The Greatest German General No One Ever Heard Of

By David T. Zabecki
5/12/2008 • Adolph Hitler, World War II

In December 1942 Hermann Balck wiped out a force ten times his size in the most brilliantly fought divisional battle in modern military history

December 1942 was a time of crisis for the German army in Russia. The Sixth Army was encircled in Stalingrad. Gen. Erich von Manstein, the commander of Army Group Don, planned to break the siege with a dagger thrust to the Volga River from the southwest by the Fourth Panzer Army, supported by the XLVIII Panzer Corps to its immediate north attacking across the Don River. But before the two German units could link up, the Soviet Fifth Tank Army under the command of Gen. P. L. Romanenko crossed the Chir River, a tributary of the Don, and drove deep into German lines.

The XLVIII Panzer Corps was suddenly threatened with annihilation. Its only significant combat power was the 11th Panzer Division, which only days before had been operating near Roslavl in Belorussia, some four hundred miles to the northwest. Still strung out along the line of march and arriving little by little, the 11th Division faced what amounted to mission impossible. But arriving with its lead elements was the division commander, Hermann Balck, who was about to execute one of the most brilliant performances of battlefield generalship in modern military history.

Balck, who ended the war as a General der Panzertruppe (equivalent to a three-star general in the U.S. Army), is today virtually unknown except to the most serious students of World War II. Yet in three short weeks his lone panzer division virtually destroyed the entire Soviet Fifth Tank Army. The odds he faced were scarcely short of incredible: the Soviets commanded a local superiority of 7:1 in tanks, 11:1 in infantry, and 20:1 in a local superiority of 7:1 in tanks, 11:1 in infantry, and 20:1 in artillery. But Balck, leading from the front, reacting instantly to each enemy thrust, repeatedly parried, surprised, and wiped out superior Soviet detachments. Over the next few months his division would rack up an astonishing one thousand enemy tank kills. For this and other achievements Balck would be one of only twenty-seven officers in the entire war—Erwin Rommel was another—to receive the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds, the equivalent of an American receiving two, or even three, Medals of Honor.

“Balck has strong claims to be regarded as our finest field commander,” declared Maj. Gen. Friedrich-Wilhelm von Mellenthin. And he was in a position to know: as a general staff officer during the war, Mellenthin had worked at one point or another for virtually all of Germany’s greatest commanders—including such legends as Rommel and Heinz Guderian.

There was no single characteristic that made Balck such an outstanding combat leader. Hermann Balck was the sum of thousands of small factors that were deeply engrained in him by the system under which he grew up. What really made him great in the end was a consistent ability to assess a situation almost instantly, decide what had to be done, and then carry it out. In any specific situation Balck almost always did what would have been expected of a typical well-trained and experienced German senior officer—and he always did it consistently and unwaveringly, time after time. He never lost his nerve and he almost never made a tactical mistake. He was always one step ahead of his enemy, even in the relatively few situations when he was initially taken by surprise.

Like many senior German officers of his generation, Balck came from a military family, albeit a slightly unusual one. His great-grandfather served under the Duke of Wellington in the King’s German Legion, and his grandfather was an officer in the British Army’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Balck’s father, William Balck, was one of the German army’s foremost tactical writers in the years prior to World War I, and as a division commander in that war won the Pour le Mérite, Germany’s highest military order (popularly but somewhat irreverently called the “Blue Max”). Balck himself was a mountain infantry officer on the western, eastern, Italian, and Balkan fronts during the First World War, serving almost three years as a company commander. He was wounded seven times and in October 1918 was recommended for the Pour le Mérite, but the war ended before the award was fully processed.

At the start of World War II, Balck commanded the lead infantry regiment that spearheaded the crossing of the Meuse River by Guderian’s panzers in May 1940. When his exhausted troops collapsed to the ground after they crossed the river, Balck walked to the head of the column, picked up a rifle, and pointed to the high ground ahead that was his regiment’s objective. Announcing that he was going to take the hill with or without them, he started moving forward. His troops got up and followed him to the top.

In early 1942 Balck was the inspector of mobile troops at the German Army High Command, the same position held in 1938 by his mentor, Guderian. But Balck champed at the bit to get back into combat. He later wrote in his memoirs:

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