Monday, 5 October 2020

Big Anti-Tank Feline

 The Jagdpanther is one of the most famous German tank destroyers of WW2. Even though it was built on the chassis of the medium Panther tank, it's classified as a heavy tank destroyer. Many consider it the best German tank destroyer. The Jagdpanther combined good mobility, high protection, a powerful gun, and it had defensive armament, which is important for a tank destroyer. However, its influence is often overestimated. The vehicle was only available in large numbers by late 1944 and arrived on the Eastern Front only in January of 1945. The way these tank destroyers were used was often different from the original intention and this impacted its usefulness. Finally, the vehicle was far from the most reliable.

An alternative to Waffentragers

Initially, German tank destroyers followed the concept of the Waffentrager, vehicles with either bulletproof or thin anti-shell armour. This applied even to vehicles with powerful armament, including bunker busters that were supposed to destroy defensive fortifications. These included the Pz.Sfl.IVa on the Pz.Kpfw.IV medium tank chassis and the Pz.Sfl.V on the chassis of the prospective VK 30.01 heavy tank. Ironically, these bunker busters never faced off against the Maginot line or any other fortifications. They were used as tank destroyers and ended their days at Stalingrad.

A draft of the future tank destroyer. Its designation changed about a dozen times.

The Germans began to suspect that work is moving in the wrong direction during the French campaign in May-June of 1940. Experience showed that these bunker busters had to fight tanks, not bunkers. In addition to poor mobility these vehicles tended to have thin armour. To solve that, the idea of building a tank destroyer on the VK 45.01 heavy tank chassis was voiced in 1941 by Krupp. This concept was not particularly in demand at the time. The discussion between Krupp and the 6th Department of the Ordnance Directorate on the topic of a tank destroyer with an 88 mm gun and powerful armour ended with nothing. Nevertheless, Erich Wolfert, Krupp's lead designer, began working on another bunker buster, the Pz.Sfl.IVc. This vehicle was supposed to be highly mobile, but its armour was still just 20 mm thick.

Initially the Pz.Sfl.IVc was armed with the 88 mm Flak 18 gun, but a more powerful 88 mm L/71 gun was proposed. The Pz.Sfl.IVc chassis permitted another approach: a not so mobile but very well armoured tank destroyer. This draft of the reinforced Pz.Sfl.IVc was named Pz.Sfl.IVc2 and was first presented at a meeting held in Meppen on January 6th, 1942. No images of this vehicle survive to this day, it is only known that two variants were developed. One had the same Maybach HL 90 engine as the basic Pz.Sfl.IVc, the other would have the Klöckner-Deutz-Stern diesel. The weight was estimated at 30 tons, the top speed was reduced to 40 kph, but the armour grew to 80 mm in the front and 40 in the side. The Pz.Sfl.IVc2 was pitched as an infantry support vehicle, but the 88 mm L/71 gun hinted at what its purpose really was. Further discussion clearly indicated that the fighting compartment would be fully enclosed.

A model made in 1942. The chassis of the VK 30.02 (M) is still used.

The Pz.Sfl.IVc2 project did not live for long. The vehicle was actively discussed in early 1942 and numerous changes were introduced. Contract SS 006-6488/42 for three prototypes of the Pz.Sfl.IVc2 was signed on June 4th, 1942. Since Krupp was overloaded with production of the Pz.Kpfw.IV Ausf.G the Deutsche Eisenwerke AG, Werk Stahlindustie factory was supposed to build them. However, the Ordnance Directorate had a different idea.

Contract SS 006-4735/42 for three casemates for another vehicle, the Pz.Sfl.IVd, was signed with Krupp on June 29th. Don't let the number IV confuse you, this SPG had no connection with the Pz.Kpfw.IV. A new tank was considered for the chassis: the VK 30.02 (M). The chassis was decided on in correspondence dated August 3rd, 1942, but Wolfert had the VK 30.02 (M) in mind from the start. The tank was not even built yet, but it already unofficially won the tender. In early August the index was incremented, the tank destroyer was now called schweren Panzerjäger (Pz.Sfl.IVd) (8.8 cm L/71) (heavy tank destroyer on the self propelled armoured chassis IVd with an 88 mm L/71 gun).

