Armored Champion: The Top Tanks of World War II (2015)
Tiger Rampant: 1943
THE CAMPAIGNS OF 1943 saw the continuing contest of the Red Army’s quantity approach versus the Wehrmacht’s quality approach. After a gestation of two years, the German army deployed a new generation of tanks in the summer of 1943. Of the two types, the Tiger heavy tank had the most influence.
THE ADOLF HITLER PANZER PROGRAM
The continuing shortages of tanks on the Russian Front in 1942 led Hitler to demand that more resources be put into armored vehicle manufacture. In September 1942 he established a goal of 1,200 AFVs per month by the end of 1944, of which 800 were to be tanks—600 Panthers and 50 Tigers. To put this in perspective, German tank production in September 1942 was 325 tanks per month, plus a further 120 assault guns and tank destroyers, for a total of 445. The new Reichsminister for the Armaments Industry, Albert Speer, began planning the Adolf Hitler Panzerprogramm. One aspect of this program was the establishment of a Hauptausschusses (main committee) in each of the key armament industries to better coordinate production of subcomponents and final assembly. The first head of the Hauptausschusses Panzer-wagen und Zugmaschinen was Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, who most likely was chosen for his close connections to Hitler. It was not an ideal choice, as Porsche tended to favor unorthodox designs and lacked a practical appreciation for the suitability of designs for mass production.1 Due to his poor performance, he was relieved of this post and replaced by Walter Rohland, a steel industry executive, and subsequently by Stiele von Heydekampf from Henschel.
The panzer force in Russia remained of mixed composition in 1943, with the PzKpfw IV and its long 75mm KwK 40 gun, as seen in the foreground, becoming the predominant type. In the background is a pair of PzKpfw III Ausf. M with the long 50mm gun. Although this gun was capable of knocking out the T-34, it was not as versatile as the long 75mm gun in high-explosive throwing power. All these tanks have the new skirts to defend them against the ubiquitous Soviet antitank rifles.
One of the main reasons for the difficulties in reaching the ambitious production goals was the decision by Hitler and the senior leadership to favor heavy tanks. Hitler was heavily influenced by Porsche in his views on optimal panzer design. Kurt Arnoldt, the chief technical engineer of Henschel and one of the principals behind the Tiger tank, later recalled that Porsche was:
a personal friend of Hitler and Speer . . . he had more influence on German tank design policy than anyone else. Porsche traded on his great reputation as the designer of the Volkswagen to gate-crash on the AFV industry. A capable engineer in many ways, but extremely Nazi. He allowed his technical views to be influenced by his political views. He was jealous and intolerant . . . He maintained that light tanks were no good and was always urging Hitler and Speer to allow him to build an even bigger tank with an even bigger gun.
Arnoldt argued that if Hitler and the senior leadership had followed the advice of professional tank engineers such as Heinrich Kniepkamp, head of the Waffenamt’s weapons testing office (Waffen-prüfwesen 6), Germany might have taken an alternate course. Instead of shifting its limited production resources to heavy and expensive tanks, they could have had a tank force based around more sensible 30-ton tank designs that would have been better than the T-34 and more suited to mass production in large quantities.2 What is often forgotten about the Panzerprogramm was the enormous sums of money needed for the capital improvements and production facilities for the new tank designs.
The new PzKpfw IV Ausf. H that entered production in April 1943 kept the classic German turret layout with the commander afforded a vision cupola.
On 17 January 1943, Hitler held a conference with Speer and senior industry leaders, declaring that the September goal was inadequate in view of the tremendous losses around Stalingrad and insisting that the goals be increased to 1,500–2,100 armored fighting vehicles per month by the end of 1944. The program, released on 23 January 1943, provided detailed objectives from March 1943 through March 1944 and aimed to raise overall AFV production from 600 monthly in January 1943 to 1,100 by March 1944; maximum production in 1944 was expected to reach 1,500 AFVs per month. There was an underlying degree of desperation in the planning since German intelligence agencies estimated that German AFV production in 1943 would only be 12,000 versus the 68,000 of the United States, United Kingdom, and USSR. A special industrial authorization of “panzer priority” was given to the industry, which Hitler acknowledged “even if these measures adversely affect other important branches of the armament industry for a time.”
German tank strength on the Russian Front continued to plummet through March 1943 due to the heavy losses suffered following the retreat from Stalingrad. From a peak strength of 2,758 tanks (1,710 operational) in December 1942, the Ostheer tank strength fell to only 1,686 tanks (895 operational) in March 1943. The readiness rate for tanks in the Ostheer had fallen to only 41 percent in February 1943, not as bad as in 1942 but still quite alarming. A major push began in the late winter and early spring to increase the strength in Russia for the upcoming summer offensive. An important part of this effort was the plan to field a powerful new generation of tanks to face the Soviet hordes.
Another major change in 1943 was the shift to produce more AFVs other than tanks. Guderian had attempted to monopolize industrial resources for tank production to the exclusion of other AFVs aimed at infantry support, notably assault guns (Sturmgeschütz). Germany was the only major army in 1942 that did not have tanks assigned to the infantry support mission; they were all concentrated in the panzer divisions. The trend in all other major armies was to devote a fraction of the tank force to infantry support in order to provide these divisions with greater offensive power.
The failed Porsche Tiger was reconfigured as a tank destroyer with a fixed casemate and deployed to the Kursk battlefield as the Ferdinand. They were rebuilt after the Kursk fighting and renamed as the Elefant after Porsche had fallen out of favor. They were deployed both on the Russian Front and in Italy. This surviving Elefant was recovered by the U.S. Army in Italy in 1944.
The German policy began to change after 1941 with the advent of the T-34 and KV. The new 75mm PaK 40 was a big and heavy weapon, weighing 1.4 tons. As a result, it was difficult for the crew to manhandle and required mechanized traction. Many infantry officers preferred a mechanized solution, the tank destroyer (Panzerjäger). This led to the construction of the first generation of Marder tank destroyers on obsolete light tank chassis: the French Lorraine (Marder I), German PzKpfw II (Marder II), and Czech PzKpfw 38(t) (Marder III).
In parallel to the Panzerprogramm was an Infanterie programm. It did not have as much priority as the tank effort, but did lead to greater emphasis on providing the infantry with mechanized support in the form of the StuG III assault gun due to its exemplary role in the Russian Front fighting. It was not only excellent for providing direct high-explosive fire support for the infantry, but also proved to be an ideal dual-role vehicle with excellent antitank capability. As a result, by 1943 it had become one of the principal types of German AFVs. Furthermore, its combat effectiveness was enhanced by its durability; it was the most reliable German AFV on the Russian Front.
