WWII-Era German Artillery Development I

From the days of Krupp’s first experiments with steel guns and breechloading, the German gunmakers have rarely been reluctant to try something new, and the years from 1933 to 1945 saw their vast inventive resources at their peak. Even the standard service weapons often incorporated refinements not found in the designs of other nations, and when anything extraordinary was requested the results were invariably brilliant and often awe-inspiring.

For all the inventors’ brilliance, the strategic direction of the higher command (which gave the gunmakers their specifications) was less certain of its aim: thus weapon development, which promised much, frequently got side-tracked or spent too much effort travelling in the wrong direction. It was this as much as anything, aided by a certain amount of ill-advised pursuit of better designs, that was responsible for the vast range of weapons deployed by the Wehrmacht. An example of this changeable attitude was the controversy over the standard support weapon of the division-should it have been a 7.5cm gun or a 10.5cm howitzer? During World War I the army had started with a 7.7cm gun and later augmented it with a 10.5cm howitzer, so long postwar discussions took place to try and discover which of the two was the more useful weapon. Towards the end of the 1920s the argument had been resolved in favour of the 10.5cm howitzer and this duly became the standard field support weapon-but by 1943 the argument was raging once more. This time the gun triumphed at the howitzer’s expense, leading to designs of a new model that never saw fruition owing to the end of the war. Yet, at the same time as this decision was reached, development was still proceeding on improved versions of the 10.5cm howitzer. This particular line of research can be cited as one of the superfluous efforts. The original 10.5cm howitzer was massively built, but it has since been reliably estimated that over 80% of its ammunition was fired with the various less powerful charges: a gun of half the original’s weight would still have been strong enough. An improved weapon was demanded to meet an exacting specification, but it achieved little better results and consumed 20% more propellant into the bargain.

The principal lines of development in prewar guns were much the same as those followed by any other nation-intended to provide an output of reliable and proven weapons in a rational range of guns from light antiaircraft to heavy siege types, all conventional in concept and also simple and robust. While this aim was reached in most cases, there was still sufficient design capacity to allow development of more advanced weapons to be slowly pursued; much of this effort showed results during the war, when unorthodox solutions stood a better chance of being accepted.

At the end of World War I the Versailles treaty thoroughly disrupted the German armament industry. The two principals, Friedrich Krupp AG and Rheinische Metallwaaren- und Maschinenfabrik (later Rheinmetall-Borsig AG), were limited in the designs they could produce: Krupp were restricted to weapons above 17cm calibre, and RM&M to weapons below 17cm. Moreover, only a very small number of guns of the permitted calibres were allowed to be made. In order to evade these regulations Krupp came to an arrangement with Svenska Aktiebolagst Bofors of Sweden, whereby Bofors acquired the foreign rights of Krupp guns while Krupp sent a number of designers to work in the Bofors factory and thus keep their skills alive. RM&M set up a company in Switzerland called Waffenfabrik Solothurn AG, and designs originating in the German drawing office were marketed as Solothurn weapons. Through this company too, a link with Osterreichische Waffenfabrik-Gesellschaft of Steyr was maintained.

Once the National Socialists came to power most of this subterfuge was abandoned overnight, though it was not until 1945 that the details became plain -which accounts for some amusing Allied wartime intelligence reports in which Rheinmetall-Borsig designed and built guns are described as copies of Solothurn weapons. Rheinmetall also received a boost when they became part of the Reichswerke Hermann Goring `paper corporation’, which accounts for a number of cases where their design was taken into service in preference to a Krupp model.

When the war began the German high command made a serious planning error in assuming that the war would be of short duration. With this opinion firmly fixed, they then ruled that long-term development should not begin if the result could not be brought into service within one year. This had the most serious repercussions in the electronic and radar fields, but it also stifled a good deal of development in artillery. A number of promising projects were abandoned by their developers and when, later in the war, the error was appreciated and the ban removed, it required vast efforts to make up for the time that had been lost.

Once wartime development began, however, it was usually along lines laid down by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW-forces’ high command) in an attempt either to solve some particular problem or to produce an equipment to fill a specific need. In this respect artillery development was more tightly controlled than in other weapon fields; there appears to have been few cases of individual designers pushing pet theories, resorting to political string-pulling, and scheming to obtain raw materials and production capacity so well seen-for example-in the guided missile field in 1944-5.

At the outbreak of war the artillery equipment of the Wehrmacht was standardised on a few calibres, and the weapons were in general of sound and well-tested design. The army’s field weapons were of 10.5cm, 15cm and 21cm calibres, and the design philosophy ensured that a gun of given calibre and a howitzer of the next larger calibre were interchangeable on the same carriage, thus simplifying production, supply and maintenance. Anti-aircraft defence was built around the 2cm and 3.7cm light guns, the 8.8cm medium gun and the 10.5cm heavy gun; anti-tank weapons were the 3.7cm gun and a 7.92mm anti-tank rifle for infantry use. One or two improved designs were undergoing routine development with the intention of bringing them into service as and when the need arose.

The demands of war soon spoiled this arrangement. When it came to forecasting the future, the OKW was no more visionary than any other comparable body and the appearance of new weapons in the hands of the enemy frequently led to sudden demands on designers to develop powerful antidotes. An example of this was the sudden flurry of activity in the anti-tank field consequent upon the appearance of the virtually unstoppable Soviet T34 tank. The users’ demands on the gunmakers were always the same: improve the performance of the gun, increase its range, increase its velocity, but please do not increase its weight. How these demands were translated into reality will be seen on subsequent pages but, as a general rule, the paths open to the designers were well-defined. The only way to improve the performance of a conventional gun is by increasing the muzzle velocity, and this can be done m a variety of ways.

The first and most simple technique is to increase the size of the propelling charge or to develop a more efficient propellant, while still operating the gun at the same pressure. This, in round figures, demands a four-fold increase in propellant quantity to obtain a 60% increase in muzzle velocity, and contains several disadvantages in the shape of erosive wear, redesign of the chamber and cartridge case, and economic production of the propellant.

The second simple method is to increase the length of the barrel, thus keeping the projectile exposed to the accelerating effect of the exploding propellant for a longer time. To obtain the 60% increase in velocity would demand a 300% increase in barrel length-scarcely a practical measure.

An increase in chamber pressure combined with a moderate increase in barrel length will also increase velocity. The standard 60% increase could thus be achieved by a 50% increase in pressure coupled to a 50% increase in barrel length, but again this is scarcely a practical answer. One solution, increasingly adopted by many nations towards the end of the war, was a 50% reduction of projectile weight which increased the velocity by 40%- but the ballistic coefficient (the `carrying power’ of the projectile) was proportionately reduced. Deceleration in flight was hence more rapid, leading to less range than a full-weight projectile would have achieved at the same velocity.

Owing to these conventional design limitations, the war initiated the examination of more and more unconventional solutions. One of the first, which had been developed well before the war, was the production of high-velocity guns in which the rifling consisted of a few deep grooves into which fitted curved ribs on the outer surface of the shell, imparting positive rotation. This was developed because the conventional copper driving band was incapable of transmitting the enormous torque of high velocity projectiles’ excessive radial acceleration without shearing. The ribbed or `splined’ shell solved the problem of transmitting spin, but a copper band still had to be fitted to provide the gas-seal necessary at the rear of the shell. This was an expensive and complicated solution, suited only to large weapons produced in limited numbers, and much research was begun to try and overcome the torque defect of the copper driving band, with the additional incentive of trying to find a material in less critical supply.

The first development was the Krupp Sparführung (KpS) band-a bimetallic band of copper and soft iron, although zinc was sometimes added to dilute the copper and to assist in effecting the iron/copper joint. There was little or no performance advantage, merely an economy of copper. Next came the Weicheisen (FeW) soft iron band, the use of which was restricted to large calibre high-velocity guns. It could withstand torque very well, but the process of putting the band on the shell (by a powerful radial press) work-hardened the metal to the point where it became difficult to `engrave’-or force into the gun’s rifling. It was this defect that restricted Weicheisen bands’ use to high-pressure large-calibre weapons.

The final development was the Sintereisen (FeS) wintered iron band, formed from small iron particles bonded together under intense pressure to form a malleable band. This engraved well, resisted shear stresses, and was economical of material in short supply, but in its first application was found to wear out the gun barrels faster than a conventional copper band. Further development evolved a new form of barrel rifling with wider lands and grooves, and this-together with the reintroduction of increasing twist-improved matters to a degree where the German technicians opined that even if they had sufficient copper available they would still prefer to use sintered iron, particularly at higher velocities. One interesting result was the discovery that, while copper bands resulted in the gun barrel wearing out first at the chamber end of the rifling, FeS bands promoted wear at the muzzle since the coefficient of friction was directly proportional to the velocity.

When the increases in performance made available by increasing the barrel length and the size of the charge, and the provision of improved rifling and banding, had been taken to their extremes, it became necessary to explore less well-trodden paths. The first unorthodox solution offered was the `coned bore’ gun, the theory of which predicated that if the barrel was made with a gradually-decreasing calibre (and if the projectile was designed to adapt to the diminution) then, since the base area of the shot is reducing while the propelling gas pressure either remains-depending on the cartridge design-constant or increases then the unit pressure on the shot base will increase and the shot will be given greater velocity. The original idea was patented in 1903 by Carl Puff and the drawings accompanying the specification (British Patent 8601 of 27th August 1904) show a projectile almost identical to those later developed in Germany. Puff, however, does not appear to have pursued his ideas as far as a working gun, and the idea lay dormant until taken up by a German engineer named Gerlich in the 1920s. In co-operation with Halbe, a gunmaker, he developed a number of high-velocity sporting rifles with tapered bores and flanged projectiles, marketed in limited numbers during the 1930s under the name Halger, while at the same time attempting to interest various governments in the possible use of these weapons as high velocity military rifles. He also worked for both the United States’ government and the British Army on taper-bore rifles, but neither felt that there was much virtue in the idea; Gerlich returned to Germany c. 1935, and his subsequent activities have escaped record.

