Rivers and seas have always been impediments to the movement and progress of land forces, and history records many of the ingenious ways utilised over time to transport combat troops across bodies of water. While the Wehrmacht in during the Second World War never possessed the same capacity as the Allies in amphibious assault capabilities, they nevertheless conceptualised and developed some interesting vehicles to assist in projecting force across a river barrier, or onto a hostile shore.
One of the strangest looking but most effective of these designs was the Landwasserschlepper or Land-Water-Tractor (LWS), an unarmoured and unarmed hybrid of small vessel and tracked vehicle, specifically designed as a river tug with some capacity to operate on dry land.
The Land-Water-Tractor was a tracked amphibious tractor intended for use by German Army engineers to cross rivers and other water barriers, to carry freight or passengers or tow laden unpowered barges to the water’s edge and drag them onto land. It was a capable and robust vehicle with a good capacity, but had a convoluted evolution due to the complexity of the basic design. These manufacturing issues, along with a misplaced priority for German amphibious capabilities meant that the LWS was late into service, and far too few were manufactured to be of any use to German forces.
As such, it remains today as an interesting footnote to the story of amphibious warfare during the Second World War.
The rapid re-armament of Germany from 1933 onwards was mostly geared towards the strengthening of German land warfare capabilities, as well as a massive increase in the combat effectiveness of the Luftwaffe. With its overriding focus on continental warfare, the German Army had limited use for amphibious capabilities except for the crossing of rivers and other land-locked water bodies.
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As such, design projects for specialised vehicles and landing craft did not have an immediate priority in Berlin, but the need for some capability in this field was recognised, and so a formal requirement for an amphibious tractor slowly percolated its way up through the bureaucracy, and was authorised for development.
In 1935 the German Army Weapons Agency or Heereswaffenamt (HWA) announced a formal proposal for the design and manufacture of an amphibious tractor to be used by German Army engineers. After a lengthy process of assessment the Rheinmetall-Borsig company from Dusseldorf was selected to provide a prototype vehicle in 1936.
The Rheinmetall-Borsig design proposal finalised as the hull of a motor boat with an enclosed superstructure taking up most of the forward section of the deck, except for a small flat load-carrying area at the stern.
This assembly was then grafted onto a tracked vehicle chassis, which provided the ability to traverse dry land. Propellers were employed to travel in water.
This was an ambitious concept, and like many designs of a complex nature several major problems were encountered in the prototyping process. Some of these were so complex that several different companies were brought into the project to help with technical hurdles, but this only contributed to the re-occurring delays in getting the LWS accepted into service.
The prolonged delay in the project was only overcome in 1939, when Europe was sliding inexorably towards war. Still, only seven examples had been completed by July 1940, but German victory in the Battle of France and the realisation that the Wehrmacht would have to cross the English Channel to take the war to England led to some urgency in further procurement.
Even though a further fourteen units had been manufactured by March 1941, changing German strategic plans negated large-scale employment of the LWS, and some accounts state that only a hundred examples were eventually made. The LWS formally entered service with the German Army in 1942.
The basic model was intended to be replaced in 1944 by the LWS II, an armoured version based on the Panzer Mk IV chassis, but this new model never progressed much beyond prototyping and testing.
Amphibious tractors by their very nature are large vehicles, as sufficient internal volume must be present to permit the vehicle to be buoyant and seaworthy. The LWS is a good example of the large dimensions of most amphibious vehicles, but the platform’s large size did not detract from its excellent operational ability.
However, the size of the LWS did make it a conspicuous target on water or land, a state of affairs not helped by the vehicle’s lack of protective armour.
The LWS was 8.6 metres (28 feet 3 inches) long, 3.16 metres (10 feet 4 inches) wide, and 3.13 metres (10 feet 3 inches) tall. It was constructed of unarmoured steel, and had a total operating weight of 13,000 kilograms (14.3 tons). The vehicle had a crew of two, and up to twenty passengers could be embarked, along with a limited capacity to carry freight.
A Maybach HL-120 petrol engine served as the main power plant. This was a V12 design with a displacement of nearly 12 litres, and produced up to 300 nhp at 2400rpm. It drove both the tracks and propellers, making the LWS a duplex-drive type of amphibious vehicle. The LWS could attain a speed of 35 km/h (21 mph) on level surfaces, and was capable of a water speed of 12 km/h (7.5 mph).
