The Reich proudly considered itself an independent body politic and refused to serve merely as a passive tool in the hands of its formal head, the Habsburg Emperor. Despite these structural limitations and the paralysing effects of confessional strife during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Reich’s financial and military help against the Turkish threat was central to the Habsburgs’ survival and even to their counter-offensive after 1683.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there were two armies linked to the Reich in some way, but nonetheless distinct. The first was the Imperial army proper (kaiserliche Armee), the Emperor’s own standing army which had no direct connection to the Reich except its designation. The second force was the army of the Empire (Reichsarmee), the true army of the Reich, raised and paid for by the Imperial Estates and only partially under the Emperor’s control.

In no way reflecting the true potential of the territories and almost always unsuccessful in battle, the Reichsarmee embodied the political and military weakness and fragmentation of the Reich in the eyes of many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historians. Even the most patriotic eighteenth-century Reich jurists would not deny that the Germany of the Ancien Régime was suited to anything but waging wars.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Reichsarmee remained a force only mobilized in times of need, to defend the Reich’s territory in the case of a formally proclaimed Reichskrieg (as declared against France in 1674, 1689, 1702, 1734 and 1793) or to secure peace against domestic trouble-makers formally denounced as such by the Imperial Diet (Reichsexekution, as for example against Prussia in 1757, but mostly police actions against lesser disturbers of the peace). The Reichsarmee was an auxiliary force, normally fighting side by side with the Emperor’s own troops, and rather unserviceable in case of offensive operations, for which it was never intended.

The basic troop quota for the Reichsarmee, the Simplum, was fixed at 24,000 horse and foot in 1521; its monthly pay or Römermonat soon became the standard unit of account in all financial matters of the Reich. Depending on the level of danger, the Simplum could be multiplied (Duplum, Triplum and so forth). With the Imperial Executive Ordinance of 1555, the executive and thus ultimately the military defence of the Reich was to a considerable extent devolved to the Imperial Circles.

Yet, for at least a century, civil war came before defence against external threats. Shortly after 1600, the previous century’s confessional strife finally produced two formal groupings, the Catholic League (1609) and the Protestant Union (1608), and both armed at the beginning of the Thirty Years War. The noble idea of a concerted defence of the Reich was abandoned in favour of petty actions in defence of the respective confessions. When the Emperor and the elector of Saxony, the leader of Germany’s Protestant rulers, concluded the Peace of Prague in 1635, their aim was the restoration of law and order throughout the Reich and the removal of all foreign armies from its soil. They agreed to raise a Reichsarmee, organizationally unified but confessionally mixed, with the Emperor nominally in supreme command. Funded by contributions from the Imperial Estates, it was to comprise some 80,000 men. There were problems from the outset, however, particularly regarding the high command, and many Protestant princes remained lukewarm.

In 1648, the Imperial Estates were granted not only the right freely to form alliances but also the ius armorum at once exploited by the more powerful rulers to create standing armies. In the end, the Emperor himself was to profit from the trained troops of these so-called ‘armed Estates’, the support of whom Vienna secured by means of subsidy treaties and political privileges. Such forces, moreover, were generally more effective than a hastily raised Reichsarmee, which had to be approved by the Imperial Diet and consisted of a mixed bag of contingents sent by medium-sized and smaller Estates. The Emperor’s Turkish War of 1663–64 is a good illustration of the potential kaleidoscope of troops making up the military aid from the Reich. The Rhenish League sent a 13,500-strong contingent to Hungary, while Saxony, Bavaria or Brandenburg fell back on units from their standing armies to supply auxiliary troops (4,500 men). The third element finally came from the Reich proper: the Diet, summoned to Regensburg for this very purpose in 1663, granted 20,900 soldiers – a sizeable contribution, even if only a small number ever got as far as Hungary.

During the revived struggle with France in the 1670s, Vienna tried again to institutionalize a Reichsarmee under the Emperor’s sole command. The prospects were favourable given the ‘patriotic enthusiasm’ provoked by an aggressive French policy of annexations along the Reich’s western border, yet the Emperor soon had to reduce his demands and accept the Reichsdefensionalordnung of 1681–82, which laid down the future fundamental principles of the Reich’s new military organization. The Simplum of the Reichsarmee was increased to 40,000 men (12,000 cavalry and 28,000 infantry), while the Triplum, i.e. 120,000 men, would usually be granted when a major war broke out. The Imperial Circles were given the responsibility of raising the contingents which together made up the Reichsarmee. The Austrian Circle, virtually identical with the Habsburg Hereditary Lands, alone accounted for 8,000 men of the 40,000 strong Simplum. The Habsburg contingent was a purely nominal part of the Reichsarmee, since it would be taken from the Emperor’s own standing army and operate as a separate force in its own right. The same was true of the forces to be provided by the ‘armed Estates’ whose territories often belonged to more than one Circle, but who fielded single contingents rather than divide their units up and amalgamate them into the Circle troops. Varying from Circle to Circle, the raising of troops was highly complicated, not least because of the political fragmentation of the Reich. In the particularly heterogeneous Swabian Circle, for instance, the fact that some 90 territories were responsible for raising 4,000 Circle troops resulted in a corresponding lack of cohesion among the latter. Hence Reiehstruppen were mostly deployed for defence purposes in order to relieve the actual fighting troops – the Emperor’s own units and the contingents sent by the ‘armed Estates’.

During the Nine Years War and the War of the Spanish Succession troops from the so-called ‘anterior Circles’ in fact bore the brunt of the defence against the French threat from across the Rhine. It was here, in southern Germany, that the Swabian and Franconian Circles, mustering some 24,000 men in the 1690s, mounted a concerted effort to ward off French aggression. Alliances between several Circles, so-called Circle Associations, could field considerable forces and thus play a role in high politics on a European scale. In 1697, an impressive league was created by the Franconian, Swabian, Electoral Rhenish, Upper Rhenish and Lower Rhenish-Westphalian Circles (‘Frankfurt Association’) with a view to raising a permanent army of 40,000 men in times of peace and 60,000 in times of war, but implementation of this scheme soon came to a standstill. In 1702, the Swabian, Franconian, Upper and Electoral Rhenish, Austrian and Westphalian Circles once more tried to set up an efficient association, which was to field more than 53,000 men (including 16,000 from the Austrian Circle alone) to defend southern Germany: via its individual members, this so-called ‘Nördlingen Association’ joined the Grand Alliance of 1701.

The disaster of Rossbach in November 1757, where Reich troops together with a French contingent were routed by the Prussians, was a serious blow for the ill-fated Reichsarmee, henceforth mocked as ‘Reißausarmee’ (run-away army). However, the scale of the Reich’s military effort should not be underestimated, and recent scholarship in this field has provided a more positive assessment.

The structure of the commanding generals (Reichsgeneralität) of the Reichsarmee, headed by the Imperial Field Marshal (Reichsgeneralfeldmarschall), was highly complex – particularly since, from the beginning of the eighteenth century, all positions had to be filled by both a Catholic and a Protestant. Among the outstanding Reich field marshals Ludwig Wilhelm von Baden (1655–1707) or Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663–1736) deserve particular mention. Prince Eugene, succeeding Baden as Catholic Imperial Field Marshal in 1707, was not only a field marshal in the Emperor’s own standing army, exactly like his predecessor, but also president of the Aulic War Council in Vienna. This was a typical overlap: Reich generals and Austrian generals rapidly came to be one and the same thing. In 1664, only a third of the Reichsgeneralität was staffed by Habsburg generals, compared to half in the 1670s. Eventually, around 1700, it was exclusively Austrian generals who acted as Reich generals, and most of them were German princes or members of the south German aristocracy.


VIENNA 27 September–14 October 1529

An Ottoman depiction of the siege from the 16th century, housed in the Istanbul Hachette Art Museum

Forces Engaged

Austrian: 16,000 troops and 72 guns. Commander: Philip, count palatine of Austria

Ottoman: c. 120,000–125,000 (some sources claiming 300,000) Commander: Sultan Suleiman.


Turkish defeat at Vienna was the high-water mark of Ottoman expansion in Europe, signaling the beginning of a long decline in Ottoman power.

Historical Setting

Europe in the 1520s presented to a potential outside aggressor a wonderful opportunity, just as the weakened condition caused by Byzantine-Persian hostility had opened the door for Islam to break out of Arabia in the seventh century. More than weakness, however, it was political rivalry in Europe that made the continent vulnerable. Politically, King Francis I of France and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, argued and fought over land that today is the Franco-German frontier, as well as control over northern Italy. France had a powerful military based on artillery and heavy cavalry, with which it won a number of victories. Charles, as head of the Hapsburg family, controlled not only the Holy Roman Empire (which consisted of Austria and parts of whatever countries bordered it) but also Spain, whose military power was based on the tercio, a phalanx of pikemen supported by smaller contingents of soldiers, each armed with the harquebus, a matchlock musket. Against these formations, cavalry made no impression, and, when the two armies met at Pavia in northern Italy in 1525, France came up the loser. Ferdinand not only was defeated, he was taken prisoner. During and after his captivity, he plotted revenge and pondered on possible allies.

Although Charles was enjoying this military success, he was bothered by Pope Clement VII in Rome. Although technically the Holy Roman Empire was supposed to be the defender of the Catholic Church, just which was the senior partner in the equation had been a point of difficulty since Charlemagne took on the job in 800. Clement resented Charles for controlling so much of Italy because, before his accession to the papacy, Clement had been Giulio de Medici, a wealthy and powerful figure in his own right. Thus, Clement’s attitude toward Charles meant not only a lack of political support but also a lack of religious support in dealing with the rise of the Protestant Reformation and the increasingly political activities of Martin Luther in Germany. Thus, Charles had his hands full with rivals in Rome, France, and central Europe.

Sultan Suleiman in Constantinople was not slow to see this. He was the ninth sultan of the Ottoman Empire, successor to a long line of able, resourceful, daring, and strongly religious rulers. He inherited an empire that stretched from the Persian frontier in the east to Morocco in the west, as well as much of the Balkans. He also inherited a military that in its own way was as impressive as anything Charles or Francis could put in the field. The pride of the Ottoman army lay in two arms: the heavy infantry and the artillery. Since the days of the second sultan, Ala ed-Din, the Ottoman government had accepted for taxes payment in kind in the form of male children of Christian families. They became slaves, were raised as Moslems, and from their youth trained as soldiers. They developed into a fearsome unit called the Janissaries, completely dedicated to their faith and their sultan and, in the service of both, ready to go anywhere and fight any enemy. The Ottoman Turks had also learned from western Europe the craft of casting artillery, and they had far outstripped their teachers. The Ottomans produced the largest guns of their day, and with them they captured Constantinople in 1453 after it had stood unconquered for more than a thousand years. Heavy siege guns were the Turks’ specialty, and many cities became Ottoman possessions because of those weapons, just as many armies fell before the talent and élan of the Janissaries.

Although Suleiman was an open-minded and interesting political ruler whom the Europeans viewed as a man with whom they could do business, he was also caliph of all Islam, thanks to the recent acquisition of Egypt and deposition of the last spiritual leader. Suleiman was therefore bound by the tenets of his faith to spread Islam and convert the unbelievers or exact tribute from them. As such, he conducted campaigns against the Persians, and he also looked to extend his political and religious dominion into Europe. He was also contacted by the vengeful King Francis, who encouraged an invasion to threaten Charles’s eastern front and correspondingly weaken his French frontier.

Suleiman’s venture into Europe began in the summer of 1526 when he captured Buda and placed Hungary under his sway, promoting John Zapolya, governor of Transylvania, to the Hungarian throne as his tributary monarch. That throne was contested, however, by Ferdinand, archduke of Austria and king of Bohemia. While Suleiman was campaigning in Persia in 1528, a rebellion broke out in Hungary. Some of the rebellious factions claimed to be fighting for Ferdinand’s cause. Once his Persian problems were settled—at least temporarily—Suleiman made ready to march on Ferdinand’s home city of Vienna and add Austria and the Holy Roman Empire to his own Ottoman Empire.

The Battle

Suleiman led his army out of Constantinople on 10 April 1529. When Ferdinand heard of this, he called a council in Bohemia to gather an army. For the most part, his requests went unanswered. Lots of promises were made by Austria and Bohemia and the empire, but few troops actually arrived. Charles was busy with trouble in Italy and had to keep an eye on both Francis and Clement. In Vienna, meanwhile, the 250-year-old city walls, no more than 5 feet thick, were in many places badly in need of repair. They could not be mended with masonry, as there was no time, so for the most part dirt and the debris of the suburbs were used because the outlying houses were razed to open up a field of fire before the city walls. The official in charge in Vienna was Philip, count palatine of Austria. He was assisted in his job by two talented men, Graf Nicholas zu Salm-Reifferscheidt and William von Roggendorff. Graf Nicholas oversaw the wall repairs, gathered in as much food and ammunition as he could, and expelled from the city as many women and children as he could to ease the supply burden. During the siege itself, he oversaw the placement of the artillery, seventy-two guns of widely varying size and caliber. When the siege began, the city was defended by a garrison of 22,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. Between the garrisons that Suleiman had absorbed along his line of march, reinforcements commanded by his lackey King John Zapolya, and innumerable camp followers, the Ottoman force that stood before Vienna on 26 September 1529 was possibly as large as 150,000 people[including camp followers], although it included probably 80,000 Turkish soldiers and another 6,000 Hungarians.

The Ottoman advance had been a wonder to behold. Many of the Janissaries advanced up the Danube in boats, stopping with Suleiman for 5 days at Buda to recapture the city and massacre the defenders. News of that action, as well as the activities of some 20,000 akinji (ransackers) that were devastating the countryside all along the line of march, motivated the defenders in Vienna to fix their walls as best they could. The first contingent of Turks arrived in sight of Vienna on 23 September and skirmished with the Viennese cavalry. By 27 September, the city was surrounded, and Suleiman sent a delegation to demand its surrender. The delegation was comprised of four captured cavalrymen, fabulously dressed in Turkish clothing. The sultan stated that an immediate surrender would end in no occupation of the city but for a few functionaries, and he would have breakfast there on the morning of 29 September. Resist, and the city would be destroyed so thoroughly that no one would ever again find a trace of it. Graf Nicholas, de facto commander, sent back four richly dressed Turkish prisoners; they carried no answer at all, which was answer enough.

The fate of Vienna in reality lay neither in the city walls nor the attacking army, but in the weather. The summer of 1529 was the wettest anyone in southeastern Europe could remember, and the supply wagons, vital to supporting the immense force before Vienna, lagged far behind. Worse still for the Ottoman cause, the massive siege artillery also could not be moved along the muddy roads. The artillery that Suleiman had with him were 300 small pieces that lacked the destructive power necessary to break down even these old walls.

Suleiman’s only alternative was to mine the city walls. This involves digging a tunnel from one’s own protected trenches under the walls of the enemy and then filling the tunnel with gunpowder and exploding it. The collapsing tunnel would then collapse a section of wall. Such operations began immediately, but the defenders were lucky enough to learn the placement of the mines from a deserter. They quickly countermined, either digging their own tunnels under those being dug by the Turks in order to collapse them or digging at the same level, which resulted in underground battles, in which the defenders tended to be the more victorious. Not all of the mines could be discovered, however, and some of them worked. The breaches, which were occasionally large enough to ride several horses through abreast, could not be exploited. Behind the walls, the defenders had dug trenches and built wooden palisades from which they beat back the attackers. The breaches were held by the same stolid pikemen that had won the battles of western Europe, and the swords of the Janissaries were of little use in the cramped confines of the battle. A major battle in one breach on 12 October resulted in the Janissaries leaving behind 1,200 dead.

