Even before the Second World War, the famous German tank commander, Heinz Guderian, had predicted the need for highly mobile self-propelled anti-tank vehicles, later known as Panzerjäger or Jagdpanzer (tank destroyer or hunter). In March 1940, the first attempt to build such a vehicle was made. This was the 4.7 cm PaK(t) (Sfl) auf Pz.Kpfw. I ohne turm. It was more or less a simple improvisation, made by using a modified Panzer I Ausf.B tank hull and by mounting a 4.7 cm PaK(t) gun with a small shield on it. This vehicle proved to be an effective anti-tank weapon in the early period of the war, with a few examples remaining in service up to 1943.
Birth of the First Panzerjäger
During the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the 3.7 cm PaK 36 was the main anti-tank gun in use by the Wehrmacht. This gun proved to be effective against Polish tanks and other armored vehicles, which were generally lightly armored. The PaK 36’s mobility and small size proved to have a number of advantages during combat situations, but the biggest problem was the poor penetration power. While in Poland it did the job, for the upcoming invasion of the West, a more powerful gun was desirable. The much stronger 5 cm PaK 38 was still in the development phase and it would not reach the troops in time, so another solution was needed. The Germans were lucky as, during the annexation of Czechoslovakia, they came into possession of fairly large numbers of competent 47 mm anti-guns.
Both the 37 and 47 mm guns were light and relatively easy to move around using trucks, horses or manpower, and, for infantry formations, this was not a great problem. For the Panzer units, a towed anti-tank gun was a problem due to the frequent position changes required by the rapid advance of the armored units. Wheeled trucks had great problems driving off-road. Half-tracks were more efficient in this regard, but there were never enough of them available. In a combat situation, once targets were spotted, the PaK gun had to be disconnected from the towing vehicle and moved by the crew to a designated firing position, which could take valuable and vital time. The PaK gun was also an easy target for the enemy once spotted, as it had only limited protection from the front. Mounting a sufficiently powerful PaK gun on a mobile chassis was more desirable, as it would allow the gun to follow the fast-moving units and to quickly change position to engage enemy targets.
For these reasons, after the Polish campaign, the Heereswaffenamt (ordnance department) made a proposal to mount the Czech 47 mm gun on a modified Panzer I Ausf.B. tank chassis. The choice for the tank chassis was based on the obsolescence of the Panzer I as a front line tank and the fact that it was available in sufficient numbers. The Panzer II was still considered useful and effective and the Panzer III and IV were deemed too valuable (and scarce) for such a modification. The company that was chosen to undertake this modification, was Alkett (Altmärkische Kettenfabrik) from Berlin. During late 1939 and early 1940, Alkett made the first drawings of the future Panzerjäger. Very soon, a prototype was built and tested. The conversion proved to be feasible and easy to construct. This prototype was demonstrated to Adolf Hitler himself in February 1940. After this demonstration, an official order for around 132 vehicles was given to Alkett. These vehicles had to be ready by May 1940.
The original designation for this vehicle was 4,7 cm PaK(t) (Sfl) auf Pz.Kpfw. I (Sd.Kfz.101) ohne Turm. Nowadays, this vehicle is mostly known as the Panzerjäger I. Whilst sources do not give precise information about the origin of this designation, for the sake of simplicity, this article will use this simpler designation.
For the Panzerjäger I conversion, the Panzer I Ausf.B chassis was used, as it had a more powerful engine and was longer than the Ausf.A. The Panzerjäger I’s suspension and running gear were the same as those of the original Panzer I Ausf.B, with no change to its construction. It consisted of five road wheels on both sides. The first wheel used a coil spring mount with an elastic shock absorber in order to prevent any outward bending. The remaining four wheels were mounted in pairs on a suspension cradle with leaf spring units. There were two front drive sprockets, two rear idlers and eight return rollers in total (four on each side).
The main engine was the water-cooled 3.8 l Maybach NL 38 TR, giving out 100 hp at 3,000 rpm. Due to the extra equipment and larger weapon, the vehicle weight was increased to 6.4 tonnes. The added extra weight affected the crossroad performance but the maximum speed was unchanged at 40 km/h. The gearbox (ZF Aphon FG 31) had five forward and one reserve speeds.
