The last light tank of the traditional variety produced in Germany, the PzII Ausf. F, was removed from production in July of 1942. Nevertheless, light tanks continued to exist within the Third Reich. These were reconnaissance tanks, similar to reconnaissance armoured cars in function. Even the German term «Panzerkampfwagen» was not used to refer to these vehicles. This article will cover German reconnaissance tanks of WWII: Gefechtsaufklärer Leopard, Pz.Sp.Wg.II Ausf.MAN Luchs and Aufklärungspanzer 38(t), none of which were truly mass produced.
German light tank developers were far behind their medium tank colleagues in the domain of separating the duties of crewmen. The La.S, aka PzI, was created as a two-man tank. All PzI family tanks, including the PzI Ausf.C and PzI Ausf.F, retained the same concept. The three-man La.S.100, aka PzII, also remained the same. Like the French Renault D1, and SOMUA 35, the additional crew member was a radio operator in the hull. Meanwhile, in the USSR, USA, Czechoslovakia, and Great Britain light tanks produced since the mid 1930s had two turret crewmen. The Soviet T-60 and T-70 two-man tanks are outliers, since they were built as a result of a hurried development of the T-40 amphibious reconnaissance tank, which was already unsatisfactory in the spring of 1941.
As for the Germans, a one-man light tank turret was the norm for a very long time. The situation began to change after the start of WWII. As a result of the fighting of the 2nd Light Division (one of the two divisions equipped with PzII Ausf.D tanks) an idea of a light reconnaissance tank was developed. The vehicle was called simply Einheits-Aufklärungsfahrzeug: Single Reconnaissance Vehicle. The idea was that the vehicle would be used in tank and light divisions.
Officially, the order from In.6 (Inspekteur für Heeresmotorisierung, Inspectorate of Motorized Forces) for a «single reconnaissance vehicle» came on September 15th, 1939, before the fighting in Poland ceased. According to the requirements of the order, the Wehrmacht needed a tracked reconnaissance vehicle with a high top speed and good off-road mobility. As fighting in Poland showed, existing German light tanks were unsuitable for this job. In addition, the order stated that it was desirable to use rubber-metallic tracks that performed well during trials. However, further work showed that the tracks performed well on halftracks, but were a poor choice for tanks, even light ones.
The contract for the development of a reconnaissance tank chassis was given to MAN, and the turret platform and turret went to Daimler-Benz. The chassis received the index VK 13.01 (fully tracked, 13 ton weight class, first type). According to specifications, the 11 ton tank would accelerate to a top speed of 70 kph. The armour was 30 mm thick in the front and 20 mm along the sides. The armament consisted of the same 20 mm autocannon with a coaxial MG 34. The difference was that the 2 cm KwK 38 had the full length 2 cm Flak 38 barrel instead of a shortened one, which increased penetration. However, even this gun was not capable of penetrating the tank's own front armour.
Man and the 6th Department of the Armament Directorate didn't try to reinvent the wheel. The light VK 9.01 tank was taken as the basis for the chassis. The engine, gearbox, and turning mechanisms were taken from the lighter vehicle as well. Initially, the VK 13.01 had lower priority than a different vehicle, the VK 9.03. It appeared in the development program on June 22nd, 1940. It featured a 180 hp Maybach HL 66 engine and side armour thickened to 20 mm. The tank was supposed to have been produced in two variants: the PzII Ausf.H with the one-man turret from the VK 9.01 (PzII Ausf. G) and the PzII Ausf.M with a two-man turret, which was designed by Daimler-Benz for the VK 13.01. The variant with a two-man turret was designed to fill the role of the Gefechtsaufklärungsfahrzeug, the reconnaissance vehicle for tank regiments.
In July of 1941, the first VK 13.01 prototype, also known as the PzII n.A., entered trials. Unfortunately, no information regarding this vehicle or any photographs have been preserved. All that is known is that it did not manage to meet the performance requirements. The contract for a zeroth batch for 15 tanks was cancelled. The VK 13.02 would have been a further development of this vehicle, but almost nothing is known about it. Presumably, it would have a different engine and transmission.
Another vehicle appears in correspondence on August 1st, 1941: the VK 13.03. This tank received the engine and transmission elements of the VK 9.03. A 200 hp turbocharged HL 66 P is also mentioned. The top speed requirement was reduced to 60 kph. The armament and turret remained unchanged. A 250 tank production run was planned.
