Creation of the German Panzerwaffe (Armored Force) Part I

Defeated in World War I due in no small measure to the allied tank forces, and denied tanks by the treaty of Versailles’ article 171, the new Reichsheer was very conscious of the importance of these revolutionary weapons. The question of what kind of tanks, what unit organization, and what operational concepts would be appropriate to create a German Panzerwaffe (Armored Force), however, would divide the German military as these issues divided the militaries of other nations—and in Germany’s case in 1919 they were a moot point anyway.

While the Daimler A7V was the only German tank model actually put into production and committed to combat in World War I, a variety of additional types of tanks were being constructed or had reached prototype stage when the war ended. These included the A7V-U, which had overhead tracks similar to the British Marks, and the super-heavy Grosskampfwagen (or “K-Wagen”) weighing 165 tons, having a twenty-two-man crew, and mounting four 7,7cm guns in side sponsons along with six machine guns. The K-Wagen was so large it could only be transported in twenty 5-ton sections. Two prototypes were built, both powered by Daimler-Benz engines. Conversely, the Krupp–built LK II, which looked like the British Whippet, weighed 10 tons and mounted either a 5,7cm gun or two machine guns in a fixed turret, and the prototype LK I had a revolving turret. While some of these models were destroyed under the treaty terms and the remaining wartime A7Vs were given to Poland, the LK II design and two prototypes were sold to Sweden. Ten light tanks were assembled from component parts there under the supervision of Josef Vollmer, the German engineer who had designed the LK II and the A7V, and were organized into the first Swedish tank unit in 1920. The LK II was produced by the Landsverk Company of Landskrona in southern Sweden as the M 21 (improved later as the M 21/29).

With the Rapallo Agreement and the establishment of the tank center at Kazan in the Soviet Union by 1926, the Reichsheer produced and tested “agricultural tractors,” among them the 10-ton Leichter Traktor with a 3,7cm gun in a revolving turret and Rheinmetall’s Grosstraktor of 20 tons mounting a 7,5cm or 10,5cm gun in a revolving turret and two machine-gun turrets. In 1933 Rheinmetall also produced the multi-turreted Neubaufahrzeug, or New Model Vehicle (NbFz); this prompted the Russian T-28, which became the standard Russian medium tank by 1939. Prototype A had a short 7,5cm gun and a 3,7cm coaxially in the turret, while the B version mounted 10,5cm and a 3,7cm guns. Both had machine-gun turrets, one fore and one aft. However, these formidable-appearing tanks had only thin 14.5mm (.5-inch) armor, thus weighing only 23 tons. The Germans subsequently produced a total of just six of the NbFz, though when they were offloaded at the Oslo docks during the 1940 Scandinavian campaign they created quite a sensation.

Later German panzer commanders who trained at Kazan (code-named “Kama”) included Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, subsequently commander of the panzer component of the Legion Condor sent to Spain and finally the Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK) in North Africa. The Rapallo relationship ended after Hitler and his NSDAP came to power in January 1933, and by autumn of that year the German bases in Russia were closed. Nonetheless Marshal Mikhail Tukachevsky, head of the Red Army, helped facilitate the return of some of the prototypes to Germany, including six of the large and three of the light “tractors.” The cooperation had been mutually beneficial for both the German and Russian armed forces, though ultimately they would clash as opponents.

In Germany, thanks to the favorable atmosphere created by von Seeckt’s policies, progress toward mechanization was carried out by the Inspektion der Kraftfahrtruppen (Inspectorate of Motorized Transport Troops) under Oberst (later General der Infanterie) Erich von Tschischwitz. He requested a general staff officer from the Truppenamt, which assigned Hauptmann Heinz Guderian—the man who would become “Vater der Panzerwaffe” (Father of the Armored Force)—effective 1 April 1922. Born 17 June 1888 at Kulm (Polish Chelmno) on the Vistula, Guderian trained with the 10. Hannöversch Jäger Bataillon (Hannoverian Light Infantry Battalion) and was commissioned an officer in 1908. During World War I he served on the Western Front as a staff and signals officer, including at the battles of Verdun and the Aisne, where he learned the importance of communications.

