Reading for War
'A Bias for Action: The German 7th Panzer Division in France and Russia, 1940-1941' by Dr R Stolfi (Reviewed by Chris Field)By Chris Field February 13, 2019
In the 1990s, the US Marine Corps University’s excellent Perspective on Warfighting series created practical publications for military professionals, including Centers of Gravity & Critical Vulnerabilities (1996) and Capital ‘W’ War: A Case for Strategic Principles of War (1998), both authored by Dr Joe Strange.
A Bias for Action: The German 7th Panzer Division in France & Russia, 1940-1941, authored by Russel Stolfi and published in 1991, was the first in the series. Its focus is the tactical level of war — ‘the use of armed forces in the engagement to utilise their full potentialities’. Stolfi asserts that while the Germans were ‘ultimately defeated at the strategic level, their tactical and operational achievements remain unmatched’.
The book emphasises the ‘organisational and personal characteristics that manoeuvre warfare demands’, based on ‘lessons in operational style, tactical technique and even weaponry that could be applied to [contemporary] Western ground force operations’. The premise is that today’s Australian Defence Force (ADF), especially when employing a joint task force, ‘can learn much from the experience of the Germans on the mobile offensive’.
A Bias for Action
A Bias for Action is in two parts. Part 1 describes the 7th Panzer Division during the French campaign, from 10 May 1940 to 17 June 1940, led by Generalmajor (Brigadier) Rommel. Part 2 describes the Division during the Russian campaign, from 22 June 1941 to 6 August 1941, led by Generalmajor von Funck. Stolfi contends that Rommel, Funck and the 7th Panzer Division:
[E]xemplified the philosophy… [that] it was always right to act; it was always wrong to wait for more information, more troops, more firepower to clear up uncertainty.… [They demonstrated] a willingness to accept uncertainty, a determination to act [and] preference for the oral order over the written.
Stolfi explains that ‘commanders must command … [whereas] staff are expediters—few in numbers, modest in rank but long in self-confidence and initiative’. He notes that German divisions had ‘small operations and quartermaster [logistics] staffs [and that] the operations staff was particularly small in numbers and light in rank’. A German division had no assistant divisional commander, executive officer or chief of staff. Instead, the 1st general staff officer (operations) (designated Ia), a major of the General Staff, performed duties similar to a staff college-qualified brigade major in a combat brigade of the Australian Army. Stolfi states the Ia:
[W]as an officer skilled in advising the commander on the operations of the division in war and keeping track of the fighting. This officer had neither the rank nor the inclination to get between the commanding general and his subordinate commanders.
Stolfi is critical of Western ground force divisional command posts that ‘tend to become small cities with large bureaucracies’. He notes that the ‘immediate general staff sections of the German Panzer Division … [supporting the command of 15,500 troops and 284 tanks], contained seven staff officers, three majors and four captains’. Its headquarters could fight under armour, with adequate communications and the ability to ‘move and survive with the most mobile ground elements of the division’.
Stolfi asserts that Rommel’s command of the 7th Panzer Division accepted ‘no tactical impasse’. Success depended on a ‘tempo of operational movement … [where] immobility and a well-advertised presence made the division a magnet for enemy reserves and accompanying counterattacks’.
Rommel and Funck, and their staffs, repeatedly ‘emphasised continuing the attack rather than consolidating hard won gains’. Employing a Stosslinie der Division (thrust-line), the divisional staff designated the thrust-line as a beginning and end point for given time periods, and directed the manoeuvre of subordinate units along it. The concept, employing ‘no-nonsense operational language’, assisted the 7th Panzer Division to create a ‘common approach to warfighting that gave them great speed, flexibility and a tremendous talent for communicating much in few words—and sometimes in no words at all’.
Stolfi notes that the 7th Panzer Division in France ‘advanced and fought 24 hours a day, [fighting] in a pattern in which [the Division] consistently reached its targets for the 24-hour day early in the evening, reorganised and then advanced toward the next day’s target at approximately midnight’. Combat troops readily exercised mission command and ‘impeccable initiative’ in a contested battlespace, such as diverting from their primary attack mission in Russia to ensure logistics continued to flow.
Frequently, Rommel went to the point of main effort, or Schwerpunkt, in order to enable tactical success. Stolfi emphasises that Rommel seized the ‘opportunity because of his location with the leading elements of [the] division on the offensive’. Audaciously, Rommel ‘advanced with exhausted troops, over unfamiliar terrain, in full darkness, and with no friendly troops on either flank.… Speed was both his weapon and his protection’.
To counter troop exhaustion, Rommel ‘stationed himself personally with [one of his five regiments] to ensure continued movement in the face of uncertainty, danger, fear and heavy [troop] fatigue’. His aggressive form of command, refined during his World War 1 leadership experiences, emphasised the ‘rule that in a meeting engagement the side wins that fires first the most rounds in the direction of the enemy’.
Stolfi concludes, however, that despite tactical success from speed of execution, the 7th Panzer Division sustained heavy casualties from ‘severe combat [which] contradicts the view that the Germans [in France in 1940] had a quick, easy campaign’. The campaign may have been quick. But Stolfi notes that it was costly and challenging with severe fighting.
Understanding and applying tactics requires constant practice and adaptation, particularly in the resistant and hostile environment of war. As ADF leaders, staff and operating forces, we are all learning. A Bias for Action complements our desire to learn especially regarding the organisational and personal characteristics demanded by manoeuvre warfare.
In the 21st century, the ADF in both war and peace experiences tactical restrictions based on rules, risk and governance. Despite restrictions, A Bias for Action emphasises that tactical success demands thinking, adaptive leaders who create tempo in order to encourage innovation, seize tactical opportunities and exploit the weaknesses of an adversary. A Bias for Action provides examples for ADF leaders, staff and operating forces of how we can educate, train and practise our people to always seek and exploit tactical advantage.
About the Reviewer Chris Field serves in the Australian Army with command experience from platoon to brigade. He has deployed to East Timor, the Solomon Islands, the Middle East and within Australia. His interests include strategy, mission command and innovation.