Agile but dangerous and hard to beat, that’s the simplest thing to imagine the Panther, the finest German tank of World War II. For those who love history and military science, the Panther has become the subject of a mythology out of all proportion to its actual effectiveness as a weapon of war.
The fact that the Panther was a highly successful tank, its revolutionary design greatly influenced the first generation of Western main battle tanks.
In the summer of 1941, the Nazis unexpectedly launched a war to invade the Soviet Union, and won many great victories. However, a small number of modern Red Army tanks, such as the T-34 and KV-1, were a surprise to the Germans. In the early stages of Operation Barbarossa, the Germans only had to face small groups of KV and T-34/76 tanks and were able to destroy them thanks to the unorganized disorder of the Red Army and the crew’s inexperience. But the later the situation became more difficult for the German army when the Red Army produced more T-34s, moreover they reorganized and coordinated active defense, interspersed with counter-attacks.
Compared to the Soviet T-34-76 medium tank, the German Panzer III and Panzer IV tanks were much weaker in terms of firepower, mobility and protection. Against this backdrop, the Wehrmacht was in urgent need of a medium tank with good mobility, armor, and firepower. A completely new design was started, taking into account lessons learned from studying the T-34.
Daimler-Benz and MAN were ordered to design new tanks based on the study. In assessing the T-34, the German team found that the keys to its effectiveness were its 76.2 mm gun, wide road wheels, and sloping armor. Utilizing this data, DB and MAN delivered proposals to the Wehrmacht in April 1942.
In fact, early design models of the Panther resembled the T-34 in both looks and layout. However, the Panther Committee decided in favor of more conventional engineering and this resulted in the unique Panther design. This design was made by MAN, using a three-man turret, the new tank was higher and wider than the T-34 and was powered by a 690 hp gasoline engine. That was the original design of the Panther medium tank.
It was not until 1943, the mass production of new tanks began with the participation of many manufacturers, mainly MAN, MNH and Daimler-Benz, each company accounts for about one-third of all tanks. Panther was produced mainly with three versions: Ausf.D, Ausf.A and Ausf.G, with variants of command tanks, military vehicles and so on. Initially, this tank was designated as the Panzer V, but in early 1944, Hitler changed its name to Panther. This name was also very suitable for the high maneuverability and power of this vehicle.
Once built, the Panther would be 6.87m long, 3.27m wide, and 3m high. Though officially classified as a medium tank, its weight was more like that of a heavy tank, as its weight of 44.8 tons puts it roughly in the same category as the American M26 Pershing, British Churchill and the Soviet IS-2 heavy tanks. It was propelled by a V-12 Maybach gasoline-powered engine of about 690 horsepower.
The tank had a very high power-to-weight ratio, making it extremely mobile regardless of its tonnage. It could reached a top speed of 55 km/h, with a range of 200km. However, its weight still caused logistical problems, such as an inability to cross certain bridges.
The Panther design featured sloping frontal armor and the suspension was provided by torsion-bar axles, consisted of front drive sprockets. In order to fit eight axles to each side, the tank’s sixteen rubber-rimmed steel road wheels on each side were interleaved – in the so-called Schachtellaufwerk design. This resulted in uniform weight distribution and low ground pressure.
The dual torsion bar system, designed by Professor Ernst Lehr, allowed for a wide travel stroke and rapid oscillations with high reliability, thus allowing for relatively high speed travel over undulating terrain. The interleaved road wheel system made replacing inner road wheels time consuming.
The interleaved wheels also had a tendency to become clogged with mud, rocks and ice, and could freeze solid overnight in the harsh winter weather that followed the autumn rasputitsa mud season on the Eastern Front. Shell damage could cause the road wheels to jam together and become difficult to separate. Interleaved wheels had long been standard on all German half-tracks.
The Panther Tank was armed with a long barrelled high velocity 75mm 42 L/70 gun that could knock out most Allied and Soviet tanks at long distances. It had an effective direct fire range of 1.1 to 1.3 km and it was provided with a Turmzielfernrohr 12 binocular gun sight. With a good gun crew it could fire six rounds a minute. It had an elevation range of -8 degrees to +20 degrees.
