German tanks and armoured cars
During the invasion of The Netherlands, the German 26th Corps [General Albert Wodrig] was assigned to link up with the light airlanding troops at Moerdijk and at the bridgeheads within Fortress Holland. The 26th Corps included the Austrian-German 9th Tank Division [9th Panzer Division, founded in January 1940] under command of Generalmajor Ritter von Hubicki. This division had about 150 tanks, all of the types Pz.Kfw I u/i Pz. IV, as well as a mere 50 armoured cars [AFV's - Armoured Fighting Vehicles / ACV's - Armoured Command Vehicles] such as the heavy 8-wheel SdKfz 231 en 232 and the light 4-wheel SdfKz 221 and 223. Mechanised infantry [Panzergrenadiere] were not yet introduced in 9.PD in May 1940.
The Dutch defenders would meet these vehicles in combat and therefore we elaborate on these types in this summary.
2. Armoured car and tank
Some people believe that the main difference between an armoured car and a tank is simply found in the fact that armoured cars are wheel-based and tanks track-based. This is a wide spread misunderstanding. The distinction between the two weapon devices should be determined when comparing the weight, armour and armament as well as their purpose.
Armoured fighting vehicles [AFV's] are intended for light combat support duties such as recce and light support. Armoured Command Vehicles are intended for combat control support and armoured personnel carriers - APC's - transport light infantry to the front. All these vehicles are quite basically armoured.
Tanks are intended to support or carry the fight and sustain heavy impacts of grenades and nearby detonations. Light and medium tanks are there to support; heavy tanks to carry the battle.
Should one project the fighting vehicle classes on the German tanks in May 1940, one may conclude that the tanks applied to battle in May 1940 were lightly armoured and lightly armed for their actual purpose. Both German tank types Pz.I and Pz.II were in fact nothing more than armoured cars on tracks. They had very light protection [up to 14,5 mm armour max.] and their heaviest weapon was nothing more than a machinegun or a 20 mm gun. They were however intended to be tanks and as such one may say that they failed to meet their purpose. During the campaign in Poland the German army command already realised that both light tanks were far too vulnerable; a fact that was reconfirmed during the campaign in the west and extended to the medium tanks Pz.III and IV, that also proved extremely vulnerable.
3. Armoured cars
According to the Versailles Treaty the Germans were not allowed to have any type of armoured vehicle, let alone tanks. The only exception was made for a handful of lightly protected vehicles for policing actions.
In the early years after WWI the Germans applied some Daimler-Benz and Ehrhardt trucks with some rudimentary armoured-hulls as such. In 1926 the German Ministry of Defence [Reichswehr Ministerium or RWM] ordered the industry to design and develop a multi-wheeled armoured car for the transport of personnel. The specification for this vehicle was quite extended. It was supposed to be able to be fast [65 km/hr], have a maximum range of at least 200 km and be able to negotiate 1 meter of water and a slope of 1:3. It was supposed to be able to be dual-directional driven, have a turn-radius of four times the vehicle-width, be silent and weigh no more than 7.5 tonnes. The interior should be laid out for a five men crew and a turntable turret. Last but not least the vehicle was supposed to have identical axis size to be able to ride the German railway tracks!.
Three manufacturers were selected: Daimler-Benz, Magirus and Büssing NAG. The first prototypes were produced in 1929.
The first two manufacturers came up with an eight wheel version, whilst Büssing produced a ten wheel type. The production leader of the first car - the Daimler - was no one less than Ferdinand Porsche himself. The cars were tested in Russia [with whom the Germans cooperated intensively to avoid the Versailles Treaty auditing and inspection committees]. Due to the major crisis of 1929 the funds for procuring armoured cars for the Reichswehr suddenly dried up, and none was purchased after all. But the first real experience with modern armoured cars was a fact ...
3.1 The Panzerspähwagen Sd.Kfz 231 / 232
Although funds had been inefficient to procure any of the prototypes launched in 1929, the RWM ordered a new prototype of a six wheeled armoured car to be designed by the three manufacturers that had produced the first range of multi-wheeled vehicles.
Daimler-Benz and Büssing together produced 49 chassis with dual steering-operation and large engine-cooling. The armoured hull was produced by Deutschen Werkft AG in Kiel and Deutschen Edelstahlwerke AG in Hannover. The total vehicle weight was no more than 5 tonnes.
