Tanks encyclopedia is a project in the making, since late 2011. As an objective, every known and sourced tank, SPG or armoured car built since the very origins will be treated, with any sources available. So please don't ask for a specific model, all will be treated ultimately. Just be patient, and feel free to send us informations, pictures, or better, to participate in the project as a contributor/author and make things faster !
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A Panzer III Ausf.A, one of the very first delivered, in 1937. This one was part of the Polish campaign in September. Early versions were converted to command tanks or, as they were outnumbered by lighter models, Zugfuhrerwagen or platoon commanders.
A Panzer III Ausf.C, Poland, September 1939.
An early Panzer III Ausf.D, XIth 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 series. These were the testebds for the mass-production Ausf.E. This one was serving in Norway, near Lillehamer in February 1940. The ochre camouflage, applied directly on the usual feldgrau livery, was customary in operations.
A Panzer III Ausf.E. This was the first actual production series, redesigned for mass production, built by Daimler-Benz, Henschel and MAN from October 1939. Only 96 were manufactured, but its features endured until the last version. It had a shortened hull, brand new independent torsion bar suspension (by Porsche), six roadwheels and three return rollers, increased armor up to 30 mm (1.18 in), side hull escape hatches, 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 delivered 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 had been redesigned for mass production.
The Ausf.F was a close sibling of the E, and it remained almost unmodified. It was produced by no less than five manufacturers, including Daimler-Benz, Alkett, MAN, Henschel, and FAMO. It had modified air intakes and a new improved Maybach 120 TRM engine. External modifications included smoke generator mounted on the rear, controlled from the turret, and sometimes a stowage box at the rear of the turret, which became a trademark of later versions.
At last, the new 50 mm (1.97 in) KwK 38 L/42, capable of dealing with most French medium and British BEF tanks, was fitted in a rush on a hundred Ausf.F, to be ready for the western campaign. The first ready were shipped to France to see the last days of fighting of June 1940, like this one.
The Ausf.G crystallized many improvements learnt from the campaign in Poland. They were built in 1940-1941. Too late for the western campaign, they became the spearhead of the German offensive in the Balkans (Balkanfeldzug), Yugoslavia and Greece, in April-May 1941. This one is an early production Ausf.G, from the Xth Division, without turret basket and with the original 37 mm (1.46 in) KwK 38 gun. Against light FT 17s and Hotchkiss H35s tanks of the Yugoslavian 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, most of which were Ausf.Fs and upgunned Ausf.Gs. Since there were few replacements prior to the Tunisian campaign, Rommel could only count on limited provisions of Ausf.Gs and Js during the whole African campaign, from 1941 to early 1943.
Prior to the Russian campaign, almost all vehicles had been retrofitted with the new, more efficient KwK 38 L/42 50 mm (1.97 in) 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.Gs received an improved commander cupola and new enlarged tracks, better suited to the Eastern front.
A Befehlspanzer Ausf.G-H, transition model equipped with the new set of drive and idler wheels, new tracks, and some tropicalized features. The Befehlspanzers prior to the Ausf.K were all equipped with dummy guns and powerful radios.
A Panzer III Ausf.H, an evolved model of the G, only produced in 308 units, nearly all fitted with additional armored plates bolted on the frontal glacis and rear. Russian front, Group Army North, operation Barbarossa, September 1941. They also originally mounted the 37 mm (1.46 in) KwK 36 gun. But later, they were equipped with the 50 mm (1.97 in) L/42, and some were even retrofitted in 1942 with the high velocity, long barrel KwK 39 L/60. This gun gave the series the much needed punch against Soviet tanks.
The Ausf.J was a real step forward because of its new, slightly larger and redesigned hull, with increased armor up to 50 mm (1.97 in) at the front, and the J1 variants received the 50 mm (1.97 in) KwK 38 L42 gun right from the start, with a new mantlet. The hull machine gun received a ball mount 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 50 mm (1.97 in) was replaced by the long barrel version. By 1943, only a handful had survived.
