Imperial & Royal Panzers:
Gunther Burstyn’s Motorgeschütz

Gunther Burstyn hated umlauts.

The umlaut symbolized the past, and stood in the way of modernity. And so he insisted on spelling his name Gunther, rather than Günther as he was baptized in 1879. His father was an engineer; his mother, a journalist. His father, Adolf, was also Jewish by birth, though he’d converted to Catholicism and then again to Protestantism.

That didn’t block Gunther’s career in Austria-Hungary. He entered the Imperial and Royal Army’s Pioneer Cadet School at age 16, graduating into the Common Army’s Railway and Telegraph Regiment. But it was after his promotion to senior lieutenant and transfer to the Imperial-Royal Austrian Landwehr (the regular army of the Austrian half of the Dual Monarchy) that he designed the world’s first tank.

Assigned to the naval base at Pola in 1903, Burstyn took a ride on a Navy torpedo boat arranged by his cousin, a naval officer. The boat’s speed and firepower impressed the young engineer and he started fiddling with an armored vehicle design, what he called a “Land Torpedo Boat.” That went nowhere until three years later, when he attended the Vienna Motor Show, in March 1906. Austria-Hungary at the time had a very small automotive industry, producing just 300 vehicles that year, all of them painstaking assembled in craft fashion rather than on an assembly line. The Imperial & Royal Army encouraged developments, buying its first truck in 1898 and five more in 1903.

At the Motor Show, Austro-Daimler showed off its new armored car, the Panzerautomobil, one of the very first such vehicles produced. The armored car had a rotating turret for its machine gun, which impressed Burstyn very much. The Imperial and Royal Army borrowed the armored car for trials (driven by a Daimler employee rather than a soldier) where it earned high marks from the assembled officers. It did not, however, shine in the eye’s of the Empire’s first soldier, who noted how horses shied away from it. “Such a thing,” Kaiser Franz Josef proclaimed, “would not be suitable for military use.”

The Panzerautomobil would be sold to the French Army instead, but Burstyn returned to his sketchbook. The problem with the armored car, as Burstyn saw it, was its limited off-road mobility. It had four small wheels, which gave the vehicle very high ground pressure, and could not pass over trenches or other obstacles it would surely encounter on the battlefield.

The Daimler Panzerautomobil, 1906.

Burstyn set to work on an alternative to wheels, coming up with a series of metal plates held together by chains and looped around metal wheels that drove them. He called the contraptions “slide belts” and they worked in similar fashion to the caterpillar tracks developed by Benjamin Holt in 1904. It’s not clear whether Burstyn was familiar with the Holt tractor when he sketched his slide belts, but over 100 attempts at similar devices had failed before Holt succeeded, and Burstyn’s system would never be put to the test.

By 1911 he had enough of a design to apply for a patent; that application is the source of extant drawings of the vehicle, which he called a Motorgeschütz (the application does use the hated umlaut). The patent office would not allow him to patent the entire vehicle design, so much of it is only vaguely sketched in. It would have a pair of long outriggers that Burstyn called “arms” at either end to extend the caterpillar tracks and aid the vehicle in crossing trenches and other obstacles. A boxy armored structure (with sloped armor) housed a crew of three – driver, gunner and commander, who was also the loader – with a round turret atop the box, housing a gun (Burstyn did not specify the caliber, but given the space available and the size of the weapon in his sketch, it most likely would have been the Vickers Mark I 1.5-pounder, a 37mm weapon mounted on some Austro-Hungarian warships as an anti-aircraft gun).

Burstyn’s sketches from his 1911 patent application.

The machine also carried two machine guns; as they did not have their own dedicated firing ports, Burstyn apparently intended them to be fired from the viewing ports. The turret itself could not rotate through the full 360 degrees, as the driver’s compartment blocked it from pointing directly backwards. The driver sat behind the turret, facing rearward, and could look forward by only by way of a telescope. The commander was also expected to shout (backwards) directions to the driver. The driver sat between the stores of fuel and ammunition, and would hand rounds forward to the loader.

Armor would be sufficient to keep out rifle fire only. If the Motorgeschütz encountered enemy field guns, it was expected to shoot first and knock them out with its own cannon before they could draw a bead on the moving target. The little vehicle could make 20 kilometers per hour on the road, and 5 kilometers per hour off of it. At least, that’s what Burstyn claimed. As he was only allowed to patent the unusual “arms,” he didn’t fill in his sketch with very much detail. The Motorgeschütz would be powered by a petrol-fired truck engine, but the designer gave no more details.

The relatively tiny arms would have had a hard time pulling the machine over an obstacle, and the Motorgeschütz didn’t use true caterpillar tracks, which would be patented in Austria-Hungary in 1912. And the very small wheels wouldn’t have done much for off-road mobility, either. Burstyn built a scale model with more wheels than in his patent sketch, which would have helped somewhat.

The Vienna Military History Musuem’s scale model of the Motorgeschütz.

The Imperial & Royal War Ministry declined to pay for a full-scale prototype, rather cynically suggesting that Burstyn, on his lieutenant’s pay, could fund the project himself if he wished. The inventor instead submitted a somewhat modified design to the Imperial German War Ministry, which likewise turned him down.

In their defense, while the Motorgeschütz bears a striking resemblance to modern tanks at first glance, it wasn’t a very good design. What few details Burstyn provided had to have given pause to evaluators. Tracked vehicles were not yet common, and most designs for them had failed. The ability of the “arms” to aid in crossing trenches seems dubious, and they would have been fantastically vulnerable to damage. The driver’s position, seated backwards and surrounded by gasoline and explosives, made no sense.

With the outbreak of war, Burstyn received a promotion to captain and a return to the elite Railway and Telegraph Regiment. He ended the war a major, and after a stretch working for the local railways in Vienna he returned to the Austrian Federal Army as director of the technical collection in the Military History Museum. Forcibly retired in 1933 due to an eye condition, just 54 years old, he struggled to make a living as an architect and construction engineer until the Nazis seized power in Austria in 1938. Despite his membership in the conservative but non-fascist Fatherland Front, Burstyn parlayed his claim to have designed the world’s first tank into a lucrative consulting post with the German Army.

Dragon’s Teeth seen in the Siegfried Line. Burstyn intended for enemy tanks to roll over the gentle front slope of the smaller obstacles and then become stuck.

Working for the Germans, Burstyn designed a number of projects including an armored tank ferry that he was allowed to personally present to Adolf Hitler, who pinned a medal on him in recognition of his efforts. Burstyn mostly worked on anti-tank defenses, and designed the famous “Dragon’s Teeth” concrete barriers – still used today by the Swiss, North Koreans and in Ukraine by the Russian Wagner criminal gang. His work gained him an honorary doctorate from the Technical University of Vienna, a fat stipend, and perhaps most importantly for the half-Jewish Burstyn, the life-saving status of “honorary Aryan.” His son Walther, however, was killed in action on the Eastern Front in December 1941. After the Soviets captured Vienna in April 1945, Burstyn – by now suffering from depression and blindness – killed himself rather than face captivity.

As far as we know here at Avalanche Press, the Burstyn Motorgeschütz has never appeared in a wargame. We correct that oversight in Golden Journal No. 44: Imperial and Royal Panzers. You get the original Motorgeschütz, plus an ungraded version of Burstyn’s tank, and two Imperial Russian tank designs. Plus, special rules and scenarios so you can play with them in Infantry Attacks: Fall of Empires.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and new puppy. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold.

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