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The German use of tank turrets in fortifications

Discussion in 'Armor and Armored Fighting Vehicles' started by JCFalkenbergIII, May 24, 2008.

  1. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

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    Since grim brought this up in another thread I thought I would post this.

    The German use of tank turrets as fixed fortifications
    by Neil Short
    In his article 'Advancing Backwards' (Osprey Military Journal issue 2.1) Charles Winchester gave a detailed reappraisal of the German Army in the Second World War. He concludes that the Wehrmacht, contrary to popular belief, was not a fully mechanised fighting force and that, in fact, Hitler's Panzer Divisions represented but a thin veneer, that when stripped away exposed an army which had progressed little since the end of the Great War. This argument goes some way towards explaining why the German Army eagerly absorbed the enormous amount of equipment that it captured in the lightning advances of 1939 and 1940.
    Much of this equipment, however, was not suitable for blitzkrieg warfare. The captured French tanks, for example, though heavily armoured and armed, were very slow, designed, as they were, to move at the infantry's pace. Accordingly, many of these tanks were consigned to second-line units guarding key military installations such as airfields, or were used in anti-partisan duties. Some were simply loaded onto armoured trains to provide added protection. Others had their turrets removed and a new superstructure constructed on the tank chassis to mount more powerful anti-tank guns and artillery pieces, while others were simply used as ammunition tractors or as driver instruction vehicles. As a result the Germans were left with a large stockpile of seemingly useless tank turrets, complete with their main armament.
    Duplication
    The solution as to what to do with this stockpile came during Operation Barbarossa (the German invasion of the Soviet Union). All along the frontier the Soviets had set into the ground obsolete T18, T26 and BT5 tank turrets to act as makeshift pillboxes. These turrets failed to stem the German advance and, as an idea, seemed to be of little use to the all-conquering German Army in the summer of 1941. However, as offence turned to defence in the west with the cancellation of Operation Sealion (the invasion of Great Britain) plans were put in place to install such defences all along the coast of occupied Europe - the so-called 'Atlantic Wall'. The majority were either Renault FT turrets (a First World War vintage French tank) or the more heavily armoured APX-R turret from the Renault 35 and Hotchkiss 39.
    Yet while the Soviets had inadvertently provided the ideal solution as to what to do with these obsolete French tank turrets, they also posed a far greater problem that threatened the very success of the German Army in the East. The sweeping advances of the Wehrmacht in the early years of the war reinforced Hitler and the German High Command's belief in the superiority of their tactics, their men, and also their fighting machines. This illusion, however, was shattered when German forces first encountered the Soviet T34 tank, arguably the best tank of the World War II. The existence of such a vastly superior tank came as quite a shock to Hitler and his cohorts. But more significantly, the T34, almost overnight, rendered obsolete the mainstay of the Panzer divisions (Panzer I and II and Czech 35(t) and 38(t) tanks) that had swept all before them during the invasion of Poland, France, the Low Countries and Scandinavia. These tanks were now either relegated to second line duties, or experienced the same fate as those tanks captured in France: the chassis used as improvised anti-tank or self-propelled gun platforms and the turrets used as makeshift pillboxes. These tank turrets, however, were used more extensively than the captured turrets - perhaps reflecting the greater numbers available, or the relative ease with which ammunition could be supplied - and were installed all over occupied Europe (see table 2).
    Innovation
    As the tide of the war began to turn the German High Command became increasingly desperate and plans were formulated to use Panther tank turrets as improvised fortifications. This was something of a departure for the Germans, since these tanks were still in production; indeed the Panther was the main medium German battle tank. Initially, the turrets used were from standard production models and, understandably, the Allies concluded from this that either 'the [Panther] chassis is not too satisfactory or that its production has been hindered by our air attacks'. Neither conclusion was in fact correct and, faced with overwhelming evidence, Allied intelligence was forced to concede that this was a standard German fortification.
    Although the first installations captured by the Allies mounted standard Panther tank turrets (primarily from the older Ausf. D, but also the later Ausf. A turret) purpose built turrets were also encountered. These turrets were simplified versions of the standard production model, the main visible difference being that they were fitted with a flat hatch rather than a cupola. The other significant difference was that the turret roof was constructed using a 40 mm plate (as opposed to 16 mm). This was because the emplaced turrets were more vulnerable to artillery fire. Once the turret had opened fire it had effectively highlighted its location to enemy artillery and therefore needed to be able to withstand the inevitable barrage. German tests showed that the additional armour meant that the turret could withstand a hit from a 150 mm artillery shell.
    Further evidence that these fortifications were not improvisations, but were specially developed, was apparent from the fact that they were mounted on purpose built shelters.
