A Panzer III Ausf A, one of the very first delivered examples, in 1937. This one was part of the Polish offensive in september. Early versions were converted to command tanks or, as they were ouumbered by lighter models, Zugfuhrerwagen or platoon commanders, acting as leading tanks.
A Panzer III Ausf C, Poland, september 1939.
An early Panzer III Ausf D, XI panzerdivision, Poland, september 1939. The D had extra protection and a new, reworked suspension system.
Panzer III Ausf D, the last and biggest pre-production serie. These were the testebds for the mass-poduction Type E. This one was serving in Norway, near lillehamer in february 1940. The ocre camouflage applied directly on the usual feldgrau livery was customary in operations.
A Panzer III Ausf E, this was the first effective serie, redesigned for mass production, by produced by Daimler-Benz, Henschel and MAN in october 1939. Only 96 were manufactured, but its features endured until the last version : A shortened hull, brand new independent torsion bar suspension (by Porsche), six roadwheels and three return rollers, increased armor up to 30 mm, side hull escape hatches and new turret two-piece hatches, added vision port and better visor. To cope with the additional weight, a new Maybach V12 HL 120TR with a Maybach Variorex 10 speed gearbox passed 300 bhp to this new version. Total weight was now far in excess of the 15 tons originally allocated, but general effectiveness was better and many parts have been redesigned for mass production.
The Ausf F was a close follower of the E, as it remains almost unmodified, ans ended with a far bigger production (432) with no less than six manufacturers : Daimler-Benz, Alkett MAN, Henschel, and FAMO which tried later a new interlocking wheel system on the G. Apart modified air intakes, a new improved Maybach 120 TRM engine. External modifications included smoke generator mounted on the rear eleased from the turret, and sometimes (like this one), a stowage box at the rear of the turret, which became a trademark of later versions.
Later on, at last, the new 50 mm KwK-38 L/42, capable to deal with most French medium and British BEF tanks was fitted in a rudh on a hundred Ausf F to be ready for the western campaign. The first beeing ready were shipped in France to see the last days of fighting of june 1940, like this one.
The Ausf G cristallized many improvements learnt from the campaign in poland. They were built in 1940-1941. Too late for the western campaign, but they became the spearhead of the german offensive in the Balkans (Balkanfeldzug) Yougoslavia and Greece, april-may 1941. This one is an early production Ausf G, from the Xth division, without turret basket and the original 37 mm KwK 38 gun. Against mostly light FT17 and Hotchkiss H35 tanks of the Yougoslavian army this was not a handicap...
When the first German forces came in Africa in march 1941, they were equipped with Panzer II and III, from which most were Ausf F and upgunned ausf G. Since they were few replacements prior to the Tunisian campaign, Rommel could only count on limited provisons of Ausf G and J during the whole african campaign, from 1941 to early 1943.
Prior to the Russian campaign, almost all series or early Gs and Ausf F and E have been retrofitted with the new, well efficient KwK-38 L/42 50mm gun. Here, one of these upgunned Panzer IIIs Ausf G of the Central army corps, stuck in front of Moscow in december 1941. Note the transitional, washable white paint. Late production Ausf-G received an improved commander cupola and new enlarged tracks (now 40 cm), better suited to the esatern front.
A Befehlspanzer Ausf G-H, transition model equipped with the new set of tracting and dead wheels, new tracks, and some tropicalized features. The Befehlspanzer prior to the Ausf K were all equipped with dummy guns and powerful radios.
An Ausf H Panzer III, an evolved model of the G, only produced in 308 units, nearly all fitted with additional armoured plates bolted on the frontal glacis and rear. Russian front, group army north, operation barbarossa, september 1941. They had also, from the start, the 37mm KwK 36 gun. But quickly later models were equipped with the 50 mm L/42 and some were even retrofitted in 1942 with the high velocity, long barrel KwK-39 L/60, which gave this serie the much needed punch against soviet tanks.
The Ausf type J was a real step forward because of its new, slightly larger (5,41 to 5,52 in lenght) and redesigned hull, with increased armor up to 50mm at the front, rear and superstructure, as its 50 mm main gun KwK-38 L42 right from the start, with a new mantlet. The hull machine gun received a ball mounting and the visor was also new. This early Ausf J (482 built in 1941) fought with the Vth division in Kuban, Ukraine, march 1942. The short barrel 50mm or early versions were short lived, most were replaced by the long barrel (late) version. By 1943, only a handful has survived.