After the war, it was determined that Guderian should acquire some practical experience with transport troops, so in 1922 he was attached for three months to the 7. Bayerische Kraftfahr Bataillon (Bavarian Motorized Transport Battalion) in Munich. This unit was commanded by Maj. Oswald Lutz, with whom Guderian was to work closely in the years to come. While serving in various positions with the Motorized Troops Department, Guderian quickly became aware of the operational possibilities of mobile warfare, especially when Oberstleutnant Walther von Brauchitsch, later commander in chief of the army, organized maneuvers during the winter of 1923–24 to test possible coordination between mobile ground forces and tactical airpower. While Reichsheer maneuvers had to be conducted with canvas and wood mock-ups over wheeled vehicles to simulate “tanks” (at least for the world news media), Guderian was familiar with the tank warfare developments at Kazan and in 1929 witnessed the German-influenced Swedish developments. Guderian was “particularly delighted” to be sent to Sweden for four weeks in 1929, where he actually drove an LK II and witnessed tank maneuvers of the Strijdsvagn Battalion of the Gota Guards. He was also developing the concept of tactical armored formations being balanced formations of tanks and mobile infantry and artillery, the concept of the combined arms team:

In this year, 1929, I became convinced that tanks working on their own or in conjunction with infantry could never achieve decisive importance. My historical studies, the exercises carried out in England and our own experiences with mock-ups had persuaded me that tanks would never be able to produce their full effect until the other weapons on whose support they must inevitably rely were brought up to their standard of speed and of cross-country performance. In such a formation of all arms, the tanks must play the primary role, the other weapons being subordinated to the requirements of the armor. It would be wrong to include tanks in infantry divisions: what was needed were armored divisions which would include all the supporting arms needed to allow the tanks to fight with full effect.

Major Guderian’s conclusions were also the result of his reading the flood of writing on tanks and mechanization of the 1920s, and he acknowledged the work of the English thinkers such as Fuller, Martel, and Liddell Hart. (While some writers also credit the work of Charles de Gaulle as being an influence, de Gaulle’s major book was published in 1934, at a time when Guderian had already formulated his concepts and the first three panzer divisions were already being organized.)

Yet even in the German military there was resistance to mechanization. Tschischwitz’s successor at the Transport Troops Inspectorate, Oberst Oldwig von Natzmer, told Guderian motorized units were only “supposed to carry flour!” and after the 1929 maneuvers the new inspector, Gen. Otto von Stülpnagel, said that whole panzer divisions were a “Utopian dream.”8 But the chief of staff of the Inspectorate was Guderian’s friend, now Oberst Lutz, who secured Guderian command of the 3. Preussisch Kraftfahr Bataillon (Prussian Motorized Battalion) in 1930. Guderian reorganized the unit as a panzer reconnaissance battalion with armored cars, motorcycles, (dummy) tanks, and (wooden) antitank guns. In the following year Lutz, promoted to general, was named chief of the Inspectorate, and he made now Oberstleutnant Guderian his chief of staff. As in other countries, resistance to mechanization came from the infantry and cavalry branches. The Inspector of Cavalry, General von Hirschberg, was committed to developing heavy horse cavalry, although he was willing to pass reconnaissance operations to the motorized troops; but General von Knochenhauer, who succeeded him, sought to regain control of any such units.

Nonetheless, because of the Versailles constraints, the advocates of mechanization in the Reichswehr had support in various departments. In addition, denied tanks, these men could contemplate the types of tanks required to implement the evolving doctrine and organization, rather than fabricating operational and organizational concepts around inventories of (increasingly obsolete) tanks. To equip the battalions of the eventual panzer divisions, a light tank with a 3,7cm gun and a medium tank with a 7,5cm gun were envisioned. Guderian says that he and Lutz felt that the lighter tank should mount a 5cm gun with an armor-piercing shell given the trend toward heavier guns and thicker armor abroad, but the Heereswaffenamt (Army Ordnance Office) insisted on the 3,7cm because it was already in production as an antitank weapon.

