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Our Problem Child: A Teardown of PzKpfw. V "Panther"

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rossmum #1 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 13:23

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I am not perfect and am not a magical unbiased source, so if you feel I have made an error and can reasonably support your argument with evidence or at least solid logic, please do. As a general rule, if it appears on the Wehraboo Bingo card, it is not considered either of these things.

 

Also, this post is exceptionally long. As in, over 5,000 words long. Please actually bother to read it before rolling your face across your keyboard in furious defence of the tank's reputation. If you can't summon the effort, I would recommend also not summoning the effort to post.

 

An awful lot has been written about Panther. It's no surprise. The tank is large and imposing. Its silhouette is both aggressive and elegant. It is a design of clean lines, attractive proportions, and an exuded feeling of power. All of these things contribute to the mythos that has built up around it, starting from its disastrous 1943 debut and continuing to the present day.

 

A lot of what has been written about Panther tends to fall victim to this mythos. It is hard not to. Today, we are made to believe that the Panther was a marvel of engineering, a tank a decade or more ahead of its time, a magical superweapon that could have ended the war in Germany's favour had it not come too late.

 

All of these presumptions are wrong.

 

Because of the nature of World of Tanks, players could be forgiven for looking at the paper specifications of a tank like the Panther and imagining it to be the ultimate weapon of war. In World of Tanks, things like armour, gun penetration, accuracy, and speed are critical. On paper, Panther looks impressive in all of these arenas. However, there is a yawning gulf between what goes in World of Tanks and what goes in a real war. In World of Tanks, there are no logistics, no infantry, no anti-tank guns. Your tank cannot break down or your gun barrel become smooth and worn from firing, or damaged from collisions. Your turret always traverses at a maximum speed, and behaves as though it is balanced perfectly. In reality, things are different.

 

For this assessment of Panther, I'm going to break into three major sections, each corresponding to an element of the “holy trinity”: firepower, mobility, and protection. Within each section will be two further elements, the tactical and the operational (or strategic). From this, I hope to keep my thoughts somewhat organised, as there is a lot to get to; it also makes it easier to compare against other tanks of the era.

 

I am writing this from my laptop while away from home, so I do not have quick access to the resources I'd like. I am sourcing information from a lot of places – Jentz, Allied reports, in some cases fellow forum members who are more proficient at research than myself. Forgive me if I miss things, I will do my best to keep the article as close to the money as possible and may edit it if information is found to be incorrect or inaccurate. Without further ado, let us plunge into this rabbit hole together.

 

I. Firepower

 

Of all the qualities Panther possessed, the power of its gun is often the most revered. Let's talk a little about the gun.

 

The 7,5cm KwK 42 L/70 was a response to the rude shock of heavily-armoured Allied tanks such as the B1 bis, Matilda, and KV-1. The gun was at one point destined for the Tiger before wisely being replaced by the 8,8cm KwK 36, more suited to the Tiger's design role; it was shoehorned into the VK 30.02 project instead.

 

It was a long gun, distinctly longer than comparable Allied guns and extended further by installation of a double-baffle muzzlebrake. The reason for its length was simple: the Germans wanted it to be a very high-velocity gun, velocity being a major factor in shell penetration in a time when cumulative effect shells (HEAT, essentially) were extremely rare and in still in their infancy. Compared to its contemporaries, it was indeed a high-velocity weapon, bringing with it the flat trajectory and good armour piercing qualities that implies. However, it also brought with it the problems of a weapon of the type. Barrel life was poor, as launching shells out of it at such speeds increased wear on the rifling (an effect you can see in magnum-calibre rifles just as well). The gun's physical size made it heavy and unwieldy, and prone to collision. Shells required reinforced walls to withstand the stresses of moving through the barrel at such speeds, reducing the capacity for filler in HE shells and at any rate their velocity made them a poorer choice for bombarding infantry or fortified positions than lower-velocity general purpose guns. This last point is of particular relevance.

 

Tactically speaking, the gun should have given Panther the edge over most Allied tanks – in in many modern “documentaries”, it would be stated as such. This is not necessarily true, though, as there were several important factors to consider.

 

The first and most important factor is the role of the tank. A tank exists, fundamentally, for the same reason as every other piece of equipment in a military's inventory: to support the infantry. Only the infantry can seize and hold terrain or perform a manual task. Without infantry, you may destroy men and materiel, but you will be unable to truly make and hold territorial gains. The original tanks were created to provide a moving hunk of armour that would move through the bog of no-man's-land, clearing a path for the infantry to move through and take the enemy trenches. Between the wars, tanks grew faster and more powerful, and they gained a new role as exploitation units that could rapidly encircle pockets of resistance for the infantry to reduce. This is, of course, a gross oversimplication, but the fundamental point is that the number one most important role for any tank is an ability to support infantry and anything else is a bonus.

