Adolf Hitler’s coming to power and open rejection of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 announced by the Chancellor, and soon afterwards der Führer of the Third Reich opened a new chapter in the military history of Germany.
In the mid-thirties the uninhibited, active development of all types of weapons commenced. Many secret projects which had been worked upon in the Weimar Republic came out of the shadows - either carefully hidden under the cover of civil projects or carried out outside the country. In keeping with the offensive doctrine adopted by the state led by der Führer an important role in the land forces was played by armour. It was on the shoulders of the troops of armoured formations that the lion’s share of achieving the objectives of the new and - as it was soon to be found - effective strategy of Blitzkrieg was to fall. One of the basic tools that would serve the Panzerwaffe in 1939-1945 was the Panzerkampfwagen IV medium tank.
Begleitwagen The origin of the story of the most numerous German medium tank during World War II dates back to the early thirties of the last century. In January, 1934, at the Office of Land Forces Armament (Heereswaffenamt) a conference was organised whose aim was to define the basic paths of development of armoured weapons of the Third Reich in the face of the inevitable armed conflict. During the meeting an proposal was confirmed, according to which the main burden of the production of tanks would lie on the plants manufacturing the Panzekrkampfwagen III tanks - then indicated as the primary vehicles - armed with 37 mm or 50 mm calibre guns. Additionally, action begun to be taken towards the construction of a heavier tank, the combat weight of which was to fluctuate around 20 tons (but not more than 24 t which was associated primarily with the load capacity of most European road bridges and the transport capabilities of railway systems). Due to the fact that these actions at that time were still carried out in secret, the machine was officially named medium type tractor - Mittlerer Schlepper. After the announcement of re-militarisation the name was changed to Begleitwagen, that is accompanying or support vehicle or alternatively Bataillonsführerwagen (battalion level command vehicle).
According to these proposals, the vehicle then classified as medium tank and infantry support tank was to be armed as powerfully as possible in the mid-thirties - the 7.5 cm Kampfwagenkanone 37 which had a barrel length of 24 calibres. The armament was completed by two 7.92 mm machine guns Maschinengewehr 34, a variant specially designed for AFV’s: one at the front of the hull and the other in the turret. The choice of the gun was not accidental. Reichsheer intelligence agents operating in France, recognized by Berlin as the main enemy, passed information about the plans of the army of the Third Republic, according to which by the end of the decade French armed forces would field tanks protected by 40 mm armour and armed with guns with calibre greater than 70 mm. The Begleitwagen therefore was the response to the projects, especially taking into account that a 7.5 cm KwK L/24 antitank shell was to be capable of piercing armour plate 43 mm thick sloped at an angle of 30 degrees on a range of 700 m.
The task of developing the Versuchsfahrzeug 618 7.5 cm Geschütz-Panzerwagen project was given to two corporations - Friedrich Krupp Aktiengesellschaft, Essen, and Rheimetall-Borsig Aktiengesellschaft Düsseldorf. As an alternative to this, a visionary proposal for a new combat vehicle existed. It was designated as Versuchskonstruktion 2002 and proposed by Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nuremerg Aktiengesellschaft. It was based on interleaved-style suspension but was quite quickly dropped in the initial phase.
Deadline for completion of the project was 18 months. Both manufacturers were able to meet it and in October of 1935 the sketches were ready. After demonstration of the prototypes of the Begleitwagen at the turn of 1935 and 1936, the authorities in Berlin decided to transfer the entire production to the Krupp-Gruson factory in Magdeburg-Buckau (0-series Pz.Kpfw. IV Ausf. A, which became the designation of the new tank in April 1936, however, was still to be manufactured at the plant in Essen). In January, two years later, the first 3 examples of the vehicle went to the troops. By April 1938 there were already 30 tanks. Their combat debut took place when German troops entered Vienna and later, in Autumn, during the annexation of the Sudetenland. By the time of the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 the Wehrmacht had already a substantial number of Pz.Kpfw. IV tanks Ausf. A, Ausf. B, Ausf. C, and Ausf. D versions in its first line.
The first series of the Panzerwaffe’s new weapon, designated Ausführung A, consisted of 35 vehicles and was produced between October 1937 and March 1938. The tank had an 18.4 tons combat weight and was powered by Maybach HL 108TR petrol engine, which allowed it to achieve a top speed of 31 km/h on roads.
In September of 1938 the Magdeburg plant began assembling the second variant of the tank armed with a short-barrelled gun of 75 mm calibre – the Ausf. B. The primary modification of the model was the installation of a new power unit: Maybach HL 120TR. Despite the increase in weight by 400 kg the vehicle’s top speed increased to 40 km/h. This version had a modified gearbox, henceforth it had not 5 but 6 forward gears. Front hull armour was thickened from 20 mm to 30 mm. The second variant of the Pz.Kpfw. IV had also some external detail differences, above all, a new type of commander’s cupola, and single, non-split hatches for driver and radio operator. The former’s means of observation now consisted of a double periscope as in case of the Ausf. A but also of a wide slit of Fahrersehklappe type, protected with multi-layered greenish glass in a bakelite frame. A total of 42 Ausf. B tanks was produced.
Another version of the vehicle, still classified as a heavy tank, was Pz.Kpfw. IV Ausf. C, of which 134 were produced from September 1938 to April 1939. This time the designers decided to add a mantlet to protect the co-axial machine gun and improve the turret ring. A part of this series’ vehicles, ranging from chassis number 80341 was also equipped with a modified Maybach HL 120TRM engine. Six tanks of this model were converted into combat engineer vehicles.
Shortly before the attack on Poland the fourth series of the tank was introduced – the Ausf. D, A total of 229 vehicles of this variant were eventually built, all of them by Krupp-Gruson. Production lasted until May 1941. Side and rear armour of the vehicle was thickened from 15 mm to 20 mm, and in case of some tanks of this batch additional armour plating 20 mm or 30 mm thick (Zusatzpanzerung) was added to the hull-front. A 7.92 mm Maschinengewehr 34 returned to the front plate installed in a ball-mount called Kugelblende 30. It should be noted that this version was used as the basis for new, experimental combat vehicles of Panzerwaffe: a single trial vehicle armed with a Kampfwagenkanone 5 cm 39 L/60 anti-tank gun and another chassis was converted to a 600 mm heavy mortar ammunition carrier. Some Ausf. D based vehicles were also used by the National Socialist Drivers Corps (NSKK) for driver training purposes. At least one of them was upgraded to Ausf. H standard, equipped with that model’s turret, as well as one with a snow-plough. Sixteen bridge-laying vehicles were also built on the Ausf. D chassis.
Recommended - Armour