The interwar period of military evolution was a complicated web of influences, decisions, and inferences
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 84 - Germany Prepares for War Pt. 7 - Influences and Decisions. This week a big thank you goes out to Paul and Steven for choosing to become a supporter of the podcast. As a Member they now receive ad free versions of all of the Podcast episodes, plus special member episodes released roughly once a month. Head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. One of the challenges that has to be faced when discussing any nation’s military evolution at any point in modern history, including during the 1930s, is that there are always a variety of inputs that influence decisions and actions. This can be internal factors, external events, geography, politics, industry, a whole list of other topics. All of those inputs can effect any decision making, like for example how the German army was planning to wage war, during the 1930s. I thought an interesting way to approach this problem for this episode would be to spend a good chunk of time discussing some of the inputs that would feed into how Germany would decide how to implement their own mechanization, motorization, and how to adapt for future wars. Along the way we will also discuss some of the conclusions that other nations came to about the best way to wage a modern war, which means we will touch briefly on Soviet doctrine during this time, and the French tank designs. What will not really be included in this episode is a detailed description of how Germany planned to use its tanks and other military assets at a tactical level, I think a conversation on those items is better left until our episodes on the Polish campaign where we can actually discuss them in action. As with every conversation about German armored doctrine, or any armored doctrine during the Second World war we have to start with, 1920s Britain.
This may seem like an odd place to start the episode, but Britain during the 1920s was one of the most forward facing militaries when it came to armor theory, with armor theorists like JFC Fuller and Liddell Hart playing an important role in shaping how the British Army planned to use armor and their armor forces. Fuller in particular would be a strong advocate for strong concentrated armored forces, and during the 1920s there would be exercises staged by the British army to put those ideas to the test. One of these would involved the Experimental Mechanized Force which was assembled during 1927 as part of the largest test of armored units up to that point in time, The Experimental Mechanized Force was an amalgamation of almost all of the mechanized and motorized assets available to the British Army at the time. By pooling everything together they were able to work with large formations, and experience the issues that large formations caused especially around communication and supply. While this allowed the British to learn some of the lessons of mechanized war earlier than anybody else, but they would pretty much squander this lead during the 1930s. There would be large budget cuts due to the depression, and then those with different views of the future of combat would gain the ascendency on the other side of those cuts. This prevented the British Army from forming some kind of coherent structure and doctrine around the use of armored forces. The reason that this episodes starts by talking about the British is because they were widely read among other militaries in Europe. For example, a person we will discuss in some detail here in a few minutes, Heinz Guderian was well versed in both in the exercises that were done and the lessons that were learned from them. Learning from external sources was critical for the German military during the 1920s and early 1930s because they simply did not have the men or the resources to do the same tests themselves. The Reichwehr, which was the name of the German army, was extremely limited in its manpower, and was completely forbidden from having armored vehicles. The British exercises would also go on to influence Soviet, Czech, and French military theorists during this same period. There were similar instances of military theorists having a real influence outside of their own nations during this period. For example Giulio Douhet, an Italian, would be an important influence on many airpower theorists, especially those that threw their full support being strategic bombing as the best way to win a future war. The similar in both cases is that Fuller and Douhet would both be strong advocates for new technology, believing that the secret to preventing another attritional war lay in the new capabilities of that technology. To quote Douhet, “Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur. . . . Those who are ready first will not only win quickly, but will win with the fewest sacrifices and the minimum expenditure of means.” They would come to the same conclusion for their chosen piece of technology, Douhet with the strategic bomber and Fuller with the tank, that the only correct answer was absolute commitment to the new tools. In both cases they would represent the most extreme views, and that would be part of why they would be so influential.
