Germany was one of the first nations in the Second World War to produce flame-throwing tanks. These tanks were the ultimate anti-infantry weapons. With their conventional guns replaced by high-powered flamethrowers, striking a primal fear into anyone on the receiving end of the weapon.
The first of the Wehrmacht’s steel dragons was a simple improvisation based on the Panzer I called the ‘Flammpanzer I’. It was used briefly in North Africa. This was followed by the Panzer II Flamm, also known as the ‘Flamingo’, these had a brief service on the Russian Front.
The Panzer II variant was not overly successful due to its thin armor. Most surviving vehicles were recalled and reportedly turned into chassis for Marder II tank destroyers. This left the Wehrmacht in need of a flame-throwing tank that was reliable, had thicker armor, and good mobility.
A factory fresh Pz.Kpfw III (fl) in 1943. Photo: SOURCE
The Panzerkampfwagen III (Sd.Kfz. 141) medium tank was developed in the mid-1930s and was designed to fight enemy tanks in support of its larger brother, the Panzer IV, which was originally intended to support the Panzer III.
The Panzer III was an extremely mobile tank. It was powered 12-cylinder Maybach HL 120 TRM 300 PS, producing 296 hp. This propelled the 23-tonne vehicle to a top speed of 40 km/h (25 mph). A running gear consisting of 6-road wheels per side supported the tank’s weight. The road wheels were attached to a torsion bar suspension. The drive sprocket was at the front, while the idler was at the rear. Return of the track was supported by 3-rollers.
These features remained constant throughout the Panzer III’s lifetime. Over its years in service, it received multiple upgrades to its weaponry and armor. Originally, the Panzer was armed with a 37mm gun, progressing to a 50mm gun on later models. It was also armed with a coaxial and bow mounted 7.92mm MG 34. As well as adding Schürzen on the turret and hull sides, an add-on armor kit known as ‘Vorpanzer’ was also installed. This consisted of armor plates being added on the upper hull plate and gun mantlet. This boosted the original armor thickness of 15mm to 50mm.
The tank was operated by a 5-man crew consisting of a Commander, Gunner, and Loader in the turret, with the Driver and Radio Operator/Bow Machine Gunner in the hull.
With the emergence of more powerful enemy armored vehicles, like the famous T-34, the Panzer III became obsolete, and the Panzer IV became the main tank-fighter as it had more developmental potential. Thus, the Panzer III was cast aside and was largely out of service by the end of the war.
The specific model chosen for conversion into the Flammpanzer was the Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. M. This model had the additional ‘Vorpanzer’ armor and was usually armed with 5cm KwK 39 gun.
One-hundred of Ausf. Ms were constructed by the Miag company in Braunschweig between January and February 1943 and were set aside for the conversion program. They were then sent to the firm of Wegmann in Kassel for their conversion into flame tanks. The planned production timetable of 1943 was 20 in January, 45 in February, and 35 in March. After a month’s delay, 65 vehicles were ready for inspection in February. This was followed by 34 more in March, with the last, and 100th vehicle finished in April.
During the production phase, the tanks were simply designated as ‘Flammpanzerwagen (Sd.Kfz.141)’. They were later designated as ‘Pz.Kpfw III (fl) (Sd.Kfz.141/3)’. It is also sometimes known as the Flammpanzer III Ausf. M or, simply, Flammpanzer III.
A previous project was looked at when researching suitable flame equipment for the new Flammpanzer. Designers turned to the equipment installed on the Pz.Kpfw.B2(fl), a flamethrower conversion of Char B1 heavy tanks captured in France during the invasion.
This flamethrower was the 14mm Flammenwerfer (14mm nozzle). It was mounted in the turret of the Panzer III, replacing the standard 5cm gun. In an effort to disguise the tank’s role and to protect the stubby flame gun, a false barrel was designed, which was 1.5 meters long with a diameter of 120mm.
