Soviet Tank Superiority and Guderian’s Brief I


Tiger I number 223 of Schwere Panzer-Abteilung 502 and KV-1S tank 1943.

Even though he was now a civilian, Guderian kept abreast of the war. During the offensive of July and August 1942, the Caspian oil-fields were captured, the Volga – Russia’s great maritime artery – was cut and Stalingrad was destroyed as an industrial centre. However, to Guderian, these moves made no sense: Hitler was going after military and ideological objectives without first destroying the enemy’s armed forces. Those in the military who had the temerity to point this out were sacked and their powers taken by Hitler, who nursed a growing distrust of leading figures in the army.

However, one of the things that Hitler did get right, in Guderian’s opinion, was to concentrate much of his energies on the development of new weapons, taking especial interest in the development of a new tank to take on the Russian T-34. The officers at the front had suggested that German tank manufacturers make a straightforward copy of the T-34, but the designers would not hear of it. They pointed out that it would not be easy to mass produce the T-34’s aluminium diesel engine quickly and shortages of raw materials made it difficult to copy the Russians’ steel alloys. Instead they would concentrate their efforts on the 57-tonne, five-man Tiger tank that was already in production and design a lighter Panther tank, around 45 tonnes. Both had one main turret-mounted gun and two 7.92mm machine guns. The design of the Panther was submitted to Hitler in January 1942. He ordered 600 a month to be made.

However tank production was in turmoil. Chassis were being diverted to the artillery to make self-propelled guns. New hollow-charge shells showed better armour penetration and Hitler believed that the days of the Panzer were coming to an end. This perception was not shared by Albert Speer who had taken over as Minister for Armaments and War Production when Dr Todt died in an aeroplane accident. In March, the designer of the Tiger tank, Professor Ferdinand Porsche, and the armaments manufacturer Krupp were told to start work designing a 100-tonne version. A prototype was required by the next spring. As a result of this renewed push in tank design and production, car manufacture was halted.

Speer told Hitler that 85 Tiger tanks would be available by October 1942 and a further 135 by March 1943. In April, Hitler insisted that 75mm and 80mm guns be fitted to the Tigers and Panthers and new shells were to be designed. And 12 Panzer IVs with 80mm frontal armour were ordered for a putative operation against Malta which never came off.

In May 1942, Hitler approved the MAN Company’s Panther design. The production of Panzer IIIs was increased to 190 a month, the construction of flat cars able to carry very heavy tanks was begun and an air-cooled diesel tank engine was to be designed. In June he ordered that the front armour of the Panzer IV be increased to 80mm, and that a consideration of 100mm be made. Similarly, the question of whether the Tiger’s frontal armour could be increased to 120mm should be investigated. Porsche’s Tiger tank’s belly armour was increased to 100mm and guns were to be upped to 100mm, and the Panther also got 100mm frontal armour. Eventually this race to gigantism led Hitler to order the design of a monster tank weighing 1,000 tonnes.

New orders were issued quicker than the manufacturers could react. Panzer IIIs were to be re-equipped with 75mm cannon. All Panzer IVs returned to the factory for repair were to be given long-barrelled guns and an enquiry was set up to see how quickly a new 88mm cannon capable of penetrating 200mm of armour could be fitted to the Tigers. These changes slowed the production of the Tigers. Initially, Hitler wanted them to be deployed against Leningrad in the summer of 1942, then he said he wanted them for operations in France in September: it seems he was already expecting a full-scale Allied landing following the raid on Dieppe that August. As the Tiger was electrically powered and its engine air-cooled, it seemed the appropriate weapon for North Africa. But its range was only 30 miles. That would have to be increased to 90 if the Tiger was going to be any use in the desert.

Tank production reached 800 units in September 1942, including fifty Tiger and 600 Panther tanks. However, 600 guns built on tank chassis were also produced and production began to swing in their favour. It seemed to Guderian that armaments production was turning from offensive to defensive weapons. To increase the production of self-propelled guns, unhardened steel was used, which, the troops began to complain, made them very ineffective as weapons.

