June 26, 2014

Achtung - Panzer!

“If the fundamental principles of combat
are identical for all arms of service,
their application is strongly conditioned
by the technical means that are available”
General der Panzertruppen Oswald Lutz

“Achtung – Panzer!” was written in 1937 by Generalmajor Heinz Guderian and was published by “Union Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft”. At the time Guderian was commanding the 2nd Panzer-Division and as he says he was encouraged by his many years superior General Lutz to write the book. General Lutz, who was one of the founders of the German panzer troops, saw the book as an opportunity to gain more support for his cause. The book became a bestseller and Guderian earned enough money to buy his first car.

The Book

The book is divided in eleven chapters:
  • 1914. How did Positional Warfare Come About?
  • Waging War with Inadequate Weoponry
  • The Genesis of the Tank
  • The Birth of a New Weapon
  • The Versailles Diktat
  • Post-War Developments Abroad
  • The German Mechanized Forces
  • Life in the Panzer Forces
  • The Tactics of the Panzer Forces and their Co-operation with the Other Arms
  • Warfare at the Present Day
  • Conclusion

A British Mark IV tank at the lip of a German trench
2. A British Mark IV tank at the lip of a German trench on November 23, 1917.
In the bottom lie four dead German soldiers.

In the first chapters Guderian presents in detail how trench warfare came about in late 1914. He also shows how artillery concentrations and gas warfare failed to provide a solution. Under these conditions the British invented the tank. Guderian describes the British and French experience with the tanks.

A common characteristic of the battles on the Western Front was that the attacker made an initial penetration but failed to exploit it because he couldn’t move fast enough. Guderian believed that:

the infantry was strong when defending but its combat power withered fast when attacking
the artillery could not achieve a complete rupture of the enemy defensive area by itself
after the Great War all major powers possessed tanks, so new techniques had to be employed in a future war

 The last two years of the Great War tanks were used extensively on the Western Front. Guderian believed that the following principles for the use of tanks had emerged:
  • Surprise
  • Deployment en masse
  • Suitable terrain
Guderian mentions that Germany under the Versailles Diktat was forbidden to possess armored vehicles. Furthermore, he describes the types of tanks that were developed by France, Great Britain and Russia after the Great War and the operational concepts for employing them.

“Decisive Victory”

Guderian frequently uses the term “decisive victory” so we should elaborate on that. On the Western Front there were no open flanks, so a successful penetration was the precondition for any envelopment. 

The penetration
3. The penetration.

To turn a penetration into a “decisive victory” the attacker has to achieve a complete rupture of the enemy defensive system. During the Great War tanks, although successful, failed to bring decisive victory because they were slow and the military leaderships saw them as infantry supporting weapons.

Panzer-Troop Tactics

Guderian presents his views on the employment of tanks by devising a military scenario. A friendly, combined arms, force is assigned the mission of achieving “decisive victory”. The defender has laid out minefields and his infantry is entrenched. Moreover, the enemy infantry is supported by antitank guns, field artillery and there are tanks and antitank guns in reserve.

Guderian’s innovative concept was that in order to achieve “decisive victory” the enemy defensive area had to be simultaneously attacked in all of its depth. So, he organizes the attacking force in four echelons:

The 1st echelon, the strongest one, has to penetrate into the enemy area and then rush to the depth of it to meet the enemy tank reserve. The defeat of enemy tanks ensures our victory. For this reason the 1st echelon must not lose time in the infantry battle zone.

The 2nd echelon has the mission to destroy enemy field artillery and any antitank guns in reserve, so as they won’t get the chance to establish a new defensive line. The tanks of the 2nd echelon should be ready to offer help in the forthcoming tank battle.

The 3rd echelon would be comprised of infantry supported by tanks with the mission to clear the infantry battle zone.

The 4th echelon should be kept in reserve to exploit the breakthrough.

The echelons of the breakthrough force
4. The echelons of the breakthrough force.

The attacker will try to surprise his enemy. He will array his forces away from enemy observation and he will conduct faints to hide his main effort. The tanks should move to their launching positions at night and under radio silence.