While one important input into German thinking was the foreign writers and theorists like Fuller and Douhet, another would be the military actions that would take place around the world in the mid and late 1930s. We have discussed some of the most important of these on the podcast already, with the Italian invasion of Ethiopia during the Abyssinian War and the Spanish Civil War. The Italians would invade Ethiopia in 1935 with a total force of over 100,000 men, and they had tried to advance in two different columns into the African nation, with one approaching from the north and one from the south. In both cases the advances would come in far below the expectations, with the advance from the north having supply issues due to infrastructural challenges. The roads in the area simply were not able to handle the requirements of supporting the Italian drive. In the south there were similar concerns, with supply challenges causing the Italian commander to be very cautious and slow with his advance. General Badoglio would eventually take command and move things forward, but there were many problems that would still be faced by the Italians, problems that would be a feature of every campaign in Africa over the next decade. The main concern was one of supplies, with the supply lines for some Italian units reaching over 4,000 kilometers back to Italy. Then, as supplies got closer to the front they would have to contend with local roads that were underdeveloped and possibly existed in a hostile environment. Even with these challenges, Italian experiences in Africa were analyzed by many other nations because it was the first campaign that featured relatively modern and large motorized and mechanized forces that were used in a real combat situation. The Italian armor was largely based around the CV-33 tankette, which had just 2 machines guns for armament, but even with its small size it was still a mechanized force. There were also some really unique operations, like a flanking run by an Eritrean Corps that was supplied by Italian air drops, eventually receiving 113 tons of supplies while it moved 320 kilometers. The lessons that were taken from these events varied, on the airpower side of things the analysis was often quite positive, because Italian air efforts seemed to be an important factor in Italian victory. On the usage of Italian armored assets, there were some clear challenges, with supply being problematic and terrain being less that conducive to what the Italians were trying to do. Then during the Spanish Civil War there were more opportunities for new military equipment to be tested in the field. We talked about this a bit last episode with the Luftwaffe and its latest generations of fighters and bombers. German and Soviet tanks of the latest designs would also meet on the battlefields of Spain, and much like in the early stages of the air battle the German weapons did not match up well against the Soviet equipment that they would face. The best example would be the Soviet T-26 tank, which proved to be just flat out better than the Panzer 1 due to its larger gun. The Panzer I was always a stop gap in the German arsenal, but such clear deficiencies still caused concern and hastened the end of the machine gun armed light tank. In all cases, not just in Spain and Ethiopia but for almost any foreign military campaign there would be a tendency by all analysts to pull the lessons that they wanted to from each action. Those in favor of tanks, and trying to explain why they were not as impactful as they could have teen in Spain and Ethiopia would point to terrain, organization, training, and supplies as mitigating factors that prevented tanks from being the war winning tools that they believed they could be. Claims would be made that for the German military things would be different. Meanwhile those on the other side of the armor debates would trumpet these campaigns as important examples of why a narrow focus on large tank formations was going to setup the military for disaster. This is one of the major reasons you have to be careful about how you think about the influence that these events had on the German military, there was a lot of cherry picking going on where instead of giving honest analysis people who would pick and choose the examples that fit their pre-existing ideas. On the armored side of the equation the general German perspective was that events in Spain should be generally discarded due to the mitigating factors of terrain, numbers, tactics, and training.
So those are some examples of foreign theorists and conflicts and how they could shape decisions that were being made, and now we move onto some of the other actions that other nations were taking during this time or might take in the future, and for Germany one of the most important things for any future war was the large amount of money that the French were spending on the Maginot Line. By the late 1930s the Maginot Line was mostly complete, at least its original areas, although there were expansions being built in the north, and what had been built was generally quite impressive. The strongest ouvrages, or forts, made for some very strong defensive areas. Looking at just one example here, the Ouvrage de Fermont near Longwy we see a fortification with three eastward facing guns in the main fortification, then it was surrounded by six separate and smaller fortifications that were manned by infantry, each of which included more artillery, machine guns, and other defensive positions. This created a serious challenge for any attacking unit as the artillery provided ranged firepower that was protected by the machine guns, infantry, and mounted grenade launcher. Fremont, as opposed to the improvised defenses that could be created during a war, was also perfectly placed to maximize all of its strengths, particularly around its field of fire which was an area 20 kilometers in diameter. If the Germans were to attack into France, dealing with this and other fortifications would be a serious problem unless they were able to find some way around, which the French planned to counter with their own field forces, a setup we discussed in some detail back in Episode 61. At the same time that the Maginot line was being built to help defend France Germany was doing something quite similar on its Western frontier. The 1920s was a period of seemingly insurmountable problems for the Reichswehr and the German military. They were confronted with the problem of wanting to prepare for the needs of national defense while at the same time laboring under the intense restrictions placed on them by the Treaty of Versailles which limited active military personnel to just 100,000. In the same way that the French hoped to use the Maginot Line to make up for demographic issues and to allow time for mobilization, the Germans hoped to do the same to make up for their lack of trained soldiers. The most famous of these positions would be the Westwall series of defenses, which were designed to be a shield that would allow the bulk of the German army to be used in the East. There were also fixed fortifications built on Germany’s eastern border, with five hundred blockhouses built in Pomerania alone to allow for better use of available manpower. The goal of all of these positions was not to provide indefinite defense but simply to slow the enemy attack. Building up to a defensible level was more challenging in the East than it was in the West, even with all those blockhouses, because of the general terrain on Germany’s eastern border. This became less of a concern in the 1930s as the focus of German military efforts clearly shifted eastward, with Hitler pushing for expansion in the east as the first priority. Resources were instead poured into the Westwall, and it would be a major area of German focus in both manpower and other resources in the years before the war. By the summer of 1939 the fortifications on the French border were impressive, 11 thousand blockhouses, complete with countless other obstacles. This resulted in the interesting situation where both sides of the Franco-German border were festooned with defensive fortifications to prevent the other from launching a rapid attack at the beginning of hostilities, even though neither side planned to actual launch such a campaign. The Westwall was still seen as critical to German defense, because it would allow for a fare greater percentage of Germany’s forces to be focused elsewhere, but there was the open question of how those forces would be organized.
