Tis the second instalment of a new unique series detailing the complete history of the Panzer tank at war. The Panzer III at War 1939–1945 is a highly illustrated record revealing one of the foremost German fighting machines of the Second World War. With comprehensive captions and text, the book tells the story of the production of the Panzer III through to the key battles in Poland, France, North Africa, Italy, Russia and North-West Europe.

Throughout the book it shows how the Panzer III evolved and describes how the Germans carefully utilized all available reserves and resources into building numerous variants that went into production and saw action on the battlefield. It depicts how these formidable tanks were adapted and up-gunned to face the ever-increasing enemy threat.

Between 1936 and 1945, thousands of Panzer IIIs were built. For the majority of the war this tank was certainly a match for its opponent’s tanks and quickly and effectively demonstrated its superiority on the battlefield. In fact, it played a crucial part in the desperate attempt to halt the Soviet drive, and was also used with deadly effect in the West performing defensive operations.

The Panzer III was an ultimate credit to the Panzer divisions it served. The crews that rode and fought in this vehicle from the blitzkrieg days of Poland and France to the defeat at Kursk and the German retreat across Russia were proud of its effectiveness and reliability on the battlefield.

Chapter One

Blitzkrieg 1939–41

For the invasion of Poland the Panzerkampfwagen III, commonly known as Pz.Kpfw III, made its debut for the first time on the battlefield. This medium tank developed in the 1930s was primarily designed to fight other armoured fighting vehicles and as an infantry support tank, which included supporting the Panzer IV.

The Pz.Kpfw III variants A through to C had 15mm of homogeneous steel armour on all sides with 10mm on top and 5mm on the bottom. During the invasion of Poland tank commanders knew that this new Panzer would certainly be well protected against their lightly-armed opponents. It moved out onto the battlefield with the sole intention of fighting with other tanks. It was initially equipped with the 3.7cm KwK 36 L/46.5, which proved more than adequate streaming across Poland. The Panzer III Ausf. A through C were powered by a 250 PS (184 kW) 12-cylinder Maybach HL 108 TR engine, giving a top speed of 32 kph (20 mph) and a range of 150 km (93 miles).

For the invasion of Poland only 98 Pz.Kpfw IIIs were available, compared to 1,445 Pz.Kpfw Is, 1,223 Pz.Kpfw IIs and 211 Pz.Kpfw IVs. This meant that eight Panzer IIIs were incorporated in each light tank company, but some divisions had none as a result. Nonetheless, during the early hours of 1 September 1939, the German army finally crossed the Polish frontier and began Operation White, the code-name for the German invasion of Poland. For the attack the German army was broken up into two army groups: Army Group North, consisting of the Fourth and Third armies under the command of General Fedor von Bock; and the Southern Army Group, consisting of the Eighth, Tenth and Fourteenth armies commanded by General Gerd von Rundstedt. From north to south all five German army groups crashed over the frontier. Almost immediately they quickly began achieving their objectives.

The entire thrust of the German army was swift and devastatingly efficient. Blitzkrieg had arrived. From the beginning of the invasion the Luftwaffe had paralysed large sections of the Polish railway network, severely disrupting the desperately-needed mobilization, which was still far from completed. The Poles were faced with the finest fighting army that the world had ever seen. The quality of the German weapons – above all the Panzers – was of immense importance during the Polish campaign.

Within a month the Polish campaign came to a victorious conclusion and the Panzerwaffe were heralded as heroes for their part in the destruction of Poland. The Panzer III had played a significant part in the crushing of the Polish army. Along with its powerful force it had engaged in an innovative new form of mobile warfare. The Panzer III’s 3.7cm gun had proved to be more than enough firepower to deal with the Polish army tanks, which were grouped in light tank battalions and light tank companies. While the majority of these Polish tank men were patriotic to their last breath, they were outclassed by the Panzer. However, they still managed to destroy a number of German vehicles as they simultaneously defended their country from both the might of the Germans and then the Soviet invasion from the east.

According to German figures, the Panzerwaffe lost some 1,000 fighting vehicles, most of which were knocked out during the campaign by anti-tank guns. Only twenty-six Pz.Kpfw IIIs were completely destroyed.

