The Evolution of the Panzerspahwagen (armoured reconnaissance car)

During the late twenties and early thirties, experimental exercises were carried out in Germany to study the requirements of a modern mechanised army. Because of the non-availability of armoured fighting vehiCles, a series of Panzernachbildung (simulated armoured fighting vehicles) was produced-representing both tanks and armoured cars-on commercial-vehicle chassis. These helped to determine the requirements of the Wehrmacht. Several such dummy armoured cars were built on Hanomag and Dixi chassis. In simulatior of the Czech PA-2 (referred to by the Germans as the Schildkrote, or turtle-not to be confused with the Schildkrote amphibious armoured car projects developed by Hans Trippel), a commercial lorry chassis was used. This vehicle took part in exercises near Hannover in 1928.

In 1930 the Reichswehr received a simulated armoured car of aluminium plate-later of thin mild-steel-based on the chassis of the Adler Standard 6 car. This vehicle had a rotating turret with a simulated stroboscope, and the vehicle-commander and gunner stood on a rotating footstool. Next to the driver, in the passenger seat, sat the radio-operator. The vehicle was prominent in the Elsgrund-district exercises of 1930. During 1935 a further dummy armoured car was built on the chassis of the Opel P4-(and as late as 1941 a dummy training car based on the Volkswagen Type 82 chassis was in service).

Many valuable conclusions concerning armoured reconnaissance were drawn from the experimental exercises, and it was stated that one of the first duties of the ‘fast troops’-to be carried out before opposing forces had actually joined battle-was reconnaissance. Reconnaissance provided the High Command with the information needed for further operations and air recon- naissance was not always sufficient for the purpose- particularly as it often could not determine whether ground was occupied by the enemy and, if so, in whai strength. Here ground reconnaissance began; and it was broken down into operational reconnaissance, tactical reconnaissance and battle reconnaissance.

Operational reconnaissance was the duty of the high units, from corps upwards; tactical reconnaissance was carried out by divisions and smaller units, and battle reconnaissance was the smallest units’ responsibility.

According to General Guderian, reconnaissance called for especially fast, flexible and easily commanded units with a wide field of action and good communications. They had to see and report a good deal without being observed; and for this reason, the smaller and the ore easily concealed they were the better they could perform their task. Their strength had to be so gauged that it could prevail against an enemy of similar forma- lion; and if their duties called for additional fighting power, it would have to be given to them as required. The instrument of modern ground reconnaissance was the scout car and several scout cars made up an armoured reconnaissance detachment. The establishment of armoured reconnaissance detachments would vary in respect of duties and the number and types of vehicles; but they would as a rule, include two or three companies of light and heavy armoured cars.

In addition to air observation, operational reconnaissance was carried out by special ground units-the reconnaissance detachments, whose special function was to discover enemy concentrations and march routes, railway transports and fortified points. They were the modern equivalent of cavalry, with the advantage of a larger radius of action and greater fighting strength since they consisted almost entirely of motorised forces. All of their vehicles were wireless-equipped (initially, only special communications vehicles had long-range radio equipment) and could therefore report directly to the command if occasion demanded. These recon- naissance detachments were at the exclusive disposal of the larger units.

The needs of divisional intelligence were mainly served by detachments with similar technical equipment but whose function was tactical reconnaissance, covering a more restricted area than operational units and only fully motorised in the case of motorised divisions.

Armoured reconnaissance forces were often the first to establish contact with the enemy; but a reconnaissance troop was not, by its nature, suited for offensive operations. At most, it was capable of sustained (not permanent) defence.

Battle reconnaissance was intended to furnish information on the situation of a battle while it was actually being fought. It was neither operational nor tactical.

As far as vehicles were concerned, the following military specifications were laid down as additional to or amending the original ones issued during 1926-7:

1. High road and, wherever possible, cross-country speeds.

2. Reasonable cross-country mobility.

3. Relatively large radii of action.

4. long-range radio communication.

5. Protection from small-arms fire.

6. Armament suitable for delaying actions only.

During 1938, special armoured reconnaissance units were formed within the framework of the Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions-the Panzerdivision Aufklarungsabteilung (armoured division reconnaissance unit) and the Infanteriedivision Aufklarungsabteilung (infantry division reconnaissance unit). The armoured division had a reconnaissance unit containing an armoured car squadron, three armoured reconnaissance companies, and support weapons grouped in a heavy company. This formation was really the spearhead of the division, moving forward along all possible tracks ahead of the division to weed out resistance, brush aside weak opposition, and seize bridgeheads, road junctions, towns and villages. Its task was to obtain information about the enemy and his dispositions, thus enabling the divisional commander to formulate his plan of attack. An armoured reconnaissance unit was composed of a headquarters, a head- quarters company, an armoured-car squadron and three armoured reconnaissance companies.

