The 6th Panzer Division?

I admit it.  I’m an unreconstructed “old military historian.”  Others may discuss the social composition of military institutions.  The impact of race and gender and class.  The cultural importance of it all.  What thrills me is the operation itself.  The sight of situation maps from World War II still stirs my blood.  Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps spearheading Case Yellow in 1940, slamming through the Ardennes to strike at the French.  Mackensen’s III Panzer Corps lunging deep into the Caucasus to start Operation Edelweiss in 1942.  The Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army halting II (SS) Panzer Corps at Prokhorovka, the climax of the great armored melee at Kursk in 1943. “Lightnin’ Joe” Collins’s VII Corps leading off Operation Cobra, blasting through Panzer Lehr (courtesy of U.S. “carpet bombing”), in 1944.  I love this stuff, and I can throw down on it when I need to.

I’ve learned over the years, however, that you have to be careful about those maps.  Recently, I’ve been delving deeply into the Wehrmacht’s operations in the Soviet Union in winter 1942-43.  With the 6th Army encircled in Stalingrad (November), the Germans launched an abortive relief offensive from the south (Operation Wintergewitter, “Winter Storm”) in December.  Repeated Soviet attacks along the Chir river had forced the German high command to call off the relief, however, and to redeploy their principal assault formation–6th Panzer Division–to the threatened sector.

Normally, a German Panzer division was worth its weight in gold on the eastern front.  Combining high mobility and a massive amount of shock power, it was a force to reckoned with.  The commander of 6th Panzer Division, General Erhard Raus, was one of the recognized masters of the mechanized art, highly sought after by the US Army after 1945 for his analysis of the fighting in the East.  His own men had faith in him:  “Raus will pull us through,” they used to say whenever things got rough.  His division led the relief drive towards Stalingrad, suffering grievous losses in the process, and then moved west, where it had to hold a long defensive front between the Bystraya and Kalytva rivers against repeated Soviet attacks.  In the course of nearly two months of nonstop winter campaigning, its combat power diminished steadily.  One report from New Years Day 1943 has its principal formation–11th Panzer Regiment–down to 10 tanks (of an authorized complement of 160).  The number would fluctuate, rising and falling slightly as the action dictated or as neighboring formations handed over their machines.  The conditions caused as many casualties as the enemy, but with temperatures dipping below -20 F, the Soviets weren’t doing much better.  Western tales of their “primitivism” to the contrary, they suffered and died from the cold just like the Germans did, and their own striking power, too, seemed to shrink with each passing day of this horrible campaign.

That’s what I mean when I say, “be skeptical of the maps.”  What may look like “6th Panzer Division” vs “3rd Guards Army,” a veritable clash of the armored titans, may actually have been something very different:  a desperate little skirmish between a handful of men and machines on either side. 

“Operational-level” combat?  More like a fight to the death.

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15 Responses

  1. Cap'n Dave

    Survival of the fittest, no doubt.

    The cold is one of the reasons the US spent so much time and money training “Arctic” fighting troops – to appear capable of cold weather operations – if only to keep up appearances for Soviet espionage sake.

    More to the point of your blog though, you raise an excellent point . It is not just the actual numbers, but also the training, hardiness, and equipment status that makes up those little unit icons on the map. Morale as well – so it is interesting that so many of those little German icons performed as well as they did for so long.

  2. Luke Truxal

    I am just interested to know what the motivation was for each army in the east. Since it was a war of extermination you’d think both sides would be highly motivated, but with Stalin killing thousands of people on his own side before the war it would appear that as a soldier for the Soviets you are in a no win scenario. It appears that the Germans would be more motivated because they weren’t dealing with the same scenario back on the home front. True Hitler was killing thousands of ethnic minorities and not the German people as Stalin had done. I am not making the case that Hitler was than Stalin or the other way around. I am probably not the best person to bring up this topic since I have neither consulted the German or Soviet, I mean Russian archives. It appears that most Germans had more to lose than the Soviets did during World War II. I hope I didn’t get us too far off topic with the blog. This is just something I am curious about.

  3. Bill Nance

    Another case like this is where the Germans named Panzerarmees, but when you got right down to it, the unit really contained a single armored division, and maybe a motorized / mechanized division.

    Maps also can be somewhat decieving as they denote clean lines, but the truth is often small groups of men and vehicles, intermixed friendly and enemy, hunting each other in the dark.

    Still, I agree with you. I love military maps, and have since the first grade when I looked at my first military history book (it was on the Civil War).

  4. Michael Stout

    Luke, the master’s thesis I’m writing right now actually is focusing on one element of possible motivation for the Germans in the Eastern theater. I’m examining Nazi propaganda and whether the effectiveness it is said to have on German citizens and also German troops on both fronts was as great as historians have perceived. The Eastern Front appears to be the main area after Stalingrad fell that propaganda still had its power. Many German troops took to Nazi ideology and messages of Russian inferiority, especially after seeing the devastated landscape and experiencing what I’ve repeatedly read described by the troops as “the most depressing country in the world.” Even as the Germans were tearing Russia apart, they blamed the other side for the situation.

    I’ve found two other significant forms of motivation, as well, the first being the known harshness of Soviet captors should a German fall into their hands. Because the Germans were told before Barbarossa started that the campaign would be far more of an ideological campaign than any other in history, they were allowed to rape, kill and do unspeakable acts to any Russians they encountered. In response, they were treated just as badly by the Soviets when they took POWs. Case in point: 90,000 German POWs at Stalingrad, less then 5,000 ever returned home. The Germans would rather die or face execution by their own officers than get captured by the Russians.

