A brief look at some of the equipment and organization of the German Army that would move into Poland in September 1939.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 113 - The September Campaign Pt. 5 - Panzers. This week a big thank you goes out to Alex, Kirk, and Richard for choosing to support the podcast by becoming members, you can find out about becoming a member over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. When people think about the the German army during the Second World War it is very common to think of their armor formations. Mental images of tanks might float across your mind, and they probably look like Panzer IV’s, Tigers, or Panthers. All of these would of course be critical pieces of German armor formations during the war, but none of them would play that role during the Polish campaign. In fact when the invasion of Poland began over 3/4 of the tanks in the German army were Panzer 1’s, armed only with machine guns, or Panzer 2’s which at just under 9 tons was a third as heavy as the Panzer IV and 1/6 the weight of the Tiger 1. The early Panzers were not bad tanks, but it is important to shift your mental image of what a “tank” is during this period of the war. Tanks are not all we will be discussing today, and we will instead look at some of the organization of the German military and its available equipment on the eve of the Polish campaign. When thinking about any choices made, either in the design of equipment and vehicles or in the determination of tactics for how to use that equipment I like this quote from Case White: The Invasion of Poland 1939 by Robert Forczyk: “Given the rapid changes in technology since 1918, all the major powers struggled to integrate new weapons, while operational-level doctrine would remain in flux until the test of combat could validate the choices made in structuring and training units.” Everybody in 1939 was living on top of a large stack of assumptions made between 1919 and 1939, and even recent combat that had happened in Spain and China would largely happen too late to drastically change the trajectory of the equipment that would be used in Poland in 1939. Most of the military hardware used in the Polish campaign would be designed during or before the mid-1930s, and so it provides a really interesting look at what had happened in the 15 years after the First World War when every military in Europe was trying to determine what warfare would look like due to the technological evolution that was happening. We will begin here today by looking at the evolution of the area of the military that experienced the most change, the Air Force, and discuss how Luftwaffe organized itself for war.
During the 1930s all of the major air forces of Europe make their own choices about how to organize their aviation assets. The British Royal Air Force would decide to split its forces at a high level, with Bomber Command being given Britain’s strategic air units which would theoretically launch offensives operations against the enemy while Fighter Command was given the task of air defense. By its nature this bifurcation of concerns tells us something about how British leaders viewed the air war as two largely disconnected sets of concerns. The French and Polish Air Forces pursued roughly the same path, with many air units put under the control of the Army, and generally assigned to support a specific set of army units while there was the creation of stand along Fighter and Bomber Brigades which would pursue their own missions. For example in Poland the Fighter Brigade would largely be focused on providing air defense for Warsaw during the campaign. The Luftwaffe would choose a different path from any of its rivals, and would instead focus on creating large multi-mission Luftflotten in February 1939. At that time 4 of these Luftflotten, or air fleets, would be organized. The goal of each of these groups was to be a completely self-contained unit of up to 1,000 aircraft which would be capable of performing all of the tasks asked of the Luftwaffe other than what was done by fighters. This would change by the time of the French campaign in 1940, but before the war there was strong resistance from the commanders of fighter units to be tightly integrated with the Luftflotten due to concerns that it would restrict their freedom of action, escorting bombing and reconnaissance missions were not exactly what they wanted to be doing and so during the Polish invasion they would still be organized largely outside of the Luftflotten structure, which would be considered a mistake and fixed by 1940. The Luftflotten, with its mix of forces and capabilities, had greater flexibility in how aviation resources were used, even without having full control over fighter forces,. The higher level of organization, instead of parceling out air units to army units as the French and Polish would do, provided the Luftwaffe with the ability to concentrate a greater number of resources to a given task when required.
