U.S. General William DePuy said that Balck is “perhaps the best division commander in the German Army.” Coming from the enemy, that is indeed the high praise.
Balck wasn’t as popular as other German panzer commanders form the World War II, Like Erwin Rommel, Heinz Guderian, or Erich von Manstein, but his talent for leading men into combat rivals theirs. Born in East Prussia on December 7th, 1893, Hermann Balck was a son of a Prussian General and a grandson of a British Lieutenant Colonel in Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Georg Balck. His mother was a daughter of Major General Conrad Friedrich Lütgen. His father, William Balck, was a general in Imperial German Army and was awarded Pour le Merit, the highest military decoration in Germany at the time, the popular Blue Max. He was an author of a tactic textbook German army used in its military academies. With such strong military background, army career was a natural choice for young Hermann and he joined Hanoverian Rifle Battalion as a cadet in 1913. He served as an officer in a mountain infantry regiment, just like Erwin Rommel and was nominated for Pour le Merit, but, unlike Rommel and his father, didn’t get it, as the war ended before he could be awarded one. He did receive Iron Cross for bravery. During the war, he fought on Western, Italian, Eastern, and Balkan fronts.
After the WWI ended, Germany faced serious restrictions on the size of its army and could only retain 4,000 officers. Only the best and the brightest were selected and Balck was one of them. He was transferred to a cavalry division, which was later transformed into a panzer one.
When the World War Two started, Balck was serving in German High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres), in the Inspectorate of Motorized Troops as a lieutenant colonel. Inspectorate was in charge of creating a modern motorized army and here Balck learned a lot about tanks and their use in future warfare. He received the command of a regiment in an elite 1st Panzer Division, which was under General Guderian’s command during the invasion of France.
In May 1942, Balck was transferred to Eastern Front and given the command of 11th Panzer Division. He was just in time for one of the greatest leadership performance in the history of warfare. After 6th Army was surrounded in Stalingrad, Erich von Manstein was preparing a relief effort to free them. One of the units under his command was XLVIII Panzer Corps, of which 11th Panzer was a part of. The division was just arriving to the area of operations and was stretched along the transport line when Soviets attacked. Their 5th Tank Army punched through and was threating to collapse the entire German line when General Balck arrived at the scene. In the next few days, he proceeded to smack Soviet elite troops under the command of General P. L. Romanenko around and stopping 5th Tank Army in its tracks, crippling it in the process, despite being outnumbered 7:1 in tanks, 11:1 in infantry, and 20:1 in artillery. He was awarded Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds, a decoration only 27 people in the entire war were given, with names like Erwin Rommel, Erich Hartmann, and Wolfgang Lüth among the recipients.
In 1944 Balck was appointed as the commander of Army Group G in France. By then it was clear that the war is over and he only managed to delay Allied troops arrayed against him, which didn’t satisfy Hitler, who removed him from command and placed him in reserve. After Heinz Guderian intervened on his behalf, he was given the command of 6th Army in Hungary. Balck surrendered his army to Allies on May 8th, 1945.
After being released from captivity, he started working as a depot worker. He was arrested in 1948 under the charges of murder, regarding the incident that happened in 1944 in France. One of the artillery units charged with providing supporting fire during an attack failed to do so. When he went to inspect the reasons, Balck found the commander, one Lieutenant-Colonel Johann Schottke, passed out drunk. He immediately ordered Schottke to be shot by the firing squad. Because he didn’t convey a military tribunal, Balck was sentenced to three years in prison, of which he served 18 months. Despite all his accomplishments, Hermann Balck remains one of the least known German generals from the World War 2.