Gun stabilization and overengineering in WW2 tanks


It's conventional wisdom that German tanks of the Second World War - especially late ones - were overengineered and too complex. Let me set that record straight a bit.

The stabilization demonstrated in the GIF file above goes back to gun stabilization technology from the 30's. The naval Hazemeyer mount for light anti-air artillery was but one example. Main gun stabilization in tanks was another example and probably the epitome of tank sophistication during WW2.
Did Germany use this kind of high tech (with its then still dubious tactical value)? Not that I'm aware of. The U.S.Army on the other hand chose it for its tanks even before it joined the fray (Stuart light tank, from mid 1941, Westinghouse vertical gyrostabilizer*).

For comparison; many late war German Mark IV tanks (SdKfz 161/2, Pz Kpfw IV J series) even had their electric turret traverse deleted - the crews were back to traversing the turret with hand wheels as if it was the early 1930's again.**

The Panther (SdKfz 171, Pz Kpfw V) was much more expensive at some overrengineered 43 metric tons than the 25 ton Mark IV, right? Well, the prices without radio (same) or gun (different price) were actually 120,000 and 110,000 RM respectively (Tiger: 260,000)***. The tactical value of a Panther was on average certainly twice the value of a Mark IV except when lines of sight were very short.
The reason for this difference is that some advanced production techniques were used on the actually somewhat simplified Panther design (this was also part of the reason why it never fully replaced the Mark IV in production).

The more simple Soviet tanks were much more reliable than the overengineered Panther or Tiger, right? Well, the T-34 was actually highly unreliable (this should be old news) and Soviet armoured formations were undersupplied with spare parts (because planning was obsessed about output of complete tanks). Many if not most losses of broken-down tanks were due to the nature of operational withdrawal, which makes recovery even of light broken down tanks unlikely. The Wehrmacht was mostly withdrawing during late WW2, so vehicle breakdowns was a huge problem then, while the Soviets had the very same huge problem in 1941-1942.

Were there poorly devised tanks in the Wehrmacht by '44? Sure, and standardisation was lacking. The worst designs weren't put into true quantity production though and the heavies actually dealt a lot of damage, largely 'justifying' their price and thirst.
The core problem of German wartime tank production was never overengineering. The core of its problems was that production was scattered among a dozen or so companies because of politics (the tycoons were still in bed with Nazis and thus mostly able to maintain their special interests even during total war). Standardisation of production and focus on quantity was difficult with production scattered so badly. Truck and car production were plagued even more by this, as every factory seemed to have its own designs ordered.

This all isn't meant to save anyone's face or similar, but to counter the observed tendency to draw conclusions from what's actually WW2 mythology. The Wehrmacht won battles with inferior tanks and later lost battles while having superior tanks. The lesson should be that battle outcomes depend on much more than the hardware that military fanbois obsess about, not that preferring sophistication over simplicity is a recipe for disaster in general.
Fun part follows:

some more
The approach has recently been applied to spoons in order to help Parkinson's patients. Also, Skyhook.


*: "British and American Tanks of World War Two", Chamberlain/Ellis, 1969
**: "Encyclopedia of German Tanks of World War Two", Chamberlain/Doyle, 1978/1999
***: "Kraftfahrzeuge und Panzer der Reichswehr Wehrmacht und Bundeswehr", Oswald, 1970

edit: related
edit 2015-11: Another blog's post about the gun stabilisation in U.S.Army tanks during WW2 


  1. The contractor system Nazis used seems to have made a comeback in Europe and US, in all filed of life.
    With similar economic results. Quite lousy.
    Adolf was an extreme neo liberal. In his economic policy.
    Back to the military.
    The interest of the contractors and of the state do not always coincide ( never coincide in fact). That explains in large part why the huge resource base of United Europe - Nazi one - managed to support a smaller military then the Russian federation - part of it - plus the Central Asian Republics.
    It was very hard to visualize such a development until now when we can see how the contractor system manages to bankrupt the US while the military gets smaller.

    Your assessment about tanks is as usual great. The myths will remain though.
    SU won at a strategic level. Just like in the first part of the war Germany did.
    This is something people have great difficulty understanding.
    Comparing armor thickness is easy to understand. Who's got the biggest gun and the thickest armor? Who produces the largest kaboom? Boys like this type of analysis.
    I think this approach is similar with an attempt to compare the cataphracts with the Mongol mounted archers.
    Interesting comparison but useless.