Understanding that the development of the reconnaissance tank can stall or hit a dead end, the Armament Directorate decided to have a backup plan. Requirements for the tank were sent to BMM and Skoda factories on July 31st, 1940. The Czech companies were asked to design a reconnaissance tank weighing 10.5 tons with a top speed of 60 kph. Each company was to build 5 tanks. Skoda managed to finish first, finishing its prototype T-15 tank in October 1941. BMM presented the experimental Pz38(t) n.A. in December of 1941. The first VK 13.03 prototype was finished in early 1942. The VK 13.03, renamed to Pz.Sp.Wg.II Ausf.MAN in March, did not meet the 10.5 ton weight requirement. Its mass was 11.8 tons. to compare, the Pz38(t) n.A. (Pz.Sp.Wg.II Ausf.BMM) weighed 11.5 tons, and the T-15 (Pz.Sp.Wg.II Ausf.Škoda) was even lighter: 10.8 tons.
MAN's vehicle was the longest, had the weakest engine, and was no better than its competitors in speed. Nevertheless, the result of trials that began on March 16th, 1942, were not in favour of the Czech tanks. A report was prepared on June 26th, naming the Pz.Sp.Wg.II Ausf.MAN the winner. Over this time, the tank drove for 2484 km. The report praised the vehicle's maneuverability, but noted that there was a danger of drifting on slippery roads. Despite the weaker armament, the Pz.Sp.Wg.II Ausf.MAN was deemed superior to its competitors. The volume of the turret was greater, which was important for a reconnaissance tank. The Pz.Sp.Wg.II Ausf.MAN also had the biggest clearance and longest range. Trials opened the path to mass production.
The VK 13.03 was not the only reconnaissance tank that was being designed by MAN in late 1941. In mid-1941, the company received orders for a larger reconnaissance tank, which was indexed VK 16.02(M). This was the second tank with this index. Earlier, the index VK 16.02 belonged to a «paper» version of the PzII Ausf.J assault tank. The VK 20.02 medium tank was taken as the basis. The two tanks evolved together. After the analysis of the T-34 in the fall of 1941, both vehicles received sloped armour.
The draft project and wooden model of the reworked VK 16.02 chassis were demonstrated in late November of 1941. The vehicle had impressive armour: 80 mm in the front and 60 mm on the sides, equivalent to the PzII Ausf.J, VK 36.01, and VK 30.01(P). The difference was that these plates were sloped. The vehicle was powered by the 400 hp Maybach HL 100 engine. Since the VK 20.02(M) had higher priority, the 6th Department of the Armament Directorate decided to pass on the VK 16.02(M) to MIAG, Mühlenbau und Industrie Aktiengesellschaft.
The contract for the design of the VK 16.02(M) turret was given to Daimler-Benz. Work was led by Herbert Kunze, the lead turret design engineer at Daimler-Benz Werk 40. The design of the turret had a lot in common with the VK 30.01(D) medium tank, which, in turn, was influenced by the T-34. The turret had to be radically changed in comparison to previous designs since it now had to fit not only two crewmen, but the 50 mm KwK 39 L/60 cannon. The turret ring had to be enlarged, which influenced the shape of the turret. Like the hull, its armour was sloped. The gun mount received a mantlet that received the nickname Topfblende (pot mantlet) because of its characteristic shape.
Senior design engineer Wolf led the work at MIAG. By the spring of 1942, the VK 16.02(M) received a new name. Like several other projects, the vehicle was named after a beast. Now it was referred to as Gefechtsaufklärer Leopard. According to documentation presented by MIAG on June 1th, 1942, the Leopard now weighed 26 tons. There was a lighter variant, but it was rejected by Hitler, who thought that a tank of this class needs to have thick armour.
Those of you who treat this as more evidence of Hitler's madness should look at the American Light Tank T7, which, as a result of constantly increasing armour thickness, ballooned out from 12.5 tons to 25 tons. A year later, the same thing began to happen in the Soviet GABTU in relation to light tanks. The USSR went as far as a 25 ton light tank project with an 85 mm gun. However, Soviet and American tankers needed a light tank, and not a reconnaissance vehicle.
On July 27th, 1942, MIAG demonstrated the revised variant of their tank. Overall, it was the same as the VK 16.02(M) from November of 1941. There were some differences, however. The wheel diameter increased to 960 mm. The size of the idlers also increased. The VK 20.02(M) style protrusions from the upper front plate, absent on the VK 30.02(M), remained.
MIAG continued work on the lighter variant of the Leopard that had 60 mm of front armour and 40 mm of side armour. However, Hitler rejected that variant outright in September of 1942. The plan was to begin production in April of 1943, and produce 20 tanks per month by October.
