The invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 was planned as the last of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg campaigns. In the summer of 1943, how ever, the fighting in the East was absorbing the greater part of the German war effort. On the Eastern Front there were 168 divisions (3.1 million men), with six SS and twelve Luftwaffe field divisions, and 3000 tanks. In other theatres there were seventy-five divisions (1.4 million) men, with five SS and ten Luftwaffe field divisions, and 1300 tanks. In France, where an Allied invasion loomed, there were forty-four field divisions, mostly of poor quality, and 860 tanks, of which half were captured French vehicles. In Italy, which was now more immediately threatened, there were seven divisions and 570 tanks.
The successful conclusion of Manstein’s counter-offensive could not mask the declining strength of the Ostheer. General Thomas, head of the economics section at OKW, estimated that, while losses in the East up to Stalingrad represented the equivalent of about fifty fully equipped divisions, in the battle for Stalingrad alone the equivalent of forty-five divisions were lost. At the end of March 1943, as the front stabilized in the East, the Ostheer was 470,000 men below establishment.
Divisionsabzeichen der 18. Panzer-Division der Wehrmacht
Front-line formations had been shredded by the fighting. The 18th Panzer Division, established in the autumn of 1940, began the war against the Soviet Union as a formation of 17,174 (including 400 officers and administrative personnel) in Guderian’s Panzer Group 2. In the first three weeks of the invasion the division lost 60 per cent of its tanks, and on 11 July the divisional commander expressed fears that the loss of men and equipment would prove insupportable ‘if we do not intend to win ourselves to death’. In August 1941 18th Panzer was re-equipped, but by November it had lost all its tanks. When the Soviet counter-offensive burst upon the Ostheer on 6 December 1941, the division had only 50 per cent of its original combat strength and 25 per cent of its vehicles. The divisional chaplain wrote in his diary: ‘This is no longer the old division. All around are new faces. When one asks after somebody, the same reply is always given: dead or wounded. Most of the rifle company commanders are new, most of the old ones are gone.’ The division spent 1942 in the Zhisdra area where, in July, it sustained 1406 casualties in the first four days of the German summer offensive. The chaplain noted that the colonel of one of the worst hit regiments ‘stands silently in front of the long row of graves: “There lies my old guard. In reality we should also be there. Then it would all be over.”‘
In September 1941, 18th Panzer had a combat strength of 9616 men (293 officers and 9323 other ranks). By April 1943 this had shrunk to 3906 men (124 officers and 3782 other ranks). Attrition left the division with a high proportion of inexperienced officers and freshly promoted NCOs, while the NCOs’ positions were occupied by privates. An attempt was made to tackle the manpower shortage by the employment of armed Russian ‘volunteers’, the Hilsfreiwillige (or Hiwis), on lines-of-communications duties. By December 1942, there were nearly 400 Hiwis serving with 18th Panzer, a figure which was quickly quadrupled by a policy of forcible recruitment. By mid-summer 1943 there were 1659 Hiwis in the division’s Voluntary Russian Rear Security Companies and another 1006 workers building field works and undertaking local guard duties. Few were willing wearers of German uniform.
By the spring of 1943 the high rate of casualties and the lack of reserves made it impossible to bring depleted divisions up to full strength. Logic dictated that divisions should be merged to maintain a sustainable ratio between combat troops and those in the auxiliary tail. This would have encouraged the economic use of experienced officers, NCOs and specialists and more effective employment of motor vehicles, equipment and horses. Hitler’s obsession with numbers frustrated any such rationalization. For the Führer, what mattered was the number of divisions in the order of battle, not their quality. Thus, every one of the divisions lost at Stalingrad was reconstituted, along with four of the six lost in Tunisia. In the twelve months from July 1942 the number of field divisions in the Army, SS and Luftwaffe rose by fifty-five. The creation of twenty-two Luftwaffe divisions was particularly short-sighted, although typical of the free-for-all at the top of the Nazi hierarchy, encouraged by Hitler. The men would have been more efficiently absorbed into existing divisions in the Army, but Hitler accepted Göring’s objections to ‘good young National Socialists being dressed in the grey (i.e., reactionary ) uniform of the Army’.
The additional Luftwaffe divisions gave Hitler another stick with which to beat the generals, but they were a signal waste of man power as the divisions were never efficient fighting formations. OKW finally secured their incorporation into the Army in October 1943, but they were to remain a constant liability in battle.
