Key point: This was Berlin's best tank destroyer. It combined a good chassis with sufficient firepower.
By 1943 it was obvious to the Germans that their tank production could not keep pace with battlefield losses. One of their efforts to expedite weapons production was the conversion of old, outdated tank chassis into tank destroyers, or Jagdpanzers. Early efforts demonstrated the rushed and sometimes rough mating of a small, old tank with a large, powerful gun. The Marder series especially appeared cumbersome and top heavy. The most successful conversion was the Jagdpanzer 38(t), commonly referred to as the Hetzer.
A Versatile Czech Chassis
With international tensions rising in Europe, in 1937 the Czech Army began a search for a new modern tank. After exhaustive testing, the Czechs adopted the LT vz 38. It had riveted armor with a maximum thickness of 25mm and a minimum of 10mm, which was comparable to similar tanks of the era. A four-man crew included the driver, bow gunner, gunner, and commander. The main gun was a Skoda A7 37mm cannon, equivalent in performance to the Germans’ own 37mm or the British 2-pounder. A Praga inline 6-cylinder gasoline engine gave the LT vz 38 a top speed of 26 miles per hour and a range of 125 miles. All around, it could outperform or was at least comparable to any tank in the German Army with the exception of the PzKpfw. IV with a short-barreled 75mm gun, but this tank was available only in small numbers.
When France and Great Britain sacrificed Czechoslovakia to the Nazis to gain Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s “Peace in Our Time,” the Germans were more than happy to get their hands on the famous Czech arms industry and its products. The vz 38 was not in service with the Czech Army yet, but the Germans eagerly adopted all existing models for themselves as the PzKpfw. 38(t), with the “t” designating the Czech origin of the vehicle, and kept the production lines rolling. The Germans used the PzKpfw. 38(t) to equip their 7th and 8th Panzer Divisions for the invasion of Poland in 1939 and France in May 1940. The PzKpfw. 38(t), with various upgrades, remained in frontline service with the Wehrmacht as a light tank until 1942, when new Soviet armored vehicles such as the T-34 medium and KV series of heavy tanks outclassed it.
However, the chassis and powertrain were still quite viable. These became the bases for a variety of German tracked vehicles, including self-propelled artillery, tank destroyers, assault guns, reconnaissance vehicles, a self-propelled 20mm antiaircraft gun, and an assortment of weapons carriers. The most successful of these was the leichte (light) Jagdpanzer 38(t) Hetzer. The term “Hetzer,” or “baiter,” was never official nomenclature but rather a misunderstanding between German Army officials and Czech manufacturers. The name stuck unofficially.
An Effective Tank Destroyer Design
The Jagdpanzer 38(t) retained the Praga AC/2800 water-cooled inline, six-cylinder engine, the 150- to 160-horsepower transferred through a semiautomatic five-speed Praga transmission and Wilson clutch and steering brakes to the final drive. The original front drive sprocket, rear idler wheel, and leaf spring suspension of the PzKpfw. 38 was retained, but the four rubber-tired steel road wheels were larger than the originals and the track had only a single return roller on top. Relatively lightweight at 16 tons (the design specs calling for 13 tons) and with a 35cm wide track, the Hetzer had a ground pressure of 0.76kg/cm2. Although at 26 mph (42 kph) it was nowhere near as fast as the 55-60 kph originally called for in the design parameters, it had good cross-country performance, and although sluggish at low speed it could be quite nimble with the engine kept revved up to high rpms. It also featured a pivot steer, with one track going forward while the other reversed, enabling it to turn around basically within its own length.
The new hull was designed with armor protection and not crew comfort in mind. The frontal armor was of rolled steel plates interlocked and welded, 60mm thick with the top sloped at a 60-degree angle and the lower plate sloped at 40 degrees. The side and rear armor was of a lower quality alloy steel and only 20mm thick. The top plates sloped at 40 degrees, and the lower hull and rear sloped at 15 degrees. Top armor was only 8mm thick, and the bottom plate 10mm.
One German after-action report by a battalion commander of a Hetzer unit noted the effectiveness of this armor. “The frontal armor resists penetration by the Russian 7.62cm antitank guns. Up to now, losses have only occurred due to penetration of the sides and rear. It is therefore especially important to only present the strong front to the enemy.”
It was a low, compact armored vehicle, the hull 15 feet, 9 inches long, just over eight feet wide, and less than seven feet tall, hardly higher than a standing man. Main armament was the reliable and powerful 75mm L48 PaK39, with a secondary armament of a top-mounted 7.92mm machine gun. Small, low and easy to hide, fairly nimble, and with a powerful gun, the Hetzer made an excellent tank destroyer.
The same colonel quoted above said, “The ‘leichte Panzerjager 38’ had passed its test in fire. The crews are proud of this Jagdpanzer and the infantry have faith in it. Especially praised is the … machine gun. The effective weapons, low profile, and well-sloped armor make it fully adaptable to both its main roles in combating enemy tanks and supporting infantry in both attack and defense.”
“In a short period, one company destroyed 20 tanks without a single loss. A task group destroyed 57 tanks, of which two were JS 122s at a range of 800 meters.”
The Hetzer’s Shortcomings
As with many wartime improvisations there were, of course, problems. Due to the width of the hull, the 75mm main gun had to be mounted on the right side, the mount supported by the thick upper plate. This limited the gun to a relatively narrow traverse of only five degrees left and 11 degrees right; anything further, or if engaging a crossing target, the driver had to turn the vehicle toward the target. The extra weight on the right side put undue pressure on the suspension’s leaf springs and also made the vehicle nose heavy, with the rear end sitting 10cm higher than the front. As production continued, improvements were made, such as beefing up the leaf springs and drive train and lightening the gun mantle. Other various modifications to ease manufacture and maintenance, such as small hatches in the armor for the fuel, oil, and antifreeze caps, were also incorporated over the life of the vehicle.
Nothing could be done to make more room inside the small hull, and the crew had little space. The driver, gunner, and loader were all seated in a line up the left side of the hull. The commander was perched in the right rear with the recoil guard of the main gun all but isolating him from the rest of the crew, hurting the vital teamwork of the whole crew. His view was restricted to the SF14Z scissors periscope forward and a small rear-facing fixed periscope.
The driver was squeezed into the front left corner with the transmission and gun mount right at his elbow. Steering was via two horizontal rather than vertical joysticks with exposed linkages, and his field of view was poor with only two periscopes pointing straight forward. Since he could not communicate well with the commander, there were three lights on the driver’s control panel which the commander could turn on and off to signal the driver to go left, right, or straight. Driver safety was limited to a thick leather pad above his head and a small, thick rubber pad on his left.
Because the gun was mounted on the right, the loader had to feed it from the wrong side, reach over it to switch the safety, breech block opening lever, and extractor release, as well as reach across the recoil path or the gunner to pull some of the stowed ammunition. The loader had a single periscope fixed in the 9 o’clock position to see out the left side of the vehicle.
The gunner was seated directly to the left of the gun breech, with hand-cranked traverse and elevation wheels directly on the right. His gunnery sight was the SFl.Z.F.1a periscope, which ran up through the roof. The reticule on the sight consisted of seven triangles that were four mils apart, enabling the gunner to aim without obscuring the target, calculate range, and lead a target. The reticule could be dimly lit for lowlight shooting. An adjustable range drum was graduated in 100-meter intervals for the trajectory of the four different types of ammunition used. When the whole crew was buttoned up, there was essentially no vision to the right side of the vehicle.
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.