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German Balkenkreuz

Germany's History

Early war panzers and half tracks:
Germany's Early war panzers and half tracks

World War I

The Germans did try to field some tanks in World War I, to combat the British and French tanks, but their industry was so strained that only a few of the large A7Vs saw action. Another reason for so few of the A7Vs was that most of the manufacturing capacity was devoted to submarines, artillery, and transport. Only about two dozen of the A7Vs were produced. These were basically a large armored box placed onto a modified Holt tractor chassis with a crew of 18 men in its tall superstructure.

Most of the German units used beutepanzer (captured tanks) to equip their men. Three sections were equipped with A7Vs and six were equipped with beutepanzer tanks. Some of the captured male tanks were reequipped with 5.7 cm Sokol guns.

There were plans to construct a light tank on the many automobile chassis that were available, but the end of the war stopped development. From 1917 to 1919 experimental half tracked and fully tracked vehicles were developed at the Daimler factory at Berlin-Marienfelde. None of these were capable enough for use in combat.

Versailles Restrictions

With the loss of World War I, under the terms of the Versailles treaty, all tanks were removed from the German forces and no development of any kind was permitted. The Heer (Army) was only allowed to have 100,000 soldiers. The combined branches of the military were called the Reichswehr (German Defensive Armed Forces).

The Reichswehr were only allowed to have 105 transport vehicles that weren't allowed to be made into armed vehicles.

However, the Schutzpolizei (state police) were allowed to use armored cars for internal policing. Some of these had turrets with machine guns, rear steering, and four wheel drive.

By having all tanks removed from their military when they later rearmed they had to do it from scratch and develop all new designs of tanks.


The Treaty of Versailles stated that the navy could only have 15,000 sailors.


The Versailles treaty also said that the 20,000 airplanes were to be turned over or destroyed and that from then on, no military aircraft could be built.


At the Harz Mountains in 1921 exercises with Kraftfahrkampftruppen (motorized combat troops) were conducted.

Germany's Hans von Seeckt Hans von Seeckt
Hans von Seeckt was commander-in-chief from 1919 to 1926 and during that time he wanted to reorganize the Heer into a more mobile fighting force. He started using war games for training purposes. He advocated that orders given to commanders were to be short and direct, thus leaving the local commander the flexibility to choose the method to fulfill the mission and this was known as Auftragstaktik.

In 1924 Hans von Seeckt wrote in a German Army manual that once tanks were perfected that they would be used in mobile warfare.

In 1924 Ernst Volckheim wrote Tanks in Modern Warfare and German Tanks in the World War. He predicted that tanks would be faster, mobile, and independent of infantry and calvary. He also advocated the use of radios in all vehicles.

Sweden bought the design of the Leichter Kampfwagen that was developed by Daimler. They modified the tank buy adding a rotating turret. There was also secret agreement with Sweden which accumulated a lot of technical data for the Germans. German tank designers spent a lot of time learning about design and production from the LK II.

Germany's Heinz Guderian Heinz Guderian
Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-139-1112-17

In Sweden, Heinz Guderian was able to drive a Stridsvagn Strv. m/21 in 1929 during an official visit.

The German's developed a strategy known as Vernichtungsgedanke (annihilation concept). This is where German forces would fall onto the flanks of an enemy, surround, and then destroy it.

Once the Nazis came to power most of this secrecy was abandoned and tank development was more in the open. The manufacturing industry seized the opportunity to develop new weapons.

Treaty of Rapallo

On April 16, 1922, the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union was signed. Part of the agreement was that Germany and the Soviet Union would share in military technology.

This enabled the Germans to develop their "agricultural tractors" and test them at Kazan, in Russia, in addition to Sweden. Aircraft were also tested at Kazan. Heinz Guderian was one of many German officers that trained at Kazan.

In exchange many Soviet officers went to Germany to receive training, including Gyorgy Konstantinovich Zhukov.

