Panther Ausf. D tanks, 1943.
Henschel Tigers in the East.
Porsche’s political footwork had diverted resources from the development of the successful Tiger prototype submitted by Henschel which was prematurely committed to battle in August-September 1942. Like a schoolboy with a birthday train set, Hitler always wanted to use his new weapons immediately they became available, forfeiting the advantages of surprise and employment en masse in the most favourable conditions. Instead, the first batch of Tigers was thrown into action piecemeal in a secondary operation in the swampy forests near Leningrad where the terrain was quite unsuitable. Lumbering in single file along the forest tracks, the Tigers were picked off by Russian anti-tank guns.
Nevertheless, the Tiger emerged from this discouraging combat debut as the most powerful tank in the world. Its 88mm gun, which had ninety-two rounds of ammunition, packed a heavy punch and outranged the T-34. Its armour was not well sloped, as was that of the Panther, but it was 100mm thick at the front and 80mm thick around the sides. Its weight made it slow, however with a cross-country speed of only 12mph; this limited its operational range to about sixty miles and imposed a severe strain on its gear box which required frequent maintenance and repair. By November 1942, production of the Tiger had reached twenty-five a month.
As if in anticipation of the minefields they would encounter in service, the new armoured vehicles had to nose their way across a development obstacle course of Hitler’s devising. While events demanded a ruthless standardization of German armour, that great military dilettante indulged in ever wilder flights of fancy: an Elefant equipped with a 210mm mortar; the development of Ram Tigers for street fighting; the transformation of the Gustav 800mm railway gun into an anti-tank weapon; and, most extraordinary of all, a specification drawn up for a 1000-ton ‘land monitor’, final proof of the galloping gigantism which had overtaken Hitler’s military thinking. The result of this eclecticism, when applied to models already in production, was, as Guderian noted, ‘the … creation of countless variations to the original type, each of which would need innumerable spare parts. The repair of tanks in the field became impossible.’ All this occurred at a time when the Soviet Union was concentrating on the mass production of the T-34.
The crucial factor remained the number of tanks in the field. Here the picture was grim. The panzer divisions had originally been designed to contain four tank battalions with a total strength of approximately 400 tanks per division. By the beginning of 1943 there were only three battalions in a division, one of which was equipped with Jagdpanzer. Matters were complicated by the withdrawal of the obsolete PzKw II, which was little more than a death trap, and the difficulty that commanders of old formations faced when attempting to secure allocations of new tanks which were reserved for the building-up of fresh divisions. The reluctance of these commanders to send vehicles in need of major overhaul back to Germany also meant that many tanks remained stranded in divisional garages not best equipped to repair them. As a result, panzer divisions seldom mustered more than 100 tanks, and the average hovered between seventy and eighty. Firepower was further reduced by the division of authority between the panzer arm and the artillery, which enabled the latter to draw off the Jagdpanzer for the motorized infantry and the Waffen-SS.
As Hitler’s disillusion with the Army grew, his faith in the Waffen-SS increased. He saw the SS which, by 1944, numbered thirty-eight divisions (600,000 men) as the historic successor to the Order of Teutonic Knights and the true repository of National Socialist virtue. The expansion of the Waffen-SS which, in June 1941, had contained 150,000 men disposed among five divisions, had been accomplished at the expense of the Army, although the latter retained control of the Waffen-SS in the field. Nevertheless, SS armoured divisions were more lavishly equipped than their Army counterparts. The armoured units of an elite Waffen-SS panzer grenadier division, like Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, deployed the same firepower as an Army panzer division.
That even Hitler realized that some order had to imposed on the armoured forces was confirmed by his appointment in February 1943 of Colonel-General Heinz Guderian as Inspector-General of Armoured Troops. His brief was to oversee ‘the future development of armoured troops along lines that will make that arm of the service into a decisive weapon for winning the war’.