On the night of 12 October, Suleiman held a council of war. The supply wagons had not arrived, and the countryside was not providing nearly enough food to support his army. The city was proving unexpectedly tough. Winter was approaching. The defenders had won every encounter in the breaches that had been created, and the attackers’ death toll was between 14,000 and 20,000, primarily Janissaries and aristocratic cavalry. For the first time in their history, the Janissaries complained that they were being sacrificed. To do just that had been their duty and indeed their entire life for nearly two centuries. Suleiman offered them a huge bonus for one more attack. On 14 October, another mine blew up, but the collapsing wall fell outward, creating such a pile of rubble that it was impossible for the attackers to rush the breach. The pikemen once again stood firm in the face of the Janissary onslaught, and once again they turned the attackers away.

That night, the Ottoman army struck its tents, which had covered the plain outside Vienna for as far as the eye could see. In massive bonfires, they burned everything that they could not carry and then threw their prisoners in the flames as well. The army marched away the next morning as it snowed.

A relative handful of men saved western Europe from Ottoman invasion. At first it seemed that little had changed, however. John Zapolya still ruled in Suleiman’s name in Buda, and Hungary was part of the Ottoman domain. Although Suleiman returned 3 years later to finish the job he had started, a spirited resistance at the town of Guns (modern Koszeg, Austria)

and a major deployment of European troops under Charles V once again convinced him to return home. Another uprising in Persia diverted Suleiman’s attention, so he made peace with Ferdinand and turned his armies eastward. He returned to Europe in 1541 to recapture Hungary from Ferdinand’s invasion, but he went no farther.

Suleiman presided over the Ottoman Empire at its zenith, both in power and territory. After him, the long line of talented sultans ended. His son, Selim (called “the Sot”), had none of his father’s talents. From Selim’s rule forward the Ottoman Empire began a long decline until by the nineteenth century it was regarded by the world as “the sick man of Europe.” Had Suleiman captured Vienna, he could have wintered there and proceeded the following season to invade Germany. Any sort of cooperative moves by France would have placed the Holy Roman Empire in a vise. That would have served Francis’s aims in the short term, but he certainly overestimated his influence on the sultan. Islam could well have triumphed against a divided enemy.

Within the Ottoman military, the zenith passed as well. Vienna marked the beginning of the end for the Janissaries, for their once invincible front had been shattered. They could be beaten, and not only did their enemies know it, but so did the soldiers themselves. The bribe they were offered for that final attack was proof that their élan was no more. “The Janissaries themselves degenerated from the mighty force they had been. They used their power to improve their personal lives, at the expense of the state” (McCarthy, The Ottoman Turks, p. 164). “The Janissaries were to turn into unruly Praetorian guards, who made and unmade sultans, and this was perhaps inevitable. But even determinism must admit that Vienna started them down the long slide” (Pratt, The Battles That Changed History, p. 149). The elite force that had been the instrument of Ottoman expansion became the instrument of internal instability.

The decline in quality leadership after Suleiman was compounded by the success of the previous Ottoman line. The empire by the middle of the sixteenth century was too large to be efficiently governed by the overly centralized authority in Constantinople. Although the limits of the empire were (for the most part) as far as an army could march from Constantinople in one campaign season, that was still too large for the nature of imperial rule. Because their primary enemies at that time were the Holy Roman Empire and Persia, only two complete armies could maintain authority. To create them would mean an increase in cost and a corresponding decrease in quality, especially with the decline of the Janissaries. Thus, the Ottoman Empire could not expand its borders any farther. Conquest and booty had always been a major contributor to the economy. Over the following century, the Turks began to experience a rise in unemployment and banditry, which the weakening government could not successfully address. Unfortunately for the Ottoman Empire, Vienna spelled a change of fortune: just when a strong and visionary ruler was vital to maintain or expand the empire, the talent pool dried up.

References: Barber, Noel. The Sultans. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973; Clot, Andre. Suleiman the Magnificent: The Man, His Life, His Epoch. Translated by Matthew J. Reisz. London: Saqui Books, 1989; McCarthy, Justin. The Ottoman Turks. New York: Longman, 1997; Parry, V. J. A History of the Ottoman Empire to 1730. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976; Pratt, Fletcher. The Battles That Changed History. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956.

SÜLEYMAN I (1495–1566).

Ottoman sultan during whose reign Ottoman power reached its apex. Also called Süleyman the Lawgiver (Kanûnî) or Süleyman the Magnificent. The son of Selim I, he ascended to the throne on the death of his father (1520).

His earliest acts included the rehabilitation of prisoners, exiles, and those who suffered under the harsh rule of his father. Süleyman I issued laws protecting life, property, and honor and promoting lawful administration. The principle of merit was reinforced in promotions and in appointments to administrative positions. Administrators who acted arbitrarily during the rule of his father were tried. Measures were taken to prevent injustice in the collection of taxes.

In the reign of Süleyman I, Ottoman territorial expansion reached Vienna in Central Europe and the Indian Ocean in Asia. The period was also rich in political events. The first serious incident was the rebellion of the beglerbegi of Damascus, Canberdi Ghazali, who declared the independence of Syria (1521). This rebellion was suppressed quickly. When the Hungarians refused to continue the payment of the annual tribute, Süleyman launched a military campaign against the kingdom; in August 1521, Belgrade was conquered. The next move was to the Aegean island of Rhodes, which was governed by the Knights of St. John. Conquest of this island in December 1522 secured the sea connection between İstanbul and Egypt.

Süleyman I became closely involved in European politics when the mother of the French king Francis I—who had been captured by the Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, at the Battle of Pavia (1525)—sent a letter to İstanbul asking for help in the release of her son. The Ottomans, considering an alliance with France a means of preventing Habsburg domination in Europe, attacked and defeated Hungary (Battle of Mohács, August 1526) and appointed Janos Szapolyai as a vassal king. Thus Süleyman I became able to exert direct pressure on the Habsburgs. When Charles V’s brother, Archduke Ferdinand, ruler of Austria, claiming to be the king of Hungary, occupied Buda and expelled Szapolyai, the Ottomans responded in force and reestablished him (September 1529). Süleyman, in order to discourage Ferdinand’s ambitions in Hungary, laid siege to Vienna (October 1529). The issue of Hungary led to a new war with the Habsburgs, in which Güns and Graz were besieged (1531–33).

A formal military alliance between the Ottoman Empire and France was concluded in 1536, and capitulations were granted to French merchants. As part of a joint plan to attack Charles V, French forces entered northern Italy while Ottoman forces attacked Venetian ports in the south (1537–40). A naval campaign resulted in Ottoman victory at the Battle of Preveza (1538). This gave the Ottomans the upper hand in the Mediterranean until their defeat at the Battle of Lepanto (1571).

When Szapolyai died in 1541, Ferdinand besieged Buda, and Süleyman was again forced to move against the Habsburgs. After the Austrians were pushed out, Hungary became a beglerbegilik, administered from İstanbul. During the Ottoman-Habsburg war of 1541–47, the towns of Esztergom and Stuhlweissenburg (Istolni Belgrad) were conquered (1543). Meanwhile the Ottoman navy, headed by Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha, occupied the Habsburg fortresses of Messina, Reggio, and Nice (1543). The Ottoman-Habsburg peace of 1547 stipulated the payment of an annual tribute by the Holy Roman Empire to İstanbul.

The peace of 1547 was terminated by Habsburg attempts to take control of Transylvania (1550). This move was repulsed, and the Ottomans attacked the Habsburg strongholds of Eger, Malta, and Tripolitany, conquering only the last (August 1551). At the same time, Süleyman I approached the Protestant princes of Germany and urged them to cooperate with France against the Catholic Habsburgs. By this he aimed to increase disunity among the Christians. Though a peace agreement was signed in 1562, renewed hostilities led to an (unsuccessful) Ottoman naval expedition to Malta (May–September 1565). When the Habsburgs refused to pay the annual tribute or evacuate the Transylvanian towns of Tokaj and Serencz, Süleyman I launched his last military campaign. He died during the siege of the fortress of Szigetvar (September 1566).

Ottoman engagements in the East during the reign of Süleyman I aimed at preventing the extension of the Shia influence of Safavid Iran in Anatolia and at expanding Ottoman domination over Islamic countries. A military campaign against Iran of 1533–35 resulted in the conquests of Tabriz (Azerbaijan) and Baghdad (Iraq). When the brother of the Safavid Shah Tahmasb I, Elkas Mirza, revolted against Iran and took refuge with the Ottomans, Süleyman used this opportunity to begin a second campaign against the Safavids (1548–55). During this war, Van (eastern Anatolia) and Azerbaijan were reconquered, and Georgia was annexed. These acquisitions were ratified by the Ottoman-Iranian peace Treaty of Amasya (May 1555).

Süleyman I’s reign witnessed the extension of an Ottoman naval presence from the western Mediterranean to eastern Africa and the western coasts of India. When Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha left Algiers to Ottoman rule (1533), the western Mediterranean entered the Ottoman area of naval activity. The governor of Egypt, Hadım Süleyman Pasha, led the Ottoman Red Sea fleet toward the south and conquered Aden (Yemen) but was unable to take the fortress of Diu (Gujarat, India) from the Portuguese (1538). After Basra (in Iraq) came under Ottoman rule (1538), Suez and Basra became the main Ottoman naval bases for operations in the Indian Ocean.

During the rule of Süleyman I, Ottoman civilization produced its major classics in art and literature. Poets like Bâkî and Fuzulî; prose authors like Celâlzâde Mustafa Çelebi, Kınalızâde Ali Çelebi, Latifî, Lutfî Pasha, Sehî Bey, and Taşköprülüzâde İsameddin Ahmed; jurists like Ebussuud Efendi; and architects like Mimar Sinan produced their works in these decades. At the same time, signs of institutional decline were to be observed toward the end of Süleyman’s life.


Contacts between the Germans, in the general sense, and the Ottomans dates back probably to the battle of Nikopolis (1396). The Habsburg Empire and the Ottomans, as neighboring powers, confronted each other following the Ottoman occupation of Hungary (1526). Janos Szapolyai, who was appointed by Süleyman I as the new king of Hungary, was attacked and expelled by Ferdinand I. This development triggered an Ottoman expedition in 1529 against the Habsburgs to restore Szapolyai; Vienna was besieged for the first time. In 1533 a peace was made, by which Ferdinand I acknowledged Ottoman suzerainty. Warfare continued between the Habsburg Empire and the Ottomans, in which the latter were dominant until the wars between 1593 and 1606. The Treaty of Zsitvatorok (1606) terminated the Austrian vassalage.

The new military superiority of the Habsburg Empire over the Ottomans was marked by the period following the second Siege of Vienna (1683). The warfare between the Holy League and the Ottomans between 1683 and 1699 proved to be disastrous for the latter. By the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699) the Ottomans had to abandon Hungary, Croatia, and their suzerainty over Transylvania to the Habsburgs. After 1699 the Ottomans entered into a state of constant defensive warfare against the Austrians. The Habsburg Empire, collaborating with Russia and Venice, tried to penetrate deeper into the Balkans. The result of the war of 1714–18 was the loss of northern Serbia, including Belgrade, and Temesvar, to Austria (Treaty of Passarowitz, 1718). The Ottomans were able to regain Belgrade and Temesvar during another war, 1736–39 (Treaty of Belgrade, 1739). The last major war between the Habsburg Empire and the Ottomans took place between 1788 and 1791; the ensuing Peace of Sistova (Ziştovi) did not alter the borders.

During the 19th century the Habsburg Empire continued to increase its political influence in the Ottoman Empire, with a view to domination in the Balkans. In order to attain this goal, Austria presented itself as the protector of the interests of the Balkan Catholics—that is, Albanian Catholics. The increasing rivalry between the Habsburg Empire and Russia in the Balkans and the interest of the latter in the Balkan Slavic nationalist movements led the Austrians to support Albanian nationalism. The Russo-Ottoman War of 1877–1878 and the Congress of Berlin secured the Austrian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, formally annexed in 1908. During World War I the Habsburg Empire and the Ottomans were allied.

The Defeat of Plan Barbarossa

Were the Germans defeated in Operation Barbarossa and the Battle for Moscow, or were the Russians victorious? The best answer to both is yes. The Soviet Union and the Red Army fought back from the beginning, mobilizing resources and developing skills to save their capital, frustrate the invasion, capture the initiative, demonstrate blitzkrieg’s limits, and begin the still- continuing process of discrediting the myth of an inherently superior German way of war. That is no mean list of accomplishments in six months against any opponent, much less the Wehrmacht.

The long list of specific German mistakes can be conveniently grouped under two headings: comprehensive overextension and comprehensive underestimation. Both reflected the general sense of emergency that had informed Hitler’s Reich from the first days of its existence. Time was always Adolf Hitler’s chief enemy. He was convinced that only he could create the Thousand-Year Reich of his visions, and to that end was willing to run the most extreme risks.

Hitler’s generals, especially the panzer generals, shared that risk-taking mind-set and accepted the apocalyptic visions accompanying it. That congruence shaped Barbarossa’s racist, genocidal nature. From the campaign’s beginning, terror and murder followed in the wake of the panzers. That was worse than a crime. It was a mistake antagonizing broad spectrums of a population that could have been mobilized to work for and with the conquerors, and in some cases act against the Soviet system. To behave differently would have required Nazis to be something other than Nazis—and, perhaps, generals to be something other than generals, at least when confronting Slavic/Jewish Bolsheviks.

The army would have been constrained to recast its institutional mentality. However intense the antagonism between the Führer and his commanders may have become in later years, in 1941 they possessed a common vision in which choices and priorities were unnecessary. Germany’s weaknesses in numbers, equipment, and logistics were sufficiently daunting that reasonably prudent military planners would have advised against the entire campaign to the point of resigning. But partly through their own history, and partly through years of exposure to National Socialism, Germany’s soldiers had come to believe in the “Triumph of the Will.”

It is an overlooked paradox that the failure to reach Moscow may have averted a German catastrophe. Stalin proposed to continue fighting even if Moscow fell, calling on resources from the Urals and Siberia. Aside from that, capturing the city with the resources available—if it could be done at all—would have involved heavy losses, losses that would fall disproportionately on the mobile troops who would be first in and expected to do much of the heavy work. Comparisons with Verdun once again circulated in the armored force. And should the swastika fly over the Kremlin, Army Group Center would be forward-loaded at the far end of a long salient vulnerable to systematic counterattacks, containing a tenuous supply line exposed to constant harassment from a developing partisan movement. Operation Typhoon’s outcome preserved the cadres—or the skeletons—of the panzers to anchor the defense during the winter and prepare for another try in the spring.

They did both well. In January 1942, 18th Panzer Division used its last dozen tanks as the core of a 50-mile thrust into Soviet-occupied territory to rescue an infantry division that had been surrounded for a month. In 6th Panzer Division, Erhard Raus pragmatically employed a series of local counterattacks as tactical training exercises for replacements. Was this heroic professionalism or wishful thinking? Or more like magical thinking, the kind of insanity defined as doing the same thing the same way and expecting different results? In 1807 and again in 1918 the Prussian/German army had responded to defeat with comprehensive self-examination. In 1939 Hitler’s army had responded to victory by an internally initiated tune-up. Nothing remotely similar happened during the winter of 1941-42. Especially for the panzers, whatever energy remained after replacing losses was devoted to improving existing systems.

That situation invites explanation in terms of desperation. As late as the end of February, total tank strength was down to around 150—for the entire Eastern Front. It was not a figure encouraging detached speculation on better ways of war. But even at this relatively early stage, a process of selection was taking place in the regiments and divisions. Eighth Panzer Division’s CO Erich Brandenberger was an old gunner, as calm in demeanor as he was quick to react to emergencies. Heinrich Eberbach took over 4th Panzer—no surprise after his success in making the most of small numbers on the road to Tula. Hans Hube’s loss of an arm in the Great War had not kept him from rising to command of the 16th Motorized Division, staying with it when it was converted to tanks, and building a reputation as a brilliant tactician. Hermann Balck, marked as a comer for his work in France, had been on staff duty during Barbarossa, but would make his mark beginning in May commanding 11th Panzer Division.

