WW1, WW2

Have you Heard of the Greatest Unknown General of WW2, Hermann Balck?

But who is Hermann Balck? These are the words of Major General Mellenthin, the man who was Hermann Balck’s Chief of Staff during World War Two.

“He was one of our most brilliant leaders of armour;

indeed, 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.”

Major General F.W von Mellenthin

Panzer Battles, 1956

Born on December 7th 1893, in Danzig- Langfuhr, an area in the north of the Polish city of Gdańsk, Georg Otto Hermann Balck was the son of Prussian General, William Balck and his wife Mathilde, daughter of District Court President Otto Jensen.

Believed to originate from Finland, the family is said to have migrated from Sweden during the 1100s. Balck’s family history is an interesting story in itself and far too detailed to cover here. Suffice to say he came from a prestigious military line on both sides.

Hermann Balck

Hermann Balck’s father, William was not only a highly decorated Lieutenant-General, he was also a prolific writer and military strategist producing and contributing to several notable published works on military strategy and tactics.

Jaegers
Balck was in the 4th Army, 10th Jager Battalion during WW1

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His mother was also well educated and as Balck describes, had an abundance of common sense. She was also an excellent teacher, a skill inherited by her son and one which he would make good use of in his own career as a military leader.

In his memoirs, Balck speaks of his father with fondness and admiration. He had positive memories of horse riding trips taken together where his father would talk to him about combat, share his strategies and pose military questions to his son, thus shaping and inspiring a military mind from a very young age. More importantly perhaps, Balck highlights that his father taught him “a deep sense and understanding for the lowest ranking troops and the mistakes of our social class.” This lesson made a lasting impression on the young Hermann Balck.

WW1

Given his upbringing, it is no surprise that as the son of a General, Balck became a cadet himself in 1913 at age 20 with the Hanovarian Rifle Battalion where he admits to feeling completely at home. He then attended military school before being called up following the outbreak of WWI in August 1914, during which he initially serving as a platoon leader.

Short of giving a timeline of every battle in which he fought during the First World War, Balck was instrumental fighting on many fronts proving himself sufficiently to be awarded the Iron Cross and being active enough on the battlefield to sustain wounds seven times. His early wounds included being shot in the back with a rifle, shot through the left ear and left arm and receiving shrapnel splinters in both hips.

By 1918 Balck had risen to the rank of Commander of the 4th Army, 10th Jager Battalion and had received many honours including both classes of Iron Cross. He had also been nominated for the Pour le Merite, an honour originating in 1740 established by King Frederick II of Prussia.

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Pen Pusher

The honour had a French name primarily due to French being the international language of the day and the preferred language of King Frederick’s court. Ironically, despite increasing hostility between the Germans and the French throughout the 19th century, it retained its French name and was often awarded for heroic acts performed in wars against France.

His interwar years were spent with a cavalry regiment at Stuttgart, the 18th which he joined in 1922. He remained with this regiment for the next 12 years. During this time he was twice headhunted for promotion to the rank of General Staff officer but declined on both occasions preferring to be in an active military role as opposed to operating behind the scenes or as he described it, being a ‘pen pusher’.

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The award itself is visually striking, a blue Maltese cross featuring golden eagles with the words ‘Pour le Merite’ in gold lettering. The ribbon was striped black and white with silver edging and later a spray of acorn leaves was added.

Blue Max

Awarded for both military and civil acts of honour it is said to have been colloquially known as ‘The Blue Max’ in honour of one of the first German pilots that received it for shooting down no less that 8 enemy planes successively.

Unfortunately for Balck, the war ended before his Blue Max could be awarded.

He later took command of a new fighting unit – a bicycle battalion in East Prussia, a part of the 1st Cavalry brigade. To a young student of history, it may seem odd that a decorated and experienced officer should be placed in charge of troops on push bikes.

However, by the 19th century many modern armies had bicycle units, often taking over the function of dragoons delivering messages and acting as scouts. Bicycles after all were much cheaper than horses, required far less training and they were silent!

