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WW2 German Panzer III

Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. E (Sd.Kfz. 141)

german tanks of ww2 Germany (1939)
Medium Tank – 96 built

Following the completion of the first four Panzer III series, it was realized that they left much room for improvements and changes. The next version in line was the Panzer III Ausf. E, which introduced a number of improvements, like a necessary increase in armor protection. More importantly, it finally solved the significant issues with the problematic suspensions from the previous versions with the introduction of a simple torsion bar suspension design. The most important legacy of this vehicle was that it set the production standard for all later Panzer III versions to come. The Panzer III Ausf. E would prove itself as a good overall design for its day.

Panzer III

The Panzer III Ausf. E. Source: warspot.ru

History

In March 1936, Waffen Prüfwesen 6 (Wa Prw 6 – the automotive design office of the German Army) issued an Entwicklung von Panzerkampfwagen (development of tanks) document, in which it described a possible further development and use of tanks. A great deal of it was dedicated to armor protection. At that time, the German Army had imposed a weight limit for its tanks, so that they were able to cross bridges without collapsing them. In the case of the Panzer III series, it was limited to 18 tonnes. This regulation, together with other factors (number of crewmen, armament, power output of the engine, etcetera) actually limited the effective armor thickness of the vehicles. Most German tanks were thus mostly lightly armored, as armor was intended to provide protection against small caliber rounds only. The new document put great emphasis on the fact that weapons like the French 25 mm rapid fire anti-tank gun could destroy the lightly armored German tanks without a problem.

The development of the Z.W.4 (Zugführerwagen, platoon commander’s vehicle, also marked sometime as Z.W.38), better known simply as the Panzer III Ausf. E, incorporated a number of suggestions from this document. The armor thickness was increased to 30 mm, providing better overall protection. It also incorporated some highly advanced features advocated by the chief engineer of Wa Prw 6, Kniepkamp. He intended to increase the maximum speed of the Panzer III to a staggering 70 km/h! This would be done by replacing the engine with a more powerful model, introducing a new 10-gear semi-automatic transmission and replacing the previously used complicated 8 small road wheel suspension with a torsion type. The larger wheels were chosen as they had a longer service life than smaller models. The use of lubricating tracks with rubber pads was also suggested. After some consideration, the problems with the quick wear of the suspension at speeds of 70 km/h was deemed unfeasible and the idea rejected. The maximum speed was limited to 40 km/h and the lubricated tracks were replaced with normal cast tracks.

Production

Production orders for 96 Panzer III Ausf. E tanks would be placed by the Heeres Waffenamt. It was planned to complete the first vehicle in May 1938 and the last by September the same year. To fulfil the production quota and in order to include other manufactures into direct tank production, Daimler-Benz and M.A.N. Werk Nuernberg were included. Daimler-Benz was to build 41 (chassis number 60401 to 60441) and M.A.N the remaining 55 (chassis number 60442 to 60496) chassis.

As the German industry slowly began increasing production capabilities, these two simply could not produce all necessary parts. For this reason, the production of 90 turrets was given to Alkett and 6 more to Krupp. Many smaller subcontractors, including Werk Hannover, Eisen und Huettenwerk AG, Bochum, and several others, were also involved in the Panzer III project and were responsible for providing armor components. The engine was supplied by Maybach and the main armament by Rheinmetall.

Panzer III Ausf. E production
Despite the general misconception of a well developed German war industry, in the year prior to the war, it actually struggled to meet the designated production quota set by the Army. This was also the case of the Panzer III Ausf. E, of which the 96 ordered had to be completed by September 1938. The last vehicle was actually completed by the end of 1939. Source: www.worldwarphotos.info

Despite the plan to finish the production of the Ausf. E by September 1938, the actual first vehicles were completed by the end of 1938. The Daimler-Benz production run was delayed due to slow deliveries of necessary parts and components. By December 1938, only 9 vehicles were completed. An additional 9 were built in January 1939, 7 in February and only 2 in March. A short delay accrued due to shortages of transmissions. The production resumed in May, with the last vehicles being completed by July 1939. Production at M.A.N. was only fully completed by the end of 1939. Once the hulls were built, they would then be transported to Alkett to be fully assembled with their turrets. When Alkett actually completed these vehicles is unknown, as the documentation did not survive the war.

Hull

The Panzer III hull can be divided into three major sections. These were the forward-mounted transmission, central crew compartment and rear engine compartment. The front hull was where the transmission and steering systems were placed and was protected with an angled armor plate. The two square-shaped, two-part hatch brake inspection doors located on the front hull were still present on this version. The difference is that they now opened horizontally, in contrast to earlier versions, where they opened vertically. The two bolted square-shaped plates that were previously added on the front transmission armor were removed. Another change introduced was a significantly shorter hull length, at 5.38 m, while the older vehicles were 5.9 m long. Lastly, there were four towing couplings, with two placed in the front and two at the rear of the hull. The front hull also served as a base for the spare track links that were mounted on it. Some vehicles would receive armored ventilation ports for the steering brakes. These would be placed in the front glacis armor plate.

Panzer III Ausf E with hatches open
The forward hull hatches are opened on this vehicle. Source: www.worldwarphotos.info
Panzer III Ausf E tank
The front superstructure was often used to store space track links. Initially, these would be attached in a loose arc-shaped configuration. Later, this would be replaced by a metal bar that served to hold the space tracks. Source: P. Chamberlain and H. Doyle Encyclopedia of German Tanks of World War Two
Panzer III hatch
The Panzer III Ausf. E’s two revised small doors placed on hull sides. Source: Walter J. Spielberger Panzer III and its Variants

Unlike the larger Panzer IV, the Panzer III was not provided with driver and radio operator top hatches. These two crew members could instead use the front two-part brake inspection doors to enter or exit the vehicle. The Panzer III Ausf. E also received two small emergency escape doors placed on the hull sides, just behind the first return roller.

Superstructure

On top of the Panzer III Ausf. E hull, a fully enclosed and square-shaped superstructure was added. The superstructure had a very simple design, with mostly flat armored sides which were welded together, and bolted down to the hull. The position of the left driver visor and the machine ball mount next to it were unchanged. These were replaced with newer and improved models. In the case of the machine gun ball mount, this was the Kugelblende 30. The driver vision port was replaced with a Fahrersehklappe 30 model. This model consisted of two horizontal 30 mm thick plates. The upper plate could be raised, so that the driver had a direct vision, or lowered during combat situations. To further improve driver survivability, a 90 mm thick armored glass block was placed behind it. When the visor was closed, the driver would use a K.F.F.1 binocular periscope to see through two small round ports located just above the visor. This periscope had a 1.15 x magnification and a field of vision of 50°. The driver vision port was not completely waterproof and so a rain channel cover was placed atop of it during the production run.

The driver also had one smaller vision port (Sehklappe 30) placed on the left side of the superstructure. It was provided with a small 8 mm wide visor slit. It too had a 90 mm thick armored glass block for extra protection. Initially, the radio operator was not provided with a side vision port. During production, however, it would be added on some vehicles. Its design was the same as that of the driver’s side port

sssmachine gun ball mount remained the same likessssss
The positions of the driver’s vision ports, and the machine gun ball mount remained the same like on the previous versions. The difference was that newer versions were used, which offered better protection. Source: warspot.ru
Panzer 3 Ausf E tank
This particular vehicle also had the radio operator side vision port (located on the right superstructure side), which was not placed on all Ausf. E vehicles. Source: www.panzernet.net

Turret

The Panzer III Ausf. E turret inherited the overall design from the previous versions, but there were still some modifications implemented on the Ausf. E. Firstly, the top turret plate was at a slightly different angle. The forward top plate was placed at 83° instead of the 81° used on the previous models. The rear top plate was completely flat now. Previously, it was placed at 91° from the vertical.

The gun mantlet also received some modifications, with added protective covers for the twin machine gun mount. The two mantlet observation hatches, located above the twin machine guns and to the left of the main gun, were slightly redesigned. The turret was also built using mostly welding and thus reducing the number of bolts used extensively on the previous versions.

Each of the turret sides received new pyramid-shaped observation vision ports. While the right visor port had an 8 mm wide slit, the left port did not have one. The visor ports were 30 mm thick and further protected by a 90 mm armored glass block. To the back, the simple one-piece doors were replaced by new two-piece doors. The forward door had an observation port, while the second door had a small pistol port. These doors could be locked in place with a gap of some 30 mm to provide the crew with additional ventilation. Above the doors, a rain drain guard was placed, which prevented rain weather from getting into the turret’s interior. In addition, the two square-shaped machine gun ports, located to the rear of the turret, were also replaced with new round-shaped covers.

The Panzer III Ausf. E, beside thicker armor
The Panzer III Ausf. E, beside thicker armor, also incorporated a number of improvements. The vision port and the machine gun ports were replaced. New two-piece crew doors were added to the sides. Source: warspot.ru

The Panzer III Ausf. E commander’s cupola was bolted to the rear of the turret top. It had five vision slits, protected with sliding blocks. For extra protection, behind each vision slit, an armored glass block was added. The commander was also provided with a direction indicator placed on the front vision slit, and a graduated ring with markings from 1 to 12 to help him identify the direction in which the vehicle was going.

On top of the turret, two round shaped signal ports, just in front of the commander cupola, were placed. The left one was initially provided with a fake periscope cover, but this was quickly dropped during production. The signal ports were not completely closed. Instead, they had a 3 mm wide gap left in order to act as auxiliary ventilation ports for the turret crew. The main purpose of these signal ports (as their name suggests) was to be used by the commander to communicate or give order to other vehicles by using signal flags.

bogged down Panzer III
This bogged down Panzer III offers a good view of the turret top. Note the two round shaped signal ports, just in front of the cupola. Some vehicles (like the one in the previous picture) had a fake periscope cover placed on the left signal port, but its use was discarded rather quickly. Source: panzernet.net

From late 1940 onwards, most Panzer IIIs received an additional and properly dedicated ventilation port placed on top of the turret. It was protected by a round shaped cover. Another addition to the turret was the rear positioned storage bin, which was added on most Panzer IIIs from April 1941 onwards.

Panzer III Ausf. Es received the storage bin placed at the turret rear
While rare, a number of Panzer III Ausf. Es received the storage bin placed at the turret rear. Source: H. Scheibert Panzer III

Suspension and Running Gear

The Panzer III Ausf. E suspension consisted of six doubled road wheels on each side. These were suspended using a combination of individual swing axles together with torsion bars which were placed in the hull bottom. The upper movement of each wheel’s swing arm was limited by contact blocks covered in rubber. Additionally, the first and the last wheels were equipped with a hydraulic shock absorber. At the front, there was a 360 mm wide 21 tooth drive sprocket. On the back of the hull was the idler with adjustable crank arm. The number of return rolles was three per side.

The cast tracks were 380 mm wide. To help prevent the tracks from accidentally falling off, a 80 mm long cast tooth was placed in the middle of the track link. In order to improve passability on bad terrain, each track link had a gripper bar. There were some issues with how quick the rubber tires on the road wheels wore down when the driver was using 9th and 10th gears. To prevent this, the drivers were instructed to avoid driving above 40 km/h.

Suspension and Running Gear
A close up view of the Panzer III’s suspension (note this is a later Ausf. G, but the basic design was the same). The front and the rear road wheels were provided with shock absorbers. The torsion bar, while not perfect, was a great improvement from the previous versions. It was relatively easy to build, required less maintenance and provided a smooth drive. Source: warspot.ru
Panzer III’s suspension arrangement
Illustration of the Panzer III’s suspension arrangement. Source: warspot.ru

By the end of 1940, a number of improvements were introduced to Panzer III production. These included adding extra armor and better armament. To cope with the extra weight and prevent the loss of driving performance, the track was widened to 400 mm.

Engine

The Panzer III Ausf. E’s engine was placed at the rear of the hull, and was separated by a firewall from the central crew compartment. The firewall had a small door. Its purpose was to provide the crew member with access to the engine if needed.

To cope with the increase in weight (from 16 tonnes on the Ausf. D to 19.5 tonnes), a new, stronger engine was installed. This was a twelve-cylinder, water-cooled Maybach HL 120 TR which produced 265 [email protected] 2800 rpm. The engine was held in place by three rubber bushings. With this power unit, the Panzer III Ausf. E’s maximum speed was increased to 40 km/h, while the cross-country speed was 15 km/h. The fuel load of 310 liters was stored in two fuel tanks placed below the radiators in the engine compartment. With this fuel load, the Panzer III Ausf. E’s operational range was 165 km and 95 km cross-country. To avoid any accidental fires, these fuel tanks were protected by firewalls.

The engine compartment was protected by an enclosed superstructure. On top of this compartment, two two-part hatch doors for access to the engine were added. Further back, two smaller doors were added to provide the crew access to the fan drives. The air intakes were repositioned to the engine compartment sides and were protected with armor plates. A new type of exhaust was used on the Ausf. E.

The enclosed engine compartment had four hatch doors
The enclosed engine compartment had four hatch doors to provide the crew with easy access to the engine itself. Air intakes were repositioned to the engine compartment sides, which are also visible here. Source: Walter J. Spielberger Panzer III and its Variants

The engine was started by an auxiliary electric motor starter. The power to this electrical starter was provided by two 12 volt Varta batteries which were in turn powered by a 12 volt Bosch generator. Some vehicles received improved starters that helped start the engine somewhat easier during early 1941.

Transmission

The Panzer III Ausf. E was equipped with the ten-speed (and one reverse) Maybach Variotex SRG 32 8 145 semi-automatic transmission. The transmission was connected to the engine by a drive shaft that ran through the bottom of the fighting compartment. The steering mechanism used on the Panzer III was bolted to the hull. It was connected to the two final drives that were themselves bolted to the outside of the hull.

