Deutschland Jahre Null
Germany emerged from the war in the summer of 1945 as a broken and devastated country. “Deutschland Jahre Null” as written and photographed on a ruined vestige of a wall and recalled by Rosselini’s 1949 eponym movie. A country in disarray, military occupied by foreign nations, with an ongoing hunt towards Nazis on the run.
The fate of Germany was kept in balance between USSR and the western allies, and the question of rearming its demobilized forces was raised as tensions rose on the Berlin question and occupation zones by some American and British officers alike, fearing the communist takeover of Europe. As these tensions crystallized with the blocus of Berlin, the question was raised once more, and eventually led to the cold war as we know it. From now on, Germany would became for NATO and the Warsaw Pact alike the object of most scenarios of a “hot” war between the two giants, a virtual battleground where most forces were deployed and multiplied excercizes.
NATO’s 1950s manoeuvers in West Germany (British Pathé Archives)
A country split in two
The split between the GDR (German Democratic Republic) and FRG (Federal Republic of Germany) in 1949 was in some ways, inevitable, as only a war could have persuaded Stalin to leave East Germany, but the price paid in blood for the territory made some legitimation of this occupation. As Churchill stated with his famous “iron curtain” the creation in Berlin of a wall in 1961 symbolized in itself the very nature of the tensions and drama that unfold in Germany. A people divided -by force- for 43 years.
Berlin 1961: US and Soviet tanks facing off at Check Point Charlie
Two countries antagonized by the very fracture that divided two sphere of influence and visions of the world. And on the borders were massed untold numbers of divisions, of infantry, tanks. Military airbases and garrisons dotted the landscape, ready to get on one another’s throat in the shortest notice.
Thought frightening, it was only the conventional aspect of this cold war. Over everybody in Germany loomed the dark spectre of nuclear annihilation, targeted precisely on these allied German bases. So Germany was in the very heart of the cold war, and Berlin the symbol-city of it all. In the years following the raising of the wall, entire families were divided and two countries gradually emerged, with vastly diverging way of living and cultures.
M60 Patton on the streets of a West German village, NATO exercize Reforger ’82
West Germany and NATO
Soon after the signature of the treaty that led to NATO, the question of West Germany incorporated inside it was raised again. Prior to that era, the rearmament of Germany was perceived as a threat both by the Soviet Union and French Gaullists and communists. However after the 1949 split, both sides were to be rearmed as it was seen the most logical choice. After all, German engineers were known to be possibly among the best in the world, and the German army although badly led on top, proved to be a formidable fighting force.
The baby-boom also was to provide the manpower for a new, defensive army, deeply embedded in strong constitutional and democratic principles, eradicating the old specter of German militarism.
It was also seen as a practical way to gradually reduce the military presence of the allies (and the financial burden associated) on the territory, although local authorities alleged the financial benefits of such presence in their area.
Konrad Adenauer also led his country resolutely on the western side rather than seeking any form of neutrality. So West Germany joined NATO on 9 May 1955 and soon the Bundeswehr was born.
The creation on November, 12, 1955 of the Bundeswehr was accompanied by a split between the ground forces (Heer), the Luftwaffe and Bundesmarine, but also the Streitkräftebasis (Joint Support Service) and the Joint Medical Service or Zentraler Sanitätsdienst. The symbol associated was the old Maltese cross, partly associated with the past Teutonic Knights and Prussian nobility, rather than the straight Balkan cross, for obvious reasons. Needless to say the swastika was banned from any display in any forms or shapes.
This army was equipped predominantly American equipment, soon partly produced locally under licence. To start with, the Bundeswehr were equipped with American tanks such as the M41 Walker-Bulldog light tank and the M47 Patton medium tank.
These formed the basis of most of West Germany’s panzer divisions. These would be followed by the M48 Patton. Soon, West Germany had both the experience, the will and the industrial basis to design and produce a new, indigenous tank. It was decided to pursue the development of the “Europanzer” in the 1950s, together with France and later joined by Italy. The M48, however, would go through numerous upgrade programs in the Bundeswehr, ultimately culminating in the M48A2GA2, and was not removed from service until the early 1990s.
German M47 Patton now on display at the Dresden museum
The “Europanzer” project
The European Standard Tank was at first a joint Germans/French project started in 1955 to replaced their American models and fit more precisely their collective requirements. The whole program was dubbed the Europanzer (but was later called the “Standard panzer”) and the design emphasised mobility and firepower as both countries estimated that modern rounds rendered heavy RHA armour useless. Superior range and accuracy combined with a better speed and manoeuvrability were to compensate for a lack of protection.
In June and July 1957 both Germany and France gave their the final requirements to the companies involved in the project. Officially Italy joined the project in September 1958 and contracts were signed for the production of 2 groups of German prototypes and a single French prototype. The latter began testing at Satory in march 1961, followed by the German prototypes in Meppen.
