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Panzer Development before 1939


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Early Designs The Early Champions of Panzer Warfare New Options from Czechoslavakia

Panzer Development before 1939


For a nation that was usually in the technical forefront of the art of war, Germany was strangely late in the development of the tank. It took the arrival of the first British and French tanks on the Western Front battle­fields to give an impetus to the search for a form of mobile armoured fire platform among the German arma­ment designers, but by the time the need for a German answer to the Allied tanks was shown, German industry was already at full stretch and very few German tanks were produced prior to the end of 1918.

The only German tank actually to see service was the awkward A7V. This was a large armoured box built onto a modified Holt tractor chassis. Even when compared with the slow, lumber­ing and unreliable British tanks, the A7V was at a disadvantage. It was high, awkward, slow and vulnerable and required a crew of no fewer than 18 men. Very few were produced and the bulk of German tank units were made up from captured British tanks (beutepanzer). Improved and better German designs did reach the project stage but none saw service before the German defeat of November 1918.

Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty of 1919, the German Army was limited to 100,000 men and they were not allowed a tank arm. All German tanks then existing were either scrap­ped or carted off to museums, leaving the German Army with only a few armoured cars and tenders. But in many ways the small size of the new German Army was an advantage. With so few men under arms, the accent was on quality, both in training and methods. By keeping the length of time that volunteers could serve down to a minimum, a sizeable trained reserve of men was soon formed, and the tactics that this army was to use were closely studied by some of the best officers that Germany could produce.


The Early Champions of Panzer Warfare

One of the most open minds of the German Army during the 1920s belonged to the man who was later to become chief of the German 'panzer' (tank) arm, namely Guderian. He closely studied the lessons of World War 1, and read widely to learn of pos­sible methods of overcoming the static conditions of the Western Front.

His studies began in 1922, and at about the same time the need for a small powerful army was being proposed by the Chief of the German General Staff, von Seeckt, another brilliant officer who laid the foundations for the future Wehrmacht (German army). These two officers were in the vanguard of a faction that changed the future of warfare for between them they carried out the proposals of the British tactical prophets, Fuller and Liddell Hart.

These two military thinkers produced a series of writings on warfare which went against all that had gone before in that they proposed that the war of the future would be fought by highly-mechanised forces based on the power of the tank. Concentration of striking forces (the 'schwerpunkt') at a weak point would produce a breakthrough which would be exploited by the rapid concentration of all forces into what was known as the 'expanding torrent' which would penetrate deep into the enemy rear, and disrupt communications and supply routes. Such revolutionary tactics took little root in Britain or elsewhere, but they were just what was needed in Germany and the German Army Staff officers began the slow task of preparing for a mobile war based on
armoured units.

A gradual programme of training and of close co-operation between the various service arms began in about 1925.
The main snag to the ambitious proposals was that the German Reichswehr had no armoured vehicles other than a few armoured cars to experiment with. The first full-scale manoeuvres involving mechanised forces took place in 1926, but in place of tanks men were employed to carry cardboard silhouettes of tanks and some motor cars were used with card or timber hulls resembling tanks. Perhaps this was the source of the 'German cardboard tank' rumours which were prevalent in Britain in 1939. But this lack of vehicles did not indicate that no research was being carried out during the 1920s into tank production. The truth was that Germany had been carrying on clandestine research from about 1920 onwards, despite the strictures of the Versailles Treaty forbidding such activities.

Early Designs

During the early 1920s, German designers had been active in Sweden and had gained experience in the production of a light tank based on the LK II design of 1918. A small batch of these vehicles was produced for the Swedish Army but none for Germany. Back in Germany, the General Staff issued a secret specification to German industry to produce prototypes of two types of tank. One was intended as a light tank of about nine tons mounting a 3.7 cm gun in a turret. The other type was seen as a medium tank with a 7.5 cm gun and weighing about 20 tons. This latter vehicle was very well armed for its time and in design concept was very advanced.

Both prototypes were built and tested on the Russian facilities at Kazan in Russia as a result of a political agreement, and the trials were conducted under great secrecy in 1928. As a result of the trials of the 'Grosstraktor and 'leichtetraktor', as the two designs were code-named for security purposes, a further two designs were proposed to be known as the Njubaufahrzeuge, but these could not be built until the mid-1930s. This delay factor in producing tanks for the German Army was one of the main lessons learned during the early experiments. It became apparent that the production of modern tanks was going to involve a great deal of industrial and development potential before the needs of the German Army were to be met.

