Friedrich Mieth

Friedrich Mieth, an officer of great physical and moral courage, was born in Eberswalde, Brandenburg, about 30 miles northeast of Berlin, on June 4, 1888. He entered the army in 1906 as a Fahnenjunker in the 2nd Jaeger Battalion and was commissioned in the infantry in 1907. He served with distinction in World War I, where he fought on the Western Front, in Rumania, and with the Turkish Army. He performed well, became a company commander, and was wounded at least once. He remained in the army throughout the Weimar era, joined the General Staff, worked in the Defense Ministry, and was promoted to major in 1928. After Hitler came to power, the highly capable Mieth rose rapidly as the Wehrmacht expanded, being promoted to lieutenant colonel (1933), colonel (1935), and major general on April 1, 1938. In the meantime he commanded the 27th Infantry Regiment at Rostock, Pomerania (1936–1938) and served as chief of staff of Wehrkreis XII (1938–1939), which headquartered in Wiesbaden, Hesse. He was chief of staff of the 1st Army on the Western Front when World War II broke out.

Mieth was one of the first officers to clash with Hitler and the Nazis over the Einsatzgruppen (murder squads) and the SS and SD atrocities in Poland. In January 1940, Reinhard Heydrich, the brutal chief of the SD, set up a liquidation camp at Soldau, Poland, near the East Prussian border. When Mieth learned of this, he assembled the officers of the 1st Army and told them, “The SS has carried out mass executions without proper trials. The SS has besmirched the Wehrmacht’s honor.”

Prior to Mieth’s speech Hitler may have been unaware of Heydrich’s specific actions, but he certainly endorsed them in principle. In this clash between the army and the SS he quickly demonstrated which side he was on. Mieth was dismissed from his post on January 22 and sent into retirement. General Franz Halder, chief of the General Staff of the army and sometimes an anti-Hitler conspirator, rescued Mieth from professional oblivion three weeks later by naming him chief of the Operations Department (O Qu I) of OKH. This took a considerable amount of courage on Halder’s part. Remarkably, Mieth was promoted to lieutenant general on March 1, 1940—only five weeks after Hitler had sacked him.

In his new job, Mieth was involved in planning and executing the Western campaign of 1940—especially the operations on the Upper Rhine. During the last phase of the Battle of Dunkirk he served as OKH liaison officer with the 18th Army in a successful effort to transfer its divisions to the south as rapidly as possible. Partially as a result of these efforts, elements of the 18th Army took Paris on June 14. Later Mieth helped coordinate the buildup of forces between Army Group A (von Rundstedt) and OKH for the final phase of the conquest of France and toured the 9th Army’s front as the representative of General Halder. He was named chief of staff of the Armistice Commission on June 25, 1940.

After France capitulated and Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of the United Kingdom, was cancelled, Friedrich Mieth apparently tired of his duties in Berlin and asked for a command. He took over the 112th Infantry Division near Mannheim on December 10, 1940, the day it was officially activated. Sent to Russia in July, the 112th fought at Bobruisk, Kiev, and Bryansk and suffered heavy losses during the retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1941–1942. It was occupying a relatively static sector of Army Group Center’s line when Stalingrad was encircled on November 23, 1942.

When the Rumanian armies collapsed, Hitler upgraded headquarters’ 11th Army to Headquarters, Army Group Don, and called upon the brilliant Field Marshal Erich von Manstein to stabilize the front and save 6th Army. Manstein hastily summoned Mieth and named him commander of security and rear-area troops for the new army group. Because of the rapid speed of the Soviet breakthroughs, however, Mieth’s real function was to organize ad hoc units and lead them into combat to help stem the Russian tide. On New Year’s Day 1943, for example, he was in the Zymlia sector, commanding four ad hoc combat groups, each of approximately regimental strength, plus the 336th Infantry Division and what was left of the 7th Luftwaffe Field Division. With these forces he was conducting a delaying action near the Don River. His hastily organized headquarters was already known as Korps Mieth.