The Germans were a little carried away when they intended to use semi-automatic transmission in the hope of reaching speeds of up to 70 km/h. The semi-automatic transmission required frequent changes of the gears during driving. To change the gears, the driver first had to select one in advance and then the gear was actually changed once he pressed the clutch pedal. The frequent changing of the gears created friction that was passed on to the clutches. To prevent this, the inertia moment of the rotating parts had to be kept small. Using smaller, somewhat unproven and not properly tested transmissions caused significant mechanical breakdowns. To somewhat resolve this issue, an accelerator clutch would be installed. The problem still remained and the transmission would eventually be replaced with the older and properly tested SSG 76 on the Panzer III Ausf. H version.

Armor Protection

The hull front armor was 30 mm thick, placed at a 21° angle. The upper hull front was 30 mm at 52°, while the lower front hull armor was 25 mm and placed at 75°. The glacis armor was 25 mm thick and placed at 87°. The flat side armor was 30 mm thick, the rear was 20 mm (at a 10° to 65° angle) and the bottom 16 mm. The Panzer III Ausf. E front armored plates were actually face-hardened, further increasing their protection against certain types of shells.

All-around, the superstructure armor was 30 mm thick. While the sides and rear were flat, the front plate placed almost vertical, at a 9° angle. The top armor plate was 16 mm thick. The rear engine compartment was protected with flat 30 mm side armor, while the rear one was placed at 30° and was slightly weaker, at 20 mm.
The front turret armor was 30 mm (at a 15° angle), while the sides and rear were 30 mm (at a 25° angle) and the top was 10 mm (at an 83-90° angle). The front gun mantlet was a 30 mm thick rounded armor plate. The commander’s cupola had all-around 30 mm of armor. The armor plates were made using nickel-free homogeneous rolled plates.

When the Germans were examining the proper armor thickness needed for the new Panzer III Ausf. E, they mainly focused on the French 25 mm quick firing anti-tank gun. They eventually decided that 30 mm of armor should be up to the task. The frontal armor plate was strong enough to resist the 25 mm rounds at ranges of over 500 mm at 30°.

The Panzer III Ausf. E was also equipped with a Nebelkerzenabwurfvorrichtung (smoke grenade rack system), placed on the rear of the hull. This rack contained five grenades which were activated with a wire system by the Panzer III’s commander.

five smoke grenade rack system
This vehicle is equipped with the five smoke grenade rack system, located on the right side of the engine at the rear of the tank. Source: warspot.ru

At the end of 1940, most available Panzer IIIs, including the Ausf. E, were reinforced with additional 30 mm face hardened plates. These were added to the front hull and superstructure but also to the rear. It is worth mentioning that not all Panzer III actually received the extra protection, for various reasons, but mostly due to the slow production of necessary components.

Crew

The Panzer III Ausf. E had the same crew of five, which included the commander, gunner and loader, who were positioned in the turret, and the driver and radio operator in the hull. Their positions and their duties were the same as from the previous (but also future) versions.

The Panzer III had a crew of five
The Panzer III had a crew of five. While this became the standard configuration of German tanks from the Panzer III onwards, Allies tanks at that time employed fewer than 4 crew members and, in some cases, even two. This provided the Germans with a huge tactical advantage in combat during the first half of the war. Source: warspot.ru
crew positions inside a Panzer III
An illustration of the crew positions inside a Panzer III. Source: S. J. Zaloga Panzer III vs. Somua S 35

Main Armament

The armament configuration of the Panzer III Ausf. E was unchanged from the previous versions. It consists of one MG 34 machine gun mounted in the superstructure and a combination of the 3.7 cm Kw.K. L/46.5 and two additional machine guns in the turret. The Panzer III’s main gun was equipped with a TZF5 ‘Turmzielfernrohr’ monocular telescopic gun-sight. One change implemented was the repositioning of the left turret-mounted machine gun, which slightly protruded out. This was done to give the crew more working space for replacing the drum magazines.

On the left side of the gun, there were two mechanical handwheels for elevation and traverse. The gunner could traverse the turret by using the traverse handwheel at a speed of 2.2° per turn. For more precise aiming, the handwheel speed could be reduced to 1.5° per turn. The elevation speed by using the elevation handwheel was 2.5° per turn. On the right side of the turret was a second handwheel to allow the loader to assist with turret traverse.

In February 1940, the Panzer III’s were supplied with the 3.7 cm Spenggranatepartone 18 (high explosive round). In June 1940, a new Pzgr.Patr 40 (anti-armor tungsten core round) started to be issued for troop use.

The new superstructure Kugelblende 30 ball mounted machine gun, which was operated by the radio operator, consisted of two parts. The movable armor ball to which the machine gun was attached, and the external and fixed armor cover. This new type of ball mount offered a traverse left and right of 15°. It could be elevated to 20° and depressed to 15°. For spotting targets, a telescopic sight with an elevation of 18° and 1.8 x magnification was provided to it. While, initially, drum magazines were used for the machine guns, these would be replaced with belts from June 1940 onwards.

Kugelblende 30
Close up view of the Kugelblende 30. Source: P. Chamberlain and H. Doyle Encyclopedia of German Tanks of World War Two

During the Panzer III’s early stages of development, the Germans were aware there was a possibility that the 3.7 cm gun may become obsolete. The lack of production capacities was the main reason for not installing a more potent gun from the start. This is the reason why they left the turret ring wide enough so that a larger caliber gun could be installed. In December 1940, the rearmament of the Panzer III Ausf. E (and all versions that followed it) with the 5 cm Kw.K L/42 semi-automatic gun began. With the new gun also came a new round-shaped and 35 mm thick gun external mantlet. Another change was the reduction of the number of machine guns in the turret to only one.

With the installation of the new gun, the ammunition load was reduced from the original 120 to 87 rounds (or 99, depending on the source). The removal of one machine gun led to the reduction of the machine gun ammunition carried inside to 3,750 rounds (from 4,500 previously). In addition to the new gun, new T.Z.F.5d gun sights were used. This sight had a magnification of 2.5x and a field view of 25°, which was 444 m wide at 1 km range. The gunsight reticle ranges were marked up to 1,500 m for the main gun and machine guns.

extra armor plates to the front and rear
After the conclusion of the Western campaign in June 1940, the German Army initiated a huge program intended to improve the Panzer III’s overall performance. This included adding extra armor plates to the front and rear, widening the suspension and replacing the 3.7 cm with a 5 cm gun which had a completely new gun mantlet. The Panzer III Ausf. E was also included in this program, but it is not clear how many were actually fully supplied with the previously mentioned modifications, as some later used in the Soviet Union still lacked them. Source: T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle Panzer Tracts No.3-2 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. E, F, G, H.

In Combat

As the Panzer III Ausf. E vehicles became available, they would be initially issued to training units. The first operational use, in limited numbers, was during the German annexation of Czechoslovak territories during March 1939.

Panzer III Ausf. E tank
Panzer III Ausf. E (to the left) next to three Panzer II’s during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Source: S. J. Zaloga Panzer III vs. Somua S 35

Prior to the Invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Germans had 148 Panzer III vehicles available (Ausf. A to E). Some 98 would be allocated for combat operations (only 87 of that number would actually be used in combat). The remaining were to be used as a reserve or given to training units. The majority of the committed Panzer III’s would be allocated to the 1st Panzer Division, which had only 26 such vehicles. The remaining vehicles were distributed to other armored units in limited numbers, but not to all. For example, the 4th Panzer Division did not have any Panzer III tanks. Only a small number of (probably not more than several vehicles) Panzer III Ausf. Es saw combat, with some not even managing to reach the front lines due to problems with their transmission.

A few Panzer III Ausf. Es saw engagement during the Polish campaign in 1939. Source:  W. Fleischner (2001) Panzerkampfwagen III Band 187, Podzun-Pallas-Verlag

By May 1940, the number of Panzer IIIs was increased to 349 vehicles which were distributed to seven Panzer Divisions. The disposition of Panzer III tanks was as follows. The 1st and 2nd Panzer Divisions had 58 each, the 3rd 42, the 4th 40, the 5th 52, the 9th 41 and the 10th Panzer Division had 58 Panzer IIIs. By this time, the Panzer III Ausf. A to D were removed from front line service, as these were mainly given to training units.

The Panzer Divisions saw extensive combat operations against French armor. An example of this was the 4th Panzer Division which, with the 3rd Panzer Division, were part of the XVI Panzerkorps under the command of General Eric Hoeppner. The combined strength of these two divisions was over 670 tanks, with the majority being the Panzer I and II. Opposing them there was a force of 176 Somua S35 and 239 Hotchkiss tanks. In comparison to the Germans, the French redistributed their armor formation across the 35 km wide front. With this decision, they actually made any counterattack less likely to succeed in stopping the Germans.

During the drive toward the village of Hannut, the forward elements of the 4th Panzer Division, consisting of Panzer I and II tanks, managed to capture the village. The French made a counterattack with over 20 Hotchkiss tanks. While they managed to gain the upper hand against the Panzer II, once the Panzer IIIs arrived, the situation changed drastically in favor of the Germans. The French lost some 11 Hotchkiss tanks, most being credited to the Panzer IIIs, with some to the weaker Panzer II. Later that day, the German Panzers engaged a group of Somua S35 tanks. After losing four tanks, the French made another retreat. Eventually, with losses of some 160 tanks (the majority being the Panzer Is and IIs), the Germans broke through the French line, who lost 140 tanks and were forced to retreat. The Germans could recover many of their lost tanks and repair them, while the French were unable to do so. The Panzer IIIs were at a disadvantage against the larger B1 bis tanks. For example, during the battles around Sedan, a single B1 tank managed to destroy some 11 Panzer III tanks alone.

Panzer III Ausf. E
The Panzer III Ausf. E during the Western Campaign in 1940. Adding spare track links to the front or sides was a relatively common sight on German tanks. While it provided limited increases of protection at best, the German tank crews would continue with this practice throughout the war Source: T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle Panzer Tracts No.3-2 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. E, F, G, H.

The combat experience in the West showed that, while the Panzer III were not protected against the French 47 mm gun, neither was their 3.7 cm gun effective. The Panzer III’s 3.7 cm gun was only effective against the Somua S35’s side armor from ranges of less than 200 m. Thanks to their speed, training, better tactics and use of radios, the German tanks could easily outmaneuver the enemy tanks and engage them from the more vulnerable rear and sides. The five-man crew proved to be superior in contrast to the French two to three crew tanks. In case of the Somua S35, the tank commander had to take several roles during the heat of battle, including loading and firing the gun, finding targets, and commanding the vehicle, overburdening him. On the other hand, in German vehicles, each crew member had a specific role to complete, which provided their tanks with a greater tactical advantage.

French Hotchkiss tank pierced likely by two 3.7 cm anti-tank rounds
A French Hotchkiss tank pierced likely by two 3.7 cm anti-tank rounds fired from Panzer III tanks. Source: S. J. Zaloga Panzer III vs. Somua S 35

After the French campaign, the Germans tried to amend some of the shortcomings identified with the Panzer III, especially regarding its armor and firepower. The Panzer III would be rearmed with the 5 cm L/42 gun and receive additional 30 mm of frontal and rear armor. This included the Panzer III Ausf. E, but despite best attempts, not all tanks were modified by mid-1941.

The Panzer III Ausf. E likely saw use during the German operations in the Balkans. The use of Panzer III Ausf. Es in Africa is not completely clear. At the start of German operations, for example, the 5th Panzer Regiment had 61 (10 lost during the transport) Panzer IIIs armed with 3.7 cm guns and the 8th Panzer Regiment had 31. It is possible that some of these were of the Ausf. E version.

A Panzer III Ausf. E from the 9th Panzer Division located in Bulgaria prior to the German invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece. Source: Walter J. Spielberger, AFV Panzerkampfwagen III

For the invasion of the Soviet Union, there were 350 3.7 cm and 1,090 5 cm armed Panzer IIIs. By this time, it is somewhat difficult to pinpoint the precise version of the Panzer III used, as the sources rarely mention them. The identification of the precise version is not always possible, as the Ausf. F looked exactly the same as the Ausf. E. Like in the previous campaigns, the Panzer III was the backbone of the German armored thrust. The German tanks were able to quickly overcome the older Soviets models, like the T-26 and the BT series. The T-34 and KV vehicles proved to be almost invulnerable to the German tank guns. Following the harsh German losses in the Soviet Union, its likely that only a small number of Panzer III Ausf. Es would have survived 1941.

A Panzer III Ausf. E somewhere in the East during 1941. This vehicle is still armed with the weaker 3.7 cm gun Source: H. Scheibert Panzer III
Panzer III Ausf. E was still vulnerable to enemy anti-tank fire
Despite the increased armor protection in comparison to previous versions, the Panzer III Ausf. E was still vulnerable to enemy anti-tank fire. Source: warspot.ru

Variants based on the Panzer III Ausf. E

Panzerbefehlswagen Ausf. E

The Panzer III Ausf. E was used for the Panzerbefehlswagen (tank command vehicle) configuration. This included a number of modifications, some of which were reducing the armament to only one machine gun (located in the turret) and using a dummy main gun (to hide its main purpose as a command vehicle), fixing the turret in place, replacing the gunner and the loader with one more radio operator and a commander adjutant, adding additional radio equipment, and, probably most noticeably, adding a large antenna to the rear of the turret. In total, some 45 such vehicles would be built by Daimler-Benz. These are not converted or rebuilt vehicles but instead completely new built vehicles.

Panzerbefehlswagen
Panzerbefehlswagen based on the Panzer III Ausf. E. Source: WIki

Panzerbeobachtungswagen III

Very few Panzer III Ausf. Es were modified to perform the role of target spotters for self-propelled artillery batteries. These vehicles were modified by removing the main gun and replacing it with a new gun mantle that had a wooden dummy gun and a ball mount placed in the centre of it. Additional scissor and tubular periscopes were also added for the crew.

sssssssss
Of the less than 300 built Panzerbeobachtungswagen III, only limited numbers were based on the Ausf. E vehicles. Source: WIki

Conclusion

The Panzer III Ausf. E received a number of modifications and improvements in comparison to the previous versions. Most noticeable were the added armor and the use of the new type of suspension, which was simpler and more efficient. On the other hand, the new transmission was problematic and not properly tested. In the early stages of the war, despite the somewhat weaker main armament, thanks to its speed, crew training and radio equipment, the Panzer III Ausf. E could easily outflank its opponents. Perhaps the greatest success of the Panzer III Ausf. E was that it provided the Germans with a good base for further modifications and improvements of a vehicle that would become the backbone of the Panzer Divisions in the first years of World War Two.

