German Late War Armor

By mid-1944, the standard German tank in Western Europe was the Panzer IV, known as the Mark IV to US troops.  It has a long barrelled high velocity 75mm gun and was a fair match for even up-gunned M4 tanks. 

Though the Panzer IV had been officially supplanted by the much more fierce and capable Panzer V "Panther" as the main German tank, their production numbers were relatively small in comparison.  Regardless, the mighty Panther and its super high velocity 75mm gun could shoot straight through the front of a Sherman tank before the Sherman (even an upgunned one) could effectively return fire with any hope of scoring a hit.  

Pictured above is one of the most famous and feared tanks in history, the Panzerkampwagen VI, better known as the mighty Tiger I Heavy tank.  Though produced in much fewer numbers than the Pz. IV and Panther tanks, it first saw action in North Africa in 1942, and was an absolute monster against any piece of US or British armor throughout the war.  It mounted the famous high velocity 88mm gun that was developed from the Flak 36 Anti-Aircraft cannon, and could also destroy any American or British tank through a frontal armor shot before they were able to get into adequate range throughout much of the war.  One flaw in the Tiger I design that became apparent as the war progressed was the  lack of sloped armor, which allows for shots to deflect off, and also increases the effective thickness of armor.  A larger heavy tank with sloped armor and an even more powerful 88mm gun (same diamater as for Tiger I but longer barrel and much more powder in the charge) came in the form of the King Tiger, which was a further obstabcle for weak US and British armor to handle.

     Pictured below is the German tank destroyer version of the Panther tank, called the Jagdpanther (which means "hunting panther" in German).  Unlike the United States and Britain, the Germans realized how to effectively make an armored vehicle thats specific job was to fight other tanks, known as a tank destroyer in WWII.  Every purpose built German tank destroyer of WWII had their hulls redesigned as a casemate to support a forward mounted gun with limited traverse, as opposed to a rotating turret.  This prevented easy aiming of the main armament, but the casemate and sloped front of German tankd estroyers offered immense armor protection.  Many German tank destroyers were upgunned and up-armored versions of a prior existing tank, with the Panther and Jagdpanther as examples.  The Panther's long barreled 75mm Pak 42/L70 (gun barrel was 70 calibers long, meaning that the barrel length was 70 times the bore diameter of the cannon. This contrasts with the weaker 75mm 43 caliber main gun for the Panzer IV tank) was replaced by the much larger and more powerful 88mm from the King Tiger.  So the Jagdpanther ended up as a true tank destroyer should be, with a masssively powerful cannon that was accurate and effective to long range, a low silouette, and an immensely up-armored and sloped defensive front to the vehicle.

      Though in the chart above I have technically left out German towed anti-tank (AT) guns, all of their guns are represented in one of the four categories of German armor, as German tanks and tank destroyers were often designed to take cannons that were initially implemented in towed AT guns.  I have labeled the German vehicles in the graph based off of their name and not the gun they mounted, but left to right, the weapons are the long barreled 75mm L/48 (L/48 meaning that the length of barrel is 48 times the bore diameter, in this case 75mm x 48), the even longer barreled and higher velocity 75mm L/70, the long barreled and high velocity 88mm L/56, and the much longer barreled and higher velocity 88mm L/71.

       What this chart clearly shows is that at less than 100 meters, which is point blank range for a tank, almost every single German AT gun on the Western Front could shoot directly through the strongest armor of the M4 Sherman.  More impressive is the fact that even at 500 meters, all German armor could penetrate the M4 Sherman’s frontal armor.  Also of note is that at 1000 meters range, every German armored vehicle from the Panther on up could shoot through the strongest armor of the Sherman before the Sherman had any potential of scoring a successful frontal hit.  It seems like pretty bad form to send in such relatively weak tanks to fight an adversary that has barely any access to natural resources and is being closed in on all sides by the unstoppable Allied armies.

     This chart represents the penetration ability of U.S. AT guns against sloped armor (at about 30 degrees from the vertical) similar to that on German armored vehicles.  Note that the yellow line for the Panther tank is invisible because it has about the same penetration characteristics as the Jagdpanther, and is consequently covered up by the Jagdpanther’s blue line.  The guns used in the chart belong to the following vehicles:

75mmM3: Standard production short barreled low velocity cannon for the M4 Sherman

3 inch M7: More capable 3 inch AA gun converted for use in the M10 Wolverine Tank Destroyer

76mm M1: Long-barreled high velocity gun designated to replace the short 75mm on the M4 Sherman

90mm M3: Long-barreled high velocity gun designed for use in the M36 Jackson Tank destroyer (which was literally the M10 Wolverine with a 90mm gun) and the M26 Pershing Heavy Tank.

     One of the most obvious problems when looking at this chart is that the standard Sherman, which is what most of the U.S. armored forces consisted of on the Western Front, could not even penetrate the frontal armor of its “equal” German opposite, the Panzer IV, at 500 meters.  The 3 inch gun mounted on tank destroyers and the 76mm M1 were slightly better, but it is apparent that the 90mm M3 gun used in the Pershing would bring a much needed heavier hitting weapon to the battlefield.