Armored Champion: The Top Tanks of World War II (2015)

CHAPTER 5

Russian Front Slug Fest: 1942

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LIKE TWO PUNCH-DRUNK BOXERS, the German and Soviet tank forces staggered to their corners in early 1942 to prepare for the next round. Both sides had major technical challenges to face in the new year.

RED ARMY: QUANTITY VS. QUALITY

For the Red Army, the primary challenge was to keep the tank factories operating to provide new tanks. The two major centers of the Soviet tank industry, Leningrad and Kharkov, were out of the game. Leningrad, the center for KV production, had been surrounded and cut off from supplies of steel and other vital material. Kharkov, the center of T-34 production, had been captured by the Germans at the end of October 1941.

There had been plans underway even before the June 1941 invasion to establish new tank plants deeper inside Russia. The Stalingrad Tractor Plant (STZ: Stalingradskiy traktorskiy zavod) began to manufacture the T-34 in 1941 and would bear the burden in early 1942 until the Wehrmacht appeared on its doorstep. The Kharkov tank plant had established a spin-off plant in Nizhni-Tagil in the Urals region in 1941, and the T-34 design bureau along with many of the workers and machine tools had been evacuated there prior to the fall of Kharkov. Likewise, the center for KV development and production was moved from Leningrad to Cheyabinsk to a new heavy industrial facility later nicknamed Tankograd. Other plants in the Urals were also converted to tank production. Plant No. 112 in Gorkiy (now Nizhni-Novgorod) began manufacturing the T-34 in late 1941; the Uralmashzavod in Sverdlovsk and Plant No. 174 in Omsk started in 1942. Four smaller automotive plants that could not handle medium tanks were given the task of building new light tanks such as the T-60.

To maximize tank production, the GABTU (Main Auto-Armored Technical Directorate) ruthlessly simplified production. Design changes that achieved this goal were permitted, but improvements that cost time or money were deliberately suppressed. Prior to the outbreak of the war, the Red Army had received samples of the German PzKpfw III Ausf. G during the short-lived German-Soviet alliance of 1939–41. The Red Army decided to adopt some of the better features of the PzKpfw III into a new version of the T-34 called the T-34M or A-43. This included the replacement of the T-34’s Christie suspension with a modern torsion bar suspension and the redesign of the turret with an all-vision cupola and three-man crew. In the event, the T-34M design was temporarily abandoned due to the disruption it would have caused.

Another example is the original 1941 version of the F-34 76.2mm tank gun, which had 861 parts; the 1942 production version had only 614. Production time of the T-34 was cut in half and the cost was driven down from 269,500 rubles in 1941 to 193,000 in 1942. Stalingrad’s STZ plant introduced new construction techniques including interlocking armor plate to simplify production. Shortages of rubber led to the design of a new road wheel that eliminated the rubber outer rim in favor of a smaller rubber shock absorber within the hub, dubbed the “steam-locomotive wheel” for its crudity. This only added to the din and noise in the fighting compartment, and even German tankers noted how it became easier to discover the approach of Soviet tanks due to the noise of the new wheels. Some plants that still had modest supplies of rubber on hand tried to remedy the situation by putting a rubber-rimmed wheel on the first and last station, using the “locomotive wheels” only in the center; this started in March 1942 at the main Nizhni-Tagil plant and spread to some other plants as supplies of rubber resumed. The Gorkiy plant substituted the old M-17T gasoline engine for the V-2 diesel for a short time in early 1942 due to engine shortages.

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After receiving a PzKpfw III from Germany in 1940 as part of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Red Army planned to completely revamp the T-34 in late 1941 as the T-34M with a new three-man turret and torsion bar suspension patterned after the German configuration, as shown in this model. The program was dropped in late 1941 due to the urgency to maintain high production levels.

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A KV-1 Model 41 on the Southwestern Front in the spring of 1942 with a burning PzKpfw IV in the background. The political slogan on the turret is “Za Rodinu!” (For the Homeland).

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The loss of the main T-34 plant at Kharkov in 1941 shifted the focus to the new Stalingrad Tractor Plant (STZ) at the end of 1941 into early 1942. This T-34, in action in the summer of 1942, was built at the STZ plant with the expedient “locomotive wheels” adopted due to a lack of rubber.

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The efforts to simplify production gradually paid off in reducing the effort required to manufacture the T-34 tank, as can be seen from the chart above.

One of the few improvements allowed in T-34 production was the introduction of a new hexagonal turret at the Nizhni-Tagil plant in early 1942. The original plan in November 1941 was to manufacture the Gaika (hex-nut) turret from welded armor plate. Instead, when production started in the spring of 1942, the new Gaika turret used casting since it was easier to manufacture. Stalingrad continued to manufacture tanks with the older small welded design while Gorkiy shifted to the use of a cast turret of the older small design. Uralmash had access to a large hydraulic press that had been purchased from Germany before the war and manufactured a version of the Nizhni-Tagil Gaika turret using stamping rather than casting, a process unique in World War II tank construction.

