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The Panther was a tank fielded by Nazi Germany in World War II that served from mid-1943 to the end of the European war in 1945. It was intended as a counter to the T-34, and to replace the Panzer IV and III, though it served along with them and the heavy tanks until the end of the war. The Panther's excellent combination of firepower, mobility, and protection served as a benchmark for other nations' late war and immediate post-war tank designs and it is frequently regarded (along with the Soviet T-34-85) as the best tank design of World War II.
Until 1944 it was designated as the Panzerkampfwagen V Panther and had the Ordnance inventory designation of Sd.Kfz. 171. On 27 February 1944, Hitler ordered that the Roman numeral V be deleted from the tank's designation.
Panther Tank Development and Production
The Panther was a direct response to the Soviet T-34. First encountered on 23 June 1941, the T-34 decisively outclassed the existing Panzer IV and Panzer III. At the insistence of General Heinz Guderian a team was dispatched to the Eastern Front to assess the T-34. Among the features of the Soviet tank considered most significant were the sloping armor, which gave much improved shot deflection and also increased the apparent armor thickness against penetration, the wide track and large road wheels which improved mobility over soft ground, and the 76.2 mm gun, which had good armour penetration and fired an effective high-explosive round. Daimler-Benz (DB) and Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg AG (MAN) were tasked with designing a new thirty to thirty-five-ton tank, designated VK3002, by April 1942 (apparently in time to be shown to Hitler for his birthday).
The two proposals were delivered in April 1942. The Daimler-Benz (DB) design was a direct homage to the T-34, side-stepping the German propensity for over-engineering and, hence, complexity, to produce a clean, simple design resembling the T-34 in hull and turret form, diesel engine, drive system, leaf spring suspension, track layout, and other features. In the DB design, like the T-34 design, the internal crew layout provided for two men: the commander would also have to serve as the gunner. This provided the advantage of a smaller, inexpensive turret design, as well as manpower savings, and a smaller target for enemy gunners to hit during a battle.
The MAN design was more conventional German thinking: it was higher and wider with a substantial turret placed centrally on the hull, a petrol engine, torsion-bar suspension, and a characteristically German internal crew layout for three men: commander, gunner, and loader. The MAN design was accepted in May, 1942 in spite of Hitler's preference for the DB design. One of the principal reasons for this was that the MAN design used an existing turret designed by Rheinmetall-Borsig while the DB design would have required a brand new turret to be designed and produced, substantially delaying the commencement of production.
A mild steel prototype was produced by September 1942 and, after testing at Kummersdorf, was officially accepted. It was put into immediate production with the very highest priority. 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 out of MAN to include Daimler-Benz and in 1943 the firms of Maschinenfabrik Niedersachsen-Hannover (MNH) and Henschel & Sohn in Kassel.
The initial production target was 250 tanks per month at MAN. This was increased to 600 per month in January 1943. Despite determined efforts this figure was never reached due to disruption by Allied bombing, manufacturing bottlenecks, and other difficulties. Production in 1943 averaged 148 per month. In 1944, it averaged 315 a month (3,777 having been built that year), peaking with 380 in July and ending around the end of March 1945, with at least 6,000 built in total. Strength peaked on September 1, 1944 at 2,304 tanks, but that same month a record number of 692 tanks were reported lost (source: T.L. Jentz (1999) Die deutsche Panzertruppe Band 2).
If the over-hanging gun and sloping armor are ignored, the Panther was a conventional German design. The weight of the production model had increased to 43 tonnes from the planned 35.
The Panther was the first Axis tank design where modern features were more prominent than early WWII-era ones. Once the problems caused by the vulnerability of the engine and the transmission were solved, it proved to be a very effective fighting vehicle, being as effective as heavier Allied tanks.
Engine of the Panther Tank
The Panther was powered by a 700 PS (690 hp, 515 kW)/3000 rpm, 23.1 litre Maybach HL 230 P30 V-12 petrol engine that drove two front drive sprockets via the gearbox and steering unit. The engine was generally considered reliable, and had a fatigue life of up to 2000 kilometers. In order to minimize engine failures, the Panther engines were fitted with a governor in late 1943 that limited the engine revolutions to 2500 rpm and power to 600 PS (592 hp, 441 kW). The installation of the governor also dropped the tank's top speed from 55 km/h to 46 km/h.
