One of the best tanks of WW2
Military historians still debate about which was the best tank of the Second World War, but for all the polls and spec comparisons, the Panzer V Panther is always one of the contenders. Given its speed and off-road capabilities, tremendous firepower, protection, sophisticated targeting sights, use of equipment far ahead of its time (like infrared vision) and, last but not least, the more than 6000 machines built, the Panther can be compared to a main battle tank, years before the British Centurion appeared. Being one the best-balanced designs of WWII, it performed accordingly, with a fear capital almost rivaling that of the Tiger.
The Eastern Front as a catharsis
In June 1941, during a seemingly unstoppable advance, the first encounters with T-34s really shook the General Staff, as more and more reports signaled that a Russian tank was found superior to both the upgraded Panzer III and the Panzer IV. After many had been captured in relatively good order, Heinz Guderian ordered a full report to be drawn by a Panzerkommision, dispatched to assess the T-34. It was noted that the combination of thick, well-sloped armor, a very effective 76.2 mm (3 in) gun and good power-to-weight ratio combined with large tracks meant that the Russian tank almost reached the “impossible triangle” that characterized a perfect medium tank. This was unmatched in the German arsenal, raising concerns, which in turn needed prompt reactions. As soon as April 1942, both Daimler Benz and MAN AG were charged to design the VK 30.02, a 30-35 ton tank incorporating all the aspects underlined by the report.
DB and MAN designs
Daimler-Benz’s design sported a well-sloped low hull, permitted by a well-proven, although “old school” solution with leaf spring suspensions combined with large doubled roadwheels and no return rollers. This gave the tank a low silhouette and narrow hull, and thus kept the weight under the allocated limit. At the same time, this restricted the turret ring diameter, which in turn limited the turret size. Like on the T-34, the drive sprockets were at the rear and the turret was placed forward. The engine was a diesel. Even with a three-man turret, the internal space was cramped, and mounting the planned high velocity L/70 75 mm (2.95 in) gun proved very difficult.
On the other hand, MAN presented a much larger vehicle, with the transmission and drive sprockets at the front, a larger, roomier turret moved backwards and a gasoline engine. The torsion bar suspension required more internal space, a larger hull and tracks. For the suspension, MAN took inspiration from Henschel’s Tiger design, with pairs of large interleaved wheels, which gave a lower ground pressure, better traction and mobility. This configuration also provided extra protection to the weaker lower hull sides.
Versucht Panther V2 (Fgst nr.V2), pre-production prototype, fall 1942.
From January until March 1942, these two prototypes were tested. Fritz Todt and, later, Albert Speer, replacing the former, both warmly recommended the DB design to Adolf Hitler. In the meantime, DB had reviewed its design in order to match the MAN proposal, and added the already existing Rheinmetall-Borsig turret, which allowed immediate production. MAN produced a mild steel prototype in September 1942, which started a new series of trials at Kummersdorf. These showed far superior mobility, even compared to the Panzer IV. The engine, for the sake of standardization, was shared with the Tiger, but the Panther weighed 20 tons less. Two final pre-production prototypes were also delivered in November (V1 and V2). Production swiftly followed, at MAN and DB (hull and assembly), Rheinmetall-Borsig (turret), later extended to Maschinenfabrik Niedersachsen-Hannover (MNH) and Henschel & Sohn in Kassel.
Production of the Panzer V
The delivery orders were rushed, asking for a first batch by December. However, the specialized tooling for this new model was far from ready and designed in haste. The order for 1000 to be delivered in early 1943 proved over-optimistic, and a first pre-series of 20 was built. These were called Null-series, Ausfuehrung A (different from the later series), equipped with the early 75 mm (2.95 in) KwK 42 L/70 gun. Later, these were called D-1, and the large-scale series was named Ausf.D.
As a consequence of this rush, the first series of the Ausf.D had reliability problems. Speer set a 250 vehicles/month objective, modified in January 1943 to 300 per month. By 1944, increasing Allied bombings and industrial bottlenecks meant that only a feeble percentage of this figure was reached. 143 were built per month on average in 1943, but with new simplified models and production spread out throughout Germany, this rose to 315 in 1944 and even 380 in March 1945, with a total production reaching 6000. This figure was still far away from those of the T-34 and Sherman, but the Panther became the third most produced German AFV, after the Panzer IV and the StuG III. Its unit cost was only marginally higher, despite the technological gap. 117,100 RM compared to the 103,462 RM of the late Panzer IV, mostly thanks to streamlined production methods, but, still, far less than the same generation Tiger (250,000 RM).
At some point, deliveries of hulls exceeded those of engines. The Maybach factory was pounded mercilessly, and even came to a complete halt for five months. The Auto-Union plant at Siegmar also started to build the engines from May 1944. Rheinmetall-Borsig, however, never suffered such gaps in production, and there was constantly an excess of Panther turrets. Many of these were turned into AT pillboxes, defensive fortifications which played their part in Italy, in Northern Europe and the Siegfried line. The biggest problem suffered by the Panther production was the lack of spare parts, which dropped to only 8% of tank production at the end of 1944. By then, field workshops had to cannibalize existing tanks to repair others, further hampering the operational availability of these tanks in the crucial years of 1944-45.
