Creation of the German Panzerwaffe (Armored Force) Part II

In keeping with the panzer division concept of a balanced combined arms team, the infantry and artillery would be motorized to keep pace with the tanks, and capable of cross-country mobility. This was the genesis of the Halbkettenfahrzeuge (half-track vehicles) of the German Army that played a significant role in World War II. Only the United States developed similar vehicles as armored personnel carriers. In addition, field artillery was initially to be towed by half-tracks. The Halbkette principle was to have front wheels for steering and for road movement, while the weight of the chassis was carried on tracks for cross-country movement. Research conducted during World War I had resulted in Daimler’s “Marienwagen” and Benz’s “Kraftprotze,” though the war ended before these went into production.

In 1932 the Ordnance Office awarded at least six contracts for half-track vehicles of different sizes for specific purposes: a 1-ton series by Demag, a 3-ton series by Hansa-Lloyd-Goliath, a 5-ton series by Büssing-NAG, an 8-ton series by Krauss-Maffei, a 12-ton series by Daimler-Benz, and an 18-ton series by FAMO. Maybach supplied most of the six- or twelve-cylinder engines for these half-tracks. Turning of the steering wheel by the driver turned the front wheels, while turning more sharply braked one of the tracks. High road speed required lubricated track links and rubber track pads, though later wartime shortages of rubber resulted in steel tracks and greater track wear.

The 1-ton series vehicles were designated “leichter Zugkraftwagen 1t” (light traction vehicle 1 ton) and allocated Ordnance inventory number Sd.Kfz. 10. It was intended to tow the 3,7cm antitank gun, a light infantry howitzer, or an ammunition trailer. Later mounting the 2cm Flak 38 gun, the Sd.Kfz. 10/4 was the primary self-propelled flak gun. In 1939 it was modified to carry armor while shortening the chassis and eliminating one road wheel on each side. As the “leichter Schützenpanzerwagen” or light armored personnel carrier (Sd.Kfz. 250), at least ten versions later emerged, including command, communications, reconnaissance, mortar, antitank (3,7cm Pak—Panzerabwehrkanone), and fire support (short 7,5cm) vehicles. As combat vehicles these half-tracks weighed some 6 tons and had a road speed of 74 km/h (46 mph), though the 8–14mm (.3–.5-inch) armor only gave protection from small-arms fire, and the open compartment was susceptible to artillery fire.

The 3-ton series (Sd.Kfz. 11) was intended to tow the 10,5cm howitzer or an ammunition trailer. The Schützenpanzerwagen model (Sd.Kfz. 251) was produced in the largest numbers during World War II, with roughly 15,000 being produced in some twenty-three versions including engineer, mortar, medical, flamethrower, antitank, and flak versions. The SPW was the mainstay of the mechanized rifle units (redesignated panzergrenadier units in 1942) of the panzer division. As such it weighed 8.5 tons, mounted one or more machine guns, had a road speed of 52 km/h (32 mph), and carried a ten-man infantry squad who could quickly dismount through rear hull doors or over the sides. Its armor, however, was a thin 8–14mm, and it was open-topped because its function was as a troop carrier, not a fighting vehicle (although in combat, such as in France in 1940, it would often be used as such). The 251 series were technically sophisticated according to collector Guy Franz Arend of Belgium, but were rather underpowered. The American M3 half-track was mechanically more reliable, but the German version’s steel tracks gave it better cross-country mobility than did the American vehicle’s rubber tracks.

The 5-ton series Zugmaschine (Sd.Kfz. 6) towed engineer bridging equipment trailers or artillery, and later versions were self-propelled mounts for flak or Nebelwerfer (10-barrelled rocket launchers). This was also true of the 8-ton series (Sd.Kfz. 7), the prime mover for the 15cm howitzer or the versatile 8,8cm flak gun, also found to be effective in the antitank role. (In 1944 some were employed to tow the launching platform for the V-2 ballistic rocket and as fire guidance units.) Daimler-Benz produced the first heavy 12-ton half-track in 1931 in collaboration with the Russian government, and later versions of this Sd.Kfz. 8 towed the heavy 21cm mortar, the 24cm long-range gun, or the 10,5cm flak gun, at corps or army level.

