Jagdpanzer 38(t) Hetzer

The Jagdpanzer 38(t) Hetzer was by far the best in a series of tank hunters based on the Panzerkampfwagen 38(t) and was a totally redesigned version of the vehicle that carried a powerful 7.5cm tank gun that was carried in the superstructure of the vehicle, just as in the more famous StuG family.

The first tank hunters based on the Panzer 38(t) were the three variants of the Marder III. These all had the same basic layout, with a 7.62cm or 7.5cm gun mounted in a new fighting position on top of the existing superstructure. They thus had a high profile and limited armour protection for the crews. The Panzerjager 38(t) fur 7.62cm PAK 36(r) SdKfz 139 had a Soviet gun. The Panzerjager 38(t) fur 7.5cm PAK 40 ausf H (SdKfz 138) carried a German 7.5cm gun carried in a central mounting. Finally the Panzerjager 38(t) fur 7.5cm PAK 50 asuf M (SdKfz 138) used a modified chassis that allowed the gun to be carried at the rear.

Hetzer abandoned at Kesternich, 1944
Hetzer abandoned
at Kesternich, 1944

All three of these designs suffered from the same problems of a high profile and vulnerability to enemy fire. The Germans already had an answer to this problem in the form of the StuG, which carried a heavy anti tank gun mounted low in the fuselage. The loss of the turret reduced the flexibility of these vehicles, but their low profile and thicker armour made them very effective defensive anti-tank weapons.  

On 26 November 1943 an Allied bombing raid on Berlin damaged the Alkett factory (where the StuG was produced). A team was sent to BMM to see if was possible to built the StuG in the Czech factory, but on 6 December 1943 they reported that the factory wasn't equipped to cope with a 25 ton vehicle.

Work then switched to a redesigned version of the Panzer 38(t) that would use the same principles as the StuG, with a heavy gun carried in the fuselage. The new vehicle was originally designated leichtes Sturmgeschutz 38(t) (light assault gun on Panzer 38(t) chassis), but the name was soon changed to Panzerjager 38(t). The Hetzer nickname came later in unclear circumstances.

The first design for the Hetzer was produced remarkably quickly, by 17 December. It used components from the existing Panzer 38(t) and from the Panzerkampfwagen 38(t) neuer Art reconnaissance tank. The first wooden model was completed by 24 January 1944

The Hetzer retained the suspension, gearbox, steering and final drive of the Panzer 38(t), although the drive was moved from right to left to allow the gun to be mounted on the right-hand side of the fuselage.

The Hetzer had excellent sloped armour. The lower front plate sloped back at 40 degrees, the upper front plate sloped back at 70 degrees. The lower side armour sloped in at 15 degrees, the upper side armour at 40 degrees. The front armour was 60mm thick, but the side armour was only 20mm thick. The side armour extended over the top of the tracks. The front armour was considered by the Germans to be impervious to fire from the main Allied tanks that the Hetzer would face (although not the Sherman Firefly), but the side armour was vulnerable to all enemy tank guns at just about any range.

The Hetzer was armed with the 75mm L/48 Pak 39 anti-tank gun, a variant on the gun used on the later versions of the Panzer IV. It also carried a remotely controlled machine gun mounted on the roof.

Originally the Germans had hoped to use a rigidly mounted gun (removing the normal recoil mechanism and allowing the vehicle to absorb the recoil) on the Hetzer, either a 7.5cm PAK 39 (L/48) or a 10.5cm StuH 42 (L/28). This would have allowed them to move the gun nearer to the centre of the vehicle, and generally improved the design, but problems with the sights and the gun control were never overcome and the Jagdpanzer 38(t) STARR never got beyond the prototype stage. Instead the production Hetzer used a standard gun mount.

It was powered by an enlarged Praga six-cylinder water cooled engine that provided 158hp, which gave it a top speed of 38km/hr on roads (23.5mph).

The Hetzer wasn't without its flaws. The side armour was only 20mm thick, and the limited traverse of the gun (5 degrees to the left and 11 degrees to the right) meant that the sides were often exposed as the entire vehicle had to turn to hit a target. The commander's position was fairly terrible. He was seated directly behind the gun in a recess built into the engine compartment, level with the start of the sloped rear armour. His forward visibility was poor most of the time, and almost disappeared if the vehicle had to climb any slope (he had a binocular type telescope mounted in his position, but if the tank was climbing the front of the vehicle would obscure his view). He was physically separated from the rest of the crew, who were positioned in a line running along the left-hand side of the vehicle, and his position quickly filled with smoke in combat. 