Design of the Panther
Hull & armor
The T-34’s main feature, its well sloped armor, was used with great attention by the MAN and DB designers. However, to increase internal space, the MAN designers, who created the V1 and V2 prototypes, choose to increase the engine compartment by creating a rear inverted slope. They also used moderately sloped flanks, without mudguards, as the flanks themselves formed them. This was also a welcome simplification in design, but required numerous straps to fix spare elements and steel towing cables. The frontal glacis was the thickest, forming a beak nose, with a 60 mm (2.36 in) upper plate (90 mm/3.54 in equivalent armor), and a lower 50 mm (1.97 in) plate.
Later, on Hitler’s orders, the upper plate was increased to 80 mm (3.15 in) and the lower to 60 mm (2.36 in). The frontal equivalent armor became 120 mm (4.72 in), enough to withstand most Allied and Russian AT guns of the time. The lower and upper hull sides were both 40 mm (1.57 in) thick. The upper side hull was sloped to a 50° angle, later raised to 50 mm (1.97 in) at 60° on the Ausf.G. The lower hull was also protected by the interleaved wheels and, later, added 10 mm (0.39 in) side skirts. The rear was sloped at 60°, 40 mm (1.57 in) thick.
The Rheinmetall-Borsig turret was also well-sloped and roomy. The front had, at first, 80 mm (3.15 in) of armor at 78°, then 110 mm (4.33 in) (Ausf.A), then 100 mm (3.94 in) at 80° on the Ausf.G. The sides were angled at 65° and 45 mm (1.77 in) thick, and the top, almost flat, was 15 mm (0.59 in), then 30 mm (1.18 in) on the Ausf.G. The gun mantlet, made of cast armor, was 120 mm (4.72 in) thick and rounded. This part also serves to help distinguish between versions, the later versions being fitted with a flattened, “chin” model, to avoid the “shot-trap” effect of this configuration.
The armor itself was at first face-hardened, but with the generalization of armor-piercing capped rounds, a March 1943 note dropped this specification in favor of a simpler homogeneous steel glacis plate. The turret sides also proved relatively weak and an alternative turret, the Schmalturm, was soon studied. A forged cupola replaced the cast one in earlier models. On the D-2, the commander cupola was cast instead of drum-type and side armor skirts became standard.
These plates were welded and interlocked for extra strength. The mantlet didn’t prove immune to the late 75 mm (2.95 in) M1A1 (late Sherman versions), Russian IS-2 122 mm (4.8 in), and British 17-pdr (76.2 mm/3 in). The side armor was not sufficient to deal with flanking attacks by most Allied tanks, contrary to the Tiger. Different tactics and 5 mm (0.2 in) side skirts (Schürzen) were applied. Zimmerit anti-magnetic paste was applied relatively early, on the late Ausf.D, but dropped in September 1944 due to unverified rumors claiming this paste caught fire. Because of incessant Allied bombings, some precious alloys became hard to acquire. The production of composite armor was thus problematic, the lack of molybdenum, in particular, causing late armor plates to crack easily when hit.
Engine, steering & drivetrain
The prototypes and first 250 Ausf.Ds delivered were fitted with a V12 Maybach HL 210 P30, giving 650 hp (484.9 kW) at 3500 rpm. By May, it was replaced by the more powerful 23.1 liter Maybach HL 230 P30 V-12, 690 hp (514.74 kW), which made the late Ausf.D the fastest of the entire series, and prompted an armor upgrade on the Ausf.A. The light alloy block was replaced by a cast iron one and two multistage “cyclone” air filters added, but the engine output was reduced by the low quality gasoline. Average operational range was around 97-130 km (60-80 miles), reduced to 60-80 km (40-50 miles) cross-country. The Maybach P30 was compact, with a seven disc crankshaft, and the two series of cylinders were not offset. However, this tight connecting rod space caused teething problems, like blown head gaskets, and the bearings failed early on.
To avoid overheating, an engine governor was also fitted in November 1943, as well as an eight disc crankshaft, improved bearings and seals. The engine compartment was watertight, but this caused concerns of poor ventilation and overheating. This, added to early non-isolated fuel connectors, caused leakages and the engine to catch fire. The fighting compartment was well separated, these issues being addressed later by better isolation and cooling. With all these measures, the reliability grew steadily until the end of the war. There was also an automatic fire extinguisher, which experienced early malfunctions.
Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen made the seven-speed AK 7-200 synchromesh gearbox, coupled with a MAN single radius steering system, operated by levers. The fixed turning radius of the last, 7th gear, was 80 meters (262 ft). The choice was left to the visual appreciation of the driver, which could also engage to brakes to turn more sharply. This simpler system, compared to the Tiger steering, was thought to be more reliable. However, the final drive units proved a major issue, caused by the original epicyclic gearing, which had to be greatly simplified under the supervision of Chief Director of Armament and War Production.
The double spur gears chosen, combined with lower quality tempered steel, proved to be a burden due to the high torque of the Panther and enormous stress, even more complicated by the tight space allocated. The situation was such that these fragile parts had a life expectancy of 150 km (93.2 mi) on average. This issue was partly addressed by a stronger gear housing, but the complete replacement of the system was not planned before the next Panther II, later abandoned. Planners devised special training for careful handling. Most of the time, the Panthers were carried by rail next to their immediate deployment zone.
The Patton Museum of Cavalry and Armor Curator Charles R. Lemons ran a comparison in turret travers speeds of the German Panther tank and the Allied Sherman Tank. He found that the Panther had a travers speed of 10 degrees per second which was a lot slower than the 20 degrees a second produced by the US electro-hydraulic powered traverse motors fitted to the Sherman Turrets. The Panther’s travers speed depended on the main engine for pumping power. This slow speed could help a fast Allied tank avoid getting hit in Urban situations.
