Germany’s victories during the early phases of the Second World War gifted the Wehrmacht with a large fleet of captured armored fighting vehicles. The fall of France, in particular, saw Germany get its hands on most of the former vehicle fleet of the French Army, as well as infrastructure to reasonably maintain them. These vehicles would see continued use by German forces all across Europe, mostly in security roles, but also occasionally on the frontlines, all the way to the fall of Germany in 1945. During these years of service, many were modified or converted by their users. An obscure conversion is the Panzerspähwagen (Eng: reconnaissance tank) 204(f), a captured Panhard 178 that was refitted with a Soviet 45 mm 20-K gun.
The Panhard 178
In December 1931, the French Cavalry formulated a request for an AMD (Automitrailleuse de Découverte / ‘Discovery’ armored car), an armored vehicle meant to perform reconnaissance while having enough combat capacities to be able to engage enemy units. This was in contrast to the AMR (Automitrailleuse de Reconnaissance / Reconnaissance Armored Car), which were smaller vehicles with more limited combat capacities meant purely for reconnaissance. Panhard, the leading French armored car producer at the time, designed the Voiture Spéciale 178, more often simply known as Panhard 178, to meet this request. The vehicle was adopted by the French Cavalry as the AMD 35 in 1934. Formal orders were placed in January of 1935, production begian in 1936, and the first operational vehicles were delivered in February 1937.
The Panhard 178 was an 8 tonnes armored car powered by a 4-cylinder 105 hp engine and was able to reach a maximum speed of 72 km/h. One of its most interesting features, which separated it from the vast majority of other French armored vehicles, was its two-crew APX3 (Atelier de Construction de Puteaux – Eng: Puteaux Construction Workshop) turret, which allowed the commander to concentrate on tactical, spotting, and overall command tasks, leaving the operation of the gun to the gunner/loader. This was a major improvement in comparison to the one-crew turrets which featured on the vast majority of French tanks, where the commander also had to reload and operate the vehicle’s armament. This APX 3 turret featured a 25 mm SA 35 anti-tank gun as well as a coaxial MAC 31 7.5 mm machine gun, with 150 25 mm and 3,750 7.5 mm rounds. This armament was fairly capable for an armored car, being, for example, generally sufficient to deal with early Panzer III and IV models fielded in the campaign for France, as well as the earlier Panzer I and II.
Into the Wehrmacht
With the German invasion of France in May-June 1940, the French saw many of their vehicles abandoned by the side of roads because of lack of fuel or spare parts, or even of time to repair or refuel their vehicles before they would be overrun. These intact vehicles would be ripe for the taking for German forces, and there are indeed occasional reports of captured Panhard 178s, as well as other vehicles, such as the Renault UE, being fielded by German forces during the Campaign of France itself.
More significantly, at the end of the campaign, the French Army surrendered some of its vehicles. Actually, the Panhard 178 was the only vehicle Vichy France was allowed to keep in service in mainland France by the terms of the armistice. A total of 64 vehicles, with the 25 mm gun replaced by another 7.5 mm machine gun, were approved under these conditions. In addition, there were at least 45 uncompleted hulls which were hidden away from the Germans and were later used for the Panhard 178 CDM conversions.
German forces were also able to seize the Panhard facilities with a number of completed or near-completed vehicles. It is thought that about 190 Panhard 178s were pressed into service with German forces. Overall, the vehicle could be said to have been one of the more potent French vehicles, with a two-crew turret, a decent anti-tank gun for the time, and overall good mobility. It is therefore not surprising to see the vehicle was actively pressed into service by German troops. The Panhard 178 was designated Panzerspähwagen 204(f) (“f” standing for French) in the German captured vehicles designation system, and was one of the narrow selection of French vehicles which would not only be used for security roles, but also on the frontlines of Operation Barbarossa, alongside the Somua S35 cavalry tank and B1/B1 Bis converted into flamethrower vehicles.
The two most significant units operating the P 204(f) were Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 37, the reconnaissance group of the 7th Panzer-Division which operated 64 vehicles, including 18 of the unarmed, casemate radio version, and Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 92, the reconnaissance group of the 20th Panzer-Division that operated 54. Smaller number of vehicles were also included in other units which took part in the invasion of the Soviet Union, including the Waffen-SS Totenkopf and Germania (future Das Reich) divisions as well as some lower-echelon security units.
The 45 mm Conversion
Considering the vehicle was very actively employed, the Germans routinely modified some of their Panhard vehicles. For example, in French service, radios were only issued to squadron and platoon leaders, with the squadron leader receiving an ER 26ter radio dedicated to communications with other squadrons and an ER 29 dedicated to internal communications of the unit, while the platoon leaders only received the ER 29. In German service, it was very common for all vehicles to receive FuG 10 or FuG 11 radios, with the importance of radios, particularly for reconnaissance vehicles, being more highly considered by the Germans.