 

The Panther was expressly bad at this.

 

There are several reasons for the Panther's failings as an infantry support weapon, and all of them come back to its design philosophy. The gun was too long, making operations in bocage, forests, villages, or other close country difficult – the exact kind of terrain infantry could capitalise on the most, but also needed the most support.

 

A built-up area occupied by enemy infantry was a ready-made fortress, and infantry units seldom had enough organic firepower to properly deal with this. Solutions ranged from finding artillerymen to hand-wheel a howitzer into a direct-fire position through calling in air support, but the most favourable solution was a tank. The tank could engage targets in a 360 degree arc around itself, could destroy positions with its high explosive shells, and could scatter infantry with its machine guns. Its massive armoured bulk could also be used as cover by the advancing infantry. Man protected tank, tank protected man, and all was well in the universe.

 

With its distinctively long barrel, Panther's gun could not be safely traversed in tight spaces. Its muzzlebrake, used to soften the recoil of such a powerful gun so it would actually fit inside the small turret, was a menace to the infantrymen around it. Upon firing a powerful concussion emanates from any gun, from the smallest derringer to a battleship's primary armament. The larger the gun, the more dangerous and powerful the blast. By fitting a muzzlebrake, you are effectively channelling the concussive effect in a particular direction – in the case of Panther, to the sides of the gun's muzzle. Any infantryman standing roughly level with the gun at the moment of firing would temporarily lose his hearing at best and suffer severe concussion injuries at worst. This was also a problem with many other tanks, but most of those exchanged this negative trait for far more important positive ones (an example being IS-2, which inherited excellent all-around performance that improved its effectiveness in either the anti-tank or infantry support role).

 

Worse still, the flat trajectory and small HE filler combined to make the gun rather poor at reducing fortifications when compared to, say, the Sherman's 75mm M3 or the 76mm guns of the Soviet T-34 M1942. This is not to say it was useless, however. The British Panther “Cuckoo”, captured and used by the Coldstream Guards, was used at Overloon to provide support against German troops fortifying a castle. The gun's flat shot and good accuracy characteristics proved useful in selecting particular windows for softening. On the other hand, a Cromwell or Sherman would be more suitable for doing similar work in a more urban setting, simply due to their shorter guns, smaller size, and better ability to fling HE shells at things.

 

It is not surprising that the KwK 42 struggled with infantry support, as it was primarily intended for the destruction of enemy tanks. Here it fared slightly better. The low-flash powder used by the Germans could be difficult to detect, and so a Panther in ambush would perhaps be able to fire several times before its position could be pinpointed – assuming that telltale muzzleblast didn't kick up clouds of dirt or strip leaves from the surrounding foliage. The high-velocity armour piercing shells were effective against most Allied armour (with Churchills and IS-2s at range providing the only real trouble until Pershing's arrival), but the issue of hitting the Allied tank first was a large one.

 

There are two parts to this problem. The first is simple: mechanical accuracy of most tank guns in WWII did not factor in as much as many believe. Most guns, even if they varied drastically in optimal range, calibre, or power, were fairly close to each other in accuracy. What really made a gun “accurate” was a clear and easy-to-use sight, and a flat trajectory that simplified long-range shooting. Panther had both of these. Its sight was laid out in a logical and clean manner that left the wide central field of view unobstructed by range scales or other information. Contrary to popular opinion, German glass was not of particularly impressive quality during the war; what made German sights good was their wide field of view and lack of clutter. With these factors, it was a fairly accurate tank, with even rookie gunners able to score acceptable accuracy at combat ranges and good crews able to score hits at slightly more than double these ranges. Errors in range estimation were lessened by the forgiving muzzle velocity of the gun, and adjustment of fire was easy due to the lack of obscuration by smoke or sight markings. By contrast, most Allied gunners had rather more difficulty, either because of cluttered sight design or large amounts of smoke from the gun.

 

The second part is not quite so self-evident. Virtually all Allied tanks, even the older designs being phased out of service, allowed for both a telescopic and periscopic sight for the gunner. For instance, Soviet tanks had been using panoramic sights since the 1930s. Panther, like most German designs, lacked this feature: the gunner's only sight was the magnified telescopic sight. This meant that if the sight was obscured or broken, he could not see what he was shooting; it also made the commander-gunner target handoff painfully slow. For an example, search for an object through high-powered binoculars without looking away from them, and have somebody try and tell you where your target is. While Allied gunners could simply acquire the target in their no-magnification “unity” sight and then fine-lay with the telescopic sight, a Panther's gunner had to search for his target using only feedback from his commander and guesswork. This led to Panther crews taking rather drastically longer amounts of time from target exposure to first shot fired, 20 to 30 seconds in French postwar experience.

