The ‘March Retreat’ of 1918

Deutscher Sturmwagen in Roye

Deutscher Sturmwagen in Roye

German A7V tank in Roye, Somme, 26 March 1918.

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The ‘March Retreat’ of 1918 is remembered as one of the worst defeats in the history of the British army. After four years of deadlock, in their spring offensive the Germans used innovative new artillery and infantry tactics to break through the trenches of the British Fifth Army and reopen mobile warfare. Fifth Army lost large numbers of men and guns captured, and were forced into headlong retreat. Fuelled by inaccurate newspaper reports, the rumours of disasters on the battlefield were given credibility by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. In a speech to Parliament on 9 April 1918, Lloyd George cast some aspersions on the performance of Fifth Army, and its commander, General Sir Hubert Gough, who had been sacked on the eighth day of the battle. In Gough’s bitter words, ‘All were … clear that the real cause of the retreat was the inefficiency of myself as a general, and the poor and cowardly spirit of the officers and men.’ But this traditional picture is deeply flawed. Fifth Army was not defeated as badly as some have claimed. Overall, the German spring offensives failed, and their failure represents a British defensive victory.

At the end of 1917 the Germans were presented with a rare window of opportunity to win the First World War. Russia, beaten on the field of battle, had collapsed into revolution, thus releasing large numbers of German troops for use on the Western Front: in the spring of 1918 the Germans could deploy 192 divisions, while the French and British could only muster 156. The German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, introduced at the beginning of the year, had backfired disastrously. Not only had it failed to knock Britain out the war by cutting her vital Atlantic lifeline, it had prompted the United States to enter the war against Germany. As yet, the vast American war machine was still gearing up for action. Substantial numbers of American troops would not reach Europe until the middle of 1918. The German commanders, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, had no desire to sit on the defensive and risk repeating the battering the German army had received at the hands of British at Passchendaele in 1917. They decided to stake everything on one last gamble: to strike in the West and defeat the British Expeditionary Force and French army before the Americans could intervene with decisive numbers. Ironically, the fateful decision was taken at a meeting held at Mons on 11 November 1917. Exactly twelve months later the war ended, in great part as a consequence of the decision taken on that day.

On 21 January the plans were finalised. Operation Michael was an attack on the British, whom the Germans correctly identified as the most dangerous of the Allied forces, in the Somme-Arras sector. Three German armies were to be employed opposite either side of St. Quentin. Opposite Byng’s British Third Army in the Arras area was von Below’s Seventeenth Army, while to their south, covering the Flesquières Salient (created as a result of the Cambrai battles at the end of 1917) and the northern portion of Gough’s British Fifth Army, was von der Marwitz’s Second Army. Both German formations belonged to Crown Prince Rupprecht’s Army Group. Facing Gough’s southern sector was von Hutier’s Eighteenth Army, also of the German Crown Prince’s Army Group. Broadly, the plan was to crack open the British defences, and then push through into open countryside, then wheel to the north and strike the BEF’s flank. Then further attacks could be launched. In the initial stages of the offensive, von Below and von der Marwitz were to capture the old 1916 Somme battlefield before turning north to envelop Arras, while von Hutier was to act as a flank-guard, dealing with any French forces that emerged from the south, and offering support to von der Marwitz’s forces.

The attackers had several advantages over the British. First, numbers. In spite of having greater reserves than the Germans, the British were now suffering from a manpower crisis that had forced divisions to be reduced from twelve infantry battalions to only nine. Haig was forced to make hard choices about where to deploy his divisions. Miscalculating the weight and axis of the German offensive and misled by German deception operations, Haig deliberately left his southernmost Army, Gough’s Fifth, weak. Haig correctly calculated that he could afford to give ground in the Somme area, while to yield territory further north would have been catastrophic. A short advance in the Ypres area, for instance, would have brought the Germans to within striking distance of the coast, which would have imperilled the entire British position. Thus Gough had only 12 divisions to defend 42 miles of front, although he faced 43 German divisions. Byng by contrast had 14 divisions on a 28-mile frontage against 19 German divisions. In the Michael area, the Germans had 2,508 heavy guns against only 976 – a 5 to 2 advantage. Haig gambled on Fifth Army holding out against heavy odds. ‘Never before had the British line been held with so few men and so few guns to the mile; and the reserves were wholly insufficient’.

The second German advantage was in ‘fighting power’. For most of the war, the morale, tactics, and weapons of the two sides were roughly equal. But in March 1918, in terms of tactics, they were not. In the previous two years of almost constant offensives, the BEF had become highly effective at the art of attack. While much play has been made of German ‘stormtroop’ infantry tactics and ‘hurricane’ artillery bombardments used on 21 March 1918, in truth there was little for the BEF to learn from their enemy in this respect. Fighting on the defensive, however, was a novelty, especially because the British had introduced a new concept of defence-in-depth, modelled on the German pattern. In place of linear trenches, defensive positions consisted of Forward, Battle and Rear Zones, utilising machine gun posts, and redoubts. But in many cases, lack of time and labour meant that the Rear Zone was never constructed. Also, the concept was misunderstood at various levels. The Forward Zone was intended to be lightly held, to do little more than delay the attacker and force him to channel his attack where it could be more easily broken up in the Battle Zone by artillery, machine gun fire and local counterattacks. But as many as one third of British infantry were pushed into the Forward Zone. ‘It don’t suit us,’ opined a grizzled veteran NCO. ‘The British Army fights in line and won’t do any good in these bird cages’.

At 4.20 a.m. on 21 March the ‘Devil’s Orchestra’, conducted by Hutier’s innovative head gunner, Colonel Bruchmuller, began the overture to the offensive.

It was still dark on the morning of March 21st [1918] when a terrific German bombardment began – “the most terrific roar of guns we have ever heard” … The great push had started and along the whole of our front gas and high-explosive shells from every variety of gun and trench mortars were being hurled over. Everyone [in 54th Brigade] realized that the great ordeal for which they had been training and planning for weeks was upon them.’

Bruchmuller’s gunners hammered the British defenders to the depth of their position. Five hours later, assisted by a dense fog, the infantry assault broke on the battered and disoriented British defenders. By the evening, the situation was critical. The BEF had lost 500 guns and 38,000 casualties, and the Germans had captured the Forward Zone almost everywhere. Worse, in the extreme south Hutier had broken through Gough’s Battle Zone, forcing British III Corps to retreat to the Crozat Canal. Yet even on the first day of the Kaiserschlact, the ‘Imperial battle’, the British had achieved a modest, but nonetheless important success: they had denied the Germans their first day objectives.

German Seventeenth Army’s attack on Byng’s relatively strong and well dug-in Third Army achieved far less than had been intended. Similarly, German Second Army had failed to achieve the breakthrough it had sought. All this was at the cost of 40,000 German casualties. These were caused partly by clumsy tactics and relentless attacking, but also the British seizing the initiative at a local level. These acts of resistance in the early days of Operation Michael ranged from 18th Division’s counterattack at Baboeuf on 24-25 March, to the action of a Lewis Gun team of 24th Royal Fusiliers, led by two NCOs, who went forward to delay the enemy advance on their sector.

22 March saw the renewal of the offensive. British XVIII and XIX Corps fell back, in part as a result of confusion among the British commanders. Third Army was still holding its Battle Zone but was now being outflanked as Fifth Army was pushed back. To the South, von Hutier’s Eighteenth Army had advanced more than twelve miles, and this led Ludendorff to make an important error. He was painfully aware that the offensive was not going according to plan. He complained of the lack of progress of von Below’s army on 22 March, which had a knock-on effect on Second Army. Ever the opportunist, on 23 March – the day that saw the Germans capture the Crozat Canal – Ludendorff decided to make Hutier’s army the point of main effort. Hutier’s Eighteenth Army had originally been given the role of flank-guard, but now, accompanied by Second Army, it was to drive west and southwest to drive a wedge between the BEF and the French. Von Below’s Seventeenth Army and German forces further north were to push back the British. Any Staff College would criticise this plan as breaking two of the fundamental principles of war: to select and maintain the aim and to concentrate force. The resistance of the British defenders had led Ludendorff – whose grasp of strategy and operational art was tenuous at best – to change his plan on the hoof. Now, the Germans were dispersing their force, rather than concentrating it, with disastrous effects.

