Generalmajor der Reserve Dr.med.dent Franz Bäke (28 February 1898 - 12 December 1978) was a German Army officer and panzer ace. Bäke fought during World War I, but rose to fame for his command of heavy Panzer forces in World War II. A reservist, Bäke was a dentist in civilian life, receiving his Doctorate in Dental Medicine in 1923.
Bäke was born in the town of Schwarzenfels in the kreis of Fulda in Hesse-Nassau. After attending school and receiving excellent grades, Bäke planned on a career in medicine. In August 1914, the outbreak of World War I changed his plans. In May 1915, Bäke volunteered for the German Army. He was posted to Infanterie-Regiment Nr.3, based in Köln. After basic training, Bäke was transferred to Infanterie-Regiment Nr.11, which was in action on the Western Front. During his service with IR11 he was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd class for bravery in combat in the battles near Verdun for the towns of Fleury and Thiaumont.
In mid-1916, Bäke accepted an offer to become an officer candidate and was briefly transferred to Infanterie-Regiment Nr.10. In November 1916 Bäke was transferred to the artillery arm and served with Artillerie-Regiment zu Fuß Nr.7. In early 1918 he was wounded twice and was only returned to the front in September. After the armistice, Bäke remained in the army until his demobilisation in January 1919.
After his release from military service, Bäke returned to his studies in medicine. During his first semester in university, he was involved with Freikorps Epp, but soon turned his full attention to his studies. In 1922 he passed the state examination, and in 1923 received his doctorate in Dental Medicine, receiving the Dr.med.dent. professional prefix to his name. After receiving his credentials, Bäke established his own dentistry practice in Hagen, which became quite successful.
Bäke remained immersed in his dental practice during the tumultuous events of 1933 to 1936, but in early 1937 he applied to join the reserves, being accepted on 1 April 1937. Bäke was given his World War I rank of officer cadet and posted to Aufklärungs-Abteilung 6, a reconnaissance unit. He took part in large scale maneuvers in late April 1937. He was again called to participate in large scale maneuvers which took place in June 1937. After these two major exercises, Bäke returned to his dentistry practice, spending the required time in reserve training to achieve the rank of Leutnant der Reserve [2nd Lieutenant] by December 1937. Soon after this, he was mobilised for full time service as an officer.
On 1 January 1938, Bäke was transferred to Panzer-Abteilung 65, where he served as platoon leader of the Abt's light column. During the bloodless Invasion of the Sudetenland, he acted as the deputy company commander for 3./Panzer-Abteilung 65.
With the outbreak of war on 1 September 1939, Bäke was still serving with Panzer-Abt 65. During the Invasion of Poland, he acted as the leader of the light column during the initial operations, before transferring to a platoon command in the Abt's second company. Equipped with the Czech-made Panzer 35(t) tanks, the Abt was attached to General der Panzertruppen Werner Kempf's 1. Leichte-Division on 12 September, and completed the campaign serving under Kempf's formation, known as Panzer-Division Kempf. Bäke showed promise as a Panzer leader during the campaign and on 1 November 1939 was promoted to Oberleutnant der Reserve [1st Lieutenant] and appointed company commander. In October 1939, the 1. Leichte-Division was redesignated 6. Panzer-Division. Panzer-Abt 65 formed an integral part of this new division. On 1 May 1940 Bäke was promoted to Hauptmann der Reserve [Captain].
On 10 May 1940, Bäke and 6.Panzer took part in Fall Gelb, the invasion of France. 6.Panzer formed a part of Panzergruppe Guderian, an army-sized formation charged with attacking through the Ardennes and encircling the allied forces involved in combat in Belgium. During the blitzkrieg campaign, Bäke, in command of 1.Kompanie, seized an undamaged bridge over the Meuse at Arques. In the following weeks in combat, he was wounded twice (on 17 and 19 May), receiving the Wound Badge in gold. For his actions in securing the bridge, Bäke was awarded the Iron Cross first class.
Following the campaign in the West, 6.Panzer was moved to East Prussia, where it undertook refitting in preparation for the coming offensive against the Soviet Union. Bäke was appointed to the staff of 6. Panzer's Panzer-Regiment 11, being responsible for the recovery of damaged tanks. With the launch of Operation Barbarossa on 22 June 1941, 6.Panzer took part in Army Group North's strike towards Leningrad, being involved in heavy fighting. On 1 August 1941, Bäke was promoted to Major der Reserve.
The job of a tank recovery unit was both difficult and dangerous. Generally under the cover of darkness, damaged or abandoned tanks had to be reached and towed back to the division's maintenance area where they could be repaired. Abandoned and damaged tanks were most frequently located close to the enemy, and so care had to be taken to make as little noise as possible. The German panzer recovery system was very effective early in the war, with tanks being recovered, repaired and ready for action in as short a time as 24 hours.
In October 1941, the 6.Panzer was transferred to Army Group Centre where it formed a part of Panzergruppe 3, commanded by General Hans-Georg Reinhardt. The Panzergruppe was tasked with Operation Typhoon, an offensive aimed at the capture of Moscow. On 27 November, elements of the Panzergruppe reached the Volga canal, only 19 miles from Moscow. Soviet resistance hardened, and the offensive failed.
In November 1941, Bäke was appointed to the position of Ordonnanz-Offizier for Panzer-Regiment 11. The Ordannanz-Offizier was responsible for the completion of special missions required by the division. This position required Bäke to lead ad-hoc Kampfgruppen in dangerous and vital missions. The 6.Panzer ended the campaign as a part of General Erich Höpner's Panzergruppe 4, acting as a reserve for Army Group Centre forces attempting to hold the line against fierce Soviet counterattacks. The division's tanks and men suffered greatly from the cold, but despite this they managed to continue to operate throughout the winter of 1941/42.
