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Text by MARTIN WINDROW, Color plates by MICHAEL ROFFE. YEAR 1972
THE PANZER DIVISIONS

PzKpfw. II tanks in winter scenery, possibly during the occupation of Norway. Note that the commanders wear ordinary Army field-grey greatcoats over their uniforms. (Imperial War Museum)

The new force had another weapon, however - a weapon which the Allies were never to acquire in so full a measure: superbly trained and selected crews. Unlike other armies, who treated the armour as just another branch of the forces, the Germans selected their tank crews exclusively from among the most promising recruits. These were instilled from the start with a fiercely professional pride and determination, and were encouraged, not least by their dramatic black uniforms, to think of themselves as an elite. They were trained to a high level, many learning at least two of the basic trades of the tank soldier - driver, gunner and radio operator - and were exercised under semi-operational conditions during Germany's bloodless invasions of the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia.

Their equipment, although in short supply, was excellent. The little PzKpfw. I (Panzerkampfwagen = armoured combat vehicle) was useful in a scouting role, though not for much else. The PzKpfw. II, with its 20 mm gun, was light but not excessively so by contemporary standards. The PzKpfw. III, with a 37 mm main armament, and the PzKpfw. IV, mounting a 75 mm gun, were formidable.

Lightning War: September 1939 - November 1941

The invasion of Poland offered the green Wehrmacht perfect conditions for learning the finer points of the art of aggression under fire. The disparity in total forces committed was not great; in armour it was astronomical, since against Germany's six new divisions the Poles could field only a weak brigade of obsolete tanks. Most of the German divisions were committed to the southern prong of the triple assault, and in less than a month, crucified by the Wehrmacht and the Red Army together, Poland lay at the mercy of her conquerors. But her agony had taught the German tank generals some sharp lessons.

It became clear that tanks could often turn strong defensive positions by launching wide 'hooks' through weakly defended 'untankable' terrain such as thick woodland. If they fought by the book - stopping when they encountered strong opposition, trying to burst through by sheer gun-power, probably suffering heavy casualties, pulling back while the infantry mounted set-piece attacks - then their greatest advantage was lost. By immediately dashing on in a slightly different direction, and refusing to accept that country was impassable until they had actually tried to drive through it and failed, not only could specific positions be turned, but the enemy's whole rhythm and pace of defence could be thrown into confusion. A corollary was the discovery that a single troop of tanks appearing in the enemy's rear from an unexpected direction could create greater disruption than a whole battalion advancing down the expected route.

While the secret of success appeared to lie in leaving the bulk of the infantry behind and striking on without pause, many of the 217 tank casualties suffered by Germany in Poland were due to the lack of an armoured cross-country vehicle in which the Panzer grenadiers could keep right up with the forward tank elements; this lack had already been pointed out by Guderian. In their vulnerable trucks the infantry of the Panzer Korps - the perfect armoured corps was now seen to be two Panzer and one motorized division - tended to hang back from the point of actual contact. While they could forget the bulk of the marching infantry, the tanks badly needed their own mobile shock-troops. Many incidents occurred in which a delayed response by the infantry led to tank casualties and to delay in the clearing of an obstacle which could have been swept aside at little cost, had immediate infantry support been given.

Men of an armoured reconnaissance unit - 'Panzer Aufklärungs Abteilung' - study maps beside an SdKfz. 232 8-rad armoured car. The loose black beret or Schutzmütze, worn over a rubber skull-protector, was with drawn in favour of the sidecap in the winter of 1939/40; among collectors it is the most sought-after of all German military headgear. (Imperial War Museum)

The provision of half-tracks for the Panzer-grenadiers would continue throughout the war, but never fast enough; fully armoured divisions were never achieved. Another danger to the Panzers was commitment to street fighting - again, a lesson which was learnt but never fully applied. In three hours' fighting in the narrow confines of the Warsaw suburbs, 4th Panzer Division, unable to vary their line of attack, set up like sitting ducks for determined Polish gunners dug into the rubble, lost 57 out of 120 tanks committed. Other failures in the campaign were the horsed cavalry and semi-mechanized light divisions - the former outmoded, the latter suffering the inevitable penalty of being neither fish nor fowl. In the immediate aftermath of the campaign, the four light divisions were converted to full Panzer division establishment.

Company briefing for a Panzer unit equipped with the Czech-built PzKpfw. 35t tank, almost certainly a sub- unit of the 6th Panzer Division. The black berets suggest that this picture was taken in 1939, and the combat decorations worn by the officer indicate that the Polish campaign was already over. The captain wears his 'old-style officer's field cap' instead of a beret; he is a Ritterkreuzträger (holder of the Knight's Cross) and wears the Panzer Assault Badge and the silver Wound Badge below the Iron Cross 1st Class on the left breast. (Imperial War Museum)

Finally, the inevitably high ratio of tanks dropping out of action at any one time through mechanical failure was underlined in the latter weeks of the fighting. At the outset an acceptable figure of 25 per cent was recorded; in the last stages of the campaign the high mileage travelled under combat conditions had taken so severe a toll that virtually every vehicle needed overhaul.

In the West the German successes in Poland provoked only short-sighted reactions; the myth that the film of the Panzer divisions on their victory ride was posed with 'cardboard tanks' was still surprisingly widespread, and in many quarters the victory was attributed to equipment which, though fairly limited, was more modern in character. With a tank strength greater in numbers than that of the Germans, the Allies were still wedded to the old idea of light 'cavalry' tank formations spread thinly along the line of defence, and heavy 'infantry' tanks split up among the foot-sloggers in small groups; fatally, they did not seek superiority at any one point. In the spring of 1940 they were finally taught their error, and those surprisingly strong elements in the German High Command who still distrusted the new wonder-weapon were silenced once for all.

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