German tanks in the 1940's: brilliant engineering can’t work with authoritarians

Following on from my Soviet Tanks post, this article is about how German tanks developed during World War 2.

It is a story of brilliant engineering and superb products built within a structure of authoritarian politics and management.

It is a story of how engineering and design are political and how they cannot succeed in a system that is filled with privilege, power and fear.

As with the Soviet tank post, I’m using models I built to illustrate the article.

Panzer II

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This story starts in the 1930's and the strange idiocy of the final years in the mid-1940's is not yet apparent.

Germany, after World War 1, was not supposed to have an army with tanks. It had also physically lost manufacturing capacity and expertise with transfer of whole factories and land to France.

The desire of Hitler to rebuild an army thus had to be done in secret and start from the basics. Soviet Russia allowed the German army to have a base in Russia to start again.

The Panzer II was one of the first tanks built to test both how to build and how to use tanks.

It was a Minimum Viable Prototype. It was never meant to be a usable product in actual warfare.

And yet, it ended up being used in both the Spanish Civil War and the early parts of World War 2.

This was due to political and military necessity and realisation that not enough of the ‘real’ tanks were available in time.

Panzer 38T

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The inability of Germany to built tanks, in design and manufacturing terms, did find a partial solution in the late 1930's.

The takeover of Czechoslovakia, via the Sudetenland Crisis, allowed Germany to incorporate the Czech tank factories and their product.

The 38T was a fairly standard 1930's tank and followed techniques visible in British and Soviet tank design.

The tank was used in World War 2 and its chassis adapted and reused in new types of tank destroyer through the war.

Panzer IV

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The Panzer III and IV were the ‘real’ tanks that Germany had planned for when it started World War 2. They had similar engineering and differed slightly in length and weaponry. Krupp built Panzer IV tanks and Daimler-Benz the Panzer III’s.

The differences were due to ideas of tank use that had been developed in theory during the early 1930's and tested in combat in the latter part of the decade.

The Panzer IV was solid design that was manufactured throughout the war and its chassis used in different forms of tank.

STUG III

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The STUG III started from an idea of mobile artillery that had been identified in World War 1: the need for infantry to have cannons nearby to destroy fortifications during an attack.

During World War 2, however, the tank was more used as a tank destroyer: a specific role to use the larger cannon to target and destroy attacking tanks.

The STUG III was the most manufactured German tank of World War 2.

It was built on the reliable chassis of the Panzer III but without the complexity and cost of a turret.

It met an identifiable need (if not the need it was created to fulfil) and was cheap and fast to produce.

The STUG III represents what German tank design and production generally failed to do in World War 2. The next few examples show how obsessive engineering and authoritarian politics created brilliant but impractical products.

Tiger I

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The Tiger I tank is probably the most famous German tank of World War 2 but it is an early example of how obsession with size and brilliant engineering led to overall failure.

Building big things appears to be an obsession in authoritarian governments and the Tiger came out of this behaviour. The idea of a heavily armoured ‘breakthrough’ tank had circulated for years but lighter, faster medium tanks made more sense.

The Tiger tank was created in competition between engineers at Porsche and Henschel. That competition was charged with the desire to find favour with Hitler at demonstrations he attended (sometimes organised around his birthday).

World War 2 German technological development was completely focused around favour finding and impressing the Fuhrer. This led to major problems.

The Tiger was an impressive and powerful tank but it was unreliable and extremely expensive to make. An early version was captured by the British and stripped down. The care and attention shown in its manufacture impressed the British army engineers but they calculated, correctly, that it was hugely expensive and would absorb both scarce factory time and resources.

This was the undoing of many German projects.

Products made to impress a small coterie of politicians that sucked up increasingly tight supplies of materials and money.

The Americans built Sherman tanks and the Russians built T34 tanks. They built them cheaply, en masse with few adjustments over time. They were ‘good enough’.

