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The State of Barbarossa's Panzer Divisions In The Fall of 1941

on Mon, 12/04/2017 - 21:43

There are some that believe the sheer numerical superiority of the Red Army and Allies doomed Germany to defeat less than two years after continent wide war resumed in Europe late in 1939. For instance, the vast majority of David Stahel's decade long work posits that the Wehrmacht in general, but the German army (Heer) in particular, had shot their bolt as early as August of 1941. In assessing such claims this article will take a look at the primary component of the German army's striking power - it's panzer divisions. More to the point, I shall examine the state of the tank complement in those panzer divisions assigned to Operation Barbarossa (the June 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union) after the campaign's first three months. In doing so, I hope to highlight one of many elements (for instance manpower losses in the infantry divisions would be another) that taken together can help readers understand for themselves whether or not the Ostheer (German army in the east) was beyond repair early in the fall of 1941.

The panzer divisions ready to invade the Soviet Union late in June 1941 were at that time the most powerful combined arms organizations in the world. For that matter, the quality of the armor fleshing out those panzer divisions had taken a quantum leap over that of the previous year. Whereas more than half the panzers deployed in France during May of 1940 were light Panzer I and II variants, by June of 1941 fully two thirds of each division's panzer complement comprised the far more capable Pz 35/38t, Panzer III/IV, and StuG (assault guns). Most importantly, the Panzer III, arguably the main battle tank (MBT) of the German army in 1941, had been significantly improved. On the eve of Barbarossa the Panzer III Ausf G to J series served as the majority of medium tanks in Germany's inventory (1,090 of 1,440 Panzer III).These upgraded Panzer III's featured 30mm thicker frontal armor than their predecessors, offering for greater protection. In terms of hitting power the 50mm L/42 cannon represented a huge improvement over the old 37mm gun. From there, the 50mm L/60 main gun equipping the J model Panzer III's (see picture accompanying this article) that went into production in April 1941 had twice the muzzle velocity and thus penetrating power of even the L/42 gun.

In addition, each panzer division gained a motorized infantry regiment. This had increased the division's ability to operate in built up urban areas, guard it's flanks, sweep up bypassed centers of resistance, hold terrain, and ward off counterattacks. Off-road mobility also had improved as the number of half-tracks increased as did firepower further supplemented by the addition of assault guns and anti-aircraft battalions to the panzer divisions. Moreover, previous TO&E calling for two light artillery battalions had been upgraded so that each panzer division also deployed a heavy artillery battalion including a dozen 100mm cannons and 150mm howitzers. As such, the June 1941 era panzer divisions represented a far better balance of infantry, armor, artillery, supporting arms,and thus combined arms strength than did the Polish/French campaign vintage panzer divisions.

In terms of the number of tanks available, by June of 1941, and even with Rommel's Afrika Corps taking 314 panzers, the German army still held a surplus of 974 panzers and assault guns (including 490 Pz 35/38t, Panzer III/IV, and StuG) - and this doesn't include the 312 armored fighting vehicles produced by German factories in that same month. All told, the German army had 6,052 tanks in June 1941 (including those in repair and being upgraded). It's important to note here that sources vary in regards to the actual numbers of panzers/assault guns in the nineteen panzer divisions initially participating in Barbarossa. But, if one excludes those tanks assigned to the forces fighting in the Arctic Circle and includes the StuG assault guns assigned to the eleven assault gun battalions deployed for Barbarossa as well as those weapons given to the Waffen-SS motorized divisions and Motorized Infantry Regiment Grossdeutschland; and if one then goes with the most reputable estimates published we end up with over 3,500 panzer/assault guns deployed in Eastern Europe. This number can be further broken down as follows: 337 Panzer I, 890 Panzer II, 155 Panzer 35(t), 625 Panzer 38(t), 973 Panzer III, 439 Panzer IV, 225 Beflpz., 259 StuG. So that's what the Germans were starting with when they invaded the Soviet Union. Now, let's fast forward and look at that state of the panzer division's tank strength in each of the three German Army Groups (North, Center, South) following the brutal fighting that characterized Barbarossa's first three months. If Stahel's thesis is correct then by late in August/early September 1941 these divisions should have become mere shells of their former selves.