By this time others were exploring the idea: Rheinmetall-Borsig, Krupp, Bochumer Verein and Polte-Werke all had experimental programmes varying in degree of involvement. Rheinmetall-Borsig eventually became the most involved; the firm’s Dr Werner Banck, who took charge of development in late 1939, continued to work on it throughout the war and ultimately became one of the most knowledgeable men in the world on the subject of taper-bore guns.

Two classes of weapon were eventually categorised: the taper bore, in which the barrel tapered evenly from breech to muzzle, and the squeeze bore, in which the barrel was parallel for some distance and then tapered sharply to effect the `squeezing’ of the projectile, finishing as a parallel bore of smaller dimension. An alternative design of squeeze bore was one in which a tapered extension was placed on the muzzle of an otherwise conventional gun. The projectiles used with these two classes were much the same in design, though experience showed that the taper bore shot had to be somewhat stronger in construction than the squeeze bore models owing to the different times throughout which the shells underwent stress in compression.

Towards the end of the war the taper bore concept was gradually discarded in favour of the squeeze bore designs, since these were a good deal easier to manufacture. Making a tapered and rifled gun barrel was no easy task, even with sophisticated machine tools, whereas production of a smoothbore `squeeze’ extension to fit the muzzle of an otherwise standard gun was much less exacting and less wasteful of time and material. Weapons as large as 24cm calibre were fitted with such extensions (in this case reducing to 21cm) and were fired quite successfully.

The only active-service use of the taper or squeeze systems was in the anti-tank class, where three weapons (2.8cm/2.1cm, 4.2cm/2.8cm and 7.5/5.0cm) entered service. In the anti-aircraft field, while the velocity increases gave promise of considerably improved performance and where many experimental weapons were built and fired, no guns were ready for service before the war ended. There was a rule of thumb that said a squeeze bore adaptor could be expected to increase velocity and maximum range by about a third. Velocities of as much as 1400mps (4595fps) had been achieved but it was felt that, bearing in mind wear-rates and dispersion at extreme ranges, service velocities of 1150-1200mps(3775- 3935fps) might be consistently reached. The design of projectiles was an involved business and will be discussed elsewhere.


WWII-Era German Artillery Development II

While the taper and squeeze bore experiments were progressing, another system of improving performance began to attract attention. The French ordnance engineer Brandt had been experimenting for some years with discarding sabot projectiles, a system in which the gun fired a projectile of less than its own calibre-a 10.5cm gun, for example, might well fire an 8.8cm projectile. In order to make the smaller shot fit the larger bore it was first fitted into a sabot (a French term for `shoe’ or `tub’) of full calibre, so engineered that upon leaving the muzzle the sabot was discarded and fell clear to leave the sub-calibre projectile free to proceed to the target. The advantages of this system were manifold; the gun did not require any special adaptors or methods of construction (although subsequent experience has shown that the twist of rifling can be fairly critical), the composite projectile and sabot was lighter than a standard projectile for the gun and thus accelerated faster in the bore to develop a high muzzle velocity, and the full-calibre base area enabled the charge to develop its full potential. Yet the sub-projectile in flight had a favourable sectional density and thus retained its velocity, giving longer ranges, higher terminal velocities and consistent accuracy. As with almost all ordnance ideas, the discarding sabot was far from new; it had been patented as far back as 1862 (British Patent 2064 of 19th July 1862. granted to W. E. Newton as agent for A. A. Emery) but, as with Puff’s taper bore, the idea was well in advance of contemporary ballistic knowledge and engineering technique-and had lain unused for a long time.

When the German Army occupied France in 1940 many of Brandt’s experimental projectiles were discovered: these and the idea were taken back to Germany for development, which was done to good effect. Krupp were particularly interested and active in this field, and a wide variety of discarding sabot projectiles were produced on an experimental basis together with small numbers that were issued to service more or less in the nature of user trials.

Another weapon discovered in France, and which was considered to hold promise, was the Bassett gun. The brainchild of a French engineer of the same name it was a hyper-velocity 3.7cm gun whose principal feature was the burning of propellant at hitherto unconsidered pressures. Instead of the usual order of 20 to 25ton/in2, Bassett proposed operating his gun at 95 to 100ton/in2. Since normal rifling and driving bands could not hope to cope at such levels, the barrel was shaped internally into a twisted octagon that, as it approached the muzzle, blended into polygonal (perhaps 16- or 32-sided) shape. The shot was provided with multiple sealing bands of soft iron and Buna rubber, and was of octagonal section to match the barrel; thus it attained spin, a reversion to the Whitworth system of rifling which was briefly touted in the 1850s and 1860s. In order to utilise the expansion of the propellant gas, and thus develop the utmost efficiency, the barrel was 175 calibres long (21ft 3in/6.48m). Bassett signed a development contract with the German Army but progress was slow, since much basic research had to be done before manufacture of the weapon could begin; nobody, for example, was quite sure what would happen to a conventional smokeless propelling powder when it was burned at such high pressures, and special pressure chambers had to be designed in which samples could be ignited and their performance studied. All this took time; and in 1944, before the work was completed, the Allied armies invaded France. When Paris was abandoned by the Germans Bassett moved to Switzerland, but the gun and experimental apparatus were removed to Germany in order to continue development. It soon became apparent that the weapon would never become a viable mechanism in time to influence the war’s course and work on it stopped entirely early in 1945. While undoubtedly an interesting concept in ballistics and physics, there seems little useful purpose in the weapon and it has never been revived.

The next project to be examined in the search for longer range was the possibility of providing in-flight assistance to the projectile by means of a rocket boost. The idea was again as old as ammunition, one typical proposition being Taylor’s British Patent 1460 of 20th May 1870. Considerable work had already been done in Germany on rocket propulsion and, on the face of it, a rocket-assisted shell sounded most attractive. Numerous designs were tried and two or three were actually issued for service, but the drawbacks were well-nigh insuperable. The rocket propulsion firstly demanded an excessive amount of the limited space available in the shell, leading to a small explosive payload which was hardly worth the expense and effort of getting it to the target. Secondly, the gun shell was rarely-if at all-perfectly aligned with its theoretical trajectory; it was invariably `yawing’ about the perfect line in one direction or another. At the instant the rocket motor ignited and began to deliver thrust, any off-line yaw of the shell resulted in the rocket trajectory being a continuation of the yaw axis and not necessarily the axis of the ballistic trajectory. As a result, the projectile could land anywhere in a large probability area around the intended target. This, coupled with the small payload, rendered the long-range rocket shell an uneconomic proposition, though it undoubtedly had its advantages as a propaganda weapon.

A further disadvantage of the rocket-assisted shell, as seen by some scientists, was the necessity to carry both the fuel and an oxidant required to promote burning. Had it been possible to carry only the fuel and tap the ambient air as the oxidant, then the propulsion unit could have been made smaller by the amount saved in oxidant storage space and the explosive payload correspondingly increased. Dr Tromsdorf spent much time and effort developing his `pulsating athodyd’ shell, which was really a ram-jet running along the axis of a projectile. A quantity of liquid fuel (usually carbon disulphide) was carried and as the incoming air mixed with the fuel in a combustion chamber it was ignited, and the resultant thrust boosted the shell. This development was being explored with a view to improving anti-aircraft gun performance, but the work was still in the experimental stage when the war ended. It is believed that both the Americans and the Soviets showed some interest in the idea during the immediate postwar years, but the inaccuracy problem still existed and the promised increase in payload was largely illusory owing to the space needed for the induction, combustion and exhaust systems. The athodyd shell, while theoretically sound enough, is no longer considered to be a practical proposition. The last field of endeavour, and one which held considerable promise, was the development of fin-stabilised projectiles. Gun shells are customarily spun by the rifling to achieve gyroscopic stability but this system has some inherent limitations. As has already been seen, high velocity guns made considerable demands on the system of rifling and banding, owing to the high rotational stresses thus developed. Furthermore, the pressures needed to engrave a driving band were on occasion quite large and led to undesirable peak pressures in the gun chamber. The projectile was restricted in length, since shells much more than six calibres long could not be satisfactorily stabilised except at very high spin rates, which in turn demanded special rifling and multiplebanding to spread the load on the shell and driving bands. The fin-stabilisation solution promised freedom from most of these troubles and in some cases offered a simpler gun into the bargain, since the weapon could thereafter be a smooth-bore. The reasons for adopting fin-stabilisation varied from attempts to obtain high velocity-by removing the frictional resistance of rifling and banding-to stabilising projectiles too long for conventionally rifled guns, in the case of some special designs of anticoncrete shell. Fin-stabilised projectiles could also be fired from a rifled gun and yet avoid much rotation, in order to improve their tactical effect.