The downside of the factory simplification programs was a continuing decline in tank quality and durability. The Soviet labor force decreased in quality because experienced male employees were drafted into the army and replaced by inexperienced women and boys. The pressure to produce more and more tanks led to shortcuts that impacted quality. There was a severe decline in the quality of cast armor for T-34 turrets in 1942. The inter-crystalline fractures in 1942 were damaging 50–90 percent of the turrets from the Ural Tank Factory and 20–55 percent at the Uralmashzavod. These problems were not fully overcome until the spring of 1943.2 In mid-1942, various size cracks were found in the rolled armor plate of up to 45 percent of the armored hulls produced at Nizhni-Tagil and up to 89 percent at the Uralmashzavod. By the end of the year the size of the cracks had been reduced and the number of defective hulls was down to about 10 percent, but the problem was not completely eliminated prior to the end of the war.

During the fighting in the summer of 1942, these problems became extremely evident and led to bitter complaints from tank units at the front. The areas of greatest concern were the power-plant and transmission. The overall durability of the V-2 diesel engine fell from the prewar standard of 300 hours to only about 100 hours in 1942, and often even worse. There were reports that V-2 diesel engines operating in the dusty air of southern Russia needed repair after only 10–15 hours of operation and failed after 30–50 hours.3 The T-34 had a nominal warranty of 1,000 kilometers of operation before failures, but the head of the GABTU tank administration, Gen. Ya. N. Fedorenko, admitted that in 1942 the average was closer to 200 kilometers. A hand-picked T-34 delivered to the United States in 1942 went 343 kilometers before breaking down during trials at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Engine life for a V-2 diesel engine was 72 hours from a T-34 and 66 hours for the example from a KV-1 during the Aberdeen tests.4

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The only changes permitted on the T-34 were those that sped up production. The Gaika (hex-nut) turret was introduced at the Nizhni-Tagil plant in early 1942. This is the first known photo of this type in combat; the one seen here was knocked out by Finnish forces in Karelia on 19 April 1942. SA-KUVA

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An interior view inside a T-34 Gaika turret from the loader’s side on the right. The Gaika turret was more spacious than the earlier T-34 turret but still offered poor exterior vision for the crew.

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Even though Nizhni-Tagil partly switched to the Gaika turret in early 1942, other plants continued to manufacture T-34 with the earlier small turret. Plant No. 112 in Krasnoye Sormovo used this pattern of cast turret, seen here on a tank burned out during the fighting on the Southwestern Front in the summer of 1942.

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An excellent technical illustration of the T-34 interior layout. This was based on one of two Nizhni-Tagil T-34 tanks manufactured in June 1942 and delivered to Britain and the United States. Both tanks were preserved after the war, one at the Aberdeen Proving Ground Museum in Maryland and the other at Tank Museum at Bovington, United Kingdom.

Part of this was due to problems with quality control of the engine manufacture, but it was exacerbated by the T-34’s Pomon air filter system. When examining their Soviet Union–supplied T-34 in 1942, the American tank engineers at Aberdeen found the air filter to be completely ineffective in dusty conditions and an Achilles heel of the entire power-train. The situation became so bad that Stalin personally telephoned the designers of both the T-34 and KV. The reports indicated that, on average, Soviet tanks could barely reach 50 kilometers of travel before requiring repair work, while German tanks regularly exceeded 200 kilometers in the same conditions. For all their complaints about Lend-Lease tanks, Soviet engineers testing an American M3 medium tank found that it easily covered more than 1,600 kilometers before needing repair; once the worn track was replaced, it covered another 1,200 kilometers without an issue. An American army engineer discussing tank design requirements with a Soviet officer in 1942 was surprised that he expected the gun life of the 76mm on the T-34 to be about 20 rounds, no more than 50, “because tanks don’t survive long enough to fire more”; the U.S. standard was 200–300 rounds.5

The Red Army stuck with the 76mm gun on both the T-34 and KV-1 through 1942. Like the Germans, the Soviets developed tungsten-carbide HVAP projectiles for their antitank guns, starting with one for the 45mm antitank gun in April 1942. The BR-350P HVAP round for the 76mm tank gun was developed during the summer of 1942. However, there was no rush to put this into production since the existing ammunition was deemed adequate. The issue changed with the appearance of the first Tiger heavy tanks at the end of 1942. As a result, production of HVAP ammunition for the 76mm gun was delayed until April–May 1943.6

The Soviet concentration on mass production paid off. T-34 production rose from 454 tanks in January 1942 to 1,568 in December 1942. The Soviet tank inventory rose from 7,700 tanks in January 1942 to 20,600 tanks in January 1943, despite massive combat losses in 1942. This was in part due to continued production of inferior light tanks such as the T-60 and T-70 that could be manufactured at automotive plants without the machine tools to build the larger T-34 and KV tanks.7

German tank inventories rose much more modestly during the same period, from 4,896 to 5,648. The year 1942 saw the German and Soviet armored forces at their most equal. In terms of medium and heavy tanks, Soviet numerical advantage was slight and its technological edge was gradually worn away by German technical improvements.8

