Panzer Divisions 1942–43
Author’s Note: For the origin and early development of the panzer division from 1935 to 1941, see my Staff Studies articles titled “The Birth of Blitzkrieg.”
After the big battles and high casualties of the opening campaigns on the Eastern Front, the German Army’s panzer divisions required major refitting and rehabilitation. In late 1941, therefore, a new table of organization was issued for the standardized 1942 Panzer Division.
The new panzer division embodied three major elements: a panzer regiment with 215 tanks—down from around 300 at the beginning of the war—a motorized rifle brigade with two regiments, each of two battalions, and a motorized field artillery regiment. The panzer regiment had three battalions, each with Panzer IV and Panzer III medium tanks, and Panzer II light tanks. The Panzer IVs were armed with a short-barreled 75mm gun, the Panzer III with either a 37mm or 50mm gun and the Panzer II with a 20mm gun. One battalion of each motorized rifle regiment was equipped with armored halftracks. The artillery regiment had halftrack prime movers for its guns and included a flak (antiaircraft) battalion with 88mm and 20mm guns.
The armored reconnaissance battalion was a mixed unit with an armored car company, two motorcycle infantry companies, a light armored company equipped with halftracks and a motorized heavy company with support weapons. The motorized antitank (AT) company had six self-propelled (SP) tank destroyers and a mix of 50mm and 37mm towed AT guns. One company of the engineer battalion had armored halftracks.
This was the desired standard but in practice it could not be met for all panzer divisions, of which there were now twenty-five. Those divisions earmarked for the 1942 summer offensive in the southern Soviet Union were brought up to about 80% of authorized strength but those on other sectors of the front were much weaker. Their panzer regiments mostly had two battalions instead of three and in a couple of cases just a single battalion. The battalions themselves were frequently understrength, with three or four tanks per platoon instead of the authorized four or five. Both the Panzer IV and the Panzer II were in short supply and new production went almost entirely to the panzer divisions in Army Group South. But even those divisions had only two-thirds of the Panzer IVs originally authorized, one platoon per company being deleted until such time as sufficient tanks were available, while many Panzer II platoons had three or four instead of the authorized five tanks.
Nor was it possible to equip one battalion in each motorized rifle regiment with armored halftracks. Only the 1st Panzer Division had the authorized number; in the other divisions only one or two companies had halftracks. Similar shortages afflicted the AT battalion. The 50mm antitank gun was in short supply and in some divisions captured 47mm AT guns of Czech, French or Belgian origin were substituted. The SP tank destroyer was the Marder II or Marder III armed with either the German 75mm AT gun or the captured Soviet 76.2mm field gun modified to fire German ammunition. Most but not all panzer divisions had these.
After the 1942 campaign, which culminated in the Stalingrad catastrophe, the panzer divisions had to be rebuilt again. The 1942 organizational template was followed but new weapons such as the Panzer IVG and IVH armed with a high-velocity 75mm gun and SP field artillery were introduced as and when they became available. It was intended to equip the antitank battalions entirely with SP tank destroyers but as usual equipment shortages prevented this and the AT battalions received whatever was on hand. The 12th Panzer Division, for instance, had only one SP and one towed company in its AT battalion. In the armored reconnaissance battalion, motorcycles were gradually phased out in favor or armored cars and light armored halftracks.
By dint of extraordinary efforts the panzer divisions were rebuilt to perhaps 85% of their authorized strength in time for the 1943 summer offensive at Kursk (July 1943). The rebuilding was supervised by Colonel-General Heinz Guderian, the German Army’s leading armored warfare expert, who’d been dismissed from his command in December 1941 after disagreements with Hitler. He was brought back on active duty as Inspector-General of Panzer Troops, and it was mainly thanks to him that the Army’s mobile forces were restored to fighting trim. But Guderian warned against the Kursk offensive, which he regarded as a dangerous gamble, advocating instead a strategic defensive posture on the Eastern Front during 1943. The panzer divisions, he advised, should be held back in readiness to parry a Soviet offensive. But his advice was disregarded and the panzers were committed to battle at Kursk — where the turning point of the war in the East was reached.