Although primarily a history of multiple failures, the German heavy fighting vehicles of World War II provided a multitude of challenges within the engineering problems of tank design and manufacture, and several technological exploits resulted from the experience of bringing them to the final stages. In most cases, however, the sheer size, scope and weight of these vehicles generally exceeded the available technologies and manufacturing capabilities.
These setbacks proved no specific undoing for the armies concerned despite the sheer waste of materials one might consider they involved. The numbers attempted remained very small. Above all, the tactical and operational considerations that brought them into development were proven false or obsolete by the time they could have entered service. Fortifications of all kinds and power were encountered and overcome in World War II without the use of specialized armored vehicles. The accomplishment of tactical and operational breakthrough on the modern battlefield came to depend more on numbers, mobility, and logistical sustainment than the application of superior guns and armor at a single point. The minor experiences of German operations with their Jagdtiger tank destroyers pointed out that when not employed in substantial numbers, even super-heavy fighting vehicles were soon overwhelmed and swept aside in the Allied advances.
Above all, the logistical handicaps of the heavies presaged their doom. The operational constraints posed by at least partial disassembly for rail transport, the limitations of bridging and fording means, and the ever-existent possibility of miring in swamps or even city streets that their high length-to-width steering profiles could carve up all made for extraordinary difficulties. Left to their own automotive power for deployment, they could not hold up for long under constant stressing of barely tested components.
As is well known, the invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany in 1941 was intended to be yet another brief campaign in a striking series of victories accomplished by German arms since 1939. The German position that summer was unprecedented, especially given the faulty economic and financial preparations of the Third Reich in the years through 1939. Contrary to the usual view of Nazi efficiency preparing for war with a sustained period of production and investment that yielded the successes later dubbed Blitzkrieg by the foreign press, the pace of German rearmament staggered during 1937–1938. In particular, the steel (and later, copper) rationing required for the three armed services stagnated production of armaments. On the day of the Munich Settlement, the new German priority became the preparation for war with the United Kingdom, plus France, with presumed American support, all targeted for 1942. Yet the 1936 armaments programs for the German Army at that point would require about a fourth of German steel production in 1939 for completion. The new goals for the three services would require three times the 1938 production in the following year.
By the spring of 1939, the Army procurement plan lapsed into full retreat. Ammunition production plummeted, building steel was unavailable for 300 new infantry battalions that lived under canvas, and weapons programs experienced severe cuts; machine gun and field artillery orders fell by at least half and those for the current infantry rifle were ordered to stop by the fall of 1939. The tank production originally programmed for 1,200 medium tanks between October 1938 and October 1939 was halved. At least thirty-four of the planned wartime force of 105 divisions would suffer serious shortages of equipment. Ammunition for all would stall at a quantity sufficient for only fourteen days heavy fighting. The circumstances for the other services remained just as poor.
Accordingly, Hitler grasped the only straw he could, an early launch of the war he had forecast for 1944, then 1942. As he stated to his military leaders at Berchtesgaden on August 22, 1939, “we have nothing to lose; we have everything to gain. Because of our restrictions our economic situation is such that we can only hold out for a few more years. We must act.” Hitler and Germany had run out of time.
The victories came in surprising sequence and ease, especially the fall of France. However, the ability of the German economy to sustain the war effort remained circumspect. It was, for instance, impossible to calculate the requirements for each and every campaign in advance. In the case of the Russian campaign, it had to be supplied while at the same time, Germany and Italy engaged the United Kingdom on several fronts. For the first time, therefore, the economic priorities in 1941 were hitched to the Blitzkrieg concept of short but hard-fought operations, leading to a rapid conclusion on the battlefield. Accordingly, the armaments plan “Rüstungsprogramm ‘B’” would dictate the armaments output for the eight months of October 1940–April 1941 in order to increase the strength of the German Army and its firepower sufficient for the rapid defeat of the Soviet Army and another victory. Before Russia was invaded, it was presumed that the surge of production, materials and labor could be shunted to the navy and air force for the final priority of the United Kingdom.
The emphasis on tank production remained the new model medium tanks with which the German Army had defeated France, not the various projects for heavy tanks that had not been required in the war thus far; they were also not forecast as being required for the Blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union. These conditions explain to a considerable extent the rather dilatory pace at which the 1939–1941 heavy tank designs had progressed.
