Jagdpanzer 38(t) Hetzer
Tank Destroyer (TD)
The Jagdpanzer Hetzer was one of the more successful conversions of the Czech LT vz 38 light tank chassis.
Authored By: Dan Alex | Last Edited:
The Jagdpanzer 38(t) "Hetzer" was developed from the PzKpfW 38(t) light tank which was itself derived from the original Czech LT vz 38 light tank design and took part in the latter stages of World War 2. For its place in history, the Jagdpanzer 38(t) remains the best of all the Panzerjagers then available to the German Army. Its small size (no taller than a man) and effective main gun ensured a successful ambush against any armored target short of a heavy tank. So effective was the Jagdpanzer 38(t) that she was produced into the thousands and replaced the stopgap Panzerjager I models outright. The Jagdpanzer 38(t) was also slated to replace the Marder series but delays and lack of available numbers dictated otherwise. She was placed back into serial production to serve with European armies during the Cold War years. Next to the valuable StuG assault gun series, the Hetzer became one of the more important self-propelled guns of the war for Germany.
The Hetzer Name
The Jagdpanzer 38(t) is largely known by its casual nickname of "Hetzer". In translation, Hetzer signifies "baiter" as in "bull-baiting". The Hetzer name was not originally associated with the Jagdpanzer 38(t) and was related to another related Skoda Works prototype known as the "E-10". Internal documentation oft-confused the two with names appearing somewhat interchangeable, offering confusion in the long run. It is reported that German troops began the Hetzer name association with the Jagdpanzer 38(t) and historians continued with the name association after the war. While the E-10 fell to a mostly forgotten history, the Jagdpanzer 38(t) has lived on with the "Hetzer" name as its universal identifier.
How do you like my StuGs?
Throughout the early 1940s, the German Army became reliant on the tank-killing capabilities of conversion systems such as the "Marder" series of self-propelled assault guns when combating enemy tanks head on. The Marders were nothing more than modifications of existing, yet outmoded tank hulls fitted with proven anti-tank guns in improvised open-air superstructures. The Marder existed in three key moderately successful forms in the Marder I, Marder II and Marder III. Another such weapon was the purpose-designed Sturmgeschutz (better known as the "StuG") series of self-propelled guns. Originally, these vehicles were design with infantry support in mind but soon proved capable of engaging enemy tanks. These systems were also based on the outgoing chassis of the Panzer III series medium tanks and fitted a potent 75mm main gun into a fixed superstructure - retaining all the performance capabilities of the original tank. The StuG IV soon appeared based on the Panzer IV medium tanks also fitting a 75mm main gun. It was reported that StuGs accounted for the destruction of some 20,000 enemy tanks during their time on the Front. They served until the end of the war in 1945 and many were even captured and converted by the Soviets to use their 76.2mm guns.
The Need Grows
However, reliance on the Sturmgeschutz was threatened when the Alkett plant in Berlin - in charge of their production - became the target of Allied air bombardment. In December of 1943, German authorities, led by the famous German tank tactician and now the Inspector-General of Armed Forces Heinz Guderian, sought light-class, fully enclosed armored tank-killing alternatives to fulfill the ever-growing battlefield needs. Since many of the available existing facilities lacked the capabilities to continue production of heavier, dedicated mobile gun systems, alternatives were reviewed to find a compromise. The BMM facility (Boemisch-Marische Maschinenfabrik) at Prague seemed to offer some hope in the building of a lighter assault platforms and received the attention of German High Command. A committee delivered news to Hitler that focus should turn to these lighter conversion solutions and work soon began on delivering a suitable - and viable - end-product.
The New Panzerjager
The PzKpfW 38(t) was selected to form the basic chassis of the new weapon system. The PzKpfW 38(t) was nothing more than a mobile light tank of Czech origin (then designated as the LT wz 38 in the Czech Army). This light tank fielded a proven understructure, reliable mechanics and mobility set on a pair of tracks featuring four large road wheels. Since the PzKpfW 38(t) had effectively run its course as an effective fighting tank (its armor proving too thin and beyond upgrading and its 37mm armament outdated against heavy-armored tank types), its hull was deemed suitable for modification into other battlefield roles such as that of assault gun. Furthermore, such modifications were a cost-cutting measure in coupling existing powertrains with proven gun systems - the Marder and StuG series having already proved as much.
With designs of the new vehicle now drawn up, the tank was given the rather lengthy formal designation of "Sturmgeschutz neur Art mit 7.5cm PaK 39 L/40 auf Fahrgestell PzKpfW 38(t)". Deciphering the designation soon revealed that the vehicle was to mount the same 75mm gun as found on the Jagdpanzer IV. As this particular version of the anti-tank gun featured an advanced recoil brake system, no muzzle brake was fitted. The weapon was mounted (noticeably offset to right of centerline) into a fixed superstructure. 41 rounds of 75mm projectiles were held in the hull and 600 rounds of 7.92mm ammunition were afforded to one remote-controlled defensive machine gun (mounted to the left of the superstructure roof). The superstructure featured heavy sloped armor facings for excellent ballistics protection and the original working gear and lower hull of the original PzKpfW 38(t) was left largely intact. Frontal armor was a key defense point though the sides and rear of the vehicle were left relatively thin in comparison. The vehicle sported a low profile and small size which lent itself well to ambushing unsuspecting enemy tanks and armored vehicles. Stronger wider tracks were installed to benefit mobility.
Crew accommodations amounted to four personnel made up of a driver, commander, loader and gunner. The commander was set in a rear right position of the hull superstructure and had access to a binocular range finder on the hull roof. The gunner and loader manned positions along the left of the fighting compartment. The driver sat at the front right of the hull.
