Kribe archives Panzerspähwagen 204(f) in Eastern Europe

Panhard Panzerspähwagen P 204(f)

Panhard – Pz-Sp.Wg.

In the early 1930s, the French military focussed on the mechanization of its cavalry. Ultimately this led to the development of new vehicle classes. The ‘Panhard voiture spéciale type 178’ or ‘Panhard 178’, for instance, was one of them. It is a 4×4 vehicle, features a driver seat in both directions, a rotating turret, and a strong radio system. The Panzerspähwagen P 204(f) – Panhard – Pz-Sp.Wg. was a derivative of the said vehicle.

A total of 491 vehicles were completed by June 1940. The entire production equaled 729 units during the war, including 176 during the German occupation in 1940. The German Army attached many of the ‘Panzerspähwagen’ (heavy armoured reconnaissance vehicles) to armored divisions as it had no organized cavalry units.

Panzerspähwagen P 204(f)

All together 40, of all 190 captured vehicles were modified to receive rail wheels and classified as ‘Schienenpanzer’ or ‘Eisenbahnschutzfahrzeuge’. Alternatively, some sources claim a conversion of 43 vehicles and so we stick with 40 to 43 vehicles. For example, the Kribe archive hosts the below image of a converted vehicle.

Some of the railway variants were attached to armored trains, while many carried out anti-partisan duty in the East. Typical fields of use include the patrolling of important railway lines and driving ahead of important cargo trains above all. Before discussing this more in detail, a word on nomenclature and confusion in High Command reports.

The Nomenclature of Panhard – Pz-Sp.Wg. or Panzerspähwagen 204(f)

Lets investigate the nomenclature of the Panhard in German use. Above all, the archive research ultimately led to some interesting findings in the OKH (High Command of the German Army) files. Undoubtedly, some of the most noticable and interesting discoveries are in the Oberkommando des Heeres or OKH reports 450 to 600. The specific reports of interest are of the Commander of the Armored Railway trains. Unquestionably, the activity and experience reports of the commanders of armoured trains are of most interest here. To demonstrate the importance of further research, there are about 990 books and some 80,000 pages and plenty more to discover.

OKH Akte 457 and the Panzerspähwagen P 204(f)

Some units simply classified the Panhard vehicles as Pz.Sp.Wg. or ‘Panzerspähwagen’ (heavily armoured reconnaissance vehicle). This was fairly common according to OKH Akten 457 of Panzerzug 3. and happened without any further annotations or the distinguishing of different kinds of such vehicles in many reports. In other words, see the image from official OKH documents from 1943.

Eisenbahn-Panzerzug 3 in OHK 457 about Panzerspähwagen P 204(f)
Pz.Sp.Wg. in OKH file 457

On the same front, same OKH report and some hundred pages later, ‘Eisenbahn Panzerzug 64’ refers to them as ‘Spähwagen auf Schienen’ (Reconaissance vehicle on rails) . Moreover, we learn that these reconnaissance vehicles proved their battle readiness against bandits along the tracks. Additionally, it states that they operate independently and swiftly, according to the report.

OKH Files description of Panhard 178 nomenclature
Spähwagen auf Schienen in OKH file 457

OKH Akte 518

Furthermore, in a report of ‘Eisenbahn Panzertriebwagen 15’ on September 9, 1943, the OKH refers to them as ‘Panhard – Pz-Sp. Wg.’ as shown below. The report is a request for searchlights for all their six recon vehicles.

Offical OKW documents about Pz.Sp.Wg Panhard 178 Schienen
OKH File 518 Panhard nomenclature

Ultimately, there are quite a lot of names used to describe one and the same vehicle within the army. With this in mind, I will henceforth use Panhard – Pz-Sp.Wg. This is for all German railway version vehicles only, as it offers a fairly short, but highly descriptive name. The names were given to the vehicle by modeling companies, Panzerspähwagen 204(f) – Panhard or railway is not a good choice with respect to this analysis.

Panhard – Pz-Sp.Wg. Modifications

Finally, we can take a closer look at some features of the Panhard – Pz-Sp.Wg. To understand its importance to German railway recon duties, we must first inspect the original vehicle. A few images from Trackstory 14, a French magazine, show some great details of the original vehicle. Notice the difference between the forward and backward drivers’ compartments[3].

Panhard 178 tech drawings – Trackstory 14 AMD 35 Panhard 178

These French drawings show the 105hp Panhard LSK engine in the rear compartment. The 145-liter fuel tank propelled the vehicle to 80km/h and had a range of approx 360km on road and 200km off-road. Overall the engine was reliable and the range was acceptable.

