Wilhelm, Ritter von Leeb, whose austere, intellectual features and long head with its high, domed forehead mark him as a thinker more readily than as a man of action, was considered to be the leading defensive strategist of the pre-war German Army. An artilleryman only one year junior to von Rundstedt, he had been born in 1876 and was thus 63 years old when war broke out. A sincere Catholic, he had been a supporter of von Fritsch although, rather curiously, he was also on good terms with his fellow gunner Keitel. As one of the old school, a monarchist and a Catholic, Leeb was neither a friend nor a follower of the Nazi Party, and indeed Hitler once referred to him as ‘an incorrigible anti-Nazi’. He was one of those to lose his command in the purge of 1938, though he was restored the following year.
By 1932 Leeb was a Lieutenant-General commanding a division, and between 1934 and February 1938 he commanded Gruppenkommando 2 as a full General of Artillery with headquarters at Kassel.
Although never a member of any of the conspiracies against Hitler, Leeb must have been one of the first important generals to have been put under surveillance by the Gestapo. He worked out his own ideas from the standpoint of an intellectual, and although ignorant of the plots of Beck and Halder in 1938 and 1939, came up independently with his own idea that, in 1939 when the invasion of France loomed, the three Army Group commanders, of whom he was one, should refuse to undertake the offensive, and tell Hitler so. He was dissuaded from this drastic course of action by the other two generals concerned, Rundstedt and Bock, who told him that such a step would amount to mutiny. Leeb may be seen from this episode to have been somewhat naive.
During the invasion of Poland Leeb, then a Colonel-General, was left in charge on the Western front, as the expert on defence, and must have been relieved that no Allied attack was made against his threadbare forces. He was not in favour of a policy of aggression in the west, and in October 1939 circulated a memorandum among his fellow generals prophesying that the whole world would turn against Germany if she, for the second time in twenty-five years, violated Belgian, and now also Dutch, neutrality. ‘The entire nation is longing for peace’, Leeb wrote. It was for this reason, and for his admirable personal character, that conspirators such as Hassell and General Thomas saw some hope in Leeb. In January 1940 Etzdorf, the Foreign Office liaison officer with the General Staff, thought Leeb the only one of the three Army Group commanders with whom something might be done. But Leeb was not forceful enough, and did not command sufficient backing in the Army, to be a successful catalyst; and by September 1941 Johannes Popitz, the Prussian Minister of Finance and a leading conspirator, told Hassell that he found Leeb ‘almost fossilized’.
As C-in-C West in 1939, Leeb was naturally given an Army Group for the invasion of France, but Hitler saw to it that it was the least powerful one. For the first part of the blitzkrieg the 1st and 7th Armies of Leeb’s Army Group C merely tied down the French forces opposite them in the south, and it was only after the encirclement of the British and French’ in the north that he penetrated the Maginot Line. Thereafter Leeb’s seventeen divisions made good progress in the second part of the battle of France, but their achievements were overshadowed by the more spectacular Panzer breakthroughs in the north.
Leeb was promoted Field-Marshal on 19 July 1940, and on 25 October his Army Group headquarters was moved from France back to Dresden, in preparation for the coming invasion of Russia. In this campaign Leeb was given command of Army Group North, whose main objective was Leningrad, and which consisted of his friend Colonel-General von Küchler’s 18th Army, Colonel-General Busch’s 16th Army, and Colonel- General Höpner’s 4th Panzer Group. Leeb was against the invasion of Russia, and protested about it to Brauchitsch, foreseeing for one thing the entry of America into the war against Germany. Nevertheless he took command of a formidable force of twenty-three infantry divisions, three panzer, three motorized, and three security divisions.
Although von Leeb’s initial advance into the Baltic States from East Prussia was successful, and he crossed the Dvina River, he was unable to encircle the defending Soviet north-west front as it withdrew. Admittedly the Russians lost much materiel, but they husbanded their personnel. By the end of July, when Leeb’s forces were getting close to Leningrad, opposition stiffened. The Finns in the north had retaken the ground they had lost in the Winter War of 1940, but did not press towards Leningrad or south of the Stir River. When Hitler changed his mind about Moscow in September, one result was to have a disastrous effect on Leeb’s advance: he lost at the end of the month Höpner’s 4th Panzer Group, a total of five panzer and two motorized divisions, to von Bock’s Army Group Centre for ‘Typhoon’; and also Richthofen’s VIII Air Corps from Kesselring’s 2nd Air Fleet, which returned to its parent formation in the centre.
Leeb’s objections were overridden by Hitler with the assurance that Bock’s successes would take the pressure off Army Group North and make its task easier. Rundstedt in the south also had to sacrifice nine divisions, two of which were panzer and two motorized, to Bock. This was at the very end of September and the beginning of October. By furious attacks Leeb’s troops reached the shores of Lake Ladoga, but thereafter his offensive got bogged down, supply difficulties became acute as the Russian winter made itself felt, and the Finns showed no sign of crossing the Stir. By late November the Red Army was launching counter-attacks on Leeb, the strength of which surprised Halder, especially in artillery. Leeb was unhappy at the way in which the whole campaign was being directed, and on one occasion remarked sarcastically that Hitler seemed to be allying himself with Stalin.
On 6 December 1941 Leeb’s Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General K. Brennecke, reported to O.K.H. that Tikhvin was under threat of encirclement from the Russians, in such intense cold, sometimes as much as minus 35 degrees centigrade, that most of the German tanks could not fire their guns. In fact Army Group North had long since gone over to the defensive after the transfer of the bulk of its armour. For once Hitler gave permission for a withdrawal without making a fuss, though he stipulated that Tikhvin be kept within artillery range. It had become clear to O.K.H. that Leeb, like von Rundstedt, was overextended and weaker than they had thought.
Why did Leningrad not fall, apart from the heroic resistance of the Russians? It should have been captured before Leeb lost his main armour. On 16th August Lieutenant-General Otto Sponheimer’s 21st Infantry Division from East Prussia, part of I Corps in Busch’s 16th Army, captured Novgorod which the Russians had made a ‘last man, last round’ citadel. Without stopping they had pushed on by the 20th to Chudovo and captured intact the railway bridges first over the Kerest River, then the more important one over the Volkhov which took the October Railway from Leningrad to Moscow.