Although nearly all Panzer III were upgraded to the L42 gun, this medium barrel never gave satisfaction against the superior armour of the Russian KV-1 and thick sloped armour of the T-34. The introduction of the new gun dates back to the will of Hitler after the fall of France, but this weapon was in short numbers so that the Waffenamt posponed its use nearly one year and a half. The late J came with impatience by the depleted german Panzerdivisions, which had already lost most of their combat effectivness. The gun used also a longer ammunition, thus reducing their storage from 90 to 84. Most served until 1944.
An Ausf J late in Russia, group army south, First Panzerdivision, Stalingrad, December 1942.
Surviving Panzer III from Tunisia were quickly put in defence of Sicilia, like this one of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, put in action in the western sector.
Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf-K : In october 1941, it was decided to choose standard Panzer III-J to accomodate a new, smaller radio, to keep intact their main gun and their firepower, to the sacrifice of one ammunition rack. 300 of these Panzerbefehlswagen Ausf-J mit 5cm KwK L/42 command tanks were converted on the stocks and gradually introduced to the front in 1943. Since the L60 gun fielded by the Ausf L and M had a far better muzzle velocity, 50 of these upgunned type were to be chosen for the same task, and equipped with new long, medium and short range radio sets. The custom-built type K arrived in late 1942/early 1943, as copies of regular Ausf-M equipped with the FUG 6, 7 or 8 (Sd Kfz 267 and 268). Only 50 were built, most were given to SS Panzerdivisions fighting on the eastern front, like this one.
Panzer III Ausf L TP early production (1942), a transition model equipped with the Ausf J turret, equipped with the standard long barrel 50 mm Kwk38 L60, and specialized equipment for desert warfare (hence the name TP, "Tropisch"), essentially additional air filters and new cooling ratio. Facing mostly light Stuarts, Crusaders, and half-tracks, the late Panzer IIIs ruled the Tunisian battlefield despite inferior numbers. Their only valuable opponent was the M3 Lee/Grant, which was outclassed by the Ausf L.
Late production Ausf L, equipped with the very effective, but rare PAK-38 antitank gun. It proved lethal against most Russian tanks of the time, and performed well, like this example, which fought at Kursk, in july 1943. Notice the protective panels around the turret, to deal with the AP rifles of the Russian infantry.
Early built Ausf M of the third panzer regiment, IIth Panzerdivision at Kursk, july 1943. Notice the turret spaced armor. The Ausf M was an improvement of the previous M with an extra superstructure front and mantlet 20mm of armor and with a fording equipment exhaust which allowed deeper river crossings, already developed on the Tauchpanzer III. The gun however was the same. They had also three 90mm NbK dischargers mounted forward on both sides of the turret. A total of 1000 were ordered, but only 250 were completed, the others were either converted to Ausf N, StuGs, Flammpanzers, or simply dismantled.
A later built Ausf M, with turret spaced armor and side skirts (Schürzen). This became a common features for all Panzer III and IV in 1943, as a response to new AP shells used by the Russians and allies, as well as bazookas and antitank rifles. They also were fitted with a rotating mount around the commander cupola for an extra AA Mg 34 machine gun.
200 Ausf M were converted on the stocks by Wegmann at Kassel as Flammenwerfers, under the designation Ausf M(FI) or officialy Sd.Kfz 141/3. They were almost identical externally the the regular Ausf M, but with a 140mm Dummy gun, which also conceiled the flamethrower. They had also additional 30mm to 50mm armor plates welded on the frontal part of the hull and glacis, because their range was quite shorter (limited to 60m at best), hence exposing them to dangerous close fire. The two coaxial and hull Mgs were retained, but they carried also 1020 liters of inflammable oil into two tanks inside the hull. All this additional weight made them the slowest of all versions.
These tanks were often given to SS assault squads, like this one, fighing in Normandy in june 1944. Notice the zimmerit anti-magnetic paste and complex camouflage of this period, well adapted to the bocage.
