The Panzer I Ausf.C was a German light tank prototype that was part of the VK series of tanks. Initially developed by Ernst Kniepkamp, before Krauss-Maffei took over, the Panzer I Ausf.C was based on the concept of a fast and maneuverable light tank that could outperform all other tanks in terms of speed. With the first tanks completed in late 1942, they came too late to perform their intended role of being an airborne tank. In the end, they were only used in combat as regular light tanks. They saw action on the Eastern Front and Normandy with partial success due to their excellent mobility but limitations with the armament and armor protection.
Context: Development of the “Perfect” Tanks – The early VK series
In 1937, after Heinrich Ernst Kniepkamp, an engineer at Wa Prüf 6, had already succeeded with the development of half-tracks, he started his next big project that would become in his eyes the best light tank. The developed chassis were classified as VK (Vollketten, Eng: fully-tracked) by the Army, which meant they were experimental. Kniepkamp believed that a tank should maximize firepower and the highest possible speed, while armor protection was less important. However, this is not to be confused with other VK projects that had nothing to do with the development of Kniepkamp’s tank.
To create his ideal tank, Kniepkamp wanted to design a light tank to achieve maximum speed. In his mind, the requirements for such a tank were the use of large road wheels without return rollers and a torsion bar suspension. Additionally, he wanted the latest engine design installed and a power-assisted semi-automatic transmission.
Nevertheless, this fixation on high speed was not as valued by the army, as high speed could only be achieved in very favorable conditions and on roads. In difficult-to-drive-through terrain such as mud, the high speeds were not as useful because the tank had to drive at a medium pace to not get stuck in the mud. However, it could have been useful during fast retreating or advancing situations.
In February 1937, Kniepkamp wrote a letter to Krupp proposing a production and development contract. However, Krupp did not agree to it initially, as they wanted more freedom for their ideas during the development of the design. In May 1937, Kniepkamp once again sent a letter to Krupp informing them that up to ten other firms had shown interest. Krupp once again rejected the proposal.
Kniepkamp decided to work with Krauss-Maffei, a German firm already heavily involved in the production of the Sd.Kfz.6-9 half-track series and therefore already familiar with interleaved suspensions. Krauss-Maffei’s first concept for such a light tank was the VK3 t (the 3 standing for 3 tonnes), developed in January 1938.
The drawing was only of a chassis. It included a torsion bar suspension with four large road wheels on each side, a Maybach NL 38 engine, and lubricated tracks. This would give the chassis a theoretical maximum speed of 80 km/h. By April 1938, this design evolved into a light tank concept with an estimated weight of 5.5 tonnes, hence the designation VK5. The chassis design was almost the same, with only a reduced speed of 75 km/h.
Why a New Panzer I?
To understand why such a new Panzer I was even needed, one must know why the old Panzer I was no longer seen as valuable by the Army in 1939. The Panzer I Ausf.A’s development started as early as 1930. Perhaps unsurprisingly, by 1939, the suspension and technical parts had become outdated, even after the introduction of the upgraded Ausf.B version. Furthermore, as had become apparent during the Spanish Civil War, the armament of only two 7.92 mm MG 13 was no longer adequate. Lastly, the top speed of both the Ausf.A and B could be improved, and since in Kniepkamp’s eyes this was the most important aspect of a tank, he was dismissive of them.
Regardless, both the Panzer I Ausf.A and B still played an important role during the early years of the war in spite of their detractors. It was only in 1941 after the Battle on Crete and the huge losses of Panzer I Ausf.A and Bs in the Soviet Union combined with the previously named factors, that the need for this new Panzer I really arose.
Development of the VK6.01
The VK5 program was abandoned due to the concept being too unrealistic to actually construct. The first concept that was actually contracted was the VK6. The 6-tonne light tank was only a chassis at first with a 6-cylinder Maybach HL 54 TRM engine, torsion bar suspension, and lubricated tracks. In theory, the tank would achieve a maximum speed of 67 km/h. The first tests were to be held in August 1939, but Krauss-Maffei had issues with the electric operation of the steering unit and could not meet the timescales.
Even before the first VK6 had even gone into production, work had already begun on a VK6 with a new Maybach HL 61 with an 8-speed semi-automatic transmission and designated as VK6.01. In October 1938, Krauss-Maffei was awarded the contract for 6 trial vehicles. In June 1939, further calculations were done which would result in a theoretical speed of 80 km/h by fitting the more powerful 6-cylinder Maybach HL 45.
After the trials of the finished VK6 prototypes were over, Krauss-Maffei, responsible for constructing the chassis, and Daimler Benz, in charge of making the turret and superstructures, were awarded contracts for the 0-Series of 40 VK6.01 Panzerkampfampfwagen I n.A. (Neue Art, Eng. new version), 0-Series meaning the vehicles were built for testing before serial production could commence. The contract was signed on April 25th 1940 and the tanks were to be finished from March to September 1941.
By the end of November 1940, Mauser (a German small arms firm) had produced 5 E.W.141s and 35 by May 9th, 1941 out of the 60 requested. The E.W.141 was a 7.92 mm high-velocity semi-automatic tank gun, which was intended as the main armament of the VK6.01 which. Of the 60 E.W.141s, 40 were to be used for the 40 requested VK6.01 and the other 20 for the newly developed R.K.9, which was a German/Austrian armored car made by Steyr which utilized wheel-cum-track technology and had the similar same turret and therefore the same intended gun. Daimler Benz was to build the turrets and the superstructures for the 40 VK6.01s and send them to Krauss-Maffei, which was responsible for building the chassis and final assembly.
The first two trial chassis were finished by July 1941. VK6.01 production was deemed as not pressing and was given less priority. This was because at this point the invasion of the Soviet Union was at full scale and the Germans were losing a lot of their medium tanks which were a higher priority for replacement. As a result, the production of the first 40 VK6.01s was to commence in October 1941 and was only to be started if it did not delay the production of more important tanks, such as the Panzer III or Panzer IV. Immediately after the prototype chassis was completed, Krauss-Maffei was to produce a suitable superstructure and test weight simulating the turret and then send the tank for testing to Berka. Additionally, a modification was requested to bolt 5.5 mm thick extra armor plates to the sides of the tank in 1941.
In January 1942, new demands were given to upgrade the two prototypes to ‘Tropen’ (Eng: tropical) standards. This meant they were to be used and should be able to operate in hot tropical climates such as North Africa or the southern Soviet Union.
The first trials were held in May 1942 when one of the prototype chassis was sent to drive the ‘Autobahn’ (Eng: highway) from Munich to Dachau, which was around 30 km, and then return cross-country. The trials had the goal to test the minimum oil pressure needed in the new triple-radius steering unit. The tests were successful with only minor changes done to the steering unit.
The actual production is poorly recorded and estimated to have occurred from the summer of 1942 to early 1943. In total, 40 of the now-designated Panzer I Ausf.C were completed. The chassis numbers ranged from the first serial produced Ausf.C 150101 to 150140.
Around the same time the VK6.01 was in development, the VK9.01 was also developed. The VK9.01 was a similar attempt to create a fast and new light tank but this time based on the chassis of the Panzer II. Both designs were intended to be produced in large numbers rather than compete for the same requirement. However, the VK9.01 had slightly more priority and the 0-Series was therefore finished earlier. In the case that the VK9.01 was not successful, 1,000 more units of the VK6.01 were to be built. In the end this was not the case as both designs were only produced in low numbers.
Although very much different from the Panzer I Ausf.A and B, the VK6.01 was still considered a sub-variant of the Panzer I and received the Panzerkampfwagen I Ausf.C (Sd.Kfz.101) designation. The VK stood for ‘Vollketten’ meaning fully tracked. In 1938, it was called Panzer I n.A. (neue Art), which translated to ‘Panzer I new version’. The official designation Panzer I Ausf.C was first used on July 1st, 1942 by the Army Office. The article will use the designation VK6.01 for the production section which often refers to only the chassis and not the completed tanks and will use Panzer I Ausf.C designation for the completed tanks.
Visually, the Panzer I Ausf.C had nothing in common with the previous Ausf.A and B models. The Panzer I Ausf.C had a hull, superstructure, and turret. The suspension consisted of interleaved road wheels and the turret was outfitted with a unique anti-tank rifle. It is characterized by its iconic off-center turret, high speed, and being the only Panzer I armed with a high-velocity gun.
Hull and Superstructure
Due to the large engine, the Panzer I Ausf.C’s hull and superstructure were relatively high compared to other German light tanks. The tank itself was 4.195 m long, 1.920 m wide, and 2.010 m tall.
On the front side of the hull, there were two towing hooks. The tracks were protected by mudguards on which two headlights and a headlamp for night driving were placed. Later during production, fuel canisters, storage boxes, shovels, and a jack were placed on the mudguards. Additionally, 3 smoke launchers were placed on the right fender. The superstructure under the turret was shaped like a hexagon and had on the front side a large armored visor for the driver on the left side. On the left side of the tank was an additional visor slit for the driver. There was a small hatch for the driver to get out on top of the superstructure. However, this was blocked by the turret and gun most of the time.
On the rear side of the superstructure was the engine deck with two large hatches for accessing the engine and a smaller one for the fuel tank. Two exhaust grills were placed on the rear side next to the engine access hatch.
Inside the tank on the left side, there were replacement items such as spare glass blocks, spare barrels for the main gun, and ammunition bags for the machine gun. In the rear end of the left side were the ammunition boxes and a fire extinguisher. On the front side, there was a seat for the driver with a steering wheel and a radio set. The driver had the option to look through the binoculars or the visor. On the right side of the tank, there were extra ammunition boxes, a first aid kit, spare machine gun barrels, and a gas mask container. On the rear right side were additional parts for the radio set and another gas mask container. The slip ring contact for the turret was placed in the middle of the tank.
Frontal armor protection was 30 mm of face-hardened plates capable of sustaining fire from 2 cm armor-piercing projectiles. The side and rear armor was up to 20 mm thick. During a later modification, it was decided to bolt extra 5.5 mm armor plates onto the sides. The roof was 10 mm thick.
The Panzer I Ausf.C, as intended by Kniepkamp in his light tank VK series, had an interleaved Schachtellaufwerk (Eng. overlapping torsion bar suspension). Due to the narrow wheelbase and track contact length, the tank had an excellent steering ratio of 1:0.85. This was most desirable because it prevented the tracks from breaking during high speeds when steering, but also because the low contact length of the tracks reduced friction with the ground, making it easier to steer the vehicle.
On the downside, this relatively unusual steering ratio caused by the short distance between road wheels could in theory have resulted in over steering and possibly even tipping the vehicle over. It was not recorded how it performed in practice.
There were five 650 mm diameter twin road wheels on each side supported by torsion bars. The first and last torsion bars had shock absorbers. On the rear side of the suspension, there was a 540 mm diameter adjustable idler wheel on each side. On the front side, there was the drive wheel on each side connected to the transmission that drove the tank forwards.
There were 52 lubricated track links on each side with rubber pads. The lubrication was an important factor as it allowed higher speeds and faster track rotations.
By May 1942, the decision was made to only use unlubricated tracks with 89 track links on each side. This decision was made because the Panzer I Ausf.C was seen as not relevant at this stage of the war and the lubrication and rubber were needed elsewhere. Additionally, the increased weight of up to 8 tonnes was not suitable for the rubber pads anymore. Interestingly, it was also demanded that the lubricated tracks of the vehicles which were already built at this point, including the prototype chassis, were also to be removed. This is also the reason why there are so few photos available of the Panzer I Ausf.C with lubricated tracks and no photos beyond 1942. The drive wheel also had to change and was replaced by a drive sprocket wheel with 21 teeth. Surprisingly, the maximum speed and performance were maintained with only an increased combat weight to 8 tonnes and reduced ground clearance.
Even with an increased weight of 6.4 tonnes (with lubricated tracks and without combat gear), the Maybach HL 45 P engine could achieve up to 150 hp at 3,800 rpm. Together with the 8-gear Maybach VG 15319 transmission, speeds of up to 79 km/h were theoretically possible. However, in reality, only 65 km/h was allowed at a set rpm of 3,200 even on perfect road conditions. This was due to the engine and transmission getting damaged at higher rates.
The fuel tank, capable of holding 170 liters of gasoline, was enough for a range of 300 km on roads at speeds of 65 km/h and 190 km on off-road terrain at speeds of 35 km/h.
Turret and Armament
As had been the case with the Panzer I Ausf.A and B turrets, Daimler Benz was also responsible for designing the turret of the Ausf.C. The turret was rectangular shaped and could be rotated 360º by hand with a commander’s cupola with 8 periscopes. The turret armor was sloped and made out of rigid 14.5 mm thick homogeneous armor plates, which were bulletproof against steel core 7.92 mm rounds.
The tank was armed with a 7.92 mm MG 34 tank variant, which had an armored sleeve to protect the barrel, and the 7.92 mm E.W.141, both placed inside the turret. Developed from the MG 141 (a prototype heavy machine gun developed from the serial produced MG 131), the E.W.141 (‘Einbauwaffe’, Eng. Built-in Weapon 141) was a unique self-loading but semi-automatic rifle designed for light tanks such as the Panzer I. Use of this weapon was influenced by the experiences of the Spanish Civil War, where the Panzer I severely lacked adequate armament to defeat other armored fighting vehicles.
The E.W.141 fired a very powerful 7,92 mm x 94 SmK H (tungsten core armor-piercing bullet) round, which were the same rounds as those of the German Panzerbüchse 38 and 39 (Eng: anti-tank rifle). It had a muzzle velocity of 1,170 m/s and could penetrate up to 25 mm of armor angled at 30° at ranges of 100 m. The E.W.141 had 94 rounds in total with some stored in boxes in the hull and some set up in the turret that could be automatically fed into the gun. The 2,100 bullets that included regular and tracer bullets for the MG 34 were stored in ammunition boxes on the floor with 150 bullets in each box. The E.W.141 had to be removed during long transports to prevent weather from damaging the gun.
