In my position as Inspector of Mobile Troops I could only maintain my authority through fresh experience at the front. This was the official reason I gave when I requested a transfer to the front as commander of a division. The real reason was that I had had enough of the High Command. I have always been a soldier, not a clerk, and I didn’t want to be one in time of war.
His request was granted and, though still only a colonel, Balck was assigned to command the 11th Panzer Division. Upon his arrival in Russia he found a dismal situation. Morale was at rock bottom. Almost all of the division’s regimental and battalion commanders were on sick leave. Ground down by months of constant combat, only scattered remnants of the unit remained intact. Balck had to rebuild his unit from scratch—while in combat. Within a month he had the division back on its feet, though it was still short of authorized vehicles by 40 percent.
During one of his first actions, Balck displayed his unflappable nerve leading from the front. Balck and his adjutant, Major von Webski, were far forward when they came under heavy Soviet artillery fire. As he was saying something to Balck, Webski collapsed in midsentence—with a fatal shrapnel wound to his left temple. Several days later Balck and his operations officer were conferring over a map when a low-flying Soviet fighter plane made a strafing run at them and put several bullet holes into the map between them.
The German command system in World War II emphasized face-to-face leadership, rather than the detailed and ponderous written orders so beloved by American commanders. Balck pushed the principle to the extreme, forbidding any written orders at all. Describing one of his earliest actions with the 11th Panzer Division, Balck wrote:
I did not issue a written order, but oriented my commanders with the help of a detailed war game and extensive terrain walks. The advantage was that all misgivings could be eliminated; misunderstandings and opinions could be resolved from the outset. Unfortunately, my very competent chief of staff, Major von Kienitz, brought everything together in the form of an operations order and submitted it to corps. He got it back, carefully graded. I just said, “See what you get by bringing attention to yourself?” We didn’t change our plan and we worked together in magnificent harmony from that point on, but we never again submitted anything in writing.
By the end of November 1942 the German position in south Russia had deteriorated significantly. The Germans’ Italian, Hungarian, and Romanian allies proved to be weak reeds, especially when the weather in Russia turned cold. On November 19 the Soviets launched Operation Uranus: the Fifth Tank Army crossed the Don River from the north and cut off the great bend sector, advancing as far as the north bank of the Chir and the west bank of the Don above the Chir. The Soviet Fifty-seventh Army attacked from south of Stalingrad and joined the Fifth Tank Army on the Don, cutting off the German Sixth Army.
On the night of December 1, the 11th Panzer Division was alerted to move south from Roslavl to shore up the collapsing sector of the Romanian Third Army. As the division loaded on railcars, Balck and von Kienitz drove ahead to assess the situation firsthand. What they found was far worse than what they had expected. Along the 37-mile sector where the Chir ran mostly north to south before turning east and flowing into the Don, the Romanians had the flimsiest of defensive lines, with only a single 150mm howitzer for fire support. The XLVIII Panzer Corps, under the command of Gen. Otto von Knobelsdorf, was in an even worse position, trying to hold the lower dogleg of the Chir and facing into the great bend of the Don, which was now completely occupied by the Soviets. The right side of the German line was held by the understrength 336th Infantry Division. The left side was held by the next-to-worthless Luftwaffe 7th Field Division, a unit of relatively well-equipped but untrained airmen serving as infantry.
Balck and his advance party arrived on the scene on December 6. The initial mission of the 11th Panzer Division was to form the reserve of the XLVIII Panzer Corps’ advance on Stalingrad. But the following day elements of the Fifth Tank Army crossed the Chir at multiple points, driving deep behind the left flank of the 336th Infantry Division.
When the attack came, Balck and his key commanders were making a ground reconnaissance in preparation for the planned advance. Only Balck’s 15th Panzer Regiment was in position. His 110th and 111th Panzergrenadier Regiments were still moving forward from the railheads at Millerovo and could not arrive before the end of the day. At approximately 9:00 a.m. on December 7, the LXVIII Panzer Corps sent Balck’s division command post a warning order to have the 15th Panzer Regiment prepare for a counterattack. In the absence of their commander, the divisional staff passed along the warning order. The 15th Panzer Regiment started moving forward a half-hour later.
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