The Spanish Civil War to Poland: Panzer Doctrine

The Spanish Civil War appeared to consign much of this to that airy empire of dreams Heinrich Heine had described as the Germans’ true home. Its operations were characterized by the use of tanks both epi sodically and in small numbers. While occasionally as many as fifty or sixty might appear at one spot, fifteen or twenty was the usual norm on both sides. Rough terrain and poor roads limited movement. Poorly trained infantry eschewed the risks of staying close to tanks; the things drew fire. Not surprisingly, tanks proved disproportionately vulnerable to antitank guns—especially the light, handy 37mm types just coming into widespread use. When tanks did manage a local breakthrough, their next move usually involved turning around and fighting back to their own lines. Even the apostle of mobility, B. H. Liddell- Hart, concluded that the lessons of Spain were that the defense was presently dominant, and that few successes had been gained by maneuver alone. The French and Russian armies came institutionally to similar conclusions. So did most of the rest of Europe.

The widespread negative judgments on tanks may have reflected as well the image of the war, assiduously promulgated on the Left, as a struggle between Spain’s common people and its “establishment.” In that context the tank invited definition as a quintessential Fascist weapon. Songs and stories consistently described tanks and aircraft pitted against “guts and rifles,” with the latter combination ultimately triumphant. Within armies, even hard-shelled social and political conservatives might well take heart from this apparent reaffirmation that men, not machines, determine victory.

The Germans nevertheless continued on their pre-Spain course. It has been suggested that they did indeed react to the difficulties encountered by the Spanish and Italians in effectively employing armor. Instead of deciding the thing was impractical, however, they concluded that “of course these people can’t do it.” Robert M. Citino offers a more nuanced paradigm when he states that the Spanish Civil War was not a proving ground and “the Spaniards were not guinea pigs.” The Germans on the ground had neither the numbers of tanks, nor the tank technology, nor the degree of control to impose any of their ideas on the Nationalist high command in a systematic fashion. In contrast to the aircraft of the Condor Legion, the crews of the three dozen Panzer Is initially sent to Spain in October 1936 were restricted to training missions and observation—at least in principle. In fact, the tankers, whose strength eventually increased to three companies, regularly spent time at the front and were regularly rotated back to Germany. Their commander, a future general but then merely Major Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, personally led the Nationalist armored attack on Madrid in November 1936, and claimed to have participated in 192 tank engagements.

The men coming back from Spain were an invaluable conduit of lore from the sharp end to the grass roots of the panzer regiments. The wider results of their experience were summarized in a General Staff report of March 1939. The Nationalists, the document concluded, never used tanks in strengths larger than a company, and then only for infantry support. The corresponding restrictions on their movement made light tanks in particular vulnerable to even rudimentary antitank defenses. That, in turn, enhanced the need for gun-armed vehicles. Whenever possible, the Soviet tanks used by the Republicans were salvaged and welcomed for their high-velocity 45mm guns. And there was good reason for the German armored force’s emphasis on unit morale and individual moral fiber. The report mentioned that an initial enthusiasm for armored service among the Spaniards quickly evaporated when it became known what the inside of a burned-out tank looked like. By the end of 1938, rumor described captured Russian tanks as being crewed by pardoned criminals or men given a choice between prison and making a single attack in a tank.

This was hardly sufficient data to justify completely revamping the Wehrmacht’s approach to armored war. German professional literature regularly featured warnings against overemphasizing the Spanish experience. In more practical terms, the armor lobby was by now too firmly entrenched to be dislodged by internal means.

Higher-unit training in the peacetime panzer divisions continued to emphasize maneuvering and controlling tanks in large numbers. On June 1, 1938, the panzer divisions got their own manual, Richtlinien für die Führung der Panzerdivision. Emphasis on combined arms had not yet produced the closely integrated battle groups characteristic of the war’s later years. Instead the pattern was the panzer regiments leading and the motorized infantry acting in support, somewhat along the lines of the British armored divisions of 1943-44.

To a degree, that reflected the progress of training: Tank and motorized formations had to become comfortable in their own skins before they could begin to work in genuinely close harmony. But teething troubles notwithstanding, in the fall maneuvers of 1937, the 3rd Panzer Division put on an impressive show, breaking the enemy flank, successfully assaulting a bridgehead from the rear, then shifting again to disrupt logistics and headquarters systems—all in close cooperation with Luftwaffe elements.

