August 04, 2020
By Neal S Shera
In the 75 years since its gun fell silent, ordnance inventory designation number Sonderkraftfahrzeug (Sd.Kfz.) 171 the Panzerkampfwagen Mark V, commonly called the Panther tank, has been heavily debated in regards to its level of success. Many have called it the progenitor of the modern tank, or even the best tank of World War II. Others though have seen it as yet another waste of valuable resources by the German Army, and an example of why they lost. Now, this story will likely not end the debate. This is merely an attempt to give it a pertinent evaluation. So, let’s compare the Panther to what many consider to actually be the best tank of the war, the American M4 Sherman.
The origins of both designs are found in the latter half of 1940, but for very different reasons. The U.S. Army then realized while their new Medium Tank M3 was still on the drawing board that it was already an outdated design. A suitable replacement medium tank was urgently needed. The new design would mount the 75mm main gun in a fully traversable turret, rather than in the hull like the M3. While the M3 had many good features, the hull mounted 75mm gun would prove to be a major shortcoming.
During this same time period the Germans had learned hard lessons at the 1940 Battle of Arras during the invasion of France. It was there German tanks first came up against the heavily armored British Matildas IIs against which their 20mm and 37mm guns had proven useless. Based on their recent combat experience a request was put in for newer tank designs. Initially the German high command was interested in a heavy breakthrough tank.
By the end of 1941 however, while the Sherman was cruising into production the Germans were receiving another harsh reality check when first encountering the Soviet T-34 and KV-1. The advanced nature of the Soviet tanks led to the Germans overhauling their medium tank designs. In early 1941 a German prototype known as the VK 30.01 would have been very comparable to the Sherman. It weighed around 30 tons, was of similar speed, and was armed with the 75mm the Panzer MK IV would carry for the rest of the war. The Germans now realized though that their medium tanks might have to face Soviet heavy tanks, and so they needed the ability to stand on their own. This led to another round of designs and the VK 30.02 received further alterations to become the Panther.
Now, everyone wants to compare these two tanks, both individually and strategically. However, since there is already a vast amount of material published on the subject, I’m only going to share the Cliff Notes. Yes, Germany produced only 6,000+ Panthers verses the 50,000+ Sherman M4 models. Keep in mind though, that’s the production capacity of the entire US against the equivalent of one of its larger states. In terms of production costs when compared in U.S. dollars a Sherman was $33,000 while a Panther was $46,000. So, which would you think would be the better value? Germany also had less access to resources, so it simply couldn't compete with the US in tank production.
On paper, the Panther holds an advantage in almost every category. The Panther weighed 45 tonnes compared to the Sherman’s 33 tonnes. Yet it had a much better power to weight ratio, lower ground pressure, and was more than 8 mph faster on roads. This made it more mobile in all conditions of terrain. Obviously the Panther was shielded in not just thicker frontal armor (110mm max vs 76mm), but it was also better sloped. One commonly misunderstood fact is that although the Panther hull armor was 80mm thick, it had an effectiveness of 138mm due to its 55 degree sloping. Since the vaunted Tiger had only 100mm thick armor, with no sloping, it was actually less protected in the front. Again there are numerous sources that go into further detail.
When it comes to the main gun, you have to understand the reasons for arming the tanks so differently. When the Sherman was designed the U.S. doctrine focused on its tanks supporting the infantry, not fighting other tanks. At this time the US Army had an entirely different class of armored vehicle, called Tank Destroyers (TD), which were meant to engage and destroy enemy armor.
The infantry needed a tank firing an effective high explosive round, which due to those pesky laws of physics, come from lower velocity guns. That is why the M4 Sherman would receive a 40 caliber 75mm gun while the M10 Tank Destroyer mounted the high velocity 52 caliber 76mm gun. While the high velocity 76mm gun was a substantially better tank killer, the lower velocity 75mm gun on the Sherman fired a much more effective high explosive shell.
Of course the Tank Destroyers were never were you needed them, so the 76mm gun did eventually end up being mounted in some M4s to provide a more effective anti-armor capability. 76mm armed M4s would then be mixed in with units of 75mm armed M4s to provide a bit more firepower.
The Germans didn’t have that luxury. As their primary focus was the Eastern Front, they needed most of their tanks to be capable of countering any armor they faced. With the Soviets steadily improving their tanks the Germans needed to be able to deal with not just the current threats they faced, but future ones still on the drawing boards. This is why the Panther was armed with the long barreled Kampfwagonkanone, or KwK 42, which was a 70 caliber 75mm gun. This gun was just over 17 feet long. In comparison the Sherman’s 75mm measured just 9.8 feet while the 76m was 13 feet in length. The long barreled German 75mm had a very high velocity allowing Panthers to kill Shermans at a full kilometer.
The Sherman was undoubtedly the more flexible of the two designs, as proven by the multitude of variants that were created from it. Yet it was a luxury the Allies could afford. Also, surviving Shermans would be sold to many other nations after the war. These were often upgraded even further by their new owners. That fact is wielded like a cudgel by those who support the Sherman as the better tank.
