O-I Super-Heavy Tank

Imperial Japanese Army Super Heavy Tank 150 ton (O-I), this 1/72-scale kit was released by FineMolds in 2015. Model by Nuno Lima.

The O-I (Oi-sensha) was a super-heavy tank prototype designed by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War after the Battles of Nomonhan in 1939. The O-I is one of the Second World War’s more secretive tank projects, with documentation regarding the tank being kept private for over 75 years at Wakajishi Shrine, Fujinomiya. Surviving files have been purchased by FineMolds Inc., and publicly previewed in mid-2015. The multi-turreted 150-ton tank was designed for use on the Manchurian plains as a supportive pillbox for the Imperial Japanese against the Soviet Union. The project was disbanded four years after the initial development began, deemed unsatisfactory for continuation in 1943 after the lack of resource material for the prototype.

History and development

After 1939, the Imperial Japanese Army quickly came to realize that previous forms of mechanized warfare were proved inefficient after their defeat at Khalkhin Gol.

Development of the super-heavy project was spearheaded by Colonel Hideo Iwakuro, the head of the Ministry of War of Japan (Rikugun-shō). Iwakuro opposed Japan’s advances towards the Soviet Union in 1939, and with the Japanese defeat, he decided to initiate a project to construct a heavily armored tank capable of withstanding large-caliber field cannons. Iwakuro assigned Colonel Murata of the 4th Technical Research Group to design and construct the super heavy tank in 1939. Colonel Murata noted Iwakuro’s words as described;

 “I want a huge tank built which can be used as a mobile pillbox in the wide open plains of Manchuria. Top secret.”

 “Make the dimensions twice that of today’s tanks.”

The 4th Technical Research Group began designing the super-heavy vehicle throughout 1940, attempting to meet Colonel Iwakuro’s vague instructions on the ultimate goal of the project. By March 1941, the research group had finished initial tank design and was ready to begin construction. The following month, a group of pre-selected engineers were chosen to partake in the building of the super-heavy tank. One recorded engineer was Shigeo Otaka, who stated they were sent to the 4th Technical Research Group’s previous headquarters in Tokyo. There, they were guided through a barracks containing multiple small fitting rooms, where they were to conduct meetings and reports on the progress of construction of the super-heavy vehicle. Towards the end of the barracks facility was a fully-enclosed room devoid of windows, with soundproofed walls to prevent external personnel from overhearing discussions related to the project. Each officer present possessed a portion of the project’s blueprint, which, when assembled, projected the full design of the tank, labeled “Mi-To”. The name originated from a collection of the Mitsubishi industry and the city, Tokyo; given to the vehicle to uphold secrecy of the tank’s project.

The chosen engineers voiced their concerns regarding the Mi-To’s design noting that previously, the largest-sized Japanese tank had been the prototype Type 95 Heavy in 1934. Issues that had been noted with heavy tank experiments in the years preceding the Mi-To showing Japan’s generally unsuccessful testing on multi-turreted vehicles exceeding the weight of standard armored vehicles. However, with the threat of a second Russo-Japanese conflict becoming more apparent, the project continued despite the engineer’s doubts on the size and mobility of the vehicle.

On April 14th 1941, the engineers began the construction of the Mi-To under secretive means. This entailed privately-made mechanical parts and equipment being shipped to the construction zone. Colonel Murata’s original concept was to complete the super-heavy tank three months after the initiation of Mi-To’s construction. This, ultimately, did not come into fruition; as technical issues on the project began to arise. Due to the limitation on material consumption by the government, the amount of parts that could be secretly shipped-in began to dwindle. By the first month of construction, essential construction resources had been depleted and the issues with the vehicle’s cooling system further caused delays. The construction of the Mi-To was postponed until January 1942, a delay of nine months.

After the Mi-To’s construction was resumed, the hull was completed on February 8th 1942. The tank had reached near-completion and was being prepared for mobility testing. Mitsubishi built the four turrets for the tank in May of the same year. Initial assembly of the tank’s armament took place soon after the turret’s superstructures were completed. However; the project once again did not have the necessary resources needed for the few remaining parts required for the final assessment. Due to this, the primary turret was removed as it lacked a 35-millimeter-thick roof plate, which had not yet arrived. Thus, the project was put on standby, until further development could continue. The total weight of the vehicle at the time was 96 tons, due to the lack of remaining structural plates and absent 75mm bolted-on armor.

The date on which the construction of the tank resumed is unknown, although active testing of the tank was scheduled for late 1943. The tank was unveiled to the Imperial Japanese Army’s highest command in 1943, and received a name change to O-I. This followed Japanese naming convention (O translating to Heavy, I for First, making it “First Heavy”) that was standard. In his place was Lieutenant Colonel Nakano, Murata’s assistant and colleague. Tomio Hara, head of the Sagamia Army Arsenal, was also present. Following the demonstration, senior officials within the IJA requested that field trials begin in August of the same year. The tank was disassembled at 2:00 AM one night in June of 1943 and sent to the Sagami Army Arsenal in Sagamihara, 51 kilometers from Tokyo. The vehicle arrived at the depot in June, and was reassembled and tested on the 1st of August.

On the day of the trials, the O-I performed satisfactorily until the second hour of the tests. While maneuvering on off-road terrain, the tank sank into the ground by up to a meter; attempts at traversing the hull to extricate the vehicle proved fruitless, resulting in further sinking due to the vehicle’s suspension coils compressing. The tank was eventually towed out, and further testing was continued on concrete. However, the earlier damage to the suspension resulted in vehicle’s movement damaging the concrete, which in turn, further damaged the suspension bogies to the point that further testing could not continue. The trials were postponed, and later canceled the following day.

Nevertheless, the trials conducted at the testing field were considered to be a success, and the vehicle was deemed ready for use in spite of its flaws. The engineers began disassembly of the tank on the 3rd of August due to resources being limited and the inability to maintain the tank in the field. Disassembly of the tank was completed on August 8th. Two days later, the engineers noted in a log that they were to inspect the parts and conduct research to fix the issues the O-I would face.

The fate of the O-I after its field-trials which took place on the 1st of August is unclear. Russian reports claim the Japanese were in possession of a wooden O-I mock-up mounting a Daimler-Benz DB 601A engine in 1945, however other sources point to the scrapping of the remaining parts of the same year. The remains of the O-I reside at the Wakajishi Shrine, with a track link of the prototype still present.


The O-I was conceived out of the necessity to produce an armored vehicle capable of withstanding modern weaponry being able to return fire with similar firepower. The O-I was designed to act as a mobile pillbox, supporting infantry and mechanized groups along the border of the Soviet Union. The tank had a length of 10.1 meters, width of 4.8 meters, and a height of 3.6 meters. The dimensions of the vehicle closely matched those of the Panzer VIII Maus. The tank was envisioned to have a standard thickness of 150 millimeters front and rear, in order to protect against common anti-tank weapons of the time, yet it was constructed with armor 75 millimeters thick. However, an additional armor plate could be bolted on to bring the total thickness of the armor to 150 millimeters. The use of additional armor allowed for ease of construction and transportation, while also providing the tank with additional defense. Side armor on the hull superstructure was 70 millimeters thick. The additional armor plates were 35 millimeters thick, but armor surrounding the suspension was only 35 millimeters thick. This made the tank’s theoretical armor on the side 75 millimeters. There were eight wheel-supporting beams located on both sides of the suspension area which added an additional 40 millimeters of armor to specific locations on the side of the O-I. 40 ladder pieces were placed around the tank to provide crew with the ability to climb onto of the vehicle with ease.

The two 47mm cannons used in the two frontal turrets were also modified to fit the armor layout of the tank. The weapon’s barrels were reinforced with steel to secure them to the tank, due to the standard gun not adequately fitting into the turret.

The tank was both designed and built with two inner armor plates to divide the interior into three sections; walls with two doors each and an ultimate thickness of 20mm. This allowed the crew and modules to remain relatively safe while the structure was kept safe with supporting stands. These supports allowed the interior armor plates to stay stable and also prevented collapse. Inside the O-I were two Kawasaki V-12 engines, both located in the rear, parallel lengthwise, to give room for the rear turret operator and transmission. The transmission copied that of the Type97 Chi-Ha’s, but used larger parts and gears making the total weight heavier. The vehicle had a coil spring system, with eight 2 wheeled boggies, totaling 16 individual wheels.

Data Sheet


Name: O-I

Factory: Private – Mitsubishi

Units Produced: 1

Type: Super Heavy Tank

Year Built: February 8th 1942

Length: 10.1 m

Width: 4.8 m

Hull Width: 4833 mm

Height Full: 3.6 m

Turret height: 1065 mm

Track width: 800 mm

Track Pitch: 300 mm

Track Thickness: 58 mm Half, 108 mm Full

Total Weight: 150t (96t prototype)


Name: Type 98 V12 Kawasaki

Power: 550hp (1100hp total with second engine)