Sturmpanzer III (Ausf N) early production:
Although previous attemps were made on the L to adapt the turret of the Panzer IV (and its gun, a much more effective long barrel, higher velocity 75mm KwK 37 L/24), only a later prototype prevailed, equipped with a new mantlet, accomodating the short barrel 75mm aready largely produced for the "short" versions, A to F, of the panzer IV. The early version had many differences with the late ones.
The late Panzer III Ausf N has many new features, like the reintroduction of the space armor (side skirts or Schürzen), a one piece commander cuploa hatch and side turret hatches, or even shared the one used in the PzKpfw IV Ausf G, and these were applied at the factory with Zimmerit. The Ausf N served as close protection vehicles for the Tigers bataillons (sPzAbt/sSSPzAbt), and in a close-support role in panzergrenadier divisions.
Although planned since the beginning of the thirties with the rejection of the Versailles treaty, the Panzer III was a medium tank project, destined to carry the bulk of the German armoured forces. However, in 1933, German industry was still unable to produce such tank, and the Panzer I and II were destined to improve industrial skills and methods as well as to train crews for the future medium tanks to come. Its real forefather was Heinz Guderian, a prolific writer and theorician about armoured warfare, which edicted an ideal design for the task of both dealing with other tanks and provide infantry support.
His plans were submitted to the the Inspector for Mechanized Troops about the main armament in 1934, under the name of Versuchkraftfahrzeug 619. It as not approved however by the Waffenamt (ordnance department), because of the choice of a 50 mm gun from the start. The ordnance department was indeed satisfied with the 37 mm Pak 36 from which large numbers were already in stock, because it was already the main infantry support gun, for easy ammunitions management and standardisation. This short views proved a major blunder which explained the numerous preseries (as for the quest of a suitable suspension) until 1940-41. The Panzer A to C proved underarmed and underarmored. After Guderian met Hitler in 1939 about his concerns, the 50mm upgrade was again put on the table before the Waffenamt, now supported by the country head of staff, but neverthess, the Waffenamt simply ignored the orders and reported the upgrade to the Ausf J in 1941...
Four companies (Daimler-Benz, Krupp, MAN, and Rheinmetall) were chosen to produce a prototype each, which were ready by 1936. The Daimler-Benz model was finally chosen after intensive trials, and the production of the first serie took place in 1937. The Daimler-Benz prototype incorporated a three seater turret, with an intercom system, which proved both very innovative features, the latter beeing well ahead of its time (the three man turret however was already tested by the Vickers Medium Tank Mk.I of the early twenties). Radio was also part of the equipment for the start, and the commander was directly informed by the platoon commander; coordination with other panzers was easier as well. At the same time 1937, most of the armoured forces in the world still used manoeuver signal flags, the sole radio-equipped vehicle was the commander tank. This feature alone was perfectly suited for blitzkrieg style combined-arms tactics, and allowed tactical superiority. Later on, all allied tanks design also came to the three-man turret configuration during ww2.
The preseries : Ausf A to D.
The first serie was the Ausf A, or "model A", which incorporated some external features which were almost unchanged until 1943. The first ten Ausf-A were early pre-production models, they served for tactical training, and two were even unarmed, serving uniquely for further testings. The Ausf A was the blueprint for other improved preseries, from the Ausf B to D. The E-F were the real large-scale production of the model, in 1939. Common features were the hull, turret, exhaust and engine, rear and front tractive wheels, and the Kwk 36, 37 mm light antitank gun, associated with a coaxial Mg.34 Mg, another one in the turret, and another one fixed in the hull. The engine was also the same, a V12 Diesel Maybach HL108 PS developing 250 bhp, associated with a 5 or 6 speed Zahnradfabrik gearbox. It has torque, was highly reliable, and gave a top speed of 32 km/h for a 150 km range (93 miles). The armour was also the same in general details, uniformally 15 mm on all sides, with 10 to the top and 5 on the bottom on the models A to C. This offered protection only againts infantry fire, and was explained by the initial specification objective of max 15 tons.
The major differences between these models were the suspension and tracks system. Many configurations were tried, each version beeing equipped with a new system : The Ausf A had individual coil springs, the Ausf B two sets of leaf springs, the Ausf C three sets of leaf springs and finally the Ausf D angled leaf springs. However, the final system was found with the Ausf E, with a Torsion-bar suspension system, the german solution beeing also tested on the heavy Soviet tank KV-1, and designed by Ferdinand Porsche. This configuration was seen much more advanced and practical than previous ones, and sticked to the next versions until the end of the production.
