The outbreak of the Second World War on September 1, 1939 brought into immediate action a large number of tanks, as all six regular and one provisional panzer divisions as well as four light divisions took part in the German invasion of Poland. Between them these 11 formations had 2,682 tanks1 out of the 2,980, excluding command tanks, which the German Army had at the time.
While almost all the available tanks were concentrated in the armoured formations, the panzer divisions were distributed among corps consisting primarily of infantry divisions. Nevertheless, they spearheaded the rapid thrusts that resulted in the envelopment and destruction of the strategically exposed and inadequately armed Polish forces in less than four weeks. The speed with which the campaign was conducted led to it being called blitzkrieg, or lightning war. This name has since come into widespread use to describe a particular kind of warfare, although it was not a German military term but merely a catchword which the Western press picked up and started using even before the fighting died down.
The cost of the campaign to the German armoured forces was the loss of 231 tanks. Most of them were PzKpfw Is and IIs, but even PzKpfw IIIs proved vulnerable to Polish 7.92mm anti-tank rifles as well as Polish-made 37mm Bofors anti-tank guns. Not surprisingly, PzKpfw IV was singled out by Guderian as a highly effective weapon that should be produced in quantity. On the other hand, commanders of PzKpfw II complained about the inadequate vision provided by the single although rotatable Zeiss periscope with which their model and many other tanks were fitted at the time. As a result PzKpfw IIs were provided with a ring of eight fixed periscopes around the commander’s hatch, which set a new standard in all-round vision from within tanks.
German tanks encountered little opposition from Polish tanks as there were few of them and the tanks that were available were not very effectively employed. The largest units were three battalions of tanks, two of which had 49 7TP light tanks each. They were used separately and fought split up into companies without adequate logistics support, as a result of which a number of tanks was destroyed by their crews when they ran out of fuel and ammunition. The third battalion was equipped with 49 R 35 tanks, which was all the Polish Army was able to procure from France before the war. This battalion was held in reserve and was eventually ordered to cross the frontier into Romania without ever firing a shot. Ironically, the final employment of Polish tanks came after the campaign, when the Germans refurbished 21 captured 7TP tanks and equipped Hitler’s escort battalion with them.
An entirely different by-product of the campaign in Poland has been the myth of Polish cavalry charges against German tanks. It arose out of a charge on the first day of the war by two squadrons of a Polish cavalry regiment, which was misrepresented in some German accounts as having been carried out against tanks. The charge was actually against infantry, but the myth of it being carried out against tanks has persisted into the 21st century.
While few tanks opposed the German tanks in Poland, even fewer opposed the Red Army when it invaded Finland in November 1939. In fact, the Finnish Army only had 26 Vickers Six Ton Tanks and not all of them had yet been armed with 37mm Bofors guns. On the other hand the invading Soviet forces had about 1,500 tanks. However, their frontal assault on the Karelian Isthmus failed, as did the offensive operations on other parts of the front, and they suffered heavy losses in tanks. But after the failure of their original offensive, Russian forces reorganized and launched another assault on the Finnish defences. This time they employed about 1,330 tanks, which attacked in close co-operation with the infantry and overwhelmed Finnish defences, leading to an armistice in March 1940.
Soviet tanks were mostly T-26s, which proved vulnerable to Finnish 37mm Bofors anti-tank guns, as they did three years earlier in Spain to German 37mm anti-tank guns, because of their relatively thin armour and inept employment. This was equally true of the BTs, almost all models of which were used against the Finns. The Soviet forces also used T-28 medium tanks, 97 of which were destroyed, and also T-35 heavy tanks with five turrets, several of which were also destroyed.
During the first offensive the Red Army tested two of its new KV-1 heavy tanks as well as its unsuccessful, multi-turreted T-100 and SMK competitors, all of which proved immune to Finnish 37mm anti-tank guns, and during the second offensive it also deployed the recently developed 52-tonne KV-2 armed with a 152mm howitzer. The new T-34 medium tank was also to be tested on the Finnish front, but did not arrive until after the armistice. For its part the Finnish Army captured a total of about 600 armoured vehicles, and the recovered T-26s became its principal tanks.
