Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front: An Interview with Robert Forczyk

Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1943-1945: Red Steamroller, the follow-up to the 2014 book Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1941-1942: Schwerpunkt, hit the bookstores this past week.  We had the opportunity to do a Q&A with author Robert Forczyk, both about his experiences as a US Armor officer and his research on the WWII Eastern front.  Mr Forczyk is a prolific author, having penned 26 historical volumes for publishers such as Osprey and Pen & Sword.  His primary interests are Eastern Front WW2, Napoleonic era, the American Revolution and Roman warfare.  He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, University of Virginia and University of Maryland.  He retired after a 20 year career as an armor and military intelligence officer in the US Army, having served in the 2nd ID, 4th ID and 29th ID(L) and currently works as a consultant in the Washington D.C. area.  He is also a highly rated vine voice reviewer of military history books on Amazon.


How did you end up as an Armor officer? Can you give us a brief description of your career?

I was commissioned from ROTC in 1983. Armor was my second choice, after Military Intelligence. However, in the early 1980s the US Army wanted more armor officers, not MI. When I got to Fort Knox, I took the Cavalry Officer’s Basic Course.


You mention in the intro of “Schwerpunkt” that you commanded an M60 in Korea in 1986. Did you spend your entire career as a tanker in the M60?

I was trained on both M-60A3 TTS and M-1, but spent my whole time as a tanker in battalions equipped with the M60A3 TTS. At Fort Knox, we got to compare both tanks on a daily basis and I came away with the impression that the M1 is better suited to offensive warfare (speed, firepower, protection), but the M60A3 is probably a better defensive tank (better fuel economy with its diesel engine).

In your review of Zaloga’s T-64 New Vanguard title, you mention having had the opportunity to crawl around inside a Soviet T-72. What were your observations regarding the T-72 versus the American tanks you served in?

I took the week-long Foreign Vehicle class at Aberdeen Proving Ground in the late 1990s and got to drive the T-55, T-72 and BMP-1. The interior of the T-72 is ridiculously cramped, with virtually no room for the commander to move. If the tank is hit, escape seems impossible. We had people actually get stuck trying to go out of the commander’s hatch – it is a tight fit. Most modern MBTs are tough to get in/out of the driver’s hatch, but the T-72 is even worse. As for its firepower, the auto-loader takes up far too much space for what it does (about three times the space occupied by a human loader). About the only thing I liked about the T-72 was its low silhouette – but that comes at the price of inferior ergonomics for the crew.

When I was at Fort Knox in the 1980s, we had a Soviet defector – a former tank officer – come speak to us. He was full of interesting information about the Red Army but still insisted that Soviet tanks were far better than US tanks.

Now that the cold war is more than two decades behind us, what are some of the things we now know about Soviet armor that you would have really liked to have known back when you were a tank commander?

At Aberdeen, I was shocked to find out that the BMP-2 had no access panels for the crew to check or change engine or transmission oil. I was told that the Soviets were concerned that troops might try to sabotage their vehicles to avoid combat (apparently this was a common occurrence in early WW2), so even basic maintenance had to be done at depot level. This simple aversion to crew-level maintenance goes a long way to explaining why the Soviets built armor in such huge numbers. Basically, any advance of 200-miles or more, say to the Rhine, would incapacitate most of their front-line armor, so they had to be prepared to swap out entire regiments in order to continue an advance.

How do your experiences as an armor officer shape the way you approach your historical writing?

I learned a great deal about operating, fixing and breaking tanks that I never could have learned from a book. For example, did you know that you can knock out a tank with a T-shirt? I found out the hard way, when somebody’s T-shirt got ingested into my air cleaner boxes, which starved the engine to the point that it died and we couldn’t re-start it. Finally, we found a T-shirt plugging the air intake. I learned that little things can often have big impacts.

I think civilians have a tendency to over-estimate what armies can achieve and it takes experience with logistics in the field to see the truth. People used to think that the Soviets might make it to the Rhine River in three days, which is sort of like the Germans making it to Moscow in six weeks in 1941.

As a former tanker, I have learned that combined arms warfare is the preferred solution and when analyzing history, it is easy to see why certain operations fail.

Also, it’s easy for people who never had to change a road wheel or a torsion bar to admire the big gun on the Tiger, but ignore the idiocy of the interleaved road wheel design. Yes, it provided a more stable gun platform, but increased the weight and made maintenance that much more difficult.

A year and half ago Tanks and AFV News had the opportunity to interview Steve Zaloga and he noted that while a great deal of research has been done on the technical aspects of German WW2 armor, the operational history of German armor is not as well documented as many might assume and some of it is rather biased toward the German perspective. He specifically mentioned your Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1941-42 as a more” balanced picture on the fighting on the Eastern Front.” Thoughts?