The tank types would be similar, however: they had their weight limited to 24 tons (as German field engineer bridging weight limits were a factor), a speed of 40 km/h (25 mph), and a five-man Besatzung (crew) consisting of a Kommandant (commander), Richtschütze (gunner), and Ladeschütze (loader) in the turret, and Fahrer (driver) and Funker (radio operator and bow gunner) in the front hull. Crew intercommunications would be by larynx microphones, and all tanks would have radios. Thus while other national armies too often concentrated on firepower and armor—leading to tanks with poor communications systems and a tank commander acting also as gunner—the German concept would emphasize tactical coordination of tank platoons and tank companies, with individual tank commanders receiving orders and controlling the firing and maneuvering of their tanks. Though German tanks would be outgunned by heavier enemy tanks in 1940 and 1941, their tactical flexibility would enable panzer units to prevail.

In the interim, a small training tank could be more quickly produced, and in 1933 the Heereswaffenamt put out orders to Krupp, MAN, Henschel, Daimler-Benz, and Rheinmetall-Borsig to submit designs under the designation of Landwirtschaftlicher Schlepper (LaS) or “agricultural tractor.” In December 1933 the Krupp chassis and the Daimler-Benz turret and superstructure were selected for development, and production began in 1934. The small, two-man, 5.3-ton tankette had two 7,92mm machine guns mounted in its turret. The LaS model A used a girder to steady the outboard ends of the suspension wheel axles. The B model had a more powerful engine (100 bhp to 57 bhp) and an additional bogie wheel on each side.

When an experimental vehicle was accepted for service, it was given a specific Ordnance inventory number as a Sonderkraftfahrzeug (special-purpose motor vehicle), abbreviated as Sd.Kfz. After Hitler’s Germany announced rearmament, this “agricultural tractor” was redesignated as the Panzerkampfwagen I (armored fighting vehicle) or Pz.Kpfw. I (Sd.Kfz. 101). While it served well its initial purpose as a trainer, it was also available to equip the first panzer divisions. “Nobody in 1932,” Guderian later said, “could have guessed that one day we should have to go into action with this little training tank.” Panzer or Wagen became the term for a tank, though “panzer” in its broader sense came to mean armored forces as a concept.

On 30 January 1933 Adolf Hitler was named Kanzler (chancellor) of a nationalist coalition government. Whatever his ultimate racial and geopolitical policies, there is no question that mechanization of the German armed forces received dramatic stimulation through the personal interest and encouragement of the leader of the government. Guderian first sensed this when the chancellor himself opened the Berlin Automobile Exhibition at the beginning of February. In early 1934 Hitler inspected new equipment at Kummersdorf, sponsored by the Heeresamt, and Guderian was able to demonstrate the components of a panzer force: a motorcycle platoon, an antitank platoon, Panzer Is, and armored reconnaissance cars. The speed and precision movements of these units prompted Hitler to exclaim: “That’s what I need! That’s what I want to have!”

Meanwhile the insistent demands of Hitler’s brown-uniformed Sturmabteilungen (SA), or Storm Troop Detachments, for the “Second (Socialist) Revolution” and the replacement of the Reichswehr with a “people’s army” culminated in the bloody purging of Ernst Röhm and the SA leaders on the night of 29– 30 June 1934. While the suppression of the turbulent storm troopers was generally greeted with relief, many German officers were uneasy when Hitler assumed the office of the president with the death of Feldmarschall Paul von Hindenburg on 2 August and they had to swear an oath of allegiance to the Führer himself.

