Otto Moritz Walter Model (German pronunciation: [ˈmoːdəl]) (24 January 1891 – 21 April 1945) was a German general and later field marshal during World War II. He is noted for his defensive battles in the latter half of the war, mostly on the Eastern Front but also in the west, and for his close association with Adolf Hitler and Nazism. He has been called the Wehrmacht’s best defensive tactician.
Although he was a hard-driving, aggressive panzer commander early in the war, Model became best known as a practitioner of defensive warfare. His success at the head of the 9th army in the defensive battles of 1941–1942 determined his future career path.
Model first came to Hitler’s attention before World War II, but their relationship did not become especially close until 1942. His tenacious style of fighting and aggressive personality won him plaudits from Hitler, who considered him one of his best field commanders and repeatedly tasked him with retrieving desperate situations. However, their relationship had broken down by the end of the war, after Model was defeated at the Battle of the Bulge.
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Early life and career
Model’s decision to burn all his personal papers at the end of World War II means relatively little is known about his early years. Born to a music teacher in Genthin, Saxony, he belonged to a lower-middle class, non-military family. He entered the army officer cadet school (Kriegsschule) in Neisse (now Nysa, Poland) in 1908, where he was an unexceptional student, and was commissioned a lieutenant (Leutnant) in the 52nd Infantry Regiment von Alvensleben in 1910. He made few friends among his fellow officers and soon became known for his ambition, drive, and blunt outspokenness. These were characteristics that would mark his entire career.
World War I
In World War I, the 52nd Infantry formed part of the 5th Division, fighting on the Western Front. Model served as the adjutant of his regiment’s 1st Battalion. In May, 1915, he was severely wounded near Arras, and in October he won the Iron Cross, First Class. His deeds brought him to the attention of his divisional commander, who despite misgivings about his “uncomfortable subordinate” recommended Model for a posting on the German General Staff. Among other things, this meant that Model took part in only the initial stages of the Battle of Verdun and escaped the carnage of the Battle of the Somme, to which his division was committed in his absence.
Model sailed through the abbreviated staff officers’ course and returned to the 5th Division as adjutant of the 10th Infantry Brigade, followed by postings as a company commander in both the 52nd Infantry and the 8th Life Grenadiers. He was promoted to captain (Hauptmann) in November, 1917, and in 1918 was assigned to the staff of the Guard Ersatz Division, which fought in the German Spring Offensive of that year. He ended the war with the 36th Reserve Division.
By the end of the war, Model had gained a reputation as a capable officer with great potential. Early on in his military career, Model had written a book on the Prussian general August Neidhardt von Gneisenau. In addition, he was already known to Hans von Seeckt, head of the slimmed-down Reichswehr, from his staff postings during the war; and he was equipped with an excellent reference from Major-General Franz von Rantau, commander of the 36th Reserve Division. It was thus no surprise that he was one of the 4,000 officers retained in the Reichswehr. Model generally kept away from politics in the chaotic period that marked the birth of the Weimar Republic, although as an army officer he was involved in the bloody suppression of the 1920 communist uprising in the Ruhr.
The next year he married Herta Huyssen; they would in time have three children, Christa, Hella, and Hansgeorg. Model hated war stories and never discussed politics or the war with his wife.
In 1925, Model was posted to the 3rd Infantry Division, an elite formation of the Reichswehr and one which was heavily involved in testing the technical innovations of that era. From 1928, he lectured in tactics and war studies for the basic General Staff training course, and in 1930 he was transferred to the Training Branch of the Truppenamt. He became known both for his enthusiastic support of military modernisation and for his complete lack of tact. In 1938, the year he became a brigadier general (Generalmajor), he led a testfiring of the Mörser 18 on mocked-up Czech fortifications which did not impress Hitler. As many army officers at the time, Model was a supporter of the National Socialist government; his time in Berlin also brought him into contact with senior members of the Nazi regime. Closer relationships with Goebbels and Speer developed during the war.
World War II
Model spent the first year of World War II as a chief of staff, first of IV Corps during the invasion of Poland, and then of Sixteenth Army during the Battle of France. He was promoted to major general (Generalleutnant) in April 1940, and earned his first senior command posting in November that year, when he was assigned to lead the 3rd Panzer Division. He immediately proceeded to ignore all formalities of organization and command, which endeared him to his men and exasperated his staff—who often had to clean up the mess he left behind. He also instituted a combined arms training programme where his men were thrown together in various ad-hoc groupings regardless of their parent unit: tankers would train with infantry, engineers with recon units, and so on. Model thus anticipated by some months the regular German use of Kampfgruppen in World War II; while this would become routine later on, it was still not a universal practice in the Wehrmacht in late 1940 and early 1941.
Invasion of the Soviet Union
For Operation Barbarossa, the 3rd Panzer Division was assigned to the XXIV Panzer Corps, itself part of the Second Panzer Group, commanded by Heinz Guderian. The campaign opened on 22 June 1941, with Guderian urging his divisions forward at breakneck speed. This suited Model, and by 4 July, his advance elements leading the panzer group’s charge had reached the Dnieper, an exploit that earned him the Knight’s Cross. Crossing it in strength was another matter, however, as the Red Army was prepared to defend the river line. 3rd Panzer’s vanguard was thrown back by the Soviet 21st Army, and it was not until 10 July that the Germans were in a position to force a crossing. For this operation, Model, now reinforced with additional troops, reorganized his command into three groups: an infantry-heavy force that would cross the river and establish a bridgehead, a mobile armoured group that would pass through the bridgehead and continue the advance, and a fire support group containing nearly all his artillery. The plan worked so successfully that the river crossing cost scarcely any casualties. There followed two weeks of hard fighting to defend the panzer group’s flank, during which he was assigned the 1st Cavalry Division in addition to 3rd Panzer as Gruppe Model, and then an attack to break up Soviet forces massing near Roslavl.
