Hans von Luck

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Hans von Luck
Hans von Luck.jpg
Hans von Luck during World War II
Born (1911-07-15)15 July 1911
Flensburg
Died 1 August 1997(1997-08-01) (aged 86)
Hamburg
Allegiance  Weimar Republic (to 1933)
 Nazi Germany
Service/branch Heer
Years of service 1929–45
Rank Oberst
Unit

7th Panzer-Division

21st Panzer-Division
Commands held Kampfgruppe von Luck
Battles/wars

World War II

Awards Iron Cross {II & I Class}
Knight's Cross
German Cross
Close Combat Clasp in Bronze
Medaglia d'Argento
Other work Military lecturer, author

Hans–Ulrich Freiherr von Luck und Witten (15 July 1911 – 1 August 1997),[1] usually shortened to Hans von Luck, was a Colonel in the German Armored Forces (Oberst der Panzerwaffe) during World War II. Luck served with the 7th Panzer Division and 21st Panzer Division, seeing action in Poland, France, North Africa, Italy and Russia. In several of the World War II campaigns, he served under Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel. Luck is author of the book Panzer Commander.

Early life and career[edit]

Luck was born in Flensburg, Province of Schleswig-Holstein, into a Prussian family with old military roots. Luck's father, Otto von Luck, served in the Kaiserliche Marine or the Imperial German Navy. He fought in First World War and died in July 1918 from the great flu pandemic. Following his father's death, his family was destitute, until his mother remarried. Luck's step-father was a naval chaplain and an instructor at a cadet school.[2] He learned several languages, including French, English and Russian. During the war, he was able to communicate with French and British soldiers and later use Russian during his captivity in the Soviet Union.

In 1929, Luck started his career as an Army officer, serving as a cadet in a Silesian cavalry regiment. He was transferred to the 1st Motorized Battalion in East Prussia.[3] Through the winter of 1931 to 1932 Luck attended a nine-month course, led by Erwin Rommel, at the infantry school in Dresden, to complete his commission as a junior officer.[4][5] In the autumn of 1932 Luck was promoted to Lieutenant. On 30 June 1934 Luck's unit took part in the Night of the Long Knives, arresting several Sturmabteilung members in Stettin.[6]

In 1936 Luck assumed command over the 3rd company in the 8th Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion, stationed in Potsdam. In 1939 he was posted to the 2nd Light Division, serving with the 7th Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion.

World War II[edit]

Invasion of Poland[edit]

Motorcycle reconnaissance forces in Poland, September, 1939

On 1 September 1939 the 2nd Light Division, under General Georg Stumme, participated in the invasion of Poland. Luck served as a company commander in the division's reconnaissance battalion. His unit advanced through Kielce, Radom and Łódź, before driving on Warsaw. His division reached the outskirts of Warsaw on 9 September. The city did not fall until 27 September, marking the end of combat for Luck's unit. Luck states in his memoir that his unit suffered only light casualties during the campaign in Poland.[7]

After Poland, his unit was returned to Germany where the division was reorganized and reequipped to form the 7th Panzer Division. On 6 February 1940 Rommel assumed command of the division. The division's single panzer regiment was equipped with the Panzer 38(t) obtained from Czechoslovakia, supplemented with German Panzer III and Panzer IV medium tanks. Luck served as a company commander in the 37th Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion. The primary vehicle for his unit was the Schwerer Panzerspähwagen, a six-wheel scout car armed with a 2.0 cm gun. At the beginning of May 1940 the unit was transferred to the Eifel mountains area in preparation for the invasion of France.[8]

Invasion of France[edit]

Luck and his 7th Panzer Division was a part of the XV Army Corps under General Hermann Hoth. The corps made up the right shoulder of Gerd von Rundstedt's Army Group A. On 10 May, 1940 the division participated in the invasion of France. Luck's reconnaissance battalion led the division's advance into Belgium, reaching the Meuse river near Dinant in three days.[9] In his memoir Luck describes the division's crossing of the Meuse and Rommel's active role in gaining the crossing.[10] Luck states he was later wounded in the hand as his reconnaissance battalion crossed the La Bassée canal near the city of Arras.

