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Best Tank of WW2 - The Case for the Panzer III


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Zinegata #1 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 07:32

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Tanks are part of a military system. They occupy a specific role in the organization known as the "army". In the case of World War 2, their most decisive role is of the fast-moving exploitation force. They were most effective at cutting a swathe through enemy rear areas - disrupting the supply network and causing logistical damage - thereby causing large armies at the front to collapse. This is how the Germans were able to win spectacular victories in 1940 in France, and in 1941 in Russia. There is little doubt that great successes like the capture of 700,000 Russian soldiers at Kiev would be possible without the tank.

On a tactical level, tanks are primarily an infantry support vehicle. Their job is to supplement infantry attacks (or defenses) with additional firepower. By the end of the war - on a tactical level - the side with tanks and infantry would win against enemies with infantry alone.

Therefore, any discussion on what is the "best" tank of World War 2 must revolve around this primary mission. It it not about silly debates about gunpower or armor. It is instead about which tank was best able to fulfill its role in both the strategic and tactical level.

On the balance, four tanks - and only four - ever deserved consideration for the "best". This is the American M4 Sherman, the Russian T-34, and the German Panzer Mk III and Mk IV.

Any tank heavier than 30 tons was generally too unreliable to have any impact on the strategic level, while imparting only conditional (and often minor) advantages at the tactical level.

Tanks that were lighter can arguably still fulfill the strategic and tactical roles required of it (especially true of the Panzer 38ts which actually formed the bulk of the early Panzer Armies), but by and large they were overshadowed by the capabilities of the mediums and the growing organic anti-tank capability of the infantry forces. Hence, they are also not for consideration.

The purpose of this post is to make the case for the Panzer Mk III, which I personally believe to be most deserving of the title "Best of World War 2" within certain qualifications.

First of all, the Panzer III very much fulfills the strategic requirements of the German Army. It was one of the primary tanks of the early campaign in the West (France 1940), as well as for most of the Russian campaigns (from 1941-43). It was also one of the primary tanks in the desert for that sideshow with Rommel.

Moreover, it was involved in some of the most spectacular successes of the entire war. Overall tank kill ratios were 7:1 in Germany's favor in 1941 (Zaloga's Red Army Handbook) despite the technical superiority of some types of Russian armor (i.e. T-34 and KVs). Never again would such enormous numbers of men and tanks would be killed or captured in massed campaigns of maneuver.

Even more remarkable are the distances involved: It was over 1,000km from the starting point of the Barbarossa to the gates of Moscow. The Panzers covered that distance in less than half a year - a daunting distance that no Allied campaign would ever match. Even the vaunted reliability of the Sherman was never asked to cover such a distance.

[Note: The Sherman however did cover a shorter distance in France '44 with much greater speed - but the US Army did not have to contend with the enormous Russian reserves and constant counter-attacks; not to mention the poor roads of the vast Russian steppes.]

After 1943, the Panzer III loses some of its luster, to the point that the Panzer III "tank" is gradually (but not completely) withdrawn from service. But this ignores the fact that the trusty Panzer III chassis nonetheless remained in service as one of the most successful AFVs of the war: The Stug.

This vehicle was actually one of the most successful of the entire war. Its low profile meant that it often got the crucial first shot in any engagement, to the point that many Allied commanders actually mistook Stug firing from concealed positions as actual Tigers or Panthers! (See Zaloga's Thunderbolt)

While it is true that Stugs were no longer participants in great strategic exploitation attacks, the same was true for all German tanks by 1943. After Third Kharkov, the Germans were now strictly on the defensive and had no power to perform any grand offensives. Attempts to do so (Kursk, Mortain, Bulge, and others) all resulted in disaster, even when using the "invincible" heavy Tiger and Panther tanks.

Ultimately, in a defensive war what the Germans needed were numbers. They needed to have tanks in sufficient numbers to support their infantry.

And as a weapon of a grinding, attritional war the Stug excelled. Weighing a mere 25 tons, it consumes only roughly half the steel needed to make a Tiger or a Panther. Even with the German heavies clogging up the production lines and eating resources, enough Stugs were built that every mainline German Division could rely on having a company of them for support (although this still paled in comparison to one whole battalion of Shermans supporting each US Infantry Division), meaning that most of the "tank" support that the German infantry ever got was done by the Stug.

By contrast, no other tank out of the four main contenders ever performed such a smooth transition - from a strategic exploitation vehicle, to a tactical support vehicle for defensive war - while maintaining the same level of dependability and reliability.

The Mk IV was never truly able to reach the full mass-production levels like its competitors to make it fully suitable for attritional defensive war. The T-34 was to a large extent rushed and improvised due to the state of the Soviet industry - with a lot of minor flaws that took too long to address that resulted in needless losses. Meanwhile the Sherman was saddled with poor anti-tank power due to a flawed US Tank Destroyer doctrine.

