Saturday 13 August 2016

PzKpfw I: Panzerwaffe's First

German generals often call PzKpfw I and PzKpfw II tanks "training" tanks in their memoirs. This is true in some way, as many converted PzKpfw I tanks were used to train crews. However, during the development of these tanks, there wasn't a word uttered about training as their main function. The Wehrmacht's first tanks were created as typical light tanks of the early 1930s, which mostly had machinegun armament. With this design, the Germans aimed towards the ideal concept of a German tank, setting the foundation for all subsequent vehicles of the Third Reich. The first member in the family that would become the weapons of blitzkrieg was the PzKpfw I Ausf. A.

British Style

The Reichswehr, the new post-war German armed forces, envisioned a tank in the 15 ton class. In early 1928, it was obvious that a light tank was needed in addition to the medium tank. The initial Kleinetraktor (small tractor) concept envisioned a 6 ton tank with a 60 hp engine, reaching a speed of up to 40 kph and armed with a 37 mm cannon. However, in May of 1928 it became clear that 60 hp is not enough to reach the required mobility. At a meeting on May 26th, the requirements were corrected, and its name changed from Kleinetraktor to Leichttraktor.

It's worth mentioning that Krupp, one of the creators of the Kleinetraktor concept, was working on other fighting vehicles. In October of 1927, Krupp began work on the self propelled gun mount known as teh Motorlafette. Later, this name changed to L.S.K. (leichte Selbstfahrkanone, light self-propelled cannon). Overall, the design was similar to the Kleiner Sturmwagen that Krupp's engineers developed during WWI. The engine was in the rear, unlike the Kleinetraktor. The fighting and driving compartments were in the front. The driver was shifted to the right, and a 37 mm or 75 mm gun was placed behind him.

The L.S.K. concept was discussed for a year and a half, and Krupp finally received a contract for two prototypes. The Germans paid 10,500 marks for the development and 132,000 marks for production of the two prototypes. A year later, the total grew to almost 170,000 marks. Even though the project started about six months before the Leichttraktor, both tanks reached trials at about the same time. The L.S.K.'s mass grew from 4.5 tons to 5.3 tons, and the tank weighed almost 7.9 tons with armour and armament. Krupp's design was plagued by the same problems as the Leichttraktor, especially the suspension. After 84 km of driving, the vehicle was returned to the factory, where the suspension was replaced. This didn't help much.

leichte Selbstfahrkanone, 1930. The future of the Kleinetraktor can be seen in its outline.

Despite its sad fate, the L.S.K. played its role in the history of German tank production. The concept of a self propelled chassis with a rear engine was later taken as the foundation for the Kleinetraktor. The first mention of this vehicle was made on February 14th, 1930, but it's likely that its story began a lot earlier. According to initial specifications, the vehicle would weigh 3 tons and be equipped with the same 60 hp engine. The vehicle would be armed with a 20 mm automatic cannon. The word "tractor" was included in the title not only out of secrecy: even though a reconnaissance tank was the main variant, other variants included a munitions carrier and an artillery tractor.

An interesting detail: before the Leichttraktor or the L.S.K. reached trials, the 6th Waffenprüfamt already proposed buying the British Carden-Loyd tractor. Heinrich Kniepkamp already suspected something.

Modernized L.S.K. with a new suspension.

All of 1930 was spent debating the specifications of the Kleinetraktor. By 1931, the mass of the proposed vehicle grew to 3.5 tons. Krupp asked for 38,000 marks for development of the Kleinetraktor, plus 2400 marks for the wooden model. 5007 marks were needed for the suspension, later growing to 8066 marks. It was proposed that 20 Kleinetraktors would be ordered from April of 1933 to March of 1938 at 50,000 marks per unit.

The model Kleinetraktor that was presented on June 2nd, 1931, differed noticeably from the PzKpfw I we know today. The engine and transmission were in the front, the drive sprockets were in the back. The overall length was 3460 mm, width was 1820 mm, and the 60 hp engine would achieve a speed of 45 kph. Since there was no room for a turret, the 20 mm gun was mounted in a removable casemate. The crew consisted of three people: the driver to the left, the commander/gunner on the right, and the loader behind him.

The suspension consisted of 10 road wheels per side, similar to the one on the modified Leichttraktor. Rubber-metallic tracks were rejected, and fully metallic ones were used. On June 2nd, Rheinmetall entered the competition, developing its own 20 mm gun casemate. In addition, on Kniepkamp's request, Krupp started working on a suspension with four road wheels per side. However, it didn't last long.