The other critical ingredient in combat effectiveness was the training and experience of the tank crews. In this regard, the Red Army had little opportunity to indulge in prolonged crew training due to the high levels of crew casualties and the voracious personnel demands of the many new tank formations. The prewar practice of training the tank crews within the unit in special training companies was largely abandoned after the start of the war. New tank training regiments were set up, many near the tank factories, to train tank crews.9 To speed up the process, in the spring of 1942 the Red Army sent out a notice that all troops who had been tractor drivers or who had driving licenses must be transferred to the new tank training units. On paper, the training program was four months long and included basic training followed by technical training. At the end of the training, the new crews were organized into platoons and companies and dispatched to a crash-course fifteen-day unit training exercise. This consisted of five days of crew drills, a three-day platoon familiarization course, and finally a four-day company exercise to learn offensive and defensive tactics. Resources were quite limited, so during the platoon exercise, the norm was only two and a half hours of actual tank driving, three live rounds of tank gun ammunition, and fifty rounds of machine-gun ammunition. With this course complete, the crews were sent to their new units. The Soviet training program was far less extensive than in the Wehrmacht.10

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The Chelyabinsk plant attempted to redeem the KV tank series by developing a lighter version called the KV-1S. Although it improved the overall performance, it decreased armor protection precisely at a point when improved German tank firepower was posing a greater threat to Soviet tanks.

In 1942, Soviet crew training courses were frequently cut short due to urgent demands from the front, and there were not enough crews trained to fill out all of the positions. So for example, in 1942 some 34,664 tank crewmen were trained, but the new tanks manufactured in 1942 required more than 82,000 crewmen. This required units to fill positions with untrained troops. The limited training of the tank crews led to complaints from the front, and the programs were expanded considerably in later years.11

GERMANY: QUALITY OVER QUANTITY

The panzer force in Russia at the start of 1942 was a shadow of its glory days in the summer of 1941. The winter campaigns had been very hard on its worn-out tanks. There were about 1,015 tanks in service in Russia in January 1942, only a third of the strength at the start of the campaign in the summer of 1941. However, most of these tanks were broken down, and day-to-day operational strength varied from none to about 300 tanks. German tanks were not well suited to severe winter conditions and suffered from a host of mechanical defects.

Aside from addressing these durability issues, the Waffenamt had to finally deal with the mediocre armor and firepower of the panzers compared to their Soviet opponents. This was a three-step effort. To address the shortage of tanks, Hitler authorized the initiation of Panzerprogramm 1941, which gave greater industrial priority to tank production. Hopes of a short, victorious war had evaporated and Berlin finally recognized that preparations were needed for a grinding war of attrition. Three more tank assembly plants began to operate in 1942, and in February Hitler appointed Albert Speer as Reichsminister of Armaments and War Production to rationalize and expand the armaments industry.12 Greater priority was given to panzer production, but even by the end of 1942 it constituted only 4.7 percent of German weapons production, lagging behind aircraft (36.3 percent) and warships and submarines (10.9 percent).13

In the short term, the existing PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV would be the backbone of the panzer force, so they needed to be upgraded in armor and firepower. In the long term, new tanks were needed to overmatch the T-34 and KV. Work had been underway on a variety of new tank types, most of which were scrapped in favor of new designs better suited to the Russian Front. A new heavy breakthrough tank was in the works that would emerge late in 1942 as the Tiger. A new medium tank was also started to address the T-34 threat, but it would not be ready until the summer of 1943 as the Panther.

Vociferous complaints about the inability of German tank and antitank guns to penetrate the armor of the T-34 and KV led to a crash program to field better antitank weapons. The Waffenamt had been working on more powerful antitank guns since 1939, but the programs had low priority until the summer 1940 battles with the French Char B1 bis and British Matilda tanks. Although these encounters reinvigorated the programs, the start of production of the new 50mm PaK 38 antitank gun and the 50mm KwK for the PzKpfw III in the summer of 1940 misled many German commanders to believe that the issue was being addressed. The battles against the T-34 and KV in July 1941 made it clear that both weapons were inadequate. The new 50mm KwK gun on the PzKpfw III had a shorter barrel than the towed 50mm PaK 38 antitank gun, L/42 versus L/60. This directly affected performance, with the tank gun having a muzzle velocity of only 635 m/s compared to 835 m/s for the towed gun. This translated into inferior armor penetration using the standard Pz.Gr.39, 46mm versus 59mm.

Inferior versions of the gun were used due to the widespread belief in tank circles in the 1930s that tank guns should not overhang the front of the chassis for fear they would be prone to accidents that would damage the gun. This viewpoint was not peculiar just to the Wehrmacht but also to many other armies of the day and was the reason for the American Sherman tank’s short gun. The new 50mm KwK 39 with a lengthened L/60 barrel had been ready in the summer of 1940, and there were plans to introduce it on the PzKpfw III Ausf. J starting in March 1941. The Waffenamt was complacent about the issue, believing that the L/42 version was perfectly adequate. When Hitler attended a weapon’s demonstration on his birthday in April 1941, he noticed that the new PzKpfw III Ausf. J still had the short 50mm gun. In spite of his admonitions that it be replaced by the long L/60 gun, these did not enter production until December 1941. Russian accounts claim that this version began appearing in Russia during the December 1941 fight for Moscow, but in actuality they did not appear in any significant numbers until early 1942. As was the case with the towed version of the gun, the 50mm was not capable of penetrating the T-34 or KV frontally unless using the special Pz.Gr.40 projectile with tungsten-carbide core. This ammunition type was limited due to the scarcity of tungsten carbide and amounted to only 8 percent of ammunition production in 1942–43.