Nevertheless, the next few days were grim ones for the BEF as the Germans continued to advance. A British soldier wrote on 23 March that ‘we had to make a hasty retreat with all our worldly possessions – every road out of the village was crowded with rushing traffic – lorries, limbers, G.S. wagons, great caterpillar-tractors with immense guns behind them, all were dashing along in an uninterrupted stream …’ He could even look back with affection on normal army rations: ‘I never thought in the days when we looked with disdain on ‘bully’ and biscuits I should ever long for them and cherish a bit of hard, dry biscuit as a hungry tramp cherishes a crust of bread.’ On 27 March Gough was removed from command of Fifth Army. He probably deserved this treatment for the way he handled his offensives of 1916 and 1917; it was Gough’s bad luck to be sacked for a defensive battle that he conducted with some skill.

Even at this stage there were glimmerings of light for the Allies. On 26 March the crisis led to the appointment of the French general Foch as Allied Generalissimo, to coordinate the activities of the Allied forces. This averted the threat of the French concentrating on defending Paris while the British watched for their lines of communications. Moreover Byng’s Third Army decisively defeated the next phase of the German offensive, Operation Mars. On 28 March nine German divisions attacked north of the River Scarpe. The attackers used much the same methods that had proved so successful on 21 March. But this time they were attacking well-constructed positions, without the benefit of fog, and the British forces were numerically stronger and conducted a model defensive battle.

In the light of the completeness of the German failure Ludendorff ordered the assaults against Third Army to halt – he had no taste for an attritional battle. His appreciation was shared by an officer of German 26th Division, who wrote in his diary on 28 March of his hope that if German ‘operations north and south of us succeed the enemy will also have to give way here’: having seen the British defences he feared heavy casualties if ordered to attack. Michael was not, however quite dead, and a few spasms of offensive action remained. Ludendorff now scaled down his objective to that of taking Amiens. But even this was beyond the German troops. They were halted ten miles short of their goal on 4-5 April, at Villers Bretonneux, by Australian and British forces. On the same day Byng was again attacked, and again the Germans were thrown back. By this stage Ludendorff the gambler was prepared to throw in his hand. On 5 April, he called off the Michael offensive and prepared to renew the attack further north.

The Germanic Tribes

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In the first century B. C. E., life in central Europe was transformed when the Germanic peoples, newcomers to the region, migrated into the area of modern-day Germany. Defined by their shared language, a cluster of Indo-European tongues classified as Germanic by linguists, this ethnolinguistic group seems to have originated in northern Europe. These various tribes did not form a cohesive group, waging constant warfare among themselves and living alongside and intermingling with other peoples during their extensive migrations. The most important of these interactions was with the Celts, who had dominated the region before the appearance of the Germanic tribes.

While sources are hazy for the ancient period, and archaeology has not been able to provide conclusive information, it appears that the migrating Germanic tribes moved from the area that is today southern Scandinavia and northern Germany. In the course of their migrations, they moved to the south, east, and west, coming into contact with Celtic tribes in Gaul and Iranian, Baltic, and Slavic peoples in eastern Europe. During this period, Germanic languages became dominant along the Roman frontier in the area of modern Germany, as well as Austria, the Netherlands, and England. In the western provinces of the Roman Empire, namely, in the Roman province of Gaul, situated in modern-day France and Belgium, the Germanic immigrants were influenced deeply by Roman culture and adopted Latin dialects. The descendants of the Germanic-speaking peoples became the ethnic groups of northwestern Europe, not only including the Germans, but also the Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, and Dutch.

Roman sources are often confused and contradictory in their attempts to identify the menacing Germanic “barbarians” they encountered along their borders. Thus, Roman authors such as Julius Caesar used vague terms such as Germani to describe the various Germanic tribes that settled in the area. While scholars are unsure about the extent to which these diverse peoples represent distinct ethnic groups or cohesive cultures, Roman sources mention a range of Germanic tribes including the Alemanni, Cimbri, Franks, Frisians, Saxons, and Suebi.

Caesar marched against the latter of these tribes, the fearsome Suebi, in his conquest of Gaul. In his account of this campaign, he describes these Germanic warriors, whom he compares explicitly with the Celts. According to Caesar, the Germanic tribes he encountered gave primacy to war, rather than to religion or domestic life. Their religion apparently lacked an organized priesthood and centered upon the veneration of nature, and Caesar suggested that the Germanic tribesmen devoted all of their energies to gaining renown in battle.

Caesar also describes the pastoral economy of the semi-nomadic Germanic tribes that he encountered across the Danubian frontier. Again, he highlighted the Germanic tribes’ single-minded focus on warfare, recording that-unlike the Romans-they eschewed both wealth and luxury, living off conquest and raiding. For Caesar, this warrior ethos made the Germanic tribes into formidable enemies, and he contrasted the military vigor of the Germanic tribes with that of the more civilized Celts. Accentuating the bellicosity of the Germanic peoples, he found the once formidable Celts, seduced by Roman luxury, lacking by comparison:

There was formerly a time when the Gauls excelled the Germans in prowess, and waged war on them offensively, and, on account of the great number of their people and the insufficiency of their land, sent colonies over the Rhine . . . but their proximity to the Province [the Roman province of Gaul] and knowledge of commodities from countries beyond the sea supplies to the Gauls many things tending to luxury as well as civilization. Accustomed by degrees to be overmatched and worsted in many engagements, they do not even compare themselves to the Germans in prowess. (Caesar in M’Devitta 1853: 153)

Tacitus’s Germania

Julius Caesar was not the only Roman to describe the Germanic tribes who migrated into central Europe and threatened the Roman Empire’s Rhine-Danube frontier. Another was Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (ca. 55 C. E.-120 C. E.). Tacitus was a Roman aristocrat born 150 years after Caesar, in Gaul, the province that the emperor had won. He enjoyed a successful political career, becoming senator, consul, and eventually governor of the Roman province of Asia, shortly before his death. In a work known as Germania, written in 98 C. E., Tacitus described the Germanic tribes, providing a detailed ethnographic account. Despite its polemical intent-it was written in order to contrast the virtue and vigor of the “barbarians” with the decadence and debility of the Romans-and its reliance on secondhand accounts of the Germanic tribes’ customs, his work provides an interesting picture of the Romans’ views of their “barbaric” northern neighbors. Scholars doubt whether Tacitus was ever stationed on the Roman frontier, but he made use of learned sources, including Caesar’s and Pliny’s earlier accounts of the Germanic peoples, in crafting his work. He may have even consulted with Roman soldiers or merchants who had been in direct contact with the Germanic tribes.

In one unfortunate passage, one that would have dire consequences when rediscovered by rabid German nationalists in the 19th century, Tacitus describes the physical power of the Germanic warriors, explain ing it as a function of their “racial purity.” Marveling at the imposing stature of the Germans, the Roman author maintains that the Germanic tribesmen were “untainted by inter-marriage with other races, a peculiar people and pure like no one but themselves” (Tacitus 1914: 269). Given what is known today of the contact and intermingling between Celts and Germanic peoples in antiquity, and the fluid tribal allegiances among the Germanic peoples themselves, Tacitus’s characterization of the Germans’ racial purity is doubtful.

He seems more reliable when describing the formidable military might of the Germanic tribes and the source of their remarkable cohesion on the field of battle. According to Tacitus, the Germanic tribes chose their war chieftains according to their merit as military leaders and their feats of valor on the battlefield. Furthermore, these chieftains did not exercise arbitrary authority and ruled only so long as they led their people to victory. In Germania, he writes, “They take their kings on the ground of birth, their generals on the basis of courage. These kings have not unlimited or arbitrary authority, and the generals do more by example than by command. If they are energetic, if they are conspicuous, if they fight in the front, they lead because they are admired” (Tacitus 1914: 275).