The Luftwaffe would enter the war in September 1939 with probably its most famous two aircraft already in front line service in large numbers, unlike the German armor units where the most well known models of tanks are largely mid and late war models. The Bf109 would be the premier German fighter aircraft during the campaign, having its roots in a request from the Reich Air Ministry for a single-seat monoplane fighter issued all the way back in March 1933. What would eventually become the Bf109, which would meet this requirement, had it roots in the Bf108 which was originally designed as a sporting aircraft. In the modern world this doesn’t really exist, but during the 1920s and 1930s one of the major drivers of aircraft development was the international competition around aircraft top speeds. The fastest airspeed would bounce around between nations and manufacturers during those decades as biplanes gave way to monoplanes. Messershmitt would learn a lot during the design and development of the Bf108A which would be used as a trainer for the Luftwaffe after it made its sporting debut. These lessons and the basic design theory would then be transitioned to the Bf109. Even though the new design was widely recognized as a very capable aircraft, some personal issues between Erhard Milch, the Reich Air Minister, and the lead designer at BFW, Willy Messerschmidt, would delay the contract for the Bf109 and would result in the first contract of October 1936 being for a paltry 144 aircraft. A much larger contract, this time for over 1,300 Bf109s would be signed the next year, with over 2,000 built before the start of the war. Early models would also be used in air combat over Spain during the Spanish Civil War. The Stuka, or Ju-87, with its distinctive shape and sound, would also be present in large numbers for the Luftwaffe in September 1939. The first Stuka prototype would fly in 1936, and it would prove to be a very capable dive bomber, and with a capable pilot would be able to drop 500 kilogram bombs within 30 meters of a target. The Stuka would earn its very fearsome reputation over Poland and in other early war campaigns. Along with the flashy Bf109 or the legendary Ju-87 there were many other types of Luftwaffe aircraft over Poland, that would be given jobs that were far less flashy, but no less important. Aircraft like the Henshel Hs-126, which I invite everybody to give a quick image search online. The Hs-126 with an army cooperation aircraft that was designed for reconnaissance and artillery spotting. Another example would be the Henschel Hs 123 ground attack aircraft, a biplane which while not the most technologically impressive was simple and reliable. There were also large numbers of the He-111 and Do-17 medium bombers were discussed at some length back in episode 78. The production of all of these aircraft would be the result of the massive investments made in the German aero industry after 1933, which allowed the Luftwaffe to go from being outnumbered by many of the other air forces in Europe in 1934 to being one of the largest in the world by 1939. To accomplish this expansion a large percentage of the total money spent on German rearmament would be funneled into projects to expand the Luftwaffe, and not just in projects that resulted in more aircraft being produced but also in the creation of new airfields and training facilities.
We will be spending a considerable portion of this episode on the topic of tanks, and in many cases they will play a major role in the history of all of the Second World War’s major European campaigns. But we before do that I think it is worth taking a moment to discuss the vast majority of the men who were in the German Army in September 1939, infantrymen. After 1937 an effort would be made to turn some infantry divisions into motorized infantry divisions, which drastically increased their mobility both on and off the battlefield, but motorization efforts were expensive both in terms of real money and also when it came to the amount of German manufacturing capability it consumed. To give some scale to the problem, in 1937 4 infantry divisions would begin the process of motorization, with those four divisions needing over 10,000 motor vehicles of various times to reach full motorization, which represented somewhere around a third of all of the motor vehicles in the Wehrmacht. Most of that number was made up of rather boring trucks to move the men and equipment around, but there were also a wide range of specialty vehicles, like those used to haul around artillery. Because of the large number of motor vehicles that were required to motorize a single division, most of the German infantry divisions were reliant on their own feet for their mobility, with much of their equipment and artillery still horse drawn. And in fact there would be 42 of these non-motorized non-mechanized infantry divisions that would participate in the infantry of Poland, out of total of 54. This seems quite anachronistic to us today, and even at the time it was still somewhat shocking for some people who joined the German military in the years before the war. One German artilleryman, Siegfried Knappe, would record when he arrived at artillery training that “You mean they still pull the artillery with horses?” And it would not just be the artillery that was pulled with horses, but also all of the other bits of equipment and supplies necessary to keep an infantry division fighting, with half a million horses being one of the items mobilized by the German military in preparation for the invasion. There were efforts to provide motorized transport to some of the artillery, with vehicles like the semi-tracked SdkFz 7 being used at the divisional artillery level, but in non-motorized infantry divisions as you got down further on the order of battle motor transport became more and more scarce. The primary reason for this lack of motorization was simply the speed at which the German military had expanded in the pre-war years, with the entire Wehrmacht moving from not existing at all to having millions of men under arms within the span of about 5 years. No matter how much money was poured into German rearmament efforts, this presented a simple problem of scale. It also meant that training was challenging just due to how many men needed to cycle through training. Standard basic training was 16 weeks before any specialty training was then added on top, but for the most part during this early period there was a feeling of quantity being placed over quality. This is one of the reasons that the motorization percentage was so low, it was much easier to train a man and give him a rifle than it was to increase the number of vehicles that could be produced when there were already so many other priorities pulling on that capacity. Another outcome of this massive expansion, and due to doctrinal decisions that were made in how available resources should be allocated was that at the lowest level, a German infantry unit was not really that much different than Polish infantry. They were both organized roughly the same, they both used the bolt action Mauser 98k and its derivatives as their primary infantry weapon, and they both were highly dependent on their own legs to take them places. As you move up the order of battle, the differences become more apparent. I discussed this a few episodes ago when discussing Polish artillery, but one of the major benefits that the German Infantry divisions had was a much larger number of divisional and above artillery. The artillery guns were also generally larger and more powerful, and especially at the divisional level were far more likely to be be motorized. But back to that earlier comment about how resources were allocated, one of the reasons for the infantry being very similar was due to the spending that was done on armor assets.