From January to July 1943, Mieth fought in the battles along the Don, in the Donetz, and in the retreat to the Mius. During this period he had to maintain constant flexibility because his units were always changing, as the southern sector of the Eastern Front underwent crisis after crisis. On March 4, for example, Mieth controlled the 336th and 384th Infantry divisions and the 23rd Panzer Division. Five weeks later all these units had been transferred, and Mieth was directing the 3rd Mountain and the 304th and 335th Infantry divisions. Mieth, however, proved himself to be an excellent field commander, and on April 20, 1943 (Hitler’s birthday), he was promoted to general of infantry. His headquarters was recognized as a permanent formation on July 20, when it was upgraded to IV Corps—named after a unit destroyed at Stalingrad. In the meantime, it received its corps units, including the 404th Artillery Command (Arko 404), the 44th Signal Battalion, and the 404th Supply Troop.

Friedrich Mieth continued to distinguish himself on the Russian Front throughout 1943 and into 1944, earning his Knight’s Cross and Oak Leaves in the process. He did not make headlines in America or Britain, or even in Germany, for that matter. He was, rather, one of many solid, dependable, highly competent German generals, fighting very skillfully against heavy odds, for a cause in which he did not believe and for a leader and regime he did not love, but for a country he did love. Meanwhile, IV Corps was pushed inexorably back, across the Dnieper, out of the Nikopol Bridgehead, across the Nogay Steppe and over the Bug and Dnestr, all the way to Moldavia in the eastern Carpathians, where the Soviet spring offensive of 1944 was finally brought to a halt. Here, as part of Colonel General Johannes Friessner’s Army Group South Ukraine, it awaited the next, inevitable Soviet attack.

In the meantime, secret negotiations were taking place between representatives of the Soviet Union and the political enemies of Hitler’s ally, Rumanian dictator Ion Antonescu. On August 20, the anticipated Soviet offensive began with a massive artillery bombardment, followed by strong ground attacks. In all, the Soviets had 90 infantry divisions and six tank and mechanized corps, or more than 925,000 men. Friessner met them with 360,000 German soldiers (23 divisions, of which 21 were infantry) and 23 Rumanian divisions—all of which had lost the will to fight. Of the army group’s 392-mile front, 160 miles were held by unreliable Rumanian troops. Although the Germans held their positions, the Rumanian front broke in a number of places, and there were incidents of Rumanians disarming and arresting German liaison staffs and cutting German communications and even firing on German troops. Friessner was already retreating when the Soviets sprang the trap.

On the afternoon of August 23, Antonescu was deposed and arrested and Rumania defected from the Axis, and that night the king broadcast a message to the Rumanian people stating that Rumania would join the United Nations against their common enemy—Germany. Meanwhile, the Rumanian Army stopped fighting the Soviets, whose motorized columns surged unopposed into the German rear. They were already 40 miles behind IV Corps before Mieth learned what was going on in Bucharest. Two days later Rumania formally declared war on Germany.

Meanwhile, on the morning of August 24, Friessner made the difficult decision to save what little of his army group he could save (for the defense of Hungary) and abandon the rest. Those forces already cut off in Rumania would have to break out and escape on their own—if they could. These included virtually the entire 6th Army (resurrected since Stalingrad) and the IV Corps of the 8th Army.

On August 21, Mieth’s corps consisted of the German 370th, 79th, and 376th Infantry divisions and the 11th Rumanian Division. Outflanked by a major Red Army attack to the west, Mieth at once retreated to the south, parallel to the Pruth River, although he lost a number of heavy guns in the process. (It had rained, and his horses could not move them out of the heavy mud.) Mieth had already lost contact with the corps on both his flanks.

August 22 was a day of continuous fighting with Soviet vanguards, as IV Corps slowly fell back to the previously prepared Trajan position. The sky was cloudless and the heat oppressive. The rainwater had already evaporated, and dust choked the veteran foot soldiers, who nevertheless beat back every Soviet attack. By this point of the war, the Luftwaffe was long since a spent force even in the East. Soviet airplanes bombed and strafed all the roads more or less continuously. No one had seen a German fighter plane for a long time.

Despite these difficulties, Mieth managed to keep his corps together—except for the 11th Rumanian, which had been engaged but was still not conforming to his instructions. Mieth ordered Lieutenant General Friedrich-August Weinknecht, the commander of the 79th Infantry, to visit the Rumanian commander, to coordinate operations and bring the 11th back into the battle. While the two divisional commanders were talking, panic-stricken hordes of Rumanians—led by their officers—suddenly appeared and rushed by them, babbling something about being under tank attack even though not one vehicle could be heard. The Rumanian commander tried to halt the rout and even resorted to using his whip, but he could not perform a miracle. The next day he was forced to report that his division had dissolved.