Influences Hart and Fuller

The Germans also learned from the teachings of British tank pioneers Liddell Hart and Fuller. Heinz Guderian was one of the main architects for the development of the Panzer forces. He had wanted to find ways to end the static conditions that occurred in World War I.

General Hans von Seeckt also studied Fuller and Liddel Hart.

Heinz Guderian

In 1922 Captain Heinz Guderian was a communications specialist who was promoted to serving in the Transport Troops Inspectorate. While there he started to read about armored warfare. He said "it was principally the books and articles of the Englishmen, Fuller, Liddell Hart, and Martel, that excited my interest and gave me food for thought."

Soon he started writing his own articles. He was able to rise up the promotion ladder and many wondered if the tanks of the day would be able to live up to what Guderian was writing about.

Germany's Oswald Lutz Oswald Lutz
As a Lieutenant Colonel he was appointed Chief of Staff to General Oswald Lutz at the Inspectorate of Motorized Troops in October 1931. There, with Lutz, Guderian was able develop the structure of armored troops and recommend designs of tanks. One design was of a medium tank, armed with a 75 mm gun, that would fight enemy tanks, and a light tank, with a 50 mm gun, that would be used for reconnaissance. Unfortunately the Chief of the Ordnance Office and the Inspector of Artillery felt that a 37 mm gun was more than adequate.

Many in the German Army hierarchy resisted Guderian's ideas, but it is said Hitler watched one of Guderian's demonstrations and said "That's what I need! That's what I'm going to have!"

On November 20, 1938, he was promoted to General der Panzertruppen and appointed Chief of Mobile Troops. His background in communications let him to insist that all vehicles have a radio and specialized command vehicles be constructed. Another important feature was to be able to communicate with the Luftwaffe's ground attack planes to provide air support.


The tactics that were proposed by Guderian involved a schwerpunkt (concentrated strike force) that would break through the enemy's line. He felt they should be concentrated on a front of no more than 5,000 yards wide. This would then be exploited by rapidly concentrating forces in an expanding torrent that would drive deep into the enemy's rear. This would also lead into the disruption of the enemy's communication and supplies.

Antitank guns would be brought up to set up points where the panzers could retreat through if they were counterattacked by enemy armor. After the antitank guns had blunted the enemy's counterattack then the panzers would again attack them enemy.


Germany's Walther von Brauchitsch Walther von Brauchitsch

During the winter of 1923 to 1924, Lt. Col. Walther von Brauchitsch conducted training to experiment with the coordination of aircraft and motorized troops.

New Aircraft Industries Formed

In 1922 some of the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty expired and on January 1, 1924 the Focke Wulf Flugzeugbau was created. Arado-Handels (later Arado Flugzeugwerke) was created in April 1925. Messerschmitt A.G. was created in 1926. In 1926 the Junkers and Aero Lloyd airlines joined to form Deutsche Lufthansa.


A training program was started in 1925 that was to train the military in close cooperation between service arms.

Secret development of three light tank and two medium tank prototypes was started. The light tanks were to weigh 9.5 tons and the mediums up to 21 tons.

Growing Pains

The first was a light tank similar to the British Vickers Medium Mark II. It was designed by Rheinmetall Borsig of Berlin/Tegel and Düsseldorf and code named the leichter Traktor (light tractor). The next larger was developed in 3 versions called the Grosstraktor (large tractor). There were around 20 tons and we similar to the Vickers tank. Dr. Ferdinand Porsche designed the Grosstraktor I and it was built by Daimler-Benz with a 75 mm gun. Rheinmetall built the Grosstraktor II which mounted a 105 mm gun. The Grosstraktor III was built by Krupp.

Germany's Alfred von Vollard-Bockelberg Alfred von Vollard-Bockelberg

In 1926, Major-General Alfred von Vollard-Bockelberg became the head of the Transport Troops Inspectorate and in 1927 he began training the transport officers in the theories of armored warfare. He based the teachings on the British Army pamphlet Provisional Instructions for Armored Vehicles 1927. Full scale maneuvers were conducted with cardboard tanks and autos with cardboard or lumber hulls that resembled tanks.

