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PzKpfw V Panther medium tank

Written by Sakhal

Even when in the first prototype of the PzKpfw III were being corrected the defects and the initial project of the PzKpfw IV was being finished, the inspector of the German Army for the Mechanized Forces was already making plans about a new larger tank with a weight above 30 tonnes. Previously had already existed interest in a tank heavier than the PzKpfw III and IV, but this interest had quite declined due to the failed project PzKpfw Neubaufahrzeug. When Germany launched the massive invasion into the Soviet Union, the PzKpfw IV was the heaviest tank in the ranks of the Wehrmacht and its performance had been deemed as satisfactory until then. However, when in the beginning of October 1941 the Soviet tank T-34 made its appearance, the PzKpfw IV was rendered as obsolete. Then, the 20th November 1941, it fell in German hands a T-34/76 (earlier T-34 tanks had a 76-millimeter cannon). It was clear that a tank like that, no matter how scandalously expensive it were to develop, produce and maintain, was no longer a luxury for the Germans, but a necessity. The armor, speed and maneuverability of the T-34 provoked a change in the German appreciation about how to build tanks, and hence new requirements were urgently formulated. In the beginning, for saving time, it was even considered that the T-34 could be directly copied. However, national pride could not have allowed this approach, so in April 1942 specifications were delivered for a different tank, but one that would incorporate the most relevant characteristics from the T-34, with an estimated weight of 30 tonnes. In less than a month Daimler-Benz and MAN were contracted to start the project of a new heavy tank, armed with a 75-millimeter cannon, with an armor in the front and the turret 60 millimeters in thickness - which would be later increased to 100 millimeters - and capable of reaching a speed of 55 kilometers/hour. Both companies presented their projects in April 1942.

The Daimler-Benz version for the project VK 3002 was basically similar to the T-34, with the turret placed so forward that the gun mantlet was, practically, a prolongation of the hull frontal glacis. It had to be equipped with a Diesel engine (important consideration given the concern that the Germans had then about the scarcity of gasoline) and it would have a chassis with seven axes for interspersed medium-sized wheels, with a simple leaf-spring suspension. The authorities saw the project with good eyes, because it had good possibilities. The only defect was the election of the cannon L/48 75 millimeters developed by Krupp. Instead, it was specified the longer KwK 42 L/70 of the same caliber, developed by Rheinmetall. It was ordered, seemingly by Hitler personally, the production of 200 units, and the prototype started to be developed. The project by MAN was much more conventional. Its distribution reminded the successful PzKpfw IV, albeit the flat and homogeneous armor plates that had been welded to form the hull were angled, to force the projectiles to ricochet. The project by MAN, which gave a direct tribute to the T-34 and to Walter Christie, included a more powerful gasoline engine, the Maybach HL 210 - which gave more than 600 horsepower -, a torsion-bar suspension and a chassis with eight axes for interspersed large-sized wheels - fitted with rubber tires - and tracks 50 centimeters wide. The turret, projected and built by Rheinmetall to equip the cannon KwK 42 L/70, was placed as rearwards as possible, so the tank could operate in almost any condition with the cannon looking forward, something that was not possible in the Daimler-Benz version, specially after being specified the L/70 cannon. With the support from Albert Speer, Minister of Armament, this design was the one finally chosen to become the PzKpfw V Panther. The production of the prototype by Daimler-Benz was stopped; in May 1942 were ordered to MAN some prototypes in hardened steel that were delivered in the following September. The habitual modifications were made after evaluating the prestations of the prototype, encouraged by Hitler himself. The first tank from the factory was delivered in January 1943, but Daimler-Benz had to intervene to help because of difficulties with the gasoline engine.

PzKpfw V Panther medium tank

PzKpfw V Panther Ausf A.

