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Panzer I Light German Tank.

Panzerkampfwagen I Ausf. A - On display
Panzerkampfwagen I Ausf. A - On display

Panzer I is the common name of a light tank that was produced by Germany in the 1930s. The official German designation was Panzerkampfwagen I (abbreviated PzKpfw I) and the tank also had the ordnance inventory designation SdKfz 101.

Intended as a training tank to introduce the concept of armored warfare into the German Army, it began design in 1932 and mass production in 1934. Despite the original purpose of the vehicle, the Panzer I saw combat in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, during the Second World War, and even in China during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Based on experience gathered during the Spanish Civil War the Panzer I and her crews would help shape the German armor corps which invaded Poland in 1939 and France in 1940. By 1941, however, old Panzer I chassis were being reused for production of tank destroyers. Furthermore, there would be various attempts to upgrade the Panzer I throughout its history and would continue to serve in the armed forces of Spain until 1954.

Ultimately, the Panzer I's performance in combat was affected by its relatively poor armor protection and light armament. Although this was to be expected from a tank never designed for a combat role, the Panzer I was not comparable to other light tanks of the era, such as the T-26. Although the Panzer I was an obsolete tank when put into a combat role, the Panzer I formed large portions of Germany's total tank strength in most major campaigns between September 1939 and December 1941. Ultimately, the small light tank would be overshadowed in importance by much more well known German tanks, such as the Panther or Panzer IV, but its important contributions to the early victories of Nazi Germany during the Second World War cannot be ignored.

Development history

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles formally disallowed Germany to design, manufacture and deploy tanks within the Reichswehr, the post-World War I German armed forces. According to paragraph twenty-four of the treaty a 100,000 marks fee and an imprisonment of up to six months would be imposed on anybody who "[manufactured] armoured vehicles, tanks or similar machines, which may be turned to military use."

Despite the limitations imposed upon Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, several officers of the Reichswehr were able to establish a clandestine General Staff dedicated to the study of the First World War with the purpose of the development of future strategies and tactics. Although at first the concept of the tank as a mobile weapon of war was met by apathy, German industry was silently encouraged to look into tank-design, while quiet cooperation was undertaken with the Soviet Union. There was also minor military cooperation with Sweden, including the extraction of technical data which proved invaluable to early German tank design. As early as 1926 various German companies, including Rheinmetall and Daimler-Benz, produced a single prototype (codenamed Grosstraktor, "large tractor", in an attempt to veil the true purpose of the vehicle), armed with a large 75 mm cannon. Only two years later prototypes of the new Leichtertraktor ("light tractor"), were produced by German companies, armed with 37 mm KwK L/45 guns. The Grosstraktor was later put into service with the 1st Panzer Division, although it did not remain in service for a considerable amount of time, and the Leichtertraktor remained experimental vehicles until 1935. In the late 1920s and early 1930s German tank theory was pioneered by two figures: General Lutz and his chief-of-staff Lieutenant Colonel Heinz Guderian. Guderian became the most influential of the two-men and his ideas were widely publicized.

Guderian envisioned an armor corps composed of several types of tanks. This included a slow infantry tank, armed with a small-caliber cannon and several machine guns. An infantry tank, according to Guderian, was also to be heavily armored to defend against enemy anti-tank guns and artillery. Furthermore, he also envisioned a fast breakthrough tank which was armored against enemy anti-tank weapons and had a large 75 mm cannon. Finally, Germany would need a heavy tank to defeat enemy fortifications, armed with a 150 mm cannon and relatively stronger armor. Such a tank also required a weight of between 70 and 100 tonnes. Hitler, soon after rising to power in Germany, found interest in Guderian's opinions and approved the creation of Germany's first panzer divisions. Guderian suggested the design of a main combat vehicle, which was manifested later as the Panzer III, and a breakthrough tank, later the Panzer IV. These were not available in 1933 and no existing tank design appealed to Guderian. Nevertheless, a preliminary vehicle was ordered by the German Army for the intent of training German tank crews - this became the Panzer I.

