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The Panzers During WWII

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Invasion of Poland Development after Invasion of  France German Tank Defence Measures
Invasion of France Introduction of the Heavy Tanks and Gun Platforms The King Tiger
Invasion of Russia A New Challenge - The Russian T34 Tank Difficult Conditions, New Ideas
The Tide Turns Against Germany Changes in Strategy and using Captured Tanks The End of the War
     

The Panzers During WWII

Invasion of Poland

While the world watched, Germany defeated Poland in 18 days. This astounding success, even against a relatively unprepared nation like Poland, was an outstanding example of the new mobile warfare predicted by Fuller and Liddell Hart during the 1920s. Tank divisions massed at a few points, concentrated all their forces at one objective, broke through and immediately struck deep into the enemy rear. The main striking force came from the massed tanks of the panzer divisions, supported by artillery at first, but as the tanks penetrated deeper into Polish territory, support came from the Luftwaffe, and especially from the Junkers Ju 87, the infamous 'Stuka'. Motorised infantry was bought up to actually occupy the territory taken and to reduce any strong points left behind by the 'expanding torrent'.

All arms of the German Wehrmacht worked together with a cohesion impossible in many armies, but the main striking forces were concentrated in the panzer divisions. In these novel formations tanks were supported by their own artillery, engineer, supply and signal formations, together with their own infantry units, later to become the famous 'Panzer-grenadiers'. The panzer division was the living embodiment of many of the early military prophets but it took the peculiar history and political situation of Germany to put the idea into life.

Invasion of France
After the conquest of Poland the panzer divisions took stock and reorganised themselves for the next
major campaign, which was to be in the west. For this campaign, new equipment was issued in the shape of increased numbers of PzKpfw Ills and IVs, and more Czech equipment became available. The campaign in the west was approached with more caution than had been necessary in the Polish conflict as France was, on paper at least, one of the most powerful nations in Europe. The number of tanks in the French Army was almost treble in number to those of the Wehrmacht, and their quality was also on a parity. But the events of May 1940 proved once again the value of the German tactics and training.

By the end of June France had been conquered and the little British contingent had been forced to flee from Dunkirk back to Britain. Once again, deep armoured thrusts had swept through the French rear and destroyed communications, supply routes and, what was to be the deciding factor, they destroyed the French morale and will to fight. A few determined counters were delivered by Allied tank formations but the panzer divisions otherwise had it all their own way, and France surrendered. This was the high-water mark of the panzer divisions and the 'Blitzkrieg'.

Throughout the early campaigns of 1939 and 1940, the equipment of the panzer divisions remained unchanged from the original plans. The PzKpfw I, which had been pressed into service, showed itself incapable of standing up to the demands made upon it but as it was designed as a training vehicle this is not surprising. After 1940 it was gradually withdrawn from use as a front line tank and was used for driver training, as a munitions carrier, command vehicle or tractor, and for various special engineer vehicles.

Development after Invasion of  France
The PzKpfw II had shown itself to be a useful reconnaissance vehicle but its armament of one 20 mm cannon was too light for anything else. Heavier armour was fitted to later variants but the type was gradually produced in smaller numbers and replaced by heavier tanks. One later variant that was produced in some numbers was the PzKpfw II Ausf L, known as the Luchs (Lynx). Production of this variant began in late 1942, and the design featured heavier armour, revised suspension and some were fitted with a 5 cm gun, although most retained the 20 mm cannon. A total of 647 PzKpfw Us of all types was produced. In May 1940 there were 329 PzKpfw Ills ready for use, and in France they proved to be a most useful tank, but it was felt that more armour and a more powerful gun were needed.

