World War II German Army Field Marshal. He was a Knight of Justice of the Order of St John (Bailiwick of Brandenburg), a traditional Prussian cavalry officer, a firm monarchist who openly disdained Nazism, and a man of high principle and moral courage. Von Kleist commanded the XXII Panzer Corps under General Gerd von Rundstedt in the invasion of Poland, then held the command of the principal armored divisions, as Panzergruppe Kleist, in the invasion of France in 1940. His Panzer group was sent to Bulgaria in Spring 1940 to conquer Yugoslavia as part of Von Weichs' 2nd Army, Belgrade falling to Kleist's forces on April 12th. In this campaign, atrocities were committed by SS units under von Kleist's command. Panzergruppe Kleist, now designated 1st Panzer Army, was the armored contingent of Von Rundstedt's Army Group South in Operation Barbarossa, tasked with the conquest of the Ukraine. His forces were instrumental in forcing the surrender of 600,000 Soviet troops after encircling them at Kiev. Von Kleist saw the need for recruiting Soviet subject peoples to aid his efforts and had secured the addition of officers such as General Ernst Kostring to his staff, who had been posted in the USSR on diplomatic duties before the beginning of hostilities and who knew of Soviet difficulties with ethnic minorities. Von Kleist summoned Nazi officials to his HQ and warned them against any reprisals or atrocities in his area of command. He interfered with Nazi plenipotentiaries like Erich Koch's and Fritz Sauckel's efforts to deport Soviet citizens for the purposes of slave labor. He recruited volunteers from Soviet minorities such as Cossacks, Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, etc into units to fight alongside his troops against the Soviets and against partisans in contravention of Hitler's orders. His panzer forces spearheaded Germany's drive to capture the oilfields on the Caspian Sea in Summer 1942, failing in part due to the substitution of Stalingrad as the primary objective of the campaign. Assuming command of Army Group A of which his 1st Panzer Army was a part, he successfully withdrew his forces to the West under intense Soviet pressure. He then turned over the 1st Panzer Army to Erich von Manstein for use in attempting to relieve the surrounded 6th Army. Thereafter he commanded the 17th army and the remaining units of Army Group A in defending the Kuban bridgehead on the East side of the Sea of Azov for better than 6 months in 1943, in spite of furious Soviet attempts to dislodge them. For this action he was promoted Generalfeldmarschall. He then successfully removed his forces across the Strait of Kerch to the Crimea – better than 200,000 men – without losing any heavy equipment at a time when German fortunes along the rest of the Eastern Front entailed much greater reverses. He disobeyed Hitler's order to stand fast and ordered his forces to retreat from the Crimea when their situation became untenable, stating that, "someone had to put his head on the block". For this he was relieved of command and retired to private life with his wife Gisela in 1944. He surrendered to the American 26th Inf Division in April 1945, was interned in Wales, then was handed over to the Yugoslavs to be tried for war crimes. Convicted, he was then sent to the USSR, which tried and convicted him, for, among other things, "alienating through kindness and generosity the subject peoples of the Soviet Union." Allowed one postcard to his wife per month, he died of congestive heart failure at Vladimir Prison, USSR, in 1953. The location of his remains is unknown in the West.
Bio by: chris allsman