Herman Balck might be one of the most effective German Generals, whose actions are largely forgotten today. He came from a military family, his father, William Balck being a General in the Imperial German Army. Herman enrolled in the Hanoverian Rifle Battalion 10 in Goslar as a cadet in 1913. The following year he continued his education at the Hanoverian Military College. However, the war interrupted his studies, and he became a mountain infantry officer, at the age of 21.
Balck got the chance to prove his military skills early in WWI. His unit was entrusted with a vital role; leading a crossing at Sedan. A town of major strategic and symbolic significance, it was the place of a great Prussian victory during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.
From then on, Balck’s military career skyrocketed ― he served on both the Western and Eastern fronts, in the Balkans and Italy. He was nominated for the highest Prussian military decoration ― Pour Le Merite medal. The defeat of the German Army in 1918 interrupted the citation process, and he never received the award. When the war ended, young Hermann was in command of a machine-gun company.
Balck was a highly decorated officer after the First World War, as he bore on his chest the Iron Cross 2nd Class & 1st Class, Knight of the House Order of Hohenzollern with Swords, and several other significant military medals.
After the war, Balck remained in the army as one of the 4,000 officers who retained their service. In 1922 he joined the 18th Cavalry Regiment where he served for the next 12 years.
He turned down offers to join the General Staff twice, preferring to stay posted as a line officer. Regarding his career, it meant he deliberately slowed down his advance in the army ranks, as service in the General Staff guaranteed promotion.
However, as the interest for motorized units and tanks grew in the German Army, Balck could not resist joining the Inspectorate of Motorized Troops. They were tasked with reorganizing the existing units so they would be suitable for the new modern equipment that was in development.
During this time he befriended the famous blitzkrieg pioneer, Heinz Guderian. They were fighting side by side in France, as part of the 1st Panzer Division. Balck once again proved his decisive thinking and initiative by spearheading the crossing over the River Meuse, and establishing a well-held bridgehead on the far side of the river.
After the fall of France, Herman Balck with his Panzer Division continued the conquest of Europe. He played a key role in overcoming the Greek Metaxas Line ― a complex system of fortifications similar to the French Maginot Line. Balck’s successfully captured Thessaloniki, one of the largest cities in Greece with great strategic importance.
After Greece, he returned to his prior duties in the Inspectorate of Armored Forces where he continued to organize and reform the Panzer Divisions.
He then joined his influential friend, Guderian, on the Eastern Front, where the bloodiest battles were yet to come. He was put in command of an elite unit of the Heer (the land forces component of the Wehrmacht) ―The Panzer Grenadier Division Grossdeutschland.
This was the best equipped and trained unit in the Army. With Balck as their leader, they took on the Second Offensive on Zhitomir in Ukraine in 1943 (first one being in 1941).
The town of Zhitomir and the surrounding area was the place which would become Himmler’s notorious Ukrainian headquarters. It was one of the experimental grounds for the German colonization of Eastern Europe.
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