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Panzer III at War 1939–1945

In June 1943, twenty-one Panzer divisions, including four Waffen-SS divisions and two Panzergrenadier divisions were being prepared for Operation Zitadelle in the Kursk salient. For this massive attack the Panzer III Ausf. L variant was fitted with spaced armoured skirts or Schürtzen, which was armoured plating installed around the turret and on the hull sides. However, in spite of this additional armoured protection, the Panzer IV, Tiger and the new Panther were to play the most dominant role in the battle of Kursk. In total there were seventeen divisions and two brigades with no less than 1,715 Panzers and 147 StuG III assault guns. Each division averaged some ninety-eight Panzers and self-propelled anti-tank guns. The new Pz.Kpfw V Panther Ausf. A made its debut, despite its production problems.

Initially the German armoured attack at Kursk went well, with the Panzer III scoring sizeable successes along some parts of the front. However, within only a matter of days, strong Soviet defensive positions consisting of literally hundreds of anti-tank guns had ground down the mighty Panzerwaffe and threw its offensive timetable off-schedule. Through sheer weight of Soviet strength and stubborn combat along an ever-extending front, the German mobile units were finally forced to a standstill.

As a direct result, the reverberations caused by the defeat at Kursk meant that German forces in the south bore the brunt of the heaviest Soviet drive. Both the Russian Voronezh and Steppe Fronts possessed massive local superiority against everything the Germans had on the battlefield, and this included their diminishing resources of tanks and assault guns. The Panzerwaffe were now duty-bound to improvise with what they had at their disposal and try to maintain themselves in the field, and in so doing they hoped to wear the enemy’s offensive capacity.

By the winter of 1943 diminishing armoured units continued to fight on an ever-extended front. Due to the introduction of the up-gunned and up-armoured Panzer IV, the Panzer III was slowly relegated to secondary roles such as training, and it was replaced as the main German medium tank by the Panzer IV and Panther.

Even so, the Pz.Kpfw III continued to see extended combat on all fronts, despite its relegation. German tank units, despite the dire situation, were still infused with confidence and the ability to hold ground. Grim as the situation was, armoured units were compelled to try to fill the gaps left by the infantry, and hold the front to the death. Throughout November and December 1943 the Panzerwaffe fought well and at times even succeeded in surprising Red Army forces with a number of daring attacks of their own. Although handicapped from the onset by their lack of reserves, the Panzers continued to try to hold ground and even managed at times to spearhead a number of attacks, causing considerable losses to Soviet armour.

Although German Panzerwaffe commanders were fully aware of the fruitless attempts by its forces to establish a defensive line, the crews followed instructions implicitly in a number of areas to halt the Soviet drive. Again and again Panzer units fought to the death. A mass of infantry, mixed with the remnants of naval and Luftwaffe groups, supported the motorized columns as they fought against innumerable numbers of Russian tanks. Many of the German armoured vehicles were festooned with camouflage, and wherever possible moved under the cover of trees or the cover of night to avoid being attacked by the Red Army Air Force, which had almost total control of the air over the Eastern Front.

By the summer of 1944, desperation began to grip the front lines even further. Little in the way of reinforcements reached the Germans, and those that were left holding a defensive position had already been forced into various ad hoc Panzer divisions that were simply thrown together with a handful of tanks and Panzer-grenadiers. Many of these hastily-formed formations were short-lived. The majority were either completely decimated in the fighting or had received such a mauling in battle that they were reorganized into a different ad hoc formation under a new commander. Fervent efforts to increase the combat strength of the Panzerwaffe, Panzer units and individuals of Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions were undertaken, but these were too exhausted to avert the situation decisively. As a result the Russians continued pushing forward, while German forces retreated westward. Destruction seemed destined to unfold.

Two crew members of a Pz.Kpfw III crew stand in front of their whitewashed Panzer during the early winter of 1943. Throughout the early cold months of 1943 the Panzerwaffe built up the strength of the badly depleted Panzer divisions.

Out in the field supporting troops dressed in winter white camouflage suits is a whitewashed Pz.Kpfw III. The troops’ two-piece snowsuits were shapeless outfits comprising a snow jacket and matching trousers.

