Panzer IV: Nazi Germany’s Underdog Tank

The Panzerkampfwagen IV was overshadowed by the Panther and Tiger but was too indispensable to replace

The Panther and Tiger tanks capture the public’s imagination due to the devastation they meted out against Allied and Soviet armour even when Nazi Germany was facing defeat from 1943 onwards. While the lethality and toughness of these two vehicles were difficult to argue against, their complexity and cost made it impractical for them to completely displace their predecessor: the Panzerkampfwagen (Pzkpfw, or Panzer) IV medium tank.

Designed by Krupp in 1936, early Panzer IVs were armed with short barrelled 75mm KwK (Kampfwagen Kanone = lit. ‘tank gun’) 37 L/24 low velocity howitzers. (The number after the L was indicative of the number of calibres to be multiplied to give barrel length; in this case 24x75mm = 1.8m). 7.92 mm MG34 machine guns were included for suppressing opposing troops. (All Panzer IV models had a co-axial MG 34; excepting the ausf [ausführung – model] B and C, they also mounted a second, hull mounted MG34 for the radio operator). These vehicles were intended for demolishing fortifications and anti-tank guns with high explosive rounds; Germany’s choice for dealing with opposing armoured vehicles was to be the more diminutive Panzer III armed with a 37mm KwK 36 L/45 gun.

Apart from armoured fighting vehicles and artillery, Krupp’s manufacturing portfolio included railway stock. A leaf spring based road wheel bogie design modelled on railcars was adapted for the Panzer IV’s locomotion. While the road wheel design was pretty basic compared to the contemporary Panzer III’s torsion bar suspension, they were faster to change and less likely to trap mud than the interleaved arrangement found on the even more advanced Panther and Tiger tanks. On the other hand, the narrow tracks of the Panzer IV – 360mm wide on the ausf A – E and 400mm wide from the ausf. F onwards – could do little to prevent the vehicle from struggling in the thick mud and snow encountered in the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa in 1941. This problem was ratified with the fitting of track extensions known as Ostketten (Eastern Tracks), but they tended to shear off when the tank made tight turns or brushed against obstacles. A further fix entailed the addition of chevrons on the Panzer IV’s tracks for added traction.

During the early years of the Nazis’ conquests of western Europe (except England), the Panzer III, teamed up with the snub cannon armed Panzer IV proved to be adequate against enemies who were not prepared for facing Blitzkrieg warfare. Neither of these German tanks had the best armour protection or anti-armour weapons, but their speed and the proficiency of the Panzer crews more than compensated in leading the triumphant advances through France, Holland, the Balkans and North Africa. All of this changed during the invasion of the Soviet Union. After recovering from the initial shock of Hitler’s assault, the Soviets started introducing the menacing T-34/76 tank and the heavier KV-1 in increasing quantities. The Panzer III, by now armed the 50mm KwK 38 L/42 or KwK 39 L/60 gun, was completely outclassed by both these Russian beasts. The Panzer IV’s short barrelled cannon could penetrate the new Soviet tanks’ hide — but only if the German vehicle survived closing in at point blank range for a flanking or rear shot. The Commonwealth armies in North Africa were also beginning to receive larger quantities of Sherman tanks – inferior to the T-34 in armour protection but still more than a match for the Panzer III.

Since the Panzer III chassis was too small to be fitted with a larger gun — unless they were built as turretless Sturmgeschütz III assault guns — the Panzer IV was the logical choice for an armament upgrade. The Panzer IV ausf F2 replaced the low velocity KwK 37 L/24 with the long barrelled KwK 40 L/43 high velocity cannon, which could send an armour piercing shell downrange at 740m/s (2428 fps). The ausf G soon followed, featuring the same gun but with a double baffle muzzle brake granting more recoil reduction than the F2’s single baffle version.

The ausf H was the most produced version of the Panzer IV, with 3774 being produced from July 1943 to summer 1944 – compared to 1687 ausf Gs from May 1942 – June 1943. It featured as standard two improvements which were already appearing on later production ausf Gs: the L/48 version of the KwK 40 main gun and 5mm thick turret and hull steel side skirts (or ‘spaced armour’). The skirts were intended to prematurely detonate shaped charged warheads. This variant also saw the application of zimmerit paste to most of the tank’s vertical surfaces to impede the application of magnetic contact mines. Since the full suite of spaced armour altered the Panzer IV’s appearance significantly, it was often mistaken for the meatier Tiger tank from a distance. In response to Germany’s shortage of raw materials and the need to speed up production time, the ausf J was a poor man’s downgrade of the ausf H. This final model of the Panzer IV substituted the turret’s power traverse motor for an extra fuel cell; many of these vehicles used wire mesh hull side skirts known as ‘Thoma shields’ to save on metal.

Since the more famous Panzer VI Tiger tank was only available in a few separate heavy tank battalions, the long gun armed Panzer IV represented the most powerful tank available to the Germans in respectable quantities that could challenge and defeat the T-34 on the Eastern Front in 1942. The Panzer IV’s intended replacement, the Panzer V Panther, enjoyed superior ballistic protection and long range firepower with its sloping armour and superlative KwK 42 L/70 gun – but most Panzer regiments would be very fortunate if they could replace even half their allocated Panzer IVs with Panthers. Aside from the easier to change roadwheel arrangements, the Panzer IV was mechanically more reliable than the Panther, Tiger or King Tiger, while its lighter weight made it less demanding on fuel. The Panzer IV’s smaller size and slightly shorter length of its main gun accorded a manoeuvrability advantage over its larger cousins in urban warfare. The Panzer IV’s chassis was also widely adapted for dozens of support and specialist vehicles like the Nashorn (Rhino) tank destroyer, four types of mobile anti aircraft platforms (Möbelwagen, Wirbelwind, Ostwind, Kugelblitz), Hummel self propelled howitzer, StuG IV assault gun and the Brummbär siege cannon.

As a member of the losing side in World War 2, the Panzer IV outlasted the Panther and Tiger in post war service outside of Germany. The last Panzer IV ausf Js to see action were used as static pill boxes by the Syrian Arab Army against Israel as late as 1967.

Dysfunctional middle aged man. Biographer on weapons of death.

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