The wooden mock-up of the Hetzer was ready in January 1944 and production was soon underway. Twenty three were completed in April 1944 and it soon replaced all other work at BMM's factory. The Hetzer was also produced by Skoda from September 1944. A total of 2,584 were built (2,800 in some sources), with 2,496 reaching the army. This was an impressive total, but it was rather lower than the original German requirement, which would have seen over 5,000 produced by the end of March 1945 and production peaking at 1,000 per month from then onwards. During this production run a fairly large series of relatively minor changes were introduced to improve the vehicle but the basic design remained the same.

Combat

Most of the Hetzers served with the Pz.Jag.Abteilungen or Pz.Jag.Kompanien, part of the infantry divisions although some operated independently. The Hetzer formed a major part of the German tank hunter forces in the last part of the war, and fought on the Western and Eastern fronts.

The first Hetzers were used by various testing and training units. In July 1944 Heeres Panzer Jäger Abteilung 731 became the first combat unit to receive the new vehicle when it received 45. The new unit joined Army Group North on the Eastern Front. Three more Heeres Panzer Jäger Abteilungen received the Hetzer. The 741st received it in September 1944, and was split in half with one part being sent east and the other half to Arnhem. The 561st received the Hetzer in February 1945 and the 744th in March.

Most of the Hetzers went to the infantry divisions where they were used to give them a built-in mobile anti-tank capability. At first 14 vehicles were given to each of the Panzer Jäger Kompanien, but from February 1945 that number was reduced to 10.

The Hetzer was also used to substitute for other vehicles. The 16th SS Panzer Grenadier Division received it instead of the Jagdpanzer IV. Panzer Jager Abteilungen Juterbog and Schlesien received it instead of the Panzer IV/70(V). Finally Sturmgeschutz Brigade 236 received it in place of the StuG III.

The Hetzer was also part of the equipment of Panzer Jagd Brigade 104, a new unit formed in January 1945. This unit had a mix of StuG IVs and Jagdpanzer 38(t) Hetzers. The new unit was sent to the Eastern Front where it was soon scattered along the vast front and its strength dissipated.

By late December 1944 eighteen Panzer Jager companies had reached the Western Front, and with the half of Abteilung 731 a total of 295 were reported on the inventory. By 30 December Army Group B still had 131 operational out of 190 although Army Group G had been reduced to 38 out of 67.

The Eastern Front received the most Hetzers. On 15 March 1945 there were 51 Panzer Jager companies on the Eastern Front, with 359 operational Jagdpanzer 38(t)s out of a total of 529. At the same time the Western Front had 26 companies with 137 operation Hetzers from a total of 236 and the Italian front had four companies with 49 out of 56 Hetzers operational. Despite the approaching end of the war the number of operational Hetzers at the front had increased by 10 April when there were 489 on the Eastern Front, 79 on the Western Front and 64 on the Italian Front.

The few surviving German combat reports were generally positive. The Hetzer was reported to be an effective anti-tank weapon and well armoured against frontal attack. It was vulnerable to artillery and not good in swampy terrain as this limited its ability to turn to face its opponents. It wasn't fast enough to support motorised units or to act as a reconnaissance vehicle. The limited visibility and tendency of smoke to block the commander's view meant that the reports recommended that the Hetzer act in pairs, with one firing and one correcting the aim. The Hetzer needed to be used carefully - on the western front several companies lost all of their vehicles after being trapped in unsuitable positions, either where enemy infantry could attack successfully or where the vulnerable side armour was exposed.
 
Hungary received 75-100 Hetzers during the war. After the war the Hetzer remained in service in Czechoslovakia and in Switzerland (as the G-13, with Swiss engine and a commander's cupola) until the 1960s.

Stats
Production: 2,584
Hull Length: 6.38m/ 20.9ft
Hull Width: 2.63m/ 8.62ft
Height: 2.17m/ 7.12ft (including machine gun mount)
Height: 1.845m (excluding machine gun mount)
Crew: 4
Weight: 15.75 tons
Engine: 150hp Praga AC/2
Max Speed: 42km/ hr/ 26 miles
Max Range: 177 miles/ 110 miles
Armament: 7.5cm PaK39 L/48 and 7.92mm MG34 or MG42

Armour

Armour

Front

Side

Rear

Top/ Bottom

Superstructure

60mm

20mm

8mm

8mm

Hull

60mm

20mm

20mm

10mm

Gun mantlet

60mm

 

 

 

German Weapons of World War II, Stephen Hart . Covers a wide range of the weapons used by the Third Reich during the Second World War, from the pistol up to the battleship Tirpitz, and including a wide range of tanks, armoured vehicles, aircraft, artillery etc. All supported by a mix of full colour illustrations and contemporary photographs, giving an idea of vast range of weapons produced by the Germans during the war (Read Full Review)
cover cover cover

 

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (16 August 2013), Jagdpanzer 38(t) Hetzer , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_jagdpanzer38t_hetzer.html

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