During the last episode on the Luftwaffe, I made refrence to the cooperation between the Soviet Union and Germany in the areas of aviation and in tank development. For tank development one of the primary outcomes would be the tank school at Kazan outside of Moscow. The school would open in July 1927 and was primarily seen from the German side as a way to test out their ideas for tank design and usage at a time when the Versailles treaty prevented such activities from occurring in Germany. The Soviets hoped to gain some engineering and manufacturing experience, with all of the tank construction at this time done in factories in the Soviet Union. The period of heaviest use for the school would be from 1929 to 1933, although during that time the Kazan school would be more or less important to each nation at various points in time. While it was beneficial to both sides the Germans and Russians had different views on the ultimate purpose of the school. The Germans wanted to focus the school on training a small group of officers that could then take the things that they learned back to Germany when rearmament began. Meanwhile, the Soviets wanted to begin training larger numbers of soldiers at the school to increase the combat capabilities of the Red Army immediately. This very fundamental disagreement would cause some issues along the way, but it was not the only area where the two militaries would diverge in their views. Another example would be in tank design, with the German designers favoring small, light, and cheaply produced designs while the Russians were already moving to larger and heavier models, believing that the German designs were too vulnerable to enemy fire. These differing viewpoints would continue until the school was shutdown in 1933, by which point it was clear that the two militaries had substantially diverged on many topics. The Soviets would, for most of the 1930s, change their ideas on Deep Battle, which was believed to be the best way to use large numbers of units to decisively defeat an enemy army in the field. It required large scale unit cooperation and coordination which would allow for an offensive into enemy territory to continue until victory was assured. There was just one problem, the Soviets could never really get it to work during the 1930s. They knew what they wanted to do, attack the enemy on a wide front and then develop that attack into deep penetration, this would prevent any possible solidification of enemy defenses. It all worked on paper and in theory, and even in some exercises, but whenever the performance was put under any scrutiny or was forced to deal with real resistance, things quickly fell apart. The continued problems with Deep Battle, and the political shakeup that would occur during the purges would then cause a large shift in the structure of Soviet armor resources. Instead of large armored units, the Red Army would move further back into the previous emphasis on infantry and artillery, with tank resources redistributed and subsumed by the infantry. While this was happening in the Soviet Union during the late 1930s, there were similar conversations occurring in Germany, with some military officers favoring the concentrated approach while others were pushing for tanks to be used in close conjunction with the infantry.
This brings us to one Heinz Guderian. Guderian would begin his military career as a signals officer, but he would rise up the ranks until he was promoted to be the Chief of Staff of the Motorized Forces Command which would be created in 1934. In that position Guderian was serving under General Oswald Lutz, who supported Guderian’s belief that to best utilize armored resources, the German army needed to concentrate all available armor within its own units, which would not be subordinated to any other units. In 1936 Lutz would ask Guderian to produce a book detailed his views on tanks, as a way of raising awareness both within the military and outside of military circles. This book would eventually be given the name Actung Panzer! The core feature of all of Guderian’s arguments were around armor concentration. No German officer of any rank would have denied that the tank was an important new tool that needed to be developed and then used effectively. The major point of disagreement was around how it should be incorporated into existing force structures, either as large units capable of independent action, or as smaller units that would act in support of the infantry. Guderian wanted concentrated tank units to be the focal point of the army, working with other arms in close support, like infantry and aviation assets, but only when those tools were subservient to the armor. Guderian would never really waver from this belief, even if he did not have all of the answers to the problems that would have to be solved. The most important of these was how the infantry was going to work with the tank units. Infantry units that were not motorized would be constantly left behind by Guderian’s planned armored forces, and even motorized infantry presented some problems around coordination. These problems were not unknown to Guderian, he simply believed that they would eventually be solved, or at least mitigated enough to make his armored spreaheads very effective. It is worth mentioning that Guderian was not alone in pushing for this kind of concentration, although he is almost certainly the most well known. There were other officers like Ernst Volckheim, Alfred von Vollard-Bockelberg, Otto von Stulpnagel, and Oswald Lutz that all contributed to German armor theory, even if they are less well known. Guderian was, along with many other talents, very skilled at self marketing. Set against Guderian and other armor concentrationists was Army Chief of Staff Ludwig Beck. Beck, along with all of the other officers that agreed with him, did not think that tanks were in anyway bad, they still wanted as many of them as possible. However, Beck believed that the best way to use them would be to distribute them more evenly among the entire German Army. So instead of concentrating the motorized and mechanized resources that Germany had within just a small number of armored divisions, those resources should instead be spread out to raise the mobility of all of the army’s divisions and to provide each infantry division with some level of mobile striking power. From the perspective of the concentrationists, Beck’s plans would disperse available resources too much, robbing the available armor of the impact that it could have if grouped together From Beck’s perspective, to do anything other than spread out the armor would simply leave the German army with a few highly mobile divisions, and then a whole bunch of far less mobile infantry divisions that would not be able to support them. In an ideal world Germany would build enough vehicles to serve both of these purposes, but there were limits on how many could be built.