For Tacitus, the secret to the Germanic tribes’ formidable military might was the cohesion of tribal society. The Roman author maintained that unlike the imperial legions of Rome, the Germanic war-bands were composed of clans and families, and their warriors fought alongside their own kinsmen, vying for their respect. In this warrior society, individuals sought the esteem of their peers through conspicuous displays of valor, each seeking to outdo the other in feats of bravery. Young warriors sought to gain the respect of their kinsmen and the recognition of the chieftain, who doled out gifts of plunder to the bravest warriors. Likewise, according to Tacitus, the Germanic tribesmen brought their women and children to the battlefield. Consequently, the Germanic warriors gained remarkable strength from the exhortations of their women, and ferocity from the knowledge that they were defending their families from slaughter and enslavement: “The strongest incentive to courage is that neither chance nor casual grouping makes the squadron or the wedge, but family and kinship. Close by them, too, are those dearest to them, so that they hear the wailing of women and the child’s cry. Here are the witnesses who are in each man’s eyes most precious, here the praise he covets most” (Tacitus 1914: 275).

Continuing his examination of the tribal war-band, Tacitus also discusses the egalitarian nature of political life within the Germanic tribes, for him in stark contrast to the autocratic domination he endured under the Roman emperors. According to Tacitus, the Germanic tribes assembled periodically to deliberate over important matters. While chieftains spoke first, each warrior enjoyed the right to address the assembly before decisions were reached through mutual assent. The cohesion of the Germanic war-band was also maintained through lavish, drunken feasts, where tribesmen enjoyed the fruits of plunder and the largesse of their chieftain. While Tacitus’s treatment of the religious rites of the Germanic peoples, based upon earlier distorted Roman accounts, sheds little light on their beliefs, his account of their marriage customs praises their homespun morality: “the marriage tie with them is strict: You will find nothing in their character to praise more highly” (Tacitus 1914: 289). For Tacitus, the praiseworthy marital fidelity of the Germanic peoples stands in stark contrast to the decadence he perceived within the households of imperial Rome. According to the Roman aristocrat, the Germanic tribes were monogamous and punished adultery harshly. Even the dowry shared by the young couple reflected the martial spirit Tacitus discerned among the tribes, as the groom gives his bride “oxen, a horse and bridle, a shield, and spear or sword” as marriage gifts and “she herself in her turn brings some armor to her husband.” Considered their “strongest bond of union,” these gifts remind them of the primacy of war in Germanic culture (Tacitus 1914: 289).

Stalin and Barbarossa

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In the hour before dawn on 22 June 1941 the German armed forces started Operation Barbarossa. There was no warning from Hitler; this was a classic Blitzkrieg and Stalin was in bed at the time in his Blizhnyaya dacha. In the diplomatic crisis of recent weeks he had judged that intelligence sources predicting a German invasion were just a provocation. Timoshenko as People’s Commissar of Defence and Zhukov as Chief of the General Staff thought him mistaken and had stayed up on duty all that last night. At 3.30 a.m. they received reports of heavy shelling along the Soviet–German frontier. They knew this for what it was: the beginning of war. Timoshenko ordered Zhukov to call Blizhnyaya by telephone. Zhukov obediently asked a sleepy Vlasik, the chief of Stalin’s bodyguard, to rouse the Leader.

Like a schoolboy rejecting proof of simple arithmetic, Stalin disbelieved his ears. Breathing heavily, he grunted to Zhukov that no counter-measures should be taken. The German armies had had no more compliant victim. Stalin’s only concession to Zhukov was to rise from his bed and return to Moscow by limousine. There he met Zhukov and Timoshenko along with Molotov, Beria, Voroshilov and Lev Mekhlis. (Mekhlis was a party bureaucrat who had carried out many tasks for Stalin in the Great Terror.) Pale and bewildered, he sat with them at the table clutching an empty pipe for comfort. He could not accept that he had been wrong about Hitler. He muttered that the outbreak of hostilities must have originated in a conspiracy within the Wehrmacht. Always there had to be a conspiracy. When Timoshenko demurred, Stalin retorted that ‘if it were necessary to organise a provocation, German generals would bomb their own cities’. Ludicrously he was still trying to persuade himself that the situation was reversible: ‘Hitler surely doesn’t know about it.’ He ordered Molotov to get in touch with Ambassador Schulenburg to clarify the situation. This was clutching at a final straw while Armageddon erupted. Schulenburg had in fact already requested an interview with Molotov in the Kremlin. In the meantime Timoshenko and Zhukov went on imploring Stalin’s permission to organise armed counter-measures.

Schulenburg, who had sought to discourage Hitler from invading, brought the unambiguous military news. Molotov reported back to Stalin: ‘The German government has declared war on us.’ Stalin slumped into his chair and an unbearable silence followed. It was broken by Zhukov, who put forward measures to hold up the forces of the enemy. Timoshenko corrected him: ‘Not to hold up but to annihilate.’ Even then, though, Stalin continued to stipulate that Soviet ground forces should not infringe German territorial integrity. Directive No. 2 was dispatched at 7.15 a.m.

The Germans swarmed like locusts over the western borderlands of the USSR. Nobody, except perhaps Stalin, seriously expected the Red Army to push them back quickly to the river Bug. A military calamity had occurred on a scale unprecedented in the wars of the twentieth century. Stalin had not yet got a grip on himself. He was visibly distraught and could not focus his mind on essential matters. When Timoshenko returned from the People’s Commissariat of Defence to confer, Stalin refused to see him. Politics, even at this moment, had to come first and he insisted that a Politburo meeting should take precedence. Finally at nine o’clock in the morning Timoshenko was allowed to present a plan for the creation of a Supreme Command. The Politburo meanwhile gave Molotov the task of speaking on radio at midday. Stalin still felt disoriented. If he had wanted, he could have given the address himself. But shock and embarrassment deflected him. He was determined to stay at the centre of things, however – and he knew that Molotov would not let him down at the microphone. Stalin was not wasting time with resentment about what Hitler had done to him. War had started in earnest. He and the USSR had to win it.

How had he let himself be tricked? For weeks the Wehrmacht had been massing on the western banks of the River Bug as dozens of divisions were transferred from elsewhere in Europe. The Luftwaffe had sent squadrons of reconnaissance aircraft over Soviet cities. All this had been reported to Stalin by his military intelligence agency. In May and June he had been continuously pressed by Timoshenko and Zhukov to sanction the dispositions for an outbreak of fighting. Richard Sorge, the Soviet agent in the Germany embassy in Tokyo, had raised the alarm. Winston Churchill had sent telegrams warning Stalin. The USSR’s spies in Germany had mentioned the preparations being made. Even the Chinese Communist Party alerted Moscow about German intentions.

Yet Stalin had made up his mind. Rejecting the warnings, he put faith in his own judgement. That Stalin blundered is beyond question. Yet there were a few extenuating circumstances. Stalin expected there to be war with Germany sooner or later. Like military planners everywhere, he was astonished by Hitler’s easy triumph over France. The success achieved by the Wehrmacht in the West was likely to bring forward any decision by the Führer to turn eastwards and attack the USSR. But Stalin had some reason to believe that the Germans would not risk an attack in the year 1941. Although France had been humbled, Hitler had not dealt a fatal blow to the British. His armed forces had also met difficulties in the Balkans in the spring when action against the German occupation of Yugoslavia diverted troops needed for Operation Barbarossa. Stalin continued to hold to the belief that a successful invasion of the USSR would have to be started in early summer at the latest. Napoleon’s fate in 1812 had shown the importance of beating Russians without having to trudge through snow. By mid-June 1941 it looked as if the danger of a German crusade had faded.