Much of the theoretical development in this field took place at the Raketen-Versuchsstation Peenemünde (Peenemunde rocket research establishment) where wind tunnels were available and where there was considerable knowledge of the aerodynamics of finned missiles. The principal outcome of their work was the Peenemunder Pfeilgeschoss (Peenemunde arrow shell) which was developed both as a long range terrestrial-fire projectile and as a high velocity projectile for anti-aircraft work. Little of this work bore fruit in time to be used during the war, but it formed a considerable base for postwar development by many other nations.

All these developments illustrate the point that the easiest way to improve a gun is to leave it alone and work on the ammunition. As far as the guns themselves were concerned, development was usually aimed at improving efficiency and producing weapons that were lighter to manoeuvre; guns with greater flexibility in terms of elevation and traverse, those which were simpler to operate and those easier to mass-produce were all demanded of the designers. When producing a design incorporating as many of these desirable characteristics as possible, attempts were made to increase the range (if it could be done) but in many gases the improvement in performance was less apparent than the improvement in other criteria. In certain fields-anti-tank guns, for example-performance was so vital that the guns inevitably grew bigger and bigger: questions of handiness in action and ease of manufacture were subordinated to the overriding demand that a specific target had to be engaged and destroyed at a specific range until, towards the end of the war, it was obvious that a halt had to be called before the guns became too large for their tactical role. Fresh ballistic solutions had to be devised instead.

There had already been a demand for lightweight weapons for a special application and this had been answered by the development of recoillessguns for use by airborne troops. A number of lightweight shoulder-fired weapons had also appeared during the war, capable by virtue of the ammunition they fired of defeating most of the contemporary tanks. These weapons were the rocket launchers such as the American Bazooka and the German Ofenrohr, (`stovepipe’), and the recoilless Panzerfaust (`armoured fist’). Using hollow charge bombs, these weapons could deliver a fatal attack on a tank without need of heavy or high-velocity ordnance, and so the army then asked the manufacturers to contemplate producing some sort of gun that could deliver a hollow charge shell with accuracy, which would be light to move and easy to use, but which (in view of the economic position) would use less propellant than the rocket or the recoilless guns in the process. The response to this demand was Rheinmetall-Borsig’s development of the Hoch-Niederdruck-System (`high-low pressure system’), one of the few completely new ballistic developments to come out of the war. The high-low pressure gun confined the cartridge in a robust breech in which the explosion of the charge reached a relatively high pressure of about 8ton/in2. Between the charge and the projectile was a heavy steel plate pierced with a number of carefully designed holes through which the high pressure was bled into the lightweight barrel. In the barrel the pressure dropped to 2-3ton/in2 and it was this that moved the fin-stabilised projectile up the smooth-bore barrel, the pressure dropping to as little as 1ton /in2 at the muzzle. The system was highly successful and at least one weapon embodying it entered service; a number of others were planned but the end of the war stopped their development. In postwar years the high-low pressure system was the focus of considerable interest from ballisticians throughout the world but it has, surprisingly, seen little application since 1945.

This brief introduction serves to show that the subject of German artillery during World War 2 is one that is full of interest. Confronted as the war continued with heavier tanks, faster aircraft and more fluid warfare, the German designers were never for long at a loss for the next idea. Admittedly they sometimes produced a disaster, but more often they produced a winner and it is noteworthy that the designs that were being taken from the drawing board and into service in 1945 were examples of gunmaking which have rarely been bettered; many postwar designs owe some of their better features to ideas pioneered by Germany during the war years.

A Short History of the “Blue Max” Medal

Kapitanleutnant zur See Friedrich Christiansen by Ivan Berryman. (GS)

During a patrol on 6th July 1918, Christiansen spotted a British submarine on the surface of the Thames Estuary. He immediately turned and put his Hansa-Brandenburg W.29 floatplane into an attacking dive, raking the submarine C.25 with machine gun fire, killing the captain and five other crewmen. This victory was added to his personal tally, bringing his score to 13 kills by the end of the war, even though the submarine managed to limp back to safety. Christiansen survived the war and went on to work as a pilot for the Dornier company, notably flying the giant Dornier Do.X on its inaugural flight to New York in 1930. He died in 1972, aged 93.

On 8 May 1667 in the Germanic principality of Brandenburg Prince Friedrich Wilhelm founded the Order of Generosité (aka the ‘Gracecross’), a military and civil order that was created for rewarding loyal subjects for outstanding service. Initially it was a simple gold cross with a precious stone in the middle, but in 1685 the medal took on a new look that was very like the Order of St John. The basic design is that of an eight-pointed Maltese Cross, enamelled in sky blue, with an eagle with upswept wings between each arm. The upper arm bears a hand-painted letter ‘F’ (for Friedrich) surmounted by the electoral crown. The other three arms have the words ‘Gene’, ‘Rosi’ and ‘Te’ on them. The reverse was plain blue enamel. It was worn around the neck from a long black ribbon 1½ inches (38mm) wide.

On 9 January 1740 the award was renamed and established as the Orden Pour le Mérite by Friedrich II (the Great). The most obvious change was the wording: the ‘F’ and the crown were retained on the upper arm, but now it became ‘Pour’ on the left arm, ‘leMe’ on the right arm and ‘rite’ on the lower arm, originally in italics but changed in 1832 to the Roman style; the whole medal is 52mm wide. Silver stripes were also added to the black ribbon. The wording is in French because it was the favoured court language at the time. Holders of the Order of Generosité were allowed to continue wearing it, but if they were awarded the Pour le Mérite they were required to return it. The medal saw many inconsistencies in appearance and construction between 1740 and the 1800s. The Pour le Mérite with ‘Brilliants’ was a special award that was encrusted with diamond-like gems.

On 18 January 1810 the Pour le Mérite was reserved as a military order. It could be (and was) awarded more than once to the same person, and in fact was awarded three times to one person. On 10 March 1813 the Oak Leaves were established by Wilhelm III in memory of his wife Queen Louise, and would be awarded for extraordinary achievements; these were gold, but later were made from silver and measured 17mm by 20mm. From 17 December 1817 the Oak Leaves ribbon would have another silver stripe, down the centre. The ‘Peace Class’ of the Pour le Mérite was created in 1842 for Art and Science, and women were eligible for this award. Between 1842 and 1913 no fewer than 324 awards were made, including three to the military. The ‘Crown’ attachment came next, established by Wilhelm IV in 1844. This was for those who had held the Pour le Mérite for fifty years and was first awarded to Generalmajor du Pac de Badens et Sombrelle of France. The Crown was gold and measured 17mm by 14mm. On 18 September 1866 the Grand Cross and Star were established by Wilhelm I; only ever awarded five times, it was never awarded again after his death. The Grand Cross was twice the size of the Pour le Mérite and a companion Star was worn on the breast. On 27 January 1903 the Kaiser bestowed the Pour le Mérite on the gunboat SMS Iltis in recognition of the bravery of her entire crew during the Boxer uprising; this is the only time that the award has been given in this way. In its 173 years up to the First World War the Pour le Mérite had been awarded 4,743 times.

There was no set criteria for the award of the medal. The Army General Headquarters staff provided recommendations to the Kaiser’s military cabinet and the awards were determined by the Adjutant General’s department. However, the Kaiser could (and did) award it directly in reward for glorious or decisive victories, and often for a single act. During the war a total of 687 awards were made.

On 9 November 1918 all imperial orders were abolished with the Kaiser’s abdication. The Peace Class was reinstituted on 31 May 1952 and survives to this day.

Hauptmann Ernst von BRANDENBURG

Ernst von Brandenburg was born in Westphalia on 4 June 1883. After leaving school he volunteered for the army as a cadet, joining the 6th West Prussian Infantry Regiment Nr 149 in Schneidemuhl. In 1911 he was assigned to the Research Institute for the Aviation System to look into the merits of military aviation. By the outbreak of war he was the regimental adjutant with the rank of Oberleutnant, and his regiment was soon in action on the Western Front. During his first year in action he was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class but was also wounded so severely that he was declared unfit for trench warfare. On 1 November 1915 he applied for the German Army Air Service and was accepted

After training as an observer in the spring of 1916, Brandenburg was assigned to a reconnaissance unit attached to the infantry. He carried out many missions, for which he was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class and the Knight’s Cross of the Royal Hohenzollern House Order. Then on 10 January 1917 General Hoeppner asked him to form a bomber squadron for the express purpose of bombing England, particularly London. The problems likely to be encountered on such a raid were many, including the unreliability of the available bombers and the weather. Kagohl 3, also known as the ‘England Geschwader’, was duly formed and intense training begin. The Gotha bombers did not have sufficient fuel capacity for the round trip so auxiliary tanks had to be fitted. The three-man crews were given extra thick clothes and the bombers were equipped with oxygen which the men could suck from, although most crews said they would have preferred cognac. The 14,000ft bombing altitude gave the bombers a great deal of protection as no Allied fighter at that time could reach that height.

Although attached to the Fourth Army, Kagohl 3 operated independently and received orders from OHL. By June 1917 the squadron was ready, but the British weather intervened, twice, but at 10am on 13 June eighteen Gothas took off from Ghent and headed towards England. As they crossed the Channel alarm bells started ringing in England and at 1pm the bombers reached London. Anti-aircraft fire commenced but, due to the poor siting of the guns and lack of training for the crews, this was ineffective, and the Gothas bombed docks, railway stations and warehouses. Of the thirty British fighters sent up to intercept them, not one was effective. A few of the Gothas were hit but not badly enough to bring them down, and two hours after dropping their bombs the whole squadron landed in Ghent.

