What explains the tactical superiority of the Wehrmacht?


The tactical superiority of the Wehrmacht is evident from the fact that while the loss exchange ratios became more favorable to the Soviets during to the course of the Soviet-German War, the Soviets did not, in fact, manage to close the gap. Why might that be? Glantz and House have shown convincingly that by 1944 the Red Army had mastered the operational art of combined arms mechanized warfare. Red Army operations acquired a tempo, depth and confidence that Guderian surely envied. Why then did the exchange ratios not become favorable to the Soviets in the third period of the war?

Traditional explanations of German tactical superiority over Allied armies appeal to the quality of German officers and to institutional features of the German army. Commanders in the field were issued missions to be accomplished instead of detailed instructions. The exact means of accomplishing the missions were left to the field officer. This encouraged initiative and was more efficient than micromanagement of army operations from faraway headquarters. The quality of the German officer corps was thought to be superior, both on account of Prussian military culture as well as the special experience of the Versailles era. The latter idea being that since the Reichswehr was limited to 100,000 personnel and hence useless for actual defense, it essentially became a training institution for future officers. I am not entirely unsympathetic to these explanations. But I think there is a more straightforward one.

The main light machine gun of the Wehrmacht was the MG-34, later replaced by the MG-42. The latter was so successful that when the Bundeswehr was founded in 1955 and issued American firearms, experienced German soldiers found them wanting. But all existing designs had been destroyed in 1945, so Rheinmetall was forced to reverse-engineer the MG-42 from existing specimens. Modern variants of the MG-42 continues to be used by the Bundeswehr. And the machine gun continues to see action in places like Syria. The history of this weapon is so interesting that Adam Tooze wrote a paper on it.

The MG-42 was a 7.92mm caliber gun. It was 1.2 meters long and weighed 11.5 kilos with the bipod; which meant that it could be carried on the shoulder. It had a high muzzle velocity of 755 meters per second. But what made the MG-42 a supremely effective machine gun were three features. First, it had a very high rate of fire; about 1,200 rounds per minute. Second, it had an effective range of 2,000 meters with a bipod, and 3,000 tripod. And with a tripod, it could even be used to deliver indirect fire. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it was belt-fed. Moreover, the belts could be linked to maintain continuous suppressive fire. This made the MG-42 (and the MG-34 before it) an excellent universal machine gun. That is, it was light enough to be carried by one man; thus serving as a light machine gun. But when used with a tripod or mounted on tanks or combat aircraft, it became a heavy machine gun that could project continuous suppressive fire at a great distance. With a special mount, it even doubled up as an effective anti-aircraft weapon. And above all, it could sustain suppressive fire indefinitely; constrained only by ammunition supply.


MG-42 with a tripod mount.

The Soviets had combat aircraft, tanks, and artillery guns that were comparable or even superior to the Germans. They even had light machine guns that could be carried but they were fed by 71-round drums (the Finns called them ‘record players’). They also had heavy machine guns. But none could be carried into battle. The big ones had to be pulled by horses; the smaller ones had to be dragged on wheels. The Soviets did not make a single belt-fed machine gun that could be carried into battle throughout the Soviet-German War. It was only in 1946 that the Soviets finally introduced their first such machine, the RP-46.


The Red Army’s SG-43.

The German Army built the MG 34 and MG 42 into the core of its infantry organization, right down to the Gruppe (squad) level. The most basic fighting unit was the rifle squad. The rifle squad’s primary firepower did not come from rifles; it came from the machine gun. The job of the squad leader was to direct the emplacement and fire of the machine gun. The machine-gunner (No 1 Man) was responsible for carrying, firing and maintaining the light machine gun. He also had to carry a 50-round belt drum. The assistant machine-gunner (No 2 Man) carried a spare machine gun barrel, four 50-round belt drums, and one 300-round ammunition can. Another spare barrel would be carried by the ammunition carrier (No 3 Man), together with two 300-round ammunition cans. The other six riflemen often carried additional ammunition for the machine gun. In total, the squad could carry 5,000 rounds on their persons. The MG-42’s reload mechanism made it run faster and faster as you sustained fire; until it approached about 1,500 rounds per min. To be sustained at this rate for any appreciable length of time required prepared positions with stocks of ammunition; whence the dramatic tactical advantage of strong points at the ends of effective supply lines; and, of course, back to the great machine working behind it to reproduce the whole show.


Adam Tooze notes that the job of the German rifle squad was to work the machine. It was the reason for their existence as a unit. The survival of the riflemen depended on their working together to feed the machine whose fire protected them on the battlefield. This is what accounts for their cohesion. An answer to why did the Wehrmacht have to annihilated? Why did it hold together? Did National Socialist Germany hold together until the Battle of Berlin because it was a machine civilization?

My question is low-stakes. What explains the exchange ratios in the Soviet-German War? At the basic tactical level, whereas the Germans ran their factories of firepower, the Soviets did not even have an infantry squad (their basic tactical unit was too large; the size of a German company) for the obvious reason that they did not have a real machine gun. But Stalinist USSR was also a machine civilization.

German superiority at the tactical level (roughly, squad-company) was defeated not only by the Soviets’ superior performance as a machine civilization, but also by the fact that the Red Army became better than the Wehrmacht at the operational level that came to dominated by combined arms mechanized warfare. The Red Army rediscovered ‘deep operations’ in early 1942. Glantz and House show how the Soviets and the Germans exchanged places in mechanized warfare during 1942-1943.

During the Battle of Stalingrad and the ensuing winter campaign, the tank and mechanized corps organized in 1942 had proven their worth as instruments for the limited tactical exploitation of enemy rear areas. For the remainder of the war, high-priority combined-arms armies such as the guards armies would control one or two tank or mechanized corps for the purpose of encircling German defenders to a depth of 50 to 200 kilometers behind the front lines.
         However, the Red Army needed a larger mechanized formation, analogous to a panzer corps or panzer army, of deeper operational exploitations up to 500 kilometers. The result was the 1943 tank army.…The depths to which these armies penetrated increased steadily throughout the war.…For the remainder of the war, the five (later six) tank armies were the spearhead of Soviet deep attacks, conducting operational maneuver and seeking objectives deep in the German rear areas. On a map, Soviet offensive plans often resembled a set of nesting dolls, with shallow encirclements inside of other deeper encirclements. The separate tank and mechanized corps, sometimes replaced by cavalry-mechanized groups in difficult terrain, were attached to the forward combined-arms armies so that they could encircle one or more German corps immediately behind the German main defense lines. Meanwhile, operating under front control [a front is the equivalent of a German army group], the tank armies bypassed these struggles, straining to penetrate as far as possible into the operational depths and thereby achieve larger encirclements.

Glantz and House (When Titans Clashed, p. 207)

The persistence of the Germans’ tactical superiority even as Soviet ‘tank armies’ gained operational superiority is interesting from the point of view of struggling machine civilizations. Perhaps even in purely tactical terms, the Germans were saved by the bell as it were for the RP-46 production came online in 1946. But in the lived experience of Soviet-German war, only one side had the machine gun. And that is an efficient explanation of German tactical superiority.

P.S. Why, of course, the material culture of the Wehrmacht is fascinating! Look at these men covered with food for their hungry machine.


A work gang covered in raw material.


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