One cannot speak of a common personality type in officers who came from everywhere in the prewar army. Some were religious; some were skeptics; some were casually Gottglaubig—the Nazi term for nondenominational. Some were deliberately muddy-boots; others took conscious pains with their grooming. What these officers and their contemporaries similarly marked out for high command was pragmatism. They were hands-on problem-solvers who maximized the material they were given and did their best in the situations they confronted. “I’ll try, sir” was not an acceptable response in the panzer force that emerged from the rubble of Barbarossa. There was no try—only do, or do not.

Another thing the new generation of panzer leaders had in common was a level of bravery and charisma not seen among senior Prussian/ German officers since the Napoleonic Wars. Omer Bartov has made a strong case for the increasing “demodernization” of the German army in the Soviet Union. Its simplified version describes a situation in which material and numerical inferiority, and the resulting high casualties, led to the erosion of primary-group identification and an emphasis on National Socialist ideology as a primary element of morale and fighting power. One might suggest that a tank crew is an automatically self-renewing primary group, as is to a lesser degree the men riding in the same half-track or truck. In the panzers, however, regiment and division commanders to a significant extent also facilitated primary groups by personal leadership.

Post-Barbarossa, an infantry colonel appearing in the front line was likely to generate a reaction similar to the one made famous by American cartoonist Bill Mauldin: “Sir, do ya hafta draw fire while you’re inspi rin’ us?” His panzer counterpart, in a radio-equipped tank or half-track, usually with one or two more as escort, could have a decisive effect on events at the sharp end—and had a solid chance of surviving till next time. Such behavior had little to do with ideology, and not much more with “warrior spirit,” but had much to do with mutual expectations. It was what one did when it had to be done. Even for generals it was often a matter of leading as though one’s life depended on it—as it often did literally. And there are few greater boosters of combat morale than the effective presence at a hot spot of someone who seems to know what he is doing and what to do next. In 6th Panzer Division, a familiar catchphrase was “Raus zieht heraus”—“Raus’ll get us out of this.” Hans Hube’s nickname was simply “the man”—not “the old man” but “the man.”

The ethos had serious drawbacks. It led to a focus on “hitting the next target,” a privileging of action at the expense of reflection at all levels and in all aspects of war-making. That pattern was, if not always exacerbated, too often not balanced by the staffs. The abolition of the Great General Staff by the Versailles Treaty combined with the rapid expansion of the army under Hitler conspired to create a chronic shortage of qualified staff officers, and encouraged the development of new ones to meet staff requirements of the new formations. What was important was solving the immediate problems of organizing and training new divisions, and providing equipment and doctrine for new branches—like the panzers.

It is not necessary to reference Nazi anti-intellectualism to understand that considering ramifications and implications was not a quality particularly valued in the post-Barbarossa armored force. It is ironic to think that Versailles, so often excoriated for failing to sustain German rearmament, may have had a decisive “stealth success” in removing a potentially significant counterpoint to the army’s tunnel vision.

The panzer spirit also spread through promotion. Guderian’s advocacy of a flexible, mobile defense against the Soviet winter offensive might be sound in principle, but arguably lay outside the panzers’ current capacities. His successor was corps commander Rudolf Schmidt, whose nickname “Panzerschmidt” suggests determination rather than finesse. Schmidt based his tactics on strong points established in villages that were magnets for Russians no less cold than their opponents, and defended until relieved by battle groups built around whatever was available and could be scrounged. Walther Model commanded a corps during Typhoon, and in January 1942 brought his uncompromising mind-set and a belief in the defensive potential of small armored battle groups to 9th Army. Many other panzer generals would follow the same path.

Reconfiguring the panzers’ command profile would have meant little if the armored force was not restored materially. That was the main challenge during the winter and early spring of 1942. Overall losses during Barbarossa amounted to more than 1,100,000 men, and there was no way they could be entirely replaced before resumed operations enlarged the gap. Halder calculated the resulting loss of combat effectiveness as from half to two-thirds in the infantry. The mobile divisions were better off in personnel terms, but not by much, especially given the loss in specialists incurred by such measures as using dismounted tankers as infantry during the desperate winter months. More than 4,200 tanks had been destroyed or damaged during Barbarossa. There was no way an overextended industrial network and an overburdened repair system could compensate. As late as March, the gap between tables of organization and tanks in unit service was more than 2,000. The corresponding shortfall in trucks was 35,000. A quarter-million horses were dead, a loss no less serious to an army still largely muscle-powered and likely to remain so given an increasingly untenable gap between the Reich’s oil resources and the Wehrmacht’s needs.

Hitler had planned on using new production to expand the army to 30 panzer divisions. The best the overstrained factories and replacement systems could deliver was four: three built around existing army regiments and one formed by converting the 1st Cavalry Division. Grossdeutschland was upgraded to a motorized division, with selected recruits and a guarantee of the latest equipment as it became available. Authorizing tank battalions for the four SS motorized divisions absorbed still more production. Some effort was made to replace quantity by quality. The two light companies of each tank battalion were authorized 17 J or L versions of the Panzer IIIs with the long-barreled 50mm gun. An increasing number of the medium company’s 17 Mark IVs were Fs and Gs, with a 75mm high-velocity gun that was the first clear match for the T-34 to appear in the armored force. These up-gunned tanks were issued to replace losses, so throughout 1942 panzer battalions would operate with mixed establishments of shorts and longs.

Most panzer and motorized divisions were assigned an antiaircraft battalion with eight 88mm towed guns and a couple dozen 20mms. In recognition of the Red Air Force’s exponentially improving ground-attack capacity, the new addition was also a welcome upgrade of the divisions’ antitank capability. The motorized divisions received an even larger direct force multiplier: an organic tank battalion. That gave them a ratio of six to one in infantry and armor, compared to the panzer divisions’ four to two. Given the high casualties the motorized infantry had suffered in 1941, and given the Reich’s limited ability to replace tank losses, the upgrading was more or less a distinction without a difference. It was also a way of increasing the number of tank-equipped divisions without the problems inevitably accompanying new organizations.

The revamped structure of the motorized divisions was also a recognition that the hard-hammered marching infantry—some divisions were two-thirds short of authorized strength as late as May—were going to require mobile backup, “corset stays,” even in what passed for quiet sectors. The status of the motorized infantry was acknowledged when, in October 1942, they were redesignated as grenadiers. In March 1943 they became panzer grenadiers. In June the motorized divisions were retitled panzer grenadiers as well.

The honorifics would gladly have been exchanged for a few dozen more half-tracks: a battalion’s worth of those valuable vehicles was the best most mobile divisions could expect. Firepower was nevertheless increased, with the commander’s track in each platoon sporting a 37mm gun, which was still useful in many ways. Other half-tracks carried a variety of increasingly heavy guns and mortars on improvised mounts. The 50mm antitank gun became a battalion weapon, and panzer grenadier battalions also had as many as eight infantry guns for direct support—substituting for towed field artillery too often bogged down, out of contact, or out of range.

The resulting amalgam of weapons and vehicles continues to delight war-gamers and order-of-battle hobbyists. In fact, the plethora of crew-served heavy weapons reflected the continuing shortage—or better said, absence—of tanks and assault guns. Another indication of the patchwork nature of the armored force’s reconstruction is that the tank battalions for the motorized/panzer grenadier divisions were transferred from the panzer divisions: another institutionalized dispersion of a scarce and wasting asset.

The battle group system remained basic to the employment of the mobile troops, but experience produced modifications. Regiments evolved toward task force headquarters, with battalions becoming increasingly autonomous, transferred among them as needed for building blocks. In the offense or for counterattacks, battle groups were usually built around the tank battalions, the half-tracked rifle battalion, and the reconnaissance battalion. On the defensive the panzer grenadier regiments did the heavy work with the tanks in reserve—if they were available—for gap-plugging and counterattacks. Improvements in forward fire control in principle allowed the panzers’ artillery to be centralized at divisional level, its fire allocated where most needed or most promising. In fact, battalions were often attached to battle groups for the sake of quick reaction.

The Eastern Front’s major contribution to tactics was added emphasis on speed. The ability to form, commit, and restructure battle groups to match changing situations was often the major German force multiplier against a materially and numerically superior enemy that, even as its flexibility improved, was still structured around orders from above. The success of these formations, time and again, against all odds and obstacles, in turn fostered a sense of operational superiority that inevitably manifested itself in racial as well as military contexts. The results could range from triumph to disaster—but at division level and below the disasters, tended to be dismissed as the chance of war rather than signs of a fundamental shift in the balance of fighting power.

The developed battle group system was also a tactical response to a Soviet strategy that during the winter of 1941-42 sought to decide the war by breaking the German defenses along the entire front. Stalin and his key military advisors agreed that it was best done by hammering as hard as possible in as many sectors as possible, on the principle that something had to give somewhere. The plan had a political dimension as well: to restore domestic morale still far too labile for Stalin’s peace of mind by providing at least small-scale victories.

A more prudent approach might have involved structuring military objectives to buy time: time for promised American assistance to arrive; time to restabilize an industrial base physically transferred east of the Urals; and above all, time to shake down a still- rebuilding Red Army as yet unable to translate strategic planning into operational and tactical success. Instead, recovered from the shocks of December, the Germans proved well able to parry, block, and then halt a series of ambitious offensives from Leningrad to Rzhev-Vyazma and south to Orel and Kursk.

Those successes were primarily achieved by the well- applied economy-of-force tactics indicated above: mutually supporting strong points backed by relatively small armored battle groups. They validated infantry officers’ assertions that with minimal direct infusions of the right kind of support, they could take care of both themselves and the Russians. Beginning in 1942, the Army Weapons Office began mounting captured Soviet 76mm and German 75mm high-velocity guns on Panzer II chassis. These 10.5-ton Marder tank destroyers, though open-topped and lightly armored, were potent killers of T-34s. They went first to the infantry. So did most of the increasing number of independent assault-gun battalions formed during 1942 whose low-slung Sturmgeschütz IIIs were armed with short and long 75mm guns in combinations depending on availability. A mobile division lucky enough to have one of these battalions attached for a time usually employed it with the panzer grenadiers, where its flexible firepower was no less welcome than among ordinary Landser.

The Red Army was not the only one able to restore itself under emergency conditions. With winter turning to spring, the Germans in Russia emerged as a combination of an ideologically motivated citizen army and a seasoned professional fighting force. The months in Russia had pitilessly exposed weak human and material links. New weapons still existed mostly on drawing boards, but officers and men knew how to use what they had to best advantage. A counterattack in late April relieved 100,000 men cut off in the Demyansk Pocket since January. Infantry, artillery, and pioneers, with substantial support from the Romanians, began the final attack on the Crimean peninsula on May 8. Most of the mobile divisions had been refitted. Some especially hard-tried ones like the 6th and 7th Panzer Divisions were sent all the way to France. The rest remained in Russia but out of the line for a few weeks. They would be ready by the time the rasputitsa, the spring thaw, ended.

The Wehrmacht into the Mediterranean Theatre

Concentration of force and effort were not dominant characteristics of Hitler’s Reich. The Führer had initially reacted to Italy’s debacle in North Africa and its frustrated invasion of Greece with the amused malice the Germans call Schadenfreude. His interests in the Mediterranean involved encouraging support for Germany’s Atlantic ambitions on the part of Vichy France and Falangist Spain, and attracting Balkan support for the developing attack on the Soviet Union. Neither end was best served by Italian-initiated upheavals that challenged the status quo by open-ended claims to enlarged spheres of influence. They were served even worse, however, by open-ended military catastrophe.

The Italian defeat in Greece created opportunities for Britain to negotiate a Balkan front of its own, supporting it by stationing planes on Greek bases. The oil fields of Romania were only the most obvious potential target. If the Italians were driven from North Africa, the stresses on British shipping would be reduced by the reopening of the Mediterranean. The French North African colonies might reconsider their allegiance to Vichy. An Italy subject to air and naval strikes would face the consequences of a loss of prestige that could potentially lead to the collapse of the Fascist system itself.

Hitler grew correspondingly determined to take action. As early as July 1940, the High Command had suggested dispatching a panzer division to North Africa. Spanish veteran Wilhelm von Thoma, sent to evaluate the situation, reported any serious mobile operations would require at least four divisions for an indefinite basis. In the run-up to Barbarossa, that proposal had no chance. As the Italian situation continued to deteriorate, the commitment of ground forces in the Mediterranean basin nevertheless seemed necessary.

The General Staff responded by projecting a large-scale mechanized offensive in the Balkans, to be mounted in the spring of 1941—quick in, quick out. Hitler entertained hopes that its threat would be sufficient: that the Greek government would reject British support and Yugoslavia would align itself with the Axis. Hitler sweetened the latter prospect by offering to exchange Yugoslavia’s copper, zinc, and lead for modern weapons. The former prospect grew increasingly remote, particularly as Greece observed the steady movement of German planning missions and combat aircraft—specifically the ground-support specialists of VIII Air Corps—into Bulgaria and Romania. When Romania, Hungary, and Yugoslavia formally joined the Axis in November 1940, allowing German troops transit rights across their territory, the question regarding war became not if but when. Even then it was not until the first arrival of British ground troops in Greece on March 7 that the German redeployment began in earnest.

From the beginning, the Balkan operation had been planned around the panzers. This flew in the face of Great War experience, of unpromising terrain, limited road networks, undeveloped infrastructures, and just about every other common-sense reservation that prudent staff officers could conceive. In another context, however, the projected force structure reflected, more clearly than at any time since the occupation of Austria, Hitler’s conception of the ideal relationship between diplomacy and force. He sought to expand the basis for war in the eastern Mediterranean, to secure the southern flank of his forthcoming attack on the USSR, and to sequester Balkan economic resources for German use. None of those ends was best achieved by the use of force as a first option, and Hitler was correspondingly willing to keep talking. But time was an enemy when wasted. Even at the last minute, the panzer divisions could be turned loose to crush both local opposition and the burgeoning British presence in Greece—immediately and unmistakably, not least to discourage intervention by the Soviet Union, perhaps Turkey as well.

The actual deployment underwent a series of changes that both illustrated German skill in operational planning and reinforced confidence in the skill’s applicability to the wider Russian stage. The final dispositions put a worked-in command and staff team on the Greek frontier: List’s 12th Army and Kleist’s renamed Panzer Group 1. With three panzer divisions and two motorized ones plus Grossdeutschland and two similarly configured claimants to elite status, the SS Leibstandarte and the Luftwaffe’s Hermann Göring Brigade, Kleist was expected to overrun Greece from a standing start.

On March 27 the situation changed utterly. A coup deposed the Yugoslav government. Hitler responded with Operation Punishment: the destruction of Yugoslavia with “merciless harshness.” Kleist swung his group 90 degrees and, beginning on April 8 as the Luftwaffe eviscerated Belgrade, drove into Yugoslavia’s side with the force of a knife thrust. Breaking through initially stubborn resistance and scattering two Yugoslav armies, the group drove north as another panzer corps came south from Hungary into Croatia. Belgrade was the objective. What remained of it capitulated on April 12. The Yugoslav army, its morale shaken by recent political events, divided along ethnic lines. Lacking modern equipment, it never had much of a chance. In a week the panzers had shattered its fighting spirit and its fighting power alike by speed and shock, in terrain regarded as less suitable even than the Ardennes for mobile warfare, and without breaking a military sweat. The major challenge to the rear echelons was coping with the thousands of Yugoslavs trying to surrender. On April 14 the Yugoslav government called for terms.

