By Stephen Robinson
Published by Exisle Publishing
Hermann Balch has been described as the ‘greatest German general no one ever heard of’. Stephen Robinson, a graduate of the Australian Command and Staff College, has attempted to address this paradox, but with only partial success.
Balck was initially reluctant to discuss his wartime record, and only published his autobiography, Order in Chaos, the year before his death in 1981. It was not to be translated into English for another 34 years.
This extraordinary delay needs an explanation, but Robinson avoids any in-depth analysis of the problem, which has its roots in Balck’s controversial opinion of Adolf Hitler. Unlike the plethora of other German commanders, who universally blamed Hitler for ‘losing the war’ by his inept interference and strategic lunacy, Balck was far less critical and laid much of the blame on logistical failure coupled with gross over-confidence. This was not the ‘party line’, and Balck was condemned to obscurity.
Robinson highlights Balck’s extraordinary leadership style, commanding from the front whenever possible, usually issuing only verbal orders in person or via radio. He was psychologically and intellectually tough; unlike some other noteworthy German commanders, he never seems to have descended into self-pity and depression.
Robinson takes us from Balck’s epic command of the 1st Motorized Rifle Regiment of the 1st Panzer Division at the crucial crossing of the Meuse on 13 May 1940, to his command of Kampfgruppe Balck during the Greek campaign of 1941. No fewer than 140 pages of a 267-page book are devoted to this Greek/Balkan campaign, which, frankly, is disproportionate and, I suspect, due to the presence of so many ANZAC troops in this disastrous rout. Balck’s actions are thus overshadowed by a micro description of the incompetent ANZAC defence.
Things rapidly improve, however, when Robinson discusses Balck’s astonishing command of the 11th Panzer Division during the Stalingrad Campaign of 1942. Balck’s campaign against the Soviet Fifth Tank Army in the vicinity of the Chir River must rank as the definitive masterpiece of defensive armoured warfare.
His Chief of Staff, Friedrich-Wilhelm von Mellenthin, a man who worked closely with both Rommel and Guderian, certainly thought so, stating that ‘Balck has strong claim to be regarded as our finest field commander.’ Despite the fearful odds, Balck’s beloved 11th Panzer Division virtually destroyed the Soviet Fifth Tank Army, inflicting over a thousand tank kills.
Unfortunately, Robinson skips over Balck’s further career, both in Italy at Salerno, where Balck may have missed the opportunity to throw the Allies back into the sea, and his controversial command of Army Group G during Operation Waldfest in 1944. It was during this operation that he ordered the summary execution of Lieutenant-Colonel Johann Schottke for being drunk on duty.
Robinson concludes with a little too much sanctimonious moralising about the impact of the Wehrmacht and Balck in particular, with reference to the Greek campaign. He does, however, acknowledge Balck’s honesty and professionalism, as revealed in Order in Chaos.
Perhaps the last word should go to Freeman Dyson, whom Robinson quotes: ‘He [Balck] won battles because the skill came to him naturally. He never said that battle-winning was a particularly noble or virtuous activity; it was simply his trade.’
Review by Mark Corby
This article was published in the November 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.