VAE 393 tractor, purchased in the fall of 1931. Trials of this vehicle confirmed once again that the layout of this British vehicle was the most optimal for the next generation of German tanks.

Trials of the L.S.K. at Kummerdorf and Leichttraktor at TEKO demonstrated the deficiencies of rear drive sprockets. The idea with a front mounted engine was also found lacking. On September 18th, Kniepkamp put an end to  three years of work by Krupp and other companies. Development of new tanks was based on the Carden-Loyd tractor, which was aimed at foreign markets since 1929. The vehicle was constantly modified, and was available as both a tractor and a truck with a truck bed. Later, John Carden and Vivian Loyd's brainchild will become a light tank, the last generation of which, the Light Tank Mk.VI, will be the backbone of the British tank forces at the start of WWII.

Exporting these tractors was a costly move for the British. Their work became the foundation for the second generation of German tanks, and Italian tanks were also based on British designs. As a result, soon the British ended up fighting that which they had a hand in creating.

Going their Own Way

The 6th Waffenprüfamt acted through third parties in order to avoid suspicion. On November 10th, 1931, the Aug. Nowack A.G. company in Bautzen ordered a tractor from Vickers-Armstrong Limited. A second one was ordered on September 12th, 1932, and a third on October 11th. The purchased tractors had the numbers VAE 393, VAE 406, and VAE 407. The first arrived at Kummersdorf in January of 1932. Trials showed that Kniepkamp was right, and the British design was much more suitable as a basis for new tanks than domestic designs. The suspension of the tractors was the same as that of the VCK 1931 amphibious tank. A similar tractor, purchased around this time by the USSR, was used as a foundation for the T-33 tank, the analogue to the VCL 1931.

Kleinetraktor after a redesign. Despite the British layout, one can still detect an influence of the leichte Selbstfahrkanone.

It is incorrect to call the new tank a copy. Only the overall layout, part of the suspension, and "skeletal" track link design were used.

The specifications for the Kleinetraktor were approved on September 18th, 1931. Krupp itself initiated the development. According to the new requirements, the suspension consisted of 4 500 mm road wheels, with a fifth doubling as an idler. The suspension with halved leaf springs resembled the Carden-Loyd design, but was not a complete copy. Later, the road wheel diameter was increased to 530 mm and the length of the track to 7 meters (140 links).

Kleinetraktor on trials.

On December 21st, Krupp signed contracts to produce an experimental Kleinetraktor (30,700 marks) and a new suspension (13,000 marks). Later, in May of 1932, the price grew to 43,700 marks. Constant changes led to the deadline slipping from June 30th, 1932. The first display of the Kleinetraktor with serial number 8000 happened only on July 29th, 1932.

Externally, the tank looked like a smaller L.S.K. with some British technology mixed in. The "hump" above the engine compartment was removed thanks to the Krupp M 301 engine, also used in the L2 H 43 light army truck and artillery tractor (also known as the Krupp Protze). Its requirements were for 60 hp, but in reality it put out about 52-54 hp. In addition, the vehicle turned out heavier than expected. Nevertheless, the Kleinetraktor reached a speed of 42 kph during trials. At Wundsdorf, the German "tractor" showed its advantages over the Carden-Loyd design. Sure, the chassis needed work, but this was a resounding success compared to the Leichttraktor.

A Kleinetraktor from the pilot batch.

Initially, the Kleinetraktor was a multipurpose vehicle. The same chassis would be used to make a forward observer post, artillery tractor, and munitions carrier. However, Oswald Lutz, head of motorization in the Reichswehr, immediately began talking about at least five Kleinetraktors with armament. This happened on October 12th, 1932. Soon, the other variants of the tracked chassis disappeared, and the tank became its main purpose.

Interestingly, Lutz did not wish to have the casemate variant with an autocannon in his army. This version was designed on June 22nd, 1932, before the construction of a prototype.On June 28th, the idea of arming the Kleinetraktor with two machineguns in a rotating turret was raised. That is the armament that Lutz wanted.

Kleinetraktor with a 20 mm automatic gun in a fixed casemate. This concept did not move past paper.

In reality, vehicles numbered 8001-8005 never received any armament at all. This was more of a chassis pilot batch, built between July and August of 1933 at a cost of 37,800 marks per unit. These vehicles differed from the "small tractor". As a result of trials, the idler was enlarged, covers for the air intakes were installed above the engine compartment. The vehicle had a more powerful Krupp M 302 engine, which could produce 56 hp normally, or 60 hp at 2600 RPM.

