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The Kettenkrad

American soldiers riding a captured Kettenkrad in 1945 (Photo: U.S. Army)
American soldiers riding a captured Kettenkrad in 1945 (Photo: U.S. Army)

In this article, we are going to explore the history of one of the most unique German vehicles of World War II, the Kettenkrad. It was a half-tracked utility vehicle with a single motorcycle wheel at the front. Its full name was Kleines Kettenkraftrad HK 101 (“small tracked motorcycle”) with its other official designation being Sonderkraftfahrzeug 2 or Sd.Kfz.2 ("special purpose vehicle"). It was popular among German soldiers and, interestingly, had no Allied counterpart. Despite its size, it was a complex machine with several ingenious mechanical solutions. Due to its excellent cross-country capabilities it could be used for a wide variety of purposes, such as laying communication cables, towing guns and planes, carrying supplies, soldiers, messengers or wounded, etc.
 
Shortly before WWII, the German army and the air force were looking for a small utility vehicle that could cross difficult terrain and could tow smaller equipment and supplies. The development was led by Heinrich Ernst Kniepkamp from the German army’s weapons agency, the Heereswaffenamt. He was in charge of the department responsible for the development of armored vehicles and motorized equipment. Based on the patent of Kniekamp, trials and production were done by the NSU company in Neckarsulm. The NSU, standing for Neckarsulm, used to build motorcycles and cars. Later, the Stoewer company in Stettin also produced Kettenkrads. Around 10% of the total production was manufactured by them.

Heinrich Ernst Kniepkamp, the designer of the Kettenkrad (Photo: vk.com)
Heinrich Ernst Kniepkamp, the designer of the Kettenkrad (Photo: vk.com)

The Kettenkrad weighed around 1.2 tons and was powered by a water-cooled, four-cylinder car engine used in the Opel Olympia automobile which was named after the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games (Read our earlier article – The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin). This was necessary since the NSU only produced one-cylinder engines, which were not powerful enough. It was a practical decision since the Olympia was used by the Wehrmacht, too, thus it was nothing new to the mechanics of the armed forces. This gave sufficient power and enabled a top speed of 50 mph or 80 km/h that made it the fastest tracked vehicle of the war. At the same time, the manual recommended driving at 44 mph or 70 km/h, since at higher speeds it could get out of control if driven by less experienced drivers. The engine was behind the driver, who sat on a motorcycle seat built on the transmission. The driving compartment was surrounded by fuel tanks from the left and right. In addition to the driver, it could carry two passengers on rear-facing seats. Sometimes the back seats were removed to provide extra room for supplies. On the front of the vehicle, there was a headlight concealed by a cover. Its purpose was to hide the light of the headlight at night.

The driver’s compartment of a Kettenkrad (Photo: bonhams.com)
The driver’s compartment of a Kettenkrad (Photo: bonhams.com)

The vehicle had a limited towing capacity of 992 lb / 450 kg. It had a special trailer called Sonderanhänger 1 that could carry 770 lb / 350 kg of supplies. It often towed a 37mm anti-tank or 20mm anti-aircraft gun.
 
The Kettenkrad incorporated interesting engineering solutions, such as its steering system. Steering was done by the handlebars similarly to a motorcycle. Up until a turn of over 5°, the front motorcycle wheel steered it. In sharper turns, it worked like a tank and started using the track brakes to provide the necessary angle. The front wheel gave stability to high-speed driving but it was possible to remove it and drive without it on rough terrain where it would run slower anyway.

A Kettenkrad towing a truck from the mud on the Eastern Front (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
A Kettenkrad towing a truck from the mud on the Eastern Front (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The tracks gave it an excellent cross-country and climbing ability in almost all kinds of environments be it mud, sandy desert, forested or mountainous terrain. The motorcycle wheel helped lift the front part of the vehicle on steeper slopes or on different obstacles like logs. An American report published an analysis about the abilities of the “German Motorcycle Tractor” in the Tactical and Technical Trends in 1943. Among others, it mentioned special modifications for ‘tropical use’. These included an improved cooling-fan, push-button starter, and track-link extension plates for a larger footprint in sand, etc.
 
Two special cable-laying variants equipped with cable drums were developed: firstly, the SdKfz 2/1 which was used for laying field-telephone cables, and secondly, the SdKfz 2/2 which was the heavier version.

A cable-layer Kettenkrad with a cable drum and the special trailer (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
A cable-layer Kettenkrad with a cable drum and the special trailer (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
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Among other purposes, it was supposed to be used also as a tractor for paratroopers. Its size allowed it to be transported on a Junkers Ju 52 aircraft and could tow the specialized 37mm Pak 35/36 anti-tank gun. It was used in the last major German airborne operation in Crete under Unternehmen Merkur (“Operation Mercury”) in May 1941. It resulted in a bittersweet victory for the Germans due to their heavy losses. After the Crete debacle, the paratroopers were used mainly as regular ground troops.