Standardization with the Ausf E.
The Ausf E came in 1939, and is often confounded with the Ausf F. In fact, both were engineered for mass production, the first one beeing almost identical to the second, the year of construction beeing usually taken for separation : 1939 for the Ausf E and 1940 for the F. Apart some minor external differences, the main change was the old KwK 36 L46/5 gun, which was replaced by the KwK 38 L42 on the Ausf F. However both versions, produced until the fall of 1940, incorporated the new 12-cylinder Maybach HL 120 TRM engine, previously adopted by the Ausf D. A total of 531 tanks were produced by Daimler-Benz (most of them beeing Ausf F), wich incorporated many parts used also in Krupp's Panzers IV. They served during most of the Whermacht campaigns, including Russia and Africa, were they were more suitable against British Tanks. Both armor and gun were a handicap against Soviet tanks, especially the T34, which was impregnable to the "door-knocker" even at short range...
Main wartime variants, Ausf G to J :
The Ausf G was still equipped with the feeble 37mm KwK 38. Apart the mantlet armour increase, they were almost no notable differences between this type and former Fs. 600 were built in all. Like the Ausf E, F, and the later J, they were all upgraded to a new standard 50 mm KwK 38 L42 gun, prior to operation barbarossa. This came after a long struggle with the waffenamt, and added the requisite firepower to such a medium tank. For the first time, the Ausf H (308 built), incorporated additional bolted armor, also much needed, to the frontal glacis, and the rear plates. These 30 mm plates made a total of 60 mm. However, sides were still 30 mm, and top 10 mm, while the bottom retained its "tin-plates" of only 5 mm. Clearly the weakest part of these tanks. The Top speed and range decrease in consequences of the additional weight. The Ausf I seems to have been never put in production. Records only speaks for the type J, a major upgrade produced in 1941 (482 units) which also seen an lenghtened hull and this time, an increased armor hull (50mm for the frontal glacis). However, the major upgrade came with the late type J at the fall of 1941, equipped this time by the new Kwk 39 L60, a longer 50 mm gun, much more effective against Russian tanks. This late type J was produced until mid-1942 to 1067, for a total of 1549, making it by far the largest variant of the Panzer III...
The late Panzer-III : Ausf K to N :
The Ausf K was a command version of the J, but at the difference of former Befehlspanzer versions, their armament was real. No more dummy guns were used. Production record is unknown. Development of the Ausf-L in early 1942 led to further increase in armor protection, additional 20 mm plates beeing fitted on the type J hull, the famous Schürzen spaced armoured skirts. With 70 mm, the new version was able to cope with many antitank guns of the time, and the low velocity guns of both T34 and Shermans. In all, 653 were built until the last quarter of 1942. They also saw service everywhere, and were generally considered with respect by enemy crews.
On the fall of 1942, new projects came to completely renew the German armoured forces. These were new generation tanks, the first of them beeing the Panther, closely followed by the Tiger, much closer to the modern idea of a perfect "main battle tank". Considered this, the Panzer III conceived in 1936, was seen as obsolete, at least in its antitank role. However Daimler Benz still found how to improve its old battle-hardened tank, with a deep-wading exhaust, for river crossing capabilities with the Ausf M (250 built until early 1943), and since the beginning, fitted with Schürzen (armoured skirts). In mid-1943 came the last, much improved version Ausf N with a short-barrel 75mm KwK 37 L/24 capable of firing, for the first time, HEAT projectiles. This tank was the perfect dual-purpose, versatile model, which inspired retrofittings in earlier versions. Since new specialized tank-hunters and heavy battle tanks were available, the Panzer III was increasingly confined in an infantry support role.
PzKpfw-III Variants :
Besides the famous StuG, or Sturmgeschütz III family (9500 built), based on its chassis, suspensions, tracks and engine, almost a dozen of specially modified versions were produced. This with the addition of 1024 Sturmhaubitze 42(StuH-42), made the Panzer III the most widely used of all axis tank basis ever.