    Concrete shelter
    The concrete sub-structure was a standard construction (Regelbau 687) built by the Organisation Todt (OT). It required some 175 m3 of concrete and approximately 10 tons of steel to reinforce the structure. When finished the bunker was slightly higher than the surrounding ground. This was to enable the construction of an angled apron of concrete, which was designed to prevent enemy fire from penetrating the bunker and to prevent blast damage to the loose soil around the turret when the gun fired.
    The bunker itself had three rooms. The room directly below the turret housed a motor that operated the hydraulic rotation mechanism in the turret. Using this the turret could be traversed at six degrees per second. The motor also powered a compressor, which provided compressed air to flush out the barrel. Behind this room was an ammunition storage room which was capable of storing 450 rounds of 75 mm ammunition. The room below the turret that housed the motor was linked by several wooden steps to an ante-room. This was home to a generator and a battery which provided power for lighting, to operate the turret fan and for the electrical discharge. It also doubled as the crews living quarters and was fitted with a stove, but no beds. The smoke from the stove, together with the exhaust from the motor, was vented outside by means of a chimney. A door linked this room to a staggered entrance at the rear of the installation that led to a communication trench.
    Steel shelter
    The reinforced concrete shelter was material and labour intensive and was also difficult to construct when the enemy enjoyed almost complete air superiority. Consequently, one of the steel shelters being developed by the OT was adapted to mount the Panther turret. The development of this shelter was of great interest to Hitler and he was kept constantly informed by Speer of its progress. Indeed, it is reported that Hitler specified every small detail, and as a result of his involvement (or in spite of it) the first of these structures was available for installation by November 1943.
    The OT Shelter was constructed in two parts from electrically welded steel plates. The upper box incorporated the turret ball-race onto which the turret was mounted and was essentially the fighting compartment. It was capable of storing 175 rounds of 75 mm ammunition together with 4,500 rounds of MG ammunition.
    The lower structure was divided into three compartments. The largest, which was lined with board, formed the living accommodation. It was fitted with fold down bunk beds and a stove to heat the room. The stove was fitted with a flue that also served as an exhaust pipe for the machinery in the passageway. In the right hand rear corner of the compartment there was an escape hatch. This could be covered with a bolted plate if no escape tunnel was provided.
    The second compartment incorporated a steel ladder that linked the upper and lower boxes and also led to the main access hatch. From here a trench, which sloped fairly steeply upward, led away from the shelter and linked it to the main trench system at the rear. The trench was revetted with brush or cast building blocks and near the shelter was covered with timber cross members and spoil.
    The final compartment acted variously as a general store or as home for a two horse-power motor, together with a dynamo, a storage battery and a compressed air tank. These provided the necessary electricity to provide lighting for the shelter and turret, power for the electrical fan, and also the compressed air to flush out the barrel - without this, conditions in the turret became intolerable when the main armament was being used.
    The two boxes were buried in the ground to the point where the barrel of the mounted Panther turret was one metre above the undisturbed ground if in a level position. As with the concrete structure, this gap allowed a collar of concrete blocks covered in soil to be installed up to the roof of the top box so as to protect the shelter. On occasions, no apron was provided, instead the boxes were encased in concrete 1-1.5 m thick. Wherever possible a 30-50 cm thick concrete foundation was laid to ensure that the bunker was absolutely level - essential if the turret was to operate effectively.
    The turrets mounted on the steel shelter could not be fitted with power traverse, which meant that the turret had to be traversed by hand. This, as a captured German document stated, ‘was both slow and difficult and generally unsatisfactory’. To alleviate this problem an auxiliary drive was installed. This enabled the loader to support the gunner by hand and meant that the turret could be traversed at approximately two degrees per second.
    Desperation
    Wooden shelter
    As the war entered its final months it became clear that it would not be possible to construct all the Panther turrets on the reinforced concrete shelters as were planned. A wooden framework was therefore designed which could support the turret and base plate.
    Construction of the shelter was very simple. Four wooden props 20 cm2 supported an upper and lower timber framework, which was bolted together. The outside of the box-like framework was then boarded up before being installed in the ground. On top of this framework the turret and its base plate - which weighed 11 tons - were affixed with bolts. A motor, which drove the turret (and the compressor and dynamo), was fitted at the base of the lower structure. It was therefore essential that the upper and lower frameworks were absolutely horizontal and true if the turret was to operate effectively.
