A while ago, I wrote a Q&A special on Soviet tank armour. Since then I have gotten periodic requests to do a similar special on German tank armour. Initially, I did not intend to write such an article, but duty calls. However, this is no ordinary article.
Usually, archive materials do not particularly surprise me. I see a “that’s interesting” here and there, maybe a “huh, I didn’t know that”. I’ve even come to terms with ridiculous things that happen when you try to compare reports from the two sides involved. But this, this is something unprecedented. Many things I have written shocked my readers, but this discovery shocked even me.
It all started, as it usually does, with an argument on an internet forum. As it often happens, we were discussing a DTIC document, specifically “Metallurgical Examination of Armor and Welded Joints from the Side of a German PzKw (Panther) Tank“, to be precise. This report says lots of things one would normally expect to see in a report about late-war German armour: “The steel quality rating was “D”…which is borderline acceptable”, “the fracture was extremely brittle in nature, with a bright flat crystalline surface”, “inferior toughness, as evidenced by brittle fractures and low impact resistance”, “extremely poor shock properties”, etc, etc. If you looked into German armour in any serious manner, you’ve seen it all before. However, WoT forums poster Daigensui brought something unexpected to my attention, a claim by American intelligence that the quality of German armour did not deteriorate from 1942 to 1945. I did not believe my eyes. How could that be? Surely German armour in 1942 was not as bad as it was in 1945? Let’s take a trip back in time, through many years of armour samples, to see where it all went wrong.
The aforementioned report is from 1945, past the end of the war. Let’s rewind a bit and look at a slightly earlier study, “Metallurgical Examination of a 3-1/4″ Thick armor Plate from a German PzKw V (Panther) Tank“, written in January of 1945. Not surprisingly, it’s full of the same reviews: “poor toughness”, “resulting fracture exhibited a rough crystalline surface”, etc. All right, but that was only a few months prior, let’s go back even further.
In August of 1944, the Soviets captured a shiny new German tank, the Tiger II (depending on who you ask). Obviously, the Soviet were curious about the tank’s thick armour, and it was tested extensively (courtesy of litl-bro). The Soviet findings are largely the same: “The front plates of the hull and turret, as demonstrated in the trials, are low quality. When the armour was not penetrated (dented), the armour formed large cracks, and large fragments broke off the rear side.” Don’t worry about the “front” qualifier, the side armour is discussed in a later section of the report. “Due to a decrease in the armour quality, and due to relatively weak side armour, the tank is vulnerable to domestic 85, 100, 122, and 152 mm guns, as well as the American 76.2 mm gun”. The gunnery report is also quite critical of the armour: “The quality of the armour of the Tiger B dropped radically compared to the quality of armour of the Tiger H, Panther, and Ferdinand”. Translations of parts of these reports are available here, here, here, here, and here.
Oh hey, there it is, radical drop in quality! Could this be it? I mean, in 1944, it would make sense for German armour quality to drop. Their allies are leaving one by one, their factories are being bombed, the Western Allies are moving up through France, the Soviets crossed their old borders and are on German territory. But we’re not satisfied with conjecture! Forward and
onward backward, to 1943!
May, 1943. The Red Army has seen a number Tiger tanks by this point, and drags one to the proving grounds to see just what makes them tick. I’ll skip to the conclusions: “As a result of hits from 57, 85, and 122 mm guns, the armour cracks and fragments break off. … The welding seams are very fragile, and are destroyed when the armour is hit by armour piercing shells.” If you go and click the links above, you’ll see the nitty gritty pictures and details, but the nature of the damage is the same as to the King Tiger: burst welding seams, crystalline cracks, breaches much larger than a caliber in size. The quality of the armour on the King Tiger might have gone down, but it didn’t go down that far compared to its predecessor. Seems that we have a bit to go before we find what we’re looking for.
Even further back, to 1942. Many Lend-Lease, domestic, and captured guns are tested against German vehicles. Here’s where something strange happens. The StuG that is being tested performs very well. No cracks after being shot at with a 45 mm gun, penetrations only slightly larger than a caliber in size. Then the PzIII is swapped in, and the performance is absolutely abysmal. Huge cracks from the same anaemic 45 mm peashooter, the front armour plate falls off, breaches up to 120 mm in size form. When the 76 mm gun comes into play, the results are even worse: a single penetrating shot shatters a meter-long section of armour. Breaches increase up to 240 mm. The PzIV doesn’t do much better. If you want, details are found here and here, as well as the above links. Aside from the StuG, the armour quality is low, which is mentioned by Malyshev himself in a note complaining about the shape of Soviet shells: “There are two reasons why we do not need to worry about the armour piercing properties of our shells. One is that our 45 and 76 mm guns are very powerful. The other is that German tanks are weakly armoured (40-50 mm in the front, 30 mm on the sides), and German armour is of poor quality.”
We’re on a roll, so let’s keep going. In his memoirs, “Memories of a Soldier”, Guderian writes some reasons why German engineers, as excited as they were about captured T-34s, could not produce a copy. Among those reason, there is one we case about: “… our hardened steel, whose quality was dropping due to a lack of natural resources, was inferior to the Russians’ hardened steel.” The events he recalls in this section happened in November 1941, a few months after Barbarossa started, long before any kind of significant damage to German factories caused by Allied bombings.
Why stop at 1941? Let’s go way back, to the start of the war. As a part of the agreement between the USSR and Germany, the USSR got a copy of Germany’s latest and greatest in tank technology. Of course, they tested every molecule of the tank they received. The results were bad. Really bad. The German armour failed catastrophically when subjected to the absolute minimum condition for acceptance by Soviet engineers. They were so shocked, they made an identical section of armour out of Soviet steel, just to make sure that there wasn’t anything about the armour’s shape that made it crumble to bits.
This was armour made before the war, before Allied bombings, before any lack of vital metals. This was German industry’s finest hour, and their output was unacceptable by the standards of the Soviet military. Even without any excuses, the mythical Krupp steel does not measure up to Izhor’s product.
“But Ensign!” some of you may complain, “Doyle himself said that 30 mm of German armour was worth 60 mm of other armour on Overlord’s blog!” The people that claim this aren’t remembering the specific post very well. 30 mm of high quality German armour was worth as much as 60 mm of Czechoslovakian armour, which wasn’t particularly amazing either. From the Soviet trials of the Pz38(t): “The armour of the Czechoslovak “Praga” 38T tank is very brittle, fragments easily, and gives large cracks.” Armour that’s superior to that isn’t particularly difficult to obtain. He also states that quality of German welding did not deteriorate throughout the war. If you follow the articles linked above, this is true, their welding seams burst from penetrating and nonpenetrating hits in 1942 just as well as they do in 1945.
Now, I’m not saying that all German armour was bad. From that StuG tested above, you can clearly see that not all German armour was that abysmal. But what you can also see is that German armour varied wildly in quality (see also the “soft” British Tiger), leaning towards the bad more so than the good. There is no magical Krupp Steel that is somehow superior to all (or even some) steel from the Allies.