Last year we had the opportunity to conduct a phone interview with Prof. Richard DiNardo. Dr. DiNardo is author of numerous books on military history, although it was his book Germany’s Panzer Arm in World War II (Stackpole Military History Series)
that brought him to our attention. This book started out as his doctoral dissertation and was later expanded on for publication. The premise of the book is to examine the various different factors and components that made up the German Panzer force. These include the organizational, economic, personnel, doctrinal and tactical factors that affected the Panzer arm’s performance. The book manages to accomplish all this in a very readable 199 pages.
Since the end of WWII, its fair to say that barrels of ink have been put to page concerning the German Panzer forces of 1933 to 1945. Most books have focused on vehicles and/or battles. This book does neither. What it does is explain the underlying factors that made the Panzer forces what they were. As such, we think it should be required reading for anyone looking for an understanding of German Panzer forces beyond just memorizing tank model numbers or Panzer division names.
While we certainly recommend Germany’s Panzer Arm in WW2, we would also recommend to those interested in WW2 history his book Mechanized Juggernaut or Military Anachronism?: Horses and the German Army of World War II (Stackpole Military History Series). This book looks at the subject of horses and the German army of WWII. While the focus in many military histories is on the mechanized component of the Wehrmacht, little attention has been paid , or analysis given, of the hundreds of thousands of horses that provided the motive power to the vast majority of the German Army.
Both books are available in softcover as part of the Stackpole Military History Series.
While we recorded this interview in spring of 2015, we have not had the opportunity to publish it until now due to technical reasons. That is, we lost the files due to a computer mishap. Fortunately, we recently were able to recover the files and finish transcribing (most of) the audio. The interview is posted below, our questions in italics and Dr. DiNardo’s answers in regular font.
How did you get interested in the topic of World War II German panzers?
It’s the old saying by Thomas Hardy, peace makes for dull history. War makes for rattling good reading. Like a lot of kids I was drawn to the German military because I thought the uniforms were cool. It’s that simple.
The book “Germany’s Panzer Arm in WWII” was an outgrowth of your doctoral dissertation. Was that a pretty big topic to take on?
What it’s really all about essentially is how and why an organization, in this case the Panzer division, is created. The Panzer arm comprised a relatively small percentage of the total German Army. So you have to go into things like what kind of population did they have? Did they have what I call an automotively inclined population? And so that’s why these things were relatively few in the German Army. And then you get into things like economics and then of course doctrine, a very important point, and organization, and of course I had to do this in 120 pages because my dissertation supervisor said – “if you give me War and Peace I will brain you.” I expanded it quite a bit for purposes of publication.
What sort of response did you get on the Panzer book?
People liked it. It was well reviewed. It was reviewed in a couple places, most notably the Journal of Military History, and reviewed very positively I’m happy to say.
How did the limitations within the German Economy effect Panzer development?
First of all, materials are fungible. And that’s related to force structure. For example, an article in Militär Wochenblatt, asked how many tanks could you get out of one pocket battleship? The other thing is that production techniques come into play. In the American experience, tanks were built by automobile companies. In Germany tanks were built by companies most notable for manufacturing railway equipment. So an entirely different set of production techniques. As a consequence German tanks tended to be a bit over engineered. In addition to that you had a situation, particularly as you got later into the war, is that the German approach to tank design became really more of a battle machine than an automotive device. So the center of the tank is really the gun, and the turret in which it is housed, so German tanks end up being heavily armored but generally underpowered for their size and their weight. Consequently, these are magnificent machines, but they did tend to be prone to mechanical troubles. Also there is the tendency to build a lot of different variants of the same tank. There are thirteen different variants of the Panzer III, eight different variants of the Panzer IV, five different versions of the Panther and two types of Tiger.
You refer to 1930’s Germany as an un-motorized society. How did that factor affect the Panzer arm?
Aside from people who could drive and who were familiar with operating equipment, you also need people who can repair things. So it hurts on the maintenance side as well. It’s interesting to note that during the Stalingrad airlift for the Sixth Army, when they were trying to keep the Sixth Army supplied in the Stalingrad Pocket, They would fly in supplies, but they would fly out the wounded and people that were regarded as specialists who were too valuable to lose. That included essentially tank drivers and maintenance personnel.