As the Battle of Stalingrad intensified, there was a call for more effective assault guns. Their calibre was increased to 75mm and the thickness of the frontal armour to 100mm. Heavy infantry guns were mounted on Panzer IV chassis and some of the Tigers then under construction had their revolving turrets replaced by 88mm cannon and 200mm of frontal armour added. These were the Tiger ‘Ferdinands’, and ‘Elefants’. It was acknowledged that the current generation of tanks was no good for the kind of street fighting they were experiencing in Stalingrad, but modifying tanks that were already in production created numerous variations and made supplying spare parts a nightmare.

The first Tigers went into action in September 1942 against the advice of tank experts. Since the 1920s, Guderian and others had propounded the theory that new weapons should be held back until they can be used in sufficient numbers to win a significant victory. The British, he said, had wasted the surprise effect of the introduction of their tanks by deploying them too soon and in too small a number. Ignoring this, Hitler committed a handful of Tigers in swampy forest outside Leningrad. It was totally unsuitable tank terrain as they had to drive single-file down a forest track. This allowed Russian anti-tank guns to attack them from the side, causing heavy casualties and halting the advance. And the Russians now knew about the Tiger tank and the element of surprise was also lost.

The only really effective tank available to the Germans at that time was the Panzer IV. Production had just reached 100 a month. But Hitler decided that more assault guns, infantry guns and mortars should be mounted on Panzer IV chassis.

Meanwhile, Panther chassis were to carry 88mm assault guns. Guderian considered that tank production was moving in quite the wrong direction. However, he did approve of the decision to arm the Tiger with an 88mm flat-trajectory gun, rather than a heavier calibre gun with a lower muzzle velocity. The flat-trajectory gun was better for fighting enemy tanks, which was the Tiger’s primary purpose. Tiger production was increased, reaching twenty-five a month in November. Meanwhile the production of assault guns climbed to 100 a month. It reached 220 a month by June 1943, after production capacity had been increased by stopping the production of Panzer IIIs. Production also began to favour light field howitzers, with a low muzzle velocity but a high trajectory. These were good for infantry support, but were of little use against hostile tanks.

That winter the Tigers performed well with Army Group Don. They simply sat on a defensive line, firing without moving, while the Russian T-34s attacked and were blown to bits in the minefields the Germans had laid 30 metres in front of their positions. It has been said that this tactic was adopted more by accident than design. The German tanks would not start when the temperature dropped to -45°F. But the Tigers stood like fortresses, seemingly impervious to anything that was thrown against them.

In the final days of the Battle of Stalingrad with Army Group Don near Rostov one Tiger became a kind of metal pillbox. It had been used by one of the regimental commanders of the Heavy Tank Battalion 503 and was connected to a divisional headquarters by field telephone. Five Panzergrenadiers took refuge in it during a Russian advance. They slammed the turret shut as the Russians sped by and soon found themselves completely cut off 2 kilometres behind the front line. There was food inside the tank. Both its main gun and machine guns worked and there was plenty of ammunition for both. One of the Panzergrenadiers turned the handle of the field telephone and asked divisional headquarters what they should do.

‘Stay where you are,’ they were told.

They stayed there for a week until a Russian patrol stumbled upon them. A Russian infantry company was sent in but when it got within 50 metres of them, they opened fire and drove them off. Twenty-four hours later the Russians resumed the assault, with tanks. Again they were repelled and the Panzergrenadiers were able to report to divisional headquarters that they had knocked out three T-34s. More T-34s, mortars and artillery were brought up to take what the Russians were calling ‘Command Post 506’.

The Panzergrenadiers phoned up again and asked what they should do now. They were told to ‘remember what the Russians did when they were pinned down in the silo’.

This was cold comfort. The Russians caught in one of Stalingrad’s grain silos, they knew, had fought on until they had run out of ammunition. When they called their commander and complained of lack of food, they were told that they would not feel hunger if they fought harder. Shortly before they were annihilated, their commander told them, ‘The Soviet Union thanks you: your sacrifice has not been in vain.’

