Historical

Weald Foundation: Jagdpanther 411 Restoration – Part I

February 1945. Germany was in ruins. Yet even in the final stages of defeat somehow the assembly plants continued to function. At MNH (Maschinenfabrik Niedersachsen-Hannover) one of the last batches of Jagdpanthers was loaded onto a train and dispatched to the front. Among them was chassis number 303086, soon to be lost from sight in the maelstrom of the final days of the Third Reich.

Just over 50 years later in 2000, the Foundation purchased two wrecked Jagdpanthers from a collector in Germany. After years of being used as range targets, both were riddled with holes and missing substantial parts of their armour. The first Jagdpanther (No.1) had been recovered from the Pirbright ranges in the 1970s in exchange for an artillery piece and shipped back to Germany. The second Jagdpanther (No.2) had been salvaged from a British army range in northern Germany and was in by the far the worse condition.

The first order of business was to establish their production lineage and then, if possible, their unit histories. An initial survey of No.1 revealed that the chassis number was unreadable. No.2 revealed a chassis number 303 110 to the left of the driver’s position. 303 was the code allocated to MNH and 110 – the 110th vehicle off the assembly line at MNH. There are a number of very interesting photographs taken after the war which show the MNH production line with rows of vehicles and parts awaiting assembly amid substantial damage to the factory caused by Allied bombing. The chassis numbers of two, apparently assembled Jagdpanthers can clearly be seen. The one in the background is Fahrgestellnummer (chassis number) 110. This was our second Jagdpanther – No.2 303 110 had, therefore, more than likely never seen operational service given the location of the vehicle on the assembly line at the war’s end.

How had 110 ended up several hundred miles and decades later on a gunnery range in Germany? Who had finished the vehicle and why? Further research revealed the fascinating story of Captain Hadlow from the British Army and his team of workers. Under his direction, a small team of MNH workers and a REME Corporal assembled a number of Jagdpanthers from remaining bodies and components. Captain Hadlow’s team fixed data plates to the lower centre of the front glacis plate of each post-war tank. These recorded that the tanks had been assembled by 823 Armoured Troop Workshops. The vehicles were used in a series of British army evaluation tests of German equipment. The tests were completed in the summer of 1948. Eventually, 110 was dispatched to the ranges.

An external survey of No.2 located some weld residue on the front glacis. This would have fixed the Hadlow plate to the lower front centre of the glacis. A shot had penetrated the exact spot where the plate had been, knocking it off. This was the final confirmation. No.2 was a post-war British JP. We returned to No.1. It had no evidence of weld prep where the REME plate would have been. It was now a question of studying the remaining features on No.1 and also a comparison with other surviving or documented JPs. We would also have to venture into the original German wartime production records and reports to try and shed further light. The survey revealed a number of key features. We knew we were dealing with a later version Ausf. G2 as it had a larger bolted mantlet for the gun and the single surviving idler wheel was a late pattern example. Additionally, compared to the Ausf. G1 Jagdpanther at the Imperial War Museum in London, the exterior fittings were very different.

The chassis number was going to be very difficult to decipher given the corrosion and shrapnel damage to the interior of the vehicle. The history of the vehicle was an unknown but could possibly be unearthed, as this JP had been brought back to the UK. The immediately obvious questions were why did this hull have no evidence of a plate on the front glacis and how did it come to be back to the UK? A thorough photographic survey was taken of the vehicle when it arrived. Access to the chassis number at this time was still very difficult. Unlike No.2 it had been exposed to more comprehensive small fragment shrapnel damage. No. 2 had been blown apart but had not suffered as much internally where it counted – the chassis number position. It was decided to restore No.1.

We recorded all of the external and internal detail on the hull and remaining mechanical items to help us try and identify who had manufactured this JP and when.  We found small, square, fixing blocks welded to the left of the rear crew compartment door and various codes punched into the hull to the left of the main gun, just below the driver’s vision port. There were fewer studs for the fixing of stowage bins on the rear hull panel than we were expecting. There was no roof, other than a very damaged and bent example to be used as a pattern. It was not certain this roof was this from the same vehicle.