The next day, 14 June 1917, Brandenburg was summoned to Supreme Headquarters and in front of the Kaiser described the whole raid in detail; he was immediately promoted to Hauptmann and the Kaiser personally awarded the Pour le Mérite and invited him to stay for the weekend. He was one of only two Bombengeschwader commanders to be given this honour. On his return to the front his Albatros, piloted by Oberleutnant Freiherr von Trotha, took off, but as the aircraft lifted from the airfield the engine spluttered and the Albatros crashed back to the ground. Brandenburg was pulled from the wreckage severely injured, his shattered leg having to be amputated.

After recovering, he returned to his squadron and organised many more raids, but he was soon taken off the active service duty list. At the end of the war the squadron was disbanded and Brandenburg returned to Germany. In 1924 he was appointed Director of Civil Aviation and helped to form the Luftwaffe. Former senior army officers were enrolled in commercial pilot schools and some 27 million marks were channelled to the Reichswehr through the ministry for military aviation. However, with the rise of the Nazis, he was pushed aside in favour of Ernst Udet. Not much is known about the rest of his life.

He died in Berlin in 1952.

Kapitänleutnant zur See Friedrich CHRISTIANSEN (13 victories)

The son of a sea captain, Friedrich Christiansen was born on 12 December 1879 in Wyk on Fohr. The naval tradition in his family ensured that on leaving school in 1895 he joined the merchant navy, with which he served until 1901, when he volunteered for military service, serving on MTBs. After a year with the MTBs, Christiansen went back to the merchant navy and was appointed as second officer on Preussen, then the biggest sailing ship in the world. In 1913 he decided to learn to fly and after graduating became an instructor at a civilian flying school in 1914.

At the outbreak of war Christiansen was called up and posted to Zeebrugge as a naval aviator, flying Brandenburg W12 seaplanes over the North Sea and England. He even bombed Dover, for which he was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class. For the next year he carried out raids and reconnaissance patrols, making C-Staffel one of the most successful units in the German Naval Air Service. Leutnant der Matrosen Artillerie Christiansen was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class and the Knight’s Cross with Swords of the Royal Hohenzollern House Order on 27 April 1916.

Christiansen shot down his first opponent on 15 May 1917, when he brought down a Sopwith Pup while on patrol near Dover. On 1 September he was promoted to Oberleutnant and given command of the Naval Air Station at Zeebrugge, and celebrated by shooting down a Porte FB2 Baby flying-boat near Felixstowe. On 11 December 1917 he shot down the airship C27, and was awarded the Pour le Mérite on the same day, having completed 440 missions.

On 15 February 1918 he shot down a Curtiss H12b flying-boat, followed by two more on 24 and 25 April. In June and July he brought down three more F2a flying-boats from Felixstowe. On 6 July he attacked the submarine C–25 while it was on the surface, killing the captain and five of her crew; Christiansen believed the submarine had sunk but in fact she limped back to harbour. Christiansen was credited with shooting down thirteen enemy aircraft by the end of the war, but he may also have ‘sunk’ some vessels and shot down into the sea some aircraft that are often credited to him but cannot be confirmed. His total may have been as high as twenty-one or twenty-seven according to some records.

After the war he returned to the merchant navy and for a while worked for the Dornier Company. In 1930 he flew the largest seaplane in the world, the Dornier Do X, on its maiden Atlantic flight to New York. In 1933 he joined the German Aviation Ministry to help rebuild the air force and was appointed Korpsfuhrer of the NSFK in 1937. After the fall of Holland in 1940, Christiansen was appointed commanding officer of occupied Holland, a post he held until the end of the war, when he was arrested and imprisoned by the Allies. On his release he returned to West Germany. He died at the age of 93 at Innien on 5 December 1972, fifty-four years after the award of his Pour le Mérite–thus entitling him to the fifty-year Crown had it still been awarded.


T-34/85 Model 1943, early production vehicle from a Red Guards battalion, Leningrad sector, February 1944.


Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg trenchantly describes the twelve months from the end of Kursk to the Red Army’ s summer offensive of 1944 as “the forgotten year.” That period featured continuous fighting from Leningrad to the Black Sea, on scales surpassing those of 1941-42 and with losses far larger, especially on the Soviet side. The story of the panzers becomes correspondingly difficult to reconstruct as the divisions bloodied at Kursk were scattered to bolster resistance in a dozen sectors.

The German retreat from Leningrad and the successful, albeit temporary, stabilization of the northern front in the Baltic states owed little yet much to the army’s panzers. They were stretched too thin elsewhere to provide major assistance to the hard-pressed Landser. But the Red Army in the north was still learning its craft. Three Tigers by themselves played a vital role in holding a reestablished defense line around Narva, Estonia. A panzer division that arrived with only three dozen tanks was the spearhead of a counterattack that plugged a critical gap between two German armies. And the buccaneering assault gunners kept appearing where they were most needed, shifting from sector to sector and division to division to shore up infantrymen as outgunned as they were outnumbered. By October one battalion recorded a thousand official kills.

Part of the panzer gap was filled by the Waffen SS. By the end of 1942 the army had essentially decided the small units of foreigners it had managed to raise were more trouble than they were worth. Heinrich Himmler, always on the lookout to enhance the scope of his ramshackle empire within an empire, took them in. In early 1943 he activated III (Germanic) Panzer Corps, to include the Vikings and a new division eventually designated the 11th SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Division (Northland).

Had Hitler not intervened its honorific might have been “Varan gian,” a reference to the Scandinavian guard troops of the medieval Byzantine empire and a reflection of Himmler’s desire to base the division on Aryan volunteers. In fact Northland absorbed most of the remaining foreign legions—including, for a while, a 50-man British detachment—and made up its strength with “ethnic Germans” from outside the expanded state and “Reich Germans” from territories annexed during the war. Northland saw its first action and made its first bones in the no-quarter partisan fighting in Yugoslavia. In November the division and III SS Panzer Corps were sent to the Leningrad sector. When it proved impossible to withdraw Viking from the fighting in the south, the corps was fleshed out by the ostensibly Dutch SS Volunteer PanzerGrenadier Brigade Nederland. Despite having only a single tank battalion plus some assault guns, it played an important role in the successful defense of Narva over the winter of 1943-44.

The III SS Panzer Corps is best understood in the context of the far more numerous unmechanized Waffen SS formations also thrown into what Reich propagandists described as “the battle of the European SS.” Some were Belgian, with Flemings and Walloons carefully separated. Others were local: Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians. Interpreted by postwar apologists as participants in a crusade against Bolshevism, they wore SS runes but saw themselves fighting against Russia and for their homelands.

In the war’s final months the Waffen SS would incorporate Bos nian Muslims, Croats, Italians, Frenchmen, and plain criminals into grandiosely styled “brigades” and “divisions” whose only German elements, in the words of one contemptuous Landser, were a few German shepherd watchdogs. Another thing these ragtag formations had in common was that they only saw German tanks by accident. The Waffen SS, in short, was subdividing into an elite fighting core, according to many accounts disproportionately favored in personnel and equipment; and a fringe of increasingly desperate men who, as they felt the ropes tighten around their necks, took little account of their behavior to prisoners and civilians.

Army Group Center’s post-Kursk circumstances were arguably even more perilous than those of Army Group North. When the general Russian offensives began in that sector, 3rd Panzer Army on the far left had not a single armored vehicle under command. Its neighbor, 4th Army, began the battle with 66 assault guns against almost 1,500 Soviet AFVs. The Germans nevertheless executed a fighting retreat into White Russia despite the Red Army’s desperate efforts. Companies were commanded by sergeants; local reserves were nonexistent, and replacements were a forlorn hope. As early as September 8, one army commander reported the total combat strength of his infantry was fewer than 7,000 men. A month later Kluge contacted Hitler directly and pulled no punches informing him that no general could command without men, weapons, and reserves. The Russians had all three.

Things might have become far worse had the Red Army in this sector not regressed to tactics making the Somme and Passchendaele appear sophisticated by comparison. Massed infantry, massed armor, and massed artillery hammered at the same points time after time, until nothing and no one remained to send forward or the Germans gave way.

The German plight was compounded by a well- coordinated partisan uprising in their rear. The army group had been preoccupied with holding its front since 1942. Now it faced an exponentially increasing number of strikes against communications systems and railroads. Security forces responded with large-scale, near-random executions and, as the front receded, scorched earth—when anything remained to scorch. This was no mere torching of villages and looting of houses. It involved the systematic destruction of militarily useful installations. In total war that meant anything. What was not burned was blown up. Thousands of civilians were “evacuated,” a euphemism for being driven west with what they could carry, with the alternative of risking execution as partisans or being shot at random. Files named “Protests” and “Refusals” are conspicuously absent from otherwise well- kept German records. What was important to senior officers was that the devastation be carried out in order and under command. German soldiers were not mere brigands.

The fight of Army Group Center was largely a foot soldier’s affair—with the by-now usual and welcome support of the near-ubiquitous assault guns. At the beginning of October the army group’s order of battle included a single panzer division itself reduced to battle group strength, and two panzer grenadier divisions in no better shape. Those figures remained typical. Yet ironically the panzers’ major contribution to the retreat played a large role in setting the scene for future debacle in the sector.

It began in March 1944 when the Red Army enveloped the city of Gomel and its patchwork garrison of 4,000 men. Gomel was a regional road and rail hub, as much as such existed in White Russia. Hitler declared it a fortress; the High Command supplied it from the air and ordered its immediate relief.

