Evaluating Armoured Warfare on The Eastern Front I

Popular Mythology

The Russo-German War in general, and armoured combat on the Eastern Front in particular, have remained popular subjects in English-language historiography of the Second World War for the past six decades. However, much of what Anglo-American readers know or think they know about armoured warfare on the Eastern Front has been shaped by self-serving memoirs such as Guderian’s Panzer Leader or von Mellenthin’s Panzer Battles, or popular wargames such as SPI’s Panzerblitz (1970) and a new generation of computer wargames. A cult of German tank-worshippers has arisen and its members are now firmly entrenched in their belief that all German tanks (meaning their beloved Tiger and Panther series) were better than any Soviet tanks and that the Red Army’s tank forces only prevailed because of numerical superiority. There is a grain of truth in this argument, which was fostered by German veterans seeking to perpetuate the Third Reich’s propaganda-line that the victory of the Red Army’s `barbarian hordes’ was due to mass, not skill. However, the quantity over quality argument ignores a variety of critical factors encompassing the opposing war-fighting doctrines, strategic miscalculations and terrain/weather that significantly influenced the outcome of armoured operations in the East. Key facts, such as the German inability to develop a reliable diesel tank engine while the Soviets had one in production before Operation Barbarossa began, are often just ignored – even though it had a significant impact on the outcome of mechanized operations on the Eastern Front. Yet material factors were not the only influences upon armoured warfare on the Eastern Front. Napoleon’s dictum that, `in war, the moral is to the material as three is to one,’ proved quite apt on the Eastern Front of 1941-45, with a host of moral and non-material factors influencing the outcome of battles and campaigns.

Looking across a hexagonal grid super-imposed over a two-dimensional map sheet, cardboard counters or plastic miniatures representing German Panthers or Tigers look so much more impressive than the opposing Soviet T-34s. The German tanks’ strengths – long-range firepower and armoured protection – carry great weight in these kinds of simulations, while their main weaknesses – poor mobility and poor mechanical reliability – are only minor inconveniences, if depicted at all. For example, the oft-repeated canards about the Panther’s `teething problems’ at Kursk are fobbed off as a temporary issue, costing a wargamer a few movement points, without realizing that the Panther had persistent mobility issues throughout its career that prevented it from conducting the kind of wide-ranging mobile operations required by German maneuver warfare doctrine. The main strengths of the Soviet T-34 – reliable mobility over vast distances on its own tracks and suitability for mass production – are factors that lie outside most tactical-level simulations. Consequently, two generations of Anglo-American history buffs have been presented with numerous simulations that emphasize the superiority of German tanks and the cannon-fodder nature of Soviet tanks. The Cold War also played a role in shaping perceptions, with a large number of German veteran accounts that were often viewed uncritically, while there was a dearth of useful accounts from the Soviet side. When available, Soviet accounts were routinely discounted as lies or propaganda. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, fifty years after the onset of Operation Barbarossa, this ingrained Western perception began to change as previously unavailable historical material emerged from Soviet-era archives, but the balance of Eastern Front historiography in English is still heavily biased toward the German perspective.

Another problem in evaluating armoured warfare on the Eastern Front is that much of the analysis to date has been fairly tactical in nature, focusing on a single campaign such as Stalingrad or Kursk, which tends to gloss over the impact of long-term trends that shaped each sides’ combat performance. The Russo-German War lasted for forty-six and a half months. It was not decided by a single battle or campaign.

Strategic Setting

Adolf Hitler intended to crush the Soviet Union and its inimical Communist ideology in one, swift campaign, using his battle-tested panzer divisions and Luftwaffe air fleets as his weapons of choice. In Führer Directive 21, issued on 18 December 1940, Hitler stated that, `the bulk of the Russian Army in Western Russia will be destroyed by daring operations led by deeply penetrating armoured spearheads.’ He deliberately chose to unleash a war of annihilation aimed not only at the destruction of the Red Army and Soviet state, but also at the eventual obliteration of the indigenous Slavic populations as a necessary precursor to German colonization in the East. Whereas previous operations in Poland, France and the Balkans had followed the methods of traditional German campaigning, Hitler intended Operation Barbarossa to be a crusade. Yet oddly, Hitler’s grand strategic vision for the War in the East was not matched by sound strategic-level planning. Instead, the War in the East would be conducted primarily on the operational and even tactical levels, often on the basis of ad hoc or opportunistic decision-making, rather than sober assessment of ends and means.

