Panzerkampfwagens III and IV


The Panzerkampfwagen III was the first tank built by the Nazi government that was designed for actual combat. See more tank pictures.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

General Heinz Guderian, building on experience gained in the design of the Panzerkampfwagen I (Pz.Kpfw I), pushed hard for the mainstay of his Panzer divisions, a new 15-ton light tank -- the Panzerkampfwagen III (military designation, SdKfz 141).

Production began in 1936, but manufacturing went slowly as Guderian fought the army's bureaucracy, the Nazi government's shifting priorities, and a shortage of raw materials and design experience.

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A number of prototype vehicles were tested before the design was standardized in September 1938. By December 1939 only 157 Pz.Kpfw IIIs had been built.

The Pz.Kpfw III was not a major advance in tank development. Rather, it was specific to the tactics Guderian had in mind.

It had a high-velocity gun (the 45-caliber 37mm antitank gun used by the infantry), a crew of five so that each member would not be overwhelmed by a multitude of tasks when under fire, a radio and intercom system, a ten-speed transmission, and a vastly improved suspension and road wheel system.

To keep weight within reasonable bounds, armor was kept at the same thickness as that used in the early models of the Pz.Kpfw II.

In the matter of main armament, Guderian was forced to compromise. He had wanted a 50mm high-velocity gun, but Ordnance insisted on the 37mm infantry antitank gun in the interests of standardization. However, the turret ring was made large enough so the tank could be up-gunned at a later date.

The interior design of the Pz.Kpfw III was exceptionally well thought out -- as it had to be for a crew of five. The tank commander and gunner sat in the revolving turret compartment. The driver sat forward on the left side in the main hull; the radio operator to the rear. The loader had sufficient room to stand and move the heavy shells from storage bins to gun.

Only a small number of Pz.Kpfw IIIs took part in the invasion of Poland in the fall of 1939. But on May 8, 1940, most of the 349 Pz.Kpfw Ills that had been built were operating in the XIX Panzer Corps, which was responsible for the breakthrough in the Ardennes region.

The minimal armor and 37mm gun were no match for the French Char B Heavy Tank or the S-35 Medium Tank on a one-to-one basis, but concentration of forces and superior tactics enabled the Nazi Germans to run right over Allied tanks operating in support of infantry.

At one point, General Erwin Rommel was able to move his armored forces 175 miles in one day, a record that still stands.

See the next page to follow the evolution of the Panzerkampfwagen III.

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Panzerkampfwagen III Evolution

The Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf L is distinguished by its wider turret with sloping sides.
The Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf L is distinguished by its wider turret with sloping sides.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Panzerkampfwagen III evolution continued, and the Pz.Kpfw IIIs that invaded Russia and served in North Africa were more powerful and capable than the original Pz.Kpfw III.

After the fall of France, Adolf Hitler ordered the 50mm antitank gun mounted on all Pz.Kpfw IIIs. At the same time, he stood German industry down from a wartime footing. The resulting scarcity of production capacity delayed the procurement and installation of the new gun.

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The Ausf F version of the Pz.Kpfw III appeared in late 1940. This heavier, more powerful tank carried extra armor, wider tracks, and a new six-speed transmission.

As many earlier models as possible were retrofitted with the new equipment, and on June 22, 1941, 956 Pz.Kpfw IIIs slashed across the Russian steppes.

Initially, the Pz.Kpfw III was a match for Soviet tanks. But the appearance of the Russian T-34 Medium Tank and the KV series, with their far more powerful guns and heavier, sloped armor, changed that.

An angry Hitler discovered that his order of the year before had not been obeyed and demanded that all Pz.Kpfw IIIs now be fitted with the 50mm gun immediately.

Armor protection was also increased to 1.9 inches, and the coaxial machine gun was eliminated in favor of one on a ball mount.

Coaxial guns could not be aimed low enough to reach Soviet "suicide" soldiers who hid in the long steppe grass. When the tank was within arm's reach, these soldiers stood up and threw Molotov cocktails at the turret or vision slits, satchel charges in the treads, or attached magnetic mines to the hull.

By the end of 1943 the Pz.Kpfw III was obsolete, despite up-gunning and additional armor. From then until the end of the war, it served in the assault-gun role, providing close-in artillery support.

General Guderian had envisioned a medium tank armed with a large caliber, low-velocity gun firing a high-explosive shell to support his lightweight battle tanks. The Pz.Kpfw IV (military designation, SdKfz 161) with its 50mm gun was intended to fill this role.

Its size was dictated by the load capacity of German bridges, which was 24 tons. The prototype models weighed 17.5 tons, but the Pz.Kpfw IV eventually grew to 22 tons in the Ausf F model because of a change to a 75mm gun and the use of appliqué armor.

