Hitler’s fireman

The career and death of General Walter Model

Field Marshal Walter Model (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Field Marshal Walter Model (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Today’s article is about Walter Model, one of the most fascinating German generals of World War II. Making his name with daring offensives but going down in the history books as a defensive commander; loved by his troops but often hated by his fellow officers; regularly violating Hitler’s directives, but still counting the Führer as a close supporter; Model was a contradictory figure whose career is worth looking at.

Otto Moritz Walter Model (1891-1945) was unusual among German officers in that he was born into a middle-class family with no history of military service. Little is known about his early life as he burned his personal papers at the end of World War II, but we do know that he was ambitious and driven even as a young officer, but also blunt with few friends.

Model in the 1940s (Photo: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe)
Model in the 1940s (Photo: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe)

Model served, and was severely wounded, in World War I. He participated in the early stages of the Battle of Verdun, but was posted to General Staff soon after, which allowed him to avoid most of the carnage. The Treaty of Versailles that ended the war strictly limited the defeated German army to a total force of 100,00, of which 4,000 could be officers. This meant a massive downsizing, but Model was considered talented and promising enough that he could stay on. 

He became involved in the testing of new military technologies in the second half of the 1920s, and earned the nickname Armee Modernissimus (“the army modernization fanatic”) for his enthusiasm for innovation. He transferred to the Truppenamt (“Troop Office”), a cover organization for the secret rearmament of Germany, in 1930. He was promoted to major general in 1938, and caught Hitler’s eye.

1926 exercises organized by the Truppenamt (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
1926 exercises organized by the Truppenamt (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Hitler resented the old Prussian aristocracy that made up much of the German officer corps (and the feeling was often mutual), and he found a kindred spirit in middle-class Model. We don’t really know what Model though of Hitler, as he never discussed politics or the war at home. Some historians suggest he became a convinced Nazi; others claim he was a militant authoritarian who believed Hitler could save Germany and was personally loyal to the Führer, but remained apolitical and didn’t care much for Nazism; yet others say that he was primarily concerned with his own career and only used Hitler’s support as a stepping stone. Be that as it may, he also developed closer relations with propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and chief architect Albert Speer.
 
As commander of the 3rd Panzer Division from early 1940 onward, he became an early adopter of combined arms training: infantry would train together with tank crews, engineers with recon soldiers, etc. This experience later helped him in organizing Kampfgruppe (“battle group”) units, ad hoc forces pulled together from whatever troops were available; such groups were put to good use in the second half of the war, when Germany was forced on the back foot and had to make do with tattered formations, dwindling supplies and little reinforcements.

Example of a Kampfgruppe in North Africa (Photo: Georg Weber)
Example of a Kampfgruppe in North Africa (Photo: Georg Weber)

Model led the German crossing over the Dnieper River in Russia and the breakthrough across Soviet lines in July 1941. Spearheading a further advance and thrusting into the rear of the Soviet Southwestern Front (a “front” was the Soviet equivalent of an army group) earned him a command at the head of the XLI Panzer Corps, which soon became involved in the attack on Moscow. Model arrived at his new posting in mid-November, already a month and a half into the fighting for the Soviet capital.

Model (center) on the Eastern Front in 1941 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Model (center) on the Eastern Front in 1941 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

 The corps was tired, dealing with supply problems, and the harsh Russian winter was rendering much of the German equipment useless. Model threw himself into the task of reviving the unit’s morale. He started making regular visits to the frontline to get a closer look at the situation and to encourage his men. This made him popular with rank and file, even as fellow officers started to sour on him. He was generally blunt, tended to demand too much and too quickly, and, worst of all, he was in the habit of chewing out and humiliating his subordinate officers in public. The enlisted men also suffered from his erratic demands, but they still appreciated his tendency to run roughshod over bureaucratic red tape and his habit of swearing like a common soldier. They also knew he would do everything he could to accommodate their needs – later in the war, he used his authority to get priority railway transportation for his troops, and once had flamethrowers flown in by plane to help his men in urban combat.

Model during one of his many visits to the front (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Model during one of his many visits to the front (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Despite Model’s energy, tenacious Soviet defense and temperatures in the -2 to -40 °F (-20 to -40 °C) range doomed the assault on Moscow to failure. Russian defense turned into a massive counteroffensive, and Model was in charge of covering the retreat. His brusque, harsh commanding style became vital in preventing the orderly retreat from turning into a rout, and in preventing chronic congestions at critical crossroads – sometimes with a pistol in hand.
 
Previously known for being aggressive on the attack (and joining an infantry charge while waving a pistol on at least one occasion), Model quickly adapted to the defensive role. He noticed that Russian human wave attacks performed well against the traditional German tactics of forming strongpoints along the frontline with weaker sections between them. Instead, he spread out his men evenly so that no single point was stronger or weaker than the rest. Additionally, he centralized control over a division’s artillery. Standard German practice was to give each regiment its own artillery to call on whenever needed. By pooling all of the artillery under the division’s direct control, Model could direct much greater firepower against any single area. He also organized Kampfgruppen from whatever forces were at hand and kept them in reserve; once a Soviet attack was halted, he quickly launched a counterattack with these reserves. His tactics allowed him to exact a heavy price for every mile lost to the Soviets.

