Two years ago we had a chance to interview author and historian Steven Zaloga. That interview became the first feature of this website when it launched in January of 2015. We recently had the chance to do a follow-up interview with Mr. Zaloga in late August, 2016. We were able to get his thoughts concerning his two latest hardcover books, Patton Versus the Panzers: The Battle of Arracourt, September 1944 and Armored Champion: The Top Tanks of World War II, as well as a variety of other topics, including Soviet tank development, the 1940 Campaign in France and the tank book publishing business.
Steven Zaloga is an author and defense analyst known worldwide for his articles and publications on military technology. He has written over a hundred books on military technology and military history, including “Armored Thunderbolt: The US Army Sherman in World War II”, one of the most highly regarded histories of the Sherman Tank. His books have been translated into Japanese, German, Polish, Czech, Romanian, and Russian. He was a special correspondent for Jane’s Intelligence Review and is on the executive board of the Journal of Slavic Military Studies and the New York Military Affairs Symposium. From 1987 through 1992, he was the writer/producer for Video Ordnance Inc., preparing their TV series Firepower. He holds a BA in history from Union College and an MA in history from Columbia University.
Why did you decide to choose the battle of Arracourt, September 1944 as the topic for this book?
There were two reasons. The first reason is that I wanted to cover a big US-versus-German tank battle. The underlying theme is stated in the forward of the book- there is this impression that US tanks are always getting defeated by German tanks because the German tanks technically were so much better. But I’ve spent so much time doing campaign books, not tank-oriented books but general campaign books on the ETO for the Osprey Campaign series, that I was aware that that was simply not true. There weren’t that many large US-versus- German tank battles. As I mention in the book there were really two big ones: Arracourt in September 1944, and of course the Ardennes in December 1944 – January 1945. I selected Arracourt partly because it’s not very well known. So it makes a more interesting and fresh subject. And also it’s relatively confined in time and space. It took place over a couple of weeks and it’s not over a very large area. Doing the Ardennes would be interesting. But the problem is that inevitably I have to basically do the whole Ardennes campaign all over again to explain what is going on. And that would make it unmanageable in a book the size that Stackpole wants. So I ruled out the Ardennes for that reason. Also I had done the earlier Osprey Ardennes book (Panther vs Sherman: Battle of the Bulge 1944 (Duel)).
The second big reason was availability of research materials on both sides. The German side in a lot of battles is not especially well covered because a lot of records were lost. The Germans lost the war. At one point in the war the main German Army archive was basically burned down. So a lot of records were lost there. And a lot of records were lost during the course of campaigns. But I knew from having done some previous work on the Lorraine campaign that the German records from that battle were fairly good. I actually have day-to-day reports at corps-level and in some cases at divisional-level explaining what’s going on. And the US side also is fairly well covered. The strange thing is that in many cases you would think that US battles are very well covered because we have all the records. In fact, there often times are after-action-reports, but they are very skeletal and don’t give much detail. But I knew that in the case of the Arracourt battles there had been an Army historical team stationed with 4th Armored Division and they did a set of interviews after the battle of Arracourt. This included a lot of maps, which of course, is very useful for trying to explain exactly what happened in the battle. So those were the two reasons; there was some inherent reasons in the nature of the Arracourt battle that made it attractive for a book; and I knew from having done previous work that there was enough historical material that would enable me to make it detailed enough to keep it interesting.
In the course of researching this book, did you find anything that surprised you or was it more a case of fleshing out the framework you had established in earlier works?
It was more fleshing it out. I had written a book on the Lorraine campaign for Osprey back around 1998 and I had been out to the battlefield at that point. I did a battle field tour and took photos of key battlefields so I was fairly familiar with the battle. With the new book I was able to spend a lot more time with it and go into it in a lot more depth. For the Osprey book, I had not really dug very deeply into the German records, whereas with this book I did. Likewise, I had not used the combat interview material in the Osprey book, which I had for this book. So I had an awful lot more detail about the nature of the battles. It helped me to understand a lot more clearly what had happened. The Osprey book, just because it’s short, is necessarily a somewhat superficial skim over the subject whereas when you are working on a book of this size it’s possible to get into a lot more detail. So on the detail side, I did discover quite a bit of new stuff. On the big picture, it pretty much confirmed what I thought.
In Patton Versus the Panzers, you include in the appendix an article written in 1946 by a 4th Armored Division Battalion commander named Albin Irzyk. Irzyk would go on to reach the rank of Brigadier General and wrote of his experiences, as well as appearing in TV shows about tank combat in the ETO. Did you ever have a chance to talk to him?
