Who Were the Top Axis Commanders of World War II?

The ruthless Axis Commanders of World War II include Field Marshal Rommel, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and Field Marshal Erich von Manstein.

Mar 7, 2024By Matt Whittaker, BA History & Asian Studies

 

Like many wars, the battlefields of World War II quickly weeded out the inadequate or incompetent commanders. The process could be grueling in life and lost opportunities. For the Axis, skilled and talented commanders like Rommel and Yamamoto proved themselves on or before the war began. Others like Model and Tomoyuki Yamashita showed their abilities as battles unfolded. Let’s read on!

 

Field Marshal Rommel: The Desert Fox

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Erwin Rommel in his Afrika Korps attire. Source: National World War 2 Museum, New Orleans

 

Rommel’s name is usually on the top of any World War II commander list. A Great War veteran, Rommel grasped Blitzkrieg tactics in the late 1930s, combining that with innate aggressiveness. In 1940, he led from the front, driving his 7th Panzer Division across France. The North Africa campaign cemented his status among the greats. Usually vastly outnumbered or lacking resources, Rommel’s skillful maneuvers kept the British 8th Army on the defensive until 1942’s El Alamein battle. Rommel returned to Germany before all Axis forces surrendered in North Africa. During the bitterly fought Normandy campaign, Rommel’s Army Group B fought fiercely until attrition and Allied firepower won. Rommel committed suicide after plotting against Hitler in 1944. 

 

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto: Naval Strategist

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Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who commanded the Japanese fleet at Midway. Source: Sora News24

 

Seldom are names entwined with a battle like Yamamoto and Pearl Harbor. Known for his intellect, Yamamoto was educated at Harvard and toured the U.S. extensively. He rose to become Commander-in-Chief Combined Fleet in 1939, advocating for and building Japan’s naval aviation, recognizing the battleship era had passed. 

 

He thoroughly planned the war against the U.S., starting with the December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. Yamamoto’s plan succeeded, enabling the Imperial Navy to dominate the Pacific. But the Admiral knew America’s massive industrial strength would win eventually. The Battle of Midway blunted Japan’s ambitions, putting Japan and Yamamoto on the defensive. Yamamoto perished in 1943 when American fighters ambushed his plane during an inspection tour of the South Pacific.

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Field Marshal Erich von Manstein: Mobile Mastermind

talented wwii general erich von manstein axis commanders
Field Marshal Erich von Manstein. Source: imdb.com

 

Manstein was Germany’s brilliant strategist, responsible for the Polish and French campaigns plus the opening phase of 1941’s Operation Barbarossa. Promoted to Field Marshal in 1942, he became the Eastern Front’s go-to man for demanding operations. A Great War veteran like all the Wehrmacht’s top officers, he mastered Blitzkrieg in the 1930s. Manstein’s first shining moment came when his 11th Army captured Sevastopol, considered nearly impregnable.

 

Manstein displayed his mastery of flexible defense and hard-hitting counterattacks after Stalingrad and in the Third Battle of Kharkov. Outnumbered, his counterattacks recaptured Kharkov and inflicted critical losses on the Red Army. Hitler dismissed Manstein in 1944 as the Field Marshall opposed a rigid defense and ordered a retreat. Post-war, he wrote his memoir Lost Victories.

 

General Tomoyuki Yamashita: Tiger of Malaya

General Tomoyuki Yamashita. Source: Famous People
General Tomoyuki Yamashita. Source: Famous People

 

Born in 1885, Tomoyuki Yamashita, seen as smart and capable, graduated sixth in his Imperial Japanese Army Academy. Yamashita’s career took off after 1930. By 1938, he headed all Imperial Army training and was promoted to Lieutenant General. In 1942, he aggressively led the Japanese invasion of Malaya and Singapore, with Hong Kong and Singapore captured quickly. For this, he earned the nickname “Tiger of Malaya” from his own and British troops.

 

He took over the defense of the Philippines in 1944 tasked with its defense. Tough American forces routed his 14th Army, forcing them northward. During this retreat, Japanese troops committed war atrocities on Filipino civilians and POWs. For this, despite some doubts, Yamashita was executed after a trial in 1946. The trial set a precedent that commanding officers could be held responsible for war crimes. Yamashita’s execution is often doubted as he became a scapegoat for Imperial Army higher-ups.

 

Field Marshal Walter Model: The Fuhrer’s Fireman

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Field Marshal Walter Model, who led the German defense. Source: Alexander Historical Auctions

 

Model came late to his Field Marshal status, only getting his baton in 1943. He served in the Great War, winning the Iron Cross. Model led the 3rd Panzer Division in Poland, France, and Panzer Corp during Operation Barbarossa in 1941. In the fighting here, he came to Hitler’s attention for his defensive tactics. 

 

From there, Model earned the moniker “Fuhrer’s Fireman,” often sent as needed to stabilize collapsing sections of the front. He used tactics like elastic defense against the enemy to advance, then hit back hard to spoiling attacks in order to interrupt the Soviet’s or Allied preparations. Due to his skills, he stopped the Red Army in the Baltics in 1944. After the defeat at Normandy, the Wehrmacht rushed to get out, which Model turned around, slowing the Allies significantly. Model committed suicide in 1945, facing defeat and possible war crimes. The Axis commanders rose through the ranks due to skill, intelligence, and competence. They only faced defeat because the Axis situation deteriorated throughout the war.

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By Matt WhittakerBA History & Asian StudiesMatt Whittaker is an avid history reader, fascinated by the why, how and when. With a B.A. in History and Asian Studies from University of Massachusetts, he does deep dives into medieval, Asian and military history. Matt’s other passion besides family is the long-distance Zen-like runs.