The Panzer IV was the only German tank to remain in both production and combat throughout World War II, and measured over the entire war it comprised 30% of the Wehrmacht's total tank strength. Although in service by early 1939, in time for the occupation of Czechoslovakia, at the start of the war the majority of German armor was made up of obsolete Panzer Is and Panzer IIs. The Panzer I in particular had already proved inferior to Soviet tanks, such as the T-26, during the Spanish Civil War.
Western Front and North Africa (1939–1942)
When Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, its armored corps was composed of 1,445 Panzer Is, 1,223 Panzer IIs, 98 Panzer IIIs and 211 Panzer IVs; the more modern vehicles amounted to less than 10% of Germany's armored strength. The 1st Panzer Division had a roughly equal balance of types, with 17 Panzer Is, 18 Panzer IIs, 28 Panzer IIIs, and 14 Panzer IVs per battalion. The remaining panzer divisions were heavy with obsolete models, equipped as they were with 34 Panzer Is, 33 Panzer IIs, 5 Panzer IIIs, and 6 Panzer IVs per battalion. Although the Polish army possessed less than 200 tanks capable of penetrating the German light tanks, Polish anti-tank guns proved more of a threat, reinforcing German faith in the value of the close-support Panzer IV.
Despite increased production of the medium Panzer IIIs and IVs prior to the German invasion of France on 10 May 1940, the majority of German tanks were still light types. According to Heinz Guderian, the Wehrmacht invaded France with 523 Panzer Is, 955 Panzer IIs, 349 Panzer IIIs, 278 Panzer IVs, 106 Panzer 35(t)s and 228 Panzer 38(t)s. Through the use of tactical radios and superior tactics, the Germans were able to outmaneuver and defeat French and British armor. However, Panzer IVs armed with the KwK 37 L/24 75-millimetre (2.95 in) tank gun found it difficult to engage French tanks such as Somua S35 and Char B1. The Somua S35 had a maximum armor thickness of 55 mm (2.17 in), while the KwK 37 L/24 could only penetrate 43 mm (1.69 in) at a range of 700 m (2,296.59 ft). The British Matilda II was also heavily armored, with at least 70 mm (2.76 in) of steel on the front and turret, and a minimum of 65 mm on the sides. but were few in number.
Although the Panzer IV was deployed to North African campaign with the German Afrika Korps, until the longer gun variant began production, the tank was outperformed by the Panzer III with respect to armor penetration. Both the Panzer III and IV had difficulty in penetrating the British Matilda II's thick armor, while the Matilda's 40-mm QF 2 pounder gun could knock out either German tank; its major disadvantage was its low speed. By August 1942, Rommel had only received 27 Panzer IV Ausf. F2s, armed with the L/43 gun, which he deployed to spearhead his armored offensives. The longer gun could penetrate all American and British tanks in theater at ranges of up to 1,500 m (4,900 ft), by that time the most heavily armored of which was the M3 Grant. Although more of these tanks arrived in North Africa between August and October 1942, their numbers were insignificant compared to the amount of matériel shipped to British forces.
The Panzer IV also took part in the invasion of Yugoslavia and the invasion of Greece in early 1941.
Eastern Front (1941–1945)
With the launching of Operation Barbarossa on 22 June 1941, the unanticipated appearance of the KV-1 and T-34 tanks prompted an upgrade of the Panzer IV's 75 mm (2.95 in) gun to a longer, high-velocity 75 mm (2.95 in) gun suitable for antitank use. This meant that it could now penetrate the T-34 at ranges of up to 1,200 m (3,900 ft) at any angle. The 75 mm (2.95 in) KwK 40 L/43 gun on the Panzer IV could penetrate a T-34 at a variety of impact angles beyond 1,000 m (3,300 ft) range and up to 1,600 m (5,200 ft). Shipment of the first model to mount the new gun, the Ausf. F2, began in spring 1942, and by the summer offensive there were around 135 Panzer IVs with the L/43 tank gun available. At the time, these were the only German tanks that could defeat T-34 or KV-1 with sheer firepower. They played a crucial role in the events that unfolded between June 1942 and March 1943, and the Panzer IV became the mainstay of the German panzer divisions. Although in service by late September 1942, the Tiger I was not yet numerous enough to make an impact and suffered from serious teething problems, while the Panther was not delivered to German units in the Soviet Union until May 1943. The extent of German reliance on the Panzer IV during this period is reflected by their losses; 502 were destroyed on the Eastern Front in 1942.
The Panzer IV continued to play an important role during operations in 1943, including at the Battle of Kursk. Newer types, such as the Panther, were still experiencing crippling reliability problems that restricted their combat efficiency, so much of the effort fell to the 841 Panzer IVs that took part in the battle. Throughout 1943, the German army lost 2,352 Panzer IVs on the Eastern Front; some divisions were reduced to 12–18 tanks by the end of the year. In 1944, a further 2,643 Panzer IVs were destroyed, and such losses were becoming increasingly difficult to replace. Nevertheless, due to a shortage of replacement Panther tanks, the Panzer IV continued to form the core of Germany's armored divisions, including elite units such as the II SS Panzer Corps, through 1944.
In January 1945, 287 Panzer IVs were lost on the Eastern Front. It is estimated that combat against Soviet forces accounted for 6,153 Panzer IVs, or about 75% of all Panzer IV losses during the war.
