Comparison of WW2 tank design and operational doctrine




 
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July 8th, 2009  
MontyB
 
 

Topic: Comparison of WW2 tank design and operational doctrine


This is a split from the "Why did Germany lose WW2 thread" and is inspired by this post...

Quote:
Originally Posted by vrmgi
Well, yes, this seems to be a never ending topic for debate on all sorts of forums. It is not the original topic for this thread, and so if someone wants to start this as a new thread that would be the way to go.

I will just start off with a few facts and try my best to reference them.


1. The Tiger tanks were:

extremely expensive,
produced in very low numbers,
not invincible to Allied tank guns (especially the British 17-pounder and Russian 122mm)
had to be transported to battles by train,
could not cross most European bridges,
broke down too easily,
guzzled gas and so had limited range and endurance and often ran out of gas during combat,
highly immobile in rough terrain,
easily disabled by mines -

All of which meant that despite their average 12:1 kill ratio in some elite units, they were ineffective strategically because they could not stay in sustained combat, offensive or defensive. Anecdotes of the awesomeness of the Tiger tanks invariably talk about how they shot up a bezillion Allied tanks in such and such a battle. True, but then how did the Allies win the war? Because just as invariably, these stories leave out the fact that anywhere from one day to one month later, the entire Tiger unit would be OUT OF ACTION, and the only Tigers in the area would be dead Tigers. The cause of demise ranged from 0 - 1/2 of the Tigers knocked out by anti-tank guns or other devices and the rest ABANDONED by their crews.

Much of this comes from Christopher Wilbeck's excellent "Sledgehammers". The hard numbers and details of what happened to each and every Tiger tank fielded by the Germans are in Wolfgang Schneider's "Tigers in Combat" Vols I and II. Thomas Jentz's 3-volume set of Tiger books are also excellent, with Vol. 3 "Combat Tactics" giving the most useful data.


2. The Panther tank had better frontal armor than the Tiger I, and its 75mm L/70 gun had more punch than the Tiger I's 88mm L/56 gun. The Panther's side and rear armor were weaker than the Tiger I, but it was also lighter and more maneuverable than the Tiger I. This data comes from penetration range data in Thomas Jentz's Panther book, and in Vol.3 of Jentz's Tiger book.

So overall, the Panther was a much better and more lethal tank than the Tiger I. Nevertheless, the Panther usually gets less respect on tank forums than the Tiger I. Why? It did not do so well in France, getting shot up by, of all things, US 75mm M4 Shermans at the Battle of Arracourt, and by combined tactics (mostly aircraft) in Operation Luttich. Except for a few experienced tank aces like Ernst Barkmann, Panthers crews tended to be stocked with new, inexperienced soldiers, unlike most Tiger tanks, which were usually crewed by experienced tankers. This made a definite difference in the outcome. Sources: Steven Zaloga - Panther vs. Sherman, Armored Thunderbolt.

The Panther was originally specified to be a 30-35 ton tank, which would have made it in the same weight class as the M4 and T34, but Hitler insisted on an increase in armor - it eventually became a 45 ton tank, about the same as the heavy JS 2 tanks.


3. The Stug III was the most produced AFV of the German Army! About 10,000 produced. However, it was semi-useless for any role except in a defensive ambush, or as support in a second wave of an offensive attack. If caught in the open against a turreted tank, it usually lost unless the enemy tank was right in front of it, since it could not possibly target a turreted tank as fast as the tank could target it. The Stug III was also (until late in the war), poorly equipped with only one exposed machine gun on top for fighting enemy infantry. From Spielberger's "Sturmgeschutz and its Variants".

Assigned to the artillery divisions, it was the most common AFV to accompany German infantry (turreted tanks were reserved for the elite Panzer regiments), but it was at best a mediocre infantry support.

The Germans should have simply upgraded the Pzkpfw IV by sloping its armor, and then mass-produced it as an infantry support tank. As it was, the Pzkpfw IV, with the same tank gun, had a much higher kill ratio against enemy tanks, and had three machine guns, two of which were armor protected. It was a superb infantry support tank, but it was only assigned to the Panzer divisions and came to be used increasingly as support armor for the Panthers and Tigers.

The development of the Tiger I tank and the evolution of the Panther tank from a 30 ton tank to a 45 ton tank with terrific frontal armor changed German Army tactics, mostly for the worse. Panzer-infantry combined tactics deteriorated as increasingly these highly touted tanks were sent off on missions with little infantry support (with only a few Panzergrenadiers). German tank doctrine came to see these tanks as breakthrough weapons, or as mobile fortresses to stop an enemy tank attack. The fact that these were expensive tanks and there were few of them meant that the Gremans could not afford to use them freely as infantry support tanks.