Germany did not thank the five Panzergrenadiers in Command Post 506. The metal pillbox was attacked with flame-throwers and they were never heard of again.

Despite the problems with supplying spare parts the production of multiple versions caused, in January 1943 Hitler ordered that new Tigers should be fitted with 150mm frontal armour, 80mm side armour and a long 88mm gun. He also ordered that Porsche’s 100-tonne Maüschen or Mouse tank go into production at ten units a month, although it did not even then exist as a wooden mock-up. Mass production should start at the end of the year and a 128mm, perhaps even a 150mm, gun should be fitted.

Even more bizarre was the Rammtiger, which Hitler envisaged knocking down walls in Stalingrad and ramming enemy tanks into submission. Auxiliary fuel-carrying vehicles were to be supplied, smoke mortars carried, and helicopters should be designated to direct artillery and tank battles.

Then there was a new heavy field howitzer called the Lobster and an 88mm self-propelled gun on a Panzer IV chassis. The production lines producing the Panzer II and Czech T38 tanks were to be turned over to the production of self-propelled guns. Ninety new Porsche ‘Tiger Ferdinands’ were to be produced, and Panthers and Panzer IVs were to be given new metal ‘aprons’ to protect their vertical surfaces, tracks and wheels from the Russian infantry’s new anti-tank weapon.

At the same time, Speer was told to increase tank production. But with all the versions he was supposed to produce, he could not match the output of the Russian tank factories who kept on turning out one single successful tank: the T-34.

The General Staff took a hand and produced a plan to simplify tank production. It envisaged turning all capacity over to the production of Tiger and Panther tanks. Hitler accepted the proposal. However, it would mean the end of the production of the Panzer IV while the production of Tigers was only up to twenty-five a month. Guderian believed that this plan would have handed victory to the Russians long before the Western Allies could have made an amphibious landing. But then a surprising thing happened. On 17 February 1943 the telephone rang and Guderian was summoned to Supreme Headquarters in Vinnitsa in the Ukraine for a meeting with Hitler.

By this time, the situation for the Third Reich was dire. The entire Sixth Army had been lost at Stalingrad. Rommel was fighting on two fronts in North Africa. And at the Casablanca conference, in an unguarded remark at a press conference, President Roosevelt had called for nothing less than the unconditional surrender of Germany.

In a preliminary meeting, Hitler’s chief adjutant Schmundt, now a general, explained the position. The General Staff and the Armaments Ministry were at loggerheads and the Panzers had lost confidence in the High Command. They were asking for someone with practical knowledge of armoured warfare to be given control of their branch of the service. Consequently Hitler was offering Guderian the position of Inspector-General of Armoured Troops.

Guderian said that he would only accept the job if he was not subordinate to the Chief of the Army General Staff, but answerable only to Hitler himself. He also needed the appropriate authority to deal with the Armaments Ministry and the Army Ordnance Office, and control of the tank training units of the army, the Waffen-SS and the Luftwaffe. That afternoon, he was summoned to see Hitler who gave him the authority he needed and confirmed him in the post. They withdrew alone together to Hitler’s study. There was a copy of Achtung – Panzer! on Hitler’s desk and he said that he had been re-reading Guderian’s pre-war writing. It was now time, he said, for Guderian to put his theories into practice.

After talks with Goebbels and Speer, Guderian visited Daimler-Benz at Berlin-Marienfelde and the Alkett Company at Spandau to get an idea of how the tank manufacturing industry was performing. Then he drew up plans for the establishment of new divisions of Panzers and Panzergrenadiers, which were re-equipped motorised infantry divisions, for the rest of 1943 and 1944.