Let's start with Army Group North's Fourth Panzergruppe. It began Barbarossa with three panzer divisions (the 1st, 6th, 8th) equipped with 156, 256, and 223 panzers respectively. During the campaign it would be reinforced by additional armored elements from Army Group Center. However, by September 10th, or after Army Group North had reached the gates of Leningrad and five days before the Fourth Panzergruppe headquarters, the headquarters for three motorized corps, and four panzer/motorized divisions began their transfer to Army Group Center for Operation Typhoon, these three panzer divisions had lost 131 tanks as total write-offs (Totalausfalle). This meant that on September 10, 1941 the 1st, 6th, and 8th panzer divisions still retained 123, 196, and 187 panzers or 79, 77, and 84 percent of their respective strengths on June 21, 1941. Moreover, these three panzer division's retained these strength levels in spite of receiving only two replacement tanks from Germany during the entire first three plus months of the campaign. Needless to say, this is hardly indicative of a panzer force in collapse. More to the point, it's the first piece of evidence not only challenging Stahel's claims but leaving us to wonder something else: What had the German high command been doing with the surplus of unassigned armor in Germany's tank park (remember this totalled nearly 1,000 armored fighting vehicles) accumulated on the eve of Barbarossa. Perhaps the answer to that question lies in events elsewhere.

German Army Group Center started Barbarossa as by far the strongest Army Group the Wehrmacht had ever assembled. The Second Panzergruppe began Barbarossa with 1,086 panzers in it's 3rd, 4th, 10th, 17th, and 18th panzer divisions. Meanwhile, the Third Panzergruppe started the campaign with 989 panzers in its 7th, 12th, 19th, and 20th panzer divisions. Between June 22nd and early September these two panzer groups (and their initial 2,075 panzers) had fought a series of massive battles as well as penetrating hundreds of miles into the Soviet Union in dusty, hot summer weather not at all friendly to tank engines. Overall, the heavy fighting and rough conditions had resulted in the two panzer groups writing off as completely destroyed (Totalausfalle) 641 tanks. Yet, in spite of all of that by early September Army Group Center's two panzer groups still had 1,480 panzers available or 71.3% of their initial strength. What's more, only 67 of those tanks were replacement vehicles. One interesting takeaway from this is that of the nearly 1,000 surplus tanks in German stocks on the eve of Barbarossa and with German tank production averaging several hundred tanks per month in the intervening three months by early September of 1941 Army Group North and Army Group Center had received a combined total of only 69 replacement tanks. Now to be fair, at the end of September 1941 Army Group Center received from OKH reserve the entire 2nd and 5th Panzer Divisions with 194 and 186 tanks respectively. In addition, Army Group's North (AGN) and South (AGS) also dispatched three panzer divisions to Army Group Center in September (the 1st and 6th from AGN and the 11th from AGS). But this still leaves us wondering how it was that the Ostheer was already irrepairably damaged. Maybe Army Group South had been sucking up all the replacement tanks?

Army Group South began Barbarossa spearheaded by the First Panzergruppe, which included a powerful armored complement in the form of the 9th, 11th, 13th, 14th, and 16th Panzer Divisions as well as two battalions of assault guns. All told, 792 tanks and 42 StuG's. As is well known, the Soviet Southwestern Front ranked among the Red Army's most powerful formations in June of 1941. It did not fail to make the First Panzergruppe pay dearly for it's advance deep into the Ukraine. By September of 1941 Army Group South had lost 174 tanks as total write-offs. Nevertheless, early in September of 1941 and with the receipt of 20 replacement tanks from Germany First Panzergruppe still had 614 total available panzers of 78% of it's original strength.