After the defensive battles near Moscow during the winter, the severely depleted 6.Panzer was ordered back to France to be rested and rebuilt. On 1 June 1942, Bäke was promoted to commander of II./Abteilung of Panzer-Regiment 11. Bäke spent the majority of 1942 overseeing the rebuilding of his shattered Abt and familiarising himself with his new command.
After the encirclement of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad, the 6.Panzer, now fully reformed, was sent to Ukraine to join Generaloberst Erich von Manstein's Army Group Don, currently struggling to halt the advancing Soviet forces. The division arrived at the front in December 1942 and was immediately thrown into heavy fighting, taking part in the abortive attempt to relieve the 6th Army, Operation Wintergewitter. Bäke, commanding II./Panzer-Regiment 11, showed great skill as a tank commander, inflicting heavy losses on the advancing Soviets during the fighting withdrawal to Kharkov and preventing a large scale breakthrough. On 11 January 1943, Bäke was awarded the Knight's Cross for his efforts during these battles.
The division took part in the battle to retake Kharkov. The performance of Bäke's Abt, fighting alongside the SS-Panzerkorps and Panzergrenadier-Division Großdeutschland, measured up to the fighting reputation of these elite units. After the destruction of Mobile Group Popov and the recapture of the city, 6.Panzer was attached to Armee-Abteilung Kempf. During May, the division was pulled back to act as reserve when it was rested and refitted. Bäke had by now built himself a reputation as one of the army's most capable tank commanders.
In June, 6.Panzer was attached to 4.Panzer-Armee under Field Marshal Hermann Hoth. 4.Panzer-Armee was to form the southern pincer of the attack on the Kursk salient, Operation Citadel. Bäke led his Abt through fierce fighting against the entrenched soviet forces near Belgorod. On 13 July 1943 he was wounded, but remained with the unit. On 14 July, the commander of Panzer-Regiment 11 was severely wounded, and command of the regiment was temporarily delegated to Bäke. During the ferocious armored battles, Bäke led the regiment and proved himself a capable regimental commander. The offensive was cancelled on 13 August 1943, and Bäke's regiment saw heavy combat during the withdrawal to the Dniepr. For his actions during Operation Citadel, Bäke was awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross.
On 1 November 1943 Bäke was promoted to Oberstleutnant der Reserve [Lieutenant Colonel] and his command of the regiment was made official. In December 1943, he was ordered to begin formation of an ad-hoc reinforced tank regiment, titled Heavy Panzer Regiment Bäke [Schweres-Panzer-Regiment Bäke]. The regiment consisted of large numbers of Panther and Tiger 1 tanks, supported by self-propelled artillery and a mechanised engineer battalion. The Regiment was to be used in 'fire-brigade' duties in the southern sector of the Eastern front. In January 1944, Bäke commanded his regiment during the battles for the Balabonowka pocket. During the five-day battle, Bäke's regiment was credited with destroying 267 Soviet tanks for the loss of only one Tiger and four Panthers. Bäke single-handedly destroyed three Soviet tanks during the battle with infantry weapons at close range, for which he received three Tank Destruction Badges, worn on his upper right sleeve.
Next, the regiment was sent to the area of Korsun-Cherkassy, where Gruppe Stemmermann had been encircled in the Cherkassy Pocket. Together with the 1.SS-Panzer-Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, Bäke's tanks opened a route of escape for the trapped Germans and held it open while many escaped.
For his actions during these battles, Bäke received the Swords to the Knight's Cross on 14 February 1944. In March, the regiment was trapped in the Kamenets-Podolsky Pocket along with the entire 1.Panzer-Armee. Bäke's regiment formed one of the spearheads moving west to break the encirclement, and effected a link up with II.SS-Panzerkorps, creating an escape route for the army.
On 1 May 1944, Bäke was promoted to oberst der reserve. His regiment was involved in fierce defensive battles for the rest of the month, when it was disbanded and the units sent back to their parent divisions. Bäke was ordered west to take command of 106.Panzer-Brigade Feldherrnhalle, which was undergoing formation in Baden. The Feldherrnhalle formations were formed from a cadre of ex SA men, and as such Bäke was granted the honorary SA rank of SA-Sanitäts-Standartenführer.
The Brigade was equipped with the latest Panther models as well as a battalion of fully mechanised infantry. In battles against General George Patton's US Third Army, Bäke's brigade fought with spirit, halting several attacks and destroying many American tanks. Bäke, however, made an ill-advised attack on the U.S. 90th Infantry Division near Aumetz on the night of September 7 - 8, 1944. Expecting the American infantry to rout once the German tanks were among them, Bäke's command found itself poorly deployed and under sustained counter-attack from veteran American infantry. By the evening of September 8, Bäke had lost thirty tanks, sixty half-tracks, and nearly a hundred other vehicles in the lopsided battle. His infantry losses were also heavy, with the unit reporting to OB West that it had only nine armored vehicles and that unit strength was down to 25 per cent of the authorized establishment. Despite the brigade's efforts, the front lines were gradually pushed back.
On 1 January 1945, Bäke transferred from reserve to active duty, and as such was referred to as only oberst. In late January, Bäke took a training course in divisional command, and on 9 March he was given command of the newly formed Panzer-Division Feldherrnhalle 2 and sent to Hungary. Bäke's division fought as part of the Panzerkorps Feldherrnhalle during the retreat through Hungary and Czechoslovakia. On 20 April, Bäke was promoted to Generalmajor. He led the remnants of his division in a successful breakout attempt towards the West, and on 8 May 1945 surrendered to American forces.
Bäke spent several years as a Prisoner of War, being released in 1950. He returned to Hagen and resumed his dental practice. He died in a car accident in 1978. The Bundeswehr provided an honour guard at his funeral.