German industry created three armoured vehicles during WWII that had a significant effect on tank building worldwide. The appearance of the Tiger made Allied tanks obsolete. The few Ferdinand SPGs that were built introduced serious changes into the Soviet tank program. The third tank was the Panther, and its influence was comparable to that of the Tiger.
The tank was a quite unpleasant surprise for the Red Army and its allies when it made its debut at Kursk. Despite its deficiencies, the Panther is a good candidate for the best German tank of the war. The Panther was superior to the Tiger in terms of armament and frontal protection, and was made in significantly higher numbers. Many tank designers were looking at the Panther when they were making the next generation of medium and heavy tanks.
Debut on the southern flank
The Pz.Kpfw. Panther Ausf.D was Germany's answer to the T-34. Its production began in January of 1943. However, development began long before the T-34 was encountered, back in 1938.
The mass of the tank that was to replace the PzIII kept growing. Initially, it was slotted into the 20 ton weight class. In the fall of 1941, much to the protest of Reichsminister of Armament Todt, the limit was raised to 30 tons. However, the struggle was futile: in March of 1942, when the VK 30.02(D) and VK30.02(MAN) projects were reviewed, the Panther's weight limit was set at 35 tons. When built in metal, MAN's prototype was even heavier than that.
Due to the changing requirements for protection of the front of the hull and turret, the mass of the new tank was estimated to be 43.4 tons by December of 1942. In practice, the combat mass of the. Panther Ausf.G was 44.8 tons, at the level of heavy tanks. The Panther ended up being twice as heavy as the PzIII.
The increase in mass without a revision to the suspension and drive train did not go unpunished. MAN created a progressive tank, but it had a large spectrum of design flaws. This was because of the ever-growing requirements for protection. The Panther's chassis had completely exhausted any reserve for modernization before it even entered production. This did not seem like a problem in early 1943, but later it turned out that the Panther's chassis could not bear an increase in protection or firepower.
The overloaded chassis had a significant effect on reliability. Frequent breakdowns were a headache for German engineers and tankers. Reliability reached an acceptable level by the fall of 1943, but issues cropped up after that as well.
The Panther's debut took place on the southern flank of the Kursk salient. The Panther's issues with reliability combined with the Red Army's well organized defenses. At the start of the German offensive, the 10th Tank Brigade had 200 Panther Ausf.D tanks. By 8 am on July 5th, 16 had broken down. After two days of fighting, less than a quarter were still running. By the evening of July 7th there were only 7 combat ready tanks in the brigade. In later fighting the number of functional Panthers was between 25 and 45 units.
The heavy losses were in part due to improper use of the tank. The Panther had a very tough front, but the sides were no problem at all for 76 mm guns or higher. The Panthers took heavy losses from flanking fire. There were cases of Panthers being knocked out by even lighter weapons. In one of the battles in the evening of July 5th, a group of 7 Lend Lease M3 light tanks managed to knock out 5 Panthers, losing only 2 of their own. Many new tanks were lost for technical reasons. The engine and suspension were the weakest links. By July 21st, out of 200 tanks the 10th Tank Brigade initially had, 41 were capable of battle. 85 were in need of repairs, 16 were shipped back to the factory, and 58 were lost irreparably.
Panthers managed to deal serious damage to the 1st Tank Army of Lieutenant General M.E. Katukov. The widespread damage to the suspensions of German tanks is largely due to the work of Soviet sappers. It's hard to call the Panthers' debut a failure. Despite their unfinished state, the Panther proved that it can deliver a powerful blow to the enemy in favourable conditions.
A medium tank with the mass of a heavy
Soviet intelligence learned that the Germans were receiving a new tank in May of 1943. However, the initial information was vague. One of the intelligence summaries for May of 1943 mentions:
«…a super-powerful «Panda-S» type tank with a high speed and more powerful armour and armament than the Tiger»
The first more or less legitimate information on the Panther was obtained from the British on July 9th, 1943, when the Battle of Kursk was already underway. However, it arrived before information about the Panthers came in from the front lines. Even in the summary composed on July 20th, 1943, the Ferdinand is already present, but not the Panther.
Study of German tanks used in Operation Citadel began on July 20th, only a week after the Red Army's counteroffensive. Out of 31 Panthers that were examined, 22 were knocked out. All of them were penetrated in the side or rear armour. No penetrations of the front were discovered, which was unfortunate news. A captured tank with the turret number 441 was shot up right on the battlefield. The result was the same: the 76 mm F-34 gun could not penetrate the front armour.
Soviet documents called the Panther a heavy tank from the very beginning, due to its high mass. The British also classified the Panther as heavy. One of the captured Panthers (turret number 433) was sent to them.
