♦ Divisional Antitank Units 1939-45 ♦

The German Army in World War II
 

 

A 75mm PAK 40 antitank gun in action (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
 


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NOTE ON NOMENCLATURE

The divisional antitank battalion was called the Panzer-Abwehr-Abeiling (motorisiert), retitled to Panzerjäger-Abteilung (motorisiert) in early 1940). Panzerjäger (lit. tank hunter) was also the name given to self-propelled antitank guns, e.g. the Panzerjäger I.

The “L” designation applied to 37mm and larger antitank guns indicated barrel length; the longer the barrel, the higher the muzzle velocity of the gun and the greater its ability to penetrate armor.

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At the beginning of the war all divisions of the German Army had a motorized antitank (AT) battalion, and its authorized organization was the same for all division types. The AT battalion had a headquarters company, three AT companies and (most infantry divisions of the 1st Wave and most panzer, light and motorized divisions) one antiaircraft (AA) company. The AT companies each had 12 x 37mm L/45 AT guns (motor towed) and the AA company had 12 x 20mm AA guns (halftrack towed).

The AT battalion's weak spot was its main weapon, the 37mm gun. In 1939 it was capable of destroying any light tank and could disable most others, but the trend toward larger tanks with thicker armor was soon to render the 37mm gun obsolete. During the 1940 campaign in the West, it proved ineffective against the British Matilda infantry tank and the French Char B heavy tank. Accordingly, the 50mm L/60 AT gun was designed and large numbers of captured Belgian, Czech and French 47mm AT guns were pressed into service. By the time of the invasion of the USSR, a few AT battalions of infantry divisions had two companies with 47mm guns and one with 37mm guns. But thanks to personnel and equipment shortages, divisional AT battalions now varied in composition. Those of the infantry divisions lost their AA company and sometimes had only two AT companies. In a few divisions there was no AT battalion at all, just a single company.
 

The 37mm PAK 36 antitank gun (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The AT battalions of motorized infantry divisions all had three AT companies and about half retained the AA company. The AT companies had one platoon with three 50mm guns and two with four 37mm guns each. Most of the panzer divisions had a similar AT battalion and with two or three exceptions they all included the AA company, which was now self-propelled, the guns being mounted on trucks or halftracks.

Early combat operations revealed that motor-towed antitank guns had some tactical shortcomings. They were considerably less mobile than tanks, besides being vulnerable to artillery, tank and even small-arms fire. To be effective the towed guns had to be sited in carefully chosen positions and provided with infantry support. Because they engaged enemy tanks by line of sight at short ranges, the AT battalions’ losses tended to be high. The obvious solution was to give the AT gun more mobility and protection and this the Germans did with the Panzerjäger (tank hunter), a tracked, self-propelled (SP) tank destroyer with light armor. The first such vehicle, called the Panzerjäger I, mounted the Czech 47mm L/43 AT gun on the chassis of the obsolete Panzer I light tank. The gun was installed in an open-topped fighting compartment with limited traverse. The Panzerjäger I entered service in 1940, saw action in France, North Africa and Russia, and though this improvised tank destroyer had various deficiencies, it pointed the way forward.
 

The Panzerjäger I tank destroyer, armed with the captured Czech 47mm antitank gun (World War Photos)

By late 1942-early 1943 the AT battalions of most motorized and panzer divisions, and also a few infantry divisions, included a company equipped with various models of the Marder SP tank destroyer. These vehicles had the same layout as the Panzerjäger I but were built on the chassis of either the Panzer II or Panzer 38(t) tank, or the Lorraine 37L armored artillery tractor, of which some 300 had been captured from the French Army in 1940. They were armed with either the new German 75mm L/48 AT gun or the Russian 76.2mm L/48 field gun, which had been captured in large numbers, proved adaptable to the AT role and was easily modified to fire German ammunition. The other two companies had the towed 50mm gun and were scheduled to receive the towed version of the 75mm gun. But this weapon was in such high demand that it proved impossible replace the 50mm gun entirely. The AT battalions of most infantry divisions had towed guns—if possible two companies with 50mm guns and one with 75mm guns. But here again shortages prevented standardization and the infantry divisions made do with what was available.

The Type 1944 Infanterie-Division and the Volksgrenadier-Division (1944-45) had a standard antitank battalion with one towed AT company and one SP AT company, both armed with 75mm guns, plus an SP AA company armed with 37mm guns. The SP AT company was equipped with either the Sturmgeschütz III assault gun or the Hetzer tank destroyer. The former was an armored vehicle based on the chassis of the Panzer III or Panzer IV tank. It had been developed originally as an infantry support weapon with a short-barreled 75mm L/24 gun housed in a fully enclosed armored compartment with limited traverse. This layout proved ideal for the AT role and when armed with the 75mm L/43 AT gun the StuG III and IV came to be employed as an SP tank destroyer in many infantry and VG division AT battalions. The Hetzer, based on the Panzer 38(t) and armed with the 75mm L/48 AT gun, was also employed in large numbers.

Early in the war infantry regiments had a separate motorized antitank company identical to those in the divisional AT battalion, with 12 x 37mm ATG. In some divisions raised between 1940 and 1942, however, it was only possible to provide a regimental AT platoon (3 x 37mm ATG). The 50mm and 75mm ATG gradually replaced the 37mm in these regimental AT units but production was unable to keep up with demand and in the Type 1944 Grenadier-Regiment the AT company had three platoons: one with 3 x 75mm ATG and two with 18 x Raketenpanzerbüchse 54 antitank rocket launchers (ATRL) each. The latter was similar to the US bazooka but larger and more powerful (88mm caliber versus 60mm for the US version). In the Volksgrenadier-Regiment the 75mm guns were deleted, the AT company having three platoons with a total of 54 x ATRL. The Type 1945 Grenadier-Regiment had the same ATRL company.
 

A Raketenpanzerbüchse 54 team in an ambush position (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Late-war panzer division AT battalions were authorized four companies: two SP AT, one towed AT, and one SP AA. The SP AT companies were equipped with either the Panzerjäger IV, a tank destroyer based on the Panzer IV tank, armed with a 75mm L/70 gun, or the StuG III or IV. That, at any rate was the standard but by late 1944 faltering production and the collapse of the transportation system made it increasingly difficult for the German Army to maintain any of its combat units at authorized strength.

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