By 1930 the need for some form of tank for tactical trials and training was becoming urgent. A possible answer seemed to be the light machine-gun carrier based on the design of the British Carden-Loyd. This type of vehicle could be produced relatively easily and quickly, and by 1932 the industrial potential had been developed to the standards needed to build such a vehicle in quantity. In 1933 the Nazi Party came to power and all pretensions of adhering to the terms of the Versailles Treaty were set aside. In that year orders were placed for a light tank weighing 5.3 tons and mounting two machine-guns in a small turret. The crew was to be two men.

This vehicle emerged as the Panzerkampfwagen I (PzKpfw I), built by Krupp. It was built in two main versions and despite the intention to use it as a training vehicle only, it saw action both in the Spanish Civil War and during the early stages of the Second World War. Its main task was as a trials vehicle for tactical experiments and it was also used as a propaganda vehicle in a long series of parades and mock battles that did much to bolster the illusion of German strength both at home and abroad.

At the same time as the specification for the Panzer I was issued, an order for a slightly larger vehicle was also given. It was intended to be a three-man tank armed with a 20 mm cannon and a machine-gun, and it was to be a more battle-worthy vehicle than the little PzKpfw I. A series of prototypes was produced, but in 1934 the MAN (Maschinenfabrik Augsburg Nurn-berg) version was chosen for production as the PzKpfw II. The PzKpfw II in its original form resembled a scaled up PzKpfw I, but it was heavier and later versions used a revised suspension. In service it was used as a reconnaissance vehicle, but its main disadvantage was its small gun which was to prove too light for armoured combat.

The PzKpfw I and II were produced in large numbers, and were the mainstays of the German panzer arm up till 1939 and during the early war years. It was with these vehicles that the panzer divisions trained and prepared
themselves for war.


Early Dummy Tank - Late 1920's

Panzerkampfwagen 1 Aust A

(1st Tank produced under Hitler)



German war plans envisaged that war was unlikely before 1942, by which time heavier tanks would be in service. As we have seen these tanks were proposed as far back in time as 1925 but it was not until 1935 that the first orders for a heavy tank were issued.

This heavy tank was intended to have a heavy 7.5 cm gun, weigh about 20 tons and have a crew of five men. Its true intention was disguised by the
designation of 'battalionsfuhrer-wagen' (battalion commander's vehicle) and the usual series of prototypes was produced before the Krupp vehicle was awarded the production contract. The result was the PzKpfw IV, and it became the most widely used and encountered of all the German tanks. In time, it ran to a long series of sub-marks (described in Chapter 4) and was progressively up-gunned and up-armoured as the tactical situation demanded.

At first, production was slow and development was rather protracted due to the industrial effort involved and the general lack of experience in producing tanks, but the PzKpfw IV became one of the most dependable vehicles in use with any army involved in World War 2. On September 1 1939 there were only 211 PzKpfw IVs available when Germany invaded Poland.

In 1936 it was decided to order another battle tank, slightly smaller than the PzKpfw IV and known as the 'zugfuhrerwagen' (platoon commander's vehicle). Armed with a 3.7 cm gun, this tank was meant to supplement the PzKpfw IV, and the end result, the PzKpfw III, resembled a small PzKpfw IV. In time, the PzKpfw III was produced in large numbers and also ran to a long series of sub-marks. It too, was progressively up-gunned and fitted with thicker armour as the war progressed. Early production was alow, so slow that on September 1 1939, only 98 PzKpfw Ills were available for use.

The slow production of the PzKpfw III and IV meant that large numbers of the light PzKpfw Is and Ms were still in front-line service at a time when they should have been phased out in favour of new tanks.

New Options from Czechoslavakia
In 1939 this situation was considerably alleviated by the annexation of Czechoslovakia, and the tank park of the powerful Czech Army was transferred to the German Army. Just as important as the 469 battle-worthy tanks that were taken over was the important Skoda Works at Pilsen which continued to produce tanks and armaments for the German war effort.

The Czech tanks taken over by the Wehrmacht were of two types, the LT-35 and the LT-38. They were impressed into the panzer divisions as the PzKpfw 35(t) and PzKpfw 38(t) respectively — (t) stands for tscheschisch, namely Czech. Both mounted 37 mm guns, but the most important type was the PzKpfw 38(t) which was to become one of the most successful tank chassis ever designed, for as well as using the type as a battle tank, the Germans used the chassis as the basis for a long string of self-propelled artillery, tank hunter and assault gun vehicles.

When war came in 1939 it came some three years too early for the German General Staff plans. Their ideas on warfare were based on well-armoured, well-armed tanks, but in 1939 only a few of the German tanks in service could be so described. But the German Army was superbly trained, in excellent fighting condition and ready for anything.

The 'Blitzkrieg' warfare was unleashed on Poland on September 1 1939.