On Internet discussion forums as well as in some books, there is a tendency to attribute very high number of kills to German tank units, as well as very high "kill ratios". This is especially true for the lists of German tank aces and the independent Tiger battalions. These high kill numbers are based on the claims of the German tank units, which are often accepted as accurate without criticism. When compared to the Allied losses in the same theater it is furthermore assumed that if the Allied losses approximately match the German tank units' claims, this is verification that the claims are accurate.
As will be demonstrated below, the reality was that the German units' claims were greatly exaggerated, and that the majority of Allied losses were not from German tanks or even armored vehicles in general.
The Cause of Tank Kills
Detailed descriptions of battles during the Second World War will often focus on tanks fighting other tanks. While this is easier to quantify, and no doubt sells more books, it does not reflect the usual conditions under which tanks were destroyed. Actual tank combat focused on breaking through enemy lines using superiority of force while anti-tank gun and tank destroyer units destroyed enemy tanks. This is evident from the fact that the usage of high-explosive tank gun ammunition exceeded that of anti-tank ammunition and that the destruction of anti-tank guns receiving as much emphasis in German unit reports as the destruction of tanks.
After the war, the British Army made a comprehensive investigation of the cause of their tank losses, the result of which are shown in the table below. As can be seen, tanks and self-propelled guns accounted for less than half of total British losses. That the numbers for tanks and self-propelled guns is approximately the same for all three theaters makes it reasonable to conclude that the numbers can be applied to the Western Front in general as well as the Eastern Front.
|Theater||Tanks Lost||Mines||Anti-tank Guns||Tanks||Self-propelled Guns||Panzerfaust and Panzerschreck||Other|
German High Command Opinion
In a 1944 German High Command report on estimated Soviet tank and assault gun production and losses the following excerpt details how the German High Command attempted to adjust troop claims to achieve a statistically usable number.
To account for counting errors and double counting, and for repairable tanks, the [Soviet] losses were reduced by 20 percent and 15 percent [respectively] from 1 December 1942 to 30 June 1943, and by a total of 50 percent from 1 July 1943.
Because the troops have identified a large number of repaired tanks, it is necessary to apply the 50 percent reduction retroactively for the [Soviet] losses since December 1942 to June 1943, thus reducing the [Soviet] losses for this period.
As the Red Army had intensified their salvaging of tanks it is still subject to further study whether the 50 percent reductions is sufficient.
Two things can be read from this excerpt; that the German high command was well aware that units over-claimed kills, and that the claims did not take into account that some of the destroyed tanks could be salvaged and repaired. That the reduction increased as Germany began their retreat makes sense, as the salvaging of lost tanks became much easier for the Soviet Army as they began taking back conquered territory. It is also clear that the German High Command was uncertain whether a reduction by 50 percent was sufficient.
The accuracy of the 20 percent reduction to take into account counting errors and double counting can be determined by comparing German claims and Soviet losses. From the beginning of the German invasion until the end of 1942 the total of claimed tank losses after the 20 percent reduction was 39 100, compared to actual Soviet tank losses was 35 500, equivalent to an over-estimation of about ten percent.
The accuracy of the overall 50 percent reduction from 1943 onwards can also be compared to the actual Soviet losses during 1943.
|Total||16 139||22 900|
The numbers do not include the reported casualties for December 1943, but assuming the losses in December can be compared to the losses of the preceding months, an estimate of 2000 tanks would seem appropriate. This would place the German estimates at about 18 000 tanks, compared to actual Soviet tank losses of 22 900, equivalent to an under-estimation of about 27 percent.
It should be considered that the apparent over-estimation in 1941 and 1942 cannot be directly compared to the apparent under-estimation for 1943. The 50 percent reduction for the 1943 numbers includes estimated repair rates, while the 20 percent reduction for 1941 and 1942 does not include the 15 percent estimated repair rates. Adjusting the 1941 and 1942 figures for a 15 percent repair rate gives a slight under-estimation of six percent. It must be considered, however, that the repair rates in 1941, where Russia lost 20 500 tanks, would have been much lower as many tanks were lost in large encirclement battles without any means of salvaging.