The first prototype built in October of 1943. Note the pistol power in the side of the casemate. This port was not used on production vehicles.

The 6th Department of the Ordnance Directorate was shown the project on September 9th, 1942. It was now called schweren Panzerjäger 8.8 cm KwK L/71 mit Baulementen des Pz.Kpfw.Panther. Wolvert's SPG was vastly different than any that Krupp created before. The Waffentragers had an open or semi-enclosed fighting compartment in the rear or middle of the hull. This vehicle had a fully enclosed fighting compartment in the front of the hull. The approach to the layout was also novel. The chassis was nearly unaltered, which increased the SPG's chances of entering service. Even though the name includes the word "Panther", this was not the Panther we know today. This was still the VK 30.02 (M)  with 60 mm of front armour weighing 35 tons.

Like the tank it was based on, the Pz.Sfl.IVd weighed 35 tons, but its upper front armour was 80 mm thick, the lower front was 50 mm thick, the sides were 40 mm thick. The 88 mm Pak 43 was used as the armament with 60 rounds on board. The first experimental vehicles were planned for June of 1943, and mass production would start in July.

The second prototype had a full set of tools mounted on the sides.

Krupp's project piqued the interest of Major General Wilhelm Philipps, head of experimental weapons at the Ordnance Directorate. He considered that 60 of these vehicles should be produced monthly. On October 15th Reich Minister of Armament and Ammunition Albert Speer ordered that further development be moved to Daimler-Benz. Daimler-Benz Werk 40 in Berlin was supposed to produce these vehicles.

Work on the Pz.Sfl.IVd continued. Daimler-Benz prepared a full scale wooden model in November of 1942. By then the name changed to 8.8 cm Sturmgeschütz 42 (Pz.Sfl.IVd). A number of changes were made to various components after the model was inspected, including the gun mount. The issue of thickening the front armour to 100 mm was raised in early 1943. The idea of building the vehicle now called 8.8 cm Sturmgeschütz 43 (Panther) on the chassis of the Panther II was also considered. Daimler-Benz considered this chassis the higher priority project, which played a cruel trick on the development. When it became clear that the original Panther would be retained in production the tank destroyer design had to be ported back to the older chassis. This took time and the armour had to be cut. It ended up the same as the production Panther's: 80 mm upper front, 50 mm lower front, 40 mm along the sides.

The same vehicle from the right. 5 pistol ports were drilled in total. The first production vehicle had none.

Not just the chassis had to be changed, but also the location of production. Daimler-Benz Werk 40 was loaded with the Panther in the spring of 1943. By May of 1943 the 8.8 cm Panzerjäger 43/3 (L/71) Panther (as it was now called) was officially moved to MIAG (Mühlenbau und Industrie Aktiengesellschaft) Braunschweig. Using this factory was considered as one possibility back in December of 1942, but by May it was the only option.

MIAG made a number of changes. Specifications written in June of 1943 mentioned a 6-man crew and a Sfl.Zf.1a periscopic sight instead of the telescopic sight, a common solution for German SPGs. An MG 42 machine gun was installed as a self defense weapon. A breech-loaded mortar was installed in the roof. The vehicle carried 50 rounds for the main gun, 600 rounds for the machine gun, and 30 rounds for the mortar. These specifications did not last for long. After the Battle of Kursk it was decided to install an MG 34 bow gun in a mount to the right of the main gun. The crew was reduced to 5 men, but the ammunition capacity was increased to 60 rounds. The observation devices were also changed.

This was the last change before prototypes were built. MIAG delivered the first in October of 1943 and the second in November. As for the designation of the vehicle, it changed like cards in a deck. The name it's best known under, Jagdpanther, was first voiced by Hitler on November 29th, 1943. It was finalized only in 1944, but even still the full name  Panzerjäger Panther für 8.8cm Pak 43/3 (Sd.Kfz.173) was used in parallel.

