Professional historians and military history buffs alike often describe the German Panther tank as the best German tank, and perhaps the best tank overall, of the second world war. It had a powerful and accurate high-velocity 75mm gun, its frontal armor was almost invulnerable to most allied anti-tank weapons, and it had a powerful engine, broad tracks and a suspension system that gave it high speed, excellent cross-country capability and a smooth ride. What more could a tanker want?
In truth a tanker could ask for much more. The Panther’s story is rife with examples of automotive problems. The combat debut of the Panther, during the great German Kursk offensive in 1943 (Operation Citadel), was not particularly auspicious. Two tanks from the initial detachment burned out from engine fires just getting off of the trains! It brought a whole new meaning to the phrase “baptism of fire”.
American and British soldiers who faced the Panther in battle had much praise for the tank (if one would use the word “praise” for a feared adversary). While it never achieved the “bogey monster” proportions of the Tiger tank, it was far more often seen in combat, and was indeed the bane of allied tankers. German officers who commanded tank units seemed a little more reserved in their commentary.
And yet the Panther was a developmental dead-end. Many second world war vehicles and weapons went on to years or even decades of post-war service. And many had their key design components “borrowed” for further use in post-war designs. This was true of US, Soviet, and British weapons, but of German weapons as well. The German Me-109 fighter was produced and further developed by both Spain and Czechoslovakia, and remained in service in modified form until the early 1960s. So also the He-111 bomber. Mauser rifles were the backbones of several post-war armies. Some versions of German armored vehicles, such as halftracks and tank hunters (Jagd Panzers) remained in production and saw post-war developmental changes. But the Panther was a dead end.
Almost. But not quite.
The British managed to build a small number of Panthers immediately after the war, using German technicians and components that had been delivered to the assembly factory before it was overrun. Some nations in Eastern Europe operated units equipped with captured Panthers until the spares were used up. But these nations were under the heavy hand of the Soviets, and had heavy restrictions on their militaries in the immediate post-war period. So the Panther units in the East were mostly ceremonial or reserve in nature, and saw little in the way of doctrinal development or maneuvers. And those nations of Eastern Europe that built tanks adopted Soviet designs for new production, so that no engineering was carried forward with design concepts from the Panther.
However, in the West the French also operated Panther units post-war. Here, as the French re-built their own domestic weapons industry, there was a greater willingness to borrow concepts from the Panther or any other available German design. Indeed several post-war French designs showed considerable influence from German wartime armored vehicles. But to determine what aspects of the Panther to use, what aspects to copy and refine, or what aspects to abandon, the French had first to examine the true operational utility of the Panther tank. This makes the French post-war observations of the Panther particularly interesting.
American soldiers who faced the Panther in combat were almost universal in the high marks they gave to the Panther’s features.
By 1945 the outcry from US Army tankers had reached the ears of General Eisenhower too many times. In March of 1945 he wrote to the commanding generals of both the US 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions on the subject of the Panther, stating:
From time to time I find short stories where some reporter is purportedly quoting non-commissioned officers in our tank formations to the effect that our men, in general, consider our tanks very inferior in quality to those of the Germans. …
Our men, in general, realize that the Sherman is not capable of standing up in a ding-dong, head-on fight with a Panther. Neither in gun power nor in armor is the present Sherman justified in undertaking such a contest. On the other hand, most of them realize that we … do not want unwieldy monsters; that our tank has great reliability, good mobility, and that the gun in it has been vastly improved. Most of them feel also that they have developed tactics that allow them to employ their superior numbers to defeat the Panther tank as long as they are not surprised and can discover the Panther before it has gotten in three or four good shots. …
The above, however, are mere impressions I have gained through casual conversations. I am writing you … with the request that at your earliest convenience you write me an informal letter giving me … a digest of the opinions of your tank commanders, drivers, gunners, and so on, on these general subjects.
General White, commander of the 2nd Armored Division, felt it necessary to preface his reply to General Eisenhower by asking him to make allowances “for the traditional enthusiasm displayed by the American soldier when he is given (or takes!) the opportunity to express himself in regard to any possible shortcomings in his … equipment.” This, because the commentary about the Panther painted a rather bleak comparative picture.