Panther Tank Suspension
The suspension consisted of front drive sprockets, rear idlers and eight double-interleaved rubberized steel bogie wheels on each side, suspended on a dual torsion bar suspension that had two torsion bars per each swing arm. The Panther's suspension was costly and time-consuming to manufacture. This interleaved system made replacing inner bogies time consuming and the whole set up was prone to freezing solid overnight in severe Russian winters.
Steering of the Panther Tank
Tank control was accomplished through a seven-speed AK 7-200 synchromesh gearbox, designed by ZF, and a MAN single radius steering system, operated by steering levers. The steering system allowed a single, fixed radius of turn at each gear. The higher the gear, the bigger was the turning radius. If the radius was bigger than desired, the steering brakes could be used to tighten the turn.
The weakest parts in the tank were, throughout its career, the final drive units. The main reason for this was that the units could not be manufactured using hollow gears, due to the shortage of suitable gear-cutting machinery in Germany during the war. The final drives were in fact so weak that their fatigue life was sometimes as low as 150 km
Panther Tank Crew
The crew was made up of five members: driver, radio operator (who also fired the bow machine gun), gunner, loader, and commander.
The armour consisted of a thick homogeneous steel glacis (i.e. frontal hull) plate sloped back at 55 degrees from the vertical, welded but also interlocked for strength. The combination of thick 80 mm armor with a high degree of slope made the Panther's glacis armour extremely effective: very few Allied or Soviet weapons could penetrate it. The front of the turret was covered by a 100 mm thick cast mantlet, made in the shape of a semi-circle. The curved shape of the mantlet meant that it was more likely to deflect shells. But it was discovered that the rounded mantlet created a shot-trap: if a non-penetrating hit bounced downwards off the lower mantlet, it could penetrate the thin forward hull roof armor, and plunge down into the front crew compartment. Penetrations of this nature could have had catastrophic results since the front crew compartment housed the driver and radio operator sitting along both sides of the massive gearbox and steering unit combination, topped with the radio equipment. From September 1944, a redesigned mantlet with a much thicker "chin" design was fitted to the Panther G, the chin being intended to prevent such deflections.
The main weakness of the Panther tank was its much thinner (40-50 mm thick) side armour. The thinner side armour was necessary to keep the tank's overall weight within reasonable bounds, but it made the Panther vulnerable to attacks from the side by most Allied and Soviet tank and anti-tank guns. German tactical doctrine for the use of the Panther thus emphasised the importance of flank protection. Five millimeter skirt armour, Schürzen, intended to provide protection for the lower side hull from Soviet anti-tank rifle fire was fitted on the hull side. Zimmerit ceramic coating against magnetic mines also became standard with the Ausf. A, and retrofitted to older versions until deleted from new Panthers from about September 1944.
The main gun was a semi-automatic 7.5 cm Rheinmetall-Borsig KwK 42 (L/70) with 79 rounds (82 on 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 the gun was of only average caliber for its time, nonetheless, the Panther's gun was one of the most powerful tank guns of WWII, due to the large propellant charge and the long barrel, which gave it a very high muzzle velocity and excellent armor-piercing qualities. The flat trajectory also made hitting targets much easier, since accuracy was less sensitive to range. The 75 mm gun actually had more penetrating power than the 8.8 cm KwK 36 L/56 gun, although not the 8.8 cm KwK 43 L/71 fitted to the Jagdpanther, in which the weapon was known as the 8.8 cm Pak 43/3.
The tank had normally two MG 34 machine guns of a specific version designed for use in armored combat vehicles featuring an armored 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. Later Ausf A and all Ausf G models use a more conventional ball mount in the glacis for this machine gun. The Ausf A introduced a new cast commander's 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 Panther was intended to supplement the Panzer IV and replace the Panzer III medium tanks. Each German Panzer (armored) Division had two tank battalions; the intent was to equip one battalion in each division with Panthers, retaining the lighter, older, but still useful Panzer IV in the other battalion. Beginning in mid-1943, battalions were gradually converted to Panthers.
