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Before looking at specific Panzer combat actions, it is worth looking at the structure of a Panzer division. When Panzer divisions are mentioned, the first thing to come to mind is the tank, but the Panzer regiment around which a Panzer division was formed was only a small part of the whole. The make-up of Panzer divisions changed considerably throughout the war, so for the sake of simplicity what is considered in the following section is a 'typical' Panzer unit of 1944. By this time, a reasonable degree of standardisation had been achieved, although there could still be significant differences from one unit to another.

The central core of the Panzer division was, of course, the Panzer regiment. Typically it consisted of a headquarters element and two tank battalions. Each battalion consisted of four companies with, at full strength - which was in itself an unusual occurrence by 1944 - around 17 tanks each. Generally, in a well-equipped division, two of the four companies would be equipped with the Panzer IV and two with the powerful Panzer V Panther. Total regimental strength, including headquarters elements, would be around 155-159 tanks.

As well as the Panzer regiment itself, the typical Panzer division was equipped with a powerful Panzergrenadier regiment, which was split into two battalions, each of six companies. As well as basic armoured personnel carriers (usually the excellent SdKfz 251), the regiment would have numerous specialist vehicles based on the standard armoured personnel carrier chassis, such as infantry support versions, flak versions and engineer versions.

A Panzer III in Russia, 1943. Note the additional track links placed over the frontal plates to give extra protection from enemy anti-tank guns. The crew's steel helmets have been slung from various suitable points on the tank's exterior, being too cumbersome to store within the tank. (Robert Noss)

Scouting ahead and protecting the division's flanks would be the Panzeraufklärungsabteilung (armoured reconnaissance detachment), equipped with motorcycles, light four-wheeled armoured cars and eight-wheeled heavy armoured cars.

Providing essential support in mine clearing, bridge building and obstacle demolition was the Panzerpioniereabteilung (armoured engineer detachment), which was equipped with numerous specialist vehicles based on half-tracked or fully tracked chassis.

Essential mobile fire support within a Panzer division was provided by the Panzer Artillerie Abteilung. These units were equipped with fully tracked, self-propelled artillery, usually of 10.5-cm or 15-cm calibre.

An early Panzer IV on the Eastern Front. Note how the tracks have become clogged with mud. Crews took every chance to escape the noisy, hot interior of the tank and travel outside wherever safe to do so. (Robert Noss)

Defence of the division against enemy tanks was provided by the Panztnjäger Abteilung (tank hunter detachment). This element was armed with a range of specialist vehicles, usually based on conversions from existing Panzer chassis, and armed with high-velocity 7.5-cm or 8.8-cm guns.

Essential communications for the division were provided by die Panzernachrichtenabteilung (armoured signals detachment), which was responsible for both telephonic and radio signals, allocating call signs and monitoring enemy signals traffic.

A Panzer IV halted for a brief rest on a muddy Soviet road. It can be assumed that the front line is still some way off, as the hull machine gun is still covered by its protective canvas sheath. (Robert Noss)

Some of the most important personnel within a Panzer division were the Panzerinstandsetzungstruppen (recovery and repair troops). The huge distances covered by tanks, especially on the Eastern Front, and the extremely difficult terrain crossed, meant that breakdowns were frequent. Recovery and repair troops ensured that, wherever possible, even under direct enemy fire, damaged tanks were recovered and captured enemy tanks were pressed into service. They were issued with the giant Tamo' 18-ton half-tracks, as well as converted recovery versions of medium and heavy tanks such as the Panther.

Also of enormous importance were the Nachschubtruppe (divisional supply troops) who kept the Panzer division supplied with ammunition, food-fuel and other essentials. Smaller sub-units, such as the divisional military police troop, were often attached to this element

Finally, it is worth looking at two small branches of the Panzerwaffe, which are rarely mentioned but nevertheless proudly wore the same special black Panzer uniforms as their more conventional comrades. Firstly, there were the Eisenbahnpanzerzüge (armoured railway trains). In some cases armoured trains were downgraded, non-mobile tanks, which were loaded on to special flatcars, and in others, were newly fabricated railway cars, fully armoured and fitted with tank turrets. Even less well known, were the tew members of the Panzer-Propagandatruppen; these troops used armoured cars and small armoured half-tracks rather than tanks, but they wore the black Panzer uniform. Their duties included propaganda broadcasting, psychological warfare, and general reporting of front-line news, They were also responsible for the publication of soldiers' newspapers, specifically Die Panzerfaust (The Mailed Fist).

Waffen-SS tank crewmen assist in the re-ammunitioning of their early model Panther 'D'. They wear the reversible padded winter uniform with the white, snow camouflage side outwards, over their black Panzer uniforms (Gary Wood)

With a full-strength Panzer division fielding up to 14,000 men, and the Panzer regiment itself having an average strength of some 800-1,000 tankers, it can be seen that the mighty Panzers themselves represented only a small part of the whole.

In addition to the Panzer divisions with their light and medium tanks, the mighty Tiger and King Tiger tanks were fielded in independent heavy tank battalions (schwere Panzer Abteilungen), which were attached at korps level and inserted into the front at crisis points. These Tiger battalions effectively became the korps' 'Fire Brigades', as did some of the better Panzer divisions themselves.

The Tigers, though immensely powerful, were slow and cumbersome and difficult to move. So wide was the Tiger, for instance, that it could not be transported by rail until its normal battle tracks had been replaced by narrower transport tracks. At its destination, the whole operation had to be repeated in reverse. As an attack weapon, therefore, the Tiger's success was limited. However, in defence, when the tank effectively served as a mobile blockhouse, they were devastating.

