10: TANKS!


In which we discuss the evolution of German and Russian thoughts on tanks, and how they worked together in the late 1920s to make their armor dreams their armor realities.

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Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Members Episode 10. During the interwar yeas there were really two period of German and Russian armored theory and practice. For both nations the periods would shift in the early 1930s, although for very different reasons. The 1920s would be a decade in which both nations understood that armored warfare would be important to the future of warfare, but they had very little ability to actually gain first hand experience with it. The Germans were heavily limited by the Treaty of Versailles, and were not allowed to have any armored vehicles. The Soviet Union had access to very little industrial capacity, with even less able to be devoted to the creation of military hardware. That does not mean that armor theory was not evolved and discussions about how to use armor in warfare did not continue in both militaries, because it certainly did, but they did not have the ability to test those theories in any real capacity. This is part of why both nations would look to British experiments from the mid and late 1920s with interest, as the British were able to try some idea that could not be tested in Germany or Russia. The slow development of each nation’s armor doctrine would be a long collaboration between several officers in each army. While two men would end up being the most famous: Heinz Guderian and Mikail Tukhachevskii, in both cases it could be argued that they were not the most important. On the German side there were Ernst Volckheim, Alfred von Vollard-Bockelberg, Otto von Stulpnagel, and Oswald Lutz, among others while in Russia Vladimir Triandafillov, Konstantin Kalinovskii, Aleksandr Egorov, and Aleksandr Sediakin. In both cases there were lively discussions about what the future of armored warfare was and should be. Looking back at the First World War provided few answers as there were important questions coming out of that war, specifically whether a future conflict would more closely resemble the Eastern or Western front. Then there were also of course the neverending technological advancements which would be somewhat steady during the 1920s before later exploding. In the late 1920s the two nations would combine their efforts, and German officers would travel to Kazan outside Moscow for joint discussions, training, and testing at the Kazan school.

In the direct postwar period the German Reichswehr had maintained a very traditional view on how the infantry interacted with other arms of the military. Essentially the infantry was the most important, it would win the war, and all the other arms of the military were designed to support it in that mission. The infantry would use infiltration tactics that had been such an important part of the last years of the First World War, and for which various other groups could be helpful but secondary. They did make it clear that the infantry would have to work closely with other arms, and the concept of combined arms was an important aspect of regulations at this time. At this point these combined arms involved infantry, artillery, and cavalry. Aviation and armored assets were included but on a strictly theoretical basis because the Reichswehr had access to neither. All of this new technology would be utilized to assist the infantry in achieving its goal that was as old as time, encirclement and annihilation. An important reminder that the tank, especially in the early 1920s, was not what it would later become. Due to technological limitations there were some pretty negative views among the German military about the role that tanks would play in future wars. This did shift during the 1920s, mostly as it became clear that technological advancements, especially around internal combustion engines, would continue to accelerate which opened up far greater possibilities.While they could not produce any tanks, there were plans drawn up by the Reichswehr for two different tanks, a light tank of less than 10 tons with a two man crew and armed with a machine gun, and 20 ton heavy tank which would have either machine guns or a small cannon. Both of these tanks were strictly seen as infantry support weapons, both from their roles tactically as well as the place they fit within the overall offensive operations, for example the expectation was set that the tanks would not be able to advance more than 20 kilometers a day, a limitation that was a combination of technical and doctrinal. During this early period there was already some divergence between German and Russian armored concepts. German designs would focus on speed and mobility, while the Soviet designs favored heavier and more powerful vehicles, even if the overall radius of action was greatly reduced. However, this is a generalization, and does not meant that everyone within their respective military was completely on board with these ideas. For example in Germany Ernst Volckheim, who would later go on to write the tactical manuals used by the Panzer troops before the Second World War, would push for heavier tanks. Part of this belief was based on his concerns about what tanks would do when they met other tanks, in such a confrontation it seemed very likely that the tank with the heavier armor and more powerful armament would be victorious. Tank vs tank scenarios were generally undervalued and underdiscussed at this point in history, as there was no real example of such an action during the First World War. However, Volckheim would believe that it would only gain in importance in the future as all armies greatly increased their investment in armored vehicles. He would be one of the first armor theorists to really try and tackle the ramifications of the tank vs tank scenario, and it pointed to serious concerns in the light and fast design principles prevalent in the Reichswehr at the time. This argument was also happening in many other nations at this time, and there was general uncertainty about which would prove the dominant strain of tanks in the future. Would it be small, light, and fast vehicles which were designed to use their mobility to move around and beyond the enemy, or would it be First World War inspired heavy tanks that were designed for a slugfest where armor and firepower would be more important. Regardless of the specific nature of tanks in the future, by the late 1920s in the Reichswehr there was a general acceptance that tanks were going to be important. Or as the Chief of Army Command Wilhelm Heye would say after the British 1926 maneuvers: “[they] demonstrated that modern tanks, in cooperation with mobile forces or in independent units, are in a position to carry out missions with far-flug objectives, against the flanks and rear of the enemy, and also to fight quickly and successfully and at the battle’s decisive point.” In 1927 Fritz Heigl would write the second edition of his tank pocketbook which sought to discuss the many problems that still remained in how to utilize armor in the modern war. For example, the problem of infantry and armor coordination would feature in his writings, a problem that would be incredibly challenging to try and solve, and which seemed almost impossible in a world before the large scale motorization of infantry units. While some officers like Heigl were attempting to push the conversations forward, the official armor doctrine of the Reichswehr during these years was quite traditional. They saw the tanks as interacting with the fighting much like they had in the First World War. they would be concentrated in small independent units that would be used to assault the enemy while working closely with other units. After a successful assault they would attempt to use their mobility to continue the advantage. They were a bit vague really, and in no way addressed the problem of infantry cooperation during this exploitation phase, but clearly they imagined armored warfare that looked similar to what had been happening on the Western Front in 1918.

