Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Panzer Development III

Most panzer and motorized divisions were assigned an antiaircraft battalion with eight 88mm towed guns and a couple dozen 20mms. In recognition of the Red Air Force’s exponentially improving ground-attack capacity, the new addition was also a welcome upgrade of the divisions’ antitank capability. The motorized divisions received an even larger direct force multiplier: an organic tank battalion. That gave them a ratio of six to one in infantry and armor, compared to the panzer divisions’ four to two. Given the high casualties the motorized infantry had suffered in 1941, and given the Reich’s limited ability to replace tank losses, the upgrading was more or less a distinction without a difference. It was also a way of increasing the number of tank-equipped divisions without the problems inevitably accompanying new organizations.

The revamped structure of the motorized divisions was also a recognition that the hard-hammered marching infantry—some divisions were two-thirds short of authorized strength as late as May—were going to require mobile backup, “corset stays,” even in what passed for quiet sectors. The status of the motorized infantry was acknowledged when, in October 1942, they were redesignated as grenadiers. In March 1943 they became panzer grenadiers. In June the motorized divisions were retitled panzer grenadiers as well.

The honorifics would gladly have been exchanged for a few dozen more half-tracks: a battalion’s worth of those valuable vehicles was the best most mobile divisions could expect. Firepower was nevertheless increased, with the commander’s track in each platoon sporting a 37mm gun, which was still useful in many ways. Other half-tracks carried a variety of increasingly heavy guns and mortars on improvised mounts. The 50mm antitank gun became a battalion weapon, and panzer grenadier battalions also had as many as eight infantry guns for direct support—substituting for towed field artillery too often bogged down, out of contact, or out of range.

The resulting amalgam of weapons and vehicles continues to delight war-gamers and order-of-battle hobbyists. In fact, the plethora of crew-served heavy weapons reflected the continuing shortage—or better said, absence—of tanks and assault guns. Another indication of the patchwork nature of the armored force’s reconstruction is that the tank battalions for the motorized/panzer grenadier divisions were transferred from the panzer divisions: another institutionalized dispersion of a scarce and wasting asset.

The battle group system remained basic to the employment of the mobile troops, but experience produced modifications. Regiments evolved toward task force headquarters, with battalions becoming increasingly autonomous, transferred among them as needed for building blocks. In the offense or for counterattacks, battle groups were usually built around the tank battalions, the half-tracked rifle battalion, and the reconnaissance battalion. On the defensive the panzer grenadier regiments did the heavy work with the tanks in reserve—if they were available—for gap-plugging and counterattacks. Improvements in forward fire control in principle allowed the panzers’ artillery to be centralized at divisional level, its fire allocated where most needed or most promising. In fact, battalions were often attached to battle groups for the sake of quick reaction.

The Eastern Front’s major contribution to tactics was added emphasis on speed. The ability to form, commit, and restructure battle groups to match changing situations was often the major German force multiplier against a materially and numerically superior enemy that, even as its flexibility improved, was still structured around orders from above. The success of these formations, time and again, against all odds and obstacles, in turn fostered a sense of operational superiority that inevitably manifested itself in racial as well as military contexts. The results could range from triumph to disaster—but at division level and below the disasters, tended to be dismissed as the chance of war rather than signs of a fundamental shift in the balance of fighting power.

The developed battle group system was also a tactical response to a Soviet strategy that during the winter of 1941-42 sought to decide the war by breaking the German defenses along the entire front. Stalin and his key military advisors agreed that it was best done by hammering as hard as possible in as many sectors as possible, on the principle that something had to give somewhere. The plan had a political dimension as well: to restore domestic morale still far too labile for Stalin’s peace of mind by providing at least small-scale victories.

A more prudent approach might have involved structuring military objectives to buy time: time for promised American assistance to arrive; time to restabilize an industrial base physically transferred east of the Urals; and above all, time to shake down a still- rebuilding Red Army as yet unable to translate strategic planning into operational and tactical success. Instead, recovered from the shocks of December, the Germans proved well able to parry, block, and then halt a series of ambitious offensives from Leningrad to Rzhev-Vyazma and south to Orel and Kursk.

The modified Panzer IIIs had already proven their disproportionate worth time and again with Army Groups North and Center during the summer, in sectors that were “quiet” only by comparison. Volunteers cut off from a parent branch, whose guns were still horse- and tractor-drawn, shuffled as army troops from division to division, the Sturmgeschütz-Abteilungen developed a self-image as buccaneering adventurers, successors to the sixteenth century’s Landsknechts. Colorful unit insignia and colorful nicknames—“Buffalo,” “Greyhound,” “Tiger,” “Unicorn”—proclaimed an attitude that was eroding in other parts of the army. Their official uniform was standard field gray, but when on pass or furlough not a few of the gunners decked themselves out in panzer black. “L/24s or L/42s, shorthorns or longhorns, we were the fighting bulls!” reminisced one old-time assault gunner. “‘An Iron Cross or a wooden cross,’ we’d joke going into a fight,” recalled another. Bravado? Perhaps. But with tanks in short supply, assets to be husbanded for major emergencies, the assault gunners restored many a position and turned back many an attack.