The gunner aimed the gun with a T.Z.F.10 articulated telescope and could elevate the gun from -10 to +20º.
Crew and Communication
Like all Panzer I variants, the Ausf.C had a crew of only 2. The gunner or commander was seated in the turret and was tasked with observing the battlefield, operating the gun, and commanding the driver. The driver, sat on the left side of the hull, was tasked with driving the tank and operated the radio.
Instead of a regular FuG 2 or 5, the driver operated a Funksprechgerät a (Eng. Two-way radio a). This new radio had a range of 2-3 km stationary and 1 km on the move. The 1.4 m long antenna was on a flexible rubber base on the turret next to the commander’s cupola.
Whilst Kniepkamp’s plan was just to have a fast light tank, the army, for a yet unknown reason, gave the Panzer I Ausf.C a more specific role which was described in a report from July 1941. At this time its official name was still Panzer I n.A. and it was to be used by paratroopers as an airborne tank. Due to its low weight and high mobility, it would have been perfect for this role. It would have been transported by the large Messerschmitt Me 321 Gigant cargo and transport glider.
The idea or the reason behind why the Germans even wanted such a tank is described from the results of Operation Mercury which ended a month prior.
Operation Mercury was the first large scale paratrooper operation where, unlike in the Netherlands or in Norway in 1940, the paratroopers landing were not initially supported by land forces. The objective was to capture the island of Crete which was protected by a British garrison. In theory, the plan was that the German troops would land near the barracks and win a quick victory.
In reality, although a victory for the Axis, casualty-wise, it was a disaster. One of the main reasons was poor preparation and a lack of proper reconnaissance, so German paratroopers would land directly on the British barracks without any weapons, as the weapons were in separate containers which were easily captured. When landing near urban centers, German paratroopers were shot at by Greek farmers with shotguns or got stuck in trees and then got picked up.
Based on the experiences of the entire operation, the Germans intended to implement two new weapons. Firstly, they introduced a light small automatic rifle that would later become the FG 42 to be carried during the initial drop. Secondly, they planned to introduce a small tank to be used in tandem with the airborne troops to increase the firepower available. This was of course the Panzer I Ausf.C.
As an alternative or secondary role, the Panzer I Ausf.C was envisaged for use by colonial armored units operating in mostly hot climates. The term “colonial” does not directly mean colonial in the classic sense. It means it would have been used as a garrison tank for the territories controlled for example in Southern Europe or in North Africa. This was further shown by the changes made to the fan drive in 1942 which converted it to a “tropical” tank.
Establishing the Panzer I Ausf.C’s camouflage is rather complicated. In some photos in front of the Krauss-Maffei factory, the tank appears in dark gray and some in dark yellow RAL 7028. This is due to the first Panzer I Ausf.Cs being completed in July 1942, when German AFVs were still painted in dark gray and the last Panzer I Ausf.Cs were completed in early 1943, when the order was sent that all AFVs were to be painted in dark yellow.
In addition to the dark yellow order, olive green and rust red paint were distributed amongst the troops. With the new paint, some of the Ausf.Cs deployed for training in France in 1943 were painted in a 3-tone camouflage pattern.
Similar to the production, the actual combat use of the Panzer I Ausf.C is poorly recorded and not explained in detail in any given source. In addition, it is important to know that the tanks were never used in their intended role as airborne tanks, as after the disastrous casualties suffered in Operation Mercury, Hitler feared using paratroopers in airborne operations. Even though alongside the introduction of the FG 42 light machine gun this tank was to mitigate some of the problems previously experienced, neither got to be used in their intended role.
It was used to some degree in its role as a “colonial” or garrison tank, as it was first stationed in Greece where fans installed as part of the Tropen modification proved adequate for the country’s hot climate.
In March 1943, the first two of the 40 completed Panzer I Ausf.Cs were sent to the Eastern Front attached to the 1st Panzer Division, 1st Panzer Regiment, 2nd Battalion for combat trials. At that point, the Battalion was not fighting on the Eastern Front and was stationed in Greece. It was not until October 1943, when the Battalion was fighting on the Eastern Front during the Battle of Kiev, that one of the two Ausf.Cs was lost. The other one, which was also the first serial production Ausf.C, remained in service until December 1943, when it was sent back for repairs, ending its career on the Eastern Front. Interestingly, an inventory report of the 1st Panzer Division from July 7th 1943 states that no Panzer Is were fighting alongside the Division, which would mean that they were not counted as regular Panzer Is. It is presumed that the one Panzer I Ausf.C that was lost in October 1943 was destroyed beyond recovery since the Soviets never captured an example.
Some of the 38 Ausf.Cs were sent to the LVIII. Panzer Reserve Corps also in 1943 while others were sent to Panzer Abteilung Norwegen (Eng. Tank Battalion Norway), which was training in France at that time. They were to be used as training tanks and anti-partisan tanks similar to how its much heavier ‘brother’, the VK9.01 Panzer II Ausf.G, was used. Both units consisted of tanks that were deemed less important and almost useless for frontline fighting. Alongside the Panzer I Ausf.Cs, many ex-French tanks were organized into these units.
With its light but bulletproof armor, fast speed, and high-velocity armament, it was effective at dealing with partisans. When the Allies landed in Normandy in June 1944, the LVIII Panzer Reserve Corps was called into action and converted into the LVIII. Panzer Corps. The Panzer Abteilung Norwegen with its Ausf.Cs was converted into the 25. Panzer Division upon the invasion. The Panzer I Ausf.Cs were presumably part of the Panzer-Lehr Division (Eng. Tank Training Division). Most of the 38 Ausf.Cs were lost in Normandy by the end of 1944. At least one example was captured by Allied troops and examined. However, the Allies concluded that it was not an important vehicle and scrapped the only potential surviving Ausf.C.
Successor – VK6.02
The VK6.02 was the planned successor to the VK6.01 Panzer I Ausf.C. In 1938, plans were made for a tank that utilized the already developed VK6.01 chassis but with a new Maybach HL 61 engine rated at 130 hp at 2,600 rpm. As of July 1941, two of the six VK6.01 chassis that had been contracted were to be completed as VK6.02s with a differential steering unit. A month later, Krauss-Maffei proposed installing a much simpler two-stage steering unit. In the end, none were ever built and the 6 prototype chassis were all VK6.01 due to the delayed development of the new engine compartment. In March 1942, sketches of the VK6.02 engine compartment were revealed with a 6-cylinder Maybach HL 50 engine rated at 200 hp at 4,000 rpm that would in theory be able to achieve speeds of 80 km/h.
Conclusion – An Engineer’s Dream
In theory and practice, the Panzer I Ausf.C was capable of driving at speeds that could only be achieved by very few other German tracked vehicles, such as the Panzer II Ausf.G. Its armor, on the other hand, was only adequate to withstand machine gun fire but not fire from other tanks and even armored cars. This made it extremely vulnerable and it had to rely on its high speed and maneuverability. Additionally, the high-velocity E.W.141 was not effective at penetrating the larger Allied medium tanks, such as the M4 Sherman, and was only effective against other light tanks and soft-skin vehicles. It is worth noting though that fighting other tanks was not its intended role. Even so, in supporting infantry as part of an airborne operation or even fighting pockets of resistance as a garrison tank, it would most likely have faced heavier weapons which would have tested its armor.
In the end, Kniepkamp’s concept for a light tank that emphasized speed was just another idea or plan made by engineers who at the time did not know what the army needed. He did not know in what state Germany would be once the tank was built, and as it turned out, the Panzer I Ausf.C made extensive use of resources that Germany did not have in large numbers, such as rubber and tungsten. Because of this, the Panzer I Ausf.C and the project were dropped and emphasis was put on more important already-developed tanks, such as the Panzer III or Panzer IV.
Panzerkampfwagen I Ausf.C, VK6.01
4.1 x 1.9 x 1.9 m
2 (driver, commander)
On roads 79 (65) km/h, off-road 35 km/h
On roads: 300 km, off-road: 190 km
7.92 mm E.W.141, 7.92 mm MG 34
Water-cooled 6-cylinder Maybach HL 45 P
94x 7.92 mm S.m.K.H., 2100x 7.92 mm S.m.K.
Bob Carruthers, Panzer I & II Germany’s light tanks, (Hitlers War machine)
Bryan Perrett, German Light Panzers 1932-1942 (Osprey Vanguard)
Horst Scheibert, Uwe Feist, Mike Dario, Waffenarsenal Panzer I
Frank V. De Sisto, German Leichte Panzer at war, (Armor at War Series)
Janusz Ledwoch, Vol. XI PzKpfw I vol. I (Tank Power)
Lucas Molina Franco, Panzer I The beginning of a dynasty
Thomas L. Jentz and Hilary Louis Doyle, Panzer Tracts No. 1-1 Panzerkampfwagen I, Kleintraktor to Ausf.B
Thomas L. Jentz and Hilary Louis Doyle, Panzer Tracts No. 1-2 Panzerkampfwagen I, Kl. Pz. Bef. Wg. to VK18.01
Walter J. Spielberger Die Panzerkampfwagen I und II und ihre Abarten Einschließlich den Entwicklungen der Reichswehr.
German Reich (1936-1941)
Light Tank – 399 Built + 147 Converted
The Panzer I Ausf.B can be seen as a direct improvement to its predecessor, the Ausf.A, featuring a water-cooled engine, an upgraded suspension, and a modified rear. The Ausf.Bs shared a similar fate and combat history as the Ausf.A, seeing service in Spain, Poland, France, and lastly, the USSR, where their participation in combat ended. After that, along with its previous version, the Ausf.B was used for garrison roles and training purposes.
Context: Urgently Needed Upgrades for the Ausf.A
The main reason why an upgrade was needed was the Ausf.A’s weak engine, which often could not effectively power the tank. Suffering from breakdowns, not being able to climb up steep hills or reaching a specific speed, the Krupp air-cooled 4-cylinder model 1931 engine was only adequate for a short time. Hence, in 1932, after the first La.S. prototypes left the factories, Wa. Prüf. 6 (Waffen Prüfamt 6) (English: Weapons Ordinance Department), which was responsible for all tank designs, demanded an increase in engine power.
As a result, 5 different engines were proposed and all went through testing. The first engine was a 4-cylinder water-cooled N.A.G. Typ G, which ended up being too heavy and therefore not increasing the speed, but rather reducing it to 28 km/h. After the first one failed the testing, an air-cooled Krupp V8 engine was installed. Like the first one, it was too big and therefore the suspension and superstructure had to be modified, which was not viewed well by Wa. Prüf. 6. Two other engines by Adler (air-cooled 80 hp) and N.A.G. (water-cooled 80 hp) were tested. Both performed better than the previous two versions but eventually ended up in a dead-end and the concept was canceled.
The initial winner was the Maybach 100 hp NL 38 Tr. Maybach itself had been producing artillery tractors and was to design a new engine for a 5-tonne light tank. Although the exact reasons why this engine was picked are not known, it is highly likely that it was due to it being cheaper than the others while still producing more horsepower and being a water-cooled engine. In fact, after the installation of the Maybach engine in the Ausf.B, almost all other tanks, trucks, and half-tracks which came after the Panzer I featured a Maybach engine.
In January 1936, a contract was given out to all assembly firms (Daimler Benz, Henschel, M.A.N., Grusonwerk) for 1,500 Panzer Is. Out of these 1,500 tanks, 325 should be the new Panzer I Ausf.B or at that time named “Panzerkampfwagen I (MG) with Maybach motor”. Seventy-two of those 325 were only chassis and later used for the new series of “Kleiner Panzer Befehlswagen” (English: small command tank).
The 5a. Serie /La.S. (English: 5a. Series/agricultural tractor) was the first batch of Panzer I Ausf.Bs, with the first vehicle being completed in July 1936. Due to the small amount of Ausf.Bs in contract, another contract was given to the assembly firms for the 6a. Serie/La.S. of 150 tanks. 4 out of these were used to build Kleiner Panzer Befehlswagen.
By May 1937, 340 Panzer I Ausf.Bs had been produced and, by the end of the year, 399 Panzer I Ausf.Bs were built.
7c. Serie / La. S. (Umsetzfahzeug, only chassis built and turrets taken from the Aufs. A)
Grusonwerk (part of Krupp)
8c. Serie / La. S. (Umsetzfahzeug, only chassis built and turrets taken from the Aufs. A)
Henschel, Grusonwerk (part of Krupp)
Production numbers for the Panzer I Ausf.B including the Umsetzfahrzeuge. Source: Panzer Tracts
The Panzer I Ausf.B used the same design and was more a modification of the already existing Ausf.A design. It used the same superstructure, hull, and turret design. Only the suspension and engine were significantly different.
Hull and Superstructure
Whilst the front hull did not change and was left identical to the previous version, the rear hull was extended to be able to fit the new suspension and larger engine. Furthermore, the extension allowed for additional space for cooling air and the tow coupling to be relocated to the rear. Additional ports were also placed under the hull for draining oil, coolant, and fuel, making servicing of the vehicle easier.
Furthermore, the rear armor cover was redesigned to fit the new engine. It was stepped up at the rear for the air intake to cool the engine. The air was drawn through the radiator and blown out of a grill placed at the rear right-hand side of the engine deck. A new split hatch was placed above the engine for easy access. Furthermore, a new smaller rectangular hatch was placed above the radiator fan drive. Lastly, the two exhaust pipes, which on the Ausf.A were located on the mudguards, were removed and now a single muffler with extra armor protection was fixed to the rear side.
On the front, the driver’s visor was changed. Three conical-headed bolts were placed on the visor to better support the glass.
During production, starting with the 5a. Serie/La.S., a reinforcing pipe was placed across the rear hull, supporting the two idler wheels.
One of the most notable modifications after the vehicles entered service was the addition of a Nebelkerzenabwurfvorrichtung (N.K.A.V.) (English: rack to deploy five smoke grenades). Furthermore, some vehicles received another support beam for the reinforcing pipe, as it tended to crack in combat situations. Lastly, starting with the 5b./6a.Serie, a new 5.5-liter radiator was added instead of the old 3.5-liter one, along with an upgraded cooling fan.