German armour in France, May 1940

On 27 May Lille was reached. The following day a friendly fire incident resulted in the death of the battalion commander. Rommel assigned Luck to take over command of the reconnaissance battalion.[11] Following the evacuation of British and French troops at Dunkirk, the 7th Panzer Division participated in the second phase of the campaign in France. On 5 June the division moved southwest for the Seine river to Rouen. On 15 June 7th Panzer started toward Cherbourg. By 17 June the division had advanced 350 km. The port was captured the following day. In his memoir Luck described how his division proceeded south towards Bordeaux, halting when the armistice was signed on 21 June.

In July Luck's division was sent to the Paris area to start preparations for Operation Seelöwe. This operation was called off when it was clear the Luftwaffe would be unable to gain air superiority over England. In February 1941 Rommel was replaced by General Freiherr von Funk, and in June Luck moved with his division to East Prussia in preparation for the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Invasion of the Soviet Union[edit]

Hans von Luck's map of 7th Panzer's advance to Yakhroma, North of Moscow on the Moscow-Volga Canal

Luck was made Hauptmann and attached to 7th Panzer Division's headquarters staff. His division was a part of the 3rd Panzer Group of Army Group Center. In this capacity he participated in the invasion of the Soviet Union. 3rd Panzer Group captured Vilnius in Lithuania before advancing on Minsk. Following the capture of Minsk the armored group continued east towards Vitebsk. At Vitebsk the division's reconnaissance battalion commander was killed in action, and Luck was assigned as its commander.

Luck's unit participated in creating the large pocket around Smolensk, cutting the Smolensk-Moscow road. Luck continued on towards Moscow. In his memoirs he describes the stiffening Soviet resistance, and problems the Germans faced with the harsh winter of 1941. His unit managed to secure a bridgehead south of Kalinin, not far from the outskirts of Moscow before having to retreat back 100 km from Moscow. On 2 January 1942 Luck was awarded the German Cross in Gold.[12]

Since November Rommel had requested Luck be transferred to Africa to take over command of one of his reconnaissance battalions.[5] Once the crisis of the Soviet counterattack had passed, 7th Panzer's General Funk allowed the transfer to go through. Luck left for Africa in late January of 1942.

North Africa[edit]

Elements of a German reconnaissance battalion.

Luck was promoted to major, spending February and March of 1942 on leave. Reporting back for duty on 1 April 1942, he reached Africa on 8 April and assumed command over the 3rd Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion of the 21st Panzer Division.[13]

On 24 May the Axis forces launched an offensive towards Tobruk.[14] Three days later Luck's reconnaissance battalion encountered a group of American built Grant tanks. The Grants opened fire from beyond range of the 5 cm antitank guns Luck commanded. His memoir recounts how he was wounded in the right leg by shrapnel.[14] The doctor treating him wanted him evacuated to a field hospital, but by this time the Afrikakorps was encircled and had been drawn back into a defensive position.[15] Luck was tasked with protecting the southern flank. On 1 June the Afrikakorps managed to disengage, and Luck was evacuated to a field hospital.

Men and vehicles of the Long Range Desert Group

Luck states the wound in his leg became infected, and he was evacuated to Germany. He returned to Africa in mid-September and resumed command of the 3rd reconnaissance battalion, garrisoned at an oasis near Siwa on the edge of the Qattara Depression. Tasked with guarding the southern flank of the Afrikakorps, Luck states this posting was largely quiet, with occasional engagements being fought against the British Long Range Desert Group.[16]

Luck describes his interactions with the Royal Dragoons, with whom he would communicate from time, and certain "agreements" in conduct were made. Luck states a regular 5 pm cease fire was established, and the two sides swapped information about men missing, lost or captured, and their condition.[17] On 23 October 1942 the British launched the attack of the Second Battle of El Alamein. The Axis position deteriorated, and Luck's battalion was engaged in screening the withdrawal. By December the Germans had retreated to Tripoli.

With the situation in Tunisia becoming more desparate for the Axis forces in March, Luck describes how von Arnim chose him to travel to Germany with an evacuation plan to make an appeal directly to Hitler. He states he met with and had the plan signed off on by Kesselring and Guderian, but was refused a meeting with Hitler and was not allowed to return to Africa. On 6 May the forces in Africa surrendered, with more than 130,000 Germans taken prisoner.

In the reserve[edit]

Luck was placed on leave, and in August was posted to the Panzer Reconnaissance School in Paris. He was assigned to the 21st Panzer Division, stationed near Rennes in Brittany. Luck took up his duties there in early May.

