In the summer of 1938, the German Army (Heer) authorised the development of a new model of the Panzer II light tank in an effort to create a more mobile armored fighting vehicle that could supplant its technologically inferior predecessors in the Panzer Divisions. Known initially as the VK9.01, this project encapsulated the design philosophy of one influential figure in German armored fighting vehicle design: Heinrich Ernst Kniepkamp. Convinced that successful tank design revolved around delivering the maximum firepower at the highest possible speed, Kniepkamp was an advocate of the latest high-performance technology developed by German automotive engineers. Guided by these tenets, the VK9.01 project made use of many sophisticated yet technically immature automotive components in order to meet these stipulations; a decision which engendered constant delays and frequent modifications to the design.
These technological problems were to hound the VK9.01 throughout its history. Hampered by the fickle nature of its advanced drivetrain, the VK9.01 never fulfilled its destiny of becoming a mass produced replacement for the Panzer II. Instead, the project floundered in a state of uncertainty, as other competing projects to improve the Panzer II, including the VK9.03, the VK13.03 (better known as the ‘Luchs’), and the VK16.01 (Panzer II Ausf.J) came to show greater promise. Faced with these many hurdles, the mass production of the VK9.01 was constantly subject to delays, changing requirements, and the threat of cancellation. It is remarkable, then, that not only did this project continue to be developed until 1943, but that it also saw limited production and, even more surprisingly, combat.
Due to its obscurity and the paucity of published material available on this esoteric tank, the VK9.01 has been understandably overshadowed in the historiography of Second World War German armored fighting vehicles by the more iconic designs, such as the Panther and the Tigers. Nevertheless, the history of the VK9.01 provides many insights into the disintegration of the pre-war system of German armored fighting vehicle procurement. Its convoluted development illustrates the pernicious ramifications of a process that prioritised the pursuit of technological fantasies over the tactical requirements of the Heer. Conceived just before the start of the Second World War, in the midst of the collapse of the tank procurement system, the inception of the VK9.01 is inextricably intertwined with this widening gulf between German tank design and reality.
The Need for Speed: Heinrich Kniepkamp and the Panzer II
At the beginning of the Second World War, the Panzerkampfwagen II was by far one of the most numerous front-line tanks in the Panzer Divisions. Although it has been denigrated as little more than an interim training tank in several popular post-war accounts, the Panzer II was an important step in pre-war German tank design, one that eventually evolved into an effective light tank for the mid-1930s. Nevertheless, the initial incarnations of this machine (Ausf.a/1, a/2, a/3, and b) were hamstrung by several problems that reflected their origins in the earlier Kleintraktor (the predecessor of the Panzer I), most notably an anemic engine and a frail suspension. These technological deficiencies not only hampered mobility and caused breakdowns, but they also prevented the Panzer II from being up-armored lest the weak suspension collapsed under the strain. Consequently, subsequent versions of the Panzer II (Ausf.c, A, B, C, and F) were produced with a much improved leaf-spring suspension coupled to a larger hull and a more powerful engine, all of which combined to result in a more reliable chassis that would continue to be produced in one form or another until 1944.
However, there were those in both industry and the Heeres Waffenamt (the army ordnance department responsible for designing, testing, producing, and deploying new weapons systems) who believed that these improvements did not go far enough. Chief among these figures was Heinrich Ernst Kniepkamp, a gifted and influential engineer, who had designed transmissions for Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg (M.A.N.) before becoming a senior figure in Waffen Prüfwesen 6 (Wa Prüf 6), the sub-division of the Heeres Waffenamt tasked with overseeing the design of tanks and other motorised equipment. In 1936, Kniepkamp was appointed as the head of Wa Prüf 6, where he was able to exercise considerable control over German tank design. A leading proponent of torsion bar suspension, Kniepkamp used this influence to initiate the development of half-tracks and tanks fitted with this suspension in conjunction with large diameter road wheels, track links with lubricated joints, and complex transmission and steering systems that were intended to allow for fast, yet easy to control vehicles. Aware of its reliance on what he regarded as outdated leaf spring suspension, Kniepkamp authorised efforts by M.A.N. to embark upon several additional redesigns of the Panzer II chassis with the aforementioned suspension features, regardless of the absence of any specific requests from the Heer.
Coinciding with Kniepkamp’s ascendancy was a breakdown in the German Army’s strict procurement process. During the time of the Weimar Republic and the early years of the Third Reich, the onus was placed on Inspektorat 6 (In 6) of the Allgemeines Heeresamt (General Army Office) to outline the desired characteristics for future armored fighting vehicles. These concepts were subsequently converted into technical specifications by Wa Prüf 6 of the Heeres Waffenamt, which were then passed on to engineers working at the designing firms competing for the production contracts. Under this system, In 6 controlled the direction of tank design and the awarding of contracts, ensuring that engineers were moderated by budgetary restraints and the requirement to produce designs that were able to fulfill specific tactical needs.
However, Thomas Jentz and Hilary Doyle have persuasively argued that this system was overturned towards the end of the 1930s, as the primacy shifted towards Wa Prüf 6. Contrary to the intended operation of the system, the personnel in Wa Prüf 6 began to submit a myriad of designs to In 6 without solicitation. As these designs were not initiated in accordance with army requirements, the engineers were no longer restrained by the rigid system of checks and balances upheld by the previous system. Unimpeded by stringent budgetary constraints or the stifling parameters of In 6 proposals, German engineers were free to pursue cutting-edge technology and ideas, the majority of which were too unreliable to be fit for the battlefield. The result of this collapse in design oversight was that German armored fighting vehicle designs increasingly came to reflect the desires of engineers enamored with state-of-the-art technology, rather than the requirements of the troops on the ground.
