If you are a regular reader here, you’ll know that there is one thing that I have found more consistently disappointing and frustrating than any other aspect of tank model kits: tracks! I have lost count of the number of tank kits I have built that have been spoiled by over thick, too-tight, poorly detailed tracks made of unglueable vinyl. Even some of the hard plastic tracks I have come across simply look nothing like the original…
Which brings us to the subject of this review, the Dragon 1/72 Panzer Ausf. L in the Armor Neo-Pro series featuring “Neo-tracks.” Dragon have an enviable reputation for producing accurate kits with very high quality mouldings, so when I saw this as a Black Friday special offer, I couldn’t resist. The Dragon Panzer III Ausf. L was first released in 2011 and this Neo-Pro version in 2021. Dragon kits are comparatively expensive – here in Spain they generally retail for around €25 – 30, which seems a lot for a 1/72 tank kit but when I saw this one for under €15, I thought I’d take a punt.
Neo-tracks are simply length and link tracks which, at 1/72, can be a challenge. But I’m hoping that at least they’ll be accurate when they’re done. Are these the answer to my track woes? We’ll have a look inside the box in a moment, but first, let’s take a brief look at the Panzer III.
Design of what would be designated the Panzer III began somewhere around 1934. Although Germany was still formally banned from producing tracked AFVs under the terms of the Versailles treaty, the Nazis were soon to repudiate this and to begin open development and manufacture of tanks. Two tank designs were complete by 1935, for the Panzer I, a machine-fun armed light tank initially intended for training. and the Panzer II, another light tank armed with a 20mm autocannon and primarily intended for the reconnaissance role.
The first Panzer III, the Ausf. A. Only ten examples were produced, all provided with coil-spension and five roadwheels. Subsequent versions switched to first eight and then six smaller road wheels.
However, plans were developed to create Panzer Battalions comprising four Companies. One would be equipped with a tank provided with a large calibre, low-velocity main gun, ideal for firing high explosive shells and acting in the infantry support role (the Panzer IV). The other three companies would be equipped with tanks provided with high velocity main guns, and the primary role for these companies would killing enemy tanks. These were to be equipped with the new Panzer III.
A Panzer III Ausf. D during the German invasion of Poland, 1939. This was the first Panzer III produced in numbers, armed with a 37mm main gun and, as you can see, fitted with exposed leaf-spring suspension and eight small roadwheels. From the Ausf. E on, all models were provided with six roadwheels and more robust and better-protected torsion bar suspension.
Initial discussions on the Panzer III would centre on its main gun, and deficiencies in this choice would affect the Panzer III for most of its service life. It was agreed that this tank would be armed with a 37mm main gun derived from the PaK 35, the principal towed anti-tank weapon then entering service with the Wehrmacht. Arming the Panzer III with a similar gun would, the Heereswaffenamt (HWA – German Army Weapons Agency) pointed out, would greatly simplify ammunition supply. That was true, but many senior German Army commanders disagreed, asking for a 50mm main gun on the Panzer III and pointing out that British Cruiser tanks were already being designed that would be armed with 40mm (2-Pounder) main guns while the existing Russian T-26 had a 45mm main gun.
A Panzer III Ausf. E with torsion bar suspension and six roadwheels but still armed only with a 37mm main gun.
The HWA won the argument, but agreed that the turret ring on the Panzer III would be made large enough for the mounting of a 50mm main gun if that should prove necessary in future. All early models of this tank, essentially, the Ausf. A – E, were armed with a 37mm main gun, and in combat against British and French tanks in 1940 this proved to have serious limitations. The 37mm rounds simply bounced off the thick frontal armour of British Matildas and French Somua S35s and Char B1s. The new Ausf. F model appeared after the campaign in France was over and while the first of these were still armed with the 37mm main gun, most of this version were provided with the more powerful 50mm L42 main gun. All versions of the subsequent Ausf. G were also armed with the 50mm L42 gun.
A Panzer III Ausf. G in North Africa. Finally, it has a 50mm main gun, but it’s just L42, giving it relatively low velocity and while it was effective against British tanks in this theatre, it proved weak when used against Russian tanks on the Eastern Front.
However, when Germany invaded Russia in the Summer of 1941, even this new weapon proved ineffective against Russian T-34s and KV heavy tanks. The Panzer III was up-gunned again, this time with a KwK 39 50mm L60 main gun, a modified version of the towed PaK 38 anti-tank gun. This had higher muzzle velocity and more penetration compared to the L42 gun, but it still struggled to penetrate the frontal armour of the T-34 at most ranges. This new gun was first fitted to the Ausf. J which began to be delivered to front-line units on the Eastern Front in late 1941. However, it was also becoming apparent that the armour on the Panzer III was inadequate when facing the best Russian tanks. That led to the subject of this kit, the Ausf. L, armed with a 50mm L60 main gun and provided with additional armour on the mantlet and hull front.
A Panzer III Ausf. L on the Eastern Front and provided with a 50mm L60 main gun and added armour on the mantlet and hull front.
These began reaching front line units in mid-1942 and around 650 examples of the Ausf. L were manufactured during the second half of 1942. These tanks were used on the Eastern Front and in North Africa. This kit depicts a late production example, recognisable by the lack of pistol ports on the turret and escape hatches on the hull sides above the roadwheels.
