By Nicholas Drummond
A popular topic of late-night conversation in military bars and messes is: “What was the best German tank of the Second World War?” But “best” is a subjective word that means different things to different to people. If it means what was the most technically capable tank, then, for many people, the Tiger and Panther will probably spring to mind. But a lesser known tracked combat vehicle, the Sturrmgeschütz III, was arguably more significant in the impact it achieved. This article explains why it deserves to be reconsidered and is worthy of greater historical recognition.
The German Tiger (above) and Panther (below) tanks were iconic, but neither was ever produced in significant enough numbers to achieve real strategic impact. Even so, they were extraordinarily potent and qualitatively better than anything the Allies had until the closing stages of the War.
Weighing 57 metric tonnes, the Tiger had a physical presence which gave it a psychological effect that few other tanks bar the Tiger II could match. Its fearsome 88mm gun could penetrate the frontal armour of every allied tanks in existence at the time. From its introduction in September 1942 until January 1944, when an upgraded Russian T-34 arrived with an 85mm gun, the Tiger could engage enemy tanks with impunity. During the Normandy campaign in 1944, German tank ace, Michael Wittman, used a single Tiger to decimate a British armoured regiment, the 4th City of London Yeomanry, at Villers-Bocage.Within the space of 15 minutes, Wittmann destroyed six Cromwell tanks, two Sherman Fireflies, three Stuart light tanks, eight half-tracks, four Bren gun carriers, two 6-pounder anti-tank guns, two scout cars, and a further Sherman. It. was one of many episodes that contributed to a myth of invincibility.
Despite its omnipotence, the Tigers I was never produced in significant enough numbers to contribute a decisive effect. It was mostly used in small numbers and at a time when the Wehrmacht was retreating instead of advancing. In fact, it was intended to be an assault tank. Though some were lost to enemy action, many fell into Allied hands intact after being abandoned by their crews when they ran out of fuel or crucial spare parts. Both Tiger I and Tiger II were large, complex beasts that were time-consuming and expensive to produce. Even so, they remain among the standout tank designs of the Second World War. Few other tanks provided a more potent mix of firepower, protection and mobility. The major problem with the Tiger is that only 1,347were ever produced. The Tiger II was even more formidable, but again numbers were limited, with only 489 made. 
Tigers saw action in Tunisia, Italy and Normandy, although the majority were used in Russia. It was here that Stalin coined his frequently quoted maxim: quantity has a quality all of its own. Ultimately, the Tiger’s impressive firepower and protection were no match for vastly superior numbers of Russian T-34, KV-1s and KV-2s that were pitched against it. From D-Day onwards, the Tiger met its match when Allied tanks equipped with more powerful tank guns, such as the Sherman Firefly with the QF 17-pounder, started to appear in large numbers. It may therefore be fair to say that the Tiger’s reputation was out of all proportion to its strategic effect.
In evaluating Second World War German tanks, perhaps a more interesting question is: what was the most significant design? Here significant means: which tank achieved the most impact in battle?
The Panther was in some ways superior to the Tiger. It was a better balance of the iron triangle because it had a higher power-to-weight ratio relative to the Tiger offering improved cross-country agility. Mounting the 75mm KwK 42 L/70 gun it could also penetrate the frontal armour of a T-34 at 1,500 metres. Thirdly, it had equal protection at a lesser weight through the use of sloped armour. However, initial versions of the Panther proved to be so unreliable that they were a liability in combat. It wasn’t until the Panther Ausf. G appeared in early 1944, that it began to have an impact. Total Panther numbers were around 6,000manufactured by the end of the War, but less than 3,000 of the Ausf. G version were produced.
In contrast to Tiger and Panther tanks, the Soviets built 84,070 T-34/76s and T-34/85s while some 49,000 Shermans rolled-off American production lines.Military historians tend to regard the T-34 and Sherman as more significant than any German tank because they were engineered in a way that allowed them to be mass produced in vast numbers at a lower cost. While absolute numbers frequently made the difference between victory and defeat, they also made equipment support easier and less expensive. Therefore, production volumes and supportability are important additional evaluation criteria in terms of overall impact.
The Wehrmacht’s Panzer III and Panzer IV tanks, were more also significant than Tiger and Panther, because they were manufactured in larger numbers too. Even so, total quantities were markedly less than Russian or American tank production. Some 5,774 Panzer IIIswere produced plus 8,553 Panzer IVs.The latter was one of only two German tanks to remain in production throughout the War, and was the primary equipment of the Panzer Divisions. The Panzer IV’s technical performance was broadly similar to the T-34, KV-1, Sherman, Churchill and Cromwell tanks it encountered in battle, but thanks to a combination of highly trained crews, effective tactics and sufficient mass to achieve a Blitzkrieg effect, it was instrumental in achieving an extraordinary number of campaign victories during the early stages of the War.
The Panzer III (above) and Panzer IV (below) were the primary tanks of the Germany Army during WW2 and were pivotal in achieving its early war victories.
This leads us to the most widely produced German combat vehicle of the Second World War, the Sturmgeschütz III assault gun. Like the Panzer IV, it was the only other German tank to be produced continually from 1939 to 1945 with 10,086 manufactured.The Sturmgeschütz III was a tank that wasn’t actually a tank. It was conceived as an assault gun to provide direct fire support for attacking infantry, a role it performed extremely well in Poland, France and Russia. It was used to deal with machine gun nests, pillboxes and fortifications, with specific instructions that it was not be used as a tank destroyer, as it was thought to be too vulnerable.
The Sturmgeschütz III had no turret, so could only rotate its gun by slewing the vehicle to the left or right using its tracks. It couldn’t fire on the move. And, it had thinner armour than the Panzer III and Panzer IV. Overall, the Sturmgeschütz III shouldn’t have been the extraordinary success it became;. According to the Tank Museum at Bovington, by the time the War ended, it had destroyed an estimated 30,000 Russian tanks – this was not only more any other German combat vehicle, but also more than any Allied tank type. Notable engagements included Kharkov in February 1943, when the GrossDeutschland Division’s StuG units claimed 44 T-34 kills, whereas an equal number of Tiger units only managed 30. At Leningrad in the same year, a Sturmgeschütz battalion, Abteilung 226, equipped with 41 StuGIIIs, destroyed 221 Russian T-34 and KV-1 tanks for just 13 losses.
After Kursk, the tide turned in Russia and the Wermacht was forced to adopt a defensive posture. Instead of being used as an assault gun, circumstances demanded that the Sturmgeschütz III be used as a tank destroyer. Despite concerns about vulnerability, the design requirement had stipulated a vehicle height of less than a man standing, which meant it had a lower silhouette than other German tanks. It was easier to camouflage and presented a smaller target to enemy gunners, making it ideal for ambushing enemy tanks.
Of the many tank types used by Wermacht and SS Panzer Divisions between 1939 and 1945, the Sturmgeschütz III was the simplest and cheapest to build, costing 70,000 Reichsmarks, whereas a Panzer IV cost 100,000 Reichsmarks and a Tiger 300,000 Reichsmarks.Leveraging the same proven chassis as the Panzer III, Sturmgeschütz III commonality meant that spare parts were in plentiful supply, making it easy to support and maintain. When Panzer III production was halted, it was no problem to transfer manufacturing to Sturmgeschütz III. Mechanical simplicity ensured it was easy to repair. Training was straightforward. With a driver, gunner, loader and commander, the vehicle was simple to operate and proved to be popular with its crews.
Crucially, the Sturmgeschütz III possessed four further advantages that are often overlooked:
- It mounted the 75mmStuK 40 L/48gun, which was too big to fit within the Panzer III’s turret ring. Though less potent than the Tiger’s mighty 88mm gun, it could still defeat the frontal armour of most allied tanks, which made it more than good enough for the tank destroyer role.
- The StuG. III had superior optics to those used on the Panzer IV, so could acquire and engage targets faster, at longer ranges and with greater accuracy. These were mounted above the gun, not coaxially, making it easier to acquire and track targets.
- Although overall armour protection was inferior to other tanks, the StuG. III had good protection where most needed: across the frontal arc.