    The interior of the shelter was functional with few comforts. The walls and floor were lined with baffle boards, but there was no room in the shelter for any bunk beds. A stove provided heat and somewhere to cook. A chimney and flue for the motor were fitted to vent fumes outside. A two-part recess was let into the side of the shelter which provided storage room for 162 rounds (81 rounds in each) of 75 mm ammunition, while a recess on the opposite side of the shelter accommodated a battery. The entrance to the structure was located at the side. It consisted of a simple board door, which ultimately led to the approach trenches.
    After installing the Panther turret on the wooden framework, a number of the base plates on which the turret was mounted developed noticeable sags of approximately 6-10 mm. This was particularly evident along the diagonals and caused the turret to jam. The problem was exacerbated by irregularities in the plate surface, which had to be removed by rubbing down. Various solutions to overcome these problems were developed but their implementation was overtaken by events.
    Deployment
    When considering possible sites to install Panther turrets, the Organisation Todt had to take into account a number of factors. First, the underground water level had to be considered, because any flooding would seriously jeopardise the operation of the turret - the motor and electrical equipment were below ground level. Secondly, it was important that the turret was positioned on slightly rising ground so that the turret did not stand out against the horizon. Finally, engineers were also encouraged to avoid prominent landmarks, like road junctions, even if this meant that in some cases the turret did not have all-round operation. In addition, because the turret sat so close to the ground, operators were instructed to clear plants and trees (and in the winter, snow) which might otherwise impair the effective operation of the turret.
    Panther turrets were encountered by the Allies in Italy, in the west, where they were installed in the West Wall, and on the Eastern front. In Italy they were used to bolster the defences of the Gothic Line, especially on the eastern coastal plain around Pesaro and the passes through the Apennines, and the Hitler Line (or Senger Line) south of Rome. Here, nine turrets were positioned in a single defencive line that they were able to cover throughout its length (approximately 2 miles). They were deployed in a series of spearheads. At the tip of each spear there was a Panther turret and echeloned back on either side were two or three towed 75 mm or 50 mm anti-tank guns. The turrets were located so that they had an all-round command of the approaches, with particularly long fields of fire to the front where trees had been cut down to approximately 18 inches from the ground. The turrets, however, had more restricted fields of fire to the flank, and particularly the rear, and these weak spots were covered by the towed anti-tank guns, which at the same time supplemented the turrets' firepower. The towed guns were generally employed in pairs, approximately 150-200 yards behind or to the flank of the turrets, and were often hidden behind houses, in sunken roads or in thick cover. Some 25 self-propelled guns also took up fire positions along this same line, with some in position further to the rear to give depth to the defences (or provide the punch for any counter-attack). In all there were some 62 anti-tank guns. Pitted against this awesome array of firepower was the British Eighth Army.
    In action
    During the winter of 1943-44 the British Eighth and American Fifth Armies had been involved in a bloody battle of attrition to break the German Gustav Line south of Rome. But despite three major assaults on the German defences, which were constructed around the Cairo massif, and in particular the monastery above the town of Cassino, the Allies failed to break through and suffered heavy casualties. By early May the Eighth Army had had chance to rest and refit and was in a position to launch what was hoped would be a decisive blow. The Allies' inability to break through, however, had given Kesselring and the German High Command time to reappraise their strategy in Italy and it was decided to reinforce the defences south of Rome with the construction of the Hitler and Caesar Lines, rather than fall back to the prepared positions on the Apennines.
    The first attack on the Hitler Line was launched on the morning of 19 May 1944 and was, in terms of casualties, to set an unwanted precedent for future attacks. At first light, two battalions of infantry supported by tanks of 17th/21st Lancers and the Ontario Regiment of Canada moved off. Screened by the early morning mist, they advanced to within 300 yards of the town of Aquino, destroying an enemy anti-tank gun in the process. But as the sun rose the mist began to clear and the tanks found themselves in the open, almost literally looking down the barrels of the enemies' anti-tank guns, and emplaced Panther turrets. Despite strenuous efforts by air-photo interpreters to identify certain patches of camouflage, it had not been possible to determine the exact nature of the structure they covered. The truth now emerged, and soon three Sherman tanks of the Ontario Regiment were ablaze, each one having been hit at least twice. The supporting infantry also came under heavy fire and were forced to retire. The tanks of the Ontario Regiment, however, were ordered to hold their ground and await a renewed infantry attack. This they did, but as the battle unfolded it became clear that there was little hope of breaking the enemy line and it was decided not to renew the assault. Under the cover of darkness the remnants of the Regiment withdrew. The Ontarios had lost 13 tanks in this costly attack - 12 to anti-tank fire - and of those tanks of the two leading squadrons that withdrew, not one escaped at least one direct hit.