Hermann Balck
Hermann Balck in 1943 the greatest German general no one ever heard of: Who Was Hermann Balck?

In the German Army of Balck’s day, Jager battalions (light infantry) each had their own bicycle company and by the end of WWI there were no less than eight bicycle battalions making up a total of 80 companies.

Order in Chaos

During WWII the Germans continued to use bicycles to great effect when backed up with a tank and anti-tank battalion which meant speed was possible and gave them an advantage through the Soviet road system which at this time was limited.

 

In his memoir entitled ‘Order in Chaos’, Balck speaks fondly of his time with the bicycle battalion consisting of men (mostly former policemen) from East Prussia. Considering him on the one hand as a competent and battle-hardened leader by this point, it is a pleasure to see another side to him in his memoirs. He is not judgmental and he recognises the failings of the officers around him who were all too ready to view troops through a stereotypical lens based on their geographical origins or class.

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He explains his pedagogy for training troops which was then based not on barking orders, conducting mindless drills and handing out strict discipline, but rather on viewing soldiers as people, taking their background, their psychology, prior knowledge and experience into consideration and then using this to formulate his own training regime based on developing their strengths.

It is clear when reading his memoirs why he twice turned down the opportunity to become a stuffy General Staff Officer. Quite simply, Hermann Balck loved training and working with troops to mould and hone them into an efficient and effective fighting force that was kept motivated by, as he describes it, ‘making duty interesting’.

East Prussia

He preferred issuing commands from the front as opposed to being behind the lines and sending commands forward in writing (leaving them in his mind, open to misinterpretation). With this methodology he was able to maintain direct control over progress on the ground and was able to make quick decisions based on a very clear understanding of each situation as it unfolded.

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Balck’s success as a leader was as much to do with his natural intelligence, understanding and his respect for the force which he was up against, as with his natural ability to understand and adapt his approach to work with a diverse range of people.

At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Balck was serving in the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) as a staff officer in the Inspectorate of Motorized Troops, which was in charge of refitting and reorganizing the growing panzer forces

He used the same approach when training his NCOs and young officers, giving them leisure time in East Prussia which would to his mind, help them bond and develop a greater respect for the people they were to command. He clearly knew that for men to fight, they had to respect the man they were taking orders from.

In 1938 he was promoted again to the position of Lieutenant -Colonel and it was when he was in this position, overseeing the reorganisation of the Panzer divisions that World War II broke out.

3rd Panzer

He was transferred to take command of the 1st Motorised infantry regiment of the 1st Panzer division under Guderian, before fighting through French fortifications at Sedan until the eventual fall of France towards the end of June 1940.

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Later, Balck pioneered a new idea of mixing infantry and tanks together as a fighting force rather than deploying and commanding each separately, and after further German successes in France he again found himself in a new command position. In 1941, and now as a Colonel in charge of the 3rd Panzer regiment of the 2nd Panzer division, Balck began to make headway in Greece.

This was considered extraordinary at the time as he was able to successfully navigate his tanks through the notoriously rocky Grecian terrain. After outflanking the British in the foothills of Mount Olympus, he also overwhelmed a force from New Zealand that was defending Platamon Castle on the coast of the Aegean before defeating more New Zealand and Australian troops at Tempe Gorge which left the road to Athens open to the German forces.

After this, he had a break from his combat role, instead reviewing, reorganising and inspecting military vehicles and personnel.

11th Panzer

In 1942 he was moved to the Eastern Front and placed in charge of the 11th Panzer division. Here he fought and won a series of battles with unsurpassed tactics based on speed of movement under cover of darkness and surprise attack. For these victories he was promoted again to Lieutenant General and awarded swords to his Knights Cross.

In 1943, after recovering from injuries caused when his command plane crashed whilst carrying out observations, he was again put in command of another Panzer Corps, this time fighting three crucial battles within Russia. His corps caused the Russians severe losses when he successfully took a bridgehead and almost destroyed another. After another period in command and yet more Russian defeats he was personally awarded the diamonds to his Knight’s Cross by Adolf Hitler.

