Arms and Men: German Remote-Controlled Vehicles of World War II

Arms and Men: German Remote-Controlled Vehicles of World War II

By Jack H. McCall, Jr.
1/11/2019 • MHQ Magazine

On the outer wall of St. John’s Cathedral in the Stare Miasto, Warsaw’s Old Town, a peculiar memorial exists in the form of a miniature caterpillar track. This is a relic from some of the most unusual additions to Germany’s World War II arsenal: several tracked, remote-controlled vehicles that took their place alongside better-known vehicles like the Panther and Tiger tanks and helped lead the way toward modern robotic vehicles.

Development of radio-controlled military equipment began in World War I and the 1920s, when technicians in the United States and Great Britain experimented with radio-controlled “aerial torpedoes.” Between the wars, the British and French initiated research and development efforts for remote-controlled ground vehicles.

France’s programs produced two types of demolition carriers: the tanklike Véhicule Pommelet and a smaller vehicle invented by French tank designer Adolphe Kégresse that was demonstrated in early 1940. Near Sedan in 1940, the Germans encountered several of the eleven carriers Pommelet produced. The French ditched Kégresse’s prototype in the Seine River to keep it from the enemy, but the Germans found it and recovered it.

In the fall of 1939, the Wehrmacht ordered a semi-expendable mine clearance vehicle that would destroy mines by its own weight or via a trailing roller. The Carl Borgward Group responded with a concrete-hulled, radio-controlled tracked vehicle known as the B.I. This was followed in mid-1940 by the B.II, which retained the concrete carapace but dispensed with the mine roller, breaching minefields instead by detonating a built-in explosive charge.

The Germans employed small quantities of both vehicles in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics during Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941. The Germans issued a more refined model, the B.IV, to various Funklenkpanzer battalions and separate companies in April 1942. The steel-hulled B.IV was not intended to be expendable: It carried a 450- kilogram explosive charge in a detachable bin mounted on its front. It had a driver’s compartment, enabling an operator to drive the B.IV like a tank for a considerable distance before dismounting and activating its radio control.

Once radio control was initiated, an operator in a command tank, typically a Panzerkampfwagen Mark III or Tiger tank or a Sturmgeschütz III assault gun, steered the B.IV to its target. Using radio controls, the operator detonated explosive bolts securing the demolitions bin to the B.IV, depositing the bin on or near its target. After the vehicle made good its escape, the operator also detonated the charge by radio control. Borgward built 1,181 B.IVs before its Bremen factory was bombed out in October 1944.

After testing Kégresse’s recovered prototype in late 1940, the Wehrmacht directed Borgward to design a “light load carrier.” The result was the Goliath, which the Germans began issuing to armored engineer and assault engineer units in the spring of 1942. Unlike the B.IV, the wire-guided Goliaths were designed to be expendable, a species of caterpillar-tracked mobile mine. An operator controlled the vehicle via a telephone cable spooling out from the rear of the Goliath to a joystick control box. As the electric motors used in early-model Goliaths were expensive and their battery life was short, a later model was powered by a gasoline engine. Borgward produced 7,579 Goliaths, counting both versions.

For vehicles whose operations were typically conducted with utmost secrecy, B.IV and Goliath-equipped units nevertheless saw considerable action on every front where the Wehrmacht fought. The Germans first used Goliaths in combat at Sevastopol in 1942; British and American troops faced them in North Africa, then at Anzio and elsewhere in Italy, and in Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. B.IVs successfully eliminated Soviet minefields and bunkers during the Kursk campaign in July 1943.

In addition to serving as countermine-demolition vehicles, the versatile B.IV could conduct reconnaissance, dispense smokescreens or chemical agents, or serve as chemical decontamination vehicles. B.IVs mounting Panzerschreck rocket-launchers (akin to the American bazooka) engaged Soviet tanks in last-ditch fighting near Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in late April 1945. At least one B.IV was experimentally equipped with an early television camera.

These vehicles had significant limitations, however, especially the Goliath. One U.S. intelligence bulletin noted: “One of the drawbacks [of the Goliath] is that the operator must have direct observation both on the vehicle and the target….The vehicle cannot travel over very rough terrain, and [with a speed of five to twelve miles per hour] is definitely vulnerable to small-arms fire.”