Weight: 1020kg

Gears: 6

Lubricant type: Oil

Maximum speed: 40kmh on road (prototype), 29.4 kmh (design) on road


Hull height: 2530 mm

Hull Width: 4833 mm

Upper Front Plate: 150mm @ 56,29°

Lower Front Plate: 150mm @ 45°

Lowest Front Plate: 70mm @ 70,5°

Side plate: 35mm @ 0° + Bolted 35mm @ 0°

Superstructure side plate: 75mm @ 0°

Upper Rear Plate: 150mm @ 18°

Lower Rear Plate: 150mm @ 33,01°

Lowest Rear Plate: 30mm @ 75,99°

Top plate: 50mm @ 0°

Bottom plate thickness: 30mm @ 0°

Turret Primary

Turret height: 1065 mm

Turret side faces: 150mm @ 90°

Turret top: 50mm @ 0°

Turret Ring: 1870 mm


Model: Type96 15cm Howtizer

Weight: 4,140 kg

Elevation: -5 ° to + 20 °

Amount of ammunition: 100+

Type of ammunition: Type 95 APHE, Type92 Spifire HE, 4th Year HEAT

Ammunition Types

Name: Type 95 APHE

Shell weight: 36000g

Velocity: 540m/s

Penetration: 125mm @ 230m, 120mm @ 510m, 112mm @ 755m, 102mm @ 1000m

Explosives: 6150g

Name: Type 92 Spifire HE

Shell weight: 36000g

Velocity: 540m/s

Explosives: 6150g

Name: 4th Year HEAT

Shell weight: 21040g

Velocity: 650m/s

Explosives: 6150g

Secondary Armament

Model: Type1 47mm Experimental

Weight: 600(+/-) kg

Elevation: -10 ° to + 20 °

Amount of ammunition: 100+

Type of ammunition: Type 1 APHE, Tungsten Alloy Toku Kou Prototype

Name: Type 1 APHE

Velocity: 810m/s

Penetration: 65mm @ 200m, 65mm @ 500m, 50mm @ 1000m, 45mm @ 1500m

Explosives: 17g

Name: Tungsten Alloy Toku Kou Prototype

Velocity: 810m/s

Penetration: 85mm @ 0m, 79mm @ 200m, 70mm @ 500m, 56mm @ 1000m, 45mm @ 1500m

Explosives: 17g


WWI: Technology, Logistics, and Tactics – An Overview II

Such results were even less likely from tanks, which the British used on the Somme in September 1916 and at Arras, and the French in the Nivelle offensive. Tanks were initiated independently in Britain and France, the Germans making no move until they saw the Allied weapons in action. In France the visionary behind them was Colonel J. E. Estienne, who secured an audience with Joffre in 1915 and was authorized to work in conjunction with the Schneider armaments firm. However, it was in Britain that the first combat-ready tank, the Mark I, was built by Foster & Co., a Lincoln agricultural machinery company, under the aegis of the Landships Committee at the Admiralty, which Churchill had set up and funded. Churchill in turn had been fired by a memorandum that Hankey had submitted to the cabinet after meeting Estienne’s British equivalent, Lt.-Colonel Ernest Swinton. Both Swinton and Estienne had seen the Holt tractor, an American vehicle with caterpillar tracks, and both viewed it as a model for a trench-crossing device. And if Joffre’s backing was crucial to Estienne, Swinton (who headed a new Tank Detachment created in February 1916) enjoyed Haig’s enthusiastic support once the latter heard about the project. Indeed, Swinton found the enthusiasm excessive: he would have preferred to wait until a mass attack could be unleashed without warning. All the same, neither Haig’s use of tanks on the Somme nor his use of gas at Loos suggest that he was blindly resistant to new technologies.

Tanks achieved little at this stage not because of obstruction by the military establishment but because they were far from being the weapons of 1939–45. Even if deployed en masse, they could not have restored open warfare. The basic problem was that they were underpowered. The British Mark I to Mark V tanks weighed approximately thirty tons and had engines of up to 100 horsepower; the Shermans and T-34s of the Second World War were of similar weights but had engines of 430 and 500 horsepower respectively. The Mark I had a top speed of three to four miles per hour, and a maximum of eight hours’ endurance. It was lightly armed, with machine-guns or two small cannon. It was difficult to drive, hot and full of carbon monoxide fumes, an easy target for artillery, and highly susceptible to breakdown. Despite its weight, the Germans’ new armour-piercing bullets could penetrate it. It could not negotiate the ruined Somme woods and was vulnerable in villages. Nor could it climb steep slopes and extricate itself from shellholes. Of forty-nine machines fit for duty on 15 September 1916, thirteen failed to reach the start line. The preparatory barrage left ‘lanes’ along which they could travel over undisturbed ground, but because so many failed to move forward the supporting infantry walked into intact German machine-guns. However, three reached and helped to capture Flers, one mile from the start, and two carried on to the next village before German guns halted them. On day one at Arras sixty were available but again many broke down before the start of the offensive, to which they contributed little. On day two eleven tanks had been detailed to support an Australian attack on the village of Bullecourt, but they failed completely and an unsupported infantry assault was repulsed with 3,000 casualties, creating a legacy of bitterness against the British high command and tank crews. On the Chemin des Dames the heavy French Schneider models suffered even more severely from breakdown, their fuel tanks were located where they were easily ignited, and German gunfire set many ablaze. The state-built St-Chamond machines presented even easier targets. The tanks’ debut was patchy, to put it mildly. They seemed best suited to small-scale infantry support, crushing wire, silencing machine-gun posts, boosting the Allied troops’ morale, and unnerving their opponents. These accomplishments were enough to convince GHQ that hundreds more should be ordered, while the French responded to the Chemin des Dames débâcle by pinning their faith on lighter Renault two-man vehicles. During the central period of the war, however, neither tanks nor gas could restore mobility.

This being the case, the best prospect remained with the infantry and artillery, and better co-ordination between them. Another new technology – that of aircraft – was mainly important precisely for improving artillery effectiveness, both through direct observation (used by the British as early as the September 1914 battle of the Aisne) and especially through aerial photography, which was practised from spring 1915. In 1914 aircraft had had a prominent reconnaissance function – a French plane had observed von Kluck’s First Army turning east of Paris and German planes had monitored Russian movements before Tannenberg – but this became less crucial once the fronts stabilized. An independent ground attack role was only just beginning, essentially planes had monitored Russian movements before Tannenberg – but this became less crucial once the fronts stabilized. An independent ground attack role was only just beginning, essentially because the aircraft were underpowered for carrying heavy payloads, although German aircraft dropped bombs in the opening phase at Verdun while British ones bombed five enemy trains during the battle of Loos and strafed German troops and dropped fifty tons of bombs during the Somme. Finally, a strategic bombing role was also in its infancy, and it began not with aircraft but with the German navy’s Zeppelin airships, which lay unused because of the High Seas Fleet’s inactivity. Initially raiding near the British east coast, they first hit London in May 1915, killing 127 people and injuring 352 during the year. Typically they arrived on fine, moonless nights, and although the British soon learned how to detect their movements by intercepting their wireless messages, at first there was no means of destroying them. In 1916 they ranged more widely, reached the Midlands and Scotland, and forced widespread blackouts. From September 1916 onwards, however, the defenders got the measure of the problem, locating the airships by eavesdropping on their radio messages and then shooting down several with anti-aircraft artillery and with fighter aircraft firing new explosive ammunition. From 1917 Gotha bombers replaced the airships as the main air weapon against Britain. The Zeppelins set a precedent for new forms of attack on civilians and reinforced the British public’s sense that its enemies were beyond the pale, but their damage to the Allied war effort was slight.

Assistance to the artillery was therefore the crucial role of the new arm. By 1915 British aircraft were carrying radio and evolving special codes to communicate with their gunners and monitor the effects of their fire, but the task of direct observation was mainly accomplished by tethered balloons, linked by telephone cables to their batteries. The balloons, however, were obvious targets for enemy fighters, and soon aerial combats swirled round them. Aircraft defended the balloonists, and carried out photographic reconnaissance themselves. In general the advantage in these operations lay with the Allies, and especially with the French, who had far more planes and pilots than Britain or Russia in 1914 and owned the world’s biggest aircraft industry. The British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) lagged behind France and Germany for the first two years. Yet at first there was barely an air war in the literal sense, as neither side’s aircraft had machine-guns mounted, and many more casualties resulted from accidents than from enemy action. Most aircraft had ‘pusher’ engines situated behind the pilot, even though these provided less power and manoeuvrability than a ‘tractor’ propeller at the front, the problem with the latter being that a fixed machine-gun might damage the blades. In spring 1915, however, the French aviator Roland Garros equipped his aircraft with a machine-gun that fired through the propeller, which had blades fitted with plates to deflect any bullets that hit them. The Germans downed and captured his machine, and the Fokker firm used the information derived from it to pioneer a synchronization device, enabling them to fit a forward-facing machine-gun that fired through the propeller of a new single-engined monoplane without hitting the blades. For several months in the winter and spring of 1915–16 the ‘Fokker scourge’ gave the Germans the edge, though more because of the intimidation created by their monopoly of the new technology than because many Allied aircraft were shot down. By concentrating their airpower round Verdun the Germans partially concealed their preparations for the battle, and they enjoyed control of the skies in the first weeks of action. But by May they had lost it, the Allies capturing a Fokker plane as well as devising their own synchronization system and introducing new models with ‘pushing’ propellers that did not need such equipment and yet still outperformed German aircraft. In the opening phases of the Somme, the RFC commander, Hugh Trenchard, shared with Haig a commitment to a ‘relentless and incessant offensive’, and to driving the Germans out of their airspace, even if this meant neglecting the defence of British spotter aircraft and accepting punishing casualties among his crews. Beginning the battle with 426 pilots, the RFC lost 308 killed, wounded, and missing, and a further 268 were sent home, to be replaced by cursorily trained novices whose life expectancy by the autumn was barely one month. By September, however, a new generation of German Albatros D.III fighters was helping to redress the balance once again, and in the ‘bloody week’ of April 1917 the German ‘circuses’ or fighter groups inflicted unprecedented losses on the RFC at Arras and commanded the sky over the Chemin des Dames, virtually halting French photographic reconnaissance and balloon observation. Only in May and June, with the arrival of a further generation of aircraft, including the British S.E.5 and Sopwith Pup and the French Spad, did the Allies regain the edge. In the skies as on the ground, therefore, the initiative passed backwards and forwards, yet ultimately air combat was still marginal. Crushing air superiority helped the British very little on 1 July 1916, and its loss did not prevent much greater success on the first day at Arras, even if at other times (the first phase at Verdun, the last stage on the Somme, the Chemin des Dames) the Germans’ air superiority reinforced their effectiveness on the ground.

Aerial observation and photography contributed, however, to a less glamorous but more significant trend towards greater artillery effectiveness. By 1917 the French and British had more and heavier guns firing larger numbers of more reliable shells, and a greater proportion of high explosive rather than shrapnel. They were also achieving improved accuracy. One manifestation was ‘map shooting’: the ability to hit a map co-ordinate without giving prior warning to the enemy and disclosing one’s own position by registering. This became easier once the BEF had prepared new large-scale maps of the entire British front, and was linked to a second development, which was improved counter-battery fire, the British using new techniques such as flash-spotting and sound-ranging to catch up with the French expertise in detecting enemy guns. These were highly skilled techniques, and it took months or even years for men from civilian life to learn them. The third was the creeping barrage, which was first attempted at Loos and become general in the later stages on the Somme. Infantry followed as closely as possible behind a barrage that advanced as little as twenty yards ahead of them, its purpose being less to destroy than to neutralize the enemy defences by forcing the Germans to take cover until the attackers were almost upon them, denying them the moments after the barrage lifted when they could take up firing positions on the parapet. Its effects were even greater when combined (from Arras onwards) with new ‘106’ fuses that detonated the shells when they hit the soil rather than after burying themselves, thus causing much more damage to barbed wire. In the Allied attacks of 1917–especially later in the year – more of the German artillery was silenced beforehand and the attacking infantry were better protected.

