Panzer Commander is the Steven Ambrose-inspired pop memoir of the noted German panzeraufklarung (armoured reconnaissance) expert Colonel Hans von Luck, who died in January 1997.
Historian and newspaper editor Max Hastings has somewhat unkindly suggested that Ambrose is less interested in recording history than creating heroes and there may be some of that in Von Luck`s book.
Although an eminently readable book it is a bit like a McDonald`s meal – ultimately unsatisfactory.
Von Luck`s military career and its highlights are available in some detail in the wikipedia and do not require much attention here.
He was born in 1911 in Flensburg, the son of a naval officer and descends from an old military family. Von Luck joined a cavalry regiment in the 100 000-strong Reichwehr in 1929 but was soon transferred to the motorized infantry – unbeknownst to him a cover for the panzer troops. In 1931 he came under the tutelage of Erwin Rommel, the later field marshal, and in 1933 his unit received its first scout cars.
By 1936 he was a company commander, a position he maintained in the Polish Campaign of September 1939 (with the 2nd Light Division) and again in France (May 1940) in the armoured reconnaissance battalion of the 7th Panzer Division as the 2nd LD was then under command of Rommel.
The company commander was on hand for the only Anglo-French counterattack of the campaign, the Battle of Arras. When his commander was killed in a friendly fire incident that nearly took Rommel, the latter selected him over others to assume the battalion command.
The next year, he helped spearhead the invasion of Russia, penetrating across the Volga-Moscow canal north of Moscow in December 1941. He was then posted to Africa as a battalion commander at the wish of Rommel, serving as commander of the 3rd Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion of the 21st Panzer Division. It is a poor pun but Von Luck was often quite lucky, and he narrowly missed the Italian-German collapse in Africa.
His next posting was as regimental commander to the reconstituted 21st Panzer Division, located around Caen, which put him in plum position to resist the Anglo-American invasion of Europe on 6 June 1944. He spent most of D-Day clicking his heels as he had not been informed by his divisional commander of a standing order to counterattack immediately in the case of parachute landings – and he was on the edge of the 6th Airborne Divisions` drop and landing zones.
Attack orders were received in the late afternoon to recapture the Orne river bridges at Bénouville (“Pegasus bridge”). In this he failed, the bridges being held by paratroopers under Major John Howard who was being well supported by naval artillery.
In late June he had a hand in defeating the British Operation Epsom and in July played a leading role in blunting Operation Goodwood. In another lucky escape, his kampfgruppe remained outside the Falaise pocket, where the bulk of the German army in the West was destroyed in August 1944. Von Luck now received a roving brief to fall back on Germany with his anemic regiment and fight delaying actions as required.
In early September his unit was in the Strasbourg area where it would defend and attack until January, taking part in the defence of the Siegfried line and an attack on the Maginot line (Operation Nordwind).
In February the 21st Panzer was transferred east to help reopen a way to Küstrin on the Oder front. After this initial success the formation was swamped by the Soviet Oder-Berlin operation and Von Luck was trapped with the remains of the German 9th Army in the Halbe pocket. While attempting to lead his men out of this, he was captured on the morning of 27 April 1945.
Von Luck had an adventurous time in captivity – and good fortune again played a role. As he spoke a smattering of Russian (also French and English), he was useful to camp authorities in Georgia, where he was confined. German industriousness and ingenuity impressed the overlords and he was quick to exploit the prevailing corruption to the advantage of his men, who were put to coal mining, road building and construction.
In Autumn 1948 all former police, SS, anti-partisan troops and staff officers – or those deemed such – were transferred to punishment camps, Von Luck being sent to Kiev. Here they were not required to work and so could not earn extra income or barter labour for food as in Georgia. Nostalgia set in. Boredom too. The German colonel quickly discovered from the Russian camp doctor that they were being cheated on rations and so organised a hunger strike, which inevitably attracted a commission from Moscow and – as he had calculated based on previous experience – led to better conditions.
Release came in 1950 and Von Luck was repatriated to West Germany, where he first worked as a hotel receptionist and then entered the coffee business. An additional career started in 1960. By then he had already turned down an offer to join the Bundeswehr and had just returned from his business` coffee plantation in Angola when he was asked by Britain to accompany a staff ride to Normandy to give students of the Camberley Staff College an account of his actions there. Here he came in close contact with many of his opposite numbers, including Howard and Major General “Pip” Roberts, commander of the 11th Armoured Division during Goodwood. In 1979 this was filmed as “Goodwood”, a movie subsequently well sold to European staff colleges.
This was not his first experience of film, in 1967 he had helped France`s ORTF film a documentary about the war in North Africa, The War without hate.
From 1980 he accompanied Swedish staff rides to Normandy. In 1983 he helped Ambrose write a book on Pegasus bridge for the 40th anniversary of D Day the next year. In 1984 he was in some demand on radio and television. The consequence was dramatic as old comrades from the war and from the camps made contact with him, most exclaiming great pleasure that he was alive. By necessary implication he had clearly steered clear of veterans associations up to that time. He was now quickly drawn into that web.
Indeed an eventful life. Unfortunately anecdotes aside, there is little more meat to the book than given above. We are given no insight into what he taught the British, French and Swedes. There is very little about operational art, tactics or the role of terrain played in the selection of positions or avenues of attack. These must have been major discussion points and it is perplexing they did not find their way into the narrative. Von Luck is now sadly departed so the deficiency cannot be corrected and those many of us who did not have the benefit of his company on these tours are forever the poorer. Alas!
Panzer Commander – The memoirs of Colonel Hans von Luck
Hans von Luck