During the early stages of the war, the Germans modified small quantities of Panzer I Ausf. A tanks as ammunition carriers. These lacked any kind of defensive weapons to protect themselves from either ground or air targets. For this reason, from March to May 1941, some 24 Panzer I Ausf. A would be modified as self-propelled anti-aircraft vehicles. Sadly, these vehicles are very poorly documented in the sources and there is quite little information on them.
During September 1939, the Germans converted some 51 older Panzer I Ausf. A tanks into ammunition carriers. This conversion was quite rudimentary, done by simply removing the turrets and replacing the opening with two-part hatches. These vehicles would be allocated to the Munitions Transport Abteilung 610 (ammunition transport battalion) and its two companies, the 601st and 603rd.
The 610th Battalion would see service during the German invasion of the West in 1940. There, it was noted that these vehicles lacked proper armed support vehicles that could protect them from any potential enemy threats (especially against airborne attacks).
To resolve this issue, In 6 (Armored Troop Inspectorate) issued a request for an anti-aircraft vehicle based on the Panzer I Ausf. A chassis to be designed. Receiving this request, Wa Prüf 6 appointed Alkett and Daimler-Benz with designing the first prototype. Spanish author L. M. Franco (Panzer I: the beginning of the dynasty) provides additional information claiming that, according to the soldiers who operated these vehicles, the manufacturer of the first prototype was actually Stöwer. The Stöwer company was located in Stettin and was actually a car manufacturer. Another author, J. Ledwoch (Flakpanzer), supports this information but notes that the Stöwer company lacked adequate production facilities and was probably responsible for providing some necessary parts rather than fully assembling the vehicles. Author D. Nešić (Naoružanje Drugog Svetsko Rata-Nemačka), on the other hand, states that only Alkett was responsible for the design and production of this vehicle.
While it is not clear who produced the first prototype, the 610th Battalion was tasked with acquiring the necessary equipment and manpower to build 24 vehicles. It is not clear if, for the construction of these 24 vehicles, new Panzer I hulls or already existing ammunition supply vehicles based on it were used. At this time, the Panzer I was being slowly phased out of service, so it is possible that regular tank versions (and not the ammunition supply vehicles) were used for this modification. The first vehicle was finished in March and the last one in May of 1941.
Based on a few sources, this vehicle was designated as the 2 cm Flak 38 (Sf) PzKpfw I Ausf. A. It is generally referred to, more simply, as Flakpanzer I. This article will use this designation due to its simplicity.
The Flakpanzer I used an almost unchanged Panzer I Ausf.A chassis and hull. It consisted of the front driving compartment, central crew compartment and the rear engine compartment.
The design of the rear engine compartment was left almost unchanged. The main engine was the Krupp M 305 four cylinder giving out 60 [email protected] 500 rpm. The only source to mention the Flakpanzer I’s driving performance is D. Nešić (Naoružanje Drugog Svetsko Rata-Nemačka). According to him, the weight was increased to 6.3 tonnes (from the original 5.4 tonnes). The increase of weight led to a reduction of maximum speed from 37.5 to 35 km/h. This source also notes that the operational range was 145 km. This is probably wrong, as the regular Panzer I Ausf. A’s operational range was 140 km. Unless there was an increase of the original 140 l fuel load that is not mentioned in the sources, this seems unlikely.
The extra added weight could also have led to engine overheating problems. To prevent this, two larger 50 to 70 mm wide holes were cut open in the engine compartment in order to provide better ventilation. Some vehicles had several smaller 10 mm holes cut for the same purpose. Another change was the removal of the vent usually located on the right side of the hull. Its purpose was to provide heated air to the crew compartment.
The Flakpanzer I used an unmodified Panzer I Ausf. A suspension. It consisted of five road wheels on each side. The last road wheel, which was larger than the others, acted as the idler. The first wheel used a coil spring mount with an elastic shock absorber in order to prevent any outward bending. The remaining four wheels (including the last larger wheel) were mounted in pairs on a suspension cradle with leaf spring units. There was one front drive sprocket and three return rollers per side.
