Friday, 29 January 2021

Book Review: How to Kill a Panther Tank

Many of my readers are avid historians themselves, or at the very least dabble in primary documents, with small libraries of scans tucked away in your collection, and a lucky few may have visited archives and handled the originals. This kind of engagement usually takes a lot of time and effort, which makes it a difficult thing to do for the majority of people to do. Craig Moore's latest book is targeted towards this demographic, letting you step into the shoes of a historian and read raw unrefined documents originally typed or penned in the 1940s.

Contrary to the book's full title (How to Kill a Panther Tank: Unpublished Scientific Reports from the Second World War) not the whole book is dedicated to reproductions of primary documents. To bring the reader up to speed, a brief history of the Panther tank is provided, with a breakdown of the Ausf.D, Ausf.A, and Ausf.G variants. Photographs of surviving tanks of each type are included to help the reader distinguish between the various modifications. A list of surviving Panther tanks in museums is also included, complete with colour photographs. Some interesting minutia of the Panther tank is also explained, such as the track link type classification system and the purpose of the bucket that hangs on the tank's stern. This level setting takes up about 35 of the book's 224 pages. Another 10 pages briefly cover British anti-tank weapons of the era: 6-pounder and 17-pounder anti-tank guns, the unconventional PIAT launcher, and anti-tank mines. This chapter feels rather incomplete, as it only covers a small portion of the weapons used in this book.

The meat and potatoes of the book are the actual reports. As mentioned above, Moore makes no attempt to process or transform these documents for you. With the exception of formatting and modern printing, you are going to be looking at the same documents that Canadian, British, and American officers would have read. The book starts with what likely would have been many officers' first introduction to the Panther tank: a Canadian report written in the fall of 1943 based on information provided by the USSR. A pamphlet showing vulnerability of the Panther tank to various Soviet guns is reproduced, but not translated. Somewhat disappointingly, graphics originating from Soviet sources are marked simply "Russian Archives".

The armour thickness data received from the USSR was used as a basis for a number of penetration diagrams, these are included in the next section of the book. For the sake of completeness, the portion of the report dealing with the Tiger tank is included as well, which allows the reader to compare the armour of the two "big cats". Similar data is shown in an American pamphlet. 

The book doesn't only cover the Panther's armour. The next report is based on trials of tank #433 shipped from the USSR and tested at the Fighting Vehicle Proving Establishment. This report details the limitations of the Panther's mobility and reliability. The operation of the tank is also evaluated, although quite briefly as the tank was not in good enough condition for full trials. This Panther tank is also used for armour analysis, and another report follows with estimates of the Panther's vulnerability in battle. The Western Allies had not engaged Panthers in battle yet, and all they had to go on was theory, as shooting up their only sample would have been quite foolish. Full firing trials were only held in 1945, and the report covering these trials is also included in Moore's book. These trials don't just include ground weapons, but also air attack using 60 pound rockets fired from Typhoon aircraft. 

In addition to proving grounds reports, How to Kill a Panther Tank also includes a selection of reports depicting how British troops fought Panther tanks on real battlefields. The reader is given the opportunity to compare the effect of shells fired in laboratory conditions at a stationary target to what happens in the chaos of battle where even finding your target is a challenge. Unfortunately, only a few reports are included.

Also included is a reproduction of a School of Tank Technology report walking students through the mechanisms by which a shell penetrates armour and the various kinds of damage this causes. Each type of penetration or perforation is accompanied with diagrams and photographs. This is a great illustration of how the weapons listed in the book actually penetrated the Panther's armour.

Your impression of the book will likely depend on how familiar you are with the history of armoured vehicles. The history of the Panther and various British weapons is useful to entry level readers, but they are unlikely to find the terse documents written for and by armour experts approachable. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the book to guide a beginner through these reports. There is a glossary of technical terms provided, but each report is presented on its own, without any context, summary, or conclusion from the author.

At the opposite extreme, if you are a hardcore tank nerd you might have already read everything this book has to offer. The reports contained inside are largely already available as PDFs from the internet, if you are willing to spend the time hunting them down. You will get the most benefit from this book if you are somewhere in between: knowledgeable enough to be able to navigate the reports confidently, but not so much that you already read them from cover to cover. If you ever wanted to place yourself in the role of a historian who wants to piece together their own narrative from a selection of documents provided to you, then this might be the book for you.

A PDF copy of How to Kill a Panther Tank: Unpublished Scientific Reports from the Second World War was provided by Fonthill Media for the purposes of this review.

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