Forming the Panzers I

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France’s horsed cavalry divisions were not very different from the German models. Contemporary Polish mobilization plans projected mobile or “mixed divisions.” In the course of the decade, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria would collect their respective tank and motorized elements into ad hoc “fast divisions,” though these reflect available forces rather than any real doctrine. But the German stress on mobility, deep penetration, envelopment, and initiative was original. It reflected growing institutionalization of the concept that future campaigns would be decided at neither tactical nor strategic levels, but in the previously vaguely defined intermediate sphere of operations.

The question nevertheless remained: How did mechanization best fit into the army’s overall rearmament program? Arguably the central figure in providing an answer was Ludwig Beck, Chief of the Truppenamt (which resumed the name of General Staff in 1935) from 1933 to 1938. His post made him responsible for considering and integrating mechanized mobility into German military planning. His character and temperament created two sets of myths. That of the lesser world, fostered in particular by Guderian in his widely read memoirs, depicts Beck as conservative to the point of reaction on the subject, committed to mass armies in the old style, with no understanding of armor technology and no concept of using tanks except as infantry support. From the greater world of Beck’s growing distrust of Hitler, escalating as early as 1938 into active opposition, comes the hypothesis of his resistance to the Führer’s aggressive foreign policy, including an attempt to retard development of the mobile forces that were its primary instrument.

Both interpretations are misleading. No less than the rest of the senior officer corps, Beck supported rearmament and revision of the Versailles treaty—ultimately by force. The question was, what kind of force. On one hand Beck carefully studied British and French developments in tank technology and armor doctrine, in particular the works of Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg, military attaché to Britain, who discussed the concepts frequently with Liddell- Hart and other leading politicians and soldiers. Schweppenburg observed the British armor maneuvers of 1932 and 1934, submitting detailed and enthusiastic reports. Beck supplemented these with his own analysis of the British experience—particularly the continuing problems of controlling armored forces larger than a small brigade.

In June 1935, before the initial field exercises of the original panzer division, Beck conducted a staff ride based on a counteroffensive by no fewer than three panzer divisions, plus infantry, against a Czechoslovakian attack in the region of the Erzgebirge. The nature of the terrain stacked the deck; it was little surprise that Beck described tanks as weapons of opportunity, best employed in limited sectors. He also stressed the importance of all- arms cooperation. He asserted that once the front was broken, armored formations could operate effectively, perhaps decisively, on enemy flanks and in the rear areas.

That was about as close to a mainstream position as could be found in the Wehrmacht. Beck was willing to prognosticate—a staff exercise in 1936 was built around an entire armored army. In practical terms, however, he implemented a policy of general mechanization. The three panzer divisions discussed earlier would, by September 1939, be complemented by 36 more tank battalions primarily intended for infantry support—a ratio of one battalion per infantry division of the projected army. Beck also planned to motorize some infantry divisions, partially motorize others, and create light mechanized divisions more or less on the French model. These policies were implemented in 1936. In a technical context, Beck pushed for the development of medium tanks and for an even heavier “breakthrough” model.

This comprehensive approach was, in terms of army politics, a way of encouraging cooperation by spreading the wealth. In the same context it provided for healthy competition: a broad spectrum of approaches to a fundamentally new means of making war. No one really knew, for example, how antitank techniques and technologies would develop relative to the tanks’ capacities. Beck was correspondingly willing to let other states—those that could afford errors—take the lead in major institutional and doctrinal innovation.

Beck’s approach to armored-force development also reflected a general concept of rearmaments progressing by measured stages in a context of limited resources, human and material. Effective cadres for training and command could not be conjured from thin air and 100,000 men. The German auto industry had developed to serve specialized markets, and would take time to adjust to large-scale manufacturing of military vehicles. In 1939 there was still no system for converting the industry to war production. Steel and oil, the panzers’ bone and blood, were in short supply and high demand. Heinz Guderian’s brand of optimism on that issue was well enough; perhaps even desirable, in an officer with limited responsibilities. Beck and the General Staff had to plan for the army—and consider as well what to do if those plans did not survive the proverbial first contact with an enemy.

Requiring consideration as well was the possibility of a preventive strike by Germany’s neighbors—perhaps a preemptive one, given Hitler’s increasingly assertive foreign policy. Infantry divisions were like municipal bonds. They were a safe military bet: easily raised, trained, and equipped; providing no original threats. And should the armored- force enthusiasts be proven correct, the separate tank formations could readily be combined into divisions and replaced in turn by new creations.

In October 1934, the army issued a table of organization for an “experimental armored division.” Built around the Zossen and Ohrdruf tank regiments, the formation included a motorized brigade with a motorcycle battalion and a two-battalion “light rifle regiment”; an antitank battalion with 36 towed 37mm guns and eventually a battery of 20mm self-propelled antiaircraft cannon; a reconnaissance battalion of motorcycles and armored cars; and an artillery regiment with two battalions of 105mm howitzers, one truck-drawn and the other self-propelled. The 3rd Cavalry Division provided troops and cadres for what, on October 15, 1935, officially became the 1st Panzer Division. It took the field for the first time in August, and encompassed 13,000 men, more than 4,000 wheeled vehicles, and almost 500 tracked ones, at the Lüneberg maneuver grounds near Münster in Westphalia.