The 21st Panzer Division was reconstituted in late 1943 with a cadre of veterans from Africa who had been evacuated for wounds, along with some veterans from the Eastern front and new recruits from Germany. The division was commanded by General der Artillerie Edgar Feuchtinger, a political appointment who had no combat experience and no experience commanding panzer forces.[18] Luck was placed in command of the 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment. Most of the vehicles of the division were captured or damaged French vehicles which had been repaired and armoured at Baukommando Becker. The assault guns of its anti-tank battalion were also captured French vehicles that had been refitted with heavier German guns.[19][20] Luck's regiment was stationed at Vimont, northeast of Caen, with two companies of assault guns in support.

The Normandy invasion[edit]

Map showing territory gained in Operations Atlantic and Goodwood

On 6 June 1944 the invasion of Normandy started. During the night Luck was startled by the reports of paratroopers landing in his area, and establishing a bridgehead on the east side of the Orne River. A quick attack was launched by the II Battalion, and it succeeded in disturbing the paratrooper operations, and capturing some prisoners. Luck was, however, had strict orders not to engage in major operations unless cleared to do so by high command. As the day wore on, the defenders on the coast were smashed, while 21 Panzer Division remained mostly motionless, apart from an order at 4:30 a.m. directing other elements of the unit to move against the paratroopers of the British 6th Airborne Division and thus farther away from the coast.

Around 10:30 a.m. General Erich Marcks, commander of the German LXXXIV Corps to which 21st Panzer Division was attached, ordered the entire 21st to attack east of the Orne River. This was later countermanded from 7th Army, ordering only Luck's detachment to attack east of Orne, while the rest of the division should attack on the west side of the river. This caused confusion and further delayed the German response. Nevertheless, at 1700 p.m. Luck attempted to break through to the Orne river bridges at Bénouville with his Schützenpanzerwagen (armoured personnel carriers), but heavy fire from the warships supporting the British paratroopers, under Major John Howard, holding the bridges drove his forces back.[21] Added to this, more British paratroopers landed in the rear area of the Regiment, forcing Luck's II Battalion to fall back to avoid getting surrounded. This battalion lost its commander on the morning of 7 June.

On the morning of the 9 June Luck's command was designated Kampfgruppe von Luck, and in addition to the elements of 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment already under Luck's command it consisted of Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion 21, 4th Company, Panzer Regiment 22, three batteries from Major Alfred Becker's Assault-Gun Battalion 200 and one company from Antitank Battalion 220 (88mm guns). With this force Luck was again tasked with assaulting the Orne bridges, and recapturing them from the British paratroopers. Starting one hour before dawn to avoid the worst of the British naval and aerial support, the Kampfgruppe advanced on the village of Ranville, dislodging the enemy there, but it could not penetrate the British lines to reach the bridges. The British paratroopers had been reinforced by the British 51st (Highland) Division on the evening of 8 June.[22]

On 12 June Kampfgruppe von Luck, now further enlarged with an addition of a brigade of Nebelwerfers, successfully reclaimed the village of Sainte-Honorine, lying on an important hill overlooking the invasion beaches. A furious counterattack by a Canadian Division resulted in the Germans having to withdraw again, after fierce hand-to-hand fighting. After this final attack had been repulsed, Luck determined that the British bridgehead could not be eliminated, but due to the counterattacks launched by Kampfgruppe von Luck, the British/Canadian forces stopped any further advance in the sector, preferring to lay mines and dig themselves in.[23] Apart from a failed German attack on 15 June, the sector was relatively quiet for the next two weeks.

Operation Goodwood[edit]

With British attempts at breaking out around Caen taking place further south, Luck, holding the right flank of the German lines around Caen, did not see any major action until Operation Epsom was launched and the British 11th Armoured Division attacked the positions of 192nd Regiment on 27 June. The British armour advanced without infantry support, and was easily destroyed in the hedgerows of the area. However, some elements of the British forces managed to penetrate the western outskirts of Caen.

Major Hans von Luck (center) receives a report from Lt Gerhardt Bandomir (left), who commanded 3. Ko. of I./125 Panzer Grenadier Regt. during Operation Goodwood. Looking on is Major Willi Kurz, CO of II Battalion.

