Walther Wenck (18 September 1900 – 1 May 1982) was the youngest General of the branch in the German Army and a staff officer during World War II. At the end of the war, he commanded the German Twelfth Army that took part in the Battle of Berlin.
Historians consider Wenck a capable commander and a brilliant improviser, although incapable of the impossible task of saving Berlin.
Born in 1900, Wenck joined the paramilitary group Freikorps in 1919 and then the Army (Reichswehr) of the Weimar Republic in 1920. From 1939 to 1942, Wenck was Chief of Operations for the 1st Panzer Division. In 1942, he was an instructor at the War Academy, chief of staff for the LVII Corps, and then the Third Romanian Army on the Eastern Front.
From 1942 to 1943, he was chief of staff of "Army Detachment Hollidt", named after Karl-Adolf Hollidt, which was subordinated to the Third Romanian Army. In 1943, he was Chief of Staff of the Sixth Army. From 1943 to 1944, Wenck served in the same capacity in the 1st Panzer Army. In 1944, he was chief of staff of Army Group South Ukraine. There he first attracted Adolf Hitler's attention with his report about conditions on the Eastern Front, saying, "As you see My Führer, the Eastern Front is like swiss cheese, full of holes." Even though he was reprimanded for using informal language, Hitler commended the "liveliness" of his report.
Guderian persuaded Hitler to make Wenck chief of staff of Army Group Vistula (with the power to launch the attack). Wenck's attack was initially successful, but Hitler requested him to attend daily Fuehrer briefings which forced him to make a daily round trip of 200 miles. On February 14, 1945, an extremely tired Wenck took the driving wheel from his driver Dorn who had collapsed. Wenck then fell asleep at the wheel and crashed his car off the road. Saved by Dorn, he ended up in the hospital with a fractured skull and five broken ribs, while the attack failed. From 1944 to 1945, Wenck was Chief of the Fuehrungsstabs, an office that replaced Quartermaster General I.
On 10 April 1945, Wenck was appointed commander of the German Twelfth Army located to the west of Berlin to guard against the advancing American and British forces. But, as the Western Front moved eastwards and the Eastern Front moved westwards, the German armies making up both fronts backed towards each other. As a result, the area of control of Wenck's army to his rear and east of the Elbe River had become a vast refugee camp for German civilians fleeing the path of the approaching Soviet forces. Wenck took great pains to provide food and lodging for these refugees. At one stage, the Twelfth Army was estimated to be feeding more than a quarter million people every day.
Battle of Berlin
On 21 April, Adolf Hitler ordered SS-General Felix Steiner to attack the forces of Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov's 1st Belorussian Front. Zhukov's forces were encircling Berlin from the north. The forces of Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev's 1st Ukrainian Front were encircling Berlin from the south. Steiner was to attack Zhukov with his Army Detachment Steiner. With few operational tanks and roughly a division's worth of infantry, Steiner requested that his "army" be allowed to retreat instead of attacking.
On 22 April, as Steiner retreated, Wenck's Twelfth Army became Hitler's last hope to save Berlin. Wenck was ordered to disengage the Americans to his west and, attacking to the east, link up with the Ninth Army of General der Infanterie Theodor Busse. Together, they would attack the Soviets encircling Berlin from the west and from the south. Meanwhile, the XLI Panzer Corps under General Rudolf Holste would attack the Soviets from the north.
Wenck's forces attacked towards Berlin, but they were halted outside of Potsdam by strong Soviet resistance. Neither Busse nor Holste made much progress towards Berlin. By the end of the day on 27 April, the Soviet forces encircling Berlin linked up and the forces inside the city were cut off.
During the night of 28 April, Wenck reported to the German Supreme Army Command in Fuerstenberg that his Twelfth Army had been forced back along the entire front. According to Wenck, no attack on Berlin was possible as support from Busse's Ninth Army could no longer be expected. Instead, Wenck moved his army towards the Forest of Halbe and linked up with the remnants of the Ninth Army, Hellmuth Reymann's "Army Group Spree," and the Potsdam garrison. Wenck brought his army, remnants of the Ninth Army, and many civilian refugees across the Elbe and into territory occupied by the U.S. Army.
According to Antony Beevor, Wenck's eastward attack toward Berlin was aimed specifically at providing the population and garrison of Berlin with an escape route to areas occupied by United States armed forces: "Comrades, you've got to go in once more," Wenck said. "It's not about Berlin any more, it's not about the Reich any more." Their task was to save people from the fighting and the Russians. [...] Wenck's leadership struck a powerful chord, even if the reactions varied between those who believed in a humanitarian operation and those keener to surrender to the Western allies instead of the Russians. According to Randall Hansen, Wenck's actions, with the help of luck and American general William Simpson (who should have been aware of the humanitarian consequences), successfully evacuated a large number of troops and civilians (which has been estimated, depending on the source, to range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands), with Wenck himself being one of the last who crossed the river.
Wenck was taken prisoner by the U.S. Army. He was released in 1947, and Wenck then began a second career as an industrialist. During the 1950s, Wenck worked as the managing director of Dr. C. Otto & Comp., a producer of industrial ovens, and in the 1960s as the director of the Diehl Group, an arms manufacturer.
He was invited to become Inspector General of the Bundeswehr, but refused after being informed that his requirements (turning the office into that of Commander-in-chief, etc.) could not be met. On 1 May 1982, Wenck died while on a trip to Austria, when his car crashed against a tree. He was buried in his hometown of Bad Rothenfelde in Lower Saxony a few days later.
- Iron Cross (1939) 2nd Class (13 September 1939) & 1st Class (4 October 1939)
- German Cross in Gold (26 January 1942)
- Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on 28 December 1942 as Oberst and chief of the general staff of the Armeegruppe Hollidt.