Albert Kesselring (30 November 1885 – 16 July 1960) was a German Luftwaffe Generalfeldmarschall during World War II. In a military career that spanned both World Wars, Kesselring became one of Germany’s most skilful commanders, and one of the most highly decorated, being one of 27 soldiers awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. Nicknamed “Smiling Albert” by the Allies and “Uncle Albert” by his troops, he was one of the most popular generals of World War II with the rank and file.
Kesselring joined the Bavarian Army as an officer cadet in 1904, and served in the artillery branch. He completed training as a balloon observer in 1912. During World War I, he served on both the Western and Eastern fronts and was posted to the General Staff, despite not having attended the War Academy. Kesselring remained in the Army after the war but was discharged in 1933 to become head of the Department of Administration at the Reich Commissariat for Aviation, where he was involved in the re-establishment of the aviation industry and the laying of the foundations for the Luftwaffe, serving as its chief of staff from 1936 to 1938.
During World War II he commanded air forces in the invasions of Poland and France, the Battle of Britain and Operation Barbarossa. As Commander-in-Chief South, he was the German commander in the Mediterranean theatre, which included the operations in North Africa. Kesselring conducted an uncompromising defensive campaign against the Allied forces in Italy until he was injured in an accident in October 1944. In the final campaign of the war, he commanded German forces on the Western Front. He won the respect of his Allied opponents for his military accomplishments, but his record was marred by massacres committed by troops under his command in Italy.
After the war, Kesselring was tried for war crimes and sentenced to death. The sentence was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment. A political and media campaign resulted in his release in 1952, ostensibly on health grounds. He was one of only three Generalfeldmarschalls to publish his memoirs. The first part was entitled Soldat bis zum letzten Tag (A Soldier to the Last Day), the second Gedanken zum Zweiten Weltkrieg (“Thoughts on the Second World War.”)
Albert Kesselring was born in Marktsteft, Bavaria, on 30 November 1885, the son of Carl Adolf Kesselring, a schoolmaster and town councillor, and his wife Rosina, who was born a Kesselring, being Carl’s second cousin. Albert’s early years were spent in Marktsteft, where relatives had operated a brewery since 1688.
Matriculating from the Christian Ernestinum Secondary School in Bayreuth in 1904, Kesselring joined the German Army as an Fahnenjunker (officer cadet) in the 2nd Bavarian Foot Artillery Regiment. The regiment was based at Metz and was responsible for maintaining its forts. He remained with the regiment until 1915, except for periods at the Military Academy from 1905 to 1906, at the conclusion of which he received his commission as a Leutnant (lieutenant), and at the School of Artillery and Engineering in Munich from 1909 to 1910.
Kesselring married Luise Anna Pauline (Liny) Keyssler, the daughter of an apothecary from Bayreuth, in 1910. The couple honeymooned in Italy. Their marriage was childless, but in 1913 they adopted Rainer, the son of Albert’s second cousin Kurt Kesselring.
In 1912, Kesselring completed training as a balloon observer in a dirigible section – an early sign of an interest in aviation. Kesselring’s superiors considered posting him to the School of Artillery and Engineering as an instructor because of his expertise in “the interplay between tactics and technology”.
During World War I, Kesselring served with his regiment in Lorraine until the end of 1914, when he was transferred to the 1st Bavarian Foot Artillery, which formed part of the Sixth Army. On 19 May 1916, he was promoted to Hauptmann (captain). In 1916 he was transferred again, to the 3rd Bavarian Foot Artillery. He distinguished himself in the Battle of Arras, using his tactical acumen to halt a British advance. For his services on the Western Front, he was decorated with the Iron Cross 2nd Class and 1st Class.
In 1917, he was posted to the General Staff, despite not having attended the Bavarian War Academy. He served on the Eastern Front on the staff of the 1st Bavarian Landwehr Division. In January 1918, he returned to the Western Front as a staff officer with the II and III Bavarian Corps.