In Russia during the early 1920s they were hampered not by an international agreement like the Treaty of Versailles, but simply by their own inability to produce tanks. They were able to capture some tanks during the Russian Civil War, and after the Civil War they were able to gain access to some older French Renaults, but that was basically the extent of it. This limitation caused the Red Army to plan for a future war which did not involve the mass use of tanks at all. This was probably the correct move at the time, because for the 1920s and into the 1930s the heavy industry that was required to create large numbers of tanks simply did not exist in the Soviet Union. The infrastructure did not even exist to create light vehicles, or civilian vehicles for that matter, at any large scale. They would instead be completely dependent on Western industry for such manufactured goods, which they could not count on in wartime, a problem that would not be addressed until the First Five Year Plan which started in 1928. War plans did begin to shift by the mid 1920s as technology continued to advance, and Russian officers would begin to follow the debates happening in Western Europe far more closely. In the last half of the 1920s the idea that tanks would be important in the future firmly took hold, although there were still many disagreements about the specifics of their application. Generally this was split between officers who were focused on the current capabilities of the tank, which was still quite limited, and those who were looking towards the future of what could possibly be. While these disagreements would continue, there was still the desire to have more tanks and to make them more capable, with their precise application to be decided at a later date.

The desire within both militaries to push their usage of the tank forward brought them into cooperation during 1927. The tank school at Kazan would open in July of that year and would be used by both nations until 1933. The Germans saw it as just another way of passively resisting the limitations placed on the Reichswehr by the Versailles Treaty. It allowed them to gain valuable experience using and testing tanks, which allowed them to refine both their technical design and their application. The German government would pay for the school by boosting the budgeted cost of weapons that could be manufactured, and then using the difference between the budgeted figure and the actual cost to fund the school in Russia. The Soviets gained access to German engineering and manufacturing techniques that were used within Russia where the vehicles were produced. They also received the economic boost of the Germany money flowing into the country to build the school and its manufacturing capabilities. At a time when relations with Western Europe was still far from what they had been before the Civil War, this assistance was invaluable. it would not be until 1929 that the Kazan school would be fully operational. Over the next three years the usage of Kazan would be quite high even as the two sides at times quite clearly disagreed about what the school was for and how it could best utilize the resources available. The Germans wanted to work on training a small group of soldiers that could then come back to Germany and act as teachers. The Russians wanted to use the school to train large groups of men that would be useful for the Red Army instantly. Differences in how they thought tanks should be used would also be a continuing problem when it came to trying to cooperate. For example the German designers were constantly pushing for small, light, and most importantly cheap tanks that could be quickly and easily mass produced while the Russians saw huge problems with such tanks, and saw them are too vulnerable and incapable of what they wanted tanks to do.