Initial efforts were thwarted by soft ground and the spring thaw. But after 10 days a battle group of SS Viking fought its way into the city. It required 18 hours and cost over 50 percent casualties. The lieutenant commanding received the Knight’s Cross. The hundred-odd surviving panzer grenadiers were welcome. The half-dozen Panthers were vital in holding off Soviet armor while LXVI Panzer Corps put together a relief force from an already worn-down 4th Panzer Division and a battle group built around what remained of Viking’s Panthers. The combination broke the siege on April 5, though it was two weeks before the link to the main front was fully reestablished.

The defense of Gomel solidified Hitler’s conviction that he had found a force multiplier. Gomel was on a small scale. But if larger “fortresses” could be established and garrisoned, under orders to hold to the last, the Soviets would be drawn into siege operations that would dissipate their offensive strength while the panzers and the Luftwaffe assembled enough strength to relieve the position. Army Group Center considered the idea good enough to be the best available alternative. The operational consequences of shifting to this fixed-defense approach would be demonstrated within months.





T-34/85 Model 1943, late production, fresh from the Red Sormovo Works at Gorki, March 1944.


The southern sector of the eastern front saw far more armored action than the other two in the months following Kursk. The Red Army’s performance was also exponentially better. Most of the best Soviet tank generals had been sent to that theater to see off the Kursk offensive and to prepare for the series of strikes expected to—finally—destroy German fighting power in south Russia.

It began on July 17. First Panzer Army and the re-created 6th Army initially held positions along the Mius River. Manstein planned a coun terstrike, using Das Reich and Leibstandarte to stun the Soviets on 1st Panzer Army’s front, then shifting them to 6th Army’s sector to join Totenkopf and 3rd Panzer in a larger concentric attack. When Hitler forbade it, Manstein borrowed the words of General von Seydlitz from two centuries earlier: His head was at the Führer’s disposal, but while he held command he must be allowed to use it.

Eventually, reinforced by a total of five panzer and panzer grenadier divisions, 1st Panzer Army did mount a tactically successful counterattack. But Manstein still faced over two and a half million men, 50,000 guns, 2,400 tanks, almost 3,000 aircraft. Purists sometimes suggest that Stavka should have used this overwhelming superiority to generate battles of encirclement, panzer style. But Stalin remembered all too clearly how Manstein had thwarted a similar approach after Stalingrad. At front and army command levels there also seems to have been a near-visceral desire to smash an enemy that had so often embarrassed them, and to do it with strength the Germans could not hope to match. Even airborne forces were thrown into the operation.

Ninth Army, 4th Panzer Army, and Detachment Kempf, rechristened 8th Army but with the same resources, paid the bill. Model secured Hitler’s permission for a fighting retreat from the Orel salient as part of the general withdrawal of Army Group Center. Fourth Panzer Army was split into three parts by the Soviet onslaught, each fighting its own desperate battle. Useful reinforcements were few—the 8th Panzer Division arrived with no tanks. A staff officer at Army High Command confided—but only to his diary—that the end might come before the new year. Manstein had to fight Hitler almost as fiercely as the Russians to secure permission to do anything but “hold, hold, hold!” Guderian cattily observed that Manstein was inappropriately tentative in the Führer’s presence. In fact Army Group South’s commander not only insisted that disaster awaited were he not allowed to fall back to the line of the Dnieper River, but on September 14 he declared that he would issue the orders the next day on his own responsibility. Hitler conceded defeat.

The success of the retreat depended on the panzers. Materially Manstein was playing a handful of threes. In contrast to Kursk, there were few chances to recover and repair damaged tanks. Casualty evacuation was random. Units constantly on the move meant stragglers were usually lost for good. It took two weeks to reach the Dnieper. By that time Army Group South counted fewer than 300 serviceable tanks and assault guns. The average infantry division’s frontline strength was around a thousand men. Its average front was twelve to thirteen miles.

Even Tigers felt the strain. In the course of the campaign, Army Group South’s single battalion of Panzer VIs was increased to four. But their commanders complained the Tigers were victimized by their reputation: thrown in piecemeal, shuttled from sector to sector, denied time to maintain the complex and sensitive vehicle. Too often they were used as mobile pillboxes. Too often their infantry support was nonexistent or ineffective.

The tankers ascribed that last to poor training and low morale. From the infantry’s perspective, it was often common sense. The Tiger was essentially different from the familiar assault guns, whose low silhouettes and maneuverability enabled them to seek ambush positions and use cover—almost like a Landser on treads. The Tigers were big. They drew fire like magnets and attracted Soviet tanks like flies to manure. Any smart rifleman—and slow thinkers had short life spans in the autumn of 1943—was likely to avoid them rather than take the risk of providing close-in protection.

As they fell back, the Germans scorched the earth. That is a polite military euphemism for a swath of devastation covering hundreds of square miles, sparing nothing and no one except by accident. “They are burning the bread,” Vatutin admonished his men. Few Soviet soldiers did not know what hunger felt like. Small wonder the Russians succeeded in throwing bridgeheads across the river. Small wonder that the Germans’ best chance of holding was to destroy them before they could metastasize. And small wonder that they failed.

On November 3 the 1st Ukrainian Front began crossing the Dnieper in force around Kiev, on Manstein’s northern flank. Fourth Panzer Army’s few remaining AFVs foundered in the Soviet tide. The 25th Panzer Division, sent to restore the situation, had spent most of its existence in the peaceful surroundings of Norway. Botched transportation schedules temporarily made it a panzer division with no tracked vehicles at all. Yet the division managed, somehow, to halt an entire tank army and set the stage for another of Manstein’s signature counterattacks.

This one would be made without Hoth, summarily dismissed by Hitler for his failure to hold the river line. His replacement represented no loss in ability. Erhard Raus had been tempered in the front lines from Leningrad to Kursk. Tactical command of the counterattack was in the arguably even more capable hands of Hermann Balck, now commanding XLVIII Panzer Corps. Even the weather obliged, freezing the mud to stability by the time Balck went in.

Hitler had rejected Manstein and Guderian’s proposals to concentrate every tank in the southern sector for a short, massive blow. Forty-Eighth Panzer Corps counted only 200 tanks and assault guns, but they were manned by some of the Wehrmacht’s best, divisions like 1st Panzer, 7th Panzer, and Leibstandarte. For three weeks they ran rings around the baffled Rotarmisten. Balck’s corps was on the point of executing a 1941-style encirclement when a captured map showed the intended pocket contained no fewer than seven Soviet corps. Even for the intrepid Balck, that was a bit much. And despite virtuoso German performances from corps headquarters to tank crews, the Soviet bridgehead was still intact.

Further south, 1st Panzer Army and Army Group A, whose sector had been relatively quiet since the withdrawal from the Caucasus, came under increasing pressure in mid-August. Initially it was possible to plug gaps and secure flanks by using available AFVs as emergency relief. But when an eagerly awaited panzer division turned out to consist of seven tanks and an under strength panzer grenadier regiment, operational reality had an unpleasant way of unmistakably asserting itself. The situation was worsened in 1st Panzer Army’s sector, where Hitler had ordered an already dangerously deep salient where the Dnieper bent west at Zaporozhye to be expanded to a bridgehead—not for military reasons but to protect a dam producing electricity described as vital for the industry of occupied Ukraine, a dam that was also widely understood to symbolize Soviet achievement.

The extended deployment required to sustain this propaganda illusion drove Manstein to near-wordless fury. It took only four days for the Red Army to overrun the bridgehead in mid-October. The resources it had absorbed were unavailable to resist a far larger attack against 6th Army on 1st Panzer’s right: over a half-million men and 800 tanks against a fifth of the number of armored vehicles, in wide-open country. By the beginning of November the Crimea was isolated and Army Group A cut in half.

The Russians were learning how to keep moving tactically and operationally, and figuring out how to coordinate their movements on a theater level. On October 15 another sledgehammer shattered 1st Panzer Army’s left wing, and in 10 days covered the 100 miles to Krivoi Rog. On October 24 a second front-level offensive broke out of another Dnieper bridgehead a few miles south of the first. Mackensen, anything but an alarmist, reported the gap could not be closed, that his exhausted men had no more left in them. Hitler responded by giving Manstein control of 1st Panzer Army and a temporary free hand.

This time Manstein planned a movement. A panzer corps headquarters rotated from his army group through 1st Panzer Army’s rear zone into position on its left flank. It took command of Totenkopf, of 24th Panzer Division, in Italy since its reformation after Stalingrad, and of 14th Panzer Division, another Stalingrad revival currently shaking down in France. On August 28 this hastily assembled force drove southeast, into the Soviet rear toward Krivoi Rog. Mackensen’s LVII Panzer Corps attacked in the opposite direction two days later. Both operations took the Russians by surprise and succeeded in linking up to cut off the Soviet spearheads and restabilize the sector.

It was another neat local victory, and Mackensen’s last fight in Russia. On November 4 he was transferred to Italy, replaced by a no less capable man. Hans Hube had lost an arm in World War I, led a panzer corps with sufficient distinction to be flown out of Stalingrad, and done well against the British and Americans in Sicily. He had a reputation for willpower and energy. He would need both in the face of still another coordinated Soviet offensive in what again seemed overwhelming force.

The Soviet Union had paid for its successes against Army Group South with over 1.5 million casualties, a quarter of them dead or missing. The German front still held—barely—but its defenders were so tired and apathetic that in the words of one report, they no longer cared whether they were shot by the Russians or their own officers. And this was the elite Grossdeutschland Division, which enjoyed its own personal battalion of Tigers.