In the process they developed a new specialty as tank killers. The assault gun’s low silhouette was a positive advantage against opponents still learning how to read terrain. Having to aim the gun by pointing the vehicle was less of a problem in defense when targets came to you, and in large numbers unsupported by infantry. In Stalingrad there remained plenty of standard assault work to do, helping the infantry forward as they ground into the massive factory and warehouse complexes along the Volga. The price was high. Four assault-gun battalions fought in Stalingrad. One had only two of its original officers left by September. Another was down to two guns when the encirclement was complete. A third had so few survivors that it was impossible to reconstruct the details of its fight and finish.

If the second half of 1942 proved anything about the Eastern Front at the operational level, it was that the panzers were more than ever not merely the army’s core, but its hope. The Reich’s manpower resources continued to erode, making it impossible to keep the infantry divisions at anything like authorized strength. A new generation of personal weapons was coming off the drawing boards. Light machine guns, assault rifles, and rocket launchers would enhance the infantry’s firepower and fighting power alike beginning in 1943. But at unit level the new hardware would at best be able to balance the lost men. In a wider context the Reich’s factories could not produce enough of it to replace existing weapons in anything but fits and starts. What had begun in the 1930s as a choice to enable forced-draft rearmament had become a necessity in the context of forced-draft war. The panzers must be the focal point of the army’s post-Stalingrad reconstruction.

Seven panzer and three motorized divisions—four if the 90th Light Africa Division were counted—had gone under in Stalingrad or surrendered in Tunisia. More than half the rest had been battered back to near-cadre status at Rzhev, on the south Russian steppes, or from Leningrad to points south. Reorganizing and reequipping them took most of a year. Even more than their predecessors, the revised tables of organization and equipment tended, in practice, to be approximations depending on what was available. The tank regiment was returned to its authorized two-battalion strength, each with four companies of 22 tanks—Panzer IVs in theory; in practice a mix of IIIs and IVs, depending on what was available. The antitank battalion was up-gunned to three batteries of open-topped, self-propelled Marders carrying the 75mm PAK 40, the definitive German antitank gun in the second half of the war, which inflicted much of the damage credited to the 88. The artillery regiment converted one of its battalions to self-propelled, full- tracked mounts: twelve 105mm howitzers and six 150mms. Both equipments were excellent. The lighter Wespe (Wasp), based on the still-useful Panzer II chassis, was a rough counterpart of the US M7 Priest. The 150mm Hummel (Bumblebee), with a chassis purpose-built from Panzer III and IV components, outmatched anything any other army’s self-propelled divisional artillery would see until well into the Cold War.

The panzer grenadier regiments received a company of 20mm antiaircraft guns on half-tracks, and a company with six 150mm infantry guns on 38(t) chassis. Despite open tops and relatively light armor, these were generally used as assault guns manqué, and were correspondingly welcome. While the number of half-tracks could still not be stretched beyond a single battalion, the available vehicles began sporting a bewildering variety of heavy weapons. Each of a mechanized battalion’s three rifle companies now had two 81mm mortars, two light infantry guns, and two 251 half-tracks with short 75mm pieces removed or salvaged from old Panzer IVs—all in addition to the 37mm guns on the platoon commander’s half-tracks. The fourth “heavy” company had a section of two towed light infantry guns—even on an armored battlefield these were still useful against obstacles and entrenchments, and usually better than nothing—a platoon of three towed 75mm antitank guns, and another platoon of six of the 75mm 251s.

That was a lot of large-caliber firepower for 800 men. Its increased hardware would, in the next year, increasingly move the panzer division’s mechanized battalion tactically apart from its three truck-riding counterparts, whose armament remained essentially unchanged, and into the panzer regiment’s orbit.

A related major change in that panzer divisions’ order of battle involved its “fast units.” The reconnaissance battalion was expected to scout for information as opposed to fighting for it. On the Russian front, however, the terrain, the weather, and the enemy made reconnaissance by armored cars difficult. The motorcycle battalions faced constant difficulties maintaining effective combat strength as their mounts proved vulnerable to mud, snow, and Russian fire. The panzer arm made two problems into a solution by amalgamating the organizations into a reconnaissance battalion: one company of armored cars and three rifle companies, sometimes on motorcycles, sometimes riding the Volkswagen counterparts of US jeeps, but whenever possible converted to the light SdKfz half-tracks, finally at the production and deployment stage.

Like their larger counterparts, these chassis were also fitted with heavy weapons. No fewer than 14 official variants of this useful light armored vehicle would be introduced in the course of the war, carrying everything from extra radio equipment to a 20mm cannon turret. The new-style reconnaissance battalion also had a support company including a pioneer platoon, three 75mm antitank guns and a couple of the ubiquitous light infantry guns, and—as they became available—no fewer than six of the 75mm L/24s originally mounted on Panzer IVs, now transferred to SdKfz 251 half-tracks. Small wonder that the new formation was increasingly considered—and used—as an additional panzer grenadier battalion, with scouting and screening capabilities.

The net result of the chopping and changing was to facilitate splitting the panzer division into armored/unarmored or tracked/wheeled categories. The tanks and half-tracks, the self-propelled artillery and antitank guns, and the pioneer company with SdKfz 251s could form a battle group that was able to operate independently of the motorized elements, kept up to strength by internal transfers, and available at short notice for the kinds of emergencies that were the norm at Rzhev and Stalingrad, or in the Don Basin. The corresponding risk involved enhanced entropy: further decentralization of the panzer arm in the face of steadily increasing Soviet fighting power.

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