Model with a machine gun crew (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Model with a machine gun crew (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Model was placed in charge of the faltering 9th Army in the Rzhev Salient in January 1942. He had a lengthy briefing with Hitler and Franz Halder, the chief of staff of Army High Command, before his departure. After the meeting, Hitler allegedly turned to Halder and commented: "Did you see that eye? I trust that man to do it, but I wouldn't want to serve under him."
 
Model’s first action with the 9th Army was to counterattack and cut off and surround the Soviet 39th Army. He used the breathing space he gained to stabilize the front and make the Soviets pay dearly for every advance they made. A year of fighting around Rzhev earned him the moniker “the Lion of Defense.” During this time period, he was informed on one occasion that Hitler insisted on keeping some units he was planning to use in reserve. Incensed, he drove to an airfield in the middle of a blizzard, took a plane to East Prussia, and demanded a personal audience with Hitler. After trying and failing to convince him to release the units, he finally glared at the Führer, bluntly asking “Mein Führer, who commands Ninth Army, you or I?" Hitler was not used to this tone of voice, but he eventually relented and released the units to Model’s command.

Model with a StuG III crew on the Eastern Front (Photo: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe)
Model with a StuG III crew on the Eastern Front (Photo: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe)

On another occasion, he was making a reconnaissance flight over the front, when a Soviet sniper took a potshot at the plane, hitting him and puncturing his lung. After a lifesaving operation and two weeks of convalescence, he was back in action. 

One of his defensive innovations went directly against Hitler’s order. Hitler insisted on holding onto every inch of ground to the last, and forbade the construction of secondary lines of defense on the grounds that they would encourage soldiers to retreat. Model did not hesitate to build such fallback defenses. 

Model on the Eastern Front (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Model on the Eastern Front (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

It should be noted that even though Model might not necessarily have been a zealous Nazi, his activities were not free of the wartime atrocities that were so tragically common on the Eastern Front. Anti-partisan sweeps ended up with the death of roughly 3,000 Russians, the vast majority of whom were unarmed. Model also had over 15,000 Russian men deported, wells poisoned and 137 villages in one region alone razed to the ground in a scorched earth policy.

German soldiers passing through a burning village on the Eastern Front (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
German soldiers passing through a burning village on the Eastern Front (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Germany attempted to turn the tide in the east one final time in the summer of 1943 with the Battle of Kursk, a massive armored attack on Soviet forces. Some German generals, including Erich von Manstein and Günther von Kluge, urged Hitler to attack as soon as possible, in May, before the Russians could finish building their defenses. Some others, such as Heinz Guderian, felt the attack was a waste of resources, since even a victory would come at the price of heavy tank losses that Germany just couldn’t afford. Hitler wanted to delay the battle until the new Panther and Tiger tanks and Ferdinand tank destroyers could be transported to the front. Model’s own views are unknown, but he was probably skeptical, as he pointed out that his Russian counterpart, Konstantin Rokossovsky of the Central Front (Read our earlier article – The man with iron will and metal teeth), was not only dug in, but also had twice as many men, tanks and artillery. Long story short, Model’s assault on the northern flank, and the entire operation, was a failure, and the German army was forced to continue its retreat.

Model near Kursk (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Model was sent to Army Group North, which had just been beaten back at Leningrad, in January 1944. The army group had been broken into three parts with no clear frontline. Model established a new doctrine which he called the Sword and Shield. Ground would be ceded to the Soviets temporarily (the “shield”), only to be retaken by an immediate counterattack “(the “sword”). This idea appealed to Hitler, who hated the idea of retreat, but who had no forces left to send to Model. In actual fact, the Sword and Shield never really worked. Lost ground usually remained lost, but the counterattack allowed Model to slow down the Soviets and retreat to defensive lines in Estonia with most of his forces intact without too much interference by Hitler. Some historians have suggested that the doctrine was never anything more than just a ploy – something Model could “sell” to the Führer while he did the reasonable thing and retreated. Whether that’s true or not, Model was promoted to Field Marshal in March 1944. 

Model discussing the situation with an SS-Sturmbannführer in Tarnopol in the Eastern Front (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Model discussing the situation with an SS-Sturmbannführer in Tarnopol in the Eastern Front (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Over the spring and summer of 1944, Model was shuffled back and forth between various army groups along the Easter Front, always sent to wherever the situation was the direst. As soon as he stabilized the situation, he was then whisked away to the next crisis spot. For a short while, he was even commanding two army groups simultaneously. This period earned him the nickname Hitler’s Fireman for always rushing to the worst spot. 

Model with artillery officers at a horse-drawn field kitchen on the Eastern Front (Photo: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe)
Model with artillery officers at a horse-drawn field kitchen on the Eastern Front (Photo: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe)

He was drawn back from the Eastern Front for good in August 1944 and sent to Western Europe to stem the seemingly unstoppable tide of the Western Allies. His predecessor at the head of Oberkommando West, Günther von Kluge, had just been recalled to Berlin due to an investigation into his involvement with the July 20 plot on Hitler’s life. (Read our earlier article – Valkyrie) Kluge committed suicide on the way.
 
