Brief Biography of General Kurt Student

In the movie Gettysburg General Robert E. Lee says to General James Longstreet: “General, soldiering has one great trap: to be a good solider you must love the army. To be a good commander, you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love.”[1] General Kurt Student no doubt well understood those feelings as he arrived on Crete five days after the initial landings by his elite Fallschrimjager and looked out to see hundreds of his men dead; their corpses bloated and stinking in the hot Mediterranean sun. This horrible sight would stay with Student for the rest of his life.[2]

The future Luftwaffe Colonel-General Kurt Arthur Benno Student was born on 12 May 1890, the third of four sons.[3] His family was minor Prussian gentry or Junkers. The family was not well off financially and could not hope to launch four sons into their careers of choice. Kurt would have liked to been a doctor, but there was no money for that kind of education, so upon the death of his mother, he entered a military preparatory school for the free education.[4]

Student’s matriculation at the Royal Prussian Military Cadet School and later at the Lichterfelde Cadet School was considered at the time to be the standard education for a youth of his class.[5] He did well enough in school to earn a commission to a light infantry, or Jager, regiment close to home in 1911. Oddly, Student with little skill in math and a dislike of heights, volunteered for flight training in 1913.[6]

During World War I Student was assigned to the fledgling Imperial German Flying Corps. At the start, he had “good” war. Fighting on both fronts he downed six enemy planes to achieve “ace” status. He also test flew the deadly Fokker tri-wing. Toward the end of the war he commanded a squadron and achieving the rank of Captain. In 1917, he was shot down and severely wounded. Student had barely recovered and returned to active duty when the World War One ended.[7]

Student was lucky enough to be retained as one of only four thousand officers allowed to the one-hundred thousand man Weimar Republic’s Army, the Reichswehr, by the Treaty of Versailles. The same treaty also forbade Germany an air force. Student, with his flying experience, was assigned to the Central Flying Office of the War Ministry, with the brief to secretly develop aircraft technology and doctrine for the future Luftwaffe. However, mere technical development would not be enough, so the Reichswehr high command also encouraged gliding as a sport to build a pool of skilled pilots. Student funneled secret government funds to the gliding clubs and also took part in the gliding competitions. He was badly injured with a fractured skull when his glider crashed in 1923.[8]

In order to get promoted, Student transferred back to his old infantry regiment in 1928, but his sub-rosa work with the Central Flying Office did not come to an end.[9] As part of a secret treaty with the Soviet Union, Student was allowed to observe a demonstration of Russian paratroop deployment in 1931, at this demonstration Student met fellow World War One flying ace Hermann Goering. Both air aces were impressed by the Russian display, even if some of the Soviet’s methods were frightening; such as having the paratroops cling to the wing-struts of bi-planes and open their parachutes to be yanked off by the slipstream![10]

In 1933 Hitler seized power in Germany; in 1935 Der Fuehrer repudiated the Treaty of Versailles and started to rebuild the German war machine. Student was, under the patronage of Goering, the head of the new Luftwaffe, made chief of the paratroop training school and Inspector General of Airborne Troops, as well as commander of the Seventh Flieger Division. During this time, until the Seventh went into combat in the Low Countries in 1940, Student was the prime mover of German Airborne force development.[11]

Student took a hand in all parts of developing the training, equipment and operational doctrine for “his” Fallschrimjager. He had a unique background to aid him in this task; he was a well-known pilot of powered aircraft and gliders, as well as an experienced infantry and staff officer with technological and equipment development experience.[12] Student instituted a policy of only accepting volunteers and also set up a rigorous training program, which was called “unbelievably hard” by the troops. Lastly, although a Luftwaffe officer, Student advocated the concept of using large scale airborne and glider-landings as a part of the Blitzkrieg to seize key terrain in advance of the Panzer divisions’ armored spearheads. This was the doctrine favored by the Army. The Air Force would have preferred to use the airborne forces for small-scale commando raid and other small special operations.[13]

The logical conclusion of the vertical envelopment operational concept advocated by Student was Operation Mercury: the invasion of Crete; where the airborne would not just support regular ground forces, but rather would conduct an independent operation, with the Fallschrimjager being supported by regular naval and air forces. Without a doubt, the airborne invasion of Crete, in fact, Crete as a strategic target at all, was the brainchild of Kurt Student. Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, (OKW), the German Military High Command, thought Malta was the better target for an airborne assault. The island fortress’ capture would secure the sea lanes to Africa. Student fearing an attack on so well defended an objective offered Crete as an alternate. Crete was the ideal for his paratroopers, thought to be lightly defended, in range of the Luftwaffe and having only one main road. Also Crete offered two strategic advantages; occupying it would secure the recently conquered Balkans and Greece, thus the southern flank of Operation Barbarossa and the island could also be used as a springboard to take Malta, Cyprus and maybe even Egypt. Through Goering, Student overcame Hitler initial reservations and on 25 April 1941 Student received Fuehrer Directive Number 28 authorizing the operation.[14]

From start to finish Operation Mercury was Student’s operation, although the overall command of the operation was given to General Alexander Loehr of the Fourth Air Fleet. Loehr’s primary job was to direct the combined arms elements of the operation; including his own Luftwaffe units and what naval forces could be brought to bear. Student’s command was technically just the ground forces, transport aircraft and gliders, but the overall concept and plan was his alone.[15]

