The Panzer V or Panther medium tank was developed at high speed to counter the Soviet T-34, and after a unsuccessful introduction to combat at Kursk developed into the best German tank of the Second World War.
The T-34 had come as a nasty shock to the Germans when they first encountered it. It’s well sloped 45mm armour combined with a 7.62cm L/30.5 or L/42 gun meant that it outranged the two main German tanks of the period – the Panzer IV Ausf F1 and the Panzer III Ausf J. The Panzer IV was still armed with gun designed to fire high explosives in close support of the infantry, while the version of the Panzer III Ausf J in service at the start of the invasion of Russia had a 5cm KwK39 L/42 gun, at least twenty cm shorter than that of the T-34, and firing a much lighter shell. The longer barrelled T-34 model 1941 was particularly effective.
The Germans responding by appointing a Panzer Commission, soon known as the Panther Commission, to investigate the situation on the Eastern Front and come up with an answer. On 18-21 November 1943 the commission visited General Guderian’s section of the front, where they examined captured T-34s and met with Guderian. He suggested simply putting the T-34 into production, but the Soviet tank used alloys that were in short supply in Germany, and was powered by a diesel engine that would have been difficult to replicate.
The commission identified three key features of the T-34 – the overhanging long gun, the well sloped armour and the large road wheels – and decided that Germany needed to develop a tank with these features. On 25 November 1941 Daimler-Benz and MAN (Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg) were both awarded contracts to produce a design for the new Panzer V Panther.
Initial Design – Gun
Work on the new gun for the Panther began on 18 July 1941 when Rheinmetall-Borsig was given a contract to develop a gun capable of penetrating 140mm of armour at 1,000 meters. At the same time they were to develop a turret capable of holding the new gun.
Rheinmetall’s first design, for a 75mm gun with a length of 60 calibres (L/60) fell just short of these requirements, and so a longer L/70 gun was chosen instead. The resulting 75mm Kampfwagenkanone (KwK) 42 L/70 would be used on every production version of the Panther
Initial Design - Tank
MAN and Daimler-Benz were given a series of targets to meet. The tank was to be no wider than 3.15m, no taller than 2.99m, weight 34 tones and be protected by 60mm of frontal armour and 40mm of side armour. The Panther I Ausf D would meet the second and fourth requirements, but fail on the first (by 25cm) and on the second (by ten tons!).
The Daimler-Benz design was the initial favourite. It closely resembled the T-34, with a forward mounted turret, diesel engine and rear wheel drive. On 2 February 1942 Daimler-Benz were given permission to submit their design for mass production, and on 6 March 1942 Hitler decided to give them a contract to produce 200 tanks.
This changed in May, when the full design drawings became available. It now became clear that the Daimler-Benz design had some serious problems, not least of which was the lack of a suitable turret – Daimler-Benz’s own design would not be ready in time to start production in December 1942, while the Rheinmetall design would not fit in the frontal position required. On 11 May 1942 the Panther committee came down in favour of the MAN design, and on 14 May Hitler approved their decision, although he did insist on thicker frontal armour.
Production of the Panther was due to begin in December 1942, and this deadline was almost met, with the first tanks being completed in January 1943. The first two mass produced Panthers were delivered to Panzer-Abteilung 51 at the Grafenwöhr training grounds on 24 January, the third arrived on 26 January for trials and the fourth went to the Verskraft in Kummersdorf .
The tests did not go well. Problems were encountered with the turret. The traverse mechanism was not powerful enough to move the turret when the tank was on a slope. When the turret did move its corners overlapped with driver’s and radio operator’s hatches on the hull roof. The new Maybach HL230P30 engine was an impressive technical achievement, providing 700hp in an engine little larger than the one used in the Panzer III and IV. Unfortunately it was not a reliable engine, and on tests was prone to burst into flames, while in use its performance quickly dropped off. The transmission was also prone to fail, while the build quality of the early machines was often poor.
At the end of March plans were put in place to modify all existing Panthers to fix these problems, and during April they were gathered together at Berlin-Falkensee. Meanwhile the same improvements were introduced on the production lines.
