The German Panzer III – An Early War Favorite

Panzer III

For the first two and half years of World War II and before the advent of the Panzer IV, the Panzer III medium tank, officially known as the Panzerkampfwagen III, served as the main battle tank of the German forces.

But with the coming of the Soviet T-34 medium tank, which packed an exceptional combination of speed, firepower, armor, and ruggedness, the Panzer III was forced to retire, paving the way for the improved Panzer IV.

A German Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf J medium tank negotiating a river crossing in Russia during WWII.
A German Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf J medium tank negotiating a river crossing in Russia during WWII.

However, the Panzer III’s sturdy, reliable and long-lasting chassis formed the basis for one of the most successful self-propelled guns of the Second World War, the Sturmgeschütz III tank destroyer.

The Panzer III was developed following specifications released by Heinz Guderian. The Army Weapons Department drew up plans for the medium tank based on Guderian’s specifications, and manufacturers such as Daimler-Benz, MAN SE, Krupp AG, and Rheinmetall AG began producing prototypes.

The first model of the Panzer III was unveiled in May 1937 as Ausführung A. (Ausf. A), and two years later, mass production began.

Panzer III carrying infantry in March 1942. Bundesarchiv, Bild CC-BY-SA 3.0
Panzer III carrying infantry in March 1942. Bundesarchiv, Bild CC-BY-SA 3.0

The Panzer IIIs were among the first tanks to use torsion-bar suspensions. The Panzer III was built with a three-man turret, just like the British Vickers Medium tanks. This feature allowed complete concentration by the commander while executing tactics on the field, and thus the Panzer IIIs had a combat advantage–very few other tanks had three-man turrets.

From its first mass production in 1939 to the last in 1943, about 5,775 Panzer III Ausf. As were produced, with 14 variants labeled A through N. The Ausf. N, the last of the Panzer IIIs, was designed for anti-infantry and backup roles. It was fitted with a 7.35 cm KwK 37 L/24 cannon, which early Panzer IVs used as their main armament.

Panzer III. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de
Panzer III. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Panzer IIIs also carried a High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) warhead which could penetrate heavily armored tanks. However, this ammunition was strictly for defense.

Generally, Panzer IIIs weighed 23 tons and had a power-to-weight ratio of 12 hp/ton. 296 horsepower was generated by its 12-cylinder Maybach HL 120 TRM engine, and it could move at a maximum speed of 25 mph.

The earliest Panzer IIIs had armor with 1.18″ thickness or less, but later models beginning with the Ausf J had their armor thickness improved to nearly 2″ all around.

Panzer III in Yugoslavia with a striking loop antenna on the engine compartment. Photo Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-185-0137-14A : Grimm, Arthur : CC-BY-SA 3.0
Panzer III in Yugoslavia with a striking loop antenna on the engine compartment. Photo Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-185-0137-14A : Grimm, Arthur : CC-BY-SA 3.0

Following their commissioning, Panzer IIIs were used extensively during the Second World War. They performed in the invasion of Poland, the Fall of France, Operation Barbarossa and the Battle of Kursk in the Soviet Union, and the North African campaigns. At the time of the Poland and French campaigns, they were the best medium tanks of the German Army.

During the North Africa Campaign, they faced the M3 Stuarts and Crusader cruisers of the Allied forces. The Panzer III could sufficiently engage these tanks, but fell short in capability against Matilda tanks and M3 Lee tanks.

Panzer III and Rommel’s command vehicle in the desert. By Bundesarchiv, Bild CC-BY-SA 3.0
Panzer III and Rommel’s command vehicle in the desert. By Bundesarchiv, Bild CC-BY-SA 3.0

Following the losses and subsequent defeat of the German military at the Battle of Kursk, the Panzer IIIs were replaced by the more advanced Panzer IVs and were tasked with minor roles.

They were slowly retired from active duty and by the time the war ended, the last of them had been sent to German tank factories where their assault gun chassis were used to manufacture the most largely produced German tank destroyer and the most successful self-propelled guns of World War II, the stuG IIIs.