One of the most striking features of this 2nd generation German tank, compared to previous models, was the adoption of a Schachtellaufwerk wheeltrain. It was already pioneered on several AFVs and also adopted by the Tiger, and suspended by dual torsion bars. This system was invented by prof. Ernst Lehr, and was known for its wide travel stroke and rapid oscillations, plus overall reliability, being designed both for high speed and bad terrain. In case of damage, the torsion bars could be removed and replaced easily on the spot. However, the interleaved wheel system rendered all replacements and maintenance time-consuming, due to difficult access to the internal wheels and weight of individual roadwheels. A complexity which remained properly German and was never adopted elsewhere. In bad weather, they had a tendency to clog with mud, rocks, snow and ice, which proved problematic on the Eastern Front. In March 1945, MAN converted a few chassis to interleaved, but non overlapping wheels and, from the fall of 1944 to early 1945, sleeve bearings were also tried, with mixed success, but not further developed.
Roadwheel replacement in Northern France – Credits: Bundesarchiv.
Armament of the Panther
The Rheinmetall-Borsig KwK 42 (L/70) was the high-velocity gun planned and integrated in the Panther turret. It was a 75 mm (2.95 in) gun with 79 to 82 HE, APCBC-HE, and APCR rounds, often in low availability. Despite the moderate caliber, the large propellant charge and long barrel contributed to making this gun a very efficient armor-piercing weapon. The shell had even more penetrating power than the 88 mm (3.46 in) of the Tiger. Secondary armament comprised, typically, of one coaxial MG 34 machine gun and one hull MG 34, usually fired by the radio operator. The latter was, at first, operated through a “letter box” flap covering the vertical firing aperture. Later, on the late Ausf.A and on the Ausf.G, a more conventional ballmount was fitted, coupled with a K.Z.F.2 sight. Spent shells fell into a box, and the hatch covering it automatically closed while exhaust fumes were extracted outside via hoses.
75 mm (2.95 in) KwK 42 L70.
The Panzer V Ausf.D, A and G
The Ausf.D (January – September 1943)
The Ausf.D was the very first version, produced in January 1943. The first few were called Ausfuehrung A1, later renamed D1 to avoid confusion with the latter series. This version had teething problems, which were partly resolved on the D2. The first 20 were characterized by the early 75 mm (2.95 in) KwK 42 L/70. The turret was equipped with the early commander drum shaped cupola which stuck out on the right, fitted with six vision slits, while the turret had side and rear pistols ports. Overall vision was limited. There was a binocular Turmzielfernrhor 12 sighting telescope with 2.5x magnification.
The hull had one piece hull plates, with all joints stepped and welded. There were 79 rounds, 40 stored horizontally in panniers along the superstructure and 36 stored vertically in bins along the hull sides. Empty-round ejection hatches were fitted in the turret side, and the hull machine-gun was served by a vertical flap. This early model also had turret side smoke dischargers. 5100 machine-gun rounds were stored in 34 bags. The engine was the early Maybach HL-210, and the overall weight was only 34.4 tons. The radio was a FUG-5 ultra-short wave length receiver. Hitler ordered the production to be stopped in July 1943. 600 more rolled of the assembly line until September 4.
The D2 was an upgraded version developed in late 1943 – early 1944 and retro-fitted with Schürzen side skirts (total width was 3.42 m/11.22 ft). It had a Maybach HL-230 engine. To complicate version recognition even more, some turret repairs performed at local workshops included the fitting of the new Ausf.A cupola, when the original turret was not entirely replaced.
The Panzer V Ausf.A (July 1943- May 1944)
Production of the Ausfuehrung A started in July 1943, after Hitler insisted on upgrading the armor, especially the front glacis. At the same time, a whole array of modifications were performed, including solving most earlier problems. Externally, the main difference was the adoption of a new commander cupola, cast, hemispheric and fitted with an AA ring. Later versions got a new ball mount for the hull machine gun. The very first Ausf.A was obtained by mounting a modified turret on an unchanged Ausf.D hull.
The shape of the cast turret front behind the gun mantlet was distinctive. In all, 29 specific parts were redesigned or brand new, including the turret armor, access hatch in the turret back, communications ports, pistol ports, gun mantlet, commander cupola, turret race, mantlet watertight seal, traverse motor, lock, auxiliary hand traverse, machine-gun mount, elevating mechanism for the main gun, footpedal for the hydraulic traverse, linkage to fire the coaxial MG, azimuth indicator, external traverse locks for the gun, sight mount, roof exhaust fan, loader periscope, the turret platform and its compressor, loader, commander and gunner’s seats, electrical equipment and tooling specific to the turret and stowage. However, the external shape and armor remained virtually unchanged. The gun was the same and retained its binocular TZF 12 gun sight. However, the turret front plate and side plates were now interlocked, using a squared off joint instead of a dovetail joint. In September 1943, a whole array of changes were performed, which help differentiate between the “early” and “late” Ausfuehrung A.
In May 1944, the production of the Ausf.A ceased. 2,200 had been built by MAN, Daimler-Benz, Demag and Henschel. A whole set of modifications took place after deliveries. First, reinforced roadwheels were issued with 24 rim bolts, then Zimmerit coating was applied systematically after September 1943. The Maybach HL-230 received modified blown head gaskets, with copper rings to prevent leakages, as well as a new coolant circulation system, also starting in September. By November, maximum engine rpm was mechanically limited to 2500. Faulty bearings were also systematically replaced. By early 1944, new crankshafts were issued, then a new piston design was introduced. In March came a reduction hand crank starter. Ice sprags, which increased traction on mud and snow, were also issued in mid-1944, a frame for the turret platform and, for some, a centered tow coupling was adopted, like the one on the Bergenpanther. Later, a new monocular gun sight TZF 12a was fitted for the gun and a ball mount for the hull machine gun.
