The Panzer Divisions

somme-1940_1

somme-1940

The military historian Matthew Cooper described the German Panzer arm of service as: ‘a failure. A glorious failure … but a failure nonetheless … The significance of this failure was immense. The Panzer Divisions, the prime offensive weapon, had become indispensable … in both tactical and strategic terms … Upon the fortunes of the armoured force was based the fate of the whole army …’. ‘He concluded that the fault for the demise of the Panzer arm lay in the hands of Hitler and the Army commanders, ‘who failed to grasp the full implications of this new, revolutionary doctrine and consistently misused the force upon which their fortunes had come to depend’. Another reason was the neglect of equipment and organizational requirements, which stunted the Panzer arm’s potential in the field.

Hitler was impressed by armour operating in conjunction with other arms. In 1933, after witnessing a demonstration of mobile troops, he had been very enthusiastic, although armoured theory and practice were not new in the Germany Army. Indeed, it would be true to say that Germany’s armoured force was born on the steppes of Russia during the 1920s. Among other prohibitions, the conditions of the Versailles Treaty forbade the German Army from having armoured fighting vehicles. To circumvent this restriction, the governments of republican Germany and the Soviet Union entered into a conspiracy: the Soviet Union would grant a vast area of land upon which the German military commanders could practice manoeuvres, while in another part of that territory, factories would be set up to construct the armoured fighting vehicles which German experts had designed and which the German commanders needed for their manoeuvres. A great number of German senior commanders and armour theorists went to Kasan in the Soviet Union and developed the skills required in handling armour in the mass and in conducting exercises using aircraft. Between them, the Army and Luftwaffe commanders evolved and developed the concept of Blitzkrieg.

This collaboration between Germany and Russia lasted until 1935, when the Nazi government withdrew the Panzer and Luftwaffe detachments from Soviet territory. Thereafter, it was on German soil that tank design and construction was carried out. The first types of Panzer had been given the cover name ‘agricultural tractors’, to hoodwink the officers of the Armistice Commission, and because that name fitted In with conventional German military thinking that armoured vehicles would be used principally to bring supplies forward across the broken and difficult terrain of the battlefield. This negative attitude towards the strategic employment of armour as a separate arm of service was common to many generals of the high command: one even went so far as to say: ‘The idea of Panzer divisions is Utopian.’ But the protagonists advanced their ideas, and a Mechanized Troops Inspectorate was set up in June 1934. Hitler’s repudiation of the Treaty of Versailles brought the expansion of the German Army, and with it the beginning of an armoured force. As early as July 1935, an ad hoc Panzer division successfully carried out a training exercise which demonstrated that the movement and more particularly, the control – of major Panzer units was practicable. Even further than that, a general staff exercise had studied the employment of a whole Panzer corps in action. The year 1935 also saw the birth of a new arm of service when the Armoured Troops Command was created, which was followed by the raising of the first three Panzer divisions. The Armoured Troops Command had, as yet, no real authority, for armour was not considered to be an equal partner with the infantry, cavalry and artillery arms.

General Guderian was given the post of Chief of Mobile Troops, and took over the development and training of the entire mechanized force of the Army. As a consequence, he had direct access to Hitler. During 1938, two more Panzer divisions were created, as well as a command structure which allowed the Panzer arm – in theory, at least – to be one of the partners in the Field Army.

It was one thing to be accepted as a partner, it was another to be equipped for that role. The Panzers which the armoured divisions needed were issued to non-Panzer units, and another hindrance was that tank quality was poor. The majority of machines in the armoured force were Panzer I and II types, which were not only obsolete, but were under-gunned and under-armoured. A third negative factor was the raising of three light (mobile) divisions in November 1938. These, together with a fourth division, were created instead of Panzer divisions.

It was not until 1940 that the OKW placed all German armour within the framework of its Panzer divisions. This favourable situation was of brief duration, for by the middle years of the war one-fifth of the AFV strengths still remained outside a divisional framework. One final factor was that the German leadership neglected to plan for new types of replacement tanks. Apart from the existing III and IV types, no preparation was made to produce adequate stocks of tanks or other armoured vehicles or any new marks of Panzer. It was not until 1943 that top priority was given to AFV production. Total production of Panzers in the second month of the war, September 1939, was only fifty-seven machines. Clearly, there was a need for improvement.