Guderian, the Army’s leading theorist and practitioner of armoured operations, had been removed from the command of Panzer Group 2 on Christmas Day 1941 after conducting a tactical withdrawal from an exposed position as the Red Army launched its counter-offensive before Moscow. Plagued by heart problems, Guderian had kicked his heels in the OKH officers’ reserve pool until summoned to Vinnitsa to assume control of the organization, training, manning and equipping of all panzer and panzer grenadier units.
Guderian met Hitler on 20 February, later recording his surprise at how ill the Führer looked and his pleasure at seeing copies of his books on armoured tactics prominently displayed in the Commander in Chief’s quarters. The Führer gave him the same emollient welcome he had accorded Manstein two weeks earlier, telling him, ‘Since 1941 our ways have parted; there were numerous misunderstandings at that time which I much regret. I need you.’
The assignment of duties which Guderian subsequently drew up with Keitel and General Friedrich Fromm, the commander of the Replacement Army, was signed by Hitler on 28 February. Guderian had made his return to active duty conditional on the granting of sweeping powers to the Inspectorate-General, which was to report directly to Hitler, bypassing OKW, the Replacement Army and the Chief of the General Staff whom Guderian was obliged only to ‘consult’. Luftwaffe and SS armoured units were to come under his control. Guderian had effectively secured independent command of panzer troops within the Reich, with complete responsibility for all panzer troops in the armed forces. OKW and OKH, already at each other’s throats, were now presented with a new rival over which only Hitler exercised control.
Guderian himself was aware of the chaos created by the clashing personalities and overlapping staffs within the high command, although his memoirs contain no hint that the manner of his own elevation to the Inspectorate-General was a symptom of the problem rather than part of its solution. On 3 March, while visiting Goebbels, Guderian raised with the Propaganda Minister the question of the ‘confusion of leadership’ and Hitler’s growing tendency to interfere in matters of subordinate importance. He suggested that the Führer would be ‘well advised to appoint some Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff as his assistant; and that the man chosen should be one who understood how to function as an operational commander and who was more qualified to fill this difficult office than was Field Marshal Keitel’.
Guderian then pointed out that, as an intimate of the Führer and a civilian, Goebbels (rather than one of the hated generals) might more readily persuade Hitler to reconsider the situation. Goebbels, doubtless wishing that Guderian had not bowled him this unwelcome ball, replied that, indeed, this was a ‘thorny problem’; he promised to do his best, when a suitable occasion arose, to lead the conversation along the lines Guderian had proposed and to urge Hitler to ‘reorganize his supreme command in a more practical form’. Not surprisingly, Goebbels never found the moment just to tackle the ‘thorny problem’.
Meanwhile, Guderian had problems of his own as the Army, which had long been hostile to an independent panzer arm, regrouped to undermine his position. In the draft of his assignment of duties Guderian had included a footnote defining the term ‘armoured troops’ and including within it assault guns. Once the draft was out of Guderian’s hands, the artillery changed the foot note, limiting his control to heavy assault guns which were only just entering production. The artillery’s continued grip on assault guns had serious consequences as they were urgently needed to arrest the wasting disease in the armoured divisions, particularly as assault guns now made up one third of the total output of all armoured fighting vehicles.
Guderian then made a second tactical error, providing Hitler’s adjutants’ office with a summary of the paper on the panzer arm that he planned to deliver at a Führer conference at Rastenburg on 9 March. When he arrived, he found a large and hostile OKW and General Staff audience waiting for him. Later he wrote:
‘All these gentlemen had some criticism to make of my plans, in particular of my expressed wish that the assault guns be placed under my General-Inspectorate and that the anti-tank battalions of the infantry divisions be re-equipped with assault guns in place of their present ineffective weapons drawn by half-tracks.’
Guderian’s arguments fell on deaf ears. Hitler’s chief adjutant observed that the assault artillery was the only weapon which enabled gunners to win the Knight’s Cross. The coup de grace was delivered by Hitler who, gazing pityingly at Guderian, told him, ‘You see, they are all against you. So I can’t approve either.’ Guderian left the conference after a four-hour battering and fell to the ground in a brief blackout which mercifully went unheeded.