    Speaking of the execution by their officers, this is that other “motivation” I mentioned. As the Germans suffered heavier and heavier losses on the EF, they lost unit cohesion – new recruits weren’t trained together and so often old troops and new troops barely got a chance to know each other before one of them died, and loyalty to officers deteriorated rapidly. To account for the lack of training, Hitler upped the level of discipline. Desertion, looting, and other crimes were punishable by death, though killing civilians was still tolerated. It wasn’t as severe as Stalin’s Order 227 (not one step back) but the Germans still suffered many losses to execution by firing squad.

    If you’d like to read more into it, look for Omar Bartov’s Hitler’s Army, Stephen Fritz’s Frontsoldaten, and Wolfram Wette’s The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality.

    As the actual subject of Citino’s post, I also enjoy maps a great deal. I used to spend my free time redrawing campaign maps from WWII or the Civil War to get them ingrained into my head, and after taking a class with Citino I’ve got his maps to look at (with those awesome curved arrows!)

  5. Perry Colvin

    I like the vein that Dr. Citino is mining here, I agree that there are some tremendous limitations to traditional military history maps, but that they are also still vital for understanding the course of events. I think that the future of the map in military history is going to be in a digital format, with interactive maps that allow for the insertion of unit information into the structure of the map. Imagine a Google earth scale map that could encompass the entirety of world war II, but that could zoom into the battallion level and could be adjusted to a specific date or location (i.e. the third day of the Battle of the Bulge at Bastogne). Now imagine that one could select a specific unit at that site, say the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and have a snapshot of the unit at the time, including its commander, manpower strength and links to other important engagements it was involved in. This map would also allow for the inclusion of things like fleet position or air assets, allowing a better understanding of the global conflict. I think that this would be a tremendous teaching and research tool, and while it would take a huge amount of resources to create, it would pay dividends in the long run by streamlining information and allowing for ready access to a more diverse body of data.

  6. Luke Truxal

    Thanks Michael I wasn’t trying to get too far off topic. I was having a problem trying to get my point across because how do you judge an unmotivated corps in combat versus a division in defense that is fighting to the death? I think this is one factor of many that are not included on maps which Dr. Citino already pointed out. I was also personally curious because the Germans were facing an enemy that was superior to it in numbers and equipment. How does a division like the 6th not simply break under the pressure being place upon it? Thanks for your answer it was helpful.

    On a side note I could never be skeptical of the Michael Wittman map created by Dr. Citino. Wittman was correctly labeled as “the greatest.”

  7. Patrick Hays

    Military history maps are a wonder to behold. They show what is and what could have been. They show why an operation work(Case Yellow) and why one did not work(Schlieffein Plan 1914). They so us the glory and the genius of an operation. They do not show us the men on both sides who spill theirs and others blood to make the arrows on the map look brillant.

  8. Bill Pratt

    I’ve often wondered about “impressed” soldier’s motivation, who have been captured by the other side and “conscripted” into the opposing forces. Surely, there is plenty of coercion in these cases, but it seems that some soldiers were able to switch sides with remarkable ease. A phenomenon which was common on the eastern front?

    Maps certainly can be misleading, especially when only labelled at Corps level or higher. It is helpful when formations are labelled (-) or (+) to indicate under or over strength, but that still doesn’t tell the whole story.

    • mark

      regarding ‘conscripted’ troops. The German experience is that for the most part they were used in rear areas for policing, anti-partisan,etc. Most of the ‘ost’ batallions with a few exceptions would surrender whenever they encountered ‘hostile ‘
      forces in the West. In the East they had more motivation to fight (or RUN). They KNEW that Stalin’s forces would show them little sympathy.

  9. Bill Nance

    In my opinion, to fully understand a battle what you need are a series of maps, preferably for each level of war. Tactical maps generally do a better job of detailing what’s going on, but unfortunately, they are often the hardest to build due to the general confusion surrounding such events.

    I haven’t studied the East Front as much, but I know that in the West, there were many occasions of conscript units of soviet and other POWs who would murder their German officers than surrender. However, I wouldn’t take this thought too far. The bitter fighting on all fronts attested to both sides being able to produce highly motivated (however they motivated them) and skilled formations.

  10. Rob Citino

    To all: I love maps. Anyone who’s taken my classes over the course of the past decades knows how much information they can impart. They can tell us what so few are able to envision: the actual shape of a large-scale military operation. They can’t say much about spirit, morale, or motivation, of course. But they do put you into the shoes of the commander at the time, helping you to understand why he makes the decisions he does. In other words, they are not “reality,” but the image of reality available to the historical actors. And that is a valuable thing, indeed.

  11. henrylim88

    war is hell on earth when both side have about the same firepower,tactics,no surrender no prisoner policy

    • bobe

      STALINGRAD was HELL on earth, nothing in WWII compares to that battle(i mean STALINGRAD/DON/VOLGA area, the battle was not confined to just that city).
      The carnage on both sides, the epidemic that everybody never talks about, and the final outcome, where most of POW died in about 2 weeks of forced marches.
      KRUSCHEV had no stomach to see the burning of dead german soldiers after german capitulation. No movies about STALINGRAD in Hollywood.

  12. Rob Citino

    You’re right. Maybe it’s always hell!

  13. Frank Chadwick

    When I taught World War II history at Illinois State University quite a few years ago (as an adjunct instructor) the only text I assigned was an atlas — Brigadier Peter Young’s as I recall. I don’t think you can understand military history — or almost any history — without understanding the underlying geography. But you do have to be careful. I always recall a piece of advice from (I believe) the Swedish Army’s officer training course: “When the map and the terrain disagree, trust the terrain.”


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