The Kaiser Tank – A Short History
This grew out of a suggestion on the CTT list.
Of all of the armoured vehicles in World War Two, the Kaiser ranks with the British Matilda and the American Sherman as one of the most important and decisive vehicles of the war. Adolf Hitler’s luck in having the design perfected in time for the Wehrmacht to make use of the design was the worst stroke of luck that the Allied forces suffered in the war.
Improbably enough, the Kaiser tank began life as the R-46 design, built in the Skoda Works in Czechoslovakia. Following a bloody clash with the Russians in the Far East in 1937, the Japanese Army placed a request for the designing of the tank. Additional funding was provided by the Czech Government, in the hopes of either exporting the designs or deterring a German attack. Unfortunately, the Kaiser was not ready for testing, let alone mass production, when the Munich settlement weakened Czechoslovakia. During the run up to war, the tank design was finalised…and fell into the hands of the Reich when the remains of Czechoslovakia was occupied.
The design, which was both easy to mass-produce and repair, interested the German army, who took over the Japanese order. (Only thirty R-46s were ever sent to the Far East and vanished without trace.) The Germans, who had been looking for a tank to replace the Panzer IV, engaged with Skoda for one thousand of the tanks. In a bid to please the Germans, the tank was designated as ‘Kaiser,’ something that amused Hitler.
The first models of the Kaiser for German use were delivered in 1940, too late to take any active role in the Battle for France. The decision of the Wehrmacht to prepare for the invasion of Britain – Operation Sealion – led to a new order being placed, for Kaisers that could travel under water to some degree. Sealion never came off – wasn’t even attempted – but the fifty water-capable tanks produced were very useful in Russia during 1941.
A handful of Kaisers were deployed to the Afrika Corps in 1940-41, providing Rommel with much-needed striking power. A Matilda tank was no match for a Kaiser, although sand proved a serious problem for the German tanks, and the Germans won several battles. Rommel was later to write bitterly that if the Italians had proved to be more determined to win, the Kaisers could have made it all the way to Cairo, if not further.
The Kaiser tank entered full service with the Wehrmacht during 1941, replacing the Panzer IIIs, many of which were sold to Italy. The Germans swiftly learnt how to use the tanks, deploying them in the invasion of Russia, where it proved a fair match for the T-34 tank. While Hitler’s decisions made the capture of Moscow impossible, the Kaiser was partly responsible for defeating General Zhukov’s counter-attack in December 1941, and then the Stalin offensive of 1942.
(During this time, Japan entered the war by attacking Pearl Harbour and Hitler declared war on America. Popular myth has it that the Japanese Kaisers were deployed during the attacks on Allied islands, but there is no proof of that. This author believes that they were deployed to Manchuria and lost during the general Soviet offensive there.)
The shocks of Moscow, combined with the American entry into the war, convinced the Germans to begin mass-production of the Kaiser, along with other war material. The success of the attack on Stalingrad and the capture of the Baku oil wells was credited to the Kaiser tank, although a less emotive history reads that the shockingly high soviet losses during 1941/42 contributed to the defeat as much as anything else. Unfortunately for the Germans, their supply lines were ragged and Russian partisans proved to be determined foes. The British offensive into Baku from Iran, which would convince Stalin that the West could not be trusted, shattered an already delicate situation…and the Allied landings in Algeria utterly destroyed the German positions within North Africa. Far from driving through Cairo to Baku, General Rommel and his force had to be evacuated from North Africa.
The exact circumstances behind Stalin’s peace overture to Hitler are beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that the surrender of Belarus and the Ukraine brought Stalin peace…of a sort. The Soviets rapidly found themselves engaged in an ongoing war with Muslim partisans from Armenia and the other Muslim SSRs, armed by the British as an attempt to damage Hitler. The soviet attack on Japanese positions in Manchuria, when the Japanese were simply swept aside and the entire region annexed, permanently poisoned relations between Stalin and the West.
Free of any Eastern Front, Hitler prepared to meet the invasion of Europe. The Kaiser tank proved its worth on the beaches, although allied antitank weapons such as the Bazooka proved a nasty surprise, and the allied forces were pushed back into the sea. The decision of Field Marshall Rommel, without consulting with Hitler, to agree to a limited truce to allow the Allies to evacuate went down badly with Hitler.
The allies were confronted with a stalemate, one that had cost a large percentage of British fighting men. The collapse of Japan in 1944 was no consolation; Germany remained intact. While the handful of attempts by the Luftwaffe to resume the bomber offensive, and later the V2 missile, didn’t succeed in doing more than pinpricks, it only damaged the power balance in the UK. A combination of recrimination, anger, American high-handedness – Eisenhower was publicly blamed for not listening to the concerns from the British general attached to SHAFE – and several other factors nearly destroyed the Alliance – and it was clear that Germany would only grow stronger. While the alliance would remain in effect, a truce was signed in early 1945.
Hitler’s forces didn’t waste much time. The Kaiser tank was up-gunned several times before the resumption of the Drang Natch Osten. In the campaign of 1946-1946, the Kaiser tank (Mark V) spearheaded the capture of Moscow and the long march to the Urals. Although Chinese sources have claimed that the joint Nationalist-Communist anti-USSR war and pro-Communist propaganda played as large a role as the Wehrmacht in the fall of the USSR, it is clear that the Reich’s superiority in technology, from aircraft to the tank force, played a far greater role. When Adolf Hitler died in 1950, he was master of a Reich that reached as far as Mongolia.
Despite its all-important role in the war, the Kaiser tank met a sorry end. It’s replacement by the ‘Hitler’ tank in 1950 limited its role, particularly under the impetus of the needs for the nuclear battlefield, which, fortunately, didn’t happen. The Chinese were sold several thousand of the tanks; Iran purchased several hundred. Ironically, German troops, coming to suppress the rebellion against the Shah in 1960, used them to end the rebellion, although at a surprisingly high cost. The effective German occupation of the country led to the short, but surprisingly bitter war between Iraq, supported by the Alliance for Democracy, and Iran, backed by the Germans. The destruction of several Kaisers in quick succession, at the hands of British-designed Clive tanks, proved that the Kaiser had finally had its day and it was retired from almost all of the armies within four years.
Today, there are nine perfect examples of the Kaiser still in existence. The one in the Reich Museum in Berlin, the one used to crush Stalin below its treads, is particularly fine. Of all the tanks in the world, none since Cambrai can be said to have such an effect on history.