Article by Yuri Pasholok
Coming up with tank ratings is a hobby of many tank experts, as well as people who consider themselves as such. As a rule, the creators try to determine the best tank. While some kind of systematic approach was developed over the years, picking out the worst tanks is usually more complicated. Often, creators of lists of the worst tanks make their choices according to no set system and end up naming a number of tanks that didn't earn such a shameful label.
If we consider the tank's characteristics, the time of its appearance on the battlefield, and combat effectiveness, then one of the worst tanks of WWII was the German Pz.Kpfw.I Ausf. F. Conceptually similar to the British Infantry Tank Mk.I, it entered service in the middle of the war, with very questionable characteristics.
The French military is often fairly criticized that they spent the time between wars preparing for the past one. However, we must remember that other countries had plenty of commanders who assumed that the battles of the upcoming war would be similar to WWI. The German army had its share of these commanders. Their number includes General Walther von Brauchitsch, who was appointed to the post of the supreme commander of the Wehrmacht land forces on February 4th, 1938.
It's hard to call von Brauchitsch a dead-set conservative, but some of his decisions raise questions. The hero of this article appeared due to his order, given on November 28th, 1938. The cause of this order was that the Germans were preparing not only for a maneuver war, but for an assault on well prepared fortifications and deeply echeloned defenses. France, Belgium, and Czechoslovakia were among Germany's neighbours who had such defenses. AA guns and specialized SPGs would be used to destroy them. One of the, the Pz.Sfl.IVa, was even built in metal and fought, albeit as a tank destroyer.
The use of AA artillery and special SPGs was reasonable, but von Brauchitsch also ordered the creation of heavy tank companies, designed to combat enemy lines of defense. Tanks with maximum possible protection were needed for this purpose.
The idea of creating a tank with shellproof armour was not so bad. The problem lay in the tanks that In 6 (Inspekteur für Heeresmotorisierung, Motorized Forces, Inspectorate) wanted. The first, the VK 65.01, was more or less suitable for its task. With a mass of 65 tons, it would have up to 80 mm of armour, and be armed with a 105 mm (later 75 mm) gun.
The second tank only raises questions. The 6th Department of the Armament Directorate received an order for a tank… analogous to the light PzI: a tank with a two man crew and two machineguns for armament. The protection of this tank was limited by only one parameter: the 18 ton load limit of pontoon bridges.
Krupp, the developer of the PzI, was pushed away from the development of new tanks. In its refusal to follow the specifications designed by Heinrich Kniepkamp, the company gave up any chances on influencing the further development of the La.S. In late 1938, work on the light tank that would be later called PzI Ausf. C was given to Krauss-Maffei. At that point, the tank, still called VK 6.01, was in the design stage, where the shape of the tank was drastically changing. Naturally, the contract for a «small heavily armoured tank» was given to Krauss-Maffei as well. As per tradition, the turret design was left to Daimler-Benz AG Werk 40 in Marienfelde (south Berlin).
The fact that Krauss-Maffei received an order did not mean that work on the VK 18.01 (tracked vehicle, 18 tons, 1st design) would start immediately. As it was already mentioned, the company's main project was the VK 6.01, which was late. The biggest cause was the redesign of the suspension.
Around this time, MAN received a similar order: three-man tank with maximum possible protection. The 6th Department, having thought it over, decided to link the projects. This did not mean that the two companies would build identical tanks. However, the similar tasks led to the idea that it would be possible to use the same components on both tanks.
A meeting with representatives of both companies was held on November 19th, 1939. An agreement was reached to join forces, using Krauss-Maffei's suspension designs. This is logical, since there was significant progress in the VK 6.01 and work was reaching its end. Of course, only the concept would be used, since a tank at three times the mass would not be able to use the light tank's suspension as is. Both heavily armoured tanks received a layout with five road wheels per side, a reworked suspension, and the Maybach HL 45 150 hp engine from the VK 6.01.
Krauss-Maffei was tasked with developing the new suspension and track links. MAN was not left without work: it had to design the drive sprockets, final drives, and transmission. The tank used the ZF SSG 47 gearbox. Each company would build 4 experimental chassis, with Krauss-Maffei building 8 suspensions for itself and MAN, and MAN building 8 transmissions and drive sprockets.