Student’s first idea was to land his paratroopers and glider forces at the three main airfields and the administrative capitol simultaneously in a “single paralyzing blow”. As soon as one of the airfields were secured the Fifth Mountain (Gebirgs) Division would be flown in; this plan was the classic “oil spot tactics” of airborne attacks. [16] Loehr and the air support commander, Richthofen, objected to this plan, thinking that it could lead to defeat in detail of the scattered paratroopers, also Richthofen did not think his attack planes and bombers could provide effective fire support to four widely separated drop-zones. Instead Loehr and Richthofen favored a classic schwerpunkt, or a single focused attack, on Maleme, the airfield closest to German airbases in Greece. Student rejected this thinking as old-fashioned and limited. Plus he felt that a single assault would allow the Allies to turn the battle into a standard infantry fight, thereby losing the operational and tactical shock effect of parachute and glider landings. However, Student soon learned that even his 500 Junkers-52 (JU-52) transport planes and nearly 100 gliders would not be enough to carry all the paratroopers at once, so they would have to go in two waves. Still this did not change his thinking on attacking in four places, even though the second wave would not have of the advantage of surprise.[17]

Now Hitler intervened and demanded a seaborne landing as well. The mountain troops, already discontented about being crammed aboard airplanes were even more discontented about now being crammed on to boats. Student was also unhappy about this order, as he thought that the British Navy would be able to intercept the troop convoys and that Luftwaffe was overestimating its ability to protect the convoys.[18] In any case, poor command and staff work had the convoys sailing at night when the Luftwaffe could not intervene. The ramshackle troop convoys turned out to be easy meat for a British Navy well versed in night surface actions.[19]

The poor scheduling of the sea convoys was only one part of a generally rushed and haphazard operational planning. The fabled Grundlichkeit or “thoroughness” of German military preparation failed miserably during the run up to Operation Mercury.[20] By focusing on the innovative nature of the tactics to be used, Student and his staff virtually ignored other areas; such as sustainment, logistics, intelligence, counter-intelligence and deception. [21]

One of the biggest fault of the German planning was in the area of Command and Control. Not only would the four landings be separated by some distance and out of mutual supporting and communication range, but Student stayed in Athens, hundreds of miles away from the battlefield.[22] Adding to this was the fact that the several of the senior officers that were to command the ground fight were quickly killed or wounded once the invasion started.[23] Many radios were damaged on landing, so what reports Student received were spotty at best and seemed to confirm Loehr’s worst fears. The scattered landings were achieving very little and the Fallschrimjager had suffered heavy casualties.[24]

After the apparent failure for the paratroopers to accomplish much on the first day, Student cast the die.[25] He had a battalion of the remaining mountain troops loaded into the available JU-52’s and force landed them at Maleme, the one area where the Germans had at least partial control of an airfield. This gamble paid off; by the evening of 21 May a battalion of the Gebirgsjager had been landed and full control of the airfield established.[26] With sufficient ground troops now on the island and complete control of the air, the issue was no longer in doubt, although there was still hard fighting ahead and the island would not be declared secured for several more days.[27] The Battle for Crete was a German victory, but a pyrrhic one. The Germans suffered nearly 7,000 dead and wounded out of a force 22,000. Never again would the Germans launch a large scale airborne assault.[28]

An evaluation of Student’s part in Operation Mercury is not clear and easy. Once the situation on the ground was made apparent to him, Student kept his head and came up with a daring and ultimately successful plan to force-land the mountain troops. In this he displayed: “all the qualities of a great airborne commander.”[29] Further, Student can hardly be blamed for the fact that Ultra had broken the German codes and surprise was lost.[30] However, he can take the blame for the original concept of the plan which should have been changed when he realized he could not land all his forces in one wave. Also, he should be faulted for the poor command and control arrangements required by his decision to stay in Athens rather than land with his troops.[31] Without a doubt all the acclaim as well as the entire fault for the outcomes of the operation can be laid at Student’s feet. The plan and most of the decision-making was his from start to finish.

Student’s career did not suffer as the result of Crete. He continued to command troops throughout the rest of the war, most famously at Arnhem during Operation Market-Garden, where perhaps ironically he and his German First Airborne Army were the defenders against the attacking Allied paratroopers.[32] Captured after the war and put on trial for ordering reprisals against Cretan civilians, Student was sentenced to five years in prison but due to ill-health he was released after two years. He died in 1978. [33]

Annotated Bibliography

Ailsby, Christopher. Hitler’s Sky Warriors: German Paratroopers in Action, 1939-1945. Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount, Ltd., 2000.

Christopher Ailsby is an expert on the military of the Third Reich and had previously authored works on the Waffen-SS and the Kriegsmarine. In this work, Ailsby draws on his extensive private archive of photos to create an interesting visual and textual history of the German Fallschrimjager. This work is one of the most technical available; detailing equipment, organization and the developmental history of the German Airborne forces from 1938 to the end of the war. The author also goes into great detail and analysis of Kurt Student’s part in the development of the training, equipment, doctrine and organization of the elite German paratrooper units.

Citino, Robert M. “Dead On Arrivals?” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 22, no. 2 (Winter 2010): 14-27.

Robert M. Citino is the Professor of European History at the University of North Texas and has written several works on the German Army in World War II.   This article is a pure analysis piece of the German side of Operation Mercury and he is highly critical of General Student and his staff. Citino also does macro-historical evaluation of the affects of Operation Mercury on both the Germans and the Allies. Both sides learned very different lessons from the battle, for the Germans it was the end of large paratroop operations, for the allies it was a starting point.

Gettysburg. DVD. Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell. New York: New Line Cinema, 2004.

Based on the book The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara; parts of this movie are required viewing from some courses at US Army Command and General Staff College. The book is part of the required reading list for Professional Military Development in the US Military. The book and movie both have more to say about military leadership and war than many non-fiction works. For this paper the quote is used to demonstrate the feelings Student must have had as a professional military officer at seeing his dead comrades.

Hackett, Sir John. “Student: Colonel-General Kurt Student” in Hitler’s Generals. Edited by Correlli Barnett. 463-480. New York: Grove Press, 1989.

Sir John Hackett was a highly decorated soldier that served with the British First Airbourne Division at Arnhem and after his retirement he pursued an academic, literary and historical writing career. In his article on Student in the collected work: Hitler’s Generals, Hackett calls Student the father of all airborne forces and one of only two truly innovative German officers of World War Two (the other being Heinz Guderian, the father of Blitzkrieg). The background information on Student is in-depth and detailed without being pedantic. If the article has a flaw is it soft pedals Student’s part in alleged war-crimes on Crete during the occupation.

Hickey, Michael. Out of the Sky: A History of Airborne Warfare. New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979.

Michael Hickey is an award-winning military literature author and retired British military officer. His book Out of the Sky is a survey history of airborne operation from World War Two until the late 1970’s. He calls The Battle of Crete the “high tide” of German paratrooper operations. Hickey’s writing is clean and clear. He does little analysis but does contextualize Student’s role in the history and development of paratroops and other air-landing troops. He also contextualizes Student’s role in the battle and subsequent use of German paratroops as elite ground infantry.

Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.

John Keegan is the premier military historian of our time; his works like The Face of Battle and The Mask of Command are groundbreaking works of military history. In his book The Second World War, Keegan approached the war thematically rather than chronologically. For the purpose of this paper one of the “battle pieces” selected to illustrate the nature airborne warfare was the Battle of Crete. Keegan places the battle in context of the innovative nature of warfare during World War Two and Student’s part in this innovation. Keegan does some sharp analysis on the role of Allied code-breaking on the outcome of the battle.

Kiriakopoulos, G. C. Ten Days to Destiny: The Battle for Crete, 1941. New York: Franklin Watts, 1985.

Professor Kiriakopoulos’ book investigates the often overlooked civilian resistance to the initial German invasion of Crete as well as the subsequent efforts by the occupiers to suppress this resistance. This book is often cited by later academic, military and popular works on the subject of Crete during World War Two. Kiriakopoulos claims that before this work the Battle of Crete was overlooked in America. Further the book is generously footnoted and includes much original information from interviews Kiriakopoulos conducting while researching the battle.

Quarrie, Bruce. Airborne Assault: Parachute Forces in Action, 1940-91. Sparkford, UK: Patrick Stephens, ltd, 1991.

The late Bruce Quarrie had a well deserved reputation for painstaking research and meticulous detail in his writing. His work Airborne Assault is a perfect example of this kind of writing. Nearly flawless in it description and details, this work is often cited in military academic papers on the subject of airborne operations in general and Operation Mercury in particular. The first chapter of this work focuses on Operation Mercury, while the second offers valuable in-formation regarding the development of the German paratroopers. While Quarrie doesn’t give much, if any analysis, the narrative is invaluable.

Reinhardt, Hellmuth. Airborne Operations: A German Appraisal, 4th Edition. Bennington, VT: Merriam Press, 2008.

This work was originally written for and published by Historical Division, EUCOM, by a committee of former German officers under the publication number CMH Pub 104-13 in 1953. The primary author was Generalmajor (Brigadier General) Hellmuth Reinhardt, Deputy Chief, General Army Office, 1941-43, and later Chief of Staff, Eighth Army, on the southern front in the Ukraine and Romania. This work is now commercially available as cited. Other contributors included Kurt Student, Albert Kesselring and August von der Heydte. This work is a thorough analysis of German airborne and the German reaction to Allied air-landing operations as well, during the War. The work is utterly invaluable to anyone studying the subject of German paratroop operations in World War Two and is often cited by military and academic writers on this subject.

Williamson, Gordon. German Commanders of World War II: Waffen-SS, Luftwaffe & Navy, Volume 2. Oxford UK: Osprey Publishing, Ltd., 2006.

Gordon Williamson is a British Army veteran and the author of a number of titles for Osprey Publishers. This two volume set is lavishly illustrated, as are all Osprey publications, and features brief yet detailed biographies of German leaders in the Waffen-SS, Luffwaffe and Kriegsmarine. These commanders are generally less well known than then their German Army counterparts. The biography of Kurt Student is full of interesting details of his life and military career; it is certainly as good and is at least as valuable as the similar biography in Hitler’s Generals.

[1] Gettysburg, DVD, directed by Ronald F. Maxwell (New York: New Line Cinema, 2004).

[2] G. C. Kiriakopoulos, Ten Days to Destiny: The Battle for Crete, 1941 (New York: Franklin Watts, 1985), 318.

[3] Gordon Williamson, German Commanders of World War II: Waffen-SS, Luftwaffe & Navy, Volume 2 (Oxford UK: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2006), 51.

[4] Sir John Hackett, “Student: Colonel-General Kurt Student” in Hitler’s Generals, ed. Correlli Barnett, (New York: Grove Press, 1989), 464.

[5] Michael Hickey, Out of the Sky: A History of Airborne Warfare (New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979), 17.

[6] Hackett, “Student”, 464.

[7] Callum McDonald, The Lost Battle: Crete 1941 (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 7.

[8] Ibid., 8 -9.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bruce Quarrie, Airborne Assault: Parachute Forces in Action, 1940-91 (Sparkford, UK: Patrick Stephens, ltd, 1991), 29.