After the fall of Smolensk, Hitler ordered a change of direction, and Guderian’s panzer group turned south into Ukraine. Its objective was to trap the Soviet forces defending Kiev, an unsupported advance of 275 km (172 mi), and again 3rd Panzer would form the spearhead. From 24 August to 14 September Model conducted a lightning thrust into the rear of the Soviet Southwestern Front, in which he impressed on his men that speed was everything. The maneuver reached its conclusion when 3rd Panzer made contact with the 16th Panzer Division from Army Group South at Lokhvitsa. While it would take several more days to eliminate all resistance, the trap around Kiev had been closed.
Throughout the opening stages of Barbarossa, Model had driven his men hard, achieving the rapid pace of advance that Guderian called for. He had taken great risks—at one point 3rd Panzer had only 10 tanks operational—but his audacity and improvisational skills (and the tactical ineptness of the Russians) had brought him rich rewards.
Shortly thereafter Model was promoted to general of panzer troops (lieutenant general) and placed in command of XLI Panzer Corps, which was embroiled in Operation Typhoon, the assault on Moscow. The attack had begun on 2 October 1941, and Model arrived at his new command on 14 November in the midst of the battle.
The corps, part of Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s Third Panzer Group, was located at Kalinin, 160 km (100 mi) northwest of Moscow. It was worn out, at the end of a long and tenuous supply line (Model had been promoted on 28 October, and needed two weeks just to get to Kalinin), and the cold weather was starting to hamper the Germans. Nevertheless morale remained high, and the final push towards Moscow began shortly after his arrival. Model was a whirlwind of energy, touring the front and exhorting his troops to greater efforts; he also ran roughshod over the niceties of protocol and chains of command, and in general left his staff trailing in his wake. By 5 December, XLI Panzer Corps’ 6th Panzer Division had reached Iohnca, just 35 km (22 mi) from the Kremlin. There, the advance stopped, as the winter took hold. Temperatures dropped to 20 to 40 °C below zero, weapons and vehicles froze solid, and the Germans were forced to call a halt to offensive operations.
Just as the Germans had made that decision, the Soviet Kalinin, Western and Southwestern Fronts launched a massive counteroffensive, aimed at driving Army Group Centre back from Moscow. The attacks were especially strong against Third Panzer Group, which had made some of the closest penetrations to the city. In three weeks of confused, savage fighting, Reinhardt extricated his troops from potential encirclement and fell back to the Lama River line. Placed in charge of covering the retreat, Model’s harsh, almost brutal style of leadership now paid dividends as panic threatened to infect the German columns. On several occasions he restored order at a congested crossroads with a drawn pistol, but the retreat never became a rout.
During this period, Model noticed that the Soviet attacks—made Cannon Fodder attacks and with poor tactical coordination—tended to be most successful when the Germans employed a strongpoint defence instead of a continuous line. Moreover, Soviet logistics were still inadequate to support a fast-moving battle; thus even if a gap was made, it did not automatically mean a crisis. Therefore he ordered his men to spread themselves out, which exploited his corps’ advantage in artillery over the Soviets, while he created small mechanized kampfgruppen to deal with any breakthrough. His tactics were successful, if costly (by the end of 1941, 6th Panzer Division mustered 1,000 men, including all frontline, support and staff personnel). He would continue to advocate similar tactics throughout the remainder of his career.
Model’s success in holding his front had not gone unnoticed, and in January 1942 he was placed in charge of the Ninth Army occupying the Rzhev salient, leapfrogging at least 15 more senior commanders in Army Group Centre alone. Ironically, although he felt great displeasure towards officers bearing the red trouser-stripe of the General Staff, the fact is that he had valuable experience as a division and corps commander and as chief of staff to both a corps and an army.
There is a popular anecdote concerning his arrival at army headquarters in Sychevka on 18 January. He swept into the operations room without ceremony, examined the situation map while polishing his monocle, and finally pronounced the army’s predicament to be “rather a mess”. When informed by Lieutenant Colonel Blaurock that his current plans extended no further than pushing the Russians away from the rail line, he demanded a counterattack with the final goal of “strike the Russian flank and catch them in a strangle-hold”. When the astounded Blaurock inquired “And what, Herr General, have you brought us for this operation?”, Model looked him severely and responded “Myself!” before bursting into laughter.
Just prior to his departure for the front, the new army commander had held lengthy consultations with both Hitler and Halder. They impressed upon Model that great firmness would be necessary to save the army from destruction, and his vehement tone in reply so impressed Hitler that upon the General’s departure he remarked: “Did you see that eye? I trust that man to do it, but I wouldn’t want to serve under him”. When Model took over, his sector was in a shambles: the Kalinin Front had broken through the line and was threatening the Moscow-Smolensk railway, the main supply route for Army Group Centre. Despite the danger, he realized the precarious position the attackers themselves were in and immediately counterattacked, cutting off the Soviet 39th Army. In the ferocious battles that followed, he repelled multiple Soviet attempts to relieve their trapped soldiers, the last being in February. He then squeezed out the pocket at his leisure, in a series of operations culminating in mid-July. For this, he was awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross and promoted to general (Generaloberst).
Having restored Ninth Army’s front, Model set about holding it. His defensive doctrine, which combined conventional thinking with his own tactical innovations, was based on the following principles:
- Up-to-date intelligence, based on frontline sources and reconnaissance instead of relying on reports from rear-area analysts.
- A continuous front line, no matter how thinly held.