Lutz took personal charge of an exercise that still depended heavily on simulation and imagination. Tanks were in short supply relative to theoretical strengths and types. Radio allocations were incomplete. The division commander, Maximilian von Weichs, had been directly reassigned from the 3rd Cavalry Division, and retained a horseman’s perspective. Many of the junior officers and enlisted men also came from freshly converted cavalry regiments. Training beyond crew levels was still a work in progress. But the former troopers were keen. When Army Commander in Chief Werner von Fritsch demanded the division execute a 90-degree turn to meet a theoretical flank attack, the movement was completed in just under 90 minutes, with a minimum of loose ends.

Fritsch was suitably impressed, and Lutz’s report was appropriately enthusiastic. The tanks covered an average of 600 kilometers, with only 27 breakdowns—a good sign of fundamentally sound design and manufacture. Tanks must be used in masses and organized in large formations. Single battalions or regiments could only succeed against limited objectives. Should armor be designated specifically for infantry support—a policy Lutz criticized—it must be organized in brigade strength. In that context, Lutz recommended a tank brigade of three two-battalion regiments as optional. This would give the division a total of more than 500 tanks—an excessive number by later standards, but arguably defensible when most of the available vehicles in the near future would be armed with nothing more lethal than rifle-caliber machine guns.

Lutz’s concept of using tanks in masses reflected more than Reichswehr-era theory. He and Guderian had visited the Soviet Union in 1932, and had kept abreast of intelligence reports on Soviet tank and vehicle production. Guderian considered the Red Army to be leading the world in mechanization. His criticism of the relatively inflexible Soviet concept of three distinct missions—close infantry support, breakthrough, and deep penetration—was acknowledged in Lutz’s assertion that the combination of a tank brigade and a motorized brigade, the two complementing each other, enabled the division to perform a broad and changing spectrum of tasks.

No less relevant for the panzer arm’s development was the assertion that, especially in combat, radio was by far the best means of rapid, secure communication among motorized formations. Commanders therefore needed armored command and signal vehicles, because they must be at the head of their units. That final statement was not merely a challenge to, but a denial of, the Great War model of command exercised from rear-echelon communications centers. It was no less a significant modification of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder’s familiar aphorism that “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” Future commanders of mobile, mechanized forces would be in a position to make, remake, and implement plans reflecting changing situations.

Lutz’s report confirmed the Army High Command’s earlier decision to create two more panzer divisions. It stressed the importance of creating divisional headquarters as soon as possible in order to provide guidance as men were assembled and equipment delivered. Command of the 2nd went, predictably, to Guderian. The 3rd’s commanding officer was Ernst Fessman, a cavalryman by branch but with experience commanding both a motor battalion in the Reichswehr and the first tank brigade in 1934-35. As for the deployment of the new formations, Guderian recommended, presumably with Lutz’s concurrence, that one panzer division be stationed in Berlin and one in Weimar. These would be responsible for defending Germany’s east. The third division should be deployed in the region of Würzburg-Bamberg to provide defensive strength against the French. The three projected independent brigades should also probably be located with a view to their operational employment in western Germany.

This in-house memorandum goes against both the long-standing theoretical approach of concentrating armored forces in mass and the long-standing myth of the panzer arm as the mailed fist of Nazi aggression. At this stage Germany was still seriously vulnerable, and the very success of Lutz’s 1935 exercise highlighted that vulnerability. How best to counter attacks spearheaded by similar large armored formations? The standard recommendation was “offensive defense”: strategic/operational delaying actions conducted at the tactical level by mobile ripostes, in particular outflanking movements, once the infantry had taken some of the edge off enemy armor.

German divisions had a total of 72 antitank guns, half assigned to regiments, half pooled in a divisional battalion, all motorized—a flexible and formidable force in an essentially horse-powered formation. The gun itself, a Rheinmetall-designed 37mm piece, had been under development since 1925, and in small-scale production since 1928. With its original spoke wheels replaced in 1924 by pneumatic tires, it was a handy and mobile weapon, highly effective against the kinds of tanks currently in foreign service and well suited to the tactics of shield and sword in a combined-arms context.

“Offensive defense” reflected—perhaps viscerally—the postulate that Germany’s major probable enemies would be slow-moving (the French) or slow-thinking (the Poles). In slightly modified form it would emerge again in the aftermath of Stalingrad. It was nevertheless a dead-end option—not least because the style and nature of Hitler’s foreign policy was making it increasingly obvious at the army’s higher levels that any trouble Germany got into would require self-extraction. The international community was hardly likely to be forthcoming and benevolent toward a systematically antagonistic Reich.

At the same time new types and families of armored fighting vehicles were entering service. The centerpiece was the Panzer I. Its genesis was the 1932 purchase of a vehicle from Britain. The Vickers-Carden-Lloyd was what was called a “tankette”: a turretless one- or two-man vehicle, more of a machine-gun carrier than anything else but easy to manufacture and, above all, cheap. The initial German intention was to use the chassis to mount a 20mm cannon in a revolving turret. When that proved too heavy, two light machine guns were substituted. The first prototypes were delivered by Krupp in February 1934. Four months later a satisfied army ordered an initial production run of 150, and then doubled it.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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