After 70 Years of World War II, We Assess Hitler as a Military Commander
Adolf Hitler was born in 1889 and committed suicide in 1945. There was no way out at that stage as he had burned all his bridges. His life is interesting as he started life as a painter and then joined the German army as an enlisted soldier. He was a corporal and took part in the battle on the Western front.
The fact that Hitler was a Corporal during the first World War has colored the thinking of his military assessment. When he later became chief of the German General Staff people depreciated his military knowledge and acumen and many felt that as he had only been a corporal, he had no strategic vision. This belief was fostered by the German generals after the war was lost and all blame pinned on him.
It is an accepted fact that Hitler had no formal training as an officer and was only a common soldier. He had a sharp mind and could grasp the nuts and bolts of a situation in very little time. Many people do not know that Hitler had studied the campaigns and writings of Fredrick, Moltke, Schiffilin, and Clausewitz. Thus he had more than a rudimentary knowledge of tactics and campaigns. His study of the classical writers of war, more than made up for his lack of formal training as an officer.
Hitler as a Planner
An assessment of a great general and leader is on his ability to plan and execute a campaign. We can judge Hitler's ability in this field by studying his approach to the campaigns of the Wehrmacht. In some of the campaigns we must give some credit to Hitler. In particular his plan to invade Norway when the Royal Navy had complete command of the North Sea is a standout. He planned and carried out the landings along the Norwegian coast at 5 places and overran Norway in a classic campaign. In this, he was aided by elements of the Norwegian Nazi party led by Quisling.
Norway was defended by the Royal Navy which had complete command of the North Sea. In the face of overwhelming naval superiority, Hitler formulated an audacious plan, taking the Royal Navy completely by surprise. He went against the opinion of the GKW and after studying the Norwegian coast and topography launched a para assault by air at five places. Norway was overrun in no time.
Again his practical application of the Schiffilin Plan for a two-front war deserves mention. He neutralized Russia with the Non-aggression pact and at the same time attacked France through the low countries and sounded the death knell of the French Army in 6 weeks as per the Schiffilin plan.
The plan was put into practice under the supervision of Hitler and within 40 days the French were defeated. Here he committed the first of his tactical mistakes when out of misplaced zeal he allowed the BEP to escape from Dunkirk. His use of speed and concentration of force during the battle of France is a classic example of a successful military operation.
Hitler also planned the operation against Russia at his GKW headquarters. His thrust that took in 1200 miles into Russia vindicated his planning initially but he failed to make allowances for vagaries of weather and the resultant mud and slush that halted his army. This is a negative point against him.
Hitler as a Commander
There is no doubt that Hitler had an iron will and that stood him in good stead as the eastern front was stiffened by his resolve and the Germans made the Russians fight for every inch of land with heavy losses.
His approval of the Para invasion of Crete was an audacious campaign which was again executed in the teeth of the superiority of the Royal Navy. These campaigns along with the Ardennes offensive of Dec1944 show that Hitler certainly had some knowledge of the Principles of war. The Lightening thrust into Russia and the collapse of the Russian armies were worked out under his direction.
But as a commander one of the principles of war is flexibility. He was inflexible believing flexibility to be a weakness. This was his undoing and the German army had to pay a heavy price for it.
Had he showed some flexibility at Stalingrad and ordered a retreat and counterattack later as advised by Von Manstein,. he could have saved over 100,000 soldiers of the Reich.
Where do we place Hitler in the hall of great soldiers? No doubt he won some lightning victories. But he had little concept of Air Power, in particular, the concept of Interdiction and strategic bombardment. This is unpardonable in a great commander. Another of his fallacies was his inability to regroup in the time of reverses. His one plan to hold the front line at all cost was a disaster. He thus sacrificed the basic Principle of war flexibility.
Hitler had little knowledge of the role of surface ships and aircraft carriers as well as strategic bombardment. He studied the great military thinkers but did not study Douhet and others who propagated dominance and victory by air power.
We can conclude that Hitler was a more than an average planner and executor, but when it came to the crunch, the acid test while retreating and making contingency plans he was found wanting. If he had shown flexibility Stalingrad would have been averted. He faltered and that will go against him. His failure to grasp the importance of strategic bombing led to his defeat. Hitler though an average plus commander failed at the altar of a great commander in the line of great soldiers of the world.