As off 1933 armoured recce units were equipped with these first operational armoured cars. They were armed with a 20 mm gun [KwK 30] and a MG.13 machinegun. Main armour thickness was 14.5 mm, a size that would be standard for quite some time. The armoured plates were installed in a steep sloped angle in order to increase the protection against small arms fire. These cars were registered as the Sd.Kfz 231 and 232 [and 263 as a main command and signal car]. The 232 and 263 had large antenna sets on the hull, which gave them remarkable futuristic features.
During the late thirties the cars were fitted with an eight wheel chassis and the guns were replaced by KwK38 types. The turret was shifted to the front, the rear armour was constructed in a sloped angle, and the wheels were protected by an square-angled armoured construction. Furthermore all four axes were steerable and directly-driven. The armour was 14.5 mm in front, but the rear and bottom armour were reduced to 8 mm. The car was able to reach a top-speed of 85 km/hr. These eight wheel cars formed the backbone of the German heavy armoured car platoons and recce units in 1939 and 1940.
The terrain capacities of these vehicles left very much to be desired. The cars were hardly able to overcome heavy terrain conditions. Also the armour was experienced as very vulnerable.
|Gun:||2 cm. KwK30||2 cm. KwK30|
|Ammo:||200 / 1.500||180 / 2.100|
|Weight:||5 tonnes||8.2 tonnes|
|Driven axes:||Front axis||All axes|
|Top-speed km:||60 km/hr max road||85 km/hr max road|
|Range:||250 km.||300 km.|
|HP:||65 PK||150 PK|
|Armour turret / °:||14.5 mm. / 0||8 mm. / 65|
|Armour front / °:||14.5 mm. / 80||14.5 mm. / 62|
|Armour side / °:||14.5 mm. / 50||8 mm. / 50|
3.2 The Panzerspähwagen Sd.Kfz 221
In 1932 and 1934 the first of the light armoured cars of the new generation were constructed. These first models were basically no more than an 8 mm armoured hull put on top of an existing car chassis [Adler type]. This type was equipped with only one MG.13 machinegun, and registered as Kfz.13.
Although these cars did not meet the army expectations they were indeed used in Poland in 1939. Meanwhile new designs had been released.
In 1935 the Eisenwerk Weserhutte AG was ordered to redesign the Kfz.13. The new chassis was built by Auto Union [nowadays part of Audi]. It was a four-wheel drive version with independent expansion and axes. The engine became a powerful Horch V-8 with 80 HP that was able to give the almost 5 tonnes vehicle quite some thrust.
It resulted in three versions of the four-wheel light armoured car for the army, registered as Sd.Kfz 221 [MG armed], 222 [20 mm gun] and 223 [signal]. The latter was equipped with a large ring-shaped antenna. These light armoured cars became the backbone of the German light recce groups. The 260/261 variants were signals versions [ACV's] and also in use in 1940.
The terrain capacities of these vehicles left much to be desired. Also the armour was experienced as very vulnerable.
|Sd.Kfz.222 [2 cm Gun]|
|Gun:||-||2 cm KwK 30 of 38|
|Ammo:||1.500||180 / 1.100|
|Weight:||4.2 tonnes||4.8 tonnes|
|Steering:||Both axes||Both axes|
|Topspeed:||80 km/hr max road||80 km/hr max road|
|Range:||320 km.||320 km.|
|HP:||75-80 PK||75-80 PK|
|Crew:||2 or 3||3|
|Armour turret / °:||14.5 mm. / -||14.5 mm. / -|
|Armour front / °:||8 mm. / 55||8 mm. / 55|
|Armour side / °:||8 mm. / 55||8 mm. / 55|
3.3 The Panzerspähwagen Sd.Kfz 251
The standard armoured personnel carrier [phased in the tank divisions as off 1939] which was used for transport of mechanized infantry in Tank Divisions was the Sd.Kfz 251 halftrack. It was equipped with a single direct-steered wheel axis in front and tracks in the rear. The first versions of this vehicle left very much to be desired. The terrain behaviour was extremely poor, and the vehicle was dramatically underpowered. The fact that only the front axis was steerable caused much problems when slopes had to be negotiated, for during such operation the front-axis were lifted until the entire vehicle had taken the top of the slope, thus preventing the driver from being able to correct directions. Also the relatively weak power-plant posed many limitations to added freight and load once terrain had to be negotiated. It caused many vehicles to strand in heavy terrain whilst under fire; a least desirable situation!