4. The reason Pzkpfw IV production dropped off was not to produce Panthers. Of the three factories producing Pzkpfw IVs, one was diverted to produce the StuG IV after the Alkett factory producing StuG IIIs was bombed. A second factory was later converted to produce the Panzerjager IV. (Spielberger: "Sturmgeschutz...")

Wouldn't it have been easier to just keep producing the Pzkpfw IVs and just give them to the infantry? For, despite the varying claims of how much cheaper the StuGs were, the total numbers of StuG IVs and Panzerjager IVs produced were not much higher than the numbers of Pzkpfw IVs those factories had been producing. One source (don't remember where) says that the Stug IIIs were only about 80% of the cost of a turreted Pzkpfw IV, which seems about right.


5. The British 17-pounder was a terrific tank gun! It was better than the Russian A19 122 mm gun on the JS2 tank, better than the 90mm gun on the M26 Pershing, better than the Panther 75mm L/70 gun, better than the Tiger I 88mm L/56 gun. Only the Tiger II's 88m L/71 gun topped it in WWII. The 17-pounder could blow holes in the frontal armor of the Tiger I easily. The 17-pounder could punch through the gun mantlet of the Panther but not the glacis plate. This comes from the penetration range data in Thomas Jentz's Panther book and Vol. 3 Tiger book.

Michael Wittman, Tiger ace, was killed in his Tiger I by a British Firefly with a 17-pounder. British Fireflies with their weak armor could get knocked out if ambushed first, but they were deadly when ambushing German tanks.


6. The T34 is probably the most overrated tank ever on these "Best tank" forums!

The T34 was indeed the champion Best Tank in 1941, and into 1942, until the Tiger I came into being. But by 1944, it was useful mainly as an infantry support tank, much like the M4 Sherman, having been outclassed by the German tanks and replaced as a heavy tank in the Russian Army by the JS 2.

And in fact, the penetration range data in Jentz's Panther book and Vol. 3 Tiger book show that the armor and firepower of the T34/85 and the M4/76 are fairly similar -

The 76mm M4 gun actually had more punch than the 85mm gun of the T34/85. The T34 armor was slightly better than the M4 Sherman, but it was just as easily penetrated by the Panther's 75mm gun as the Tiger I's 88 mm gun.

The two tanks had many, many design differences with different strengths and weaknesses which overall tended to cancel each other out. Read Dmitriy Loza's "Commanding the Red Army's Sherman Tanks" to get a feel for the differences between the two tanks. Loza fought in both tanks, and loved the M4 tanks!


Whew! So there! Time to go to bed and let's see what that stirred up!
July 8th, 2009  
bren122
 
 
thanks for the info- makes for interesting reading.
July 8th, 2009  
Doppleganger
 
 
Tank design is not really my forte, as I'm more interested in the tactics, operations and strategy side of things. However, some quick responses:

1. The Tiger, despite its faults and expense, performed well as a defensive tank in the latter stages of WW2. It also performed well as a breakthrough tank and that is mainly how Germany used them whilst on the offensive. Also, the psychological impact of the Tiger tank can't be overstated.

2. German armour plate made in 1944 onwards was probably inferior to plate made earlier, due to a lack of manganese and the speeding up of the production process (there's a hot debate about this).

3. Germany's tank needs changed as the war went on. Between 1939-1943 they needed fast break-out tanks as they were generally on the offensive. After Kursk they needed more AT guns and Tank Destroyers.

4. The Panther Ausf G was probably the best tank that saw action in WW2.

5. The T34 was the best tank in action until 1942, when the Tiger 1 was introduced.

6. The heavier Tiger and Panthers were not the catalyst for change in Germany armoured doctrine. By the time these tanks were on the battlefield Germany was mainly embroiled in a defensive war - especially true of the Panther although its baptism of fire was at Kursk.

7. Allied tactical air power (or the threat of it), dithering German strategic/operational decisions and chronic German fuel shortages probably had the biggest impact on the western war in Europe.

8,. Germany's tank design never really adjusted as the war adjusted. By that I mean that they forgot one of history's greatest lessons, that quantity, so long as it's fit for purpose and available in enough numbers, will ALWAYS defeat quality in a protracted war. This seems obvious but I'm amazed at the number of times this lesson has to be re-learnt.
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July 8th, 2009  
MontyB
 
 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Doppleganger
8,. Germany's tank design never really adjusted as the war adjusted. By that I mean that they forgot one of history's greatest lessons, that quantity, so long as it's fit for purpose and available in enough numbers, will ALWAYS defeat quality in a protracted war. This seems obvious but I'm amazed at the number of times this lesson has to be re-learnt.
The question for me is whether the PZ-IV was fit for purpose had the war been extended even into late 1945, I am not doubting the quality of the vehicle in 1943 but by 1945 it was back to running with the pack and I can't imagine it was going to do well against the IS/JS-2's and beyond.