A country was dismembered; a stage was set for more than a half century of civil war; and the panzers were responsible. Kleist’s divisions were pulled into reserve as quickly as possible for redeployment to the Russian frontier, with a collective sense of a job well done that suggested favorable prospects for the future. The new divisions and the new commanders had performed well compared to the standards of 1940. A continuing tendency to outrun the infantry had no significant tactical consequences; the tanks alone spread demoralization wherever they went. Logistics posed occasional problems, but the fighting ended before they metastasized. Total German casualties were 150 dead, 400 wounded, and 15 missing. Nothing emerging from Yugoslavia, in short, inspired any last-minute second thoughts about another operation against a Slavic army and culture.

Kleist’s turn to Yugoslavia left a suddenly diminished 12th Army the task of dealing with Greece. The initial German commitment to a Balkan blitz is indicated by an order of battle that even without the panzer group included a motorized corps headquarters, the first-rate 2nd and 9th Panzer Divisions, and the Leibstandarte motorized brigade of the Waffen SS—with Richthofen’s Stukas flying close support. The Viennese tankers overran a Greek motorized division, seized Salonika, and took 60,000 prisoners, all in four days. The 9th Panzer Division, the Leibstandarte, and the Stukas on the Germans’ other flank scattered an entire Yugoslav army, and then turned south into the plains of Thessaly. It took until April 12 to break through Greek, Australian, and New Zealand resistance and the British 1st Armored Brigade and cut off the strong Greek forces reluctant to retreat from Albania. But yet again, once through the forward defenses, the panzers set the pace. Never out-fought, the Greek army was increasingly overmatched. On April 21 the British decided to evacuate.

From the perspective of the Anzacs and the tankers, the rest of the campaign was a long fighting retreat, enduring constant air attack and bloodying the Germans where they could. For the panzers it was more of a mop-up, with the lead role played by 5th Panzer Division. Transferred from Kleist’s group after the fall of Yugoslavia, it was bloodied at Thermopylae where a rear guard knocked out 20 of its tanks as they moved through the still- narrow pass. Recovering, the division pursued the British south, crossed the Isthmus of Corinth, and took more than 7,000 prisoners on the beaches of Kalamata, men left behind when the ships were withdrawn.

The Balkan Operation also laid the groundwork for a legend. On February 12, 1941, Erwin Rommel was appointed commander in chief of German troops in Libya. It was a fancy title for a force composing only one of the new panzer divisions, the still-organizing 15th, a scratch brigade grandiloquently titled 5th Light Division (later upgraded as the 21st Panzer Division), and another mixed bag that became the 90th Light Division. Renamed the German Africa Corps (Deutsches Afrika Korps) it would make two years of history.

Hitler seems initially to have made his choice of commander as much on grounds of Rommel’s availability as from any intuitive sense that he was giving a wider stage to a budding genius. German intervention in North Africa was originally intended as a minimum-scale holding operation. No senior panzer general suggested Rommel might be more useful against Russia; no one requested him as a corps commander in a mobile force needing a half dozen new ones. Instead he was dispatched to a sideshow that he would move to history’s center stage by a spectacular succession of battlefield victories—the first of them enabled by the drawdown of British forces in the desert in favor of the campaign in Greece.

There are fashions in generalship as there are in clothing. For a quarter century after World War II, Rommel was considered a paragon of mobile war at the tactical and operational levels. In the next quarter century, military historians and professional soldiers have judged him with a sharper pencil. Nevertheless there remains an Erwin Rommel for every military writer’s taste. There is the muddy-boots general leading from the front, inspiring his men by sharing their hardships as he led them to victory. There is the brilliant opportunist, master of forcing mistakes and exploiting them, dancing rings around British generals with courage and character but no imagination. There is the master of war on a shoestring, using Germany’s military leftovers to frustrate and challenge the major land effort of a global empire. There is the soldier, making war by the rules, upholding the army’s honor albeit serving a criminal regime. And there is the maverick, defying his superiors, his allies, and the Führer himself to fight and win his way.

In Britain these images ameliorate two years of humiliation. In the United States they play into idealized concepts of what a real general should be. There is, however, another side to the scale. That one depicts a general whose leadership style generated as much confusion as success. It presents a commander consistently overreaching his operational capacities, and correspondingly indifferent to issues of logistics and sustainability. It highlights an extensive, long-term network of connections between Rommel and Hitler—not least a publicity machine that critics describe as creating a myth from lucky breaks and obliging enemies. What emerges is a good corps commander, challenged beyond his talent by the problems of war-making at higher levels.

The desert war’s principal contribution to the panzer mystique is its status, affirmed alike by Rommel’s critics and supporters, as a “clean” war. Explanations include the absence of civilians and the relative absence of Nazis; the nature of the environment, which conveyed a “moral simplicity and transparency”; and command exercised on both sides by prewar professionals, encouraging a British tendency to depict war in the imagery of a game and a corresponding German pattern of seeing it as a test of skill and a proof of virtue.

The nature of the fighting also diminished the close-quarter actions that are primary nurturers of mutual bitterness. Last stands, as opposed to stubborn defenses, were uncommon. Usually a successful German attack ended with a compound breakthrough. With tanks seeming to appear everywhere on the position, with no effective means of close defense, capitulation was an acceptable option. The large numbers of troops usually involved also inhibited both on-the-spot killings and post-action massacres. Hard war did not necessarily mean cold murder. Surrender offered and accepted correspondingly became part of the common law of the desert.

Creating preconditions for surrender was another problem. The two-year seesaw conflict across North Africa has been so often described in so much detail that it is easy to exaggerate its actual impact on Hitler’s panzers. The campaign involved only three mobile divisions and never more than around 300 tanks at any one time. Technically the Germans maintained a consistent, though not overwhelming, superiority—reflecting as much the flaws in British tank design as the qualities of the German vehicles. The Panzer III, especially the L version with the 50mm/62-caliber gun, was the backbone of Rommel’s armor, admirably complemented by the Panzer IV, whose 75mm shells were highly effective against both unarmored “soft-skinned” vehicles and unsupported infantry, even when dug in.

Not until the arrival in autumn 1942 of the US M3 medium did the balance begin to shift. With a 37mm high-velocity gun in its turret and a sponson-mounted 75mm, the M3 was a poor man’s Char B without the armor of its French counterpart, with a high silhouette that made it difficult to conceal, and with a gasoline engine that caught fire easily. But there were a lot of them, and their reinforcement in time for El Alamein by more than 300 Shermans definitively tipped the armor balance in Allied favor. The Sherman’s mid-velocity 75mm gun, able to fire both armor piercing and high-explosive rounds, made it the best tank in North Africa—except possibly for the later marks of Panzer IV, who brought their even higher velocity 75mm gun on line in numbers too small—never more than three dozen—to make a difference.

Nor was the Afrika Korps a chosen force, the best of the best. Its medical preparation consisted of cholera and typhus inoculations. Its equipment was Wehrmacht standard, with the addition of a few hundred sun helmets—most of them soon discarded in favor of field caps—and a few thousand gallons of camouflage paint in varying shades of brown. But the Germans had confidence in themselves and their officers, in their training and in their doctrine. Their divisions were teams of specialist experts trained to fight together, combining and recombining as the situation changed. Assembling them was like working with a child’s set of Legos: individual pieces, once fastened together, would hold even if the construction seemed awkward.

That flexibility proved vital. German doctrine based on avoiding tank-on-tank combat meant that when it occurred it was likely to be a close-quarters melee. German gunnery training after the 1940 campaign stressed snap shooting and rapid fire—not least because of the limited effect of single hits on French armor plate. The British for their part during much of the campaign remained committed to destroying German armor by direct action, and their tanks were usually fast enough to counter the tactical maneuvering effective in 1940.

Rommel and his subordinates in consequence recast the section of the panzer-war handbook that addressed antitank operations. In their developed and ideal form, German positions were structured by interlocking antitank-gun positions supported by infantry, the panzers deployed behind them. Contrary to belief at the time, which eventually acquired the status of myth, the 88mm gun was not a standard element of German antitank defense in the desert. Its high silhouette made it vulnerable; its limited numbers made it an emergency alternative. The backbone of German defenses was the 50mm gun, able to knock out any British tank that could move well enough to survive in desert conditions. By 1942 these were being supplemented and replaced in turn by 75mm pieces, heavy and difficult to move but effective even against the new American Grants and Shermans. Eventually the 90th Light Division would be configured as a virtual antitank formation, with 75mm Pak 40s assigned at rifle company level.

British tanks repeatedly and obligingly impaled themselves on the German guns. Robert Crisp, a South African-born officer serving with the Royal Tank Regiment, observed that British tank design and British tactical doctrines reflected a mentality that wanted to make a tank that was as much like a horse as possible, then use it as horses had been used in the Charge of the Light Brigade. As Rommel once asked a captured British officer, “What does it matter if you have two tanks to my one, when you spread them out and let me smash them in detail?”

British armor enmeshed and worn down by the antitank guns was disproportionately vulnerable to counterattacks from flank and rear by panzer forces numerically inferior but with the advantage of surprise—an advantage enhanced by the ubiquitous clouds of dust obscuring desert battlefields as powder smoke had done in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. Superior numbers were unnecessary. Properly timed, a single hard tap could shatter an already-confused British armored brigade like glass. Success depended on timing, and for that the excellent German radios were important. But even more important were situational awareness, initiative, and mutual confidence—the infantrymen and antitank crews knowing they were not being sacrificed; the artillery concentrated to provide fire support; the tankers confident the screening forces would hold while they moved into position. Time and again, from Operation Battleaxe in 1941 through Operation Crusader in November 1941 to the Battle of Gazala in May-June 1942, the technique worked—and set up the attacks that became Rommel’s signature.

The panzers’ offensive tactics in the desert followed and extended patterns established in Europe. Speed, shock, and flexibility repeatedly proved devastating against a British opponent whose reaction times were sluggish, whose tactics were uninspired, and whose coordination was so limited that desert humor described it as existing only when the commanding officers involved had slept with each others’ wives before the war—a significant handicap, one might think, to multiunit operations.

Encirclement was, however, likely to prove chimerical. There were no obvious terrain features or cultural sites with deep meaning to encourage last stands. Even Cairo was not Verdun. The wide-open terrain and the Germans’ always limited “desert sense” facilitated breakouts, the most familiar examples being the French at Bir Hacheim and 201 Guards Brigade at Knightsbridge. The British were even more completely motorized than the Germans, and correspondingly able to outrun them. The “Gazala gallop” of May 1942 may not have been heroic, but it did preserve much of 8th Army to fight again at El Alamein.

British defense systems were also far more formidable than anything encountered even in France during Case Red. The often-derided “boxes” developed as fixed position at mid-campaign usually featured elaborate minefields to disable vehicles, complex barbed wire systems to frustrate infantry, and defenders ready to fight to the limit, like 5th South African Brigade at Sidi Rezegh and 150th Brigade’s stand in the Cauldron during Gazala. Losses in both men and vehicles incurred while overrunning these positions were likely to be high and, given the theater’s low priority for replacements, permanent.

If the Afrika Korps did not want to conquer itself to death, an alternate approach must be developed. Rommel would respond by taking flexible movement to the operational level. His first major offensive, in April 1941, was undertaken despite a direct order to the contrary. Once the vulnerability of the thinly manned British positions was exposed, the battle became an exercise in deep penetration on a level not seen even in France. Columns became lost in broken, poorly mapped terrain, or were deceived by mirages. Engines overheated in 120-degree temperatures. Sandstorms slowed rates of march. But the German tanks, artillery, antitank guns, and motorized infantry wove tactical tapestries that baffled their counterparts.

Rommel seemed to appear everywhere he was needed, driving and inspiring. Benghazi fell on April 3. With the British reeling backward and the fortress of Tobruk besieged, Rommel set the next objective as the Suez Canal. His spearheads reached the Egyptian frontier. When the massive counterattack of Operation Crusader rolled the Germans back in turn, Rommel checked the drive, and then swung completely behind the British. This “dash to the wire” overextended his forces so badly that his own staff called it off while Rommel was out of touch at the front.

This time the pendulum swung all the way back to Rommel’s original starting point around El Agheila. Two weeks later he counterattacked, taking the British by surprise and forcing them back 350 miles to the partially prepared Gazala line. Both sides reinforced as best they could, but again it was Rommel who struck first. On May 26, 1942 his last great offensive began. A month later the port of Tobruk and its 30,000 man garrison were in German hands. Eighth Army, what was left of it, had retreated to the El Alamein line. In Cairo, rear-echelon commandos were burning documents. In London, Churchill faced—albeit briefly—a vote of no confidence on the House of Commons.

Gazala was by any standards a striking victory. But by most standards the Axis troops were fought out. Men and equipment were worn to breaking points, depending on captured fuel and supplies for momentum. Down to fifty tanks at the sharp end, Luftwaffe support left behind in the wake of the ground advance, Rommel was nevertheless convinced that only by attacking could his force sustain the initiative. To halt was to be attacked by massively superior forces, and another backward swing of the desert pendulum might well be the final one. Better to try ending the process altogether: roll the dice, take the British off balance, and regroup in Cairo.

“Attack” had worked for Rommel in North Africa as it had in France. It had been the armored force’s mantra since the beginning. It was a keystone of the German approach to war-making. This time under a new commander, Bernard Law Montgomery, 8th Army held. At Ruweisat Ridge on July 1, the panzers broke in. For the first time in the desert, they failed to break through. An end run was stopped cold at Alam Halfa by a mixture the Germans had patented: combined-arms tactics in a context of air supremacy. By this time Rommel’s health had declined sufficiently that he returned to Germany, partly to recover and partly to lobby for more of everything. Rommel informed his doctor, “Either the army in Russia succeeds in getting through . . . and we in Africa manage to reach the Suez Canal, or . . .” He accompanied his unfinished sentence with a dismissive gesture suggesting defeat.

The stalemate at El Alamein is frequently described as the final, fatal consequence of either Rommel’s fundamental ignorance of logistics or his culpable carelessness in supervising them. He thus epitomizes a senior officer corps whose tactical and operational proficiency manifested tunnel vision, with caste pride, misunderstood professionalism, or exaggerated vitalism relegating administration to those unsuited to command troops in combat.

When Halder asked Rommel what he would need to conquer Egypt and the Suez Canal, Rommel replied that another two panzer corps should do. When Halder asked how Rommel proposed to supply that force, Rommel replied that was Halder’s problem. Rommel was being neither arrogant nor insouciant. He was expressing the mentality of the German army as reorganized after 1933. Even Halder declared after the war that quartermasters must never hamper the operational concept. Rapid expansion encouraged a more pragmatic, hands-on ethic than had been the case prior to the Great War. The pace Hitler demanded encouraged focusing on the operational level of war. Planning in turn revolved more than ever around operational considerations; the logisti cians were called in afterward.

Rommel saw as well as anyone on either side of the war that victory in the desert depended on supply. He also understood that he had relatively little control of his logistics. Germany was a guest in the Mediterranean, depending on Italian goodwill and Italian abilities to sustain a small expeditionary force. From his arrival, Rommel successfully cultivated Italian senior officers and gained the confidence of Italian fighting formations. The Ariete Armored Division was close enough in effectiveness to its German stablemates to be virtually the Afrika Korps’ third panzer division for much of the campaign. Italian infantry, artillery, and engineers time and again were the fulcrum on which the lever of Rommel’s mobile operations depended.

The Italian army was not as retrograde in its understanding of mobile war in tactical and operational contexts as is frequently assumed. By 1940, Italian theorists had studied German successes in Poland and France and developed a doctrine of guerra di rapido corso (fast-moving war). Strategically, however, their generals considered Rommel’s focus on Cairo and the Suez Canal as culpable overextension. The Wehrmacht High Command understood the Mediterranean theater’s strategic function was to cover the German southern flank during the decisive struggle in Russia. North Africa was an outpost, best secured by a flexible defense.

