Panther- the original Model D
If the Tiger seemed immediately promising, the same could not be said for its intended stablemate. As early as 1938, the Weapons Office had begun considering replacements for the Panzer III and IV: something along the same lines, in the 20-ton category with improved armor, armament, and chassis. A few prototypes were developed in leisurely fashion through 1940. Its priority remained low in the early days of Operation Barbarossa, when the Russian heavy tanks appeared sporadically. That began to change as the campaign progressed. In particular the T-34 was impossible to ignore. Its gun could take out Panzer IIIs and IVs at more than a thousand yards—ten times the effective range of the German tanks against the T-34’s comprehensively well-sloped armor. The Soviet vehicle’s mobility over mud, swamp, and dirt roads was no less impressive.
On October 5, 1941, Guderian’s 4th Panzer Division encountered a brigade of T-34s. Not only were the Germans stopped cold; for the first time in a head-to-head fight at even odds, their losses were significantly greater. Well before that oft-cited day, however, it was clear in the panzers that besides upgrading and upgunning an entirely new weapons system, it was necessary to sustain the synergy of technical and human superiority on which their effectiveness depended. Continuing to rely on crew expertise and command skill to compensate for inferior equipment created an ultimately unsustainable imbalance in a military/political system structurally vulnerable to attrition and overextension.
Guderian had something his colleagues lacked: enough influence to demand an inquiry. In late November 1941, a commission of officers and civilian designers toured the combat zone, examined derelict T-34s, and evaluated the situation. Guderian recommended copying the T-34—not literally through reverse engineering but by imitating the essentials. The Weapons Office replied by citing the problem of producing diesel engines, and by making the point that copying what existed gave the Soviets an automatic lead for the next generation. On returning to Berlin, the commission issued contracts to Daimler-Benz and MAN for a 30-ton tank with a difference.
When the prototypes were completed Hitler favored a Daimler version resembling the T-34. The Weapons Office supported MAN, in good part because of a larger turret ring. The soldiers won politically and technically. Working on the Tiger, Rheinmetall had sought to balance the army’s wish for a relatively light main armament and Hitler’s insistence on maximum hitting power. The eventual result was a 75mm L/70 piece developed too late for the Tigers, but mounted on the MAN chassis just in time to give the Panther the most ballistically effective tank gun of World War II.
Preproduction was authorized in May 1942; the first of what were eventually designated Panther Model D reached the proving grounds in November. Apart from the predictable teething troubles, two fundamental issues emerged. One was protection. The Panther’s well-sloped frontal armor was 80mm on the hull and 100mm on the turret. This was a substantial improvement over the Panzer III and IV, but would it suffice against the weapons likely to be introduced as a counter? That increase, moreover, was at the expense of side armor not much better than the Panzer IV. The Panther’s other problem was the engine. The tank weighed 45 tons. Its Maybach 230 engine delivered a power-to-weight ratio of 15.5 horsepower per ton: lower than its panzer predecessors, lower than the T-34, and low enough to seriously strain the entire drive system.
One difficulty sustained the other. The Panther D’s already overstrained engine could not take the additional strain of up-armoring. As a result the tanks were disproportionately vulnerable to a flank shot. On the other hand, the cadres and crews of a Panther battalion were expected to avert or solve that kind of tactical problem, especially since the new vehicles were expected to be assigned to existing, experienced battalions. “Not perfect, but good enough” was a verdict rendered in the developing crisis of the Eastern Front. Serial Panther production was authorized in November 1942, with a projected delivery of 250 delivered by May 1943 and a projected deployment of a battalion in each panzer division, replacing Panzer IVs.
As a stopgap measure pending the Panthers’ design, production, and delivery, Guderian’s commission had recommended upgrading the army’s assault guns. About 120 of the Model IIIF with a 75mm L/43 had entered service in 1942, prefiguring the assault gun’s development from an infantry support vehicle into a tank destroyer. As a rule of thumb, the longer a gun, the less effective its high-explosive round. From the infantry’s perspective, however, the tradeoff was acceptable, and the Sturmgeschütz IIIG was even more welcome because of its 75mm L/48 main armament. The effective range of this adapted Pak 43 was more than 7,000 feet. It could penetrate almost 100mm of 30-degree sloped armor at half that distance. The IIIG took the original assault gun design to the peak of its development by retaining the low silhouette and improving frontal armor to 80mm by bolting on extra plates, all within a weight of less than 25 tons. The family was completed, ideally at least, with the addition of a 105mm howitzer version in one of the battalion’s three ten-gun batteries to sustain the infantry support role.
