When the German armed forces overran Europe during the beginning of the Second World War, their Blitzkrieg tactics relied on close co-operation between airpower and highly mobile land forces. Much like the deadly Stuka1, the German word Panzer quickly struck terror into the hearts of civilians and soldiers alike. Although Panzer literally translates as armoured2, the term became associated with German tanks, and soon American and British soldiers referred to them in this way.
While many of the other major powers treated the tank as primarily an infantry support weapon, the Germans used it, supported by close air cover, at the forefront of battles. With tactics developed in the Spanish Civil War, the German Army, headed by their armoured units under command of experienced and dedicated men like Rommel, conquered much of Eastern and Western Europe at the start of the war.
Superior tactics were not their only advantage. In the Panzer Mark IV, the Germans had, albeit on paper, the best tank in terms of a combination of speed, armour and firepower at the start of the war. So confident in the Panzer IV were they that there were no immediate plans for any improved models, in stark contrast with the other powers who were all too aware of their own tanks' limitations. Given the Panzer IV's abilities, it was more surprising that the German factories wasted time building the much less able Panzer Mark II and Panzer Mark III models well into the war. After encounters with the Russian T-343, the German High Command drew up designs for some of the most fearsome tanks to take to the field of battle.
These tanks were much more complex and over-engineered than their rivals. Combine this with an industrial base that was under constant attack from bomber squardons of the Royal Air Force and the US 8th Airforce, there was no way that German armour could be produced at a rate anywhere near the same as the Allied powers. Germany produced 47,000 armoured fighting vehicles during the war, compared to 28,000 British tanks. However, America and the USSR produced 88,000 and 105,000 respectively. Add into the equation for the German manufacturing of armoured vehicles the fact that much of the construction was undertaken by men from occupied countries, forced to work by the Nazi state. Military historians and tank reconstructors have found much evidence that these workers were also prepared to sabotage tanks during the manufacturing process, at great risk to themselves.
The Panzer Series
The backbone of the German armoured force, Panzer were certainly more famous and evocative than the German tank destroyers and assault guns. Their full German name was Panzerkampfwagen (armoured fighting vehicles), although they were also referred to as Kampfpanzer or Panzerkraftwagen before and during the war for the most part for various political and propaganda reasons.
Panzer Mk I
Designed in the early 1930s as a training vehicle, this tank saw a surprising amount of service considering it was outclassed by almost everything on the battlefield at the outbreak of war. Carrying just a commander and a driver, and weighing in at a little over 5 tonnes, it was armed with just twin machine guns4. It was obviously of no use against armour, but with a decent turn of speed was relatively effective against infantry at the start of the war, when anti-tank weapons were not in great supply.
Panzer Is were engaged in most of the early battles of the war. The model saw service in Poland, Belgium, France and North Africa. By the time of the invasion of Russia, it was limited to towing supplies or transport duties. Just over 800 were made.
Panzer Mk II
The Panzer II came into being as a stopgap while the heavier Panzer III and IV were sorted out. Based on the Panzer I, but this time it actually looked vaguely recognisable as a tank, this light tank appeared in 1936 and formed the bulk of the German Tank Force at the start of the war.
It pushed the scales at 7.2 tonnes when it first came out, and had a quick-firing 20-millimetre gun, which was pretty handy against most things that weren't tanks. A machine gun was also fitted to the tank. Originally it had 14-millimetre-thick armour, which provided little protection against anything heavier than a machine gun. This, combined with a reasonably high speed, led it to be mainly used for reconnaissance duties as the war carried on.
While it was removed from frontline duty in 1942, production only ceased in 1943, four years after the Panzer III arrived. Given the scarcity of materials later on in the war it may well have been better, in hindsight, for German manufacturing to have finished production of the Panzer II much earlier, and thus concentrate on developing the heavier tanks.
Panzer Mk III
The Panzer III and Panzer IV medium tanks were designed to work in partnership. The III, built by the Daimler-Benz company, would engage enemy tanks and other armoured vehicles, while the IV would provide infantry support. A big step up from the Panzer II was in terms of size; it weighed in at 23 tonnes and had armour up to 70mm thick. The Panzer III was initially fitted with a 37mm main gun, although once they came up against the Russian T-34s, this was upgraded to 50mm, then finally the tank was given a low velocity 75mm cannon for its new role as infantry support.