Panzer III Ausf E North Africa
A Panzer III Ausf.E in service with the Afrika Korps.
Panzer III Ausf E Poland
A Panzer III Ausf.E during the Invasion of Poland, with the distinctive white cross.
Panzer II Ausf E France 1940
A Panzer III Ausf.E from the 13th Panzer Division in France.
Panzer III Ausf E Russia
A white-washed Panzer III Ausf.E during Russia in the winter of 1941.

Specifications

Dimensions (L-W-H) 5.8 m x 2.91 m x 2.5 m
Total weight, battle-ready 19.5 tonnes
Crew 5 (Commander, Gunner, Loader, Radio Operator and Driver)
Propulsion Maybach HL 120TR 285 HP @ 2800 rpm
Speed (road/off road) 40 km/h, 15 km/h (cross country)
Range (road/off road)-fuel 165 km, 95 km (cross country)
Primary Armament 3.7 cm KwK L/46.5
Secondary Armament Three 7.92 mm M.G.34
Elevation -10° to +20°
Armor 10 mm – 30 mm.

Source

T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle (2010) Panzer Tracts No.3-4 Panzerbefehlswagen Ausf. D, E, H, J. und K.
W. Fleischner (2001) Panzerkampfwagen III Band 187, Podzun-Pallas-Verlag
T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle (2011) Panzer Tracts No.3-5 Panzerkampfwagen Umbau
T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle (2012) Panzer Tracts No.23 Panzer production from 1933 to 1945
T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle (2006) Panzer Tracts No.3-2 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. E, F, G, H.
P. P. Battistelli (2007) Panzer Divisions, The Blitzkrieg Years 1939-1940, Osprey publishing.
P. P. Battistelli (2006) Rommel’s Afrika Korps Osprey publishing.
D. Nešić, (2008) Naoružanje Drugog Svetskog Rata-Nemačka, Beograd
P. Chamberlain and H. Doyle (1978) Encyclopedia of German Tanks of World War Two – Revised Edition, Arms and Armor press.
H. Scheibert (1994) Panzer III, Schiffer Publishing
Walter J. Spielberger (2007) Panzer III and its Variants, Schiffer Publishing Ltd.
S. J. Zaloga (2014) Panzer III vs. Somua S 35 Osprey publishing
M. Harley (2008) The Campaigns in the West 1940, Ian Allan publishing
D. Doyle (2005) German military Vehicles, Krause Publications.
G. Parada, S. Jablonski and W. hryniewicki, Panzer III Ausf.L/M. Kagero.
Walter J. Spielberger, AFV Panzerkampfwagen III, Profile Publications
B. Perret (1980) The Panzerkampfwagen III, Osprey Publishing

Categories
WW2 German Panzer III

Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. D

ww2 german tanks Germany (1937) – Medium Tank, 25 tanks and 5 chassis built

The Panzer III Ausf. D was the last version of the experimental series developed starting from the Ausf. A. It incorporated a number of improvements, of which the most obvious was the redesign of the rear engine compartment and introduction of a slightly modified 8-wheel suspension. It was also different from the previous version by being built in somewhat larger (but still limited) numbers. The Panzer III Ausf. D also had the longest service life, soldiering on to 1941 and possibly even after that

The Panzer III Ausf. D. Source: T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle Panzer Tracts No.3-1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A,B,C, und D

Development

Daimler-Benz, which was responsible for the construction of the Panzer III Ausf. A, was contacted by Waffen Prüfwesen 6 (Wa Prw 6 – the automotive design office of the German Army) to produce an additional number of experimental chassis to test new types of suspensions and other elements that could be further improved (like the commander’s cupola, engine compartment interior, etcetera). To fulfill the production orders, Daimler-Benz built the Versuchs-Fahrgestell (experimental chassis) Z.W.3 (Zugführerwagen platoon commander’s vehicle), which would lead to the Panzer III Ausf. B. The Z.W.4 would be used as the base of the Panzer III Ausf. C (marked as 3a. Serie Z.W.) and D (marked as 3b. Serie Z.W.).

Production

The Heeres Waffenamt issued an order to Daimler-Benz to produce 25 Panzer III Ausf. D chassis. Other components, such as the turrets, were to be provided by Krupp-Gruson Werke and Alkett. The main guns were to be provided by Krupp-Essen and Rheinmetall. For the acquisition of necessary armored parts, numerous subcontractors, like AG Vochum, Deutsche Edelstahlwerke AG, etcetera were contracted. While the production of these vehicles began sometime in early 1938, it took several months to actually build them. The last of the 25 vehicles was completed either in July or September 1938. Five more chassis would be built by Daimler-Benz and merged with five Panzer III Ausf. B turrets during 1940.

Interestingly, according to H. Scheibert (Panzer III), 55 Panzer III Ausf. D were produced during 1938. If he includes the modified chassis and command vehicles based on the Panzer III Ausf. D in this counting is not clear.

Specifications

The Panzer III Ausf. D received some modification to its overall design, in many aspects, like the armament and engine, it was virtually unchanged.

The engine compartment

While the engine type used was the same as on the previous versions, there were some changes and rearrangements of some elements of the engine compartment. The position of the two radiators was changed, as they were now placed completely vertical. They were previously in an angled position. In addition, these were provided with louvres which could be controlled by the crew (from the crew compartment) to provide a better flow of air, depending on the need. The previously used mechanical fuel pumps were replaced with electrically operated ones. Lastly, four smaller and armored fuel tanks (each could contain 75 liters) were placed under the engine in pairs.

The overall design of the engine compartment was changed due to the modifications of its interior. The rear part of the engine compartment was put at a steeper angle. Two cooling air grills were placed on each side of the engine compartment. While no additional ventilation ports were placed on the armor cover of the engine, the four hatches (two on top, and two more on the angled side) could be opened to act as improvised ventilation ports. The change in design of the engine compartment led to a slight extension of the whole Panzer III Ausf. D, from 5.66 m to 5.92 m.

The Panzer III Ausf. D had a redesigned engine compartment with an angled rear. In addition, the vertical openings for the cooling air grills were placed on each side of the engine compartment. Source: T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle Panzer Tracts No.3-1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A,B,C, und D

The transmission

Panzer IIIs from A to C incorporated a 5 speed transmission. The Ausf. D received an improved 6 speed SSG 76 type transmission. As the remaining components of the drivetrain were essentially unchanged, the drive performance was also left largely unchanged.

Suspension

The Panzer III Ausf. D suspension was quite similar to the Ausf. C one in appearance and could sometimes be difficult to distinguish. The Ausf. D also employed the same 8 small road wheels. However, they were divided into three parts, with two pairs of double wheels placed in front and to the rear and four pairs in the middle. There were also three return rollers, one drive sprocket and one idler per side.

The change included the repositioning of the front and rear swing arms’ pivoting points. These were centrally placed. The leaf spring units’ positions on the first and last pairs of road wheels were placed diagonally in contrast to the vertical ones used previously. Lastly, two improved shock absorbers were placed on each suspension side. One was placed behind the drive sprocket and the second in front of the idler.

A good view of the Panzer III Ausf. D suspension. Interestingly, the crew of this vehicle (possibly during training) accidentally ran over a smaller Panzer I vehicle. Note that, on the superstructure side, the triangular in shaped metal bars are actually an anti-aircraft pivoting mount (Fliegerauslegearm) placed during the pre-war period on many German tanks, but which later fell out of use. Source: www.worldwarphotos.info/
Another view of the Ausf. D suspension, showing the two (close to the idler and drive sprocket) angled leaf springs units. Source: warspot.ru

Armor protection

Regarding the precise armor thickness of the Panzer III Ausf. D, the sources are basically split into two camps. Authors such as D. Nešić, (Naoružanje Drugog Svetskog Rata-Nemačka) and Walter J. Spielberger (Panzer III and its Variants) mention that the overall armor protection was increased to 30 mm (same as the later built Ausf. E). The increase in armor, together with other modifications, raised the Ausf. D’s weight to nearly 20 tonnes.

On the other hand, authors such as T. L. Jentz and H. L. Doyle (Panzer Tracts No.3-1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A, B, C, und D) and P. Chamberlain (Encyclopedia of German Tanks of World War Two – Revised Edition) note that the armor thickness was the same as on the previous versions, up to 14.5 mm. In addition, the overall weight of the Panzer III Ausf. D was, again like the previous versions, at 16 tonnes. The reason for this divergence of sources is unclear. One possible culprit for this may be the command vehicle that was developed based on the Panzer III Ausf. D, as it had 30 mm of armor.

In Combat

When the war with Poland broke out in September 1939, the Germans had less than 98 Panzer III tanks. Of these, some 87 saw actual combat service, while the remaining were used as replacement and training vehicles. These were distributed to Panzer Regiments in limited numbers. The exceptions were the 1st Panzer Regiment, which had 20, and the 2nd which had 6 Panzer IIIs.

To determine the precise combat engagements of the Ausf. D (but also other older versions) is difficult. The issue is that the sources list them simply as Panzer IIIs, without mentioning the precise version in question. For example, Panzer IIIs from the 4th Panzer Regiment were ordered to take the Polish barracks and train station at Kamionka on 19th September. While the barracks were successfully stormed, the train managed to leave the station. What followed was a race between the German Panzer III and IV tanks and the elusive train. After sustaining heavy damage from German fire, the Panzers, reaching a speed of over 40 km/h, eventually managed to capture the train. The Germans lost some 30 Panzer IIIs during the entirety of the campaign, but most of these would be repaired and put back into use.

Probably all available Panzer III Ausf. D tanks were allocated for the Polish Campaign. Some of these (like the one in the picture) were damaged in combat. The early Panzer III had a 3.7 cm gun that could effectively destroy any Polish armored vehicle. The problems were their weak armor and unreliable suspension. Source: T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle Panzer Tracts No.3-1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A,B,C, und D.

Following the completion of the Polish Campaign, the Germans initiated a slow withdrawal of the earlier types of the Panzer III, including the Ausf. D. This was mainly done as more advanced versions were developed and became available in sufficient numbers to replace the older experimental Panzer IIIs. From February 1940 onwards, all available Panzer Ausf. A to D tanks, after an extensive overhaul, were given to training units. This did not include the five modified Ausf. Ds that were equipped with Ausf. B turrets.

Once the Panzer III Ausf. D was retired from combat service, their role changed to that of a training tank. Source: Source: T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle Panzer Tracts No.3-1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A,B,C, und D

Variants based on the Panzer III Ausf. D

Panzerbefehlswagen Ausf. D1

The Panzer III Ausf. D was used for the Panzerbefehlswagen (tank command vehicle) configuration. This included a number of modifications, some of which were reducing the armament to only one machine gun (located in the turret), using a dummy main gun (to hide its main purpose as a command vehicle), fixing the turret in place, replacing the gunner and the loader with one more radio operator and a commander adjutant, adding additional radio equipment, and, probably most noticeably, adding a large antenna to the rear of the turret. Another large change was that the armor protection was reinforced with another 14.5 m of armor, raising the overall protection to 29 mm. The driver’s visor and the machine gun ball mount were also replaced with newer models. Daimler-Benz produced 26 brand new vehicles in 1938 and 4 more in 1939. This vehicle was designated as Panzerbefehlswagen Ausf. D1. These were used starting from Poland in 1939 up to possibly the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 or even after that.

The Panzerbefehlswagen Ausf. D1, of which some 30 were built. Source: www.panzernet.netp
According to some websites, this is a Panzerbefehlswagen Ausf. D1 allegedly captured by the Soviets during 1943. Note that the turret rear positioned pistol ports are round, while the Panzer III Ausf. D had square shaped. In addition the large antenna positioned to the rear is missing. Source: warspot.ru

Panzer III Ausf.D/B hybrid

During the late 1930s, the Germans were developing the Sturmgeschütz concept. For this purpose, some 5 Panzer III Ausf. B chassis were allocated to be rebuilt as Sturmgeschütz III test series. Not wanting to waste the turrets from these tanks, the Heeres Waffenamt gave Daimler-Benz instructions to build an additional five Ausf. D chassis to be merged with them. As these were never a huge priority, it took Daimler-Benz some two years (until October 1940) to actually complete these vehicles.

During their construction, Daimler-Benz introduced some improved components that were not present on the 25 original Panzer III Ausf. D vehicles. The best example is the use of the new Kugel Blende 30 type of machine ball mount. Additionally, these received a new idler and the position of the rear shock absorber was slightly lowered.

It is unclear how many, but likely all five were transported to Norway in the summer of 1941 and allocated to Panzer-Abteilung z.b.V. 40 (special assignment unit). These may have participated in the German combat operations in Finland during the Invasion of the Soviet Union.

One of the Panzer III Ausf. D/B hybrid vehicles that were stationed in Norway in 1941. Source: T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle Panzer Tracts No.3-1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A,B,C, und D.
This Panzer III Ausf. D/B vehicle was either destroyed or damaged and then cannibalised for spare parts Source: T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle Panzer Tracts No.3-1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A,B,C, und D.

Conclusion

The Panzer III Ausf. D would be a further improvement of the previously built Ausf. C. It would incorporate a majority of elements from this previous version, except for the suspension and some interior modifications. Following the completion of the Ausf. D series, Daimler-Benz and the German Army officials simply gave up on the idea of using the unnecessarily complicated 8 wheel suspension and instead developed a brand new torsion bar that would be used as standard from the Ausf. E onward.
The whole experimental Panzer III Ausf. A to D series, while not long in service, was vital for the Germans in gaining valuable experience in tank design, but also in training the Panzer crews. Given the fact that these were built by the yet underdeveloped German industry, they could be considered a success, as they paved the way for further Panzer development.

