Lessons Learned…Or Not: Tanks Between World Wars
We all know that armored warfare took a huge leap from the First to the Second World War. Obviously the technology got better in terms of engine power and reliability, armament and armor, and overall design. But when war broke out in 1939 no single nation was head and shoulders above the others technologically. The most important work done between the wars dealt with how armor was to be used. In that area, there were significant differences.
Everything done between the wars was based on what had gone down between 1914 and 1918 on Great War battlefields. The Brits had led the way in armored warfare in 1917-1918 and they built on that work in the 1920s. Colonel J.F.C. Fuller experimented with independent armored formations in field exercises and embarrassed the hell out of the cavalry and infantry several times. Fuller wrote that “Success in war depends upon mobility and mobility upon time. Mobility leads to mass, to surprise and to security. Other things being equal, the most mobile side must win: this is a truism in war as in horse-racing.” Unfortunately, with the retirement of the armor-friendly Lord Milne as Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1934, the traditionalists got their revenge against Fuller and other armor enthusiasts. Milne’s successors saw large concentrations of armor as a threat to the good old boy ways of the British regimental system and took every opportunity to sabotage the development of armor.
The Royal Tank Corps was downsized just as it was showing real progress and emphasis was shifted to motorizing the infantry and artillery. Improving the mobility of the foot-sloggers and big guns made sense, but relegating the tanks to a supporting role did not, especially considering the gains made in the previous decade. In order to preserve the regimental system, certain elements of the British High Command arbitrarily decided that large armored formations had no future. In short, tradition won out over the realities of the modern battlefield.
While the Brits took a wrong turn when it came to armored ops between the wars, the French never even got on the road. In 1914 the French had been the most offensive-minded of the major combatants. OK, so what? Aggressiveness is good right? Well, sure, provided it takes place within a sound doctrinal structure. The problem for the French was that they placed little emphasis on tactical or operational proficiency and relied much too heavily on the élan of the individual soldier. As a result, the execution of their 1914 war plan, the infamous “Plan XVII,” was less than successful. It seems that the Germans they ran into were tactically and operationally proficient.
Anyway, the French swung the pendulum from one extreme in 1914 to the other after 1918. To be fair, the French Army took its responsibility to be prepared very seriously. By 1939 the French had a large pool of trained reserves and national defense received generous funding. But the French were heavily influenced by their ruinous casualty rate during World War I. Even the offensive successes of 1918 had come at a very high cost and the French saw no real advantage to studying those battles.
Instead, the French focused on highly-orchestrated scenarios like they tried to execute in 1940. Everything was designed to minimize casualties by remaining on the defensive until the attacking Germans overextended themselves, then launching a powerful counterattack against their weakened enemies. The Maginot Line was a big part of this strategy and, misguided as it was, the Line did exactly what it was designed to do: defend the border with a small number of troops while freeing up large numbers for the planned counterattacks by the maneuver elements.
It was really not a bad plan on the surface, but had two major flaws. First, the maneuver forces were top-heavy in terms of command and were designed to be tightly controlled from the army and corps levels. Subordinate commanders had little or no freedom to deviate from the plan as conditions changed. Second, the Germans decided not to cooperate. It was the German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder who famously said that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. The French didn’t get that particular memo.
Independent armored forces had no place in the French scheme. The biggest assets of armor are concentration and mobility. The French used neither. They doled the tanks out in what German General Heinz Guderian called “penny packets.” Instead of armored divisions with infantry support, the French broke up their armor by battalions, assigning one each to front-line infantry regiments as support units. The tanks were restricted to the pace of the infantry. So the slowest foot soldier set the pace of the armor assigned to his regiment. There were plans for experimental armored divisions by 1938, but when the war broke out in 1939, their TO&E hadn’t even been worked out. When the Germans attacked in 1940, the French were still stuck in 1918.
It’s common knowledge that the Germans made the best use of the lessons from World War I when it came to bringing mobility back to the battlefield. As early as 1921 the German Army had commissioned studies of the last war, from the point of view of both sides, in order to learn what had worked and what hadn’t and, more importantly, why and why not. The goal was to bring mobility back to the battlefield since it had been proven that trench warfare was inconclusive at best and Germany could not hold out indefinitely against the Western sea powers. The Germans had historically fought quick wars of maneuver. They realized that there had to be a return to that scenario if they wanted to win in the future.