The most obvious change was the removal of the tank turret and, in addition, the superstructure upper and rear armor were also removed. In place of the turret was a new gun mount for the 4.7 cm gun. For better stability, the gun mount was held in place by three metal bars. Two vertical bars were connected to the vehicle bottom and another larger one to the rear engine compartment. For this conversion, the gun wheels and trails were removed. In addition, the standard 4.7 cm PaK(t) gun shield was replaced with a smaller curved one. For the protection of the crew, the first series of Panzerjäger I had a five-sided armored compartment, the plates of which were 14.5 mm thick. This armored compartment was bolted to the vehicle hull, which made repairs much easier. The second series of produced vehicles had two additional (one on each side) armored plates added, which increase the directions from which the vehicle was protected. This armored compartment provided only limited protection from the front and sides due to weak armor thickness. This is one of the reasons that the crews of these vehicles used steel helmets. In a vague hope of increasing the armor protection, some crews added spare tracks to the vehicle’s front armor.
The gun used was the Skoda 47 mm Kanon P.U.V.vz.38, known as the 4.7 cm Panzerabwehrkanone 36(t), or simply as 4.7 cm PaK(t) in German service. It was an effective weapon for its time. During the period of August 1939 to May 1941, some 566 4.7 cm PaK(t) were built by Škoda for the Germans. The standard Panzergranate Pz.Gr.36(t) had a muzzle velocity of 775 m/s and a maximum effective ranger range of 1.5 km. The armor penetration of this round was 48-59 mm at 500 m and 41 mm at 1 km range with the standard AP round. The 4.7 cm PaK(t) could effectively destroy most tanks of the time at long distances, with the exception of the British Matilda, French B1 and later T-34 and the KV-1. In order to extend its operational effectiveness, a new Pzgr.Patr.40 tungsten round was developed (muzzle velocity was 1080 m/s). As the Germans lacked sufficient tungsten, this type of ammunition could not be produced in larger quantities and their usage was rare. The 4.7 cm PaK(t) also fired high explosive rounds (2.3 kg weight) with impact fuses to be used against light armor and infantry targets. The 47 mm gun had an elevation of -8° to +10° (or +12° depending on the source) and a traverse angle of 17.5° on each side. Elevation and traverse were controlled by two handwheels located on the gun’s left side. The main weapon monocular gunsight was not changed.
The total ammunition load was 86 rounds carried inside the vehicle in five different ammunition boxes. Only 10 HE rounds were carried, located behind the loader on the vehicle’s right side. On the right side of the crew fighting compartment, where the loader was seated, there was another ammunition box with 34 AP rounds. Some 16 AP additional rounds were placed under the gun. The remaining rounds were located at the rear fighting compartment under the gunner’s and loader’s seats.
For crew protection against infantry attack, a MP 38/40 submachine gun was provided. The ammunition for this weapon was stored on the left and right sides of the armored crew compartment. The crews could also carry additional personal weapons depending on the combat situation.
Adequate radio equipment was important and, thus, the vehicles were provided with the Fu 2 receiver. A flexible antenna (1.4 m high) from the original Panzer I was located to the right of the driver. Later vehicles were equipped with a receiver and a transmitter (Funksprechgerat A) for better communication. These models had the radio antenna relocated to the vehicle’s left rear side.
The Panzerjäger I was operated by three crew members, who, due to the lack of space, had to perform more than one role. The driver, who was located inside the vehicle, was also the radio operator. The commander, who also acted as the gunner, was located on the left side of the armored compartment. The last crew member was the loader, who was located to the right side, beside the commander. To avoid being affected by harsh weather, the crew was provided with a folding tarpaulin cover.
In order to carry additional crew equipment or for used ammunition casings, a welded metal or mesh wire basket was added to the rear, above the engine compartment. Sometimes additional storage boxes were placed on the fenders or to the vehicle rear.
The Panzerjäger I was produced in two series during the war. The first series was assembled by Alkett and production lasted from March to May 1940. The guns were to be provided by Škoda, with Krupp-Essen providing 60 armored shields. Hannover-Linder also provided an additional 72 armored shields. The monthly production for this batch of vehicles was 30 in March, 60 in April and 30 in May. Due to a lack of guns, two vehicles could not be completed. These two would be completed in September 1940 and in July 1941.
