Tank Design and Construction
Pz.Kpfw. is the German abbreviation for Panzer Kampfwagen, meaning armored fighting vehicle or tank. Three groups of panzer vehicles were produced and used during the war: tanks, assault guns and self-propelled guns. The tank group included eight types, each of which was produced in a number of models. Five of the eight types were developed before the war. Of these, three were light tanks; the Mark I, Mark II, and the 38 t. This last was a Czech design and was produced only in Czechoslovakia. Two were medium tanks, the Mark III and the Mark IV. The three types developed in the course of the war were heavy tanks; the Panther, Tiger I, and Tiger II.
Assault guns, also called tank destroyers, consist of a heavy gun mounted on a standard, but somewhat modified tank chassis. It is therefore essentially a turretless tank with its main gun mounted in the front of a low covered superstructure and with both its hull and superstructure more heavily armored than in the case of the corresponding tank. It is slower and less maneuverable than the tank and has a lower silhouette than either the tank or ordinary self-propelled. The first assault guns, built in 1940, consisted of a 7.5 cm gun mounted on the modified chassis of a Mark III or IV tank. This chassis continued to be used for most of the assault guns produced during the war, although newer and heavier guns were mounted. In the later years of the war, assault guns were also built on the chassis of the 38 t, the Panther and Tiger tanks. These were called variously the Jagd 38, the Jagd Panther and the Jagd Tiger.
The third group of panzer vehicles, self-propelled guns, consisted of a standard field, medium, or anti-tank gun mounted on a standard, unmodified tank chassis. Unlike assault guns, they were not specially designed and were not necessarily produced by serial methods in major tank assembly plants. The chassis was usually that of an obsolete tank; most of these vehicles, first produced in 1942, used the unmodified chassis of the light Mark II and 38 t tank, although some in 1944 employed the Mark III or IV chassis.
The story of German armored vehicle development is concerned principally with tanks, which underwent considerable change since the beginning of the war. German tanks showed, in the course of 5 years of war, a gradual change from the Blitzkrieg concept of battle to greater emphasis on defensive, or at least offensive-defensive, operations for which the latest German tank, the King Tiger, heavily armed and armored but relatively slow and unmaneuverable, was suitable.
Following the First World War two schools of thought emerged governing the employment of armor in battle. The majority view, advocated by the traditional officer corps of every major military power, recognized the tank as simply another supporting arm for the infantry; the minority school, championed by a small number of independent thinkers, envisioned the tank asthe principal combat arm to be supported instead by the infantry. In Germany, the leading intellectual champions for independent armored units were Colonel Werner von Fritsch, Colonel Werner von Blomberg, and Colonel Ludwig Beck (all destined to be senior leaders in the German Army). During the mid-1920s these officers advocated the creation of independent mechanized units.
Once French occupation of the Ruhr was terminated, in 1926 the Inter-Allied Control Commission was discontinued and its representatives left Essen. The departure of the Inter-Allied Control Commission signalized the revival of Krupp work in connection with the design of tanks. In the early correspondence on this subject between Krupp and the Reich Defense Ministry, the tanks were referred to as "tractors." Besides tanks, other types of military vehicles and self-propelled gun carriages were also developed.
One interesting letter, written in November 1927 from the Ministry of Defense to the Krupp firm, set forth the specifications for an "artillery power tractor" which, according to the specifications, was to be of such a size "as to enable the tractor to be shipped on an ordinary open railroad car, considering the smallest Belgian and French loading capacity." A Krupp memorandum written in 1942 (NIK-10202, Pros. Ex. 162) tells us that, "with the exception of the hydraulic safety switch, the basic principles of armament and turret design for tanks had already been worked out in 1926."
Like the initial mass production of medium and heavy artillery, the first two tank programs also rested on Krupp designs. The firm of Fried. Krupp played a pioneering role in the development of combat vehicles in Germany since the earliest beginnings in 1926. After the preliminary experiments with the 'heavy tractor,' 'light tractor,' and the L.S.K., the LaS [Landwirtschaftlischer Ackerbau Schlepper] was developed and built in series by the firm of Fried. Krupp as the first German tank (alternatively equipped with air cooled Fried. Krupp engine or water-cooled Maybach engine). Four subcontractors built the LaS to Krupp designs and specifications and were enabled thereby to work out their own designs for new types of tanks.
In 1933 Adolf Hitler witnessed a rather modest military demonstration which proved to be the harbinger of profound transformation within the German Army and, in time, was to usher in a revolution in military affairs. This exhibition introduced the militarily ambitious German Chancellor to the basic components of the newly created mechanized arm and included coordinated maneuvers by motorcycle, anti-tank, and armored reconnaissance units with a platoon of light tanks. Hitler was so impressed by the demonstration that he announced enthusiastically to the assembled officers and political leaders: "That is what I need! That is what I want to have!" While it is doubtful that Hitler recognized the true military potential of this infant force, he did provide an important institutional impetus to its further development and incorporation in the operational doctrine of the German Army; significantly, it is this doctrinal change that transformed the character of war in 1939.
