Panther Panzer!

Zentralbild, II. Weltkrieg 19139-45 Der von der faschistischen deutschen Wehrmacht während des Krieges entwickelte neue Panzerkampfwagen Typ

Zentralbild, II. Weltkrieg 19139-45
Der von der faschistischen deutschen Wehrmacht während des Krieges entwickelte neue Panzerkampfwagen Typ “Panther”.
UBz: die Verladung neuer “Panther”-Panzerkampfwagen zum Transport an die Front (1943).


Panther Ausf. G

Of the initial batch of 200 Panthers deployed at Kursk, only around 35 were destroyed by enemy action, the rest were damaged but repairable. Two weeks later, however, another 70 had to be blown up by German engineers when Army Group South’s maintenance depot was overrun. The remaining vehicles were sent back to MAN for extensive refurbishment, which included stronger final drives and better engine cooling systems. These revisions to the design were incorporated into the later versions of the Ausf D.

Having read the combat reports from Kursk, Hitler demanded that the design of the Panther be completely overhauled. He wanted the front armor increased to around 100mm and the side armor increased to at least 60mm. Work on this design, called the Panther II, was repeatedly delayed by the urgent need to bring the existing Panther up to a reasonable standard. It progressed no further than the prototype stage before the end of the war.

A more pragmatic approach was taken by the HWA, who initiated the development of a revised version of the existing design. This vehicle, confusingly known as the Ausf. A, began production in September 1943, after only 840 Ausf. D’s had been built. This vehicle is most easily distinguished from its predecessor by the bell-shaped commander’s cupola and the ball-mounted MG34 in the front of the hull, which replaced the tiny gunport fitted to the Ausf. D. More important though were the modifications to its engine cooling systems, drivetrain and suspension, which alleviated – though by no means fixed – the problems with the mechanical reliability of the tank.

During this period the engine was also upgraded from a 600hp Maybach HL210 to the 700hp HL230 (the same engine that powered the Tiger II). The increase in power provided by this engine allowed for the addition of slightly thickened armor on the turret and the attachment of Schürzen side-skirts without a significant drop in speed. This engine did nothing to improve the tank’s already dismal fuel efficiency, however. The MAN factory specifications claimed that a full 720 liter (190 gallon) tank of gasoline would allow a Panther to travel 250km (160 miles) on road and 100km (60 miles) cross-country. In practice the figures were often closer to 130km (80 miles) on road and 60–80km (40–50 miles) cross country due to the poor quality of German fuel. By comparison, the 1943 model T-34 could travel 400km (250 miles) on a full tank of diesel.

The final revision of the Panther to reach operational status, the Ausf. G, was a great improvement on the earlier models. The only significant visible difference between the G and A was the flat ‘chin’ on the lower part of the gun mantlet – introduced because the curved lower section was found to be deflecting AP shells through the thin roof of the crew compartment – but it had many unseen mechanical improvements and armor upgrades. Most importantly the side armor was increased to 50mm, which significantly improved the vehicle’s survivability on the battlefield. This model continued to be produced and modified until the end of the war.

Even with all these revisions, however, MAN’s engineers were never able to bring the reliability up to a level comparable with the Panzer IV or even with the notoriously high-maintenance Tiger I. The Germans preferred to load the Panther onto trains for any journey of more than about 25km (16 miles), due to the high rate of mechanical failures experienced on long journeys by road. The final drives of even the improved Panther Ausf. G typically wore out and failed after 150km (93 miles) of travel.

Battlefield Performance

The shortcomings of the Panther on the strategic level were of little comfort to those Allied tank crews unlucky enough to find themselves facing one in battle, however. For all its faults, the Panther was undoubtedly an awesome fighting machine, capable of inspiring panic even when massively outnumbered. Its reputation among Sherman and T-34 crews was comparable to that of the massive Tiger and Tiger II tanks.

The reason for this was that the Panther was effectively invincible when fighting on its own terms. As long as it kept its flanks guarded there was almost nothing that Allied medium tanks could do to harm it. If an Allied armored column came under fire from Panzer IVs, they could knock them out simply by returning fire. Having been taken by surprise, the Allies would likely suffer heavier losses than their attackers, but these would not be disastrous. If the same engagement took place with a group of Panthers, however, the result was usually carnage. There was almost nothing that an Allied commander could do to regain the initiative.

Returning fire was futile as the Panther’s frontal armor was immune to most Allied tank guns. Attempting a flanking maneuver also stood little chance of success as the Panther company commander would have reconnoitred the area and set up secondary ambushes on flanking routes. More often than not, the only thing that Allied commanders could do was to retreat as fast as possible and try a different route. Describing a counterattack near the town of Fastov in the autumn of 1943, a Red Army intelligence officer remarked, “It was useless to resist those heavy ‘Panther’ tanks. The order was just to mount our tanks and get away.”

