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Nazi Germany had several tank designs during World War II. In addition to these domestic designs, Germany also used various captured and foreign-built tanks.

German tank production line.

Development and uses

Heinz Guderian in the Battle of France with the 'Enigma' machine

The German tank force was an amazing success due to tactical innovation more than tank quality. Many of their tanks outclassed allied armor, delivered more casualties than they took in most engagements due to the impressive training the German soldiers received, and the excellent tactics used by the German forces.

Using the Blitzkrieg, Guderian, Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist and other field commanders such as Rommel broke the hiatus of the Phoney War in a manner almost outside the comprehension of the Allied — and, indeed, the German — High Command. In actual tank-on-tank encounters the German armour performed poorly, but as a coherent unit, the combined arms tactic of the Blitzkrieg shocked the West.

The German Panzer force at the start of World War II was not especially impressive. Only 4% of the defence budget was spent on armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) production. Guderian had planned for two main tanks, the Panzer III was in production but the second support tank with a 75 mm gun was not. Designated the Panzer IV, design work had begun in 1935 and trials of prototypes were undertaken in 1937, but by the time of the invasion of Poland only a few hundred 'troop trial' models were available. The development work was then halted and limited production began by Krupp in Magdeburg (Grusonwerk AG), Essen and Bochum in October 1939 with 20 vehicles built. Even that low number could not be sustained however, production dropping to ten in April 1940. Production was also dropped because metal was very expensive and not many citizens were donating it.

Rommel in the Western Europe campaign (June 1940)

Nevertheless the number of available Panzer IV's (211) was still larger than that of the Panzer III (98). There were also technical problems with the Panzer III: it was widely considered to be under-gunned with a 37 mm KwK L/45 and production was split between four manufacturers (MAN, Daimler-Benz, Rheinmetall-Borsig, and Krupp) with little regard for each firm's expertise, and the rate of production was initially very low (40 in September 1939, 58 in June 1940) taking until December 1940 to reach 100 examples a month. The Panzer force for the early German victories was a mix of the Panzer I (machine-gun only) and Panzer II (20mm gun) light tanks, and Czech tanks (the Panzer 38(t) and the Panzer 35(t)). By May 1940 349 Panzer III's were available for the attacks on France and the Low Countries. Through superior command/control and tactics, the Germans were able to prevail in the Battle of France, despite the deficiencies of their Panzers.

German Panzer II with 20 mm (0.79 in) gun and machine-gun in rotating turret.

That the Panzer III was undergunned was recognized during its conception and its design included a large turret ring to make it possible to fit a 2250 ft/s (656 m/s) 50 mm KwK L/42 gun on later models. In July 1940, too late to see action in the final weeks of the Battle of France, the first 17 of these models were produced. Designated the Panzer III Ausf. F, the other changes included an upgraded Maybach engine and numerous minor changes to ease mass production.

The Ausf. F was quickly supplanted by the Ausf. G[Clarification needed] which was the main tank of the Afrika Korps in 1940–41 and also saw action in Yugoslavia and Greece. Around 2,150 Panzer IIIs were produced of which around 450 were the Ausf G. These tanks were still under-gunned, poorly armored and mechanically over-complex in comparison to the British tanks. After fighting in Libya in late 1940 the Ausf. H was put into production with simpler mechanics, wider tracks and improved armour. In April 1941 there was a general 'recall' of the Panzer III to upgrade the main gun to the new 50 mm L/60, with the new Panzergranate 40 round, muzzle velocity was pushed to 3875 ft/s (1,181 m/s). New tanks produced with this gun were designated Ausf. J.


Panzer III's of 21st Panzer advance along the coastal road in Cyrenaica, March 1941.

The invasion of the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa signalled an enormous change in German tank development. In July 1941 36 Panzer and motorized infantry divisions were assigned to the invasion fielding over 3000 AFV's. In June 1941, these tanks first encountered the Soviet T-34 and the German tanks were outclassed in every aspect of battle performance. A little later the American-made M3 Lee and then M4 Sherman tanks were encountered in the Western Desert, the M4 outclassing German armour in that theatre too.

