On World War II’s brutal Eastern Front, a German general fought one of history’s greatest divisional battles.
In late November 1942, Soviet forces broke through the front- line positions held by Germany’s World War II allies at the Great Bend of the Don River in south Russia. The various Wehrmacht Reports at the time mentioned that countermeasures were being initiated. When German army Major General Hermann Balck read that, he knew what it meant – he and his command, 11th Panzer Division, were the “countermeasures.” Balck also knew what he faced, writing in his journal, “There is one thing we must be clear about: obscure conditions, Russian breakthroughs, uncontrollably fleeing allies, and the division arriving piecemeal. This will be our lot. It will cost us dearly.” The “fleeing allies” to which he was referring were the shaky divisions of Germany’s Italian, Romanian and Hungarian allies on the Eastern Front.
The Soviet offensive had broken through Romanian 4th Army south of the Don, and on November 21 Soviet forces completed the encirclement of German 6th Army, besieging it in Stalingrad. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, commander of the newly formed German Army Group Don, planned to relieve 6th Army with an attack from the south by General Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army, supported on its left by XLVIII Panzer Corps, which Balck’s 11th Panzer Division was moving to join. (See What Next, General? in the November 2012 issue of ACG.) At that time, XLVIII Panzer Corps was deployed south of the Chir River, near its confluence with the Don at Nizhna Chirskaya. Stalingrad was some 70 miles northeast, on the Volga River’s western bank.
On November 27, Balck and his division staff were at Manstein’s Army Group Don headquarters. The battlefield situation had somewhat stabilized. Along the Chir River, a weak front manned by quick reaction forces had been able to hold the line because the bulk of Soviet forces were tied down at Stalingrad. That evening, Balck met General of Infantry Kurt von Tippelskirch, the German overseer of Italian 8th Army, deployed just north of the boundary between Army Group Don and Army Group B. Balck wanted to get a better appreciation for the broader situation, yet Tippelskirch’s assessment of the Italians wasn’t encouraging. Balck therefore expected the Soviets to continue attacking positions held by Germany’s allies along the middle Don to the north to draw off German reserves assembling for Manstein’s counterattack.
On the night of December 1, 11th Panzer Division was alerted to move immediately to support the crumbling Romanian 3d Army just north of XLVIII Panzer Corps. Balck, driving forward with his operations officer, Major Kienitz, met his old friend, Colonel Walther Wenck, who was serving as Romanian 3d Army’s German chief of staff. With the help of construction battalions and rapid response forces, the Romanians had managed to cobble together a new front line along the Chir River. However, the entire 60-kilometer front line had only one lone field gun and one mobile field howitzer.
BATTLES ON THE CHIR, DECEMBER 7-21
Since the Soviets’ priority was to break German resistance at Stalingrad first, the Chir front line had managed to hold thus far. Balck hoped it would continue to hold until his panzer division’s deployment was complete. His primary concern was the threat of Soviet forces on the middle Don River to the north breaking through along the boundary between Hungarian 2d Army and Italian 8th Army. That was where Soviet forces appeared to be assembling.
As 11th Panzer Division moved forward, Balck went ahead to the Chir to reconnoiter and assess the situation. Major General Walter Lucht’s 336th Infantry Division had already arrived at the Chir and was deployed along the river line. While Balck was forward, and before XLVIII Panzer Corps could link up with 4th Panzer Army, I Tank Corps of General P.L. Romanenko’s Soviet 5th Tank Army on December 7 launched heavy attacks at various points along the Chir. The Soviets broke through German advanced lines and penetrated 10 miles to the south, deep into the left flank of 336th Infantry Division.
When Balck received that news, he immediately went to the 336th’s command post. He then made the decision to establish his own divisional command post right next to the 336th’s. That was against all standard procedures, but it worked out perfectly. Both divisions were now operating under XLVIII Panzer Corps, commanded by General of Panzer Troops Otto von Knobelsdorff, whose chief of staff was Colonel Friedrich-Wilhelm von Mellenthin. It was the first time Balck had worked with Mellenthin, who later would become Balck’s chief of staff and serve with him until nearly the end of the war. The Balck-Mellenthin team became one of history’s most successful commander-chief of staff partnerships.
