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Text by MARTIN WINDROW, Color plates by MICHAEL ROFFE. YEAR 1972

African Sideshow

The real military significance of the desert campaign (as distinct from its considerable political and psychological implications) might almost be said to be the practical schooling it provided in the art of mobile warfare. For most of the campaign the forces were relatively small; the terrain was limitless, and quite open; there were no urban areas, no civilians, nothing except the desert and the enemy. For two years Erwin Rommel's two Panzer units (5th Light, later 21st Panzer Division, and 15th Panzer Division) were the key pieces in a huge chess game. Both sides were completely ruled by the supply problem: one cannot live off the land in the desert, and without fuel and ammunition one cannot manoeuvre or fight. Movement was everything, and Rommel showed himself a master of opportunism. Living precariously off captured and improvised material at the end of far-extended and unreliable supply lines, he outguessed and outmanoeuvred successive British generals sent against him. His young colonels and junior generals, almost without exception, went on to high command in Europe and Russia after Montgomery's arrival with vastly increased Allied resources had finally pinned the Afrika Korps down and destroyed it. The special problems of the desert - the unusual strains imposed upon men and machinery by the sand and the climate, the constant and imperative problem of resupply, the irrelevance of static infantry positions in all but a very few sectors, the enforced self-sufficiency of the tank regiments - these taught lessons which were to be valuable in the declining years of the Reich. The importance of recovering one's own crippled vehicles from the battlefield, and of capturing or destroying the enemy's non-runners, became paramount; another technique perfected in this theatre was the closely combined use of tanks and anti-tank guns, to bring the enemy armour to battle at a time and place of one's own choosing. The desert was also a forcing-house in the constant guns-and-armour race, seeing the introduction of the long 75 mm gun of the PzKpfw. IV F2, the Grant/Lee series of American tanks and the immortal Sherman.

The architect of victory in the West enjoys his hour: Heinz Guderian, tank general supreme, on the French coast in 1940. Note the uniforms of the two officers behind him. (Imperial War Museum)

The Decline

The years 1942-4 saw the huge seesaw campaign in the East go through a series of phases of which only the main features need here be summarized. The Panzer units, recovering with great resilience from Soviet successes in the winter of 1941/2, were launched eastward again in the late spring, when the momentum of the Red Army's counter-offensive had run down. This time the emphasis was on the southern sector. One huge force battered its way deep into the Caucasus, another pushed the Soviets back to Stalingrad. This city on the Volga, originally seen only as a flanking strongpoint for the great southern drive, came to occupy German attention to a ridiculous and tragic degree. It became a symbol - something almost always fatal in war. The tanks, once more in need of rest and refit after a hard summer's campaign, were sucked into street fighting, and soaked away into the rubble of the devastated factories and wharfs. The inevitable Soviet winter counter-offensive cost the Germans enormous losses, both in the doomed city and on the periphery of the encirclement when rescue attempts were mounted.

The turn of 1942/3 saw yet another enforced task of frantic rebuilding in the Wehrmacht - and once again the task was achieved. But the price was a subtle watering-down of the effectiveness of the Panzers. Hitler, having established personal control over operations, placed far too much faith in the new tanks which came into service in 1943, the PzKpfw. V 'Panther' and PzKpfw. VI 'Tiger'. The Panther, produced in response to the success of the T-34, was excellent, but it was introduced without sufficient development. The mighty Tiger was terrifyingly efficient in defence in close country and was capable of great local success, but it was not the answer to the Allied armoured developments. In the West a heavy concentration on a few standard types, not particularly formidable individually but very reliable and capable of mass production, built up the strength of the British and American armoured divisions in readiness for D-Day. Rigid standardization in Russia produced thousands of T-34S and KVs. In contrast to this industrial might, Germany began to fill the depleted regiments with 'S.P.s' - self-propelled guns mounted in limited-traverse housings on well-tried tank chassis. These were relatively cheap, quick and easy - but they were basically defensive weapons, and their capacity for attack was seriously limited.