The LWS had a range of 150 kilometres when operating on land.
Service (or lack thereof)
The almost total collapse of the French Army and the miraculous escape of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk in 1940 actually upset the planning of the German General Staff for future operations, as a large range of tactical problems emerged after the French surrender.
Both Britain and America as seafaring nations had developed much equipment and doctrine for use in littoral and amphibious warfare, but Germany as a continental power had lagged behind in acquiring these capabilities. The result of this was that the German Army’s victorious advance came to an abrupt halt on the French coast in 1940.
Faced with the prospect of forcing a landing on British soil after crossing the formidable and heavily-defended English Channel, the German Army immediately started to assemble the necessary amphibious assets to carry out this ambitious war aim.
Unfortunately, the past lack of interest in amphibious capabilities came back to haunt the Wehrmacht, as the resultant collection of civilian and military barges, small motor vessels and modest numbers of specialised equipment like the LWS was at best an ad-hoc solution, and almost totally inadequate for the task of invading a pugnacious and determined Britain.
The range of tactical challenges facing the Germans was daunting, and Operation Sea Lion was beset with problems caused by both administrative fumbling and the intractable nature of the opposing forces across the Channel. The Royal Navy in all its majesty and formidable combat power would make mincemeat of the cobbled-together German amphibious fleet if it was caught in the middle of the assault, and the Royal Navy was well protected from Luftwaffe retaliation by the Royal Air Force.
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As the defeat of the RAF was recognised to be the first vital factor in the success of Sea Lion, the German Army and the Kriegsmarine happily sat back while the Luftwaffe was thrown into the fray, but failed to overcome the RAF. The resultant stalemate was a strategic victory for Britain with Hitler abandoning the idea of invasion, and his consequent invasion of the Soviet Union was a massive strategic blunder that exposed Germany to the horrors of a two-front war.
This sudden German need for any amphibious capability saw the first seven LWS rushed to the French coast in 1940, and these were formed into a specialised unit known as the ‘Tank Detachment 100’. This occurred after a demonstration of the LWS to General Franz Halder in August 1940, who recognised the utility of such a vehicle despite his criticisms of its size.
The tidal conditions of the English Channel emphasised the need for an amphibious tractor, as the six hour low tide proscribed the use of barges or landing craft, and only amphibious tractors like the LWS could cross the coast to make landfall in these conditions. The LWS was also intended to be employed towing unpowered river barges (collected by the German Army from a wide variety of sources) towards the shore, then dragging these barges onto land where the cargo could be unloaded.
The LWS was also meant to tow any bogged vehicles stranded after leaving the invasion barges onto dry land.
The enclosed superstructure that guaranteed the seaworthiness of the LWS meant that it could embark passengers in reasonable safety and comfort, but restricted the ability of the LWS to carry any meaningful amount of freight, as well as having no equipment fitted to help with the loading and unloading of cargo.
One method of overcoming this design shortfall was by the employment of a specialised amphibious cargo trailer, which was towed by the LWS across any water body. This ‘Kassbohrer’ specialised amphibious trailer had three wheeled axles in water-tight mountings, and could carry between 10 and 20 tons of freight.
Preparations continued for the invasion of the British mainland, but continuing delays and postponements at least allowed the start of manufacture of the second tranche of LWS production, however Sea Lion was cancelled before these vehicles were completed. Without a reason for large scale manufacture, the production of the LWS ground to a halt after a total of 21 vehicles were completed, though some accounts state the final number as 100 units.
The few operational vehicles saw active service in North Africa, and were employed extensively during Operation Barbarossa in 1941-42. It was a popular vehicle with its crews, who appreciated the basic good qualities of the LWS, and the platform performed well within the limits of its design parameters. The LWS served the German Army until defeat in April 1945.
The Land-Water-Tractor was an excellent design that performed well in its assigned role, but like other capable systems suffered from either a lack of priority and foresight, or by only having limited numbers of the platform entering service.
This lack of long-range planning could have a huge impact on how strategic decisions were made, as the invasion of Britain was cancelled when the necessary specialised equipment was found to be totally inadequate in quantity.
History may have told a different tale if the German Army had sufficient amphibious warfare capabilities to invade Britain, and this would have been enhanced with the addition of several hundred LWS amphibious tractors to the invasion fleet.
On such lack of foresight wars are won and lost, and interesting and capable designs like the LWS end up as interesting footnotes in the story of armoured vehicles.