The enduring legacy and critique of von Mellenthin and his book Panzer Battles

A couple of days ago I mentioned Friedrich Wilhelm von Mellenthin, a German World War II general and the author of Panzer Battles, in which he described the German campaigns in Poland, France 1940, the Balkans, North Africa, Russia, France 1944, and, finally, Germany itself, with a strong focus on the operations in North Africa, Russia 1942-1944, France 1944, and Germany. The most famous German general from that era is probably Erwin Rommel, also known as “the Desert Fox,” with Heinz Guderian as runner up. While pretty much unknown to most, von Mellenthin, however, has exerted quite a bit of influence on the interpretation and analysis of World War 2 armored tactics, and their application to armored warfare between NATO and the Soviet Union.

von Mellenthin proposed that Soviet armor should be defended against by a flexible, maneuver-based defense that seeks to hit the advancing Red Army columns in the flannks and the rear. Static hold-the-line tactics should be avoided since the immense artillery barrages that Russians were able to muster would simply plow such lines upside down, to use von Mellenthins phrase.

von Mellenthin wrote his book in the 1950′s, after having moved to South Africa, where his wife had some relatives thanks her grand-father having emigrated there in 1868. His book was translated to English in 1956, the same year that Soviet tanks tanks once again flooded Central Europe, and quickly became popular. This is how Dr. Robert H. Berlin describes Panzer Battles:

German Major General von Mellenthin, who commanded armored forces in Poland, France, the Balkans, North Africa, Russia, and the Western Front, provides considerable tactical information in his postwar account of his actions in World War II. Keep in mind that this volume was compiled after the war and, in part, was designed to please Western admirers of the German General Staff.

An article from 1996 that I found on the Internet about early commercial war boardgames alludes to the environment in which von Mellenthin wrote his book, and, also, to the impact his book had on that very same environment:

Early on in the military history boardgaming hobby, around 1960, there were only a half dozen games available to be played. …

D-DAY, (square-grid) GETTYSBURG, CHANCELLORSVILLE, and TACTICS II were some of the very few land warfare games available to us, the mass market in 1961. That was also the period of the greatest fear of a Soviet mechanized invasion of Western Europe and of the greatest admiration for the Germans’ World War II armored operations against the Soviets, as portrayed in the alltime classic account of armored operational art, PANZER BATTLES, by F. W. von Mellenthin. And so, Avalon Hill’s publication of a World War II Russian Front campaign game was awaited with keen–indeed, frenzied –anticipation by wargamers everywhere.

Of course, von Mellenthin’s fame lasted well beyond those grim days and was revived during the equally grim days of the late 1970′s and early 1980′s. The following is from a review by Mark Herman of Dean Essig’s boardgame “Enemy at the Gates” (MS Word document) and it nicely ties back to the 1980 conference that prompted my first post on von Mellenthin:

My choice of the Chir River Battle scenario was based on two reasons. Firstly, it was the smallest. And, second, it had some background in personal experience. Back in 1980, I was in charge of running a conference where German WWII Generals Balck and Von Mellenthin were brought in to discuss how NATO could employ their WWII experience on the Chir River against the then-current Soviet threat in Europe. A wargame I designed was used to fight out Balck’s orders as applied to the US 3rd Armored Division against a Soviet attack in the Fulda Gap region. At the symposium, Balck related how he first used mobile infantry screens to conduct an orderly withdrawal in front of Soviet armored penetrations and then used his panzer regiment (15th of the 11th Panzer) to strike into the flank and rear of the enemy advance and smash it. His ability to repeatedly conduct this maneuver lead to his stabilizing the front in the face of superior enemy forces… and that with a 15th Panzer regiment that never had more than 12 to 24 operational tanks on any given day!