The beginning of the Panzer I's design history can be traced back to 1932 with the beginning of the Landswirtschaftlicher Schlepper armored fighting vehicle, abbreviated La S. The La S was intended not just to train Germany's panzer troops, but to prepare Germany's industry for the mass production of tanks in the near future. In 1933 Krupp revealed a prototype of the Landswerk Krupp A, or LKA, with a sloped front plane, a large central casemate and heavily influenced by the British Carden Loyd tankette. The tank was armed with two MG-13 Dreyse machine guns. A mass produced version of the LKA was consequently designed between Daimler-Benz, Henschel, Krupp, MAN and Rheinmetall, exchanging the casemate with a rotating turret, and was accepted into service after testing in 1934. Although these tanks were referred to as the La S and LKA well beyond the beginning of initial production, nomenclature would change in 1938 to its official designation - PanzerKampfwagen I Ausf. A. The first fifteen tanks were produced between February and March 1934 and did not include the rotating turret; they were used specifically for crew training. Following the production of these first fiteen tanks, production was switched to the combat version of the tank. The Panzer I Ausf. (variant) A was underarmored, with only 13 mm of steel protection at its thickest points. Furthermore, several faults were found in the design, including suspension problems - which forced the vehicle to pitch at high velocities - and overheating. The driver was positioned inside the chassis, using steering levers to control the tank, while the commander was positioned in the turret where he also acted as the dedicated gunner. The two crew members could communicate by means of a voice tube. Machine gun ammunition was stowed in five individual bins, containing several magazines of twenty-five rounds. Lucas Molina Franco, a Spanish author, suggests that 833 Ausf. A models were fabricated in total, while Bryan Perrett offers the number of 300 and Terry Gander 818.

Many of the problems found in the Panzer I Ausf. A were later corrected with the introduction of the Ausf. B version of the vehicle. The engine was replaced by the water-cooled, six-cylinder, 100 PS (98 hp, 73.5 kW) Maybach NL 38 TR and the gearbox was exchanged with by a newer, more reliable model. The larger engine required the extension of the vehicle's chassis by no less than 40 cm, and this allowed the improvement of the tank's suspension system by means of adding a new bogie wheel and raising the tensioner. The tank's weight increased by .4 tonnes, although protection was not increased. Production of the Panzer I Ausf. B began August 1935 and finished in early 1937 - Franco writes that 840 were constructed, while Perrett offers a total number of 1,500 and Gander a total of 675. However, Lucas Molina Franco mentions that only 675 of the 840 built were combat versions.

Sister tanks

Two more combat versions of the Panzer I were designed and produced between 1939 and 1942. However, these tanks had nothing in common with either the Panzer I Ausf. A or the Ausf. B, except in name. One of the these, the Panzer I Ausf. C, was designed jointly between Krauss-Maffei and Daimler-Benz in 1939 for the purpose of having an amply armored and armed reconnaissance light tank. The Ausf. C boasted a completely new chassis and turret, a modern torsion-bar suspension and five interleaved roadwheels. This new tank also had a maximum thickness of 30 mm of steel plating, which was over twice as thick as either the Ausf. An or Ausf. B, and was armed with a 7.92 mm EW 141 machine gun. Forty of these tanks were produced, along with six prototypes. Two tanks saw deployment to 1st Panzer Division in 1943, and the other thirty-eight were deployed to the LVIII Panzer Reserve Corps during the Normandy landings in 1944.

PzKpfw I Ausf. F in Belgrade
PzKpfw I Ausf. F in Belgrade

The second vehicle, the Ausf. F, was as different from the Ausf. B as it was from the Ausf. C. Intended as an infantry support tank, the Panzer I Ausf. F fielded a maximum thickness of 80 mm and weighed between 18 and 21 tonnes. Thirty of these tanks were produced in 1940, although a second order of 100 vehicles was later canceled. In order to make-up for the increased weight a new 150 hp Maybach HL45 Otto engine was used, allowing a maximum road-speed of 25 km/h. Eight of thirty produced tanks were sent to the 1st Panzer Division in 1943 and saw combat at the Battle of Kursk. The rest were given to several army schools for training and evaluation purposes. The Ausf. F tank was armed with two 7.92 mm MG-34s

Combat History of the Panzer I Tank

Spanish Panzer I Breda, upgraded with a 20 mm Breda anti-aircraft gun
Spanish Panzer I Breda, upgraded with a 20 mm Breda anti-aircraft gun

Spanish Civil War

On 18 July 1936, war broke out on the Iberian peninsula as Spain dissolved into a state of civil war. After the initial uprising two sides began to consolidate themselves and form - the Popular front and the Spanish Nationalist front. Both sides almost immediately received support from various countries around the world, especially from the Soviet Union and Germany. The first shipment of foreign tanks arrived on 15 October and consisted of fifty T-26 light tanks from the Soviet Union. The shipment was under the surveillance of the German Navy and Germany immediately responded by sending forty-one Panzer Is to Spain a few days after. This first shipment was followed by four more shipments of Panzer I Ausf. B tanks , coming to the total of 122 vehicles.

