Saturday 5 August 2017

Pz.Kpfw.II Ausf. c-C: At the Spearhead of Blitzkrieg

The story of the PzII tank was an unusual one. In many ways, it owes its "accidental" existence to the attempts of mounting a 20 mm autocannon in the Kleintraktor (future PzI). Due to issues with production of the Z.W. tank (future PzIII), the PzII was the most numerous front line tank for the first two years of WWII. Germany's most common tank was not even originally included in the armament plans.

Getting rid of the Kleintractor's relics

Many issues that plagues the La.S.100 project (future PzII) in its early stages were inherited from the Kleintraktor project. The problem was that the requirements for the tank designed by Krupp were largely the same. Henschel and MAN, who later made their own La.S.100 tanks, were working with requirements that were set in stone. The MAN La.S.100 inherited the overall Kleintraktor layout and a number of components, including the suspension. In addition, the radio operator was located in the hull, like in the initial Kleintraktor requirements.

Another obstacle in the path of German engineers was the military's vision of what a tank crew ought to look like. There is a widespread misconception that the Germans were the first to consider the comfort of the tank commander. However, looking at the La.S.100 turret, you will only find the commander in it. This commander had to observe the battlefield, traverse the turret, fire the gun and the machinegun, as well as reload them. The Germans fell into the same trap as the French with the Renault D1 and Renault D2 tanks, which also grew their crews by adding a radio operator. 

Meanwhile, while the Germans were creating the PzII, the French already made the Renault ACG 1 (AMC 35) with a two-man turret. The British Light Tank Mk.VI, American Light Tank M2A1 and Combat Car M1, and Czechoslovak LT vz. 34 also had two-man turrets. The first German light tank with a two-man turret went into production in September of 1942.

Layout of the PzII Ausf. c chassis.

Despite all the growing pains, it was clear that the La.S.100 was a success during initial trials. Various problems were solved during production of the first batch, 1.Serie/La.S.100.

MAN engineers decided to make more radical changes to the second batch, the 2.Serie/La.S.100. The hull length was increased, which allowed for a simpler rear plate design and improved cooling of the engine compartment. The tank's mass grew, but so did the power to weight ratio; it was possible to install a more powerful engine into the larger compartment.

Suspension issues were also partially solved. However, there were still issues, since the design of the road wheels and Krupp's suspension required extensive changes. The lifespan of the leaf springs was only 500 km, and the rubber rims on the small road wheels did not last much longer than that. Modernization of the road wheels and suspension, performed on the PzII Ausf. b, did not radically improve the situation.

The reworked suspension was the most noticeable change in the PzII Ausf. c compared to the PzII Ausf. b.

A decision was made that the large volume of defects would be resolved in the 2nd series. The vehicle, indexed PzII Ausf. c, was noticeably different from the PzII Ausf. b. The tank became 5.5 cm longer, a little wider, and a little taller. The fact that its mass grew from 7.9 to 8.9 tons speaks volumes about the amount of changes made to the design. To compensate the loss of power to weight ratio, the Maybach 62 TR 140 hp engine was installed. The power to weight ratio still dropped, but the tank's maneuverability did not suffer. The fuel tank was also changed, and it was now filled through the engine deck instead of through the side.

The biggest changes were made to the running gear and suspension. The Kleintraktor suspension was deleted, and replaced with an independent leaf spring suspension. The number of road wheels per side was reduced to 5, but their diameter was increased to 550 mm. The number of return rollers increased to 4, and their mounts were redesigned. Small changes were also made to the drive sprockets and track link limiters.

PzII Ausf. c, unknown unit.

These changes were the last radical modernization of the PzII. Subsequent changes were much less noticeable. MAN engineers managed to create a very reliable suspension. Vehicles on this chassis were produced until June of 1944, and the mass of some of them reached 11 tons.

Waiting for the Z.W.

