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Blog Topic: Obstacles in Early German Tank Planning - early WW2

February 5, 2015

In the late 1930s, when the German army was developing armored tactics, they were also planning what the army would consist of in terms of tanks and armored vehicles. The initial plan was to have two types of battle tanks.

The heaviest of these tanks was the Panzer IV. It had a 75 mm main gun, which approximated a howitzer. This low velocity gun could fire a large round with an explosive in it, and was good for attacking infantry and fixed fortifications, bunkers, pill boxes, etc, but unlike the heavy British infantry tanks, the Panzer IV could travel 25 mph and keep up with armored units.

The second of these tanks was the Panzer III, and it was the main battle tank, in terms of armored combat. It had a 37 mm gun that was up-graded to a 50 mm beginning in April of 1940. This gun shot higher velocity rounds than the Panzer IV, and was intended to penetrate armor.

So that was the intention – to use these two tanks. But by 1937 the Panzer III was still experiencing major development problems and the Panzer II was ordered into mass production as a stop-gap measure. When Hitler attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, the German Army tank inventory stood at 1,445 Panzer Is, 1,223 Panzer IIs, only 98 Panzer IIIs, and 211 Panzer IVs 1,2. The Panzer I had been built as a training tank and only mounted machine guns!

The Panzer I was very small and only had a crew of two. The Panzer II had a machine gun, a 20mm gun and a crew of three, which really wasn't adequate even for that time. However, the Panzer II was much better than the tiny Panzer I. This situation was a major disappointment as far as the armor generals of the German Army were concerned.

So Germany went to war with Poland. They used their Blitzkrieg tactics and found that the Panzer I was really not a suitable vehicle in that there was an inappropriate number of casualties compared to the other tanks. So the German command searched around for a way to get a replacement for the Panzer I, especially after France and Britain had now declared war with Germany.

After the Munich crisis, Germany had annexed major portions of Czechoslovakia. Six months later, Germany conquered the rest of Czechoslovakia. The German army generals examined Czechoslovakian tank production and drafted the Czech tanks into the German army. The German army was able to get about 450 of these Panzer 38ts to replace the Panzer I. The Panzer I was then relegated to other tasks such as bringing up supplies or ammunition.

Although attempts were made to mount anti-tank guns on Panzer Is, these tanks were basically removed from the Panzer divisions and given support roles. The Czech tanks were the primary replacement. By May of 1940, when the Germans attacked the Low Countries, and France, the German army looked more as just described, with these four tanks (the Panzer II, III, IV, and the Czech 38t) in use, and in the Vanguard were the armored cars.

~ Jon

1Chris McNab, Hitler's Armies - A history of the German War Machine. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Limited, (2011), pgs. 71,74.
2The total inventory of tanks is much larger than the number that participated in the invasion of Poland.


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