The tank made its combat debut in the trenches of the Western Front of World War I, but really came into its own during World War II. When the German army stormed across the Polish border on 1 September 1939, panzers led the way supported by artillery and close-air support. The Germans used similar blitzkrieg style tactics in their invasion of France and the Low-Countries. While the German armor was not superior to the Allies, their tactical utilization of the tanks was. The Germans overwhelmed the French and British forces, forcing the British Expeditionary Force to evacuate at Dunkirk. The Allies would not return in force to Western Europe until the D-Day landings four years later.
German panzers were instrumental in Rommel’s North African campaign. Sent to support Italian defenses in North Africa, the Afrika Korps reestablished the Axis offensive following the British drive into Libya. German tank crews tore across the desert, driving deep into Egypt before finally being stopped by British and Commonwealth forces in the Battle of El-Alamein. With American and Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria, the Axis forces were caught in a closing pincer and forced to retreat from North Africa. Before finally escaping North Africa, German panzers decimated the US 1st Armored Division in the Battle of Kasserine Pass.
While the Afrika Korps was fighting in North Africa, the bulk of the German army was thrust into Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. The Soviets had far more tanks and superior heavy armor compared to the Germans, but the blitzkrieg tactics that had worked so well in Poland and France again triumphed in the initial months of the invasion. Driving deep into the Soviet Union, victory seemed inevitable for the Nazi regime. A series of poor leadership decisions, logistical failures, and the brutal Russian winter helped turn the tide for the Soviet Union. The development of the T-34, with its sloped armor, proved to be a capable foe to German panzers. With the tables turned, defeat was on the horizon for the Germans.
The Germans developed some of the finest tanks during World War II. The early model panzers were inferior to what the Allies were able to field, but the Germans made up for it with excellent tactics and combined arms operations. Later in the war, with the development of the Panther and Tiger tanks, the Germans gained superiority over their adversaries. The Americans had to develop the M26 Pershing to match the Tiger on the battlefield. Had the Germans been able to field enough Tigers on the Eastern Front, the tank battles may have turned out quite different.
Look for more information regarding the history of German panzers on the Eastern Front in the future World at War issue #45 with the article “Panzers East” and join the conversation on Facebook!