Panzer III Medium Tank

Wars Battles Biographies Timeline Weapons Blog
Full Index Subjects Concepts Country Documents Pictures & Maps

Introduction
Combat Record
Standard Variants
Other Variants
Production Figures
Books

Introduction

The Panzer III Medium Tank was the main German battle tank for the first two and a half years of the Second World War, only beginning to lose that status after the appearance of the Panzer IV Ausf F2 in March 1942. Until then the Panzer III had been the only German designed tank armed with a gun designed to penetrate enemy armour.

Serious work on the Panzer III began in 1936, when a number of German tank manufacturers produced prototypes for a tank in the 15 ton category. This tank would be the main anti-tank weapon, firing armour piercing shot from its 3.7cm gun, while the Panzer IV would be the close support tank, firing high explosive shells at soft-shelled vehicles or anti-tank guns.

The development and production of the Panzer III progressed very slowly. On 1 September 1939 only 98 had been completed (compared to 211 Panzer IVs, 1,223 Panzer IIs and nearly 1,500 Panzer Is). The situation had somewhat changed by the start of the campaign in the west in May 1940, by which time there were over 300 Panzer IIIs on the front line, but it would only be available in really large numbers for the start of the invasion of Russian in the summer of 1941.

The Panzer III was laid out in the same way as the earlier Panzer I and II, with the engine at the rear and the gearbox at the front. The turret was an enlarged version of the one used on the Panzer II, now carrying three of the crew of five (commander, gunner and loader), an arrangement that dramatically improved the fighting power of the tank by increasing the rate of fire and allowing each member of the crew to concentrate on one job.

Combat Record

Poland

Only 98 Panzer IIIs were available for the invasion of Poland. This compares to 1,445 Panzer Is, 1,223 Panzer IIs and 211 Panzer IVs. As a result little can be said about the impact of the Panzer III. In theory there were meant to be eight Panzer IIIs in each light tank company, but some divisions had none.

Norway

A smaller number of Panzer III Ausf Ds took part in the invasion of Norway, fighting with Pz Abt z b V 40 (Tank Detachment for Special Employment 40). All four of the early versions of the Panzer III had been withdrawn from the front line in February 1940, but the Ausf D was the least unsatisfactory of them. As a secondary theatre Norway also saw the surrender of the last Panzer III equipped unit, Panzerbrigade “Norwegen” on 10 May 1945.

France

By the start of the campaign in the West in the spring of 1940 the number of Panzer IIIs had more than trebled, overtaking the Panzer IV. Of the 2,499 tanks available to the German army on 10 May, 349 of them were Panzer IIIs, all armed with the 3.7cm gun. Another 30-40 Panzerbefehlswagen IIIs were present with the army. At this time the Panzer III was the main German battle tank, for the Panzer IV was still seen as a close support weapon.

In no way was the Panzer III superior to the main British and French tanks it would be facing. Its 30mm armour was thinner than that found on the British Matilda I and I and the French Somua medium tank, Char B heavy tank or even the Hotchkiss H35 Light tank. The 3.7cm gun was just about equal to the 2pdr in the Matilda and the 3.7cm gun in the Hotchkiss, but the Somua carried a 4.7cm gun and the Char B one 3.7cm gun and one 7.5cm gun. The only clear technical advantage held by the Panzer III was its three-man turret, which was far more efficient than the one-man turret used by the French.

It would be the German tactics that would win the battle of France, not the quality of their tanks. The French spread most of their vast number of tanks out along the entire front, while their only concentrated armoured divisions were pulled out of place by the German invasion plan. By the time it became clear that the Germans were attacking through the Ardennes, all three of the best French armoured units had rushed north. Individual Char Bs were able to inflict heavy damage on unwary German formations, but were soon overwhelmed.

North Africa

The Panzer III was always the most numerous German tank in Rommel’s Afrika Korps, and played a major part in his victories and defeated from Marsa el Brega in March 1941 to El Alamein. As in France and Russia the Panzer III soon came up against better armoured, better armed but worse led tanks, in this case the British Matilda, which in a head-on fight had a great advantage over the 3.7cm gun armed Panzers. This was demonstrated on 27 May 1941 at Halfaya Pass, which had recently been recaptured by the British. Nine Matildas were able to hold off some 160 Axis tanks, and although only three of the British tanks eventually retired, the German battalion commander involved was court-martialled and the command of the 5th Light Panzer Division removed.

The arrival of the short 5cm armed Panzer III in the summer of 1941 redressed the balance, as did the arrival of the long 5cm Panzer III in May 1942. This gun was superior to the British 2-pounder, and those Panzers armed with it became known to the British as the Mark III Special. During the fighting on the Gazala Line Rommel had 223 Panzer IIIs armed with the 5cm L/42 and 19 with the L/60, giving him 242 Panzer IIIs in a total force of 560 tanks, of which 228 were Italian.