Armored force theorists made a correspondingly forceful case for the concentration of the panzer divisions into a corps, and the concentration of that force at the operational Schwerpunkt, the vital spot, of the opening campaign. Heinz Guderian’s 1937 book Achtung—Panzer! is widely credited with structuring and popularizing that perspective. The book was in fact written on the recommendation of Lutz, who sought to make armored warfare’s case in a public context. It was derivative, a compilation of Guderian’s previous lectures and articles, but made up in conviction what it lacked in cohesion. Never lacking in an eye to the political sector, Guderian cited the Four-Year Plan, controlled by Hermann Göring, to support the argument that Germany would soon be able to produce enough synthetic fuel and artificial rubber to be freed from its current dependence on imports. He quoted Hitler’s affirmation of “the replacement of animal power by the motor [which] leads to the most tremendous technical and consequently economic change the world has ever experienced.”

Guderian’s concluding peroration that “only by providing the army with the most modern and effective armaments and equipment and intelligent leadership can peace be safeguarded” resonates ironically in the context of Hitler’s 1938 purging of the army high command and his subsequent reorganization of the armed forces’ command structure, culminating in his assumption of supreme command. The book, however, was widely discussed, and sold well enough to pay for Guderian’s first car—an amusing sidebar given his support for motorization.

Armored force doctrine and training placed increasing emphasis on ground-air cooperation. The long-standing myth that the Luftwaffe was essentially designed for close support of the land forces has been thoroughly demolished by, among others, James Corum and Williamson Murray. During World War I, the German air force had nevertheless paid significantly more specialized attention to ground support than its Allied counterparts. The Germans developed armored, radio-equipped infantry-contact machines for close reconnaissance. Used in twos, threes, and larger numbers, German Schlachtstaffeln (battle squadrons), each with a half dozen highly maneuverable two-seater Hannover or Halber stadt attack planes, proved devastatingly effective at shooting in attacks from the summer of 1917. In the later stages of the 1918 spring offensive, aircraft were used to parachute ammunition to frontline infantry. The experience of being on the receiving end of tank-infantry cooperation at the hands of the BEF in the war’s final months drove home the lesson: close air support was a good thing for an armored force.

During the Weimar years the Reichswehr worked closely with the civil aircraft industry and the civilian airlines to keep abreast of industrial and technological developments. Under the guidance of Hans von Seeckt, German officers developed intellectual and doctrinal frameworks for air war in general and air-ground cooperation in particular. As early as 1921, regulations stressed the importance of using attack aircraft in masses against front lines and immediate rear areas. Maneuvers used balloons to represent forbidden aircraft, and emphasized unit-level antiaircraft defense with machine guns and rifles in lieu of the banned specialized weapons. In Russia, from 1925 to 1933, the air school at Lipetsk successfully functioned as both a training base for pilots and a testing ground for aircraft.

The initiation of full-scale rearmament and the creation of the Luftwaffe as an independent service temporarily combined to take air and ground on separate paths in the mid-1930s. Luftwaffe theorists accepted using fighters for direct support of ground forces as a secondary mission, but emphasized the greater importance of interdiction behind—well behind, as a rule—the fighting front. That attitude began to change as reports from the Spanish Civil War highlighted not merely the potential but the ability of aircraft to have a decisive effect on ground operations—especially against troops poorly trained, demoralized, or even temporarily confused. Nationalist or Republican, it made no difference.

Luftwaffe officers were increasingly expected to know army tactics and doctrine; to participate directly in army exercises and maneuvers as air commanders; to instruct the army in the nature and missions of air power. At the focal point of the new relationship was the armored force. Luftwaffe doctrine insisted air support must be concentrated at decisive points, not dispersed across fronts and sectors. This concept meshed precisely with the panzer commanders’ emphasis on concentration, speed, and shock.

Implementation took three forms. One was the creation of specialized tactical reconnaissance squadrons assigned at corps and division levels, and the parallel development, from field army headquarters down to panzer divisions, of a system of air liaison officers to report ground-force situations to air officers commanding the supporting reconnaissance squadrons and the antiaircraft units.

