COLONEL HANS VON LUCK
Colonel Hans von Luck, wartime Panzer leader, died in Hamburg on August 1, 1997- aged 86. He was born at Flensburg on July 15, 1911.
In his memoir, Panzer Commander, published in America in 1989, Hans von Luck recalls the astonishment he felt when, in the 1960s, he was invited to the Staff College at Camberley to lecture to young British officers on the Germanexperience of the Normandy battle of 1944. The consciousness of having been the servant of an evil regime,doubly drummed into him through five years as a prisoner of the Russians between 1945 and 1950, made him reticent about talking of his war. But when he stood up to address his first Staff College audience, it was to hear himself described by Camberley's CO as "a fair and courageous opponent". The awkwardness passed, and he was regularly invited back. Staff College audiences were particularly interested to hear what a German had to say about the controversial Operation Goodwood, the British 2nd Army's apparent attempt to break out of its bridgehead at Caen in July 1944. As commanding officer 125 Panzergrenadier Regiment, von Luck had played an important part in repelling the most massive Allied tank attack of the entire Normandy campaign. On one occasion he even ordered the commander of a flak battery at gunpoint not to train his 88mm guns skywards looking for aircraft, but to use them against the advancing British tanks. "Either you're a dead man or you can earn yourself a medal," von Luck told the reluctant flak commander, levelling his Luger pistol at him. Faced with this steely determination, the young officer complied, and the anti-aircraft guns became anti-tank guns, with devastating effect on the British armour.
The repulse of Goodwood brought acute disappointment verging on outrage to the Chiefs of Staff, the press and the British public, and its effects reverberate among military commentators to this day. That three complete armoured divisions whose way forward had supposedly been eased by an immense carpet of bombs dropped by 2,000 aircraft should have been stopped in their tracks by vastly inferior German forces, was considered a disgrace. Tedder, Eisenhower's deputy for the NW Europe campaign, furious at the squandering of such massive air power for such limited objectives, called for Montgomery's head. Montgomery, in a perhaps retrospective adjustment of his aims, said that no breakout had been planned; Goodwood had been a "battle of position" intended to draw German forces into a war of attrition and allow the Americans to break out on the western flank of the bridgehead which indeed they later did.
On the German side, von Luck's initiatives besides the flak battery, he had rounded up much other artillery and got it pointing in the right direction earned him the praise of the corps commander. He was used to such notice. From early on in desert his career he had been a protégé of Rommel, who in 1942 had had him brought from the Russian front to North Africa to command his "pet" unit, the 3rd Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion. Poland, 1939; France 1940; Russia 1941-42; North Africa 1942-43; NW Europe 1944; and finally the Eastern Front again just before the final collapse in 1945, von Luck had been in the thick of just about every campaign of the war.
Hans von Luck was born into the old Prussian officer class. An ancestor had fought against the Tartars in the 13th century; another had served Frederick the Great in the Seven Years War. Remarkably, givensuch a military background, his father was a naval officer, which accounts for von Luck's birth at Flensburg. But the father's career was an aberration. Hans von Luck went to army cadet school, from where he was posted to a cavalry regiment. But from this he was uprooted and sent to one of the first motorised battalions in the Reichswehr. At first he was disappointed not to be a cavalryman, but the move ensured that he was in at the birth of Germany's formidable Panzer forces. In Saxony in 1932 he met Erwin Rommel who trained him in infantry tactics.
In August 1939 von Luck's armoured reconnaissance regiment was on manoeuvres on the Polish frontier when it had its blank cartridges exchanged for live ammunition. At 0450 hours on September 1, it rolled over the Polish frontier to begin what would, for von Luck, be more than five-and-a-half years of almost continual fighting. By the middle of September, with the Polish armies routed, von Luck's unit was in Warsaw.
For the invasion of France and the Low Countries in the following spring, he found himself in a Panzer division commanded by Rommel. The young company commander had already made an impression on the famous general, and when, on May 28, 1940, the commander of 37 Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion was killed in northern France, Rommel appointed him, over the heads of many more senior officers, to lead the unit. In the aftermath of Dunkirk, von Luck's battalion continued the pursuit of the French Army southwards, encompassing the surrender of Fécamp without having to bombard the picturesque resort.
Von Luck's third campaign began at 4am on June 22, 1941, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. His Panzer division was part of the Northern Army Group aiming for Minsk as a prelude to assaulting Moscow itself. Von Luck actually managed to insert a patrol into the suburbs of the Russian capital before counterattacks and the onset of winter flung the Germans back. By that time he knew that Rommel, in North Africa, was asking for him and, though his divisional general would not at first release him, by the spring of 1942 he was reporting to his old boss in his desert HQ.
For von Luck the fight against the British in the desert was always to be the most "sporting" contest of the war. The deep bitterness of the French campaign and the dehumanizing ethos of the Russian front, were absent. The to-and-fro nature of the struggle meant that both sides got to know each other's units sometimes each other's personalities quite intimately. A captured German medical officer might be "swapped" for a supply of synthetic quinine of which the British were in short supply. Towards the end of the campaign, in a Tunisian desert bivouac, a bedouin suddenly came to von Luck's tent and presented him with a letter. It was from the CO Royal Dragoons and read:
Dear Major von Luck, We have had other tasks and so were unable to keep in touch with you. The war in Africa has been decided, I'm glad to say not in your favour. I should like, therefore, to thank you and all your people, in the name of my officers and men, for the fair play with which we have fought against each other on both sides. I and my battalion hope that all of you will come out of the war safe . . .
After the close of the Tunisian campaign von Luck spent some time in Berlin before going to Normandy where, on D-Day, he was commanding a tank regiment of 21 Panzer Division near Caen. When he saw the massed parachutists and gliders of 6 Airborne Division descending on Normandy early on June 6, 1944, he longed to counter-attack at once. But his formation was forbidden to move without a direct order from Hitler, who slept in until noon. Later, after the repulse of Goodwood, he fought his way back to the Germany's Rhine frontier and was involved in some tough fighting against the Americans in the Vosges Mountains.
Had he finished his war there, his future might have been different. But in February 1945 his Panzergrenadiers were switched to the Eastern Front, where where he was taken prisoner by the Russians in the desperate fighting on the Oder around the fortress of Küstrin in April. He then faced almost five years' grim labour in the Soviet Union, first as a coalminer, then as a building worker in the Caucasus.
He was released in the winter of 1949-50, but found his home town in ruins. His private life was in ruins, too. He had formed an attachment during the war to a girl he was not then allowed to marry, because she had a Jewish great-grandparent. By the time he returned from imprisonment her circumstances had changed. They remained friends but he found a new life as a coffee merchant, spending some time in Angola. He married and fathered three sons.
His British Staff College visits brought him into touch with Major John Howard, whom, had his unit been allowed to move forward, he might well have driven off Pegasus Bridge in the small hours of D-Day. Through Howard he met the American historian and presidential biographer Stephen Ambrose who wrote a forward to Panzer Commander.
Von Luck also advised the Ministry of Defence on its 1979 instruction film Goodwood. He was even asked to lecture on the topic to the Swedish Military College; this small neutral state regarded his July 1944 counter-attack as a classic of its kind, with a lesson for any country that might find itself subject to amphibious invasion. Howard and von Luck were often to be seen together, both at D-Day reunions, which initially he had been reticent about attending, and at seminars arranged by Ambrose when he was a professor at New Orleans.
His wife Regina and sons survive him.