By 1935 German rearmament was underway. Conscription was introduced and the Reichswehr was renamed the Wehrmacht (armed forces) by the Law for the Creation of the Armed Forces of 16 March 1935. On 27 September 1935 the cover name Inspektion der Kraftfahrtruppen was redesignated Kommando der Panzertruppe (Armored Troop Command), and on 15 October the first three panzer divisions were established: the 1. headquartered at Weimar, the 2. at Würzburg, and the 3. at Berlin. These first panzer divisions were originally organized with a panzer brigade of two regiments of two battalions with four companies each, totaling sixteen panzer companies with 561 Panzer Is. The infantry component was a motorized Schützenbrigade (rifle brigade) of a truck-borne rifle regiment of two battalions, and a motorcycle battalion, totaling nine rifle companies. The motorized artillery regiment had twenty-four truck-towed 10,5cm howitzers in two battalions of four-gun batteries. There was an antitank battalion of towed 3,7cm guns, an engineer battalion, a reconnaissance battalion of armored cars and motorcycles, a signals battalion, and medical, maintenance, and supply units. As artillery carried out fire missions from fixed positions, however, its full potential was retarded, subordinated to the overriding focus on mobility. (Self-propelled field artillery would not come into service until 1942.)

This organization resulted in a ratio of sixteen panzer companies to nine infantry companies, and peacetime maneuvers demonstrated a need for more infantry. Thus the next three panzer divisions—4., 5., and 10., created in 1938 and 1939—had a rifle brigade with a pair of two-battalion regiments, while the rifle regiment in the first three divisions was increased from two to three battalions each. The Cavalry branch also created armored forces in 1938, with four Leichte (Light) divisions (1., 2., 3., and 4.) very similar to the panzer divisions but with only one tank battalion. Subsequently they passed to the Kommando der Panzertruppe, and after the 1939 Polish campaign were reorganized as panzer divisions 6., 7., 8., and 9. In the 1939 organization the panzer divisions had a panzer brigade of two regiments with two battalions each. The battalions had seventy-eight panzers in a medium/mixed company (nineteen Pz. IIIs and IVs) and two light companies (twenty-four Pz. Is and IIs), and the ratio was now a more balanced one of twelve panzer to twelve infantry companies. With command panzers, the 1939 panzer division had 328 panzers, 3,183 troops in the rifle brigade, 24 artillery pieces, and with other elements had a total strength of 11,792 personnel.

Meanwhile the Panzer II (Sd.Kfz. 121), designed in 1935, entered production in 1937. The first prototypes weighed 7.5 tons and mounted a 2cm cannon and a machine gun in the turret. Though soon outclassed, the Panzer II was the primary panzer of the panzer divisions into 1940. It was characterized by having four or five large road wheels and four return rollers on each side (the drive sprocket being in front), and the chassis would later be utilized for self-propelled artillery, tank destroyer, and reconnaissance vehicles. The three-man crew consisted of a driver, the commander (who also traversed the little turret and loaded and fired the 2cm gun and MG), and a radio operator.

Other types of armored vehicles were developed to complement the panzers in the panzer division, including Panzerspähwagen (armored scout cars) in the Aufklärungsabteilung (reconnaissance battalion). Abteilung meant “detachment,” but also meant Bataillon, the two terms not being interchangeable. Thus a panzer battalion was an Abteilung (Abt.), while an infantry battalion was a Bataillon (Btl.). Like other nations, Germany had wheeled armored cars evolved from World War I. By 1939 the two basic types were the four-wheeled Sd.Kfz. 221 series and the eight-wheeled Sd.Kfz. 231 series. The four-wheeled scout car weighed some 4.8 tons, had a speed of 53 km/h (30 mph), and mounted a 2cm gun in an open turret. The thin armor was well-angled ballistically, the average being 55 degrees. The eight-wheeled armored car, the “Acht-Rad,” also mounted a 2cm gun but was larger, weighing 11 tons, with a top speed of 85 km/h (53 mph). Both Panzerspähwagen had full-wheel drive, self-sealing bulletproof tires, and unlike those of other nations, could be driven backward equally well as it could be driven forward, the rearward-facing radio operator serving as rear driver. Variants had the large-frame radio antenna apparatus; later versions of the Acht-Rad mounted a short or a long 7,5cm gun on the hull, while the Puma (Sd.Kfz. 234/2) mounted a high-velocity 5cm gun in an enlarged turret.

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