SdKfz 231 Schwerer Panzerspahwagen (6-rad)
Six-Wheeled Light Armored Car
Based upon a Daimler-Benz commercial truck chassis, the inherent limitations of the SdKfz 231 Armored Car design would soon become apparent.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
Following the end of World War 1, the victors placed the blame of the war squarely on the German Empire. Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empires ceased to exist, leaving Germany laden with its full cost. In an attempt to keep her from ever going to war in the foreseeable future, steep restrictions were also placed to which she could only keep a small standing army and field nothing in the way of planes, submarines, tanks and the like. One of the accepted weapon types she could still produce was the armored car for security purposes and this SdKfz 231 ("6-rad") - a series of six-wheeled armored cars designed around a civilian-minded 6x4 truck chassis. The arrival of the SdKfz 231 marked it as Germany's first armored car to be produced since the end of the war in November of 1918. Such skillful endeavors would go on to lay the groundwork for a much larger war machine to follow and provide the country with viable alternatives to outright combat tanks while still under the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty. The SdKfz 231 was formally inducted into German Army service in 1932.
At its core, the SdKfz 231 was nothing more than a heavily modified, readily available commercial Daimler-Benz truck chassis featuring six wheels in a 6x4 arrangement with one front axle and two rear-set axles. Interestingly, design and development was carried out at the Kazan Test Center within the Soviet Union, a plant set up during the 1920s to produce automobiles for Germany proper. An early attempt at an armored car from this facility yielded a 8x8 design but this was deemed too cost-prohibitive for large-scale production. Therefore, attention was given to producing a logistically-friendly design based on the in-house truck chassis to which armor companies could then provide the plate armor configuration to Daimler-Benz for final production. As such, the design was wholly German and solely intended for German Army service.
The SdKfz 231 was crewed by four personnel made up of the driver, vehicle commander, gunner and radio operator. One of the interesting design features of the series was its second driver position set to the rear of the vehicle to which the radio operator (doubling as a driver) could take control of the vehicle and drive it in the opposite direct out of harm's way. The car's design was characterized by its large, sloping glacis plate which made up half of the vehicle's running length and housed the engine. The six-wheel arrangement was a primary identifying factor of the series with its forward axle set well-ahead of the second and third pairings. The front wheels were single fittings while the rear set were mounted in pairs ala the 6x4 Daimler-Benz trucks. The driver sat at the center of the design (if viewing the vehicle in profile), his position identified externally by a rounded access hatch with a 360-degree traversing turret directly aft. Aft of the turret itself was the rear driving position marked externally by another rounded access hatch. The vehicle was steered by a conventional wheel assembly hung from a long-running shaft (the wheel itself canted backwards in true German fashion), The rear driving position was also given a steering wheel though set upon a shorter shaft connected to the main shaft running towards the front of the car. Foot pedals could found at both positions and facilities were monitored via simple gauges. Twin hinged, rather shallow height doors were set to the side of the vehicle for crew entry/exit. The turret was well-sloped and rounded along its side and rear facings and managed the vehicle's armament suite of cannon and machine gun. Stowage boxes could be fitted over the fenders as needed while the hull surfaces could double as additional cargo holding areas. A spare tire was equipped to the rear hull facing on later production models and mounted over a rear two-piece door entry/exit door. Overall weight of the vehicle was 5.6 tons (5,700kg) with a running length of 18.3 feet, a full width of 5.11 feet and a height to turret roof of 7.4 feet. Armor protection was designed to degrade the effects of small arms fire 7.92mm in caliber fired at the vehicle from out to 30 meters.
Power to the SdKfz 231 chassis was supplied in the form of a single Daimler-Benz M09 or Bussing-NAG L8V/GS or Magirus type 4-, 6- or 8-cylinder, water-cooled, gasoline-fueled engine outputting between 60 and 80 horsepower. This provided the vehicle with an optimal road speed of up to 40 miles per hour - less so when traversing off-road - and an operational range equal to 150 miles (125 miles cross-country). This allowed the SdKfz 231 the critical ability to keep up with other mechanized elements on the advance or reconnoiter the area ahead of the main force.
Primary armament was a 20mm (2cm) cannon housed in a manually-powered turret assembly. Early production models were finished with only a single 7.92mm MG 13 general purpose machine gun. After the 20mm cannon was added, the machine gun became a useful secondary weapon fitted coaxially with the main gun. Original cannons were of the KwK30 series but this was later upgraded to the faster-firing KwK 38 series. The 20mm cannon could handle only the earliest of light armored vehicles and was largely outclassed by later types. The machine gun would serve the crew well in suppressing enemy infantry. An optional installation began in 1935 when a second 7.92mm machine gun was mounted to the turret roof to help counter the threat posed by low-flying enemy aircraft. There were 200 rounds of 20mm projectiles carried aboard as well as 1,500 rounds of 7.92mm ammunition. Smoke grenades could be fitted in impromptu mounts to the vehicle front grills to provide a smoke screen.
With a solid combination of speed, firepower and protection, the SdKfz 231 was used in typical armored car roles to include light reconnaissance and combat, security and training - the latter of considerable importance for the German Army lacked any tanks in which to train its tankers with during much of the interwar years under the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty - allowing armored cars such as the SdKfz 231 to dutifully fit the need. SdKfz 231 units also served as direct fire support platforms in relation to infantry that were being shuttled to battle at speed on trucks or half-tracks (otherwise known as mechanized infantry). Additional duties saw SdKfz 231s attached to Panzer formations to supply these groups with basic reconnaissance. Their rather interesting and somewhat formidable appearance was naturally showcased throughout German propaganda efforts to show off German strength and ingenuity in a build up to war.
Production of the SdKfz 231 spanned from 1932 to 1937 to which some 1,000 examples were eventually produced. The Daimler-Benz name suited the vehicle for only a portion of its production life for the concerns of Bussing-NAG and Magirus were also involved, leading to slight differences in overall designs across these manufacturers (headlamps, wheels, fenders and the like) as well as different engine types being utilized - though all were very comparable in their finalized and respective forms. It should be noted that a bulk of the production was, however, Daimler-Benz in origin.
One of the key notable (and rather obvious) detriments of the SdKfz 231 series was its rather long wheelbase (this being an automobile measurement marked from the center of the front wheel to the center of the rear wheel) and lack of all-wheel drive. Not only did this provide the SdKfz231 with a rather ungainly appearance but it potentially made it unwieldy with a wide turning radius if the rear driver position was not use to good effect. The wide gap between the first and second axles could also see the SdKfz 231 getting stuck over uneven terrain when attempting to climb. Additionally, the armor added onto a civilian-minded truck chassis only worked against the design to make for a heavier vehicle than desired, the selected powerplants eventually deemed underpowered for this type of vehicle class. As such, off-road mobility was hampered and crossings of solid, flat ground were often encouraged. Of note was also the type's rather tall profile thanks to its turret structure which made concealment another tactical issue.
The SdKfz 231 was available in enough numbers to keep her in operational service for some time, ultimately participating in the early maneuvers concerning the occupations of Austria and Czechoslovakia and in the battles of both Poland and France where German "Lightning War" was used to good effect. By 1940, the type's usefulness in combat had begun to fade and the design was inevitably relegated to secondary roles and training. The Germany Army decided to standardize on dedicated eight-wheeled armored cars by then, eight wheels having shown greater promise in the realm of cross-country mobility for the near-future.
To extend the battlefield usefulness of the SdKfz 231 line, the vehicle was evolved into the SdKfz 232 and the SdKfz 263 (the latter originally known as the Kfz.67b) in the middle of the 1930s. The SdKfz 232 was nothing more than the base armored car design modified with heavy long-range radio equipment and primarily based on the Magirus SdKfz 231 chassis. This included the fitting of a radio aerial framework about the turret and hull while still maintaining full traverse of the turret (the framing being fixed in place). This version was initially known as the "gepanzerten Kraftwagen (Fu) (Kfz.67a)" until April of 1936 to which it then became the "SdKfz 232". The SdKfz 263 was similar in scope to the SdKfz 232 with an aerial framework added but its turret was fixed and lacking the 20mm cannon, reducing the vehicle's combat effectiveness. Only a machine gun in a limited-traverse ball-mount was retained. Like the SdKfz 232, the SdKfz 263 was based on the Magirus production chassis. To differentiate the models, the original SdKfz 231 became known as the "Kanonenwagen" or "Gun Vehicle" while the SdKfz 232 was classified as a heavy reconnaissance car and the SdKfz 263 categorized as a battlefield command vehicle.