One of the first was the Tauchpanzer III, an improvised "submarine version" designed for operation Sea Lion (invasion of Great Britain) in august 1940. Modifications included a complete waterproof hull, new exhaust, schnorchel-like tubes and periscope. The total number of these "dive panzers", designed to cross the channel under 20 feet of water, is reduced however to the few tested machines. The mass-conversion program never materialized however, as the invasion was postponed.
The Panzerbefehlswagen III, command tanks, were conversions of units picked in nearly all versions since the Ausf E (roughy one for twelve), and were caracterized by powerful radios and a new redesigned, roomier turret interior, helped by a dummy gun, as other features. Until the specialized Ausf K, this was often an issue in the heat of battle.
The Artillerie-Panzerbeobachtungswagen III was an advanced artillery observation model of which 262 were produced, which appeared on the Russian front in 1943.
The Sturm-Infanteriegeschütz 33B (or sIG-33B) was a 1941-42 conversion by Alkett of regular Panzer III into massive 150 mm gun carriages. They found themselves far more suited for this role than the earlier sIG33 based on the Panzer I Ausf B... However only 24 were produced.
The Flammpanzer III Ausf M(F1) was a comprehensive Ausf M-based flamethrower version, which 100 were derived and used mostly on the eastern front from 1942.
The Berganpanzer III or recovery tank was a late (1944) version affected to the eastern front to Tiger units. This tank was too precious to be lost if disabled...
Panzer III Operational History :
Invasion of Poland, september 1939:
The Panzer III remains famous in tank history, less for its prowess, but partly for its own advanced conception (despite beeing too lightly armed and protected in earlier versions), but above all because its own importance, as beeing associated with the first four years of successes of the German army and a concrete symbol of the blitzkrieg. The preseries, modified, Ausf A to D were engaged in combat, but most were E and F, alongside far numerous and lighter Panzer I and II, and a very few Panzer IV, into six panzerdivisions (2400 tanks in all). That was sufficient regarding speed only, in a combined arms system, because all serious opposition would have been wiped out by the Luftwaffe, these tanks were supposed to deal only with ill-prepared second-line infantry and convoys. Of course it was not the case, and if the 37mm was suficient against nearly all Polish tanks, their amour was certainly not impregnable to even basic antitank bullets and weaponry. These proven deadly : The Czech licence-built 47mm, Anti tank rifles "UR", The local-built Solothurn 20mm, in fixed positions and in TKD tankettes detachments, or the 7TP main gun, to speak only of these. Even the low velocity Renault FT and R35 37mm gun were effective at short range, in ambushes. But above all, the anti-aircraft Bofors 37mm, chiefly deployed as an AA defense, turned to be, in the heat of battle, lethal antitank weapons on their own. In all, the germans had more than 16 000 casualties, and lost 217 tanks (the official figure), but much more were disabled, and later repaired...
Norway: April-June 1940:
During the so called "phoney war", they were two major hotspots, in Scandinavia. To the east, Russia attacked Finland. The Panzer III played no part in it, but some local Finnish contacts gave some details to German agents about some of the latest Soviet tanks engaged in operations (those not engaged during the spanish civil war, like the KV1 and the BT-7...). The real deal was in Norway, were Operation Weserübung took place. Both allies and Germany competed to cut-or keep the raw iron supply lines, vital for the german war industry. A detachment of about 30 Panzer III C and D were sent there, camouflaged with maroon stripes. Most of the Panzer deployed there were smaller panzer I and II, sufficient as there was no real opposition from the Norwegian army, despite some antiquated antitank guns. Denmark, also quickly invaded, was no match for the Werhmacht, and the Panzer III never encountered some real opposition. In Norway, French and British expeditionary forces had almost no tank support, and the Luftwaffe once again, paid off. Also the landscape was totally different from the broad, flat plains of north-eastern Europe, not really adapted to rapid movements, and the Tanks were used chiefly as close infantry support, and retired early on.