A Panther 'A' and its crew. The tank has been partially camouflaged with foliage, but the relaxed attitude of the crew suggests that there is no real threat of Imminent enemy action. (Robert Noss)

Extremely powerful tank destroyers were built on the chassis of the Panther (the Jagdpanther) and the King Tiger (the Jagdtiger) and formed into independent heavy tank-destroyer battalions (schwere Panzerjäger Abteilungen) attached at korps level. Although the Jagdpanther was a first-class vehicle and one of the best tank destroyers ever made, the Jagdtiger was a true behemoth. Weighing in at 77 tons and mounting a 12.8-cm gun, it could take out any other vehicle in existence, even at extreme range, but was itself so cumbersome and prone to breakdown that once spotted, it could be easily outflanked. Again, like the King Tiger, it was only effective as a defensive weapon. Tanks were generally used in two particular formations. Where a regimental-sized Kampfrgruppe was attacking, it would typically deploy a battalion-sized Panzer element, whose tank companies would adopt the famous Panzerkeil (tank-wedge), with the tanks moving in a 'V' or arrow formation. Alternatively units would employ the Panzerglocke (tank bell) with the heaviest Panzers, which constituted the 'clapper , surrounded by a screen of lighter tanks and armoured vehicles. The whole purpose of the tank, in Guderian's philosophy, was as a fast-moving breakthrough weapon, and not as some lumbering, slow-moving infantry support arm.

A Waffen-SS Panther crew pose beside their immobilised vehicle. Note that the right-hand track is missing. However, there does not appear to be any damage to the vehicle. (Robert Noss)

Panzers, upon meeting an obstacle such as a fortified town or village, simply divided and encircled the enemy in a pincer formation, bombarding them and subduing their positions, before leaving the 'mopping up to the Panzergrenadiers. After the invasion of Russia, however, the opposition crumbled so fast that the Panzers ended tip having to move equally fast in pursuit of the fleeing enemy and into the vastness of the Russian interior; their support, supplies and ammunition could barely keep pace.

Members of a Waffen-SS Panzerinstandsetzung unit unload a set of Panther tracks from a truck. Such units were kept extremely busy recovering and repairing damaged vehicles (Robert Noss)

Panzers were often forced to halt and wait for die following infantry to catch up, otherwise they might be left deep in enemy territory without essential infantry support. After the Kursk offensive of 1943, the Panzers rarely had the opportunity to fulfil their role as an offensive weapon, but they proved themselves equally effective in defence, especially after the advent of the Tiger, Königstiger, Jagdtiger and others whose frontal armour was all but impervious to enemy shot. These vehicles, if cleverly sited and dug in, could prove extremely difficult and costly to eliminate.

Ernst Barkmann at 'Barkmann Corner'

Any study of the German tank forces of the Second World War will soon throw up the fact that a number achieved what can best be described as 'Ace' status, though the Germans themselves tended to use the expression Experten or 'experts'. Readers will be familiar with the 'Ace' term used to describe fighter pilots and will know that most of those who developed sufficient skill to achieve this status, and indeed most pilots in general, were officers. The situation in regard to German tank experts was somewhat different in that a large number of the best were in fact NCOs or in some cases NCOs who had received battlefield promotions to commissioned rank. The two studies that follow relate the achievements of two of Germany's top Experten, Ernst Barkmann and Michael Wittmann.

Both of these men came from humble origins, from families with no particular military background, Barkmann in fact beginning his military career as an infantryman. Both used the same vehicles as many other panzer soldiers, most of whom did not achieve their level of fame or success. Neither received particularly preferential treatment. Their experiences, their hopes, their fears, were the same as any other Panzer soldier. What brought them to greatness - as much as their high level of skill as tank commanders and the charisma which allowed them to mould their crews into well-honed fighting machines, each man working to peak efficiency, each man almost able to read the minds of the other and especially their commander, anticipating his orders so they were carried out instantaneously, the speed of their actions and reactions often meaning the difference between life and death - was a considerable degree of what the Germans refer to as Soldatmglück, or soldier's good luck! Barkmann's luck lasted to the end of the war and he is still alive today. Unfortunately Wittmann's luck finally ran out one hot summer's day in August 1944 when the vulnerability of even the mighty Tiger tank was exposed.

Even the mighty Tiger was not invincible. Here we see the effect of several shots hitting the thinner armour on the rear of the engine compartment. The larger shell hole appears to be the result of three individual shots grouped very closely together. The shot shows a 'Sturmtiger' converted from a standard battle tank by removing the turret and adding a superstructure with a massive 3.8-cm mortar, intended for demolishing enemy strong points. (Gary Wood)

Serving with 4. Komp, II Bat, 2. SS-Panzer Das Reich, Ernst Barkmann held the rank of SS-Oberscharführer and was already an accomplished veteran having converted from infantry to Panzers with the elite Wiking Division. He was commander of a Panzer V Panther during the battles in Normandy.

On 26 July 1944, Barkmann's Panther was in the area around the village of Lorey when he received reports of advancing enemy armour. Two of his own men went forward to investigate; they returned soon after, one wounded, to confirm that the arrival of a US column was indeed imminent. Manoeuvring his lone Panther into a position under the cover of a large oak tree at a crossroads on the Coutances to St Lo road, he awaited the arrival of the enemy.

Panzer 'Ace' SS-Oberscharführer Ernst Barkmann in the turret of his Panther 'D' number 401. Barkmann wears the one-piece camouflaged overalls and camouflaged field cap. (Barkmann)

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