The PzKpfw VI Tiger Heavy Tank
The German army was in the process of developing a variety of new tanks before 1941, but most of these projects were shelved in the face of the T-34 threat.4 The most significant of these programs was the Henschel VK3001(H), a 1938 scheme to build a heavy tank to support the infantry on breakthrough missions. The design offered heavier armor than the contemporary PzKpfw IV tanks, with frontal armor of 50mm, and a heavier weight, going from the 20 tons of the PzKpfw IV to about 30 tons on the new design. Firepower was not especially impressive, since the short 75mm gun on the PzKpfw IV was deemed more than adequate for the mission. A short 105mm gun was also under consideration. In 1939, a Porsche design was added to the program and had the armor increased to 75–80mm. The VK3001(P) also used a novel propulsion system of two conventional gasoline engines powering electric final drives via electric generators, a concept pioneered on French tanks of 1917–18 such as the St. Chamond and Char 2C. By the time the prototypes entered testing, the Waffenamt had second thoughts about the requirement after the encounters with French and British tanks in the summer of 1940. The next iteration in May 1941, the VK3601, envisioned a tank with 100mm armor and a powerful gun capable of penetrating 100mm armor: the revolutionary new squeeze-bore 75mm Gerät 725.
On 26 May 1941, Hitler held a conference of weapons designers to discuss future requirements. Porsche promoted the idea of heavy tanks serving as the spearheads of panzer divisions, with about twenty per division. As a result, Hitler ordered the start of yet another new heavy tank program, the VK4501, with competing designs from Henschel and Porsche. The Henschel design benefited from the firm’s earlier work on 30-ton tanks and relied on a conventional power-train. The Porsche design was based around their hybrid gasoline/electric drive-train. By this time, the focus of the design had shifted from a breakthrough tank to a powerful battle tank able to destroy enemy heavy tanks such as the French Char B1 bis. The first weapon examined for the design was a new long-barreled 75mm L/70 gun, but in the event a tank gun derivative of the 88mm Flak gun was chosen instead. The encounters with the T-34 and KV tanks in June 1941 put more urgency on the program. The plan was to begin production by the summer of 1942.
Development of the Henschel design was relatively quick since it was based on the earlier designs. However, the army was not happy with the pace of work and the tank program was removed from the family control of Oscar Henschel and turned over to an engineering specialist, Stiele von Heydekampf. The first serial production Tiger I tank was completed in June 1942 but the rate of production was quite slow, with only seventy-seven Tigers completed that year. The Porsche Tiger (P) design proved far more troublesome, in no small measure due to its novel power-train.
A Tiger of schwere 13.Kompanie, Grossdeutschland Division, during the fighting around Kharkov in January 1943.
A Tiger of the schwere 8.Kompanie, 2.SS-Panzer-Division Das Reich under repair during the fighting around Kharkov in the early winter of 1943.
A Tiger of 2.Kompanie, schwere Panzer-Abteilung 505, moves to the front near Orel in the summer fighting on the northern shoulder of the Kursk bulge.
The first production Henschel Tiger I was dispatched to Kummersdorf for field trials. In three weeks of trials, the tank negotiated 960 kilometers of terrain. The tests were carefully watched by Col. Wolfgang Thomale, an experienced panzer officer and the chief of staff of Guderian’s General Inspectorate of the Panzer Troops. In September 1942, there was a scheme to equip two tank detachments for service in North Africa. Thomale was quite pleased with the results, but realistic enough to recognize that lingering teething problems would delay the deployment of the first twenty-five tanks to October 1943 at the earliest.
In contrast to the Henschel Tiger, the testing of Porsche’s Tiger (P) was a complete fiasco and the tank broke down repeatedly, with the engines failing by the 100-kilometer mark.5 Work on the tank was halted in November 1942 due to lingering mechanical unreliability. In view of the tremendous resources already spent on the project, work shifted instead to creating a heavy tank destroyer based on the tank chassis but armed with a longer L/71 version of the 88mm gun in a fixed casemate. Ninety of these “Ferdinands” were completed in the spring of 1943 and earmarked for the summer offensive against the Kursk bulge.
Hitler was impatient with the slow development pace of the Tiger, and the army tried to placate him by deploying small numbers of Tigers before all their teething problems had been solved. The first company of Tigers was rushed into action to the Russian Front near Leningrad. A platoon of four tanks of 1.Kompanie, schwere Panzer-Abteilung 502 was deployed to Leningrad and saw its first action on 29 August 1942. The tanks broke down or became trapped in the boggy terrain. The first real fighting took place on 16 September 1942 against Soviet infantry units of the 2nd Shock Army of the Volkhov Front. Two Tigers were knocked out by antitank guns and one was burned out. Additional Tigers reinforced this unit through the winter of 1942–43. During the Soviet Operation Spark (Iskra) on 18 January 1943, the Tiger tank of one of the company commanders was operating along the Schlusselburg Road when it was hit by antitank gun fire from the 18th Rifle Division and driven off the road into a bog. The crew was killed trying to escape. Senior commanders were informed of the occurrence and they ordered that the tank be recovered. This was done by tanks of the 98th Tank Brigade, and the Tiger was sent to Moscow for further examination.6 A second Tiger was recovered later in the month. This premature deployment had little consequence for German operations on the Leningrad Front but provided Soviet intelligence with their first close look at the new tank. The next Tiger deployment was to Tunisia with elements of schwere Panzer-Abteilung 501 arriving in December 1942, as mentioned in the previous chapter.
The Panther Medium Tank
The tank crisis that erupted in the summer of 1941 after encountering the T-34 and KV led to an army requirement for a fundamentally new tank to overmatch the T-34 in armor, firepower, and mobility.7 A special Panzerkommission was assembled, headed by Col. Sebastian Fichtner of the army’s Waffenamt, that included the heads of all the major tank plants. The commission traveled to the Russian Front in November 1941 to be briefed by Gen. Heinz Guderian on the requirements for a new tank. Guderian stressed the need for a new gun capable of penetrating Soviet tanks beyond the range at which the Soviet 76mm gun could penetrate German armor, along with thicker armor and wider tracks for better mobility in Russian conditions. Two competitive designs were ordered from Daimler Benz and MAN, with the turret developed by Rheinmetall-Borsig. The Daimler Benz design closely resembled the T-34 in layout, while the MAN design adopted sloped armor but with the turret mounted more conventionally in the middle of the hull. At first, Hitler and Reichsminister for Armaments Albert Speer favored the Daimler Benz design. However, an evaluation of the design by the engineers of the Panzer kommission came out strongly in favor of the MAN design. Hitler was convinced by their points and on 13 May 1942 selected the MAN design for the new tank, with the proviso that frontal armor be increased from 60mm to 80mm. The plan was to begin production in December 1942 with the aim of having about 250 tanks ready for the summer 1943 offensive. During a conference in June 1942, Hitler wanted the frontal armor increased even further, to 100mm. In the short term, 80mm was the objective and the 100mm level would have to wait for the next generation, the Panther II.
German designers continued to place great importance on situational awareness for tank commanders. This is an inside view into the cupola of a Panther Ausf. G showing the layout of the vision devices.
A view inside a Panther Ausf. G turret on the loader’s side to the left.