On the other hand, Hitler had been reappraising Germany’s strategic prospects ever since Pearl Harbor. The German navy was calling for systematic cooperation with Japan in a campaign designed to produce a junction in the Indian Ocean that would bring about the final collapse of the British Empire. For Hitler, the war’s globalization only confirmed his decision for a 1942 campaign against the Caucasian oil fields. Hitler saw the Japanese conquests in Asia as weakening Britain’s imperial position sufficiently that the presence of Axis troops in the southern foothills of the Caucasus would convince Britain to negotiate, and leave Russia to be finished off before the industrial potential of the United States, which Hitler admitted he had no idea how to defeat, could be developed and deployed.

If America’s entry into the war threatened the Reich with grand-strategic encirclement, the military situation provided a window of opportunity—six to eight months, perhaps—for consolidating Germany’s position in a continental redoubt of the kind depicted by geopoliticians like Halford Mackinder and Karl Haushofer. Mastery of what they called the “Heartland”—the Eurasian landmass—would set the stage for eventual mastery of the world.

Rommel had a complementary strategic vision. He believed, especially given the growing imbalance in material resources between Germany and its opponents, the best approach in North Africa involved maintaining the offensive at operational levels, taking advantage of German leadership and fighting power to demoralize the British, keep them off balance, and eventually create the opportunity for a decisive blow. That was a common mind-set among Germany’s panzer generals as the war reached its middle stages. Rommel, though anything but an “educated soldier” in the traditions of the German General Staff, took the concept one level higher. He realized British strength would continue to be renewed as long as North Africa remained the primary theater where Britain could deploy modern ground forces. Yet he was also convinced that through operational art he could conquer Egypt and eventually move northeast toward the Caucasus, providing the southern pincer of a strategic double envelopment that would secure the oil fields of south Russia and drive across Iraq and Persia, breaking permanently Britain’s power in the Middle East.

The prospect of Rommel at the head of a full-blooded Axis drive into the Middle East continues to engage counterfactual historians. It is a staple chapter in the alternative histories that show Germany winning World War II. But a crucial prerequisite for large-scale offensive operations in the Middle East was Axis maritime superiority in the Mediterranean. The Germans could make no significant contributions. The Italian navy had suffered heavy losses that its construction and repair facilities could not replace. Air power was no less vital, and here too the burden would have fallen on an Italian air force whose effectiveness was steadily declining. Obsolescent aircraft, lack of fuel, and indifference at senior levels proved a fatal trifecta. As for the Luftwaffe, those human and material resources not deployed to Russia were increasingly being reassigned to home defense.

Any Middle East offensive mounted from the Mediterranean would require a port. Alexandria, even if captured relatively undamaged, would be no more than the starting point for an increasingly long line of communication over terrain even more formidable, and less developed, than Russia. The survivability of German and Italian trucks in the mountains of Syria and the deserts of Iraq was likely to be less than on the Rollbahns of the Soviet Union. The Middle East lacked anything like a comprehensive, developed railway network. The problem of securing a thousand miles and more of natural guerilla/bandit country would have daunted the most brutal Nazi specialists in genocide.

The final damping factor of a Middle East campaign was its dependence on a successful drive through southern Russia to the Caucasus. Should Rommel’s panzer strength be doubled, without regard for the demands of the Russian front, or for how the additional tanks and trucks would be supplied, the offensive through Egypt would nevertheless remain a secondary operation. If German tanks did not appear in the southern passages of the Caucasus by early winter, any successes Rommel might achieve were likely to prove all too ephemeral. And yet the question remains: What might Rommel have achieved with a couple of additional panzer divisions, a little more gasoline . . . ?

Early Reichswehr Mobile Force Doctrine

Ernst Volckheim (11 April 1898 – 1 September 1962) was one of the founders of armored and mechanized warfare. A German officer in the First and Second World War, Volkheim rose to the rank of colonel, during World War II in the German Army. Little known outside of professional military and historical circles, Volkheim is considered the foremost military academic influence on German tank war proponent, Heinz Guderian, because both Volkheim’s teaching as well as his 1924 professional military articles place him as one of the very earliest theorists of armored warfare and the use of German armored formations including independent tank corps.

An aristocrat and a Prussian Guardsman, General Hans von Seeckt fit none of the stereotypes associated with either. Educated at a civilian Gymnasium rather than a cadet school, he had traveled widely in Europe, visited India and Egypt, and was well read in contemporary English literature. During the war he had established a reputation as one of the army’s most brilliant staff officers. Having made most of that reputation on the Eastern Front, he was untarnished by the collapse of the Western Front, and a logical successor to national hero Paul von Hindenburg as Chief of the General Staff in the summer of 1918. In March 1920 he became head of the army high command in the newly established Weimar Republic.

Seeckt disliked slogans; he disliked nostalgia; he rejected the argument, widespread among veterans, that the “front experience,” with its emphasis on egalitarian comradeship and heroic vitalism that was celebrated by author-veterans like Ernst Jünger and Kurt Hesse, should shape the emerging Reichswehr. Instead he called for a return to the principle of pursuing quick, decisive victories. That in turn meant challenging the concept of mass that had permeated military thinking since the Napoleonic Wars. Mass, Seeckt argued, “becomes immobile. It cannot win victories. It can only crush by sheer weight.”

Seeckt’s critique in part involved making the best of necessity. The Treaty of Versailles had specified the structure of the Reichswehr in detail: a force of 100,000, with enlisted men committed to twelve years of service and officers to twenty-five. It was forbidden tanks, aircraft, and any artillery above three inches in caliber. As a final presumed nail in the coffin of German aggression, the Reichswehr’s organization was fixed at seven infantry and three cavalry divisions: a throwback to the days of Frederick the Great. Whatever might have been the theoretical hopes that the newly configured Reichswehr would be the first step in general European disarmament—when, presumably, the extra cavalry would give tone to holiday parades—Germany’s actual military position in the west was hopeless in any conventional context. In the East, against Poland and Czechoslovakia, some prospects existed of at least buying time for the diplomats to seek a miracle. Seeckt’s Reichswehr, however, faced at least a double, arguably a triple, bind. It could not afford to challenge the Versailles Treaty openly. It badly needed force multipliers. But to seek those multipliers by supporting clandestine paramilitary organizations depending on politicized zeal was to risk destabilizing a state that, though unsatisfactory in principle, was Germany’s best chance to avoid collapsing into permanent civil war.

Seeckt’s response was to develop an army capable of “fighting outnumbered and winning.” Among the most common misinterpretations of his work is that it was intended to provide cadres for a future national mobilization. Almost from the beginning the Reichswehr developed plans for eventual expansion. These plans, however, were based on enlarging and enhancing the existing force, not submerging it in an army prepared to fight the Great War over again. The manuals issued in the early 1920s, in particular the 1921 field service regulations titled Fuehrung und Gefecht der Verbundeten Waffen (Leadership and Employment of Combined Arms) emphasized the importance of the offensive. The Reichswehr, Seeckt insisted, must dictate the conditions of battle by taking the initiative. It was on the offensive that the superiority of troops and commanders achieved the greatest relative effect. The leader’s responsibility was above all to maintain pace and tempo. He must make decisions with minimal information. Boldness was his first rule; flexibility his second. Doctrine and training alike emphasized encounter battles: two forces meeting unexpectedly and engaging in what amounted to a melee—a melee in which training and flexibility had a chance to compensate for numerical and material inferiority. Even large-scale attacks were envisaged as a series of local combats involving companies, squads and platoons finding weak spots, creating opportunities, cooperating ad hoc to exploit success.

General-audience writings like Friedrich von Taysen’s 1921 essay on mobile war also stressed what was rapidly becoming a new—or rediscovered—orthodoxy. Machines, Taysen declared, were useless unless animated by human energy and will, when they could contribute to the rapid flanking and enveloping maneuvers that alone promised decision in war. Two years later he restated the importance of fighting spirit and warned against allowing infantry to become addicted to armor support.

Taysen’s soaring perorations on “Germanic limitlessness” and “living will” were a far cry from Seeckt’s practical approach. They nevertheless shared a common subtext: the centrality of mobility in both the figurative and the literal senses. The Reichswehr had to be able to think faster and move faster than its enemies at every stage and in every phase. Paradoxically, the banning of cutting-edge technology facilitated cultivating those qualities by removing the temptations of materially focused faddism. Elsewhere in Europe, J. F. C. Fuller and B. H. Liddell-Hart depicted fully mechanized armies with no more regard for terrain than warships had for the oceans they traversed. Giulio Douhet and Hugh Trenchard predicted future wars decided by fleets of bombers. French generals prepared for the “managed battle” structured by firepower and controlled by radio. The Red Army shifted from an initial emphasis on proletarian morale to a focus on synergy between mechanization and mass as ideologically appropriate for a revolutionary state.

In sober reality, not until the end of the 1920s would the technology of the internal combustion engine develop the qualities of speed and reliability beyond the embryonic stages that restricted armored vehicles to a supporting role. Aircraft as well were limited in their direct, sustained contributions to a ground offensive. Wire-and-strut, fabric-covered planes with fragile engines, even the specialized ground-attack versions developed by the Germans, were terribly vulnerable to even random ground fire. Artillery, despite the sophisticated fire-control methods of 1918, was a weapon of mass destruction. In that context the Reichswehr cultivated its garden, emphasizing human skills—a pattern facilitated because much of the process of maintaining effectiveness involved preventing long-service personnel from stagnating as a consequence of too many years spent doing the same things in the same places with the same people.

The cavalry in particular emerged from its wartime shell. The treaty-prescribed order of battle gave it an enhanced role faute de mieux. The mounted arm was forced to take itself seriously in the tasks of securing German frontiers and preserving German sovereignty. Further incentive was provided by tables of organization, internal organizations that authorized one cavalry officer for two of his infantry counterparts. There were fewer opportunities to withdraw into nostalgic isolation—everyone had to pull his professional weight. As early as spring 1919, a series of articles in Militär-Wochenblatt, the army’s leading professional journal, dealt with the army’s projected reconstruction and included two articles on cavalry. Maximilian von Poseck, the arm’s Inspector-General, argued that in the east, large mounted units had been effective for both reconnaissance and combat, and mobile war was likely to be more typical of future conflict than the high-tech stalemate of the Western Front.

The Reichswehr’s cavalry cannot be described as taking an enthusiastic lead in Germany’s military mechanization. Its regimental officers initially included a high percentage of men who had spent their active service in staffs or on dismounted service, and who were now anxious to get back to “real cavalry soldiering.” In the early 1920s Seeckt consistently and scathingly criticized the mounted arm’s tactical sluggishness, its poor horsemanship, and its inaccurate shooting, both dismounted and on horseback. Too much training was devoted to riding in formation—a skill worse than useless in the field, where dispersion was required. Horses did not immediately become “battle taxis.” Lances were not abolished until 1927—a year earlier, let it be noted, than in Britain. Neither, however, did the cavalry drag its collective feet, or pursue horse-powered dead ends with the energy of their European and American counterparts. After 1928, through judicious juggling of internal resources, each Reichswehr cavalry regiment included a “Special Equipment Squadron” with eight heavy machine guns and, eventually, two light mortars and two light cannon—a significant buildup of firepower, achieved without doing more than slightly bending treaty requirements.

The cavalry also benefited from the absence of institutional rivals. There was no air force to attract forward thinkers and free spirits. Germany had no tank corps, no embryonic armored force, to challenge the horse soldiers’ position and encourage the narrow branch-of-service loyalties that absorbed so much energy on the mechanization question in France, Britain, and the United States. Instead, German cavalrymen were likely to find motor vehicles appealing precisely because they were deprived of them.

German and German-language military literature of the 1920s projected the development of a genuine combined arms formation. While details varied, the core would be three horse-mounted brigades—a total of six regiments, each with a machine-gun squadron. These would cooperate with an infantry battalion carried in trucks, a cyclist battalion, and an independent machine-gun battalion, also motorized. Fire support would be provided by a battalion each of horse-drawn and motorized artillery. With a detachment of around a dozen armored cars, a twelve-plane observation squadron, an antiaircraft battalion, an engineer battalion, and signal, medical, and supply services, this theoretical formation combined mobility, firepower, and sustainability to a greater degree than any of its forerunners or counterparts anywhere in Europe.

In the delaying missions that were generally recognized as probable in a future war’s initial stages, the division could keep an enemy off balance by its flexibility, with its brigades controlling combinations of other units in the pattern of the combat commands of a US armored division in World War II. Offensively the division could operate independently on an enemy’s flank, and behind the kind of rigid front line projected throughout Europe by French- influenced doctrines, disrupting movement by hit-and-run strikes or, in more favorable circumstances, developing and exploiting opportunities for deeper penetration.

Though their concepts could be tested temporarily in maneuvers, these divisions were impossible to create under the original provisions of Versailles. The initial direct impulses for motorization and mechanization instead came from a source no one would have been likely to predict. The Versailles Treaty allocated each infantry division a Kraftfahrabteilung, or motor battalion. As this organization developed it was not the orthodox supply formation most probably envisaged by the Allied officials who structured the Reichswehr, but rather a general pool of motor transport. The hundred-odd men of a motor company had access to two dozen heavy trucks and eleven smaller ones, six passenger cars, four buses, seventeen motorcycles, and two tractors. Treaty interpretation even allowed each battalion a complement of five wheeled armored personnel carriers. These Gepanzerter Mannschaftstransportwagen resembled those used by the civil police, without the twin machine-gun turrets, and could carry a rifle squad apiece. With that kind of vehicle pool on call, it was a small wonder that as early as 1924, units conducted on their own small-scale experiments with organizing motorcycle formations, and provided dummy tanks for maneuvers. The motor battalions were also responsible for the Reichswehr’s antitank training—a logical assignment since they controlled the only vehicles able to provide hands-on instruction.

The motor transport battalions’ practical support for operational motorization was not necessarily a straw in the Reichswehr’s institutional wind. A front-loaded, offensively minded Prussian/German army had traditionally regarded logistics as unworthy of a real soldier’s attention. Under the Kaiser, train battalions had been a dumping ground and a dead end for the dipsomaniac, the scandal-ridden, the lazy, and the plain stupid—the last stage before court-martial or dismissal.

In January 1918, as part of the preparation for the great offensive, Ludendorff ’s headquarters issued the Guide for the Employment of Armored Vehicle Assault Units. It described their main mission as supporting the infantry by destroying obstacles, neutralizing fire bases and machine-gun positions, and defeating counterattacks. Because tanks by themselves could not hold ground, the document emphasized the closest possible cooperation with infantry. Tank crews were expected to participate directly in the fighting, either by dismounting and acting as assault troops, or by setting up machine-gun positions to help consolidate gains. In fact the tanks and infantry had, for practical purposes, no opportunity to train together—a problem exacerbated by the continued assignment of tank units to the motor transport service. In action, the tanks’ tendency to seek open ground and easy going clashed fundamentally with the infantry’s doctrine of seeking vulnerable spots. Nothing happened to change the infantry’s collective mind that tanks were most effective against inexperienced or demoralized opponents.

The widespread and successful Allied use of tanks in the war’s final months made a few believers. In the first months after the armistice, before the Republic’s military structure was finally determined, critics suggested the German army had seriously underestimated the tanks’ value. After Versailles made the question moot in practical terms, theoretical interest continued.

Much of this was conventional, repeating wartime arguments that tanks were most effective in creating confusion and panic, in the pattern of antiquity’s war elephants. Positive theory on the use of tanks closely followed contemporary French concepts in projecting a first wave of heavy tanks acting more or less independently, followed by a second wave of lighter vehicles maintaining close contact with the infantry. But in contrast to the French, who saw tanks as the backbone of an attack, the Reichswehr’s infantry training manual of 1921 warned against the infantry laming its offensive spirit by becoming too dependent on armor.