He’s one of the last surviving company or battalion commanders. He was down in Florida so I never had a chance to talk to him. The person from 4th Armored Division that I had the most contact with was a friend of my dad, a guy by the name of Sliver Lapine. He was from up in Massachusetts where I grew up and he was a gunner in 8th Tank Battalion: he served under Irzyk. And of course I spent quite a bit of time talking to Jimmie Leach who was B Company 37th tank battalion commander. They both gave me very different perspectives. Sliver gave me the perspective of an ordinary Sherman crewman because that’s what he was, just a crewman (gunner), he wasn’t an officer. Jimmie Leach had a much broader perspective; he was a company commander during WW2 but also served in the Armor Branch after WW2 and stayed in touch with what was going on in armor development. Those were the two people who certainly influenced me the most as far as 4th armored Division. And they also inspired me to do more work on 4th Armored Division. When I first started out writing, I had always been very keen on 2nd Armored Division because they had seen so much combat. But having contact with individuals who played a role in the 4th Armored Division, that certainly changed my focus a bit.
In regards to military history, how do you feel about oral history?
I’m not a big fan of oral history. When I was back in college (1969-73), that was starting to become a big thing. And they were encouraging people to get into oral history. But my problem is that by the time I got into serious historical research, which I would say was the 1970’s, there had been a fair amount of time that had separated these individuals from the events during WW2. So over the years that I was interviewing tankers, I was finding that their memories were lost. If you were interested in a particular battle or something, and you would ask them about such and such date, in a lot of cases they had no recollection at all, it just sort of blurred into each other. The other problem I found is that tankers started to develop a sort of institutionalized memory of events. They had packaged these little stories of particular battles or particular events, often times after talking with other veterans of the unit, and that sort of thing. In a lot of cases it wasn’t necessarily what really happened. They were probably very confused about what really happened and then they sort of created this little scheme to explain what happened. And so I would talk to them and then go back to the unit records and there was no correspondence between the two events.
I actually had that happen to a lesser extent with Belton Cooper, the author of Death Traps, I called him on the phone, I never met him personally. But I would call him on the phone on a few occasions and talked to him about various things. There were a lot of events that he really didn’t recall at all that sort of surprised me, especially considering his role as an ordnance officer. I was particularly interested in some technical issues about some things 3rd Armored Division had done with some of their tanks and I figured he would recall these particular things, but he had no recollection about it. He also seemed to have a lot of these, I don’t want to say implanted memories, but memories that I think emerged over time from interaction from both other veterans of 3rd Armored Division but also other interested parties, including people who were interested in tank warfare during WWII. Cooper would talk about stuff where he had no personal knowledge and couldn’t have any personal knowledge given what his rank was. But he had absolute certainty about certain events. I think that’s a problem with oral history.
What about when you hear people say “my grandfather was a tanker and he said….”
When it comes down to talking with younger people who have older people in the family, whether it was parents or grandparents or uncles or whatever, my problem there is that the further you get away from the source, the more distorted it becomes. I find that kind of stuff very difficult to deal with because you’re not dealing with the original person who said it, you’re dealing with the interpretation of what somebody said through some other individual.
I’m rather skeptical about oral history. If have a choice between relying on oral history and going down to the archive and digging out the contemporary interviews, I’d rather use the contemporary interviews. In fact I was down at NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) yesterday looking for material for a new Osprey book on Tiger Versus Pershing. I was going through combat interviews from the 3rd Armored Division and also some of the neighboring infantry divisions because I needed details on some particular battles. That’s a largely overlooked collection at NARA . They have a very good collection of combat interviews that were done at the time by army historians and young officers days after the battle. It’s really exceptional stuff and if I have a choice between using that material or try to do oral history, I’d rather do that. Of course now we are just getting to the stage where there are just not that many veterans around. We are quite a distance away from WW2 and so there are not that many survivors and once again it gets down to the problem of memory.
In the first sentence of Patton Versus the Panzers, you mention the 2014 film “Fury”, calling the notion propagated in the film that US tankers suffered disproportionally compared to their German opponents as “historical baloney.” Do you get asked about this film much by people?
