SdKfz 161 Panzer IV
Medium Tank Tracked Combat Vehicle
The Panzer IV medium tank remained in production for the German Army throughout the entire war.
Authored By: Dan Alex | Last Edited:
The Panzer IV (or "Panzerkampfwagen IV" and abbreviated as "Pz.KpfW. IV") formed the backbone of the German Army from its inception onwards and fought wherever its muscle was required. The type proved reliable as well as lethal and saw a plethora of model variants increase both its reach and potency during World War 2. Some 9,000 Panzer IVs were ultimately produced for the German Army from 1937 into 1945, making it the most numerous of all the German tanks to be deployed. The tank also became the only such German system to see action through the entire war despite the new Panther series becoming available. The system proved quite the success and was continually fielded for a time by armies during the post-war years, a testament to its stellar 1934-era design. Many foes came to respect the German ingenuity involved in creating the fearsome and excellent Panzer IV. In many ways, the Panzer IV was never directly replaced by any successor and continued on through the war in varied forms wherever needed.
The German Need
In January of 1934, the German Army Ordnance Department decided on two medium-class tanks to power the future ranks of its panzer forces. Colonel Heinz Guderian led the charge and, based on the economic conditions of the time, envisioned two such tank classes operating in calculating roles side-by-side. The first of the two became the Panzer III, a lighter and proportionately smaller design intended to tackle enemy tanks directly (in fact designated as a "tank killer"). The second design - this one larger and heavier than the Panzer III - would become the excellent Panzer IV, a five-man vehicle intended to supplement the actions of the existing Panzer I, Panzer II and soon-to-be Panzer III tanks on the battlefields. In essence, the Panzer IV was to be a "fire support vehicle" fulfilling the role of escort tank and set to become the fourth tank company of each tank battalion. A 24-ton weight limit was set due to the fear on the part of some German authorities that anything heavier would not being able to navigate across the older bridges dotting the German countryside. The lighter tanks preceding the Panzer IV were also too ill-equipped to mount a large caliber, high-velocity main gun. Development would continue in true Treaty of Versailles fashion with this new medium tank coming under the false reporting name of "mitteren Traktor" or "medium tractor". This formality was, of course, eventually dropped altogether once Hitler's plans for Europe were made public and put into action.
Competition for Production Rights to the Pz.KpfW. IV
With the specifications in place, the competition was opened up to applicable German heavy industry firms looking for that potentially lucrative production contract to follow. Responses arrived from Krupp-Grusonwerke, MAN and Rheinmetall Borsig. MAN put forth their VK 2002(MAN) prototype while Rheinmetall Borsig produced their VK 2001(Rh) design. However, it was the Krupp-Grusonwerke design under the developmental designation of VK 2001(K) - the "Bataillons Fuhrerwagen" - that won out. The formal German military designation of Sd.Kfz. 161 was applied, officially removing any doubt as to its former "medium tractor" origins. The Krupp-Grusonwerke plant at Magdeburg was tabbed to produce the new tank. Krupp-Grusonwerke constructed no less than thirty-five pre-production examples of the Pz.KpfW. IV Ausf. A ("Ausf A" meaning "Model A") with deliveries beginning in October of 1937 and continuing into the early part of 1938.
The Initial 75mm Main Gun
As a fire support vehicle, initial armament would center around a short barrel 75mm main gun falling under the designation of 7.5cm Kw.K. L/24. This system was just under six feet in length and of low-velocity, intended to tackle dug-in enemy anti-tank positions in fortifications as well as infantry. Ironically, tank-killing would fall to the lighter and smaller Panzer III. Some consideration was given to arming the new Panzer IV tank with a high-velocity, long-barrel 75mm main gun at this time but the idea was dropped, many believing that the low-velocity, short-barreled type was enough firepower to pierce the armor of French and British tanks it would be facing out West.
The Pz.KpfW. IV Ausf. A
The Ausf. A essentially set the design standard for the rest of the Pz.KpfW. IV variants to follow. Power was supplied from a single Maybach 108TR-series water-cooled 12-cylinder gasoline engine of 250 horsepower mounted in the rear of the hull. The coupled SGR 75 transmission allowed for five forward and one reverse gears. Armament was the aforementioned 75mm main gun of short-barrel, low-velocity (1,260 feet per second) design, firing HE projectiles as primary as well as armor piercing. Theoretically, the main gun could pierce a 30-degree sloped armor face of 1.4 inches in thickness at a distance of nearly 1,100 yards. The tank system as a whole weighed in at 18 tons and armor thickness reached 20mm. Maximum road speed was 19 miles per hour with a range of 93 miles.