German superiority in the matter of Panzer operations during the war owed nothing to the number or quality of the machines it fielded, but was rather the product of superior organizations and training. The campaign in Poland did not see the Panzer force being used in the way that Guderian and the other theorists had planned. It was, instead, the speed with which the whole German Army moved – not just that of the Panzer divisions – which brought victory. For the Polish campaign, the German Army had fielded 2,100 tanks, and lost 218 of them. More serious than the 10 per cent battle loss was the high rate of mechanical failure, which kept 25 per cent of the machines out of action at anyone time. There had been no improvement by 1940, when the war in the west opened. For that campaign, out of a total of 2,574 machines, fewer than 627 were of the heavier Panzer III and Panzer IV types, and 1,613 were the obsolete Panzer I and II. Nevertheless, as Guderian recorded, the Panzer force fought its battle more or less without interference from the OKW, and as a result, achieved dramatic successes.

One of the few examples of Hitler’s direct interference was when he halted the Panzer divisions outside Dunkirk, an act which allowed Britain to withdraw the bulk of its Army. As a result of the experiences gained through the victory in the west, it became clear that the Panzer arm of service would soon rise to become a partner equal to the infantry. Hitler was determined to invade the Soviet Union, but needed to increase the number of Panzer divisions. To achieve that growth, he could have decided to increase the output of German tank factories. Instead, he deluded himself that numbers equalled strength, and raised the number of armoured divisions from 10 to 21 by the simple expedient of halving the AFV strength of each division. Thus, each division was made up of a single tank regiment numbering 150-200 machines. Hitler was convinced that a Panzer division fielding a single armoured regiment had the striking power of a division which fielded two regiments. It was a fatal mistake, particularly since Panzer production in the first six months of 1941 averaged only 212 vehicles per month. The total number of machines available for the new war against Russia was 5,262, of which only 4,198 were held to be ‘front-line’ Panzers, and of that total, only 1,404 were the better-armed Panzer III and IV. Those vehicles, good as they were, were soon to be confronted by the Red Army’s superior T 34s and KV Is. Although inferior in every respect, the Panzer llls and IVs were forced to remain in front-line service until the Panzer V (Panther) and the Panzer VI (Tiger) types could be rushed into service. An example of the blindness of the general staff towards armour requirements was shown by General Halder, who seemed to be satisfied that 431 new Panzers would be produced by the end of July 1941, although this was less than half the number of machines lost during that period. Throughout the war, replacements never equalled the losses suffered.

To summarize: German industry was not equipped for the mass production of AFVs, and the ones which were produced for the Army were inferior to those of its opponents – certainly until the Panther and the Tiger came into service. Although the Panzer arm fought valiantly to the end, from 1943 it was firmly on the defensive, except for a few isolated offensives. The greatest mistake was that the supreme commander, Hitler, would accept no limitations upon his strategic plans, and sent major armoured formations across vast areas of country without consideration for the strain upon crews or machines and the drain upon the petrol resources of the Reich, and then committed those tired crews and worn-out vehicles to battle against unequal odds. Because of those and many other factors, Matthew Cooper must be seen as correct in his verdict that the Panzer arm was a failure.

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Organisation

The Panzer divisions of the German Army were eventually numbered 1-27, 116, 232 and 233. The establishment also contained named Panzer divisions, as well as light divisions, which were later upgraded to Panzer status. When general mobilization was ordered, the Army had five Panzer and four light divisions on establishment.

The infantry component of the 1st Panzer Division was Schützen Regiment No.1, made up of two battalions, each of five companies; the 2nd Panzer Division incorporated the 2nd Schützen Regiment, with two battalions, each of five companies; the 3rd Panzer Division had the 3rd Schützen Regiment, also with two battalions, each of five companies; the 4th Panzer Division’s infantry component was the 12th Schützen Regiment, with two battalions, each of four companies; and the 5th Panzer Division had the 13th Schützen Regiment, with two battalions, each of four companies.