As an immediate measure the Panzer III's armour was upgraded to 70 mm by additional plates and to protect against hollow charge attacks spaced armour was introduced. But the Panzer III was clearly outclassed and production was ended in August 1943 with the Ausf. M (a conversion of older types), the vehicle having been up-gunned to a 75 mm L/24 and downgraded to a support role. The Panzer III chassis did continue to be made until the end of the war as the base of a range of special purpose vehicles like Sturmgeschütz III.

Damaged Panzer IIIs of the Afrika Korps.

Slow production of the Panzer IV had been continuing, by the end of 1940 386 Ausf. Ds were in service and in 1941 a further 480 were produced, this was despite an order from the army for 2,200. The short 75 mm gun was the main advantage of the Panzer IV, weight and armour were close to that of the Panzer III. The Panzer IV became the most numerous tank of the Panzer divisions, although already outclassed in 1942 it was easy to maintain and simpler to produce than other German tanks. The Ausf. E was the major production variant, although the Ausf. F2 (later renamed in Ausf. G) with a long high velocity gun was the most impressive performer. First introduced in 1940 the 22 ton machine was progressively improved, with the addition of the L/43 gun the most significant change – it could penetrate 80 mm of armour at 1800 m. Later variants further improved the gun to a 75 mm L/48 but were mainly characterised by increasing the main armor and adding spacer and skirt armor to protect against anti-tank weapons. Zimmerit paste, to prevent magnetic charges attaching was also introduced on the Panzer IV. About 12,000 Panzer IV tanks (derived chassis included) were produced during the war, more than twice as many as the next tank.

Despite continued efforts with the lighter tanks throughout the war the German designers did produce a direct counter to the heavier Allied tanks with the PzKpfw V, the Panther (in 1944 the PzKpfw designation was dropped and the vehicle was known simply as the Panther). Design work on the replacement for the Panzer IV had begun in 1937 and prototypes were being tested in 1941. The emergence of the T-34 led to an acceleration of this leisurely time-table. At the insistence of Guderian a team was dispatched to the eastern front in November 1941 to assess the T-34 and report. Three features of the Soviet tank were considered as most significant, top was the sloped armour all round which gave much improved shot deflection and also increased the armour thickness against penetration; second was the wide track and large road wheels which improved stability; and third was the long over-hanging gun, a feature German designers had avoided up to then. Daimler-Benz and MAN were tasked with designing and building a new 30–35 ton tank by next Spring. At the same time the existing prototype tanks were up-gunned to 88 mm and ordered into production as the PzKpfw VI, the Tiger.

The two T-34 influenced proposals were delivered in April 1942. The Daimler-Benz design was a 'homage' to the T-34, ditching the propensity for engineering excellence, and hence complexity, to produce a clean, simple design with plenty of potential. The MAN design were more conventional to German thinking and was the one accepted by the Waffenprüfamt 6 committee. A prototype was demanded by May and design detail work was assigned to Kniepkampf.

If the over-hanging gun and sloping armour are ignored the Panther is a conventional German design, its internal layout for the five crew was standard and the mechanicals were complex. Weighing 43 tons it was powered by a 700 hp (522 kW) petrol engine driving eight double-leaved bogie wheels on each side, control was through a seven-speed gearbox and hydraulic disc brakes. The armour was homogenous steel plate, welded but also interlocked for strength. Preproduction models had only 60 mm armour but this was soon increased to 80 mm on the production Ausf. D and later models had a maximum of 120 mm. The main gun was a 75 mm L/70 with 79 rounds, supported by one or two MG 34 machine guns.

