Panther Breakdowns In January 1944

Tank losses for 1st Battalion, 26th Panzer Regiment January 1944

The 1st Battalion of the German 26th Panzer Regiment (I./Pz.Rgt. 26) did not fight with its parent division (the 26th Panzer Division), which was engaged in Italy. Instead, the I./Pz.Rgt. 26 was waiting for its Panthers to arrive. The first shipments were sent in August and Panthers continued to trickle in during the autumn, allowing the battalion to start training.

Instead of joining its parent division, the battalion was sent to the Ukraine, where its first action would take place in January 1944.

At first the battalion was attached to the Grossdeutschland Division, but when Soviet forces broke through northeast of Slatopol, as part of the Korsun-Shevchenkovsky operation, the battalion was sent to counterattack. The inexperienced battalion would be committed to action without infantry or artillery support, to fight a very confused battle on 28-29 January.

During its 75 kilometer march to the Slatopol area, the battalion lost a number of tanks due to mechanical problems. One Panther caught fire in the engine room and was completely destroyed. This is reminiscent of the Panthers at Kursk and as the first Panthers had been shipped to the battalion in August 1943, it may well have had several Panthers of the model D, which took part in Operation Zitadelle. Also, one of the two Bergepanthers caught fire, but it could be extinguished by the crew. The vehicle would however be out of action and sorely missed the following days.

Five other Panthers were damaged during the march, with the following problems: final drive leak, idler wheel bearing, radiator, fuel pump and also one drove off a bridge and was difficult to recover.

During the fighting 28-29 January, five Panthers were complete losses due to AT round hits that caused the tanks to catch fire. Another five had been hit by AT rounds that caused damage to the tracks or other components that rendered the tanks immobile. It was decided to blow them up, as they were in positions where they could not be recovered quickly. Finally, one Panther fallen down a steep slope during the night and could also not be recovered. It was attempted to blow it up, but that failed.

In addition, there were 24 Panthers that suffered serious mechanical breakdowns and which were put on trains to be repaired. In many cases, the engine main connecting rod bearings had been damaged. These 24 Panthers were put on train and sent away for repairs. Interestingly, even three Panthers written off as complete losses were put on trains. I can only speculate why, but perhaps the Germans wanted to make use of the raw materials.

The repair and recovery services had worked hard and carried out 118 repairs during the five last days of January.

On 31 January, the battalion had 30 combat ready Panthers, while 8 remained in the workshops. 24 had been sent away by train and 13 had been written off (in addition to the twelve mentioned above, one Panther had caught fire when loading on train in France).

The I./Pz.Rgt. 26 was sent into action with many vehicles that suffered from mechanical shortcomings. In addition, it was established that most of them had been replenished with fuel that was substandard and this may have been the cause of many of the defect engines that were sent away on train. To make matters worse, the battalion was sent into action without infantry and artillery support and without any proper reconnaissance of the battlefield.

All of this shows up in the outcome. It is also clear that the inability to recover tanks was a major factor causing complete write-offs. Five Panthers were direct losses due to enemy fire. Another five were damaged by enemy fire, but not recovered and thus became complete write-offs. Also, one Panther was completely lost due to an accident on the battlefield, but it seems that it would have been returned to service, had it been possible to recover it. Again, it is clear that command of the battlefield (or lack of it) played a significant role for irrevocable losses.

All data is taken from Anlage 25, Kriegstagebuch 2, I./Pz.Rgt. 26, BA-MA RH 39/599). The report is very detailed and shows all losses, with the individual turret numbers given.

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Niklas Zetterling
Niklas Zetterling

Niklas Zetterling worked as senior researcher at the Swedish National Defence Research Establishment and Swedish Defence College from 1993 to 2007. During that period, matters like combat efficiency, command and control methods and the use of history were extensively studied. A significant part of the work was devoted to mathematical models, both such developed in-house and models developed by other agencies. Nearly 20 scientific articles were published as part of the work at those two institutions. Mr. Zetterling first military history book was published in 1995. Over the last twenty years, 14 books have been authored or co-authored by Mr. Zetterling. They have been translated and released in seven different countries. All books deal with various aspects of World War II and are to a very great extent based on archival research.

