23 March 2023
Duncan Evans looks at the legendary German tank from WWII and points out some collecting opportunities.
Despite being officially designated as a medium tank, the Panther suffered from Hitler’s inevitable meddling and saw it’s originally planned weight of 35 tonnes rise to a production figure of 44.8 tonnes – putting it on par with the heavy tanks of the Allies. The Panther started life on the drawing board in 1938 as a replacement for the Panzer III and IV tanks, but the initial specification was firstly revised then changed completely when the Wehrmacht ran into the T-34 on the Eastern Front. Daimler-Benz (DB) and Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg AG (MAN) were given the task of designing a new 30-35 tonne tank that could take on the Soviet machine, which featured thick, sloping armour and wide tracks, ideal for the terrain. MAN’s design eventually got the seal of approval, despite being technically inferior to DB’s, because it used an existing turret and could be put into production much quicker.
The key factor for the Panther was that it used the same engine as the Tiger, which had seen its weight increase from 50 tonnes to 57 tonnes, but with a design for 30 tonnes, would be far quicker and mobile on the battlefield. Thanks to Hitler insisting on greater armour it eventually ended up with almost the specification of the original Tiger design.
A prototype was produced by September 1942 but the Wehrmacht’s desperate need meant it was rushed into production by December. Inevitably reliability problems soon surfaced but demand was so great that DB and Maschinenfabrik Niedersachsen Hanover were roped in to make them. After the prototype, the first main model was the Ausf. D, produced between January-September 1943, then the Ausf. A, between August 1943 and August 1944, and the Ausf. G between March 1944 and April 1945. A Panther cost 117,100RM to build, making it around 13% more expensive than the Panzer IV but only 40% of the cost of a Tiger 1.
The first 250 Panthers off the production line were powered by the Maybach HL 210 P30 V-12 petrol engine which delivered 650 metric hp but from May 1943 this was replaced by the Maybach HL 230 P30 V-12 petrol engine which generated 700 metric hp. The engine compartment was designed to be watertight so the Panther could cross water-logged areas and shallow rivers but this made it poorly ventilated with the consequence that it overheated easily. Combined with fuel connectors that lacked insulation, it made the initial engines unreliable. The main weakness though was the final drive unit. Thanks to the need to mass-produce the Panther, the final drive was changed to a simpler system, making it more prone to fail given the power and weight of the tank.
Despite these shortcomings, the thick sloping front armour and Rheinmetall-Borsig 7.5 cm KwK 42 (L/70) main gun made the Panther a feared opponent on the battlefield. The main gun used a large propellant charge and long barrel, giving it a very high muzzle velocity and greater armour piercing ability than almost any Allied gun of a similar calibre. Only the Sherman Firefly’s 17-pounder main gun could match it but was far less accurate. By mid-1944 most of the Panther’s initial problems had been ironed out to a degree and the Ausf. G version was seen as the deadliest tank in the field.
The main use of the Panther was on the Eastern Front, where Operation Citadel was put back two months in order to build up numbers for the attack. After the German’s defeat at Kursk, the Wehrmacht steadily retreated across Eastern Europe, with most Panthers being flung into the fray to try to stop the Red Army. However, over 350 tanks were sent to France, where the Panther was invulnerable to front shots from the Allies Sherman M4, leading to development of the Firefly to counter it. The key factor for the Panther’s armour was that the 80mm frontal plate was angled at 55 degrees, making it harder to penetrate than the Tiger’s 100mm vertical plate armour. Consequently, Allied tanks tried to get around the sides to fire at the Panther.
By the end of the war, over 6,000 had been built, with many being captured by the Red Army and subsequently given to its satellite states of Romania and Bulgaria. Bizarrely, the French were able to recover enough tanks and spares to form a tank regiment of some 50 Panthers, which remained in service until replaced by French-built heavy tanks. Some nine Panthers and 12 Jagdpanthers were also produced by German factory staff after the end of the war, under the instruction of British REME staff. An example of each of these are now on display at the Bovington Tank Museum in Dorset.
Left: Panther Aus.f D
Left: Panther Aus.f A
Left: Panther Ausf. G
Panther Ausf. D
Top speed: 34mph (first models) or 29mph (later models)
Range: 120 miles by road, 62 miles off road
Engine: V-12 petrol Maybach HL230 P30, 700PS (690hp, 515 kW)
Armour: Chassis hull front glacis plate - 80mm at 55 degrees. Lower front plate - 60mm thick at 55 degrees
Main gun: 7.5cm KwK 42 L/70
Dimensions: 6.87m long x 3.27m wide x 2.99m high
Number built: Approximately 6,000
Entered service: 1943
Designer: Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg AG
There are opportunities to collect Panther parts, with a lot coming in relic condition coming from ground dug finds in the Baltic States where there was fierce fighting. Here are a couple of examples.
Left: Road wheel – A heavy wheel, as used on all models of the Panther. Roll it into your collection for $1,249 from relicsww2.com
Left: Track link – A part of the track from a Panther of 502 Battalion, dug up in Estonia. £312.38 on eBay
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