In the beginning of July Luck's Kampfgruppe were further augmented with the arrival of Heavy Tank Battalion 503 equipped with Tiger I tanks. Further assault gun elements were also brought in. Luck was now attached to I SS Panzer Corps, commanded by Sepp Dietrich. On the morning of 18 July Luck, returning from a three-day leave in Paris, was faced with the opening of Operation Goodwood. A heavy bombardment, followed by a creeping artillery barrage, had hit the Kampfgruppe's positions, but no action had been taken by the commander put in place in Luck's absence.[24]

Luck set out for the front, and to his dismay saw a large contingent of British tanks rolling over what had been the dug in positions of I Battalion/125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, in the direction of Cagny. Spotting a Luftwaffe Flak battery of 88mm guns, Luck ordered the commander to open fire on the flank of the British tanks. The battery commander, a young captain, refused to do so, as he was under orders to engage enemy aircraft. At this refusal Luck drew his service pistol, leveled it at the man and said "Either you're a dead man or you can earn yourself a medal."[25] The battery thus engaging the enemy, Luck spent the remainder of the day furiously trying to plug the gaps in his line. Most of the Kampfgruppes armour had been destroyed in the heavy barrages earlier in the day, so it was left to a few scattered antitank and assault gun batteries to take on the advancing British tanks. In recent years the truth of this portrayal of Luck's guns has been questioned by academics such as Ian Daglish who have studied the aerial photographs of Cagny taken hours after the battle; these show no sign of an 88mm battery or even that one had been positioned in the village. However, no suitable alternative seems to explain the heavy destruction wrought on 11th Armoured.

Assuming the story is fact, the 88mm guns at Cagny had indeed stopped the British advance, inflicting heavy casualties on the 11th Armoured Division. The following division, the Guards Armoured Division did not heed the fate of the 11th, and it too took massive losses in the area, effectively halting the British armoured advance. Advancing without infantry support, the armour units were unable to overcome the entrenched antitank guns. The Luftwaffe 88mm battery Luck commandeered earlier in the day accounted for about 40 British tanks alone. In the afternoon the first elements of the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler had moved up in support and the situation was somewhat stabilized.

During 19 July Luck's Kampfgruppe, still supported by the SS armour, held the British at bay, counterattacking on the flanks and causing them heavy losses. The British advance ground to a halt after having covered only 9 km, and suffering the loss of some 450 tanks. In the evening the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend relieved Luck's men. For his important role in defeating the British in Operation Goodwood Luck earned the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on 8 August 1944 as Major and leader of the Panzergrenadier-Regiment 125 and was promoted to Oberstleutnant.[26]

The Falaise Pocket[edit]

A week later, after some time to rest and reinforce, the 21st Panzer Division was sent to the Villers Bocage area south of Bayeux to prevent a breakthrough in that area. This was the same area where Michael Wittmann and his Tiger crew almost single handedly had defeated a British thrust on 13 June during the Battle of Villers-Bocage. On 26 July Panzer Lehr's lines were broken, and 21st Panzer Division reoriented themselves on this new threat. On 31 July General Patton broke through at Avranches. With this all the German divisions in Normandy were in danger of being encircled, and a rapid retreat was ordered.

Luck reached Falaise after two weeks of delaying action. On 17 August a British attack split the 21st Panzer Division, leaving half inside the now emerging Falaise Pocket, while Luck's command found itself on the outside. Kampfgruppe von Luck was now tasked with holding the Western end of the gap open, and succeeded in holding it open until 21 August, allowing about half of the 100,000 trapped troops to escape, though most of the heavy materiel and vehicles were destroyed in the pocket. A new threat was already emerging, with Patton threatening to create yet another pocket, south of the Seine River. Luck was put in command of the remains of 21st Panzer Division and conducted a rearguard action, only barely able to keep the front intact until the last German forces could be withdrawn over the Seine on 26 August.

Now began an eleven-day march across the axis of advance of the American forces. On 9 September Luck's command reached its assigned area near Strasbourg. Here Luck established himself under General Hasso von Manteuffel's Fifth Panzer Army operating in the Lorraine area and eventually defending the Siegfried Line. During Operation Nordwind, Luck was ordered to participate in the recapture of Hatten, Bas-Rhin. In January 1945, when the division was moved to the Oder front, Luck played a major role in the division's operations along the Reitwein Spur. He surrendered to the Soviets while attempting a breakout from the Battle of Halbe encirclement in April 1945.

After the war[edit]

After the war Luck was interned at a Gulag in Georgia. After five years, pressure from the western powers resulted in the repatriation of many German soldiers in captivity. Luck was among those released. He returned to Germany and initially found employment at an international hotel in Hamburg, where his command of multiple languages made him a valuable asset.[27] He eventually moved on to work in a coffee import business.[28] He married, and had three sons.[29] He became heavily involved in veterans' associations, and was frequently asked to lecture at military schools.