The Goliath’s cable length limited its range to 2,000 feet; the cable itself presented another fatal weakness once Allied soldiers and resistance fighters learned how easily they could sever it. It also took five or six men to prepare a Goliath for use, thus attracting enemy attention—and enemy ordnance.

If any battle made these vehicles notorious, it was the bloody Warsaw Uprising of August 1 to October 2, 1944. Facing fierce opposition from the Polish Armija Krajowa (AK), or Home Army, resistance fighters, the Germans used virtually every weapon available—from obsolete Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers to Nebelwerfer rocket launchers, railroad guns, and the mammoth Karl siege mortar—to annihilate Warsaw and its inhabitants. Alongside the infamous SS Dirlewanger and Kaminski brigades, SS generals Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski and Heinz Reinefarth deployed Wehrmacht and SS Panzer units. However, Warsaw’s narrow and debris-clogged streets resulted in some 270 German tanks being lost by the Uprising’s end. Enter the remote-controlled Panzer and combat engineer units.

The Wehrmacht used large numbers of Goliaths in Warsaw, beginning August 11 in attacks in the Wola district; three days later it deployed a B.IV-equipped battalion, Panzer Abteilung (Funklenk) 302. In the assault on the Stare Miasto that began on August 19, fifty Goliaths went into action alongside a Tiger company and twenty assault guns, an armored train, and heavy artillery.

A history of Panzer Abteilung 302 records: “It soon became apparent that committing assault tanks, assault guns, and demolition-charge carriers piecemeal was ineffective. Therefore, it was necessary to change tactics and concentrate all available heavy weapons, including divebombers, on [each] objective….In keeping with this tactic, clearing parties cleared the streets for the demolitions-charge carriers, which were guided to barricades and detonated.”

AK fighters attacked the vehicles with grenades and filipinki gasoline bombs (Molotov cocktails), small-arms fire, and British-made PIATs (projectors, infantry, antitank) they had received through Allied airdrops. Taking advantage of the Goliaths’ poor ground clearance and difficulty in navigating rough terrain, the Poles placed simple barricades of scrap and street pavement in front of key positions. Appropriately nicknamed “Little Davids,” these barriers effectively kept the low-slung Goliaths from reaching their targets.

A few hardy souls dared to crawl through the ruins with wirecutters or axes to halt Goliaths dead in their tracks by severing their control cables. Polish and German sources suggest that to thwart these tactics, Goliath, B.IV, and other panzer crews occasionally marched civilians as human shields in front of their vehicles.

Polish sources hold Goliaths and B.IVs accountable for causing significant damage to—or the destruction of—such Warsaw landmarks as St. John’s Cathedral, the Warsaw Fire Brigade Building, the Bank Polski building, the Poniatowski High School, and the Mostowski Palace. Polish sources have identified at least 56 attacks by some 92 Goliaths, not including other missions accomplished by the B.IVequipped Panzer Abteilung 302.

Despite the vehicles’ relatively small size, their explosive charges were potent. One Goliath attack survivor reported: “The vastness of destruction was indeed unbelievable….This corner section of the solidly constructed edifice [where he and an AK team manned a bunker] was reduced to little more than a one-story heap of rubble.”

If they were only marginally effective on other battlefields, both Goliaths and B.IVs warranted lasting hatred by the Varsovians. The inscription accompanying the caterpillar track on the wall of St. John’s Cathedral urges passersby not to forget the destruction these mobile bombs wrought on the city of Warsaw.

Postwar experiments with more sophisticated remote-controlled vehicles followed, led by British and Israeli research on remote-controlled bomb disposal vehicles. Those advances led in turn to true robotic vehicles like the Buffalo mine-clearance vehicle currently deployed in Iraq by U.S. Army engineers, Northrop-Grumman’s Remotec surveillance vehicles, and Talon vehicles used for explosive ordnance disposal, reconnaissance, communications, sensing, security and rescue. Today’s robotic crawlers are quite different from the Goliath and B.IV, but they are the linear descendants of vehicles that, some sixty years ago in the ruins of Warsaw, provided a grim harbinger of one future mode of mechanized warfare.

 

JACK H. MCCALL, JR., a former captain in the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps, wrote Pogiebait’s War about his father’s service with the U.S. Marines in World War II.

Originally published in the Winter 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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