In this article I’d like to discuss a relatively unknown armaments conference, held at the Hillersleben artillery range on June 6 and 7, 1943. This Rüstungstagung was presided by Reichsminister Albert Speer and attended by leaders from the armaments industry, high-ranking Nazi officials as well as senior officers. Unlike during the regular Vorführungen neuer Waffen, Hitler was not present. The programme consisted of meetings and demonstrations of the latest and greatest German as well as captured equipment.
To begin with, in this article we first look at the context in which the Tagung took place. After that, the spot light is on Hillersleben as well as the conference itself. Next, the especially interesting hill climbing demonstration is discussed in some detail as well as the vehicles taking part in the latter exercise.
Table of Contents
- June 5 – At the Berliner Sportpalast
- Heeresversuchsanstalt Hillersleben in a nutshell
- June 6-7 – Tagung at Hillersleben
June 5 – At the Berliner Sportpalast
On June 5, the day before the conference at Hillersleben, Speer and Goebbels gave speeches at an NSDAP mass rally in the Berliner Sportpalast1. The audience consisted of some 10,000 armaments workers and party members. Speer reported on the great successes achieved by the armaments industry. He presented various statistics on how the production of munitions, weapons and tanks had increased sine 1941. The numbers were more than impressive, compared to 1941 monthly production of munitions increased sixfold; that of artillery guns fourfold and to top it all of tank deliveries in May 1943 had risen to 1250%. Speer could not thank the industry workers and leaders enough.
The numbers were remarkable indeed, but chiefly propaganda. It’s noteworthy that all numbers were given as percentages instead of absolute units. Otherwise it would become all too obvious that the numbers paled against those of Germany’s enemies. Moreover, Speer chose to compare production to a “convenient” period in 1941 during which production had been especially low2. Speer blew the armaments industry’s achievements way out of proportion. In reality, after heavy bombing in the first quarter of 1943 production took a hit and would even stagnate in the second quarter. Later Speer would admit that persistent Allied bombing inhibited any of his plans for further production increase2.
Speers speech was followed by that of Goebbels outlining the current political and military situation. The excited crowd listened curiously to the words of the ministers and interrupted their speeches numerous times with thunderous applause. Both speeches were published in a brochure with the somewhat biased name “Tatsachen Sprechen für den Sieg”3 (The facts speak for victory).
Notably, while Speer speaks freely about the Tiger, he is careful to reveal the new Panther – which had not yet seen its combat debut. Speer explains:
“When one or the other invention is sometimes made public by us, it is only at a point in time when foreign countries have already been informed about these new weapons through their successful use. (…) It would be too cautious if we would withhold the effects of, for example, the Tiger from the German people, even though the sensation-seeking foreign press has already carried extensive reports on this new weapon. However, you can be sure that we prefer to be too slow rather than too quick in announcing new weapons.”3
Finally, he appeals to the German workers and engineers in the armaments sector to keep quiet about the projects they are working on.
(…) they should avoid speaking about them, and it would be good if all Volksgenossen conscious of their duty would keep silent in the German manner.Speer and Goebbels, Tatsachen Sprechen Für Den Sieg: Die Reden Der Reichsminister Speer Und Dr. Goebbels Im Berliner Sportpalast Am 5. Juni 1943. [Translation by author]
After the speeches, 9 industry workers and leaders received the Ritterkreuzes zum Kriegsverdienstkreuz (Knights cross of the War Merit Cross) for their efforts4. When the meeting was over Speer and Goebbels led the industry leaders to “generator buses” that took them to Hillersleben1. Here they would confer and witness the new weapon developments with their own eyes for the following two days.
Heeresversuchsanstalt Hillersleben in a nutshell
Only 9 years before, in 1934, the construction of an artillery proving ground north-west of Magdeburg was greenlit5. On the Colbitz-Letzlinger heath above Hillersleben, a 27 km long shooting range was constructed running in the direction of Börgitz6. The entire area was deforested and the existing forestries as well as the inhabitants of Salchau were forced to move elsewhere. Over 70 million Reichsmark had been set aside for the construction and facilities.