So here we are, early in September of 1941 and the three German Army Group's that had been fighting for three and a half months still had on average well over three quarters of their original strength. This, by the way, is remarkable in and of itself. That's because tanks require a tremendous amount of maintenance to stay in running condition. The lay person often forgets that if a panzer division, or a U.S. armored division, or Soviet Tank Corps has an establishment strength of a certain number that in all likelihood and even in ideal conditions this number is almost never held once that unit takes the field. During the Second World War armored units from all nations moving under their own power at any distance greater than relatively short ranges almost always experienced significant numbers of broken down tanks. Even units equipped with the T-34 or M-4 Sherman, the gold-standard of Second World War era tanks in terms of mechanical reliability, often lost as much as twenty percent of their strength to break downs (regardless of combat losses) on extended cross-country operations over a period of days no less weeks or months.

Accordingly, for the Ostheer's panzer divisions to be operating at an average of three quarters their establishment strengths in armor following three plus months of combat against the Red Army says quite a bit about the supposed terminal decline those same panzer divisions had entered as of the late summer of 1941. Furthermore, the Ostheer's Panzergruppe's were maintaining these relatively high rates of available tanks in spite of having received a mere 89 replacement tanks to replace the losses in their original panzer divisions. Now, and to be fair, in September and October of 1941 the German command finally sent 316 replacement panzers to the Ostheer. But again this leaves unaddressed the question surrounding the bulk of the surpluses, what had been done with them, and thus why they weren't being used to maintain Barbarossa's panzer divisions in peak operating condition.

Addressing that issue we find a number of things happening. First off, the German high command had decided to forgo fully reinforcing Barbarossa's panzer divisions in order to pursue a number of competing and, in this author's opinion, questionable and secondary initiatives. For instance, they had been sending considerable numbers of replacement tanks to the Afrika Corp's two panzer divisions. An Afrika Corps that was at that time doing little more than fighting back and forth against the British and their Commonwealth Allies to see who could control Mussolini's strategically irrelevant Libyan colony. In addition, a larger number yet of Germany's surplus tanks had been redirected to equipping new armored formations being formed in the latter half of 1941, such as the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th Panzer Divisions. We also know additional tanks were delivered to Germany's Axis allies - albeit these deliveries included only 184 mostly obsolete models such as the Panzer 38(t). As to this last decision it must be said that it greatly bolstered the strength of Germany's allies and thus represented a wise and, given the numbers and quality of vehicles involved, cheap investment.

Taking all of these decisions together however, a larger picture emerges. For instance, in terms of our understanding, does it seem more likely that Germany lacked the productive capacity to maintain Barbarossa's existing panzer divisions (an idea backed by quantitative based theorists like Stahel) and a development that would mean every additional lost tank in Russia truly represented a slow creeping disaster Germany could not overcome? Or are we seeing that, on the other hand, the German high command had decided to divert resources elsewhere at the expense of the most important campaign in the Third Reich's history? The latter would fit within a qualitative based approach to the war's ouctome as it implicates the way Germany prosecuted the war as a primary factor in her defeat, not the fact that she was massively outproduced by the Allies and Soviet Union.

Now, going back and taking this information presented so far we can see in regards to the Ostheer's panzer divisions during the fall of 1941 that far from having shot their bolt the four panzergruppe's deployed in Russia still retained formidable strength when compared to their original complement of pre-Barbarossa panzers. Furthermore, the only thing in September of 1941 standing between the Ostheer's panzer division's fighting at 100% strength instead of roughly 75% strength in reality were the decisions made by Hitler and OKH/OKW in terms of how they allocated the output of German factories producing more than enough vehicles to keep the Ostheer's tank park fully supplied if that is what they had wanted to accomplish. All of which is indicative not of a Wehrmacht being ground into the dust under the weight of Allied and Soviet numerical superiority as postulated by brute force advocates such as David Stahel, but a German high command whose own decision making was undermining the Axis war effort from within. All of which once again leads us back to the fact that the numbers game many use to show the hopelessness of the German position doesn't add up. Nor does it work for producing a better understanding for why the Second World War ended as it did.




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