Speed and acceleration were mediocre at best. The Germans easily caught a French soldier fleeing from the German army in a Panhard after a 4km chase on a rue national in France. This happened despite a big head start of the French POW. Furthermore, the gun performance was bad, lacked penetrating power and efficiency against soft targets. The high and distinctive silhouette led to below-average camouflage possibilities. Some of the aforementioned reports may be found at Chars-Fraincais’s, but I warn you, it’s all in French.

Enter German Modifications – Panzerspähwagen P 204(f)

An incredible feature of the Panhard – Pz-Sp.Wg. is the wheel-changing option shown in the gallery below. A simple modification allows the crew to change from rail to roadwheels in about ten minutes. As a result, it became a very adaptable and highly mobile vehicle. It was suitable for anti-partisan and reconnaissance missions as well as smaller engagements. Moreover, the two-way steering option further enhances the versatility of the vehicle.

Most, if not all of the Panhard – Pz.Sp.Wg. saw action on the Eastern front, some with armored trains, others with goods trains and many probably traveled alongside the mighty BR 52. The gallery includes images from various period videos of the Wehrmacht. All images are specifically cropped to include the sources and time stamps for you. You may also easily spot the bracket antenna the Germans added for their FuG4 and FuG8.

All converted Panhard – Pz.Sp.Wg. featured the later type Panhard 178 APX3 turrets. These distinguish them from the earlier models, which lacked a rearview episcope and the two Gundlach periscopes on the turret roof. The red circles in the first gallery image show the French Gundlach periscopes. Notice that this was not a German modification, but they specifically chose the APX3 turret vehicles for the railway conversions.

More importantly for the well being of the crew were the ventilation fans. They were installed in the commander’s hatch and made the APX3 turret much better. During early reports of the French army, lack of ventilation and space in the turret led to various complaints.

Modus Operandi Differences

In short, the Germans used the vehicles as a spearhead against lightly or non-armored vehicles and partisans along railway tracks in contrast to the French. To sum it up, the gun performance was sufficient for these tasks. Additionally, camouflage was not as vital, as the sound on railway tracks made camouflage obsolete.

Subsequently, the Panhard – Pz-Sp.Wg. evolved into a highly specialized niche vehicle within the German army. Certainly, no engineer had dreamt of this during its development. Adamant development and enhancements do not stop here, however. That is to say, the OKH and operating units discussed further adjustments and improvements to the vehicles.

Search Lights – Superior Railway Reconaissance

The reconnaissance units covered plenty of kilometers during their missions. In October alone, the 5 Panhard – Pz-Sp.Wg. of ‘E. Panzertriebwagen 15’ traveled 1903km in total. The sixth, number 559-623 was broken and not in service and used for spares in the meantime. Night activity was high and a lack of view range posed serious problems.

Therefore the command of ‘E. Panzertriebwagen 15’ requested searchlights for all 6 Panhard – Pz-Sp.Wg. on October 31st, 1943 due to a bad view range during the night. Lights helped with the search along the tracks and pathfinding during the night on narrow roads.

Search Light Scratch Building Ideas

Additionally, a red/green light switch complements the searchlight in the above draft. Due to constant noise within the vehicle (according to the OKH report), the drivers and commander need such indication lights. The table below shows all light options and their respective meaning. The Druckknopflichtsignalanlage (Push button light signal system) was an advanced system, but the name itself is much more impressive.

Green lightRed light
Flashing lights AccelerateSlow down
Light onKeep speedStop
Light offEngine offEngine off
Panhard – Pz-Sp.Wg. Druckknopflichtsignalanlage (Push button light signal system) [2]

The suggested prototype lights allow a rotation of 360 degrees and can be angled up and downwards. Most importantly, the commander can simply do all adjustments from within the vehicle, with closed hatches. Additionally, there are no dead spots and the vehicle batteries supplied the power. My Panhard – Pz-Sp.Wg model in 1:35 shows the searchlight in scale.

Concluding, I add a photo of the unit crews of Railway Pz.Tr.Wg. 15 in Eastern Europe. I have searched the archives, but have not found a period photo of one of these vehicles, sadly.

Crew of Panzerspähwagen P 204(f) Railway 1944
Crew of Railway Panzer Triebwagen 15 in Eastern Europe 1944 in OKH file 518

Finally, for those interested in vehicle numbers and unit assignments, and more, the second part of the article is a must. We uncover the reasons why the German units highly valued a vehicle that the French military disliked. Build a blog with further reading. Enjoy the day.

Alex Emde

Sources, Further Readings and Research

  1. OKH Files 457
  2. OKH Files 518
  3. Trackstory n° 14 – AMD 35 Panhard 178 – Edition entièrement nouvelle
  4. Featured image: Kribe archives – historic and educational purpose – viewer discretion advised

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