 

The effect of this was profound. It has often been said about tank combat in WWII that “whoever shoots first, wins”. Simply by seeing their target before their target sees them, this crew holds the initiative and may engage or disengage as they please. Their target's crew will be frantically trying to find where they are being shot from and return fire, and it's possible this will slow them down even more. Frankly put, Panther crews were lucky to be on the defensive, as it allowed them to prepare and ensure that this crippling disadvantage did not come into play.

 

The irony of this situation is that the commander's 7-periscope cupola was a superb design that offered all-around visibility and the ability to to fix a “scissor-type” binocular periscope to the cupola ring for long-range observation and rangefinding (this piece of equipment also saw frequent use on German tank destroyers). The gross disparity between the commander's optical setup and that of the gunner is astounding, considering even the loader had a forward-looking periscope (as in most Allied tanks).

 

Other things that should be noted of Panther's gun mostly centre around its size. The gun could not be fired rapidly for extended periods of time without exceeding its recoil limits (this is a trait common to all guns, but notably worse in high-velocity designs like KwK 42 than, say, KwK 40 or 75mm M3). The long barrel and considerable weight precluded a stabiliser being used, as they were still in their infancy and lacked the strength to keep such a thing balanced. Instead, the Germans looked to balance the entire tank, which will be explored in more depth as part of the mobility section. Not only this, but a pneumatic assistance system had to be used to elevate the gun – if this failed, the normally easy elevation became exceedingly difficult. The turret was badly-balanced and could not be traversed or even held stationary on slopes of more than 20 degrees, and its weak traverse mechanism was also imprecise and awkward to use. The actual rate of traverse was fixed at an extremely low speed in Panther D (taking about a minute for a full 360 degrees), but could be adjusted with engine RPM in the later A and G variants. To traverse the turret rapidly, driver and gunner had to coordinate as the traverse motor required the engine to be running at 3,000 (later 2,500) RPM for the fast speed. If the engine was idling, the turret would only move at a snail's pace, as on the original variant.

 

In addition to the issues with traverse, the tank's turret was cramped. Taller loaders were forced to operate hunched over. Looking forwards, the turret ring was scarcely larger than the Panzer IV the tank was supposed to replace; this limited its upgun potential, an important modernisation resource that saw the Sherman serve for another several decades and saw Centurion upgunned from a 76mm 17 pounder through to a 105mm gun during its lifetime. Comparing the size of the Panther's hull to the size of its turret and ring, it is difficult to imagine how the designers could have been so short-sighted when the exact same problem had seen the Panzer III relegated to infantry support in favour of the worse but larger-ringed Panzer IV.

 

One good note about Panther's firepower is related to the size of the tank (in itself a cause of many other problems) and its complicated suspension system. French crews noted that the gun's recoil produced no unfavourable reaction upon the tank, regardless of direction of fire – that is to say, the tank did not rock excessively when the gun was fired. In many smaller and lighter tanks with large guns (think T-62), the tank can rock quite violently when the gun is traversed to the side and fired. Due to Panther's width, length, enormous mass, and its suspension, this was not a problem for the tank. Such a good point cannot be overlooked as it minimises the disturbance of the gunner's sight on target, allowing for easier correction of fire and follow-up shots. However, practical rate of fire was limited by the gun's recuperator, as mentioned earlier in the segment, so this advantage was mostly useful in short bursts of fire.

 

A further plus about the tank was the introduction of a very primitive form of bore evacuator, clearing the turret of fumes more effectively than many other tanks of the era. This made the crew's lives much easier and allowed for several shots to be made in rapid succession (until the gun recoil limit was reached) without gassing them halfway to unconsciousness.

 

Operationally, the gun used a different kind of ammunition to the other 75mm guns the Germans used, further complicating the already nightmarish German logistic horse-and-cart and raising costs as factories had to be retooled to produce the new shells. The comparative inadequacy of the gun for infantry support meant that older designs like Panzer III and Panzer IV (which Panther had been designed to replace) had to be kept on instead, as their guns were more suited to the task. Again, this strained logistics. The poor sighting arrangement left Panther handicapped offensively, and so jeopardised those offensive operations that German armour was still partaking in.

 

In the fighting that took place in parts of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and western Germany, Panther's long gun and congenital blindness became a serious problem. The tanks could not see in the hedgerows and villages, and they struggled to leverage their firepower without long, clear firing lanes across open ground. The gun's length was a liability in these tight quarters, as it was easily spotted projecting from a treeline and had to be positioned where its traverse was clear. In this kind of terrain, Panthers often crewed by inexperienced recruits suffered a mauling at the hands of the Americans, British, Free French, and Canadians in their smaller and more suitable Shermans and Cromwells. Even the Sherman Firefly, with its long-barrelled 17 pounder gun, had a barrel some metre shorter than the KwK 42 and much better turret control.