He then went to the Ordnance Department in 1929 and stayed there until 1933. He was responsible for accelerating the mechanization of the army. He also formed the 1st motorcycle and mechanized reconnaissance units. He also helped in the design phase of the PzKpfw I and PzKpfw II.



Out with the Cardboard

It became evident by 1930 that real tanks were needed for training of armored personnel.

Some felt that a light carrier tank, similar to the Carden-Loyd, could be produced. However, German industry still wasn't prepared or capable to produce such a vehicle in the quantities that the German Army needed.


In January 1933, the Nazis came to power, and on March 15, 1935, Adolf Hitler renounced the Treaty of Versailles and announced that Germany would rearm. The development of the agricultural tractors began being developed in Germany itself. These were called Landwirtschaftliche Schleppern (La.S.). The first prototypes were ready in December 1933 and first ran on February 3, 1934. By the end of July an order for 150 vehicles had been placed with Henschel und Sohn GmbH of Kassel. These were the PzKpfw Is.

Compulsory military service was restarted in March 1935.

On October 15, 1935, the first 3 Panzer Divisions were formed and the 2nd was commanded by Guderian. They were to have 561 tanks each. However, German industry couldn't meet the needed vehicles. The 4th & 5th Panzer Divisions were formed in 1938, and the 10th Panzer Division in April 1940. There were composed of:

  • a panzer brigade
    • 2 regiments
      • 2 battalions
        • 1 heavy company
        • 3 light/medium companies
  • a motorized infantry brigade
    • an infantry regiment,
      • two truck born battalions
      • a motorcycle battalion
  • a motorized artillery regiment
    • two battalions of artillery
      • three batteries of light field howitzers
  • an armored reconnaissance battalion
    • two armored car squadrons
    • a motorcycle machine gun squadron
    • a heavy weapons squadron
  • antitank battalion
  • engineer battalion / company
  • signals battalion
  • antiaircraft battalion
  • divisional service units

To support infantry operations there were 2 independent panzer brigades and an independent panzer regiment formed.

The cavalry units were mechanized into 4 light divisions. The consisted of:

  • a panzer battalion,
  • 4 motor-rifle battalions,
  • reconnaissance units,
  • artillery units, and
  • engineer units.

War Planned for 1942

The German military didn't plan for the start of the war to occur before 1942. At that time they planned that heavier tanks would be available for use.


Experimental vehicles were designated with a prefix of VK (Volkettenfahzeuge "fully tracked vehicle") and the next 2 numbers were the weight, the next 2 the prototype number and sometimes on the end in brackets was the manufacturer. Once it was in service it was given the name Panzerkampfwagen (armored fighting vehicle), which was sometimes abbreviated PzKpfw or PzKw. Then it was designated a class (I-VI) and within these Ausführung (model) starting with A were given. All vehicles were given an Ordnance Inventory Number (Sonderkraftfahrzeug - SdKfz).

The different series of vehicles were assigned different SdKfz numbers:

PzKpfw Is 101 - 111
PzKpfw IIs 120s
PzKpfw IIIs 140s
PzKpfw IVs 160s
PzKpfw Vs 170s
PzKpfw VIs 180s
Half tracks and armored cars 200s

Production of tanks began in earnest in the 1930s. Most of the tanks were too light for combat and 2 larger models were under development. The Zugführerwagen (company commander's vehicle) and the Bataillonführerwagen (battalion commander's vehicle) were to be known as the PzKpfw III & IV respectively. The PzKpfw Is & IIs were intended as only training vehicles until the IIIs & IVs came off the production lines.

Army Weapons Office

The Heereswaffenamt Wa.Prüf.6 (army weapons office, weapons inspectorate 6) was responsible for approving designs and ordering vehicles.


In the 1930s British Army officer Captain Norman Baillie-Stewart was convicted of passing secrets on the British Vickers Independent tank to the Germans.