 

2nd SS Panzer Division soldiers, Tiger I tank, in June 1943. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Zschaeckel-206-35 / Zschäckel, Friedrich / CC-BY-SA 3.0
2nd SS Panzer Division soldiers, Tiger I tank, in June 1943. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Zschaeckel-206-35 / Zschäckel, Friedrich / CC-BY-SA 3.0

 

Panzerkampfwagen III (Fl) (SdKfz 143 3) (Flammpanzer 1000 l tank) issued in the Wehrtechnische Studiensammlung Koblenz. Photo Rcbutcher CC BY-SA 2.0
Panzerkampfwagen III (Fl) (SdKfz 143 3) (Flammpanzer 1000 l tank) issued in the Wehrtechnische Studiensammlung Koblenz. Photo Rcbutcher CC BY-SA 2.0

 

Flammpanzer III Sd.Kfz 141 3
Flammpanzer III Sd.Kfz 141 3

 

Panzer IIIs and IVs on the southern side of the Kursk salient at the start of Operation Citadel. By RIA Novosti archive, image #4408 / N. Bode / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Panzer IIIs and IVs on the southern side of the Kursk salient at the start of Operation Citadel. By RIA Novosti archive, image #4408 / N. Bode / CC-BY-SA 3.0

 

The crew of a Panzer III of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich rests during a lull in the Battle of Kursk on the Eastern Front. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Zschaeckel-208-25 / Zschäckel, Friedrich / CC-BY-SA 3.0
The crew of a Panzer III of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich rests during a lull in the Battle of Kursk on the Eastern Front. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Zschaeckel-208-25 / Zschäckel, Friedrich / CC-BY-SA 3.0

 

Panzer III in Poland, 1939. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de
Panzer III in Poland, 1939. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

 

German Panzer Mk III tanks advance through a Tunisian town. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de
German Panzer Mk III tanks advance through a Tunisian town. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

 

Panzer IIIs with Winter Whitewash – Eastern Front.
Panzer IIIs with Winter Whitewash – Eastern Front.

 

A Panzer III advances in the desert, April 1941. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de
A Panzer III advances in the desert, April 1941. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

 

Panzer III of the 4th Panzer-Division in Maastricht during the offensive on the western front. May 1940. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de
Panzer III of the 4th Panzer-Division in Maastricht during the offensive on the western front. May 1940. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de
Panzer III in North Africa. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-783-0109-11 / Dörner / CC-BY-SA 3.0.
Panzer III in North Africa. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-783-0109-11 / Dörner / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

 

German Panzer IIIs fitted with Schurzen add-on armor on the move.
German Panzer IIIs fitted with Schurzen add-on armor on the move.

 

German Panzer III, during the early stages on Operation Barbarossa. Bundesarchiv – CC-BY SA 3.0
German Panzer III, during the early stages on Operation Barbarossa. Bundesarchiv – CC-BY SA 3.0

 

Battle of Kursk was the largest tank battle of World War II, with each side deploying nearly 3,000 tanks (Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Merz-014-12A / Merz / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / Wikipedia)
Battle of Kursk was the largest tank battle of World War II, with each side deploying nearly 3,000 tanks (Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Merz-014-12A / Merz / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / Wikipedia)

 

Panzer III of Division “Grossdeutschland” launches its flamethrower. Soviet Union, 1943/44 [Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-732-0114-16 / CC-BY-SA 3.0].
Panzer III of Division “Grossdeutschland” launches its flamethrower. Soviet Union, 1943/44 [Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-732-0114-16 / CC-BY-SA 3.0].
A column of Panzer III tanks in the Eastern Front, July 1943. [Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-219-0562A-06 / Scheffler / CC-BY-SA 3.0].
A column of Panzer III tanks in the Eastern Front, July 1943. [Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-219-0562A-06 / Scheffler / CC-BY-SA 3.0].
A German Panzer III Ausf M moves along a dusty road in Sicily, August 1943. [© IWM (MH 6341)]
A German Panzer III Ausf M moves along a dusty road in Sicily, August 1943. [© IWM (MH 6341)]
Specially modified Panzer III
Specially modified Panzer III

 

Read another story from us: A7V: The First Panzer – The Tank Museum

 

Nordafrika, Panzer III in Fahrt
Nordafrika, Panzer III in Fahrt