Ever since the late 1920s, the German Army (Heer) had recognised the need for self-propelled anti-tank guns. It was thought that by exploiting their mobility and low silhouette, these dedicated tank destroyers would be able to flank attacking enemy armor and take the momentum out of the offensive. However, this theory had failed to translate into practice by the time of the Second World War, as the need to prioritise funding for other technological developments meant that the dedicated tracked and half-tracked tank destroyer projects of the interwar years were unable to progress further than the prototype stage.
This shortcoming in mobile anti-tank firepower was exposed during the invasion of France in 1940 and the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Confronted with more heavily armored tanks, such as the T-34, the standard 3.7 cm PaK 36 anti-tank gun was becoming increasingly obsolescent and there was a growing demand for heavier, more mobile anti-tank guns. In order to meet this need as quickly as possible, the Heer jettisoned the idea of a specialised self-propelled anti-tank gun built from the ground-up and instead authorised the conversion of obsolete or captured tank hulls to Panzerjäger (literally ‘tank hunter’), resulting in such ungainly machines as the Panzerjäger I and the 4.7 cm Pak (t) auf Pz.Kpfw.35R. At the same time, the development and fielding of the more powerful 5 cm Pak 38 and 7.5 cm PaK 40 towed anti-tank guns was accelerated.
The Panzer Selbstfahrlafette Ic (Pz.Sfl.Ic) was one of a multitude of developments to arise from this drive for improvised self-propelled anti-tank guns. However, unlike many of its contemporaries, it mounted the German-made 5 cm Pak 38 and used the hull of one of the latest and most advanced tank designs in the German inventory, the VK9.01. Although this would appear to be a promising start to the project, the technological problems with the VK9.01 chassis would ultimately compromise the viability of this development. The German word ‘Selbstfahrlafette’ translates to ‘self-propelled gun’ and is often abbreviated to Sfl. or (Sf).
Bad Genes: The VK9.01 and its Defects
The VK9.01 (Vollketten 9.01, meaning first design for a fully tracked vehicle in the 9 tonne class) had begun development in 1938 in response to a perceived need for a new, more mobile model of the Panzer II light tank. Heavily influenced by the ideas of Heinrich Ernst Kniepkamp, a talented engineer and head of the Waffen Prüfen 6 (Wa Prüf 6) agency of the German motorised vehicle procurement system, the VK9.01 was designed to offer a revolutionary step forward in tank mobility.
To that end, it took advantage of several innovative automotive components then under development in Germany. These included a 150 hp Maybach HL 45 engine, an 8-speed preselective Maybach VG15319 transmission and various types of triple-stage steering units that would allow the tank to take turns at high speeds. A distinctive torsion bar suspension with five overlapping road wheels was attached to the hull, which allowed the tank to traverse rough ground at high speeds and provided a greater degree of manoeuvrability than contemporary designs. Taken together, these innovations meant that the VK9.01 was not only relatively easy to drive, but that it could also reach speeds of up to 67 km/h (41.63 mph) on roads, an exceptionally high speed for fully-tracked vehicles of the time.
The vast improvements in mobility were complemented by the installation of a vertical stabiliser for the standard Panzer II 2 cm KwK. 38 main armament and the coaxial 7.92 mm M.G.34 machine gun that permitted it to fire more accurately on the move. Other than a new turret design and marginal increases in the armor protection, it remained similar to the existing model of the Panzer II in most other respects, maintaining the three-man crew of the original.
Initially, it was hoped that the first pre-production examples of the VK9.01 would be able to enter production as soon as 1939, with mass production scheduled to commence in 1941. It would then subsequently replace the rest of the light tanks in the Heer’s inventory. These ambitious and grandiose plans would prove to be short-lived however, as the development process was constantly delayed by decisions to trial new steering units and transmissions. As a result, by the summer of 1940, none of the 75 0-Serie (pre-production) VK9.01 then under contract had been produced and work had even started on a new variant with a more powerful engine and marginally thicker armor known as the VK9.03.
