MANUFACTURER(S): Alkett / MAN / Rheinmetall-Borsig - Germany / FAMO - Poland
LENGTH: 15.78 feet (4.81 meters)
WIDTH: 7.48 feet (2.28 meters)
HEIGHT: 7.55 feet (2.3 meters)
WEIGHT: 12 Tons (11,175 kilograms; 24,637 pounds)
ENGINE: 1 x Maybach HL 62 TRM 6-cylinder water-cooled gasoline engine developing 140 horsepower.
SPEED: 25 miles-per-hour (40 kilometers-per-hour)
RANGE: 137 miles (220 kilometers)
Detailing the development and operational history of the SdKfz 124 (Wespe) Self-Propelled Artillery (SPA).
Entry last updated on 7/12/2016.
Authored by Dan Alex. Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com.
Despite the focus by German vehicle engineers to produce excellent frontline combat tanks during World War 2, there appeared to be relatively low priority given to dedicated self-propelled artillery systems designed from the ground up. Engineers were generally pressed into using existing, sometimes outmoded, chassis and hulls in which to provide a required solution for German Army needs. The SdKfz 124 "Wespe" became one such vehicle though it proved a resounding success as a straightforward conversion of the Panzer II series light tank.
Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939 to officially begin World War 2. Hitler's army eventually conquered Norway, the Low Countries and France in April-June of 1940. During the fighting, it was soon realized the tactical limitations inherent in the early Panzer light tanks in both armor and armament. The Panzer I was fielded with machine gun-only armament while the Panzer II managed a 20mm cannon. The point was driven further home in June of 1941 when German invaded the Soviet Union to begin the long-awaited "Eastern Front". Actions of these Panzers soon marked the types wholly obsolete and these were succeeded by the more capable Panzer III and Panzer IV medium tanks - the former intended for direct enemy tank contact and the latter for infantry support. This left the German Army with scores of reliable Panzer Is and Panzer IIs still of operational use (1,493 of the former were produced and 1,856 of the latter). To supplement the new generation of German tanks while reconstituting the chassis of outmoded types, it was decided to forge a new hull superstructure atop the Panzer II chassis, retaining the powerplant and running gear of the original for simple logistical and mechanical friendliness. To this would be affixed a capable field gun to become a self-propelled artillery (SPA) / fire support vehicle and beef up the German Army reach in the field. Design was managed by the Alkett concern and initially involved the Panzer II Ausf. F ("Model F") systems with work beginning in 1942.
While the Panzer II chassis was a viable starting point, several major changes had to be enacted to complete the conversion process to an SPA. Engineers lengthened the chassis and relocated the engine compartment slight forwards of its original placement, now closer to the center of the hull. The howitzer of choice became the 10.5cm leFH 18 series (105mm) light field gun which was a proven battlefield commodity and arranged with a large muzzle brake and integrated recoil mechanism. The weapon had seen design in the late 1920s and entered production in 1935 (production running until 1945). The 105mm gun system operated through a horizontal sliding breech block and utilized a hydropneumatic recoil dampener while featuring a rate of fire nearing six rounds per minute with a maximum range out to 11,675 yards. The relocated engine and longer hull allowed the rear of the vehicle to clear the breech system of the selected gun and there proved no barrel overhang over the front of the Panzer II hull. To the Panzer II hull (now sans its turret) was added a faceted open-topped hull superstructure which offered slight protection against small arms fire and shell splinters. A panel set to the rear was hinged to fold down as needed. The gunnery crew was completely exposed to battlefield dangers and elements which required a tarp during inclement weather. Fighting conditions were cramped to say the least. Armor protection at the superstructure measured just 10mm but the open-topped nature of the structure meant that conversions of Panzer II tanks were in budget and did not use more of precious wartime resources than necessary - also meaning that more of the systems could be built at speed and in number. Hull armor remained 10mm to 30mm in thickness - while proving rather light on the evolving World War 2 battlefields, the self-propelled design was not intended as a frontline direct contact vehicle.
