The prospect of making a nearly invulnerable and deadly but still usable tank was briefly realized by the Soviet Union in 1941 – 42 with the T-34. Accelerating technology in anti-tank weaponry changed this, but to their credit the Soviets focused on producing the same vehicle but improving their logistics, tactics and communications, which in the long run turned out to be a far superior force multiplier. They also concentrated on making a large number of a few different designs, simplifying both their production and logistics. The tactics they designed relied upon having hundreds of reliable tanks available at any given time for their operations – while these were not the best protected and best armed tanks in the field, there were always enough for infantry support duties (independent tank regiments) and exploitation of breakthroughs (tank armies). Their success speaks for itself, delivering actual operational victories instead of the occasional thrilling tactical narrative, that, while making for fun reading for German tank enthusiasts, were a poor substitute for the support the Heer so desperately needed.
The Americans followed a similar strategy to the Soviets, focusing on the reliable and easily produced Sherman. This vehicle was produced in such quantity that the Americans were not only able to lavishly equip their own forces, but were able to supply their allies as well, with M4s equipping entire Commonwealth and Soviet tank brigades by 1944. The Americans didn’t focus on maneuver as much as the Soviet Union, but this was natural given smaller overall size of the theater they were engaged in. Their firepower intensive tactics were more than adequate given their strength in logistics, and they could certainly maneuver if given the space and opportunity as the Normandy breakout and the surrounding of the Ruhr in 1945 demonstrates.
The Germans, meanwhile, tried to make invulnerable, heavily armed tanks, not realizing that this approach was not viable given the limitations of the technology of the day. They went ahead anyway despite early indications of their heavy tanks’ shortcomings, applying the same ‘we’ll figure it out as we go’ mentality to their vehicle production as they did to their military operations. Faith in their National-Socialist engineers also played a role in this – any vehicles they developed had to be by definition the best. The propaganda surrounding these vehicles was so effective, it not only convinced the Germans but later generations of foreigners as well as to the superiority of their designs.
Even the prospect of using such tanks in positional warfare like the fighting around Leningrad, the Panther Line, Italy and Normandy was no longer necessarily a guarantee of good results due to the existence of allied AT weapons capable of destroying them. Attempts to stay ahead of these increasingly deadly allied counter-weapons merely resulted in utterly unreliable vehicles like the Tiger II, Jagdtiger and Sturmtiger. While there were few allied weapons capable of destroying these vehicles, they were largely unnecessary as the super heavy tanks tended to take themselves out of the picture by breaking down well before they reached the battlefield.
The German shortage of tanks from 1943 to the end of the war is constantly commented upon, and is usually put forward as some sort of unfair allied advantage that Axis forces must somehow overcome. The fact that this came about due to decisions deliberately made by the upper echelons of the German government to produce fewer ‘high quality’ vehicles is seldom if ever mentioned.
The popularity of the German heavy tanks with the soldiers who used them and the troops they supported comes as no surprise. They could be very effective from the limited tactical point of view of the average soldier on the ground, who didn’t notice or care how much fuel the vehicles were consuming or how difficult they were to maintain. They also kept their crews relatively safe from enemy fire, turning aside shot that would have destroyed vehicles with less armor, while their main armament could overcome the tanks of their opponents from great distances. If the crew had to destroy the vehicle after it broke down, they could always get another – if they had to sit out a battle because their tank was being repaired, there was always the next one or the one after. Hopefully, some enterprising infantry commander wouldn’t dragoon them into his company as replacements while they were waiting. It was the after-action reports written by these men, in addition to the hype by the National-Socialist press, that was read by later generations of tank enthusiasts and the myth of German tank supremacy was born.
Another factor was how these weapons were seen from the allied perspective. Their sheer physical size could be terrifying – some had their vehicles destroyed by them, or watched as their shots bounced off their heavy armor. That this didn’t happen too terribly often is lost in the reading of these exiting encounters, and this feeds into the myth as well. The German heavies left such a large psychological impression that soon every one of their tanks that was encountered became a ‘Tiger’, even if none were in the area. While their mystique did have a power all its own, one can’t help but think that this was a poor substitute for actual combat capability in German units.
After Normandy, the rest of the war was a downward spiral for the Wehrmacht. The ‘industrial miracle’ of 1944 by German industry was largely an illusion. While large quantities of vehicles were produced, this was done at the expense of replacement engines, spare parts and logistical support vehicles. The Soviet Union had done a similar exercise in the 1930s – while the large production numbers may have been of significant propaganda value, the formations created tended to be brittle, lasting only for one battle or two before disintegrating.