The war in Europe, for all intents and purposes, began in September of 1939 with the invasion of Poland. The Ausf. A was fielded in its pre-production form in the ensuing combat actions and also took part in the invasion of Norway and ultimately the invasion of the Low Countries and France itself. This period served German authorities well in finalizing their strategies to maximize their panzer formations and iron out an deficiencies in the Panzer IV design as a whole. Before the invasion of the Soviet Union was to take place, the Ausf. A was relived of its frontline duties, making way for the Ausf. B. Many Ausf. A models were held in reserve as trainers for up and coming panzer tankers.
Amazingly, the base Panzer IV chassis would remain largely unchanged throughout the operational life of the tank, though certain limitations would become inherent with each passing model and dictate a new variant with differing main armament and armor. The latter would become an increasing concern - as direct combat would show - though her armament would ultimately change for the better.
Crew Positions Inside the Panzer IV
Crew responsibilities fell across five individuals made up of the tank commander, gunner and loader (positioned in the turret) and the driver and radio operator/bow gunner (in the forward hull).
The tank commander was the brains of the Pz.KpfW. IV and stood in close communications with his gunner and the driver. He was also responsible for communicating and receiving communications from other tanks in the field of play. His position was in the rear center of the turret, just behind the main gun breech, and the commander maintained external access through a hatch along the cupola above his seating position. His responsibilities included scanning the field for applicable targets, calling out such targets, calling out ammunition types to the loader and the looking after the general well-being/cohesiveness of his crew. Communications within the loud, often smelly tank were accomplished through speaking tubes or simple touch signals to those that were within reach. After some time together, an experienced tank crew would learn to work alongside one another with very little interruption.
The gunner represented the second most important position inside the Pz.KpfW. IV. While he also served to scan the terrain ahead and call out potential enemy targets or observe their movements, he was also charged with informing the loader of the next type of ammunition projectile to be used. The gunner maneuvered the turret around its ring via an electrically-based system or manually if the electrical system had become damaged. The gunner also maintained and operated the available co-axial 7.92mm MG 34 anti-infantry machine gun when needed. His position in the turret was along the right side of the breech. Modern tanks systems (particularly Russian) do away with manual loaders and choose a complex, yet effective, autoloading system instead.
The loader served the gunner and could double as the radioman/bow gunner in a pinch. His position saw him sitting to the left of the main gun breech. His responsibilities came to include responding to the orders of the gunner and tank commander as well as general care of all of the available ammunition supplies. Recognition of orders and the ensuing loading action of the projectile into the breech became second nature within time for seconds lost in the loading process could spell certain doom to the entire crew.
The radio operator monitored all communications across various channels and reported to the tank commander and driver alike. If not actively participating in a communication, he simply received information and reported anything of importance. His additional responsibilities included the manning of the bow-mounted 7.92mm MG 34 anti-infantry machine gun. Though offering somewhat limited traverse, this defensive position became standard in the battle tanks of World War 2. The radioman could double as the loader (and vice versa) if need be. His position was held at the forward right of the hull superstructure (noted in photography by the spherical emplacement for the machine gun). In modern tanks, the bow-gunner/radio operator has been eliminated altogether.
The driver sat in the forward left of the hull superstructure and fell under the direct command of the tank commander. He could also receive his orders via radio by way of the radio operator and react accordingly. The driver was charged with the general maintenance of the tank as well an monitoring the various vehicle fluid levels and engine performance. When possible, the driver could also report targets ahead to the gunner and commander.
