The Nazi regime developed an array of combat vehicles during the course of WWII. The majority have accompanying documentation to allow historians to develop a better understanding of their use during the conflict. However, there’s one that’s simply an enigma, with no one quite sure of its purpose: the Kugelpanzer.
A seemingly useless offensive tool
Not much is known about the Kugelpanzer, and much of what’s assumed about it is the result of speculation. No documentation has been recovered regarding its design or purpose. However, it’s assumed it was produced by Krupp, which produced various military vehicles during WWII.
What is known is that the Kugelpanzer was a 25 horsepower single-cylinder two-strong engine vehicle with 5mm-thick outer armor. It weighed 1.8 tons and rolled along 1.5-meter diameter rollers while the driver(s) sat on a saddle-like stool.
Given its rather small size, it was likely only powered by a single person. The drive was located behind the driver, and the steering wheel was in the rear. This served as a way to shift the vehicle’s center of gravity and provide support for rotary movements carried out by its wheels.
From there, the rest is up for debate. According to an estimate from Russian Popular Mechanics, the Kugelpanzer was rather slow, traveling a meager 5 miles per hour. There’s also a slit in the front that likely doubled as a viewing slot and a place from which a machine gun, either a 7.92mm MG34 or MG42, could be shot.
The only surviving model
Much of what is known about the Kugelpanzer comes from one specimen that the Soviet Red Army captured from the Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchuria in 1945. It’s believed to be the only one still in existence, and it is currently on display at the Kubinka Tank Museum in the Odintsovsky District of Moscow Oblast. Upon its capture, the model was repainted and its drive mechanism removed. The original paintwork was restored in 2000.
It’s currently not clear what metal makes up the vehicle’s exterior, as samples are not allowed to be taken. As well, there’s no evidence to show it or any other Kugelpanzers ever saw combat, at least in the European theater.
What is known is that its design is similar to that of other military vehicles. These include WWI’s Treffas-Wagen, the Tsar Tank, inventor A.J. Richardson’s Tumbleweed Tank, and the War Tank on One Wheel. However, none were as peculiar.
Japan’s kamikaze strategy
Theories abound regarding the purpose of the Kugelpanzer. The general consensus is it was likely used as a light reconnaissance vehicle. Others have suggested it served as either infantry support or was used to lay cables along the front lines. However, the most interesting theory involves its potential use by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Pacific War.
Proponents of this theory believe the Kugelpanzer was commissioned by the Japanese as part of their kamikaze strategy during the final phases of the war.
By 1944, Japanese pilots had begun crashing their planes into enemy installments in order to cause as much damage as possible. The pilots themselves were often killed in the process. By the fall of that year, the Japanese Army had grown so desperate that it began to incorporate these suicide missions into its offensive strategy, thus requiring new vehicles and equipment.
Along with improvising already existing devices, the Japanese developed an array of new military vehicles. This included the Yokosuka MXY-7 Ohka, a kamikaze attack plane; manned underwater crafts like the Kaiten and Kairyū; and Shin’yō suicide motorboats
Given the purpose behind their designs would more than likely lead to the death of their occupants, these vehicles were often small and lightly armored. They also had little-to-no offensive weaponry onboard. The Kugelpanzer shared these features, leading some to theorize it was used to ram into enemy tanks and forces during such suicide missions.