Not a lot these days. When the film first came out I got a few telephone interviews from various news outlets and things like that. I think the film disappeared rather quickly. I don’t think it had the impact that “Saving Private Ryan” had. I think it sort of disappeared. I mean it’s certainly well known amongst armor buffs, but it didn’t have the resonance of “Band of Brothers” or “Saving Private Ryan”. I found some visual parts of the film extremely well done as far as the attention to detail on the tanks and the uniforms and stuff like that, but the storyline itself was weak. It had so little to do with what was happening at the end of the war. The other day I was working again with some stuff on the German tank forces in the final month of the war because I’m dealing with a couple of the fights with Tiger and Tiger II tanks at the end of the war. I don’t think that people realize how few tanks the German army had operational at the end of the war on the Western front. It was pitifully small. The last report is the 10th April (1945) and on that day the entire German Army on the entire Western front had 44 tanks operational. And they are facing something in the neighborhood of 8000 or 9000 Allied tanks. So I don’t think people have any appreciation for what was going on at that stage.
One thing I found interesting in Patton Versus the Panzers was that there were a number of German commanders brought over from the Eastern front to fight in this battle and the tactics they brought with them from the Eastern fighting didn’t seem to find much success against the US Army.
They had two big problems. I think the biggest problem is that the German Army had a very bad attitude or very bad assessment of the US Army, largely based on their very limited contact with the US Army at Kasserine Pass and the early battles in Tunisia. Those perceptions leaked into their intelligence assessments of how the US Army performed. So when you read German Army assessments of the way the US Army will behave, a lot of it goes back to February of 1943, even though the US Army in the summer of 1944 is very, very different. The Germans start off on the wrong foot, and they don’t think that the US Army is very good to begin with so they are not really very worried about it. And then what happens is that the fighting early on in Normandy is basically entirely infantry fighting, at least on the American side. I don’t want to say the Allies in general because the British are fighting in some big armor battles around Caen. But as far as the US is concerned it’s mostly infantry fighting. They don’t really get much of an appreciation for the way the US Army fights tank battles. I think they maybe assume that the US is going to fight the same way the British Army does.
And then Operation Cobra happens and the German Army is really shocked because the US Army does have combined arms doctrine, the US does believe in combined arms tactics, unlike the British Army which had real problems integrating combined arms tactics and armored warfare. Suddenly they are very shocked and sent back reeling to the German border.
The other issue is that the German Army in the East had no appreciation for what it was like to fight the Western Allies. And that was because two things: the Western powers had firepower advantages in both artillery and airpower. The airpower advantage is probably better known because most German accounts say how much of an effect it had on them. However, if you go into the German unit records, and you start reading through the German unit records, it becomes evident very quickly that they were shocked by the amount of field artillery that was available to the Western Allies, as well as the accuracy and the timeliness of it. Both the US Army and the British Army had very effective fire direction centers. They were more advanced than the German field artillery, not so much in equipment such as the actual guns and cannons, but rather in the way the field artillery was used. That was another big shock that the folks from the Eastern Front had no appreciation for. They soon develop an appreciation for it as soon as they get there.
There are some classic quotes by a few Eastern Commanders who get pulled into France in 1944 and basically come in with this attitude of “Well, I’m gonna clean house, these people are a lazy no good bunch that have been sitting fat and happy in France for the past three years while we were fighting on the Russian front”. And suddenly they get there and they see what’s happening and they change their minds rather quickly. But it does take a little while for that to sink in. That happened with Manteuffel in the battles around Arracourt and Lorraine in the book that I covered. He had served down in North Africa so he had some appreciation for what was happening in the West, but he had spent the previous year on the Eastern Front and the style of warfare was totally different.
Have you ever thought about writing something about the difference between the styles of US and British Armored warfare?
I may do it at some stage. I’m interested in the issue but there has been a lot of British accounts over the past few years, there’s been sort of a renaissance in British military history dealing with the Normandy Campaign. There have been a significant number of books on the topic. The one that comes to mind is British Armour in the Normandy Campaign (Military History and Policy) by John Buckley. The problem I have with most of the British writing is that it’s amazingly parochial. I don’t understand it, but the British just seem to focus entirely on the British Army. They don’t look more broadly at German doctrine or look outside at American doctrine. Much of the stuff that’s written about British doctrine at Normandy looks solely at the British experience and doesn’t bother to look over the fence at what the Germans are doing and how the Germans are doing it differently. They seldom look at the US Army. There was a book recently called The Armored Campaign in Normandy: June-August 1944 by Stephen Napier. He’s a British author and the British section of the book was quite good but he really didn’t understand what was going on at the US side. He’s got all the basic details there but I didn’t think he understood clearly the doctrinal background of the US Army at that stage of the war. I’ve been kind of sitting back and waiting for the British to solve these issues themselves. A lot of the writing on the subject tends to be doctoral dissertations turned into books, and that brings the problem of young and inexperienced writers. And the second problem is the level of parochialism in a lot of British writing.
