Friday, July 18, 2014

Tanks that Shaped WWII - Panzer III

Panzer III in Poland (Credit: German National Archives)
Russia, 1941 – the German Army launched a Blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union. Two years ago, the power of German tanks in combination of quick attack tactics unleashed the power of Hitler’s Germany against the Anglo-French and Polish forces. This time, it was meant against the archenemy of Hitler, the Soviet Union and its leader, Joseph Stalin. One of the main tanks that led the attack were thousands of Panzer III attacking from multiple fronts, racing towards Moscow. Tanks shaped World War II. It moved battles from trenches to open plains. Mobility overtook static strategies. And the Panzer III was among the tanks that played during World War II.

During the 1930’s, Germany began to research new weapons even under the violation of the Treaty of Versailles. During World War I, tanks were in its infancy. It was bulky and slow but effective against trenches. Both the British, the French, and the Germans all began to develop their own tanks. But in 1919, World War I ended with the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty aimed in weakening Germany significantly. It was barred from developing an air force and more importantly, prohibited to make advances on tanks. But this did not deter Hitler. In 1933, research for new tanks were underway and the Panzer I and Panzer II were among the first results.

First two models, however, were lightly armored and armed. The German high command was thinking of creating panzer battalions with two light tank companies accompanied by a medium or heavy tank company. In 1935, Heereswaffenamt or the German Army Weapons Agency asked defense contractors for designs for a medium tank. Other specification they requested included that it could be armed by a 37mm gun with a wide gun diameter ring that would allow an upgrade of the primary weapon later if needed.

Eventually, the company Daimler-Benz prototype was chosen for further research and production. In 1936, the Panzerkampfwagen III (PzKpfw III) Ausf. A, B, and C, were produce. But the production of the Ausf. A, B, and C were few, 15 per each Ausf. To cover the intentions of Germany from the allies, they called Zugfuhrerwagen or a command vehicle. The first batch of Panzer III were 15 tons in weight, armed with 37mm gun, protected by a 15mm. armor, and powered by a 250hp 12-cylinder petrol engine. It was manned by 5 men.

During the start of invasion of Poland, only few Panzer III were used. On September 1939, only 98 units of Panzer III were available. But the high command decided more was needed and mass production began. By the end of the year, 157 were being produced. Including that were being produce was a new Panzer III Ausf. D which 435 were targeted to be completed. The Ausf. D had a thicker armor, 30mm, and a new cupola in top of the turret and for the comfort of the tank commander.

By the start of German Invasion of France, more Panzer III were available. In 1940, a new well-armed version of Panzer III, the Ausf. F, was introduced. It had a new engine, a 300hp 12-cylinder petrol engine. It had also a new and a much powerful weapon, a 50mm Kwk 38L/42. This version of the Panzer III was mass produced. By the time the invasion began almost 435 units were available for combat. The Panzer III, along with the Panzer II, helped to push back the Allied Forces to Dunkirk and, eventually, to Paris.

Development continued afterwards. After the invasion, a new Ausf. G was introduced. The Panzer III underweant specification to be used in the desert. Panzer III’s were used by the Afrika Korp in North Africa. It also underweant development with Panzer II to be used for amphibious landing and for the possible invasion of Britain. In 1941, the components of the Panzer III were used alongside parts of the Panzer IV in order to develop the Geschutzwagen III or the Hummel. In 1941, the Ausf. H was released. It had a wider track, from 36 cm to 40 cm. Its 50mm barrel was also made longer, from a Kwk 38L/42 to a Kwk 39L/42.

In June 1941, Hitler unleased the Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. During the invasion, 1,440 Panzer III were sent to the frontlines. Additional 2,605 were planned to be completed by the following year. At the front, the Panzer III saw its match in form of the T-34’s of the Soviet. The remaining 30mm was no match. Also, armor of the Panzer III were being damage by the 76.2mm of the T-34’s. A decision was made to upgrade all remaining 30mm Panzer III to 50mm. Also, a new Ausf. L was introduced. It had a thicker armor which increased its weight to 22 tonnes.

The last two models of the Panzer III were the Ausf. M and N. Both units were released in 1942. Its weapons were more powerful than any other Panzer III, with 75mm guns. It saw production until 1943 when the German High Command decided to take Panzer III’s out of service. By the end of its service, 15,000 chassis were produce.

These chassis served longer that the Panzer III itself. Back in the 1940, the chassis of Panzer III were used to produce the Sturmgeschutz III (StuG III). Some Panzer III were made into command tanks in form of the Panzerbefchlswagen III.

The Panzer III was the bulk of the German Army in advancing its interest. It saw action in France. It also became a main battle tank during the bloody battles between the Soviets and the German from 1941. It was one of the tanks that shaped World War II.

See also:

Panzer I
Panzer II
Panzer IV


Axelrod, A. (ed.). Encyclopedia of World War II. New York: Fact on File, 2007.

Bishop, C. The Encyclopedia of Weapons of World War II: The Comprehensive Guide to Over 1,500 Weapons Systems, Including Tanks, Small Arms, Warplanes, Artillery, Ships, and Submarines. New York: MetroBooks, 2002.

Bull, S. Encyclopedia of Military Technology and Innovation. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Prigent, J. Panzerkampfwagen III. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2001.

Rottman, G. M3 Medium Tank vs. Panzer III: Kasserine Pass, 1943. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2008.

Zabecki, D. (ed.). World War II in Europe: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Pub., 1999.

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