To some extent also, the infantry’s own conduct when attacking had altered. The notorious waves sent walking forward on the first day of the Somme were atypical by this stage in the war. The Germans began in 1915 to experiment with surprise attacks and raids by prototype units for their later stormtroop forces: specially trained and equipped squads moving independently and using flamethrowers, trench mortars, light machine-guns, and grenades. On day one at Verdun pioneer units with wirecutters and explosives cut the French wire, flamethrowers were turned on the strong-points, and although the main assault came in a wave it followed behind a creeping barrage. When Ludendorff took over at OHL he demanded an assault squad in each army, and issued new instructions on assault tactics. On the French side, Pétain used aerial photography as early as May 1915 to assist his gunners before attacking Vimy ridge, and trained his infantry to advance as soon as the barrage lifted. The French amended their tactical doctrine after the 1915 offensives and Verdun, and at the start of the Somme their infantry dashed forward in small groups that gave each other covering fire to distract the defence. Nivelle’s Verdun counter-attacks followed a similar model, and the French created their own special assault formations, the grenadiers d’ élite, in January 1917. These new practices foreshadowed a transformation in doctrine. The French captain André Laffargue’s pamphlet on ‘The Attack in Trench Warfare’, written in the light of his experiences in the Artois offensive of May 1915, has attracted much attention from historians as a pioneering statement of the need for infiltration tactics, though it was neither completely innovative nor the sole source of the doctrinal changes. None the less, it was used as a French army manual and by 1916 had been translated into English and German, influencing both Nivelle and OHL. Even the British, whose commanders appear to have followed their unimaginative tactics on 1 July 1916 because they doubted the New Armies had the skill, experience, or cohesion to behave more independently, reconsidered in the light of the Somme and issued new guidelines early in 1917. In short, Verdun and the Somme were a learning process, although no combination of tactics without massive material superiority was likely to spare attacking forces from slow and difficult progress at high cost.

A final reason for the tactical stalemate was that the defenders too were on a learning curve. Falkenhayn’s insistence on holding the first line was increasingly criticized in OHL’s Operations Section in 1915–16, its officers foreseeing that as Allied artillery improved, the cost of garrisoning it would rise. Both sides suffered at Verdun from concentrating men in the forward trenches, and in the early stages on the Somme the Germans suffered again. As the battle developed they mounted a more dispersed defence, which Fritz von Lossberg, the Second Army’s chief of staff, encouraged by devolving tactical decisions to battalion commanders, recognizing that messages from divisional headquarters took eight to ten hours to reach them. After Hinden-burg and Ludendorff closed down operations at Verdun, fresh troops and guns became available while the Germans challenged Allied air superiority, thus succeeding after September 1916 (assisted by the weather) in bringing the Anglo-French advance virtually to a halt and repulsing offensives with counter-attacks. In response to the greater weight of enemy artillery they evolved a more flexible system of defence, despite the misgivings of many of their own commanders. Ludendorff wished to fight a more economical defensive battle in the west and had a more open mind than Falkenhayn about how to do it. As well as approving in September 1916 the construction of what became the Hindenburg Line he asked his staff to prepare a new text on defensive doctrine, which was issued – not without criticism – in December 1916. Its authors advocated a thin forward line that would lure the attackers into an extended battle zone where they would be fired on from all sides before being repulsed by counter-attacks from fresh troops stationed beyond artillery range in the rear, and in April 1917 the front lines were indeed less densely garrisoned than in July 1916. At Arras the German Sixth Army was surprised with its counter-attack divisions fifteen miles distant when the British attacked at 5.30 on a snowy April morning, their barrage having lifted earlier than the defenders had anticipated. On the Chemin des Dames, in contrast, where the Germans knew exactly what to expect, they held the front line thinly, and the French infantry who got beyond the first defences found themselves ringed by fire from concrete machine-gun posts. If Arras demonstrated how the methods and technology of attack had moved on, the Chemin des Dames underlined that the defence had evolved too, and still retained the overall advantage.

How far can this analysis be extended to other theatres? The Gallipoli peninsula was a tiny battlefront in which the force-to-space ratios were even greater than in Western Europe. As it had no railways both sides were supplied by sea, the British and French from Mudros and the Turks from Constantinople across the Sea of Marmara. The Allies were less well endowed with munitions and supplies of all kinds than on the Western Front, they had minimal air support, and they lost their backing from naval guns when the U-boat threat prompted the Admiralty to withdraw its battleships. None the less they attempted to fight up more precipitous hills than any in France against a determined enemy equipped with modern rifles and machine-guns. Once the Central Powers could transport heavy artillery by rail to Constantinople the Allies had little alternative to disengagement. In general terms high force-to-space ratios and the firepower revolution operated similarly at Gallipoli and in France.

The same applied to the Italian front, where by 1916 1.5 million Italian troops faced perhaps half that number of Austrians. Although the Austro-Italian border was some 375 miles long, its two active sectors – the Isonzo and the Trentino – formed only a small portion of the whole, the Isonzo front being some sixty miles long. Hence the force-to-space ratios were again high. Along most of the border the Alps rose like a wall from the north Italian plain, effectively inhibiting the attackers. Conditions here were far worse even than in France: trenches had to be blasted out of the rock with explosives, or cut into the sides of glaciers. Thousands of soldiers froze to death, were asphyxiated at high altitudes, or were buried by avalanches. In the Isonzo sector a narrow gap existed between the Julian Alps and the limestone plateau known as the Carso, but the river Isonzo itself formed a barrier and the Austrians established fortified positions parallel to it. Stalemate set in almost immediately on the Isonzo and persisted down to 1917, while the 1916 Austrian attack in the Trentino, though gaining more ground (and in more mountainous terrain) than the Italians on the Isonzo, had been contained even before Brusilov’s offensive distracted Conrad. In 1915 the Austrians were relatively more outnumbered than the Germans in France, but they had the benefit of topography – arid and rocky plateaux rising to the east of a fast-flowing watercourse – and they had been improving their railway infrastructure for years. The Italians were less well supplied with heavy guns and munitions than the French and British, and the Austrians outnumbered them in machine-guns. Halting the attacks proved unexpectedly easily. According to a French observer the Italian artillery, dispersed along too wide a front, simply failed to destroy the Austrian guns and trenches and the high command seemed not to know how much preparation was needed. A year later the position was similar: because the Italians’ artillery failed to destroy the Austrian second-line defences and was poor at counter-battery fire, their infantry ran into accurate defensive barrages and counter-attacks. They took more prisoners and gained more territory than in 1915, but were still only crawling forward. Although Cadorna increased the troops and guns at his disposal as the war progressed, his army seems to have learned little from the Western Front, experimenting with the creeping barrage only in spring 1917, and reforming its infantry tactics very slowly. Yet the Austrians themselves were too weak to attack, and the endurance of the ordinary Italian soldier should not be underestimated. Until the Germans arrived in autumn 1917 neither side could break the impasse.

If at Gallipoli and on the Italian front the tactical dynamics of the fighting resembled those in France and Belgium, elsewhere this was less true. The force-to-space ratios in the Middle East and Africa were infinitely lower and the logistical circumstances vastly different. The initial problem might be in locating the enemy, rather than reconnoitring across no man’s land. The Caucasus front, an unknown theatre with extremes of climate and terrain, is difficult to compare with anything in Europe, though the mountain warfare of the Carpathians and the Trentino may offer analogies. On the other hand attacking forces were frustrated by entrenched defenders with rifles and machine-guns at Tanga in November 1914, at Ctesiphon a year later, and when the British relieving force failed to break through the Turkish siege positions round Kut. When Murray attacked Gaza in spring 1917, he launched tank attacks against barbed wire and trench defences, though the Turks left an open flank to the interior, which the British would later exploit. Despite the vastly different operational circumstances outside Europe, Western Front tactical conditions still tended to develop wherever modern weapons and high force-to-space ratios coexisted.

The Eastern and Balkan Fronts fell into a category midway between France, Flanders, the Isonzo, and Gallipoli on the one hand, and Mesopotamia and Africa on the other. Measuring some 1,060 miles at the start of 1915, the Eastern Front was more than twice the length of the Western, though the Russian retreat shortened it to about 620 miles before the Romanian campaign extended it by more than another 250. As the armies fighting there were significantly smaller than in the west, the force-to-space ratios were lower. In the winter of 1915–16 the western Allies were deploying 2,134 men per kilometre of front, but Russia only 1,200. Germany garrisoned with one-and-a-half divisions in the east a sector in which it would have deployed five in France or Belgium, while Austria-Hungary manned its Italian front six times more densely than its Russian one. Machine-gun and artillery densities were also lower in the east and no man’s land was wider. Sometimes livestock grazed between the armies. With less risk of bombardment, trench systems were thinner, with more men bunched in the front line and smaller mobile reserves. Yet the east also had fewer railways, making it slower to move up reinforcements. All these factors made breakthrough easier, and both the Germans at Gorlice-Tarnow and Brusilov at Lutsk achieved it, if in significantly differing circumstances. At Gorlice the Russians had stationed their field artillery in earthwork bastions on low hills, from which they commanded the intervening trenches. The sector was strong by Eastern Front standards, though not by Western ones (its barbed wire was rudimentary). The Germans’ bombardment was the biggest yet seen in the east, but their artillery superiority was less than France and Britain enjoyed in 1915 or on the Somme and their infantry tactics were not innovative. The assault forces moved up during the previous night and trenches had been dug towards the Russian positions, but on the day the troops advanced in thick skirmishing lines (supported by aerial strafing) and took considerable casualties from rifles and machine-guns. They were fortunate that in most of the sector resistance collapsed quickly, the Russians surrendering or being hastily pulled back because their generals feared encirclement. By 1916, in contrast, the Austrians opposite Brusilov had constructed three fortified lines, each of three trenches, with machine-gun nests, deep dug-outs, and extensive wire, though his aerial reconnaissance established they had few reserves. Brusilov’s men achieved surprise by digging trenches up to the enemy lines and unleashing a rapid bombardment, followed by an assault with specially selected and trained units. In other words the defensive positions were more elaborate and the attacking tactics more sophisticated than a year before.68 Along a shorter and more static front than in 1915, conditions here too increasingly approximated to the Western Front norm. The obstacles to mobility increased on other fronts even while the armies in the west fumbled towards solutions to them. Essential though considerations of tactics, technology, and logistics are in explaining the course of the war, however, if treated in isolation they are insufficient. After Brusilov’s triumph the later Russian attacks against the Germans round Kovno, though delivered on a narrow front and with heavier barrages, were unavailing. The Eastern Front still differed from the Western in one major respect. The British, French, and German armies were not equally effective, and the Germans tended consistently to inflict higher casualties than they suffered.69 But all three were comparable until 1917 in their willingness to persist in action even when taking very heavy casualties. In contrast Brusilov overwhelmed prepared positions that neither side would have abandoned so easily in the west, and the Germans broke through at Gorlice with far less firepower and tactical skill than they would have needed in France. Many Austro-Hungarian units were as inferior in cohesion, morale, and equipment to the Russians as the latter tended to be to the Germans. Developments in arms production were fundamental, too, in accounting for the contrasts between the theatres and the general pattern of the fighting. The quality and quantity of military manpower and the successes and failures of the war economies must now be brought into the equation.

