Along with the Pz. IV, the Pz. III was one of two workhorses for the Wehrmacht. Tigers and Panthers were superior in almost every aspect, and both get waaay more attention than history justifies. Both concepts also benefited from lessons learned on the battlefield, and neither were produced early enough (and in sufficient numbers) to change the outcome of the war. The Pz. III on the other hand, was designed in 1935-1937 to be Germany's main battle tank (the Pz. IV was seen as an infantry support tank and initially fitted with the short barrel, low muzzle velocity "cigar" 7.5cm). Some 5,700 were produced prior to the shift over to using the chassis for the StuG. III tank destroyer in 1943 when it became evident the III had reached the end of its useful life as a tank. The Pz. III served in all campaigns and in all theaters of operation, and carried the weight of the work in theaters such as North Africa and the early stages of the invasion of the Soviet Union.
If the T-34 was the beginning of the modern tank design era, then the Pz. III might be said to be the culmination of the design and production values of the inter-war period. Originally fitted with a 3.7cm gun, the Pz. III was one of the first tanks to have a three-man turret crew, allowing the tank commander to focus on the battle and not do double duty as a loader for the main gun. An additional design innovation was its torsion-bar suspension. And like with many other German AFVs, the Pz. III shows a tendency towards over-design and even "precious" execution: the drive sprockets and return wheels look like something out of the Art Deco period, and reflect the elegant execution of railroad locomotives (that's no coincidence, given that Germany used its rail manufacturers to build its tanks instead of its automobile companies).
The Ausf. H is also the first Pz. III to be fitted exclusively with a 5cm gun to counter the heavier armor of the KV-1 and T-34. Dragon Models has already released a kit of the Late Production Ausf. H (reviewed here
by Roman Volchenkov). So it was only a matter of time before they released one of the Early Production.
Inside the usual Dragon box you will find:
19 sprues of gray styrene plastic
1 gray styrene hull tub
1 turret in gray plastic
1 bag of gray Magic Tracks (38cm variety)
2 sprues of clear styrene for the headlight lenses & periscopes
1 moderate-sized fret of brass photo etch
1 sheet of decals
6-page instructions & painting guide
By 1940 when the Ausf. H first came into production, Germany commanded the battlefields of Europe with an army that was better-trained than its opponents, and which had superior doctrine. While there were some doubts about the ability of the Pz. III to handle the workload of Main Battle Tank, it was not until the shock of encountering the Soviet KV-1s - and especially the T-34 - after the launch of Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of the Soviet Union) that the Wehrmacht realized it could not compete 1-1 with their opponent's armor.
Their solution was to up-gun the Pz.III to a 5cm KwK 38, and switch the role of MBT to the Pz. IV, primarily because its turret configuration could support the superb 7.5cm KwK 40 L/48 (the PaK 40 anti-tank gun). The short 5cm KwK 38 gun added to the Pz.III Ausf. H was only slightly better than the 3.7cm gun it replaced, and was still too puny to take on the newer Soviet tanks. Only better doctrine, superior training and - radios in every vehicle - gave German tankers the edge through the first phases of Barbarossa.
Not long after these lessons began pouring in, production of the Ausf. H ceased at around 300 units (instead of a projected 800). It was replaced by the J with a "long" 5cm 5 cm KwK 39, though even that change could not hide the Pz.III's shortcomings. Its role became more one of infantry support, or serving in theaters like North Africa against equally-deficient British cruiser tanks.
Even before ending production of the Ausf. H, the Wehrmacht had begun to alter its procurement practices by simplifying the vehicle's design. The two Dragon kits of the Ausf. H nicely reproduce these changes, resulting in the case of the Early Production variant of an abundance of semi-identical sprues and enough spares it would seem to build a second tank (or at least part of one).
The most noticeable differences between the Early and Late Ausf. Hs are in the drive sprockets and idler wheels (sprues T & X, plus the PE). In the Early version, we still see the influence of 1930s design, including fluted fabricated stampings, and almost ornately-fashioned openings on the drive sprocket facings. In the later version, both sets of wheels were simplified (and lightened) with more tubular bracings instead of fancy stamping.
The hatches on the Early version also have more-detailed frames (sprue K), a luxury Germany could no longer afford as the balance of power gradually slipped from its grasp in the snows before Moscow during the Winter of 1941. Other changes include a different suspension (sprue Z).
Many of the other outstanding features of the kit are common to its Late Production twin, including a late-model MG 34 (with smooth cooling jacket instead of the early one with perforations), a single coaxial MG in the turret, and one in the glacis (nicely-executed as usual with Dragon tanks). The turret bin has detailing on the inside of the lid, a nice feature if you want to show it open. The gun is complete inside & out, and the engine hatches are separate, though as usual, Dragon has not included an engine.
The kit doesn't break any new ground, but it gives fans of the Pz.III a visually-distinct variant from the Late Production kit already released. Since Dragon has released all of the Pz.IIIs in the major variants from the Ausf. E through the final Ausf. N, there should be no issues with building of this kit.
Modelers building the kit say that its larger 40cm tracks don't fit the early drive sprocket supplied. If so, this will mean that you will need to come up with a Friulmodel drive sprocket to handle the wider tracks.
decals & painting
The decals and painting allow for five Panzer Gray variants, only one of which is the dreaded "unidentified unit":
1st Pz. Division, 1941
2nd Pz. Division, Balkans 1941
7th Pz. Division, Russia 1941
Unidentified Unit, 1941
Pz. Rgt. 3, 2nd Pz. Division, Greece 1941
Unless you are a Pz. III nut like me, I could not see most modelers who already have the Late Production kit going out and purchasing the Early Production variant. That having been said, the 1930s "feel" of the fabrication, the ornate design of the various parts, and the knowledge that this was perhaps the zenith of the inter-war tank design paradigm, all make this a very interesting and welcome kit.