The employment of Germany’s armoured forces in the Soviet Union was shaped by three strategic assumptions made by Hitler and the Oberkommando der Heer (OKH). The first assumption was that the war in the Soviet Union would be a short campaign, resolved in a matter of a few months. Germany made no preparations for a protracted War in the East, including increasing tank production or training replacements, or stockpiling fuel and ammunition. The second German strategic assumption was that terrain and weather would have no significant impact on the conduct of the campaign. Hitler and the OKH regarded the Soviet Union as virtually flat, table-top steppe land that was perfect for rapid panzer operations, but ignored its numerous rivers, dense forests, immense distances and poor road networks. Previous German panzer operations had achieved victories after moving only 300-400km in fair weather over good roads. Indeed, no offensive in German military history had ever covered more than 500km in a single push. Since the first assumption of a short war expected a Soviet collapse well before the onset of the Russian winter, Hitler and the OKH completely disregarded the weather as a factor. The third strategic assumption was that the Red Army could be quickly and efficiently destroyed. Based on a combination of factors – the poor showing by the Red Army in the Russo-Finnish War, Stalin’s purges of the officer corps and incomplete OKH intelligence assessments – Hitler and the OKH reckoned that they could destroy the best part of the Red Army in about six weeks of fast-moving campaigning. With the bulk of the Red Army smashed, including its tank forces, Hitler believed that the Soviet state would suffer a moral collapse akin to what happened in France in June 1940. These three strategic assumptions had a profound impact on German panzer operations in the Soviet Union and when each proved false in turn, they put the panzer divisions at a permanent disadvantage.

Stalin’s immediate objective in mid-1941 was to deter German aggression until the Red Army was sufficiently prepared for him to take a more assertive tack with Hitler. He had foolishly ordered the disbanding of the Red Army’s four existing tank corps in November 1939, only to order them re-formed as mechanized corps in July 1940 and their number doubled in response to the spectacular German victory over France. In order to give Soviet military power credibility in the eyes of Germany, Stalin also directed that the mechanized corps would be reequipped with the new T-34 and KV-1 tanks to replace the lighter T-26 and BT-series models. Soviet industry was ordered to produce over 5,000 of the new tanks and the mechanized corps were expected to be fully-equipped by mid-1942. However, Stalin became increasingly alarmed by reports that Germany was creating more panzer divisions, so in February 1941 he directed that twenty additional mechanized corps – requiring another 11,000 tanks – should be formed as quickly as possible. Even with the Stalingrad Tractor Plant (STZ) joining the Kharkov Plant (KhPZ) to produce T-34 tanks, it was unlikely that these twenty-eight mechanized corps could be fully-equipped before late 1943. Given these arbitrary changes in organization imposed by Stalin, the Red Army’s twenty-eight mechanized corps were only partly equipped and in a state of fatal disarray in June 1941.

The deployment and employment of the Red Army’s mechanized forces was based on three strategic assumptions made by Stalin and his General Staff. First, Stalin believed that there would be adequate early warning prior to any German aggression, giving Red Army units time to prepare and deploy for combat. Due to this assumption, Red Army leaders felt that they could defer measures to enhance combat readiness in favor of other organizational priorities. The second Soviet strategic assumption was that with adequate logistics, training and preparation, the Red Army could hold its own against the Wehrmacht. Tied to this assumption was an implicit belief that enemy incursions could be limited to the buffer zones in Poland and Lithuania acquired in 1939-40. The third Soviet strategic assumption was that industrial mobilization was the key to victory and that campaigns would be decided by the side that had the greater ability to sustain its forces in protracted operations, not by fancy maneuvers. Due to Stalin’s ineptitude, the first Soviet strategic assumption was invalidated and undermined the validity of the second assumption as well. The cost of Stalin’s strategic miscalculations was the loss of the bulk of the pre-war Soviet tank force in the first three months of the campaign. However, the third Soviet strategic assumption proved entirely correct and eventually provided the means for the second assumption to regain saliency by the second year of the war. In short, despite certain blindness to impending war, Stalin and the Soviet General Staff did a far better job laying the groundwork for protracted operations than the Germans, and this strategic calculus would provide the Red Army’s tank forces with a valuable counterweight to the tactical skill of German panzer units. The Soviet numerical superiority in tanks for much of the War in the East – much bemoaned by German veterans – was not some sleight of hand trick, but the result of careful pre-war planning.

