Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Panzer Development IV

The panzer grenadier divisions received little more during 1942 than their new titles. The infantry battalions had two 81mm mortars per Rifle Company, a heavy company with three 75mm antitank guns, and another with—eventually—four 120mm mortars. Copied from a particularly effective Soviet weapon, these were intended to provide organic close-support for panzer grenadier battalions that had done far more fighting in isolation than the original doctrine for motorized infantry had expected. The reconnaissance battalion was upgraded to panzer division standards, though with lower priority for the light half-tracks. The antitank battalion usually had two self-propelled batteries. All of the remaining artillery and heavy weapons were moved by truck, just as on September 1, 1939. Their independent offensive power, even with the tank battalion authorized the previous year, was not much greater—a fact highlighted by the introduction of the MG 42.

German rifle squads were, unlike their US counterparts, built around a light machine gun. The MG 42 was the best of its kind in World War II and set design standards for another half century. The MG 42 resembled in appearance its predecessor, the MG 34: shoulder-stocked, bipod-mounted, and belt-fed in its usual configuration. What distinguished it was a uniquely high cyclic rate of fire—up to 1,500 rounds a minute. Even with a quick-change barrel (five or six seconds was the usual time frame), that was hardly normal usage. But in emergencies the “Hitler saw,” as the gun was known, could lay down a near-impenetrable cone of fire.

Standard issue around the turn of the year was one MG 42 per squad; enterprising panzer grenadiers doubled it. The extra weight was not important in a truck or half-track, which could also readily carry enough spare barrels and extra ammunition belts to keep the guns in action. On every front after 1942 the characteristic tearing-silk brrrrip of an MG 42 drove the boldest infantryman down until he could make sure of the gun’s position, and the likely locations of any other MG 42s waiting for a would-be hero. Panzer grenadiers, finding more and more of their employment on the defensive, increasingly depended on their MG 42s as they waited for the panzer counterattack that would restore the situation—if it materialized.

The status quo ante Stalingrad was not completely restored. Tenth Panzer Division was never reformed, while 15th Panzer was converted to panzer grenadiers. Grossdeutschland, though retaining the panzer grenadier title, was upgraded to de facto panzer status with two tank battalions and a half-track battalion in each panzer grenadier regiment. Sixtieth Motorized emerged from the post-Stalingrad reconstruction of 6th Army as the Feldherrnhalle Panzergrenadier Division, to commemorate Hitler’s first strike for power in the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch.

The 14th and 36th Motorized, on the other hand, became standard infantry divisions—reflecting a growing shortage of vehicles, equipment, and cadres that stabilized the ceiling of the army’s effective panzer forces for the rest of the war. The infusion of strength that carried the panzers through 1945 and sustained them as the army’s backbone came from an external source: one the soldiers had long viewed askance but would come to welcome—at a price.

Replacing the panzers’ material losses was not a simple one-for-one process. The workhorse Panzer III was increasingly outclassed by its Soviet opponents—less from any qualitative improvement than because the Russians were beginning to learn how best to take tactical advantage in particular of the T-34’s powerful gun and high maneuverability. The Panzer III’s chassis was too light, its turret ring too small, to be a useful transition to the next panzer generation. They were issued as stopgaps, and by mid-1943 appeared in no more than company strength.

The Panzer IV, in contrast, had a future. Improved muzzle braking enabled it to carry the 43-caliber Tank Gun M 40, and a more powerful 48-caliber version introduced in late 1942. More than 1,700 of these F and G models were produced or upgraded before they gave way in March 1943 to the definitive late-war Panzer IVH. Its armor was significantly increased: 80mm on the front and 50mm on the turret, 30mm on the sides and 20mm in the rear—the latter reflecting Red Army infantrymen and antitank crews’ willingness to come to close quarters for a kill. The additional protection increased weight to 25 tons and reduced speed to 21 miles per hour, but the Model H could still move and maneuver well enough. Its 75mm, 48-caliber gun was roughly equivalent to the T-34’s main armament, and effective against almost anything it could reach.

