The main German light tank of WW2
Both the Panzer I and II were considered as stopgaps before the arrival of more advanced models, namely the Panzer III and IV. Despite of this, the Panzer II remained in service throughout the war, being the main light tank in German service and being used as a scout, although many wheeled vehicles preformed this specialized task far better. In this particular role, the Panzer II lacked both speed and range. It was gradually improved and produced until 1943, as no satisfactory replacement was ready in time.
The origins of this model date back to 1934, when it became apparent to the Waffenamt (military ordnance bureau) that delays in the production of the Panzer III and IV led to the need of a new design to quickly replace the Panzer I. The specifications required a 10 ton tank with a 20 mm (0.79 in) autocannon. Krupp, AG, Daimler-Benz, MAN, Henschel, Sohn AG were contacted, and submitted their designs to the Waffenamt in 1935. The Krupp design was rejected, and a marriage of the Daimer-Benz hull and MAN chassis was chosen instead. This led to ten prototypes during late 1935, initially named LaS 100. Production was approved the same year.
Panzer II general features
Basically, the accepted design was an enlarged Panzer I with a turret bearing the new Rheinmetall KwK30 L55 20 mm (0.79 in) quick firing gun. The armament was derived from the 2 cm FlaK 30 anti-aircraft gun, capable of a firing rate of 600 rpm. The purpose of such a gun was to have good armor-piercing capabilities, due to its high velocity and high rate of fire, being especially effective at short range against most light and medium tanks of the time. The KwK 30 was aimed through a TZF4 gun sight. Normal provision was 180 rounds (armor-piercing and high explosive) and 2250 for the coaxial 7.92 mm (0.31 in) Rheinmetall-Borsig model 34 machine-gun. Elevation/depression for the gun mount was +20/-9.5°. As the Spanish Civil War showed, a dramatic increase in armor was urgently needed, and the first designs incorporated integral 14 mm (0.55 in) homogeneous steel armor (10 mm/0.39 in top and bottom), which was sufficient against shrapnel and bullets. However, it was not immune to many high velocity 37 mm (1.46 in) AT weapons of the time, or the French 25 and 47 mm (0.98-1.85 in) and Soviet 45 mm (1.77 in) towed antitank guns.
The engine of nearly the entire series was the gasoline 6-cylinder Maybach HL62 TRM providing 140 hp, coupled with a ZF transmission with 6 gears plus reverse. It was reliable, although it limited any major increases in armor and armament, due to significant losses both in speed and range. The first pre-series vehicles were fitted with small wheels sprung in pairs under three bogies, a system very similar to the Panzer I suspension. However, for reliability and mass production, a new system of five individually sprung, larger wheels was chosen. The upper part of the track was supported by three return rollers, increased to four on the production version. The crew-size of three was a progress over the Panzer I, but the commander was also the main gunner, sitting on the turret seat. The driver sat at the front of the vehicle. The loader/radio operator was situated on the floor under the turret, operating a FuG5 USW receiver and 10-watt transmitter. The radio gave a clear advantage to the Panzer II over previous models and foreign opponents.
Panzer II Ausf.a/b/c: The pre-series
Contrary to the Panzer I, which entered mass-production relatively quickly with the Ausf.A version, gradual development of the Panzer II by various constructors led to a “pre-series”. These “minor” versions are identified by their minuscule letters in the designation. 125 in all were built in 1936-37.
The Ausf.a (75 units) was sub-divided into three minor variants, featuring a cast idler wheel (then welded) with rubber tire, some engine improvements and then improved suspension and engine cooling. This version had a 130 hp Maybach HL 57 TR engine coupled with a ZF Aphon SSG45 6-speed gearbox. They were known also as the “short hulls”, but were under-protected, with just 13 mm (0.51 in) on the frontal glacis.
The Ausf.b (25 units) featured a reworked suspension, wider tracks, longer hull (now 4.76 m/15.6 ft), a Maybach HL62TR engine and corresponding new drivetrain. Turret armor was increased to 12 mm (0.47 in).