The misfortunes of the German Army in Russia mostly fall beyond the scope of this work; however, the defeat of the 1941 Blitzkrieg campaign in Russia had reverberations throughout the structures and programs of the Third Reich, not least of which was the management of the war economy and the German industrial sectors. Not only had the German invasion foundered instead of producing a quick victory, but also that same setback coincided with perhaps a greater danger, the entry of the United States into the war, thanks to Hitler’s declaration of hostilities on December 11, just after the Battle of Moscow had turned badly against his Army. Although Hitler knew that the United States could not effect immediate changes to the Allied situation, the possibility of a long-term war had just received new impetus. For the war industry, ammunition would now become the dominant production category, accounting for half of Minister Speer’s so-called initial “miracle.” By mid-1943, ammunition accounted for half the Army’s steel quota, compared to 15 percent each allocated to weapons and tanks.
The German capacity to continue all parts of the war economy, yet introduce new weapons with an especial urgency easily waned under the conditions of 1942. The German heavy fighting vehicle programs reflected this markedly. Their specialized designs required considerable engineering feats that differed from the continued production of current model medium tanks already entering obsolescence. The rush to produce the heavy tanks and tank destroyers consumed larger amounts of scarce raw materials and also resulted in specific dead ends with commensurate waste. However, to a certain extent, Hitler was correct in calling for the development of superior fighting vehicles to be fielded that would somehow offset the looming gap in numbers German forces faced in fighting the three major Allied powers on the ground. Unable to match the Allies in numbers of weapons and men, superiority would have to be sought in the quality of weapons that would prove decisive on the battlefields of Europe, Asia, and Africa.
The PzKpfw Maus (Mouse) super-heavy tank. A wildly impractical design, it was more suited as a mobile fort (no river bridge existing at the time could take its weight). Produced only as a prototype, the Maus owed its development to Adolf Hitler’s love of the grandiose; he ordered it from Porsche in 1942. Weighing some 188 tons, the Maus was quite simply the heaviest tank in history. It had a 200mm armored carapace over the front hull and mounted a 128mm (5-inch) main gun as well as a coaxial 75mm gun and one 7.62mm machine gun. The intention was that the production version would mount a 160mm (5.9-inch) or even 170mm (6.7-inch) main gun. Although 150 of these monsters were ordered in 1943, the Maus program was plagued by problems, not the least of which was developing an engine capable of moving the immense weight. Only two prototypes were ever produced, one of which survives in a museum near Moscow.
However, such quality weapons could be manufactured, though their impact would still depend upon sufficient numbers being produced along with proper logistical support to keep them in action long enough to gain success on the battlefields where they fought. These factors too would elude the Third Reich in World War II. With only a few factories capable of producing precision forgings and assembling them in rapid sequence, the numbers produced far lagged requirements. The damage inflicted on German industry by Anglo-American strategic bombing exacerbated these shortfalls beginning in mid-1943. Furthermore, the losses sustained in action by these dominant armored vehicles, too often engaged in insufficient numbers to carry the battle, prevented the accumulation of a larger dominant tank force. If a month’s production of fighting vehicles were lost in three to four months time, little growth and operational impact occurred. By 1943, the Germans were faced with superior numbers of all types on three strategic fronts. A mere fourteen battalions of heavy tanks and two more of heavy tank destroyers were not likely going to turn the tide unless they could somehow be concentrated. Such was never achieved. In the meantime, two German field armies had surrendered in the field by May 1943.
On the operational level, the heavy fighting vehicles could inflict serious blows upon their opponents. Their weaknesses in automotive range and mechanical endurance worked against them, and the requirements for a day of maintenance for every three of operations were seldom permitted in the huge battles that raged on the Russian steppes and in the Norman countryside. In terms of logistic support, a superior fighting vehicle could prove effective in battle only as long as its components held up to battle damage of all sorts inflicted by enemy troops, tanks, minefields, and artillery. In this aspect, the critical failure of German logistical support proved consistently decisive. Despite the heralded accomplishments of the maintenance workshops and personnel, the lack of sufficient spare parts and components quickly reduced the numbers of operating vehicles of a company or battalion to a mere shadow of the same in just a few days. German manufacturers preferred that battle-damaged tanks be retrograded to Germany for rebuild rather than spreading spares over the various armies in the field. Spare parts to them represented reduced production of new vehicles. However, for most of the war the fronts remained distant from the factories and German transportation difficulties increased throughout the war.