The superstructure of the original Panzer I was heavily modified. First, the turret and the superstructure top and parts of the side and rear armor were removed. On top of the frontal superstructure armor, an 18 cm high armored plate was welded. In addition, two smaller triangular in shaped plates were added to the front side armor. This added armor served to protect the opening between the lower part of the gun shield and the superstructure. The driver’s and the two side visors were left unchanged.
On top of the vehicle, a new square shaped platform for the main gun was installed. Unlike the original Panzer I turret, which was placed asymmetrically, the new gun was placed at the center of the vehicle. The Panzer I was a small vehicle, and to provide proper working space for the crew, the Germans added two additional foldable platforms. These were placed on the sides of the vehicle and some vehicles had one more to the rear, just behind the engine. The platforms actually consisted of two rectangular shaped plates. The first plate was welded to the superstructure, while the second plate could be folded down to provide additional working space.
As even these were insufficient, the crew had to move around the engine compartment. The Panzer I had muffler covers placed on either side of the engine, so the crew had to be careful to avoid accidentally burning themselves on them.
The main armament of the Flakpanzer I was the 2 cm Flak 38 anti-aircraft cannon. This was a weapon intended to replace the older 2 cm Flak 30, which it never actually did. It was designed by Mauser Werke, incorporating many elements of the Flak 30 with some internal changes, like the addition of a new bolt mechanism and return spring. In order to provide the crew with some level of protection, the armored shield was retained. The gun had a full traverse of 360° and an elevation of -20° to +90°. The maximum effective range was 2 km against air targets and 1.6 km against ground targets. The maximum rate of fire was between 420 and 480, but the practical rate of fire was usually between 180 to 220 rounds.
Interestingly, Author D. Nešić (Naoružanje Drugog Svetsko Rata-Nemačka) mentions that the first Flakpanzer I prototype was armed with the Italian 2 cm Breda Model 1935 cannon. Why this particular weapon was used is sadly not mentioned by this source. There is a possibility that the author simply confused it with the Spanish Nationalists conversion of the Panzer I which was armed with the same weapon.
The 2 cm Flak 38 was unchanged and could be (if needed) easily removed from the vehicle. The overall performance and its characteristics were also unchanged on the Flakpanzer I. The time to deploy from the march to a combat position ranged between 4 to 6 min. The ammunition for the main gun was carried inside the hull, just beside the driver and the radio operator. The ammunition load consisted of 250 rounds. This number is unusual, as the normal 2 cm Flak 38 clip contained 20 rounds. Additional spare ammunition (and other equipment) was carried either in the Sd.Ah.51 trailers (not all vehicles had them) or in support vehicles. No secondary armament was carried, but the crews would have probably been armed with pistols or submachine guns for self-defense.
The Flakpanzer I’s armor was quite thin. The Panzer I front hull’s armor ranged between 8 to 13 mm. The side armor was 13 to 14.5 mm thick, the bottom 5 mm and the rear 13 mm. The gun operators were only protected by the 2 cm Flak 38’s gun shield, with the sides, rear and top being completely exposed to enemy fire.
For such a small vehicle, the Flakpanzer I had a large crew of eight. Five of these would be stationed on the vehicle itself. They consisted of the commander, gunner, loader, driver, and radio operator. The driver’s position was unchanged from the original Panzer I, and he was seated on the vehicle’s left side. To his right, the radio operator (with the Fu 2 radio equipment) was positioned. In order to enter their positions, they had to squeeze themselves between the frontal armor and the gun platform. These two were the only fully protected crew members. The remaining three crew members were stationed around the gun platform.
Three additional crew members were positioned in the auxiliary supply vehicles and were probably responsible for providing additional ammunition or acting as target spotters.
The ammunition transport vehicle ‘Laube’
Due to Flakpanzer I’s small size, they were provided with ammunition trailers for carrying additional spare ammunition and other equipment. The Germans decided this was not enough and an additional 24 Panzer I Ausf. A chassis were supplied to the 610th Battalion to be modified as Munitionsschlepper (ammunition transports), also known as ‘Laube’ (bower). The Panzer Is were extensively modified by removing the superstructure and turret and replacing them with simple flat and vertical armored plates. The front plate had a large windshield for the driver to see where he was driving.
