Friday 23 December 2022

Achtung – Panzer! - German Panzer IIIs And Panzer IVs In Turkish Service

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The use of Leopard 1A3 and Leopard 2A4 MBTs by the Turkish Army is quite well known, with Türkiye even deploying the latter in combat against Islamic State in late 2016. Yet the story of German-made Panzers in Türkiye doesn't start with the delivery of the first Leopard 1s in the 1980s, but rather with the delivery of Panzer III Ausf. Ms and Panzer IV Ausf. Gs from Nazi Germany in 1943. Here they joined an exotic inventory of tanks and other AFVs already in service with the Turkish Army. In fact, Türkiye is the only country in the world to have operated tanks from nearly all major players of the Second World War, including the Soviet Union, the UK, Germany, the U.S. and France.

In 1932, Türkiye received 2 T-26 Mod. 1931 light tanks (armed with two machinegun turrets) and four T-27 tankettes as a gift from the Soviet Union. Positive experience gained with these AFVs eventually led to a Turkish order for 64 T-26 Mod. 1933 light tanks (armed with a 45mm gun), one T-37A amphibious tank and 34 BA-3 armoured cars from the USSR in 1934. [2] These were the first true tanks in service with the Turkish Army (though one FT-17 was procured from France in 1928 to familiarise infantry with tanks). 1940 also saw the acquisition of at least a dozen Vickers Mk VI light tanks from the United Kingdom and 100 French Renault R35s that arrived in Türkiye mere months before the invasion of France. Unfortunately, very few images showing these tanks during the 1930s and 1940s are known to exist.

What is certain is that Türkiye's tank acquisition spree did not lose pace during World War II. Though remaining neutral until February 1945, when it declared war on both Nazi Germany and Japan, the Turkish Army was determined to expand its capabilities amidst the war raging around its borders. As both the Axis and the Allies hoped to secure Türkiye's participation (or loyalty) in the war on their respective sides, France, the UK, U.S. and Germany supplied the Turkish Army with copious amounts of armament. Through these effort, Türkiye ended up acquiring and operating anything from British Hurricanes and Spitfires to French MS. 406 and even German Fw 190 fighters.

The United Kingdom also sought to massively increase the size Türkiye's armoured forces through the delivery of some 200 Valentine and 200 M3 Stuart tanks between 1941 and 1944. While already dated designs by that time, they nonetheless offered a leap in capabilities over the R35s and T-26s, and allowed for the retirement of the remaining T-26s in 1943. Not to be outdone by the UK, Germany similarly offered to supply Türkiye with armour, leading to a purchase of 35 Panzer IIIs and 35 Panzer IVs (along with ammunition and spare parts) in 1943. [3] These numbers paled in comparison to the nearly 500 tanks delivered by the UK, perhaps reflecting the way the war was going for Germany.

At least seven of Türkiye's Panzer IVs on parade. These remained the most capable tanks in the inventory of the Turkish Army until the delivery of some 30 M4A2 Shermans later in the war.

The total number of Panzers ultimately received by Türkiye still remains somewhat of a mystery. The Maschinenfabrik Niedersachsen Hanover (MNH) assembled a total of 56 PzKpfw. III Ausf. Ms in January and February 1943, 35 of which were supposed to be delivered to Türkiye. [4] A fair number of these 56 were distributed to units of the Wehrmacht however (including to the Schwere Panzer-Abteilung 505). [4] The Panzer IIIs and IVs that were delivered were known as the T-3 and T-4 in Turkish Army service, and operated alongside German Einheits-Pkws acquired several years prior. Due to a lack of spare parts and the small numbers in service, the T-3s and T-4s were retired in the late 1940s.

Türkiye certainly wasn't the only country left disappointed by Germany's industrial output, as even some Axis states had to wait long periods to eventually see only small numbers of ordered tanks delivered to them. The Turkish Armed Forces were not entirely new to the seizure of their ordered equipment either, as the outbreak of World War I and World War II had already led to numerous requisitions by the United Kingdom and Germany. In fact, the British government's seizure of two dreadnought battleships still under construction in the UK caused such resentment in the Ottoman Empire that it contributed to the decision of the Ottoman government to join the Central Powers.

Neighbouring Bulgaria did end up receiving its full order of 91 Panzer IVs (save for three tanks used for training that were never delivered), undoubtedly because it was an active participant in the war on the side of the Axis. The Bulgarian Army received a total of 88 Panzer IV Ausf. H and Gs in 1943. [5] 43 of these were lost in 1944, and eleven more in 1945. [5] From March 1945 onwards a total of 51 Panzer IVs were received from the Soviet Union after Bulgaria switched sides to the Allies. [5] These remained in active service until 1958, when the remainder were dug in as static bunkers on the border with NATO member Türkiye. These were only dug up during the 2010s! [6]

Turkish actor Kemal Sunal (1944-2000) poses in front of a Turkish Panzer IV during his military service in Etimesgut, Ankara.

One Turkish Panzer III Ausf. M and a Panzer IV Ausf. G survive at the Etimesgut Tank Müzesi near the capital Ankara. This museum is located on the grounds of a military base and is closed off from the general public. Urban development, the new headquarters for the Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı (National Intelligence Organization) and Türkiye's own Pentagon have taken up much of the space of the training grounds, and the military base and the museum are scheduled for relocation. These modern distractions may have had the unfortunate result that little effort has been put into the maintenance of the AFVs on display. For some bizarre reason the latest addition to them saw the installation of fake barrels over any tank deemed to have too small of a barrel. Luckily the T-3 and T-4 were spared this emasculating fate by already being endowed with some pretty large equipment of their own.

Panzer III Ausf. M and Panzer IV G at the Etimesgut Tank Müzesi, Ankara. The former is on display without the Schürzen spaced armour, which does not appear to have been mounted on the examples delivered to Türkiye.

The small numbers of Panzers delivered meant that their years of service never had any true impact on the Turkish Army's operations. Being the recipient of hundreds of other tanks and AFVs from other countries, the delivery arguably only served to demonstrate that Germany was losing the war, and unable to supply its allies and potentially aligned countries with enough armament to keep them firmly on their side. Nonetheless, Türkiye was likely happy to accept anything it could get its hands on, if only because it provided a good look at the rapidly changing tank design philosophies of World War II. Ironically, the Turkish Army was still facing dug in Bulgarian Panzers until the early 1990s, meaning the German tanks survived as a threat far longer than as an asset. Now that it has definitively been relinquished from both roles however, all that it offers Türkiye (and interested readers) today is an intriguing story.

[1] WWII’s Absentee: German and Allied Equipment Used By The Turkish Republic
[5] Matev, Kaloyan, The Armoured Forces of the Bulgarian Army 1936-45, Helion, 2015, pp. 120-122

Special thanks to Mark Bevis.

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