Panzer Battles: A Study of the Employment of Armor in the Second World War; Major General F.W. von Mellenthin; The History Press; illustrated edition (February 1, 2009)

In 1972, while browsing in a secondhand bookstore, I came upon a used copy of “Panzer Battles” by F.W. von Mellenthin. Because the book was inexpensive, and because the brief description inside the dust jacket looked interesting, I decided to purchase it along with the book that I had originally gone in to buy. Today, I can’t even remember what that other title was, but I still own “Panzer Battles,” and it is one of the very few nonfiction books that I have read more than twice.

“Panzer Battles” is a candid and insightful personal memoir of a German officer who rose from the rank of Army captain during the Polish Campaign in September 1939, to that of major general by 1944. His career ended when he was captured by American troops on May 3rd, 1945. This work, however, is far more than a defeated German officer’s look back at his wartime career; it is also a careful, succinct and unblinking analysis of the many military operations — particularly those of the mechanized forces — that the Wehrmacht conducted during the course of World War II. Few professional observers are in a better position to conduct a detailed review of these many campaigns than the author. Major General von Mellenthin served in virtually every major theater in which German troops fought, between 1939 and 1945.

Beginning with the invasion of Poland, the author recounts his experiences during the France ’40 Campaign; the Balkan Campaign (Yugoslavia and Greece) in 1941; the North African Campaign, ’41 – ’42; the Eastern Front, ’43 – ’44; and the Western Front, September 1944, to the war’s end in 1945. Mellenthin’s personal participation in these campaigns, particularly those in North Africa, and the Eastern and Western Fronts, infuse his narrative both with historical immediacy and extraordinary operational detail. His professional association with famous commanders like Rommel, Manstein, Guderian, and Balck allow him to paint a fascinating portrait of some of Germany’s most gifted and innovative generals. Moreover, General von Mellenthin’s presence at many of the legendary battlefields that shaped the outcome of World War II adds great credence to his observations. The author is an eyewitness to the desperate fighting at Tobruch, Gazala, and El Alamein, the attempted relief of Stalingrad, The ill-fated Kursk offensive, the Defense of Kiev, the bitter fight for Metz, and the Battle of the Bulge. Not surprisingly, this broad personal experience makes Mellenthin’s analysis of the evolution and refinement of German combined arms-mechanized strategy indispensable to serious students of Wehrmacht combat operations during World War II.

Many of Mellenthin’s conclusions regarding the economic and political factors underlying Germany’s war effort are quite interesting and well presented. Unfortunately, the author’s narrative wears a little thin when he drifts too far away from analysis and too close to conjecture. And like virtually all of the senior German officers — with the notable exception of Field Marshal von Manstein — who served on the Eastern Front, the author cannot resist presenting his own theory on the precise “turning point” for Germany in the war with Russia. On this issue, General Mellenthin comes down squarely on the side of Guderian and argues that the war was not lost at Stalingrad or even at Kursk, but before the gates of Moscow in the fall and winter of 1941.

“Panzer Battles” is not, however, without its more serious flaws. Critics have rightly pointed to Mellenthin’s unapologetic focus on German successes, and to his less detailed recounting of German failures. He is also virtually silent on the real, and obvious, character flaws of several of his favorite commanders: Rommel, for instance, was famously selfish when it came to sharing credit for his battlefield successes with his subordinates. Mellenthin’s attempt at analyzing the martial temperament of the typical Russian soldier also seems far more literary than factual. And of course, like most of the German generals who survived to write their memoirs, the author is unsparing in his criticism of Hitler’s military judgment, but claims personal ignorance of the murderous moral squalor of the Third Reich, which he conceded after the war.

Despite its many shortcomings, “Panzer Battles,” remains an invaluable and very personal examination of German military operations during the whole of World War II. It is clearly written and understandable, with a nice assortment of period photographs, and an excellent collection of useful maps. More importantly, Mellenthin provides both an eyewitness account and an analysis of the development and refinement of the form of modern mechanized warfare that is waged even today. It is no accident that when General Norman Schwarzkopf was interviewed by a TV reporter during Operation Desert Storm, a copy of “Panzer Battles” was clearly visible on his desk. Finally, there is probably no recommendation that I can make that is stronger than this simple fact: from Sandhurst, to the Russian Army Officers School, to West Point, Mellenthin’s book can still be found in virtually every military academy where the modern profession of arms is currently being taught.


  • To me, the most memorable account in the book is during the OPERATION CRUSADER battles when Rommel has gone forward and is out of touch for several days (he and his Chief of Staff actually got lost and their staff car broke down) during the "Dash For the Wire." Maj Von Mellenthin as the intelligence officer and LtCol Seigfried Westphal, the Operations Officer, screw up the courage to countermand all of Rommel's orders as the New Zealander's approach Tobruk--and the German Panzer Generals (to say nothing of the senior Italian generals--obey! I can't think of any American staff officer today who would have the gumption to do this; it says a lot for the German command philosophy of the day.

    Von Mellenthin writes with a bit of wry humor as well; particularly when Von Ravenstein is taken by the British with tins of captured Commonwealth supplies in his car...also when Rommel finally gets back to his headquarters to fly into a rage at Westphal and Mellenthin. Of course, when he's shown the situation map and journal logs, he stalks off to his tent in silence and won't say anything more about it. Marvelous.

  • Greetings Eric:

    For my own part, although there is little about von Mellenthin's narrative that I don't like, my favorite parts of the book were those that dealt with the brilliant, but relatively unknown generalship of Hermann Balck. I know that mine is a minority opinion, but I have always thought that history has been much too kind to Rommel, much too disinterested in some of the other lesser-lights from among the important commanders of World War II. This also, by the way, applies especially to the virtual absence of interest in the west in a number of the virtually unknown, but truly gifted Russian generals that campaigned on the Eastern Front.

    Best Regards, Joe

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