The path to German armor began during the late 1920s when the Reichswehr began to research and experiment with a new generation of tanks. The production of tanks was strictly forbidden by the treaty of versailles, but there were two ways that the German Reichswehr worked around this limitation. The first was through agreements made with the Soviet Union that allowed for German military units to train and experiment on various technologies within the Soviet Union. The Soviet’s allowed this because they hoped to also learn things from these efforts, while also gaining some industrial knowhow from the Germans. The second way they got around the problem of limitations was by not calling the tanks, well, tanks. Instead the first two German tank designs would be called tractors, the Leichttraktor and Grosstraktor. This kind of made sense, or at least provided some level of plausible deniability, because so much of tank design during the 1930s was not actually about armor or guns, but instead was around tread and drivetrain design. As the power of engines and the desired speed of the vehicles increased there were new stresses placed on the drive system of tanks, from the Engine, through the drivetrain, to the treads. This required new solutions that were not necessarily required during the First World War due to the relatively slow speed of many of the tanks that were used at the time. The result of these new problems is that within the tank designs of the 1930s you see a lot of changes within areas like suspension, drive train, track arrangements, and not really as much within items like armor and armament. The early German tanks, these tractors, were also designed primarily and technology test beds and for training. It was difficult to develop training, doctrine, or theory without having something that units could actually train with and actually experiment with. These tractors provided German industry with an introduction to production problems, and the German army with their first experience with how they might be used. The second generation of tanks, most importantly the Panzerkampfwagen I which would make its debut in 1935, would take this to another level. The Panzer I was a very light tank that was roughly similar to many other light tanks during this period, with its primary identifying factor being that it was armed not with some kind of cannon but instead two MG-34 machine guns. The primary driving factor behind these design is that the German military wanted a tank that was cheap and quick to produce to once again provide more and more opportunities for training. There was also a general emphasis on mobility as the most important factor to a tank’s success, prioritizing that mobility of heavy armor or armament. The machine gun armed tank would prove to not be a productive avenue of evolution, as shown when the Panzer I met Soviet tanks during the Spanish Civil War, but it was cheaper and easier to make them. When the first major of revision of the Panzer 1 was introduced it had some very obvious changes, like the engine moving from 57 horsepower to 100 horsepower, but then many other changes, including the total length being increased by 40 cm, and another set of running wheels being added to support the treads. The next major German tank would be the Panzer 2, which was larger than the Panzer one in every way, including adding a third crew member, and a 2 cm cannon to replace the machine gun main armament. This made the Panzer 2 capable of engaging other tanks more effectively, with the Panzer I very restricted in when its machine guns could do anything against tanks. But even with the presence of a cannon, the light armor of the Panzer 2 made it very vulnerable in such combat, and to many other anti-tank weapons, it could also be built very quickly, which was seen as a major benefit. But no matter how many could be built the vulnerabilities, and the known progress that the French were making on larger tanks, the general feeling was that the Germans would have to introduce a larger tank very soon. It is worth noting before we talk about that tank, that the primary armored vehicle of the German armored divisions during the invasion of Poland was the Panzer 1 and Panzer 2. They were mid-1930s light tank designs that even the Germans themselves saw as being outdated and in need of replacement.
After the Panzer I and Panzer II tanks began their design and production process, there were already efforts beginning to create the next generation of German armored vehicles. This would eventually result in the Panzer 3 and Panzer 4, two of the vehicles that would have the largest production runs for the German military during the war. But they were not seen as two tanks that were serving the same role. Generalmajor Oswald Lutz, at the time the inspector for motor transport troops, believed that the best path forward for tank design was to create two different tanks. One that was primarily designed to engage other armored units, featuring a high velocity cannon and armored piercing ammunition. The second tank would be given a larger gun, and it would primarily be designed for infantry support. Basically it was a way to take an artillery piece and put it on tracks. This concept was very similar to what many other nations were doing at this time, and was in no way unique to Germany. Britain, France, and the Soviet Union would have similar ideas about building different tanks to fulfill different roles that the army needed. In the German case the Panzer 3 would be designed to fulfill the anti-armor role, and the Panzer IV would be originally designed for the infantry support role. The Panzer 3 would mount a 3.7cm cannon, while the Panzer IV would have a 7.5 cm gun. The Panzer 3 would go on what I would call a design odyssey that would last through multiple major revisions as they tried to determine how fix some of the suspension and stability issues that the original design would have. If you look at the designs of the suspension and drive system for each of the first four Panzer 3 revisions they all look completely different, with different wheel sizes, different number of wheels, different suspension types, it is all over the place. Many of these design issues would be solved and over 5,700 Panzer IIIs would be built before the design was retired in 1943. I will throw out a special note that the basic chassis of the Panzer III would be slightly modified and used for the StuG III, which would be the most produced German armored vehicle of the war, which probably deserves to be credited to the Panzer III design in some way, especially after all of the flailing that occurred in the search for a stable chassis during the early Panzer III revisions.
