Panzer I Light Tank

The Panzer I was the first German tank to enter mass production. It was originally designed as a light training tank, to give German industry experience in producing tanks while development work on the real combat tanks was underway, and to train the new armoured divisions. While it is well known that the Second World War came too soon for the German Navy, it is less often realised that the same was true for the Panzer forces, who were also preparing for a war in the early 1940s.

The full designation of the machine was the PanzerKampfWagen I, or Armoured (Panzer) Combat (Kampf) Car (Wagen) I. This was shorted to Pk.Kpfw I, PzKw I or Panzer I. It also received the Ordnance Department designation Sd Kfz 101

Development

Work on the Panzer I began in 1932 in response to a War Department specification for a 5 ton light tank. Krupp submitted their L.K.A. I model, which won the production contract. The layout of the chassis was influenced by that of the tiny Carden Loyd tankette, with the engine at the rear and the drive at front. The Panzer I was a two-man tank, with the driver in the front of the chassis and the commander/ gunner in the turret. The commander’s seat rotated with the turret.

Krupp received an order for 135 Panzer Is in 1933, and a second contract for 450 in January 1934. The first prototypes appeared in December 1933, and mass production began in July 1934. In the gap fifteen tank hulls had been produced (Henschel, MAN, Daimler-Benz, Rheinmetall-Borsig and Krupp each produced three). These gave the companies valuable early experience in producing tracked vehicles, and were used as open topped driver training machines. The first production machines appeared in September 1934, and were issued to the training units.

Main Variants

Panzerkampfwagen  I Ausf A

The first production version of the Panzer I was very similar to the original Krupp prototype, but with smaller road wheels. It was armed with two 7.92mm machine guns and powered by a 60hp Krupp engine. In service it was found to be underpowered.

Panzerkampfwagen  I Ausf B

The second production version of the standard Panzer I, the Ausf B, was powered by a 100hp Maybach engine. To make room for the new engine the tank was increased in length by 1ft 6ins and given an extra road wheel.

Kleiner Panzerbefehlswagen I (Sd Kfz 265)

This was a command tank, equipped with a radio transmitter as well as the receiver of the standard versions. It was the first version of the Panzer I to use the longer chassis designed for the Ausf B. The turret of the normal tank was replaced with a larger fixed superstructure.

Flammpanzer I/ Flammenwerfer auf Panzerkampfwagen I Aust A

A number of Panzer I Ausf As had been sent to North Africa as part of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. There a number of tanks were modified to carry the light portable infantry flamethrower Model 40 in place of the right hand machine gun, for use against the defences of Tobruk.

4.7cm PaK(t) Sf auf PzKpfw I Ausf B

4.7cm PaK(t) (Sf) auf Panzerkampfwagen I Ausf B tank destroyerThis combined the chassis of the Ausf B with a Czech made 4.7cm anti-tank gun, and was the first tracked tank destroyer to enter German service. The gun crew were protected by a 14.5mm thick gun shield with an open back. 202 tanks were converted to this version during 1940-1941 and it remained in service until late in 1943.

Panzerkampfwagen  I Ausf B ohne Aufbau

This designation refers to 164 Panzer I Ausf Bs produced without their superstructure for use as maintenance vehicles. They remained in use until 1941, by which point heavier tanks had appeared that were too heavy for it to tow.

See also
Munitionsschlepper auf Panzerkampfwagen I Ausf A (Sd Kfz 111)

Service History

Like many other pre-war German machines, the Panzer I gained combat experience during the Spanish Civil War. About 75 normal Panzer Is and four command tanks were sent to Spain, where they came up against the Soviet T-26. As expected the Panzer I was of little use against enemy tanks – its machine guns could only damage tank armour at very close range.

At the start of the Second World War the Panzer I was the most numerous German tank, with 1,445 in service (closely followed by the 1,200 Panzer IIs). Even in Poland the Panzer I was considered to be unsuited for armoured warfare. According to the official German figures, 89 were lost during the brief campaign, more than of any other type. That figure is almost certainly too low with many more tanks damaged beyond repair.

The Panzer I was still an important part of the German tank force at the start of the attack on France and the Low Countries in May 1940. By now it was the second most common German tank, with just over 500 with front line units along with 96 command tanks. It was under-armed and under-armoured compared to French tanks – the most numerous French light tank, the R-35, carried a 37mm gun and one .75mm machine gun, and had up to 40mm of armour. The Panzer I’s only advantage was its speed, which was twice that of the R-35. It did not compare so badly to the British Light Tank Mk VIB, which was also armed with two machine guns, although one of those was a heavier 0.5in/ 12.7mm gun. 

The Panzer I was phased out as a front line tank after the French campaign of 1940. Only a handful of Ausf Bs were still in use with combat units at the start of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941. The Ausf B remained in use as a command vehicle for the tank hunting Panzerjägerabteilug (Sf) units until the end of 1943, by which time it was totally obsolete.

Stats

 

Ausf A

Ausf B

Number produced

818

675

Produced

1934-1936

1935-1937

Hull Length

13.2ft

14.7ft

Hull Width

6.8ft

6.8ft

Height

5.6ft

5.6ft

Crew

2

2

Weight

5.4t

5.8t

Engine

Krupp M305

Maybach NL38TR

Horsepower

60

100

Max Speed

23mph

24.8mph

Max Range

90 miles

106 miles

Armament

Two 7.92mm MG13 machine guns

Armour - Front

13mm

Armour - Side

13mm

Armour - Rear

13mm

Amour - Top/ Bottom

8mm-6mm

German Light Panzers, 1932-1942, Bryan Perrett. This is a well balanced book that combines a technical discussion of the various types of light tanks, a look at the Panzer divisions and their equipment and the battlefield tactics and experience of the German light tank forces. [see more]
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Encyclopedia of German Tanks of World War II, Peter Chamberlain and Hilary L. Doyle. A superb detailed reference guide that covers every type of tank, armoured car, self-propelled guns and semi-tracked vehicle that was used by the German Army between 1933 and the end of the Second World War War. An essential reference book for anyone interested in the subject. [see more]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (30 November 2007), Panzer I Light Tank, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_panzer_I.html

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