The production run started in 1939, so few were in use during the Polish and French campaigns, but they were the largest tank type by number at the beginning of the Russian invasion. Having a three person turret meant that the tank commander was free to command the tank rather than man the gun, and this gave it an advantage in combat. However, this didn't really matter that much when they came up against the newest Russian tanks, which were markedly better than the Mk III. 5,774 were built, but it soon became clear that the Panzer IV was a better tank in terms of being able to be upgraded, and resources were concentrated on that.
The Panzer III was the basis of many assault guns, including the Russian SU-76i, on which a Russian gun was mounted on a captured chassis. Including all the Assault Guns and Tank Destroyers based on the chassis of this tank, the total manufacturing run was over 16,000.
Panzer Mk IV
While Panzer was the general term for all German tanks, the Panzer IV was the most recognised by German and Allied troops, and indeed civilians. The Krupp company5 designed the Panzer IV for infantry support, so it was fitted with a short-barrelled 75mm gun that was effective against buildings, but not so much against tanks. After the shock of how good the Russian tanks were, the Panzer IV was upgraded to use a longer anti-tank 75mm cannon.
In terms of armour (up to 80mm), gun and speed (26 miles per hour), this 25-tonne tank was the best tank design of the early war and remained a major threat, especially to US and British tanks, till the end of the war. It was the most produced German tank of the war; almost 8,900 Panzer IVs were built, with over 6,000 of them coming in 1943 and 1944 when better tanks were also being built. It could be argued that the very success of this design and its Panzer III predecessor meant that the Germans didn't put as much effort into designing a replacement as they should have. This led to subsequent tanks having glaring weaknesses mainly in terms of deployability, reliability and turret design.
Panzer Mk V - Panther
While it may not be as famous as its Tiger sister, Germany's other big cat, the Panther, was arguably the best tank design of the whole war. Coming into service in 1943, as a response to the beatings that the earlier German tank designs got from their Russian counterparts, it was to become a benchmark in fighting machines. The front armour was 80mm thick, and not only that, it was sloped so that any shells that did not deflect off would have more effective armour to penetrate. The 75mm cannon was one of the most powerful of the war; with a long barrel and high velocity, it was at least an equal to the larger gun of the Tiger. It could pick off a Sherman6 at a distance, before the enemy tank could get in range. The 700-horsepower engine could get this beast to reach speeds of 34mph. Although designated a medium tank, at 44 tonnes it was heavier than some Allied heavy tanks. It has been suggested that it cost around half the price of a Tiger tank to produce, and little more than a Panzer IV, making it a very cost effective design.
When the Allies first encountered it, they thought it was a kind of heavy tank, built in low numbers, but around half the German tanks in Normandy were Panthers. Around 6,000 were built in total. No Allied tank could get though its armour at the front and so the Russians and British, followed eventually by the Americans, had to upgrade their guns to take it on at distance or head to head. Its side and rear armour were much lighter and less sloped, so tanks could try and flank it. Here they were helped by the Panther's powered turret taking three times longer to rotate than a Sherman. Not only that, but some Panthers were destroyed on slopes because the turret motor couldn't actually rotate the heavy gun upwards on steep rises.
Tank restorers have often found things like cigarette butts in the metal of a Panther. They were built using slave labour, many of who were not averse to dropping stuff into the molten metal in the factories7. Allied attacks on tank factories disrupted production and a lack of availability of some metals meant that the strength of armour was reduced. These were not this great machine's downfall, however - that was the final drive linking the engine to the tracks. It could not cope with the weight of the tank and breakdown was a more frequent demise for a Panther tank than enemy fire. It was calculated that a Panther's final drive had an average life of less than 100 miles. This was never redesigned, so remained a fatal weakness. Panthers had to be brought as close to battle as possible - on trains where possible - so air attacks on rail hubs could cause havoc with tank deployment. Also, attacks on factories, and the desperation to build more tanks, meant that fewer spare parts were produced as the war went on.