Once they recognized the effectiveness of the new German tungsten-carbide ammunition, the Soviet government asked Britain and the United States to shut down supplies of the precious metal. Portugal was one of the main sources, and Britain managed to pressure the government into cutting back supplies. German army monthly consumption peaked at 155 tons in the second quarter of 1941 and fell to only 4 tons in the first quarter of 1942.14

The 50mm gun in its tank and antitank versions formed the backbone of German antitank weapons in the 1942 campaign. A Soviet study of the source of gunfire penetrations of the T-34 tank found that the long 50mm gun accounted for more than half of all penetrations.17

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It was pointless to employ the tungsten-carbide ammunition for the short 75mm gun on the PzKpfw IV since it did not have enough velocity to make it an efficient penetrator. Instead, two approaches were taken. As an expedient, a new shaped-charge warhead was fielded, the Gr 38 H1/A. This was a new type of ammunition based on discoveries by Egon Neumann in 1910 that a high-explosive charge shaped around a copper cone would explosively propel the copper into a narrow hypersonic stream of particles that could penetrate armor plate.18 This type of ammunition, now called HEAT (high-explosive antitank) was first issued to tanks on the Russian Front in January 1942, but its performance was erratic. For maximum effectiveness, it depended on the fuze detonating the warhead in the microseconds before the impact of the projectile against the enemy tank’s armor crushed the copper cone. Since these early HEAT projectiles used a simple impact fuze, the cone was often damaged or deformed in the microseconds after impact before the fuze triggered the explosive, thereby substantially degrading its penetration power. Still, it was better than nothing. At short range, it could penetrate 75mm of armor compared to only 41mm of armor of a conventional 75mm armor-piercing round. Improved versions such as the Gr 38 H1/C, which appeared later in 1942, could penetrate about 100mm of armor, making it lethal against the T-34’s frontal armor if it detonated properly.

The HEAT round for the short 75mm tank gun was obviously only an expedient, and so a second approach was taken. A longer and more powerful 75mm gun was needed to consistently penetrate the T-34 and KV at normal battle ranges. Since the PzKpfw III had a small turret race that could not accommodate much more recoil, this meant that such a weapon would be fitted to the PzKpfw IV. Instead of being the Wehrmacht’s secondary support tank, the PzKpfw IV would become its main tank in the mid-war years, replacing the PzKpfw III.

The initial plan in May 1941 was to mount a tank version of the 50mm PaK 38 on the PzKpfw IV to improve its antitank performance. The 50mm KwK 39 was a longer (L/60) gun than the weapon then in use on the PzKpfw III Ausf. J (L/42). However, the first encounters with the T-34 and KV in June 1941 put a quick end to these plans. A new 75mm PaK 40 towed antitank gun already had entered production in response to the encounters with heavily armored French and British tanks in 1940. The first PaK 40 guns were manufactured in February 1941 shortly before the start of Operation Barbarossa and first deployed in April 1941. In view of the T-34 threat, the Waffenamt awarded Krupp a contract in November 1941 to develop a 75mm tank on a crash basis in cooperation with Rheinmetall. This gun had a shorter barrel than the towed Pak 40 (L/43 versus L/46) and used a shorter propellant cartridge better suited to loading inside a tank turret. The new 75mm KwK 40 tank gun was put into production on a crash basis on the PzKpfw IV F2 starting in March 1942. This offered a major step forward in German tank firepower, and it was able to penetrate 91mm of armor at 30 degrees at 500 meters using the normal Pz.Gr.39 round and 108mm of armor using the tungsten-carbide Pz.Gr.40 round. The growing importance of the PzKpfw IV was reflected in its production rate, with the monthly rate going from 40 tanks per month in 1940 to 65 tanks per month by the end of 1942.

While the main focus had been on increasing firepower to deal with the T-34 threat, the Waffenamt also pursued a gradual increase in tank armor. At the beginning of 1942, the standard frontal protection on the PzKpfw III Ausf. J was 30mm on the turret front and 50mm on the hull front. With the introduction of the PzKpfw III Ausf. L in June 1942, the gun mantlet was increased to 50mm plus a spaced 20mm appliqué, and the hull likewise increased with a 20mm spaced appliqué. The PzKpfw IV Ausf. G was upgraded with an additional 30mm of armor bolted to the existing 50mm armor starting in June 1942.

THE RED ARMY TANK FORCE IN THE 1942 CAMPAIGNS

At the beginning of 1942, the Red Army tank force was still based on small formations. The tank brigades, with a nominal strength of sixty-seven tanks each, were intended for independent action in support of corps and armies. The rifle divisions were supported by separate tank battalions or regiments, often equipped with older types such as the T-26 or BT tanks or with the newly arrived Lend-Lease tanks.19 Tank brigade strength continued to drop through the winter due to production shortfalls and heavy combat losses. The official organization in December 1941 was only forty-six tanks, down to just twenty-seven in February 1942. Many brigades didn’t even reach these official figures. Once the new tank plants came on line in the late winter of 1941–42, the tank brigades began to grow again. The April 1942 table had forty-six tanks: sixteen T-34s, ten KV-1, and twenty T-60 light tanks.

