Tiny tanks

Three Panzerkampfwagen Is during a parade sometime between 1935 (when the tank was made public) and 1939 (the last year the Panzer berets were worn). In the foreground, policemen wearing flat-topped shako helmets can be seen.

The PzKpfw I was developed in secret in defiance of the Versailles Treaty, which prohibited Germany to have any tanks. With a crew of two (commander and driver), and armed with two 7.92 mm MG13 machineguns, it was a light tank intended primarily to train tank crews, but also to support infantry. The thin armor (maximum 13 mm) and light armament made it unsuitable for combat against other tanks. It first saw combat during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), where it proved to be inferior to the Republican army’s Soviet T-26 light tanks.

It saw more action in Poland 1939, in the attack on Denmark and Norway in 1940, and during the Campaign in the West later in the spring of 1940, where a fifth of the German tanks were PzKpfw Is. The light tanks didn’t measure up to opposition like the French Char 1 bis and Somua tanks; it was only the fact that all German tanks had radios, generally higher speed, and deployed according to a superior doctrine that made them successful. As the war wore on, the PzKpfw I was withdrawn from frontline use. It was used in other roles, as a light command tank, tractor, or converted with the chassis as the basis for AT guns, and did so until the end of the war.

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Killing field

At first glance, it seems like this PzKpfw IV Ausf D has just taken up positions at the edge of the field outside Monceaux in Aisne, France, May 1940. It might belong to the 6. Panzer-Division. Then one can spot the tell-tale signs of a tank that has been knocked out. The rubber on the road wheels has been completely burned off, there’s debris on the engine covers, and the wooden cleaning rods for the gun barrel have burned, too. The gunner’s hatch on the left side of the turret is open, which might indicate that he escaped, but the other hatches are closed, which could mean that at least four of the crew were killed. The tank probably fell victim to an anti-tank gun or another tank. This is one of the 97 PzKpfw IVs lost in the Campaign. It was probably salvaged and repaired, seeing action in the Soviet Union a year later, manned by a new crew.

Denied to the enemy

The wreck of a French Renault Char B1 bis sits in a street corner in Beaumont, Belgium, after having been set fire to by its own crew on 16 May, 1940. It had run out of fuel during a withdrawal. The tank burned and exploded, the fire spreading to the nearby houses and causing a huge fire that burned until the evening of the 17th. Named “Rhône” (painted on the turret lying next to the wreck), it was commanded by Sub-Lieutenant André Marsais, and one of the tanks in the 1st company of the 37th Bataillon de Chars de Combat, serving with 1st Division Cuirassées de Réserve. The division was equipped with 69 Char B1 bis tanks.

The tank was armed with a 75 mm howitzer in the hull and a 47 mm gun in the turret. Starting in the early twenties, its development and production were delayed, resulting in a vehicle that was both complex and expensive, and already obsolescent when real mass-production of the derived version, the Char B1 bis, started in the late thirties. About 400 tanks were built, costing 1.5 million French Francs each. The 28-ton tank was crewed by four men, and was among the most powerfully armed and armored tanks of its day.

The type was very effective in direct confrontations with German armor in 1940 during the Battle of France, like in the fight for the French village Stonne on 16 May, 1940, where a Char B1 bis commanded by captain Pierre Billotte knocked out 13 German PzKpfw IIIs and IVs in a few minutes, while none of 140 hits by German guns managed to penetrate. Slow speed and high fuel consumption made it ill-adapted to the war of movement then being fought, though. After the defeat of France, captured Char B1 bis would be used by Germany, with some rebuilt as flamethrowers or self-propelled artillery.

The tank is most likely not the same tank as the one on display, painted with the same markings, in the Saumur Tank Museum, France.

Edited to add: More information on this particular tank, found at Chars-francais.net.

Final stop

Go home Ivan, you’re drunk… A Soviet BT-7-2 has crashed into a phone pole, the driver having trouble controlling it after losing the track on the right side. The BT-7 was introduced in 1935, and got its baptism of fire against the Japanese at Khalkin Gol in 1939. It saw action in Poland and Finland later that year, the Finns capturing 56 of them and adding them to their small tank force.