Panzer Mk VI - Tiger
The great Tiger tank came about from a long-standing need for a heavy tank that got given the hurry up by the fearsome Russian tanks. Porsche produced a design and built 90 chassis before being told that it was too complex8. Instead, the contract went to Henschel. It was the first tank to be able to mount an 88mm gun, based on the formidable Flak 88 anti-aircraft gun. Not only was the gun powerful, it was incredibly accurate as well. The tank had 110mm frontal armour, because it was flat, not sloped; it had to be much thicker to provide equal protection. When it was introduced, no Allied tank gun could hurt it front on. Sherman tanks had to get within 100 metres to get though the side armour of the tank, whereas Tigers could pick off a Sherman at over 2 kilometres. Eventually guns like the British 17 pounder were introduced to kill it from the front.
Despite being 60 tonnes in weight, it was still as quick as a Panzer IV, but due to fears over reliability, crews were advised not to over-rev it. It didn't matter; the Tiger was, like the Panther, a very unreliable tank. Very wide tracks were fitted so the Tiger could cope easily with muddy conditions, and boggy ground, despite its great weight. However, parts of these tracks had to be removed in order to get the tanks onto train wagons to be carried to the frontline. Where the 60 tonnes were a problem was where it had to cross bridges or bash through buildings that might have a basement. Few bridges were built to take the weight, so Tigers could ford rivers. The first 495 were fitted with complex equipment to be able to ford four metres of water, the later Tigers could cope with only half that depth.
The Tiger was originally designed to break though lines and cause havoc but the fortunes of war changed along with tactics and Tigers often found themselves dug in and hidden to create mobile gun emplacements; there was a case, however, of a lone Tiger killing off 20 US tanks in one battle. Like the Panther, its turret was a major weakness, as its traverse was much slower than Allied tanks and could allow it to be flanked. In the end, it was the complexity of the design that was its great failing. No tank of its time was as well protected or as well armed but probably none were as expensive and time-consuming to build. It cost over twice as much as a Panther and four times as much as an assault gun, so only around 1,350 were built. And it didn't matter that the Tiger had a kill ratio of 5.7 Allied tanks lost to each Tiger; in contrast the Allies managed to produce around 30 Shermans and 42 T-34s for each of these German tanks destroyed. As a result, only one genuine Tiger remains in working order, currently at the Tank Museum in Dorset, UK.
Panzer Mk VIB - Königstiger (King Tiger/Tiger II)
The King Tiger was brought in to replace the Tiger. Again Porsche thought it would get the contract and started building them but Henschel won the bid. It was basically an upgraded Tiger, with even thicker armour, now sloped, and a new model of the 88mm gun. It also got hydraulics that could fully rotate the turret in less than twenty seconds. It retained the 700hp engine from the Tiger and Panther, so was hopelessly underpowered and consumed four gallons of petrol for every mile travelled, not a great thing for an oil-starved country. While it was amazingly accurate and could kill off Allied armour well before they could close in to take it out9, it suffered from the same problems as the Tiger; it broke down, was difficult to move anywhere and, with less than 500 made, was too costly to make in war-effecting numbers.
Panzer Mk VIII - Maus
The Maus (Mouse) was a prototype super-heavy tank that made the King Tiger seem a little bit inadequate. With a somewhat ironic moniker, it rocked the scales at 180 tonnes, carried both a 128mm and a 78mm gun, as well as having 240mm thick armour. Six were made, but none saw service.
When Germany annexed Czechoslovakia, it gained access to the country's huge arms industry. About 300 of these 1,936 Skoda-designed light tanks were used by the German Army in the early part of the war. Weighing in at 12 tonnes, with a 1.5inch gun and a road speed of over 20mph, this proved a better tank than the Panzer II. It was also very reliable. Its major failing was that the armour was riveted on. If it was hit, the rivets could come firing out of the back of the plates and ricochet around the cabin until they hit something fleshy. By 1942, it was obsolete.
Like the 35, this was another light tank from the Czech arms factories. Designed in 1939, it was lighter and faster than the 35(t), and suffered from the same problems with riveted armour. It saw service with a lot of the Axis countries, as well as 1,500 being used by the German Army. They weren't used as front-line tanks after 1942.