A Flammpanzer III unleashes a stream of flame in a training excersise. Note the amount of smoke given off by the burning fuel. Photo: Osprey Publishing
It could spray a stream of liquid, unlit, inert oil to a maximum range of 50 meters, increasing to 60 when ignited, at a pressure of 15 to 17 atmospheres. Pressure was provided by a Koebe pump at a rate of 7.8 liters per second. The pump was powered by a two-stroke, 28hp Auto Union ZW 1101 (DKW) engine, using a mix of oil and petrol. The flame fuel was ignited by electrical sparks from ‘Smitzkerzen’ (Smit’s glow plugs). These glow plugs were placed at the rear ‘breech’ end of the weapon with counterbalance and pressure gage.
The flame gun was fed by 1020 liters of fuel held in the vehicle’s hull in two 510-liter tanks either side of the drive shaft. The fluid reportedly consisted of a fuel thickened with tar, giving it a distinctive scent similar to creosote. A special connection in the flame oil delivery pipe allowed the turret to retain its 360 degrees of traverse. The flame gun and coaxial MG 34 had an elevation range of +20 to -10 Degrees. The weapons were fired via foot pedals, right for the flame gun, left for the machine gun. Horizontal traverse and elevation were achieved via hand wheels in front of the Commander/Gunner.
As a gunner and loader were unnecessary in a flame tank, the Flammpanzer only had a crew of three as the commander now assumed the role of flame gun operator. He did remain in the standard position at the rear of the turret, however. Originally, the flame gun was aimed via an inverted “V-blade” sight in front of the vision blocks in the Commander’s cupola. Later, this was improved by adding a rod with range markers to the protective foux barrel of the flame gun. This was lined up with a thin stripe painted down the center of front vision block in the commander’s cupola.
The other two crewmen were typical. A bow-gunner/radio operator at the front right and driver at the front left.
Two Flammpanzers in training firing their flamethrowers, 1943. Photo; World War Photos.
Given the expected implications of sending a tank full of flammable liquid into battle, extra measures were taken to protect the vehicle from incoming enemy projectiles, as well as the Flammpanzer’s own fiery breath.
As well as the 20mm of extra armor provided by the ‘Vorpanzer’ kit which was now standard on Panzer IIIs, an additional 30mm plate was added to the lower and upper hull front. This gave an overall thickness of 75mm, enough to protect it from rounds of up to 75mm in caliber at standard combat ranges.
The increased threat of fire necessitated the addition of extra fire extinguishers. Five were carried in total, three on the inside and two on the tank’s exterior. Three was standard for most tanks of the time.
Panzerkampfwagen III (Fl), Italy 1943. This tank was captured by American Forces in Italy and sent back to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds for testing. Illustration by Andrei ‘Octo10’ Kirushkin, funded by our Patreon Campaign.
The Flammpanzer III saw action in both the Russian and Italian campaigns starting in 1943. Previously, Flammpanzers were attached to autonomous battalions which were in turn attached to higher headquarters for combat assignments. This changed in 1943, with the arrival of this new Panzer III(fl). Platoons of these vehicles were incorporated into standard Panzer-Abteilung Stabskompanie. These were officially known as Panzer-Flamm-Zug. All 100 Flammpanzers were placed in service in the following numbers:
Division ‘Grossdeutschland’: 28 (13 of these were transferred to 11. Panzer Division in Spring 1943)
1. Panzer Division: 14 (7 of these were transferred to the ‘Ersatzheer’ Reserve Army in Autumn 1943)
6. Panzer Division: 15
14. Panzer Division: 7
16. Panzer Division: 7
24. Panzer Division: 14
26: Panzer Division: 14
Schule Wundsdorf: 1
In Italy in 1943, the first Flammpanzer unit was formed. This was the 1.Flamm-Kompanie, attached to Panzer-Regiment-26. This was the first unit of its kind in the German army. It consisted mostly of Flammpanzers, but it was also outfitted with self-propelled guns and tank destroyers confiscated from Italian units.
Flammpanzer III demonstrtates its fire power in Italy. Photo: SOURCE
1.Flamm-Kompanie and Panzer-Regiment 26 were in action during the fight for the town of Mozzagrogna on the 27th and 28th of November. On the evening of the 27th, the Allies had managed to capture the town. The Germans responded early morning, under the cover of darkness, surprising the Allied forces. A number of Flamms were used in this assault, pushing the attack and keeping the Allied infantry suppressed. A few of the Flammpanzers were lost. Feldwebel Hoffman, a Commander/Gunner of one of the flame tanks was killed by a shot to the head while assaulting field fortifications in the town. Another Flammpanzer under the command of Feldwebel Block was lost when an artillery shell blew the track off and damaged the sprocket wheel of his tank. It was subsequently abandoned.
