The Greatest German General No One Ever Heard Of

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

The new Soviet thrust, Operation Saturn, threatened to drive to Rostov at the mouth of the Don on the Azov Sea. If successful, it would cut off Army Group Don from the rear and seal off all of Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist’s Army Group A in the Caucasus. Manstein had no option but to divert the bulk of the Fourth Panzer Army to defend Rostov. That in turn sealed the fate of the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad—which finally fell on February 2, 1943.

The new Soviet attack was supported by more Fifth Tank Army strikes against XLVIII Panzer Corps. Balck led another night march and before dawn on December 19 once again took a superior Soviet force completely by surprise. Balck’s 15th Panzer Regiment was down to about twenty-five operational tanks when it came upon the rear of a march column of forty-two tanks from the Soviet Motor Mechanized Corps at Nizhna Kalinovski. Balck’s tanks slipped into the rear of the Soviet column in the darkness “as if on parade,” he wrote in his memoirs. The Soviets mistook the German tanks for their own. Before the Soviets knew what was happening, the panzers opened fire and rolled up the entire column, destroying every one of the enemy tanks.

Balck’s panzers then turned to meet a column of twenty-three Soviet tanks approaching in the second echelon. On lower ground, the Germans had perfect belly shots when the Soviet tanks crested the higher ground to their front. By the end of the day the 15th Panzer Regiment had destroyed another Soviet corps and its sixty-five tanks without suffering a single loss.

Balck’s units were in night defensive positions when Kienitz awakened him at 2:00 a.m. on December 21:

There was the devil to pay. The 110th broken through, the 111th overrun. The Panzer regiment signaled: Situation serious. In the bright moonlit night the Russians had attacked at the boundary between the two Panzergrenadier regiments. When I arrived on the scene the situation had already been consolidated somewhat. To close the gap between the regiments I organized a counterattack with [the motorcycle company of the Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion] and some tanks. By 0900 hours the situation was pretty well in hand. Hundreds of dead Russians lay in and around our positions.

The series of defensive battles along the Chir was over. The Fifth Tank Army had been virtually destroyed. But tactical victory did not translate to operational success for the Germans, who were being pushed farther and farther back from the Don. On December 22 the XLVIII Panzer Corps received orders to move immediately ninety miles to the west and establish blocking positions at Morozovskaya to screen Rostov. Hitler ordered Morozovskaya held at all costs.

When Balck first arrived at Morozovskaya a Soviet tank corps was bearing down on the city from the north, and threatening to envelop the town of Tatsinskaya on the left. The only thing standing in front of them was a thin defensive screen of scratch units. Balck concluded:

The situation was desperate. [The German defenders’] only hope lay with a single tired and depleted division that was coming up in driblets. In my opinion the situation was so dismal that it could only be mastered through audacity—in other words, by attacking. Any attempts at defense would mean our destruction. We needed to crush the westernmost enemy column first in order to gain some swing space. We would just have to hope—against reason—that the hodge-podge of troops covering Morosovskaya would hold for a day.

With only twenty operational tanks and one understrength infantry battalion, Balck moved toward Skassyrskaya to block the oncoming Soviets. After securing the town with brief but heavy fighting on December 24, he moved on to Tatsinskaya, which put him in the Soviet rear. With his entire division still strung out along the route of march from the Chir, Balck deployed his units in a circle around Tatsinskaya as they started to arrive. When the commander of the Soviet XXIV Tank Corps learned that German tanks were in his rear and his line of communications had been cut, he ordered all his units to consolidate around his position at Hill 175. The order was sent by radio—and in the clear. When the 11th Panzer Division intercepted the transmission, Balck knew he had his enemy in a trap.

Balck closed the ring around the XXIV Tank Corps, but his division had been moving and fighting too long and too hard. It was down to only eight operational tanks. Balck did not have the combat power to eliminate the Soviets. On Christmas Day the Germans still could not break into the cauldron, but neither could the Soviets break out. By the end of the day, however, Balck received operational control of one of the Panzergrenadier regiments and an assault gun battalion from the newly arriving 6th Panzer Division.

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