War is Boring
On Oct. 24, 1942, German Gen. Georg Stumme, commanding officer
of the Third Reich’s Panzer Army Africa — which included the famed Afrika Korps
— was riding in a car along a track with his signals officer, Col. Andreas
Buechting, near the front line for an inspection. It was day two of the Second
Battle of El Alamein, the enormous British-led offensive in Egypt which would
turn the tide in North Africa in the Allies’ favor.
How the monocle-wearing Prussian officer ended up in the car, in
command of all Axis forces in the theater, is an odd story. Three months
earlier, this Knight’s Cross recipient and veteran of the campaigns for France,
Yugoslavia and Greece was sitting in a jail cell facing five years in prison,
Hitler having relieved him of command and ordering his court martial after an
incident on the Eastern Front.
A court martial ordered by the Fuhrer, of course, always ended
in a guilty verdict. Stumme was found guilty.
But here was Stumme, free, and having replaced Erwin Rommel —
the Desert Fox — who had returned to Germany due to sickness and exhaustion.
And that is when Stumme, his driver and Buecthing appeared within sight of
Allied troops. Suddenly, a bullet struck Buechting in the head, killing him —
which was one of the last things Stumme witnessed in his life.
Back in June 1942, Stumme was the commander of the XXXX
Motorized (Panzer) Corps, part of the German forces preparing to push into
Southern Russia as part of Case Blue, the strategic offensive toward the Baku
oil fields and Stalingrad. Stumme, as a traditionalist German officer, wrote a
one-page summary of the upcoming offensive and distributed it out to the XXXX
Corps’ divisional commanders, according to historians David M. Glantz and
Jonathan House’s 2009 book To the Gates of Stalingrad .
At top — Stumme with Rommel. (Photo: German Federal Archive
How Stumme distributed these orders was the problem — flying
them by air. In January 1940, the German plans for the invasion of Belgium fell
into Allied hands after a liaison plane crashed behind the lines.
Hitler forbade such flights in the future, enforcing strict
requirements on who would receive operational orders and how, according to
Glantz and House. But German officers often ignored Hitler’s orders, as German
military tradition and Auftragstaktik — mission-type tactics — considered
information sharing a critical component of success, allowing subordinate
officers flexibility on the battlefield while obeying their commanders’ intent.
So as a result on June 19, 1942, shortly before the offensive,
an officer with the XXXX Corps’ 23rd Panzer Division, Maj. Joachim Reichel, was
flying in a long-legged, big-winged Fi 156 Storch liaison plane with his Case
Blue orders, and an objective map, when the pilot flew off course and crashed
behind Soviet lines.
The crash shattered the pilot’s skull and killed him.
Recommended for You
Reichel ran away with the secret plans and was shot when
resisting Soviet soldiers, according to a Soviet account of the event, although
records from the ground are contradictory and unclear.
Stumme’s headquarters were thrown into a panic at Reichel’s
disappearance, and he scrambled a reinforced company from the 336th Infantry
Division on a daring search and rescue mission. The soldiers would later
discover the plane is a marshy, shallow valley — but did not find Reichel or
The Soviets had the plans.
Stalin, however, largely ignored the compromised orders,
believing them to be one of many potential future German offensives. He did
bolster the tank strength of Soviet forces in the southwest as a precautionary
measure, bringing up the total number of tanks on the Briansk Front to 1,600,
although in actual practice the Briansk Front and its commander, Gen. Filipp
Golikov, would suffer during the upcoming battle due to lack of coordination.
Case Blue, of course, would end in a major German strategic
defeat, with the destruction of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad in early
Stumme, meanwhile, was out of a job for this blatant violation
of Hitler’s operational security measures. Hitler had him court-martialed, and
he was only saved from prison due to the pleading of his allies within the
officer corps including Wilhelm Keitel — chief of OKW, the military high
command — and Herman Goering, the Luftwaffe chief and de factonumber-two Nazi.
After Rommel became ill, Stumme was off to North Africa just as
Britain’s El Alamein offensive was about to begin.
It’s not clear how Stumme died. One account states that before
his death in Egypt near the front line, he was seen outside his car, hanging
onto it as the driver sped out of the line of fire. The Allied troops would
later discover Stumme lying on the track, deceased but with no bullet wounds.
One theory is that he might have suffered a heart attack during
the ambush. The 56-year-old general had chronic high blood pressure.