The Panzer 4 is normally described as having been the mainstay of the German tank forces during the Second World War, but that is actually somewhat misleading.
While it is true that the Panzer 4 was the only German tank to remain in production for the entire duration of the war, for the first three of those years it was a close support weapon produced in relatively small numbers.
It was only after the appearance of the long-gun armed Ausf F2 in the summer of 1942 that the Panzer IV became a potent tank killer, and its heyday came during 1943, when for a short period between the gradual disappearance of the Panzer III and the entry into service of the Panther it was indeed the backbone of the Panzer forces.
The original Panzer 4 was designed to operate in support of the Panzer III.
That tank, initially armed with a 3.7cm KwK L/46.5 gun and firing armor piercing rounds, was expected to act as the German Army’s tank killer.
The Panzer IVs would follow behind and would use their 75mm howitzer firing high explosives to destroy soft skinned targets such as enemy anti-tank guns, which were not particularly vulnerable to armor piercing shells.
Work on the Panzer 4 began in 1934 when Rheinmetall-Borsig, Krupp, and MAN each produced a design under the code name Bataillonsführerwagen (battalion commander’s vehicle) or BW. The Krupp design (VK2001/K) won the design contest, although the original six-wheeled interleaved suspension was eventually replaced by an eight wheeled leaf-spring double bogie system.
The resulting tank closely resembled the Panzer III – the Panzer IV Ausf A was actually shorter than the Panzer III Ausf A, although it was wider and taller. By the time the Panzer III design settled down with the Ausf E the Panzer IV was longer and taller, but the same width. What it did have was a bigger turret ring, which would later allow it to carry heavier guns than the Panzer III.
The Panzer IV shared the same basic design as all other German tanks, with the engine at the rear, the drive wheels at the front and the transmission running up the middle of the tank. Like the Panzer III, it featured a three man turret, with the commander in a central position below the cupola, the gunner to the left and the loader to the right.
This three man turret allowed the German tanks to fire much more rapidly than the one or two man turrets of French and British designs and helped to make up for their thin armor and relatively poor guns. The driver was placed to the left of the superstructure, the radio operator to the right.
The biggest change to the design of the Panzer 4 came late in 1941, after the German invasion of Russia.
None of the German tank guns could easily penetrate the armor of the Soviet KV-1 or T-34 tanks, and a desperate program of upgrades was put in place.
The most successful of these saw the development of a long-barreled 75mm gun, the KwK40 L/43. When the Panzer IV Ausf F2, armed with this gun, entered service in the summer of 1942 the Panzer IV finally became the powerful main battle tank that it is remembered as.
The Germans had hoped to enter the war with a Panzer force largely made up of Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs, but the slow rate of production of these tanks and Hitler’s unexpectedly aggressive foreign policy meant that the army had to fight a war four years before it had expected. As a result, the vast majority of tanks used in Poland and France were the light Panzer Is and Panzer IIs.
The Panzer IV became part of the standard equipment of the Panzer divisions after a mobilization decree of October 1938.
Each Panzer Regiment was to have four light companies and two light companies (a). The two light companies (a) were to have five Panzer IVs from October 1938 and six from March 1939.
In July 1939 a new organisation chart was issued, in which each Panzer Regiment was to have two medium companies, each of which was to have two Panzer IVs in the HQ company, five Panzer IIs in one company and twelve Panzer 4s in three platoons of four, a total of 14 Panzer IVs per company.
By the start of the Second World War Panzer Regiments, 1 and 2 both had 28 Panzer IVs, giving the 1st Panzer Division 56 tanks, while in the 1st Light Division Panzer Regiment 11 also had 28 Panzer IVs, while Pz.Abt.65 had 14, for a total of 42 tanks.
The proportion of Panzer 4s in the Panzer Divisions continued to increase until by early in 1943, as the Panzer III was removed from the front line, every company in every detachment in the Panzer regiments were using the Panzer 4.
The same year saw the appearance of the Panzer V Panther, which was expected to completely replace the Panzer 4.