On December 24 the Red Army struck again: four fronts, 2.25 million men, 2,600 tanks. Fourth Panzer Army was again hammered into fragments, each making its own way west as best it could. Manstein almost by reflex saw the best response as shortening the front and concentrating his armor for a counterattack, as he had done after Stalingrad. When Hitler refused, Manstein, on his own responsibility, pulled 1st Panzer Army out of the line and redeployed it on 4th Panzer’s right. Hube had his own III Panzer Corps, XLVI Panzer Corps transferred in haste from France, and a provisional heavy tank regiment with a battalion each of Tigers and Panthers, plus some attached infantry and armored artillery. His counterattack cost the Russians a few tens of thousands of men and around 700 tanks. It was a victory—but only in the most limited tactical sense.

The experiences of Mackensen and Hube showed clearly that even in reasonable strength the panzers could do no more than restore local situations. Both counterattacks, moreover, had depended for half their striking power on divisions transferred from the west. How long would it be before Allied initiatives made that impossible?

Any doubts that the balance in armored war had definitively shifted should have been dispelled by the Battle of the Cherkassy Pocket. The Germans still held a 100-mile stretch of the Dnieper north of that city. Hitler projected its use as a springboard for a proposed spring offensive and forbade withdrawal. On January 24, two Soviet fronts hit the sector with a third of a million men, artillery, tanks, and aircraft in proportion. Inside of a week a half dozen divisions, including what was left of Viking, were cut off in the city of Korsun: around 60,000 men. Their armor support totaled two dozen tanks and half as many assault guns.

Hitler, remembering Demyansk, ordered the pocket to hold and promised supply from the air. Those melodies were too familiar. Manstein, well aware of the morale-sapping fear throughout his army group that the pocket would become another Stalingrad, planned a major relief operation using no fewer than nine panzer divisions. Initially every one of the divisions he proposed to use was already engaged elsewhere in Russia, and one was literally stuck fast trying to move through early spring mud. The four divisions finally assembled under 8th Army’s XLVII Panzer Corps had a combined total of 3,800 men in their eight panzer grenadier regiments. Their progress was predictably limited.

That left it up to Hube. His strike force for the unusually domesti cally named Operation Wanda—III Panzer Corps—included 1st, 16th, and 17th Panzer Divisions, Leibstandarte, and the heavy regiment. But the Panzer IV’s Tigers and Panthers bogged tread-deep in mud the wide-tracked T-34s traversed with relative ease. Fuel consumption spiraled; breakdowns multiplied; supply vehicles were immobilized. By February 15 it was clear that the pocket could not be relieved. Instead Manstein ordered a breakout in the direction of the mired III Panzer Corps, code word “Freedom.”

Orders were to leave anyone unable to march. For one of the few times in Wehrmacht history, something like a mutiny took place. Wounded who could be moved were loaded onto every available vehicle. With its seven tanks and three assault guns, Viking took the point and carried the retreat through the first Russian defenses. But III Panzer Corps was unable to fight its way to the designated meeting point and unable to contact the pocket by radio. Command and control were eroding even before the Germans entered a Russian combined-arms killing zone around dawn on February 16. For over four hours Russian tanks and cavalrymen chased fugitives through the ravines and across open ground. This was one of the few verifiable occasions where T-34s systematically ran over fleeing men. And the killing was likely both payback and pleasure.

Around 36,000 men, including 7,500 wounded, eventually reached III Panzer Corps’s lines. Eighty-three hundred of them belonged to Viking and the Walloon SS brigade attached to it. Total casualties in the pocket amounted to around 20,000: no bagatelle, but a long way from Stalingrad. First Panzer Army’s loss of over 150 AFVs reflected its inability to move immobilized tanks and repair breakdowns, rather than any sudden forward leap in the effectiveness of Soviet armor. Nevertheless, though Goebbels’s propaganda machine described a great victory, the battle for the Cherkassy Pocket highlighted the continuing decline of Hitler’s panzers from a strategic and operational force to a tactical instrument.

To maintain and restore even temporarily Army Group South’s sector of the Eastern Front in the months after Kursk had required the commitment of most of the army’s combat-ready armor. That commitment, moreover, was increasingly ad hoc. A “panzer division” in the German order of battle was increasingly likely to be on the ground with as many tanks as could be made operational combined in a single battalion; the mechanized panzer grenadier battalion and the reconnaissance battalion, both brought to something like table of organization strength by transfers from the remaining panzer grenadiers; the half-tracked pioneer company; and a few self-propelled guns. These remnants were repeatedly thrown in against odds of ten to one or higher without time to absorb replacements and work in new officers. They might bear famous names and numbers. They were not what they once were. But then the same could be said about an entire Reich approaching the point of unraveling.

The tipping point on the Eastern Front was even more clearly indicated in March 1944. The Korsun-Cherkassy breakout enraged Stalin, but was not even a speed bump to the continuing Russian offensive. Zukhov had taken over, and his hands drove the spearheads that tore 50-mile gaps in the front, left 1st Panzer Army facing in the wrong direction, and created within days a pocket containing over 200,000 men, fighting soldiers, their rear echelons, and the detritus of an occupation. Twenty-two divisions were represented. One had only 600 men and not a single antitank gun, and that was all too typical. The isolated Germans counted 50 assault guns and 43 tanks, some of them unable to move for lack of fuel.

One veteran spoke of “clean undershirt time,” when one looked for anything white enough to make a surrender flag. Hitler insisted on “holding what there is to hold.” Manstein informed Hitler that he intended to order a breakout on his own responsibility. Hitler temporized to show who was in charge, then agreed.

Manstein’s plan was by now almost conventional: reinforcements from France, this time the refreshed II SS Panzer Corps, to attack from the outside; 1st Panzer Army to drive west toward the SS spearheads. Radio interceptions—midlevel Red Army communications security had not progressed too far since 1914—helped Manstein time the breakout. Hube brought another idea to the table. His experience at Stalingrad and Cherkassy had convinced him of the risks involved in depending on a relief force. If one appeared and made contact, all was well and good. If necessary, however, Hube was prepared to fight his own way through in a “traveling pocket.”

Hube’s plan and its execution are still studied in war colleges. He had four corps headquarters, three of them panzer. He had elements of 10 panzer divisions—all the command elements he needed. The problem was how best to organize the operation. Given overall Russian superiority in the sector, conventional wisdom suggested a strong armored spearhead. The problem was that the tankers might move ahead too fast and too far, leaving the rest of the army to fend for itself—a polite euphemism for being overrun and destroyed. Instead Hube did the opposite. He organized the breakout in two parallel columns. Each had a vanguard of infantry supported by assault guns. The panzers formed the rear guard, in a position to move forward and support the advance forces when necessary.

Hube commanded the breakout in person. He had kept his men active in the days of preparation, sublimating feelings of despair and panic. Straggling and desertion were minimal. Zukhov’s threat to shoot every third prisoner if the pocket did not capitulate by April 2 was not generally known, but would have surprised few. That the Soviet marshal later restricted proposed victims to senior officers was limited comfort to anyone aware of the concession.

Hube originally wanted to break out to the south and head for Romania. Manstein insisted on a western direction despite the longer distance and the numerous river crossings it entailed. He had the senior rank and the final word. On March 27, 1st Panzer Army started west. It had the advantages of surprise; sluggish enemy reaction enabled the rear guard to close up to the main columns relatively unmolested. Hube kept his men closed up and moving. Improvised airstrips enabled the Luftwaffe to bring in fuel and ammunition and evacuate wounded—a major continuing boost to morale and a tribute to “Aunt Ju,” the Ju-52 transports that could land and take off from ground that was unusable by even the American Dakotas. On April 6, 1st Panzer’s spearheads made contact with elements of II SS Panzer Corps. A few days later its divisions were in action on a new defense line that held this time. Hube, awarded the Knight’s Cross with Diamonds, was killed in an air crash on his way to receive it.

His death was at once irony and paradigm. Hans Hube had conducted an epic, indeed heroic operation—but in the wrong direction. First Panzer Army brought out its tanks and its wounded at a cost of 6,000 dead and missing. Its anabasis bought time, but to what purpose? “For slow exhaustion and grim retreat/For a wasted hope and a sure defeat.” The words of an American captured on Bataan in 1942 might well serve as an epigram—or an epitaph—for the saga of Army Group South in the endgame months of the Russo-German War.


Field Marshal Erich von Manstein with Tiger I Tanks

The victories at Stalingrad and in the Caucasus initially encouraged the Soviet High Command to plan a major offensive on a front extending from north of Smolensk to the Black Sea. But the price of success had been high. The Germans, against expectations, had come back strong and added a new high card to their order of battle in the SS Panzer Corps. The second front long promised by the western Allies still consisted of promises and substitutes. Significant evidence indicates Stalin seriously considered the prospects of a separate peace with Hitler, or with a successor government willing to respond. Tentative contacts, most of them indirect, began in Sweden during the spring of 1943 and continued for most of the year.

By any rational calculation, the Reich’s short-term prospects of total victory in Russia were close to zero. The concluding volume of Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweiten Weltkrieg summarizes a project begun thirty years ago by suggesting that without Hitler’s iron determination, Germany would probably have been ready to conclude peace in 1943. But by that time the National Socialist Führer State had so far eroded the principal institutions of state, Wehrmacht, and party, that neither institutional nor personal forums for discussing the issue existed. No one but Hitler was responsible for the whole. No one—above all no one in the military—was willing to risk considering the whole and acting on the results. Like many a plan before it, Operation Citadel would take on a pseudolife of its own.