The context and purpose of the 1980 conference is neatly captured by Dennis E. Showalter in a piece from 1985 in Air University Review that examined the anxietes of NATO forces around 1980. In the article he discussed the use of retired Nazi-Germany generals like von Mellenthin in planning for the next war and he specifically mentions that conference in 1980:

Anxieties are often best alleviated by consulting experts. The U.S. Army had at hand a significant number of prospective advisors with extensive experience in the problem of fighting Russians on a shoestring. The fact that these advisors’ experience had ultimately been a losing one seemed less important to an army humbled by its own recent history. Taking military cues from ex-Nazis did offer certain public relations risks. However, World War II had been over for thirty years. National Socialism showed no serious signs of reviving. Eisenhower’s refusal to receive his defeated opponent at the end of the Tunisian campaign seemed an increasingly quaint gesture in a world that could no longer afford crusades of any kind for the noblest of motives. Increasingly, Schörner’s and Model’s campaigns and the battles of von Senger und Etterlin and Hermann Balck were refought in war games and at cocktail parties from Carlisle to Leavenworth. The results were often impressive. Thus in May 1980, the Director of Net Assessment, Office of the Secretary of Defense, sponsored a war game in which Balck and his one-time chief of staff F. W. von Mellenthin defended a division sector of a U.S. corps against a Warsaw Pact attack. The old Wehrmacht hands made it look easy as they crippled two enemy tank divisions and then successfully counterattacked toward the German border against seemingly overwhelming odds.

While no one was confusing a map room with a battlefield, Balck, Mellenthin, and their counterparts did much to establish a concrete case for initiative, flexibility, and mobility as vital elements of a successful forward defense of the NATO central front. Their points were reinforced by the publication of memoirs and biographies of several of the eastern front’s most successful operational commanders, until now relatively unknown outside of Germany, whose careers seemed to prove the overriding importance of spirit and confidence in fighting the Russians.

Those anxieties didn’t really ebb until the late phases of Soviet’s war in Afghanistan, but even then the Soviet armored armies in East Germany commanded much respect, as did elite units like Spetsnaz. The latter in particular was paid much attention to when I did my military service in 1990 and our concerns focused on how we could defend our often isolated and ligthly manned logistics-command posts against such well-trained and ruthless soldiers. The dramatic success of the coalition forces over Saddam Hussein’s at least nominally Soviet-style army much reduced the fear of Soviet armor, and the whole issue became moot with rapid decline and sudden death of the Soviet Union in 1991, just months after American tanks and airplanes had shot Iraq’s Soviet-built tanks to pieces.

Speaking of Gulf War I, general Norman Schwarzkopf appears to be one of von Mellenthin’s readers, and he may even have been inspired by the German general when he devised the famous “Hail Mary” envelopment move that quickly crushed Iraqi resistance.

(The most vulgar example of using Panzer Battles that I have found is easily this “Competitiveness through Blitzkrieg”-type article in a newsletter put out by Walsh College in Michigan.)

General von Mellenthin’s fame is by no means limited to the United States or other members of NATO. His book is used as source material in the Japanese officers manual Principles of War and is quoted by a Pakistani officer discussing an Indo-Pak tank battle and Mellenthin is approvingly mentioned in an article on another Indo-Pak tank battle (Indians were among the Imperial troops who fought against von Mellenthin in North Africa and Pakistan was of course part of India at the time). Granted, both articles are written by the same person, Major Agha Humayun Amin.

Admired as von Mellenthin may have been, his Panzer Battles is not without critics. Some criticism is infantile and directed at the wording of his characterization of Russians. Somewhat more substantial is the observation that von Mellenthin is quick to blame failure on Adolf Hitler’s gross strategic errors and micro-management of German forces, while crediting the officer corps and the soliders with whatever measure of success the Germans managed to eke out. Most helpful, however, are the critiques delivered by United States Army Major Timothy A. Wray and Colonel David M. Glantz, who in the 1980′s pointed out the weaknesses of von Mellenthin and how those weaknesses may limit the usefulness of his advice to NATO-era troops.