Niklas Zetterling’s published works include six English language books in addition to his works in Swedish. His six English language books include two originally written in English in addition to four translated works. His other eight books are in Swedish but not yet published in English. Eleven of these books have been co-authored.

His books published in English are: 1) Kursk 1943 (London: Frank Cass, 2000), 2) Normandy 1944 (Winnipeg: Fedorowicz, 2000), 3) Bismarck – Kampen om Atlanten (Stockholm: Norstedts, 2004), Swedish but also translated to English, Finnish, Norwegian and Danish, 4) Tirpitz – Kampen om Norra ishavet (Stockholm: Norstedts, 2006), Swedish but also translated to English, Norwegian and Danish, 5) Tjerkassy 44 (Stockholm: Norstedts, 2006), Swedish but also translated to English as Korsun Pocket, 6) Hitlers första nederlag [Hitler's First Defeat] (Stockholm: Norstedts, 2011), Swedish, also translated to English as The Drive on Moscow 1941.

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  1. As I read your summary, the losses were:

    – 10 due to enemy action (5 due to AT fire and another 5 inoperable due to enemy action and blown in place)
    – 1 loss due to engine fire
    – 1 loss in France during loading
    – 2 out of action due to engine fire
    – 24 out of action due to mechanical breakdown.

    Most of the losses in this unit seem to come from faulty equipment (28) while enemy action accounted for only 10.

    • Actually there were more than 24 out of action due to mechanical breakdown. Those 24 were the vehicles that were deemed to badly damaged to repair at the unit. There were further cases of mechanical breakdowns that were repaired by the battalion.
      Also, there was the Panther that fell down the slope.
      Otherwise your post sums it up well.

    • Has the rate of mechanical breakdown been compared to other vehicles/units (especially the timeframe in which they were introduced), in order to verify if it was, in the Panther’s case, assevere as literature often claims?

      • I didn’t directly compare it to other tanks at Kursk, but if you look at my book, it clearly was a problem. I guestimate that 120 or so of the first Panther losses were breakdowns. Two tanks caught fire and burned on the march up to the battlefield. See page 509. I have several reports prepared on the time on my book, see pages 511-513. I was helped considerably with my research on Panthers by a gentleman named Frederick Clemens.

        The Tigers were not particularly reliable either.

  2. The Panthers were indeed very unreliable initially. However, it seems that many of the issues were fixed, but the final drives remained troublesome. As can be seen in my post on Jagdpanthers, there were many breakdowns caused by the final drives.
    I have written a text on tanks losses for III. Pz.Korps in February 1944, which will also include data on Pz IV and Pz VI. It will soon be posted.

    • The question here is rather, if they were reliable in comparison to : a) AFVs in the 30s-40s, b) for newly introduced vehicles (I’ve read reports on the introduction of the T-34 which stated similar concerns) c) vehicles of other belligerents who had to fight under the same conditions and had the same commitment in regards to their duty.

      From my (limited) studies I noticed that this does not seem that unique at all (e.g. in 1942 a substantial amount of Soviet AFVs did not even make it into battle). Literature is keen on antifa morale.
      The problem here is that the topic of tanks (which is certainly one of the most popular ones, getting the highest attention by the internet community) is usually dominated by amateurs. After consulting various “experts” (engineers and military personnel mostly) my views on many things regarding AFVs of the 40s has changed.
      If the average lifetime of a tank is short, it is quite natural that there may not be a lot of breakdowns registered.

