In December 1942 Hermann Balck wiped out a force ten times his size in the most brilliantly fought divisional battle in modern military history

December 1942 was a time of crisis for the German army in Russia. The Sixth Army was encircled in Stalingrad. Gen. Erich von Manstein, the commander of Army Group Don, planned to break the siege with a dagger thrust to the Volga River from the southwest by the Fourth Panzer Army, supported by the XLVIII Panzer Corps to its immediate north attacking across the Don River. But before the two German units could link up, the Soviet Fifth Tank Army under the command of Gen. P. L. Romanenko crossed the Chir River, a tributary of the Don, and drove deep into German lines.

The XLVIII Panzer Corps was suddenly threatened with annihilation. Its only significant combat power was the 11th Panzer Division, which only days before had been operating near Roslavl in Belorussia, some four hundred miles to the northwest. Still strung out along the line of march and arriving little by little, the 11th Division faced what amounted to mission impossible. But arriving with its lead elements was the division commander, Hermann Balck, who was about to execute one of the most brilliant performances of battlefield generalship in modern military history.

Balck, who ended the war as a General der Panzertruppe (equivalent to a three-star general in the U.S. Army), is today virtually unknown except to the most serious students of World War II. Yet in three short weeks his lone panzer division virtually destroyed the entire Soviet Fifth Tank Army. The odds he faced were scarcely short of incredible: the Soviets commanded a local superiority of 7:1 in tanks, 11:1 in infantry, and 20:1 in a local superiority of 7:1 in tanks, 11:1 in infantry, and 20:1 in artillery. But Balck, leading from the front, reacting instantly to each enemy thrust, repeatedly parried, surprised, and wiped out superior Soviet detachments. Over the next few months his division would rack up an astonishing one thousand enemy tank kills. For this and other achievements Balck would be one of only twenty-seven officers in the entire war—Erwin Rommel was another—to receive the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds, the equivalent of an American receiving two, or even three, Medals of Honor.

“Balck has strong claims to be regarded as our finest field commander,” declared Maj. Gen. Friedrich-Wilhelm von Mellenthin. And he was in a position to know: as a general staff officer during the war, Mellenthin had worked at one point or another for virtually all of Germany’s greatest commanders—including such legends as Rommel and Heinz Guderian.

There was no single characteristic that made Balck such an outstanding combat leader. Hermann Balck was the sum of thousands of small factors that were deeply engrained in him by the system under which he grew up. What really made him great in the end was a consistent ability to assess a situation almost instantly, decide what had to be done, and then carry it out. In any specific situation Balck almost always did what would have been expected of a typical well-trained and experienced German senior officer—and he always did it consistently and unwaveringly, time after time. He never lost his nerve and he almost never made a tactical mistake. He was always one step ahead of his enemy, even in the relatively few situations when he was initially taken by surprise.

Like many senior German officers of his generation, Balck came from a military family, albeit a slightly unusual one. His great-grandfather served under the Duke of Wellington in the King’s German Legion, and his grandfather was an officer in the British Army’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Balck’s father, William Balck, was one of the German army’s foremost tactical writers in the years prior to World War I, and as a division commander in that war won the Pour le Mérite, Germany’s highest military order (popularly but somewhat irreverently called the “Blue Max”). Balck himself was a mountain infantry officer on the western, eastern, Italian, and Balkan fronts during the First World War, serving almost three years as a company commander. He was wounded seven times and in October 1918 was recommended for the Pour le Mérite, but the war ended before the award was fully processed.

At the start of World War II, Balck commanded the lead infantry regiment that spearheaded the crossing of the Meuse River by Guderian’s panzers in May 1940. When his exhausted troops collapsed to the ground after they crossed the river, Balck walked to the head of the column, picked up a rifle, and pointed to the high ground ahead that was his regiment’s objective. Announcing that he was going to take the hill with or without them, he started moving forward. His troops got up and followed him to the top.

In early 1942 Balck was the inspector of mobile troops at the German Army High Command, the same position held in 1938 by his mentor, Guderian. But Balck champed at the bit to get back into combat. He later wrote in his memoirs:

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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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‘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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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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Over the next three days Balck continued to tighten the vise on the Tatsinskaya pocket, which finally burst on December 28, with the Soviets attempting a breakout to the northwest. But only twelve tanks and thirty trucks managed to escape initially, and when Balck’s forces sprung, they first annihilated all remaining Soviet units inside the pocket, then turned to pursue the escaping column and destroy all those vehicles as well. Another Soviet corps had been wiped out at the hands of Balck’s understrength division. Balck had pulled off a modern-day Cannae, and from that point on the 11th Panzer Division was known by the code name “Hannibal.”

Balck went on to fight more winter battles until he was reassigned in early March 1943. On his last day in command his division destroyed its thousandth tank since his arrival. During the period from December 7, 1942, through January 31, 1943, the 11th Panzer Division was credited with destroying 225 tanks, 347 antitank guns, 35 artillery pieces, and killing 30,700 Soviet soldiers. Balck’s losses for the same period were 16 tanks, 12 antitank guns, 215 soldiers killed in action, 1,019 wounded, and 155 missing.

While in command of the 11th Panzer Division, Balck was promoted to Generalmajor (U.S. Army one-star equivalent) and then to Generalleutnant (two-star equivalent). He later returned to Russia to command the XLVIII Panzer Corps, where Mellenthin was still the chief of staff. When Balck commanded the Fourth Panzer Army in August 1944, his counterattack brought the Soviet offensive in the great bend of the Vistula River to a halt.

In the fall of 1944 Balck went to the western front, commanding Army Group G against Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. in the Lorraine campaign. Balck, however, ran afoul of German Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler and was unceremoniously fired by Hitler in late December. But the Germans desperately needed good commanders, and Guderian, by then the chief of staff of the German army, intervened to have Balck reassigned as the commander of the newly reconstituted Sixth Army, operating in Hungary. At the end of the war Balck managed to prevent his troops from falling into Soviet hands by surrendering his command to Maj. Gen. Horace McBride, commander of U.S. XX Corps.

After the war Balck supported his family by working as a manual laborer in a supply depot. In 1948 he was arrested by the German government and put on trial for murder for ordering the summary execution by firing squad in 1944 of a German artillery battalion commander who was found drunk on duty. Balck was convicted and served a short sentence.

Balck was one of the very few senior German commanders captured by the Americans who refused to participate in the U.S. Army’s postwar historical debriefing program in the late 1940s and early 1950s. That, along with the fact that he spent most of the war on the eastern front, accounts for his relative obscurity today. In the late 1970s, however, he finally started talking when he and Mellenthin participated in a number of symposiums with senior American generals at the U.S. Army War College.

Like Rommel, Balck was never a German general staff officer. But Balck had several opportunities to become one, receiving more than one invitation to attend the Kriegsakademie. Balck always declined, saying he preferred to remain a line officer. Unlike Rommel, though, Balck never succumbed to periods of depression and self-pity. While Rommel ran hot and cold, Balck had a rock-solid consistency that emanated from his steely intellectual and psychological toughness. Nonetheless, he was known widely for his dry, almost British sense of humor and consistently cheerful demeanor.

When Balck left the 11th Panzer Division in 1943 he was given several weeks of well-deserved home leave and a bonus of 1,500 Reichsmarks (the equivalent of $8,000 today) to take his wife on a trip. Instead, he held onto the money until the fall of 1944, when the 11th Panzer Division was again under his command as part of Army Group G. He then used all of the money “to cover the costs of a pleasant evening” with all of the members of the division who had fought with him in Russia.

 

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2008 issue of World War II magazine.