Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, or “Smiling Albert” as he was known to his troops, was one of the founders of the German Luftwaffe, but he was best known for his dogged defense of Italy in the face of relentless Allied pressure. He was a master of strategy who nearly toppled the RAF in the Battle of Britain and successfully suppressed the Soviet air forces during Operation Barbarossa, but also a fine leader who enjoyed the confidence of his men and even proved capable of differing with Hitler on occasion without losing the Führer’s support. The forces at his disposal were never truly adequate, however, and victory never became possible. Ultimately, Kesselring joined the roster of German generals noted for staving off defeat for as long as possible, and his material contributions to the Luftwaffe itself have largely been overlooked.
Kesselring was born on November 30, 1885, at Marktsheft in Bavaria. He was the junior son in a noble family with a long history; his father was a university professor, so the family was not especially affluent, but there were plenty of opportunities for the children as they grew up. Somewhat surprisingly, given his undeniable academic gifts, Albert chose to pursue a military career.
In 1904, he received his commission in the artillery, a branch of service that allowed him to make use of technical skills and strategic thinking. Service in the peacetime military offered few prospects for advancement, however, and the only other important development prior to 1914 was his marriage to Pauline Anna Kayssler, an unhappy alliance negotiated by the parents of the couple for economic reasons. Both soldiered on in the marriage on general principle, but there were no children and Albert channeled all of his energy into his work.
The outbreak of war opened many opportunities for gifted officers. Although only a First Lieutenant (Oberleutnant) in 1914, he was given a staff post in the Bavarian Artillery. He remained a staff officer for most of the war, occupying a variety of posts on the Western Front. This gave him the opportunity to learn a variety of lessons, from the limitations of the artillery to the need for rapid action in the exploitation of any advantage. A variety of crises also afforded Kesselring the chance to demonstrate his ability to rally flagging troops, and in 1918, he was drawn into the highly prestigious General Staff.
He remained with the Army after the war, although his role was largely restricted to administrative duties for nearly fifteen years. A new and unexpected opportunity emerged in 1933, after the Nazis took power: Germany was to invest in air power again, and Kesselring was chosen to help organize the new Luftwaffe. Technically, the effort was still forbidden, but that was not the only reason that the choice was surprising. Kesselring had had no background in aviation prior to this appointment, but he was a highly capable administrator and he had demonstrated mastery of technical subjects as well as a good grasp of situational awareness. From the start, he vindicated the choice; among other things, he learned how to fly that same year, ensuring that he could see aviation issues with a practical airman’s eyes.
As monolithic as the Third Reich could seem to casual viewers, in reality it was a patchwork edifice comprised of numerous competing offices and petty fiefdoms. This was also true of the Luftwaffe, which only began its existence after the Nazis took power. In the case of the Luftwaffe, the three leading figures were the visionary Chief of Staff Walther Wever, State Secretary for Aviation Erhard Milch and former pilot and long-standing Party leader Hermann Goering. The accidental death of Wever in a plane crash in 1936 did more than rob the Luftwaffe of a capable organizer; it also exacerbated the tensions between Goering and Milch. Both had received promotions on Hitler’s birthday, some six weeks before Wever’s death, and Goering was determined to prevent Milch from assuming Wever’s role. Goering preferred to see a Bavarian staff officer assume the post, and when Franz Halder declined the opportunity, Goering turned to Kesselring as his second choice.
Kesselring did not long remain the Chief of Staff. Conflicts with Milch were constant, and eventually Kesselring resigned before completing a full year in the post. It was a year that proved decisive for the Luftwaffe, both for what it did and did not accomplish. In the first category, Kesselring had done much to ensure that the Luftwaffe would be able to contribute materially to the fast pace of battle anticipated by the Army, and it would also have the logistical network that would be necessary to serve as a premier source of tactical air support. On the other hand, Milch blocked efforts to develop long-range bombers until after Kesselring departed. Neither Wever nor Kesselring had intended for the Luftwaffe to specialize in tactical roles and to neglect strategic ones, but the internal politics of the Luftwaffe in the later 1930’s had the same effect.
Leaving the Luftwaffe staff, Kesselring was placed in command of Luftkreis III, a major post that entrusted him with the defense of the core of Germany as well as an offensive role in the event of war with either Poland or Czechoslovakia. During the next two years, the growing Luftwaffe underwent reorganization, and by the summer of 1939, Kesselring’s command was known as Luftflotte 1, or the First Air Fleet. Experience in the Spanish Civil War only served to strengthen the tactical role that already dominated the Luftwaffe’s functions, and Kesselring followed these developments closely as he prepared for a war that he expected to come soon in his sector.
