The Führer’s Military Toy Projects

The perfect armoured fighting vehicle is one that combines speed, heavy armour and a powerful gun. The factors which govern the design and production of a tank are a careful balance of compromises. Any increase in the weight of defensive armour will demand a stronger engine. The new engine may be larger in size than the original and require more fuel. To meet these requirements might encroach upon the limited area inside a tank which can often only be done by reducing the crew space or the ammunition stowage area. The mounting of a bigger gun also raises the vehicle’s weight and brings with it the need to produce a larger turret, which in turn will lead to another weight increase. Then, too, the design of the metal gun box, which is in essence all that a tank is, must be so simple that mass production is possible of parts that are easily machined and, finally, an assembly that is uncomplicated. It must be possible to replace damaged parts swiftly and under battlefield conditions.

Very few tanks of the Second World War met all these criteria. The Red Army’s T-34 was one which did. Not one of the German armoured fighting vehicles did until the later marks of the Panther tank came into service. The fearful reputation of the German Panzers was, as I have already said, due more to an ability to handle armour in the mass then to an inherently good vehicle design or the numbers produced.

Hitler, who had been an infantry soldier during the Great War, did not allow that fact to inhibit him in discussions regarding the weight/power/gun ratio in panzer design. On 7 July 1941, he ordered armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) to be uparmoured by fitting spaced metal plates to counter the effect of hollow-charge shells, even though the increase in weight brought about by these plates lowered the speed and restricted the manoeuvrability of the vehicles. Later that month he decided that the number of Panzer Divisions was to be increased to 36. The 1941 figures of total production of all types of armoured fighting vehicles was only 3,256. To have equipped the extra Panzer Divisions which the Führer required would have necessitated a threefold output. Hitler was not able to accept the simple economic fact that German industry was incapable of meeting the extravagant demands he made upon it.

German tank production had always been inhibited by the lack of a native-designed vehicle. Not until 1935 and the Panzer III did the German tank-building industry produce a design which was not dependent upon foreign inspiration. The Panzer III was selected as one of Germany’s two projected types of battle tank. The Panzer IV was the other. One surprising fact was that no thought seemed to have been given to whether the contracted companies had experience of mass production. The only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that in the opinion of those in authority conveyor-belt techniques would not be required. It was obviously expected that standard production would be able to make good those losses in vehicles suffered in the projected series of short wars and that, therefore, there would be no need to go into mass production. Indeed, the Ford and Opel car companies, both with great knowledge and ability, were excluded from the panzer construction programme. As a consequence, until Speer’s reorganization of production methods late in the war, panzers were almost hand-built by craftsmen.

Concurrent with Hitler’s order for Speer to take over war production was the change in direction of the Führer’s thinking. He decided, during 1943, that the overriding priority was for tanks and demanded them in large numbers. The demand could not be met for a variety of reasons; principally because industry had not been allowed to concentrate upon a small number of really good designs. During the short years from the advent of Hitler to the end of the war, no fewer than 230 different types of armoured fighting vehicle, including prototypes, were in service. Of those 94 were fighting tanks, ten were various sorts of tank hunters, 42 were armoured personnel carriers, 19 armoured reconnaissance vehicles, 12 were anti-aircraft tanks, ten were SP carriages, nine armoured gun and infantry carriages. The tragedy for the panzer force was that there were too many types, each of too short a run, and brought too late into service. The problem of providing spare parts for this wide variety of vehicles was enormous. Another factor which adversely affected German tank design was the decision taken before the war to halt the development of medium-weight vehicles in favour of light machines whose battlefield role would be reconnaissance. That High Command decision, pushed through at the insistence of the cavalry arm, was to have the most serious effect upon the application of armour in military operations.

On the matter of armament a discussion at the Berghof during May 1941 produced from Hitler the order to fit a 5cm gun into the Panzer IV. Only a month later this weapon was found to be ineffective against most Russian armoured vehicles. The experience gained by panzer units on the Eastern Front during the first months of battle seems to have had a sobering effect upon the Führer’s thoughts concerning panzer construction. On 14 November 1941, Keitel’s memorandum to the Army High Command read, in part: ‘The Führer sees it necessary, having regard to our over-stretched and limited production capacity, to restrict the tank programme regarding the various models and to determine future types … to ease the pressure upon the industrial and military drawing officers and to release engineers for other production, those current developments whose production would, in any case, soon have been terminated will now be discarded. The Führer demands a simplification and a limiting of the programme so that mass production can be more easily introduced…’

