Almost 20 years ago I played my first World War II miniature wargame, Command Decision. We pushed tiny tanks and infantry (about the size and scale of MicroMachines) around the tabletop, rolled dice, and had a good time. One of the players, Bill, had a massive collection of the German Wehrmacht covering all periods and theaters of the war. He stored them all in portable tool organizers.

I helped set up the scenario. At the time I had general knowledge of World War II, the Blitzkrieg, the invasion of Russia, and so forth. But I didn’t know the details of the kinds of men and materiel involved. I was about to have my mind blown.

We were playing a late war scenario.

Bill placed a King Tiger on the tabletop. Since I was going to the play the Germans, I was eager to use one of the biggest tanks in the game.

Can I have another?, I asked.

No, there weren’t that many made.

I noticed another big panzer among his collection. What’s that?

Oh, that’s an Elefant/Ferdinand. A tank destroyer. Most of them served on the Eastern Front, so you don’t get any for this scenario.

I was supposed to hold off a post-Normandy British advance, inflicting as many casualties as I could, while covering a general withdrawal.

Bill rounded out my forces with some StuGs, a some artillery, several half-tracks, more infantry, and finally a handful of Panzer IIs and IIIs.

Why are those German Tanks so small?

He smirked. Clearly I didn’t know my history.

Well, They’re decent for scouting, or supporting your bigger tanks against infantry, but you definitely want to keep them away from those Cromwells and Churchills. But those were the tanks which invaded France, Poland, and Russia.

Wait. What!?!

Another wargamer chimed in: as they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

What he meant was: The Third Reich had gotten itself into mess by invading Russia and failing. Suddenly it needed lots of big tank destroyers to fight off the Russian counter attacks. After a point, it couldn’t rely on the Luftwaffe for close air support to take out enemy armor.

Most of this was a mystery to me. I’d envisioned the German army as having the best tanks throughout World War II. They had simply took on too many enemies and had been outproduced. That was only part of the story.

One source of this misconception comes from the fact the US entered the European theater mid-war, after Germany had shifted its production to heavier tanks, so those are the tanks we see on old war footage. Or so I think.

I later learned the German High Command believed that technology (like bigger tanks) would save the Third Reich. Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments, is credited for create a post-1942 “armaments miracle” (after Hitler promoted Speer to the position when the older Minister of Armaments died in a plane crash). Much of this miracle relied on slave labor, numbers on paper, and wishful thinking.

Certainly, bigger tanks came out of this miracle–in part. Yet it wasn’t enough.

Germany didn’t go to full war economy until around September 1944…

…and by then it was too late.