There was also little fuel for the gas hungry heavy tanks due to Western Allied bombing of refineries in addition to the Soviet seizure of the main German source of fuel in Ploesti, Romania. Even the fuel that could be produced had a difficult time making its way forward through increasingly effective air interdiction.
Years of attrition and defeat in the east had mortally wounded the German army – the disaster in Normandy and the destruction of Army Group Center in Belorussia effectively destroyed it. Panthers were massacred at Arracourt in September 1944 by supposedly inferior Sherman tanks and M-10 and M-18 tank destroyers. Redeploying their armor in the east to try and seal the gap created by the destruction of Army Group Center, the Germans left Romania vulnerable – the Soviets took advantage of this absence and seized the country, destroying the German 6th Army in the process.
The rest of the war was pointless offensives by the Wehrmacht and the holding of temporary lines as the Nazis threw less and less capable formations in front of the increasingly professional allied armies – these efforts could at best delay defeat in the amount of time it took for these hollow divisions to be destroyed. Some will point to tactical narratives in 1944 – 45 where the German heavy tanks were victorious to try and maintain that these vehicles were superior, but these incidents had no more outcome on the fighting than similar incidents with heavy allied tanks at Stonne and Arras in France in 1940.
The Panther has the reputation of being the ‘best tank’ of World War II. Steven Zaloga (whose work I highly admire) even goes so far as to say that it could be considered to be the world’s first main battle tank (MBT). As for the first claim, the best one can say is that it might look that way on paper. What’s never included in the detailed schematics of these vehicles is how often they were actually present on the battlefield, and how often their superior armor and armament translated into more positive outcomes for the battles in which they were present. As for Zaloga’s claim, the T-34 is the first tank that qualifies for this honor, and indeed could perform more of the battlefield tasks of an MBT (infantry support, exploitation of breakthroughs and anti-tank assignments) better than the Panther even though it was an earlier design. The Panther was superior in its anti-tank capability – indeed, it could be considered more of a heavy tank destroyer than a main battle tank given is capabilities. Far from being the war’s best tank, it wasn’t even the best tank destroyer. While it may have had better armor protection than the British Firefly, the American M-36 or the Soviet SU-100, what really mattered was which vehicle got the first hit in an exchange of fire – in this circumstance, the Panther’s extra armor was just added weight. The allied vehicles were also more likely to be encountered in quantities that would make a difference, being more reliable and backed by a superior logistics system that kept them plentifully supplied with fuel and ammunition.
Finally, it should be kept in mind that the design of the Panther wasn’t even original – it was an attempt to copy the Soviet T-34 and it failed to do even this. The supposed improvements to the Soviet’s design only served to make the vehicle difficult to produce and operate – there’s nothing particularly innovative about weighing a design down with so much armor that its transmission continually fails and immobilizes the tank.
Since armor enthusiasts tend to be more aware of the Tiger’s shortcomings, it’s seldom listed as the Second World War’s best tank – it was a useful idea, but poorly executed. Its main armament was very effective in terms of both HE and AT performance – it was also highly resistant to the most common Allied AT weapons, even from the side. However, it suffered from the same problems as the Panther in terms of its mechanical complexity. Despite this, it was able to utilize its advantages to good effect when the front was relatively static or other situations where it didn’t have to travel far.
Western allied heavy tanks went through a slow development process, with both the British and the Americans coming up with valid designs by 1944. The British fielded the Churchill MKVII and VIII, vehicles that combined good reliability and armor capable of resisting the most commonly encountered German AT weapons – most notably the 75mm Pak 40. The MKVII had a useful 75mm gun that was capable of engaging soft targets like infantry and artillery successfully as well as the German vehicles it was most likely to fight, the Stug III and Pzkw IV. The MkVII was a specialist close support version with a 95mm howitzer capable of taking out heavier field fortifications. Several engineering variants were produced as well, each of which were invaluable in improving the mobility of Commonwealth armored formations and overcoming the most common obstacle to the Western Allied advance through Europe – infantry and artillery strongpoints, which the Churchill AVRE and Crocodile variants were able to assist their hard pressed infantry in overcoming. The vehicle’s major shortcoming was its slow speed, which mostly regulated its service to where the advance was proceeding at a more sluggish pace, like Normandy, the Reichswald or a siege of one of the German held Channel ports. Reliability in the MKVII version and beyond ensured that it was always present in sufficient numbers to give adequate support and provide a positive boost to operational outcomes.
