The Development Of The Panther Tank Part I

The MAN design embodied more a conventional configuration, with the transmission and drive sprocket in the front and a centrally mounted turret. It had a petrol engine and eight torsion-bar suspension axles per side. Because of the torsion bar suspension and the drive shaft running under the turret basket, the MAN Panther was higher and had a wider hull than the DB design. The Henschel firm’s design concepts for their Tiger I tank’s suspension/drive components, using its characteristic Schachtellaufwerk format – large, overlapping, interleaved road wheels with a “slack-track” using no return rollers for the upper run of track, also features shared with almost all German military half-track designs since the late 1930s – were repeated with the MAN design for the Panther. These multiple large, rubber-rimmed steel wheels distributed ground pressure more evenly across the track. The MAN proposal also complemented Rheinmetall’s already designed turret modified from that of the VK 45.01 (H), and used a virtually identical Maybach V12 engine to the Tiger I heavy tank’s Maybach HL230 powerplant model.

The DB design resembled the T-34 in its hull and turret and was also to be powered by a diesel engine. It was also driven from the rear drive sprocket with the turret situated forward. The incorporation of a diesel engine promised increased operational range, reduced flammability and allowed for more efficient use of petroleum reserves. Hitler himself considered a diesel engine imperative for the new tank. DB’s proposal used an external leaf spring suspension, in contrast to the MAN proposal of twin torsion bars. Wa Pruef 6’s opinion was that the leaf spring suspension was a disadvantage and that using torsion bars would allow greater internal hull width. It also opposed the rear drive because of the potential for track fouling. Daimler Benz still preferred the leaf springs over a torsion bar suspension as it resulted in a silhouette about 200 mm (7.9 in) shorter and rendered complex shock absorbers unnecessary. The employment of a rear drive provided additional crew space and also allowed for a better slope on the front hull, which was considered important in preventing penetration by armour-piercing shells.

The development of the Panther was spurred by the appearance of the Russian T-34 tank in July of 1941, and until then, the German Army High Command saw no reason to develop a heavier tank. During the peacetime years the German Army looked at a few drawings for heavier tanks, but none had ever made it past the design of a prototype stage. The T-34 changed the German way of thinking. The Germans found that the T-34 was superior in almost every way to the current Panzerkampfwagen (PzKpfw) IV. The T-34’s higher power-to-weight ratio, lower ground pressure, higher muzzle velocity, and greater range was enough to shatter the idea of German armor superiority. The problem for the Germans was much greater than mere pride. The panzerwaffe was desperate to continue the fight against the Russians, but it needed superior equipment. Without this superior equipment, the clear decisive victory over the Soviets was in danger. If the panzertruppen were surprised and shaken by the appearance of the T-34, the German command was more surprised that the Russians could produce a tank superior to the PzKpfw IV in such a short period of time. In fact the Germans had enjoyed such success with their medium tanks from 1939 to 1941 that they had put plans for a heavier tank on the shelf. The T-34 made the Germans realize the error of their ways.

To get a first-hand look at the strengths of the T-34, the Germans sent a team to evaluate the situation and send back recommendations to the Ministry of Armaments. This team was composed of representatives from the Army Ordnance Office, the armaments industry, tank designers and tank building firms. They visited the 2nd Panzer Army in November of 1941. The team examined captured T-34s and talked with panzer troops to get their insights from doing battle against the Russian tank. The great respect the troops had for the Russian tank was evident when they suggested that the evaluation team take the T-34 back to Germany and copy it bolt for bolt. This was a high compliment to the Russian tank building industry, but it was not the German way. Germany would design and build its own tank that would be superior to anything the Russians would build.

At the time of the team’s visit, the 2nd Panzer Army was commanded by General Heinz Guderian. He too acknowledged that officers in the 2nd Army thought that just copying the T-34 was the thing to do. General Guderian pointed out several production and material reasons why this could not happen. He stated that,

“It was not the designers natural pride in their own inventions, but rather because it would not be possible to mass produce essential elements of the T-34-in particular the aluminum diesel engines-with the necessary speed. Also, so far as steel alloys went, we were at a disadvantage compared to the Russians owing to our shortage of raw materials. It was, therefore, decided that the following solution be adopted: the construction of the Tiger Tank, a tank of some 60 tons, which had recently been started would continue: meanwhile, a light tank, called the Panther, weighing between 35 and 45 tons, was to be designed.”

As early as spring of 1941 some Germans must have had a premonition that the Russians had the edge on them in tank technology. Guderian mentioned that Russian delegation had visited German tank production facilities, and as he related it, he (Guderian),

“. was quite startled, however, by an unusual event in connection with the tank in question (PzKpfw IV). In the spring of 1941 Hitler had given his express permission that a Russian officer’s commission be permitted to visit our tank training schools and armor production facilities, and had ordered that the Russians be allowed to see everything. During this visit, the Russians, when shown our Panzer IV, simply refused to believe that this vehicle was our heaviest tank. They repeatedly claimed that we were keeping our newest design from them, which Hitler had promised to demonstrate. The commission’s insistence was so great that our manufacturers and officials in the Waffenamt finally concluded that the Russians had heavier and better types than we did. The T-34 which appeared on our front lines at the end of July 1941 revealed the new Russian design to us .”

