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.
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.
On 20 April 1945 First Ukrainian Front was putting its armor across the Spree north and south of Spremberg. South of Spremberg the Fourth Panzer Army still had a vestige of a front; north of the city almost the whole Third Guards Tank Army was across the Spree. Schörner reported that he had “hopes” of stopping Konev’s southern thrust toward Bautzen. He intended to try again to close the front on the north, but, he added, “The laboriously organized defense in depth has only in a few places accomplished what one was forced to promise oneself from it.”
On 21 April 1945 Fourth Panzer Army made some local progress in a counterattack northwest of Görlitz. Hitler saw in it the makings of a major thrust that would close the 40-mile gap between the Army Group Vistula-Army Group Center flanks, and from that illusion he derived a “basic order” which Krebs transmitted to the army group by phone in the midafternoon. The “successful” attack at Army Group Center would soon close the front at Spremberg; therefore, it was “absolutely necessary” to hold the corner post at Cottbus. (Ninth Army had taken command the day before of Fourth Panzer Army’s left flank corps at and north of Cottbus.)
Marshal Konev found himself faced with a major battle on his rear. During the night of the 22nd, a large German force of two infantry divisions and 100 tanks from the Fourth Panzer Army attacked north-west from the area around Bautzen, on First Ukrainian’s left flank, some 40km (25 miles) north-east of Dresden and 25km (15 miles) west of Garlitz. Driving towards Spremberg, the German armour sliced into First Ukrainian’s side, exploiting the weak seam between 52nd Army and the Second Polish Army. The Polish divisions, which were protecting the left flank of Zhadov’s Fifth Guards Army, were thrown into chaos as the Germans ripped into them and blasted their supply and communications lines. For two days the ‘Garlitz Group’ hacked its way north, towards Spremberg, and appeared to be on the verge of cracking the Soviet ring around the trapped Ninth Army. If it could succeed, there was a reasonable hope that the pressure on Berlin’s south side could be lifted, and the city perhaps saved long enough for a negotiation with the West.
Konev recognised the threat to his position (and his hopes for playing a major role in the city’s capture), and responded quickly. First Ukrainian’s Chief-of-Staff, General I. E. Petrov, was dispatched to the embattled lines to re-group and re-order the chaotic situation. After making his review and issuing his orders, Petrov left Major General V. I. Kostylev behind to co-ordinate the defensive effort. Kostylev, First Ukrainian’s Chief of Operations Administration, performed his job brilliantly, immediately re-establishing contact with the cut-off Second Polish Army, and mounting a counterattack with 52nd and Fifth Guards Armies. By the evening of the 24th, the German thrust had been brought to a halt.
Four major Wehrmacht formations formally swore loyalty to the Dönitz regime on 2 May. In Norway, General Fritz Böhme gave Dönitz his allegiance – along with the eleven divisions and five brigades under his command, totalling some 380,000 men. These were fresh and properly equipped troops, capable of putting up a considerable fight against the Western Allies. On the same day, Army Group Courland also offered its oath of loyalty to Dönitz. More than 200,000 German troops were still holding out in this corner of Latvia, along with a Latvian SS division of some 15,000 men. General Dietrich von Saucken’s Army Group of East Prussia, the battered remnants of the German 2nd and 4th Armies, holding out along the Bay of Danzig and the Hela Peninsula – a gathering of around 100,000 Wehrmacht troops – did the same. And finally, and most importantly, Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner’s Army Group Centre – stationed in eastern Czechoslovakia – also confirmed its allegiance. Schörner’s army group totalled some 580,000 men.
Ferdinand Schörner was a fanatical Nazi who, like Dönitz, soared high in Hitler’s favour in the last months of the war. His rise had been meteoric. In the summer of 1939 he had been a mere lieutenant colonel and regimental commander. By the end of the war he was commanding entire army groups, first as colonel general and then as field marshal. The Führer said of him in April 1945:
`On the entire front, only one man has proven himself to be a real field strategist – Schörner. Schörner had to endure the worst attacks, but he has maintained the most orderly front. When Schörner had terrible equipment he put it in order again. He has achieved excellent results from every task given to him: he can take over a chaotic situation and imbue its defenders with fresh spirit and determination.’
Hitler specially honoured Field Marshal Schörner in his will, sending him a copy of his last testament and appointing him commander of the German army (a post Schörner was never able to take up). In fact, Schörner’s successes, such as they were, were founded on excessive brutality and fanaticism. He executed more soldiers for cowardice than any other German commander. He sacked divisional, corps and army commanders he did not consider tough enough and established squads of military police to round up stragglers behind the front. His unflattering nicknames included `Wild Ferdinand’, `the Bloodhound’ and `the Legend of a Thousand Gallows’.