On 9 March, Guderian returned to Vinnitsa to tell Hitler of his planned reorganisation of the Panzers. He pointed out that it was better to have a few strong divisions than numerous weak ones as ill-equipped divisions tended to have a higher proportion of wheeled vehicles which were a burden to command and supply and also blocked roads. To launch large-scale attacks in 1944 – which they would have to do if they were to win the war – Panzer divisions would have to be reorganised so that they contained four tank battalions and the strength of each division must not drop below 400 tanks, otherwise its combat efficiency was lost. At this point Guderian read an article by Liddell Hart to Hitler to back his argument.

Due to the need to supply replacements to the armies in North Africa and Russia, it would only be possible to create or fully re-equip one tank battalion a month. As a large number of assault guns were being made, it was also proposed that another battalion equipped with light assault guns be created each month and incorporated into the Panzer divisions. Rather than stopping the production of Panzer IVs, this should be increased, which Guderian thought he could do without hurting the production of Tigers and Panthers. New models needed to be thoroughly tested and perfect, and their crews given more training. They should also be supplied with artillery observers.

Guderian returned to his old maxim that success on the battlefield could only be achieved on the right terrain with the proper concentration at a decisive spot. That meant that secondary theatres of war must not be supplied with new tanks. Units there should rely solely on captured equipment. All tank units were to be concentrated in Panzer divisions under commanders who were expert at armoured warfare. New formations should not be set up, as that dispersed equipment and experienced men. Armoured assaults were only to be carried out on suitable terrain for tanks. New equipment – particularly Tiger and Panther tanks, and heavy assault guns – should be held back until they could be used in sufficient numbers and Panzer divisions should not be used in a defensive role as that delayed them being reformed and re-equipped ready for a new attack.

Anti-tank defence should concentrate on the deployment of assault guns as other anti-tank weapons were useless against the T-34s. Assault-gun battalions and anti-tank battalions should be amalgamated. Heavy assault guns, which were primarily tank-killers, should be concentrated on the major battle fronts. Secondary battle fronts would have to make do with reserve equipment.

Guderian pointed out that armoured reconnaissance units had not been used much on the Eastern Front, but they had been effective in the desert. If they were to launch a great offensive in Russia in 1944, they would need them there too. They would need a sufficient number of 1-tonne armoured troop-carrying vehicles, which were currently under construction. They would also need armoured cars capable of speeds of up to 35 to 45mph. No such vehicle was being made and Guderian asked permission to consult with Speer about producing one. An updated 3-tonne armoured troop-carrier was also needed for the Panzergrenadiers. He also asked the assault artillery to be put under his command, along with Hermann Göring Division, and the assimilation of army and Waffen-SS motorised divisions into the Panzer Army.

After prolonged discussion, Guderian’s plan was approved – except for his request to take over the assault artillery, backed only by Speer. Finally, Hitler said, ‘You see, they’re all against you. So I can’t approve either.’ Guderian considered this a tragic mistake.

Guderian made a tour of the Tank School at Wünsdorf and more tank factories. On 19 March he watched a demonstration of Porsche’s Tiger Ferdinand and the Panzer IV equipped with the armoured ‘apron’. The Ferdinand Tiger, he noted, carried just an 88mm cannon and no other guns – making it useless for fighting at close quarters. Guderian could not share Hitler’s enthusiasm for this behemoth, but 90 of them had already been built, so he formed a Panzer regiment with two battalions of 45 Ferdinands each. However, Guderian did think that the armoured ‘aprons’ for the Panzer IVs and Panthers would prove useful.

Guderian was also given a demonstration of the 800mm ‘Gustav’ railway gun.

‘What do you think of that?’ asked Hitler. ‘Dr Müller [of Krupp’s] has told me that the “Gustav” could also be fired at tanks.’

‘It could be fired at them,’ said Guderian. ‘But it could never hit one.’

Dr Müller protested. But Guderian simply asked him, ‘How can you fight tanks with a gun that takes 45 minutes to reload?’

On 29 March, Guderian flew out to the headquarters of Army Group South to meet Field Marshal von Manstein who had just recaptured Kharkov with his armoured formations. There he caught up with his old friend Hoth, commander of the Fourth Panzer Army. Then he went on to the front to talk to the Panzer commanders about their experiences with their new Tiger tanks.

