Why German Tanks Were Petrol & Soviet Tanks Were Diesel

NEW – August 7, 2022

During the Second World War, it wasn’t just German tanks that ran on petrol. At that time, petrol engines were used in almost all armoured vehicles of Western democracies. The big exception to this was the United States of America, which equipped its own tanks (primarily Shermans) with both petrol and diesel engines, depending on the manufacturer.

However, the situation with Germany and tank engines was in many respects really special.

In the first half of the 20th century, the main consumer of fuel oil and diesel fuel was the fleet. Ships consume fuel not only on the voyage, but in some cases also during downtime in port. The fleet devours a monstrous amount of petroleum products. Therefore, the fuel balance in the country has to be properly distributed: what the fleet will receive, what the army will receive, what aviation will receive, and what the civilian sector will receive. But how this fuel balance will be replenished depends, in turn, on the availability of certain resources, mastered technologies and deployed production facilities. One will not be able to produce only petrol or only diesel. Therefore, it is necessary to balance, including using different engines in vehicles.

Moreover, before the start of World War II, a petrol engine was considered quite sufficient for a tank. There was enough power. At the same time, the petrol engine was almost 3 times cheaper than the diesel engine in production. However, it also consumed more fuel. And it was not easy to develop a high-quality diesel engine. A good tank diesel engine was created before the war. Suffice it to say that the same B-2 (of course, with modifications) is used in domestic armoured vehicles to this day. At the same time, it is important to note that diesel and petrol installations have both their pros and cons.

In general, we can say that diesel is better for armoured vehicles, of course. A simple example: modern American A1 Abrams tanks can run on kerosene, petrol, and diesel. But at the same time, the recommended fuel for their gas turbine units is still DF-2 diesel. However, first of all, the choice of power plants for the army is determined not by the characteristics of engines, but by the production capabilities of one’s country. And in Germany, this very “production” had its own specifics.

The fact is that there is no oil in Germany. The almost nothing, small deposits in the country have been developed since the 19th century. However, German oil sounds almost as ridiculous as, say, Belarusian oil. In other words, without additional sources – exports or colonies, the Germans could not provide themselves with oil products either then or now. What Germany has always had a lot of is coal and lignite.

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And in Germany, at the time of the creation of the Third Reich, there already existed, without irony, a miraculous chemical industry that mastered at least three different methods of producing liquid fuel from coal. The production of one ton of fuel required 4 tons of hard coal or 8-10 tons of lignite coal.

Diesel fuel can also be synthesised from coal. However, it is much more profitable to produce petrol from it. Therefore, oil in Germany was mainly used for the production of diesel and fuel oil, which were consumed by the naval forces. While synthetic petrol went to the civilian sector and the army. At the same time, the Third Reich had constant problems with the fuel balance. Before 1945, there was no collapse of fuel, but the country was literally on the edge. In 1942, it was even necessary to start the large-scale gasification of cars in the civilian sector, as the army and navy devoured all oil products.

By the way, the claim that all Soviet tanks (armoured vehicles) were diesel is a myth. In fact, in the USSR there was the same differentiation of fuel consumption balance as in other countries. Diesel engines were used by T-34 tanks, self-propelled guns and tractors based on them, as well as all armoured vehicles heavier than the 34-Ki. At the same time, all light tanks were driven on petrol, as well as self-propelled guns, which in turn were built on their platform. Summing up, we emphasise that the choice of engines depended primarily not on the wishes of designers and the military, but on the production capabilities of the fuel industry in the country.

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