The Light-Heavily-Armoured Panzers

Panzerkampfwagen I Ausf C Other designation: Pz Kpfw I nA Type: Light tracked VK601 reconnaissance vehicle. A further development of the Pz Kpfw I to provide a fast reconnaissance vehicle with increased armour protection, for use in airborne operations. Krauss-Maffei received the order to develop the chassis on 15 September 1939, while Daimler-Benz were ordered to design the superstructure and turret. A single prototype was built and extensively tested. The wheel and track arrangements underwent considerable modification. Initially, the trial production series of 40 vehicles were to have been fitted with self-lubricating tracks, but these were dropped in favour of dry pin tracks before the VK601 was issued to combat units in 1943. A more powerful motor, the Maybach HL61, was fitted in the final development vehicle, the VK602.

The Pz Kpfw I Ausf C was a completely different design from the Ausf A & B. The suspension had overlapping road wheels sprung with a torsion bar, which allowed the vehicle to attain the high speed of 65 kilometres per hour. The armour thickness was double that of previous Pz Kpfw I models. The driver’s vision was limited to a visor in the front plate and a second visor immediately to his left. A cupola was fitted with 8 periscopes to allow all-round vision for the commander, whose only other vision was provided by the sighting telescope. The main armament was a large-calibre machine-gun, the EW141, which was coaxially mounted with the MG34.

Two were issued to the 1st Panzer Division early in 1943 and taken to Russia for combat evaluation. The other 38 had been issued to reserve units of LVIII Pz Res Korps (Reserve Tank Corps) at the time of the Normandy invasion in 1944.

Panzerkampfwagen I Ausf F Other designation: Pz Kpfw I nA Verstarkt Type: Heavily armoured VK1801 infantry assault tank (machine-gun armed). Further development of the Pz Kpfw I, with the heaviest possible armour as the main design feature. The initial order of 30, given on 22 December 1939, was filled, but an additional order for 100 was cancelled before production began. The final development vehicle, the VK1802, was built with the VG15319 pre-selector gearbox.

The Ausf F had a ‘Schachtellaufwerk’ (interleaved suspension) with overlapping road wheels and a torsion bar suspension. Its 80mm frontal armour was inpenetrable by most anti-tank guns of the period. The commander had 5 periscopes set in the turret roof for vision to the front and sides, plus a binocular telescope for sighting the machine-guns. Vision for the driver was provided by a sliding shutter visor in the superstructure front, and a periscope mounted in the hull roof, on the driver’s left side.

Eight were issued to the 1st Panzer Division early in 1943 and taken to Russia for combat evaluation in the summer of 1943.

Thomas Hartwig

Panzerkampfwagen II Ausf G Other designation: Pz Kpfw II nA (VK901) Type: Light reconnaissance tank. The VK901 was a further development of the Pz Kpfw II series, the main design objective being an increase in speed. The order was issued on 18 June 1938 for MAN to develop the chassis, and Daimler-Benz to develop the superstructure and turret. The order was for an ‘0-Serie’ of 75, with production to start in October 1940. The prototype of the chassis was completed late in 1939, but the many modifications delayed production, and of the entire order, only twelve were completed.

The VK901 had a completely redesigned suspension, with five pairs of overlapping road wheels, sprung on torsion bars. As in the previous Ausf D, E and F, the hull front was box shaped, but devoid of hatches. The driver and radio operator entered through the superstructure roof hatches, and were provided with vision ports to their front and sides. The turret, mounted centrally, was devoid of vision ports. The commander’s vision was supplied by the periscopes in the cupola, and by the gun sight.

No firm evidence has been found of the VK901 having been issued to units for front-line service. Twenty-seven of the VK901 turrets were released for use in fortified emplacements as stationary pillboxes.

Panzerkampfwagen II Ausf J Other designation: Pz Kpfw II nA Verstarkt (VK1601) Type: Heavily-armoured reconnaissance tank. The VK1601 was a further development of the Pz Kpfw II series, the main objective being the provision of maximum possible armour protection, while retaining the original weight. The development order for an ‘0-Serie’ was issued on 22 December 1939. Development of the chassis was entrusted to MAN, and of the turret, to Daimler-Benz. The prototype was completed in June 1940, and production was to have started in December of that year. Various delays were encountered, however, and only twenty-two VK1601 were completed.

The VK1601 had a Schachtellaufwerk (interleaved suspension) of similar design to that of the VK901, but more strongly built in order to support the additional weight. The hull and superstructure were built as one unit-a departure from the normal German practice up to this time, of a superstructure bolted to the hull. Access for the driver and radio operator was facilitated by circular hatches in the hull sides. The commander’s access was through the turret roof, via a cupola which was equipped with periscopes.

Seven VK1601 were issued to 12th Panzer Division, which saw service on the Eastern Front during 1943. In 1944, a VK1601 was found minus its turret, and with a jib fitted, to create a rudimentary Berge-Panzerwagen (Armoured Recovery Vehicle).

Panzerkampfwagen II neuer Art Ausf H und M Other designations: VK903, VK1301 Type: Light reconnaissance tank. The VK903 was to have been the production version of the earlier VK901 (Pz Kpfw II nA Ausf G), having increased side armour, different transmission and a higher speed. In March 1942, it was decided to replace the SSG 48 gearbox by the transmission of the Pz Kpfw 38(t) nA in production models. The total order was for 200 vehicles, with 120 to be built between April and December 1942. Delays set the projected production start date back to September 1942, but by this time, the project had been cancelled. The VK1301 was intended as a heavier reconnaissance vehicle to be built alongside the VK903. It was to have had the 5-cm KwK39/1, but, fitted with the 2cm KwK38, it was the forerunner of the Ausf L (VK1303). Both vehicles were similar in appearance to the Pz Kpfw II Ausf L (VK1303), differing only in armour thickness.

Panzerkampfwagen II Ausf L (Sd Kfz 123) Other designations: Pz Sp Wg II, VK1303, Luchs Type: Light reconnaissance tank. The Luchs (Lynx) was developed as a fully-tracked armoured reconnaissance vehicle. The development order was issued on 15 April 1939, with production to begin in August 1942. MAN developed the chassis and Daimler-Benz, the superstructure and turret. The first trial vehicle was completed in April 1942. The initial order was for 800 Luchs, the first 100 with the 2cm KwK38 and the remainder with the 5-cm KwK 39/1 L/60 (designated Leopard). However, the 5-cm KwK 39/1 version was never produced, because an order issued in January 1943 decreed that production cease after the first 100 Luchs had been completed.

The VK1303 retained the same suspension and hull design as its predecessor, the VK901. The superstructure was widened, extending over the tracks to allow a larger turret to be mounted. The turret lacked a cupola and vision ports. In their place, two revolving periscopes were fitted to the turret roof to provide vision for the gunner and commander.

Issued to the Panzer-Aufklarungs-Abteilungen (Armoured Reconnaissance Detachments) of the Panzer divisions, it served on the Eastern and Western fronts until the end of the war.

Units to get them lists as follows:

* 2.Panzer-Späh-Kompanie/Pz.Afkl.Abt.9. of 9.Pz.Div. who got a full company allocation of 29 vehicles on May 27 1943, assigned as follows: 1 for Kompanie C.O., and 7 Luchs’ in the 4 platoons (28) operating in the East.

By 26 September this unit had been disbanded and by October 1 all the Luchs’ had returned to Germany for rebuild, due to defective triple steering radius units which had plagued them.

This disbanded Luchs Kompanie was re-raised only a week later and moved back to the west as 1.Kompanie/Pz.Afkl.Abt.9 of 9.Pz.Div. and begun to be issued 25 refurbished and newly assembled Luchs’ piecemeal, between 30.Sept. 1943 and 11 March 1944. They were now organised into 4 platoons of 6 vehicles with 1 for the Kompanie C.O. Though they somehow appear to acquire another one by July 1 1944 as they oddly list combat strength at 26 not 25 on this date just prior to their employment against the Normandy Bridgehead in July/August 1944.

* 2.Kompanie/Pz.Afkl.Abt.4. of 4.Pz.Div. also got full a company strength issue of 29 on February 5 1943 and from other sources appear to operate only in Russia. They received 5 replacements which arrived on March 7 1944, followed by 3 on Sept. 3, 3 on Sept. 10, and 6 on Oct. 7.

* The only other units reported in possession of them are 4.Kavallerie-Brigade who had 5 (with only 1 operational as at December 30 1944).

* Plus “HG” Div. with 1 Luchs.

* 3 were reported as being in the training and replacement units on March 1 1945

There is obviously a fair bit of overlap due to the rebuilt vehicles muddying the numbers so they sadly can’t just be toted up to 100.

Tumbleweed Tank

A storm was brewing. 1936 was a year of four-year plans, rearmament, and hasty statements of neutrality. And if the Tumbleweed Tank is anything to go by, it was also a year for bizarre weapons-invention.

Texan inventor A J Richardson’s goal was to further mechanise the future of warfare after the bloody stalemate of the First World War’s ‘war of attrition’. What if, instead of blindly launching mortar-bombs and men in the direction of the enemy’s trench, one could send heavily armoured, motorised bunkers across No Man’s Land? Then, from inside enemy terrain, the Tumbleweed Tank could lay down suppressive fire as the infantry advanced.