Western Front (1944–45)
Panzer IVs comprised around half of the available German tank strength on the Western Front prior to the Allied invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944. Most of the 11 panzer divisions that saw action in Normandy initially contained an armored regiment of one battalion of Panzer IVs and another of Panthers, for a total of around 160 tanks, although Waffen-SS panzer divisions were generally larger and better-equipped than their Heer counterparts. Regular upgrades to the Panzer IV had helped to maintain its reputation as a formidable opponent. The bocage countryside in Normandy favored defense, and German tanks and anti-tank guns inflicted very heavy casualties on Allied armor during the Normandy campaign, despite the overwhelming Allied air superiority. German counter-attacks were blunted in the face of Allied artillery, infantry-held anti-tank weapons, tank destroyers and anti-tank guns, as well as the ubiquitous fighter bomber aircraft. The rugged terrain caused the side-skirt armor used to predetonate shaped charge anti-tank weapons, such as the British PIAT, to be pulled away. German tankers in all theaters were "frustrated by the way these skirts were easily torn off when going through dense brush.
The Allies had also been developing lethality improvement programs of their own; the widely used American-designed M4 Sherman medium tank, while mechanically reliable, suffered from thin armor and an inadequate gun. Against earlier-model Panzer IVs, it could hold its own, but with its 75 mm M3 gun, struggled against the late-model Panzer IV (and was unable to penetrate the frontal armor of Panther and Tiger tanks at virtually any range). The late-model Panzer IV's 80 mm (3.15 in) frontal hull armor could easily withstand hits from the 75 mm (2.95 in) weapon on the Sherman at normal combat ranges, though the turret remained vulnerable.
The British up-gunned the Sherman with their highly effective QF 17 pounder anti-tank gun, resulting in the Firefly; although this was the only Allied tank capable of dealing with all current German tanks at normal combat ranges, few (342) were available in time for the Normandy invasion. From D-Day to the end of the Normandy campaign a further 550 Fireflys were built. A second British tank equipped with the 17pdr gun, the Cruiser Mk VIII Challenger, could not participate in the initial landings having to wait for port facilities to be ready to land. It was not until July 1944 that American Shermans, fitted with the 76-mm (3-inch) M1 tank gun, achieved a parity in firepower with the Panzer IV; however, most Shermans were not upgraded with the new gun.
However, despite the general superiority of its armored vehicles, by 29 August 1944, as the last surviving German troops of Fifth Panzer Army and Seventh Army began retreating towards Germany, the twin cataclysms of the Falaise Pocket and the Seine crossing had cost the Wehrmacht dearly. Of the 2,300 tanks and assault guns it had committed to Normandy (including around 750 Panzer IVs), over 2,200 had been lost. Field Marshal Walter Model reported to Hitler that his panzer divisions had remaining, on average, five or six tanks each.
During the winter of 1944–45, the Panzer IV was one of the most widely used tanks in the Ardennes offensive, where further heavy losses—as often due to fuel shortages as to enemy action—impaired major German armored operations in the West thereafter. The Panzer IVs that took part were survivors of the battles in France between June and September 1944, with around 260 additional Panzer IV Ausf. Js issued as reinforcements.
The Finns bought 15 new Panzer IV Ausf J in 1944, for 5,000,000 Finnish markkas each (about twice the production price). The tanks arrived too late to see action against the Soviets, but were instead used against the Germans during their withdrawal through Lapland. After the war, they served as training tanks, and one portrayed a Soviet KV-1 tank in the movie The Unknown Soldier in 1955.
After 1945, Bulgaria incorporated its surviving Panzer IVs in defensive bunkers as gunpoints on the border with Turkey, along with T-34 turrets. This defensive line known as the "Krali Marko Line", remained in use until the fall of communism in 1989.
Twenty Panzer IV Ausf Hs and ten StuG III Ausf Gs were supplied to Spain in December 1943, a fraction of what Spain had originally asked for. The Panzer IV represented the best tank in Spanish service between 1944 and 1954, and was deployed along with T-26s and Panzer Is. Spain sold 17 Panzer IVs to Syria in 1967; the remaining three are conserved. These can be found at Madrid, Burgos and Santovenia de Pisuerga (Valladolid).
Most of the tanks Romania had received were lost in 1944 and 1945 in combat. These tanks, designated T4 in the army inventory, were used by the 2nd Armored Regiment.
On 9 May 1945, only two Panzer IVs were left. Romania received another 50 Panzer IV tanks from the Red Army after the end of the war. These tanks were of different models and were in very poor shape—many of them were missing parts and the side skirts. The T4 tanks remained in service until 1950, when the Army decided to use only Soviet equipment. By 1954, all German tanks had been scrapped.
While their numbers remain uncertain, Syria received around 60 Panzers that were refurbished in France during 1950-1952, followed by 50 others purchased from Czechoslovakia in 1954. A Soviet DShK machine gun on an anti-aircraft mount was retrofitted on the cupola. These were used to shell Israeli settlements below the Golan Heights, and were fired upon in 1965 during the Water War by Israeli Centurion tanks. Syria received 17 Panzer IVs from Spain; these saw combat during the Six-Day War in 1967.
In addition, Turkey was a buyer, with 35 Panzer IV received until 4 May 1944 in exchange for some chromium. Delivery was began with Ausf G and probably went on with Ausf H versions.
Captured Panzer IVs in service
The Soviet Army captured large numbers of German armored vehicles, including Panzer IVs (Russian designation T-4). Some of them were pressed into temporary service and some others were used for training. Sometimes captured tanks were used in different temporary units or as single tanks. While captured Tigers and Panthers were only permitted to be used until they broke down (which would not take long), the simplicity of the Panzer IV and the large number of captured parts allowed for repair and continued use.
At least one captured Panzer IV ausf. H was used by the Warsaw Tank Brigade of the Polish 2nd Corps in Italy during 1944.
The 1st GMR (Groupement Mobile de Reconnaissance) of the FFI (French Forces of the Interior), later called 'escadron autonome de chars Besnier', was equipped in December 1944 with at least one Panzer IV.