Meanwhile, the tankers needed a fast reconnaissance tank rather than a well armoured one. On October 13th, 1942, during a meeting with Hitler, a decision was made to produce the lighter variant after all. The tank initially weighed about 18 tons, but later the weight grew to 21.9 tons. The PzIII Ausf.L, which had the same armament, weighed almost as much. The Gefechtsaufklärer Leopard was powered by a 550 hp Maybach HL 157 engine. The transmission included the Maybach OG 55 11 77 semiautomatic gearbox and a multi-stage turning mechanism. The expected top speed of the tank was 60 kph on highways and 30 kph on dirt roads. The range was also impressive: 500 km on a highway and 300 km on dirt roads. The design of the running gear was generally unchanged, but 660×150 mm track links, like on the Panther, were later used instead of 650 mm wide track links.
Work on SPGs using the Gefechtsaufklärer Leopard began at the same time as work on the tank. The first was the Sturmgeschutz auf Leopard (L/70). Alas, no information at all aside from the mention of a name was preserved. However, photographs of a full sized model of the Gerät 5-1028 SPG survived. Like the Sturmheschutz auf Leopard (L/70), it was designed by Rheinmetall-Borsig. The somewhat altered Leopard chassis carried a turret with bulletproof armour that held a 105 mm leFH 43 howitzer. The rear of the turret could fold out, which improved crew working conditions. The sides could also flip out to form a large platform. The result was a maneuverable self propelled howitzer with 360 degree firing ability.
On January 3rd, 1943, Hitler personally crossed the Leopard off the tank program. It was clear that a reconnaissance tank with these dimensions was unnecessary. However, this did not prevent the Germans from designing a reconnaissance tank on the Panther chassis.
Despite the fantasies of some authors, work on the Leopard and vehicles from this family did not progress past models. Information about a VK 16.02 designed by Daimler-Benz is also nonsense. It appears that someone incorrectly interpreted information that Daimler-Benz was working on the turret of the reconnaissance tank.
Work on the Gefechtsaufklärer Leopard affected the Pz.Sp.Wg.II Ausf.MAN, which received the name Luchs (Lynx) in the spring of 1942. On July 1st, a contract was signed to produce 800 of these tanks, including 100 with the 2 cm KwK 38 gun (Luchs 2 cm). The Luchs 5 cm would enter production in April of 1943 with the same turret as the Leopard.
Even a prototype of the Luchs 5 cm was never produced. A heavier turret would add a few extra tons of weight. It also partially covered up the entrance hatches to the driver's compartment and the engine compartment hatches. Finally, there was no point in such a turret since the 5 cm gun was no longer powerful enough. Nevertheless, this fragment of the Leopard program entered production. The turret was slightly reduced in size and used on the Sd.Kfz.234/2 armoured car.
Herbert Kunze, the creator of the turret, did live to see a Leopard with one of his turrets. He was one of the developers of the turret of the Leopard 2 main battle tank.
Production without success
The reconnaissance tank was accepted into service under the index Sd.Kfz.123. It was also called PzII Ausf.L. but this name was only used on registration number plates. In correspondence, the vehicles were referred to as Pz.Sp.Wg.II or Panzerspähwagen II. The name Luchs was also used, but rarely.
According to contract #210/1901/41 signed on July 1st, 1942, MAN was to produce 100 Luchs 2 cm reconnaissance tanks. Later, as mentioned above, 700 Luchs 5 cm tanks would be built, but the idea was scrapped in early February of 1943. Theoretically, the 100 Luchs 2 cm would be ready by April of 1943, but in practice production went on much slower. MAN only built one tank in September of 1942, 7 in October, and 4 in November and December. Only 25 tanks were built from January to April of 1943, and no tanks at all were produced in May.
The reason for such slow production hide in MAN's main duties. As mentioned before, the company worked on the VK 20.02(M) medium tank, which evolved into the VK 30.02(M), the Panther. The priority for this work was higher, since this was not a mere reconnaissance tank, but a medium tank to replace the PzIII. Preparation for production of the Panther Ausf.D, as well as the production itself, were very difficult. Production of the Pz.Sp.Wg.II was a best-effort project. Knowing the situation, the German Armament Directorate did not load MAN excessively.