Germany built too many vehicle types, using too many expensive materials to create too small a physical army force.

Panther

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When Germany invaded Russia in 1941, the army rapidly discovered that their Panzer III and IV tanks were utterly outclassed by the T34 and KV1 tanks of Soviet Russia.

This was a shock. It led to a rapid speed up in the Tiger I project and the start of the Panther tank project.

One German general said he’d be happy just for German factories to copy and build T34 tanks. He was ignored and German engineers went to work designing the best tank they could imagine using the lessons learnt from the T34.

The Panther is often described as the earliest form of a modern Main Battle Tank – the balancing of mobility, weapon power and armour. It used the sloped armour idea learnt from Russian tank design, along with suspension and engine forms developed in the Tiger I project to create a superior medium tank.

It was rushed into production and early versions deployed in combat. This was a mistake. The Russians were able to learn of the tank and its weaknesses before it was fully developed.

The tank was rapidly rebuilt and improved and became a highly effective vehicle.

However, like the Tiger I, it was too expensive to make and took too long to manufacture. A few stunningly well engineered tanks could not win a war against thousands of ‘good enough’ tanks in the East or West. The Panzer IV was Germany’s ‘good enough’ tank and it was kept in manufacture through the war because it met need and it filled the gaps that slow production of both Tiger I and Panther tanks created.

Maus

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Maus, possibly the most ironic name used in German tank development, was only made in 2 prototypes.

It represents the ultimate failure of German tank engineering: a tank that was loved by the Fuhrer, intrigued the engineers as a product problem and met absolutely no need for the army who would use it.

Maus was a super-heavy tank with a massive gun and weighty armour. It required a radical system of electric motors mounted to each wheel to move and further solutions to get round practical issues like its inability to use any bridge.

Hitler loved the Maus. Only one general was able to say how bad an idea it was. The coterie of politicians and civil servants around the leader drowned out any criticism.

The war ended before the tank could be developed. The factory it was built in was captured by the Russians. The prototypes either destroyed or taken back to Russia.

The Maus was the pinnacle of German tank development – the brilliance of its engineering couple with the crude stupidity of the politics that enabled it.

The stupidity of authoritarian product development

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Authoritarian governments make stupid products as all the kowtowing to the leader creates foolish development routes. Hitler loved seeing all the new products and loved saying what should be done. People built products in the hope of impressing him or changed them to avoid his disapproval.

In authoritarian systems, design and engineering are sucked in and seem unable or unwilling to point out the errors. The users and their representatives are ignored as the politicking is beyond their practice-focused mindsets.

Design complies because it does not imagine politics is an issue – product solutions and development are all that matters.

Users and people with researched or lived experience are excluded as they cannot understand how to negotiate in a leader-focused system.

The Allies

I won’t write a post on US and British tank development as Zvezda don’t make the plastic models for me to make in the same scale.

However, do read Kennedy’s “Engineers Of Victory” as it identifies a few specific examples of why Allied technological development worked better, in terms of strategic impact, than German work.

In terms of Russia, there is the other post on tanks but that doesn’t really approach the issue of Stalin, design and authoritarian rule. Clearly, something was different between Germany and Russia. Both were authoritarian regimes but Hitler personally intervened in design in ways that Stalin did not often do.

I don’t really know what was the difference.

Here are two anecdotes and one guess.

There are heavy tanks named Josef Stalin (the IS series) but that seems to be more to impress him rather than due to his direct interest.

Soviet Russia also had design teams operating within gulags and prisons. Designers went out of favour but their skills were still called upon. Successful product development could lead to your return to society.

Hitler’s interest in intervening in design seems to be the possible difference. The Nazi government worked as a series of competing teams of politicians, civil servants and companies trying to gain prestige and favour. Proximity to Hitler and his approval was key.

The system pandered to the ego of the Fuhrer and it created a feedback loop that doesn’t seem to exist in Russia.

Written by

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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