Borrowing to copy or sourcing parts was a major issue. The JP lacked any internal fittings save for the gearbox, final drives, foot pedals, steering tillers and the remnants of what used to be a gun. The suspension was not as bad with swinging arms still attached to both hulls. Other swinging arms were included with the purchase together with two sets of idler arms and track adjustors. A few badly damaged road wheels and some hubs for separating the road wheels were present. Three incomplete gearboxes with differentials were also included. The list of parts we had was not bad but what was required was simply terrifying.

The stripping down of the hull began in earnest. Decades of exposure to the elements had caused everything to rust solid. This work was backbreaking and incredibly dirty. One unexploded flare was only discovered when our welder Jim Bebbington attempted to heat up part of the final drive to free it from the differential. A loud hissing noise and a very bright light led to Jim leaping from the wreck at high speed. Fortunately, nothing came of this experience and a more thorough search was conducted to see what else was under the gearbox.

The gearbox and other drive train components were in a far better condition that we could have expected given the time, exposure and beating they had taken in the 70 years since the war. The poor quality oil that the Germans had been forced to use at the end of the war had coagulated but not fully hardened around the internals of a gearbox, final drive and engine. This oil also absorbed damage to a lesser extent even where shrapnel fragments had perforated the gearbox.

The internal components were eventually removed from the hull. At this stage, we decided that most of the chassis walls were too damaged to be saved. New chassis walls representing some 60% of the length would have to be cut, machined and grafted into the existing, reusable sections. The good sections were fortunately at the front of the chassis, where the chassis number should be, and the final drive area. The new sections had to be accurately drawn so the engineering company we were working with would be able to provide us with a good result. Original drawings of the chassis were used in conjunction with measurements using The Tank Museum and WTS Koblenz’s Jagdpanther examples.

The belly had to be done simultaneously as we noticed that not one floor/belly pan matched another. We had to make another belly floor as ours had also been damaged beyond repair. It did provide us with a design layout specific to our chassis. The original floor base provided the points where the all the fittings such as the housings for the torsion bars, the bearing housings for the swinging arms and the fixing points for the subfloor dust extraction pipes sat. The positioning of the chassis rib frame containing the housings and bearings on to which the floor was mounted was done vehicle by vehicle. We were lucky we had our own floor to copy as it had proved very difficult to contend with the various seemingly non-standard floor pan examples we had access to.

The hull was completely disassembled and sandblasted ready for reassembly. The disassembled panels resembled a giant Airfix kit. The new chassis side panel sections arrived and were grafted onto the existing forward sections. The complete chassis panels were attached one by one to the front armour section. The armour and plates are extremely heavy so this work had to be done using jigs and a forklift. We had to hire in other lifting equipment for more demanding tasks. With the two chassis side panels now fixed to the front, the rear could be joined.

This panel had been removed from the second JP as No.1’s original one had been destroyed on the range. Once all the angles were deemed to be correct the temporary welds were removed and the final layer welds were applied. The new and old panels all displayed varying degrees of distortion when newly machined or separated from their original fixings. The side panels bowed inwards and a jig had to be made to fix the correct box between the side, front and back so the new floor to be added to form the chassis hull.

We now needed to add the upper superstructure side panels and rear crew cabin wall to complete the roofless hull. The right-hand upper superstructure (wanne ) panel had been badly damaged on the range and resembled a cheese grater in appearance. The right-hand side was not as bad as the left. This had been shot into two pieces with a large section missing in the middle. This would, unfortunately, have to be replaced. A new left-hand side panel had been drawn, cut and machined as a replacement. The machining process, unfortunately, caused quite significant bowing in the plate where it met the front of the JP.

A series of bolts had to be set up in the plate in order to draw the side panel in, to allow the welding to be done with the side at the correct angle. This proved successful and the left-hand side was now part of the hull. The right-hand side required many hours of remedial work. Each hole had to be individually filled. The spoil around each entry and exit hole of every round fired into the vehicle required cleaning and flattening to return the panel to the condition it is in today.

The roof was left off to allow easier access to the interior. The correct number of torsion bar retainers had been recovered from both chassis. Others had been sourced through the dealer community. These were all dismantled, cleaned and blasted pending repair where necessary. The chassis frame was fabricated based on the drawings we had done previously, using what remained within our hull and through examination of other examples at the Tank Museum and WTS Koblenz. New bushes were built into the swing arm and idler arm housings. The hull was now ready for the specially constructed line boring equipment. Each swing arm retainer and housing was line bored individually to ensure that each swing arm would run true when assembled and operating. Each bearing and aperture had purposefully been left with a larger tolerance to allow for the machining via the line borer. We were now left with a hull perfectly prepared for the suspension components.

