PANZER CREWMAN 1939-45
Tank crews were supplied with headsets and throat microphones so that orders could be heard clearly over the noise of the gun and the tank's engine and machinery. An electrical switch usually fired the main armament. The gunner also operated the co-axial machine gun, usually by a foot pedal.
A rare Panzer IIIb, identified by its eight roadwheels, during the Polish campaign. In this period, the insignia carried on German armoured vehicles was a plain white cross; this of course presented a perfect aiming point for enemy gunners and was quickly replaced by the well- known black cross with white edges. (Robert Noss)
During the second half of the war, many tanks had provision for an additional machine gun to be fitted on a special circular mount welded to the commander's cupola. From wartime photographs it seems that this weapon was not regularly fitted. To use it, the commander would have had to expose most, of his upper body to enemy return tire.
Even at the best of times, tanks were never comfortable vehicles. In summer, the effect of serving in a steel box on the Russian Steppe or in the desert would be somewhat akin to being baked in an oven. For safety's sake the hatch had to be battened down if the enemy was nearby, since a grenade lobbed inside or a stray bullet could have devastating effect, so barely a breath of fresh air was available. In battle conditions, the ventilator fans would also struggle to extract the cordite fumes as the main armament was fired. Sweating and choking, many tank crews served dressed only in shorts and canvas shoes. In dusty or sandy areas, air filters would clog and particles would be drawn into the engine, scouring the cylinders and drastically reducing the effective life of the engine.
In winter, and in particular in the first half of the war, when purpose-designed winter clothing had yet to be introduced, tank crews were reduced to wearing the bulky wool greatcoat from the field grey uniform. The greatcoat was far from ideal making movement difficult in the already cramped confines of the tank. If summer in a tank was akin to being baked in an oven, then winter could be compared to life in a freezer; since the heat from the tank's engines was totally inadequate against the cold.
In extreme conditions on die Eastern Front, lubricating oil would freeze, thereby immobilising engines and transmission systems. In some cases crews had to resort to building fires under their vehicles in an attempt to thaw out the engines. Snow would often build up in the space between the hull and tracks, becoming hard packed and often causing a track to be 'thrown' (the track being dislodged from the toothed drive sprocket). If this happened when a tank was under fire, it could have fatal consequences.
The headset and throat microphone systems that were issued to crews also caused unique problems. Although such devices made communication possible in the noisy environs of the tank, the wearing of the unit's bulky headphones precluded the use of a steel helmet, so when the commander stood in his hatch, his head was vulnerable to shell splinters and shrapnel. A new system was introduced in 1944 with the headphones set lower to allow a helmet to be worn. Somewhat perversely, however, these units were introduced only after the issue of steel helmets to tank crews had ceased.
Tanks are built as lighting machines, not limousines, so the interiors are spartan, with few comforts for the crews, but many awkward, protruding pieces of equipment to painfully knock parts of the body against as the tank trundles over rough, uneven ground. But during the Second World War, tanks were not only uncomfortable but also prone to mechanical breakdown. These heavy machines were, wherever possible, transported by rail, but sometimes had to travel considerable distances over land. In such conditions, transmissions failed, tracks broke and engines seized up with alarming regularity.
German tanks were well engineered, sometimes over-engineered compared with the crudely made but effective Soviet T34 for example, but they were not without their problems. Many were rushed through the development stages in a desperate effort to get them into action, and so took unresolved teething problems to the front with them. In addition, German tanks from the second half of the war, such as the Panther, Tiger and King Tiger, were extremely heavy and their power plants were only just up to the job of moving them. Routes had to be carefully chosen as many bridges could not support the weight of the heaviest vehicles. As the photographs in this book reveal, much time was spent on running repairs and maintenance.
A Panzer III on the Eastern Front. Note how, like many tanks on active service, it has become covered with a clutter of jerricans, steel helmets and tarpaulin-covered stowage. (Robert Noss)
In a similar vein to the situation on U-boats, good commanders had a strong bond with their crew members and treated them well. To have a sense of belief and belonging was a very strong motivator for the Panzertruppe. As with most armies, tank units tended to have strong links with the old cavalry, since it was usually the mechanisation of cavalry units that provided the first armoured regiments.
