Monday 7 February 2022

How to Lose Everything and Learn Nothing

German tanks and SPGs of the second half of WW2 are often praised as "wonder weapons". Based on what is written about them, one can only come to the conclusion that Germany lost WW2 by accident. This is often said about the "big cats": the Tiger, Panther, and so on. Indeed, Germany's tank industry took a lead in 1943. Thanks to a sudden jump forward, one can argue that Germany had the best heavy and medium tanks. However, it was in the second half of 1943 that the Germans began to lose their grasp on the Eastern Front. A year later, German tank industry was no longer in the lead. The issues it faced were systematic, and despite an arguable second plate in the tank race, the Germans had no future when it came to either the tanks or their armament.

No control and no future

Like other tank building nations, Germany was in crisis at the start of WW2. One can claim that they had a reasonable lineup of tanks, but only without any knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes. Suffice it to say that the Pz.Kpfw.II, the most numerous German tank of the early war (at least among those armed with something bigger than a machine gun), appeared by accident, simply because it was impossible to put either a 20 mm autocannon or a radio operator in the Kleintraktor aka La.S. tank. The result was a completely new tank, with the added twist that the suspension initially designed by MAN was poor and starting with the Pz.Kpfw.II Ausf.c the tank had an independent leaf spring suspension.

Up until the end of the war, the Pz.Kpfw.IV was one of the main German tanks. Funnily enough, Krupp initially only developed the turret, the rest of the tank sprouted out from that.

As for the Pz.Kpfw.IV, the most numerous German medium tank at the start of the war and until its end, its story sounds like a joke. Initially, Krupp was only responsible for the turret of the B.W. tank, but managed to convince the military that it can make the chassis as well. Krupp was the only one who met the mass requirements. The 6th Department of the Ordnance Directorate (namely Heinrich Kniepkamp) tried to force a torsion bar suspension into the tank. It was built and tested on the B.W.II, but the result was so poor that Krupp fiercely opposed torsion bars in the future. An attempt was made to kill off the tank before the war even began. In the spring of 1938, Kniepkamp proposed getting rid of the Pz.Kpfw.IV and instead build a support tank on the Z.W.38 chassis. The idea was somewhat sound, as Germany ended up with two medium tanks with similar characteristics, but different designs. The problem was that the Z.W.38 was quite unrefined, and so Krupp managed to stand up for its product. If Kniepkamp had his way, Germany would have had a hundred medium tanks at best by September 1st, 1939. 

The man in glasses behind the bent down officer is Heinrich Kniepkamp, the man who held a monopoly on German tank chassis starting in 1936. The difficult position in which German industry found itself by the end of the war is in no small part his fault.

German tank building under the Third Reich was pulled in three different directions. One direction was the army, which ordered vehicles from the Ordnance Directorate. The second was the 6th Department of the Ordnance Directorate, which had their own ideas about tank chassis. The aforementioned Heinrich Kniepkamp had a monopoly in this field since 1936. For instance, the layout with a front transmission borrowed from the British was his idea. Finally, German industrial giants such as Daimler-Benz and Krupp often openly opposed Kniepkamp's ideas. A new direction was added in 1939: Ferdinand Porsche's Tank Commission.

An attempt to design a high speed tank resulted in a situation where only about 50 Pz.Kpfw.III tanks were ready for battle at the start of the Polish campaign. This tank was still relatively uncommon by 1940. There were no consequences for this.

There is one explanation for this mess. In 1936, Kniepkamp took over development of tank chassis. He had the idea of high speed fighting vehicles that had conceptually similar chassis. Kniepkamp used his halftracks, which were quite successful, as a starting point. The torsion bar suspension developed by Porsche K.G. and broken in on the Swedish Landsverk L-60 tank came in handy here. Kniepkamp expected to use these components to give medium and light tanks a top speed of 60-70 kph. The halftracks also later "donated" their interleaved road wheels that allowed for a reduction in peak ground pressure.

