Was the WW2 German Tank design philosophy of bigger-is-better correct?

Nazi Germany undoubtedly produced some of the most advanced and impressive tanks of WW2 but were they truly better than their opponents vehicles? Were the designs after the Panzerkampfwagen iv including the renowned Tiger 1 as excellent as was claimed or were they merely a vanity project of Adolf Hitler which was ultimately an evolutionary cul-de-sac or did their design presage the future of tank design?

Disregarding the fact that Hitler had been only a corporal in the Deutsche Wehrmacht during WW1, Hitler ever the indolent dreamer had never held a proper job before becoming leader of the Nazi Party. Instead he had been a dissolute layabout without an income apart from charity of family and friends.

Main picture: One version of the 1000 tonne Landkreuzer which never even got past the prototype stage

Externally presenting an image of not one to be wracked with doubts, inwardly he was extremely indecisive but amongst those ideas on which there was no irresolution, was the need to extract revenge on the Allies due to the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty. This self-same hatred was also vented on the Jews of the world.

On the Nazis obtaining absolute power by means of a de facto coup d’état, he immediately proceeded to resurrect the emasculated German Army and Luftwaffe. Clandestine construction of prototypes of various items of military equipment had already commenced and been tested. Amongst those items was the prototype of the first German tank, the Panzerkampfwagen i. Hitler first viewed a demonstration of this vehicle in action during 1935 at the Kummersdorf Test Facility about 50kms south of Berlin in the Brandenburg area.

The puny Panzerkampfwagen i - Germany's first attempt at a tank design

The puny Panzerkampfwagen i – Germany’s first attempt at a tank design

As the prototypes of this extremely basic 5.8 tonne armoured vehicle with its two man crew and armament of a machine gun sped past his entourage at 25kms/hour, Hitler’s visage lit up. He immediately turned to the accompanying Generals and demanded that this vehicle forthwith be put into production. Due to its limited capability, the ultimate intended role for such a puny vehicle was limited to that of reconnaissance.

But this was a start of greater things, the beginnings of the Panzer Korps.

Fortunately for Hitler, proper tanks such the Panzerkampfwagen ii, iii and iv were already in the design phase. The size and armament of these vehicles incremented in relation to their number with the smallest, the PzKpfw ii, mounting a derisory 20mm cannon.

Germany's first true tank was the diminutive PzKpfw. II ausf. B with twin 20mm canons

Germany’s first true tank was the diminutive PzKpfw. II ausf. B with twin 20mm canons

The table below allows for an easy comparison of the rapidly incrementing size and armament.

Pzkpfw number Weight Armament Quantity produced
i 5.8 Machine gun 1493
ii 8.9 Canon- 20mm 1856
iii 23.0 Canon-37mm 5774
iv 25.0 Canon-75mm 8553

This table highlights a number of aspects viz:

  • Rapidly increasing size and firepower
  • Possibly more importantly, the meagre production figures for the even most widely used and produced German tanks of the war
Panzer III Ausf. J The hull was lengthened. Frontal armour increased to 50 mm plate. 482 produced in 1941

Panzer III Ausf. J The hull was lengthened. Frontal armour increased to 50 mm plate. 482 produced in 1941

What these tanks did possess was an ability to impress the boss, Adolf Hitler. Being a fanatic in all aspects of armaments technology, this was one area where his megalomaniac tendencies came to the fore. Everything had to be on a huge scale including his weapons and his buildings.

What fate had granted him was not only that Germany possessed excellent engineering skills to design and build all that took Hitler’s fantasy, but also the genius in Guderian to exploit the potential of the tank. His erudition was to envision the combined use of all arms approach to warfare. It was these techniques which would mask any deficiencies in the tank design itself.

Ferdinand Porsche

Perhaps the Poles were at a different technological level to the Germans but certainly the capability of the French tanks that they encountered on the 10th May 1941 onwards was superior to their own tanks. This deficiency was masked by the use of the so-called Blitzkrieg – the physical manifestation of the combined arms approach – and due to the use of the Flak 88 anti-aircraft gun as an extemporised anti-tank gun. So total was the concealment, that this deficiency was not identified until Operation Barbarossa was launched against Russia on 22nd May 1941.