On December 29th, 1939, In 6 approved the building of a pilot batch of the VK 18.01. Krauss-Maffei would build 30 chassis and Daimler-Benz would build 30 turrets. Turret platforms were not included in the contract, since the hull was built whole.
The new Daimler-Benz turret was significantly different from prior designs. It had straight sides, which were, for some reason, covered by a complicated sloped plate. The reason for this design is not clear.
All observation devices were placed in the roof, in order to strengthen the sides. The thickness of the sides of the turret and the front was 80 mm, and the rear was 60 mm thick. The armour protected reliably from the 50 mm Pak 38. Even though Krupp did not participate in the tender, it still received work. A contract for 30 sets of armour plates was signed on February 3rd, 1940. As for the experimental prototype of the VK 18.01, it was built from mild steel.
A second variant of the VK 18.01, which was never built in metal and yet existed in mass production according to some historians, is worth mentioning. The VK 18.02, dated July 9th, 1949, was the same VK 18.01, but with a new gearbox. Instead of the SSG 47, it used the 8-speed semiautomatic Maybach SRG 15319 gearbox and LG 45 R turning mechanism. The work on this tank did not proceed past the design stage, and pass production tanks retained the SSG 47 gearbox.
Without a target
According to plans approved in April of 1940, the first tank from the pilot batch would be completed in December of 1940, and the last in March of 1941. Krupp would supply the first sets of armour in November of 1940. In reality, Krupp only produced on set of armour for the hull and two for the turrets in 1940. All of these components were made from mild steel, to be used in the prototype. Krauss-Maffei assembled the experimental tank by June 17th, 1940.
Amusingly, by the time the tank entered trials, there were no longer any targets for it to fight. The Maginot line and other echeloned defenses were defeated without shellproof tanks. By that point, it was clear that a tank had to have not just armour, but also mobility. The French, who put their bet on armour lost the war. The Char B1, Renault D2, Renault R 35, and other tanks with good protection, but poor mobility, could not protect France.
Additionally, the experience in France showed that crossing the 30 ton mark was undesirable. The VK 65.01 fell victim to this restriction, and it was cancelled in October of 1940. The VK 18.01 also should have been cancelled, but, since its mass was less than 30 tons, this was not done. The Third Reich's bureaucratic machine did not notice this tank, which Germany no longer needed.
Krupp was very late with its armour. Nevertheless, delivery of plates for the pilot batch was completed by September 30th, 1931. As for Krauss-Maffei, its organization was even worse. The company was still busy with its other light tank, the VK 6.01. Meanwhile, the contract for the first batch of VK 18.01 tanks was on the horizon. In 6 proposed 100 tanks, with production starting in late 1941.
Subsequent events showed that the Inspectorate was home to boundless optimists: the first pilot VK 18.01 left Munich in March of 1942. These tanks were distinct from the prototype in several ways. For starters, the tank was equipped with the Fu 2 radio. After trials of the prototype, the track pitch was reduced from 160 to 130 mm. The front of the hull was slightly changed, and the side hatches became smaller. Protective railings for the machineguns were added to the gun mantlet, and spare track links and a smoke grenade launcher was added to the rear.
Production continued unevenly. The tanks received serial numbers 15301-15330. 12 were built in May, then there was a 2 month lull, after which the tanks were delivered in small batches until December of 1942.
To battle, anywhere at all
Initially, the PzI Ausf. F was assigned to a very niche, but appropriate role. The 66th Special Purpose Tank Battalion was formed on May 30th, 1942. This unit was created for a very specific purpose: for an assault on Malta, planned as a part of Operation Hercules. Five PzI Ausf. F tanks were included in the 1st company, which also included five PzII Ausf. J and twelve PzIV with tropical equipment. THe company was commanded by Oberleutnant Betke. The second company from the battalion was even more exotic, as it included captured KV-1, KV-2, and T-34 tanks.
The battalion never participated in the assault, as the operation was cancelled. This was just the beginning of the battalion's misadventures.
A decision was made on July 27th to split the battalion in half. The first company was sent to Leningrad, and not just anywhere, but to the Mga region, home to swampy terrain that was inappropriate for such tanks. The company was subordinated to the 12th Tank Division, and the number of PzI Ausf. F tanks increased to 7. The battalion did not sit still for long, as the Sinyavino operation began in late August of 1942.