The heaviest half-track was the 18-ton Sd.Kfz. 9 series, which provided the standard tank retriever for the army. A spade lowered from the rear gave ground purchase for winching power, and it could tow an eight-wheeled low-bed trailer that could carry the 24-ton Panzer IV. (By 1943, however, the heavier Tiger and Panther tanks required a Panther chassis modified as a Bergepanzer, or tank recovery vehicle.) The lightest tracked vehicle produced was the “Kettenkrad,” Kettenkraftrad or tracked motorcycle of 1940, type HK 101 (Sd.Kfz. 2). This 1.7-ton tracked vehicle with motorcycle steering could go 80 km/h (50 mph) and proved especially useful for negotiating rugged terrain and forest trails to resupply forward troops with ammunition and rations and evacuate wounded.

Most troops and supplies of the panzer divisions, however, were transported in Lastkraftwagen (Lkw, trucks). Contracts had been let to at least eleven different manufacturers, including Ford-Werke, Borgward, Mercedes-Benz, Büssing-NAG, Magirus, and MAN. An attempt at standardization was made with the 6×6 Uniform Diesel, but it proved too heavy and too expensive. The Lastkraftwagen were produced with a cargo weight capacity between 1.6 and 6.5 tons. The most numerous Lkw was the 3.6-ton Adam Opel Blitz Typ 3,6-36S, with a six-cylinder 3.6-liter gasoline engine. It proved reliable, and Daimler-Benz also produced the model under license. Some 95,000 of the standard Blitz-S were built, albeit only with two-wheel drive. In 1940 the Opel Blitz Typ 6700A appeared, and 25,000 would be built. This had 4×4 all-wheel drive, with two driving axles. Staff and officers generally rode in a Personenkraftwagen (Pkw, personnel vehicle), such as the medium Horch Kfz.15 (Kraftfahrzeug, motor vehicle) and the light Volkswagen Kfz.1.

Given the deep mud conditions in Russia during that campaign, wheeled Opel, Ford, and Magirus Lkws were also converted as half-tracks by Daimler-Benz. While wheeled vehicles bogged down in the Russian mud, fatally slowing the 1941 German campaign, the production and improvisation of half-tracks gave the Wehrmacht significant capability in subsequent campaigns.

Ordnance in the panzer division included Pak (Panzerabwehrkanone, antitank guns), Flak (Fliegerabwehrkanone, antiaircraft guns), and Artillerie (artillery). The standard antitank gun was the 3,7cm Pak 36. Its maximum range was some 4,000 meters (4,400 yards) though its muzzle velocity at 762 meters per second (2,500 fps) gave it an armor-piercing capability of only 36mm (1.4 inches) at 500 meters (545 yards) against armor inclined 30 degrees to the vertical with a Panzergranate (armor-piercing round). The Pak 36 was adequate against the slab-sided, thinly armor-plated tanks of the early war period, but after 1939 it was recognized that heavier tanks made better antitank guns necessary. The heavy French Char B1bis had 60mm (2.4-inch) frontal armor, and the British Matilda Mark II and Valentine had up to 76mm (3 inches). The 5cm Pak 38 gave a penetration at 500 meters of 61mm (2.4 inches), and the 7,5cm Pak 40 would penetrate 104mm (4 inches) at 500 meters or 89mm (3.5 inches) at 1,000 meters. In comparison, the standard US antitank gun used later in the war, the 57mm M1, penetrated 68mm (2.7 inches) at 1,000 yards. The Russians initially depended on the 14.5mm (.58-caliber) PTRD antitank rifle, but by 1943 had upgunned to a 57mm antitank gun. The Paks were on a two-wheeled carriage and towed, but were also mounted on Panzerjäger (tank destroyer) chassis. Most deadly against enemy tanks would be the 8,8cm (3.5-inch) Flak gun in a ground-firing role, famous as the “Acht-komma-acht” or “Acht-acht” (“eighty-eight” or 88mm to the Allies).

