By Ben Hollingum, GermanWarMachine.com
WHEN THE PANTHER TANK first appeared on the battlefields of the Eastern Front, the Soviets did not have an effective weapon to counter it.
They had a new medium tank in development (the T-43) but, having been commissioned in 1942 to counter the Panzer IV ausf. F, it did not have enough firepower or armour protection to go up against the Panther. Furthermore, many within the Stavka (Soviet High Command) believed the war effort would be better served by simply making more T-34s; they argued against even minor modifications in case they slowed production.
With the arrival of the Panther, however, it was clear that something had to be done to improve the effectiveness of the Soviet tank corps. A compromise was reached between the advocates of mass production and those who pushed for new, more powerful tanks. The T-34 would be modified to accept the T-43’s enlarged turret and an 85mm gun that was based on the 52-K anti-aircraft weapon. This tank, known by the designation ‘T-34-85’, became the Panther’s primary opponent for the rest of the war.
The Panther and the T-34-85 represented fundamentally different approaches to wartime production. The Panther was an all-new design that incorporated many technologies that had never been seen before in German tanks. The T-34-85, by contrast, was the culmination of a long process of incremental improvement designed with high-volume production in mind. On paper, the Panther was by far the superior vehicle. But how did they compare in practice?
It is important to look beyond statistics like armour thickness and gun calibre because, so long as the two tanks were broadly in the same class – as the Panther and T-34-85 were – such qualities were not nearly as significant a factor as you might think. This article looks at some of the less commonly discussed factors that determined the outcomes of duels between these two tanks.
1. Deaf and Blind
Though the T-34-85’s gun, armour and other major components were significantly better than those in the T-34-76, minor details, like the design of the periscopes and vision ports, had remained largely unchanged. As a consequence, when the tank’s hatches were closed the crew was “deaf and blind”, as one commander put it in his memoirs. The commander could not see very much through the often distorted, cloudy glass of the vision ports on his cupola and was reliant on his binocular periscope. The other crewmen, who had only a single periscope or a narrow vision slit, could see even less.
The Panther, by contrast, had excellent optics including a pair of clear, high quality periscopes for the driver, hull gunner, and loader; a 5x magnification sight for the gunner; and a panoramic rangefinder sight for the commander. This, coupled with the 360º-view provided by the vision blocks in the commander’s cupola, gave Panther crews far better situational awareness than T-34-85 crews.
In most tank-on-tank engagements, the outcome was determined by who held the initiative, rather than by who had the thicker armour or bigger gun. The Panther’s crew, with their superior sights, usually spotted their opponent first, giving them time to move into a good position and set up a shot.
2. Crew Conditions
The Panther’s crew compartment was relatively spacious. The turret crew sat inside a ‘basket’ with a floor that rotated with the gun. This meant that all the important controls were in the same positions relative to each crewman regardless of which way the turret was facing.
The most important feature of the Panther’s crew compartment were the escape hatches: the driver and the mechanic had large hatches over their seats, the commander had his cupola hatch, and the loader had an escape hatch in the rear of the turret directly behind his position. Only the gunner didn’t have easy access to a hatch; he had to climb up onto the commander’s seat or scramble under the gun to get out.
Even with its larger turret, the T-34-85 was very cramped on the inside. This situation was made worse by the lack of an effective heating system, which forced crews to wear padded overcoats inside the tank. Bulky winter clothing often caught on control levers or, worse still, wouldn’t allow the crew to fit through the escape hatches (one in the front for the driver, two on the roof of the turret, and one tiny hatch in the floor of the hull) when the tank was hit.
The T-34-85 also lacked a turret basket – crewmen in the turret had to stand on ammo crates (which served as the tank’s secondary ammunition storage bins) to perform their tasks. In battle, the crew had to move to keep up with the rotating turret while trying not to trip on open crates and discarded floor panels under their feet.
These design flaws were significant – crew survivability was an important factor in the effectiveness of an armoured force. If an experienced crew could get clear of their disabled tank, they could fight another day. If unable to escape, their experience and training would die with them. The packed interior of the T-34-85 meant that a penetrating strike by an AP round usually killed or mortally wounded most of the crew, and the lack of adequate escape hatches meant that those that did survive often couldn’t get out before the tank caught fire.
3. Crew Training
While not as extensive as the training given to tank crews earlier in the war, instruction for Panther crews was nonetheless excellent. Enlisted personnel had to pass an intensive four-month program that emphasized on hands-on practice. Every man had to first train as a driver/mechanic, including lessons in advanced engine maintenance, before moving on to other crew functions. By end of the four-month program each man was proficient in all crew roles and an expert in his assigned position. Soldiers that had shown promise during this stage were selected for additional training as NCOs or officers. Follow-up programs were heavy on the tactical theory and lasted between six and nine months.
Having completed their basic training, graduates were sent to ‘replacement’ battalions within Germany. Here they were formed into platoons and assigned to the tank crews that they would likely remain with throughout their combat service. This was not the end of the training, however. While awaiting combat assignments, crews were rigorously put through their paces, having to carry out constant maneuver and gunnery exercises, often at night or in low-light conditions. The culmination of all this training was the ‘battle run’ – a combined maneuver and live-fire exercise that required crews to engage a series of pop-up targets (some of them moving) at ranges of 800m to 2000m.