Steve is very gracious. I set out to write a balanced, objective history because that’s what I learned in college from Herodotus, Thucydides and the gang. I believe that any effort to write military history without using sources from both sides is akin to historical malpractice. A lot of people do that – and it results in very biased works. Too much of the Eastern Front literature is overly pro-German, particularly admiration for German tanks.

Steve is also correct that a lot of operational details about armor operations are still vague or not available. I’ve been going through the records at NARA for oven ten years and continue to find new, interesting details that I try to put in my books.

You mentioned that too much of the Eastern Front literature is overly pro-German. How much did this bias affect attitudes and doctrine within the US army and the Armor branch during the cold war?

The US Army that I served in during the 1980s was in awe of the German Panzer Divisions of 1940-42, in part due to books such as Guderian’s Panzer Leader and von Mellenthin’s Panzer Battles. I read – and still have – US Army studies conducted with the Bundeswehr that tried to develop doctrine to fight the Soviets based upon German WW2 tactics. A lot of US army officers, particularly armor officers, began using German military terminology, such as Auftragstaktik. We had 200,000 troops in Germany then and they were our Cold War buddies. Former German tankers were asked to speak to US officers. Of course, all the German wartime atrocities were ignored. The Red Army (our former allies) was painted as the bad guys and German veterans always blamed their defeat on two things – Soviet numbers and Russian mud. All German mistakes were blamed on Hitler and the SS, while ignoring mistakes made by the German Army and its leaders.

Since the Soviets were our opponents in the Cold War, we regarded them with suspicion and their wartime memoirs (like Rotmistrov’s) were seen as dishonest. We figured – based upon what the German vets told us – that their tactics were based on numbers. It was only in the late 1980s that we started to get a glimpse that there was more to it than that, as some of the pre-war Soviet doctrine (e.g. Isserson) made its way to the West. In fact, Soviet combined arms doctrine (Deep Battle) in 1936-7 was pretty sophisticated, but the Purge essentially removed its practitioners and left the Red Army with too many amateurs in charge.

I’m not biased in favor of the Germans or Soviets. For what it’s worth, I think they were both fighting for despicable causes. I’m biased in favor of the truth, no matter how much that might disturb some folks.

In popular media, the “Tiger crisis” faced by US and British Armored forces in NW Europe gets quite a bit of attention. In your Osprey Duel book Panzerjäger vs KV-1: Eastern Front 1941-43 (Duel), you write that the German army actually faced a much greater crisis when confronted by Soviet KV-1 tanks in 1941. What impact on the 1941 campaign did the KV-1 have?

The Germans were shocked by the technical superiority of the T-34 and KV-1 in 1941 and if the Red Army had employed them properly (in mass, with trained crews), say at Smolensk, they might have inflicted a real defeat on German Panzer-Divisions. As it was, the KV-1 gave the Germans a few bad scares and probably helped to stop their advance on Leningrad in 1941. Ultimately, the Red Army failed to utilize the advantages of the KV-1 before the Germans instituted a crash program to improve their anti-tank defenses in 1942.

I think there were two issues here that shaped this outcome. First, Stalin was impressed by numbers and the Red Army rushed the KV-1 to units with proper ammunition or spares. Most KV-1 equipped units in June 1941 had little or no 76.2-mm ammunition or diesel fuel. Second, the Red Army never attached sufficient priority to training, so KV-1 crews were virtually untrained for the first six months of the war and they were slaughtered. To this day, the Russians put remarkably little effort into training their tankers.

The German Panther seems to illicit a wide range of responses from people. Many books have referred to it as “the best medium tank of the war.” You take a somewhat more critical view of it in Panther vs T-34: Ukraine 1943 (Duel). In your opinion, what are the factors regarding the Panther that mitigate its reputation as “the best medium tank.”?

I think the historiography of the Second World War has fallen into certain well-worn ruts and once things get said often enough, they are taken as truth. The ‘best medium tank of the war’ started with the game Panzerblitz in 1970 and has been repeated about the Panther again and again. In my book on the Panther, I noted Guderian’s initial three requirements for a new medium tank to defeat the T-34 and it is pretty clear that the Panther ignored these requirements, particularly in terms of mobility.

Sure, the Panther had a very impressive 75-mm gun. Which gave it an edge in long-range combat. However, the mobility of the tank was inferior to the T-34 because it had too weak a transmission to move a 45-ton tank and its gasoline engine had poor fuel mileage. Add poor mechanical reliability on top of this, and you have a tank that has a good deal of difficulty moving 50-kms on its own tracks. Typically, the Germans moved Panthers by rail whenever they could, even short distances. Indeed, the Germans accomplished more with the Pz III than they ever accomplished with the Panther. The Panther was not a medium tank, but a small heavy tank and it compares poorly to the T-34 and M4A3 Sherman in the factors that count – mobility and reliability. The German failure to develop a diesel tank engine was a catastrophic mistake, particularly given their constant fuel shortages.