The problem was that these high speed tanks were Kniepkamp's pet project. The designer could not explain after the war why they were needed in the first place. Kniepkamp's customers looked coolly on this endeavor, as they were completely satisfied with a top speed of 40 kph. There was often a need for vehicles that didn't have to be fast. For instance,Walther von Brauchitsch, supreme commander of the land forces as of February 4th, 1938, ordered the development of breakthrough tanks ranging from 18 to 65 tons in weight. Some of them (the Pz.Kpfw.I Ausf.F and Pz.Kpfw.II Ausf.J) were even built and saw service, although without much success. 

When the contractor is a perfect match for his client. This is a Pz.Kpfw.I Ausf.F tank with 80 mm of front armour and only two machine guns for armament.

This situation gave expected results. The desire to get a high speed tank meant that the Z.W.38 only went into production in late 1938. An issue with the running gear cropped up quickly. The Z.W.38 could drive at the speed of 70 kph, but not for long. There were also many issues with the Maybach Variorex 328 145 semiautomatic gearbox. The result of all this was a grandiose failure to meet production quotas. 2995 Pz.Kpfw.III tanks were expected by the end of 1940. In reality, only 286 were delivered in 1939 and 862 in 1940. Germany had 2.5 times fewer medium tanks than planned. A similar situation took place with the Pz.Kpfw.II Ausf.D. It never became the replacement for the Pz.Kpfw.II Ausf.C that it was supposed to be. The Pz.Kpfw.II chassis remained in production as is (including its use for SPGs) until 1944. Kniepkamp continued to design racing tanks that ended up being produced in a series of 30-50, sometimes a much as 100. It's a wonder that Kniepkamp managed to get away with this. The German army was lucky that a similar (or even greater) mess was taking place in other nations.

A Panther crew prays for a swift death to inventors of the Maybach HL 230 engine.

The baggage carried by the German tank industry into WW2 explains the crisis faced by the end of the war. Work that was supposed to give a replacement for the Pz.Kpfw.III and IV resulted in the VK 30.02(M) that later turned into the Panther. This tank is often called the best medium tank of the second half of the war, but with many nuances. Firstly, the vehicle was designed to have a mass of 35 tons, but actually weighed 45 tons. The tank entered production without any modernization reserves. Second, while this tank replaced the Pz.Kpfw.III, it could not replace the Pz.Kpfw.IV. The latter ended up having a much larger modernization reserve, both when it came to armour and armament. As a result, the Germans once again had two medium tanks with similar missions. Thirdly, the tank had a lot of difficulty going into production. Essentially mass production started only in the summer of 1943. Finally, despite good characteristics for its class, the Panther had a number of built-in defects, many of which were incurable. This included the Maybach HL 230 engine with four Solex carburettors that was never finely polished and the final drives that were a constant source of headaches. Finally, the running gear was overloaded, as mentioned above. One solution was road wheels with steel rims, which were accepted into service, but never fully replaced those with rubber rims.

An attempt at modernizing the armament of the Pz.Kpfw.IV, November 1944. This idea had no future without a modernization of the chassis, which was refused many times over.

The situation with the Pz.Kpfw.IV looks no less silly. The tank had more room for modernization than the Pz.Kpfw.IV, but the limit was reached by the fall of 1942. One must ask: why not replace the suspension with something more powerful? The bogey suspension meant this was not outside the realm of possibility. The Americans did just that with their Medium Tank M4 and won a few more tons to work with. However, the idea of modernizing the Pz.Kpfw.IV was met with opposition every time. First, Kniepkamp killed the B.W.40 project, then the 9.Serie/B.W. (the first vehicle with the name Pz.Kpfw.IV Ausf.H) was killed off by the Tank Commission, which expected the 27 ton tank with 560 mm wide tracks and improved hull armour to result in decreased production.

This situation kept repeating itself, as a result of which Germany's most common tank was a vehicle that was first ordered in December of 1936. This both speaks of Krupp's tank design talent and a crisis in German tank building. There is no such thing as a miracle, and even the most successful platform can't be milked forever. When the USSR built the T-34-85 and the USA built the M4(76)W the Germans could not pull a similar trick. The Pz.Kpfw.IV Ausf.J only gained more blind spots and lost its powered turret traverse.

An overloaded chassis was a typical feature of late war German tanks. The result was predictable.