The one-sided employment of large numbers of tanks that characterized the German invasion of Poland and the Soviet assault on Finland came to an end on May 10, 1940 when the German Army launched its offensive against the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Since the campaign in Poland, German armoured forces had been reorganized, as a result of which the four light divisions were converted into panzer divisions so that there were now ten of them. Moreover, panzer divisions were concentrated into panzer corps and two of the panzer corps were combined to form a panzer group.
However, the tank inventory had only risen slightly to 3,379 tanks and the number actually deployed by the ten panzer divisions was 2,574, which was fewer than the number used against Poland. Of this total, 523 were still the light PzKpfw I armed only with machine guns, which had already proved deficient in Poland as well as Spain, and the number of PzKpfw IV had only increased by 69, in spite of Guderian’s recommendation mentioned earlier. The only significant improvement was an increase in the number of PzKpfw IIIs from 98 to 329.
The French Army, which bore the brunt of the German offensive, had approximately the same number of tanks, namely about 3,650. But whereas German tanks were concentrated in the panzer divisions, one third of the French tanks, which consisted primarily of R 35 light tanks, were distributed between 25 independent battalions spread out over the French front stretching from the Swiss border to the English Channel. The heavy B1 and B1 bis tanks, of which there were about as many as there were German PzKpfw IVs, were allocated to the three divisions cuirassées, or DCRs, but the first two of them only began to be organized when the war broke out eight months earlier and the third was created less than two months before the German offensive. In consequence their organization was incomplete and their units had little opportunity to train together, let alone practice mobile operations. In addition to the more modern tanks, there were also seven battalions of obsolete Renault FT tanks and one battalion of six 68-tonne 2C heavy tanks that should have been relegated by 1940 to a museum.
The only fully organized and trained mechanized formations of the French Army were the three divisions légères mécaniques, or DLMs. Two of them formed a cavalry corps commanded by General R. Prioux, which provided the traditional cavalry screen for the French forces moving into central Belgium, where the main German thrust was expected to come. In the course of performing its mission, Prioux’s corps met two advancing panzer divisions and engaged them in what was the first tank versus tank battle of the Second World War. The battle took place east of Gembloux, after which it is generally called, and involved around 400 French and 600 German tanks. The former included about 160 S 35s (Somua) medium tanks, whose frontal armour was not only thicker than that of the German tanks but virtually impervious to their guns, while the 47mm guns of the S 35 were superior in terms of armour penetration to the 37mm and 75mm of the German PzKpfw III and IV, although not to the extent that is sometimes claimed. But, like other French tanks, the S 35s were severely handicapped by having one-man turrets, which overtaxed their crews. This was aggravated by the poor vision from within the S 35 as well as other French tanks, which restricted the situation awareness of their crews and together with the lack of radios in other French tanks inhibited co-ordinated action. All this contributed to the operation of French tanks in small, isolated groups, which was noted by German tank crews and helped them to outmanoeuvre French tanks.
Nevertheless, the cavalry corps accomplished its mission, albeit at the cost of 105 tanks, and fell back, but its tanks were then distributed along a defence line established by infantry divisions, despite complaints by General Prioux. In the meantime the French High Command was taken completely by surprise by the advance of the panzer group of five divisions through the Ardennes Forest, which was considered to be a major obstacle to mechanized forces. The panzer group, which included a corps commanded by Guderian, crossed the River Meuse and broke through the French front at Sedan, while two other panzer divisions, one of which was commanded by General E. Rommel, crossed the Meuse north of it. After the breakthrough, the panzer divisions advanced rapidly towards the Channel and cut off French and British forces in Belgium from the rest.
Farther north the remaining panzer division invaded the Netherlands, and after four days of fighting the Dutch Army, which had no tanks, capitulated.
