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Countdown to Bagration: the tanks of Bagration – German Panzerkampfwagen V Sd.Kfz. 171 (aka Panther)

by on August 9, 2012

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*Sorry this one is so long… but its my personal favorite tank, so bear with me*

The Panther tank was a compromise of various requirements. While sharing essentially the same engine as the Tiger I tank, it had better frontal armor (including the benefit of a sloping angle, increasing effective armor depth), better gun penetration, was lighter overall and thus faster, and could handle rough terrain better than the Tigers. The tradeoff was weaker side armor; the Panther proved to be deadly in open country and shooting from long range, but vulnerable to close-quarters combat. Also, the 75 mm gun fired a slightly smaller shell than the Tiger’s 88 mm gun, providing less high explosive firepower against infantry, though it was still quite effective.

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The Panther was also far cheaper to produce than the Tiger tanks, and only slightly more expensive than the Panzer IV, as its design came to fruition at the same time that the Reich Ministry of Armament and War Production was making great efforts to increase war production. Key elements of the Panther design, such as its armor, transmission and final drive, were compromises made specifically to improve production rates and address Germany’s war shortages, whereas other elements such as its highly compact engine and its complex suspension system remained with their elegant but complicated engineering. The result was that Panther tank production was far higher than what was possible for the Tiger tanks, but not much higher than what had been accomplished with the Panzer IV. At the same time, the simplified final drive became the single major cause of breakdowns of the Panther tank, and was a problem that was never corrected.

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The Panther tank arrived in 1943 at a crucial phase in World War II for Germany. Rushed into combat at the Battle of Kursk with un-corrected teething problems, which resulted in break downs and other equipment failures, the Panther tank would thereafter only be fighting outnumbered in Germany’s steady retreat against the Allies for the remainder of World War II. Its success as a battlefield weapon was thus hampered by Germany’s generally declining position in the war, with the loss of airpower protection by the Luftwaffe, the loss of fuel and training space, and the declining quality of tank crews.

The engine compartment space was designed to be watertight so that the Panther could be submerged and cross waterways. The result was that the engine compartment was poorly ventilated and prone to overheating. The fuel connectors in the early models were non-insulated, leading to leakage of fuel fumes into the engine compartment. This led to many engine fires in the early Panthers. Additional ventilation was added to draw off these gasses, which mitigated but did not completely solve the problem of engine fires. Other measures taken to reduce this problem included improving the coolant circulation inside the motor and adding a reinforced membrane spring to the fuel pump.  The Panther had a solid firewall separating the engine compartment and the fighting compartment to keep engine fires from spreading.  The engine became more reliable over time. A French assessment of their stock of captured Panthers in 1947 concluded that the engine had an average life of 1,000 km (620 mi) and maximum life of 1,500 km (930 mi).

The suspension consisted of front drive sprockets, rear idlers and eight double-interleaved rubber-rimmed steel road wheels on each side, suspended on a dual torsion bar suspension. 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 by this heavy tank over undulating terrain. However, the extra space required for the bars running across the length of the bottom of the hull, below the turret basket, increased the overall height of the tank and also prevented an escape hatch in the hull bottom. When damaged by mines, the torsion bars often required a welding torch for removal.

Initial production Panthers had a face-hardened glacis plate (the main front hull armor piece), but as armor-piercing capped rounds became the standard in all armies (thus defeating the benefits of face-hardening, which caused uncapped rounds to shatter), this requirement was deleted on March 30, 1943. By August 1943, Panthers were being built only with a homogeneous steel glacis plate. The front hull had 80 mm of armor angled at 55 degrees from the vertical, welded but also interlocked for strength. The combination of well-sloped and thick armor meant that few Allied or Soviet weapons could penetrate this part of the tank.

The armor for the side hull and superstructure (the side sponsons) was much thinner (40–50 mm). The thinner side armor was necessary to keep the 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 emphasized the importance of flank protection. Five millimeter thick skirt armor, known as Schürzen, intended to provide protection for the lower side hull from Soviet anti-tank rifle fire was fitted on the hull side. Zimmerit coating against magnetic mines started to be applied at the factory on late Ausf D models beginning in September 1943; an order for field units to apply Zimmerit to older versions of the Panther was issued in November 1943. In September 1944, orders to stop all application of Zimmerit were issued, based on rumors that hits on the Zimmerit had caused vehicle fires.

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The main gun was a 7.5 cm Rheinmetall-Borsig KwK 42 (L/70) with semi-automatic shell ejection and a supply of 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 it was of only average caliber for its time, the Panther’s gun was one of the most powerful tank guns of World War II, 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 Panther’s 75 mm gun had more penetrating power than the main gun of the Tiger I heavy tank, the 8.8 cm KwK 36 L/56, although the larger 88 mm projectile might inflict more damage if it did penetrate.

The tank typically had 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. In later Ausf A and all Ausf G models (starting in late November-early December 1943), a ball mount in the glacis plate with a K.Z.F.2 machine gun sight was installed for the hull machine gun.

The Panther demonstrated its capacity to destroy any Soviet AFV from long distance during the Battle of Kursk, and had a very high overall kill ratio. However, it comprised less than seven percent of the estimated 2,400–2,700 total AFVs deployed by the Germans in this battle, and its effectiveness was limited by its mechanical problems and the in-depth layered defense system of the Soviets at Kursk. Its greatest historical role in the battle may have been a highly negative one—its contribution to the decisions to delay the original start of Operation Zitadelle for a total of two months, time which the Soviets used to build up an enormous concentration of minefields, anti-tank guns, trenches and artillery defenses.

After the losses of the Battle of Kursk, the German Army went into a permanent state of retreat against the Red Army. The numbers of Panthers were slowly re-built on the Eastern Front, and the operational percentage increased as its reliability was improved. In March 1944, Guderian reported: “Almost all the bugs have been worked out,” although many units continued to report significant mechanical problems, especially with the final drive. The greatly outnumbered Panthers came to be used as mobile reserves to fight off major attacks.

The highest total number of operational Panthers on the Eastern Front was achieved in September 1944, when some 522 were listed as operational out of a total of 728. Throughout the rest of the war, Germany continued to keep the great majority of Panther forces on the Eastern Front, where the situation progressively worsened for the Germans. The last recorded status, on March 15, 1945, listed 740 on the Eastern Front with 361 operational. By this time the Red Army had entered East Prussia and was advancing through Poland.

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From → Flames of War

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