The situation with heavy tanks was also bad. The Tiger had many drawbacks, including a lack of modernization reserves. It was not even possible to install a more powerful gun. This was a typical situation for the Germans. Most of their tanks and SPGs of the second half of the war suffered from an overloaded chassis, including the Tiger Ausf.B. This tank had to fight in a completely different environment than its predecessor. The qualitative advantage the Germans enjoyed in 1943 was gone by 1944. The debut of the Tiger Ausf.B was not anywhere as successful as that of its predecessor. There were more Tiger II tanks lost in 1944 than its primary competitors: IS-2 tanks

The E-100 was a good demonstration of the Germans' abilities by the end of the war. This was a grandiose project built for unclear reasons with no chance at mass production.

The situation with armoured vehicles in service was not the worst of it. The problem was that by the end of the war there was no hope for the future. There was always the E-series, but the state of development was such that there was no chance at seeing these vehicles in production. The E-50 and E-75 were far from the only future medium and heavy tank projects around. The USSR, USA, and Great Britain were hard at work at designing a new generation of tanks, some of which nearly made it into production before the end of the war. Meanwhile, the Germans ended the war with vehicles that began development in 1942. Various ersatz tank destroyers had little effect on the overall picture. Germany was far behind the USSR and USA, especially when it came to medium and heavy SPGs. A lack of prospective tanks was just one part of the problem.

A crisis on all fronts

In addition to development problems, there were also production problems. Few German factories could produce tanks in the amounts that were required of them. If anyone thinks that only the USSR set goals to build over 1000 tanks per month, they are sorely mistaken. The longer the war went on, the more grandiose the plans of German high command became. For instance, the Panther Ausf.F was supposed to go into production in March of 1945. 150 tanks were expected in April, 520 in May, 610 in August, and 760 units per month by the end of the year. The Germans were expecting to ship a very large amount of tanks. These plans were dated October 1944.

The biggest producer of the Pz.Kpfw.IV was in Austria, not Germany.

One can also recall the Jagdpanzer 38 that was supposed to be produced at a rate of 1000 per month (500 at BMM and 500 at Skodawerke). The problem was that these two factories put together never produced more than 500 vehicles per month. There were only two factories that were German shock workers: Alkett, which at one point built 300 StuGs in a single month, and Niberlungenwerk, which produced 300 Pz.Kpfw.IV Ausf.J tanks monthly. Nibelungenwek was built in Austria with Steyr's money. It ended up being the only factory to produce the Pz.Kpfw.IV tank in June of 1944. The "Austrian faction" often proved itself to be more reasonable than its German counterparts.

Nonstop bombings played a role in the failure of German production plans.

The rules of total war are the same for everyone. The demand for more hardware is universal. The Red Army, the Germans, and the Americans all wanted to send waves of steel to the front lines, except the USSR and USA could afford it and Germany could not. 760 Panthers monthly was a pipe dream, considering that Germany never managed to cross the threshold of 400 vehicles of this type. Even before the bombings, German grand plans tended to have humble results. The austerity that came with 1944 heralded considerable simplifications, which reflected on the quality of production as well.

Maybach HL 295, a further development of the HL 234. It never made it into production.

A large amount of projects that existed only on paper created some confusion around the future of German tank building. Other nations had plenty of paperwork too, a lot of which still remains in classified archives. Even when it comes to paper projects, the Germans were in a poor place. This applies even to engine building, which was traditionally a German strength. Some people like to recall the Soviet V-2 engine that was designed in the 1930s and only reached a guaranteed lifespan of 250 hours by 1942. If you look at the German side, you see a similar situation. The Germans ended the war with the same Maybach HL 120 that was put into production in 1938 and the Maybach HL 230, work on which started in 1937 but never resulted in a sufficiently reliable product. In the end German engineers abandoned the idea and installed a direct injection system instead of a battery of carburettors. This allowed the engine power to rise to 900 hp, except the engine was never put into production. Even the later HL 295 used by the French had to be reduced in power to 850 hp.

Simmering-Graz-Pauker Sla 16, an X-shaped tank diesel developed by Porsche K.G.