The cars were able to transport 10 infantry men with full gear plus 2 or 3 crew members. The men were only protected on the sides and bottom due to the fact that the vehicle was roofless. This open-top feature provided for extreme vulnerability in close combat situations and street engagements. The 251 was fitted with a frontal MG in an armoured shield and an unprotected MG position in the rear.
The Sd.Kfz 251 [with many variants] was produced in shear numbers and would remain the main armoured car for mechanized infantry throughout the war.
3.PD and 9.PD were the only tank divisions not equipped with any Sd.Kfz.251's yet in May 1940. As a matter of fact both infantry regiments in 9.PD were not mechanised but motorised infantry, since they only had trucks to transport them and no APC's.
|Steering:||Frontal axis only|
|Topspeed:||50 km/hr max road|
|Range:||300 km. road|
|Crew:||2 plus 10 Schützen|
|Armour front:||12 mm.|
|Armour side:||7 mm.|
In the year 1916 a new weapon-system was introduced to the world that would change warfare dramatically: the British Mark I tank. It was a result of many inventive thoughts about how to apply tractors to the battlefield. The Mark I was the first of many to follow. The British were however the first to recognize the importance of this new battlefield feature. The French followed only in 1917 with their Schneider and Saint Chamond tank. The Germans - peculiarly enough - were not very charmed by the tank and saw little fate in this new weapons platform. As a result it wasn't before April 1918 that the first genuine tank battle was seen. Although the Germans only built a few dozen tanks [A7V] they immediately proved superior to the British. It should have been a warning of history! Many thousands of tanks were produced by the Entente forces, but due to the armistice only few would see action.
The Germans were not allowed to build or posses any tanks after WWI. Soon however the German military realised that the tank would be an important weapon in a modern army. They were well aware that any endeavour to design or construct a tank would be a major infringement of the terms of the Versailles Treaty. The projects that were nevertheless launched were therefore camouflaged by agricultural cover-titles. All development projects received phoney agricultural nick-names and tank chassis were addressed as tractors.
Already during the early twenties military advisors stimulated tests with heavy tank constructions which were surprisingly similar to WWI type tanks. The German military top lost interest in these heavy constructions when experts informed them that heavy tanks would not have any future and that the appliance of dynamic and lightly armoured vehicles would be the state of the art This perception was the basis of a doctrine in which the backbone of the armoured units was to be formed by light tanks, with only a handful of heavier tanks in addition in order to support the swarms of lightly armoured tanks. The shaping of the final Panzer doctrine, that would be the root cause of many clashes amongst German generals during the late thirties, was still visible in the German army of 1940 that was mainly equipped with light tanks, and [relatively] few medium tanks. Heavy tanks were not even available yet.
The later famous German tank-generals like Guderian and Von Manstein were already half way the thirties convinced that a successful tank-army had to be formed by a well balanced mix of light, medium and heavy tanks and that these weapons had to be applied in concentrated formations rather than as support of the infantry. They received much opposition by traditional high ranking officers and as such the conflicts in Spain and Poland were necessary to convince the conservatives that indeed the light tanks lacked sufficient protection against modern means of anti-tank warfare if they were used in a traditional way. The lessons learnt came too late however to supply the German tank divisions with enough medium tanks in May 1940. As such the mighty German tank divisions in May and June 1940 were still equipped with a majority of light tanks of the types Pz.I and Pz.II as well as the T-35 and T-38.
The shortage of medium tanks was however compensated by the tactics the Germans would apply to tank warfare. First of all the Germans had concentrated their tanks in large units supported by mechanised infantry and secondly they applied the combined weapons tactics and geometry of fire like no other army. The close support by artillery and a strong tactical airforce presented them with such advantage over their conservative opponents that the shortage of medium armour mattered little. The losses amongst the light tanks and even the medium tanks during the Westfeldzug were however still considerable. The German advantage was however, that they were the side conquering the battle-field and as such many tank losses were temporary and many French tanks were gained.
The seamy side of the overwhelming tank successes in France was that the German tank-army would still be ill prepared for battle when it invaded the Soviet-Union in June 1941. When the Germans opposed the Russian T-34 they were unpleasantly surprised by the vulnerability of their own main battle tanks [Pz.III and IV], notwitstanding intermediate reinforcements of these medium tanks with thicker frontal armour. The German tank army paid a high price and in fact it would never be able to compensate the back-log in development and construction of adequate numbers of heavier tanks. Although the German tank-designs as off the Pz.V [Panther] type would outclass any opponent quality-wise, the Germans were never able to produce their superior tanks in sufficient numbers to gain the upperhand on the battlefield again. And after all, that was all that mattered ...
