Light Tanks Panzer II
In July of 1934, the German army issued a set of requirements for a light tanks weighing about 10 tons. It had hoped to field a larger and more useful medium tank, but serious production problems removed this plan from consideration. The new light tanks was designated Panzer II.
The first prototype version of the Panzer II built by Henschel weighed 7.2 tons. Like most tank designs it would grow in weight as the design matured. The Panzer II three-man crew consisted of a driver in the front of the hull, and the vehicle commander and loader in the 360-degree rotating turret. A voice tube provided communication between the vehicle commander and the driver. The vehicle commander sat on a seat affixed to the turret while the loader stood on the floor of the turret basket.
Because of the very small size of the vehicle, the crew members of the Panzer II had dual roles. The loader also acted as the radio operator, and the vehicle commander also served as the gunner. The dual role of the tank commander/gunner was common to many other light tanks of the day. The British army, and later the German army, realized early on that saddling the vehicle commanders with the extra duties of a gunner was distracting them from the more important duties of commanding the tanks and coordinating with other vehicles on the battlefield. This fault would be rectified on German light tanks with the introduction of larger medium tanks, because a third man was added to the turret.
The armament of the Panzer II consisted of a turret-mounted 20-mm gun and a single coaxial 7.92-mm machine gun. The 360-degree rotating turret was turned by hand using a traverse wheel. There was storage space for 180 rounds of 20-mm ammunition and 2,550 rounds of 7.92-mm ammunition.
The first four versions of the Panzer II retained the same type of suspension system as fitted to the Panzer I. The only difference was the addition of an extra bogie wheel on either side of the vehicle's hull, making the Panzer II 2 feet 4 inches longer than the Panzer I.
To prevent expensive and time-consuming correction of inevitable problems during production, most vehicle programs enter an LRIP (Low Rate Initial Production) phase prior to full-scale production. The Panzer II was no exception.
The LRIP version of the Panzer II was designated Ausf C and entered LRIP in 1936. The vehicle sported a new German-designed suspension system better suited to the increased weight of the vehicle. It consisted of five slightly larger bogie wheels attached to quarter-elliptical leaf springs.
The success of the Ausf C LRIP version of the Panzer II led to approval for volume production. MAN and other German (army) firms started high-rate production in July of 1937. The production version was designated Panzer II Ausf A Minor improvements to the Ausf A production version that included a cupola (a small, one-man armored superstructure containing vision devices, which sits on top of the turret of the tank and allows the vehicle commander to observe what is going on around the tank without exposing his upper body to enemy fire) was designated Panzer II Ausf B. This was followed in turn by the Ausf С production version. The Ausf A, B, and С versions of the Panzer II had extra angled armor added to the front of the vehicle's hull. German army industry built 1,113 examples of the Ausf C, A, B, and С versions of the Panzer II between March 1937 and April 1940.
The Panzer II Ausf D and E versions were very similar to the Panzer II Ausf С except for the suspension system employed. Versions D and E used an unusual suspension system consisting of four large road wheels on either side of the hull. The road wheels were attached to torsion bars anchored to the hull at the side opposite the road wheel. (Torsion bars are long steel rods that act as torsional springs. A bearing at the road wheel end allows free rotation; the far end is anchored to the hull so it cannot rotate.)
The new suspension gave the vehicle a top off-road speed of 36 miles per hour. There was no need for return rollers because the track was supported by the large road wheels. Only 43 examples of the Panzer II Ausf D and E versions were built, between May 1938 and August 1939.
The Germans learned from combat experience that they needed to increase the armor protection on the Panzer II Ausf С from 30 millimeters to 35 millimeters. This up-armored version was called Ausf F and entered service in early 1941. The added armor increased the weight of the vehicle to 9.35 tons and, as expected, resulted in lower vehicle agility and top vehicle speed. German documents indicate that the vehicle's top speed dropped to 15 miles per hour with the added armor weight. This extra armor still did not adequately protect the Ausf F on the battlefield. Nonetheless, German industry fielded 524 Panzer II Ausf F vehicles between March 1941 and December 1942.
By the time Germany invaded France in May 1941, Panzer II light tanks were seriously outmatched by French tanks with their larger guns, better armor protection, and higher mobility. Superior battlefield tactics and a highly motivated organization prevented the total destruction of the Panzer II and the older Panzer I force. The Panzer II was also employed in North Africa and the Soviet Union as a reconnaissance vehicle before being pulled from front-line service.
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