The Ausf.c version was the last pre-series, with a brand new suspension featuring five larger independently sprung road wheels and four return rollers. The length was further increased, to 4.81 m (15.78 in), and the width to 2.22 m (7.28 ft). The cost of these models decreased in time. A single Ausf.a was worth 52.640 RM, but an Ausf.c costed only 38.000 RM. Large-scale production versions were not cheaper. The Ausf.F from 1941 was 52.728 RM complete with its armament.
Main production models: Panzer I Ausf.A, B and C
These were the main production variants. The Ausf.A benefited from all previous improvements, with upgraded in armor, now 14.5 mm (0.57 in) on the sides and hull front, and minor improvements to the transmission. This version was produced from July to December 1937. The Ausf.B, which succeeded it, was almost unchanged except for minor aspects. They were visually identical and all parts were interchangeable. The Ausf.C appeared in June 1938, superseding the Ausf.B. Production rate was increased because more contractors joined in, namely Alkett, FAMO, MAN, Daimler-Benz, MIAG, Wegmann and Henschel. The early production vehicles can be visually distinguished from the later by their rounded front hull. The later were up-armored significantly, notably with extra plates bolted to the frontal glacis and turret. The last produced, during the war, even received additional, moderately sloped side armor plating. They also received the new KwK 38 gun. The Ausf.C was the main variant used throughout the war, produced until mid 1941. During 1939-40, it was also the most largely available tank for the Panzertruppen.
Ausf.F: Last version
Wartime experience quickly led to major improvements being implemented on the Panzer II, notably its armor. A new single-piece frontal 30 mm (1.18 in) glacis was installed, and the gun mantlet thickness was increased to 30 mm (1.18 in) as well, with 15 mm (0.59 in) on the sides and rear. A new commander cupola was also fitted, as well as the new KwK 38 20 mm (0.79 in) gun. Consequently, the weight rose to 9.5 tons, and the power-to-weight ratio fell to 14.7 hp/ton. From March 1941, 524 units of this version were built, until December 1942. This was the last major version, all others being redesigns that were more or less related to the Panzer II series, some sharing only the name. The Ausf.F was still a scout tank, with far better survivability than the previous models, but with some sacrifices in the speed department. The 20 mm (0.79 in) gun was tested successfully with the new tungsten core solid ammunition round, which greatly increased its antitank capabilities at short range. However, it was in limited supply.
Ausf.D and E: The redesigned scout tanks
In 1938, when both the Panzer III and IV came into production, the Waffenamt considered converting the existing production line to build true scout tanks, or Schnellkampfwagen. MAN designed the first prototype, based on the relatively unsuccessful FAMO/Christie suspension recently acquired from USA. At first, this new suspension gave excellent results, achieving 55 km/h (34 mph) instead of 40 (25 mph). Production commenced shortly after. They were completely redesigned, the turret being the only part shared with the Ausf.C. They received extra armor, up to 30 mm (1.18 in) on the frontal glacis and gun mantlet, a new Maybach HL62TRM engine and a new transmission, with Maybach Variorex VG 102128 7-speed gearbox. The only differences between the D and E were the tracks and wheels.
These fast reconnaissance tanks were given to cavalry units. Only 43 had been completed by MAN when their poor cross-country performances became obvious in Poland. The chassis were then converted into the Flamingo flame-thrower variant.
Panzer II Ausf.G,H,J and M heavy reconnaissance tanks
In April 1941, an ambitious program was poised to release 3500 Gefechtsaufklarungs (heavy reconnaissance tanks) along with 10,950 lighter reconnaissance models. This led to various prototypes, all built by MAN, part of a new breed of up-armored models (neue Art verstarkt) conceived between April 1941-August 1942. There were some upgunning attempts, first with captured French 37 mm (1.46 in) SA 38 guns, later with a German 50 mm (1.97 in) PaK 38 L/60 gun (on the VK 9.03b). The Ausf.H had a properly redesigned turret, new hull, engine, tracks and new interleaved wheeltrain, but a sole prototype was completed. The Ausf.G (three sub-variants) saw limited production, also by MAN (12 units). This version was armed with a 7.92 mm (0.31 in) EW-141 heavy machine gun. The Ausf.M was similar, but only 4 were completed when the entire project was cancelled in September 1942.