Yet again the skilful use of their Blitzkrieg tactics disguised their technological deficit as the German forces cut a swathe through the mesmerised Russian army. Encountering the crudely manufactured T34 tank had been akin to an epiphany. The Germans were mortified. For years Nazi propaganda had assuaged the German military that “all that they had to do” – in Hitler’s own words – “was to kick the front door down & the whole rotten edifice would collapse.”

A 88mm flak with 36 kills

A 88mm flak with 36 kills

How wrong Hitler was.

Instead of a parsimoniously equipped Russian Army with antiquated equipment, the 4 million German troops with their 3 600 tanks, the Germans encountered a substantially larger Russian force accompanied by upward of 10 000 armoured vehicles. Indubitably much of their equipment was outdated yet their modern equipment such as the T34 tank outclassed their German rivals in terms of firepower and armament. Instead of the vertical slab-like armour preferred by the German designers, the T34 employed sloping armour which easily deflected the German 37 & 50mm anti-tank shells. In addition this also neutered most German tanks. The only anti-tank gun which was capable of penetrating the T34’s impervious sloping armour was the 75mm. The 88mm anti-aircraft gun again came to the rescue when it was deployed in the anti-tank gun role.

The T34 tank synonomous with rugged reliability

The Germans were in denial as to the extent of their deficiencies but the panzer’s experiences with the T34 had set off alarm bells in the military high command and in Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair in eastern Prussia. A new generation of armoured vehicle was urgently required. Hitler was insistent that the PzKpfw vi as it was provisionally called, had to field an 88mm gun in its turret. In addition its armour had to be impervious to the Russian T34 and anti-tank guns.

These requirements resulted in one huge challenge: an unprecedented increase in weight. With the original version of its antecedent only weighing a mere 25 tonnes, the Pzkpfw vi or Tiger 1 as it would be called in service, would weight a startling 60 tonnes.

The legendary Tiger 1. In the hands of an ace such as Michael Wittmann it was to prove itself a slayer of Allied tanks.

The legendary Tiger 1. In the hands of an ace such as Michael Wittmann it was to prove itself a slayer of Allied tanks.

The recoil of the huge 88mm gun had preordained a huge tank, the largest on the battlefield.

This required the best German brains to resolve this engineering feat. Dr Ferdinand Porsche, the progenitor of the People Car – or common Volkswagen – was approached to design this monster tank. Going head to head with him with their competing design would be the Henschel company. Henschel’s solution was the classical approach whereas Porsche developed an engineering marvel, a masterpiece not fit for war. His bold visionary idea was that a diesel motor would power electrical motors to drive the tracks. This design would dispense with the need for a cumbersome gearbox and transmission.

The trail of destruction wrought on a motorcade of the British 7th Armoured Division, destroyed by Michael Wittmann in Villers Bocage

The trail of destruction wrought on a motorcade of the British 7th Armoured Division, destroyed by Michael Wittmann in Villers Bocage

The two variants were showcased to an illustrious audience which included the expectant Hitler who anticipated that the Porsche variant would easily obtain the nod and be awarded the contract. So sure had Ferdinand himself been that his design was the one which would be adopted that he had already commenced the construction of 100 chassis in advance of the order being placed.

As the expectant crowd of Hitler’s acolytes and sycophantic generals gazed at the vehicles as they commenced their series of trials, Porsche’s version caught fire and could proceed no further. A clearly mortified Porsche slunk away and Henschel was awarded the contact for the Tiger tank.

Michael Wittmann- Tank Ace

Michael Wittmann- Tank Ace

Henschel’s version might not have been as technologically advanced, nevertheless it was also a precision machine with the transmission, suspension and gearbox at the limits of its operating ability. In plain English, the tank was too heavy for the suspension and transmission. This factor would bedevil the Tiger 1 tank throughout its operational usage.

Amongst other reasons, it would belie Hitler’s firm conviction that bigger-is-better.

The Tiger 1 was placed into production in time for the titanic clash of arms near a nondescript Russian town of Kursk. The battle would receive the sobriquet as the largest tank battle in history. It would also vindicate Hitler’s belief in the Tiger’s capability.

Panzerkampfwagen vi or Tiger Tank stuck in the mud in Russua

Panzerkampfwagen vi or Tiger Tank stuck in the mud in Russua

The reports that filtered through to Hitler spoke of a tank impervious to Russian tank fire except at close range while the ratio of kills in the German’s favour was of the order of 5 to 1. In Hitler’s view he had a war winner except that he had not been apprised of the whole picture. The other side of the coin threw into sharp relief the operational limitations of this tank and the challenges confronting its manufacture and transportation.

