Early Reichswehr Mobile Force Doctrine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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