The topic of diesel engines deserves a separate mention. Some claim that the German navy consumed all its diesel, but that is not the case, as evidenced by 180,000 diesel trucks. The fact that Karl Maybach had a monopoly on tank engines did not mean that no one worked on tank diesels. MAN, Magirus (Klöckner-Humboldt-Deutz at the time) and Daimler-Benz were the leading developers of tank engines. The main German army truck was supposed to have a diesel engine, but even with support from the leadership of the Third Reich Daimler-Benz could not defeat Maybach's monopoly. The MB 809, Germany's first tank engine, was ready in 1941, but no further progress was made. The MB 507 engine fared a little better. It was used on the Gerat 040 assault mortar (first on some, then on all) and a supercharged version was installed on the second Maus tank. Finally, Porsche K.G. developed an X-16 diesel known as Simmering-Graz-Pauker Sla 16, which was built and tested on a Jagdtiger.

A gas turbine developed and built in Dresden on Soviet orders. It was based on a design developed for German tanks.

The German military gradually changed its mind about diesel engines for tanks. They treated the topic coldly at first, but started demanding diesels in their tanks by the end of 1943. One cause was the chance to get familiar with the T-34's V-2 engine. Despite some drawbacks like issues at certain RPMs, this was a very successful engine, combining high power, relatively low weight, and small dimensions. It had a considerable advantage over the Maybachs: fuel economy. The Maybach HL 120 on the Pz.Kpfw.III and Pz.Kpfw.IV tanks consumed more fuel than the T-34's V-2. With a fuel capacity of 460 L, the T-34 had a cruising range of 300 km on roads, while the Pz.Kpfw.IV could only travel 210 km with 470 L and the Pz.Kpfw.III 155 km with 320 L. The difference off-road was even more significant.

The appetites of the Maybach HL 120 were nothing compared to the HL 230. Even the Panther burned twice as much fuel as the IS-2, not to mention the heavy tanks. Even the official fuel expenditure of the Tiger Ausf.B was 900 L per 100 km. There were plenty of reasons to develop a diesel engine, but they didn't pan out. The Germans were also working on gas turbine engines and even built some prototypes. An engine was built after the war in Dresden and sent to Leningrad after the war, although it was far from production ready. Even the Soviet gas turbine program took a long time.

The Germans stopped working on truly new tank guns by the end of 1942. Even if they created something new in early 1945, they would still need a year-year and a half to develop it.

There was also an armaments crisis. The Germans love to blame Hitler in their memoirs, but it was Hitler who forced the mess with German tank armament to be cleaned up. Recall that the issue of a long 75 mm gun was first raised in October of 1935. Such a gun was even built in metal, but by the start of WW2 the military considered that a 37 mm gun for their medium tank, a 20 mm gun for their light tank, and 75 mm short gun for their support tank were enough. Hitler also wasn't the one who ordered an 18 ton tank armed only with machine guns. The comical story where the 75 mm gun on the Strv m/42 tank was cut down to make the tank fit in to general purpose roads is well known. The Germans did the same thing, cutting down the 50 mm gun to 42 calibers in length in order to eliminate the overhang. Hitler insisted that the gun be returned to the full length of 60 calibers in 1941. He also forced the development of several new guns, including the future 88 mm KwK 31 L/71. The famous 88 mm KwK 36 L/56 was also partially Hitler's idea. Before that, the Ordnance Directorate considered a 75 mm L/24 or 105 mm L/28 gun sufficient for a heavy tank. One has to ask: who was really the fool? By the end of 1942 it was clear that no work would be done without a kick in the pants from the Fuhrer. No matter how many fantasies are drawn up by students of alternative history, the reality is that nothing new was developed in 1944-45. The closest thing was an adaptation of the 105 mm gun originally developed in 1942 for the early Maus tank into the turret of the Tiger Ausf.B that Krupp worked on in fall of 1944.

The famous German horseshoe turret. The turret without a bustle was a calling card of the German tank design school and not a feature one could be proud of.

