2010/10/10

Panzerbefehlswagen

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Armada International broke a bit its own mold and published an article about AFV command post vehicles instead of publishing the 100th light or medium AFV article.

(pages 8-11)

It's despite the title still mostly about semi-mobile command post vehicles instead of vehicles for leading from the place of the action itself.


This made me think about a typical German WW2 type of armoured vehicles again; Panzerbefehlswagen (~armoured command vehicles, command tanks).

German army doctrine from the inter-war years and to some degree also since the 50's had an unusual emphasis on leading from the front. Even generals were expected to be at times present at their Schwerpunkt in order to understand and to influence the events at the most important and thus most interesting location of their area of responsibility. This included all commanding officers and was a major contributor for the extraordinarily high attrition among German generals (hundreds of general officers were KIA, a very unusual rate).

It was understood even before the publication of the armour branches' existence that this would require armoured command vehicles in the case of armoured formations and units. Company, battalion and regimental headquarters required such command vehicles.
The first examples were modified light (training) tanks such as the kleiner Panzerbefehlswagen (SdKfz 265).The armament was reduced to one machine gun, a larger superstructure replaced the turret to offer the necessary space for a decent radio set (FuG 2 and FuG 6). 184 were produced from 1935 to 1937 (plus six conversions):

Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-318-0083-29 / Rascheit / CC-BY-SA

This was a great boost for the ability to lead armoured formations and units, but the risks involved were too large. The vehicle stood out and was barely bulletproof.

Later command tanks were built as slightly modified normal tanks, either with mock gun or with normal gun. Armour leaders were then capable of staying in touch with superior HQ and neighbouring unit's HQs via radio (FuG) while staying in touch with their own tanks at all times. Most Panzerbefehlswagen were based on the PzKpfw III tank: A dummy gun replaced the cannon in  order to mimic the appearance of normal tanks for survivability, but they still stood out because of large antennas.

Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf. D (SdKfz 267, 268); 30 produced June 1938 to March 1939 (FuG 6 + FuG 7 or 8)

Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf. E (SdKfz 266-268); 45 produced from July 1939 to February 1940 (FuG 6 + FuG 2, 7 or 8)


Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf. H (SdKfz 266-268), 145 produced from November 1940 to September 1941 and 30 from December 1941 to January 1942 (FuG 6 + FuG 2, 7 or 8)



These proved to be notoriously short in supply, especially as they had also great potential as artillery observation vehicles.

Leaders were not meant to fight, but to command. Nevertheless, a real cannon instead of merely a machine gun was still desired (even if for no other reason than self-protection). The next model offered this:

Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf J (SdKfz 141); 81 produced from August 1942 to November 1942 (FuG 5 and FuG 7 or 8, 5 cm KwK L/42)

The compromising large-frame antenna was finally replaced by a less conspicuous star antenna (see photo):


Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf M (SdKfz 50) produced from December 1942 to February 1943 (FuG 5 and FuG 7 or 8, 5 cm Kwk L/60).

The PzKpfw III series proved unable to mount powerful (long barrel, high velocity grenades) 75 mm guns and did therefore lose relevance in late 1942 in favour of the Pzkpfw IV which was able to mount 75 mm L/43 and L/48 guns. Panzerbefehlswagen III began to stand out among Pzkpfw IV tanks in 1943, and a Pzkpfw IV-based command tank had to be introduced:


Panzerbefehlswagen IV; 97 converted from normal tanks from March 1944 to September 1944 (FuG 5 and FuG 7 or 8, 7,5 cm Kwk L/48). A similar quantity of almost identical tanks was converted as forward artillery observation tanks.


Finally, even Pzkpfw IV became secondary to Pzkpfw V (Panther), and a Panther-based command tank was built:

Panzerbefehlswagen Panther (SdKfz 171); 329 converted from normal tanks from May 1943 to February 1945 (FuG 5 and FuG 7 or 8). (Most Panther command tanks were model A Panthers).


The extra equipment of such specialized command tanks varied between variants: Long-range radios, space for a map (thanks to often no cannon), additional vision slits, stereoscopic periscopes, gyrocompass (important for movements under low visibility conditions).

Planned command versions of heavy tanks had a reduced ammunition load and were afaik not built.

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Division to army commanders usually preferred faster vehicles, such as half-tracks.  They didn't move as close into the action as battalion and regiment commanders and didn't require the same level of protection (and they were able to take over a subordinate's command tank anyway). Rommel's "Greif" is a famous example of a command (radio) half-track:

SdKfz 250/3 leichter Funkpanzerwagen (FuG 8)


Another example is the half-tracked SdKfz 251/3 mittlerer Funkpanzerwagen (various radios were  used). This famous photo shows Guderian in 1940 during the Western campaign; an Enigma electro-mechanical encryption/decryption machine is visible.


Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Bild 101I-769-0229-11A
Armoured reconnaissance units had radio vehicles as well; both examples without armour (which were common in the whole army) and such which were based on 6wd or 8wd armoured reconnaissance vehicles (Panzerfunkwagen).

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The improvement of standard radio ranges was probably the reason why such specialist vehicles fell out of favour until recently. The category of semi-mobile command post vehicles prospered during the Cold War. The aforementioned Armada International article mentions the ubiquitous M577.



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The importance of leadership can easily be underestimated when armoured warfare enters a discussion. Armour strength, firepower, thermal sights, speed, weight and other superficial technicalities can easily dominate the often more important questions of leadership, fuel consumption, reliability and ease of maintenance. The historical Panzerbefehlswagen are a good reminder.


The approach of having a senior armoured force leader at his Schwerpunkt in an inconspicuous tank, able to make quick decisions and directly supported only by a tiny fraction of his staff, enabled a very agile style of command. The direct involvement (not always, but sometimes) in the most relevant battlefield section replaced the slow information gathering, processing and communicating by a staff and the quick decisions were turned into quick orders, short-circuiting both staff and the chain of command.
Junior leaders which usually operate without a large staff anyway (battalion commanders) gained the additional benefit of a better equipment for their job (mostly the superior radio) and became thus more effective as well.


It was always interesting for me to see how this concept which evolved years before WW2 from German peacetime army doctrine and which proved itself in wartime had no close parallel in any other army of its time (at least none known to me).The idea is worth to be remembered and appears to have modern descendants on basis of 8x8 APC and tracked IFV models.


Sven Ortmann

source: I didn't remember these vehicle types myself, so there was obviously a source. I chose the Encyclopedia of German Tanks of World War Two. Minor errors - especially concerning designations - are possible, as the book has some translation errors.

edit: About the radios

FuG 5 - 10 Watt, 2 km range (transmit), Standard tank radio set
FuG 6 - 20 Watt, 6 km range (transmit)
FuG 7 - 20 Watt, 50 km range, ground-to-air set
FuG 8 - 30 Watt, 10 km range, main divisional link set

edit 2:
A bit less careful data about the FuG 8: Maximum range was 65 km. 
There were also - at least for Panthers - conversion kits for the conversion of normal tanks into command tanks. This included a reduced ammunition load in the case of the Panther (79 to 64). A consequence of these kits is obviously that there may have been much more command tanks than were produced at factories. It's also imaginable that mechanics removed the extra equipment from knocked out command tanks for installation into normal tanks.

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