When we go back to the days of May 1940, we can already establish the vulnerability of the German tanks against an army that had no tanks whatsoever and operated only a limited number of modern AT guns: the Dutch army. The light German tanks had a mere 14.5 mm frontal armour, whilst the medium tanks had no more than 30 mm. The 9th Tank Division lost quite a considerable amount of tanks to Dutch guns notwithstanding the low number of engagements. Basically the only three engagements that could be addressed as being of any significance all took place on the 13th. Two of these were seen at the Isle of Dordrecht and one at a bridge on the Isle of Ysselmonde. Up to and including the 13th the Germans lost 18 tanks [3 off Pz.I, 6 off Pz.II, 3 off Pz.III and 5 Pz.IV as well as 1 off Pz.I command vehicle]. Almost all these tanks  were lost at the Isle of Dordrecht, each one of them due to gun fire. Furthermore at the Barendrecht bridge three [2 x Pz.II, 1 x Pz.III] out of four tanks were destroyed in no time by one single AT gun when they tried to cross the bridge. During confrontations with the French medium S-35 Somua tank, the German tanks were occasionally overrun and largely outmatched. If it wouldn't have been for their poor battle tactics the French 2.DLM and 3.DLM would have managed to defeat the weak 3.PD and 4.PD in the Belgium theatre. The French Somua's were almost illusive to the German Pz.III and IV. The German tank tactics were of a much higher level though and that saved them the day during the Hannuit tank battle in the Gembloux void. These events were clear shows of the vulnerability of even the German medium tanks. The Germans would therefore reinforce the frontal and turret armour of their medium tanks after the Westfeldzug. But those efforts were not enough.
One of the prime reasons for the light armour of the German tanks - besides the doctrine of battle field dynamics - was the fact that the Germans suffered from import restrictions and lack of experience with heavier power-plants [engines]. Furthermore the Germans lacked sufficient know-how in relation to transmission. Since emphasis was put on quick dynamic warfare and sufficient engine-power was lacking, the armour had to pay the price. Another aspect that played a role was the fact that German bridges were usually not able to take heavy loads. The heaviest load these bridges could bear was usually considerably less than 25 tonnes. This posed the problem of transporting tanks to the front.
The disadvantage of the technical envelop was largely compensated by the battle doctrine of concentrated operation and the fact that unit-cooperation and control were excellent. All German tanks were equipped with short range radio and every unit had plenty of command and control vehicles that would closely follow the forward units. As such the cooperation and combat control was of such high standard that opportunities at the battlefield could be cashed quickly. This feature of German tank warfare would especially pay off in the first two to three years of the war. The French lacked any C&C capacity on tank company level. Only the company commanders had radio on board, and as such the company commander was unable to direct and redirect his tanks. That major short coming in the French tank formations was smartly played out by the Germans. They realized that taking out the easily identifiable company commander (the only tank with large antennas) would leave entire companies beheaded of direct C&C. And since the French officer and NCO were trained in the systematic order system, they were lost without leaders. All tank battles in May and June 1940 would show how devistating this flaw in French C&C worked out for them. On the other hand, it lead to a false believe in the German executive commands that their tank formations were superior.
4.1 The Panzerkampfwagen I
In 1933 the Heereswaffenamt [Army Weapon Comity] launched the first design and development order to the German Industry for an armoured vehicle on tracks. It was designated a support-tank that would be easy to produce in large numbers. The combination Krupp [armoured top] / Daimler Benz was awarded the contract.
