July 16th in German History: The Death of Albert Kesselring

Albert Kesselring - Wikipedia
Albert Kesselring.

Germany has produced many competent military commanders. During the Second World War especially, German officers became famous for their numerous victories over opposing forces. One such commander was Albert Kesselring, an infantry and artillery officer who joined the German air force during the interwar period and rose to the rank of Field Marshall. He died on July 16th, 1960.

Albert Kesselring was born on November 30th, 1885, in Bavaria. He became an officer cadet in 1904 and in 1909 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 2nd Bavarian Foot Artillery Regiment. In 1912 he trained as a balloon observer. Kesselring served with distinction during WWI, earning an Iron Cross for his actions during the Battle of Arras, and was appointed to the General Staff. He served in various administrative and command roles during the interwar period until 1934, when he was appointed head of the Department of Administration at the Reich Commissariat for Aviation. He oversaw the expansion of the Luftwaffe after becoming Chief of Staff in 1936, and at the age of 48 he learned how to fly. Luftwaffe supported the development of a long-range heavy bomber, but like other ex-army officers focused mainly on the close air support role of the air force. Kesselring commanded Luftflotte 1 during the invasion of Poland, helping to destroy enemy air forces and support the Panzer armies as they raced through enemy lines. He was appointed command of Luftflotte 2, the largest unit in the Luftwaffe, in 1940 and played a critical role in the destruction of the Belgian, Dutch, and French air forces during the Battle of France. He was appointed to Field Marshall that year. During the Battle of Britain, Kesselring supported attempts to destroy the Royal Air Force in direct air-to-air combat and, like Goring, believed that the RAF was near destruction by September. In this he was incorrect, be he kept his command even after Germany lost the Battle of Britain. Kesselring’s Luftflotte 2 also took part in the invasion of the Soviet Union. His forces slaughtered Soviet airplanes sent against them, although this was as much due to faulty Soviet tactics during the early years of the war as to German skill. Despite destroying vast numbers of Soviet planes, the large front and the Luftwaffe’s numerous commitments led to a loss of total air superiority by the end of 1941. Kesselring was moved to the Mediterranean and there argued for an invasion of Malta, although he was overruled by Rommel. After the allies won in North Africa, Kesselring commanded German air and ground forces during the invasion of Italy, successfully holding off Allied advances for several months. Despite his intelligent defensive strategy, the Allies took Rome in 1944 and advanced up the peninsula. Several reprisals against civilians were committed on Kesselring’s orders, and he showed more concern for Italian artwork and historic buildings, than for the population. Later, he would order deserting soldiers to be hanged. He would be put in command of the German Western Front in March of 1945, but could do little to prevent Germany’s collapse. On May 9th, he surrendered to the Allies.

While in the custody of the Allies, Kesselring was tried and convicted of war crimes. He was sentenced to death at first but that was commuted to life in prison. A media campaign led to his release in 1952 and he retired to write his memoirs. Albert Kesselring suffered from perhaps the most common flaw among military commanders. Namely, he ceased to think of soldiers or civilians as people, and rather as tools to be used to obtain victory. This perception has led to more needless death than any feeling of racism or bigotry, as it reduces all people, not just those of one group, as objects rather than individuals.

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