These positions were in good part shaped by the tanks’ existing technical limitations. In particular they were considered too slow and too unreliable to play a central role in the fast-paced offensive operations central to Reichswehr tactics. At the same time, German military thinkers and writers, Seeckt included, recognized that even with their current shortcomings, tanks had a future. The trailblazer here was Ernst Volckheim. He had been a tank officer during the war, and afterward returned to his parent branch. In 1923 he was assigned to the Reichswehr’s Inspectorate for Motor Troops. That same year he published an operational history of German tanks, affirming armor’s continuing technological development and its corresponding importance in any future war. “If tanks were not such a promising weapon,” Volckheim dryly asserted, “then certainly the Allies would not have banned them from the Reichswehr!”

Above all, Volckheim argued, tanks were general-service systems, able to engage any objective and move in many different formations. In that way, they resembled the infantry more than any other branch of service. The tanks’ future correspondingly seemed to lie with emphasizing their basic characteristics: speed, reliability, and range. In contrast to a general European predilection for light tanks that focused on improving their mobility, Volckheim saw the future as belonging to a medium-weight vehicle built around its gun rather than its engine. In a future war where both sides had tanks, speed might provide some initial tactical opportunities. The tank with the heaviest gun would nevertheless have the ultimate advantage.

The next year Volckheim published two more books on tank war. One repeated his insistence that tanks would develop to the point where infantry would be assigned to support them—a hint of the rise of the panzer grenadier that was near-heresy in an army focused on infantry as the dominant combat arm. Volckheim’s second book went even further, projecting the future main battle tank by asserting that technology would eventually produce a family of armored vehicles specially designed for particular purposes. Equipped with radios, exponentially faster, better armed, and with more cross-country ability than anything even on today’s drawing boards, they would in fact be able to operate independently of the traditional arms—an echo of the theories of Volckheim’s British contemporary, J. F. C. Fuller. He admired as well the designs of American J. Walter Christie, which could be switched from wheels to tracks as needed.

Volckheim was also an officer for the working day. First detached to the Weapons Testing School at Doeberitz, in 1925 he was promoted to First Lieutenant and assigned to teach tank and motorized tactics at the infantry school at Dresden. From 1923 to 1927 he also published two dozen signed articles in the Militär-Wochenblatt, the army’s long-standing semiofficial professional journal. Most of them dealt with tactics of direct infantry support by setting problems and presenting solutions. An interesting subtext of these pieces is the scale of armor Volckheim’s scenarios usually presented: an armor regiment to a division, a battalion supporting a regiment.

Volckheim also addresses the subject of antitank defense—a logical response to the Reichswehr’s force structure—and some of the best were published in pamphlet form. Volckheim recommended camouflage, concealment, and aggressive action on the part of the infantry, combined with the forward positioning of field guns and light mortars to cover the most likely routes of advance. Unusual for the time, Volckheim also recommended keeping tanks in reserve, not merely to spearhead counterattacks but to directly engage enemy armor as a primary mission.

Volckheim, with the cooperation of Militär-Wochenblatt’s progressive editor, retired general Konstantin von Altrock, made armored warfare an acceptable, almost fashionable, subject of study in the mid-1920s Reichswehr. Initially most of the material published in MW translated or summarized foreign work. By 1926 most of the articles were by German officers, both from the combat arms and—prophetically—from the horse transport service as well. Fritz Heigl’s survey of world developments, Taschenbuch der Tanks (Tank Pocketbook), whose first edition appeared in 1926, was widely circulated. Its successors remain staples of chain bookstore and internet marketing.

The Reichswehr’s Truppenamt, often described simply as the successor to the treaty-banned General Staff, was actually formed from its predecessor’s Operations Section. Reorganized into four bureaus—operations, organization, intelligence, and training—and more streamlined than its predecessor, the Truppenamt shed responsibility for the kind of detailed administrative planning that had increasingly dominated the prewar General Staff. That was just as well, for while the methods might be transferable, the fundamental reconfiguration of Germany’s security profile demanded fresh approaches.

On the specific subject of armored warfare, the intelligence section monitored foreign developments in tactics and technology systematically enough to issue regular compilations of that material beginning in 1925. German observers took careful notes on postwar French experiences with combining horses and motor vehicles, new material such as half-tracks, and patterns of armor- infantry cooperation. They noted as well the British maneuvers of 1923 and 1924, observing in particular the appearance of the new Vickers Medium, whose turret-mounted 47mm gun, good cross-country mobility, and sustainable speed of around 20 miles per hour made it the prototypical modern tank. English was the fashionable foreign language in the Reichswehr, and Britain was an easier objective for short-term visits. And German officers regularly visited a United States whose army was more willing than any European power to show what they had. In objective terms that was not very much, and most of it existed as prototypes and test models. But the German army offered three months of subsidized leave as an incentive to improve language proficiency, and America offered attractive possibilities for travel and culture shock.

In 1924 Seeckt ordered each unit and garrison to designate an officer responsible for acting as an advisor on tank matters, conducting classes and courses on armored warfare, and distributing instructional materials. These included copies of Volckheim’s articles, Heigl’s data on foreign tanks, and similar material issued by the Inspectorate of Motor Troops. The armor officer had another duty as well: to serve as commander of dummy tank units in the field. Seeckt ordered that representations of state-of-the-art weapons, especially tanks and aircraft, be integrated into training and maneuvers. Tanks in particular must be represented as often as possible in exercises and maneuvers, to enable practicing both antitank defense and tank-infantry cooperation in attacks. Troops were to practice both tactical motor movement and firing from the treaty-sanctioned troop transports. Reports from the annual maneuvers were to include “lessons learned” from operating with mock armored vehicles.

By the mid 1920s the Truppenamt was moving doctrinally beyond the concept of tanks as primarily infantry-support weapons and organi zationally by considering their use in regimental strength. In November 1926, Wilhelm Heye, who the previous month had succeeded Seeckt as Chief of the Army Command, issued a memo on modern tanks. Heye wore an upturned mustache in the style of Wilhelm II, but that was his principal concession to Germany’s military past. Like Seeckt, he had spent a large part of the Great War as a staff officer on the Eastern Front. In 1919 he had been in charge of frontier security in East Prussia, and from 1923 to 1926 commanded the 1st Division in that now-isolated province. Heye argued that technical developments improving tanks’ speed and range had repeatedly shown in foreign maneuvers, especially the British, the developing potential of mechanization. Operating alone or in combined-arms formations, tanks were not only becoming capable of extended operations against flanks and rear, but of bringing decisive weight to the decisive point of battle, the Schwerpunkt.

During the same year, Major Friedrich Rabenau prepared a detailed internal memorandum for the Operations Section. Rabenau was an established critic of the heroic vitalist approach to modern war and its emphasis on moral factors such as “character.” He went so far as to argue that future armies would depend heavily on a technically educated middle class and technically skilled workers. Now he synthesized developments in mobility with the concepts of the Schlieffen Plan. Schlieffen’s grand design, Rabenau argued, had failed less because of staff and command lapses than because its execution was beyond the physical capacities of men and animals. Comprehensive motorization would enable initial surprise, continuing envelopment, and a finishing blow on the enemy’s flanks and rear. Rabenau’s ideas, widely shared in the Operations Section, percolated upwards. A directive in late 1926 asserted that not only could tanks be separated from foot-marching infantry, they could best be used in combination with other mobile troops—or independently. In 1927, section chief General Werner von Fritsch went on record to declare that tanks, in units as large as the British brigades, would exercise a significant influence at operational as well as tactical levels.

German WWI Anti/Tank Experience

Mauser Tankgewehr M1918

German troops using the minenwerfer as an anti-tank gun in October 1918

September 15, 1916, began as a routine day for the German infantrymen in the forward trenches around Flers on the Somme—as routine as any day was likely to be after two and a half months of vicious, close-gripped fighting that bled divisions white and reduced battalions to the strength of companies. True, an occasional rumble of engines had been audible across the line. But the British had more trucks than the Kaiser’s army, and were more willing to risk them to bring up ammunition and carry back wounded. True, there had been occasional gossip of something new up Tommy’s sleeve: of armored “land cruisers” impervious to anything less than a six-inch shell. But rumors—Scheisshausparolen in Landser speak—were endemic on the Western Front. Then “a forest of guns opened up in a ceaseless, rolling thunder, the few remaining survivors . . . fight on until the British flood overwhelms them, consumes them, and passes on. . . . An extraordinary number of men. And there, between them, spewing death, unearthly monsters: the first British tanks.”

Improvised and poorly coordinated, the British attack soon collapsed in the usual welter of blood and confusion. But for the first time on the Western Front, certainly the first time on the Somme, the heaviest losses were suffered by the defenders. Reactions varied widely. Some men panicked; others fought to a finish. But the 14th Bavarian Infantry, for example, tallied more than 1,600 casualties. Almost half were “missing,” and most of them were prisoners. That was an unheard-of ratio in an army that still prided itself on its fighting spirit. But the 14th was one of the regiments hit on the head by the tanks.

Shock rolled uphill. “The enemy,” one staff officer recorded, “employed new engines of war, as cruel as effective. . . . It is necessary to take whatever methods are possible to counteract them.” From the Allied perspective, the impact of tanks on the Great War is generally recognized. The cottage industry among scholars of the British learning curve, with descriptions of proto-mechanized war pitted against accounts of a semi-mobile final offensive based on combined arms and improved communications, recognizes the centrality of armor for both interpretations. French accounts are structured by Marshal Philippe Petain’s judgment that, in the wake of the frontline mutinies of 1917, it was necessary to wait for “the Americans and the tanks.” Certainly it was the tanks, the light Renault FTs, that carried the exhausted French infantry forward in the months before the armistice. Erich Ludendorff, a general in a position to know, declared after the war that Germany had been defeated not by Marshal Foch but by “General Tank.”

In those contexts it is easy to overlook the salient fact that the German army was quick and effective in developing antitank techniques. This was facilitated by the moonscape terrain of the Western Front, the mechanical unreliability of early armored vehicles, and such technical grotesqueries as the French seeking to increase the range of their early tanks by installing extra fuel tanks on their roofs, which virtually guaranteed the prompt incineration of the crew unless they were quick to abandon the vehicle. Even at Flers the Germans had taken on tanks like any other targets: aiming for openings in the armor, throwing grenades, using field guns over open sights. German intelligence thoroughly interrogated one captured tanker and translated a diary lost by another. Inside of a week, Berlin had a general description of the new weapons, accompanied by a rough but reasonably accurate sketch.

One of the most effective antitank measures was natural. Tanks drew fire from everywhere, fire sufficiently intense to strip away any infantry in their vicinity. A tank by itself was vulnerable. Therefore, the German tactic was to throw everything available at the tanks and keep calm if they kept coming. Proactive countermeasures began with inoculating the infantry against “tank fright” by using knocked-out vehicles to demonstrate their various vulnerabilities. An early frontline improvisation was the geballte Ladung: the heads of a half dozen stick grenades tied around a complete “potato-masher” and thrown into one of a tank’s many openings—or, more basic, the same half dozen grenades shoved into a sandbag and the fuse of one of them pulled. More effective and less immediately risky was the K-round. This was simply a bullet with a tungsten carbide core instead of the soft alloys commonly used in small arms rounds. Originally developed to punch holes in metal plates protecting enemy machine-gun and sniper positions, it was employed to even better effect by the ubiquitous German machine guns against the armor of the early tanks. K-rounds were less likely to disable the vehicle, mostly causing casualties and confusion among the crew, but the end effect was similar.

As improved armor limited the K-round’s effect, German designers came up with a 13mm version. Initially it was used in a specially designed single-shot rifle, the remote ancestor of today’s big-caliber sniper rifles but without any of their recoil-absorbing features. The weapon’s fierce recoil made it inaccurate and unpopular; even a strong user risked a broken collarbone or worse. More promising was the TuF (tank and antiaircraft) machine gun using the same round. None of the ten thousand TuFs originally projected were ready for service by November 11—but the concept and the bullet became the basis for John Browning’s .50-caliber machine gun, whose near-century of service makes it among the most long-lived modern weapons.

When something heavier was desirable, the German counterpart of the Stokes mortar was a much larger piece, mounted on wheels, capable of modification for direct fire and, with a ten-pound shell, lethal against any tank. The German army had also begun forming batteries of “infantry guns” even before the tanks appeared. These were usually mountain guns or modified field pieces of around three-inch caliber. Intended to support infantry attacks by direct fire, they could stop tank attacks just as well. From the beginning, ordinary field pieces with ordinary shells also proved able to knock out tanks at a range of two miles.

In an emergency the large number of 77mm field pieces mounted on trucks for antiaircraft work could become improvised antitank guns. These proved particularly useful at Cambrai in November 1917, when more than a hundred tanks were part of the spoils of the counterattack that wiped out most of the initial British gains. They did so well, indeed, that the crews had to be officially reminded that their primary duty was shooting down airplanes. As supplements, a number of ordinary field guns were mounted on trucks in the fashion of the portees used in a later war by the British in North Africa.

If survival was not sufficient incentive, rewards and honor were invoked. One Bavarian battery was awarded 500 marks for knocking out a tank near Flers. British reports and gossip praised an officer who, working a lone gun at Flesquieres during the Cambrai battle, either by himself or with a scratch crew, was supposed to have disabled anywhere from five to sixteen tanks before he was killed. The Nazis transformed the hero into a noncommissioned officer, and gave him a name and at least one statue. The legend’s less Homeric roots seem to have involved a half dozen tanks following each other over the crest of a small hill and being taken out one at a time by a German field battery. The story of “the gunner of Flesquieres” nevertheless indicates the enduring strength of the tank mystique in German military lore.

Other purpose-designed antitank weapons were ready to come on line when the war ended: short-barreled, low-velocity 37mm guns, an automatic 20mm cannon that the Swiss developed into the World War II Oerlikon. The effect of this new hardware on the projected large-scale use of a new generation of tanks in the various Allied plans for 1919 must remain speculative. What it highlights is the continued German commitment to tank defense even in the war’s final months.

That commitment is highlighted from a different perspective when considering the first German tank. It was not until October 1916 that the Prussian War Ministry summoned the first meeting of the A7V Committee. The group took its name from the sponsoring agency, the Seventh Section of the General War Department, and eventually bestowed it on the resulting vehicle. The members were mostly from the motor transport service rather than the combat arms, and their mission was technical: develop a tracked armored fighting vehicle in the shortest possible time. They depended heavily on designers and engineers loaned to the project by Germany’s major auto companies. Not surprisingly, when the first contracts for components were placed in November, no fewer than seven firms shared the pie.

A prototype was built in January; a working model was demonstrated to the General Staff in May. It is a clear front-runner for the title of “ugliest tank ever built” and a strong contender in the “most dysfunctional” category. The A7V was essentially a rectangular armored box roughly superimposed on a tractor chassis. It mounted a 57mm cannon in its front face and a half dozen machine guns around the hull. It weighed 33 tons, and required a crew of no fewer than eighteen men. Its under-slung tracks and low ground clearance left it almost no capacity to negotiate obstacles or cross broken terrain: the normal environment of the Western Front. An improved A7V and a lighter tank, resembling the British Whippet and based on the chassis of the Daimler automobile, were still in prototype states when the war ended. A projected 150-ton monster remained—fortunately—on the drawing boards.

Shortages of raw material and an increasingly dysfunctional war production organization restricted A7V production to fewer than three dozen. When finally constituted, the embryonic German armored force deployed no more than forty tanks at full strength, and more than half of those were British models salvaged and repaired. Material shortcomings were, however, the least of the problems facing Germany’s first tankers. By most accounts the Germans had the best of the first tank-versus-tank encounter at Villiers Bretonneaux on April 24, 1918. British tankers, at least, were impressed, with their commanding general describing the threat as “formidable” and warning that there was no guarantee the Germans would continue to use their tanks in small numbers.

