From the end of 1941 the next generation of Panzer III began entering service in North Africa. This was the improved Ausf J dubbed the ‘Mk III Special’ by the British. It was armed with the 50mm L/60 which could penetrate almost 54mm of armour at 900 yards; it could achieve a velocity of up to 3,930 feet per second that enabled it to engage most British tanks with success beyond 1,000 yards. This made it considerably superior to the British 2-pounder. From April 1942 spaced armour 20mm thick was also fitted to the gun mantlet and hull front of the Panzer III including those deployed to North Africa. This advantage was nullified by the 75mm gun on the American supplied Grant and Sherman tanks.
German intelligence on the arrival of the Grant prior to the Gazala battles was good. Mellenthin recalled that in May 1942:
Moreover the [British] 8th Army now had about 200 American Grant tanks, mounting the 75mm gun. These outclassed the 220 Mark IIIs which made up the bulk of our armoured strength, and the only tanks we had to compete with them were 19 Mark III Specials with high velocity 50mm guns. . . . The Panzerarmee also had four Mark IV Specials but these had no ammunition at the beginning of the battle.
Before the Shermans arrived, General Brian Horrocks recalled how grateful they were for the Grant. ‘These were the only tanks which could compete with the German Mk IIIs and IVs; they were known, in fact, as the ELH. Egypt’s Last Hope . . .
Unsurprisingly, British tank crews found it difficult to tell the Panzer III and IV apart at any distance due to their similar appear in terms of shape and general layout. The only give away was the Panzer IV’s stubby 75mm gun but by the time that was visible a tank commander was in trouble. For example, tanker B. H. Milner, who was a 75mm gunner, recalled in late October 1942 ‘I scored one direct hit on a Mk III or Mk IV and put it out of action and put down some very near shots on other tanks and transport. I had a shot at an 88 at long range, but didn’t wait to see if I was successful.’
In terms of firepower Rommel had to rely on his towed and self-propelled antitank guns plus the upgunned Panzer IV F2. Even after his defeat at El Alamein and subsequent long retreat, the Panzer III continued to support Rommel’s operations. During the battle of Tebourba fought in Tunisia at the beginning of December 1942 Captain Helmut Hudel commanded a battlegroup of forty tanks from a Panzer III Ausf N. During the same engagement, Group Djedeida included two Tigers supported by three Panzer IIIs. An abandoned Panzer III Ausf L belonging to the 15th Panzer Division was photographed with a dead crew member at Mareth in Tunisia, following the fighting there in late March 1943 just before the German surrender. By this point the division had only ten tanks left.
Hitler massed seventeen panzer divisions on the border with the Soviet Union ready for Operation Barbarossa in June 1941. Eleven of these were issued with the Panzer III and six with the Czech-built 38(t). Despite the previous production problems, every light armoured company had its full complement of seventeen Panzer IIIs. This meant that including regimental and detachment level headquarters Hitler had a total of 960 Panzer III Ausf E to J (he also had 438 Panzer IVs).
The Panzer III and IV could only fight the new Soviet T-34 and KV-1 tanks at very close range, but the latter were initially available in only limited numbers. In contrast the more numerous obsolete Soviet light tanks proved a different matter and were destroyed wholesale. During the winter of 1941 as the T-34 became more abundant, the Soviet 76.2mm tank gun showed just how inadequate the main armament was on both the Panzer III and IV. This and experiences in North Africa made it imperative to upgun both tanks.
By late June 1942, at the start of his summer offensive on the Eastern Front, Hitler had about 600 Panzer IIIs with the 50mm L/60 gun. At the end of the year the Panzer III played a prominent part in the failure to rescue the German 6th Army trapped at Stalingrad. When the 57th Panzer Corps launched its attack on 12 December 1942 to try and relieve Stalingrad, the weak 6th Panzer Division had sixty-three Panzer IIIs, twenty-three Panzer IVs and seven command vehicles, whilst elements of the 23rd Panzer Division had forty-six Panzer IIIs and eleven Panzer IVs. They were unable to cut their way through the Red Army.
The following summer, although the Panzer III had lost its effectiveness as a tank-versus-tank weapon, there were still 432 with the 50mm L/60, 155 with the 75mm L/24 and forty-one Panzer III flamethrowers with Army Groups Centre and South at the start of the Kursk offensive. As a result all the Army’s panzer and panzergrenadier divisions as well as the Waffen-SS SS panzergrenadier divisions fielded quite large numbers of Panzer IIIs. For example, 4th Panzer with Army Group Centre had forty while the 11th Panzergrenadier Division with Army Group South had fifty.
The Battle of Kursk marked the swan-song of the Panzer III. Predictably, losses were high and production of the Panzer III as a gun tank was subsequently stopped. In Sicily to try and fend off Operation Husky, Panzer Division Hermann Göring and 15th Panzergrenadier Division mustered forty-nine Panzer IIIs, constituting about a third of the German tank force on the island.
Although superseded by the Panzer IV and Panther, remarkably some Panzer IIIs were encountered by the Allies in Normandy in 1944. In particular the Panzerbefehlswagen radio command vehicles continued to be of service with the panzer divisions. The headquarters units of the 21st Panzer Division’s 22nd Panzer Regiment had two Panzer III command vehicles and four Panzer III gun tanks.
When the 116th Panzer Division Windhund deployed to Normandy in July 1944, its armoured units included about ten Panzer IIIs (consisting of seven tanks with the long-barrelled 50mm L/60 and three with the short-barrelled version – the latter were F models) and six StuG IIIs. Some of these vehicles were largely considered cast-offs and were due to be issued to other units.
The Waffen-SS also retained some Panzer IIIs in Normandy. For example, the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg had three Panzer III command vehicles on its books. Only a very few Bergepanzer IIIs served with some of the panzer regiments in Normandy. These included the 9th SS Panzer Division as well as the 2nd and 116th Panzer Divisions.
When German forces surrendered in Norway at the end of the war, their tank units included Panzer IIIs with 50mm and 75mm guns that had been relegated to garrison duty. Ausf Ns seized in Norway were late-production models with Schürzen and single-piece hatch covers. In total the Norwegians ended up with over thirty Panzer IIIs and StuG IIIs, some of which were repaired and used for airfield defence for a time.
Hitler’s allies received very limited numbers of German-built tanks and these included a few Panzer IIIs. Hungary took delivery of just ten and Romania eleven in 1942. The following year Bulgaria received ten and Italy twelve. These along with deliveries of StuG IIIs, Panzer IVs and 38(t)s made very little difference to the Axis’s struggling war effort.
Most Prolific Panzer
In November 1940 the production target for the Panzer III was set at 108 per month. After the attack on the Soviet Union and the decision to increase the Panzerwaffe to thirty-six panzer divisions, it was decided that 7,992 Panzer IIIs were required. This target was never met, with around 6,100 produced, compared to 8,500 Panzer IVs, almost 6,000 Panzer Vs (Panthers) and 1,800 Panzer VIs (Tiger Is and IIs). However, about 10,300 Panzer III chassis were given over to assault-gun production. This means well over 16,400 Panzer III and its variants were built compared to 13,400 Panzer IV and variants. This clearly made the Panzer III Hitler’s beast of burden when it came to the Panzerwaffe, even if the Panzer IV did prove to be the best German gun tank of the Second World War.