Even later, the rate of production of the Pz.Sp.Wg.II was very low. Monthly production went over 10 units only once, in July of 1943. It is not surprising that production of the 100 tanks took over a year. Only 77 tanks were built in 1943. The last 7 tanks left the factory in January of 1944. No attempts were made to expedite the production of a vehicle that spent 3 years in development and had incredible difficulty with production. There was simply nowhere to build it. MIAG was overloaded with the PzIII, and after February of 1943 the factory switched to building the StuG 40 Ausf.G. In addition, the factory began assembling Jagdpanther tank destroyers starting in January of 1944. Other factories were also busy with much more important work than the reconnaissance tank.
Even though the Pz.Sp.Wg.II was produced in miserly amounts, the vehicle was changed during production. Smoke grenade launchers were added to the turret in October of 1942. They were installed until the end of May of 1943. In October, the tank also received an engine heater, very important for the Eastern Front. The rear hatch in the turret was widened in December of 1942. Starting with February of 1943, K.F.F.2 combat driving periscopes were no longer installed on the tank, but the openings remained. The last major changes were introduced in the summer of 1943, when the turning mechanism was changed and the number of headlights was reduced to one.
The Luchs was supposed to be used by special units: tank reconnaissance companies (Panzerspähkompanie b). The K.St.N.1162b TO&E was approved on January 10th, 1943. According to it, one Luchs was used by the company HQ and 28 more were spread out between 4 platoons. The company also included an Sd.Kfz.9 recovery vehicle, 7 Sd.Kfz.2 halftracks, and 4 Sd.Kfz.250/1 halftracks.
Due to the slow production of the Pz.Sp.Wg.II, the first reconnaissance company, attached to the 9th Tank Division, only reached combat readiness on March 21st, 1943. The company reached its authorized strength in May of 1943, and was sent to the front. Despite all efforts, no more than three of these companies could be formed. In practice, things were even worse. Only two companies formed according to K.St.N.1162b reached authorized strength. The second was the 2nd company of the 4th Reconnaissance Battalion, which was attached to the 4th Tank Division. The rest of the tanks were either later sent to these units as replacements or parcelled out to other units. For instance, 5 tanks ended up in the 4th Cavalry Brigade, and one turned up in the Hermann Goering division by December 30th, 1944.
Operation Citadel was one of the few operations where the Pz.Sp.Wg.II was used in numbers. By August 17th, 1943, only 5 functional tanks remained in the 2nd Reconnaissance Company. By September 1st, out of 29 vehicles only 10 remained in any condition. Losses were not only taken from Red Amy fire, but from breakdowns: there were frequent complaints about the turning mechanisms. Similar issues were recorded even before entering combat, which is why new turning mechanisms were introduced in July of 1943.
The company was disbanded on September 26th, 1943, and the remaining tanks were sent to the factory for refurbishment. Not all tanks came back, as a number was written off. The «Luchs company» was later reformed, but it only reached combat readiness by March of 1944. This time, it included 25 tanks: one in the HQ and 6 in each of its four platoons. These tanks did not reach the Eastern Front. The 1st company of the 9th Reconnaissance Battalion fought in France in June of 1944. Two tanks from it survive to this day: one in the Bovington Tank Museum, the other in the Musée des blindés de Saumur. The tank in France is in running order.
A characteristic feature of tanks from the 9th Tank Division is the rack for fuel cans on the sides of the turret.
Tanks from the 2nd company of the 4th Reconnaissance Battalion of the 4th Tank Division survived for longer. The company reached the Eastern Front in September of 1943. Soon after, 4 tanks were knocked out by mines, and only several were later restored. Unlike their colleagues from the 9th Tank Division, the reconnaissance tanks from the 4th held on for much longer. As of January 1st, 1944, 22 Luchs tanks were still functional. Losses were slowly replenished with newly arriving tanks.
Tanks from the 4th Tank Division had one characteristic feature. Applique armour was added to the front of the hull, which also served as a container for tools. Spare track links were added to the front as well. Even though the 4th Tank Division fought fairly actively, many reconnaissance tanks remained in it until the end of the war. As of July 1st, 1944, the unit had 24 tanks, 19 in October, 24 at the end of December, and 16 in March of 1945. It's strange that even though more than half of all Luchs tanks fought on the Eastern Front, the GABTU received almost no information about them.
To conclude, let us mention one fairly mysterious vehicle. In addition to the first VK 13.01, three more experimental tanks were built: the V29, V30, and V31. One of them, the V29, was used for experiments with new engines. The design of this tank's hull was noticeably different. The armour was sloped, making it look like a «pocket Panther». The VK 9.01 turret was used. This tank was never to be mass produced, and was only an experiment.