There were also some more in-depth Panhard 178s conversions though. The more well-known ones were found in France, where German forces had significant infrastructure to modify and convert French vehicles. These included at least one P 204(f) armed with a 5 cm KwW L/42 gun, likely made available by re-arming a Panzer III with a 5 cm L/60 gun, and another which received a 5 cm L/60 gun with a muzzle brake, all in vastly modified or perhaps all new turrets. At least one P 204(f) received an aviation turret from a German bomber, armed with a 7.92 mm MG 81 machine gun, believed to be used for security purposes by the Luftwaffe. However, in the early 2020s, a new photo emerged confirming the existence of at least one P 204(f) conversion which was very likely done on the Eastern Front.
The photo shows a vehicle, appearing to be painted in the Panzergrau (Eng: Panzer Gray) color, which features what appears to be a new gun and mantlet. Upon closer inspection, it appears this P 204(f) was fitted with a part of the mantlet and the gun from a Soviet T-26 or BT-5/BT-7 tank. Interestingly enough, the turret appears to be almost unmodified outside of this all new mantlet. The addition of this Soviet armament also came with the spotlight that was commonly fitted to these Soviet tanks.
The Practicality of Such a Conversion
One may wonder at first if such a conversion sounds plausible. The Panhard 178’s original 25 mm SA 34 was a smaller caliber L/47.2 gun with a 1,180 mm-long barrel, in comparison to the 45 mm L/46 of the 20-K gun with a 2,070 mm-long barrel. The Soviet 45 mm shells were both larger and longer than the French 25 mm (45 x 310 compared to 25 x 193.5 mm) and could be expected to have significantly more recoil.
However, the APX3 turret of the Panhard 178 turret being able to support a larger gun is not necessarily surprising. In fact, the Panhard 178 and 25 mm anti-tank gun was a late development on the vehicle, as a 20 mm fully automatic armament had been originally envisioned for the Panhard. Delays in the development of such an armament meant it was never mounted on a Panhard, but before France fell, the French Army was already considering re-arming the Panhard 178 with the larger 47 mm SA 35 gun, which could be said to be quite similar to the 45 mm 20-K in size and power.
The APX3 turret was considered to be able to take the larger gun with some modifications, and indeed, another relatively similar riveted turret manufactured by APX, the APX2, used in the AMC 34 and AMC 35, did make the ‘jump’ from 25 mm to 47 mm. This would never happen for the Panhard 178 in French service though, even if the Panhard would be ‘mated’ with the 47 mm SA 35 on three separate instances all with new turrets: the Panhard 178 with Renault turret prototype, the Panhard 178 CDM conversion program, and the post-war Panhard 178B variants
All things considered, it is not so far-fetched to see the APX3 turret of the P 204(f) being able to withstand the recoil of the gun, as well as still offer sufficient space for the two crew members inside to operate it.
There would still be some impact on several aspects of the vehicle. The larger size of the 45 mm rounds would reduce the ammunition stowage of the vehicle (150 rounds of 25 mm originally), and it is not known if the new mantlet interfered or may even have forced the removal of the 7.5 mm MAC 31 machine gun. Unfortunately, these questions cannot easily be solved with a single photo.
As for the reasoning, it could be more complicated than expected at first. Despite its small caliber, the 25 mm gun was still a fairly potent anti-tank gun. The 45 mm 20-K did offer slightly higher performance, but in practice, one would be hard-pressed to find vehicles which one would penetrate whereas the other would fail. Both guns would fairly easily dispose of lightly armored 1930s Soviet tanks, like the T-26 or BTs, and both would struggle or be almost completely useless against a T-34 or a KV. On the logistical side, it is questionable whether the 25 mm would prove enough issue to warrant replacement. Large quantities of ammunition were captured by the Germans during the Fall of France and it appears more were still being produced. Though it is possible that, with lengthening supply lines, obtaining these shells may have ended up harder than captured Soviet 45 mm ammunition, other Panhards remained operating with 25 mm shells all the way to the outskirts of Moscow with seemingly little issue in procuring shells.
One aspect where the 45 mm would unquestionably prove superior to the 25 would be infantry support. Though both guns were originally designed for anti-tank work, the 45 mm was a much more polyvalent gun, benefiting from widely-issued high-explosive shells, whereas none were produced for the anti-tank Hotchkiss 25 mm caliber. The conversion may also have been a consequence of the 25 mm on the vehicle being damaged, either by enemy fire or some form of malfunction.