The choice of the death's-head emblem for the collar patch was a deliberate and logical choice, reinforcing the traditional links with the cavalry, amongst whom the 'Death or Glory' badge of the death's head was widely worn. The design of the black Panzer uniform itself was no accident. It was comfortable and functional for wear within the close confines of a tank. Its colour was both stylish and useful for concealing oil or grease marks picked up from the tank's internal mechanisms, and the double- breasted cut and death's-head insignia harked back to the Uhlans
A recovered Panzer III. Such vehicles, even if no longer fit for service, would be cannibalised for valuable spare parts. (Robert Noss)
Unlike allied armies, which at the start of the Second World War saw the tank as predominantly a support weapon for the infantry, the Germans used the tank as a spearhead weapon. The pride of Panzer men in their branch of the armed forces was immense. The Blitzkrieg years saw German Panzers smash their way through every obstacle placed in their path. The newsreel films, watched by eager cinema audiences, invariably showed the overwhelming might of the Panzerwaffe as a regular theme. It is no surprise then that there was never a shortage of willing recruits for the Panzerwaffe.
In addition to the units that were formed as Panzer units, many of Germany's most prestigious units converted, first to Panzer grenadier (armoured infantry) then to full Panzer status as the war progressed. The pride of the German armed forces, the 'Grossdeutschland', developed from being a small but elite guard battalion to full Panzerkorps status. Hermann Göring, never one to allow his Luftwaffe to be outshone by others arms, ensured his own Hermann Göring Division was provided with a tank element, eventually becoming entitled, rather bizarrely, Fallschirmpanzerkorps (parachute armoured corps) nermann Göring.
A Panzer crewman, flanked by two comrades, wears the black uniform for his wedding ceremony. It would be difficult to exaggerate the pride with which the black uniform was worn, and its contribution to the morale and esprit de corps of these elite troops. Strictly speaking, the soldier should be wearing his standard field grey uniform when on leave. (Robert Noss)
It was probably, however, the elite divisions of the Waffen-SS that gained the greatest fame, or notoriety, as Panzer divisions. A total of seven Waffen-SS divisions were either established as, or converted to, Panzer division status. It has often been suggested that Waffen-SS divisions were given unfair priority in re-equipping with the latest, improved versions of various armoured vehicles. There is, however, little evidence to support this theory, as elite army units such as Grossdeutschland were also equipped with the best tanks available. It is more likely that the best equipment available was given first to those units that would make best use of it, i.e. those that were the most aggressive and daring in the attack and most tenacious in defence, and the Waffen-SS Panzer divisions certainly qualified on both counts.
Cuffbands of the elite Panzer units of the Wehrmacht. At top is the silver wire on black, hand embroidered Grossdeutschland cuff band in its distinctive Sütterlin script. In the centre is the silver wire on brown rayon woven band as worn by Feldherrnhalle units, and at bottom is the machine- embroidered enlisted ranks version in grey on black worn by Panzer personnel from the Herrmann Göring Division.
Many of the Panzer units of the army adopted special unofficial unit insignia, which was worn on the side of the headgear in the same manner as the 'tradition' badges worn by U-boat crews. Probably the best known of these is the running greyhound of the 116 Wind hand Panzer Division, but there were many others. Some units also produced their own newspapers or periodicals to foster a sense of common identity and build morale.
The significance of the cuff band to unit identity and morale cannot be over-emphasised, In some units, Hitlerjugend for example, the unit cuffband was not issued until men had proven themselves in battle, and was accompanied by an award document. If the Panzerwaffe itself was considered an elite force, then the cuffband on the black jacket symbolised the elite within the elite. When, in the final stages of the war, Hitler believed the Waffen-SS Panzer Divisions Adolf Hitler, Das Reich and others had failed him in not trying hard enough during the offensive around Lake Balaton, he ordered them to remove their cuffbands as a sign of disgrace. It was an act that finally lost him the respect of many of his most dedicated Waffen-SS troopers and it was also an order that was widely ignored.
Many elite Panzer units were given honour titles and permitted to wear a cuffband with the unit name (on the lower right sleeve for the army and Luftwaffe and on the lower left sleeve for the Waffen-SS). For the army Panzer divisions, Grossdeutschland wore a black band edged in silver with the unit title embroidered in old German 'Sütterlin' script. Feldherrnhalle wore a similar band but on brown backing. The Luftwaffe's Hermann Göring Division wore the unit title embroidered in block script on a blue band, but a version on black was also produced in limited numbers.
Cuffbands of the Waffen-SS Panzer regiments. All of these are woven in silver or grey yam on a black rayon base. Originals such as those shown here now fetch astonishingly high prices.
