- CHAPTER 3 -
The Panther was to all intents a prototype, but Hitler was intent on seeing the new tank in action by the middle of 1943. However by late 1942, with production now in progress it was all too obvious that the machines emerging from the production lines were far from perfect. A rebuilding and final proofing programme was therefore introduced in order to try and deal with the remaining teething troubles. Under very difficult circumstances the DEMAG factory entrusted with the rebuild programme managed to deliver 200, ostensibly combat ready, Panthers to the Eastern Front in time to make an operational debut in Operation Zitadelle, otherwise known as the Battle of Kursk. The last great German offensive in the East began on 5th July 1943 and the two battalions of Panthers involved were split across the 51st and 52nd Panzer Battalions, which were attached to the Grossdeutschland Panzergrenadier Division on the southern flank of the Kursk salient. Inevitably, the continuing mechanical and design flaws and the limited time available for training had a disastrous effect. There was simply no available time to properly train the crews and this, when combined with the mechanical problems, severely hampered the Panthers’ contribution to Zitadelle. Despite the fact that the Panthers on their first combat foray were credited with 267 enemy tanks destroyed, it was at Kursk, and for good reason, that the reputation of the Panther as Guderian’s problem child took root. Germany simply did not have the resources to be able to loose tanks at this ratio and this sobering fact was obvious to all.
The Pantherfibel emphasised the role of the hard pressed home front in producing the essential parts of the Panther.
The rushed emergence of the Panther into action at Kursk not only compromised frontline performance, it also left a large number of Panther wrecks on the battlefield. The ability of the Russians to study captured machines meant that the cat was out of the bag and a series of counter measures designed to defeat the Panther in action were soon being implemented. The following report on the new German Panther tank, based on Russian intelligence sources, appeared in the US intelligence manual Tactical and Technical Trends, on November 4, 1943. As the Panther tank was first deployed on the Russian front initial US intelligence on the Panther tank was based entirely on Russian sources.
A Panther left destroyed in the aftermath of the Battle of Kursk.
THE CONTEMPORARY VIEW 1
THE PZ-KW 5 (PANTHER) TANK
The German tank series 1 to 6 has now been filled in with the long-missing PzKw 5 (Panther) a fast, heavy, well-armored vehicle mounting a long 75-mm gun. It appears to be an intermediate type between the 22-ton PzKw 4 and the PzKw 6 (Tiger) tank. The Panther has a speed of about thirty-one miles per hour. It approximates (corresponds roughly to) our General Sherman, a tank which evoked complimentary comment in the Nazi press.
The following is a description of the tank: (It should be noted that practically all data contained in this report come from Russian sources).
The 75-mm gun is probably the new Pak. 41 AT gun with a muzzle velocity of 4,000 foot-seconds. The estimated armour penetration at 547 yards is 4.72 inches, and the life of the barrel from 500 to 600 rounds. The gun has direct sights to 1,500 meters or 1,640 yards. The 75-mm has an overall length of 18 feet 2 inches.
The Panther can also be easily converted for fording deep streams by attaching a flexible tube with float to the air intake. There is a special fitting in the top rear of the tank for attaching this tube.
Although provided with smaller armour and armament than the 6, the Panther has the same motor, thus giving it higher speed and maneuverability. This tank is also provided with light armour plate (not shown in the sketch) 4 to 6 millimeters thick along the side just above the suspension wheels and the inclined side armour plate.
Panther tanks are organized into separate tank battalions similar to the Tiger tanks. Many of these tanks have been used by the Germans during the July and August battles. The Russians state that this tank, although more maneuverable, is much easier to knock out than the PzKw 6. Fire from all types of rifles and machine guns directed against the peep holes, periscopes and the base of the turret and gun shield will blind or jam the parts. High-explosives and armour-piercing shells of 54-mm (2.12 in) calibre or higher, at 800 meters (875 yds) or less, are effective against the turret. Large calibre artillery and self-propelled cannon can put the Panther out of action at ordinary distances for effective fire. The inclined and vertical plates can be pierced by armour-piercing shells of 45 mm calibre or higher. Incendiary armour-piercing shells are especially effective against the gasoline tanks and the ammunition located just in the rear of the driver.
The additional 4 to 6 mm armour plate above the suspension wheels is provided to reduce the penetration of hollow-charge shells but the Russians state that it is not effective. Antitank grenades, antitank mines and “Molotov cocktails” are effective against the weak bottom and top plates and the cooling and ventilating openings on the top of the tank just above the motor.
This tank is standard but the quantity and rate of production is not known.
The negative lessons of Kursk were many, but those improvements which could be made were quickly absorbed and modifications were adapted into the production lines. Improvements included stronger, lower-profile commander cupolas, rain guards on the gun mantlet, Zimmerit anti-magnetic mine paste and, on the later Ausf G, a simplified and strengthened hull. Given the production difficulties and the complex internal politics of German weapons manufacture, the Panther tank was inevitably a compromise of various requirements. It shared essentially the same engine as the Tiger I tank, it had better frontal armour, better gun penetration, was lighter overall, faster, and could handle rough terrain better than the Tigers.
