The Pz.Kpfw. IV Ausf. H and Pz.Kpfw. IV Ausf. J tanks were produced in the largest numbers in the range known as Sonderkraftfahrzeug 161 in German terminology – 7,000 vehicles.
This means that a significant quantity of these vehicles were delivered to units - from late Spring 1943 in case of the Ausf. H and from Summer 1944 as far as the Ausf. J is concerned – and fought on every front where Adolf Hitler’s state was involved militarily. Besides, as will be described in this chapter, other Axis forces were also users of both types of these tanks.
In the following part of the text the tactical principles according to which the tanks were operated are shown with reference to examples of 1943-1945 period, coming from various theatres of Panzerwaffe activities, as well as their advantages and disadvantages when confronted with the enemy.
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.
Principles of Use When designing the vehicle called Mitlerer Schlepper and later Begleitwagen in the mid thirties of the last century, it was expected that it would primarily act as a mobile artillery post, supporting infantry with fire from its 75 mm short-barrelled gun cannon or increasing the firepower of tank platoons equipped with lighter vehicles. According to the regulations applicable at the time of German invasion of Poland, each tank battalion should have a heavy company equipped with the Panzerkampfwagen IV vehicles. From the beginning, it was also assumed by the battalion commander that this company could be divided and platoons or even single tanks attached to other units to supplement their firepower. During the 1939-1940 period the heavy company was usually numbered 4 and it consisted of two platoons, six tanks each. Moving in the standard attack formation adopted by German armoured units - the so-called wedge (Keil) – the Pz.Kpfw. IV tanks followed the leading lighter tanks, mainly Pz.Kpfw. III tanks or Pz.Kpfw. 38 (t)’s of Czechoslovak origin and firing at targets pointed out by them. The Pz.Kpfw. I and Pz.Kpfw. II light tanks secured the flanks of the entire formation. The war establishments of heavy tank companies planned before the outbreak of World War Two were complete as late as just before the invasion of Low Countries and France in May 1940. In the first line there were roughly 280 Begleitwagen vehicles by then.
Tactical rules for their deployment remained unchanged until the Spring of 1942. It was at that time when it became clear that to cope with growing numbers of heavier, better armoured and armed Allied tanks, especially the Soviet T-34’s, it was the Pz.Kpfw. IV’s turn to take over the role of the main tank. This caused both the need to increase the efficiency of the main armament, which was described in Chapter One, but also the tactical principles had to be revised. Hence, in the Spring of the following year, it was officially announced that a 47-tank battalion of Sonderkraftfahrzeug 161 tanks along with another battalion of the new Pz.Kpfw. V Panther tanks would be the backbone of the German armoured regiments.
This idea became a reality on April 1, 1944, when the High Command of the Land Forces (Oberkommando des Heeres) published new orders of battle for Panzerwaffe units. According to the Kriegsstärkenachweisung 1103 describing the establishment of regimental HQ Company, there should be five Pz.Kpfw. IV tanks forming a reconnaissance platoon, complemented by three Panthers equipped with additional radio equipment. In practice, the signals platoon also consisted of Sd.Kfz. 161/1 tanks instead of Panthers. According to another directive called the Kriegsstärkenachweisung 1150 Freie Gliederung (a new type of organization where all transport vehicles were detached from the sub-units and grouped in a separate Supply Company), it was assumed that the HQ Company would also consist of Pz.Kpfw. IV Ausf. H’s or Pz.Kpfw. V’s exclusively. On the very same day a model organization chart for an armoured company was established. The instruction was titled Kriegsstärkenachweisung freie Gliederung 1177 and scheduled a tank company consisting of two tanks in the HQ Section and three platoons with five tanks each. An armoured battalion was to have four companies plus an HQ Section (four tanks). Another three long-barrelled Pz.Kpfw. IV tanks were assigned to the HQ Company organized according to yet another scheme – the company had also three Panthers and eight self-propelled anti-aircraft guns, mostly Flakpanzer IV Möbelwagen armed with quadruple 20 mm and single 37 mm guns.
Both types of the new Pz.Kpfw. IV tanks were also to take part in the planned secret project codenamed Valkyrie (Unternehmen Walküre), which had its beginnings on 1 August 1944. Under this plan three independent armoured brigades - Heeres-Panzer-Brigade – were organized, bearing the numbers 111, 112 and 113. Their main striking force were three armoured battalions: 2111, 2112 and 2113 respectively, composed of 45 Pz.Kpfw. IV Ausf. H or Ausf. J tanks each. The tanks were distributed amongst HQ Section (three tanks) and three companies of 14 tanks each. Each of these brigades was supposed to be strengthened with a battalion of Pz.Kpfw. V Panther tanks, also with 45 vehicles. The project proved to be ineffective. By November 1944 all these units were disbanded and their vehicles were dispersed among the armoured divisions of the Wehrmacht.
The establishments were repeatedly amended from April 1944. On 1 November of the penultimate year of the war it was decided to reduce the number of tanks in the companies to 14 vehicles and from 1 March 1945 onwards to 10 tanks (one in the command section and three in each of three platoons). On the twenty-fifth day of this month or a few weeks before the unconditional surrender of the Third Reich, Oberkommando des Heeres issued a order for the Model 1945 Panzer Division establishment. The classic armoured regiments were to be replaced by battle groups composed of a mixed armoured battalion based on two tank companies: one of Pz.Kpfw. V tanks (ten vehicles) and another of Pz.Kpfw. IV Ausf. H and Ausf. J tanks (ten vehicles), supplemented by a Staff Section (two tanks of any type). Each group was to have a component of Sd.Kfz. 251/22 half-tracked tank destroyers, i.e. the popular Hanomag armoured personnel carriers fitted with the 7,5 cm Panzerabwehrkanone 40 anti-tank gun.
When in defense, both variants of Pz.Kpfw. IV played the role of dug-in stationary artillery. Bruno Friesen’s account provides us with interesting information on a typical shelter for a Pz.Kpfw. IV Ausf. H tank in hull-down position in his unit, i.e. Panzer Regiment 25.: “The Panzer IV tank was 2.72 metres high; 2.91 metres wide and 6.01 metres long. Two-thirds of its height or approximately 1.82 metres could be hidden in a hole without restricting the movement of the turret, that is permitting 360º traverse with the gun at its lowest elevation. A position dug on a counter-slope had to be at least 1.5 metres deep. This dug-out also had to have a width of just over 3 metres and be a little shorter than 6 metres.”
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