During World War II, it was the Panzer divisions that led the way in every campaign undertaken by the German Army. The fast-moving light tanks of the early war and the powerful medium and heavy tanks of the later war contributed greatly to German fortunes throughout the war. No Panzer division consisted solely of tanks and similar vehicles, however. Infantry support was essential for the success of every division, including the armored ones. Such units became known as Panzergrenadiers during 1942, for at least the advance units in a Panzer division rode into battle in armored vehicles capable of following the tanks wherever they led, at the tanks’ heightened pace.
The Prusso-German military tradition has always emphasized rapid movement of forces as one of the keys to success. From the time of Frederick the Great to the opening weeks of World War I, the Prussian and later the German Army had won many battles against more numerous foes through faster mobility. The onset of trench warfare had seemed to herald the end of such mobility on the modern battlefield, but this was the result of a specific set of circumstances that developed before and during World War I; during the last years of the war, new developments in technology and tactics paved the way for a return to mobile warfare, and these developments simply had not matured before the war ended.
Precisely because they were deprived of a large and well-equipped army by the terms of the Versailles Treaty, German planners were obsessed with making the greatest possible use of the technologies that they could retain, and of those that they could build up quickly when in time the strictures of Versailles would no longer apply. One of the early projects of influential theorist Heinz Guderian lay in resolving the training and organizational challenges of delivering infantry to a battle by truck instead of by marching feet. In this case, it utilized technologies that were all permitted under the Treaty, but still offered the small volunteer army a substantial force multiplier. It was also wholly consistent with traditional German military thinking.
To Guderian, however, other possibilities became obvious. Guderian had taken a great interest in the possibilities of the tank, which the Germans had largely neglected during World War I. Contemporary debates about tank use swung between the arguments of J.F.C. Fuller and his supporters, who wanted tanks to be fast and to operate independently, and those of more traditionally-minded soldiers, who observed rightly that tanks had performed best in World War I when they were coordinated with the infantry, who followed closely behind, swept away stragglers and held the ground. The latter voices wanted tanks to be heavy and slow, only fast enough to stay ahead of the infantry.
Guderian saw in the deployment of infantry by truck an opportunity to enjoy the benefits of both theories. The tanks could be made fast enough to disrupt the enemy’s command, control and logistics, while squads of infantry could ride behind and emerge where they were needed. It was the origin of Germany’s motorized infantry divisions. Highly trained and well equipped, they would play a substantial role in Germany’s military successes in 1939 and 1940.
Experience in combat during the Spanish Civil War taught the German Army that trucks were not adequate by themselves in many circumstances. Trucks had poor performance in open land, where the tracked tanks moved freely. Also, trucks were vulnerable to enemy fire. The solution was a light and inexpensive half-tracked armored vehicle that entered service as the SdKfz 251.
This half-track offered good performance off-road, and carried ten men fast enough to keep up with the tanks. At the beginning of the war, this meant slightly less than a full squad of 13 men, but after the reorganization of 1943, a rifle squad was comprised of ten men, so each vehicle served a squad. The infantry component of a Panzer division was designated as “rifles” (Schützen), and one battalion was usually outfitted with half-tracks while the other three battalions used trucks. Depending upon context, either the battalion with half-tracks or sometimes all of the infantry organized in the Panzer division (regardless of actual mode of transportation) could be designated as mechanized infantry.
Training for the Schützen was extensive, because they were expected to support the tanks at decisive areas of the battlefield. They had to be able to adapt to the tanks’ behavior, both because the tanks led and the infantry followed in support, and because infantry generally enjoyed better visibility. They also needed to know how to make the best use of their vehicles: how and when to take cover or to exit the vehicle and fight on foot.
These forces were given a new name, Panzergrenadiere, on July 5, 1942. The term means “armored grenadiers,” hearkening back to the storied reputations of traditional Grenadier units. Certainly, this change was employed in part to remind the Panzergrenadiers of their special status, but it also had one practical effect: henceforth, they were classified as armored units instead of infantry units, which simplified somewhat the often complex and competitive chains of command within the German military.
Nearly a year later, on June 23, 1943, the ranks of Panzergrenadiers expanded substantially. Losses on the Eastern Front had made the replenishment of tanks and other equipment an increasingly rare commodity. Furthermore, the transition from simpler Panzer types III and IV to the more complex Panthers and Tigers exacerbated the shortages. New armored formations by reclassifying existing motorized divisions as Panzergrenadier divisions and providing them with two new battalions: one of tanks, and the other of assault guns or anti-aircraft elements. Usually, the tank component of these divisions was comprised of the now-obsolete but still useful types III and IV. The new Panzergrenadier divisions were unable to repel a major Soviet armored drive, but now possessed sufficient firepower to overwhelm a stubborn infantry defense or even to eliminate small armored threats.
Throughout 1943, training efforts kept pace with the organizational and equipment changes, and as the great Panzer divisions continued a gradual decline in effectiveness, the Panzergrenadiers made good some of the shortfall. They experienced their own decline in 1944, due to lack of resources and the steady pressure of attrition. Experienced men were lost at growing rates, leading to reduced training periods for their replacements. Lack of resources further degraded the truncated training courses, and then when the new Panzergrenadiers reached their units, they found fewer half-tracks and less ammunition available for them. From the end of 1944 until the German surrender in 1945, the Panzergrenadiers shared in the general decline of the German Army.
During the course of World War II, the scope of the Panzergrenadier forces in the German Army changed drastically, but the essential concept remained the same: they were elite infantry units trained and equipped to keep up with tanks and to fight in concert with them. As such, they have provided valuable lessons for contemporary infantry forces, many of which are now deployed in Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV’s) like the M1 Bradley.
Bishop, Chris. Order of Battle: German Infantry in World War II. Zenith Press, 2008
Culver, Bruce. SdKfz 251 Half-track 1939-45. Osprey, 1998
Parrish, Thomas. Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II. Simon and Schuster, 1978
Scheibert, Horst. Panzer-Grenadier, Motorcycle and Panzer Reconnaissance Units: A History of the German Motorized Units, 1935-45. Schiffer, 1990
Thomas, Nigel. The German Army in World War II. Osprey, 2002
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