While cooperation was occurring at Kazan, in both the Red Army and Reichswehr overall armor doctrine was also evolving and diverging, this divergence was generally amplified by other decisions made by the two armies and the constraints they were under. For example the Red Army would continually run up against industrial problems, there was simply a huge disconnect between what the Red Army believed it needed and what Soviet industry could produce. These issues were exacerbated by some decisions made within the army, for example during 1929 there were six different models of tanks being produced for the Red Army. 3 light, 2 medium, and 1 heavy each with different specifications and each with its own theoretical role in play within the Army, by 1930 this number had increased to 2 tankettes, 4 light, and five medium designs. Once again each tank was justified by if filling a very specific role within the overall doctrine of the Red Army. So for example there might be one set of tanks with technical requirements built around being in the first breakthrough wave, and then another for the second wave what was designed to push the line forward, and finally a third set for fast exploitation in an environment with little enemy resistance. There were also a myriad of other problems that could not easily be resolved either by the military or the tank designers, like the poor state of many Russian roads and bridges, which had ramifications for designs and mobility. All of these problems did little to dampen the hopes of military leaders, who continued to push for greater and greater production, far larger than anything that could be done by Soviet industry. This was part of a drastic scaling up of Soviet ideas for what a war would look like, with Tukhachevskii believing that in the early 1930s the Red Army should be aiming for attacks of 150 divisions over a front of 450 kilometers with both tanks and aircraft able to assist with an attack up to 200 kilometers into enemy territory. These were radical concepts, which were extremely optimistic about the equipment that could be produced and its capabilities.

In Germany by 1930 there was a clear understanding among the vast majority of the German officer corps that tanks, and especially fast tanks, would be critical to future combat operations. However, there was still a heavy emphasis on the need to take and hold ground, which required infantry, infantry that was still not and would not be motorized in the near future. This caused limited to be placed on the tanks operational role, which then fed back into the designs, and then back into the role that some officers felt that tanks should have within the overall doctrine of the Reichswehr. Even with an emphasis on infantry cooperation, the small, light, and fast tanks continued to be the focus of German design, primarily for economic and not doctrinal factors. There were growing concerns that these small tanks were seriously vulnerable to anti-tank defenses that other nations already possessed, and that all of the money and time being spend on tanks was a mistake. Those that voiced these concerns would always be in the extreme minority.

Outside of just the best types of tanks to create there were many experiments occurring in Kazan, for example in 1931 there was an emphasis placed on testing out the effect of radios in tanks. It was found that having as many vehicles as possible equipped with radios solved many of the command and control problems that had troubled armored units since their inception. There were still problems with such communication, especially the fact that they could not be encoded and so could be intercepted, but the benefits seemed to outweigh the concerns. 1931 would prove to be something of a big year for German and Soviet armor. it would be in that year that some of the German officers that would be so important to the creation of the Wehrmacht in the 1930s would attend classes in Kazan, men like Keitel, Model, and von Manstein. 1931 would also be the year when Soviet industry would finally start creating tanks in decent numbers, which would allow for greater experimentation for the Red Army. The T-26, which would go on to be an important part of the Soviet contribution to the Spanish Civil War, would also be created during 1931. As both nations continued to evolve their designs, their different views bean to be clear in those designs. For example what the Soviets called light tanks were far closer in size and capabilities to German medium tanks, while Soviet medium tanks were as large as German heavy tanks. This meant that Soviet light tanks had far more armor and far larger guns than the German light tanks, which would be important in later years.