In the Panther's shadow

Phillips' request for 60 tank destroyers built monthly was an empty wish. Mastering the Panther was much more important in late 1942-early 1943. Production of the Panther Ausf.D ramped up slowly. Only 4 tanks were delivered in January, 18 in February. Production only rose in March. This was only because 4 factories started production simultaneously: MAN, Daimler-Benz Werk 40, Henschel, and MNH. These were factories that used to build the Pz.Kpfw.III. MIAG was also among them, but it abandoned the tank in favour of the Jagdpanther in January of 1943.

The Jagdpanther was ill received in Braunschweig, since MIAG was the largest producer of the Pz.Kpfw.III. Requirements for production of the Jagdpanther were equally large: the first 5 Jagdpanthers would be delivered in November of 1943, 10 in January of 1944, 15 in February, 25 in March, and by July MIAG had to deliver 80 Jagdpanthers monthly. Truly fantastic numbers were eventually expected of MIAG: up to 150 per month. These projections were drawn up by boundless optimists and this requirement was only satisfied once even for the Panther when MAN delivered 155 tanks in August of 1944.

A common sight at MIAG. There were plenty of Jagdpanther hulls, but constant bombing didn't let production reach its full potential.

The plans for the Jagdpanther also proved overly optimistic. Only the second prototype was delivered in November of 1943, the first 5 production vehicles were only finished in January of 1944. Production remained slow: 7 in February, 8 in March, 10 in April, 10 again in May, 6 in June, 15 in July, 14 in August, 21 in September, 8 in October. MIAG didn't even meet the revised plan where the peak of production was 55 vehicles in July. Meanwhile, hull production met the requirements stated even in the original plan. Brandenburger Eisenwerke GmbH was chosen to build the hulls. The first 6 were finished in October of 1943, 6 more in November, 29 in December, 17 in January, 36 in February, 26 in March, 42 in April, 38 in May. The hull was not the limiting factor in Jagdpanther production.

One of the first vehicles built at MIAG. The pistol ports are gone and a Zimmerit coating is applied.

The fault for this lies not with MIAG, but with Allied bombers. Even Braunschweig's air defenses couldn't save the city from bombs. The city was hit 40 times in 1944, MIAG was bombed 10 times. The biggest attack came in October of 1944 when 60% of the factory's buildings were destroyed. Allied aircraft played a big part in weakening the German army. Compared to even the revised plan, the full difference in production from November 1943 to October of 1944 was 252 tank destroyers, enough to equip 5.5 battalions. Compared to the optimistic plan, this was a difference of over 500 Jagdpanthers.

Most Jagdpanthers were built on the Panther Ausf.A chassis. This is what the rear of the early vehicles looked like.

Issues with production were no reason to keep the design from changing. Initially the design called for pistol ports in the sides and rear of the casemate. Building the prototypes showed that they weakened the armour and made production more complicated, so they were discarded from the start. The breech-loaded mortars didn't arrive for the first five months of production, but this didn't mean that the opening for them was omitted. Instead, it was simply welded over. A mount for the EM 0,9 m R rangefinder was installed starting in March. The engine deck changed in April of 1944, the splash protection also changed, and the Pak 43/3 entered use. Instead of a single piece barrel the SPGs had a composite one, although some were built with a single piece barrel until October of 1944. A towing device was added to the rear hatch in May, which prompted movement of the jack. A jack rated for 20 tons rather than 15 was now in use. The driver's second observation device was deleted and replaced with a plug in June. A self-cleaning idler was also used starting in that month. The bolts holding the gun mantlet on were simplified.

Vehicles produced as of June 1944 looked like this. The second driver's observation device was removed and the barrel was now composite.

The biggest change took place in July of 1944. Early vehicles (chassis number 300001-300050) had 16 mm thick casemate roofs. This was judged insufficient, and 25 mm roofs were installed starting in July. The left observation device for the driver vanished for good that month, two additional exhaust pipes were introduced on the left side, the configuration of tools changed. To differentiate the new vehicles they were given the name Jagdpanzer Ausf.G1. The name G1 didn't mean that they used the Panther Ausf.G chassis, in practice they were still based on the Ausf.A. A transitional series of 250 vehicles was planned, after which production of the Jagdpanzer Ausf.G2 would begin. Theoretically, MIAG would start delivering the Jagdpanther Ausf.G2 starting in December of 1944 if they kept up the pace of 40-50 vehicles per month. In reality, they didn't get to that point until 1945.