The Luftwaffe’s second contribution was close support. As early as the 1937 maneuvers, an entire fighter group, 30 aircraft, was placed at the disposal of a single panzer division. The obsolescent Henschel Hs 123 biplane, a failure in its intended role as a dive-bomber, found a second identity as a ground-attack aircraft whose slow speed and high maneuverability made its strikes extremely accurate. The Junkers 87 Stuka dive-bombers, deployed in small numbers to Spain, manifested near pinpoint accuracy and had a demoralizing effect out of proportion with the actual damage inflicted. Given the right conditions, it seemed clear that a few Stukas could achieve better results than entire squadrons and groups of conventional bombers. Throughout 1938, Stukas and Henschels exercised with panzer formations in an increasing variety of tactical situations. In the air and on the ground, the same conclusion was being drawn: Close air support, especially in the precise forms normative for dive and attack planes, could become “flying artillery fire,” bringing the tanks onto initial objectives and keeping them moving not merely at tactical but perhaps operational levels as well.

No less significant was the Luftwaffe’s third contribution: the development of a maintenance and supply system mobile enough to keep pace with the armored columns and keep the relatively short-ranged close support aircraft in action even from improvised airfields. Turnaround time and sorties mounted are better tests of air-power effectiveness than simple numbers of planes. It would be a good few years before the panzer divisions would have to wonder where the Luftwaffe was. It would be striking just ahead of them.

Colonel Hans Jeschonnek was appointed Luftwaffe Chief of Staff in February 1939. A bomber officer with—limited—unit experience, he nevertheless recognized both the importance and the difficulty of integrating close air support to ground operations. He understood as well the desirability of keeping air assets under Luftwaffe control—not as easy as it might seem even with Göring as chief, given the army’s historically dominant position in Germany’s military system. Jeschonnek’s response was to organize a specialized ground-support force. In the summer of 1939 he began consolidating the Stuka groups into a Nahkampfdivision (close-combat division). Its commander was Wolfram von Richthofen, cousin of the Red Baron, who had extensive Spanish experience and was among the Luftwaffe’s leading dive-bomber enthusiasts. Eventually the division would expand into a full and famous corps. But with more than 300 first-line combat aircraft on strength in September 1939, it was already the world’s largest and most formidable ground-support air element.

The panzers experienced the differences between the most rigorous maneuvers and the least demanding field conditions in March 1938. That was the month when Hitler bullied the right-wing government of Austria into accepting Anschluss, or union, with the Third Reich—a more fundamental violation of the Versailles settlement than rearmament had been. He convinced the rest of Europe to accept it through the application of diplomatic smoke and mirrors. The 2nd Panzer Division was ordered to join the Wehrmacht forces assigned to occupy the Reich’s new province. The new mobile forces had deliberately been held back from earlier “flower occupations” of the Rhineland and the Saar. Now Guderian had two days’ notice to march his division from its garrison in Würzburg the 250 miles to the soon-to-be-former border, and then enter Vienna in presumed triumph.

The result was one of the most monumental compound fiascoes in the entire history of mechanized operations. Guderian, a master at presenting himself in the best possible light, could find nothing good to say about the inadequate planning, inadequate maintenance, and inadequate logistics that left broken-down tanks stranded on every major road out of Würzburg and constrained the survivors to refuel from obliging Austrian filling stations whose low-octane gas fouled engines so badly that many vehicles required major overhauls at the end of the march. Perhaps it was just as well that the division remained in Vienna once the garrison-shifting generated by the Anschluss was completed. In any case, Guderian stood at Hitler’s side when the Führer spoke in his hometown of Linz, and basked in his pleasure at the sight of the tanks the mechanics were able to keep going.

Hitler’s instructions of May 1938 for the Wehrmacht to prepare for an invasion of Czechoslovakia escalated the prospects of a general war Germany had little chance of winning. Ludwig Beck resigned as Chief of the General Staff in August. His successor, Franz Halder, inherited the outlines of a generals’ plot to seize Hitler’s person as soon as he issued orders for an invasion of Czechoslovakia. Some senior army officers, including Beck, had grown sufficiently dubious about the risks of Hitler’s freewheeling foreign policy in the context of Germany’s still-incom plete rearmament that they had developed plans for a “housecleaning.” These plans involved eliminating Nazi Party radicals, restoring traditional “Prussian” standards in justice and administration, and putting Hitler firmly under the thumb of the military leadership. Should that last prove impossible and the Führer suffer a fatal accident—well, no plan survives application, and the state funeral would be spectacular.