  2. A simple cost of a tank in RM/Ru/USD doesn't tell the whole story. How many man-hours were required for production? What was the required skill level of the workers? Were scarce materials used? All of this still falls under engineering.


    1. German post-1941 designs had almost inevitably less scarce raw materials used than earlier ones.
      Man-hours and skill level combined yields RM costs. After all, welding had been well-established by '43 and welders weren't a bottleneck any more.

      Reichsmark are -with some degree of fuzziness because costs varied between factories and over time - the best available indicators for relative costs of production for comparisons of similar items.
      A cost comparison in RM between a Mark IV and Mark V tank is meaningful, while cost comparisons between a fighter and a tank would make less sense due to very different inputs.

    2. Actually, the Panther's man-power costs were reduced largely due to creative accounting via Nazi price controls. It wasn't less complex to build than the Mk IV. It actually required nearly 50,000 man-hours to build each one; or the same amount of man-hours needed to build a four-enginer B24 Liberator bomber.

      You also have it backwards regarding spares. It was the Germans which decided to use up all spare parts and convert them into tanks in 1942, due to the heavy losses suffered around Moscow (which is mostly understated in most Internet sites and history books because the Germans only counted irrecoverable losses; not operational losses). Soviet supplies of spares were not as plentiful as the US/British forces, but they were sufficient and not suffering from the ridiculous shortages the Germans were facing (one of the starkest examples: For every ten Tiger tanks, there was only ONE spare engine and transmission).

    3. Costs are difficult to compare, granted - I don't consider "creative accounting" as the culprit here, but rather the "creative" labour economics which were applied.
      I did not claim that it was "less complex to build" than the IV; I actually gave the published prices for both (including source) and the show that the Panther was (merely) a bit more expensive.
      It's ridiculous to compare tank and aircraft assembly hours; the work share of the suppliers is a completely different story. A tanks such as Panther was RM-wise in the league of a single engine fighter, far away from a heavy bomber.

      I don't have anything backwards on spares. For starters, I didn't claim that the German spares situation was any better and second, you simply seem to lack knowledge about how bad the Soviet spare parts supply situation was.

  3. SO wrote: "The core of its problems was that production was scattered among a dozen or so companies because of politics (the tycoons were still in bed with Nazis and thus mostly able to maintain their special interests even during total war). Standardisation of production and focus on quantity was difficult with production scattered so badly."

    This is (only) a problem as long as each company build the complete tank. The US armory/arsenal approach was to let companies only build components which were then put together in a central facility.


    1. The problem was to get drag them into a production program for something they didn't develop themselves. Look how long it took to get Mercedes-Benz to produce the superior Opel Blitz trucks - and then they produced only very few.

      A centralised assembly and specialized parts production would have been disastrous in face of strategic air attacks anyway.

  4. The air attack argument is quite good, the first one not: to produce only a few parts instead of a complete tank or aircraft is less demanding.

    It is always a problem of total war that many companies have to produce stuff that is not part of their peace time expertise.


    1. It was honestly less about about bad management, but fundamental weaknesses in the German economy (read Tooze's "Wages of Destruction for the full story).

      Essentially, the problem with Germany is that the mere idea that it was a technological powerhouse (at least in terms of aircraft and tanks) was always illusory. Germany was an industrial powerhouse, but its most competitive products were actually in the field of chemistry (IG Farben) and metallurgy; not automobiles or aircraft. Worse, the German economy of 1936 was more closely aligned with modern-day Japan - with a massive reliance on imports, which were almost entirely cut short due to the pariah status of the Nazi state (due to refusal to pay reparations, anti-Jewish laws, militaristic moves, etc).

      Rationalizing everything into massive US-style industrial complexes was simply not feasible, despite the draconian controls the Nazis imposed on the economy, simply because there were not enough inputs in the form of raw materials to support such massive factories. This was why the bulk of pre-war investments actually revolved around the expansion of raw material production, most famously with the synthetic fuel plants (to be followed by synthetic rubber plants). Even worse for the tank industry, what was left mainly went to expanding Luftwaffe fighter production, and it was these investments that resulted in the surge in aircraft production by 1943/44.

