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Colonel Walter Wenck was in command of no one and nothing. There was nothing to command. Technically, he’d just been appointed chief of staff of the Romanian 3rd Army, part of German Army Group B. Again, technically, the 150,000 men of the Romanian 3rd Army held an 85-mile section of the Eastern Front just north and west of Stalingrad. Actually, the Romanian 3rd Army had ceased to exist over the past 48 hours. On 20 November 1942, a huge Soviet counteroffensive had smashed into the shoulders of the German salient at Stalingrad and pulverized the Romanian, Hungarian and Italian formations in their way. Soviet armored units poured through the gaps and roamed freely across the snowy steppe in the rear of the 300,000 Germans at Stalingrad. What was left of the Romanian 3rd Army was in headlong retreat, its path marked by columns of acrid black smoke spewing from ruined vehicles. Scattered units tried to turn and fight, but there was no front, no line of resistance. Just the maelstrom and sudden death as Soviet tanks appeared out of the snow.
Right now, there was nothing between the Soviets and Rostov-on-Don but air … and the remnants of broken units wandering in the steppe. Somehow, Wenck knew, he had to impose order on the chaos. At this moment, the Russians were concentrating on closing the trap on Stalingrad. But that wouldn’t last. If they reached Rostov, not only would Stalingrad be lost, but anyone south of the river Don between Stalingrad and Rostov would be doomed. That included the 1,000,000 men of Army Group A in the Caucuses. So Wenck went to work.
Out on the wind-swept steppe west of Stalingrad, each little village between Stalingrad and the Chir River housed some sort of repair shop, supply facility, replacement center, or transport depot. Mechanics, bakers, clerks, photographers, and drivers had been cast adrift by the Soviet onslaught. Men going on leave, men returning from leave, officers just passing through all suddenly found themselves on their own. There were some oddments of units cobbled together under names like Group General Spang or Group Colonel Schmidt or Group Colonel Abraham trying to dig in and resist. They weren’t much. But they were German and willing.
Wenck started recruiting whomever and wherever he could. He had a group of experienced non-commissioned officers, who in the traditions of NCOs everywhere set about finding their commander the tools he needed. His security team found some fuel trucks “belonging to no one.” Wenck had them put up ‘fueling point’ signs. Every vehicle that stopped became part of Wenck’s little army. They came across an entertainment company and had them set up their movie screens at several crossroads. Again, anyone who stopped to watch was rearmed and dragooned. Tank carriers transporting other unit’s armor were relieved of their cargo. They cleaned out repair shops and supply depots. Anything that rolled or shot, anyone with a weapon or without was collected and sent into Wenck’s ranks.
And unbelievably, these scratch units began to hold. They could give some ground, but they could not break. Makeshift armored units counterattacked into the flanks of the Soviet advance again and again in the cold and snow. In days they were down to six tanks and a self-propelled gun, but they grimly held on.
Finally, at the beginning of December, organized help began to arrive. The first to arrive was the 17th Army Corps commanded by General Karl Hollidt. Hollidt took command of all units in the area and Wenck’s odd little army passed into history.Published in