Cuffbands worn by all Waffen-SS Panzer divisions were worked on a black band. For the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler the letters were worked in Sütterlin script and for all the others in normal Latin script. Generally speaking where within a Panzer division there were elite regiments with their own honour titles, the Panzer regiment took the name of the division. For example, within 2. SS-Panzer Division Das Reich were the elite Regiments Deutschland, Der Führer and Germania, the Panzer Regiment wore the Das Reich cuffband. Conversely, within 11. Panzer Grenadier Division Nordland, the Panzer Abteilung Hermann von Salza had its own band.
One major factor that helped create a sense of belonging for the Panzertroops was the Panzer Assault Badge. Generaloberst von Brauchitsch instituted the badge on 20 December 1939, and it was to be issued to those soldiers who had taken part in at least three separate armoured assaults on three different dates.
The badge consisted of a wreath of oakleaves topped by the eagle and swastika national emblem. In the centre, facing right, was a representation of a short barrelled Mk IV Panzer. The badge was in silver finish and was worn on the left breast of the tunic.
As the war progressed it became clear that the Panzer Assault Badge was no longer sufficient reward for many tank troops who had served in dozens of additional actions without further recognition. Accordingly, on 22 June 1943 two new versions were introduced. The first was very similar to the basic badge, but was assembled from two pieces with the tank being riveted to the surrounding wreath. The wreath remained silver but the tank was blackened. At the base was a small box bearing the number '25' or '50' signifying the number of engagements in which the wearer had participated. The second new type was larger and wider, featuring a gilt wreath and silvered tank with the number '75' or '100' at the base of the wreath.
An award document for the Panzer Assault Badge in silver. This example was awarded posthumously to a Waffen-SS tank crewman killed in action on the Eastern Front. The document is signed by the regimental commander, Jochen Peiper.
The Panzerwaffe as a whole was a rather mixed bag. On one hand there were a considerable number of historic army units, steeped in a tradition going back to the times of the great Imperial cavalry regiments. On the other hand, there were the aggressive new Panzer divisions of the Waffen-SS. determined torchbearers of National Socialism and fanatically loyal to the State.
The Grossdeutschland Division was unusual in that it recruited not from a specific region, but throughout Germany and was highly selective in whom it would accept. Applicants had to be of the highest standard of fitness but also of unquestionable loyalty. Indeed it was a unit of Grossdeutschland that eliminated the perpetrators of the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. Nevertheless, Grossdeutschland fought with great elan, bravery and honour with no stains on its character or allegations of atrocities laid against it.
The Waffen-SS divisions of course represent a greyer area. There lias never been any real dispute over the lighting qualities and almost reckless bravery of these elite troops. They, along with Grossdeutschland, were regularly used as a mobile 'fire brigade' on the Eastern Front, being rushed to wherever the next crisis arose. On the Western Front, the newly formed and untested young grenadiers of the Hitlerjugend fought the British and Canadians to a standstill at Caen in June 1944. Montgomery estimated that Caen would be captured on D-D ay. Principally due to the fanatical endeavours of Hitlerjugend, Caen did not fall until 8 July, more than a month after D-Day.
The arrival of an SS Panzer unit equipped with even a handful of Tiger tanks on any sector of any front would almost certainly halt the enemy advance, if only temporarily.
The highest scoring tank aces of the Second World War were all from Waffen-SS Panzer units. Unfortunately however, many Waffen-SS units attracted an unsavoury reputation for brutality, much of it learned from their Soviet opponents on the battlefield. Despite this, Waffen-SS Panzer units such as Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg emerged from the war with a sound fighting reputation and very little to tarnish their name. Frundsberg and Hohenstaufen in particular fought most chivalrously against the Allied airborne landings at Arnhem and even the Soviets grudgingly accepted that Wiking was one of the best units they had ever faced.
It must be said that many of the young men who joined the Waffen-SS Panzer units during the Second World War were attracted to the glamorous uniforms and elite status of these units and did not share the Nazi politics of many of their comrades who had joined pre-war. Even the most hard-bitten veterans, however, had long lost their political ideals by the closing stages of the war and were no longer fighting for Hitler, but for the pride of their unit and the comrades they fought alongside. In the last few days of the war, when even the mightiest of the Panzer divisions were reduced to a handful of operational vehicles, their sense of pride in belonging to the Panzerwaffe remained undimmed.
The Panzer Assault Badge in its basic form (left) awarded for participation in at least three separate actions, and (right) in the version awarded to those who had participated in at least 75 individual tank actions. Needless to say, the latter is extremely rare. (75 Panzer badge courtesy Mark Miller Collection)