In typical German developmental fashion, a wooden mockup accompanied the drawings and the vehicle was presented for review to German authorities on January 26th, 1944. Leaders liked what they saw and immediately ordered the type for serial production. BMM was able to deliver its first three production-quality tanks in March of 1944 and April saw twenty more vehicles added to the stable. The new tank-killer was quick to enter service with German Army forces. By July of 1944, the Czech Skoda Works - the same firm responsible for production of the earlier LT vz 35 light tank series - joined in production efforts and made their first deliveries to the German Army. Other facilities at Pilsen, Koniggratz, Bohm and Breslau were soon outputting the small machine.
In November of 1944, the formal designation of Sturmgeschutz neur Art mit 7.5cm PaK 39 L/40 auf Fahrgestell PzKpfW 38(t) was dropped in favor of "Jagdpanzer 38(t), SdKfz 138/2".
Jagdpanzer 38(t) Walk-Around
The Jagdpanzer 38(t) featured a running length of 6.27 meters with a width of 2.63 meters and a height of 2.10 meters. The vehicle weighed in at just 16 to 17 tons. Power was supplied by a Praga 6-cylinder, liquid-cooled engine outputting 150 horsepower at 2,600rpm - approximately the same specifications as the original Czech LT vz 38 / German PzKpfW 38(t). This supplied the vehicle with a top speed of 24.8 miles per hour at a range out to 111.6 miles. Cross country range was decreased to 80.6 miles.
At the beginning, it was envisioned that these new tank killers would form entire units tied to infantry divisions for maximum support. However, production delays and component shortages soon played a major role in limiting the effectiveness of the vehicle as a battlefield piece. The Allied bombing campaign was wreaking general havoc on production facilities and logistics all over Europe. This compounded resource needs all across the Third Reich which was finding itself fighting more and more of a defensive battle on multiple fronts. Examples of the PaK 39 anti-tank gun system were committed elsewhere and Allied ground forces would overrun German production facilities if they had not yet been bombed.
After October of 1944, a new muffler installation was introduced to the series. Similarly, a reinforced track idler wheel was added to the list of subtle changes. Different arrangements of road wheels and track idler systems were used throughout the vehicle's production run. One attempt and speeding up mass production of the Jagdpanzer 38(t) was to remove the internal gun recoil system, relying instead on the vehicle's body to absorb the blow. The tanks utilizing this design (Jagdpanther 38(t) "starr") were identified by their differing gun mounts over those as found on the originals.
Later production forms introduced a lighter gun mantlet - often referred to as "Pig's Head" because of its general shape - and a revised gun mount. Despite these changes, the Jagdpanzer 38(t) maintained the same original shape throughout the rest of her battlefield tenure. A command vehicle version was added to the assembly line mix and these were identified by the antenna vanes at the rear left of the hull superstructure. It was only in later production models that the Jagdpanzer 38(t) was camouflaged at the factory level - initial, these were painted by German soldiers upon reception of their new mounts. The vehicles were painted in an "ambush" woodland scheme to play well into the Jagdpanzer 38(t)'s battlefield role.
The Jagdpanzer 39(t) in Combat
In operational practice, the Jagdpanzer 38(t) performed excellently in her given role - so much so that all subsequent production of base PzKpfW 38(t) light tanks was halted and their chassis diverted to producing more Jagdpanzer 38(t)s. Her low profile made her a harder target to engage - and perhaps more so identify. The German version of the 75mm main gun was a proven tank-killer and was highly effective against all light- and medium-class Allied tanks. Mechanically, Czech ingenuity shown through for the series proved utterly reliable in the worse of battlefield conditions. One major detriment in her design - and this fell to German meddling - was in the cramped fighting compartment of the vehicle, which was less than desirable for a gun breech system needing constant attention. In effect, all actions concerning the operation of the gun became right-handed actions due the internal crew compartment arrangement. The commander's view outside of the vehicle was questionable and the protection afforded by the remote-controlled machine gun was limited at best - Jagdpanzer 38(t)s proved susceptible to infantry attacks via anti-tank guns, anti-tank grenade or rockets, particularly from the weaker side and rear panels. Since the Jagdpanzer 38(t) had no traversing turret, the entire vehicle would need to be positioned facing the target in order to fire with some degree of accuracy - as such, the tank could not realistically "follow" a moving target without some work on the part of the combined crew.
The Jagdpanzer 38(t) itself was evolved into two other distinct production models. One such form became the Flammpanzer 38(t) which saw the 75mm main gun replaced in order to make room for a flame fuel projector. The hull accommodated a fuel store of 154 gallons for the projector and the weapon itself could reach out to targets at over 190 feet. The Bergepanzer 38(t) was nothing more than an armored recovery vehicle (ARV) sans the main gun and applicable ammunition. These vehicles served well in towing damaged or disabled vehicles out of key road ways or away from volatile fronts and back to repair facilities.
Trials utilizing the Jagdpanzer 38(t) base form were conducted to get further use out of the family. One attempt included the fitting of a 150mm field gun to be used as an assault howitzer system. Another sought to simplify the manufacturing process by adapting the original liquid-cooled gasoline engine to an air-cooled diesel - this requiring a revision of the rear engine compartment and assembly line tactics. Such time- and resource-consuming measures were ultimately dropped from consideration for there lay a greater need to get base Jagdpanzer 38(t)s to the front.
A total of 2,584 Jagdpanzer 38(t)s were delivered by May of 1945. Even in the final months of the war, 121 were built and delivered to the Hungarian Army.
Hetzers in the Post-War World
Hetzers were placed back in to production following the end of World War 2 by Skoda, principally to shore up the depleted armored corps of the Czech Army. The type was also purchased by the Swiss Army - who received 158 examples - between 1947 and 1952 and these then served under the designation of G13 until the 1970s.