The Sturmgeschütz - Assault Guns
German assault guns were initially designed as armoured guns to work alongside the infantry in order to take out heavily defended targets. They were based on a tank chassis, but instead of having a turret they had their guns mounted on the body of the tank. This left them with a limited traverse, but meant that assault guns were far cheaper to make - and were a harder target to hit. With upgraded guns, many assault guns were used as tank destroyers. As the war progressed, production switched from tanks towards assault guns. One of the problems with German tactics was that assault guns were classed as artillery, so were not under the command of Panzer officers, and this limited their effectiveness in battle. This said, Sturmgeschütz crews accounted for the destruction of some 20,000 Allied tanks during the war.
Sturmgeschütz Mk III (StuG III)
The StuG III was numerically the most important armoured fighting vehicle that the German army had during the war. Originally based on a Panzer III chassis, over 9,400 were built along with 1,211 of the Howitzer armed StuH 42. Originally, it had a low velocity 75mm gun, but it was replaced with high velocity versions after the German army had encountered the fearsome Russian tanks. It looked like a basic tank chassis but slightly taller, allowing a limited transverse gun to be mounted in the front of the tank rather than in the turret on top. At 7 ft (2 metres) tall, the StuG III was easier to camouflage than a normal tank, and was best used in defence where its lack of turret wouldn’t hinder it. Reports from the Battle of Kursk said that the Stug IIIs performed better than the Panzer IVs. They arrived in service in 1940, and over 1,000 remained at the end of the war.
Sturmgeschütz Mk IV (StuG IV)
Unsurprisingly, this was the assault gun version of the Panzer IV. Only 1,108 were built, as the Panzer IV production lines were mainly concerned with tanks and tank destroyers - not assault guns. The original plans for an assault gun version of the Panzer IV were drawn up in 1943. They weren’t carried through, as the design was too heavy and Hitler wanted to develop a tank destroyer version of the Panzer IV instead. When one of the factories building the StuG III was destroyed, Krupp started to build their assault gun (based on the available Panzer IV chassis), as it was quicker to make than the tank destroyer. The new design came in at 23 tonnes, just lighter than the StuG III. Like the III, the IV was an effective tank killer.
15 cm sIG 33 (Sf) auf Panzerkampfwagen I Ausf B
For all those people who asked what would happen if you stuck a 150mm gun onto a Panzer I chassis, this is the result. It was a tall, vulnerable creature which provided protection for the gun and gunner, but not for the loaders. It also had to have another vehicle to bring the shells since it could not carry its own. At 8.5 tonnes, the sIG 33 overloaded the chassis, so breakdowns were common. Only 40 were built. Other variants were to follow:
A version based on the Panzer II chassis was built. This numbered 12 in total. The height of the superstructure was lowered, making it harder to hit for other tanks, but making the crew even more vulnerable to light arms and shell fragments. It could, however, carry 30 rounds of ammunition.
The Grille (Cricket) was the result of bolting this gun to a Panzer (38)t. It was more successful and over 300 were built.
The Sturm-Infanteriegeschütz 33B was a run of two dozen StuG IIIs with the sIG 33 gun attached. Unlike the other variants it also had machine guns attached.
Sturmpanzer Mk IV
Known to the Allies as the Brummbär (Grumbler), this was a Skoda-designed 150mm gun in a casemate-style hull attached to the chassis of a Panzer IV. It was used in infantry support roles in France and Russia. 306 of these were made in the last three years of the war.
The Sturmtiger was built to answer the same need as the Sturmpanzer IV and the Sturm-Infanteriegeschütz 33B, to destroy buildings in an urban environment. It was designed to be able to take out buildings with one shot as well as being more heavily armoured than its predecessors. The chassis was from a Tiger tank and instead of a gun, a 380mm rocket lancher was stuck on the front. This made the Sturmtiger much shorter than its tank equivalent but it still weighed in at 65 tonnes. By the time it was built the German Army was on the defensive, so didn't need its urban fighting abilities. 19 were produced.
