following year, he won the Iron Cross, First Class for his actions in combat near Arras. His strong performance in the field garnered the attention of his superiors and he was selected for a posting with the German General Staff the following year. Leaving his regiment after the initial stages of the Battle of Verdun, Model attended the required staff courses.

Returning to the 5th Division, Model became adjutant of the 10th Infantry Brigade before commanding companies in the 52nd Regiment and the 8th Life Grenadiers. Elevated to captain in November 1917, he received the House Order of Hohenzollern with Swords for bravery in combat. The following year, Model served on the staff of the Guard Ersatz Division before finishing the conflict with the 36th Division. With the end of the war, Model applied to be part of the new, small Reichswehr. Already known as a gifted officer, his application was aided by a connection to General Hans von Seeckt who was tasked with organizing the postwar army. Accepted, he aided in putting down a Communist revolt in the Ruhr during 1920.

Walter Model - Interwar Years:

Settling into his new role, Model married Herta Huyssen in 1921. Four years later, he received a transfer to the elite 3rd Infantry Division where he aided in testing new equipment. Made a staff officer for the division in 1928, Model lectured widely on military topics and was promoted to major the following year. Advancing in the service, he was shifted to the Truppenamt, a cover organization for the German General staff, in 1930. Pushing hard to modernize the Reichswehr, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1932 and colonel in 1934. After service as a battalion commander with the 2nd Infantry Regiment, Model joined the General Staff in Berlin. Remaining until 1938, he then became chief of staff for IV Corps before being elevated to brigadier general a year later. Model was in this role when World War II began on September 1, 1939.

Walter Model - World War II:

Advancing as part of Colonel General Gerd von Rundstedt's Army Group South, IV Corps took part in the invasion of Poland that fall. Promoted to major general in April 1940, Model served as chief of staff for Sixteenth Army during the Battle of France in May and June. Again impressing, he earned command of the 3rd Panzer Division that November. An advocate of combined arms training, he pioneered the use of kampfgruppen which saw the formation of ad-hoc units consisting of armor, infantry, and engineers. As the Western Front quieted after the Battle of Britain, Model's division was shifted east for the invasion of the Soviet Union. Attacking on June 22, 1941, the 3rd Panzer Division served as part of Colonel General Heinz Guderian's Panzergruppe 2.

Walter Model - On the Eastern Front:

Surging forward, Model's troops reached the Dnieper River on July 4, a feat which won him the Knight's Cross, before executing a highly-successful crossing operation six days later. After breaking up Red Army forces near Roslavl, Model turned south as part of Guderian's thrust in support of German operations around Kiev. Spearheading Guderian's command, Model's division linked up with other German forces on September 16 to complete the encirclement of the city. Promoted to lieutenant general on October 1, he was given command of XLI Panzer Corps which was taking part in the Battle of Moscow. Arriving at his new headquarters, near Kalinin, on November 14, Model found the corps severely hampered by the increasingly cold weather and suffering from supply issues. Working tirelessly, Model restarted the German advance and reached a point 22 miles from the city before the weather forced a halt.

On December 5, the Soviets launched a massive counterattack which forced the Germans back from Moscow. In the fighting, Model was tasked with covering the Third Panzer Group's retreat to the Lama River. Skillful in defense, he performed admirably. These efforts were noticed and in early 1942 he received command of the German Ninth Army in the Rzhev salient and a promotion to general. Though in a precarious position, Model worked to strengthen his army's defenses as well as began a series of counterattacks against the enemy. As 1942 progressed, he succeeded in encircling and destroying the Soviet 39th Army. In March 1943, Model abandoned the salient as part of a wider German strategic effort to shorten their lines. Later that year, he argued that the offensive at Kursk should be delayed until newer equipment, such as the Panther tank, was available in large numbers.

Walter Model - Hitler's Fireman:

Despite Model's recommendation, the German offensive at Kursk began on July 5, 1943, with Model's Ninth Army attacking from the north. In heavy fighting, his troops were unable to make substantial gains against the strong Soviet defenses. When the Soviets counterattacked a few days later, Model was forced back, but again mounted a stiff defense in the Orel salient before withdrawing behind the Dnieper. At the end of September, Model left Ninth Army and took three months leave in Dresden. Becoming known as "Hitler's Fireman" for his ability to rescue bad situations, Model was ordered to take over Army Group North in late January 1944 after the Soviets lifted the Siege of Leningrad. Fighting numerous engagements, Model stabilized the front and conducted a fighting withdrawal to the Panther-Wotan Line. On March 1, he was elevated to field marshal.