They were such the problems that the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS had to face in the Eastern Front, that it was ordered the new tank to enter production immediately - something that would produce many troubles - and the first series tanks were finished in November. In the project phase it was though a lot in how these tanks should be produced and that reflexion gave good results. At the end of the war, two years and half after this tank had entered production, more than 5500 Panther tanks had been built and about 700 chassis more were built for other purposes. All of this happened in a period in which the German factories were each time more overloaded. However, production never reached the goal of 600 monthly vehicles set by Hitler, due to the many difficulties. Even during the first days of the project phase, it was recognized that the tactical requirements demanded for a heavy tank would require a total weight above the 30-35 tonnes specified for the original model. The series version of the Panther reached 45 tonnes and, even with more powerful engines developing more than 700 horsepower, this increase in weight suppossed a clear decrease in performance. Maximum speed was reduced to 45 kilometers/hour, albeit capability for fording, climbing and surpassing obstacles remained the same. Only 20 tanks of the version Ausf A were made, with a frontal armor 60 millimeters thick, an early version of the L/70 cannon and a 645 horsepower engine. From the beginning they had many problems and the solution of them was not eased at all when the Minister of Armament refused to interrupt or at least delay the development of the production program, to allow the incorporation of improvements as these were being projected. The majority of defects appeared in the transmission, in the cooling system and in the wheels. Engine and transmission were excessively overloaded to endure an increase in weight - from the 30 tonnes on the original specification the final prototype had reached 43 tonnes, and the Panther had to be reclassified as heavy tank -. The road wheels destroyed their rubber tires with infuriating regularity and repairing one of them required to dismount five wheels. The Ausf B and Ausf C were the Ausf A with different gearbox and some modifications aimed to solve the other problems, and they were produced in small quantities only. The Ausf D was the first series version properly speaking and it started to leave the four factories that produced it in January 1943. However, all the Ausf D were sent back to factory to introduce modifications on them, so until the month of May did not arrive the first vehicles to the units that had to operate with them.

PzKpfw V Panther medium tank

PzKpfw V Panther Ausf A.

The Panther entered action for the first time in the Battle of Kursk in 1943, by insistence of Hitler; that was the largest tank battle in the Second World War - and probably in the History -, one in which more than 6000 vehicles fought. The debut of the Panther was a failure: many of them resulted damaged in their route from the railway, and very few survived the first day. The ones that remained, were to be returned to factory for being repaired. Besides, the Panther had not been sent to Kursk in numbers large enough to compensate the advantages that the T-34 had over the PzKpfw III and IV, even if they would have been "rolled" then - which was not the case -. Really, to have brought to the battlefield an imperfect and not experienced Panther, in small quantities, was a big tactical mistake. The Red Army had the opportunity to glimpse the potential of the new tank prematurely and, thereby, they had the opportunity to devise the means of defeating the Panther before these appeared in the battlefield in enough numbers to impose themselves. In the subsequent models the defects would fixed and the Panther would soon become a good tank, superior to the T-34/76 and very appreciated by the crews. The following version of the Panther appeared more or less in the moment in which the Battle of Kursk was ending. It was called Ausf A, while the few Ausf A already existent were renamed as Ausf D1 and the already existing Ausf D were renamed as Ausf D2. The new Ausf A had a commander's cupola of rounded shape instead of being a mere cylinder, an excellent swivel mount for the 7.92-millimeter machine gun installed in the front of the hull - a weapon that was absent in the first versions of the Panther - and some other details introduced as improvements. This version was, in turn, replaced by the Panther Ausf G, in the late February 1944.

The Ausf G was produced, fundamentally, as a transition tank, incorporating on it as many elements were possible from the project of the aborted Panther II, but, nevertheless, it was a powerful tank on its own. Great part of the project of the Panther II was derived from the PzKpfw VI Tiger, already very tested, and there was a concrete element of the greatest German tank that made its way to form part of the Panther Ausf G: roads wheels fully made of steel, which solved the problem of the rubber tires being broken once and for all. The Ausf G was also fitted with better smoke launchers - which in that moment were already part of the defensive armament of any tank -, grenade launchers mounted in the turret roof for defense against the infantry and an even thicker frontal armor. This one had reached already a thickness of 120 millimeters and it was almost immune to any anti-tank weapon that it could face in the battlefield. The Allied tanks faced tremendous difficulties trying to neutralize the Panther in the battlefields of Normandy, in the mid 1944. Later, they recognized that it was required a coordinated attack carried by four or five tanks M4 Sherman or equivalent medium tanks to have some possibility to stop a Panther Ausf A or Ausf G. Even then facing a Panther was very risky, for the combination of the powerful L/70 75-millimeter cannon and the thick armor was very effective. For the task of evaluating the tanks of the Second World War, the Panther is an appropriate measure, this is, a standard to which compare the rest. In fact, many affirm that the Panther was, in overall, the best tank used in the Second World War. Without doubt it was introduced prematurely, entering combat when it should have passed by a much longer testing and modification period prior to production phase.