Suspension and Transmission
The suspension upgrade is probably the most iconic change from the Ausf.A to Ausf.B and is often used to distinguish between them. The reason for these changes was to upgrade the overall mobility and mainly the steering. With the Ausf.A, the tank, whenever it was being steered, had to also move the idler wheels, which inhibited and slowed down the steering process. This would also increase the chance of the tank throwing a track. Furthermore, a new lengthened suspension would help with a more stable ride and more stability whilst firing.
Therefore, for the Ausf.B, a fifth road wheel and a fourth return roller were added. The connection between the fourth road wheel and the idler wheel was cut and the fourth wheel was connected in a pair to the new fifth road wheel. The second and third were also connected in a pair, whilst the first one was independent.
The idler wheel was raised and its crank arm was mounted in a housing. Track tension was done by rotating the idler wheel’s crank arm.
The driveshaft for the transmission transferred torque from the engine through the main clutch. Like on the Ausf.A, the clutch, transmission, and steering unit were connected by flanges to form a single unit.
The turret on the Ausf.B was almost identical to that of the Ausf.A, with the commander still having four visors and the two machine guns. However, all three lifting hooks were relocated from the sides of the turret to the top. This change improved the overall armor protection of the turret, as this meant fewer bolts on the turret sides.
The new water-cooled Maybach NL 38 Tr was able to supply 100 hp at 3,000 rpm, which was a great improvement from the old Krupp air-cooled M305 engine. The tank could now drive up to 40 km/h and could successfully climb most hills. Furthermore, due to the water cooling system, the engine was less likely to overheat in hot climates, such as Spain or later, North Africa.
The 6 cylinders of the engine were cooled by circulating water and placed in a row. For cooling water circulation, a centrifugal pump was driven by a pulley and belt drive which also drove the electric generator. To ensure that there would not be any problems whilst cooling when tilted at any angle, the upper water box directed water into the hoses and was connected to the water discharge ports. An overhead cam controlled the valves and drove the oil pump, tachometer drive, and magneto. Additionally, a fan was placed in the ventilation system next to the engine and pulled by a pulley and belt from the crankshaft.
The fuel was located in two tanks, with one holding 82 liters and the other 62 liters, both on the right side, separated from the crew compartment.
In terms of armor protection, there were not many changes. The rear side and superstructure were still 13 mm thick steel with a Brinell Hardness of 530. The new rear engine deck was 8 mm thick. The thickest part was at 15 mm on the MG mount of the tank. This armor protection was adequate for protecting against small arms fire from smK-type ammunition (English. steel cored) bullets at a range of 30 meters.
Like the Ausf.A, the Panzer I Ausf.B featured two MG 13 Kurz (English: short) machine-guns. There were also cases of the Ausf.B mounting the regular MG 13. It was operated by the commander and both machine guns could be removed. Whilst the right MG was easier to move around and dismount and mainly used for shooting the actual target, the left one was used for more static combat and cover fire. The MG 13 was the standard machine gun for the Reichswehr and the Wehrmacht in 1933-1934. Although available in greater numbers at this point, the MG 34 was not used due to being more expensive and overheating faster.
The Ausf.B also had two crew members, a driver and a commander. The driver sat on the left side and was tasked with driving the tank. He had an escape hatch above him and two visors to look out. The commander was situated in the turret and was tasked with operating the machine guns, the radio, observing the battlefield, and giving orders to the driver.
How to Differentiate between the Ausf.A and B
From behind, the two variants can be easily told apart. The Ausf.A has two mufflers on the mudguards left and right, whilst the Ausf.B only has one placed at the rear end. On the Ausf.B, an air intake was placed at the rear end of the crew compartment. On the lower hull, the Ausf.B has a reinforcing pipe between the two idler wheels. Note some very early models of the 5a.Serie of the Ausf.B may not have this pipe.
From the sides, the variants are told apart from the suspension. The Ausf.A only had 4 road wheels whilst the Ausf.B had 5. Furthermore, the Ausf.A only had 3 return rollers, whilst the Ausf.B had 4. The idler wheel has been raised off the ground and was not connected to the last road wheel on the Ausf.B.
Lastly, the two variants can be differentiated by looking at the turret. Normally, the Ausf.B had its three towing hooks placed on top of the turret, while the Ausf.A had the hooks on the side. However, due to the Umsetzfahrzeuge using the Ausf.A turret, some Ausf.B variants (Umesetzfahrzeug) had their hooks on the side. This means, if only the turret is visible and the hooks are located on the side (hinting for an Ausf.A), the tank can also be an Ausf.B.
From the front, the variants can only be told apart by looking at the driver’s visor. The Ausf.B, unlike the Ausf.A, had three conical-headed bolts supporting the glass behind. However, there are also cases of the Ausf.B featuring the old Ausf.A visor.
The first Panzer I Ausf.Bs were painted in the standard three-tone camouflage painted on vehicles during the time span of 1932-1937. The pattern was called the Buntfarbenanstrich (Eng. Multi-colored-pattern) featuring color patches in yellow, green, and brown.
In June 1937, the order was given to paint all newly produced vehicles in dark gray with brown patches. In 1938 all vehicles even the existing ones had to be repainted. Throughout the Poland campaign and the early stages of the 1940 Invasion of France, the tanks stayed in that two-tone camouflage.
After the Invasion, to save paint the brown patches were removed and all vehicles were painted in dark gray.
Those Panzer I Ausf.Bs sent to North Africa, received the colors of the Afrika Korps which were a base layer of yellow and yellow-greenish patches
From 1943 onwards, the order was given to paint all vehicles in dark yellow. This included some of the surviving Ausf.Bs.
Organization and Doctrine
The general organization and doctrine were completely the same with the Ausf.B as for the Ausf.A.
At first, all Panzer I tanks were organized into regiments and independent battalions and later into Panzer Divisions. These “independent battalions” were tasked with different roles, such as signal battalions or engineer battalions, and could be attached to any Panzer Division. Whilst the first few regiments only consisted of the Ausf.A, after the first production series of Ausf.Bs were delivered, the regiments were mixed with Ausf.A and Bs.
Number of Panzer Is
Panzer Regiment 1
Panzer Regiment 2
Panzer Regiment 3
Panzer Regiment 4
Panzer Regiment 5
Panzer Regiment 6
Panzer Regiment 7
Panzer Regiment 8
Nachrichten-Abteilung 37 (Signal Battalion)
Nachrichten-Abteilung 37 (Signal Battalion)
Nachrichten-Abteilung 37 (Signal Battalion)
KKS Kraftfahr Lehr Abteilung (Driving School Training Battalion>
Schiesslehrgang (Shooting Training School)
Organization of all Panzer Is in 1937. Note the table includes the Ausf.A and B.
Number of Panzer Is
Panzer Regiment 1
Panzer Regiment 2
Panzer Regiment 3
Panzer Regiment 4
Panzer Regiment 5
Panzer Regiment 6
Panzer Regiment 7
Panzer Regiment 8
Panzer Regiment 11
Panzer Regiment 15
Panzer Regiment 31
Panzer Regiment 35
Panzer Regiment 36
I./Panzer Regiment 25 (Regiment HQ)
I./Panzer Regiment 23
I./Panzer Regiment 10
Panzer Regiment 33 (Panzer Battalion)
Panzer Regiment 65
Panzer Regiment 66
Panzer Regiment 67
Panzer Lehr Abteilung (Training Tank Battalion)
Schiesslehrgang (Shooting Training School)
Technischer Unteroffizier Lehrgang (Technical Sergent Training School
Pioner Battalion 38 (Pioneer Battalion)
Pioner Battalion 62
Pioner Lehr Versorgungs Battalion (Engineer Training and Supply Battalion)
Organization of all Panzer Is in March 1939. Note the table includes the Ausf.A and B.
Like its previous version, the Ausf.B was not intended as a training tank but as a stopgap for the Panzer III and IV.
During wartime, the Panzer I would act as a support tank against soft targets such as trucks and infantry, supporting the Panzer IIIs and IVs. Furthermore, the Panzer I Ausf.B could be used for reconnaissance purposes due to their increased performance mobility-wise. The Panzer I was used in combat in the combined arms doctrine. Combined arms warfare was the standard tank doctrine for the German Army during the early wars. It consisted of all tanks advancing in a spearhead together with air support and motorized infantry.
The Panzer I Ausf.B between 1936 and 1938
Just like the Ausf.A, the Panzer I Ausf.B saw its first service during the Spanish Civil War on the Nationalist side. However, unlike the Ausf.A, the Ausf.B was sent in lesser numbers. After German military advisors arrived in Spain, they reported the success of German fighters in Spain. Once Walter Warliomnt (German representative for the Nationalists) was in Germany again, he requested more equipment for the Nationalists.
On October 25th 1936, 21 Panzer I Ausf.Bs arrived in Sevilla, days after the first batch of Panzer I Ausf.As had arrived from the 3rd Panzer Division. Their main task was to train the Spanish crews in repairing and operating the Panzer Is. Although the Nationalists would continue to request Panzers armed with 20 mm guns, they did not receive any.
In Spain, the Panzer I would be mainly used as an infantry support vehicle. Furthermore, the machine guns were not capable of penetrating the Soviet T-26 tanks at combat ranges and, therefore, the Nationalists lost many of their Panzer I tanks. This changed as more and more T-26 tanks were captured by the Nationalist forces and reused.
Although the Panzer I proved to be more robust to the Spanish environment than the Soviet vehicles, it often suffered from engine overheating and track damage. The engine overheating and track damage was fixed with the Ausf.B’s water-cooled engine and the work of Spanish and German engineers.
Moreover, the Panzer I was not used in its intended doctrine, which meant it could not profit from the advantages of combined arms warfare. Nevertheless, in some cases, the Panzer I was used in a kind of combined arms warfare.
In conclusion, the Panzer I Ausf.B performed better than the Ausf.A due to its water cooled-engine. However, it still had the same problems of being used incorrectly and being inadequately protected.
Austria and Czechoslovakia
Together with its older brother, the Ausf.A, the Ausf.B took part in the annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Not much is known about their performance in general and it is unclear whether the Ausf.B’s superior mobility and reliability were reflected in the campaign.
The Invasion of Poland – 1939
During the invasion of Poland, all available Panzer Is were sent to the front. This was due to an insufficient number of medium tanks, such as the Panzer III and IV. Out of 3,472 tanks in total, 1,445 were Panzer Is. Out of this number, at least 400 vehicles were Ausf.Bs. In Poland, the Ausf.B encountered the Polish 7TP and Vickers 6-ton tanks, but also the TKS. These vehicles could not be penetrated by the Panzer I at ranges of more than 30 meters. However, the most dangerous enemies of the Panzer I were the Polish anti-tank guns, which could successfully deal with all German armored vehicles. Only with combined arms tactics and air support did the Panzer I perform well.
War in the West – 1940
The Polish campaign, although successful, resulted in the loss of many German tanks, including Ausf.Bs. Therefore, a great number of Panzer Is were pulled off the front, not least due to the rising production of medium tanks and Czech light tanks which replaced the Panzer I.
On April 9th 1940, Panzer Abteilung z.b. 40 was sent to Denmark to participate in the Invasion and later to Norway, where it would see service together with Panzer IIIs and the Neubaufahrzeug. In Norway and Denmark, the Ausf.B did not encounter many dangers, as both Norway and Denmark had next to no anti-tank capabilities and most vehicles were lost due to attrition. This unit, equipped with Ausf.B and A tanks, would later be stationed in Norway and participate in the Invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 through the Lappland region, together with Finnish troops.
At the start of Fall Gelb (English: Case Yellow – the invasion of the Benelux countries), 554 Panzer Is took part in the invasion, most of them Ausf.Bs. In France, the Ausf.B suffered many losses. The French and British anti-tank guns could penetrate the Panzer I without any problem. French light tanks, such as the R.35 and FCM 36, were immune to the machine guns of the Panzer I. Medium tanks, such as the S.35, and the heavy Char B1 could destroy entire battalions of Panzer Is. British tanks performed similarly against the Panzer I. However, since the Panzer I never attacked alone, these situations were rather rare. Furthermore, due to close coordination between the ground forces and the Luftwaffe, the experience gained from Poland, and the coordination between ground units, such as anti-tank guns and motorized infantry via radios, the Panzers were able to push back the Allied forces.
War on Several Fronts – 1941
Alongside some Ausf.As, 15 Panzer I Ausf.B tanks were sent to North Africa to support the Afrika Korps. Those Panzer Is were the Tropen (English: tropical) variant, which had an improved cooling system. The tanks themselves did not see much combat in North Africa and were used for garrison purposes.
In spring 1941, the Panzer I Ausf.B, although in very small numbers, participated in the invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece. Neither country had much of a tank force. Whilst Yugoslavia possessed a handful of R-35 tanks which could threaten the Panzer I, like in Poland, the terrain and enemy anti-tank guns were a much bigger problem. After the invasion, some additional Panzer Is were sent as garrison vehicles.
The last major offensive the Panzer I Ausf.B took part in was the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. In total, 337 Panzer I tanks, most of them Ausf.B, were sent alongside the invading forces. In the time between June and December of 1941, the number of Ausf.Bs decreased greatly. The Ausf.B alone posed no danger to Soviet tanks. During the mud season, the Ausf.B’s weak tracks could not handle the situation even with the improved engine. Furthermore, because no new Panzer Is were built, spare parts were becoming more and more scarce. By 1942, most vehicles were pulled off the front. Those which stayed were slowly lost to attrition.
Most of the Panzer Is which were pulled off the front served as policing, garrison, or anti-partisan vehicles in the regions occupied by Germany. Furthermore, many were converted or reused to one of the many variants and field conversions built later in the war.