    By the evening of the 19th it was clear that the attempt to 'bounce' the Hitler Line had failed and that in order to breach the formidable German defences it would be necessary to launch a concerted attack.
    This was planned for 23 May and was code-named Operation Chesterfield.
    At 6 am the offensive began. The 'honour' of striking the main blow, in what was to be the first major operation by a Canadian Corps in the Second World War, fell to 1st Canadian Division. The commander, mindful of previous failures, planned to attack with two battalions of 2nd Brigade - the Seaforth Highlanders on the left supported by two squadrons of tanks of the North Irish Horse, and the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry on the right, supported by one squadron of North Irish Horse. The Patricia's, despite suffering heavy casualties, reached the enemy wire. However, their supporting tanks were stopped by an undetected minefield and as they struggled to find a way through came under heavy anti-tank fire, which knocked out four tanks. The remainder fell back and attempted to find an alternative route forward. The Seaforth Highlanders made better progress, but their armoured support (B squadron North Irish Horse) when only 100 yards from the first objective came under intense anti-tank fire which accounted for five of its number, including the squadron leader. His tank was later found to be no more than thirty yards from a Panther turret emplacement. The remaining tanks withdrew and, together with tanks from C squadron, advanced on a new axis. They had not progressed far when they came under heavy artillery fire and were ordered to withdraw. Unfortunately, in trying to carry out this order the composite force was caught in a fusillade of enemy anti-tank fire, which resulted in seven tanks being destroyed, while the defenders lost one emplaced turret and a 75 mm anti-tank gun.
    In accordance with Vokes' plan, and knowing nothing of their countrymen's plight, the Loyal Edmontons, together with a squadron of 51st Royal Tank Regiment (RTR), advanced in accordance with the second phase of the attack. The tanks, however, were soon halted by mines, just as those of the North Irish Horse had been previously, and provided the enemy anti-tank gunners with yet more inviting targets. With the reserves committed, the commander of 2nd Brigade had nothing with which to exploit the success of the Seaforth Highlanders and so the battle on this portion of the front reached deadlock.
    To the south, the feint by 3rd Infantry Brigade, supported by two squadrons of 51 RTR, enjoyed rather more success. Indeed, the tanks, after a fierce battle with enemy anti-tank and self-propelled guns, fought their way forward to the Aquino-Pontecorvo road - the first objective of the main thrust. During this advance another Panther turret was spectacularly put out of action and is described here by G. Birdsall, troop sergeant of 5th Troop 'A' Squadron 51 RTR:
    'We kept moving forward (A squadron) and eventually came within sight of the objective, the Aquino-Pontecorvo road. In front of me was a Churchill tank, which I later identified as the Colonel's (Lt. Col. Holden) which was engaging a Panther turret, which was the only one in our immediate front as far as I could see. As I came up behind the CO's tank I saw the gun barrel on the Panther turret suddenly shot up in the air to an almost perpendicular position followed by a message on the wireless exhorting the battalion to "stand fast" and to "look what Father's done". Lt. Col. Holden had advanced to approximately 300-400 yards of the turret before engaging the target.'
    This, as another veteran of the battle recounted, was the sole method of destroying these fortifications. As he stated, 'The only way to knock the turrets out was to get in close, which was feasible, although extremely dangerous, and fire a round under the gun mantlet and above the base plate which stopped the turret traversing', or, as in the example above, exploded the ammunition stored immediately below.
    By the end of 23 May, the Hitler Line in the south had been broken and the enemy began to fall back in some disarray. Accordingly, on the morning of 24 May, a probing attack was launched against the northern part of the line around the town of Aquino. In light of the enemy's heavy defeat the previous day, little resistance was expected. But soon after moving off the infantry was pinned down and to assist them two troops of tanks of 14 Canadian Armoured Regiment pushed forward and began to bring fire to bear on the enemy. When they were within 400 yards of the town, however, two Panther turrets engaged them. Four of the six tanks were instantly holed and set on fire resulting in 17 casualties. The remaining two tanks beat a hasty retreat as it was clear that the enemy, despite being outflanked, still held the defences in strength. Only on 25 May did the enemy finally withdraw having first demolished the two Panther turrets.
    The two turrets protecting Aquino were the last of the nine turrets to be destroyed - the seven others having been accounted for by the Shermans and Churchills of 25th Tank Brigade. The price, however, was high. An intelligence report written after the battle noted, 'In front of each position there was a graveyard of Churchills and some Shermans ... This is, at present, the price of reducing a Panther turret and it would seem to be an excellent investment for Hitler.' Indeed it was, the Panther turrets inflicted on the Eighth Army its heaviest tank losses of the Italian campaign. In all 25th Tank Brigade lost 44 tanks (although some were later recovered). And it could have been a lot worse. As another report stated,
    'If the enemy had been able to complete his preparations and received better (and more) infantry support the attack would have been much more costly'.
    as fixed fortifications
    .

