Monday, March 30, 2015

Panzer IV Development

The Panzer IV would remain in production throughout the war. The most numerous and the most versatile tank the Wehrmacht developed, it is also usually considered one of the world’s classic armored vehicles, a strong contender for Top Ten status in any comparative listing. Its origins were unpretentious. The Weapons Office wanted armaments firms to gain experience designing and producing heavy tanks. Lutz and Guderian had from early days seen the need for a support tank. The result was a project for a “battalion commander’s vehicle” of 24 tons—the bridge weight limit—mounting a 75mm gun, which was really a howitzer, only 24 calibers long. Dubbed by its crews as the “cigar butt” and other, cruder names involving length, its high-explosive and smoke shells were intended to provide for close support—not only for tanks but for their accompanying infantry. In the war’s early years, however, a three-inch shell exploding on or near a tank could do significant damage—not least to crew morale. The Panzer IV would acquire from its early days an enduring reputation as a formidable opponent.

The Panzer IV suffered from an embryonic armament industry’s lack of experience producing even moderately large tanks, and from an increasingly overstrained manufacturing capacity. Only about 200 were on inventory by September 1, 1939. That was enough, however, to begin allocating a company to each battalion, and to test the three-to-one combination initially proposed by Lutz and Guderian. The design withstood prototype testing admirably. The Panzer IV’s suspension matched its eventual 20-ton weight, and was so reliable it became standard for all the later versions. Its superstructure was proportioned generously enough to allow for up-gunning. Its turret was electrically powered, improving exponentially the chances of getting off the first shot so often decisive in mobile war. Add standard frontal armor of up to 50mm, with 20mm on the sides and rear, plus a reliable Maybach engine giving a top speed of 20 miles per hour and a 100-mile range, and the Panzer IV was a crew’s delight when it began entering unit service in 1938.

The two-year seesaw conflict across North Africa has been so often described in so much detail that it is easy to exaggerate its actual impact on Hitler’s panzers. The campaign involved only three mobile divisions and never more than around 300 tanks at any one time. Technically the Germans maintained a consistent, though not overwhelming, superiority—reflecting as much the flaws in British tank design as the qualities of the German vehicles. The Panzer III, especially the L version with the 50mm/62-caliber gun, was the backbone of Rommel’s armor, admirably complemented by the Panzer IV, whose 75mm shells were highly effective against both unarmored “soft-skinned” vehicles and unsupported infantry, even when dug in.

The Sherman’s mid-velocity 75mm gun, able to fire both armor piercing and high-explosive rounds, made it the best tank in North Africa—except possibly for the later marks of Panzer IV, who brought their even higher velocity 75mm gun on line in numbers too small—never more than three dozen—to make a difference.

Replacing the panzers’ material losses was not a simple one-for-one process. The workhorse Panzer III was increasingly outclassed by its Soviet opponents—less from any qualitative improvement than because the Russians were beginning to learn how best to take tactical advantage in particular of the T-34’s powerful gun and high maneuverability. The Panzer III’s chassis was too light, its turret ring too small, to be a useful transition to the next panzer generation. They were issued as stopgaps, and by mid-1943 appeared in no more than company strength.

The Panzer IV, in contrast, had a future. Improved muzzle braking enabled it to carry the 43-caliber Tank Gun KwK 40, and a more powerful 48-caliber version introduced in late 1942. More than 1,700 of these F and G models were produced or upgraded before they gave way in March 1943 to the definitive late-war Panzer IVH. Its armor was significantly increased: 80mm on the front and 50mm on the turret, 30mm on the sides and 20mm in the rear—the latter reflecting Red Army infantrymen and antitank crews’ willingness to come to close quarters for a kill. The additional protection increased weight to 25 tons and reduced speed to 21 miles per hour, but the Model H could still move and maneuver well enough. Its 75mm, 48-caliber gun was roughly equivalent to the T-34’s main armament, and effective against almost anything it could reach.

The Panzer IVH/J integrated a useful set of upgrades into a state-of-the-art light medium tank, intended to equip one battalion in each panzer division. More than 3,000 would be built in 1943, and more than 3,100 in the war’s final 18 months. They were nevertheless regarded as stopgaps, holding the line for a new generation of exponentially more powerful armored fighting vehicles.