Production of the Pz.Kpfw IV was undertaken in a desultory manner. The first prototypes appeared in 1936 and by December 1939, only 262 had been built. A few were used in Poland, but the invasion of France is considered its combat debut.

For more on the Panzerkampfwagen IV, continue to the next page.

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Panzerkampfwagen IV

The original task of the Panzerkampfwagen IV was to serve as a heavy-fire support vehicle for the Panzerkampfwagen III.
The original task of the Panzerkampfwagen IV was to serve as a heavy-fire support vehicle for the Panzerkampfwagen III.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The Panzerkampfwagen IV Ausf F, or F model, was armed with a short-barrel 75mm gun (combat experience in France highlighted the shortcomings of the original 50mm), was driven by a 250-horsepower Maybach engine (later up-rated to 300 horsepower), and had a top speed of 26 miles per hour.

Armor plate on the Pz.Kpfw IV was very thin -- varying from .75 inch to a little more than 1 inch on the turret and hull front. In upgrade programs appliqué armor brought total protection up to 2.3 inches in later models. The interior layout was the same as for the Pz.Kpfw III.

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Nearly 280 Pz.Kpfw IVs were distributed throughout the ten Panzer divisions that took part in the invasion of France in May and June of 1940. Adolf Hitler stood wartime production down in July of that year, and as a result, there were only 580 Pz.Kpfw IVs available to the Panzer divisions that invaded Russia in June 1941.

The Pz.Kpfw IV served on every front and was heavily engaged against Soviet tanks. Until the T-34 Medium Tank and the KV-1 entered Soviet service, the Pz.Kpfw IV was the boss of the battlefield.

This Panzerkampfwagen IV Ausf H has been fitted with side plates surrounding the turret on three sides, as well as on either side of the hull.
This Panzerkampfwagen IV Ausf H has been fitted with side plates surrounding the turret on three sides, as well as on either side of the hull.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

When it became apparent that the Pz.Kpfw IV was the only Nazi German tank that could be up-gunned to meet the Soviet KV-Is and T-34s as equals, Hitler ordered priority production. A new gun, the KwK 40 75mm L/48, and a larger turret were mounted on the Ausf G model in 1943.

With this gun, the Pz.Kpfw IV proved the equal of the Soviet T-34 and KV-1. It was also very effective against the range of British tanks and the American M-4 Sherman Medium Tank. It operated successfully in Russia, Western Europe, the Balkans, North Africa, and Italy.

A Panzerkampfwagen IV drives through a ruined Belgian town on June 17, 1944.
A Panzerkampfwagen IV drives through a ruined Belgian town on June 17, 1944.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

More than 8,000 Pz.Kpfw IVs were built before Nazi Germany collapsed in May 1945; it was the only Nazi German tank to stay in continuous production during the entire war. The Pz.Kpfw IV last saw action during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War in the hands of Syrian tankers.

See the next page to find specifications for Panzerkampfwagens III and IV.

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Panzerkampfwagens III and IV Specifications

More than 8,000 Panzerkampfwagen IV tanks were produced before World War II ended. Inset: the Panzerkampfwagen IV Ausf E with nose armor plating removed.
More than 8,000 Panzerkampfwagen IV tanks were produced before World War II ended. Inset: the Panzerkampfwagen IV Ausf E with nose armor plating removed.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Panzerkampfwagens III and IV were much improved over the first two models but still required significant up-gunning to be competitive with Allied forces in World War II. Below are specifications for Panzerkampfwagens III and IV.

Panzerkampfwagen III

Date of service: 1936

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Country: Germany

Type: Light Tank

Dimensions: Length, 5.41 m (17.75 ft); width, 2.92 m (9.6 ft); height, 2.51 m (8.2 ft)

Combat weight: 18,144 kg (20 tons)

Engine: Maybach HLV-12 gasoline

Armament: One KwK 50mm gun; two 7.92mm Model 1934 machine guns

Crew: 5

Speed: 40 km/h (25 mph)

Range: 175 km (109 mi)

Obstacle/grade performance: 0.6 m (2 ft)

Panzerkampfwagen IV

Date of service: 1936

Country: Germany

Type: Medium tank

Dimensions: Length, 5.91 m (19.4 ft); width, 2.92 m (9.6 ft); height, 2.59 m (8.5 ft)

Combat weight: 19,700 kg (21.7 tons)

Engine: Maybach HL 120 V-12 gasoline

Armament: One KwK 75mm gun; two 7.92mm Model 1934 coaxial machine guns

Crew: 5

Speed: 40 km/h (25 mph)

Range: 190 km (200 mi)

Obstacle/grade performance: 0.6 m (2 ft)

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