THE general verdict among the German generals I interrogated in 1945 was that Field-Marshal von Manstein had proved the ablest commander in their Army, and the man they had most desired to become its Commander-in-Chief. It is very clear that he had a superb sense of operational possibilities and an equal mastery in the conduct of operations, together with a greater grasp of the potentialities of mechanised forces than any of the other commanders who had not been trained in the tank arm. In sum, he had military genius.
In the earlier stages of the war he exerted a great influence behind the scenes as a staff officer. Later he became an outstanding commander, and played a key part from 1941 to 1944 in the titanic struggle on the Russian front. His detailed account of the campaigns, pungent comments, and very significant revelations combine to make his book one of the most important and illuminating contributions to the history of World War II.
An extraordinary aspect of Erich von Manstein's career is that he is best known, outside Germany at any rate, in connexion with operations that took place when he was a relatively junior general, and in which he took no part. For his fame primarily arose from his influence on the design - or, rather, on the recasting of the plan for the German offensive of 1940 which broke through the Western Front, and led to the fall of France, with all its far-reaching results. The new plan, for making the decisive thrust through the hilly and wooded Ardennes - the line of least expectation - has come to be called the 'Manstein Plan'. That is tribute to what he did in evolving it and striving to win acceptance for it in place of the old plan, for a more direct attack through Belgium which would in all probability have resulted in a repulse.
At that time Manstein was Chief of Staff to Rundstedt's Army Group, and when his arguments for changing the plan became irritating to his superiors he was honourably pushed out of the way by promotion to command a reserve corps, of infantry, just before the new plan was adopted under Hitler's pressure - after hearing Manstein's arguments. The book provides much fresh information on the course of this operational controversy and the evolution of the plan that led to victory.
In the crucial opening stage of the offensive, which cut off the Allies' left wing and trapped it on the Channel coast, Manstein's corps merely had a follow-on part. But in the second and final stage it played a bigger role. Under his dynamic leadership, his infantry pushed on so fast on foot that they raced the armoured corps in the drive southward across the Somme and the Seine to the Loire.
After the collapse of France, Hitler hoped that Britain would make peace, but when disappointed he began, belatedly and half-heartedly, to make "preparations for a cross-Channel invasion. Manstein was entrusted with the task of leading the initial landing with his corps, which was moved to the Boulogne-Calais area for the purpose. His book has some striking comments on the problem, on the strategic alternatives, and on Hitler's turn away to deal with Russia.
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