Hitler deployed four panzer groups with a total of seventeen panzer divisions and 3,106 tanks for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. In addition, two independent panzer battalions, Pz. Abt. 40 and Pz. Abt. 211, were deployed in Finland with 124 tanks (incl. twenty Pz. III). The 2 and 5. PanzerDivisionen were refitting in Germany after the Greek Campaign in April 1941 and were in OKH reserve. Otherwise, the only other extant panzer units were the 15. Panzer-Division with Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel in Libya and two panzer brigades in France. No other panzer units were in the process of forming in Germany. Consequently, the OKH was committing virtually all of the available German panzer forces to Barbarossa, with negligible reserves and limited monthly production output to replace losses. In mid-1941, German industry was producing an average of 250 tanks per month, half of which were the Pz. III medium tank. Combat experience in France and Belgium in 1940 indicated that the Germans could expect to lose about one-third of their medium tanks even in a short six-week campaign, which Hitler regarded as acceptable losses. Furthermore, German industry had no tanks beyond the Pz. III or Pz. IV in advance development. The Heereswaffenamt (Army Weapons Office) only authorized Henschel and Porsche to begin working on prototypes for a new heavy tank four weeks before Operation Barbarossa began, and this program had no special priority until after the first encounters with the Soviet T-34 and KV-1 tanks in combat.

The primary operational objectives of the four German panzer groups were Leningrad in the north, Moscow in the center and Kiev and the Donbas region in the south. The distance from their starting positions to their operational objectives was 800km for Panzergruppe 4, 1,000km for Panzergruppe 2 and 3, and over 1,200km for Panzergruppe 1. Hitler expected these objectives to be reached within about ten weeks of the start of Barbarossa, an unprecedented rate of advance in modern military history. However, it was questionable whether German tanks could even move this far in this amount of time, even if much of the Red Army was destroyed on the border. As a general rule of thumb, about 5 per cent of tanks in a given unit will break down for mechanical reasons after a 100km road march, although most can be repaired within a few hours. Just three years before Barbarossa, nearly 30 per cent of the 2. Panzer-Division’s tanks broke down on the unopposed 670km road march to Vienna, along good roads. If the panzer divisions suffered a similar scale of combat losses as in the 1940 Western Campaign, no more than 10-20 per cent of the original panzers would be likely to reach their objectives.

Operation Barbarossa’s bold scheme of maneuver was undermined by very poor intelligence preparation by German intelligence services. In actuality, the OKH intelligence staff had a faulty understanding of the strength and dispositions of the Red Army. German signals intelligence had not detected the reformation of Soviet mechanized corps in July 1940 and believed that the Red Army’s armour was still deployed as independent tank and mechanized brigades. In early June 1941, Oberst Eberhard Kinzel, head of the OKH’s Fremde Heere Ost (Foreign Armies East), assessed that the Red Army would deploy forty-one mechanized brigades with about 9,500 tanks against the Wehrmacht. Kinzel’s shop produced a handbook on Soviet tanks for the panzer groups, which described the various models of the T-26, T-28, T-35 and BT-5/7 in detail. The handbook also included information about a new Soviet heavy tank equipped with 60mm-thick armour and 76.2mm main armament that had been used against the Finns in December 1939; this was the SMK prototype, which the Germans erroneously labeled as the T-35C. Although Kinzel was clearly aware that the Soviets had fielded a prototype heavy tank eighteen months prior to Barbarossa, he assessed that existing German anti-tank weapons could defeat it.

Prior to the German invasion, Stalin wanted to keep his strategic options open, to gain territory when possible, but to avoid being dragged into a fight before he felt the Red Army was ready. He wanted a sizeable portion of the newly-forming mechanized corps positioned near the western borders to deter German attack, but the rest would be deployed further back in reserve. In the event of invasion, the Red Army’s existing war plan directed that all available mechanized corps should be immediately committed to counterattack any German penetrations across the border. Unwittingly, this plan played into German hands, by forcing Soviet tank commanders to send unprepared units into battle piece-meal, directly into the face of on-coming German panzer schwerpunkt (main efforts). Indeed, the German panzer forces would be at their strongest in the border regions, where distance and logistics had not yet attenuated their combat power. However, the German planners in the OKH had no appreciation for the Soviet military philosophy of echeloned attack and defense, which meant that defeating the Red Army in a single campaign would prove far more difficult than the French Army in 1940. The entire essence of the so-called Blitzkrieg doctrine was in using concentrated armoured formations in short, powerful jabs to dislocate an enemy’s defense by isolating his best forces. A reasonable enemy was then expected to sue for peace due to the sudden setback. However, neither Stalin nor the Red Army had any incentive to be reasonable once it became clear that Hitler’s strategic objective was to exterminate them. By opting for a war of annihilation, Hitler made it impossible for the Wehrmacht to defeat the Red Army in a single campaign.

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