The Panzer V Ausf. G (September 1943 – May 1945)
The last, best and most prolific version came in the fall of 1943, the Ausf.G. It was the sum of battlefield experience and careful fixing of previous issues found on earlier models. The decision came in May 1943, during a reunion with officers at the MAN factory. There was a whole set of modifications for the hull, retaining an unchanged turret. The main concern was to increase the armor protection. As an example, the hull front glacis was raised to 80 mm (3.15 in). Other changes included the ball mount, suspensions, shock absorber locations, track sprocket, guard, adjustment, motor, fuel system, throttle linkage, brake & transmission, ventilation, floor plates, radio racks, ammo dust covers, electrical equipment, turret drive, both driver and radioman hatch, periscope and seats, steering brakes, external stowage, transmission, rear deck, foot controls, steering gear, clutch linkage, final driven, steering and brake linkages, cooling water heater and thermostat and the tracks. The side sloped mudguard shape was also distinctive. More rounds were also stored, up to 82. However, few changes were dictated with mass-production in mind, with simplified parts and processes, contrary to the late Panzer IV Ausf.H. It was all about excellence on the battlefield.
Ausf.G mantlet detail
Production started in March 1944 and lasted until April 1945. Total deliveries were 1143 by MAN, 1004 by DB and 806 by MNH. In November 1944, a comprehensive array of correspondences between the Waffenamt and MAN was turned into a report, asking for a range of late modifications.
These included previously delayed modifications, and new ones, concerning the guards for the exhaust pipes, socket for 2-ton jib boom, handle on the rear turret access hatch, the commander’s cupola periscope mount, air intake cover, periscope observation mount, rain guard over the driver’s periscope and, later, gun sight aperture, jettisonable hatches, debris guard over gap behind the gun mantlet, factory-applied camouflage patterns and multicolored paints applied in patches on primer, to end the Zimmerit coating, infrared searchlight and scope, chin gun mantlet, steel rubber-clad roadwheels, modified ammunition stowage, radiator cooling fans, improved final drives, self-cleaning idler wheels, flame suppressor exhaust mufflers, crew compartment heater, elimination of the rear shock absorbers, an elevated seat for the driver, new instrument panel, defense against poison gas attacks, a cleaner for the gun sight, stencils, a new AA machine-gun mount, modified rear deck, loader’s seat, internal turret ivory paint finishing, rings for attached camouflage. Many of these changes had been previously authorized in the field by the Waffenamt.
The Ausf.G was, however, not the last Panther version. Two major overhauls were attempted, the Panther II and the Ausf.F. The most distinctive feature of the latter was the new Schmallturm narrow turret and improved gun. None ever saw action before the end of the war. It should be noted that two features of the Ausf.G were well ahead of their time. Night infrared targeting systems and poison gas protection (a forerunner of NBC protections) were characteristics of the MBTs of the fifties and sixties.
A Panther unleashed on the battlefield
On January 9, 1943, in preparation for the great summer offensive on the Eastern front, the first unit ever supplied with the Panther was Panzer-Abteilung 51, followed by Pz.Abt. 52 in February 1943 (96 tanks, four companies each), plus HQ Panzer Regiment Stab 39. Training started immediately, but the vehicles were soon found to be plagued by mechanical failures, which led to a major reconstruction at Falkensee and Nuernberg in March to May 1943. However, the program failed to correct all detected problems, still present when the units were first committed in action (eventually, only 40 of the 196 were serviceable).
At the insistence of Guderian, a second program was initiated at Gafenwoehr. With all these interruptions, training quality was degraded. By mid June, the two Panzer-Abteilung, plus PzAbt.28, were sent back on the Eastern front, under the command of Von Lauchert. His units were part of the XLVIII Panzer-Korps, 4th Panzerarmee, Herresgruppe Sude. On the 5th of July, it was attached to the Pzd. SS. GrossDeutschland (200 Panthers). Operations ceased on the 20th of July with just 41 Panthers operational (43 in August), and a report by Lauchert, underlining many problems, notably the fuel pump deficiencies (56 burned out beyond repairs).
Disabled Ausf.D at Kursk
The report, endorsed by Gen. Guderian, presented excellent fighting performances nonetheless, the crews claiming 267 kills. These vehicles could destroy any Soviet AFV beyond reach. However, they only accounted for a small percentage (7%) of all German armor committed in the offensive (2400-2700). There was a reinforcement of 12 Ausf.Ds, but losses rose again with the Soviet counter-attack, many Panthers being abandoned and never recovered. By the 11th of August, 156 were total write offs.
On the 26th of August 1943, the former Pz Abt.52 was consolidated into the 1st Abteilung/Pz.Rgt 15, with all recovered and repaired Panthers. Pz.Abt 51 received a new shipment of 96 vehicles, still remaining attached to “GrossDeutschland”. During the counter-offensive, they lost 36 of them (total write offs). Only 15 were serviceable and 45 needed repairs. The same month, a new unit arrived, the 2nd Abteilung/SS Pz.Rgt 2 attached to “Das Reich” with only 71 Panthers. Later, in September, this unit had only 21 Panthers left, with 40 needing repairs. A fourth unit joined in, the 2nd Pz.Abt./Pz.Rgt 23 (96 Panthers), and a fifth, 1st Abt./Pz.Rgt 2, mostly with Ausf.As, which soldiered on until late October.