Panzer II on Steroids: The VK9.01 Project
It was against this background that Wa Prüf 6 submitted a proposal to develop a more mobile Panzer II that would be capable of attaining an exceptionally high speed. Even though the Panzer II with improved leaf spring suspension had only entered production the previous summer, and in spite of the fact that M.A.N. was in the process of refining Kniepkamp’s design for a Panzer II with torsion bar suspension (the Ausf.D), In 6 responded positively to these suggestions. Thus, on June 18th 1938, In 6 authorised work to commence on yet another project to develop a new Panzer II, which received the designation VK9.01. Part of the VK (Vollketten – Fully Tracked) index system, this designation signified that this project was the first design for a fully tracked vehicle in the 9 metric ton weight class. As with the other Panzer II designs, contracts were awarded to M.A.N. for the development of the chassis, whilst Daimler-Benz was responsible for designing the superstructure and turret.
Note to the reader: For the purposes of consistency and clarity, I have elected to use the format VKX.0X or VKXX.0X when referring to VK index numbers in this article. Publications and period documents refer to VK designations in a multitude of different ways, thus VK901 or V.K.901 can both be considered ‘correct’ alternatives to VK9.01.
Following Kniepkamp’s belief that speed was paramount in tank design, the VK9.01 did not receive more armor protection but instead maintained the same configuration as the Panzer II Ausf.D, with 30 mm of frontal armor on both the turret and the hull, accompanied by 14.5 mm of armor plate covering the sides. The armament was also unchanged, with the significant exception that the 20 mm Kw.K.38 autocannon and its coaxial 7.92 mm M.G.34 were to be equipped with a vertical stabilizer. In keeping with the VK9.01’s prioritisation of mobility, the stabilisation would allow for greater accuracy when firing on the move. Furthermore, the VK9.01 retained the three-man crew of the Panzer II, housing a driver and radio operator who sat side-by-side at the front of the tank, and a commander in the turret, who was also responsible for operating the weaponry. Considering the role of light tanks in providing reconnaissance, isolating the commander in a small one-man turret was a notable flaw in the VK9.01’s design, especially when compared to the two-man turrets of its competitors, such as the VK9.03 and the VK13 series.
It was in the realms of the suspension and the drivetrain that the VK9.01 was to receive the most significant attention. Kniepkamp’s influence is obvious here, and the design of the VK9.01 is in many ways a scaled up version of the VK6.01, a parallel project to improve the Panzer I. Drawing on Kniepkamp’s previous work designing half-tracks for the Heer, the VK9.01 was to have torsion bar suspension with five relatively large overlapping road wheels. This overlapping suspension system was chosen because it would give the VK9.01 a short track contact length of only 1.8m, which combined with its short wheelbase of 2m to provide a remarkable steering ratio of 1:1. Thanks to this suspension, the VK9.01 would be exceptionally maneuverable, able to make tight turns and neutral steer on level ground. Working in conjunction with this suspension was to be an advanced, yet easy to operate, LG 45 triple-stage steering unit. This system would allow the driver to select three different steering radii in each gear (ranging from as low as 4 metres to as high as 332 metres) by turning the steering wheel 20, 40, or 60 degrees in the desired direction. Connected to this steering unit was to be a Maybach VG 15319 pre-selective 8-speed transmission, a gearbox that would be considerably easier for untrained personnel to operate than the manual transmissions then in service on the Panzer II. Powered by a newly developed Maybach HL 45 motor producing 150 horsepower at 3800 rpm, the VK9.01 was capable of reaching a top speed of 67 km/h.
In theory, these advanced technological components promised to create an easy to operate, highly agile Panzer II. In reality, however, the steering units and transmissions would be a source of constant trouble for the VK9.01 and its designers.
High Hopes: Mass Production of the VK9.01
On October 11th 1938, four months after In 6 had authorised the VK9.01 project, M.A.N. presented a full-scale wooden model of the VK9.01 to representatives from Wa Prüf 6. The delegation noted the somewhat cramped fighting compartment, and asked for the wooden model to be inspected again, this time with the radio set and other missing equipment installed. Notwithstanding these concerns about the restricted space inside the fighting compartment, work on the project continued after this presentation.
Initially, M.A.N. was contracted to assemble five Versuchs-Fahrgestell (trial chassis) for the VK9.01. Subsequently, Wa Prüf 6 awarded contracts to M.A.N. for the production of a 0-Serie of 30 VK9.01 Fahrgestell (chassis), whilst Daimler-Benz was contracted to produce the same number of Aufbau (turrets and superstructures). This 0-Serie, which was upped in July 1939 to 75 VK9.01 chassis, was essentially a pre-production pilot run, intended to allow engineers to test the tanks and iron out any flaws in the design before the assembly plants commenced mass production. However, by the eve of the Second World War, these straightforward production plans had already become more complicated, as the designers sought to incorporate more advanced technology into the design. Between August and September 1939, the contracts for the 0-Serie were altered so that the final 45 of the 75 0-Serie chassis would be completed as VK9.02. These VK9.02 chassis were to be equipped with an improved LG 45 L steering unit (later re-designated as the LGL 15319), but would maintain the same engine and transmission as the VK9.01. This process of constant tinkering with the VK9.01 design proved to be a recurring theme in the project’s history, as incremental improvements were proposed and trialed even though the VK9.01 was rapidly becoming obsolescent on Second World War battlefields.