The senior Red Army commanders recognized that they needed larger combined-arms formations to have a decisive impact on the battlefield. On 31 March 1942, the Red Army started the activation of four new tank corps. The name of these units was deceptive. By European and American standards, the corps were in fact weak divisions with barely 5,000 men each. They were based on two tank brigades and a motor rifle brigade, but the brigades at this point were only battalion-strength by Western standards. In mid-April 1942, the tank corps organization was enlarged again to three tank brigades with a total of about 150 tanks. In spite of their limitations, the new tank corps were the first step in reviving the Red Army’s mechanized forces.

The initial use of the tank corps was disappointing due to the Red Army’s lack of tactical experience, poor training, and materiel defects. Two tank corps were committed to action in May 1942 during the offensive near Kharkov and suffered serious losses. Soviet commanders were still not very adept at using the larger tank formations, often breaking the corps up into separate subunits to support the infantry. Soviet tank losses in May alone were nearly 1,500.

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A T-34 Model 42 with the Gaika turret passes by a knocked-out PzKpfw III during the fighting on the Western Front west of Moscow in September 1942.

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A trio of T-34 in action in the Ukraine in the autumn of 1942. The tank in the foreground is a Krasnoye Sormovo–built tank with the small cast turret while the two behind have the enlarged Gaika turret.

One of the problems with the Soviet tank units in early 1942 was the diverse selection of equipment. For example, in the case of the 22nd Tank Corps that took part in the Kharkov fighting, one of its brigades had fifty tanks (twelve Lend-Lease Matildas, twenty Lend-Lease Valentines, and eighteen T-60 light tanks); another brigade had only twenty-three tanks (twelve T-34 and eleven BT tanks); and the third had thirty-two tanks (twelve Matildas and Valentines, fourteen BT, and six T-26).20 This motley selection of types presented a maintenance nightmare that degraded an already-weak logistics network.

Even the units with new Soviet tanks had problems. The KV-1 heavy tanks were a frequent source of difficulty, being considerably slower than the T-34 and T-60 light tanks. The KV tanks were also so heavy that they could not use many rural bridges. Combined with their slow speed, they often became isolated from the rest of the brigade. Although the KV had emerged from the 1941 onslaught as a “wonder weapon,” it was no longer invulnerable by 1942. By then the more experienced Soviet tank commanders preferred the faster and more reliable T-34 and would have preferred to see KV heavy tank and T-60 light tank production end altogether. Although plans were considered to end all light and heavy tank production, this would have disrupted the armament industry just as it was beginning to rise to the challenge of meeting the Red Army’s production requirements.

The painful debut of the tank corps in the Kharkov battles led to a serious reassessment of the Red Army tank forces. There was greater effort to try to standardize tank types within units. For example, the new July 1942 tank brigade organization dropped the KV altogether and was based on three companies with thirty-two T-34s and one light tank company with twenty-one T-60 or T-70 tanks. The KV tanks were sequestered in the heavy tank regiments for infantry support.

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A pair of tanks of the 106th Tank Brigade, 12th Tank Corps, on the Western Front in September 1942, consisting of a T-34 Model 1942 with Gaika turret named after Molotov in the foreground and a T-34 Model 41 behind it. This unit had been decimated in a series of costly and inept attacks on Army Group Center in July–August 1942 and the tanks are seen here being reconstituted in the Moscow area.

These reorganization efforts had not taken hold by the time the Wehrmacht unleashed its principal summer offensive of 1942, Operation Blau, aimed at seizing the oil fields of the Caucasus in southern Russia. Even though the Red Army tank forces of the Bryansk Front substantially outnumbered the attacking German formations on the approaches to Voronezh, three Soviet tank corps and several brigades were decimated in late June 1942 without appreciably slowing the German onslaught. For example, the 17th Tank Corps was relatively well-equipped with 23 KV-1, 88 T-34, and 68 T-60 light tanks for a total of 179. It was committed against the XXIV.Panzer-Korps along the Olym River near Kastornoye but lost 141 of its 179 tanks in a few days of fighting.

The Bryansk Front then attempted to stem the German assault on the northern shoulder by using the Fifth Tank Army, consisting of three tank corps with 641 tanks. In less than two weeks of fighting, the three tank corps lost 341 tanks, had a further 158 broken down or battle damaged, and had only 142 (22 percent) still operational.21 The three Soviet fronts lost over 2,400 tanks in the Voronezh-Voroshilovgrad defensive campaign from 28 June–24 July, about three-quarters of their starting strength.22 A further 1,425 tanks were lost in the fighting farther south on the approaches to Stalingrad from July–November 1942. The fighting along the Don River in the summer of 1942 was the costliest tank fighting of the year, averaging a loss of 90 tanks per day. It showed the Red Army to be still unprepared for large-scale tank operations against their more skilled adversary. Having penetrated the Soviet defenses, the German panzers spearheaded the drive toward the Volga and Stalingrad.

