What did they use for the Blitzkrieg?

The story of WW2 gives a special place to the German panzer troops that were especially successful both in the first part of the war and at its final stage. Moreover, already after the war, the victors had a sort of a collective perception of a German tank as of a huge and invincible combat vehicle, inspiring terror in the enemy and leading to victories even in those cases when the Germans were outnumbered by the Allies or the Red Army. But is there any truth behind this perception, which resulted in the appearance of enormous cardboard monsters that traditionally embodied the German panzerwaffe in post-war soviet movies? And what actual tanks served as the prototype of these Soviet films brontosauruses? Were they as lethally dangerous as the Soviet moviemakers wanted to show them? Let us try to answer these questions...

The booming successes of the German tank troops started already during the European campaign (the famous "Blitzkrieg" operation). This is no surprise since in accordance with the military doctrine of the German command as well as the entire concept of a "blitzkrieg" warfare were built around the use of armored and motorized detachments. Note that all the victories of 1939-1941 were achieved through a practically identical scenario. To back up this assertion let us dwell upon the essence of the blitzkrieg strategy itself:

  • Aviation inflicts massive strikes upon the front line of the enemy defense, the rear, most important roads, airfield, and communication centers;

  • Simultaneously the ground troops set up smoke screens all along the frontline (or at least in several locations) and initiate several minor combats, so that the enemy does not know in which exactly location of the front the main strike will occur;

  • Then in a massive attack the motorized squads would pierce through the enemy defense lines, chase the enemy and take prisoners. In the meantime, infantry would still set smoke walls along the front and attack at random directions, confusing the enemy about the direction of the main strike;

  • Infantry and other detachments attack the enemy flanks in order to meet other detachments and circle the enemy;

  • Mechanized squads lead the offensive and penetrate deep into the enemy territory, eliminating and disorganizing the rears;

  • Main forces link up, encircle the enemy and obliterate them.

A successful blitzkrieg requires a well-motorized and radio-equipped army, an effective command system (and it is the opinion of more than one expert, that at that time Wehrmacht had one of the strongest command systems), and, of course, quality combat ordnance (especially tanks that were the spearhead of the attack of the whole army). This last aspect is of key importance for us. So, what tanks did the Germans successfully use in the west (France) and in the east (Poland) throughout the entire first phase of the war? Surprisingly enough these were predominantly light and middle-class machines that did not feature any wonders in their combat characteristics. Anti-bullet armor, up to 50mm caliber cannons, middle cross-country capability and a relatively large distance endurance – these were the "highway", "Euro-class" tanks, intended for action in the civilized and sanitized French, Belgian, and Dutch provinces. The opposing French and British armies had much more serious samples of tank ordnance at their disposal, such as, for example the English Churchill with a 102-mm front armor and the French B1bis with a 75mm sponsored howitzer. The heaviest German tank at the time was Pz-IV with its short-barrel 75mm cannon, which would serve better for accompanying infantry rather than be a match in a duel against the enemy tanks. However, being "bonded" with the infantry troops the dispersed tank detachments of the allies had nothing to offer against the massive spikes of light and middle German panzers, and thus were defeated. So the victorious blitzkrieg tank was not the heavily armored "iron beast" the "Tiger", but rather much lighter and more maneuverable tanks. Moreover, the "Tiger" that appeared on the fronts in 1943 was a complete opposite of those machines, which brought the Nazi Germany their loudest victories at the initial stage of war. What was the reason for replacing what seemed a perfect concept of tank forces as the super-mobile detachments, the poisonous sting of the blitzkrieg strategy? Of course the happenings in the Eastern front.

The "first bell" rang for the Germans with their first encounter of the Soviet T-34s and KVs after the beginning of the Russian campaign. The standard 37mm antitank guns of the German detachments, nicknamed the "army batters", had nothing to set against "these monsters", as the German commanders called the Soviet tanks. It was only due to the overall mess of the first weeks of war and the insufficient number of new tanks in the troops that a number of minor successes was not turned into a serious victory, although still the German had already started feeling symptoms of the "tankophobia" that they themselves had inflicted upon the Europe. Here is for example what General Reinhart, commander of the 41st Wehrmacht tank corps committed to his diary:

"About a hundred of our tanks, approximately one third of which were T-IVs, took the initial positions for the counterstrike. Part of our forces was to advance along the front, but the majority of the troops were supposed to circle the enemy and strike upon the flanks. We fired at the Russian iron monsters [KV-1], from three sides but all was in vain. The Russians, on the contrary, were effectively hitting their targets. After a lengthy combat we were forced to retreat in order to avoid complete annihilation. Echelonized along the front and in depth the Russian giants were advancing closer and closer. One of them approached our tank desperately stuck in a bog pond. Without hesitation the black monster rolled over the tank and forced it into the mud with its tracks. At that point a 150mm howitzer appeared. While the artillerist commander warned about the approaching enemy tanks, the howitzer opened fire but to no avail. A Russian tank came to our self-propelled cannon at 100 meters. The artillerists opened direct fire and managed to hit the machine like a thunderbolt. The tank stopped. "We hit it", - the artillerists sighed with relief. "Yes, we hit it", - the howitzer commander echoed. Then somebody from the cannon squad squealed: "It’s moving again!" Indeed the tank came back to life and started approaching the howitzer. Another minute, and the shining metal tracks of the tank stomped the howitzer into the ground like a toy. Done that, the tank continued moving as if nothing had happened." "Iron monsters", "black giants", "stomped into the ground like a toy" – these words sound as if they had been written in the reports of the Red Army and Allies’ commanders, after encountering the menacing and terror-inspiring "Tiger". Of course, it does not mean that the Germans copied their Pz-VI from the Soviet "Klim Voroshilov", however, after the beginning of the Eastern campaign, the development of heavy tanks became one of the key goals of the German designers. The T-34 and KVs made too good a reputation for themselves, pulling even the deficient 88mm air-defense guns (the only weapon, which, by the way, later became the main attack weapon of the "Tiger", that could match the Russian "armored monsters") to the frontlines. However, the German answer to T-34 was too late. As for the reasons for this confusion, those are obscure even for Eike Middedorf, who served in the Superior Wehrmacht Command in the Eastern Front (here is a quote from his book "Tactics of the Russian Campaign"):

"The antitank defense is undoubtedly the saddest chapter in the history of the German infantry. The path of suffering of the German infantry in their fight against the Russian T-34s goes from the 37-mm AT-gun, also known as the "batter", through 50mm to a 75mm mechanical-propelled AT-gun. Apparently, the answer to the question why over the three and a half years starting from the first appearance of T-34 there had not been made a proper infantry AT-weapon, will remain a mystery." Possibly, after all that a reader may think it quite strange that the "Tiger", one of the best and heaviest tanks of the closing stage of WW2, was started to be developed back in 1937! Apparently, creating such machines did not fall within the plans of the German command and there would have been no place for the “Tiger” in the dynamic blitzkrieg strategy. It was not until after several serious defeats in the east that Hitler and his kin had started to look for a super-weapon, capable of coping with the steel avalanche of T-34s, lend-leased Shermans, and KVs. Blitzkrieg was over, and a hard and bloody war started against the enemy who had learned his mistakes and was constantly gaining more experience.

At 11 o'clock in the morning, on the 20th of April 1942, which was Hitler’s birthday, an echelon carrying an unusual load arrived at the Fuhrer’s staff in Wolfschanze...