Panzerkampfwagens III and IV

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.

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.

To learn more about historical tanks, check out: