Academic journal article Military Review

Hermann Balck-Germany's Forgotten Panzer Commander

Academic journal article Military Review

Hermann Balck-Germany's Forgotten Panzer Commander

Article excerpt

General William E. DePuy once referred to German "General der Panzertruppe" Hermann Balck as "perhaps the best division commander in the German Army."1 Oddly, although Balck commanded Army Group G opposite US Army General George S. Patton Jr. during the Lorraine Campaign, he was not mentioned in the 1989 book Hitler's Generals.' Still, Balck was one of only 27 German soldiers to earn the prestigious Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, with Swords, Oakleaves and Diamonds. DePuy's remark was specifically about Balck's December 1942 series of battles on the Chir River-masterpieces of tactical agility, mobile counterattack and Auftragstaktik.

Balck was born in DanzigLangfuhr, Prussia, in 1893-long after his Finnish ancestors had migrated to Germany in 1120. Balck's father, Generalleutnant William Balck, received the Pourle Meritethe "Blue Max"--while a division commander during World War 1.1 The older Balck was also a member of the Prussian Imperial General Staff and one of Germany's most prominent writers on tactics before and immediately after World War 1. Several of his works were translated into English and used in US Army service schools.

In 1913, Hermann Balck joined the Goslar Rifles as an officer candidate. A year later, he was posted briefly to the Hanovarian Military College. He then entered combat with his regiment. During the war, Balck was a mountain infantry officer on the Western, Eastern, Italian and Balkan fronts, serving almost three years as a company commander. During one period he led an extended patrol that operated independently behind Russian lines for several weeks. Over the course of the war, Balck was wounded seven times and awarded the Iron Cross First Class. In October 1918 he was recommended for the Pour le Merite, but he never received the award.4

Retained in the small postwar Reichswehr, Balck transferred to the I 8th Cavalry Regiment in 1922 and stayed with that unit for 12 years. He twice refused opportunities to join the General Staff, preferring to remain a line officer. In 1935, as a lieutenant colonel, Balck commanded the first bicycle battalion in the German army. In 1938, he transferred to Colonel Heinz Guderian's Inspectorate of Mobile Troops within the High Command in Berlin. During the Polish Campaign, Balck was responsible for managing the reorganization and refitting of the Panzer divisions.5

Just before the invasion of France, Balck assumed command of the Ist Motorized Infantry Regiment, I st Panzer Division, of Guderian's XIX Panzer Korps. On 13 May 1940, Balck's regiment forced the crossing of the Meuse River that spearheaded Guderian's breakthrough at Sedan. When Guderian crossed the river in one of the first assault boats, Balck was already waiting for him on the far bank. He cheerfully shouted to his commander, "Joyriding in canoes on the Meuse is forbidden."

In mid-May Balck temporarily commanded his division's Ist Panzer Regiment. For his actions during the French Campaign, he received the Iron Cross Second and First Class and the Knight's Cross. After the battle at Sedan, and at Balck's suggestion, German tanks and infantry were employed in combined-arms Kampfgruppe formations. This was a significant development in the doctrine of armored warfare. Until then, German infantry and Panzer regiments had been employed separately.7

Following the French Campaign, Balck assumed command of the 3d Panzer Regiment, 2d Panzer Division. In Greece, the 2d Panzer Division broke through the Metaxis Line in April 1941 and occupied Salonika. Balck then assumed command of a Panzer battle group. Demonstrating a remarkable ability to maneuver armor through seemingly impassable mountain terrain, Balck outflanked the British Corps rear guard during the battle of Mount Olympus. Balck complemented armored thrusts by sending infantry on foot through the rough mountainous terrain in wide flanking movements. A contemporary British intelligence report noted: "The German Panzer Regiment 3 knows no going difficulties and negotiates terrain which was regarded absolutely safe against armour. …

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