General von Manstein was the best general of WWII. But before I get into the explanation as to why that is the case, I’d like to address the points CWO Marc made about him and his memoir.
Erich von Manstein’s brilliant reputation needs to be viewed with a certain amount of caution because part of the mystique surrounding him originated in his memoirs, which are controversial because in them he simultaneously: a) depicts himself very favourably; b) takes no responsibility for any of the war’s morally reprehensible aspects; and c) blames Hitler for everything that want wrong. In fairness, he was hardly alone in doing so in his memoirs; Admiral Doenitz wrote a similar account of his own involvement in the war.
I have read von Manstein’s book Lost Victories. Yes, there was a strong, recurring element of him showing frustration at having his ideas rejected by those whose intelligence and/or military judgement were significantly inferior to his own. Maybe his critics view that as “depicting himself favorably.” I view that frustration as a natural, human reaction to be expected of someone whose bosses are far less competent than himself.
As for b), it is false to assert that von Manstein failed to take responsibility for any of the war’s morally reprehensible acts. On the contrary: he acknowledged Germany committed serious sins. He also opined that, whatever Germany’s sins may have been, the Soviet Union’s were worse. However, his book was intended to be about military matters only. As such, he provided no detail about Nazi or Soviet war crimes. The fact that he confines his discussion almost exclusively to military matters does not lessen its credibility.
I regard c) as an exaggeration. Manstein regarded Hitler as a military amateur. Hitler made himself commander of Germany’s military forces. Von Manstein felt Hitler was out of his depth in that role, and pointed out a number of military errors he’d made. It’s hard to see why von Manstein’s decision to point out Hitler’s military errors should detract from von Manstein’s credibility. It should also be noted that, despite von Manstein’s very obvious frustration with Hitler’s military mistakes, he also acknowledged examples of Hitler having made good military decisions.
Why was von Manstein the best general of WWII? In 1939, Hitler asked his generals to prepare a military campaign against France. (To be started after Poland had been conquered.) The plan they came up with did not involve any attempt to actually conquer France, or to destroy the French Army. Instead, his generals set their sights much lower. Germany would conquer ports along the English Channel, so that Germany would be better-positioned to engage in sub warfare against Britain.
Von Manstein pointed out that time was not on Germany’s side. It was better, he felt, to reach a military decision quickly, than to let things drag out. Therefore he prepared a plan to invade and conquer France. The German generals who’d prepared the “Channel ports” plan didn’t want Hitler to see von Manstein’s plan. Von Manstein was finally (despite those generals’ best efforts) able to get a meeting with Hitler. In that meeting he persuaded Hitler to adopt his own, rather ambitious plan to conquer France. France fell because von Manstein’s plan had been chosen. It would not have fallen had the Channel ports plan been adopted.
Von Manstein felt that even with the fall of France, time was still not on Germany’s side. He therefore proposed an Operation Sea Lion plan–a plan that was every bit as bold and daring as his plan to conquer France. However, Hitler (incorrectly) felt that Germany was in the lead in after the fall of France, and had become more risk-adverse than he’d been when he’d approved von Manstein’s earlier plan. He rejected von Manstein’s plan to conquer Britain, and adopted a more tactically cautious approach. Von Manstein pointed out that, in avoiding a moderate amount of tactical risk, Hitler accepted an enormous quantity of strategic risk.
After the Battle of Stalingrad, Germany’s entire Eastern front was in danger of collapse. (In danger of being rolled up from the south, near Stalingrad.) In the Third Battle of Kharkov, Germans under von Manstein’s command achieved an 8:1 exchange ratio against their Soviet opponents. 52 Soviet divisions ceased to be effective. The southern portion of Germany’s eastern front was stabilized. That set the stage for Germany’s summer offensive against the Soviet Union in 1943. That summer offensive failed. But the fact Germany was strong enough to even attempt it was the result of the Third Battle of Kharkov.
During the previous year–1942–von Manstein had achieved another notable success against the Soviet Union. In the Battle of the Kerch Peninsula, forces under von Manstein’s command killed or captured 170,000 Soviet soldiers, for a loss of 9,000 Germans. While a number of other German generals also achieved favorable exchange ratios on the Eastern Front, I have not found any other German general whose ratios were as good as von Manstein’s.