At the range there were two firing fronts: Hillersleben North and South. The two fronts were connected through a concrete road which ran left of the range. The northern range operated semi-independently from the southern range as they were 30 km apart7. The northern range, for example, had its own administration and technical staff to supervise activities.
Along the range multiple firing positions were furnished, identified as Platz A through I. On Platz B, devoted to testing of concrete and armour piercing projectiles Allied researchers noted the presence of “a tank hull of the 120 ton Maus” as well as “43 Royal Tiger tank hulls and 13 smaller unidentified hulls”7.
A tank firing range was established at the former Salchau village and barracks were located at Hillersleben South. Even a Treidelbahn, carriage testing track, was constructed using which gun carriages could be trialled on a various types of surfaces.
The first shooting took place on 28 May 1935 and until the end of the war the range was used as a research and development site by the Heereswaffenamt5. Some of the largest and most powerful weapon systems would be trialled here: Mörser “Karl”, the gigantic railway gun “Dora” as well as the V3 Hochdruckpumpe.
June 6-7 – Tagung at Hillersleben
A journalist for Das Reich, reported on the conference in his article from June 20, entitled: “Kriegsrat der Konstrukteure. Tagung ohne grünen Tisch.”8 (War Council of the Constructors. Conference without armchairs.9). He paints the picture of an extremely efficient staff of craftsmen who have an open discussion about the issues of industrial production, weapon development and raw material supply10. Apart from discussions, there was also time for demonstrations. At least a few minutes of footage exists showing, amongst others, rockets, heavy guns and a Panzerwerfer 42 auf Maultier being demonstrated. Below is the combination of two short clips available via AKH11 and USHMM12. The video gives an impression of the conference and is shown here only for educational purposes.
On 1 July 1943, Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung ran a story about the conference “Waffen von Morgen- und gestern. Neue deutsche Waffen und Beutewaffen auf dem Versuchsfeld.”13 (Weapons of today and yesterday. New German and captured weapons on the proving ground). Note that in such articles the name “Hillersleben” was never mentioned. Instead, in the context of secrecy, the Versuchsstelle was merely denoted as “a proving ground in northern Germany”. The Illustrierte provided, true to its name, a graphical representation of the conference. The following is a selection from that article.
“For a fraction of a moment, the trajectory of a large-caliber projectile is visible shortly after its launch. With eager attention the Reich Ministers Dr. Goebbels and Speer watch the trail of the heavy projectiles, developed from the last combat experiences.”“Waffen von Morgen- Und Gestern. Neue Deutsche Waffen Und Beutewaffen Auf Dem Versuchsfeld.” [Translation by author]
Remarkable was the presence of a captured M4A1 “War Daddy II” and M3 Lee. The spectator’s apparent surprise of this spectacle echoes in the caption.
US tank -German crew! It is the latest and most powerful type of the “General-class” US tanks, the “Sherman-Tank”, which is demonstrated here by German Panzersoldaten. The numbers on the armour show how thoroughly our tank specialists have dealt with the weak points of the enemy Kampfwagens.“Waffen von Morgen- Und Gestern. Neue Deutsche Waffen Und Beutewaffen Auf Dem Versuchsfeld.” [Translation by author]
The story of “War Daddy II”
How did an American tank fall it into the hands of the Germans? “War Daddy II” belonged to the US First Armored Division and bears the markings of Company G, 3rd Battalion of the 1st Armored Regiment. Its registration “USA 3067641” makes this one of 134 M4A1 Shermans built by Lima Locomotive Works in July 194214.
The tank was captured in Tunisia during the Frühlingswind offensive. This operation aimed to take the Kasserine pass was launched on 14 February 1943. During the first two days of the offensive, the 21st Panzer-Division, supported by Tigers of schwere Panzer-Abteilung 501, inflicted heavy losses to the US First Armored Division. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 1st Armored Regiment lost about 90 Sherman tanks and only a handful of tanks managed to escape the onslaught.