The first shipment of tanks were immediately consolidated under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Ritter von Thoma in Gruppe Thoma, also referred to as Panzergruppe Drohne. Gruppe Thoma formed part of Gruppe Imker which referred to the ground formations of the German Condor Legion. Between July and October a rapid Nationalist advance from Sevilla to Toledo placed them in position to take Madrid, the capital of Spain. The rapid nationalist advance and the fall of the town of Illescas to Nationalist armies on 18 October 1936, caused the government of the Second Republic to flee to Barcelona and Valencia, including President Manuel Azaña. In an attempt to stem the tide and gain Madrid's defenses crucial time Soviet armor was deployed south of Madrid under the command of Colonel Krivoshein, before the end of October. Upon their arrival several T-26 tanks, under the command of Captain Paul Arman, were thrown into a counterattack directed towards the town of Torrejon de Velasco in an attempt to cut off the Nationalist's line of advance north - this was the first tank battle in the Spanish Civil War. Despite initial success, poor communication between Republican armor and infantry caused the isolation of Captain Arman's tanks and the subsequent destruction of a number of tanks. This battle also marked the first use of the molotov cocktail against tanks. Ritter von Thoma's Panzer Is found use only days later, on 30 October, and immediately experienced problems. As the Nationalist armor advanced it was engaged by the Commune de Paris battalion, armed with Soviet BA-10 armored cars. It was found that the 37 mm anti-tank gun used by the BA-10 was more than sufficient to knock-out the poorly armored German Panzer I at ranges of over 500 m. Although initially the German Panzer I was able to knock-out Soviet T-26 tanks at ranges of up to 150 m using a special armor piercing 7.92 mm bullet, Republican tanks began to engage at longer distances using their superior 45 mm tank gun.

Comparison of light tanks in the Spanish Civil War
T-26 Panzer I CV.33 CV.35
Weight 9.4 t 5.4 t 3.15 t 2.3 t
Gun 45 mm cannon 2× 7.92 mm MG 13 6.5 mm or 8 mm machine gun 8 mm Breda machine gun
Ammunition 122 rounds 2,250 rounds 3,200 8 mm or 3,800 6.5 mm 3,200
Road range 175 km 200 km 125 km 125 km
Armor 7-16 mm 7-13 mm 5-15 mm 5-13.5 mm

Although the Panzer I would partake in almost every major Nationalist offensive of the war, the Nationalist army began to deploy more and more captured T-26 tanks to offset the disadvantage in the quality of armor. At one point Ritter von Thoma offered up to 500 pesetas per T-26 captured. There was an attempted upgrade of the Panzer I in order to increase the tank's lethality. On 8 August 1937, Major General García Pallasar received a note from Generalísimo Francisco Franco which expressed the need for a Panzer I, or negrillo as known by their Spanish crews, armed with a 20 mm gun. Ultimately, the piece chosen was the 20 mm Breda mod. 1935 due to the simplicity of the design over competitors such as the German Flak 30. Furthermore, the 20 mm Breda was capable of perforating 40 mm of steel at 250 m, which was more than required to penetrate the front armor of rival T-26 tanks. Although originally forty Italian CV.35 light tanks were ordered with the original armament exchanged for the 20 mm Breda mod. 1935 this order was subsequently canceled after it was thought that the adaptation of the same gun to the Panzer I would yield better results. Prototypes were ready by September 1937 and an order was placed after successful results. The mounting of the Breda machine gun onto the Panzer I required the original turret to be opened at the top and then extended by a verticle supplement. Moreover, the diameter of the front plate of the turret had to be widened. Four of these tanks were finished at the Armament Factory of Sevilla, but further production was canceled as it was decided that sufficient numbers of Republican T-26 tanks had been captured in order to fulfill the Nationalist's leadership's request for more potent lethality on their tanks. This modification of the Panzer I was not particularly liked by German crews, as the unprotected gap in the turret, designed to allow the tank's commander to aim was found to be a dangerous weakpoint.

In late 1938 another Panzer I was sent to the Armament Factory of Sevilla in order to adapt a 45 mm tank-gun, captured from either a Soviet T-26 or BT-5. A second Panzer was sent sometime later in order to exchange the original armament for a 37 mm Maklen anti-tank gun, which had been deployed to Asturias in late 1936 on the Soviet ship A. Andreiev. It remains unknown to what extent these trials and adaptations were completed, although it is safe to assume that neither adaptation was successful beyond the drawing board

Panzer Is delivered to Spain (1936-1939)
Date Number of Vehicles Additional Information
October 1936 41 Formed part of the Condor Legion
December 1936 21  
August 1937 30  
End of 1937 10  
January 1939 30  
Total: 132  