The Ausf.J was also a completely new tank, which bore no resemblance and shared no parts with previous models. It was a very wide, highly armored small support tank, with large tracks, the fruit of war experience in Russia. The first prototype, VK 16.01, was ready by March 1942. Only 22 were built by MAN between April and December. With armor raised to 50 mm (1.97 in) on the front, 30 mm (1.18 in) sides and the same engine, speed was limited to a mere 31 km/h (19 mph). The armament was unchanged, and gave this tank better hitting power than its sister-tank, the Panzer I Ausf.F. They joined the 12th Panzer Division and fought at Kursk, in Russia.
All these models had interleaved road wheels and large tracks. The most ambitious of all was the Leopard , which was to replace the Ausf.L “Luchs”. Also known as the VK 16.02, it was largely based on the Ausf.J, with an improved sloped hull which strongly resembled the Panther’s. Officially called the Leopard, weighing nearly 35 tons, it was more akin to a medium tank than a true reconnaissance model. But the whole project, too costly, was cancelled before the only prototype was completed, in late 1942.
Ausf.L “Luchs”: The ultimate scout tank
The VK 13.03 prototype was a Panzerspahwagen, studied by MAN and built afterwards by MAN and Henschel under the name of Panzerspahwagen II Ausf.L “Luchs” (Lynx) from September 1943 to January 1944 (104 units). The Sd.Kfz.123 was the final version of the Panzer II, largely based on previous models. It was up-armored and fitted with the interleaved wheels and new tracks developed for the semi-experimental Ausf.G. It also had a new, more powerful (180 bhp) Maybach HL66P engine, coupled with a ZF Aphon SSG48 gearbox, which gave this model excellent performance, achieving 60 km/h (37 mph) road and 42 km/h (26 mph) cross-country. The new rearranged hull was fitted with bigger fuel tanks. Range was increased to 290 km (180 mi). The hull superstructure, chassis, drivetrain, turret, were all modified. Armor was raised to 30 mm (1.18 in) on the sides and front. The weight soared to 11.8 tons.
The crew-size was now four. This meant the commander could focus on his own tasks, and he also had a newly designed cupola. The radio (FuG12 MW receiver and 80-watt transmitter) had a greater range and intercom was fitted. The gun was still the 20 mm (0.79 in) KwK 38 L55, but with 320 rounds, including many AP rounds. The secondary MG 34 was relocated in the hull. The Luchs fought until the end of the war, both on the Eastern and Western front, in Panzer-Aufklarungs-Abteilungen (armored reconnaissance units) affected to Wehrmacht and SS units.
Main variants: Marder, Wespe, Flamingo & Bison
Many Panzer II chassis, particularly those of early versions (Ausf.A to C) were used for special versions. And the production line, which stopped producing the Panzer II, kept churning chassis for the production of new variants.
The most famous derivative was this successful tank hunter, using captured Soviet 76 mm (3 in) AT guns (Sd.Kfz.132) or the regular German Pak 40 (Sd.Kfz.131). 744 of both versions were built or converted until 1944, and they served well until 1944.
The Wespe (Wasp) was a frontline self-propelled howitzer motor carriage, officially named “Leichte Feldhaubitze 18 auf Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen II”. 682 were built by Alkett from 1942 to 1943. They served with various Panzerartillerie Abteilungen on the Eastern front and North Africa, alongside heavier SPGs like the Hummel and Bison. Some were later converted as ammunition supply tanks (Munitions Selbstfahrlafette auf Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen II).
Also called Flamm-Panzer II, this was a derivative of the failed Ausf. D/E scout tanks. They were fitted with a brand new turret with a single MG 34 and a rearranged hull mounting two remotely controlled flamethrowers in small turrets, supplied with 320 liters of fuel and four tanks of compressed nitrogen. Armor was increased to 30 mm (1.18 in). 155 were converted until March 1942, and they mostly served on the Russian front.
Sturmpanzer II Bison
Another, heavily modified version officially named “15 cm sIG 33 auf Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen II (Sf)”. This was another attempt to self-carry the gargantuan 150 mm (5.9 in) sIG field howitzer. The Panzer I Ausf.B served as the first basis for such a conversion, but it was soon found to be overloaded. A new, lengthened and reinforced chassis with extra wheels was designed, based on a regular Panzer II Ausf. B chassis. This led to the final Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen II. However, only 12 were completed by December 1941, and sent to the Afrika Korps.
Wartime operations: The Panzer II in action
From 1936 to 1939, as the production gradually increased, the Panzer II were used for the drilling of the Panzertruppen. Many of the officers involved became unit commanders afterwards. Some seem to have been sent in Spain, for testing purposes with Panzer Abteilung 88 of Legion Condor, but this is unconfirmed. The first war operation came with the Czechoslovakian annexation, almost without a fight. More serious actions took place during the Polish campaign, in September 1939. The Panzer II was, at that time, the most numerous model in the Werhmacht, with 1223 units. War operations showed that, while it was efficient against most lightly protected tankettes, many were destroyed by the Polish infantry AT rifles and the modern 7TP light tanks. 83 in all were destroyed, including 32 at the battle of Warsaw. Soon enough, there were concerns that they should be withdrawn as frontline combat tanks. Others were sent in Norway, were they played their part without serious opposition from the Allies. The French had landed there two independent tanks battalions, 30 Hotchkiss H35/39s in all, but they never encountered any German tanks. At peak deployment, the Germans had 63 tanks in Norway, mostly including Panzer Is, IIs and only three heavy Neubaufahrzeug. Two Panzer IIs were lost to enemy AT guns.
At the start of the campaign of France, all available Panzer IIs (920) were gathered. The crews were concerned by their opponents’ armor and weaponry. However, the speed, range and flexibility of these light units, all equipped with radios, led to refined tactics, and these tanks were deployed in efficient screening-scouting duties. They performed well, despite heavy losses. In 1941, they took part in operation Marita (the Balkans campaign) and the invasion of Greece. Many were sent to the Afrika Korps, were their speed was seen as an advantage on this particular barren landscape. Variants of the Panzer II (the Wespe and Marder II) were also shipped to Africa. Some survived, despite losses and few replacements, until the Axis surrendered in Tunisia.
When the Russian invasion took place in the summer of 1941, 782 Panzer IIs were involved, now organised in scout units. But the lack of armor proved to be a serious issue. Many Ausf.Cs were up-armored and retrofitted with extra plates. The Ausf.F was a largely rebuilt variant with overall added protection. Ammunition was mixed with more and more AP shells, notably tungsten-core rounds. But most Russian tanks proved immune to them, and only some T-26s and various light tanks could be disabled at short range, by experienced crews. When they could, the Panzer II tankers avoided tank-to-tank combat. In 1942, most of the survivors were removed from the frontline, or given to allied nations, like the Slovaks and Bulgarians. Some were converted, others led to various unsuccessful prototype conversions. Notable among these are the recovery Bergenpanzer II and the Flak 38 version. Production turned towards the Wespe and Marder II. In 1943-44, only the Luchs was active, in limited numbers, alongside survivors of the previous campaigns (386 by October 1944). There are records of 145 Panzer II still active by March 1945.
Panzer II Ausf.C specifications
|Dimensions||4.81 x 2.22 x 1.99 m (15.78×7.28×6.53 ft)|
|Total weight, battle ready||8.9 tons|
|Armament||KwK 30/38 20 mm (0.79 in) auto-cannon
Coaxial MG 34 machine-gun
|Propulsion||Maybach 6-cyl petrol engine
HL62 TRM 140 PS, 138 hp (102 kW)
|Speed (on/off road)||40 km/h (25 mph)|
|Range (on/off road)||200 km (120 mi)|
The Sd.Kfz.121, also known at first as the VK 6.22, was a new stopgap tank design. Here is one of the pre-series Ausf.a3, with a longer hull and other improvements over the Ausf.a. They were involved in the large training exercises in 1937, then deployed during the Austrian and Czechoslovakian annexations. They fought in Poland, Norway and France, and then were phased out as training machines.
Here is an Ausf.b operating with the 36th Panzer Regiment, based at Putloss in Schelwig-Hosltein, part of the German expeditionary force, Operation Weserübung, March 1940. The following Ausf.c was the most accomplished version of the entire pre-series, with twenty-five being built. The mass-produced A, B and C versions were closely based on it.
The very first series Panzer II Ausf.A was largely based on the early Ausf.c. Production records for the Ausf.A are unknown. Here is one in the 15th Panzer Regiment, 5th Panzer Division, deployed in Norway, April 1940.
An Ausf.B during the campaign of France, belonging to the famous 1st Panzerdivision, part of Guderian’s XIXth corps, which made the breakthrough in the Ardennes, May 1940.
Panzer II Ausf.B Beobachtung (command tank), Russia, Group army center, April 1942.
An Afrika Korps Panzer II Ausf.C, attached to the famous XXI Panzerdivision. Along with the XVth Panzerdivision, these units were brilliantly led by Rommel from Libya to Egypt. These Panzer II Ausf.Cs were “tropicalized”. This included better ventilation slits for the crew and the engine, and extra fixations for storage of any kind (spare parts, water and gasoline jerrycans).
Ausf.C in Russia, operation Barbarossa, 7th Panzerdivision, July-August 1941.
An Ausf.C in plain white paint winter livery, Heeresgruppe Süd (Army group south, General Gerd Von Runstedt), 13th Panzer Division (Sixth army, IIIrd Panzer Corps) under General Fretter Pico’s command, Caucasus, December 1941.
Panzer II Ausf.F, XVth Panzerdivision, El Alamein, June 1942.
Panzer II Ausf.F, Xth Panzerdivision, Djedeida, Tunisia, December 1942. Camouflage patterns became commonplace in this new landscape.
Panzer II Ausf.F, unknown unit, Kharkov, 1943.
A Panzer II Ausf.D of an unknown unit, Poland, September 1939. The Ausf.D and E only differed by minor details in their drivetrain. This Christie-inspired transmission system proved so unsatisfactory off-road that the next Ausf.F reverted back to the standard Panzer II suspension.
The Panzer II(F), better known as Flamingo, official designation Sd.Kfz.122, was a conversion of existing Ausf.D/E into flame-thrower tanks. They were almost exclusively used on the Eastern front. Here is a Flamingo in white livery, at Stalingrad, December 1942.
The Panzer II Ausf.L or “Luchs” (Lynx), the most famous reconnaissance tank of the Wehrmacht and the final version of the Panzer II. Its new hull, new drivetrain and engine, new tracks and interleaved wheels, new suspensions, better armor, radio and internal equipment, made this model well suited for the task.
The Panzer II Ausf.G was an attempt to produce a heavily armored scout tank. New tracks and interleaved wheels, new welded hull, helped this model to reach the specifications. The entire project was cancelled due to other priorities in 1942, after twelve had been built in three sub-variants. The Ausf.H was very similar, simplified for mass-production. There were plans to equip them with a special KwK 42 2.8 cm (1.1 in) taper-bore antitank rifle, with a muzzle brake. It was derived from the earlier 2.8 cm sPzB 41, or PanzerBüsche-41.
The Ausf.J (22 built by MAN in early 1943), was a heavily armored version of the Panzer II, which had nothing in common but the name. It was very close to the Panzer I Ausf.F, but only twenty-two were built in all. The hull, tracks, engine, were similar to the later, but with a modified turret holding the Rheinmetall 20 mm (0.79 in) auto-cannon. They were dubbed “little tigers” by the Russians and the Germans.
Here is a prospective view of the VK 16.02 Leopard, as it would have been in regular units by the fall of 1943. But, compared to the cost and use of the Sd.Kfz.234 “Puma”, the project was doomed.