Panzerkampfwagen I
translation
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 PANZER I

Light Tank - Germany.
About 1493 built 1934-37.

The first Panzer

The very first of a long line, the only other serie model was then the sluggish massive Grösstraktor (Neubaufahrzeug), both beeing preceded by other experiments. This story began in 1919, when the treaty of Versailles severely reduced the habilities of the German Army to rebuilt a potent force. Total amount of soldiers were such that only a police and defensive token force could be mustered. However many officers saw these limitations as a potential to built a new, small but well-equipped and very well trained, professional army. Germany was forbidden any kind of Tank, despite the fact that with a very few of them built in 1917-18 never had the power to change anything on the last stages of the great war, the potential threat of this new weapon was however well-understood.
Between 1927 and 1932, MAN, Rheinmetall-Borsig, Krupp and Daimler Benz were charged by the Reichswehr to built and test prototypes based on (and named after) tractors. There were classed into two categories, the light ones (10-12 tons) and medium (up to 23 tons), the very first beeing tested in Kazan, USSR to avoid western reports. The light tanks were derivative of the great war (1918-19) prototypes Leichte Kampfwagen I and II, but the real forerunners were built by Rheinmetall-Borsig and Krupp, respectively, all ended with several prototypes and the most succesful one, the Leichte Traktor (LT)- Versuchskonstruktion 31 or Lt VK-31, which bears a strong resemblance to the Vickers Medium tank Mk.I. But besides these experiments, rather disappointing, Gen. Oswald Lutz and his chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel Heinz Guderian, saw a better use of a fast, lightly armored tank to fit their own conceptions of mobile warfare, but also heavier tanks for spearheading and breakthough, or battling against fortifications. Only the lightest ones could match the industrial capabilities of Germany in 1930, and better suited to prepare the industry for mass-production, and to train future tank officers. Until the first beeing delivered, training was done with cars disguised as cardboard tanks. Such was the challenge behind the genesis of the Panzer I.

General conception

Officially called the Sdfkz101 (special-purpose vehicle 101), based on the Landwirtschaftlicher Schlepper (agriculture tractor), becoming after many modifications and careful studies of the British tankettes, the Landswerk Krupp A. This was a casemate tankette with a thick frontal glacis and two obsolete Mg13 Dreyse machine guns, which was changed by a turret after modifications in the plants of Daimler-Benz, Henschel, Krupp, MAN, and Rheinmetall. Of course the 1933 elections and the will of Hitler to built panzerdivisions as quickly as possible, smoothed many angles which rose between the manufacturers and the army requirements. In 1934, after extensive pre-production trials, production began of the LKA, then 1938 called Panzerkampfwagen I Ausfährung A. (Ausf A) for the first batch. The first fifteen were delivered without turrets, for training purpose only, and later the real mass-production of the proper military model began.

The Ausf A

This first model came into production from late 1934 to early 1936. Around 800 were built, which had several limitations : The armor was weak, beeing only 13 mm at the frontal thickest part, there were problems with the early suspension, with pitching tendencies at great velocities, and concerns about the propulsion, overheating, not to mention the two man crew, the commander beeing also gunner and loader of the two machine guns, and communication through old-fashion vocal tubes. With its two machine gun, light armor and speed, these machines were nothing more than training and scout tanks. Despite for this, most of them, along with the improved Ausf B, fought in regular panzerdivisions until late 1941.

Ausf B and variants

The Ausf B was an improved version of the first model, which appeared in 1936 and was built instead, until 1938, with around 675 machines. The main difference was a longer chassis (40 cm) with two more bogie wheels to accomodate a much reliable and powerful water-cooled, six-cylinder Maybach NL 38 TR delivering 90 bhp with a new gearbox. The suspensions ware also largely improved. The weight raised at 5.8 tons, but neither the armament of armor were to be modified. During the war, the "main" version of the Panzer I was to be the Ausf A. Soon, both Ausf A and B served as basis for sub-versions and adaptations, including the most prolific (200 were built) kleiner Panzerbefehlswagen, or light command tanks, with their turret replaced by a larger superstructure. Also in 1940, some Panzer I Ausf B were rearmed with a Czech 47 mm gun, giving the Panzerjäger I tank hunter, and the very heavy artillery carrier SiG 33 "Bison" on Ausf B which was conceived to destroy fortifications with a summarily protected 150 mm howitzer. The resulting machine has a very high profile, no full crew protection and both chassis and propulsion were largely overloaded.