By December 8 all of 11th Panzer Division had not yet arrived; nonetheless, Balck was prepared to counterattack. It was clear that the Soviets were on the verge of overrunning 336th Infantry Division, and the situation was so critical that Balck could not wait until his entire division was available. To screen the 336th, he established blocking positions made up of air defense units, engineers and anti-tank guns.
Balck always believed it was crucial to arrive at the decisive point an hour earlier than the Soviets. When the Soviets were ready to attack the morning of December 9, Balck was already there; yet they did not detect the German presence. Two of 11th Panzer’s regiments, Colonel Theodor Graf von Schimmelmann’s Panzer Regiment 15 followed by Colonel Alexander von Bosse’s Panzer Grenadier Regiment 111, hit the Soviets in the rear just at the moment the enemy units were starting to advance eastward to cut in behind 336th Infantry Division.
Balck’s panzers first annihilated a long column of Soviet mechanized infantry and then blasted the mass of tanks attacking the 336th. As his Panzer Grenadier Regiment 110 started to arrive, Balck deployed it toward Sovkhos (State Farm) 79, where another large number of Soviet tanks had been cut off in the valley. By that evening, Soviet I Tank Corps had been thrown back across the Chir, leaving 53 tanks burning on the Steppes.
Lucht’s 336th Infantry Division was dug in solidly on the Chir River and everything depended on it holding fast. It was the shield and the pivot for the operations of 11th Panzer Division, which made it possible for Balck to attack the Soviets with concentrated force anywhere they broke through. The two divisional staffs worked in unison; but unfortunately, the 336th’s equipment was worn out and the unit had too few anti-tank guns.
From December 9 through 17, the days were all the same for 11th Panzer Division. Soviet forces would break through at a given point, and then Balck would counterattack and restore the situation by evening. The division continually marched at night and fought by day, with Balck controlling the action by issuing only verbal orders to his regimental commanders. Late on December 11, the Soviets made two more major penetrations into XLVIII Panzer Corps’ sector. After another night march, 11th Panzer Division attacked into the flank of one of the Soviet penetrations at Lissinski. Once that threat was eliminated, Balck moved his division 15 miles to the northwest and attacked the Soviet bridgehead at Nizhna Kalinovski.
At dawn on December 13, 11th Panzer Division was preparing to conduct its final counterattack when it was hit on the right flank by a strong Soviet assault. One of the battalions was temporarily surrounded, but Balck continued the originally planned attack on the Soviet bridgehead while simultaneously extracting his encircled battalion. By the end of the day, the Germans had fought the Soviets to a standstill, although the Nizhna Kalinovski bridgehead was not completely eliminated.
By that point, 11th Panzer Division had been marching by night and fighting by day for almost eight continuous days. As Balck later wrote, “Soon, another report would come in of a deep breakthrough at the position of some rapid reaction force. We would turn around with lights blazing, tanks, riflemen, artillery driving through the winter night. We were ready the next morning at dawn. Positioned at the Russians’ weakest point, we would bear down on them in surprise and destroy them. The following morning we would play the same game 10 or 20 kilometers farther to the west or east. It was a complete mystery to me when the soldiers actually slept during those nine days.” The same applied to their commander.
Balck and his staff developed a unique system for issuing orders. Major Kienitz, his brilliant operations officer, sat in one position a little rearward and maintained radio contact with Balck, higher headquarters and everyone else. Balck meanwhile remained highly mobile, continuously moving to every hot spot. He usually went to each of his regiments several times a day. While still out on the line, during the evening he would draw up the basic operations plan for the following day. After communicating by phone with Kienitz, Balck drove to every regimental command post and personally issued the next day’s operations order. He then drove back to his divisional command post and spoke by phone with Mellenthin at XLVIII Panzer Corps. If corps commander Knobelsdorff concurred, Balck sent his regiments the simple message, “No changes.” If the tactical situation necessitated adjustments, Balck drove at night once more to all the regiments to ensure there were no misunderstandings. At daybreak, he was always at the decisive point just before the start of the attack.