Defeat followed defeat, yet each time the sheer professionalism of the Panzertruppen somehow fended off final collapse. Rebuilt at enormous cost in effort and scarce material, the tank armies were hurled with criminal stupidity into the vast tank-trap of the Kursk salient in July 1943. Through the gutted wrecks of the Tigers crashed a new Soviet offensive - yet that too was halted, and far back to the west a line was somehow cobbled together. Always outnumbered, always short of every necessity; hounded now by an Allied air superiority, both strategic and tactical, which menaced the tanks from factory floor to company dispersal; always trying to hold too long a line with too few men and machines; still the Wehrmacht did not collapse. In the summer of 1944 the stubborn resistance of the forces in the West taught the British and American armies that this could still be a long war. The Panzertruppen, the core of all German operations, used every skill learnt in five years of war to offset their constant material weakness. Simultaneously a great Soviet offensive began the final rolling-up of the Eastern Front, and by the end of the year Germany's armies were everywhere standing on German soil. Yet they still managed to scrape together the resources for the numbing attack in the Ardennes, in which, as always, the tank crews played a vital part. The failure of that offensive was due to no failing of their soldiers, but to the weakened state of their nation; Germany could no longer supply her forces with the basic necessities, could no longer find the fuel or the pilots for air support, could no longer mount diversionary attacks on other fronts.

The Panzers advance - a characteristic view of Germany's finest striking force. (Imperial War Museum)

Inevitably, in early 1945, there followed the final annihilating invasion of Germany. The Wehrmacht was a skeleton, a tragic, ludicrous shadow of its former might. Its military, its political, its human wretchedness was absolute. Yet Kenneth Macksey, in his book, Panzer Division, records an incident which might stand as an epitaph for the Panzertruppen. On the Klistrin-Berlin highway, on 22 March 1945, virtually the only effective mobile formation standing between the Red Army and the battered capital prepared to make its last stand. It consisted of twenty-seven Panther and twenty-eight Tiger tanks of an unnumbered, nameless 'scratch division' - for those days, a remarkable force. Attacked after a lengthy artillery barrage by massed infantry and armour, the German force not only survived, but consistently out-thought and outfought the Russian formations thrown against them. When they withdrew in good order they left the Russians in retreat, and more than sixty Russian wrecks smoking on the battlefield. This incident is typical of the unbroken morale, undiminished skill and unshaken determination of the Panzertruppen even at the end.

The Divisions

1. PANZER DIVISION (formed October 1935: Weimar)

Took part in Polish invasion, September 1939, and the assault in the West, 1940. June 1941 - early 1943, Russia, north and central sectors. After a few months in France, transferred to the Balkans in June 1943. July and August 1943, in Greece. November 1943, northern Ukraine. Took part in the counter-offensive following the Orel defeats, November and December 1943. Summer 1944, transferred to the Carpathians. For the remainder of the war the division was engaged in Hungary and Austria, distinguishing itself at Debrecen. Surrendered in eastern Austria.

Main combat units: 1939: Panzer Regt. 1, Rifle Regt. 1, Rifle Regt. 113, Artillery Regt. 73, Motorcycle Bn. 1, divisional units numbered 37.

1940 Panzer Assault Badge, awarded in silver to personnel of tank units who fought in three actions on three different days. Later a bronze version was authorized for armoured reconnaissance personnel, and as the war dragged on later types with 'modernized' tank motifs appeared; the numbers of engagements amassed were acknowledged by badges with the figures '50', '75' and '100' in small plaques at the base of the wreath.

1940: Panzer Regt. 2 added to establishment; this unit was transferred in October 1940 as cadre for new 16. Panzer Division. Final strength: Panzer Regt. 1, Panzergrenadier Regt. 1, Panzergrenadier Regt. 113, Artillery Regt. 73, Panzer Aufkl. Abt. 1, divisional units numbered 37.

2. PANZER DIVISION (formed October 1933: Würzburg)

After the take-over of Austria the division was moved to Vienna. Took part in Polish invasion, 1939, and in French campaign, 1940. Returned to Germany, August 1940. September 1940 - February 1941, stationed in Poland. March-May 1941, engaged in Balkans and Greece. Returned to France, then transferred almost immediately to Russia, taking part in drive on Moscow with Army Group Centre. 1942-3, Russia, notably at Smolensk, Orel, Kiev. January 1944, rest and refitting near Amiens, France. Heavily engaged on Invasion Front, summer 1944. December 1944, played important part in southern claw of Ardennes offensive. Early 1945, fighting along the Rhine. May 1945, surrendered at Plauen.