On the French front, the scattered battalions of R 35 tanks could offer little resistance to the onslaught of the panzer divisions. What is more, not only were the R 35 battalions used piecemeal, but their tanks, like most other French light tanks, were armed with short-barrelled low-velocity 37mm guns dating from 1918, which their opponents described as ‘worthless’. The three DCR were held in reserve behind the front line in the region of Chalons, and in response to the German offensive the 1st was sent to Charleroi in Belgium, where it became involved in some heavy fighting with Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division. During the fighting some of its B1 tanks were surprised while refuelling, while others were abandoned after they ran out of fuel, and the division was destroyed in the same piecemeal fashion as it was employed. The 2nd DCR was wasted by being spread out in small units or even single tanks to guard the crossings of the Oise River. The 3rd DCR was sent to attack the southern flank of Guderian’s corps, but instead was dispersed into defensive positions and was then committed piecemeal to the defence of Stonne.
One more DCR, the 4th, was assembled hastily during the course of the campaign, and under the command of Colonel (later General) de Gaulle attacked the advancing panzer divisions from the south, at Montcornet and Laon, and then attacked the German bridgeheads over the Somme near Abbeville, but the attacks only achieved local tactical successes. The bridgeheads had also been attacked, two days earlier, by two brigades of the British 1st Armoured Division, which had just landed in France to protect the right flank of the British Expeditionary Force. The two brigades were sent into action without infantry or artillery support and were repulsed, losing many of their tanks. The only other tanks the BEF had, apart from the Mark VI light tanks of the seven divisional cavalry regiments, were those of the 1st Army Tank Brigade, which consisted of two battalions with a total of 58 Mark I and 16 Mark II (Matilda) infantry tanks. Backed by two battalions of infantry and accompanied by the 3rd DLM, the Tank Brigade struck Rommel’s panzer division near Arras, inflicting considerable casualties, and was only brought to a halt by the fire of the divisional artillery and 88mm anti-aircraft guns, as German 37mm anti-tank guns proved ineffective against the thick armour of the Matildas.
The attack at Arras was the largest tank action carried out by the BEF before most of it was evacuated from Dunkirk, together with the troops of the French First and Seventh Armies, after abandoning its remaining tanks. While the evacuation was taking place, the panzer divisions were regrouped, and after the fall of Dunkirk they attacked again, breaking through the defence line set up along the Somme and Aisne rivers by General M. Weygand, who replaced General G. Gamelin as commander-in-chief of the French Army. In an attempt to restore some of its armoured forces, the French Army re-created the three DLM with personnel evacuated via England from Dunkirk and even created two new DLM, the 4th and 7th. After the German breakthrough, tanks of the 7th DLM, as well as remnants of the 3rd DCR, put up a stiff fight in the region of Juniville, but like the other DLM, it had by then only about 20 tanks and could do little to prevent the defeat of the French Army.
After the Armistice was signed on 22 June 1940, some of the cavalry regiments were re-formed in the unoccupied part of France. However, by agreement between the German authorities and the Vichy government, their equipment was confined to a total of 64 Panhard 178 armoured cars, with a reserve of 28, and they had their 25mm guns removed, leaving them armed only with machine guns.
The German armoured forces suffered a total loss of 770 tanks during the campaign in France, excluding command vehicles, most of which – 611 – were destroyed during the first month of the campaign. The armour of PzKpfw III and IV was found to be inadequate and inferior to that of the French tanks, but German tanks increased their survivability by mobile tactics, which reduced their chances of being hit by French guns. The guns of the German tanks, and in particular the 37mm L/45 of PzKpfw III, which was regarded as the principal anti-tank weapon, proved to be inadequate and ineffective against the frontal armour of S 35 and, even more against the B1bis tanks. In the circumstances, the most effective weapon against French tanks was the 75mm L/24 gun of PzKpfw IV, in spite of being short barrelled and having a low muzzle velocity.
The campaign in France led inevitably to demands for a larger calibre gun for PzKpfw III, which were in fact anticipated by the development of a 50mm L/42 gun. According to his memoirs, Guderian wanted such a gun as early as 1932, but at the time the chief of ordnance and the inspector of artillery considered that a 37mm gun would be adequate and would ensure commonality with the infantry’s contemporary 37mm anti-tank guns.