 

The gun was successful at knocking out Allied tanks with decent effect, but in the end it was not enough as the Allies would not miss a few cheap and easily-replaced tanks – especially if most of the crew would survive, as was the experience of the Americans with the M4.

 

II. Mobility

 

Even more than the other factors, there is more to mobility than most people credit. Like its armament, Panther's mobility was a mixed bag of extreme positives and extreme negatives.

 

Tactically, the Panther exhibited some interesting qualities in this field. It had superb flotation as a result of the German efforts to compensate for an inability to mount a stabiliser. It should be noted that this was not planned to improve on-the-move accuracy of fire, as this was not really a thing in WWII, but rather to lessen fatigue on the crew from cross-country travel and particularly on the gunner. Watching a bouncing, magnified image does not do anybody any good, and after a while causes drowsiness, motion sickness, and other things that generally impede one's situational awareness and marksmanship. Most tanks fired from the short halt (even those that did have stabilisers), Panther being no different.

 

The reason for Panther's superior flotation was its interleaving rubber-tyred roadwheels, wide tracks, and torsion bar suspension with an unheard of amount of travel for the time. More surface contact between the roadwheels and the ground, and between the ground and the tracks, left the tank with an extremely low ground pressure for a vehicle of its size. This same arrangement came at a cost.

 

Servicing the running gear could be a nightmare thanks to the overcomplicated design. The French found the roadwheels to be easily deformed when the tank was run hard, though noted the tracks were very difficult to break even in the worst terrain. Roadwheels could become gummed up and frozen together by mud or other detritus, as there was so little clearance between them and tanks are not reknowned for being clean and tidy. To remedy this, or to replace a roadwheel that has been damaged or shed its tyre, it was first necessary to remove parts of the two either side of it since they interleaved. Replacing a torsion bar was similarly time-consuming, as if the job wasn't universally bad enough to begin with. The wide travel range of the suspension was a side-effect of the tank's height, which worked against it in the protection aspect.

 

For its size, Panther was impressively mobile. It could cross ground that was impassable to Shermans and was one of the fastest tanks of the war on road, able to keep pace with the smaller and lighter Sherman. In addition, it handled exceptionally well on iced-over roads and snow. This did carry some caveats, however. The Panther's speed decreased significantly on rough ground, in part due to automotive problems. Running at maximum speed either on road or worse, offroad, risked putting significant strain on its already overtaxed drivetran. VK 30.02 had been designed as a 30-ton medium tank, before changes were made and the tank gained half that weight again. The engine, a typical Maybach arrangement, was a compact and lightweight affair inside a small compartment. The transmission was in the front, traditional for German tanks of the time. As a result, a driveshaft ran under the tank's turret, forcing it to be of a certain height (again, covered in the protection segment, and much like the M4 Sherman). In World of Tanks, players tend to complain about the frontal transmission resulting in fires; in real life, any penetration of the armour was likely to critically damage the tank, and so it may well have been preferable for the transmission to eat the shell rather than the crew. Transmission fluid is highly flammable, and under considerable pressure, but it is not the most fire-prone thing in the tank and so during the war there was no specific fear of transmission oil fires.

 

The transmission was not really one of the tank's major problems, however. The engine and transmission were fairly reliable in comparison to other components of the tank, though the engine typically fell short of the 5,000km planned fatigue life and required replacement after just 1,000km on average; the worst problem of the automotive powertrain was the final drives.

 

The final drives are what transfer power from the transmission to the sprocket wheels, and were the weakest link of Panther's entire design. French postwar experience operating the tank produced a mean service life of just 150 kilometres – the average final drive would not last as long as a tank of petrol. The reason for this has been touted as everything from sabotage at the factories to poor materials. The real reason, as with so many things on Panther, is plain bad engineering.

 

In an effort to save production time, the gears inside the drives were straight-cut. Straight-cut gears are something you might use in a car; they're something you might even use in a light armoured vehicle. They are absolutely not something that should ever be used on a 45-ton tank intended to operate in a total war environment. The Germans learned from their mistake, and used double herringbone gears on the Tiger II, significantly improving the service life of that particular part.

 

Since the war, those with access to Panthers have examined the drives closely. Sabotage has indeed been found in some, with an example being gear teeth cut off and weakly reattached; another tank was found to have handfuls of metal shavings thrown into the housings. In fact, thanks to Germany's severely outmoded production methods, sabotage was not as damaging as would be expected from a system more like what the United States or Soviet Union used. Because workers stayed with a tank on the assembly line, rather than processing a specific part in a mass production system, one or two saboteurs could not ruin an entire batch of drives destined for many tanks themselves. In the case of the Panther at the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation, no signs of sabotage were found. In fact, the quality of the steel used on the gears was also tested in order to confirm or allay suspicions about that, and it was found to be of appropriate quality. It is clear, then, that neither sabotage nor the supposed use of scrap steel were the cause of Panther's final drive issues – it was simply a bad design, shoehorned into a tank it was not designed to support.

