Sunday, July 26, 2015

German Armour Development WWII Part 1

On 1 September, 1939, the total number of German tanks amounted to 3195, but of this 1445 were the light, machine gun armed Pz.Kpfw.I and only 211 were Pz.Kpfw.IV. However, in their opening campaign against Poland they did not meet any serious tank opposition. On the eve of the 1940 offensive against France there were still only 280 Pz.Kpfw.IV out of a total of 3379, although this now included 710 tanks armed with 37mm guns, among which were ex-Czech Pz.Kpfw.35t and 38t as well as Pz.Kpfw.III. Most German tanks were not therefore very powerfully armed. The striking successes achieved in 1940 in France by the German armoured forces were consequently due to the way the tanks were employed rather than to their characteristics. Thus, all 2574 tanks that were actually deployed were concentrated in the ten Panzer divisions which the German Army had at the time and nine of these were concentrated on a narrow front.

The Panzer divisions were even more successful in relation to the opposing forces in 1941 when seventeen of them, with a total of about 3350 tanks, spearheaded the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The total number of Soviet tanks at the time has been generally estimated at about 24000, which was not only four times as many as the total number of German tanks but more than the number of tanks in the whole of the world outside the Soviet Union. Seventy five per cent of this total consisted of T-26 and BT tanks, both of which the Soviet Army regarded as light tanks. However, they were far better armed than other contemporary light tanks, including those which represented 37 per cent of the German tanks, and the BT was generally comparable to other 'light-medium' tanks. The large number of Soviet tanks was somewhat less formidable than it might appear because many of them were in a poor state, which has been reflected in claims that 73 per cent of the older types were in need of overhaul. Moreover, Soviet tank forces were in considerable disarray as a result of two reversals of policy. The first was a 1939 decision to abolish the tank corps, which until then contained a significant number of Soviet tanks, and to use tanks by brigades for infantry support. The second was a decision taken in July 1940, following the striking success of the German Panzer divisions in France, to reform mechanised corps on a large scale. But this decision was only partly implemented by the time the German forces attacked in June 1941. In addition, the Soviet tank forces were badly employed and as a result of it all they were almost annihilated, losing, according to German records, 17500 tanks.

The German Tiger heavy tank which had appeared by the end of 1942.

The Tiger was, in turn, one of the German responses to the appearance of new Soviet tanks in 1941 and in particular of the T-34. At the time the German Army had no heavy tanks, except for a few experimental vehicles. However, once the new Russian tanks were encountered the German High Command realised the need for tanks more powerful than the existing Pz.Kpfw.IV. In consequence two new tanks were hurriedly developed. One was the 56 ton Tiger, whose design incorporated some features of one of the earlier experimental tanks but which was armed with a tank version of the 88mm anti-aircraft gun that had already proved highly effective as an anti-tank weapon. The other was a new medium tank which became the Panther, a 43 ton vehicle armed with a 70 calibre long, high velocity 75mm gun. The Panther began to be produced in January 1943 and, together with the Tiger, gave the German tank units a qualitative superiority over the Russian tank units. But both tanks were produced on a relatively small scale, the total production of the original Tiger I amounting to 1354 and that of the Panthers to 5976. In consequence, there were not enough Panthers to reequip the Panzer divisions completely with them and the Tigers were generally held back in independent battalions.

Both tanks had the same general layout as Pz.Kpfw.IV and five-man crews but apart from having much more powerful armament and thicker armour they were much more advanced mechanically. As a result of its combination of characteristics the Panther came to be regarded as the best medium tank of the 1943-45 period while the second version of the Tiger became the most powerful tank to be used during the Second World War. Thus, Tiger II was armed with a higher performance 88mm gun which was 71 calibres long and which could pierce considerably thicker armour than the 122mm gun of the IS-2. It was also heavily armoured, its frontal hull armour being 150mm thick, although this contributed to its weight of 68 tons, which made it the heaviest tank used during the war. But the total production of Tiger II amounted to only 489 vehicles.

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