♦ Panzer Divisions 1935-41 ♦

The German Army in World War II
 

 

Panzer I light tanks in Poland, September 1939 (Bundesarchiv)
 


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NOTE ON NOMENCLATURE

The German word for armor is Panzer, and this was the designation of its armored branch of service, the Panzertruppen (armored troops), and of its armored formations, e.g. 1. Panzer Division. Lower-echelon armored formations were the Panzer-Brigade, the Panzer-Regiment and the Panzer-Ableilung (battalion). Motorized infantry elements of the panzer divisions were the Schützen-Brigade, the Schützen-Regiment and the Schützen-Bataillon (rifle brigade, regiment, battalion), and the Kradschützen-Batallion (motorcycle rifle battalion). The Aufklärungs-Abteilung (retitled Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung in early 1940) was the divisional reconnaissance battalion and the Panzer-Abwehr-Abeiling (retitled Panzerjäger-Abteilung in early 1940) was the divisional antitank battalion. Other divisional units, such as artillery regiments and signal battalions, had motorisiert, (motorized) appended, e.g. 72. Artillerie-Regiment (motorisiert)—often abbreviated to (mot).

The light mechanized divisions were called simply light divisions (motorized), e.g. 3. Liechte-Division (motorisiert);  their infantry sub-units bore cavalry identities, e.g. 8. Kavallerie-Schützen-Regiment. In line with the cavalry tradition, battalions of these regiments were called Abteilungen. Units of other branches of service were titled as in the panzer divisions.

General control of armored and motorized forces was exercised by the Panzerwaffe (lit. Armored Weapon, usually translated as Armored Command). The panzer, light mechanized and motorized infantry divisions were made up of units from various branches of service—infantry, artillery, combat engineer, signal, etc.—in addition to the Panzertruppen, and it was the responsibility of the Panzerwaffe to supervise their organization and training in accordance with a common armored warfare doctrine.

The “L” designation applied to 37mm and larger tank guns indicated barrel length; the longer the barrel, the higher the muzzle velocity of the gun and the greater its ability to penetrate armor.

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The first three panzer divisions were activated in 1935 and at the beginning of the war (September 1939) there were five of them in the Army’s order of battle, along with four light mechanized divisions and two provisional panzer formations whose units later were used to form another division.

The five panzer divisions were organized with two panzer regiments (four battalions) and a variable number of motorcycle and motorized infantry battalions. The panzer regiments were under a brigade headquarters, as were the motorized infantry regiments of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions. The other two had no infantry brigade headquarters. Their motorized artillery regiments had two battalions with 24 x 105mm howitzers in total. All five divisions had a motorized reconnaissance battalion, a motorized antitank battalion, and a motorized engineer battalion. In this form they went to war, spearheading a rapid victory over the gallant but outclassed Polish Army.

The light mechanized divisions had been conceived as successors to the horse cavalry divisions of bygone days. They were similar to the panzer divisions but had no panzer or motorized infantry brigade headquarters and only one light tank battalion. Two of them had a motorized reconnaissance regiment with armored car and motorcycle infantry battalions. The other two had separate motorized reconnaissance and motorcycle infantry battalions. Prewar maneuvers had disclosed that the light mechanized divisions lacked sufficient punch and it was decided to convert them to panzer divisions. The outbreak of war intervened, however, and their conversion had to be postponed.

The basic armored unit of the panzer division was the Panzer-Abteilung (battalion). In 1939 it had three companies, two of them with 7 x Panzer I (twin machine guns) and 16 x Panzer II (20mm gun). The third company had 7 x Panzer II, 3 x Panzer III (37mm L/45 gun) and 6 x Panzer IV (75mm L/24 gun). Counting those in the signal platoon and reserve tank detachment, the battalion had 19 x Panzer I, 36 x Panzer II, 5 x Panzer III and 6 x Panzer IV. The Panzer I had originally been intended only for training; it was pressed into front-line service to cover the shortage of other tanks—the Panzer III in particular. As for the four battalions allotted to the light divisions, two had Panzer Is and Panzer IIs only, two had ex-Czech Panzer 35(t)s and Panzer 38(t)s, both armed with a 37mm L/48 gun, and one had Panzer IVs. The Czech tanks were acceptable substitutes for the missing Panzer III: well designed and mechanically reliable. But unlike the Panzer III they lacked sufficient “stretch” to incorporate improvements such as a larger main gun, meaning that they would soon become obsolete.
 

Early production Panzer III armed with the 37mm gun (Bundesarchiv)

The operational pause that followed the Polish campaign gave time for the panzer divisions to be refitted, for the light mechanized divisions to be converted, and for the provisional panzer formations to be brought up to divisional strength. Thus by May 1940 the German Army's order of battle included ten panzer divisions. The original five and the new 10. Panzer-Division had the authorized organization of two panzer regiments (four battalions) and two motorized infantry regiments (four battalions) under two brigade headquarters, and in addition their artillery regiments had been reinforced with a battalion of 12 x 150mm howitzers. Of the converted light mechanized divisions, three (the new 6th, 7th, and 8th) had a panzer regiment of three battalions, largely equipped with former Czech tanks, and the fourth (the new 9th) had a panzer regiment of two battalions, equipped with German tanks. All divisions except the 8th still had significant numbers of the light Panzer I, armed only with twin machine guns, and none had a 150mm howitzer battalion.