When Wa Prüf 6 first awarded the contracts for the VK9.01, it was projected that the first 30 0-Serie chassis would be completed by the end of 1939: 5 in July, 10 in August, 10 in September, and 5 in October. In addition to this, the second batch of 45 VK9.01 0-Serie chassis would follow in 1940, with 10 in May, 10 in June, 10 in July, and 15 in August. Acknowledging that these plans would not materialise, in July 1939, Wa Prüf 6 informed M.A.N. that a substantial contract for mass production of the VK9.01 was expected to be awarded in November 1940, with the first deliveries expected in November 1941.
The experiences of the September 1939 invasion of Poland renewed the impetus behind the plans to mass produce the VK9.01, as well as the VK16.01, a contemporaneous development to up-armor the Panzer II. During the campaign, the Panzertruppen had incurred heavy losses from Polish anti-tank rifles and modern 37 mm Bofors-derived wz.36 anti-tank guns, which could easily penetrate the thin 14.5 mm rounded frontal armor of the Panzer II. As a result, Panzer IIs were retrofitted with 30 mm thick frontal armor plates and M.A.N. was implored by Wa Prüf 6 to speed up development of the VK9.01 and VK16.01. Therefore, by 25 April 1940, the 0-Serie production plans were revised, with the first 30 0-Serie VK9.01 to be delivered in the period between September and November 1940, followed by the remaining 45 in March through June 1941. Decisions on mass production would be made sometime between December 1940 and March 1941, depending on the results of testing. At the same time, the VK9.01 was first referred to as the Panzerkampfwagen II neuer Art (new model), underlining the belief that the VK9.01 would be the successor to the Panzer II. As a contingency plan, the production of another series of the Panzer II fitted with the current leaf-spring suspension as well as stabilised weapons installed was also proposed. In the end, In 6 would follow through on this plan by authorising the production of the Panzer II Ausf.F, although it would not be fitted with stabilised weapons.
Despite the limited progress that had been made on the VK9.01 by the middle of 1940, M.A.N. was confident that they would secure lucrative mass production contracts for these designs. Reporting on a meeting with Oberstleutnant Fichtner of Wa Prüf 6 on 24 May 1940, M.A.N. optimistically claimed that the firm was in an ‘especially favourable situation’ because the VK9.01 and VK16.01 were of ‘great military importance’. Later in May 1940, M.A.N. projected that they could produce between 45-70 VK9.01 per month, alongside assembling Panzer IIIs. Considering the obsolescence of the Panzer II during the later invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, this belief in the future of a design with such thin armor and limited firepower appears to be misplaced hubris from engineers sequestered from the battlefield in their ivory tower. However, it is important to note that this report was compiled not long after the breakthrough at Sedan and the trapping of Belgian, British, and French forces in northern France and Belgium, where the limitations of the Panzer II in combat had not proven to be a significant obstacle towards German military success.
In stark contrast to these grandiose plans, the tangible results for the VK9.01 project by the beginning of June 1940 were far less illustrious. According to a January 1940 status report on the development and production of tanks, M.A.N. noted that the armored hulls for the VK9.01 trial chassis had not been delivered, let alone those for the 0-Serie. This appears to conflict with a later report from 1st July 1942, which states that one of the five Versuchs-Fahrgestell had been completed by December 1939. Due to the fragmentary nature of surviving records detailing VK9.01 production, it is impossible to establish the facts of this situation by precisely identifying when all of the VK9.01 trial chassis were completed.
Confronted with this sluggish progress, M.A.N. abandoned the untenable production schedule devised on 25th April 1940, reporting, on 25th November 1940, that they now planned to complete the first 45 VK9.01 chassis from May to September 1941. This meant that mass production would not be able to begin until autumn 1941, provided no further obstacles were encountered.
Death by a Thousand Modifications: The Production History of the VK9.01
Even as M.A.N. looked forward to mass producing the VK9.01, the future of this project was becoming more and more precarious. Before the first VK9.01 0-Serie chassis had been completed, the Heer was already anticipating the need for an improved Panzer II n.A. with a higher top speed and greater armored protection. As a result, in June 1940, M.A.N. was awarded contracts by Wa Prüf 6 to develop yet another iteration of the VK9 series: the VK9.03. Considering that the two tanks were intended to fulfill exactly the same tactical role, this new development did not augur well for the mass production of the VK9.01.
At the same time as the preliminary work on the VK9.03 commenced, the VK9.01 0-Serie languished in production limbo, trapped in an interminable series of modifications to the automotive components of the design. The plans in September 1939 to produce the first 30 VK9.01 with LGR 15319 steering units and the remainder with the LGL 15319 were adjusted on 25th July 1940. Now, only 20 VK9.01 would be equipped with the LGR 15319; all of the rest would receive the LGL 15319.
Hitherto unchanged from the original design specifications, the transmission also underwent a similar ordeal, as the engineers strove to incorporate the latest technology into the VK9.01. In April 1941, only one month before the VK9.01 0-Serie production was scheduled to begin, it was suddenly decreed that new transmissions developed by Maybach (the OG 20417) and Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen (the SMG 50) were to replace the VG 15319 transmission in all VK9.01, save for 11 chassis. Unfortunately, there is no published surviving evidence explaining the rationale behind the design for these new transmissions, nor are there any documents outlining the reasons why they were ordered to replace the VG 15319 in the majority of the VK9.01 0-Serie chassis. Likewise, the decision to maintain 11 VK9.01 with the old transmission also remains a mystery. Regardless of these whys and wherefores, the complicated mélange of automotive components that were envisaged for the small 0-Serie of 75 VK9.01 exemplifies the deleterious impacts of an unfocused and uncontrolled design process.