The Panzerjäger - Tank Destroyers
The Panzerjäger were some of the most formidable armoured vehicles in the war. While the Allied tank destroyers were very tank-like, often with lighter protection and an emphasis on speed, German tank destroyers prioritised with thick, sloped armour and a big gun, especially in the later models. Many of the earlier versions had open tops making them vulnerable to air attack or to infantry in urban areas. Like the Assault Guns, they did without a proper turret making them cheaper to build and harder to hit.
Panzerjäger Mk I
Stuck with a pile of redundant Panzer I chassis, it was decided to put a Skoda 47mm gun on them, with a gun-shield to protect the gun crew. This allowed the Panzerjäger I to sport a relatively powerful and accurate anti-tank gun. On the other hand, the high gun-shield made it an easy target. In combat conditions, the gun crew often had to poke their heads above the shield to see what they were aiming at, not the best move in health and safety terms. The armour was also woefully thin in places, but if the Panzerjäger I could get into position without being blown up, breaking down or having its crew killed, it was a formidable weapon against tanks in the early part of the war. What remained of the 200 or so that were built were withdrawn from active service by 1943.
The three Marder types were built to service the need for an anti-tank unit that could take on the Russian tanks on the Eastern Front. They all consisted of a 75mm gun mounted on top of a light tank. The guns were either German or rechambered versions of Russian guns. All three designs suffered from the same problems, that they had a high profile so were easy targets and the armour provided little actual protection, especially as the armour around the gun only protected the front and sides.
The Marder Mk I, of which 170 were built using captured French artillery tractors.
The Marder Mk II was built on old Panzer Mk IIs.
The Marder Mk III was built on the chassis of the Panzer (38)t.
The Nashorn (Rhinoceros) was a massive step forward from the Marder. Entering production in 1943, this tank hunter had a long-barrelled 88mm anti-tank gun with limited traverse. The body was thinly armoured and a fairly easy target, but on the open plains of Russia, it could kill off enemy tanks well before they could take advantage of its weaknesses. 473 of these 24-tonne beasts were made and even at the end of the war, they were one of the few German units that could take out the American M26 Pershing tank.
Popularly known as the Hetzer (Baiter), this was a light tank destroyer like the Marder. It was based on the Panzer (38)t. At 15 tonnes, it was much lighter than the Nashorn, but carried better armour. The 60mm front plate was sloped to double its effectiveness. Its hull was a sloped casemate-style construction that was not only much lower than a Marder but fully enclosed. It ran with a 75mm gun that was mounted to the right of the vehicle, a slight problem as it was also loaded from the right. The hull itself was very cramped. Over 2,800 were built from March 1944 and it proved a very effective weapon as well as being a lot cheaper to produce than larger tank destroyers.
Jagdpanzer Mk IV
Like the Jagdpanzer 38(t), this was a tank chassis with a sloped casemate hull instead of a normal hull and turret. While the Panzer IV that this was based on has 100mm front armour rather than the 80mm of the Jagdpanzer, the tank hunter's sloped armour was much more effective. Originally it was due to be armed with the Pak 42 75mm gun, but shortages meant that the first run came out with the less powerful Pak 39 variation. The Pak 42 was heavier and when fitted made the whole vehicle rather nose-heavy. In its primary role, the Jagdpanzer was formidable, but suffered later in the war when it was used as a tank substitute.
Not only was this perhaps the best tank destroyer of the war, it looked the most formidable. From the front, it was very simple, two tracks, some thick sloping armour and a massive gun. The 88mm gun from the King Tiger was one of the best of the war and it was mounted on the proven Panther chassis. The design included an uprated gearbox, fixing the main weakness of the original Panther tank. At 45 tonnes, this was a hefty piece of kit, but quick, with a 29mph top speed. 415 of these were produced. Like most German designs, they had no Allied rival in terms of capabilities, but no matter how good the turretless Jagdpanther was, when you are vastly outnumbered by Shermans or T-34s there can only be one winner in the end.
