Panzer III was the common name of a medium tank that was developed in the 1930s by Germany and was used extensively in World War II. The official German designation was Panzerkampfwagen III Sd Kfz. 141 (abbreviated PzKpfw III) translating as “armoured fighting vehicle”. It was intended to fight other armoured fighting vehicles and serve alongside the infantry-supporting Panzer IV; however, as the Germans faced the formidable T-34, stronger anti-tank guns were needed. Since the Panzer IV had a bigger turret ring, the role was reversed. The Panzer IV mounted the long barreled 7.5 cm KwK 40 gun and engaged in tank-to-tank battles. The Panzer III became obsolete in this role and for most purposes was supplanted by the Panzer IV. From 1942, the last version of Panzer III mounted the 7.5 cm KwK 37 L/24, better suited for infantry support. Production of the Panzer III ended in 1943. However, the Panzer III’s capable chassis provided hulls for the Sturmgeschütz III until the end of the war.
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Panzer III at the Deutsches Panzermuseum – German Tank Museum.
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At the time, German (non-light) tanks were expected to carry out one of two primary tasks when assisting infantry in breakthroughs, and exploit gaps in the enemy lines where opposition had been removed, moving through and attacking the enemy’s unprotected lines of communication and the rear areas. The first task was direct combat against other tanks and other armoured vehicles, requiring the tank to fire armour piercing (AP) shells.
On January 11, 1934, following specifications laid down by Heinz Guderian, the Army Weapons Department drew up plans for a medium tank with a maximum weight of 24,000 kg (53,000 lb) and a top speed of 35 km/h (22 mph). It was intended as the main tank of the German Panzer divisions, capable of engaging and destroying opposing tank forces, and was to be paired with the Panzer IV, which was to fulfill the second use: dealing with anti-tank guns and infantry strong points, such as machine-gun nests, firing high-explosive shells at such soft targets. Such supportive tanks designed to operate with friendly infantry against the enemy generally were heavier and carried more armour.
The direct infantry-support role was to be provided by the turret-less Sturmgeschütz assault gun, which mounted a short-barrelled gun on a Panzer III chassis.
Daimler-Benz, Krupp, MAN, and Rheinmetall all produced prototypes. Testing of these took place in 1936 and 1937, leading to the Daimler-Benz design being chosen for production. The first model of the Panzer III, the Ausführung A. (Ausf. A), came off the assembly line in May 1937; ten, two of which were unarmed, were produced in that year. Mass production of the Ausf. F version began in 1939. Between 1937 and 1940, attempts were made to standardize parts between Krupp’s Panzer IV and Daimler-Benz’s Panzer III.
Much of the early development work on the Panzer III was a quest for a suitable suspension. Several varieties of leaf-spring suspensions were tried on Ausf. A through Ausf. D, usually using eight relatively small-diameter road wheels before the torsion-bar suspension of the Ausf. E was standardized, using the six road wheel design that became standard. The Panzer III, along with the Soviet KV heavy tank, was one of the early tanks to use this suspension design first seen on the Stridsvagn L-60 a few years earlier.
A distinct feature of the Panzer III, influenced by British Vickers tanks (1924), was the three-man turret. This meant that the commander was not distracted with another role in the tank (e.g. as gunner or loader) and could fully concentrate on maintaining awareness of the situation and directing the tank. Most tanks of the time did not have this capability, providing the Panzer III with a combat advantage versus such tanks. For example, the French Somua S-35’s turret was manned only by the commander, and the Soviet T-34 originally had a two-man turret crew. Unlike the Panzer IV, the Panzer III had no turret basket, merely a foot rest platform for the gunner.
The Panzer III was intended as the primary battle tank of the German forces. However, when it initially met the KV-1 and T-34 tanks it proved to be inferior in both armour and gun power. To meet the growing need to counter these tanks, the Panzer III was up-gunned with a longer, more powerful 50-millimetre (1.97 in) gun and received more armour but still was at disadvantage compared with the Soviet tank designs. As a result, production of self-propelled guns, as well as the up-gunning of the Panzer IV was initiated.