Some Soviet intelligence agents were also denying that a German attack was imminent. A fog of reports befuddled Stalin’s calculations. He made things worse by insisting on being the sole arbiter of the data’s veracity. The normal processing of information was disallowed in the USSR. Stalin relied excessively on his personal intuition and experience. Not only fellow politicians but also People’s Commissar of Defence Timoshenko and Chief of the General Staff Zhukov were kept in the dark about reports from embassies and intelligence agencies. The Germans took advantage of the situation by planting misinformation; they did much to induce Stalin to believe that a military campaign was not in the offing. Thus Stalin in the early months of 1941 moved along a dual track: he scrupulously observed the terms of his pact with Nazi Germany while telling gatherings of the Soviet political and military elite that, if the Germans attacked, they would be repulsed with ferocious efficiency. He had been taking a massive gamble with his country’s security. Cautious in so many ways, Stalin trusted in his ability to read the runes of Hitler’s intentions without discussing the evidence with anyone else.

Stalin was shocked by Operation Barbarossa, but Molotov always defended the Boss against the charge that he collapsed under the strain:

It can’t be said he fell apart; certainly he was suffering but he did not show it. Stalin definitely had his difficulties. It would be stupid to claim he didn’t suffer. But he’s not depicted as he really was – he’s represented as a repentant sinner! Well, of course, that’s absurd. All those days and nights, as always, he went on working; he didn’t have time to fall apart or lose the gift of speech.

Stalin’s visitors’ book confirms that he did not lapse into passivity. Zhukov too insisted that Stalin’s recovery was swift. By the next day he had certainly taken himself in hand, and over the next few days he seemed much more like his old self. His will power saw him through. He had little choice. Failure to defeat the German armed forces would be fatal for the communist party and the Soviet state. The October Revolution would be crushed and the Germans would have Russia at their mercy.

On 23 June Stalin worked without rest in his Kremlin office. For fifteen hours at a stretch from 3.20 a.m. he consulted with the members of the Supreme Command. Central military planning was crucial, and he allowed his political subordinates to get on with their tasks while he concentrated on his own. Then at 6.25 p.m. he asked for oral reports from politicians and commanders. Molotov was with him practically the whole time. Stalin was gathering the maximum of necessary information before issuing further orders. Visitors are recorded as having come to him until 1.25 a.m. the next morning.

The Supreme Command or Stavka – the term used under Nicholas II in the First World War – had also been established on 23 June. Stalin was initially disinclined to become its formal head. He was not eager to identify himself as leader of a war effort which was in a disastrous condition. So it was Timoshenko who as Chairman led a Stavka including Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov, Budënny, Zhukov and Kuznetsov. The others also tried to persuade Stalin to permit his designation as Supreme Commander. He refused even though in practice he acted as if he had accepted the post. The whole composition of Stavka was shaped by him, and it was noticeable that he insisted that leading politicians should belong to this military body. Not only Molotov but also Voroshilov and Budënny were basically communist party figures who lacked the professional expertise to run the contemporary machinery of war. Timoshenko, Zhukov and Kuznetsov were therefore outnumbered. Stalin would allow no great decision to be taken without the participation of the politicians, despite his own gross blunders of the past few days. He called generals to his office, made his enquiries about the situation to the west of Moscow and gave his instructions. About his supremacy there was no doubt.

WWI – Russian Navy versus German Navy

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Gangut at anchor in Helsingfors, 1915. Note the deployed torpedo net.

WORLD WAR I-BALTIC

After the debacle of the Russo-Japanese War reforms were initiated, and under the able Admiral von Essen the reconstruction of the Russian Navy was taken in hand. In the Baltic, the aim was to reach sixty percent of the strength of the German High Seas Fleet. At first, help from the outside was utilized to a considerable extent. The armored cruiser Rurik (15,400 tons, 4 254-mm. guns, 8 203-mm. guns) was built in England by Vickers, turbines for large destroyers in Germany. At the same time, the creation of an efficient armaments industry was begun; large shipyards were built. In June 1909 the keels of four fast battleships (23,400 tons, 12 305-mm. guns) were laid in shipyards in St. Petersburg. The ships were commissioned in 1914-1915. Three similar battleships, slightly slower, but better protected, were finished in Black Sea shipyards between 1915 and 1917, but four very large battle cruisers (32,400 tons, 12 356-mm. guns) for the Baltic were never completed. A high-quality product of the new Russian shipyards was a series of 36 large destroyers, excellently suited for minelaying.

When war broke out, both sides considered the Baltic a secondary theater of operations. The Germans had to be more active because they were more vulnerable to Russian naval operations. They generally used their old ships in the Baltic but had the advantage of being able to send ships from the High Seas Fleet as reinforcements on short notice. This possibility made the Russians very cautious. They were well prepared for minelaying, and in the first winter of the war undertook a number of cleverly planned operations of this kind in the eastern and central Baltic. Several German warships and merchant steamers were sunk or damaged by Russian mines; operations were considerably hampered. On the other hand, German submarines, as well as mines, proved dangerous to the Russians. After the death of Admiral von Essen in the spring of 1915 Russian naval activity decreased noticeably.

In the spring and summer of 1915 a massive German-Austrian land offensive forced back the Russian armies several hundred kilometers. When German land forces approached the large naval base of Libau (Liepaja) a squadron of Russian armored cruisers tried to interfere but retreated after a short fight with German light cruisers, in which no ship was seriously damaged. The only other encounter between surface forces in the open Baltic happened on 2 July 1915. A squadron of five Russian armored cruisers intercepted the minelayer Albatross (2,200 tons, 8 88-mm. guns), which was protected by the light cruiser Augsburg (4,300 tons, 12 105-mm. guns). The Albatross was soon damaged and beached herself at Östergarne on the Swedish island of Gotland. Then the German armored cruiser Roon (9,500 tons, 4 210-mm. guns) and the light cruiser Lubeck joined in the fight. With 4 254-mm. and 20 203-mm. guns the Russians were still far superior but they did not succeed in seriously damaging the German cruisers. They received some hits, too, and finally retreated although no other German forces were near.

In August 1915, a German squadron, reinforced from the North Sea, made two attempts to break into the Gulf of Riga. In the first, the mine barriers proved impenetrable. The second succeeded, in spite of considerable losses to mines, but had no lasting consequences because the German Army did not participate, although its flank on the Gulf of Riga was being continuously harrassed by bombardments from the sea and even raids by parties landed from the sea.

In the summer of 1915, the number of British submarines in the Baltic was increased. The larger E-boats again passed the Sound (between Denmark and Sweden) as in the fall of 1914; the smaller C-class arrived via canals from the White Sea. They proved distinctly more effective than the Russian submarines. For two years neither side undertook any large naval operations. The Germans suffered losses to mines and submarines, but their domination of the Baltic was never challenged. Sea power worked unobtrusively.

For Germany it was vital to have absolute control of the central and western Baltic: she received most of her iron ore from Sweden, most of the grain from her eastern provinces and coal from the Ruhr district was carried by ship, the supplies for the northern wing of the army fighting Russia went by sea, and-last but not least-sea power relieved the army from the necessity of defending the long coasts in the Baltic. Lord Fisher, for many years the British First Sea Lord, strongly advocated large-scale operations in the Baltic. He was of the opinion that this would compel the Germans to station one million men along their coasts. His estimate was probably too high, but it indicates the size of the potential problem for the German armed forces. Early in 1915 the Royal Navy ordered the Courageous class (19,000 tons, 4 381-mm. guns, 32 knots, draft only 6.8 m.) for Baltic operations. However, the outcome of the Battle of Jutland (31 May/l June 1916) clearly showed that such an undertaking would be too risky even for the Grand Fleet. The battle did not change the over-all strategic situation and therefore in some quarters is considered of little importance. True, the blockade of Germany continued but so did that of Russia, since the British had to abandon their plans for directly supporting her through the Baltic.