On June 17th, 1936, a meeting took place in Essen, Krupp's capital. A representative of the 6th Department of the Armament Directorate shared their plans about production of 500 PzIIs. Of those, 250 would be built by MAN, and the others would be distributed among other companies. Krupp was not in that list, as it already had a contract for production of the PzI Ausf. B.

Close-up view of the driver's observation device. It will change on future models.

Production of the PzII was discussed in greater detail at a meeting in Berlin, held on July 6th, 1936. General Kurt Lise, the chief of the Land Forces Armament Directorate, employees of the Armament Directorate, and representatives of MAN took part. They reviewed the plans for modernization of the PzII design. Monthly quotas for the PzII were raised from 25 to 35 tanks.

In addition to the 31 PzII Ausf. c tanks of 2.Serie/La.S.100, MAN received an order for 44 tanks of 3.Serie/La.S.100. In reality, production of the PzII Ausf. c did not begin until the fall of 1937. PzII Ausf. c tanks in 2.Serie/La.S.100 received registration numbers 21101-21131, and tanks in 3.Serie/La.S.100 received numbers between 22001-22044. Production of this series finished in November of 1937.

One of the first PzII Ausf. A.

The PzII Ausf. c became the last of the pilot vehicles. Production of the PzII Ausf. A began in October of 1937, the first large batch, indexed 4.Serie/La.S.100. Outer changes were minimal. The new version can be distinguished by an altered driver's observation device. The radio operator's hatch changed, and now only consisted of one piece. Jentz and Doyle's research shows that the SSG 45 gearbox was changed to the SSG 46.

The PzII Ausf. A was the first PzII produced by someone other than MAN. The first tanks from the 4th series were built in October of 1937 by Henschel & Sohn in Kassel. 28 tanks of this modification were built there in total (26 in October and 2 in November), with serial numbers 23301-23328. MAN began producing these tanks later, and only finished 22 PzII Ausf. A tanks in 1937. 182 tanks were built in Nuremberg in two batches: 23001-23160 and 23401-23422. Even though MAN was somewhat behind schedule, the presence of two factories meant that production reached 50 tanks per month by 1938.

Driver's observation device. These were used on PzII Ausf. A-C tanks.

Several changes were made to the PzII Ausf. A during its production. Deflectors were added to the turret platform to prevent bullets or shrapnel from jamming the turret traverse. Tanks built at Henschel (23315-23318, 23321-23328) also received reinforcement beams in the rear of the hull.

Vehicles in service received mounts for smoke bomb launchers.

These changes migrated to the next batch of tanks, the 5.Serie/La.S.100, indexed PzII Ausf. B. These tanks also received deflectors on the observation devices of the turret platform. Henschel was the first to begin producing PzII Ausf. B tanks, finishing the first 14 in December of 1937, 15 in January, 16 in February, 18 in March, 19 in April, 20 in March. These tanks received serial numbers 24001-24102.

A new producer of PzII tanks appeared in 1938. This was Alkett (Altmärkische Kettenfabrik) from Spandau, a suburb of Berlin, established by Rheinmetall-Borsig AG. 32 tanks with serial numbers 24201-24232 were built here. In addition, 23 tanks with serial numbers 24301-24323 were built by an unknown manufacturer. As for MAN, 169 tanks with serial numbers 24401-24569 left Nuremberg. The last 58 PzII Ausf. B tanks with serial numbers 25001-25058 were built at Alkett. These tanks were a part of 6.Serie/La.S.100.

Off-road trials of the PzII Ausf. B.

In February of 1937, while production of the early PzIIs was ongoing, it was already clear that tanks of this type are just a temporary measure. The Z.W. (PzIII), meant to be Germany's most numerous tank, was plagued with suspension issues. The PzI was unsuitable as a replacement, but the larger PzII looked like it could fill the gap. As a result, companies that would later produce the PzIII joined in to build this tank.

The same tank from a different angle. You can see the deflector on the turret platform roof.