The Germans on the other hand, had to have a more focused design towards a more singular task, killing other tanks. German tanks couldn’t match their opposites numerically, so they had to be more effective tank killers. This the Panther did very well. Also, most of the surviving Panthers were scrapped at the end of the war, and had no chance of further refits, so this is a moot point to claim.
Yet in arguments like those concerning the Tiger tank, the Panther had one intangible factor to it, the crew inside. Because both tanks had a reputation of keeping their crews alive, this became a decisive factor in how they performed. Diving through history books it’s easy to find cases when green crews drove their Panthers into combat. Those Panthers performed poorly against the Sherman, and therefore its advantages were thrown away. Yet, when a crew did gain the necessary experience to maximize the tanks capabilities, you had a nightmare combination.
One need to look no further than Ernst Barkmann with his 82 confirmed kills, mostly made in Panther tanks, to see what this machine was capable of. He is mostly noted for being a foil to the Americans in Normandy, akin to what Michael Wittmann was to the British. His central exploits started on July 8th, 1944 in the area around Saint Lo, in the middle of hedgerow country. Here he fought elements of the US 9th and 30th Infantry Divisions, along with the 3rd Armored Division.
He knocked out his first Sherman that day. As just one of many Eastern Front veterans, he had to understand the limitations of his foe use them to his advantage. Namely spot the enemy first, and keep them at a distance. By the 12th he knocked out 3 more, but had to turn in his tank, No 424, to the workshop due to damage from an anti-tank gun. He used another Panther to recover four Panthers cut off from German forces, and also rescued some captured German soldiers. Barkmann, like other panzer vets, would often dismount and get ahead of his tank to survey the area ahead. This allowed him to become like a fox hunting the countryside. He added another 3 Shermans to his record during this endeavor. Soon afterwards, Panther 424 was returned to him. On the 26th his tank received engine damage and was receiving repairs near the village of Le Lorey.
It was on the 27th, while still being repaired that Barkmann received news of an American armored column approaching his position. He knew what he had to do, and nursed his damaged tank under a grove of oak trees. He had to hide from those pesky Allied strike aircraft as his engine deck's thin armor was his weakest point. Having surveyed the likely approach, his Panther was nearly surgically angled to deflect shots from the likeliest avenues. Then he waited in ambush.
Elements of the 32 Armored Regiment drove into what would be called Barkmann’s Corner. Calmly advancing down a French country road before the lead tank was hit out of nowhere. While it “brewed up” subsequent tanks in the column tried to get quickly past it to engage in the fight. Barkmann and his crew calmly took each one in turn. Unlike Russia, ambushing Shermans in Normandy was like bowling with bumper lanes. The hedgerows prevented easy flanking.
At this point the burning tanks in the front of the column helped obscure tanks in the rear. But Barkmann wouldn't be denied. Although the Americans tried shooting at every possible hiding spot, 75mm AP shells kept coming at them. This included calling in air support to remove the lone Panther halting their advance. At the end of the day the Panther still held the corner.
Little did the American gunners know they had hit the Panther, but just not hard enough. It did need a few field repairs in between the exchanges of fire. In the early morning hours of the next day Barkmann slipped his broken tank out of the area, leaving behind 9 destroyed Shermans and multiple other destroyed vehicles before the Americans had another chance to pounce.
July 30th 1944: Panther 424 caught fire while towing another damaged Panther out of the Granville area, and received a fiery funeral, but not before adding another 6 Shermans to its record. Barkmann would receive the Knights Cross for his actions around Saint Lo. He would command a Panther tank during the Ardennes offensive and later fight against the Soviets in 1945.
Barkmann’s story is one of the more colorful, but it is not uncommon when it comes to German tank crews. Their tanks kept them alive for 2 years in many cases. That made a huge difference in the combat effectiveness of their perspective units. Panther 424 lasted 22 days in combat conditions, and kept its crew alive in spite of being damaged several times, and receiving multiple hits.
Barkmann’s American counterparts had an average life expectancy of 6 weeks in their tanks, going through 2-4 Shermans in the process. The US 3rd Armored Division would arrive in Normandy with 232 M4 Shermans, and suffer a loss rate of 580% by V-E Day. Another noteworthy point is that every time a Sherman was knocked out of action it averaged 1 crewman killed and another wounded. So, the Sherman may have had a lot of things going for it, but it never had a focus of keeping the occupants alive, because there was always more.
It’s safe to say that this argument will likely never end, as there is just as much emotion as there are facts in support of either tank. It mostly depends on the lens by which you look at the tank. You can see the difference between the strategic level and the combat level. The Panther tank didn’t win the war, but it performed well enough in destroying enemy tanks, and often kept its crew alive. Isn’t that the only measure we need from this machine? Filmmaker Sam Fuller, himself a combat veteran of World War II, said, “The only glory in war is surviving.”