The situation was not much better on other fronts. An offensive directed by Marshal Georgi Zhukov managed to overcome the German defenses on the northeast corner of the Rzhev Salient in early August 1942. The Western Front’s Thirty-First and Twentieth Armies were well equipped with tanks, using them for infantry support in the initial breakthrough of the German defenses. Two tank corps were held in reserve to exploit the breakthrough. The Thirty-First Army was supported by six tank brigades numbering 274 tanks, while the Twentieth Army contained two of the new tank corps (6th and 8th Corps) along with five tank brigades with a total of 614 tanks. Following the breakthrough, both tank corps were committed, but the Germans responded by sending in the 2. and 5.Panzer-Divisions to staunch the gap. In less than two weeks of fighting, the two armies lost 505 of their 888 tanks. Of these losses, 223 were total losses while 282 were temporary losses due to mechanical breakdowns or battle damage. A report prepared after the battle noted that the armies did not have the spare parts to repair many of the tanks and that there were insufficient recovery vehicles. Trucks that were intended to carry the motor rifle brigades into battle were instead used to haul supplies from the rear, undermining combined-arms tactics in the inexperienced tank corps.23

Soviet tank casualties in the summer 1942 fighting totaled about 8,000 tanks. Not only were tank losses severe, but also the tank units were constantly short of trained and experienced tank crews. After so many tanks had been abandoned in the summer of 1941, the Red Army enacted draconian measures, sending tank crews to penal battalions if they left a tank that had been knocked out in combat but had not burned. Given the lingering mechanical difficulties with Soviet tanks, this only served to exaggerate crew casualties when crews were left exposed on the battlefield vainly waiting for evacuation by the scarce repair teams. There was also a tendency to let tank units fight until all their tanks were lost, and then absorb any surviving crews into neighboring infantry units. As the Red Army began to appreciate the critical human element in tank combat and the value of experienced tank crews, Red Army policies became less brutal and less senseless. In December 1942, Moscow ordered that all trained tank crews and wounded tank crewmen in hospitals be returned to the tank force and not serve in the other branches of the army.24

The German advance on Stalingrad was finally stopped in the autumn of 1942 due to exhaustion and relentless Soviet counterattacks. It was the high-water mark of the Wehrmacht’s assault into Russia. The German 6.Armee reached the outskirts of Stalingrad in late August 1942 and started a bitter battle to capture the city. Although there were extensive tank battles on the approaches to the city, the city fighting itself was a classic urban battle with tanks playing a secondary support role. The Red Army’s tank force in the immediate Stalingrad area suffered heavy losses in the initial fighting, as can be seen in the accompanying chart.

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A T-34 Model 1942 with the Gaika turret serving with the Southwestern Front on the Middle Don during Operation Uranus in the winter of 1942–43, the operation to crush the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad. This is typical of T-34 production later in 1942, with rubber-rimmed wheels on the first and last stations to make up for the use of the metal “locomotive wheels” in the center.

The Red Army decided to envelope the 6.Armee from the flanks under a plan code-named Operation Uranus. The attack took place after the winter weather froze the autumnal mud. One of the key elements of this attack was a lightning strike by the Fifth Tank Army through the weak Romanian Third Army on the Don River north of Stalingrad. Operation Uranus was launched on 19 November 1942 and was a stunning success. It was the first time that the Soviet tank corps had demonstrated their potential for deep operations. The Germans responded in early December 1942 with Operation Winter Storm, an attempt to relieve the trapped 6.Armee in Stalingrad. These winter battles were extremely costly on both sides. The tank forces of the Voronezh and Southwestern Fronts in December 1942 included five tank and mechanized corps that lost 90 percent of their tanks in two weeks of fighting, mainly from mechanical breakdowns and other logistical problems.26 Nevertheless, the German relief effort failed and 6.Armee was finally forced to surrender in February 1943.

The Red Army had started the 1942 campaigns with 7,700 tanks and during the course of the year’s fighting lost 15,000 tanks. However, tank production in 1942 totaled 24,589 tanks; added to this were a further 3,514 Lend-Lease tanks supplied in 1942, 1,689 British and 1,825 American tanks.27 As a result, on 1 January 1943, the Red Army tank force had expanded three-fold to 20,600 tanks.28 The Red Army tank force still had very limited battlefield experience, but the Soviet Union had won the “Battle of the Factories,” survived another campaign season, and demonstrated the potential of its revived tank forces in the fighting around Stalingrad.

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THE WEHRMACHT PANZER FORCE IN THE 1942 CAMPAIGNS

The Wehrmacht tank force continued to exhibit tactical superiority over their Soviet opponents through the 1942 campaign. The introduction of the long 50mm gun on the PzKpfw III and the long 75mm gun on the PzKpfw IV created a level of technical parity in tank-versus-tank fighting during the summer and autumn 1942 campaigns.

Despite the tactical excellence of the panzer force in 1942, there were alarming issues which undermined the overall effectiveness of the Wehrmacht against the Red Army. The two most serious of these were the surprisingly low rate of German tank production, exacerbated by low readiness rate of German tanks on the Russian Front.

At the start of 1942, German tank power on the Russian Front was a spent force. The Wehrmacht had 1,015 tanks on the Russian Front, most of which were broken down from mechanical exhaustion and battle damage.30 The challenge facing the Ostheer (Eastern Army) was to rebuild the tank force sufficiently to spearhead its summer campaign. In contrast to 1941, German operational objectives in 1942 were geographically limited since it could not operate in strength along the entire Russian Front. Instead, the objectives of Operation Blau were concentrated entirely on the southern flank beyond the Don River in order to seize Soviet oil reserves in the Caucasus. Operations in the north around Leningrad and in the center around Moscow were defensive holding operations and panzer divisions in these sectors were starved of tanks.