During the summer of 1942 the first of the Panzer IV Ausf F2s armed with the long 7.5cm gun arrived in North Africa, marking the beginning of the end for the Panzer III as a main battle tank, but even at the battle of El Alamein Rommel still had 93 L/42 armed Panzer IIIs, 71 L/60 armed Panzer IIIs and only 30 Panzer IV Ausf F2s. Although the Germans tended to come out best in any tank vs tank battle even this late, Montgomery’s superior resources allowed him to overwhelm the Germans and Italians. Rommel was forced to begin a retreat that finally ended with the German surrender in Tunisia in the following year.

The Soviet Union

At the start of the invasion of the Soviet Union the Panzer III was the most numerous tank in the Germany army, with a total of 1,440 in service, of which 960 were serving with the light armoured companies of the seventeen Panzer Divisions that would take part in the invasion. The Panzer III was still the main German battle tank, although in the summer of 1941 it was still armed with a mix of the original 3.7cm gun and the 5cm gun introduced on the Ausf F. The Panzer IV, which would soon replace it in the anti-tank role, was still armed with the short 7.5cm gun intended for close support work.

Despite their massive early successes, the Germans received one unpleasant surprise during their invasion of the Soviet Union. While the vast majority of the 20,000 Soviet tanks were outdated and outclassed, nearly 1,000 T-34s and 500 KV-1s and KV-2s had already been issued. The frontal armour of the KV tanks proved to be impervious to fire from the German 3.7cm, 5cm and 7.5cm guns unless the Germans could get into almost suicidally close range. The T-34 was not much more vulnerable to German fire. In contrast the better Soviet 7.62mm guns were repeatedly reported as having split open German armour.

The high quality of these two Soviet tanks came as a nasty surprise to a German tank force convinced that it was technically superior to the Russians. The Germans responded by fitting the long 5cm L/60 gun to the Panzer III and the 7.5cm KwK40 L/43 to the Panzer IV, with both variants appearing early in 1942.

Unfortunately the Soviets more than balanced the high quality of the tanks with the poor quality of just about every other aspect of their armoured units. Even the best equipped units had only recently received their KVs and T-34s, and so had little or no experience in the new tanks. Very little ammunition was available, and almost no spare parts. The lack of tank recovery vehicles meant that tanks were often lost because of minor mechanical problems.

The Germans also benefited from their superior tactics, and the combat experience gained in Poland and France. The KVs and T-34s had very little impact on the overall course of the fighting during 1941, but they did scare the German tank designers.

One result of these early clashes was the series of improved versions of the Panzer III that appeared over the next year and a half, but the basic design would prove to be too limited to keep up in the Eastern Front. The Panzer III not big enough to carry the excellent 7.5cm KwK40 L/43, and would slowly be replaced by the Panzer IV as the main German battle tank.

Despite its limitations, production of the Panzer III only tailed off during 1943. In 1942 nearly 2,000 were produced, all armed with the 5cm gun, more than twice the production of the 7.5cm L/43 armed Panzer IV.

In June 1942 there were 500 Panzer IIIs with the 5cm L/42 and 600 with the 5cm L/60 at the front, and the Panzer III played a major role in the last significant Germany victories on the Eastern Front. It was still an effective weapon early in 1943, during the fighting around Kharkov, but by the summer of 1943 it was becoming increasingly outclassed. In July 1943 Army Groups Centre and South had a total of 432 Panzer IIIs with the L/60 gun, but the battle of Kursk would be the last time it was present in such large numbers, as production of the Panzer III came to an end in August 1943. Early in 1944 the surviving Panzer IIIs were withdrawn from the front line, and moved to secondary theatres. 

Standard Variants

Panzer III Ausf A

The first ten development versions of the Panzer III were produced in 1937. They featured the turret that would be standard on all early version of the tank, carrying a crew of three and armed with one 3.7cm gun and two 7.92mm coaxial machine guns. A third machine gun was carried in the forward superstructure. This version of the Panzer III carried its tracks on five large road wheels, and used coil spring suspension. The small number of Panzer III Ausf As that were completed joined the Panzer regiments during 1937 and were not withdrawn until February 1940, after seeing combat in Poland.

Panzer III Ausf B

The second development series of the Panzer III, also produced in 1937, used a completely different suspension system. This time there were eight small road wheels on each track, connected in pairs. Suspension was provided by two long leaf springs, with a pair of road wheels at each end. This system was no more successful than that used on the Ausf A. Of the fifteen Ausf Bs produced, ten joined the Panzer regiments, serving in Poland, before being withdrawn in February 1940, while five were used to develop the StuG assault gun.

