Saturday 19 September 2020

A SPAAG for the Panzerwaffe

The result of battles in WWII was often decided by tank spearheads that cracked open defensive lines like a tin can. Combat against tanks was a priority and every possible asset was aimed against them, including aircraft. This in turn required effective AA guns that could follow tank units. The optimal solution was the installation of AA guns on tank chassis, as this solved the problem of giving the guns mobility on par with tanks. The Germans were some of the first to attack the problem of creating highly mobile SPAAGs. Work began in 1940 and the 2 cm Flak 38 auf (Sf) Pz.Kpfw. 38(t) Ausf. M (Sd.Kfz. 140), unofficially called Flakpanzer 38(t), was born in 1943.

Germany began building Sd.Kfz.10/4 special purpose vehicles practically from the very start of WWII. Their design was simple: a single barrel 20 mm Flak 30 AA gun was installed on a 1-ton halftrack. The Sd.Kfz.10/5 armed with a 20 mm Flak 38 AA gun was introduced in 1942. The SPAAG on the chassis of a halftrack was simple and cheap, which ensured its large numbers: over 1500 were built before 1944. However, the mobility of the halftracks (including those equipped with 37 mm and 88 mm AA guns with a heavier chassis) was limited. They were still less mobile off-road than tanks.

The case of AA guns mounted in trucks was even worse. They could only drive on roads. Large losses taken from British aircraft in North Africa in late 1941-early 1942 forced the Germans to consider upping their game when it came to SPAAGs.

Sd.Kfz.10/4 halftrack in France, May 1940.

The first AA tank

Work on a SPAAG on a tank chassis began in May of 1941 when Alkett and Daimler-Benz worked together with Stoewer to create a simple SPAAG using the chassis of the obsolete Pz.Kpfw.I Ausf.A tank. It wasn't even the tank that was converted, but a munitions carrier on its chassis created by replacing the turret with a truck bed on the roof of the hull. Instead of the platform, a 20 mm Flak 38 AA gun with the stock gun shield was installed. The sides of the truck bed could flip down to make the crew's work more comfortable.

The SPAAG turned out to be overweight, as the AA gun was much heavier than the turret, and now the crew consisted of five men instead of two. The vehicle couldn't carry a respectable amount of ammunition, and so it had to be equipped with a single axle trailer. The vehicle was named  2 cm Flak 38 auf Sfl Pz.Kpfw. I Ausf. A, but it's more commonly known by its unofficial name: Flakpanzer I.

Flakpanzer I on the Eastern Front.

The first AA tanks were not very good and did not attain popularity. Only 24 were built. This was enough to arm only one unit, the 614th Motorized AA Battalion. It was used on the Eastern Front and lots its last Flakpanzer I in the winter of 1942 at Stalingrad.

A Czech chassis

The Wehrmacht made do with SPAAGs on halftrack chassis for a few years. An attempt to create a new SPAAG on a tank chassis was only undertaken two years late, on Hitler's initiative. In May of 1943 he proposed installing a 37 mm coaxial naval AA gun on the Maus tank. The military had little enthusiasm for the idea, but could not refuse.

Further discussion led to the idea that the AA gun shouldn't necessarily go on the Maus, and it was more reasonable to make a SPAAG that could cover other tanks, not just the Maus. In early September Hitler agreed to a temporary SPAAG armed with a 20 mm Flak gun, the same one as on the Flakpanzer I.

General view of the Flakpanzer 38(t).

The Pz.Kpfw.38(t) Ausf.L was chosen for the chassis. This was a chassis of the well known Czechoslovakian tank adapted for self propelled artillery use. The engine compartment was placed in the middle of the hull and the fighting compartment was in the rear. This chassis was used in part to build Marder III tank destroyers and Grille self propelled guns. On October 15th, 1943, Hitler personally ordered the BMM factory in Prague to build 150 SPAAGs named 2 cm Flak 38 auf (Sf) Pz.Kpfw. 38(t) Ausf. M (Sd.Kfz. 140), or Flakpanzer 38(t) unofficially. A number of publications call it "Gepard", but the name appeared after the war as a fabrication by an unknown author.

Drawings of the Flakpanzer 38(t).