The quality of training for T-34-85 crews varied considerably. Commanders were typically well-trained graduates of the Red Army’s tank training schools. They had up to a year’s instruction, which included tactics and theory as well as hands-on practice in driving, gunnery, and maintenance. Furthermore, many commanders were combat veterans, either from the tank corps or from other branches of the Red Army; they were generally quick-witted, observant, and fearless.
Training for enlisted men however was of a far lower calibre. Many drivers had no more than a few hours’ practice at the controls and had never had any instruction in tactical placement. Loaders were equally under-trained, often having had no more than a day’s basic instruction in how to handle ammunition and operate the breech. Instruction for gun commanders was a little better, but they still lacked hands-on experience acquiring targets and firing at moving targets. Worse, conditions in many of the tank training regiments were appalling, with constant food shortages and tyrannical discipline. Loaders sometimes arrived from basic training too malnourished and weak to lift an AP shell.
Some tank crews received good instruction from their commanders once they were assigned to a vehicle, however. There was no official program for this on-the-job training. Towards the end of the war, the long journey from factory to frontline gave commanders enough time to bring their crews up to a basic level of competence.
4. Mobility and Reliability
The Panther and the T-34-85 were more or less mirror images of each other when it came to mobility. On the battlefield, the Panther was formidable; its broad tracks distributed the tanks weight evenly allowing the 44-ton machine to traverse swampy ground that would strand a Sherman or a T-34-85. Its good suspension and powerful engine helped it overcome obstacles. The Panther’s maneuverability was also helped by its superior crew visibility and its onboard intercom system, which allowed commanders and other crew to call out when they spotted hidden obstacles and threats.
Surprisingly, away from the battlefield the Panther was a disaster. In theory it could travel 250 km on road with a full tank of fuel, but units in the field quickly found that the actual range was barely half that. More importantly, the Panther’s drivetrain was so prone to failure that crews often stopped for repairs more often than they stopped for fuel. By 1944 the typical combat readiness rate of a Panther battalion was around 35 percent (compared to 80–90 percent in most T-34-85 units).
Having had a large three-man turret and heavier armour bolted onto a largely unchanged chassis and suspension, the T-34-85 was a notoriously poorly balanced vehicle. An emergency stop often resulted in the tank pitching violently forward, sometimes driving the end of its long gun barrel into the mud. This was a major problem because the driver’s viewport allowed him to see “little better than a newborn kitten” (as one T-34-85 commander put it) and therefore he rarely spotted obstacles in time to safely avoid them. The commander had slightly better visibility, but the intercom that linked the two positions was prone to static and unexpected squeals of feedback, so crews often turned it off. Many T-34-76 veterans were accustomed to using a crude but reliable system of communication that consisted of shouting, gesturing, and kicking the driver in the back, but in the T-34-85 the commander sat much further from the driver, making this method impossible.
While rather cumbersome on the battlefield, when it came to travelling long distance, the T-34-85 was excellent. Its range on roads (using internal fuel tanks) was 250 km. With external reserves (which had to be removed prior to combat) it could travel up to 360 km without refueling. Furthermore, the tank was mechanically reliable, having had its engine and drivetrain continually tweaked and improved since the first T-34s rolled off the production line in 1940.
5. By The Numbers
That the T-34-85 outnumbered the Panther is a well-known fact, but the consequences of this imbalance for individual tank crews are often overlooked. Between the beginning of Panther production in spring 1943 and the defeat of Nazi Germany two years later, 6,000 Panther tanks were built.
During the same period 29,400 T-34-85s rolled off Russian assembly lines. This disparity was increased by the low proportion of Panthers that were operational at any one time due to their poor mechanical reliability.
Consequently, an engagement in which a Panther destroyed four or five T-34-85s before being disabled could still be considered, from a strategic point of view, a Soviet victory. Over the course of the war, the Soviets manufactured 57,000 T-34s (both 76mm and 85mm variants). Of these, around 45,000 were destroyed in battle – a loss rate of almost 80 percent.
What this meant for the crews on the ground is well illustrated by a battle described by the Soviet armour ace Ion Lazarevich Degen. In July 1944, during the East Prussia Offensive, the 19-year-old tank commander was leading a T-34-85 in the 2nd Guards Tank Brigade, a ‘breakthrough’ formation that often spearheaded attacks. He was at the rear of a battalion of 20 T-34-85s that blundered into a German ambush during a nighttime advance. With the help of flares fired by German infantry, a small group of Panthers systematically destroyed almost the entire Soviet formation. Eventually, Degen was able to move around the right flank under cover of darkness and knock the Panthers out with shots to their side armour, helped by additional illumination provided by the flaming wreckage of his battalion. Only three T-34-85s survived the engagement, but the destruction of the Panthers ensured that the offensive could continue.
The details of this engagement from July 1944 bring up one final aspect that needs to be taken into consideration, and this is the morale of the respective crews.
In the big tank battles of 1944 Red Army tank crews were confident of victory and were prepared to take risks and make sacrifices pushing forward in order to get in shots at the Panthers from the side. Given Soviet numerical superiority, this tended to nullify the advantages that the Panther had as a tank to fight in. However, Panther crews still fought extremely well under adverse circumstances, using their technical advantages to good effect. It was not until the battles of 1945 (such as Operation Spring Awakening, the doomed final German offensive in Hungary) that the Red Army was able to assert a clear superiority.
You can find out more about the Panther vs. T-34–85 tank clash in a free “Rapid Read” eBook Waffen SS Hungary ’45 available for a limited period on the German War Machine website: www.germanwarmachine.com. And don’t forget to follow them on Twitter: @GermanWarM