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The Panther in Combat

Panthers were first supplied to form Panzer Abteilung 51 (tank Battalion 51) on 9 January, and then Pz.Abt. 52 on 6 February 1943.

The first production Panther tanks were plagued with mechanical problems. The engine was dangerously prone to overheating and suffered from connecting rod or bearing failures. Gasoline leaks from the fuel pump or carburettor, as well as motor oil leaks from gaskets easily produced fires in the engine compartment; several Panthers were destroyed in such fires. Transmission and final drive breakdowns were the most common and difficult to repair. A large list of other problems were detected in these early Panthers, and so from April through May 1943 all Panthers were shipped to Falkensee and Nuremburg for a major rebuilding program. This did not correct all of the problems, so a second program was started at Grafenwoehr and Erlangen in June 1943.

PANTHER ON THE EASTERN FRONT

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Panther tanks of the Großdeutschland Division advance in the area of Iaşi, Romania in 1944.

The Panther tank was viewed by Hitler as an essential component of the forthcoming Operation Zitadelle, and on his orders the attack was delayed several times because of the mechanical problems which were still being encountered. The eventual start date of the battle was delayed as long as possible and commenced only six days after the last of the 200 Panthers had been delivered to the front. This hurriedness resulted in major problems in Panther units during the Battle of Kursk, as in addition to all of the other problems, tactical training at the unit level, co-ordination by radio, and driver training were all seriously deficient.

It was not until 29th June, 1943, that the last of a total of 200 rebuilt Panthers were finally issued to Panther Regiment von Lauchert, of the XLVIII Panzer Corps (4 Panzer Army). Two were immediately lost due to motor fires upon disembarking from the trains. By 5th July, when the Battle of Kursk started, there were only 184 operational Panthers. Within two days, this total had dropped to just 40. On 17th July 1943 after Hitler had ordered a stop to the German offensive, Gen. Heinz Guderian sent in the following preliminary assessment of the Panthers:

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Advice on attacking strong points from the Pantherfibel.

“Due to enemy action and mechanical breakdowns, the combat strength sank rapidly during the first few days. By the evening of 10 July there were only 10 operational Panthers in the front line. 25 Panthers had been lost as total write offs (23 were hit and burnt and two had caught fire during the approach march). 100 Panthers were in need of repair (56 were damaged by hits and mines and 44 by mechanical breakdown). 60 percent of the mechanical breakdowns could be easily repaired. Approximately 40 Panthers had already been repaired and were on the way to the front. About 25 still had not been recovered by the repair service. On the evening of 1th July, 38 Panthers were operational, 31 were total write offs and 131 were in need of repair. A slow increase in the combat strength is observable. The large number of losses by hits (81 Panthers up to 10th July) attests to the heavy fighting.”

During Zitadelle the Panthers claimed a total 267 destroyed Soviet tanks. Given the circumstances this was a remarkable achievement and pointed towards the fact that under the right circumstances this was could have been a very impressive design indeed.

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A unit of Panther tanks move into formation during Operation Citadel. These machines are part of the initial run of 200 tanks deplyed in July 1943.

A later report on 20th July 20, 1943 showed 41 Panthers as operational, 85 as repairable, 16 severely damaged and needing repair in Germany, 56 burnt out (due to enemy action), and 2 that had been completely destroyed by motor fires at the railhead.

Even before the Germans ended their offensive at Kursk, the Soviets began their counteroffensive and succeeded in pushing the Germans back into a steady retreat. As a result of the headlong withdrawal many Panthers could not be recovered and had to be left on the battlefield This was to lead to a drastic decline in operational numbers and a report 11th August 1943 showed that the numbers of total write offs in the Panther force swelled to 156, with only 9 operational. The German Army was forced into a fighting retreat and increasingly lost Panthers in combat as well as from abandoning and destroying damaged vehicles.

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Advice on traversing the corrugated wooden roads encountered on the Eastern Front from the Pantherfibel.

The Panther demonstrated its capacity to destroy any Soviet tank from long distance during the Battle of Kursk, and had a very high overall kill ratio. However, it comprised less than seven per cent of the estimated 2,400–2,700 total tanks deployed by the Germans in this battle, and its effectiveness was limited by its mechanical problems and the in-depth layered defence system of the Soviets at Kursk. Ironically the greatest contribution to this titanic battle may have been a highly negative one. Hitler’s decisions to delay the original start of Operation Zitadelle for a total of two months was at least partially due to his desire to see the panther in action. The precious extra time was used by the Soviets to build up an enormous concentration of minefields, anti-tank guns, trenches and artillery defences which ultimately thwarted the German ambitions.

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A Panther is left destroyed after the Battle of Kursk.

After the losses of the Battle of Kursk, the German Army was forced into a constant state of retreat before the advancing Red Army. The numbers of Panthers were slowly re-built on the Eastern Front, and the operational percentage increased as its reliability was improved. In March 1944, Guderian reported: “Almost all the bugs have been worked out”. Despite his bold words many units continued to report significant mechanical problems, especially with the final drive. There undoubtedly were some real advances in reliability and the greatly outnumbered Panthers for the remainder of the war were used as mobile reserves to fight off major attacks.