Modifications were centered out of the FAMO (Fahrzeug und Motoren-Werke) facility in occupied Warsaw, Poland. FAMO would eventually be tapped with production of SdKfz 9 half tracks, Marder II tank destroyers (also based on the Panzer II chassis) and the Rubezahl caterpillar tractor over the course of the war. The new vehicle was assigned the German Army designation of "SdKfz 124" and the unofficial nickname became "Wespe" (translating to "Wasp"). It was formally recognized in its long form as the "Leichte Feldhaubitze 18 auf Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen II" which, when translated, simply became "Light Field Howitzer 18 on Panzer II". Some 682 total conversions of existing and, later, new-build, Panzer II vehicles were completed during a span from 1943 to June of 1944. The original production order had called for 1,000 vehicles.
Outwardly, the Wespe was a utilitarian-appearing, single-minded-purpose vehicle. Its Panzer II roots betrayed it along the lower hull and running gear. Clearly identifiable were its five road wheels to a track side with drive sprocket at front and track idler at rear. Four track return rollers were used to guide the upper track sections. The leaf spring suspension system was reused from the Panzer II as was the Maybach 6-cylinder gasoline-fueled engine (outputting at 140 horsepower). Operational range was improved to 137 miles though the top road speed of 25 miles per hour was comparable.
The major design change emerged with the new hull superstructure which housed the four crew. The fifth crewmember, the driver, was seated at front-center with vision slots and a hinged hatch at his position set to open upwards. He was the only crewmember protected from the elements and battlefield hazards. His position was situated along a well sloped glacis plate for an optimal vantage point of the action ahead. With the hatch buttoned down, however, his views were decidedly restricted and his operating position equally cramped. The vehicle commander resided in the open-air superstructure with the gunner and ammunition handlers. Between 32 and 40 x 105mm projectiles could be carried aboard and most vehicles were outfitted with a 7.92mm MG34 series general purpose machine gun to counter enemy infantry and low-flying threats. Additionally, the crew could call upon their personal weapons as needed, usually pistols or perhaps service rifles or submachine guns. 105mm projectiles were managed as two individual pieces featuring the shell and propellant. The Wespe utilized the same ammunition as the towed field gun version of the howitzer which made logistical sense.
The 12-ton Wespe was delivered to German frontline forces in 1943 and absorbed into Panzer artillery battalions and mechanized infantry divisions. Six howitzers made up a single battery with five batteries assigned to a battalion. It was pressed into action against Soviet forces along the Eastern Front where early gains has now turned into unacceptable losses and stalemates. Wespe systems performed so well that it overtook manufacture of all future Panzer II hulls and precedent over Marder II conversions in time (under Hitler's direct personal order). The little vehicle was very well-liked by her crews for her agility, speed and inherent firepower. During the North Africa campaign, the Wespe proved a godsend for the Afrika Corps operating in the inhospitable desert environment though with generally unobstructed views against the horizon. The vehicle held the required range to reach out against embedded enemy targets and the firepower to dislodge stubborn forces. What it lacked was protection which almost always required that it be fielded with supporting vehicles and personnel and set well aft of the frontline. Additionally, the 40 x 105mm onboard projectiles limited inherent ammunition availability.
The Wespe was produced in only one other major variant, a dedicated ammunition carrier has its gun barrel, recoil mechanism and mounting removed to make room for 90 x 105mm projectiles. 158 of this vehicle were manufactured and retained the fighting prowess of the armed version. As such, a 105mm gun system salvaged from a lost Wespe could be fitted to the ammunition carrier to bring the carrier to the original Wespe fighting standard. A complete Wespe unit consisted of six SdKfz 124 gun platforms and one ammunition carrier assigned in support (the ammunition carrier could also be replaced by a supply truck or other tracked vehicle). Despite always intended as an interim SPA solution, Wespe vehicles were in play up to the end of the war in Europe which concluded May of 1945, such was its value and battlefield lethality. The vehicle appeared on all major fronts involving German Army units.
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