In 1942, the final version of the Panzer III, the Ausf. N, was created with a 75-millimetre (2.95 in) KwK 37 L/24 cannon, the same short-barreled low-velocity gun used for the initial models of the Panzer IV and designed for anti-infantry and close-support work. For defensive purposes, the Ausf. N was equipped with rounds of HEAT ammunition that could penetrate 70 to 100 millimetres (2.76 to 3.94 in) of armour depending on the round’s variant, but these were strictly used for self-defence.
The Panzer III Ausf. A through C had 15 mm (0.59 in) of rolled homogeneous armour on all sides with 10 mm (0.39 in) on the top and 5 mm (0.20 in) on the bottom. This was quickly determined to be insufficient, and was upgraded to 30 mm (1.18 in) on the front, sides and rear in the Ausf. D, E, F, and G models, with the H model having a second 30 mm (1.18 in) layer of face-hardened steel applied to the front and rear hull. The Ausf. J model had a solid 50 mm (1.97 in) plate on the front and rear, while the Ausf. J¹, L, and M models had an additional layer of offset 20 mm (0.79 in) homogeneous steel plate on the front hull and turret, with the M model having an additional 5 mm (0.20 in) Schürzen spaced armour on the hull sides, and 8 mm (0.31 in) on the turret sides and rear. This additional frontal armor gave the Panzer III frontal protection from many light and medium Allied and Soviet anti-tank guns at all but close ranges. However, the sides were still vulnerable to many enemy weapons, including anti-tank rifles at close ranges.
The Panzer III was intended to fight other tanks; in the initial design stage a 50-millimetre (1.97 in) gun was specified. However, the infantry at the time were being equipped with the 37-millimetre (1.46 in) PaK 36, and it was thought that, in the interest of standardization, the tanks should carry the same armament. As a compromise, the turret ring was made large enough to accommodate a 50-millimetre (1.97 in) gun should a future upgrade be required. This single decision later assured the Panzer III a prolonged life in the German Army.
The Ausf. A to early Ausf. G were equipped with a 3.7 cm KwK 36 L/45, which proved adequate during the campaigns of 1939 and 1940, but the later Ausf. F to Ausf. J were upgraded with the 5 cm KwK 38 L/42 and the Ausf. J¹ to M with the longer 5 cm KwK 39 L/60 gun in response to increasingly better armed and armoured opponents.
By 1942, the Panzer IV was becoming Germany’s main medium tank because of its better upgrade potential. The Panzer III remained in production as a close support vehicle. The Ausf. N model mounted a low-velocity 7.5 cm KwK 37 L/24 gun – these guns had originally been fitted to older Panzer IV Ausf A to F1 models and had been placed in storage when those tanks had also been up armed to longer versions of the 75 mm gun.
All early models up to and including the Ausf. G had two 7.92-millimetre (0.31 in) MG 34 machine guns mounted coaxially with the 37 mm main gun and a similar weapon in a hull mount. Models from the Ausf. F and later, upgraded or built with a 5 or 7.5 cm main gun, had a single coaxial MG 34 and the hull MG34.
The Panzer III Ausf. A through D were powered by a 250 PS (184 kW), 12-cylinder Maybach HL 108 TR engine, giving a top speed of 35 km/h (22 mph). All later models were powered by the 300 PS (221 kW), 12-cylinder Maybach HL 120 TRM engine. Regulated top speed varied, depending on the transmission and weight, but was around 40 km/h (25 mph).
The fuel capacity was 300 l (79 US gal) in Ausf A-D, 310 l (82 US gal) in Ausf. E-G and 320 l (85 US gal) in all later models. Road range on the main tank was 165 km (103 mi) in Ausf. A-J, the heavier later models had a reduced range of 155 km (96 mi). Cross-country range was 95 km (59 mi) in all versions.
- Weight 23.0 tonnes (25.4 short tons)
- Length 5.56 m (18 ft 3 in)
- Width 2.90 m (9 ft 6 in)
- Height 2.5 m (8 ft 2 in)
- Crew 5 – commander, gunner, loader, driver, radio operator/bow machine-gunner.