Combat Results of the Ausf.B
In direct combat against any Allied tank, the Panzer I Ausf.B, like its brother, would be inferior in terms of armament and armor protection. However, in most cases, the Panzer I would not fight alone. It would always be supported by heavier tanks, such as the Panzer II or III. They would advance together and, whilst the heavier tanks dealt direct damage towards enemy tanks, the Panzer I would deal damage indirectly by using its machine guns. The machine guns could successfully deal with soft skin vehicles, such as trucks and even very lightly armored tanks and, most notably, infantry. It could suppress enemy anti-tank guns, machine-gun nests, and infantry in general, whilst the infantry or tanks could advance. Furthermore, the Ausf.B, whilst rather weak in its hard factors (armament, armor protection), could shine with its soft factors. These included the coordination between units via a radio receiver, the improved crew comfort, and lastly, the easy-to-repair aspect and the experience the crews gained during pre-war training. Within the units, the Ausf.B was more popular than the Ausf.A due to its upgraded engine and mobility.
Furthermore, the Panzer I was the first German tank to enter serial production and was also the first tank constructed by many German companies. This experience would turn out to be very useful later during the war. Additionally, whilst the Ausf.A trained the factories in constructing tanks in general, the Ausf.B trained them in modifying their production lines.
The Ausf.B not only trained the factory workers, but it also helped to gain experience within the German design office, which learned to deal with mistakes and how to effectively modify a tank to be better.
Lastly, the Ausf.B was, like its older brother, successful in preparing and training thousands of German tankers for the war due to their intensive training during maneuvers.
An unknown number of Panzer Is were in service with the Red Army in 1941. These tanks were designated T-1 but no photos of them are known to exist and captured during the first months of Operation Barbarossa in 1941.
By 1942, the Panzer I was no longer suitable for frontline service due to its inadequate armor and firepower, and because of this, many of them were pulled off the front and reused. Hungary had 8 Panzer I tanks as of 1942, after Germany sold them to become part of the 1st Cavalry Division.
Post-Spanish Civil War Spanish Service
After the Spanish Civil War had ended, the new government under Franco was excluded by many international organizations including the purchase of new arms and tanks. Therefore it had to make use of the vehicles gained during the war. This resulted in the Spanish Arsenal still consisting of 84 Panzer Is. Although some continued to be used as training vehicles, during the 1950s the Panzer Is were replaced by newer tanks such as the M24 Chaffee.
Vehicles Based on the Panzer I Ausf.B Chassis
After a number of Panzer I Ausf.As were converted into Fahrschulfahrzeuge (English: Training school vehicles) by removing the superstructure and turrets), a stockpile of leftover Panzer I Ausf.A turrets started to grow. To make use of these, it was decided to build another series of Panzer I Ausf.Bs. The 7c. and 8c /La.S. were regular Fahrschulfahrzeuge on the Ausf.B chassis with upgraded rear armor and a Drehüberträger (English: Slip string contacts, responsible for transporting electricity to a potential turret).
Later, spare or old Ausf.A or B turrets were placed on top. These Umsetzfahrzeuge (English: Converted vehicles) were in most cases a Fahrschulfarzeug using the Panzer I Ausf.B chassis and superstructure with an Ausf.A turret. Contracts for the chassis were given to Grusonwerk (Krupp) and later to Henschel in 1937. Grusonwerk could deliver 52 7c.Serie/La.S. and 9 8c.Serie/La.S., whilst Henschel delivered 86 8c.Serie/La.S. In 1940, 64 Umsetzfahrzeuge had been completed and took part in the Invasion of France acting as regular Panzer I tanks. By 1941, all 147 were completed.
Panzer I Ausf.B Tr.
Due to the extreme temperatures in the desert, those Panzer I Ausf.Bs which were sent to Libya with the Afrika Korps received an upgraded cooling system and a new specification: Panzer I Ausf.B Tr (Tr: Tropen, English: tropical). The ventilation system was exchanged, along with the installation of a new fan and increasing the size of the air inlet and outlet. About 20 vehicles from the 6a. Serie were converted.
After the introduction of the tank in 1916, many countries wanted to also acquire these new machines. However, most of them could not afford to develop and build their own tanks. Therefore, many of the Great Powers sold their tanks to these smaller countries. The companies made huge profits selling tanks like the Vickers 6-ton or Renault FT. Seeing this, Krupp also wanted to participate in this global market and get Germany started on exporting tanks.
The second one consisted of a singular Panzer I Ausf.B chassis and the turret and most of the superstructure from the first L.K.B. The last L.K.B. was only a Panzer I Ausf.B chassis without superstructure but with test weight and a new engine. Due to overall shortages of tanks in 1939, it was decided to cancel the project and all the traces of the L.K.B. were lost.
The Panzer I ‘Lanzallamas’
The Panzer I in Spain suffered from a weak armament that was not able to fight effectively against Soviet tanks. Therefore, two Panzer Is (one Ausf.A and one Ausf.B) were converted into flamethrower tanks. The Panzer I ‘Lanzallamas’ on Ausf.B chassis was equipped with a short Flammenwerfer 35. However, due to a very short range of 30 meters, the project was abandoned and no further conversions took place.
Up-gunned Panzer I Ausf.Bs
Like its previous version, the Ausf.B was upgunned many times. In 1936, Heinz Guderian realized that the German Army needed a mobile tank destroyer, as the Panzer III and IV lacked anti-tank power. In March 1940, the idea of having a separate tank mounting an anti-tank gun was put in action. The Panzerjäger I (English: tank hunter I) was an Ausf.B chassis mounting a Czech 4.7 cm Pak (t). The first conversions were done by Alkett, which provided the chassis, and Škoda, which provided the guns. They saw service during the invasion of France, in North Africa, and the invasion of the Soviet Union. The vehicles proved adequate at dealing with most Allied tanks during the early stages of the war, but often failed at penetrating the Soviet medium and heavy tanks.
In 1939, the Wehrmacht realized that the heavy 15 cm sIG (Sturm Infanterie Geschütze, English: infantry assault guns) could not keep up with the advancing tank forces because of their weight and the way these guns were transported. Therefore, before the invasion of France, several 15 cm sIG 33s were put on Panzer I Ausf.B chassis because of the Ausf.A could not carry the weight. Later, a shield was added to protect the crew. The Sturmpanzer Is (English: Assault tank I) were organized into heavy infantry assault gun companies. However, even the upgraded Ausf.B chassis could not handle the weight of the gun and the tank broke down often. Therefore development began for a new way to mobilize the sIG 33. In the end, 38 vehicles were converted by Alkett and stayed in service until 1943.
There were also several field conversions, with the idea of converting an outdated chassis into a tank destroyer. An obscure field conversion is the Panzer I Ausf.B mounting a 50 mm Pak 38. No information exists on who carried out the conversion, where it was used, and when. In the only photo available the backside of the PaK 38 shield can be seen.
One of the most well-known upgunned Ausf.B field conversions was the Panzer I Ausf.B with 75 mm StuK (Sturmkanone, English: Assault cannon). This vehicle-mounted a 75 mm StuK 40 L/48, possibly taken from a StuG III. The tank served during the battle of Berlin and it is unknown who carried out this conversion. The conversion seemed to be done in a rather rudimentary fashion, by removing the turret and mounting the gun on the superstructure. An additional shield was put in front of the gun to protect the crew.
In 1939, the Wehrmacht and its engineers faced a shortage of mobile and armored bridge-laying vehicles. Before the war had started, the 7th Panzer Division converted two of their Panzer I Ausf.As into bridge layers. In the following months, new Panzer I chassis were converted into bridge layers. These also included some Ausf.B chassis. The Brückenleger I on Ausf.B chassis had an 11-meter long bridge on top of the superstructure whilst the turret was still in place. Eventually, due to the Panzer I chassis not being adequate for the task, it was replaced by the bridge layer on the Panzer II chassis.
Ammunition Carrier on Ausf.B
The first ammunition carriers on Panzer I chassis were tasked with carrying ammunition safely to the front lines. In 1939, these vehicles were mostly based on the Ausf.A chassis. This changed in 1941, when most Panzer Is were pulled off the front and were converted into more useful vehicles. One of these conversions was the Ammunition carrier on Ausf.B. These vehicles received a wooden superstructure and were allocated to Panzer Jäger Abteilungen (English: tank destroyer battalions).
Flakpanzer I Field Conversions
Unlike the Ausf.A, the Ausf.B chassis was never used for the original Flakpanzer I featuring the 2 cm Flak. However, multiple photos show some Ausf.B chassis used for mounting anti-aircraft guns. The first one shows an Ausf.B chassis mounting an MG 151 Drilling (English: triple MG). Not much is known about the vehicle itself other than that it was employed late in the war as a last-ditch effort to up-gun the Panzer I.
The second photo shows an Ausf.B chassis mounting a 37 mm Flak but with the actual cannon missing and only the mount visible.
Ambulance Vehicles on the Ausf.B
After the invasion of Poland, the German army realized that they had no way of transporting doctors and medics safely to the front and transporting the wounded back to safety. To resolve this problem, many vehicles were converted into medical support vehicles. There were two kinds of medical vehicles. The first variant transported doctors and medical supplies to the front lines, whilst the second variant often transported wounded soldiers away from the front lines. These would be primarily reserved for NCOs and officers. The second variant had stretchers for the wounded on the engine deck. Both variants had their armament removed and had giant red crosses and flags painted on them to ensure that the enemy would not shoot them. In France, almost all vehicles were part of the 4th Panzer Division. They went on to serve on the Eastern Front and North Africa.
Before the invasion of France, several Kleine Panzer Befehlswagen were converted into transport vehicles for doctors and medics.
Next to the Kleine PanzerBefehlswagen, there were also several Panzer I Ausf.B chassis converted into medical vehicles. These were regular Ausf.B chassis with a protective shield. It is unknown from which vehicles these conversions originated, but it is assumed that they were converted from either Fahrschulwagen or engineering vehicles. This variant also had stretchers on its engine deck.
Due to a shortage of medical vehicles, an unknown number of regular Panzer I Ausf.Bs were also converted. Photographic evidence shows only a single Ausf.B. Visually, the tank does not seem to differ from regular Panzer Is except for the mounting of the stretcher and removal of the machine guns.
To further upgrade the Pionier Kompanien (English: Engineer companies), they were equipped with new Pionier Fahrzeuge (English: Engineer vehicles). These were vehicles intended to remove any obstacles and barricades. The first variant was called the Panzer I mit Abwurfvorrichtung (English: Panzer I with explosive charge dropping device). The Abwurfvorrichtung variant transported a 50 kg explosive charge which would then be dropped from an extended arm onto the target. At first, these were only used by Panzer Battalion 38 but, in 1940, a production order for 100 additional vehicles was given. These would be issued to the newly formed Panzer Pionier Kompanien (English: tank engineer companies) in specialized Zerstörungszüge (English: Destruction platoons) with 5 vehicles each. They participated in the invasion of France, where their performance was adequate for their intended role.
In March 1940, an order was given for a new explosive charge-laying vehicle. This time, the Panzer I would be able to carry a 75 kg explosive charge. Unlike the previous version, the Ladungsleger I (English. Charge dropping vehicle I) carried its charge above the engine deck, on a ramp that would be used to drop the charge. The exact number of vehicles built is unknown, however, at least two participated during the invasion of France together with Panzer Pionier Battalions 39 and 58, together with the Abwurfvorrichtung vehicles. In 1941, the vehicles were given a new role, mounting and being able to shoot 28 cm rockets.
Multiple photos show Ladungsleger vehicles outfitted with 28 cm rockets in the Soviet Union in 1941. In photos, the vehicle still seems to be mounting the explosive charge. These were similar to Sdkfz. 251 halftracks mounting the same rockets. The Stuka zu Fuß halftracks (English: Stuka on Foot) were used by the Nebeltruppen (English: Fog troops), which were a part of the artillery and deployed the Nebelwerfer (English: fog thrower). However, it is unknown if the Panzer I Ausf.B with 28 cm rockets were used by the Nebeltruppen or remained in service with the Panzer Pionier Kompanien. The reason behind this conversion is most likely that the task of a charge-laying vehicle was not needed anymore in 1941.
Similarly, there was also an unknown number of Panzer I mit Abwurfvorrichtung outfitted with flamethrowers.
As the first Panzer Is entered service, they proved to be vulnerable in stressful situations and difficult terrain and therefore tended to break down. First introduced on the chassis of the Panzer I Ausf.A, the Instandsetzungskraftwagen (English: Maintenance tank) was responsible for maintaining tanks and carrying the equipment for maintenance and spare parts. Later, more and more Ausf.B chassis were converted into maintenance vehicles. The first version based on the Ausf.B chassis was a simple Panzer I Ausf.B without superstructure and new storage spaces for tools and equipment. A canvas could be stretched around the iron bars. The second version simply saw the removal of the turret, but with the superstructure remaining. This version was often a field conversion carried out by the troops on the front later in the war. The last version had a completely new superstructure, some of it armored and some of it soft skin. The Instandsetzungskraftwagen stayed in service until 1945. An unknown number of Instandsetzungskraftwagen were also reused for carrying fuel, towing artillery guns, and used by the engineers.
An unknown number of Panzer I Ausf.B chassis were converted into engineering vehicles. These vehicles were tasked with carrying equipment for engineers, but also wooden planks for building bridges. It is confirmed that at least three Panzer I Ausf.Bs were used as engineering vehicles.
Not much is known about this vehicle and information can only be taken from photos and a short paragraph from the Kubinka Tank Museum. In one photo, the Panzer I with swimming equipment seems to be part of a reconnaissance battalion in the Soviet Union in 1941 or 1942. Because the Schwimmpanzer II (Panzer II with swimming equipment) was originally intended for ‘Operation Seelöwe’ (English: Sealion, the German Operation for invading the United Kingdom), one can assume that the Schwimpanzer I would have been used for a similar role. However, the equipment is very different from the Schwimmpanzer II. The Schwimmpanzer I had a pontoon hanging on each mudguard. This would result in the tank only being able to float and not swim. One example was captured by Soviet Forces in 1942 and was sent back to Moscow for further examination. This vehicle was also an Umsetzfahrzeug and was presented to the public during the Gorky Park exhibition after the war. For unknown reasons, the side pontoons had been removed and only the extended mudguards were visible during the exhibition. After that, its trace was lost.