The Wehrmacht was overextended with tanks deployed in Norway to the north, to France in the west, and to North Africa in the south. The Ostheer panzer force was the largest single element of the deployed force, averaging about 61 percent of the deployed force and about 37 percent of overall German tank strength in 1942. Production kept ahead of losses in 1942 with 4,278 tanks manufactured and 2,651 tanks lost. The difference between production and loss, some 1,627 tanks, accounts for the increase in overall German tank strength on the Russian Front, which went from 1,015 to 2,758 in 1942. However, the overall improvement of the Ostheer panzer force pales in comparison to the Soviet tank force, which grew from 7,700 at the start of 1942 to 20,600 by the end of 1942.

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Obsolete does not always mean useless. Some PzKpfw I light tanks remained in use on the Eastern Front in secondary roles. This one was serving in Finland with Panzer-Abteilung 40 and is seen in action on 15 May 1940 in support of German infantry. SA-KUVA

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A PzKpfw IV Ausf. G with the long 75mm KwK 40 gun during the summer 1942 campaign.

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The workhorse of the panzer force in Russia remained the PzKpfw III, in this case an Ausf. J with the long 50mm gun of the 9.Panzer-Division on 20 July 1942.

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This scene may suggest North Africa but it shows the advance of SS-Division Nordland during the advance to the Caucasus in the summer of 1942. The conditions in southern Russia led to the dispatch of tropicalized tanks to some units in this sector for the summer offensive. This is a PzKpfw III Ausf. J with the long 50mm KwK 39 gun.

One reason for the German complacency about the need to match Soviet tank strength was a tendency in the early years of the war to exaggerate Soviet tank losses and underestimate Soviet productive capacity. The Wehrmacht tended to overestimate the number of tanks it had destroyed or captured in combat. To their credit, the army’s Russian Front intelligence agency, the Fremde Heere Ost (FHO), usually made allowances for the exaggeration in their assessments. This resulted in reasonably accurate tallies of actual Soviet tank losses.32 Nevertheless, the lopsided nature of the tank losses in 1942 led to a certain amount of overconfidence on the German side. The Soviet-German tank loss ratio in 1942 was 6.6:1. This is sometimes misinterpreted to suggest that German tanks were killing Soviet tanks at a ratio of more than 6 to 1. It should be kept in mind that the majority of Soviet tank losses were probably due to mechanical breakdown and abandonment and that about half of the combat losses were to weapons other than tanks.

From available figures, the panzer force on the Russian Front had a dismal durability rate. On average, only about 60 percent of the tanks were operational at any one time, while on average 40 percent were being repaired. The reasons for this included both the shortcomings of German tank design when facing harsh winter conditions in Russia and a continual shortage of spare parts. As detailed earlier, the German tank force was almost entirely derelict at the start of 1942 due to mechanical exhaustion and weather-induced problems. These were gradually overcome prior to the summer campaign season, but reappeared in the winter of 1942–43.

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When viewed in the longer perspective, the operational rates of the panzer force on the Russian Front were cyclic, declining in winter from combat attrition and weather, improving in spring as spare parts began arriving from Germany, reaching their peak in the summer for the campaigning season, declining in the autumn due to combat losses and growing shortages of spare parts, and reaching their nadir in the winter again as weather exacerbated the problems.

One reason that the German durability rates look so bad on paper is the accounting methods used by the Wehrmacht. Units usually held on to wrecked or damaged tanks since they could be cannibalized for spare parts. There was nothing to be gained by sending tanks back to Germany for repair since this would not trigger the dispatch of a replacement. Tank replacement policy was miserly. A postwar British intelligence assessment noted that the allocation problem could be traced back to OKW (Armed Forces High Command) policy:

The basic policy of allocation was that 90 per cent of new production was to be given to units being formed, for new setting-up, while 10 per cent went to the field to replace the losses of formations in action. The result was that veteran formations in action were chronically short of equipment, while new “green” units were committed to action with complete or near complete establishment of equipment only to lose a fantastically high percentage in their first engagement.34

In the case of panzer units, the new equipment was often withheld in Germany to re-equip divisions that had been decimated on the Russian Front and then sent back to the rear for reconstruction.

Part of the problems encountered by the Germans in assessing the Red Army was the very different approach to force-generation in both armies in 1942. The Soviet leadership tacitly recognized that it could not yet match the Wehrmacht in a man-for-man, tank-for-tank contest. Instead, Soviet tanks and tank units were regarded as expendable. A tank corps or tank brigade would be committed to battle, fight for a week or two until nearly annihilated, and then rebuilt from the remnants. This required a very large reservoir of tanks to sustain a desperate, attritional struggle.

The Nazi regime was notoriously inept in industrial planning in the early war years, spending vast portions of its limited resources on marginal forces such as a blue-water navy. The biggest drain on Germany’s industrial resources was the Luftwaffe, directed by Hitler’s paladin, Hermann Göring, which consumed the majority of the Reich’s weapons procurement resources. The Wehrmacht could not match the Red Army in manpower, and the German tank industry never received the resources necessary to challenge its Soviet counterpart in sheer numbers. The Wehrmacht hoped to maintain battlefield parity by stressing quality over quantity. It was able to maintain parity in 1942, but the improving quality of the Soviet tank force in 1942 and their ruthlessly practical approach to weapons production threatened to tip the balance sometime in the not-too-distant future.