The Panzer IV on the other hand would from the beginning be a much more finalized design, and while there would be made design revisions made over the course of the war, in the first several revisions the primary features were not large alterations to design features, just bigger engines, guns, and more armor. Eventually there would be over 8,500 Panzer IVs, and Panzer IV variants, built during the war.
One special note, and one I will mention a few times, is the importance of the annexation of Czechoslovakia to the overall German war effort and to the armor complements of the German Army. When the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia they would find two very valuable things, the first was the presence of over 200 LT vz 35 tanks, which would be renamed to the Panzer 35(t), and the production facilities to make more, along with the designs and production line for a new tank that would be named the Panzer 38(t). Only a few hundred additional 35(t) would be produced and used by the Wehrmacht, but the 38(t) would prove to be a very important contributor to the early campaigns of the war, with its generally very good reliability being a critical part of its success. Much like the Panzer 3 and 4, it would also go on to be the basis for thousands of additional vehicles, with the Marder 3 tanks destroyer and the Jagdpanzer 38 assault gun both using the 38(t) chassis as the base for their designs.
While the tanks were begin designed and produced, how precisely they would be used was something that was kind of up in the air. This was a debate that occurred in many other nations as well. It basically boiled down to: a nation can produce X number of tanks, how can those tanks be used to greatest effect. Very few people would deny that the tank was an essential part of any military that planned to launch ground campaigns, but there were many debates on the specifics of how they could be used most efficiently. Some, most famously in Germany Heinz Guderian, wanted tank assets to be concentrated into armored divisions and armored corps. The argument to support this point of view revolved around the necessity to concentrate forces into one effort, which would provide the greatest possibility of a breakthrough and of a successful offensive. Critics of this concentration of resources would say that, even if the attack by the armored divisions were successful, unless you ensured that there were armored and motorized units in infantry divisions, there would be nothing available to assist the armored divisions in their attack. This latter group would argue that it would be better to the available armored assets and spread them around, not to much because then they would lose effectiveness, but maybe down to armored brigades so that the power of the armor could be used all along the front. When the German army crossed the border with Poland, it would have a mix of these approaches, there would be several armored divisions, but there would also be some armored units spread out and attached to other groups. There were also questions of how the armored divisions would be organized and controlled, because before September 1939 while several nations had theorized and exercised with similar combat formations, nobody had actually used them in combat. This meant that there were mistakes made, the organization of the Panzer divisions would not be very efficient, it would prove very difficult to coordinate the large armored groups, and working together with motorized infantry, an essential part of maintaining the mobility of the armored troops, proved to be very challenging. There were other related ideas that would also prove to be problematic, one of which was the Leichte, or Light division concept that would evolve in the years before the war. The theory was that there should be a set of German divisions that were as mobile as motorized infantry, but still possessed the hitting power of armored units. The problem that had to be solved to achieve this was the fact that in 1939 the tanks that were present, even though they were faster and had greater range than ever before, were still limited in ways that a big truck wasn’t. The solution to this problem was to make a division, the Light division, in which the every tank had a large truck that would be used to transport it. This allowed the tanks to use roads to the greatest possible extent, utilizing the speed and endurance of a normal motor vehicle, and then dismount for combat. It was an interesting theory, that would prove not be very effective during the Polish campaign, with the problem being that it was difficult for units to fully utilize the repositioning capabilities allowed by the use of motor transport.
So in summary, while the German Panzers play an important role in the overall story of the war, the vast majority of the army that invaded Poland in 1939 was still traditional infantry. This infantry was not drastically different than the Polish units that they faced, but they were provided with more firepower, primarily in the form of artillery. The average German soldier was also not better trained than the men they were facing but there were some much better equipped and trained units within the German Heer, like the Panzer divisions and the motorized infantry divisions, these more elite divisions were very good, but if the Polish military could tie them down and subject them to some level of attrition it would take time for the German Army to rebuild those more elite units. Also, and this isn’t something we discussed this episode but we did talk about it in detail back in episodes 78-84, German industry was not prepared for a long war of attrition, and it had only stockpiled material for a relatively short campaign, if the war continued at a high intensity for more than a month, supplies of even basic items like ammunition would begin to be a problem. Thank you for listening, and I hope you will join me next episode, and our last pre-war episode as we look at the final week of frantic political maneuvering that would occur in the last week of peace in Europe in August 1939.