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Hitler’s Panzers: The Lightning Attacks That Revolutionized Warfare

By Dennis Showalter. 400 pp. Berkley, 2009. $25.95.

The German army’s blitzkrieg and the tanks that carried it out have an almost mythological place in military history. In Hitler’s Panzers, Dennis Showalter seeks to bring the tanks’ achievements into a more balanced focus by revisiting their history, noting their shortcomings as well as their strengths.

The presentation is detailed and well presented. It begins with the first employment of the tank at the Somme in 1916; looks at the secret development of mechanization and mobile warfare in Germany between the wars (thanks in part to continued cooperation with the Soviet Union); and examines the panzers’ refinement in theory and practice by British-influenced, forward-looking officers, including the smart but self-promoting Heinz Guderian, as well as lesser known but influential architects and proponents of tank warfare such as Friedrich Rabenau and Ernst Volckheim, who doggedly and rightly insisted German tanks needed bigger weapons.

After some battlefield testing during the Spanish Civil War, by 1939 the theory and concept of armored warfare had been refined. Self-contained armor units operating independently would be both the army’s cutting edge and its moral and heroic center in the war Hitler was chafing to begin.

In a series of engaging chapters, Showalter analyzes Germany’s triumphs in Poland, western Europe, and the North African desert, followed by the death ride of the armored divisions during Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s ill-fated 1941 invasion of Russia. Here tactics and logistics literally come apart, first halting, then destroying the panzers beneath the weight of unrealistic strategic goals and paper-only replacements and supplies.

In the end, neither the innovations of its architects nor the audacity of its commanders (Guderian, Erwin Rommel, Erich von Manstein, and others) was enough to spare the German army and its armored force, crushed in the ruins of a reckless divide-and-conquer philosophy. Showalter offers a German playwright’s words as a fitting epitaph for Hitler’s panzers: “Whoever was the Devil’s general on this earth, and who bombed the path for him, has to be his Quartermaster in Hell.”

Unfortunately, several rather blatant and unnecessary omissions by the publisher, undoubtedly to reduce costs, mar this otherwise excellent book. The lack of even a single photograph or illustration does the reader a great disservice. Equally troubling is the absence of source notes and a bibliography. Despite the author’s contention that in eliminating both he has “appealed to reader-friendliness,” he has done the opposite. For example, he frequently refers to Robert M. Citino, a leading historian of blitzkrieg, but we have no idea which of Citino’s numerous books he is citing.

Still, while Hitler’s Panzers does not break much new ground, it provides a stirring and insightful narrative about a rich and still-debated subject.


Originally published in the April 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.