As early as January 1915 the Russian government had asked the Western allies to open the sea routes to European Russia again. This request led to the well-conceived, but clumsily executed attack on the Dardanelles in the spring of 1915. In the land campaign of that year the Russian armies suffered disproportionately heavy losses in men as a result of lack of ammunition. According to Minister of War Suchomlinov, field batteries received no more than four rounds per gun for a whole day of fighting. When the Black Sea and the Baltic remained closed the situation in Russia deteriorated steadily. Construction of the Murmansk railway had only just begun; from Arkhangelsk 900 kilometers of narrow-gauge rail led to the main railway system. Nine thousand kilometers of single-track railway crossed Siberia to the Far East. In the winter of 1916-17 food in the larger towns was in such short supply that four meatless days per week had to be instituted. The revolution in February 1917 was the consequence of starvation at home and decimation and defeat in the field. When the Kerensky government tried to continue the fight, the Central Powers put pressure on with three limited offensives. The last was an amphibious operation to take the Baltic Islands of Ösel, Moon (Muhu), and Dago. Russian ships still fought well but without luck. The old battleship Slava was damaged by German battleships and had to be blown up by her own crew. The destroyer Grom was taken. The Germans lost a number of smaller vessels to mines.

In this context it is amusing to read another fairytale [1] of Gorshkov’s: “The Moon Sound operation (12 to 20 October 1917) … had the far-reaching goal of uniting the Central Powers, Britain, the U. S. A., and France in the struggle against the Russian Revolution.” When he quotes Lenin to support this strange idea he only shows that this paragon of political wisdom knew very little of sea power and its consequences. He should have been grateful to the Central Powers, for the loss of the Baltic Islands further weakened the Kerensky government and helped make the Bolshevist October Revolution possible. Figures and facts are distorted in Gorshkov’s short description of the operation, which practically ended the naval war in the Baltic.

[1] In a series of articles written in 1972 (published by the U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings in 1974) Admiral Gorshkov.

WORLD WAR I-BLACK SEA

In the Black Sea the Russian naval forces were more active than in the Baltic. After the German battle cruiser Goeben joined the Turkish fleet in August 1914 neither side had a marked superiority until the new Russian battleships appeared. There were quite a number of engagements, but no conclusive results. When their allies attacked the Dardanelles the Russians repeatedly bombarded the fortifications at the entrance to the Bosporus but did not attempt any landing operations. By this abstention they may have missed the best opportunity for radically improving their supply situation.

The Turkish army in East Anatolia depended on sea transport for a great part of its supplies. When the first new Russian battleship was commissioned· in the winter of 1915-16, Admiral Kolchak, formerly chief-of-staff to Admiral von Essen, made good use of her, and soon the Russians had the upper hand. Well-supported from the sea, their army advanced deep into Turkish territory. At the same time naval forces attacked and nearly stopped the vital transport of coal from Zunguldak on the Black Sea to the Bosporus. With a British army advancing on Palestine, Turkey’s situation soon became critical, but then the October Revolution put an end to Russian operations in Anatolia. The Germans occupied the Ukraine and the Black Sea ports. After the German capitulation, French forces entered Sevastopol temporarily. The best ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet left with them and rusted for many years at the French base of Bizerta in Algeria.

After foreign war, two revolutions, and a long civil war, the remnants of the Russian Navy were in bad shape. Its reconstruction had to take second place behind that of the Army. The experts disagreed on the type of navy needed by the Soviet Union. The Communist Party decided for a kind of “jeune ecole” fleet, a navy for coastal defense with torpedo craft and submarines. Then Stalin assumed command. With his acute sense for politics and power he saw the possibilities of a strong navy for furthering his plans. He also saw the technical difficulties and therefore did not precipitate matters. The second Five-Year Plan (1933-1937) provided for construction of six heavy cruisers, a number of large destroyers and a minimum of 50 submarines. Then, in the Party Congress of 1934, Stalin launched his campaign for capital ships-through a prominent submarine officer. For the construction of battleships and carriers, begun in the third Five-Year Plan, he tried to get help from the USA, but his request was turned down. After the treaty with Hitler in 1939 .he received a half-finished heavy cruiser (the Seydlitz), fire-control gear, and other equipment. In the Supreme Soviet, Premier Molotov declared that in the third Five-Year Plan the Navy had first priority. Pravda declared: “Only the biggest High Seas Fleet will meet Soviet demands.” When the Germans attacked in 1941, the big ships were not yet ready, but 291 submarines of the target number of 325 were in service or nearing completion.

1944-45 German Aircraft Quality and Production

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The protracted development work required in order to make new technologies ripe for operational use was the main reason jet and rocket aircraft entered operational service only in 1944. The main problem with jet aircraft was the low reliability of their engines. Only in summer 1944 did German jet engines become reliable enough for operational use, even though their development had begun in late 1939. The same problem plagued rocket fighters. Prototypes of the Me 163 rocket interceptor began powerless flight testing already in 1941, but entered limited operational service only at the end of May 1944. This long delay was caused by the difficulties involved in making a rocket-propelled aircraft ready for operational service. These problems were never fully solved and rocket-propelled aircraft were somewhat sidelined after initial enthusiasm.

Some of the new jets figured prominently in production plans submitted from mid–1943. The RLM planned a massive procurement of some of the more developed types and the aviation industry geared up to produce them en masse. They subsequently appeared in increasing numbers on the production lines in 1944–45. These modern aircraft entered series production just as the aviation industry went through the greatest transformation in its history.

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Me 109

This single-seat, single-engine fighter was designed by Willy Messerschmitt and entered operational service with the Luftwaffe before the outbreak of the war. It was even used in the Spanish Civil War. It was the most produced fighter ever, with around 35,000 units built before and during World War II. Some 13,942 Me 109s were produced in 1944 alone. It was supposed to be replaced as the main Luftwaffe fighter in 1942, but delays with the introduction of a replacement, and subsequently the decision to produce the Me 262 as its replacement, meant that it was never replaced. Mass production of its modified versions continued right until the end of the war, even though by 1944 it was inferior to both Western and Eastern fighters in many respects. It was considered difficult to fly and the masses of young and inexperienced late-war German fighter pilots mostly lacked the skills needed in order to fly it effectively in combat.

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FW 190

Another single-seat, single-engine fighter that was somewhat outdated by 1944. It was developed and purchased as a more advanced complement to the Me 109. It entered operational service with the Luftwaffe in autumn 1941, but suffered continuous problems with its BMW engine. Advanced and much improved versions of this fighter were supposed to enter series production in mid–1944. These were the re-engined and redesigned FW 190D and the Ta 152. The latter was designed primarily as a high-altitude fighter. These fighters were considered to be more than equal to modern Allied fighters. Severe delays in their production meant that the older models soldiered on and remained the most dominant types. The FW 190 was also used as a fighter-bomber and as ground support aircraft.

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Ju 88, Ju 188, Ju 388

The initial model was the Junkers 88, which was developed before World War II as the Luftwaffe’s “wonder bomber.” The production of this aircraft formed one of the largest contracts in the history of the German aviation history and turned state-owned Junkers into one of the giants of German industry. This twin-engine aircraft was later converted into an efficient night fighter, and in this role it stayed in series production almost until the end of the war. Its wartime development was the improved Ju 188, which entered service in early 1943. The completely different Ju 388 bomber-reconnaissance aircraft came too late to enter service in meaningful numbers. The production of these three Junkers aircraft was terminated in February 1945.

Less important types were produced in ever-decreasing numbers during 1944, but all of them were stricken from the production plans before the end of that year. In any case, of all the 20 types produced in significant numbers in 1944, the piston-engine types described above constituted 74 percent of total aircraft production for the year. Taking into account that other planes included in the 20 types were also propelled by piston engine, the dominance of “traditional” aircraft over jets on the production lines is obvious.

