Pz.Kpfw. VI Ausf. B.
|Place of origin||Nazi Germany|
|Used by||Nazi Germany|
|Wars||World War II|
|Crew||5 (commander, gunner, loader, driver, radio operator/bow machine-gunner)|
|1 × 7.5 cm KwK 37|
|2 × 7.92 mm Maschinengewehr 34|
|Engine||12-cylinder Maybach HL 224 (V-12 petrol)|
600 hp (441.2 kW)
The Panzerkampfwagen VI (Pz.Kpfw. VI), commonly known as the Panzer VI, was a German heavy tank developed in the late 1930s and used during the early phase of the war on the Eastern Front during the Second World War.
Designed as a breakthrough tank and a heavier version of the Panzer IV, it was designed partly in response to the French Somua S35 cavalry tank and Char B1 heavy tank, and the British Matilda I infantry tank. The German Army had encountered these tanks during the Western Campaign of 1939 and found the armament of the Panzer III and IV to be inadequate.
Despite being considered tactically and logistically problematic in deployment and use for offensive operations, and with a weight that made transport and crossing bridges difficult, its heavy armour made it ideal to deal with Soviet light tanks such as the BT tanks and the T-26. However, when the Germans encountered the Soviet T-34 medium and KV-1 heavy tanks the tank's disadvantageous weak armament, weight and speed became obvious. In total, around 230 vehicles were produced before being cancelled.
When the Panzerkampfwagen VII Tiger were deployed to the Eastern Front in late 1941, they were gradually withdrawn from frontline service to be converted to the Panzerjäger VI, a turretless, casemate-style heavy tank destroyer.
In 19 January 1939, Henschel was ordered to develop a heavy 65-ton class tank with similar layout to the BW (Bataillonfuhrerwagen). Designated as Schwere Wagen (Sturmwagen) VK6501 (H), it was intended to be a heavier version of the Panzer IV. Krupp was put in charge of the turret development and production. Two different armament configurations were considered - the 75 mm KwK 37 L/24, and the 105 mm KwK L/20. In May of 1939, the first configuration was accepted and a month later it was decided that the turret to be used was to be a modified version of the turret used on the scrapped DW (Durchbruchwagen) tank project.
German combat experience with the French Somua S35 cavalry tank and Char B1 heavy tank, and the British Matilda I infantry tank in July 1939 showed that the German Army needed better armed and armoured tanks. Superior tactics had overcome superior enemy armour, but the Germans did take notice. As a result, on 5 August 1939 the 0-Serie was ordered to be produced. Assembly was to be done by Henschel, while armor, turret and armament were to be provided by Krupp.
Armament consisted of the turret mounted 75mm KwK 37 L/24 and 7.92 mm MG34, and a small turret mounted in the hull armed with a second 7.92 mm MG34. Prototype and early models were to be protected by 80 mm thick armor, while production models were to be protected by 100 mm thick armor. The running gear consisted of ten interleaved road-wheels and three return rollers with 800 mm wide tracks. The maximum speed was to be between 20 and 25 km/h. For transportation purposes, Panzer VII could be taken apart into three main modules: forward module with driver's compartment and transmission, fighting compartment and the engine compartment.
The turretless prototype was completed and delivered for testing at Sennelager proving grounds in late December, with the final due date for the completed prototype was set for 20 February 1940. The Henschel design was accepted for a limited production, which began in April 1940. With a production started at a rate of around 20-25 per month, and continued until mid-1941, with 230 produced.
The Panzer VI was first used in action on 27 July 1940 near Minsk. Under pressure from Hitler, the tank was put into action months earlier than originally planned. Many early models proved to be mechanically unreliable; in this first action many broke down.
Although welcoming the efforts to address the urgent lack of heavy tanks, many Panzerwaffe generals were also skeptic to the Panzer VII, considering the tank to be tactically and logistically problematic in deployment and use for offensive operations. Guderian, for example, preferred the production of larger numbers of Panzer IIIs and IVs. The tank's extreme weight limited which bridges it could cross and made drive throughs of buildings, which might have had cellars, risky.
The Panzer VIIs were usually employed in separate heavy tank battalions (schwere Panzer-Abteilung) under army command. These battalions would be attached to each Panzer Army, to be deployed in critical sectors, either for breakthrough operations or counterattacks. Despite the short-barreled KwK 37 not being ideal for engaging enemy armor, the Panzer VI's thick armor made it a dangerous target to the Soviet light tanks like the T-26 and BT tanks.
As Operation Barbarossa progressed, the Germans eventually encountered the Soviet T-34 medium and KV-1 heavy tanks (which were still at early production levels) that completely outclassed anything the Germans were currently fielding. The T-34 was almost immune frontally to every gun in German service except the 88 mm FlaK 18/36 gun. Panzer IIIs with the 5 cm KwK 38 L/42 main armament could penetrate the sides of a T-34, but had to be very close. The KV-1 was almost immune to all but the 8.8 cm FlaK 18/36. While the Panzer VII had the armor to deal with the new Soviet tanks, its short, low velocity cannon could only penetrate their armour from a very close distance. As a result, both the Panzer IV and Panzer VII were during the winter of 1940-41 re-equipped with the long-barreled 75 mm KwK 40 L/43.
Having gained valuable lessons from the VK6501 and VK3001 (Panzerkampfwagen VI) designs, it was eventually replaced by the Panzerkampfwagen VII Tiger as the main heavy tank in the autumn of 1941 and the winter of 1941-42. After this, the surviving Panzer VIIs were being converted to new turretless, casemate-style heavy tank destroyers named the Panzerjäger VII.
- Pz.Kpfw. VI Ausf. A - Prototype; Three produced in 1939–1940. Had a maximum frontal armor of 80 mm.
- Pz.Kpfw. VI Ausf. B - Production models 1940. Armed with 7.5 cm KwK 37 L/24 and had a maximum armor of 100 mm. 163 produced.
- Pz.Kpfw. VI Ausf. C - Production models 1940-1941. Armed with a high-velocity 7.5 cm KwK 40 L/43. 64 produced.