      • I agree that there are far too many amateurish comments on tanks, and that is true for debates on Panthers as well as other tanks as well.
        When it comes to Panthers, it is often claimed that it was too expensive and the Germans would have been better off producing Pz IV instead. I have never seen any of these people show how much more expensive the Panther was. However, according to one source, the price for a Panther was RM 120,000 and a Pz IV was only slightly cheaper, at RM 110,000. Furthermore, tanks are not weapons operating in isolation. They are part of a larger military formation, for example a panzer division. It would be more interesting to compare the price of a panzer division with Panthers and one that was only equipped with allegedly cheaper models. I doubt that there would be much of a difference, because so much else will be needed to create a division, irrespective of the tank models used.

        • Well, if anything Germany should have introduced tanks such as the Panther earlier, but one has to continue production of premodels to compensate for losses.
          That price refers to their standard configuration without addons, such as optics, guns and radios, I believe. It is also unkown if this is the initial price not factoring in marginal return rates and elasticity.

          I was asked to write a tank economy (cost effectiveness analysis) article for TE, but that might be impossible without having access to the accounting books. Currency exchange rates cannot be used either, as there was no global market and prices were set by the military and civil agencies, the government can set any price it wants. However the market back then was fairly confined, concentrated mainly to Europe and the US and hence a PPP of some sort could be constructed (also based on learning effects, economics of scope and scale).

          What many internet “enthusiasts” do is recite the production figures like a litany, stating that so and so many should have been produced. The notion that T-34s and Shermans were these highly cost effective tanks is still engraved in literature.
          The reality was that tanks were not produced endlessly. Production is a function of losses, allocations and choices (and to some extent constraints). The Soviets produced more tanks because they had a) a larger army b) a larger focus on AFVs and c) higher losses. Tanks did not play a big role in the German art of war (at least initially, I wish other weapon systems as artillery would receive the same attention), besides that they had to equip about 30 Panzer Divisions that would suffice (higher losses occured after major setbacks, but nobody can predict those initially and personnel has to be allocated for maintenance, if a surplus is to be amassed). If one is constrained by manpower, investing into vehicles with higher survivability is beneficial and one heavier tank will drain less fuel than e.g. 5 Assault guns.
          The German war economy far dwarfed the Soviet one (the US was the economic backbone of the Allies so to speak), this is clearly visible when observing the steel allocations. Production of x amount of submachine guns or y amount of tanks has little to do with assessing the true extent of the effort and failures in the civil sector transform into the military sector (i.e. if your nation cannot manufacture high quality optics, tanks will not have good optics either, aside from imports). I just wish the WW2 community would finally understand this phenomenon.

          • The price I gave refer to the vehicle without armament, optics and radio equipment, but that is the case with the price for the Pz IV as well, so they are comparable. I would advise not to compare with prices of tanks from other nations. There are to many uncertainties to allow that.
            But what I want to highlight is that the claim that the Panther was so costly to produce is unsupported.
            And, again, a armoured unit needs a lot of other equipment and that will cost as much whether it is equipped with Stuarts, Grants, Shermans, T-70, T-34, Pz IV, StuG III or Panthers. It could well be more reasonable that an expensive tank, provided it is more powerful, is the better choice.
            Of course one has to factor in that it is primarily the tanks that have to be replaced, but then one also has to account for survivability. Many years ago, I did a tentative comparison of German tanks in 1944 and it showed that the mean lifetime was highest for Panthers.
            I can see that I am straying away from the topic of this article, but I will conclude with agreeing that thee are so many unsupported, yet firm, opinions about tanks out there on the internet.

  3. I do have discussions in my Kursk book on the break down rates of various Soviet units marching up to battle. II Tank Corps is discussed on page 729. I have a sidebar called “Tank Losses on the March” from pages 960-964. I probably have a few more discussions of the subject elsewhere in the book. I may do up a post on this when I have time.

  4. It should be factored in that the unit was inexperienced, and they are as big a factor as the equipment. Driving heavy armor needed well trained drivers and commanders.

  5. “All data is taken from Anlage 25, Kriegstagebuch 2, I./Pz.Rgt. 26, BA-MA RH 39/599). The report is very detailed and shows all losses, with the individual turret numbers given.”

    May I ask what the turret numbers were?

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