Main combat units: 1939: Panzer Regt. 3, Rifle Regt. 304, Artillery Regt. 74, Motorcycle Bn. 2, divisional units numbered 38. September 1940: cadre for new 13. Panzer Division supplied as Panzer Regt. 4. Final strength: Panzer Regt. 3, Panzergrenadier Regt. 2, Panzergrenadier Regt. 304, Artillery Regt. 74, Panzer Aufkl. Abt. 2, divisional units numbered 38.

3. PANZER DIVISION (formed October 1935: Berlin)

Fought in Poland, 1939; France, 1940. Returned to Germany for refitting. June 1941 - February 1942, Russia, Army Group Centre. February 1942, transferred to southern sector. Took part in drive into Caucasus, summer 1942. 1943, heavily engaged around Kharkov in summer; moved into Dnepr sector, September 1943. Cited for distinguished service in Dnepr Bend sector, January 1944. Heavy fighting in Ukraine and Poland throughout 1944. January 1945, moved to Hungary; surrendered at Steyr, Austria, April 1945.

Main combat units: 1939: Panzer Regt. 5, Panzer Regt. 6, Rifle Regt. 3, Artillery Regt. 75,

Motorcycle Bn. 3, divisional units numbered 39. October 1940: Panzer Regt. 5 transferred as cadre to 5th Light Motorized Division, and Panzergrenadier Regt. 394 added. Final strength: Panzer Regt. 6, Panzergrenadier Regt. 3, Panzergrenadier Regt. 394, Artillery Regt. 75, Panzer Aufkl. Abt. 3, divisional units numbered 39.

4. PANZER DIVISION (formed 1938: Würzburg)

Took part in Polish campaign, 1939, and French campaign, 1940. June 1941, took part in Russian invasion as part of Army Group Centre; from that time onwards continuously engaged on the Eastern front. Engaged in drive to Caucasus, 1942; Kursk offensive, 1943; cited for action around Gomel following failure of offensive. Engaged on central sector of front, winter 1943/4. 1944, fought in Latvia, then moved southwards into Germany. Remaining elements surrendered to U.S. forces, early 1945.

Peaked service cap of an Army N.C.O. with pressed alloy badges, leather chinstrap, and piping in Waffenfarbe round crown seam and edges of the dark bluish-green band. (Author's collection)

Army officer's field-grey sidecap. The eagle is woven in silver on green, the cockade in black, red and silver metallic thread. Silver piping follows the crown seam, and the front arch of the 'turn-up'. The white Waffenfarbe chevron identifies the infantry. (Author's collection)

Main combat units: 1939: Panzer Regt. 35, Panzer Regt. 36, Rifle Regt. 12, Rifle Regt. 33, Artillery Regt. 116, Motorcycle Bn. 4, divisional units numbered 84. October 1940: Panzer Regt. 36 transferred as cadre for 14. Panzer Division. Final strength: Panzer Regt. 35, Panzergrenadier Regt. 12, Panzergrenadier Regt. 33, Artillery Regt. 103, Panzer Aufkl. Abt. 4, divisional units numbered 79, apart from Panzer Jäger Abt. 49.

5. PANZER DIVISION (formed November 1938: Oppeln)

Played important role in French campaign, 1940. Early 1941, Yugoslavia and Greece. June 1941, Russia, central sector. Heavily engaged throughout 1941-2. Early 1943, Demjansk. Suffered heavy losses in Kursk offensive, July 1943. Early 1944, heavily engaged in Dnepr area. Late 1944, Latvia and Kurland. Early 1945, defending East Prussia; surrendered to Russian forces after stubborn defence of Hela Peninsula.