The MAN design was officially accepted in September 1942 and put into immediate production with top priority, finished tanks were being produced just two months later and suffered from reliability problems as a result of this haste. With a production target of 600 vehicles a month the work had to be expanded out of MAN to include Daimler-Benz and in 1943 the firms of Maschinenfabrik Niedersachsen-Hannover and Henschel. Due to disruption monthly production never approached the target, peaking in 1944 with 330 a month and ending around February 1945 with at least 5964 built. The Panther first saw action around Kursk on July 5, 1943.

In addition to these mainstream efforts the German army also experimented with a variety of unusual prototypes and also put into production several peculiarities. Some Tiger tanks were fitted with anti-personnel grenade launchers which were loaded and fired from within the tank as an anti-ambush device.

Overview per tank

(Only tanks that were built in significant numbers are listed.)

Panzer I

Panzerkampfwagen I

Number built—1,493

The first of these German-built tanks was the Panzer I. It was not designed for combat, but rather as a training vehicle to familiarize tank crews with Germany's modern battle concepts, and to prepare the nation’s industry for the upcoming war effort. Nevertheless, the tank design did see actual combat, first during the Spanish Civil War of 1936, then again during World War II, and elsewhere.

Since the tank was never intended to be used in actual combat, it was plagued by weapon and armour shortcomings through its entire life. Attempts were made to improve the design, but with little success. The Panzer I’s participation in the Spanish Civil war did, however, provide vital information to the German military about modern tank warfare.

Panzer II

Panzerkampfwagen II

Number built—1,856

The Panzer II was ordered into production because the construction of medium tanks, later to be known as the Panzer III and IV, was falling behind schedule. The Panzer II was intended to “fill the gap” until the III and IV could come into full production. Along with the Panzer I, the II made up the bulk of German tank forces during the invasion of Poland and France.

Panzer III

Panzer III Ausf. H

number built—5,774

The Panzer III was intended to be the main medium core of the German armor force when it was designed during the inter-war period. While it was originally designed to fight other tanks, its 37 mm and later 50 mm guns could not keep pace with Soviet T-34 and KV tanks. In 1941, the Panzer III was the most numerous German tank, but by late 1943 it was largely replaced by later versions of the Panzer IV and Panther. Its self-propelled gun chassis variant, the Sturmgeschütz III was, with just over 9,400 units built, the most produced German armored fighting vehicle of World War II.

Panzer IV

Panzerkampfwagen IV

Number built—8,800

The Panzer IV was the workhorse of the German tank force during World War II. It saw combat in all theaters, and was the only German tank to remain in production for the entire war.

The Panzer IV was originally intended to be a support tank. It was thus armed with a 75 mm howitzer intended primarily to fire high-explosive shells in support of other tanks or infantry. By Mid 1942, it was rearmed with a longer 75 mm dual-purpose gun which could defeat most Soviet tanks. In the second half of the war, about half of all German tanks were Panzer IVs.


A Panther ausf A at the Canadian War Museum.

Number built—6,000

The Panther was a medium tank (45 tonnes) with a crew of five, which was designed to counter the excellent Soviet T-34 tank. In weight it was comparable to Soviet heavy tanks. It had sloped armour (for better protection) and carried a long-barreled 75 mm gun. Series production began in 1943 and a total of 4,800 were produced. Initial mechanical problems were mostly fixed, and the Panther is considered the best German tank of the war.

Tiger I

Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger

Number built—1,347

In response to the T-34 after the invasion of the Soviet Union, the German forces ordered the construction of a new heavy tank. Originally to be named the Panzer VI, Hitler ordered the name changed. The tank had formidable firepower and thick armor. It had some mechanical problems due to its weight.

Tiger II

Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger II

Number built—492

Even larger and heavier than the Tiger I the Pzkpfw VIB Tiger II, which after the war received the nickname Königstiger (King Tiger), was the largest and most powerful tank released by German forces during the war. It had the firepower to knock out virtually any Allied tank and enough armor to shrug off most Allied firepower at the time (excluding hollow charge weapons), but it suffered from multiple mechanical problems due to its rushed development and excessive weight. It was named after the Tiger but was closer in relation to the Panther medium tank.

See also

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