Friday, May 15, 2015

Walter Wenck

On the night of April 29–30, 1945, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, the chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces, received an anxious message from Adolf Hitler, part of which read, “Where are Wenck’s spearheads?” The reference was to General Walter Wenck’s 12th Army, which Hitler believed was the only hope for saving both himself and Berlin—a hope that ignored reality, as General Wenck had no tanks and very little artillery. Although Wenck had proven himself to be a brilliant improviser earlier in the war, the task of saving Berlin was an impossible one.

Walter Wenck was a handsome individual of medium height who always beamed with self-confidence. Born in Wittenberg on September 18, 1900, he entered the Cadet Corps at Naumberg (on the Saale River in Saxony-Anhalt) in 1911 and the senior cadet school at Gross-Lichterfelde in 1918. Following service in two Freikorps units, he was accepted into the Reichswehr as an enlisted man on May 1, 1920. He began active duty with the 5th Infantry Regiment at Stettin, Pomerania, but soon transferred to the elite 9th Infantry Regiment in Potsdam, with which he served until 1933. He received his commission as a second lieutenant on February 1, 1923.

In May 1933, Wenck (now a first lieutenant) was transferred to the 3rd Motorized Reconnaissance Battalion. After his promotion to captain in 1934, he underwent General Staff training and in 1936 was transferred to the staff of the panzer corps in Berlin. On March 1, 1939, he was promoted to major and joined the 1st Panzer Division at Weimar as its operations officer.

Wenck served with the 1st Panzer during the attack on Poland and in the Western campaign of 1940. During the German blitzkrieg through the Low Countries and France, Major Wenck was wounded in the foot but refused to leave his post. Late on June 17, the 1st Panzer Division reached its day’s objective of Montbeliard and still had plenty of fuel. Wenck was unable to reach his divisional commander (Lieutenant General Friedrich Kirchner), so he signaled General Heinz Guderian (the commander of the XIX Panzer Corps), telling him that he had ordered an attack on Belfort on his own initiative. Guderian approved this bold move, which completely surprised the French. Wenck was rewarded for his aggressive action and competent performance with a promotion to lieutenant colonel on December 1, 1940.

The 1st Panzer Division crossed into the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, with Wenck still serving as operations officer. After pushing to within sight of Leningrad, the 1st Panzer was transferred to Army Group Center to take part in the final drive on Moscow. Like the other panzer divisions, it bogged down on the muddy Russian roads and could not reach the Soviet capital; it was surrounded by strong Soviet forces during their counteroffensive of December 1941. It broke out (according to plans drawn up by Wenck) and successfully made its way back to German lines. Wenck received the German Cross in Gold for his efforts and, two months later, was assigned to the War Academy to train General Staff officers, utilizing his own experiences as model lessons.

On June 1, 1942, Walter Wenck was promoted to colonel and in September was posted as chief of staff of the LVII Panzer Corps on the Eastern Front. At that time the corps was driving east in the Rostov-on-Don area of southern Russia.14 He took part in the drive on the Caucasus, and in November, during the dramatic battle for Stalingrad, Wenck was attached to the Rumanian 3rd Army as its chief of staff. The Rumanians had just been mauled by the Soviets and most of them were in full flight, leaving behind only scattered remnants of various German forces. Wenck then “rode the highways and dragooned stragglers into ad hoc units. He played movies at intersections and when exhausted soldiers stopped to watch, Wenck brusquely marched them back to war.”

Soldiers pressed into Wenck’s new army included remnants from the XXXXVIII Panzer Corps, emergency Luftwaffe formations, rear-area units of the encircled 6th Army, and men of the 4th Panzer and 6th armies returning from leave in Germany. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, commander of newly created Army Group Don, met Wenck at Novocherkask and told the colonel, “You’ll answer with your head if you allow the Russians to break through toward Rostov in your sector. The Don-Chir line must hold. If it does not, then not only the 6th Army in Stalingrad but also Army Group A in the Caucasus will be lost.” Wenck kept his head, and Manstein did not lose his army; the colonel stopped all the Soviet attempts to penetrate his line. For his valiant efforts Wenck was awarded the Knight’s Cross on December 28, 1942, the day after he became chief of staff of Army Detachment Hollidt.

