Tuesday, January 3, 2017
German Recce Armoured Cars
In the German concept of mobile war, wheels were only marginally less important than tracks. That said, the first example was unimpressive: an open-topped scout car built on a civilian truck chassis, with a two-man crew, 8mm of armor, and a light machine gun. Entering service with the cavalry, by 1939 it had devolved to the infantry’s reconnaissance battalions as one step above bicycles. Next step was a two-step: the development and introduction of the Leichter Panzerspähwagen Sonderkraftfahrzeug (SdKfz) 221/222—a Teutonic mouthful that translates as Armored Reconnaissance Car Special Purpose Motor Vehicle 221/222, and thankfully shortens simply to Armored Car 221/222. The latter, definitive version began joining reconnaissance battalions during 1938. A four-wheeled, five-ton vehicle, with a 20mm cannon or a light antitank rifle in an open-topped turret and a two-man crew, it could do 50 miles per hour on roads, half that across country, thanks to its four-wheel drive and a relatively powerful engine. The 222 was popular in service and easy enough to manufacture that a number were exported to Nationalist China, where it was also well liked.
The 222 is best understood as an upscale version of the Daimler scout car coming into British service about the same time. It could gather information but was ill-suited to fight for it. Apart from that, the German army had enough of a tradition of heavy wheeled vehicles to encourage the simultaneous development of the SdKfz Heavy Armored Car 231—Six-Wheeled. The 231 could trace its origins to a civilian-developed vehicle whose initial version was too heavy and too expensive. Rejiggered into a six-wheel design built, initially, around a Daimler-Benz truck chassis, the 231 first entered service in 1932. Its ancestry was both visible and problematic. It looked like a civilian automobile, in that unlike the 222, its engine was up front and vulnerable even given the well-sloped 14.5mm armor. At almost six tons, the weight was too heavy for the chassis, and the suspension was a constant source of concern despite the good road speed of 40 miles per hour. Like the 222, it was easy to manufacture—a thousand were created by the time production ceased in 1935. But even more than the Panzer I, the Armored Car 231 was used as a training vehicle and relegated to second-line service as fast as a replacement could be made available.
That replacement kept the designation, but was an entirely different vehicle: an eight-wheeled, rear-engineered design built on a Buessing-NAG chassis. It could do over 50 miles per hour on roads, 30 miles per hour off road. With dual steering, all-wheel drive, and independent suspension, its cross-country capacity even through sand and mud exceeded any wheeled, armored vehicle in any army, despite its relatively heavy weight. Its turret-mounted 20mm cannon and 15mm armor were adequate for the scouting mission that was its fundamental purpose, and from its first entry into service in 1938, the Achtrad “eight-wheeler” was popular with its crews. The complexity that made it difficult and expensive to manufacture was an acceptable tradeoff, especially given the increasing quality of unit-level maintenance in the Panzer arm. The new 231’s major tactical drawback was its size. At seven feet eight inches and 8.3 tons, it was not exactly suited for “sneak and peek.” For “shoot and scoot,” however, the Achtrad was unmatched during the war’s first half, and its size enabled the inclusion of a radio system that added “communication” to its long list of positives.
The 222 and 231 spawned a long list of modifications. Most were specialized radio vehicles. The 222 in particular was too small to carry both a radio and a cannon. Its near-sister SdKfz 223 was distinguished by a smaller machine-gun turret and carried a third crew member. Both six- and eight-wheel versions of the 231 also had radio versions with frame aerials. These, perhaps because of their distinctive appearance, are disproportionately featured in illustrated works despite their relatively small numbers.
As a footnote the design staffs, after years of work, finally developed the war’s best armored car. The SdKfz 234/2 Puma had it all: high speed, a low silhouette, and a 50mm L39 still effective against tanks in an emergency. Unfortunately, by the time the Puma and its variants entered production, the panzers’ need for a long-range reconnaissance vehicle was itself long past. Now their enemies all too often found them.