 

This problem transcends the distinction between the tactical and the operational, and so the latter will have to wait for now. Tactically speaking, it restricted the tank's movement and risked a breakdown at a highly inconvenient time. Drivers had to baby their tanks for fear of causing a failure – changing to lower gears while reversing or driving downhill or on uneven ground, using the tank's touted neutral steer feature, or making sudden changes in power were asking for trouble, and avoided. In service, French crews were forbidden from neutral steering. This severely hampered the tank's otherwise good tactical mobility, and has to be counted against it.

 

Another problem with Panther was the poor quality of the fuel lines used, causing them to leak petrol into the watertight engine comparment (designed for a deep fording requirement that was never used), with the end result of fuel fires ignited by the hot engine. An automatic fire suppression system was added, but this was a band-aid solution rather than a true fix. In addition, the engine suffered cooling problems which necessitated a rather complex and expansive system of fans and ducting. This rather negated the point of using such a compact, lightweight engine, but then Maybach engines were used for reasons other than simple merit. In addition, these vents left the engine at risk of fire if they were smothered or invaded by phosphorous smoke, as noted by the French – a mere smoke grenade to the engine deck was enough to light the tank on fire.

 

When it comes to operational matters, Panther's mobility issues were crippling. In the words of the French report of 1947, “the Panther is in no way a strategic tank”. The tank had a short range in fuel terms alone, taxing German logistics. All in-service German tanks shared this problem, a natural consequence of using petrol engines (this in turn was due to the specific wording of the requirements set by Army procurement). Several Allied tanks also shared this issue, but the Allies could support fuel-thirsty tanks far better than the logistically backwards Germans could. As Germany began to run low on fuel, this cost them badly in crew training time and in operational mobility. Put simply, their tanks couldn't be moved under their own power unless absolutely necessary for operations, as part of an attempt to save fuel.


Far worse than the fuel issues, however, were the mechanical ones. Panthers struggled with road marches thanks to their troublesome powertrain, meaning that rapid and deep penetrations into the enemy flanks and rear area like those of 1939-42 were no longer possible even if the strategic situation allowed for them. The tanks had to be shuttled about on trains, with rail transport being the preferred method of moving Panther units as little as 25 kilometres at times. At any one time, between a quarter to a half of a unit's Panthers would not be operational, a failure rate worse than that of Tiger I and far beyond that of the Allied tanks Panther faced.

 

Not only did this severely hamper the ability of units equipped with Panthers to move around the front and conduct offensive operations, it also yet further strained logistics. Spare parts were in high demand and Germany lacked the transportation – many people fail to realise that it was scarcely mechanised when compared to the Allied forces facing it.

 

The issue of spares aside, maintenance also caused problems. I have already mentioned those associated with the suspension, but higher-level maintenance factors into operational mobility on account of the low readiness rate. The interior layout of the tank did not lend itself very well to this. For an example, the process of servicing a transmission in Panther required the turret be turned aside, a large access hatch on the hull roof be removed, and the transmission be manoeuvred out through the fighting compartment and out the roof. On Sherman, the entire front unit (including transmission and final drives) could be simply unbolted and swapped for a new unit. T-34 had access hatches to allow servicing of the unit, and a larger hatch for a straight-out removal.

 

One other factor which severely limited Panther's operational mobility was its weight. While its excellent flotation may have helped carry it through the kind of mud that would bog a Sherman, it was of little use when the tank came to a river. Many European bridges could not support the weight of such a heavy machine, let alone an entire company or battalion of them. This restriction resulted in German strategy being dictated by which bridges or roads could support their armour, a situation that is clearly not ideal. Although this had been forseen and compensated for with equipment for deep water fording, this solution was not practical and was abandoned early. Another result of this weight was that a knocked-out Panther could not be easily recovered from the field.

 

III. Protection

 

