It is easy to fight an opponent that we think is stupid, brutal or duped into supporting a bad government. But that image is seldom accurate, as was the case with a World War II German officer named Hans von Luck.
Colonel Hans von Luck was always interested in other cultures and studied the classics, including learning Latin and Greek. He traveled extensively around Europe in the 1930’s and became fluent in French, Italian, English and Russian. He also had a knack for making friends wherever he went.
Luck followed family tradition by becoming a soldier. His officer training included infantry tactics taught by Erwin Rommel. (The textbook Infantry Attacks by Rommel is still in print). He later served under Rommel in North Africa and in France as an officer with the 21st Panzer Division.
In 1943, Luck was sent on a special mission to plead with Hitler to withdraw the Africa Corps from North Africa before it was trapped between the British and American forces. Hitler refused and 130,000 German and Italian troops surrendered to the Allies soon after. (Most of them were shipped to POW camps in the U.S.). Luck was transferred to Northern France with the re-constituted 21st Panzer Division to prepare for the expected Allied invasion.
On June 6, 1944, Luck commanded forces defending the Pegasus Bridge, the only bridge over the Orne River north of Caen. British airborne troops led by Major John Howard attacked the bridge in order to protect the British flank attacking toward Caen. For most of the battle, British and German soldiers held opposite ends of the bridge and fought at point-blank range. Eventually, Luck’s troops withdrew.
On another occasion, Luck desperately needed artillery support when he found an anti-aircraft battery with its 8.8cm gun pointing at the sky. Luck asked the battery commander to lower the barrel and fire at the advancing enemy. The commander refused; his 88 was intended for use against aircraft, not ground troops. Luck won the argument when he drew his Luger, shoved it in the commander’s face and invited the crew to lower the gun barrel and begin firing.
Luck ended the war on the Eastern Front. He spent five years in Russian POW camps before being released in 1949. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Luck was a guest of the British Staff College’s “battlefield tours” used for teaching young officers tactics by touring the Operation Overlord battle sites. He often toured with his friend John Howard so that they could tell both sides of the story of Pegasus Bridge.
His memoirs are available in English as Panzer Commander (1989).
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