Panther is the common name of a medium tank deployed by Nazi Germany in World War II from mid-1943 to the end of the European war in 1945. It was intended as a counter to the Russian T-34, and as a replacement for the Panzer III and Panzer IV. While never replacing the latter, it served alongside it and the heavier Tiger 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 post-war tank designs, and it is regarded as one of the best tanks 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 designation.
The Panther tank was a compromise of various requirements. While having essentially the same engine as the Tiger I tank, it had better frontal armor (including the benefit of a sloped armor, increasing effective armor depth), better gun penetration, was lighter and thus faster, and could traverse rough terrain better than the Tigers. The tradeoff was weaker side armor. The Panther proved to be deadly in open country and long range engagements, but vulnerable in 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.
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 when 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.
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 breakdowns 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. Nevertheless, the Panther tank commanded respect from the Allies, and its combat capabilities led directly to the introduction of heavier Allied tanks such as the Soviet IS-2 and the American M26 Pershing into the war.
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Panther from Breda, Netherlands
Panther 222 – Oorlogsmuseum Museum – Overloon, Netherlands
Panther at the Grandmenil Crossroads, Belgium
Houffalize Panther – Belgium
During the von Rundstedt attack, the Germans abandoned many vehicles along the road. The Panther Mark V tank belonged to the 116th Panzer Division, this one invaded Houffalize on December 19th 1944.
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The Panther was born out of a project that started in 1938 to replace the Panzer III and Panzer IV tanks. The initial requirements of the VK 20 series called for a fully tracked vehicle weighing 20 tonnes and design proposals by Krupp, Daimler Benz, and MAN ensued. These designs were abandoned and Krupp dropped out of the competition entirely as the requirements increased to a vehicle weighing 30 tonnes, a direct reaction to the encounters with the Soviet T-34 and KV-1 tanks and against the advice of Wa Pruef 6. The T-34 outclassed the existing models of the Panzer III and IV. At the insistence of General Heinz Guderian, a special tank commission was created 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 effective armor thickness against penetration, the wide track, which improved mobility over soft ground, and the 76.2 mm (3 in) gun, which had good armor penetration and fired an effective high explosive round. Daimler-Benz (DB), which designed the successful Panzer III and StuG III, and Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg AG (MAN) were given the task of designing a new 30- to 35-tonne tank, designated VK 30.02, by April 1942.
The VK 30.02(DB) design resembled the T-34 in its hull and turret and was also to be powered by a diesel engine. It was driven from the rear-drive sprocket with the turret situated forward. The incorporation of a diesel engine promised increased operational range, reduced flammability and allowed for more efficient use of petroleum reserves. Hitler himself considered a diesel engine imperative for the new tank. DB’s proposal used an external leaf spring suspension, in contrast to the MAN proposal of twin torsion bars. Wa Pruef 6’s opinion was that the leaf spring suspension was a disadvantage and that using torsion bars would allow greater internal hull width. It also opposed the rear drive because of the potential for track fouling. Daimler Benz still preferred the leaf springs over a torsion bar suspension as it resulted in a silhouette about 200 mm (7.9 in) shorter and rendered complex shock absorbers unnecessary. The employment of a rear-drive provided additional crew space and also allowed for a better slope on the front hull, which was considered important in preventing penetration by armor-piercing shells.
The MAN design embodied a more conventional configuration, with the transmission and drive sprocket in the front and a centrally mounted turret. It had a petrol engine and eight torsion-bar suspension axles per side. Because of the torsion bar suspension and the drive shaft running under the turret basket, the MAN Panther was higher and had a wider hull than the DB design. The Henschel firm’s design concepts for their Tiger I tank suspension/drive components, using its characteristic Schachtellaufwerk format – large, overlapping, interleaved road wheels with a slack-track using no return rollers for the upper run of track, also features shared with almost all German military half-track designs since the late 1930s were repeated with the MAN design for the Panther. These multiple large, rubber-rimmed steel wheels distributed ground pressure more evenly across the track. The MAN proposal also complemented Rheinmetall’s already designed turret modified from that of the VK 45.01 (H), and used a virtually identical Maybach V12 engine to the Tiger I heavy tank’s Maybach HL230 powerplant model.
The two designs were reviewed from January to March 1942. Reichminister Todt, and later, his replacement Albert Speer, both recommended the DB design to Hitler because of its advantages over the initial MAN design. At the final submission, MAN refined its design, having learned from the DB proposal apparently through a leak by a former employee in the Wa Pruef 6, senior engineer Heinrich Ernst Kniepkamp and others. On 5 March 1942, Albert Speer reported that Hitler considered the Daimler-Benz design to be superior to MAN’s design. A review by a special commission appointed by Hitler in May 1942 selected the MAN design. Hitler approved this decision after reviewing it overnight. One of the principal reasons given for this decision was that the MAN design used an existing turret designed by Rheinmetall-Borsig, while the DB design would have required a brand new turret and engine to be designed and produced, delaying the commencement of production. This time-saving measure compromised the subsequent development of the design
Albert Speer recounts in his autobiography Inside the Third Reich:
‘Since the Tiger had originally been designed to weigh fifty tons but as a result of Hitler’s demands had gone up to fifty-seven tons, we decided to develop a new thirty-ton tank whose very name, Panther, was to signify greater agility. Though light in weight, its motor was to be the same as the Tiger’s, which meant it could develop superior speed. But in the course of a year, Hitler once again insisted on clapping so much armor on it, as well as larger guns, that it ultimately reached forty-eight tons, the original weight of the Tiger.’
A mild steel prototype of the MAN design was produced by September 1942 and, after testing at Kummersdorf, was officially accepted. It was put into immediate production. The start of production was delayed, mainly because of a shortage of specialized machine tools needed for the machining of the hull. Finished tanks were produced in December and suffered from reliability problems as a result. The demand for this tank was so high that the manufacturing was soon expanded beyond MAN to include Daimler-Benz (Berlin-Marienfelde, former DMG plant), Maschinenfabrik Niedersachsen Hanover (MNH, a subsidiary of Eisenwerk Wülfel/Hanomag) and the Tiger I’s original designer, Henschel & Sohn in Kassel.
The initial production target was 250 tanks per month at the MAN plant at Nuremberg. This was increased to 600 per month in January 1943. Despite determined efforts, this figure was never reached due to disruption by Allied bombing, and manufacturing and resource bottlenecks. Production in 1943 averaged 148 per month. In 1944, it averaged 315 a month with 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. Front-line combat strength peaked on 1 September 1944 at 2,304 tanks, but that same month a record number of 692 tanks were reported lost.
The Allies directed bombing at the common chokepoint for both Panther and Tiger production: the Maybach engine plant. This was bombed the night of 27/28 April 1944 and production halted for five months. A second factory had already been planned, the Auto Union Siegmar plant (the former Wanderer car factory), and this came online in May 1944. The targeting of Panther factories began with a bombing raid on the DB plant on 6 August 1944, and again on the night of 23/24 August. MAN was struck on 10 September, 3 October and 19 October 1944, and then again on 3 January and 20/21 February 1945. MNH was not attacked until 14 and 28 March 1945.
In addition to interfering with tank production goals, the bombing forced a steep drop in the production of spare parts, which as a percentage of tank production dropped from 25–30 percent in 1943 to 8 percent in late 1944. This compounded the problems with reliability and with the numbers of operational Panthers, as tanks in the field had to be cannibalized for parts.
The Panther was the third most-produced German armored fighting vehicle, after the Sturmgeschütz III assault gun/tank destroyer at 9,408 units, and the Panzer IV tank at 8,298 units.
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