We then focused on the gun mount. We were extremely fortunate in receiving permission to measure a disassembled example from the WTS Koblenz collection. Their JP had been moved to the Bundeswehr base in Trier. The usual army protocols had to be observed which included no use of cameras.   The key was access to the gun cradle with the gun removed. We needed the dimensions of the traverse and elevation gears, the exact measurements for the mount and cradle and the details for the electrical firing system.  The mapping and measurement of the gun and its assembly was completed over a number of days. This task could never have been achieved without the invaluable assistance and guidance of the army personnel on hand throughout the process. While the gun mount assembly was being measured and recorded we were on the trail of an original L71 main gun for the Jagdpanther.  In the past, we had a number of spurious offers. This time we were contacted by the West Wall museum. We would provide the remnants of our Pak 43 gun and money in exchange for a complete poor condition late Jagdpanther gun.

Some differences between an Ausf. G1 main gun and an Ausf. G2 are apparent from studying the surviving examples and photographs of period vehicles.  The deciding factor was that that the museum’s gun still retained its small cast Ausf. G2 mantlet on the barrel.  This was the very same as our JP No. 2’s example which was to be included in the trade. The exchange was made and the gun was transported back to the Foundation. This gun had reportedly been used as an anti-tank gun in a fixed defence line. A makeshift mount had been made for this role but had long since disappeared. The gun had been discovered years later lying in a field. A great deal of work had to be done to bring the gun back to operational condition, as our intention was to license the weapon for blank firing use.

The serial number on the gun was of concern to Foundation trustee and historian Tom Jentz, as he said it pointed to an early Ausf. G1 gun but with an early larger muzzle brake.  We had to use the later smaller muzzle brake to deliver an authentic late Jagdpanther result. This was sourced through the removal of the muzzle brake from our Pak 43/3 gun project, which has yet to be started. The use of the smaller muzzle brake created another problem – the gun was no longer balanced. The elevation mechanism created originally for the Ausf. B gun now had to contend with a lighter muzzle brake. The electrical firing components were in poor shape or missing altogether. These were sourced through a very complete ex-museum 75mm example, which had the necessary electrical firing accessories and ducting. A successful end product was now in sight.

Meanwhile, we had the opportunity to access the superb untouched Jagdpanthers of the Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) (Fahrgestellnummer 303 018) and the Tank Museum. The Tank Museum example (Fahrgestellnummer 303 101) is one of the Captain Hadlow ‘Foundlings’ and was completed after the war. The internal lettering is in English, which was very off-putting at first but this JP is a remarkable, complete machine and provides a fine example of final Jagdpanther assembly at MNH. The ‘time capsule’ benchmark for December 1944 MNH Jagdpanther production is to be found at APG.

This example is welded shut. After the personal intervention of Tom Jentz the museum staff very kindly opened her up for us to spend a few days studying her. We photographed the interior extensively, took measurements and made sketches. Given that internal access had been prohibited to the public, many of the items not seen in other museum examples survived at APG. It is complete – that is unique. The real disappointment was the extent of internal corrosion resulting from the seven decades of continued exposure to the elements since the war.

We now had a good positional bet for our vehicle. We were working on the assumption at this stage that it was a late vehicle as discussed. The low numbers of Jagdpanthers completed during the war gave us some hope to be able to determine exactly when our vehicle had rolled off the assembly line. The December 1944 example from Aberdeen and the final assembly example at the Tank Museum would hopefully provide us with two bookends within which we could position our vehicle more accurately. Did our machine come from the primary Jagdpanther plant of Mühlenbau und Industrie AG (MIAG), Amme-Werk Braunschweig, or was our focus going to return to MNH? After being granted access we arranged a trip to the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth in London, to study their Ausf. G1 MIAG example captured in 1944. This vehicle contained a number of details missing from other museum examples.

Author: Michael Gibb
Source: https://www.wealdfoundation.org/
This article and all its parts were published with the authorization of the author.

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