One of the first Jagdpanther Ausf.G1 vehicles buitl in July of 1944. The roof was now 25 mm thick, a breech-loading mortar was added, the rear of the vehicle changed.

The launch of the Jagdpanther Ausf.G1 didn't stop the stream of design changes. A bulge was added to the top of the gun shield to affix a lifting eye in August of 1944. Changes to the gun mantlet were also made. Zimmerit was no longer applied as of September, since the enemy never used magnetic mines. The cooling system was modernized. The design of the ball mount and final drives changed slightly in October. Tin shielding was added to the exhaust pipes. As ordered by the 6th Department, shock absorbers were no longer installed in the rear. Orders to stop painting the interior of the fighting compartment due to issues with paint supplies were given on October 31st. Now it was covered only in primer.

The same vehicle when it was captured. Note the changes to the rear of the vehicle.

Serious losses suffered by MIAG in October of 1944 forced a revision to production plans. MNH, one of the main producers of the Panther, took on an extra load. Maschinenfabrik Bahn Bedarf (MBA) also received orders for the Jagdpanther. MNH planned to deliver 20 Jagdpanthers in November of 1944, 30 in December, 30 more in January, and then production would end. MIAG sent MNH a batch of 80 hulls to use, 20 of which had two openings for the driver's observation devices. MBA had different plans: 5 for November, 10 for December, 20 for January, 30 for February, 45 in March, 60 for April, 80 in May, 90 in June, and 100 Jagdpanthers monthly starting in July of 1945.

A Jagdpanther built at MNH in late 1944. This is what the Jagdpanther looked like when production was at its peak.

Two more factories joined in, which finally raised Jagdpanther production to reasonable levels. 55 Jagdpanthers were delivered in November (35 MIAG, 15 MNH, 5 MBA), 67 in December (37 MAN, 19 MIAG, 11 MBA). January saw peak production: 72 Jagdpanthers (37 MIAG, 30 MNH, 5 MBA). Low output at MBA led to continuation of production at MNH. All three factories continued to work until the end of the war. According to plans revised in February of 1945, MIAG was supposed to deliver 60 vehicles monthly and MNH and MBA 20 each.

Production of the Jagdpanther Ausf.G2 began closer to March of 1945. Due to the end of the war the production run was not large.

Expansion in production coincided with more changes, a part of which were simplifications. This was unavoidable, as lack of materials or components was more and more noticeable with every week. The running gear was simplified in November, the 3-round ammo rack was removed, the commander and radio operator changed places. New changes were made in February of 1945. The fighting compartment was now painted in ivory (RAL 1001) and instead of Dunkelgelb the base coat of the exterior was Dunkelgrun (RAL 6003) as of March 1st, 1945. Some authors interpreted this switch as using up remains of gray paint, since green and gray look similar in black and white photos if you don't know about the colour change. Finally, the Jagdpanther Ausf.G2 using Panther Ausf.G chassis entered production in March.

MNH territory after the end of the war. 12 more Jagdpanthers were built afterwards for the British.

Production tapered off in the last few months of the war. 42 vehicles were delivered in February (22 MIAG, 10 MNH, 10 MBA) instead of 50, 52 in March (32 MIAG, 15 MNH, 5 MBA). 33 were delivered in April (3 MIAG, 18 MNH, 12 MBA). Excluding the prototypes, 425 Jagdpanthers were built. 270 were built at MIAG (serial numbers 300001-3000270), 107 at MNH (303001-303107), 38 at MBA. The final number of Jagdpanthers built differs depending on the source, especially for April of 1945. These numbers also don't include 12 Jagdpanthers built after the war at MNH for the British, which used them for trials. One of them can be seen in Bovington today.