It was at this point that Hitler took a personal interest in the panzer arm. He ordered that a 5 cm L/60 gun should be installed in future variants of the PzKpfw III, but for various reasons this was altered to an L/42 gun. In explanation, the 'L/' denotes the length of the gun expressed in calibres, eg L/42 means that the gun is 42 times the calibre long, thus the L/42 was 50 x 42 mm, or 2,100 mm long. The longer a gun barrel is, the higher the muzzle velocity and thus the striking power, so an L/60 gun would be more powerful as an antitank gun than an L/42 weapon. As things were to turn out, the L/60 was not fitted before the Russian campaign started, and the lack of it was to have severe effects on the usefulness of the PzKpfw III. When Hitler discovered that his order had not been carried out, he was furious and from then on he personally supervised the armament and development of German tanks to the extent that his 'intuition' often overrode more practical changes, and led to some unfortunate decisions.

In time the PzKpfw 111 was fitted with the L/60 gun and was eventually fitted with the low velocity 7.5 cm gun fitted to the original six PzKpfw IV versions. Production of the PzKpfw III ceased in 1943 but by that time a considerable number of PzKpfw III hulls were being diverted towards the 'Sturmgeschutz' assembly lines. These assault gun carriages first took shape during the 1940 France campaign when a number of PzKpfw I chassis were used to carry 15 cm sIG 33 guns. They had the advantage over conventional tanks of being cheap and easy to produce and, after 1940, captured tank chassis that could not be used as panzer division equipment could often be diverted for the mounting of anti-tank or artillery pieces to bulk out panzer units. The main disadvantage of this philosophy was that such assault guns lacked the vital 360 turret traverse essential in armoured warfare.

Gradually, increasing numbers of PzKpfw II and III chassis were diverted from tank production towards the Sturmgeschutz lines, and the tank content of panzer divisions suffered as a result. In addition, some numbers of PzKpfw III tanks were diverted towards such tasks as command tanks, mobile observation posts for artillery, and flamethrowers (flammpanzer).

The PzKpfw IV had proved itself a most battle-worthy tank in France, and went on to further establish itself in Greece and the Western Desert. It formed the backbone of the panzer divisions throughout the war, but after 1940 it was progressively up-armoured and the gun was replaced by a more powerful L/43 weapon and eventually by the very successful L/48 version which could outrange and outfight nearly all its contemporaries.

Introduction of the Heavy Tanks and Gun Platforms
Meanwhile, the encounters that the panzer units fought with such vehicles as the British Matilda and the French Char B during the 1940 campaign had shown that Germany had tended to sacrifice striking power for armour, with the exception of the PzKpfw IV. Hitler himself took a hand in future equipment trends and insisted on a new heavy tank with sufficient armour and armament to take on any possible tank it was likely to encounter. Orders for prototypes were put out in May 1941, and there were two main contenders. One was a complex design by Porsche which was rejected only after 90 had been built. The hulls were converted to assault guns and became the 'Elefant', which was one of the German armament industry's greatest failures. The other contender was a Henschel design which became the PzKpfw IV Tiger'.

When it first appeared in March 1942 it tipped the scales at 55 tons and was thus the world's heaviest tank in service. It had a thick armoured hide and what was then the remarkably heavy armamemt of the 8.8 cm KampfwagenKanone (KwK) 36, a development of the 8.8 cm Flak 18 anti-aircraft gun. In addition, two machine-guns were fitted.

The Tiger was a considerable problem for Allied commanders to counter, and when it was first used in Tunisia in 1943 it was only defeated with a great deal of difficulty. But for all its fighting merits the Tiger was not a very successful fighting tank. Its weight and bulk made it a very slow and awkward vehicle to employ. Its armament could pick off potential enemies at very long ranges but in close fighting its slow rate of turret traverse placed it at a considerable disadvantage. Perhaps its main disadvantage was its lack of mechanical reliability. It had been pressed into service when many of its mechanical components had not been fully developed, and the result was a very low mechanical reliability factor. It was also very expensive, costing 250,800 RM (Reichs Marks) as opposed to 103,462 RM for a PzKpfw IV. It went out of production during 1944 but up till then the Tiger was always used as a spearhead of the panzer divisions, and was usually issued to elite formations only.