In fact, the German army made no serious use of armor in either the spring offensive or the fighting retreat that began in August and continued until the armistice. In the ten or twelve times tanks appeared under German colors their numbers were too small—usually around five vehicles—to attract more than local attention. The crews, it is worth mentioning, were not the thrown-together body of men often described in British-oriented accounts. They did come from a number of arms and services, but all were volunteers—high-morale soldiers for a high- risk mission: a legacy that would endure. Europe’s most highly industrialized nation nevertheless fought for its survival with the least effective mechanized war instruments of the major combatants.

In public Erich Ludendorff loftily declared that the German high command had decided not to fight a “war of material.” His memoirs are more self-critical: “Perhaps I should have put on more pressure: perhaps then we would have had a few more tanks for the decisive battles of 1918. But I don’t know what other necessary war material we should have had to cut short.” For any weapon, however, a doctrine is at least as important as numbers. In contrast to both the British and the French, the German army demonstrated neither institutional nor individual capacity for thinking about mechanized war beyond the most immediate, elementary contexts.

Stuka in Poland

It was no coincidence that the Ju 87 was selected to carry out the first aerial attack of World War II in Europe. The easternmost province of Germany, East Prussia, was cut off from the rest of the Fatherland by the Polish Corridor. “This hotly disputed strip of territory, which afforded the

landlocked Poles access to the Baltic Sea,” said Weal, “was another product of the Treaty of Versailles, and a contributory factor in Hitler’s decision to attack Poland.” A single railway across the Polish Corridor connected East Prussia directly to Berlin. The weakest point of the rail line was a bridge over the Vistula River near the town of Dirschau (Tczew). The Poles understood the bridge’s significance – and they had preemptively rigged it with explosives, ready to detonate should the Germans ever attack. Thus, the bombing target was not the bridge itself, but the detonation site located at the nearby Dirschau station. By destroying the detonation site, Germany could prevent the Poles from destroying the bridge, and thus preserve East Prussia’s lifeline to the Reich proper.

At exactly 4:26 a.m. on September 1, 1939, three Stukas from III./StG 1, led by pilot Bruno Dilly, lifted off from their air base in East Prussia en route to the Dirschau station. With their 250kg bombs attached firmly to their wings, the Stukas climbed in unison before separating, one by one, into their signature dive patterns. Within minutes, each pilot delivered his bombs with pinpoint accuracy onto the Dirschau station. Although the first dive-bomb run of World War II was a tactical success, it did not preserve the railway bridge. Undaunted, Polish Army engineers managed to destroy the bridge before the first German troop trains could arrive.

The same day, elements from I./StG 2 launched a raid on the enemy airfield at Krakow, only to find it deserted. As it turned out, most Polish Air Force units had vacated their peacetime airbases and relocated to secret, carefully secluded fields in the near countryside. After returning from their unfruitful mission at Krakow, these same Stukas spotted one of the secret airfields near Balice, just as a pair of PZL P.11c fighters were scrambling from the runway. The lead Stuka, piloted by Frank Neubert (who went on to earn the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross) shot down the P.11 piloted by Captain Mieczylaw Medwecki, making Neubert’s kill the Luftwaffe’s first air-to-air combat victory of World War II. According to Neubert, his shot caused the P.11 to “suddenly explode in mid-air, bursting apart like a huge fireball – the fragments literally flew around our ears.”

Later on September 1, the Luftwaffe’s vanguard Stukas engaged the Polish Navy at Hela in the first of several attacks on that naval base. In this engagement, four Stukas plummeted from 7,000m to attack the enemy’s naval stronghold. However, Hela was defended by one of the largest anti-aircraft batteries in Poland, and the diving Stukas got their first taste of enemy fire. Bracketed by the intense anti-aircraft fire, two of the four Stukas were downed by Polish guns – the first Ju 87s lost to enemy fire. Two days later, the Stukas were in action again over Gdynia, where they sank the Polish destroyer Wicher and the minelayer Gryf.

After disrupting the enemy’s air and naval defenses, the Stuka could now perform its primary role in the Blitzkrieg campaign: to act as “flying artillery,” disrupting the enemy ground forces and clearing a path for the oncoming Panzer and mechanized formations. Around noon on September 1, aerial reconnaissance reported a large concentration of Polish horse cavalry massing along the northern flank of the German XVI Armeekorps near Wielun. Major Oskar Dinort, the Gruppenkommandeur of I./StG 2 (and the first Stuka pilot to win the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves), recalled how his Stukas met the Polish horsemen on that fateful day:

We cross the border at a height of 2500 meters. Visibility is far from good; hardly a kilometer. Although the sun is now shining, everything is swimming in an opalescent haze. Suddenly a group of buildings – either a large estate or a small village. Smoke is already rising. Wielun – the target!

I stuff my map away, set the sights, close the radiator flaps; do all those things we’ve already done a hundred times or more in practice, but never with a feeling so intense as today. Then bank slightly, drop the left wing and commence the dive. The air brakes screech, all the blood in my body is forced downwards. 1200 meters – press the bomb release. A tremor runs through the machine. The first bomb is on its way.

Recover – bank – corkscrew – and then a quick glance below. Bang on target, a direct hit on the road. The black snake of men and horses that had been crawling along it has now come to a complete standstill. Now for that large estate, packed with men and wagons. Our height scarcely 1200 meters, we dive to 800. Bombs away! The whole lot goes up in smoke and flames.

By mid-afternoon, the Wehrmacht confirmed that as a farm complex just north of Wielun housed the entire headquarters of the Polish Wolynska brigade. In response, 60 Ju 87s belonging to the I and II./StG 77 destroyed the headquarters outpost and the Germans occupied Wielan that night.

In the following days, the Stuka squadrons performed over 300 bombing runs on civilian and military targets as the Wehrmacht sped towards the Polish capital, Warsaw. In the European tradition of conventional warfare, it was understood that once the enemy’s capital had fallen, the game was over. The Poles obviously understood this as well as the Germans did. Indeed, the 24 infantry brigades and six mounted brigades defending Polish borderlands put every ounce of strength they had into preventing the Nazis from reaching Warsaw. Yet, Poland’s defenses gradually eroded under the relentless bombardment (and the terrifying wails) of the Stuka dive-bomber.

As the Poles retreated towards Warsaw, however, many of their number invariably became separated from the main retreat. One such contingent included six Polish divisions that were trapped between Radom and their fallback point near the Vistula River. As the Panzer forces surrounded the beleaguered Poles, more than 150 Stukas arrived overhead to pound the enemy troops into submission. After four days of enduring the relentless 50kg fragmentation bombs, and hearing the dreadful scream of the Jericho Trumpet, the encircled Polish units finally gave up.

A few days later, the Stukas participated in the battle of Bzura. The Polish Poznan Army (consisting of four infantry divisions and two cavalry brigades) had moved southeast across the Bzura River, trying to reach the Vistula in attempt to break through the frontline screen of the German 8.Armee. The ensuing battle of Bzura, which was essentially an “air-versus-ground engagement,” effectively broke the back of the remaining Polish resistance. During this battle alone, the Stukas dropped over 388 metric tons of ordnance on the beleaguered Polish defenders.

Following the collapse of Poland’s defenses, the Stuka units turned their attention to Warsaw proper. The enemy capital, however, with its few remaining air defense batteries, put up a valiant last stand against the invading Stukas and other Luftwaffe aircraft. In fact, one Ju 87 pilot recalled how tight the Polish defenses were around the capital city:

I had just recovered from the dive and was corkscrewing back up to altitude when the Polish 40mm flak caught me fair and square in its crossfire. The ‘red tomatoes’ which this dangerous weapon spewed out were flying around my ears. Suddenly there was an almighty crash in the machine. There I was, 1200 meters over the middle of Warsaw, and I could immediately tell that the machine was no longer maneuverable.

My gunner reported that the elevator had been shot off and there were only a few scraps left fluttering in the wind. Quick decision: the airfield just south of Warsaw was already in German hands…I had to make it. The machine was steadily losing height, but I slowly coaxed it along, gently slide-slipped and got safely down on the first attempt.

But despite the Poles’ best efforts against the Luftwaffe, the air defenses around the city eventually collapsed. Warsaw fell to the Germans on September 27, 1939 – less than one month after the start of the invasion. Throughout the campaign, only 31 Stukas had been lost to enemy fire.

The Battle of the Falkland Islands I

The night was clear and the visibility exceptional even at two in the morning when officers on Scharnhorst’s bridge first made out the dark masses of the Falkland Islands on the northern horizon. The early summer dawn three hours later promised a rare, cloudless day, the first in weeks. At 5:30 a.m., Admiral von Spee signaled Gneisenau and Nürnberg to leave the squadron and proceed to reconnoiter Port Stanley. The admiral, with Scharnhorst, Dresden, and Leipzig, would remain to the south, while his three colliers waited off Port Pleasant, a bay twenty miles southwest of Port Stanley. As the sun came up, Captain Maerker and Commander Hans Pochhammer of Gneisenau got a better look at the coast, whose capes, bays, and hills they identified with the aid of compass, binoculars, and maps. On deck, a landing party was assembling; Pochhammer looked down from the bridge at the men in white gaiters carrying rifles, one oddly bringing his gas mask. As promised, the summer morning was near perfect: the sea was calm, with only a slight breeze from the northwest gently rippling the surface; the sky was high, clear, and azure. Port Stanley was hidden from the south by a range of low hills, but by seven o’clock, as they came closer, Maerker and Pochhammer could see their first target, the radio mast on Hooker’s Point. They also noticed, near the place where the Cape Pembroke lighthouse stood at the tip of a sandy, rock-strewn peninsula, a thin column of smoke. It appeared to rise from the funnel of a ship.

The British squadron began to coal early that summer morning. By 4:30 a.m., the collier Trelawny was secured to the port side of Invincible and at 5:30 a.m. all hands had been summoned to begin coaling. By two hours later, when the crew was piped to breakfast, 400 tons had been taken aboard. Coaling never resumed that day. Just after 7:30 a.m., a civilian lookout in the observation post on Sapper Hill saw two columns of smoke on the southwestern horizon. He raised his telescope, then picked up his telephone and reported to Canopus: “A four-funnel and a two-funnel man of war in sight steering northwards.” (Nürnberg had three funnels, but because of the angle of the approaching ship, the spotter missed one.)

At 7:45 a.m., Canopus received the Sapper Hill message. Because there was no land line between the grounded Canopus and Sturdee’s flagship in the outer harbor, Captain Grant could not pass along the message by telephone. And because Invincible was out of sight, hidden from him by intervening hills, he could not signal visually. Glasgow, however, was anchored in a place from which she could see both Canopus and Invincible. Accordingly, Canopus hoisted the signal “Enemy in sight.” Glasgow saw it and, at 7:56 a.m., Luce raised the same flags on his own mast. There was no response from Invincible, busy coaling and surrounded by a haze of coal dust. Impatiently, Luce, still in his pajamas, snapped at his signal officer, “Well, for God’s sake, do something. Fire a gun, send a boat, don’t stand there like a stuffed dummy.” The firing of a saluting gun and its report echoing through the harbor attracted attention. By training a powerful searchlight on Invincible’s bridge, Glasgow passed the message. Meanwhile, Luce said to his intelligence officer, “ ‘Mr. Hirst, go to the masthead and identify those ships.’ Halfway up,” Hirst said, “I was able to report, ‘Scharnhorst or Gneisenau with a light cruiser.’ ”

Spee had achieved complete surprise. Sturdee, not imagining the possibility of any threat to his squadron, had made minimal arrangements for its security. The armed merchant cruiser Macedonia was slowly patrolling outside the mouth of the harbor. The armored cruiser Kent, assigned to relieve Macedonia and the only warship that could get up full steam at less than two hours’ notice, was anchored in Port William. Invincible, Inflexible, Carnarvon, and Cornwall also were anchored in Port William; Bristol and Glasgow were in the inner harbor where Canopus was grounded. By eight o’clock, only Carnarvon and Glasgow had completed coaling and Carnarvon’s decks still were stacked with sacks of coal. Kent, Cornwall, Bristol, and Macedonia had not yet begun to replenish their bunkers; they would fight that day with what remained from Abrolhos. Bristol had closed down her fires for boiler cleaning and opened up both engines for repairs, and Cornwall had one engine under repair. In Cornwall’s wardroom, her officers, many already in civilian clothes, were breakfasting on kippers, marmalade, toast, and tea and making plans for a day of shooting hares and partridges on the moors behind the town.

The sound of Glasgow’s gun found Admiral Sturdee in the act of shaving. An officer raced to the admiral’s quarters, burst in, and announced that the Germans had arrived. Later, Sturdee was reported to have replied, “Send the men to breakfast.” After the war, Sturdee gave his own version of the moment: “He [Spee] came at a very convenient hour because I had just finished dressing and was able to give orders to raise steam at full speed and go down to a good breakfast.” It was said of Sturdee that “no man ever saw him rattled.” Nevertheless, while the admiral may have been pleased by the luck that had brought the enemy so obligingly to his doorstep, he may also have wondered whether perhaps the greater luck was on Spee’s side. The situation of the British squadron was awkward; Kent was the only warship ready to fight. It was possible that Spee might boldly approach Port Stanley harbor with his entire squadron and unleash a storm of 8.2-inch shells into the crowd of ships at anchor. In the confined space of the harbor, some British ships would mask the fire of others and Sturdee would be unable to bring more than a fraction of his superior armament to bear. Accurate salvos from Scharnhorst and Gneisenau might damage, even cripple, the battle cruisers. Even once the British ships raised steam, Spee still might stand off the harbor entrance and subject each vessel to a hail of shells or a volley of torpedoes as it emerged. With these apprehensions in every mind, all eyes were on the flagship to learn what steps Sturdee intended to take.

At 8:10, signal flags soared up Invincible’s halyards. Kent, the duty guard ship, was ordered to weigh anchor immediately and proceed out through the mine barrier to protect Macedonia and keep the enemy under observation. The battle cruisers were told to cast off their colliers so as to leave themselves freer to fire even while they were still at anchor. All ships were ordered to raise steam and report when they were ready to proceed at 12 knots. Carnarvon was to clear for action, to sail as soon as possible, and to “engage the enemy as they come around the corner” of Cape Pembroke. Canopus was to open fire as soon as Gneisenau and Nürnberg were within range. Macedonia, unfit for battle against warships, was ordered to return to harbor. Having issued his orders, Sturdee went to breakfast.

At 8:20 a.m., the observation station on Sapper Hill reported more smoke on the southwestern horizon. At 8:47, Canopus’s fire control station reported that the first two ships observed were now only eight miles off and that the new smoke appeared to be coming from three additional ships about twenty miles off. Meanwhile, bugles on all the ships in the harbor were sounding “Action,” the crews were busy casting off the colliers, smoke was pouring from many funnels, and the anchorage was covered with black haze. The engine room staffs aboard Cornwall and Bristol hurried to reassemble their dismantled machinery.

Sturdee’s breakfast was short. He was on deck at 8:45 a.m. to see Kent moving down the harbor to take up station beyond the lighthouse. “As we got near the harbor entrance,” said one of Kent’s officers, “I could see the smoke from two ships on our starboard over a low-lying ridge of sand.” It would be another hour before the battle cruisers and Carnarvon could weigh anchor, and still longer before Cornwall and Bristol were ready.

At the Admiralty, few details were known and the worst was feared. At 5:00 p.m. London time, Churchill was working in his room when Admiral Oliver, now Chief of Staff, entered with a message from the governor of the Falkland Islands: “Admiral Spee arrived at daylight this morning with all his ships and is now in action with Admiral Sturdee’s whole fleet which was coaling.” “These last three words sent a shiver up my spine,” said Churchill. “Had we been taken by surprise and, in spite of our superiority, mauled, unready, at anchor? ‘Can it mean that?’ I said to the Chief of Staff. ‘I hope not,’ was all he said.”

