The Panzer II Light tank was the second German tank to enter mass production during the period of German rearmament in the 1930s. Unlike the Panzer I, it had always been intended to use the Panzer II in combat, but not to the extent that eventually happened. A combination of slow progress on the development of the Panzer III and Panzer IV and the unexpectedly rapid expansion of the Panzer forces from 1936 meant that the Panzer II was the most important German tank at the beginning of the Second World War, and still the most numerous at the start of the offensive in the west in May 1940. The Germans won their most significant victories with these generally un-regarded light tanks, and suffered their defeats with the more famous heavier tanks.
The full designation of the tank was the PanzerKampfWagen II or Armoured Fighting Vehicle II. This was abbreviated to Pk.Kpfw II, PzKw II or Panzer II. It also received the Ordnance Department designation Sd Kfz 121 and the codename LaS 100.
The Panzer II was similar in layout to the earlier Panzer I. Like all German tanks the engine was at the rear, with the drive wheels at the front. The turret was offset slightly to the left and carried one 20mm cannon and one 7.92mm machine gun. The 20mm gun could fire high explosive or armour piercing rounds, so the Panzer II did have a limited ability to fight other tanks.
Perhaps unsurprisingly different sources provide different accounts of the early development of the Panzer II (it was after all a top secret weapon at the time). However all accounts agree that development work on a tank in the 10 ton category had begun by the summer of 1934, when in July 1934 the Ordnance Department (Waffenamt) issued an order for the tank. MAN and Krupp both designed tanks to the Waffenamt specification, with MAN winning the contract. The first soft metal prototype was completed during 1935.
At the start of the Second World War the Panzer II was the most numerous of all German tanks. Of the 2,690 tanks then in service, 1,127 were Panzer IIs, and another 973 Panzer Is. The low number of heavier tanks available meant that the Panzer II would have to be used to combat any Polish tanks that were encountered. No major tank battles took place during the short Polish campaign, but despite this 259 Panzer IIs were lost, of which 83 became total write offs, while the rest were eventually repaired. The thin frontal armour of the Panzer II had turned out to be vulnerable to the Polish anti-tank rifle, and so during the winter of 1939-1940 an additional 20mm armoured plate was added to the front of the majority of Panzer IIs.
The Panzer II still made up close to 40% of the total armoured strength of the German army at the start of the offensive in the west in May 1940. They would have been of little or no use in a clash with strong British or French armoured forces, but one key element of the German “sickle cut” plan was that it would reduce the chance of any such clash taking place. The Panzer divisions were concentrated into armoured spearheads, while the theoretically stronger French tank forces were distributed evenly along the entire front. After Guderian’s strong armoured corps had broken through the French front line on the Meuse, his light tanks were perfectly capable of brushing aside the light resistance they encountered on the dash to the coast. In the first ten days of the campaign, from 10-20 May, only 45 Panzer IIs were reported to have been lost (this figure probably only includes tanks that were written off). This represents just under 5% of their original strength on 10 May. In comparison 7.4% of Panzer IIIs and 5% of Panzer IVs had been lost.
The next ten days were the most costly for the Panzer divisions. This period saw the one major British counterattack of the period, at Arras at 21 May, and the advance north along the coast towards Boulogne and Calais. In ten days the Germans lost 485 tanks, a quarter of their original strength, while on 23 May General Kleist, commanding the armoured spearhead, reported that half of his tanks were out of action. During this period 150 Panzer IIs were lost, 16% of the total available on 21 May. However, during the same period 26% of available Panzer IIIs (84) and 23% of Panzer IVs (63) were lost.
This reflects the changing nature of the fighting. In the first ten days of the campaign the German tanks were able to fan out behind the Allied front line, disrupting communications and generally causing chaos. During the second ten days the German spearhead had to turn north, where it encountered increasingly strong resistance from the trapped northern armies. The heavy losses amongst the Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs reflect their increasingly important role in the fighting. It is also important to remember that the versions of the Panzer III and Panzer IV in use in 1940 were not significantly better protected than the Panzer II. By the start of the campaign in the west, around 70% of Panzer IIs had had 20mm armour plates added to the front of the tank, giving them 34.5mm frontal armour and 14.5mm sided and rear armour. At this point the newest version of the Panzer IV, the Ausf D, had 30mm frontal armour and 20mm elsewhere, while the Panzer III was better armoured, with 30mm armour in most places. The Panzer II of limited use against enemy armour, but it was still a potent weapon when used against infantry.
The Panzer II also saw action in North Africa. In February 1941, early in the German intervention in the desert, the 5th Light Division (the precursor of the 21st Panzer Division) had 25 Panzer Is, 45 Panzer IIs, 75 Panzer IIIs and 20 Panzer IVs. The Panzer II remained important throughout 1941, but in 1942 the numbers available began to fall off, and only 14 were still on the books on 15 August 1942. The rest had either been destroyed or withdrawn to Germany to be converted for other purposes.
Some parts of the Panzer II remained in use for the entire war, serving as the chassis for a number of self-propelling guns, the most successful of which was the Wespe, carrying a 10.5cm howitzer.
These were the three earliest developmental versions of the Panzer II. The basic design of the tank was already in place, with the engine at the rear, drive wheels at the front, one 20mm cannon and 7.92mm machine gun in the turret and carrying a crew of three. Suspension was provided by six small paired road wheels, linked by a suspension bar (replaced by five larger wheels on the production models). All of the development versions of the Panzer II carried 13mm turret, superstructure and hull armour.
The main change made to the second main development version for the Panzer II was the use of a more powerful engine. As a result the Ausf b was made
The Panzerkampfwagen II Ausf c was the final development version of the Panzer II. The main change on this version saw the six small paired road wheels of the suspension replaced by five larger independently sprung road wheels. This form of suspension would be used on the majority of normal Panzer IIs, but on few of the more unusual types developed from the basic design.
The Panzerkampfwagen II Ausf A, B and C were the three main production versions of the Panzer II light tank. Close to 1,100 of these three very similar variants were produced between July 1937 and April 1940, and it was this version of the tank that was used in 1939 and 1940. All three were similar to the Ausf c, but with slightly thicker 14.5mm armour and an improved transmission.
The Panzerkampfwagen II Ausf F was the last standard version of the Panzer II to be produced. The main visual change was the replacement of the rounded front hull of earlier versions with a 35mm vertical front plate. At the top this joined up with the sloping armour plated originally retro-fitted to earlier models after the Polish campaign, giving the Ausf F an angled nose. Delays in the design process meant that the Ausf F did not enter production until March 1941, nearly a year after production of the last major variant ended. By this point the Panzer II had been withdrawn as a battle tank, but the Ausf F remained in use with reconnaissance companies in decreasing numbers until 1943.
The Panzerkampfwagen II mit Schwimmkorper was an amphibious version of the Panzer II, produced by adding flotation devices to the sides and front of a standard tank. They were produced for the planned invasion of Britain in the autumn of 1940. Like their Allied equivalents developed for the D-Day landings, these tanks would have been taken most of the way across the channel on larger ships and then released to make their way to shore. When the invasion was cancelled, they were issued to normal Panzer units, taking part in the invasion of the Soviet Union.
A series of complex inter-related attempts were made to produce a reconnaissance tank based on the Panzer II. These started in 1938 with the VK901/ Panzer II Ausf G. This featured a new suspension system, with five pairs of overlapping road wheels spring on torsion bars and no return rollers. 1939 saw work begin on the VK1601/ Ausf J, a heavy reconnaissance version of which 22 were built during 1942. These were followed by the VK903/ Ausf M, which was to have been the production version of the VK901. Closely related to this was the VK1301/ Ausf H, armed with a bigger main gun, and the VK1303/ Ausf L, the production version of the VK1301, armed with the standard 20mm gun. The last variant was the VK1602 Leopard, which would have resembled the Ausf H, but was never built.
Of all of these, only the Panzerkampfwagen II Ausf L/ VK1303/ Luchs (Lynx) actually entered production. 100 of these were produced between September 1943 and January 1944. They used the modified suspension first developed for the VK901, and were armed in the same way as the standard Panzer II. They served on both the western and eastern fronts until the end of the war.
The Panzer II Ausf D and Ausf E were two very similar fast tanks, developed by Daimler Benz in 1938. They had very little in common with the normal Panzer II, only sharing the turret but having a different hull, superstructure and suspension. Only 43 were built, and they were withdrawn in 1940 and turned into Panzerkampfwagen II Flamm flamethrower tanks.
The Panzerkampfwagen II Flamm Ausf A und B or Flammpanzer II was an unsuccessful attempt to mount flame throwers on a Panzer II fuselage. It was based on the Ausf D and E fuselage, with two flamethrowers mounted above the tracks. The type entered combat on the eastern front in June 1941, and was withdrawn early in 1942 after it proved to be too vulnerable to enemy fire. The surviving tanks were withdrawn and converted to carry captured Russian anti-tank guns.
This was an attempt to mount the 15cm sIG33 infantry gun on a tank chassis. The normal Panzer II chassis proved to be too small, and so a wider version had to be produced, which delayed production. Eventually twelve were produced late in 1941. They were then shipped to North Africa, and remained there until the last example was destroyed early in 1943.
201 of this self-propelled anti tank gun were produced between April 1942 and June 1943. A tall fighting compartment was built onto the fuselage of the Panzer II Ausf D and E and the Flammpanzer II, which was used to carry a captured Russian 7.62cm anti-tank gun. The 7.62cm PaK(r) (Sf) served on the eastern front from April 1942 until it was withdrawn early in 1944.
The Marder II was a self-propelled anti-tank gun producing by mounting a 7.5cm PaK40/2 anti tank gun on the chassis of the Panzer II Ausf F. It was so successful that it entirely replaced the standard Panzer II on the production line during 1942. 576 were built from new and another 75 by converting unwanted tanks. The Marder II remained in service from July 1942 until the end of the war.
The Wespe used the fuselage of the Panzer II to carry the German army’s standard 10.5cm howitzer (the leFH18M). A total of 676 armed versions and 159 unarmed ammunition carriers were produced between February 1943 and July 1944. The Wespe was a successful design, and remained in use on most main fronts until the end of the war.