The PzKpfw V Panther tank used a new 75mm KwK 42 L/70 gun with a new generation of projectiles. This long gun was powerful enough to penetrate the T-34 tank frontally even without using tungsten-carbide HVAP ammunition. The hull armor was 80mm at 55 degrees, giving it an effective protection equivalent to 140mm of vertical armor. The gun mantlet on the turret front was a 100mm-thick semicircular cast design. These levels of armor protection made the Panther essentially invulnerable to the T-34’s 76mm gun from the front at normal combat ranges. Although intended to replace medium tanks, its weight of 43 tons was about 20 tons heavier than most existing medium tanks and placed the Panther in the heavy tank category, even if it was not designated as such. The plan was to conduct Panther production at six assembly plants and to reach a monthly output of 475 tanks per month by March 1944; actual production that month was 277 tanks.
Speer was given a demonstration of some of the first serial production Panther tanks at the Grafenwöhr range on 22 February 1943. Although the demonstration went well, staff from the first Panther unit, Panzer-Abteilung 51, noted numerous problems encountered on the early production vehicles, including motor fires, fuel pump failures, weak final drives, transmission problems, and excessive fume buildup in the turret while firing. Speer pointed out that PzKpfw III development had taken two and a half years compared to one year for the Panther, and he thought the progress to date had been extraordinary. Although MAN set out to remedy the many teething problems in the Panther design, these faults would continue to manifest themselves when the tank saw its combat debut during the Kursk offensive in July 1944.
SOVIET TANK DEVELOPMENT IN 1943
The Soviet tank program for 1943 retained its focus on quantity over quality, but made several significant changes in the mix of designs. The KV tank was no longer invulnerable to German antitank guns and continued to be plagued with mechanical problems. As a result, its production was considerably trimmed in favor of the T-34. A program was underway to gradually replace the T-34 with a new type with thicker armor, the T-43. However, it had not entered production at the time of the Kursk battles, and the lessons from this campaign stressed the need for better firepower rather than better armor. The T-70 light tank was widely despised for its puny gun and indifferent automotive performance. However, the automotive production plants where it was assembled could not handle larger tanks. Instead, the new SU-76 assault gun armed with the standard 76mm divisional gun was built on its chassis. The Soviet plants churned out the SU-76 assault gun to the point where it became the second most numerous Soviet AFV type after the T-34. The popular Lend-Lease Valentine tank took over the light tank role.
The Decline of the KV Tank
The KV tank had fallen out of favor in 1942. One of the senior Red Army tank commanders, Gen. Pavel Rotmistrov, described the general attitude:
The difficulty is that while there isn’t much difference in speed between the light T-60 and medium T-34 on the roads, when moving cross-country the light tanks are quickly left behind. The KV heavy tank is already behind and often crushed local bridges which cut off units following behind. Under battlefield conditions, that too often meant that the T-34 alone arrived; the light tanks had difficulty fighting the German tanks anyway and the KVs were still delayed in the rear. It was also difficult to command these companies as they sometimes were equipped with different types of radios or none at all.
Of all the British tanks provided to the Red Army via Lend-Lease, the Valentine was by far the favorite due to its dependability. Virtually the entire Canadian production run of Valentines went to the Soviet Union. In total, some 3,591 Valentines were shipped to the Soviet Union, of which 3,184 arrived. Here a pair of Valentines with the later 6-pounder guns are seen in a barge near Tanuma, Iran, during shipment to the Soviet Union over the Iranian-Soviet frontier.
Although this is a staged propaganda photo, it shows an interesting mixture of T-34 tanks and Lend-Lease British Tetrarch airborne tanks of the 563rd Separate Tank Battalion in operation in the North Caucasus in March 1943. The Red Army received only twenty of these small tanks during the war.
By early 1943, the numerous PzKpfw III tanks captured by the Red Army around Stalingrad were no longer considered well enough armed for front-line use. Instead, Plant No. 37 converted 201 into the SU-76i (I = innostranaya, foreign) using the same F-34 76mm gun as the T-34 tank. The first were delivered in May 1943. This shows the original configuration; after Kursk they received an additional armor shield over the gun.
In an attempt to redeem the KV, the SKB-2 design bureau at Chelyabinsk tried a two-pronged approach. A crash program began on a KV with reduced armor called the KV-1S (S=skorostnoi, speedy), an attempt to decrease the disparity in automotive performance between the KV and the T-34. In April 1942 work also began on the KV-13 in an effort to develop a more compact version of the KV that retained its heavy armor while improving its automotive performance. It was hoped that the KV-13 would be a true universal tank, bridging the gap between medium and heavy tanks.
The KV-1S cut 5 tonnes of weight from the KV by decreasing the side armor from 90mm to 75mm. The power-train of the tank was completely upgraded, including a new clutch, new transmission, and other improvements that helped close the gap in automotive performance with the T-34. A new, lighter turret was introduced that also adopted the German pattern of a three-man crew, freeing the commander of his responsibilities as gunner. Although a vision cupola was introduced, it did not have a hatch so the commander could follow the German practice of fighting with his head outside the tank. The KV-1S was accepted for production on 20 August 1942 and began to be built later in the month alongside T-34s. In spite of its improvements, the Red Army still favored the T-34, and part of the production at Chelyabinsk shifted to the T-34.
Gen. Mikhail Katukov, the tank commander who so skillfully demonstrated the potential of the T-34 tank in the defense of Moscow in October 1941, described his view of the situation at a meeting with Stalin in September 1942:
The T-34 fulfills all our hopes and has proven itself in combat. But the KV heavy tank . . . the soldiers don’t like it. . . . It is very heavy and clumsy and not very agile. It surmounts obstacles with great difficulty. It often damages bridges and becomes involved in other accidents. More to the point, it is equipped with the same 76mm gun as the T-34. This raises the question, to what extent is it superior to the T-34? If the KV had a more potent gun or one of greater caliber, then it might be possible to excuse its weight and other shortcomings.
The KV-13 was yet another attempt to redeem the KV series by modifying it into a smaller and lighter “universal tank.” In the wake of the Kursk fighting, this approach fell out of favor and both the KV-13 and its rival the T-43 were cancelled.
The other attempt to redeem the KV after Kursk was the KV-85, which mounted the D-5T 85mm gun in a turret derived from the KV-13 project. Although the KV-85 was built in small numbers in 1943, the Red Army waited for a thorough redesign before committing to large-scale production. This resulted in the renamed IS-1 tank.
As a temporary solution, KVs were removed from the tank brigades in October 1942 and used instead to form separate heavy tank breakthrough regiments for use by army commanders in assault and infantry support missions. Ironically, the KV-1S, the most nimble of the KV heavy tanks, arrived at a time when heavy armor rather than mobility would have been preferable.
A pair of KV-1 Model 41 tanks go into action on the Kalinin Front in January 1943. By this stage, most KV tanks had been relegated to separate tank regiments for infantry support missions.