The 24 Flakpanzer Is were used to form Flak Abteilung 614 (Anti-Aircraft Battalion) in early May 1941. These Anti-Aircraft Battalions (with some 20 in total) were formed by the German Army, to avoid being dependent on Luftwaffe’s own anti-aircraft units. The 614th Battalion was divided into three Companies, each equipped with 8 vehicles. According to some sources, the 614th Battalion was also supplemented with the 2cm Flakvierling 38 armed SdKfz 7/1 half-tracks, which were attached to each Company.
This unit was moved to the East for the upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union. The 614th Battalion was initially not involved in the offensive, as it was stationed in Pomerania, undergoing extensive crew training. After August, the 614th Battalion was transported by rail to the Romanian city of Iași, from where it was to be redirected towards the Eastern Front.
Sadly, there is no information about its service life in the Soviet Union. The extra weight, combined with the harsh climate and poor road conditions would have been quite stressful for the fragile Panzer I suspension and engine. Surprisingly, despite their weak armor and inferior chassis, the last vehicle was lost during the Battle for Stalingrad in early 1943. This was probably because the Flakpanzer I was intended to provide cover for the ammunition supply units, which were often located behind the front lines.
Other Flakpanzer modifications based on the Panzer I
While not related to the previously mentioned vehicles, there were at least two other Panzer I field modifications adapted to the anti-aircraft role. According to D. Nešić (Naoružanje Drugog Svetsko Rata-Nemačka), beside the Flakpanzer I armed with the 2 cm Flak 38, a few were built with the triple 1.5 or 2 cm MG 151 Drilling. These (the precise numbers are unknown, it could have been only a single vehicle) were built by placing the new weapon mount inside the crew compartment. The existing photo shows it was built using a Panzer I Ausf. B chassis. Due to a lack of information, it is difficult to see how this vehicle was actually designed from the inside. The working space inside of this modification would have been quite cramped. Whether the cannons could be fully rotated is also unknown. As the MG 151 Drilling was employed in greater numbers at the war’s end, it is likely that this was a last-ditch effort to increase the Panzer I’s firepower by any means when there was nothing else available.
There is another photograph of a Panzer I equipped with a 3.7 cm Flak mount placed on top of the superstructure. Interestingly, in this photograph, the gun barrel is missing. The photograph gives the impression that it is at a repair storage facility, so maybe the gun barrel was removed for cleaning or yet to be replaced.
The Flakpanzer I, while not a purposefully designed vehicle, was surely an innovative way of providing better mobility for the anti-aircraft weapons. While using the Panzer I chassis had benefits, like being cheap and quick to build, with plenty of available spare parts, etcetera, it had a number of drawbacks, like insufficient protection, lack of working space, weak suspension, etcetera. When this vehicle was introduced in limited numbers for service, the Germans actually did not consider a self-propelled anti-aircraft vehicle based on the tank chassis a priority simply because the Luftwaffe was still a fearsome force. In the later years, with the increase of Allied dominance in the skies, the Germans would put much more effort into developing a dedicated anti-aircraft vehicle based on a tank chassis.
Flakpanzer I, Eastern Front, Flak Abteilung 614, 1941.
Same unit and location, winter 1941-42.
2cm Flak 38 Sf. Auf PzKpFw. I Ausf. A Specifications
|Dimensions (l-w-h)||4.02 m, 2.06 m, 1.97 m|
|Total weight, battle-ready||6.3 tonnes|
|Crew||5 (commander, gunner, loader, driver and the radio operator)|
|Propulsion||Krupp M 305 four cylinder 60 HP @ 2500 rpm|
|Primary Armament||2 cm Flak 38|
|Elevation||-20° to +90°|
- D. Nešić, (2008), Naoružanje Drugog Svetsko Rata-Nemačka, Beograd
- T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle (2004) Panzer Tracts No.17 Gepanzerte Nachschubfahrzeuge
- T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle (2002) Panzer Tracts No.1-1 Panzerkampfwagen I
- W. J. Spielberger (1982) Gepard The History of German Anti-Aircraft tanks, Bernard and Graefe
- A. Lüdeke (2007) Waffentechnik im Zweiten Weltkrieg, Parragon books
- J Ledwoch Flakpanzer 140, Tank Power
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- R. Hutchins (2005) Tanks and other fighting vehicles, Bounty Book.