- Tactical reserves to halt any imminent breakthrough.
- Centralized artillery command and control. Since the end of World War I, German divisions had had their artillery spread out amongst their component regiments, which made it difficult to bring the maximum weight of fire to bear on any one point. Model reorganized his artillery into special battalions under the direct control of the divisional and corps commanders.
- Multiple static lines of defence, to delay the enemy’s advance. Hitler had in fact forbidden the construction of multiple lines, saying that soldiers would be tempted to abandon their current line in favour of falling back to the next; Model ignored this order.
- Using these tactics, he would successfully defend his front throughout 1942 and into 1943, despite giving up troops and vehicles for the battles further south. In this time he fought off several major Soviet offensives; one of these, codenamed Operation Mars by the Soviets, has been described as Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s worst defeat of the war. It all added to his reputation as a “lion of defence”.
Ninth Army eventually evacuated the salient in Operation Buffalo (Büffel) in March 1943, as part of a general shortening of the line. Large-scale anti-partisan sweeps were carried out in the weeks before the operation (the army’s sector was a hotbed for partisan activity), in which an estimated 3,000 Russians were killed, the great majority of whom were unarmed. The withdrawal itself took two weeks, with minimal casualties or disruption in a move of an Army group numbering approximately 300,000 men, 100 tanks and 400 artillery pieces. In its wake, Model personally ordered the deportation of all male civilians, wells poisoned, and at least two dozen villages razed in a scorched earth policy to hinder the Russian Army’s follow up in the area. In the same month, he received the Swords to his Knight’s Cross, and Ninth Army received orders to move into Orel.
Kursk and Orel
On 5 July 1943 Model led the northern assault on Kursk during Operation Citadel, a plan which had caused great controversy within the German high command. Günther von Kluge and Erich von Manstein, commanding Army Groups Centre and South respectively, had originally urged that the salient be attacked in May, before the Soviets could prepare their defences. Others, including Heinz Guderian, felt that attacking was unnecessary, and the Germans should instead wait for the Soviets to launch their own offensive before defeating it. Model was also dubious about attacking, pointing out that Konstantin Rokossovsky’s Central Front was strongly dug in and outnumbered him two to one in men, tanks and artillery. Rather than conclude that the offensive be called off, however, he said it should be postponed until he could receive further reinforcements, in particular the new Panther tanks and Ferdinand tank destroyers.
Model’s true opinion on the value of the offensive remains unclear. Von Manstein took his recommendation at face value, while Guderian said that he was categorically against attacking. It has similarly been suggested that Model in fact hoped to scuttle the operation, by causing it to be delayed until the Soviets launched their own attack.
Model’s assault was a failure, as Ninth Army quickly became enmeshed in the elaborate Soviet fortifications. If he had hoped to gain an advantage by waiting for reinforcements, he had made a critical error: the Red Army’s strength in the salient was in fact growing much faster than that of the attacking force. Nor did his tactical plan of attack meet with great success. Having less armour and more artillery than von Manstein in the south, and fearing that the deep Soviet defences would stall an armour-heavy attack (the hallmark of the German Blitzkrieg), he decided to use his infantry to breach Rokossovsky’s line before unleashing his armour. It did not work. The Germans took heavy losses to advance less than 12 km (8 mi) in seven days, and were unable to break through to open ground. Model threw his armour into the fray, but with little effect beyond incurring more casualties. (As mitigating factors, the Soviets had concentrated more of their strength facing Model in the north; and Rokossovsky had correctly anticipated where the attack would come, defending that sector heavily. Model’s use of infantry assaults also meant his losses in armour were lower than von Manstein’s.)
Prior to Kursk, Model had anticipated the possibility of a Soviet attack into the Orel salient, and had (without OKH’s knowledge) constructed extensive defensive works to meet such an attack. Following the stalling of his advance, the Soviet counteroffensive, Operation Kutuzov, duly opened on 12 July. It involved not just Rokossovsky’s Central Front, but also the Bryansk and Western Fronts, a greater concentration of forces than Model had assaulted in Operation Citadel. For the battle, von Kluge placed him in command of Second Panzer Army in addition to Ninth Army—again, a larger total force than he had commanded in Citadel. The Soviet preponderance of strength was such that Stavka expected it to take only 48 hours to reach Orel, splitting the German forces into three parts; instead, the battle ended three weeks later with Model’s orderly withdrawal from the salient. An idea of the scale of the fighting compared to Citadel can be gained from the combined casualty lists for Second Panzer and Ninth Armies: from 1 to 10 July, the Germans took 21,000 casualties, and from 11 to 31 July, 62,000. Despite these losses he had inflicted similarly heavy casualties on the three Red Army Fronts, shortened the line, and avoided annihilation. His reputation thus survived the failure of Citadel.
After the loss of Orel, Model withdrew to the Dnieper as the Soviets went on the offensive from Smolensk in the north to Rostov in the south. He was relieved of command of the Ninth Army at the end of September, and took the opportunity to go on three months’ leave in Dresden with his family. It was the last Christmas he would spend at home.
Model’s relief was not a sign that he had lost Hitler’s confidence, but rather that he had gained it: the Führer wanted him available should another emergency break out need his attention. Thus on 29 January 1944, he was urgently sent to command Army Group North, which two weeks earlier had seen its stranglehold on Leningrad broken by the Volkhov, Leningrad and 2nd Baltic Fronts. The situation was dire (a circumstance that Model would come to be familiar with): two of the three corps of the German Eighteenth Army had been shattered, and contact lost with the III SS Panzer Corps defending Narva.