In short, the Panzer III was the vehicle that was always "at the right place, at the right time, at the right configuration". It was the reliable exploitation tank during the great early war offensives. It was the dependable support weapon of the late war defensive battles. Little more could have been asked of it

Edited by Zinegata, Aug 06 2012 - 07:34.


Maus123 #2 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 07:41

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I see the Pz III as one of the Worst tanks of WW2 for a few reasons:
1. It could be destroyed by anything in the Allied arsenal even at the start of the war.
2. It was usually undergunned
3. Less were produced then the Panzer IV, a far better tank.

AlphaTanker101 #3 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 07:45

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I so agree, but, If u flank using the PzIII speed, u could actually kill something. And get a Top gun, Yeah, some players are that good.

Edited by AlphaTanker101, Aug 06 2012 - 07:48.


Zinegata #4 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 07:46

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View PostMaus123, on Aug 06 2012 - 07:41, said:

I see the Pz III as one of the Worst tanks of WW2 for a few reasons:
1. It could be destroyed by anything in the Allied arsenal even at the start of the war.
2. It was usually undergunned
3. Less were produced then the Panzer IV, a far better tank.

And I present someone who obviously has not read the OP.

Again:

Quote

Therefore, any discussion on what is the "best" tank of World War 2 must revolve around this primary mission. It it not about silly debates about gunpower or armor. It is instead about which tank was best able to fulfill its role in both the strategic and tactical level.

This is not a "Ooooh, big gun! Thick armor! Awesome tank!" thread. It's a thread for those who actually understand that wars are not won by 37mm gun vs 50mm gun comparisons, but by looking at the tank as part of an overall system.

Edited by Zinegata, Aug 06 2012 - 07:54.


Monkey11 #5 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 07:55

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Sorry, i wasn't about to read all of this :)

but anyways I still like the Panzer III

AlphaTanker101 #6 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 07:57

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Yeah, the PzIII rocks, but its a dead end. The PzIII/IV is the one that sucks, :/

Zinegata #7 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 08:02

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Fine, TL;DR version:

In the early days of the war, the Panzer III was the reliable machine that allowed the German Army to perform exploitation attacks; destroying the French Army, most of the Russian Army, and enjoyed something like a 7:1 overall kill ratio against the Russians.

By 1943, when the days of grand German offensives were over, the Panzer III transitioned to becoming the cheap armored vehicle that supported the infantry - the Stug. It was so good at its job that Allied tankers who claimed to be under attack by Tigers often proved to be under attack by Stugs.

It was always the right tank, at the right moment, for the German army - which is how tanks should be judged in the first place. Armor and firepower are much less relevant than its place in the overall system.

Edited by Zinegata, Aug 06 2012 - 08:05.


flashfang #8 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 08:12

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Well spoken, and I enjoy how you had to put in a TL;DR version because some people are apparently illiterate.

Nisae #9 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 08:20

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Good read,I'd agree the pzIII was great,yet still low cost.

And got a StuG upgrade,making it still relevant.

yeoldewar #10 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 08:21

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well think of it this way the Pz.Kpfw III is pretty much the embodiment of the Blitzkrieg doctrine the Germans used during World War 2 so on that note how could it not bet the bet tank of the war.

konigwolf13 #11 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 08:23

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I see your Panzer III, and raise you a Stug III

Dirizon #12 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 08:27

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- something to note, about early war German Blitzing success.....Germans were not technically so successful because of their panzer lll tanks. They were successful because of crew coordination, tactical coordination+communication, combined arms effort - all the while their enemies were stuck in obsolete thinking and ideology. They suffered from WWl strategies and pace, they were not coordinated, crews had trouble manning their tanks, and some reports even had French tanks using flags for communication instead of radios. Thats ridiculous. Russian tanks had horrid crew training, a lot of russian targets were destroyed/disabled in a surprise German offensive, and Stalin delayed counter attacking and military thinking. Luck was a large part of it, but mostly tactics - not the superiority of their armour -

Panzer lll was an effective start in the German Tank campaigns, but it was superseded. The thing with the panzer lll was, everything it offered, Panzer lV offered and provided more. Need an infantry support tank? PZlV with the L24 pack howitzer (in-game stock weapon) Need a general purpose offensive tank with AT abilities? Panzer lV with the L43 or later L48 7.5 tank weapons. Which were sufficient to pose a threat to most allied or Red Army tankd seen in all fronts.

