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Text by MARTIN WINDROW, Color plates by MICHAEL ROFFE. YEAR 1972
The armoured divisions which did so much to secure an unbroken chain of German victories in the first two years of the Second World War were a wholly new phenomenon on the world's battlefields. The terrible fruits of the foresight, determination and single-minded effort of a handful of brilliant soldiers, they were a new weapon forged for a new purpose and wielded in a new way. It was to be literally years before the Allies produced commanding generals who understood the full potential of this new weapon, and who grasped the vital rules for using it effectively. The formidable achievements of the Panzer arm are matched by a sort of fierce glamour which clings to their name, an image compounded partly of respect for the genuinely outstanding performance of this new breed of soldier in victory and in defeat, and partly of the dramatic appearance of his equipment and his uniform. Though basically practical, the black suit with its silver skull badges invites immediate comparison with the uniform of an earlier body of German shock-troops - the 'Death's-Head Hussars', the 'Black Brunswickers' of the nineteenth century.
Genesis - with cardboard and plywood 'tanks' the German Army of the 1930s practised the evolutions which would take them in triumph from the Arctic Circle to the Sahara, from the Atlantic to the Caspian. (Imperial War Museum)
In the present brief study it is impossible to offer a detailed history of the operations of this very large corps. The writer has limited himself, after careful thought, to a short account of the basic elements of the Panzer arm; a list of operational units, giving, in note form, details of formation, theatres of operation and component units, where known; and as full a commentary as possible on the uniforms and insignia ably illustrated by the artist. The temptation to follow fascinating trains of discussion concerning the armoured war in Europe, Africa and Russia has been resisted, with regret; so great a part did the Panzer units play in the changing fortunes of the Second World War that it would be all too easy to find oneself writing a general history of the whole conflict.
It should perhaps be made clear at this stage that this book deals only with the Panzer divisions of the German Army; those controlled by the Waffen-SS and the Luftwaffe are covered in two other titles by the present writer in the Men-at-Arms series: Waffen-SS and Luftwaffe Airborne and Field Units.
By 1930 there existed within the German Reichswehr a group of far-sighted senior officers to whom the limitations of the Treaty of Versailles presented a more galling frustration than to their colleagues.
Command version of the PzKpfw. I tank passes in review before Hitler and Mussolini; note the officer's parade aiguillettes. (Imperial War Museum)
Men such as Lutz, Guderian, von Reichenau and von Thoma were the 'tank enthusiasts'; the research of these keen students of the most advanced international theories of armoured warfare was seriously hampered by the ban which the treaty placed upon the production of heavy armoured vehicles in Germany. They were forced to mount experimental manoeuvres, exercises designed to familiarize their men with the tank, using such unsatisfactory expedients as motor cars carrying cardboard dummies of tank turrets. Undeterred by this handicap, these officers evolved a new philosophy of warfare, unsuspected by their past and future enemies, apart from a few exceptions, and by no means easily accepted by their colleagues.
The core of the Panzer theory was the idea of a highly mobile combat group of all arms - tanks, artillery and heavy infantry - which could strike at will across country. It would be controlled from the front, by generals riding with the armour; it would be supplied independently by its own rear echelon services; and it would be able to exploit local conditions to the full, without lengthy back- reference to higher command. There would be no need to hamper the advance of the group by the inclusion of lumbering heavy artillery - close liaison with the Air Force would provide an airborne artillery barrage.
The difficulties facing the tank enthusiasts were considerable, even when Adolf Hitler came to supreme power in Germany and became an enthusiastic convert. The industrial know-how, and the actual factory plant, required to produce modern armoured vehicles in quantity was not available, and had to be built up with painful slowness. There were blind alleys in the thinking-out of design which cost yet more time. True, when Germany began openly rearming in 1935 some of the obstacles to progress disappeared, but the equipment actually available when war was declared four years later still fell far short of the ideal envisaged by Guderian and his colleagues in the years of theoretical planning.
The first three Panzer formations were raised in October 1935. On paper each division was to have a complement of two tank regiments, of two battalions each, totalling 561 tanks; a lorry-borne infantry brigade; and strong motor-towed field and anti-tank artillery units. Engineers and signals troops, and motorcycle battalions for reconnaissance, completed the all-arms force. But the hard fact was that in 1935 only a handful of tanks had rolled from the factories, all of them of the light Mk. I and Mk. II classes. None the less, the apparently premature birth of the Panzer divisions gave the tank enthusiasts a framework to work with. The armoured build-up did not always proceed smoothly; many still clung to the old theory that tanks should be tied closely to the infantry, aiding and shielding their advance, while the cavalry branch decided to stake their claim to some of the production of the tank factories, and formed four light divisions, each requiring a light tank battalion. Over and over again the guardians of the new weapon had to press their arguments in favour of concentration; dispersed among infantry and glorified cavalry units, the tanks would be as good as useless. The essence of the whole plan was the launching of concentrated attacks by large independent armoured formations, capable of overwhelming the enemy at any one point. It was known that the Western democracies, on the other hand, favoured the 'dispersal' policy.
In the years leading up to the outbreak of war the new divisions slowly evolved. The infantry element was increased, and the tank element cut down. Useful combat experience was gained by the 'instructors' sent to assist Franco in the Spanish Civil War; vehicles were in too short supply to practise the mass attack, but liaison techniques between armoured commanders and their air support were evolved, and polished. The rape of Czechoslovakia gave the desperately under- equipped tank arm a useful bonus in the form of more than 400 serviceable tanks and well- organized factories. Even so, when war broke out in September 1939 the six Panzer divisions on the establishment were still much weaker than they should have been. Of more than 3,000 tanks in service or reserve, the Germans had only 98 of the medium Mk. IIIs and 211 of the powerful Mk. IVs.