In addition to machine guns, air defense was provided by flak units (under the Luftwaffe). The 2cm automatic gun might be mounted as Zwillingsflak (twin guns), Drillingsflak (triple guns), or Vierlingsflak (quadruple guns). Next larger was the 3,7cm, the 5cm Flak 41, and then the 8,8cm flak gun. As an antitank gun, the 8,8cm Flak 36 was mounted in the later Tiger I panzer; it had a muzzle velocity of 792 m/s (2,600 fps), and when produced as the Pak 43 and mounted in the Königstiger (King Tiger), its muzzle velocity was 1,000 m/s (3,280 fps)—a speed that could penetrate any tank used during the war. The Russians and Americans used machine guns and automatic cannon as antiaircraft guns, though they do not seem to have used the heavier-caliber AA guns in an anti-armor role to the extent the Germans used the ubiquitous Acht-komma-acht. Larger German flak guns were the 10,5cm Flak 38 and the 12,8cm Flak 40.

The standard German divisional field artillery howitzer in the light artillery battalions of the artillery regiment was the 10,5cm leichte Feld Haubitze (light field howitzer) 18. The le.F.H. 18 had a maximum range of 12,250 meters (13,400 yards). In comparison the American 105mm howitzer M2 ranged 11,150 meters (12,200 yards). In 1941 the gun was fitted with a muzzle brake to control recoil. This permitted a longer-range charge to be fired, increasing the range by 1,600 meters (1,899 yards).

The standard German medium battalion howitzer was the 15cm schwere Feld Haubitze (heavy field howitzer) 18. The 15cm s.F.H. 18 had a range of 13,300 meters (14,630 yards). The later s.F.H. 18/40 had a muzzle brake and higher velocity, increasing the range to 15,000 meters (16,500 yards). The US medium 155mm howitzer M1 ranged a comparable 16,400 yards. The Russian 122mm howitzer M1938 ranged 11,800 meters (12,800 yards), and the 152mm gun-howitzer M1937 ranged 17,620 meters (18,000 yards). Of the longer-ranged Kanone (guns) with higher velocities, the 10cm K 18 had a range of 18,900 meters (20,850 yards) and the 15cm K 18 ranged 24,600 meters (27,000 yards). By comparison the Russian 122mm cannon M1931/37 had a range of 20,800 meters (22,600 yards), while the American 155mm (“Long Tom”) used in corps artillery ranged 23,600 meters (26,000 yards).

In Russia the Germans would encounter the “Katyusha” (“Little Kate”) multiple rocket launcher M13, organized in separate rocket regiments. Though inaccurate, a salvo of sixteen rockets from each launcher flared through the air with a terrifying scream, earning the launcher the nickname “Stalins Orgel” (“Stalin’s Organ”) from the German Landsers. The Russians used the Katyushas as short-range (9,000 meters or 9,800 yards) field artillery, firing massed salvos to saturate a target area, the flaring smoke trails arcing across the sky. Western armies, with their more precise fire-control computing and better communications, could fire accurate concentrations of regular artillery and carry out fire missions within minutes, even if they could not match the massive bombardments of the Russians.

Nonetheless the Germans had also developed multiple rocket launchers, including the Nebelwerfer, or chemical smoke mortar (to be feared in turn by American GIs as the “Screaming Meemie”). The Nebelwerfer was originally the larger 10cm version of the 5cm and 8cm infantry Granatwerfer (mortar) smoothbore, muzzle-loaded, projectile-firing ordnance. But the Nebelwerfer, first designed by Dr. Walter Dornberger (“father” of the later V-2 ballistic missile), were rocket-firing by 1931, evading the restrictions on artillery of the Treaty of Versailles because rockets were not covered.

