This light tank system initially began as a Czechoslovakian creation in the form of the LT vz 38 but - as with the previous LT vz 35 light tank series - she ultimately served the interests of the German Army for the duration of her career as the PzKpfW 38(t). As a war machine, the little tank proved her worth in the opening rounds of the conflict, offering reliability and excellent performance with a respectable firepower presence suitable for blitzkrieg operations. Despite her 1930s heritage, the LT vz 38 forged on in military service with some post-war nations up until the 1960s - a testament to her excellent design.
As the political and military situation in Europe seemingly worsened by the day, the Czech Army drew up a new light tank requirement in 1937 intended to improve upon the initial failings of the LT vz 35 light tank of 1936. The LT vz 35 saw many early growing pains thanks to the fact that it was rushed into production without proper testing and evaluation, this at the behest of Czech Army authorities themselves. Just as the LT vz 35 was beginning to enter quantitative service, the new succeeding design was beginning to unfold. However, this time around, the Czech Army would be making full use of an extended evaluation period to help iron out potential issues before they arose in operational practice.
The Czech firms of Skoda and CKD both entered submissions for the army's light tank program. Skoda delivered two pilot (prototype) vehicles in their S-11-a and S-11-b entries while CKD took the existing LT vz 35 and upgraded it with the powerpack of the TNH LTL export light tank already in production for export customers - Lithuania becoming one of them. Furthermore, CKD submitted another export product, the TNH P-S light tank and the V-8-H medium tank for consideration.
After evaluation, the TNH P-S was found to have the best qualities to fulfill the required specifications. As such, this pilot was selected as the next Czech Army standardized light tank in 1938 with serial production to soon follow. In the Czech Army inventory, the new tank would go under the designation of LT vz 38.
Germany had formally occupied the sovereign nation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, just as production of the LT vz 38 was ramping up. With the nation's war-making facilities now under Hitler's control, the LT vz 38 was accepted into service with the German Army instead and afforded the new designation of Panzerkampfwagen 38(t), SdKfz 140 - shortened to PzKpfW 38(t). Production of the type would continue on until 1942 to which more than 1,400 examples would be made available.
The PzKpfw 38(t) was available in large quantity - some 228 examples - by the time of the German land invasion of neighboring France in May of 1940 and made up a large portion - as much as 25% - of the German tank divisions as a whole at one point. By the end of the year, some 432 PzKpfW 38(t) light tanks were in German service. A total of 750 examples were available by the time of the invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941.
While the tank performed adequately enough in these early outings, it soon became apparent that the armor protection was not adequate against enemy guns and the main gun itself was becoming quickly outmoded against tougher foes - particularly those tanks fielded by the Soviets. Additionally, early models of the 38(t) featured riveted construction, potentially leading to any direct hit on the armor sending these rivets flying like bullets within the turret and hull - a major lethal detriment to the crew. As such, welded plates were later implemented on newer PzKpfW 38(t) tanks. 25mm bolt-on frontal armor brought protection on the frontal facing to 50mm in thickness.
The base armament of the PzKpfW 38(t) consisted of a single 37mm Skoda A7 main gun mounted in a traversing two-man turret which was also fitted with a co-axially mounted 7.92mm general purpose, anti-infantry machine gun. The commander doubled as the gunner and the radio operator doubled as the loader - both men took their positions in the turret. The driver was seated at the front-right with the bow-gunner to his immediate left, this person manning the additional 7.92mm machine gun in the bow. 2,500 rounds of 7.92mm ammunition were provided for the machine guns along with 90 projectiles of 37mm ammunition for the main gun. The main gun was cleared to fire both AP (Armored Piercing) and HE (High-Eplosive) rounds as deemed by the commander/gunner depending on the target. AP was generally reserved for armored targets and HE for troop concentrations or fortifications. Power for the tank was derived from a single Praga EPA 150 horsepower petrol engine fitted to a rear hull compartment. The transmission system was coupled closely nearby in the rear and offered five forward speeds and a single reverse. The drive sprocket was at the front of the track arrangement with the track idler at the rear and two track return rollers under the upper portion of the track length. Four large, rubber-tired road wheels - set as pairs on leaf spring suspension systems - dominated each track side.
Though highly outclassed and mostly obsolete by 1943, the chassis of the PzKpfw 38(t) was put to excellent use by the Germans to form the Marder III and Jagdpanzer "Hetzer" assault guns. The Marder III appeared in two distinct forms receiving the different German inventory markers of SdKfz 138 and SdKfz 139. The former fitted the German 75mm anti-tank gun while the latter fitted captured Soviet 76.2mm anti-tank guns. Both versions sported an open-topped fixed superstructure with limited protection given to the gunnery crew. Similarly, the SdKfz 138/1 "Grille" was designed from the PzKpfW 38(t) chassis to incorporate the German 150mm infantry howitzer in an open-topped superstructure. The cost-effective Jagdpanzer 38(t) "Hetzer" became one of the PzKpfW 38(t)s most notable and successful conversion forms and fitted the 75mm L/48 anti-tank gun in a fixed, fully-enclosed hull structure. The gun had limited traverse and required the entire vehicle to point towards the target but proved an excellent ambush platform with a low profile and sloped superstructure. The Jagdpanzer 38(t) proved a highly successful tank-killer for its time and was accepted into service with Switzerland forces after the war as the G-13.
Other PzKpfW 38(t) forms pressed into service became the Flammpanzer self-propelled, armored flamethrower and SdKfz 140 Flakpanzer 38(t) anti-aircraft gunnery platform. The latter was fitted with a 20mm anti-aircraft autocannon and available in 141 total production examples in January of 1944 but these numbers severely declined to just 9 operational units by December of that year, her losses not being replaced. The SdKfz 140/1 was developed as a light reconnaissance fast tank mounting the turret of the complete SdKfz 222 series armored car - another cost-effective measure.
At least some 4,000 PzKpfW 38(t) related production vehicles (of all forms) were ultimately pressed into service - sometimes used in Soviet hands as captured specimens - during the war and in the years following. The 38(t) was gradually phased out of frontline duties, relegated to second line roles in support of armored divisions, by 1943 though serial production continued on in the after-war years to help replenish Czech Army inventories. Czechoslovakia remained a German interest from its occupation by Hitler to the end of the war in 1945.