When the attack is launched the enemy defensive area should be subjected to our own aerial observation. Our recon planes should try to spot enemy tank reserves and direct fighter-bombers against them. At the same time our fighters must deny the use of airspace to the enemy.

The first English edition of “Achtung Panzer!”
5. The first English edition
of “Achtung Panzer!”.
Our attack should be supported by a brief artillery preparation. Unlike the lengthy bombardments of the Great War Guderian suggests only a brief preparation for the support of the most forward friendly units. After our attack is in full swing it should be supported by artillery normally. Horse-drawn artillery or even towed artillery could not follow the tanks, therefore Guderian suggests self-propelled artillery.

Minefields constitute the first obstacle our force will have to face. Guderian says that engineers under the cover of darkness or fog and supported by artillery and machine gun fire should clear lanes for the tanks. In his view the engineers should be motorized too.

Next, the attacking force will have to face the enemy antitank guns in the infantry battle zone. The enemy antitank guns may be blinded with smoke or suppressed by machine gun fire or overwhelmed by a mass attack. In any case enemy antitank guns must be defeated or there will be no breakthrough.

The 1st echelon moves fast into the depth of the enemy defensive area to meet his tank reserve. At that moment the enemy tank reserve holds the advantage because it is intact whereas our tank force is more or less disorganized because of the fighting it had to give. So, it is crucial to delay the movement of the enemy reserve for as long as possible to give our force the chance to meet it under favorable conditions. This can be done with an airforce strike or with paratroopers holding key terrain.

The 2nd echelon will seek and destroy the enemy artillery and local reserves.

The tanks of the 1st and 2nd echelons had created holes on the enemy defensive structure but the need to clear enemy infantry in the tradition way is still there. In order for our infantry to exploit the gaps our tanks had created it should be motorized too.

Guderian believes that the decisive moment of the whole operation comes when our tanks will engage the enemy tanks. The tank duel will decide the result of the breakthrough battle. That’s why he thinks the tank’s most dangerous enemy is another tank.

Guderian is anxious to stress that tanks should not be dispersed to the infantry units, rather they should be kept concentrated and employed en masse. The best way for tanks to assist the infantry is to be permitted to achieve a “decisive victory” and therefore avoid a stalemate. If a stalemate occurs it is the infantry that will pay dearly.

“Achtung Panzer!” and “Truppenführung”

It is of interest to compare the ideas expressed in “Achtung Panzer!” with those found in the service regulation HDv 300 “Truppenführung”.  “Truppenführung” was issued in two volumes in 1933 and 1934 and included the official view of the German army on military doctrine. On the subject of the breakthrough we find the following: [1]

“A penetration attack seeks to destroy the continuity of the enemy’s font and to envelop the shoulders created at the breakthrough point.
“The conditions for success are: surprise; the deployment of the breakthrough force in the area where the prospects for the attacking infantry are favorable deeper into the enemy’s zone; and strong forces to exploit the attack after the breakthrough.
“The attack must be launched on a broader front that intended for the breakthrough, in order to fix the enemy on either side of the penetration point. The enemy also must be held in place on the remainder of his front.
“A wider penetration zone will result in a deeper penetration wedge. Reserves must to be positioned to repel enemy counterattacks against the flanks of the penetration.
“A successful breakthrough must be exploited before the enemy can initiate countermeasures. The more deeply the attacking force advances, the more effectively it can envelop, thereby frustrating any attempt the enemy might make to close his front by withdrawing to the rear”.

As we see the fundamentals of the breakthrough battle are the same in both “Achtung Panzer!” and “Truppenführung”. Guderian himself was the product of General Staff education. So, Guderian didn’t come up with a revolutionary war theory. Guderian suggested new ways to employ the new technical means available under the provisions of the existing theory.  


 [1] On the German Art of War: Truppenführung, pp. 89-90.


Condell, Bruce and David T. Zabecki. On the German Art of War: Truppenführung. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001.
Guderian, Heinz. Achtung-Panzer! Translation: Cristopher Duffy. London: Arms & Armour Press, 1992.

Photos attribution

2. Brooke, John Warwick, via Wikimedia Commons
3. FM 100-5/1986