Readers read: the great generals (and admirals) between the end of the nineteenth century and the collapse of the Berlin Wall

(To David Rossi)

The period left to the analysis of readers is, apart from a thirty years of colonial age, what historians call "the short century", that is the years between the beginning of the First World War and the collapse of the European Res Publica (1914 ) and the collapse of the Soviet alliance system along with the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989). Game strength, we excluded most of the nineteenth century, a little to avoid readers falling into the trap of "the first Italians" with Giuseppe Garibaldi, but above all not to include Napoleon Bonaparte, because the Grand Course was undoubtedly the most skilful and ingenious military leadership of human history, especially if we consider the exceptional number of battles (almost all won)1 fought by the general / first consul / emperor in not even twenty years. Neither Julius Caesar nor Hannibal nor Scipio the African nor Alexander the Great fought so much, not even counting all their battles together!

In the twentieth century, no general (or admiral) fought more than a handful of battles, nothing compared to Napoleon. Yet some personalities emerged and allowed readers to highlight their great value. A lucid mind capable of thinking even in moments of crisis, luck, merit, the ability to manage resources and, last but not least, the innovative genius that allows changing the paradigm: behind the great military leaders there are these qualities. Let's find out together ...

The last heroes

Let's start with an important distinction that the reader Flavio Barale makes, that one "Between Generali and Battaglia Generali from the General Staff, are two categories that carry the same title but with different tasks and qualities. For this reason, I propose two that I believe were among the largest. As for the great strategists I was in doubt between two German von Manstein and Eisenhower, in the end I preferred the second one because he was the author of the biggest landing ever (successfully) and in my opinion it was one of the biggest presidents of the United States.

Among the generals of battle, even here the doubt and between a German and an American, Rommel and Patton, both generals have had the ability on the field to motivate and set an example to the troops together with a tactical vision and ability to use the means that few had understood for those times, but the balance hangs for the German, who managed with little means and lack of stocks to keep the British in check in North Africa coming near Alexandria. Furthermore, he was one of the generals who led the German armored forces to break through the French lines in the '40. I have not taken into consideration any post-WWII general since it was the last conflict where the human factor was still prevalent, then the technological growth has relegated the generals to move only with advantages of overwhelming materials and technology. We enter the so-called post-heroic phase ".

Heinz Guderian: a genius in the service of Hitler

According to reader Adriano, "This Prussian - born in Kulm in the 1888 - was one of the protagonists of the" blitzkrieg ", which revolutionized the way to make war with the autonomous and eminently offensive use of armored vehicles, concentrated in special large units, able to surprise the traditional defensive equipment of contemporary armies.

After the experience in the First World War (first at broadcasts, then at the General Staff), which also highlighted the angularity of his character, since the 20 years, at the instigation of von Seeckt, the general of the Germanic military revival, Guderian he devoted himself to the study of a new doctrine of the use of armored vehicles and to their technical development. With this intent he was sent to the chariots school of Kazan (USSR), created following the Russian-German agreements of the 1922 (Treaty of Rapallo). Starting from these studies, which saw other leading German officials as the unfortunate Oswald Lutz, then developed and applied in the following decade, publishing, in addition to a series of articles, also the fundamental 'Achtung Panzer', and finding precisely in Hitler an enthusiastic supporter, so much so as to facilitate Guderian's own career.

Promoted to general of ca in the 1938, Guderian, for the next three years, unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of this new way of conducting offensive operations, surprising the Polish, and, above all, French and Soviet armies, although abundantly equipped with armored armored vehicles . However, after the failed offensive against Moscow in the autumn '41, and the consequent hard contrasts with Hitler himself and other generals, Guderian was put to rest. Only after the disaster of Stalingrad (2 February 1943), Hitler removed it from the mothballs entrusting him with the post of Inspector General of the armored forces. Far from the front, Guderian gave his best in trying to keep the armored weapon worn down by an increasingly difficult conflict at high levels of efficiency and effectiveness. After the failed coup of 20 July 1944 (Operation Valkyrie), Guderian was appointed OKH chief of staff (Oberkommando des Heeres), working to try to curb the Soviet advance. Once again relations with Hitler were rather difficult, due to Guderian's determined opposition to some strategic choices and military operations, imposed by the Führer and later revealed to be bankrupt. This cost him his final leave just a few weeks after his surrender. After three years of imprisonment, he retired to private life, writing his memoirs, published two years before his death ".

There was a German, an American and an Israeli ...

The word to the reader Mario Lodovico Chervisari: "The first general that comes to mind is Erwin Rommel, the German general who already as a young officer during the Great War gave proof of his abilities on the Karst front. In the Second World Conflict he demonstrated that his was not only potential but well-rooted in his person. The reversal of the situation in North Africa, turning the victorious British army into an army in rout (at least until the stabilization of the front at El Alamein) earned him the nickname "Desert Fox". Again, if the high German command had given him more confidence in the months leading up to the Normandy landing (to him and Rundstedt), perhaps the victory would have cost the Allies much more.

The second name is that of Douglas MacArthur, both for the methodical and constant reconquest of the Pacific islands, always during the Second World War (in my opinion in this theater it was the air-naval battle that determined the fate of the conflict, more than the important battles anyway on every island) but above all for the audacious operation in Incheon that allowed to overthrow in two weeks a situation that left very little hope during the Korean War (this not before having proposed, almost pragmatically I would dare to say, to cancel Korea of North from the face of the earth with the help of several dozen nuclear weapons).

