Radio and the Panzer Division in World War II – Something We Can Learn From

As both a radio and history buff, I enjoy it when I find something that combines the two. An article in the most recent MHQ magazine does just that:  “New Gang in Town, The Rise of the German Panzer Division” by Robert M. Citino. “New Gang in Town” describes the rise of the German Panzer Divisions, highly mobile divisions that arose during the years between World War I and World War II.

Panzer Divisions were a unit that paired armor with mechanized infantry divisions. Between the wars, tank speeds increased from the 5 mph that World War I tanks were capable of, meaning they could move far faster than infantry on foot. The problem with this was that armor outpaced its infantry support, which put the tanks at increased risk. If armor moved at foot pace with the infantry to maintain mutual support between the two, it lost its advantage of mobility. The Germans mechanized their infantry; instead of moving on foot, the infantry now moved by motor vehicle. Moving the infantry by vehicle allowed a Panzer Division to move 50-60 miles in a day compared with a conventional Infantry Division that could only move 12-15 miles a day. The increased speed and mobility, however, compounded command and control issues. Runners were never going to keep up and you can’t string telegraph/telephone wires between hundreds of vehicles on the move.

“While the tank was the obsession of most contemporary military discourse, radio was the real breakthrough of the period. The days of primitive Morse code were over, replaced by direct voice messages from commander to subordinate and vice versa, in something approaching real time.”

Radio had begun to make a difference during World War I, but the communication was by CW (Morse code). While certainly more reliable, it requires additional training and some decode it slower than others. The advent of voice radio was the answer. Citino maintains that the Germans didn’t have an advantage over everyone else in the sense that they had radio and no one else did, quite the contrary. Where the German Army had an advantage was in how they used radio. They recognized its military importance more quickly than other armed forces had. Through a radio exercise (not unlike an ARES SET, perhaps?) they challenged their forces to establish a corps level net within 24 hours. Through that exercise, they learned two things.

  1. First, they learned that radiomen had to be “more than a mere technician.” Besides knowing his equipment and being able to maintain and operate it, he had to have operational awareness – a knowledge of what was going on – so that messages could be prioritized. He had to know what messages had to go through right away and which ones could be delayed; the wrong message being delayed could mean the difference between victory and defeat.
  2. Second, they learned that radio was an absolute requirement for command and control over a mechanized mobile unit. Every vehicle in a unit like a Panzer Division had a radio. Not only did they provide every vehicle with a radio, they provided mobile command vehicles with multiple radios. In short, “Tank warfare on the scale envisioned by the Germans was unthinkable without radio.”

As The World of Ham Radio, 1901-1950:  A Social History revealed, American amateur radio operators contributed to the war effort during World War II in various ways, including working as radio operators and training new radio operators. While Nazi Germany arrested and later killed Father Maximillian Kolbe, SP3RN during the war (Father Kolbe was a Polish amateur radio operator and the Germans believed that he was using radio as part of spy activities; he was arrested and was later killed at Auschwitz when he volunteered to take the place of another prisoner condemned as part of a retribution killing), it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility for German amateur radio operators to have contributed to the German War effort by working as radio operators and training new ones as well. This goes to the show that there is a historical link between World War II and amateur radio, but there is not just that historical link, there is something to be learned from the Panzer Divisions’ use of radio.

What is there to be learned here for the amateur radio operator? The lesson for amateur radio operators, particularly for those interested in supporting government responses to emergencies through ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) or RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service) and those interested in disaster relief with the likes of the Red Cross or Salvation Army is in the first thing the German Army learned above. Just as a military radio operator had to be more than just a technician, so does the amateur radio operator. We can’t be focused on just the technical side of the hobby, we have to be operationally knowledgeable as well if we’re to be of used to our supported agencies and the public. Likewise, we can’t be solely focused on operational issues; if we don’t have some level of technical knowledge, we can’t keep our stations operational when, as the ARRL like to stress, “All Else Fails.” As amateur radio operators, we can have our specialties in technology or operations, but we also need to maintain a working knowledge of the other in order to be balanced.

The lesson doesn’t just apply to amateur radio emergency service, either. Let’s say you’re interested in activating an island through IOTA (Islands on the Air), a summit through SOTA (Summits on the Air), participating in the ARRL’s latest project NPOTA (National Parks on the Air), or perhaps you’re interested in pursuing DXCC (DX Century Club) or a contest success… Having a balanced knowledge of radio will serve you better. Sure, having great operation knowledge of picking up on a cadence or knowing when to call or when to wait will give you success, but what happens if you have a technical issue during your activation or contest operation? Having some working technological knowledge of the hobby might just get you back on the air instead of shutting your operation down early. In both cases, whether it’s during an emergency, during an activation, or during a contest, you can see that having both the technological knowledge and the operational knowledge of radio is an advantage.

It’s important for radio hobbyists to recognize that radio has played an important role in history, whether it was used for good or bad purposes or whether it was used well or poorly. Some may not like that radio was used to make units of Nazi Germany, for a time, more successful, but it did. If you ignore it because you don’t like which side utilized it more effectively, you can’t take a lesson from it. Other militaries of the time learned from the Panzer Divisions and were able to emulate and improve on their methods. We too can take these episodes from history and learn from them, improving our technological and operational knowledge to both have more fun with the hobby and provide a service to the public in return for our use of the spectrum.

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