On February 1 of the following year, Walter Wenck was promoted to major general and on March 11 became chief of staff of the 1st Panzer Army. The 1st saw considerable action in 1943 and in March 1944 found itself encircled in the Kamenets-Podolsky Pocket near the Dneister River. Once again Wenck (called Pappi by the troops) played a major role in a German breakout. As a result, he moved up again (to chief of staff of Army Group South Ukraine) and was promoted to lieutenant general on April 1, 1944. He remained in this post for only four months, before being named chief of operations and deputy chief of staff of the High Command of the army (OKH). He now reported directly to Hitler and in his first briefing told the dictator that the Eastern Front was like Swiss cheese— “full of holes.” Although Field Marshal Keitel was concerned with that kind of language (and direct honesty?), Hitler appreciated it and seemed to admire Wenck’s intelligence and directness.

By the middle of February 1945, the Russians had reached the Oder River between Schwedt and Grunberg, leaving their flanks vulnerable. The General Staff planned a counterattack by Army Group Vistula, commanded by Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler. In a heated argument, Heinz Guderian—now chief of the General Staff of the army—convinced the Fuehrer to appoint General Wenck chief of staff of the army group, in order to assure that the counterattack had at least some hope of success. Wenck’s coordinated attack was initially successful; however, Hitler also required him to continue to attend Fuehrer briefings each evening—requiring him to make a round-trip of nearly 200 miles. On February 14, 1945, on the way back to the front, an extremely tired Wenck took the wheel of the car from his driver, Hermann Dorn, who had collapsed. Wenck fell asleep at the wheel, and the car went off the road, crashing into the parapet of a bridge on the Berlin-Stettin Autobahn. Dorn dragged Wenck from the fiery wreck, pulled off the general’s coat and doused out his burning clothes. Wenck suffered a fractured skull, five broken ribs, and numerous contusions. With Wenck in the hospital, the German attack failed.

While still recovering from the accident, Wenck was promoted to general of panzer troops on April 1, 1945. Early that same month Hitler created the 12th Army and put General Wenck (who was wearing a corset due to his injuries) in command. Wenck’s army had no panzer units and only one anti-tank battalion. Originally positioned to defend against the Americans, Wenck was ordered to turn east on April 20 and attack the Russians. Wenck’s goal, however, was to rescue General Theodor Busse’s 9th Army, as opposed to saving Berlin (which was already virtually encircled by Soviet troops).

Shortly before midnight on April 22, a frustrated Field Marshal Keitel arrived at Wenck’s headquarters. Wenck was somewhat amazed to be receiving Keitel. The field marshal appeared in full dress uniform, saluted formally (touching his cap with his baton), and excitedly pointed to the map, telling Wenck that they must save Hitler. Keitel told Wenck that the situation was absolutely desperate and that both Busse’s 9th Army and Wenck’s 12th must immediately drive toward Berlin. Wenck, realizing it was hopeless to argue with the agitated and irrational Keitel, merely said okay.

Walter Wenck, however, knew that time was running out for the 12th Army. Although he maintained his position and even launched a spearhead toward Potsdam, he did so only to give the encircled 9th Army an opportunity to link up with his forces. Furthermore, Wenck wanted to hold on as long as possible to allow refugees fleeing west from the Russians to seek refuge with his forces. At the last possible moment he intended to move westward and surrender to the Americans. Field Marshal Keitel returned on the 24th and 25th of April, exhorting Wenck to liberate Potsdam and establish contact with Berlin. Although Wenck, surprisingly, managed to reach Potsdam on a narrow front, he simply did not have the resources to accomplish anything more. Hitler still hoped to be rescued, and on the night of April 29–30 signaled Keitel, demanding to know where Wenck was. For his part, Wenck managed to hang on until May 1, when a few remnants of Busse’s army managed to break out and link up with the 12th Army. Wenck then gathered his forces together and, along with thousands of German civilians, hurried to the west, crossed the Elbe River, and surrendered to the Americans on May 7, 1945.

After the war, Wenck assumed a middle management position for a commercial firm in Dalhausen. He proved to be as successful in the business world as he was in the military. In 1950, he became a member of the management team of a large industrial firm, was appointed a member of the board of directors in 1953, and became chairman of the board in 1955. He retired from business in the late 1960s, although he continued to maintain an office in Bonn. He died in Bad Rothenfelde, Lower Saxony, on May 1, 1982, as the result of an automobile accident. He was 81 years old.

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