In the end, the protracted development process and the need to rationalise German tank production meant that the VK9.01 never fulfilled its destiny. Although 55 of the 0-Serie hulls with a bewildering variety of transmissions and steering systems were completed between 1941 and 1942, mass production never occurred as, by that time, there was a more pressing demand for heavier armored vehicles such as the Panther. Worse still, the VK9.01 proved to be an unreliable machine during testing precisely because of the new automotive components that ironically more often that not broke down and crippled the machine. Consequently, the VK9.01 never saw any notable uses during the war and is now a largely forgotten episode in the saga of German Second World War tank development.
Although the officials of Inspektorat 6 (the body nominally responsible for drawing up requirements for armored vehicles) could not have foreseen the ultimate demise of this project when they initiated the development of a tank destroyer based on the VK9.01 on 5 July 1940, these faulty genes were to determine the fate of this project too.
Small but Deadly: The Pz.Sfl.Ic Design
Following the July 1940 directive from Inspektorat 6 to develop a light Panzerjäger (tank hunter) able to keep pace with Panzer Divisions and Motorised Infantry Divisions, Wa Prüf 6 awarded contracts to the Berlin-based company Rheinmetall-Borsig to draw up designs for a 5 cm Pak mounted on a VK9.01 hull. According to Yuri Pasholok, Rheinmetall-Borsig then allocated this work to Alkett, another firm based in Berlin. While this could make sense given Alkett’s involvement in other armored vehicle projects, it is not mentioned in any other publications. Indeed, Thomas L. Jentz and Hilary L. Doyle, having looked at original German wartime documents, state in their book Panzer Tracts No.7-1 that the superstructure conversion work was completed by Rheinmetall-Borsig on the M.A.N. built hull. They do not make any reference to this work being subcontracted out.
Regardless of the exact division of the labour, this presents a problem for those studying this armored vehicle today, as surviving primary source material concerning the development of armored fighting vehicles during this period at Rheinmetall-Borsig has mostly been lost. Unfortunately, this means that there are many unanswered questions relating to the history of this project and the technical details of this conversion.
One such problem is the designation of the machine itself. It was known as the Panzer Selbstfahrlafette Ic (English: Armored Self-propelled Carriage Ic). While Panzer Selbstfahrlafette is a common enough element in the designations of armored vehicles converted by the Germans into self-propelled guns, the Ic aspect is unusual. Some other German tank destroyers received similar combinations of Roman numerals followed by alphabetical suffixes, such as the 10 cm Kanone Panzer Selbstfahrlafette IVa (better known as ‘Dicker Max’). Given that there was a Panzer Selbstfahrlafette Ia based on a converted VK3.02 munitions carrier, it is likely that the ‘c’ means that this was the third design in a series of 5 cm self-propelled anti-tank guns, but it is not possible to be sure.
A factory-fresh Pz.Sfl.Ic. This provides a clear view of the VK9.01 chassis, the two-tiered superstructure and the 5 cm Kanone L/60 gun. Note the appliqué armor fitted to the side of the hull, which is visible next to the two shock absorbers. Ancillary equipment for the gun such as the cleaning rods is stowed on the side of the lower tier of the superstructure and a canvas cover strapped onto the roof shields the crew from the elements. Photo: warspot.ru
Nevertheless, what can be gleaned from the few fragments of surviving information and photographs is that the Pz.Sfl.Ic involved the mounting of a fixed open-topped superstructure onto a standard VK9.01 hull. It is unclear whether the VK9.01 hulls used to create the Pz.Sfl.Ic were part of the 55 0-Serie VK9.01 chassis completed in 1941 and 1942 or if they were extra hulls produced especially for this purpose. Nevertheless, they appear to have maintained the same suspension and general layout of the base tank. They carried the same level of armor protection, consisting of 30 mm at the front, 14.5 mm at the sides which was bolstered by an additional 5 mm of appliqué armor, and 14.5 mm at the rear.
Mounted in place of the turret was a two-tiered armored superstructure. On the bottom tier, this contained a driver’s visor of the same type fitted to the VK9.01 at the front, as well as two elongated visors at the front right and left hand sides. Gun cleaning rods were also stowed on the left-hand side of this lower tier of the superstructure. A slightly shorter and narrower tier of the superstructure containing the 5 cm gun and its mounting surmounted this lower segment. It is unclear whether this top section of the superstructure could rotate like a turret, but there is no indication in documents or photographs that this was the case. Hence, it is likely that elevation and a limited degree of traverse to either side was provided by the gun mount, as with other comparable designs such as the Marder II and Marder III.