Richardson was told to draw up prototype plans for his idea, and in the July 1936 edition of Popular Mechanics, a cutaway diagram of the tank was published along with an article discussing the future of war machines. Things were looking up. At the outbreak of war, looking increasingly likely, America would be one step ahead of the game.

The diagram clearly indicates how this deadly rolling tank would work: a hollow, spherical, steel driving-cab is enclosed within two rotating outer shells in the form of cup-shaped halves. Motordriven gears rotate the two outer shells, which roll the tank along the ground. The speed of each shell affects the steering of the vehicle, while the heavy driving motor on the cab floor provides stability and prevents the tank from rolling sideways.

The cab could be sealed against poison-gas attacks, and the tank’s spherical shape (so Richardson claimed) would present the smallest possible target for enemy shells; all but direct hits would glance harmlessly off its curved sides.

But there was a problem: the men sealed inside this steel bubble, frenziedly machinegunning everything in all directions, had no idea what was going on outside. Richardson, it seemed, while painstakingly working out the optimum way for his tank to move effectively across the battlefield, had forgotten the men’s need to see where they were going and who they were shooting.

Terrifying for its operators, terrifying for the enemy, and terrifying for nearby friendly troops, the Tumbleweed Tank would have been an unpredictable ball of destruction, firing blindly and without discrimination on friend and foe alike. It is little wonder, then, that Richardson’s idea never got past the design stage.

Egypt 1915 – A Rolls-Royce Triumph

One of the Duke of Westminster’s Rolls-Royce armoured cars at Solium, April 1916

Rolls-Royce Armoured Car 1914

If, for the moment, the Turkish narrow-gauge system seemed secure from British interference, the same could not be said of the standard-gauge, which passed within a few miles of the coast as it rounded the Gulf of Alexandretta (Iskenderun), sending a branch line down into Alexandretta itself. If the main line could be cut this would effectively sever the Palestine Front’s major supply artery and simultaneously compromise the logistics of the Turkish armies serving in Mesopotamia as well. In December 1914 an Allied naval squadron did considerable damage to the branch line and even occupied Alexandretta for a short period. This success led to plans being drafted for the permanent occupation of Alexandretta and the destruction of the main line. Unfortunately, these were shelved, initially because the Dardanelles operation held a higher priority and latterly because, after the traumatic failure at Gallipoli, the risks involved in further landings on the Turkish coast were not politically acceptable. Had the effort been made the entire course of the war in the Middle East could well have been very different, for during the winter of 1914/15 the Turks sustained a disastrous series of reverses in the Caucasus, culminating in a Russian invasion of Asia Minor from the north-east. The fact remains that it was not and this in itself made some kind of initiative by the Turks against the Suez Canal inevitable.

Obviously the scope and duration of the operation could only be limited and what was contemplated amounted to little more than a large-scale raid which would cause damage to installations and possibly block the Canal with sunken ships. Even so, the objectives set were vague and the possibility of Allied warships being integrated into the Canal defence scheme seems to have been largely discounted.

The troops detailed for the operation were Djemal Bey’s VIII Corps, accompanied by a team of German advisers under Colonel Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein. By the middle of January 1915 the corps was ready to leave Beersheba and embark on its crossing of the Sinai, from which the British had withdrawn the previous autumn. The coastal route was avoided, as this would have brought the marching columns within range of naval gunfire. The inland route, though hot and arid in summer, was now quite passable, as heavy winter rains had filled pools and cisterns along the way. Even so, 5,000 water-carrying camels were still required to prevent thirst from becoming an acute problem.

The advance had been expected by the British and its progress was reported by Nieuport seaplanes flying off the Canal. The defenders, therefore, had plenty of time in which to set their house in order. On 3 February the Turks launched a series of uncoordinated attacks along a wide front and were defeated in detail by a storm of fire from Allied warships and British positions on the west bank. The majority of assault boats launched were riddled and sunk; only three managed to cross the Canal and their occupants were all quickly killed or captured. Djemal retired slowly to Beersheba, having sustained 2,000 casualties, approximately 10 per cent of his strength. British casualties amounted to only 163.

Lieutenant-General Sir John Maxwell, the Commander-in-Chief Egypt, was naturally satisfied with the outcome of the engagement but made no attempt to pursue Djemal and remained sensitive regarding the prospect of a further Turkish offensive. His anxieties were aggravated by the incessant demands of the Dardanelles, which had reduced the garrison of Egypt to a dangerously low level, by the wave of anti-British feeling which was sweeping the country, and by the growing belligerence of the Senussi across the frontier in Libya. There was little doubt that the Senussi were preparing to extend their activities beyond the guerrilla war they were waging against the Italians, for along the largely deserted coastline of Italy’s newest colony German U-boats came and went more or less as they pleased, landing small arms, machine guns, mountain artillery, ammunition and Turkish instructors. By the autumn of 1915 the merest spark was required to explode Senussi antipathy into outright hostilities against the British.

That spark was provided, unwittingly if not unwillingly, by Lieutenant-Commander Waldemar Kophamel, the commander of U-35, on 5 November 1915. Kophamel, who was to survive the war as Germany’s sixth highest-scoring submarine ace with 190,000 tons of Allied shipping to his credit, was an officer who somehow managed to preserve his sense of chivalry despite the growing brutalism of total war, and the previous day he had arrived in the little harbour of Bardia brazenly towing two schooners loaded with munitions for the Senussi. Next morning he set off on his return journey to Turkey but five miles out in the Gulf of Solium he sighted the smoke of a twin-funnelled vessel and dived.

The ship was HMS Tara, under the command of Captain R. S. Gwatkin-Williams, RN. In peacetime her owners had been the London and North Western Railway Company and she had operated as SS Hibernia on the run between Holyhead and Dublin. On the outbreak of war she had been requisitioned by the Admiralty, armed with three sixpounder guns, and became an armed boarding vessel. Now, she was engaged on a routine visit to the frontier post of Solium.

Kophamel quickly brought U-35 into an attacking position and fired a single torpedo, which struck Tara amidships. The British ship began settling at once and launched her boats. Kophamel surfaced among these and towed them back into Bardia, taking some of the survivors on to his own deck. Having handed over his prisoners to the senior Turkish officer present, he resumed his journey the following day, sinking one Egyptian gunboat and severely damaging another at Solium, then adding a horse transport to his score on the way home.

The British authorities in Egypt at once sent an envoy to the Senussi to negotiate the release of Tara’s survivors. At first the Grand Senussi, Said Ahmed, denied all knowledge of the affair. Under pressure, he admitted that the prisoners were being held at an undisclosed location, but declined to hand them over as they had been left in his care as hostages by the Turks. He was, in fact, under the influence of two Turkish senior officers by now, Nuri Bey, the brother of Enver Pasha, and Ja’far Pasha, who had received his training from the German Army. These two had arrived with gifts of gold and a flattering letter from the Sultan himself. They pointed out that the Turkish army had not only defeated the Gallipoli landing but was also doing extremely well in Mesopotamia, and that in view of recent events in the Gulf of Solium the claim of the Royal Navy to rule the waves was obviously no longer valid. An invasion of Egypt, they argued, would bring about the collapse of the weakened British, particularly if the large number of Senussi supporters in Egypt rose against them. Said Ahmed was convinced and gave orders for his troops to march.

During the night of 17 November the Solium garrison beat off an attack, and was then brought out by steamer. Sidi Barrani was attacked on the 18th and held, although many of the Egyptian coastguards deserted to the enemy. The remainder marched along the coast to Mersa Matruh spreading alarm and despondency.

In Cairo, Maxwell was seriously alarmed by the invasion and the Egyptian desertions, knowing that the despatch of troops to fight the Senussi would leave very little in reserve with which to mount counter-insurgency operations, should the need arise. Nonetheless, a number of Territorial infantry battalions and Yeomanry cavalry regiments were assembled under Major-General A. Wallace and designated Western Frontier Force. Wallace fought a number of costly holding actions west of Mersa Matruh, and these succeeded in containing the Senussi advance. As the position stabilized, his strength was augmented by South African and New Zealand infantry, as well as troops recently returned from Gallipoli.

Wallace’s command also included the first British armoured unit to serve in the Western Desert, the Emergency Squadron Royal Naval Air Service Armoured Car Division. As its name implies, this was formed hastily in November from Nos 3 and 4 Armoured Car Squadrons, elements of which had taken part in the Gallipoli fighting. It was equipped with Rolls-Royce armoured cars based on the Alpine chassis, with a fourspeed gearbox and a strengthened back axle. The body was sheathed in armour plate, leaving a small carrying platform at the rear, and an Admiralty pattern turret mounting a Vickers-Maxim machine gun was fitted over the main body of the vehicle. Comfort there was none, the driver sitting on a pile of small square mats, his back supported by an adjustable sling. Only the smallest men could operate efficiently in the cramped turret, which one contemporary account refers to as `the cylinder’.

The Emergency Squadron saw little fighting, largely because the winter rains had turned the going into a quagmire, much as they did in the same area after the Second Battle of Alamein, 27 years later. However, by January 1916 the squadron had acquired considerable desert experience and, having been relieved by the Duke of Westminster’s armoured car brigade (formerly No 2 Squadron RNAS Armoured Car Division), was sent up the Nile to Upper Egypt where Senussi bands were threatening the security of the west bank of the river, having occupied the oases of El Kharga, Dakhala, Farafra and Baharia. In due course its cars, and those of its personnel who wished, were transferred to the Army, as was the case with every naval armoured car unit, with the notable exception of one which continued to pursue an adventurous career in Russia.

The Duke of Westminster’s unit, having seen active service in Flanders, had already made the change and consisted of three batteries of four Rolls-Royce armoured cars and a small headquarters, supported by an echelon of Model T Ford tenders. Its morale was high, the Duke having selected his officers and men with care, the majority, including Second-Lieutenant Griggs, his own jockey, coming from cavalry and yeomanry regiments, with a leavening of professional motor drivers and mechanics.

In January, air reconnaissance revealed that the Senussi were occupying an entrenched camp at Halazin, 22 miles south of Mersa Matruh, and Wallace decided to eject them. A move by the cavalry to isolate the camp was foiled by a counter-attack led by Ja’far, but the Senussi fled when their trenches were stormed by the infantry. The battle was fought in atrocious conditions, the wounded having to be carried by hand across several miles of sodden ground, while the troops were compelled to spend the night without blankets or shelter of any kind, exposed to the wind and rain.

