The Panther was a German medium tank deployed during World War II on the Eastern and Western Fronts in Europe from mid-1943 to its end in 1945. It had the ordnance inventory designation of Sd.Kfz. 171. Until 27 February 1944, it was designated as the Panzerkampfwagen V Panther when Hitler ordered that the Roman numeral "V" be deleted. Contemporary English language reports sometimes refer to it as the Mark V.
The Panther was intended to counter the Soviet T-34 and to replace the Panzer III and Panzer IV. Nevertheless, it served alongside the latter and the heavier Tiger I until the end of the war. It is considered one of the best tanks of World War II for its excellent firepower and protection. Its reliability was less impressive.
Panther was a compromise. While having essentially the same engine as the Tiger I, it had more efficient frontal hull armour, better gun penetration, was lighter and faster, and could traverse rough terrain better than the Tiger I. The trade-off was weaker side armour, which made it vulnerable to flanking fire. The Panther proved to be effective in open country and long range engagements, but did not provide enough high explosive firepower against infantry.
The Panther was far cheaper to produce than the Tiger I, and only slightly more expensive than the Panzer IV. Key elements of the Panther design, such as its armour, transmission, and final drive, were simplifications made to improve production rates and address raw material shortages. The overall design remained somewhat over-engineered. The Panther was rushed into combat at the Battle of Kursk despite numerous unresolved technical problems, leading to high losses due to mechanical failure. Most design flaws were rectified in the German retreat, though the bombing of production plants, increasing shortages of high quality alloys for critical components, shortage of fuel and training space, and the declining quality of crews all impacted the Type's effectiveness.
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The Panther was born out of a project started in 1938 to replace the Panzer III and Panzer IV tanks. The initial requirements of the VK 20 series called for a fully tracked vehicle weighing 20 tonnes and design proposals by Krupp, Daimler Benz and MAN ensued. These designs were abandoned and Krupp dropped out of the competition entirely as the requirements increased to a vehicle weighing 30 tonnes, a direct reaction to the encounters with the Soviet T-34 and KV-1 tanks and against the advice of Wa Pruef 6. The T-34 outclassed the existing models of the Panzer III and IV. At the insistence of General Heinz Guderian, a special tank commission was created to assess the T-34. Among the features of the Soviet tank considered most significant were the sloping armour, which gave much improved shot deflection and also increased the effective armour thickness against penetration, the wide track, which improved mobility over soft ground, and the 76.2 mm (3.00 in) gun, which had good armour penetration and fired an effective high explosive round. Daimler-Benz (DB), which designed the successful Panzer III and Stug III, and Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg AG (MAN) were given the task of designing a new 30- to 35-tonne tank, designated VK 30.02, by April 1942.
The DB design resembled the T-34 in its hull and turret and was also to be powered by a diesel engine. It was also driven from the rear drive sprocket with the turret situated forward. The incorporation of a diesel engine promised increased operational range, reduced flammability and allowed for more efficient use of petroleum reserves. Hitler himself considered a diesel engine imperative for the new tank. DB's proposal used an external leaf spring suspension, in contrast to the MAN proposal of twin torsion bars. Wa Pruef 6's opinion was that the leaf spring suspension was a disadvantage and that using torsion bars would allow greater internal hull width. It also opposed the rear drive because of the potential for track fouling. Daimler Benz still preferred the leaf springs over a torsion bar suspension as it resulted in a silhouette about 200 mm (7.9 in) shorter and rendered complex shock absorbers unnecessary. The employment of a rear drive provided additional crew space and also allowed for a better slope on the front hull, which was considered important in preventing the penetration by armour-piercing shells.
The two designs were reviewed from January to March 1942. Reichminister Todt, and later, his replacement Albert Speer, both recommended the DB design to Hitler because of its advantages over the initial MAN design. At the final submission, MAN refined its design, having learned from the DB proposal apparently through a leak by a former employee in the Wa Pruef 6, senior engineer Heinrich Ernst Kniepkamp and others. On 5 March 1942, Albert Speer reported that Hitler considered the Daimler-Benz design to be superior to MAN's design. A review by a special commission appointed by Hitler in May 1942 selected the MAN design. Hitler approved this decision after reviewing it overnight. One of the principal reasons given for this decision was that the MAN design used an existing turret designed by Rheinmetall-Borsig, while the DB design would have required a brand new turret and engine to be designed and produced, delaying the commencement of production. This time-saving measure compromised the subsequent development of the design.
Panthers were supplied to form Panzer Abteilung 51 (Tank Battalion 51) on 9 January, and then Panzer Abteilung 52 on 6 February 1943.
The first production Panther tanks were plagued with mechanical problems. The engine was dangerously prone to overheating and suffered from connecting rod or bearing failures. Petrol leaks from the fuel pump or carburettor, as well as motor oil leaks from gaskets, produced fires in the engine compartment; which resulted in the total writeoff of three Panthers due to fires. Transmission and final drive breakdowns were the most common and difficult to repair. A large list of other problems were detected in these early Panthers, and so from April through May 1943 all Panthers were shipped to Falkensee and Nürnberg for a major rebuilding program. This did not correct all of the problems, so a second program was started at Grafenwoehr and Erlangen in June 1943. Reliability improved with the Ausf. A and later G of the Panther, with availability rates going from an average of 37% by end of 1943 to an average of 54% in 1944. By mid-1944, the Panther was at its peak performance and widely regarded as the most formidable tank on the battlefield.