This is pretty much the reason I believe that the future of the PZ-IV was better employed as a tank destroyer and the Panther should have replaced it as the offensive tank.
July 9th, 2009  
Doppleganger
 
 
Quote:
Originally Posted by MontyB
The question for me is whether the PZ-IV was fit for purpose had the war been extended even into late 1945, I am not doubting the quality of the vehicle in 1943 but by 1945 it was back to running with the pack and I can't imagine it was going to do well against the IS/JS-2's and beyond.

This is pretty much the reason I believe that the future of the PZ-IV was better employed as a tank destroyer and the Panther should have replaced it as the offensive tank.
Actually I had the T34 in mind when I wrote that as it was pretty basic in terms of design and finished product - the Panzer IV was made like a swiss watch by comparison.

Well, to be honest Germany was pretty much on its last hurrah when Guderian suggested that all tank production be focused on the Panzer IV. Kursk was the last throw of the dice in the East and it never had a great chance to succeed IMO. After Kursk it was defence all the way and Germany needed quantity over quality by then, something that the Red Army had done from necessity (and perhaps design) years ago. The Panzer IV wouldn't have compared very well with the IS-2 and especially the IS-3 and M-26 Pershing but by the time they were deployed it was basically all over anyway.
July 9th, 2009  
MontyB
 
 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Doppleganger
Actually I had the T34 in mind when I wrote that as it was pretty basic in terms of design and finished product - the Panzer IV was made like a swiss watch by comparison.

Well, to be honest Germany was pretty much on its last hurrah when Guderian suggested that all tank production be focused on the Panzer IV. Kursk was the last throw of the dice in the East and it never had a great chance to succeed IMO. After Kursk it was defence all the way and Germany needed quantity over quality by then, something that the Red Army had done from necessity (and perhaps design) years ago. The Panzer IV wouldn't have compared very well with the IS-2 and especially the IS-3 and M-26 Pershing but by the time they were deployed it was basically all over anyway.
My point is that the PZ-IV was pretty much at the end of its life but retooling plants to make its successor was never really going to be an option given the conditions even in late 1943 therefore the best use of materials was to extend the chassis life of the Pz-IV by converting it to the Jagdpanzer-IV, in doing so you are up gunning and armouring the PZ-IV, reducing the cost of production and material usage for the loss of the turret but as a defensive vehicle I do not believe that is a massive loss.

To my mind the Jagdpanzer-IV was the best vehicle to produce in massive numbers after Kursk, back this up by either devoting all your effort to ironing out the problems with the Panther or even continuing the design of the Tiger I (I imagine they could have sloped the armour a bit in areas reducing its weight without reducing its effectiveness).

Also I highly doubt German planning was based around losing the war in early 1945 therefore they had to design their production plans for operations as far forward as 1946-47, in fact I think it is Antony Beevor's Berlin the Downfall that quotes Speers production plans for 1946.
July 9th, 2009  
vrmgi
 
 
Here's a good book to read about the actual situation with the Pzkpfw IV vs. the Jagdpanzer IV - "PANZER GUNNER: From My Native Canada to the German Osfront and Back. In Action with 25th Panzer Regiment, 7th Panzer Division 1944-45" by Bruno Friesen.

Bruno Friesen was a Canadien citizen of German origin whose father, in a fit of nationalistic fervor, took him back to the mother country right before the war, where he was promptly drafted into the German Army.

He ended up as a tank gunner in a Pzkpfw IV, on the Eastern Front.

Some interesting things about his experiences:

1. In contrast to the memoirs of Otto Carius and other Tiger/Panther books, the Pzkpfw IV tank crews had to move very cautiously because of their thinner armor, always on the lookout for enemy anti-tank guns. Carius and the Tiger/Panther tank commanders had a tendency to just charge right into a melee with the enemy.

2. The Pak 40 gun of the Pzkpfw IV was very effective, and Friesen had no trouble taking out the T34s of the Russians. No descriptions of any encounters with JS2s in Friesen's book.

3. Friesen's last Pzkpfw IV was disabled by a shot to their tank gun barrel. They dismounted, and then this highly experienced tank crew was sent to the rear lines, where they waited and waited for another tank. While they waited, they were dragooned as cheap labor - cutting wood, digging, etc. - so OK, is there something WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE? Did this ever happen with the Allies? No, of course not. With the US, British, and Russians, it was just the opposite. They had an excess of tanks, and a shortage of crews. When a tank got knocked out, the surviving crew were put immediately back into the fight in another tank, sometimes missing a crew member or so for a few days until another warm body was found.