Through his involvement as a speaker at military lectures he came to be good friends with several of his former adversaries, most notably British Airborne Major John Howard. After the war, Luck and Howard would have coffee together in Bénouville at probably the first building in France to be liberated from German occupation, the Café Gondrée. Because the owners were severely anti-German, Howard convinced them that Luck was a Swede.[30][31] He also formed a friendship with popular U.S. historian Stephen Ambrose, who encouraged him to write his memoirs, which was titled Panzer Commander.

Hans von Luck died in Hamburg on 1 August 1997, shortly after his eighty–sixth birthday.[1]

Awards[edit]

References[edit]

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ a b Mitcham, Jr., Samuel W. (2009). Defenders of Fortress Europe: The Untold Story of the German Officers During the Allied Invasion. Washington, DC: Potomac Books. p. xcvii. ISBN 978-1-59797-274-1. 
  2. ^ Luck 1989, pp. 9–11.
  3. ^ Luck 1989, p. 13.
  4. ^ Luck 1989, p. 14.
  5. ^ a b Butler 2015, p. 393.
  6. ^ Luck 1989, p. 16.
  7. ^ Luck 1989, p. 32.
  8. ^ Luck 1989, p. 37.
  9. ^ Deighton 1980, p. 211.
  10. ^ Luck 1989, p. 38.
  11. ^ Luck 1989, pp. 41-42.
  12. ^ Luck 1989, p. 83.
  13. ^ Butler 2015, p. 392.
  14. ^ a b Luck 1989, p. 99.
  15. ^ Luck 1989, p. 100.
  16. ^ Luck 1989, p. 110.
  17. ^ Luck 1989, p. 125.
  18. ^ Mitcham 2009, p. 53.
  19. ^ Luck 1989, p. 167.
  20. ^ Keegan 1982, p. 202.
  21. ^ Ambrose, D-Day
  22. ^ Ambrose. Pegasus Bridge
  23. ^ Luck 1989, p. 187.
  24. ^ Luck 1989, p. 192.
  25. ^ Luck 1989, p. 193.
  26. ^ Scherzer 2007, p. 516.
  27. ^ Luck 1989, p. 326.
  28. ^ Luck 1989, p. 328.
  29. ^ Luck 1989, p. vii.
  30. ^ Ambrose 2001, p. 198, "When Howard went to the cafe in the seventies and early eighties, he sometimes brought Hans von Luck with him. Howard told Madame that von Luck might look suspiciously like a German, but that he was in fact a Swede.".
  31. ^ Luck 1991, p. 342.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Ambrose, Stephen E (1994). D-Day, June 6, 1944, The Battle for the Normandy beaches, Pocket Books. ISBN 0-7434-4974-6
  • Ambrose, Stephen E (2001). Pegasus Bridge, Touchstone Books. ISBN 0-671-67156-1
  • Butler, Daniel Allen (2015). Field Marshal: The Life and Death of Erwin Rommel. Havertown, PA; Oxford: Casemate. ISBN 978-1-61200-297-2. 
  • Deighton, Len (1980). Blitzkrieg: from the rise of Hitler to the fall of Dunkirk New York : Knopf, Distributed by Random House
  • Keegan, John Six Armies in Normandy: from D-Day to the liberation of Paris, June 6th-August 25th, 1944. New York, Viking Press (1982) ISBN 0 14-02-3542-6
  • Luck, Hans von (1989). Panzer Commander: The Memoirs of Colonel Hans von Luck. New York: Dell Publishing of Random House. ISBN 0-440-20802-5. 
  • Luck, Hans von (1991). Panzer Commander: The Memoirs of Colonel Hans von Luck, Dell Publishing. ISBN 0-440-20802-5
  • Mitcham, Samuel W Defenders of Fortress Europe Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2009.
  • Patzwall, Klaus D.; Scherzer, Veit (2001). Das Deutsche Kreuz 1941 – 1945 Geschichte und Inhaber Band II [The German Cross 1941 – 1945 History and Recipients Volume 2] (in German). Norderstedt, Germany: Verlag Klaus D. Patzwall. ISBN 978-3-931533-45-8. 
  • Lewin, Ronald (1998) [1968]. Rommel As Military Commander. New York: B&N Books. ISBN 978-0-7607-0861-3.