Monday 27 December 2021

A Trophy from Pilsen

Germany invaded Czechoslovakia on March 15th, 1939. This was the final step in the process kicked off by the Munich Agreement in the fall of 1938. France and Britain were not prepared for war, and their appeasement policy handed Czechoslovakia to the Germans. The first step was annexation of the Sudetenland, then the rest of the country. Slovakia declared independence, but Jozef Tiso's government was loyal to Germany. The Germans assumed direct control of Czechia, its advanced industry, and its armoured vehicles, including the LT vz.35. These tanks were designated Pz.Kpfw.35(t) in the German army and played a big role in 1939-1941.

A handy addition

Unlike its neighbours, Czechoslovakian tank designers was not sitting still in the 1930, merely tinkering with foreign designs. Czechoslovakian tank industry reached impressive heights and was one of the leaders in worldwide tank building by the late 1930s. It is not a surprise that the nation reached second place in tank exports. Their tanks combined high production quality and impressive combat characteristics. Nevertheless, this was not enough to fight Germany on its own, plus Poland also had claims on Czechoslovakian territory. Since France and Britain's position was made very clear and proposals from the USSR (the only nation willing to defend Czechoslovakia) were ignored, Czechoslovakian tanks turned out to be useless. They fell into German hands without having fired a single shot.

LT vz.35 tanks being prepared to be shipped to Germany.

The LT vz.35, the backbone of Czechoslovakian tank forces, made up a large part of the captured vehicles. 296 tanks of this type were built in total, but there were no plans to keep building them. Many defects were uncovered during production and the plan was to replace them with the superior LT vz.38. Nevertheless, this was still a fine fighting vehicle by the spring of 1939 with combat characteristics comparable to those of German medium tanks. The mobility was lower, but this tank was more agile off-road than its German equivalents. Ground pressure of 0.49 kg/cm² was one of the best in its class.

Škoda's creation demonstrated its exceptional off-road performance in the USSR. It beat the T-26 during comparative trials held in the fall of 1938. This was a very dangerous vehicle that could have stood its own against German tanks, were not not for political betrayal. Three regiments had these tanks on hand at the time of occupation: one stationed in Milovice, one in Přáslavice, and one in Martin (Slovakia). After Slovakia declared independence, tanks of the latter regiment ended up in the new Slovakian army. It received 52 tanks of this type. The remaining 244 vehicles ended up in German hands. Two of these tanks had an interesting fate: tank #13909 was knocked out on March 15th, 1939, and was captured by Hungarians. It received the registration number 1H-407. The experimental Š-II-a tank was confiscated by Romania and eventually returned to the Škoda factory. It does not appear that this tank ever saw service.

Training with new tanks. At first the Germans used the L.T.M.35 as is, in Czechoslovakian three colour camouflage.

The LT vz.35 was the first foreign tank to be used by the Germans in large numbers. They had the Carro Armato L3 captured after the Anschluss of Austria, but these were not even considered fighting vehicles. The Tč vz. 33 tankette and LT vz.34 light tank were similarly disregarded. The LT vz.35 was a different story. It quickly became apparent that Chamberlain and Daladier handed Germany a desirable present. This was a light tank, but as mentioned above its characteristics were close to that of German tanks. There were also almost as many of them on hand as all German medium tanks put together. Thus, the fate of the Skoda-Panzer (as it was first designated in correspondence) was decided. The index Pz.Kpfw. 3.7 (t) was also used.

The tank's adoption by the German army was not instant. Czechoslovakian complaints about technical issues with these tanks were not just excuses. A large number of these tanks were in need of repairs, for instance by May of 1939 only 37 of the 62 tanks from the 65th Tank Battalion were functional. 202 of the 244 tanks were combat capable by the start of WW2. The tank was also not fully satisfactory. The Germans saw it as an analogue of the Pz.Kpfw.III tank, but that tank had a 3 man turret. The LT vz.35 only had room for two crewmen in the turret, and even then there was usually only one crewman present there. In battle, the radio operator would climb into the turret and assume the role of a loader. The Germans added a loader as a dedicated crewman.

German designations for Czechoslovakian 37 mm ammunition. Note that the HE shell was only introduced after the Polish campaign.

Issues with communication arose in the summer of 1939. Czechoslovakian radios were far from perfect. In Soviet trials these radios could provide voice communication at a range of 8 kilometers, but only if the tank was standing still. In motion voice communication was bad even at a range of 3-4 km. The mounting of the radio was also poor. The Germans had the same complaints about the radio, with the extra note that it operated on different frequencies than German radios. As a result, these tanks were converted to take German Fu 5 radios in the summer of 1939. Some tanks were also converted into command vehicles. These were initially designated as Skoda (Sd.Kfz.266) and Skoda (Sd.Kfz.267). These tanks can be distinguished by a frame antenna over the engine deck. The Sd.Kfz.266 received an extra Fu 2 radio set and the Sd.Kfz.267 an extra Fu 8. 8 tanks of this type were converted into command tanks in total. A number of tanks also had smoke grenade launchers mounted on the rear.