Panzer III Ausf.D, the last and biggest pre-production series. These were the testbeds for the mass-production Ausf.E. This one served in Norway, near Lillehammer in February 1941. The ochre camouflage, applied directly on the usual Feldgrau livery, was customary in operations.

Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. D Specifications

Dimensions (l-w-h) 5.92 m x 2.82 m x 2.41 m
Total weight, battle-ready 16 tonnes
Crew 5 (Commander, Gunner, Loader, Radio Operator and Driver)
Propulsion Maybach HL 108 TR 250 [email protected] 2800 rpm
Speed (road/off road) 35 km/h, 10-12 km/h (cross country)
Range (road/off road) 165 km, 95 km
Primary Armament 3.7 cm Kw.K. L/46.5
Secondary Armament Three 7.92 mm MG 34
Elevation -10° to +20°
Armor 5-30mm

Source:

Categories
WW2 German Panzer III

Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. C

german tanks of ww2 Germany (1937)
Medium Tank – 15 built

The next in line in the Panzer III series after the Ausf. B was the Ausf. C. As the previous suspension used on Ausf. B still proved to be inadequate, the German engineers tried a new 8 wheel suspension. Another major change was the introduction of an improved commander cupola. Like the previous two versions, the Ausf. C would also be built in small series and used mainly for testing, but also saw limited combat action.

The Panzer III Ausf. C Source: axishistory.com

History

With the development of the first Panzer III Ausf. A, the German Waffen Prüfwesen 6 (Wa Prw 6 – the automotive design office of the German Army) contacted Daimler-Benz to build two additional experimental chassis. The first one was the Versuchs-Fahrgestell (experimental chassis) Z.W.3 (Zugführerwagen platoon commander’s vehicle) which would lead to the Panzer III Ausf. B. The Z.W.4 would be used as the base of the Panzer III Ausf. C (marked as 3a. Serie Z.W.) and D (marked as 3b. Serie Z.W.). Both developments were carried out to attempt to find a solution to the Ausf. A’s problematic suspension.

Production

Daimler-Benz was tasked with assembling 15 Panzer III Ausf. C tanks. In the same way as the previously built vehicles, this included a number of different subcontractors. Some of these were Krupp, Deutsche Edelstahlwerke AG, and many more much smaller companies. By the end of 1937, all 15 vehicles were completed and given to the German Army for use.

Specifications

The Panzer III Ausf. C was simply an improved version of the Ausf. B. The two major modifications were the suspension and the commander’s cupola, with some other minor modifications. The weapons, engine, armor (except the cupola), and overall design were unchanged.

Hull

The hull of the Panzer III Ausf. C was the same with one exception. The two inspection access hatch doors to access the transmission located in the lower front plate were replaced by two square-shaped armored covers that were held in place by bolts. In front of the hull, two towing bracket pins and one to the rear were added.

The Panzer III Ausf. C had the same square-shaped armored covers placed in front of the hull as the Ausf. A vehicle. Source: T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle Panzer Tracts No.3-1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A, B, C, and D.
The Panzer III Ausf. C (lower), in comparison to the previous Ausf. B (upper), had square-shaped armored covers which were held by bolts. Source: warspot.ru and T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle Panzer Tracts No.3-1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A, B, C, and D.

Superstructure

The superstructure received only minor modifications, mostly in the rear side of the engine compartment. The flat rear side on the engine compartment used on the previous Ausf. B was replaced with a new angled plate. Another change was the use of improved vision ports that provided better protection from splash.

Turret

Changes on the turret included the replacement of the visor ports with improved models. The left vision port lacked the small visor slits that the right one had. The visor ports on the turret side doors were designed to be easily replaceable.

One of the few major improvements was a completely new and better-protected commander cupola. Its armor thickness was increased from 14.5 to 30 mm all around. The number of vision ports was reduced from eight to five. These were also better protected, with two-part hatches that could be fully or partially opened. In addition, much thicker 50 mm glass blocks replaced the 12 mm ones previously used.

The Panzer III Ausf. C had a completely new turret design which provided much better protection for the commander. The turret armor was 30 mm thick, in comparison to the vehicle’s maximal 16 mm armor. Source: T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle Panzer Tracts No.3-1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A, B, C, and D.

Suspension

The Ausf. B incorporated a new 8 road wheel suspension. This also proved to be insufficient for the job, so the Germans replaced it with a new one. The Ausf. C suspension also had 8 smaller road wheels, but with a different arrangement. It was divided into three parts, with two pairs of double wheels placed in front and to the rear. The remaining four double wheels were placed in the middle. The smaller pairs, each with two double wheels, were suspended using a shortened leaf spring unit. In addition, these were also provided with a shock absorber. The four center-positioned wheels were suspended using a much longer leaf spring unit. The last change to the suspension was the new round cap held in place with four bolts for the rear idler.

The Panzer III Ausf. C was used to test the new 8 wheel suspension with a much different design. It would also prove to be insufficient, which would lead to the Ausf. D. Source: T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle Panzer Tracts No.3-1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A, B, C, and D.

In Combat

The Panzer III Ausf. C, as the previously built versions, was allocated initially to training units. Once war with Poland broke out in September 1939, the Panzer III Ausf. C would also be pressed into combat service. The Panzer III had a good gun at the time and could destroy with ease any Polish armored vehicle. The Panzer IIIs were lightly armored and often fell victim to Polish anti-tank fire of any caliber. With the completion of the Polish campaign, the Germans initiated a slow withdrawal of the earlier types of the Panzer III. By February 1940, these, including the Ausf. C, were allocated to tank training schools.

This Panzer III Ausf. C received a number of hits from a Polish 3.7 mm anti-tank gun. Many Panzer IIIs that were damaged in Poland were recovered and repaired, after which they were usually given to training units. Source: T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle Panzer Tracts No.3-1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A, B, C, and D.

Conclusion

The Panzer III Ausf. C was another attempt to find an adequate suspension solution for the Panzer III. While a new type of suspension was tested, it also proved to be insufficient for the job, so the work to solve this issue continued with the following Ausf. D vehicle.

The Panzer III Ausf.C, the third pre-series version. The most distinctive change is with regards to the suspension, although this one would not stick. Illustration by David Bocquelet.

Specifications

Dimensions (l-w-h) 5.66 x 2.81 x 2.36 m
Total weight, battle-ready 16 tonnes
Crew 5 (Commander, Gunner, Loader, Radio Operator, and Driver)
Propulsion Maybach HL 108 TR 250 [email protected] 2800 rpm
Speed (road/off-road) 35 km/h, 10-12 km/h (cross country)
Range (road/off-road)-fuel 165 km, 95 km (cross country)
Primary Armament 3.7 cm KwK L/46.5
Secondary Armament Three 7.92 mm MG 34
Elevation -10° to +20°
Armor 5-30 mm

Source

Categories
WW2 German Panzer III

Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. B (Sd.Kfz. 141)

german tanks of ww2 Germany (1937)
Medium Tank – 10 built plus 5 hulls

The introduction of the Panzer III Ausf. A into service provided the Germans with a base for the development of a good medium tank. While the Germans were generally satisfied with the overall concept and design, there was still a lot of room for improvements and modifications. The greatest issue with the Ausf. A was its weak suspension. Thus, the Germans introduced a new version, the Ausf. B, intended to improve the suspension and other minor elements of the vehicle.

Panzer III Ausf. B
The Panzer III Ausf. B. Source:warspot.ru

Development

Following the introduction of the Panzer III Ausf. A, the Germans established a good design base that still offered a lot of space for improvements. As Daimler-Benz was finishing the first few Ausf. A test chassis in August 1935, Waffen Prüfwesen 6 (Wa Prw 6 – the automotive design office of the German Army) issued a new contract by which two additional experimental chassis were to be built. These were Versuchs-Fahrgestell (experimental chassis) Z.W.3 (Zugführerwagen platoon commander’s vehicle) and the Z.W.4. The Z.W.3 experimental vehicle would serve as the base for the development of the Panzer III Ausf. B, while the Z.W. 4 would become the Ausf. C and D. The development of the Ausf. B (and later C and D versions) was mainly focused on solving the issues regarding the Ausf. A’s problematic suspension.

Production

According to this contract, Daimler-Benz was to produce 15 Panzer III Ausf. B chassis and superstructures (not all would be completed as tanks) by the end of 1937. These had serial numbers ranging from 60201 to 60215. As the German industry was still not sufficiently developed for tank production, a number of subcontractors were also included in the Panzer III project. These included Krupp-Grusonwerk, producing 5 new turrets, Rheinmetall, building 5 of the 3.7 cm guns and Krupp (Essen) building another 10 turrets and 5 guns. Additionally, Stahlwerke Harkort-Eichen was to produce armor components for the needed turrets. Once all parts were completed, these were to be transported to Daimler-Benz for final assembly.

By early November 1937, 8 vehicles were completed and were mostly issued to training tank schools. The last two vehicles were completed and delivered by the start of December 1937.

Specifications

The Panzer III Ausf. B was, in essence, an attempt to improve a number of the previous Ausf. A’s shortcomings, mainly regarding its suspension.

Hull

The hull of the Panzer III Ausf. B had the same arrangement as its previous version, with the rear engine compartment, the central crew compartment, and the forward-mounted transmission and enclosed driving compartment. The only visible change introduced on the Ausf. B’s hull was the use of two inspection round access hatch doors placed in front of the transmission. These were used for the crew to have better access to the transmission during repairs.

two round shaped access hatches

The two round-shaped access hatches are visible here. Source: warspot.ru

Superstructure

There were several changes incorporated into the new Ausf. B’s superstructure. The major one was the complete redesign of the rear engine compartment. It was enlarged and the two larger air intakes were replaced with four smaller ones placed on top of the engine compartment instead of the rear.

Panzer III Ausf. As
The two vehicles at the bottom of the picture are Panzer III Ausf. As and the front vehicle is the Ausf. B version, which had four smaller air intakes in the engine compartment. Source: Pinterest

On the left superstructure side, a triangular-shaped pivoting arm was added. Its main purpose was to serve as a machine gun mount (the machine gun had to be dismounted from the vehicle) for the crew to engage enemy aircraft. The vehicle had to be stationary, which somewhat limited its usefulness. The radio antenna and its wooden housing were moved further to the back, on the right side of the superstructure.

anti-aircraft machine gun mount
The anti-aircraft machine gun mount is visible, just behind the left driver vision port (which is open in this picture.) Source: warspot.ru

Turret

The Panzer III Ausf. B received a new commander’s cupola that was bolted to the rear of the top of the turret. It still had the same drum shape and eight small vision slits. In order to provide better protection for the commander from bullet splash, the internal armored slide slits were improved. These could be partly or completely open to provide the commander with a good view of the surroundings. The 12 mm thick glass blocks were also present on this cupola. The commander direction indicator was also kept unchanged. The most obvious change to the cupola was the introduction of new two-part hatch doors.

Panzer III Ausf. B
The Panzer III Ausf. B received a slightly improved commander cupola. The most obvious difference in comparison to the Ausf. A was the use of much-simplified hatch doors. The bundles of sticks on the side of the tank hull were to help the tank cross muddy ground. Source: T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle Panzer Tracts No.3-1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A, B, C, and D.

Suspension and Running Gear

The major improvement in contrast to the Ausf. A version was the introduction of a completely new (and somewhat complicated) suspension. The Ausf. B suspension consisted of eight (400 mm in diameter) small road wheels. These were placed in pairs on double swing axles, which pivoted around a swing arm. This swing arm also pivoted on a pin that was held in position by a small metal box that was welded on the hull’s lower sides. Above each group of four wheels, a leaf spring unit was installed. In addition, there were also four shock absorbers placed on each side of the suspension. While the front-drive sprocket and the rear idler were unchanged, the Ausf. B had three return rollers in comparison to the two used on the Ausf. A.

Ausf. B introduced a new suspension with eight small road wheels
The Ausf. B introduced a new suspension with eight small road wheels and three return rollers. Source: T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle Panzer Tracts No.3-1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A, B, C, and D.
ssssss
A view of the differences between the Panzer III Ausf. A (upper) and the Ausf. C (lower) suspension, which is quite evident here. Source: warspot.ru and Pinterest

Engine

The engine used on this vehicle was the same HL 108 TR which produced 250 [email protected] 2800 rpm, as on the Ausf. A. While the weight of the Ausf. B was increased by a tonne, its overall driving performance remained the same, with a maximum speed of 35 km/h (or 10-12 km/h cross country), an operational range of 165 km and 95 km cross-country. There were some internal engine modifications, like rearranging positions of the filler tanks to provide better cooling.

Armor Protection

The armor protection of the hull and the turret was also left unchanged. It still provided limited protection, as armor thickness ranged from 5 to 16 mm only.

Crew

The Panzer III Ausf. B also had a crew of five, which included the commander, gunner, and loader, who were positioned in the turret, and the driver and radio operator in the hull. Their positions were unchanged in comparison to the previous model.

Armament

The main armament of the Panzer III Ausf. B was also unchanged from the Ausf. A and it consisted of the 3.7 cm Kw.K. L/46.5 with 121 rounds of ammunition. The secondary armament consisted of three 7.92 mm MG 34 machine guns, with two placed in a coaxial configuration with the main gun, and one in the hull. The machine gun ammunition load was 4,500 rounds.

In Combat

The first 8 built Panzer III Ausf. Bs were ready for distribution by August of 1937. Six of these would be given to the Putlos tank training school. The remaining two would be given to the 5th Panzer Regiment. The last two vehicles built, when completed, were allocated to the 1st Panzer Regiment at the end of 1937.

Despite being built in small numbers, the Panzer III Ausf. B would see some action during the war. Due to the lack of more modern tanks, the Germans were forced to use some Panzer III Ausf. Bs for the invasion of Poland in 1939. The majority (if not all) Ausf. B vehicles that were damaged or required a major overhaul were retired from service and instead given to training units after February 1940.

A damaged Panzer III Ausf. B
A damaged Panzer III Ausf. B during the Polish campaign in 1939. Source: T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle Panzer Tracts No.3-1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A, B, C, and D.