On the 22nd, “War Daddy II” fell into the hand of a Spähtrupp (recon troop) of schwere Panzer-Abteilung 501 near Sbeitla15. Being the first of its sort to fall into Germans hands unscathed, it was earmarked for evaluation in the Reich. Hence it was clearly marked on both sides, to prevent the vehicle from being cannibalised:
“Nicht ausschlachten! Bestimmt für O.K.H.
Erbeutet von der 1.Komp.Pz.Abt 501““Don’t disassemble! Intended for O.K.H. [High Command]. Captured by the 1st COY, Pz.Abt 501”
According to an article that appeared in propaganda magazine Die Wehrmacht, the tank was manned by personnel of the Spähtrupp and driven the 350 km to the port of Sfax – a four and a half day journey16. From here it was shipped to the state proving ground at Kummersdorf to undergo in-depth examination.
At Kummersdorf the tank received Versuchsfahrzeug No. 259 as well as the obligatory license plate WH-05894117. The vehicle was annotated with armour thickness and the corresponding angle on all surfaces. In general Die Wehrmacht paints a favourable picture of the new American creation and concludes:
“The preliminary investigation on Tunisian soil already showed that this rolling steel mine is not in itself a bad creation”Schulz, “Der Amerikanische Panzer ‘Sherman’ …Und Sein Großer Gegner ‘Tiger.’” [Translation by author]
Ostensibly, a large propaganda campaign was launched in late June during which the abilities of Feindpanzer (enemy tanks) were compared with those of the latest German designs. An article published in the weekly-newspaper Das Reich on June 27, 1943 is similarly positive about the Sherman. The author described it as “one of the special accomplishments of the North American laboratories” and furthermore regarded it as “quite a praiseworthy product of the North American steel industry”18.
“Der Reichsminister für Bewaffnung und Munition Albert Speer bei der Besichtigung eines erbeuteten Feindpanzers“Caption of the above right propaganda photo. “The Reichminister for armaments and ammunition Albert Speer during the inspection of a captured enemy tank”
Sherman vs. Panther vs. Slope
The demonstration at Hillersleben featured “War Daddy II” driving up a slope which it was unable to climb while a Panther did make it. Some of the photos showing the Sherman and Panther climbing the hill were used in propaganda campaigns, praising the superiority of German tank design. The three photos below were published in Signal in 194419. The captions below are translations of the ones found in the latter. Note the bullet impacts on the M4A1’s turret which were not present earlier during Speer’s inspection.
Panther Ausf. D
The Panther Ausführung D tank seen here is of a very early build. The footage shot by the cameraman (you can just see him in some of the photos) gives a very clear view of the engine deck. Noticeable are the two-pronged armoured caps over the air intakes located on the engine cover. These indicate the installation of an Maybach HL 210 P 30 engine20. After the 250th Panther, production switched to the improved HL 230 model.
Although brackets for Schürzen are present, none have been mounted – allowing for a particularly good view of the running gear. The loader’s hatch in the back of the turret is fitted with a rain channel and sheet metal plates are mounted to the inner sides of the stowage bins. Notice that the rear lifting point runs fore to aft which was a very short-lived design variation. The combination of these features points to this likely being an April 1943, MAN built Panther. Interestingly, MacDougall states the retaining catch for the loader’s hatch as seen on this Panther was only introduced in June, after which it was retrofitted to older models21.
Noticeably, the hull was produced by Ruhrstahl Hattingen as is apparent from the flush cut armour plates at the wedge pannier interlock. Of interest are the early type spiral armoured castings over the cooling fans. Early grills originally incorporated a ring for a coolant filler-port. The ring extension became redundant after a redesign of the engine compartment and were thus cut-off of the castings. This Panther seems to feature a revision of the original casting without the ring for the filler port. The difference can be observed on the Breda Panther.
Ferdinand – Fgst.Nr. 150 011 (150)
Another “contender” in the hill climbing cup was the first series production Ferdinand tank destroyer, chassis No. 150 011. On May 13, 1943 this specimen was shipped on a Ssyms flat bed rail car from Alkett, Borsigwalde to the Verskraft at Kummersdorf22. After having been put through automotive testing at Kummersdorf, it would be submitted to shooting trials at Hillersleben.
