Predecessors of the Panzers: How Effective Were German Tanks During World War One?

History Hit Podcast with Robin Schaefer

3 mins

08 Nov 2018

This article is an edited transcript of Tank 100: Part Three with Robin Schäefer on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 15 September 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

Following the first deployment of British tanks on 15 September 1916, the German army very quickly started to develop their own armoured vehicles. Ludendorff, the German military commander, wrote a letter to the German War Ministry on 23 October 1916, in which he said:

“And so, I ask you to rush the mass production of armoured vehicles for the German troops.”

Because he said,

“We have to make sure that the armies in the main combat zones can be equipped with them as soon as possible. The quick supply of all fronts with an effective defensive weapon is just as important.”

And shortly after he had sent that letter out to the war ministry, the war ministry had a problem. They had got the order to produce something they didn’t know anything about.

Tank legend David Fletcher MBE, historian of armoured warfare, and David Willey, curator of the Tank Museum, Bovington, discuss the First World War development of the tank. Why and how was the tank designed? How did it evolve over the course of the war? And what attributes were required of a Tank Man?Watch Now

A7V: the first German battle tank

Nevertheless, they rushed to the job and by spring 1918, the German Army had indeed managed to construct and send into the field 20 of their own German-made armoured cars, or armoured vehicles, or tanks: the A7V, that would be the main German battle tank in the First World War. Only 20 were made; they were not very good crossing difficult terrain. And, well, looking at it, probably not very effective either.

A working reconstruction of the A7V. Credit: Simon Q / Commons.

On the other hand, though, the German Army didn’t really have a need for tanks. For an army like the British Army, or the Allied armies in general, with an offensive doctrine, the tank makes sense. But on the German side, with a strategy of defence, a tank can only really be of use in a tactical context not in a grand strategic context.

Another major problem was that the war ministry made very clear that if they started mass producing their own tanks, the material would have to be taken from the production of U-boats and shell fuses. And no one really wanted to endanger the way the Germans waged submarine warfare. So, there wasn’t really a need for tanks and there wasn’t material to produce them.

Tank legend David Fletcher MBE, historian of armoured warfare, and David Willey, curator of the Tank Museum, Bovington, discuss the First World War development of the tank. Why and how was the tank designed? How did it evolve over the course of the war? And what attributes were required of a Tank Man?Watch Now

The calculations had to be made. Germany could have made tanks, but it would have meant savings in other departments. It was a finite game.

Tank ‘recycling’

To complement these 20 German-made tanks, in January 1918, the German high command ordered the formation of a unit equipped with captured British tanks. So, shortly after the Battle of Cambrai in 1917, German troops began to salvage large numbers of them from the battlefield. The Germans then took these tanks, repaired, refurbished, and rearmed them. And the first of these units saw action in March 1918 during the Kaiserschlacht.

German forces dig out a captured British Mark IV tank.

In total, the German Army captured about 170 British tanks. Most of them were scrapped and cannibalised for parts, but a number of them were used in action. And by the end of the war, that number was about 75 British tanks.

One of the major pluses for the Germans was that the engines in the British tanks were licensed Daimler engines, so they could quite easily create the engine parts for the tanks but everything else, guns, machine guns, that was all German. So, they removed the British stuff and put their own arms, and equipment, optic sites, etc., etc.