- Armour Ausf A-C: 15 mm all around
- Ausf D-G: 30 mm all around
- Ausf J+: 50 mm all around
- 1 × 3.7 cm KwK 36 Ausf. A-G
- 1 × 5 cm KwK 38 Ausf. F-J
- 1 × 5 cm KwK 39 Ausf. J¹-M
- 1 × 7.5 cm KwK 37 Ausf. N
- 2–3 × 7.92 mm Maschinengewehr 34
- 12-cylinder Maybach HL 120 TRM
300 PS (296 hp, 220 kW)
- 12 hp (9.6 kW) / tonne
- Torsion-bar suspension
- 165 km (103 mi)
- Road: 40 km/h (25 mph)
- Off-road: 20 km/h (12 mph)
- Designer – Daimler-Benz
- Designed – 1935–1937
- Manufacturer – Daimler-Benz
- Produced – 1939–1943
- No. Built – 5,774 excluding StuG III.
Shipping Panzer III Abroad
The Japanese government bought two Panzer IIIs from their German allies during the war (one 50 mm and one 75 mm). Purportedly this was for reverse engineering purposes, since Japan put more emphasis on the development of new military aircraft and naval technology and had been dependent on European influence in designing new tanks. By the time the vehicles were delivered, the Panzer III’s technology was obsolete.
- Panzer III Ausf. A – Prototype 15 ton vehicle; only 8 armed and saw service in Poland. Armed with 3.7 cm KwK 36 L/46.5 main gun and two coaxial 7.92 mm MG34 machine guns, and had a 250 PS HL 108 engine. Entered service in 1937 and taken out of service in 1940. It had a FuG 5 radio and a 360° hand-cranked turret.
- Panzer III Ausf. B – Prototype 15 ton vehicle; some saw service in Poland. Entered service in 1937 and put out of service in 1940. They were reused as a training vehicle after 1940. They had slightly thicker armour, and an eight-wheel suspension rather than the five-wheel suspension with coil springs.
- Panzer III Ausf. C – Prototype 16-ton vehicle; some saw service in Poland, but were put out of service soon after. Slightly different suspension, which used leaf springs, than previous models.
- Panzer III Ausf. D – Prototype; some saw service in Poland and Norway, but withdrawn from service soon after. Turret upgraded to 30 mm front, side and back. Hull armour remained the same. Hull rear was redesigned, and five vision slits added to the hull. Suspension slightly changed.
- Panzer III Ausf. E – Fifth version of the Panzer III with 30 mm (1.2 in) armour all-round, other than the rear of the vehicle, which increased the weight to 20 t (22 short tons). Suspension redesigned, switching from leaf-springs to torsion-bars, now using six larger roadwheels per side. Had a 300 PS HL 120 engine.
- Panzer III Ausf. F – improved Ausf. E, first mass-production version, late production armed with 5 cm KwK 38 L/42 main gun.
- Panzer III Ausf. G – Ausf F. with extra armour on the gun mantlet, late production armed with 5 cm KwK 38 L/42 main gun.
- Panzer III Ausf. H – 5 cm KwK 38 L/42 as standard gun. Bolt-on armour added to front and rear hull (30 mm base + 30 mm plates).
- Panzer III Ausf. I – A variant that was mentioned by Allied intelligence, but never existed. Possibly confused with the Ausf. J.
- Panzer III Ausf. J – The most common variant of the Panzer III, which served in North Africa and the Eastern Front. Hull and turret front armour increased to solid 50 mm plate. Spaced armour was placed around the gun mantlet. Some were produced with 5 cm KwK 39 L/60 gun and later redesignated Ausf. L.
- Panzer III Ausf. K – Panzerbefehlswagen command tank variant based on the Ausf. M with a modified turret. Carried actual main armament rather than a dummy gun as found on other Panzer III command versions.
- Panzer III Ausf. L – Redesignated Aus. J equipped with long 5 cm gun, 20 mm stand-off armour plates on hull and turret front.
- Panzer III Ausf. M – Minor modifications of the ausf. L such as deep-wading exhaust and Schürzen side-armour panels.
- Panzer III Ausf. N – Infantry support tank, armed with a short-barrelled 7.5 cm KwK 37 L/24 gun. 700 were produced or re-equipped from 1942 and 1943.