I’ve talked about doctrine several times, so now seems to be a good time to point out that, as most of this audience probably knows, doctrine can be the proverbial double-edged sword. Done well, doctrine serves as the framework within which an organization conducts warfare. It guides but does not restrict originality. This would be a description of how it was approached by the Germans. Done badly, it becomes mere dogma, stifling creativity in the name of the system. That was the French and, along different lines, the British problem.
In the early 1920s, the German Commander-in-Chief, General Hans von Seeckt, wrote that “operation ist bewegung.” In the American tongue that translates roughly as “operations are based upon movement.” Seeckt obviously agreed with Fuller; he just didn’t use as many words to say it. The Germans had actually taken their first steps toward operational maneuver during the Riga Campaign of 1917 and the great Western Front offensives of 1918. Using what they called stosstrupp (stormtroop) tactics, they blew huge holes in the Allied lines during the Michael, Georgette, and Blücher Offensives. The tactics, like the British armored tactics of the same period, were ahead of their time. They could punch through the Allied lines, but they couldn’t be supported. They eventually ran out of steam, creating indefensible salients which were reduced by the Allies with heavy casualties.
Tanks, combined with motorized support units and radio communications, gave the Germans the tools they needed to support the breakthrough long enough to turn it into a real operational breakout. Unlike the British, the Germans understood that tanks could not operate alone and had to have support in the form of infantry, artillery, and tactical air. Unlike the French, the Germans made the armor the centerpiece around which everything else revolved. Instead of tying the tanks to the infantry and horse-drawn artillery, the new panzer divisions had dedicated motorized infantry and artillery and, by 1940, were working out the intricacies of close-air support, which, incidentally, had been pioneered by the USMC. In other words, the tanks set the pace and everyone else had to keep up as best they could. The poor French, whose tanks were not allowed to outpace the foot soldiers, had absolutely no chance once the Germans got wound up and hit the road networks at full speed.
Not only did the Germans emphasize speed and mobility, again, unlike the French, they concentrated their forces to maximum effect. When Guderian was presented with the plan for the invasion of France in 1940 he enthusiastically recommended concentrating the panzer divisions at the point of main effort; “if possible,” he said, “all of them.” Guderian understood the power of armor in a combined arms environment. One of his favorite sayings was “Klotzen, nicht kleckern!” That translates as “hit with the fist, don’t feel with the fingers!” After the German breakthrough at Sedan on 14 May, 1940, Guderian wondered whether he should strike out to the west or detail units to protect his southern flank. One of his officers said “klotzen, nicht kleckern!” Guderian laughed and ordered his two lead panzer divisions west at full speed. Six days later he stood at the English Channel after having cut off the entire left wing of the Allied army, which would have to evacuate the Continent at Dunkirk.
The tank came a long way between its introduction in 1916 and its coming out party in 1940. The technology was available to all the great powers, and the German tanks of 1940 were inferior in many ways to their French counterparts. The difference was how they were used. The British, despite early advances, saw the tank as a threat to the traditions of the British Army and so let those advances all but wither away. The French saw armor as merely a support system for the infantry. It took the Germans and, to be fair, the Russians, to develop the tank to its full potential. By the middle of the war, the Western Allies were still playing catch-up, but were well on their way to implementing the German model themselves. The greatest example of their success was the dash of General George Patton’s Third Army across France after the breakout from Normandy. Armored warfare would never look back.
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About the Author: William “Bucky” Lawson has had a thing for military history since the sixth grade when he picked up a book about WorldWar I fighter aces. Since then he has studied warriors from Ancient Greece to the modern day, with a special emphasis on World War II. He has an unabashed love of the USA, military surplus bolt action rifles, AK-47s, and Walther handguns. He despises incabination and likes hamburgers, dogs, and cigars, but really who doesn’t? Sissies and vegans, that’s who. Bucky contributes to Strategy & Tactics Press and is currently tiptoeing barefoot on the razor’s edge of his Masters Degree in Military History, after which he will probably proclaim himself an academic and wear one of those jackets with the patches on the elbows. Could be he’ll run down a PhD, maybe he’ll go hunting instead — Bucky likes the charred flesh of something that once had a parent, especially if he killed it himself. He is currently trying to figure out a way to export Texas politics to his native Virginia. Breach-Bang-Clear readers who talk to Bucky will be happy to know he’s only half the redneck he sounds and really isn’t inbred at all. Or not too much anyway, which is why he gets along so well with our other polrumptions. You can find historical bibliognost on Linked In here.