This just did not happen. Prestige struggles between Party bosses, together with the conflicting views of senior military commanders on the development of the panzer arm, were sufficient to ensure that Hitler’s clearly expressed wishes were totally ignored. The obsolete Panzer II was still being produced in 1944 and the 38(t) until 1942. Production of chassis of the latter vehicle, to be used as the carriages of SP guns, was actually increased after that year. A lecture given by Guderian on 9 March 1943 showed that the Panzer IV, which had been in service since 1936, was still Germany’s principal battle tank and that it was planned for production to be continued at maximum rate throughout 1944/45. There were also conflicts within the political leadership in an effort to phase out the Panzer IV in favour of SP guns. Such divergences of opinion did not make for a progressive production programme.

The Panzer V (Panther) was one vehicle which showed the effect of Hitler’s direct interference. Drawings and prototypes of tanks heavier than the Panzer IV had been produced by several companies, but the Supreme Command had shown no interest, declaring that there was no need for them. The T-34 soon proved the OKW’s declaration to be untrue. There was a need for a heavier German tank and that need was urgent. Production of the Panzer V began during November 1942, and the first vehicles to be produced showed weaknesses resulting from rushed development. Guderian warned, during his lecture, that the fundamental faults in the Panzer V were of so serious a nature that the vehicle could not enter troop service until July 1943. Hitler was impatient to bring the new machine into service and actually postponed Operation ‘Citadel’, the German offensive against Kursk, in order to use the Panther as the principal weapon in that operation. The routes of advance to the Kursk battlefield were marked with broken-down Panthers whose transmissions had not been able to cope with the great weight they had to bear, and other tanks which had caught fire because of faults in the cooling system. The poor performance of the Panthers was acknowledged in a High Command memorandum which went on to highlight the fault of German production methods: ‘The demand for replacement parts [for the Panzer V] could not be met … without interfering with production of the vehicles…’

The Panzer VI (Tiger) went into production during August 1942 and ran until August 1944. Then, as a result of Germany’s supply shortages, production was concentrated on the Panzer V; in the same number of man-hours two Panthers could be built but only one Tiger. A further reason was that the Tiger was not adaptable for the mass production which was essential. Hitler interfered with the tactical employment of the first Tigers to be built. He ordered the whole batch, 83 vehicles, to be put into action on the Leningrad Front. The Führer, some 500 miles removed from the battle and without knowledge of ground conditions, laid out the tactics for the whole operation. Every one of the Tigers was lost.

The introduction into service of the Mark II Tiger, or König Tiger, reflected the German tendency towards huge and heavily armed monster tanks, of which the Maus was the outcome. During 1943, the Army Weapons Department initiated a new series of AFVs. The construction of these machines would be met by drawing upon the potential of companies which had not hitherto been employed on tank production. Included in this so-called E series development were plans for the Adler Company to produce a tank of more than 140 tons in weight.

The way in which the vehicle was contracted is indicative of Hitler’s spontaneous actions in pursuit of a single, not necessarily desirable objective. The oral contract was given by Hitler to Professor Porsche on 8 June 1942. A model of the vehicle was shown to Hitler during January 1943, but there was little further development until August, when the first prototype was produced. In June 1944, the turret and gun were delivered for the prototype. Although work continued on the Maus it was never completed and did not enter service.

Even had the 188-ton monster gone into action the operations in which it could have taken part would have been limited. To have moved the Maus across country would have placed a strain upon the 1200hp engine. Vast quantities of petrol would have been used at a time when fuel supplies were fast diminishing. To have transported the Maus by rail would have required special wagons to be designed and constructed.

Hitler, in commissioning the Maus, had ordered the construction of a vehicle that was little more than a slow-moving pillbox. It could not move on made-up roads, nor cross bridges because of its great weight, and it had to be waterproofed so that it would not flood when crossing rivers, for one of the contractual conditions was that it had to be capable of submerging to a depth of eight metres. To construct one 25-ton Panzer IV battle tank required among other things, 39,000kg of steel, 195kg of copper, 238kg of aluminium, 63kg of lead, 66kg of zinc and 116kg of rubber. The amounts of material which were wasted in constructing the Maus were shockingly high and the use of so scarce a material as rubber can only be described as an abuse.