But it was not just “the American soldier” who offered such a bleak assessment. General Collier, commander of Combat Command A of White’s 2nd Armored Division, offered this assessment:
The consensus of opinion of all personnel in the 66th Armored Regiment is that the German tank and anti-tank weapons are far superior to the American in the following categories:
• Superior flotation.
• Greater mobility. This is directly contrary to the popular opinion that the heavy tank is slow and cumbersome.
• The German guns have a much higher muzzle velocity and no tell-tale flash. The resulting flat trajectory gives great penetration and is very accurate.
• The 90-mm, although an improvement, is not as good as either the 75 or 88. …
• German tank sights are definitely superior to American sights. These, combined with the flat trajectory of the guns, give great accuracy.
• German tanks have better sloped armor and a better silhouette than the American tanks
Not a happy comparison.
German officers were not quite so universal in their praise of the Panther. General Fritz Bayerlein, commander of the Panzer Lehr Division, offered this summary of the Panther after the campaign in Normandy:
While the PzKpfw IV could still be used to advantage, the PzKpfw V [Panther] proved ill adapted to the terrain. The Sherman because of its maneuverability and height was good ... [the Panther was] poorly suited for hedgerow terrain because of its width. Long gun barrel and width of tank reduce maneuverability in village and forest fighting. It is very front-heavy and therefore quickly wears out the front final drives, made of low-grade steel. High silhouette. Very sensitive power-train requiring well-trained drivers. Weak side armor; tank top vulnerable to fighter-bombers. Fuel lines of porous material that allow gasoline fumes to escape into the tank interior causing a grave fire hazard. Absence of vision slits makes defense against close attack impossible.
It seems that perhaps some of the “traditional enthusiasm” General White had foretold existed perhaps on both sides.
This background perspective, from general officers commanding both American and German tank formations, heightens the interest in a balanced and impartial perspective.
This is a perspective that the French can provide.
The French made a concerted effort to re-build their national military might in the wake of the second world war. In addition to legitimate concerns for national defense in the burgeoning cold war, France also had colonial interests in several parts of the world, and sought to regain its position as a political power on the world stage.
French army units had been re-equipped with American equipment, and trained in American doctrine, beginning in 1943. Several French units fought with considerable elan and were highly praised by American and British officers during the campaigns in Italy and France in 1944 and 45.
One of the First Panthers Examined by the Western Allies was this Panther Ausf. A, Captured in Running Condition by French Forces in Italy, 25 March 1944
But in the post-war period France sought an independent path for its arms. Production was re-started on variety of military goods including small arms and artillery. But the technology of armored vehicles had advanced rapidly during the war years. France had no domestic tank designs that were worthy of production in the post-war era.
So, in addition to US equipment provided through the lend-lease and post-war military aid programs, the French collected the many hundreds of Panther tanks that lay derelict across their nation, and put a concerted effort into rehabilitating those that could be made operational. They put these into service in the 501st and 503rd Armored Regiments.
The French 503rd Regiment on Maneuvers with Panther Tanks in 1947
The 503rd operated a full battalion of 50 Panthers, along with a battalion of American-made Sherman tanks, through 1947. The 501st also operated Panthers until 1949 – with almost twice as much time in Panthers as any German formation.
In 1947 a report on the Panther was published by the Ministre de la Guerre, Section Technique de L’Armee, Groupement Auto-Char (Ministry of War, Army Technical Section, Tank Group). This report, titled “Le Panther, 1947” captured the French observations and recommendations for operating the Panther tank.
Following are excerpts from this report:
The turret traverse drive is not strong enough to either turn the turret or hold it in place when the Panther is on an incline of more than 20 degrees. The Panther is therefore not capable of firing when driving cross-country.
Combat reports from WW2 indicated that Sherman tanks often were able to obtain the first shot in combat with Panther tanks. This limitation in turret action may well be one of the contributing factors.
Elevating the gun is normally simple, but made difficult if the stabilizer operated by compressed nitrogen has lost pressure.
Here the French are describing a pneumatic elevation assist to help hold the great weight of the KwK 42 gun. The gun had no “stabilizer” in the sense of the gyro-stabilization unit of the Sherman tank.
The commander's cupola with its 7 periscopes provides a nearly perfect all -round visibility. Periscopes damaged by shells can be replaced very quickly.
A scissors periscope with large magnification power was affixed to a bracket in the commander's cupola.