While the losses for the Germans were considered relatively light, the Polish campaign had certainly taught them a lesson in tactical mobile warfare. It had demonstrated the speed and power necessary for the Panzers to achieve their objectives quickly and decisively. At the same time it had provided the tank crews and their commanders with real experience of using armour in battle conditions. Poland for the Panzerwaffe was a complete success, and from the lessons in the east they were going to turn their less under-gunned vehicles into some of the most deadly fighting machines in the world.

Eight months later the Panzerwaffe were again called up for action, this time against the west. For this attack the German army was divided into three army groups: A, B and C. The main strike would be given to Army Group A, which would drive its armoured units through the Ardennes, swing round across the plains of northern France and then make straight for the Channel coast, thereby cutting the Allied force in half and breaking the main enemy concentration in Belgium between Army Group A advancing from the south and Army Group B in the north. The task of Army Group B was to occupy Holland with motorized forces and to prevent the linking-up of the Dutch army with Anglo-Belgian forces. It was to destroy the Belgian frontier defences by a rapid and powerful attack and throw the enemy back over the line between Antwerp and Namur. The fortress of Antwerp was to be surrounded from the north and east and the fortress of Liege from the north-east and north of the Meuse. Army Group C, which was the southernmost of the three army groups, was to engage the garrison of the Maginot Line, penetrating it if possible.

Between the three army groups the Germans deployed twenty-nine divisions under Army Group B in the north and forty-four divisions, including the bulk of the armour, under Army Group A in the centre. Army Group C with seventeen divisions covered the southern flank and threatened the French position on its eastern flank.

Also distributed between the three army groups was the armour, which would lead the drive through Belgium, Holland and then into France. In total a staggering 2,702 tanks took part: 640 Pz.Kpfw Is, 825 Pz.Kpfw IIs, 456 Pz.Kpfw IIIs, 366 Pz.Kpfw IVs, 151 Pz.Kpfw 35(t)s and 264 Pz.Kpfw 38(t)s. The reserves comprised some 160 vehicles to replace combat losses and 135 Pz.Kpfw Is and Pz.Kpfw IIs which had been converted into armoured command tanks, which resulted in them losing their armament. The vehicles that had been distributed among the ten Panzer divisions were not allocated according to formation of the battles in which they were supposed to take part. The 1. Panzer-Division, 2. Panzer-Division and 10. Panzer-Division each comprised 30 Pz.Kpfw Is, 100 Pz.Kpfw IIs, 90 Pz.Kpfw IIIs and 56 Pz.Kpfw IVs. The 6. Panzer-Division, 7. Panzer-Division and 8. Panzer-Division consisted of 10 Pz.Kpfw Is, 132 Pz.Kpfw 35(t)s or Pz.Kpfw 38(t)s and 36 Pz.Kpfw IVs. A further 19 Pz.Kpfw 35(t)s were added to the 6. Panzer-Division due to the complement of a battery of sIG (schweres Infanterie Geschütz) mechanized infantry guns. The 3. Panzer-Division, 4. Panzer-Division and 5. Panzer-Division each consisted of 140 Pz.Kpfw Is, 110 Pz.Kpfw IIs, 50 Pz.Kpfw IIIs and 24 Pz.Kpfw IVs.

In addition to the main armoured force that made up the powerful Panzer divisions, various other types of armoured units were used. There were, for instance, four independent Sturmartillerie batteries, each of six Sturmgeschütz (StuG) III assault guns. This vehicle was constructed from two separate elements. Its powerful, short but heavy 7.5cm gun was mounted on the Pz.Kpfw III chassis. The 7.5cm gun was a much heavier weapon than could normally be carried on a standard Panzer III, but the extra space for the gun was achieved by dispensing with the turret and bolting the gun on a fixed mount with a limited traverse. This vehicle provided ample mobile anti-tank support for the infantry divisions, and would soon earn much bigger respect on the battlefield than the Pz.Kpfw III tank.

