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

Czech-built PzKpfw. 38t Ausf. H tank of 7th Panzer Division crossing the La Bassée Canal, June 1940; of the 218 tanks in his division, Rommel had only some three dozen German-designed vehicles. Note that the crew wear black tank uniforms but grey sidecaps. The Schutzmütze had been withdrawn, but supplies of the black sidecap were not yet available for all personnel. (Conway Maritime Press)

The winter of 1941/2 saw the first great set-back of German arms. The wonder was that they survived it at all, but from now on the hallmark of the Wehrmacht was to be an incredible resilience in the face of repeated failure.

One of the few PzKpfw. III tanks of the 7th Panzer Division being guided on to a French beach at the end of the drive to St-Valéry, June 1940. Note large national flag draped over rear stowage for aerial recognition. (Conway Maritime Press)

African Sideshow

The real military significance of the desert campaign (as distinct from its considerable political and psychological implications) might almost be said to be the practical schooling it provided in the art of mobile warfare. For most of the campaign the forces were relatively small; the terrain was limitless, and quite open; there were no urban areas, no civilians, nothing except the desert and the enemy. For two years Erwin Rommel's two Panzer units (5th Light, later 21st Panzer Division, and 15th Panzer Division) were the key pieces in a huge chess game. Both sides were completely ruled by the supply problem: one cannot live off the land in the desert, and without fuel and ammunition one cannot manoeuvre or fight. Movement was everything, and Rommel showed himself a master of opportunism. Living precariously off captured and improvised material at the end of far-extended and unreliable supply lines, he outguessed and outmanoeuvred successive British generals sent against him. His young colonels and junior generals, almost without exception, went on to high command in Europe and Russia after Montgomery's arrival with vastly increased Allied resources had finally pinned the Afrika Korps down and destroyed it. The special problems of the desert - the unusual strains imposed upon men and machinery by the sand and the climate, the constant and imperative problem of resupply, the irrelevance of static infantry positions in all but a very few sectors, the enforced self-sufficiency of the tank regiments - these taught lessons which were to be valuable in the declining years of the Reich. The importance of recovering one's own crippled vehicles from the battlefield, and of capturing or destroying the enemy's non-runners, became paramount; another technique perfected in this theatre was the closely combined use of tanks and anti-tank guns, to bring the enemy armour to battle at a time and place of one's own choosing. The desert was also a forcing-house in the constant guns-and-armour race, seeing the introduction of the long 75 mm gun of the PzKpfw. IV F2, the Grant/Lee series of American tanks and the immortal Sherman.

The architect of victory in the West enjoys his hour: Heinz Guderian, tank general supreme, on the French coast in 1940. Note the uniforms of the two officers behind him. (Imperial War Museum)

The Decline

The years 1942-4 saw the huge seesaw campaign in the East go through a series of phases of which only the main features need here be summarized. The Panzer units, recovering with great resilience from Soviet successes in the winter of 1941/2, were launched eastward again in the late spring, when the momentum of the Red Army's counter-offensive had run down. This time the emphasis was on the southern sector. One huge force battered its way deep into the Caucasus, another pushed the Soviets back to Stalingrad. This city on the Volga, originally seen only as a flanking strongpoint for the great southern drive, came to occupy German attention to a ridiculous and tragic degree. It became a symbol - something almost always fatal in war. The tanks, once more in need of rest and refit after a hard summer's campaign, were sucked into street fighting, and soaked away into the rubble of the devastated factories and wharfs. The inevitable Soviet winter counter-offensive cost the Germans enormous losses, both in the doomed city and on the periphery of the encirclement when rescue attempts were mounted.

The turn of 1942/3 saw yet another enforced task of frantic rebuilding in the Wehrmacht - and once again the task was achieved. But the price was a subtle watering-down of the effectiveness of the Panzers. Hitler, having established personal control over operations, placed far too much faith in the new tanks which came into service in 1943, the PzKpfw. V 'Panther' and PzKpfw. VI 'Tiger'. The Panther, produced in response to the success of the T-34, was excellent, but it was introduced without sufficient development. The mighty Tiger was terrifyingly efficient in defence in close country and was capable of great local success, but it was not the answer to the Allied armoured developments. In the West a heavy concentration on a few standard types, not particularly formidable individually but very reliable and capable of mass production, built up the strength of the British and American armoured divisions in readiness for D-Day. Rigid standardization in Russia produced thousands of T-34S and KVs. In contrast to this industrial might, Germany began to fill the depleted regiments with 'S.P.s' - self-propelled guns mounted in limited-traverse housings on well-tried tank chassis. These were relatively cheap, quick and easy - but they were basically defensive weapons, and their capacity for attack was seriously limited.

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