[11] Hackett, “Student”, 466-467.

[12] Christopher Ailsby, Hitler’s Sky Warriors: German Paratroopers in Action, 1939-1945 (Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount, Ltd., 2000), 29.

[13] Quarrie, Airborne Assault, 30.

[14] John Keegan, The Second World War (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), 161.

[15] Ibid., 161-162.

[16] McDonald, The Lost Battle, 70 and Hellmuth Reinhardt, Airborne Operations: A German Appraisal, 4th ed. (Bennington, VT: Merriam Press, 2008), 18

[17] McDonald, The Lost Battle, 70-71.

[18] Ibid., 72-73

[19] Ibid., 238-239

[20] Robert M. Citino, “Dead On Arrivals?” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 22, no. 2 (Winter 2010), 14.

[21] Ibid., 17.

[22] Michael Hickey, Out of the Sky: A History of Airborne Warfare (New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979), 61.

[23] Ibid., 65

[24] Ibid., 67.

[25] Quarrie, Airborne Assault, 21.

[26] Hickey, Out of the Sky, 68.

[27] Quarrie, Airborne Assault, 24-25.

[28] Citino, “Dead On Arrivals?” 25.

[29] Hickey, Out of the Sky, 73.

[30] Keegan, The Second World War, 163.

[31] Reinhardt, Airborne Operations, 19-20.

[32] Hickey, Out of the Sky, 73.

[33] Williamson, German Commanders of World War II, 54.

A History of French Naval Aviation

The history of French naval aviation started in March 1912 when a Canard Voisin became the first naval seaplane to fly operationally from a from the seaplane carrier, La Foudre (the Lightening ). By summer of 1913 the French Navy had trained 11 pilots for its seaplane force. At this time Foudre was deployed in large-scale naval war games. The seaplanes performed very well in the scouting and observation role, with one of Foudre’s Nieuport floatplanes discovering a “surprise” assault by “enemy” warships.

In late 1913, a ten meter long launching platform was installed on the Foudre. The plan was to launch a Caudron G.3 scout-seaplane. The G.3 launched successfully on May 8 1914. Before this, planes were lifted and lowered into the water for lift off and landing by a crane. However, World War I soon put a stop to further experiments of French Naval aviation. Four civilian ships were converted to seaplane tenders during the war and the Foudre also continued to serve.

Besides this, the French made an invaluable contribution to the worldwide development on naval aviation. In 1909 Clement Ader’s book “L’Aviation Militaire” (Military Aviation), was published, in which the French inventor described the modern aircraft carrier, including a flat flight deck, with an island superstructure, elevators and a below-deck hangars.

After World War I and during the time of the Washington Naval Treaty when other powers, such as Japan and the United States sought to overcome the limits of the treaty with aircraft carriers, French did not, instead focusing on building a large number of smaller ships. In fact, during the interwar years the French built and deployed only one true Aircraft carrier, “Bearn”. The “Bearn” was based on a battleship hull with a true carrier deck. She was too slow to be used as a fleet carrier and was used to transport aircraft. The French also built and deployed a seaplane tender: The “Commandant Teste”. The “Commandant Teste” was sunk during the scuttling of the French Fleet to prevent its capture by the Germans.

After the war, French Naval aviation depended on ships bought from other countries. The Escort carrier “Dixmude” was formally the British carrier “Biter” was transferred in 1945. The “Arromanches”, formally the Royal Navy  “Colossus” was transferred from Britain in 1946. In the 1950’s France received the “USS Langley “ which was renamed the “Lafayette” and the “USS Belleau Wood” which was renamed the “Bois Belleau”. During this time the French Navy flew World War Two era aircraft, such as the Dauntless Dive Bombers or the marine variant of the Spitfire.

In the late fifties and early sixties the French Navy built and deployed two fleet carries: “Clemenceau” and “Foch”. Both ships deployed up to 40 jet aircraft including 15 Super Étendards. In 1961 the French deployed the Helicopter carrier “Jeanne D’Arc”.

In 1994, the French launched “The Charles de Gaulle” a nuclear-powered Fleet carrier. The “De Gaulle” is the only French Aircraft carrier currently in service.


The Battle of Tannenberg

The Battle of Tannenberg in East Prussia that late summer of 1914 put to the test of war two very different military systems; the relatively small, highly trained and proficient Germans versus the vastly larger, barely trained and barely competent Russians.

At the start of the war, General Von Prittwitz commaner of the German Eighth Army received a series of contradictory briefing, orders and directives that issued from Helmut von Moltke and the Imperial General Staff.  Prittwitz had the understanding that he should maintain contact with the Vistula at all costs. Yet he was to protect German territory as well. He was to fight the Russians, and yet not risk becoming decisively engaged.  He was authorized to fall back behind the Vistula if required, but that would be seen as a major defeat. Further, the defense was not to be passive but rather Eighth Army should take the offensive if possible.  As the German Army absorbed the reservist called up on mobilization and transitioned from peacetime to wartime establishments, Prittwitz and his subordinate commanders and their respective staffs struggled to fulfill all these conflicting missions.

The Russian’s operational orders to the two invading armies were as clear as they were aggressive.  The Russian First Army was to advance west than turn south meet the Second Army near Allenstein, roughly the middle of East Prussian territory.  Meanwhile, the Second Army was to move north by northwest to meet the First. The proposed juncture of the armies was supposed to have caught and destroyed the German forces in a “cauldron” battle between the two advancing Russian Armies and the Mausian Lakes or at least driven them beyond the Vistula River.