The Mechanised Reconnaissance Unit

The armoured division would send out a mechanised reconnaissance unit in directions where air reconnaissance needed rapid supplementation and where a clear picture of the enemy’s positions could be gained only by fighting. The unit, specially equipped for this with armoured cars and a large number of automatic weapons, could move fast and had a wide radius of action. It was capable of being employed up to 100km (60 miles) ahead of the division. The frontage on which a reconnaissance was carried out would generally be laid down by corps and could extend to as much as 60 miles. On open flanks it would frequently be even wider.

As there were so many possible reconnaissance tasks, it was imperative for commanders to concentrate on essentials. Apart from tasks for which any recon- naissance unit could be utilised, the mechanised recon- naissance unit in particular had to give warning of enemy anti-tank defences and prepare the way for the movements and operations of the division.

As soon as battle was joined, the mechanised reconnaissance unit would be told whether it was to continue reconnoitring, temporarily hold commanding features, withdraw to or through the division, move off the front, or reconnoitre to the flanks. It was not made up to a strength that could carry out defensive tasks. An open flank, for example, could be covered by long- range reconnaissance but had to be protected by other troops.

Armoured Car Designs

In the German concept of mobile war, wheels were only marginally less important than tracks. That said, the first example was unimpressive: an open-topped scout car built on a civilian truck chassis, with a two-man crew, 8mm of armor, and a light machine gun. Entering service with the cavalry, by 1939 it had devolved to the infantry’s reconnaissance battalions as one step above bicycles. Next step was a two-step: the development and introduction of the Leichter Panzerspähwagen Sonderkraftfahrzeug (SdKfz) 221/222—a Teutonic mouthful that translates as Armored Reconnaissance Car Special Purpose Motor Vehicle 221/222, and thankfully shortens simply to Armored Car 221/222. The latter, definitive version began joining reconnaissance battalions during 1938. A four-wheeled, five-ton vehicle, with a 20mm cannon or a light antitank rifle in an open-topped turret and a two-man crew, it could do 50 miles per hour on roads, half that across country, thanks to its four-wheel drive and a relatively powerful engine. The 222 was popular in service and easy enough to manufacture that a number were exported to Nationalist China, where it was also well liked.

SdKfz Heavy Armored Car 231—Six-Wheeled.

The 222 is best understood as an upscale version of the Daimler scout car coming into British service about the same time. It could gather information but was ill-suited to fight for it. Apart from that, the German army had enough of a tradition of heavy wheeled vehicles to encourage the simultaneous development of the SdKfz Heavy Armored Car 231—Six-Wheeled. The 231 could trace its origins to a civilian-developed vehicle whose initial version was too heavy and too expensive. Rejiggered into a six-wheel design built, initially, around a Daimler-Benz truck chassis, the 231 first entered service in 1932. Its ancestry was both visible and problematic. It looked like a civilian automobile, in that unlike the 222, its engine was up front and vulnerable even given the well-sloped 14.5mm armor. At almost six tons, the weight was too heavy for the chassis, and the suspension was a constant source of concern despite the good road speed of 40 miles per hour. Like the 222, it was easy to manufacture—a thousand were created by the time production ceased in 1935. But even more than the Panzer I, the Armored Car 231 was used as a training vehicle and relegated to second-line service as fast as a replacement could be made available.

That replacement kept the designation, but was an entirely different vehicle: an eight-wheeled, rear-engineered design built on a Buessing-NAG chassis. It could do over 50 miles per hour on roads, 30 miles per hour off road. With dual steering, all-wheel drive, and independent suspension, its cross-country capacity even through sand and mud exceeded any wheeled, armored vehicle in any army, despite its relatively heavy weight. Its turret-mounted 20mm cannon and 15mm armor were adequate for the scouting mission that was its fundamental purpose, and from its first entry into service in 1938, the Achtrad “eight-wheeler” was popular with its crews. The complexity that made it difficult and expensive to manufacture was an acceptable tradeoff, especially given the increasing quality of unit-level maintenance in the Panzer arm. The new 231’s major tactical drawback was its size. At seven feet eight inches and 8.3 tons, it was not exactly suited for “sneak and peek.” For “shoot and scoot,” however, the Achtrad was unmatched during the war’s first half, and its size enabled the inclusion of a radio system that added “communication” to its long list of positives.

The 222 and 231 spawned a long list of modifications. Most were specialized radio vehicles. The 222 in particular was too small to carry both a radio and a cannon. Its near-sister SdKfz 223 was distinguished by a smaller machine-gun turret and carried a third crew member. Both six- and eight-wheel versions of the 231 also had radio versions with frame aerials. These, perhaps because of their distinctive appearance, are disproportionately featured in illustrated works despite their relatively small numbers.

As a footnote the design staffs, after years of work, finally developed the war’s best armored car. The SdKfz 234/2 Puma had it all: high speed, a low silhouette, and a 50mm L39 still effective against tanks in an emergency. Unfortunately, by the time the Puma and its variants entered production, the panzers’ need for a long-range reconnaissance vehicle was itself long past. Now their enemies all too often found them.

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