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.
Mellenthin was born in Breslau, Silesia, into a military family; his father Paul Henning von Mellenthin was a lieutenant-colonel of artillery who would be killed in action in 1918. Friedrich's older brother, Horst von Mellenthin, would later become a WWII general also. In 1924, upon graduation from Breslau's Real-Gymnasium, 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.
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 Sealion. 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.
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) at Generaloberst Erwin Rommel's HQ of the Afrikakorps (which later became Panzer Group / Panzer Army Afrika). He stayed in this role during the battles of Tobruk, Gazala, Bir Hakeim and El Alamein. From July to September 1942 he also served as the Acting Operations Staff Officer to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. 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 a diagnosis of amoebic dysentery.
Upon recovery, from November 1942 to May 1944, he served as Chief of General Staff for the XXXXVIII. Panzerkorps on the Eastern Front in Russia, where he participated in the battles following the encirclement of Stalingrad, and later in Kursk, the Battle of Kiev, and the spring 1944 battles in western Ukraine, including the battle for Tarnopol. As Chief of Staff for the XXXXVIII. Panzerkorps, he made frequent radio contact with General Paulus at Stalingrad, to learn of his plans for complying with Hitler's order to hold the encircled city against the attacking Red Army. Following the defeat at Stalingrad, General Mellenthin described the German war on the Eastern Front as the following: "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).
In July 1944 von Mellenthin was Chief of Staff of XXXXVIII. Panzerkorps when it unsuccessfully tried to relieve the Brody encirclement during the first days of the Lvov-Sandomierz Operation. When a range of commanders were moved, von Mellenthin followed General Hermann Balck when Balck was promoted to commander of 4. Panzerarmee in August 1944, during the later stages of the battles in western Ukraine and south-eastern Poland. During this time Soviet Marshal Konev's forces pressed the German forces behind the San river in south-eastern Poland, creating a bridgehead that would become one of the springboards for the Vistula-Oder Operation in January 1945.
In September 1944 von Mellenthin was transferred to eastern France together with his commander Generaloberst Hermann Balck when Balck was promoted again to command a Heeresgruppe. Until November he served as Chief of General Staff Army Group G under Balck. He participated in the Campaign in the West along the front line between Luxembourg and Switzerland, serving in battles around Nancy, Metz, Arracourt, the Vosges and Alsace-Lorraine.
Von Mellenthin was relieved of his command along with several other German officers in early December 1944, due to the unauthorized retreat of the German forces in the sector, and retired to the Officers’ Pool of German High Command. Chief of Staff of the German Army, General Heinz Guderian, obtained restoration to duty for him in late December. From December 28 to February 1945 he was attached to the 9th Panzer Division during the Battle of the Bulge, where the division fought just north of Bastogne. Between March and May 1945 he was Chief of Staff to General Hasso von Manteuffel's Fifth Panzer Army, which was defending western Germany against the US and British forces attacking 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.
Von Mellenthin spent 2 1/2 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 give some substance 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.
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.