The rockets were later organized in separate battalions and even regiments. Werfers ranged from the six-tubed 15cm NbW 41 firing its meter-long rockets in sequence, to larger 21cm, 28cm, and 32cm Werfers. A regiment of heavy Nebelwerfer could saturate a target area with 6 tons of explosive in five seconds, and repeat the barrage every minute. The rockets were also fired from frames mounted on the sides of half-tracks, and in 1944 they were mounted on the small 2-ton Opel Maultier (Mule). The Americans later utilized rocket launchers, including a sixty-tubed structure atop the M4 Sherman tank, and in landing craft supporting amphibious operations.

In 1939 the German Schützenkompanie (rifle company) had some 157 personnel in three rifle platoons. Each Zug in turn numbered forty-nine in three squads, and each Gruppe numbered thirteen. The standard Gewehr (rifle) was the reliable Mauser Karabiner 98k (kurz, or short carbine). It was a bolt-action 7,92mm rifle with a five-round magazine capacity. Other nations also had bolt-action rifles, such as the British Lee-Enfield and the Russian Mosin-Nagant. The Americans, however, were equipped with the semiautomatic M1 Garand firing an eight-round clip. But unlike American and British squad tactics, which emphasized marksmanship and support by a bipod-mounted automatic rifle, the German concept was volume of fire based on the squad light machine gun.

The American Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), the British Bren Gun, and the Russian Degtyarev automatic rifles fired from a removable box or drum magazine. The Mauser Werke air-cooled Maschinengewehr 34 was also bipod-mounted, but was a belt-fed machine gun, yet light enough to be carried by one man. It had a rate of fire of over 850 rounds per minute. (It would be succeeded by the even better MG 42 with a rate of fire of over 1,200 rpm, with a quick barrel-change feature given the excessive heat generated.) On a more stable tripod mount both functioned as a schwere (medium) machine gun in weapons companies like those of other infantries.

German officers and vehicle crewmen, in addition to being issued the 9mm Walther Pistole 38, were authorized the submachine gun Maschinenpistole 38, later the MPi 40. Commonly misnamed the “Schmeisser,” the 9mm Ermawerke MPi fired at 500 rpm from a thirty-two-round box magazine, and was nicknamed the “Kugelspritzer” (“bullet-squirter”). Panzer crews and motorized infantry (later Panzergrenadiers) appreciated the metal folding stock of the MPi in the confines of a panzer or a Halbkette. The infantry also used antipersonnel and antitank Handgranate (hand grenades). Little changed from World War I was the Stielhandgranate 39 stick grenade (“potato masher” to the Western Allies), lobbed some 30 meters (33 yards) to explode within four to five seconds. Variants included a fragmentation sleeve, smoke, and illumination versions, as well as the lighter Eihandgranate 39 (egg-shaped grenades). Grenades could also be launched from the Karabiner 98k with a muzzle attachment and a propelling cartridge, extending the range to some 240 meters (265 yards).

Standard infantry-support weapons included mortars, flamethrowers, and mines. The muzzle-loaded 5cm leichte Granatwerfer (light mortar), comparable to the US 60mm mortar, had a range of 518 meters (570 yards). The 8cm schwere Granatwerfer, similar to the US 81mm mortar, had a range of 2,400 meters (2,625 yards). Encountering the large Russian 120mm mortar on the Eastern Front, the Germans copied it as the 12cm Granatwerfer 42, which had a range of 6,000 meters (6,700 yards).

Against fortifications the Pioniere (combat engineers) used hollow-charge explosives and flamethrowers. The Hohlladung (hollow- or shaped-charge) explosive was point-initiating and base-detonating, the blast focused by a cone forward at a standoff distance, “shaping” a jet stream to penetrate armor or concrete, and was used in a variety of munitions. The Flammenwerfer 35 was succeeded by the Flammenwerfer 41. This had two cylinders, one with compressed nitrogen for projection, the other with fuel, ignited by triggering hydrogen. Duration of the fire was ten seconds, in short bursts.