Further action took place in on the 16th of December 1943 on the road from Ortona to Orsagna. We know the details of this action thanks to a personal report from Oberleutnant Ruckdeschel of 2.Flamm-Kompanie serving with Panzer-Regiment 26. The 2.Flamm consisted of five Flammpanzers and two StuH 42s, the unit was under the command of Lieutenant Tag.
The unit counter-attacked Allied positions along the road under heavy artillery fire. The 2.Flamm supported the advance of Fallschirmjager turning their attention to enemies in dug in positions. Under covering fire from the StuHs, the Flammpanzers pushed the assault of these positions, smoking out the defenders with deadly efficiency. During this action, one of the Flammpanzers had even managed to destroy, or at least immobilize, an Allied tank of an unknown model. The Panzer had managed to sneak up behind the Allied vehicle, which was camouflaged under straw, and cover it in flaming liquid. The exact damage sustained to this vehicle or casualties inflicted on the crew is unknown.
On the Eastern Front, the Panzer III(fl) was used slightly less extensively. The Panzer-Flamm-Zug was attached to Panzer-Regiment 36. Prior to January 1944, the Flammpanzers had only seen combat twice. In these actions, the flamethrowers were used in the reduction of enemy fortifications and defensive positions. These actions were not great successes. Soviet forces were supported by a large number of anti-tank guns, as well as the terrain of their country. The flat broad terrain which lacked cover, combined with these anti-tank guns caused a number of losses to Flammpanzer units, despite cover fire from gun-armed Panzers.
Schürzen equipped Flammpanzer III No. 651 of the 6. Panzer Division on the Eastern Front in 1943. Photo: World War Photos
In the first action, two Flammpanzers were destroyed. It was noted that while the tanks were ‘flaming’ they were visible from long distances, naturally drawing the attention of enemy AT gunners. It was decided that Flammpanzers should only be used in areas with adequate cover, such as the central and northern areas of the Eastern Front. Even then, the cover had to be close enough to the enemy’s defenses for the tank’s flamethrower to be in range of any targets. Around this time, Schürzen also started to appear on the Flammpanzers. In recognition of their limited deployment options, Flammpanzers in the South of the Eastern Front were relegated to guard duty in towns.
In the later stages of the war, the number of operational Flammpanzers dwindled. A number of the flame tanks were assigned to Panzer-Flamm-Kompanie 351 in early January 1945, in preparation for action Budapest. This unit was still in action until April 1945.
As only 100 Flammpanzer IIIs were produced, not many survive today. In fact, it appears that only one survives. This can be found at wehrtechnische studiensammlung in the city of Koblenz. It is in running condition and is often displayed at events at the museum.
The surviving Flammpanzer found at wehrtechnische studiensammlung, Koblenz. Photo: SOURCE
|Dimensions||5.41m x 2.95 x 2.44 m (17’9″ x 9’8″ x 8’0″ ft.inches)|
|Machine Gun||2–3 × 7.92 mm Maschinengewehr 34|
|Total weight, battle ready||20.3 tons|
|Propulsion||Maybach V12 gasoline HL 120 TRM
(220 kW) 300 bhp@2500 rpm
|Speed on /off road||40/20 km/h (25/12 mph)|
|Range||165 km (102 mi)|
Links & Resources
Osprey Publishing, New Vanguard #15: Flammpanzer German Flamethrowers 1941-45
Dick Taylor & Mike Hayton, Panzer III: Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A to N (Sdkfz 141), Haynes Publishing/The Tank Museum
Panzer Tracts No. 3-5: Panzerkampfwagen III Umbau, Conversions to Z.W.40, Pz.Kpfw.III (T), Pz.Kpfw.III (Funk), Pz.Kpfw.III (fl), Pz.Beob.Wg.III, SK 1, Brueckenmaterialtraeger, and Munitionspanzer