The main feature of the reworked VK 13.03 was the engine. The tank received a 210 hp V-12 air cooled 14.8 L Tatra V910 engine. A decision was made to use this engine, designed for the Tatra 111 truck, in tanks and armoured cars. Trials began in March of 1944. The reworked VK 13.03 was supposed to travel for 3000 km. However, when the suspension broke in May, the trials ended.
The V910 engine was used on the Sd.Kfz.234 family of armoured cars. As for German reconnaissance tanks, the last of the work was done in Czechia.
A necessary move from Bohemia
The desire of German companies to get every contract for themselves ended poorly. It would have been better to use Czech companies to develop reconnaissance tanks, but nobody thought about it in the summer of 1942. The T-15 and Pz38(t) n.A. programs continued by inertia, but mass production was already out of the question.
The German brass figured out that something went wrong with their reconnaissance tank program in the summer of 1943. In July, BMM received a task to develop a reconnaissance tank, and full scale models were presented in September. The reconnaissance tank, named Aufklärungspanzer 38(t), was made from a converted Marder III chassis. The feature of this tank was that it was not built from scratch, but converted from repaired vehicles. Thanks to the Praga AE 160 hp engine, the top speed of the 9.5 ton vehicle increased to 58 kph. The cruising range was 250 km. In other words, it was the same Luchs, but simpler and cheaper.
The Aufklärungspanzer 38(t) was designed in two variants. The first was a reconnaissance tank that used the 2 cm Hängelafette 38 turret. This was a further development of the turret from the Sd.Kfz.222 armoured car. The 2 cm Hängelafette 38 was universal: it was used on the Sd.Kfz.250/9 Ausf.B reconnaissance halftrack and the Sd.Kfz.234/1 heavy reconnaissance armoured car. Because of this unification, building the tank would be easier. Of course, it was not as well protected as the Luchs' turret, but a reconnaissance tank's main protection comes from its size and speed. The Aufklärungspanzer 38(t) surpassed its predecessor here: it was only 2120 mm tall, 10 cm lower than the Luchs. The vehicle was also more than 2 tons lighter.
The second Aufklärungspanzer 38(t) variant was much more exotic. Instead of a rotating turret, the vehicle received a semi-open casemate, which used the 75 mm Kanone 51 L/24. This was a modified version of the 75 mm StuK L/24 used on the StuG III SPG. A similar weapon was used on the Sd.Kfz.234/3 armoured car, Sd.Kfz.250/8 Ausf.B halftrack, and late model Sd.Kfz.251/9. BMM designed two variants of the Aufklärungspanzer 38(t), which had a different shape of the front hull, casemate, and gun mantlet.
After the models were inspected, a decision was made to build prototypes. Three vehicles were built with serial numbers 3105, 3106, and 3107. The version with the 2 cm Hängelafette 38 was accepted into service under the index Sd.Kfz.140/1. 34 reconnaissance tanks were built (or rather converted) in February of 1944, and then 33 more in March. They received serial numbers from 3105 to 3416. After that, production ceased, since BMM was producing the Jagdpanzer 38(t) tank destroyer. There was no longer anywhere to produce the reconnaissance tank.
Two Aufklärungspanzer 38(t) companies were created based on TO&E K.St.N.1162b. In April of 1944, 25 tanks were sent to the 2nd company of the reconnaissance battalion of the Grossdeutschland division. 25 more tanks were sent to the 1st Reconnaissance Company of the 3rd Tank Reconnaissance Battalion of the 3rd Tank Division. The Aufklärungspanzer 38(t) served this way until the end of the war. At least one vehicle was captured by the Americans, but did not survive to this day. These vehicles were also used during the fighting at Lake Balaton in Hungary.
The German light reconnaissance tank program ended in complete failure. Four reconnaissance companies equipped with two types of tank is a drop in the ocean.
Translated by Peter Samsonov. Read more interesting tank articles on his blog Tank Archives.
- Panzer Tracts No. 2–2 — Panzerkampwagen II Ausf.G, H, J, L, and M development and production from 1938 to 1943, Thomas L. Jentz, Hilary Louis Doyle, 2007, ISBN 0–9771643–8–1
- Panzer Tracts No. 20–2 Paper Panzers Aufklaerungs, Beobachtungs, and Flak-Panzer (Reconnaissance, Observation, and Anti-Aircraft), Thomas L. Jentz, Hilary Louis Doyle, 2002, ISBN 0–09708407–7–2
- Marder III & Grille, Vladimir Francev, Charles K. Kliment, MBI, 2001, ISBN 80–902238–8–5
- Hilary L. Doyle's archive
- Author's photo archive