Tucker-Jones, Anthony. The Panther Tank: Hitler’s T-34 Killer. Barnsley, South Yorkshire, Pen & Sword Military, 2016. Illustrations by David Lee Hemingway.
German success in France in the spring of 1940, arguably the Wehrmacht‘s greatest triumph of World War Two, rested less on material superiority (in either quantity or quality) than on the tremendous tactical advantages of Blitzkrieg, their new way of making war. Success followed success, giving the Germans little reason to think with any urgency about producing a new line of outstanding tanks — until they found themselves confronted with the T-34 during the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. (The Luftwaffe’s similar early stunning success appears also to have blinded their high command to the need for accelerated jet aircraft development.)¹ By the end of 1941, as Soviet tankers mastered the use of the T-34, German tanks could not compete with the T-34 head-on. Up-gunning the Panzer IV to a longer 75mm gun was only a temporary solution; a new German tank that could kill the T-34 outright was desperately needed.
The next generation of German tanks, including the Tiger and Panther, were meant to counter the T-34, but their development was slow to bear fruit, and the final combat versions of these famous tanks were not unalloyed successes, as Anthony Tucker-Jones energetically reminds us in his history of the Panther, The Panther Tank: Hitler’s T-34 Killer. The book follows the very appealing format of other armor-focused Images of War volumes, like the Tiger I and II history I reviewed here. It offers a critical history of the design process, detailed accounts of how the tanks fared on the battlefield in their major campaigns, and a wealth of photos and color illustrations for the modeler and historian alike. “Once fine-tuned,” the author says of the Panther, “it proved a worthy adversary on the Eastern front, in Italy and in Normandy” (7), yet the overall picture that emerges from this book reveals the irrationality of Hitler’s war production strategy and the miscalculated arrogance of self-proclaimed German “excellence,” ultimately challenging the image of the Panther as an outstanding weapon.
The T-34’s presence on the battlefield was a rude awakening for the Panzerwaffe. Some in Germany were so impressed by the T-34 that they proposed that the Wehrmacht more or less copy it; apparently, they didn’t think the revolutionary design could be improved upon. The proposal to produce knock-offs of the Soviet design was ultimately rejected, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the pride of arms in any country, much less Nazi Germany (10). Although the most direct response to the T-34, the Panther, did learn from the T-34’s design in some crucial respects, in most ways it was a tank firmly in the tradition of other Nazi “wonder weapons”: German designers tried to make it “the best tank in the world,” but its mechanical complexity kept it vulnerable to breakdown — and abandonment, when repair was impossible. Even after its “teething problems” of 1943 (when it managed only a 35% operational reliability rate) (113) had been solved, the tank was never as reliable as the T-34. Panzerwaffe chief Heinz Guderian called it his “problem child.” And although the Panther’s gun capabilities were formidable, its large size and relatively small numbers remained existential challenges even when it was all working perfectly.
WW2 buffs love to admire the Panther as “the best tank of the War,” a near ideal mix of firepower, mobility and protection, as many would have it. Tucker-Jones is well aware of the Panther mystique, but from the very first page he sets out to debunk the legend. The thing is, the Panther (like the Tigers) was an impressive tank killer. If you set a Panther and a T-34 — or even several T-34s — at each other starting a couple of miles apart in open terrain, the Panther likely would win out. Its high-velocity, long-barrelled 75mm gun was even more effective than the Tiger I’s 88, and German optics remained superior to Soviet optics throughout the War. But in just about every other way that Tucker-Jones can point out, the Panther was beset by problems that outweighed its apparent tank-to-tank superiority. Its unreliability was its chief liability. Its stand-off killing power was negated as soon as enemy tanks could close in. Moreover, it was inconveniently large for fighting in close quarters in urban areas or the hedgerows. Its production run was plagued by the vagaries of Hitler’s unfocused design philosophy. The Panther’s numbers, finally, could never match up to those of the T-34, or the Sherman, for that matter. It was a design that could not be produced on the same scale.
The Panther offers an important lesson in weapons design: the most advanced weapon is not always the “best” weapon. Even the most advanced weapon (on paper) cannot win a war unless it can be supplied to the battlefield in good working order and in sufficient numbers to overwhelm the enemy. The T-34, not the Panther, was such a weapon. For all of these reasons, Tucker-Jones agrees with Guderian himself, who conceded after the war that all things considered the T-34 was the better tank.
For myself, the Panther remains a subject of keen military-historical interest. I offer a gallery here of my own collection of 1/72 Panther miniatures, including a Panther F, the sole completed prototype of which most likely never saw actual combat.