The "Mini-Tigers" Ausf C and F

It appeared soon that the Panzer I was obsolescent and as priorities were given to medium tanks, no light tanks was considered until 1939, when the Ausf C was built in limited numbers (40 serie and 6 prototypes) by Krauss-Maffei and Daimler-Benz. This version has only the name in common with previous versions. The hull, suspensions, track system, turret, propulsion, armor, and armament, were all new. The Ausf C was given a 30 mm armour, torsion-bar suspension, interleaved road wheels, and a 20 mm antitank gun. These "sister tanks" were put in combat mainly with LVIII Panzer Reserve Corps which fought in France in 1944. The Ausf D was never put in production, but the F was an even later model, which was built in thirty units only as a support tank, with a new 80 mm armor, revised turret with two Mg34s, propelled by a 150 horsepower (110 kW) Maybach HL45 Otto engine. With 18-21 tons, this was barely a light tank, only from the standards of 1942. They were all affected in the First Panzer Division and launched at Kursk in 1943, were most were destroyed.

The Panzer I in spain

When the civil war broke out in 1936, the two sides found themselves quickly supported by friendly countries which desired to test their equipment and tactics. For obvious ideological reasons, the Soviet Union quickly choosed to backup the Republican Front, and send waves of T-26, a Russian derivative of the Vickers 6-tons. On the other side, the Nationalist Forces, helped with african colonial troops, were supported by Germany and Italy. The latter send dozens of light CV33 tankettes, but Germany sent the only tank available then, approx. Forty-five Panzer I Ausf A, followed by Seventy-seven Ausf B arrived in spain until 1939, under overall command of Hugo Sperrle, some into the Gruppe Imker, the tank unit of the Condor Legion. But only the first two small units were under command of Wilhelm Ritter von Thomas (16 tanks, then 41 in all), operational in october 1936, the others were sent progressively until january 1939. The Spanish forces dubbed them "negrillos" due to their fark grey paint. Most were quickly painted in a new lighter scheme.

First engagement was the battle of Madrid were these forces clashed with Colonel Krivoshein tanks in october 1937, succeeding in destroying republican infantry forces, poorely supported, but hardly won in head-on attacks against the well-armed T-26, only at very short-range, equipped with armor-piercing bullets. Worse, the antitank armored cars BA-10 37 mm gun proved lethal for the lightly armored Panzer-I, and soon col.Ritter Von Thomas offered substantial reward for all captured T26 which could bolster his unit habilities.

These forces also fought at Jarama, Guadalajara, and the Vizcaya campaign in Basque country. But overall operations favoured mostly the Luftwaffe. In august 1937, General Garca Pallasar received a request from Franco, for improved Panzer-I in Spanish service, using the only antitank gun available then, the 20mm Breda model 1935. Only four were converted at the Armament Factory of Seville in september 1937, with several turret modifications. but further commands were suspended, due the large number of T26 available then. Another gun carrier equipped with a 45 mm AT gun was dropped off. Contrary to common opinion, no significant progresses were made in combined-arms tactics. The forces involved were too scarce and spread out to test with efficiency new tactical concepts.

From Poland to Russia.

Despite the fact that the Panzer I was conceived as a training Tank, it was available in large quantities, along with the Panzer II, when the invasion of Poland started. They were used in scouting and spearheading, also supporting infantry to deal with strongpoints. Each of the seven Panerdivision andthe four light Panzerdivisions counted 34 Panzer-I. On the total tank force 2700 tanks ready for use, only 310 were Panzer III and IV. Consequentely, only speed, surprise and close aviation support proved efficient, as the Poles managed to destroy and disabling 320 Panzer-I, a significant part of the invasion forces.

In Danemark and Norway, the Panzer I proved efficient due to the lack of good antitank weapons, and served also for infantry support and scouting. They were still largely available for the campaign of France. But there, they were no match against most of the French tanks, but only a handful of Vintage WW-I FT17, and 523 were engaged, one fifth of the entire armoured force. They proved however successful once again due their speed, radios and tactical use. In Africa, the first Panzer I were shipped in february 1941 at Tunis, as beeing part of the 5th Light Division and the 15th Panzer Division under Erwin Rommel command. Since half of his forces comprised Pz III and IV, the Panzer I were soon replaced bt Panzer IIs only. They also took part in the Balkan campaign (Yougoslavia and Greece in april-may 1941), and in july 1941, 410 Panzer I were still part of the three larges forces that attacked Soviet Union (Operation Babarossa). But after both encountering Russian T34 and KV1, and the Russian weather, it became obvious that the Panzer I was completely obsolete for this front and the last surviving units were converted or transferred in quieter front, motly for police duties, and training.