A dispute with the leader of the local Freikorps led to the issuance of an arrest warrant for his alleged involvement in a putsch against the command of III Bavarian Corps and Kesselring was thrown into prison. He was soon released but his superior, Major Hans Seyler, censured him for having “failed to display the requisite discretion”.
From 1919 to 1922, Kesselring served as a battery commander with the 24th Artillery Regiment. He joined the Reichswehr on 1 October 1922 and was posted to the Military Training Department at the Reichswehr Ministry in Berlin. He remained at this post until 1929, when he returned to Bavaria as commander of Wehrkreis VII in Munich. In his time with the Reichswehr Ministry, Kesselring was involved in the organisation of the army, trimming staff overheads to produce the best possible army with the limited resources available. He helped reorganise the Ordnance Department, laying the groundwork for the research and development efforts that would produce new weapons. He was involved in secret military manoeuvres held in the Soviet Union in 1924 and in the so-called Great Plan for a 102-division army, which was prepared in 1923 and 1924. After another brief stint at the Ministry of the Reichswehr, Kesselring was promoted to Oberstleutnant (lieutenant colonel) in 1930 and spent two years in Dresden with the 4th Artillery Regiment.
Against his wishes, Kesselring was discharged from the army on 1 October 1933 and appointed head of the Department of Administration at the Reich Commissariat for Aviation (Reichskommissariat für die Luftfahrt), the forerunner of the Reich Air Ministry (Reichsluftfahrtministerium), with the rank of Oberst (colonel). Since the Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany from establishing an air force, this was nominally a civilian agency. The Luftwaffe would formally be established on 26 February 1935. As chief of administration, he had to assemble his new staff from scratch. He was involved in the re-establishment of the aviation industry and the construction of secret factories, forging alliances with industrialists and aviation engineers. He was promoted to Generalmajor (major general) in 1934 and Generalleutnant (lieutenant general) in 1936. Like other generals of Germany, he received personal monthly payments from Adolf Hitler; in Kesselring’s case, RM 6,000, a considerable sum at the time.
At the age of 48, he learned to fly. Kesselring believed that first-hand knowledge of all aspects of aviation was crucial to being able to command airmen, although he was well aware that latecomers like himself did not impress the old pioneers or the young aviators. He qualified in various single and multi-engined aircraft and continued flying three or four days per week until March 1945. At times, his flight path took him over the concentration camps at Oranienburg, Dachau, and Buchenwald.
Following the death of Generalleutnant Walther Wever in an air crash, Kesselring became Chief of Staff of the Luftwaffe on 3 June 1936. In that post, Kesselring oversaw the expansion of the Luftwaffe, the acquisition of new aircraft types such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Junkers Ju 87, and the development of paratroops.
Like many ex-Army officers, he tended to see air power in the tactical role, providing support to land operations. In the historiography of the Luftwaffe Kesselring and Hans-Jürgen Stumpff are usually blamed for neglecting strategic bombing while over-focusing on close air support for the army. However the two most prominent enthusiasts for the focus on ground-support operations (direct or indirect) were actually Hugo Sperrle and Hans Jeschonnek. The two men were long-time professional airmen involved in German air services since their early careers. The Luftwaffe was not pressured into ground support operations due to demands from the army, or because it was led by ex-army personnel like Kesselring. Interdiction and close air support were operations that suited the Luftwaffe’s pre-existing approach to warfare; a culture of joint inter-service operations, rather than independent strategic air campaigns. Moreover, many in the Luftwaffe command believed medium bombers to be sufficient in power for use in strategic bombing operations against Germany’s most likely enemies; Britain and France.
Kesselring’s main operational task during this time was the support of the Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War. However, his tenure was marred by personal and professional conflicts with his superior, General der Flieger Erhard Milch, and Kesselring asked to be relieved. The head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, acquiesced and Kesselring became the commander of Air District III in Dresden. On 1 October 1938, he was promoted to General der Flieger (air general) and became commander of Luftflotte 1, based in Berlin.
Kesselring at the controls of a Siebel Fh 104 aircraft.