Pz.Bef.Wg.35(t), a command tank with a distinctive radio antenna over the engine deck.
The tank changed its name often in German documents. In the summer of 1939 it was called L.R.S.M.35 (light Skoda tank model 1935). The index L.T.M.35 was also used. On January 16th, 1940, the tank was renamed to how we know it today: Pz.Kpfw.35(t). The command tanks were renamed to Pz.Bef.Wg.35(t).

An ersatz medium tank

Over 200 new tanks came in very handy for Germany. As mentioned above, they had some trouble with medium tank production, and so the Czechoslovakian light tanks were used as ersatz mediums. There was a clear understanding that the use of captured vehicles could result in a lot of problems, even if the manufacturer was in German hands. As a result, the trophies were collected in one unit: the 1st Light Division, formed in October of 1938. Czechoslovakian tanks were issued to the 11th Tank Regiment and 65th Tank Battalion starting in the spring of 1939. By August 15th, 1939, the 11th Tank Regiment had 117 Czechoslovakian tanks and the 65th Tank Battalion had 57. These tanks were sometimes referred to as Pz.Kpfw.III(t), hinting at the role they served in the German army.

All Pz.Kpfw.III(t) were gathered within the 1st Light Division.

By September 1st, 1939, the 1st Light Division had 112 Czechoslovakian tanks: 75 in the 11th Tank Regiment and 37 in the 65th Tank Battalion. Like other vehicles used by light divisions, these tanks were supposed to be transported to the battlefield on trucks to increase the speed of deployment, but in reality they usually drove around on their own. Tankers who used the L.T.M.35 tanks ran into an issue usually considered unique to the British: a lack of HE shells. This type of ammunition did not arrive by the start of combat, which reduced the tanks' effectiveness against infantry and anti-tank guns. The 25 mm thick armour that was designed to withstand at most 20 mm autocannons showed itself well in this campaign. It was often enough to take a hit from the Armata przeciwpancerna 37 mm wz. 36 Bofors, the main Polish anti-tank gun. As trials in the USSR showed, the quality of ammunition for this gun was often poor. The shells would often shatter on impact.

Overall, the Czechoslovakian tank showed itself well, but the bulletproof riveted armour did not offer guaranteed protection against Polish guns. Penetration of driver's vision ports was also common.

Even though the 1st Light Division was used quite intensively, permanent losses were not high. 7 L.T.M.35 were lost in September, 10 more were damaged but were later repaired. This was only one side of the story. The division formed its own opinion about this tank. As of October 4th, 1939, only 21 Czechoslovakian tanks out of 144 were combat capable. This situation was not unique: 15 Pz.Kpfw.II tanks out of 72 were still in running order and only 4 out of 43 Pz.Kpfw.IV. The reason for such low numbers was mechanical damage. Track links were the main culprit and the cause of 80% of the nonfunctional Pz.Kpfw.II tanks, 44% of the L.T.M.35, and 75% of the Pz.Kpfw.IV. These numbers confirm the Czechoslovakian army's complaints about these tanks. Interestingly enough, the 1st Light Division already requested reinforcements on September 10th, 1939. The answer was simple: there weren't any.

There were almost twice as many Czechoslovakian light tanks in the German army than all models of the Pz.Kpfw.III.

This only highlights the fatal mistake the the 6th Department of the German Ordnance Directorate nearly committed in the spring of 1938. An idea arose to cancel the Pz.Kpfw.IV and create an artillery tank on the Pz.Kpfw.III chassis by transplanting the turret. Considering the trouble that the Pz.Kpfw.III was going through in 1937-39, this move could have left Germany without any medium tanks. It was the Polish campaign that cemented the Pz.Kpfw.IV as the best German medium tank. The 1st Light Division came to the same conclusion. It was called effective, precise, and capable of defeating any target. It was no less effective against the Polish tanks than other tanks, and sometimes even more effective.

The 1st Light Division used Pz.Kpfw.IV tanks, even the Ausf.A. These were considered the most effective types of tanks.

The Polish campaign was the first and last use of the 1st Light Division in battle. Experience showed that the idea of light divisions did not pay off, and on October 18th, 1939, the 1st Light Division was reorganized into the 6th Tank Division. By January 1st, 1940, it had 106 Pz.Kpfw.III(t) and 11 Pz.Bef.Wg(t) on hand. The number of tanks (soon after renamed to Pz.Kpfw.35(t)) only grew. By May 10th, 1940, the 6th Tank Division had 157 tanks of this type on hand plus 14 command tanks. These numbers did not reflect reality, as only 102 of these tanks were functional. A proposal was made in early 1940 to add Pz.Kpfw.III tanks to this division. The Pz.Kpfw.35(t)'s observation devices were not as good as those of this tank, and the use of German tanks would allow for more effective command of the division's units. This proposal was never put into practice.

The 6th Tank Division lost about 55 Czechoslovakian tanks in France.

The 6th Tank Division was subjected to much harsher conditions in France than in Poland. This reflected on the losses. 44 Pz.Kpfw.35(t) tanks including command tanks were written off in May 1940 alone. The 6th Tank Division claimed to have destroyed 60 enemy tanks. This time the division formed the spearhead of the attack, which also reflected on losses.