In terms of the organization of the Panzer Divisions, what made them more effective than their allied counterparts in the early part of the war?
I think arguably the fact that the German Panzer division had a lot more infantry in it than its French or British counterparts. For example, the French heavy armor divisions had only one battalion of infantry. Whereas even an overly tank heavy unit like the 2nd Panzer division had a full regiment of infantry. The point is that you need the infantry to give you the staying power and combined arms capability. Plus the Germans had thought very carefully about other elements too, engineers, reconnaissance, artillery, that kind of thing. And because everyone worked off the same doctrinal template, they were able to form combined arms battle groups which were very effective.
As the war goes on the Germans suffer increasing losses, how does this affect Panzer Division organization?
The one major organizational change in 1941 gave the Panzer division a sort of standard organization across the board. In 1940 only a few Panzer divisions had the same organization. Others were formerly light divisions that had been converted to Panzer divisions and so on. They thought that some of the structures were a little too tank heavy and so for purposes of things like maintenance and supply, a reorganization was undertaken which gave the Panzer divisions a TO&E strength of about 120 tanks and about 3000 infantry plus a certain number of guns and so on. Where the problem comes in is with the infantry regiments. Ideally you are supposed to have one battalion that was truck mounted and one battalion that would be mounted in half-tracks. That requirement proved to be impossible to meet. Half-tracks were kind of a rare item in the German inventory so they tended to go with all truck mounted, which of course was a tactical disadvantage. On top of that they were supposed to have one battalion of one kind of tanks and one battalion of another kind of tanks. In other words, Panzer III and Panzer IV, later on it was Panzer IV and Panthers. That proved to be impossible for German industry to meet. And on top of that, they reorganized their Panzer forces for the drive into Southern Russia in 1942 by stripping out one Panzer battalion from each of the Panzer divisions in Army Group Center and North and giving those to the divisions in Army Group South. Eventually they were able to get everything straightened out after the Stalingrad campaign, but it was a disaster from which the Panzer arm took a long time to recover from, if it ever did.
What were the advantages that the German Panzer units had over the Allies in the early part of the war in regards to training?
The Germans had time afforded them to be able to undertake extensive training of their troops prior to the French campaign. I would call your attention to Williamson Murray’s very fine article on the German response to the victory in Poland. It was published in a journal but is part of a collection of his essays in a book called Military Effectiveness (Military Effectiveness (Paperback)) (Volume 3). The German army took a hard look at what happened in Poland and they had some real concerns about the performance of the army and they realized that it really needed to be upgraded before turning to the West. So they instituted a very extensive training program. Once you get into almost continuous combat operations with Russia, then the training program gets outrun by the rate of casualties and the need for replacements.
It’s interesting how that differs from the popular conception of the Polish campaign which is of a supremely competent German army absolutely crushing a Polish army that is inferior in every way. From what you have said, it sounds like the German army was still figuring things out a bit in the Polish campaign.
They were still figuring things out a bit. They had been able to figure things out like refueling and things like that in the moves into Czechoslovakia and Austria which were attended with all kinds of problems in terms of units running out of fuel. And then the actual test of combat make the Germans take a very hard look. Units were encouraged to be as frank and forthright as possible with not just what had gone right but with what had gone wrong. And so the Germans put a great deal of effort into fixing things. For example, some recommended tactical formations in the manuals were discarded as impractical. Another big issue was coordination with air power. There had been a number of incidents in the Polish campaign where German Army units were bombed by the Luftwaffe. Some of the army reports are absolutely scathing in their criticism of the Luftwaffe, and actually demanding that part of the Luftwaffe be subordinated to the army. The Luftwaffe was not about to accede to that request. There was one instance where I think the 10th Panzer division, if I remember correctly, had one instance where a column of troops was bombed by the Luftwaffe and 70 soldiers were killed. So they put a lot of effort into better coordination between air and ground.
Speaking of the Polish campaign, there is the common perception of the highly mechanized German army versus a Polish army reliant on horse cavalry.