These disagreements would be tested during exercises. There were attempts during the Reichswehr years to do some exercises that tried to replicate the presence of tanks, where motor vehicles were used in many cases, but it was only after October 1935 and the final renunciation of the Versailles limitations that anything approaching real exercises could take place. Yearly exercises were often held in September, with the ones in 1936 involving 50,00 men from a variety of different units participating. They would rapidly increase in size, up to 160,000 men in 1937. This allowed all of the various groups within the Wehrmacht to work together, with the new Panzer divisions working with aircraft, motorized infantry units, and even paratroopers. The 3 armor divisions that were under Lutz’s command were initially equipped with the Panzer 1 although this quickly started to be supplanted by the Panzer 2. While the Panzer divisions generally did quite well during these exercises, they were still real learning experiences. The most important outcome for later events though, was that the Panzer division concept seemed to have very clear strengths, and so they would be refined and expanded. This expansion would be continually hampered, as so many other expansions during this time would be, by produciton problems. This was during the Four Year Plans when every area of armament productrion seemed to be falling behind . This was particularly problematic in the areas of tank production due to the massive changes in the design and overall performance of newer models. The Panzer divisions did not just need tanks, but tanks that were of the latest and greatest variety. They would really never receive what they hoped, and by the start of the war they had not received 35% of their Panzer 3s and 80% of their Panzer 4s that they expected to have by October 1939. Outside of the armor units the problems were even worse, and creating motorized infantry units was hopelessly behind schedule. These problems along with all of the others that woudl be faced when going to war, would not be catastrophic in Poland or France, mistakes made by their enemies or just sheer numbers would allow for victory, but those victories also ended up papering over some real shortcomings of German armor and supply units that would become very apparent in Russia.
That brings us to a discussion of a term, THE term really when discussing German tactics before the Second World War, Blitzkrieg. The interwar definition of the word blitzkrieg had its roots in military concepts that dated back to after the First World War. During that time, with the rise of air power and its ability to bomb enemy targets a great distance from the battlefield, the idea of a quick knockout blow of an enemy was felt to be possible. This idea was fostered by strategic bombing advocates as a great benefit of investing in strategic bombing, that a war could be over very quickly, and then this caused all kinds of concerns among the populations of cities which would have been the targets. So how do we get from strategic bombing to German actions in Poland? Well, that is mostly thanks to journalists that were covering the fighting. They used it to describe the kind of actions that the German military was taking, and the coordination between the ground forces of the Heer and the aviation resources of the Luftwaffe. It was not, and would never be some kind of official doctrinal concept of the German military. Dating back to the early 1930s the official doctrine of the German Army recognized that close cooperation with the Luftwaffe was important, and would provide much greater chances of success. Then during the course of the decade they developed and refined this cooperation. But then, when the word blitzkrieg was attached to the actions in Poland Nazi propaganda grabbed onto the idea and ran with it. Giving the actions of the German military a name like that made it easier to glorify, and made it seem like they were doing something amazing, and if you looked at German propaganda unstoppable. So why should we care about what the Germans did or did not call their military doctrine at the start of the war? Well, first of all just the sake of accuracy. But more importantly, anytime a term or idea is created, amplified, or popularized by the propaganda organizations in any nation it is important to give it some thought. In the case of Blitzkrieg it still carries with it a positive connotation, a positive feeling, like the Germans were onto something and they were in some way doing things better than everybody else. That may have been the case, and I think there were absolutely militaries that were either behind the curve or had made incorrect choices that the Germans did not make, but in many cases, like in Poland, the preparations made by the German military and how they prepared for war, while important, was not a war winning factor. It can be challenging to evaluate the preparations properly based on the crushing success they would have in the first 18 months of the war, when for many of those successes the greatest strength of the Wehrmacht was that they were very good at taking advantage of their enemies mistakes. This is exemplified perfectly in the Polish campaign, where to quote Field Marshal Erich von Manstein: “Poland’s defeat was the inevitable outcome of the Warsaw government’s illusions about the actions its allies would take, as well as of its over-estimation of the Polish Army’s ability to offer lengthy resistance.” Thank you for listening and I hope you will join me next time for the 8th part of this series on Germany, where we will discuss the Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass.