The Panther: a British view

Among the great collection of AFVs at the Tank Museum in Bovington, United Kingdom there is a vehicle that is often described as one of the best tanks of the Second World War. This tank is better known as the Panzerkampfwagen ‘Panther’ 1. Germany produced over 6000 Panthers during the war. The majority of these were assembled at one of the assembly firms Machninenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg (M·A·N), Machinenfrabrik Niedersachen-Hannover (M.N.H.) or Daimler-Benz 2. The Panther in The Tank Museum, however, wasn’t produced during the war. Instead it was produced post-war under British supervision. In this post I’ll dive into the history of British evaluation of the Panther and look at how and why the British produced their own Panthers.

An interesting beast

With the Panther, the Wehrmacht fielded an efficient weapon system combining mobility and firepower. Even though such a combination came at the cost of weak side-armour, the Panther could withstand almost anything with its 80 mm thick – and efficiently angled at 55° – glacis plate. Thanks to Speer’s effort in streamlining Germany’s armament industry it could be build in large numbers. Its gun, Rheinmetall’s 7,5 cm K.w.K. L/70, could achieve hits at over 1000 metres and thanks to its long barrel projectiles could reach high muzzle velocities (v0) of up to 1120 m/s3. Although the Panther’s baptism of fire at Kursk in July 1943 was a great disaster (many were total write-offs even before the battle began due to engine fires and other malfunctions) many of its teething issues were resolved. Some serious issues remained to plague the Panther throughout the production run however, such as the weak final drives.

Evaluation by Allies

Already during the war had the Panther sparked the Allied force’s interest. First and foremost Allies wanted to learn how to efficiently deal with this new threat on the battlefield. Additionally, by studying the vehicle thoroughly, new and interesting technology could be copied and fielded against the enemy. The Russians were the first to lay hands on a specimen and it didn’t take long before they shot it to pieces on the firing ranges. Details of these tests were relayed to the United States and the United Kingdom both of which were able to conduct similar ballistic trials later. The British conducted their first trials using a Panther Ausf. D (Fgst.Nr. 213101 produced by M.N.H. in June 1943) captured by the Russians 4. During trials in 1944 it had its gun removed and metal ballast plates installed around the sides to simulate full combat weight. Trials on this vehicle were cut short due to an engine fire caused by a back-fire [2]. The evaluation report notes trials would continue on a Panther Ausf. A that had since been captured in Normandy. In October and November 1944 some three firing trials took place on a Panther Ausf. G (Fgstl.Nr. 120404 by M·A·N) at the Shoeburyness Range.

British takeover in Hannover

Well within the British occupation zone was the city of Hannover which also coincidentally accommodated one of the three major Panther assembly plants; Maschinenfrabrik Niedersachsen Hannover (M.N.H.). The city was overrun by the British 9th army in April 1945 [3]. After the complete Germam surrender one month later, the  British occupation army British Army Of the Rhine (BAOR) settled down in the British zone in Germany. One of the units that occupied Hannover was the 823rd Armoured Troops Workshop of the REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers). They were stationed in the Hanomag factory in Hannover from 8 June 1945. After a short stay this unit moved to a gun factory in Laatzen, south of Hannover, on 29 June5.

Laatzen was one of the plants supplying sub-assemblies for the Panther tank among which were tracks and various other small components as well as gun tubes [3]. The plant was a mess when the unit arrived there as forced labourers tore the place apart after their release. Components completed at Laatzen were transported to the Linden works where Panther tanks were assembled. Both Laatzen and Linden were subsidiaries of the M.N.H. firm which had been established in 1939 purely for the purpose of armament production. Its headquarters were located in Hannover-Wülfel [4].

In August 1945 the workshop unit, under command of Captain W. J. Hadlow, received orders to build as many Panthers as possible from the remnants on the Linden assembly line. During 1945 the M.N.H. assembly lines had been targetted twice at 14 and 28 March [5]. Nevertheless, the most of the Panther’s assembly lines show only minor damage. The roof of one of the building did, however, collapse. In an interview after the war two of the former directors noted that after the last raid machine work was no longer possible due to power outage [3].

Inspection of the damage to the assembly line caused by bombing raids. The roof together with an overhead gantry cranes has collapsed
Assembly by the British at Laatzen

Continuing our story; Hadlow quickly realised that due to the bombing damage the original assembly line was of no use. Therefore parts6 from the Linden works were scavenged and transported to Laatzen where a small assembly line was put together. From these remaining parts on the assembly line 21 complete vehicles could be assembled: 9 Panthers7 and 12 Jagdpanthers. Since no assembly instructions for these vehicles could be found whatsoever, a former foreman was recruited. The foreman on his turn assembled as small army of former workers. [6]

The finished Panthers were tested according to the official German guidelines on the nearby heath, driven by REME drivers. Standard quality control procedures required each chassis to be run for 15 km – without turret mounted – to ensure the proper functioning of all automotive parts. After mounting the turret, which followed its own QC trajectory, the complete tank was driven for another 50 to 60 km [7]. The assembly of the vehicles was completed by spring 1946. No tools were mounted to the external tool brackets on complete vehicles nor were any machine guns installed. All vehicles received a coat of camouflage paint available at the assembly line. Most likely this boiled down to a single coat of Olivgrün (RAL 6003). Hadlow had small plaques engraved and welded to the glacis plates of all vehicles to commemorate the completion of these British built Panthers. Each plaque indicates the REME unit’s details and the vehicle’s production number. [6]

Engraved plaque. This one belongs to vehicle number 8 in Bovington.

From valuable asset…

One of the trials conducted with the brand new Panthers was aimed at comparing the Panther to British AFVs of the time. Two Panthers, two Jagdpanthers and one captured Bergepanther would all undergo the standard British AFV acceptance trials. It was quickly realized that due to the Panther’s frequent mechanical failures it would be impossible to complete the complete trial. Trials were halted after the last working Panther damaged its transmission during a hill climbing test8. All other Panthers had already been cannibalised for spare parts or had broken down. The conclusive report dated February 1948 notes that “very little information of any value was obtained” the reason named for this was the “general mechanical unreliability of the Panther and JagdPanther tanks” [8].

The other of Hadlow’s Panther tanks were used for various other purposes. One of them was used in a study on crew ergonomics of German tanks [9]. The report dated December 1947 includes two photos of the Panther used during the trial.

At some point during the trials a number of vehicles was stationed at military a base (this could be at the Hohne ranges) in Germany to perform trials. A series of photos shows four of the Panthers and some five Jagdpanthers lined up near military barracks. These photos reveal what looks like the application of a camouflage scheme. A dark stripe can be discerned, running from the turret to the lower hull on some vehicles. Possibly, surpluses of Dunkelgelb and Rotbraun have been used to achieve this. A high quality scan posted on Facebook by The Tank Museum of a British Panther photographed on the Putlos ranges in May 19469 also shows a similar paint application.

 

…to the scrapyard

After intensive evaluation of the Panthers many of the vehicles were scrapped or expended as hard targets on firing ranges in Germany and the UK. In June 1948 the A39 Tortoise prototype  P5 – “Adventure” conducted live firing trials on at least one REME Panther at the Hohne ranges. The Tortoise’s QF 32-pounder penetrated the Panther’s armour frontally at 1350 yards (1235 metres) [10]. A photo of the aftermath of a ballistic test on a REME Panther was published in Panther: External appearance and design changes (p. 153) [7].

A small lot of the Panthers was taken to the United Kingdom and that is how Panther No. 4 ended up at the Hardwick scrapyard. This vehicle was bought by Mr. Flick and subsequently restored to running condition at a maintenance facility of the Bundeswehr – photos of this Panther running were published in the Wheels & Tracks magazine number 11. More recently this Panther was covered in the media when it was confiscated by the police in 2015 under the suspicion that this and other items were held without a permit.

