The Luchs - Germany's Cutest Tank - Tank Historia

The Luchs – Germany’s Cutest Tank

The Luchs is the tank community’s favourite “cute” tank – why? Just look at it! With its tiny gun, small size and chunky proportions, the Luchs can make even the most cold-hearted tank enthusiasts feel warm and fuzzy inside.

But of course, the Luchs was not built to be cute (we haven’t seen any archive documents listing this requirement, at least…), it was built to be a dedicated scouting machine.

It incorporated lessons learned during the invasion of Poland in 1939, which, despite its overall success, highlighted a number of weak links with Germany’s equipment.

The Luchs’ small length made it highly agile, its low weight made it fast, and its wide tracks allowed it to move over boggy ground. However only 100 would be built before the order was cancelled. They suffered extremely high losses, and today only two survive.

Contents

Background

Tiger 1 & Normandy Bunkers
Tiger 1 & Normandy Bunkers

The Luchs was a descendant of the Panzer II light tank, and designated as such, although it was an entirely new design. As the Panzer II was designed before the lessons of the Spanish Civil War became apparent, it had serious drawbacks in its initial role of equipping the Panzer divisions during the early part of the Second World War.

Its armor was only designed to stop machine gun fire and shell fragments, and the 20mm cannon that comprised its main armament was woefully inadequate against enemy armored vehicles. As such, the Panzer II was relegated to the reconnaissance role.

A Panzer II off-road.
The Panzer II was lacking off-road.

Unfortunately, the Panzer II’s inherent downsides meant it suffered in this role too. For starters, the tank commander was also the gunner, which meant that he could not devote his time to the vital task of battlefield surveillance. The vehicle itself was also underpowered, with a top speed of 25 mph (40 kmh), and the 20 mm main armament was only supplied with 180 rounds, packed in 10-round magazines.

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But, one of Germany’s biggest greivances with the Panzer II in the reconnaissance role was its poor off-road performance. Its small size, thin tracks and weak engine seriously limited its performance on bad terrain, something Germany had serious issues with during the invasion of Poland in 1939.

Panzer IIs in Poland.
Panzer IIs in Poland, 1939. Image by Joachim Döhle CC BY-SA 3.0 de.

An order was placed in September 1939 for the development of a new reconnaissance vehicle purpose built for the job. In particular, it was required to be fast and good off-road.

Development

MAN and Daimler-Benz were tasked with producing this machine, and they got to work right away utilising the hull and basic components of another light tank they had been working on, the three-man VK 9.01.

The new machine was designated the VK 13.01, and immediately improved upon the VK 9.01 and Panzer II by adding a fourth crewman. The VK 13.01 began trials in 1941, but its development came to an end around this time, with little information left today to fully explain its story.

The VK 9.01 prototype.
The VK 9.01 prototype.

MAN and Daimler-Benz’ work to develop a light tank now focused on another tank, the VK 13.03. This tank utilised some components from the previous designs, but was simplified in some areas. The VK 13.03 would eventually become what we know today as the Luchs (German for Lynx).

An order for its production was placed in August 1941, and a mild steel prototype was produced in early 1942. A few months later, the order number for the Luchs was increased from 500 to 800, with the first machines being completed in September 1942.

The Luchs was a brand-new vehicle compared to the Panzer II, specially designed for the armored reconnaissance role. One of the major deficiencies of the Panzer II was rectified with the adoption of a new turret, which meant that the vehicle crew had a dedicated gunner operating the main armament. This enabled the commander to concentrate on the role of battlefield surveillance without distraction.

Luchs light tank at Saumur.
One of the two surviving Luchs. This one is at the Musée des Blindés in Saumur, France.

Improved armor, better radios, a larger engine enabling greater mobility and enhanced ammunition stowage meant that the Luchs was far more capable in the role of armored reconnaissance that its improvised predecessors.

The Luchs

The Ausf. L was 4.7 metres (15 feet) in length, 2.5 metres (8 feet) in width, and 2.2 metres (7 feet) in height. Its extremely short length reduced the track length, bringing the tank closer to a square shape which is much more manoeuvrable.

The vehicle was fitted with a Maybach HL 66P six cylinder liquid-cooled inline engine, which generated 180 hp.

Luchs size comparison next to a Tiger II.
The Luchs’ small size is really put in perspective here, beside a Tiger II at The Tank Museum, Bovington.

The gearbox was a synchromesh manual unit, with six forward gears and one reverse gear. This drivetrain combination was sufficient to allow the 13 ton Luchs to travel at speeds up to 37 mph (60 kmh). Two fuel tanks carrying a total of 235 litres were provided; this enabled the vehicle to have a range of nearly 190 miles (300 kilometres) on road surfaces.

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The suspension of the Luchs was of the torsion bar type, with all wheels overlapping, a design feature also found other German machines. The first and last travel wheels on each side were equipped with shock absorbers (dampers) to stabilize the ride. The tracks were 360mm in width, and the configuration for these was the ‘slack track’ design, with no upper guide wheels to support the track above the travel wheels.

Luchs running gear.
The initial requirements that led to the Luchs included a request for rubber-padded tracks. This was later dropped as the pads had a tendency to fall off.

For the tank’s size and weight these tracks were very wide. This was a conscious choice to increase the track’s surface area (and therefore weight distribution), which was very small due to the tank’s short length.

The front armor on the turret and chassis was 30mm thick, with a slope of between 10-25 degrees. The armor on the sides and rear was 20mm in thickness, and the top of the turret and the underbelly of the vehicle only had 10mm of armor plate.

Front armor of the Luchs.
The frontal armor and driver’s viewport.

In some reconnaissance units, additional 20mm plates were bolted onto the frontal surfaces of the Luchs.

The main armament was the 20mm KwK 38 L/55 autocannon with the 1.3 metre long barrel as used in the anti-aircraft model of this weapon, and in this configuration had a theoretical range of 2,500 metres (8,200 ft).

BANNER

This gun had a cyclic rate of 600 rounds per minute, but in the Luchs this rate was not achieved as the ammunition was packed in 10-round magazines.

With its most powerful ammunition the KwK 38 could penetrate around 40 mm of steel from a range of 100 meters (330 ft), enough to shred the sides and rear of a Sherman at close range.

Close up of the Luchs' armament.
The 2 cm KwK 38 L/55 mounted in the Luchs. To its left is a 7.92 mm MG 34 machine gun.

In normal practice only single shots were fired at ground targets. A total of 32-33 magazines were provided for ammunition storage, with a total vehicle capacity of 320-330 main gun rounds.

Even during the design phase of the Luchs, it was realised that the main gun was inadequate for this task, so it was proposed to mount the 50mm KwK 39 L/60 cannon to better arm the vehicle. It was planned to switch to using 50 mm guns after the first 100 Luchs, but as production ended at 100, this never happened.

In the end, all 100 production vehicles were equipped with the 20mm cannon.

KwK 39 50 mm gun
The 50 mm KwK 39 (shown here) was a variant of the PaK 38 for use in tanks. It was used in the later Panzer III and the Sd. Kfz. 234/2 armored car. Interestingly, a fully automatic version of this gun (the BK-5) was used in some German aircraft. Image by Hal9001 CC BY 3.0.

The coaxial weapon in the turret of the Luchs was the well tested MG 34 machine gun, which was mounted in a special armored sleeve next to the main gun. 2250 rounds of ammunition was provided for this weapon, which had a firing rate of 900 rounds per minute, and an effective combat range of nearly two kilometres.

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To help mask the vehicle in combat situations where a swift retreat was considered necessary, three Nebelwurfgerat 39 90 mm smoke grenade launchers were provided.

The only major modifications made to the design was the replacement of the steering/track control mechanism – which in its original complex form malfunctioned constantly – with a simpler system employing brake levers.

The back of the Luchs light tank.
The rear of the Luchs, containing the Maybach HL 66P six cylinder engine. Image taken at The Tank Museum, Bovington by Morio CC BY-SA 4.0.

The boarding hatch in the rear of the turret was enlarged, and the main hatch for the commander was raised slightly to provide a better viewing platform. Two radio transceivers were provided, the FuG 12, and the FuG Spr models. This enabled effective communication between vehicles, and back to a command centre to a distance of 15 miles (25 kilometres).

Service

As mentioned, only a small batch of 100 Luchs were completed during the war, some of which were assembled from components originally made for earlier vehicle proposals. In addition, production took place very slowly, as the run lasted from September 1942 until January 1944 – averaging just over 6 per month.

For comparison, the US produced over 10,000 Stuart light tanks in this same period – the Stuart was equally as fast, had more armor and a more powerful gun.

The Luchs was supplied to armored reconnaissance detachments of Panzer divisions, and these units were meant to be equipped with four 7-tank platoons with an additional vehicle for use by the company commander.

Light tank in Russia 1944.
A Luchs on the Eastern Front, 1944. This example is fitted with the long-range Fu 12 radio set, indicated by the star aerial.

However due to the limited numbers of vehicles completed, only two specialist companies were outfitted with this number of tanks, and these companies were attached primarily to the 4th Panzer Division on the Eastern Front, and later to the 9th Panzer Division in the West. The rest of the production run were distributed to other armored formations in small numbers.

The Luchs served on the Eastern Front, and also during the Normandy Campaign in the Western Theatre of Operations. Unverified reports state that the first mass employment of the vehicle in the reconnaissance role took place during Operation Citadel (the Kursk Offensive) in 1943.

Supposedly, of the 29 vehicles employed by 4th Panzer Division, only five survived until September 1st, and with recoveries of some battle-damaged examples ten vehicles were left for use in reconnaissance duties with the 4th Panzer Division until the end of the war.

Luchs tank in museum.
The Tank Museum’s Luchs is Fahrgestell number 200164, and was damaged by an artillery shell during the war.

The 9th Panzer Division had a total of 29 examples on the strength of the reconnaissance company in March 1944 before the Normandy invasion. All were involved in the savage fighting during this campaign, and most survived until July 1944, when all were destroyed in battles and the cauldron of destruction of the Falaise Pocket, which saw hideous losses of all types of armored vehicles exposed to constant Allied air power and ground fire.

The small numbers of the Luchs assigned to other panzer divisions fared just as badly as the war came to a conclusion, and only two examples survived the fighting to be captured. One resides at The Tank Museum, Bovington in Britain, and the other can be seen at the Musée des Blindés at Saumur, France.

Conclusion

The PzKpfw II Ausf. L Luchs was an excellent example of a light tank specially configured for armored reconnaissance, and whilst popular with its crews and far superior to its predecessors it still suffered from a couple of major drawbacks, which ended up limiting its service utility.

Firstly, the small total number of vehicles produced limited its employment as the main armored reconnaissance vehicle of the German panzer divisions, where greater numbers of the platform would have increased its effectiveness in this role.

Front view.
The Musée des Blindés’ Luchs has been restored into running condition.

Secondly, and most telling, was the almost total inadequacy of its main armament. The 20mm autocannon was simply not up to scratch for use in armored warfare, and plans to fit a larger and more effective 50mm cannon came to naught.

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As such, the Luchs ends up contrasting poorly against platforms such as the M24 Chaffee light tank, which had similar mobility, but a far more effective 75mm main gun. What may have seemed satisfactory in the middle part of the Second World War was completely inadequate by 1944, and German armored forces suffered as a result of these deficiencies.