    Osprey - The German use of tank turrets as fixed fortifications
     
  2. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

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    I was particularly interested in the story about the two Panther turrets.
     
  3. Tomcat

    Tomcat The One From Down Under

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    I had heard a story about panther turrents being used in a bunker as a type of protected field gun, but I never knew if was true or not.
     
  4. Joe

    Joe Ace

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    I am particularly interested in the R-35 turrets in the Atlantic wall. Why spend all that time building the bunkers for such an ineffective turret?
     
  5. Seadog

    Seadog Member

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    Reportedly, the Russians have similar bunkers located along the border with China, using old T-34 turrets and other obsolete models. It is not a bad concept for fixed emplacements. Properly placed, they can control key passages and slow any attacks. Plus, a good tactic is to site a bunker to be difficult to destroy, and when it gets attacked by ground troops, as is normal, other bunkers will be sited to cover the original bunker until it can be evacuated.
     
  6. Ceraphix

    Ceraphix Member

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    Maybe the Germans thought it was wasteful to have so many lying around? They were still useful vs infantry too.
     
  7. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

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  8. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

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    Im really surprised that with the need for more tanks that they would use Panther turrets in the fortifications when they could have been used better elsewhere. Using the obsolete turrets made more sense.
     
  9. Tomcat

    Tomcat The One From Down Under

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    That R35 tank turrent almost looks cute up on the hill. lol, nice pics to JCF.:)
     
  10. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

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    Thanks. You never really think on how small the one man turret really was.
     
  11. T. A. Gardner

    T. A. Gardner Genuine Chief

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    In most cases the bunker was going to be built anyway. In a number of those positions that got the small French tank turrets these were plopped on top of a ringständ that was modified to accept the turret ring. This gave the firer the dual advantages of now having some armor around him and a bit more firepower than just an MG 34 or 42. This was the typical way these turrets found their way into the Atlantic Wall.
     
    Joe likes this.
  12. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

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    Just think of being in it facing the Invasion LOL.
     
  13. Richard

    Richard Expert

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    Yep it's true. The Germans had them in Italy on the Gothic line & Hitler line.

    Osprey Publishing
    Fortress Series No.45

    German Defences in Italy in World War Two
    ISBN 184176938X

    Try amazon has it will be a bit cheaper from there.
     
  14. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

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    Joe likes this.
  15. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

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    Google Book Seach allows you to preview quite a few publications. You cant read all of the books but you can get alot of information from the preview. Here is one about the Atlantic Wall By Steven J. Zaloga.

    The Atlantic Wall (1): France - Google Book Search
     
  16. von Poop

    von Poop Waspish

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  17. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

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    [​IMG]


    [​IMG]
     
  18. Tomcat

    Tomcat The One From Down Under

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    The one with the turrent in the middle of the road, looks good, you probably wouldn't know what to think if you saw it.
     
  19. Falcon Jun

    Falcon Jun Ace

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    I like to call this one the "trip wire." It's a system set up not to hold but to delay. As you've noted, the troops manning this system are meant to be evacuated. Their main task really is to survive and report that their line or border has been breached so that the invaded country can mobilize its forces .
    As for that turret in the middle of the road, I thought it was something that was blown off a tank and landed right side up.
    As always, nice pics guys.
     
  20. Za Rodinu

    Za Rodinu Aquila non capit muscas

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    A casemated turret or something that fell off a Panther I don't know, but in any case this would have a very limied field of fire, nothing that a few smoke shells wouldn't mask or couldn't be gone around.
     

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