By: Dr. Sandy Mitcham
Artur Schmitt was born at Albersweiler in the Rhineland Palatinate on July 20, 1888, he joined the Bavarian Army as a Fahnenjunker in 1907, and was commissioned Leutnant in the 18th Bavarian Infantry Regiment in 1909. He fought in World War I, where he earned both grades of the Iron Cross. Like so many excellent officers, however, Schmitt was not selected for the 4,000 officer "Treaty Army." Discharged in 1920, he joined the Bavarian State Police, and in 1934 was promoted to lieutenant colonel of police. The following year, Hitler renounced the Treaty of Versailles, and Schmitt applied to return to active duty. He joined the Reichsheer as a colonel on October 1, 1935.
Schmitt was named commander of the XI Field Ordnance Command in early 1937. He held this post until February 1940, when he assumed command of the 626th Infantry Regiment. This Stellungs (positional or static) unit, which was part of the 555th Infantry Division, was made up of Landesschuetzen--men from the older age groups--and was considered fourth class (capable of limited defensive missions only). The virtually immobile 626th occupied defensive positions on the Upper Rhine in the spring and summer of 1940, while more mobile German formations with younger soldiers overran France, Belgium and the Netherlands. After the fall of Paris, the 626th and its parent division moved to Bielefeld. In September 1940, Colonel Schmitt briefly served as acting commander of the 555th Infantry Division, which Hitler had already ordered disbanded. 31 When this process was completed on September 25, Schmitt resumed command of the XI Field Ordnance. He did so well in this post that he was named commander of the 2nd Higher Ordnance Staff on February 19, 1941, and was promoted to major general, effective February 1, 1941.
In the eyes of OKW, Schmitt had proven himself as a ordnance and field ordnance commander. The next step in his logical career progression was to direct a rear area command. He was given Korueck 556--the 556th Rear Area Command, which was subordinate to Panzer Group Afrika. He assumed his new post on September 9, 1941.
Due to British command of the air and sea, Schmitt's difficulties in his new post were insurmountable. The situation became so critical that Hitler transferred the 2nd Air Fleet from the Russian Front to Sicily in November 1941. It was able to relieve the pressure on Rommel's supply lines, but it was too late to help Panzer Group Afrika during Operation "Crusader," the major British winter offensive of 1941/42. In addition, Rommel was short of senior German officers, and he did not trust the Italians to defend "the Eastern Sector" (Bardia, Sollum and Halfaya Pass) to the utmost. He did, however, trust Schmitt to do so. For this reason, the Desert Fox named Artur Schmitt commander of the ad hoc Sector East on November 10. The Allied offensive began seven days later.
Schmitt headquartered at Bardia, where he had previously located his forward ordnance depot and shops. He was cut off when the 21st Panzer Division withdrew on November 26, and he lost effective control of the Sollum and Halfaya Pass garrisons. Shortly thereafter, his ad hoc command was given the designation Division Bardia. It consisted of 4,200 Italians from the Savona Division and 2,200 Germans, mostly from the administrative services. They were besieged by elements of the 2nd South African Infantry Division, the 1st Army Tank Brigade, the Polish Brigade, the artillery of the 2nd New Zealand Infantry Division, and strong elements of the Royal Navy and Air Force.
Despite the fact that he had few combat troops, Schmitt held his positions for more than a month. Then, about New Years Day, he lost his last water hole and did not have the resources to retake it. He surrendered the garrison on January 2, 1942. When the South Africans entered the city, they liberated 1,100 British prisoners
During the Siege of Bardia, Schmitt found his Italian forces to be of very little use. (The best part of the Savona Division was cut off in the desert with General di Giorgia.) After he surrendered, General Schmitt caused a bit of an international incident by publicly stating that he would have held out much longer if the Italians allies had performed better. The Italian government was highly offended, but Rommel sided with his general. At his recommendation, Artur Schmitt was awarded the Knight's Cross on February 5. It would be some time before he got to wear the decoration, however; at the time, he was on a the British transport ship Pasteur, in the Red Sea, headed for Canada.
Even as a prisoner-of-war, General Schmitt did not stop resisting. He, General von Ravenstein and Major Bach, among others, developed a plot to seize control of the ship and take it to Singapore, which was then occupied by the Japanese. Unfortunately, the British got wind of the plan, seized the leaders, and placed them in solitary confinement. They even considered throwing the ringleaders into the sea but, fortunately for Schmitt, von Ravenstein and Bach, cooler heads prevailed.
Once they reached shore, Ravenstein and Schmitt temporarily roomed together in a POW camp. This did not work out well for the sophisticated Ravenstein, who disliked the simpler, less education and more dogmatic Schmitt. He was pleased when they were separated.
Hitler and OKH were also obviously unoffended by the outspoken Schmitt's remarks. On January 1, 1943, they promoted him to lieutenant general. After the Pasteur incident, Schmitt's time as a POW was uneventful, and he was released on October 5, 1947. He retired to Munich, where he died on January 15, 1972.