In the course of the Second World War, mines proved to be one of the most effective weapons to thwart an enemy tank offensive from the outset. It was often the case that thousands of mines were laid as part of defensive lines, to consolidate key points and slow down the enemy.
Clearing mines by hand was a dangerous and time-consuming task. While some basic tools existed for the job, an effective mechanical mine-clearer would mean a huge advantage. Both the Allies and Axis powers developed various mechanical mine clearing systems of varying quality and usefulness. Even though the Wehrmacht was forced into the defensive time and time again, development of mine clearing systems carried on until the bitter end – in a time they were expected to chiefly lay mines and not necessarily clear them.
At the very end of the war, a particularly interesting system for mine clearing was proposed for use on the Panther tank. In this article, we take a bird’s-eye view of German development of demining vehicles, ending with a written record on the demonstration of the Minenräumgerät “Dreschflegel” for the Panther.
Table of Contents
- Early attempts
- Flailing Around
- Imitation, the Sincerest Form of Flattery
- Technische Daten
Already in March 1941 the need for a mechanical mine clearing system is laid out in the development program of the pioneer troops. In fact, the first systems were even already under development:
Mine clearing equipment for the mechanical clearing of roads and open country is required. First trial versions in development.AHA/Pi.Abt. (In 5) Ia org/III, “Entwicklungsprogramm Der Pioniere (Neubearbeitung von März 1941).”
Several systems had been in development ever since 1939. For example, Wegmann built the ‘Hammerschlaggerät’ for the Panzer II. Furthermore, two different remote-controlled ‘Minen-Räumwagen’ were developed by Borgward. These used ‘Räum-Walzen’, heavy rollers to detonate mines when rolled over them. However, this vehicle only had towed rollers, so the chassis itself always came into contact with the mines first – perhaps not the cleverest solution.
Several other developments and field improvisations also made use of rollers. Through a combination of pulled and pushed rollers, the complete path behind the tank could be demined. The rollers in these systems could usually be mounted on the tank as required so that a standard gun tank could be converted to a minesweeper fairly easily. However, the operation remained quite hazardous, with mines exploding nearby, sending shrapnel and shockwaves towards the vehicle. Steering with the rollers attached also proved to be difficult.
A more sophisticated solution came in the form of specialized mine clearing vehicles. The Minenraumpanzer III, an adapted Panzer III chassis with greatly increased ground clearance, would keep the crew safe when mines were detonated. This vehicle still had to be equipped with rollers. Many of these early concepts, for one reason or another, could not prove themselves and were set aside.
The development of specialized minesweepers culminated in the Krupp Räumer S and Alkett Räumgerät which were dedicated armoured mine clearing vehicles. These peculiar looking vehicles were the result of an order dating from September 1940 order, calling for a mine clearer which could function ‘also during the fight’. Each company had built a prototype, but these had not been fully finished and trialled by the end of the war. Famously, the Alkett vehicle now resides at Kubinka, Russia.
The Räumer S was captured in-tact by the Americans at the Hillersleben artillery proofing ground. The Associated Press reported on this find in a news article titled “Weird New Weapon Found On German Testing Field” and described it as “certainly the largest land-going contraption likely to appear in this war”. At the time, the purpose of the vehicle was not yet known. It was later taken to the OTIT ordnance depot near Vincennes, France, but disappeared from the radar afterwards, never to be seen again.
A more practical solution than simply rolling over mines to “defuse” them came through the British. During the North Africa campaign, they had developed a mine flail for the Matilda and Valentine. The system consists of a rotor to which chains are attached. The rotor is brought to a spinning motion and as the chains beat the ground any mines in its path are detonated.
This device was further improved into what was called the Scorpion, suitable for the Matilda and M3 Grant tanks. A drawback of these early systems was that they relied on an auxiliary engine to power the flail. This either meant that the tank became rather wide or had to sacrifice its turret and gun – as was the case with the Sherman based Pram Scorpion and Marquis systems. Both of which were further developed into the Crab. The Crab was employed as one of Hobart’s funnies in the 79th Armoured Division used during and after the D-Day landings.
