Nazi Germany’s Panzer Corps Faked It ’Til It Made It
Osprey Publishing sponsored this post.
The terms of the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I prohibited Germany from joining Great Britain, France and other major powers in developing tanks — those heavily-armed, thickly-armored tracked vehicles that had debuted late in the conflict and had helped to break the stalemate of trench warfare.
But the tank ban didn’t actually stop Nazi Germany from inventing new tanks and refining tactics for their use. Instead, the treaty limitations pushed German armored vehicle development into the military-industrial shadows. In the decades before Panzers swept across Europe and the Soviet Union, the Panzerwaffe armored corps evolved in secrecy.
Barred from owning their own tanks and unwilling early on to blatantly breach the Versailles Treaty, the Germans resorted to creative measures, as Thomas Anderson recounts in his new book The History of the Panzerwaffe, Volume I: 1939–42, out now from Osprey Publishing. Most weirdly, Panzer battalion commander Heinz Guderian — Germany’s tank pioneer — and his boss Gen. Oswald Lutz made lavish use of dummy tanks for training and tactical experimentation.
Guderian, a World War I veteran, was a prominent and controversial figure in Germany’s inter-war mechanized force — and a huge proponent of independent tank units that, he theorized, could punch holes in defensive lines and rush through the gaps to shatter enemy forces from within. But to prove his theory, he needed to test it out. And for testing, he needed tanks … or something similar to tanks.
Hence the dummies — a diverse fleet of tank surrogates that Guderian and other early Panzerwaffe officers used during the late 1920s and early 1930s to stand in for real tanks then under secret development for the German army. The dummies also played the role of enemy tanks during mock battles.
Anderson’s book includes photos depicting several different surrogate types. Among the earliest, circa 1927, were simple metal frames fitted to bicycle wheels to which craftsmen added lightweight shells in the rough shape of scale tanks, as pictured below. These dummies “had to be pushed over the ‘battlefield,’” Anderson writes. “For authenticity, the ‘tanks’ were painted with tactical markings.”
Bicycle ‘tanks’ circa 1927. Photo via Osprey Publishing
The dummies got somewhat more sophisticated. Pictured at top and below — a faux British Vickers light tank that was little more than a cosmetic shell surrounding a BMW Dixi car, itself a licensed copy of the British Austin 7. Likewise, the Panzerwaffe added a fake exterior to Hanomag 2/10PS passengers cars to produce stand-ins for French tanks.
BMW Dixi ‘tanks.’ Photo via Osprey Publishing
The dummies were key players in a 1932 war game that confirmed Guderian’s notions of tank warfare, which would later enable the German Blitzkrieg across Europe. Anderson reprints one after-action review.
The tactics were sophisticated even if the dummies most decidedly weren’t. “Most of the German military had never seen an operational tank in combat,” Anderson writes. “Guderian’s dummy tanks raised pitiful laughter.”
But the laughter ceased in the mid-1930s, as Adolf Hitler openly violated the Versailles Treaty and poured money into military production and the Panzerwaffe finally emerged as a fearsome and war-ready force — one that had begun its training with fake tanks built atop cars and bikes.