The British found out in the desert. The Russians learned it in 1941. Most Americans didn't discover the truth until D-Day, but their tank crews never forgot. German equipment was superior: better design, manufactured to higher standards, and operated by consummate professionals, who would fight with diabolic efficiency right up to the spring of 1945 when all hope was lost. British soldiers nicknamed their Sherman tanks 'Ronsons' after the cigarette lighter advertized to 'light every time'. Russians christened the lend-lease M3 'the coffin for seven comrades'.
It looked very different from the other side of the front-line. The ferocious reputation of the German army was maintained until the end, but as successive TOEs (Tables of Organization and Equipment) reveal, a high proportion of the German army relied on horse-drawn vehicles throughout the war. German tanks were of excellent quality, but their numbers dwindled. In September 1939 the authorized strength of a panzer division included 328 tanks, reduced to 165 by 1943 and to just 54 in 1945. The war ended before this could be effected, some formations fighting on at about 1944 establishment, many others reduced to fighting on foot. Many elite panzer and panzer-grenadier formations spent considerable periods as infantry formations: a process of 'demodernization' that had profound consequences. The turnover in personnel was equally fearsome, many of the better German formations suffering annual losses equal to their entire strength in enlisted men and 150% of their officers.
Victims of their own propaganda?
The Nazi Party represented new technology before Hitler was appointed Chancellor. His pioneering use of aircraft to shuttle him from speech to speech at election time was followed by the autobahn program, the development of the Volkswagen and the spectacular rearmament of the German military forces. The Luftwaffe celebrated the introduction of the Messerschmitt Bf-109 by breaking the world speed record with what was said to be the standard production version. (It had a specially modified engine.) The rapid expansion of the panzer divisions in the late 1930s gave Hitler an armoured striking force second to none, as events would prove in 1939-40.
The Polish campaign was a showcase for 'blitzkrieg' as western observers called it. It taught few lessons apart from the old one that, left to their own devices, Russia and Germany will shake hands over the corpse of Polish independence. It was a different story in 1940. The British, French, Belgian, Dutch, Danish and Norwegian forces were overwhelmed like lightning. Their every move was too little, too late. The British and French did not realize that the agent of their destruction, the German panzer divisions had been concentrated for one throw of the dice, that the follow-on forces of infantry were little different from those of 1918; by contrast, the BEF was extensively mechanized.
Hitler effectively had two armies in 1939: a modern core of panzer divisions and infantry formations with motor transport columns and vehicle-drawn heavy weapons, plus an unmechanized mass of infantry divisions. Even that degree of modernization was achieved by pressing captured Czech tanks into service in 1940. More were added after the fall of France. The number of panzer divisions was doubled, but only by the expedient of reducing them to one tank regiment each.
Attrition in Russia
Two-thirds of the German infantry divisions ordered into Russia in 1941 were unmechanized. Their wagons were hitched to German draught horses that proved unable to survive the poor fodder and winter weather in Russia; farms all over Europe were scoured for replacements, but only eastern European ponies could endure the climate. German vehicles fared little better, even in the glory days of 1941, POL (Petrol, oil and lubricants) consumption soared. On Russia's dirt roads vehicles required up to four times as much fuel per mile as on western European metalled highways. Wear and tear on vehicles, even when Soviet resistance crumbled, saw the panzer divisions leave a trail of broken down tanks in their wake.
Three problems emerged.
Firstly, the German army had a hopelessly inadequate transport fleet. There were just three transport regiments, with 6,600 vehicles and a total capacity of 19,000 tons to ship supplies from the railheads to the front-line units: more than 150 divisions on a 1800 km front. (By comparison, the Allied forces in France during 1944 had a transport fleet with a capacity of nearly 70,000 tons to supply 47 divisions and the universal complaint was 'lack of trucks'.) The railheads advanced very slowly in Russia as the track gauge had to be altered to conform with German rolling stock.
Secondly, Operation Barbarossa was undertaken with the proceeds of the biggest auto theft in history. German mechanization had been increased, not just by adding the Pz.38(t) tank from the famous Skoda works, but by seizing vehicles from all over occupied Europe. The consequence was that the invading forces were using over 2,000 different types of vehicle, few sharing common parts. This problem never went away, despite the loss of so many vehicles in the winter of 1941-42. For instance, I Flak Corps had 260 different German vehicles on its strength in 1943 and 120 foreign types. In many cases, the corps had just one or two vehicles of each kind. German army film footage from the Battle of the Bulge shows a German vehicle column with the latest German tanks followed by 1930s Citroen trucks. Even the elite SS formations were not immune: 12th SS Panzerdivision Hitlerjugend relied on reconditioned Italian lorries when it went into battle in Normandy.
Thirdly, German industry could not keep pace with the losses, let alone produce enough modern vehicles to end the army's reliance on captured old ones. As the Allied armies became more mobile, Studebakers pouring into Russia by the hundred thousand, so the German forces became more reliant on their own two feet.
