- CHAPTER 7 -
Panthers in a French village, Summer 1944.
At the time of the invasion of Normandy, there were initially only two Panther-equipped Panzer regiments on the entire Western Front, they fielded a total of 156 Panthers between them. From June through August 1944, an additional seven Panther regiments were sent into France, reaching a maximum strength of 432 in a status report dated 30th July , 1944.
The majority of German panzer forces in Normandy – six and a half divisions, were stationed around the vital town of Caen facing the Anglo-Canadian forces of the 21st Army Group; and the numerous battles to secure the town became collectively known as the Battle of Caen. While there were sectors of heavy bocage around Caen, there were also many open fields over which the Allied armour had to attack. This allowed the Panther to play to its strengths and engage the attacking enemy armour at long range. By the time of the Normandy Campaign however, British Divisional Anti-tank Regiments were well equipped with the excellent 17 pounder gun (the 17pdr also replaced the US gun on some M10 tank Destroyers in British service), making it equally as perilous for the Panthers to launch attacks across these same killing fields. The British had begun converting regular M4 Shermans to carry the 17 pounder gun (nicknamed Firefly) prior to the D-day landings, and while limited numbers meant that during Normandy not more than one Sherman in four was of the Firefly variant, the lethality of its gun against German armour made them priority targets for German gunners.
Panther in bocage, Summer 1944.
US forces in the meantime, facing one and a half German panzer divisions, mainly the Panzer Lehr Division, struggled in the heavy, low-lying bocage terrain west of Caen. Against the M4 Shermans of the Allied tank forces during this time, the Panther tank again proved to be most effective when fighting in open country and firing at long range - its combination of superior armour and firepower allowed it to engage at distances from which the Shermans could not respond. However, the Panther struggled in the enclosed bocage country of Normandy, and was vulnerable to side and close-in attacks in the built-up areas of cities and small towns. The commander of the Panzer Lehr Division, Gen. Fritz Bayerlein, reported the weaknesses of the Panther tank in the fighting in Normandy in a very damning report:
Advice from the Pantherfibel on combatting the Sherman M4 and the M10. The weak spots are shown in black.
“While the PzKpfw IV could still be used to advantage, the PzKpfw V [Panther] proved ill adapted to the terrain. The Sherman because of its manoeuvrability and height was good... [the Panther was] poorly suited for hedgerow terrain because of its width. Long gun barrel and width of tank reduce manoeuvrability in village and forest fighting. It is very front-heavy and therefore quickly wears out the front final drives, made of low-grade steel. High silhouette. Very sensitive power-train requiring well-trained drivers. Weak side armour; tank top vulnerable to fighter-bombers. Fuel lines of porous material that allow gasoline fumes to escape into the tank interior causing a grave fire hazard. Absence of vision slits makes defence against close attack impossible.”
A pair of Panthers rendered useless after they have been knocked-out and left at the roadside, Normandy, Summer 1944.
Through September and October, a series of new Panzerbrigades equipped with Panther tanks were sent into France to try to stop the Allied advance with counterattacks. This culminated in the Battle of Arracourt (September 18–29, 1944), in which the mostly Panther equipped German forces suffered heavy losses fighting against the 4th armoured Division of Patton’s 3rd Army, which were still primarily equipped with 75 mm M4 Sherman tanks and yet came away from the battle with only a few losses. The Panther units were newly formed, poorly trained, and tactically disorganized; most units ended up stumbling into ambush situations against seasoned U.S. tank crews.
The subject of how to avoid anti-tank defences was an important consideration and was represented graphically in the Pantherfibel.