Germany's Forgotten Panzer Commander

Hermann Balck

1893 - 1982

 

Kommandeur der 11.Panzer-Division

May 1942 - September 1943

 

 

 

The Man

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.2 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 Danzig-Langfuhr, Prussia, in 1893—long after his Finnish ancestors had migrated to Germany in 1120. Balck's father, Generalleutnant William Balck, received the Pourle Merite—the "Blue Max"—while a division commander during World War I.3 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 I. Several of his works were translated into English and used in US Army service schools.

 

World War I

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 World War I, 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

 

Pre World War II

Retained in the small postwar Reichswehr, Balck transferred to the 18th 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 with-in the High Command in Berlin.

 

World War II

 During the Polish Campaign in 1939, 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 1st Motorized Infantry Regiment, 1st Panzer Division, of Guderian's XIX Panzer Korps. On 13 May 1940, Balck's regiment forced the crossing of the Meuse River that spear-headed 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."6

In mid-May Balck temporarily commanded his division's 1st 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 Kampf-gruppe 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."8

In July 1941, Balck became Spar-kommissar at the Office of the Director of Army Equipment in Berlin. His task was to make up for vehicle losses in Russia. Over a four-month period, he stripped 100,000 vehicles and their crews from uncommitted units and transferred them to the combat forces. During this period his oldest son, Friederich Wilhelm Balck, was killed in Russia as an officer cadet.9

In November 1941, Balck became inspector of mobile troops—the same position Guderian held in 1938. During Operation Tiafun, the abortive drive on Moscow, Balck visited stalled German forces in the field and reported back to Berlin on the situation. In a 30 December briefing, he stood his ground when Adolf Hitler challenged his assessment of the situation. Hitler took issue with the tank losses reported by Balck, insisting the numbers must be much lower. Balck shot back, "You are mistaken: I was there—my figures are the correct ones."10

A few weeks later Balck reported to Hitler that the current tank production of 30 per month was inadequate. Hitler answered that he had just been told tank production was 60 per month. Balck replied, "In that case, you've been lied to." At that point Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, chief of staff of the Werhmacht High Command, angrily interjected, "If so, then I'm the liar."11

 

In May 1942, Balck assumed command of the 11th Panzer Division in Byelorussia and was promoted to Generalmajor in August. In that position he fully demonstrated his impressive range of command abilities. He emphasized leading from the front to remain in constant touch with the action. His principal axiom was "Night marches save blood."12

By December 1942, the German Sixth Army was encircled in Stalingrad. Field Marshal Eric von Manstein, the commander of Army Group Don, planned to relieve the Sixth Army with Colonel General Hermann Hoth's Fourth Panzer Army, supported by the XLVIII Panzer Korps. On 7 December, before the XLVIII Panzer Korps could link up with the Fourth Panzer Army, elements of General P.L. Romanenko's Soviet Fifth Tank Army launched heavy attacks at various points along the Chir River, a tributary of the Don. By the end of the day, the Soviet I Tank Corps had crossed the Chir and penetrated 10 miles to the south, reaching Sovchos (State Collective Farm) 79.

When the attack came, two divisions of the XLVIII Panzer Korps were deployed along the river's west bank. The 7th Luftwaffe Field Division was on the left, and the 336th Infantry Division was on the right. To their rear, Balck's partially deployed 11th Panzer Division formed the corps reserve. Until that November the 11th Panzer Division had been operating near Roslavl in Byelorussia, more than 400 miles northwest of the confluence of the Chir and the Don. On 25 November, the division started to move by rail to join Army Group Don. By 6 December, the 11th Panzer Division was assigned to the LXVIII Panzer Korps, although only the division's 15th Panzer Regiment was in position. Balck's 110th and 111th Panzergrenadier Regiments were still in transit and did not close until late on 7 December.

With most of his combat units still en route from the railhead, Balck and his commanders were making a ground reconnaissance for the followon move toward Stalingrad when the Soviets attacked. The LXVIII Panzer Korps sent the 11th Panzer Division a warning order to have the 15th Panzer Regiment prepare for a possible counterattack. In the absence of their commander, the division staff passed along the warning order, and the 15th Panzer Regiment began moving forward.