Later model Sherman tanks also had commanders’ cupolas with 360-degree visibility. But this feature did not appear commonly in US tanks until 1944 production. Several allied reports give high credit to the visibility of German tank cupolas from as early as 1940.
Aside from his periscope gun sight ( which is excellent), the gunner has no other type of observation device. He is therefore practically blind, one of the greatest shortcomings of the Panther.
The gunsight with two magnification stages is remarkably clear and has its field of view clear in the center. The gunsight enables observation of a target and shells out to over 3000 meters.
Once the commander has located a target, it takes between 20 and 30 seconds until the gunner can open fire. This data, which is significantly greater than that of the Sherman, stems from the absence of a periscope for the gunner.
The French have identified a key aspect that is missing from American comparisons and criticisms of the gunsights in Sherman tanks as compared to Panther (and other German) tanks. Yes the German optics were good. Clarity was excellent, and ranging reticles were more effective. Yet it was observed in combat reports that US gunners were able to find and get their sights on target faster. [Chieftain's Note: To be clear, this is part of the hand-off process from the commander to the gunner. With a fixed zoom on the gunsight, his field of vision is limited. As a result, the commander directing the gunner onto the target must lay the gunner on to a higher degree of accuracy before the gunner can even see the target in his field of vision to identify or aim at it. American tanks have a unity (Unmagnified) sight to give the gunner situational awareness of where he needs to lay in order to see the target in the high-power sight. On the M1A1 Abrams, the x3/x10 toggle switch performs the same role with one sight]
No type of hollow charge ammunition is planned for the Panther.
The HE shell can be fired with a delay of 0.15 seconds.
The PzGr 40 had better penetration out to 1500 meters than the PzGr 39, but then its trajectory drops off considerably.
The delay described for the HE round would be a delay in the operation of the fuze. The delayed setting would be used so that the round could penetrate light cover before exploding. A setting such as this would be used for firing at infantry or AT guns in buildings or behind sand-bags.
PzGr 40 was a light round with a tungsten-cored penetrator, equivalent to APCR (Armored Piercing, Composite Rigid) for the British, Arrowhead or Hard-Core in Russian terminology, and HVAP in US Army Ordnance language. PzGr 39 was the more common full-bore AP round. The Panther’s KwK 42 gun actually fired a revised version of this projectile, called the PzGr 39/42.
During rapid rate of fire it is not uncommon to be forced to break off firing when the recoil of the gun has reached its permissible limit (cease fire).
A rate of fire of 20 rounds per minute is only permitted in exceptional cases when circumstances so dictate.
These refer to a limitation in the gun of the Panther. The recoil mechanism required time to recuperate from the forces of repeatedly firing the gun. After a few rounds, the gun needed a period of cease-fire. This is not uncommon for high-velocity cannons.
When firing off a round the chassis demonstrates no unfavorable reaction, regardless of what position the turret is in.
The Panther was a large vehicle. The suspension provided very good stability. Some tanks demonstrate adverse effects from firing, particularly when firing to the sides. But not the Panther.
The fatigue life of the mechanical parts was designed for 5000 km. The wear on many parts is greater than expected. Track and running gear have a life of 2000 to 3000 km. Tracks break very rarely, even on rocky terrain. The bogie wheels, however, can become deformed when driven hard.
The parts of the power train (with the exception of the final drive) meet the planned fatigue life. The replacement of a transmission requires
less than a day.
These comments, from operational experience, highlight that many aspects of the Panther were in fact quite comparable in reliability to American or British contemporaries. [Chieftain's Note: As an aside, when on the 'phone with Tom Jentz, he was quite adamant about the fact that though the M4 had a huge reputation for reliability, there was no documentary evidence to prove this. In all fairness, I have not seen any either: We'd be looking for a 'mean time between failures' figure. Operational Readiness rates, for example (eg Xth Armor Battalion had 99 working tanks out of 100 on any particular day) may simply reflect the efficiency of the supply chain or ease of repair work to commonly failing components, not the chance that the tank will break down to begin with. Not having seen such, I take no firm position.]
On the other hand, the engine was not operable over 1500 km. The average engine life amounted to 1000 km. Engine replacement accomplished in 8 hours by an Unteroffizier (mechanic by occupation) and 8 men with the aid of a tripod beam crane or a Bergepanther [recovery tank based on the Panther]. Main gun can be replaced using the same equipment within a few hours. The German maintenance units performed their work remarkably well
As a result, the Panther is in no way a strategic tank. The Germans did not hesitate to economically increase the engine life by loading the tank onto railcars even for very short distances (25 km).