Let’s talk a bit about your book Armored Champion which came out in 2015. In this book you provided an overview of WWII tank development as well as declared a tank “champion” for each campaign of the war. It seemed that compared to your other books, this one was intentionally trying to provoke discussion.
That was certainly one of my intentions. I wanted to provoke a bit of thought about the issues. It was partly provoked by “World of Tanks”. I don’t play computer games and I have my reservations about “World of Tanks”. But the good part about “World of Tanks” is that it has really inspired a lot more interest in tank warfare. So kind of in response to that I wanted to do a book that said “OK, let’s not look at it from a standpoint purely of “World of Tanks” but let’s go back and actually look at tank development during WWII. I thought there was a crying need for a book that took a broader look at tank development during WW2 because a lot of the stuff is written from the perspective of German armor or American armor or British armor, etc., and I wanted to sit back and look more broadly at all of these armies in general and the mutual influences between all of these different tank development programs.
Did you know before you started the book which tank would be the armored champion? Counting up all the winners, it seems that the Panzer IV comes away the overall champion.
I really did not have a strong opinion of how it would turn out. It really was sort of from the micro level of the individual tanks rather than the macro level. I didn’t sit there with any preconception of how it was going to turn out. I wrote the chapters and at the end of the chapter I said “OK, I’ve written all this, what’s my final answer?” Sometimes it surprised me, sometimes it didn’t. There are certain obvious winners at certain points in time. The Panzer IV scored that way simply because it saw a lot of combat. It started out in 1939 at the start of the war and it was still going strong in 1945. You can make the argument that the German army probably would have been better off building a lot of Panzer IVs right up to the end of the war, that the diversion into the Tiger and the Panther was a mistake and that they could have had a lot more Panzer IVs. They could have put more effort into improving it. Some fairly modest tweaks would have continued to keep it a viable tank well into 1945. But I did not have the preconception that the Panzer IV was going to do so well.
Over the past few years you have written a couple New Vanguard and a couple Duel books on French tanks in WWII.
I’ve always liked French armor. Part of the reason is that I read French. My mom’s side of the family is French Canadian, so when I was a kid growing-up, French was my second language. I’ve also been lucky because with some of my work for the government I go over to Paris, usually once a year to attend some of the trade shows. It’s not true anymore, but back in the day, there was a very extensive range of military history book stores in France. Over the years I was able to pick up quite a few very good books on French tank development and French tank combat, both for World War I and World War II.
How well understood is the 1940 campaign in France? The popular conception after the war was that the German army was a modern mechanized force that overran a French Army that was still essentially prepared to re-fight World War I.
The 1940 campaign has been misunderstood, not because it hasn’t been written about, but because there are a lot of popular misconceptions about it. In English there are plenty of very good accounts of the French Campaign. There is the classic book by Alister Horne, “To Lose a Battle”, which is the book that really got me interested. Robert Doughty, who taught up at West Point, has written several books on the French Army in that period and really explained a lot of the issues well, including the doctrinal issues that undermined French army performance in 1940. He has done some campaign books that explain what happened in 1940 as well.
It seems that not much has been written in English specifically on French armored combat during the 1940 campaign.
French armor in 1940 has always been one of my main areas of interest, but it’s only been recently that publishers were interested enough to allow books to be done. Osprey is good in that sense because they just publish so much, that at a certain stage, they become more open to covering somewhat more obscure subjects. I’ve been writing for Osprey since the late 1970’s and it’s really only been in the past decade that they have opened up to the idea of doing books on French WW2 tanks. They just didn’t think they would sell. I think that they realize by now that they have covered so many of the other subjects that French tank books would be interesting, and the books did sell. My impression from having talked to the folks over there that they have sold well so that’s good.
Traditionally, the outcome of the 1940 campaign in France is described as being the result of the German army having their armor concentrated in Panzer Divisions while the French armor was distributed across the entire army in the form of “penny packets.” However, the French did have several large scale armored units. How much of a factor was the “penny packet” issue?
I think that you can argue in many ways that the French Army, as far as organization is concerned, was much better organized than the Germans. Nobody really kept the kind of configuration that the German Army of the Blitzkrieg era had, where all the tanks were concentrated into Panzer divisions. The US Army had a large portion of its tanks in the separate tank battalions attached to the infantry divisions. Same thing was true of the Red Army on the Eastern Front. And the same thing actually happens to the German army later in the war. But it’s disguised by the fact that the German army was using Stug III assault guns and PanzerJagers as their equivalent of infantry tanks. As you look at the German armored vehicle inventory, it goes from an almost purely tank force in 1939-1940 to a much more balanced force in 1943-44 where you have the core of tanks in the Panzer divisions but then you have a very large number of Stug III and Panzerjagers that are basically in units that are attached to support the infantry. The penny packets were a popular misconception that was spread by general military historians back in the day as a way to explain why the French did so badly, but I don’t think that it holds up really well over time. If you look at it, there are other reasons the French lost the campaign in 1940.