Panzer IV Walk-Around
The external design of the Pz.KpfW. IV was impressive when compared to her American, British and Russian counterparts and featured a bevy of clean lines throughout. The design was dominated by eight "doubled" road wheels (coupled in groups of two pairs) to a side with the corresponding idler, sprocket and four track return rollers to a track side. The forward hull sported a flat-front facing with a sloping glacis plate leading up to the hull superstructure. The hull superstructure featured flat sides and vision ports where possible. Both the driver and the radio operator sat under individual access hatches at their respective positions. The electrically-powered turret (with manual traverse backup) sat within its ring and featured a flat-front facing with appropriately sloping sides. There was one access hatch on the top of the turret at the commander's cupola while side access hatches were supplied along the rear side facings of the turret for the gunner and loader respectively. The cupola extended a distance above the turret roof and allowed the tank commander the ability to stand up at his position (in true commanding fashion) when appropriate. The engine sat in an aft compartment characterized by two tubular vertical exhaust ports protruding at the rear. Extra tracks and wheels as well as small engineering supplies and infantry could be carried along the top of the vehicle hull. Depending on the Panzer IV model in question, the length of the main gun differed and the first three production models - Ausf. A, Ausf. B and Ausf. C - all had internally-fitted mantlets. Standard ammunition counts became 122 rounds of 75mm projectiles and 3,000 rounds of 7.92mm ammunition.
The Pz.KpfW. IV Ausf. B
The Pz.KpfW. Ausf. B appeared in 1938 to replace the outgoing Ausf. A. The Ausf. B appeared as an improved form featuring a revised Maybach engine with higher power output as well as a new SSG 75 transmission with six forward and one reverse gears. The higher output was welcomed due to frontal armor being increased to a thickness of 30mm. This came at the cost of added weight and, as a result, a loss in performance - the tank now weighed in at 19 tons. The main armament remained the short-barreled, low-velocity 75mm. Deliveries began in April of 1938 and continued on into September of that year. Though some 45 systems were in order for the German Army, only 42 of these were actually delivered due to a shortage of materials. The legacy of the Ausf. B was short-lived, however, for the Ausf. C was soon to arrive.
The Pz.KpfW. IV Ausf. C
The Pz.KpfW. IV Ausf. C arrived in time to replace the Ausf. B along the Krupp production lines. Essentially similar to its predecessor, the Ausf. C differed only in the removal of its bow-mounted 7.92mm machine gun (at the radio operator's position) and introduced a vision slot and pistol port instead. Her main gun was the same 75mm short-barreled, low-velocity weapon found on the Ausf. A pre-production and Ausf. B production models. Only 134 of the Ausf. C models were produced up to August of 1939 but this still represented the most quantitative example of the Pz.KpfW. IV line up to this point.
The Pz.KpfW. IV Ausf. D
The Pz.KpfW. IV Ausf. D replaced the Ausf. C in production. Armor protection was increased along the side and rear hull facings to 20mm (up from 15mm). Additionally, the Ausf. D was the first to rework the internal mantlet fitting for the main gun found on the Ausf. A, Ausf. B and Ausf. C models and repositioned this assembly along the outside of the turret. This was in response to "bullet spray" being reported by crews. The bow-mounted 7.92mm machine was returned to the radio operator's position. Failings in general armor protection based on after-action reports forced later Ausf. D production models to use bolt-on armor plating across its critical facings. This expectantly drove up the operational weight and limited range but provided the crew with much-needed protection. Crews not lucky enough to receive these factory-modified Panzer IVs would improve their armor protection by other means while "in-the-field". The main gun still remained the 75mm low-velocity, short barreled version as found on earlier Panzer IV models. Power for the Ausf. D was supplied by a Maybach HL 120 TRM 12-cylinder engine of 300 horsepower. Top speed was 25 miles per hour and range was a reported 124 miles. Ammunition totals included 80 rounds of 75mm projectiles and 2,700 rounds of 7.92mm ammunition.
The Pz.KpfW. IV Ausf. E
The Pz.KpfW. IV Ausf. E was developed specifically to address the growing armor protection problem inherent in the earlier Panzer IV forms. Enemy resistance was increasingly fond of portable anti-tank weaponry (rifles, rockets) as well as powerful main gun armament on their respective tank systems so the Ausf. E saw her frontal armor increased yet again to 50mm and further protected by an additional 30mm steel plate. Likewise, her side-facing armor was adjusted to include a further 20mm of plating. By now, the Panzer IV weighed in at some 22 tons. The main gun armament was the 75mm low-velocity, short-barreled system. A larger Maybach gasoline engine of 320 horsepower was introduced. Despite some 223 examples completed, attention quickly focused to the development and production of the Ausf. F model.
