Sorry for the delay with this article. First Rita was here, then I had one hell of a week and then I was sick (still am).
Author: Yuri Pasholok
Part 1: http://ftr.wot-news.com/2016/07/06/renault-r35-variants-in-german-service-part-1/
Continued from Part 1.
Apart from artillery tractors and ARVs, other vehicles based on the Panzerkampfwagen 35R 731(f) chassis appeared on the Eastern front. This time it wasn’t just some auxilliary vehicles, but a war machine that could potentially improve the tank-killing capabilities of Army Group “Center”. Its history starts in the end of 1940 when the Germans had a critical look at their captured vehicle stock and came to the conclusion that the Renault R35 wasn’t exactly the best thing on the battlefield. The chassis could however be used to build a self-propelled gun.
At that point the Germans already had the experience with such conversions of Panzer I chassis by creating a vehicle called 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Pz.Kpfw.I (Sd.Kfz.101) ohne Turm, commonly known as the Panzerjäger I tank destroyer. The Panzerjäger I was buit by removing the turret of Panzer I Ausf.B and installing a superstructure with a Czechoslovak 47mm anti-tank gun (P.Ú.V. vzor 36). Panzerjäger I was a relatively successful vehicle and it first appeared in combat in the spring of 1940. Last of these vehicles were used in combat by the end of 1942.
4,7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f) during training, 1941
Following this success, an approval was given on 23.12.1940 to creat such a conversion based on Renault R35 chassis. This vehicle would be designated 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f). The Altmärkische Kettenfabrik (Alkett) company was selected as the producer of these vehicles – at that point it was the leading German SPG manufacturer. The task was however not easy for the tank designers from Spandau – the chassis was even smaller than the one of Panzer I Ausf.B – a vehicle originally designed for two Frenchmen (unless they suffered from claustrophobia) was supposed to carry three German crewmembers, a rather large 47mm gun and enough ammunition for it.
The first prototype was built from mild steel on 8.2.1941. The limited internal space of the vehicle forced the Alkett engineers to find some unorthodox solutions. The superstructure, made from 2cm armor plates was to be shifted as much forward as possible in order to successfully install the gun. By the way, the superstructure was not firmly attached to the hull, it was just screwed on top of it. The hull roof was cut partially away and in the end two people could fit inside the hull, but not the ammunition – that was placed in the superstructure bustle, which simplified the gun loading. The radio was placed there as well. The superstructure sides had to have hatches installed as there was no other convenient way to enter or leave the vehicle.
Führungs-Fahrzeug auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f) – a command version without the gun
The SPG was shown to Hitler on 31.3.1941 and generally speaking, he was rather happy. But even before his endorsement, the preparation for a mass production of 200 such vehicles started in February 1941. Of that number, 174 were the 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f) tank destroyers and 26 were Führungs-Fahrzeug auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f) command vehicles with a machinegun in a ball mount instead of the main gun. The first 30 vehicles were built in March 1941, but 93 were already available by May. 33 were built in June, 5 in July, 22 in August, 28 in September and 19 in October.
On 27.2.1941 it was decided to re-arm the 559th and 561st Anti-Tank Battalions with these vehicles – before, these were armed with 37mm towed guns. They were also adopted later by the 561st anti-tank Battalion. At the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the 559th Battalion belonged to Army Group North, the other two to Army Group Center.
One of the few photos of the 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f) on the Eastern Front.
This re-arming made some people happy as the firepower of the 47mm Czechoslovak guns was much higher than the one of the German 37mm ones. The newsreels showed footage of these vehicles passing destroyed Soviet equipment. However, the reality was different. As early as the 3rd of July (a one and a half weeks into German invasion), two of the battalions rearmed with these SPGs received the orders to re-arm back to 37mm towed guns. The third one lasted only a day longer and then was ordered to retreat behind the lines to Grodno to await new equipment.