This gun was primarily designed as a tank killer: it had a very high muzzle velocity and was capable of penetrating 150mm of armor at a range of one kilometer. 79 rounds of 75 mm ammunition could be stored inside the tank. The early Panther tanks were not fitted with an armoured ball mount for the 7.92 mm MG34 machine gun. A rectangular ‘letterbox’ slit was cut into the front sloping glacis plate to enable the radio operator to fire his machine gun when necessary.
On early Panther turrets there was a circular side communication hatch. It could be used for loading shells and throwing out used shell casings. The commander’s cupola was drum shaped and had six viewing ports of 90 mm thick bullet proof glass. There was a circular escape hatch at the rear of the turret with a handle above it. Starting on August 1st, 1943 an anti-aircraft machine gun mount was added to the cupola.
Initial production Panthers had a face-hardened glacis plate, but as armour-piercing capped rounds became the standard in all armies, this requirement was deleted in March 1943. By August 1943, Panthers were being built only with a homogeneous steel glacis plate. The front hull had 80mm of armour angled at 55 degrees from the vertical, welded but also interlocked with the side and bottom plates for strength.
The armour for the side hull and superstructure was much thinner. The Lower front plate was 60 mm thick and at an angle of 55 degrees. The armour used on the lower hull side was 40 mm thick and vertical. The sloped upper side armor was also 40 mm thick but at an angle of 40 degrees. The top deck of the panther chassis and the belly armor were both 16 mm thick. The turret front and rounded gun mantle was made of armor 100 mm thick. Panther crews were aware of the weak side armour and made augmentations by hanging track links or spare roadwheels onto the turret and the hull sides.
The German designers added protective skirt armor made from 4 mm soft steel to protect the visible 40 mm chassis side armor visible between the top of the track and below the pannier. It was believed this area would be vulnerable to penetration at close range by Soviet anti-tank rifles. The Schuerzen protective skirt armor was added starting in April 1943.
The Panther had 5 crew members, the commander, gunner, loader, driver and radio operator. The commander, loader and gunner were in the turret, While the driver and radio operator were in the hull of the vehicle. The driver sat always on the front-left side of the tank and next to him was the tank´s machine gunner whose job it was to operate the radio.
Panther tanks were used extensively throughout the Eastern front as well as in the Normandy and Ardennes campaigns in the West. The Panthers could destroy any Allied tanks that they came across with their heavy 75mm gun. The common ratio used by most Allied tankers was that it would take five Sherman or Churchill tanks to defeat one Panther, since the Allied guns were too weak to penetrate the Panther’s frontal armor. They would have to get two tanks to “distract it” while two or three others swung around behind and tried to pierce the weaker side or rear armor before the Panther could get around to smoking them.
The Panther was a compromise. While having essentially the same engine as the Tiger I, it had more efficient frontal hull armour, better gun penetration, was lighter and faster, and could traverse rough terrain better than the Tiger I. The trade-off was weaker side armour, which made it vulnerable to flanking fire. The Panther proved to be effective in open country and long range engagements, but did not provide enough high explosive firepower against infantry.
The Panther was far cheaper to produce than the Tiger I, and only slightly more expensive than the Panzer IV. Key elements of the Panther design, such as its armour, transmission, and final drive, were simplifications made to improve production rates and address raw material shortages.
The Russian tank soldiers envied the Panthers as well, and would often just repaint captured or abandoned German Panthers so they could use them instead of their own T-34s. The Soviet Union actually even translated the entire German Panther Operation Manual into Russian so that Soviet troops could use captured vehicles because the Panthers were awesome.
The Panthers were virtually unstoppable when they faced Allied mechanized or armored divisions. Fortunately for everyone in the world, they eventually succumbed to overwhelming Allied air superiority.
The overall design remained somewhat over-engineered. The Panther was rushed into combat at the Battle of Kursk despite numerous unresolved technical problems, leading to high losses due to mechanical failure. Most design flaws were rectified by late 1943 and early 1944, though the bombing of production plants, increasing shortages of high quality alloys for critical components, shortage of fuel and training space, and the declining quality of crews all impacted the tank’s effectiveness.
In short, the Panther was a very successful tank, its revolutionary design greatly influenced the first generation of the main battle tanks in the West. They continued to be used after the war in many countries such as France, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. In addition, France also relied on Panther to design AMX-50 heavy tanks, unfortunately did not go into production.
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