The experimental prototype was made from mild steel, but the first armoured hull went through trials in June of 1933. The hull was penetrated twice by heavy 7.9 mm bullets. As a result, the thickness of the armour was increased from 8 mm to 13 mm.

The batch of chassis was used as a test bench to try various technical solutions. The Porsche K.G. torsion bar suspension was supposed to be tested out on this tank, but for a series of reasons this never happened. The first tank with a torsion bar suspension was the Lansverk L-60.

An early production Landwirtschaftliche Schlepper. Most vehicles from this batch were never armed and were used for training purposes.

The fate of the Kleinetraktor was decided before even the first vehicle left the factory. In April of 1933, General Lutz decided that the mass production of these fighting vehicles would begin on April 1st, 1934. Later, it was decided that other companies would be involved aside from Krupp: Rheinmetall-Borsig, MAN, Henschel, Daimler-Benz, and Grusonwerk (a subsidiary of Krupp). For obvious reasons, Krupp would have the lion's share of the budget, announcing that it was ready to sign a contract for 150 tanks of the first series. In this announcement, the name that affixed itself to the tank was coined: Landwirtschaftliche Schlepper (agricultural tractor).

Later, Krupp reduced its share of the order to 135 1.Serie/La.S vehicles. The other participants were generously offered 3 La.S. each. The first vehicles were expected in December of 1933, but in reality, the first La.S. was only sent to Meppen on January 20th, 1934. 1.Serie/La.S built by Krupp had serial numbers 8011-8145, Grusonwerk built 8401-8403, MAN built 8501-8503, Rheinmetall 8601-8603, Henschel 8701-8703, and Daimler-Benz 8801-8803.

These vehicles differed from the pilot Kleinetraktor batch. Their length reached 4 meters, their mass was 4 tons. The suspension was redesigned, and the engine was upgraded to the 60 hp Krupp M 305. The maximum speed of the tank was 37.5 kph.

Despite accompanying issues, 1.Serie/La.S was the first instance of a mass produced German tank that was shared between several manufacturers.

20 1.Serie/La.S received Krupp turrets and turret platforms, but not for long.

While Krupp held onto their monopoly in the chassis business, things weren't going as well for them when it came to armament. Initially, the version with the 20 mm autocannon was gradually pushed into the background starting in October of 1932. This variant became the victim of the insistence of the military to jam a third crewman into the La.S.

As for the variant with a single man turret and two machineguns, Krupp started out well. On November 18th, 1932, a wooden model of the turret and turret platform was presented, but in March of 1933, Daimler-Benz joined in on development. In the end, the military preferred their turret and turret platform.

The decision seemed logical. The diameter of Krupp's turret was significantly smaller, and their turret platform was far from the latest and greatest. Its sides were placed at a straight angle, which reduced the chance of ricochet, and the driver's hatch was very strange. This didn't stop Krupp from building 20 sets of turrets and turret platforms, which were used by 20 1.Serie/La.S tanks for some time.

Daimler-Benz turret and turret platform, accepted into production.

The Daimler-Benz design was significantly different from Krupp's proposal. Instead of a simple shape, the turret platform was composed of an octagon with sloped sides. Six of the eight faces had observation ports, which improved visibility. On top was a rather roomy turret, also generously equipped with observation ports. The engine compartment roof was also different. The height of the engine compartment increased, and its roof became sloped. Not only was the volume of the new engine compartment greater, but its protection from enemy fire was improved. It's not surprising that the military preferred this design.

Mass Production

Due to the various transformations that happened to the La.S., the production of the first batch was delayed. This also impacted the second series, which was planned as a fully fledged tank and not just a chassis. The initial order for 150 2.Serie/La.S. only grew.

The Nazi rise to power played its role here, but there were other reasons for this growth. The military discovered that the industry was ready to give them something which resembled a modern tank. In January of 1934, the order increased to 200 tanks, and grew further to 300 tanks in the middle of July. On July 12th, plans changed again, leading to a grandiose increase in production. The military demanded a whole thousand La.S.

The idea of producing the tank in Hessen was rejected. Krupp moved its tank production to its Grusonwerk factory in Magdeburg. According to the final form of the agreement, Grusonwork would built 205 tanks with serial numbers 9001-9205, 27 with numbers 9207-9233, and 81 with 9235-9315. MAN received an order for 160 2.Serie/La.S. tanks, serial numbers 9501-9660. Rheinmetall had a contract for 150 2.Serie/La.S. numbered from 10001-10150, and finally Daimler-Benz was responsible for 115 tanks, 10301-10415. Daimler-Benz ended up with the biggest piece of the pie, since the turrets and turret plaforms were only built there.