Panzer III Ausf C

The Ausf C saw another attempt to improve the suspension. This time the first and last pairs of road wheels were given their own short leaf spring, mounted parallel to the ground, while the second and third pairs of road wheels were connected by a long leaf spring, as on the Ausf B. Although an improvement on the earlier system, this was still not satisfactory. As with the Ausf A and B, the Ausf C saw service in Poland before being withdrawn in February 1940.

Panzer III Ausf D

The Ausf D was the final pre-production version of the Panzer III. Once again the suspension was modified, this time by positioning the short leaf springs carrying the first and last pairs of road wheels at an angle, thus increasing the amount of support provided. This was still not acceptable, and a completely different system would be adopted by the first production models. The first fifteen Ausf Ds were built with the same 15mm armour as the A, B and C. Some sources suggest that the last fifteen were given 30mm armour.

Panzer III Ausf E

The Ausf E was the first mass production version of the Panzer III. It features a completely new torsion bar suspension system, with six road wheels on each side supported by a steel bar running across the width of the tank. This system was very successful and was retained on every later model. The Ausf E entered service in time to take part in the Polish campaign of 1939. It was later re-armed with a 50mm L/42 gun, and with this more powerful gun the Ausf E remained in action through the fighting in France, the Balkans, North Africa and for the first two years of the campaign in Russia.

Panzer III Ausf F

The Ausf F was the first version of the Panzer III to be produced in large numbers, with 435 built during 1939-40. It was virtually identical to the Ausf E, but with a different engine ignition system and air intakes. Just over 300 were produced with the 3.7cm KwK gun, while around 100 were built with the 5cm KwK L/42 and an external mantlet. Many of the tanks originally built with the 3.7cm gun were later modified to carry the 5cm gun. Large numbers of Ausf F were in service in time to take part in the campaign in the west in May 1940, and they remained in service for almost as long as the Panzer III itself.

Panzer III Ausf G

The Ausf G was initially very similar to the Ausf F. The first fifty were built with the 3.7cm gun, while the remaining 550 used the 5cm gun. The rear armour of the Ausf G was increased to 30mm, and a pivoting visor was added for the driver. Early production models with the 3.7cm gun were sent to reinforce the Panzer divisions fighting in France.

Panzer III Ausf H

Panzer III Ausf H or J, Libya 1942The Ausf H was similar to late production Ausf Gs, with the same wider tracks and 5cm gun. Extra 30mm armour plates were attached to the front and rear of the hull and the front of the superstructure. Less than half of the original order were produced, before it was replaced by the Ausf J.

Panzer III Ausf J (5cm KwK L/42)

Panzer III Ausf J (5cm KwK L/42) in Soviet ServiceThe first version of the Ausf J saw the frontal armour on the hull and superstructure and the rear hull armour increased in thickness from 30mm to 50mm. Hitler had ordered the use of the longer 50cm KwK39 L/60, but 1,500 tanks had been produced using the short gun before that order was implemented.

Panzer III Ausf J (5cm KwK39 L/60)

The adoption of the longer L/60 gun at the end of 1941 helped restore the usefulness of the Panzer III against British and American tanks in North Africa, but was still inadequate when compared to the larger guns already standard on Soviet tanks.

Panzer III Ausf L

The Ausf L was produced while efforts to fit a 7.5cm gun to the Panzer III were under way. It was still armed with the 5cm KwK39 L/60, although that gun was proving to be increasingly ineffective against thicker Soviet tank armour. The Ausf L was given 20mm spaced armour on the superstructure front and mantlet, and thicker frontal turret armour.

Panzer III Ausf M

The Ausf M was very similar to the Ausf L but with the addition of a wading kit which allowed it to pass through four or five feet of water without any special preparation.

Panzer III Ausf N

The Ausf N was the final production version of the standard Panzer III, and was armed with the short 7.5cm gun used on early versions of the Panzer IV. It served as a close support tank in the early Tiger companies.

Other Variants

Panzerkampfwagen III (Fl)

The Panzerkampfwagen III (Fl) was a Panzer III Ausf M modified to carry a flamethrower in place of the normal 5cm gun. 100 were produced early in 1943 and it took part in the battle of Kursk.

Panzerkampfwagen III als Tauchpanzer/ Tauchpanzer III (Diving Tank)

The Panzerkampfwagen III als Tauchpanzer was a version of the Panzer III modified so that it could operate underwater for up to twenty minutes. Designed for use during the invasion of Great Britain, its only operational use came during the crossing of the River Bug at the start of Operation Barbarossa, after which it was used as a normal tank.

Command Tanks

A series of command tanks (Panzerbefehlswagen) were based on the Panzer III, starting with three unarmed versions (Ausf D1, Ausf E and Ausf H), before two armed versions were produced (Ausf J and Ausf K). The unarmed versions were based on the standard Panzer III of the same designation, but with the main gun removed and replaced by a dummy, the turret bolted in place and extra long range radio equipment added.