Out on the Northern Front near Leningrad a knocked-out Russian tank can be seen. A column of support vehicles can be indentified moving along a road to support positions around the besieged city. During this period of the war the Germans were well aware that if the hold on Leningrad were broken, Army Group North would eventually lose control of the Baltic Sea. Finland would be isolated, supplies of iron ore from Sweden would be in danger, and the U-boat training programme would be seriously curtailed. It was now imperative that the troops held the front and wage a static battle of attrition until other parts of the Russian front could be stabilized.

The Waffen-SS crew of a Pz.Kpfw III is pictured during the battle of Kharkov in March 1943. These SS Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions had become known as the ‘fire brigade’ of the Third Reich. Wherever they were committed to battle, they attacked. Sometimes the outcome was successful and there were many times when they failed, but whatever the outcome of the individual action, the end mostly resulted in delaying the enemy advance. In March 1943 three elite Waffen-SS divisions, Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, Das Reich and Totenkopf of the newly-formed SS Panzer Corps recaptured the city of Kharkov.

A Pz.Kpfw III wades across a small river during early spring operations on the Eastern Front. By the spring of 1943 the German forces were holding a battle line more than 1,400 miles in overall length which had been severely weakened by the overwhelming strength of the Red Army. To make matters worse, during the first half of 1943 Panzerwaffe units were finding it harder and harder to be refitted with proper replacements to compensate for the large losses sustained. Supplies of equipment and ammunition were also becoming insufficient in some areas of the front. However, by mid-1943 the Panzerwaffe was slowly restored with an arsenal of armour of some twenty-four Panzer divisions on the Eastern Front alone. This was a staggering transformation of a Panzer force that had lost immeasurable amounts of armour in less than two years of combat.

A variety of armoured vehicles in the field comprising Pz.Kpfw IIs, IIIs, IVs and halftracks. These vehicles are purposely spread out to make an aerial attack against their advancing unit more difficult.

Three SS crewmen pose for the camera on board their new Pz.Kpfw III Ausf. L somewhere on the Eastern Front.

An SS officer holding the rank of an SS-Untersturmführer poses for the camera in front of what is probably a new Pz.Kpfw III Ausf. L.

SS crewmen have their photograph taken with another Pz.Kpfw III Ausf. L of the same SS unit. Note the name ‘Ernest Stammler’ painted on the side of the tank, probably in honour of a fallen comrade.

A Pz.Kpfw III crew ensure that their Panzer is not detected by aerial or ground enemy reconnaissance and foliage is applied to help conceal it.

A Panzergrenadier takes cover near an Sd.Kfz.251 halftrack during the opening phase of Operation Zitadelle. This was to be the largest tank battle ever fought in the history of warfare. The plan was for the German forces to smash Red Army formations and leave the road to Moscow open. For this daring offensive the German force was distributed between the Northern and Southern groups, consisting of a total of twenty-two divisions, six of which were Panzer and five Panzergrenadier.

A Pz.Kpfw III with troops riding on board who are being transported to the front lines. At Kursk both the Wehrmacht and Panzerwaffe caused considerable destruction against the first lines of Russian defence. As a direct result of the German ferocity, condition of the Red Army troops varied considerably. While some areas of the front were demoralized and often without sufficient weapons, others parts were heavily defended with a formidable force.

A battery of StuG IIIs have been secured ready for transport on a flatbed rail car during the summer of 1943. By this period of the war instead of the StuG being a weapon for primarily supporting the infantry, it had become yet another defensive weapon with its main task to kill tanks.

A StuG III advancing along a dusty road towards the front lines in the summer of 1943. By early 1943 the StuG had become a very popular assault gun, especially on the Eastern Front. Its low profile and mechanical reliability saw its employment grow on the battlefield. Some 3,041 of them were operational in 1943 alone.

Pictured here across the vast steppe are Pz.Kpfw IIIs and IVs advancing into action during the battle of Kursk. Note the interesting summer camouflage schemes and side-skirt armour. These vehicles have been given the new three-colour paint scheme and the crews have applied them in stripes. By 1943 olive green was being used on vehicles, weapons and large pieces of equipment. A red-brown colour RAL 8012 had also been introduced at the same time. These two colours, along with a new colour base of dark yellow RAL 7028, were issued to crews in the form of a highly-concentrated paste. This arrived in 2kg and 20kg cans and units were ordered to apply the paste over the entire surface of the vehicle. The substance was specially adapted so that it could be thinned with water or even fuel and could be applied by spray, brush or mop.