During the second week of December, Luftwaffe 1st Field Division arrived in the Chir sector and was assigned to XLVIII Panzer Corps. It had top-of-the-line equipment and weapons, but the airmen had no real training in ground combat. “They were absolute military novices,” Balck noted. The division did not even have the capability to maintain its own rations and ammunition supply. After a few days in action against the Soviets, the division evaporated. Balck wrote in his journal that the whole idea of Luftwaffe field divisions was “an ego toy of [Reichsmarschall Hermann] Göring, who wanted to form and control his own ground divisions, rather than subordinate them to army operational control.”
On December 10, 4th Panzer Army had started its attack to relieve 6th Army at Stalingrad. Despite being heavily engaged along the Chir, XLVIII Panzer Corps was ordered to link up with and support 4th Panzer Army. To do so, XLVIII Panzer Corps had to get across the Don River.
On December 15, 11th Panzer Division began moving toward Nizhna Chirskaya, just below the confluence of the Chir and the Don. Balck’s division was prepared to force a crossing of the Don on December 17, but the Soviets struck first, sending their motorized mechanized corps across the Chir just south of Oblivskaya. The panzer division received an urgent order from XLVIII Panzer Corps headquarters: “Suspend current attack. Russian forces broken through in-depth 20 kilometers farther west.”
Balck had heard that sort of thing before. To Mellenthin he answered, “Fine, we will clean up right here first and then we take care of the other problem.”
“No, General,” headquarters responded, “this time it is more than critical. The 11th Panzer Division must go there immediately, every second counts.”
“Okay, we will take care of it,” Balck replied.
Balck broke off his current fight, refueled immediately and distributed rations. He issued the warning order: “Get ready to move in the direction of Nizhna Kalinovski. Twenty kilometer march distance. Drive with headlights on. On December 19 in the morning you will be deployed as follows: Panzer Grenadier Regiment 111 secures the right flank of the attack against Nizhna Kalinovski; Panzer Regiment 15 penetrates into the enemy left flank; Panzer Grenadier Regiment 110 deploys on line directly against the Russian attack.”
Panzers, infantry and artillery all lumbered off into the dark night. At 5 a.m. the Soviets arrived, their tanks and other formations rolling past, toward the south. Then Colonel Schimmelmann launched Captain Karl Lestmann’s 2d Battalion. The panzers pivoted and followed the Soviets, who had no idea that the tanks following their columns were German. In just minutes, Lestmann’s 25 tanks destroyed 42 Russian tanks from the rear without suffering any losses.
The panzers then disengaged and deployed in the hollow of a valley to take on the second Soviet wave. As the Soviet tanks moved across the crest of the ridge, the panzers’ main guns fired up-shots from below the level that the Soviet tanks could depress their guns. The fight was over within minutes. Twenty-five panzers had shot up 65 Russian tanks with out a loss. The accompanying Soviet infantry escaped initially, but then a Soviet relief attack broke down with heavy losses. By the end of the day, the Soviet motorized mechanized corps had been annihilated.
On December 21, 11th Panzer Division was in defensive positions when at 2 a.m. Kienitz woke up Balck – all hell had broken loose from every direction. Panzer Grenadier Regiment 110’s line had been penetrated and Panzer Grenadier Regiment 111 had been overrun. Panzer Regiment 15 radioed that the situation was very critical. In the bright light of a full moon the Soviets had attacked with tanks and infantry right at the seam between the two panzer grenadier regiments.