When Balck got the word, he immediately moved to the 336th Infantry Division's command post at Verchne Solonvski. Contrary to all prevailing German doctrine, he decided to collocate his command post with that of the 336th. Balck then began analyzing the orders flowing in from corps ordering the 11th Panzer Division to throw the Soviets back across the Chir. Balck reasoned that if the threat was great enough to delay the relief drive toward Stalingrad, then simply forcing the enemy back across the Chir would be inadequate. He immediately began working to have the mission changed to one of destroying the enemy. His efforts were successful: the LXVIII Panzer Korps' orders were changed as Balck wished.

Because of the desperate situation, Balck was forced to commit his division piecemeal. Despite reinforcement by the 15th Panzer Regiment, the 336th Infantry Division was unable to prevent the enemy from reaching Sovchos 79. As the Soviets hunkered down in that position for the night, Balck brought up the remainder of his units and planned his attack for the following day.

Balck struck just before dawn on 8 December. The 110th Panzer-grenadier Regiment conducted a holding attack against the Soviet front, with the 15th Panzer Regiment supported by the 111th Panzer-grenadier Regiment, delivering the main blow against the Soviet rear. Later in the day the Soviets brought up previously uncommitted armor in an attempt to roll up the 336th Infantry Division's left flank. Balck left two Panzer-grenadier regiments to mop up at Sovchos 79 and sent the 15th Panzer Regiment to deal with the new threat. By the day's end, the Soviet I Tank Corps had lost 53 tanks and effectively ceased to exist.

For the next three days, the 11th Panzer Division fought a series of running battles, successively eliminating Soviet bridgeheads across the Chir. The division continually marched at night, fighting during the day, using speed, surprise and shock actions. Balck issued only verbal orders to his regimental commanders, either by radio or face to face, and continually positioned himself at critical points of any action.

Late on 11 December, the Soviets made two more major penetrations into the sector of the XLVIII Panzer Korps. After another night march, the 11th Panzer Division attacked the flank of one of the Soviet penetrations at Lissinski. Once that threat was defeated, Balck moved his division 15 miles to the northwest and attacked the Soviet bridgehead at Nizhna Kalinovski.

At dawn on 13 December, the 11th Panzer Division was preparing to make its final counterattack when it was hit on the right flank by a strong Soviet assault. One of Balck's battalions was temporarily surrounded, but he continued the originally planned attack on the Soviet bridgehead while simultaneously extracting his encircled battalion. By the end of the day, the Soviets had been fought to a standstill, although the Nizhna Kalinovski bridgehead was not completely eliminated. By that point, the 11th Panzer Division had been marching by night and fighting by day for almost eight continuous days.

On 10 December, the Fourth Panzer Army had begun its drive to relieve the Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Despite being heavily engaged along the Chir, the XLVIII Panzer Korps had the mission to link up with and support the Fourth Panzer Army. To do so, the XLVIII Panzer Korps had to cross the Don. On 15 December, the 11th Panzer Division began moving south toward Nizhna Chirskaya, just below the confluence of the Chir and the Don. On 17 December, Balck's division was prepared to force a crossing, but the Soviets struck first.

Ignoring the thrust of the Fourth Panzer Army, the Soviets launched a massive blow against the Italian Eighth Army farther north along the Don. The Soviet drive threatened to cut off Rostov, at the mouth of the Don on the Azov Sea. Such a move would have isolated Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist's Army Group A in the Caucasus. Manstein was forced to draw heavily from the Fourth Panzer Army to defend Rostov, and that sealed the fate of the Sixth Army in Stalingrad.

The new Soviet drive overlapped into the sector of the XLVIII Panzer Korps, overrunning units of the 336th Division. The crossing of the Don by the 11th Panzer Division was cancelled, and once again Balck's troops were thrown into the breach. The 11th Panzer Division counter-attacked on 18 December at Nizhna Chirskaya. It then conducted another night march and attacked at dawn on 19 December at Nizhna Kalinovski. Balck's 15th Panzer Regiment, which was now down to about 25 tanks, came up from behind 42 Soviet tanks in march column. The Germans fell in to the rear of the column in the darkness, and the Soviets mistook them for their own tanks. At the right moment, the 15th Panzer Regiment opened fire, rolling up and destroying the entire column.

