The first production Panther tanks were plagued with mechanical problems. The engine was dangerously prone to overheating and suffered from connecting rod or bearing failures. Petrol leaks from the fuel pump or carburettor, as well as motor oil leaks from gaskets, produced fires in the engine compartment; which resulted in the total writeoff of three Panthers due to fires. Transmission and final drive breakdowns were the most common and difficult to repair. A large list of other problems were detected in these early Panthers, and so from April through May 1943 all Panthers were shipped to Falkensee and Nürnberg for a major rebuilding program. This did not correct all of the problems, so a second program was started at Grafenwoehr and Erlangen in June 1943. Reliability improved with the Ausf. A and later G of the Panther, with availability rates going from an average of 37% by end of 1943 to an average of 54% in 1944. By mid-1944, the Panther was at its peak performance and widely regarded as the most formidable tank on the battlefield.
If production was rushed to get the Panther to the field, then the training had to suffer. Training in the field during war is difficult but must continue. At the Art of War Symposium mentioned earlier, when asked about what training was conducted prior to the Operation Citadel, Colonel Ritgen replied “. during the war, we actually used every free minute of the day to train the men and the crews again as soon as there was a little bit of rest.” Replacements “were distributed amongst the other crews so that never did a green crew come together. A crew had just one or two green people.” General Lingenthal answered the same question.
“We had, before ‘Citadel,’ three months when we were not involved in battle. Only part of our units were close to the front near Tomorovka and Golovchino as a reserve for the infantry divisions which had been there in their position. We could not move at this time because of a lack of fuel so we were forbidden to exercise with our tanks, and were forbidden to have full wireless training because of the Russian ability to hear our wireless transmissions. But we did firing exercises in training gunners and loaders and even to a certain extent training of tank drivers. We especially conducted training in map reading and orientation, and we made what I think is a very basic thing for all of us: we conducted maintenance on our equipment. It was not new equipment like in the Waffen SS but rather old equipment, and we brought it up to good standards so that it would work-all of our equipment, the tanks, guns, lorries, and so on. And then we had terrain exercises led by the divisional commander but only for the officers. One aim of this training and work in these three months was to bring the replacements from our reserve armies from home into our companies so that they became real members of tank crews and infantry companies. So after three months we had been very prepared at least at a level that could be reached at that time. We had all we needed. I believe we were correctly equipped, full with personnel, and most of the personnel were experienced in combat.”
While these commanders and their units took time in the operational pauses to continue the training of men and maintenance of equipment in the field, the Panther battalions were far from coming together as a unit. In February 1943, the trickle of Panthers being delivered to the Grafenwöfr training site continued with the arrival of twelve Panthers. A firing demonstration, with Panthers, was conducted for Albert Speer, Germany’s Minister for Armaments and War Production. “Both standing and towed targets were fired upon, but due to inadequate turret ventilation only a few rounds could be fired when the turret hatches were closed.” Poor ventilation in a tank is a significant problem. The smoke and fumes become oppressive very rapidly and the crew loses effectiveness after only one or two shots are fired. This has a negative impact on a crew’s ability to sustain a rate of fire required in the heat of battle. Because this ventilation problem in the Panther, gunnery training of tank crews was degraded. With the deployment date of the Panthers only five months away, the crews should have been working on their crew drill and proficiency and instead of conducting test demonstrations so close to the combat employment of the tank.
Another example of the training distracters faced by the Panther crews at Grafenwöfr occurred during visits from General Guderian between 1 and 15 June 1943, less than a month before the opening of Operation Citadel. Guderian visited both Panzerabteilung 51 and 52. He discovered that the Panther’s “final drive and engine still displayed serious deficiencies. Of the roughly 200 Panther tanks already produced, only 65 had been accepted as technologically sound.” To fix these and other lingering problems some of the tank’s components had to be sent back to the manufacturers. Other repairs were made in the Reichsbahn repair facility in the nearby town of Weiden. The crews of both Panzerabteilungens assisted in the overhauling of the vehicles and were once again taken away from their training on the vehicle.
The two examples above illustrate how the individual crew training suffered from the Panther being rushed through production. It should also be pointed out that it was not only the individual crews that suffered. Shooting and maneuvering a tank is difficult, but the ability to plan for and control the movement of a battalion takes more intensive training as the individual tank crews. With the testing of the vehicle continuing throughout the spring, only 65 Panthers had been accepted by the German Army as fully operational. Moreover, with over hauling of the vehicles taking place less than a month before deployment, the battalion’s staff never had a real opportunity to train. Sources documenting the training of the individual battalions during this time period are scarce, however, it is evident that the staffs went through a great deal of training prior to deployment. Neither the staffs, nor the companies for that matter, had the opportunity to maneuver and conduct training exercises on a large scale. Nothing matches actual exercises with the individuals and equipment one plans to fight with. Due to the testing nature of the training and the constant maintenance problems with the Panther, the Panther battalions staff were not optimally trained prior to their deployment to Russia.
On the 24th and 25th of June 1943, the Panther Battalion 51 was loaded on trains and sent to Russia for Operation Citadel. Panther Battalion 52 followed on the 28th and 29th. A regimental headquarters was organized with eight Panthers and moved east with Panther Battalion 52. The Regiment was placed under the command Major von Lauchert and assigned to the XLVIII Panzer Corps.