The reason for this step was rather simple. To use these vehicles was not only to fight the Soviets, but to also fight the legacy of the French army. The 611th Battalion reported that all of its self-propelled guns were lost during the first days of the war and the battalion only retained any combat value by starting using some German and captured Soviet towed guns again. The same situation occured in the other units equipped with 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f) TDs and their initial deployment was a complete failure.
This is how the 50mm-armed 5 cm Pak 38 (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f) was supposed to look like
This wasn’t the only combat action of these TDs on the Eastern Front. By the end of November 1941, 10 SPGs and 2 command vehicles were attached to the 318th Tank Company, fighting in the Kremenchug region as a part of the 213th Security Division. Regardless of the fact that the company was deployed only deep behind the lines, it was perhaps the lousiest German unit armed with SPGs in the entire army. The report of February 1942 reads much like an active combat report, only the opponents aren’t actual Soviet soldiers, but these vehicles.
For one, they turned out to be extremely moody even during the warm half of the year, but that was nothing compared to how problematic they turned out to be in winter. The engines didn’t start at -10 degrees Celsius or less and when they did, the vehicles were barely able to move forwards under winter conditions. The suspension too turned out to be poorly designed for winter and especially driving over icy surfaces was bad.
It’s worth noting that there were some hopes to improve these vehicles. On 30.7.1941, Alkett received a contract to produce such a vehicle on the same chassis but with a 50mm PaK 38 gun instead. This plan however never reached even the prototype stage – the problem wasn’t only the 47mm version’s poor performance, but also technical limitations. The 50mm gun was bigger than the 47mm gun, meaning that the weight of the vehicle would grow even further. After some considerations the project was cancelled to save some German anti-tankers the headache.
4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f) in Normandy, 1942
After this “start”, the vehicles were pulled from the frontline units and never returned to the Eastern Front. However, that didn’t mean their career was over. There were better conditions for their use in France. There are pictures of their parade on the beaches in Normandy. The conditions were not ideal here, but it was at least worm, so their poor crews didn’t have to bring their frozen engines back to life every morning.
By June 1943, 96 these vehicles were attached to the military units serving as garrisons in France, 85 of which were in working order. Most were attached to the 319th Infantry Division located on the Guernsey and Jersey islands in the Channel, the only British domains in Europe the Germans managed to capture. In total, 15 infantry divisions had some of these vehicles, 3 were attached to the 100th Panzer Regiment and 6 to the 657th anti-tank battalion. By December 1943, the total number of these vehicles was reduced to 92, but out of these there were more in working order than in June (88).
The same unit as on the picture above this one – this time from behind. The extremely limited ammo rack capacity forced the soldiers to carry the ammo in the rear superstructure “pocket”
Significant quantities of these vehicles were still in active service in Normandy during the Normandy Invasion. Regardless of the fact these vehicles were completely obsolete and very slow, they did manage to participate in the fighting. In theory, they could knock out pretty much all allied armor (save for the Churchill heavy tank), but in reality their successes were not exactly numerous and they didn’t have any significant impact on the fighting. Nevertheless, one of the last actions they participated in took place in the Autumn of 1944 (2 vehicles of the 712th Infantry Division).
Destroyed 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f) and Panzerkampfwagen 35R 731(f), most likely from the 100th Panzer Regiment taking part in the fighting around Cherbourg
The war and time took toll on these vehicles and only a single one survived to this day, located as a part of the garrison museum of the Swiss city of Thun. It was destroyed in Normandy and got to Switzerland as a part of a scrap metal shipment (at those times they were full of destroyed German vehicles). The vehicle survived to this day without any internal equipment or agregates and without the rear superstructure part, but it’s better than nothing. Interestingly enough, the only working Renault R35 today (currently in the Saumur museum) is also likely a conversion of the former 4.7 cm Pak(t) (Sfl) auf Fgst.Pz.Kpfw.35 R 731(f). The area behind its turret still bears the screws for the superstructure mounting and there also welds around the turret rotator area, confirming the SPG theory.