Variants

While necessary components to complete 15 Panzer III Ausf. B vehicles were built, only 10 fully operational tanks were actually assembled. The remaining 5 turrets and chassis were actually reused for other purposes.

The 0-series Sturmgeschütz III

In June 1936, Inspektorat 4, which was in charge of artillery development, issued a request for the development of a self-propelled assault vehicle that was to support infantry formations. Krupp was charged with the development of the main weapon, while Daimler-Benz did the chassis (taken from the Panzer III Ausf. B) and superstructure. Five vehicles would be built using soft steel, but with fully operational weapons. Due to many delays in production, these would not be completed until October 1939. These would be used in the following years for testing and crew training. Eventually, these developments would give way to the famous StuG series.

0-series of the Sturmgeschütz III
The 0-series of the Sturmgeschütz III was mainly used for testing and training. It is easily identified by its 8 road wheels and the round access hatches. Source: warspot.ru

Panzer III Ausf.D/B hybrid

With the allocation of the five Panzer III Ausf. B chassis to the Sturmgeschütz III project, five turrets were left unused. In order not to waste them, Heeres Waffenamt gave Daimler-Benz instructions to build five Ausf. D chassis to be merged with the Ausf. B turrets. These were never a priority and Daimler-Benz concentrated on developing and building more improved versions of the Panzer III. It took some two years (until October 1940) to actually complete these vehicles. Some of these (possibly all) were transported to Norway in the summer of 1941 and allocated to the Panzer-Abteilung z.b.V. 40 (special assignment unit).

Panzer III Ausf. D/B hybrid
One of the Panzer III Ausf. D/B hybrid vehicles that were stationed in Norway from 1941 until the end of the war. Source: T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle Panzer Tracts No.3-1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A, B, C, and D

Conclusion

The Panzer III Ausf. B was the first attempt to improve some shortcomings of the Ausf. A. While it introduced a new suspension, a weak point on the previous version, it also proved to be somewhat overcomplicated and unsuited for the job. Nevertheless, the Panzer III Ausf. B was still an important vehicle in German hands, as it provided them with a necessary increase of experience in tank design and, more importantly, in crew training.

Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf.B (Sd.Kfz.141). Illustration by David Bocquelet

Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. B specifications

Dimensions (L-W-H) 5.66 m x 2.81 m x 2.36 m
Total weight, battle-ready 16 tonnes
Crew 5 (Commander, Gunner, Loader, Radio Operator, and Driver)
Propulsion Maybach HL 108TR 250 HP @ 2800 rpm
Speed (road/off-road) 35 km/h, 10-12 km/h (cross country)
Range (road/off-road)-fuel 165 km, 95 km (cross country)
Primary Armament 3.7 cm Kw.K L/46.5
Secondary Armament Three 7.92 mm M.G.34 machine guns
Elevation -10° to +20°
Armor 5 mm – 14.5 mm

Sources

D. Nešić, (2008), Naoružanje Drugog Svetskog Rata-Nemačka, Beograd
T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle (2006) Panzer Tracts No.3-1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A,B,C, und D.
T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle (20) Panzer Tracts No.8 Sturmgeschütz
T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle (20) Panzer Tracts No.23 Panzer production from 1933 to 1945.
P. Chamberlain and H. Doyle (1978) Encyclopedia of German Tanks of World War Two – Revised Edition, Arms and Armor press.
D. Doyle (2005). German military Vehicles, Krause Publications.
G. Parada, S. Jablonski and W. hryniewicki, Panzer III Ausf.L/M. Kagero.
Walter J. Spielberger (2007). Panzer III and its Variants, Schiffer Publishing Ltd.
Walter J. Spielberger, AFV Panzerkampfwagen III, Profile Publications
B. Perret (1980), The Panzerkampfwagen III, Osprey Publishing
A. Lüdeke (2007) Waffentechnik im Zweiten Weltkrieg, Parragon Books.
G. L. Rottman (2008) M3 Medium tank Vs Panzer III, Osprey Publishing

Categories
WW2 German Panzer III

Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A (Sd.Kfz. 141)

german tanks of ww2 Germany (1937)
Medium Tank – 10 built

1930s German military circles, which included Generalmajor Oswald Lutz and his Chief of Staff, Oberstleutnant Heinz Guderian, predicted the need for two types of tanks that were to perform two different tasks. One was to engage enemy tanks and the second was to act as a fire support vehicle. The role of the anti-tank vehicle was to be carried out by the Panzer III series.

The first of the Panzer III series was the Ausf. A version. This vehicle served mostly as a testbed for the new concept of a medium tank designed to engage enemy armor. While this vehicle would be built in limited numbers, it would see some combat action during the early days of the war due to the German Army’s lack of tanks. Despite its flaws and small production run, the Panzer III Ausf. A was the first step towards the development of what would become Germany’s main combat tank until it was superseded by the long-barrelled Panzer IV from 1942 on.

The Panzer III Ausf. A. Source: Pinterest

Development of the 3.7 cm Armed Medium Tank

One of the first German tank designs developed in the late 1920s was the Leichttraktor (light tractor) armed with a 37 mm main gun. The name ‘tractor’ was used in an attempt to deceive the Western Allies about its actual purpose. Germany was banned from developing and producing tanks by the Treaty of Versailles signed by the German government at the end of World War I. In 1930, the Leichttraktors were transported to a facility near Kazan (located in the Soviet Union, as, at this time, the two countries cooperated in arms development) to undergo various field trials. After two years, these were returned to Germany for major overhaul, after which they would be used to test future equipment and evaluate different tactics for proper use of tanks. After 1935, they were given to tank gunnery schools near Oldenburg. While having little influence on later designs, the Leichttraktor was important, as it allowed German weapons manufacturers to gain valuable experience in tank design.

While it was not adopted for service, the Leichttraktor provided the Germans with valuable experience in the construction and its use of such vehicles. Source: Panzernet.net

While the German army began to introduce the first machine-gun-armed Landwirtschaftlicher Schlepper (La.S. – later known as the Panzer I) tanks, and later the 2 cm-armed Panzer II, into service, a tank design that was better protected and armed with a more powerful main gun was deemed desirable. According to In 6’s (Inspektorat 6, the inspectorat for mechanization) military armored strategy, this vehicle was primarily intended to engage enemy tanks. One of the first steps undertaken in the development of this vehicle was a secret meeting held at the end of 1933. In this meeting, the representatives of Waffen Prüfwesen 6 (Wa Prw 6 – the automotive design office of the German Army), Krupp and Daimler-Benz, met to discuss who would be involved in the design of the new vehicle’s turret, but not in the overall chassis design.

The development of the tank that would later be known as the Panzer III was officially approved in a meeting of the German General Staff on 11th January 1934. By the end of January, In 6 authorized Wa Prw 6 to begin development of a 3.7 cm armed Gefechtskampfwagen (tank) with a weight of 10 tonnes. The whole project was simply named Z.W., which stands for ‘Zugführerwagen’ (platoon commander’s vehicle). This somewhat strange name was a deliberate attempt to fool the Western Allies about its original purpose by obscuring its true nature as a medium tank. The first step for Wa Prw 6 was to decide and choose which German firms were suited for this task. During a meeting held in late February 1934 and led by the head of In 6, Generalmajor Oswald Lutz, it was decided to include Krupp AG from Essen, Rheinmetall-Borsig from Berlin, MAN from Nuremberg and Daimler-Benz AG from Berlin-Marienfelde.

This wooden mock-up shows how the Z.W. was originally envisaged. Source: Panzer.net

These four companies were tasked with building a vehicle based on technical requirements laid down by Wa Prw 6. These requirements included a maximum speed of at least 40 km/h and the use of a Maybach HL 100 engine with an SSG 75 transmission and Wilson type steering system. The firms were given a deadline of June 1934 for the submission of the first drawings and proposals. After the firms had presented their designs, Wa Prw 6 issued its first production contracts. Daimler-Benz was tasked with producing two chassis, while MAN received an order for one chassis. Krupp was awarded a contract to produce two turrets and Rheinmetall one turret.

After a series of evaluations of each chassis and turret design were carried out at Kummersdorf and Ulm, the Krupp turret design and the Daimler-Benz chassis design were deemed the most satisfactory. Krupp even made several different turret designs with two crew members instead of three, as In 6 and Wa Prw 6 were for a time considering a two-man turret for this vehicle. On 22nd January 1936, Krupp was informed by Major Dr. Olbrich (from Wa Prw 6) that it should receive a contract for producing 5 turrets. Additional components for 5 more turrets that were also to be assembled by Krupp were to be provided by Deutsche Edelstahlwerke AG. After the completion of the turret design for the first series of the Panzer III, Krupp engineers would go on to develop and test different ideas and designs up to 1939. While the turret designed by Rheinmetall would be built and even tested on one Panzer III chassis, it would not be adopted for service.

The Krupp turret design for the Panzer III received a number of design changes. Most noticeable was the redesigned gun mantlet. Source: Warspot.ru
This is the unsuccessful Rheinmetall turret. It had a more rounded design and the turret side hatch doors opened towards the rear. The gun mantlet was also significantly different from Krupp’s production version. Source: Warspot.ru

On the other side, Daimler-Benz completed its first chassis in August 1935. As it proved to be satisfactory, Daimler-Benz was tasked with building two additional chassis. These were the Z.W.3, which served as the basis for the Panzer III Ausf. B, and the Z.W.4, which was the basis for the Panzer III Ausf. C and D. While the Daimler-Benz Z.W.1 would serve as the basis of the future Panzer III Ausf. A, there were some differences between these two, mostly regarding their construction and internal layout.

Name

As noted earlier, the initial designation name for this vehicle was Z.W. When it was introduced to service, it received an additional numerical designation 1, which marked it as the first series (there were, in total, 8 production series).

During its development history, several tactical names were also used which include: Gefechtskampfwagen 3.7 cm in June 1934, 3.7 cm Geschütz-Kampfwagen in October 1934, 3.7 cm Geschütz-Panzerwagen in May 1935, 3.7 cm Geschütz Pz.Kpf.Wg. in November 1935 and finally the 3.7 cm Pz.Kpf.Wg. from January 1936. It also received the Sd.Kfz. 141 (which stands for Sonderkraftfahrzeug – special purpose vehicle) designation.

The term Panzerkampfwagen was first officially used in an In 6 bulletin dated from late December 1934. In this bulletin, the categorization of Panzerkampfwagen was further expanded to leichte (light), mittlere (medium) and schwere (heavy). The German tank crews referred to them simply as Panzer III or as Panzer drei (three). This is probably the origin of the simpler and abbreviated form of Panzer.

Production

In a contract placed at the end of 1935, Daimler-Benz was tasked with the production of 10 Panzer III Ausf. A vehicle. While Daimler-Benz was responsible for its assembly and even produced some components, the majority of the Panzer III’s parts were actually provided by over 100 smaller subcontractors. Despite attempts to complete at least two tanks by November 1936, this was not achieved due to problems with the availability of necessary parts.

The German High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres, OKH) expected that the first three completed vehicles should be ready for use by the troops by 1st April 1937. Once again, delays in production meant that the small Panzer III Ausf. A production series was not completed until August 1937. The chassis numbers of these vehicles were in the range 60101-60110. While some sources claim that 15 were built, this is incorrect.

Specifications

The Panzer III Ausf. A was composed of several components, the largest of which included the hull, the front and rear parts of the superstructure and the turret. Each of these components was built using welded armor plates and then connected with each other using bolts.

Hull

The hull of the Panzer III was designed to carry the tank chassis. The hull could be divided into a few components: the rear engine compartment, the central crew compartment and the forward-mounted transmission and enclosed driving compartment.

The front hull was where the transmission and steering systems were placed and was protected with an angled armor plate. To gain better access for repairs and brake inspection, two square-shaped, two-part hatch doors were added. These could also be used by the driver and radio operator to enter or exit the vehicle. In front of the transmission armor, there were two bolted square-shaped plates. These were also used for maintenance and are present on the early versions of the Panzer III, though they were later removed to simplify production. On the front of the hull there were two tow couplings, with one more on the rear.

Superstructure

On top of the Panzer III hull was the fully enclosed superstructure, which provided protection for the crew. The superstructure had a simple, square shape with mostly flat armored sides that were welded together. On the left side of the front armor plate was a protective visor for the driver and, next to it, to the right, was a machine gun ball mount. The driver also had one smaller vision port placed on the left side of the superstructure. The radio operator was not provided with a side vision port.

The driver’s visor was connected to the front armor plate by using hinges. While it had no vision slit, when folded down, the driver would use the KFF binocular periscope to see through two small round ports located just above the visor. This periscope had a 1.15 x magnification and a field of vision of around 50°. Behind this visor was a 12 mm thick glass block, though this was too weak to provide protection from enemy fire.

Front view of the Panzer III Ausf. A. Here, the two bolted armored plates located on the lower part of the hull armor can be seen, along with the two top hatch doors. Both the main front and side driver vision ports are open. Barely visible just above the front driver’s vision port are the two small holes for the KFF binocular periscope. Source: pinterest

Turret

The Panzer III Ausf.A turret had a frontal hexagonal-shaped armor plate with a larger rectangle opening in the center. This opening was used to house the main gun installation with its internal gun mantlet and the twin machine gun mount. To fill the gaps left by the internal gun mantlet, an additional, smaller fixed external gun mantlet was welded in front of the turret. Two round observation hatches were located to the right and the left (above the two machine guns).

While Krupp did not manage to get the chance to produce the first Panzer III chassis, it was instead tasked with turret design and production. While Krupp initially tested the use of an external mantlet, eventually a combination of internal and partly external mantlet was chosen. Note the two open observation hatches left and right from the main gun. Source: Pinterest

Each of the turret sides had observation vision ports and a one-piece hatch door (held in place by two hinges) for the crew. The crew hatch doors had an option to be open with a gap of 30 mm to act as a ventilation system. When fully opened (at 180°), the hatch door could be held in place by a retainer to prevent it from accidentally hitting the turret crew. These hatch doors also had a small vision slit. For protection against any possible infantry attack, two square-shaped machine gun ports were added to the rear of the turret.