The army group’s previous commander, Georg von Küchler, had pleaded for permission to withdraw to the Panther Line in Estonia, which was still only half-completed at that stage. Model immediately cracked down on such talk, instituting a new policy he called Shield and Sword (Schild und Schwert). Under this doctrine, ground would only temporarily be ceded, to gather reserves for an immediate counterattack that would drive the Soviets back and relieve pressure on other areas of the front. These statements of aggressive intent won over Hitler and OKH, who had no substantial reserves to send him but were still unwilling to lose territory. Historians have since debated their significance; some claim that Shield and Sword was Hitler’s invention, while others say they were a calculated ploy by Model to disguise his true intent—to pull back to the Panther Line.
Regardless, the “temporary” loss of ground usually became permanent, as Model conducted a fighting withdrawal to the Panther Line. He delegated responsibility for the Narva front to Otto Sponheimer commanding Army Detachment Narva, while he concentrated on extricating Eighteenth Army from its predicament. Without OKH’s notice or approval, he constructed a series of interim defensive lines to cover its retreat, slowing down and inflicting heavy losses on the pursuing Russians in the process.
By March, the withdrawal was complete. His forces were mostly intact, but the fighting had been fierce: his Shield and Sword counterattacks alone had cost him some 10,000–12,000 men. These counterattacks usually failed to recover ground, but they kept the Soviets off-balance and won Model time to pull his units back. They also allowed him to say to Hitler that he was pursuing an aggressive approach, even as the front moved steadily to the west.
On 1 March Model was promoted to field marshal (Generalfeldmarschall), the youngest in the Wehrmacht. His meteoric rise from colonel to field marshal had taken just six years.
Ukraine and Poland
On 30 March Model was placed in command of Army Group North Ukraine in Galicia, which was withdrawing under heavy pressure from Zhukov’s 1st Ukrainian Front. He replaced von Manstein, who had fallen out of favour with Hitler; despite von Manstein’s previous victories, the Führer wanted someone whom he anticipated would be unyielding in defence.
On 28 June Model was sent to rescue Army Group Centre, which had been torn apart by Operation Bagration, the Soviet offensive in Belorussia. The Ninth Army (Model’s old command) and Fourth Army were trapped, and the Soviets were about to liberate Minsk. Despite the catastrophic situation, Model believed that he could still hold Minsk, but this would require Fourth Army to break out of its pocket, and reinforcements to counterattack the Soviet advance. The reinforcements in turn could only be obtained by pulling back, thus shortening the line and freeing up troops. The consensus is that the German position was doomed regardless of what Model could have done, but Hitler refused to sanction either Fourth Army’s escape or a general withdrawal until it was too late.
Minsk was liberated by the Soviet 1st and 3rd Belorussian Fronts on 3 July, but Model still hoped to re-establish the front to the west of the city, with the aid of divisions from Army Groups North and North Ukraine. However, German strength was unequal to the task, and he had been driven out of Vilnius and Baranovichi by 12 July. At the same time, the 1st Ukrainian Front (now commanded by Ivan Konev) and the 1st Belorussian Front’s left wing (which had been uncommitted thus far) opened up a fresh offensive against Army Group North Ukraine. In this battle the First Panzer Army managed to hold the line east of Lvov using Model’s defensive tactics, but was forced to retreat when the Fourth Panzer Army, weakened by the steady flow of units to Army Group Centre, was unable to stem the Soviet penetrations of its front. Model stopped the Red Army’s advance just short of Warsaw, after Hitler finally consented to release four experienced and fresh panzer divisions to him (3rd SS Panzer, 5th SS Panzer, Hermann Göring and Grossdeutschland). He was assisted in this by the Soviets themselves, who paused their offensive to regroup and resupply, and allowed the Germans to crush the non-communist Warsaw uprising.
At various times in 1944, Model commanded each of the three major army groups on the Eastern Front, and for a short period in the middle of the year was commanding both Army Groups Centre and North Ukraine simultaneously. He therefore came closer than anyone else in the Wehrmacht to effective command of the entire theatre.
On 17 August 1944, Model received from Hitler Diamonds to go with his Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves and Swords, in reward for his shoring up of the Eastern Front. Simultaneously, he was transferred to the west, replacing von Kluge as commander-in-chief of Army Group B and OB West. The front in Normandy had collapsed after nearly two months of severe fighting, the U.S. Third Army was driving for the Seine, and an Army group was in danger of being annihilated in the Falaise pocket.
Model’s first order was that Falaise be defended, which did not impress his staff. However he quickly changed his mind, convincing Hitler to authorize the immediate escape of the German Seventh Army and Panzer Group Eberbach—something that von Kluge, with his limited political clout, had not been able to do. He was thus able to rescue a high proportion of the units involved, albeit at the cost of nearly all their armour and heavy materiel. When Hitler demanded that Paris be held, Model replied that he could do so, but only if given an extra 200,000 men and several panzer divisions—an act that has been described as naïveté by some, and canny bargaining by others. The reinforcements were not forthcoming, and the city’s liberation took place on 25 August. Meanwhile, Model fell back to the German border.
By early September, Model was finding the task of juggling his responsibilities at Army Group B and OB West increasingly difficult, in the face of Allied air superiority and his own predilection for roaming the front lines. Thus he was happy to relinquish OB West in that month to Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt whilst he retained command of Army Group B, a post he would keep until the army group’s final dissolution in April 1945.
Retreat to Germany
After the fighting in Normandy, Model established his headquarters at Oosterbeek, near Arnhem in the Netherlands, where he set about the massive task of rebuilding Army Group B. On 17 August 1944 Model was appointed to the temporary command of OB West upon von Kluge’s recall to Berlin to answer charges that he had involvement with the failed July 20 plot (von Kluge would commit suicide en route). Model retained command of OB West for eighteen days before Hitler appointed Gerd von Rundstedt as permanent replacement for von Kluge, allowing Model to return to the command of Army Group B.