Balck's panzers then turned to meet another Soviet column of 23 tanks. Positioned on low ground, the Germans had perfect belly shots when the Soviet tanks crested some higher ground to the front. The 15th Panzer Regiment destroyed a total of 65 enemy tanks that day without suffering a single loss.

By 22 December, the series of defensive battles along the Chir was over, with the Germans clearly the tactical victors. The Fifth Tank Army had been virtually eliminated, despite a Soviet local 111 superiority in infantry, 71 in tanks and 201 in guns.13

Tactical victory did not, however, translate to operational success. On 22 December, the XLVIII Panzer Korps received orders to move immediately 90 miles to the west to form blocking positions in front of Rostov. The 11th Panzer Division moved first and temporarily came under the control of the Romanian Third Army. Two days later the remainder of the LXVIII Panzer Korps arrived and resumed control of Balck's division.

When Balck first arrived in the Rostov area, he concluded "the situation was so grave it could only be saved through audacity—in other words, by attacking. Any attempts at defense would mean our destruction."14 With only 20 operational tanks, Balck moved his division toward Skassyrskaya to block the Soviets. When he found nothing at Skassyrskaya, he continued moving farther south to Tatsinskaya, which put him in the Soviet rear.

Balck deployed his units around Tatsinskaya. Meanwhile, the Soviet XXIV Tank Corps commander received intelligence reports that there were German tanks to his rear. He reacted by ordering all his units to concentrate around his position at Hill 175. The order was sent by radio in the clear and, of course, was intercepted by the 11th Panzer Division.

On Christmas Day 1942, Balck closed the ring around the XXIV Tank Corps. The 11th Panzer Division, however, had been moving and fighting too long and too hard. It was down to only eight operational tanks, and it simply did not have the strength to break into the Soviet positions. But Balck continued to maintain the pressure, and by 27 December the Soviets had been squeezed into a tighter pocket. On 28 December Balck received operational control of the 4th Panzer-grenadier Regiment. With this additional power the 11th Panzer Division was able to break into the defensive perimeter and destroy yet another Soviet tank corps.15

For his part in the destruction of the Soviet Fifth Tank Army, Balck received the Oakleaves to his Knight's Cross. In January 1943, he was promoted to Generalleutnant and in March received the Swords to the Knight's Cross.

In September 1943, Balck became acting commander of the XIV Panzer Korps in Italy. In what appears to be one of his few battlefield mistakes, Balck failed to fully reinforce the 16th Panzer Division, cautiously deciding to hold back a large portion of his forces to counter other landings instead of concentrating his forces opposite the area of the Allied landings at Salerno. He subsequently recognized his error and was moving to correct it when he was injured in the crash of his command observation plane. As a result, the 16th Panzer Division counter attacked the beachhead with insufficient force and failed to push the Allies back into the sea.16

After a brief period of recovery from his injuries, Balck — now General der Panzertruppe — returned to the XLVIII Panzer Korps and commanded it in the savage 1944 battles at Kiev, Radomyshl and Tarnopol. During those battles, his corps virtually destroyed three Soviet armies. Balck assumed command of the Fourth Panzer Army in August 1944. Counterattacking near Bara-nov, he brought the Soviet offensive in the great bend of the Vistula to a halt.17 That action brought him the highly coveted Diamonds to his Knight's Cross.

In September 1944, Hitler personally selected Balck to assume command of Army Group G in the west, opposite the US Third and Seventh Armies. Balck's area of responsibility ran from Metz to Belfort, and his mission was to stop Patton and buy time for the buildup for the planned Ardennes Offensive. In an 18 September conference with Hitler, Balck and his chief of staff, Generalmajor F.W. von Mellenthin, were among the first field officers to learn of the coming offensive. Hitler told Balck he had to fight for time. "On no account must he allow a situation to develop in which forces earmarked for the Ardennes offensive would have to be sidetracked to Army Group G."18

Balck's army group, in fact, was a ragged assortment of under-strength, poorly equipped and hastily trained units cobbled together from Germany's rapidly deteriorating forces. With few resources from which to draw, Balck made brilliant use of dummy mines to confuse and slow attackers. In the end, he accomplished his mission to "hold Alsace Lorraine in all circumstances," but his job had been made easier by General Dwight D. Eisenhower's 22 September order for Patton's Third Army to stand on the general defensive.19 The story might have ended differently if Patton had been allowed to go on the offensive. Commenting on his mission and the Lorraine Campaign, Balck later noted, "Patton was the outstanding tactical genius of World War II. I still consider it a privilege and an unforgettable experience to have had the honor to oppose him."20