Loading a Kettenkrad onto a Ju 52 plane (Photo: Nevington War Museum)
Loading a Kettenkrad onto a Ju 52 plane (Photo: Nevington War Museum)

The Kettenkrad was used during Operation Barbarossa, the German attack against the Soviet Union in June 1941. It was ideal for the endless Russian steppes and the extreme winter conditions. The Kettenkrad was deployed in North Africa, Italy and France, too. Allied forces often used captured pieces to carry supplies, soldiers or for military police purposes until they ran out of spare parts.

Beaches of Normandy Tours
A captured Kettenkrad (right) used by the U.S. military police in Cherbourg (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

In the last years of the war, the Kettenkrad was used to tow aircraft on runways in order to save precious fuel for the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter or the Arado Ar 234 jet bomber.

A Kettenkrad towing an Arado jet bomber (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
A Kettenkrad towing an Arado jet bomber (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Until the halt of the production of the Kettenkrad in 1944, 8,345 pieces were built but the NSU continued the production after the war until 1948. Around 550 more were built for agricultural and forestry purposes during this short period. Eventually, the NSU was purchased by Volkswagen in 1969.
 
It is worth mentioning that the Kettenkrad served as a basis for the 2.4-ton Mittlere Ladungsträger - Springer (“Medium charge carrier”- “Jumper”) demolition vehicle, designated as Sonderkraftfahrzeug 304 (Sd.Kfz. 304). The same NSU company manufactured around 50 vehicles of this kind in the first months of 1945. Its purpose was to carry an explosive charge of 728 lbs / 330 kg to its target (bunker or armored vehicle) and to blow itself up. As opposed to its smaller version, the Goliath (Read our earlier article – The Goliath) it had a driver who had to drive the Springer close to its target, then he could leave and guide the vehicle to its final destination with a remote control.

A Springer demolition vehicle at the Bovington Tank Museum (Photo: Wikipedia, Andreas Mehlhorn)
A Springer demolition vehicle at the Bovington Tank Museum (Photo: Wikipedia, Andreas Mehlhorn)

Similarly to other over-engineered German machines, the Kettenkrad had its shortcomings: it was expensive, complex and needed a lot of maintenance (for instance, all of the nearly 80 track linkages had to be oiled individually). Despite its disadvantages, the troops liked it very much and it was used for propaganda purposes, too. The German post published a collection of charity stamps for the Heldengedenktag (“Heroes’ memorial day”) in March 1944, and one of the stamps had a Kettenkrad on it.

The charity stamp with a Kettenkrad (Photo: www.military-history.org)
The charity stamp with a Kettenkrad (Photo: www.military-history.org)

Remaining Kettenkrads are either in private hands or are on display in museums. You can find them at the Tank Museum in Bovington, the Musée des Blindés in Saumur, the Deutsches Panzer Museum in Munster or at the National Military Museum in Diekirch, just to mention a few. You can even see them drive around at the Tankfest in Bovington or at the Militracks at the War Museum Overloon in the Netherlands. Some of them get sold at auctions. At a 2017 auction, a well-restored original was sold for £51,750 (approximately 70,000 USD) in England.

A Kettenkrad driving in front of a Tiger tank at a Tankfest in Bovington (Photo: reddit.com)
A Kettenkrad driving in front of a Tiger tank at a Tankfest in Bovington (Photo: reddit.com)

You can even see some Kettenkrads at the end of the 1998 war movie Saving Private Ryan. For example, when Private First Class Reiben and Private Wilson ride such a vehicle, nicknamed “rabbit”, before the final battle in the fictional town of Ramelle. It was called rabbit since it was used as bait to lure the approaching Germans into a trap.

The “rabbit” Kettenkrad in Saving Private Ryan (Photo: Paramount)
The “rabbit” Kettenkrad in Saving Private Ryan (Photo: Paramount)

This little vehicle has also inspired Japanese artists, as you can find one in the recent Girls’ Last Tour Japanese manga comic and anime television series. The series follows the adventures of two girls, Yuuri and Chito in a post-apocalyptic world. They use a Kettenkrad to travel.

The Girls’ Last Tour anime series (Photo: Shinchosha)
The Girls’ Last Tour anime series (Photo: Shinchosha)

Nowadays, children or adults with a young soul can build their own small Kettenkrad with the help of the sets of Cobi, the Polish manufacturer of Lego-style sets or those of Brickmania built from original Lego parts (Lego has a policy to avoid making realistic weapons and military equipment that children may recognize from hot spots around the world).

A desert Kettenkrad set by Cobi (Photo: cobi.pl)
A desert Kettenkrad set by Cobi (Photo: cobi.pl)
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