The Panzer I Ausf. F is a hilarious looking little tank. It has absurdly thick armor for its size and is almost as wide as it is long.
It shares its name with the Panzer I, but the two tanks have very little in common, with the I Ausf. F resembling a miniature Tiger tank.
In complete contrast to its armor, the Ausf. F only carried machine guns, making it completely useless against any sort of armored target.
The story of the “Baby Tiger” starts in the early 1930s with the Panzer I light tank. The Panzer I was designed as a training vehicle in the post Treaty of Versailles era of Germany, where large scale armament and manufacture was strictly forbidden.
It was never meant to see frontline service, so it was only fitted with a maximum of 13 mm of armor and two MG 34 machine guns in the turret.
However what is planned and what ends up happening are often very different things; the Panzer I was used on the frontlines in the Spanish Civil War as the Panzer I Ausf. A. Its short comings in firepower and protection relegated it mostly to reconnaissance duties.
Eventually the Ausf. A would be improved upon in 1936 with the Ausf. B; the main differences being improved suspension, a more powerful engine and a new gearbox. Unfortunately, the Ausf. B didn’t bring any extra protection or firepower to the table.
The Ausf. C addressed that.
Development of the Ausf. C began in 1939 but it wouldn’t see production until 1942. It was a vastly different vehicle to the original Panzer I, really only sharing its name.
It featured a new chassis with double the armor (30 mm) of the Ausf. A and B. In addition to this, it brought torsion bar suspension, over lapping road wheels, a new turret with a high velocity anti-tank rifle and a 150 hp Maybach HL 45 6 cylinder engine.
In development at the start of the war – around the same time as the Ausf. C – was the Panzer I Ausf. F, the focus of this article.
The Panzer I Ausf. F
The Ausf. F was an even further departure from the Panzer I family, barely similar to even the Ausf. C.
Known as the VK18.01 during its design phases (VK meaning Versuchs Kampffahrzeug, or “trial combat vehicle”), it was intended to be a heavily armored “variant” of the Panzer I, sharing the same two man crew but little more.
The VK18.01’s was built to be a “light” infantry support tank.
Infantry tanks – most famously used by the British with the Matilda and Churchill – drive at walking pace during an infantry assault. They absorb incoming fire, attack dug in enemy positions and provide mobile cover to the advancing troops.
This vehicle was part of Germany’s larger plan to tackle the fortifications erected all over Europe after the First World War. Swapping static warfare for high speed manoeuvres, they needed vehicles that could survive European defenses.
In many ways the VK18.01 was similar in concept to the British Matilda I.
Germany’s Army Ordnance Department awarded the contract to design the hull to heavy metal works Krauss-Maffei, and the contract for the turret to Daimler-Benz.
The VK18.01 was restricted in weight to a maximum of 20 tons so it could use German portable bridges.
Being an infantry tank, it needed armor, and that was exactly what the VK18.01 had plenty of.
Tiny Tank, Massive Armor
At the front it had an incredible 80 mm of armor, thicker than the frontal hull armor of a KV-1 and only 20 mm less than the front of the Tiger I heavy tank.
The sides and rear were 50 mm thick, the same as the front of an M4 Sherman.
Naturally, this armor came at the cost of weight. The tank blasted through the 20 ton weight limit.
Around this time Germany was developing a similar vehicle, the VK 16.01, or Panzer II Ausf. J. The two shared some components.
Despite being barely larger than a Panzer I, the VK18.01 weighed 23 tons, nearly 18 tons more than the Panzer I.
The weight of the vehicle meant it needed a new suspension system. It was fitted with torsion bar suspension and overlapping wheels similar to heavier German tanks. The overlapping helped increase track width without using large amounts of rubber.
The tank wore 50 cm wide tracks; very wide for a vehicle of this size. In fact, when looking at the vehicle, it consists mainly of tracks!
While the tank featured some truly impressive armor, the same couldn’t be said for its armament.
This came in the form of two 7.92 mm MG 34 machine guns poking out the gun mantlet. Needless to say, these guns were incapable against anything remotely armored, but its role wasn’t to tackle armored vehicles, so this was deemed acceptable.
The turret had 5 periscopes on the turret, allowing the commander to observe the battle while battened down under a hail of incoming fire. This choice was made in part to avoid putting the viewports in the armor itself, which can weaken it.
The engine in the tank was the same 150 hp Maybach HL 45 six cylinder petrol engine as used in the Panzer 1 Ausf. C. This gave the VK18.01 a top speed of only 15 mph on road and 9 mph cross country.
However like the measly firepower these speeds weren’t too concerning to designers, as infantry tanks are meant to advance at walking pace anyway.
Panzer I Ausf. F in Service
The VK18.01 entered production in 1942 as the Panzer I Ausf. F. At this time, the Allies had no tank-mounted gun that could reliably deal with its armor.
This was great, but by this time the Ausf. F had no reason to exist. European fortifications – such as the Maginot Line – had already been taken, rendering the Ausf. F useless.
A further order of 100 was made, but this was eventually cancelled, meaning only 30 Ausf. Fs were built.
Surprisingly they actually saw service, although their use throughout the war was sporadic. Their first action was meant to come at Malta, but this never happened, so they were first used against the Soviets.
Armed with machine guns and not being used in the role they were built for, they did not fare well. They did prove to be effective minesweepers in a pinch, though.
After this many were switched into a policing role off of the front lines. Here they saw much better success, as their thick armor made them effectively impenetrable to partisans and they did not have to face armor themselves.
The boxy hull, thick armor, overlapping wheels, wide tracks and driver’s vision slot has led to people calling it the Baby Tiger.
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Luckily, two of these tanks are known to have survived. One is in the Kubinka Tank Museum and the other is at the Military Museum in Belgrade.