Monday 18 January 2010

Panzer Commander

I've just finished an excellent book that my Brother & Sister-in-law bought me for Christmas. Panzer Commander : The Memoirs of Colonel Hans von Luck is a book I have heard about but until now not got round to reading. Now that I have read it I wish I had sought this book out years ago because it takes the reader to the other side of the hill and shows the Second World War from the perspective of a German soldier. He was awarded the German Cross in Gold and the Knight's Cross and at the end of the war was the youngest full colonel in the Wehrmacht.

Von Luck was born in 1911 in Flensberg the son of a well to do Prussian naval officer. In 1929 he joined the Reichswehr as a cadet officer where Rommel was one of his tutors. He describes the German Army at that time as deliberately trained to be nonpolitical (some, even von Luck, would say naive). This naivety meant that few in the military saw the danger of Hitlers National Socialist politics until it was too late. Some would later attempt to assassinate Hitler in the 20th July Plot (immortalised in the recent film Valkyrie) while others, like von Luck found themselves trapped by their Oath of Allegiance and their sense of duty.

In 1939, von Luck's unit was one of the first to cross into Poland and later into France. Over the next five years he was almost constantly in action and served in virtually every major theatre of the war. He took part in Operation Barbarossa and reached the outskirts of Moscow before being transferred to commanded the 3rd Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion of the 21st Panzer Division in North Africa. During this time he arranged a 'gentleman's agreement' with the British units opposing him, swapping information on captured prisoners and even on occasion trading medical supplies for prisoners. Luck was wounded but returned to his Battalion as the war in North Africa turned in favor of the allies.

After the disastrous evacuation in which 130,000 German soldiers were captured, von Luck returning to Germany and was eventually posted to Paris. Later he was put in charge of the 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment and played a central role in opposing Operation Goodwood. But Germany's days were numbered and battle after battle pushed them back towards their own borders. Eventually von Luck was put in charge of the remains of the 21st panzer Division and moved to the Oder Front trying to hold back the Russians. He was eventually captured during the Battle of Halbe encirclement in April 1945.

Unfortunately this wasn't the end of the war for von Luck and thousands of other German soldiers. Those lucky enough to be POW's of the Americans found captivity comfortable after the privations of war, but above all relatively short. For those captured by the Russians the future was completely uncertain and almost universally harsh. Luck found himself in what amounted to a slave labour camp in Georgia and later near Kiev for the next five years. This was the collective punishment they would have to pay for Hitlers invasion of Russia in June 1941 and the four years of war that followed.

Just as interesting as his recollections of the war is his story after he finally got home to Germany in 1950. Like many soldiers returning home (on both sides of the conflict) his war time relationship did not survive the outbreak of peace. It took some time for von Luck to build a new career for himself outside the armed forces. In the 1960's he became involved with veterans groups and forged friendships with former enemies including Major John Howard whose Airborne troops took Pegasus Bridge. Von Luck also became good friends with the US historian Stephen Ambrose (author of Band of Brothers) who convinced him to write down his memoirs which eventually became this book.

"I have often felt that in the first half of my life I was, in a double sense, a prisoner of my time: trapped on the one hand in the Prussian tradition and bound by the oath of allegiance, which made it all too easy for the Nazi Regime to misuse the military leadership; then forced to pay my country's tribute, along with so many thousand others, with five years of captivity in Russian camps.

I hope that nowhere in the world will young people ever again find themselves to be so misused."

Colonel Hans von Luck (15 July 1911–1 August 1997)

Winston Chruchill once said that "history is written by the victors". This book goes a long way to redressing that imbalance and is an excellent counterpoint to any of the classic books of the history of the Second World War.

1 comment:

  1. That really sounds great, I will have to get it and read it.


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