- Without a turret or the same all-round thickness of armour as the Panzer III, the StuG. III weighed less so was more agile on- and off-road. Less weight also meant that it put less strain on its drivetrain, so broke down less frequently than other German tanks. It enjoyed the highest availability rating of any German tracked combat vehicle.
Success bred success. The more the StuG. III was appreciated to be a useful battlefield asset, the more that were built. But, for all its qualities, the Sturmgeschütz III never enjoyed the same iconic status as the Tiger and Panther. It was ugly, unsophisticated and less capable than its tank cousins, yet it delivered a disproportionately high number of tank kills relative to other more capable German tanks.
After the war, around 60 StuG. IIIs which had been previously acquired by Finland and Spain remained in service, with the latter country passing-on its fleet to Syria, which used them until 1967.
In summary, the Sturmgeschütz III’s technical features, production numbers, combat performance, and longevity of service add-up to a vehicle that no other tank or tank destroyer has ever matched. This is not to say that the Sturmgeschütz III was perfect. On the contrary, it had shortcomings, but it worked well enough to be extremely useful.
Fast forward to today.
The Challenger 2, M1A2 Abrams and Leopard 2A7 are highly sophisticated main battle tanks with prodigious capabilities. They are also complex, require a high degree of operator proficiency, and need proactive maintenance to ensure their dependability in the field. Above all, they are extremely expensive. New-build Leopard 2 MBTs cost €12-14 million each. Like the Tiger I and Tiger II, upgrade programmes to maintain their edge have resulted in reduced in power-to-weight ratios, blunting their mobility.
Compared to the Russian T-72 and T-90 or the Chinese Type 99, modern NATO MBTs are more advanced and more capable. But, because they are so expensive, armies tend to have fewer in number. Since the Second World War, we seem to have forgotten how successful the T-34 and Sherman were by simply being manufactured in high volumes.
The resurgence of Cold War threats reminds us that capable MBTs remain extremely relevant, but we don’t have enough. We certainly do not have a modern equivalent of the tank destroyer or a light/ medium tank that compensates for the gradual reduction in overall tank numbers. This is a problem because NATO tanks are vastly outnumbered by those of potential enemies, including Russia and China.
Instead, we have relied on vehicle-mounted ATGMs to even the balance. The Arab-Israeli War of 1973, provided a vivid example of how effective anti-tank missiles could be. They accounted for a significant number of tank casualties on both sides. Thus ATGMs, such as TOW and MILAN, have become the contemporary equivalents of the tank destroyer. Unfortunately, most are mounted on unprotected light vehicles not on tracked platforms under armour. Feedback from recent conflicts, notably the Russian-Ukrainian war, suggests that firing ATGMs from soft-skinned vehicles is risky.
Attack helicopters have evolved into highly effective tank killers. Mounting Hellfire and Brimstone ATGMs fired from ranges up to 8,000 metres, they can engage enemy AFVs well beyond their ability to return fire. While such capabilities make attack helicopters a lethal modern tank destroyer analogue, again, we don’t have enough. The UK only has 50 AH-64 Apaches, so we need something else to even-up the numbers.
Meanwhile, a new technology has emerged: Active Protection Systems (APS). These are good at defeating ATGMs to enhance the survivability of AFVs. Offering a range of neutralisation options, including soft-kill effects through the jamming of missile guidance systems, or hard-kill solutions, by firing a barrage of ball bearings to obliterate an incoming missile, they have become dependable, ubiquitous and, most important, affordable. Mounted on all types of tracked vehicles, APS have restored the primacy of heavy armour.
While APS technology can defeat chemical warheads of HEAT missiles, the long-rod penetrators of APFSDS anti-tank ammunition are much harder to stop due to their high velocity. In any event, the challenge is now to invent new anti-tank systems capable of defeating APS. High velocity ATGMs are one future option, but in the short-term we will rely on tank guns and APFSDS to do it. This means we need to acquire more MBTs or… the modern equivalent of an inexpensive, utilitarian tank destroyer.