In light of this constant tinkering, it is not surprising that the production of the VK9.01 did not match the projections. Due to the fact that the VK9.01 never entered mass production, it is only intermittently mentioned in monthly reports from the Amtsgruppe für Industrielle Rüstung (Group for Armaments Manufacture – abbreviated as Wa J Rü in German records), the department of the Heeres Waffenamt responsible for administering production contracts for equipment and spare parts. As a consequence of the scarcity of documentary evidence, the precise details of VK9.01 production are difficult to pin down. Nevertheless, it is clear that the production realities did not align with expectations. Compared to M.A.N.’s plans to complete 45 VK9.01 chassis between May and September of 1941, only 15 had been delivered by 18th August 1941. Indeed, prior to July 1941, two OG 20417 and two SMG 50 transmissions had not even been delivered for the four remaining Versuchs-Fahrgestell.
Records also indicate that turrets and superstructures were spasmodically fitted to the VK9.01 0-Serie chassis during 1941 and 1942. The first of these complete tanks may have been completed in April 1941, when Wa J Rü recorded delivery of a single Panzer II n.A., followed by another two in August the same year. Disappearing from the records for the rest of 1941, the VK9.01 resurfaces in Wa J Rü notes from early 1942, which register the delivery of six in January, accompanied by three more in February.
Ultimately, the production of the VK9.01 was a classic case of too little, too late. By 1942, the fighting on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union had shown that thinly armored tanks were exceedingly vulnerable, and of limited combat utility outside reconnaissance and scouting. Correspondingly, the emphasis on design and mass production switched to heavier armed and armored tanks, such as the VK30.02, which would evolve into the famous Panther tank. Worse still, the VK9.01 and VK9.03 projects were displaced in the reconnaissance role by the VK13.03, which benefited from the automotive technology refined in its predecessors. Packaging this automotive technology into a design with better armor protection and sufficient space for a four-man crew, the VK13.03 offered a more appealing option for a mass produced light scout tank, 100 of which would later be produced as the Panzer II Ausf.L ‘Luchs’.
As these realities caught up with the VK9 series, the contracts suffered the consequences. In March 1942, the VK9.03 project was unceremoniously cancelled by the Heeres Waffenamt. Having advanced closer to achieving actual production than the VK9.03, the VK9.01 was not cancelled altogether, but the contract for the 0-Serie was cut by 20 chassis in July 1942 (from 75 to 55) and the sought after mass production contract never materialised. Known since June 1942 by its formal designation as the Panzerkampfwagen II Ausf.G, the VK9.01 continued to be produced by M.A.N. at a slow pace for the rest of 1942. According to a report from 17th February 1943, 45 VK9.01 0-Serie chassis had been completed at M.A.N. by the end of 1942, with another scheduled for completion later that month, after which time they would be displaced on the assembly room floors by the more important Panther tank.
These scant records make it exceedingly difficult to provide definitive figures concerning the production of the VK9.01. It is unknown how many of the VK9.01 0-Serie chassis were fitted with turrets and superstructures to make complete tanks. The records from Wa J Rue suggest at least 12 were completed in this way, but it is also possible that more could have been completed. It is also unknown how many of the VK9.01 were fitted with each of the respective steering units and transmissions proposed for this design. It is not even known whether or not the extra chassis scheduled for completion in February 1943 was ever finished, meaning that oft-given figure of 45 VK9.01 0-Serie chassis completed could actually be 46.
Details concerning the production of superstructures and turrets by Daimler-Benz Werk 40 are even sketchier than those for the chassis. The sum of knowledge on this matter amounts to the fact that 60 sets of superstructures and turrets were completed at Daimler-Benz between the contract being awarded in June 1938 and the end of 1942, along with 9 sets of turrets and superstructures completed out of M.A.N.’s contract for 25 sets.
Faced with these significant gaps in our knowledge regarding the VK9.01, it is likely that many aspects of this project will remain shrouded in mystery, unless new information comes to light in future publications on this subject.
Delving into Details: The Curious Case of the Ausf.G1, G3, and G4
The enigmatic history of the VK9.01 is not merely confined to the production data (or lack thereof). Like many German armored fighting vehicles during the Second World War, the VK9.01 received multiple designations throughout its history, including Panzerkampfwagen II neuer Art, Sonderkraftfahrzeug (Special purpose vehicle) 121/1, and Panzerkampfwagen II Ausführung G.
However, one designation, in particular, raises some thought-provoking questions about the VK9.01 and its history. The designation in question refers to the VK9.01 as the ‘Panzerkampfwagen II Ausf.G1, G3, und G4’, and was published as the title of a technical manual, specifically D651/36 issued in November 1942, concerning the ‘Description, Operation, and Maintenance of the Chassis’.
What makes this designation unusual is that it contains numerical suffixes after the Ausführung letter, referring to a G1, G3, and G4. Such a practice is extremely uncommon in German armored fighting vehicle (AFV) designations. Usually, there is simply an Ausführung letter such as ‘A’ or ‘D’ without any numerical suffix. In the few instances where this designation pattern does occur, as for example with the Jagdpanther Ausf.G1 and G2, the numerical suffixes are used to indicate production differences or different variants of the AFV in question. Hence, it is probable that the G1, G3, and G4 designations allude to separate variants of the VK9.01. This, in turn, begs the question of what separates these variants from one another, and why is there no mention of an Ausf.G2?
Unfortunately, all of the publications relating to the VK9.01 do not even mention this puzzle, let alone provide an explanation for these numerical appendages. Moreover, primary source material uncovered by Spielberger, Jentz, Doyle, and others has so far failed to shed any more light on this mystery.
One possible solution to this enigma may be that the different designations refer to the various combinations of steering units and transmissions proposed and equipped on the VK9.01 throughout its lifetime. This is a logical hypothesis considering that these variations in steering units and transmissions would have been precisely the kind of essential details one would expect to find mentioned in a technical manual.