Main combat units: 1939: Panzer Regt. 15, 'Panzer Regt. 31, Rifle Regt. 13, Rifle Regt. 14, Artillery Regt. 116, Aufkl. Abt. 8, variously numbered divisional units. October 1940: 15. Panzer Regt. transferred as cadre to 11. Panzer Division. Final strength: Panzer Regt. 31, Panzergrenadier Regt. 13, Panzergrenadier Regt. 14, Artillery Regt. 116, Panzer Aufkl. Abt. 5 variously numbered divisional units.

6. PANZER DIVISION (formed October 1939: Wuppertal: from 1. Light Division)

Fought in France, 1940. Transferred to East Prussia; opened Russian invasion on northern front, June 1941. After fighting around Leningrad, transferred to the central sector where it was heavily engaged until May 1942. In that month the division was pulled back to France for rest and refit. Returned to Russia in December, fighting on southern sector, Kharkov. Summer 1943, engaged in Kursk salient fighting around Belgorod. January 1944, transferred to Hungary, took part in defence of Budapest. Heavy losses. Withdrew into Austria, March 1945; surrendered to Russian forces at Brno, May 1945.

Sidecap of Army Other Ranks; this example was worn by a cavalryman of Reiter Regt. 6, which served as an armoured recce unit in Africa and north-west Europe. The yellow chevron identifies the cavalry branch, and the tradition badge in the shape of the bronze 'Dragoon Eagle' identifies this particular regiment. (Author's collection)

Black Panzer sidecap, with pink Waffenfarbe chevron and grey-on-black eagle badge. The earphones are original Panzer issue items. (Author's collection)

Main combat units: 1939: Panzer Regt. 11, Panzer Abteilung 65, Rifle Regt. 4, Artillery Regt. 76, Motorcycle Bn. 6, most divisional units numbered 57. Final strength: Panzer Regt. 11, Panzergrenadier Regt. 4, Panzergrenadier Regt. 114, Artillery Regt. 76, Panzer Aufkl. Abt. 6, variously numbered divisional units.

7. PANZER DIVISION (formed October 1939: from 2. Light Division)

Played important part in French campaign, 1940, commanded by Gen. Maj. Rommel. February 1941, returned to Germany for rest and refit July 1941, Russia, central sector. Heavily engaged until July 1942, when division returned to France, taking part in occupation of Vichy. December 1942, returned to Russia, fighting around Kharkov on the southern part of the front, and later in the Belgorod offensive. August 1944, transferred to Baltic coast. Fought in Kurland, Memel until end of year, withdrawing into Prussia and surrendering to British at Schwerin in May 1945.

Main combat units: 1939: Panzer Regt. 25 Panzer Abt. 66, Rifle Regt. 6, Rifle Regt. 7, Artillery Regt. 78, Motorcycle Bn. 7, most divisional units numbered 58. Final strength: Panzer Regt. 25, Panzergrenadier Regt. 6, Panzergrenadier Regt. 7, Artillery Regt. 78, Panzer Aufkl. Abt. 7, most divisional units numbered 58.

8. PANZER DIVISION (formed October 1939: from 3. Light Division)

After fighting in France in 1940 the division was transferred in April 1941 to Yugoslavia, but saw no action. In July 1941 the unit fought on the northern sector of the Russian front; took part in the early stages of the siege of Leningrad. March-November 1942, heavy fighting, Kholm area. April-August 1943, heavily engaged in operations connected with Orel offensive. Heavy losses in withdrawal from Kiev, October 1943. January-September 1944, engaged on southern sector of Russian front. September 1944, moved into the Carpathians. Defence of Budapest, December 1944. February-March 1945, Moravia; surrendered to Red Army at Brno, May 1945.

PzKpfw. IIIs thrust on into the Russian interior - a picture taken during the breathtaking advances of summer 1941.

Main combat units: 1939: Panzer Regt. 10, Rifle Regt. 8, Artillery Regt. 80, Motorcycle Bn.8; armour increased by inclusion of Panzer Abt. 67 in that year. Most divisional units numbered 59. Final strength: Panzer Regt. 10, Panzergrenadier Regt. 8, Panzergrenadier Regt. 28, Artillery Regt. 80, Panzer Aufkl. Abt. 8, divisional units numbered 59, 42, 84.

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