Whether anything would have come of it remains a subject of speculation. The agreements secured from Britain and France at the Munich Conference of September 1938 left Czechoslovakia twisting in the wind, and hung any potential military conspirators out to dry. Czechoslovakia’s western provinces, the Sudetenland, were ceded to the Reich without a shot fired. Those who had urged caution on the Führer were correspondingly discredited.

These events had less direct impact on the armored force than might have been expected. On an operational level, the main problem was seen as breaking through formidable Czech border defenses—a task for infantry, artillery, and aerial bombardment that brought more conventional generals to the fore of planning. Internal attention was further diverted by a major reorganization. In addition to forming the corps headquarters authorized for the light and motorized divisions, the former Mobile Combat Troops Command became XVI Corps, with the three panzer divisions under its direct command. Three new divisions were added to the order of battle. The 4th Panzer Division formed at Würzburg to replace the 2nd. The 4th Light Division was built around elements of the former Austrian army’s Mobile Division in Vienna. And in November, the 5th Panzer Division was organized at Oppeln, in Silesia, with many of its recruits coming from the newly annexed Sudetenland.

A number of the tank battalions already existed as separate formations, part of Beck’s program for providing direct support to infantry divisions. The restructuring nevertheless meant more rounds of reas signments and promotions. The three mobile corps were assigned to a new army-level command created in 1937: Group 4, under Walther von Brauchitsch—the stepping-stone to his appointment as commander in chief of the army a few months later. Lutz briefly commanded XVI Corps, then was put on the retired list in 1938. This has been described as a forced retirement, a response at higher levels reflecting criticism of the way the armored force seemed to be developing as an army within the army.

This argument is supported by Brauchitsch’s character and branch of service. He was an artilleryman, and while a solid professional, was neither a forceful personality like Guderian nor a smooth operator in the pattern of Lutz. Lutz’s removal from the scene, however, can also be interpreted in wider contexts, as part of a housecleaning of senior ranks reflecting both Hitler’s desire for more malleable generals and the High Command’s belief in the need for fresh blood.1 Lutz was one of those who had openly questioned the Führer’s policies as excessively risky. Lutz was also sixty-two, the same age as Gerd von Rundstedt, also retired in 1938—arguably a bit over the line for field command in the kind of war he had done so much to create. Lutz was unlikely to step down of his own accord, though allowing him to learn of his new status from a newspaper article was unmistakably déclassé.

The appointment of Guderian as Lutz’s successor in command of XVI Corps also suggests that Lutz was not singled out for removal on either political or professional grounds. The German army, like its counterparts before and since, had an ample number of sidetracks for officers identified with mentors who made career-ending slips. But in 1938 the Inspectorate of Motorized Combat Troops and the Inspection for Army Motorization were combined into a single agency with the mouth-filling title of Inspection Department 6 for Armored Troops, Cavalry, and Army Motorization (In6). Its focus was to be on nuts and bolts: training, organization, technology. At the same time, an Inspectorate of Mobile Troops was established to develop doctrine and tactics, supervise the schools, and advise both the army high command and In6 on the operational aspects of mobile war. The post was offered to Heinz Guderian.

The appointment had a back story. The new Inspectorate seems to have been Brauchitsch’s idea. Hitler approved. Guderian initially turned down the post on the grounds that it lacked any real authority; he could only make recommendations. When Hitler informed him that his advisory responsibility meant that, if necessary, he could report directly to the Führer in his capacity as Commander in Chief of the Wehrmacht, Guderian changed his mind. A promotion to General der Panzertruppen (Lieutenant-General) further sweetened the deal.

This account has been challenged by Guderian’s friend, General Hermann Balck. Balck describes a cabal involving Brauchitsch and the General Staff to kick Guderian upstairs, or at least sideways, in order to minimize the effect of what was considered his “tunnel vision” on the subject of army motorization. Some support for that unverifiable hypothesis is offered by Guderian’s initial assignment in the new mobilization scheme: command of a second-line infantry corps in the western theater. In 1940, Erich von Manstein would receive a similar assignment for the same reasons: as an obvious slap on the wrist, and as a warning against excessively close contact with the Führer. In Guderian’s case, however, that contact was a bit too valuable to waste, given the growing indications that one of the Third Reich’s alleged “two pillars” was significantly overtopping the other.

