The Panther served from mid-1943 to the end of the European war in 1945. It was intended as a counter to the Russian T-34, and as a replacement to the Panzer III and IV; while never replacing the latter, it served alongside it as well as the heavier Tiger until the end of the war. The Panther's excellent combination of firepower, mobility, and protection served as a benchmark for other nations' late war and immediate post-war tank designs, and it is frequently regarded as one of the best tank designs of World War II.
The development of the Panther resulted from the Wehrmacht's unpleasant surprise encounter with the T-34 during Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia in June 1941. During the first weeks of Barbarossa, the Panzertruppen repeatedly encountered the T-34/76 medium tank. Although in short supply, the T-34 made a quick and lasting impression on the German armored forces through its combination of speed and mobility, rugged reliability, sloped armor protection and firepower. As a result of several encounters with the T-34, especially the mauling sustained by the 4th panzer division at Mtsensk on 4 October 1941, Colonel General Heinz Guderian, leading Panzergruppe 2 in Army Group Centre, requested the establishment of a commission of enquiry into the relative strengths of the tank armies on the Eastern Front.
Although Guderian suggested simply copying the T-34, the report of the enquiry recommended that the main attributes of the T-34 - armament, sloped armor and suspension - be incorporated into a new 30-ton German tank designated the VK30.02. Both Daimler-Benz and MAN (Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg) produced prototypes. Despite Hitler's preference for the VK30.02(DB), the Wehrmacht's Weapons Department recommended production of the MAN variant. The Wehrmacht issued a contract to MAN on 15 May 1942 to produce the first pre-production version of the new tank to be known as the Panzerkampfwagen V Panther Ausführung D, with the ordnance inventry designation of Sd.Kfz. 171.
The new tank's name was modified on 27 February 1944 when Hitler ordered that the Roman numeral V be deleted from the designation.
After a complex and difficult development program which included problems with the vehicle's transmission, steering, gun, turret and fuel pump, the Panther was readied for participation in the Wehrmacht's 1943 summer offensive in the East. Despite ongoing rebuilding and further teething troubles, the DEMAG factory entrusted with the rebuild programme managed to deliver 200 Panthers to the Eastern Front in time for its operational debut in the Battle of Kursk. The two battalions of Panthers - the 51st and 52nd Panzer Battalions - were attached to the Grossdeutschland Panzergrenadier Division on the southern front of the Kursk salient. Inevitably, their troublesome gestation and the limited training of their crews severely hampered the Panthers' contribution to the battle.
The lessons of Kursk, however, were quickly absorbed into the production lines and influenced the later Ausf (Model) Ds, as well as the improved Ausf A and the later Ausf G. Improvements included stronger, lower-profile commander's cupolas, rainguards on the gun mantlet, zimmerit anti-magnetic mine paste and, on the Ausf G, a simplified and strengthened hull. Given the production difficulties and internal politics of german weapons manufacture, the Panther tank was inevitably a compromise of various requirements. While sharing essentially the same engine as the Tiger I tank, it had better frontal armor, better gun penetration, was lighter overall and thus faster, and could handle rough terrain better than the Tigers. The tradeoff was weaker side armor; the Panther proved to be deadly in open country and shooting from long range, but vulnerable to close-quarters combat. Also, the 75 mm gun fired a slightly smaller shell than the Tiger's 88 mm gun, providing less high explosive firepower against infantry, though it was still quite effective.
The Panther was also far cheaper to produce than the Tiger tanks, and only slightly more expensive than the Panzer IV, as its design came to fruition at the same time that the Reich Ministry of Armament and War Production was making great efforts to increase war production. Key elements of the Panther design, such as its armor, transmission and final drive, were compromises made specifically to improve production rates and address Germany's war shortages, whereas other elements such as its highly compact engine and its complex suspension system remained with their elegant but complicated engineering. The result was that Panther tank production was far higher than was possible for the Tiger tanks, but not much higher than had been accomplished with the Panzer IV. At the same time, the simplified final drive became the single major cause of breakdowns of the Panther tank, and was a problem that was never corrected.
Having arrived on the battlefield in 1943 at a crucial phase in World War II for Germany and been rushed into combat at Kursk before its teething problems were corrected, the Panther tank thereafter fought on outnumbered in Germany's steady retreat before the Allies for the remainder of World War II. Its success as a battlefield weapon was thus hampered by Germany's generally declining position in the war, with the loss of airpower protection by the Luftwaffe, the loss of fuel and training space, and the declining quality of tank crews. Nevertheless, the Panther tank was respected by the Allies as one of the best all-round tanks of the war, and its combat capabilities led directly to the introduction of heavier Allied tanks such as the Soviet IS-2 and the American M26 into the war.