On 17 September, his lunch was interrupted when the British 1st Airborne Division dropped into the town launching Operation Market Garden, the Allied attempt to capture the bridges on the lower Rhine, Maas and Waal. Model initially thought they were trying to capture him and his staff, but the soon apparent scale of the assault quickly convinced him otherwise. When he perceived what the Allies’ real objective was, he ordered the II SS Panzer Corps into action. The corps, containing the 9th SS Panzer and 10th SS Panzer Divisions refitting after Normandy, had been overlooked by Allied intelligence. Whilst still seriously understrength, it was composed of veterans and was a deadly threat to lightly equipped paratroopers. 9th SS Panzer took on the British at Arnhem, while the 10th moved south to defend the bridge at Nijmegen.
Model believed that the situation represented not just a threat, but also an opportunity to counterattack and possibly clear the Allies out of the southern Netherlands. Towards this end, he forbade SS General Willi Bittrich and SS Lieutenant General Heinz Harmel, commanding II SS Panzer Corps and 10th SS Panzer respectively, from destroying the Nijmegen bridge. With the exception of this tactical error, Model is considered to have fought an outstanding battle and handed the Allies a sharp defeat. The bridge at Arnhem was held and the 1st Airborne Division destroyed, dashing the Allies’ hopes for a foothold over the Rhine before the end of the year.
Arnhem restored much of Model’s self-confidence, which had been shaken by the experience of Normandy. From September to December he fought another Allied thrust to a standstill, this time by Omar Bradley’s U.S. 12th Army Group into the Hürtgen Forest and Aachen. While he interfered less in the day-to-day movements of his units than at Arnhem, he still kept himself fully informed on the situation, slowing the Allies’ progress, inflicting heavy casualties and taking full advantage of the fortifications of the Westwall, known to the Allies as the Siegfried Line.
The Hürtgen Forest cost the U.S. First Army at least 33,000 killed and incapacitated, including both combat and noncombat losses; German casualties were between 12,000 and 16,000. Aachen eventually fell on 22 October, again at high cost to the U.S. Ninth Army. The Ninth Army’s push to the Roer River fared no better, and did not manage to cross the river or wrest control of its dams from the Germans. Hürtgen was so costly that it has been called an Allied “defeat of the first magnitude”, the credit for which has been personally assigned to Model’s leadership.
Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein
Following the Wehrmacht’s victory at Operation Market Garden, Hitler decided to launch a last-ditch offensive in the West aiming to catch the Anglosphere forces by surprise, with the objective of splitting their front, inflicting heavy casualties upon the Americans whose martial quality he doubted, and re-capturing Antwerp which was now acting as their supply port. He anticipated that this operation, codenamed Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine), if successful would cripple their campaign in France and the Low Countries in 1944, break the United States of America’s will to continue with the conflict, and thereby bring the British Empire to the negotiation table, leaving Germany free to concentrate on fighting the now rapidly advancing forces of the Soviet Union to the East.
Model, along with all the other commanders involved, believed this aim was unachievable given the resources available to the Wehrmacht on the West Front at this late point in the war. At the same time, both he and von Rundstedt felt that the purely defensive posture as had been adopted since retirement from Normandy could only delay Germany’s defeat, not prevent it. Thus he prepared Operation Herbstnebel, a less ambitious attack that did not aim to cross the Meuse, but would still have inflicted a severe setback on the Western Allied Army groups now bearing down on the Franco-German border. A similar plan had been developed by von Rundstedt at OB West, and the two field marshals combined their idea to present a joint “small solution” to Hitler. Hitler however rejected this compromise, and the “big solution” of aiming for Antwerp was ordered.
For this operation Model had at his disposal Sixth SS Panzer Army, Fifth Panzer Army and Seventh Army, including a dozen panzer and panzergrenadier divisions, representing the last strategic reserve of the crumbling III Reich. Despite his misgivings, Model threw himself into the task with his usual energy, cracking down on any defeatism he might find. A staff officer complained about shortages, causing him to snap: “If you need anything, take it from the Americans”. He remained acutely aware of both the operation’s significance, and its most likely outcome. When Colonel Friedrich August von der Heydte, ordered to lead a parachute drop as part of the operation, said that the jump had no more than a 10 percent chance of success, he 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 favourably.”
The operation was launched on 16 December 1944 and enjoyed initial success, but it quickly suffered from a lack of air cover and the inexperience in some of its infantry component, and critically fuel supply. Sixth SS Panzer Army met heavy allied resistance, and while Fifth Panzer Army managed to make a deep thrust into Allied line, Model was unable to exploit the breakthrough there. He had failed to capture a vital road junction at Bastogne, and this in combination with poor weather and difficult terrain, caused the German columns to back up into huge traffic jams on the roads behind the front. Starved of fuel and ammunition, the attack had broken down by 25 December, and was abandoned on 8 January.
Defeat at the Ruhr
The failure of Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein marked the end of Model’s special relationship with Hitler, who on 21 January 1945 issued an order that all the divisions of Army Group B would thenceforth be personally responsible to him to limit Model’s operational freedom of decision. Any suggestion of its withdrawal back to the river Rhine to obtain a better fighting position given the III Reich’s weakening strength against the Allied torrent of men and material was forbidden, and it was ordered to conduct its actions from now on upon the strategic basis of not yielding an inch of ground and an abandonment of tactical manoeuvre.
By mid-March Model and Army Group B had been forced back in attritional fighting with the Americans across the Rhine river into Germany itself after the debacle of the failure to destroy the bridge at Remagen.
