For all the print devoted to the Panthers, the Tigers, and their variants, the backbone of the armored force through 1945 remained the Panzer IV. Its final versions had little enough in common with the “cigar butts” of 1940. The Model H officially became the main production version in March 1942. Its armor protection included side panels and grew to a maximum of 3.2 inches in front, at the price of increased weight (25 tons) that cut the road speed to a bit over 20 miles per hour. A later J version incorporated such minor modifications as wider tracks and wire-mesh side skirts just as effective as armor plate in deflecting infantry-fired antitank rockets.
Designed as an infantry-support tank, the Panzer IV was not intended to engage enemy armor—that role being allocated to the Panzer III. However, with the inadequacy of the Panzer III becoming apparent and in the face of Soviet T-34 tanks, the Panzer IV soon assumed the original role of its increasingly vulnerable cousin. The most widely manufactured and deployed German tank of the Second World War, the Panzer IV was used as the base for many other fighting vehicles, including the Sturmgeschütz IV assault gun, Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyer, the Wirbelwind self-propelled anti-aircraft gun, and the Brummbär self-propelled gun.
Robust and reliable, the Panzer IV saw service in all combat theaters involving Germany and was notable for being the only German tank to remain in continuous production throughout the war, with over 8800 produced between 1936 and 1945. Upgrades and design modifications intended to counter new threats, extended its service life. Generally, these involved increasing the Panzer IV's armor protection or upgrading its weapons, although during the last months of the war, with Germany's pressing need for rapid replacement of losses, design changes also included simplifications to speed up the manufacturing process.
The Panzer IV was generally succeeded by the Panther medium tank introduced to counter the T-34. The Panzer IV was the most widely exported tank in German service, with around 300 sold to Finland, Romania, Spain and Bulgaria. After the war, Syria procured Panzer IVs from France and Czechoslovakia, which were to see combat in the 1967 Six-Day War. Some 8,553 Panzer IVs of all versions were built during World War II, with only the StuG III assault-gun/tank destroyer's production number of 10,086 vehicles exceeding the Panzer IV's production total for Germany's and other Axis armored forces.
Guderian in particular considered the new version of a well-tried system a practical response to the chronic frontline shortfalls in tank strength in the East. The Panzer IV was relatively easy to maintain -and relatively easy to evacuate when damaged. Over 3,000 of them would be produced in 1943, and standard equipment of the army panzer divisions was set at a battalion each of Panthers and Panzer IVs.
The Panzer IV was originally intended to be used only on a limited scale, so initially Krupp was its sole manufacturer. Prior to the Polish campaign, only 217 Panzer IVs were produced: 35 Ausf. A; 42 Ausf. B; and 140 Ausf. C; in 1941 production was extended to Vomag (located in the city of Plauen) and the Nibelungenwerke in the Austrian city of St. Valentin.
In 1941, an average of 39 tanks per month were built; this rose to 83 in 1942, 252 in 1943, and 300 in 1944. However, in December 1943, Krupp's factory was diverted to manufacture the Sturmgeschütz IV and, in the spring of 1944, the Vomag factory began production of the Jagdpanzer IV, leaving the Nibelungenwerke as the only plant still assembling the Panzer IV. With the slow collapse of German industry under pressure from Allied air and ground offensives—in October 1944 the Nibelungenwerke factory was severely damaged during a bombing raid—by March and April 1945, production had fallen to pre-1942 levels, with only around 55 tanks per month coming off the assembly lines.
In January 1945, 287 Panzer IVs were lost on the Eastern Front. It is estimated that combat against Soviet forces accounted for 6,153 Panzer IVs, or about 75% of all Panzer IV losses during the war.
The Jagdpanzer IVs were intended for the panzer divisions and the assault gun battalions, whose number grew to over three dozen during 1943. A slightly heavier version with a 75mm L/70 gun like the Panther’s and the unflattering nickname of “Guderian’s Duck” began entering service in August 1944. It proved first-rate against armor in Russia and the West; almost a thousand were produced during the war. The “Duck’s” long gun made it uncomfortably nose-heavy (the source of its sobriquet), but by then that was among the least of the panzers’ problems.