The first few mechanically acceptable Panthers reached the 51st and 52nd Panzerabteilungen at the Grafenwöhr training grounds during May 1943. Even by mid-June only 65 tanks had been accepted. By the end of June the two detachments had their full allocation of 192 Panthers, but events would prove that they were still not reliable.
The Panther would turn out to be good value for money - in August 44 it was estimated to cost RM 117,100 per Panther, while the Tiger I cost RM 250,800.
The most obvious change from earlier German tanks was the adoption of well sloped armour for almost every surface on the hull of the Panther. The only vertical plates were on the sides of the lower hull, behind the road wheels. Sloped armour was much more effective – against a shell coming in flat 80mm of armour sloped back at 55 degrees was the equivalent of 140mm of vertical armour! The advantage was less if the shell was coming it at higher angles, and disappeared completely if the shell hit the tank at an angle of 55 degrees, but most tank combat took place at relatively short ranges, and as a result most incoming fire hit at low angles.
The frontal armour of the Panther is normally said to have been sloped at 55 degrees, but some sources (amongst them Spielberger’s monumental study of the tank) give a figure of 35 degrees. Both figures describe the same slope – either 55 degrees back from vertical or 35 degrees above horizontal. The first figure is far more logical, relating the slope of the armour to the vertical armour of some early tanks.
The Panther shared the same layout as every other German tank, with the Maybach engine in a compartment at the rear, transmission running up the middle of the tank and drive wheels at the front. The turret was positioned towards the centre of the tank. This was in contrast to both the T-34 and the Daimler Benz design, both of which had the turret was at the front of the tank.
The 75mm gun was protected by an external mantlet with a circular profile. A coaxial machine gun was also mounted in the mantlet, and it was also pierced by the small windows needed by some of the optical gear. The exact details of the turret varied between the three versions of the Panther.
The most revolutionary feature of the Panther, at least in terms of German tank design, was its well sloped armour. This was modelled on that of the Soviet T-34, the tank that had triggered the urgent development of the Panther, and would later be used on the Tiger II. The great advantage of the sloped armour was that it increased the effective thickness of the armour – 80mm of armour at 55 degrees is the equivalent of 140mm of vertical armour.
The Panther had eight pairs of large interleaved road wheels supported by double torsion bar suspension. The arrangement of wheels was adopted by both MAN and Daimler-Benz, and was the only way to achieve the required ground pressure and speed with a vehicle as heavy as the Panther. On most Panthers the wheels had removable all rubber types, although during 1944 a lack of rubber saw these replaced by all steel wheels. The wheels were held together by sixteen bolts on the Panther Ausf D and 24 on later models.
The interleaved road wheels were probably the least successful element of the Panther. During the periods of mud at the start and end of the Russian winter they were prone to freeze solid – mud would get between the wheels during the day and then freeze solid overnight. They were also very difficult to replace when damaged, a process that could require the removal of up to five undamaged wheels surrounding the damaged one.
The Panther was produced in three main versions, with relatively minor differences between them compared to other German tanks. The different versions of the Panzer III and IV saw dramatic changes in armour and armament, while the two versions of the Panzer VI - the Tiger I and Tiger II – were virtually different vehicles. In contrast the basic design of the Panther remained constant, with the same gun from the first to last tank and only minor changes in the thickness of the armour. The changes that were made were designed either to improve the poor mechanical reliability of the Panther or to fix minor problems that emerged after its combat debut.
Panther I Ausf D
The main identifying features of the Panther I Ausf D were the straight sided commander’s cupola and the lack of a ball mounted machine gun on the hull front.
Panther I Ausf A
The Panther I Ausf A was the second production version of the Panther, and featured a number of changes introduced to improve the reliability of the tank.
The Ausf A can be identified by the new curved commander’s cupola, and the combination of a ball mounted machine gun and driver’s view port on the front armour.
Panther I Ausf B
The designation Panther I Ausf B was given to a test series of 60 tanks that were to be equipped with OLVAR drives developed by Maybach as an alternative to the standard gearbox.
Panther I Ausf G
The Panther I Ausf G was the final production version of the tank, and was produced in larger numbers than all other versions combined. It can be identified by the lack of a driver’s view port on the hull front, the reduced angle of the slope of the side armour and the straight edge to the side of the superstructure above the tracks.