On April 1 Army Group B found itself completely surrounded in the Ruhr by the U.S. First and Ninth Armies. Hitler’s response was to declare the Ruhr a fortress, from which he commanded that there was to be no surrender or attempt to break out, in an order similar to that which he had issued at Stalingrad. He further ordered that its physical economic infrastructure – the heart of Germany’s industrial power – be destroyed by Army Group B to prevent it falling into Allied hands. Model ignored these instructions.
On April 15, after the Allies had split the pocket into two, Major-General Matthew Ridgway commanding the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps called upon Model to surrender rather than throw the lives of the soldiers under his command away in an impossible tactical situation for Army Group B. Model’s reply was that he still considered himself bound by his oath to Adolf Hitler and his sense of honour as a German field marshal, and in consequence a formal surrender was out of the question. However, instead of continuing the fight he ordered Army Group B’s dissolution. The oldest and youngest soldiers were discharged from military service, and the remaining men were granted leave by order to surrender or attempt to break out at their discretion. The Fifth Panzer Army had already laid down its arms before this order was given, and Model’s command communications in the pocket was disintegrating. On 20 April, Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry in Berlin publically denounced Army Group B as traitors to the Reich, marking the final act between Model and the Nazi regime he had served.
Model’s decision ended the war for his men, but he himself had little desire to witness the aftermath of defeat. He said to his staff before dissolving his command: “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”. His decision to commit suicide was sealed when he learned that the Soviets had indicted him for war crimes, specifically the deaths of 577,000 people in concentration camps in Latvia and the deportation of 175,000 others as slave labour. After an attempt to seek his death in action on the front line came to nothing, he shot himself in the head in a forest on 21 April 1945. The site of the event, between Duisburg and the village of Lintorf, is today part of the city of Ratingen.
Model was buried by his men where he fell. In 1955 his son, Hansgeorg Model (who had served as an officer cadet with the Grossdeutschland Division in late 1944-1945, and post-war held the rank of brigadier general in the Bundeswehr), guided by former officers of Army Group B, recovered the body from its field grave and organised its reburial in the Soldatenfriedhof Vossenack, a German military cemetery in the Hurtgen Forest.
Unlike Erwin Rommel, another field marshal who preferred to lead from the front, Walter Model was almost universally disliked by those who had to work with him. For example, when he was made commander of the XLI Panzer Corps in 1941, the entire corps staff asked to be transferred. Not only was he foul-mouthed and abusive, but he made a habit of micromanaging his subordinates, changing plans without consultation, and bypassing the chain of command when it suited him. He was oblivious to the niceties of etiquette, often reprimanding or castigating his officers in public. When he departed Army Group North in March 1944 after being sent to Ukraine, the army group’s chief of staff remarked: “Schweinfurt (Schweinfurt is a city in Bavaria. Schwein fort would mean the pig is gone.” (the swine is gone). It was a reference to Model’s nickname among his staffers, that he had earned during his time at XLI Panzer Corps: “Frontschwein” (the frontline pig).
Model was considered a thorough and competent leader but was known to “demand too much, and that too quickly”, accepting no excuses for failure from either his own men or those who outranked him. His troops were said to have “suffered under his too-frequent absences and erratic, inconsistent demands”, for he frequently lost sight of what was or was not practically possible. Yet his dislike of bureaucracy and his crude speech often made him well liked by many under his command.
It has been said in literature that he never succeeded in leading a successful offensive operation. However the time of the large-scale offensives were over when Model came to the top. The fighting at Rzhev brought success in attack, especially the first of the four battles in which in the final phase a Russian army was surrounded and destroyed and another suffered severe losses. The two big offensives in which Model participated, Zitadelle and the Ardennes offensive, were in their final forms executed against his repeated warnings. Moreover, any specialist in retreats should also be able to attack with success, because a retreat that succeeds is more difficult to execute than an attack. The Büffel movement, the retreat on the Hagen line during the Russian Orel offensive and the improvisation during the restoration of the front at Army Group Center and in the west must count as examples of extraordinary retreat operations. His command style had worked when he was leading a division or corps, but once promoted to command of an army, it opened him to criticism over whether the advantages gained were enough to offset the loss of efficiency that followed.
The statement that he was no strategist can be agreed to because the conditions for that existed for no general in the Third Reich. It has been observed that he showed little inclination to contemplate those stretches of the front he did not command.
What Model possessed was an excellent tactical mind, especially when on the defensive, and an “outstanding talent for improvisation”. At 3rd Panzer Division he was a pioneer in the use of Kampfgruppen, which would soon become standard practice for the Germans. He had a formidable memory and eye for detail, which allowed him to dominate his staff officers, especially those in charge of specialist areas such as artillery, transport and communications.
Before the war he was put in charge of analyzing technical advances at home and abroad and his enthusiasm for innovation earned him the nickname Armee Modernissimus (“the army modernization fanatic”). Model fought nearly all his battles in the northern and central parts of the Eastern Front; he was never tested on the steppes of southern Russia, where the open terrain would have made mobile warfare a more attractive proposition. Nevertheless, his defensive record indicated the value of his approach. At Rzhev, Orel, in Galicia and in Estonia he stymied opponents who expected to overwhelm him, and as late as November 1944, he gave the U.S. 12th Army Group a bloodied nose in the Hürtgen Forest.
