- CHAPTER 5 -
The MAN design also had better fording ability, easier gun servicing and higher mobility due to better suspension, wider tracks, and a bigger fuel tank. A mild steel prototype of the Panther was produced by September 1942 and, after testing at Kummersdorf, was officially accepted. It was ordered to be placed into immediate production. However the start of production was delayed, however, mainly because there were too few specialized machine tools needed for the machining of the hull. Finished tanks were produced in December and suffered from reliability problems as a result of this haste. The demand for this tank was so high that the manufacturing was soon expanded beyond MAN to include Daimler-Benz, Maschinenfabrik Niedersachsen-Hannover (MNH) and Henschel & Sohn in Kassel.
A Panther tank production line.
The initial production target was 250 tanks per month at MAN. This ambitious output target was increased to 600 per month in January 1943. Despite the maximum effort by the German war industry, including the use of slave labour, this figure was never reached. This was primarily as a result of disruption by Allied bombing, manufacturing bottlenecks, and other difficulties although it is possible that the target was simply too ambitious to be achieved even under favourable circumstances.
The use of slave labour in the complex production and logistical system which produced the Panther should not be overlooked. During the course of World War II the Germans abducted approximately 12 million people from almost twenty European countries; about two thirds of whom came from the Eastern Europe. These forced labourers provided the bulk of the labour in many of the German firms who supplied components and munitions for the Panther programme. Many of these workers died as a result of their inhuman living conditions, mistreatment, malnutrition, or exhaustion and so became civilian casualties of war. At its peak the forced labourers comprised 20% of the German work force. Counting deaths and turnover, about 15 million men and women were forced labourers at one point or another during the war.
Fire was a constant threat to the Panther and in the Pantherfibel a strong emphasis was placed on fire fighting measures.
It was only by resorting to such extreme measures that Panther production was maintained at any level but the projected figure of 600 per month remained a pipe dream. In 1943 production averaged 148 per month. In 1944, it averaged out at 315 a month with 3,777 machines being built in that year. Panther production peaked at 380 in July 1944 and ended around the end of March 1945, by which time at least 6,000 built in total. Front-line combat strength peaked on 1st September 1944 at 2,304 tanks, but that same month a record number of 692 Panther tanks were reported lost.
Both the Tiger and the Panther used Maybach engines so it was no surprise that Allied air forces were soon targeting the Maybach engine plant. This plant was first bombed the night of 27/28th April 1944 and the attack was so severe and accurate that production was completely shut down for five months. Fortunately for the Panzerwaffe this exigency had already been anticipated and a second plant had already been planned, the Auto-Union plant at Siegmar, and this came online in May 1944 ensuring continuity of supply.
Unlike the risqué illustrations in the Tigerfibel the young ladies in the Pantherfibel were all depicted with clothes on.
Targeting of the factories which produced the Panther itself began with a bombing raid on the Daimler Benz plant on 6th August 1944, a follow up raid took place on the night of 23/24th August 1944. MAN was first struck on 10th September then again in rapid succession on 3rd October and 19th October 1944. Despite these attacks however, production was soon resumed at MAN and the allied air forces returned to the fray on 3rd January 1945 and finally on 20/21st February 1945. The MNH was not attacked until very late in the war and was not targeted until 14th March. There was one final raid on 28th March 1945.
In addition to interfering with tank production goals, the bombing forced a steep drop in the production of spare parts. Spare parts as a percentage of tank production dropped from 25–30 per cent in 1943, to 8 per cent in the fall of 1944. This only compounded the problems with reliability and numbers of operational Panthers, as tanks in the field had to be cannibalized for parts.
The Panther was the third most numerous German armoured fighting vehicle.