Variant Panthers:
Daimler-Benz’s Panther

While Skoda bypassed bureaucratic procedures to submit its design for a new medium tank to combat the deadly Soviet T-34/76, Daimler-Benz properly waited for a request for a proposal, and then submitted a tank that matched the requirements almost exactly.

In November 1941, the German Army’s Weapons Bureau asked for a tank weighing 30 to 35 tons, carrying a long-barreled 75mm gun then still in development, with thick armor that mimicked the sloped design of the T-34, high maneuverability with good speed, and a diesel engine. The Weapons Bureau asked Daimler Benz and MAN (Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg) to submit designs.

Daimler-Benz did not directly copy the T-34 for their design, but the machine did look very similar to the Soviet tank. The slope-sided turret was mounted forward, similarly to the T-34, and the large interweaved road wheel looked very similar to those of the T-34’s Christie suspension (though the Daimler-Benz tank used a different system). Like the T-34, the Daimler-Benz tank was fairly low to the ground, presenting a small target.

As designed, the tank turned out to be too small to fit the large turret developed by artillery manufacturer Rheinmetall-Borsig to house the new 75mm KwK 42 L/70 gun. A new turret would have to be worked up, small enough to fit the tank yet still able to carry the huge gun. While the prototype managed to maneuver with the huge cannon mounted in its mocked-up turret, the experts from the Weapons Bureau expressed concern that in practice the gun’s heavy weight would cause balance problems. A lighter main weapon might have to be fitted.

Fitting the turret so far forward meant that the engine had to be placed in the rear of the tank – something the Army inspectors noted with approval, as it allowed better sloping of the front glacis plate and provided a large crew compartment. They did not like the use of the rear drive sprocket, contending that this would reduce the tank’s maneuverability in rough ground.

Despite the tank’s shortcomings, Daimler-Benz won the initial round of testing and in March 1942 received an order for production machines (either 200 or 400; sources vary on the number). The prototype was designated VK3002; once in production it would be known as the Panzerkampfwagen V and officially nicknamed “Panther.”

But MAN was not ready to go down without a fight. The firm’s management understood who the real enemy was – Daimler-Benz – and set out to defeat them. Some industrial espionage brought them early word of the Daimler-Benz tank’s details and they modified their design to specifically address the weaknesses of the competing vehicle. And in a tactic known in many other industries – wargame publishing not excepted – they commenced a fierce whispering campaign denigrating the Daimler-Benz machine. The firm’s partisans pointed out the likelihood that a smaller gun would have to be fitted to the Daimler-Benz tank, and noted its silhouette’s marked resemblance to the T-34; surely the design was simply begging for friendly-fire incidents.

As revised, the MAN tank placed the large Rheinmetall-Borsig turret in the center of the tank, with the transmission mounted in the front of the machine and the engine in the rear. The tank was much wider than the Daimler-Benz tank, requiring torsion-bar suspension, which in turn made it taller as well. It had wide tracks, unlike the Daimler-Benz machine, a feature the Weapons Bureau preferred but had not required.

Rudolf Diesel had developed his revolutionary engine at MAN, but for the new tank the designers selected a petrol-fired engine, the same 12-cylinder Maybach that powered the new Tiger heavy tank. Diesel engines of the time were comparatively heavy, and the petrol engine gave more power for its weight. MAN argued that the benefits for production and maintenance derived from the use of a common engine for both tank types.

The MAN tank turned out to be much larger than the vehicle called for in the original proposal, weighing in at 45 tons. But it did have sloped armor, and its greater power and wide tracks promised better open-ground performance than the Daimler-Benz tank. And it carried the weapon specified in the proposal without balance problems. MAN’s supporters spread the word that the Daimler-Benz tank would need a newly-designed turret, where the MAN machine had one ready for production, and a new engine, where MAN used a power plant already in production.

Some of the criticisms had merit: the turret had not been fully designed, which meant that the tank may have had to carry a smaller main gun. Without the huge L/70 cannon, the new tank would not be a significant step forward in combat capability over the improved PzKpfw IV with a long-barreled L/43 or L/48 gun then on the drawing boards – certainly not enough to justify the increased cost of a new-model tank and the production time lost in switching over to the new design. The Red Army had its T-34 in the field already, shooting German tanks to pieces – the new tank needed to get to the troops fast, and the new turret and engine could easily delay the Daimler-Benz project and cause reliability problems once it did reach the troops (the MAN Panther turned out to have similar problems). And the silhouette does look very much like that of the T-34

The smear campaign succeeded: Hitler appointed a special commission to review the previous decision, and in May he accepted their recommendation to overturn the previous award. MAN’s tank would become the new Panther. The Daimler-Benz machine (coated in mild steel rather than armored plate) would be permanently parked at the Kummersdorf proving ground south of Berlin, though it was left behind when the museum pieces were mobilized in 1945 and it became Soviet war booty. Daimler-Benz did get a bone thrown its way; a sizeable sub-contract for producing the MAN design in its Berlin-Marienfelde plant helped soothe wounded feelings.

For our Variant Panthers variant in the Groundhog Day 2016 Golden Journal, the Daimler-Benz Panther is present as the VK3002. While it was tempting to give it a cool animal name like “Leopard,” had the tank survived the bureaucratic infighting that characterized Nazi Germany’s feudal structure it would have been named “Panther.” And since we already have a Panther, it sticks with its prototype designation.

We’ve accepted the Weapons Office critique, and our Daimler Panther carries the L/48 75mm gun rather than the L/70. It’s a better tank than anything else in the German inventory in the summer of 1943, except the MAN Panther. But despite the sleazy tactics used by MAN, their Panther looks to have been the better choice.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his Iron Dog, Leopold.

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