In this instalment of our series on Military Blueprints, we look at the German Panther Tank
The German Panzerkampfwagen V, more commonly known as the Panther, was produced by Nazi Germany from mid 1943 til 1945. The Panther was intended to counter Soviet T-34 tanks and replace the Panzer III and the Panzer IV, which were then in service. Nevertheless, it served alongside the Panzer IV and heavier tanks, until the end of the war.
Learning from combat with Soviet tanks, the Panther incorporated thick sloped frontal armour and a powerful gun. The front plate had more effective thickness than that of the Tiger 1 but the Panther’s side armour was woefully thin. The frontal plate could only be penetrated by the most powerful anti-tank guns, whereas the side armour could be penetrated by anti-tank rifles. Lighter than the Tiger but with the same engine, it was able to achieve greater speeds on and off road. It was also far cheaper to produce, roughly comparable to the Panzer IV in cost. Many of it’s design features, such as it’s armour and transmission, were simplified to speed up production and to cope with material shortages.
Despite being classified as a medium tank it’s weight is more comparable to contemporary heavy tanks. The Panther weighed more than allied ‘heavy’ tanks, such as the US M26 Pershing and the British Churchill.
The first Panthers to see combat were at the Battle of Kursk. These tanks had been rushed to the front before proper testing and were subsequently plagued with mechanical problems. 200 had been delivered prior to the battle. 2 were destroyed in engine fires getting off of the train. When the battle began on the 5th of July 1943, 186 were available, within two days there were only 40 working. General Heinz Guderian’s initial assessment of the Panther stated ” On the evening of 11 July, 38 Panthers were operational, 31 were total write-offs and 131 were in need of repair.”. Despite its early issues, the Panther proved its ability to destroy any Soviet Armour at great range. At Kursk it had racked up an impressive kill count and as time passed, the reliability of the Panther increased. By March 1944 just over half of all Panthers on the Eastern Front were available for battle.
During the Warsaw Uprising, two Panthers were captured and subsequently operated by the Polish Home Army. These tanks were used extensively and helped to liberate the Gęsiówka concentration camp within Warsaw. After running out of fuel the tanks were abandoned and burnt to prevent recapture.
Although the majority of Panthers served on the eastern front they played a significant role on the western front. 38% of German tanks in Normandy were Panthers.
Following the Normandy landings, many Panther equipped divisions concentrated around the city of Caen. Here they checked the advance of Anglo-Canadian forces. The many open fields around Caen allowed the Panthers to engage in preferable terrain. However, the British divisions were armed with the powerful, 17-pounder anti-tank gun, making the open fields just as dangerous to the Germans.
American armour encountered Panthers in the low-lying bocage terrain West of Caen. The Panther, like all tanks, struggled in the bocage country of Normandy, and was vulnerable to side and close-in attacks in hedgerows and urban combat. The Commander of the Panzer Lehr Division, General Fritz Bayerlein still appreciated the Panther’s virtues when used in the right conditions, writing: “An ideal vehicle for tank battles and infantry support. The best tank in existence for its weight”.
Through September and October 1944, Panzerbrigades, with Panthers, were rushed to Northern France. At the battle of Arracourt, these forces suffered heavy losses against the 4th Armoured Division. Here the Panther units were newly formed, poorly trained and tactically disorganised; most ended up stumbling into ambushes against seasoned U.S. tank crews.
During the Battle of the Bulge, the Panther once again demonstrated its prowess in open country, where it could hit its targets at long range with near-impunity, and its vulnerability in the close-in fighting of the small towns of the Ardennes. A secret commando raid, Operation Greif, was planned with 5 Panthers disguised as US M10 Tank Destroyers, accompanied by SS troops in American and British uniforms. However the disguised tanks were detected and destroyed before the raid could commence.
Panther turrets were used extensively as fixed fortifications along numerous defensive lines. Some 182 were installed on the Atlantic Wall and the Siegfried Line; another 48 on the Gothic and Hitler Line; and 36 on the Eastern Front. These proved to be costly to attack and tough to destroy. Several whole Panther tanks were dug into streets during the Battle of Berlin to serve as impromptu bunkers.
As the reliability of the tank improved over the course of the war, the quality of its crew decreased, hampering the effectiveness of the tank. Additionally the lack of important materials used in the construction of the armour meant that late war Panthers had incredibly brittle armour. US testing showed that 75 mm high explosive shells would cause huge cracks to form in armour from captured Panthers.
A technologically sophisticated tank, the Panther combined protection, mobility and firepower and was arguably the forebear to modern Main Battle Tanks.