The first production series [at Henschel] started already in 1934. This version was a 5,4 tonnes vehicle with 15 mm armour, suitable for two crew-members and fitted with a twin MG turret. This was the Pz.I.A. The first production series proved underpowered, but the next series was produced with a Maybach 6-cylinder plant which increased the road speed to 40 km/hr. This type - the Pz.I.B - was produced in large numbers. Both types were supplied to the army between 1935 and 1939. At the eve of the invasion of Poland no less than 1,445 tanks had been produced. Of these Pz.I.A and B types 523 would participate in the campaign in the West.
|MG:||2, 7.92 mm.||2, 7.92 mm.|
|Ammo:||1.500 p MG||1.500 p MG|
|Weight:||5.4 tonnes||6.0 tonnes|
|Topspeed:||37 k/hr max road||40 k/hr max road|
|Range:||145 km.||140 km.|
|HP:||57 PK||100 PK|
|Armour front-turret / °:||13 mm. / 80||13 mm. / 80|
|Armour front / °:||13 mm. / 63||13 mm. / 63|
|Armour side / °:||13 mm. / 73-82||13 mm. / 73-82|
4.2 The Panzerkampfwagen II
In July 1934 the Heereswaffenamt awarded the contract for development of a 10-tonnes tank that had to be equipped with a light gun. Like the Pz.I it had to be easily produceable and in large numbers. The first series - usually designated as the Pz.II A2 u/i A3 - came in all sorts of variations. Basically the models weighted 7,2 tonnes and these were equipped with the KwK.30 20 mm gun and an MG.34 as coaxial MG. The armour was 14.5 mm thick in front. The crew comprised three men. The first tanks of this type were introduced in the cavalry ranks in 1935.
The power of the first series was generally regarded as far too limited. Again the Maybach 6-cylinder engine was applied, and this increased weight and power. This type was registered as the Pz.II.B. These were built in limited numbers.
The first Pz.II that would be produced in relatively large numbers was the Pz.II.C. It had a modified undercarriage and a better armour-skirt. The production of the types C was stopped in 1940 when the versions D and E took over. The Pz.II formed the back-bone of the German tank divisions during the first two years of the war [1939/1940]. No less than 955 off Pz.II [in various models] were in service in May 1940.
|Gun:||20 mm KwK 30 or 38|
|Ammo:||180 Gun / 1.500 MG|
|Range:||200 km. max road|
|Armour front-turret / °:||30 mm. / sloped|
|Armour front / °:||30 mm. / 58 (or 15 mm. / 58)|
|Armour side / °:||14.5 mm. / 90|
4.3 The Panzerkampfwagen III
The Pz.III was originally dedicated as a tank-destroyer. The similar Pz.IV would be dedicated as heavy infantry support tank. Both tanks were therefore designated to be fitted with heavier guns. The Pz.III would be the heaviest unit in the light tank companies.
The competitive German weapon committees were quarrelling about the main gun for the Pz.III for quite some time. The choice was between the 37 mm PAK gun [also known as the PAK.35/36] and a 50 mm short barrel gun. Eventually the 37mm PAK was selected; mainly for reasons of standardisation and logistics [e.g. the infantry PAK gun was equipped with identical ammunition]. The tank design was however to be executed with an integrated option to install a heavier 5 cm gun in the turret.
The design was supposed to be based on a tank which would not exceed 24 tonnes [battle loaded] and would facilitate a crew of five. In 1936 Daimler-Benz was awarded the order for production of the prototype. Since the armour of the first version was only 14.5 mm frontal/turret and 5 mm to the sides, the tank only weighted 15 tonnes. With a Maybach 12-cylinder power-plant the speed did not exceed 32 km/hr. The armament consisted of the 37 mm main gun, two coaxial machineguns and a machinegun on top. It was registered as the Pz.III.A.
The follow up models were the B and C versions of which only few were built. The first large production series were the D and E version. The D version was produced as off 1938, and was far better than its pre-ancestors. It had a 30 mm armour and a heavier engine [320 hp] in combination with direct transmission. The undercarriage had been modified and a 10-trap automatic gearbox was installed.
At 10 May 1940 no more than 349 off Pz.III were operational in the tank units in the field. Also a number  of command-tanks - Pz.III.D with ring-antenna - were distributed amongst the command-companies of several tank units.
|Gun:||3.7 cm KwK/45||3.7 cm KwK/45||3.7 cm KwK/45|
|Ammo:||150 gun /1.500 MG||150 gun /1.500 MG||150 gun /1.500 MG|
|Weight:||15.0 tonnes||15.0 tonnes||19.3 tonnes|
|Topspeed:||32 km./hr||32 km./hr||40 km./hr|
|Range:||150 km. max road||150 km. max road||182 km. max road|
|HP:||230 PK||230 PK||230 PK|
|Armour front-turret / °:||14.5 mm. / 75||14.5 mm. / 75||30 mm. / 75|
|Armour front / °:||14.5 mm. / 81||14.5 mm. / 81||30 mm. / 81|
|Armour side / °:||14.5 mm. / 90||14.5 mm. / 90||30 mm. / 90|
4.4 The Panzerkampfwagen IV
The decision to construct a tank with a heavier gun was taken in combination with the ideas developed around the Pz.III. Both designs were closely related. The Pz.IV was designated as a heavy support tank. The main gun was to be a 75 mm short barrelled gun which could deliver heavy HE grenades. The tank was not supposed to weigh over 24 tonnes [full battle load] and 40 km/hr would be the maximum speed. The specification for the tank was much like the Pz.III with exception of the main gun spec.
