-- William S. Lind

On War #257: Die Panzerwaffe

Bruce Gudmundsson, author of the best book on the development of modern tactics by the German Army in World War I, Stormtroop Tactics, has a new book out. Its title is On Armor, but thankfully it is not another book about tanks. Most books about tanks, like most books about fighting ships and combat aircraft, fall in the category of children’s literature. Their invariable theme is “Look at the big tank/cruiser/fighter go bang/boom/splat.”

In contrast, what On Armor offers is tanks and other armored fighting vehicles in multiple contexts. The contexts, not the tanks make this book valuable and important.

One context is combined arms. That tanks fight as one element of combined arms may seem obvious today, but as Gudmundsson notes, it was not obvious to many early tank theorists. Much of On Armor is devoted to discussing the evolution of armored units and the many types of vehicles other arms required if they were to work with tanks. Armored personnel carriers, mechanized Sturm and anti-tank artillery, and armored cars all share the limelight here with tanks. More important than the vehicles are the functions other arms performed when working with tanks. Gudmundsson correctly writes that in World War II the Germans always made an initial breakthrough with infantry, saving the tanks for exploitation. Furthermore, when they tried breaking through with tanks, they failed.

Particularly good is On Armor’s discussion of the evolution of the Sturmeschutz and Panzerjager in World War II. In the 1970’s, in a small group discussion with General Hermann Balck, someone asked him how, on the Eastern Front, he had used these two vehicle types compared to the way he used tanks. He replied, “I used them all the same way.” When he was asked about the utility of motorcycles, another vehicle type covered by On Armor, he said, “Their only problem was that I could never get enough of them.”

Another context that runs through On Armor is the tension between two characteristics armored vehicles require if they are to be effective, operational mobility and tactical combat power. Gudmundsson establishes this context at the outset, on the book’s first page:

On Armor is not just another book about tanks. Rather, it is an attempt to make sense of nearly a hundred years of interplay between the two definitive characteristics of armored fighting vehicles – tactical utility and operational mobility. (The former is the ability to fight. The latter is the ability to rapidly travel over long distances in the absence of significant enemy forces.)

The U.S. Army, which has only the most rudimentary understanding of operational art, has designed its tanks, especially the M-1 Abrams, for tactical utility with little thought for operational mobility. This is typical of Second Generation, French-model armies. The Abrams is essentially the latest version of the French Char B.

In contrast, German and Soviet tanks were designed to serve a doctrine of operational mobility. Not many years ago, a friend of mine was being shown over the German Leopard II tank by a German officer, who kept stressing the tank’s wide tracks. Puzzled, the American finally asked, “What’s the big deal about wide tracks?” The German officer replied, “The Pripet marshes!”

On Armor concludes with an especially thoughtful discussion of the future of armor. Gudmundsson writes,

At the beginning of the story, these two characteristics (operational mobility and combat power) are embodied in very different classes of vehicles. Light armored vehicles (initially armored cars and trucks) had operational mobility while tanks had combat power…In the middle of the story, which also coincides with the middle of the twentieth century, the two principle virtues of the armored vehicle are embodied in a single class of vehicle: an all-purpose tank such as the German Panzer III, the Soviet T-34, or the American Sherman. It was not long, however, before the two lines began to diverge again. By the end of the twentieth century, it was no longer possible to combine both operational mobility and first-class combat power in a single vehicle.

I am not sure it is no longer possible, and I would probably use the German Panzer IV with the long-barreled 75 mm gun rather than the Panzer III as the German example, but Gudmundsson is correct about the divergence. The U.S. Marine Corps’ wheeled Light Armored Vehicle was originally conceived as a way to give some Marine units operational mobility at a time when the M-1 Abrams was taking it away from tank battalions. On Armor is a fine book, one that is essential to understand many of the developments in land warfare in the 20th century. Fourth Generation war renders much of the history that and nothing more; in 4Gw conflicts, all tanks in effect become Sturmgeschutze.

Operational art is practiced on the mental and moral levels of war as great sweeps of armored formations deep in the enemy’s rear become militarily meaningless.

But history remains important as a history of how people thought through the problems of earlier times. On Armor offers that history of armored warfare better than any other book on the subject.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

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