The picture with the Ausf J and Ausf K is not so clear. The Ausf K was the only one of the Panzer III command tanks to have been purpose designed to carry the long 5cm KwK39 L/60 main gun. It was based on the standard Ausf M, but although it was ordered in October 1941 production did not start for over a year.

Work on the Ausf K was delayed twice, once by an order for more of the unarmed Ausf Hs, also placed in October 1941, and then by a decision to convert a number of standard Ausf Js on the production line. These tanks, designated as Panzerbefehlswagen mit 5cm KwK L/42, were produced in August-November 1942, making them the first properly armed Panzer III command tanks to enter service.

At the start of 1943 production of the Ausf K ended, and the remaining 104 command tanks were produced by converted existing Panzer III Ausf Js. Different sources disagree on the gun present on these tanks (either the L/42 or L/60), and on the correct designation, but it would seem likely that as converted vehicles there would have been a mix of the short and long gunned versions of the Ausf J.

The Panzerbefehlswagen played an important role in the early successes of the German Panzer forces, allowing senior commander to operate at the front line without losing touch with the wider situation. This gave the Germans much more tactical flexibility than their opponents, for these senior commanders could take advantage of the short-lived opportunities that developed on the battlefield without having to wait for orders from a higher authority some way behind the battle.

Ordered

 

Produced

?

D1

June 1938-March 1939

?

E

July 1939-February 1940

January 1939

H

November 1940-September 1941

October 1941

H

December 1941-January 1942

1942

J

August –November 1942

October 1941

K

December 1942-February 1943

January 1943

J

March-September 1943 (converted)

The StuG

The most successful variant on the Panzer III was the Sturmgeschütz or StuG, originally designed as an armoured vehicle for infantry support, carrying a hull-mounted gun which gave it a much lower profile than the standard Panzer III. Originally an infantry close support weapon, the StuG Ausf F saw the introduction of a longer 7.5cm StuK40 L/43 gun, which turned the StuG into a very dangerous tank killer. Over 10,000 StuGs were built, and the type remained in use to the end of the war.

Sturminfanteriegeschütz 33B

The Sturminfanteriegeschütz 33B (StulG33B) was an attempt to mount a 15cm sIG33 gun on the Panzer III chassis. It was designed for urban warfare, and was generally similar to the StuG. Only 24 were built before the project was cancelled late in 1942. Twelve of them were sent to Stalingrad in November 1942, and were lost in the battle for the city. 

Artillerie-Panzerbeobachtungswagen (PzKpfw III) (Sd Kfz 143)

The Panzerbeobachtungswagen III (Armoured observation vehicle) was a fully armoured vehicle designed to support the fully tracked artillery vehicles that were appearing at the start of 1943. Like the early armoured command vehicles, the main gun was removed and replaced by a dummy gun, although in this case to the right of the standard position. The Pz Beob Wg was used to support the Hummel and Wespe batteries. 262 were produced, and they remained in service to the end of the war.

Bergepanzer III

The Bergepanzer III was a tank recovery vehicle that used the chassis of a Panzer III to carry a derrick crane. In January 1944 it was decided to convert every Panzer III that returned from the front for a refit to this purpose, and a total of 150 were produced before work ended in December 1944. The Bergepanzer III was used by Panzer IV and StuG units.

Production Figures for standard versions of Panzer

Ausf
Year Produced
Total Produced

A

1937

10

B

1937

15

C

1937-38

15

D

1938

30

E

1938-39

96

F

1939-40

435

G

1940-41

600

H

1940-41

308

J

1941-42

1,549

J Long Gun

1941-42

1,067

L

1942

653

M

1942-43

250

N

1942-43

663

Books

Panzerkampfwagen III Medium Tank 1936-44, Bryan Perrett. A good introduction for anyone interesting in the Panzer III, this book covers the development of the tank, the structure of the German panzer forces, and its military career, which saw the Panzer III go from being the Third Reich's main battle tank to being under-gunned and under-armoured [see more] cover cover cover
Encyclopedia of German Tanks of World War II, Peter Chamberlain and Hilary L. Doyle. A superb detailed reference guide that covers every type of tank, armoured car, self-propelled guns and semi-tracked vehicle that was used by the German Army between 1933 and the end of the Second World War War. An essential reference book for anyone interested in the subject. [see more] cover cover cover

WWII Home Page | WWII Subject Index | WWII Books | WWII Links | Day by Day

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (25 April 2008), 25 April 2008 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_panzer_III.html

Delicious Save this on Delicious

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us -  Subscribe in a reader

Google Groups Subscribe to History of War
Email:
Browse Archives at groups.google.co.uk