Wallace’s health had begun to deteriorate, and on 10 January he was relieved by Major-General W. E. Peyton. The Western Frontier Force was now in a much stronger position and Maxwell ordered it to take the offensive and recapture Solium, allocating 2,000 transport camels for its support. A forward base was established at Unjaila and when aircraft reported that the main Senussi camp was located at a place called Agagya some way to the south-east of Sidi Barrani Peyton led out a column to deal with it, consisting of two battalions from Brigadier-General Lukin’s South African infantry brigade, the Dorset Yeomanry, one squadron of the Buckinghamshire Yeomanry, a Royal Horse Artillery battery and four of the Duke’s armoured cars.

By the evening of the 24th the column was within eight miles of Agagya. Peyton decided to rest his men throughout the following day and attack on the 26th. The Senussi, 1,500 strong and supported by artillery and machine guns, were holding a ridge five miles north of their camp and brought the infantry under fire as soon as they were within range. Ja’far again attempted a counter-attack but this was defeated by a reserve which Peyton had retained for the purpose. The South Africans then fought their way forward on to the ridge and through the enemy position. After several hours of hard fighting the Senussi began to pull out, watched closely by Lieutenant-Colonel Souter, commanding the Dorset Yeomanry, from the British right flank. Once he was certain that the enemy were clear of their trenches he set his regiment in motion. At once machine-gun fire from the rearguard began to cut swathes through the ranks of his troopers, but the gap closed steadily and the lines of galloping horsemen swept into the mass of the enemy, cutting down 300 of them and pursuing the rest across the desert. At the critical moment Souter’s horse was shot dead beneath him and he almost landed on top of Ja’far, who was promptly taken prisoner. Ja’far, himself wounded, acknowledged that the yeomanry’s charge had been devastating, but commented that it had been made contrary to the normal usages of war. The Dorsets’ casualties amounted to 58 out of 184 men taking part, but the loss of 85 horses effectively reduced the regiment’s strength by half. For the armoured cars, Agagya had been a disappointing battle, their part being confined to providing machine gun support from ground mountings when they became bogged in soft sand.

Sidi Barrani was occupied on 28 February and on 9 March Peyton resumed his advance on Solium. Lukin’s brigade and the cavalry were to advance along the coast to Buq Buq and then swing inland to climb the coastal escarpment near Augarin Wells. The Duke’s armoured cars would head south from Sidi Barrani and climb the escarpment by way of a pass which, it was thought, might just be passable for motor vehicles, although the last wheels to make the journey had probably been Roman. It was a struggle, but all the cars made it, some having to be man-handled over the difficult stretches as they flogged their way upwards with boiling radiators.

Next day they picked their difficult passage along the edge of the escarpment, trying to keep in visual touch with the troops on the coastal plain below. After they had covered 14 miles the Duke ordered a halt and opened heliograph communication with Lukin. The news conveyed by the distant winking light was far from good.


The cars continued on their way and some miles further on the first South Africans came scrambling up the escarpment, desperate for water, many with their tongues hanging out; one, a former bank manager, willingly offered £50 for a drink. There was little that the crews could do for them. Their spare water tanks had already been drained by the greedy radiators, and apart from what little remained in the men’s water bottles, the only other sources lay within the radiators themselves or the machine guns’ cooling jackets, and to touch either of these had been declared a court martial offence.

Early next morning the cars discovered a source of water which enabled the advance to continue. On 14 March Peyton’s force reached Halfaya Pass, and from there marched the remaining three miles to Solium, which the enemy had abandoned. Once again the Union Flag was hoisted over the little white fort, but Peyton was not satisfied with having evened the score; he wished if possible to complete the destruction of the Senussi field army and when aircraft reported a large enemy camp at Bir Wair he instructed the Duke to take his armoured cars and act with such aggression as the situation demanded.

Bir Wair technically lay in Italian territory, but since the Italians themselves were unwilling or unable to do anything about the Senussi, little embarrassment was felt, especially since Italy had become the United Kingdom’s ally the previous year. Across the frontier the going was found to be excellent and the cars were able to maintain a high average speed. At Bir Wair the Senussi camp fires were still burning but the enemy had pulled off to the west and the armoured cars caught up with them at a well called Bir Azeiz.

The Senussi had established themselves in a rocky position fronted by some rough going and opened up on the cars with mountain artillery and machine guns. The cars fanned out and went straight for them, machine guns chattering. Inside, conditions quickly began to deteriorate as the heat of the racing engines added to that of the sun, while choking fumes from the machine gun turned the atmosphere blue. The noise level within the vehicles was almost intolerable, being a compound of their own machine gun fire, rounds striking the armour plate, the roar of the engine and the shouts of commanders as they ordered the drivers to change direction. One driver at least suffered the added torment of hot cartridge cases falling on to his bare neck and into his shirt, where they burned his back. The cars concentrated their fire on the enemy gunners, whose own rounds were badly ranged and exploded beyond their moving targets. When the gun crews, mostly Turks, began going down around their weapons the whole Senussi army suddenly broke and ran. Hundreds were killed or wounded during the ensuing pursuit; among the fugitives was Nuri Bey, who narrowly escaped capture.

The Duke’s men spent the night near the battlefield and returned to Solium the following morning with their prisoners and booty-three 4-inch guns, nine machine-guns, an assortment of small arms and 250,000 rounds of ammunition. Their own casualties amounted to one or two very slightly wounded, almost certainly as a result of bulletsplash penetrating the visors and interior flaking of the armour under impact, and some vehicle tyres punctured. The engagement at Bir Wair, though small in scale, marked a major turning point in the history of desert warfare, for a mere 34 men, protected by armour plate and possessing the superior mobility conferred by the internal combustion engine, had routed an entire army. In recognition of the fact, Peyton had the unit paraded in front of the fort and thanked it personally for its invaluable services.

Meanwhile, there was still no news of Tara’s survivors. No one knew whether they were alive or dead and none of the prisoners could give any information. Quite possibly they would never have been heard of again had not a letter written by Captain Gwatkin-Williams, the ship’s commander, been discovered in a house in Solium. The letter had been addressed to the commander of the British garrison, but it had been delivered during the period of Senussi occupation; it gave the prisoners’ location as El Hakkim Abbyat, or Bir Hacheim.

In Arabic Bir means well, or more specifically an underground cistern. The desert is dotted with Birs, but at that period no maps existed of the interior and none of the inhabitants of Solium had any idea where Bir Hacheim might be located. The prisoners taken at Bir Azeiz were questioned and at length an elderly man named Ali confessed that in his youth he had tended stock there. Bir Hacheim, he said, was five days’ journey by camel from Solium, and he would be prepared to act as guide.

The Duke of Westminster at once volunteered his armoured cars to lead a rescue attempt. A column was quickly assembled, including Ford tenders and motor ambulances, a total of 45 vehicles including the armoured cars. It left Solium at 01:00 on 17 March and proceeded through the darkness along the track leading through Bir Wair to Tobruk. Leaving two of their number to act as rearguard to the column, the armoured cars led the advance, with the tenders, loaded with spare petrol, water and provisions, following behind. A short halt was made at first light for breakfast and then the march resumed.

After 50 miles had been covered Ali spotted a camel caravan moving along a parallel course to the south. A diversion was made and the caravan intercepted by the armoured cars. It was found to be carrying supplies for the Senussi and these were confiscated, the drivers captured and the camels shot. This took more time than had been bargained for and it was almost noon when the column started off again. The route took them ever westward with no further instructions from Ali save to continue in the same direction. The interpreter pointed out testily to the old man that motor vehicles were unlike camels and had to be fed regularly, but Ali steadfastly maintained that this was the way to Bir Hacheim.

After about 100 miles had been covered Ali indicated that the column should swing left and head south over the desert. This generated serious doubt as to whether the guide knew his business. Halts were made frequently to verify the position. By. 15:00 the vehicles had travelled over 120 miles since leaving Solium and the Duke, who had by now completely lost faith in Ali, decided that they had gone far enough. The fuel state indicated that the point of no return had been reached and to venture further would simply result in the temporary immobilization of the Western Frontier Force’s armoured element, and most of its motor transport as well. Suddenly the guide shouted that he could see Bir Hacheim. Through his binoculars the Duke observed two small hummocks on the horizon and Ali assured him that the wells lay beneath.

The cars spread out and charged the mounds. Armed men could be seen scurrying about and running off into the desert, evidently taking their families with them. Soon other, horribly emaciated, figures tottered into view, waving and cheering in cracked voices.

`The scene when we got there was one I shall never forget,’ wrote an officer serving with the brigade’s supply tenders. `Numbers of prisoners were crying without any effort to hide their tears while a number of our men found great difficulty in not following suit; I personally had a very big lump in my throat if nothing more! The majority were so weak from dysentery and starvation that they could only just stand, and most were half naked and ravenous.’

Gwatkin-Williams was in slightly better shape than the rest of his crew, although he had escaped once and been recaptured. He had lost six stone in weight and four of his men had died as a result of their privations; for another, the rescue had come just too late. The Senussi had not been deliberately cruel and had, in fact, lived on the same rations as their prisoners, but food was in terribly short supply and the latter had been forced to eke out their meagre diet with desert snails and roots.

 Seized by blind rage, the armoured car crews roared off in pursuit of the guards. Gwatkin-Williams’ pleas for mercy were ignored and neither age nor sex was spared. The only survivors of the massacre were two babies who were brought back with the column. It was a stain on an otherwise perfect operation, deeply and sincerely regretted when calmer thoughts had returned.

The column set off on its return journey to Solium as soon as the released captives had been clothed and fed, reaching Bir Wair, now held by a unit of the Australian Camel Corps, at 23:00. The drivers were exhausted and most collapsed over their wheels the minute they arrived. The Duke had gone ahead to make arrangements for the survivors, who were placed aboard a hospital ship for passage to Alexandria as soon as they reached Solium. The armoured cars remained at Bir Wair for two days until a sand storm blew itself out, but drove up to the fort to the cheers of the infantry and a salute fired by the artillery. Once again, General Peyton congratulated the unit on its remarkable achievement.