I don’t think it was an organizational issue so much as it was a training and experience issue. I tried to make that point in both of those Duel books that I did. If you take a look at the German side in those battles, the Germans by the summer of 1940 are pretty much combat experienced: they had worked out a lot of the central day-to-day issues that people don’t think about, but that are essential in operating tanks. It comes down to simple issues such as “how do you refuel your tanks?” And the Germans had issues with that when they did the march into Austria. They quickly learned that you’ve got to pay attention to that issue, you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got your fuel supplies ready. They solved what seems like a fairly simple issue. But it’s not that simple an issue. If you look at the French in 1940, there are any numbers of times where French tank units basically fail because they don’t have their fuel available. They have the fuel in their unit, they have an organization that understands that they need fuel, but they don’t have the day-to-day practical experience to have the fuel in a position where it’s ready for the tanks. It’s an example of the sorts of issues that the French faced in 1940. Had they been in combat longer, they would have solved those issues. But the campaign lasted such a short period of time, that they didn’t. They were too far behind on the learning curve. The Germans were fairly far along on the learning curve. They had already had experience with the occupation actions in Austria and Czechoslovakia; they had seen a genuine campaign in Poland in 1939. The Germans had a lot of experienced people. They had worked out a lot of the basic problems, whereas the French had not.
The popular depiction of the Battle of France is that it was a very short campaign, won by maneuver rather than pitched battles. And while it was certainly a far shorter campaign than most observers expected, the casualties on both sides were not insignificant. I was a bit surprised reading in your Duel books at how many tanks the Panzerwaffe lost in the campaign as well as the ferocity of some of the tank clashes such as at Stonne.
There was a great deal of tank versus tank fighting in France. It doesn’t come across in English language accounts because quite honestly most of the writers here approach it just from the German side and they haven’t bothered to look at the French accounts. These days there is a tremendous amount of material in French, and I have been able to benefit from that. If I had done those Duel books a decade ago, I wouldn’t have had the level of detail. French historians have brought out many excellent studies over the years. There is a particular magazine called GBM that’s edited by Francois Vauvillier., every issue has stuff on the 1940 campaign and they have a lot of detail, going down even into these little small battalions that were attached to the infantry divisions. They go down almost to individual tanks. I don’t think that sinks in with most English speaking writers because the French material doesn’t get over to the United States or Great Britain to the same extent that German language stuff does. There is not as much interest, so people don’t bother to import the books or the magazines.
There are a surprisingly large number of French WW2 magazines that have a lot of really good material. But it’s largely invisible to the American audience. I’ve been lucky because I have to go over there on business. I get exposed to it and I pick it up. Even on German stuff, some of the best material I have on the German side is from French accounts. The reason is that there are a lot of French historians who are interested in local French history. For example, I was doing a short account of the first use of the Tiger II against the US Army and there are several good French accounts. These people live in the area and they had relatives who witnessed the battle. They have gone to local history sources and tracked down what happened between the Tiger tanks and the US Army. In many cases these French accounts are better than the German accounts. They do the proper kind of historical research and they’ve gone back and they’ve interviewed a lot of the surviving German crewmen.
It seems that when most people think about tank battles in the 1940 campaign, the British counterattack at Arras is the only one that comes to mind.
There is a very strong imbalance, somewhat in favor of British history. The British publishing industry doesn’t have any particular aversion to doing military history. There’s a strong tradition in Britain of writing military history. If you go London and you go to any book store, there is plenty of military history. That stuff is very easy to republish in the United States, it doesn’t have to be translated. If you go to Barnes and Noble and you look at a bookshelf and you flip open a copyright page, a lot of books are not done originally in the United States. They’re done in Britain and then they are republished in the United States. So there is a large fraction of British originated military history. In contrast, in the United States an awful lot of the publishers based up in New York who are not at all fond of military history. It’s very hard to be an American author writing for American publishers because the New York publishing industry does not like military history. I’ve dealt with this issue over the years.