As stated earlier, Porsche were so convinced they were going to get the contract for the the new Tiger tank that they started production, only to see the contract go elsewhere. To put some of these spare chassis to good use, they were used as a basis for a heavy tank destroyer. Unlike the tank hunters based on the Panther and Panzer IV, the Elefant (Elephant) relied on using thick vertical armour rather than the sloping kind. At 65 tonnes with a 200mm front plate, this was a lot of metal and pretty much unkillable by other tanks. They were originally going to be called Ferdinands, after their designer, and notched up a 10:1 kill ratio in service. One unit of Elefants at the Battle of Kursk took out 320 Russian tanks at a cost of 13 of their number, due in part to the fact that the 88mm gun could destroy most opponents before they could become a threat.
However, things were not as rosy as they seemed. Firstly, they were very heavy. Any breakdowns, of which there were many, could not be towed away. In Italy, they could not cross the slim roads or light bridges. Most of the losses were due to crews abandoning them because of faults to the machine, rather than trying to carry on fighting in a useless hulk. The other problem they had, at least at first, was that there was no machine gun fitted to protect them from infantry attacks. Eventually machine gun protection was added to the Elefant, with 91 of them built during the war.
No other armoured land vehicle in the war was as heavy as the Jagdtiger. It was the ultimate example of the German approach to tank warfare, where they kept designing bigger and more complex tanks despite a lack of resources and being completely outnumbered by Russian and American mass produced simple tanks. Based on the King Tiger, this was almost 72 tonnes and packed a 128mm gun with 250mm of frontal armour to protect it. It was powerful, almost unstoppable by the enemy and had one of the most fearsome guns on the battlefield. It just couldn't realise its potential.
The 690hp engine was woefully underpowered for the massive bulk of the thing. On top of that, the engines were so stressed that they often broke down. Fuel was in short supply at that time and the Jagdtiger also had problems crossing bridges due to its weight. While the gun could destroy any tank it met (from distances of over 2km) it needed the shell and charge loaded separately, making the reload very slow. Firing the gun gave out a lot of smoke and blinded the crew for a few seconds. In some cases, even when the tanks reached the enemy while still working, the crews lacked the training that they had earlier in the war. Cases were noted when commanders were scared by 75mm shells landing on the invulnerable front; instead of fighting back, or backing off, they turned and ran, allowing their vulnerable sides and back to be attacked by the enemy. In the end, 88 of these fearsome machines were built from mid-1944 but had no effect on the result of the war.
German Tanks in the War
There is no doubt that technically, the German tank designs were the best of the war. They were better armed, better protected and often as quick as their counterparts. The problem is that wars are fought on fields and in towns, not on paper. It wasn't the technical advances of the Russians, such as sloped armour, that beat the Germans, it was that American and Russian factories simply outproduced them. For a resource-poor country, spending huge amounts on expensive tanks like the Tiger was a massive strategic error. The Tiger, like others designs, underlined the Nazi propaganda that their tanks were the best in the world, but it was powerless against hordes of simple designs that could be easily repaired in the field.
One advantage that the Germans had in making these huge powerful tanks was the effect they had on the enemy morale. Even looking past the fear they induced, they had another advantage: the Allied armies were not prepared for them. Intelligence had got sightings of Panthers and Tigers around the turn of 1942/43, but had discounted them as being specialist tanks being built in limited numbers; it came as a massive shock to the British and US Armies when it turned out that Panthers were being used as a main battle tank supported by a lot of Tigers. If they had taken the threat more seriously, they would have spent time upgrading the guns of their own tanks to cope with them.
It should also be remembered that Germany did not have access to large oil fields. Its main source was Romania, which by 1944 had switched sides to join the Allies. Most German motor fuel had to come from synthetic sources, which were prime targets for the Allied bombers. The German heavy tanks were very fuel-thirsty, so had to be brought close to the battlefield by rail, again making them targets of both aircraft and resistance fighters. This meant that tank use had to be limited.
The German command structure was yet another hindrance to the success of the German tank divisions, with control over various units split up amongst the High Command. The Panzer Reserve, for example, could not be used unless given the personal go-ahead by the Führer. Indeed, one event that helped make the Allied landings in Normandy such a success was that the Panzer Reserve could not be brought into the battle straight away. The reason? Nobody wanted to wake Hitler and ask him.