There were a variety of antipersonnel and antitank mines. The Schü-Mine (Schützen, or defense mine) was a bounding type. The 4-kilogram (9-pound) S-Mine 35 was triggered either by 7 kilograms (15 pounds) of foot pressure or by trip wire pull igniter, and a canister was propelled one meter (one yard) above the ground, spewing 360 steel balls or scrap steel with a killing radius of 10 meters (12 yards). The small half-kilogram (one-pound) Schü-Mine 42 was a handy booby trap that would cripple a soldier. Varieties of these AP mines were encased in wood or glass to foil metallic mine detectors, and usually had explosive anti-lifting devices; the only sure way to clear minefields was to probe for them with a bayonet on hands and knees.

There were some forty types of antitank mines. Typical was the 10-kilogram (21 lb) Teller (plate) Panzermine 35 triggered by 180 kilograms (400 pounds) of pressure on the pressure plate. This would disable a tank by breaking the track and often damaging a road wheel. The Soviets would be the most prolific at laying minefields, utilizing their TMB-2 and TM-41 antitank mines. Minefields were most effective with a pattern of AP and AT mines underground, and covered by defensive fire.

Tactically, German infantry procedures were closely related to their artillery operations, though these varied greatly depending on the mission, enemy forces and capabilities, available troops, and terrain and weather. Ideally there were four levels to a linear defense in depth manned by infantry units (though this formation was seldom employed until later in the war when German forces were increasingly on the defensive). The HKL (Hauptkampflinie) was the main line of resistance (US MLR), meant to repulse an enemy attack. The Gefechtsvorposten (combat outposts) were 1,800–4,500 meters (2,000–5,000 yards) ahead of the HKL, within range of the main line’s light artillery (10,5cm le.F.H. 18) batteries; these were more thinly manned than the HKL and intended to absorb the enemy attack. In front of the combat outposts was the Vorgeschobene Stellung (advanced position), some 4,500–6,000 meters (5,000–7,000 yards) beyond the HKL and covered by the longer-range medium artillery (15cm s.F.H. 18); it was manned by light forces tasked with delaying the enemy attack and perhaps forcing premature deployment. A Reserve position was to be several thousand meters behind the HKL, beyond range of enemy artillery, forcing a delay in their displacing batteries forward, and served as a position to which forces could fall back from the HKL and from which counter attacks could be mounted.

Defensive frontage width for an infantry unit was about double the attack frontage. A Kompanie (company) defended 400–1,000 meters (440–1,100 yards), a Bataillon defended 800–2,000 meters (880–2,200 yards), a Regiment defended 2,000–3,000 meters (2,200–3,300 yards), and a Division defended 6,000–10,000 meters (6,600–11,000 yards) or about 6–10 kilometers (4–6 miles). Defensive positions entailed entrenchments, wire entanglements, cleared fields of fire, and primary direction of fire and final protective lines for machine guns. Since World War I, minefields, laid with both AP and AT mines, had strengthened a defensive position. Mortars, AT guns, and artillery would also be sited. More permanent fortifications like the Westwall along the German border had steel-and-concrete bunkers (British “pillboxes”), gun positions, and antitank obstacles built by Organisation Todt (OT) construction units. Preferably field positions were disposed in depth for an elastic defense utilizing counterattack forces to restore a penetrated position, not a strictly linear defense.

Attack tactics had evolved since World War I, moving from the British “wave” tactics slaughtered by the machine guns on the Somme in 1916 to a new model of infiltration and surprise artillery tactics. This approach was developed by artillery Oberst Georg Bruchmüller and Gen. Oskar von Hutier in the Riga attack in 1917 and employed in the Westfront offensives of 1918. The new Panzerwaffe would play a significant role in this tactical evolution, though there were divergent concepts as to what this role would be. Some thought it should decisively strengthen an infantry breakthrough of an opponent’s main defenses. Others believed the primary role should be flanking, flank-and-frontal envelopment, and encirclement maneuvers and attacks. Political and international events in the 1930s began to be factors that determined what the role of the Panzerwaffe would be.


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