By September 10th, when the tanks saw their first battle, six of the seven tanks were in working order. That day the tanks attacked Tortolovo, and the result was not as expected. Betke was fatally wounded and died on the 12th. Two PzI Ausf. F tanks were destroyed, two got stuck in the swamp. One of the tanks was evacuated by September 24th. Two days later, another tank was lost on the march. Later, one tank was sent for repairs.
It's hard to say that the PzI Ausf. F was completely useless. Thanks to its wide tracks and sturdy floor, it could act as a mine trawler. On October 2nd, 1942, the company was permanently included in the 12th Tank Division, and became the 8th company of the 29th Tank Regiment. As of December 1942, five of the unit's PzI Ausf. F were still in working order. Five more arrived on January 23rd. In February, 3 tanks were lost in battle, and two more were written off in April. As of May, 4 tanks were included in the 2nd battalion's HQ, and one more was in the 8th company. The last mention of these tanks is dated July 10th.
The next unit to receive the PzI Ausf. F was the 2nd battalion of the 1st Tank Regiment of the 1st Tank Division. It received 8 tanks of the type, as well as two PzI Ausf. C, a very questionable combination. However, the 1st Tank Division was quartered in Greece at the time, and was not expecting to get into any fights. In November, the division was sent to Kiev, where it faced elements of the Soviet 3rd Guards Tank Army. Here, the armour of the PzI Ausf. F did not help it much: only one tank remained functional by November 20th. Later, one tank was returned into service, and one burned up. Between December 10th and 21st, the tank was removed from the front, and only one PzI Ausf. F remained in the 1st Tank Regiment by the end.
Six more tanks fought in the 221st Tank Company, which, like the 66th Tank Battalion, had a very heterogeneous composition. These tanks were used in anti-partisan operations in Belarus in the summer of 1943. As of March 11th, 1944, the company still had 5 PzI Ausf. F tanks, 4 of them functional. Most likely it's one of these tanks that can be seen near the Kalemegdan castle in Belgrade.
The anti-partisan squads received the rest of the PzI Ausf. F. On May 17th, 1943, five of these tanks (some coming in from repairs, others from different units) arrived in the 2nd Police Tank Company, replacing their captured Panzerkampfwagen 35R (f). The company was added to the 4th SS Police Regiment, which operated in Belarus since August of 1943. The regiment and company ended up in the sector of the 4th Army in June of 1944. Here, they suffered the fate of the other units from the group under the assault of the 1st Baltic Front. Remnants of the 2nd tank company arrived in Vienna in August of 1944.
PzI Ausf. F with serial number 150329, produced in November of 1942, was among the tanks abandoned by the 2nd Police Tank Company. According to documents, it arrived at the GBTU proving grounds in the end of the summer of 1944. Interestingly enough, it is referred to as the «Bear» tank. This happened because of the regimental bear emblem on the front and rear. The tank did not undergo trials, and only a technical description was composed.
The tank did end up attracting the specialists' attention later, in the fall of 1945. Its suspension was rather unique, and the proving grounds were studying torsion bar suspensions of various kinds. The tank's suspension was included in the study.
As you probably noticed, the only function that the PzI Ausf. F was decent at was fighting partisans, due to its powerful armour and robust suspension, which was resistant to mines. However, the PzI Ausf. F was built for a completely different purpose. By the time the tank reached the front lines, its combat effectiveness was nearing zero.
One may compare this tank to the similar Infantry Tank Mk.I, but its concept was created in the mid-1930s. The German «light tank with heavy armour» was designed at a time when it was clear that machinegun-only tanks were not needed. It was also unclear what these tanks would do with the fortifications they were designed to assault. The PzI Ausf. F can be considered a tank that was designed well, but to completely asinine specifications.
Translated by Peter Samsonov. Read more interesting tank articles on his blog Tank Archives.
- National Archives and Records Administration
- Central Archives of the Russian Ministry of Defence
- Panzer Tracts No.1–2 Panzerkampfwagen 1 (Kl.Pz.Bef.Wg. to VK 18.01), Thomas L. Jentz, Hilary Louis Doyle, Darlington Publication, 2002, ISBN 0–9708407–8–0
- Author's photo archive