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The Hetzer: The Weirdo Looking Nazi Tank That Was a Killer

September 30, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIMilitaryTechnologyWorldHitlerNazi

The Hetzer: The Weirdo Looking Nazi Tank That Was a Killer

Or just a really strange looking tank? Read on and decide for yourself. 

A remote-control MG-34 7.92mm machine gun was mounted on the roof for close-in defense against infantry. Behind the loader were the controls, rather like a submarine periscope with two folding handles, a rotating 3x periscope to aim through, and a trigger lever on the handlebar. While it did work, it was limited to a belt of only 50 rounds inside a metal drum; with a cyclic rate of fire of 800-900 rounds per minute, it was only good for a few short bursts. Reloading required the loader to pop out the hatch and expose himself to enemy fire.

The Hetzer’s Deadly Armament

It was the PaK 39 that was the heart of the whole system, and although only 75mm it was powerful enough to handle any Allied tank with the exception of the Soviet heavies like the Josef Stalin. Four types of ammunition were carried, with a total of 41 rounds. The Pzgr.40 high-velocity, sub-caliber, tungsten core round was the best antitank shell, firing a 4.1kg projectile at 930 m/s. Striking at a 30-degree angle, this round could penetrate 120mm of armor at 500 meters and 97mm at 1,000. The sight drum was graduated to 2,000 meters for this load.

The tungsten-cored Pzgr. 40 ammunition was often in scarce supply, and the runner up for anti-tank performance was the more plentiful Pzgr. 39 armor piercing, ballistic-capped with explosive filler and tracer element, launching a heavier 6.8kg projectile at a lower muzzle velocity of 750 m/s. It could pierce 106mm and 95mm of armor at 500 and 1,000 meters respectively.

The Gr. 38 HL/C round was designed around the shaped charge HEAT (high explosive antitank) principle used in the bazooka and panzerfaust, but was actually much less effective against armor than either of the other two AT rounds as well as being much less accurate. It could be used in lieu of the standard high-explosive round for soft targets.

With the Pzgr. 39 or 40 ammunition, the Hetzer was capable of first-shot hits at 1,000 meters. The German Army testing procedure assumed correct range estimation and a competent gunner and expected with Pzgr.39 ammo a 99 percent chance of a first-shot hit at 500 meters and a 71 percent chance at 1,000 meters. The small vehicle, camouflaged and waiting in ambush, could be deadly with such shooting. An Allied tank column would not know the Panzerjager was there until the lead tank burst into flames.

Hetzer Teams in Action

A German Army after-action report from the Eastern Front detailed what Hetzers with good crews could do, even against the Soviet giants.

“The 3rd Company with four Jagdpanzer 38s was in a firefight with a JS-122 at a range of 1,200 meters. The Russian heavy tank fired 10 rounds at the commander’s Jagdpanzer that had taken up a good position on a reverse slope. All 10 rounds came directly at the Jadgpanzer but always landed 100 meters too short.”

This shows the value of what tankers call a hull-down position. Basically, if the driver could see the target the gunner could engage it. The gun itself needed only 1.4 meters of clearance to fire; thus, in a hull-down or defilade position, the Hetzer presented a target only .77 meters tall.

“The company commander immediately sent a Jagdpanzer off to the right along a concealed route through a depression to attack from the flank. The sixth shot from this Jagdpanzer 38 penetrated the side of the Josef Stalin 122, and it burned out. This reemphasized the experience that if possible a single Jagdpanzer 38 should never engage in a firefight. When firing the powder smoke is blown back and envelops the commander’s scissors periscope and strongly hinders the ability to observe and correct the gunner’s aim. A second Jagdpanzer can observe the flight and strike of the rounds and relay corrections by radio to quickly destroy enemy tanks.”

So, teamwork was not only important with the individual crews, hampered by the recoil shield around the commander’s position, but also with the other vehicles in the company. The tactical use of terrain, cover, and concealment was nearly as important. Deploying single Hetzers, especially without infantry support, was almost certain to end in failure.

Postwar Service in the Swiss Military

Even after the end of the war in Europe, some Hetzers were manufactured from existing stocks and production facilities in Czechoslovakia. The Czechs built 180 for their own military forces, mostly used for training, and Switzerland ordered 158 export models of the Hetzer, which were given the Swiss Army nomenclature G-13.

Why, one would ask, with all the Hetzer’s little problems, would a postwar nation want them? The Swiss military system and doctrine was defensive in nature. When needed, the Swiss could mobilize some 500,000 troops. Every soldier, after serving his mandatory time in the armed forces, took all his equipment, including his rifle, home and was subject to periodic training. Individual marksmanship was especially emphasized, with nearly every town having shooting competitions on weekends, and the reservists issued both practice and ready ammunition.

The Swiss had authorized a marked increase in defense funding in 1936 and purchased weapons that they could not manufacture. They realized well, perhaps better than some larger and more powerful nations, the importance of armor and aircraft. One of the main rearmament purchases was for 100 Czech LT zv 38 tanks.  Only two dozen had arrived, without the main gun yet installed, before the Germans took over Czechoslovakia and confiscated all existing tanks.

The Swiss armed their tanks with an odd 24mm gun and distributed them in three eight-tank companies, one each in support of their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Light Brigades, but this was obviously little more than a token gesture. Although they had extensive fortifications in the Alps and could produce artillery pieces up to 150mm, their antitank arm was extremely weak. The German General Staff drew up two major plans to invade Switzerland, but both projects were fortunately dropped. Switzerland breathed a sigh of relief in 1945, but the nation was determined not to be caught in such an uncomfortable situation again.

Thus, the Hetzer was a good choice to quickly and cheaply begin to build up Swiss antitank capabilities, and its design was perfectly suited to their strictly defensive military doctrine. Additionally, the existing LT vz 38s had given them experience with running and maintaining the same automotive systems and could provide spare parts in a pinch.

The Hetzers were but a first step, and the Swiss postwar arsenal came to include exports such as the French AMX-13 and British Centurion tanks, as well as a host of infantry anti-tank weapons. The Swiss began building their own tanks in the early 1960s. Still, the G-13 soldiered on, with most converted to diesel engines in the early 1950s, until the last was retired in 1970.

This article by Robert Cashner originally appeared on Warfare History Network.