Paul von Kleist was born in Hessen, Germany, on August 8th, 1881. He was the son of a mathematics teacher, but joined the Imperial German Army at the tender age of 19 and was commissioned as a Leutnant in an artillery regiment the following year. He attended the Hanover Cavalry School and the Berlin War Academy, and by the outbreak of the first world war had attained the rank of Rittmeister. He was sent to the eastern front and commanded a cavalry squadron at Tannenberg.

After the war Kleist served as a staff officer for several years, until he was appointed Chief of Staff of the 2nd Cavalry Division where he replaced Gerd von Rundstedt(who would later become the Wehrmacht Commander in Chief of western Europe). He then served as Chief of Staff of Wehrkreis III and in 1932 was promoted to the rank of Generalmajor.

Kleist then proceeded to supervise Germany's military expansion in Silesia, but was known to hold anti-Nazi views and was forced into retirement in February 1938 by General von Brauchitsch.

The outbreak of the second World War saw Kleist recalled to duty, commanding the XXII Corps during the invasion of Poland. Although Hitler had his doubts about Kleist's political loyalty he held his military abilities in high regard and in February, 1940 appointed him commander of the main Panzer forces for the western offensive. In this role Kleist committed one of the worst errors in his career, unsuccessfully trying to hold back Guderian's 2nd and 10th Panzer divisions in their rapid offensive past the river Meuse. After a heated argument in which Guderian threatened to resign, Kleist sacked him, but this unfortunate turn of events was later countermanded by General List(on Hitlers orders). Guderian got his way and his troops rushed ahead and reached the English Channel at Abbeville in May 1940, pinning the British Expeditionary Force against between the Wehrmacht and the sea in the French coastal town of Dunkirk.

Following the miraculous escape of the BEF, Kleist was given command of the 1st Panzer Group and sent to invade Bulgaria. The attack was a success and 1st Panzer entered Belgrade in April, 1941. This was followed by more Panzer operations on the eastern front as Operation Barbarossa saw two hundred full-strength German divisions thrown against the might of the Soviet Union. It was here that Kleist and his old comrade Guderian won what has been called "the greatest tactical victory of the Third Reich", encircling Kiev and destroying more than a dozen Soviet divisions and capturing 500 000 men.

In March 1944 the Red Army launched a new counter-offensive and the situation rapidly deteriorated, culminating in Hitler's loss of faith in Kleist. He remarked that "I can't trust Kleist or Manstein. They're intelligent but they are not National Socialists." In the end of March 1944, they were both recalled to Germany and sacked. Kleist was also arrested by the Gestapo after the July Plot and the attempt upon Hitler's life, but released for lack of evidence against him.

Kleist lived in retirement in the village of Mitterfels in Bavaria until being captured by the US 26th infantry division in April 1945. He was turned over to the Yugoslavian courts, found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment. In 1948 he was extradited to the Soviet Union and sent to the Wladimir prison camp. Paul von Kleist died of arteriosclerosis at Wladimir on 15th October, 1954.

This writeup produced with the help of:
Heinz Guderian "Erinnerungen eines Soldaten"(autobiography) and several other biographies of the LeMO online history museum

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