Pz.KpfW. IV Ausf. F
The Pz.KpfW. IV Ausf. F increased armor once more, this time totaling 50mm along the front hull, superstructure and turret facings and 30mm along the sides. The vehicle's sides no longer relied on the bolt-on variety armor plating but instead were constructed at 30mm thickness straight from the factory. Remember that the initial 75mm short-barrel, low-velocity main gun was thought to be sufficient enough in combating the armor of French and British tanks as well as targeting enemy fortifications so the idea of mounting anything bigger to the Panzer IV chassis was dropped. However, practice soon dictated a change for the initial main gun armament had proven problematic against the heavy French Char B heavy tanks and British Matilda tanks. The Italian forces in North Africa found this out the hard way and fell to British armor due to their main gun ineffectiveness. As such, German authorities ordered that the killing power of the Panzer IV be broadened. Production began in April of 1941 and numbered 437 examples with the 75mm short-barreled, low-velocity gun.
Based upon combat reports up to this point, and the realization that the Panzer III had it limitations as the ongoing designated "tank-killer", consideration was being given to up-gunning the Panzer IV Ausf. F with a higher velocity system. By February of 1941, the decision was forwarded to arm the Ausf. F with the 50mm Kw.K. 39 L/60 long-barreled main gun (based on the PaK 38 L/60 towed anti-tank gun). Before these went into production, however, the order was cancelled in favor of mounting a more potent system.
A New Gun For Ausf. F
Krupp designed a new 75mm prototype armament under the designation of 7.5cm Kw.K. L/34.5 and evaluated it throughout the rest of 1941. The initial design was formerly rejected by the German Army Ordnance Department for, at the time, a rule stood firm that the main gun barrel was not to protrude ahead of the front hull in an effort to protect the barrel when ramming obstacles and the like. Despite protest from Krupp, the gun was shortened to clear the Ordnance Department requirement, in the process retarding the velocity of the Krupp design some. Only one Kw.K. K/34.5 was constructed and tested.
As Always, War Dictates the Need
By the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941, the Soviet T34 medium tank and the KV-1 heavy tank were matching up nicely against the Panzer IV. To counter the growing threats, the barrel length limitation imposed by the German Army Ordnance Department was dropped in an effort to field a capable long-barreled, high-velocity 75mm main gun for the Ausf. F. The new system was over 10 feet in length, sported a single baffle muzzle break and was developed jointly between Krupp and Rheinmetall to become the 7.5cm Kw.K. 40 L/43 (based on the PaK 40 L/46), sporting a 2,426 feet per second muzzle velocity. This gun compared favorably to the Soviet 76.2mm gun. Armor penetration could reach upwards of 87mm depending on range, target armor and ammunition utilized. The weapon was quickly fitted to production Pz.KpfW. IV Ausf. F systems as soon as possible and could be identified from here on out by its single baffle muzzle brake used to combat the effects of recoil. Despite its origins in the infantry antitank version, the Panzer IV Ausf. F's main gun was given an all-new projectile cartridge and could not make use of the standard 75mm projectiles available to the Army. For a time, this Panzer IV version was the only German tank capable of matching treads with the Soviet T34.
It was viewed that the "up-gunned" Ausf. F models were known under the designation of "Ausf. F2, Sd.Kfz 161/1" while the original short-barreled Ausf. F models would be marked as "Ausf. F1". Instead, the long-barreled Ausf. F models would eventually be designated as the Ausf. G to denote the change.
The Pz.KpfW. IV Ausf. G
The Pz.KpfW. IV Ausf. G was unveiled in early 1942 and made ready for combat with the long-barrel 75mm main gun. Features included 50mm standard front armor beefed up by a further 30mm of welded/bolt-on armor along the front facings. Original armament was the 75mm Kw.K. 40 L/43 but in April of 1943, an even newer 75mm high-velocity gun of increased length (now up to 11.8 feet) and improved penetration value of up to 97mm, was introduced as the 7.5cm Kw.K. 40 L/48 (identifiable by its double-baffle muzzle brake). "Soft" steel armor plating skirts was introduced in 1943 in an effort to help offset the effects of 14.5 armor-piercing bullets. The armor skirts were mimicked in the Panzer III series models that were still in operation. Of course all this came at the expense of added weight and degraded performance yet again. Ausf. G production with the long-barreled, high-velocity 75mm main gun began in 1942 and continued on into 1943, numbering some 1,900 total examples. Other existing Panzer IV models would eventually be upgraded to this new long-barrel 75mm standard in time.