After the success of the first command tank variant, the Funkpanzerwagen built on the Ausf.A chassis, development began in 1935 for a new command tank based on the Ausf.B chassis. In 1936, contracts were awarded for 72 new kleiner Panzerbefehlswagen (Sd.Kfz.265) (English: small command tank). In total, 184 Befehlswagen were built. There were three different versions, all of them different in the commander’s cupola. The first version of Befehlswagen had no cupola, whilst the second one mounted a cupola. The third one had a slightly modified cupola.
At the start of the war, each company was issued one Befehlswagen. However, this turned out to be insufficient, as many Befehlswagen were lost during the early campaign. In 1941, most Befehlswagen I were replaced by Befehlswagen based on the Panzer III. They were reorganized into the artillery branch as auxiliary vehicles. Even before the war, some vehicles received a frame antenna and had no armament due to difficulties with producing the ball mounts. Furthermore, several Befehlswagen had additional armor plates bolted onto the superstructure for extra protection.
Some Befehlswagen were reused as mobile command stations for steering mine clearing vehicles and explosive charge laying vehicles, such as the Sd.Kfz.303
Due to a shortage of command tanks, many improvised command tanks entered service around 1938. These included regular Panzer I Ausf.B tanks fitted with a frame antenna and a new radio.
There are also several photos of an improvised Befeshlwagen on Ausf.A and B chassis. Although no information is available, photographic evidence supports the theory that these strange Panzer Befehlswagen were some early prototypes or improvised vehicles. They differ from the placements of visors and which antenna type they mount. They had a different superstructure, no armament, and only one entrance on the front side. Photos show that these vehicles shared a similar life to the regular Befehlswagen.
As with the Panzer I Ausf.A, there were also training tanks on the Ausf.B chassis. These Fahrschulwagen (English: Driving school vehicles) were issued to each company and to the driver’s schools. There were many different versions and variants of this, based on where and when they were used.
The regular Fahrschulwagen were taken from the production line and had no superstructure mounted on them, but often support bars for the driver. Starting in 1937, companies were allowed to convert two more of their Panzer I tanks in stockpile into Fahrschulwagen.
During the war, as the situation for Germany was getting more and more desperate, most Panzer I tanks in reserve were converted into training tanks. These conversions also included the mounting of a charcoal engine to save fuel.
Unknown Field Conversions
There are a number of obscure Panzer I Ausf.B variants about which there is no information at this moment and which are only known from photos. The following vehicles are unknown field conversions and their purpose can only be speculated.
The Panzer I Ausf.B was the result of the Army requesting an urgently needed upgrade to the Ausf.A due to the tank not being able to work properly in stressful situations, even during maneuvers. The Ausf.B delivered this upgrade and showed great improvement mobility-wise compared to its predecessor. However, this only solved one problem, leaving the problems with the vulnerable armor and light armament. In the end, the Ausf.B was also badly needed by the Wehrmacht during the early years of the war and, in combined arms warfare, performed fairly well. It would continue to see service as a garrison and training vehicle until the end of the war.
Even though it was not the first tank of the German Army, the Panzer I Ausf.A was the first German tank to enter serial production and the first German tank to see combat in large numbers. It is one of the most nondescript but also one of the most important German tanks, with over 1,190 built between late 1934 and early 1936. Although not the most effective in tank versus tank combat, it played an important role in training a new generation of German tank crew members and in spurring further tank development. Furthermore, it was highly important during the early phases of the Second World War. The Panzer I Ausf.A first saw action during the Spanish Civil War and in the Second Sino-Japanese War, being Germany’s first true export tank. Its frontline service life ended in 1941, by which point the Panzer I was considered unsuitable even in the reconnaissance role, though it continued to see service as a training and auxiliary tank.
Context: Development of a Light Armored Machine Gun Tank
World War I ended for Germany with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which, among many other things, restricted the country from constructing and designing any tanks. But, since the newly formed Weimar Republic did not want to be left behind in terms of tank development, the Reichswehr, the army of the Weimar Republic, secretly trained with dummy tanks, which were either bicycles or cars disguised as tanks. Later, when a secret treaty which involved the sharing of technology and trading of resources was signed with the Soviet Union, Germany started to design new tanks and could test these safely in the Soviet Union. The two most notable tanks of the Weimar Republic were the Großtraktor (Eng: Big Tractor) and Leichttraktor (Eng: Light Tractor), but both were only prototypes manufactured in very small numbers.
After the Nazis took over in Germany, all secret projects with the Soviet Union were scrapped, as was the training school in Kazan. Hitler’s new regime ignored the Versailles restrictions and pushed on with the development of new tanks since the old Leichtraktor and Großtraktor were considered unfit for purpose.
When developing the future doctrine for tanks, two factions stood against each other. The first one, under General Guderian, wanted to quickly equip the German Army with tanks as a stopgap until the arrival of what would become the Panzer III and IV. The other one, under General Beck, was against the idea of having a stopgap tank because it believed all production capability should be put into the creation of the eventual Panzer III and IV. In the end, Wa. Prüf. 6 (Waffen Prüfamt 6, Eng: German Weapons Design and Ordnance Department responsible for the development of military vehicles) agreed with Guderian’s idea, even though a light machine gun tank would not fit the German Army’s criteria of having a tank that would be able to attack alongside infantry and have at least some anti-tank capability. Guderian felt that a small tank that did not cost too many resources would make a good transition model.
In 1930, Wa. Prüf. 6 turned to Krupp and requested the design of a new tank using the suspension of the previously purchased light tracked tractor from Vickers Armstrong. Krupp developed the Kleintraktor (Eng: Small Tractor) which, after three failed prototypes, was already very similar to the Panzer I.
In 1933, Krupp was given the first production contract for 135 vehicles codenamed 1. Serie La.S. (Landwirtschaftlicher Schlepper, Eng: Agricultural Tractor) or later Krupp-Traktor (Eng: Krupp Tractor). An additional contract for 3 vehicles, each based on Krupp’s Kleintraktor, was given to five different companies: Krupp Großen Werk (Großen Werk was the part of Krupp responsible for manufacturing in the 1930s), Daimler-Benz, Rheinmetall-Borsig, Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg (MAN), and Henschel.
Unlike other countries’ design firms, the German design office often gave contracts to different firms which would then create only one part of the tank. Krupp and Daimler Benz were both tasked with the creation of a turret and a hull, while the other firms were tasked with only creating a hull.
After a series of evaluations of different prototypes, which all visually looked very similar to the Kleintraktor, Krupp’s hull and the Daimler-Benz turret and superstructure won. Whilst evaluating the different prototypes, the first series (only chassis without turrets and superstructures) was already ordered from Krupp and built, creating the future training school vehicles. But Wa. Prüf. 6 was not pleased with the finished product and Krupp had to redesign the whole tank. This new design would later become the Panzer I Ausf.A.
The first official designation was La.S., which is an abbreviation for the German words Landwirtschaftlicher Schlepper (Eng: Agricultural Vehicle). This was chosen due to the Treaty of Versailles still affecting Germany’s tank production and to deceive enemy intelligence. The designation 1-4. Serie denotes the production series of La.S. and when the tanks were built. When, in 1939, it was made obvious to the entire world that Germany was rearming, the official name changed to the better-known Panzer I Ausf.A. designation, which, in full, was Sd.Kfz.101 Panzerkampfwagen I Ausführung A. Training schools kept calling them the 2-4. Serie/Landwirtschaftlicher Schlepper. Sd.Kfz. (Sonderkraftfahrzeug, Eng: special purpose vehicle) was a classification system used by Wa. Prüf. 6 to identify all German military vehicles, while Panzer/Panzerkampfwagen I was generally used by the troops.
In 1933, Krupp won the competition to produce the hull and Daimler-Benz the superstructure and turret for the La.S.
Initially, it was planned that Krupp would produce 150 2. Serie La.S and Daimler-Benz 300 superstructures and turret sets. However, this was never achieved and, in the end, it was agreed on a final figure of 200 finished tanks.
In a meeting with Krupp, Wa. Prüf. 6, and the other firms in February 1934, it was discussed who should produce what. Krupp was tasked with providing updated blueprints with the changes from the old 1. Serie La.S. Krupp was then to provide these new designs and 10 engines to the other firms: (Henschel, Grusonwerk (part of Krupp), MAN, Daimler Benz, Rheinmetall). In turn, these companies were to construct 30 hulls each and Krupp 50. The production deadline was for February 1935.
When the first vehicles were delivered to the troops, they were unsatisfied due to the engine being too weak to perform on an obstacle course. As a result, General Lutz turned to Wa. Prüf. 6 and demanded that the production of La.S. should stop after the 2. Series and only be restarted if imminent war became a possibility. However, the La.S.’ successor, the La.S. 100 (later the Panzer II), was still in development and could not be completed until 1936.
As a result, Krupp’s order for La.S. was increased to 1,000 vehicles shortly thereafter. Krupp was also tasked with providing over 650 engines. Krupp did not have the production capability to keep up with this contract and therefore considered outsourcing the order to even more outside firms.
In the end, the Reichswehrminister (Eng: Minister of Defense) demanded that all production capability should be going into the La.S., with over 1,000 vehicles to be completed and handed over to the troops by July 1935. Krupp was to produce 215 chassis, while the other firms were to produce the rest. In August 1935, after over 600 tanks were already completed, an order was issued that 150 chassis should be used as training school tanks. Therefore, production of a third series (the 3. Serie/La.S.) with only minor modifications was started by Krupp. Because the Panzer I only had a radio receiver and was not able to send out messages, a new command tank was designed using the chassis of the 2. Serie/La.S., with 15 built. The last 175 tanks from the planned 1,000 tanks were called the 4. Serie/La.S.. In the end, 1,190 Panzer I Ausf.As were built.
After the failed project of the first series of La.S., a second series was started in February 1934. Although it resembled the previous versions, almost all of its components had to be redesigned. These changes mainly included the enlargement of the return rollers, bigger fuel tanks, and the increase of the hull height by 50 mm. Additionally, for the first time, Wa. Prüf. 6 wanted a radio set inside the tank to improve communication. Therefore, a more powerful electric generator had to be fitted inside the rear. Later, the proposed increase in the hull height was canceled. Before entering production, a new cooling system was implemented. It consisted of two air filters and air intakes which greatly improved the cooling of the engine.
Hull and Superstructure
The hull was the main component that supported the drivetrain. It was made out of several armor plates welded together, with a firewall separating the engine compartment and the crew compartment. Three strong steel strips were bolted to the upper edge of the hull to support the superstructure. Multiple hatches and ports on the hull could be unbolted to access different parts of either the engine or drivetrain. The tank had two tow shackles for towing the tank at the front and two aluminum mudguards.
Mounted on the hull was the superstructure, which was designed by Daimler-Benz. It was designed in order for a two-man crew to fit inside the tank and was equipped with a short-wave radio receiver set and two gas masks, since the tank had no other protection against poison gas.
The superstructure was separated into two parts: the front section and the rear section. The front section protected the crew compartment and could only be removed after the removal of the rear section. The rear section protected the engine compartment and had thinner armor. It could be removed much easier in order to access the engine.
While it may not seem very impressive by modern standards, the Panzer I was the first German serial production tank to receive vision slits and bulletproof glass, so the crew would be better protected whilst looking out. The vision ports were located all around the superstructure, with one each on the back and front and one on each side. Two access hatches were located on the superstructure. The driver’s hatch was located on the left side, while the commander’s hatch was on the turret.
Like the other components of the Panzer I, the turret’s origin can be traced to the development of the Kleintraktor, when Daimler-Benz was tasked with providing a turret for the series. It was a success and only small modifications on the inside had to be made, making the Panzer I turret visually almost identical to the first turret of the Krupptraktor. The turret could be fully rotated, mounted on a ball-bearing race, and armed with two MG 13s which could be aimed with a telescopic sight. There were two visors with vision slits on the back, two without vision slits on the sides, and a commander’s hatch on top. Furthermore, there were two visors that could be opened directly in front of the machine guns.
Suspension and Transmission
The suspension consisted of one front sprocket wheel, three return rollers, one idler wheel, and four road wheels on each side. While the first/front road wheel was a single wheel, the second and third road wheels were paired in a leaf spring suspension. The fourth road wheel was also mounted on a suspension cradle connected to the idler wheel. The idler wheel was partially connected to the fourth road wheel and touched the ground, which would later turn out to be a significant problem, as the steering of the tank was severely impaired.
The Panzer I Ausf.A had a transmission, clutch steering unit, and final drive. The transmission was a five-speed gearbox with synchronization for the first four gears.
One of the main problems with the Ausf.A was its engine. The air-cooled 4-cylinder Krupp M305 proved to be very loud when starting and made the tank extremely noisy. In his diary, a soldier wrote that the troops would jump-start the engine, creating a very loud sound that would wake up the whole platoon. This was overdone to such an extent that the Panzer I manual specifically prohibited this course of action.
The engine could propel the tank to a maximum speed of 37 km/h, giving out 60 hp at 2,500 rpm. Next to the engine, located at the rear side of the hull, was an electric generator and two Solex carburetors. The engine also had a cooling fan, cooling-oil, and oil-filter.
The armor was made of rolled homogenous hardened plates with a Brinell hardness of 850. It was welded and formed the body of the superstructure and hull. Although not protected from even small caliber anti-tank guns, it could provide protection against small arms fire and SmK bullets (steel-cored rifle bullets). At the front, the thickest part was at 15 mm on the MG mount of the turret, whilst the superstructure front was up to 8-13 mm. The sides were protected by 14.5 mm at the thickest point under the driver’s hatch. Lastly, the rear hull and engine deck were protected by 8-13 mm of armor.
