It might seem odd to find a post about the Panzer III on the Tiger Collection Blog, but in fact during the early days of the Tiger’s service the Germans used the two tanks closely alongside each other.
Building on earlier experiments, development of the Panzer III began in 1934. It was designed to be the German Army’s primary battle tank, carrying a powerful armour piercing gun.
It and its counterpart the Panzer IV, designed as a support tank, were in short supply during 1939 and 1940, but throughout most of the war they formed the backbone of the German tank force. Over 6200 Panzer IIIs were built, compared with just 1347 Tigers.
Small numbers were used in Poland and France, but the Panzer III had its heyday in North Africa and the Soviet Union up until 1943, by which time it was clear that the tank was outdated against the latest Allied vehicles. Its main replacement was an upgunned Panzer IV and later the Panther.
So how does the Panzer III tie in to the Tiger’s story?
As Tigers entered service in 1942 they were assigned to Heavy Tank Companies. These were independent units that were moved around the battlefield as necessary to support other forces. Each had 9 Tigers and 10 Panzer IIIs. They had better mobility than the much heavier Tiger, and carried out tasks such as scouting and liaison that the larger tank was not suited to.
Many of these Panzer IIIs were Ausf N models, armed with a short-barrelled 75mm gun. This was used to fire High Explosive rounds, mainly at unarmoured targets. This well complemented the Tiger’s 88mm gun with its high armour penetration.
By March 1943, after combat experience in Tunisia and the Soviet Union, the Panzer IIIs were removed from the Heavy Tank Companies. An additional 5 Tigers replaced them as frontline vehicles with other roles taken on by SdKfz 250 halftracks.
The Panzer III was a workhorse of the German Army throughout most of the war, but the later, heavier Panthers and Tigers have tended to overshadow its importance.