After another report, still showing mechanical unreliability, Hitler took action. He ordered, in November, that 60 Panthers without engines or transmissions be sent on the Leningrad Front (Heeresgruppe North). They were dug-in on the opposite bank of Konstadt, supported by AT guns and infantry, with the 10 more reliable machines left in a mobile reserve, forming the Ist Abt./Pz.Rgt 29. Two other Abteilungs arrived the same month on the Northern front, for the L Armee Korp. By December, the last unit for a long time arrived in this area, 1st Abt/Pz.Rgt31. Indeed, new faults have been found with the HL 230 engine which needed corrections and no Panther was sent on the Eastern front for months. By the end of December, 624 Panthers had been lost as total write offs, on the Central and Northern front, for 841 shipped in total. After improvements, Guderian would state in January 1944 that “the Panther is at last front ripe”.
Central Front, summer 1944
Before the start of operation Bagration, the Germans had considerably reinforced their strength. 31 Abteilungen were converted to Panthers, and new ones sent on the Central front. Their average complement was 79, but some counted 60 units, and Panzerbrigades had only 36. Mixed units like the I/Pz.Rgt Brandenburg assigned to the Panzergrenadier Division Kurmark, had 45 vehicles, while Pz.Rgt 29 (Pz. Div. Münchenberg) counted only 21 Panthers. Ausf.As formed the bulk of these, completed with early Ausf.Gs.
Aftermath (July-December 1944)
Shortly after the Russians succeed in creating a gap on the Central front, 14 Panzer-Brigades were hastily reorganized, but only half were sent to the Eastern Front, the others being gathered to counter the Allied push from Normandy in August. By that time, Allied bombings severely hampered the production capacity, which needed drastic reorganization. Under severe shortages, reduced Abteilungs were now committed into action, at least until the end of the year.
By September 1944, 522 were listed in service at the same time in operational units. The bulk of the Panthers produced was found on the Eastern Front, with as many as 740 in March 1945.
Most successful operational units comprised the 23rd and 26th Independent Panzer Regiments, 2nd Das Reich and 1st Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler Panzer-Divisions.
Operations in January-March 1945 (Poland, eastern Prussia)
By February 1945, following the failure of the Western offensive, eight divisions (1, 2, 9, 10, 12 SS, 21st Pzd. and 28th PzGd, and the Fuehrer Grenadier Division) were sent back to the Eastern front, with some reinforcements (275 Panthers). By March 1945, experimental units started using night attack tactics, equipped with FG1250/1251 infrared illuminators. Following this success, five other units were equipped with these systems, all on the Eastern front. Against all odds, combining an absence of notable breakdowns, operational readiness reached its all-time highest and various units gained local victories which diverted considerable resources from the enemy. In January 1945, production also reached its historical highest.
Panther Ausf.G in operations.
Normandy was the playground for the new Ausf.A. By D-Day, only two Panzer regiments on the Western Front were equipped with the Panther (156 in all). With reinforcements, this figure rose to 432 by July. Six Abteilungen (counting 79-89 Panthers each) were attached to the 1st, 2nd, 9th, and 12th SS Panzerdivisions operating in this area, as well as the 2nd PzD and Panzerlehr divisions. Most of the teething problems found on the D1-D2 had been solved and reliability, as well as tactical deployment, allowed this up-armored version to show its full and formidable potential. Guderian still complained about the life expectancy of the final drives, and, still, some engines caught fire.
The majority soldiered around Caen, pinning down the Anglo-Canadian forces of the 21st Army Group on open ground and retreating under the cover of the bocage, woods and buildings. However, the British 17-pdr (76.2 mm/3 in) claimed many of these machines on the same grounds, which rendered counter-offensives perilous, not mentioning the always present air threat. Reinforcements and replacements arrived in the end of June, but, by September, only three regiments were left, crippled after operation Cobra. Most had been wiped out at the Falaise gap. After this, many inexperienced units were sent to “plug the gap”, with mixed success, during the retreat from France.
Engine replacement in the field.
As Gen. Fritz Bayerlein of the Panzer Lehr division mentioned, the Panther was not at an advantage in the hedgerows. The long barrel and overall width reduced its maneuverability on the narrow roads. More so, it was front heavy, tall and lacked lateral vision, which rendered the crew almost blind to sneaking antitank infantry squads and close-quarter attacks. In September-October 1944, brand-new Panzerbrigades were sent to block the path of Gen. Patton, but the young and poorly trained crews couldn’t cope with well seasoned US crews, and their new tactics involving the M4(75)W, M10 and M36 tank-hunters. Losses were appalling. After this, the bulk of the new Panther Ausf.A-G were kept until the Ardennes counter-offensive (“Wacht am Rhein”). However, in the hands of a few veterans and tank aces, the last upgraded Ausf.Gs performed quite impressively.
During the battle of the Bulge, around 400 Panthers were listed in the units participating in the offensive, while 471 were listed in all for all the Western front. They were not at their advantage in the forest, but once again proved deadly on open ground. However, when supporting troops assaulting small villages, they took heavy losses due to Bazookas and PIATs manned by Allied infantry inside the narrow streets.