“As we approached,” said the commander of Gneisenau, “signs of life began to appear. Here and there behind the dunes, columns of dark yellow smoke began to ascend . . . as if stores [of coal] were being burned to prevent them falling into our hands. In any case, we had been seen, for among the mastheads which could be distinguished here and there through the smoke, two now broke away and proceeded slowly east towards the lighthouse. . . . There was no longer any doubt that warships were hidden behind the land. . . . We thought we could make out first two, then four, then six ships . . . and we wirelessed this news to Scharnhorst.”

The Germans, up to this point, had little premonition of serious danger. Then Gneisenau’s gunnery officer, Lieutenant Commander Johann Busche, staring through his binoculars from the spotting top on the foremast, believed that he saw something ominous: tripod masts. When he reported this to the bridge, Captain Maerker curtly dismissed the observation. Tripod masts meant dreadnoughts, Busche was told, and there were no dreadnoughts in the South Atlantic. Maerker continued to take Gneisenau and Nürnberg closer to their initial bombardment position four miles southwest of Cape Pembroke. He did not bother to pass Busche’s report along to Admiral von Spee.

As Gneisenau and Nürnberg drew closer, the 12-inch guns of Canopus, invisible to the German ships, were being elevated and trained on them by guidance from the shore observation post. When Maerker’s two ships were near Wolf’s Rock, six miles short of Cape Pembroke, they slowed their engines, turned, and glided to the northeast, swinging around to present their port broadsides to the wireless station. But Canopus, sitting on her mudbank, spoke first. As soon as her gunnery officer, ashore in the observa-tion post, judged the range to be down to 11,000 yards, he gave the signal. At 9:20 a.m., both 12-inch guns in the battleship’s forward turret fired. The reverberating roar shook the town and the harbor and produced shrill cries from circling flocks of seabirds. The shots fell short, but the Germans hoisted their battle flags, turned, and made away to the southeast. As they did so, Canopus tried again with another salvo at 12,000 yards. Again the shots were short, but this time by less, and some observers believed that one of the shells ricocheted, sending fragments into the base of a funnel on Gneisenau. With the Germans moving out of range, Canopus had played her part. She had saved the wireless station, the anchored ships, and the town from bombardment, and had provided Sturdee’s squadron with time to leave the harbor. Captain Grant ordered a cease-fire.

Captain Maerker had just signaled Spee that Gneisenau was about to open fire when he received a shock. Without warning, two gigantic mushrooms of water, each 150 feet high, rose out of the sea a thousand yards to port. This was heavy-caliber gunfire, although the guns themselves could not be seen. Immediately, Maerker hoisted his battle ensigns and turned away, but not before a second salvo spouted up 800 yards short of his ship. Before abandoning his mission, Maerker considered a final attempt to harm the enemy. The first British cruiser coming out of the harbor was recognized as a County-class ship (it was Kent) and Maerker, believing that she was trying to escape, increased speed to cut her off outside the entrance to Port William. Scarcely had he settled on a closing course, however, when he received a signal from Scharnhorst. This was not the unopposed landing Spee had planned. He had no wish to engage British armored cruisers or old battleships with 12-inch guns and he ordered Maerker to suspend operations and rejoin the flagship: “Do not accept action. Concentrate on course east by south. Proceed at full speed.” Spee retreated because, although he now knew that a 12-inch-gun ship or ships were present, he was certain that they were old battleships that his squadron could easily outrun. Maerker turned and made off at high speed toward the flagship twelve miles away.

By 9:45 a.m., Glasgow had come out of the harbor and joined Kent. The light cruiser’s captain, John Luce, carrying memories of Coronel, was eager to attack the Germans by himself, but he was ordered to remain out of range, trail the enemy, and keep Admiral Sturdee informed. At 9:50 a.m., the rest of the squadron weighed anchor and proceeded down the harbor. First came Carnarvon with Stoddart aboard, then Inflexible, Invincible, and Cornwall; only Bristol, still reassembling her engines, and Macedonia were left behind. At 10:30 a.m., as the last of the line of British ships cleared the Cape Pembroke lighthouse, five retreating plumes of smoke could be seen on the southwestern horizon. Three hours had passed since the enemy first came in sight, and Sturdee could be thankful for the fine weather. Had there been fog or mist, he might have had less than half an hour’s notice of Spee’s arrival. Instead, the sun was shining from a blue, cloudless sky, and a light northwesterly breeze scarcely ruffled the sea: ideal conditions for a long-range action. Everyone on both sides who survived the battle recalled the extraordinary weather: “The visibility of the fresh, calm atmosphere surpassed everything in the experience of sailors,” recalled Pochhammer of Gneisenau. “It was a perfect day,” wrote an officer on Inflexible, “very rare in these latitudes and it was a beautiful sight . . . when the British ships came around the point and all flags (we had five ensigns flying to make sure not all should be shot away) with the sun on them.” Aboard Invincible, a sublieutenant was “struck by the magnificent weather conditions and, seizing my camera, climbed up the mast into the main top. The air was biting cold as I . . . stood and watched the enemy . . . away to the southwest, five triangles of smoke on the horizon. It was a brilliant sunny day, visibility at its very maximum. And there they were, the squadron that we thought would keep us hunting the seas for many weary months . . . providentially delivered into our hands.”

The battle cruisers, their speed climbing to 25 knots, crept inexorably to the head of the line, passing Carnarvon, overtaking Kent, then alone with only Glasgow before them. From the flagship’s bridge, Sturdee, watching the smoke from the five fleeing ships, knew that, barring some wholly unforeseen circumstance, Spee was at his mercy. His force was superior; Invincible and Inflexible, just out of dry dock, could steam at 25 knots; Spee’s armored cruisers, after five months at sea, would be fortunate to manage 20. Thus, Sturdee could bring Spee’s armored cruisers within range of his 12-inch guns in less than three hours and then would have six hours before sunset to complete their destruction. The weather was beyond his control, but so far there was nothing to indicate any change in the prevailing near perfect conditions. Up Invincible’s halyard soared the signal “General Chase.”

Lieutenant Hirst of Glasgow afterward recalled: “No more glorious moment in the war do I remember than when the flagship hoisted the signal ‘General Chase.’ . . . Fifteen miles to the eastward lay the same ships which we had fought at Coronel and which had sent brave Admiral Cradock and our comrades to their death.” Glasgow, out in front and off to the side, had a splendid view of the British battle cruisers as they charged ahead, their bows cleaving the calm, blue sea with white bow waves curling away, their sterns buried under the water boiling in their wakes, their 12-inch-gun turrets training on the enemy with the barrels raised to maximum elevation. Above, on the masts and yards, Royal Navy battle ensigns stood out stiffly, the white color of the flags in stark contrast to the black smoke pouring from the funnels. There was no hurry; the admiral had a clear, empty ocean in front of him. Just as Spee at Coronel had been able to use his advantage of greater speed and heavier guns to destroy Cradock, so Sturdee would be able to use his own greater power and speed to destroy Spee. Each British battle cruiser carried eight 12-inch guns, firing shells weighing 850 pounds. The German armored cruisers carried eight 8.2-inch guns, each firing a shell of 275 pounds. Sturdee could use his speed to set the range; then, keeping his distance, use his big guns to pound Spee to pieces.

According to Commander Pochhammer of Gneisenau, it was not until the chase was under way that the Germans were certain of the identity of the two big ships that had emerged from the harbor. “Two vessels soon detached themselves from the number of our pursuers; they seemed much faster and bigger than the others as their smoke was thicker, wider, more massive,” Pochhammer said. “All glasses were turned upon their hulls.” It was not long before the spacing of the three funnels and the unmistakable tripod masts forced the German seamen to confront “the possibility, even probability, that we were being chased by English battle cruisers . . . this was a very bitter pill for us to swallow. We choked a little . . . the throat contracted and stiffened, for it meant a life and death struggle, or rather a fight ending in honorable death.”

Meanwhile, Sturdee calmly set about making his tactical arrangements. He had difficulty seeing the enemy because of the volume of smoke belching from the battle cruisers’ funnels, but Glasgow reported the Germans twelve miles ahead, making 18 to 20 knots. Knowing that Spee could not escape, Sturdee decided to postpone an immediate engagement. He ordered Inflexible to haul out on Invincible’s starboard quarter, stationed Glasgow three miles ahead of Invincible on the port bow, and instructed Kent to drop back to his port beam. Soon, with the battle cruisers and Glasgow making 25 knots, he found that he was leaving his own armored cruisers behind. At eleven o’clock, the admiral signaled Carnarvon and Cornwall, five miles behind the battle cruisers, asking what their maximum speed was. Carnarvon replied 20 knots (actually, it was 18) and Cornwall 22. Not wanting his squadron scattered too widely, Sturdee reduced the speed of the battle cruisers from 25 to 24 knots and then to 20 knots to allow the squadron to come closer. These changes, in effect, nullified the signal for General Chase. Never-theless, so confident of the day’s outcome was Sturdee that, at 11:32 a.m., he signaled, “Ships’ companies have time for next meal.” Men who had begun the day shifting sacks of coal and were covered with grime now had an opportunity to wash and change clothes. “Picnic lunch in the wardroom,” wrote one of Invincible’s officers. “Tongue, bread, butter, and jam.” No one remained below, however, and soon the upper decks were lined with officers and men, sandwiches in hand, watching the five German ships on the horizon.

[Meanwhile, around 11:00 a.m., just as the British light cruiser Bristol came out of the harbor, the signal station on Mount Pleasant reported sighting three new ships—“transports or colliers”—about thirty miles to the south. There had been unfounded rumors that German nationals were gathering at South American ports to occupy and garrison the Falklands, and Sturdee ordered Bristol and Macedonia to intercept and destroy these ships. Two of the ships, which turned out to be the colliers Baden and Santa Isabel, were overtaken; their crews were taken off and both vessels were sunk by gunfire. Later, once the German squadron for which the coal had been intended had been sunk, the British regretted having destroyed such valuable cargo. The third German ship, the collier Seydlitz, escaped and was interned in Argentina.]

Aboard the German ships, the mood was somber. “Towards noon, the two battle cruisers . . . were about 18,500 yards away. Four other cruisers were observed,” said Pochhammer. “We took our meal at the usual time, eleven forty-five, but it passed off more quietly than usual, everybody being absorbed in his own thoughts.” As the meal finished, the thunder of heavy guns sounded across the water. “Drums and bugles summoned us to our battle stations. A brief handshake here and there, a farewell between particularly close friends, and the mess room emptied.” Soon after noon, Sturdee became impatient. It was evident that Stoddart’s flagship, Carnarvon, still six miles astern and unable to force more than 18 knots out of her engines, could not catch up. As Cornwall could manage 22, she was ordered to leave Carnarvon and come on ahead. Even this seemed too slow and Sturdee decided to begin his attack with the two battle cruisers. At 12:20 p.m., Captain Richard Phillimore came aft on Inflexible and told his men that the admiral had decided “to get along with the work.” The crew cheered and the battle cruisers again moved up to 25 knots.

Admiral von Spee, less than ten miles ahead, was heading southeast at 20 knots. Gneisenau and Nürnberg were 2,000 yards ahead of Scharnhorst, Dresden was on the flagship’s port beam, and Leipzig lagged behind. Gradually, this speed increased to 21 knots, except for Leipzig, which continued to fall behind. By 12:47 p.m., Sturdee had closed the range to Leipzig to 17,500 yards, and he hoisted the signal “Engage the enemy.”

At 12:55 p.m., there was flash, thunder, and smoke. The first shot was claimed by Captain Phillimore of Inflexible (known in the service as Fidgety Phill), who had opened fire at Leipzig with his A turret, a two-gun salvo at the range of 16,500 yards. This was 4,000 yards farther than any British dreadnought had ever fired at a live target, and from his post high in Inflexible’s foretop, her gunnery officer, Lieutenant Commander Rudolf Verner, saw the shells fall 3,000 yards astern of the German squadron. Again Inflexible fired and Verner experienced “the roar from the forward turret guns and heavy masses of dark, chocolate-colored cordite smoke tumbling over the bow; a long wait and tall white ‘stalagmites’ growing out of the sea behind the distant enemy.” Soon after, Invincible opened fire with a two-gun salvo from her A turret, and high fountains of water rose from the sea a thousand yards short of the target. Within fifteen minutes, however, when the range was down to 13,000 yards, the tall splashes began straddling Leipzig. One salvo raised towering columns of water so close to the small ship that both sides lost sight of her and thought she had been hit.

Leipzig’s plight forced Spee to make a decision. Looking back, he could see the high bow waves of the battle cruisers, the clouds of black smoke pouring from their funnels, the jets of orange flame shooting out through smoke, and, after an agonizing wait, the towers of water rising soundlessly alongside the hapless light cruiser. The admiral made his choice. At 1:20 p.m., Invincible observed the German squadron splitting up: the three light cruisers were turning to starboard, to the southwest, while Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were turning to port, east-northeast, directly into the path of the onrushing battle cruisers. Spee had realized that the British combination of 12-inch guns and higher speed gave his squadron no chance in a prolonged chase and that it was only a matter of minutes before the lagging Leipzig received a crippling blow. In order to give his three light cruisers a chance to escape, he chose to hurl his armored cruisers against the British battle cruisers. “Gneisenau will accept action. Light cruisers part company and try to escape,” the admiral signaled. The German light cruisers immediately turned to starboard, their wakes curling away from Scharnhorst.

Sturdee had foreseen that the German squadron might do this. In three typewritten pages of instructions issued at Abrolhos Rocks, he had instructed that if, in an action, the East Asia Squadron divided itself, the British battle cruisers would see to the destruction of the German armored cruisers, while the British armored cruisers dealt with the German light cruisers. Therefore, as soon as Luce in Glasgow saw the German light cruisers turn away, and without any signal from Sturdee, he immediately left his position ahead of the battle cruisers and made for the fleeing German ships. Kent and Cornwall followed Luce in this new chase while Carnarvon, now ten miles astern and too slow to have any chance of overtaking the enemy light cruisers, continued in the wake of the battle cruisers.

As his light cruisers swung away to the southwest, Spee led Scharnhorst and Gneisenau around hard to port, to the northeast toward Invincible and Inflexible. The main action between the battle cruisers and the armored cruisers now began with the two admirals jockeying for position. Spee’s hope was to get as close to the enemy as he could with his shorter-range guns, just as Cradock had tried to do with Good Hope and Monmouth at Coronel. Sturdee understood this maneuver and, four minutes after Spee had turned toward him, he deliberately turned 90 degrees to port, parallel with the enemy. Sturdee was resolved to fight at his own range, beyond the reach of the German 8.2-inch guns (13,500 yards), but within range of his own 12-inch (16,400 yards). He meant to use against Spee the same tactics that Spee had used against Cradock.

The two squadrons now were running parallel toward the northeast, with Invincible training on Scharnhorst, and Inflexible on Gneisenau. At 1:30 p.m., the German cruisers, their guns elevated to achieve maximum range, opened fire. Their first salvos were short; then, with the range diminishing to 12,000 yards, the third salvo straddled Invincible and five columns of water shot up around her. Soon, all four ships were firing broadsides, which included their rear turrets. “The German firing was magnificent to watch,” said an officer on Invincible, “perfect ripple salvos all along their sides. A brown-colored puff with a center of flame marking each gun as it fired. . . . They straddled us time after time.” Scharnhorst, especially, lived up to her reputation as a crack gunnery ship, and at 1:44 p.m., she hit Invincible. The shell burst against the battle cruiser’s side armor, causing a heavy concussion but failing to penetrate.