Balck left his command post at once, but the situation had already been somewhat stabilized by the time he arrived at the scene. He immediately threw his panzers, supported by his motorcycle rifle battalion, into a hasty counterattack to close the gap between the two panzer grenadier regiments. By about 9 a.m. everything was nearly back to normal, and Soviets by the hundreds lay dead in front of and inside the German positions. The defense had been a success, but at a high price. Balck’s losses were considerable, and there were times during the battle when he even thought his division had ceased to exist.
The situation along the Chir River finally had been stabilized. All of the subordinate corps of Soviet 5th Tank Army had been eliminated, one after another, and mostly by 11th Panzer Division. If 5th Tank Army had attacked with all of its corps simultaneously across the Chir, the Germans could not have stopped them. But they did not, and the Chir line held. Balck attributed a major part of the success to the Soviet troops’ poor training.
TATSINSKAYA, DECEMBER 23-28
The 11th Panzer Division’s remarkable success had been cited multiple times in the daily Wehrmacht Report, but the situation farther north was turning desperate. Ignoring 4th Panzer Army’s southern advance to relieve Stalingrad, the Soviets struck a massive blow against Italian 8th Army to the north along the Don. The Soviet drive threatened to envelop Rostov, at the mouth of the Don on the Azov Sea. Such a move would have cut off Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist’s Army Group A in the Caucasus. Manstein was forced to draw heavily from 4th Panzer Army to defend Rostov – which ultimately sealed 6th Army’s fate in Stalingrad.
On December 23, 11th Panzer Division was detached from XLVIII Panzer Corps and sent 50 miles west to Morozovsk to support Romanian 3d Army. Italian 8th Army to their north had been swept away and the Soviets were now thrusting multiple tank corps south unopposed. Morozovsk was ordered held at all costs. One Soviet tank corps was advancing from the north toward the town, with only German rapid reaction forces in position to block it. The Soviets also were attempting a deep envelopment another 25 miles to the west targeting Tatsinskaya and its Luftwaffe airfield, from which a major part of the Stalingrad relief airlift was conducted. The situation for the Germans was desperate, and their only hope was Balck’s tired and worn-out division, which was arriving piecemeal.
After conducting a tactical assessment, Balck considered the situation so hopeless that he judged his only course of action was to attack. Any defensive plan would result in the destruction of his division. The first order of business was to destroy the Soviets’ western-most penetration to clear the German rear area. The blocking forces north of Morozovsk had to hold for one more day – there was no other alternative. Colonel Wenck, Romanian 3d Army’s German chief of staff, completely agreed with Balck.
Without waiting for more intelligence, Balck decided to move immediately west to the position where Soviet XXIV Tank Corps had advanced across the Bystraga River toward Tatsinskaya. On the morning of December 24, Balck’s depleted division punched into the Soviet flank and rear. Balck had only 20 operational panzers – one battalion with the strength of a company. But he also had the mass of his divisional artillery still intact. Everything else was on the road moving up; yet that amounted to only four more battalions, each with the strength of a single company with hardly any heavy weapons.
Balck, driving closely behind his unit’s lead panzer, encountered no enemy forces short of Skasyrskaya. He thus concluded that the Soviet main strength was already farther south at Tatsinskaya, and reports started coming in confirming that. The 11th Panzer Division took Skasyrskaya after an intense fight against a Soviet battalion supported by tanks, cutting off the Russians’ main route of retreat. Balck then radioed orders to deploy his rearward units now arriving in the sector concentrically toward Tatsinskaya. Meanwhile, he closely monitored by radio the enemy’s reactions.
Soviet XXIV Tank Corps radioed its units: “Enemy tanks in our rear. All tanks assemble on me at Hill 175.” That location was exactly were Balck’s plan would put them in a pocket. Thanks to the enemy’s unwitting cooperation, by that evening Balck had the Soviets encircled inside the pocket, establishing a huge perimeter around Hill 175 and stabilizing the situation. Meanwhile, back at Morozovsk, German blocking forces had been able to hold out, and 6th Panzer Division was starting to arrive in the sector. All along the line the Soviets were stunned and disoriented.