Even in open battle, the Panther was terrifying. It dwarfed the T-34 and Sherman, yet could move as fast as either of them. Allied tank commanders were instructed to fire only on the sides and rear of the tank, but in the shocked moments after a Panther erupted from a hedgerow or out from behind a building, it was not uncommon for the inexperienced crews of T-34s and Shermans to forget this advice. They were then forced to watch as their AP rounds shattered or ricocheted off the Panther’s glacis plate. This was often the last thing they ever saw.

Countering the Panther

As the Panther’s frontal armor was impervious to fire from any contemporary medium tank, both the Western Allies and the Soviet Union were forced to begin emergency programs to create effective countermeasures.

The Red Army, which had to face the vast majority of all the Panthers built, created several specialized weapons to defeat it including the SU-85 and SU-100 tank destroyers; the IS-2 heavy tank; and the BS-3 100mm towed anti-tank gun. The Western Allies also designed several heavy tanks to counter the Panther, but few of them reached frontline service in time to see any significant combat. The only countermeasure that was used in large numbers on the Western front was the British QF 17-pounder anti-tank gun. This 76mm weapon fired a high-velocity round capable of penetrating the Panther’s glacis plate and turret armor. It was used in the Firefly tank (a modified Sherman) and the Achilles (a modified M-10 tank destroyer) as well as being deployed as a towed anti-tank weapon.

Countermeasures against the Panther were more often tactical than technical, however. On both the western and eastern front, Panther crews faced an increasingly experienced and disciplined enemy as the war progressed. Tactics that enabled Shermans or T-34s to prevail against the Panther were spread by word of mouth amongst tank crews, with veteran commanders teaching them to each new group of replacements.

One particularly effective tactic, used frequently on the Eastern Front, used two teams of T-34s working together to halt Panther-led counterattacks. When Panthers were sighted, the two teams would maneuver onto opposite sides of the German advance. It wasn’t usually possible to get far enough around the flanks of the attackers to get a good shot on their side armor, but Red Army tank crews had learned that even at shallow angles, shots to a Panther’s interleaved road wheels would cause the tracks to seize up. Even if this jam only lasted for a few moments, the imbalance between the still-moving track and the immobilized track would cause the Panther to lurch violently to one side. This movement would then present the other group of T-34s with a clear shot on the Panther’s side armor. The role that each group would play was often pre-arranged by platoon commanders, and the two teams would receive equal credit for each kill.

The Panther in the East

The later career of the Panther on the Eastern Front was much more distinguished. Although its mechanical problems never really went away, the Germans learned to work around them. More importantly, the Germans were now in retreat, and thus usually able to fight on ground of their choosing. In a defensive role the Panther’s thin side armor was less of an issue, and its long-range gun came into its own.

A good example of the kind of actions that were fought by the Panthers later in the war is the clash that took place around the Ukrainian village of Kolomak (around 80km west of Kharkov) on 12 September 1943. Here a group of Panthers from the 2nd SS Panzer Division ‘Das Reich’, backed by two or three StuG III assault guns and a company of infantry, established a fortified position to hold back the Soviet advance. The village stood on a slight rise overlooking a broad plain of open fields to the west, making it an ideal spot for a holding action.

On the afternoon of the 12th, the position was attacked by a division-sized force of T-34s and accompanying infantry from the 5th Guards Tank Army. The Panthers engaged the enemy tanks from a range of around 2000m knocking out wave after wave of T-34s before they could get close enough to return fire. By nightfall the fields around the village were littered with burning T-34s. The German defenders claimed to have knocked out 78 T-34s for the loss of just one of their own vehicles, forcing the Red Army advance in this sector to be called off. They then fell back in good order before artillery and air units could be brought to bear against them. The commander of the Panther group, SS-Hauptsturmführer Friedrich Holzer, was awarded the Knight’s Cross for his part in this action.

The Panther in the West

At the time of the D-Day landings, there were only 156 Panthers available on the Western Front. This figure was quickly increased as reinforcements were sent to Normandy, reaching a peak of around 430 in late July 1944. The combat experience of the Panthers in France varied considerably depending on which sector of the line they were deployed to. In the area around Caen, where most of the Panzer divisions were sent, the open fields and rolling terrain favoured the Panther’s long range gun. However, in the western sector around St Lo, where the Panzer Lehr Division was deployed, the high hedges of the Bocage country made it impossible to use the gun to its best effect.