As for the location and dating of the photo, these are no known details attached to the photo, but some aspects can still suggest a likely time frame. The peak of German activity with P 204(f) vehicles on the Eastern Front was from June to December 1941, where the vehicles were very actively employed, suffering heavy losses. On July 14th 1941, less than a month into the invasion, 34 P 204(f) had already been destroyed and 17 more needed repairs. By the end of 1941, 109 vehicles, more than half of the German P 204(f) fleet, had been reported as lost. The Panhard 178 was mostly retired from frontline units by mid-1942, though some would continue in security units on the Eastern Front all the way into 1943. On the Western Front, the P204(f), with additional vehicles captured during the occupation of Vichy France in November 1942, would remain in service all the way to 1945. The use of the Panzergrau paint, which began to be replaced by early 1943, also suggest the vehicle was used prior to this date.
As for the 45 mm itself, one may theorize on its vehicle of origin. During the push into the Soviet Union, very large quantities of 45 mm-armed tanks ended up abandoned by Soviet forces. A significant number would be pressed back into German service, but this actually was far from the totality of vehicles that were abandoned by Soviet forces.
With the breakneck pace of the German advance, particularly in the early weeks of the campaign, Panzer-Divisions were rarely in a place long enough to repair a significant amount of vehicles, When they could, they would often focus on repairing more advanced T-34 and KV tanks which brought more advantages on the frontline than T-26s or BTs. Other German units were still, for many of them, lacking in terms of motorization, let alone mechanization, and as such, also lacked the means to recover, tow, and repair captured vehicles. Because of this, hundreds to perhaps even a couple thousand of abandoned Soviet tanks were simply left in the field, unattended to, and sometimes with their hatches still open. Others were used as targets for German gunners to maintain their skills, even if they could have been recoverable. It is quite possible that the gun used in this converted P 204(f) was taken from one of these vehicles which German troops did not have the time or means to restore to running condition.
One may argue that a small number of T-26s and BTs did make their way to German-occupied France, and as such, the vehicle could very well not be an Eastern Front conversion, but this possibility, already made fairly unlikely by the fact these captured vehicles sent to France were rare, is further made implausible by the architecture of the houses behind the P 204(f) on the known photograph, typical of the Soviet Union at the time, while at the same time vastly different from typical French architecture.
The registration plate is hard to read, but it clearly appears to be a Wehrmacht plate, which excludes the possibility of the vehicle being a part of the two Waffen-SS divisions which used the P 204(f) in Operation Barbarossa. The vehicle therefore likely belongs to either one of the two Panzer-Division reconnaissance groups which operated the P 204(f), or a security unit.
Conclusion – One of the Most Obscure Panhards
Oddly enough, the Panhard 178 having obscure variants which feature larger guns than the original 25 mm gun seems to be somewhat of a recurring theme in the vehicle’s history. Two of these vehicles, the Panhard 178 with Renault turret and Panhard 178 CDM, featured new turret designs designed by one engineer, Joseph Restany, and are largely unknown to the general public, despite 45 of the later type having been converted, and even seeing service for the Wehrmacht alongside more regular Panhard 178s. Even the post-war Panhard 178B can prove to be surprisingly poorly documented for a mass-produced vehicle. On the German side of thing, the two existing 50 mm-armed “tank destroyer” versions are both also fairly little known, though there is a fairly extensive collection of photos, as well as pretty extensive details on the service of the L/60-armed vehicle in the hands of French Resistance FFI troops during and after the Liberation of France.
Of all known conversions, though, this particular one, armed with a Soviet 45 mm 20-K, has to be the most obscure yet. It does not appear to be documented in any known literature on German captured vehicles, being known from a singular photo. As of now, no more details are known, and while such a conversion is likely easier than could be imagined at first, many details remain unknown about the vehicle as of now.
Panzerspahwagen 204(f) with 45mm 20-K gun specifications
|Dimensions||4.79 x 2.01 x 2.31 m (15ft 7in x 6ft 6in x 7 ft 5in)|
|Weight||8.2 metric tonnes (17,000 lbs)|
|Crew||4 (driver, rear driver/radio, commander, gunner)|
|Engine||Panhard 4-cyl SK, gasoline, 105 hp|
|Speed||72 km/h (46 mph)|
|Primary Armament||45 mm 20-K|
|Armor||Up to 20 mm (0.79 in)|
Trackstory n°2, Panhard 178, Pascal Danjou, Editions du Barbotin, 2004
Tous les blindés de l’Armée Française 1914-1940, François Vauvillier, Histoire & Collection editions, 2014
Beute-Kraftfahrzeuge und -Panzer der deutschen Wehrmacht, Walter J Spielberger, Motorbuch; 1. Aufl edition, 1989
Panzerkampfwagen T 34- 747 (r) , The Soviet T-34 Tank as Beutepanzer and Panzeraatrappe in German Wehrmacht Service 1941-1945, Jochen Vollert, Tankograd publishing, 2013
With special thanks to Smargd123 who provided the photo of the conversion for this article