Panther in Context…

There are several historical instances of the problems caused when equipment is rushed in production and fielded too soon. A great example of this was the German rush to field the new Panther tank at the Battle of Kursk. Here one finds mechanical difficulties, degraded training, and new tactics were not formulated to capture the advantage of the new equipment.

New equipment is developed to meet certain operational needs and you can’t understand the employment of the Panther tank unless you understand that it was developed to meet the threat posed by a new Russian tank. This Russian tank was the T-34. The T-34 was an excellent tank design that had a far-reaching impact on tank development throughout the world. The Russians have long had a reverent appreciation for the T-34.

On the other hand, the Germans thought their tank designs were superior and in fact during the early years of the war (1939—1941) there was no reason for them to think otherwise. During this time the Germans put their future tank designs on hold since they ran into no significant obstacle for their PzKpfw IIIs and IVs in Poland or France. At the outset of Operation Barbarossa the Germans faced Russian tanks that were not as sophisticated as the German equipment nor were the tactics for the employment of these tanks as developed as the Wehrmacht. The Russians greatly outnumbered the Germans with some 22,000 tanks, mostly T-26s, BTs, T-28s and T-35s. The Russians, however, had been working on improving their tanks since 1936. Unknown to the Germans, the Russians had developed and had produced about 1000 T-34s prior to the commencement of Barbarossa. The T-34 was first used in mass against the Germans at the Battle of Borodino in October of 1941. Not only were the T-34s used in mass but the Russian armor tactics had begun to improve and there were early signs that the “happy times of the Panzers was at an end”.

At an Art of War Symposium which took place at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania from 26 to 30 March 1984, General Lingenthal described his regiments first contact with the T-34.

“By chance our regiment met on the second day of the Russian war the first regiment of T-34s that had been in the Russian Army; and we, of course, had no knowledge at all of this tank; and, in the first phase of this battle, my tank was shot; and my driver was killed. Four tanks were in our group, and they all suffered the same fate. … We had further fighting in the morning and in the afternoon, and then we finally burned some of these tanks by using 76mm high explosive shells with delay fuses (one-fourth second). So because they had all tanks with fuel on the rear we could make them burn. Then, of course, when we approached the wrecks I remember very well that we saw what terrible strength of armor they had, and we were very impressed. I can tell you we reported this immediately to higher echelons, but I do not know how they distributed this information to other divisions.”

The terrible strength of the armor General Lingenthal mentions could be the sloping of the armor. This is one design feature of the T-34 that is retained today because sloped armor increases the amount of protection. The T-34 also had a good amount of fire power, speed and mobility. These tanks made a great impression on the Panzertruppen; many thought the T-34 should be taken back to Germany and mass-produced for the Wehrmacht. Another thing the Russians did to make the T-34 an extremely reliable vehicle was to standardize the relatively simple design, thus enabling the Soviets to mass produce the T-34. The standardization not only in design, but also in production, enabled the Soviets to produce great numbers of interchangeable parts such as the engine, armament, transmission, periscopes. The tank was conventional in its design with the engine and transmission in the rear. It also used a Christie suspension system. The turret presented a low silhouette, a condition which reduced the overall height of the tank, and also limited the depression of its gun. In true Soviet, fashion, the aims were mechanical simplicity and the ability to mass produce the vehicle. These objectives were both successfully achieved.

A testament to the design and durability of the T-34 was its long use after the Second World War. The North Koreans used the T-34 very effectively at the opening of the Korean Conflict. In the Sinai during the 1967 Six Day War, the Israeli Army was still facing the T-34s of the Egyptian Army. In fact, many were captured by the Israeli Army during this war.

As already stated, 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 Augsburg-Nürmberg (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 ensure 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.

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.

At this point it is necessary to move from the Panther to the historical and strategic setting of Kursk. OKW (Armed Forces High Command—who ran the German war effort everywhere except for Russia) wanted to conduct a strategic defense on the Eastern Front during 1943. This would reduce the number of forces required in the east and allow the Germans to shift the then extra forces to the west in expectation of the Allied landings. OKH (Army High Command—who ran the German war in Russia) agreed with the reasoning for going on the strategic defense, but only after a major offensive had been successfully concluded in order to spoil any planned Soviet offensive for the summer of 1943. Hitler agreed with OKH on the need for an offensive before turning to the defensive. However, Hitler had additional political reasons for a victory in the east during the summer of ‘43. He wanted to show the world Germany was not beaten, that she still had the resolve to fight on. He also needed to quiet the fears of Germany’s allies and ensure them they had not backed a loser. All during the war, Germany made a practice of cutting off Russian thrusts into the German lines and trapping thousands of Russian troops. An assault on the Kursk salient seemed to be the place where the desire of OKW, OKH and Hitler could all be achieved. The German attack would depend on the speed at which they could mass, arm, and launch their troops. However, Operation Citadel was not Blitzkrieg in its planning. Citadel was originally to take place in April, but Hitler kept delaying the offensive for several reasons. These reasons ranged from shifting of units along the Russian Front to positions to launch the attack to the fielding of additional Panthers. The operation would also depend on secrecy, but the Soviets would have almost the complete plan for Citadel prior to the start of the offensive.

