(medium infantry armored car)
The NWHA will see a major change this year with the introduction of Allied and German armored vehicles. There has been a lot of discussion on how these 'tracks' will affect events. For units that have armor they must find a way to exploit its advantages both in attack and in defense, while also finding ways to protect it from the inevitable attention it will draw from opponents. For those who don't yet have a vehicle it has become important to acquire or add to their anti-tank capabilities. (It is even rumored that the provisional Russian unit is searching local animal shelters for suitable demolition dogs.) This article will focus on the new German half-track, touching on both the history of the general model as well as the restoration process.
The tactics of Blitzkrieg were to punch a hole in the enemy's line through the application of armor and close air-support. Mobile forces would then push through and sweep deep behind the lines, enveloping the enemy's troops. In order for these tactics to work well it's clear that the supporting infantry must be able to keep up with the armored advance, as well as fight side-by-side with the tanks. The half-track was the answer, and while it served the German forces well its creation and early development took place in Allied nations.
The creation of the half-track is credited to the engineer Alphonse Kégresse, a Frenchman working for the Czar of Russia in the early 1900's. He added a bogie assembly with rubber tracks in order to improve a car's performance in winter weather. Later, he would return to his native country, with Citroën producing a version of his vehicle that was used by the armies of America, Britain, and France in the 1920's and 1930's. The British in particular experimented with using the half-track to create mobile forces of infantry for use in breakthrough attacks. Despite some promising trials with these units in war games the British high command was less than enthusiastic and by the 1930's half-tracks had disappeared in the British military. However, the German observers at these maneuvers were more impressed and brought their observations back to Germany where they were vigorously developed rather than ignored.
The German armed forces were already using tracked artillery transports. When the decision came to build half-tracks for the infantry the basic design was made by placing armor on the existing artillery version. The prototype of this synthesis was produced in 1938 with rapid production following on. They were assigned to replace trucks for the troops in the burgeoning armored divisions. The main infantry carrier was a 3-ton vehicle which, although called a half-track, actually had tracks on three-quarters of the chassis, and was much longer than the previous Kégresse vehicles. It was given the designation SdKfz 251 and was built primarily by Hanomag & Büssing-NAG. It had 14 1/2 mm of armor on the front panels and 8mm on the sides. The effectiveness of the armor was greatly increased by the use of sloped angles.
In the battles in Poland and France the half-track was used in conjunction with tanks. The 'armored taxi' would push as far forward as possible, protecting the troops from small-arms fire and shrapnel. The infantry would then disembark and attack from close range, supported by the firepower of their vehicles.
Many different versions of the SdKfz 251 were produced, with a variety of weaponry or equipment based on its role. The standard model was termed the 251/1, and was equipped with a forward firing MG-34 in a swivel-mounted gun shield. A second gun was often attached to the back for anti-aircraft defense. The 251/1 was also used as an 80mm mortar carrier. Following is a list of other variants employed:
The 251 also underwent several body design changes. The version that will be recreated by the 11th Panzer's half-track is the Ausf C. This model was first produced in mid-1940 and continued through 1943. It is recognizable by its 'V' shaped rear doors and side armor, and had storage boxes attached to the top of the track fenders. The subsequent, more efficiently produced Ausf D version used flat, sloped rear doors and flat lower armor with integral storage boxes. The 11th Panzer's choice of the Ausf C will allow more flexibility in events, as the Ausf D was not in production in time for desert campaigns.
After the war the Skoda manufacturing company in Czechoslovakia began producing a half-track very similar to the 251/1 Ausf D, which the Czechs designated the OT-810. This is the version purchased by club members which will fight with the 11th Panzer. The OT-810 was produced in two runs. The first from approximately 1950 to 1955, the second from approximately 1959 to 1963. The model stayed in service with the Czech army until the 1970's. The OT-810 has a number of small differences which required alteration by club members. These brought the half-track closer to the original configuration of the German model.
The first step was to cut away the roof and commander's copula added to the OT-810s (251's having open tops) and the filling-in of the side gun-ports. The next step was the addition of a scratch built gun shield with a gas-gun MG-34. The detail put into the gun shield is exceptional, with the appropriate horizontal and vertical swivel mounting, lock-down, gun-cradle and leather tie-down all being recreated.
There are several differences which will not be changed. The first is the 130hp, air-cooled, diesel V-8 in the OT-810; the German models having used a more complicated, lower hp, gas-powered inline-6. The second involves the steering mechanism. The original design was steered with a wheel, which when turned over 15 degrees in either direction would cause brakes on the differential to engage, causing a power shift to the tracks based on how much turn was applied to the wheel. The OT-810 added two 'quick-turn' levers, one for each track, which can be pulled to effect an instant turn. The OT-810 has four forward gears and one reverse, with a hi-low shift as well.
Besides the numerous small changes, other significant modifications being made include: change troop seats to fixed position, change to single-hinged rear doors, removal of engine heating and radio equipment, repainting, reshaping the side armor to full 'V', and the addition of external storage boxes. One unexpected repair which delayed the 251 from attending events sooner was the repair of the differential, a part which is very prone to failure on this type of vehicle. When proper replacement parts could not be found new ones were built. The differential itself was then rebuilt in Florida in a more stable fashion that should avoid any further problems.
Club members should be aware of the lack of visibility for the driver of this vehicle. Safe conduct is imperative when in proximity to the half-track. Unless you are part of the squad manning the half-track you should keep your distance. Do not run up to the track to attack it; stay at a safe distance. You must assume at all times that the driver does not see you, and act accordingly.
A great deal of the information for this article was provided by the owners of the half-track, with particulars on the dates and model number drawn from Land Power: An Illustrated Military History, published by Exeter Books.