The organization of the light divisions was not standard. The 1st Light Division had Cavalry Schützen Regiment No.4, which was reorganized into a motorized infantry brigade, with a single infantry regiment, a recce battalion and a tank regiment. The 2nd Light Division had Cavalry Schützen Regiments Nos 6 and 7, formed into two motorized infantry regiments, a recce regiment and a battalion of tanks; the infantry regiments were made up of two battalions, each of which fielded four squadrons. The 3rd Light Division had Cavalry Schützen Regiment No. 8 on establishment, formed into a motorized infantry regiment of two battalions, each fielding two squadrons; the divisional establishment was completed with a motorcycle battalion and a Panzer battalion. The 4th Light Division fielded Cavalry Schützen Regiments Nos 10 and 11, forming two motorized infantry regiments and a Panzer battalion; each of the motorized regiments was composed of two battalions, both of these fielding four squadrons.

In the months between the end of the Polish campaign and the opening of the war in the west, the four light divisions were upgraded to Panzer division status, and were numbered 6-9. Three motorized infantry regiments were taken to create the 10th Panzer Division. Other infantry regiments were used to increase the strength of the first three Schützen regiments to three battalions, as well as helping to create the 11th Schützen Regiment.

The number of Panzer divisions on establishment was increased from 10 to 20 during the autumn of 1940, and that number was further increased during 1941, with the 21st Panzer Division being raised for service in Africa. During the winter of 1941/2, Panzer divisions Nos 22, 23 and 24 were raised. The 24th was created by conversion of the 1st Cavalry Division, whose mounted regiments were renamed and renumbered Schützen Regiments Nos 21 and 26.

On 5 July 1942, the Schützen regiments of Panzer divisions were renamed Panzergrenadier regiments, and there was a change in organization, with the disbandment of the machine gun company which had been on the strength of each battalion. Panzer Divisions Nos 25, 26 and 27 were formed during 1942. Ten divisions were destroyed on the Eastern Front and in Africa, the 14th, 16th and 24th were lost at Stalingrad, while the 22nd and 27th suffered such severe losses that they had to be broken up. The 14th, 16th and 24th Divisions were then re-raised in France. In Tunisia, the 10th, 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions were lost, as were the 90th Light Division and the 164th and 999th Light Africa Divisions. The 15th and 90th Light were re-raised as Panzergrenadier divisions. The 21st Panzer was also re-raised in its former role. Neither the 164th Light nor the 999th Light were re-formed.

Most of the Panzer divisions on establishment were reorganized along the lines of a ‘Panzer Division 1943 Pattern’. In this, the first battalion of each division became armoured Panzergrenadiers, able to fight from their armoured vehicles. The first three companies of the battalion had a war establishment of 4 heavy and 39 light machine guns, 2 medium mortars, and 7.5 cm and 3.7 cm guns. No.4 Company had three heavy PAK, 2 light infantry guns, six 7.5 cm and 21 machine guns.

The first, second and third companies of the battalions in the new-pattern division each had 4 heavy machine guns, 18 light machines guns and 2 medium mortars. No.4 Company had 4 heavy mortars, 3 heavy PAK and 3 machine guns. No.9 – the infantry gun company – had 6 guns mounted on tracks. No. 10 Company was the pioneer company, and was equipped with 12 machine guns and 18 flame-throwers. During 1943/4, the 18th Panzer Division was broken up, and units were taken from it to create the 18th Artillery Division. During this period the ‘Panzer Lehr’ Division was raised, and three reserve Panzer divisions were used to create the 9th, 11th and 116th Panzer Divisions. The military disasters of the summer of 1944 brought about the creation of Panzer Brigades 101-113, which were used to reinforce Panzer or Panzergrenadier divisions which had suffered heavy losses.

During the autumn of 1944, the Army followed the pattern of the SS in combining two Panzer divisions into a permanent corps structure. Until that time, Army Panzer Corps HQs had been administrative units, to which divisions had been allocated as required. Army Panzer corps were then created, and ‘Grossdeutschland’, ‘Feldherrenhalle’ and XXIV Panzer Corps were created. The first named contained the ‘Grossdeutschland’ Panzergrenadier Division, the Panzergrenadier Division ‘Brandenburg’ and the ‘Grossdeutschland’ Musketier Regiment. The ‘Feldherrenhalle’ Corps had 1st and 2nd Divisions of that name, and the XXIV Panzer Corps contained the 16th and 17th Panzer Divisions, as well as the 29th Panzer Fusilier Regiment.

The final reorganization of the Panzer arm of service saw the creation of the ‘Panzer Division 1945’. This was an internal rearrangement which created and fielded a Panzer battle group because there was insufficient fuel to move all the Panzer vehicles, and only the machine gun company and the heavy weapons company were mobile.

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