Parallel to work on the KV-1S, Chelyabinsk also developed the KV-13. In reality, the KV-13 was a whole new design intended to be as well armored as the KV but as maneuverable as the T-34. The KV-1 design was clearly too large to accomplish these goals, so the designers intended to create a smaller tank. The crew was reduced from five to three: the driver, loader, and the commander/gunner. The KV-13 weighed only 31 metric tons, compared to 42.5 for the KV-1S and 47 for the basic KV-1. The KV-13 was still in development in the summer of 1943 at the time of the Kursk battles. Although it never entered production, it formed the basis for the later IS Stalin heavy tanks.
T-34: Upgrades and Alternatives
The T-34 tanks being manufactured in early 1943 were not significantly different from those manufactured in 1942. There had been several schemes to update the T-34 with significant new features, but all of them were stillborn due to government decisions to concentrate on production quantity over quality. Some modest changes that might have improved automotive and combat effectiveness were developed, but it usually took months to introduce these features into the production lines.
The Red Army recognized it had a problem with the turret layout of the T-34 and the tank commander’s lack of situational awareness. Russian tank officers complained that the T-34 commander had to be a “circus performer,” instructing the driver, aiming the gun, and trying to direct the crew all at the same time. In the summer of 1942, the T-34 design bureau at Nizhni-Tagil developed the T-34S, which had a new three-man turret. The commander was in the rear of the turret with a cupola, though as in the case of the KV-1S there was no hatch. Although the tests were extremely favorable and recommended serial production, this was not undertaken. The T-34S was followed by the T-34M Model 1942, which increased the armor of the tank to 60–80mm on the hull and 58–80mm on the turret. This project also fell by the wayside. In October–November 1942, GABTU instructed the designers at Nizhni-Tagil to examine a more radical improvement of the T-34 as the T-43. This was intended as a “universal tank” like the parallel KV-13 project, meant to bridge the gap between medium and heavy tanks. It continued the features of the T-34S and T-34M, such as the new three-man turret and increased armor; however, it retained the same 76mm gun of the existing T-34. The T-43 was still in the testing phase at the time of the Battle of Kursk in July 1943.
Prior to the Battle of Kursk, the T-43 was the planned replacement for the T-34. After Kursk, the Red Army wanted more firepower, not more armor.
The most common version of the T-34 in 1943 was the type with the Gaika turret. This tank from the Kalinin Front drives past an abandoned German 105mm lFH 18 howitzer. The logs carried on the side of the tank were unditching beams used to extract the tank from deep mud.
The Uralmash tank plant had an enormous press purchased from Germany before the war and used it to produce a different version of the T-34 Gaika turret that was stamped out of armor plate. This particular example is configured as an OT-34 flamethrower tank with the flamethrower nozzle in place of the usual hull machine gun.
The poor ergonomics in the T-34 turret might have been helped by adding better vision devices to the existing Gaika hex-nut turret. A commander’s vision cupola had already been developed in June 1942 but not authorized for production. In the autumn of 1942, the Red Army began steps to copy the British traversable tank periscope, designated as the Mk-4 after the Churchill Mark IV on which it was based. A final version of the commander’s cupola with the Mk-4 was accepted for production at Nizhni-Tagil on 7 June 1943, but the Mk-4 production line was not yet ready. As a result, the new cupola didn’t go into widespread production until the autumn of 1943 after the Kursk battles overwhelmingly demonstrated its urgent need.
One of the worst automotive features of the T-34 was its poor transmission system, which included a clutch in the driver’s compartment connected to a four-speed transmission in the rear via a set of long actuating rods. 9 This system was difficult and tiring to operate, and the driver often required the assistance of the radio operator to help work the clutch, especially on long drives. In 1942, a new clutch and five-speed transmission was developed to improve the drive-train and make it easier to operate. This went into production in 1943 at the Chelyabinsk and Sverdlovsk plants but not at the main Nizhni-Tagil plant, which lacked the necessary new machine tools. Eventually Nizhni-Tagil began assembling tanks with the five-speed gearbox when supplies became available from other plants, but Nizhni-Tagil T-34 tanks continued to receive four-speed gearboxes when the improved five-speed version was not available.
Another critical improvement was the replacement of the Pomon oil-bath air cleaner with the improved Tsiklon (Cyclone) air filter. Although it was approved on 12 June 1942, it was not fitted to new tanks at the main Nizhni-Tagil plant until December 1942 and at Chelyabinsk until January 1943. While better than the Pomon, it still required careful crew attention. During the famous march of the 5th Guards Tank Army to Prokhorovka during the Kursk campaign, tanks had to stop every three to five hours to clean out accumulated dust from the filters. A postwar American report was far more critical:
Wholly inadequate engine intake air cleaners could be expected to allow early engine failure due to dust intake and the resulting abrasive wear. Several hundred miles in very dusty operation would probably be accompanied by severe power loss . . . Centrifugal separation of dirt from air was abandoned several decades ago in America as being very ineffective in motor vehicle operation.10
A quick method of improving the firepower of the T-34 would have been to provide it with tungsten-carbide HVAP ammunition. Priority had been given to the manufacture of HVAP for the 45mm antitank gun, and as a result the 76mm BR-354P round was not completed until April–May 1943. A few rounds may have been issued at the time of the Kursk battles, but it was not in widespread service until October 1943 after the Kursk battles had demonstrated its urgent need.11
Despite the slow pace of introducing long-overdue design improvements, a greater effort was made in 1943 to impose quality control at the tank plants. A new policy was adopted that all T-34 tanks had to undergo a 30-kilometer test at the plant, followed by a 50-kilometer test by military inspectors before the tank would be accepted by the army. In addition, one tank from every hundred was subjected to a 300-kilometer test run, the nominal warranty endurance of the T-34 in 1943. The initial 300-kilometer tests conducted in April 1943 disclosed appalling results—only 10.1 percent of the tanks passed the test. The June 1943 tests were even worse, with only 7.7 percent completing the test.
The technical faults varied from plant to plant. In May 1943, the five plants producing the T-34 were instructed to provide five new T-34 tanks for endurance trials near Kazan. Of the five plants, the T-34s from the UZTM plant in Sverdlovsk had the best results, reaching 1,001 kilometers in 4.9 days of operation before breakdowns; the worst were the T-34s from the Chelyabinsk plant, which reached only 409 kilometers in 2.8 days of operation. The average was 710 kilometers.12 Technical improvements such as the new transmission and air filters, as well as greater attention to quality control, significantly improved the durability of new T-34 tanks, and by December 1943, 83.6 percent of the tanks tested completed the 300-kilometer run.13
The quality control improvements were evident on the battlefield. Combat losses due to mechanical breakdowns decreased from 8.6 percent in 1942 to about 2 percent in the Kursk campaign.14 In the days before the tank clash at Prokhorovka, the 5th Guards Tank Army executed a three-day forced march on 7–9 July totaling 330–380 kilometers, a distance that would have proved debilitating a year earlier.
