March 19, 2014

The Panzer-Division

Combined arms operations

During World War II the formidable panzer divisions swept across Europe and defeated massive enemy armies. Their organization is the subject of this article.

 From Creation to the Fall of France

Parade line-up of a Panzer  regiment
2. Parade line-up of a Panzer
regiment in Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary)
in 1938.
The first three panzer divisions appeared in 1935. The main maneuver element of the new divisions was the panzer brigade. The panzer brigade was composed of two panzer regiments, with two panzer battalions each. It is important that, unlike similar efforts in other countries, the panzer division from the outset contained units from all the arms.

When the German Army invaded Poland it employed six panzer divisions and four light divisions. The light divisions contained two infantry regiments and a panzer battalion (abteilung). During the Polish Campaign it became obvious that the light divisions had limited offensive capability and afterwards they were reorganized as panzer divisions.

Ten panzer divisions took place in the campaign against France. Seven of them were committed in the main effort, the offense through the Ardennes. It is quite remarkable that the panzer divisions that took part in the French Campaign were quite dissimilar in tank strength and organization.

Another important feature of the panzer divisions was their flexibility. Combined arms battle groups, Kampfguppen, were tailored according to the needs of each operation. 

The 1941-type Panzer Division

Panzer III Ausf.J of 18th Panzer Division
3. A Panzer III Ausf. J of the 18th
Panzer-Division negotiating the Bug river in 1941.
For the invasion of the Soviet Union Hitler wanted more panzer divisions. Thus those panzer divisions with two panzer regiments gave up a regiment and four new regiments were created.

The 1941-type panzer-division was composed of 

  • a panzer regiment of two battalions, 
  • two infantry regiments of two battalions, 
  • an artillery regiment, 
  • a reconnaissance battalion (aufklaerung abteilung), 
  • an antitank battalion, 
  • an engineer battalion, 
  • a signals battalion 
  • and logistic elements. 

On 22 June 1941 seventeen panzer divisions took part in operation “Barbarossa”. 

Organizational chart of the 1941-type Panzer-Division
4. Organizational chart of the 1941-type Panzer-Division.

Apart from the Army (Heer) the Waffen-SS developed their own panzer divisions. The premier divisions of the Waffen-SS were reorganized as panzer grenadier divisions and later, between the autumn of 1943 and the summer of 1944, as panzer divisions. The Waffen-SS panzer divisions appeared to have much more infantry than the Heer panzer divisions. That was happening because the infantry regiments of the Waffen-SS panzer divisions had three battalions instead of two.

Staff and Logistics

A field command post in Soviet Union
5. A field command post in Soviet Union in 1942.

A panzer division was commanded, normally, by a Generalmajor, a one star general. The division’s staff was surprisingly small. It was led by the operations officer (Ia), who was acting also as chief of staff. The operations officer was a major who had been accepted by the general staff (Major im Generalstab), and was usually referred as the first general staff officer of the division. The logistics officer (Ib) was also a Major im Generalstab. An overview of the most important positions in the divisional staff can be seen below:

Operations Officer & Chief of Staff
Assistant Operations
Assistant Operations
First Lieutenant
Assistant Intelligence
First Lieutenant
Assistant Personnel
First Lieutenant
Assistant Logistics
First Lieutenant
Air Support

Heinz Guderian
6. Panzer commanders led from the front.
The panzer division commander, usually, was with his most forward elements, fulfilling the dictate “the commander must see for himself”. The operations officer was at the divisional command post and despite his junior rank he was attending all matters and was issuing orders in the name of his absent commander. The logistics officer was usually found in the area of the service support detachment. The divisional staff was small and compact and was perfectly suited for high intensity offensive operations.


An armored column in Russia
7. A combined arms
column in Russia in June 1941.
Most of World War II the panzer divisions were organized according with the 1941 organizational chart. At the end of the war a new organization table was proposed, reflecting the lack in fuel and vehicles the German Army was experiencing at the time. The panzer divisions were proposed to have more infantry and fewer tanks. After two months the war came to an end.

In my view, what is important about the panzer division organization was that from the beginning it contained elements from all arms. That made possible the combination of these elements into kampfguppen which dominated the battlefields during the first half of World War II.

Carruthers, Bob. German Tanks at War. London: Cassell, 2000.
DiNardo, R. L. Germany’s Panzer Arm. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1997.
Jentz, Thomas L. Panzertruppen vol. 1. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 1996.
Mitcham, Jr., Samuel W. The Panzer Legions. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2007.
Stolfi, R.H.S. German Panzers on the Offensive. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2003.
Zaloga, Steven J. Poland 1939 The Birth of Blitzkrieg. Oxford: Osprey, 2002.

Photos attribution
1. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-218-0525-02A/Sautter/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
2. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2005-0178/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
3. George Forty, A Photo History of Tanks in Two World Wars, Blandford Press, 1984, p. 80., via Wikimedia Commons
4. Beringar at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, from Wikimedia Commons
5. Bundesarchiv, Bild 169-0228/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
6. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-769-0229-15A/Borchert, Erich (Eric)/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
7. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-185-0139-20/Grimm, Arthur/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons