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Text by MARTIN WINDROW, Color plates by MICHAEL ROFFE. YEAR 1972
The Allies expected any attack to come through Holland and northern Belgium, roughly following the coastal strip before turning south through Amiens and Paris. This had been planned by the Oberkommando Wehrmacht, based on the old Schlieffen Plan of the First World War. But after Poland, von Mannstein (with the delighted support of the 'tank enthusiasts') proposed an attack through the 'impassable' terrain of the Ardennes in southern Belgium, sweeping west and north to the coast - trapping the Allies' best mobile troops in the 'pocket', where he proposed to lure them by a conventional but secondary attack through the Low Countries.
Put briefly, this is what happened in May-June 1940; and this, despite material deficiencies in the Panzer force. Of 2,687 tanks on the strength in May, only 627 were PzKpfw. IIIs and IVs; 381 were Czech PzKpfw. 38t types, and the remainder were light PzKpfw. Is and lis. France mustered about 3,000 machines, of which nearly half were gathered in light mechanized and armoured divisions (D.L.M.s and D.C.M.s) and the rest were dispersed among the infantry. The B.E.F. had 210 light and 100 heavy tanks, all committed to infantry support; 174 light and 156 'cruisers' of the 1st Armoured Division awaited shipment from the U.K. Quality varied; while the guns and armour of the best French types were well up to, or superior to, German equipment, the practice of mounting the commander alone in the turret, doubling as the gunner, cut the efficiency of the French tanks badly. The British heavy tanks, especially the handful of new Matildas, were more than a match for any Panzer; unfortunately control procedures were far too complex and unwieldy.
By smooth teamwork, unflagging advance, and maximum disruption of the enemy rear, the Panzer arm had in five weeks smashed a road to the sea, and to victory. By 25 June the Wehrmacht were in control of the whole of France north of a line roughly from Angoulême to Clermont-Ferrand, Lyon and the Swiss frontier at Geneva. There is no space here for a detailed commentary on the campaign. The Allied armour, fatally dispersed, was cut into pockets by attackers who always enjoyed superiority at the point of engagement. The Germans fully exploited their air superiority. The technical superiority of the best Allied tanks was more than neutralized by local weakness in numbers, by the early failure of supply and communications as the German tanks rampaged through the Allied rear echelons, and by the general bewilderment which quickly gripped the Allied command structure at most levels.
Old-style officer's field cap, with flat woven badges in silver on green, soft leather peak, and no cords or chin-strap. The Waffenfarbe piping on this example is cornflower blue, indicating a medical officer. (Author's collection)
July 1940 found the Panzertruppen the heroes of the hour. Theirs had been the breakthrough, and their Führer's enthusiasm took the form of demands for twice as many of these unique formations. Thus quantity began to take precedence over quality even at this early stage - the seeds of disaster were being sown. The need for crosscountry transport for the Panzer grenadiers was once more high on the list of priorities; so was the improvement of the tank guns and armour, which had shown up less than brilliantly on the few occasions when the Panzers met Allied Matildas or Char Bs on equal terms. (The 3-ton half-track personnel-carrier produced to answer the needs of the armoured infantry was to become the most numerous armoured vehicle built by Germany during the war; production figures of roughly 350 in 1940, and 950 in 1941, grew to no less than 7,800 in 1944.) The PzKpfw. III underwent a programme of up-gunning with a 50 mm weapon, and the armour of the PzKpfw. III and IV was increased. The demand for twice as many divisions meant that the tank strength of each would have to be halved; yet each required the full complement of secondary vehicles, increasing the strain on an industry already taxed by the programme of motorization in the infantry formations. The reorganization of the Wehrmacht in preparation for the attack on Russia was also hampered by the diversion of forces to Greece and North Africa, in order to pull Italy's chestnuts out of the fire.
When Operation Barbarossa opened in June 1941, some twenty Panzer divisions formed the spearhead of the German Army; of these, fourteen contained a single tank regiment of two battalions, and six fielded three tank battalions. The establishment of a battalion was about 90 tanks; so, allowing for 25 per cent mechanical failure at any time - a conservative estimate - Guderian's original figure of 560-odd tanks per division had now shrunk in practical terms to about 135. Total tank strength was about 3,200. Facing them were up to 20,000 Soviet tanks, but the sum was less stark than this figure suggests. While excellent T-34 and KV-I machines were coming into service with reorganized armoured brigades, they were not yet numerous and their crews were nowhere near full operational efficiency. The bulk of the huge total was made up of obsolete types, and of the total sum 60 per cent were unserviceable at any one time - an eloquent testimony to the efficiency of the Red Army in 1941.
Between June and September 1941 the world was treated to the spectacle of the Wehrmacht cutting up the enormous Soviet forces into helpless, milling pockets and then extinguishing them one by one, while the tanks raced on into the East at speeds of up to 50 miles a day. There were problems, however, which the superficial impact of the early German victories hid from all but a prescient few. The mileages covered over often appalling roads were taking a fearful toll in terms of mechanical wear. The roads were nowhere as good as had been expected; and once the poor surface had been torn up by the first waves of tanks, the supply lorries had even more difficulty in following up the advance with the essential lifeblood of fuel and ammunition. Moreover, the constant bewildering movement of the tank divisions was all that kept them alive, strung out as they were in relatively small groups far behind vastly superior Soviet forces. Nevertheless, it looked as though the trick would work; despite the unease of a school of German generals who felt that the tanks should not expose themselves so much, but should wait for the slower-moving infantry, it seemed that the dashing leaders who had captured Western Europe in weeks would repeat their exploits in the vast emptiness of Russia.
Group of 7th Panzer Division officers conferring during the campaign in the West, spring 1940. Second from left, partly obscured, is the divisional commander, General Erwin Rommel. Note early pattern Panzer Assault Badge worn by officer on right; this type, with the large death's-head motif, was authorized in 1936 by General von Thoma, commanding the tank units which fought in the Spanish Civil War. (Conway Maritime Press)
In the event, the juggler allowed a single ball to evade his grasp, and the whole structure came down about his ears. The decisive drive on Moscow had to be put off while the front was 'tidied up'. Large concentrations of Russian forces in the south had to be neutralized, and stiff resistance on the Leningrad front required a certain amount of redeployment. The Russians fell or were captured in their hundreds of thousands, in their millions - but still they fought on. The excellent new T-34S and KV-IS appeared in increasing numbers; often they were thrown away by unimaginative commanders, but where they were properly used they exacted a fearful price. By October, rain and mud heralded the approach of winter, and the push on Moscow presented far greater hazards than had faced the Wehrmacht in August. Progress was slow, fatally slow; and then the snows came down. The Russians were getting skilful at evading the pincers and harassing the faltering advance; and, above all, the tank divisions were exhausted. The supply of spares was inadequate, the narrow tracks of the Panzers were bogged down while the broad-tracked T-34S could still move at will, and the enormous distances already travelled had worn out men and machines; the mighty weapon became increasingly unserviceable. With the freeze-up came the inevitable counter-offensive by Zhukov's Siberian divisions, fresh, fit and accustomed to the terrible conditions.
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