The Panzer III Ausf. A had a commander’s cupola (sometimes referred to as the ‘dustbin’ type) that was bolted to the rear of the turret top. The commander’s cupola had a simple drum shape and eight small vision slits that could be closed with sliding cover plates. These slits were protected with 12 mm thick glass which offered the commander only limited protection from bullet splash. The commander was also provided with a direction indicator placed on the front visor slit, and a numbered ring with markings from 1 to 12 to help him identify the direction in which the vehicle was going. On top of the cupola, a two-piece hatch door was installed. Its purpose was to allow the commander to enter his position, but also to provide a good all-around view when not engaged in combat. On top of the cupola was a small opening to provide ventilation for the commander.

The Panzer III Ausf. A’s commander’s cupola had larger two-part hatch doors which are open in this photograph. Each of the turret sides had observation vision ports and a one-piece hatch door. The hatch doors also served as ventilation ports. Special thanks to TheRangersBane and Ace for coloring this photograph. Source: Panzer.net

On the front left and right side of the commander’s cupola, there were two signal ports that were protected with small round caps. These protective caps were not hermetically sealed but had a 3 mm gap to allow them to act as a ventilation port. The signal ports were used to fire signal flares for communication if needed. Each Panzer III was equipped with 24 rounds for the 2.6 cm caliber flare pistols.

Suspension and Running Gear

The Panzer III Ausf.A’s suspension consisted of five large road wheels placed on each side. These were suspended using swing axles with coil springs which were mounted on box assemblies. The first series of Panzer III used only two return rollers per side. At the front were two drive sprockets (with 21 teeth), and on the back of the hull were two idlers with adjustable crank arms. The tracks used on the initial production Panzer IIIs were 360 mm wide and were connected using pins. The ground clearance of this vehicle was 35 cm. In order to improve passability on bad terrain, each track link had a gripper bar. In the middle of the front drive sprockets, a 1 cm high tooth was added. Its main roles were to act as a track guide but also, more importantly, to prevent the possibility of the tracks popping up while driving in muddy terrain.

The Panzer III Ausf. A used an experimental coil spring suspension with five road wheels. This type of suspension proved to be unreliable and was replaced on later versions. This particular vehicle was overhauled and given to training units after a short use on the front line. Source: Panzer Tracts No.3-1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A,B,C, und D.
Another view of the Panzer III Ausf. A suspension system during field trials held to test the suspension. Source: Warspot.ru

Engine and Transmission

The engine used on this vehicle was the water-cooled Maybach HL 108 TR which produced 250 [email protected] 2800 rpm. The Panzer III Ausf.A’s maximum speed was 35 km/h (or 10-12 km/h cross country), with an operational range of 165 km and 95 km cross country. The engine was held in place by three rubber bushings.

The fuel load of 300 liters (or 250 l in some sources) was stored in two fuel tanks placed below the radiators in the engine compartment. To avoid any accidental fires, these fuel tanks were protected by firewalls. The Panzer III’s engine cooling system consisted of two radiators and fans, which were placed on the engine sides. Air intakes were located on both sides of the rear engine compartment. Additional air intakes were placed atop the engine compartment.

The Panzer III Ausf.A was equipped with the SFG 75 five-speed (and one reverse) transmission. The transmission was connected to the engine by a drive shaft that ran through the bottom of the fighting compartment. The steering mechanism used on the Panzer III was bolted to the hull. It was connected to the two final drives that were themselves bolted to the outside of the hull. Inside the engine compartment was a 12V Bosch generator. Its main role was to produce electricity for the two 12V Varta batteries which were needed for the electrical starter motor that started the main engine.

The two vehicles at the bottom of the picture are Panzer III Ausf. As and the front vehicle is the Ausf. B version. The Ausf. A can be identified by the two larger engine air intakes at the rear of the engine compartment. The front Ausf. B had a different design. Source: Pinterest
Another view of the Panzer III Ausf. A rear air intakes for the engine. Source: worldwarphotos

Armor Protection

The hull front armor ranged from 10 to 14.5 mm thick. The flat side armor was 14.5 mm thick, while the top armor was 10 mm (at an 85° to 65° angle) and the bottom only 5 mm. The front superstructure armor was 14.5 mm thick, placed at a 9° angle. The vertical sides of the crew compartment were 14.5 mm thick.

The front turret armor was 16 mm (at a 15° angle), while the sides and rear were 14.5 mm (at a 25° angle) and the top was 10 mm (at an 81-91° angle). The front gun mantlet was a 16 mm thick rounded armor plate. The commander’s cupola had all-around 14.5 mm of armor. The armor plates were made using nickel-free homogeneous and rolled plates. The thin armor of this tank provided only limited protection, mostly against rifle caliber armor-piercing rounds.

From August 1938 on, nearly all German Panzers were equipped with a Nebelkerzenabwurfvorrichtung (smoke grenade rack system). This device was placed on the rear of the hull. Some of the Panzer III Ausf. A were also equipped with these systems. This rack contained five grenades which were activated with a wire system by the Panzer III’s commander.

A Panzer III Ausf. A equipped with the smoke grenade rack system, placed at the engine rear. Source: Armedconflict

Crew

The Panzer III had a crew of five, which included the commander, gunner and loader, who were positioned in the turret, and the driver and radio operator in the hull.

The commander was positioned in the rear center of the turret, and had a folding seat. The gunner was positioned to the left, while the loader was to the right of the main gun. While not in combat, the loader could use a folding seat on the right side of the turret. Once in combat, in order to get the stored ammunition, he would simply fold the seat to the side and then stand on the hull floor.

The driver’s position was on the front left side of the hull. He drove the vehicle by using steering levers which were placed on both sides of him, and by using the brakes, gas and clutch pedals placed in front of him.

The last crew member was the radio operator, who was positioned on the front hull’s right side. His main job was to operate the Fu 5 radio set (in the case of a company or platoon leader’s vehicle), which consisted of the transmitter and a receiver. For ordinary vehicles, the Fu 2 receiver set was used. A folding antenna rod with its wooden protective rail was placed on the right superstructure side. The radio operator was also tasked with using the hull mounted 7.92 mm M.G. 34 machine gun.

Despite some consideration of using two-man turrets, ultimately, all Panzer IIIs would have a crew of five. This provided the German Panzer units with a significant tactical advantage, as each crew member only had to focus on one job. Source: worldwarphotos

Armament

The main armament of the Panzer III Ausf. A was the 3.7 cm Kw.K. L/46.5 (Kw.K. stands for ‘Kampfwagenkanone’, which could be translated as combat vehicle cannon or, more simply, as tank gun). The Panzer III gun was actually a slightly modified version of the German standard infantry 3.7 cm PaK 36 anti-tank gun. It was chosen as the main armament for this Panzer mostly due to standardization and logistical reasons; its ammunition and spare parts could be easily acquired and were available in great numbers. During its development, it was clear to the Germans that there was a possibility that this cannon at one point may become obsolete. For this reason they intentionally left the turret ring diameter a bit larger so that, if necessary, a larger caliber gun could be used. This decision was based on fierce arguments between different military organisations, namely the Heereswaffenamt and the Artillery Inspectorate, which advocated for the use of the 3.7 cm gun and, on the other side, most senior tank officers which supported the use of the larger 5 cm gun. On account of the previously mentioned reasons, both sides agreed on a compromise of using the 3.7 cm caliber as the main weapon.

The standard 3.7 cm PaK 36 was the main anti-tank weapon of the German field army in the first years of the war. Source: Wiki

This gun had a semi-automatic breech with a horizontal sliding block, which enabled it to increase the rate of fire to 20 rounds per minute. The semi-automatic breech increases the rate of fire by automatically ejecting the spent cartridge after firing. The 3.7 cm breech first had to be opened to load the first round, and after that the breach closed itself. The main gun and its recoil cylinders that stood outside of the turret were covered by a steel jacket and a deflector guard.

This gun had a muzzle velocity of 762 m/s and, by using the standard armor-piercing round, could penetrate 48 mm at 500 m (at 0° angle). The elevation of this gun went from –10° to +20°. The ammunition load consisted of 120 rounds. The early versions of the Panzer III were equipped mostly with armor-piercing ammunition, as they were primarily intended to engage other tanks. The role of engaging soft and fortified targets was the job of the larger Panzer IV. Experience gained during the War showed that this approach was not adequate and so later versions would also carry other types of ammunition as well, including high explosive, hollow charge, smoke rounds etc. The ammunition was stored in holding bins located on the hull sides and floor.

The Panzer III’s main gun was equipped with a TZF5 ‘Turmzielfernrohr’ monocular telescopic gun-sight. This sight had a magnification of 2.5 and a field view of 25° which was 444 m wide at 1 km range. The gunsight reticle ranges were marked up to 1,200 m for the main gun and to 800 m for the machine guns. For firing at targets (on the move or when the Panzer III was stationary) that were closer (at 200 m to 800 m), the gunner could use the open sight (Zielschiene).

On the left side of the gun, there were two mechanical handwheels for elevation and traverse of the main gun. The guner could traverse the turret by using the traverse handwheel at a speed of 4° per turn. For more precise aiming, the handwheel speed could be reduced to 2.75° per turn. On the right side of the turret was a second handwheel for the turret traverse that could be controlled by the loader.

The interior of the Panzer III Ausf. A. The main gun and the two machine guns are visible. In addition, both the left and right traverse handwheels are also observable. Source: Warspot.ru

Beside the main gun, the Panzer III Ausf. A was provided with three 7.92 mm M.G. 34 machine guns for defense against infantry. One was mounted in a ball mount in the hull and was operated by the radio operator. The Panzer III Ausf. A ball mount actually consisted of two parts that could be split for either mounting the machine gun or to open it completely for the radio operator to have a good view. This machine gun had a traverse left and right of 20° and an elevation range of 20°. On some Panzer III Ausf. A, the initial ball mount was replaced with a more modern type used on later versions of the Panzer III.

This Panzer III Ausf. A (with chassis number 60107) belonged to the 3rd Panzer Division. This vehicle had the earlier version of the ball mounted machine gun port. Source: pinterest

The remaining two machine guns were placed in a coaxial configuration with the main gun. If needed, the two machine gun mounts could be disengaged from the main gun mount and used independently (similar to the hull-mounted machine gun). The M.G. 34s were fed using drum magazines, with a total load of 4500 spare rounds.

Some Panzer III Ausf. A received a new, improved type of machine gun ball mount that offered greater protection. Source: Warspot.ru
Close up view of the turret twin machine gun mount. These machine guns could be used independently of the main gun. Source: Pinterest

Organization

Prior to the German invasion of Poland, the general organization of a Panzer Division consisted of two regiments, each having two Panzer Battalions. These battalions were then divided into four companies each equipped with 32 tanks. Ideally, the Panzer Division tank strength was to be around 561 vehicles. In reality, this was never achieved by the Germans, as they lacked the production capabilities to produce enough tanks.

These Panzer Divisions were meant to be equipped with modern Panzer III and IV tanks, but this was also impossible to achieve at the start of the war. The situation with the Panzer III was so dire that, on average, only 20 were available for each Division.

In Combat

The 10 Panzer III Ausf. As were initially allocated to training schools in November 1937. Five tanks were stationed at the motorized combat troop school at Wunsdorf, two at the gunnery school at Putlos, 2 with the 5th Panzer Regiment at Wunsdorf and the last 2 with the 1st Panzer Regiment at Erfurt. Some were used prior to the war on military parades.

The Panzer III Ausf. A was used on military parades in Germany prior to the war. Source: Wiki

Being an experimental vehicle that was only built in small numbers, it should come as no surprise that the Panzer III Ausf. A saw only limited combat use. At the start of the war, there were some 60 Panzer IIIs (from Ausf. A to D) available for frontline use. Small numbers of the earlier versions were given to training units and thus were not available to the front. According to some sources, eight vehicles were actually armed while the remaining two (without the main armament) were used for training and testing.

With the introduction of the more powerful versions of the Panzer III, the surviving Ausf. A would be removed from front line service in February 1940. They would be allocated to training schools. Some (at least one) were especially modified for this role with the removal of the turret.

The Panzer III Ausf. A did see limited combat action in Poland in 1939 with the 1st Panzer Division. Source: Panzer.net
At least one Panzer III Ausf. A was modified to be used as a training vehicle by removing the turret and the top armor. Source: Pinterest

Conclusion

While the Panzer III would become the backbone of the German Panzer Divisions, its first version was far from a success. Its suspension proved to be most problematic and had to be redesigned in later versions. While not immediately apparent, the armor thickness would also be deemed insufficient. On the other hand, the use of a five-man crew was a modern concept which provided the Germans with a great advantage over the Allied vehicles in the first years of the war. While few were built, the Panzer III Ausf. A played a significant role in providing additional experience in tank design and in crew training.

Specifications

Dimensions (l-w-h) 5.8 x 2.81 x 2.36 m
Total weight, battle-ready 15 tonnes
Crew 5 (Commander, Gunner, Loader, Radio Operator and Driver)
Propulsion Maybach HL 108TR 250 HP @ 2800 rpm
Speed (road/off road) 35 km/h, 10-12 km/h (cross country)
Range (road/off road)-fuel 165 km, 95 km (cross country)
Primary Armament 3.7 cm KwK L/46.5
Secondary Armament Three 7.92 mm MG 34
Elevation -10° to +20°
Turret Armor front 16 mm, sides 14.5 mm, rear 14.5 and top 10 mm
Hull Armor front 10-14.5 mm, sides 10-14.5 mm, rear 14.5 mm and the top and bottom 8-10 mm.
A Panzer III Ausf.A, during the Polish campaign in September 1939
Panzer III Ausf.B
Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf.B (Sd.Kfz.141) for comparison

Both illustrations by David Bocquelet.