Panzerbefehlswagen III – Command Tank Variant
Issued with long-range radios. Ausf. D, E and H: dummy main gun; Ausf. J and K: armed with 5 cm gun.
Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf D1
The Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf D1 was the first of a series of command tanks based on the Panzer III, produced when it became clear that the kleine Panzerbefehlswagen was not large enough for the role.
The Pz Bef Wg Ausf D1 was based on the last pre-production version of the Panzer III, and shared the same suspension as the Ausf D, with eight road wheels supported in pairs by two small and one large leaf spring.
The Ausf D1 was designed not to stand out. The main gun and all the equipment associated with it had been removed to make way for extra radio equipment, and so a dummy gun barrel was put in place. The main turret itself was bolted in place and as a result the turret mounted machine gun, which was the only weapon carried on the Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf D1, had a limited 60 degree traverse.
The main identifying feature of the Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf D1 was the large frame antenna required for the FuG 8, which resembles a hand rail placed around the rear deck of the tank.
The different Sd Kfz numbers refer to the radio equipment installed – FuG6 and FuG8 on the Sd Kfz 267 and FuG6 and FuG7 on the Sd Kfz 268. As later versions of the Panzer III were converted to act as command tanks, the Sd Kfz numbers would remain the same.
The Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf D1 served in Poland and France. In 1939 each Panzer detachment, regiment and brigade was meant to have one in its Stab (Headquarters) unit, but only 38 of the Ausf D1 and Ausf E models had been completed by 1 September 1939. A similar number were available eight months later, at the start of the campaign in the west.
They were withdrawn from service early in 1941 for the same reason as the original Ausf D – the poor performance of the suspension system. The use of a relatively large number of command tanks allowed the German tank commanders to lead from the front, giving them a priceless tactical advantage over their more numerous and technically superior French opponents.
The Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf E
The Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf E was the second command tank to be based on the Panzer III. It was based on the standard Panzer III Ausf E but with the same modifications as on the earlier Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf D1. These saw the main gun replaced by a dummy gun, the hull machine gun removed, the turret bolted in place and the addition on an extra long range radio set. Like the Ausf D1, the Ausf E could be recognised by the distinctive frame antenna on the rear deck.
The different Sd Kfz numbers refer to the radio equipment installed:
- Sd Kfz 266: FuG6 (ultra short wave) and FuG2.
- Sd Kfz 267: FuG6 (ultra short wave) and FuG8 (medium wave).
- Sd Kfz 268: FuG6 (ultra short wave) and FuG7 (ultra short wave).
The Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf E entered service at the start of 1940, and took part in the invasion of France and the Low Countries. It remained in service throughout the war, although in ever decreasing numbers.
Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf H
The Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf H was the third version of command tank based on the Panzer III, and was based on the standard Panzer III Ausf H. Like the earlier Ausf D1 and Ausf E, the Ausf H featured a dummy main gun, had its turret bolted in place and had a distinctive frame antenna on the rear deck. In early production the dummy gun resembled the 3.7cm gun of the early Panzer III, but later in the run a mock 5cm gun was used instead.
The Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf H was produced in two batches. The first, for 145, was ordered in January 1939, although production did not get under way until November 1940! In October 1941, after the completion of the first batch, another thirty were ordered, delaying the production of the more heavily armed Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf K.
The different Sd Kfz numbers refer to the radio equipment installed:
- Sd Kfz 266: FuG6 (ultra short wave) and FuG2
- Sd Kfz 267: FuG6 (ultra short wave) and FuG8 (medium wave)
- Sd Kfz 268: FuG6 (ultra short wave) and FuG7 (ultra short wave)
The increased production of Panzerbefehlswagen meant that each Panzer detachment and regiment could be given a second command tank, while they also began to appear with the signals units and in smaller units. A total of 120 Panzerbefehlswagen IIIs were available at the start of Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941. The heavy losses suffered by the German tank forces meant that one year later only 75 remained.
- Bergepanzer III – Armoured Recovery Vehicles – In 1944, 176 Panzer IIIs were converted to armoured recovery vehicles. Mostly issued to formations with Tiger I tanks.