The first prototype was already built in 1935 by Rheinmetall Borsig. It weighted 18 tonnes and was able to reach a speed of 30 km/hr. This prototype was able to negotiate a slope of 30 degrees. The armour however was still 14.5 mm in front and 5 mm around. Based on this prototype orders were awarded for first production.
The model Pz.IV.A was powered by a 230 HP engine and came with a five-trap [later six-trap] gearbox. Topspeed was no more than 32 km/hr. The armament was represented by the main gun of 75 mm and two machineguns. The turret was operated by a hydro-electrical motor with 15 HP power. The tank was able to carry 122 gun loads and 3,000 machinegun bullets. The armour was 14.5 mm and 20 mm on the turret. The tank weighted 17.5 tonnes, which was well below the maximum allowed weight. The modified model, Pz.IV.B., was fitted with a more suitable armour [30 mm] and a heavier power plant. Although built in limited numbers it was the first model to be introduced to the medium tank companies of the army.
The Pz.IV.C. was another improved model that was built in quite a considerable number . It was heavier armoured around the turret and weighted about 20 tonnes. Many of this C type saw action during the Westfeldzug.
In 1939 the production of the Pz.IV had been stopped because the ordered numbers had been produced. After the bad experience with the lightly armoured Pz.I and II in Poland, the Heereswaffenamt quickly ordered a better armoured Pz.IV version to be developed and produced. This would be the Pz.IV.D and E. These models had frontal armour of 60 mm and side armour of 40 mm. Only very few of these new models were used in May/June 1940.
In May 1940 no more than 278 Pz.IV, mainly Pz.IV.C., were available. The Pz.IV would be used - in many models and shapes - during the entire war.
|Gun:||7.5 KwK/24||7.5 KwK/24||7.5 KwK/24||7.5 KwK/24|
|Ammo:||1.500 p MG||1.500 p MG||1.500 p MG||1.500 p MG|
|Weight:||17.7 tonnes||20.0 tonnes||20.0 tonnes||21 tonnes|
|Topspeed:||40 km./hr||40 km./hr||40 km./hr||42 km./hr|
|Range:||200 km. max road||200 km. max road||200 km. max road||200 km. max road|
|HP:||320 PK||300 PK||300 PK||300 PK|
|Armour front-turret / °:||20 mm. / 79||30 mm. / 79||30 mm. / 79||30 mm. / 79|
|Armour front / °:||30 mm. / 80||30 mm. / 80||30 mm. / 80||60 mm. / 80|
|Armour side / °:||14.5 mm. / 90||14.5 mm. / 90||20 mm. / 90||40 mm. / 90|
5. Armour and armour-penetration
When the first tanks appeared on the battlefield in 1916 it soon became apparent that light troops were extremely vulnerable for these iron monsters, but that guns were able to bring the tanks to a halt.
There is no weapon that was ever introduced on the battlefield that didn't sooner or later meet its counter-part or efficient counter measurements. The bigger the tanks and the heavier their armour, the more efficient the AT guns and projectiles. Up to the introduction of the deliverable hollow charge in the course of WWII, the most modern tank was usually one step ahead of its adversary. With the introduction of the power-full hollow charge the counter-measure would almost overtake the tank in its development.
Tanks were usually not made of basic iron, although some French models were in 1940. The plates on a tank were usually made of armoured steel that was produced in rolling-mills. The process of rolling steel or forging is intended to increase the yield and toughness of the material. The enrichment of steel was improved during the early 20th century, and during the thirties the introduction of Tungsten improved things dramatically; on both sides of the scale. Tungsten possesses the brilliant properties that it remains stiff and hard at the highest of temperatures. The impact of a projectile causes tremendous temperature rise at the point of impact [friction point] that makes ordinary iron as weak as a fluid. Tungsten however stays highly homogeneous during such circumstances.