The flail of the Crab was driven via a power take-off shaft by the main engine. Unlike the Scorpion and Marquis, the Crab retained its gun. It was therefore, in addition to being a minesweeper, deployable as a normal gun tank. However, its arc of fire was limited by the rotor assembly, preventing it from firing between 10 and 2 o’clock. A further development, Crab II, was introduced which, amongst other improvements, allowed the flail to follow the contour of the ground. Because of the Crab II’s success, a replacement project, Lobster, was cancelled.
Imitation, the Sincerest Form of Flattery
After the D-Day landings in Normandy, WaPrüf 5 caught wind of the successful deployment of the Sherman Crab. Perhaps they read one of the news articles by the British and American press, which reported very positive about the newly unveiled “secret weapon” on June 29, 1944:
The British have adapted the principle of the flail (…) to a secret weapon for clearing mine fields. Flail tanks, which proved 100 percent effective in eliminating mines from their path in the battle of El Alamein, were used successfully on the Normandy beaches, the war ministry said.United Press
The engineers at WaPrüf 5 must have realized the flail was superior to mine rollers and action was taken to develop a similar mine-clearing device. When Krupp was informed about the progress on preliminary trials of a flail-based system on August 10, 1944, they were not impressed. Krupp noted that earlier trials with mine-clearing flails by Heereswaffenamt and the French had not been successful.
Still, a flail-based system was developed for the Panther tank, suitably named Minenräumgerät “Dreschflegel” – literally mine clearing device “Flail”. The system was supposed to be finalized by April 1945. It was first demonstrated at Verskraft Kummersdorf on January 26, 1945. Below is a translated description of said demonstration as given written up by Organisationsabteilung III of the army’s general staff1 (translation by author).
Vorführung in Kummersdorf am 26.1.1945
The Minenräumgerät “Dreschflegel” demonstrated on the “Panther” is based on an English invention. About 2 m in front of the tank at a height of about 1½ m, there is a split roller with hanging chains. When connected to the tank’s drive wheels, the rollers are set in rotating motion and detonate the dug-in mines by hitting the chains on the ground.
Penetrating effect: on hard ground up to a depth of 8 cm
- Due to the high installation of the devices and the development of dust, the driver has to drive practically blind.
- There is no clutch, so that the rollers with the chains constantly turn around even on the march. This often makes the device unusable before it is used.
- The drive chains of the rollers are too weak, as a force of approx. 300 HP is diverted to operate the device. (Engine power 600 HP)
The device failed due to the chain breaking during the demonstration.
A T-mine, electrically ignited under the device, did no significant damage.
It is interesting to note that, in contrast to the Sherman Crab, the solution on the Panther appear to use a mechanism transferring power directly from the drive sprockets to the mine flail. This also appeared to be its downside, for the lack of a clutch made the flail spin even during road march.
Two months after the demonstration, on 30 March, Oberst Crohn of WaPrüf 6 gave a status report on the system. After the system’s failure during the demonstration, a reinforced version was now being built at the Hegesse firm. Although stronger drive chains were available immediately, twelve new gears had to be fabricated – apparently these were needed for the flail’s drive mechanism. After this was completed, some 14 days were necessary for final assembly. If all went smoothly, and a Panther was made available at the end of April, Crohn estimated that trails could recommence starting May 1, 1945.
To close off, following are the technical data for the “Dreschflegel” system as given in the report from January 1945 by Org.Abt. III
|Purpose||Detecting and clearing mines in the field and on the street|
|Penetrating force of the rotating chains||Up to 8 cm deep|
|Clearing width||4.20 m|
|Peak power||500 HP|
- Organisationsabteilung III, “Vorführung in Kummersdorf Am 26.1.1945.”