Wa Prüf 6 carried out trials with 150 011 until 25 December 1943, during which many deficiencies were found23. Apparently the Ferdinand had suffered damage during one of the trials in May and was drivable again only after repairs were carried out by Alkett on the 30th.
A few days later, on June 3rd, 150 011 was entrained for its journey to Hillersleben22. Whether planned or coincidental, the Ferdinand was present just in time to feature at the armaments conference. It is seen attempting to climb the hill – and apparently failing like the M4A1.
It must be noted that 150 011, at the time, did not feature the standard production final drives. Instead, the original final drives of the Tiger (P) were fitted – whose gearing ratio of 1:15 had not been adjusted for the Ferdinand’s increased weight22. Only later, on June 16, the redesigned 1:16.8 drives were installed by Maybach at Friedrichshafen.
Tiger I – Fgst.Nr. 250 053 (131)
Apart from a Panther and Ferdinand, the video also shows Speer driving up the slope in Tiger chassis No. 250 053. This Tiger was completed in December 1942 and subsequently confiscated by Wa Prüf 624. It was used to test the new steel-tyred roadwheel design. Furthermore, a new design of hull side extensions with more clearance for the towing shackles was trialled on this vehicle.
- Brechtken, Albert Speer : Eine Deutsche Karriere.
- Tooze, The Wages of Destruction : The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy.
- Speer and Goebbels, Tatsachen Sprechen Für Den Sieg: Die Reden Der Reichsminister Speer Und Dr. Goebbels Im Berliner Sportpalast Am 5. Juni 1943.
- These were: Joseph Hinkerohe, Christian Davidshöfer, Johannes Holtmayer, Carl Krauch, Walter Rohland, Karl Saur, Albin Sawatzki, Karl Schmid and William Werner
- Axel Turra, Heeresversuchsstelle Hillersleben Fleißiges Lieschen, Dora, Karl Und Andere Schwere Geschütze in Der Erprobung 1935 – 1945.
- CIOS, “Artillery Experimental Range Hillersleben.”, CIOS, “The Proving Ground, Hillersleben.”
- CIOS, “The Proving Ground, Hillersleben.”
- Brechtken, Albert Speer : Eine Deutsche Karriere., Frei and Schmitz, Journalismus Im Dritten Reich.
- Meant here is the practice of ‘armchair decision making’, i.e. subjective decision making without sense of reality
- Frei and Schmitz, Journalismus Im Dritten Reich.
- Agentur Karl Höffkes, “Material Nr 1435, Tagung in Hillersleben, 6 – 8. Juni.”
- Rohland, “Rüstungsfachleute Bei Besichtigungen Und Tagungen.”
- “Waffen von Morgen- Und Gestern. Neue Deutsche Waffen Und Beutewaffen Auf Dem Versuchsfeld.”
- DeMarco, Buan, and Hulbert, “Lima Locomotive Works M4A1s.”
- Gudgin’s “The Tiger Tanks” includes a photo showing “War Daddy II” just after its capture.
- Schulz, “Der Amerikanische Panzer ‘Sherman’ …Und Sein Großer Gegner ‘Tiger.’”
- Regenberg, Beutepanzer Unterm Balkenkreuz – Amerikanische Und Englische Kampfpanzer.
- Military Intelligence Division, “German Comment on Enemy Tanks.”
- “Neue Panzer – Panther Gegen Sherman.”
- Jentz, Germany’s Panther Tank the Quest for Combat Supremacy ; Development, Modifications, Rare Variants, Characteristics, Combat Accounts., Macdougall and Block, Panther: External Appearance & Design Changes.
- Macdougall and Block, Panther: External Appearance & Design Changes.
- Anderson, Ferdinand and Elefant Tank Destroyer.
- Anderson, Ferdinand and Elefant Tank Destroyer., Fröhlich, Der Panzerjäger Ferdinand Panzerjäger Tiger (P), Porsche Typ 131.
- Jentz and Doyle, Germany’s Tiger Tanks : D.W. To Tiger I.