Saumur’s “Bretagne” Panther: facts & fiction

At this year’s Tank fest, Wargaming presented the newly restored Bretagne Panther. Starting in 2017, this Panther was restored at Musée des Blindés courtesy of the publisher of World of Tanks. The reveal of the Panther tank was accompanied by a campaign “Make the Panther roar again” and the introduction of a premium in-game version of Bretagne. To promote the restoration – and increase sales of its digital companion- the Panther’s backstory was revived: a captured Panther fights under the flag of the free French army to take down its previous owner ​[1]​. At the time of its capture by Captain Besnier’s men, so the backstory by Wargaming continues, the Panther obtains the nickname “Bretagne”. The video below shows the entire “Origin story”.

A rather exciting story indeed! How come we have not heard of this Panther’s vibrant history before? Two weeks after the initial announcement, Wargaming spills the beans: the origin story is a “potential backstory​[2]​. In their endless wisdom they have invented a “compelling story” to make Saumur’s Panther “historically relevant” ​[2]​. And, of course, this story ticks all the boxes to sell as many as possible of the premium in-game Panthers.

Neither the museum nor World of Tanks is aware of the real identity of the Panther

Wargaming ​[2]​

To be frank, what is a tank without a good story? Tiger 131 has been successful in drawing crowds of visitor for the Bovington Tank Museum, being the only running Tiger tank in the world. It even has a spectacular backstory involving Peter Gudgin’s encounter with the tank and its subsequent capture – some of which turned out to be too good to be true ​[3]​. In contrast, Saumur’s Panther, although one of only a few left running in the world, has never been known by the general public until now. Wargaming states that neither the museum nor World of Tanks is aware of the real identity of the Panther. With its new made-up identity and backstory it perhaps will stand out more, even though it never served under Besnier and most certainly is not “Bretagne”. I find it pitiful how history is twisted for commercial gain, but then again, it is great to see Saumur putting in a all this effort to keep ancient vehicles such as the Panther running. Understandably, there is a lot of money involved in restoration projects like this, and sponsors, like Wargaming, are very welcome.

As a curious side note, in an interview after Tankfest with All About History, Richard Cutland of Wargaming Europe cites the great backstory of the Saumur Panther as the main reason to start a partnership in the first place and get it restored ​[4]​.

“It’s a great story and had everything going for it. That’s when we began the process of working closely with [Saumur and the Tank Museum.] (…).”

Richard Cutland ​[4]​

The facts

Now that it’s clear that the Saumur Panther is not actually the notorious “Bretagne”, what are the known facts about this Panther? The fact that Wargaming has resorted to a made-up origin story is no coincidence: little to nothing is known about the true history of this Panther – neither in Wehrmacht nor French service. The museum made a last ditch attempt to gather any available information about this Panther in June 2018 in a request to Facebook followers, but as it turns out this did little to clarify its history ​[5]​.

Pannier before application of the new Zimmerit | Source: Atel de Saumur

Something that is known, is that this vehicle, a Panther Ausführung A, has Fahrgestellnummer 155506 it was built on or about 2 June 1944 by M.N.H. in Hannover ​[6]​. The hull was produced by Ruhrstahl Hattingen as indicated by the typical flush cut armour plates at the wedge shaped pannier.

In the French army

Most of the Panthers at Saumur have served in both the German and French army. However little we know about this Panther, it is more than likely that it has spent its days with a French unit. These Panthers, exclusively Ausf. A and G, were in service with the 6éme Régiment de Cuirassiers as well as the 503éme Régiment de Char de Combat (RCC) ​[7], [8]​. After the introduction of the ARL 44 heavy tank in 1950 the last remaining Panthers were dismissed from service. Many of the Panthers ended up at the Établissement Technique de Bourges (ETBS) as range targets or in the tank depots of Établissement de réserve générale du Matériel Engins Blindés (ERGM/EB) near Gien. At least a few ended up at AMX in Satory for study purposes.