In 1963 the French prototype was evaluated in Germany. These were refined in 1963 as the Standard-Panzer and the AMX-30 when both countries eventually decided to built their own tanks due to too much specification divergences and other considerations. The Standard-Panzer became the blueprint for the following prototypes of the Leopard in 1964.
Porsche version of the Europanzer (A group), which differed from the French one by a commander’s rangefinder.(credits:www.jedsite)
The Leopard: The European Feline
Being an the forefront of tank design during ww2, the world saw with great attention a brand new model, especially if it renewed with the “feline” tradition of its ancestors. The name reflected agility, speed and ferocity, and also proved a marketing success.
It was tested virtually by all European nations previously equipped with American tanks, and purchased in droves, as well as former UK supplied countries like Canada and Australia. The United States themselves evaluated the vehicle in Germany, which left such an impression that in 1965, the Army decided to embark on their first joint German-American tank project ever, better known as the MBT-70.
The Leopard was armed with the standard (licence-built by Rheinmetall) 105 mm L7 main gun and featured an excellent mobility with an advanced suspension system. Protection was constantly improved in the 1970s and 1980s, until the release of the Leopard 1A5, the last version, and was one of NATO’s most prolific tank.
At that time the new standard gun was to be inspired the 120 mm L11 manufactured by the Royal Ordnance Factory and also purchased for licence production by Rheinmetall.
The second prototype of the Leopard, now preserved at the Munster Museum.
American made tanks such as this M41 Walker-Bulldog (entering service in Germany in 1955, the first tank to be adopted by the Bundeswehr, top) and M48 Patton III (also entered service in the mid-1950s, only retired in the early-1990s, bottom) formed the backbone of the Bundeswehr’s armoured units after the Second World War until West Germany began producing its own tanks. The M47 Patton II was also used by the Bundeswehr.
Entering service in 1965, the Leopard 1 is one of the most famous tanks to come out of the Cold War. Thinly armoured but highly mobile, and armed with the powerful 105mm L7 gun, the tank was extremely successful. It was used by multiple countries around the world, such as Canada, Australia, Belgium and Turkey. Turkey is one of the many countries that still operates the Leopard 1. The vehicle has also spawned a number of variants, including anti-air and recovery vehicles.
One of the most successful derivatives of the Leopard 1 was the Flakpanzer Gepard. Entering service in the mid-1970s, the Gepard was equipped with two 35 mm Oerlikon KDA auto-cannons with radar assisted target acquisition. The Vehicle was used by multiple countries including The Netherlands and Belgium. This Self Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun (SPAAG) was only removed from German service in 2010, but remains active in countries such as Brazil.
The Leopard 2, like its predecessor, is one of the most successful tanks of its era. This Main Battle Tank (MBT) entered service in 1979. It is armed with the 120 mm Rheinmetall L/55 smooth bore gun, and is equipped with composite armor of high-hardness steel, tungsten, plastic filler and ceramics. Like the Leopard 1, the 2 is used by various militaries across the globe.
The Spähpanzer RU 251 was a proposed design for a light tank. It used shared the same chassis as the Kanonenjagdpanzer 90 and Raketenjagdpanzer. It also used the same 90mm main gun as the Jagdpanzer. It was only ever a prototype, however.
The Leopard 2: An enduring legacy
The long development of the joint MBT-70 project, revealed itself to be a failure, with the separation of both armies. Too diverging specifications on the long run and the associated costs led the Bundestag to refuse to fund the project anymore in 1969 (it reached 1.1 billion DM), but data was reused for the Keiler, code name for the future Leopard 2.
The latter reused many of the advanced technologies featured by the prototypes series, married with as many parts of the actual Leopard 1 to bring the costs down. Eventually, the Leopard 2 entered service in 1979, just one year after the M1 Abrams, also born from the MBT-70.
In all, throughout all versions manufactured and exports, 3480 were built. The Leopard is recognised today as one of the very best MBT in the world, often rated #1 by military experts. Despite being thirty-six years old, it was proved modular enough to evolve with the latest technologies, and like the Abrams, is not scheduled for a replacement anytime soon.
German M48A2C Patton in German Service, preserved.
The upgraded Leopard 1A5, an export success (here in Italian service).
The Bergepanzer II ARV, based on the Leopard I chassis.
Cold War Tanks
- Solothurn S 18-1000
- Morris ‘Koekblikje’ Armored Car
- Rayos and Ninas in El Salvadoran Service
- Frot-Turmel-Laffly Armoured Road Roller
- Sturmpanzerwagen A7V 506 ‘Mephisto’
- Williams’ Amphibious Vehicle
- USMC Improvised M4A2 Flail Tank
- Panzer Sfl. Ic.
- 7.2in Multiple Rocket Launcher M17 ‘Whiz Bang’
- Lamborghini Cheetah HMMWV Prototype