The Mysterious Kugelpanzer (Ball Tank)

Alan-Wilson-CC-BY-SA-2.0

The Kubinka Tank Museum in Russia is famous for its collection of strange vehicles and prototypes. Perhaps the strangest of them all however, is the Kugelpanzer.

At least that’s how its referred to as its true name is unknown. Kugelpanzer literally means, rather fittingly; ‘ball tank’. This little sphere has drawn a large amount of interest over the years for simply being so mysterious.

Almost everything about this machine is unknown because the museum seemingly withholds information about it.

It has been tucked away behind the museums Tiger I for decades, but in 2017 it was given a fresh lick of darker grey paint, and moved to a new exhibit.

The Kugelpanzer at Kubinka where it sat for many years.
Image by Hornet Driver CC BY-SA 3.0 2

Origin

Even the Kugelpanzer’s origin isn’t clear. Its often said that it was built by Krupp in Germany, and shipped to Japan sometime in the 1940s. It was then captured by the Red Army in Manchuria in 1945.

However there are other reports that it was discovered in the Kummersdorf proving grounds in Germany, along with the mighty 188 tonne Maus tank.

The huge Panzer VIII Maus also at Kubinka.

There is even speculation that it originates much earlier than World War Two, and could be an inter war design.

This is because of the Treffaswagen, a World War One test vehicle of which only one was built. It had a central compartment surrounded by two large wheels, with a large trailing tail with two smaller wheels.

This is a similar layout to Kugelpanzer, which could have been a later attempt to improve on this idea.

The Design

The vehicle’s exterior is mostly barren of features.

It has a main cylindrical body which contained one person. Two rotating hemispherical wheels sandwich it on either side as its means of travel.

The Kugelpanzer in its new exhibit.
Image by Alan Wilson CC BY-SA 2.0

At the front there is a single small vision slit, and underneath this was a small opening. This opening has since been welded up, but an offensive weapon like an MG-34 or MG-42 would likely have protruded from it.

At the rear is a hatch for entry, and a small ‘tail’ containing a wheel, probably to help stabilise and steer the ball.

Notice the rear ‘tail’, the entry hatch is just above it.

The interior has been stripped of all its components, and remains mostly a mystery as access and photos inside are strictly prohibited.

A 25 horsepower single cylinder two-stroke engine powered the large wheels.

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The ‘armour’, if you can call it that, is a measly 5 mm thick. The exact material this is made of however, is also unknown. It is most likely steel, but the exact composition cannot be precisely identified as Kubinka has forbidden metallurgical samples to be taken.

Image by Vladimir Gorbunov CC BY-SA 3.0

In total the little grey ball weighs around 1.6 tonnes. This is relatively light, but its weak engine could only move it to about 5 mph.

Its Purpose

The Kugelpanzer’s purpose is unsurprisingly… also a complete mystery.

The design is so strange that no one can seem to settle on an exact reason this thing has to exist.

The most accepted idea is that it was designed to be a reconnaissance vehicle. But this explanation quickly falls apart when its poor visibility and 5 mph top speed is taken into consideration.

At 5 mph this thing certainly wasn’t winning any races.
Image by Bernhard Gröhl CC BY-SA 3.0

Alternatively, it could have been an offensive fire support vehicle for infantry. But once again, this seems unlikely with 5 mm of armour, which isn’t even enough to stop rifle rounds.

But who says this thing needs to be a military vehicle at all? With no solid information to go off, it could just as well be a civilian design, or part of a larger machine.

Overall the Kugelpanzer doesn’t seem to make much sense, which raises an eyebrow on its legitimacy.

Could it be a Hoax?

The Germans were famous for their extreme record keeping and documentation, and yet there appears to be no documentation on this vehicle. For a vehicle that reached the prototype testing stage, its unlikely all of its supporting documents were lost or destroyed.

There isn’t any evidence of Russian documents on this vehicle either. This is unusual as the Soviets thoroughly tested captured German equipment. It is also unusual that there is no photographs of the vehicle during wartime as the Soviets took many photos of the German equipment they found during the war

Soldiers from the Red Army inspect a captured Panther tank.

The Kugelpanzer looks rather crudely built. The centre section’s surface appears to have dimples similar to metal shaped by a hammer. Some panels fit poorly, and the vision slit looks hand made. This is not in line with the German’s traditional precise craftsmanship, and especially not typical of something built by Krupp, who at the time were one of the finest steel works on the planet.

The welds on the rear tail look particularly poor, and resemble those found on Soviet tanks.

The crude weld quality is similar to that on Russian vehicles, like this T-34 (right).

Furthermore, there is no obvious signs for ventilation or an exhaust pipe exit, and the wheels appear to be welded in place.

These signs do make a hoax seem likely.

Perhaps the vehicle was assembled as a joke by Soviet engineers after the war, or maybe it actually was a one-off German prototype.

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Until Kubinka releases documents or makes a statement about the Kugelpanzer, this little sphere will remain a mystery. While the thought of mystical late war German creations is fascinating, our opinion is that this vehicle maybe a little more ‘Hoaxpanzer’ than Kugelpanzer.