That the Führer could waste not just the material alone but the energies of a vast number of skilled technicians and a great amount of shop-floor capacity is indicative of how the Reich’s resources were dissipated. The Maus, with its 12.8cm gun, was one area which Hitler had explored in his manic search for weapons of great size. Another was the production of super-heavy guns of which the 60cm mortar, Karl or Thor, is representative.

The rationale behind the construction of this monstrous piece of ordnance was the need to destroy armoured fortifications. Obviously, the Maginot Line was meant. The use of heavy-calibre artillery pieces to bombard such fixed targets was not new. Before the Great War the Austrian High Command had constructed 42cm weapons to destroy the Italian Alpine fortresses. In those early days the aeroplane was an untried weapon. By 1935, however, flying-machines could cover vast distances to drop armour-piercing bombs on such static targets as fortresses. The day of the super-heavy gun being used to smash forts was over, and yet, upon Hitler’s orders, the construction of such artillery pieces was pushed ahead.

The Karl mortar, named after General Karl Becker, the officer most closely associated with its development, bore the official description, Gerät 040. The first plans for its construction were laid at the end of 1935 and following certain technical discussions the Army Weapons Testing Department laid down guidelines during the following year. The gun was to fire a 2,000kg shell over a distance of 3,000m. A fleet of nine heavy trucks would be required to transport the loads into which the 55-ton piece would be broken down. To assemble the gun ready for firing required six hours from the time of its arrival at the firing site. As the time taken to set up the Karl was found to exceed the projected six hours, it was then proposed to make the gun self-propelled.

Further developments increased the range to 4,000m and the weight of the gun to 64,500kg. In March 1938, production of the final plans was ordered. Within six months an electrically driven, working model on a 1 to 10 scale had been produced. The proposed weight of the gun had now risen to 94,770kg and the range to 10,000m. First firing trials were carried out in the middle weeks of June 1939. By that time plans had been perfected for the gun to be transported as one piece on a specially constructed railway wagon. Consider: to bring a super-heavy piece of ordnance into action required, to begin with, a railway whose gauge was compatible. Those in Russia were not. Once in the target area, a curved spur line had to be constructed to take up the gun’s recoil, ammunition had to be brought forward and a camp for the crews established. Thousands of men were employed to prepare the route and to serve the gun as well as to man the anti-aircraft batteries and the defence units.

And the end result of all that endeavour? One lucky shot during the fighting in the Crimea destroyed a strong Russian fortress. The other shells fired in that artillery bombardment created deep and symmetric holes in the earth. During the destruction of Warsaw, following the collapse of the Polish Home Army, the Karl destroyed blocks of houses and flats. Hitler had ordered the production of super-heavy artillery and the pieces had been created. For the excavation of a number of holes, one fort destroyed and some city buildings demolished, millions of man-hours had been misused, thousands of tons of steel wasted and confusion brought to the railway system as the ponderous artillery train crawled across Europe.

The last of the Führer’s toys was the one which Speer had described as Germany’s most costly and greatest mistake. The V weapons programme was based on the false premise that indiscriminate destruction would smash British morale. Experts, in pre-war years, had predicted that air raids would cause widespread destruction and produce panic among the civil population. Their predictions were incorrect. Both in Britain and then in Germany it was demonstrated that aerial bombing did not break morale but that suffering, paradoxically, stiffened it. Few reports came back to Hitler to show what damage was being caused by his V weapons and he based his hopes not upon facts but upon what he believed to be facts. Lacking accurate Intelligence he continued the random destruction and his actions can be seen not as the application of a thought-out strategy but as the wild blows of a blindfolded man in a dark room.

Into the production of rocket weapons the Führer poured money, men and materials. Upon these revolutionary projectiles he placed his hopes of finding the war-winning weapon. The rockets failed him just as the super-heavy guns had failed him. The Maus did not even have the chance to show that it too would have failed.

Had all Germany’s wasted resources been controlled, used productively on proper weapons and employed correctly, the outcome of certain battles and campaigns might well have been different. Thanks to Goering’s indolence, the Führer’s interference and the fact that Speer was not given the power he needed until it was too late, industrial Germany was not the thundering forge of Vulcan which she had been thought to be. Instead she was an almost undirected economy, working along bourgeois lines, at a low, almost peacetime level of production and riddled with rivalries, inefficiency and corruption.