Paul von Kleist, the son of mathematics teacher, was born in Hessen, Germany, on 8th August, 1881. He joined the German Army in 1900 and the following year was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 3rd Royal Field Artillery Regiment.
Kleist attended the cavalry school in Hanover (1908-09) and the Berlin War Academy (1910-12). By the outbreak of the First World War Kleist was captain of cavalry (Rittmeister) of the 1st Prince's Own Hussar Regiment. He was sent to the Eastern Front and commanded a cavalry squadron at Tannenberg in 1914.
In October 1915 Kleist was promoted to staff officer with the 85th Infantry Division. He continued to serve in Russia and in 1917 became Chief of Staff of the Guards Cavalry Division. After the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in 1918 Kleist was transferred to the Western Front.
After the war Kleist was Staff Officer with the 13th Cavalry Regiment (1920-23), Instructor of Tactics at the Cavalry School at Hanover (1923-26) and Chief of Staff of the 2nd Cavalry Division (1927-28) where he replaced Gerd von Rundstedt. He then served as Chief of Staff of Wehrkreis III (1928-31) and in 1932 was promoted to the rank of major general.
Kleist was appointed general of cavalry in August 1936 and supervised Germany's military expansion in Silesia. He was known to hold anti-Nazi views and in February 1938 General Heinrich von Brauchitsch forced him into retirement.
On the outbreak of the Second World War Kleist was recalled to duty and during the invasion of Poland he commanded the XXII Corps under General Siegmund List. Kleist captured the oil fields near Lvov and linked up with General Heinz Guderian at Bug River on 17th September, 1939.
Although Adolf Hitler had doubts about Kleist's political loyalty he had a high regard for his military abilities and on 29th February, 1940, appointed him commander of the main panzer forces for the Western Offensive. Kleist began the offensive on 9th May, 1940. Following the Manstein Plan, Kleist's troops attacked through the wooded hills of the Ardennes.
Kleist wanted to move cautiously but General Heinz Guderian, who commanded the 1st, 2nd and 10th Panzer divisions, moved at great speed and crossed the Meuse near Sedan on 14th May. Kleist now ordered Guderian to halt until the arrival of General Siegmund List and his 12th Army. Guderian disagreed with Kleist's view that the panzers needed the support of the infantry. After a heated argument with Kleist, who had the support of his superiors, Gerd von Rundstedt and Heinrich von Brauchitsch, on 17th May 1940, Guderian threatened to resign. Kleist responded by sacking Guderian.
Adolf Hitler was unwilling to lose this brilliant commander and General Siegmund List was ordered to intervene and managed to persuade Kleist that Guderian should return to duty. Guderian got his way and his troops rushed ahead and reached the English Channel at Abbeville on 21st May 1940.
Boulogne was taken on 23rd May but later that day Hitler called a halt arguing that the rapid advance was jeopardizing the whole campaign. Kleist supported Hitler's decision but Heinz Guderian was furious who argued that this would stop the German Army cutting off the escape of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk.
In July 1940, Kleist was given command of the 1st Panzer Group and sent to invade Bulgaria. The attack was a success and he entered Belgrade on 12th April, 1941.
During Operation Barbarossa Kleist led five panzer divisions and nine other divisions. He drove into Ukraine destroying almost 20 divisions of the Red Army before wheeling north to join Heinz Guderian in the encirclement of Kiev. He then headed north and on 20th November 1941 entered Rostov. However, with the temperature dropping to -20 C, Kleist had difficulties with his tanks and under pressure from General Semen Timoshenko and his troops was forced to retreat.
Kleist returned to the offensive in the summer of 1942 when he penetrated Russian defences along the Kuban River before moving deep into the Caucasus. However, once again, he was forced to retreat during the winter and by February 1943, he was having difficulty holding on to the Crimea.
The Red Army launched a new counter-offensive in March 1944 and Kleist, now head of Army Group A, was pushed further back and had to set up his headquarters at Nikolayev near Odessa. Adolf Hitler had now lost confidence in Kleist and General Erich von Manstein. He remarked that "I can't trust Kleist or Manstein. They're intelligent but they are not National Socialists." On 29th March 1944, they were both recalled to Germany and sacked.
Kleist was arrested by the Gestapo after the July Plot. Although his cousin was one of the main conspirators they were unable to find any information that directly linked Kleist to the attempt on Hitler's life and he was released.
Kleist lived in retirement in the village of Mitterfels in Bavaria until being taken into custody by the US 26th Infantry Division on 25th April 1945. He was turned over to Josip Tito in Yugoslavia and in 1946 he was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment.
In 1948 Kleist was extradited to the Soviet Union and sent to Wladimir Prison Camp. Paul von Kleist died of arteriosclerosis at Wladimir on 15th October, 1954.