The Panzer I Ausf.A turret-mounted two MG 13 machine guns. The MG 13 was the standard machine gun of the Reichswehr and the German Army for the first years of the war. A total of 2,250 rounds of 7.92 mm SmK (steel-cored) bullets were packed in 25 magazines, with 61 additional magazines stored in racks inside the tank. The machine guns were both operated by the commander and fired by cables connected to the triggers. While the left MG was fired by a handgrip on the elevating mechanism, the right one was fired by a handgrip on the traversing mechanism. Both could be disconnected and fired directly by the commander for better aiming. Later, the MG 13 k (the k meaning “kurz”, Eng: short), a shortened version of its predecessor, replaced the MG 13.
Two crew members operated the Panzer I Ausf.A: a driver and a gunner/commander. The commander was situated in the turret and tasked with operating the machine guns, the radio and giving orders to the driver. The driver was situated on the left side of the hull. Communication between the driver and commander was via speaking tubes. Many of the crews who operated the Panzer I Ausf.A were intensively trained, having participated in many maneuvers prior to the outbreak of the war.
In 1932, the first Panzer I prototypes, the 1. Serie/La.S. and Kleintraktor, were painted in “Feldgrau” (Eng: field gray). This specific camouflage was put on all military vehicles to disguise them as commercial vehicles.
Later during the same year, the first ‘real’ Panzer Is received the Buntfarbenanstrich (Eng: multi-colored-camouflage). This was a three-tone camouflage consisting of earth-yellow, matt green, and matt brown. The pattern was to be applied in random patches and could either be feathered or separated by thin black lines.
In July 1937, an order was given to stop painting all tanks in Buntfarbenanstrich. Tanks would now be painted in dark gray and dark brown. The base color was gray, with patches of brown applied randomly but not overlapping the gray. The order only applied initially to newly produced tanks. Tanks with the old camouflage would only be repainted if necessary due to damage to the old pattern. Tools and equipment stayed in the old camouflage. In November 1938, the order was given to paint every tank in the new pattern, with ⅔ of the tank covered in gray and ⅓ in brown. Although the reason why this new pattern was introduced is unknown, it is highly likely that it was because the gray and brown paints were much cheaper. Furthermore, gray has the effect of blending in with the surroundings over long ranges, making it a fairly effective camouflage pattern.
To save paint, in June 1940, the order was given to stop buying paint directly from suppliers and obtain it through the Ordnance Department. A month later, it was ordered that all vehicles would only be painted in dark gray.
For the Afrika Korps, a special camouflage pattern was issued. In March 1941, when the first tanks arrived in Libya, the order was given to paint all equipment and vehicles in Gelbbraun (Eng: yellow-brown) with Graugrün (Eng: gray-green) patches. This pattern would be applied in the same way as brown and gray: ⅔ of the tank in yellow-brown and ⅓ in gray-green. Unlike the brown and gray pattern, the edges would not be sharply defined but rather feathered together.
In March 1942, the camouflage for all vehicles in the Afrika Korps was changed to a base brown (⅔) and light gray patches (⅓). Before applying the new pattern, all old paint supplies had to be used up.
On 18th February 1943, the order was given to paint all vehicles and larger equipment in Dunkelgelb (Eng: dark yellow). Olive-green and red-brown would act as camouflage stripes, which could be acquired through normal supply channels. The application of olive-green and red-brown was made optional, since not all units, especially on the Eastern Front, had access to these paints. Note that by this point, all Panzer Is had been pulled out of frontline service. Panzer Is that continued service as training tanks were painted in dark yellow.
Organization and Doctrine
The first 318 Panzer Is were organized into Panzer-Regiments in August 1935. However, there were not enough Panzer Is to fill the 6 regiments, so early Panzer I prototypes were used to make up the numbers. Around 1936, two additional regiments would be added. In 1937, this number had not changed, but there were more Panzer Is in each regiment. Furthermore, there were separate battalions with special tasks, such as the Nachrichten-Abteilung (Eng: signals battalion) and Kraftfahr Lehr Abteilung (Eng: driving school battalion) equipped with Panzer Is. By March 1939, the last pre-war modifications to the organization were done, which mainly saw the addition of more regiments with less Panzer Is in them. This was due to the increasing number of other tanks, such as the Panzer II and IV. Furthermore, new ‘independent’ battalions were added, which could be attached to any division or used in any role. The signals battalions no longer contained any Panzer Is.
At the start of the war, the Panzer I regiments were organized into Panzer Divisions, which were an organic part of the Heer (Eng: German Army). A German Panzer Division in 1939 consisted of one motorized infantry regiment, two Panzer brigades, one reconnaissance battalion, one artillery battalion, one engineer battalion, one anti-tank battalion, and one signal squadron. Each Panzer brigade consisted of two regiments, each consisting of two battalions. Each battalion had up to 34 Panzer Is and 33 Panzer IIs placed in a Leichter Kompanie (Eng: Light Company). There were also 5 Panzer III and 6 Panzer IVs which formed the Mittlere Kompanie (Eng: Medium Company). Each platoon had 2 Panzer Is and 3 Panzer IIs. Together, up to 272 Panzer Is were allocated for each Panzer Division, but this number often varied, with some tanks staying in reserve or acting as replacements for other tanks. Furthermore, each regiment and later even company received a single Panzer Befehlswagen (Eng: Command Tank) based on the Panzer I hull.
A year later, in 1940, the organization changed, with the Panzer Is slowly being replaced by medium tanks, such as the Panzer III and IV.
By 1941, the Panzer Is were officially removed from frontline combat service but continued to see service as replacement and reconnaissance tanks.
It is a common myth that the Panzer I Ausf.A and its successors were intended as training tanks, but this was not true. The Panzer I already had a designated training vehicle variant, the Fahrschulwagen I. Furthermore, if intended as a training tank, it would not have been equipped with two machine guns and also not armored with expensive nickel. From the start, the Panzer I was intended for combat, but only as a stopgap until the later Panzer III and IV entered service.
The Panzer I was to be used in combined arms warfare and never alone. Combined arms warfare was the combination of all aspects of the military. These were the Stukas acting as close air support, the Panzers acting as the spearhead, and artillery and motorized infantry close behind in support. The intended doctrine for the German tank arm only included the Panzer III and IV working together, where the Panzer III would deal with other tanks and the Panzer IV with infantry and fortifications. The Panzer I was either used as a fast tank that supported the advancing forces with its machine guns against infantry or used as a reconnaissance tank that drove ahead of the Panzer III and IV.
Divisional Insignias and Emblems
Before national identification marks, such as the Balkenkreuz, were painted on the tank and any kind of numbering system was introduced, Panzer I tanks, and also tanks of other nations, such as France, used playing card symbols for identification. This was only experimental for the first maneuvers and parades of the first newly created Panzer Division from 1935 to 1937. After that, the Panzer I received a new system, consisting of a combination of numbers, colors, and shapes stenciled onto the front driver’s plate and in the form of placards on the rear side. The system was used until the invasion of Poland, but many units did not follow this order and only used the stenciled three-digit number system which would eventually replace the placards system completely. During maneuvers, a chess board-like ring was painted around the turret. This was used to identify the platoon or company commander. There were many more such unique symbols with unknown purposes during the first years of the Panzer Divisions.
The placard was located at the rear side of the turret or engine deck. It was a light gray square, 420 mm long x 240 mm high, with two smaller symbols in the center. On the right, there was always a rhomboid in a specific color with a specific number and on the left was either two stripes or a circle only for company and platoon leaders.
Two red stripes identify a platoon leader; One red circle identifies a company leader, a solid white square identifies a Panzer from the 1. Platoon, two solid white stripes identify a Panzer from the 2. Platoon, a triangle identifies Panzers from the 3. Platoon. The small number identifies the regiment. The rhomboid’s filler color identifies the company: white 1./5. Company, red 2./6. Company, yellow 3./7. Company, and light blue 4./8. Company. Other than the filler color, the rhomboid could also be either a completely solid color (like in the photo) identifying the I. Abteilung (1. Battalion) or have a black stripe identifying the II. Abteilung (2. Battalion).
The three-digit system was located either at the sides or front of the superstructure. This system was much more complicated before the war. During wartime, the system was simplified to a point where enemy anti-tank guns and tanks had no problems figuring out which vehicle was the platoon leader and would shoot it first. This would eventually lead to its downfall, with many units making up their own system.
The small number identifies the regiment. The filler color identifies the battalion: Red= 2. Battalion, White= 1. Battalion
Instead of a 0, this system used a dot. Later, it would be replaced by a regular 0. The right digit identifies the individual tank in the platoon. Sometimes, this digit would not be present, then the tank was either part of a Leichte Zug (Eng: light platoon: a platoon of tanks supporting the HQ command) or the Stab (Eng: staff).
The middle digit identifies the platoon. The left digit identifies the company. It could also have a triangle or square (either red= 2. Battalion or white= 1. Battalion). These were used to identify HQ battalion command vehicles.
Since the system proved to be too complicated, a new simplified system was introduced and used throughout the war. It kept the simple idea of a three-digit system with company, platoon, and individual tanks. Information about the regiment was put in a separate (now only white) rhomboid.
In order to standardize and clarify the German identification markings, an order was given shortly before the outbreak of the war to paint solid white Balkenkreuze (Eng: beam crosses) on the tanks. If the tank did not have this Balkenkreuz, it was identified as an enemy tank. The Balkenkreuz would be painted on the turret front, rear, and both sides. Furthermore, a white square would be painted on the engine deck for identification for fighter planes. This would later be removed due to the tanks being exposed to enemy aircraft too, but then added again in form of the famous Fliegertuch (Eng: Fighter Cloth), which was essentially a regular Nazi Germany flag with the same purpose, mainly used on the Eastern Front and in North Africa.
One of the problems with this solid white Balkenkreuz was that it proved to be a very good aiming spot for enemy tanks and anti-tank guns. This was such a big problem that many crews intentionally covered the Balkenkreuz with mud or, in some other cases, painted it yellow.
To fix this problem, in October 1939, the order was given to paint a Balkenkreuz with an open center on the rear and sides of the superstructure of the tank.
Later, between 1940 and 1941, the Balkenkreuze received a black stripe in the center to further conceal them.
After the war’s outbreak, Panzers started being organized into panzer divisions and not regiments. Therefore, new insignias were introduced for each panzer division. These symbols were stenciled in yellow on all armored and motorized vehicles. There was no mention of a specific area where these should be applied, but High Command gave orders on how they would look for each panzer division in service at that time. Throughout the war, new symbols were added for new divisions and old ones were replaced in an attempt to disguise their identity.
The Panzer I Ausf.A between 1936 and 1938
The Panzer I first saw combat in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, which ranged from 1936 to 1939. After the outbreak of the war, many countries, including Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union, initially signed the Non-Intervention Pact, which prohibited involvement in the civil war. Nonetheless, throughout the conflict, to different degrees, Italy and Germany supported the Rebel or Nationalist side, and the Soviet Union sent military equipment and military advisors/political commissars to the Republic.
Walter Warliomnt, the German representative in Rebel Spain, traveled back to Germany on September 12th, 1936, a few months after the beginning of the conflict, to inform the German High Command of the success of the German aircraft used up to then, but also with the warning that if the Rebels were to win, they would need more materiel support from Germany.
On September 20th, the majority of the officers and troops of Panzer-Regiment 6 of the 3rd Panzer Division volunteered to fight in an undisclosed location. On September 28th, 267 men, 41 Panzer I Ausf.As, 24 3.7 cm Pak 36s, and around 100 other logistical vehicles set sail for Spain, arriving in Sevilla on October 7th, from where they were then transported by train to Cáceres to instruct Spanish crews on how to use their tanks. An additional 21 Panzer I Ausf.Bs arrived in Sevilla on October 25th. By the end of 1936, the German tank unit, the Panzergruppe Drohne, was made up of three tank companies. Its main task was instruction, not just in tanks, but also anti-tank guns, tank transporters and flamethrowers, and repairing damaged vehicles. Although German crews were instructed not to crew the tanks in combat, there are some recorded instances of this occurring early in the war. To fill in for damaged or lost tanks, an additional 10 Panzer Is were sent to Spain in early 1937, the last to be sent directly by Germany through the Condor Legion.
Additional tanks, replacement parts, and other vehicles were processed and delivered through Sociedad Hispano-Marroquí de Transportes (HISMA), a dummy company set up by Germany to make deals with Spain. Whilst the Nationalists continually asked for a tank armed with at least a 20 mm cannon to be able to effectively confront the Republican T-26s, none would arrive. The Nationalists instead had to be content with additional Panzer Is. The first request was sent on July 13th, 1937, and 18 Panzer I Ausf.As arrived in El Ferrol on August 25th and 12 in Sevilla on August 30th. The second order was sent on November 12th, 1938, with 20 Panzer Is arriving on January 20th, 1939. It should be noted that these two orders required a great deal of insistence from Spanish authorities and German Condor Legion officers. This, alongside the hesitance to deliver anything more modern than a Panzer I, may be indicative of a German reluctance to fully commit to Spain to the same extent as Italy did, at least regarding land forces.
In total, Germany supplied 96 Panzer I Ausf.A and 21 Ausf.B, 4 Panzerbefehlswagen I Ausf.B (Panzer I command tanks), and one Panzerkampfwagen I Ausf.A (ohne Aufbau) (a turretless training tank).
When in combat, the Panzer Is mostly acted as an infantry support vehicle, as were most vehicles during the conflict. During their first engagement with Soviet T-26 tanks, fighting in Ciudad Universitaria on the Madrid front in November 1936, the Rebels were held back, with over 15 Panzer I tanks destroyed. This was due to the Panzer Is and Italian tanks not being able to penetrate the Soviet T-26 unless at very close ranges.
As the Nationalists started to turn the tide and began to capture huge numbers of equipment and Soviet tanks, the anti-tank problem was fixed by giving each company of Panzer Is one T-26 and several 37 mm German anti-tank guns. The Panzer I, although it could not outclass the Soviet T-26 and BA-6 armored cars, was much more robust and reliable in the Spanish environment. This was aided in large part by the excellent maintenance work carried out by German and Spanish engineers.