A close view of Close view of Zimmerit on the turret of a Panther in Italy in 1944. The coating was created by the German company Chemische Werke Zimmer AG.
The Achilles heel of the Panther was resultant trade off in the provision of weaker side armour which made the tank highly vulnerable to attack from any direction other than head on. Setting aside this glaring weakness the Panther still proved to be a fearsome adversary in open country especially in long range gunnery duels, but the Panther was extremely vulnerable in close-quarter combat. It should also be noted that the 75 mm gun fired a smaller shell than the Tiger’s 88 mm gun, providing significantly less high explosive firepower against infantry and soft skinned targets.
An important lesson from the Pantherfibel was the effect of the angle at which a shot struck the defensive plate.
The Panther was however far cheaper to produce than the Tiger tanks, and only slightly more expensive than the Panzer IV. The reason for this was unexpected outcome was that its production run coincided with the Reich Ministry of Armament and War Production’s improved efforts to increase the efficient production of war materials. Nonetheless it cannot be stressed enough that key elements of the Panther design, such as its armour, transmission and final drive, were compromised and reductions in quality were made specifically to improve production rates and address Germany’s requirement for numbers on the battlefield. Particularly with regard to the final drive, this was to prove a false economy.
Ironically other expensive and over engineered elements such as the Panther’s complex suspension system remained. The net result of the various compromises was that some progress towards the achievement of the ambitious production goals was made and with 6000 machines being produced between 1943 and 1945 Panther tank production ran at a far higher rate than was possible for the Tiger tanks which saw only 1800 machines of both types produced between 1942 and 1945. It would appear on best estimates available however that the production run of 6000 Panthers was achieved at a very high opportunity cost. In all probability the Panther was created at the expense of some 20,000 Mark IV tanks which could otherwise have been built.
The main armament of the Panther - a 75 mm KwK 42 (L/70), 1944.
The main gun on the Panther was the 7.5 cm Rheinmetall-Borsig KwK 42 (L/70) with semi-automatic shell ejection and a supply of 79 rounds (82 on the Ausf. G). The main gun used three different types of ammunition: APCBC-HE (Pzgr. 39/42), HE (Sprgr. 42) and APCR (Pzgr. 40/42), the last of which was usually in short supply. While it was of only average calibre for its time, the Panther’s gun was in fact one of the most powerful tank guns of World War II, this was due to the large propellant charge and the long barrel, which gave it a very high muzzle velocity and excellent armour-piercing qualities. The flat trajectory also made hitting targets much easier, since accuracy was less sensitive to range. The Panther’s 75 mm gun had more penetrating power than the main gun of the Tiger I heavy tank, the 8.8 cm KwK 36 L/56, although the larger 88 mm projectile might inflict more damage if it did penetrate.
The tank typically had two MG 34 machine guns of a specific version designed for use in armoured combat vehicles featuring an armoured barrel sleeve. An MG 34 machine gun was located co-axially with the main gun on the gun mantlet; an identical MG 34 was located on the glacis plate and fired by the radio operator. Initial Ausf. D and early Ausf. A models used a “letterbox” flap opening, through which the machine gun was fired. In later Ausf A and all Ausf G models (starting in late November-early December 1943), a ball mount in the glacis plate with a K.Z.F.2 machine gun sight was installed for the hull machine gun.
Panther with regular mantlet.
The front of the turret was a curved 100 mm thick cast armour mantlet. Its transverse-cylindrical shape meant that it was more likely to deflect shells, but the lower section created a shot trap. If a non-penetrating hit bounced downwards off its lower section, it could penetrate the thin forward hull roof armour, and plunge down into the front hull compartment. Penetrations of this nature could have catastrophic results, since the compartment housed the driver and radio operator sitting along both sides of the massive gearbox and steering unit; more importantly, four magazines containing main gun ammunition were located between the driver/radio operator seats and the turret, directly underneath the gun mantlet when the turret was facing forward.
From September 1944, a slightly redesigned mantlet with a flattened and much thicker lower “chin” design started to be fitted to Panther Ausf G models, the chin being intended to prevent such deflections. Conversion to the “chin” design was gradual, and Panthers continued to be produced to the end of the war with the rounded gun mantlet.
In most cases the Panther’s gun mantlet could not be penetrated by the M4 Sherman’s 75 mm gun, the T-34s 76.2 mm gun, or the T-34-85s 85 mm gun. But it could be penetrated by well-aimed shots at 100 m by the 76mm M1A1 gun used on certain models of the M4, at 500 m by the Soviet A-19 122 mm gun on the IS-2 and at over 2500 yards (2286 m) by the British Ordnance QF 17 pounder using APDS ammunition. The side turret armour of 45 mm (1.8 in) was vulnerable to penetration at long range by almost all Allied tank guns, including the M4’s 75 mm gun which could penetrate it at 1,500 m (0.93 mi). These were the main reasons for continued work on a redesigned Panther turret, the Schmalturm.
