The German generals of World War 2 have a unique place in history. They were the military professionals, faced with a whole new way of war which they evolved and developed, but which evolved further in to an abyss of astonishing military situations unparalleled in warfare. Guderian was right in the middle of it all.
Col. General Heinz Guderian was the “father of the Panzers”, in more ways than one. There would be few people in history who are more critical of their own thinking than Guderian. He’s no dogmatist, no pedant, and certainly no admirer of himself. He’s sarcastic, witty, very dryly inclined in his humor, and has a sense of the absurd which is worth reading for itself.
As a writer of military texts, he’s remarkably modern, for a guy who even translates in to the “educated idiomatic German” form of English. Born in the 1880s, he’s rarely formal, except in quotes from official documents. He’s an easy read, very clear, and very objective. His anecdotes are illustrative, and very funny in some cases.
Guderian writes as a soldier, and he’s no apologist for fighting for his country. His obvious deep distaste for many aspects of the Germany of World War 2 is perhaps too restrained for some zealots. The fact is that in the real German culture, not the pseudo-Germany of media, being a hysterical squeaking gargoyle of one point of view or another isn’t in much demand.
Historically, Guderian’s obvious loathing of some people and a lot of wartime and domestic events is quite clear, if you actually read his books. His disdain for these things as he expresses them, in fact, for his generation and class, is almost like a punch in the face. He’s very blunt, when he feels like it, and he frequently does. Remember Guderian would argue face to face with Hitler. He’s no shrinking violet, either.
Achtung! Panzer! is the initial phase, more theory and argument. Modern readers will be surprised to learn that a lot of this book is based on explaining and defending the theory of armored warfare to the German military. Guderian spent a long, complex time building up even the most basic armored force, in the face of opposition from far senior officers.
Tank theory was in its early adolescence, internationally. Guderian studied World War 1 armored battles in depth, and equated the use of armor to Germany’s defeat. He studied Hobart, and perhaps, if not directly mentioned, Fuller. De Gaulle was also writing at this time regarding French armor. Very unpopularly, he also pointed out that Germany’s very slow uptake of armor meant that troops in the field had very little defense against British and French tanks. The Allies, in contrast, were using swarms of tanks in 1918, and intended to use more in 1919.
(Germany did in fact invent a gigantic tank, which looked like a cross between a barn and a ship with a large crew, and was very lacking in agility, particularly in the trench warfare environment. The Germans also used captured tanks, but were of course way behind in the technical and manufacturing areas. They couldn’t bridge the gap before the collapse in 1918. They also didn’t take up armored cars to any noticeable extent, or other mobile options.)
Guderian was retained in the 100,000 man Reichswehr, and was fortunate to find a superior officer who supported his theories and work. The German army at this stage, not unlike other Western armies, was split between modernists and traditionalists.
To give some idea of the disparity between the Wehrmacht and the postwar doctrines, the prevailing view at the time was that “delaying actions”, enabling maneuvers against flanks, etc., would make up for lack of equipment and numbers. That didn’t reassure the World War 1 veterans much. They’d seen the huge battles and knew what numbers, properly employed, could do.
The fact that Germany wasn’t allowed to have tanks under the Treaty of Versailles may have had some value in driving younger and more combat-experienced officers on to the side of the tankers. Guderian doesn’t make too many actual accusations, (might not have had space if he did?) but he does let slip in his book that the traditionalists really didn’t understand tank warfare at all.
He virtually spells out every aspect of tank warfare as we now know it in this book. Readers should note that he obviously feels that he needs to approach the subject in this very patient, building-blocks, way. The fact that his arguments, as written, are thorough, systematic and obviously well-prepared is a pretty good indication of how he had to argue his case with superiors.
He even has to explain maneuver, now so axiomatic in modern military thinking. One of his most basic points is that the tank’s engine is as much a weapon as its gun. To this, critically, he added another potent weapon – Tank communications and coordination. Then he explained the idea of concentration, dealing with anti-tank defences, and tanks vs. tanks combat. It’s a learn-from-scratch manual, in some ways.
That this book was written a mere few years before the breakneck race across France and later Russia is a true valuation of its worth. Von Manstein covered 300km in Russia in a few days, baffling both the Russians and his own commanders. When the T34 appeared, it could cover 180 miles on one fuel load. Battles in the Ukraine seesawed over vast areas.
The book presaged the fact, in so many ways. Guderian earned the nickname from his men, “Hurrying Heinz”, always driving forward as fast as possible. Whole tank armies emerged, each bigger than the old Reichswehr army. This was the start of the arms race, too, the countering of new weapons in the field. It’s only a relatively small book, but it’s the introduction of a whole new military era, too.
The legacy of Achtung! Panzer! is an insight in to military thinking at its most creative, most argumentative, and most prophetic. Fortunately, this book was written by a man whose honesty is his greatest asset both as a human being and as a writer. History can be truly thankful for that. Clarity is rare in military history; read and appreciate.