With the situation in Estonia calmed, Model received orders to take over Army Group North Ukraine which was being driven back by Marshal Georgy Zhukov. Halting Zhukov in mid-April, he was shuttled along the front to take command of Army Group Centre on June 28. Facing immense Soviet pressure, Model was unable to hold Minsk or reestablish a cohesive line west of the city. Lacking troops for much of the fighting, he was finally able to halt the Soviets east of Warsaw after receiving reinforcements. Having effectively shored up the bulk of the Eastern Front during the first half of 1944, Model was ordered to France on August 17 and given command of Army Group B and made commander-in-chief of OB West (German Army Command in the West).

Walter Model - On the Western Front:

Having landed in Normandy on June 6, Allied forces shattered the German position in the region during Operation Cobra the following month. Arriving at the front, he initially wished to defend the area around Falaise, where a portion of his command was nearly encircled, but relented and was able to extricate many of his men. Though Hitler demanded that Paris be held, Model responded that it was not possible without an additional 200,000 men. As these were not forthcoming, the Allies liberated the city on August 25 as Model's forces retired towards the German frontier. Unable to adequately juggle the responsibilities of his two commands, Model willingly ceded OB West to von Rundstedt in September.

Establishing Army Group B's headquarters at Oosterbeek, Netherlands, Model was successful in limiting Allied gains during Operation Market-Garden in September and the fighting saw his men crush the British 1st Airborne Division near Arnhem. As the fall progressed, Army Group B came under attack from General Omar Bradley's 12th Army Group. In intense fighting in the Hürtgen Forest and Aachen, American troops were forced to pay a heavy cost for each advance as they sought to penetrate the German Siegfried Line (Westwall). During this time, Hitler presented von Rundstedt and Model with plans for a massive counter-offensive designed to take Antwerp and knock the western Allies out of the war. Not believing the plan to be feasible, the two unsuccessfully offered a more limited offensive option to Hitler.

As a result, Model moved forward with Hitler's original plan, dubbed Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine), on December 16. Opening the Battle of the Bulge, Model's command attacked through the Ardennes and initially made swift gains against the surprised Allied forces. Combating poor weather and acute shortages of fuel and ammunition, the offensive was spent by December 25. Pressing on, Model continued attacking until January 8, 1945, when he was forced to abandon the offensive. Over the next several weeks, Allied forces steadily reduced the bulge the operation had formed in the lines.

Walter Model - Final Days

Having angered Hitler for failing to capture Antwerp, Army Group B was directed to hold every inch of ground. Despite this proclamation, Model's command was steadily pushed back to and across the Rhine. The Allied crossing of the river was made easier when German forces failed to destroy the key bridge at Remagen. By April 1, Model and Army Group B were encircled the Ruhr by the US Ninth and Fifteenth Armies. Trapped, he received orders from Hitler to turn the region into a fortress and destroy its industries to prevent their capture. While Model ignored the latter directive, his attempts at defense failed as Allied forces cut Army Group B in two on April 15. Though asked to surrender by Major General Matthew Ridgway, Model refused.

Unwilling to surrender, but not wishing to throw away the lives of his remaining men, Model ordered Army Group B dissolved. After discharging his youngest and oldest men, he told the remainder that they could decide for themselves whether to surrender or attempt to break through the Allied lines. This move was denounced by Berlin on April 20, with Model and his men being branded as traitors. Already contemplating suicide, Model learned that the Soviets intended to prosecute him for alleged war crimes pertaining to concentration camps in Latvia. Departing his headquarters on April 21, Model attempted to seek death at the front with no success. Later in the day, he shot himself in a wooded area between Duisburg and Lintorf. Initially buried there, his body was moved to a military cemetery in Vossenack in 1955.

Selected Sources

  • World War II Database: Walter Model
  • History Learning: Walter Model
  • The Eastern Front: Walter Model
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