We have already started to mount ATGMs like Javelin and MMP under armour on IFVs and 8x8s and while this will certainly provide a useful uplift in capability, it may not be enough. Recognising the problem, not only of MBT affordability, but also deployability, the Italian Army decided to develop a wheeled tank destroyer, the CIO Centauro B with a large tank gun. This first appeared in 1991 and was used to equip several wheeled brigades. As may be obvious from other discussions about medium weight wheeled armoured vehicles, modern 8x8s provide a high level of strategic mobility, enabling rapid deployment. For a country like Italy, surrounded by the water on three sides, the Centauro was an ideal vehicle to react to any attack from the sea. In essence, it was a wheeled tank. Though less sophisticated than a Main Battle Tank, it was still able to neutralise substantially better protected AFVs. It also cost half as much. More recently, Japan has adopted a similar vehicle, the MHI Type-16 MCV, to perform the same role. Both the Centauro and Type-16 mount a 105mm low pressure gun, able to defeat contemporary Russian and Chinese tanks, although possibly not the new T-14 Armata.
With 200 Ariete MBTs supplemented by 200-400 Centauros, this latter vehicle effectively tripled the total number of “tanks” available to the Italian Army. The Italians soon realised that the Centauro was a highly flexible platform well able to perform additional missions beyond its primary role. It was deployed to Somalia, Former-Yugoslavia, Lebanon and Iraq. Such was its success, that Italy is now developing a new version of the Centauro with a 120mm gun.
The similarities between 8×8 tank destroyers and the Sturmgeschütz III are noteworthy:
- Potent main gun
- Good protection across the frontal arc
- Lower cost than a MBT
- Mechanical simplicity and reliability
- Ease of operation and support
Following this example, the US Army adopted the Stryker M1128 Mobile Gun System. This also has a 105 mm gun. Unfortunately, it was fielded before a number of development issues had been resolved creating reliability problems. It seems likely that the US Army will look to upgrade of replace the Stryker MGS with a better system. While it considers how to do this and recognising the need to support light role US Infantry Brigade Combat Teams (ICBT), the US Army’s Mobile Protected Firepower programme aims to provide such units with a modern tracked tank destroyer. Like Centauro, the proposed vehicle type adheres the Second World War German tank destroyer concept.
For all the above reasons, there is a strong case for other NATO armies to consider mounting 120mm low recoil guns more widely on their 8×8 platforms or to acquire lightweight tracked mobile gun systems. For the UK, this might include mounting a 120mm gun on something like Ajax or or Boxer.
Putting a 120mm gun turret on an 8×8 platform adds weight which compromises mobility. It also adds cost. Part of the genius of the Sturmgeschütz III was that it didn’t have a turret. This kept both weight and costs down. Could a turret-less configuration work for an 8×8 tank destroyer or light tracked platform?
Remote weapon stations offer worthwhile advantages relative to traditional gun turrets. They are the modern equivalent of not mounting a turret on an AFV. They reduce vehicle weight and cost, but do not compromise interior volume. They also separate the crew from ammunition stowage to reduce fire risks should the vehicle be penetrated. The Stryker M1128 gun mount is not ideal, but does at least manage to mount a 105mm gun on Stryker while keeping GVW under 20-tonnes.
The 30mm remote turret mounted to the Stryker M1126 Dragoon is another innovative solution, but the cannon calibre is not large enough to defeat anything beyond older Russian BMPs. More recently, the US Army has expressed an intention to field a new 50mm cannon. It won’t be as potent as the 120mm smoothbore mounted in most NATO MBTs, but, like the Sturmgeschütz III’s 75mm StuK 40 L/48gun, it should be capable of destroying most Russian and Chinese tanks.
Whatever we decide to adopt to fill the gap, we need to avoid the tendency to gold-plate future vehicle requirements. We need to keep it simple, cheap and nasty… and here nasty means nasty for the enemy.
To summarise, this article is not suggesting that we literally mount a large tank gun on an inexpensive wheeled or tracked chassis, although contemporary tank destroyer solution could indeed indeed result in something similar to the Sturmgeschütz III; it is about developing an effective low-cost solution that can give us a numerical advantage. When you’re playing a numbers game, critical mass matters.
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