THE 1943 CAMPAIGNS
The early winter of 1943 was dominated by two large campaigns. The final phase of the Stalingrad campaign ended in early February with the surrender of the German 6.Armee. During the course of this operation, the Red Army launched a series of subsidiary attacks including winter offensives that recaptured Kharkov. The Wehrmacht responded with their Donets campaign that led to the recapture of Kharkov by the 1.SS-Panzer-Division.
The front quieted briefly after early March 1943 as both sides recovered from the heavy winter losses. The Kharkov battle led to the creation of a large salient in the center of the Russian Front around the city of Kursk. For the Germans, this presented an opportunity to encircle a large portion of the Red Army in one of their predictable summer offensives. For the Red Army, the Kursk bulge offered a chance to finally defeat the “summer Germans.” The Red Army had won two substantial winter victories in the defense of Moscow in 1941 and Stalingrad 1942–43, but had been unable to defeat the two German summer offensives. The Kursk option was apparent to both sides, and the Red Army decided to remain on the defensive in the opening stage after creating a dense defensive belt on the northern and southern shoulders of the salient. Through the early summer, the Red Army built up a substantial tank reserve behind the Kursk salient with an aim toward launching a series of massive, mechanized counteroffensives in the wake of a defense of the Kursk bulge.
2.SS-Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich used the captured Soviet tank plant in Kharkov to rebuild a number of T-34 tanks to reinforce their antitank battalion. These were used during the battle of Kursk.
Operation Citadel: The Kursk Campaign
Operation Citadel, the German plan to cut off the Kursk salient, was a two-pronged attack. Army Group Center would attack the northern shoulder of the bulge using 8 Panzer divisions with 747 tanks, 31 new Tigers, and 89 Ferdinand assault guns, plus a variety of assault guns and other armor, bringing the grand total to about 1,375 AFVs. The heaviest concentration of German armor faced the southern shoulder of the bulge, and Army Group South included 5 panzer divisions and 4 panzergrenadier divisions with some 1,035 panzers, plus 45 Tigers, 200 Panthers, and a variety of supporting armor for a grand total of about 1,420 AFVs.16
By this stage of the war, German offensive tactics had evolved into a combined-arms process. Gone were the days of blitzkrieg when panzer divisions could rampage through terrorized infantry formations with impunity. The Red Army had become a far more formidable adversary than in 1941, and the fight to secure a breakthrough needed a stalwart infantry attack. The main armored support for the infantry breakthrough came from the 11 assault gun battalions (Sturmgeschütz-Abteilungen), totaling about 345 StuG III, that were attached at corps level and doled out to the infantry divisions that formed the Schwerpunkt (focal point) of the assault. In the case of Kursk, these were further reinforced by the Tiger battalions, as well as the Ferdinands where available. German tactical doctrine discouraged use of the panzer divisions in the opening days of the offensive for fear that they would simply become trapped in the Soviet infantry defenses and ground down by attrition. Instead, they would wait until the infantry divisions won the breakthrough battle, then be committed to the break-out battle and exploit the gain by a rapid race deep into the Soviet rear area to trap and destroy any units remaining in the Kursk bulge. In reality, German infantry divisions were no longer strong or numerous enough to penetrate the toughest of Soviet defenses. They had not been modernized sufficiently since 1941 and lacked the armored support to grind through a heavily fortified defense belt. As a desperate expedient, the Wehrmacht was forced to use panzer divisions in some sectors to accomplish the breakthrough, which led to premature attrition. This would result in the downfall of German panzer tactics at Kursk.
A tank attack by the 20.Panzer-Division during the summer of 1943 from the perspective of a PzKpfw III commander. To the right is a PzKpfw IV with the new side skirts and in the background are the dismounted panzergrenadiers. This division fought on the northern sector of the Kursk salient.
The Tiger won a reputation in the Red Army after Kursk far out of proportion to its actual combat record. This was in no small measure due to identity confusion with the new and ubiquitous PzKpfw IV Ausf. G and Ausf. H that had been fitted with side skirts for protection against Soviet antitank rifles.
A pair of Tigers of the schwere Panzer-Abteilung 505 during the operations on the northern flank of the Kursk salient around Orel in the summer of 1943.
Facing Army Group North was the Red Army’s Central Front with about 1,785 tanks, while Army Group South faced the Voronezh Front with 1,704 tanks. Although tanks formed an ingredient in the Soviet defenses, they were not the main element. The Red Army was very well aware of German combined-arms tactics and responded with an unprecedented defense scheme of multiple defensive lines intended to defeat the German infantry attacks and exhaust any German attempt to penetrate the defense using tanks. The core of the antitank defense was the antitank strongpoint (PTOP: Protivo-tankoviy oboroniy punkt), usually battalion-sized defenses consisting of a series of echeloned entrenchments with carefully sighted antitank rifles and regimental artillery. Behind the PTOP were special antitank reserves (PTR) consisting of the 76mm guns of the divisional artillery used in a direct-fire antitank role, sometimes supplemented with 85mm antiaircraft guns in an improvised antitank role. The defense network was shielded by minefields with a density of 2,400 antitank and 2,700 antipersonnel mines per kilometer. Most infantry divisions had an attached tank battalion or regiment, often dug in with only the turret exposed.
A scene near the village of Gremuchiy of two Panthers of Panzer-Regiment.39 during the Kursk fighting in July 1943. The tank to the right, number 101, ran over mines and was abandoned.
A typical example was the 375th Rifle Division, which held a 16-kilometer-wide front in the 6th Guards Army sector of the Voronezh Front. It had 7 PTOP and 3 PTR strongpoints equipped with 134 of the 14.5mm antitank rifles, 39 of the 45mm antitank guns, 12 of the 76mm regimental guns, and 68 of the 76mm ZiS-3 divisional guns. It was supported by the 61 tanks of the 96th Tank Brigade. Soviet antitank weapons, like the tank force, had focused on quantity over quality. By 1943, the 14.5mm antitank rifle was ineffective against the frontal armor of nearly all German tanks, barring a lucky hit on the tracks. It was still effective against the thin side armor of tanks such as the PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV; however, prior to Kursk, the Wehrmacht had begun to introduce armor skirts to the sides of their tanks specifically to defeat the Soviet antitank rifles. Therefore, the most numerous Soviet antitank weapons were rendered ineffective by this innovation prior to the start of the battle.
The Soviet 45mm antitank gun had been improved in 1942 by the development of a new version with a longer gun-tube and also enhanced with the new HVAP tungsten-carbide ammunition. An excellent 57mm antitank gun had also been introduced, but its use was largely confined to a few specialized antitank regiments at corps level. Despite these shortcomings, Soviet antitank defenses were formidable due to their density and depth. The Wehrmacht had largely overlooked the potential to develop combat engineer tanks to rapidly breach minefields or overcome antitank ditches, even though the British army had demonstrated the value of these innovations in 1942 in the desert campaigns.
One of the specialized versions of the PzKpfw III was the Pz.Beob.Wg (Panzerbeobachtungswagen). This was an artillery forward observer vehicle to support self-propelled artillery units in the panzer divisions and converted from older, obsolete tanks. This one is moving forward during the summer 1943 fighting.