There are certain exceptions. I deal with Stackpole, but Stackpole of course is an older publishing house (based in Pennsylvania) that’s been in the military history business for decades. But there are very few publishers who are like that. The big New York publishers, they like the occasional best seller, they like the big Steven Ambrose books, Rick Atkinson books, but they are not very keen on the day-to-day more workman like books that deal with the nitty gritty detail of World War II. So I think that kind of distorts what’s on the book shelves.
And that’s why a lot of World War II history that’s in English has a decidedly British flavor because of a lot of it comes from Britain. It’s the same reason quite honestly why the Eastern front has been ignored. There is tons of stuff out in Russian but if you don’t read Russian it won’t do you any good. It’s expensive for American and British publishers to translate so there is a shortage of that material. Stuff coming out of Britain, you don’t have to translate it.
This last year saw the release of your Osprey New Vanguard book on the T-64 Main Battle Tank. By my count, this is the tenth New Vanguard title you have done on Soviet tanks.
There will be another one early next year in the Duel series, BT-7 vs Panzer 38. On the cover is the battle of Olita, which is early on in the Barbarossa Campaign. In fact it’s the first and second day of Barbarossa: up in Lithuania on the northern side in the direction towards St. Petersburg/Leningrad. I have some other Russian titles in the future, on the future list of stuff that they want. There will be more.
There is a certain irony that despite having been in service for some 40 years, the T-64 did not see significant amounts of combat until the last couple years in the fighting in Ukraine, right as your book comes out.
The fighting actually happened after I had written the book. That was a case of where I had written the book before the war in Ukraine broke out. So it became awkward because there is only a limited amount that I can do once the book reaches the galley stage. The publishers don’t like going back and reconfiguring finished books because it’s time consuming and it’s expensive. I was basically able to throw in a photo or two and change one of the pieces of artwork just to give it a contemporary flavor for the fighting in the Ukraine. I certainly wasn’t able to go in and do anything significant. Quite honestly the other problem is that when the book was being published, there was not a lot of material on the actual performance in the sense of any kind of comparative data. I knew from a lot of news accounts that T-64 had not done especially well but I didn’t have any strong analytic stuff: I didn’t know how many tanks had taken part, what the casualty rates were, or any of that sort of stuff. Quite honestly that stuff is not commonly available, not even now. There is a new book that just came out of Ukraine just a few months ago on tank fighting over the past few years. It doesn’t have a strong analytic content yet. It details what tanks were there and some of what happened, but it doesn’t provide the broad picture. It’s more of little snapshots of what happened.
Would you ever do a Duel book looking at the T-64 in Ukraine?
The answer at the moment is absolutely not. It’s for two reasons. There are none of the “big picture” studies available right now to enable me to do that. The other problem with doing that, especially with Osprey books, is that there is a very strong requirement to have illustrated material to go along with the text. That can become very difficult with some titles. I couldn’t do a book like that at the moment because I don’t have contacts on either the Ukraine or the Russian side to get me the kind of photos I would need. I have some limited contacts but not enough to do that. And that limits certain books. Osprey has asked me to do a few titles but there aren’t the illustrations available to enable me to do it. That’s the problem with an illustrated series, they are very dependent on illustrations.
Cold War Soviet tank development and design was often presented in Western literature of the period as a well-organized and efficient process, resulting in a succession of designs, each one improving on the last. This is in contrast to US tank development in the cold war, which resulted in a number of notable failures (MBT 70, M60A2). Was the Soviet armor procurement process really the efficient, orderly process that it was sometimes assumed to be by Western observers?
Soviet tank development was certainly every bit as messy as ours. The reason we never had an appreciation for Soviet tank development back during the actual cold war years was that the Soviets were intensely secretive about their weapons development program. I remember back then I started writing on Soviet tank history back in the 1970’s, we were still at the height of the Cold War. At the time I was really writing more in the direction of World War II. It may seem surprising but they were also extremely secretive about tank development during World War II. Everybody now goes back and looks at the books from the 70’s and 80’s and says these books don’t have any detail. If you could go back to the 1970s and 1980s and see how little material there was available from the Russian side then maybe you would understand why the books were that way.
So it really wasn’t until the Soviet Union collapsed that we started to get any real insight into what was happening over there. I was kind of lucky because I was going over to Russia at the time for various agencies and I was actually able to talk to a lot of the Russian and Ukrainian tank designers at the time. The early 1990’s were a really good period, the Russians and Ukrainians were very open about stuff. That’s not true anymore, they have become very secretive again, but at the time they were much more open.