Slow production of the Panther meant that this would never happen, but during 1943 the official organization of the Panzer Divisions was modified again, so that each division was to contain one Panzer 4 detachment and one Panther detachment, and by the end of the war the Panther was more common than the Panzer IV.
The Panzer 4 was the third most numerous German tank during the invasion of Poland, although the 211 available represented only 7% of the total German tank force (1,445 Panzer Is, 1,223 Panzer IIs and only 98 Panzer IIIs). The Poles had very few tanks themselves, and so the poor technical quality of the German tanks was not revealed.
Even so, the Panzer forces did suffer larger than expected losses, for the thin armor of the existing German tanks was vulnerable to fire from the Polish anti-tank rifles.
A total of 76 Panzer IVs were knocked out by 10 October 1939, of which 19 were write-offs.
The support role of the Panzer IV meant that it was less vulnerable than the Panzer III and the Panzer 38(t), which led the attacks, but the extra armor was soon being installed.
Invasion of the West, May 1940
The Panzer 4 played a relatively minor part in the dramatic German victories in the Low Countries and France in May-June 1940.
The Germans had around 2,439 (figures vary) tanks available for the attack on 10 May, of which 278-280, or just over 10% of the total, were Panzer IVs.
By now the production of the Panzer III had caught up and overtaken than of the Panzer IV, which was thus only the fourth most numerous of the German tanks.
Although the panzer-4 was not designed for anti-tank work, it’s short 75m gun could still penetrate the armor of the French Hotchkiss and the British light tanks. It had a slight advantage over the Renault R 35 but was out-gunned and out-armoured by the Somua S 35, Char B1 bis and the Renault D 2, while the thick armor of the British Matilda infantry tanks caused problems for every German tank.
The German victory in the west was one in spite of the shortcomings of the Panzers, not because of any technological advantage. While the French scattered their large number of technically superior tanks along with their entire line, the Germans concentrated their Panzer Divisions in the key areas of the front and punched a hole in the Allied line. The Allied tanks were thrown into the battle in small detachments and were defeated in detail.
The varying intensity of the fighting is clearly demonstrated in the tank losses.
From 10-20 May, during the initial break-out, a total of 127 Panzer IVs were knocked out, of which 14 were judged to be write-offs. From 21-31 May, the period which saw the Allied counterattack at Arras and the fighting around Dunkirk, a total of 63 Panzer IVs were written off.
Only nine were write-off between 1-10 June, during the fighting on the Somme, and another 11 were lost in the final advance into France between 11-30 June. A total of 97 Panzer IVs were lost in just under two months of fighting, one-third of the total available at the start of the campaign.
The short gunned Panzer 4 entered combat in North African with the 5th and 8th Panzer Regiments in the spring of 1941, but although 40 of them were present with these two regiments, they had little impact on the fighting. The short 75mm gun was not effective against the Allied armor of 1941, and the British were more concerned by the 50mm armed Panzer III and by Rommel’s 88s, the excellent 88mm multi-purpose anti-aircraft/ anti-tank gun.
The situation changed with the arrival of the first long gunned Panzer IVs.
Ten of these reached North Africa in May 1942, in time for Operation Venezia, Rommel’s attack on the Gazala position, but probably didn’t actually take part in the battle (sources disagree on this).
The long gun Panzer 4 became known as the Panzer IV “special” in North Africa.
On 11 August 1942, after taking part in Rommel’s last successful advance east into Egypt, an Africa Corp report described the Panzer IV “special” as having the best tank gun ever mounted on a Panzer, capable of penetrating the front armour of every Allied tank in North Africa at up to 1,500 meters, and of destroying light tanks at 2,000 meters if the visibility was good enough.
The only problem was that the long gun was very distinctive and the new tank became the target of every enemy gun.
As a result of the Panzer IV “special” needed to be screened by Panzer IIIs and only brought to the front to deal with heavily armored targets that were holding up the advance.