Sources

D. Nešić, (2008), Naoružanje Drugog Svetskog Rata-Nemačka, Beograd
T.L. Jentz and H.L. Doyle (2006) Panzer Tracts No.3-1 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf. A,B,C, und D.
P. Chamberlain and H. Doyle (1978) Encyclopedia of German Tanks of World War Two – Revised Edition, Arms and Armor press.
D. Doyle (2005). German military Vehicles, Krause Publications.
G. Parada, S. Jablonski and W. hryniewicki, Panzer III Ausf.L/M. Kagero.
Walter J. Spielberger (2007). Panzer III and its Variants, Schiffer Publishing Ltd.
Walter J. Spielberger, AFV Panzerkampfwagen III, Profile Publications
B. Perret (1980), The Panzerkampfwagen III, Osprey Publishing
A. Lüdeke (2007) Waffentechnik im Zweiten Weltkrieg, Parragon Books.
G. L. Rottman (2008) M3 Medium tank Vs Panzer III, Osprey Publishing

Categories
WW2 German Panzer III

Panzer III Ausf.F-N

Nazi Germany Nazi Germany (1937)
Medium tank – 5764 built

Panzer III Ausf.F

The Panzer III Ausf.F tank was very similar to the Ausf.E and Ausf.G. The previous versions had been used to test different suspension systems and other features. The Panzer III Ausf.E was fitted with torsion bar suspension with six roadwheels on individual swing axles. Three track return rollers were positioned above the road wheels.
A turret ring deflector guard was added to the front of the hull superstructure. The dummy periscope designed to draw sniper fire was removed from in front of the commanders cupola on later built turrets. Some early ones still had it. A smoke grenade launcher was added to the rear of the tank chassis. Two armoured brake vents were fitted to the front upper glacis plate.
It was fitted with the 285 hp HL 120 TRM petrol/gasoline engine which had a different magneto and modified cooling system than the HL 120 TR 250 hp engine fitted on the Ausf.E.
The armor on the Ausf.E to G was thickened to 30 mm on the turret front, rear and sides. The armor on the front and sides of the hull were also 30 mm thick. The angled front glacis and lower hull plates were 25 mm thick. The hull rear was 20 mm thick.
The 3.7 cm KampfwagonKanone (Kw.K – tank gun) has a length of 1716 mm (L/46.5) from the muzzle to the back of the breech. It had a rate of fire of up to 20 rounds per minute. This was achieved by having a semi-automatic breech which opens shortly before the end of the recoil and the spent casing ejected.
The factory painted dark grey (dunkelgrau RAL 46) and dark brown (dunkelbraun RAL 45) camouflage pattern was discontinued by order dated 31 July 1940. They were just painted dunkelgrau after that date. Most were used in the invasion of Holland, Belgium and France in May 1940. These tanks were upgraded during their combat life with different guns, turrets and more armour.
Later Panzer III Ausf.F were fitted with 5 cm Kw.K 38 L/42 guns. An armoured vent was fitted to the roof of the turret and rear engine deck to enable it to cope with the dust and heat of the North African desert. It was paint it in dark yellow (dunkelgelb). They were used on the Eastern Front.

Panzer III ausf F
Early production Panzer III Ausf.F
Panzer III Ausf F
Mid production Panzer III Ausf.F with false gunsight removed from the top of the turret.
Panzer III Ausf F North Africa
Panzer III Ausf F

Panzer III Ausf.F specifications

Dimensions 5.38 m x 2.91 m x 2.50 m
(17ft 8in x 9ft 6in x 8ft 2in)
Armament 3.7 cm KwK 36 L/46.5 or
5 cm KwK 38 L/42
Machine Guns 3 × 7.92 mm MG34
(The 5 cm gun turret only had one coaxial machine gun not two)
Weight 19.5 tons
Armor 10 mm – 30 mm
(additional 30mm plate added later)
Crew 5
Propulsion Maybach HL 120 TRM V-12 285hp gasoline/petrol engine
Max Speed 40 km/h (24.85 mph)
Range 165 km (102 miles)
Total built 636

Panzer III Ausf.G

The Panzer III Ausf.G was produced between March 1940 and early 1941. It was very similar to the Ausf.E and Ausf.F with minor differences in specifications. The previous versions had been used to test different suspension systems and other features. The Panzer III Ausf.G was fitted with torsion bar suspension with six roadwheels on individual swing axles. Three track return rollers were positioned above the road wheels.
It was fitted with the 285 hp HL 120 TRM petrol/gasoline engine which had a different magneto and modified cooling system than the HL 120 TR 250 hp engine fitted on the Ausf.E.
The armor on the Panzer III Ausf.E – Ausf.F tanks was thickened to 30 mm on the turret front, rear and sides. The armor on the front and sides of the hull were also 30 mm thick. The angled front glacis and lower hull plates were 25 mm thick. The hull rear was 30 mm thick on the Ausf.G.
A turret ring deflector guard was added to the front of the hull superstructure. The dummy periscope designed to draw sniper fire was removed from in front of the commander’s cupola on later built turrets. Some early ones still had it. A smoke grenade launcher was added to the rear of the tank chassis. Two armored brake vents were fitted to the front upper glacis plate. Armored vents were added to the turret roof and to the rear of the engine deck.
The first Ausf.G tanks were armed with 3.7 cm Kw.K L/46.5 tank gun. Some took part in the invasion of Holland, Belgium and France in May 1940. After experiences during the battle of France later versions were armed with the 5 cm Kw.K 38 L/42 gun. They were used on the Eastern Front and in North Africa. These tanks were upgraded during their combat life with different guns, turrets and more armour. Rear turret stowage boxes were sometimes fitted later.
The factory painted dark grey (dunkelgrau RAL 46) and dark brown (dunkelbraun RAL 45) camouflage pattern was discontinued by order dated 31 July 1940. They were just painted dunkelgrau after that date. Those going to North African were painted dark yellow (dunkelgelb).

Panzer III Ausf G
Panzer III Ausf G
Panzer III Ausf G
Panzer III Ausf G

Panzer III Ausf.G specifications

Dimensions 5.38 m x 2.91 m x 2.50 m
(17ft 8in x 9ft 6in x 8ft 2in)
Armament 3.7 cm KwK 36 L/46.5 or
5 cm KwK 38 L/42
Machine Guns 3 × 7.92 mm MG34
(The 5 cm gun turret only had one coaxial machine gun not two)
Armor 10 mm – 30 mm
(additional 30mm plate added later)
Crew 5
Propulsion Maybach HL 120 TRM V-12 285hp gasoline/petrol engine
Max Speed 40 km/h (24.85 mph)
Range 165 km (102 miles)
Total built 950

Panzer III Ausf.H

The Panzer III Ausf.H was the first version of the tank to be designed with a turret fitted with the 5 cm Kw.K 38 L/42 tank gun and with 60 mm of frontal armour, rather than having these specifications added later in an upgrade program. They started to be delivered in late 1940 and early 1941.
The 5 cm Kampfwagenkanone L/42 tank gun was semi-automatic: the breech block remained open after firing to enable the next round to be loaded quicker. Its standard armour piercing AP shell could penetrate or 55 mm of armour laid at an angle of 30 degrees at a range of 100 m, 46 mm at 500 m and 36 mm at a range of 1 km. The turret only had one coaxial 7.92 mm MG34 machine gun, another MG34 was mounted in the hull.
The tank was still powered by the Maybach HL 120 TRM 285 hp petrol/gasoline which gave it a top road speed of 42 km/h (26 mph). Two armoured brake vents were fitted to the front of the hull armour.
The 60 mm thick armor on the hull front, upper hull front and rear was constructed by welding two 30 mm armor plates together. The side armour was 30 mm thick and the angled front glacis and lower hull front plate was 25 mm thick. The angled armor on the front rear and sides of the turret was 30 mm thick. The curved gun mantle was 35 mm thick. The turret had an armored ventilation fan. Tanks going to North Africa were fitted with armored vents on the engine deck. Rear turret stowage bins were fitted later.
Because of the increase in weight wider wheels and tracks were introduced. New front drive wheels and rear idler wheels were fitted as well as a different shock absorber. Because of supply problems, some of the early Ausf.H tanks were fitted with shock absorbers and wheels used on the Ausf.G.

Panzer III Ausf H
Panzer III Ausf H
Panzer III Ausf H
Panzer III Ausf H

Panzer III Ausf.H specifications

Dimensions 5.38 m x 2.95 m x 2.50 m
(17ft 8in x 9ft 8in x 8ft 2in)
Armament 5 cm KwK 38 L/42
Machine Guns 2 × 7.92 mm MG34
Armor 10 mm – 60mm
Weight 21.5 tons
Crew 5
Propulsion Maybach HL 120 TR V-12 265hp gasoline/petrol engine
Max Speed 42 km/h (26 mph)
Range 165 km (102 miles)
Total built 500

Panzer III Ausf.J & Ausf.L

The Panzer III Ausf.J was very similar to the Panzer.III Ausf.G. It was built with a turret fitted with a 5 cm Kw.K 38 L/42 tank gun. It had similar armor thickness and was powered by the same Maybach HL 120 TRM petrol/gasoline 285 hp engine.
The basic armor thickness at the hull front, upper hull front and rear of the tank was now 50 mm. The front glacis was 25 mm thick. 30 mm armour was used on the hull sides, lower hull rear and front. The armor on the front, sides and rear of the turret was 30 mm thick. The rounded gun mantle was 50 mm thick. In the spring of 1941, additional armor plate was added internally to the front of the turret increasing it to a maximum of 57 mm in places.
The chassis was lengthened to create better engine compartment ventilation and tow eyes. The design of the armored front brake vents was changed. The turret was fitted with an armoured extractor fan on the roof.
The 5 cm KampfwagonKanone (Kw.K – tank gun) had a length of 2100 mm (L/42) from the muzzle to the back of the breech. It had a rate of fire of up to 20 rounds per minute. This was achieved by having a semi-automatic breech which opened before the end of the recoil, ejected the spent casing and allowed for the quick loading of the next shell.
From December 1941 the 5 cm Kw.K L/60 tank gun had a length of 3000 mm. It started to be fitted instead of the 5 cm Kw.K L/42 gun, as stocks arrived in factories. They were renamed Panzer III Ausf.L. Tanks sent to North Africa had armoured vents fitted on the rear engine deck. In April 1941 stowage bins started to be fitted to the rear of the turret.
Using the appearance of spaced armor on Panzer III tanks is not a reliable way of identifying the different Ausf version. Late production Ausf.J tanks had 20 mm spaced armor fitted to the front of the turret and the hull. Some older tanks had it back fitted later.
Panzer III Ausf J
The Ausf.J was a real step forward because of its new, slightly larger and redesigned hull, with increased armor up to 50 mm (1.97 in) at the front, and the J1 variant received the 50 mm (1.97 in) KwK 38 L42 gun right from the start, with a new mantlet. The hull machine gun received a ball mount and the visor was also new. This early Ausf.J (482 built in 1941) fought with the Vth Division in Kuban, Ukraine, March 1942. The short barrel 50 mm (1.97 in) was replaced by the long barrel version. By 1943, only a handful had survived.
Panzer III Ausf J
Although nearly all Panzer IIIs were upgraded with the L42 gun, this medium barrel never gave satisfaction against the superior armor of the Russian KV-1 and thick sloped armor of the T-34. The introduction of the new gun emerged from to the will of Hitler after the fall of France, but this weapon was available in short numbers, so the Waffenamt postponed its use nearly one year and a half. The late J came just in time for the depleted German Panzerdivisions, which had already lost most of their combat effectiveness. The gun also used longer ammunition, thus reducing their storage from 90 to 84. Most served until 1944.
Panzer III Ausf J
Panzer III Ausf J

Panzer III Ausf.J & Ausf.L specifications

Dimensions Ausf.J 5.49 m x 2.95 m x 2.50 m
(18ft x 9ft 8in x 8ft 2in)
Dimensions Ausf.L 6.41 m x 2.95 m x 2.50 m
(21ft x 9ft 8in x 8ft 2in)
Armament Ausf.J 5 cm Kw.K 38 L/42
Armament Ausf.L 5 cm Kw.K L/60
Machine Guns 2 × 7.92 mm MG34
Armor 10 mm – 50mm (later 57mm)
Weight Ausf.J 21.6 tonnes
Weight Ausf.L 25.5 tonnes
Crew 5
Propulsion Maybach HL 120 TRM V-12 285hp gasoline/petrol engine
Max Speed 40 km/h (24.85 mph)
Range 155 km (96.31 miles)
Total built about 1521 L/42 (about 1021 L/60)

Panzer III Ausf.K

The Ausf.K was a command tank (Befehlspanzer) version of the Ausf.J, but different from the former Befehlspanzer versions, as their armament was real and not a dummy gun. The contract for these vehicles was cancelled.

Panzer III Ausf.M

Contracts were placed for the Panzer III Ausf.M in February 1942. They had the same features as the Ausf.L but they were fitted with deep-wading equipment. It was armed with the same 5 cm Kampfwagenkanone 39 L/60 (5 cm KwK 39 L/60) tank gun had a length of 3000 mm, as used on the Ausf.L. The longer barrel gave the gun a higher velocity and penetration power over the shorter 5 cm Kw.K L/42 but it had problems penetrating the frontal armour of the T-34 and KV-1 at long range.

Starting in May 1943 Schürzen 5 mm skirt armour plates were mounted on the hull side and 10 mm plates on the turret, to prevent the Soviet 14.5 mm anti-tank rifle penetrating the side armour of the Panzer III. Draftgeflecht metal mesh screens were also trialled. They were both as effective as each other, but the Schürzen skirt armour plates entered production as it would have taken too long to develop the support hangers for the metal mesh screens.
Panzer III Ausf M
Panzer III Ausf M

Panzer III Ausf.M specifications

Dimensions 6.41 m x 2.95 m x 2.50 m
(21ft x 9ft 8in x 8ft 2in)
Armament 5 cm Kw.K L/60
Machine Guns 2 × 7.92 mm MG34
Armor 16 mm – 60 mm
Weight 22.5 tonnes
Crew 5
Propulsion Maybach HL 120 TRM V-12 285hp gasoline/petrol engine
Max Speed 40 km/h (24.85 mph)
Range 155 km (96 miles)
Total built 250 approx.

