Sunday, 10 June 2018

Pz.Kpfw.II Ausf.J: Heavy Steps of a Light Tank

Rather unusual types of vehicles frequently appeared in WWII. Most of them remained on paper, but some of them made it to production. German tank builders were no exception, creating vehicles whose mere concept boggles the mind. The VK 16.01, otherwise known as the PzII Ausf. J was one such vehicle. It was not as useless as its brother, the PzI Ausf. F, but the concept of a lightly armoured heavy tank raises many questions.

Autocannon versus fortifications

The situation in Europe began to rapidly heat up in 1938. The Anschluss happened in March, and then Germany began demanding territorial concessions from Czechoslovakia. War was in the air. The arms race, already in play since the mid-30s, accelerated. Despite a number of issues, Germany's tank industry was better prepared for war than its likely opponents'. The backbone of the German tank force was made up of light tanks, but production of medium tanks was slowly starting up. In parallel, work on prospective tanks began in 1937. Heinrich Kniepkamp was in charge of the overall project, which impacted the design specifics of the vehicles, especially the suspension.

The first experimental VK 16.01. The turret is not yet ready, and a dummy is used instead.

One of the issues that the German army could run into in the upcoming war was a well prepared and deeply echeloned line of defense. These lines existed on the borders with France, Belgium, and Czechoslovakia. The first measure was to reclassify certain artillery as dual purpose. Primarily, this meant that the 88 mm Flak 18 AA gun would be equipped with armour piercing shells. The development of the Pz.Sfl.IVa with a 105 mm gun was also launched.

Colonel-General Walther von Brauchitsch, who took up the post of the Supreme Commander of the Land Forces, launched an assault tank program on November 24th, 1938. The way these vehicles were created was simple. The requirements for the La.S. (PzI), La.S.100 (PzII), and B.W. (PzIV) were taken as the foundation. Using the boundaries set by these vehicles, new tanks with powerful armour were created. These tanks had 80 mm of front armour, which protected them from the 50 mm Pak 38 gun.

A fully complete VK 16.01 prototype. As you can see, the turret is slightly different from the one used on production tanks.

Of these tanks, only the assault version of the B.W., the S.W., remained within the realm of sanity. The vehicle, later indexed VK 65.01, could at least combat light fortifications and support units that were assaulting enemy defenses. As for the lighter projects, they were rather puzzling. Nevertheless, it was these light tanks that were not only built in metal, but put into production. The light two-man tank, which was analogous to the PzI in its ability, was designed by the Krauss-Maffei company. The project, indexed VK 18.01, was in many ways based on the VK 6.01 light tank, which was also designed by this company. Work on the second project, which was inspired by the PzII concept, was done by MAN. In both cases, Daimler-Benz was responsible for the turret.

MAN's engineers also picked the evolutionary method when designing a new vehicle. Since June of 1938, a light tank that would later be indexed VK 9.01 was in development at this company. As with the VK 6.01, it was designed in close cooperation with Kniepkamp, so the VK 9.01 and VK 6.01 were very similar. This is not surprising, as Kniepkamp sought to rationalize the two designs. The same thing happened to this new project, indexed VK 16.01. The chassis was a further development of the VK 18.01 design. This was true for the hull, as well as the suspension. As a result, the 6th Department of the Armament Directorate decided to unify the two light tank projects. This happened on November 15th, 1939, when projects of both companies were demonstrated. Work on various components was split between them. Krauss-Maffei was tasked with designing the suspension. MAN was tasked with development of the drive sprockets, the final drives, and the main clutch.

The 150 hp Maybach HL 45 and 6-speed ZF SSG 47 gearbox were the same on both tanks. The hull of the VK 16.01 was similar to the hull of the VK 18.01, but wider, since the driver's compartment also needed to fit a radio operator in addition to the driver. As for the turret, Daimler-Benz did not attempt to reinvent the wheel. The design was similar to the VK 18.01's turret. The biggest difference, in addition to the thickened armour, was the removal of the slanted sides.

