Saturday, March 28, 2015

12th Armee – April 1945

Walther Wenck

While the Germans fully expected the main threat to come from the Soviets in the east, they were aware as well of the Anglo-American troops driving towards them from the West. Although many of them nursed a clandestine hope that the Western Allies would beat the Soviets to Berlin, they weren't going to leave the capital's western approach undefended. In early April, General Walther Wenck, formerly Chief of Staff to General Guderian at the OKH and then briefly Himmler's Chief of Staff at Army Group Vistula, was called back from convalescent leave for wounds sustained in a February automobile accident to take command of the newly organised 12th Army. He was given a two-part mission. His primary task was to shore up the rapidly receding western front between the armies of Field Marshals Ernst Busch and Albrecht Kesselring, Commanders in Chief North-west and West respectively, now taking a severe beating from the British and North American forces racing eastwards with barely a pause since the landings at Normandy in June 1944. But Hitler had also envisioned a plan whereby Wenck's 12th Army would launch a massive counter-attack against General Bradley's 12th Army Group, now making rapid progress toward the Elbe. The idea was to slice a 320km (200 mile) swath straight through General William Simpson's Ninth Army to the Ruhr pocket, thereby releasing the 300,000 men of Model's Army Group B and splitting the armies of Montgomery and Bradley. Hitler wanted to achieve this improbable feat by appropriating a Soviet trick. He instructed the officers of the new 12th Army to round up 200 nondescript Volkswagen automobiles and use them to infiltrate the enemy lines and disrupt the rear to effect the breakthrough.

Even if the plan had been realistic when formulated, it never got the chance to be tested: the front was moving too rapidly eastwards. Indeed, Wenck had some trouble catching up with his new headquarters as it continually retreated to the East. He received a rude shock, and a quick education in the reality of the military situation when, on his way to assuming his new command, he attempted to stop in his hometown of Weimar to withdraw his family's savings from the bank: American tanks from General George S. Patton's Third Army were already there. Within two days of Hitler's elaboration of his plan, on 13 April, the Allies succeeded in cutting Model's forces in the Ruhr pocket in two and capturing the eastern half. Model had already told his troops that he was dissolving Army Group B on his own authority to save them the humiliation of surrender; it was left to each man whether to surrender individually, continue fighting, or attempt to make his way home through the Allied lines.

Wenck finally caught up with his headquarters near Rosslau, some 75km (46 miles) south-west of Berlin. Positioned along a 200km (125 miles) front from Wittenberge down the River Elbe to Leipzig, the 12th Army was supposed to have been made up of 10 divisions, some 200,000 soldiers, composed of Panzer Training Corps officers, cadets, Volkssturmer, and the remains of 11th Army, which had been involved in some ferocious fighting in the Harz Mountains. But much of Wenck's army, he quickly discovered, existed only on paper. Some of the units were still in the process of being organised but, at most, he had at his disposal roughly five and a half divisions, with 55,000 men. These were equipped with a few self-propelled guns, about 40 personnel carriers, and a number of fixed artillery positions at bridges and around cities like Magdeburg. The outlook was not encouraging. But the situation throughout what remained of the Reich was bleak, and Wenck, the Wehrmacht's youngest general, faced it with surprising vigour and imagination. Determined to hold the Western Allies at the Elbe for as long as possible, while at the same time freeing up as many men as possible to help shield Berlin from the Soviets, he intended to use the most experienced of the 12th's few and green forces as a sort of mobile shock troop, shuttling them from crisis to crisis. To this end he positioned his best forces in Magdeburg and other centrally located urban centres.

Wenck's instincts for focusing on the cities were sound, though it didn't require too much military genius to understand that this last stage of the war would be fought predominantly in large, urban areas. There had been some significant city battles fought already in this war, most notably in Stalingrad and Warsaw. But for the most part it had been a war of large-scale, mobile operations conducted in open terrain or before cites; the kind of warfare best suited to the era's fascination with tanks and other mobile armour. But in April 1945, on the eve of the war's final act, with Germany's room for maneuvering and building reserves rapidly disappearing, that kind of operational depth was no longer available. Inevitably, particularly given the Allies' insistence on Germany's unconditional surrender and Hitler's inability to consider any kind of retreat or surrender, the final battle would almost certainly have to be fought inside the Third Reich's capital.

No comments:

Post a Comment