“Der eiserne Keller”

Generaloberst Alfred Keller stands together with new recipients of the Iron Cross, second class, probably in 1941. Alfred Keller (19 September 1882 – 11 February 1974) was a Luftwaffe general during WW2, and went on to become one of the most decorated generals of the Luftwaffe. His military career began in the Imperial German Armed Forces in 1897.  Initially a junior infantry officer, Keller became attracted to that newfangled invention: aircraft. He made his first flight at the school at Metz, becoming an observer in 1912. In the following year, Keller finished his training as a pilot and gained his pilot’s wings.

He served first in the reconnaisance, then the bomber arm of the Imperial German Air Force, where he was promoted to wing commander. Keller’s unit became the first German bombers to operate night missions, which was noted for the missions against Dunkirk and the British forces concentrated there. His sudden delivery of 100 tons of bombs on the port in the silence of the night in September 1917 caused considerable damage and forced a British retreat to Calais. For planning, organization and leadership in this attack and others he was awarded the prestigious order Pour le Mérite. It was during World War 1 that he got his nickname der eiserne Keller – “Iron Keller”.

In the years after WW1, Keller left the army and built a career in civilian aviation, offering air mail service in 1923 for the first time in Germany. During 1925 Keller operated an air traffic control school in Berlin, but in 1928 moved it to Braunschweig. Here he began, as a means of resistance to Allied conditions of Armistice the secret training of new military pilots, and he became one of the first men called by Hermann Göring to help in the construction of the Luftwaffe, as soon as the Nazis had assumed power in 1933.

In September 1939, when WW2 began, the then General Alfred Keller commanded the IV. Fliegerkorps during the invasion of Poland. The following campaigns against Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Battle of France, he commanded Luftflotte 2. Keller was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross on 24 June 1940, and shortly afterwards, on 19 July 1940, he was promoted Generaloberst. It is sometime after this the photo is taken, as he wears the collar tabs of that rank. On 19 August 1940, during the Battle of Britain, Alfred Keller was appointed as the commander of Luftflotte 1 and Air Force commander – East. Keller led this formation very energetically during the Balkans Campaign and later during the Operation Barbarossa, where he predominantly supported Army Group North. Keller remained with Luftflotte 1 until 12 June 1943, when he retired from active service at the age of 61.

However, he continued to perform important functions in NSFK (Nationalsozialistische Fliegerkorps – National Socialist Flying Corps), a paramilitary unit that he organised to form a civilian reserve of pilots). He was Korpsführer of the NSFK until the German surrender on May 8, 1945. Towards the end of the war, Keller was also responsible for the antitank weapons department of the Luftwaffe.

With the German capitulation on 8 May 1945, Keller became a British prisoner of war, being kept until 1947. He wasn’t charged with any war crimes. In the 1950s he became one of the first presidents of the Association of Knight’s Cross Recipients. Keller passed away in Berlin, aged 91 years.

Rare movie of Keller visiting the front.

 

Thanks to Axis History Forum member ttvon for identifying Keller.

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General embarrassment

Generaloberst Werner von Blomberg in happier days, sometime between the summer of 1934 and the autumn of 1937. Born in 1878 in Stargard, Pomerania, he joined the Army at an early age and served in WW1 with distinction, where he was awarded the Pour le Mérite, the highest award for extraordinary achievement in battle. After the war, he served in the Reichswehr in different capacities, like Chief of the Troop Office. With the rise of Nazism as a political power, von Blomberg began to support it, as his belief was that only a dictatorship (like that in the Soviet Union) could make Germany a great military power.

In 1933, von Blomberg rose to national prominence when he was appointed Minister of Defense in Hitler’s government. He became one of Hitler’s most devoted followers, and worked hard to expand the Army. In 1934, von Blomberg had all of the Jews serving in the Reichswehr given an automatic and immediate dishonorable discharge. He got a reputation as something of a lackey to Adolf Hitler. As such, he was nicknamed “the Rubber Lion” by some of his critics in the Army. In the same year, after President Paul von Hindenburg’s death, von Blomberg ordered all soldiers in the Army to pledge the Reichswehreid (oath of allegiance) not to Folk and Fatherland, but to the new Führer.

In 1935, the Ministry of Defense was renamed the Ministry of War. Generaloberst von Blomberg also took the title of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. In 1936, the loyal von Blomberg was the first Generalfeldmarschall appointed by Adolf Hitler. His growing power roused the jealousy of Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler, who conspired to oust him from his position. Göring had ambitions of becoming Commander-in-Chief himself.