A mass produced mistake

According to plans accepted at a meeting on November 15th, 1939, 4 experimental chassis and then 30 pilot tanks would be built. Armour would be sourced from Krupp, and elements of the chassis were split between Krauss-Maffei and MAN. On January 4th, 1940 the pilot hull and turret production plan was worked out. According to the plan, the first 5 hulls would be built in September, 10 in October, and 15 in November. The first 5 turrets would be built in October, 10 in November, and 15 in December. Work on the hull of the VK 16.01 went quickly. By February 6th MAN had welded three experimental hulls from the parts it had received. As for complete vehicles, the first one was ready by June of 1940. A small delay happened with turrets due to a debate about the design, but blueprints were ready by mid-March. The experimental turrets had characteristic "cheeks" that covered the gun mantlet from the sides.

One of the production PzII Ausf. J vehicles during winter mobility trials.

While the experimental chassis was being worked on, the military's appetites grew. According to plans dated April 25th, 1940, the first assembled VK 16.01s were due in December of 1940, and the last by March 1941. A batch of 100 would follow. In total, 700 tanks of this type would be ordered. At that same April 25th meeting the tank was referred to as PzII n.A. verst., "reinforced PzII new type". In addition, the idea of installing an 8-speed semiautomatic Maybach SRG 15319 gearbox and LRG 15319 turning mechanism into the VK 16.01 came up in June of 1940. The VK 18.01 would be modernized in the same way. The modernized tank would be indexed VK 16.02. This project remained until at least the spring of 1941, but was never built. The VK 16.02 index migrated to another tank.

There was another project that remained at the theoretical stage. It was proposed that 150  Pz.Kpfw. (Fla.W.) VK 16.01 (fl.) would be produced by April 1st, 1942. Overall, the production would total 192 units. This was a more rational idea for the VK 16.01 chassis, but it was rejected.

The turret of the production model was different.

In practice, production was significantly different from plans. After assembly of the prototypes (only three of the four were ever built), activity regarding the VK 16.01 died down. It would be better for the military if this incomprehensible vehicle was cancelled, like the VK 65.01 was in October of 1940. Even theoretically, these tanks had no fortifications left to assault.

In part, the continuation of work on the VK 18.01 and 16.01 was a victory of bureaucracy. Based on the experience in the French campaign, the Germans came to the conclusion that designing tanks with a mass of over 30 tons was senseless. Since the VK 18.01 and VK 16.01 had a long way to go before they hit that mark, they passed through this sieve. However, someone up top managed to understand that these vehicles were not in demand. In the tank program for 1941, approved on May 30th, 1941, the VK 16.01 received the lowest priority. Tanks from the first series were planned no sooner than April 1st, 1943, and the last of the 230 ordered units was planned for April 1st, 1945.

Brand new PzII Ausf. J and PzI Ausf. F in the 1st tank company of the 66th Special Purpose Tank Battalion. The vehicles are painted in tropical camouflage.

These plans did not impact the deadlines of the pilot batch directly, but MAN was overloaded with work. Issues with subcontractors also influenced production. As of August 18th, 1941, not a single vehicle from the pilot batch had been delivered, even though the first three were planned for July. Krupp completed its tasks the fastest, delivering 30 batches of plates from May to November of 1941. The other subcontractors were not as fast. Only 8 tanks, named PzII Ausf. J, were built in 1941. The rest of the pilot tanks were built in tiny groups from April to December of 1942. The vehicles received serial numbers from 150201 to 150230. They differed from the prototypes by a different turret design, tracks with pitch reduced to 130 mm, and a new drive sprocket crown. As for the first production series, it was cancelled on July 1st, 1942.