The basic unit of the panzer division's motorized infantry brigade was the Schützen-Regiment (rifle regiment). Each regiment had two or three battalions, which were supposed to be be mounted in armored halftrack troop carriers. But such vehicles were scarce and only the 1. Panzer-Division possessed them in significant numbers: enough to equip all seven of the truck-borne rifle companies in its motorized infantry regiment. At best, the other nine divisions only received enough of them to reequip a single rifle company apiece, otherwise relying on unarmored trucks and motorcycles. The 3. Schützen-Regiment  (3. Panzer-Division) was typical, with trucks for four of its rifle companies and motorcycles for the other two.

The motorized infantry brigades themselves varied in composition. That of the 1. Panzer-Division had a rifle regiment of three battalions and a separate motorcycle infantry battalion; that of the 4. Panzer-Division had two rifle regiments, each with two battalions; and that of the 7. Panzer-Division had two rifle regiments, each with two battalions, and a separate motorcycle infantry battalion. The regiments themselves also varied. In some, all rifle companies were truck borne; in others two were truck borne and one was mounted on motorcycles.
 

  Russia, 1941: an armored infantry squad aboard a SPW 251 armored halftrack (World War Photos)

As regards firepower and general combat effectiveness, the 7. Panzer-Division was fairly representative of the panzer divisions as a whole. On 10 May 1940 its tank strength was as follows: 34 x Panzer I, 68 x Panzer II, 91 x Panzer 38(t) and 24 x Panzer IV . On paper, therefore, the German armored formations had no great advantage over those of the French Army. Indeed, the French tanks in service in 1940 were in some ways definitely superior to their German equivalents. The SOMUA S35 medium tank with its thick, well-sloped armor and high-velocity 47mm main gun was more than a match for the Panzer III or the Czech tanks. The heavy Char-B tank, though slow, was well armed with the same 47mm gun plus a 75mm howitzer, and its armor was practically impervious to German tank and antitank guns. Contrary to legend, during the 1940 campaign French armored units proved themselves capable of holding their own against the panzers in a stand-up fight.

In other respects, however, the Germans possessed important advantages. Unlike the French and British, who made a distinction between “infantry” and “cavalry” tanks, the German armored forcers—the Panzerwaffe—had evolved a tactical doctrine for the employment of tanks as the core of a combat team including infantry, artillery, combat engineers and, crucially, airpower. This doctrine was reflected throughout the panzer division's organization: in its lavish allotment of radios, in its armored reconnaissance battalion configured not just to seek out information but to fight for it, and its allocation of supporting weapons to subordinate units.

The successful outcome of the 1940 campaign resoundingly validated German tactical doctrine and a major expansion of the Panzerwaffe was set in motion. By the time of the invasion of the USSR (22 June 1941) there were twenty panzer divisions in existence. In most of them the panzer brigade headquarters had been eliminated and the tank contingent was embodied in a single panzer regiment with two or three battalions. The panzer battalion had two light companies and one medium company; counting tanks in the battalion headquarters, signal platoon and reserve tank detachment, its authorized strength was 22 x Panzer II,  38 x Panzer III and 15 x Panzer IV.

This was the envisioned standard, but in June 1941 six divisions were still largely equipped with Czech tanks, substituting for the scarce Panzer III, and three still had significant numbers of Panzer I light tanks. Those divisions with Panzer IIIs mostly had a mix of the 37mm and 50mm gun-armed models. The Panzer IV was also in short supply and one platoon (four tanks) was provisionally deleted from the  medium company, leaving ten tanks. Finally, many of the reserve tank detachments were understrength.

The panzer divisions had two motorized rifle regiments, each with two battalions. One battalion in each regiment was supposed to be mounted in armored halftracks instead of trucks, but these were in short supply and only 1. Panzer-Division had enough for two battalions. The 10. Panzer-Division had one battalion so equipped and the rest had only one or two halftrack-mounted companies—in a couple of cases none at all.

The losses incurred in the first phase of the Russian campaign were severe—so much so that the panzer divisions earmarked for the 1942 summer offensive in the southern USSR could only be rebuilt at the expense of those stationed on other sectors of the front. Thus the panzer divisions of Army Groups North and Center had their tank platoons reduced from five to three or four tanks, usually older models like the 37mm gun-armed Panzer III or Czech tanks. They also had to give up a proportion of their artillery, antitank guns and armored reconnaissance vehicles. Even so, Army Group South's panzer divisions could only be built up to an average 85% of their authorized strength. The strain of war was beginning to tell on the Panzerwaffe.

See Also Panzer Divisions 1941-43

 

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