The one-time redheaded stepchild of the armored force now had a place at the head table. There had been 19 independent assault gun battalions in May 1941. In 1943 that number would double. Constantly shifted among infantry commands, their loyalty was to no larger formation. Continuously in action, they developed a wealth of specialized battle experience that led infantry officers to follow the assault gunners’ lead when it came to destroying tanks and mounting counterattacks. Assault guns cost less than tanks. Lacking complex revolving turrets, they were easier to manufacture, and correspondingly attractive in an armaments industry whose workforce skill and will were declining with the addition of more and more foreign and forced labor and the repeated combouts of Germans destined for the Wehrmacht.
Albert Speer’s appointment as Minister of Armaments in February 1942 brought no immediate, revolutionary change to Germany’s war industry. But Speer had Hitler’s confidence, as much as anyone could ever possess it. He was an optimist at a time when that was a declining quality at high Reich levels. He concentrated on short-term fixes: rationalizing administration, improving use of material, addressing immediate crises. And he faced a major one in tank production.
In September 1942 Hitler called for the manufacture of 800 tanks, 600 assault guns, and 600 self-propelled guns a month by the spring of 1944. In April 1944 the army’s panzer divisions had fewer than 1,700 of their total authorized strength of 4,600 main battle tanks: Panthers and Panzer IVs. That gap could not be bridged by admonitions to take better care of equipment and report losses more accurately. The long obsolete Panzer II was upgraded into a state-of-the-art tracked reconnaissance vehicle. But a glamorous renaming as Luchs, or Lynx, could not camouflage an operational value so limited that production was canceled after the first hundred. Other resources were also diverted to the development of a family of tracked and half-tracked logistics vehicles and increased numbers of armored recovery vehicles, both in their own ways necessary under Russian conditions. The growing effectiveness of the Soviet air force led to the conversion or rebuilding of an increasing number of chassis into antiaircraft tanks with small- caliber armaments. The continued manufacture of early designs—again necessary to maintain even limited frontline strength—further impeded production. Between May and December 1942, tank production actually declined despite constant encouragement and repeated threats from the Reich’s highest quarters.
One positive result of the slowdown was the ability to address the Panther’s shortcomings. The original Model D received improved track and wheel systems. Das Reich received a battalion of them in August, 23rd Panzer Division in October, and 16th Panzer in December. All played crucial roles in Army Group South’s fight for survival. The D’s successor, the Model A, had a new turret with quicker rotation time and a commander’s cupola. Both were important in the target-rich but high-risk environment of the Eastern Front. Engine reliability remained a problem, in part because of quality control difficulties in the homeland, and in part defined by the tank’s low power-to-weight ratio. Improvements to the transmission and gear systems nevertheless reduced the number of engine breakdowns. Modifications to the cooling system cut back on the number of engine fires.
Soft ground, deep mud, and heavy snow continued to put a premium on driving skill. One Panther battalion reported having to blow up 28 tanks it was unable to evacuate. Fifty-six more were in various stages of repair. Eleven remained operational. But during the same period Leibstandarte’s Panther battalion reported only seven combat losses—all from hits to the sides and rear. Of the 54 mechanical breakdowns, almost half could be ready within a week. On the whole the improved Panther was regarded as excellent: consistently able to hit, survive hits, and bring its crews back.
Toward the end of 1943 the High Command began rotating battalions officially equipped with Panzer IIIs—the old workhorse was still pulling its load—back to Germany for retraining on Panther Model As. The reorganized battalions were impressive on paper: 4 companies each of 22 or 17 tanks, plus 8 more in battalion headquarters. First Panzer Division welcomed its new vehicles in November. Others followed, army and SS, the order depending on which division could best spare a battalion cadre. By the end of January 1944 about 900 Panther As had reached the Russian front, in complete battalions or as individual replacements.
As good as they were, the Panthers were a drop in the bucket compared to the mass of Soviet armor facing them. As compensation the High Command began considering a Panther II. Beginning as an up-armored Model D, during 1943 the concept metamorphosed—or better said, metastasized—into a lighter version of the Tiger. Weighing in at over 50 tons, it was originally scheduled to enter service in September 1943, but was put on permanent hold in favor of its less impressive, more reliable forebear.
The Panther’s tank destroyer spin-off was far more promising. Indeed the Jagdpanther is widely and legitimately considered the best vehicle of its kind during World War II. An 88mm L/71 gun, well-sloped armor, and solid cross-country capacity on a 45-ton chassis made the Jagdpanther a dominant chess piece wherever it appeared. Predictably, preproduction difficulties and declining production capacity kept its numbers limited.