His approach was not pretty. Model was a ruthless commander, willing to inflict and take casualties to stabilize his front. The splitting up of units was continually practiced by Model and took place on the regimental and divisional level. The objective was always to give necessary reinforcements to the centres of gravity when no reserves were available. From an operational viewpoint this allowed Model to achieve defensive successes, which would not have been possible otherwise. According to Newton the sending of theatre or operational reserves into the line where the fighting was toughest was meant to preserve the units Model saw as organically tied to his own command. For example, he was given the elite Grossdeutschland Division in September 1942, when his Ninth Army was under heavy attack during Operation Mars. Though he was told that the division was not to be broken up, Model nonetheless split it into battalions and companies, which he used to plug any gaps that appeared. Grossdeutschland took nearly 10,000 casualties out of a strength of 18,000 men, and at one point was reportedly close to mutiny; but from Model’s viewpoint these losses were acceptable because they meant that Ninth Army’s own troops did not have to suffer them. That said, he did not simply treat these reserve units as disposable. In early 1942, the Der Führer Regiment of the 2nd SS Division Das Reich was reduced to a handful of men in three weeks of bitter fighting—but in that time it also received reinforcements including 88 mm guns, artillery pieces, and StuG III assault guns, and Model himself visited the sector daily, calculating the minimum support that would be needed to hold off the Soviet attacks. Model was aware of the negative effects of the splitting up of units. For example, on the 7th of October 1944 he forbade the splitting up of regiments into autonomous battalions to be used outside the division.
Allied to this were his boundless determination and vigour and stubborn refusal to countenance defeat. He held himself to the same high standard as he held those around him, saying: “He who leads troops has no right to think about himself”. His visits to the front may not have helped operational efficiency, but they energized his men, who consistently held him in much higher regard than did his officers. As commanding general of Ninth Army he was once recorded as personally leading a battalion attack against a Soviet position, pistol in hand. His peers respected his ability and iron will, even though they may have detested his personality. Guderian thought him the best choice to command Army Group Centre during the crisis of Operation Bagration; the Ninth Army’s War Diary recorded, after he arrived at army group headquarters in Minsk: “The news of Field Marshal Model’s arrival is noted with satisfaction and confidence.”
Model was the master of the type of defense which can be called ‘defense limited in time’; in which you defend as long as possible but then retreat to avoid breakthrough and destruction. He was always at the critical points and took away battlegroups or even single battalions from less threatened sectors. With these units holes were plugged at other locations or short counterattacks were executed and so opportunities were created for bigger solutions. Thus, a closed front was guaranteed while the mixing and tearing apart of units was viewed as the smaller evil.
Relationship with Hitler
Before the war, Model had been content to leave politics to the politicians, preferring instead to concentrate on military affairs. Despite this, he became one of the Wehrmacht’s field marshals most closely identified with Hitler. Postwar opinions on him have varied. Some historians have called him “blindly loyal” or a “zealous disciple” of Hitler; others take a more nuanced view, seeing in Model a coldly calculating opportunist who used the Führer to his advantage, whether or not he was committed to him or the ideals of Nazism. The contradictions between his Lutheran upbringing and his later association with the Nazis have similarly been the subject of comment.
As one of the few German generals of middle class upbringing, Model’s background appealed to Hitler, who distrusted the old Prussian aristocratic order that still dominated the Wehrmacht’s officer corps. His defensive tactics were a much better fit to Hitler’s instincts never to give ground, than airy talk of “elastic defence”—even if Model did not entirely share those instincts. His stubbornness, energy and ruthlessness were more qualities that Hitler found admirable, and Model’s blunt and direct manner of speaking also made an impression.
In a much-noted incident, Model had to deal with an attempt by Adolf Hitler to interfere with his arrangements. A telephone call from Army Group Center’s chief of staff on 19 January 1942 informed him that Hitler, having become nervous about the direct Soviet threat against Vyazma, had decided that XLVII Panzer Corps, 2nd SS Division Das Reich and 5th Panzer Division were not to be employed in the imminent counterattack but reserved for other use in the rearguard. Immediately, Model drove back from Rzhev to Vyazma in a raging blizzard and boarded a plane for East Prussia. Bypassing the figure of field marshal Günther von Kluge, his immediate superior, he sought a personal confrontation with Hitler. At first he attempted to lay out his reasons in the best, dispassionate General Staff manner, only to find the Führer unmoved by logic. Suddenly, glaring at Hitler through his monocle, Model brusquely demanded to know: “Mein Führer, who commands Ninth Army, you or I?”. Hitler, shocked at the defiance of his newest army commander, tried to find another solution favorable for both, but Model still wasn’t satisfied. “Good, Model”, the exasperated Hitler finally responded. “You do it as you please, but it will be your head at risk”.
According to the Hitler’s Table Talk recorded that night, the Führer commented: “I distrust officers who have exaggeratedly theoretical minds. I’d like to know what becomes of their theories at the moment of action”. But when an officer “is worthy of command”, he told Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, “he must be given the prerogatives corresponding to his functions”. Shortly after Model’s departure to Rzhev area, Hitler also stated that: “Generals must be tough, pitiless men, as crabbed as mastiffs – gross-grained men, such as I have in the Party”. Importantly, however, Model never challenged Hitler on political issues: a point that has been identified as the secret to their successful relationship.
Helped by his defensive successes, he thus gained Hitler’s full trust and confidence; the Führer called him “my best field marshal” and (after Operation Bagration) “the saviour of the Eastern Front”. In turn, this granted Model a degree of flexibility available to no other German general. He frequently disputed, ignored or bypassed orders that he felt unsupportable: at Rzhev and Orel he had constructed defensive fortifications in defiance of a ban, and his use of Shield and Sword tactics while at Army Group North proved to be simply a cover for a staged withdrawal. His relationships with his superiors were marked by dissembling, where what he wrote in his reports could bear little resemblance to what was actually happening. While other generals who clashed with Hitler were fated to be dismissed, Model’s standing remained undiminished—so long as he produced results.