The design was simple, but not as primitive as the Flakpanzer I. The 20 mm Flak 38 AA gun was installed in a hexagonal open topped casemate. The top of the casemate could flip down. This provided much better protection for the crews than the Flakpanzer I. The crew consisted of four men: the commander, gunner, loader, and driver.

The top of the casemate could fold down if needed.

The Flak 38 gun had full 360 degree traverse, elevation up to 90 degrees and depression to -5 degrees. The 65 caliber barrel gave it a range of 2200 m. The gun was fed from 20 round magazines. The theoretical rate of fire was 450 RPM, but in practice no more than 100-120 RPM could be attained. The SPAAG carried 1040 rounds of ammunition (52 magazines, 36 with 2 cm Br.Spgr. HE rounds and 16 with 2 cm Pzgr AP rounds).

Flakpanzer 38(t) as seen from above.

The gun mount of the Flakpanzer 38(t).

The SPAAG had superior crew protection and mobility to the Flakpanzer I. The armament was the same, still insufficient for the needs of the time. This limited the number of Flakpanzer 38(t) SPAAGs produced. Even the limited order for 150 units was not completed. 141 SPAAGs were built from November of 1943 to February of 1944. The remaining 9 chassis were converted into Grille SPGs.

Service and combat

As intended, the Flakpanzer 38(t) SPAAG was used in Wehrmacht and SS tank divisions. According to TO&E K.St.N. 1195 a tank AA platoon (Panzer-Flugabwehr-Zug) numbered 12 SPAAGs in three groups of four each. In practice, 8 SPAAGs were subordinate directly to a regiment commander and two each were given to the battalions in the regiment.

Flakpanzer 38(t) on exercises.

Formation of SPAAG platoons began in late January of 1944. The 2nd and 21st Tank Divisions, 130th Training Tank Division, and three SS divisions (9th Hohenstaufen, 10th Frundsberg, and 12th Hitlerjugend) were the first to receive them. In May of 1944 the SPAAG platoons from the 9th and 10th SS divisions were transferred to the 1st and 2nd SS tank divisions. The 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division fighting in Normandy in June of 1944 also had a full complement of Flakpanzer 38(t). In September the division gained 8 more SPAAGs that were initially allocated to the Frundsberg division.

All aforementioned units fought on the Western Front, in France. In addition, 36 Flakpanzer 38(t) were sent to Italy and were used in the 26th Tank and 29th and 30th Panzergrenadier divisions. The Flakpanzer 38(t) was available only in homeopathic doses on the Eastern Front: 8 of them were assigned to the Hermann Goering division located in Poland in July of 1944 (they were attached to the HQ of the 2nd Tank Battalion). A small amount was left in reserve. The last delivery was made in January of 1945 when 6 Flakpanzer 38(t) were assigned to Hitler's bodyguard brigade (Führer-Begleit-Brigade).

Flakpanzer 38(t) ready to fire.

The SPAAG platoons took heavy losses, not just from the air, but from the ground. A dozen Flakpanzer 38(t) were lost during the summer and the amount grew to 84 by the fall. Nearly all vehicles of this type sent to France were lost. Just 9 Flakpanzer 38(t) remained on the Western Front by December of 1944: three in the 2nd battalion of the 3rd SS Tank Regiment and six in the 17th SS Tank Battalion (Götz von Berlichingen division). The situation was slightly better in Italy: as of March 15th, 1945, 21 Flakpanzer 38(t) survived.

Flakpanzer 38(t) crews favoured camouflage.

Flakpanzer 38(t) on the move.

The Flakpanzer 38(t) was the first tracked SPAAG built in Germany in large numbers. Despite its weak armour, the Flakpanzer 38(t) earned the reputation of a powerful combat vehicle. According to a report submitted on January 30th, 1945, these SPAAGs claimed hundreds of downed aircraft, chiefly in June-August of 1944. Later the claims dropped as the SPAAGs were ruthlessly culled by the enemy.

This was the end of the dozens of Flakpanzer 38(t) used on the Western Front.

The Flakpanzer 38(t) was an intermediate step and only a temporary solution, as expected. Superior SPAAGs were put into production in March of 1944, and they deserve a separate article.

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