PzKpfw V Panther medium tank

This front view of a PzKpfw V Panter Ausf D shows the absence of a machine gun mount in the hull (it had to be fired through a narrow slit) and the binocular gunsight that would be later replaced by a monocular one.

But despite of that, the basic structure and the project of the Panther were absolutely right; the combination of the powerful cannon L/70 KwK 42 with the thick armor demonstrated a very wise understanding of what was possible to achieve with the technical level of that time. The cannon was more powerful that in the majority of the tanks that the Panther could face. It had a muzzle speed of more than 1000 meters/second and it fired a piercing projectile weighing 6.75 kilograms. The L/70 could perforate armor plates 140 millimeters thick from distance and with normal angles of incidence and also put out of action a Sherman tank from 2000 meters afar. And, despite of this, the cannon was not overly heavy or hard to operate. The Sherman tanks did not disposed of a comparable armament until 1944, and even then, they had no capability to pierce the frontal armor of the Panther. In fact, the armor of the Panther was arranged in angles that favored the rebound of the piercing projectiles and had enough thickness to endure high explosive and shaped charge projectiles inside the range of the Panther in "stand-off" (distance from which a tank can put out of action an enemy tank while remaining perfectly our of range from the enemy). However, there was a factor that played against the Panther: the number of available units of it. Almost 50000 Sherman were produced, in comparison with the less than 6000 Panther. The approximated rule that used the Allied tank crews, which was to engage one Panther with five Sherman, was easily surpassed even without taking into account the British and Soviet tanks that were comparable to the Sherman, which destroyed as well a good number of Panther.

The aborted Panther II, whose production had to be started in the summer 1945, would have been even more formidable. As forementioned, it was to be equipped with elements from the PzKpfw VI Tiger: a thicker armor, a smaller turret with stereoscopic telemeter and the tremendous cannon KwK 36 L/56 88 millimeters, along with an even more powerful engine HL 230 and the gearbox AK 7-400. We can only speculate about the actual prestations of this tank, but with the additional 200 horsepower, the Panther II would have been somewhat faster than its predecessors, albeit also heavier. It would be interesting to know if its reliability would be affected because of that.

Panther tank: quick facts

The construction of the hull in the Panther was conventional in the German style, with heavily welded overlapped unions. The glacis was made in a 80 mm thick single plate, which in the first design had two openings, one for the hull machine gun and another for the driver's visibility. In the Panther G the driver's opening was supressed and the visibility relied solely in the periscopes. The glacis had a notable inclination of 55 degrees, innovation introduced in contrast with previous designs. The turret had sloped surfaces as well, but the inner space was restricted; still, the commander had at his disposal a good observation cuppola. The gun mantlet was a single casted piece, with openings for the main gun, the co-axial machine gun and the gunner's binocular gunsight. Protection was excellent in the front area, but in the sides it was not optimal, being this defect fixed in later versions. Suspenssion consisted of bogies with springs attached to torsion bars, which made of the Panther the tank with the best disposition in that time. The problem was that the bogies could be jammed by the ice during the Russian winter, immobilizing the tank. Maintenance was difficult as well, because the outer wheels had to be dismounted before accessing the inner ones.

Driving was made via disc brakes actuated by a hydraulic system with an epicyclic gearbox for each track, which allowed these to be stopped separately if necessary, without any loss in power. This was an adaptation from the Merrit Brown system with some complications in the project. The tracks for normal march were 66 cm in width; wide tracks were necessary to allow for a good performance in soft terrains. The 75 mm cannon, 70 calibers long, was equipped with 79 shells, and could penetrate a 140 mm plate from 1000 meters afar, and this, along with the protection offered by the thick and sloped frontal plates, made the Panther able to render the Allied tanks out of action without suffering damage from enemy fire. The US Army recognized that five Sherman could be needed to knock out a Panther, and around 5000 Panthers had been produced at the end of the Second World War. After 1943, the Germans needed, more than improvements in the quality of the projects, a larger number of tanks, and because of this the Panther was simplified to ease the production. The sides of the hull were inclined even more and the cover was made thicker to improve protection. The gearbox was improved to overcome the problems caused by the additional weight.