The Panzer IVH integrated a useful set of upgrades into a state-of-the-art light medium tank, intended to equip one battalion in each panzer division. More than 3,000 would be built in 1943, and more than 3,100 in the war’s final 18 months. They were nevertheless regarded as stopgaps, holding the line for a new generation of exponentially more powerful armored fighting vehicles.

Meanwhile, tank production was in the doldrums. The Panzer III was so clearly obsolete as a battle tank that its assembly lines had been converted to providing chassis for assault guns. By October 1942, production of the Panzer IV was down to 100 a month. The General Staff recommended a leap in the dark: canceling Panzer IVs and concentrating exclusively on Panthers and Tigers. Previous outsiders like Porsche, and a new generation of subcontractors turning out assault guns, were jostling and challenging established firms. But the German automotive industry, managers and engineers alike, had from its inception been labor-intensive and conservative in its approaches to production. As late as 1925 the US Ford Motor Company needed the equivalent of five and three-quarters days’ labor by a single worker to produce a car. Daimler needed 1,750 worker days to construct one of its top-line models. When it came to design, focus was on the top end of the market and emphasis was on customizing as far as possible by multiplying variants. It was a far cry from Henry Ford’s philosophy that customers could have any color they wanted as long as it was black.

For their part, the civilian tank designers were disproportionately intrigued by the technical challenges Panthers and Tigers offered. They took apparent delight in solving engineering problems in ways that in turn stretched unit mechanics to limits often developed originally in village blacksmith shops.

One might suggest that by 1942 a negative synergy was developing between an armored force and an automobile industry, each in its own way dedicated to an elite ethos and incorporating an elite self image. The designers were correspondingly susceptible to the dabblings of Adolf Hitler. Previously, his direct involvement in the issue had been limited, his demands negotiable, his recommendations and suggestions reasonable. The Hornet, for example, combined the Hummel’s armored open-topped superstructure with the 88mm L/71 gun Hitler had wanted for the Tiger. The vehicle’s bulky chassis made it too much of a target to render feasible stalking tanks in the fashion of the Marder and the assault guns. But its long-range, high-velocity gun was welcome to the half dozen independent heavy antitank battalions that absorbed most of the 500 Hornets first introduced in 1943.

The Ferdinand, later called the Elephant, was a waste-not/want-not response to the Porsche drives and hulls prepared in anticipation of the Tiger contract that went to Henschel. Hitler saw them as ideal mounts for a heavily armored tank destroyer mounting the same 88mm gun as the Hornet. Ninety were rushed into production in spring 1943 and organized into an independent panzer regiment. Without rotating turrets, at best they were Tigers manqué, with all the teething troubles and maintenance problems accompanying the type and no significant advantages. At 65 tons, any differences in height were immaterial. And the omission of close-defense machine guns as unnecessary would too often prove fatal for vehicles whose sheer size made them targets for every antitank weapon in the Red Army’s substantial inventory when they were sent into action at Kursk.
The Hornet and the Elephant were mere preliminaries. Since adolescence the Führer had liked his architecture grandiose, his music molto pomposo, and his cars high-powered. In June 1942, he authorized Ferdinand Porsche to develop a super-heavy tank: the Maus (“Mouse”—and yes, the name was ironic). The vehicle carried almost ten inches of frontal armor, mounted a six-inch gun whose rounds weighed more than 150 pounds each, and weighed 188 tons. Its road speed was given as 12.5 miles per hour—presumably downhill with a tail wind. It took more than a year to complete two prototypes. To apply a famous line from the classic board game PanzerBlitz, “The only natural enemies of the Maus were small mammals that ate the eggs.”

