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
|Dimensions (L-W-H)||4.1 x 1.9 x 1.9 m|
|Total Weight||8 tonnes|
|Crew||2 (driver, commander)|
|Speed||On roads 79 (65) km/h, off-road 35 km/h|
|Range||On roads: 300 km, off-road: 190 km|
|Armament||7.92 mm E.W.141, 7.92 mm MG 34|
|Engine||Water-cooled 6-cylinder Maybach HL 45 P|
|Ammunition||94x 7.92 mm S.m.K.H., 2100x 7.92 mm S.m.K.|
|Power Ratio||18.75 HP/ton|
|Ground clearance||22.5 cm|
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