Battle of Kursk
The traditional Western narrative of the Battle of Kursk is that of vastly superior German tanks destroying scores of Soviet tanks at ranges of two to three kilometers before being overwhelmed and rammed to death by the Soviet masses. This version of the battle was written before Western authors had access to Soviet archives, and relied solely on German records. If used without any reservations it is clear how these records would give the impression that German tanks were superior to those of the Soviets.
|Unit||Vehicle||Dates||Claimed Kills||Losses||Claimed Ratio|
|Schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503||45 Tigers||5 July to 17 August||385||7||55:1|
|13. Kompanie/SS-Panzer-Regiment 1||13 Tigers||5 July to 14 July||150||2||75:1|
|Schwere Panzerjäger-Regiment 656||89 Ferdinands||5 July to 27 July||502||39||12.9:1|
|Panzer-Regiment 39||200 Panthers||5 July to 17 July||263||58||4.5:1|
|Reported by units||16 251|
|After 50 percent reduction||8 125|
|German total losses||1 150|
|Claimed ratio after reduction||7.1:1|
It is no surprise that such claimed kill ratios would give the impression that the Battle of Kursk was a disaster for the Soviet tank forces, and that Germany came close to winning the battle. While the latter numbers include units outside the Kursk area, relatively little tank combat would have taken place on the other front sections. Even after the 50 percent reduction by the German High Command, however, the claims exceed the recorded Soviet losses.
|Operation||Tank Strength||Tank Losses|
|Zitadelle (German offensive)||5128||1614|
|Kutuzov (Soviet northern offensive)||3324||2586|
|Rumiantsev (Soviet southern offensive)||2439||1864|
The total strength is adjusted to account for double counting between the defensive and offensive operations. The losses include those tanks that were repaired after the battle. Despite that the German High Command's 50 percent reduction was supposed to account for those tanks that were repaired after the battle, the German High Command's reduced claims are still 34 percent higher than the actual losses before repaired Soviet tanks are subtracted.
In determining a ratio, it is also important to note that the German losses only include total write-offs, and not tanks that could be repaired. While no data is available specifically for the Kursk area from 5 July to 31 August, the numbers for the entire Eastern Front can be used on the assumption that the majority of the action took place within that area.
|Difference between 5 July and 31 August||1376||336||1712|
These numbers does not show how many reinforcement tanks were received. For example, an additional 71 Panthers were assigned to Eastern Front units from 5 July to 31 August. It also does not include those tanks repaired by field workshops. The decrease of 1712 tanks is therefore a very conservative estimate of German tank and assault gun losses comparable to Soviet losses. The actual ratio between the 6064 Soviet losses and the estimated 1712 German losses could therefore not have been greater than 3.5:1, and was likely significantly lower. This should be compared to the traditional claims of 14.1:1 if using the troop claims and 7.1:1 when using German High Command reduced claims. In other words, the overall German unit claims were at least four times as high as the actual losses.
Operation Goodwood is often described as a tactical disaster for the British, resulting in the loss of upwards of 500 tanks. This in reinforced by those post-war authors who have only looked at the British overall losses, without examining the way the British counted those losses.
|Division||Brigade||17 July||18 July||19 July||20 July|
|3rd Infantry Division||148th Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps||70||70||-||-||70||-||1||70||N/A|
|27th Armoured Brigade||220||201||6||18||194||4||4||195||-||-|
|2nd Canadian Corps||2nd Canadian Armoured Division||202||191||1||10||186||10||2||185||N/A|
|7th Armoured Division||8th King's Royal Irish Hussars||72||67||3||2||62||8||2||70||-||-|
|22nd Armoured Brigade||216||198||10||8||191||11||4||199||12||3|
|11th Armoured Division||2nd Northhamptonshire Yeomanry||72||46||1||15||35||4||16||46||-||1|
|29th Armoured Brigade||214||91||13||115||96||12||16||132||5||9|
|Guards Armoured Division||2nd Welsh Guards||68||63||1||4||68||1||3||66||2||4|
|5th Guards Armoured Brigade||235||153||1||62||198||15||18||166||5||27|
The British tank casualties for the Goodwood campaign is cited as 493, which is the sum of all tanks being repaired from 18 to 20 July for the above units plus an additional 24 tanks for the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade for 21 July. As is evident from the breakdown of the numbers, however, this is a summary of tanks that are not combat ready rather than write-offs. This includes those tanks that would have been repaired within 24 hours and therefore before the next strength status. All those tanks that were not repairable within 24 hours were of course not write-offs either; German status reports used a three week cut-off for short-term repairs rather than 24 hours, yet these tanks are not usually not counted as losses.