Paradoxically, at the time Germany commenced production of some of the most advanced aerial weapon systems of their time, there was a marked drop in the production quality of German aviation products. Hermann Göring generally confirmed the deterioration of quality after the war and attributed it to the dispersal of the aviation industry in 1944. Adolf Galland, former influential General of the Fighters, gave the following explanation when asked by American interrogators why dispersal caused deterioration of quality: “Because the assembly lines were interrupted. The planes no longer were in assembly halls, but somewhere the control surfaces were manufactured, in another plant fuselages were made, construction took place in destroyed halls and construction took place in the open air instead of under roofs.”

The explanations offered by these two wartime leaders provide only a partial explanation for this phenomenon. It appears that particularly the high-priority modern jets and other new aircraft types suffered from these declining production standards. Following a comparison flight test of an Me 262 against an Ar 234 prototype in June 1944, Messerschmitt’s main development office at Oberammergau complained about the quality of production Me 262s: “Workmanship— The workmanship carried out on production Me 262s leaves much to be desired. Armament hatch covers, sheet steel cockpit, engine cowlings, etc., were all poor as were those of most production machines. The surface finish is also coarse.” Problems with series Me 262 continued and became even worse. In February 1945 Messerschmitt’s chief test pilot Fritz Wendel reported severe technical problems originating from poor quality control after visiting operational units flying the plane.

Conventional types also suffered from this deterioration. Poor quality of the initial production runs of the Ta 152 fighters led to a brief production halt in order to enable the engineers to locate all the defects and to fix them. The main problem appeared to be faulty welding of the aileron pushrods. Further technical problems and other sticky production difficulties finally led to the cancellation of this aircraft at the end of March 1945, when its production capacity was allocated to the production of older proven types.

Unit commanders and pilots receiving the new aircraft experienced severe problems with their new mounts, caused by poor workmanship and slack quality control. Erich Sommer, flying Ar 234 reconnaissance aircraft since the summer of 1944, reported that “spare engines and accessories had to be stripped before use as quality control in the factory became less and less reliable.”

It seems that production standards of series Ar 234s was particularly low. Captain Dieter Lukesch, who commanded the first operational Ar 234 squadron, remarked about the production quality of the brand-new aircraft his unit received in July 1944: “Hardly any aircraft arrived without defects which covered all systems and were caused by hasty completion and shortage of skilled labor at the factories. The same applied to the Arado’s equipment.”

These problems were well-known and higher authorities tried to solve them in different ways. Among others, the Germans tried to use Allied standards in order to restore their own standards of quality. In this framework the Airframe Main Committee arranged to have wing sections of shot-down American aircraft sent around to aircraft factories to show the relative superiority of American workmanship in this regard, and serve as an incentive to do as well. At the end of September 1944 Ernst Heinkel pointed at the excellent polish of the wings of the American Mustang fighters and at the way such finish could improve the performance of German planes. He blamed the inferior German finish on a poorly trained workforce and demanded better training in order to achieve better workmanship.

The main solution was to improve quality control. Quality control was normally preformed on the final products upon leaving the production line. From 1944 it became generally slacker and less efficient. The dispersal of most factories in 1944 made it much more difficult to perform proper quality control because quality control departments usually stayed at the main factory and could not satisfactorily perform their tasks in the dispersed facilities. Furthermore, while efforts were invested in expanding production, much less effort was invested in expanding quality control departments to cope with the new situation.

The countermeasures failed in most cases to improve the quality of the end products and the production standards of German aviation products kept deteriorating until the end of the war. Arguably, the main reason for this failure, and for the worsening quality, was the composition of the workforce the Germans used at that time for aviation production. This huge army of foreigners, POWs, and concentration camp inmates lacked the motivation that prevailed in the German aviation industry before the war. With such manpower it was extremely difficult to preserve the prewar standards.

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German WWII Self-Propelled Artillery

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The Germans were early entrants into the field of SP artillery, albeit in a rather half-hearted way. In March 1940 Alkett converted 38 PzKw IB chassis to the artillery role by removing the turret and building up a huge superstructure into which was set the 15cm slG infantry gun. The vehicle could be used in the indirect fire mode, but it was more commonly used as a direct-fire weapon in spite of its thin armor. They were used in the French campaign of 1940 and the concept proved sound, but the actual vehicles were fir from ideal.

The replacement used the PzKw II made wider and longer, with an additional roadwheel each side. This permitted the gun to be mounted much lower than in the original version. Although much superior to the earlier PzKw I-based vehicle, only 12 were built in 1941 and all were dispatched to North Africa, where they served until early 1943. In the meantime, interest had turned to better -protected vehicles that could serve right up in the front lines. The original concept of a SP infantry gun thus evolved into a heavy assault gun, and those vehicles are covered separately.

The development of SP artillery had been envisioned as early as 1934, but by 1935 attention had turned to a tank with a 105mm howitzer. Thus, it was not until early 1940 that approval was given for development of a true SP artillery piece. In January 1942 Krupp showed a prototype of a 105mm howitzer on the PzKw IV chassis and in July a contract for 200 was placed. This was to be an interim design, as the Automotive Design Office really wanted a weapon with 360° traverse and capable of dismounting tor use separate from the carrier vehicle. This resulted in the “Heuschrecke 10” vehicle with a light howitzer in a dismountable turret. In the meantime, however, it had become clear that the interim design was both heavy and expensive and Rheinmetall and Alkett were called upon to. mount the 105mm howitzer on the chassis of the PzKw II light tank. Using experience previously acquired in mounting the 15cm infantry gun and the 75mm Pak on this vehicle, they demonstrated the vehicle in July 1942. The contract for the PzKw IV SP vehicle was thereupon cancelled. In fact, the Heuschrecke 10 never entered series production, and the Rheinmetall/AJkett SdKfz 124 “Wespe” soldiered on to the end of the war.

The companion heavier piece to the Wespe was the 15cm sFH18/l howitzer on a hybrid PzKw III/1V chassis. Approval tor development was given to Alkett in July 1942 and a prototype shown in October, along with the very similar Hornisse SP anti-tank gun. The first production vehicle came off the line in January 1943 as the SdKfz 165 “Hummel”. For the most part they served in mixed battalions, one per panzer division, with two 6-gun batteries of Wespe and one of Hummel.

In the meantime the availability of captured chassis in France led to the conversion of significant numbers into SP artillery for the use of local forces. Most of the chassis were too small to handle anything larger than the 105mm howitzer and were actually marginal for that role. In particular, a reluctance to undertake extensive modifications left the engine at the rear, which limited the maximum elevation of the piece, and hence the range. The one exception was the Lorraine tractor, which had a large, open bed at the rear. The usefulness of the Lorraine with the 15cm howitzer was such that it was the only one of the French conversions to be shipped out of theater, with one battalion going to the 21st Panzer Division in North Africa.

If the second half of 1942 proved anything about the Eastern Front at the operational level, it was that the panzers were more than ever not merely the army’s core, but its hope. The Reich’s manpower resources continued to erode, making it impossible to keep the infantry divisions at anything like authorized strength. A new generation of personal weapons was coming off the drawing boards. Light machine guns, assault rifles, and rocket launchers would enhance the infantry’s firepower and fighting power alike beginning in 1943. But at unit level the new hardware would at best be able to balance the lost men. In a wider context the Reich’s factories could not produce enough of it to replace existing weapons in anything but fits and starts. What had begun in the 1930s as a choice to enable forced-draft rearmament had become a necessity in the context of forced-draft war. The panzers must be the focal point of the army’s post-Stalingrad reconstruction.