The experiences of SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend, fighting around Caen during the first two weeks of June 1944, are typical of German armored units in this theater. The first action in which the Hitlerjugend’s Panthers were used took place on 8 June, when SS-Standartenführer Kurt Meyer led the 25th Regiment’s Panther battalion in an attack on the headquarters of the Canadian Regina Rifle Regiment in the village of Bretteville l’Orgueilleuse. As the Panthers approached the village from the east, they came under fire from a QF 17-pounder anti-tank gun, which knocked out the leading three tanks and forced the rest to withdraw. Meyer regrouped his forces and launched another attack, this time from the south and north. The Panthers smashed through the outer defenses and moved into the village but the Canadians held their ground. In several hours of hard fighting, six Panthers were knocked out, mostly by infantry firing PIAT anti-tank launchers from the upper floors of houses.

After a few more abortive counterattacks like that one, which resulted in the loss of another 12 Panthers to anti-tank guns and QF 17-pounder-equipped Sherman Firefly tanks, the Germans shifted their tactics to the purely defensive. A good example of one of these later clashes took place on 11 June near the village of Rots. The Shermans of the 40th Canadian Armoured Regiment tried to break through the German lines around the village, which was defended by a company of Panthers. In the ensuing battle the Canadians lost 15 tanks and suffered more than 100 casualties. The Panthers were able to withdraw in good order across the Muc River.

Fighting in the Panther

For German tank crews, the interior of the Panther was a significant improvement on the Panzer IV, which had become more and more cramped as larger guns were shoehorned into the small turret. A Panther’s crew consisted of a commander, gunner, loader, radio operator, and driver. They were all hooked up to an internal intercom system, allowing communication over the roar of the engine and the sounds of battle.

The driver had arguably the hardest job of anyone in the crew. Being able to maneuver around the battlefield effectively without damaging the vehicle’s fragile drivetrain required a deft touch and skilled judgement. He sat on a low padded seat down in the front left compartment of the tank, separated from the radio operator by the tank’s enormous gearbox. Directly in front of him, only a few inches from his face, was the thick bulletproof glass of the viewport, and above that the eyepieces for the two periscopes. The seat was positioned close to the side of the hull, just above the hull floor. To the right of the driver was a control panel with the speedometer, fuel gauge, and other important instruments. The large rubber-tipped gear lever stuck out from the side of the gearbox roughly level with the driver’s hip while the steering levers (one for each track) hung down from mountings on either side of the viewport. The driver’s position was an awkward one, especially for taller men who had to uncomfortably squeeze their legs under the axle for the drive wheels in order to reach the pedals. It did, however, have the advantage of a large escape hatch positioned directly above the seat.

On the opposite side of the gearbox sat the radio operator. His position was the mirror image of the driver’s position, except he had a ball-mounted MG34 in front of him where the driver had a vision port. His only view outside the tank was through the twin periscopes mounted into the roof just above the top of the glacis plate. His bulky radio was mounted over the gearbox to his left. In battle he was supposed to operate the hull machine gun, but his most important role was usually to keep the tank commander updated on orders from the platoon leader. Although it wasn’t officially part of the role, most radio operators also acted as spotters for the gunner, reporting on where shots fell and relaying corrections.

The floor of the turret was about 30cm higher than the floor in the front compartment, meaning that there was only a small opening between the two sections of the interior. The turret crewmembers – gunner, loader, and commander – could only really communicate with the other two using the intercom.

The gunner sat on a low seat mounted to the turret floor behind the driver. He had an extremely uncomfortable and cramped position, with the breech of the main gun almost pressing against his right shoulder. The gunner controlled the turret’s hydraulic traverse mechanism using a pair of foot pedals, but usually had to fine-tune any powered movement with manual adjustments using a wheel on the left of his seat. The ergonomics of his controls were poorly thought through – the turret traverse pedals were at an awkward angle to the seat and the optical sight for the gun was placed so close to the breech that the gunner usually had to remove, or partially remove, his headphones to get his eye up to the eyepiece.

One major disadvantage of the Panther’s design was that the gunner had no periscope, limiting his vision to just what he could see through the narrow field of view provided by the optical sights. This often slowed down the process of target acquisition as he had to scan around to find a target. In experienced crews the commander learned to give very specific references for the location of his intended target, though even then target acquisition was much slower than in a Sherman or T-34. This delay was more than made up for by the astonishing accuracy made possible by the high-quality Leitz TZF 12a gunsight. This design had a 5x magnification and well-designed crosshairs that made it possible to quickly gauge the range and speed of a target. Its only flaw was that it had no forehead guard on the eyepiece, meaning that any gunner to tried to line up a target while the tank was in motion risked jabbing himself in the eye.