As would be expected, moving out of Germany did nothing to change the luck of the new Panther Regiment. The Regiment arrived in Russia and closed into their assembly area near the town of Kosatscheck on 3 July 1943. The Battle of Kursk began on 5 July. One day does not allow a unit to prepare. With no appreciation of the enemy, friendly situation, terrain, or other elements, this time crunch had the potential of negatively affecting the coming battle. On 4 July the Regiment was assigned to the Grossdeutschland Panzer Grenadier Division. Oberst Decker took command of the Regiment which was redesignated as the 10th Panzer Brigade. The two battalions arrived only two days before the battle began and it appears this commander had only one day with his unit before leading it into battle. This was barely time to meet the staff, let alone work out procedures. More importantly, it appears this commander may not have had an appreciation for the capabilities and limitations of the new tank.
The XLVIII Panzer Corps may have had a premonition of what was to come with the new Panthers as the Corps war diary for 2 July 1943 remarked “that deficiencies existed in the Panther units. They hadn’t conducted tactical training as a complete Abteilung and radio sets hadn’t been tested. Since their assembly areas were so close to the front, permission couldn’t be granted for them to test and practice with the radio sets.”
There seems to be some conflict as to how the Brigade was actually employed during Operation Citadel. Most historians of the Battle of Kursk say the Brigade acted as a unit consisting of the two battalions; however, in his book Panzer Battles, General von Mellenthin states the “Gross Deutschland was a very strong division with a special organization. It mustered about 180 tanks, of which 80 were part of a `Panther Detachment’ commanded by Lieutenant Colonel von Lauchert, and the remainder were in the panzer regiment.” Another historian of Kursk, Robin Cross (Citadel: The Battle of Kursk) also speaks of Lieutenant Colonel von Lauchert but not Colonel Decker. This is not to create a command controversy, but it is important if Oberst Decker took command of the Brigade one day before the commencement of Operation Citadel. At least Lieutenant Colonel von Lauchert had been with the units at the Grafenwöhr training site.
The first losses of Panthers in Russia did not come from the vaunted T-34 for which the Panther was designed to counter, but instead from the continuing problems with the design of the motor. While unloading from the train, two Panthers were destroyed by motor fires and were classified as total losses. Robin Cross writes of the difficulties of the Panther just prior to its first combat appearance.
“Great hopes were placed in the Panther with its well-sloped armor and powerful 75mm gun. But the mechanical problems which had plagued the Panther’s development pursued it to the front. As they moved up to their start lines, the panzer grenadiers of Grossdeutschland saw jets of flame belching from the exhausts of the division’s Panthers. Several of them caught fire while rolling slowly down the road and their crews were extracted with some difficulty as the new `wonder weapons’ were reduced to blackened hulks.”
In his book Kursk 1943: The Tide Turns in the East, Mark Healy gives as good of an account of what happened to the 10th Panzer Brigade in their initial employment as I have found.
“The key to the success of General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s XLVIII Panzer Corps, in breaking through the Soviet defenses on each side of Butovo and executing a swift advance to the south bank of the Pena, was the massive concentration of power that lay with the 10 Panzer Brigade, equipped with the new Panther. On paper these 200 machines gave the Panzer Corps an unprecedented concentration of armour and firepower. In the wake of the barrage, Panther Brigade `Decker’ moved off from Butovo, but almost immediately ran into a minefield that immobilized many of the vehicles. Others attempting to extricate themselves set off more mines. In front of Cherkasskoye, the initial objective of the offensive and a key position in the first Soviet defense line on their part of the front, more than 36 Panthers lay immobile. The Russians brought down intense artillery fire on the stationary tanks and on the engineers who went into the minefields to clear paths for those Panthers not too badly damaged and able to extricate themselves. In the meantime the infantry, who had been waiting for the Panther support, had attacked the Soviet positions, only to be thrown back with heavy casualties.”
After the first day of fighting the Panther was not employed in mass. The operational status of the Panthers during Operation Citadel began at 184 Panthers on 5 July. This dropped to 166 Panthers on 6 July but plummeted to 40 operational Panthers on 7 July. By 10 July there were only 10 operational Panthers in the front lines. Maintenance crews were able to increase the operation rate to 43 by 13 July, but one can see from these numbers why the Panther was not able to be used in mass after the first day of battle General Guderian made an inspection to Kursk to see the Panther and submitted a report on the operations of the Panthers. In his report he describes the status of the Panthers on the 10th of July as follows:
“By the evening of 10 July there were only 10 operational Panthers in the front line. Twenty-five Panthers had been lost as total write-offs (23 were hit and burnt and two had caught fire during the approach march.) One hundred Panthers were in need of repair (56 were damaged by hits and mines and 44 by mechanical breakdown). Sixty percent of the mechanical breakdowns could be easily repaired and were on the way to the front. About 25 still had not been recovered by the repair service.”
General Guderian goes on in the report to find mitigating reasons for the large number of losses. Some writers suggest this may be an attempt by Guderian to save face as the Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen and for the entire tank production industry.
“The deep, heavily mined, main battle field of the Russians must result in above average losses of material through hits and mines. The fact that the Panther appeared for the first time on the battlefield, focused general interest. Comparison against losses of other Panzer units were not made. Therefore the high command and troops quickly jumped to the conclusion: The Panther is worthless!”
“In closing, it should be remarked that the Panther had been proven successful in combat. The high number of mechanical breakdowns that occurred should have been expected since lengthy troop trials have still not been accomplished. The curve of operational Panthers is on the rise. After correcting deficiencies in the fuel pumps and the motors, the mechanical breakdowns should remain within normal limits. Without consideration of our own mistakes, the disproportionally high number of losses through enemy action attests to especially heavy combat.”