On December 25 Balck’s units hammered at the Soviets all day long, pushing them south from Hill 175 and directly into Tatsinskaya. The Germans, however, could not break into the Soviet perimeter. There were many more Russians inside the pocket than there were Germans outside of it. In the evening the Soviets began preparing for a breakout attack, and Balck had little left to stop them. At the last minute, he received operational control of one regiment and the assault gun battalion of 6th Panzer Division.
The fight raged on the next day. Balck was now sure the Soviets had nothing significant in his rear, yet little was going right in the fight for the pocket itself. The assault gun battalion got lost and was out of the fight the entire day. Balck was down to only eight operational tanks. He didn’t have the strength to break into the pocket. The fight continued the following day. The concentric attack was starting to strangle the enemy, but Soviet resistance was still significant. Although Balck had difficulty estimating what the Soviets had left in the cauldron, he thought at minimum they still had one tank brigade with strong infantry forces, most likely 24th Infantry Brigade. The Soviet XXIV Tank Corps headquarters also was certainly trapped in there. The Germans intercepted a radio transmission to the trapped Soviets: “Hold out. Five infantry divisions are coming.”
In bright moonlight, the Germans pressed the attack throughout the night. At 5 a.m. on December 28, Balck was about to drive to the front lines when his aide reported that the Soviets had broken out toward the northwest, in the sector assigned to 6th Panzer Division’s Panzer Grenadier Regiment 4. As Balck drove forward, his regiments forced their way into Tatsinskaya from all sides, breaking the remaining resistance. Only 12 Soviet tanks and 30 trucks managed to escape from the pocket. Everything else was destroyed. Dead Russians were lying everywhere, and the Soviet XXIV Tank Corps had been annihilated. Balck’s troops then pursued and destroyed the escaped tanks and trucks. Balck had won the battle with a spent division that started with only 20 operational tanks. By the time it was over he still had 12 tanks running, but otherwise his losses had been relatively minor.
As soon as Balck seized Tatsinskaya, reports arrived about fresh, strong enemy forces attacking near Skasyrskaya. He quickly turned around his division, and by 11:45 a.m. Panzer Regiment 15 and Panzer Grenadier Regiment 110 had attacked and thrown back Russian 266th Infantry Division, which the previous night had marched blindly into Skasyrskaya, ignorant of the overall situation.
GERMANY’S FINEST FIELD COMMANDER
Balck’s series of engagements along the Chir River in December 1942 proved to be one of history’s greatest divisional battles. Balck continued in command of 11th Panzer Division until March 1943. He later commanded XLVIII Panzer Corps, 4th Panzer Army, Army Group G, and at the end of the war the resurrected 6th Army. In August 1944, Balck became the 19th recipient of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with oak leaves, swords and diamonds. Friedrich-Wilhelm von Mellenthin, in his great book Panzer Battles, wrote of Balck: “He was one of our most brilliant leaders of armor; if Manstein was Germany’s greatest strategist during World War II, I think Balck has strong claims to be regarded as our finest field commander.”
David T. Zabecki, PhD, is a retired major general of the United States Army, Weider History Group senior historian, and editor emeritus of “Vietnam” magazine. His books include “On the German Art of War: Truppenführung – German Army Manual for Unit Command in World War II” with co-editor Bruce Condell (Stackpole, 2008), and the two-volume “Chief of Staff: The Principal Officers Behind History’s Great Commanders” (Naval Institute Press, 2008).
Dieter J. Biedekarken was born and educated in Germany, immigrated to the United States in 1981, and is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel with over 28 years of service that included deployments in operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. He holds English and geography degrees from the Technical University of Berlin and a master’s degree in English from San Francisco State University.
Biedekarken and Zabecki are currently preparing to publish an English translation of Hermann Balck’s autobiography, “Ordnung im Chaos.”
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Armchair General.