The start of the Great War was a chain reaction of treaty activations, exchanges of ultimatums, mobilizations ordered and finally declarations of war.  In the East the sequence of events was: on 28 July Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. On 29 July Russia acting as Serbia’s ally, ordered a general mobilization.  On 30 July Germany sent an ultimatum to Russia demanding they stop mobilizing. Russia did not respond to Germany so on 31 July Germany also ordered a general mobilization in response to the Russians.  On 1 August Germany, acting on its treaty obligations to Austria-Hungary, declared war on Russia and demanded the neutrality of Russia’s main ally France.  France, of course, refused to remain neutral and ordered its own mobilization.

The Russian High Command narrowly interpreted its treaty obligations to France to launch an invasion of Germany by Mobilization Day plus fifteen or M-Day + 15.  Therefore, Rennenkampf’s First Army with five cavalry and six infantry divisions totaling about two-hundred and fifty thousand men crossed the border on 17 August, although the Russian cavalry had been scouting forward for a few days previous to this.  Samsonov’s Second Army was still at its line of departure and would not jump off until 20 August.  Either one of the Russian armies outnumbered the defending German Eighth Army.

The Eighth Army was deployed from north to south, or left to right, in this order:  I Corps, faced east against the Russian First Army, from the River Angerapp to the border, XVII Corps was in support just south and west of I Corps.  I Reserve Corps was covering the south east while XX Corps covered the southwest against the Russian Second Army.  Russian armies were traditionally slow to collect and even slower to move.  So, Prittwitz was caught a bit off guard by the relatively sudden advance of the Russians on his left.  But he had already ordered I Corps, commanded by Hermann von Francois to fall back on Gumbinnen with the intention of concentrating most of the Eighth Army, minus XX Corps, there with the expectation of luring the whole of the Russian First Army into a giant ambush along the Angerapp in the vicinity of Gumbinnen.

Prittwitz was able to contemplate executing this plan only because the German’s superior intelligence gathering.  Traditionally, the collection of operational intelligence had been job of the cavalry. However, both sides’ cavalry were severely limited in their ability to perform this function. Russian cavalry doctrine was to dismount and act as dragoons when coming in contact with the enemy.  Obviously these tactics did not allow deep penetration of the German lines. Also Russian cavalry was notably slow; moving at between three and five miles an hour, barely faster that quick marching infantry.  The German cavalry was constrained by the fact that it was outnumbered some ten-to-one; a force ratio that caused even the boldest horseman to think twice before riding out to find the enemy.

The German Army’s key intelligence assets were the six aircraft assigned to each corps and army headquarters, the four airplanes assigned to each of the fortress cities of Thorn, Graudenz, Konigsberg and Posen.  Also Koningsberg and Posen each had a Zeppelin assigned. From the start of the war these aircraft provided vital intelligence on the Russian’s movements to the German commanders.  The Russians, despite having the second largest air force in Europe with nearly two-hundred and fifty airplanes, were complete failures at air reconnaissance over East Prussia.

Using the valuable intelligence gathered by the airmen, Francois, instead of falling back on the Angerapp, maintained a forward deployment of troops with the intention of bringing the Russians to battle just inside the border.  Covering as broad a front as possible, Francois’ two divisions were spread thin and the Corps commander had not maintained a force of infantry in reserve. A heavy Russian blow on any point of the German lines could have broken through.  However, Francois had a high opinion of his Corps and of himself, he believed he and his men could defeat, or at least hold, any number of Russian attackers.

Herrman von Francois was another Prussian Junker, but of Huguenot descent.  He, like Prittwitz, was the son of a general and a graduate of the Prussian Kriegsakedemie.  Francois was described as head strong and had a propensity for not obeying ordered he did not like.  He  was also known as a difficult subordinate and his proclivity for making and then executing his own decisions made him of limited use in staff assignments.  In East Prussia, his aggressiveness and his contempt for the Russians were what precipitated the Battle of Stalluponen.

The German First Division, commanded by Major General Richard von Conta, was deployed around Stalluponen on 17August.  While Francois was inspecting its forward positions, First Division entire front came under attack from at least three Russian divisions.  Francois, with no infantry reserves to deploy, ordered I Corps’ sixteen 150-millimeter guns forward from Gumbinnen to support Conta.  Also he sent a rider to his Second Division commander, Major General von Falk, with orders to attack northeast from Tollmingkehmen into what Francois saw as the left flank of the Russians.

The fighting was intense. By 1130 the German Forty-Third Infantry Regiment had deployed all its reserves and reported Russians to its front, one flank and its rear.  The Russian light artillery pieces soon proved to be the superior of its German equivalent, ranging the German guns.  When German gunners moved forward to compensate, they were often brought under sniper fire and in one case at least subjected to a direct infantry assault.  The battery was only saved by setting the guns’ elevation to zero and the fuses to zero time, turning the cannons into giant shotguns.  Infantry companies were deployed and then forgotten. Messages were lost. Long established chains of command were fractured as battalions and smaller unit were moved to fill gaps.  The only thing that saved the hard pressed First Division was the Russian’s inability to coordinate a single massive assault.

About midday, Prittwitz got the word that Francois’ I Corps was forty kilometer further east than it should have been and was heavily engaged with the enemy. The Army commander and his staff were horrified.   Prittwitz ordered an immediate withdraw and to ensure the order was delivered, he sent a staff officer forward to deliver it directly to I Corps’ Commander.  When the junior staffer found General Francois in the Stalluponen church bell tower, he is said to have shouted: “The commanding general orders you to break off the battle at once at retire on Gumbinnen.”  To which Francois replied hotly: “Tell General von Prittwitz that General von Francois will break off battle when the Russians are beaten!”  The junior officer having no desire to get between two angry generals didn’t deliver that reply.

