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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 hp@ 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Variants based on the Panzer III 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.
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.
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.
|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.|
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