The list of producers grew even longer with 7.Serie/La.S.100. Production of these tanks, known as the PzII Ausf. C, began in June of 1938. There were no major differences compared to its predecessor. It can be distinguished from the PzII Ausf. B by the observation devices, which received 50 mm thick bulletproof glass panes. The number of rivets on them was reduced to two.

MAN received a contract for two batches of tanks: 80 numbered 26001-26080, and 80 more numbered 26301-26380. Henschel received the second largest contract: 115 tanks with serial numbers 26101-26215. Alkett produced only 15 tanks with numbers 26401-26415. 39 more tanks, 26501-26539, were built by MIAG (Mühlenbau und Industrie Aktiengesellschaft) in Braunschweig. 

Illustration of differences between the early PzII observation devices (above) and those on the PzII Ausf. C.

The last to join into production of the PzII Ausf. C was FAMO (Fahrzeug- und Motoren-Werke GmbH) from Breslau. It received a contract for 35 tanks, numbered 26601-26635. Production turned out to be difficult here. In addition, its rate was slowed down by the need for spare parts to repair PzII tanks damaged in the Polish campaign. As a result, the first two PzII Ausf. C tanks only left FAMO in November of 1939, and the other 9 half a year later, in April of 1940. In total, 1033 PzII Ausf. c to Ausf. C were built.

Unplanned horde

The Wehrmacht's tank units were properly saturated with PzII tanks only in the fall of 1937, when they were shipped in large numbers. According to the TO&E of a light tank company issued on October 1st, 1937, it contained 9 PzII tanks. One was included in the command platoon, and one was included in every platoon as a commander's tank (the fourth platoon consisted entirely of PzIIs). A year later, the number of PzIIs in a company increased to 11 units, and by March 1st, 1939, it increased further to 15.

The PzIIs were slowly pushing out the PzIs. The PzIIs themselves would eventually make room for PzIIIs, according to some military minds, but things were going poorly with production of the latter.

A German soldier inspects a knocked out PzII Ausf. B tank. Poland, September 1939.

A very interesting situation unfolded by September 1st, 1939. According to the TO&E of a light tank company, it was supposed to include 17 PzIII and 5 PzII tanks. A medium tank company would have 14 PzIV and 5 PzII. In reality, the military's desires were incompatible with the industry's abilities. The PzI remained the most numerous tank (1445 units), and the unplanned PzII was the most numerous front line tank (1151 units). These tanks were the workhorses of the Polish campaign.

Such a large number of tanks meant a large number of losses. 83 PzII tanks were lost irreparably, and a large number were damaged. The main enemy of the PzII was not enemy tanks, but anti-tank guns. Polish units also had a large number of anti-tank rifles, which were effective weapons against German armour.

The evaluation of the PzII as a result of the Polish campaign was unclear. Some complained that the 2 cm KwK 30 was not powerful enough, others praised its effectiveness, but demanded high explosive shells. The evaluation of the armour was unanimous: too weak. In addition, there were complaints about the commander's visibility.

A telling example of what happens with a light tank when it's hit by a 75 mm shell or greater.

Work on improving the PzII began in October of 1939. A set of additional armour plates was developed, covering the front of the hull, turret platform, front of the turret, and (in some cases) the gun mantlet. The additional plates were 15-20 mm thick. The tank's front armour increased to 30-35 mm.

The first sets of additional armour began arriving in February of 1940. However, there was no rush with supplies. Only a small number of PzIIs received additional armour by May of 1940. Another improvement was the TZF.4 sight with a new scale, allowing to fire at a range of 1200 meters.

A PzII with additional armour. The front tank has a rare Beobachtungsturm, with an additional commander's cupola. These vehicles were designed for artillery observers.

Formation of new tank divisions forced the military to dilute their PzIIs with PzIs. A light tank company after February 21st, 1940, included four PzIs, one PzI command vehicle, eight PzIIs, and seven PzIIIs. A medium company included one PzI command vehicle, five PzII, and eight PzIV. However, even this requirement was unrealistic. As of May 1st, 1940, the Germans had 1077 PzI, 1092 PzII, 381 PzIII, and 290 PzIV. The "unplanned" tank was, once again, the most common. This time, the results of its application in combat were even more disappointing.