Once it was clear that there was a need for a new tank, the design and production of the Panther went forward. Two designs were considered for production. The first design was submitted by the Daimler-Benz (BD) company. This design resembled the T-34. The weight of the BD design was about 39 tons, roughly the same as the T-34 and this tank would mount a 75mm gun. The second design was from the Maschinenfabrik AugsburgNürmberg (MAN) company. This tank would be heavier, weighing 49 tons and also mounting a 75mm gun, but this gun would have a longer barrel giving it a higher muzzle velocity. Both designs copied some features of the T-34 such as wide tracks and the sloped armor. Both also used interleaved road wheels mounted on torsion bars. A Panther committee headed by representatives from the Inspector of the Panzer Troops was established to review the drawings and insure the requirement could be met by the two companies. The committee concentrated on two prerequisites. The first requirement was the ability of the company to place the vehicle into mass production by December 1942. This date was critical if the war industry was to get the tank to the troops in the field. The committee thought this ability to start production was so important it became the number one consideration. The second consideration was for the tank to be of “superior quality to counter the numerical material superiority of the enemy.” Early in the war with Russia this was a reasonable prerequisite. However, after Stalingrad the Germans could never build a tank of the quality necessary to overcome the numerical superiority of the Russians. The standardization of the T-34 allowed the Soviets to mass produce the tank in huge numbers. Russia suffered from no lack of raw material or production capacity as did the Germans.

The following excerpt of General Guderian’s memoirs shows why Germany had production problems with not only the Panther but all tank production. “On January 23rd, 1942, the design(s) for this (Panther) tank was submitted to Hitler. It was at this conference that Hitler ordered that German tank production be increased to a capacity of 600 units per month. In May of 1940 our (Germany’s) capacity, inclusive of all types, had been 125 units. So it can be seen that increased in productivity of an industry making one of the most vital weapons of war had been extraordinarily small during this period of almost two years of war; this surly provides proof that neither Hitler nor the General staff correctly estimated the importance of the tank to our (German) war effort. Even the great-tank victories of 1939-41 had not sufficed to change this.”

Not only would surging production of the PzKpfw III/IV’s been difficult, but Hitler was telling the tank producing industries to take the plans, produce the new tank, and do it in numbers five times that of the current production. This was a Herculean feat for any industry, much less for one at war and facing the shortages as noted by Guderian. On 11 May 1942 the committee made their choice. Professor Dr. Porsche announced the design choice stating “the committee evaluating the designs of the Panther tank… unanimously favors the proposal of the firm of MAN. and recommends that the Panzertruppe be equipped with the selected tank.” On 13 May 1942 the design was sent to Hitler and he agreed with the committee’s recommendation with some comments. He also ordered the construction of railroad flat cars capable of transporting the heavy tanks being produced, showing a good deal of forethought in getting the tank to the battlefield. In June 1942, Hitler was already asking about changing the requirements of the Panther. He wanted to change the frontal armor on the Panther from 80mm to 100mm and he ordered that all vertical armor on the tank be 100mm. In the meantime, the production numbers for the following May were fixed at 250 Panthers. In September 1942 production numbers for the spring of 1944 were set at 600 Panthers.

When Guderian warned of using the Panthers too soon he did this from a foundation of experience. He told of the first employment of the Tigers in September of 1942. “A lesson learned from the First World War had taught us that it is necessary to be patient about committing new weapons and that they must be held back until they are being produced in such quantities as to allow their employment in mass. In the First Would War the French and British used their tanks prematurely, in small numbers, and thereby failed to win the great victory which they were entitled to expect.” He went on to talk about how Hitler, aware of these facts, could not wait for the production of the Tiger in mass before employing them. After urgings, Hitler did agree to employ the limited number of Tigers in a “quite secondary operation”. The first attack with the Tigers occurred near Leningrad and the results foreshadowed what was to happen to the Panther at Kursk. The Tigers suffered not only “heavy, unnecessary casualties” but the Germans also lost the secrecy of the new weapon system. This same pattern was seen prior to Operation Citadel, but that time Guderian made his fears of employing the Panther too soon known to all who would listen.

Although General Guderian made his fears known to all, he still was not able to convince Hitler that the Panthers should not be employed. With the World War I historical example of how the French and British employed their tanks and the German experience of the Tigers, Hitler still let his fondness for new and bigger weapons get in the way of reason-of course this was not unusual for Hitler.

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