It’s the same with the (Russian) publishing world. There was any number of excellent studies that came out in Russian on the history of their tank development programs. So that really offered a lot of insight. A lot of the stuff that was published at the height of the Cold War gave a very inaccurate depiction of the way the Soviet weapons design went. It tended to be much idealized. There was a study done for Rand by Arthur Alexander, and it was regarded in Washington as the classic study on tank development in the Soviet Union. I remember reading it back in the 70’s and 80’s and it struck me even back then as being complete bunk. And it was one of those things that described in a very idealized fashion where the Soviet Army comes up with a requirement, and the industry responds and it’s a very careful interplay between doctrine and tactical organization, so on and so forth. I’m reading this and thinking, these people have never spent any time in Eastern Europe. They don’t know what the country is like. The viewpoint seemed very artificial and even at the time I was skeptical. But that was the viewpoint at the time. That was the view within the US Department of Defense and everywhere else. And it wasn’t until the 1990’s when the Russians came out and said here’s what really happened that the evidence became available.
Looking back through some of the literature from the 1970s, it seemed like it took ten years to figure out what the T-64 even looked like and what it was called.
The Soviets were very successful in hiding an awful lot of their stuff. If you go back to that period there was all this confusion between the T-64 and T-72 and what the different variants were. DOD didn’t make matters any better because they came up with all those fake names and stuff. It continues to this day. It doesn’t affect tanks so much but if you go and look at missiles these days, we know what the various Russian missile systems are called. If you go to the trade shows they show them, and the names are clearly advertised. But NATO and DOD are still using those old Cold War code names, you know, SS-20 and SA-20. It’s ridiculous because if you understand the Russian designations, often times they’ll have family names, so there will be a tactical air defense system and they’ll keep certain styles of names for the defense systems and it makes a certain amount of sense. The NATO names don’t make any sense and in many cases are hard to remember. I hate to say, I have to go through my files periodically and just throw that crap away. The stuff that came out in that period is mostly just misleading. It’s interesting from a nostalgia standpoint. I enjoy going back and looking at it because I had to deal with that stuff back in the day. But that’s about all it is good for. It’s fun for nostalgia. The images are still ok, photographs from back in the day are still useful. But the actual content, what people were saying in these things were, it’s pretty bad. The CIA has a declassification program, so they’ve gone back and declassified some of their assessments of Soviet tank design and it’s frighteningly bad. I mean, it’s really terrible. The Soviet Union was fairly successful in hiding a lot of its weapons development.
A good example of that is the Chinese right now. If you go and try to look at China right now, that puts you sort of in the same frame of mind as the Soviet Union back in the Cold War days. If you try to go see who’s developing current Chinese tanks and what the programs are and that sort of thing, we are in a very similar situation with where we were with Soviet tanks back in the Cold War. The one big difference between Chinese and Soviet stuff is that the Chinese are exporting their stuff and they do show up for the trade shows. I see the Chinese at international trade shows and they do have advertisements for a lot of their stuff. But it tends to be export stuff and not necessarily the domestic stuff. There are whole categories of weapons where they just don’t describe it publically. There are very large gaps there too. The Chinese tend to be secretive the way the Soviet Union was back in the Cold War.
Do you plan to write any more on Soviet Armor?
The closest thing on the Soviet side that is coming out in the immediate future is a Duel book on the Panzer 38(t) vs BT-7: Barbarossa 1941 . It’s basically 7th Panzer Division against the Soviet 5th Tank Division. I got quite a bit of detail for this one. On the German side there is already some detail available, on the Russian side I got quite a bit of unit detail on this particular battle. I think it will be eye-opening to people, it helps to explain why the Russians did so badly in the opening phase of the fighting in 1941. I think that’s another campaign where there is a lot of mistaken impressions, sort of similar to the whole broader issue of France in 1940. I don’t think there is a real appreciation for the problems the Red Army of 1941 was suffering under. By being able to take up a narrow little slice of history, just a single couple days of fighting between two specific units, I think I can explain some of the problems that the Red Army was facing, the reason why, even though their equipment was fairly good, they did very poorly. It shouldn’t be very surprising to anybody, it’s the same thing as I described in the case of the French versus the Germans in 1940. Again, it was crew quality and crew experience rather than equipment. In this upcoming book I am able to explain in a little more detail what the Red Army problems were.
Any other books in the works?
