Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Panther Brigade 10 at Kursk - Redux

There was a huge catfight after Kursk as to Pz Brig 10's notable lack of success. Everyone was screaming about how the Panthers hadn't worked. Decker[1] blamed Strachwitz's tactics, because his own rear end was very much on the line. Decker was not with his unit from 7-11 July, being called to account to Knobelsdorff (XXXXVII Pzkps) for the brigade staff's lack of effectiveness, and thus had a fine opportunity to blame Strachwitz and Hoernlein for all the problems. His letter drips self-justification, conveniently ignoring a few facts, such as the loss of about 150 of the 200 Panthers in the attacks on 5-6 July, when Decker was in command. Most of the confusion regarding terrain, Pakfronts and minefields resulted from the Panther units having arrived at the last minute and conducted no reconnaissance, many of their officers' inexperience, and radio equipment deficiencies. The "idiocy" of Strachwitz's tactics also may be judged by the fact that at the end of 6 July, Pz Rgt GD, which had been out front both days, had suffered far fewer losses than had Pz Brig 10. The reality was that GD with Pz Brig 10 attached undertook its mission exactly in accordance with its orders and current Panzer doctrine. The sad fact was that the panzerwaffe had never encountered a defense in depth of the sort found in the Korps AO. Doctrine until then had called for slashing tactics, ignoring flanks. The changes to doctrine reflected lessons learned generally, not any fault in Pz Rgt GD. Of course, doctrine for offensive operations of the Kursk sort wasn't used much thereafter. Strachwitz was very much the aristocrat and could be forbidding to deal with. He also remained adept at aggressive Panzer tactics, leading to his repeated tasking to pocket-relief missions until the war's end. Anyone wondering just how widely he was regarded as "idiotic" should search (in vain) for other criticism of him like Decker's, and consider his and his critic's respective career paths after Kursk. The confusion that's arisen over this question is just another example of the deficiencies inherent in Jentz's approach in Panzertruppen. Apparently uncomfortable with his analytical abilities, he declines any analysis whatsoever. This would not present so many problems if he weren't so selective in the primary sources he quotes and paraphrases, and if his readers generally were a little more historiographically sophisticated. By the way, I found the Decker letter at p 96 of Panzertruppen 2, and the info on Pz Brig 10's late arrival and the losses on 5-6 July are at pp 114 et seq of Jung's Pzrgt GD book.

Both abteilungen [battalions] abtn retained a cadre or kernel of very experienced crews. However, they were filled out with inexperienced people, many with no panzer experience at all, and were subject to some personnel "raiding" during their long sojourn in Germany during the Panther teething period. Officer quality in the two abtn was very uneven. Because the brigade's Panthers only were shipped at the eleventh hour, many of the crews had very slim experience with the new vehicle; bear in mind that a minimal number of Panthers had been issued for training, and they all experienced very high downtime from teething problems. More important, perhaps, there had been very little work at zug [platoon] level and none on a larger scale. Many of the abtn personnel arrived in the kampfraum only a day or so before the offensive began; the brigade staff showed up even later. Thus there was very little of the usual foot recon, signals testing, etc. that doctrine stated should precede a deliberate attack. While a veteran unit might have improved on the brig's performance in the almost-hasty attack circumstances faced on 5-7 July, and veteran crews doubtless maneuverered and fought well, subject to mechanical problems and the unexpected defenses, the brigade as a whole charitably could be said to have been still shaking down at Kursk. It would be interesting to know how the brig's performance improved over the campaign. Presumably experienced crews made fewer disabling errors (a major reason for engine failure was said to be inexperienced driving, and presumably green crews made more tactical mistakes and paid for them); I wonder to what extent veteran crews that lost their rides ranked others out of their panzers. These two factors likely shrank the brig into a much smaller but more effective unit. The brigade's problems in training, equipping and transport, and the resulting difficulties in their first engagements, are recounted in Jentz and in the Spaeter and Jung GD books ( I recall that Feist and some other secondary published sources selectively synopsize the information.) Of course, it's necessary to read with the filters on, as all the first-hand reports were written to assign or deflect blame for the brigade's problems, but many assertions appear factual and unequivocal, and rough triangulation towards an assessment is possible.

There were a three instances of German Panzer brigades getting thrashed in Lorraine in the fall of 1944. And the typical cry of "Jabos" doesn't begin to explain what happened. The Germans were outmaneuvered and outfought, twice by American troops of Patton's army; and in the third instance by the French 2nd AD.

In these three instances the common denominator was the lack of experience of the Panzer troops. This charge can even be made against their senior leadership -- for while they were experts in armored warfare on the eastern front, they were ill-prepared to fight on the western front of 1944.

Certainly tanks were abandoned by their crews during these fights and certainly some of these were cases of panic. But, a small set of instances like these is hardly justification to intimate on a broad scale that Heer panzer crews were cowardly or untrained. All the actions in this case prove is that less well trained and experienced troops will generally not do well against a better trained and experienced enemy. This was proved again in January 1945, when the shoe was on the other foot, and it was the green U.S. 12th Armored Division learning harsh lessons in and around Herrlisheim.

[1]Lauchert lead the 39th Panzer Regiment (the Panthers). Decker lead the 10th Panzer Brigade, which was supposed to consist of the 39th Panzer Regiment and the Gross Deutschland Panzer Regiment. This arrangement lasted for two days in combat (5th and 6th), before Decker was relieved and command of these two regiments were placed under command of the GD Panzer Regiment commander (von Strachwitz). After von Strachwitz was injured on the 10th, Decker took back over command of the two regiments.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your analysis Mitch. Decker and von Strachwitz's row was I think six of one and half a dozen of the other. Both had successful reputations to defend and sought scapegoats. Ego clash was I suspect the root of it all, plus as you say the unsuitability of previous doctrine when attacking deep and well prepared defenses. The SS divisions at Kursk were more successful by deploying infantry and pioneers to the front supported by Tigers and Stugs, opening gaps for the panzers to exploit.

    'Blood, Steel and Myth' by George Nipe is my favorite source on this, not Jentz. Nipe defends Decker and von Lauchert quite successfully against their alleged incompetence. GD's war diary claims that GD's advance on the first day was held up by 10 Pz. Brigade becoming mired in the flooded balka and minefields. This misreports the facts. The truth was that Pz.Rgt GD went first and got stuck there, not Decker. 10 Pz.Rgt didn't even reach the start line until about 9.30am, about two hours after GDs initial assault.

    In short, crews, vehicles, command and communications were just not ready to be deployed. Recon was inadequate. Artillery observation was difficult. The vulnerability of the immobile Panther's flanks to AT fire when stuck in prepared tank killing zones became painfully clear.