The Panther's armour is often talked up as being a trump card against Allied tanks in a tactical engagement, but in reality things were not always so simple. German production techniques were very much behind the times, using assembly lines and craft shops rather than the massive production lines of the Allied nations. The Germans had not yet adopted automatic welding, and their armour hardening techniques resulted in brittle steel that was prone to cracking when hit. This is not to denigrate the effectiveness of the tank's frontal armour, which was effective against the less powerful guns of most Allied tanks facing it, but it brings about a serious problem: when the tank did take damaging hits, it could knock great chunks off the armour plate, writing the tank off completely since the damage could not be satisfactorily repaired. The softer armour plates of Allied tanks allowed for simple field repairs, and a large portion of knocked-out tanks were repaired and returned to service. For Germany, this inability to salvage damaged tanks and press them back into service was simply unacceptable. Further problems existed with the armour steel. Its brittleness made it prone to spalling when hit, sending lethal clouds of shrapnel flying from the inner side of the armour plate. Postwar tests by both the Soviets and the French noted that HE shells or 75mm AP rounds that struck the same area would lead to the weld seams breaking or the armour plate simply cracking and falling off altogether. Soviet photographs in particular highlight the Panther's vulnerabilities to large-calibre HE shells, with the effect of a 122 or 152mm hit being absolutely devastating. This would not be significant (such shells would be a problem for any contemporary tank) had such guns not been available in such large numbers to the Soviets, who fought the majority of Panthers. The conclusion that can be drawn here is that the tank's touted frontal armour was scarcely useful for more than a year or two before it became vulnerable to heavy tanks and assault guns in Soviet service (though it should be noted that IS-2 was produced only in small numbers during the war years, some 3,800 from memory, roughly triple the figure of Tiger production).

 

The problems didn't stop there. Until the issue was rectified late in Ausf. G production, the curved gun mantlet had a habit of deflecting hits downwards into the thin roof armour – directly above the driver and radio operator. The problem was finally solved by adding a “chin” to the mantlet. Worse than this was the armour layout itself, with a mere 40mm of side armour. This thin side armour could be penetrated even by the otherwise largely obsolete Soviet 14.5mm anti-tank rifles, let alone the 45mm anti-tank gun or any given tank on the field. This contributed even further to Panther's inability to be useful in close or urban country, since in such an environment it was likely to be surrounded on its flanks by infantry, AT guns, or enemy tanks. From an ambush position, even outdated light tanks were capable of disabling several Panthers in convoy; from the front, the IS-2 was able to inflict considerable damage to the Panther, as could Shermans armed with the 76mm gun and the Firefly when they could close to effective range, not a difficult ask in the terrain of rural France or Belgium.

 

Behind this flimsy side armour was the tank's main ammunition rack, stored in panniers in the overtrack hull. The results of a side hit on the tank were often immediate and catastrophic, as seen in the engagement between a Panther and Pershing in Köln in 1945. Hits to the ammunition rack would almost certainly start a violent and intense fire which, on a fully loaded tank, could burn for over a day before running out of energy (these fires were often of such intensity that the torsion bars in hull floor would collapse, making it easy to identify Panthers lost in such a way).

 

In fact, the danger of fire in the Panther was so high that on average it took less than two penetrating hits before the rack would go or some other part of the tank would burst into flame. By comparison, the supposedly flammable Sherman was actually less likely to ignite on a hit (the cause being the same, rather than the oft-touted “aviation fuel” myth). When taking the insufficient armour protection, the considerable size (particularly height) of the tank, and its inability to cope with the kinds of situations where these two liabilities became lethal, it becomes clear that Panther's protection was not all it was slated to be.

 

In addition to these problems, the imbalanced weight of the armour bore forwards on the already overstressed final drives, lessening their lifespan. It also contributed to the problems with the turret.

 

However, the most damning issue concerning the tank's armour was related to its size and weight. Consider for a moment the Allied tanks that shared Panther's weight class – Pershing, IS-2, later Centurion – and consider their armour protection. In each case, they had better protection than Panther for similar or less weight. In the case of T-44, it had better protection for far less weight.

 

Another point is that postwar studies (both American and Soviet) suggested that the vast majority of hits on a tank happened above a certain point. I can't recall it offhand but it was somewhere in the 0.7-1.1 metre range, with the taller your tank is above this making it significantly more at risk of being hit by enemy AT/tank fire. This is why the Soviets moved towards very squat, wide tanks, while the Americans eventually did the same. Panther runs badly afoul of this, being extremely tall – more so than a Sherman.

 

Operationally speaking, these flaws meant that Panther could not be useful in an assault where its flanks may be exposed, or where Soviet heavy tank or assault gun activity was expected. In such a situation, the tank would be exposing its weak flanks, and its inability to rapidly acquire targets would leave camouflaged Allied tanks with the opportunity of the first shot (it should be noted that the Soviets in particular were recognised as masters of camouflage and concealment by the Germans). It also contributed to the tank's complete unsuitability for infantry support work.

 

Had Panther been built using better steel and modern welding techniques, it is likely there would have still been problems – though related to the armour layout rather than quality. 40mm of side armour is still 40mm of side armour, after all.

 

IV. Conclusion

 

What was originally intended to be a brief rundown of Panther's attributes has, a day later, turned into more than eight pages and six thousand words. I could likely trim a lot of the fat out by removing comparisons and general outlines, though in doing so it would rather defeat the purpose of having something that makes sense to the greatest possible amount of people. On the other hand, I know people have a propensity to shy away from large blocks of text and so it's entirely likely that the only people reading this anyway are going to be those with an academic interest in tanks and therefore a pretty good idea of the issue anyway. Regardless, I hope this can serve as a resource to try and counterbalance some of the ridiculously oversimplified and unrealistic assessments of the tank that we see today.