Krupp-Essen was tasked with providing 70 new armored shields for the second production series starting on 19th September 1940. However, the production orders were changed and only 10 armored shields were to be shipped to Alkett. The remaining 60 vehicles were to be assembled by Kloeckner-Humboldt-Deutz A.G.. The first 10 were completed in November, followed by 30 in December and the last 30 in February 1941. In total, 142 vehicles were assembled by Alkett and 60 by Kloeckner-Humboldt-Deutz A.G. These numbers are according to T.L. Jentz’ and H.L. Doyle’s (2010) Panzer Tracts No.7-1 Panzerjäger.
The Panzerjäger I vehicles were used to equip the Panzerjäger Abteilung (Pz.Jg.Abt) motorisierte Selbstfahrlafette, in essence anti-tank (or tank hunter) battalions using guns on self-propelled carriages. Each Pz.Jg.Abt was composed of one Stab Pz.Jg.Abt, equipped with one Pz.Kpfw.I Ausf.B, and three Kompanie (companies). These Kompanie were equipped with 9 vehicles each. The Kompanie were again divided into Zuge (platoons), each with 3 vehicles and one Sd.Kfz.10 half-track for ammunition supply.
The Panzerjäger I would see its first combat action in 1940, during the attack on the West. While the majority were prepared for the invasion of the Soviet Union, small numbers were used in the Axis occupation of the Balkans and in the North African desert.
Attack on the West, May 1940
For the upcoming invasion of France, four Pz.Jg.Abt were to be engaged, but only Pz.Jg.Abt 521 was combat-ready from the start. Pz.Jg.Abt 521 was allocated to Gruppe von Kleist prior to the beginning of the campaign on 10th May. The remaining three units, the 616th, 643rd and 670th, were gradually sent to the front once they achieved full combat readiness. These were fully equipped with 27 vehicles each, with the exception of Pz.Jg.Abt 521, which had only 18 vehicles, with 6 in each Kompanie.
The Panzerjäger I proved to be an effective weapon during the French camping. The Panzerjäger I’s strongest point was its 4.7 cm gun, which could effectively penetrate the armor of most Allied tanks from over 500 to 600 m. While it was primarily designed to attack tanks, it was often used for attacking machine gun nests or similar targets. Machine gun positions could be effectively engaged from ranges of over 1 km. In a report from the 18th Infantry Division made after the defeat of France, the effectiveness of this vehicle is clear “… The 4.7 cm PaK auf.Sfl. has proven itself to be very effective against tanks and also against houses when fighting in towns. It had a very real effect as well as a demoralizing effect on the opponent…”
However, during the French campaign, numerous flaws were also noted. Despite having much better mobility than the towed anti-tank guns, the Panzer I chassis proved to be prone to malfunctions. The Panzerjäger I was often plagued with suspension problems. Another grave issue was that the engine overheated. In hotter days, in order to avoid overheating the engine, the Panzerjäger I could not be driven at a speed higher than 30 km/h with a half an hour pause every 20 to 30 km.
The lack of proper telescopic sights made the observation of the surroundings very dangerous for the crews. There were numerous instances crew members were killed by headshots while observing their surroundings from above the shielded compartment. This often forced the Panzerjäger I commander to rely on the gun sight only, which could be problematic when the vehicle was on the move. Another problem was the lack of proper communication equipment between the commander and the driver. Sometimes, due to the noise of the engine, it was almost impossible for the driver to hear the commander.
Armor protection was minimal. The Panzer I’s maximal armor was only 13 mm thick, while the combat compartment’s armored shield was a bit thicker, at 14.5 mm. This armor only provided protection from small caliber rounds and was useless even against French 25 mm anti-tank guns. Being open-topped caused other issues, as the crew could be easily killed. The limited space inside the vehicle caused additional problems, as the crew often lacked space to carry extra equipment or personal belongings. For this reason, some vehicles were equipped with a large storage box place on the right fender.
These problems would never be fully solved and would remain throughout the Panzerjäger I’s whole carrier. The poor roads in Russia and the hot climate in North Africa caused huge stress on the Panzer I tank chassis.
Forming of New Units
With more vehicles being assembled in 1940 and early 1941, it was possible to form additional units. The first new unit was Pz.Jg.Abt. 169 (which was later renamed to 529). By the end of October 1940, Pz.Jg.Abt 605 was formed. Besides these, two Panzer-Jaeger-Kompanie (Panz.Jaeg.Kp) with 9 vehicles each were formed. The first, on 15th March 1941, was attached to Leibstandarte SS-Adolf Hitler. In April 1941, the second Kompanie was attached to the Lehr Brigade 900. Unknown numbers were allocated to the 4th Kompanie of the Panzerjäger Ersatz Abteilung 13, which was, in essence, a training unit at Magdeburg.