However, First Division was in such close contact with the Russians it was unlikely to be able to disengage even if General Francois had ordered it to so.  In fact, First Division was being squeezed into a pocket and was in danger of being surrounded, when relief arrived in the form of Falk’s Second Division.  Even before he had received Francois’ order to advance, Falk had been on the move: “marching to the sound of the guns”.  Leaving behind two battalions of infantry and a battery of light artillery, Falk moved north with four battalions and thirty guns. By 1400 Falk’s force had deployed and crashed into the open flank of the Russian Twenty-Seventh Division, just as the Forty-Third Infantry Regiment launch a local counterattack against the same division. It was too much for the Russians after a hard day of fighting. The Twenty-Seventh Infantry Regiment dissolved in a panic and the rest of Russians, fearing being rolled up, fell back.  The Germans captured about three thousand Russians and that many were also killed or wounded.

The German’s had won. They had fought three Russian divisions to a standstill.  But the massive numbers of the Russians were starting to tell as the Rennenkampf’s other corps continued to move forward to both the north and south of Stallponen. Francois now decided to obey the army commander. He ordered a withdrawal to the River Angerapp.  That night the Germans slipped west.

Russian General Yepantschin, III Corps commander, was determined to renew the attack at 0400 18 August, but his patrols found that the Germans were gone.  Unsure where the enemy had headed, the Russians did not move forward again until late in the afternoon of that day.  Convinced that the Germans were south of him, Rennenkampf pushed straight west intending to cut the Germans off from Konigsberg, and push them into a pocket between his First Army and Samsonov’s Second.  The Russians continued to move slowly forward on 19 August, meeting no major German resistance. On 20 August, Rennenkamfp ordered a halt and a day of rest.  This would give his weary army a change to get its footing back.  More importantly, the Russian logistics system was failing miserably; with the supply wagons far behind the front line. A halt would give these supplies a change to catch up.  The Russians, as doctrine demanded, dug in and fortified buildings where they stopped.

While the Russians slowly followed the German I Corps, Prittwitz encouraged by the success at Stallenponen and egged on by the aggressive Francois decided on an attack to stop the advancing Russians.  Prittwitz was finally convinced to attack by two new facts; first Samsonov’s Second Army had finally crossed the frontier and if the German’s didn’t defeat the Russian First Army now, they might never get the chance and second; a radio intercept had caught Rennenkampf’s order to halt and rest, therefore Prittwitz had some good ideas where he could find the Russians.

Prittwitz deployed three of his four corps and two independent divisions.  From left to right was Francois’ I Corp with the First Cavalry Division attached was just to the north of Gumbinnen, in the center moving from its line of departure on the River Angerapp was XVII Corps, on XVII Corps right, and also moving east was I Reserve Corps and on the far right was the Third Reserve Division.  XX Corps was still in the south opposing the Russian Second Army.  The German plan of battle was to have I Corps attack first to fix the enemy and make it turn north to face the attack.  Then XVII Corps would attack into the exposed left and rear of the Russians while I Reserve Corps would act as XVII Corps flank guard.

At first, Francois’ attack, prefaced by a night march, went very well. The German cavalry found a gap in the Russian lines and I Corps literally caught the Russians napping. As the Russian defenses stiffened and the Russian artillery started to come into play, the offensive started to slow.  Also slowing the attack were the trenches and fortified building that the Russians had prepared overnight.  However, the Russians soon fired off all their artillery shells and without that support the defenders soon fell back.  While the Russian Twenty-Eighth Division was all but destroyed, its Corps sister: the Twenty-Ninth Division, launched a series of fierce local counter attacks that took back some of the villages. The German Second Division artillery, feeling threatened by the Russians began to blast the landscape at random in a misguided attempt to stop the Russians.  Most of the rounds actually landed on German troops.  Hot, tired, having fought through what was called a “nightmare landscape” of concealed trenches, fortified villages and well hidden snipers, the German soldiers of I Corps had had enough; they broke and ran. Hastily rallied and reorganized by field grade officers, the German moved carefully forward again, but by 1600 with no sign of the XVII Corps and with no reserves, I Corps was ordered to halt.

In the center, XVII Corps did not fare as well as I Corps.  XVII Corps’ commander was August von Mackensen. Mackensen was a rarity among German generals. He was a Saxon from a middle-class background and had not attended the War Academy.  However, his career had flourished none the less. He was an able administrator and was a favorite of the Kaiser, who had ennobled him, thus the “von” in his name.  He was the senior Corps commander in the German Army, having lead XVII Corps since 1908.

Mackensen ordered his Corps on a twenty-five kilometer night march in a cold rain. Also, despite being a hussar commander, Mackensen failed to use his cavalry reconnoiter.  However early that morning he had received a liaison officer from I Corps. This officer stated that I Corps was sweeping the enemy from the field and all XVII need do was attack north.  Mackensen having no better ideas did just that.  His corps ran into a meat-grinder similar to what I Corps was facing: concealed trenches, fortified villages, well hidden snipers and accurate artillery fire.  Soon both his divisions were stopped in front of defenses that could not even see much less attack with any chance of success.  In a desperate attempt to break the bloody stalemate the German artillery moved into the open to support the infantry with direct fire. These batteries were soon slaughtered by a combination of sniper fire and Russian counter-battery artillery fire. After twelve hours of this hell, the Germans broke and ran, streaming back to rear as individuals and small disorganized groups.

