The heavy Panthers and Tigers are the best known of Germany's tanks. The lion's share of discussions of armoured vehicles in the Second World War is dedicated to them, even though lighter tanks carried the Panzerwaffe through the majority of the war. The Pz.Kpfw.III tank proved itself to be a worthy opponent in the first half of the war. At the same time, it remained a mystery for the British for a number of years until the first trophies began arriving from North Africa in 1941-42. This is what the British learned from these studies.
Third time's the charm
The Pz.Kpfw.III medium tank was posed as Germany's main tank from the early days of the Nazis' reign, but development was slow. Only 120 tanks were in the field by the start of the Second World War and 381 by the beginning of the Battle of France. Serious losses among them prove that they were actively used and the British Expeditionary Force couldn't have avoided meeting them on the battlefield. However, even if a tank of this type was captured there was no opportunity to study it or send it back to Britain. The speed of the German offensive forced the British to abandon even their own tanks on the continent.
|A column of Pz.Kpfw.III tanks in France prepares to move out. The British did not gather any detailed information on these vehicles in 1940.
There was some basic information available. The British knew that the tank weighed 18 tons and was armed with a 37 mm gun. Its armour was 30 mm thick, but there were no details about its layout. The British guessed that this armour was the same all-around. It was also know that early Pz.Kpfw.III tanks had different types of suspensions. There was enough information to at least draw posters of the "Medium-light Pz.Kw.III tank and command tank" for the School of Tank Technology.
The British met the Pz.Kpfw.III tank again in Greece in 1941. The situation in France repeated itself. Little information was obtained about the Pz.Kpfw.III. There was some news of a 21 ton tank armed with the Czech 47 mm gun. The British considered it a further development of the "Type III 18-ton tank". Perhaps this was distorted information about the Pz.Kpfw.III Ausf.G tank that indeed had a more powerful gun and began to approach 21 tons in weight. The real caliber of this gun, 50 mm, was discovered later. The British also learned that the German began to up-armour their tanks with 32 mm thick plates.
The start of fighting in North Africa resulted in a torrent of new information. The first Pz.Kpfw.III tanks arrived there in March of 1941. These were 80 tanks from the 5th Light Division, mostly Pz.Kpfw.III Ausf.G. The new German tanks clashed with the 2nd Armoured Division on March 31st. The German advance was very successful at first, but stalled at Tobruk. The British were pushed back even further, but these were battles, rather than a one-sided rout. In these conditions it was much easier to obtain information.
A report on the performance of the Pz.Kpfw.III tank in Africa written in the 5th Tank Regiment was soon captured, translated, and studied. The British found out that German tanks were ill-suited for long marches in the desert. The tanks had to drive at night at a speed of 18 kph in order to avoid overheating the running gear. The large swings in temperature had a negative impact on the lifespan of the rubber rims, which broke up after 400 km of driving. The engines also performed badly in the desert. Out of the regiment's 65 Pz.Kpfw.III, 44 experienced engine trouble during marches. Their air filters were helpless against fine desert dust. Sand also made its way into tanks and ruined their mechanisms.
|British soldiers examine a captured Pz.Kpfw.III tank in North Africa. May 2nd, 1941.
|Diagram of the hatch door used in the penetration trials. Bullets #5 and #9 managed to damage the bolts, but could not knock off the hinges.
|Armour of Pz.Kpfw.III tanks first encountered in North Africa (left) and types discovered later (right).
One tank was shipped to the UK for trials. It was examined by a commission from the AEC (Associated Equipment Company) in June of 1942. The tank's top speed was established to be 25 mph (40 kph).
|The Pz.Kpfw.III changed its looks quickly as various improvements were introduced.
|A Pz.Kpfw.III Ausf.J tank captured by Australians at Tel el Eisa near El Alamein, summer 1942. This tank has even more additional armour.
|Hull of the Pz.Kpfw.III tank after being hit by the 20 mm Hispano autocannon. This was the main weapon of British ground attack planes.
|A Stuart tank passes a burning Pz.Kpfw.III. Even the American 37 mm gun could penetrate the tank's armour.
|A demolished Pz.Kpfw.III. In the open desert, it was often easier to demolish an enemy tank than try to recover it for study.
The British counted 89 rounds in the ammunition racks. The shells themselves were interesting, as the 50 mm shell carried 16 grams of HE. The British considered that this was done to make the shell burst after penetration. Brittle British shot that shattered in the process of passing through armour didn't need any help. Further study showed that the red-hot splinters could ignite ammunition if they struck an ammo rack. As a result of this study, the British started to protect their ammo racks.
|There was no shortage of captured Pz.Kpfw.III after victory at El Alamein, but by then the British were more interested in other German tanks.