This short history is based upon the Memoirs of Colonel Hans von Luck. His book Panzer Commander was first published in 1991. The introduction is written by Stephen Ambrose who first met Colonel von Luck while he was doing his research for his famous book Pegasus Bridge, June 6, 1944.
Hans von Luck was a decorated German Colonel during World War II. You will be surprised at all the places that Hans von Luck was at during the war. He was at most of the major battles that we still talk about today. This book is a must read in order to obtain a better understand of the war from the German solider’s perspective.
Hans’ father fought and died in World War I while serving in the German Navy. Hans’ was only seven years old when his father passed away. His mother soon remarried a german officer. Like his father and his step-father, Hans joined the military. He wanted to be in the calvary which was one of the most prestigious positions in the Army. He was disappointed that he was not selected for the Calvary but was instead selected for the new motorized division. Hans acknowledges in the book that he was very fortunate to be put in the early motorized division because of the major impact that tanks had during World War II.
Prior to World War II, Hans would take every opportunity to travel. He was adept at foreign languages and he developed a network of friends around Europe. These traveling experiences helped him during the War when he was talking to POWs. Often the captured soldiers would only tell him name and rank. Hans would deduct where they were from using their accents and he would talk to them about how he had visited their region. Before long, the prisoner would be talking about their home and Hans would have another friend.
Hans von Luck was a part of the war from the very beginning. He was there leading his men as Germany overran Poland. As Hans marched into Poland, there was a single soldier at the border who when he saw the army, he simply opened the gate and let the army roll pass. He also tells about how after the occupation began, a man came and told him that was worried about a friend. After asking a few questions, Hans realizes the man who was missing was married to a distant cousin of his. It was then that Hans began to start wondering about why they were occupying Poland.
After a brief rest, Hans was a part of Germany’s push to the sea as they destroyed France’s defenses. This was Hans first real wartime interaction with Rommel. Hans and others had concerns about Rommel leading the motorized division because of his lack of tank experience. However, the officers were quickly put at ease as they saw Rommel’s military genius. Rommel did not hide in command headquarters like most senior officers. Rommel was always at the front talking with his officers trying to assist them with their problems.
Hans soon found himself transferred to the Russian front where he was a part of the march to Moscow. Hans tells of an experience where one morning they marched into a town just outside of Moscow. He was hungry so he stopped at the cafe and ordered breakfast. Within a minute he was served a huge breakfast. He learned that a Russian officer had ordered breakfast, but when Hans Panzers came rolling into town, the officer had to quickly escape without eating the breakfast he had ordered. Many years later, when Hans was a Russian POW, Hans actually met the officer who had ordered the breakfast and they both had a huge laugh.
While Hans was fighting in Russia, Rommel, who was in North Africa, was specifically asking for Hans to come join him in Africa. However, Hans current officer also wanted Hans so he held up the transfer for over three months until the Germans had started their slow retreat from Moscow. Hans was really surprised that Rommel would know his name, let allow be insisting on bringing him to North Africa since Germany had so many officers sitting in Berlin who were in the officers reserve waiting to be called up.
In my opinion, the reason why Rommel was asking for Hans von Luck comes from an interaction they had during the France campaign. Rommel had a reputation of asking his junior officers to do impossible tasks. Rommel was always attacking and there was no room for slow and deliberate action. If an officer balked at a command from Rommel, he was instantly replaced.
Hans knew Rommel’s reputation. Days before the British escaped from Dunkirk, Rommel commanded Hans to take his tanks and go capture a particular hill. Hans knew that they would be marching pass a major fortification held by the enemy and that they would be constantly under enemy fire. Hans replied to Rommel that the hill that Rommel wanted was only 10 kilometers from the sea. Why should he stop at this hill, they should march all the way to the sea. Rommel laughed. Here was a man who he could trust to follow orders and think offensively.
Hans von Luck was in North Africa for only a couple of weeks before he was injured in a battle. He soon found himself back in Germany where he was allowed to recover before he was sent back to North Africa. Towards the end of the North Africa campaign, Rommel was losing favor with Hitler because Hitler did not like Rommel’s suggestions that they retreat from Africa.
Everyone who was in Africa knew that Hitler was not giving the necessary provisions as Hitler’s priority was the Russian front. Because of the lack of provisions, Rommel was unable to fight the offensive battles that were necessary to win. However, Hitler refused to listen to the advice of his senior officers. Hitler would not allow the Germans to retreat and he would not provide them with the provisions necessary to prosecute the war.
In a daring plan, several senior officers chose Hans von Luck to travel to Germany to speak with Hitler about the problems in North Africa. The senior officers hoped that while Hitler would not listen to a senior officer, maybe he would listen to a junior officer who was decorated for his brave fighting. Hans received a plan for the retreat that was signed by Rommel, Hermann Goering, and many others. It was his job to deliver the plan to Hitler. However, after many attempts to receive an audience with Hitler, the officers closest to Hitler would not even let Hans von Luck appear before Hitler.
Hans tried to travel back to North Africa to rejoin his regiment but was unable as the allied forces were finally finishing off the Germans. Three weeks after Hans attempted visit to Hitler, Hitler signed off on the plan that Hans tried to give. However, it was three weeks too late and many Germans were taken prisoner.
Hans was then told that he was going to be put in the officer reserves in Berlin. He wanted to be fighting, he did not want to be sitting in Berlin for an entire year waiting his turn to be called up. Hans proposed that he be sent to Paris for six months where he would train German officers in the art of tank warfare.
After six months in Paris, Hans was back on the field of battle. He was put on the coasts of France. Hans was at Normandy. As Montgomery tried to advance as a part of Operation Goodwood, Hans was there, harassing Montgomery’s intent. Hans and his men were successful in keeping Montgomery at bay, but Patton’s advances required the Germans to retreat.
Hans and his men slowly retreated all the way back to the Maginot line. The war had turned. No longer were they fighting the battle in other countries, now Hans was fighting to defend his homeland. As the allies slowly marched on Berlin, Hans von Luck was recalled and told that he was needed to defend his country on the Russian front. The Germans appeared to be more worried about what the Russians would do then what the allies would do to the German people.
Hans bravely fought on the Russian front but as we all know, Berlin fell. Because Hans was on the eastern front, he was sent to Russia for five years. He was not fed well, but as a cunning German, he and his men found some interesting ways to ensure that they occasionally landed a side project that paid them hard money. This enabled them to buy extra food. However, Hans would not hoard the food, but he would share it with his fellow prisoners and with the prison guards who were also starving.
During the war, Hans had committed to not marry. However, he did meet a German girl and they quickly found themselves engaged. However, she was 1/8th Jew and even if Hans was willing to marry her during the war, as a German officer, he was not permitted to marry a woman that was 1/8th Jew. This young lady waited for Hans while he was in prison and upon his return, it became clear to both of them that these five years had completely changed both of them. They ended their engagement. However, a couple years later, Hans saw this young lady one last time as she asked him to vet the man she was about to marry. She knew that Hans knew her very well and that he would know if the man she was about to marry would be a suitable fit for her.
Hans von Luck is a very interesting individual and I highly recommend that you read this book. Hans was often invited to attend events where the allies honored those who died at various battles. However, Hans would refuse to attend because he felt that it was not right for him to show up and cause pain to those who had lost a loved one at German hands.