War on the West: May-June 1940
In May, 9, Hell Broke loose for the west, after a long, idle waiting, during both sides built up their forces, with a clear advantage to the Germans. The French, despaired of the state of their air force in particular, rushed rearmament programs and bought quantities of modern Fighters and bombers from USA. However, French armoured forces, with the added weight of the well-trained and well-equipped BEF (British Expeditionary Forces) were more than a match for the Werhmacht. The first assault was conducted against Luxembourg, almost without opposition. Then, the small Belgian and Netherland armies were quickly overrun. The Belgian armoured forces were mostly made of small, light tanks, derivated from licence-built Vickers tankettes. Some french light tanks were bought, the most potent were a small batch of Renault AMC-35 equipped with medium-velocity, AP guns. Eben-Emael, the key of belgian defence, fell to glider and paratroopers commandos, allowing German armoured forces to rush towards the coast and the French border, facing a courageous, but weightless opposition. Netherland on the other hand, was ill-equipped. Its armoured forces comprised only 39 armoured cars and five tankettes. They had almost no antitank guns and weak aircraft support. Despite flooded lands and some improvised barrages and hopeless infantry opposition, the german advance was swift and brutal, and on the 14 of may, this was all over. Belgium, despite resolute opposition, capitulated on the 28 of may.
The battle of France
The French apparent much superior forces made the international press believe in confidence that once again, the allies will contain the german onslaught. Gamelin grand plans were unlikely focused on the northern sector defence, showed many weaknesses, not to mention poor or inexistant communication network and last minute neutrality of the low countries which prevented an early, efficient deployement in belgium. German generals with a traditional strategical views were not especially confident, however, of their own capabilities against the French, but the "blitzkrieg advocates" led by Guderian, think otherwise. They were the original brains behind Fall Gelb, case yellow, also called the "falx plan", a surprise attack through the thick Ardennes forest, the weakest point of the French defence. German armoured forces were instrumental in it, well served by a good road network and air superiority, early on. Panzer IIIs engaged there were all E, F and G armed with 37mm guns. Only a handful of 50mm armed Panzer IV were available, a few for each panzerdivision. Facing this, the allied armoured forces had better protected tanks, almost impregnable to all but AP rounds of the 37mm at short range. Two of them were even impregnable to all available German weapons but the 88mm : The French B1s and the British Matildas. During six weeks, the Panzer III prevailed by their own advantages : Excellent communication and coordination, well served by their three-man turret, flexible tactics, speed, and constant cover by the Luftwaffe. However, the Germans suffered 160 000 casulaties and 795 tanks were lost of all types, a significant number which highlighted also the weaknesses of the same panzer III : lack of penetrating power from their main KwK 36, and unsufficient protection.
War in Africa (1941-1943)
During almost a year, the third Reich, now master of all Europe, prepared for even more ambitious operations. War industry delivered new batches of improved Ausf G and H, and a major upgunning plan was on the move, with the new 50mm KwK-38 L42. 1941 was not a quiet year however. Since the fall of 1940, the disastrous Italian offensives in Greece and later in Egypt, led to a critical situation for th axis in Africa, and hitler, waging war against the British empire could not did afford to see their positions improved in the mediterranean theater. In January 1941, an expeditionary force led by the already famous gen. Erwin Rommel landed in Libya with provisions of Panzer III E, F and G which constituted the backbone of his forces. Against British tanks, besides the Matildas, they had some success, but proved easy targets for the famous six-pounder. They fough well in the desert, were their speed combined to the tactical genius of the "desert fox" proved invaluable. But constant losses and few replacements led to a growing mixed-equipped force, comprising many captured allied models, and the Panzer III might was gradually weakened in these operations. After El Alamein in June 1942, there was at least an eclipse for the Afrika korps, but the arrival of new forces under the command of gen. Kesselring in Tunisia in 1943, seems to bring new hope for the axis, confirmed by the arrival of a few Tigers and the new Panzer III Ausf L and M, all better armored and equipped with effective high velocity KwK-38 L60 guns. These, with cunning counterattacks, US impreparations and bad weather, ensuring most of these forces to hold on, then evacuate in Sicily, a prelude to a long and bloody defensive war in the so-called "soft underbelly of Europe" (dixit Sir W. Churchill).