Model and Nazism
Many of Model’s fellow officers considered him a Nazi. He frequently harangued his troops to have faith in the Führer and uphold the virtues of National Socialism. He accepted the offer of SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein to appoint a Waffen-SS officer as his adjutant at Army Group North in 1944, after the Heerespersonalamt had refused him an adjutant, and filled the Nationalsozialistischer Führungsoffizier (NSFO, essentially a Nazi political commissar) post at Army Group B that had been vacant before his arrival. His habit of parroting the Führer’s orders caused him to be viewed as a sycophant, even if he often undermined or ignored those orders in practice.
Following the July 20 Plot, Model was the first senior commander to reaffirm his loyalty to Hitler. However, he also refused to give up General Hans Speidel, his chief of staff at Army Group B who was heavily implicated in the plot, to the Gestapo. Model was well aware of Speidel’s political leanings, as were his predecessors at Army Group B, Rommel and von Kluge. Like them, he shielded Speidel for as long as possible, while ignoring such treasonous talk as might take place.
While on the Eastern Front, Model showed no objection to the treatment of civilians by the SS in the areas under his command, and oversaw several anti-partisan operations, mostly while commanding Ninth Army. These operations, conducted by Wehrmacht troops as well as SS, were bloody, although not unusual by German Eastern Front standards. In conjunction with the ruthless scorched earth policies he followed during his retreats, they would lead to the Soviet Union declaring him a war criminal.
Despite this, while commanding Army Group Centre, he refused to dispatch troops to put down the Warsaw uprising (a task that ultimately was carried out by the SS), viewing it as a rear-area matter. He stated that the revolt arose from the mistreatment of the Polish population by the Nazis, and the army should have nothing to do with it. On the other hand, he showed no hesitation in clearing the Warsaw suburbs of Praga and Saska Kępa, through which vital supply lines ran.
It has been argued that the best explanation for Model’s behaviour and suicide is that he was not necessarily a Nazi, but an authoritarian militarist who saw in Hitler the strong leader that Germany needed. This characterized many in the German officer corps, but in Model’s case it was accompanied by a cynical willingness to placate the Nazi regime to expedite his own goals, and a complete internalisation of the image of the professional, apolitical soldier. He had dedicated his life to the army, whether the Reichswehr or the Wehrmacht, and in his final days in the Ruhr, more than one observer had detected in him a struggle to cope with the fact that its destruction was imminent. In this view, Model’s decision to take his own life was less to do with matters of honour or Soviet retribution, as with an inability to come to terms with utter defeat.
Summary of career
Dates of rank
- 22 August 1910: Leutnant
- 25 February 1915: Oberleutnant
- March 1918: Hauptmann
- 1929: Major
- 1932: Oberstleutnant
- 1 October 1934: Oberst
- 1 March 1939: Generalmajor
- 1 April 1940: Generalleutnant
- 1 October 1941: General der Panzertruppe
- 28 February 1942: Generaloberst
- 1 March 1944: Generalfeldmarschall
- Service history
- 1909: Officer cadet training
- 1910: 52nd Infantry Regiment von Alvensleben
- 1917: Staff assignments
- 1925: Commanding officer, 9th Company, 8th Infantry Regiment
- 1928: Staff officer, 3rd Division, Berlin
- 1930: Staff officer, Section 4 (Training), Truppenamt, Berlin
- 1932: Chief of Staff, Reich Kuratorium for Youth Fitness
- 1933: Battalion commander, 2nd Infantry Regiment
- 1935: Head of Section 8, General Staff, Berlin
- 1938: Chief of Staff, IV Corps
- 1939: Chief of Staff, Sixteenth Army
- 1940: Commander, 3rd Panzer Division
- 1941: Commander, XLI Panzer Corps
- 1942: Commander, Ninth Army
- January – March 1944: Commander, Army Group North
- March – June 1944: Commander, Army Group North Ukraine
- June – August 1944: Commander, Army Group Centre
- August – September 1944: Commander-in-Chief, OB West
- August 1944 – April 1945: Commander, Army Group B
Awards and decorations
- Iron Cross of 1914
- 2nd Class: 20 September 1914
- 1st Class: 19 October 1915
- Military Merit Order, 4th class with Swords (Bavaria, 29 March 1915)
- Knight’s Cross of the Royal House Order of Hohenzollern with Swords (26 February 1917)
- Military Merit Cross, 2nd class (Mecklenburg-Schwerin, 22 November 1917
- Military Merit Cross, 3rd class with War Decoration (Austria-Hungary, 22 November 1917)
- Ottoman War Medal (Turkish: Harp Madalyası), better known as the “Gallipoli Star” or the “Iron Crescent” (22 November 1917)
- Wound Badge (1918 ) in black (27 August 1918)
- Spanish Cross (31 May 1939)
- Clasp to the Iron Cross
- 2nd Class: 22 September 1939
- 1st Class: 2 October 1939
- Panzer Badge (German: Panzerkampfabzeichen) in Silver (29 August 1941)
- Wound Badge (1939 ) in Gold (25 May 1942)
- Eastern Front Medal (15 July 1942)
- Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds
- Knight’s Cross on 9 July 1941 as Generalleutnant and commander of the 3. Panzer-Division
- 74th Oak Leaves on 17 February 1942 as General der Panzertruppe and commanding general of the XXXXI. Panzerkorps
- 28th Swords on 2 April 1943 as Generaloberst and commander-in-chief of 9. Armee
- 17th Diamonds on August 1944 as Generalfeldmarschall and commander-in-chief of Heeresgruppe Mitte
- Mentioned in the Wehrmachtbericht four times (21 February 1942 ; 3 September 1943 ; 5 August 1944, 19 April 1945)