The third and last name is that of Yitzhak Rabin, IDF Chief of Staff during the Six Day War. I chose his name to actually indicate the whole Israeli chain of command that during that conflict (net of a discreet technological superiority and a clear doctrinal) allowed the young armed forces to annihilate the war machine with a Bonapartian flavor of three different countries, faced with a numerical disadvantage comparable to the difference in size between David and Goliath.

The generals that I chose all worked during or after the Second World War, this because I don't think that in the previous conflicts no star official managed to be incisive and differentiate himself from his colleagues as they succeeded. At the same time, a common characteristic of the men I mentioned is that they often found themselves in the vicinity of the front with their subordinates, so as to directly have the pulse of the situation ".

A second endorsement for MacArthur

Moreno Rampolli writes: "After reading some military books and the stories of the main wars of the last century, I would say that the general who struck me most for his personal abilities is Douglas Mac Arthur. In the Korean war, the landing of Inchon and the consequent cancellation of the North Korean invasion forces that had arrived down to Busan was masterful ".

One (our) enemy defeated but also a great man

According to the engineer Sergio Silvestri, "Franz Konrad von Hoetzendorf was the most tenacious but chivalrous adversary of the Italian FFAAs in the First World War: a serious military technical pragmatist who did not neglect the morale of the troops, he did not fail to suggest perfectly fitting solutions to the Emperor of Austria with the strategic situation, choices on the verge of strategic-political cynicism but which would have reduced, if immediately implemented, many human lives ".

The admiral who scared Churchill

The Cacciari reader begins with a question: "What makes a general great or in the past a condottiere? The victories? No, not just that. Victory is important but victory can even smack an incompetent if conditions permit. Great is who, with few means and men and maybe in adverse conditions, gets exceptional results, if then the thing is not finalized to a single episode but lasts in time then it will have 'confirmation of the value of the character. I then passed the period in question (1885-1989) and I arrived at a single name that is not a general, but an admiral: Karl Doenitz. The reason for my choice is that unlike other military personnel we are faced with a person who, as a young man, took part in the First World War and asked to be directly assigned to the war on the seas and what it meant to be a submariner. After the first conflict his story is known and it is the second conflict that makes him emerge with strategist, organizer and eventually also political. The U-boot fleet was his creation, his was the strategy, his tactics, his research and development policy for new boats, his was the economic vision of the war that had its fulcrum in the Atlantic naval block and all this from 1939 to 1945. To confirm my choice I quote the words of a historical figure: Winston Churchill who said that the only thing that really frightened him during the war were Doenitz's U-boats ".

Three telegrams:

  • In the period you indicated, I believe that the greatest generals are both American and, to be precise, Patton and Mac Arthur.
  • The best was George Patton. Von Paulus was a brilliant innovator. The most prosaic Moshe Dayan.
  • Since we have only one name, my choice falls on Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of US Pacific forces and Allied naval and air forces during World War II.

Concluding analysis of an ancient reader

Finally, we leave the word to good old Sergio Pession:

"Georgij Konstantinovič Žukov 1896-1974 He has not only prevailed against a now victorious Japan. He not only resisted Stalingrad under the offensive of the most ruthless and efficient war machine ever. He not only motivated the troops and led a winning counter-offensive. He won over Stalin keeping his head on his neck, despite numerous disagreements with the same. Then later he supported Chruščëv in the 1955 helping to drive away the specter of the 3 World War. A worthy result I believe.

Heinz Guderian 1888-1954 When France, despite superior resources, followed the "infantry formula + wagons + artillery + bunker", Guderian turned the page (a page still open today) with "infantry X tanks". Even Guderian fought his most difficult battles, not on the field, but at the tables with a dull corporal named Hitler. He won them, surviving as a man, but he lost them as a military man, succumbing to a Russia that left no room for error. It is possible that without Hitler's interference in Russia today more sausages would be eaten.

Erich Von Manstein 1887-1973 Together with Guderian, Von Manstein annihilated post-Napoleon France, ironically, with the latter's mobility techniques. Brilliant also in Russia when he was able to reinvent himself from a daring striker to shrewd and fluid defender (and also saving his face).

But no ...

Rommel. Brilliant, daring, but damned arrogant. Boldness is good for some battles, but a general must think about war.

Montgomery. Effective, patient, farsighted. But it is the Arrigo Sacchi of the Second World War.

Patton. He mounted a machine gun on a jeep and boosted the tanks, but he will always remain a cowboy.

And finally the admirals ...

Karl Dönitz 1891-1980 This long-standing admiral has changed the rules of the sea by subverting its balance. He taught that wolves also hunt at sea and in packs. Not much is left of his submarine tactics, given the evolution of submarines, but in a future of drones, certain of his ideas could re-emerge from formalin.

Togo Heihachiro 1848-1934 Japanese admiral known for the battle of Tsushima, showed that metal vessels, cannons and engines are not enough and that Lord Nelson's heart and mind know no age or geographical boundaries. Besides, aren't all the seas connected? "

PS Everything here? We would have liked to have heard Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, one who was able to overturn the decisions of the victorious powers of the First World War and made himself the leader of an entire people. Then, without a doubt Vo Nguyen Giap, the general of the Viet Nam of the North who - with the guerrilla tactics - was able to defeat nothing less than the United States, and the commander Ahmad Shāh Massoūd, the champion of asymmetric warfare able to bring to his knees the Soviet Union. Who said there are no more heroes?

1 The beauty of 64, almost all against coalitions of states. The defeats are just 8.

Photo: IWM / web / Bundesarchiv