Panther No.4 leaves the scrapyard by trailer in pretty bad shape

In 2000 the Weald foundation (formerly Sd.Kfz foundation) acquired two Jagdpanthers, one of which is a REME post-war built specimen. It carries Fgst.Nr. 303110 and was recovered from a British army range in northern Germany. [11] It’s interesting to note that this very Jagdpanther is visible on a photo taken at M.N.H. Linden works after the war where it is shown together with Fgst.Nr. 303112 (see: Panzer Tracts 9-3 page 9-3-77). The second Jagdpanther (Fgst.Nr. 303086) owned by the foundation was recovered from Pirbright ranges, UK. This Panther was dubbed more suitable for restoration than the REME one and was subsequently restored to running order using the engine of the Panther at Overloon. Supposedly, the Jagdpanther at Pirbright served as a target tug, but was destroyed after the engine caught fire [12]. Restoration of the REME Jagdpanther is being planned [13].

Panther No. 6 was displayed at the Shrivenham Study Collection before it was transferred to the Wehrtechnische Studie Sammlung (WTS), Koblenz where it was extensively restored. The vehicle currently resides in a depot at the Wehrtechnische Dienststelle 41, Trier. Finally, the last REME Panther I’m aware of is No. 8 which nowadays resides at the Tank Museum [14]. In a later post we will have a closer look at that particular vehicle including a walk-around.

References

[1]
T. L. Jentz, Germany’s Panther Tank. Schiffer Pub Limited, 1995.
[2]
Fighting Vehicles Proving Establishment, “FIELD TRIALS REPORT ON GERMAN PANTHER (PZ.KW.V),” British Army, 1391, 1944.
[3]
F. Köhler, “Die Fertigung von Kettenfahrzeugen bei der Firma M.N.H. in Hannover von 1939 – 1945,” Verein der Freunde und Förderer der Wehrtechnischen Studiensammlung Koblenz e.V., 2007. [Online]. Available: https://www.vffwts.de/artikel/die-fertigung-von-kettenfahrzeugen-bei-der-firma-mnh-in-hannover-von-1939-1945.html. [Accessed: 10-Nov-2018].
[4]
D. R. Higgins, Jagdpanther vs SU-100. Osprey Publishing, 2014.
[5]
“U.S.S.B.S Tank Industry Report,” Secretary of War, Jan. 1947.
[6]
D. Fletcher, “British Panthers,” Wheels & Tracks, vol. 62, pp. 16–25, 1998.
[7]
R. MacDougall and M. Block, Panther: external appearance & design changes. Abteilung 502, 2016.
[8]
Fighting Vehicles Proving Establishment, “PANTHER – PERFORMANCE TRAILS,” British Army, 1946.
[9]
Motion study wing, “MOTION STUDIES OF GERMAN TANKS,” British Army, 61, 1947.
[10]
“A39 Tortoise Heavy Assault Tank,” Armour In Focus, 1998. [Online]. Available: http://www.armourinfocus.co.uk/a39/a39txt.htm. [Accessed: 02-May-2018].
[11]
M. Gibb, “Weald Foundation: Jagdpanther 411 Restoration – Part I,” The Daily Bounce, 16-Feb-2019. [Online]. Available: https://thedailybounce.net/museums-events-historical/historical/weald-foundation-jagdpanther-411-restoration-part-i/. [Accessed: 22-Feb-2019].
[12]
“Early v. Late War Panther & burning easily,” Axis History Forum, 23-Sep-2005. [Online]. Available: https://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?p=770971&sid=dd1b54ec06ef87101b0f98618f17abab#p770971. [Accessed: 22-Feb-2019].
[13]
M. Gibb, “Jagdpanther – Planning the restoration of the Foundation’s second Wanne (Hull),” The Weald Foundation, 28-Jun-2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.wealdfoundation.org/Inside-Track/11419-/Jagdpanther—Planning-the-restoration-of-the-Foundations-second-Wanne-Hull. [Accessed: 22-Feb-2019].
[14]
“Sd Kfz 171 Panzerkampfwagen V Ausf G (E1949.338),” The Tank Museum. [Online]. Available: http://www.tankmuseum.org/museum-online/vehicles/object-e1949-338.