The reference to a “strategic tank” is telling. Mid- to late-war US and British tanks, such as the Sherman, Cromwell and Comet, were expected to cover long distances under their own power as and when needed. The Panther could not be counted upon to do this.
The truly weak spot of the Panther is its final drive, which is of too weak a design and has an average fatigue life of only 150 km.
[Chieftain's note. This is and the engine comment is notwithstanding the above statement by Mr Jentz. Does 'reliable' mean 'will always work', or 'will always work when you expect it to?' And were these shortcomings countered by comparative reliability advantages elsewhere? It is worth noting that in the opinion of Hilary Doyle, there was little unacceptable about the quality of the late-war Panther: See Operation Think Tank discussion]
Half of the abandoned Panthers found in Normandy in 1944 showed evidence of breaks in the final drive.
It takes only one weak link to break a chain. The Panther had many fine qualities. But here we find a severe weakness.
In order to prevent these breaks it is recommended that the following points be closely observed: when driving downhill and in reverse as well as on uneven terrain to be particularly careful when shifting to a lower gear. In addition, a Panther should never be towed without uncoupling the final drive previously. Finally, under no circumstances should both steering levers be operated simultaneously regardless of the situation.
American tankers often observed that the Panther could “neutral steer” – it could pivot in place by moving one track forward, and the other backwards. The Sherman did not have this capability.
But it appears that experience has told the French never to USE this capability. It is an advantage to be able to pivot a tank in combat. But not if the result is an immobilized tank.
A smoke grenade thrown onto the rear deck or the vent openings of the engine will start a fire.
The hull of the Panther was designed to be water-tight, to allow for deep-fording. This had the unfortunate side-affect of encouraging gasoline and oil to accumulate in the engine compartment. German reports often decry the Panther’s tendency towards engine fires. The French observed the same.
The running gear is sensitive to HE shells. Calibers 105 mm and greater can render the vehicle immobile (Rammersmatt, 8 December 1944).
This is no great surprise. 105mm HE rounds would damage the running gears of most contemporary tanks!
Fragmentation shells or 75 mm rounds which strike in the same spot on the front plate can penetrate it or cause the weld seams to break (Miinsingen, 1946).
The phenomenon of cracking welds was observed in American test firings in the summer of 1944, and in Soviet wartime tests as well.
In all cases, the great range of the gun should be exploited to the fullest. Fire can commence at a range of 2000 meters with considerable accuracy. The majority of hits were accomplished at a range of 1400 to 2000 meters. The ammunition expenditure was relatively low; on the average the fourth or fifth shot found its mark, even when using HE shells.
This observation describes the aspect that American (and Soviet) tankers feared most in the Panther. Its gun was accurate and powerful at long ranges, and its armor protected it from return fire. In close quarters the Panther could often be out-maneuvered, despite its engine power and speed. But if faced across open fields, the Panther was a fierce adversary.
Perhaps the most telling observation of the French experiences with the Panther is their response to concerns of Chinese armor in Indo-China. When the French government became aware that the Chinese communists had received Soviet-made IS tanks, they concluded that their own forces in French Indo-China (now Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) needed powerful mobile forces to repel any Chinese intervention. They considered sending Panther tanks, but determined that it would not be possible to provide the support that Panthers required in the settings of a distant colony with an inadequate rail infrastructure.
As a result, they sent units equipped with US-provided M36 tank destroyers. The Panther, for all of its prowess, was “in no way a strategic tank.”
Many military history enthusiasts seem to imbue German armor of the second world war with almost mystical qualities. But in truth, any tank has strengths and weaknesses.
The French managed to operate the Panther for several years. Their assessment of the Panther, drawn from their considerable experience with it, provides a practical and balanced view of this fascinating tank.
It was powerful. The gun was exceptional. The frontal armor was excellent. These features, along with excellent optics, made the Panther a powerful long-range tank killer.
But the automotive features of the Panther went beyond the automotive technology of the time. It was simply impractical to create a 45 ton “medium” tank with a 600hp engine and neutral steering using German automotive technologies of the mid-1940s. The result was a tank which was much feared when it reached the battlefield, but was as often found abandoned along the side of the road outside of the battlefield.