Model’s first task was to rescue the 7th Army and the 5th Panzer Army from the Falaise Pocket
(Read our earlier article – The Falaise pocket), where they were about to be completely surrounded. Model used his clout with Hitler to get permission to retreat. The retreat came literally in the last possible moment. It was bloody and cost the Germans most of their armor and heavy materiel, but the majority of the men made it out and lived to fight another day.

A road congested with destroyed German equipment in the Falaise Pocket (Photo: Press services of the 1st Polish Armoured Division)
A road congested with destroyed German equipment in the Falaise Pocket (Photo: Press services of the 1st Polish Armoured Division)

With Normandy lost and Paris liberated by the Allies, Model established his new headquarters in Oosterbeek near the city of Arnhem in the Netherlands. If those names sound familiar to you, that’s for a reason: it was one of the locations where British paratroopers landed on September 17 as part of Operation Market Garden, the attempt to cut across the Netherlands and get to Germany before the winter. When Model was first informed of the event, he believed the paratroopers’ mission was to capture him. He persisted in this belief for a while even after captured British documents were brought to him. It’s been speculated that he refused to accept the truth because he perceived the real Allied plan as too daring and inconsistent with the usual caution of recently promoted Field Marshal Montgomery. Operation Market Garden was quickly crushed by Model and German troops who were reorganizing in the area after escaping from Falaise.

Model (far left) with other senior officers making plans during Operation Market Garden (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Model (far left) with other senior officers making plans during Operation Market Garden (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Another major battle started developing even as Market Garden was underway. Some 90 miles (145 km) to the south, along the Belgian-German border, U.S. troops began to enter the Hürtgen Forest which was held by dug-in German forces. (Read our earlier article – America’s bloody blunder in Europe) Model, fresh from his victory in the Netherlands, happened to be in the nearby city of Cologne, organizing a wargame for staff officers. The theme of the game was a hypothetical Allied attack in the Hürtgen Forest. Model exercised less direct control over this battle, but he did follow the events, tailoring the ongoing wargame to match the news coming in from the frontline.

Model visiting a Volksgrenadier division at Aachen, near the German border (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Model visiting a Volksgrenadier division at Aachen, near the German border (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The American advance into Hürtgen was stymied, and the battle became a protracted three-month slog. By the time it was winding down in mid-December, another big battle was looming on the horizon: the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last major attempt to throw back the Western Allies.
Like before the Battle of Kursk, German leadership was divided on how to conduct the operation. Hitler’s grand but unrealistic plan was to separate British and American forces, advance all the way to Antwerp and retake it, and encircle and destroy the entire British 21st Army Group. His more sensible generals, including Model and Gert von Rundstedt, advocated a smaller plan that only advanced to the Meuse River.

Model (left) with Gert von Rundstedt and Hans Krebs, making plans for the Battle of the Bulge (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Model (left) with Gert von Rundstedt and Hans Krebs, making plans for the Battle of the Bulge (Photo: Bundesarchiv) 

Hitler’s idea naturally won out, and Model, as the leader of Army Group B, had no choice but to attempt the impossible. He was fully aware that he had no realistic chance of winning. On one occasion, a colonel complained to him that a parachute drop that was part of the operation only had a 10% chance of success. He snapped and replied: “Well, then it is necessary to make the attempt, since the entire offensive has no more than a 10 percent chance of success. It must be done, since this offensive is the last remaining chance to conclude the war favorably.” As we know from history, a Nazi miracle failed to happen, and the Battle of the Bulge ended with an Allied victory.
 
This final defeat shook Hitler’s long-lasting faith in Model. The Führer issued an order making Army Group B directly responsible to him, not to Model. By April 1945, the army group was in the Ruhr Valley, Germany’s industrial heartland, completely surrounded by the Allies. Hitler ordered the force to destroy all infrastructure to deny it from falling into Allied hands, and to fight to the last man. Model ignored the order. General Matthew Ridgway
(Read our earlier article – The American war hero who also saved Korea) called for Model’s surrender in mid-April. Model refused, considering himself still bound by his oath to Hitler and by his honor as a German general. He did, however, want to save the lives of his men. He decided to formally dissolve Army Group B: the youngest and oldest soldiers were discharged, so now they counted as civilians, while the others were free to surrender or try to break out as they saw fit.

An American soldier watching thousands of Germans captured in the Ruhr Pocket (Photo: U.S. Army)
An American soldier watching thousands of Germans captured in the Ruhr Pocket (Photo: U.S. Army)

Model did what he could for his men, but he still had to face the personal consequences of capture. Shortly before dissolving the army group, he spoke to his staff, asking: “Has everything been done to justify our actions in the light of history? What can there be left for a commander in defeat? In antiquity they took poison.”
 
He knew that the Soviets had already indicted him for war crimes, specifically for the death of 577,000 Latvians who were taken to concentration camps, and the deportation of 175,000 others. On April 21, 1945, he went out into a forest alone and shot himself in the head.

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WWII veteran, Jack Appel celebrated by the visitors of the Normandy American Cemetery (Photo: Author’s own)

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