By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Hans von Luck with an introduction from Stephen E. Ambrose
Narrated by: Bronson Pinchot
“Panzer Commander” offers a glossy view of WWII from a German tank Commander’s perspective; a man who becomes Combat Formation Commander of the 21st Panzer Division, late in the war. The gloss comes from genuine heroism. However, heroism hides war’s tragedy behind memories of tactical experience and heroic acts, rather than objective reflection. Hans von Luck is a highly decorated German tank commander and author of “Panzer Commander”.
Ironically, Stephen Ambrose, a famous American’ biographical historian (somewhat disgraced by misrepresentation of historical facts about meetings with Dwight Eisenhower) provides the foreword to von Luck’s book. One suspects von Luck, like Ambrose, creates a story that is largely true but colored by modern experience, cultural influence, and the exigencies of writing an interesting story.
Memory, even when drawn from real-time’ diaries or notes, is clouded when recreated in a story. Inevitably, there is loss of relevant details because feelings and perception of the past are changed by time and experience of the present. Additionally, there is the ever-present pressure to entertain an audience, and protect one’s privacy; i.e. a pressure that influences facts when telling a story.
Hans von Luck begins his story with his release from a Russian POW camp, after five years of imprisonment. He dwells on the goodness of the Russian people to gloss over an undoubtedly horrific experience. “Panzer Commander” recounts an amazing career of an intelligent German tank commander who is mentored by Erwin Rommel, participates in the invasion of Poland, experiences winter in Germany’s invasion of Russia, fights in the deserts of North Africa, defends Germany at Normandy, and makes a final stand against the Russians in Berlin.
In many respects, von Luck’s story romanticizes the idea of being a leader in war. With few exceptions, von Luck commends the bravery and fairness of most commanders on both sides of WWII. Two exceptions appear; one, is a less than flattering picture of England’s Field Marshall Montgomery, and two is America’s Army general, George Patton. Most references to Field Marshall Montgomery are about his tactical mistakes. The author is subtly disrespectful by referring to Field Marshall Montgomery as “Monty”. “Monty” might be used by someone friendly to Field Marshall Montgomery but one doubts its propriety if used by a former enemy.
Though less pointedly disrespectful, von Luck infers Patton is about appearance more than accomplishment in the field of battle. Patton’s race to Paris to beat Montgomery seems more a desire for fame than strategic value. These two unflattering inferences are consistent with other books referring to Montgomery and Patton but von Luck’s assessment seems out of context; i.e. based more on history’s revisionism than events of the time.
Overt discrimination and identification of Jews as scapegoats for world’ problems is intellectually denied, or at least skirted, by von Luck. The author’s expressed personal shock over “kristallnacht” (Night of Broken Glass), and his knowledge of concentration-camp’ purpose near the end of the war, seem disingenuous. When writing of his release from the Russian POW’ camp, von Luck writes of a Jewish’ nurse who works at the camp and wishes him well as he leaves. That she may have been Jewish seems irrelevant. And then, there is the 1/8th Jewish woman that he loves; wishes to marry, and is unable to because of WWII German’ regulation. That seems a fairly abstruse factoid for a person who is surprised by the “Night of Broken Glass”.
Despite this criticism of “Panzer Commander”, von Luck shows himself to be a brave, competent commander and good soldier. This is a man who survived the most horrendous battles of WWII, served five years in a Russian POW’ camp, and lived to write about it. He is born into a family that faithfully serves the German’ military for seven centuries; he is classically educated with ability to speak passable French, English, and Russian; and he is mentored by one of the greatest leaders of WWII, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.
The author is born in wealth, falls on hard times because of his father’s early death, and is resurrected by the advent of war. His mother remarries. His stepfather is a stern minister that instills discipline while supporting von Luck’s formal education. When war comes, von Luck enlists in the army and is assigned to an Armored Division. He learns to drive and eventually takes command of an early Czechoslovakian made tank, an early generation German’ weapon. Von Luck trains under Erwin Rommel.
He eventually comes under the command of Rommel in the Afrika Korps when the Russian’ winter and Russian’ army begin to turn German’ victory into German’ defeat on the eastern front. It is near the end of 1941.
Surprisingly, according to von Luck, some German leaders are beginning to talk about Germany’s defeat in the war. Of course, defeat becomes a generally accepted belief after America’s entry into the war, but von Luck suggests some German’ leaders were talking about defeat before December 7th, 1941.
In early 1942, Rommel is at the height of his fame in North Africa and Germany. With addition of American troops and supplies to the war, German’ losses on the eastern front, and dwindling German war materials, Rommel decides to fly to Berlin to recommend retreat from North Africa. Rommel chooses to recommend consolidation of the army with a plan to sue for peace while Germany is still strong.
Hitler disagrees and insists that the German army fight to win, or die trying. Von Luck notes that Rommel’s health begins to decline after his trip to Berlin. By 1944, Hitler agrees to consolidate the army but with the same “do or die” dictum; i.e. Germany retreats from North Africa and returns to Europe.
In 1945, a new Allied Front in Europe is expected by the Germans but its precise location is unknown by German’ leaders. Of course, the Allied landing site is Normandy.
Von Luck is stationed near Normandy. By this time, von Luck is commanding the latest and, some say, greatest tank of the war, the German Tiger. The armor is stronger and its guns are bigger.
Von Luck commands a tank regiment in Rommel’s 21st Panzer Division. The momentum of war reverses with the advance of a second Allied’ front in Europe. In a German’ return to the Maginot line, von Luck’s fragmented command achieves his last battle victory in the Ardennes. He is promoted to Colonel. Von Luck begins his journey back to Berlin for a final defense against the Russian army.
In the end, two months before the end of the war, Colonel von Luck takes responsibility for dispersing his soldiers to avoid inevitable death, or capture, if they continue to fight. A defeated army’s discipline is artificially enforced by kangaroo courts set up by the Nazis to try any idle German soldiers; i.e. if an idle soldier appears to be a deserter, he is executed on the spot at the discretion of Nazi’ appointed kangaroo court’ judges. Soon after one of von Luck’s soldiers is murdered at the behest of one of these courts, he realizes continued defense of the homeland is futile.
Von Luck ends his story as it began by explaining his experience of living for five years in a Soviet Union’ prison camp. Because of his rank and skill in speaking Russian, von Luck gains some privilege in the camp. However, von Luck shows how corruption and degradation, in a Russian’ communist labor camp, only slightly reduces the brutality of his captivity.
Von Luck’s book is an informative story about WWII. It tells a listener how German officers went to war, courageously represented their country in battle, and rationalized their jobs as executors of a politician’s demented decisions. “Panzer Commander” explains what happens to defeated soldiers; how rank and a liberal education has its privileges, and how good leadership makes a difference in the outcome of a battle, a war, or a losers’ captivity.