Although nearly all Panzer IIIs were upgraded with the L42 gun, this medium barrel never gave satisfaction against the superior Armour of the Russian KV-1 and thick sloped armor of the T-34. The introduction of the new gun emerged from to the will of Hitler after the fall of France, but this weapon was available in short numbers, so the Waffenamt postponed its use nearly one year and a half. The late J came just in time to the depleted German Panzerdivisions, which had already lost most of their combat effectiveness. The gun also used longer ammunition, thus reducing their storage from 90 to 84. Most served until 1944.
A late Ausf.J in Russia, Group Army South, First Panzerdivision, Stalingrad, December 1942.
Surviving Panzer IIIs from Tunisia were quickly put in defense of Sicily, like this one of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, used in the western sector.
In October 1941, it was decided to use the standard Panzer III Ausf.J to accommodate a new, smaller radio, without giving up their main gun and firepower, but sacrificing one ammunition rack. 300 of these Panzerbefehlswagen Ausf.K mit 5cm KwK L/42 command tanks were converted and gradually introduced on 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 Ausf.K arrived in late 1942/early 1943. Most were given to SS Panzerdivisions fighting on the Eastern front, like this one.
Panzer III Ausf.L TP early production vehicle (1942), a transition model equipped with the Ausf.J turret, the standard long barrel 50 mm (1.97 in) KwK 38 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.
A prototype based on the Ausf L, in a fictional livery, equipped with the very effective Pak 38 antitank gun. It would have proved lethal against most Russian tanks of the time. Notice the protective panels around the turret, to deal with the AP rifles of the Russian infantry.
Early production Ausf.M of the 3rd Panzer Regiment, IInd Panzerdivision at Kursk, July 1943. Notice the turret spaced armor. The Ausf.M was an improvement of the previous J, with extra superstructure front and mantlet 20 mm (0.79 in) 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 also had three 90 mm (3.54 in) NbK smoke dischargers mounted on both sides of the turret. A total of 1000 were ordered, but only 250 were completed. The others were either converted to Ausf.Ns, StuGs, Flammpanzers, or simply dismantled.
A late built Ausf.M, with turret spaced armor and side skirts (Schürzen). These became common features for all Panzer IIIs and IVs by 1943, as a response to the anti-tank rifles used by the Russians and Allies. They also were fitted with a rotating mount around the commander cupola, for an extra AA MG 34 machine gun.
200 Ausf.Ms were converted, by Wegmann at Kassel, as Flammenwerfers, under the designation Ausf.M(FI) or, officially, Sd.Kfz. 141/3. They were almost identical externally to the regular Ausf.M, but with a 140 mm (5.51 in) dummy gun, which concealed the flamethrower. They had additional 30 mm (1.18 in) to 50 mm (1.97 in) armor plates welded on the frontal part of the hull and glacis, because their range was quite short (limited to 60 m/200 ft at best), hence exposing them to dangerous close fire. The two coaxial and hull machine-guns were retained, but they also carried 1020 liters of inflammable oil in 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, fighting 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 vehicle.
Previous attempts were made on the Ausf.L to adapt the turret of the Panzer IV and its gun, but they failed. Later, Daimler-Benz succeeded in equipping the Panzer III turret with a new mantlet, accommodating the short barrel 75 mm (2.95 in) already largely produced for the early versions of the Panzer IV. The early version had many differences compared to the late ones.
The late Panzer III Ausf.N had many new features, like the reintroduction of the space armor (side skirts or Schürzen), a one piece commander cupola hatch and side turret hatches and received Zimmerit from the factory. The Ausf.N served as close protection vehicles for the Tigers battalions (sPzAbt/sSSPzAbt), and in a close-support role in Panzergrenadier divisions.
History of the Panzer III video
Nazi Germany (1937) Medium tank - 5774 built
1936, the first German medium tank
Planned since the beginning of the thirties, with the rejection of the Versailles treaty, the Panzer III was a medium tank project, destined to comprise the bulk of the German armored forces. However, by 1933, German industry was still unable to produce such a tank, and the Panzer I and II were intended to improve industrial skills and methods, as well as to train crews for the future medium tanks to come. The Panzer III's godfather was Heinz Guderian, a prolific armored warfare writer and theoretician, who envisioned an ideal design for the task of both dealing with other tanks and providing infantry support.
