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The Greatest German General No One Ever Heard Of

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

Over the next three days Balck continued to tighten the vise on the Tatsinskaya pocket, which finally burst on December 28, with the Soviets attempting a breakout to the northwest. But only twelve tanks and thirty trucks managed to escape initially, and when Balck’s forces sprung, they first annihilated all remaining Soviet units inside the pocket, then turned to pursue the escaping column and destroy all those vehicles as well. Another Soviet corps had been wiped out at the hands of Balck’s understrength division. Balck had pulled off a modern-day Cannae, and from that point on the 11th Panzer Division was known by the code name “Hannibal.”

Balck went on to fight more winter battles until he was reassigned in early March 1943. On his last day in command his division destroyed its thousandth tank since his arrival. During the period from December 7, 1942, through January 31, 1943, the 11th Panzer Division was credited with destroying 225 tanks, 347 antitank guns, 35 artillery pieces, and killing 30,700 Soviet soldiers. Balck’s losses for the same period were 16 tanks, 12 antitank guns, 215 soldiers killed in action, 1,019 wounded, and 155 missing.

While in command of the 11th Panzer Division, Balck was promoted to Generalmajor (U.S. Army one-star equivalent) and then to Generalleutnant (two-star equivalent). He later returned to Russia to command the XLVIII Panzer Corps, where Mellenthin was still the chief of staff. When Balck commanded the Fourth Panzer Army in August 1944, his counterattack brought the Soviet offensive in the great bend of the Vistula River to a halt.

In the fall of 1944 Balck went to the western front, commanding Army Group G against Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. in the Lorraine campaign. Balck, however, ran afoul of German Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler and was unceremoniously fired by Hitler in late December. But the Germans desperately needed good commanders, and Guderian, by then the chief of staff of the German army, intervened to have Balck reassigned as the commander of the newly reconstituted Sixth Army, operating in Hungary. At the end of the war Balck managed to prevent his troops from falling into Soviet hands by surrendering his command to Maj. Gen. Horace McBride, commander of U.S. XX Corps.

After the war Balck supported his family by working as a manual laborer in a supply depot. In 1948 he was arrested by the German government and put on trial for murder for ordering the summary execution by firing squad in 1944 of a German artillery battalion commander who was found drunk on duty. Balck was convicted and served a short sentence.

Balck was one of the very few senior German commanders captured by the Americans who refused to participate in the U.S. Army’s postwar historical debriefing program in the late 1940s and early 1950s. That, along with the fact that he spent most of the war on the eastern front, accounts for his relative obscurity today. In the late 1970s, however, he finally started talking when he and Mellenthin participated in a number of symposiums with senior American generals at the U.S. Army War College.

Like Rommel, Balck was never a German general staff officer. But Balck had several opportunities to become one, receiving more than one invitation to attend the Kriegsakademie. Balck always declined, saying he preferred to remain a line officer. Unlike Rommel, though, Balck never succumbed to periods of depression and self-pity. While Rommel ran hot and cold, Balck had a rock-solid consistency that emanated from his steely intellectual and psychological toughness. Nonetheless, he was known widely for his dry, almost British sense of humor and consistently cheerful demeanor.

When Balck left the 11th Panzer Division in 1943 he was given several weeks of well-deserved home leave and a bonus of 1,500 Reichsmarks (the equivalent of $8,000 today) to take his wife on a trip. Instead, he held onto the money until the fall of 1944, when the 11th Panzer Division was again under his command as part of Army Group G. He then used all of the money “to cover the costs of a pleasant evening” with all of the members of the division who had fought with him in Russia.


This article originally appeared in the April/May 2008 issue of World War II magazine.

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