A view of several Panther tanks of Panzer-Regiment.39, also called Panzer-Regiment von Lauchert after its commander. The unit’s two battalions fought on the southern shoulder of the Kursk salient in July 1943. In this view, a few Soviet prisoners can be seen in the foreground.
The German attack began on 5 July 1943 with a series of vicious artillery duels and air strikes. The assault by Army Group Center against the northern shoulder managed to overcome the first Soviet defense belt in three days of battle, but became bogged down and exhausted.
The assault against the southern shoulder by Army Group South made far better progress. By the third day of the battle, the II.SS-Panzer-Korps had penetrated both the first and second defense belts and seemed to be on the verge of breaking out toward the rail junction at Prokhorovka. However, in the process of using the SS panzer divisions to secure the breakthrough, these divisions had become badly weakened. The Red Army poured in reinforcements, and for the next three days the campaign became a slow battle of attrition. Soviet tank counterattacks evaporated in the face of the new German guns. The Tiger and Panther tanks were able to engage and destroy T-34 tanks at 1,500 meters or more and were essentially invulnerable to T-34 fire except at close ranges from the side. The exchange ratio in these battles was often around 8 to 1 in the Germans’ favor.
The turning point came on 10 July 1943. This date was critical for two reasons. First, the Red Army began committing its theater reserve, Gen. Pavel Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army, to staunch the German advance toward Prokhorovka. Second, in the Mediterranean Theater the Allies began Operation Husky, the amphibious invasion of Sicily. Hitler had already expressed misgivings about the Italian theater since an Italian withdrawal from the war would subtract eighty divisions from the Axis order of battle. While the Italian divisions did not have the equivalent combat value of German divisions, about forty divisions were on occupation duty in Greece, the Balkans, and southern France. Their sudden removal would require replacement with German divisions; the Russian Front would inevitably be drained of forces. Hitler’s decision to abandon Operation Citadel following Operation Husky is sometimes explained as a face-saving measure in response to the approaching failure of Citadel. A more cogent assessment was that Citadel was a last-ditch gamble to restore German strategic initiative on the Russian Front after the Stalingrad debacle, but a gamble that could not be sustained due to Germany’s declining military resources.17 Hitler called off Citadel on 13 July following the crucial battle near Prokhorovka.
The M3 medium tank was not one of the more popular Lend-Lease types in Soviet service, grimly nicknamed “the Grave for Seven Brothers.” About 170 served on the Central Front in July 1943; this example was knocked out during the fighting.
The counterattack by Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army on 10–11 July 1943 involved nearly 830 AFVs facing just over 400 German AFVs in the Prokhorovka sector. Although it is often described as the largest tank battle of World War II, this is a considerable exaggeration.18 The German and French tank fighting on 13–15 May 1940 in the Gembloux Gap involved as many tanks, and the battle for the “Bloody Triangle” of Brody-Dubno in Ukraine in the last week of June 1941 certainly involved far more.
Regardless of whether it was the largest tank battle or not, Prokhorovka is significant for both its dramatic action and its decisive results. In a massive engagement fought over the course of several days, Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army stopped the forward momentum of the German attack. On 12 July, the Red Army began to launch large-scale counterattacks that marked the change of the tide of war on the Russian Front. The Wehrmacht had lost the strategic initiative in the conflict and was irrevocably doomed to a defensive posture for the rest of the war.
The crew of a PzKpfw IV Ausf. G conducts repair on the KwK 40 gun with the help of a recovery vehicle based on the PzKpfw 38(t) light tank.
A column of PzKpfw IV Ausf. H move forward during the fighting in the summer of 1943.
This Lend-Lease Churchill IV served with the 10th Guards Heavy Breakthrough Tank Regiment of the 23rd Tank Corps during their ill-fated attack on the Voronezh Front on 21 July 1943.
The Tiger’s legend stemmed from its performance during the Kursk campaign in the summer of 1943. The legend was inflated by Soviet misperceptions, labeling nearly any of the new tanks as Tigers, including the PzKpfw IV, due to their changed appearance with side skirts.
The battle of Prokhorovka was a Pyrrhic victory for the Red Army. Casualties on both sides were heavy but fell disproportionately on the Soviet tank force. The 5th Guards Tank Army lost 340 tanks and 19 assault guns, of which 207 were total losses.19 The II.SS-Panzer-Korps and III.Panzer-Korps lost about 150 AFVs, although most of these were recovered and not written off yet as total losses.
Total German AFV losses in July 1943 on all fronts were 932 AFVs (645 tanks, 207 StuG, and 80 Panzerjäger), of which the vast majority were suffered during Operation Citadel. Their peak strength of 2,609 tanks in the east earlier in July had fallen to 2,274 by the end of the month. More critically, operational strength fell from 2,287 to only 1,178 tanks due to extensive battle damage suffered during Citadel.
Hitler had great expectations that the new Tiger, Panther, and Ferdinand tanks would throw the battle in favor of the Wehrmacht. The results in retrospect were quite mixed. Of the new types, the Tiger was clearly the standout performer and the only tank that could claim to have had decisive tactical impact in the various skirmishes during the campaign.
At the start of the campaign, there were about 147 Tiger tanks assigned; 5 replacements were later received during the fighting.21 The heaviest concentrations were in two army battalions: schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503 in the south and schwere Panzer-Abteilung 505 in the north, with a nominal strength of 45 Tiger tanks each. The Grossdeutschland Division had a reinforced Tiger company and the three SS-Panzer-Divisions had a Tiger company, each with a nominal strength of 14 tanks. A total of 133 Tiger tanks were available at the start of Citadel, but only 97 were ready on the first day because of lingering mechanical problems and difficulties moving such heavy tanks to the front without adequate tactical bridging.
Tiger strength fell quickly due to combat attrition. Although very few were written off as total losses, many were disabled in the first days of fighting after encountering minefields. In the case of one of the Tiger battalions, an entire company was disabled by mines in one day. The Tiger’s thick armor offered it excellent protection except against the heaviest of Soviet antitank weapons. Most Tiger tanks withstood multiple hits against their frontal armor; the few penetrations that did occur were usually to the more vulnerable side and rear armor. The only effective Tiger killers were the relatively rare 57mm antitank guns or overmatching weapons such as heavy field guns or 85mm antiaircraft guns in a direct-fire mode.22 For example, a number of Tigers were knocked out when their commander cupolas were completely blown off by a direct field gun hit.
The first glimpse of the Panther tank by British and American intelligence was this Panther Ausf. D captured by the Red Army during the Kursk fighting that was put on display in Gorkiy Park in Moscow. Due to its mechanical woes, the Panther did not leave as strong an impression in 1943 as the Tiger did, and it was underestimated as a result.
