Meet the Panzer Zug, also written Panzerzug, otherwise known as the “German Armored Train.” This fascinating rolling battle unit was used by the Wehrmacht as part of its military campaigns in the East to deal with roaming partisan forces and also to provide mobile support for troops in the field. What makes this particular military innovation interesting, beyond the oddness of its existence, is how the Wehrmacht came to re-embrace the use of the armored train.
Prior to the outbreak of World War II the armored train had been abandoned as a military concept, they were seen as powerful mobile weapons platforms however they were considered too vulnerable to disruption by enemy action. (The whole “destroy the tracks and the train just sits there” problem.) The German military high command had completed dismissed the armored train as a tactical until until Germany invaded Poland in 1939. What caught the German high command’s interest was the fact that in direct battle German forces were unable to defeat the Polish armored trains being used in Poland’s defense. Granted the German military was able to halt the trains effectiveness by destroying track but in direct combat the Polish armored trains beat back German attacks and provided a really surprisingly effective burst of heavy fire support at the least expected points in a battle.
There are numerous early conflicts between the German military and Polish military in which the battle would be progressing as expected, German units advancing as Polish units fell back, and then from out of the woods would come this massive armored train, firing shells everywhere, machine guns blasting at German units, and anti-aircraft guns smacking attacking fighters out of the way. The train rapidly rolled up, fired a bunch of rounds, and then raced away. When Germany later invaded the Soviet Union they found armored trains to be surprisingly useful on the Eastern front, mobile battle platforms that could rapidly move up to deal with partisans and other lightly armed forces in the German rear.
Many German armored trains were captured Russian or Polish armored trains that were repaired and pressed back into service with the Wehrmacht. In each case they were heavily armored and equipped with heavy weapons, the Germans attempted to make each train as self contained as possible so that it could roll along and deal with firefights swiftly on its own. Sadly the trains fell out of use as the Russian army advanced in 1944 onwards, but they still played a minor role in the conflict. I intend to research them in greater detail but for now, enjoy the oddness!
I love this image in particular, taken on a German armored train and those silhouettes are individual tanks smacked by the train.
Also if you are really interested check out this old German warm film of an armored train in action – enjoy the adorable scout car sent out in front of it to make sure everything was clear.
Sources: Wikipedia entry on armored trains, Wikipedia entry on armored trains in Poland, Website on Panzerzug 10b, and Operatives, Spies, and Saboteurs, The Unknown Story of the Men and Women of WWII’s OSS by Patrick O’Donnell