Invasion of Russia
By the time the Tiger had come into service, the Russian campaign of 1941 had begun. Full of confidence and with victorious campaign experience behind them, the panzer divisions swept across the Russian steppes, duplicating over and over again their heady victories of 1939 and 1940. When the campaign began in June 1941, the Germans had at their disposal 5,264 tanks of all types of which about 3,350 were in the front line (a few of these continued to be the little PzKpfw I), of which the bulk were PzKpfw Ills and IVs. Five months after that the panzer divisions were deep in Russia and had captured or destroyed over 17,000 Russian tanks, which was almost the entire Russian tank strength.

A New Challenge - The Russian T34 Tank

The Germans had also come up against what was to prove one of the most remarkable weapons of World War 2, namely the Russian T-34/76 tank. As soon as it was encountered the Germans realised that their own tanks would be inadequate against large numbers of this Russian product.
The T-34 had well-sloped armour which tended to deflect solid shot, a powerful 76.2 mm gun, a good turn of speed, and was potentially available in huge numbers. The only German vehicles that could encounter it were the PzKpfw IVs armed with the L/48 7.5 cm gun and there were not many of them in service in late 1941. The PzKpfw III should have been able to counter the armour of the T-34 if it had been fitted with the 5 cm L/60 as ordered by Hitler, but none of these would be ready until mid-1942.

An emergency specification based on the T-34 was rushed out to German industry. Many firms favoured a direct copy of the T-34, but in the nationalistic Nazi state of 1941 this was politically unthinkable. The accepted design was produced by MAN who designed a vehicle that was to gain fame as the PzKpfw V 'Panther'. The Panther was the most successful all-round battle tank to be designed in Germany. It was armed with a potent 7.5 cm L/70 gun and it featured well-sloped armour and torsion bar suspension. For its size it was rather heavy at 43-45 tons, but it had a good turn of speed and was manoeuvrable and handy. It was not ready for action until 1943 but until then the PzKpfw III and IV had to counter the T-34 and its heavier partner, the KV-I, alone.

The Tide Turns Against Germany
Once again tactics and fighting skill led the German panzers on during 1942 but by the end of the year, the Stalingrad defeat marked the end of the Wehrmacht advances. From that time on, the initiative passed to Russia and her allies and apart from local successes the panzer divisions were on the defensive. The 'Blitzkrieg' era of rapid and total victories had passed, and the war turned into a bloody slugging match on all fronts.
The passing of the era of the tank's supremacy was marked by the Battle of Kursk in 1943. Kursk was the greatest land battle of all time, and was fought by tank armies, instead of the usual divisions. It was a battle launched against a large Russian salient in central Russia by the German tank armies during July 1943. The Germans placed great reliance on the new Panther tank and its heavy counterpart, the Tiger. The start of the battle had been delayed by the Germans in order to get enough Panthers into the line, but the result was a disaster for the Germans. Their attack was launched against carefully and heavily defended localities, and this time there was no armoured break-through. The panzers were halted by a ferocious defence in depth, and in addition large numbers of the under-developed Panthers and Tigers which had been rushed into battle simply broke down and were lost to tank-killer squads. It was a heavy defeat for the Wehrmacht and thereafter they began to fall back towards Germany. The panzer divisions fought as hard as ever but they were nearly always on the defensive. The bulk of their formations continued to use the faithful PzKpfw III and IV, but increasing numbers of Sturmgeschutz were employed to plug the gaps made by increasing tank losses.

German Tank Defence Measures
As time went on the tanks themselves took on a more defensive appearance. The arrival of the hollow-charge anti-tank device on the tactical scene meant that tanks had to carry stand-off armour in the shape of thin metal sheets held suspended from the sides of vehicles. The Germans called these sheets 'Scheutzen' (skirts), and they countered hollow-charge missiles by making the hollow charge expend its energy by exploding away from the side of the tank itself. To counter anti-tank mines and charges placed on the tank itself by tank-killer infantry squads, the surfaces of German tanks were coated with 'Zimmerit', a plaster-like substance which prevented magnetic fixing devices from operating.