His plans were submitted to the the Inspector for Mechanized Troops in 1934, under the name of Versuchkraftfahrzeug 619. However, it as not approved by the Waffenamt (ordnance department), because of the choice of a 50 mm (1.97 in) gun. The ordnance department was indeed satisfied with the 37 mm (1.46 in) Pak 36, of which large numbers were already in stock. It was already the main infantry support gun, allowing easy ammunition management and standardization. This short-sighted view proved a major blunder. Numerous pre-series versions appeared, in the quest of a suitable suspension. The Panzer Ausf. A to C proved underarmed and underarmored. After Guderian met Hitler in 1939 about his concerns, the 50 mm (1.97 in) upgrade was again put on the table before the Waffenamt, now supported by the Führer. Nevertheless, the Waffenamt simply ignored the orders and delayed the upgrade until the Ausf. J appeared 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 series took place in 1937. The Daimler-Benz prototype incorporated a three seat turret, with an intercom system. Both proved very innovative features, the latter being well ahead of its time. Radio was also part of the equipment from the start, and the commander was directly informed by the platoon commander, also easing coordination with other Panzers. At the same time, most of the armored forces in the world used maneuver signal flags, the sole radio-equipped vehicles being the commander tanks. This feature alone was perfectly suited for Blitzkrieg style combined-arms tactics, and allowed tactical superiority. Later on, Allied tank designs also adopted the three-man turret configuration.
The pre-series: Ausf.A to D
The first serie was the Ausf.A, or "model A", which incorporated some external features which were left almost unchanged until 1943. These first ten vehicles were early pre-production models. They served for tactical training, and two were even unarmed, serving uniquely for further testing. The Ausf.A was the blueprint for the other pre-series, from the Ausf.B to D. The Ausf.E and F were the first real large-scale production series of the model, entering service in 1939. Common features between these and the pre-series were the hull, turret, exhaust and engine, idler and drive sprocket and the 37 mm (1.46 in) Kwk 36 light antitank gun, with two coaxial MG 34s and another one fixed in the hull. The engine was also the same, a V12 gasoline Maybach HL108 PS developing 250 bhp, coupled to a 5 or 6 speed Zahnradfabrik gearbox. It had torque, was highly reliable and gave a top speed of 32 km/h (20 mph) and a 150 km range (93 miles). The pre-series vehicles had uniformly distributed 15 mm (0.59 in) of armor, except for the top (10 mm/0.39 in) and the bottom (5 mm/0.2 in). This offered protection only against infantry fire, and was explained by the initial weight objective of maximum 15 tons.
The major differences between these models were the suspension and track systems. Many configurations were tried, each version being equipped with a new system. The Ausf.A had individual coil springs, the Ausf.B had two sets of leaf springs, the Ausf.C had three sets of leaf springs and, finally, the Ausf.D had angled leaf springs. However, the preferred system was found on the Ausf.E, with a torsion-bar suspension system. This German solution was 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 stuck with 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, being almost identical. The year of construction is usually taken as the distinguishing feature, 1939 for the Ausf. E and 1940 for the F. Apart from 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, incorporating many parts also used in Krupp's Panzer IVs. They served during most of the Wehrmacht campaigns, including Russia and Africa, were they were found suitable against British tanks. Both the armor and gun were a handicap against Soviet tanks, especially the T-34, which was impregnable to the "door-knocker", even at short ranges.
