While development of the of the Pz.Kpf.W. I (Panzer I) light tank (Sd.Kfz. 121) was still ongoing, the Pz.Kpf.W. II (Panzer II) light tank was already being devised as an interim tank model series to bridge the gap between the former light tank and the projected Pz.Kpf.W III (Panzer III) and Pz.Kpf.W IV medium tanks. The Panzer III and Panzer IV were both experiencing project delays so a stopgap design became an ultimate necessity for Hitler, bent on going to war before his army was even prepared for one. The plan was to produce a better-armed and armored version of a light tank to shore up the limitations of the Panzer I as well as provide priceless training to tank crews. Plans for such a system were already in the works while the first production Panzer I Ausf. As had yet to make their way out of the factory. The Panzer II went on to form a large part of German invasion groups flooding into Poland and France and also saw combat along the East Front into Russia despite the system being all but obsolete by then.
Note: To help the reader along, it is important to note the German designation convention for its military vehicles. The abbreviation Pz.Kpf.W. covers "Panzerkampfwagen" and translates to "armored fighting vehicle". Likewise, the abbreviation Sd.Kfz. covers "Sonderkraftfahrzeug" and translates to "special motor vehicle". Ausf is the general term used to cover "model" or "mark" in showcasing a variant of note. Taking all this into account, the Panzer III can also be known by the designation of Pz.KpfW. II as well as Sd.Kfz. 121 while any model variants are covered in the convention of Ausf. A, Ausf. B, Ausf. C and so on. "Ausf." is the abbreviated form of the word "Ausfuhrung" meaning simply "model" or "design".
The Panzer II was first born in a German Ordnance Department requirement enacted in 1934, this time proposing a 10-ton light tank development with 20mm cannon and 7.92mm machine gun armament. As was the case in developing the Panzer I, it became common practice for the new Germany, now wholly under Hitler, to skirt the rules of the Versailles Treaty and develop its systems of war under various peaceful disguises such as farm equipment. The Versailles Treaty was forced upon Germany after World War 1 by the victors and severely restricted the nations war-producing capabilities. The post-war army was now limited to 100,000 personnel and no tank or airplane development and production was allowed save for a few types of security vehicles. As such, this new light tank design fell under the designation of "Landwirtschaftlicher Schlepper 100" (or "LaS 100") under the guise that it was a farm tractor. The German firms Krupp, Henschel and MAN were thrown into competition, each granted developmental contracts, with MAN coming out on top despite Krupps experience in developing the Panzer I and submitting a much simpler design this time around. MAN would be responsible for the new chassis while Daimler-Benz was handed construction of the superstructure and turret.
Several prototype forms of the MAN Panzer II emerged during 1935 while development continued into 1937. By July of that year, the Panzer II was cleared and ready for production and by 1939, some 1,226 Panzer IIs were in circulation. The Invasion of Poland took place on September 1st with the Invasion of France following in 1940. Despite their combat limitations in the previous two invasions, at least 1,000 Panzer IIs were still available for the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, some now being fitted with French 37mm main guns to help offset their initial limited firepower capabilities.
While the Panzer I proved the spearhead of these initial invasion assaults, the Panzer II formed the backbone of such early forays. Underpowered, under-armored and lightly-armed like the Panzer Is before them, the Panzer II also experienced its hardships on the battlefield - particularly against anti-tank weaponry at close ranges. Nevertheless, Hitler was eager for a war, time was of the essence and his more lethal Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs were soon to come online. By 1942, around 866 Panzer IIs were still available though, by this time, the system had inevitably met its combat end - being wholly outclassed by both new German and incoming Allied armor. Clever anti-tank conversions of the Panzer II chassis soon followed in a somewhat economical effort to extend the chassis lifespan.
Panzer II Walk-Around
To the casual observer, the Panzer II may share some similarities to the Panzer I but it was a distinctly different machine in major ways. The system was powered by a Maybach water-cooled gasoline engine while the early Panzer I fitted a Krupp-designed, air-cooled engine that proved vastly underpowered and hence underperformed for the role. As such, a water-cooled six-cylinder Maybach engine was selected for the improved Panzer I Ausf. B model and Maybach engines (of various types) became a German Army standard from then on and the Panzer II line was no exception.
The tank fitted five rubber-tired road wheels to a track side. The Ausf. A, B and C versions fitted these wheels off of leaf-type springs while the Ausf. D and E versions introduced a Christie-type torsion bar suspension with larger road wheels that improved mobility and maximum speed. The crew of the Panzer II was increased by one to encompass three personnel. They were made up of the driver, radio operator and the commander, the latter also acting as the tank gunner. The driver and the radio operator were both situated in the hull, with the driver offset to the left of the front hull and the radioman seated under the turret with his back towards the hull front. Like the Panzer I, the commander/gunner retained his position in a hand-cranked turret and, while being responsible for managing the actions of his crew, was also charged with the loading, aiming and firing the onboard weapons. Communication from commander to driver throughout the smelly, noisy interior was accomplished via a voice tube. The turret was fitted towards the front of the superstructure and offset to the left (the Panzer I offset its turret to the right). The rear of the hull was dominated by the liquid-cooled engine while the transmission was situated forward in the design.
Vision ports were plentiful along the turret and the superstructure to allow for better outward crew visibility. The commander and radioman entered/exited the vehicle through a split hatch on top of the turret (in Panzer II Ausf. A through F models) but this method officially gave way to a simpler hinged-hatch cover on a commander's cupola emplacement that also featured eight vision blocks beginning with the Ausf. F in 1940. The driver had access to a side-hinged hatch located along the top of the glacis plate at the forward hull. His primary vision port was a long rectangular affair at the forward face of the superstructure with secondary vision out of the sides.
Armament was slightly upgraded from the 2 x 7.92mm machine guns as found on the Panzer I. The Panzer II fitted a more powerful 20mm 2-cm Kw.K 30 L/55 (or Kw.K 38 L/55) automatic cannon offset to the left side of the welded-steel turret and retained a co-axially mounted 7.92mm MG 34 machine gun along the right side of the turret for anti-infantry defense. The automatic cannon was fitted with a 10-round magazine and was strangely limited to full-automatic fire only, resulting in the standard practice of firing the weapon in controlled bursts. Rate-of-fire was an impressive 280 rounds per minute. Eighteen additional 10-round magazines could be stored within the tank itself allowing for 180 total projectiles on hand. Aiming could be accomplished through conventional fixed sights along the gun (when looking out of the vision port) or through a 2.5-power optical telescope when the tank was "buttoned" down.
The Panzer II Ausf. A
The first production Panzer II became the Pz.Kpf.W II Ausf. A and was rather meekly-armored along its front facings (15mm at its thickest). Actions in the Poland Invasion of September 1939 proved that such protection was useless against close-range anti-tank implements causing the German Army to issue bolt-on steel armor plates beginning in 1940 (Interestingly enough, this practice has survived into today's modern battlefield where explosive reactive armor is added to existing steel armor for additional protection in defeating shells and anti-tank missiles). The Ausf. A featured five road wheels on leaf springs and could hit up to 25 miles per hour with a range of 125 miles on an improved manual transmission system. Weight was listed as 9 tons and deliveries began in 1935, with service beginning in July of 1937. Power was derived from a Maybach gasoline liquid-cooled engine of 130 horsepower.
The Panzer II Ausf. B
The Pz.Kpf.W. II Ausf. B was essentially similar to the Ausf. A and featured slight changes including the implementation of a 140 horsepower engine and thicker frontal armor. Weight was listed at 8.5 tons with this revision. It eventually replaced the Ausf. A models along the production lines beginning in December of 1937 but was itself replaced by the improved Ausf. C model.
The Panzer II Ausf. C
The Ausf. C was introduced in 1937 and appeared in force beginning in June of 1938 with continued production until April of 1940. The Ausf. C became the highest quantitative Panzer II available to the German Army. Frontal armor was once again improved and the road wheels became five independently sprung systems to each track side. Production was spread between Alkett, FAMO, Daimler-Benz, Henschel, MAN, MIAG and Wegmann. Top speeds reached 25 miles per hour on road and 12 miles per hour off road. Power was derived from a single Maybach HL 62 TRM inline 6-cylinder gasoline engine developing 140 horsepower. Range was 93 miles on road and 62 miles cross-country.
The Panzer II Ausf. D
The Pz.Kpf.W. II Ausf.D was introduced in early 1938 and brought with it a new Christie-type torsion bar suspension system with four large-diameter road wheels. This change improved the vehicles mobility and allowed for road speeds of up to 34 miles per hour (though cross-country speed was actually slower than that on previous production models). The Ausf-D sported an all-new hull and superstructure but retained the turret of the Ausf. C model. The manual transmission of the Ausf. A, B and C models was dropped in favor of an automatic transmission system in the Ausf. D. MAN completed production from May 1938 through August of 1939. These units fought in the Polish campaign and served up until March of 1940.
The Panzer II Ausf. E
The Pz.Kpf.W. II Ausf. E was essentially similar to the Ausf. D save for a few minor changes to its suspension system. Ausf. E models were fielded side-by-side with their Ausf. D counterparts.
The Panzer II Ausf. F
The Pz.Kpf.W. II Ausf. F became the final major production form of the Panzer II and was based on the Ausf. C production model. This particular model was designated as a reconnaissance tank. The suspension system was revised as was the commander's cupola. First appearing in 1940, production by FAMO produced 524 total examples with quantitative numbers being reached in early 1942 and continuing into December of 1942. The Ausf. F was visually different from her predecessors in that she sported a redesigned forward hull and, internally, she fitted additional frontal armor (up to 35mm at its thickest). Weight was now topping 11 tons and forced a decrease in top speed. As the introduction of the Christie-type suspension system of earlier models degraded off-road performance, the Ausf. F reverted back to a leaf spring-type suspension system. Power for the Ausf. F was derived from a single Maybach HL45P 6-cylinder gasoline engine developing 140 horsepower. Road speed was listed at 34 miles per hour with maximum range equaling 125 miles. Fording was possible up to 2 feet, 10 inches and gradients of up to 50 percent were achievable. Vertical obstacle passage was limited to 1 feet, 5 inches and traversal over trench depths of 5 ft, 9 inches were attainable.
The Panzer II Ausf. J
Following along the same lines as the Ausf. F, the Ausf. J was also conceived of as a reconnaissance tank though with better armor protection (up to 80mm along the front facings). The Ausf. J was powered by a Maybach HL45P engine (same as the Ausf. F) and fitted a 2-cm Kw.K 38 L/55 autocannon. MAN produced only 22 of these between April and December of 1942 with several seeing action along the East Front.
Panzer II Developments
The Panzerspahwagen II Luchs (or "Lynx" and formally designated as the Sd.Kfz. 123) also carried the Pz.Kpf.W. II designation but was essentially a different sort of light tank designed specifically for the high-speed cross-country reconnaissance role. They maintained a different exterior design when compared to any of the Panzer II Ausf. versions, featuring a rather stout profile housing a more powerful 180 horsepower engine. Five large overlapping road wheels were fitted to a track side as well as torsion bar suspension. The relatively high superstructure fitted the traversing turret with applicable main armament. The new vehicle weighed in at 12.79 tons. The Luchs also had a crew of four personnel (driver, commander, dedicated gunner and radioman) - an increase of one from the base and original Panzer II - and could hit speeds of up to 37.7 miles per hour. Armament was a 20mm automatic cannon tied to a co-axial 7.92mm machine gun with distance aiming accomplished via an optical sight. MAN took on production of at least 100 of these interesting developments beginning in September of 1943 and running to January of 1944 but plans for an upgunned 50mm model thereafter were eventually scrapped. The original plan called for 800 Luchs tanks with the first 100 being the 20mm-armed model and the latter batch becoming the 50mm-armed model. Despite its limited production run, the Luchs saw combat operations along both fronts until the end of the war, fielded by the 116th Panzer Division in the West. Expecting to encounter much more violent action in the East, German Luchs were fitted with extra armor.
The Panzer II chassis was modified in a variety of notable forms. One early form was the Panzerkampfwagen II mit Schwimmkorper amphibious model intended for the invasion of the British mainland through "Operation Sea Lion". This tank sported a propeller that was powered by the internal engine and could reach speeds of 6 miles per hour at sea. 1940 saw the implementation of the Flammpanzer II, a 12-ton dual-flamethrower wielding tank based off of the Panzer II chassis and was featured in a production run of 95 to 100 examples by 1942 in both Ausf. A and Ausf. B forms. These proved to be too lightly armored in practice.
While the combat capabilities of the panzer II light tank inevitably dwindled as the war moved on, other powerful developments soon came into play. The Germans became something of masters at taking old tanks and re-envisioning them to make for viable battlefield implements once more (this was done with captured French and Czech systems as well). The Panzer II chassis served as the basis for the Marder II self-propelled gun, fitting a 7.5-cm German anti-tank weapon. From 1942 to 1943, some 531 Panzer IIs became Marder IIs. The Wespe ("Wasp") became a self-propelled gun based on the Panzer II chassis and fitted the 10-cm main gun, seeing production from 1943 through 1944 to which some 682 Panzer II chassis were converted as such. A stop-gap self-propelled gun version of the Panzer II chassis fitting the 5-cm Pa.K 38 gun became the "5-cm PaK 38 auf Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen II". Captured Soviet 76.2mm guns were fitted to Panzer II chassis to become the "7.62-cm PaK 36(r) auf Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen II Ausf. D".
In all, the Panzer II seemed the logical next step in the Panzer family line. It was slightly better than the Panzer I before it but no match for medium tanks being fielded by the Allies. Perhaps the most interesting facet of the Panzer II's legacy is its use as modified or converted weapons that gave new life to the series. Including all of her conversions, the Panzer II served through the entire span of World War 2 and was produced in nearly 2,000 production examples.