Contributed by Michael Burnside
It is the Panther and Tiger tanks that dominate the attention of casual history buff and with good reason. The Panther and Tiger were groundbreaking designs that wholly outclassed almost any armored opponent that they could be expected to face. They have influenced the design of heavy battle tanks to the modern age.
But the Panther and Tiger were so advanced that they were almost beyond the capability of Germany to produce. The rate of production for the Panther and Tiger were never enough to equal the need. They were also mechanically unreliable, further limiting the number of tanks which could be brought to bear on allied forces. These limiting factors meant that the Panther and Tiger could not served as the core of Germany's armor forces. That duty fell to the Panzer IV.
The Panzer IV was a medium tank designed in the 1930's. It was the result of a steady evolution of solid and reliable, if not terribly advanced, tank designs that had begun with the Panzer I.
It was Panzer IIs and IIIs that swept into France in 1940. It was German tactical doctrine that made German armor effective. Although fairly reliable for their time, Germany's early Panzers were outnumbered by French tanks and inferior to many French designs such as the Char B.
Germany continued to rely on its tactical rather than technical superiority as it faced the British in Africa and the Soviets on the Eastern front. The Panzer IV arrived as more of a supplement to the Panzer III rather than a revolutionary replacement. But the bigger turret of the Panzer IV would soon force the Panzer III into obsolescence. Like the Panzer III, the Panzer IV was originally only equipped with a 50mm cannon, but allied tanks began to appear with thicker and thicker armor that the 50mm could not defeat. The British Matilda was slow and under armed but incredibly difficult to stop. The arrival of the Russian T-34 was a nasty surprise for German armored forces and convinced German command that mounting heaver guns on their tanks was a top priority.
In response to these threats, a 75mm high velocity cannon was mounted on the Panzer IV. This cannon was capable of destroying any allied tank that it encountered. This same cannon would later be mounted on the Panther.
The ease with which the Panzer IV could be produced in comparison to the Panther and Tiger meant that by default it had to serve as Germany's main battle tank. The Panzer IV's high velocity cannon made it a lethal machine but it's armor was never really adequate. Panzer IV's were modified with additional armor plate and as the war progressed, the Panzer IV got heavier and heavier. By the end of the war it looked like a completely different tank.
Perhaps that was the best trait of the Panzer IV. It was adaptable. Its chassis served as the basis for a wide range of anti-tank platforms including the Hummel, the Brumbar, and the StuG IV. As conditions in the war changed, the Panzer IV evolved to face them.
The Panther and Tiger were incredible machines, but the Panzer IV was the tank that Germany relied upon throughout the war.