That Time When the Germans Disguised Panthers as M10s

Everyone enjoys fancy dress… but how about on a tank? That’s what Germany did in late 1944, when they dressed up a few of their Panthers to make them look like American M10 gun motor carriages. And, to be fair, they did an impressive job.

The Panthers were modified as part of a planned operation by Germany to infiltrate Allied lines while wearing Allied uniforms and using their equipment – including tanks.

The plan was dreamed up by Waffen-SS commando Otto Skorzeny, a man who had previously participated in a daring mission to free Benito Mussolini from captivity in Italy.

Skorzeny originally wanted to use captured American tanks for the job, but as there were none spare he was forced to modify a handful of Panther tanks to mimic the M10.

This is how they did it.

Contents

Background

In 1944 Germany was preparing a massive winter offensive against the Western Allies in the Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg. Known as the Ardennes Offensive, or Battle of the Bulge, it was to be Germany’s last big assault.

The goal was to rush through a weak point in the front line, divide Allied forces, and cut them off from the major port of Antwerp in northern Belgium. This port was critical in supplying the Allies, and it was hoped that if the offensive was a success, it would force them to negotiate an end to the war in the West with good conditions for Germany.

These demanding goals required huge amounts of forces, with Germany amassing nearly half a million men and thousands of tanks and armored vehicles.

Troops advancing behind a Sherman tank during the Ardennes Offensive.
The Battle of the Bulge is one of the United States’ most costly battles.

The operation’s success relied on a number of routes for German forces to use. To help secure these routes, Adolf Hitler personally selected Waffen-SS commando Otto Skorzeny to lead a daring mission behind Allied lines to capture a sequence of bridges across the Meuse River.

Named Operation Greif, the German troops were to use Allied uniforms, equipment and vehicles – including tanks – to sneak past Allied forces, capture the bridges and cause mayhem wherever possible.

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Skorzeny planned this mission and made a request for over 3,000 men, a large quantity of self-propelled guns, motorbikes, hundreds of trucks and Jeeps, and 15 tanks. All of this, including uniforms and weapons, needed to be actual Allied equipment for maximum chances of success. In addition, Skorzeny wanted English speaking troops who had a good understanding of American culture and slang to truly blend in behind the lines.

StuG III that was part of Operation Greif.
StuG III painted in American colors during Operation Greif.

The group was designated Panzer Brigade 150.

Unfortunately for Skorzeny, he would receive a fraction of the troops and equipment he needed. On top of this, very few could actually speak English.

He only received two tanks, both of which were Shermans in poor condition. As a result, the Germans had to get creative and disguise their own vehicles.

They used their mighty Panther tanks for this, dressing them up into rather convincing looking M10 tank destroyers. The exact number that were converted is unknown, but it is suspected to be around 5.

Disguising a Panther

The Panther is a large tank; longer, wider and heavier than anything the Allies had at the time. It had features such as a tall commander’s cupola, overlapping road wheels, wide tracks and distinct turret shape that were unlike anything found on Allied tanks.

However, with its wide, angled front, sloping sides and long length the M10 was one of the few Allied vehicles that bared any resemblance to the Panther. So, while we have not found the official reason as to why the M10 was chosen as the disguise, this is probably at least partially why.

The changes made to the Panthers were extensive and highly detailed.

A Panther at The Tank Museum.
A standard-looking Panther. Image taken in The Tank Museum.

The Panther’s normal side skirts were replaced by a thin piece of sheet metal that replicated the M10’s own side skirts that run from front to back of the vehicle.

At the rear of the Panthers an overhanging extension similar to the M10’s was added, changing the shape of the rear and covering its vertical exhausts. Holes in the extension let the exhaust gasses flow naturally, and the fabricators even added the M10’s gun-lock on the engine deck and lifting rings on the rear.

More sheet metal was added over the entire front glacis armor, covering over the bulge of the bow machine gun and curving down over the front to where the differential housing would be on an M10. Great effort went into this area too, as bulges and towing eyes were attached to the lower glacis to imitate the M10’s distinct differential housing.

Panther M10 after being knocked out.
The front of one of the Panther M10s. Note the cleverly-crafted differential housing bulges, seen on Sherman-chassis vehicles.

In front of the bow machine gun was a rectangular cut out in the sheet metal. This could be released if the machine gun was needed. Once again, lifting rings were welded onto the upper corners of the front glacis, just like on a real M10.

The Panther’s turret bares little resemblance to the M10’s open top turret, so some major changes were made here to improve the disguise. The Panther’s tall commander’s cupola was an immediate give away, so this was removed entirely and replaced with a basic two-piece hatch that appears to be made from little more than sheet metal.

The sides were covered by hexagonal pieces of sheet metal that gave it a similar side profile to the M10’s unmistakable turret shape. The sides also included fake lifting rings and extra-armor mounting points.

Panther M10 knocked out in Belgium.
This image shows the Panther M10’s side skirts and covered front upper glacis.

A fake gun mantlet in the shape of an M10’s, complete with lifting rings, was fabricated and attached to the Panther’s curved mantlet. No sheets were added to the upper rear of the turret, leaving its rear hatch accessible.

The entire vehicle was given a coat of olive drab, and white stars and unit markings were stencilled on to complete the disguise.

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There are quite a few mentions online that the Panther M10s had better armor than standard Panthers due to the extra metal used in the disguise. In reality it would have made virtually no difference whatsoever, as most of the metal used was only around 3 mm thick.

Panther M10 gun mantlet.
A close view of the Panther M10’s fake gun mantlet (left) and side panels (right). Some of the fake mantlet has been blown off, revealing the Panther’s curved mantlet underneath.

Did it Work?

The modified Panther M10s actually looked quite convincing, at least in our opinion. Of course, areas like the overlapping suspension cannot be effectively disguised. But, in practice, these vehicles just needed to be good enough to briefly convince an Allied soldiers who, in all likelihood, was not an expert on tanks from either side.

From afar, in low light, poor weather conditions or if they were obscured by trees, bushes, walls etc, these conversions would probably have been good enough to trick unsuspecting troops.

However in the end the disguised Panther M10s were not able to be used to their full extent, as Operation Greif failed almost immediately. It began at the start of the Ardennes Offensive on the 16th of December 1944, but one of SS Panzer Division’s working alongside Skorzeny failed to even reach the starting point.

Panther M10 back end.
The rear of a Panther M10, disguised to look like the back end of an M10. Note the unit markings, the holes near the top for the exhausts and the fake lifting rings.

With the operation stalled, Skorzeny commanded Panzer Brigade 150 as a normal unit and joined in with the heavy fighting at the start of the Ardennes Offensive. The Panthers were used but all were lost.

One broke down, one was abandoned and the rest were knocked out by enemy fire.

A small group of commandos in disguise did actually manage to carry out sabotage and spread confusion among the Allied lines.

The turret roof of the disguised Panther.
Top of the Panther M10’s turret. Note the lack of commander’s cupola.

There are reports of a huge wave of paranoia running through Allies troops at this time. Military police were tasked with asking questions only Americans would know in a bid to weed out any spies. There were even cases of friendly fire by nervous guards.

Captured commandos made the situation worse as they would unveil fake objectives to their captors to sow more confusion.

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Allied forces found and photographed the abandoned Panther M10s, leaving us with a good idea of the extent of the modifications the Germans made to them. Sadly all were scrapped, and none survive today.