The future field marshal was born in 1887, destined for the Army because of his Junker background. When World War II started Manstein was Chief of Staff to General von Rundstedt, and it was he who drew up plans for the invasion of France. Hitler accepted them, the armies set out, and the invasion was successful from the start.
The main German assault was planned by Manstein to come through the woods of the Ardennes, including Panzer units to catch the French by surprise, crossing the River Meuse and going hell for leather for the channel coast, slicing up the French army on the way.
Manstein, happy with the success of his plans, was put in charge of the troops prepared to invade England, but for reasons best known to himself, Hitler never gave the necessary order. So Erich moved to East Prussia instead, in command of a Panzer corps. There can be no doubt that had the order come, Manstein’s armies would have invaded Britain and History would have been different. Britain had only the remains of the BEF in arms, plus the home guard, consisting of old men and small boys armed with pick helves. But Hitler hesitated, then changed direction towards the East and Soviet Russia. It was to be Operation Barbarossa after all. When the lunacy of Barbarossa (q.v.) began, Manstein’s soldiers invaded the Soviet Union with whom Germany had signed a non-aggression pact – advancing two hundred miles in 4 days until they reached the River Dvina, where they briefly rested before advancing towards Leningrad. Erich was promoted to command the 11th Army on the south-eastern Front, and from 1942 to 1944 was Commander-in-Chief in this area.
In the Crimea he defeated superior Soviet forces, captured nearly 500,000 prisoners and took Sebastapol after an exhausting and lengthy siege. The German 6th Army at Stalingrad badly needed help and he set out to aid it but was held up 30 miles short of his target, and had to organise an orderly withdrawal to the Dnieper. His counter-attack came in 1943, when he drove the Red Army back, and captured General Kharkov in the process. Eager to get on with it, Manstein asked permission of the Fuhrer to cut off the Russian salient at Kursk, but Hitler waited too long before making a decision; the Germans lost the initiative, so Manstein conducted yet another masterly withdrawal, this time to Poland.
Erich von Manstein’s chief tactic was controlled, orderly ‘retreats’ designed to bring the Russians nearer in one sector, to be successfully demolished by Panzer divisions in flanking attacks. But Hitler, who after all had only made it to corporal in The Great War, disagreed; when Erich wanted to do it again in 1944, he was contemptuously dismissed by the Fuhrer, muttering foolishly about ‘cowardice’. This was too much for von Manstein who retired to his Junkerish estates like Achilles in his tent.
The War ended, and he was arrested and faced a military court in Hamburg. Though it was perfectly obvious he had been a highly professional soldier fighting for his country not even known as a member of the Nazi Party, he was nevertheless sentenced to 18 months prison for ‘war crimes’ in 1949. He was released four years later on health grounds, and died in 1973 when he was eighty-six.
There is little doubt that historians agree that Erich von Manstein was the most able commander in the Second World War, perhaps, given his record of achievements, the best out of all the involved nations, including Montgomery, Marshall, Patton, Rommel, von Rundstedt etc. – the competition for this label is very hot indeed. The German General Staff wanted von Manstein to replace von Brauchitsch as early as 1941 as Commander-in-Chief, but Hitler’s loathing for the upper classes prevented him, luckily for Europe and the world, from putting Manstein in the best job.