The correlation of forces
The German army's difficulty in supplying units a long way from a railhead ceased to matter after the spectacular success of the Soviet winter offensive in 1942. The Germans retreated and it fell to von Manstein to demonstrate the dangers of an over-extended offensive, when he mangled the Soviet forces around Kharkov in February-March 1943.
The German army found itself increasingly outnumbered on all fronts. Although production totals for tanks and aircraft did increase rapidly after 1942, Allied production soared. Despite controlling most of Europe's manufacturing resources — including the USSR's industrial heartland in the Donbas— Germany failed to reap much benefit. For instance, the French aviation industry was brought under German control to manufacture, among other types, Fieseler Fi-156 Storch spotter/liaison aircraft and parts for the Junkers Ju-52. But its production rate never exceeded ten per cent of pre-war totals.
Air support deteriorated as the Luftwaffe became entangled in an increasingly costly defensive fight against British and American bomber raids. German bomber production tailed off during 1943 as resources were concentrated on fighters — and the much vaunted 'V' weapons. The German army had come to rely on air support to compensate for its numerical inferiority on the Russian front, so the absence of the Luftwaffe was keenly felt. However, the devotion of the Luftwaffe to immediate tactical crises had helped prevent the emergence of a strategic air arm. Even when key economic targets were within the limited range of Germany's twin-engine bombers, little attention was given to attacking them. Russian industry was largely untroubled by the Luftwaffe while the Ruhr was subjected to increasingly devastating raids by RAF Bomber Command and the US 8th Air Force. In early fall 1942 Russia's oil fields lay within reach of the Luftwaffe, but until the very eve of the Russian winter offensive, Hitler still clung to the idea he could capture them. Baku was not blitzed.
Military professionalism, economic amateurism
The German economy had been geared to expect war in the mid- to late-1940s. Worse, it was theoretically subject to a four-year plan, supervised by Hitler's veteran henchman, Hermann Göring. 'I know nothing of economics,' was the only accurate statement in his opening address to German industrialists. His assertion that he knew 'only will' was equally questionable: having committed the Luftwaffe to supplying 6th Army by air in November 1942 he vanished to Paris.
In reality the German wartime economy was a mess of competing and overlapping bureaucracies. Nazi officials jockeyed for position. A sharp pair of elbows was required in what Hitler viewed as a Darwinian struggle for survival; but the fittest did not survive, just the corrupt and self-serving. Albert Speer imposed some much needed central direction from his appointment in 1942, but the Russians had been granted breathing space to relocate their industry.
Perversely, the German army's close involvement in the procurement process contributed to the shortages. Whereas the Allies involved civilians at the earliest stages of the war, the development of radar and signals intelligence being good examples of civilian contribution, in Germany the army was able to dictate to the factories. Some very high quality equipment emerged, the Tiger, the Panther, the MG42 machine gun, but there was a terrible downside: many items were over-engineered, produced in small production runs and subject to endless minor modifications which meant they were no longer interchangeable. For great successes like the MG42 there were expensive failures like the Me-210 twin-engine fighter or the He-177 bomber.
Take one minor, but important item: the humble track fitted to the American M3 and German Sdkfz 251 'Hanomag' half-track vehicles. The American track consists of two steel cables with reinforcing crossbars molded into a single unit by vulcanised rubber. It wears out after 1,500 miles but is quickly and easily replaced. Its German equivalent is far better engineered, like comparing a BMW part to something off a tractor. It comprises individual steel crossbars rendered into a continuous link by a series of pins. Each pin is held in position by needle bearings. The German track is stronger and longer lasting, but requires considerably more man-hours to build. And if you drive over a mine, neither type will survive.
Even the magnificent Tiger had feet of clay. Gas-thirsty, its massive Maybach powerplant was superbly made but the strain of driving such an enormous vehicle, especially if one Tiger had to tow another, could damage them beyond local repair. But few spare engines were made, just one per ten complete new tanks. Many of Germany's best tanks spent a large part of their service life in transit from the front-line to workshops in Germany. The situation worsened as logistic services broke down in the face of Allied air superiority. A US tank commander recalled, 'Almost half the Tiger tanks we ran into during our division's advance across Europe were abandoned either due to mechanical problems or lack of fuel'.
German ingenuity produced an endless succession of field expedients to compensate for the lack of armor. Most types of captured French tank were used as the basis for self-propelled anti-tank guns or artillery pieces; obsolete German tank chassis served in the same roles. Of these, one proved to be perhaps the most effective tank destroyer of the war: based on the Pz. 38(t), the Hetzer was small, easily concealed and mounted a 75mm gun. Better yet, it was mass produced with some 2,500 leaving the Skoda works by 1945. However, many others were clumsy, unreliable and only a few hundred of each were built. Spare parts were a nightmare.