Saved by Aubry

The next known location of this Panther is at Saumur where it joins the collection of the Centre de Documentation des Engins Blindés (CDEB) overseen by lieutenant-colonel Aubry. Aubry collects all kinds of armoured vehicles, to save them from their fate on the shooting ranges or scrapheaps. The Panther most likely resided in a depot and is in reasonably good condition when transferred to the CDEB. As such, it is scheduled for a full restoration. During a 12 month process it is brought back to working order. The restoration is finalized on 15 October 1979 ​[9]​. A brochure by the museum claims that as many as 14 Panthers were scavenged for parts to finish the restoration ​[10]​, but these claims are dismissed by the museum’s workshop. It is more than likely that this long standing rumour is based on the fact that in the early to late 80s Saumur had a collection of no less than 14 Panthers1. The museum says the hull and turret actually belong to the same vehicle according to the vehicle’s data plate. Some suspension parts of the the “Parroy Panther” recovered in 1976 from the Parroy pond were used during the restoration2. From this point on the Panther would be better known as Panther #211 – a number chosen by museum staff and in no way tied to the vehicle’s history.

Continuing the story: a manager at Krauss-Maffei by the name of Walter Spielberger gets wind of the ongoing restoration at Saumur. Spielberger asks for the Panther to be present at the official handover of the first Leopard 2 tanks to the Bundeswehr. A special railcar is sourced from the SNCF and the Panther is rushed to Germany. After a five day journey the Panther arrives just in time to join the ceremony in Munich at 25 October ​[11]​. The rest is, as they say, history and the image below is a reminder of this special gathering, showing three generations of tanks. A number of photos of this occasion are featured in Jentz’ Germany’s Panther tank (p. 79) ​[6]​.

From left to right: Leopard 2(A0), Panther #211, Leopard 1A3.

In the years after, Panther #211 makes many a public appearance. Apparently, it also starred in the 1991 movie La neige et le feu together with Saumur’s own Königstiger. Moreover, it is a regular runner at the Carrousel de Saumur. Notice that the initial application of Zimmerit has the characteristic M.A.N. texture. During the recent restoration it received the correct M.N.H. textured Zimmerit. A new camouflage scheme was applied with a very bright red component, akin to RAL 8012. Historically, a much darker brown shade of red, Rotbraun RAL 8017, was used.

Another peculiarity is the use of intermediate style track links, interspersed with late links. The intermediate track links are recognizable by the triangular recesses on their Griffleiste (profile bars) ​[12]​. The chevrons on all links have completely worn away. Both tracks have been fitted in reverse, possibly to even out wear. Below are the photos of #211 at the tenth edition of Militracks in Overloon in 2019.

The real “Bretagne” ​[13]​

Let’s have a look at what happened to the real “Bretagne”, if such a Panther even existed at all… 😉 The 1er G.M.R. under the lead of captain Guy Besnier was poorly equipped when they first arrived in Bretagne. Their job was to keep pressure on the German pocket at Saint-Nazaire. When the Forces françaises de l’intérieur (FFI) learned that Besnier was a former tank commandant, they notified him of the large amounts of German armour still present in the Falaise pocket. Besnier was quite interested in taking this opportunity and, after having acquired permission, sent a group of mechanics to Normandy to recover as many tanks as possible. This operation lasted from January to March 1945. Recovery of the vehicles was quite an unsavoury job as in some cases the dead occupants were still to be removed.

A total of 1 Tiger I, 2 Panthers (Ausf. A and G) as well as 11 Panzer IVs, 2 StuGs and 1 Jagdpanzer were recovered. At the same time the 1er G.M.R. is reorganized and renamed to “Escadron Autonome de Chars Besnier“. The Panther G was nicknamed “Dauphine” and, interestingly enough, the Tiger I received the name “Bretagne”.

Very little is known about the second (Ausf. A) Panther other than that it had frequent engine troubles. Only in May 1945 the Tiger I of Escadron Besnier was renamed to “Colmar” and at the same time the second Panther became known as “Bretagne”. In the same month the capitulation of the German forces in Saint-Nazaire is signed, signalling the end of the war for Besnier and his men. On 20 July the Escadron Besnier is integrated into the 6éme Régiment de Cuirassiers as its second squadron. The 6th Cuirassiers is then sent to Germany. Where they stay at Baumholder barracks and later also in Morbach as part of the French occupation force.

The salient detail is that real Panther “Bretagne” still exists today. According to a volunteer at the Musée de Blindés, by the name Christophe Mialon, the Panther with Fgst.Nr. 152451 now located at the Overlord museum in Coleville-sur-Mer served under Besnier. According to the same source the Panther was retired from service in 1955 after which it became a range target at the ETBS. Several shell impacts stemming from its period as range target can still be distinguished on the glacis and turret. The turret of Bretagne has been used to restore Panther #256, still residing at Musée de Blindes.

I’ll conclude this post with this video of the real “Bretagne” by Panzer Picture:

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