Panzer is a German word meaning ‘mail’ or ‘coat of mail’, with mail being body armour composed of interlocking metal rings. In the early 20th century, the word was applied to the tank, and thereafter entered English as a term for German tanks and armoured units.
Germany’s first Panzer was World War I’s Sturmpanzerwagen the A7V. Weighing 33 tonnes and crewed by 18 men, it was an altogether disappointing vehicle.
By World War II, Germany had better vehicles. Typical was the Panzer IV medium tank, the mainstay of its Panzer force, which had its wartime debut in the 1939 invasion of Poland. Various upgrades, including a more powerful 75mm cannon, allowed the Panzer IV to remain battleworthy despite the appearance of more advanced tanks. More Panzer IVs were made (more than 8,500 machines) during the war than any other Panzer.
In the posthumously published Rommel Papers (1953), German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, one of the war’s leading tank generals, made plain his desire for commanders who could make their own decisions. ‘The officers of a Panzer division must learn to think and act independently… and not wait until they receive orders,’ he said.
Overall, the Panzers were capably led, and much of Europe fell to German armies spearheaded by them in World War II’s early years. Properly employed, Panzers were to attack vulnerable points in the enemy line, break through, allow infantry to hold ground, and then make additional attacks.
Though ultimately defeated, the Panzers made a lasting mark on public consciousness. In her 1962 poem ‘Daddy’, American poet Sylvia Plath conjured up the fearsomeness of the Third Reich’s Panzers. ‘I have always been scared of you, / With your Luftwaffe, your goobledygoo. / And your neat mustache / And your Aryan eye, bright blue. / Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You–.’