Too little, too late

The Jagdpanther was the best tank destroyer at the moment of its inception. Its front armour was not as thick as the Ferdinand's, but the upper front plate was thick enough to resist 75-85 mm shells. This was also the most mobile among all German tank destroyers. The result was a dangerous tank destroyer that only the SU-152 could fight as an equal. The two vehicles never met. When the Jagdpanther arrived on the Eastern Front the SU-152's career was at its end. Instead, its place was taken by the ISU-152 and ISU-122. The Jagdpanther's career began much later than expected. This was largely caused by the damage to MIAG from bombers. Sufficient tank destroyers to equip even one battalion were not ready until the summer of 1944.

The Jagdpanther's debut was delayed due to issues with production.

The structure of Jagdpanther tank destroyer battalions was nearly the same as that of the 653rd and 654th battalions armed with Ferdinand tank destroyers that debuted in the summer of 1943. Hauptmann Karl-Heinz Noak's 654th tank destroyer battalion was the first to receive these new vehicles. The first Jagdpanthers arrived in March, but the battalion began training with Panthers in February. Initially, the Jagdpanthers suffered from technical issues that delayed their deployment. The manual gave the top speed as 30 kph. The real top speed was 45 kph, but the strict speed limit was imposed to prevent breakdowns. The SPG turned out to be harder to service than the tank it was built on. For instance, to remove the gearbox one had to remove the gun and then maneuver it out through the gun port. The load on the front wheels also grew compared to the Panther.

The 654th Tank Destroyer Battalion was the first to receive the Jagdpanther. It was the only one to be fully equipped with these vehicles according to the TO&E.

The 654th battalion was the first to use the new vehicles in battle. It had only 8 of them as of June 6th, 1944. Of them, only 5 worked when the 2nd battery took defensive positions on June 20th. The combat debut only took place later, on July 11th. The debut went sideways: a Pz.Kpfw.IV crew from the 2nd Tank Division misidentified the new vehicle and shot it in the side, wounding 3 crewmen. A Sherman tank and an anti-tank gun were disabled during a counterattack later that day, but another gun penetrated the casemate of one of the Jagdpanthers, killed the loader, and wounded 3 more of the crew. Only 2 vehicles out of 8 remained in service by July 17th. While the 2nd battery fought the total number of Jagdpanthers in the 654th battalion grew to 25.

These vehicles arrived on the front lines on July 17th but were plagued by technical defects. Only 8 out of the 25 were functional as of July 17th. They were slowly repaired and by July 28th 21 were in service. A report written by Noak on July 24th, 1944, listed the reasons. The main issue was the final drives, they broke on 18 vehicles. Tracks were another problem, a whopping 109 links had broken by that point.

The Jagdpanthers' debut in Normandy was not very impressive. It turned out that the front of the vehicle was overloaded, which often led to breakdowns.

The Jagdpanthers truly showed themselves for the first time on July 30th, 1944. Churchill tanks from the 6th Guards Tank Brigade came under fire and lost 11 tanks in minutes. However, the Germans continued to lose vehicles to technical issues. The first two broke on July 30th, but were only written off on August 1st. A Jagdpanther's final drives broke and it had to be demolished since it could not be evacuated. The amount of combat ready vehicles was still low. 12 were ready on August 2nd, but only 3 by the 5th, and just one on the 13th. 19 Jagdpanthers were irreparably lost in August. They were lost not only to mechanical issues, but enemy fire too. A knocked out vehicle was captured by the British in August of 1944 and sent for study. Meanwhile, the 654th battalion was taken out of combat until November.

A captured Jagdpanther that was knocked out by flanking fire from a Cromwell. Today it can be seen at IWM Duxford.

The heavy losses taken by the 654th battalion and miserly production volumes led to no other unit receiving tank destroyers of this type until the end of the summer. A decision was therefore made to compose mixed units. One of them was the 559th Heavy Tank Destroyer Battalion with 28 StuG 40s and 13 Jagdpanthers. It fought in Belgium in September of 1944. By the end of September the 559th battalion had 9 Jagdpanthers (only 3 in working order) and 8 StuG 40. One vehicle was knocked out from the flank by a Cromwell IV and captured. Today it can be seen at IWM Duxford.