The Panther first saw action at Kursk on July 5, 1943. Early tanks were plagued with mechanical problems: the track and suspension often broke, and the engine was dangerously prone to overheating and bursting into flames. At Kursk, more Panthers were disabled by their own failings than by enemy action. For example, the XLVIII Panzer Corps reported on July 10, 1943, that they had 38 Panthers operational and 131 awaiting repair, out of about 200 they had started with on July 5. Heinz Guderian, who had not wanted Hitler to order them into combat so soon, later remarked about the early Panther's performance in the battle: "they burnt too easily, the fuel and oil systems were insufficiently protected, and the crews were lost due to lack of training." Guderian also stated, however, that the firepower and frontal armor were good. While many of the Panthers used at Kursk were damaged or suffered from mechanical difficulties, only a small number were lost for good and the tanks also achieved success, destroying 263 Soviet tanks.
After Kursk, the tanks suffering from damage or mechanical breakdowns were repaired and the inherent design problems of the early Ausf. D models were fixed, making the Panther a truly formidable tank. Later in 1943 and, especially, into 1944 Panthers appeared in increasing numbers on the Soviet-German front. By June 1944, Panthers were about one-half of the German tank strength both in the east and the west. The Panther was increasingly commonly encountered by Allied forces and by the end of the war it was the third most produced German armored fighting vehicle.
Perhaps the best known German Panther commander was SS-Oberscharführer Ernst Barkmann of the 2nd SS-Panzer Division "Das Reich".
The Allied response
The Soviet response to the large numbers of Panthers on their front was swift. In 1943 the Red Army was still equipped with T-34 tanks armed with the same 76.2 mm gun as in 1941. This gun was ineffective against the Panther's frontal armor, meaning the Soviet tanks had to try to flank the Panther to be able to successfully destroy it, while the Panther's main gun could penetrate the T-34 at long range from any angle. Plans were made to improve the T-34 with an 85 mm gun and new and more spacious three-man turret, producing the T-34-85. Although this tank was not quite the equal of the Panther, it was much better than the 76.2 mm-armed versions and made up for its quality shortcomings by being produced in greater quantities than the Panther. New self-propelled anti-tank vehicles based on the T-34 hull, such as the SU-85 and SU-100, were also developed. By mid-1944, the Red Army was deploying far more T-34-85s than the Germans had Panthers.
A German comparison of German tanks with the new Soviet T-34-85 and IS-2 heavy tank (with a 122 mm gun), from March 23, 1944, stated that "the Panther is far superior to the T-34/85 for frontal fire (Panther Ausf G could penetrate frontal armor of T-34/85 at 2,000 m, while T-34/85 could penetrate frontal armor of Panther Ausf G at 500 m), approximately equal for side and rear fire, superior to the IS-2 for frontal fire and inferior for side and rear fire." In 1943 and 1944, a Panther was able to destroy any Allied enemy tank in existence at ranges of 2,000 m, while in general veteran Panther crews reported a 90 percent hit rate at ranges up to 1,000 m. The Panther weighed about as much as the new Soviet IS-2 heavy tank, and indeed this vehicle is a closer match than the much lighter T-34.
The Western Allies' response was inconsistent. The Panther was not employed against the western Allies until early 1944 at Anzio, where Panthers were employed in small numbers. The Panther was thought to be another heavy tank that would not be built in large numbers. Thus the US Army entered the Battle of Normandy expecting to face a handful of German heavy tanks alongside large numbers of Panzer IVs. In fact almost half the German tanks in Normandy were Panthers and the 75 mm guns of the US Sherman tanks could not penetrate their frontal armor.
US forces eventually responded with large numbers of 76 mm-armed Shermans, 90 mm-armed tank destroyers, and eventually the Pershing heavy tank. Even with these better weapons it was still difficult to penetrate the frontal armor of the Panther.
