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Germany's Heavy Tank
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2013

Imperial Germany fielded very few tanks in the First World War, and afterwards the Treaty of Versailles forbade their possession by the new Reichswehr. This did not stop the Weimar Republic from developing tanks; instead, it merely moved their development into secret offices and to proving grounds in the Soviet Union.

In 1925 the Reichswehr ordered a medium tank, known as the Grosstraktor to disguise its purpose (officially, it was described as a heavy tractor to tow large artillery pieces). The first prototype was delivered in 1928, and it was a large vehicle mounting a short-barreled 75mm gun in a single turret. The tanks went to the Kama proving ground in the Soviet Union for extensive tests.

When Adolf Hitler came to full power in 1933, the treaty provisions were steadily cast aside over the next several years. One of the first to go would be the restriction on tanks. By 1935 the renamed Wehrmacht openly showed off its small number of armored vehicles but at first the developments remained secret. These included the new heavy tank, also ordered under a code name, in this case Neubaufahrzeug or “new-construction vehicle.” It also was at first described as an artillery tractor.

Orders went to Rheinmetall-Borsig and to Krupp in 1933 for a 20-ton heavy tank design. Influenced by the T-28 and T-35 tanks they’d seen at Kama, the procurement officers asked for a multi-turreted tank based on the Grosstraktor chassis. Much like the T-35, the tank would carry both a 75mm gun and machine guns for infantry support, and a 37mm high-velocity gun to combat other tanks and hardened positions.

An extraordinarily well-faked German propaganda shot of a Neubaufahrzeug assembly line. Note that this is the first prototype vehicle.

Rheinmetall built two steel prototypes in 1934, one with a Rheinmetall-designed main turret and the other with one designed by Krupp. In both cases, the German designers placed both the 75mm and 37mm guns in the same turret (the Soviet heavy tank placed them in separate structures). The Rheinmetall turret used an over-and-under arrangement with the 37mm gun on top; the Krupp design placed them side-by-side with the smaller gun on the left. Two smaller turrets modified from those mounted on the PanzerKampfwagen I tankette held machine guns. Armor was adequate for the standards of 1934 (it could keep out rifle and machine-gun fire) but would be much too thin for the actual battlefield of 1939.

After some testing, the Krupp arrangement was deemed superior. In 1935 Rheinmetall produced a pre-series of three fully armored vehicles. They came in three tons over contract weight, resulting in very poor mobility. Krupp was busily outfighting Rheinmetall among the Nazi bureacracy, and soon obtained a contract for its own vehicle that became the PanzerKampfwagen IV. The much faster Krupp tank would fill the same infantry support role as the Neubaufahrzeug and, Krupp argued, do it more cheaply and with better battlefield performance. Rheinmetall’s order dried up and the three completed tanks (along with both prototypes) went to the armored training school at Putlos.

A Neubaufahrzeug receives maintenance.

In addition to training duties, the Neubaufahrzeug made frequent appearances in propaganda photos, and was displayed at the 1939 International Automobile Exposition in Berlin as the Wehrmacht’s standard heavy tank. By the time Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, the tank was hopelessly obsolete. But it would soon see front-line service anyway.

In March 1940 the Putlos school formed the 40th Special Purpose Tank Detachment for service in the upcoming invasion of Norway and Denmark. Drawing tanks and crews from the 3rd, 4th and 5th Panzer Divisions, the unit had 48 PazKw I and 21 PzKw II light tanks.

Nineteen of the tanks went down with the transport Antares H when she was torpedoed by a British submarine on the way to Oslo. To make up for the loss, the three Neubaufharzeug tanks were formed into a platoon called Zug Horstmann after its commander and shipped to Norway, arriving in Oslo on the 19th. After a heavily-photographed parade in the occupied Norwegian capital, they went to join the 196th Infantry Division’s advance to the northwest of Oslo.

A Neubaufahrzeug rolls through Oslo, April 1940.

One of the tanks was knocked out by a British 25mm anti-tank gun at Kvam on 25 April, while another became stuck in a swamp and was blown up by German combat engineers. The tank lost at Kvam would eventually be salvaged; the Krupp-turreted prototype was dispatched to Norway in May to keep the unit at three vehicles.

When the 40th Special Purpose Tank Detachment moved to Finland in the spring of 1941 for the upcoming sneak attack on the Soviet Union, they left the three heavy tanks behind in Oslo and an order to scrap them was issued soon afterwards. Whether they were completely demolished or used to build the “Grille” exoperimental heavy self-propelled 128mm guns is not clear, but none of them survived the war.

The Neubaufahrzeug has not appeared in any Panzer Grenadier game. Yet.