General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg, 1886-1974

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General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg (1886-1974) was an acknowledged expect in armoured warfare who had a successful career on the eastern front before being posted to the west, where he clashed with Rommel over the correct tactics to use against the expected Allied invasion.

Geyr's father was master of the horse to the King of Württemberg. Geyr himself served in the cavalry, before becoming a military attaché, serving in Brussels, the Hague and London between 1933 and 1937. He was in London at the time of the Rhineland crisis, from where he sent messages back to Berlin warning the German government not to underestimate the British. He was also bold enough to warn about the dangers of Hitler's adventurous foreign policy, earning an official rebuke and Hitler's long-term distrust.

This distrust had no impact on Geyr's immediate career, for on 1 December 1937 he was appointed to command the 3rd Panzer Division, leaded it until October 1939. His performance in Poland won him a personal commendation from Hitler, and promotion to command the 24th Corps on 15 February 1940. After leading this corps through the campaign in the west in 1940, Geyr moved on to command the 3rd Panzer Corps (April –July 1942), taking part in the fighting around Kharkov, then the 40th Panzer Corps (July-September 1942), taking part in the fighting in the Caucasus.

At the start of 1943 Geyr was moved west with orders to form and train new units to face the expected Allied invasion of France, starting with the 76th Army Corps.

Geyr's position in France was typical of the over-complicated command structure that had evolved in the Third Reich. In the spring of 1943 von Rundstedt ordered Geyr to prepare a force of 10 Panzer and motorised infantry divisions for use in the west, but Hitler forbade him from holding a front line command, so his divisions were to be commanded either by von Rundstedt or by the local army group commanders. On 19 November 1943 Geyr's command was formalised as Panzer Group West, which had responsibility for the training and formation of all armoured units in the west, but once again lacked operational control. Von Rundstedt retained overall control of all armoured units at this point, with Geyr as his advisor. Geyr was also to cooperate with the army group commander in any particular area (Rommel in the crucial invasion areas).

The situation got worse in March 1944. At a meeting with Hitler Rommel asked to be given command of all armoured, motorized and artillery units in the west, and to be given some authority over the German armies on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of France. At this first meeting Hitler ignored von Rundstedt's protests and approved Rommel's plans, but he soon changed his mind. Command of the ten Panzer divisions that had been under von Rundstedt was split. Rommel gained direct command of the 2nd, 21st and 116th Panzers, while the 1st and 12th SS Panzer, 17th Panzer Grenadier and Panzer Lehr was formed into a central reserve, officially under the command of OKW, but actually under Hitler's personal control. Geyr, as commander of Panzer Group West, still retained control of the organisation and training of these units. The end result of these changes was to ensure that none of the reserve units played any part in the fighting on D-Day.

In the months before D-Day Geyr became Rommel's most important critic in France. The two men disagreed almost totally on the correct way to use the armoured divisions. Rommel believed that overwhelming Allied air power would prevent any reserves from moving quickly to the invasion area. As a result the panzers would have to be posted just behind the coast, close enough to use their artillery at the moment the Allies landed, and to allow their tanks to reach the fighting in force on D-Day. He believed that one division on the beaches on D-Day would be more valuable than three divisions on D-Day+3.

In contract Geyr believed that the armoured reserves should be kept away from the beaches, out of range of the Allied naval gunnery. The coastal defences would be used to delay the Allies and inflict as many casualties as possible, but no counterattack would come until the Allies had begun to advance into the interior. At that point the massed Panzer divisions would be used to launch a massive counterattack, taking advantage of German expertise in mobile warfare.

The events of D-Day and beyond suggest that neither Rommel nor Geyr was entirely correct. There was one Panzer division in the right place on D-Day – the 21st Panzer – but it was largely ineffective, while those divisions that had to make the sort of journeys that Geyr had suggested suffered heavy losses and delays – the 2nd Panzer Division took nine days to reach the front line from Abbeville, and lost one third of its tanks on the way. Allied air power and naval gunnery was so overpowering in Normandy that neither German plan had much chance of success.

Geyr was one of the few senior German commanders to be at his post when the Allies landing on 6 June, but he had no authority to take any action. On 7 June, after Hitler finally gave von Rundstedt command of the panzer reserves, Geyr and Panzer Group West were attached to General Dollman's 7th Army, but Allied airpower meant that Geyr's divisions suffered serious disruption on the way to the beaches, and the Germans were only able to mount small scale counterattacks. On 9 June, after it because clear that attacks with his current forces couldn't succeed, Rommel decided to go on the defensive until the 2nd Parachute Corps (Meindl) arrived from Brittany. Geyr was given the task of organising a full scale counterattack to be mounted once these reinforcements arrived.

On the same day Allied intelligence discovered the location of Geyr's headquarters, in an orchard at Le Caine, twelve miles to the south of Caen. Geyr still didn't fully appreciate the danger from Allied aircraft, and his HQ wasn't camouflaged. On 10 June the RAF launched a devastating attack on Geyr's HQ, killing his Chief of Staff and at least 17 other staff officers. Geyr was wounded, but was one of the few survivors. All of his wireless trucks and transport was destroyed, and the survivors were so totally isolated that the Seventh Army didn't learn of the disaster for twelve hours. The planned counterattack was eventually launched by Sepp Dietrich, but the delay meant that it was never as powerful as intended, and it ended in total failure.

The air attack knocked Geyr out of the fighting until late June, but once his headquarters had been rebuilt Geyr began to plan for a bigger counterattack, to be carried out by the remains of four Panzer corps. On 28 June Rommel, for unknown reasons, cancelled this attack. This effectively ended Geyr's military career. Hitler now believed him to be a defeatist, and on 2 July he was replaced by General Eberbach.

The D-Day Companion, ed. Jane Penrose. A selection of thirteen separate essays on different aspects of the D-Day lands, from the initial planning to post-war memorials; this is an excellent piece of work that sets the D-Day landings firmly in context. An excellent starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about Operation Overlord, but its wide range of topics means it is likely to be of value to anyone with an interest in the subject. [see more] cover cover cover

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (28 May 2009), General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg, 1886-1974 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_geyr_von_schweppenburg.html

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