British forces responded to the heavier German tanks with the 17-pounder gun mounted in the Sherman (the Sherman Firefly), as well as towed 17-pounders. By the conclusion of the Normandy campaign, British forces were fielding roughly a 1:4 ratio of Fireflys to 75 mm Shermans in their tank units. Eventually they deployed the Comet tank in 1945.
The Panther remained a major German tank until the end of the war. Later versions of the Panzer IV with long 75 mm KwK 40 L/48 guns were slightly cheaper to produce and more reliable, and so they remained in production alongside the Panther. However, the main reason for the prolonged Panzer IV production was that the reorganization of the German tank industry to manufacture Panthers rather than Panzer IVs would have resulted in such a temporary decrease in overall tank production that it would have been unbearable for Germany when the tide of war had already turned.
Around the time of the Battle of the Bulge, a number of Panther tanks were disguised to look roughly like an M10 Wolverine by welding on additional plates, applying US-style camouflage paint and markings. This was carried out as part of a larger operation that involved paradropping soldiers disguised as Americans, and other activities. These deception attempts were uniformly unsuccessful and the disguised Panthers were detected and destroyed.
Captured Panthers proved to be extremely popular vehicles among Soviet troops, who received them as rewards for extraordinary achievements in combat, and who sought to keep them in service as long as possible, contrary to regulations that captured Panthers should not be repaired but abandoned and destroyed after mechanical failure. Even the humorous instruction manual for German Panther crews, called the Pantherfibel (Panther Primer), was translated into Russian and provided to crews of captured Panthers.
British 6th Guards Tank Brigade captured one Panzerkampfwagen V Panther Ausführung G medium tank around the time of Ardennes offensive.
Further development of the Panther Tank
Design work on the Panther II began in February 1943. The main aim was to secure maximum interchangeability of parts with the Tiger II heavy tank in order to ease manufacturing. The Panther II had a hull similar to the Tiger Ausf. B, and also shared identical wheels, track, suspension and brakes. One of the parts to be changed was the gun-mantlet, which had to become smaller. This was referred to in German as Turm mit schmaler Blende (narrow-mantlet turret).
The Panther II project never got further than one single chassis, that now can be seen in the Patton Museum.
The only other significant differences between the Panther and the Panther II were running gear, and increased armor protection. The turret was exactly the same on both types. The Panther II was only designed with the 7.5 cm KwK L/70 in mind, and the 8.8 cm KwK L/71 idea didn't enter into consideration after the Panther II project had been dropped.
Later in the war, in March 1944, work started again on a Panther turret with a smaller forward aspect. This led to the development of the Schmalturm (narrow turret). In August a Versuchsturm (trials turret) was completed. This was mounted on the chassis of a regular Panther Ausf. G. The Schmalturm featured thicker armour, a built-in stereoscopic rangefinder, the capability to carry the 88 mm KwK L/71 and eliminated the shot-trap under the mantle, but weighed less than the original turret. A partially destroyed example of a production Schmalturm still exists, and is on display at the Bovington Tank Museum.
In that same period, development of the Panther led to the Ausf. F, slated for production in April 1945. The key points for this mark of Panther were the new Schmalturm with its improved armor protection, and an extended front hull roof which was also slightly thicker. A number of Ausf. F hulls were built at Daimler-Benz and Ruhrstahl-Hattingen steelworks; however there is no evidence that any completed Ausf F saw service before the end of the war.
Designs based on chassis
Production of the Panther Tank
Panther use after the Second World War
After 1945, fifty Panther tanks had been used by French 503e Régiment de Chars de Combat stationed in Mourmelon le Grand. Before the end of 1950, the Panther tanks had been replaced by French-built ARL 44 heavy tanks
Twenty-four Panthers survive in reasonably good condition. Three - held by the Kubinka_Tank_Museum in Russia, the Musée des Blindés in France and the Wehrtechnische Studiensammlung in Koblenz, Germany - are in running condition. A fourth, in the United States Army Ordnance Museum, is currently being restored to running condition. A unique Panther Ausf. D (probably one of the last) is displayed in the Wilhelmina park in Breda, The Netherlands. This tank is donated by the 1st Polish Armed Division.
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