How Were They So Good?
Beyond individual training and excellent teamwork, what made panzer crews that much more deadly than their counterparts was in the tools afforded to them. Panzer IV gunners, particularly in Ausf. F and onwards, made their target acquisition through the TZF 5f telescope. This helped Panzer IV teams achieve an excellent kill-first capability unmatched by British, American and Soviet tank crews. Not only were they able to lay accurate fire, this action could occur at ranges far outside of where the Allied tanks operated effectively. The advantage quickly led to respect for any panzer force in the field on the part of the Allies. Where Allied tank crews needed to operate inside of ranges of 500 yards and most often times needing two shells to knock out an enemy tank, the Panzer IV crew could operate out to 1,500 yards and score a direct hit with a single shot. Such accuracy made the Panzer IV an ultimately feared opponent in any engagement.
The ammunition projectiles available to the Panzer IV crews was also something of note. Known as ABCBC/HE (Armor-Piercing Capped, Ballistic-Capped/High-Explosive), these shells had the ability to rely on their armor-piercing capabilities to penetrate enemy armor and finish off the hit with its high-explosive content to follow. This often meant that the shell did its most damage once it had passed through the protective layers of armor that might be found in Allied tanks, even at range, and could decimate the crews within while leaving the tank generally intact. Among other standard high-explosive and armor-piercing rounds made available, a specially-designed smoke round was provided to mask an escape or retreat.
How Do You Kill a Panzer IV?
If there was a real fear amongst panzer IV crews it was in the threat posed by roaming ground-attack aircraft. While enemy artillery and anti-tank crews proved lethal enough, the sinking feeling of watching an American, British or Soviet plane bearing down on your position and letting loose cannon rounds, bombs or rockets was enough to make any young man turn old in seconds. Many-a-panzer crew recalled the fear of such attacks that restricted their movements to the dark of night or in adverse weather. These ground attack aircraft certainly did their job well and, once air superiority was all but achieved by the Allies, no place was safe for panzer crews - only safer.
Panzer crews were also somewhat thrown back at the appearance of the T-34 medium tank. Its thick frontal armor and capable main gun rivaled, and in some cases, surpassed that of their German counterparts. It became so that the weakest portion of these tanks were a well-placed shot at the rear engine compartment. As this often times proved impractical in the heat of combat, the turret ring became the spot of choice when engaging these tanks from the front or the side. Several tales tell of panzer-launched projectiles seemingly "bouncing" off of the turret facings of the heavily-armored Soviet T-34s.
The Americans made potent use of their bazooka rocket launchers as did the British with their PIAT systems and anti-tank rifles were en vogue and appeared in numbers across the many fronts available (leading to side skirts being issued on late war panzers). Land mines were always a sure-fire way to disable a tank by destroying the treads, shocking (or killing) the crew or damaging the underside hull- a potential weak spot. Another method was for infantry to rush the enemy tank, firing into any open vision ports or setting the outside hull on fire to coax the tanker crews out for their final curtain call. A single grenade dropped into an open hatch was enough to render the crew inside dead or dying. It was also acknowledged by both sides in the conflict that they would specifically target exiting tank personnel when possible, this with machine gun fire - better to have them dead today than fighting you alive tomorrow.
The Pz.KpfW. IV Ausf. H
The Pz.KpfW. IV Ausf. H became the last definitive production model of the excellent Panzer IV line and became the most quantitative model in the series. Armor was increased yet again with front facings totaling 80mm in thickness at the hull and superstructure (turret armor was not increased). Armor side skirts were implemented once more and the tracks were widened for better mud traverse. The main gun remained the 75mm high-velocity, long-barrel system of the late Ausf. G models. Weight was 25 tons and power was supplied from a Maybach HL 120 TRM 12-cylinder gasoline engine. Maximum road speed was 24 miles per hour with a range of 125 miles. Fording was limited to 3 feet, 3 inches, and gradients at 60 percent. Vertical obstacle passing was 2 feet while trench passing was 7 feet, 3 inches. The tank was coated over in Zimmerit paste compound to prevent the use of magnetic anti-tank mines. Production of some 3,774 examples was split between Krupp-Grusonwerke, Nibelungenwerke and Vomag from May of 1943 into the middle of 1944. Nibelungenwerke ended up producing most of these Ausf. H models. An MG 34 cupola-mounted anti-aircraft machine gun was installed but practice would generally show this to be relatively ineffective defensive measure against Allied ground attack planes.