At least two entirely intact vehicles were sent to trials: #824 and #732. Three more tanks that were knocked out, R01 (a commander's tank), 445, and 535, were used for penetration trials. At least two more tanks (#521 and #745) were sent to an exhibition of trophies in the Culture and Leisure Park in Moscow. Tank factories also received captured Panthers.
Tank #824 was used for mobility trials. The same vehicle was studied at the NIBT proving grounds after August of 1943. The tank was captured on July 17th near Novoselovka village by tankers of the 3rd Mechanized Corps, commanded by Major General S.M. Krivoshein. The tank's odometer read 452 km travelled, not an insignificant distance for such an unreliable tank.
It turns out that the captured vehicle could operate on Soviet B-70 gasoline. Mobility trials began on August 8th and finished on October 5th, 1943. Over this time, the tank travelled 58 km on a highway and 162 km on dirt roads. Its engine ran for 13.9 hours. Such a small amount of driving is explained by the tank's low reliability. The tank had to be towed back to the proving grounds thrice, which took up another 36 km. All this while the tank was driving in dry weather and without ammunition.
The testers managed to accelerate the tank to 50 kph. They remarked on the good maneuverability and fortunate design of the planetary turning mechanism with a servo drive. Average speed on a highway was 35 kph. Issues arose when driving on dirt roads, where the tank broke often. Because of this, the average moving speed was 15.8 kph, but the average technical speed was 11.4 kph.
12 breakdowns occurred during the trials. The least reliable component was the engine, which was deemed unfinished. The Germans themselves admitted this drawback. Guderian, the general inspector of the German tank forces, admitted that the Panther's engine only became capable of driving for 1000 km in the fall of 1943. Soviet testers deemed the Panther less reliable than the PzIII or PzIV.
The NIBT proving grounds staff classified the tank has heavy, and therefore compared it to the heavy IS-2 tank. The mass of the IS-2 was greater than the Panther's by one ton. It surpassed the Panther in size only in total length. The length of the hull, however, was 130 mm longer than the IS-2, it was also 360 mm wider and 180 mm taller. The ground pressure of the German tank was higher.
The German tank surpassed the IS-2 in power to weight ratio, but there was a downsize. The Panther required 595 L per 100 km to drive on a dirt road, while even on a snow covered dirt road the IS-2 required only 440 L per 100 km.
Testers mentioned that there was not a significant difference in speed between the IS-2 and Panther. German documents confirm this. The claimed average speed of the Panther while driving on dirt roads is 20 kph, while the IS-2's was 18 kph. The difference was more obvious on the highway. The IS-2 had an average speed of 27 kph, 8 kph lower than the German tank's.
The 75 mm KwK 42 L/70 received high praise at the proving grounds. A muzzle velocity of 1000 m/s made it dangerous for even the IS-2. Practice showed that it was even more dangerous than the 88 mm KwK 36 gun used on the Tiger. The Panther also had a subcaliber armour piercing shell with high penetration. Testers expected German subcaliber ammunition to be effective at 500-600 meters in older guns, but in the Panther it remained useful out to 2 kilometers. Due to good placement of aiming mechanisms, good sight, and electric firing mechanism, the rate of fire of the Panther reached 6-8 RPM.
Testers evaluated the gunner's seat highly, as it allowed him to work normally. However, he only had the telescopic sight to look through, and had to rely on the commander's orders when shifting fire. The commander did not fare as well. On one hand, he had a cupola, which permitted him all-round vision. On the other hand, the visibility was worse than from the PzIII. The greatest increase in dead zones was in the front and to the right, to 16-18 meters. The commander's station became cramped, which limited his movement. In practice, he could not nothing but observe the battlefield and direct the crew.
The loader was even less lucky. He had no observation devices at all. The gun could only quickly be reloaded from the ready racks. One of them fit 3 rounds and was placed behind the loader. A second 3 round rack was installed on the floor of the fighting compartment. The third, fitting 18 rounds, was in the sponson. Significant issues arose when using any other ammunition racks. The main racks, located along the perimeter of the fighting compartment and in the sponsons, were only accessible if the turret was turned in a certain way. Some of the ammunition was only accessible with the aid of other crew members.
In general, the fighting compartment was worse than on the PzIII. The turret was bigger than on the PzIII, but was very narrow, and had to fit in a sizeable turret basket and much larger gun. The tank ended up significantly larger than its predecessor, but more cramped.
The visibility suffered as well. Only the commander could observe the battlefield properly, the gunner and loader didn't even have vision slits. The tank was inferior in visibility, significantly so, to even Soviet vehicles. This explains the many case where Panthers were knocked out from the flanks. Instead of three pairs of eyes, only one could observe the battlefield.