Jagd/Panzer IV

For all the print devoted to the Panthers, the Tigers, and their variants, the backbone of the armored force through 1945 remained the Panzer IV. Its final versions had little enough in common with the “cigar butts” of 1940. The Model H officially became the main production version in March 1942. Its armor protection included side panels and grew to a maximum of 3.2 inches in front, at the price of increased weight (25 tons) that cut the road speed to a bit over 20 miles per hour. A later J version incorporated such minor modifications as wider tracks and wire-mesh side skirts just as effective as armor plate in deflecting infantry-fired antitank rockets.

Designed as an infantry-support tank, the Panzer IV was not intended to engage enemy armor—that role being allocated to the Panzer III. However, with the inadequacy of the Panzer III becoming apparent and in the face of Soviet T-34 tanks, the Panzer IV soon assumed the original role of its increasingly vulnerable cousin. The most widely manufactured and deployed German tank of the Second World War, the Panzer IV was used as the base for many other fighting vehicles, including the Sturmgeschütz IV assault gun, Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyer, the Wirbelwind self-propelled anti-aircraft gun, and the Brummbär self-propelled gun.

Robust and reliable, the Panzer IV saw service in all combat theaters involving Germany and was notable for being the only German tank to remain in continuous production throughout the war, with over 8800 produced between 1936 and 1945. Upgrades and design modifications intended to counter new threats, extended its service life. Generally, these involved increasing the Panzer IV's armor protection or upgrading its weapons, although during the last months of the war, with Germany's pressing need for rapid replacement of losses, design changes also included simplifications to speed up the manufacturing process.

The Panzer IV was generally succeeded by the Panther medium tank introduced to counter the T-34. The Panzer IV was the most widely exported tank in German service, with around 300 sold to Finland, Romania, Spain and Bulgaria. After the war, Syria procured Panzer IVs from France and Czechoslovakia, which were to see combat in the 1967 Six-Day War. Some 8,553 Panzer IVs of all versions were built during World War II, with only the StuG III assault-gun/tank destroyer's production number of 10,086 vehicles exceeding the Panzer IV's production total for Germany's and other Axis armored forces.

Guderian in particular considered the new version of a well-tried system a practical response to the chronic frontline shortfalls in tank strength in the East. The Panzer IV was relatively easy to maintain -and relatively easy to evacuate when damaged. Over 3,000 of them would be produced in 1943, and standard equipment of the army panzer divisions was set at a battalion each of Panthers and Panzer IVs.

The Panzer IV was originally intended to be used only on a limited scale, so initially Krupp was its sole manufacturer. Prior to the Polish campaign, only 217 Panzer IVs were produced: 35 Ausf. A; 42 Ausf. B; and 140 Ausf. C; in 1941 production was extended to Vomag (located in the city of Plauen) and the Nibelungenwerke in the Austrian city of St. Valentin.

In 1941, an average of 39 tanks per month were built; this rose to 83 in 1942, 252 in 1943, and 300 in 1944. However, in December 1943, Krupp's factory was diverted to manufacture the Sturmgeschütz IV and, in the spring of 1944, the Vomag factory began production of the Jagdpanzer IV, leaving the Nibelungenwerke as the only plant still assembling the Panzer IV. With the slow collapse of German industry under pressure from Allied air and ground offensives—in October 1944 the Nibelungenwerke factory was severely damaged during a bombing raid—by March and April 1945, production had fallen to pre-1942 levels, with only around 55 tanks per month coming off the assembly lines.

In January 1945, 287 Panzer IVs were lost on the Eastern Front. It is estimated that combat against Soviet forces accounted for 6,153 Panzer IVs, or about 75% of all Panzer IV losses during the war.

The Jagdpanzer IVs were intended for the panzer divisions and the assault gun battalions, whose number grew to over three dozen during 1943. A slightly heavier version with a 75mm L/70 gun like the Panther’s and the unflattering nickname of “Guderian’s Duck” began entering service in August 1944. It proved first-rate against armor in Russia and the West; almost a thousand were produced during the war. The “Duck’s” long gun made it uncomfortably nose-heavy (the source of its sobriquet), but by then that was among the least of the panzers’ problems.