The source of most concern was Army Group Center, because it was the largest single force still on the Eastern Front, because it had the farthest to go to reach the Allied lines (of those that had any chance of doing so at all), and because no one knew how Schörner would react to the surrender. Schörner had reported on 2 May 1945 that he had a tight hold on his troops and was starting to manufacture his own ammunition and motor fuel. The last that had been heard from him was that he intended to fight his army group through to the line of the Elbe and Vltava (Moldau) before surrendering. On the 8th an OKW staff colonel with an American officer escort went to Schörner’s headquarters. The colonel reported that Schörner had ordered the surrender terms observed but claimed he did not have the means to make certain they were carried out everywhere. The colonel “assured him that the command difficulties would be brought to the attention of the Americans and the OKW.” The OKW need neither have worried that Schörner would attempt a last-ditch battle nor have hoped that he would find a means to extricate his army group. Schörner deserted his troops on the 8th and in civilian clothes flew a light plane out of Czechoslovakia. He was arrested in Austria ten days later by First Panzer Army troops and turned over to the Americans
Those who see the Wehrmacht as an army of brilliant operators like Guderian, Rommel, and Manstein need to clear a space in the memory palace for one field marshal whom we have all but forgotten. Ferdinand Schörner was the typos of the late-war Nazi general. He came to the fore late in the conflict, holding a series of increasingly hopeless commands as Germany’s strategic situation deteriorated: Army Group A and Army Group South Ukraine in the spring of 1944; Army Group North (later renamed Army Group Courland) in the summer; Army Group Center in January 1945, which he led until the end. He never won a battle, but failure wasn’t fully his fault. While Schörner was competent enough in a technical sense, nothing short of nuclear weapons could have evened up the fight on the Eastern Front against a Soviet army vastly superior in numbers and equipment.
If we take as the first rule of generalship “do no harm,” however, then Schörner was a disaster. His art of war consisted of loyalty to Hitler. He was a true believer, a fanatic about holding out to the end, even as things fell apart. Of all the Führer’s minions, Schörner was the most enthusiastic, a National Socialist if ever there was one. Schörner’s bedrock conception of command was to shoot or hang large numbers of his own men for “cowardice” in order to terrorize the others into obeying him. He led through fear—flying his little Fieseler Storch aircraft around the rear areas of his army groups, landing suddenly in a divisional or corps area of responsibility, and handing down death sentences on the flimsiest of evidence—all the while staring down at his immaculately manicured fingernails. The phrase “der Ferdl kommt!” (“Here comes Ferd!”) always meant trouble for the rank and file. He once scolded his chief of staff that “you handle the operations, I’ll keep order,” and in the weeks after the attempt on Hitler’s life he opened staff meetings by asking, “How many men did you hang today?” It is no surprise that Goebbels admired Schörner for his “political insight” and for his “entirely new, modern methods.” To be specific:
He takes special aim at the so-called regular stragglers. By “regular stragglers,” he means those soldiers, who always seem to understand how to remove themselves from their unit in critical situations and vanish back into the rear under some kind of pretext. He deals with such figures quite brutally, has them hanged from the nearest tree wearing a placard that says, “I am a deserter and was too cowardly to protect German women and children.”
“Naturally,” Goebbels concluded, “this has a terrifying impact on other deserters or those who are thinking about it.”54 Hitler, too, appreciated these methods and named Schörner his successor as Commander in Chief of the Army—Nazi Germany’s last.
Like all tyrants, Schörner assembled a posse of thugs around him who did the dirty work. His security troops once came upon a tank workshop where a crew was waiting to get its reconnaissance vehicle fixed. The crew’s actions seem logical enough, but Schörner had the vehicle commander shot for “malingering.” On other occasions, as at Lednice on May 7, 1945, Schörner was reportedly present when his military police shot twenty-two German soldiers for “standing around without orders.” Hitler had been dead for a week by then and the war was all but over, but Schörner was still executing his own men to encourage the others.
Schörner’s excuse for his crimes was that he had to maintain discipline in the ranks so that his army group could escape to the west (toward the Americans) rather than be overrun by the Soviets. His strategy was an organized flight to the west, a maneuver that had to proceed systematically. Just two days before the murders at Lednice, Schörner had issued his last order of the day to Army Group Center. Excoriating the “traitors and cowards” in their midst, he urged his men to be steadfast. “In these hard days, we must not lose our nerves or become cowardly,” he declared. “Any attempt to find your own way back to the homeland is a dishonorable betrayal of your comrades and of our people . . . and will be punished.”
Powerful words—and stirring words! A few days later, on May 9, Schörner bundled himself into his little Storch and flew away, abandoning his post and leaving the men of Army Group Center to their fate as Soviet prisoners. The commander who hanged “traitors” and “cowards” from lampposts and fences and who let his men know that “they might die at the front, but they definitely would die in the rear” had apparently reached his limit, making us wonder whether all the threats, all the abuse he heaped on others, all the summary executions were not merely a compensatory mechanism for some inner weakness. Schörner managed to fly to the safety of American lines, but US troops handed him over to the Soviets, who put him on trial and put him in prison for the next ten years. Schörner did his time next to some of the very men he had left in the lurch—and they didn’t hesitate to let him know what they thought of him. Released in late 1954, he returned to West Germany, provoking angry outbursts from many former soldiers and their families. He went on trial there, too, and spent four more years in prison.
In the end, Schörner had proven his loyalty, but only in the narrowest sense. He had stayed loyal to Hitler to the very end and beyond. To his troops, however, he had shown only callousness, if not outright cruelty. Consider this admonition toward Germany’s former generals from a German author in 1949:
How astonishing that the generals always speak only of their soldierly duty to those above them, never of their duty to those soldiers whose lives are in their hands, the blood of their own nation. No one can demand that you kill a tyrant if your conscience forbids it. But mustn’t we demand the same care and seriousness toward the lives of each of your subordinates?
A particularly good question—and not only for Schörner! Let us recall that he wasn’t the only one “guilty of the senseless death of German soldiers” in the last year of the war. World War II will always be “Hitler’s war,” but Hitler had an officer corps filled with hundreds and thousands of Schörners: the key enablers who helped their Führer launch the war, fight it, and keep fighting it long after any hope of victory had vanished.
Until five minutes past midnight.