In consequence the first PzKpfw III with a 50mm L/42 gun was not produced until July 1940. By then another and considerably more effective 50mm gun, the L/60 with a longer barrel and a higher muzzle velocity, had been developed to replace the 37mm anti-tank gun. Hitler saw it and ordered that PzKpfw III be armed with it. But in April 1941 he found that his order had not been implemented and insisted that it be put into effect immediately, which according to Guderian it could have been and would have placed PzKpfw III ahead of most contemporary tanks. As it was, the first tank with the 50mm L/60 was not produced until December 1941, and tanks with the shorter barrelled 50mm L/42 continued to be produced until 1942. In addition, no decision was taken until November 1941 to produce a more powerful 75mm gun than the L/24 mounted in PzKpfw IV, although the armour-piercing performance of the latter had fallen behind not only that of the 50mm L/60 but also of the 50mm L/42. Yet three different experimental vehicles with a more powerful, long-barrelled 75mm gun were built by Rheinmetall to an order issued by the Ordnance Office in 1934.
Soon after the campaign in France, Hitler ordered that the number of panzer divisions be doubled. As a result ten new panzer divisions were created by the beginning of 1941, but the increase in the number of the divisions was achieved at the expense of the number of tanks in each. Thus, when the reorganization was complete, no panzer division had a tank brigade with two regiments any longer, but had a single regiment with two or three battalions. Each battalion had a medium tank company, generally with 20 but in some cases with 30 or even 36 PzKpfw IV, and two or three light tank companies equipped mainly with PzKpfw IIIs or PzKpfw 38(t)s. In consequence, the strength of the divisions varied from 145 to 265 tanks.
The reorganization was barely completed when six of the panzer divisions spearheaded the invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece in April 1941. Once again they were largely responsible for a rapid victory, which resulted in the surrender of the Yugoslav Army after only 11 days of fighting and of the Greek Army six days later. The cost reported by five of the six divisions amounted to a loss of 56 tanks.
In the meantime the Italian army in Libya threatened to invade Egypt, and the British forces stationed there launched an offensive against it. This involved a battalion of 45 Matilda infantry tanks, which led the assault by an infantry division on a series of fortified camps established by the Italian army after its initial advance. At about the same time the British 7th Armoured Division, which was equipped with a mixture of A.9, A.10 and A.13 cruiser tanks as well as Mark VI light tanks, attacked other objectives. In total the British forces had 275 tanks. The Matildas proved impervious to Italian anti-tank weapons and completely outclassed Italian M 11/39 tanks, 23 of which were knocked out in one of the camps. In the final stages of the offensive, in February 1941, cruiser tanks of the 7th Armoured Division attacked retreating Italian units, which included new M 13/40 tanks. Unlike the M 11/39, these had turret-mounted 47mm guns that were about as good as the 40mm guns of the British cruisers, and their armour was thicker. But they went into action in small packets and by the end of the day 112 had been knocked out or had been abandoned by their crews.
This completed the destruction of the Italian army in Cyrenaica, which prompted Hitler to dispatch to Libya the 5th Light and 15th panzer divisions under the command of General Rommel to bolster the Italian army in Tripolitania. The latter had already been reinforced by the arrival of the Ariete armoured division, which was followed by the German 5th Light Division. The disembarkation of this division in Tripoli was completed a month later, when its tank strength reached 151 tanks, including 61 PzKpfw III and 17 PzKpfw IVs. Then, without waiting for the 15th Panzer Division, Rommel decided to take the offensive and in two weeks drove British forces back to the Egyptian border, destroying their 2nd Armoured Division.
A counter-offensive code-named Battleaxe was mounted by the British forces in June 1941 after a convoy brought reinforcements from Britain, which included 135 Matildas and 82 cruiser tanks. Among them for the first time were Crusaders, which were more heavily armoured than the earlier cruisers. The German forces had also been reinforced by the arrival of the 15th Panzer Division, and the counter-offensive was repulsed with the loss of 92 British tanks compared with 12 German tanks. The principal cause of the failure of the British counter-offensive was the institutionalized division of tanks between infantry support and more mobile roles, which led to a dispersal of tank units and their tendency to act by themselves that contrasted with the very effective co-operation of German tanks with anti-tank guns, which included 88mm anti-aircraft guns used in a ground role.