||[Dec. 8th, 2013|11:55 am]
Panzer Leader, is Heinz Guderian's memoir of World War II and the period leading up to it. Earlier this year I read his Achtung! Panzer!, the theoretical book he wrote in the early 1930s, offering his view of how armor should operate in the future. It seemed logical to follow that book up with the proof of the pudding.
It's challenging to read a book like this, in which you empathize with the struggles of a narrator, but utterly despise the purpose to which he put his efforts. We'd all be better off if this guy had failed early, or been shot before the invasion of Czechoslovakia. But his struggle is interesting.
Guderian was the guy who got it. World War I had only very slow, very underpowered armored vehicles, and it was easy to take the wrong lesson from the experiences of that war. Most military tacticians took what turned out to be the wrong path. Most armies felt that tanks should be widely dispersed among all units. They thought of them as mobile artillery, primarily. They felt that their primary role was to enable what Guderian calls a "break-in" through the initial enemy defenses, so that infantry and cavalry can exploit the opening.
Guderian thought of armor as a modern form of mounted knight, and the role of armor to break through the entire enemy line so as to operate in their rear. To do this he felt the armor should be in massed corps-or-bigger formations, with only enough infantry to protect it as it moved, and with trucks to carry all the troops and equipment and fuel, because nothing else would be able to keep up. He felt that an attack should combine artillery and aircraft and that the entire breakthrough corridor should be attacked all at the same time. Airplanes and artillery strikes would pin down the units that might want to maneuver to block the advancing tanks, and the tanks would just keep going through until they were far behind the enemy. Once in the rear they could cut the enemy supplies off, attack any reserves, and strike wherever and whenever they chose.
The German High Command only partially bought in to Guderian's plan. They gave the trucks to the "motorized infantry" and gave the panzer divisions horse-drawn wagons to move their fuel and supplies. They put too much infantry in a panzer division. They cut the proposed air support in half. They wasted a lot of money appeasing the cavalry divisions by replacing their horses with light tanks and armored cars, that were supposed to allow them to do surveillance and screening. (Guderian argued that they would be too lightly armed to do either, and in Poland this proved to be correct. Especially since Polish tanks were twice the caliber of the German main tanks, and made short work of the light tanks. Germany had to convert all their cavalry divisions into panzer divisions after Poland, and they did it by redistributing the existing tanks, which diluted most of the panzer divisions to half strength.)
Guderian was involved in the invasion of France, and crucial to its great success. It's intriguing to read that Hitler approved of the bold plans for panzer breakthrough, but as soon as the breakthrough happened he got cold feet, and kept stopping them. Guderian finally hit on the tactic that our own Patton would later employ: telling the bosses you're just doing reconnaissance, but doing it with most of your force.
Much of the interest of this book is in the author's interactions with Hitler and with the two staffs, the OKW and the OKH. Guderian was one of the few people who could tell Hitler the truth to his face, but he also got fired three times. He records his version of the increasing departure from reality that the staffs engaged in; and makes special note of who (Hitler, for instance) never visited the Russian Front ever, yet pronounced on what was really going on there.
Guderian's view of Rommel was that he was a gifted commander, and he adds that Rommel wasn't part of the armor originally, but when given the choice of commanding infantry or panzers he chose the panzers. They didn't operate in the same commands, so Rommel isn't much mentioned until late in the war when Rommel is in command of the defenses of Northern France and Guderian is the chief inspector of all German armor. They have a major disagreement about the deployment of panzers in France. Guderian, who has been fighting in Russia where the Germans have partial control of the air, wants them back from the coast so they can be deployed more easily. Rommel, who has been in France where the Allies have total air superiority, insists the tanks be near the coast, because they won't be able to move in daylight. History backed Rommel (though Guderian doesn't openly admit it), because when the invasion came, the tanks couldn't move in daylight without getting slaughtered.
You can't take Guderian's word on everything, but it's better to read the first person version than the secondary literature, if you want to get the feel of the world in which he lived. Then you move on to evaluations.
If you're interested in modern military history, this book is really a must. Guderian was both the theoretician and practitioner of the type of warfare that most of our money has been spent on ever since.
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