      The idea of superior German engineering is frankly a post-war invention. German cars were never seen as world-beaters until the 1970s, when Volkswagen (which wasn't a big player during WW2) started selling its more affordable but well-performing cars (to the point it's the second largest auto maket in the world). That said, even that it mostly just marketing - according to most US consumer reports Toyota actually has far more reliable vehicles.

    2. It wasn't only chemistry and metallurgy, but also electrical industry (Siemens) and to some degree engines manufacturing (almost all internal combustion engine concepts stem from Germans and direct fuel injection didn't come out of nowhere in the late 1930's either).

      The automotive market was still excessively fragmented (and the Nazis supported this by distributing army vehicle purchases among existing truck companies) and the aviation industry had been badly constrained by the Versailles treaty (Junkers and Heinkel still had decent to great aircraft by the early 30's).

  5. In many ways the German problem is actually the opposite of overengineering. German engineering is often more hype and marketing than reality. The engineering problem was that the Germans couldn't make reliable transmissions and final drives that could handle the weight of their tanks and the power output of the engines they wanted to use to power them. An illustrative example of these engineering issues is that America had a 2000 HP radial aero engine before the war even started in Europe, while Germany spent the entire war trying to produce an engine that powerful and continually failing. I've heard a big part of that problem is that making a crankshaft strong enough to take the strain proved to be a daunting challenge, but I'm not engineer. Part of this is due to shortages of strategic minerals. They could buy iron from the Swedes but didn't have enough of the other stuff like Tungsten and Molybdenum...and especially Tungsten. Did I mention Tungsten? Remember the 1 year delay in getting jets into production that is generally blamed on Hitler waffling about what to do with them? As much as I love blaming Hitler for things, that wasn't actually his fault for once. The prototype jet engines that were originally developed used refractory alloys, especially Tungsten. Tungsten was in such short supply that to put jet engines into production required re-engineering them to use simple steel at the cost of burning up after just a few hours of operation. I also find it interesting that the main reason squeeze-bore guns weren't used was that they threw a projectile so fast that anything made of steel would shatter on impact (basically anything over about 1000m/s) and there wasn't enough Tungsten to make advanced penetrators for them. But that's a digression. Noting that Japan had plenty of Tungsten if the Nazis had seen the value of sea lanes and of working with brown people and “untermenschen” invites an even bigger digression.

    The problem German tanks had was insufficient engineering, not too much of it. Another example of the compromises insufficiently sophisticated alloys forced was that the torson bars on the Panther tank couldn't be made springy enough with the available alloys so they had to double back across the tank. It isn't just automotive components being insufficiently robust. Consider that after almost freezing the design of the T-34 for most of the war (only enlarging the turret to take a bigger gun and permit a dedicated tank commander) the next generation of tanks the Soviets created in the last months of the war was the T-44-100 which was basically a crude T-54. It had armor thicker than the Tiger 2, a 100mm gun that penetrated armor at least as well as the Panther's gun while throwing a much larger HE shell (there is a lot of debate about penetration tests of Soviet guns...), with a diesel engine a bit more powerful than the T-34's on a tank over 5 tons lighter than the Panther and only 2/3 the weight of the Tiger II. Tank generations in the WWII era were 1.5 years, so one could see the T-44-100 as almost exactly one tank generation more advanced than the Tiger II, in which case the dramatically better design would make sense. On the other hand because the Soviets had skipped a generation by only upgrading the T-34 instead of starting a new tank series mid-war as the Germans, Americans, and British did, perhaps it is just a late example of the same generation of tanks that the Tiger II is part of, and the Soviet engineers were still as far ahead of their contemporaries at the end of the war as they had been in 1941.

  6. A response to the comments, Germany couldn't rationalize their production because they were fascist. That sounds trite but as Hitler himself said, fascism is about putting power in the hands of strong individual leaders. The consequence of that is that those individual leaders resist the loss of autonomy that is required by the rationalization process that America undertook. Germany didn't have nearly as much problem with this as Japan where R&D and production were even more decentralized and as an example much of the research into radar got sidetracked by efforts to create microwave directed energy weapons.

    Oh, and sorry about the necromacy, but I couldn't resist.