A special unit, the Panzerbrigade 150, included five Panthers disguised as M10 tank destroyers for Operation Greif, a “fifth column” commando which created havoc behind US lines. However, the disguise did not trick US forces for long, and the five vehicles were ultimately destroyed.
By January 1945, only 97 were left from the Bulge Furnace. The bulk of the new Panzerbattalions were sent in the East, and only four regiments were kept on the Western front. Late versions saw an array of modifications, allowing night attacks in coordination with special versions of the Sd.Kfz.251 with long-range infrared illuminators, and completed by assault troops using Vampir-modified Sturmgewehr guns. Until the end of the war, new rounds with enhanced AP characteristics were also issued, although in limited quantities. For example, the Panzergranät 40 was able to penetrate 194 mm (7.64 in) or armor at short range and 106 mm (4.17 in) at 2000 m (6561 ft).
The Panther’s thick frontal armor and long range gun were considerable assets on the battlefield, but the sides were vulnerable. So, the drivers developed a habit of retreating in reverse speed instead on turning the vehicle when under attack, always presenting the front. Despite of this, Allied crews became experts in out-flanking maneuvers, but the Panther could still count on better mobility than the Tiger, which in turn, compensated by its stronger side armor.
Contrary to the Tiger, no Panther was ever sent in Tunisia. Despite of this, some Abteilungen saw action throughout Italy, until March 1945. At the same time, more and more “Panther-pillboxes”, spread out in defensive open fields, turned to be highly effective. The first batch arrived in August 1943, with 71 Ausf.D tanks of the 1st SS Panzer Division. They returned to Germany by October, never to see action there. However, the 1st Abteilung, 4th Pzr-Regt first engaged US forces in February as reinforcements at Anzio. However, by the end of May, most had been lost in action, some destroyed by ship artillery. By mid-June, only 11 were reported operational. However, 38 were shipped by rail, reinforced later by two batches of 20 and 10 in replacements in October. This unit stayed as a tactical reserve until the end of the war.
The mountainous terrain favored the Panther when well placed, and greatly complicated flanking attacks by Allied forces. However, the British had more and more 17-pounders engaged in action, and many Panthers were also disabled by indirect fire (Allied SPGs were massively employed) due to poor upper protection.
Variants, projects and derivatives
The Panther II, later abandoned and merged with the E 50 program, was initially the result of Hitler’s insistence for an up-armored Panther, and to raise the commonality between the Panther and Tiger II, then in development. In April 1943, this was materialized in the Panther II program, basically a standard Panther hull with a glacis 100 mm (3.94 in) thick, 60 mm (2.36 in) of side armor and 30 mm (1.18 in) top. An initial plan asked for a production schedule by September 1943. The new tank would have also been equipped with the same 75 mm (2.95 in) L/70 KwK 42 gun as the normal Panther.
MAN was asked to deliver a prototype in August 1943, equipped with the latest Maybach HL 234 fuel-injected engine, capable of delivering 900 hp (671.4 hp) coupled with the GT 101 gas turbine. However, by the summer of 1943, these concerns were dropped and all efforts focused on the Panther itself. Although it is unclear if there was any official cancellation, US forces eventually captured one Panther II prototype, fitted with an Ausf.G turret in 1945 (now displayed at Fort Knox). The Ausf.F eventually became the goal for improvement of the Panther design.
This version was the product of the failed Panther II project, with a more limited range of upgrades. In November 1943, Rheinmetall designed an armored gun mantlet with a narrow front plate 120 mm (4.72 in) thick. The narrow turret presented a smaller target and spared weight as well. The design was refined in March 1944, under the name of Schmale Blende Turm-Panther. This was one of several designs later collectively called “Schmalltürm” (narrow turret). Several of these turrets, housing an adapted 75 mm (2.95 in) KwK 42 L/70, were tested until the end of the war.
Despite being much better protected, this turret was smaller and not heavier than the original one. It was equipped with the same gun mantlet like the Tiger II, a built-in stereoscopic rangefinder and a modified commander cupola. A new hull was also designed, up-armored and equipped with the new steel-rimmed wheels. Daimler-Benz and Ruhrstahl-Hattingen steelworks produced some of these. Production of the Ausf.F was scheduled to start in April 1945. The war ended before any tanks could be completed.
The E 50 program inherited most of the ideas concerning the Panther II. The E series made good use of industrial commonality between models, for the sake of mass-production. The E 50 corresponded to the 50 ton class medium tank, and was scheduled to replace the original Panther. The plans for a prototype built by MAN included a Tiger II-like hull and mechanical parts, including the drivetrain and new steel-rimmed wheels, paired and not interleaved. No plans regarding the turret or gun were found, but it is commonly assumed that it would’ve sported the Schmallturm and the Tiger II‘s 88 mm (3.46 in).
The idea emerged in 1943, due to problems in recovering heavy and medium tanks with usual methods. Previous recovery vehicles (like the Sd.Kfz.9) were rarely able to salvage a Panther or a Tiger. Plus, it was strictly forbidden for a Tiger to attempt salvaging another one, due to the risk of loosing both in breakdowns. The development was carried out by MAN. After the Tiger was seen as not meeting the desired requirements, the Panther was chosen instead. First Bergepanthers were completed on Panther Ausf.D chassis, in which only the turret was removed by the manufacturer.
