Saturday, 30 November 2013

World of Tanks History Section: PzKpfw I

On June 28th, 1919, Germany and the Entente signed the Treaty of Versailles, ending WWI, the largest conflict in the history of humanity at that point. A portion of German territory was annexed by the victorious nations, its colonies were also appropriated, it was forced to pay reparations. There were also harsh limits on Germany's military force. The land army was limited to 100 000 men, drafts were not allowed, a portion of Germany's warships were handed over to the victors, and the tonnage of new ones was strictly limited. Armoured vehicles (aside from outdated police cars) and aviation were forbidden. The conditions were such that their goal was, apparently, not to maintain peace in Europe, but to humiliate Germany and force them to take revenge.

Years before the nazis, Germany already started to, step by step, violate the conditions of the treaty. Aside from theoretical developments, which were not forbidden, the manufacturing base of the country slowly but surely accumulated experience. In 1925, a tank codenamed Großtraktor (large tractor) was developed. Leichttraktor (small tractor) followed in May of 1928.

The first mass produced German tank was the PzKpfw I. Work on this tank started in 1931, when the Directorate of German land forces drafted the requirements for a teaching tank, 5 tons in mass. The vehicle was officially named Landwirtschaftlicher Schlepper (agricultural tractor), which was not unusual in Germany at the time. Friedrich Krupp AG, Rheinmetall-Borsig, MAN, and Daimler-Benz AG received orders for this new tank.

Each company produced a prototype with more or less the same characteristics. The military liked Krupp's LKA tank the most. The best thing about it was not its technical characteristics, but that it was the project that could be built the fastest, and the cheapest. Five of Krupp's tanks, still without armament, were tested at Kummersdorf in the summer of 1933. The tests demonstrated insufficient reliability of the transmission and suspension, forcing Krupp's engineers to make some changes. After that, 15 more vehicles were given the green light. The vehicles were assembled at multiple factories. This unorthodox decision was made to distribute the tank building experience.

The hull and turret were developed by Daimler-Benz. A welded hull protected the crew and components from bullets. The turret, also welded, was placed to the right of the tank's axis. The maximum armour thickness was 13 mm. The tank was equipped with a Krupp 57 hp engine, theoretically making it capable of accelerating to 37 kph. The tank's armament consisted of two 7.92 mm MG-13 machine guns.

The first mass produced chassis were made in December of 1933. In July of 1934, the tank started mass production. In the same year, the first tanks started arriving at training centers. By October 1935, Germany's first tank divisions were formed. That is when the tank received its name: PzKpfw I. According to foreign historians, there were about 1100 vehicles of the first configuration built.

When the tank entered the army, its downsides quickly showed themselves. Its engine was too weak. Instead of the ideal 37 kph, it could only reach 28 kph. Work started on an improved PzKpfw I Ausf. B. Retroactively, all existing tanks were named PzKpfw Ausf. A.

In 1935, the new six cylinder water cooled Maybach NL 38 TR engine was chosen for the tank. The new engine was more powerful, at 100 hp. Because it was larger than the engine compartment of the PzKpfw I, the tank became longer by 40 cm. The tank gained another road wheel, and an idler was lifted to make turning easier.

Interestingly enough, no work on improving armament was conducted. First "B" tanks were equipped with the same MG-13s, and later, dual MG-34s. These machine guns fired a little faster, but had the same rifle caliber. If the firepower was improved, it was so miserly, that it is not worth mentioning.

The PzKpfw I Ausf. A remained in production until 1937, and the chassis until 1941. The PzKpfw I was seen as a strictly training tank. However, as it often happens, reality interfered. Until 1937, the PzKpfw I was the main tank of the German army. Germany started WWII with over 1000 PzKpfw I of both modifications.

The tank saw its first combat in Spain, during the Spanish Civil War. Various sources record 32-41 tanks shipped along with the German volunteers of the Condor legion, fighting on the side of Franco. These tanks formed the Drohne tank group. Despite the fact that the group's main function was to teach Spanish tankers, the group frequently saw combat. The very first battles showed the superiority of Soviet T-26 tanks, armed with cannons. Armour piercing bullets could penetrate the T-26 at 120-150 meters, but it was hard to close in to that distance, as the T-26's 45 mm gun could destroy the PzKpfw I at any range.

In order to somehow improve the situation, there was an attempt to install the Breda 20 mm autocannon. In order to fit the gun into the turret, it had to be modified with a cylindrical addition. There is no data on the combat use of this "homebrewed" vehicle.

In 1938, Germany started expanding its territory. PzKpfw I took part in the Anschluss of Austria. Here is where the PzKpfw I showed its poor reliability. At least 35% of both types of tank broke down and were abandoned by the side of the road during the march. In order to conserve the negligible number of tanks, they were delivered to the Sudetenland by trucks.

During the Polish campaign in 1939, most tanks in the German army were still PzKpfw Is. Weak armour and armament were apparent. 320 tanks were lost, but most were repaired by the Germans.

At the time of Germany's advance in the West, only 550 PzKpfw I tanks remained, and they were assigned secondary roles. Even then, the losses were very great, and 182 units were lost irreparably.

As time went on, the amount of PzKpfw I tanks declined. In the West, as well as the East, they were used until 1944, primarily to combat partisans.

Small amounts of PzKpfw Is were shipped to China, Hungary, Spain, and, according to some sources, Croatia.

Original article available here.

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