By the time Germany unleashed its might against the Low Countries and France the Pz.Kpfw III had gone through some radical changes of its own. It was deemed after Poland that all early variants including the Ausf. A, B, C and then the later D model would be unsuited to large-scale production and many of these were handed over for training purposes. The first Pz.Kpfw III to go into full-scale production was the new Ausf. E, of which ninety-six were produced. This vehicle had much thicker front armour of 30mm, a Maybach HL 120TR engine and new suspension and gearbox. It was also fitted with the new more potent 5cm standard gun. This L/42 gun was fitted on the Ausf. E, F, G and H variants.

Throughout the Western campaign the Pz.Kpfw III fought with distinction and was seen in a number of close-quarter battles with both French and British tanks. Generally the tank did extremely well on the battlefield and once more exhibited dominance against its enemies.

With the success of the Panzer in Poland and on the Western Front, from 1 June to September 1940 the total number of tanks in the Panzerwaffe inventory rose steadily from 4,150 to 4,833. Hitler was particularly insistent on hastening the outfitting of the Panzer divisions, and outlined the particular need that the Pz.Kpfw III and IV be raised to a special level for manufacture.

For Operation Sealion, the planned invasion of the British Isles, some 180 underwater tanks were requested to be built. On 1 August 1940 there were ninety Pz.Kpfw III with 5cm KwK and twenty-eight Pz.Kpfw IV ready for service. However, within weeks, plans for the invasion were abandoned and the Panzerwaffe’s plans were shifted from attacking the West to a much bigger and bolder plan: attacking the Soviet Union.

During a ceremony Wehrmacht troops can be seen at an unidentified barracks with a stationary Pz.Kpfw III. This tank’s armament comprised a 3.7cm KwK 36 L/46.5 gun and co-axial 7.92mm machine gun. The Ausf. As through to early Ausf. Fs were equipped with a 3.7cm gun, which proved adequate during the campaigns of 1939 and 1940. These early Pz.Kpfw IIIs that saw combat were attached to units of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Panzer divisions during the Polish campaign or were troop-tested between 1937 and February 1940.

During a military procession a Pz.Kpfw III can be seen moving along a road flanked by crowds of civilians and military personnel. This vehicle was primarily intended to fight other tanks. Initially designers urged that the 5cm gun be specified on all variants. However, the infantry at the time were being equipped with the 3.7cm PaK 35/36, and it was thought that in the interest of standardization the Pz.Kpfw III should carry the same armament, much to the detriment of the crews after 1940.

Two troops plan their next move in Poland. Parked next to them in the undergrowth is a Pz.Kpfw III. On a peace footing Germany’s armoured strength consisted of five armoured motorized divisions, four motorized divisions and four light divisions. An armoured division was made up of 345 heavy and medium tanks and a light division was half that amount. It was these armoured machines that were going to lead the first lightning strikes into Poland. Note the white cross painted above the tactical number on the turret for ground and aerial recognition.

During operations in Poland an unidentified German unit can be seen halted in a field. The tank is a Pz.Kpfw III Ausf. C. The distinctive white cross can clearly be seen to distinguish between friend and foe, especially regarding aerial attack.

A Pz.Kpfw III Ausf. E during operations in Poland in September 1939. Note the white cross painted on the front of the vehicle’s superstructure. This photograph was probably taken much later in the campaign as there were a number of tanks in the German arsenal destroyed or knocked out as a result of the white crosses, which made them easy targets for the Polish anti-tank gunners. Much later in the campaign Panzer crews were compelled to either paint over these white crosses or obscure them with mud, as in this photograph.

A new Pz.Kpfw III Ausf. G armed with the 5cm KwK L/42 gun and reinforced with the commander’s cupola. About fifty of these variants were equipped with the 3.7cm KwK L/65 gun before the Panzerwaffe decided to up-gun this tank to a more powerful 5cm weapon.

Stationary inside a French town is an armoured unit. Parked between a Pz.Kpfw IV and a Pz.Kpfw II is a Pz.Kpfw III. The armoured drive through France was swift. Using highly mobile operations involving the deployment of motorized infantry, air power and armour in co-ordinated attacks had allowed the German forces to gain rapid penetration followed by the encirclement of a bewildered and overwhelmed enemy.