Operationally the Tiger 1 might have been impervious to most anti-tank armaments but due to the vehicle being at the limits of the mechanical capabilities of its components such as engine, transmission and gearbox, it was subject to frequent breakdowns. It was estimated that half of all Tiger 1 losses was as a result of mechanical failure. In a fluid battle situation, the only remedy for the crew was to destroy the tank in order to prevent its capture by the enemy.

 

Battle of Kursk

Battle of Kursk

From a production point of view it was too complex to build. This severely restricted production at a time when the German Army was being overrun by waves of enemy tanks. At best, the Germans were able to maintain a miniscule production of this vehicle which ultimately amounted to 1385 being built over 3 years. In the battle for Kursk, the Germans lost 25 00 men and 250 irreplaceable tanks. Even though the Russians lost twice as many tanks, they were able to replace their losses within 15 days whereas Germany would take two to three months.

In spite of lethargic production due to production difficulties, Hitler proposed a 1000 tonne leviathan to supplant the Tiger 1. This armoured bunker mounting twin 16 inch naval ships guns was christened the Landkreuzer. With fuel shortages already imposing severe constraints on German military mobility, this vehicle consumed one litre of diesel for every 39 metres that it travelled.

Another version of the 1000 tonne Landkreuzer or Der Ratte - The Rat

Another version of the 1000 tonne Landkreuzer or Der Ratte – The Rat

Albert Speer, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments ultimately convinced Hitler to abandon this project in the nicest possible way.

Hitler’s megalomania had not been sated. The successor to the Tiger 1 was conceived, a 188 tonnes leviathan mounting a 128mm gun.

Again Ferdinand Porsche was requested to provide a prototype. This time he could not fail. It was the moment of redemption if he succeeded.

Trials of the Maus in 1944

Trials of the Maus in 1944

For his design, Porsche retained the diesel electric configuration for the Panzerkampfwagen vii or Maus – the Mouse – as it was provisionally named. Apart from ensuring that the propulsion system would not ignite like on the Tiger 1 trials, there was the weight consideration. At 60 tonnes, many of smaller bridges were unable to support the Tiger let alone the 188 tonne Maus. Porsche’s solution was innovative. The Maus had to always operate in pairs. On entering a river, a snorkel would be extended and an electrical cable attached to the second tank. This tank would provide the electricity to the first tank to power the electric motors and vice versa when it was through. It might have been cumbersome but was the only practical solution to overcome the weight problem.

What was the Allies solution to tank production?

Maus#3

The Maus

Both Russia and America adopted the volume route. Both the Sherman & the T34 were produced en mass with total production of each being in excess of 50 000 units or in excess of 2000 units per month. How could the Germans win a war when they were outnumbered 10 to 1 as they were in the last year of the war?

Most Tigers during this period were not lost due to enemy tank fire but due to other extraneous reasons. In the West, Allied aircraft were by far the largest tank killer followed by mechanical breakdown or simple abandonment when fuel supplies were exhausted.

This was the fate of the German Panzers during the Ardennes Battle. The whole of the German strategic tank reserve was ultimately lost due to a paucity of fuel.

A prototype of the Maus

A prototype of the Maus

Even as regards firepower, the two sides adopted diametrically opposed solution. Whereas the Germans would design a new gun or substantially modify an old design, the Allies would use an existing design gun with minimal redesign and mount that on the mass produced Sherman. This policy was employed when the 17 pounder anti-tank gun was mounted on the standard Sherman tank to be called the Sherman Firefly.

It was the Tiger killing ability of this tank which caused the demise of the preeminent German Tank ace, Michael Wittmann.

What was the culmination of the German’s impressive tank technology? Like the jets, their designs were too futuristic and not ready for production. Many such as the Maus were a poor solution to a problem of too few tanks. In reality it would merely have exacerbated their problems especially as regards fuel consumption and low production numbers.

A Sherman Firefly - standard Sherman Tank mounting a 17 pounder anti-tank gun

A Sherman Firefly – standard Sherman Tank mounting a 17 pounder anti-tank gun

While admiring the stunning examples of German tank technology at the Bovington Tank Museum in Dorset, England during my tour of England, it is their scale which predominates and not their practicality for therein lay the demise of the Panzer Korps.