In 1932 the Panzer 1 would make its debut, and almost immediately there were concerns that it had taken the small and light concept too far. This was not completely rejected by the German armor enthusiasts, where the opinion was generally that they should just build as many Panzer 1s as possible, and then build something larger and more capable at a later date. The exercises at Kazan in 1932 would prompt some German officers like Oswald Lutz, at the time the Inspector of Motorized Troops, and Heinz Guderian, to believe that the armored forces were the main branch of the army and should be treated as such. This would be an important point around which many of the discussions of the 1930s would revolve, it was sort of the second phase of the interwar armor discussions. By this point it would have been difficult to find a high level German officer who thought that armor was not important, and that it was not a tool that should be used to achieve the army’s goals, however there were vehement disagreements about how they should be used. Within these disagreements there were often not necessarily arguments about what the army was trying to do or that tanks were not great assets to goes those, just a very specific set of discussions about the optimal way to use the limited number of available armor assets. It is important to remember that during the early 1930s, and really for most of the 1930s, the number of tanks available to the armies around Europe was very limited. Tanks were expensive, and military budgets were very limited for both political and economic reasons. The debates were around how to best utilize those limited resources they had, with many armor advocates like Guderian, who was the most vocal, strongly believing that they had to be concentrated into larger units. The argument that the armor enthusiasts used was that large armored groups would be able to drastically alter the battlefield, which would make German infantry and other arms far more productive as well. At the same time infantry focused generals believed that the armor and motorized units should be distributed throughout the entire army, making all of them slightly more mobile and giving them mobile tools to use. Other officers simply urged caution, and they saw such focus on large armored units as beyond the grasp of current economics. After Hitler came to power he would be a supporter of the armor enthusiasts, which would be very helpful to their goals of getting economic resources allocated to armor production in the back half of the 1930s. However, it should be noted that by even the mid 1930s it seemed clear that armor enthusiasts had been victorious, and the Germany army was creating armor divisions faster than they could be equipped with tanks,

In the Red Army the big idea of the 1930s was something called Deep Battle. At first this was a tactical idea that was designed to use tactical resources to be able to push through enemy forces by using all resources in concert on both a deep and wide manner. It was then scaled up to an operation doctrine, to try and use the concepts of deep battle and apply them to army and army group sized units. The goal was to attack an army on a wide front and to develop that attack into a deep penetration all along the front, rupturing the front to the point of preventing any possible solidification of enemy defenses. Deep Battle was a concept that the Red Army would spend most of the 1930s chasing, and never really hitting. It required really good planning, a lot of technical capabilities including mechanized assets, and huge amount of training. Aleksandr Sediakin, the Chief of Military Training at the time, would be the one that would try to turn the idea of Deep Battle into a reality. Sedikin and many others would then take over a year trying to make it work, and at the end of that time he would say “On maps, plans, on paper, and in exercises where there is no opponents, everything turns out well for us: tank regiments and battalions move as if they were immortal, move where they want and as they want. In so doing they move in formations which are unsuitable if one takes into account the reality of fire from antitank artillery…” That did not meant that work stopped on the idea though, and it would remain the primary operational goal of the Red Army in the early and mid 1930s. In 1933 the Provisional Instructions for Organizing Deep Battle would be published, which contained very detailed information about how to setup and execute a deep battle scenario. However, every time there was an attempt to take these concepts and implement them in exercises, they would generally fail due to complexity and the inability of such complex attacks to be coordinated. The good news for the Red Army was that at least Soviet industry was catching up to what was needed to at least attempt to put these concepts into action. By 1933 thousands of tanks were rolling off the assembly lines every year, there were still far too many variants, with 9 tanks being produced in 1933, but at least the Red Army had vehicles to test and train with. It would bein that same year that the cooperation at Kazan came to an end. There would be no new Soviet students who attended to school in that year, and the Germans would be gone by September. It was a school that had served its purpose and accomplished its goals. The two participants had moved beyond it. Soviet industry and engineering had learned all they could, they were able to produce the equipment necessary for the Red Army to continue to pursue its own goals. In Germany the groundwork for rearmament was already being lade in late 1933, and just a few years later it would be done openly and the newly christened Wehrmacht would start making the theoretical exercises of the Reichswehr years into reality.