When he returned to Germany, Guderian went to see Speer and Hitler to ask for the production of Tigers and Panthers to be increased. He also visited SS leader Heinrich Himmler about integrating the Waffen-SS into his command as Hitler had agreed. Himmler refused to countenance such a thing and made it clear that he and Hitler were intent on building a private army, which would be used if the Wehrmacht ever turned against him. This was not so far-fetched. Guderian had already been approached by men plotting a coup d’état to rid Germany of Hitler and make peace with the Allies.

When the situation in Tunisia deteriorated, Guderian asked that tank crews – particularly the commanders and technicians who now had years of experience behind them – be flown out, especially as a large number of older tanks were being returned to Italy empty. The request was denied and valuable new tanks, including the newest Tiger battalion, were being shipped to North Africa to be thrown away in what was now an increasingly hopeless cause.

Guderian visited von Rundstedt in Paris, then moved on to Rouen. His plan was to examine the Atlantic Wall to assess its defences against tank landings, but before he could do that he was summoned back to Munich to discuss plans for a summer offensive in Russia. The Chief of the Army General Staff, General Zeitzler, had prepared a plan to use the new Tiger and Panther tanks to envelop and destroy a large number of Russian divisions in a salient to the west of Kursk. Model argued against this as air reconnaissance photographs showed that the Russians had prepared strong defences there in anticipation of a German pincer movement and withdrawn most of their mobile force from the salient. Guderian backed Model, pointing out that any such attack would certainly result in a heavy loss of Panzers, just at the time when they should be building up a model reserve to counter the expected Allied landings in the west. It also relied heavily on the use of Panther tanks, which were still suffering from teething troubles that were unlikely to be put right in time. Speer agreed. But von Kluge favoured Zeitzler’s plan. There was still bad feeling between Guderian and von Kluge. Later Schmundt showed Guderian a letter in which von Kluge proposed challenging Guderian to a duel and asking Hitler to be his second. Hitler made it clear that he did not want the duel to take place.

Guderian had planned for a new offensive in Russia in 1944 and he asked Hitler why he wanted to attack in the east in 1943.

Keitel said, ‘We must attack for political reasons.’

‘How many people do you think even know where Kursk is?’ asked Guderian. ‘It’s a matter of profound indifference to the world whether we hold Kursk or not.’

Hitler said Guderian was quite right. Whenever he thought of another attack in the east, his stomach turned over.

Panzer IV production increased and, by April 1943, German manufacturers were producing 1,955 tanks a month. Anti-aircraft defences were stepped up around the tank factories and Guderian suggested that they be moved, but Speer’s assistant Herr Saur pointed out that the Allied bombers were concentrating their attacks against aircraft factories and would only attack the tank plants when the destruction of the aircraft industry was complete.

On 1 May Hitler inspected a wooden model of the Mouse, designed by Professor Porsche. It was to be armed with a 150mm cannon and would weigh 175 tonnes. By the time the changes Hitler wanted were added, it would weigh 200 tonnes. But, like the Ferdinand, the display model did not carry machine guns for close-quarters’ fighting. Nevertheless everyone else admired the gigantic machine.

Guderian visited his Panzer units and, finally, made a tour of the Atlantic Wall. He was not impressed. When he returned to Berlin, he discovered that the High Command had decided to send the 1st Panzer Division – the first to be equipped with Panthers – to Greece, in case the British made a landing in the Peloponnese. Guderian was outraged that his strongest reserve should be sidelined in this way. But Keitel insisted they were sent and Hitler backed him. It was only then that one of Guderian’s tank officers who had been sent on a reconnaissance mission reported that the narrow mountain tracks and bridges in Greece were not wide enough to take Panthers. Guderian also opposed sending the Panthers to Russia until the problems with their drive and track suspension were overcome.

Heavy Tank Battalion 503 with Army Group Don in Southern Russia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *