The SdKfz 234 (generally known as the "Puma") was a key 8-wheeled, armed reconnaissance platform utilized by the German Army during World War 2. Utilizing revolutionary ideas, the SdKfz 234 fitted ever improving armament onto a highly-adaptable hull to create a fast-moving, hard-hitting weapon. However, the vehicle was lightly armored and produced in limited numbers, barely falling into the ever changing doctrine of German armored warfare - a doctrine now convinced of the validity of assault guns and heavy tanks. Regardless, the Puma went on to prove herself a groundbreaking design that would influence design of similar 8-wheeled military platforms for decades to come.
The early German campaigns proved the validity of the SdKfz 231 series of eight-wheeled armored cars though the family of vehicles lacked much in the way of capable off-road qualities in keeping pace with the blitzkrieg actions. Additionally, their engines were highly temperamental, often resulting in overheating powerplants while armor protection for the crew was suspect at best. These early generation vehicles were also largely originated from commercial vehicles built around civilian-minded frames with their military components added to the chassis as needed. In August of 1940, German authorities unveiled an initiative to create a new generation of 8-wheeled fighting vehicles (known to them as "8 Rad") to replace the SdKfz 231, SdKfz 232 and SdKfz 233 series cars. Work soon began on a logical successor, this becoming the SdKfz 234.
Unlike the previous German armored cars, the SdKfz 234 was designed as a military vehicle from the start - production to center more in line with that of a tank than an armored car. She was to be produced with a monocoque armored hull and no underlying frame meaning that the military components would be attached directly to the hull itself. The major portion of the hull was constructed from armor plate while the side storage boxed and fenders were of thin sheet metal. The Czechoslovakian firm of Tatra was tabbed with developing the required powerplant for the new machine and responded with its Tatra 12-cylinder, air cooled diesel engine of 220 horsepower. The air-cooled quality lent itself well to most types of rigorous weather conditions as no fragile radiator system was required. Large internal fuel tanks ensures excellent range - no doubt taking into account the vast open spaces of the African desert and the soon-to-be battlefields of Eastern Russia.
Like the SdKfz 231 before it, the SdKfz 234 fitted eight robust individual road wheels. An open-topped, hand-powered, six-sided turret with angled facings was fitted to the forward hull offering 360-degree traverse with some level of elevation. The selected primary armament was envisioned to be a 20mm (2cm) KwK 38 cannon with a 7.92mm MG42 general purpose machine gun fitted coaxially. Some 250 projectiles of 20mm ammunition were stowed throughout the vehicle, backed up by 2,400 rounds of 7.92mm ammunition. This supplied the SdKfz 234 with "just enough" firepower to handle both infantry and light armored vehicles. At its core, the SdKfz 234 was a reconnaissance-minded vehicle first and foremost - tangling with enemy tanks was not in its forte for its best defense was still its high speed. Bussing-NAG, already having proven their expertise with multi-wheeled creations, was tabbed as the primary contractor and awarded a procurement contract in August of 1940. A prototype was made available in July of 1941.
After evaluations of the prototype were complete, the Tatra engine was found to be too noisy for comfort. The design team was sent back to work along with some borrowed time for the German Army was concentrating their efforts on the development and production of tanks and assault guns to turn the tide of their North Africa campaign. As such, development strung along to the point that the SdKfz 234 did not meet the production lines until 1943 and quantitative deliveries did not commence until 1944.
The SdKfz 234 was crewed by four personnel made up of the driver, commander, loader and gunner. The driver manned a position in the hull superstructure while the commander and gunner manned their positions in the turret. The commander was situated to the left with the gunner to his right. A screen was added over the turret top to prevent grenade assaults from enemy infantry. A pistol port was identified at the rear of the turret to fend off enemies approaching from blind spots. Design was conventional with the driver in the front hull and the engine set within a compartment to the rear. The hull facings were highly angular, designed to repel or deflect projectiles (though only limited in scope to small arms fire). This kept the vehicle operating weight relatively light and the crew relatively safe. The large road wheels were set as four to a vehicle side with no side armor protection for each unit though the overhanging fenders did serve as storage compartments. The glacis plate was well-sloped as was the engine compartment deck at the rear. Armor protection was thickest at the front at 30mm and limited to just 8mm along the sides. Ground clearance was quite impressive, particularly at centerline. It is of note that only some of the production SdKfz 234s were actually fitted with onboard radios. Initial production models were set with a Tatra 102 series engine while later forms took on the Tatra 103 V-12, air-cooled diesel installation, delivering 220 horsepower at 2,250rpm. Drum-style mufflers were fitted to the rear ends of each fender, exhausting each bank of the 12-cylinder powerplant.
The SdKfz 234 yielded a weight of 11.5 tons. On an internal fuel capacity of 360 liters, the system could hit ranges out to 620 miles on roads and 372 miles cross country. Dimensionally, the SdKfz 234 had a running length of 5.86 meters with a width of 2.33 meters and a height to the turret top of 2.10 meters. Maximum speed was listed at near-50 mile per hour speeds. All these specifications ultimately led to a vehicle that was well ahead of her time - unlike anything that the Allies could field at this time in the war.
While the base SdKfz 234/1 was expected to field a 20mm KwK 38 series anti-tank gun, the decision was made to formally upgrade to a 50mm (5cm) KwK 39/1 L/60 gun before production had begun. The KwK 39 was the same armament being fitted to later production models of Panzer III medium tanks - proving itself an effective tank killer for a time. The vehicle then saw a minor designation change from SdKfz 234/1 to SdKfz 234/2 and this new model could be clearly identified by its longer baffled main gun barrel and 100mm thick "pig's head" gun mantlet protruding from the front turret facing. Production began in December of 1943 and would completed in June of 1944 with 100 vehicles delivered.
Once in practice, the SdKfz 234/2 Puma proved its worth as a viable armed reconnaissance vehicle. With her improved frontal armor and formidable main gun, she could traverse into volatile areas that were generally restricted to other like-minded vehicles utilized early in the war. These vehicles generally saw excessive wear and tear and but proved wholly invaluable to advancing army formations. The SdKfz 234's all-terrain capabilities clearly shown through as did its upgraded main armament and speed. Production of the SdKfz 234 could also be handled rather quickly and they offered up a relatively low battlefield profile. Their design also allowed the vehicle to drive just as fast backwards as forwards. Such was her value that several captured SdKfz 234s by the Allies were returned to respective home countries to undergo extensive evaluation and trials. Their influence can clearly be seen in several subsequent Cold War-era 8-wheeled light tank developments.
The SdKfz 234/3 "Schwerer Panzerspahwagen" was later born from a Wehrmacht initiative to upgrade its eight-wheeled reconnaissance fleet. This also brought along an update to the 7.5-cm Kanone 37 anti-tank gun in the 75mm (7.5cm) KwK 51 L/24 low-velocity main gun. The SdKfz 234 chassis was fitted with this cannon as its main weapon to provide German formations with improved fire support. The body design remained similar to that of the SdKfz 234/1 though the SdKfz 234/3 did away with the hand-traversed turret and instead fielded a static, open-topped fighting compartment to house the commander, loader, gunner and armament. This fitting made for cramped operating quarters but the SdKfz 234/3 was only a smidgen taller than the preceding SdKfz 234/1 design. The driver's compartment was relocated slightly to a position deeper in the forward hull. To contend with enemy infantry attacks, light vehicles and low-flying aircraft, the SdKfz 234/3 was fitted with a 7.92mm MG42 as secondary armament, to be operated by the turret crew.
In practice, the SdKfz 234/3 once again showed the limitations of her armor protection but her main gun armament proved a potent foe. However, since the SdKfz 234/3 fitted a fixed superstructure instead of a turret, traverse of the gun was limited to just 20 degrees left or right. This often meant that the entire vehicle had to be repositioned for target engagement beyond this reach - hardly good practice in the heat of battle. Production of the SdKfz 234/3 began in April of 1944 and completed in December when attention had already shifted to the SdKfz 234/4 and its potent Pak 40 main gun.
The SdKfz 234/4 was the final evolution of the SdKfz 234 line. Mounting the formidable 75mm (7.5-cm) PaK 40 anti-tank gun, the vehicle was appropriately armed for the dangers of the modern battlefield - essentially a desperate German attempt to produce a viable tank destroyer in quantity. However, the PaK 40 proved a large weapon to mount onto the space-cramped chassis of the SdKfz 234/4 and the inherently violent recoil pushed the hull and wheels to their structural limits. Nevertheless, the "upgunning" program continued as planned at the behest of Adolf Hitler himself. The SdKfz 234/4 fitted a revised fixed superstructure to make room for the PaK 40 L/46 gun. Traverse was limited as in the towed version and the forward gun shield was revised to become smaller in area to clear the superstructure.
As with most late-war German developments, the SdKfz 234/4 was rushed into production in December of 1944. Once in operational service, this expediency usually showcased detrimental results in relation to construction and proper development time. In the end, only 100 of these vehicles were fielded before Germany capitulated in May of 1945 and their effectiveness was never wholly proven.
Some 2,300 SdKfz 234 models were ultimately produced before the end of the war. At its peak, production reached 100 vehicles per month.