There was another issue: where to put these weapons? If one looks at German turrets designed up to 1942 inclusive, they will see that their shape resembled a horseshoe. These turrets were chiefly developed by the same companies (Krupp and Daimler-Benz) who then copied the same ideas from tank to tank. The Panther's turret stands out in this lineup, but that is easily explained. This turret was developed by Rheinmetall out of a design originally intended for the VK 45.01 (H) heavy tank. The concept was largely the same with the exception that the commander was shifted to the wide. This approach came up short in late May of 1941 when it turned out that the 88 mm L/71 gun would not fit into the turret of Porsche's Typ 100. This happened not once, but twice, with two different tanks. Even if a longer gun was fitted, the turret would be unbalanced. The Germans discovered turret bustles in the fall of 1941. A commission led by Porsche and with the chief of the 6th Department of the Ordnance Directorate Sebastian Fichtner inspected Katukov's knocked out tanks at Mtsensk, making certain conclusions for themselves. As a result, the first turrets designed for the VK 45.02 (H) and VK 45.02 (P) looked very similar to that of the T-34. Even the turret of the Maus tank was a descendant of the T-34's design, such was the conservative approach to German tank turrets. 

German tanks gained turret bustles after their creators familiarized themselves with the T-34.

Finally, let us mention the truly unthinkable achievements of German tank designers when it came to observation devices. People like to talk about Zeiss optics, confusing sights and observation devices. German tanks had their advantages in visibility, but with caveats. For instance, they started using protective glass in observation ports only in 1938, after the results of the Spanish Civil War. These observation ports gradually disappeared, which makes sense, since they were vulnerable to even rifle fire. Designers from other nations replaced their observation ports with rotating periscopes like the Mk.IV, but not the Germans. Their loaders were left with either no observation devices at all or a fixed periscope looking forward or forward and to the right. What stopped them from giving him a rotating periscope? We may never know the answer, but the result was obvious: when only the commander had all-round vision and one set of eyes scanned the horizon instead of three, the chances of getting shot in the side grew considerably. The Germans experienced the same problems that Soviet tankers did in 1941-43. While one nation was solving these problems, another was causing them.

Victims of observation device optimization. These Panther tanks were shot from the right, where the completely blind loader was located.

The above does not suggest that the Germans had bad tanks, indeed the German tank forces were a dangerous opponent until the end of the war. On the other hand, German tank designers picked the wrong direction when it came to engines, optics, and armament. The desire of certain alternate history enthusiasts to prolong the war can only be met with a sad smile. The Germans would have merely lost by a larger margin, since the summer of 1945 marked the start of a new generation of armoured vehicles for Germany's opponents.

Without baggage

The fate of Germany's "inheritance" also serves to illustrate the dead end in which German tank building found itself. There was no shortage of Panthers left over after the war, but only France continued to use them, in no small part due to the fact that both Karl Maybach and Ferdinand Porsche ended up in France. The other nations treated the German "big cats" coldly. The Panthers and Jagdpanther built for the British performed horribly in trials. The French were also the only ones who made use of German tank design experience. The resulting AMX 50 tank program gave nothing of value in the end, and neither did any other attempt to develop German tanks further. The only thing to come in handy was the 75 mm KwK 42 L/70 gun that inspired the 75 mm gun on the AMX 13. The 88 mm KwK 43 L/71 can also be viewed as an ancestor of the 84 mm 20-pounder. That's it.

The French were the only ones to build on German tank developments, although without much result.

Post-war tank building was an even more interesting topic. One would think that this was time for the Third Reich's designers to shine. The set of players was still the same: Porsche, Daimler-Benz, Wegmann, Rheinmetall, Krauss-Maffei. However, the Standardpanzer, the first German post-war tank, looked more American than German. Conceptually, the future Leopard tank was closer to the Pershing than the next generation Panther. It had a cast turret shifted forward, rear transmission, a conventional suspension layout, and a Daimler-Benz diesel engine. The Standardpanzer Group A tank was developed under the general supervision of Porsche, who finally triumphed against Kniepkamp and his gang. The latter also took part in the Standardpanzer program, but early on. Interestingly enough, the silhouette of the Standardpanzer was influenced by the T-10 and T-54. The German designers did not overcome all of their hereditary problems. For instance, the weight of the tank was initially estimated at 35 tons, but the final product weighed about 40 tons. Predictably, the rubber road wheel tires made their displeasure known during trials. The Germans also did not manage to make their own gun and just used the British 105 mm L7. German post-war tank building had little to do with its legacy and followed a much more reasonable path. 

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