The development of the Sturmgeschütz alleviated the situation in Russia. These conversions of the Pz. III and later Pz. IV into turretless assault guns were cheaper and quicker to build than conventional tanks and had significantly fewer parts to go wrong. Their higher reliability meant that StuGs formed a major part of the 'tank' forces on the Eastern Front from 1943. Some infantry preferred to be supported by StuGs as, unlike the Tigers, they didn't vanish at crucial moments to refuel.
Impact at the front
It was easier to supply the army in defence of static positions or during an orderly retreat, but the absence of transport exacerbated the consequences of defeat. At Stalingrad, a phased withdrawal towards von Manstein would have been terribly difficult, even had Hitler permitted it. Much of 6th Army's artillery and supply echelons were horse-drawn and thousands of horses had been sent back before the encirclement because their fodder took up too much of the limited railway capacity. Battling its way to the Volga, 6th Army needed ammunition, not mobility. Once the army was cut off, the immobility of its heavy weapons became a problem. The destruction of the western end of the pocket involved the loss of many guns because there was no way of removing them. The same situation occurred during the retreat through the Ukraine in late 1943, the withdrawal into Romania and during the destruction of Army Group Centre in summer 1944. There was sufficient transport to pull out the heavy weapons in Normandy: the campaign had drawn in a high proportion of Germany's mechanized formations, but Allied airpower exacted a terrible toll once Hitler belatedly authorized retreat.
The division of the German army into a mechanized 'elite' and a largely unmodernized infantry force became more pronounced as the war continued. The SS 'state within a state' enjoyed enormous political power which translated into queue jumping for new equipment. The SS panzer divisions had higher establishments and many were rebuilt to full strength after Kursk and even after the fall of France. Other 'fire brigade' formations included the Grossdeutschland division which was all but wiped out twice in the last 18 months of the war.
Yet the efficiency of the German army, on a unit-for-unit basis, remained higher than that of the Allies. Since 1945 this has drawn the attention of NATO planners, seeking to identify the source of the Wehrmacht's strength in the hope it could be replicated. The Dupuys have sought to quantify it mathematically. Martin van Creveld has compared US and German battlefield performance, explaining German success in terms of small unit cohesion. The German army fostered a strong sense of comradeship: 'buddy groups' trained and fought together and returning wounded came back to their own unit rather than being drafted into a new one, via an anonymous replacement battalion. However, this has been challenged by Omer Bartov on the grounds that casualty rates were so high for so long that the turnover precluded much sense of unit identity. Soldiers joined a battalion in Russia and were wounded or dead within weeks. Battalions, let alone rifle companies, could have a new commander every week. In Hitler's Army (OUP 1991) Bartov goes on to link this with the barbarization of warfare on the Eastern Front: soldiers doomed to die don't take prisoners.
The moral consequences of 'demodernization' are controversial. (One might note that some elements of the SS were equally barbarous when everything was going in their favor). Nevertheless, the source of the German army's formidable battlefield performance in the darkest days of the war will continue to be analysed. Michael Reynolds' account of the SS panzercorps in Normandy (Steel Inferno, London 1996) suggests that the bonds of comradeship and professional dedication did transcend the fearful casualty rate. Allied soldiers might bemoan their own equipment and admire the technical excellence of the Panther tank or the MG42, but it wasn't the kit that ultimately mattered. As ever, it was the quality of the man behind it.
by Charles Winchester
About the author:
Charles Winchester has turned a life-long interest in all things military to good effect. He has published a number of books on a variety of aspects of military history. His most recent publication was Ostfront – Hitler’s War on Russia 1941–45, published by Osprey in 1998.
Bartov, Omer, The Eastern Front 1941–45, German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare, Macmilan, 1986
Bartov, Omer, Hitler’s Army, Oxford University Press, 1991
Creveld, Martin van, Fighting Power: German and US Army Battlefield Performance, Greenwood, 1983
Creveld, Martin van, Supplying War: Logistics from Weidenfeld to Patton, Cambridge University Press, 1977
Erickson, John, The Road to Berlin, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1983
Overy, Richard, Why the Allies Won, Jonathan Cape, 1995
Reynolds, Michael, Steel Inferno, Spellmount, 1996
Thomas, Nigel, Men-at-Arms 311, The German Army 1939–45 (1) Blitzkrieg, Osprey, 1997
Thomas, Nigel, Men-at-Arms 316, The German Army 1939–45 (2) North Africa & Balkans, Osprey, 1998
Thomas, Nigel, Men-at-Arms 326, The German Army 1939–45 (3) Eastern Front 1941-43, Osprey, 1999
Thomas, Nigel, Men-at-Arms 330, The German Army 1939–45 (4) Eastern Front 1943-45, Osprey, 1999
Thomas, Nigel, Men-at-Arms 336, The German Army 1939–45 (5) Western Front 1943-45, Osprey, 2000
Winchester, Charles, Ostfront – Hitler’s War on Russia 1941–45, Osprey, 1998