However, it is important to note that it is equally possible that these designations refer to other differences for which there is no surviving documentation, or that they mean something entirely different altogether. The historiography of German armored fighting vehicles is replete with instances of seemingly logical assumptions proving to be wildly inaccurate upon the discovery of new information, so it is wise to avoid extensive speculation.
The primary reason for mentioning this conundrum is therefore not to provide an answer to these questions, but to highlight an anomaly that has been overlooked in the hope that it will precipitate more discussion on this issue and perhaps even the discovery of new material.
Putting the VK9.01 Through its Paces: The Trials at Berka and St Johann
In April 1941, at the same time as the new transmissions were ordered to be fitted to the majority of the VK9.01s, a major trial exercise involving ten 0-Serie VK9.01 was directed to take place. This trial would be conducted at Berka, a training and testing centre in the German province of Thuringia. It would involve five 0-Serie VK9.01 that had the SMG 50 transmission installed, as well as five 0-Serie VK9.01 fitted with the OG 20417. Unfortunately, the precise date of this trial is unknown, but based on the VK9.01 chassis numbers involved (Fgst.Nr.150016, 150018, 150019, 150020, 150021, 150027, 150031, 150032, 150033), it must have taken place after August 1941, at which point only fifteen chassis had been delivered to the Heeres Waffenamt.
The trial was not an auspicious debut for the VK9.01 project. Records compiled later by Major Esser from the Kummersdorf test centre reveal the extent of the debacle. Having covered 7253 km (4506 miles) at most, all five of Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen’s SMG 50 transmissions failed during the trial; one specimen fitted to Fgst.Nr. 150016 covered just 1766 km (1097 miles) prior to its breakdown. Maybach’s offering did not fare much better: two of their OG 20417 transmissions had also succumbed to mechanical failures by the end of the trial. Curiously, one of the Maybach OG 20417 transmissions that was earmarked for the exercises at Berka does not appear to have participated in the trial, as Major Esser’s notes only mention four 0-Serie VK9.01 fitted with this transmission.
Even though it was still intended to fit 11 0-Serie VK9.01 with the VG 15319 transmission, this setup was conspicuously absent from the major trial at Berka. Surviving documentation does mention that one Versuchs-Fahrgestell fitted with a VG 15319 transmission and an LGR 15319 steering unit was tested at Berka, on 9 July 1941, proving that this combination was tested on the VK9.01. However, this note does not provide further elucidation on the results of this test, and later documents on the VK9.01 appear to focus exclusively on the alternative transmissions, suggesting that the VG 15319 was not developed further.
Following the trial at Berka, both Maybach and Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen continued to test their transmissions in VK9.01 chassis. During the winter of 1941/2, one of the VK9.01 equipped with the SMG 50 transmission that had participated in the evaluation at Berka (Fgst.Nr.150021) was put through its paces at St Johann. Now one of the most popular tourist resorts in the Tyrol region of Austria, St Johann is a market town situated in a valley located near the mountainous Bavarian border. Used by the Heer to test tanks and other armored fighting vehicles in wintry conditions, the conditions at this facility provided an insight into how well their designs could cope with harsh environmental conditions, such as might be found in parts of the Soviet Union.
Frustratingly, there are no written records regarding the assessment of the VK9.01 from its testing at St Johann, although photographic evidence shows that it was capable of traversing deep snow despite its shallow 30 cm ground clearance. Another SMG 50-equipped VK9.01 (Fgst.Nr.150018) from the Berka trials also underwent winter testing at St Johann, as well as further testing in the vaguely defined ‘East’. In addition to these winter tests, Wa Prüf 6 contracted Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen to conduct driving trials with their SMG 50 transmission in a VK9.01 between 1st January 1942 and 16th July 1943. This relatively long period of testing suggests that the SMG 50 transmission was still suffering problems and that it was far from ready for any form of mass production.
Information on the testing conducted by Maybach is even more nebulous. Surviving photographs confirm that Maybach did carry out driving trials with at least one VK9.01 chassis fitted with their OG 20417 transmission. However, as with most of the other trials involving the VK9.01, there are no records conveying the results of these trials.
More mysteriously, the VK9.01 chassis was also used as a testbed for an 8-cylinder diesel engine developed by the M.A.N. factory at Augsburg. Originating from a Heeres Waffenamt request in early 1939 to develop a 180 horsepower diesel engine for tanks, M.A.N. designed a V-8 diesel engine with an output of 185 metric horsepower at 2600 rpm. In an internal report dated 20th February 1942, a senior engineer from M.A.N. stated that the diesel engine had been successfully tested in, among other vehicles, a VK9.01, where it had performed satisfactorily. The report concludes that work is slated to continue on the development of the diesel engine in order to increase its output, but there are no further mentions of any alternative engines being tested in the 0-Serie VK9.01.
The protracted development of the VK9.01 highlights the problems inherent in using immature and unproven technology. Even though they were subjected to an extensive saga of tests and driving trials, the advanced transmissions used by the VK9.01 were a dead end that would never find employment in subsequent projects. As the abysmal results from the Berka trial dramatically demonstrated, the VK9.01 would never have been ready for planned mass production in November 1941; the design was simply too technologically immature to have been a reliable machine on the battlefield.
Hiding Behind the Frontlines: The VK9.01 in Service
The unsuitability of the VK9.01 for mass production and frontline use is apparent from its rather limited service in the Heer. Before the reduction of the 0-Serie contract and the fiasco at Berka, the VK9.01 was intended to supersede the older variants of the Panzer II serving in the Panzer Divisions. These aspirations are evident in the plans to issue the VK9.01 to some of the first elements of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. According to a status report detailing the conversion of the 33rd Infantry Division into the 15th Panzer Division, this new unit was to be issued 6 Panzer II n.A. before it left for North Africa. The fact that some photographs of the VK9.01 clearly display the two-tone ‘Tropen’ (Tropical) camouflage pattern, consisting of Graugrün (RAL 7008) stripes on a background of Gelbbraun (RAL 8000), reinforces the idea that the VK9.01 was initially slated for employment in the North African theatre of operations.