What’s in the Box?
Inside the top-opening box you’ll find five sprues moulded in grey plastic, the lower hull, moulded as a single piece, decals and two small PE frets.
Detail looks very good and the mouldings appear to be commendably sharp even on tiny parts. Slide moulding is used, so the main gun bore is open, as are the optional smoke launchers for the turret sides. However, I was a little surprised to find that small details like the tools and tow cable are moulded in place. Painting these will be tricky.
Only the two-piece main turret hatch is moulded as a separate part and it includes some internal detail, though there are no figures included here and no internal detail for the turret itself. Apart from a couple of spare roadwheels, no stowage items are included.
And what about the link-and-length Neo Tracks? These are provided on two identical sprues, one for each side, providing one upper and one lower run and individual links to go round the sprocket and idler. The tracks seem to be nicely detailed inside and out and wholly accurate. Hurrah! However, there are jigs provided, including one that seems to model the sag on the upper run, but no clues in the instructions as to how to use these.
One of the PE frets contains various grills for the rear hull and two tiny parts that I don’t recognise and that don’t seem to be mentioned in the instructions and the other provides an additional armour plate for the upper hull front.
The instructions are sort of OK, but not entirely helpful. As mentioned, they don’t really give any clues as to how to assemble the Neo Tracks or how to achieve sag on the top run using the provided jig. In some places, they seem to point in the general direction of where a particular part goes rather than showing the precise location. The instructions also show a pair of triple smoke launchers on the front top corners of the turret as optional parts (and all the colour scheme drawings show these as fitted), but I’m not convinced about that. These launchers were certainly added to the next model, the Ausf. M, but that also had a different exhaust system that isn’t modelled here. I haven’t been able to find a single wartime image of an Ausf. L fitted with these smoke launchers, so I feel these should probably be left off. Hull side escape hatches are also provided as optional parts, but again, I don’t think these should be used on an Ausf. L and they aren’t shown on the colour scheme drawings.
In terms of colour schemes, the instructions are confusing and, in some places, just plain wrong. Decals are provided and schemes shown for four tanks, all from Russia in 1942/1943. One scheme (the lower one on the image above) doesn’t give any clues as to the colours to use at all and on the only scheme where a base colour is indicated, this is identified as Dunklegelb (Dark Yellow). However, all Panzer III Ausf. L were manufactured from June – December 1942 and the introduction of Dunklegelb as a base colour on German armour didn’t begin until February 1943. So, all tanks of this model would actually have left the factory finished in overall Dunklegrau which doesn’t even get a mention here. I think that the box-art is correct (it shows a tank of the 502nd Heavy Panzer Battalion in overall Dunklegrau finish) and the instructions, where they provide any guidance on base colour at all, are wrong. Given that it must take a great deal of time and effort to produce the moulds to make a model kit, you’d think it might be worth expending just a little more time to provide useful information about the colours in which it should be painted!
The small decal sheet covers four tanks and seems to be accurately printed, though the tiny unit insignia for the Wiking Division tank are each split in into two halves, presumably because they incorporate swastikas. More of a problem is that the decals don’t match the colour scheme drawings! The turret numbers for two of the tanks shown on those drawings aren’t actually included here and you get one spare set of white turret numbers, 101, but no clue what the colour scheme for that tank might be or what unit it belonged to. Though it isn’t mentioned in the instructions at all, decals are also provided for a tank of the 502nd Heavy Panzer Battalion which, although primarily equipped with Tiger tanks, initially also had a number of Panzer IIIs. This is the tank shown on the box art and though it isn’t particularly obvious, the larger of the two elephant decals (this was the insignia of the 502nd) goes on the rear of the turret bin and the smaller one on the front left track-guard. On their web site, Dragon claim that they produce “model kits that leave modelers with a jaw-dropping sense of awe!” That may be so, but they seem to produce instructions that leave this modeller with a baffled sense of “Eh?”
Would You Want One?
Detail here looks good in the box; all mouldings are sharp and there is very little flash and no obvious ejector marks. There are some tiny parts that appear to be the size of a gnat’s eyeball, but for those of you with less challenged eyesight that may not be an issue. The confusion between the decals provided and the markings shown on the colour scheme drawings is just stupid – decals are provided for just two of the four tanks shown and you have some spare decals, but no information about where they go or what unit they apply to. However, provided that you can work out how to assemble the Neo Tracks and that you ignore the colours suggested in the instructions, I can’t see any reason this won’t build into a respectable model of the Panzer III Ausf. L. However, there are a few (cheaper) alternatives if you do want to model this tank in 1/72.
The Revell 1/72 Ausf. L (02351) was released in 2003 and it’s a nice little kit that is generally accurate and includes link-and-length tracks. Revell also offer (or offered – I don’t know if it’s still around) a 1/76 Ausf. L and this is a re-release of the original Matchbox kit from 1974. It’s OK, though it does have rather thick vinyl tracks.
Ukrainian producer UM Models offer a 1/72 kit of the Ausf. L first released in 2016. This seems to be very nicely done with PE parts and link-and-length tracks. Plastic Soldier Company offer the Panzer III in 1/72 in a pack that provides three tanks that can be completed as the Ausf. J, L, M, or N though these are simplified, easy-assembly kits that are aimed more at wargamers than modellers.