Saturday, 21 July 2007

Michael Wittmann: The Epitome of the Nazi Conception of War

Following the trauma suffered by both the individual German soldier and his nation’s political culture at the hands of the overwhelming Allied forces of industrial warfare in the Great War, a National Socialist response formed. In order to ensure a redemptive victory in WW2, the Nazis sought a new configuration of the relationship between fighting man and machine (see related postings on this blog on the Cyborg). One significant example of this was Nazi Germany’s mode of tank warfare. In particular, one can look to their encouragement and promotion of the ‘tank ace’, (no less important were Luftwaffe and U-boat aces), as a prime example of German skill, technical proficiency, mastery of the machine, and, indeed, the merging of the human/machine into a new and unbeatable elite fighting combatant. This can be compared to the earlier reaction of shock and bewilderment recorded, for example, in Ernst Junger’s WW1 memoir, “The Storm of Steel”, at his first sight of a captured British tank.
Michael Wittmann, perhaps the most ‘famous’ German tank ace of the war, was heavily propagandized as someone whose innate relationship with the machine, (stemming, in part, from his background with farm machinery), endowed him with an uncanny ability to manoeuvre his tank and anticipate the movement of enemy vehicles on the battlefield; to the point where he amassed over 100 enemy tank ‘kills’ by the time of his death on 9th, August 1944. His most well known action occurred at Villers- Bocage on 13th, June 1944, when Wittmann, (as SS-Obersturmfuehrer, 2nd Company, 101st Heavy SS Panzer Battalion ), destroyed 26 vehicles of the 7th British Armoured Division, including 10 light and medium tanks, in under 15 minutes.
Accompanying this cult of the individual tank ace, (and, to a lesser extent, his crew), was a cult of the technology/weapons employed by the Wehrmacht. The Germans prided themselves, for example, on their ability to manufacture tanks vastly superior to anything the allies could produce. Thus it followed that many of their tank models were nicknamed so as to signify natural potency and power, such as, the ‘Panther’, ‘Tiger’, ‘King Tiger’.
However, this belief in German technological mastery proved to be only partly, if not largely, unsuccessful. One can see this especially through the example of the Scwhere Panzerabteilung, (the Heavy Tank Battalions), which largely employed the Panzerkampfwagen 6 i.e. Tiger 1 and King Tiger ( 2 ) tanks. In contrast to the Allied preference for combined-arms tank divisions rather than ‘elite’ units, German heavy tank battalions were intended to act as the ‘iron fist’ of offensive operations, smashing a gaping hole through enemy formations, thus opening the way for the more typical panzer and infantry formations to exploit the breaches made by the heavy tanks. Also, they were to act as the impregnable backbone in defensive operations, destroying any enemy penetrations of the German lines. In practice, however, things rarely followed such neat doctrinal theory (see Wilbeck, Sledgehammers).
The Tigers, for instance, proved to have significant technical weaknesses, which reduced their overall effectiveness. They had a tendency to breakdown frequently, owing to the enormous weight of the vehicle which placed enormous strain on its fragile powertrain. Consequently, they had trouble reaching the battlefield in sufficient numbers to make breakthroughs or stop enemy advances. This lack of mobility also meant that, once identified, Tiger battalions could often simply be bypassed by the far more numerous and mobile enemy tanks (although this was far less possible in confined battle spaces, such as the Norman bocage country, which favoured German defensive actions). As the war progressed, and German fuel supplies fell even more dramatically, the fuel guzzling heavy tanks’ mobility and battlefield presence, (as in the Ardennes offensive, for instance ), was even further diminished.
Furthermore, the loss of any Tiger tanks could never be replaced in sufficient number as their technical sophistication and enormous expense, (tank manuals emphasized to crews to be very careful in their handling of the Tiger as it had cost over 3 million RM to produce ), meant they were never produced in any significant number. By contrast, the allies, and particularly the Americans, owing to their mobile armoured doctrine, sacrificed fire power and armour protection for the mass Fordist production of their tanks. Despite some very belated plans for the rationalization of the German tank industry, the army and, most particularly, Hitler, never quite lost their preference for the ultimate technological solution, no matter how impractical. Hitler’s approval for the Dr Ferdinand Porsche designed Maus super-heavy tank late in the war, (which was to weigh in at almost 190 tonnes), was symptomatic of this, as well as his profound misunderstanding of technology’s shift towards miniaturisation.
Therefore, behind the legends of the tank ace’s invincibility on a individual/tactical level, (producing amongst some Allied tank crews so-called ‘Tiger phobia’, a phenomena that Hastings in ‘Overlord’ makes clear, Churchill was keen to play down to prevent government embarrassment), is largely a story of failure on the operational, and, ultimately, strategic war-winning level. At this point, it is worth noting that in Nazi propaganda and, indeed, most accounts written today about Wittmann at Viller-Bocage, they fail(ed) to mention that despite his remarkable individual act, it was not, however, enough to prevent a significant British divisional advance, and loss of a high number of other invaluable Tigers. Afterall, small, but elite German fighting formations, manned by a new generation of ubersoldaten, were vastly inadequate to overcome superior Allied material production, (considered by the Nazis as an inferior and soulless materialism). Moreover, the superior Allied war leadership and management, in combination with its highly effective motorized and combined-arms fighting formations – had little need for any comparable ideology of the warrior/machine. Albeit far less pronounced, perhaps the closest approximation in this respect was the Allied veneration of fighter aces.
In any case, these contrasts should not make us lose sight of the greatest irony of all: in spite of the cult of the tank ace, the Wehrmacht was by and large a demodernised army, still reliant on the horse for its supply and mobilization. On the basis of this evidence, one might justifiably conclude that, rather than successfully combating the trauma of any soulless materialism, what ultimately proved an insurmountable obstacle was the development of any capacity to transcend a mode of organization, familiar to the German army in World War One.
Recommended Reading:
R. Overy, Why the Allies Won
M. Hastings, Overlord
M. Howard, War in European History
H. Guderian, Panzer Leader
O. Bartov, Murder in our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing, and Representation
C.W. Wilbeck, Sledgehammers: Strengths and Flaws of Tiger Tank Battalions in WW2
T. Ripley, The Wehrmacht : The German Army in WW2, 1939-45
L. Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity
P. Wright, Tank

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