Whenever I buy a bunch of photos, I sort them in keepers and those I will sell. One thing I look for are photos of generals; knowledge of German uniforms has made me pretty adept at spotting collar tabs and other telltale insignia. My latest purchase numbered more than 1,300 photos, and among them were a few photos with some damage from moisture (?), but with not one, but two generals in them. My go to site for help with identifying generals is the Axis History Forum, which is a great resource. It’s apolitical, and several military history authors are members. I posted a scan of one of the photos, and got an answer within a few hours. It turned out that the generals were among the most well-known German generals of WW2: Generaloberst (later Generalfeldmarschall) Fedor von Bock and Generalleutnant (later Generaloberst) Hans von Salmuth. The photo is probably from August or September 1939, judging by von Salmuth’s rank and the absence of von Bock’s Knight’s Cross. By this time, von Bock was the commander of the 2. Army and von Salmuth the chief of the general staff of the 2. Army.
von Bock and von Salmuth enjoying a smoke after some coffee.
Fedor von Bock was born in 1880 into a Prussian military family in Küstrin (now Kostrzyn in Poland). He was sent to a military academy in Berlin when he was eight years old, predestined for a military career. Prior to World War 1, he trained for the General Staff. In 1905, he married Mally von Reichenbach, with whom he had a daughter. His wife died in 1910, 23 years old. He was promoted to captain in 1912, and commanded a battalion in WW1. von Bock was awarded the Pour le Mérite, the highest military award in the German Empire, in 1918. He continued to serve in the severely reduced Reichswehr after the war, but was also a member of a secret group of officers that tried to circumvent the restrictions laid down in the Treaty of Versailles. The group cooperated with the so-called “Black Reichswehr”, a paramilitary group disguised as labor groups. The “Black Reichswehr” carried out murders of Germans suspected of being informers for the Allied Control Commission. von Bock and his colleagues denied any connection, and when the “Black Reichswehr” tried to stage a coup in 1923, he ordered them to stand down. With no support from the Army, the coup failed.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, von Bock, a monarchist, declared himself neutral. This didn’t stop his military career, and he was promoted to General in 1935. He remarried in 1936, his new wife Wilhelmine von Boddin bringing a daughter and a son from a previous marriage. von Bock was appointed commander of Army Group North for the attack on Poland in 1939, and then Army Group B in the invasion of France in 1940. He was promoted to Generalfeldmarschall after the successful conclusion of the campaign. von Bock didn’t get much time to rest on his laurels, as he was made commander of Army Group Center prior to the invasion of the Soviet Union. The initial success of the attack made von Bock argue for a direct drive on Moscow, instead of losing momentum by encircling and destroying Red Army forces with mobile units needed for the advance. Hitler thought otherwise, and the campaign might’ve ended differently if von Bock’s view had won. When the offensive stalled and failed outside of Moscow, von Bock was relieved of his command.
With the death of the commander of Army Group South, Walther von Reichenau, von Bock got a new assignment. While the renewed campaign in 1942 was successful, he had new disagreements with Hitler and was relieved of his command yet again. He retired to Bavaria, and when the assassination attempt against Hitler failed, he declared it a crime. Fedor von Bock met his ultimate fate on 3 May, 1945, when he was travelling by car to Flensburg to see the new leader of the collapsing Third Reich, Groβadmiral Karl Dönitz. A British fighter-bomber attacked the car, killing his wife, teenage stepdaughter, and the driver. von Bock was seriously wounded, and died the next day. It is possible that he would’ve faced the court in Nürnberg and been declared a war criminal, but instead his legacy became that of a highly competent, hard-driving commander who served his country loyally while in opposition to Hitler. He was one of the generals who made Hitler’s war such an initial success, and in so doing also caused the ultimate downfall of the army and country he loved.
What about the other general in the photos, then? Hans von Salmuth was born in Metz in 1888. Like von Bock’s family, his was military, too, but not as illustrious. He joined the Army as a cadet in 1907, and served in WW1 mainly as a staff officer. von Salmuth remained in the Reichswehr after the war, serving as a staff officer or unit commander over the years, rising in the ranks and finally promoted to Generalmajor in 1937. He became the chief of the general staff of the 2. Army in 1939, serving under von Bock. In 1940, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross, as well as promoted to General der Infanterie. He parted ways with von Bock in May 1941 when he was posted to the Balkans as commander of XXX. Army Corps, and participated in Operation Barbarossa and the Battle of Sevastopol.
As the war progressed, he commanded different armies on the Eastern Front before being assigned to command the 15. Army in the Pas-de-Calais area in August 1943. As the German forces in the West crumbled following the Allied invasion in June 1944, he was relieved of command and didn’t hold a commanding position for the rest of the war. von Salmuth was taken prisoner by the Americans by the end of the war, and was tried for war crimes in 1948. He got a 20 year sentence (only one other general got 20 years, and just two got life sentences), which was served in the Landsberg military prison. Cold War politics made the West German government pressure the American authorities for the release of the generals. Hans von Salmuth was released in 1953, and died on New Year’s Day in 1958.
Thanks to Axis History Forum member Frech for identifying the generals.