The 519th battalion was formed in a similar way. In September of 1944 it received 17 Jagdpanthers and 28 StuGs. It went into battle in October, and by October 20th there were only 11 Jagdpanthers left. 8 vehicles were lost irreparably in November-December. The battalion's Jagdpanthers never reached 100% readiness. Two more battalions were equipped with Jagdpanthers, the 560th and 655th. 5 battalions received Jagdpanthers in total, but only the 654th was fully equipped with them. A portion of these battalions received the Panzer IV/70 (V). Battalions armed with these vehicles were supposed to play a role in the Ardennes counteroffensive, but their real contribution was negligible.

A Jagdpanther tank destroyer knocked out on the Eastern Front, East Prussia, 1945. An IS-2 tank can be seen in the background. The Jagdpanther could only penetrate the front of the turret and lower front plate of the IS-2 hull with a straightened upper glacis, while the IS-2 could destroy it from 2 kilometers.

The Jagdpanther was first sent to the Soviet-German front in January of 1945, and in miserly amounts at that. This tendency continued in February. Only 38 units arrived on the front. Rather than being sent to special anti-tank battalions they were used to reinforce tank units, including SS ones. The situation changed in March. While there were still 5 units armed with Jagdpanthers on the Western Front, the East had 9 of them. However, this amount was reduced to 5 by April 10th with just 11 tank destroyers in fighting order and 12 undergoing repairs. They weren't doing much better in the West: 5 were combat ready and 25 more were undergoing repairs.

The GCM M36 tank destroyer could defeat the Jagdpanther's front from half a kilometer.

The Jagdpanther's advantages didn't fully disappear by the time they reached the Eastern Front, but they were no longer so pronounced. IS-2 tanks, ISU-122 and ISU-122S SPGs were a common occurrence, and they could defeat the front armour of the Jagdpanther from 2 kilometers away. January of 1945 also marked the debut of the SU-100 tank destroyer. Its 100 mm D-10S gun could penetrate the front of the Jagdpanther from 1300-1400 meters. These SPGs numbered in the hundreds, rather than dozens of Jagdpanthers.

Panzerjäger Panther mit 12,8 cm L/55 (Pak 80), a project to install a more powerful gun dated November 1944.

To conclude, let us mention another project that has become the subject of speculation in near-historical circles. It appeared in the fall of 1944 when Krupp began working on ways to improve armament on existing chassis. This included the Jagdpanther. Krupp specialists knew that the breaking final drives were caused by overloading of the front hull, and an attempt was made to change the layout of the vehicle. This led to the Panzerjäger Panther mit 12,8 cm L/55 (Pak 80) tank destroyer. This was essentially a whole new tank destroyer on the Panther chassis. The fighting compartment was moved to the rear and a more powerful 128 mm Pak 80 gun (the same one used on the Jagdtiger) was installed. The engine compartment was moved to the center of the hull, the driver's compartment was left in the front.

Theoretically this vehicle had potential, but there were caveats. According to the cutaway blueprint (Hln-B147 dated November 24th, 1944) the engine was placed right under the gun mount. Acrobatic pirouettes requiring disassembly of half of the vehicle had to be performed in order to remove it. The mass was also estimated at 51 tons, but the Panther's chassis was already overloaded. Finally, there was no need in the 128 mm Pak 80 gun. The 88 mm Pak 43/3 was enough, plus the Pak 80 had a lower rate of fire due to separate propellant. The project was rejected at the draft stage. The idea of moving the fighting compartment to the rear was not exclusive to the Germans, for instance it was implemented in the USSR on the SU-101 (Uralmash-1) tank destroyer.

2 comments:

  1. The photo with Panther and IS-2 shows also a gun looking like Schneider mle 1917 howitzer. Interesting :)

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  2. Was that hole in made by the M36 one of the standard rounds or with the special T33 APC or the HVAP rounds? I had always read that the US 90 struggled with the glacis of the Panther, and I would have thought the Jagdpanther's glacis resistance to be essentially the same. The T33 and HVAP rounds were there, but in limited quantities (but then again, the Jagdpanthers were even more limited).

    (Although that penetration hole does look irregular, so brittle German armor may once again a cause).

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