As early as 1934/35, General Heinz Guderian envisioned two basic types to act as the most numerous equipment for the future German Panzer Divisions. The first vehicle was to be armed with anti-tank gun and two machine guns and second one was to be a support vehicle armed with a larger caliber gun. The first one eventually became known as Panzerkampfwagen III, which was to be a standard tank for the three light companies of a tank battalion. The second one became known as Panzerkampfwagen IV.
In 1935, development orders for a 15-ton full-tracked vehicle based on the specifications by Waffenamt were issued to MAN (Nurnberg), Daimler-Benz AG (Berlin-Marienfelde), Rheinmetall-Borsig (Berlin) and Krupp AG (Essen). In order to maintain secrecy, new vehicle was known as Zugfuhrerwagen (ZW) – platoon commander’s vehicle. The vehicle was designated Versuchkraftfahrzeug 619, Mittlerer Traktor (Medium Tractor) and 3.7 cm Geschutz-Panzerwagen.
Panzerkampfwagen III’s development began with a conflict between Waffenamt (the Ordnance Department) and the Inspector for Mechanized Troops about the main armament. Waffenamt selected and was satisfied with 37 mm gun, while the Inspector for Mechanized Troops demanded 50 mm gun. In the end, 37 mm gun was chosen as the main armament of the new vehicle. The decision was based on the fact that the infantry was already equipped with standard 37 mm Pak 35/36 L/45 anti-tank gun as well as that only one gun and one type of ammunition had to be produced. The turret and turret ring were still capable of mounting heavier gun as it was selected by the Inspector for Mechanized Troops. Armor protection was to be heavier in the front rather than rear since, new vehicle was to be used in forward elements of assault tank formations. The top speed was specified to be 40 km/h. The vehicle was to be operated by the crew of five men, with commander, gunner and loader in the turret and the driver and radio operator in the hull front. The communication between crewmembers was through the use of intercom system. Panzer III was the first of German Panzers to be equipped with intercom system for in-tank communications. Later on all of Panzers were equipped with this device which, proved to be very effective during combat.
Krupp’s MKA Prototype Trials and tests of new prototypes took place from 1936 to 1937 on testing grounds in Kummersdorf and Ulm. They resulted in Daimler-Benz design being chosen for full-scale production and in early 1937, Waffenamt ordered Daimler-Benz to produce first series (0-Series) of their design.
Krupp’s ZW prototype designated as MKA featured leafsprings and bogie wheel mountings type of a suspension. In turn, many features of this vehicle were used in the design of Panzerkampfwagen IV, which was designed by Krupp.
PzKpfw III design was composed of four sections – hull, turret, and front superstructure with the opening for the turret and rear superstructure with the engine deck. Each section was of a welded construction and all four were bolted together. The hull was divided into two main compartments divided by a bulkhead. The front compartment housed the gearbox and steering mechanism and the rear one both the fighting and engine compartment. Basic hull, turret, superstructure and crew layout remained unchanged throughout the production life of Panzerkampfwagen III series.
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In March of 1941, last Sd.Kfz.141 and first Sd.Kfz.141/1
Panzerkampfwagen III tank – Ausf J (8-serie) entered production. It was produced by Daimler-Benz, MAN, Alkett, Henschel, Wegmann, MNH and MIAG until July of 1942 with 2616 produced (chassis numbers 68001-69100 and 72001-74100). Ausf J had its armor protection significantly improved as it ranged from 10mm to 50mm. Increase in armor was accompanied by installation of new driver’s visor (Fahrersehklappe 50) and ballmount (Kugelblende 50) for a 7.92 mm MG 34 machine gun in the hull. New type of front access hatches was installed along with new air intakes on the hull front. From April of 1942, 20 mm spaced armor was added to the gun mantlet and/or superstructure front. 1549 vehicles produced from March of 1941 to July of 1942 were armed with 50 mm KwK 38 L/42 gun and two MG 34 machine guns. Those vehicles were designated as PzKpfw III Ausf J / Sd.Kfz.141. 1067 vehicles produced from December of 1941 to July of 1942, armed with 50 mm KwK 39 L/60 and two MG 34 machine guns. Those vehicles were designated as PzKpfw III Ausf J/Sd.Kfz.141/1. The only difference between both models was the main armament and ammunition stowage for 84 in contrast to previous 99 rounds. When encountered in North Africa, British nicknamed 50 mm L/60 Ausf J – „Mark III Special” The 50 mm L/60 gun was a significant improvement over the original 37 mm gun, although it was still inadequate to deal with American M4 Sherman and Soviet T-34/76 tank. In 1941/42, there was an unsuccessful attempt by Krupp to mount Ausf J with Panzerkampfwagen IV Ausf G’s turret to create new Panzerkampfwagen III variant designated Ausf K.
From August to November of 1942, 81 Ausf J tanks were produced as command tanks – Panzerbefehlswagen III mit 5cm KwK L/42 / Sd.Kfz.141. From March to September of 1943, additional 104 Ausf J were converted as well. The vehicle was basic Ausf J tank but lacked hull machine gun and carried less ammunition (75 rounds). It was fitted additional radio equipment and periscope.