The first large scale tank program initiated by the Nazis called for the production of 100 tanks by March 1934; the second, for 650 by March 1935. It is worth observing that the Versailles Treaty, under which all tanks were forbidden, was not formally repudiated by Germany until May 1935. Krupp contributed the design for these programs and shared in their execution. These illegal programs were camouflaged by calling the tanks "LaS", the abbreviation for the German words meaning agricultural tractor. The choice of name completely epitomizes the inverted scale of Nazi values; swords rather than plowshares, tanks rather than agricultural tractors.
In the wake of the creation of the first three panzer divisions in 1935, Beck (now a general and Fritsch's Chief of Staff) initiated a study to determine the feasibility of panzer corps andpanzer armies. Subsequent field exercises and operational experience in the occupation ofAustria in 1938 prompted the general staff to make ongoing improvements to the organization, training, and tactical procedures of the panzer divisions.
In 1937 General Heinz Guderian, Commander of Panzer Troops, published a credibleo verview of German armored warfare doctrine in a widely circulated work, "Achtung-Panzer!" Guderian claimed authorship for virtually all of the innovations and achievements of the armored force. While active in the development and expansion of the mature Panzerwaffe in the late 1930s, in fact, Guderian had played little intellectual role in the creation of the armored force and associated doctrine [despite subsequent assertions to the contrary]. German tank development began in 1934, ostensibly at the same time as the rest of the rearmament program, but there is no doubt that considerable thought and experimentation had been devoted to the subject before then. By 1939 the Germans had evolved four types of tanks: the Pz.Kpfw. I, II, III, and IV, with wehich the Blitzkrieg campaigns were conducted. There is evidence that larger tanks were being developed in 1939, and specimens of what are assumed to have been a Pz.Kpfw. V and a Pz.Kpfw. VI in an experimental stage were employed in the invasion of Norway. These, however, must have proved unsatisfactory, since they were dropped, and the present Pz.Kpfw. V (Panther) and Pz. Kpfw. VI (Tiger) have no connection with them. Meamwhile, the Pz.Kpfw. I and II gradually became obsolescent, first being relegated to reconnaissance roles and then finally disappearing in 1943 from the Table of Equipment of the Panzer regiment. The heavier tanks, Pz.Kpfw. III and IV, which had proven satisfactory under fire, were modified to meet new conditions by thicker armor and more effective guns.
In 1942, the Pz.Kpfw. VI, or Tiger, appeared in Russia, and later in Africa. The Tiger was designed in the direct German tradition, and simply was armed more heavily and armored more thickly than its predecessors. It appeared out of its proper order in the line of succession, for the Pz.Kpfw. V, or Panther, did not appear until nearly a year later. The Panther was somewhat of a surprise, since it marked a departure from the conventional lines of German design, and in the arrangement of its armor showed strong signs of Russian influence. Its great success in combat undoubtedly gave rise to the decision to redesign the Tiger, which to some extent had fallen short of expectations. The new version was the King Tiger.
The main US tank in 1943, and for the rest of the war, was the M4 Sherman. the Sherman tank received a bad reputation as an inferior tank. One reason for this was its tendency to catch fire easily once it had been penetrated (consequently, the Sherman received the dubious nickname of "Ronson" after a famous lighter that had the motto of "lights first time, every time"). This problem, combined with the presence of German heavy tanks and superior anti-tank weapons (particularly the famed German '88') made the Sherman appear to be heavily outclassed. However the British had been employing the Sherman for months prior to Kasserine Pass with great success against the German Afrika Korps. The Sherman was in fact superior to the most numerous German tank of the time, the PanzerKampfwagon III (PzKpfw III)). The Sherman easily outgunned the PzKpfw III and was nearly the equal of the second most numerous tank, the PzKpfw IV.
If the Sherman received an undeserved poor reputation, it was the German PzKpfw VI, the Tiger, that received just the opposite reaction. Possibly the best known tank of World War II, the Tiger's armor was impenetrable by the US 75mm frontally and the 88mm gun could defeat any US or British tank at great range. The 88mm gained a healthy respect from the Allies when mounted on the Tiger. However, it was few in number and mechanically unreliable, restricting its use on the battlefield.
The main limitation was that there was a universal and persistent shortage of spare parts. Because Hitler was entranced with numbers, German armament production officials gave absolute priority to building complete tanks. That focus on the end item meant a low priority on repair parts, and tank unit readiness suffered accordingly.
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