- Flammpanzer III Ausf. M / Panzer III (Fl) – Flamethrower tank. – 100 built on new Ausf. M chassis.
- Panzerbeobachtungswagen III – Forward artillery observer tank. – 262 converted from older Panzer III Ausf. E to H.
- Tauchpanzer III – Some tanks were converted to amphibious tanks for Operation Sea Lion. Unusually, they were designed to be able to stay underwater rather than to float. The idea was that they would be launched near to the invasion shore and then drive to dry land on the sea bottom. The tank was waterproofed, the exhaust was fitted with a one-way valve and air intake was through a hose.
Panzer III Chassis Used for Other Vehicles
- Sturm-Infanteriegeschütz 33B – A close-support assault gun. Armed with a 15 cm sIG 33, 24 built. 12 used and lost in Stalingrad.
- Sturmgeschütz III – Assault gun/tank destroyer armed with a 75-millimetre (2.95 in) gun. Was the most produced German armored fighting vehicle during World War II.
- The Soviet SU-76i – Self-propelled gun was based on the chassis of captured German Panzer III and StuG III. About 201 of these vehicles, many captured in the battle of Stalingrad, were converted at Factory No. 37 in 1943 for Red Army service by removing the turret, constructing a fixed casemate, and installing a 76.2-millimetre (3.00 in) S-1 gun (cheaper version of the F-34) in a limited-traverse mount. The armour was 35 millimetres (1.38 in) thick on the casemate front, 50 millimetres (1.97 in) in the hull front, and 30 millimetres (1.18 in) on the hull side. It was issued to tank and self-propelled gun units starting in autumn 1943, and withdrawn to training use in early 1944. Two SU-76i survive: one on a monument in the Ukrainian town of Sarny and a second on display in a museum on Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow. It should not be confused with the Soviet SU-76 series.
The Panzer III was used in the campaigns against Poland, France, the Soviet Union and in North Africa. A handful were still in use in Normandy, Anzio, Norway, Finland, and in Operation Market Garden in 1944.
In the Polish and French campaigns, the Panzer III formed a small part of the German armoured forces. Only a few hundred Ausf. A through F were available in these campaigns, most armed with the 37-millimetre (1.46 in) gun. They were the best medium tank available to the Germans at the time.
Around the time of Operation Barbarossa, the Panzer III was numerically the most important German tank. At this time, the majority of the available tanks including re-armed Ausf. E and F, plus new Ausf. G and H models had the 50-millimetre (1.97 in) KwK 38 L/42 cannon, which also equipped the majority of the tanks in North Africa. Initially, the Panzer IIIs were outclassed by Soviet T-34 and KV tanks. However, the most numerous Soviet tanks were the T-26 and BT tanks. This, along with superior German tactical skill, crew training, and the good ergonomics of the Panzer III all contributed to a favourable kill ratio for German tanks of all types in 1941.
With the appearance of the T-34 and KV tanks, rearming the Panzer III with a longer, more powerful 50-millimetre (1.97 in) gun was prioritized. The T-34 was generally invulnerable in frontal engagements with the Panzer III until the 50 mm KwK 39 L/60 gun was introduced on the Panzer III Ausf. J¹ in the spring of 1942 (the gun was based on the infantry’s 50 mm Pak 38 L/60). This could penetrate the T-34 frontally at ranges under 500 metres (1,600 ft). Against the KV tanks, it was a threat if armed with special high velocity tungsten rounds. In addition, to counter anti-tank rifles, in 1943 the Ausf. L version began the use of spaced armour skirts (Schürzen) around the turret and on the hull sides. However, due to the introduction of the upgunned and uparmoured Panzer IV, the Panzer III was, after the Battle of Kursk, relegated to secondary roles, such as training, and it was replaced as the main German medium tank by the Panzer IV and the Panther.
The Panzer III chassis was the basis for the turretless Sturmgeschütz III assault gun, one of the most successful self-propelled guns of the war, and the single most-produced German armoured fighting vehicle design of World War II.
By the end of the war, the Panzer III saw almost no frontline use and many vehicles had been returned to the factories for conversion into StuG assault guns, which were in high demand due to the defensive warfare style adopted by the German Army by then.
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