The earliest critique of von Mellenthin by Glantz that I have found – Leavenworth Papers No. 7 from 1983, “August storm: the Soviet strategic offensive in Manchuria” – puts the views of surviving eastern front German panzer generals in a psychological context:

Our view of the war in the east derives from the German experiences of 1941 and 1942, when blitzkrieg exploited the benefits of surprise against a desperate and crudely fashioned Soviet defense. It is the view of a Guderian, a Mellenthin, a Balck, and a Manstein, all heroes of Western military history, but heroes whose operational and tactical successes partially blinded them to strategic realities. By 1943-44, their “glorious” experiences had ceased. As their operational feats dried up after 1942, the Germans had to settle for tactical victories set against a background of strategic disasters. Yet the views of the 1941 conquerors, their early impressions generalized to characterize the nature of the entire war in the east, remain the accepted views. The successors to these men, the Schoeners, the Heinricis, the defenders of 1944 and 1945, those who presided over impending disaster, wrote no memoirs of widespread notoriety, for their experiences were neither memorable nor glorious. Their impressions and those of countless field grade officers who faced the realities of 1944-45 are all but lost.

This imbalanced view of German operations in the east imparts a reassuring, though inaccurate, image of the Soviets. We have gazed in awe at the exploits of those Germans who later wrote their personal apologies, and in doing so we have forgotten the larger truth: their nation lost the war-and lost it primarily in the east against what they portrayed as the “artless” Soviets.

I’m not sure this is a fair criticism of von Mellenthin specifically, since he did not arrive to the eastern front until November 28, 1942, just days after Stalingrad had been surrounded.

Because of its location and timing, the Red Army’s Manchurian campaign is little-known to Westerners, but its importance to Soviet military planners is stressed by Glantz:

For the Soviets, the Manchurian offensive was the logical by-product of their war experience, a surgically conducted offensive with almost predestined results…

Based on proven capabilities of the Japanese High Command and the individual Japanese soldier, Soviet plans were as innovative as any in the war. Superb execution of those plans produced victory in only two weeks of combat. Although Soviet planners had overestimated the capabilities of the Japanese High Command, the tenacious Japanese soldier met Soviet expectations. He lived up to his reputation as a brave, self-sacrificing samurai who, though poorly employed, inflicted 32,000 casualties on the Soviets and won their grudging respect. Had Japanese planners been bolder-and Soviet planners less audacious-the price of Soviet victory could well have been significantly higher.

Scope, magnitude, complexity, timing, and marked success have made the Manchurian offensive a continuing topic of study for the Soviets, who see it as a textbook case of how to begin war and quickly bring it to a successful conclusion. They pay attention to the Manchurian offensive because it was an impressive and decisive campaign.

In defense of von Mellenthin, his book does point out that the Soviets grew more sophisticated from year to year, and in one footnote he specifically mentions the Manchurian campaign as an example of the rapid evolution of the Red Army.

To illustrate the growing versatility of the Red Army and its ability to conduct armored operations over vast distances and at a rapid tempo, I draw attention to Marshall Malinovsky’s sensational advance into Manchuria in August 1945.

Considering that Panzer Battles is primarliy based on von Mellenthin’s personal experiences and exclusively deals with campaigns that involved German troops, he may be forgiven that he did not afford more space to the Manchurian campaign.

In 1986, Glantz elaborated on the shortcomings of von Mellenthin’s Panzer Battles in a paper written for “the first Soviet-American collegium on the problems of World War II history” (the numerous spelling errors are probably due to optical scanning):

One of the most influential postwar German war critiques was General von Mellenthin’s Panzer Battles published ln English in 1956. Mellenthin’s work, an operational/tactical account of considerable merit, echoed the criticism of Hitler voiced by Guderian and showed how Hitler’s adverse influence affected tactical operations. Beyond this, Mellenthin’s work adopted a didactic approach in order to analyze operations and hence educate officers. Throughout the book are judgments concerning military principles and assessments of the nature of the Soviet fighting men and officers, most of which have been incorporated into the current “body of truth” about Soviet military capabilities. Hence, Mellenthin made such judgments as these: the Russian soldier is tenacious on defense, inflexible on offense, subject to panic when facing unforeseen eventualities, an excellent night fighter, a master of infiltra- tion, a resolute and implacable defender of bridgeheads, and neglectful of the value of human life. As was in the case of Guderian, Mellenthin’s experiences against the Red Army encompassed the period before spring 1944 and reflected impressions acquired principally during years of German success.