Fourth Corps continued its withdrawal on August 23, under the remorseless sun and cloudless sky. Soviet mechanized and armored attacks against the rearguards were bolder now and beaten off with difficulty. No food had arrived for some time, and the troops ate their Iron Rations or lived on what little corn they could find in the poor Rumanian fields. The wounded, without medication or proper attention, were carried along in primitive farm carts and died like flies in the scorching heat. By August 24 the men were nearing exhaustion when Mieth learned from a radio interception that Soviet armor had overrun Husi, cutting IV Corps off to the south and destroying or dispersing the supply units in the process. Any possibility of help or resupply was now gone. Meanwhile, stragglers from two other crushed German infantry divisions joined Mieth’s columns in an effort to escape the impending disaster. On August 25 and 26, with strong Soviet forces to his front and rear, Friedrich Mieth launched a series of desperate attacks against Husi; however, due to the swampland that almost surrounded the town, the stiffness of the Soviet resistance, and the rapidly diminishing combat strength of his exhausted corps, he was unable to take the place and reopen the escape route to the south. He therefore ordered all carts burned and all unwanted horses shot.

General Mieth’s new plan was desperate, although definitely in line with the situation. He planned to change direction and march to the west. Fourth Corps would attack across the Berlad River, destroy all its remaining equipment, and break into small groups. These parties were then to head for German lines in the Carpathian Mountains, about 70 miles away—or at least Mieth hoped they were heading for German lines. He had had no contact with any higher or adjacent headquarters for days (although he must have assumed—correctly—that the latter had already been destroyed). In reality, Mieth had no way of knowing where either German or enemy forces were located.

The German assault group was supposed to form up for the attack on the night of August 27–28. It was to be spearheaded by the 79th Infantry Division and led by the four assault guns still left to the division, followed by its two combat engineer companies. The infantry by now was low in ammunition and too exhausted to be of much use. The foot soldiers who could still walk followed like zombies, in stupefied silence.

General Weinknecht tried to carry out the assault as scheduled, but it proved to be impossible. The combat organization of the 79th Infantry Division was breaking down, communications were gone, and the exhausted troops, many of whom had not eaten for days, simply could not be aroused in sufficient numbers. Delay followed delay until well after daybreak. Meanwhile, a hollow-eyed General Mieth showed up at the division command post, shaken and disheveled. He told how his headquarters had been overrun by Soviet troops a few hours before. With the Reds pressing heavily into his rear, Mieth was not happy that Weinknecht had not yet crossed the river, and the two exchanged harsh words, largely brought on by the physical and mental strain of the preceding nine days. In any event, the 79th Infantry, followed by other units and stragglers, crossed the river under artillery and mortar fire and overran the Soviet blocking positions on the morning of August 29. Friedrich Mieth himself was right up front with the engineers in close combat, and this is where he died. Due to conflicting reports, we do not know for sure whether he fell to a Soviet bullet or to a heart attack, but he certainly would have preferred the former.

Once across the Berlad, IV Corps broke up as planned. Later that day, Red Army radio traffic revealed that Mieth’s men had broken across the river in strength and that about 20,000 of them had pushed southwest of Husi. Almost all of these were run down and killed or captured by the Soviets or the Rumanians. Only one member of the 79th Infantry Division reached German lines in Hungary 12 days later. He was now 300 miles from Iasi, where the ordeal began. The detailed reports of the other divisions of the IV Corps are lacking, but they could not have done much better. In sum, Army Group South Ukraine lost all but five of its divisions in the Rumanian disaster. Three of these were west of the Soviet offensive when it began and were not engaged, and two (the 13th Panzer and 10th Panzer Grenadier) were mobile enough and acted quickly enough to escape. Some rear-area units, of course, were far enough behind the front to escape as well, and a few isolated bands of infantry made their way back to German lines weeks after the fighting began. Exact losses will never be known but could not have been much below 200,000 men. Most of these were never heard from again.