Late in December 1944, Balck was relieved of his command, the victim of political intrigues by SS Chief Heinrich Himmler and Hitler's periodic witch hunts. Thanks to the intervention of Guderian, Balck was reassigned as commander of the reconstituted German Sixth Army, which also had operational control of two Hungarian armies.21 When the war ended, Balck kept his troops out of Soviet hands by surrendering them to Major General Horace McBride, the US XX Corps commander in Austria.

 

Post World War II

Balck remained in captivity until 1947. Throughout that period he declined to participate in the US Army Historical Division's series of interviews and monographs, although a great many other German generals did. This may partially account for his relative obscurity and the fact that the US Army's 1950 official history of the Lorraine Campaign tended to dismiss Balck as a perpetually overoptimistic and swashbuckling martinet.22 In the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, Balck and von Mellenthin did participate in a number of seminars and panel discussions with senior NATO leaders at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

During World War II, von Mellenthin, as a General Staff officer, worked closely with many of Germany's greatest commanders, including Rommel, Guderian and Kesselring. Von Mellenthin was on Guderian's staff during the French Campaign, and for 15 months in the desert he was Rommel's 3d General Staff officer, then his deputy first general staff officer. Although von Mellenthin had worked for some of Germany's greatest combat commanders, he reserved his highest praise for Balck. In his widely regarded 1956 book, Panzer Battles, von Mellenthin laments the portrayal of Balck in Hugh M. Cole's The Lorraine Campaign.23 He also wrote of his old commander: "He was one of our most brilliant leaders of armor. . . . If Manstein was Germany's greatest strategist during World War II, I think Balck has strong claims to be regarded as our finest field commander."24 MR

 

Bio written by by Colonel David T. Zabecki, US Army Reserves

 

NOTES

1. William E. DePuy, US Army War College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Art of War Colloquium, "Generals Balck and von Mellenthin on Tactics: Implications for NATO Military Doctrine," April 1983, 48.

2. Correlli Barnett, Hitler's Generals (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989; Quill, 1991).

3. Interestingly, Balck's father used the English spelling "William" rather than the German "Wilhelm."

4. Hermann Balck, Ordnung im Chaos: Erinner-ungen, 19381948, (Osnabrueck, Germany: Publisher not known, 1981), 67375.

5. Ibid., 25255.

6. Heinz Guderian, Panzer Leader (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996).

7. Hermann Balck and F.W. von Mellenthin. Taped, translated conversation and biographical sketch, Battelle Columbus Laboratories Tactical Technology Center, Columbus, Ohio, 12 January 1979, 2.

8. F.W. von Mellenthin, Panzer Battles (New York: Ballantine Press, 1985).

9. Balck and von Mellenthin, taped conversation, 34345.

10. Ibid., 35354.

11. Ibid., 35-36.

12. Ibid., 403.

13. BundesarchivMilitaerarchiv, "Kriegstagebuch Nr.6 der 11. Panzer Div. Einsatz Russland in der Zeit vom 1.11.1942 bis 31.12.1942," (Freiburg, Germany), Files RH 2711/53 and RH 2711/5559; Balck and von Mellenthin, taped conversation, 396413; von Mellenthin, 21122.

14. Balck and von Mellenthin, taped conversation, 408.

15. Ibid., 40812.

16. Martin Blumenson, Salerno to Casino: The U.S. Army in World War II (Washington, DC: US Army Center for Military History, 1969), 8586.

17. Guderian, 376.

18. Balck and von Mellenthin, taped conversation, 372.

19. Ibid., 37475.

20. Ladislas Farago, Patton: Ordeal and Triumph (New York: Astor-Honor, Inc., 1964), 505.

21. Guderian, 394.

22. Hugh M. Cole, The Lorraine Campaign: The U.S. Army in World War II (Washington, DC: US Army Center for Military History, 1950), 22930.

23. Von Mellenthin, 304 and 373n; Cole.

24. Von Mellenthin, 304.

 

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