The shortages of fuel inevitably dogged the heavy fighting vehicles, especially when they had to perform road marches to enter the battles for which they were assigned. The very notion that Tiger tanks might have been assigned to Rommel’s commands in Africa with such a short radius of action and poor mechanical reliability simply boggles the mind. Under persistent fuel shortages, the quality of spare engines sent to the fronts began to decline as well, as regulations prevented new engines being run-in because static test machines were considered a proper economy.
In the end, the gun-armor race may have sidetracked critical mobility concerns of the commanders and troops in the field. Speer’s November 1944 report from a trip to Italy (November 19–25) showed that the troops were willing to give up armor and weight in order to gain maneuverability and mobility:
On the Southwest Front, opinions are in favor of the Sherman tank and its cross-country ability. The Sherman tank climbs mountains that our Panzer crews consider impassable. This is accomplished by the especially powerful engine in the Sherman in comparison to its weight. Also, according to reports from the 26th Panzer Division, the terrain-crossing ability on level ground (in the Po valley) is completely superior to our Panzers. The Sherman tanks drive freely cross-country, while our Panzers must remain on trails and narrow roads and therefore are very restricted in their ability to fight.
All Panzer crews want to receive lighter Panzers, which are more maneuverable, possess increased ability to cross terrain, and guarantee the necessary combat power just with a superior gun. This desire by the troops corresponds with conditions that will develop in the future as a result of the drop in production capacity and of the fact that, because of a shortage of chrome, sufficient armor plate can’t be produced to meet the increased production plans. Therefore, either the number of Panzers produced must be reduced or it will be necessary to reduce the thickness of the armor plate. In that case, the troops will unequivocally ask for a reduction of the armor thickness in order to increase the total number of Panzers produced.6
In the end, the nature of World War II suggests that numbers did count, provided some minimum level of quality could be delivered.
Experimentation by most major armies in the immediate aftermath of World War I confirmed the tank as a supporting arm for the infantry and the armored car remained useful for colonial security and the support of cavalry operations. However, the armies overcame limitations of the early vehicles thanks to a series of technical improvements in engines, suspension systems, and drive trains elaborated mostly in the 1930s. Advances in the civilian automotive and aircraft industries proved essential and military engineers provided key applications and adaptations for a new generation of armored fighting vehicles.
Visionaries in France, Great Britain, and Germany provided key theories of a future operational doctrine before any improved vehicles reached the drawing board. Although many people conceived of armored warfare as a translated sea battle with landships dueling for battlefield supremacy, a better doctrine emphasizing combined arms began to emerge in the late 1930s. Fire and movement became effective tactics and large-scale maneuvers an operational doctrine with a balanced force of all arms, mechanized, or motorized to permit continuous movement and mounted combat. In addition to fielding tank units and mechanizing the traditional arms of infantry, artillery (field, anti-aircraft, and anti-tank), cavalry, engineers, and services, the incorporation of modern communications into the new armored formations became a key element. Armored commanders needed effective voice radios and message services to send and receive intelligence, request air and artillery support, report their situation, and give their subordinates new maneuvers and missions as the fluid situations of mounted combat occurred. The extent to which these vital communications functions took root in various national armies determined their success at the outset. French and British armor remained hopelessly outmaneuvered in 1940 by the German Panzer units, which extended radio communications down to the individual tank and reconnaissance vehicle. In 1941, it became the turn of the Red Army’s tank forces to face the same contrast, with their radio issue initially extending only down to company commanders. The Russians had also made a temporary error of abandoning the combined arms force and returning the tank units to the piecemeal support of infantry formations.
In the end, all the major armies fighting World War II in Europe adopted the best features of the Panzer Division and the qualitative edge of the German forces disappeared at the same time that the experience and organization of their opponents improved. No longer able to knock out a major opponent in a single campaign after 1940, the fate of the Third Reich was sealed, despite any array of miracle weapons it attempted to field.