I’ve got a Duel coming out, in fact I think it’s due out in a month or so, Bazooka vs Panzer: Battle of the Bulge 1944 (Duel), which is not typical of the Duel series. The bazooka side is kind of typical of the series, it covers the development of the bazooka. There is a lot of new material there. I found a lot of developmental stuff that is not generally known about the bazooka. On the German side, on the hardware side, it covers German self-defense weapons, which is mostly weird oddball stuff: various types of devices to keep infantry away from the tanks including that weird curved-barrel assault rifle and various types of launchers for anti-personnel munitions, and things like Zimmeritt. The battle that I use as the center of the Duel is a pretty interesting engagement; it’s the battle for Krinkelt-Rocherath, mainly pitting US infantry against 12th SS Panzer Division. And that’s another case where a lot of stuff that’s done as combat interviews down at the National Archives really comes in handy because there’s really really extensive detail about that battle. I think the duel part of that particular battle is especially interesting and there is a lot of use of the bazooka in that particular battle. In the Osprey “Combat “series, I have a new one on US Armored Infantry versus Panzergrenadiers.
In the Osprey New Vanguard series, I have one coming up, the first one of a two part series called Early US Armor: Tanks 1916-40. That’s going to cover tank development from basically the First World War up to the onset of World War II. That one has a lot of fresh material in it. The Hunnicutt series covers a lot of these subjects but the Hunnicutt books are very broken up because they cover it by theme: medium tanks, light tanks, etc. This one sits back a little more and looks at it in broader perspective. So it deals with some of the issues of infantry-versus-cavalry and that sort of thing. It also has what I think is probably the first detailed discussion of what in the world happened with the Christie tank. I actually got quite a bit of new archival material about the disputes between the Army and Christie, and for the first time it explains what happens with the Christie tank. So I’m hoping that people find that pretty interesting. The stuff on the light tanks and the combat cars is pretty straightforward. For the first time have some comprehensive detail on things like how many of them were built. If you go out there and you look around, it’s not very clear when they were built, or how many, or any of those kind of issues. I did discover a lot of new stuff down in the archives that puts a little bit of shape to it. For a little book, I think it has a lot of fresh material. And I’m actually working right now on the follow-on book which will cover armored cars. I don’t know if that one will be as interesting in the sense that armored car development before World War II was pretty lackluster. But there were a lot of interesting little programs and there was some rather strange armored car used by the US military such as down on the Mexican border in 1917, and in Haiti with the Marine Corps, and over in China, stuff like that. There is a bunch of these little border wars where they took part. I’ve got some nice bit of material on that. So that’s what’s going on with New Vanguard.
Further on down the road, on the Soviet side, I am eventually going to be doing a T-90 book. I’ve got the material; it’s just a matter of fitting it into the Osprey schedule. They want some other Russian subjects from me, they haven’t quite settled on the titles yet, but there will be some more titles somewhere down the road. It’s just that with some of the Soviet stuff, there’s not a strong perception on how important some of these subjects are outside of the Russians themselves. So for example, one title I have had an awful hard time selling to Osprey is SU-76, which is the most common Soviet armored vehicle after the T-34. But it’s very hard to get anybody to bite on a published history of it. It will happen sooner than later, but there has not been a wave of enthusiasm for that subject.
You have written a bit about Japanese WWII tanks. These vehicles suffered from being generally outdated compared to their Western adversaries. Aside from their deficiencies in armor and fire power, is there much information as to whether these were good vehicles in other regards such as reliability, crew ergonomics, and other “soft” factors?
My barrier there is that I don’t read Japanese. I was very interested in Japanese stuff back in the 80’s and I was lucky because a friend of mine was dual-language in Japanese. In fact his dad actually studied engineering under Tomio Hara, who was a premier Japanese tank designer during WWII. We would go and have lunch every now and again and have a beer, and I would drag along my various Japanese language books or magazines and he was kind enough to translate stuff for me. But he is out in California now so I don’t see him that often. So that’s the problem for me, I don’t read Japanese. I still collect stuff on Japanese armor but it doesn’t do me a lot of good because I can’t read the language. On the US side, I have found some of the Aberdeen stuff, they did do evaluations on the Type 95 and Type 97, but I haven’t found the detailed technical evaluations. And quite honestly I haven’t dug very hard for that because aside from Osprey letting me do a couple books, there is not a big market for Japanese armor books.
I have to be practical about this. I do like doing certain books because they interest me, but if I can’t sell the title, I’m better off doing the research time dealing with something else. And so in the case of Japanese armor, yes, I continue to be interested in it. But realistically I don’t have a great deal of potential sale-able titles on that. So I would rather spend the time researching something where I know I can sell titles. That’s part of the reason I have backed off on Japanese stuff. I have shelves and shelves of books on Japanese tanks, but it’s not an area which I think I can put to use as far as actual published material.