Panther I Ausf F
The Panther I Ausf F was on the verge of entering full production at the end of the war, but no complete examples were built. It would have featured a new narrow turret, which carried more armour at the same weight and was a smaller target than the earlier turret.
The Panther II was developed during 1943 as a potential replacement for the standard Panther. It would have carried thicker armour, and had much in common with the Tiger II, possibly even carrying the same 88mm gun. Work on the Panther II fell away after 1943, and it never progressed beyond the prototype stage.
Panzerbefehlswagen Panther Sd Kfz 267
The Panzerbefehlswagen Panther Sd Kfz 267 was a command tank based on the Panther. It carried the same FuG 5 radio as the standard Panther alongside a FuG 8 long range radio used to remain in contact with regimental and divisional staffs. The Sd Kfz 267 carried the same main gun as the standard Panther, making it much less vulnerable in combat. 350 were produced alongside the standard Panther.
Panzerbefehlswagen Panther Sd Kfz 268 ‘Flivo’
Panzerbefehlswagen Panther Sd Kfz 268 “Flivo” was a similar vehicle produced in much smaller numbers to act as a air-to-ground liaison vehicle. The only difference from the Sd Kfz 267 was in the type of radios installed
The Panzerbeobachtungswagen Panther was a design for an artillery observation tank based on the Panther that does not seem to have entered production, although a small number may have been produced by converting damaged Panthers late in the war.
The Jagdpanther was perhaps the most effective German armoured fighting vehicle to be armed with the 88mm gun, even outperforming the Tiger II, especially when cost of production was taken into account. It was produced by mounting the big gun in a fighting compartment created by extending the sloping sides and front of the Panther upwards. The Jagdpanther entered service at the start of 1944, but never appeared in enough numbers to have a real impact on the fighting.
The combat debut of the Panther came at the battle of Kursk. Panzer Abteilung 51 and 52, with 192 Panthers, were formed into Panther Brigade 10 of Army Group South, and great things were expected of them.
The Panther rapidly failed to live up to expectations. Fifteen broke down on their way to the front, leaving 177 to take part in the first day of the battle on 5 July. Worse was to come. By the end of the first day only 40 Panthers were still operational. Most of the rest had been disabled by engine fires or transmission problems, and could be repaired, but as one tank joined the battle another would break down. By 10 July only 10 Panthers were still operational. About a third of the missing tanks were on their way back to the front after repairs, and a relatively small number had been completely written off (25 in some sources, at least 28 in others). Many of the damaged tanks then had to be abandoned during the German retreat after Kursk.
Those few Panthers that had remained in service had given some hints to the potential of the tank. The 75mm gun had performed well, as had the thick sloped armour. As the mechanical difficulties were ironed out the Panther became an increasingly important part of the equipment of the Panzer forces. It would go on to play an important role in German counterattacks on the eastern front, while 450 were available at the start of the Ardennes offensive at the end of 1944. During 1944 the Panthers made up over half of all tanks available to the Germans.
The Panther outranged every Allied medium tank of the war (it could penetrate their frontal armour from ranges at which its own armour could not be penetrated). Only the Russian IS-2 and the small number of US Pershing heavy tanks outranged the Panther.
Although this was indeed an important factor in the success of the Panther, head-to-head frontal duels at these longer ranges do not seem to have been all that common. In Normandy in particular the hedgerows of the bocage country virtually eliminated long range fighting, and greatly reduced the Panther’s advantage. Tank casualties were high for whichever side was attacking. It also ignores the impact of Allied aerial supremacy, which left all of the German tanks exposed to attack from above.
Like the Tiger, the Panther was an excellent defensive weapon. It was ideally suited to the situation in which the German found itself after the battle of Kursk, and performed well in the series of defensive battles that ended in the ruins of Berlin. It was perhaps the best balanced tank design of the Second World War, combining firepower, armour and tactical mobility to produce a very dangerous weapon. It’s main failing was mechanical unreliability, which would plague the Panther to the end of the war – the final drive remained problematic even after most of the other problems had been solved.