The King Tiger
There was only one more major German tank to see service before the end of the war after the Panther and that was the mighty PzKpfw VI Tiger II, or Konigstiger. This monster emerged from a specification intended for a Tiger replacement, and the first was ready by the end of 1943. It was not until the end of 1944 that the first Tiger II was issued to the panzer divisions. The Tiger II weighed nearly 70 tons and was armed with a developed version of the 8.8 cm gun, namely the 8.8 cm KwK 43. It was a most remarkable piece of engineering produced under extreme difficulties brought about by constant air attack from Allied bombers, and nearly 500 were built. It was a formidable fighting machine but again, its weight and bulk dictated that it was suitable for defensive fighting only. Also, it was mechanically under-developed and produced a rich crop of mechanical failures. Nevertheless, the appearance of a Tiger II on a battlefield put fear into many an Allied heart for it was a truly formidable opponent. Only the Russian Joseph Stalin I and II could have been anything like a match for it.

Changes in Strategy and using Captured Tanks
As the war ended, the old faithful, the PzKpfw IV, was still in production and action. The Panther had gradually taken over from the PzKpfw IV but had never replaced it, and the PzKpfw III had gradually been relegated to the role of infantry support tank. More and more Sturmgeschutz vehicles had taken over from tanks in the ranks of the attenuated panzer divisions, which by 1945 had become only a shadow of their former selves and were fighting not as divisions but in defensive battle groups formed to meet local conditions.
Mention must be made of the large numbers of captured vehicles used by the Germans. Any tanks that were captured were eventually used by the resourceful Germans in some role or other, usually in the mundane role of artillery tractor or as the carrier for some form of gun. Some tanks were used as front-line equipment.

The important Czech PzKpfw 35(t) and 38(t) have already been mentioned, but large numbers of French tanks were used by second-line units in France and Russia for occupying and police duties. Perhaps one of the most famous tanks taken into German service was the T-34. Large numbers of captured T-34s were turned against their former owners on the Eastern Front during 1942 and 1943 under the designation PzKpfw T34-747(r). In the Western Desert some numbers of British Matilda tanks became the Infantrie PzKpfw Mk II 748(e), and in North-West Europe many Shermans became the PzKpfw M4-748(a).

Difficult Conditions, New Ideas
By 1944, drastic changes had been made to the methods of production. Despite Allied air attacks, more and more tanks were driven off the assembly lines, but instead of concentrating all possible resources on a few models, as was the successful Russian method, a growing number of different types were projected. A whole new family of different models was proposed at one point. This was the 'E' series which would have ranged from the E.5, weighing only five tons, up through a range of another four models to the monster 140-ton E.100. Of this range, only the massive E.100 got anywhere near the hardware stage and it was not completed before the war in Europe ended.

Other projects that did little to increase the number of tanks in the field were the odd proposal to build a 1,500 ton self-propelled 80 cm gun for street-fighting, and a series of huge mortars on self-propelled platforms. These weird and tactically almost useless schemes did much to divert design and production facilities away from such essential requirements as the need for more Panthers in the field.

Perhaps the most bizarre of all these diversionary projects was the unlikely 180-ton mammoth known as Maus (Mouse). This project was personally approved by Hitler and went ahead with no formal backing other than the Fuhrer's approval. The Maus mounted a 15 cm and 7.5 cm gun in a huge turret, and its weight and size meant that it was more of a mobile pill-box than a useful tank, but the project went ahead absorbing much design and manufacturing potential that could have been employed on more useful purposes. In the end, the Maus never saw action for the war ended when it was still under development.

The End of the War
The war ended with the once mighty panzer arm in disarray. Harried by constant air attack and virtually immobilised by lack of fuel, they were a mere shadow of their former selves. At the end, the PzKpfw IV was still in the line, and along with the Panther and the Tiger and Tiger II, held off the advancing Allies as long as possible but the days of deep armoured thrusts and headlong pursuits into the enemy rear were over.