By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Nazi Germany’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union generated more shocks than planned. The Germans knew that the Red Army possessed huge numbers of tanks, but had no clue that these included massive, heavily armored and well-armed monsters like the KV-1 or T-34/76. The T-34 in particular worried panzer commanders, and the Wehrmacht demanded something that could stand up to the Hammer of the Proletariat.
Along with several German firms, the Czech Skoda combine entered the competition for a new medium tank. Skoda, headquartered in Plzen, had been the largest arms manufacturer in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire and one of Europe’s largest industrial combines. After the Great War, the firm built artillery and tanks for the Czech army, exporting them widely as well. The Germans seized the factories in 1939 when they occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia, an enormous boost to Germany’s military potential.
During the last decade of Czechoslovak independence, Skoda and Ceskomoravska Kolben-Danek (CKD), a locomotive manufacturer, formed a tank-building cartel that offered competing designs to the Czech Army and for export, but split the resulting manufacturing orders. Thus while the LT38 light tank was a CKD design, Skoda produced half of the Czech Army’s order, and both firms kept making the tank for the Germans after the occupation began in 1939.
Under German rule, Nazi barons acquired most of the firm’s shares, with Herman Goering becoming a major stockholder and installing his brother, Albert, as export director. Using his family connection as a shield, Albert tolerated passive resistance in Skoda’s factories and continually requisitioned Jewish slave laborers from concentration camps only to neglect to assign security to their transports.
Arsenal of Fascism: A Czech-made PzKw38(t) rolls through a Russian village.
Skoda’s engineering staff remained mostly intact, and continued to design weapons for their new overlords. Artillery and vehicles flowed out of the enormous factory complex, and the LT38, designated PanzerKampfwagen 38 (t), became a vital part of the German war machine. Tanks made by Skoda and CKD made the blitzkriegs of 1940 and 1941 possible with the former LT38 and its predecessor in Czech service, the LT35, equipping several panzer divisions.
Though very good for its time – and far superior to anything the Germans could field in 1938 – the LT38 had been hopelessly outclassed by the appearance of the Soviet T-34. The T-34’s 76.2mm gun could shred the Czech-made tank’s riveted armor, while the lightweight 37mm gun of the LT38 and LT35 could do nothing to the T-34’s thick, sloped armor plate. German-made tanks could do no better, and a special commission raced to the Eastern Front to study this new adversary.
In the fall of 1941 two leading German tank manufacturers, Daimler-Benz and Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg (MAN), received requests to design a 30-ton tank capable of defeating the T-34. Draft designs were to be ready for the Supreme Leader’s approval by April 20th, Adolf Hitler’s birthday.
Learning of the request, Skoda’s managers decided to enter as well. The Skoda team drafted their T-25 (the designation followed Skoda’s sequence of experimental tanks) as an enlargement of the LT38, with some features of subsequent tank designs. Its chassis was an enlarged version of the LT38, and though it had huge road wheels resembling those of the T-34’s Christie suspension it actually had a conventional track design. The upper body and turret were modeled closely on those of the T-34 – the same solution hit on by Daimler-Benz.
The Daimler-Benz design ultimately failed because of the great weight of the very long-barreled 75mm L/70 main gun the Weapons Office required for the new tank. Skoda’s team solved that problem by ignoring the requirement and substituting a new-model 75mm gun of their own design. The 75mm A18 L/55 gun was fully automatic with a drum feed, capable of 15 shots per minute. To compensate for the wear of such rapid fire, a special compressed-air device would clean the barrel after every few shots.
The A18’s armor penetration was much less than that of the L/70 mounted in the German designs, piercing 98mm of armor at 100 meters as compared to 138 by the bigger gun. By comparison, the L/43 gun mounted in the new PanzerKampfwagen IV F2 could pierce 99mm at 100 meters’ distance. While the A18 was inferior to the L/70 in penetration, it could fire so much faster than the German weapon that a target could be overwhelmed by sheer volume of fire. And its much lower weight allowed the tank’s turret to be placed forward like the T-34’s, allowing for a much smaller vehicle than the German designs. Finally, the lower weight of the cannon allowed for a hydraulic traverse to be fitted to the turret; the German designs were hand-cranked. In combat Allied tank crews soon learned that if the Panther’s barrel were pointed downhill, even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s grandfather could not crank the turret around to face up the slope.
The tank would be powered by a new 450-horsepower engine, vertically mounted to save space. At just 20 tons, the tank promised good off-road mobility and had reasonable armor protection. On paper, at least, Skoda produced a very capable vehicle.
It was not, however, a vehicle that met the requirements laid down by the Weapons Bureau – which had not even invited Skoda to participate (entering the competition at all was thus a cardinal sin a bureaucratic empire like Nazi Germany). The tank did not carry the specified L/70 gun, and it was much smaller than the requested design. Apparently the Skoda papers were never even presented to Hitler, and rejected out of hand. Skoda was ordered to cease work on the project and concentrate on the new Marder III tank destroyer project.
Had the Weapons Bureau allowed Skoda to proceed despite the Army's rejection, production probably would have begun in the summer of 1942, when the LT38 ceased production and was replaced by the Marder III, which was built on the LT38’s chassis. The T25 had been designed to rapidly replace the LT38 on the assembly lines at Skoda and CKD, and probably could have been introduced in the fall of 1942.
A vehicle containing so much new technology (and assembled by a disaffected, mostly foreign work force) would doubtlessly have had its problems. There’s no way to tell how long it would have taken to iron out difficulties with the automatic gun or the new engine – however, the LT38, even with the passive sabotage campaign waged by Czech factory workers, had an excellent reputation for mechanical reliability among its German users.
In action, the Skoda Panther would not have been as capable as the MAN Panther (the design ultimately chosen by Hitler). It would have been superior to the up-gunned PzKpfw IV that fought alongside the Panther until the end of the war and much cheaper to produce, but would have had an enormous weakness: ammunition supply for its automatic cannon. The PzKpfw IVF2 carried 87 rounds, the Panther, 79. If the Skoda Panther had carried a like amount, and given its much smaller size it's unlikely it could haul even that much, all its ammunition could easily be expended in just a few minutes' fighting.
Albert Goering’s presence would have assured customers for the tank: first and foremost, the Hermann Goering Panzer Division then being organized by his brother as part of the German Air Force. Hungary and Romania may have requested licenses for this tank; they did try to obtain them for modern Skoda/CKD designs. Their advances were turned down and the Hungarians had to content themselves with the much less capable T22 design. The Romanians couldn’t even get that far. Nazi Germany had not gone to war to create new industrial powers in the Balkans. If Germany’s allies wanted tanks, they could buy them from German factories: after all German needs had been satisfied.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold has a very fine nose.