Why were Schürzen introduced in WW2?

German Schürzen (“Aprons” or Side Skirts) of WW2 are always a good topic of debate. The crucial question is, why were they introduced? Short answer is: Soviet Anti-tank rifles.

John Moher, Tim Marshall, Chuck Parrott and Steve

Based on comments from John Moher, Tim Marshall, Chuck Parrott and Steve on the Crossfire forum. 11 Aug 2005

It is commonly believed that the aprons or side skirts on German armour (Schrzen) originated as a defense against Bazookas in north-western Europe. In fact the Germans started using them in late 1942, i.e. long before the Bazooka appeared in any significant numbers.

Spielburger (in Spielburger & Feist “Armor on the Eastern Front”) states that side skirts were to combat Soviet AT rifles, not HEAT charges. He was there so he should know and he has pictures to illustrate this.

Yes, very convincing. The icing on the cake for me was the Kummersdorf testing results which clearly stated in Feb. 1943 that ATR and 76mm HE rounds (not HEAT) were tested against schurzen with positive results. After the tests, it was ordered that all Pz III and Pz IV would be fitted with the plating at the factory and in service units would be field upgraded. This original German source is hard to argue with.

Side skirts were primarily added to Pz III and IVs, and their variants. Tiger tanks did not get them. The Panther had very small side plates which were probably Schürzen. They specifically cover the small gap between the top of the road wheels and the start of the upper hull. Some people have speculated these are glorified mud-guards, etc… However since the lower side hull of the Panther was ONLY 40mm at 0º (vs. the Pz.IV’s 30mm and the Tiger I’s 60mm) the only logical conclusion is that these small side plates were schürzen for the same anti-ATR purpose as the larger plates on the Pz.III & IV. The large road wheels provided the same effect for the bottom half of the lower hull and therefore the most vulnerable part was the upper half of the lower hull where the track returned (look at a photo – there is a large strip of lower hull exposed at this point if these plates are missing). Even Jagdpanthers sometimes carried these side plates.

Turret side skirts were always added at the factory, but other side skirts were added in the field. Which probably explains the wide diversity seen.

People forget that modern “side skirts” and similar are quite different to the WW2 German stuff. The WW2 side skirts were just thin sheets, while the modern stuff tends to be laminated or specially shaped/thicker. Furthermore the Germans changed the Schürzen used on the Western Front late in the war to wire mesh and similar which suggest a change of purpose, i.e. to protect against light hollow charge weapons.

The other thing to remember is that hollow charge munitions in WWII were not really taking advantage of the optimum “stand off” distance at which the jet is most effective. Cone shapes and materials were also not perfected. The shaped charge rounds I fired from the 105mm L7 gun and, I believe, those fired from 120 guns all have this very long “stick” in the front. That’s to ensure the charge is set off a good distance away from the target to optimize the jet. The shaped charge experts I used to work with felt that schurzen would have sometimes had a good effect (for the Germans) but could also have helped exploding rounds achieve a better stand off distance, given the technology of shaped charges at the time.

Chuck Parott on Soviet ATR

Excerpt from Crossfire Discussion forum 16 Jul 2003

John and Tim are correct, side skirts (schurzen) appeared in early tests in February, 1943 in response to Soviet ATR’s and not in direct response to HC/HEAT weapons as widely believed. Jentz lists references to German testing documents that only Soviet 14.5mm ballistic rounds and not HC (HL-treffer) were tested at the Kummersdorf range and that Hitler ordered in March ’43 that all armor be equipped asap with the new 5mm schurzen. The orginal story seems to have been based on a 1944 US Army intelligence report that listed 20mm tungsten core, 14.5mm atr, HC, and bazooka rounds as theories for the schurzen’s existence. Popular post war books on German armor used that report and with a focus on the American view, perpetuated the myth and schurzen came to be known as anti-bazooka shields.

The Soviets usually employed them in separate tank hunter teams. A tank hunter squad (as part of a AT platoon) consisted of 2 or 3 ATR gunners supported by an additional 4-6 lookouts armed with rifle/smg. They were deployed in depth and overlapping patterns along armor threat axes and worked to support the infantry. By all first hand accounts I’ve read they were very effective when used properly, but that was the trick. Tanks well supported by infantry had very little to fear, unsupported tanks could be easy pickings. All the combatants developed devices to defend against infantry AT attacks at one time or another and took attacks by infantry very seriously.

ATR’s by their nature are defensive weapons. They were designed to give infantry some AT capability when lacking in ATG’s or armor. Tactically, they required an offensive (or at least an aggressive defense) mentality to employ effectively. Except against the very lightest armor, very short ranged (10 to 30m) flank or rear shots were needed, and those required good infiltration tactics to obtain. Experienced ATR teams learned how to immobilize heavier armor. Crews faced with the threat of enemy infantry in close proximity often bailed out of an immobilized vehicle.

There is a very good website with detailed TO&E info at:

http://www.battlefield.ru/library/bookshelf/weapons/weapons3.html

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