The Soviets knew of the German tendency for cutting into salients with concentric pincer moves. They also knew that Kursk was a prime target. Their concerns proved justified as the Soviet “Lucy” spy ring passed the concept and tentative start date of Operation Citadel to the Soviets in early April. This information was confirmed by sources in England by the decoding of “enigma” messages. In the spring and early summer, reconnaissance of the northern and southern shoulders of the salient confirmed the massive troop build-up. Thus, the strategic surprise so critical for German success was never achieved. The Germans could only hope for tactical surprise such as the time and location of the main effort and this would even be denied them. More importantly, the Germans never knew to what extent they had lost the element of surprise. In fact, because of the advanced warning, the Soviets threw out their planned offensive for the spring of 1943 and went on the defense expecting to bleed the Germans white.

In April 1943, Marshall of the Soviet Union Georgi Zhukov recommended to Stalin and the Soviet High Command (STAVKA), that based on intelligence, a spoiling attack or pre-emptive offensive was unnecessary. The Soviets could turn the Kursk salient into a fortress and wear down any German assault by concentrating on the destruction of the German armor. Once the Germans were defeated at Kursk, the Soviets would immediately use their reserves to launch an all-out offensive. Stalin reluctantly agreed with Marshall Zhukov. Thus the Soviets would use the Clausewitzian concept of the defense being the stronger form of war, but then immediately shift to the offense to exploit the advantage gained by the defensive operations.

To understand the degree of defensive preparation by the Soviet Army, one only needs to look at numbers. More than 20,000 guns and mortars were emplaced. Anti-tank guns numbered over 6,000 and 920 Katyusha rocket battery positions were prepared. All positions were oriented on specific avenues of approach and the positions could support each other with interlocking fires. Channeling the panzers into these killing fields were 40,000 mines laid out in the early spring allowing the sunflowers and wheat to grow around them. The density of the minefields was staggering, an average of 2,400 anti-tank mines per square mile, and during the battle the minefields were repaired or replaced with great efficiency by the Russians. Moreover, these numbers of weapons and mines do not show the great number of individual tank positions dug in to hide the tank from the turret down. Soviet tanks moved from prepared position to prepared position and were immediately able to fire on any German penetration.

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.”

After highlighting the short comings of the Panther in its development and production, one finds it easy to agree with what Brigadier H. B. C. Watkins wrote about the Panther:

“The design was put to Hitler on January 23, 1943. This shows that the Germans knew how to cut corners when the need arose. Even more remarkable was the fact that the first production model was to appear in November of the same year. Despite many teething troubles, this was very competitive timing indeed by a tank building industry that was already bowed down under the strain of equipping new divisions, up-armouring and up-gunning existing models, and creating numerous SP variants. Whilst much of this work had to be under the weight of Allied bombing, work was gradually moved to safer areas in Austria so that it could gain some degree of immunity. Later, the production to both Panther and Tiger B was to owe much to the use of slave labour in the Krupp and Daimler-Benz factories.”

Many battlefield lessons were learned from sending the new Panther into this massive Soviet defensive. Certainly changes or adjustments in tactics will occur as a new piece of equipment is employed. Fighting will reveal things the planners and engineers never thought of in the design and development phases. The operational value of any tank is never established until it is tested or employed under combat situations.

The striking parallel between the Panther and the M-1 Main Battle Tank in Desert Storm will illustrate this point. Military circles wondered how this “new” tank would perform in combat even after nearly ten years of initial fielding by the U.S. Army. The M-1 had proven itself consistently on tank ranges from Grafenwöhr, Germany to Texas yet people were still leery of this “new” piece of equipment because it had not been battle tested. Civilians and reporters remembered the M-1 not performing well in desert environments because sand affected the performance of the tank’s turbine engines. This defect and several other problems were identified and corrections made to the tank, but the M-1 remained suspect until it could prove itself in on the field of battle. The same can be said for the M-2/3 Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Although the M-2/3 was not designed to take a blow from a large caliber weapon like a tank, people still remembered the RAND Corporation’s report that the M-2/3’s armor was too thin and could easily be penetrated by a direct hit from a Soviet tank. Some soldiers even doubted the reliability of the 25mm chain gun used on Bradley. Nothing provides confidence in equipment like success in war and the M-1 and M-2/3 performed very well.

The M-1 and the M-2/3 had something the Panther did not. These newer vehicles had almost ten years to work together and evaluate how best to compliment each other. In fact the two vehicles were designed to work together. This was a luxury not afforded to the Panther. Unlike the M-1 and the M-2/3, the Panther crews had no chance to train with and test the current Panzer tactics to best exploit the Panther’s strengths and minimize its weaknesses. In addition, time was not allocated for exercises with other equipment the Panther would be required to fight along side by side. The Panther had a range and speed of 125 miles and 29 miles per hour. The PzKpfw IVs could range 71 miles at speeds of 24 miles per hour. The ranges of their main guns were also quite different. The Panther’s gun could reach out and pierce the frontal armor of a T-34 at 800 meter (side and rear at 2800 meters). The Panther could also pierce the frontal armor of the American Sherman at 1000 meters (side and rear at 2800 meters) while the PzKpfw IV gun had a much shorter range.