The thing with the panzer lll was, its turret ring was not capable and large enough for the constant updating and retooling. The Panzer lll at the end of the war could be fitted with the L24 howitzer, but that was largely useless as larger 7.5 tank guns could fulfill the role of infantry support too. When used in offensive capacities from 194O-1942, the 5cm L42 and 5cm L6O weapons eagerly fitted to panzer lll were really good at facing the armour of the time such as BT tanks, T34 mediums,  S35 Somuas, Lee/Grant tanks, matildas, and valentines - but was found to be incapable of attacking KVls and KVlls.  The 5cm wurfgranate shells were also very ineffective in HE/infantry support/urban roles. So it was brushed aside for 7.5cm guns and the Panzer lV. The actual fate of the panzer lll is a much different one, the retooling of them into other chassis' for other roles - such as the infamous and equally dangerous StuH assault gun. Which were built in incredible numbers within the German Wehrmacht.

As the war progressed, tank designers easily realized that yes, a 3OT tank can be quickly produced, easily transported, be mobile enough, well-armed, and not be a pain for logistics to keep up with repairs/ammunition/fuel. However, this train of thought was only maintained with the ideas on a mass-produced medium tank line, such as your generic Sherman, T34 medium, or Panzer lV. 5Omm~ of armour, a 7.5cm gun, and 2OO-3OO horsepower were fine for most duties, but these tanks really suffered when facing stronger opponents and enemies at range. Real breakthrough and assault armour though, radically changed in thought. Tanks that would have surpassed these if the war progressed and Germany / Japan did not show signs of defeating, would be famous candidates such as M26 Pershing, Panther, and T44 medium tanks. These machines offered excellent mobility with their increased horsepower, provided much better frontal armours than their prior-mediums, and offered excellent firepower over standard mediums. They could in a pinch be used as heavies, due to their armament and armour. And that paved the way for the future, as seen with MBTs today. MBTs offer mobility, firepower, armour, while still remaining flexible.

Dark_Sight #13 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 08:31

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Germans tanks like the PZ-lll where high tech. for their day.

Zinegata #14 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 08:37

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Quote

- something to note, about early war German Blitzing success.....Germans were not technically so successful because of their panzer lll tanks

First of all, most of what you're talking about is tank vs tank combat - hence the references to radios and Russian crew training - which is pointless and it completely not what blitzkrieg is about. The vast majority of Russian losses in 1941 were not due to tank vs tank combat - it was due to breakdowns to logistical issues. Why were these logistical issues happening? Because the Mk IIIs were shooting up the Russian supply network.

That 7:1 kill ratio is not due to tank vs tank combat. It is the loss ratio largely based on how well each tank force survived the elements of the Russian steppes and how well they could keep running despite the logistical problems.

Secondly, what blitzkrieg is about is this: Exploitation attacks. Deep into enemy rear areas, where what's important is not the size of the Panzer III's gun, but the fact that it can travel 1,000km from Warsaw to the outskirts of Moscow without breaking down.

German doctrine could NOT be implemented without a reliable tank like the Mk III.

View PostDirizon, on Aug 06 2012 - 08:27, said:

Panzer lV with the L43 or later L48 7.5 tank weapons. Which were sufficient to pose a threat to most allied or Red Army tankd seen in all fronts.

Except of course the Mk III was also armed with the same gun - it just got rid of the turret and became the Stug. And this additionally conferred the advantage of a low profile, which often allowed it to get the first shot in an engagement.

And whoever fired first and scored a hit first almost invariably won a tank engagement. This was the findings of the US Army - armor, firepower, and other factors were not as relevant compared to getting the first shot in.

Quote

As the war progressed, tank designers easily realized that yes, a 3OT tank can be quickly produced, easily transported, be mobile enough, well-armed, and not be a pain for logistics to keep up with repairs/ammunition/fuel. However, this train of thought was only maintained with the ideas on a mass-produced medium tank line, such as your generic Sherman, T34 medium, or Panzer lV. 5Omm~ of armour, a 7.5cm gun, and 2OO-3OO horsepower were fine for most duties, but these tanks really suffered when facing stronger opponents and enemies at range.

As mentioned in the preamble, one should take a look at the tank as part of a system. Therefore the 30 ton tank wins despite losing sometimes to "stronger opponents at range". A tank that arrives in large numbers at the right place, right time, and in running condition can win campaigns. "Stronger" tanks (i.e. IS-2, Pershing, Tiger) that are nonetheless not mechanically reliable enough to cover large distances are tactical curiosities at best and outright junk at worst, not war-winners. Heck, the majority of WW2 tank kills were done at under 900 meters!