An interesting photograph during the battle of Kursk in the northern sector showing a large column of armoured vehicles advancing across a field. Visible are the Sd.Kfz.251 halftracks, Pz.Kpfw II, III and Sd.Kfz.10 halftrack mounting a flak gun. The initial phase of the northern thrust went well, with the Germans slowly and systematically bulldozing their way through while Russian troops either fought to the death or saved themselves by escaping the impending slaughter by withdrawing to another makeshift position. Fighting on the northern front was a fierce contest of attrition, and although the Red Army had showed great fortitude and determination, they were constantly hampered by overwhelming firepower from Tiger and Panther tanks.

During a temporary lull in the fighting the crew of a Pz.Kpfw III makes minor repairs to their vehicle. During the battle of Kursk seven Panzer divisions in total were annihilated with terrible effect on the German war effort. The offensive was a catastrophe for the German forces on the Eastern Front. Hitler had chosen an objective that was far too ambitious. The attack had also been continually delayed, allowing Russian forces additional time to prepare their defensive positions in the salient. Despite German efforts to batter their way through, they had neither the strength nor resources to do so. The cream of the German Panzer force, so carefully concentrated prior to the operation, was exhausted and the Russians had undeniably gained the initiative in the East forever.

Armoured vehicles comprising mainly Pz.Kpfw IVs going forward into action during the latter phase of Kursk. Both the Pz.Kpfw III and larger Pz.Kpfw IV fought well during the summer offensive, but the Soviet defences comprising many thousands of tank mines and anti-tank guns had caused considerable casualties, almost ending any future for the Pz.Kpfw III as a main battle tank. It was now down to the powerful Tiger and new Panther tanks to try to restore the war effort in the east.

A Pz.Kpfw III command tank has halted on the steppe with other armoured vehicles during the latter period of the Kursk offensive. The reverberations caused by the German defeat at Kursk meant that German forces in the south bore the brunt of the heaviest Soviet drive. Both the Russian Voronezh and Steppe Fronts possessed massive local superiority against everything the Germans had on the battlefield and this included their diminishing resources of tanks and assault guns.

An interesting photograph showing Waffen-SS troops dug-in along a position in the summer of 1943. A Pz.Kpfw III passes the position on its way to the front. In these last years the deciding factors in ground warfare were the Panzer, self-propelled artillery and mechanized infantry. The Waffen-SS played a key part in trying to hold significant ground. These elite combat formations saw extensive action and were continuously being shuttled from one danger spot to another with only brief respite for refitting.

In Army Group South an interesting photograph showing a Panzer crew applying whitewash paint to their late variant Pz.Kpfw III. Note the smoke-candle dischargers attached to the tank’s turret. Throughout January and February 1944 the winter did nothing to impede the Soviet offensives from grinding further west. At the beginning of March 1944 Army Group South supported by armour still held about half the ground between the Dnepr and Bug, but in a number of areas the front was buckling under the constant strain of repeated Soviet attacks. As a consequence Army Group South was being slowly pressed westwards, its Panzers still unable to strike a decisive counter-blow because of the Fuhrer’s order to stand fast on unsuitable positions.

Whitewashed Pz.Kpfw IIIs advance along the front lines during winter operations in early 1944. During this period the Germans held significant ground and by the early spring mud finally brought an end to almost continuous fighting and there was respite for the Panzerwaffe in some areas of the front. In addition to this, the armaments industry had begun producing many new vehicles for the Eastern Front. In fact during 1944 the Panzerwaffe were better supplied with equipment than during any other time on the Eastern Front, thanks to the efforts of the armaments industry. In total some 20,000 fighting vehicles including 8,328 medium and heavy tanks, 5,751 assault guns, 3,617 tank destroyers and 1, 246 self-propelled artillery carriages of various types reached the Eastern Front.

An interesting photograph showing an SS crewman posing for the camera next to his brand-new whitewashed Pz.Kpfw III Ausf. M during the winter of 1943. Note the divisional emblem of the 1st SS Panzergrenadier Division ‘LSSAH’ painted on the front plate of the vehicle.

Another Pz.Kpfw III Ausf. M belonging to the 1st SS Panzergrenadier Division ‘LSSAH’ during operations in Russia in the winter of 1943.

The crew of a Pz.Bef.Wg III Ausf. H standing next to their machine during winter operations on the Eastern Front in 1943. Note the ‘Berlin Bear’ emblem indicating that this vehicle belongs to Panzer Regiment 35 of the 4th Panzer Division.

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