Two Panzer crew members of a Pz.Kpfw III are making adjustments to the vehicle’s wheels somewhere in France in May 1940. Prior to the invasion of the West Hitler had made clear his resolution that if he was going to win the war rapidly in the West the new Blitzkrieg tactic should be instigated quickly and effectively. While he had been aware that his forces had overwhelming superiority in modern equipment against a country like Poland, he knew that France and her allies had a slight advantage in terms of both numbers of troops and matériel. However, the Panzer played a prominent part in winning operations on the Western Front.

Halted in a field during operations in France either in May or June 1940, a Pz.Kpfw II can be seen with a stationary Pz.Kpfw III. An impressive total of 2,702 tanks were used for the German invasion of the Low Countries and France: 640 Pz.Kpfw Is, 825 Pz.Kpfw IIs, 456 Pz.Kpfw IIIs, 366 Pz.Kpfw IVs, 151 Pz.Kpfw 35(t)s and 264 Pz.Kpfw 38(t)s.

Panzer men wearing their distinctive black uniform take a rest beside a stream during the armoured division’s rapid drive through France in May 1940. In a number of areas German tank commanders reported that the enemy was simply brushed aside, having been thrown into complete confusion. In most cases the defenders lacked any force capable of mounting a strong co-ordinated counter-attack. British artillery eager to stem the tide of the German onslaught poured a storm of fire into advancing German columns, but they soon found that the Germans were too strong to be brought to a halt for any appreciable length of time.

Here a Pz.Kpfw III Ausf. E belonging to the 6. Panzer Division moves forward across a field watched by foot soldiers. This vehicle can be identified as belonging to the 6. Panzer Division by the very small ‘XX’ marking of the division to port of the driver’s visor.

An Sd.Kfz.251 halftrack leads a column of motorcycles during an armoured unit’s drive through France in May 1940. These fixed-type bridges allowed a constant flow of traffic to cross quickly and effectively with unhindered movement and were quite capable of carrying much heavier loads such as both medium and heavy Panzers.

A column of Pz.Kpfw IIIs are seen stationary along a road somewhere in France in May or June 1940. In order to reduce the threat of aerial detection these vehicles can be seen hugging the side of the road and half-concealing themselves among the surrounding trees.

Supplying an armoured column was paramount to the success of its operation. Here a Pz.Kpfw III has halted next to a mobile fuel depot preparing to take on fuel. Behind the tank is a Pz.Kpfw I.

An interesting photograph showing a Pz.Kpfw III Ausf. G on a training exercise. Note the soldier lying on the ground. Panzer crews were trained not to fear a Panzer running over them while under attack and were conditioned to shelter beneath an abandoned Panzer until it was safe to emerge.

During the campaign on the Western Front in 1940 stationary vehicles can be seen in a French town. A Horch crosscountry vehicle can be seen along with Pz.Kpfw Is and two Pz.Kpfw IIIs. A distinct feature of the Pz.Kpfw III was its three-man turret. This meant the commander was not in any way distracted by either the loader or gunner and could fully concentrate on his own tasks to ensure he was maintaining situational awareness at all times.

Two Gebirgsjäger (mountain troops) rest in front of a Pz.Kpfw III that has been hidden in undergrowth to avoid aerial detection. The primary task of the Pz.Kpfw III was to fight other tanks but although it was a well-built vehicle in terms of armour, armament and mobility, it was not outstanding. However, on the Western Front in 1940 it proved its worth and was highly successful.

Inside a decimated French town. A number of vehicles can be seen halted here, comprising Pz.Kpfw I, II, III (probably either an Ausf. E or F variant) and Pz.Kpfw IV. Note the letter ‘K’ painted in yellow or white on the front of the Pz.Kpfw I, indicating that this tank unit is almost certainly attached to Panzergruppe Kleist.

Panzer III Ausf. E can be seen in a French town during operations on the Western Front in May 1940. The Pz.Kpfw III excelled itself during this campaign and fought well against very modest enemy armour.

At a mobile workshop, here is a Pz.Kpfw III Ausf. C. This vehicle can be identified by the type of drive sprocket and the location of the front shock absorbers which are positioned just below and behind the forward return roller.