 

No tank can be judged in a vacuum. The typical measure of how good a tank is in this game – one versus one on a billiard table, where all that matters are hard stats and soft stats and the rest be damned – does not apply in the real world. Tanks must be looked at as part of a system, and it is clear that Panther did not function well in that regard. In fact it was more of a tank destroyer than a medium tank, working at its best when positioned in a defensive ambush with a clear field of fire and pre-sighted terrain. When it came to performing the most important functions of the tank – supporting infantry, deep exploitation of a breach in enemy lines and encirclement of forces – Panther simply did not perform, let alone live up to the hype. As a tank it was a failure, and the intention of replacing the much better-rounded Panzer IV with it was a cardinal error that could have cost the Germans dearly had they been able to ever actually achieve that goal.

 

A recurring defence of Panther is that “Allied crews feared it”, or “Allied tankers said it was much better than their own tanks”. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in any military service will likely be familiar with the age-old pastime of whinging about equipment and lusting over somebody else's. The fact of the matter is that most Allied tank crews (particularly on the Western front) never saw a Panther, let alone fought one. Those who did would have seen only a big slab of armour with a scary gun and good mobility, not a broken-down logistical nightmare with severe quality control problems and crippling issues inherent in its design. In reality, anti-tank guns, Panzerfausts, and the humble StuG III were far more threatening weapons – and unlike the Panther, they would not often be easy to detect, leading to nebulous claims of “Tigers” or “Panthers” being responsible for tank losses in a sector where none were present. Unsurprisingly, German tank crews expressed similar envy over Sherman and T-34 as Allied tank crews did over the “cats”.

 

The tank was not all bad, though. Its negative features provided a good lesson in how not to design a tank, and so we see little of its influence in postwar designs (except the brief and abortive, though intriguing,- designs of 1950s France). Those positive features it presented do live on though – the well-designed commander's cupola, advanced steering (even though in Panther's case it rarely worked as advertised), clear telescopic sight, and a handful of other minor designs.

 

It has been asked many times on these forums if the tank would benefit any from being built by the United States, Britain, or the Soviets. In short, I would argue that they would take one look at the design and immediately set about altering it in such a way that it would not be the same tank by the time it hit the factory floor. For this question, look no further than the Pershing, Centurion, T-44, or IS. All of these are what Panther could have been if designed by those nations, with Centurion probably being the closest. Centurion actually went on to become one of the most successful designs of the postwar period, and is an interesting portal to what Panther may have looked like had it been more sensibly designed. Almost every one of Panther's problems has been solved.

 

In my final closing statement, I am generally given to calling Panther a bad tank, mostly because it's a lot easier than spending nine pages of size 10 font explaining my position. It could not fulfill its intended role, it was beyond German industrial and logistical capability, and it was largely a developmental dead end, with only a handful of features being carried over to later designs. However, it was an interesting vehicle and certainly an impressive piece of technology, faulted mainly by being far too ambitious for its time and its producers. Despite its problems, it remains one of my favourite tanks overall and my favourite design of WWII for a variety of reasons. The first is simply its good looks, no doubt something that sucks in many tank enthusiasts when they first lay eyes on it. The second is the charm of such a flawed pearl, I suppose. When Panther does crop up in fairly faithful simulations it is a difficult tool to use well. It punishes inexperience and brashness, but it rewards caution and skill in spades. There are a lot of little things I like about the tank as well. The gunsight is easy to use and well-designed, preferable for me to the cluttered Soviet sights or the complicated yet sparsely-marked Allied sights. The cupola provides excellent vision around the tank. The suspension makes things a lot easier on the eyes (and I would presume on the posterior, as well).

 

Welp, that was a lot of words. Congratulations if you've made it this far, I'm done. Hope this was useful.

 

Since this wasn't written to be some proper academic work, I didn't bother referencing it as such, but I'll list a couple of things I found useful in assembling it -

 

- Germany's Panther Tank: The Quest For Combat Supremacy (Jentz)

- French Panthers article in Chieftan's Hatch 

- Tank Overhaul ep on the Panther, which showed some decent footage of its guts and the process of working on it (I also watched the restoration updates on the MVTF's Youtube channel, once they got it together and running)

- Various posts by other HAV members who have access to more and better sources than I do

- Basic deductive reasoning. 

 

Also, I am totally okay with this becoming the "General Panther Discussion And/Or Photo Thread", because goddamn is it a handsome tank. Gotta get dem photos.