The Pz.KpfW. IV Ausf. J
The Pz.KpfW. IV Ausf. J would become the very last official production model of the Panzer IV. This system still fielded the powerful 75mm main gun of the Ausf. H and resembled the Ausf. G externally. Gone was the electrically-powered turret, this replaced instead with a manual traverse system to help ease production, lighten the operating weight and increase internal fuel storage - the latter two points also increasing operational range. The manually-traversing turret was something of a downgrade for the fine Panzer IV line but wartime needs necessitated the change as panzer losses mounted. Armor was increased along the top face of the turret and an onboard mortar was also included to help mark target areas or provide smoke screens as needed. Tracks were widened to help traverse along the muddy East Front. The tubular mufflers were changed to Flammentoeter types and the track return rollers were reduced from four to three. Zimmerit paste coating was dropped from production. From September 1944 onwards, wire mesh skirts were also used as a lighter alternative to the solid steel skirts in previous models. Production of the Ausf. J ran from June of 1944 until April of 1945, the end of the war signifying the type's run. By this time, Germany had all but committed to a defensive war and more attention was being paid to the design and production of self-propelled gun carriers - several of which were based on the Panzer IV chassis. Interestingly, Ausf. J production was not split between multiple German firms but instead headed solely by the Nibelungenwerke firm.
The Panzer IV was the most widely exported German tank of World War 2 as allies Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary, Romania and Spain all benefitted from sales. Peak usage of the Panzer IV came in 1944 to which some 3,125 systems (mostly Ausf. J) were in circulation. This was rivaled only by the 3,013 (mostly Ausf. H) in use during 1943. Despite only 211 Panzer IV systems available by the end of September, the system quickly became the backbone of the Panzer Divisions.
All Panzer IV production was ordered stopped in the fall of 1944. Concentration fell to turretless self-propelled guns and the new Panther tank series.
Other Panzer IV Uses
The Panzer IV served the German Army quite well. It was developed into cost-effective, powerful and dedicated systems in a variety of roles. In June of 1944, Hitler himself gave the order to begin concentrating Panzer IV production into the Jagdpanzer IV, fitting the powerful L/70 main gun from the newer Panther series tanks. Other German war machines of note that made use of the Panzer IV chassis included the Brummbar, Hummel, Heuschrecke - Waffentrager, Nashorn, Wirbelwind and Ostwind. Twenty Ausf. C and Ausf. D models were converted for use as bridgelayers ("Bruckenleger IVb") and saw actions in Belgium, France and - later - in Russia. A handful of infantry assault bridges (Bruckenleger IV/Sturmstegpanzer) were also converted from Ausf. C models and used in France and Russia. A recovery vehicle was designated as the Bergepanzer IV and the Panzerfahre was a proposed light-armored amphibious ferry.
Some 202 Panzer IV Ausf. D, Ausf. F, Ausf. G and Ausf. H tanks were converted to be used as submersible tanks ("Tauchpanzers") in the impending "Operation Sea Lion" - the German invasion of the British mainland. When the German Luftwaffe failed to clear the skies of the RAF in the Battle of Britain, Operation Sea Lion was shelved by Hitler indefinitely. Instead, these amphibious panzers were utilized during the invasion of the Soviet Union during June of 1941. Other Panzer IVs fitted with extra communications equipment served well as commander vehicles.
Post-War Panzer IV Usage
The Panzer IV was purchased from the French and Spanish stocks by Syria in the post-war world. Some reports also say the Syrians acquired Panzer IVs from captured units under Soviet control. These were used in action against the Israeli settlements during the Water War of 1965. Israel captured several specimens in the 1967 Six-Day War and retained them as museum pieces. The last known Panzer IV saw service in 1967.