The I Reserve Corps was a unique organization in the German Army.  All officers and men below the commanding general and his staff were reservists. Only about half of them were local East Prussian men, the other half coming from far and wide; industrial workers from the Ruhr rubbed shoulders with Hanoverian farmers and college students from Gottingen.  The Corps commander was Otto von Below.  He was what the German’s called an “old Hare” or alter Hase; a long serving line officer with limited staff experience.

I Reserve Corps job was to advance east to protect Mackensen’s right flank, by finding and “fixing in place” any threatening Russians.  Unlike XVII Corps, Below had used his cavalry and yet could find no major formations of Russians to his front. However, air reconnaissance reported two Russian Corps headed his way.  What happened next was a classic meeting engagement when neither side had a chance to dig in: every hilltop and stone building became a place to either defend or attack.  The German reservists “gave as good as they got” and by the afternoon they held the field and had prevented the two Russian Corps from attacking into Mackensen’s open right flank.

By that late afternoon the battle ground to a draw. True, the Germans had been failed to outright defeat the Russians. But they in turn had not been defeated either.  However, this lack of victory played  Prittwitz’s taunt nerves. The German General panicked and commanded full retreat west of the River Vistula.  Prittwitz then called Moltke , told the Chief of Staff of his command to withdraw  and also said that it was doubtful that the Germans could hold the Vistula without support.

Moltke had no time for a panicked General in East Prussia.  So he quickly decided on two course of action.  One there would be no retreat to the Vistula. Two von Prittwitz and his chief of staff, would have go and be quickly replaced by steadier men.  Recalling Paul von Hindenberg from retirement to send him east and Moltke assigned the brilliant Erich Lundendorff as his Hindenberg’s new Chief of Staff.

While the new command team of went east, General Prittwitz had found his spine. Also, Colonel Max Hoffman, Eighth Army’s very able Operations Chief had come up with a plan to defeat the Russians had persuaded Prittwitz to execute it.  The German army was to move south to deal with the Russian Second Army instead of retreating west.  However no one informed von Moltke or his staff.  Lundendorff and Hindenberg arrived they were briefed on the new plan and quickly approved it.  Eighth Army moved quickly south, setting up the Battle of Tannenberg.

By late afternoon the Battle of Gumbinnen had ground to a halt, with neither side having a great advantage. True, the Germans had been at least partly defeated by the Russians.  But it was far from a disaster.  The largest effect of the battle was on General von  Prittwitz the German Army Commander’s already overstretched nerves; in short, he panicked and ordered a general retreat to the west of the River Vistula.  Prittwitz then called Helmut von Moltke the Chief of the German Imperial General Staff and informed him of his decision to retreat and also told Moltke that it was doubtful that Eighth Army could even hold the Vistula River line without reinforcements.

Moltke deeply involved in the battles in the west had little time for a panic in the east.  He quickly determined two things. First, a retreat to the Vistula was not acceptable and second, Prittwitz and his chief of staff, von Waldersee, would have to be replaced and quickly.  Moltke recalled Paul von Hindenberg from retirement to send him east and assigned the brilliant Erich Lundendorff as his Chief of Staff.

While Hindenberg and Lundendorff headed east on the same train, Prittwitz had recovered his nerve. Further, Colonel Max Hoffman, Eighth Army’s vastly able Operations Chief had devised a plan to defeat the Russians in detail and had convinced Prittwitz to implement it.  So, instead of retreating behind the Vistula, the German army was to move south to confront the Russian Second Army.  Unfortunately for Prittwitz and Waldersee, no one told Moltke that they had reconsidered the retreat and what the new plan was.

Paul von Hindenberg was a graduate of the vaunted Prussian War Academy.  He had been commissioned into the Prussian army at the age of twelve. He had fought in both the Seven-Weeks War and the Franco-Prussian War.  He had a well deserved reputation for steely calm and iron nerve.  Before being recalled to command Eighth Army he had been retired since 1911.  Hindenberg had been off active duty for so long, he had reported for duty in the Old Prussian Blue uniform instead of the new field gray or feldgrau uniform.

Erich Ludendorff was the opposite of his new boss. Excitable, yet brilliant, Ludendorff was picked to be Hindenberg’s Chief of Staff because of his exceptional leadership in the capture of the fortress city of Liege, but he was too junior to command an army.  Also Ludendorff was not a Prussian Junker, but of middle-class background.  Yet, he was also a graduate of the War Academy.  However the two generals were different, they made a good team; a “happy marriage” and were soon simple known as “H and L”.

When Hindenberg and Lundendorff arrived, Hoffman presented his plan to the new command team and it was quickly approved.  This quick approval is not surprising since “H and L” had arrived at basically the same concept while riding on the train east.  This synchronicity however should not be seen as something unusual.  For years the Germans had war-gamed a two front Russian invasion of East Prussia and had come to the correct conclusion that the only way to win was to defeat one Russian army on one side of the Masurian Lakes, then using the excellent north-south rail-lines to turn on the other invading force and defeat it.

Leaving behind the First Cavalry Division, the Konigsberg garrison and a handful of local landwehr (reserve) units to screen the Russian First Army, the Germans started to move.  Francois’ I Corps had the furthest to go and used the excellent German rail system to move from being the far north corps, behind the rest of the army and then disembarking to become the most southern corps.  XX Corps, which had been screening Samsonov’s Army, now was the center of the German line. Below and the I Reserve Corps broke contact with the Russians moved first west than south to become the left-center. Mackensen’s XVII Corps, which had suffered the most at Gumbinnen turned west and then south as well and marched while it reorganized and refitted to become the far left of the new German lines.