Postwar historians in general have followed the generals’ memoirs in blaming Kursk on Adolf Hitler. He is indicted, tried, and convicted first for refusing to accept the professionals’ recommendations and shift to an operational defensive, temporarily trading space for time while making good the losses of the winter campaign, allowing the Red Army to extend itself in a renewed offensive, then using the refitted panzer divisions to “backhand” it a second time. Once having accepted the concept of an offensive, Hitler is described as first delaying it while the Russians reinforced the sector, then abandoning it when, against the odds, the generals and the Landser were on the point of once more pulling the Reich’s chestnuts from the fire.

Reality, as might be expected, is a good deal more complex. Hitler badly needed a major victory to impress his wavering allies—perhaps even to convince Turkey to join the war. And his argument that south Russia’s resources were significant for sustaining Germany’s war effort could not be simply dismissed. The army high command, moreover, was not precisely of one mind on the issue. Guderian, restored to power and favor, argued against any major offensive during 1943 in favor of rebuilding a panzer force stretched to the limits by the fighting at the turn of the year. Wait until 1944, he urged, then strike with full-strength panzer divisions built around Panthers and Tigers, with increased numbers of half-tracks and assault guns and a mobile reserve strong enough to hold any second front the British and Americans could open.

For his part, Manstein believed Guderian took no account of time. His often-cited advocacy of an elastic defense taking full advantage of German officers’ mastery of mobile warfare and German soldiers’ fighting power has gained credibility with hindsight. But the concept was barely articulated in early 1943. To the extent that it existed, it was Manstein’s brain child, tested over no more than a few months, for practical purposes unfamiliar even in the panzer force. Experience would show that elastic defense was by no means a panacea. Its success depended on an obliging enemy—and the Red Army of 1943 was anything but obliging.

Manstein himself saw elastic defense in the existing strategic contest as essentially a temporary expedient, to wear down Soviet forces and prepare for a grander design. Manstein initially intended a combined general offensive by his Army Group South and Army Group Center against a hundred-mile bulge around the city of Kursk, driven into the German lines during the winter fighting. A double penetration would cut off Soviet forces in this Kursk salient, and draw Soviet reserves in that sector onto the German anvil in the fashion of 1941. With Kursk eliminated and the German front shortened by 150 miles, reserves could more readily be deployed for future operations against the Soviet flanks and rear.

Manstein described this ambitious operation as a “forehand stroke” that must be made quickly, while the Germans could take advantage of the dry season and before Soviet material power grew overwhelming and the Western allies could establish themselves on the continent. It was correspondingly disconcerting when Kluge’s Army Group Center replied that it lacked the resources to participate in the kind of assault he projected. Paradoxically, that refusal made Manstein’s commitment to the Kursk operation even firmer. He considered it a high-risk window of opportunity that must be seized even with limited resources.

Army Chief of Staff Kurt Zeitzler was also attracted by the prospects of eliminating the Kursk salient, albeit for less ambitious reasons than his subordinate. He considered weakening the Russians in the southern sector and shortening the front quite enough to be going on with.

By default the generals’ debate kicked the decision upstairs, to Hitler. On March 9 his Operations Order No. 5 provided for a spring offensive with the purpose of denying the Russians the initiative. After a couple of false starts, it became the basis for Operation Citadel, whose scope was defined in an order of April 15. The opening paragraph of Operations Order No. 6 spoke of “decisive significance . . . a signal to all the world.” In sharp contrast to the far-reaching objectives set in 1941 and 1942, however, the operational geography was so limited it requires a small-scale regional map to follow. That did not make Kursk a limited offensive. Success offered a chance to damage the Red Army sufficiently so as to at least stabilize the Eastern front and perhaps develop a temporary political solution to a militarily unwinnable war.

The operation was militarily promising. Strategically even a limited success would remove a major threat to German flanks in the sector and limit prospects for a Soviet breakout of the Dnieper. The experiences of Operations Barbarossa and Blue indicated that the Germans won their victories at the start of campaigns and ran down as they grew overextended. Citadel’s relatively modest objectives seemed insurance against that risk. This time, forward units would not be ranging far beyond the front in a race to nowhere in particular. There were no economic temptations like in the Ukraine in 1941 or the Caucasus in 1942. Kursk would be a straightforward soldiers’ battle. As for what would come next, sufficient unto the day was the evil thereof. It was a line of thinking—perhaps a line of feeling—uncomfortably reminiscent of Ludendorff ’s approach to the great offensive of March 1918: punch a hole and see what happens.

Kursk seemed to be the kind of prepared offensive that had frustrated the Soviets from division to theater levels for eighteen months. Geographically, the sector was small enough to enable concentrating overstretched Luftwaffe assets on scales unseen since 1941. Logistically, the objectives were well within reach. Operationally, the double envelopment of a salient was a textbook exercise. Tactically, from company to corps, the panzer commanders were skilled and confident. For the first time since Barbarossa they would have tanks to match Soviet quality.

But would there be enough of them—indeed, enough armor of any kind? As had been the case throughout the war, the tip of the upside-down pyramid was the panzer arm. By the end of the winter fighting, the eighteen panzer divisions on the Russian Front had a combined strength of only around 600 serviceable tanks. The shortages of trucks and other supporting vehicles were even greater. Refreshing the divisions in situ meant fresh demands on men already bone tired.

Friedrich von Mellenthin, widely accepted as a final authority on panzer operations, declared the “hardened and experienced” panzer divisions to be ready for another battle once the ground dried. But Mellenthin was a staff officer, a bit removed from the sharp end. Some divisions of his own XLVIII Panzer Corps were down to fewer than two dozen tanks apiece. Fourth Panzer Army’s old pro Hermann Hoth informed Manstein on March 21 that men who had been fighting day and night for months now expected a chance to rest. Even hard-charging company and battalion commanders were reporting widespread apathy.

Operations Order No. 6 emphasized speed. But Army Group South reported that its panzers could not be ready for battle until the first half of May. Army Group Center complained that partisan attacks and air strikes were seriously delaying rail movements. Walther Model, whose 9th Army would carry the weight of the northern arm of the proposed pincers, insisted postponement was necessary. Perhaps even that aggressive general had lost faith in the operation’s prospects. Certainly he was well aware of the overall weakness of Army Group Center’s front. Shifting its resources southward invited a repetition of Rzhev, where the Soviets had come far too close to a victory under similar conditions.

Hitler was having his own second thoughts. He postponed the attack until May 9, partly with the intention of bringing as many Panthers and Tigers on line as possible. When the overworked assembly lines failed to deliver, Hitler postponed the attack again, then again, and finally set the date for July 5. The delay was later widely criticized among the soldiers. Some of this was reflex; “ask of me anything but time” was a military axiom long before Napoleon aphorized it. Some was second-guessing, typically expressed by Mellenthin’s assertion that the Russian position at Kursk was vulnerable in May. It might indeed have been—to the kind of attack the Germans delivered in July. The postponements enabled doubling Citadel’s strength, bringing the order of battle to a quarter million men and over 2,500 armored fighting vehicles for a 60-mile front. The postponements enabled refitting the panzer divisions, bringing them to near full strength of 150 or so tanks. Approximately 150 Tigers and 200 Panthers were included in the inventory—most of them concentrated in a few units.

The panzers would be sporting new coats. After over eighteen months, higher headquarters had become officially aware that the dark gray with which the armored force had gone to war was poor camouflage in the greens and browns of rural Russia. The new scheme authorized in January 1943 was a base color of dark yellow, with crews at liberty to apply olive green and red brown mottling to suit specific conditions. As spring broke out, would-be artists employed spray guns and brushes.

Eighteen hundred aircraft, two-thirds of the Luftwaffe strength in Russia, were available to support the operation—a number enhanced by the high quality of the air and ground crews compared to a Red Air Force still learning its craft. The now-legendary Stuka would make its last appearance in a dive-bomber role and its first as a tank-buster with two 37mm cannon mounted below the wings. The Stukas were joined by five ground-attack squadrons equipped with Fw 190s, and by five more squadrons of specialized antitank aircraft: the Henschel Hs 129, whose twin engines, heavy armor, and 30mm cannon made it the ancestor of the US Air Force’s well- known A-10 Thunderbolt, and no less formidable in action.

Delaying the attack also gave the old hands in the panzer divisions the breathing space they so badly needed. It gave them time to welcome returned wounded, to integrate replacements, to learn the individual characteristics of the Panzer IIIs and IVs most of them were still riding. It gave them opportunity to experience a buildup like few had ever seen. Reactions, even among the old hands, oddly resembled those widespread in the BEF in the weeks before the Battle of the Somme in 1916. There was just too much of everything for anything to go seriously wrong.

The catch-22 was that the Red Army had been steadily countering the German buildup with one of its own—one whose scale escaped both German intelligence and German reconnaissance. Its strategic matrix, as mentioned above, was offensive. Its operational intention was to break the Germans and advance to the line of the Dnieper. And tactically it would begin on the defensive—by design. Intelligence sources, including Western-supplied ULTRA information, and common sense alike indicated the Germans would attack rather than wait to be overrun. And this time there was only one sector of the entire front offering anything like a favorable opportunity. The question was not “where” but “whether” the offensive could be stopped.