In the Balkans
For the conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece, the Panzerjäger Is from Leibstandarte SS-Adolf Hitler saw some action. However, as the opposing forces lacked any larger armored formation engagements with tanks were probably rare if any took place at all.
For the upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, five independent tank hunter battalions equipped with the Panzerjäger I were allocated to this front. These were the 521st, 529th, 616th, 643rd and 670th Pz.Jg.Abt, with a total of 135 vehicles. Pz.Jg.Abt 521 was allocated to the XXIV Mot.Korps Panzergruppe 2 H.Gr.Mitte, Pz.Jg.Abt 529 to VII. Korps 4th Armee H.Gr.Mitte, Pz.Jg.Abt 616 to Panzergruppe 4 H.Gr.Nord, Pz.Jg.Abt 643 to XXXIV Mot.Korps Panzergruppe 3 H.Gr.Mitte and Pz.Jg.Abt 670 to PanzerGruppe 1 H.Gr.Süd. There were other independent battalions (559th, 561st and 611th, for example) equipped with vehicles using the same gun but placed on the Pz.Kpfw. 35(f) tank chassis (captured in France).
Almost from the start, due to unexpected Soviet resistance, the losses among all German units began to mount. This was also the case with the independent tank hunter battalions equipped with the Panzerjäger I. For example, by late July 1941, Pz.Jg.Abt 529 lost four vehicles. By late November, the unit had only 16 vehicles (two were not operational) at its disposal.
During this campaign, the Panzerjäger I was also used to support the infantry. This was the case for Pz.Jg.Abt 521 while supporting the 3rd Panzer Division. Due to a lack of operational Soviet tanks, the Panzerjäger I were used for supporting infantry, operating similarly to the StuG III. The Panzerjäger I commanders, due to the light armor and smaller gun compared to the StuG III’s, opposed this deployment of their vehicles.
Despite their protest, the Panzerjäger Is of Pz.Jg.Abt 521 were extensively used in this role. While the 4.7 cm had an effective range of 1.5 km, the light armor of the vehicle made attacking any fortified position defended with anti-tank or artillery guns almost suicidal and lead to many losses. For example, during the attack on Soviet positions near Mogilev, Pz.Jg.Abt 521 lost 5 vehicles. Some did not even have a chance to fire at enemy positions before being destroyed. Despite its weak armor, the Panzerjäger I could be effective against enemy machine gun nest and for supporting infantry attacks if properly used and if the enemy had no artillery or other anti-tank weapons.
However, these actions were still dangerous for the crews due to the open-top nature of the vehicles. In addition, the lack of secondary support weapons, like MG-34 machine guns, meant the Panzerjäger Is were vulnerable to infantry attacks. The use of the Panzerjäger I in a support role against unarmored targets can be best described by the ammunition usage. From the start of Operation Barbarossa to the end of 1941, the Panzerjäger I units fired a total of 21,103 AP and 31,195 HE rounds of ammunition.
Engagements with enemy tanks also took place. A rather strange example comes from an action near Woronesh-Ost (Voronež) in August 1940, when one Panzerjäger I from Pz.Jg.Ab 521 engaged a Soviet BT tank. When the BT crew spotted the Panzerjäger I, the commander of the Soviet vehicle decided to ram the German tank destroyer. The Panzerjäger I managed to fire two shots at the incoming BT tank. After these hits, the BT tank caught fire but kept moving and rammed the Panzerjäger I.
The German losses by the end of 1941 were tremendous. In the case of the Panzerjägers armed with the 47 mm guns (both those based on the Panzer I and those based on the Renault R35), around 140 vehicles were lost. By 1942, most Panzerjager I units were being equipped with the better armed Marder III series. By May 1942, Pz.Jg.Abt 521 had only 8 operational Panzerjäger I vehicles. It was reinforced with Marder III vehicles with the 7.62 cm gun and with 12 ammunition carriers based on the Panzer I chassis. In 1942, Pz.Jg.Abt 670 operated one company of Panzerjäger I and two of Marders. Pz.Jg.Abt 529 had only two vehicles remaining when it was disbanded in late June 1942. Pz.Jg.Abt 616 managed to effectively maintain three Panzerjäger I Kompanies during this time.