The suspension received a high grade. Testers pointed out the good design of suspension elements, which, in their opinion, were well laid out. The centralized lubrication system was pointed out as desirable on domestic designs. The torsion bar suspension with two parallel torsion bars per road wheel was also commended. According to the testers, this kind of suspension provided for smooth travel, providing the torsion bars were tough enough.
The Panther received a high overall grade. Soviet testers considered the vehicle a tank destroyer, capable of fighting armoured targets from long distances. There were good reasons for this evaluation: good frontal protection and the location of observation devices. The power to weight ratio, smooth suspension, and powerful armament were listed as advantages of the tank.
Tendency to ricochet
Soviet specialists paid close attention to the design of the German tank's hull. The thickness and slope of the armour plates set it apart from its predecessors. Even though the Panther's layout was significantly different from that of the T-34, it was clear that the Soviet medium tank was an inspiration.
Due to the placement of the transmission in the front of the hull, it ended up long and tall. The hull was 20 cm taller and a meter longer than on the T-34.
The front of tanks was better protected than their sides and rear almost since the inception of tanks. By 1941, the increase in the thickness of side armour on German tanks stopped. The standard was 30 mm. On the PzIII the front armour was 50 mm thick by this point, while the PzIV had 80 mm by the fall of 1942. Meanwhile the thickness of the turret armour was still only 50 mm.
The new German tank had a much greater difference in protection. The upper front plate was 80 mm thick, the lower was 60 mm thick, both at an angle of 35 degrees. This radically increased the protection of the hull. The thickness of the sides grew insignificantly to 40 mm. They were now placed at an angle of 50 degrees. Theoretically, this offered protection from Soviet 45 mm guns. However, production of 45 mm guns with a 69 caliber barrel began in 1942. Allied anti-tank gunners chiefly used 57-76 mm guns, which did not have any issues with armour of this thickness, even at an angle.
The joints used in production of the Panther were of great interest to Soviet specialists. Previously, German tanks had their plates joined with butt welding. The Panther's plates were joined with an interlocking tenon joint. This was not revolutionary. Several factories that made T-34 tanks used this joint. However, the T-34 used a different tenon, and only in some places. The Panther had this joint in most connections on the hull and turret.
The tenon joint increased the strength of welded connections. After studying the German method, these joints were implemented in a number of Soviet tanks. IS-2 tanks with a straightened front plate used this joint, as well as the T-44.
Naturally, the first thing that the GBTU cared about was what could be used to destroy the new German beast. Several tanks were shot up at the NIBT proving grounds between December 1st and 14th, 1943. The first tank to fire was a T-70. The testers did not even try the front armour, but fired at the sides. The results were interesting: the sloped side armour could not be penetrated from even 100 meters, but the flat side could be penetrated from 500 meters. Panthers were supposed to have this armour covered by 5 mm spaced armour, but it was often missing. The 45 mm gun could penetrate the rear from 300 meters and the side of the turret from 400 meters.
The tank was also fired upon by subcaliber armour piercing shells. The gun mantlet was penetrated from 100 meters. It was cast, which reduced its toughness.
The 6-pounder gun installed in a Churchill III tank was also not tested against the front armour. The side of the hull and turret could be confidently penetrated by the British gun from 900-1100 meters. The 75 mm M3 gun on the American M4A2 Sherman tank could confidently penetrate the side from 700-900 meters. The Soviet 76 mm F-34 gun could confidently penetrate the side from 1000 meters.
The D-5 gun used in KV-85, IS-1, and SU-85 vehicles was the first gun used against the Panther's front armour. The results were quite unpleasant. It turned out that the armour was not penetrated from even 100 meters. The sloped front hull caused ricochets. Penetration was only achieved by striking locations weakened by previous hits or by hitting the joint between the upper and lower front plate. However, hits by 85 mm rounds began to destroy the weld seams. It was clear that the idea of replacing the D-5 was a correct one.
The replacement for the D-5T was the 122 mm D-25T gun installed in the IS-2 heavy tank. The first shot from 1400 meters penetrated the armour. These trials gave birth to the myth that the round penetrated the front of the tank and knocked out the rear plate. What really happened was that, when shooting at the side of the turret of tank #535, the shell penetrated the left side and broke off the right armour plate, throwing it backwards by several meters.
When hit with a 152 mm shell fired from the ML-20 gun installed in an ISU-152 SPG at a distance of 1200 meters, the round ricocheted from the upper front plate, but this did not matter. A 360×470 mm breach was formed in the tank's armour, which was guaranteed to put it out of action. Another tank was hit in the side of the turret. This shot formed a 350×370 mm breach in the side armour. The shell then exploded inside the turret, leading to partial destruction.