Panzer Production Costs

As a stopgap measure pending the Panthers’ design, production, and delivery, Guderian’s commission had recommended upgrading the army’s assault guns. About 120 of the Model IIIF with a 75mm L/43 had entered service in 1942, prefiguring the assault gun’s development from an infantry support vehicle into a tank destroyer. As a rule of thumb, the longer a gun, the less effective its high-explosive round. From the infantry’s perspective, however, the tradeoff was acceptable, and the Sturmgeschütz IIIG was even more welcome because of its 75mm L/48 main armament. The effective range of this adapted Pak 43 was more than 7,000 feet. It could penetrate almost 100mm of 30-degree sloped armor at half that distance. The IIIG took the original assault gun design to the peak of its development by retaining the low silhouette and improving frontal armor to 80mm by bolting on extra plates, all within a weight of less than 25 tons. The family was completed, ideally at least, with the addition of a 105mm howitzer version in one of the battalion’s three ten-gun batteries to sustain the infantry support role.

The one-time redheaded stepchild of the armored force now had a place at the head table. There had been 19 independent assault gun battalions in May 1941. In 1943 that number would double. Constantly shifted among infantry commands, their loyalty was to no larger formation. Continuously in action, they developed a wealth of specialized battle experience that led infantry officers to follow the assault gunners’ lead when it came to destroying tanks and mounting counterattacks. Assault guns cost less than tanks. Lacking complex revolving turrets, they were easier to manufacture, and correspondingly attractive in an armaments industry whose workforce skill and will were declining with the addition of more and more foreign and forced labor and the repeated comb-outs of Germans destined for the Wehrmacht.

Meanwhile, tank production was in the doldrums. The Panzer III was so clearly obsolete as a battle tank that its assembly lines had been converted to providing chassis for assault guns. By October 1942, production of the Panzer IV was down to 100 a month. The General Staff recommended a leap in the dark: canceling Panzer IVs and concentrating exclusively on Panthers and Tigers. Previous outsiders like Porsche, and a new generation of subcontractors turning out assault guns, were jostling and challenging established firms. But the German automotive industry, managers and engineers alike, had from its inception been labor-intensive and conservative in its approaches to production. As late as 1925 the US Ford Motor Company needed the equivalent of five and three-quarters days’ labor by a single worker to produce a car. Daimler needed 1,750 worker days to construct one of its top-line models. When it came to design, focus was on the top end of the market and emphasis was on customizing as far as possible by multiplying variants. It was a far cry from Henry Ford’s philosophy that customers could have any color they wanted as long as it was black.

For their part, the civilian tank designers were disproportionately intrigued by the technical challenges Panthers and Tigers offered. They took apparent delight in solving engineering problems in ways that in turn stretched unit mechanics to limits often developed originally in village blacksmith shops.

One might suggest that by 1942 a negative synergy was developing between an armored force and an automobile industry, each in its own way dedicated to an elite ethos and incorporating an elite self image. The designers were correspondingly susceptible to the dabblings of Adolf Hitler. Previously, his direct involvement in the issue had been limited, his demands negotiable, his recommendations and suggestions reasonable. The Hornet, for example, combined the Hummel’s armored open-topped superstructure with the 88mm L/71 gun Hitler had wanted for the Tiger. The vehicle’s bulky chassis made it too much of a target to render feasible stalking tanks in the fashion of the Marder and the assault guns. But its long-range, high-velocity gun was welcome to the half dozen independent heavy antitank battalions that absorbed most of the 500 Hornets first introduced in 1943.

The Ferdinand, later called the Elephant, was a waste-not/want-not response to the Porsche drives and hulls prepared in anticipation of the Tiger contract that went to Henschel. Hitler saw them as ideal mounts for a heavily armored tank destroyer mounting the same 88mm gun as the Hornet. Ninety were rushed into production in spring 1943 and organized into an independent panzer regiment. Without rotating turrets, at best they were Tigers manqué, with all the teething troubles and maintenance problems accompanying the type and no significant advantages. At 65 tons, any differences in height were immaterial. And the omission of close-defense machine guns as unnecessary would too often prove fatal for vehicles whose sheer size made them targets for every antitank weapon in the Red Army’s substantial inventory when they were sent into action at Kursk.

The Hornet and the Elephant were mere preliminaries. Since adolescence the Führer had liked his architecture grandiose, his music molto pomposo, and his cars high-powered. In June 1942, he authorized Ferdinand Porsche to develop a super-heavy tank: the Maus (“Mouse”—and yes, the name was ironic). The vehicle carried almost ten inches of frontal armor, mounted a six-inch gun whose rounds weighed more than 150 pounds each, and weighed 188 tons. Its road speed was given as 12.5 miles per hour—presumably downhill with a tail wind. It took more than a year to complete two prototypes. To apply a famous line from the classic board game PanzerBlitz, “The only natural enemies of the Maus were small mammals that ate the eggs.”

The complete worthlessness of the Maus as a fighting vehicle in the context of World War II needs no elaboration. Neither does the total waste of material resources and engineering skill devoted to the project. The Maus was nevertheless a signifier for Germany’s panzer force during the rest of the war. Apart from its direct support by Hitler, the Maus opened the door to a comprehensive emphasis on technical virtuosity for its own sake, in near-abstraction from field requirements. The resulting increases in size at the expense of mobility and reliability were secondary consequences, reflecting the contemporary state of automotive, armor, and gun design. After 1943, German technicians turned from engineering to alchemy, searching for a philosopher’s stone that would bring a technical solution to the armored force’s operational problems. Hubris, idealism—or another example of the mixture of both that characterized so many aspects of the Third Reich’s final years?

The Maus thread, however, takes the story a few months ahead of itself. Its antecedent combination of institutional infighting, production imbroglios, and declining combat power led an increasing number of Hitler’s military entourage to urge the appointment of a plenipotentiary troubleshooter—specifically Heinz Guderian. Guderian describes meeting privately on February 20, 1943, with a chastened Führer who regretted their “numerous misunderstandings.” Guderian set his terms. Hitler temporized. He was given the appointment of Inspector-General of Panzer Troops, reporting directly to Hitler; with inspection rights over armored units in the Luftwaffe and the Waffen SS, and control of organization, doctrine, training, and replacement. That was a lot of power in the hands of one officer.

There was also a back story. Guderian had spent most of 1942 restoring his stress-shaken health, which centered on heart problems, and looking for an estate suitable to his status, to be purchased with the cash grant of a million and a quarter marks Hitler awarded him in the spring of 1942. Norman Goda establishes in scathing detail that once Guderian became a landed gentleman on an estate stolen from its Polish owners, his reservations about Hitler as supreme warlord significantly diminished. Cash payments, often many times a salary and pension, were made to a broad spectrum of officers and civilians in the Third Reich—birthdays were a typical justification. Since August 1940, Guderian had been receiving, tax-free, 2,000 Reichsmarks a month—as much as his regular salary. Similar lavish gifts were so widely made to senior officers that Gerhard Weinberg cites simple bribery as a possible factor in sustaining the army’s cohesion in the war’s final stages.

The image of an evil regime’s uniformed servants proclaiming their “soldierly honor” while simultaneously being bought and paid for is so compelling that attempting its nuancing invites charges of revisionism. Nevertheless there were contexts. A kept woman is not compensated in the same fashion as a streetwalker. Dotation, douceur, “golden parachute,” hush money, conscience money, or bribe—direct financial rec ognitions of services rendered the Reich were too common to be exactly a state secret. Guderian and his military colleagues were more than sufficiently egoistic to rationalize the cash as earned income, as recognition of achievement and sacrifice in the way that milk and apples are necessary to the health of the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

The appointment Hitler signed on February 28, 1943, ostensibly gave Guderian what he requested. But lest any doubt might remain as to who was in charge, only the heavy assault guns, still in development stages, came under Guderian’s command. The rest, whose importance was increasing by the week, remained with the artillery. It was a relatively small thing. But Guderian’s complaint that “somebody” played a “trick” on him belies his own shrewd intelligence and low cunning. The desirability of trust between the head of state and the general in such a central position was overshadowed in Hitler’s mind by Lenin’s question: “Kto, kogo?” (Who, whom?): the question of who was to be master. Guderian had spent a year in the wilderness. Now he was back on top. Omitting the assault guns was a reminder that what had been given could be withdrawn at a chieftain’s whim. It might well make even a principled man think twice before deciding and thrice before speaking. And Hitler’s army was increasingly commanded by pragmatists.

From the Führer’s perspective, Guderian’s appointment was one of the heaviest blows he had struck against the High Command. The ground forces’ key element, the panzers, were now under his personal authority—at one remove, to be sure, but Guderian was the kind of person whose ego and energy would focus him on the job at hand, and whose temperament was certain to lead to the same kinds of personal and jurisdictional clashes that had characterized his early career. Hitler would have all the opportunities he needed either to muddy the waters or to resolve controversies, as circumstances indicated.

Albert Speer’s appointment as Minister of Armaments in February 1942 brought no immediate, revolutionary change to Germany’s war industry. But Speer had Hitler’s confidence, as much as anyone could ever possess it. He was an optimist at a time when that was a declining quality at high Reich levels. He concentrated on short-term fixes: rationalizing administration, improving use of material, addressing immediate crises. And he faced a major one in tank production.

In September 1942 Hitler called for the manufacture of 800 tanks, 600 assault guns, and 600 self-propelled guns a month by the spring of 1944. In April 1944 the army’s panzer divisions had fewer than 1,700 of their total authorized strength of 4,600 main battle tanks: Panthers and Panzer IVs. That gap could not be bridged by admonitions to take better care of equipment and report losses more accurately. The long obsolete Panzer II was upgraded into a state-of-the-art tracked reconnaissance vehicle. But a glamorous renaming as Luchs, or Lynx, could not camouflage an operational value so limited that production was canceled after the first hundred. Other resources were also diverted to the development of a family of tracked and half-tracked logistics vehicles and increased numbers of armored recovery vehicles, both in their own ways necessary under Russian conditions. The growing effectiveness of the Soviet air force led to the conversion or rebuilding of an increasing number of chassis into antiaircraft tanks with small- caliber armaments. The continued manufacture of early designs—again necessary to maintain even limited frontline strength—further impeded production. Between May and December 1942, tank production actually declined despite constant encouragement and repeated threats from the Reich’s highest quarters.

One positive result of the slowdown was the ability to address the Panther’s shortcomings. The original Model D received improved track and wheel systems. Das Reich received a battalion of them in August, 23rd Panzer Division in October, and 16th Panzer in December. All played crucial roles in Army Group South’s fight for survival. The D’s successor, the Model A, had a new turret with quicker rotation time and a commander’s cupola. Both were important in the target-rich but high-risk environment of the Eastern Front. Engine reliability remained a problem, in part because of quality control difficulties in the homeland, and in part defined by the tank’s low power-to-weight ratio. Improvements to the transmission and gear systems nevertheless reduced the number of engine breakdowns. Modifications to the cooling system cut back on the number of engine fires.