Seven panzer and three motorized divisions—four if the 90th Light Africa Division were counted—had gone under in Stalingrad or surrendered in Tunisia. More than half the rest had been battered back to near-cadre status at Rzhev, on the south Russian steppes, or from Leningrad to points south. Reorganizing and reequipping them took most of a year. Even more than their predecessors, the revised tables of organization and equipment tended, in practice, to be approximations depending on what was available. The tank regiment was returned to its authorized two-battalion strength, each with four companies of 22 tanks—Panzer IVs in theory; in practice a mix of IIIs and IVs, depending on what was available. The antitank battalion was up-gunned to three batteries of open-topped, self-propelled Marders carrying the 75mm PAK 40, the definitive German antitank gun in the second half of the war, which inflicted much of the damage credited to the 88. The artillery regiment converted one of its battalions to self-propelled, full- tracked mounts: twelve 105mm howitzers and six 150mms. Both equipments were excellent. The lighter Wespe (Wasp), based on the still-useful Panzer II chassis, was a rough counterpart of the US M7 Priest. The 150mm Hummel (Bumblebee), with a chassis purpose-built from Panzer III and IV components, outmatched anything any other army’s self-propelled divisional artillery would see until well into the Cold War.

leFH 18/2 auf PzKw II (SdKfz124) (Wespe)

This vehicle mounted the 105mm light field howitzer on a slightly lengthened PzKw II chassis. The engine was moved forward to the center of the vehicle to create space at the back for the fighting compartment, the sides of which were extended upward. The howitzer could traverse 17° each side of center and elevate from -5° to +42°, and this relatively high elevation for an SP mount gave a range of 10,500 meters. The vehicle carried 32 rounds of ammunition. A light machine gun was carried, but not mounted, on the vehicle for close-in defense. Some vehicles were completed without guns as ammunition carriers to carry 90 rounds. These could be converted to gun vehicles in the field with little trouble if required. The vehicles were effective and popular in all theaters except Italy, where they proved underpowered for operations in mountains.

sFH 18/1 auf PzKw III/IV

The standard SP heavy field piece mounted the 15cm sFH 18/1 on a hybrid PzKw III/IV chassis, essentially a PzKw IV lengthened slightly with the engine moved forward to the center. The piece had a traverse of 15° each side of center, while the open bed at the rear allowed an elevation of+42° to yield close to the piece’s theoretical maximum range. A light MG was carried, but not mounted, for local defense. The driver and radio operator sat at the front and the gun crew of four at the rear. The Hummel carried only 18 rounds tor the howitzer, and a version without the gun but with extra ammunition racks was also built as an ammo carrier to provide two such vehicles to each six-gun battery. The lack of a muzzle brake (eliminated alter the prototype) prevented the weapon from firing with uppermost (eighth) charge.

sFH 13/1 auf Lorraine Schlepper (SdKfz 135/1)

This was the most common, and successful, of the conversions of French chassis into SP artillery. Because of the open rear compartment the Lorraine was a good basis for conversions and 94 were used for the 15cm howitzer, 12 for the 10.5cm howitzer, and 170 for 7.5cm Pak, all using a similar configuration. In fact, the only real alterations were the addition of the superstructure sides, the gun, and a recoil spade at the rear (the spade not being present on the anti-tank vehicle). Because of the light weight of the tractor the old 15cm sFH 13 was chosen in lieu of the more powerful sFH 18. It was mounted with 5° of traverse each side and 0 to +40° elevation, but only eight rounds of ammunition could be carried. As mounted in the vehicle, the howitzer had a maximum range of 8,600 meters.

10.5cm leFH 18 (Sf.) auf Geschutzwagen 39H(f)

There were two main types of self-propelled guns in the German Army during WW2. One was fitted with an anti-tank gun and the other with an artillery howitzer, like the 10.5cm leFH 18 (Sf.) auf Geschutzwagen 39H(f) self-propelled gun. The vehicle fitted with the artillery howitzer was called a ‘Geschuetzwagen’, which is literally translated as a ‘gun vehicle’. The letters ‘SF’ stand for ‘Selbstfahrlafette’ – self-propelled carriage. The letter (f) indicates that the chassis was of French origin.

There was enough room for the crew to be transported towards the battlefield whilst protected from small arms fire and shell shrapnel. The vehicle had good mobility and could follow the infantry almost anywhere. The gun was quicker to get ready for action and fire on targets than towed artillery guns. They were cheaper and faster to build than a new vehicle. They used the chassis of an obsolete captured French tank and an existing artillery howitzer. Putting the 10.5cm leFH 18 howitzer on top of the Hotchkiss tank chassis was a more efficient use of manpower from the traditional form of German artillery battery transportation. Even in WW2, horse power was still widely used although tracked vehicles were also used when available.

Geschützwagen Tiger für 17cm Kanone/21 cm Mörser

In November 1942, Krupp received order to design the vehicle (waffentrager) using Tiger II components, which was to be part of the “Grille” series. It was to be able to mount 170mm Kanone 72 L/50 gun which could deliver a 68 kilogram projectile up to 25500 meters in range or a 210 mm “Mörser” (a howitzer actually) with a maximum range of 16500 meters firing a 111 kg shell. Grille 17 had its armament mounted on the rail platform inside the hull allowing it to be dismounted at any time and used independent of the actual tank itself. The maximum elevation of the main gun was 65º and its azimuth just 5º at right or left. In order to achieve the 360º fully rotation the gun and its turntable had to be placed in the ground which was folded and carried in the back of the vehicle.

German Armored Cars

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In the German concept of mobile war, wheels were only marginally less important than tracks. That said, the first example was unimpressive: an open-topped scout car built on a civilian truck chassis, with a two-man crew, 8mm of armor, and a light machine gun. Entering service with the cavalry, by 1939 it had devolved to the infantry’s reconnaissance battalions as one step above bicycles. Next step was a two-step: the development and introduction of the Leichter Panzerspähwagen Sonderkraftfahrzeug (SdKfz) 221/222—a Teutonic mouthful that translates as Armored Reconnaissance Car Special Purpose Motor Vehicle 221/222, and thankfully shortens simply to Armored Car 221/222. The latter, definitive version began joining reconnaissance battalions during 1938. A four-wheeled, five-ton vehicle, with a 20mm cannon or a light antitank rifle in an open-topped turret and a two-man crew, it could do 50 miles per hour on roads, half that across country, thanks to its four-wheel drive and a relatively powerful engine. The 222 was popular in service and easy enough to manufacture that a number were exported to Nationalist China, where it was also well liked.

The 222 is best understood as an upscale version of the Daimler scout car coming into British service about the same time. It could gather information but was ill-suited to fight for it. Apart from that, the German army had enough of a tradition of heavy wheeled vehicles to encourage the simultaneous development of the SdKfz Heavy Armored Car 231—Six-Wheeled. The 231 could trace its origins to a civilian-developed vehicle whose initial version was too heavy and too expensive. Rejiggered into a six-wheel design built, initially, around a Daimler-Benz truck chassis, the 231 first entered service in 1932. Its ancestry was both visible and problematic. It looked like a civilian automobile, in that unlike the 222, its engine was up front and vulnerable even given the well-sloped 14.5mm armor. At almost six tons, the weight was too heavy for the chassis, and the suspension was a constant source of concern despite the good road speed of 40 miles per hour. Like the 222, it was easy to manufacture—a thousand were created by the time production ceased in 1935. But even more than the Panzer I, the Armored Car 231 was used as a training vehicle and relegated to second-line service as fast as a replacement could be made available.

That replacement kept the designation, but was an entirely different vehicle: an eight-wheeled, rear-engineered design built on a Buessing-NAG chassis. It could do over 50 miles per hour on roads, 30 miles per hour off road. With dual steering, all-wheel drive, and independent suspension, its cross-country capacity even through sand and mud exceeded any wheeled, armored vehicle in any army, despite its relatively heavy weight. Its turret-mounted 20mm cannon and 15mm armor were adequate for the scouting mission that was its fundamental purpose, and from its first entry into service in 1938, the Achtrad “eight-wheeler” was popular with its crews. The complexity that made it difficult and expensive to manufacture was an acceptable tradeoff, especially given the increasing quality of unit-level maintenance in the Panzer arm. The new 231’s major tactical drawback was its size. At seven feet eight inches and 8.3 tons, it was not exactly suited for “sneak and peek.” For “shoot and scoot,” however, the Achtrad was unmatched during the war’s first half, and its size enabled the inclusion of a radio system that added “communication” to its long list of positives.