Secondly, and more importantly, the Allies had almost no "stronger" tanks anyway. Virtually all Allied tanks were 30 ton mediums. The issue for the Stugs isn't some Allied super tank that is impervious to 75mm fire (and the Pershing and IS-2 weren't "invincible" anyway). The issue is that for every company of Stugs in a German Infantry Division, the Americans get a battalion of Shermans.

"Super tanks" were never an issue. The Allies didn't even have "super tanks".

Numbers was the issue, and an adequate 25 ton design capable of matching the 30 ton Allied mediums was a far better weapon for this kind of attritional war.

Quote

They could in a pinch be used as heavies, due to their armament and armour. And that paved the way for the future, as seen with MBTs today. MBTs offer mobility, firepower, armour, while still remaining flexible.

You're misunderstanding why the modern MBT was developed. The combination of heavy armor, firepower, and good tactical (but not strategic) mobility was due to the thinking that World War 3 would breakout in the North German plains, and that it would be a head-on slugging match in a relatively tight space.

MBTs would not do well in an invasion of Russia. They do not do well travelling a thousand kilometers over bad roads.

Edited by Zinegata, Aug 06 2012 - 08:54.


ket101 #15 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 09:19

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There's also a misunderstanding about the gun.  When the Panzer III was being fitted with the short 75, technology had come along and made this gun just as lethal to enemy tanks as the longer versions.  The hollow charge shell, nowadays designated HEAT.  Thus it had a potent anti-tank ability, as well as providing a good high-explosive round for infantry support.

AlphaTanker101 #16 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 09:44

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so, whoever loves the PzIII like this comment!

blurr91 #17 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 19:35

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Pz III was built to support the doctrine.  The doctrine was blitzkrieg.  Blitzkrieg means combined arms and maneuver warfare.  Why shoot at a tank when you can shoot at trucks that carred fuel and ammo for the tank?

Panthers and Tigers didn't have a doctrine, unless "a thickly armored, semi-mobile AT gun" is a doctrine.

US doctrine was the "counter-blitzkrieg."  Except US never encountered true blitzkrieg.  US commanders at field level ditched the doctrine and improvised by attaching mobile AT guns (TDs) to infantry divisions.

It would be interesting to see a fresh German army launching a true blitzkrieg operation against a prepared US army ready to counter with its "tank destroyer doctrine."

Maus123 #18 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 20:06

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View PostZinegata, on Aug 06 2012 - 07:46, said:





This is not a "Ooooh, big gun! Thick armor! Awesome tank!" thread. It's a thread for those who actually understand that wars are not won by 37mm gun vs 50mm gun comparisons, but by looking at the tank as part of an overall system.

You do know that the Panzer III had little effect on the war, some of the REAL tanks that had a huge effect on the early part of the war are the Panzer II, Panzer 38(t) and so on.

Maus123 #19 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 20:10

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View PostZinegata, on Aug 06 2012 - 08:37, said:

Because the Mk IIIs were shooting up the Russian supply network.


No, the Panzer IIIs were trying to catch up to the Russian supply's that were heading east.

Edited by Maus123, Aug 06 2012 - 20:10.


Dominatus #20 Posted Aug 06 2012 - 20:34

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I'd have to disagree really. While the Panzer III did carry the German armies to victory in France and Barborossa, Panzer IVs with upgraded guns would have done the same job, but better. While you talk about guns and armour being pretty and such, you'd ahve to remember that without the superior training, tactics, and equipment (radios and such), the German armies in their Panzer IIIs would have been far outclassed by their enemies using B1s, Matilda IIs, and T-34s. Having esentially mastered Blitzkrieg and armoured warfare in general, the Germans could have had such success with almost any tank that was fast enough and had decent guns and protection. It was simply the Panzer III that they happened to use for a number of reasons, but not that it was a superior vehicle.

To have an example, we see that whenever the Germans were not fighting on their own terms, when they were facing a counterattack, the Panzer IIIs became hopelessly outclassed by almost eveything that the Allies used against them.

StuGs, well, yes they had a very impressive amount of kills, but defence generally does not win wars, offensives and counter-offensives do. That's been proven over and over again, and the StuG was not well suited for such a role. You could say that Germany would have lost anyways, but then that defeats the point of fighting at all.

A few other details though. First of all, I believe that Allied tankers refered to all German tanks as Tigers or Panthers (even if they were others such as MkIVs) and Soviets refered to all SPGs as Ferdinands. Furthermore, it's unlikely that the 7.5cm's HEAT round would have been all that effective, considering the expense of it and that US test with their 105mm HEAT rounds showed them to be decent at best. Finally, the tank destroyer doctrine did not exist the way everyone said it did. There was never anything saying Shermans should not be designed to counter enemy armour. The lack of use of the 76mm gun was due to a number of other reasons, with commanders in the US and in the field not thinking them to be totally necessary until winter 1944.