The Americans initially had the most practical response to their need for a heavy tank – they modified their M4 medium tank design, creating the M4A3E2 Assault Tank. It should be noted that this design wasn’t meant to be a ‘breakthrough’ tank, but a column leader capable of shrugging off hits from the most common German AT weapons – it was even resistant to the 88mm Pak 36 and the Panther’s 75mm L/70. It was armed only with the 75 and 76mm guns found on other Sherman designs instead of the potentially more useful 105mm, which would have been much more effective against soft targets. Even though only 250 were made, they were so popular that many armored units made their own versions in their field workshops. While the extra armor made the E2 a little slower, it didn’t noticeably reduce its reliability.
For the sake of completion, the American T26 Pershing should also be included. While the tank’s heavy armor made it more resistant to German AT weapons, it did not stand up well to the tanks it was designed to defeat – like so many armor engagements, success in these encounters depended upon who spotted their enemy and engaged first. The T26’s main gun had both good HE and AT performance – however, the tank was much more mechanically unreliable than the M4 and its notable that in the Korean War that the Sherman was the preferred tank due to its superior mobility.
The Soviet Union ended up having the best heavy tank program of any of the World War II belligerents after something of rough start. The KV-1 and KV-2, like the Tiger and Panther, were good for the occasional spectacular tactical victory that could be exploited for propaganda purposes, but like their later German counterparts on the whole were operational liabilities due to their weight and mechanical unreliability.
To their credit, the Soviets improved their vehicle by creating the KV-1S. This tank was lighter by way of sacrificing armor protection, and it’s improved transmission meant it spent much less time in the repair shop and also made it easier to drive. Its turret had a better layout and was smaller (saving more weight), had a faster traverse and a commander’s cupola, all of which made it easier for it to spot enemies and get the all important first shot off in an engagement. When the models that proceeded it proved to be unworkable, production of them ceased, although the chassis of the KV-1 continued to soldier on in the form of the SU-152 – a useful infantry support vehicle with a secondary anti-tank capability.
The KV-1S was later further modified by replacing the turret with that of the vehicle that represented the future of Soviet heavy tank design, the JS-85. Called the KV-85, this tank had the armor to stand up to all but the heaviest German AT weapons, while its 85mm gun could threaten even the German heavy tanks in most circumstances. The 85mm HE round also had superior performance to the 76mm gun carried by the earlier T-34 as well as any German medium tank, the Panther and the Stug III. The KV-85’s mechanical shortcomings doomed the design to a short production run and the vehicle along with the earlier KV-1S began to be replaced in Soviet heavy tank regiments with the JS series.
The JS-85 was the first vehicle produced, but since its main armament was the same as the T-34/85 medium tank, it was soon replaced by the JS-2 with a 122mm gun. A 100mm gun with better AT performance had been available, but the 122mm was chosen due a number of considerations – first, the 122mm was a very common weapon in the Soviet arsenal, so spare parts and ammunition would be easy to come by. Second, the 122mm had superior HE performance while still retaining a significant AT capability. Since the Soviets envisioned the vehicle as being primarily for breaking through German fortified lines manned mostly by infantry and AT guns, the chosen gun was a logical choice. The drawback of this weapon was its low rate of fire (thanks to it using ammunition that came in two parts that needed to be assembled before firing) and the fact that the relatively compact vehicle could only hold 28 rounds of ammunition.
Its armored protection from the front was proof against the more commonly encountered German AT weapons and could often deflect even 88mm and 75mm L/70 rounds carried by the Panther and JgPz IV/70 tank destroyers. The side armor provided protection against the 75mm Pak 40, which was by far the most common German AT weapon in 1944, the vehicular version arming the later model PzkwIV, Stug III and IV, JgPz IV, Marder and Hetzer vehicles. Greater armor protection was of course possible, but since this would have compromised the JS-2’s mobility and reliability, the Soviets chose not to do this.
The JS-2’s small size and well placed, sloped armor stood it in good stead with German heavy tank designs. At 46 tons, it weighed about the same as the Panther despite having far superior all-around armor protection, and of course the 122mm main armament could effectively engage a variety of targets, unlike the Panther’s 75mm which was optimized for destroying tanks. Meanwhile, the Tiger IE weighed 57 tons and the Tiger II an unwieldy 70 tons.
The JS-2 also had the other common Soviet virtues of being easier to manufacture and maintain. Ease of manufacture meant large numbers could be fielded in independent tank regiments that could be attached to infantry armies whenever breakthrough operations were about to commence – starting in late 1944, the regiments were expanded to brigades that concentrated the firepower and shock value of these vehicles even more. Tank armies were also given a regiment of JS-2s to use as the situation warranted.