At least that seems to have been the opinion of Brauchitsch’s successor as commander of Group 4. Walther von Reichenau stood out among the army’s generals as an admirer of Hitler, and assiduously cultivated his own back channels to the Führer. He was unlikely to seek to choke off Guderian, especially since the two men were much alike in aggressive temperament and blinkered vision.

Guderian’s driving energy was immediately put to use. Lutz was no weakling, but his chief talents had been as a negotiator and a facilitator. The panzer divisions suffered from constant teething troubles, expected and unexpected. The senior formations were still very much works in progress. In a 1938 exercise, the staff of the 1st Panzer Division created a foul-up beyond the generous tolerance for maneuver mistakes. Perhaps energized by Hitler’s presence, Guderian not only blasted the regiment’s officers but ordered some punitive transfers “to encourage the rest.” Guderian also struggled mightily with the cavalry in an effort to wean them away from a historic commitment to screening and reconnaissance. On the technical side, Guderian iterated and reiterated the importance of radio communication—increasingly with aircraft as well as vehicles. Though initially unable to provide every tank with a transmitter, he did make sure each had a receiver.

With the occupation of the rump Czech state in March 1939, Guderian and the armored force simultaneously acquired a windfall and a problem. The windfall reflected Bohemia’s history as a center of arms design and manufacture under Habsburg rule. The Czechoslovak government cultivated that heritage, and in the 1930s produced two state-of-the-art designs. The TNHP 35 weighed a little more than 10 tons with 35mm of armor on the front and 16mm on the sides. It could do 25 miles per hour on roads, was high-maintenance but easy to operate, and, best of all, carried a high-velocity 37mm gun. The TNHP 38 was even better. At 10 tons with 25mm of frontal armor, it was more maneuverable than the 35, carried the same 37mm gun, and on the whole was roughly equal to the Panzer III, which was still backed up on German production lines.

The Germans’ initial problem was adapting their new tanks to Wehrmacht requirements. The armored force took over about 200 of what were rechristened the 35(t), for Tsechoslowakei, and began the extensive modifications necessary, particularly in radio equipment, to make them suitable for German service. The 38(t) was just coming into production when the Germans marched in and began testing the design. In May 1939 the Weapons Office contracted with the Czech factory to manufacture 150 of them. They were the first of a long line of 38(t)s that would serve throughout the war in a variety of roles. None, however, would be ready for service by September 1, 1939.

On the organizational side, on November 24, 1938, von Brauchitsch issued a sweeping directive for the development of the army’s motorized forces. It projected a final goal of nine panzer divisions, to be met by converting the four light divisions in the fall of 1939. Each army corps would have a motorcycle battalion; each field army would receive a number of motorized reconnaissance battalions. Independent armored brigades were projected as well, to support conventional infantry divisions or cooperate with motorized ones—the latter a possible foreshadowing of the panzer grenadier divisions. Finally, a number of independent companies equipped with “the heaviest kind of tanks” would support infantry attacks against fortifications.

On April 1, 1939, the General Staff ordered the creation of four new panzer divisions—effective, ironically, on September 19. In practice, that meant raising and training the tank units and supporting formations necessary to upgrade the light divisions. At the same time, the armored force was allocating the revamped Czech tanks and the Panzer IIIs and IVs also beginning to enter service. As if that was not enough, the panzers were increasingly drafted for display purposes; parades in Berlin and other German cities were designed to impress not only foreign observers but a German population that cheered Hitler’s bloodless victories and yet retained a vivid collective memory of World War I.

Whatever the tanks may have provided in terms of intimidation and reassurance, Guderian and his generals were less than pleased at the waste of time and energy. The fall maneuvers, however, were expected to compensate. For the first time the armored force was to take the field in strength: XVI Corps would control three panzer divisions, the 4th Light Division, and a motorized division. Deploying that force would require implementing the first stages of mobilization for the units involved. To test the concept of the air-ground combat team on a similar scale, the Luftwaffe would provide its new tactical support force. The exercises were never held. Instead, on September 1, 1939, the panzers went to war for real.

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