Fritz Bayerlein (1899-1970) was a German general who served in almost every theatre of operations during the Second World War, from the opening invasion of Poland to the last major German offensive in the Ardennes, and including the campaigns in North Africa and Normandy.
Bayerlein was one of the younger senior German officers of the Second World War, and unlike many of his colleagues didn't come from the officer class. He had entered the German army at the age of 16 as a private, and served on the Western Front, before joining the tiny Reichswehr in 1921. He received staff officer training, before joining the infant armoured forces. He was promoted to major on 1 June 1938, and served with a Panzer division during the invasion of Poland in 1939.
For the next few years Bayerlein served under two of Germany's most famous commanders, first Guderian and later Rommel. He became Guderian's Operations Officer after the Polish campaign, and served with him for the next two years. He thus took part in the successful invasion of France, after which he was promoted to Oberstleutnant (1 September 1940), and the early part of the invasion of the Soviet Union, including the massive encirclement of Soviet troops around Kiev.
The association with Guderian ended in October 1941 when Bayerlein was ordered to Africa to serve as Chief of Staff for General Cruewell, commander of the Africa Corps (under Rommel, who only commanded the Africa Corps in person for six months before being promoted to command Panzer Group Africa). Bayerlein struck up a good relationship with Rommel, and would be used by him to fill important gaps later in the campaign. On 26 December 1941 Bayerlein was awarded the Knight's Cross for his actions during the fighting at Al Agheila, and on 1 April 1942 he was promoted to colonel.
Rommel's senior officers suffered a high casualty rate during the last year of the fighting in North Africa, and Bayerlein often benefited from the gaps created. On 29 May 1942 Rommel's chief of staff was wounded, while at about the same time Cruewell was captured. Bayerlein became Rommel's acting Chief of Staff. His next move took him from a staff to a command post - Cruewell had been replaced as commander of the Africa Corps by General Nehring, but he was wounded on 30 August 1942 at the start of the Battle of Alam Halfa. Bayerlein became temporary commander of the Africa Corps, leading it for the rest of the battle. He was then replaced by Von Thoma, and returned to his staff role, but Von Thoma was captured on 4 November 1942, at the end of the Battle of El Alamein. Bayerlein commandeered the Africa Corps during the retreat from El Alamein, before being replaced on 23 November by General Fehn, once again returning to his staff post.
At the start of February the Italian General Messe arrived to take over the new 1st Italian Army, which included the Africa Corps. Bayerlein finally became the permanent commander of the Africa Corps, as well as serving as Messe's chief of staff, but he was badly wounded during the fighting in Tunisia, and was evacuated just before the Axis surrender on 13 May 1943.
Bayerlein soon recovered from his wounds. He was rewarded for his efforts in Africa with the Oakleaves to the Knight's Cross, promotion to Generalmajor (6 July 1943) and the post of Chief of Staff of a new 1st Italian Army, this time based on Sicily. Bayerlein remained with the Italians during the Allied conquest of Sicily, but soon after the invasion of Italy he was moved to the Eastern Front.
This ended his staff career. From then until the end of the war Bayerlein commanded troops, starting with the 3rd Panzer Division, in the Ukraine, which he led from 21 October 1943-4 January 1944. He was then given command of the Panzer Lehr Division, a new elite unit formed from teaching establishments (10 January 1944). Promotion to Generalleutnant followed on 1 May, at the start of the temporary move to Budapest. The division was back in Normandy in time for D-Day, but Bayerlein was only with it for the first two days of the invasion, before on D+2 being promoted to command 43rd Corps, part of the 7th Army (General Strachwitz replaced him in command of the division). He remained with this unit throughout the fighting in Normandy.
In early December Bayerlein was moved back to the Panzer Lehr Division, which had been selected to serve as part of the German spearhead during Hitler's Ardennes offensive. Bayerlein was one of the more successful German commanders during this offensive. He ignored the American stronghold at Bastogne, and advanced to within ten miles of the Meuse before being stopped and forced to retreat. Bayerlein remained with the division until 19 January 1945, when he returned to command the 53rd Corps. He held this post until he was captured by Allied troops in the Ruhr on 15 April 1945.