The Russian General commanding Russia’s First Army, Rennenkamfp, who had held the line at Gumbinnen  soon realized that the Germans were thinning out in front of him, but he did little more then slowly patrol forward.  The Russian general surmised, that after the failed attack at Gumbinnen, that the Germans were now retreating north toward Konigsberg, so he immediately called for heavy artillery and more infantry to conduct a siege of that fortress city.  He also radioed his intentions in the clear for the Germans to intercept.  A second radio intercept, this time of  Russia’s Second Army commander, Samsonov,  with orders to continue attacking west, was handed to Hindenberg.  So on 25 August, Hindenberg knew that Rennenkampf was unaware of the Germans locations or intentions and that he would be completely out of position to intervene in the coming battle.  Further, “H and L” also now knew that Samsonov was also unaware that he now faced nearly the whole might of Eighth Army and was obligingly sticking his neck into the noose by continuing to attack westward.

Francois’ I Corps was to be the hammer to I Reserve Corps and XVII Corps anvil, but Francois seemed to have lost some of his aggressiveness.  Complaining his heavy artillery was not in position, he was slow off the mark on 25 August, not attacking until 1500, and then only fitfully.  Meanwhile, the Russians were pressing XX Corps slowly back in the center and Mackensen’s troops were fighting and winning on the German left, essentially destroying the Russian Fourth Infantry Division.

The next day Francois was still only attacking slowly and still complaining about his lack of artillery support. Meanwhile, another radio intercept indicated that Rennenkampf was detaching a corps to move south and attack the Germans. This news caused some concern in the German headquarters with Ludendorff considering calling off further attacks to deal with the new Russian force.  However, more intercepts and aerial scouting soon showed the Russians were not moving south, but rather north. So Hindenberg ordered the plan to continue.

On the 27 August, the Russians were breaking through hard pressed XX Corps in the center.  Ludendorff ordered Francois to detach a division to support XX Corps.  Francois refused and continued to press east and north.  Now with his heavy artillery in place, Francois was his bellicose self again and was driving the Russians into a sack. Meanwhile, Mackensen was continuing to press south.  On 29 August after two days of fighting, Francois’ I Corps met troops from XVII Corps at Willenberg completing the encirclement of Second Army.

Samsonov now finally realized what had happened and ordered his ill-supplied men east to escape.  Some obeyed.  Others, out of ammunition, out of food and out of hope, simply sat down and waited to be captured.  Samsonov couldn’t bear the shame of his defeat, saying over and over again, “The Tsar trusted me,” shot himself, rather than face the recriminations. The Russian Second Army had ceased to exist. The Russians suffered some fifty-thousand dead and wounded and over ninety-thousand prisoners were taken. The Germans lost less than twenty-thousand total dead and wounded.

Without a doubt the Battle of Tannenberg was a victory for the Germans; a defensive victory, but a victory none the less.  In macro-historical terms the battles in East Prussia; Tannenberg and the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes, had three primary effects. First they made the reputation of Hindenberg and Ludendorff such that in a few years “H and L” became the de-facto dictators of Germany. Second, the defeat for the Russians started a chain of events that eventually lead to the collapse of the Russian armies in 1917.  Lastly, the victories in the East so seized the mind of the German high command that they over committed resources to the defeat of Russia, when they should have been focusing on France and Britain in the West.

In today’s military it is axiomatic that an army should train as it will fight.  However the flipside of this coin is often ignored; that is to say, that an army will fight as it has been trained nearly regardless of circumstances. In the battles in East Prussia both the Germans and Russians soon found that prewar doctrine had to be modified in the face of the new circumstances of the war.   The Germans adapted to this new way of fight far faster than the Russians.

There are three levels of warfare in modern warfare; tactical, operational and strategic.  The levels of war are generally associated with geography, numbers of soldiers and resources involved.  Broadly speaking, the tactical level involves echelons at division and below and has a narrow geo-physical focus, such as a single terrain feature or some other single military objective; a hilltop, a town or a river crossing, for example.  The operational level concerns echelons at division to army or army group, or front, and will generally be concerned with a theater of war, involved combined arms and seek resolution or decision through a campaign designed to achieve an operational outcome, such as the conquest of a region or defense of a wide geographic area.  The strategic level is concerned with all military and political operations related to the war effort and the outcome of the war in its entirety. The strategic level is the province of the national leadership and the senior national military commanders.  Each level is closely related to the levels above and below and the three in total represent a spectrum.  Each level influences the others and builds or falls on the results of the levels below it.  Tactical victory should lead to operational and strategic victory.

Ultimately the battles in East Prussia in that fall of 1914 were strategic and operational “must wins” for the Germans.  A defeat would have opened the German heartland, including Berlin, to an attack by as many as three Russian armies. However, the victories were no more than tactical and operational level wins for the Germans, no matter how one-sided they were.  Because in short, the Germans could not turn East Prussia from an operational level victory into a strategic one; they simply lacked the resources to divert from the Western Front. Further the Russian Army had soon replaced all the soldiers and equipment lost in the campaign. Also the Russians could afford to lose in East Prussia and still not be removed from the war or even face a threat to their vital centers, such as Moscow or St. Petersburg.  In fact it would take three more years of hard fighting and much internal turmoil to finally knock Russia out of the war.