Without conducting exercises with both vehicles the tactics did not change with the employment of the new tank. The units were still using the standard tank wedge spearheaded by the heavy tanks. Recall there was no time to train with the other equipment used alongside the Panther, hence no adjustments were made to the tactics. New equipment is developed to fill a need and to fill this need the use of the new equipment must be well thought out. The thought process must include the tactics. The Panther was employed in the same manner as the PzKpfw IIIs and IVs. The placement of the Panther at the lead spearhead of the wedge ignored and therefore did not take advantage of the new tank’s longer-range gun. Placing the Panther behind the older tanks would have enabled the tank to fire on the Russians from greater ranges and provide some protection to the other tanks spearheading the wedge.

Placing the Panther further back in the wedge would have also taken away the Russians’ ability to minimize the German advantages of the Panther. The Russians learned quickly that charging at the new Panthers (and Tiger tanks as well), and then swarming them with their numerical advantages erased the advantage of the Panther’s 75mm gun. The T-34’s gun was more than capable of opening up a hole in the side of the Panther from close range. This Soviet tactic worked very well since there was never a shortage of T-34’s, and with Marshall Zhukov following his creed “of no casualties are too great if the objective is accomplished” the will was there to send in as many T-34s as were needed to take care of the attacking Germans.

Any tank with a tread blown off by a mine can almost always be repaired for battle once again. At Kursk the Panthers had two things working against them. First operational orders given to the tankers for this battle were “…in no circumstances will tanks be stopped to render assistance to those who have been disabled…”. The second thing working against the Panthers was that the only vehicle powerful enough to pull a Panther was another Panther or a Tiger tank. Without another tank stopping to retrieve the disabled vehicle, the tank was forced to wait on the tank retrieval equipment from the tank maintenance company. The Germans would position the tank maintenance companies as far forward as possible in order to retrieve tanks as soon as possible. In the case of the Panther this tactic was not very successful, because the maintenance company could not pull the vehicle back to its work area. The standing orders of no other tank stopping to render aid made matters worse for the Panthers disabled by the mines and impacted the ability to maintain operational tempo. A Panther stuck in the minefield soon found the Russians bringing devastating fires on the vehicles in the sprawling minefields all along the Kursk front. The Russians had carefully planned to ensure the minefields were covered by fire where any disabled Panthers became easy targets for the Russian Pakfronts.

If the Panther was pulled from the minefield, maintenance continued to be a problem as there was a shortage of spare parts for the tank. Today when the U.S. Army fields a new piece of equipment, particularly a new end item such as a new vehicle, radio, or weapon system, that piece of equipment comes complete with a fifteen day supply of spare parts at the organizational level. Spare parts are an extremely important part in fielding any new equipment. There is expected to be a shakeout period whenever something new hits the motor pools. During this period you will find that certain parts wear out faster than others and frequently some parts not expected to wear out are the first to go. Without the spare parts, the new equipment will not be able to perform the functions it was designed for. This is why it is so important to test the new equipment and have an idea which spare parts need to be included in the fielding package at the organizational level as well as the direct support level. By packaging spare parts which need replacing on a regular basis, a system is created for keeping the new equipment mission capable. At least the problem of expected break downs has been thought through and lessons from the shake down period will be incorporated in the future parts stockage and preventive maintenance programs.

The Germans, however, sent the Panther to the field and did not accompany it with the required spares to keep it running. In fact, because of the lack of testing, they did not know which parts were more likely to wear out. Even if they did have an idea on which parts would need replacing, the spare parts were not available. The tank production industry was not able to build spares in sufficient amounts even had the parts been identified. There were simply not enough spares for the Panther when first sent to the front.

The Department of the Army Historical Study German Tank Maintenance in World War II reinforces the problems encountered by the panther units concerning the lack of spare parts.

“A similar mistake (not enough parts) with even more far-reaching consequences took place a few months later when the new Panther tanks game off the assembly line. In a desperate attempt to speed up production, the Ministry of Armaments had ordered the mass production of this new tank model before it had been properly tested. Early in 1943 the first Panther tanks arrived in the Russian theater and were immediately committed. Almost at once major defects in design and construction—particularly of the steering and control mechanism—were discovered with the result that all 325 Panther tanks had to be withdrawn and returned to the zone of interior for complete rebuilding. To perform the necessary work, a special tank-rebuild plant was established near Berlin. By the time the initial deficiencies had been corrected, the engine proved inadequate. It was not until the autumn of 1943 that a fully satisfactory engine became available. Under these circumstances it was hardly surprising that most of the Panther tanks shipped to Russia arrived without sufficient spare parts. Many a Panther was lost because of the shortage of some elementary spare part or because it could not be repaired in time.”

1 thought on “Panther in Context…

  1. Pingback: SGM: El contexto del tanque Panther - DFNS.net en Español

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