2.Serie/La.S. on parade. The tanks carry a three colour camouflage used by the Panzerwaffe from 1935 to 1938.

In general, the design of the 2.Serie/La.S. was the same as the previous series. One of the main new features was a reinforces front road wheel, which carried more weight after a turret was installed. Almost nothing was left from the initial Kleinetraktor concept. The 3 ton tank with a 20 mm autocannon in a fixed casemate and 3 crewmen became a 5.4 ton two-man tank armed with two MG-13 machineguns.

Any discussions about a training designation for the La.S. are wishful thinking. In reality, the Germans ended up with a modern light infantry support tank, which was reliably protected from rifle caliber bullets. At the same time, the British built similar tanks, which had inferior armament and armour. All La.S. tanks were equipped with radios, a rarity for the time. It is doubtful that training tanks would carry such expensive equipment.

3.Serie/La.S. tank. The tank has minimal differences compared to its predecessor.

An order for an additional 150 3.Serie/La.S. tanks was made in August of 1935. Grusonwerk received a contract for two tanks with serial numbers 9206 and 9234, plus 35 tanks with numbers 9316-9350. MAN received a contract for 40 tanks, 9661-9700. Rheinmetall and Daimler-Benz received 20 tanks each, 9911-9930 and 10416-10435 respectively. Finally, Henschel received a contract for 35 2.Serie/La.S. numbered 10151-10185.

By then, the La.S. received the designation M.G. Panzerwagen and index Vs.Kfz.617 (experimental vehicle 617). This designation didn't hold for long and was replaced with the name M.G. Kampfwagen in October of 1935 and M.G. Panzerkampfwagen in November. The tanks from the third series lost an unnecessary observation device in the rear right side and gained reinforcement plates on the sides. All road wheels were reinforced.

4.Serie/La.S. from the 3rd Tank Regiment on exercises.

The last production batch was the 4.Serie/La.S. 175 tanks were ordered, but MAN was not among the manufacturers this time. Grusonwerk received a contract for 40 tanks, 9366-9405. Rheinmetall was to produce 30 tanks with serial numbers 9931-9960. Henschel ended up with the biggest contract: 64 tanks with serial numbers 10436-10476. Tanks from the fourth series had a widened transmission access hatch and a reinforced transmission.

The real total amount of tanks in series 2-4 was smaller than expected: 1075 units instead of over 1300.

In April of 1936, these tanks received their final designation: PzKpfw I (MG) with index SdKfz 101 (special vehicle 101). 2.Serie/La.S.- 4.Serie/La.S. tanks are known as PzKpfw I Ausf. A. During use in combat, their design underwent a large number of changes. By the start of WWII, the tanks received a converted air intake above the engine deck, a smoke grenade launcher, and the suspension was modernized. You can familiarize yourself with a modernized PzKpfw I Ausf. A from the second series in this photoshoot from the Arsenalen museum.

Modernized PzKpfw I Ausf. A with a smoke grenade launcher.

Even though the La.S. was superior to its predecessors, the tank had its problems. Since the initial weight was surpassed by nearly 50%, the 60 hp engine was not enough. This later led to a modification equipped with a more powerful engine.

The PzKpfw I Ausf. A had plenty of technical problems, which it not surprising, as any first attempt is going to have its growing pains. The first of them was the armament. The first signs that machinegun-only armament was obsolete were seen in Spain, when the German tanks turned out to be powerless against Republican T-26es, and anti-tank guns left them little chances of survival. The same results were seen in the Polish campaign in 1939.

Despite all that, a large number of PzI Ausf. A tanks were still in use by the Afrika Corps in 1941, although most tanks of this modification were used for training and did not have turrets or turret platforms. Examples of this conversion can be seen as early as 1937.

Leichte (Funk) Panzerwagen from the 3rd Tank Regiment.

The only special vehicle on the PzKpfw I Ausf. A chassis deserves a mention. In March of 1934, the issue of a commander's vehicle on the 2.Serie/La.S. was raised, as regular tanks only had radio receivers. This tank, named leichte (Funk) Panzerwagen had an immobile casemate instead of a turret, which housed radio equipment. 18 of these vehicles were made.

The author thanks Hilary L. Doyle for the provided illustrations.

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