11oz World of Tanks Hetzer mug
Škoda’s tank hunter
When Nazi Germany ruthlessly seized the industrial jewels of Czechoslovakia prior to the war, it also acquired a treasure of tank manufacturing skills that was to provide the Nazi war machine with more than 5,000 extremely reliable tanks during the war. The whole family was derived from a single model: the Škoda/Praga Lt vz.38, or Panzer 38(t) in German service, a light tank which was used until 1943-44, but also gave birth to one of the most prolific German tank hunters of the war, the Jagdpanzer 38(t) or, as it is commonly known today, the Hetzer.
Compared to this vehicle, 2nd/3rd generation tank hunters were based on mediums or heavy tank chassis. The nimblest of these was the StuG III Ausf.G, based on the now obsolescent Panzer III chassis. Light tanks had served to develop the first generation of tanks hunters, improvised in 1941-42 with bulky, tall superstructures, while the AT gun was just basically welded on. But, overall, the main goal of this new tank hunter was to be readily available in larger quantities, cheaper, and with a proven chassis to avoid the problems observed with the more ambitious and complex designs derived from the “big cats”.
The very reliable Panzer 38(t) chassis already served as a basis for the prolific Marder III, declined into three major types. In 1943, the StuG III provided the bulk of German tanks hunters, and was quite a success due to its low profile. However, engineers could do even more in terms of protection, low profile and cost-efficiency, and the Hetzer did exactly this, belonging to the late war, third generation of German tank destroyers. It was, of sort, the “little brother” of the Jagdpanzer IV. Moreover, it was produced in Czechoslovakia, relatively spared at the time by the Allied bombings, although that was to change.
As for the name “Hetzer”, equivalent to “Baiter”, according to some sources it appeared in a briefing paper sent by Heinz Guderian to Hitler mentioning the name to be popular with the troops, and was then reused proficiently by postwar Historians.
Inspiration: The Romanian Mareșal
Among the early inspiration sources for the casemate shape and light tank accommodation, the Romanian Mareșal is often cited. It was developed by the Ateliere Leonida. This vehicle was born after the Romanian encounters with the Russian T-34 in Ukraine, which radically changed their opinion on armor and especially the possibilities of sloped armour. From there a project was born, which tried to create a tank hunter that would be extremely well-protected over an existing, readily available captured light tank chassis (the T-60), while keeping the weight down. It was achieved by giving the hull an extremely sloped, all-side armour. This resulted in the 50 mm (1.97 in) armor plates offering 100 mm (3.94 in) of effective protection against direct fire, which provided this small tank destroyer with the heavy tank protection level.
Six prototypes were built (M-00, M-01, M-02, M-03, M-04, M-05) between December 1942 and January 1944, but, after the 23 August coup d’etat, the plans and the remaining prototypes were seized by the Soviet army. Its main armament was a 7.5 cm (2.95 in) DT-UDR Resita Model 1943 and secondary ZB-53 7.92 mm (0.31 in) machine gun. It was propelled by a Hotchkiss H-39 120 hp engine (10 hp/t) and transmission. It was based on a modified T-60 chassis, but with Rogifer suspensions, comprising four stamped roadwheels per side. The top speed was 45 km/h (28 mph) on flat and 25 km/h (15 mph) cross-country.
Although the development of the Mareșal and the Hetzer advanced in parallel in 1943 (it was even estimated that common production would take place in the future), the Germans were quick to have a finished prototype ready for production. The first wooden mock-up was ready in January 1944, presented and accepted by the Waffenamt. A decision was made to mount the 7.5 cm Pak 39, shared with the early versions of the Jagdpanzer IV. Oberst Thomale signed an agreement for the delivery of the first three prototypes in March 1944, for pre-production trials. Development then went at breakneck speed -in fact it remains a record- the prototypes were built, but since they were based on an already well proven chassis, the model was accepted into service without a pre-series or further testing.
On 18 January 1944, Hitler signed an order for the production of 1000 vehicles even before the final blueprints were delivered. A very optimistic schedule was defined, which required growing production capacity from BMM and, later, Škoda, revving up from 20 vehicles in April, to 200 in July and 500 in March 1945. It should be noted that, together, the factories never delivered as much as 300 vehicles monthly. The maximal output was performed by BMM, 155 in a month.
Nevertheless, the first production Hetzers were delivered in March 1944, as scheduled, and accepted by the Waffenamt in early April. The first 20 were demonstrated in front of Hitler on April, 20. However, production goals were significantly hampered by the delivery of the gun mounts. There were a few corrections to be made also, quickly detected in the first batches: leaking gaskets, deficient air filtration, carburetors, governor, incorrect spark plug types and the layout of the connecting lines between the fuel tanks.
Despite its appearance, the Hetzer was not built directly over the Panzer 38(t) chassis. The latter had to be widened and lengthened in order to support the weight of the casemate, and had modified suspensions with an up-rated engine. It had the same combination of large roadwheels and improved leaf spring suspensions units (two pairs), but only one return roller per side. The drive sprockets were at the front and idlers at the rear. The latter were later simplified, with six drilled holes, although most of the production vehicles used the standard model.