A widely overlooked consequence of the small scale of German tank production was the inability of the Wehrmacht to provide adequate tank support to the infantry divisions. Unlike the Red Army, the Wehrmacht did not deploy separate tank regiments for infantry support missions, concentrating its tanks entirely in the panzer divisions. The lack of direct tank support degraded the offensive capability of the German infantry divisions, especially when attempting to conduct breakthrough operations against the Red Army.

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In spite of opposition from senior panzer commanders such as Heinz Guderian, the Wehrmacht began to devote more industrial resources to the production of the StuG III assault gun to provide essential infantry fire support. This is a StuG III Ausf. F of Sturmgeschüteilung 210 during the fighting in the Kuban in southern Russia in the autumn of 1942.

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The StuG III Ausf. F introduced the longer L/48 gun. This is an assault gun of Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung 210 in the port of Novorossiysk after its capture in early September 1942 during the fighting in the Kuban. The battalion was nicknamed “Tigerkopf” for its tiger-head insignia.

As an alternative, the artillery branch had attempted to build up a force of assault guns (Sturmgeschütz) as a mobile equivalent of the World War I infantry guns. Notoriously, Heinz Guderian accused Erich von Manstein of “treason” for his advocacy of Sturmgeschütz production before the war since it would impact panzer production. In the event, Sturmgeschütz battalions began to appear in 1940 but were so few in number that they were usually sequestered as corps or field army assets. It wasn’t until 1944 that German infantry divisions began to receive a company of Panzerjäger and a company of Sturmgeschütz. The declining offensive power of the German infantry divisions often forced the army to use panzer divisions for breakthrough operations, explicitly against tactical doctrine.

Despite the many shortcomings in the German tank industry in 1942, by the winter of 1942–43 the Ostheer panzer force was in better shape than it had been in the previous winter. The industry had managed to come up with many small innovations to keep the panzer force running even in the depths of Russian winters. The introduction of new antifreeze solutions and lubricants kept them moving in the winter months. The manufacture of Winterketten (winter tracks) with extended end connectors gave the PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV similar or better traction in the snow than their Soviet counterparts. But there were still not enough German tanks for the vast battlefront in Russia.

INTELLIGENCE MISJUDGMENTS

One of the mysteries of the quantity versus quality approach to tank production was the role of poor intelligence on both sides. It is possible that German underestimation of Soviet tank production led Berlin to be complacent about the need for greater panzer production in 1941–42. Likewise, Soviet overestimation of German production may have been a contributory cause in pushing for very extravagant production rates.

The German FHO badly underestimated Soviet production capacity in the early war years. In 1942, FHO estimated that Soviet tank forces had gained 19,000 tanks (14,500 manufactured plus 4,500 Lend-Lease) when in fact production had been 24,589 plus 3,914 Lend-Lease tanks for a total of 28,503, a discrepancy of almost 10,000 tanks. FHO also underestimated Soviet tank holdings at the start of 1942, so after estimating 17,330 Soviet tanks lost in 1942, they assessed the Red Army tank strength as 5,640 at the start of 1943 instead of the actual 20,600.35

In the Soviet case, the Red Army’s GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate) grossly overestimated German tank production in the early war years by a factor of five. These exaggerated numbers may not have seemed so wildly improbable since the GRU also grossly overestimated German tank losses by more than four-fold.36

The impact of bad intelligence on tank production requirements has not been widely explored, and this book is the first to have even raised the issue. This is something of a “chicken-and-egg” dilemma. Which came first, the bad intelligence estimate or the production requirements? It is possible that the production priorities of both armies were established by their own internal dynamics, regardless of bad intelligence. In this case, the intelligence estimates may have been fostered by one of the classic intelligence blunders—mirror imaging. The Red Army may have presumed that German production was on a scale similar to Soviet production, hence the gross exaggerations. This is a mystery that requires more research.

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TOP TANK OF 1942 ON THE RUSSIAN FRONT

By 1942, the T-34 tank was slipping in combat performance compared to its German adversaries; it no longer enjoyed the same clear-cut superiority as in 1941. As detailed above, shortcuts in its manufacture degraded its performance and self-imposed restrictions on improvements doomed it to diminishing effectiveness against German tanks. In contrast, the decision to up-gun and up-armor the PzKpfw IV gave it the firepower to deal with the T-34. At the same time, German tanks still maintained an edge in the less tangible aspects of tank performance, especially crew situational awareness, command and control, and durability. The nods for Tanker’s Choice and Commander’s Choice both go to the PzKpfw IV Ausf. G.

For Tiger enthusiasts in the reading audience, I have not considered this type in this chapter because it appeared too late in 1942 and in too small a number to have had any measurable impact. It will be covered in detail in Chapter 7.

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A PzKpfw IV Ausf. G during the fighting in the winter of 1942–43. This tank is fitted with Ostketten, a widened track intended to provide better traction in the snow.

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