While the Panzerjager I proved to be effective against the lighter armored Soviet tanks (T-26 or BT series), the newer T-34 and KV series proved to be problematic to the point that the 4.7 cm gun was deemed ineffective. This forced the Germans to look for larger caliber weapons. The surviving Panzerjäger I became obsolete by the standards of late 1942 and early 1943.
Pz.Jg.Abt 605 was the only unit equipped with the Panzerjäger I to operate in North Africa. It was shipped to Africa from Italy and arrived in mid-March 1941. Pz.Jg.Abt 605, with its 27 operational Panzerjäger I, was allocated to the 5th Leichte Division. At the beginning of October 1940, in order to replace losses, a group of five Panzerjäger I were to be shipped to Africa but only three arrived. The remaining two were lost during the sea voyage.
By the time of Operation Crusader in November 1941, Pz.Jg.Abt 605 was in action and, on that occasion, lost 13 vehicles. In order to replenish the dwindling supply of spare parts for the Panzerjäger I, the Panzer I tanks of the German Afrika Korps were often cannibalized for the purpose, as they were obsolete or were put out of action. By the end of 1941, Pz.Jg.Abt. 605 had 14 operational Panzerjäger I remaining.
In January 1942, it was reinforced with four more vehicles, followed by three more in September and October 1942. In order to give Pz.Jg.Abt 605 much stronger firepower, in early 1942, the unit received improvised Sd.Kfz.6 half-tracks armed with the 7.62 cm gun. In mid-May 1942, Pz.Jg.Abt. 605 had around 17 operational vehicles. By the battle of El Alamein in October 1942, eleven vehicles were reported as operational. The last two replacement vehicles arrived in November 1942.
During the African campaign, the Panzerjäger I was plagued with the same problems like on the other fronts. The armor was too weak, the suspension was prone to breakdowns, there were problems with the radio’s operational range, the engine frequently overheated and others. On the other hand, the gun’s performance was deemed sufficient. There are reports of three destroyed Matilda tanks at 400 m range in one action by using the rare tungsten rounds.
Four vehicles were captured by the Allies. One was sent to Britain and one to America for evaluation. This last one would remain at the American Aberdeen Proving Grounds up to 1981, when it was gifted to Germany. After restoration, it was moved to the Wehrtechnische Dienstselle at Trier. The fate of the remaining captured vehicles is unknown.
The Panzerjäger I proved to be an effective vehicle but not without faults. The gun had a higher armor penetration power than the current German anti-tank guns in the first years of the war. The problems with this vehicle were numerous, including the low armor protection, engine problems, transmission breakdowns, small crew, etcetera. Despite these, it proved to be capable of destroying enemy tanks that were otherwise immune to the smaller caliber 3.7 cm PaK 36.
The Panzerjäger I’s greatest merit is that it showed that the self-propelled anti-tank weapon concept was feasible and effective. It allowed the German Army to gain important experience in this kind of warfare.
Panzerjäger I of the Panzerjäger Abteilung 521, France, May 1940. It was part of the only eighteen vehicles ready on time to take part in the opening hours of the operations. The other companies were still training and would be engaged later in the campaign.
A Panzerjäger I operating during the Balkan campaign, in Yugoslavia and Greece, April-May 1941.
A Panzerjäger I of the Afrika Korps, Panzerjäger-Abteilung 605 (605th Anti-tank Battalion), Gazala, February 1942. Only 27 vehicles were sent, plus some replacements. They were the only tank-hunters available to Rommel during the whole campaign, until El Alamein.
These illustrations were produced by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet.
Panzerjäger I specifications
|Dimensions||4.42 x 2.06 x 2.14 m (14.5×6.57×7.02 ft)|
|Total weight, battle-ready||6.4 tonnes|
|Crew||3 (commander/gunner, loader and the driver/radio operator)|
|Propulsion||Maybach NL 38 TR|
|Speed||40 km/h, 25 km/h (cross country)|
|Range||170 km, 115 km (cross country)|
|Armament||4.7 cm PaK(t)|
|Elevation||-8° to +10°|
|Armor||Hull 6 to 13 mm, Upper armored superstructure 14.5 mm|
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