Friedrich von Mellenthin

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Friedrich Wilhelm von Mellenthin
Friedrich von Mellenthin.jpg
Born (1904-08-30)August 30, 1904
Breslau, Silesia
Died June 28, 1997(1997-06-28) (aged 92)
Johannesburg, South Africa
Nationality German
Occupation World War II General Staff officer
Known for Western Desert, Eastern Front

Friedrich Wilhelm von Mellenthin (30 August 1904 – 28 June 1997) was a Generalmajor in the German Army during World War II. A participant in most of the major campaigns of the war, he became well-known afterwards for his memoirs Panzer Battles, first published in 1956 and regularly reprinted since then.

Early life[edit]

Mellenthin was born in Breslau, Silesia, into a military family; his father Paul Henning von Mellenthin was a lieutenant-colonel of artillery who was killed in action in 1918. Friedrich's older brother, Horst von Mellenthin, was also a World War II general. In 1924, upon graduation from Breslau's Realgymnasium, Friedrich enlisted as a private in the Seventh Cavalry Regiment of the Reichswehr. He studied for his commission over the next several years, and won a rare promotion to lieutenant in 1928 (the Reichswehr at the time having only 4,000 officers in its entirety). He married Ingeborg von Aulock, granddaughter of a South African emigrant, in 1932. Although he described himself as "perfectly happy" with regimental life, his superior assigned him to prepare operational reports to divisional headquarters, and these were generally approved of. In recognition of his talents, he was assigned to the Kriegsakademie in 1935, where he took its two-year course for General Staff officers.

Early war — Poland/France/Balkans/Greece[edit]

Just before and during the start of World War II, between 1937 and December 1939, he served as the Third General Staff Officer (Ic-Intelligence) in the III. Armeekorps of the Wehrmacht. He participated in the September 1939 Invasion of Poland, where the III. Armeekorps attacked from Pomerania and pressed along the Vistula River toward Warsaw, cutting off the retreat of Polish units in the Corridor.

From June to August 1940, he was the First General Staff Officer (Ia-Operations) with the 197th Infantry Division during the Battle of France and the preparations for Operation Sea Lion. From September 1940 to February 1941, he was the Third General Staff Officer (Ic-Intelligence) in the First Army, then on occupation duty in northern France. After this quiet period, from March through May 1941, he was the Third General Staff Officer (Ic-Intelligence) with the Second Army during Germany's invasion of the Balkans.

Africa[edit]

Following this, von Mellenthin was posted to North Africa, where from June 1941 to September 1942 he served as the Third General Staff Officer (Ic-Intelligence) in Generaloberst Erwin Rommel's Deutsches Afrika Korps (which later became Panzer Armee Afrika - PAA). He stayed in this role during the battles of Tobruk, Gazala, and First and Second El Alamein. From July to September 1942 he also served as the Acting Operations Staff Officer to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel at PAA HQ.

On 10 July during First Alamein, PAA HQ came under direct attack by Australian troops who had routed the Italian Sabratha Division. Von Mellenthin formed the HQ personnel into a battle group and held off the Australians until German reserves arrived.

Due to the high stress of these assignments, he spent September and October 1942 in a military hospital at Garmisch, Germany, recovering from exhaustion and amoebic dysentery.

Eastern Front[edit]

Upon recovery from his illness, von Mellenthin was assigned as Chief of Staff for the 48th Panzer Corps, on the Eastern Front in Russia. He served with 48th Panzer Corps from November 1942 to May 1944. He participated in the battles following the encirclement of Stalingrad, and was in frequent radio contact with Paulus, the commander at Stalingrad. After the defeat at Stalingrad, von Mellenthin described the German war on the Eastern Front in the following terms: "We are in the position of a man who has seized a wolf by the ears and dare not let him go." (May 14, 1943).

Von Mellenthin continued with 48th Panzer Corps through the Battle of Kursk, the Battle of Kiev, and the spring 1944 battles in western Ukraine, including the battle for Tarnopol. During the first days of the Lvov-Sandomierz Operation, in July 1944, 48th Panzer Corps unsuccessfully tried to relieve the Brody encirclement.

In August 1944, during the later stages of the battles in western Ukraine and south-eastern Poland, several German commanders were moved; von Mellenthin followed General Hermann Balck when Balck was promoted from 48th Panzer Corps to commander of 4th Panzer Army. During this time Soviet Marshal Konev's forces pressed the German forces behind the San river in southeastern Poland, creating a bridgehead that became one of the springboards for the Vistula-Oder offensive in January 1945.

Western Front[edit]

In September 1944, Balck was promoted to command Army Group G in eastern France, and again von Mellenthin followed. They served there until November 1944, during fighting in Lorraine and Alsace, including the Battle of Nancy, Battle of Metz, and Battle of Arracourt. In early December 1944, Balck was relieved of command by Hitler for "unauthorized retreat", and von Mellenthin was retired to the OKW Officers’ Pool. General Heinz Guderian, then Chief of Staff of the German Army, interceded for him and he was restored to duty in late December.

On December 28, he received command of 9th Panzer Division, whose commander von Elverfeldt had been wounded. 9th Panzer was then engaged in the Battle of the Bulge, fighting just north of Bastogne. Von Mellenthin commanded 9th Panzer through the remainder of the battle, and until February, when von Elverfeldt recovered. This was von Mellenthin's only command assignment in his career.


From March to May 1945 he was chief of staff of 5th Panzer Army under General Hasso von Manteuffel, defending western Germany against US and British forces in the Ruhr region and around Cologne.

During the eastward retreat he was captured by the British at Höxter on the Weser River, on May 3, 1945.

Later life[edit]

Von Mellenthin spent 2½ years in prison, during which time he talked with many of his fellow inmates about the events of the war, and took notes. One of the non-political officers, he professed ignorance of Nazi activities, writing that "not until we were behind barbed wire did we learn of the misdeeds of the Supreme Authority, deeds which shook us to the core and made our cheeks burn with shame" (Panzer Battles, ch. 23).

After his release, he emigrated with his family to South Africa. His book Panzerschlachten, translated into English as Panzer Battles, documents all the campaigns he participated in with substantial detail. He later became director of Lufthansa in South Africa, and died in Johannesburg.

The reliability of Panzer Battles has been called into question over the years. Critics point out that Major-General von Mellenthin tends to downplay German failures while focusing exclusively on successes, while some of his observations on the positive and negative qualities of the Russian soldier are little more than crude overgeneralisations. However, the casualty statistics of the Eastern war tend to lend credence to many of the claims made by the former general as to the tactical superiority of the German army during the period 1939–1944, especially over its Soviet counterpart, although with not much to show for it.

Panzer Battles is presently included in the libraries of the premier military academies in the world: Sandhurst (Britain), West Point (America), and Frunze (Russia), and 2006 is the 50th anniversary of its original publishing date.

References[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by
Generalleutnant Harald Freiherr von Elverfeldt
Commander of 9th Panzer Division
28 December 1944 – February 1945
Succeeded by
Generalleutnant Harald Freiherr von Elverfeldt