In late 1937, Hitler announced to his top military-foreign policy leadership that it was time for war in order to expand Germany’s Lebensraum eastwards and to grab the initiative before Britian and France grew too strong. While none of those present had any moral objections to the plans, von Blomberg was one of the few opposed to going to war before 1942, as he didn’t think Germany was prepared for war and that there was a considerable risk that France and Britain might declare war on Germany. This didn’t sit well with Hitler, and this gave Göring and Himmler an opportunity to strike.

Werner von Blomberg had been a widower for some years, but in January 1938, at the age of 59, he married the 26 years old secretary Erna Gruhn. A police officer discovered that Gruhn in 1932 had posed for pornographic photos (taken by a Jew with whom she was living at the time) and reported this to the Gestapo and Hermann Göring (who had served as best man at the wedding). Göring chose to misrepresent Frau von Blomberg’s criminal record as being for prostitution as a way of smearing her husband. He then informed Hitler, who ordered von Blomberg to annul the marriage in order to avoid a scandal. Werner von Blomberg refused, and consequently resigned from all of his posts when Göring threatened to make his wife’s past public knowledge.

Werner von Blomberg’s career ended badly when he flew too close to the sun, but he was right on at least one count: Germany wasn’t prepared for war, and that she would get more enemies than she could handle. The couple were exiled for a year to the isle of Capri in the Mediterranean. Spending WW2 in obscurity, von Blomberg was captured by the Allies in 1945. He later gave evidence at the Nuremberg Trials, earning the scorn of his erstwhile colleagues. While in detention in Nürnberg, Werner von Blomberg died of cancer in 1946, and was buried without ceremony in an unmarked grave. Later, his remains were interred in his residence in Bad Wiessee in Bavaria.

 

Thanks to member “graveland” on Axis History Forum for identifying von Blomberg.

General unpleasantness

An unnamed British Lieutenant General inspects a Luftwaffe honor guard, sometime in 1935 or 1936. The German Generalleutnant right behind him is Walther von Reichenau. He was born in 1884, joined the army in 1902, and served in the First World War. After the war, he continued his military career. When he was introduced to Hitler by an uncle in 1932, he became a loyal follower and joined the NSDAP (Nazi Party), despite the army regulations that were there to keep the army and politics separate. Apart from furthering his career, he opposed the radical SA (Sturmabteilung) leader Ernst Röhm, who had pressed for SA to become the major military force in the new Reich. Conspiring with Himmler and Göring, he was one of the instigators of “the Night of the Long Knives” in 1934, where Röhm and other leaders of the SA were purged and executed.

In 1938 Adolf Hitler wanted to appoint him as Commander-in-Chief of the Army. Leading figures in the German Army complained and Gerd von Rundstedt, Franz Halder and Ludwig Beck all refused to serve under him. The job went to Friedrich von Brauchitsch instead. von Reichenau led armies in both the invasion of Poland and of France, and was promoted to Generalfeldmarschall in 1940. One would think that such an ardent Nazi and career officer would favor the plans for an attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, but von Reichenau actually opposed them. This didn’t stop him from being appointed to lead the 6th Army.

Once committed to the war in the East, he led the 6th Army in capturing Kiev, Belgorod, Kharkov and Kursk. An anti-semite, Reichenau encouraged his soldiers to commit atrocities against the Jews in the territory under his control (the “Reichenau Order”). On one occasion he told his men: “In this eastern theatre, the soldier is not only a man fighting in accordance with the rules of the art of war… For this reason the soldier must learn fully to appreciate the necessity for the severe but just retribution that must be meted out to the subhuman species of Jewry…” All Jews were henceforth to be treated as de facto partisans, and commanders were directed that they be either summarily shot or handed over to the Einsatzgruppen execution squads.

In other matters, he displayed some sound thinking, like recognizing the Soviet superiority in armor and the risks attached to it, the need for recruiting Ukrainians and Byelorussians to fight the Red Army alongside the Wehrmacht, and the risk of increasing partisan warfare. Reichenau used to go on a daily cross-country run in order to keep fit. On 12 January, 1942, he ran several kilometers in temperatures well below -20 degrees Celcius. When he returned, he had a severe heart attack (some sources say that it was a stroke). After being unconscious for five days, it was decided to fly him back to Germany. Walter von Reichenau died on 17 January 1942, when the plane carrying him to Leipzig crash-landed and he reportedly suffered a fatal heart attack. His funeral was performed with the usual pomp of the Third Reich. Hitler did not attend his funeral.

He was succeeded by General Friedrich Paulus, who took command of the 6th Army. Paulus was a staff officer who had never led a unit larger than a battalion. A year later, he surrendered to the Soviets in the ruins of Stalingrad, his army in tatters. What would have happened if von Reichenau, a much more competent and decisive officer, hadn’t died? One thing is pretty sure, though: if he had survived to the end of the war, he would’ve been one of the generals on trial in Nürnberg, and would probably have ended up in the gallows as a war criminal.