The engine was the new 160 hp@2,800 rpm (118 kW) Praga AC/2 6-cylinder, connected to a Praga-Wilson gearbox with 5 forward and 1 reverse gears. Along with the reinforced suspension, in order to cope with the weight of the new 75 mm (2.95 in) gun, this engine compensated for the overall weight increase, which went from 9.5 tonnes on the original light tank to the 15.7 tonnes of a Hetzer in battle order. Top speed was apparently still 42 km/h (26 km/h), which appears optimistic, since the power to weight ratio fell to only 10 hp/tonne, compared to 13.15 hp/tonne on the Panzer 38(t). Cross-country speed was probably no more than 15 km/h (9 mph) at best, like the model it was based on. It was far short from the original specifications.
In terms of protection, the big advantage of the Hetzer was its highly sloped casemate, with a 60 mm (2.36 in) thick plate on the front, which was inclined 60 degrees from the vertical, and therefore offered around 120 mm (4.72 in) of effective protection. Needless to say, Allied tank guns had a hard time penetrating it, except for the fabled British 17-pounder. The lower part of the hull was still of the same thickness and sloped (hardened steel E22), but the sides were only 20 mm (0.79 in) thick and made of low quality alloy, but inclined at 40°. The roof was only made of an 8 mm (0.31 in) thick plate, proof only against shrapnel. The belly was 10 mm (0.39 in) thick.
Accommodation and crew
Due to the limited area defined by the narrow chassis/hull width and highly sloped casemate, internal space was very cramped. The driver, gunner and loader were all placed on the left side, in a row. The only escape hatch there was a small trap below the loader, barely accessible by the two others. Due to the main gun being positioned on the far right of the hull, the loader had to work in an awkward position, which was not practical and obliged him to reach under or across the gun and into the recoil path of the gun in order to access the safety lock or the ammunition, whereas the commander, installed in a niche at the rear, was cutoff from the others.
Vision was generally poor, there were twin periscopes of the driver in the front plate (it was later discovered they formed a shot trap), the main slf ZF sight for the gunner, a periscopic sight for the machine-gun, another for the loader, plus the SF14Z scissors periscope for the commander. The vehicle was literally blind on the right side, which was especially problematic since protection there was minimal. Attempts to correct this with a fully traversing periscope (Starr) for the commander never took place.
Tooling stowage was external and comprised a jack, jack wooden block and wire cutter stowed on the right track guard and wrecking bar on the left. 8 spare track links were often attached on the rear deck, while 6 others and two towing cables were fastened on the rear back plate.
The first series was equipped with horizontal mufflers and standard twelve hole idler wheels. They also featured a narrow main gun mantlet and flat plate side armor skirts hooked on welded brackets. Also, on the earliest vehicles, both fuel tanks were filled via the same fuel port, located on the left side. This was among the first things corrected, but the main problem was the Hetzer was critically nose heavy (which is why it never received a muzzle brake).
Fixes during production
– Modified exhausts with a vertically oriented tube and flame arrester (replacing the muffler)
– Wider mantlet for the main gun (to give slightly more traverse), but lighter
– Improved elevation/traverse mechanisms
– Inwards angled side skirt corners (to avoid snagging vegetation)
– Better filler port
– Gratings over the air intake openings (to avoid vegetation being sucked into the engine compartment)
– Mechanical pump (instead of electrical)
– Riveted road wheels instead of boltened (and later welded).
– Strengthened leaf spring suspension packs (9 mm thick leaf bands)
– Improved heating arrangements in the fighting compartment (winter batteries)
– Double arm mount for the commander’s own observation telescope, hatch in two pieces
– Better ammo storage (for five more rounds)
– Hand grips welded on the ceiling of the fighting compartment over the driver’s seat
– Better final drive assemblies
– New simplified idler wheel with 10, 6 or 4 drilled lightening holes.
The Starr was characterized by a rigid mount for the main gun. It was tailored for simplified mass-production, and therefore the gun recoil system was entirely eliminated. The recoil had to be absorbed by the chassis and suspensions. Aiming was entirely performed by the same transmission, but coupled to a new Tatra 8 cylinder diesel engine in development. Also, in order to cope with poor vision, the commander received a rotating periscope. Ultimately 10 were built, but later seven were converted back as standard Hetzers after the war because the Starr tubes had worn out. The Jagdpanzer 38 Starr was also meant to receive later a longer L/70 gun, but it came too late to see action.
This final, transitional version had a wider hull, better side protection (50 mm/1.97 in), same rigid gun mount as the Starr, but with the L/70 gun, and the new 8-cyl Tatra engine. It was an even simpler version of the Starr and another step towards the planned E 10. At least 10,000 were expected to have been produced by BMM before the fall of 1945.