However, it is generally accepted that these plans did not come to fruition, and that the VK9.01 never crossed the Mediterranean. Even though the report clearly stipulates that 6 VK9.01 will be incorporated into the 15th Panzer Division, it is dated 1st February 1941, several months before any VK9.01 chassis had actually been delivered from the M.A.N. factory. Moreover, the 15th Panzer Division arrived in North Africa in April 1941, at which point records indicate only a single complete VK9.01 (chassis fitted with superstructure and turret) had been finished. It is therefore highly unlikely that the VK9.01 formed part of the 15th Panzer Division’s first contingent, but it remains possible that some could have been shipped over at a later date. Even so, there are no further mentions of the Panzer II n.A. in this unit’s operational records, nor are there any published photographs that appear to show a VK9.01 in North Africa. Added together, the evidence strongly suggests that the intention to deploy the VK9.01 to North Africa was never realised, although the gaping holes in the history of the VK9.01 preclude any definitive conclusions on this matter.
After this brief mention, the VK9.01 vanishes from operational records. Based on the limited photographic evidence of this rare tank, it appears that most of them found their way into training units. Until the advent of the internet and the circulation of newly discovered photos being sold on internet auction sites, it was incorrectly assumed that the VK9.01 never saw combat. However, every so often, photographs come to light which show the VK9.01 in operation with troops on the Eastern Front. Unfortunately, it is impossible to glean substantial details from most of these photos, such as which units the tanks belonged to and the precise location in which they were operational.
Prime examples of the difficulties in parsing out such details are a series of unpublished photos mentioned in Panzer Tracts 2-2. According to Jentz and Doyle, these photographs belonged to a veteran from Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 5 of the 2.Panzer-Division, who photographed VK9.01 tanks training in Germany and loaded on a train. These photos provide far more questions than answers. Did the VK9.01 belong the 2.Panzer Division or another unit? Where was the train containing the VK9.01 headed? Were the VK9.01 attached to this unit ever used in combat? Until more research is carried out or new photographs come to light, these questions will remain unanswered.
Nevertheless, some pieces have been added to the VK9.01 puzzle by Akira Takiguchi. In a short article published on his website, Mr Takiguchi shared a photograph showing that at least one VK9.01, working in conjunction with troops from the Luftwaffe, Heer, Polizei, and local militias, participated in anti-partisan operations in the town of Grodek (also known as Horodek among various other names), located in present-day Belarus. Tactical markings on the VK9.01 suggest that it belonged to a Panzerspähkompanie (armored reconnaissance company), but the specific unit remains unidentified. A second photograph was published by Takiguchi in April 2020, showing two VK9.01s in this area, presumably belonging to the same Panzerspähkompanie. These photographs were captured in the spring of 1944, showing that the VK9.01 did see combat behind the lines relatively late into the war.
Clearly, there is still much to be uncovered regarding the service life of the VK9.01. In the absence of any surviving tanks or components, additional information must be unearthed from archives or period photographs. Even so, based on the limited information available, it appears that most of the VK9.01s that were completed as tanks were used in areas where their limited firepower and armor protection were not such a liability, for purposes including training and combatting partisans.
The Heer’s Recycling Programme: The Fate of the VK9.01 Turrets
Ironically, for a tank designed with mobility in mind, a considerable number of VK9.01 turrets saw service as static emplacements than they did atop a tank. Throughout the Second World War, the Heer proved to be very adept at adapting obsolete or excess material to new purposes. As the contract for the 0-Serie VK9.01 was reduced from 75 to 45 over the course of its development, the Heer found itself in possession of many surplus VK9.01 turrets and superstructures that had already been completed by Daimler-Benz before the contracts were cut. Not content to leave these usable components languishing in storage, the Heer used these extra turrets to create more emplacements in their fortifications that lined the coasts and frontiers of Western Europe. These new positions were known as ‘Ring Stands’, which consisted of redundant tank turrets mounted on top of concrete or wooden platforms in positions where they could enhance the firepower of German defensive lines.
In total, 27 VK9.01 turrets were recycled in this way. Asides from the concrete platform upon which they were mounted, the VK9.01 turrets were otherwise unmodified. They retained the same armament as their tracked counterparts (one 2 cm KwK 38 and one coaxial 7.92 mm MG 34) and the armor protection was not increased. Similarly, the commander’s cupola fitted with 8 periscopes for all-round observation was not supplemented with additional optical devices. The only significant change was the ammunition capacity, which was greatly augmented by the additional space available inside the concrete stand. Compared to its mobile cousin, which had sufficient stowage capacity for 200 cannon rounds and 2,100 machinegun cartridges, the VK9.01 mounted on a Ring Stand could hold up to 2,800 rounds for the cannon, as well as 24,000 rounds for the MG 34.
The designs for all of the various Ring Stands created by the Heer involved covering the bases underground so that only the turret protruded above ground level. In the case of the VK9.01, the turret projected 580 mm high above the concrete base and had a firing height of approximately 190 mm. The design of the VK9.01 turret also allowed for the guns to be depressed by 10 degrees and elevated up to 20 degrees for firing at targets. Thanks to their low silhouette and large ammunition reservoir, the VK9.01 turrets mounted on Ring Stands proved to be a useful supplement to German fortifications, explaining why these turrets and those of other designs were widely employed for this purpose, as the threat of an Allied landing loomed over German-occupied France.
