- The Washington Times - Monday, December 21, 2009


By Dennis Showalter

Berkley Caliber, $25.95, 390 pages

Reviewed by John Weisman

From the days of Frederick the Great, Dennis Showalter writes in “Hitler’s Panzers,” Prussian military theorists realized Prussia “was unlikely to recover from an initial defeat” in battle.

The result, Mr. Showalter concludes, was that “the Germans incorporated a specific mentality emphasizing speed and daring: a war of movement. This involved maneuvering to strike as hard a blow as possible, from a direction as unexpected as possible.”

These days, we call such tactics “shock and awe.” During World War II, they were known as Blitzkrieg - lightning war. The concept involved speed, surprise and violence of action, the integration of close air support and an offense built around highly mobile armored forces striking audacious, devastating blows before the enemy can mount a coherent, cohesive defense.

Panzer warfare came, Mr. Showalter writes, as a result of the drawn-out, stalemate linear trench warfare of World War I. By 1921, a Prussian aristocrat, Gen. Hans von Seeckt, “moved the Germans from Sitz to Blitz” by developing the concept of “fighting outnumbered and winning.”

“The Reichswehr, Seeckt insisted, must dictate the conditions of battle by taking the initiative.” To Seeckt, that initiative revolved around the mobility that tanks had the potential to offer. Indeed, Mr. Showalter writes, “In 1924, Seeckt ordered each unit and garrison to designate an officer responsible for acting as an adviser on tank matters, conducting classes and courses on armored warfare.”

Among the young officers drawn to Seeckt’s theories was a motor-transport battalion lieutenant named Heinz Guderian. He thrived. “In 1927,” Mr. Showalter writes, “freshly promoted to major, he was assigned to the Truppenamt’s Operations Section … to study the development of motor transport for infantry.”

By 1931, Guderian was a lieutenant colonel, and he and his commanding officer, Oswald Lutz, were planning military exercises that employed tanks as “the key weapon on the battlefield.” By the mid-1930s, the “Lutz/Guderian school” as Mr. Showalter calls it, was integrating self-propelled gun mounts to provide fire support for panzer divisions.

Those panzer divisions’ “guiding principle was attack by fire and movement: platoons and individual tanks supporting each other, and in turn supported by motorized infantry, artillery, and engineers - an integrated combat team. … A defeated enemy was to be pursued relentlessly, with every effort made to cut off his retreat and finish him on the spot.”

By 1937, Guderian had written a popular book called “Achtung - Panzer!” that, according to Mr. Showalter, popularized his concept that panzers must be at the “the operational Schwerpunkt - the vital spot” - at the opening of any campaign. Also by 1937, Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe, was providing close air support to panzer divisions during field exercises.

By the time Adolf Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, this integration of force came to be known as Blitzkrieg. (In a fascinating aside, Mr. Showalter explains, “Far from being a German concept, blitzkrieg was in fact a term coined in the West, first used in Time magazine and introduced to the German army secondhand. Hitler himself as late as 1942 dismissed it as ‘Italian phraseology.’ ”

In the war’s early campaigns - Poland, France and the Low Countries and the initial invasion of the Soviet Union - the panzer concept, a “combination of tanks, motorized troops, and aircraft could not only break into and break through an enemy front; they could break out, with decisive effect.”

But the tactic had deeper - and darker - significance as well. “Blitzkrieg’s real victor in 1940,” Mr. Showalter writes, “was National Socialism. Hitler celebrated the successes of May and June in Nazi terms: as a triumph of will; informed by a consciousness of martial superiority that in turn depended on the racial superiority evoked and refined by the Third Reich.”

Blitzkrieg and its panzer-centric warfare was “not merely a German way of war but a new paradigm of war itself. … The combination of mobility, firepower, and electronic communications developed and applied by the panzers was seen merely as the matrix, epitomizing and amplifying the warrior spirit of the new German soldier. Boldness, decisiveness, ‘necessary hardness’ [ brutality, murder and genocide] - these were the mainsprings of an unmatched triumph, facilitated perhaps by National Socialism but structured and inspired by the traditional bearer of German values: the army.”

But the early successes of the panzers were not sustained on the Eastern front. Panzer warfare depended on fuel and logistics. The supply lines from Germany to the Atlantic were manageable. That was not the case on the Eastern Front, where the Red Army recovered from its initial shock, regrouped, and dug in. “As late as the end of February [1942],” Mr. Showalter writes, “total tank strength was down to around 150 - for the entire Eastern Front.”

The year 1942 also brought two other significant events: the end of Hitler’s panzers “as originally conceived and configured. For the rest of the war, the army’s armored force plateaued, then declined.” And it was the year that marked the rise of the Waffen SS Panzer Corps. The Waffen SS ethos, Mr. Showalter writes, “was a blend of vitalism and racism - culturally, ideologically and institutionally based - that nurtured and synergized conscious ruthlessness and conscious brutality, each an integral element of Waffen SS fighting power. That fighting power in turn manifested the inseparability of war and racism in Nazi Germany. One was the other, and the Waffen SS epitomized both.”

Decline was inevitable. By the end of 1944, Mr. Showalter writes, “the panzers had evolved - or derogated - from a spearhead to a fire brigade to a firewall.” In the end, Mr. Showalter summarizes, “never did men fight better in a worse cause.”

Mr. Showalter’s book has its flaws. He can be a writer of dense prose. Sometimes he takes for granted that his readers are conversant with World War II history and context, especially when he writes of events on the Eastern front. Also, given his comparisons and descriptions of scores of weapons systems, a dozen or so pages of photographs would have been hugely welcome.

Those caveats aside, “Hitler’s Panzers” provides some valuable lessons from past wars that may help us understand how such qualities as audacity, imagination and daring, and micromanagement, bureaucracy and indecisiveness can - and do - affect the way we wage war today.

John Weisman’s novels “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action” are all available as Avon paperbacks.

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