However, there were many cases of the engine overheating in the hot climate, which would later be fixed by installing the water-cooled engine in the Ausf.B. Furthermore, cases of detracking occurred and the armor protection on the visors proved to be too thin to stop armor-piercing rifle bullets. The Spanish terrain was often very rough and next to no infrastructure existed, which compounded the situation.
Furthermore, the Panzer I was in most cases not used in a combined arms doctrine, with artillery, planes, or other tank support, and the crews were often Spanish personnel, who were less trained than German tank crews. The Panzer Is were used mostly as mobile machine gun nests, advancing into defended towns, which was not how they were intended to be used.
However, there were several instances of them being used differently, with a number of Panzer Is being amassed and used to penetrate a weak point in the enemy’s defense line to overwhelm the front. The first notable example came in the Nationalist counter-offensive during the Battle of Brunete on July 18th, 1937. Condor Legion ground commander, Wilhelm von Thoma, was able to persuade General Valera to employ their Panzer Is together, rather than dispersing them among the infantry. This succeeded until the intense heat and general exhaustion slowed down the advance.
Another example of this combined arms warfare-like employment of Panzer Is during the Spanish Civil War came during the Catalan Offensive at the beginning of 1939. The Nationalist offensive to capture the remaining parts of Catalonia had begun on December 23rd, 1938, but the Republican defense was solid. On January 3rd, Panzer Is and other Nationalist tanks were amassed and broke the front in the province of Lleida, leading the way to the eventual fall of Barcelona.
The Panzer Is fought on almost all fronts of the Spanish Civil War. According to data compiled at the end of the conflict, from its foundation in 1936, the Agrupación de Carros de Combate (Eng. Tank Grouping), where the majority of Panzer Is were, had participated in 904 combats.
Spanish Republican Service?
The Rebels/Nationalist were renowned for capturing and putting to use Soviet/Republican vehicles. What is less known, but also far less common, was that the Republican side also captured a number of Italian and German vehicles in Rebel/Nationalist service.
Photographic evidence shows at least three Panzer Is in Madrid being shown to a crowd of curious onlookers. The vehicles were repaired and cleaned before the exhibition. The vehicles were given new numbers, though they can only be distinguished in two, numbers “31” and “33”. The purpose of these numbers is unknown. Number “31” had a banner reading “todos contra el invasor” (Eng. All together fight the invader) and the one where the number can not be identified had a large banner celebrating the heroics of a certain Corporal García. The original machine guns on these vehicles are missing, and were replaced by dummies and Hotchkiss 7 mm ones.
There is another photo showing a lone Panzer I in the field. This vehicle, with camouflage applied, has a small red flag with a yellow hammer and sickle on the right mudguard. There is no information available about when or where this photo was taken and it is hard to tell if this was an isolated case.
In September 1936, 15 Panzer I Ausf.As were sold to China for 1.03 million Reichsmark. Together with the tanks, a representative of Krupp, Habermaas, came to China to evaluate their performance. Habermaas stated that, upon arrival, the Panzer Is were in a poor condition due to insufficient packaging. Parts of the tanks, such as the machine gun mounts, brakes, and telescopes, were heavily rusted. Additional equipment, such as manuals and toolboxes, were damaged or lost due to the salt and water that had corroded the tanks. Lastly, the electrical parts were damaged due to the moist air, which also included the electrical fans, resulting in the tank overheating up to 60°C. The Chinese government falsely accused the Germans of sending them used tanks instead of new ones, but the bad state of the Panzers was due to the bad organization of the Chinese Ordnance Department and poor packaging by the Germans.
Another problem of the Panzer I in China was the suspension. Chinese infrastructure was even worse than in Spain, resulting in even worse results. The only terrain through which the Panzer I could drive was the rice fields, where the Panzer I had just enough ground clearance to be able to carefully drive through. Getting over the dikes between the rice fields proved to be impossible for the Panzers. The only other way of driving these tanks was in Nanking on dry rice fields. The tanks could only carefully drive on these still muddy grounds or else the chance of losing a track was increased. The Vickers 6-ton and Carden-Loyd, which were also exported to China at that time, were superior to the Panzer I in terms of mobility. The other main problem that the Chinese pointed out was the weak armament in comparison to the Vickers 6-ton.
In theory, the Panzer I was relatively comfortable, especially for Chinese soldiers, who were generally shorter than German soldiers. However, in practice, the tank heated up very fast and all visors and hatches had to be opened, exposing the crew to enemy small arms fire. Notwithstanding these points, the Panzer I proved to be adequate for the Chinese Army.
In the end, the tanks did not participate during the Defense of Shanghai. They fought in the Defense of Nanking, where all 15 tanks were captured by Japanese troops and sent for evaluation to Japan.
Similar to the Panzer Is in Spain, their poor performance can be traced back to the fact that they were not built for the difficult terrain and hot climate of China. Furthermore, like in Spain, the Panzer Is were not used in their intended combat role by the Chinese and quickly fell victim to the environment of China and Japanese troops.
Austria and Czechoslovakia
In 1938, the Panzer I was present during the annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Even though no fighting occurred, the tanks had to drive a long distance to the annexed countries and the Panzers often broke down. This was not a problem unique to the Panzer I, as the Panzer II, III, and IV also broke down with similar frequency.
The Invasion of Poland – 1939
At the start of the Second World War, on 1st September 1939, 973 Panzer Is participated in the invasion of Poland, making up about 40% of the German tanks deployed during the invasion. The other 260 Panzer Is stayed in reserve. With the loss of over 819 tanks, of which 320 were Panzer Is, the Polish campaign proved to be extremely costly for the German Army, contrary to the common misconception. Later, the number of Panzer Is which were either completely lost or needed major repairs was reduced to 89 tanks.
War in the West – 1940
As Panzer II, III, and IV production had drastically increased by 1940, more and more Panzer Is were withdrawn from frontline service. Furthermore, the Polish campaign demonstrated that the German Army still needed to improve its combined arms tactics. One of the greatest drawbacks of German armor during the 1939 campaign was the lack of communication between the Luftwaffe (Eng: Airforce) and Heer and their lack of armor protection. Even the small number of Polish tankettes equipped with anti-tank guns and 7TP tanks had no problem knocking-out the German tanks. This was not just a problem for the Panzer I, since the Panzer III and IV also had thin armor.
Before the invasion of France, 29 Panzer Is, part of Panzer Abteilung 40, were sent to Denmark and later Norway in April 1940. The Danish and Norwegian armies fielded no active tanks and only had a small number of anti-tank guns, resulting in no Panzer Is lost in combat, though mechanical attrition in the harsh territory of Norway did take its toll.
At the start of Fall Gelb (Eng: Case Yellow, the invasion of the Benelux and France), 554 Panzer Is took part in the invasion. Similar to the Polish campaign, the French campaign was extremely costly for the Panzer Is and the German Army in general. Over 182 Panzer Is were completely lost, which was 26% of the total number of Panzer Is deployed.
The invasion of France was the most costly invasion up to that point, specifically in terms of tanks lost to enemy tanks. The much heavier and better armored French tanks, such as the H39, R40, Somua S35, and Char B1 faced no problem penetrating German tanks, but, on the other hand, the German tanks struggled to penetrate their armor. Even the earlier R35 and FCM 36 tanks, although with a very poor armament that was not adequate for dealing with tanks, had superior armor protection. However, French tanks and the entire army lacked effective communication, still relying predominantly on hand signals and flags. The Ausf.A did not field a full radio either, but the radio receiver was enough for the officer or general to give orders from his radio half-track to the command tank, which then gave the orders to the platoon leader and then to the individual tanks. This gave the German Panzers the advantage of coordination, allowing them to cut off French supply lines or encircle their armies. British tanks, such as the Matilda, which was a slow infantry tank with thick armor, were often picked off by bigger guns, such as the famous 88 mm Flak 36. One of the main aspects of the German success was due to their combined arms doctrine, with other parts of the army, such as the artillery, anti-tank guns, and the Luftwaffe working together with the tanks. The fact that the Panzer I had such a weak armament was not very relevant, since only in the rarest cases did a Panzer I actually engage in combat against another tank. Most of the time, French tanks faced multiple Panzer Is supported by Panzer IIs, IIIs, and IVs.
War on Several Fronts – 1941
In March 1941, 25 Panzer I Ausf.As were sent to North Africa as part of Panzer Regiment 5 of the Afrika Korps. Later, an additional 25 Ausf.As were sent as replacements. If no modifications had been made, the Panzer I Ausf.A, with its overheating problems and air-cooled engine, would subject its crew to inhuman temperatures inside the tank. Therefore, all Panzer Is were modified into Tropen (Eng: Tropical) variants (Panzer I Tp), which received better cooling and more air filters.
In North Africa, the Panzer Is suffered from low supplies of fuel and spare parts that plagued the entire Afrika Korps. Furthermore, the Panzer Is were not used as frontline tanks anymore, meaning they would get the least amount of fuel allocation. Their purpose was acting as reserve tanks and policing vehicles, since the General Staff of the Afrika Korps knew from the experiences in France that the Panzer I was not capable of fighting against Allied tanks.
During the invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece in April 1941, only 18 Panzer Is took part in Panzer Regiments 31 and 33. In the Balkans, the Panzer Is did not encounter many tanks. The Yugoslavian tank force, although fielding a number of Renault FT and R35 tanks, did not pose much of a threat to the Panzer Is, since these were present only in small numbers and were dealt with by other German tanks and aircraft. However, anti-tank rifles and guns were a great threat to the small tanks, as in Poland. The very bad terrain made it hard for the Panzer Divisions to advance in the first few days.
Later, the Panzer I Ausf.A would see service in the Balkans, both in Yugoslavia and Greece, in anti-partisan duties. There, they proved fairly effective with their bulletproof armor and machine guns.
At the start of Operation Barbarossa, 337 Panzer I tanks were available, divided into 17 panzer divisions. Over the period of the first month of fighting, 172 Panzer Is were lost. The rest were slowly lost due to attrition and other factors. Since no new Panzer Is had been produced after 1936, most tanks were either lost or converted into self-propelled guns or other variants by 1943. In this form, some of the Panzer Is continued to soldier on until 1945, by which time they were thoroughly obsolete.
The Panzer I Ausf.A’s Combat Performance
The Panzer I and its machine guns could effectively destroy soft targets. It was fast and small and could therefore be extremely dangerous to any infantry. But the Ausf.A was extremely loud due to its air-cooled engine. Furthermore, the commander was overwhelmed with his tasks of observing the battlefield, giving orders to the driver, operating the radio, and operating the machine guns. Additionally, if the tank was driven at a high speed, it would sometimes pitch violently.
However, the Panzer I Ausf.A played a big role for propaganda purposes. With the public used to the small Reichswehr, mostly equipped with cavalry, the large numbers for that time period of new tanks driven by a new generation of tankers dressed in black uniforms with skulls, representing the old skull hussars of Prussian times, had an enormous effect on the population. Therefore, many young people decided to also join the tank arm. Furthermore, the arrival of these small tanks in a city during a parade was always highly celebrated by the public. The tanks were often presented on Adolf Hitler’s birthday and on German Thanksgiving (a harvest festival) in 1935.
Furthermore, an often-ignored fact is that the Panzer I Ausf.A was the first German tank to enter serial production, with many different firms working on the production. For many of these firms, it was their first time mass-producing military vehicles. Despite their inexperience, they managed to produce a large number of the Panzer I Ausf.As at a rapid pace. The experience gained by these firms, for example, MAN and Henschel, would later contribute greatly to the production of tanks such as the Panther and the Tiger.
Lastly, although it was not the vehicle’s main task, the Panzer I Ausf.A was indirectly responsible for training an entire new generation of tank crews who would later become the first crews of the more advanced Panzer IIIs and IVs. Due to their extensive training during maneuvers and exercises, their performance was often superior to other tank crewmen at the start of the war. For instance many famous tank aces started training on a Panzer I
Service With Other Nations
Although not known which variants, a report of the Red Army in 1941, stated that 5-6 T-1 tanks are in service with the Red Army. The T-1 was the Soviet name for the Panzer I. However there is no photographic evidence to support this.
The independent state of Croatia, a puppet regime of Nazi Germany, successfully purchased 4 Panzer I Ausf.A tanks in 1941. These were used as garrison vehicles against the partisans.
Post-Spanish Civil War Spanish Service
The Spanish Civil War was won by the Rebel/Nationalist side and resulted in General Franco’s 36-year long dictatorship. Due to Spain’s support for Italy and Germany during the Second World War, in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, Spain was excluded from the new international organizations, such as the United Nation, and many states closed diplomatic relations. In military terms, this meant Spain had to make use of the vehicles which had survived the Spanish Civil War.
At the end of the Spanish Civil War, there were still 84 operational Panzer Is. This means that throughout the war, only 38 vehicles were fully lost. By 1942, there were still 144 Panzer Is and CV-33s and CV-35s in the Spanish Army and they equipped all five tank regiments of the Spanish Army. Whilst the passing of the years took a toll on the tanks, they were only replaced when US tanks, M24 Chaffees and M41 Walker Bulldogs, made available through the changing geopolitical world situation, arrived in Spain in the mid to late 1950s. Even then, some continued to be used for training.
Footage of the Panzer I Ausf.A
WW2 Panzer I Ausf A footage – Source: Panzer Insight
Vehicles Based on the Panzer I Ausf.A Chassis
L.K.A. and L.K.B
After the First World War and the introduction of armored warfare many countries wanted to acquire tanks but could not develop them on their own. Therefore many of the great powers such as France and the UK exported tanks and made huge profits. As a result, the company of Krupp also wanted to participate in this global market. In 1936, Krupp decided to create an export tank based on the Panzer I Ausf.A.