Spain retained 91 Panzer-I, still in service by 1954, were they were replaced by more potent M47s Patton. Ten Ausf A were sent to the Nationalist Forces in China, were they were part of the 3rd armoured bataillon at the battle of Nanjing in 1937. In 1942, Hungary received 14 Panzer I Ausf B and command versions, and were engaged in Ukraine. Other later versions (Ausf C, Ausf F, seen service until the end of 1944 in limited numbers, as well as special versions like the Panzerjäger I (since 1940) and the impressive SIG-33 Bison howitzer carrier. Some African Panzer I were converted as Flammenwerfer auf Panzerkampfwagen I Ausf A (flamethrowers), which fought at Tobruk, others as Munition carriers in Russia (Munitionsschlepper I Ausf A (Sd.Kfz.111) and some were chosen of this stock to convert them in AA batteries, like the top-heavy Flakpanzer I equipped with the 20mm Flak 38 L/112.5 gun. Untimately 24 were built and filled the 614th Flak Abteilung, fighting in Ukraine and at Stalingrad were most were lost. Ultimately, a hundred Ausf A were converted by 1940 in Ladungsleger I, explosive charge layers.

Links and resources about the Panzer I:

The Panzer I on Wikipedia.
A list of surviving examples today (pdf document)

Specs. SdKfz 101

Dimensions : 4,02 x 2,6 x 1,72 m (13.2 x 6.8 x 5.6 ft)
Total weight, battle ready : 5,4 Tonnes (6.0 short tons).
Crew : 2 (Driver/Commander-MG gunner
Propulsion : Krupp M 305 4-cyl air cooled, gasoline, 59 bhp
Speed (on/off road): 50/37 km/h (31/23 Mph)
Range (on/off road) : 200/175 km (120/109 mi)
Total production 1493
Panzer I in 1936
The first early production Panzer I Ausf A in 1936, with the original tri-tone camouflage.

PzKpfw-I Ausf A 1939
Panzer I Ausf A of the XVIIth Panzerdivision in Poland, september 1939.

Ausf A Afrika korps
One of the very first panzers landing with the Afrika Korps, in january 1941. It's a late production Ausf A from the XXIst Panzerdivision. Notice the uniform beige low quality paint, already attacked by sand, and the large identifications numbers still over the original European feldgrau tone.

Panzer I Ausf B
Panzerkampfwagen I in Spain, Nationalist forces, Legion Condor, "El Negrillo", june 1938.

Panzer I Ausf B
Panzer I Ausf B of the IIrd Panzerdivision, Belgium, may 1940.

Panzer I Ausf B
Panzerkampfwagen 1 Ausf B of the IIIth corps, IVth panzerdivision, Lillehammer, Norway, february 1940. Brown and feldgrau (usual cyan-grey livery) was common in operation in early 1940.

Panzer I Ausf C
Panzerkampfwagen 1 Ausf C of the LVIII Panzer Reserve Corps which fought in Normandy in 1944. With the help of the bocage and their high velocity gun, they gave good account of themselves. They were no photo evidence of a camouflage, all clues seems to point out that they were delivered with the usual Feldgrau paint.

Panzer I Ausf F
Panzerkampfwagen 1 Ausf F of the 1st Panzerdivision at Kursk, july 1943. Beeing four times as heavy as the Ausf A/B, they only share their name with the Panzer one tree family. This late attempt to produce a "light" infantry support tank was not followed and only thirty were built in all. Most of them were lost at Kursk, one is preserved at Kubinka museum, another in Belgrade.

Kleiner Panzerbefehlswagen
A kleiner Panzerbefehlswagen or light command tank. Based on Ausf B hulls, around 200 of these high profile, fast command tanks were built. They led Panzer I in Poland, France, the Balkans, Africa and Russia. The last were still in use in 1943 for urban police duties in many European cities.
Panzerjger-I
The Panzerjaeger-I based on the Ausf-B chassis was the earliest German tank-hunter.
siG-33
The sIG-33 "Bison" was probably the most overloaded platform ever to carry a howitzer.

Gallery

Panzer I Ausf A Panzer I Ausf F Panzerbefehlswagen I Panzer I Ausf A

Video


Panzer I/II documentary.
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