In the Russian steppes (1941-1943)
Operation Barbarossa was a major undertaking, echoed Napoleon attempt, after his failure to land in Britain, to turn against Russia. Hitler was aware that the Soviets were a strong potential enemy, but also that the internal disorders of the regime would cause, in case of a quick offensive, a total collapse from the interior in a few weeks. The other motivation, in Hitler personal mythology, was to grab considerable lands for the "master race" (Lebensräum). In July 1941, a considerable effort was put in Germany war industry, and invasion forces were divided between three large armoured corps, north, center and south, equipped with many new panzerdivisions, in fact, made of splitted former units. Now, these forces counted a majority of Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs, still with many Panzer I and II as flanking and scouting units. All Panzer IIIs were now upgunned to the J standard, with a KwK 38 L42 50mm gun. They were all largely sufficient against tens of thousands of BT7 and T26 which constituted the bulk of the Russian armoured forces, but soon german crews discovered that both the KV1 and and the T34 proved immune, even at short range, to their fire. Later on, the northern offensive established itself around Leningrad. The central offensive, after weeks of struggle in the mud, freezed just miles from Moskow. The southern offensive was kept busy in Crimea. The following year, in 1942, a large Soviet counter-offensive repulsed the central army, and the southern army was mostly destroyed and captured at Stalingrad. Extremes of the Russian Weather bring considerable turmoil to the crews and support troops, showing that the Panzer III was not adapted to very low temperatures, or to the deep mud of Russian bad roads with its narrow tracks. All hopes to regain control were lost at Kursk in the summer of 1943, were many modernised Ausf J (with the L60 long barrel), and L and M equipped with added protection (Schürzen) faced overwhelming swarms of T34-76 and much improved T34-85.
The defensive war (1944-1945)
The last versions of the Panzer III, Ausf M and N, had improved protection, improved long barrel guns and longer AP ammunitions, which all were conceived to deal with the latest Russian tanks on the eastern front. They were used in successive defensive lines, facing overwhelming forces, until the fall of 1944. The L60 used by the Ausf L and M proved unsufficient, but the idea of adapting directly the panzer IV turret to the Panzer III chassis failed. However, Daimler-benz engineers succeed later to mount the 75mm high velocity gun on the N version, the very last of a long and famous lineage. Production ended in august 1943. By then, these versions were affected to the Heavy tank companies, which at full strength contained ten Panzer III Ausf Ns for nine Tigers. By then, older surviving Ausf J to M joined the Italian front, together with other veteran models, heavily modified Panzer III, some having fought on since 1941 in Africa... With the Panthers, these late Panzers III proved deadly against allied forces which in majority fielded Shermans. Long barrel, high muzzle velocity guns, combined with improved AP charges like tungsten rounds, good use of the rugged terrain and camouflage by hardened veterans, pinned down allied assaults in Italy until the end of 1944. 75mm equipped Ausf N proved there that they could wipe out entire units in ambushes.
A few, improved Ausf J to M fought in limited numbers in Normandy, but their movements were constrained to the night because of allied air supremacy. However, once again, a good use of the bocage proved that the Panzer III was still a match for any allied tank. At the end of 1944, the emphasis put on heavy tanks, Panzer III derivatives like the StuG, and Panzerjägers, meant that the regular Panzer III no more carried the bulk of the german armoured forces. They were spread into composite small defensive units. And as the production has stopped early on, their numbers decreased even more, and by fall of 1944, they were perhaps 80, still operational on the eastern front. By then, new generations of US, British and Soviet Tanks has nailed their coffin. This type has reached its limits because of a general conception dating back from the late thirties, its former advanced features now commonly used, and limitations of the caliber and ammunitions they could use. However, the Panzer III will remains iconic in the German military of WWII, as well as the Messerschmitt Bf109 and the versatile 88mm gun...
Legacy : Surviving panzer IIIs.
The last Panzer IIIs fought in the low countries (Market Garden), Northern Italy (Gothic line), and in eastern prussia. Perhaps a handful still operational were spread between desperately weakened companies in march-april 1945, like the Steiner Brigade, others were kept inactive in operational reserves in quiet sectors like in Norway or Holland, until the capitulation. The remaining were abandoned, disabled and captured. They ended in many museums throughout the world, like the US Army Ordnance museum, Bovington, Saumur, Deutsches Panzermuseum, among others. It is still possible today to find some wrecks in remote areas bceause of the sheer geographic scale of its affectations, including three continents, so that furher reconstitutions are still possible in the future. More informations and gallery of surviving Panzer IIIs.