The main gun selected for the Pz.Sfl.Ic was the 5 cm Kanone L/60, a derivative of the 5 cm Pak 38 towed anti-tank gun that had been under development at Rheinmetall Borsig since 1938. This version of the gun had modifications to the breech, carriage and recoil mechanisms to make it more suitable for use within the confines of an armored vehicle.
According to one German technical document issued during the war, the 5 cm Pak 38 could penetrate 69 mm of armor at 100 m when firing the 5 cm Panzergranate (Pzgr.) 39 armor piercing capped (APC) round, which was increased to 130 mm with the 5 cm Pzgr. 40 armor piercing composite rigid (APCR) rounds. At distances of 1,000 m, the penetration decreased to 48 mm and 38 mm respectively. However, it is important to note that stocks of the 5 cm Pzgr. 40 APCR round were limited due to its tungsten core. Tungsten was a valuable material that was in short supply in wartime Germany and required for many other industrial purposes. It could therefore not be squandered on producing vast numbers of anti-tank rounds meaning that tank and anti-tank gun crews were generally issued only a few of these rounds at a time for use in the most threatening situations.
An excerpt from an original German document outlining the penetration of the 5 cm Pak 38. Whilst the 5 cm Pak 38 was adequate for dealing with most enemy tanks that might have been encountered in 1942, the Heer was already seeking more powerful anti-tank guns to deal with anticipated future threats. It is important to note that each military had its own procedures for measuring and testing penetration which could lead to different results for the same gun and projectile. Source: valka.cz
Compared to the VK9.01 tank, the Pz.Sfl.Ic accommodated an extra crew member for a total complement of four men. Presumably, this included a driver and radio operator seated in the front left and front right of the hull respectively, plus two men in the top part of the superstructure to load and fire the gun, one of whom would have been the vehicle commander.
Despite these significant changes to the VK9.01, its performance (at least on paper) does not appear to have been adversely affected. The 150 hp Maybach HL 45 engine was still capable of propelling the vehicle to a maximum speed of nearly 70 km/h and the weight remained at 10.5 tonnes, the same as the standard VK9.01.
Even so, due to the scarcity of documentation concerning this vehicle, there is no way to evaluate how well these design specifications translated into practice. When the 0-Serie VK9.01 tanks were evaluated at the Berka proving ground sometime in 1941 or 1942, they fared miserably. Most of the tanks succumbed to breakdowns after covering relatively short distances, and problems with getting the automotive components to work reliably proved to be an insurmountable challenge for the engineers.
Presumably, such problems would also have afflicted the Pz.Sfl.Ic had it ever entered mass production, but in the absence of test reports, one can only speculate.
Illustration of the 5 cm PaK 38 auf Pz.Kpfw. II Sonderfahrgestell 901 (Panzer Selbstfahrlafette Ic), produced by Alexe Pavel, funded by our Patreon Campaign.
Big Plans for a Small Tank Destroyer: Pz.Sfl.Ic Production
On 30 May 1941, almost one year after Rheinmetall Borsig had been contracted to begin designing the Pz.Sfl.Ic, the Heer issued a document called the Heeres Panzerprogramm 41 (Army Tank Program 41). An exercise in long-range planning, this document outlined the production quantities of all vehicles necessary to outfit a total of 20 new Panzer Divisions and 10 new Motorised Infantry Divisions by 1945. By this time, the successor to the VK9.01, the VK9.03, was the preferred choice of new model light tank for the Heer. As such, the Panzerprogramm 41 envisaged the production of almost 10,000 of these new light tanks.
In addition to the standard tanks, the planners behind the Panzerprogramm 41 also envisaged an entire family of armored vehicles based upon the VK9.03. Sources differ on the exact number, but this would have included between 1,028 and 2,028 tank destroyers armed with a 5 cm anti-tank gun referred to as l.Pz.Jäger (Pz.Sfl.5 cm) auf VK903 Fgst. (Light Tank Destroyer on VK9.03 chassis). As there were only minor differences between the VK9.01 and VK9.03, it is likely that such a tank destroyer would have closely resembled the Pz.Sfl.Ic.