The L.K.A. (Light Tank for Export) was built using the Panzer I turret, a modified superstructure, and a different suspension. Although the L.K.A. visually resembled the Panzer I Ausf.A, it had nothing to do in regards to its initial development. This common misconception exists due to a British reporter claiming the L.K.A. to be the first Panzer I prototype. However, this is false, as the L.K.A. was developed in 1936, by which time the Ausf.A had been in production for almost 2 years.
A similar story regards the L.K.B., with the difference that the L.K.B. used the exact same turret, suspension, and superstructure. Unlike the Ausf.A, the L.K.B. ran on a different diesel engine and was designed and built for export.
The Panzer I “Lanzallamas” and the Panzer I “Breda”
During the Spanish Civil War, the Panzer I was ill equipped to fight against the Soviet T-26 tanks and plans were made to carry out modifications to be able to properly confront them. The first plan involved adding flamethrowers to Panzer Is, colloquially known as Panzer I “Lanzallamas”. During the early years of the Spanish Civil War, probably in October 1936, two Panzer Is (an Ausf.A and an Ausf.B) had their armament changed to a long Flammenwerfer 35 on the Ausf.A and a much shorter Flammenwerfer 35 on the Ausf.B. Their effective combat range could only reach up to 30 meters, which made the tanks rather impractical and therefore the project was not continued. It is unknown if the vehicles were ever used in combat or just for training.
The best-known modification on a Panzer I in the Spanish Civil War is the Panzer I Breda, which was first introduced in September 1937 when the Soviets started supplying even more tanks to the Republicans. The new design had a modified turret to be armed with the Italian 20 mm Breda gun. At least four were modified this way by Spanish mechanics in the Fábrica de Armas (Eng. Weapons Factory) in Seville. This design was prefered to the slightly earlier attempt to arm an Italian CV-35 with the same gun, and after successful test, more were ordered for conversion.
In spite of its apparent benefits, the Panzer I Breda project was dealt a fatal blow upon the condemnation from Condor Legion ground forces commander Wilhelm von Thoma. Von Thoma was strongly opposed to the conversion because of the poor crew safety resulting from an unarmored viewport created to aim the new gun, and as a result, he was able to convince the Cuartel General del Generalissimo (Eng. the Generalissimo’s Headquarters) to cancel the order for more vehicles.
Nonetheless, the four vehicles were assigned to units and saw combat, though details are scarce. One was struck by an enemy projectile in the Battle of the Ebro, the Breda gun of another malfunctioned and required replacing, and a third caught fire.
The Nationalists devised plans to upgun other Panzer Is with 37 mm and 45 mm guns, but these did not materialize. Furthermore, other Nationalist war tank developments, such as the Carro de Combate de Infanteria tipo 1937. (CCI tipo 1937) and the Verdeja nº1, and post-war Spanish vehicles, such as the Tractor Ligero SECN, took inspiration from the Panzer I and the knowledge gained from using and maintaining them.
Up Gunned Panzer I Ausf.As
Besides the 2 cm Breda Panzer I conversion carried out by the Nationalists, an unknown number of vehicles were later upgunned by German forces before the invasion of France with a 37 mm anti-tank gun, which was the standard anti-tank gun of Germany during the early war. The conversion removed the turret and placed the gun on top of the superstructure. Furthermore, the 3.7 cm PaK received an extended shield. The vehicle was used by Panzerjäger Abteilung 521, which was also equipped with Panzerjäger Is, a tank destroyer based on the Panzer I Ausf.B chassis.
In an attempt to make use of the outdated Panzer I chassis, an unknown number of Panzer I Ausf.As were converted into bridge laying tanks. Some of them had their turrets removed, while on some tanks the turrets were retained. An 11 meter-long bridge, which was able to carry up to 12 tonnes, was placed on top of the tank. These tanks turned out to be ineffective, as they could only carry a very light bridge and the weight was too much for them. Furthermore, development of the Panzer II bridge layer had already begun.
Ammunition Panzer I Ausf.As
Supplying ammunition was always a big problem, since there were no armored ammunition vehicles at first, only trucks, which were not protected against even small arms fire. As a solution, during the Polish campaign in 1939, over 51 Panzer Is were converted into ammunition carriers called Munitionsschlepper I (Eng: Ammunition carrier I) or Versorgungspanzer (Eng: Supply tanks). This was done by removing the turret and replacing it with a two part hatch.
In 1942, when many of the Panzer Is were pulled off the front, another variant was built, on which another superstructure was placed on top of the tank. Its main task was supplying ammunition to Panzer Jäger Abteilungen (Eng: tank destroyer battalions). These were independent battalions with anti-tank equipment, such as towed anti-tank guns and anti-tank rifles, but also Panzerjäger Is (Panzer I Ausf.B with a 4.7 cm anti-tank gun).
Flakpanzer I and Other Anti-Aircraft Vehicles
On 27 March 1941, the Munitions Transport Abteilung 610 (Eng. Ammunition Transport Battalion) was converted into an anti-aircraft unit known as Flak Battalion 614. In order to motorise some of its 2cm Flak guns, the unit mounted some of them on Munitionsschlepper I Ausf.As that it had inherited from its time as an ammunition transport unit. This was done by removing the turret and mounting a 2 cm Flak 38 onto a modified superstructure. The Flakpanzer I was issued to the ammunition carrier companies. Additionally, there was another ammunition carrier vehicle based on the Panzer I Ausf.A, with the task of carrying the crew and ammunition for the Flakpanzer I.
Before the war had even started, there was a need for training crews for the anti-aircraft role. Therefore, a couple of Fahrschulwagen Is were converted into training Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Guns (SPAAGs). The modifications included the addition of a twin MG 34 mount, the Zwillingssockel 36. Another modification included one MG 34 with an improvised mount. The backside of the only known photo reveals that the photo was a postcard sent by a soldier to his wife, demonstrating its instructional use.
Some Panzer Is, including a number of the ammunition carriers, were later used as medical vehicles. Unofficially named the Sanitätspanzer I (Eng: Medic tank I), these saw service mainly on the Eastern Front. All of them appear to have been field conversions that used superstructures of various designs.
Because the first Panzer Is tended to break down under stressful situations, they often needed repairs in the field and during maneuvers, but many times it was too hard to drive or tow the broken tank into the garage. For maintaining these tanks a new variant of the Panzer I was introduced using the Ausf.A and Ausf.B chassis. The Instandsetzungskraftwagen (Eng. Maintenance tank) was an open top Panzer I chassis tasked with carrying equipment for maintenance crews and repair tools. On photos, those vehicles can be differenced by looking at the equipment inside the tank. Instandsetzungskraftwagen often carried spare road wheels around. At first only one Instandsetzungskraftwagen was issued to each company. These early versions, were repurposed Fahrschulwagen with iron bars. Around these iron bars, for protecting the equipement against weather, a canva could be placed. Eventually it turened out that one Instandsetzungskraftwagen was not enough for each company. Therefore due to a lack of Fahrschulwagen, regualr Panzer Is were used as Instandsetzungswagen. This conversion was done by removing the turret. The last version featured a windshield or a completly new soft skin superstructure. The vehicles stayed in service until the end of the Panzer I on the battlefield.
Due to increasing demand for engineering and pioneering vehicles, a number of Panzer I Ausf.As were converted for these roles. One of these variants was a Panzer I Ausf.A with two large metal support beams which would then be loaded with fascines that could be used to fill in ditches or gaps.
An unknown number of vehicles based on the Fahrschulwagen I chassis were converted into cable laying vehicles and were used by the pioneers and engineers. The vehicle’s main task was laying cables for antennas and telephone communication.
Because the standard Panzer I Ausf.A was only equipped with a radio receiver, a command tank had to be developed. There appear to have been several experiments involving the fitting of extra radios into Panzer Is before the creation of a standardized Kleiner Panzerbefehlswagen (Eng: Small Command Tank).
On this variant, the turret was removed and replaced by a fixed superstructure without any armament. The crew was increased to 3, with a separate radio operator. Each Panzer company received at least one vehicle.
There are also several photos of an unusual variant of the Panzer I Ausf.A and Ausf.B that appears to have been used for command purposes, but unfortunately next to nothing is available on its history. On this variant, the turret and upper superstructure were removed and replaced with a new superstructure constructed from straight steel plates. This superstructure appears to have varied on each vehicle, but usually had a large hatch in the front right and multiple visors all around. No armament was fitted to this Panzer I variant, but several photos show it equipped with radio antennas suggesting that it must have carried extra radios.
One of the photos shows the vehicle with a checkerboard pattern around the superstructure. This means the vehicles were around before 1937 but the exact date of their creation is unknown. It is unclear whether this variant was purpose-built at the factory or converted after manufacture, though the lack of documentation and the wide variety in construction suggest the latter may be more likely. It is possible that this variant was an early stand-in for the later Befehlswagen (Eng: Command tank) versions of the Panzer I or that it was used to fill gaps in units lacking such vehicles before the war. Alternatively, they could have been created for some other purpose of command and control, as at least one tank appears to have the markings of an artillery battery and it is known that Befehlswagens were later used for this purpose. Furthermore, one vehicle was spotted at a collection point in France in 1940 as part of the 2nd Artillery Regiment.
At least one regular Panzer I Ausf.A was fitted with an extra radio and a frame antenna. It is possible that this was an experimental vehicle used to test the concept of a command vehicle or it may have been converted to fill in the gaps caused by a shortage of Panzebefehlswagen.
At the same time as the creation of the Panzer I Ausf.A, a training variant was introduced. The Fahrschulwagen I (Eng: Driving school vehicle I) was meant to train new tank drivers. The conversion of a Panzer I to a Fahrschulwagen was rather simple, done by removing the superstructure. Some of the Panzer I prototypes and Kleintraktoren were used as “Fahrschulwagen”. They stayed in service until the war’s end, meaning that almost every tank driver was trained on the Fahrschulwagen I at least at some point during his career.
Next to the regular Fahrschulwagen without the superstructure and turret, there were also other variants, such as a training vehicle powered by charcoal gas. This was done due to the decreasing fuel reserves of Germany during the late war. A variant mounting a Panzer III turret, used for training in a three man turret, also existed. A similar variant that instead had a superstructure and turret representing a Sherman tank was used by the Volkssturm for target practice during the lead up to the Battle of Berlin in 1945.
Unknown Field Conversions
The following vehicles are all vehicles based on the chassis of the Panzer I Ausf.A. These are either field modifications or unknown variants. These vehicles are so arare that only photos and rarely any information on them exists. Therefore their purpose can only be speculated.
Even though many Panzer Is were lost during the early years of the war, today, a surprising amount of vehicles still exist. This is partially due to the tanks being pulled off the front and used as training vehicles, minimizing their casualties. Note this list only includes Ausf.A tanks. There are also a number of Ausf.B tanks around that might be confused with them.
Although rather lacking in technical terms, in the end, the Panzer I Ausf.A and its successors were effective in their role of preparing thousands of new tankers who would later become the core of the Panzer arm of the Wehrmacht and go on to operate much more combat effective vehicles. Put into the large context of the early war, the Panzer I was the most important tank in regards to training and was crucial in building up the first Panzer Divisions, making it the best tank which the German Army could produce at that time. If used in a combined arms doctrine, the Panzer I’s drawbacks were attenuated and its strengths could shine. After all, the Panzer I was designed in 1930, for which time the armor protection and armament seemed adequate, and it was also only meant to act as a stopgap to be slowly replaced by the Panzer III and IV. However, by 1939, there simply were not enough of these Panzers to be able to equip the Heer, so the German Army had to rely on these small Panzer Is, which contributed to the great victories of the first years of the war.
Panzer I Ausf.A specifications
4.02 x 2.06 x 1.72 m
2 (commander/gunner, driver)
-10° to +20°
max.: 37.5 km/h, roads: 20 km/h, cross-country: 12 km/h
roads: 140 km, cross-country: 93 km
2x 7.92 mm MG 13/MG 13k
2250 7.92 mm S.m.K. in 25 magazines
Krupp M 305 4-cylinder air-cooled
FuG 2 receiver
Artemio Mortera Pérez, Los Medios Blindados de la Guerra Civil Española. Teatro de Operaciones del Norte 36/37 (Valladolid: AF Editores, 2007)
Artemio Mortera Pérez, Los Medios Blindados de la Guerra Civil Española Teatro de Operaciones de Andalucía y Centro 36/39 (Valladolid: Alcañiz Fresno’s editores, 2009)
After Hitler’s victory in the 1933 elections, Germany started rearming and expanding its army. Due to the treaty of Versailles, the German army wasn’t allowed to have any tanks when Hitler came to power. Officially called the Sd.Kfz.101 (Sonderkraftfahrzeug/Special-Purpose Vehicle), the Panzer I became the first mass-produced tank of the Wehrmacht. In 1933, after extensive trials, production of the Sd.Kfz.101 began.
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Panzer I Ausf.F
The Panzer I Ausf F had additional protective armour: the front armour was now 80 mm thick. It was intended to be used against fortified strongpoints and have a weight limit of 18 tonnes so that it could safely drive over army engineers combat bridges. In September 1942 seven were reported as being used on the Eastern Front, near Leningrad. Five more were sent in January 1943. An additional 11 were sent to the Eastern Front with two other units between Aug – Nov 1943. One is preserved at the Kubinka museum, another in Belgrade.
Panzer I Ausf.F light tank of the 1st Panzer Division at Kursk
Panzer I Ausf.F specifications
4.38 m x 2.64 m x 2.05 m
(14 ft 4 in x 8 ft 8 in x 6 ft 8 in)
two 7.92 mm MG34 machine guns
25 mm – 80 mm
Maybach HL45P 150 hp
25 km/h (15 mph)
150 km (93 miles)
Panzer I Ausf.C
Panzer I Ausf.C light tank (Bundesarchiv)
Panzer I Ausf.C light tank (Filip Hronec)
Panzer I Ausf.C light tank captured by US troops in Normandy.The machine guns have been removed.(NARA)
Rear view of the Panzer I Ausf.C light tank captured by US troops in Normandy.(NARA)
Germans Tanks of ww2
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