Armored warfare on the Eastern front of WW2 is a pretty big topic. Why did you decide to tackle it in your two volume set rather than take on something a bit more specific like a particular battle or campaign?

Actually, the publisher approached me with this idea and initially wanted me to do the entire war in one 300-page book. I said this was impossible and they allowed me to do it in two. In truth, I really needed a third volume to go into the necessary depth, but that wasn’t in the cards at this time. I wanted to cover operational-level armored combat for the entire period 1941-45 to examine why the Panzer-Divisions were defeated and the Red Army prevailed, because previous efforts – usually just focused on a single battle or campaign – missed too much in narrow focus. You can’t answer this question by just looking at Stalingrad or Kursk.

I think, given the success of these two volumes, that this will be re-visited on a larger scale in the future.

In researching and writing your Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1941-42 book, what were some of the battles involving armor that stood out to you as deserving more attention than they generally receive in most histories?

For decades, the Eastern Front literature has essentially been sub-divided into Barbarossa, Stalingrad, Kursk and Berlin. From time to time, other subjects like Leningrad, the Korsun Pocket and Operation Bagration get tossed around, but there has been a very static character to coverage of this conflict. Even David Glantz’s massive book on Leningrad, simply skips over months at a time, including much of 1942. I’ve always wanted to look at the battles that don’t get discussed much, like Velikiye Luki in 1941, the fighting around Voronezh in 1942 and fighting on the Western Front axis in 1942-43. Indeed, its amazing how much of the Eastern Front literature focuses just on the southern theater, as if nothing was occurring in the center. One look at the monthly casualty figures tells us that was not the case.

For many years, the battle of Kursk was depicted in popular culture as culminating in an epic clash of Tigers and Panthers and T-34 tanks ramming into each other on the dusty pains of Prokhorovka. How has our understanding of Kursk changed over the past decade?
Well, the whole mythology of Kursk and the Battle of Prokhorovka were built around Rotmistrov’s blatantly false memoirs and embellished by people like Paul Carrell. Very little of it was based on fact. Then, in the 1990s, we started to get to the truth when the Waffen-SS records were released and more archival material came out of post-Soviet Russia. Now we know that Prokhorovka was a huge tactical defeat for the Soviets, although the Germans still failed to accomplish their objectives at Kursk.

We also know that Kursk was not the ‘greatest clash of armor’ because the numbers were very disingenuous before. Several of the tank battles near Voronezh in 1942 were actually larger than any tactical actions during the Battle of Kursk.

We also know that there was a lot more fighting on the western side of von Manstein’s salient, in the XXXXVIII Panzerkorps sector, where the Soviet counterattack by Katukov’s 1st Tank Army was more successful than Rotmistrov’s counterattack at Prokhorovka. The Germans were loathe to discuss setbacks and focused on the decimation of Rotmistrov’s 5 GTA.

You have written a number of books for the Osprey “Command” series, including ones on Zhukov, von Manstein and Model. In your opinion, have certain Eastern Front Generals received more attention and praise than perhaps they deserve and are there others you would say have been underrated?

Well, Zhukov is the only Soviet general who is well known in the West because of his well-publicized memoirs and his efforts during the war to hog the limelight. Few people are aware that he did not actually hold any field commands for most of 1942-43 and went front to front as a Stavka representative. Nor are they aware that Zhukov was defeated several times. Although David Glantz has highlighted his defeat in Operation Mars in Nov-Dec 1942, the fact that he lost several armies during the Winter 1941/42 counteroffensive and his initial counterattacks at Stalingrad were disasters is not generally known.  Furthermore, Zhukov allowed Hube’s 1st Panzer Army to escape from a pocket in 1944. Zhukov had his moments, such as the Vistula-Oder offensive, but he was not one of the better generals of the Second World War. Few Westerners are aware of Rokossovsky, Vatutin and Meretskov, who were just as effective as Zhukov, if not more so.

On the German side, von Rundstedt attracts a lot of underserved attention. He actually was more a manager than a leader and not a very active one. He kept getting high-level commands because Hitler wanted to keep a link to the old-style Prussian army, not because he admired von Rundstedt’s command ability. Guderian also, was really only influential in the period September 1939-December 1941 and thereafter held no commands. As tank inspector, he fought hard to revitalize the Panzer Divisions but was essentially ignored. Von Kleist was an important Panzer leader in 1940-42 but gets very little attention because he died in Soviet captivity and is forgotten. The German officers who are remembered are the ones he lived to write memoirs. For my money, the men who held the Wehrmacht together for so long – the real talent – were Model, Hube, Nehring and a host of mid-level officers who are almost unknown today.