Panzer III Ausf.N

The Ausf.N, mounted a short-barrel 7.5 cm Kampfwagenkanone 37 L/24 (7.5 cm KwK 37 L/24) tank gun, previously used on the Panzer IV. It was a low-velocity tank gun that was designed to fire mainly high explosive shells. If it had to engage armoured vehicles in combat it could fire the Panzergranate armour-piercing AP shell, but it was only effective at short ranges. Later on in the war, crews had the option to load the new 7.5 cm HL-granaten 39 hollow-charge high-explosive anti-tank HEAT projectiles which had a greater effect against tank armour. The Panzer III Ausf.N was increasingly used in the infantry support role once the 75 mm long barrelled Panzer IV, Panther and 88mm armed Tiger tank entered service.
Starting in May 1943 Schürzen 5 mm skirt armour plates were mounted on the hull side and 10 mm plates on the turret, to prevent the Soviet 14.5 mm anti-tank rifle penetrating the side armour of the Panzer III. Draftgeflecht metal mesh screens were also trialed. They were both as effective as each other but the Schürzen skirt armour plates entered production as it would have taken too long to develop the support hangers for the metal mesh screens.
Panzer III Ausf N
PAnzer III Ausf N

Panzer III Ausf.N specifications

Dimensions 5.49 m x 2.95 m x 2.50 m
(18ft x 9ft 8in x 8ft 2in)
Armament 75 cm Kw.K L/24
Machine Guns 2 × 7.92 mm MG34
Armor 16 mm – 60 mm
Weight 23 tonnes
Crew 5
Propulsion Maybach HL 120 TRM V-12 285hp gasoline/petrol engine
Max Speed 40 km/h (24.85 mph)
Range 155 km (96 miles)
Total built 614 – 750 approx.

Panzerbefehlswagen III Ausf.K
In October 1941, it was decided to use the standard Panzer III Ausf.J to accommodate a new, smaller radio, without giving up their main gun and firepower, but sacrificing one ammunition rack. 300 of these Panzerbefehlswagen Ausf.K mit 5cm KwK L/42 command tanks were converted and gradually introduced on the front in 1943. Since the L60 gun fielded by the Ausf.L and M had a far better muzzle velocity, 50 of these upgunned types were to be chosen for the same task, and equipped with new long, medium and short range radio sets. The custom-built Ausf.K arrived in late 1942/early 1943. Most were given to SS Panzerdivisions fighting on the Eastern front, like this one.
Early Panzer III Ausf.L, Tunisia, March 1943
Panzer III Ausf.L TP early production vehicle (1942), a transition model equipped with the Ausf.J turret, the standard long barrel 50 mm (1.97 in) KwK 38 L60, and specialized equipment for desert warfare (hence the name TP, “Tropisch”), essentially additional air filters and new cooling ratio. Facing mostly light Stuarts, Crusaders and half-tracks, the late Panzer IIIs ruled the Tunisian battlefield despite inferior numbers. Their only valuable opponent was the M3 Lee/Grant, which was outclassed by the Ausf.L.
Ausf L Pak 38 1943
A prototype based on the Ausf L, in a fictional livery, with the muzzle brake still fitted on the KwK 39. The KwK 39 was basically a Pak 38 without a muzzle brake and modified to be fitted in the Panzer III turret. Notice the protective panels around the turret, to deal with the AP rifles of the Russian infantry.

Pz.Kpfw.III variants

Besides the famous StuG, or Sturmgeschütz III, family (9500 built) based on the Panzer III chassis, suspensions, tracks and engine, almost a dozen specially modified versions were produced. Adding the 1024 Sturmhaubitze 42 (StuH 42), the Panzer III was by far the most widely used of all Axis chassis.
One of the first derivatives was the Tauchpanzer III, an improvised “submarine version” designed for operation Sea Lion (invasion of Great Britain) in August 1940. Modifications included a complete waterproof hull, new exhaust, schnorchel-like tubes and periscope. The total number of these “dive Panzers”, designed to cross the Channel under 20 feet (6 m) of water, amounted to just a few tested machines. The mass-conversion program never materialized, as the invasion was postponed.
The Panzerbefehlswagen III command tanks were converted from all versions after the Ausf.E (roughly one for twelve), and were characterized by powerful radios and a new redesigned, roomier turret interior. They had a dummy gun until the specialized Ausf.K, and this was often an issue in the heat of battle.
The Artillerie-Panzerbeobachtungswagen III was an advanced artillery observation model of which 262 were produced, appearing on the Russian front in 1943.
The Sturm-Infanteriegeschütz 33B (or sIG-33B) was a 1941-42 conversion of regular Panzer III, done by Alkett, into self-propelled chassis for the massive 150 mm (5.9 in) field gun. They found themselves far more suited for this role than the earlier sIG 33s based on the Panzer I Ausf B. However, only 24 were produced.
The Flammpanzer III Ausf.M(Fl) was an Ausf.M-based flamethrower version, of which 100 were derived and used mostly on the Eastern Front, starting from 1942.
The Berganpanzer III recovery tank was a late (1944) version affected to the Eastern Front, mostly to Tiger units.

Panzer III operational history

War on the West: May-June 1940

On May, 9, hell broke loose for the west, after a long, idle waiting, during which both sides built up their forces, with a clear advantage to the Germans. The French, despaired of the state of their air force in particular, rushed rearmament programs and bought quantities of modern fighters and bombers from the USA. However, the French armored forces, with the added weight of the well-trained and well-equipped BEF (British Expeditionary Forces), were more than a match for the Wehrmacht. The first assault was conducted against Luxembourg, almost without opposition. Then, the small Belgian and Dutch armies were quickly overrun. The Belgian armored forces mostly consisted of small, light tanks, derived from licence-built Vickers tankettes. Some French light tanks had been bought, the most potent of which were a small batch of Renault AMC-35s equipped with medium-velocity, AP guns. Eben-Emael, the key of the Belgian defense, fell to glider and paratrooper commandos, allowing German armored forces to rush towards the coast and the French border. They faced a courageous, but weightless opposition. The Netherlands, on the other hand, was ill-equipped. Its armored forces comprised of only 39 armored cars and five tankettes. They had almost no antitank guns and weak aircraft support. Despite flooded lands and some improvised barrages and hopeless infantry opposition, the German advance was swift and brutal, and on the 14th of May, this was all over. Belgium, despite resolute opposition, capitulated on the 28th of May.

The battle of France

The French apparently superior forces made the international press have confidence once again that the Allies will contain the German onslaught. Gamelin’s grand plans were unlikely focused on the northern sector defense, showed many weaknesses, of which we should mention the poor or nonexistent communication network and the last minute neutrality of the Low Countries, which prevented an early, efficient deployment in Belgium. The German generals with traditional strategical views were not especially confident of the countries’ capabilities against the French, but the “Blitzkrieg advocates” led by Guderian, thought otherwise. They were the original brains behind Fall Gelb, Case Yellow, also called the “falx plan”, a surprise attack through the thick Ardennes forest, the weakest point of the French defense. German armored forces were instrumental in it, well served by a good road network and air superiority. Panzer IIIs engaged there were all Ausf.E, F and Gs armed with 37 mm (1.46 in) guns. Only a handful of 75 mm (2.95 in) armed Panzer IVs were available, a few for each Panzerdivision. Facing this, the Allied armored forces had better protected tanks, almost impregnable except at short range. Two of them were impregnable to all available German weapons except the 88 mm (3.46 in). These were the French B1 and the British Matilda. During the six weeks of fighting, the Panzer III prevailed through its own qualities. They benefited from excellent communication and coordination, well served by their three-man turret, flexible tactics, speed, and constant cover by the Luftwaffe. However, the Germans suffered 160,000 casualties and 795 tanks were lost of all types, a significant number which highlighted the weaknesses of the same Panzer III, namely the lack of penetrating power of their main KwK 36, and insufficient protection.

War in Africa (1941-1943)

During almost a year, the Third Reich, now master of all of Europe, prepared for even more ambitious operations. The war industry delivered new batches of the improved Ausf.G and H, and a major upgunning plan was on the move, with the new 50 mm (1.97 in) KwK 38 L42. 1941 was, however, not a quiet year. Since the fall of 1940, the disastrous Italian offensives in Greece and later in Egypt, led to a critical situation for the Axis in Africa. Hitler, waging war against the British Empire, could not afford to see their positions threatened in the Mediterranean theater. In January 1941, an expeditionary force led by the already famous gen. Erwin Rommel landed in Libya, with provisions of Panzer III Ausf.F and Gs, which constituted the backbone of his forces. Against the British tanks, besides the Matildas, they had some success, but proved easy targets for the famous six-pounder. They fought well in the desert, were their speed, combined with the tactical genius of the “Desert Fox”, proved invaluable. But constant losses and few replacements led to a growing mixed-equipped force, comprising many captured Allied models, and the Panzer III might was gradually weakened in these operations. After El Alamein in June 1942, the Afrika Korps was in a dangerous position, but the arrival of new forces under the command of gen. Kesselring in Tunisia in 1943, seemed to bring new hope for the Axis. Alongside came a few Tigers and the new Panzer III Ausf.L and M, better armored and equipped with an effective high velocity KwK 38 L60 gun. These, along with cunning counterattacks, US bad preparation and bad weather ensured most of the Axis forces held on, then evacuated to Sicily, a prelude to a long and bloody defensive war in the so-called “soft underbelly of Europe” (Sir W. Churchill).

In the Russian steppes (1941-1943)

Operation Barbarossa was a major undertaking and echoed Napoleon attempt, after his failure to land in Britain, to turn against Russia. Hitler was aware that the Soviets were a strong enemy, but also that the internal disorders of the regime would cause, in case of a quick offensive, a total collapse from the interior. The other motivation, in Hitler’s personal mythology, was to grab considerable lands for the “master race” (Lebensräum). In July 1941, a considerable effort was made by the Germany war industry, and invasion forces were divided between three large armored corps, North, Center and South. These consisted of many new Panzerdivisions, in fact, made from split former units. These forces mostly counted on Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs, with many Panzer I and IIs in flanking and scouting units. All Panzer IIIs were now upgunned to the J1 standard, with a KwK 38 L42 50 mm (1.97 in) gun. This gun was sufficient against the tens of thousands of BT-7s and T-26s which constituted the bulk of the Russian armored forces. However, the German crews son discovered that both the KV-1 and and the T-34 were immune to their weaponry, even at short range. Later on, the northern offensive ground to a halt around Leningrad. The central offensive, after weeks of struggle in the mud, froze just miles from Moscow. The southern offensive was kept busy in Crimea. The following year, in 1942, a large Soviet counter-offensive repulsed the Center Army Group, and the southern army was mostly destroyed and captured at Stalingrad. The extremes of the Russian weather brought considerable turmoil to the crews and support troops, showing that the Panzer III was not adapted to very low temperatures or to the deep mud of the Russian bad roads. All hopes to regain control were lost at Kursk in the summer of 1943, were many modernized Ausf.Js (with the L60 long barrel), Ls and Ms, equipped with added protection (Schürzen), faced overwhelming swarms of T-34/76s.

The defensive war (1944-1945)

The last versions of the Panzer III, the Ausf.M and N, had improved protection, better guns and AP ammunition, which were conceived to deal with the latest Russian tanks on the Eastern Front. They were used in successive defensive lines, facing overwhelming forces, until the fall of 1944. The L60 used by the Ausf.L and M proved insufficient, but the idea of adapting directly the Panzer IV turret to the Panzer III chassis failed. However, Daimler-Benz engineers succeed in mounting the 75 mm (2.95 in) low velocity gun on the N version, the very last of a long and famous lineage. Production ended in August 1943. By then, these versions were affected to heavy tank companies, which at full strength contained ten Panzer III Ausf.Ns for nine Tigers. By then, older surviving Ausf.J to M tanks joined the Italian front, together with other veteran models, some having fought on since 1941 in Africa. The long barrel, high muzzle velocity guns, combined with improved AP charges like tungsten rounds, good use of the rugged terrain and camouflage by hardened veterans, pinned down Allied assaults in Italy until the end of 1944.
A few, improved Ausf.J to M fought in limited numbers in Normandy, but their movements were constrained because of Allied air supremacy. However, once again, a good use of the bocage proved that the Panzer III was still a match for most Allied tanks. By the end of 1944 the regular Panzer III were no longer the bulk of the German armored forces. They were spread into composite small defensive units. And as the production had stopped earlier, their numbers decreased even more, and by fall of 1944, they were perhaps 80 still operational on the Eastern Front. By then, new generations of US, British and Soviet tanks had nailed their coffin. This type had reached its limits, its former advanced features were now commonly used, and no further up-gunning was possible. However, the Panzer III will remain iconic in the German military of WWII, along with the Messerschmidt Bf-109 and the versatile 88 mm (3.46 in) gun.

Surviving Panzer IIIs

The last Panzer IIIs fought in the Low Countries (Market Garden), Northern Italy (Gothic line), and in eastern Prussia. Perhaps a handful still operational were spread between desperately weakened companies in March-April 1945, like the Steiner Brigade. Others were kept inactive, in operational reserves, in quiet sectors like Norway or Holland, until the capitulation. The remaining were abandoned, disabled and captured. They ended in many museums throughout the world, like the US Army Ordnance museum, Bovington, Saumur and the Deutsches Panzermuseum, among others. It is still possible today to find some wrecks in remote areas, because of the sheer geographic scale of its deployment, including three continents. More information and a gallery of surviving Panzer IIIs.

Sources

Panzer Tracks No.3-1, 3-2, 3-3, 3-4 and 3-5 by Thomas L.Jentz and Hilary Louis Doyle
The Panzer III on Wikipedia
The Panzerkampfwagen III on Achtungpanzer

History of the Panzer III video


Germans Tanks of ww2
Germans Tanks of ww2