The Panzer IV would remain in production throughout the war. The most numerous and the most versatile tank the Wehrmacht developed, it is also usually considered one of the world’s classic armored vehicles, a strong contender for Top Ten status in any comparative listing. Its origins were unpretentious. The Weapons Office wanted armaments firms to gain experience designing and producing heavy tanks. Lutz and Guderian had from early days seen the need for a support tank. The result was a project for a “battalion commander’s vehicle” of 24 tons—the bridge weight limit—mounting a 75mm gun, which was really a howitzer, only 24 calibers long. Dubbed by its crews as the “cigar butt” and other, cruder names involving length, its high-explosive and smoke shells were intended to provide for close support—not only for tanks but for their accompanying infantry. In the war’s early years, however, a three-inch shell exploding on or near a tank could do significant damage—not least to crew morale. The Panzer IV would acquire from its early days an enduring reputation as a formidable opponent.
The Panzer IV suffered from an embryonic armament industry’s lack of experience producing even moderately large tanks, and from an increasingly overstrained manufacturing capacity. Only about 200 were on inventory by September 1, 1939. That was enough, however, to begin allocating a company to each battalion, and to test the three-to-one combination initially proposed by Lutz and Guderian. The design withstood prototype testing admirably. The Panzer IV’s suspension matched its eventual 20-ton weight, and was so reliable it became standard for all the later versions. Its superstructure was proportioned generously enough to allow for up-gunning. Its turret was electrically powered, improving exponentially the chances of getting off the first shot so often decisive in mobile war. Add standard frontal armor of up to 50mm, with 20mm on the sides and rear, plus a reliable Maybach engine giving a top speed of 20 miles per hour and a 100-mile range, and the Panzer IV was a crew’s delight when it began entering unit service in 1938.
The two-year seesaw conflict across North Africa has been so often described in so much detail that it is easy to exaggerate its actual impact on Hitler’s panzers. The campaign involved only three mobile divisions and never more than around 300 tanks at any one time. Technically the Germans maintained a consistent, though not overwhelming, superiority—reflecting as much the flaws in British tank design as the qualities of the German vehicles. The Panzer III, especially the L version with the 50mm/62-caliber gun, was the backbone of Rommel’s armor, admirably complemented by the Panzer IV, whose 75mm shells were highly effective against both unarmored “soft-skinned” vehicles and unsupported infantry, even when dug in.
The Sherman’s mid-velocity 75mm gun, able to fire both armor piercing and high-explosive rounds, made it the best tank in North Africa—except possibly for the later marks of Panzer IV, who brought their even higher velocity 75mm gun on line in numbers too small—never more than three dozen—to make a difference.
Replacing the panzers’ material losses was not a simple one-for-one process. The workhorse Panzer III was increasingly outclassed by its Soviet opponents—less from any qualitative improvement than because the Russians were beginning to learn how best to take tactical advantage in particular of the T-34’s powerful gun and high maneuverability. The Panzer III’s chassis was too light, its turret ring too small, to be a useful transition to the next panzer generation. They were issued as stopgaps, and by mid-1943 appeared in no more than company strength.
The Panzer IV, in contrast, had a future. Improved muzzle braking enabled it to carry the 43-caliber Tank Gun KwK 40, and a more powerful 48-caliber version introduced in late 1942. More than 1,700 of these F and G models were produced or upgraded before they gave way in March 1943 to the definitive late-war Panzer IVH. Its armor was significantly increased: 80mm on the front and 50mm on the turret, 30mm on the sides and 20mm in the rear—the latter reflecting Red Army infantrymen and antitank crews’ willingness to come to close quarters for a kill. The additional protection increased weight to 25 tons and reduced speed to 21 miles per hour, but the Model H could still move and maneuver well enough. Its 75mm, 48-caliber gun was roughly equivalent to the T-34’s main armament, and effective against almost anything it could reach.
The Panzer IVH/J integrated a useful set of upgrades into a state-of-the-art light medium tank, intended to equip one battalion in each panzer division. More than 3,000 would be built in 1943, and more than 3,100 in the war’s final 18 months. They were nevertheless regarded as stopgaps, holding the line for a new generation of exponentially more powerful armored fighting vehicles.