4. Friesen never did get another tank - he was eventually assigned with a new crew to a Jagdpanzer IV. The biggest problem with the Jagdpanzer IV, especially the ones with the ultra long barreled L70 75mm cannon, was that it was nose heavy with the cannon mounted far forward, and very tough to maneuver in tight spots or undulating terrain, etc., because it was such a long, long, long, long structure - chassis and fixed gun had to turn and undulate with the terrain as a single unit without hitting anything, like a dip in the road, or a tree, or a hedgerow, or a building. And of course, that was pretty tough, and so the first thing that happened with Friesen's new AFV was that his driver ran into something with that long-nosed cannon and disabled their Jagdpanzer IV. They never got into combat with the thing.

Yep, the Germans were the only major tank army in history to ever produce these turretless, limited traverse self-propelled anti-tank guns in such huge numbers. Just like they were the only tank army to ever use interleaved road wheels (better flotation, better armor protection for the side hull; but greater complexity and tendency to freeze together in icy weather).

It was a time when anybody in charge could imagine anything and make it so, since nobody knew what really worked and what didn't in tank warfare.

The American counterpart to the German SPGs were the open top turrets, very thinly armored tank destroyers, courtesy of the "tank destroyer" doctrine of Gen. Leslie McNair, head of Army Ground Forces. McNair was an artillery man by trade, and so he regarded the M4's main purpose as being infantry support, as mobile artillery. The job of fighting tanks would be left to towed anti-tank guns and these open top tank destroyers.

The US tank destroyer forces did destroy a lot of German tanks, but also suffered high casualties. In a real fight with enemy tanks, towed anti-tank guns could at most fire off a few rounds before they would be spotted and annihilated by counterfire. By the end of WWII, the tank destroyer forces had largely abandoned the towed anti-tank guns. The open top turrets of the tank destroyers, on the other hand, were very vulnerable to ordinary infantry weapons such as artillery, mortar fire, grenades, and sniper fire. And of course their thin armor made them vulnerable to anti-tank fire of any sort.

So, the American forces had a superb infantry support tank in the M4, with its rugged durability, excellent high explosive 75mm shell, and its three machine guns - one of them being the .50 caliber machine gun that was much more powerful than anything the Germans put on their tanks. M4 crews were known to pack their tank full of machine gun rounds - they would sweep the entire area clear of infantry with their fire. M4s eventually had telephones installed in the rear so infantry could talk to a buttoned up tank crew. There were M4s with aircraft radios installed that served as forward air controllers to direct tactical air support. Yep, by the end of WWII, the US had tank-infantry combined tactics really figured out.

What the US forces lacked was a tank with good armor and a good anti-tank gun.

The Germans on the other hand were obsessed with having the best tanks with the best armor and the best anti-tank guns.

So how did the StuGs and Jagdpanzers end up in the infantry support role?

For the Stugs, it is clear this happened because of Hitler, and because it was the expedient thing to do. The original StuGs were fixed gun mobile artillery, assigned to the Artillery divisions, with a low velocity 75mm cannon. When the Germans encountered the T34, Hitler set off a crash program to put the Pak 40 anti-tank gun on every existing AFV out there to cope with the T34. And so the StuGs changed from mounting a howitzer to a high velocity anti-tank gun, but it remained in the artillery division.

The StuG III did knock out a lot of enemy tanks, some 20,000 or so. It was terrific at ambushing enemy tanks, but it was not effective when forced to move in the open, with infantry. A turreted tank could hit it first before it could maneuver for a shot.

What the Germans needed was a fully functional, turreted tank, with lots of machine guns, that they could mass produce and give to their infantry. But something about their rigid hierarchical thinking made the Germans decide to keep the turreted tanks with Panzer forces, and keep the StuGs in the artillery divisions, where they were essentially part of the infantry.

The Pzkpfw IV was in most respects very similar in function, armor, and firepower to the T34 and M4 tanks. At 25 tons, it was the lightest of the three. Above all else, the Pzkpfw IV really needed some sloped armor. The original Panther specs, calling for a 30-35 ton tank would have been closer to an upgrade of the Pzkpfw IV, with just the more powerful L70 75mm cannon, and a modest amount of sloped armor. But in the design process, competition between Daimler Benz and MAN caused the designs to bloat to ever more powerful capabilities; Hitler then stuck his fingers in and specified 80mm of frontal sloped armor, and the Panther ended up getting bloated into the heavy tank category.
 


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