In June of 1942, Ausf L tank entered production. 653 were produced by Daimler-Benz, MAN, Alkett, Henschel, Wegmann, MNH and MIAG until December of 1942 (chassis numbers 74101-75500). Ausf L was armed with 50mm KwK 39 L/60 gun and two 7.92 mm MG 34 machine guns. Externally it was almost identical to late model Ausf J as it was developed by modifying it. The main difference was new torsion bar gun counter balance, which replaced the original the coil spring gun recoil mechanism. Armor protection of the front turret was increased from 30 mm to 57 mm and 20 mm spaced armor was installed on the superstructure front and in many cases on the gun mantlet. The design of the vehicle was simplified as rear deck was modified (air-intakes and hatches) and early in production hull escape hatches, loader’s vision port on the mantlet and turret side ports were removed. Ausf L was also mounted with new special system to transfer heated engine coolant from one vehicle to another. Single Ausf L was mounted with an experimental 75/55 mm tapered-bore KwK0725 gun and was designated as PzKpfw III Ausf L mit Waffe 0725. Vehicles send to North Africa were equipped with additional air filters, modified oil filters different cooling fan reduction ratio and were designated as Ausf L(Tp). Ausf L was also first to be mounted with anti-aircraft machine gun mount (Fliegerbeschussgerat 41/42) on commander’s cupola. This became standard on al new PzKpfw III tanks and was mounted on older models during service. Many were mounted with 5 mm hull and turret armor skirts (Schurzen).
From October of 1942 to February of 1943, 250 new Ausf M (10-serie) tanks were produced by Wegmann, MIAG, MAN and MNH (chassis numbers 76101-77800). Ausf M was late production model Ausf L mounted with new wading equipment allowing wading up to depth of approximately 1.3 m, in contrast to previous 0.8-0.9 m. This led to all air inlets and outlets as well as other openings and joints being sealed, while modified muffler with closure-valve was installed high on the hull rear. The new system was developed and modified version used in Tauchpanzer III submersible wading tanks. The hull rear mounted rack of five smoke generators was replaced by three 90mm NbK dischargers mounted forward on both sides of the turret. Ausf M just as Ausf L was armed with 50mm KwK 39 L/60 gun and two 7.92 mm MG 34 machine guns. Vehicles produced in 1943 were factory mounted with 5mm hull and turret armor skirts (Schurzen). Large number of Ausf M was converted to either Sturmgeschütz III or Ausf N.
From February of 1943 to April of 1943, 100 Ausf M tanks produced by MIAG in Braunsweig (chassis numbers 77609-77708) were converted by Wegmann in Kassel to Flammpanzer – flame-thrower tanks. New vehicles were designated as PzKpfw III (Fl) / Sd.Kfz 141/3. They were also commonly known as Flammpanzer III or Panzerflammwagen III. It was unmodified Ausf M tank with additional 30 mm to 50 mm armor plates welded on for protection to the hull front. This was done, as Flammpanzer III tanks had to get closer to their targets being vulnerable to enemy fire. In contrast to regular tanks, it was operated by three men crew composed of commander/flame gunner, radio operator/hull gunner and driver. The main gun and internal ammunition stowage were replaced with the flame-thrower and fuel tanks. This vehicle was armed with 14 mm Flammenwerfer flame-thrower and two 7.92 mm MG 34 machine guns. The flame-thrower was mounted in place of the original 50 mm gun and concealed in a thick 1.5 m long pipe made to appear as standard armament. The flame-thrower could lowered 8 degrees and raised 20 degrees. Each vehicle carried some 1020 liters of inflammable oil (Flammol) in two tanks inside the vehicle. Oil was pumped into the pipe by Koebe pump driven by two-stroke DKW engine and was ignited by an electric charge (Smitskerzen). The supply of oil allowed some 125 one second or some 80 to 81 two to three seconds long bursts. The maximum range of the flame-thrower was 60 m using ignited oil and 50 m using cold oil. The range also depended on the weather conditions.
Flammpanzer III was designed in mind with fighting in the urban areas such as Stalingrad, but it was never to reach its destination. Eventually, Flammpanzer III equipped Panzer Regiment’s (Panzer Abteilung) Flame-thrower Platoons (Panzer-Flamm-Zug), each with seven vehicles. A report dated May 5th of 1941 gives the following distribution of the vehicles: 28 to Panzer Division Grossdeutschland, 15 to 6th Panzer Division, 14 to 1st Panzer Division, 14 to 24th Panzer Division, 14 to 26th Panzer Division and 7 to 16th Panzer Division along with single vehicle to Schule Wunsdorf. Report from 1943, states that from March to December, Flammpanzer III tanks were serving with following Panzer Divisions: 1st, 6th, 11th, 14th, 24th and Grossdeutschland in Russia and 16th and 26th in Italy. In July of 1943, 41 flame-thrower tanks were reported in service with 6th, 10th and Grossdeutschland Panzer Divisions in preparation for the attack on Kursk. Flammpanzer III’s design proved to be unsuccessful and vehicles returned for repairs (35) were rebuilt into standard combat tanks or Sturmgeschutz III assault guns / tank destroyers. In November of 1944, only 10 out of original 100 were repaired and issued to Panzer-Flamm-Kompanie 351, which saw service as late as April of 1945 with Heeres Gruppe Sud. Today, Panzerkampfwagen III (Fl) (chassis number 77651) captured in Italy can be seen in Koblenz Museum in Germany after being transferred to the museum from Aberdeen Proving Grounds in U.S.A.