Advice on gunnery from the Pantherfibel.
The Ausf A model introduced a new cast armour commander’s cupola, replacing the more difficult to manufacture forged cupola. It featured a steel hoop to which a third MG 34 or either the coaxial or the bow machine gun could be mounted for use in the anti-aircraft role, though it was rare for this to be used in actual combat situations.
The first Panthers (Ausf D) had a hydraulic motor that could traverse the turret at a maximum rate of one complete revolution in one minute, independent of engine speed. This slow speed was improved in the Ausf A model with a hydraulic traverse that varied with engine speed; one full turn taking 46 seconds at an engine speed of 1,000 rpm but only 15 seconds if the engine was running at 3,000 rpm. This arrangement was a slight weakness, as traversing the Panther’s turret rapidly onto a target required close coordination between the gunner and driver who had to run the engine to maximum speed. By comparison, the turret of the M4 Sherman turret traversed at up to 360 degrees in 15 seconds and was independent of engine speed, which gave it an advantage over the Panther in close-quarters combat. As usual for tanks of the period, a hand traverse wheel was provided for the Panther gunner to make fine adjustment of his aim.
Ammunition storage for the main gun was a weak point. All the ammunition for the main armament was stored in the hull, with a significant amount stored in the sponsons. In the Ausf D and A models, 18 rounds were stored next to the turret on each side, for a total of 36 rounds. In the Ausf G, which had deeper sponsons, 24 rounds were stored on each side of the turret, for a total of 48 rounds. In all models, 4 rounds were also stored in the left sponson between the driver and the turret. An additional 36 rounds were stored inside the hull of the Ausf D and A models - 27 in the forward hull compartment directly underneath the mantlet. In the Ausf G, the hull ammunition storage was reduced to 27 rounds total, with 18 rounds in the forward hull compartment. For all models, 3 rounds were kept under the turntable of the turret. The thin side armour could be penetrated at combat ranges by many Allied tank guns, and this meant that the Panther was vulnerable to catastrophic ammunition fires (“brewing up”) if hit from the sides.
Advice on operating the machine gun in the Panther from the Pantherfibel.
The loader was stationed in the right side of the turret. With the turret facing forward, he had access only to the right sponson and hull ammunition, and so these served as the main ready-ammunition bins.
Thanks to the Kwk 42 L/70 main gun The Panther offered a superb performance at longer ranges with excellent accuracy and a very high muzzle velocity which posed an extreme danger for every enemy tank. The tried and tested Panzer IV Ausf. G came on stream in April 1943 and although it was equipped with the less powerful KwK 40 L/48 main gun it nonetheless offered a similar battlefield performance to the Panther at shorter ranges and most importantly did not suffer from the appalling final drive issues which became the single major cause of breakdowns of the Panther tank, and which remained a problem throughout its service life.
The Panther was one of many German weapon systems with which Hitler became fixated. He placed a great deal of faith in his own assumption that the Panther could deliver a major contribution towards turning the course of the war in Russia. This high level of personal expectation, and the resulting pressure from the Fürher, led to the vehicles being rushed through the design process and into combat long before they were ready. The Panthers duly arrived on the battlefield in 1943 at a crucial phase in World War II for Germany and were rushed into combat at Kursk with a glaringly inefficient final drive system and before its obvious teething problems, including a porous fuel delivery system were corrected.
In the months that followed, to a limited extent, the most glaring difficulties were overcome. The Panther tank thereafter fought on outnumbered on the most important fronts as the German army steadily retreated before the Allies for the remainder of World War II. The faint possibility of the Panther proving a success as a battlefield weapon was drastically hampered by Germany’s generally declining position in the war. The long logistical tail which supplied spare parts gradually dried up and major repairs became all but impossible to effect. With the loss of air cover more and more Panthers became victims of allied interdiction. The large poorly protected engine deck was particularly vulnerable to attack from above, and it has been estimated that 70% of Panthers were destroyed by aerial attack. As the war wore on towards a conclusion the desperate fuel situation led to many broken down Panthers, even those awaiting only minor repairs being destroyed. The pressure on training personnel and facilities allied to the declining quality of tank crews meant that the Panther, a tank which required the very best crews was often handled by novices and therefore faced a massive range of obstacles which could not be overcome.
A Panther with a destroyed engine bay at the roadside in Normandy.
It is a mark of the fighting qualities of the Panther that, despite all the factors ranged against it, this late introduction to the war, with its favourable combination of fire power and heavy frontal armour still drew accolades from the allies who fought against it. As a result of its high kill ratio in combat the Panther soon became feared and respected by the Allies, and regardless of its many short comings has become known to posterity one of the best all-round tanks of the war.