The counter measures that were developed against heavy armoured vehicles were obviously based on the laws of physics. Does one require enabling a gunner of penetrating a thick layer of armoured steel with his ammunition, one requires certain basic requirements to be met first: a arrow-shaped projectile with a high specific gravity that impacts with the maximum of energy. These three elements [shape, mass out of gravity, energy] form the basis of penetrating power.
The aforementioned three elements formed the path to better and more suitable AP ammunitions. Applying highly homogeneous material with a high specific gravity would result in munitions that would bear up to almost triple the amount of mass within the same volume as ordinary iron [iron = 7.7 g/cm³; Tungsten 19,3 g/cm³]. Shaped in a pointed projectile it would cause heavy damage on any type of thick armoured plate. Tungsten was frequently used during WWII for AP rounds. Nowadays uranium is a commonly used material.
In the beginning of WWII small charges and limited calibres were used to destroy tanks. Usually solid projectiles [or solid projectiles with small charges] were used to penetrate armour. On impact these projectiles did often successfully penetrate tanks but usually more than one direct hit was necessary to destroy a tank or kill the crew. Sometimes tanks were hit three or four times with up to 4,7 cm solid grenades but without critically hitting the tank. Penetrating the tank was not the problem, stopping it often still was.
The first counter measures tank designers took to adapt to the modern AT guns was increasing the armour plate thickness, lowering the tank profile and extensive appliance of sloped armoured plates (increasing the relative thickness of the steel plates). The angle of impact of an AP round mattered a lot when the V0 [speed at barrel length] of AT guns was still quite low and the material of the AP rounds still conservative or of low mass. Besides the bouncing effect sloped armour may cause, it increases relative thickness due to the fact that the projectile usually meets the sloped armoured plate in the best possible angle for the armoured plate to survive [obviously the hypotenuse of the plate provides for the largest distance to travel through the armoured plate]. When speed and mass increased the angle of the armoured plates mattered little anymore.
The Dutch army in May 1940 had two dedicated guns for anti-tank warfare. The regular infantry gun Böhler PAK 4,7 cm and the casemate gun HIH Siderius kanon van 5 [4,7 cm gun]. The Böhler gun is addressed in a different section of this website.
The German tanks and armoured cars [in May 1940] didn't stand a change against both guns once they were hit within 500 meter distance. Both guns were able to launch projectiles that were capable of penetrating the frontal armour of all tank types within that range. Beyond that range the heavier tanks Pz.III and IV would be able to sustain most frontal hits.
In later years the armour penetrating weapons increased in number and power. The German 88 mm FLAK gun proved to be the best of the best regarding armour penetration. Particularly the shear power of these guns [extremely high velocity] made every tank on the battle field extremely vulnerable at distances of even over 1,000 m. The Allies had far more difficulty to produce effective AT weapons and Allied tanks were generally unable to penetrate German heavy armour during the entire war. The Allies produced some improved guns [and tanks] in the last stages of the war - in particular the British 17-pounder. The general purpose tanks like the Churchill and Sherman tank [with exception of the Sherman Firefly] remained unable to pose any threat to German Tigers and Panthers once engaging those in front. The Soviets were more successful and besides their mass-production advantage they produced several tank types that could match (or at least compete with) the heavy German tanks.
The introduction of the hollow charge - first seen when the Germans seized the Belgian Fortress Eben Emael in May 1940 - presented the infantry with a new means of tank-fighting in later stages of the war. The basics of a hollow charge are quite simple. These shaped charges produce a convergent explosion straight along the axis of the detonation. As such an enormous mass of energy is unleashed on a very focussed area. The bigger the charge the more effective it is on even the heaviest armour. The Germans developed a whole range of hand-held rocket launched hollow shape weapons called Panzerfaust. It would become the fear of every Soviet and Allied tank-crew for no tank stood a change against these awesome weapons once they were delivered in the right way.
The Allies were considerably less successful in applying hollow-charge weapons. The Allied soldiers remained quite powerless against heavier German armour. The American bazooka and the British PIAT were both weapons that were incapable of penetrating thick armour. As a consequence plenty of events are known in which one or two German Tiger tanks were able to chase off complete companies of Allied troops due to the fact that the Allies were unable to stop the mighty German armour.
- "Die Deutschen Panzer 1926-1945" - Von Senger und Etterlin
- "Erinnerungen eines Soldaten", Heinz Guderian
- And many more