In the West, Montgomery, Patton, Bradley, Eisenhower are the names that are known. Can anyone name an American or British Armored Division commander from 1941-45 off the top of their heads? Not many can and the few who come to mind, Rose, Woods, Hobart, really weren’t all that special. Aside from all this ‘band of brothers’ and ‘greatest generation’ tripe, Americans today are amazingly ignorant about their military in WW2 and can only recite what Hollywood has fed them. If professional historians want to change that, they need to figure out how to influence the motion picture industry to do more accurate portrayals of military history. Saving Private Ryan (no mention of bocage!) and Fury do not teach anyone anything real about the ETO in 1944-45.

You have experience serving in both Armor and Military Intelligence. Our impression from reading about the Eastern Front is that while the Wehrmacht tended to have the advantage over the Red Army in terms of battlefield tactics and on the operational level (at least in the first two years of the war), the Soviets had a significant advantage when it came to accurate intelligence. Your thoughts on this disparity?

Even though the Prussian Army developed the modern staff system, German military tradition did not develop well-rounded staffs. German Army/Corps/Division staffs were strong in operations, ok in logistics and weak in intelligence (which was known as the 1c). From top to bottom, the Germans did a very poor job at intelligence, particularly in terms of analyzing data, drawing useful conclusions and disseminating intelligence to subordinates.

We have been told for years that the Germans were unaware that the Soviets were developing the T-34 and KV-1 tanks. Yet going through the files at NARA, I found a handbook on Soviet tanks prepared by German intelligence officers prior to Barbarossa that mentions a new Soviet heavy tank with thick armor and a 76-mm gun. The Finns had passed info about the KV-1’s prototype, the SMK, which was used in combat in the Russo-Finnish War. Bottom line, the Germans knew that the Red Army had a new heavy tank but the handbook stated that existing anti-tank weapons could still handle it. That’s a case of intelligence officers probably not knowing enough about their own anti-tank weapons to make that kind of ignorant assessment.

The Germans were actually quite good at intelligence collection on the ground and in the air. The Fw 189 was a superb recce bird and their reconnaissance battalions were very good. They also had very good signals intelligence units and very little Soviet radio traffic below Front-level was encoded. It was at the corps and above that the German intelligence system began to break down because the system was dominated by operations people who didn’t want to hear about Soviet capabilities. Again and again, the Germans failed to anticipate big Soviet offensives in 1942-45.

I think the Red Army was not blessed with very good collection capabilities (obsolete recon aircraft, weak recon units) but after they were badly defeated in 1941, they were more apt to learn from their mistakes. Soviet staffs at army and below level were primitive. Most staff work was done at Front-level. When Zhukov went front to front as a representative, he had an aide or two, but no staff with him. Soviet intelligence did help decide where best to strike, like against the Romanians near Stalingrad, but was never decisive.

According to Amazon, your book on Operation Sea Lion book is listed as coming out on Oct 18, 2016.  Can you give us a quick description of what readers can expect from this book?

Most of what we’ve read about Operation Sea Lion (the German planned invasion of Britain in 1940) is from the British point of view and leans heavily on the Battle of Britain mythology. I’ve always thought it odd that if the British ‘won’ the battle in September 1940 as they claim, why the Luftwaffe was able to keep bombing their cities at night for the next nine months, killing over 20,000 civilians. And why the U-Boats continued to rip up convoys, and surface raiders. As far as I can see, Britain was still at great risk well into 1941 and Germany continued to prepare for invasion in May 1941.

The British also tend to harp on the idea that Hitler cancelled Sea Lion in 1940 (actually he postponed it). Yet Hitler cancelled or delayed most big operations in WW2, including Fall Gelb (19 times), Barbarossa, Case Blau and Zitadelle. His decisions about big operations changed day to day and he easily could have decided to try Sea Lion in 1941.

I also spend a lot of time looking at British defenses, particularly the British Army. In my assessment, the British claims that they would have intercepted and sunk most of the invasion convoys in the Channel are specious for a number of technical reasons (e.g., lack of radar, recon schedules). Had they tried, the Germans almost certainly would have landed a significant force in southern England and the British Army lacked the strength or competence to drive them out. My book is not a “what if?” but a sober assessment of what both Germany and Britain were capable of accomplishing in 1940-41.

What do you have planned next? 

I’m doing research on the German defense of the Kuban and Operation Suvorov (the Smolensk offensive), both in 1943. Neither topic has been covered very much in the existing literature


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