A conversion with a flame-thrower was started at the order of Adolf Hitler, in November 1944. These were standard Jagdpanzer 38(t)s refurbished straight from the factory with a Keobe flamethrower replacing the main gun. The whole mount was simplified, but the protruding part was encased in a metal tube, which looked like the standard gun in appearance, but much thicker (and fragile). Production numbers vary, 50 being built at most, completed before the end of the war and seeing action on the Western Front, notably during the Battle of the Bulge (20 were part of the 352nd and 353rd Panzer-Flamm-Kompanies attached to Army Group G), creating havoc as expected.
A light recovery vehicle created especially for the Hetzer and light vehicles of its class. Between 64 and 106 (even 120) were converted until the end of the war (chassis numbers 321001-323000-323001), equipped with jack handbars, winch, steel cables, wooden support planks and a rear hydraulic leg for a better grip. Its only armament was a single 7.92 mm (0.31 in) Rheinmetall MG 34 or 42 mounted on the front arm.
Other experimental variants
The most daring propositions were a model of assault gun with a 105 mm (4.13 in) StuH 42 or a 120 mm (4.72 in) mortar for infantry support. Another “long” version was given the 7.5 cm KwK 42 L/70 gun from the Panther. There was also an AA variant with a 20 mm (0.79 in) KwK 38 Flak turret. The war ended before any of these were put into production.
Waffentraeger Krupp-Ardelt: 88 mm (3.46 in) PaK 43 tank hunter which borrowed the suspension and roadwheels from the Hetzer. One real size mockup built (July 1944). Production was expected to start in October, but the program cancelled.
12.8 cm Waffentraeger 38(d): Was meant to use the lengthened and strengthened Panzer 38(d) chassis.
Vollkettenaufklarer 38(t) (Kätzchen): A reconnaissance APC/IFV heavily tested, but never produced. Several prototypes of the regular model armed with 1 or 2 2cm Flak 38 guns and several of the Kätzchen APC were built and tested in late 1944.
Flakpanzer 38(t) Kugelblitz: A proposition to mount the twin Flak turret from the Panzer IV Kugelblitz on the Jagdpanzer 38(t) chassis.
Panzerkampfwagen 38(t) mit 7.5cm KwK L/48 (Pzkpfw IV) Turm: A reamed Panzer 38(t) (reinforced and stretched out) armed with the Panzer IV turret.
7.5 cm Stu.Kan. auf Pz.Kpfw. 38(t): Tank hunter prototype (one photo), possibly used on the Eastern front (Panzer Tracts No. 7-2)
The Hetzer in action
It was originally planned to test the vehicle as early as April 1944, but delays ensured the first batch of Jagdpanzer 38(t)s reached the ordnance depot in May. They were tested by Wa Prüf 2 and joined training groups in the summer, until July. The first 45 entered service with the Heeres Panzerjäger-Abteilung 731 on 4-13 July 1944 (Army Group North, Eastern Front, later Mitte). One of the first engagement occurred in Warsaw in August 1944, during the famous uprising. At least one was captured, renamed and restored by Partisans, but never used (“Chwat”).
Other units that received it were the 741st (September), 561st (January 1945) and 744th (February). The 741st was eventually split in two, one half being shipped to the Western Front for operation Wacht am Rhein. They were organically attached to infantry divisions and issued to Jäger, Kavalerie and Grenadiers corps within the infantry, rather than independent units. By late 1944, each company was given 14 Hetzers, but, after February 1945, this number fell to 10.
In the Ardennes, no less than 18 companies participated in the offensive (295 in all). On 30 December, only 131 were reported operational. Other independent units also received Hetzers instead of other, more powerful, tank hunters, mostly due to production delays, namely the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division, the Abteilung Jüteborg and Schliesen, FHH PZd and PZGd, even the StuG Brigade 266. There was also plans to deliver these to Allies, but while Romania never received a single one, Hungary got 75, which arrived by train between December 1944 and January 1945. They fought in support of Heeresgruppe Sud.
An interesting experiment began with the the constitution of the mixed independent Pz.Jagd.Brigade 104 as a hunter-killer unit on the Eastern Front, but it was short lived. The tank hunters were scattered around in order to plug holes in depleted units all along the Eastern Front. By March 1945, only 359 Hetzers were reported operational, out of 529 still in the registry.
From German reports, kill/loss ratios were excellent. Early on, one of the first units engaged claimed 20 kills with no loss. Another unit, also on the Eastern front, reported 57 kills without losses, engaging IS-2s at 800 m (880 yd) and more. It was also reported that the whole unit reached its objective, 160 km (100 mi) from its base, without a single breakdown en route. Crews were also delighted by the frontal protection and remote “Rundumsfeuer” machine gun.
Little known, however, were the Hetzers deployed in Northern Italy. Four companies operated 56 Hetzers there in 1945. At the same date, they reported only 37 operational Panzerjagers, while only 137 were still enlisted on the Western front. This was, noticeably, one of the highest operational percentage of all German tanks units. Later in the war, however, officer mismanagement of the Hetzer and poor training took their toll on units