Preparation began in mid-April to make Kursk a fortress and a killing ground. The salient was configured as a combination of battalion defensive sectors, antitank strong points, barbed wire, and minefields. The forward belt alone included 350 battalion positions, each a network of mutually supporting trenches and bunkers. There were seven more of them, with a depth extending over 100 miles. Minefields averaged over 2,500 mines per mile. These active and passive defenses were structured to steer the panzers against antitank strong points largely built around combinations of antitank rifles and light 45mm guns. Both were long obsolescent and correspondingly expendable. Both were useful only at point-blank ranges. Both were proof of Stavka’s commitment to replicating Stalingrad in the steppe.

Manning the fixed defenses were some of the best infantry of the revitalized Red Army, including a number of Guard divisions who had earned the honorific the hard way. Supporting them was a mass of artillery, heavy mortars, and rocket launchers—close to 20,000 barrels, many organized in complete divisions, working with calibrated ranges. Behind the salient, the sword to the shield was a striking force under Ivan Konev, who would finish the war second to none in the Red Army as a master of operational art. His Steppe Front included over 4,000 tanks commanded by some of the best of a new generation of Soviet armor generals: M. E. Katukov of 1st Tank Army, A. G. Rodin of 2nd, and a dozen others forgotten to history but familiar enough to the Germans.

Overall responsibility in the northern sector rested with Central Front’s Konstantin Rokossovsky. Polish born, he had spent three years in the Gulag during the Great Purge. Released in 1940, his lost teeth replaced by the best Soviet metal, he showed his own mettle from Moscow to Stalingrad. Facing off against Manstein, Voronezh Front’s N. F. Vatutin had demonstrated his capacity for high command since the start of the war. A leader from the front, respected by his subordinates and his soldiers, Vatutin was a risk-taker who appreciated staff work: an uncommon but welcome combination in the Red Army.

No less significant was the synergy between the geographic scale of Kursk and the Red Army’s command and control methods and capacities. Since Barbarossa, those had developed in contexts of top-down battle management, reflecting both the Soviet principle that war is a science and the fact that Soviet commanders at all levels were essentially the product of experience. At this stage of the war, and arguably much later, senior Soviet officers resembled their counterparts in the armies of Napoleon: both lost effectiveness when operating independently. Previous German offensives had found no difficulty in getting inside Soviet decision loops, generating increasingly random responses that frequently collapsed into chaos. Kursk’s small scale enabled timely response to German moves as the defense slowed the German pace. It also enabled a level of management absent in previous major battles, cresting in turn a confidence at all levels of headquarters that a culture of competence had replaced a culture of improvisation from desperation.

Those were significant force multipliers, in a situation arguably not needing them. It is a familiar axiom of modern war, expressed mathematically in something called the Lanchester equations, that an offensive requires three-to-one superiority. Soviet doctrine reduced that to 3:2, assuming superior planning, staff work, and fighting power. By the time the preparations for Kursk were complete, the Soviet defenders outnumbered the attackers in every category of men and equipment, in almost every sector. The average ratio was somewhere between 1:1.5 and 1:2.5. On paper the outcome seemed assured. But wars are won in the field, and the panzers had made a habit of defying odds.

Given the respective rates of buildup, it seems reasonable that an attack mounted by the forces available in April or May would have lacked the combat power to overcome the salient’s defenses even in their early stages. The Germans’ only chance was the steel-headed sledgehammer they eventually swung in July. And that highlights the essential paradox of Kursk. The factors that made the battle zone acceptable in operational terms also made it too small to allow for the application of the force multipliers the panzers had spent a decade cultivating. Geographically Kursk offered no opportunity for operational skill and little for tactical virtuosity. Militarily the strength of the defensive system meant the German offensive had to depend on momentum sustained by mass—which is another way to describe a battle of attrition, the one type of combat the German way of war was structured to avoid.

Hitler’s panzers thus faced a second paradox. Not only were they the tip of an inverted strategic pyramid, operationally and tactically they were required to match the Red Army’s strengths at the expense of their own. And once the fighting started, a third paradox developed. One of the tactical advantages initially considered in planning Kursk was that the limited geography would enable the infantry to remain close to the armor and assume responsibility for mopping up. But the Reich’s systemic and increasing shortages of replacements favored giving priority to the panzers—army and SS alike. The advantage was often marginal: Leibstandarte’s ranks were in part refilled by unceremoniously transferred Luftwaffe ground crews. But infantry divisions already chronically understaffed were in the process of being reduced to six battalions instead of the original nine.

The resulting formations were easier to handle. New weapons like the MG 42 enhanced their firepower. But they lacked staying power when pitted against defenses like those of Kursk. As a consequence the panzers were increasingly constrained to use their own resources—tanks as well as panzer grenadiers—to secure the ground they captured at the expense of sustaining offensive momentum.

On the right half of the German pincer, Army Group South deployed Hoth and 4th Panzer Army on its right. With six army panzer divisions and the SS Panzer Corps, plus an independent regiment including all 200 available Panthers, this was the largest armored force ever previously put under a single commander. Its mission was correspondingly straightforward. Screened on his left by the three panzer divisions of Army Detachment Kempf ’s III Panzer Corps. Hoth was to break through and join forces with Army Group Center’s 9th Army attacking from the north. Model had another six panzer divisions, one of panzer grenadiers, and seven infantry divisions which he proposed to use to open the way for his mobile forces. Sixty miles separated Model and Hoth. It would be the longest distance in the history of Hitler’s panzers.

“It’s time to write the last will and testament!” one SS trooper wrote in his diary while awaiting the order to advance. Across the line Soviet soldiers swapped their own grim jokes—like the one about the tanker who reported almost everyone in his unit had been killed that day. “I’m sorry,” he concluded, “I’ll make sure I burn tomorrow.”

Teutoburg Forest


Reconstruction of palisade. The building of this palisade is indicative of Arminius’s careful planning, as was his use of terrain to nullify the superior equipment and training of the Romans.



Date: autumn AD 9 Location: Kalkriese, Germany

In the field, the bones of the soldiers lay scattered about, each where he had fallen either standing his ground or trying to flee. There were bits of weapons, and the bones of horses amongst them, and human heads had been nailed to the trunks of the surrounding trees. TACITUS, ANNALS, 1.61


  • c.35,000 men
  • Commanded by Arminius
  • Unknown casualties


  • 20,000 men
  • Commanded by Publius Quintilius Varus
  • 20,000 dead, plus c. 3,000 civilians

In the early years of the 1st century AD the emperor Augustus tried to bring Germany under his control. An unconquered Germany was uncomfortably close to Italy, and Augustus may have felt that a defensive line along the Elbe was easier to maintain than the current one along the Rhine.

By AD 9 Germany seemed sufficiently conquered for Augustus to send a governor whose main concern was the Romanization of the province. This was Quintilius Varus, former governor of Syria and husband of Augustus’s great-niece.

Varus commanded three legions – the XVII, XVIII and XIX. Also, some of the many tribes of Germany were allied with the Romans. Among the young German aristocrats who served with the Roman legions for military experience was Arminius, son of a chieftain of the Cherusci tribe.

Varus was unaware that the despoiling of his native land had made Arminius a bitter enemy of Rome. From the moment Varus arrived in Germany, Arminius plotted to unite the tribes and bring about the Roman leader’s downfall.

These tribes sent to Varus and asked for garrisons to be stationed with them. Varus agreed readily and sent detachments, thus weakening his main force. Finally, in AD 9 Arminius arranged for reports of trouble in a distant part of the province to reach Varus. It was now autumn, and Varus seems to have decided to move his whole camp and deal with the problem on his way to winter quarters. Another German leader, Segestes, pleaded passionately with Varus not to trust Arminius, but he was ignored.


Arminius’s guides led the Romans astray. Then the Germans attacked. Initially these attacks were pinpricks – ambuscades which melted at the first sign of serious resistance, and the threat seemed minor. The Romans had armour, equipment and training, while many Germans fought naked. Though some warriors had swords, others had merely a crude spear (the frameo), sometimes with only a fire-hardened wooden point. But the Romans were uncomfortable in the dense forest, and were made more miserable by a series of thunderstorms. Near modern Kalkriese, on the edge of the Wiehen hills north of Osnabrück, Arminius had prepared an ambush. Here, the forest extended almost to the edge of an impenetrable marsh. The Roman army was caught on the narrow stretch of land between the two when the Germans attacked.

The Romans were penned in by a wall at the forest edge. This was part-rampart, but mostly a fence woven with branches between the trees, of a type that the Germans used to stop their cattle from straying. The Romans were probably split into pockets by the first attack and unable to coordinate their efforts. In confused skirmishes and a running battle lasting several days, the trapped Romans were steadily worn down.


Varus was either killed or fell on his sword. Others followed his example, for the Germans had a grisly way with prisoners. In the end, not one single Roman survived. What we know of the battle is from reconstruct ions, the first by the Romans themselves, who returned to the scene a few years later. They found places where senior Roman officers had been messily sacrificed, and the bones of the dead scattered where they had fallen.

Gradually the site of the disaster was forgotten. A massive monument to the battle was eventually erected at Hiddesen, south of Detmold. This was some 50 km (31 miles) from the actual site of Teutoburg Forest, which was discovered very recently by Major Tony Clunn, an amateur archaeologist. He found Roman metal artifacts which suggested a battle, and professional archaeologists confirmed that this was the site of the Varusschlacht – where Varus’s legions had been destroyed. Arminius’s victory ensured that north west Europe had a Germanic rather than a Latin culture. This in turn profoundly affected subsequent European history, and thus the history of the world.