The number of write-offs is more difficult to ascertain, but the numbers for 11th Armoured Division and the Guards Armoured Division gives some idea.
|Status||11 Armoured Division||Guards Armoured Division||Total|
|Sherman||Cromwell||Stuarts and others||Sherman||Cromwell||Stuarts and others|
|Not yet recovered||15||14||9||-||38|
Even if it is assumed that the total number of tanks not yet recovered would be written off, the total number of lost tanks for 11th Armoured Division and Guards Armoured Division would be 103 tanks. Compared to the 350 tanks that are often considered casualties in post-war litterature for these two units, this is a considerable reduction.
The definition of a lost tank is important in this regard, as German kill claims during Goodwood are often considered accurate because they match the British losses. If the actual British losses are in fact only about one third of the frequently accepted numbers the German claims must therefore necessarily be inflated.
Among the claims of the German units is that the Panthers of I./SS-Panzer-Regiment 1/1. SS-Panzer-Division "Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler" destroyed 40 Shermans of the 23rd Hussars of 29th Armoured Brigade during their counter-attack on 18 July. On 18 July, however, 23rd Hussars only lost a total of 26 tanks, including those tanks that would since be brought back into action.
While Operation Goodwood might not have created the breakthrough that was planned, the total of about 150 British tanks written off compared to the 83 German tanks and assault guns written off is certainly not the disaster as which it is usually described.
British Tank Losses, 1944
During the fighting on the Western Front, Oberbefehlshaber West, the German command on the Western Front, compiled statistics on Allied personnel and equipment losses. The equipment statistics were seperated between British, American, and Other (usually French) equipment. Included in the British numbers were the tanks of the Canadian and Polish armored divisions.
|Date Range||Army Group||Tanks||Armored Vehicles|
|16 June to 25 June||B||104||18|
|26 June to 5 July||B||528||18|
|16 July to 25 July||B||546||43|
|26 July to 5 August||B||279||24|
|6 August to 15 August||B||478||-|
|16 August to 25 August||B||110||-|
|26 August to 5 September||B||44||-|
|26 September to 5 October||B||174||45|
|6 October to 15 October||B||56||47|
|16 October to 25 October||B||179||47|
|26 October to 5 November||B||195||23|
|6 November to 15 November||B||5||1|
|16 November to 25 November||B||23||-|
|26 November to 5 December||B||1||-|
|6 December to 15 December||B||-||-|
These numbers can be compared with the tank losses of the British 21st Army Group, which included the British Second Army and the Canadian First Army, which in turn included the Polish 1st Armoured Division.
|Type||Knocked Out||Written Off|
Whether comparing with the 1667 knocked-out tanks, which included tanks later repaired, or the 1211 tanks written off, it is clear that the German claim for the same period is inflated. Even though it does not cover the first ten days of fighting, which included the 179 British tanks written off for 6 June alone, German units claimed 2045 destroyed tanks. If compared to the number of tanks written off, taking into account that the claims does not cover the first ten days of fighting, the claimed number is close to twice the actual number. This makes the previously mentioned German High Command practice of dividing the claims by two to account for double-counting and repairable vehicles fairly accurate for this time frame.
The total claims for 1944 can be compared to be previously mentioned number of British tank losses in Northwest Europe. The surviving claim records only cover 153 out of 337 days between the invasion of Normandy and VE Day. Nevertheless, German units claimed 2763 destroyed British tanks during these 153 days, compared to the actual British losses of 1305 tanks for the entire duration of the fighting in Northwest Europe. While it is unclear from the British records whether the 1305 lost tanks include those of Canada and Poland as part of the British 21st Army Group, the number of British tanks in Northwest Europe was much greater than that of Canada and Poland. Thus, even if they weren't included in the 1305 lost tanks, the Canadian and Polish tank losses would not compensate for the difference.
As has been demonstrated above, the kill claims of German units cannot be trusted. When claims can exceed the actual losses by more than 300 percent, they cannot be considered credible as even a rough estimate of how many tanks the individual units destroyed. Thus, the number of kills attributed to German tanks aces and individual units must be considered as nothing more than the propaganda as which they were originally intended.
Unlike what is sometimes claimed when such conclusions are presented, this is not disrespectful to the veterans who made the claims; the notion that the truth and the pursuit thereof can ever be disrespectful is absurd, and a disservice to those who are actually interested in history.
Another common reaction is that the kill lists, while incorrect, is the only source available. While small engagements involving a limited number of tanks can sometimes be tracked with a high level of accuracy, it is true that there are usually no alternative source with which it can be estimated how many tanks each unit or tank ace destroyed. Using this fact to argue that the kill lists therefore have some merit is however a fallacy; in the absence of good sources, the correct response is not to use sources that are known to have serious errors, but rather to declare that we don't know and move on to other fields of study.
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