The chassis of the JS-2 was produced in such quantity that it was also utilized for the JSU-122 and JSU-152 assault guns. These turretless vehicles were often used in a similar fashion to the JS tanks, as overwatch vehicles during an advance over open ground or as an accompaniment to infantry assault teams operating in an urban environment.
Given its strengths, the JS-2 was the best heavy tank of the war – but it wasn’t the best tank overall. There is a tie for this honor between the M4A3 Sherman and the T-34/85 with the advantage going to the latter due its wider tracks that improved its off-road mobility over soft ground (although this was later addressed in the M4 in late 1944 with a field modification that attached extenders to the side of the tracks) and the superior performance of its 85mm gun – unlike the later Sherman with its 76mm gun, the upgraded T-34 did not sacrifice HE capability for improved anti-tank performance.
The Sherman gets an honorable mention for its sheer utility. Used by every allied army, it saw action in every major theater where World War II was fought and performed superbly in every one of them, giving the allies a decisive edge in operational mobility and massed firepower. Manufactured only in the United States, the tanks themselves, as well as the spare parts and ammunition that sustained them were shipped overseas to the fronts that required them. Its mechanical simplicity and compact size meant that many could be manufactured and easily shipped, while its reliability meant that not only would more be present on the front line, less space in freighters would be required for spares and could instead be used for other purposes. An allied victory may still have been possible without the M4, but it would have taken much longer and been far more costly. While the Panther and Tiger could produce isolated tactical victories that may or may not have been relevant to the larger battle being fought, the M4 was an instrument of global operational and strategic success.
In the end, the decision to produce the Tiger and Panther tanks, and to continue to produce them even after they had proven to be ineffective, was an enormous mistake that made an allied victory easier than it would have been otherwise. Instead of producing these two behemoths, Germany should have followed the example of Soviet and American industry, focusing on one key design that would be produced throughout the war that had the capability to be modified as circumstances dictated, that was mechanically reliable, fuel efficient and easy to produce and repair.
Rather than design an entirely new tank, the Germans should have focused on improving the Pzkw IV by giving it a more powerful and fuel efficient diesel engine, wider tracks and enhanced protection, but only from the most common allied AT weapons. As far as armament is concerned, the vehicle’s KwK 40 L/48 gun was more than adequate. Germany’s other excellent, more potent (but heavier and larger) AT guns could have been left to turretless tank destroyer/assault gun designs that could also be more heavily armored than conventional tanks due to the weight saved by mounting the gun in a casement.
Such changes would have allowed the Germans to produce far more AFV than they did historically – as an example, for each Tiger produced, the Germans could have manufactured seven Stug IIIs. Such numbers could have provided many more German infantry divisions with their own battalion of this very useful vehicle, and it could have even been distributed to Germany’s allies in greater quantities and earlier than they were historically, which would have greatly improved these formations’ staying power in the field.
If a new vehicle was to be made, it should have been an all-terrain truck that was capable of keeping the panzer spearheads supplied. The need for such a vehicle was obvious after the failure of Barbarossa – the German blindness to this lesson was one of the reasons for the failure of their summer offensive in 1942 as the panzers continually ran out of fuel and spares, causing tanks to be left behind and depleting their divisions of the mass needed to carry through their attacks and exploitation successfully.
The failure to appreciate the nature of the problems that beset their organization led to the downfall of the Heer in 1944 – 45. These final years were the most destructive of the war, so it is for the best that the German armed forces were incapable of prolonging the inevitable.
Normandy was the Wehrmacht’s last chance to score a meaningful operational victory. If the allied bridgehead could have been rapidly driven back into the sea, significant reserves could have been sent east to stem the ruinous offensives launched by the Red Army in mid-late 1944. It is doubtful if the war would have had a positive outcome for Germany, but it would have made the allied victory a much more costly affair.
That the war was to continue for another year was due as much to allied logistical limitations as to German resistance. The Volksgrenadier Divisions, Volkssturm, Panzer Brigades and other expedient units could only briefly delay the inevitable – the Soviet Vistula-Oder Offensive annihilated scores of these stop-gap units in a matter of weeks.
The counter-attack around Arracourt, the Ardennes counter-offensive, Nordwind, and Operation Konrad and Spring Awakening were all doomed to operational insignificance due to the German’s inability to logistically sustain them, the steady loss of mass in the Panzer formations due to increasing mechanical breakdowns and increasingly effective allied counter-measures.
The July Plotters who bravely sought the destruction of the Nazi regime were correct in their assessment of the conflict’s progress – the war was effectively over and the only thing remaining to be determined was how much of Europe and her population were to be spared before it was over. The best that can be said of the Tiger and Panther tanks is that they helped hasten this conclusion.