Between 1944 and 1945 3900 Panthers were built, which was in larger number than any other German tank in that period. Despite its complexity and the high production cost, the Panther was a fortunate project, and in opinion of many, one of the best - if not the best of all - tanks produced during the Second World War. Its gasoline engine and the complexity of maintenance constituted clear inconveniences, but this tank was a decisive support for the PanzerDivisions equipped with the aged but continually enhanced PzKpfw IV. From the chassis of the Panther were developed a recovery vehicle for the engineers corps and a small series of almost 400 units modified as tank destroyer, equipped with the long cannon Pak 43 88 mm L/71 mounted in a fixed supestructure; the Jagdpanther, as this vehicle was called, was not less successful than the Panther.

PzKpfw V Panther medium tank

Three views of a PzKpfw V Panter Ausf A, version that followed the Ausf D. Note the machine gun swivel mount in the hull and the monocular gunsight.

Crew: 5

Armament: One KwK 42 L/70 75-millimeter cannon, one MG 34 7.92 millimeters co-axial machine gun, one MG 34 7.92-millimeter machine gun in the hull

Ammunitions: 79 x 75-millimeter cannon, 4500 x 7.92-millimeter machine guns

Armor: 20-120 millimeters

Length (total): 8.66 meters

Length (hull): 6.68 meters

Width: 3.3 meters

Width (with armored skirts): 3.43 meters

Height: 2.95 meters

Weight: 45 tonnes

Ground clearance: 56 centimeters

Ground pressure: 0.88 kilograms/square centimeter

Power to weight ratio: 15 horsepower/tonne

Engine: Maybach HL230 P30 with 12 cylinders in V, refrigerated by water, developing 700 horsepower at 3000 revolutions per minute

Speed (road): 46 kilometers/hour

Speed (cross-country): 24 kilometers/hour

Range: 100-200 kilometers

Maximum surmountable trench: 2.5 meters

Maximum surmountable step: 0.9 meters

Maximum surmountable slope: 35 degrees

Maximum fording: 1.4 meters

PzKpfw V Panther (SdKfz 171) Ausf. G

PzKpfw V Panther medium tank

1 - L/70 75 mm cannon :: 2 - 7.92 mm MG 34 co-axial machine gun :: 3 - 7.92 mm MG 34 machine gun :: 4 - Ventilator :: 5 - Commander's cuppola/hatch :: 6 - Cannon bed :: 7 - TZF 12a telescopic sight :: 8 - Load/escape hatch :: 9 - Commander's microphone and headphones :: 10 - Radio operator's hatch :: 11 - Turret rotation mechanism :: 12 - Elevation wheel :: 13 - Engine fan :: 14 - Entry for refrigeration air :: 15 - 75 mm ammunition :: 16 - Elevation compensation mechanism :: 17 - Cannon compensation mechanism :: 18 - Container for 75 mm fired shells sheats :: 19 - Maybach engine :: 20 - Cannon cleaning equipment :: 21 - Replacement tracks :: 22 - Machine gun ammunition :: 23 - Gunner's seat :: 24 - Radio operator's seat :: 25 - Instruments panel :: 26 - Container for 7.92 mm fired shells sheats :: 27 - Hydraulic rotation mechanism :: 28 - Compressor :: 29 - Brake control :: 30 - Steering lever :: 31 - Driver's seat :: 32 - Machine gun firing pedal :: 33 - Refrigeration duct for brake :: 34 - Gearbox :: 35 - Brake :: 36 - Oil pump :: 37 - Batteries :: 38 - Transmission final gear :: 39 - Drive sprocket :: 40 - Return roller :: 41 - Suspension top :: 42 - Shock absorber :: 43 - Suspension bearing for oscillating arm :: 44 - Suspension crank arm :: 45 - Interspersed wheels :: 46 - Idler :: 47 - Torsion bar suspension

Article updated: 2014-12-24

Categories: Tanks - World War Two - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2014-07-17

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