Without the all-arms approach of the Blitzkrieg, the deficiencies of German tank design would have been exposed much earlier than they were and countermeasures taken.

While many will counterclaim that the continual German victories in the desert war vindicate German tank design philosophies, I would strenuously disagree with that conclusion. Having read about Wavell’s and Aukinleck’s battles in the desert over a period of 40 years, I am struck by the overarching impotence of the Allied tanks against the 88mm anti-tank gun. Rommel was loath to expose his tanks to those of the Allies until the anti-tank guns have scythed through the Allied tanks. Only then were they unhooked from their leash. It was his adept use of the 88mm anti-tank gun which decimated the British tank forces and not his armour!

 

The crews of Crusader tanks bed down for the night beside their vehicles in the Western Desert, 28 August 1942.

The crews of Crusader tanks bed down for the night beside their vehicles in the Western Desert, 28 August 1942.

Immense production resources were ultimately expended on a small quantity of tanks when the situation demanded quantity.

The Tiger 1 did instil fear into the Allied tank men but their paucity coupled with being plagued by mechanical problem ensured that the Germans did not possess a battle winner.

Only in one respect was the design appropriate. Being largely immobile and impervious to many anti-tank guns, it was ideal for the static nature of warfare especially in the bocage countryside of Normandy, but once the Allies broke through, the Tigers were lost either due to mechanical failure of due to simply being overrun.

Tiger 2 or King Tiger

Tiger 2 or King Tiger

That was to be the eventual fate of most Tiger tanks.

In conclusion, the German focus on precision engineering did not ultimately serve the Germany cause. Once the Russians had relocated their factories east of the Urals & out of range of German bombers, the production of their low technology solution was rapidly ramped up to the point where they simply overwhelmed the German forces.

Ultimately their decision to produce high precision tanks – even their tank’s sights & vision equipment were a masterpiece – that at the penultimate battle before the capture of Berlin itself, at Seelow Heights, 30kms east of Berlin, the final obstacle before Berlin – saw the 10 to 1 ratio in tanks smash through even the impervious Tigers.

The final tank killer: Volkssturm, Frau mit Panzerfaust

The final tank killer: Volkssturm, Frau mit Panzerfaust

Most Tigers were abandoned on these heights. As a consequence the youths of the Hitlerjugend and the elderly men of the Volkssturm stationed in Berlin were forced to defend themselves against the T34 with the Panzerfaust – a bazooka like weapon with a range of 100m.
With the demise of tank force, it was these courageous boys and men who served as the “anti-tank guns” of the Reichswehr.

 

Hitlerjugend with Panzerfausts

Hitlerjugend with Panzerfausts

It is a testament to the courage of these woebegone soldiers and not the ability of the panzers as they had long been knocked-out, that the German forces retarded the Russian capture of Berlin


3 Comments

  1. Very balanced and accurate assessment.
    That little corporal just had too much say in matters of weapon design, and his obsession with his Wunderwaffe was a joke. Personally I think the best German tanks were the late generation PzV/Panthers, at a fraction of the cost of Tigers. But then the whole argument starts again… tanks (especially heavy MBT’s) are essentially (1) offensive weapons, and (2) designed to support the overall objective usually allocated to infantry. As such tanks should best be utilized in attack, for shock and deep penetrations and to pave the way for supporting infantry. Old Hitler placed too much emphasis on tanks performing the role of A/T guns. Later in the war, he should really just have been focusing on tank destroyers (panzerjagers, jagpanzers etc). I would also mention that even those heavy tanks had to use crap and brittle late-war german steel, so their massive armor thickness was slightly misleading.
    I wonder sometimes if there isn’t some cold war propaganda element to the myth of german armor. Its like only recently has more attention given to heavy soviet tanks. For instance an IS-2 could penetrate Tiger at almost 2km!

    Reply
    • Hi Tony, Your comments are totally correct. The more that I study WW2, the more I am revising my initial views on many aspects of the war. We all tend to focus on the Tiger 1 but it was not really an offensive weapon. They were also vulnerable due to air attack

      Reply
  2. You’re wrong about the Tiger arriving just in time for the battle of Kursk(summer 1943). The Tiger was already in the field in 1942. It was the panzer V or Panther that arrived just in time for the battle of Kursk. In fact, Hitler delayed the start of Operation Citadelle (Kursk) specifically so the Panther was ready and able to join the battle.

    Reply

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