Main wartime variants, Ausf. G to J
The Ausf. G was still equipped with the feeble 37 mm (1.46 in) KwK 38. Apart from the mantlet armor increase, there were almost no notable differences between this type and former Fs. 600 were built in all. Like the Ausf. E, F and the later H and J, they were all upgraded with a new 50 mm (1.97 in) 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 much-needed additional bolted armor on the frontal glacis, and the rear plates. These 30 mm (1.18 in) plates led to a total of 60 mm (2.36 in) of frontal protection. However, the sides were still 30 mm (1.18 in) thick, with the top measuring 10 mm (0.39 in) and the bottom only 5 mm (0.2 in), clearly the weakest part of these tanks. The top speed and range decreased because of the additional weight. The Ausf. I was never put in production. The next version, the Ausf.J, was a major upgrade produced in 1941 (482 units), with a lengthened hull and increased armor hull, 50 mm (1.97 in) for the frontal glacis. However, it was the late Ausf.J1 that was first equipped with the new KwK 39 L60, much more effective against Russian tanks. This late version was produced until mid-1942 in 1067 units, giving a total production for the Ausf.J of 1549, by far the most numerous variant of the Panzer III.
The late Panzer IIIs: Ausf.K to N
The Ausf.K was a command version of the J, but different from the former Befehlspanzer versions, as their armament was real. No more dummy guns were used. Production record is unknown. The Ausf.L of early 1942 was the designation of Ausf.J tanks reequipped with the 50 mm (1.97 in) gun and receiving a further increase in armor protection, additional 20 mm (0.78 in) plates being fitted to the Ausf.J hull. With a total of 70 mm (2.76 in), the new version was able to cope with many antitank guns of the time, including the low velocity guns of both the early T-34 and Shermans. In all, 653 were converted until the last quarter of 1942. They served on all fronts, and were generally considered with respect by enemy crews.
During the fall of 1942, new projects came to completely renew the German armored forces. These were a new generation tanks, the first of them being the Tiger, followed closely by the Panther, much closer to the modern idea of a perfect "main battle tank". Considering this, the 1936 Panzer III was seen as obsolete, at least in its antitank role. However, Daimler Benz still found a way how to improve its old battle-hardened tank, They mounted a deep-wading exhaust, for river crossing capabilities on the Ausf. M (250 built until early 1943), and since the beginning, fitted with Schürzen (armored skirts). In mid-1943 came the last version, the Ausf. N, with a short-barrel 75 mm (2.95 in) KwK 37 L/24 gun capable of firing, for the first time, HEAT projectiles. This tank was the perfect dual-purpose, versatile model, which inspired retrofitting of in earlier versions. Since new specialized tank-hunters and heavy battle tanks were available, the Panzer III was increasingly confined to an infantry support role.
Besides the famous StuG, or Sturmgeschütz III, family (9500 built) based on the Panzer III chassis, suspensions, tracks and engine, almost a dozen specially modified versions were produced. Adding the 1024 Sturmhaubitze 42 (StuH 42), the Panzer III was by far the most widely used of all Axis chassis.
One of the first derivatives 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 (6 m) of water, amounted to just a few tested machines. The mass-conversion program never materialized, as the invasion was postponed.
The Panzerbefehlswagen III command tanks were converted from all versions after the Ausf. E (roughly one for twelve), and were characterized by powerful radios and a new redesigned, roomier turret interior. They had a dummy gun until the specialized Ausf.K, and 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, appearing on the Russian front in 1943.
The Sturm-Infanteriegeschütz 33B (or sIG-33B) was a 1941-42 conversion of regular Panzer III, done by Alkett, into self-propelled chassis for the massive 150 mm (5.9 in) field gun. They found themselves far more suited for this role than the earlier sIG-33s based on the Panzer I Ausf B. However, only 24 were produced.
The Flammpanzer III Ausf M(F1) was an Ausf.M-based flamethrower version, of which 100 were derived and used mostly on the Eastern Front, starting from 1942.
The Berganpanzer III recovery tank was a late (1944) version affected to the Eastern Front, mostly to Tiger units.