I think it was the result of propaganda that everyone bought into. If you look into the composition of the German army, they have six Panzer divisions and four light divisions and a few motorized infantry divisions. Now the Polish Army doesn’t have any, but the great mass of the German army is essentially marching infantry which rely on the horse for transport. It would be that way for the entirety of the war. About 70% of the German army’s transport in WWII was horse drawn. People don’t realize that for a few reasons, much of which have to do with things like entertainment and media as opposed to actual research and archives.
Blitzkrieg is a term that gets used often to describe German doctrine in the period, and yet that was not really an official term. What was the real doctrine?
The actual doctrine was, if you read German publications it was Bewegungskrieg, war of movement if you will, mobile warfare. As opposed to Stellungskrieg – static warfare – the positional warfare that you saw on the Western front in WWI. The term Blitzkrieg, as far as I know, does not show up in any publication in Germany that deals with land warfare prior to 1942. Where it does show up is in publications that deal with aerial warfare. And there it was explained as a kind of coup de grace that you gave to an opponent whose air force had already been attrited by loses. So you did a final “blitzkrieg” and you have air dominance.
The story is that the term Blitzkrieg first creeps into the American consciousness in 1939 in Time magazine. That’s what the Time correspondent, the term that he used to try to explain to his readers what was going on in Poland. By the standards that people were used to from WWI, this was, shall we say, lightning quick.
Liddell Hart and J. F. C. Fuller, did they have any influence on German doctrine?
No. Were the German’s aware of what they written? Yes. But that’s called being professional, keeping up with what the other guys are thinking about. They looked very carefully at Fuller’s ideas certainly. Let’s put it this way, the last book that Liddell Hart writes that involves tanks is “The Remaking of Modern Armies” which is published in 1927. And that’s it, after that he kind of veers off into issues of the conduct of war, limited liability, imperial defense. He really doesn’t write about tanks. Fuller keeps on all the way through and he’s a tank zealot and arguably British armored formations reflected Fullers ideas more than German armored division formations did. The German formations had the emphasis on combined arms organizations, which the British never quite really got. Did the Germans take a look at Fullers ideas? Yes they did. And what they did was they rejected them as being too tank-centric and frankly being immaterial. If you look at Fuller and Liddell-Hart, they are looking at paralysis as an end in and of itself. The Germans view it as a means to an end, and the end is the very traditional battle of annihilation, a very traditional staple of German doctrine.
How much of the German Panzer doctrine was an outgrowth of their thinking at the end of WWI?
A fair amount. In terms of how armor units were to be used operationally, I think a lot of that grows out of their experience in late WWI. With the advent of infiltration tactics and so on. And the whole storm troop unit and the idea of a deep penetration and in some ways the Germans took those concepts and simply fitted tanks and aircraft to it. And they are able to hold it all together in a better way with the use of wireless radio. That’s another big advantage that the Germans have over their French and British opponents, especially the French opponents. Maybe one French tank in five had a radio whereas every German tank had a radio.
In terms of the sources of German doctrine, there was a fair climate of opinion, and this is also one of the results of Seeckts reforms when you look at WWI. This gives the Germans a climate of opinion which is much more favorable to the development of an armored branch, as opposed to other military establishments.
In terms of German tanks in the media, it seems that the focus is always on the big late war vehicles.
To some degree I think that’s true, but that’s the kind of thing that buffs like. They enjoy that sort of thing and get very wrapped up in the technical details. In much the same way Hitler did. Hitler was a guy who knew the specs on major German tanks up and down. But thinking more broadly about the operational aspects of this sort of thing is a different story. And of course by that time the Germans are dealing with a very different situation. There is one other thing that the Germans have in addition of the tank and that is that they have very good serviceable anti-tank guns, or guns that they can use in multiple roles most notably the 88. The Germans came to the conclusion that the best antidote to a tank is another tank, but since we’re not allowed tanks, the next best thing is a gun. And the Germans had a make do approach, very common sense. An anti-aircraft gun has attributes that make it an excellent anti-tank weapon. It has range; it can fire a shell with very high velocity, so let’s just use it. Again, that’s a mindset that is not always the case in other armies.