The complete worthlessness of the Maus as a fighting vehicle in the context of World War II needs no elaboration. Neither does the total waste of material resources and engineering skill devoted to the project. The Maus was nevertheless a signifier for Germany’s panzer force during the rest of the war. Apart from its direct support by Hitler, the Maus opened the door to a comprehensive emphasis on technical virtuosity for its own sake, in near-abstraction from field requirements. The resulting increases in size at the expense of mobility and reliability were secondary consequences, reflecting the contemporary state of automotive, armor, and gun design. After 1943, German technicians turned from engineering to alchemy, searching for a philosopher’s stone that would bring a technical solution to the armored force’s operational problems. Hubris, idealism—or another example of the mixture of both that characterized so many aspects of the Third Reich’s final years?

The Maus thread, however, takes the story a few months ahead of itself. Its antecedent combination of institutional infighting, production imbroglios, and declining combat power led an increasing number of Hitler’s military entourage to urge the appointment of a plenipotentiary troubleshooter—specifically Heinz Guderian. Guderian describes meeting privately on February 20, 1943, with a chastened Führer who regretted their “numerous misunderstandings.” Guderian set his terms. Hitler temporized. He was given the appointment of Inspector-General of Panzer Troops, reporting directly to Hitler; with inspection rights over armored units in the Luftwaffe and the Waffen SS, and control of organization, doctrine, training, and replacement. That was a lot of power in the hands of one officer.

There was also a back story. Guderian had spent most of 1942 restoring his stress-shaken health, which centered on heart problems, and looking for an estate suitable to his status, to be purchased with the cash grant of a million and a quarter marks Hitler awarded him in the spring of 1942. Norman Goda establishes in scathing detail that once Guderian became a landed gentleman on an estate stolen from its Polish owners, his reservations about Hitler as supreme warlord significantly diminished. Cash payments, often many times a salary and pension, were made to a broad spectrum of officers and civilians in the Third Reich—birthdays were a typical justification. Since August 1940, Guderian had been receiving, tax-free, 2,000 Reichsmarks a month—as much as his regular salary. Similar lavish gifts were so widely made to senior officers that Gerhard Weinberg cites simple bribery as a possible factor in sustaining the army’s cohesion in the war’s final stages.

The image of an evil regime’s uniformed servants proclaiming their “soldierly honor” while simultaneously being bought and paid for is so compelling that attempting its nuancing invites charges of revisionism. Nevertheless there were contexts. A kept woman is not compensated in the same fashion as a streetwalker. Dotation, douceur, “golden parachute,” hush money, conscience money, or bribe—direct financial rec ognitions of services rendered the Reich were too common to be exactly a state secret. Guderian and his military colleagues were more than sufficiently egoistic to rationalize the cash as earned income, as recognition of achievement and sacrifice in the way that milk and apples are necessary to the health of the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

The appointment Hitler signed on February 28, 1943, ostensibly gave Guderian what he requested. But lest any doubt might remain as to who was in charge, only the heavy assault guns, still in development stages, came under Guderian’s command. The rest, whose importance was increasing by the week, remained with the artillery. It was a relatively small thing. But Guderian’s complaint that “somebody” played a “trick” on him belies his own shrewd intelligence and low cunning. The desirability of trust between the head of state and the general in such a central position was overshadowed in Hitler’s mind by Lenin’s question: “Kto, kogo?” (Who, whom?): the question of who was to be master. Guderian had spent a year in the wilderness. Now he was back on top. 

Omitting the assault guns was a reminder that what had been given could be withdrawn at a chieftain’s whim. It might well make even a principled man think twice before deciding and thrice before speaking. And Hitler’s army was increasingly commanded by pragmatists.

From the Führer’s perspective, Guderian’s appointment was one of the heaviest blows he had struck against the High Command. The ground forces’ key element, the panzers, were now under his personal authority—at one remove, to be sure, but Guderian was the kind of person whose ego and energy would focus him on the job at hand, and whose temperament was certain to lead to the same kinds of personal and jurisdictional clashes that had characterized his early career. Hitler would have all the opportunities he needed either to muddy the waters or to resolve controversies, as circumstances indicated.

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