Armed with a 45 mm gun, the tank was a so called “cavalry tank”, which sacrificed armor protection for speed. The Christie suspension (later seen on its successor, the T-34) gave it good cross-country characteristics. The tank in the photo is the 1937 upgrade with the T-26 model 1937 conical turret, the two round hatches making the Germans nickname it “Mickey Mouse”. A pair of headlights above the main gun were used for night fighting. The tank had a crew of three (commander/gunner, loader, and driver), which together with the lack of a commander’s cupola and radio made the commander’s task hard and dangerous.

About 2000 tanks – 40 % of the total number built – were lost in the first 12 months after the launch of Operation Barbarossa. Still, the BT-7 was still active on all fronts by the end of the war in 1945.

A bridge too far away

A Soviet KV-1 tank is abandoned, stuck in the riverside mud of some river during the fighting in the summer of 1942. As the Soviet tanks were generally superior to the German Panzers at the time when it came to armor and armament, most of the losses were due to mechanical breakdown, lack of fuel, or, as in this case, getting bogged down. Another disadvantage was the lack of radios; in most cases, only the platoon commander’s tank was equipped with a radio, and that was set to reception only, not transmission. Tank commanders had to signal each others with flags, something that exposed them to enemy fire.

The KV-1 Model 1942 (called KV-1C by the Germans) featured a cast turret, thicker armor, and a new main gun. Still, most Soviet tanks had crews of four men, with the commander also acting as gunner, which meant that he had to split his attention between the battlefield and the acquisition of targets. The lack of a commander’s cupola made that task even harder. The Germans had five man crews, where the commander could concentrate on the overall situation through his cupola, while the gunner kept track on targets. As all German tanks had two-way radios, they could coordinate much better than the Soviets, partly overcoming shortcomings in armor and armament. With the introduction of the PzKpfw IV Ausf F2/G in the spring of 1942, the Germans had a tank that could match the Soviet armor.

 

Thanks to Daniel Löwenhamn for correction and additional information.

Beutepanzer

Not the best photo, but one of a rather uncommon tank. A disabled Panzerkampfwagen 35(t) stands on the side of a street in a French Town. It belongs to the 6. Panzer-Division, one of 132 PzKpfw 35(t) fielded by that division. 62 tanks were lost during the campaign, either total write-offs or repaired once it was over. In the attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, the 6. PzDiv could field 160 tanks, but as they neared Moscow, they were lost in combat, or broke down in the freezing weather. As there were no spare parts to be had, knocked-out tanks were cannibalized for any usable parts. By the end of 1941, there were hardly any PzKpfw 35(t) in running condition.

When the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, they captured 244 Škoda LT vz. 35, which was a light tank armed with a 3.7 cm main gun, making it superior to the German PzKpfw I and II. They were modified to better suit German doctrine (like adding a loader to the original three-man crew). All tanks were sent to Panzer-Abteilung 65 and Panzer-Regiment 11 of the 1. leichte Division (which was redesignated 6. Panzer-Division in October 1939), and that is why the tank in the photo ended up in a street in France.

Famous members of the 6. PzDiv were Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg and the panzer ace Generalmajor Dr Franz Bäke. A rather more infamous member was the author of pulp war novels, Sven Hassel, who claimed to have served in the German Panzer troops. The field mail number he mentions in “Wheels of Terror” is the same as that of the 1st company of the Panzer-Abteilung 65, and later first the 8th, then the 6th company of Panzer-Regiment 11. His claim is rather spurious, though, and should, in light of his other claims in books like “Legion of the Damned”, be taken with a truckload of salt.

50 Shades of Grey

This photo is pretty interesting. German soldiers, three of them Panzer crewmen, inspect the overturned wreck of a T-34. Eastern Front, 1941 or 1942, etc, etc. But what I want to show with this post is how several of the photos I post are enhanced. Most of them are about 5×9 centimeters in size, or three times smaller than a standard modern print. They were taken and developed some 75 years ago, usually by amateurs wielding a Leica under field conditions. Some photos can be very crisp and clear, with excellent contrast and balance, but many are like the photo to the left.

Most photos I post are somewhat cropped. If the horizon is askew, I usually right it. Contrast and clarity are enhanced, specks are removed, and any tears or other damage “repaired”. I don’t have the skill, nor the software, to turn a bland photo into something great (my wife could – she’s great at Photoshop – but she has her own blog). Anyway, I try to make the best of what I have, and present it in a manner I hope will inform the viewer.