Panzer III operational history
Invasion of Poland, September 1939
The Panzer III remains famous in tank history, less for its prowess, partly for its own advanced conception, despite being too lightly armed and protected in its early versions, but above all because it is associated with the first four years of successes of the German army. It remains, to this day, a symbol of the Blitzkrieg. In Poland, the Ausf.A to D pre-series were engaged in combat, but the burden fell mostly to the Ausf.E and F, alongside the numerous and lighter Panzer I and II, and a very few Panzer IVs, all split into six Panzerdivisions, with 2400 tanks in all. Because most serious opposition should 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 37 mm (1.46 in) was sufficient against nearly all Polish tanks, their amour was certainly not impregnable to even basic antitank bullets and weaponry, and these proved deadly. The Czech licence-built 47 mm (1.85 in) gun, the UR anti tank rifles, the local-built Solothurn 20 mm (0.79 in) in fixed positions or on TKD tankettes, or the 7TP main gun, all knocked out Panzer IIIs during the conflict. Even the low velocity Renault FT and R35 37 mm (1.46 in) gun was effective at short range, in ambushes. But, above all, the anti-aircraft Bofors 37 mm (1.46 in), chiefly deployed as AA defense, turned to be, in the heat of battle, a lethal antitank weapon on its own. In all, the Germans had more than 16,000 casualties, and lost 217 tanks (the official figure), but many more were disabled and later repaired.
Norway: April-June 1940
During the so called "phoney war", there were two major hotspots, in Scandinavia. To the east, Russia attacked Finland. The Panzer III played no part in it, but some Finnish contacts gave some details to German agents about some of the latest Soviet tanks engaged in operations. 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 Ausf.C and Ds were sent there, camouflaged with maroon stripes. Most of the Panzers deployed there were smaller Panzer I and II. These were 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 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 movement, and the tanks were used chiefly as close infantry support, and retired early on.
War on the West: May-June 1940
On May, 9, hell broke loose for the west, after a long, idle waiting, during whch 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 the USA. However, the French armored forces, with the added weight of the well-trained and well-equipped BEF (British Expeditionary Forces), were more than a match for the Wehrmacht. The first assault was conducted against Luxembourg, almost without opposition. Then, the small Belgian and Dutch armies were quickly overrun. The Belgian armored forces mostly consisted of small, light tanks, derived from licence-built Vickers tankettes. Some French light tanks had been bought, the most potent of which were a small batch of Renault AMC-35s equipped with medium-velocity, AP guns. Eben-Emael, the key of the Belgian defense, fell to glider and paratrooper commandos, allowing German armored forces to rush towards the coast and the French border. They faced a courageous, but weightless opposition. The Netherlands, on the other hand, was ill-equipped. Its armored forces comprised of only 39 armored 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 14th of May, this was all over. Belgium, despite resolute opposition, capitulated on the 28th of May.
The battle of France
The French apparently superior forces made the international press have confidence once again that the Allies will contain the German onslaught. Gamelin's grand plans were unlikely focused on the northern sector defense, showed many weaknesses, of which we should mention the poor or existent communication network and the last minute neutrality of the Low Countries, which prevented an early, efficient deployment in Belgium. The German generals with traditional strategical views were not especially confident of the country's capabilities against the French, but the "Blitzkrieg advocates" led by Guderian, thought 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 defense. German armored forces were instrumental in it, well served by a good road network and air superiority. Panzer IIIs engaged there were all Ausf.E, F and Gs armed with 37 mm (1.46 in) guns. Only a handful of 75 mm (2.95 in) armed Panzer IVs were available, a few for each Panzerdivision. Facing this, the Allied armored forces had better protected tanks, almost impregnable except at short range. Two of them were impregnable to all available German weapons except the 88 mm (3.46 in). These were the French B1 and the British Matilda. During the six weeks of fighting, the Panzer III prevailed through its own qualities. They benefited from 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 casualties and 795 tanks were lost of all types, a significant number which highlighted the weaknesses of the same Panzer III, namely the lack of penetrating power of their main KwK 36, and insufficient protection.