From the swamps of Sinyavino to the forests of Belarus

The resulting vehicle, despite the pointless concept, was less useless than the VK 18.01, adopted into service as the PzII Ausf. F. As a weapon of war, the PzII Ausf. J was not as pointless. At least the 20 mm autocannon was more useful than the PzI Ausf. F's machineguns. In addition, the presence of a radio operator made the commander's job easier.

The tank was also more successful in terms of mobility. Naturally, it went past its 16 ton weight limit, but 17.4 tons was still a far cry from the PzI Ausf. F's 21. The average speed of the tank on roads was 23.4 kph, which was only slightly less than that of the PzII Ausf. F. The average speed off-road was 12.6 kph, not a lot, but acceptable for this kind of speciality vehicle. In addition, the tank successfully passed trials on snowy terrain. However, the point of the tank was not to assault snow banks.

Inspection of the tank near the Mga railway station, August 1942. Ober-Lieutenant Betke, the commander of the 1st tank company of the 66th Special Purpose Tank Battalion, is on the left, wearing a tanker's uniform.

The combat debut of the PzII Ausf. J should have been Operation Hercules, the landing of a German-Italian force in Malta. Five tanks were sent to southern Italy, where they were included in the 1st tank company of the 66th Special Purpose Tank Battalion. This unit also included 5 PzI Ausf. F tanks. The tanks were painted in tropical camouflage, but they never made it to Malta. Instead, they were sent to Mga station near Leningrad in late July.

This shot demonstrates the conditions that German assault tanks were used in.

As of August 13th, 1942, the 1st tank company of the 66th Special Purpose Tank Battalion possessed 7 PzI Ausf. F tanks, 7 PzII Ausf. J tanks, and 14 PzIV tanks. The battalion was attached to the 29th Tank Regiment of the 12th Tank Division. The Sinyavino offensive, which became the debut of the PzII Ausf. J, began shortly after. The region was not suitable for tanks designed to assault enemy fortifications. Instead, they had to assault swampy ground. Two tanks became bogged down during an attack on September 10th, and only dislodged by mid-October. Ober-Lieutenant Betke, the commander of the 1st company, was even less lucky. He was fatally wounded in that battle.

Bad luck carried on. Two more tanks were lost in the second half of September. One of them was stuck in a swamp, the other knocked out. All knocked out and bogged down tanks were evacuated by the start of November, but two of them were damaged to such a degree that they were sent to Germany for repairs. The remaining tanks did not distinguish themselves in terms of reliability. Only one vehicle of the five was functional, and it broke down by the end of December.

PzII Ausf. J from the 12th Tank Division, winter of 1943.

10 more PzII Ausf. J tanks arrived on December 27th. The 12th Tank Division managed to gather half of all tanks of this type. Two tanks were written off fairly quickly, and the remainder were not all that reliable either. 5-7 tanks were combat ready at any given time. Tanks that could no longer be maintained in working order were sent back to Germany or written off starting in April. By the time the 1st company was redesignated the 8th company of the 29th Tank Regiment it only had 6 PzII Ausf. J tanks remaining. The vehicles were redistributed among other companies of the regiment, but they did not do well here. The vehicles were sent to the 559th Repair Battalion in July. That was the end of the service of the PzII Ausf. J in the 12th Tank Division.

A tank from the 13th Special Purpose Police Company.

By April of 1943 it became clear that the PzII Ausf. J was no good as a combat unit. The most reasonable course of action was to send these tanks to auxiliary units, the "punishment squads". The first such unit was the 13th Special Purpose Police Company, formed on January 6th, 1943 in France. It was assigned to the 14th SS Police Regiment and received 6 tanks of this type. The company was located in Yugoslavia starting with July of 1943. By the fall it still had four tanks of this type remaining.

A PzII Ausf. J from the 221st Tank Company captured in Slutsk, summer 1944.