Preddy_ #2 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 13:29

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[content removed - non-constructive, spam]

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rossmum #3 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 13:34

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Then don't post? Apologies if I offended you by using more than five paragraphs.

Prodromus_Mortis #4 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 14:05

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... ill shut up now...


Edited by Prodromus_Mortis, Feb 01 2014 - 14:14.


Seraphil #5 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 14:11

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Posting tl;dr to a post that's named a "teardown" which implies a long argument, and even warns in the first few sentences about it's length.  Are you people dumb through a lot of practice or does it come naturally?

 

As for the Panther, I agree with many points here.  I always viewed the tank as this sort of bipolar machine: excellence in some areas completely crippled by total **** in other areas.  I still like it's aesthetic, and it's the sort of design that does wonderfully in a videogame setting where it's real-life problems can be waved away.



WarriorOsprey #6 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 14:23

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"Hey guys, I'm ignorant!" and tl;dr are identical in meaning.

 

Anyways, I strongly disagree with your thesis. The Tiger II was a much sexier tank than the Panther.



adrudh #7 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 14:31

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Amazing read! I can't really comment on the sexiness aspect of it since I only play three German tanks (none of them being the Panther or even in the line that has it) and I rarely see any Panthers anyway.

Edited by adrudh, Feb 01 2014 - 14:33.


Rhomer #8 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 14:32

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Enjoyed the read. Good poast

mrmojo #9 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 14:48

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Edit: Redacted

 

 

Actually quite an objective summary. Well done.

 

 

 

 


Edited by mrmojo, Feb 01 2014 - 14:53.


El_Monstro_De_Galleta #10 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 14:51

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Great  article op, thanks for taking the time to do so.

wargames #11 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 14:53

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Truth of the matter is that the Americans had the best tanks when they were fitted with a British guns.

Angry_Snail #12 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 14:56

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Great !

Psykmoe #13 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 15:06

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Interesting read. I knew the Panther had many problems but not to what extend.

 

Still really enjoy how it looks, so I agree with that part too.



WarriorOsprey #14 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 15:08

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View Postwargames, on Feb 01 2014 - 08:53, said:

Truth of the matter is that the Americans had the best tanks when they were fitted with a British guns.

 

Hm, isn't there a Chieftain's Hatch article that is currently disproving the advantages of the 17pdr over the 76mm with HVAP?



Shadeoses #15 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 15:31

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The effect of saboteurs on German production is interesting, they really had the same people build individual tanks rather than an actual assembly line?

wargames #16 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 16:23

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View PostWarriorOsprey, on Feb 01 2014 - 09:08, said:

 

Hm, isn't there a Chieftain's Hatch article that is currently disproving the advantages of the 17pdr over the 76mm with HVAP?


If you are comparing 17pdr APCBC to 76mm APCBC the 17pdr wins out slighty, but when we look at the alternate ammos like HVAP that is when stuff gets fun. the 17pdr has a sabot round that could pen 200mm of armor while the 76 had hvap which could pen 158mm of armor but I think the hvap was cheaper and easier to make and America made a shit ton of them compared to the 17pdr sabot rounds.



BeingBadNotBeingGood #17 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 16:37

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View Postwargames, on Feb 01 2014 - 09:23, said:


If you are comparing 17pdr APCBC to 76mm APCBC the 17pdr wins out slighty, but when we look at the alternate ammos like HVAP that is when stuff gets fun. the 17pdr has a sabot round that could pen 200mm of armor while the 76 had hvap which could pen 158mm of armor but I think the hvap was cheaper and easier to make and America made a shit ton of them compared to the 17pdr sabot rounds.

17pdr APDS had petal separating issues, which made accurate hitting impossible even for mid-distance shots. The petal separation problem is one reason the Americans refused to use APDS and stuck with HVAP, and later, HEAT after the war.



BOT_ROCKET #18 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 16:42

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Whoa. It wasnt until I scrolled top to bottom that I realized how long that was. MY EYE BALLS! Oh the pain! Interesting read though. I learned a lot and im glad I suffered through the tiny letters on my phone. Basically, if you drop a panther in a field with one of the tanks it would have faced at the time, it was the better tank. Other than that, it was severely lacking.

Dominatus #19 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 17:43

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I read the whole thing. Please properly source this and send this to Armor magazine, haha!

 

The Centurion I think deserves particular mention here. It, the Mk I in particular, was almost exactly a British Panther. SImilar size and profile, similar armament (plus an insane 20mm cannon). Yet, the Cent, thanks to a better powertrain and suspension and a reasonable turret ring and turret size, went further than the Panther ever could.



Tupinambis #20 Posted Feb 01 2014 - 17:49

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SHIIIIIT
I gotta read all this now, and I have so much work to do.





Also tagged with germany, panther, ahnenerbe, russianbias, wehraboos

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