THE CONTEMPORARY VIEW NUMBER 2

“NEW HEAVY TANK: THE Pz. Kw. 5 (PANTHER)”

FROM INTELLIGENCE BULLETIN, JANUARY 1944

NEW HEAVY TANK: THE Pz. Kw. 5 (PANTHER)

When the Pz. Kw. 6 (Tiger) became standard, the Pz. Kw. 5 (Panther) was still in an experimental stage. Now that the Panther has joined the German tank series as a standard model, a general description of this newest “land battleship” can be made available to U.S. military personnel. Much of the data presented here comes from Russian sources, inasmuch as the Pz. Kw. 5 has thus far been used only on the Eastern Front.

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A Panther photographed on the Eastern Front in 1944.

The Panther is a fast, heavy, well-armoured vehicle. It mounts a long 75-mm gun. Weighing 45 tons, the new tank appears to be of a type intermediate between the 22-ton Pz. Kw. 4 and the 56-ton Pz. Kw. 6. The Panther has a speed of about 31 miles per hour. It corresponds roughly to our General Sherman, which the Germans have always greatly admired. It is believed that the 75-mm gun is the Kw.K.. This tank gun is a straight-bore weapon with a muzzle brake, and has an over-all length of 18 feet 2 inches.

Although equipped with the same motor as the Tiger, the Panther has lighter armour and armament. For this reason it is capable of higher speed and greater maneuverability. The Panther is also provided with additional armour plate, 4- to 6-mm thick, (not shown in fig. 1) along the side, just above the suspension wheels and the sloping side armour plate.

When a flexible tube with a float is attached to the air intake, the Panther has no difficulty in fording fairly deep streams. There is a special fitting in the top of the tank for attaching this tube.

Like the Pz. Kw. 6’s, the Pz. Kw. 5’s are organized into separate tank battalions. During the summer of 1943, the Germans used many of these new tanks on the Russian front.

Although the Russians have found the Pz. Kw. 5 more manoeuvrable than the Pz. Kw. 6, they are convinced that the new tank is more easily knocked out. Fire from all types of rifles and machine guns directed against the peep holes, periscopes, and the base of the turret and gun shield will blind or jam the parts, the Russians say. High explosives and armour-piercing shells of 54-mm (2.12 inches) calibre, or higher are effective against the turret at ranges of 875 yards or less. Large-calibre artillery and self-propelled cannon can put the Panther out of action at ordinary distances for effective fire. The vertical and sloping plates can be penetrated by armour-piercing shells of 45-mm (1.78 inches) calibre, or higher. Incendiary armour-piercing shells are said to be especially effective, not only against the gasoline tanks, but against the ammunition, which is located just to the rear of the driver.

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The missile defeating qualities of sloped armour is graphically demonstrated in this page from the Pantherfibel.

The additional armour plate above the suspension wheels is provided to reduce the penetration of hollow-charge shells. According to the Russians, it is ineffective; antitank grenades, antitank mines, and Molotov cocktails are reported to be effective against the weak top and bottom plates and the cooling and ventilating openings on top of the tank, just above the motor.

However, it should definitely be stated that the Pz. Kw. 5 is a formidable weapon—a distinct asset of the German Army.

1. With certain alterations the Pz. Kw. 6 may weigh as much as 62 tons. For an illustrated discussion of the Pz. Kw. 6, see Intelligence Bulletin, Vol. I, No. 10, pp. 19-23.

2. Kampfwagenkanone-tank gun.

The highest total number of operational Panthers on the Eastern Front was achieved in September 1944, when some 522 were listed as operational out of a total of 728 machines. Throughout the rest of the war, Germany continued to deploy the majority of available Panther forces on the Eastern Front. The last recorded status, on 15th March 1945, listed 740 Panthers on the Eastern Front with 361 operational. By this time the end was in sight as the Red Army had already entered East Prussia and was advancing through Poland.

In August 1944 Panthers were deployed in Warsaw during the uprising as a mobile artillery and troops support. At least two of them were captured in the early days of the conflict and used in actions against Germans, including the liberation of Gęsiówka concentration camp on 5th August, when the soldiers of “Wacek” platoon used the captured Panther (named “Magda”) to destroy the bunkers and watchtowers of the camp. Most of the Germans in the camp were killed; insurgents had lost two people and liberated almost 350 people. After several days they were immobilized due to the lack of fuel and batteries and were set ablaze to prevent them from being re-captured by the German forces.

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The Pantherfibel advised crews that the maximum radius was 100km across country and 150Km by road.

The organisation of Panther battalions varied but an optimal organisation is set out below. In practice the number of operational machines was never achieved.

Battalion Command

(Composed of Communication and Reconnaissance platoons)

Communication Platoon – 3 × Befehlswagen Panther SdKfz.267/268

Reconnaissance Platoon – 5 × Panther

1st Company – 22 × Panther

Company Command – 2 × Panther

1st Platoon – 5 × Panther

2nd Platoon – 5 × Panther

3rd Platoon – 5 × Panther

4th Platoon – 5 × Panther

2nd Company – 22 × Panther (composed as 1st Company)

3rd Company – 22 × Panther (composed as 1st Company)

4th Company – 22 × Panther (composed as 1st Company)

Service Platoon – 2 × Bergepanther SdKfz.179

From 3rd August 1944, the new Panzer-Division 44 organisation called for a Panzer division to consist of one Panzer regiment with two Panzer battalions – one of 96 Panzer IVs and one of 96 Panthers. Actual strengths tended to differ, and in reality were far lower after combat losses were taken into account.

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The Panzer Mark V seen here in combat accompanied by infantry support.

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