By the end of 1944, the more reliable Ausf.Gs were used for these conversions. The crew consisted of at least three soldiers, the towing apparatus was operated by two soldiers in the vehicle. They sat in the central tower, a square wooden and metal structure, with longitudinal tensile reinforcements for 40 tons embedded in the chassis. A large earth spade at the rear served to support traction. In addition, the simple crane boom had a 1.5 tons loading capacity. The Bergepanther was quite reliable and could be used in enemy territory, receiving a single MG 34 or 42 for self-defense at the front, or a Buglafette for a 20 mm (0.79 in) cannon. Its towing capacity allowed to salvage Tigers and even heavier vehicles. From 1943 to 1945, approximately 339 Bergepanthers of all versions were delivered by MAN, Henschel, Daimler-Benz (Berlin plant-Marie Felde) and Demag.
The Panzerjäger V Panther, also known as “Jagdpanther”, was the main derivative of the Panther. Official designation was 8.8 cm (3.46 in) Pak 43/3 auf Panzerjäger Panther, and it was based on the upgraded Panther Ausf.G. Thus, it was reliable mechanically and even more agile than the regular Panther, while being able to destroy any single Allied tank of the time. Only 415 were built by MIAG, MNH and MBA until 1945.
The idea was to put the most powerful AA system on the Panther chassis, to provide each Abteilung with its anti-air defense, when it was needed most. By the fall of 1944, Allied air superiority over Europe was a constant threat to any operation. Rheinmetall proposed a special twin 3.7 cm (1.46 in) FlaK 43 fully enclosed turret to be adapted on a regular Panther chassis. The first prototype was not even built when the war ended. A single unit was captured, a Panther.D chassis with a mock-up turret mounted on it. Other Rheinmetall paper projects, also called “Coelian”, had four 20 mm (0.79 in) MG 151/20 guns, or a combination of a QF 55 mm (2.17 in) with twin 37 mm (1.46 in).
Links and resources about the Panther
<tdcolspan=”2″>Panther Ausf.G specifications
|Dimensions (L-w-h)||6.87/8.66 x3.27 x2.99 m (22.54/28.41 x10.73 x9.81 ft)|
|Total weight, battle ready||44.8 tons max. (98,767 lbs)|
|Armament||Main: 75 mm (2.95 in) KwK 42 L/70, 79 rounds
Sec: 2x 7.9 mm (0.31 in) MG 34, 5100 rounds
|Armor||Sloped, from 15 to 120 mm (0.59-4.72 in)|
|Crew||5 (commander, driver, gunner, loader, radioman/machine gunner)|
|Propulsion||V12 Maybach HL230 P2 gasoline, 690 hp (515 kW)|
|Transmission||ZF AK 7-200 7-forward/1-reverse gearbox|
|Suspensions||Double torsion bars and interleaved wheels|
|Speed (late model)||48 km/h (29 mph)|
|Operational range||250 km (160 mi)|
|Production (Ausf. G only)||2953|
The Daimler-Benz VK 30.02. It can clearly be seen as much closer to the T-34 than MAN’s design.
Panzer V Panther Ausf. D-1 at the end of the battle of Kursk, July 1943. Despite the shortcomings of the earliest series, once corrected, the few Panthers that saw action there in the latter part of the battle did very well. Also, notice the early KwK 42 L/70 gun, which presented a rounded muzzle brake and was slightly shorter.
Panzer V Panther Ausf.D-1 mit PzKpfw IV H Türm, Schwere Heeres Panzerjäger Abteilung 653, Russia, early 1944. It was one of the many field conversions using surplus Panzer IV Ausf.H turrets and serving as command tanks.
Panther Ausf.D-2 at Kursk, July 1943. This one was part of the batch which returned to the battle with many modifications, including the new KwK 43 gun.
Panzer V Panther Ausf.D, regimental vehicle from Panzer Abteilung 51, one of the very first units equipped with Panthers. Central front, August 1943, in the aftermath of the battle of Kursk.
Panther Ausf.D from the Panzer Abteilung 51, 1st Company, battle of Kursk, summer 1943.
Ausf.D, Panzer 6th Company, Abteilung 52, 39th Panzer-Regiment, Central front, summer 1943.
Panther Ausf.D, late production from the 24th Panzer Regiment in Normandy, June 1944.
Panther Ausf.D, 2nd Kompanie, 15th Panzerregiment, 11th Panzerdivision, Russia, fall 1943.
Stabs-Panzerbefehlswagen, 8th Kompanie, 5th Pz.Rgt, 5th SS PzDiv. Wiking, Russia, winter 1943/44.
Ausf.D, 2nd SS Panzerdivision, Eastern Front, fall 1943.
Panzer V Panther Ausf.A. The second version produced, up-armored. This was also the heaviest Panther, weighing 48 tons, the original planned weight of the Tiger. This one is an early production model from the 1st Panzer Abteilung, 4th Panzer-Regiment, at Anzio, Italy, 1944.
Panther Ausf.A from the 1st Battalion Panzer Regiment Grossdeutschland, Eastern front, fall 1944.
Ausf.A, 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitlerjugend, Falaise gap, Normandy, France, August 1944.
Ausf.A from the 5th Kompanie, 5th SS-Panzer Regiment, 5th SS-Panzerdivision Wiking – Kovel area, March-April 1944.