However, this document was more aspirational than it was realistic. It was not based on any sober assessment of German economic capabilities, nor did it offer precise guidelines on how such astronomical (for the standards of mid-1941 German industry) production figures were to be achieved. At the time the document was issued, the VK9.03 was still on paper and fewer than 15 of the 0-Serie VK9.01 had left the production line, which raises several questions as to whether such plans as laid out in the Panzerprogramm 41 would have been feasible.
In the end, the VK9.03 never entered production and only two trial examples of the Pz.Sfl.Ic based on VK9.01 hulls were ever made. According to a report issued in July 1941, these were scheduled for completion in September 1941. There is no way of knowing whether production kept to this schedule, but in any case, the two machines were completed by March 1942 at the latest.
Trials on the Eastern Front: The Pz.Sfl.Ic in Combat
Unlike many experimental vehicles that were typically constructed out of unarmored mild steel, the two Pz.Sfl.Ics were made from armor plate. This meant that they were suitable for deployment in combat and the Heer did not waste this opportunity.
All two of the Pz.Sfl.Ic in service with the third platoon of Panzer-Jäger Company 601 (later renamed as the 3rd Company of Panzer-Jäger battalion (Sfl.) 559) as it travels through the small town of Kloster Zinna in Brandenburg. A Kleinepanzerbefehlswagen I (a small command tank based on the Panzer I hull) leads the convoy, while at least four of the 8.8 cm Sfl. half-tracks bring up the rear. The relatively small size and low silhouette of these tank destroyers can be appreciated by comparing them to the humongous half-tracks and the young boys walking in the middle of the road. Note that the frontal plate of the Pz.Sfl.Ic superstructure only has a single visor for the driver, perhaps suggesting that there was not a separate radio operator (who would normally have his own visor) and a three-man crew instead of four. Source: valka.cz
On 10 March 1942, the two Pz.Sfl.Ic vehicles were assigned to the 3rd platoon of Panzer-Jäger Company 601 to replace some of the 8.8 cm Sfl. (8.8 cm Flak 36 mounted on Sd.Kfz.8 half-tracks) that had been lost in combat on the Eastern Front. Later renamed as the 3rd Company of Panzer-Jäger battalion (Sfl.) 559 on 21 April 1942, this unit operated under the 2nd Army, itself part of Army Group South.
Unfortunately, little else is known about the service of the Pz.Sfl.Ic on the Eastern Front. There are no known surviving trials reports detailing its performance in combat or discussing any issues with the design. A few surviving photographs prove that they did indeed make it to the front, and a strength report dated 20 August 1941 states that the 3rd Company of Panzer-Jäger battalion (Sfl.) 559 still had two Pz.Sfl.Ic at that time, one of which was operational. However, the Pz.Sfl.Ic simply vanishes from the paperwork after this point, with no mention of the ultimate fate of these two vehicles.
This suggests that unless they were sent back to Germany for some reason, the guns likely perished by the end of 1942. At the time the Pz.Sfl.Ic joined the 3rd Company of Panzer-Jäger battalion (Sfl.) 559, Army Group South had been split into two groups for the assault on Stalingrad and the Caucasus oil fields. As part of Army Group B, the 2nd Army protected the northern flank of the 6th Army as it fought its way into Stalingrad, until it was decimated by the Soviet winter offensive in late 1942 and early 1943.
It is unlikely that the Pz.Sfl.Ic would have survived this maelstrom, especially if the technological foibles that plagued the VK9.01 had also afflicted this machine. The maintenance nightmare involved in keeping these fickle vehicles running would have been compounded yet further by the bewildering menagerie of different vehicles operated by Panzer-Jäger battalion (Sfl.) 559, which also included Panzer Selbstfahrlafette 1 für 7.62 cm Pak 36 auf Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen II Ausf.D and 8.8 cm Sfl. halftracks.