The Tiger’s 88mm gun proved to be a formidable weapon against the Soviet tanks. The two army Tiger battalions claimed 182 Soviet tanks up to 16 July 1943 when the offensive was called off; these claims were undoubtedly exaggerated. As mentioned earlier, the German FHO intelligence organization regularly discounted claims due to the problems of double-counting, especially in long-range engagements. Furthermore, German claims of Soviet tank kills covered any Soviet tank knocked out in combat, whether it was a total loss or later recovered and put back into action, while German Tiger losses included only total losses and no temporary losses.23 So for example, the two battalions recorded only 8 Tiger total losses during the fighting up to 16 July, but by that date they had suffered 58 temporary losses due to combat damage and mechanical breakdowns and had only 24 Tiger tanks operational. While some of these damaged tanks were later repaired in the field or sent back to Germany for repair, others eventually were stricken off.24
While the Tiger tank was undoubtedly a formidable tank killer at Kursk, its actual combat effectiveness was far less than might be suggested by its legend. Soviet accounts of the Battle of Kursk are filled with reports of battles with Tigers when undoubtedly most of the skirmishes involved more mundane types such as the PzKpfw IV. The enormous scale of Soviet tank losses seemed slightly less embarrassing if they could be credited to this invulnerable new monster. As was the case later in Normandy in 1944, “Tiger” simply became the Red Army soldier’s nickname for virtually any German tank. Likewise, every lowly StuG III was described as a “Ferdinand” in Russian accounts despite their rarity.
The Tiger’s greatest moment of glory during the Kursk fighting was on 5 July 1943 when the schwere Panzer-Abteilung 505 was able to penetrate the initial defensive belt of the Soviet 15th Rifle Division near Butyrki in the Army Group Center sector. However, the rapidity of this breakthrough was unanticipated and follow-on panzer divisions were not ready to exploit the success. In the Army Group South sector, schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503 proved far less effective. Against doctrine, it was split up into its three constituent companies and used piecemeal with little tactical effect. Within the first three days of fighting, the combat effectiveness of the Tiger units had been diluted by poor tactical employment, the ubiquitous Soviet minefields, and mechanical breakdowns. On average, only about 38 percent of the Tiger force was operational on any given day, though the readiness rate varied considerably from day to day. Overall, the army and Waffen-SS Tiger units reported total losses of only 13 Tiger tanks by 16 July 1943, but they had suffered temporary losses of 87 tanks and had just 52 tanks ready for action. The technical superiority of the Tiger was almost meaningless in view of the tiny number of tanks available from day to day, especially when so thinly spread across such a large front.
The combat debut of the new Panther tank at Kursk was a major disappointment, especially when compared to the Tiger. It was technically immature and had a host of mechanical problems, which were aggravated by inadequate training of the crews when the tank was rushed into service.25 Although the Panther had very thick frontal armor, its side armor was vulnerable to a variety of Soviet antitank weapons. Following the battle, Soviet tank specialists conducted a detailed examination of thirty-one knocked-out Panther tanks, twenty-two of which had been knocked out by gunfire.26 There were no penetrations of the front of the tanks; they were all to the hull side (59 percent), rear (23 percent) and turret (18 percent), often with multiple hits. Of these, seventeen were knocked out by 76mm tank or antitank guns, four by 85mm antiaircraft guns used in an antitank role, and one by a 45mm antitank gun.
Although more vulnerable to Soviet antitank fire than the Tiger, the new 75mm gun on the Panther was quite lethal against Soviet tanks. The Panther units fighting at Kursk claimed to have destroyed 263 Soviet tanks up to the end of the offensive on 16 July 1943; as mentioned earlier, these claims were overstated. Of the 200 Panther tanks available at the start of Citadel, 65 were written off as total losses following the battle and 42 were sent back for repair. Of the 105 tanks remaining in Russia at the start of the withdrawal, 76 were lost or abandoned during the retreat, many having suffered battle damage at Kursk. Only 29 remained in service in Russia on 12 August 1943.27
TANK TECHNOLOGY IN THE WAKE OF OPERATION CITADEL
The Battle of Kursk marked another technological watershed in tank development, particularly in the case of Soviet tank technology. The poor performance of the T-34 at Kursk created a crisis in the autumn of 1943. Post-combat Soviet assessments stressed the impact of the Tiger and Ferdinand.28 In fact, the whole panoply of German innovations—including the PzKpfw IV with skirts and the long L/48 gun and the large-scale use of the new StuG III Ausf. G—had all upset the technological balance. As mentioned earlier, Soviet tankers inevitably identified nearly all the new German tanks as Tigers and all the new assault guns as Ferdinands.
After the war, the main Soviet tank research institute, VNII Transmash in Leningrad, used its standard computer modeling program to examine the combat effectiveness of the major tank types used in the Kursk. The PzKpfw III with the long 50mm gun was chosen as the baseline and valued at 1.
For the first time during the war, tank panic set in amongst the Soviet units, and the tank force demanded tanks with a “longer arm” to be able to deal with the new German designs. Gen. Pavel Rotmistrov wrote an impassioned letter to Marshal Georgi Zhukov, pleading for the development of tanks to restore the technological balance on the battlefield. The T-34 had proven to be woefully inadequate at Kursk. The primary problem was the poor performance of its 76mm gun against the thickly armored German tanks. By this stage, even the PzKpfw IV had 80mm frontal armor.
The trajectory in Soviet tank development through the summer of 1943 was movement from a medium/heavy tank mix toward a “universal tank” such as the T-43 or KV-13. The emphasis of both these designs was thicker armor than the baseline T-34, but their firepower was the same 76mm F-34 gun in use since 1941. In the wake of the Kursk battle, this approach was abandoned entirely.
In the case of the T-34, a crash program was instituted in the late summer of 1943 to field a better gun. There was a scheme in the summer of 1943 to fit the existing Gaika turret with the long 57mm ZiS-4 gun, which had far superior antiarmor performance over the 76mm F-34. Since it had poor high-explosive capability compared to the 76mm gun, the plan was to issue it on a scale of about one in five tanks. This would have been a quick way to restore some firepower balance in 1943 and would have paralleled the British pattern of 75mm Shermans and Sherman 17-pounders in Normandy. Another option was to lengthen the existing 76mm gun, but tests of the L/50 F-34M gun found that it improved antiarmor penetration by only 20–30 percent. A derivative of the 76mm antiaircraft gun with a long barrel, the S-54, was also examined, but its performance fell short of other alternatives and it would have required a new family of ammunition.
As a stopgap until a new weapon was selected, a series of minor improvements were quickly put in the field. The 76mm BR-350P HVAP tungsten-carbide projectile entered series production and became available in significant quantities in the autumn of 1943. Belatedly, a commander’s cupola was added to the Gaika turret to provide the commander with better situational awareness.
A comparison of a standard T-34 on the left and the T-43 universal tank on the right.
The T-34 with the Gaika turret began to receive commander’s cupolas starting in the autumn of 1943, a long-delayed upgrade that provided the tank commander with better situational awareness. This is the command tank of Lieutenant Colonel Vaynovskiy of the 1st Baltic Front during Operation Bagration in Belorussia in the summer of 1944.