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1944 saw him in France again, this time in command of Army Group G where an unfortunate incident was to occur that has caused some historians to label Balck as ‘ruthless’. Reports suggest that fighting was not going well.

Execution

He ordered one artillery unit to provide covering fire during an attack. When the moment came, no covering fire was provided, so a furious Balck went to investigate only to find the commander, a Lieutenant-Colonel named Johann Schottke, to be so drunk he had neither received nor issued the order.

Balck ordered Schottke to be executed with immediate effect by firing squad. This action went against German military law and this decision would later catch up with him.

Before long he was relieved from his position in France in 1945 and ordered back to defend the Eastern Front. It was here that he took the decision to surrender to US Commander Major General Mc Bride as opposed to facing capture by Russian forces.

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At the end of the war Balck was held until 1947 during which time he opted out of participating in research carried out by the US Army’s Historical Division. On his release he found work in a depot but was rearrested in 1948 for the incident with Schottke which occurred in France in 1944. He was tried by a civilian court in Stuttgart and sentenced to 3 years in prison, however, he only served half his sentence before his release.

In 1950 he was tried again, this time by a French military court for the destruction of the French town of Gerardmer. Some sources suggest that he also ordered all civilian men in the town between the ages of 18 – 60 to be put to work in Germany.

War Crime

At the end of the war, an enormous number of displaced persons were found working in Germany, many of these were from German allied nations or POWs so it is possible that this may have occurred. He found himself sentenced to 20 years hard labour for this crime, however he was never extradited.

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He was also cleared by a West German Denazification Court of any connection with National Socialism, making some historians assertions of Balck being ‘an ardent Nazi’ seem unlikely.

The trail on Balck goes cold after this, only remerging when he took the decision to publish his war diaries as his memoirs, at which point he attracted the attention of the US Army once again.

Having lost the war against Vietnam, the US wanted to focus once again on protecting itself from the threat of a Soviet invasion on the West. Balck and his former Chief of Staff, Mellenthin stepped forward and offered their expertise. The now public transcripts in which Balck candidly details how he fought the Red Army make for very interesting reading.

Balck and Hitler
Balck, seen here receiving his Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds from Adolf Hitler (Image source: German Federal Archive)

Death

Hermann Balck died from old age on November 29, 1982 (aged 88) in Asperg, West Germany.  We know very little of his private life and although he does make mention of a wife and children in passing, his legacy is largely his memoirs entitled Order in Chaos: The Memoirs of General of Panzer Troops Hermann Balck.

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In his own words, “The German soldier was bound by his oath and had no say of large-scale political events…Ending the war through negotiation was apparently never an option.” He attributes the loss of the war to failings within the political leadership, the lack of teamwork and trust at the top.

Refreshingly, he doesn’t try to wriggle out of mistakes that were made but instead reflects upon them openly with the clarity of hindsight. Of course the buck has to stop with the man at the top who is often accused of not listening to his generals.

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Balck counters this by highlighting that many of these generals had fought in WWI and were used to a defensive style of warfare as opposed to the mobility and attack approach needed to achieve victory in WWII. Fundamentally, it mattered not to Hermann Balck what a man’s past credentials were or how educated he was because according to him ‘War is an art, not a science’.

Fame Seeker

So again to the question, why do we know so little of this man when his military exploits were so considerable and to an extent have helped to shape modern warfare?

One explanation is that unlike some others Balck was not a fame-seeker. He was confident in himself and his abilities and did not crave recognition or affirmation.

He clearly had little interest in sitting at a desk, preferring to be a man of action and indeed much of this action did take place on the Eastern Front which is another reason why he is not so well known to us in the West.

Finally, his memoirs are a practical account of the World Wars, they lack sentiment and do not go into detail about the human cost or the lack of humanity so frequently displayed by the Nazi Party. Hermann Balck was a military man, a soldier, not a politician. His conduct during the war did not cause him to feature in the Nuremberg trials and so he avoided the public scrutiny which followed in the wake of the war which would have otherwise brought his actions during both conflicts to light.