A Pz.Sfl.Ic entrained with a group of Panzer IIIs. Few details of this vehicle are visible on this photograph, other than the prominent Balkenkreuz and the fact that it is missing one of its outer road wheels. The exact location of this train and its intended destination are unknown, though this photo once again shows that the Pz.Sfl.Ic did make it to the front. Source: valka.cz
Too Little, Too Late
The fate of the Pz.Sfl.Ic was tied to that of its host, the VK9.01. Once work on the deeply flawed and troublesome VK9.01 and VK9.03 tanks was abruptly terminated in March 1942, any hopes that the Pz.Sfl.Ic would be mass produced were dashed, as the entire rationale behind such projects was to save time and funds by converting readily available hulls.
Yet even if by some miracle the VK9 series had entered mass production as the new model of Panzer II, the Pz.Sfl.Ic would still have had a precarious future. By the time the first two trials machines had been issued in March 1942, the Heer was already looking to guns of a calibre greater than 5 cm to counter the ever increasing armor of enemy tanks. Consequently, conversions involving captured Czechoslovakian 4.7 cm and 5 cm Pak 38 guns were superseded by those equipped with captured Soviet 7.62 cm guns or the new 7.5 cm Pak 40, resulting in the well-known Marder (Marten) series among others. This prevailing trend suggests that the Pz.Sfl.Ic would not have remained in production for long.
Although there were paper projects to mount the 7.5 cm gun on the VK9 series (and a photo of one such conversion suggests it even seems to have been carried out), the fact that the VK9.01 and VK9.03 never entered mass production meant that such ideas would never have been able to enter widespread service.
Ultimately then, the Pz.Sfl.Ic was a non-starter. The failure of the VK9 initiative undercut the reason for its existence and the gun it was equipped with was already starting to be outclassed due to the frenetic pace of Second World War tank development. Apart from a few photographs and a smattering of documents, nothing of the Pz.Sfl.Ic project survives to this day, but it remains a curious example of the German propensity to experiment with self-propelled gun conversions throughout the war.
A rare glimpse at the rear of the Pz.Sfl.Ic. Taken in the summer or autumn of 1942, this photograph is proof that the Pz.Sfl.Ic did indeed make it to the front. Like all other German armored vehicles in use on the front line, it has a Balkenkreuz painted on the hull side for identification purposes. The wrecked Soviet fighter in the foreground suggests that this may be in the vicinity of an airfield. Source: warspot.ru
TransmissionLGR 15319 or LGL 15319 Triple radius differential steering unit
|Dimensions (L-W-H, based on VK9.03)||4.24 m x 2.39 m x 2.05 m|
|Propulsion||Water-cooled gasoline Maybach HL 45 motor producing 150 HP at 3800 rpm
VG 15319, or OG 20417, or SMG 50
|Speed (road)||67 km/h (regulated to 65 km/h)|
|Armament||5 cm Kanone L/60|
|Armor||30 mm hull front
14.5 mm + 5 mm appliqué hull side
14.5 mm hull rear
Superstructure armor unknown
The most accurate source on the Pz.Sfl.Ic is Panzer Tracts 7-1 written by renowned German Second World War AFV historians Thomas Jentz and Hilary Doyle. However, only a single page of this book is devoted to the Pz.Sfl.Ic, reflecting the dearth of primary source material for this vehicle.
An online article originally written in Russian by Yuri Pasholok and available in English translation provides a decent summary of the Pz.Sfl.Ic and helps to place it in the wider context of the development of the VK9 series of projects.
Asides from a few photographs showing the Pz.Sfl.Ic on deployment (one of which was published in Autumn Gale), little else has emerged on this elusive machine.
Didden, J., and Swarts, M., Autumn Gale/Herbst Sturm: Kampfgruppe Chill, schwere Heeres Panzerjäger Abteilung 559 and the German Recovery in the Autumn of 1944 (Drunen: De Zwaardvisch, 2013).
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.7-1 Panzerjaeger (3.7 cm Tak to Pz.Sfl.Ic): Development and Employment from 1927 to 1941 (Maryland: Panzer Tracts, 2004).
Spielberger, W.J., Der 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).
Pasholok, Y., ‘Pz.Kpfw.II Ausf.G: The Fruit of Unending Labour’. Read HERE (Russian), English version HERE.