A group of soldiers pose for the camera on board a Pz.Kpfw III. One of the easiest forms of transportation for foot soldiers without incurring fatigue before reaching the battlefront was hitching lifts on board motor transport such as tanks. Not only did it save time in moving from one part of the line to another, but disembarking into battle was often achieved very effectively, yielding results for the men.

A common sight during the Blitzkrieg of 1940 was the hasty erection of pontoon bridges across the rivers in France. Here in the photograph in the wake of an armoured column is a motorcycle unit advancing over a pontoon. Because of the large numbers of rivers and streams encountered during the advance, all kinds of bridging and river crossings were essential if the Germans were to successfully achieve their objectives.

A column of Pz.Kpfw IIIs during operations on the Western Front in the summer of 1940. Stationary and watching this spectacle of armoured might is a column of infantry on horseback. Note the turret hatches open on both sides of the leading Panzer. This was quite common during warmer weather periods to circulate air inside the often stuffy and hot turret compartment where three tank crewmen were seated.

An interesting scene showing a very long halted column of armoured vehicles. At least the first four tanks leading the column are Pz.Kpfw IIIs. A group of infantry with their commanding officer and tank men stare at the photographer. Air dominance in northern France was achieved very quickly by the Germans as this image suggests, as there appears to be no contingency for aerial attack on their column.

The first of two photographs showing soldiers on board a new Pz.Kpfw III Ausf. F. The camouflage of this vehicle is painted in overall grey, which was the standard colour of all Panzers until the end of 1941.

A soldier poses for a photograph on board a new Pz.Kpfw III Ausf. F. Note the tactical number ‘121’ painted in white on a rectangular plate.

A photograph taken during operations in the Balkans in April or May 1940. A halted Pz.Kpfw III can be seen with a stationary motorcycle and sidecar combination. Note how muddy the roads are.

A leading Pz.Kpfw III can be seen with logs festooned along the sides of the vehicle in order to ensure the tank can cross difficult areas of terrain without becoming stuck, which would consequently hinder the advance. Much of the terrain in the Balkans was hilly and mountainous and often posed a problem for tank crews in maintaining the momentum of the advance.

Here a Pz.Kpfw III rolls across a wooden bridge during fighting in the Balkans in 1941. The vehicle appears to be heavily laden with supplies in order to sustain itself for the long drive.

A Pz.Kpfw III crosses a pontoon bridge destined for the front lines during the German invasion of the Balkans. As with operations on the Western Front, various pontoon bridges were erected across many rivers. Engineers would first position the pontoon boats (either inflatable or 50-foot pontoon boats) in place and then the bridging equipment would be erected across them in a surprisingly short time. Some of the pontoon boats were fitted with large outboard motors to hold the bridge sections in place against the often strong currents. However, because there were so many waterways that needed to be crossed by so many different divisions, the Germans found that they were running out of bridging equipment.

Most likely during operations in the Balkans in April or May 1941 a Pz.Bef.Wg III Ausf. E, which can be identified by the .30 MG mount, is seen crossing a pontoon bridge. As with many command vehicles, this tank is fitted with a dummy 3.7cm gun. Note the large frame antenna mounted on the engine deck.

During operations in the Balkans in 1941, an interesting photograph showing an early Pz.Bef.Wg III command vehicle. This Ausf. H variant is fitted with an early 3.7cm dummy gun. Note the pistol port which has replaced the ball machine-gun mount on the front plate.

Somewhere in the Balkans a Pz.Kpfw III can be seen advancing through a relatively deserted town. The Balkan campaign comprised the German and Italian invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece.

A knocked-out Pz.Kpfw III, taken during the last days of the Balkan campaign in the early summer of 1941. Three officers can be seen observing the damage to the tank which has obviously been knocked out of action by a British anti-tank shell. The crew has bailed out, fearing a fire or, worse, an internal explosion.

An interesting photograph showing a Pz.Bef.Wg III Ausf. H from Panzer Regiment 2 of the 2nd Panzer Division driving through Athens past the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Note the tactical number ‘II N1’ painted on the rear plate. This indicates that this is the vehicle of the commander of the signals detachment of the second battalion.



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