Blitzkrieg, Bombs, and Blunders: “Smiling Albert” Kesselring in World War II


Albert Kesselring

Albert Kesselring, also called “Uncle Albert” by his troops and “Smiling Albert” by Allied forces, was a German Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall) and life-long military man. His career spanned over 40 years, three wars, and was equal parts filled with military brilliance, horrific targeting of civilians, and cleaning up, as best anyone could, the messes caused by German tactical errors in World War II.

In his military career before WWII, Kesselring joined the Bavarian Army as an officer cadet in 1904 and served the German Empire when World War I began during which he was promoted to captain, serving in the 1st and 3rd Bavarian Foot Artillery. After the war, he served in various staff positions, helping the German army to reorganize and was eventually promoted to lieutenant Colonel (Oberstleutnant) in 1930.

Though against his wishes, he was discharged from the army in 1933 and appointed to lead the Department of Administration at the Reich Commissariat for Aviation (the precursor to the Reich Air Ministry and the Luftwaffe) and his great aid to the German WWII effort began. He would eventually rise to Chief of Staff of the Luftwaffe and lieutenant general (Generalleutnant) in 1936.

Prior two WWII, Kesselring oversaw the secret development of factories and deals with industrialists and aviation experts to build the German air force into the beast it became. Under his watch, new aircraft like the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and the Junkers Ju 87 (Stuka) were developed and men trained as paratroopers. He also supported the Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War, made up of German Luftwaffe and Army volunteers fighting for the loyalist side. In 1938, Kesselring was promoted to air general (General der Flieger) and appointed to command Luftflotte 1 in Berlin.

Burning Warsaw after being bombed by the Luftwaffe, September 1939 (Bundesarchiv)
Burning Warsaw after being bombed by the Luftwaffe, September 1939 (Bundesarchiv)

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Kesselring and Luftflotte 1 provided close air support for ground forces and bombed Warsaw heavily. Having his command switched to Luftflotte 2, Kesselring supported the invasions of Holland and Belgium. In Holland, he coordinated assaults between Luftflotte 2, paratroopers, and mechanized forces, and bombed Rotterdam to rubble.

The Battle of the Netherlands was over in four days (May 10th – 14th, 1940). When the eventual push into France lead the German Army to encircle the British Expeditionary force at Dunkirk, General Gerd von Rundstedt ordered the army to halt 15 km away, putting the burden of stopping the evacuation on Kesselring. Kesselring appalled this decision and as his efforts were stalled by bad weather and the British Royal Air Force, over 300,000 Allied troops escaped across the Channel to Britain.

Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring (mit Marschall-Stab), Generalleutnant Wilhelm Speidel, Chef des Stabes der Luftflotte 2 und Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring (Bundesarchiv)
Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring (with field marshals baton), Generalleutnant Wilhelm Speidel, Chief of Staff Luftflotte 2 and Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring (Bundesarchiv)

After Hermann Göring’s failed strategy in the Battle of Britain, Kesselring and Luftflotte 2 were transferred back to the East just in time for Operation Barbarossa—the invasion of Russia on June 22nd 1941. Like the invasion of Poland and the Western campaign, Kesselring operated mostly in support of General Fedor von Bock, who was now in charge of Army Group Centre.

With a fleet of over 1,000 aircraft, Kesselring decimated the Russians in the air and on the ground. In the first week of the campaign, he reported that Luftflotte 2 had destroyed over 2,500 Russian aircraft. Through improving army-air coordination and convincing ground commanders to let him focus support on critical points, Kesselring destroyed hundreds of tanks and artillery and thousands of vehicles in the Russian army.

Like how any invasion of Russia goes, Luftflotte 2’s progress was eventually halted over Moscow by winter conditions, but also by heavy air and ground resistance.

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