As it happened, that war came in September against Poland, and Kesselring’s Luftflotte played a major role in the invasion. Even more importantly in the long term, in the months before the invasion Kesselring secured the attention and the confidence of Hitler. In part, this happened because Hitler was more interested in the opinions of officers who were changing the way war was to be fought, like Guderian and Kesselring, than of more traditional commanders who offered conventional wisdom. At the same time, Kesselring’s optimistic temperament and usually deferential tone gave Hitler a greater level of comfort with Kesselring than with other leading officers, including Guderian. Kesselring would later observe that no one could shake Hitler from his conclusions when his mind was set, but already in 1939 Kesselring was laying the groundwork for getting a better hearing than most.
Kesselring did not remain idle when the Polish campaign was over. He transferred to Luftflotte II in January, commanding it during the Western campaign of May and June. His command included the air assault on Dunkirk; while the results of that effort proved to be mixed in the long run, with a British evacuation that ultimately served to salvage the British war effort, it seemed like a clear victory at the time. Kesselring was promoted to Field Marshal on July 19.
Kesselring was already at work planning action against Britain. He had actually proposed making an attack on Britain even before France capitulated, reasoning that Britain was completely unprepared at that time for an attack on its own shores, especially considering that much of its army was still at Dunkirk at the time. German success in France had exceeded even the rosiest estimates, however, and the German leadership was not yet prepared to extend its forces even further with an attack on Britain. When at last the Luftwaffe was unleashed against the RAF, it was Kesselring’s strategy that first drove the British inland, giving the Germans effective control over the air above the English Channel, and then ground the RAF down with attacks on British airfields.
He was already modifying his strategy before Goering interfered. As enemy losses seemed to taper off, he concluded that attacks on the airfields were losing effectiveness, and changed tactics to increase the fighter presence and reduce the bomber component of German raids. He believed that the final blow to the RAF was never far off; and so, when Goering insisted on making attacks on London, Kesselring acquiesced freely, thinking that it would produce the last few decisive battles that would clear the enemy from the sky. In the end, this proved counterproductive; not only was the RAF stronger than Kesselring thought at that time, but the change in strategy allowed it to build up its strength further, and eventually it was the Germans who had to abandon the Battle of Britain.
More successful was his work on the Eastern Front. Kesselring commanded the Luftwaffe in the central sector of Operation Barbarossa for the first six months of the campaign, and here he largely swept the enemy from the sky. Then, in December, he was sent to the Mediterranean, and not simply as Luftwaffe commander; in the Mediterranean, he had a true joint forces command including Navy and Army components. It was also multinational, with Italian forces as well as German ones under his command. Because of Italian sensitivities, his tact proved especially useful in this theater.
Axis fortunes improved at first after Kesselring’s arrival, but soon American involvement overwhelmed Axis activity in North Africa, and Kesselring was pushed into a defensive mode. From this point, Kesselring never had enough resources to repel the Allies outright, but he made the most of what he did have to draw out the defense as much as possible. This included a skillful evacuation of Messina at the end of the fighting in Sicily, and a stubborn fighting withdrawal north through Italy. Even when the Italians defected to the Allies, he neutralized the suddenly hostile Italian forces near him and filled the gaps that they created.
His conduct of the defense in Italy was curtailed in October 1944, when his car struck an artillery piece; his injuries included a broken skull. This kept him from his command for three months, and shortly after he returned to his post, he was reassigned: he replaced Rundstedt in defending Germany against the British and Americans in March. By then, it was largely a formality; he surrendered on May 7.
Peace proved as perilous for Kesselring as war: he was tried as a war criminal for acts of reprisal against Italian partisans after Italy switched sides. He was condemned to death, but Winston Churchill personally persuaded the new British Prime Minister to spare him. His sentence was commuted to imprisonment; originally meant to be for life, it lasted five years before Kesselring was freed for health reasons. He served as president of Stahlhelm, an organization for German veterans, and died on July 20, 1960.
In success or failure, Kesselring had always acted with brilliant thinking and high standards of personal integrity. Many other German generals shared these characteristics to varying degrees. Perhaps more striking, however, is the way that Kesselring won and then kept the confidence of Hitler. Because of his tact and optimism in most matters, Kesselring was capable of differing with Hitler without being shouted out of the room. He made his arguments in a straightforward manner, but at the same time he adapted to what Hitler clearly wanted as much as he could. He understood that he could not sway Hitler if his mind were truly made up, but when it was not, he could sometimes moderate the Führer’s poor decisions. The presence of a few more leading generals with these skills might have changed the course of the war. As it was, “Smiling Albert” was unique.
Cowley, Robert et al. The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001
Dear, I.C.B. The Oxford Guide to World War II. Oxford, 1995
Hooton, E.R. The Luftwaffe: A Complete History 1933-1945. Crecy Publishing, 2010
Macksey, Kenneth. Kesselring: German Master Strategist of the Second World War. Greenhill, 2006
Ibid. Why the Germans Lose at War: The Myth of German Military Superiority. Sterling, 2006
Parrish, Thomas. Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II. Simon and Schuster, 1978
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