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The Greatest German General No One Ever Heard Of

By David T. Zabecki
5/12/2008 • World War II

‘Each day was like the next,’ Balck wrote. ‘Take them by surprise. Crush them’

When Balck learned of the situation he immediately moved to the 336th Infantry Division’s command post near Verchne Solonovski. Locating two divisional command posts together violated German tactical doctrine and risked presenting the enemy with a very lucrative target. Balck, however, realized that in the coming fight, instantaneous coordination between the two divisions would be vital, and with the primitive and unreliable communications systems of the day, this was the only way to do it. The Germans never considered their tactical doctrine holy writ, and their commanders were authorized and even expected to deviate from it whenever they thought the situation required. Balck never hesitated to exercise that prerogative.

As Balck analyzed the flow of orders from the corps, he realized that if the new threat was significant enough to derail the corps’ advance toward Stalingrad, then simply pushing the Soviet tanks back across the river—as he was now being instructed to do—was far too timid a course of action. Working with Mellenthin, then chief of staff of XLVIII Panzer Corps, Balck managed to get the mission of his division changed to destroying the Soviet forces on the near side of the river. That was the first time Balck and Mellinthin worked together, starting a successful partnership that would last for most of the war.

With his Panzergrenadier regiments not yet in position, Balck had little choice but to commit his units piecemeal. Despite being supported by Balck’s 15th Panzer Regiment, the 336th Infantry Division was unable to prevent the Soviet I Tank Corps from penetrating ten miles beyond the Chir, reaching State Collective Farm 79 by nightfall on December 7. There, the Soviets caught by surprise and massacred the divisional trains of the 336th. But while the Soviets consolidated their position for the night, Balck methodically brought up the remainder of his units and prepared to strike the next day.

It was obvious to Balck that the Soviets’ next move would be an attempt to roll up the 336th Infantry Division. To prevent that, he screened the division’s left flank with his own engineer, antitank, and antiaircraft battalions. Simultaneously, he moved his three maneuver regiments into their attack positions. Before dawn on December 8, just as the Soviets were starting their move, he struck. By the end of the day the Soviet I Tank Corps had lost fifty-three tanks and effectively ceased to exist.

For the next three days Balck and his division fought a series of running battles, eliminating bridgeheads across the Chir as soon as the Soviets established them. The 336th Infantry formed the shield against which the Soviets struck; the panzers were the hammer that destroyed them. Balck continually moved his units at night and attacked during the day, employing speed, surprise, and shock action. “Night marches save blood” became Balck’s principal axiom. Balck described his command style in his memoirs:

My brilliant chief of staff, Major Kienitz, remained in a fixed position somewhat to the rear of the fighting, maintaining contact with God and me and all the world by radio. I was mobile, at the focus of the action. Generally I visited each regiment several times a day. While I was out I decided on my course of action for the next day. I discussed the plan by telephone with Kienitz, then drove to each regiment and briefed the commander personally on the next day’s plan. Then I drove back to my command post and telephoned Colonel Mellenthin, the chief of staff at XLVIII Panzer Corps. If Knobelsdorff, the commanding general, agreed, I let the regiments know. No change in plans. If any changes were necessary, I drove out during the night and visited each regiment again. There were no misunderstandings. At dawn I once again positioned myself at the decisive point.

By December 15 the 11th Panzer Division had been marching by night and fighting by day for eight continuous days in a seemingly never-ending cycle of fire brigade actions. Describing this period, Balck wrote in his memoirs:

Each day was like the next. Russian penetration at Point X, counterattack, everything cleared up by evening. Then, another report 20 kilometers eastwards of a deep penetration into some hasty defensive position. About face. Tanks, infantry, and artillery march through the winter night with burning headlights. In position by dawn at the Russians’ most sensitive point. Take them by surprise. Crush them. Then repeat the process the next day some 10 or 20 kilometers farther west or east.

Meanwhile, on December 10 the Fourth Panzer Army had begun its move toward Stalingrad; XLVIII Panzer Corps still had the mission to cross the Don River and link up with this advance. But as Balck was at last preparing to take his units across the river on December 17, the Soviets struck elsewhere.

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