Mellenthln’s work, written without benefit of archival materials, tended to treat tactical cases without fully describing their operational context. Opposing Soviet units, as in Guderian’s work, were faceless. Mellenthin’s classic account of XXXXVIII Panzer Corps’ operations along the Chir River after the encirclement of German 6th Army at Stalingrad stands as an example of the weaknesses of his book. In it he describes the brilliant operations of that panzer corps in fending off assaults by Soviet 5th Tank Army’s units which included first the 1st Tank Corps and later 5th Mechanized Corps. On 7-8 December 1942, 11ch Panzer Division parried a thrust of 1st Tank Corps at State Farm 79 while on 19 December, 11th Panzer checked the advance of 5th Mechanized Corps. Despite the vivid accounts of these tactical successes, Mellenthin only in passing describes the operational disaster that provided a context for these fleeting tactical successes. For, in fact, while Soviet 5th Tank Army occupied XXXXVIII Panzer Corps’ attention, to the northwest Soviet forces overwhelmed and destroyed the Italian 8th Army and severely damaged Army Detachment Hollidt. Moreover, Mellenthin did not mention (probably because he did not know) that Soviet 1st Tank Corps had been in nearly continuous operation since 19 November and was under strength and worn down when it began its march across the Chir.

Similar flaws appear elsewhere in Mellenthin’s work, many of which result from a lack of knowledge of opposing Soviet forces or their strengths.

Wray made a similar criticism of von Mellenthin’s book in the 1986 paper Standing Fast: German Defensive Doctrine on the Russian Front During World War II Prewar to March 1943:

Second, the shallow knowledge of Western analysts is often based as much on myth as on fact. A major reason for this is that Western knowledge of the Russo-German War has been unduly influenced by the popular memoirs of several prominent German military leaders. While interesting and even instructive to a point, these memoirs suffer from the prejudices, lapses, and wishful remembering common to all memoirs and, therefore, form a precarious foundation on which to build a useful analysis. For example, even though Heinz Guderian’s Panzer Leader and F. W. von Mellenthin’s Panzer Battles regularly appear on U.S. Army professional reading lists and contain interesting insights into German military operations, each book paints a somewhat distorted picture of the German war against Russia. These distortions are the result of outright exaggeration and misrepresentation (as is common in Guderian’s work) or the omission of important qualifying data and contextual background (as is more often the case in Mellenthin’s book).

In “A Report on Soviet tactics” James Sterrett draws on Glantz (and others) in assessing von Mellenthin’s Panzer Battles:

Operational art, and the wider view it promotes, has not always been well understood in the West (its existence was denied until the mid-1970s). One of the better examples of the this Western blindness, and of the difference between Operational Art and Tactics, is provided by the blindness evident in von Mellenthin’s book Panzer Battles and its famed descriptions of the 48th Panzer Corps’s defense of the Chir River line against the Soviet 5th Tank Army. 48th Panzer’s tactical successes against the half-strength 5th Tank Army are well-described in the book. What is not explained is of greater importance. 48th Panzer’s tactical successes must be seen against 5th Tank Army’s mission: pinning 48th Panzer Corps so that it could not interefere with the Middle Don Operation. That operation was a success, with operational results: 49 Axis divisions wiped out, the the Italian 8th Army and Army Detachment Hollidt shattered, and the Axis driven from the middle Don, in significant part because 48th Panzer Corps was very successfully fighting the wrong battle. Again: Tactics is battle-fighting; Operational Art is arranging the battles to achieve a strategic goal.

However, none of these criticisms invalidate von Mellenthin’s concept of how to successfully engage numerically superior Soviet armored forces.

When I did my military service as a low-level logistics soldier, I developed a certain aversion to tanks because of their lack of mechanical reliability, their gas guzzling, their need for heavy transport equipment at every stage (to bring them to the battlefield, to tow them away from the battlefield, or across it), and their colossal weight which made planning their movements somewhat complicated: Are there enough bridges to carry their weight in a given area? Can the armored unit(s) be re-routed if Movement Plan A is dirupted? Infantry, even when mechanized, is a lot easier to deal with.

Nonetheless, the importance of armor as an effective part of both offensive and defensive operations cannot be denied and Panzer Battles is a good read if you’re interested in the concepts and implementation of armored tactics during World War 2.