Personal Panther of SS-Oberscharführer Ernst Barkmann, 2nd SS-Panzer Regiment “Das Reich”. Barkmann, a veteran tank gunner of the 1939-40 campaigns, was credited to be an excellent shot. After being wounded during Operation Barbarossa, he returned on the Eastern Front in 1942, then became Sergeant and, as a tank commander, he participated in the battle of Kharkov. He distinguished himself at Prokhorovka and during the aftermath of the Kursk battle, on a Panzer IV. The “Das Reich” Panzerdivision was withdrawn into reserve in August, and, later, Barkmann was given a new Panther Ausf.D, just in time for the defensive battles of the Southern Front. In January 1944, he was transferred in France and, after being given a new Ausf.A, was stationed near Bordeaux. In June, his fourth company was committed in action near St Lô. Here, he accumulated a string of kills which created a legend (the famous “Barkmann’s Corner” near Le Neufbourg and Le Lorey on 27 July, 1944 in Normandy), confirmed later by a Knight’s Cross and the promotion as senior commander. Later on, during the Ardennes offensive, he spearheaded his unit against the US 2nd Armored Division. By March 1945, he was defending against a Russian offensive near Stuhlweissenburg (Székesfehérvár) in Hungary, scoring many hits on T-34s. He remains one of the greatest “Tank Aces” of the war, and perhaps the most famous Panther tank commander.
Ausf.A, mid-production, autumn 1944. This one belongs to the 2nd platoon, 4th Company, of an unknown Panzerdivision, during a fighting retreat in Poland and eastern Prussia.
Ausf.A, late production, Stabskompanie, PzRgt. “GrossDeutschland”, Romania, spring 1944.
Ausf.A in winter livery, Eastern Front, winter 1943/44.
Captured Russian Ausf.A, Southern front, spring 1944. At least a dozen Panthers and Tigers were captured intact by Soviet troops during the German retreat on the Eastern Front, in late 1943-mid 1944. They were generally painted dark green with white stars or, in some cases, only dark rectangles with a Soviet red star painted in, directly upon the former identifications numbers. These tanks were used until they were worn out, because of the lack of spare parts and complexity.
Ausf.A, late production vehicle, 3rd Kompanie, 2nd SS Panzer Regiment GrossDeutschland Division, Eastern Front, 1944.
Late Ausf.A, 35th Panzer-Regiment, 4th Panzerdivision, Poland, June 1944.
Panzerbefehlswagen Ausf.A, Eastern front, April 1944.
Late Ausf.A, 38th Panzer-Regiment, 3rd SS Panzerdivision “Totenkopf”, Poland, summer 1944.
Panzerbefelhswagen V Ausf.A, Panzer-Grenadier Division GrossDeutschland, Lithuania, summer 1944.
Ausf.G, early production vehicle, Panzer-Regiment 27, 19th Panzerdivision, Warsaw, Poland, September 1944.
Ersatz M10, a Panther disguised as a M10 Tank Destroyer, operation Greif, Belgium, December 1944. These were converted by welding additional metal sheets to the turret and hull. Of course, the wheeltrain had nothing to do with the standard VVSS type, and they hardly fooled anyone for long. Around ten Ersatz M10 auf Panther Ausf.Gs composed Skorzeny’s special Panzer Brigade 150 during the early phase of the Battle of the Bulge.
Panther Ausf.G early type, 1st SS Panzerdivision, Paris, mid-1944.
Ausf.G early version, “Cuckoo” (captured), 4th Battalion of the 6th Coldstream Guards Tank Brigade, North-Western Europe, 1944/45.
Panzer V Panther Ausf.G early, Stoumont, Belgium, December 1944 (battle of the Bulge).
Early type Ausf.G, Kampfgruppe Peiper, 1st SS Panzerdivision, La Gleize, Belgium, January 1945.
9th Panzer-Regiment, 25th Panzer Division, Czechoslovakia, April 1945.
Pz.Rgt.31, 5th Panzerdivision, East Prussia, October 1944.
Early Ausf.G, Kampf-Gruppe Monhke, Berlin area, May 1945.
Early Ausf.G, unknown unit, eastern Germany, March 1945.
Late Ausg.G, Hungary, early 1945. Notice the winter paint, washed in stripes.
Unknown unit, Czechoslovakia, April 1945.
Another late Ausf.G (with the chin mantlet), Czechoslovakia, April 1945.
Ausf.G, Fsch. PzDiv. I, Eastern Prussia, fall 1944.
Ausf.G, unknown unit, Weissenburg, January 1945.
Ausf.G, 1st SS Panzerdivision, Ardennes, December 1944.
Ausf.G (late), with a splinter camouflage, Poland, autumn 1944.
Captured Ausf.G with Russian markings.
Ausf. G (late), ambush camouflage pattern and IR sight system, western Germany, March 1945
Panzer V Panther Ausf.G, 9th Panzer-Division – Ruhr Pocket, Germany, spring 1945.
Ausf.G, late type with steel-rimmed wheels and ambush pattern, Eastern Prussia, March 1945.
Pantherturm III – Betonsockel Ausf. G, Siegfried line, March 1945.
Ausf.F prospective view, May 1945.
Panther II, possible appearance according to technical sketches.
The E 50. Here is a prospective view of the E 50 in service. No plans regarding the E 50 turret have been found to date. The turret presented here is based on the assumption that the Schmalturm turret and the 8.8 cm KwK 43 L/71 would have been used.
Variants & Conversions
Beobachtungspanzer V Panther Ausf.D mit FuG-5 & FuG-8, artillery observation vehicle.
Bergepanther auf Panzer V Ausfuehrung D, Eastern front, 1944.
Bergepanther mit Aufgesetztem PzKfw.IV Turm als Befehlspanzer, a Bergepanther retro-fitted command version, equipped here with a spare Panzer IV F-2 turret.
Panzerjäger V Panther. Also known as the Jagdpanther.