The results of these trials show that the Red Army already had measures against the German beast in late 1943. Nevertheless, Soviet specialists made the right calls. The 85 mm gun that was proposed to go into the T-34 was not powerful enough to combat the Panther. It was only capable of penetrating the gun mantlet at a range of one kilometer.
One alternative to the D-5 was the 100 mm gun with ballistics of the B-34 naval gun. Two similar weapons, the S-34 (TsAKB) and D-10 (factory #9 design bureau) were developed. The D-10 won the competition. However, trials showed that the front armour of the Panther could only be penetrated from 1200 meters. Shots fired from 1500 meters could not penetrate the armour.
The 122 mm D-25 gun proved superior. The BR-471 sharp tipped armour piercing shell confidently defeated the front of the German tank from 1500-2000 meters (although ricochets were observed at very long range). A blunt tipped BR-471B shell was tested in the summer of 1944, which increased the effective distance to 2500 meters.
Both sides of the front
Panthers began appearing en masse on the Eastern Front in the fall of 1943. The Ausf.D was gradually replaced with the improved Ausf.A. These tanks were put into production in August and appeared on the front lines in the fall. These tanks became truly numerous and caused a number of issues for the advancing Red Army.
Initially, the protection of the German tank was underestimated. According to instructions issued in the fall of 1943, the Panther was vulnerable to 85 mm guns, and when shooting at the driver and radio operator hatches, to 57 mm guns. In reality, the Panther was a more dangerous enemy than the Tiger, since it had superior front armour and a more powerful gun.
The Panthers ended up being the first enemy of the IS-1 tank. The armour of the IS-1 was built to withstand the 88 mm gun used on the Tiger, but the 75 mm KwK 42 L/70 was more powerful. The IS tank's armour had to be improved, and even late production IS-2's turret was still vulnerable to the Panther's gun.
Tankers received the same reward for destroying a Panther as a Tiger: 500 roubles. Often the Panther and the Tiger would be mixed up in reports. The Panther, however, often fell victim to even light tanks due to its weak side armour.
Scenarios where captured Panthers were used in the Red Army deserve a separate mention. The first such instances were recorded in the fall of 1943, but they were few. For instance, one Panther was briefly included into the ranks of the 59th Tank Regiment, even though very many new German tanks were captured. This was because of the poor reliability of German vehicles, especially the Panther Ausf.D.
The situation improved somewhat with the appearance of captured Panthers Ausf.A, but the opinion regarding the reliability of the Panther remained low until the end of the war. The Red Army completed a successful series of offensives in early 1944, the reward for which was the capture of many trophies, with a large number of Panther Ausf.A tanks among them. Some tanks were repaired on the spot, but most were sent to the repair factory in Kazan. Complaints were made about a lack of optical devices, which were needed to fully restore the tanks. A brief instruction manual for the captured tank was prepared in August of 1944. They were largely based on the reports on the trials of the Panther tank at the NIBT proving grounds.
Captured Panthers were most widely used in the summer of 1944. For instance, the 51st Independent Motorcycle Regiment had a company of heavy tanks, consisting of 5 Tigers and 2 Panthers. Only one Panther remained by the start of the Lvov-Sandomierz offensive, and even it needed repairs. The tank remained in the condition of «medium repairs» all July, continuing to participate in combat. The situation was not unique. Many units of the 1st Ukrainian Front that used these tanks complained about the Panthers' poor technical condition.
Captured vehicles were also used by the 8th Guards Tank Corps. On August 18th, 3 Panther Ausf.A tanks were captured by the 59th Guards Tank Brigade from the 5th SS Tank Division near Jasienica (Poland). On the next day, the tanks were transferred to the 62nd Guards Heavy Tank Regiment. By that point, the regiment had 11 IS-2 tanks. German tanks were gathered into a company under the command of Junior Lieutenant Sotnikov and received characteristic emblems of the 62nd Guards Heavy Tank Regiment.
Problems with captured Panthers were not only plaguing the Red Army. After the end of the war, a large number of Panther tanks were adopted by the French, who also did not consider them reliable vehicles. Panthers quickly vanished from other armies of the world for the same reason. The PzIV and StuG 40 did much better comparatively, and fought in all corners of the world until the 1960s.
At the same time, it is not fair to underestimate the Panther. The German tank influenced tank building schools in all countries. For instance, the British Centurion is an analogue of the Panther in many ways. Soviet tank designers also evaluated it highly.
Translated by Peter Samsonov. Read more interesting tank articles on his blog Tank Archives.
- National Archives and Records Administration
- Central Archives of the Russian Ministry of Defence
- Russian State Archive of Film and Photo Documents