Of the 27 turrets that were given over to this purpose, 17 were completed by M.A.N., whilst the remaining 10 were outfitted by the Artillerie Werkstatt die Kommandantur Hill Süd. Whereas M.A.N. assembled turrets were completed with the original T.Z.F.10 binocular gunsight, the remaining ten turrets prepared by the Artillerie Werkstatt die Kommandantur Hill Süd were expediently fitted with the T.Z.F.4 monocular gunsight. The use of the T.Z.F.4 may have been due to a shortage of T.Z.F.10 gunsights, of which only 93 were produced in total during 1941 and 1942, with 30 set aside for the VK16.01 0-Serie.
After being appropriately furnished by M.A.N. and the Artillerie Werkstatt die Kommandantur Hill Süd, the VK9.01 turrets were installed in various sites across Western Europe. The most comprehensive report on the location of the Ring Stand turrets, composed on 26th March 1945, lists 16 turrets sent to Denmark, whilst 10 more were either positioned along the Atlantikwall spanning the northern French coastline, or the Westwall guarding Germany’s border with eastern France. Even though photographic evidence does at least confirm that VK9.01 Ring Stands were based in Denmark, Jentz and Doyle note that the report does contain known errors, leaving open the possibility that the VK9.01 Ring Stand may have been allocated in a different way to that presented by the report. Moreover, the report only accounts for 26 VK9.01 turrets, yet records state that 27 were converted for use on Ring Stands. As there are no surviving VK9.01 turrets mounted on Ring Stands, more detailed information on their positions is dependent upon further research into this subject.
Curiously, at least one VK9.01 was recycled in an entirely different manner. During the trials of an experimental air-cooled diesel engine developed by the Czechoslovakian firm Tatra, a VK9.01 turret was mounted on the VK13.03 Versuchs-Fahrgestell used to test this engine. In March 1944, VK13.03 Versuchs-Fahrgestell Nr. V.29 fitted with this VK9.01 turret and the Tatra engine underwent off-road testing at Berka, which was followed by a trip from Prague to Eisenach in order to measure fuel consumption. The rationale behind fitting this chassis with a VK9.01 turret is a mystery, but it appears to have been a unique occurrence. Given that the chassis was undergoing testing, the VK9.01 turret may perhaps have been an expedient substitute for the lack of spare available VK13.03 turrets or testing weights. Certainly, had the VK13.03 Versuchs-Fahrgestell conducted the testing without a turret fitted, the testing results for fuel consumption and off-road performance would have been skewed by the fact that the tank would weigh considerably less minus its turret.
Another inexplicable link between the VK9.01 and the VK13.03 turrets is to be found in VK13.03 turrets being stamped with turret numbers assigned to the VK9.01. In one of the Panzer II Ausf.L ‘Luchs’ assembled by M.A.N. (chassis number 200103), the VK13.03 turret assembled by Daimler-Benz carries turret number 150070, which would appear to be part of the VK9.01 series, given that the VK9.01 was assigned the chassis number band 150001-150075, whereas the VK13.03 received the band ranging from 200101-200200. Whatever the true reasons behind these perplexing instances of intermingling happen to be, the degree of crossover between the two projects is unsurprising. Both were developed by M.A.N. and Daimler-Benz, and both were intended to be new models of Panzer II.
Dead End: The VK9.01 in Retrospect
Ultimately, the VK9.01 amounts to little more than a footnote in the wider history of German Second World War armored fighting vehicle design. Even though the automotive components designed for the VK9.01 promised to revolutionize the performance of the Panzer II, the finished product failed to live up to the lofty expectations of its designers. Far from enhancing the mobility of the Panzer II, the new transmissions and steering units proved to be the bane of the VK9.01 project, contributing to the tank’s unreliability and its abject failure in testing. It is therefore unsurprising that most of the technology associated with the VK9.01 project would not go on to be used anywhere else. Indeed, the VK13.03 (better known as the Panzer II Ausf.L ‘Luchs’) eventually eschewed its complex triple radius steering unit derived from the VK9.01 for the less sophisticated but proven technology of a clutch-brake system.
These technological problems were exacerbated by the tendency of the engineers at Wa Prüf 6 to pursue multiple designs simultaneously, without a clear focus or priority. Consequently, the VK9.01 had been superseded after merely two years in development by the VK9.03, a bigger, more powerful iteration of the VK9 series, which would itself be supplanted by the elusive VK9.04 and VK9.05. This meant that several similar designs were developed at the same time for exactly the same purpose by the same engineers working at the same company: a perfect illustration of the propensity for German engineers to experiment with new technology rather than focus on improving existing designs. Despite the clear indications that the existing armament and armour protection of the Panzer II would be inadequate on the battlefields of the 1940s, the engineers involved in the VK9 series neglected these considerations, frittering away time and money on experimenting with novel drivetrains.
The product of this wasted effort was the underwhelming Panzer II Ausf.G, a testament to the widening gulf between German tank designers and battlefield requirements. This tank was a far cry from the light tank of the future, fit for little more than training or fighting against partisans behind the lines. Conceived as a vast leap forward for future German light tank design, these grandiose aspirations for the VK9.01 project ironically culminated in an unsatisfactory technological dead end.