Even though the French army mad a series of fatal mistakes when creating its system of armaments, even light Renault R 35 and FCM 36 tanks were dangerous enemies for the PzII. The German anti-tank gun could penetrate a French tank's armour from a few hundred meters, but it was too tough for the 20 mm autocannon. Even short barreled 37 mm guns used on French light tanks could penetrate a PzII. The Renault D2, Char B1 bis, and Somua S 35 were real nightmares for PzII crews. This does not include the numerous French anti-tank artillery units.

The numbers speak for themselves: 194 PzII tanks were irreparably lost in May, and 46 more in June.

Fully modernized PzII Ausf. c. An identical tank can be seen in the Saumur tank museum.

The results of the French campaign showed that the time of light tanks with autocannons is coming to an end. Nevertheless, modernization continued. The most noticeable addition was the commander's cupola that replaced the turret hatch. Work began in October of 1940. Around this time, the tanks were equipped with a Notek light for light driving. In May of 1941, the tanks received a toolbox on the right side.

As of June of 1941, the PzII remained one of the most numerous tanks in the Wehrmacht. On June 1st, the Panzerwaffe had 1074 tanks of this type, second only to the PzIII (1440). As a result, the Germans lost 424 PzII tanks in June-December of 1941. 56 more units were lost in Africa that year. However, some tank survived until the summer of 1944.

Engineering vehicles

In conclusion, let us mention the PzII Ausf. c-C tanks that were designed for various very specific tasks. The first of these tanks were designed before the start of WWII, and a number of them participated in combat.

Schwimm-P.Kpfw.II on trials.

The most unusual of them was the amphibious Schwimm-P.Kpfw.II, work on which began in August of 1938. Unlike other countries, which created purpose-built amphibious tanks, the Germans modified existing ones. The mass of the PzII allowed it to become buoyant if special pontoons were installed. Erich Wolfert, Krupp's leading engineer, developed these pontoons. The first drafts were ready in early 1939.

The biggest advantage of this design was that the resulting tank had the same combat capability as the PzII. The pontoons consisted of several sections, carried on a special trailer. They could be quickly assembled and installed on the tank. The tank moved in the water by turning propellers with its tracks. The top speed on water was 12 kph, through waves up to 1.5 meters high.

Schwimm-P.Kpfw.II from the 18th Tank Division, Belarus, summer 1941.

For a while, work on the project stopped, but the Germans came back to it in 1940. This was connected with Operation Sea Lion, a planned landing in Britain. By August 18th, 1940, the Wehrmacht had 52 amphibious PzII tanks. Even though they were never sent to England, they still found a job. In the end of 1940, the amphibians were added to the 18th Tank Division and the 6th Tank Regiment of the 3rd Tank Division. Both units participated in Operation Barbarossa, but the tanks saw almost no use as amphibians.

Bruckenleger II tanks, September 1939.

Another pre-war design was the Bruckenleger II. These tanks were first brought up in March of 1939. These were bridgelayer tanks on the 4.Serie/La.S.100 chassis. MAN itself did not work on these tanks, only built three chassis for them. The rest of the work went to Krupp, which built the tanks themselves. As with other German bridgelayer tanks, the bridges came from the Magirus company. All three tanks fought in the Polish campaign. Judging by photographs, they remained in use in 1940-1941.

Ladungsleger II on trials, 1940.

Finally, another very unusual tank was designed during the war. On Guderian's orders, work began in 1940 to create a Ladungsleger demolition tank. A complex mechanism carrying 75 kg of explosives was attached to the tank. The Lagungsleger was supposed to drive up to an enemy pillbox and put the explosives on top of it. PzI Ausf. B tanks were mostly used in this way, but Ladungsleger II tanks also existed. At the very least, they took part in trials, but there is also information on the Ladungsleger II in the 58th Engineering Battalion in the 7th Tank Division.

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