Book Review: Panzer Battles by F.W. von Mellenthin

This is one of the most influential memoirs written by a former German Officer. The cover of the copy I own highlights that it “was the book on General Schwarzkopf’s desk during the Gulf War.” I found it to be a well written book with some pretty good accounts of the battles von Mellenthin participated in as a staff officer as well as some battles he did not participate in.

I would not go so far as to say that this book is a definitive account of German tank warfare in World War II but it comes very close. Mellenthin does an outstanding job of describing the operational and sometimes strategic side of the so-called “German Way of War” in World War II. His description of the operational decisions made on the use of armor and the considerations on the best use of armor that the Germans made is enlightening. Mellenthin has a way of playing up German abilities and downgrading opponents, especially the Russians that is sometimes at variance with the facts. However, he does acknowledge that Russian armor tactics and doctrine improved as the war progressed.

What I found lacking in the book, and it is a glaring omission in my opinion, is the lack of detail on the tactical employment of armor. At numerous points throughout the book, Mellenthin points out to the tactical superiority of the German armor against their opponents. He mainly attributes this to the mental flexibility of German tank commanders. What he does not do is go into any depth into what tactical and doctrinal differences made individual tank commanders so flexible. He seems to assume tactical superiority. What he fails to appreciate in my opinion is that tactical doctrine is the foundation for successful operational and strategic warfare. It does not matter how good an army’s strategic or operational doctrine is if the troops at the pointy end of the stick cannot effectively implement that doctrine at the tactical level.

The lack of attention to tactical doctrine is not unique to Mellenthin though, it is common with many works about World War II or indeed almost any war. It is often thought enough to say that one army was tactically superior to the other and then continue the narrative. There is rarely any great attention paid to tactical methods. The two exceptions I can think of are the ancient Greeks and Romans and the French revolutionary armies.

All that being said, Panzer Battles is an outstanding book and anyone interested in the German use of armor in World War II should add this to their reading list. Mellenthin has put together a superb account of German armor employment in World War II from the perspective of a German General Staff Officer.