Rank: Field Marshal
Fate: Died Soviet captivity 1954, aged 73
Von Kleist was from an aristocratic family from the German state of Hesse. After military academy he joined the cavalry, served as a staff officer in the First World War and retired as a general in 1938. He was recalled to active service in the build up to war in 1939 and led a panzer corps in the invasion of Poland. He was then promoted to command of ‘Panzer Group Kleist’, the main grouping of German armour for the invasion of France, which played the decisive role in Germany’s rapid victory. This was despite furious arguments during the campaign between von Kleist and his subordinate, General Heinz Guderian, who accused his commander of being overly cautious.
In 1941 von Kleist’s Panzer Group led the German Blitzkrieg attack against Yugoslavia and Greece, before lining up as part of Army Group South for the invasion of the Soviet Union. His units immediately ran into a series of poorly co-ordinated Soviet counter-attacks that became known as the Battle of Brody, and led to enormous Red Army tank losses. Encounters with the superior Soviet T-34 and KV-1 tanks did, however, give German commanders pause for thought. Panzer Group Kleist went on to play a crucial role in the massive encirclements of Soviet troops at Uman and then Kiev in September 1941.
In the summer of 1942 von Kleist was given the job of spearheading the German advance into the Caucasus in the quest for Soviet oil. During an advance of nearly 400 miles, his troops became over-extended and desperately short of fuel, and lacked the force to punch through the last line of Soviet defences. After the fall of Stalingrad, Von Kleist had to lead a hurried retreat from the Caucasus before his troops were cut-off.
In 1943 Von Kleist was promoted to Field Marshal. But despite a stubborn defence of the ‘Kuban Bridgehead’ in western Caucasus, the overall strategic situation forced von Kleist into retreat. In March 1944 he was sacked by Hitler for authorising withdrawals that breached direct orders from the Fuehrer. He never held active command again.
After the war von Kleist was arrested by the Americans, and extradited on war crimes charges first to Yugoslavia (where he was sentenced to 15 years) and then the Soviet Union (where he received life). These sentences were for the murder of civilians by German forces in territories under his jurisdiction. He died of natural causes in a Soviet prison in 1954.
Rank: Field Marshal