Another six tanks ended up in the 221st Tank Company, which was the second unit to have the PzI Ausf. F and PzII Ausf. J at the same time. These vehicles were used against partisans in Belarus. As of March 11th, 1944, five PzII Ausf. J tanks remained with the company, but only three were combat capable. These vehicles survived until the summer of 1944. At least one was knocked out during the liberation of Slutsk, but Soviet trophy teams paid no attention to it. The last unit to use this tank in its original form was the 350th Security Tank Company. It had four of these tanks as of November 1944. Another tank, one that was repaired earlier, ended up in France. There, it was converted to an engineering tank, with a crane instead of the turret. This tank was used in the 116th Tank Division and was captured by the Allies.

A repair tank on the PzII Ausf. J chassis from the 116th Tank Division.

The PzII Ausf. J is an example of what happens when a nonsensical task is given. It's hard to say that MAN built a bad tank. However, the military should be careful of what it wishes for. As with the PzII Ausf. J, the number of vague tactical requirement for the vehicle was off the charts.


  1. Well it's not like the underlying concept was bad. Infantry could certainly use a close-support vehicle that could bounce enemy fire, and if you could make one small and cheap so much the better. But arming them with guns that struggled already with field fortifications was a little...

    1. If the tank was armed with something less useless than an autocannon, then certainly. An assault tank with a good HE round and 80 mm of front armour would have actually been useful in the early war.

    2. But did they need to go all the way up to 80mm? 35mm sloped frontal armor would of protected it from light anti tank guns, and the tank would of had some cross country capability.

    3. Well this *was* from before German tank design principles had gotten past "yo dawg heard you like boxes so we put a box on your box"...

      It wasn't until they started working on what would become the Panther before the idea of sloping tank armour got any traction.

    4. Yup. Switching from vertical to sloped armor is a bigger step than to just making the plates in a different shape. Anything that goes into, onto or through the plate has to be reengineered as well, like viewports, MG mounts etc.
      British are a good example of that since they only started using sloped fronts from the Centurion onward (and got rid of the bow MG and iirc any direct vision port) even though even back with the Matilda they were well aware of sloped armor.

    5. I think there is always an element of trial-and-error in any kind of R&D. In WWII and the years before, these included:

      1) multi-turreted tanks
      2) multi-gun tanks
      3) small-caliber gun tanks (included most British, and most early war German tanks).
      4) superheavy tanks as the war progressed
      5) light tanks in general (though the concept lived on up to the Sheridan in the US);
      6) Into the postwar era, modest-caliber high-velocity gun tanks like the Panther. (Yeah, I was told in my younger years that the "Panther was the best tank in the world" but now I see it as an evolutionary dead-end tank, for its puny HE round and laughably weak side armor makes it completely unsuitable for many of the things a tank is supposed to do, like infantry support).

      All these might have made sense to somebody, or may have been useful in some roles, until they were shown to be inadequate or at least non-optimal.

    6. I have to disagree on the Panther. It had a lot of faults, but the things you list arent those faults. 75mm HE rounds were plenty adequate at the time (british and americans found them suitable for infantry support, and the russians also used the equivalent 76.2mm caliber for the same purpose). I know german HE rounds were slightly subpar, but they got the job done and were highly accurate.
      The other thing is the weak side armor. Technically, yes its a weakness, but if "Could use more armor" is your argument then look at a Maus. Now, if you actually look at the Panther with the layout of near-immune frontal armor against the most typical AT guns and thinner side armor, it actually looks a heck of a lot like a modern tank has pretty much the same idea behind their armor. Sure, some variations came up as time progressed like adding extra protection on the sides near the front, but as it was back then it couldnt have been done much better.

  2. And yet ironically German designers building half tracks and armored cars were obsessed with sloped armor. But Builder is correct that getting the manufacturers of viewports and bow MG mounts to change their product for a few vehicles can be difficult.

    1. Sloped armor on halftracks was a bit easier since the armor was substantially thinner making it easier to incorporate a limited slope (30°) and still get away with using the same viewports.