Nevertheless, the Czechoslovakian tank showed itself well in battle. Its combat characteristics were mostly on par with British cruisers, and it was definitely more reliable. The armour was too thin to protect from British artillery, but that was true for all German tanks. Czechoslovakian tank guns were effective against French light tanks. The effectiveness of the Pz.Kpfw.35(t) tanks was proven once again when the 6th Tank Division was included in Guderian's tank group. 11 tanks were written off in June, but the tanks fought well. By June 21st, 1940, the division had 68 regular and 8 command tanks still in service.

Large numbers of Pz.Kpfw.35(t) tanks were used on the Soviet-German front.

The tank tallies didn't add up. Officially, 189 Pz.Kpfw.35(t) tanks were reportedly in service by the summer of 1941, more than there were supposed to be. Perhaps some vehicles that were considered irreparable could actually be returned to service. In any case, the 6th Tank Division reported 160 Pz.Kpfw.35(t) tanks, 11 of which were command tanks, by June 22nd, 1941. Some sources say that they also had Pz.Kpfw.III tanks, but usually the other tanks are given as 47 Pz.Kpfw.II and 30 Pz.Kpfw.IV. Like the Pz.Kpfw.38(t), these tanks were still considered ersatz mediums. Unfortunately for them, by the start of the Great Patriotic War these tanks were obsolescent and worn out. The situation on the Soviet-German front was much different from the one in France.

Pz.Kpfw.35(t) tank captured by Soviet troops, June 1941.

Officially, 26 Pz.Kpfw.35(t) tanks were lost in the first month of combat (by July 22nd, 1941), but this is a result of the Germans' clever way of counting losses. Considering that the 6th Tank Division was hit by a counterattack of KV tanks from the 2nd Tank Division of the 3rd Mechanized Corps on the second day of the war, claims of such low losses are doubtful. At least one tank was captured, but its fate is unknown. On July 22nd, 1941, 58 tanks (including 4 command tanks) were reported as undergoing repairs. It's likely that far from all of these repairs were simply due to mechanical trouble.

Even though the tank was obsolescent, the 6th Tank Division fought successfully until the fall of 1941.

Despite losses, the 6th Tank Division fought well. After fighting in the Baltics, they moved on to Pskov and Ostrov. The division also took part in the advance on Leningrad. Efforts from repair brigades kept availability rates high. 118 tanks were reported in service on August 23rd, and 108 regular and 5 command tanks in service on September 1st.

The real "extinction event" came later. The 6th Tank Division was reassigned to the 3rd Tank Group on September 17th, 1941. The tank group headed for Moscow. This is when their luck changed. Only 34 regular tanks and 2 command tanks remained in service by the end of October. 43 more were in repairs, and 83 tanks were total losses. By this point the tanks had driven for 12-13 thousand kilometers. Spare parts were impossible to come by, and even theoretically repairable vehicles were disassembled for parts. At best, 10 tanks out of those in repairs could be put back into action. The commanders of the 6th Tank Division were ready to give up on this tank. Only 30 Pz.Kpfw.35(t) were in service by November 10th and all were out of action by December 1st. It turns out that the Czechoslovakian tanks were not prepared for cold weather at all. Some tanks were lost during ill-advised attempts to heat them.

The 6th Tank Division was almost completely helpless by the start of December of 1941. The Pz.Kpfw.35(t) were finished off by the frost.

The division reported 22 of these tanks by January 10th, 1942, with only 5 command tanks in service. 142 Pz.Kpfw.35(t) tanks and 6 Pz.Bef.Wg.35(t) were lost irreparably. The total number of tanks was greater than at the start of the war, since some reinforcements had arrived in the meantime.

Captured Pz.Kpfw.35(t) tank, NIBT Proving Grounds, 1943.

This was the end of the Pz.Kpfw.35(t)'s career as a tank on the Soviet-German front. A number of written off tanks were returned to Škoda. In March of 1942 the Ordnance Directorate gave orders to use the hulls to build artillery tractors. A prototype of this vehicle, named Mörserzugmittel 35(t), was built at Alkett. Škoda built 49 of these tractors, the majority of which (37 units) were built in 1942. The turrets were repurposed as fortifications along the Atlantic Wall.

Destroyed Mörserzugmittel 35(t), early 1944.

Not all tanks were either converted or written off. A small number of vehicles remained in service until the end of the war, including one used for anti-partisan warfare. Among those was the only Pz.Kpfw.35(t) to survive to this day. This tank with registration number 13.962 was built at ČKD in 1937. It was assigned to the 2nd Tank Regiment and later used by the German army. It served for two years before ending up at the Škoda factory. It was captured by the Americans in 1945 and spent many years at the museum at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. It was recently returned to Czechia where it was restored and put back into running order. Today it is displayed at the Military Technical Museum Lešany. 6 tanks from the LT vz.35 family survive to this day, including two built for Romania (one of which was converted into the TACAM R-2 tank destroyer).

Original article by Yuri Pasholok.

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