Second World War

Panzer I Ausf. A, PzAbt zbV 40, engaged in combat during the German invasion of Norway. (US National Archives)
Panzer I Ausf. A, PzAbt zbV 40, engaged in combat during the German invasion of Norway. (US National Archives)

During the initial campaigns of the Second World War Germany's light tanks, including the Panzer I, formed the bulk of its armor. In March 1938 the German Army marched into Austria, experiencing a breakdown rate of up to thirty percent. However, the experiences of the occupation of Austria allowed Guderian to realize several faults within the German armor corps and subsequently allowed him to improve the maintenance and fuel supply situation. In October 1938 German tanks occupied Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland, and then occupied the remainder of the country in March 1939. The capture of Czechoslovakia allowed several Czech tank designs, such as the Panzer 38(t), to be incorporated into the German Army. It also prepared German forces for the eventual invasion of Poland.

Poland and the campaign in the West

On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland using forty-two divisions, including six panzer divisions. Two days later France and Britain declared war on Germany. These six panzer divisions and four light divisions were arrayed in five armies, forming two army groups. The battalion strength of the 1st Panzer Division contained no less than fourteen Panzer I tanks, while the other five divisions included thirty-four Panzer Is. A total of about 2,600 tanks were available for the invasion of Poland, but only 310 of the heavier Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs were available. Furthermore, 350 of these tanks were of Czech design - the rest were either Panzer Is or Panzer IIs. The invasion was swift and the last Polish pockets of resistance surrendered on 6 October. The entire campaign had lasted five weeks, and the success of Germany's tanks in the campaign was summed up in Guderian's response to Hitler on 5 September when Hitler asked if it had been the dive bombers who destroyed a Polish artillery regiment, "No, our panzers!"

The Poles suffered around 750,000 casualties (including over 600,000 captured) in the campaign, while the Germans had suffered around 40,000. However, around 650 tanks were lost during the campaign, two-thirds of which were never to return to service. This represented around a fourth of Germany's armor that particpated in Polish campaign. It should be noted that during the campaign no less than a fourth of Germany's tanks were unavailable due to maintenance issues or enemy action, and of all tanks the Panzer Is had proved the most vulnerable to Polish anti-tank weapons. Furthermore, it was found that the handling of armored forces during the campaign left much to be desired. During the beginning of Guderian's attack in northern Poland his corps was held back to coordinate with infantry for quite a while, preventing a faster advance. It was only after Army Group South had its attention taken from Warsaw at the Battle of Bzura that Guderian's armor was fully unleashed. There were still lingering tendencies to reserve Germany's armor, even if in independent divisions, to cover an infantry advance or the flanks of advancing infantry armies. Although tank production was increased to 125 tanks per month after the Polish Campaign, losses forced the Germans to draw further strength from Czech tank designs, and light tanks continued to form the majority of Germany's armored strength.

Months later, Panzer Is would participate in the invasion of Denmark and Norway. Despite its obsolesence the Panzer I was also used in the invasion of France in May 1940. Of 2,574 tanks available for the campaign, no fewer than 523 were Panzer Is. Furthermore, there were only 627 Panzer IIIs and IVs. At least a fifth of Germany's armor forces was composed of machine gun carrying Panzer Is, while almost four-fifths was composed of light tanks of one type or another, including 955 Panzer IIs, 106 Czech Panzer 35(t)s and 228 Panzer 38(t)s. For their defense the French could boast of up to 4,000 tanks, including 300 Char B1 heavy tanks, armed with a 47 mm gun in the turret and a larger 75 mm low velocity gun in the hull. The French also had around 250 Somua S-35 tanks, widely regarded as one of the best tanks of the time, armed with the same 47 mm main gun and protected by almost 55 mm of steel at its thickest point. Nevertheless, the French also deployed over 3,000 light tanks, including about 500 vintage FT-17 tanks. The one advantage German armor enjoyed of was the use of one-way radios which allowed German armor to coordinate faster than their British or French counterparts.