The Panzer IV “special” took part in the battle of Alam Halfa, Rommel’s last attempt to break through the British lines and reach the Nile.
During this battle, which began at the end of August 1942, the Panzer IV “special” proved itself to be superior to any Allied tank, with one small detachment destroying an entire regiment of Grants, but the small number present could not prevent Rommel’s attack from failing.
Between July and October 1942, 37 “specials” reached North Africa, but only 30 were present at the start of the second battle of Alamein. The bulk of Rommel’s tanks were Panzer IIIs and Italian M.13s.
Despite inflicting heavy losses on the Allied tanks, the Germans and Italians were simply overwhelmed.
Rommel was forced to retreat west all the way to Tunisia.
During this final phase of the battle in North Africa the Panzer IV “special” and the Tiger made up the bulk of the German tank forces, but once again they were overwhelmed by the vast numbers of Allied tanks and by Allied fighter bombers.
At the start of Operation Barbarossa, the vast majority of the over 20,000 tanks in service with the Red Army were obsolete, but the Germans soon ran into the excellent T-34 and the heavily armored KV-1. While thousands of Soviet tanks were destroyed or captured in the first victorious German campaigns (as many as 17,000), this was once again due to superior German tactical skill and the then very poor condition of the Red Army.
The short gunned Panzer 4 soon faded away on the Eastern Front. There had been 438 in the force that had invaded Russia in June 1941. By June 1942 the number had been reduced to 208, and at the start of the Kursk offensive in July 1943 only 60 short gunned Panzer IVs remained on the Eastern Front.
None of the German tanks had powerful enough guns to deal with the thick armor of the KV-1 or the well designed sloped armor of the T-34.
The Germans were forced to make a frantic effort to produce more powerful anti-tank weapons, and one of the most successful results of that effort was the appearance of the long-gunned Panzer IV.
The long-gunned Panzer IV began to appear at the front in the summer of 1942. By June 1942 there were already 170 of them at the front, and they played a major part in the German successes of 1942. The long gun gave the Panzer 4 the ability to defeat the T-34/76 and to take on the KV-1 with some chance of success. The only problem was that the extra weight of the gun and the thicker armor needed on the Eastern Front was close to the practical limit that could be carried by the Panzer IV chassis and suspension. There was very little room for further improvement.
By the summer of 1943, the long gunned Panzer 4 was the most important German tank. At the start of the battle of Kursk Army Groups Centre and South had 841 of them, alongside 432 Panzer IIIs, in a total force of around 2,700 armored vehicles. Likewise, the Panzer IV had passed its peak.
By the end of the war, it was outgunned by the 122mm IS heavy tanks and by the 85mm gun on T-34/85, although it could still inflict heavy losses on the T-34s.
On 6 June 1944, a total of 748 Panzer IVs were present in the nine Panzer divisions in France. The Panzer 4 combination of thick frontal armor and the powerful 75mm long gun made it a very dangerous opponent, superior to the Cromwell, Churchill and Sherman M4A2 at normal combat ranges. The Sherman M4A4 could at least match it, and the 17pdr Sherman Firefly and the Achilles and M10 tank destroyers could deal with it at longer ranges.
Fortunately, the nature of the fighting in Normandy negated much of the Panzer 4 advantage.
In order to win the Germans had to throw the Allies back into the sea, and so the Panzers Divisions had to launch a series of counter-attacks. The bocage country of Normandy was divided into a patchwork of fields separated by high thick hedges, and as a result, most fighting took place at very short range.
Which ever side was attacked suffered heavy losses from short range tank and anti-tank guns and bazooka fire? The Germans also suffered heavily from fighter bomber attack.
By the end of July the Allies had finally broken out of the Normandy beachhead, and during August the German retreat turned into a rout.
Many of the surviving Panzer 4 were destroyed in the Falaise pocket or in the retreat east through France.
By the end of the year, only 259 Panzer 4 could be found for the eight Panzer divisions that took part in the battle of the Bulge.
*This article was originally published at www.historyofwar.org