Soft ground, deep mud, and heavy snow continued to put a premium on driving skill. One Panther battalion reported having to blow up 28 tanks it was unable to evacuate. Fifty-six more were in various stages of repair. Eleven remained operational. But during the same period Leibstandarte’s Panther battalion reported only seven combat losses—all from hits to the sides and rear. Of the 54 mechanical breakdowns, almost half could be ready within a week. On the whole the improved Panther was regarded as excellent: consistently able to hit, survive hits, and bring its crews back.

Toward the end of 1943 the High Command began rotating battalions officially equipped with Panzer IIIs—the old workhorse was still pulling its load—back to Germany for retraining on Panther Model As. The reorganized battalions were impressive on paper: 4 companies each of 22 or 17 tanks, plus 8 more in battalion headquarters. First Panzer Division welcomed its new vehicles in November. Others followed, army and SS, the order depending on which division could best spare a battalion cadre. By the end of January 1944 about 900 Panther As had reached the Russian front, in complete battalions or as individual replacements.

As good as they were, the Panthers were a drop in the bucket compared to the mass of Soviet armor facing them. As compensation the High Command began considering a Panther II. Beginning as an up-armored Model D, during 1943 the concept metamorphosed—or better said, metastasized—into a lighter version of the Tiger. Weighing in at over 50 tons, it was originally scheduled to enter service in September 1943, but was put on permanent hold in favor of its less impressive, more reliable forebear.

The same might have been better applied to another armored mammoth. The Panzer VIB, the “King Tiger” or “Royal Tiger,” could trace its conceptual roots all the way to the spring of 1941. Prototypes emerged in 1943; the first production models appeared in January 1944. The VIB was best distinguished by a redesigned turret with a rounded front and a cupola for the commander. Its second characteristic feature was an 88mm L/71 gun (that translates as 19 feet long!) that could take out any allied tank at extreme ranges. Its frontal armor, more than seven inches in places, was never confirmed as having been penetrated by any tank or antitank gun. Its Maybach 700 horsepower engine gave it a reasonable road speed of 24 miles per hour. But if the King was dipped in the River Styx for strength, it was also left with an Achilles heel. Its weight was immobilizing. Only major road bridges could support it. The tonnage increased fuel consumption when fuel supplies were a growing problem, and also overstrained the drive system to a point where breakdowns were the norm.

The point was initially moot, since only five VIBs were in service by March 1944. But the situation was replicated in other end-of-the-war designs. The Jagdtiger was a tank destroyer version of the VIB carrying a 128mm gun—not only the heaviest weapon mounted on a German AFV, but an excellent design in its own right. At over 70 tons, however, and with only 20 degrees traverse for its main armament, the vehicle was only dangerous to anything unfortunate enough to pass directly in front of it.

The Panther’s tank destroyer spin-off was far more promising. Indeed the Jagdpanther is widely and legitimately considered the best vehicle of its kind during World War II. An 88mm L/71 gun, well-sloped armor, and solid cross-country capacity on a 45-ton chassis made the Jagdpanther a dominant chess piece wherever it appeared. Predictably, preproduction difficulties and declining production capacity kept its numbers limited.

For all the print devoted to the Panthers, the Tigers, and their variants, the backbone of the armored force through 1945 remained the Panzer IV. Its final versions had little enough in common with the “cigar butts” of 1940. The Model H officially became the main production version in March 1942. Its armor protection included side panels and grew to a maximum of 3.2 inches in front, at the price of increased weight (25 tons) that cut the road speed to a bit over 20 miles per hour. A later J version incorporated such minor modifications as wider tracks and wire-mesh side skirts just as effective as armor plate in deflecting infantry-fired antitank rockets.

Guderian in particular considered the new version of a well-tried system a practical response to the chronic frontline shortfalls in tank strength in the East. The Panzer IV was relatively easy to maintain -and relatively easy to evacuate when damaged. Over 3,000 of them would be produced in 1943, and standard equipment of the army panzer divisions was set at a battalion each of Panthers and Panzer IVs.

Guderian’s opposition to the assault gun had eroded with experience. Not only was its frontline utility indisputable, it could be manufactured faster and in larger numbers by less experienced enterprises than the more complex turreted tanks. Guderian correspondingly advocated restoring the panzer regiments’ third battalions and giving them assault guns as a working compromise.

The vehicles he intended were significantly different from the original assault guns and their underlying concept. The mission of supporting infantry attacks had become secondary at best. What was now vital was holding off Soviet armor. The self-propelled Marders, with their light armor and open tops, were well into the zone of dangerous obsolescence. In 1943 the Weapons Office ordered the development of a smaller vehicle mounting a scaled-down 75mm gun on the chassis of the old reliable 38(t). The 16-ton Hetzer (Baiter) was useful and economical, and continues to delight armor buffs and modelers. It was, however, intended for the infantry’s antitank battalions, and did not appear in combat until 1944—one more example of diffused effort that characterized the Reich’s war effort.

On the other hand, the Sturmgeschütz IIIG, with its 75mm L/48 gun, seemed highly suited to tank destruction and was readily available—until Allied bombing intervened. The factory manufacturing the bulk of IIIGs was heavily damaged in late 1943. To compensate, Hitler ordered the available hulls to be fitted to Panzer IV chassis. The result proved practical enough to encourage the production of over 1700 Jagdpanzer IVs by November 1944, despite Guderian’s protest at the corresponding fallout of turreted tanks. The new name of “tank destroyer” suited the vehicles’ new purpose, though their predecessors continued in service under the original title, creating confusion during and after the war that remains exacerbated by the vehicles’ close resemblance.

The Jagdpanzer IVs were intended for the panzer divisions and the assault gun battalions, whose number grew to over three dozen during 1943. A slightly heavier version with a 75mm L/70 gun like the Panther’s and the unflattering nickname of “Guderian’s Duck” began entering service in August 1944. It proved first-rate against armor in Russia and the West; almost a thousand were produced during the war. The “Duck’s” long gun made it uncomfortably nose-heavy (the source of its sobriquet), but by then that was among the least of the panzers’ problems.

Apart from a few emergency variations churned out in the war’s final months, the technical lineup of Hitler’s panzers was complete. 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.


The KV-2 looked more formidable than it actually was. It was excessively heavy, and coupled with a 500-horsepower diesel engine it was slow and not very maneuverable. The massive turret weighed twelve tons, rotated slowly, and would not traverse if the ground was not reasonably flat. Hull armor was very heavy for the period at 75mm for the hull and turret sides and 110mm for the turret front.

Production of the KV-2 was dropped by late 1941, although, to the Germans’ horror, such a giant could be hit over 11 times with no apparent effect whatsoever.

Combat experience gained during the Russo-Finnish War had shown that the existing Red Army tanks lacked the firepower necessary to destroy the heavily reinforced Finnish army bunkers being encountered. At the prodding of a senior general of the Red Army commanding troops in Finland, a new heavy breakthrough tank was conceived. In the span of two weeks a plan was hatched to mount a newly-designed turret mounting an M-10 152mm howitzer on an unmodified KV-1 series chassis. A prototype of this stop-gap vehicle was ready for testing in January 1940.

The initial prototype and a small number of very early series production units of this new heavy breakthrough tank were referred to as the KV-2 Model 1939. They featured a fairly complex angled turret design. The follow-on production units had a simpler and quicker to build turret design and were designated the KV-2 Model 1940. Production of the KV-2 series, nicknamed the `Dreadnought’ by its crews, began in November 1940 and continued until October 1941 with 334 units completed. Besides its main gun, the KV-2 was armed with three 7.62mm machine guns with the KV-2 Model 1940. Maximum armour thickness on the front of the KV-2 turret was 110mm.

Compared to the typical KV-1 series tank that weighed in at roughly 94,000lb (43mt), the six-man KV-2 might weigh as much as 114,000lb (52mt). The added 20,000lb (9.1mt) overloaded a chassis that was already plagued by automotive design issues. This made the KV-2’s on-and off-road mobility inferior to the KV-1 series. The large, heavy and unbalanced turret on the KV-2 also caused problems in traversing it on anything other than level surfaces.

Some KV-2s were based in the western military districts of the Soviet Union that took the initial invasion blows of the German army. On those occasions where the KV-2 series was encountered by advancing German army units in the summer of 1941, the vehicle’s thick armour provided it with immunity to almost every weapon in the German arsenal except the 88mm FlaK gun. Fortunately for the German army, the KV-2s were few and far between, with most being lost to mechanical failure or lack of fuel. A small number of KV-2s would survive long enough to see service during the fighting for Stalingrad, which lasted from August 1942 until February 1943.


PzKpfw III SK 1 (1943)

Trials and demonstrations took place in the grounds at Arys in October 1943, with two or three PzKpfw III Ausf L/N of the final series, armed with the 7.5cm KwK L/24. The machine was given the designation of ‘SK 1’ meaning ‘Schienenkampfwagen 1’ (Rail Tank No 1). The transmission, motor and cooling system were identical to those of the original tank, the last three torsion bars of the suspension needed modifying. With the added parts under the tank the ground clearance decreased from 48cm (1ft 7in) to 34.2cm (1ft 1½in). The drive on the rails was transmitted via the forward axle, the other being free-rotating. No matter how well the system performed, and the speed and haulage capacities were impressive, by 1943 the PzKpfw III was completely outclassed as a fighting vehicle.

SK 1 Technical specifications:

Length (buffers folded): 5.62m (18ft 51/4in)

Length (buffers extended): 6.00m (19ft 61/4in)

Width: 2.94m (9ft 73/4in)

Height (on road): 2.435m (8ft)

Height (on rails): 2.825m (9ft 31/4in)

Weight: 25 tonnes Motor type: 12-cylinder Maybach HL 120 TRM

Horsepower: 320hp at 3000rpm

Transmission: Fichtel & Sachs six-speed gearbox

Speed on rails (maximum): 100km/h (62mph)

Speed on rails (normal): 60km/h (37mph)

Wheelbase on rails: 2.94m (9ft 73/4in)

Gauge (European standard): 1435mm (4ft 81/2in)

Gauge (Russian): 1524mm (5ft)

Fuel capacity: 350 litres (921/2 Imperial gallons)