In March 1943the greatest cause for alarm was the parlous state of the panzer arm. At the end of January 1943 there were only 495 battleworthy tanks on the Eastern Front, the great majority of them being PzKw IIIs and IVs which, in spite of being upgunned and more heavily armoured, were matched by the Red Army’s T-34/76. Nearly 8000 German tanks had been lost in the fighting since June 1941. In the first three months of 1943 losses totalled 2529, representing 59 per cent of the total production for 1942. The morale of the panzer troops, now contemplating their numerical and technical inferiority to the enemy, was low. Battle fatigue eroded morale. Early in 1943 the operations officer of the elite Grossdeutschland Division reported that ‘fatigue within the division has become so severe that the feeling of indifference is spreading and cannot be opposed by any means’.
The decline in the panzer arm owed much to the procurement and manufacturing muddles caused by Hitler’s persistent meddling in the technical matters which so absorbed him. The arrival in numbers on the Eastern Front of the Russian T-34 in the autumn of 1941 had given the Ostheer an unpleasant shock. Guderian later wrote: ‘Up to that time we had enjoyed tank superiority, but from now on the situation was reversed.’ In the winter of 1941 a German tank sergeant wrote of the impact made by the T-34:
‘There is nothing more frightening than a tank battle against superior force. Numbers they don’t mean much, we were used to it. But better machines, that’s terrible. You race the engine but she responds too slowly. The Russian tanks are so agile, at close range they will climb a slope or cross a piece of swamp faster than you can traverse the turret. And through the noise and the vibration you keep hearing the clang of shot against armour. When they hit one of our panzers, there is so often a deep, long explosion, a roar as the fuel burns, a roar too loud, thank God, to let us hear the cries of the crew.’
The T-34’s sloped armour, speed and manoeuvrability brought about a profound change in tank design. At first, serious consideration was given to producing a straightforward German copy of the T-34, incorporating important modifications like universal radio installation and powered turret traverse. The designers demurred, however, not solely from offended pride but also because of the technical difficulties involved in manufacturing the aluminium components in the diesel engine. Having ruled out military plagiarism, the decision was made to continue with the production of the 60-ton PzKw VI Tiger I heavy battle tank, which had started production in August 1942, and to design a lighter tank, the PzKw V Panther, weighing 45 tons, which would incorporate the outstanding features of the T-34.
The Tiger, whose origins lay in a 1937 specification for a heavy ‘breakthrough’ tank, had endured a troubled development history. In 1941, after the first encounters with the T-34, the 1937 concept was revived, resulting in a specification for a heavy tank capable of mounting the formidable 88mm high-velocity gun in a turret with a full traverse and carrying sufficient armour to defeat all present and future anti-tank weapons. Two firms, Porsche and Henschel, submitted prototypes for this second generation panzer.
Dr Ferdinand Porsche, one of Hitler’s intimates, was a brilliant designer of motor-cars, notably the Volkswagen and the brutally powerful Auto Union Grand Prix racer, but, like the Führer, he was more of a visionary than a nuts-and-bolts man. Porsche’s plans for the Tiger were unconventional, including provision for electric transmission, and were rejected by the Army Ordnance Office. Undaunted, Porsche pressed on, securing from Hitler backing for the development of a mammoth tank weighing 180 tons, the Maus (Mouse), which reflected the Führer’s growing obsession with bizarre weapons systems.
At the same time Porsche profited from the artillery arm’s urgent demands for powerful self-propelled tank destroyers (Jagdpanzer) and infantry support guns (Sturmgeschutze) to supersede the obsolescent 37mm and 50mm towed anti-tank guns which were wholly ineffective against the T-34. Improvised first-generation tank destroyers Marders had appeared in 1942, consisting of a 75mm anti-tank gun mounted on the chassis of an obsolescent German or foreign tank (PzKw IIs and Czech 38-Ts). The fighting compartment was protected by a fixed open-topped super structure of armour plate. Hitler immediately grasped that the production of Jagdpanzer was not only quicker and cheaper than that of tanks but that it also provided a fast road to boosting the strength of the panzer arm. In this he received partisan encouragement from the artillery arm which had been careful to retain the assault guns and tank destroyers within its command structure.
Dr Porsche was now able to regain some of the ground lost by the rejection of his Tiger prototype; he peddled to Hitler a Jagdpanzer variant based on the Tiger chassis and known variously as the Ferdinand and the Elefant. The Elefant heavy tank destroyer carried an 88mm gun on a fixed superstructure at the rear of the hull and was protected at the front by 200mm of belly armour. At first sight the Elefant was a formidable beast, but it was expensive to produce in comparison with the Marder; it also shared the latter’s limitations of narrow field of fire and restricted accommodation. The Elefant also lacked secondary armament, a flaw which was to prove fatal in the Kursk salient at the beginning of July 1943.