War in Africa (1941-1943)
During almost a year, the Third Reich, now master of all of Europe, prepared for even more ambitious operations. The war industry delivered new batches of improved Ausf.G and H, and a major upgunning plan was on the move, with the new 50 mm (1.97 in) KwK 38 L42. 1941 was, however, not a quiet year. Since the fall of 1940, the disastrous Italian offensives in Greece and later in Egypt, led to a critical situation for the Axis in Africa. Hitler, waging war against the British Empire, could not afford to see their positions threatened 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 Ausf.F and Gs, which constituted the backbone of his forces. Against the British tanks, besides the Matildas, they had some success, but proved easy targets for the famous six-pounder. They fought well in the desert, were their speed, combined with 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, the Afrika Korps was in a dangerous position, but the arrival of new forces under the command of gen. Kesselring in Tunisia in 1943, seemed to bring new hope for the Axis. Alongside came a few Tigers and the new Panzer III Ausf.L and M, better armored and equipped, with an effective high velocity KwK 38 L60 gun. These, along with cunning counterattacks, US bad preparation and bad weather ensured most of the Axis forces held on, then evacuated to Sicily, a prelude to a long and bloody defensive war in the so-called "soft underbelly of Europe" (Sir W. Churchill).
In the Russian steppes (1941-1943)
Operation Barbarossa was a major undertaking and echoed Napoleon attempt, after his failure to land in Britain, to turn against Russia. Hitler was aware that the Soviets were a strong enemy, but also that the internal disorders of the regime would cause, in case of a quick offensive, a total collapse from the interior. The other motivation, in Hitler's personal mythology, was to grab considerable lands for the "master race" (Lebensräum). In July 1941, a considerable effort was made by the Germany war industry, and invasion forces were divided between three large armored corps, North, Center and South. These consisted of many new Panzerdivisions, in fact, made from split former units. These forces mostly counted on Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs, with many Panzer I and IIs in flanking and scouting units. All Panzer IIIs were now upgunned to the J1 standard, with a KwK 38 L42 50 mm (1.97 in) gun. This gun was sufficient against the tens of thousands of BT-7s and T-26s which constituted the bulk of the Russian armored forces. However, the German crews son discovered that both the KV-1 and and the T-34 were immune to their weaponry, even at short range. Later on, the northern offensive ground to a halt around Leningrad. The central offensive, after weeks of struggle in the mud, froze just miles from Moscow. The southern offensive was kept busy in Crimea. The following year, in 1942, a large Soviet counter-offensive repulsed the Center Army Group, and the southern army was mostly destroyed and captured at Stalingrad. The extremes of the Russian weather brought 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 the Russian bad roads. All hopes to regain control were lost at Kursk in the summer of 1943, were many modernized Ausf.Js (with the L60 long barrel), Ls and Ms, equipped with added protection (Schürzen), faced overwhelming swarms of T-34/76s.
The defensive war (1944-1945)
The last versions of the Panzer III, Ausf.M and N, had improved protection, better guns and AP ammunition, which 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 insufficient, but the idea of adapting directly the Panzer IV turret to the Panzer III chassis failed. However, Daimler-Benz engineers succeed in mounting the 75 mm (2.95 in) low 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 heavy tank companies, which at full strength contained ten Panzer III Ausf.Ns for nine Tigers. By then, older surviving Ausf.J to M tanks joined the Italian front, together with other veteran models, some having fought on since 1941 in Africa. The 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.
A few, improved Ausf.J to M fought in limited numbers in Normandy, but their movements were constrained because of Allied air supremacy. However, once again, a good use of the bocage proved that the Panzer III was still a match for most Allied tanks. By the end of 1944 the regular Panzer III were no longer the bulk of the German armored forces. They were spread into composite small defensive units. And as the production had stopped earlier, 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 yanks had nailed their coffin. This type had reached its limits, its former advanced features were now commonly used, and no further up-gunning was possible . However, the Panzer III will remain iconic in the German military of WWII, along with the Messerschmidt Bf-109 and the versatile 88 mm (3.46 in) gun.
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 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 and the Deutsches Panzermuseum, among others. It is still possible today to find some wrecks in remote areas, because of the sheer geographic scale of its deployment, including three continents. More information and a gallery of surviving Panzer IIIs.