In the event that the tank was hit, the gunner typically had the lowest chance of survival. To get out he had to either scramble under the gun and squeeze out of the rear escape hatch or climb up onto the commander’s seat and out through the cupola. If either man had been killed or injured in the attack there was often not enough room for him to get past.

The loader had the simplest job of anyone in the crew, though also the most physically demanding. He had to load the gun with the ammunition specified by the commander quickly and efficiently. In lengthy engagements, this often meant scrambling around pulling heavy shells out of the various secondary storage bins around the interior of the tank. He had a fold-down seat, but in combat had to stand up – an awkward and uncomfortable position for most men as the roof of the turret was only 1.6m high (5ft 3in). His position was relatively open, however, compared to that of the rest of the crewmen, meaning that he was usually the most likely to escape (through the rear hatch behind his position) if the tank was hit.

The most important member of the tank’s crew was the commander. He sat on an elevated seat that was mounted to the interior of the turret just behind the gun. If he wanted to put his head out of the open cupola for a better view of the battlefield, he had to stand up on a metal footrest just under his seat. With his head in the cupola, he had a 360-degree view that enabled him to make tactical decisions about the placement of the tank and decide which targets the gunner should engage. The skill of the commander was often what decided if a Panther crew lived or died. Poorly trained commanders often lost their tanks (and frequently their lives) in their first battles, while others, like Panther ace Ernst Barkmann (82 kills) of the 2nd SS Panzer Division “Das Reich”, survived the whole war.

Overall Assessment

The Panther is often hailed as the finest tank of World War II. On paper, this is undoubtedly true. It had a higher top speed, more powerful gun, and thicker armor than any commonly-fielded Allied tank. Moreover it cost only slightly more than the Panzer IV and was simple enough to be constructed in large numbers unlike the heavy Tiger I and Tiger II.

Look a little more closely at the Panther’s specifications, however, and serious flaws can be seen. The armor, though impressive, was not well distributed. The massive glacis plate was offset by dangerously thin side armor which could be penetrated by almost any Allied tank or anti-tank weapon. Similarly, the high top speed and good cross country performance came at the cost of fuel efficiency, making the vehicle prohibitively expensive to operate.

This is before one even begins to consider the appalling mechanical reliability problems that plagued the Panther throughout its operational life. Panther units were rarely able to keep more than 35 percent of their nominal tank strength operational for prolonged periods (compared with close to 90 percent readiness in T-34 units). This negated, to a significant degree, the advantage of numbers that its relatively cheap construction was supposed to enable. Although the Panther was a more common sight on the battlefield than the Tiger I or II, it was never as common as it needed to be to turn the tide.

The Panther was ultimately a success on the tactical level, but a failure on the strategic level. In a straight gunnery duel, the Panther almost always prevailed over its enemies. In war, however, there is no requirement to fight on even terms. The Panther’s lack of strategic mobility meant that it was far easier for Allied units to simply bypass areas where Panthers were active. As the Panther was only able to operate for a very short time without the support of its extensive logistics organization, encirclement meant defeat. When forced to take to the roads and retreat, the Panther sustained heavier losses to its own mechanical flaws than it ever did to enemy action. Although exact figures are hard to come by, it is thought that around half of all Panther losses during World War II were the result of immobilized vehicles being blown up by German forces as they retreated.

The Influence of the Panther

The two main factories involved in the production of Panthers – MAN’s facility near Nurenberg and Maschinenfabrik Niedersachsen in Hannover – were overrun by Allied forces in April 1945. The Hannover facility, which fell under British occupation shortly after the cessation of hostilities, was captured largely intact, with several half-completed Panther Ausf. Gs still on the factory floor. At some point during the summer of 1945, specialists from the British Corps of Royal Engineers oversaw the production of one final batch of Panthers, which were shipped back to Britain for testing.

Although it is often seen as the forerunner of the modern Main Battle Tank – thanks to its combination of heavy army and impressive speed – the Panther had little direct influence on the design of post-war tanks. The British tests of the Panther concluded that it was an impressive gunnery platform, but that it was greatly inferior in every respect to the Centurion tanks that were already rolling off British production lines. A similar conclusion was reached by the US Army Corps of Engineers with respect to their new M46 Patton tanks. The only post war tank that borrowed from the Panther’s design to any significant degree was the French AMX-50 heavy tank. This vehicle used the same torsion bar suspension and interleaved road wheels as the Panther, as well as an upgraded version of the Panther’s Maybach powerplant. The AMX-50 never entered full production, however, and bore no resemblance to later French designs, so its importance is minimal.


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