The iconic Panzerkampfwagen IV (or in short Panzer IV) medium tank holds many records. It was the most produced German tank during the Second World War by some 8500 units built, 13 500 if we also consider the many variants using the Panzer IV chassis. It was also the most exported German tank with around 300 units sold to other countries and it was the only German tank to remain in production throughout the war.
Naturally its extremely long life span (production running from 1936 all the way to 1945) also meant that it was constantly modified and upgraded to meet the emerging threats. The first mass produced version (Ausf. A) had barely 14 to 20mm-s of armor and it did wield a short barreled, low-velocity, howitzer-like gun, only capable of penetrating 43mm-s of armor at 700 meters. The peak of the development is widely considered to be version H that already had 80mm-s or armor in places, and its long 75mm anti-tank gun was capable of penetrating 77mm-s of armor at 1830 meters.
Extra armor plating was not the only counter measure introduced on these medium tanks however… Version H also received a Zimmerit coating to prevent the adhesion of magnetic anti-tank mines and it also received the trademark side-skirts both on the hull and also the turret. Contrary to popular belief, the original goal of this additional 5-8mm thick spaced armor plating was not to protect against the emerging HEAT anti-tank ammunition, but to add protection against Soviet anti-tank rifles.
It is important to mention that version H was not the end of the production line, which title belongs to version J. This model is however considered a retrograde, as it was a largely simplified model aimed at improving its production rate, as Germany desperately tried to replace its heavy losses towards the end of the war. Despite the increase in weight over the years due to the extra armor plating added, the Panzer IV could maintain it’s good power to weight ratio, providing a mobile vehicle capable of delivering a punch, that was easy (and relatively cheap) to mass produce. It is thought that during the entire war the Panzer IV alone made up about 30% of the tank force of the German army.
Its variants using the Panzer IV chassis included a variety of armored support- and fighting vehicles, including the Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyer, the Sturmpanzer IV self-propelled gun and the Flakpanzer IV self-propelled anti-aircraft gun series (including the Moebelwagen, Wirbelwind, Ostwind and the Kugelblitz), though Panzer IV components were also included in armored machines such as the Hummel self-propelled gun, or the Nashorn tank destroyer.
While this tank did see more service than any other of its counterparts (having served on all fronts and in all major engagements), its original role was only to support the Panzer III tank companies, mainly to be used against anti-tank guns and enemy fortifications. Due to this setup it took part in the invasion of Europe and under Ervin Rommel in the Africa campaign in relatively small numbers, and the early versions were definitely outperformed by the Panzer III-s, at least regarding penetration. The Panzer IV crews had a really tough time engaging the thick-skinned French Somua S35 and Char B1 and the even more heavily armored British Matilda II-s. These were all slow machines however, easily outmaneuvered, and their numbers were too few to make a real stand.
After the shock of encountering the much better Soviet T-34 and KV-1 tanks during Operation Barbarossa on the Eastern Front, it soon became clear that the Panzer III cannot fulfill its role as the main battle tank. Up-gunning the existing armor became the top priority, and as the Panzer IV was much more suited to house a more powerful gun, the roles have been reversed and the Panzer IV became the main battle tank on the fronts. It played a crucial role on the Eastern Front, as the upgraded Panzer IV-s were for a time the only German tanks capable of penetrating a T-34 or a KV-1 in a direct engagement. Having to do the heavy lifting in the area from the early offensives to the Battle of Kursk, while the much more powerful Tiger I and Panther tanks were still battling with early mechanical teething problems and in general were too few in numbers, the Panzer IV-s were under enormous pressure. In total about 75% of the total Panzer IV losses (6150 tanks) were against the Soviet forces on this front.
Panzer IV-s played an important role on the Western Front as well in the second half of the war, where prior to the Allied invasion in Normandy the upgraded versions made up about half of the tank strength in the area. Thanks to the constant improvements to its armor plating and firepower, the Panzer IV-s were more than a match still to the invading M4 Shermans, and it was still one of the most widely used tanks during the Ardennes offensive in 1944-1945. Fighting till the end, the support tank turned out to be one of the most successful and reliable front line German armored fighting vehicles, and became a legend in armored history.
- Panzer IV Ausf. J – Museum of Slovak National Uprising: Wikimedia Commons - by Spiritia, CC BY-SA 3.0
- Early Panzer IV with the short 75mm gun , 1940: German Federal Archive / ww2db.com
- Panzer IV – Ausf. H, Eastern Front, 1944: German Federal Archive / ww2db.com
- Panzer IV tanks and crew during inspection, France, 1944: German Federal Archive / ww2db.com
- Whirbelwind self-propelled anti-aircraft gun: Wikimedia Commons
- Panzer IV tank, Athens, Greece, 1941-1942: German Federal Archive / ww2db.com
- Multiple hits on a Panzer IV – Ausf. E turret and gun: German Federal Archive / ww2db.com
- Panzer IV – Ausf. G, Deutsches Panzermuseum, Munster, Germany: Wikimedia Commons, by baku13, CC BY-SA 3.0