In June of 1942, last PzKpfw III model entered production. New model Ausf N was produced until August of 1943 by Henschel, Wegmann, MNH, MIAG and MAN (chassis numbers 73851-77800). Ausf N tanks were produced on Ausf J (3), L (447) and M (213) chassis with total of 663 made. 37 additional Ausf N tanks were converted from rebuilt older PzKpfw III tanks. PzKpfw III Ausf N was also known as Sturmpanzer III. Ausf N was the same as Ausf J, L and M with the main difference being its main armament. It was armed with short 75 mm KwK 37 L/24, originally used in PzKpfw IV Ausf A to F1 tanks, which then rearmed with longer 75 mm guns. Additional armament consisted of standard two MG 34 machine guns. The internal ammunition stowage was modified and 56 (based on Ausf L chassis) or 64 (based on Ausf M chassis) rounds were carried. Ausf N did not have spaced armor as previous models because of the weight of the new 75 mm gun. Late production vehicles were fitted with modified type of commander’s cupola with single hatch instead of two-piece one as well as one-piece side turret hatches. Number of late vehicles was mounted with commander’s cupola used in PzKpfw IV Ausf G tanks. Vehicles produced from March of 1943 were factory mounted with 5mm hull and turret armor skirts (Schurzen). In addition, vehicles produced from early 1943 were factory applied with Zimmerit – anti-magentic paste. PzKpfw III Ausf N tanks were used for close support role. They were either assigned to Tiger Battalions (sPzAbt/sSSPzAbt) as a way to protect them from enemy infantry or to Panzer-Grenadier Divisions. Some source also state that variant designated Ausf O existed, although there is no proof of its existence.
Some of the later Panzer III variants were fitted with turret mounted storage bins (Gepack Kasten). Very common were the canister racks mounted on the turret and/or at the rear of the hull. During early stages of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, Panzer IIIs were equipped with single-axle trailers carrying extra fuel in order to increase their radius of operation. During production, PzKpfw III’s design underwent many changes including various modifications made on the turret (e.g. cupola, gun mantlet, vision slots, hatches, armor skirts) and hull (e.g. escape hatch, armor skirts) and superstructure (e.g. air intakes, spaced armor, headlights arrangement) components. Since mid 1943, Panzer IIIs were mounted with Schurzen – 5 mm armor skirts. During service and repairs, many Panzer III tanks were up-armored, rearmed and re-equipped with new equipment and components creating completely non-standard variants. Vehicles send to North Africa were equipped with additional air filters and different cooling fan reduction ratio. They were designated as (Tp), Tp being short for Tropisch / Trop / Tropen – tropical.
Panzer III saw an extensive service on all fronts until late 1943, when it was totally replaced by Panzerkampfwagen IV. As a common practice, Panzer III’s chassis/components became a base for few conversions and prototypes. By 1943 standards Panzer III was obsolete and lost its combat effectiveness what resulted in many being converted to perform various functions.
From February of 1942 to April of 1944, 262 Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf E/F/Gs were up-armored and converted into Artillerie Panzerbeobachtungswagen III (Sd.Kfz.143) – observation vehicles which served with Wespe and Hummel batteries until the end of the war. Panzerbeobachtungswagen III had a dummy gun mounted and in the place of original gun, Kugelblende (ballmount) for a 7.92 mm MG34 machine gun was installed. Sd.Kfz.143 had a crew of five and was equipped with powerful radio equipment.
In 1943, some Ausf L and Ms were converted into turretless Pionierpanzerwagen III – engineer tanks mounted with additional equipment. In mid 1944, 176(167) Panzer IIIs (including Ausf E, F and G) were converted into Bergepanzer IIIs – recovery vehicles fitted with additional equipment. Also in 1943/44 some number of early Panzer IIIs was converted into Schlepper – artillery tractors and Munitionspanzer – ammunition carriers.
From 1941 to 1943, Russians captured large numbers of PzKpfw III, Sturmgeschutz III and PzKpfw IV. Some were pressed into temporary service (e.g. being used as „Trojan Horses” or as „bait”) , while some were converted to assault guns designated SU-76i and SG‑122A.
Interesting fact is that Polish Tank Platoon of the Carpathian Lancers received captured (7 or 8) PzKpfw III for training purposes, while in Egypt in August of 1942.
The most successful conversion based Panzerkampfwagen III’s chassis was Sturmgeschutz III – assault gun/tank destroyer series, which remained in service with Finnish Army as late as 1967.
After the war ended, some 32 PzKpfw III were used by Norway along with Stug III Ausf Gs.
Small number of PzKpfw III tanks was also used by Czechoslovakia, including 4 rebuild Flammpanzer III tanks.
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