Birth of the Luftwaffe

On March 1, 1935, Adolf Hitler revealed the existence of the Luftwaffe. Hermann Göring was made its commander. By the end of 1935 the aircraft industry was manufacturing over 300 aircraft per month.

Public Display

At the Mecklenburg maneuvers the Panzer Division was first publicly shown. This exercise used 800 tanks and 400 aircraft.

Actung! Panzer!

Heinz Guderian published Actung! Panzer! in 1937. One of his arguments was that Germany had to fight a quick war as a protracted fight would eventually lead to a shortage of raw materials for manufacturing weapons.


Germany's Armored Division

Condor Legion

Hitler had sent a German contingent to support Franco's Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. It was here that the military realized that the PzKpfw I was inadequate as a combat vehicle.

Major Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma led the 88th Armored.

Whenever possible captured Russian T-26s and BTs were added to the armored units.

Antiaircraft guns were tested successfully in firing against ground targets such as bunkers and tanks. The 8.8 cm FlaK guns used 90% of their ammunition against ground targets.

Germany's Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma

German pilots and aircraft were sent to Spain as well. Among the planes sent were the Junkers Ju 52, the Dornier Do 17, the Junkers Ju 87, the Henschel Hs 123, and the Messerschmitt Bf 109.


During the occupation of Austria in 1938 weaknesses in the new tanks were shown as well as their advantages of long range mobility. The 2nd Panzer Division of Guderian's Corps covered 420 miles in 48 hours.

About 30% of the tanks broke down before reaching Vienna.


During the occupation on March 15 and 16, 1939, it was shown that the panzer divisions could operate on the frozen roads and cross country. A panzer division went over 100 miles without a breakdown.

Some crews still didn't have the experience to fix mechanical problems that occurred on the march.

Once the take over was complete the German military took over 469 tanks. Another prize for the Germans was the Skoda Works in Pilsen that produced many military weapons.


The Germans invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. They had approximately 3,200 tanks. Of these 1,445 were PzKpfw Is, 1,223 PzKpfw IIs, 98 PzKpfw IIIs, and 211 PzKpfw IVs. The rest were Czechoslovakian tanks.

Six panzer divisions were used: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 10th. Also the Ordnance Departments testing unit, the Panzer Lehr battalion, was also used. The Panzer Lehr also had PzKpfw IIIs and PzKpfw IVs.

There were also 4 motorized infantry divisions, 4 light divisions, and 40 infantry divisions used.

The Luftwaffe had 4,840 aircraft with 1,750 of them bombers and 1,200 fighters. Production of aircraft was at 1,100 per month.

After Poland the light divisions were expanded and became the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th Panzer Divisions.


After the capture and examination of British and French tanks the Germans started to focus their designs on tanks with superiority in firepower. Future designs needed to have sufficient firepower to defeat any future designs from Britain.

Battle of Britain

The Luftwaffe attempted to subjugate the British armed forces but with no heavy bombers and poor leadership they were unable to conquer England. The Heinkel He 111 and Dornier Do 17 were just not well armed enough to defend against British fighters nor could they carry a big enough load.

The Messerschmitt Bf 110 had been intended to be a long range escort, but in the end it needed its own escort.

North Africa

The 15th Panzer Division and 5th Light Panzer Division were sent to North Africa in February 1941.


The 5th, 8th, 9th, 11th, 14th, and 16th (reserve) Panzer Divisions were involved in the attack on Yugoslavia in April 1941.


The 2nd and 5th Panzer Divisions were used in the invasion of Greece.


After encountering the T-34/76 in 1941, the German design bureaus went to work on designing tanks with even bigger guns and thicker armor.

The vast distances and the dust quickly wore out engines. Then winter set in and froze many of the engines.


Demand for tanks during the war outstripped production. The maximum amount of tanks produced in one month was 720.



  • 68,400,000, 70,700,000, 76,800,000, 78,000,000, 86,170,000



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  2. Steel Fist Tank Warfare 1939-45, Nigel Cawthorne, 2003
  3. Panzers At War, Michael and Gladys Green, 2005
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