The 222 and 231 spawned a long list of modifications. Most were specialized radio vehicles. The 222 in particular was too small to carry both a radio and a cannon. Its near-sister SdKfz 223 was distinguished by a smaller machine-gun turret and carried a third crew member. Both six- and eight-wheel versions of the 231 also had radio versions with frame aerials. These, perhaps because of their distinctive appearance, are disproportionately featured in illustrated works despite their relatively small numbers.

As a footnote the design staffs, after years of work, finally developed the war’s best armored car. The SdKfz 234/2 Puma[1] had it all: high speed, a low silhouette, and a 50mm L39 still effective against tanks in an emergency. Unfortunately, by the time the Puma and its variants entered production, the panzers’ need for a long-range reconnaissance vehicle was itself long past. Now their enemies all too often found them.

Sd Kfz 222

The Sd Kfz 222 design was a modified version of the Sd Kfz 221, with a larger turret designed to carry an automatic gun. Seven series were ordered and completed, each entailing minor modifications. Production ceased in mid 1943, but the proposed new four-wheel armoured car was not put into production because of changing requirements. It was felt that the heavy eight-wheel Sd Kfz 234 would be more suitable for reconaissance operations in the future.

The first five series of the Sd Kfz 222 had the sPkw I Horch 801 chassis with the 3.51it engine. In May 1942, an improved chassis, the sPkw I Type V, was introduced, incorporating hydraulic brakes and a 3.81it engine. At the same time, the armour on the hull front was increased to 30mm, but the rest of the armour plate thicknesses remained unchanged. The 2cm automatic gun was mounted coaxially with a machine-gun in the turret, and could be elevated to an almost vertical position for engaging enemy air- craft.

The Sd Kfz 222 was issued to the Panzerspahwagen squadrons of the Aufklarungs battalions. With only a short-range radio, it accompanied the armoured cars with long-range sets, in order to provide covering fire and engage enemy armoured reconnaissance vehicles. The Sd Kfz 222 served in all campaigns on all fronts from 1939 until the end of the war.

Sd Kfz 231 6-Rad

The development of an armoured car based on the chassis of a 6 x 4 truck was ordered in 1929. The three companies involved in the manufacture of the trucks were given contracts to modify their truck chassis to adapt them to a six-wheeled armoured car. Thus, these early armoured cars were basically an armoured body fitted to a slightly modified truck chassis.

The engine was still mounted in the front as in normal trucks. The chassis was strengthened to take the additional weight, and a second steering control was added at the rear. The Sd Kfz 232 was the same model as the Sd Kfz 231 except for the additional long-range radio and its large frame antenna. The Sd Kfz 263 had a fixed turret with a single MG 13, a long-range radio set and a large frame antenna together with a telescoping mast antenna. The engines ranged from 3.61it to 4.51it and developed between 60PS and 70PS at 2,000rpm.

The Sd Kfz 231 and 232 were issued to the motorized Aufklarungs detachments of the developing motorized forces in the German Army. The Sd Kfz 263 was issued to the motorized Nachrichten (signals) units. Taking part in the marches into Austria and Czechoslovakia and the campaigns in Poland and France, the six-wheeled Panzerspahwagen were withdrawn from front-line service in 1940 because of their very limited mobility off the road.

Sd Kfz 231 8-Rad

The development of a schwerer Panzerspahwagen with improved cross-country mobility was ordered in 1934. Designated Versuchskraftfahrzeug (experimental vehicle) 623 and 624, an eight- wheeled chassis was developed to carry the armoured body and turret. The designation changed to Sd Kfz 233 and 234 in mid 1937 and, finally, to Sd Kfz 231 and 232 (8-Rad) in October 1939. Only the Sd Kfz 232 version was produced after May 1942. Sd Kfz 232 production ceased in September 1942 to be replaced by the Sd Kfz 234 series.

All chassis were produced by Bussing-NAG, and featured steering and drive for all eight road wheels. Double controls were installed to allow rapid manoeuvring, advancing and retiring. The engine was located in the rear, which gave adequate protection together with adequate cooling. Early in 1940, an 8mm armour shield (Pakschutz) was added to the front of many of the Sd Kfz 231/232 already produced, and this practice continued until early 1942. From May 1942, this temporary solution was eliminated from production vehicles, since the hull and turret frontal armour thickness was increased to 30mm. The weight then increased to 9.1 tons.

Six Sd Kfz 231 and 232 were issued to the heavy platoon of the Panzerspahwagen squadron of each motorized Aufklarungs detachment. The entire platoon was not usually em- ployed together, but was split up to accompany and give support to the smaller, four-wheeled armoured cars. The Sd Kfz 231 and 232 were employed in all campaigns throughout the war.

Sd Kfz 234/1/2/3/4

In September 1943, an order was given that fifty per cent of the Sd Kfz 234 production was to mount the 2cm KwK38 following the completion of the 100 Sd Kfz 234/2. In June 1944, this was increased to 75 per cent to be produced in conjunction with the Sd Kfz 234/2 and later Sd Kfz 234/4. The Gerat number 95 was that formerly allocated to the Sd Kfz 263 (8-Rad) which was no longer available by June 1944.

The Sd Kfz 234/1 had the same hull as the Sd Kfz 234/2, but mounted a different turret. The turret for the Sd Kfz 234/1 resembled the short, open-topped turret mounted on the Sd Kfz 222, but was of simpler, six-sided construction with thicker frontal armour. The designation for this turret was 2cm Hangelafette (swinging mount) 38.

Nineteen Sd Kfz 234/1 were included in the organization of the Panzerspahwagen company (d) of the Panzer Aufklarungs battalions. Issued to the Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions, the Sd Kfz 234/1 saw action on the collapsing fronts in the East and in the West, from July 1944 until the end of the war.

On 5 August 1940, the order was given to design an eight- wheeled armoured car similar in design to the Sd Kfz 231. Instead of the previous design, where the armoured body was bolted to a chassis, the Sd Kfz 234 armoured hull was to serve as the chassis. This s pz Sp W 9 8-Rad TP (Tropen == tropical) was to have heavier armour and a 12-cylinder air-cooled diesel engine designed to operate in the hot climate of North Africa, and in the Steppes of Russia. Two trial vehicles were built and an initial order for 500 was later in- creased to 1,500. The initial order was for a vehicle carrying the Scm KwK 39/1 which was given the designation Sd Kfz 234/2. In January 1944, the order was cut to limit the Puma production to 100 vehicles and to continue the series by mounting .the 2cm KwK and 7.5cm KwK.

The hull design, similar to that of the Sd Kfz 231, had better frontal protection, provided by thicker plates laid at a greater angle. A large, fully-enclosed turret with curved side plates was provided to mount the Scm KwK 39/1 and the coaxial MG42 in the ‘Saukopf’ (sow’s head) gun mantlel.

In September 1943, 50 per cent of the Sd Kfz 234 production was ordered to mount the 7.5cm KwK37. This was decreased to 25 per cent in June 1944, reflecting an organizational change by the reconnaissance troops. In late November 1944, Hitler ordered that, from December 1944, the 7.5cm PaK40 be mounted on the Sd Kfz 234. Therefore, production of the Sd Kfz 234/3 ceased in Decem- ber 1944, but production of the Sd Kfz 234/4 continued until March 1945.

The Sd Kfz 234/3 and 234/4 both consisted of the basic Sd Kfz 234 hull without a turret. The superstructure roof was open, with the 7.5cm KwK51 in a gun shield at the front of the superstructure, and the 7.5cm PaK40 mounted with its original gun shield and carriage on a pedestal mount.

Six Sd 234/3 made up a platoon of the Panzerspahwagen company (d) to support the nineteen Sd Kfz 234/1. They were also issued to the armoured reconnaissance companies during the closing months of the war, to give anti-tank support to the other armoured cars.

[1] Puma was used as a popular soldier’s name for ALL 8 wheeler German armoured car whether Sd Kfz 231 or 234 of all sub-types.