Illustration of the Panzerkampfwagen II Ausführung G by Alexe Pavel and Andrei ‘Octo10’ Kirushkin.
|Dimensions (L-W-H)||4.24 x 2.39 x 2.05 metres|
|Total Weight||10.5 tonnes|
|Crew||3 Men (Commander/Gunner, Radio Operator, and Driver)|
|Propulsion||Water-cooled gasoline Maybach HL 45 motor producing 150 HP at 3800 rpm
VG 15319, or OG 20417, or SMG 50, 14.3 HP/ton
|Transmission||Triple radius differential steering unit LGR 15319 or LGL 15319|
|Maximum speed||67 km/h (regulated to 65 km/h)|
|Range||On road: 200 km
Cross Country: 125 km
|Suspensions||Torsion bar, 30 cm ground clearance|
|Armament||1x 2 cm KwK 38 auto-cannon (200 rounds)
x coaxial 7.92 mm MG 34(P) machine gun (2100 rounds)
Elevation/Depression: +20/-10 Degrees
Sight: T.Z.F.10 binocular sight (2.5 x 25 degrees)
|Armor (hull/turret front)||30 mm frontal hull
14.5 mm + 5.5 mm hull side
14.5 mm rear hull
14.5 mm superstructure side
30 mm gun mantlet
30 mm turret front
14.5 mm turret sides and rear
Sources and Further Reading:
Doyle, H.L., and Jentz, T.L., Panzer Tracts No.1-2 Panzerkampfwagen I: Kl.Pz.Bef.Wg. to VK18.01 (Maryland: Panzer Tracts, 2002).
Doyle, H.L., and Jentz, T.L., Panzer Tracts No.2-2 Panzerkampfwagen II Ausf.G, H, J, L, and M: Development and Production from 1938 to 1943 (Maryland: Panzer Tracts, 2007).
Doyle, H.L., and Jentz, T.L., Panzer Tracts No.20-2 Paper Panzers: Aufklaerungs-, Beobachtungs-, and Flak Panzer (Reconnaissance, Observation, and Anti-Aircraft) (Maryland, Panzer Tracts, 2002)
Doyle, H.L., and Jentz, T.L., Panzer Tracts No.21-1 Staende mit Pz.Kpfw.Tuermen (Panzer Turrets on Concrete and Wooden Stands): Pz.kpfw.-Turm I to F.Pz.D.T.4814 (Maryland: Panzer Tracts, 2004).
Doyle, H.L., and Jentz, H.L., Panzer Tracts No.23 Panzer Production from 1933 to 1945 (Maryland: Panzer Tracts, 2011).
Hoppe, H., Wehrmacht Special No. 4003 German Military Vehicle Rarities (3): Imperial Army, Reichswehr and Wehrmacht 1914-1945/ Deutsche Fahrzeugraritäten (3): Kaiserreich/Reichswehr/Wehrmacht 1914-1945 (Erlangen: Tankograd Publishing, 2005).
MacDougall, R., and Neely, D., Nürnberg’s Panzer Factory: A Photographic Study (Sussex: Panzerwrecks, 2013).
Spielberger, W.J., Die Panzer-Kampfwagen I und II und ihre Abarten: Einschließlich der Panzerentwicklungen der Reichswehr (Stuttgart: Motorbuch Verlag, 1974). Translated into English as Panzer I and II and their Variants: From Reichswehr to Wehrmacht (Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing US, 2007)
Sowodny, M., and Force, E. (translator), German Armoured Rarities 1935-1945 (Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing US, 1998).
Internet Articles and Websites:
Frihedsmuseet Digital Archive. Available: LINK
Greville, D., Research into Heinrich Ernst Kniepkamp and the Sd.Kfz.2 Kleines Kettenkraftrad. Published:
Pasholok, Y., ‘Pz.Kpfw.II Ausf.G: The Fruit of Unending Labour’. Published: LINK Translated into English: LINK
Photographs compiled at https://forum.ww2.ru/index.php?showtopic=4693101
Takiguchi, A., ‘Seek, then it will be found’. Published: LINK
The standard reference work on the VK9.01 is Panzer Tracts No.2-2 Panzerkampfwagen II Ausf.G, H, J, L, and M: Development and Production from 1938 to 1943. Written by Thomas Jentz and Hilary Doyle, the doyens of German interwar and Second World War AFV history, this book contains the most extensive account of the VK9.01 project in print. Based on extensive research into primary sources, the accuracy and level of detail in this book is unparalleled, making it an essential port of call for anyone interested in further reading about the VK9.01. All publications concerning the VK9.01, including this article, are indebted to this book, without which most of the details presented here would simply be unavailable. Companion volumes in this series provide equally comprehensive and groundbreaking treatments of their respective subjects.
Other reference books which cover the VK9.01 should be treated with caution. Many of those published before Panzer Tracts 2-2, particularly Spielberger’s history of the Panzer II, contain inaccurate assumptions and misleading information which were corrected by Jentz and Doyle. Most of the other books mentioning this tank contain only a superficial glance at the VK9.01, reflecting the neglect of this AFV in the available literature. Until new archival research is conducted and the results published by other authors, Panzer Tracts 2-2 is unlikely to be surpassed as the essential reference on this subject.
Yuri Pasholok’s online article concerning the Panzer II Ausf.G (available in its original Russian and also translated into English) is, despite the occasional error, an excellent summary of the information presented in Panzer Tracts 2-2. Read in conjunction with the other articles in Pasholok’s Panzer I and Panzer II series, this article is also helpful for contextualising the development of the VK9.01, by tracing its lineage to earlier designs and its links to other contemporaneous projects.
The combat service of the Panzer II Ausf.G is perhaps the largest blank spot in the history of this tank. Akira Takiguchi’s online article highlights the difficulties confronting those interested in this obscure subject. This short article investigates one particular Ausf.G photographed in combat and provides several extremely interesting photographs from Takiguchi’s private collection.
The author also wishes to express his thanks to Hilary Doyle for responding to queries concerning the ‘Ausf.G1, G3 und G4’ mystery.