In the wake of the Kursk fighting, Soviet tank commanders asked Moscow to give them “a longer arm.” The initial version of the T-34-85 built at the Gorkiy plant used the D-5T 85mm gun seen in this early production example.
The next step forward in tank firepower was expected to be an 85mm gun; such a weapon was already in development as the D-5S for the new SU-85 tank destroyer and the D-5T for the new KV-85 tank. The KV-85 heavy tank was rushed into service as a stopgap. It consisted of a new turret mounting the D-5T 85mm gun on a modified KV-1S hull. It was accepted for service on 8 August 1943 and entered limited production in September 1943, with only 148 manufactured.
It was widely recognized that the T-34 needed a better gun to remain viable on the battlefield. One of the new 85mm guns was mounted in a Gaika turret, but the weapon was so large it could not be efficiently serviced by the loader. Besides this, there was widespread recognition that the two-man Gaika turret was one reason for the inferior performance of the T-34 in combat against German tanks with three-man crews. A new cast turret with a three-man crew had been developed for the T-43 tank and was large enough to accommodate an 85mm gun, as demonstrated in September 1943. Furthermore, it had substantially better armor than the existing Gaika turret and would not overburden the T-34 hull since it only added 1.3 tons to the tank’s weight. A number of technical issues had to be resolved in the design, including an increase in the turret ring diameter from 1.46m to 1.6m to accommodate the new turret and the desire to develop an improved 85mm gun with features better suited to a tank turret than the bulky D-5T. The Soviet tank industry had a very limited capacity to make machine-wide turret rings.
Due to the urgency of the requirement, a version of the T-34-85 tank developed at the Krasnoye Sormovo No. 112 plant was accepted for production on 15 December 1943. A total of 255 of these were built through April 1944.31This version was armed with the initial D-5T 85mm gun. Its combat debut was with the 38th Independent Tank Regiment, serving with the Fifty-Third Army in Ukraine in March 1944. This is covered in more detail in the next chapter.
TOP TANK OF 1943
By 1943, the T-34 had become obsolete. Its performance was inferior not only to the new Tigers and Panthers, but also even to its old nemesis, the PzKpfw IV. Of the new German tanks, the Tiger was the superior of the two. It had better firepower since its 88mm gun fired both an excellent armor-piercing round and an excellent high-explosive round. The Panther’s 75mm gun had an excellent armor-piercing round, but its high-explosive firepower was mediocre. Both tanks had excellent armor, but the Tiger was less vulnerable to side penetrations than the Panther. In terms of reliability, neither type was very good. Their average reliability in the last half of 1943 was about the same: 37 percent for the Panther and 36 percent for the Tiger. The Tiger gets the nod for Tanker’s Choice.
A case can be made that the real rivals to the Tiger and Panther in 1943 were the humble PzKpfw IV Ausf. H and the StuG III Ausf. G. Neither could compare to the Tiger and Panther in armor protection, but both had reasonably good protection at longer ranges. In terms of firepower, the 75mm L/48 gun that armed both types did not have the penetrating power of the Panther’s 75mm L/70 or the Tiger’s 88mm gun. However, it really didn’t matter in 1943. Less than 15 percent of Soviet tank losses in 1943 occurred at ranges over 1,000 meters. About 60 percent occurred at 200–600 meters, and 10 percent under 200 meters. At these ranges, the 75mm L/48 gun was lethal against the front of the T-34 and most other Soviet tanks.
A Tiger of schwere Panzer-Abteilung 505 with the unit’s distinctive charging bull insignia evident on the front plate above the driver’s visor.
A shortfall of conventional tanks prompted an increasing use of assault guns in lieu of tanks. This StuG III Ausf. G served in Panzer-Abteilung 103 and was lost near Cori, Italy, in May 1944.
The main advantage of the PzKpfw IV and StuG III was their availability. They were much cheaper and easier to build and so manufactured in much more substantial numbers. The PzKpfw IV and StuG III were not only much more numerous, but also much more reliable. In the second half of 1943, the PzKpfw IV had an average reliability rate of 48 percent; the StuG III had a rate of 65 percent—double that of the Tiger or Panther. It is not widely appreciated, but the high reliability of the StuG III meant that assault guns became the most numerous operational German AFV on the front in the latter half of 1943. At the time of the Kursk fighting on 5 July 1943, there were 1,870 operational tanks and 860 assault guns. The switchover occurred at the end of August when Russian Front AFV strength totaled 524 assault guns and only 484 operational tanks. In most cases, the numbers of tanks on hand on the Russian Front outnumbered the assault guns, but the number of functional assault guns outnumbered tanks on the Russian Front through the end of 1944.32 Indeed, the shortage of the expensive Panther and Tiger tanks prompted the Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppe, Heinz Guderian, to authorize a special table of equipment in October 1943 for a panzer StuG company. This was to be used as a substitute in panzer units when there were shortages of Panther and Tiger tanks. By the end of 1943, only about half (54 percent) of the assault guns were in the assault gun battalions. More than a quarter (25.3 percent) were assigned to panzer divisions and the rest to the Waffen SS and Luftwaffe.
The antitank performance of the StuG III was reinforced by the crews’ excellent artillery training and better fire-control sights compared to conventional tanks. The sights on the StuG III were more powerful than those on the tanks, and the StuG III commander had a special binocular periscopic sight that improved range-finding. A report by the Waffenamt in September 1943 reported that “The kill rates of assault gun batteries are frequently higher than those of Panzer units even though both are equipped with the same [75mm L/48] main gun.” A report to Hitler in August 1943 after the Kursk battles indicated that “the reports from the front submitted to the Führer highlight the exceptional value of the assault gun which in several cases under the prevailing combat conditions proved superior to the Panzer IV.”
The presence of the StuG III provided a major boost to the combat power of German infantry units during the increasingly difficult combat operations in 1943. The StuG III became the Wehrmacht’s infantry tank. Even though it was not intended for tank fighting, by 1943 this became an increasing portion of its mission. From the start of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 through August 1944, Sturmgeschütz units claimed 18,261 kills against Soviet AFVs; propaganda reports rounded this to 20,000. Total German claims against Soviet AFVs during this period totaled 100,748, so the StuG claims represented nearly one-fifth (18 percent) of all claims. Nevertheless, the main mission of the StuG III was direct-fire support of the infantry, and about 85 percent of its ammunition consumption was high-explosive projectiles for this mission.
From a purely technical standpoint, the Tiger tank was clearly superior to the StuG III. But from a cost perspective, the Wehrmacht could have bought ten StuG III or three Tiger tanks. Taking this equation one step further and factoring in reliability, the Wehrmacht could have had seven operational StuG III for one operational Tiger tank. For the badly outnumbered and overstretched Wehrmacht in Russia, I would argue that seven operational StuG III tanks represent far greater combat power than one operational Tiger. So my nod for the Commander’s Choice on the Russian Front in 1943 is the StuG III “infantry tank.”