While the German invasion of Belgium began on May 9, 1940, only three days later the majority of Germany's armored divisions struck through the Ardennes forest in an effort to catch French defenses by surprise. General Rommel, in command of the 7th Panzer Division, was able to cross the Meuse River by 15 May, despite a French counterattack on that day. General Reinhardt was able to cross the river the day before, at the head of the XLI Panzer Corps. Guderian's XIX Panzer Corps crossed the same day, routing the French 55th Infantry Division and thwarting a poorly devised French armord counterattack. By 15 May Guderian was able to destroy the French right flank across the Meuse and prepare for the drive towards the English Channel. As soon as 25 May 1940, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France, Lord Gort, was told that the Germans had captured the coastal French city of Calais, effectively closing a large pocket around the crux of France's best soldiers and the entirety of the British Expeditionary Force. Despite the British counterattack at Arras and tenacious defenses to the approaches of Dunkirk, as well as the evacuation of 98,780 soldiers from the beaches and 239,446 from Dunkirk prosper, the surrender of Dunkirk on 4 June marked the beginning of the end for France. As the German Army turned south, to force upon France a decisive defeat, the French could not muster more than 200 tanks and forty-nine divisions, many of which were reserve class - the entire allied force had lost no less than sixty-one divisions between 9 May and 4 June. On 22 June 1940, France capituled to Germany and signed an armstice

North Africa and campaigns in the East

Panzer I Ausf. A, 4th Panzer Division, during the campaign in the West. (US National Archives)
Panzer I Ausf. A, 4th Panzer Division, during the campaign in the West. (US National Archives)

Italian set-backs in Egypt and their colony of Libya caused Hitler to dispatch aircraft to Sicily, and a blocking force to North Africa. This blocking force was put under the command of Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel and included the 5th Light Division, which was motorized, and the 15th Panzer Division. This force landed at Tunis 12 February 1941. Upon arrival Rommel had around 150 tanks, about half of them being Panzer IIIs and IVs. The rest were Panzer Is and Panzer IIs, although the Panzer Is were soon replaced. Almost simultaneously, on 6 April 1941, Germany invaded both Yugoslavia and Greece with fourteen divisions alone invading Greece from neighboring Bulgaria, which by then had joined the Tripartite Pact. The invasion of Yugoslavia included no less than six panzer divisions, and the Panzer I still constituted a part of those divisions. Yugoslavia surrendered 17 April 1941, and Greece fell on 30 April 1941.

The final major campaign in which the Panzer I formed a large portion of the invading armored strength was Operation Barbarossa, 22 June 1941. The 3,300 German tanks included about 410 remaining Panzer Is. By the end of the month a large portion of the Red Army found itself trapped in the Minsk pocket, and by 21 September Kiev had fallen, thereby allowing the Germans to concentrate on their ultimate objective - Moscow. Despite the success of Germany's armor in the Soviet Union between June and September of that year most German officers were shocked to find that their tanks were inferior to newer Soviet models, such as the T-34 and KV series of tanks. Army Group North realized very quickly that none of the tank guns currently in use by German armor could penetrate the thick armor of the KV-1 heavy tank. This remained especially true for the obsolete Panzer Is. With little combat value by that time, Panzer Is found themselves towing trains through thick mud in order to avoid logistics problems at the front. The performance of the Red Army during the Battle of Moscow and the appearance of even greater numbers of newer Soviet tanks, such as the T-34, made it obvious that the Panzer I was no longer suitable for combat, and as a consequence many Panzer I tanks found themselves converted into tank surrogates or logistics vehicles.

Foreign service

Spain fielded the largest amount of Panzer I tanks, after Germany. A total of 122 had been exported to Spain during the entirety of the Spanish Civil War and even as late as 1945 Spain's Brunete Armored Division included 93 Panzer Is. The Panzer I was not fully replaced in Spain's army until the advent of aid from the United States of America in 1954, when they were replaced by the relatively modern M47 Patton main battle tank. Between 1935 and 1936 an export version of the Panzer I Ausf. B, named the L.K.B. for Leichte Kampfwage B, was designed for export to Bulgaria. The modifications included up-gunning the Panzer I's main armament to a 20 mm tank gun and a Krupp M 311 V-8 gasoline engine. Although three models were constructed none were exported to Bulgaria, although a single Panzer I Ausf. A had been sold previously. In 1937 around ten Panzer I Ausf. As were sold to China during a period of Sino-German cooperation, which were used in the Battle of Nanjing by the 3rd Armored Battalion. A final order was supplied to Hungary in 1942, totalling eight Panzer I Ausf. Bs and six command versions, which was incorporated into the 1st Armored Division, which saw combat in late 1942

Variants of the Panzer I Tank

Between 1934 and the mid-1940s several variants of the Panzer I were designed. The majority of variants, especially tank surrogates, were designed during the later years of the Panzer I's combat history in an attempt to reuse aging chassis. Being an obsolete design, even early in its history, and incapable of defeating foreign armor such as the Soviet T-26 light tank, and outclassed by newer German tanks, including the Panzer III and Panzer II, Panzer I chassis were used increasingly often to mount larger guns in order to provide the German Army with tank destroyers, anti-aircraft vehicles and other surrogates

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