Tuesday 26 March 2013

World of Tanks History Section: Jagdpanzer 38(t) Hetzer

In November 1943, Allied aviation bombed the Alkett factories in Marienfeld. These factories were one of the most important producers of self propelled guns in Germany. The Wehrmacht's demand for vehicles of this type was in danger of going unfulfilled. This was partially covered by Krupp producing a vehicle with the StuG casemate and PzIV chassis, but he alone could not satisfy the demand. Additionally, these tanks were expensive, and their chassis was used by other tanks that were also needed.

The Germans decided to set up additional manufacturing in Czechoslovakia, which was nearly unbombed. The VMM factories in Prague already repaired German SPGs, so retooling them for building StuGs didn't seem like such a bad idea. However, when specialists analyzed the situation, it was clear that such a swap would not be possible in a short amount of time.

In 1943, Heinz Guderian, chief inspector of the tank forces, proposed that a light tank destroyer with at least a 75 mm gun be developed. Germany already had vehicles like these, the Marder and the Bison, but they were more self propelled carriages for the guns, with not much armour or survivability. The Wehrmacht needed a full fledged TD, with a proper armoured hull.

Something like this was proposed by VMM engineers in October of 1943, but it did not cause much interest back then. Now, they had the opportunity to blow off the dust and finish what they started. The order came in to VMM late November of 1943. On December 17th, the commission from the Armament Directorate received project documents and two wooden models with different armament and suspensions. The commission chose "Solomon's solution" and ordered a combination of the best parts of the two projects be made. The new TD received the chassis from the PzKpfw 38(t) light tank, 75 mm gun PaK 39 L/48, and a closed casemate with sloped armour plates. Starting on December 4th, 1944, the TD was nicknamed Hetzer (hunter).

The Hetzer was the first Czech vehicle with welded armour. This halved the time needed to make it. The armour thickness varied greatly. The front was 60 mm, but the sides and rear were only 20 mm. The Hetzer's armour protected it from bullets, shrapnel, and AT guns up to 45 mm in caliber. The hull was air-tight. The crew climbed in through hatches on top. According to memoirs, the ventilation was poor, and it very hot inside the tank during the summer.

Many claim that Soviet tanks were "blind", but the Hetzer was no beter. On first Hetzers, the observation devices could only be used when the hatches were open. If the hatches were closed, it was not possible to look right. This problem was tackled by adding more observation devices for the commander, but the deadzone on the right was never fully removed.

The Hetzer was very compact, only 4.8 meters in length (not counting the gun) and 2.1 meters in height. The 75 mm gun only fit in such a small hull due to a special universal joint developed by K. Stolberg. Ironically, this joint was developed in 1942. The Germans claimed that it could never work. However, after finding it in Soviet TDs (SU-76I, SU-85, SU-152), this solution was used on the Hetzer, JagdPzIV and Jagdpanther.

The Hetzer was a very agile vehicle. It accelerated to 40 kph with no problems. A well trained driver on a well maintained Hetzer could reach even higher speeds. Soviet test crews accelerated a captured Hetzer to 50 kph. The gas tank lasted for 190 km.

The Hetzer was mass produced in April of 1944. The design was modernized almost immediately. The tracks were widened to improve cross-country performance. The engine was improved by increasing its RPM. In order to simplify removing the engine and transmission, the Hetzer was modified to mount a 2-ton crane. Attempts to improve visibility were mentioned earlier. Command, engineering, and flamethrower modifications of the Hetzer were produced. The flamethrower modifications were used in the Ardennes forest on the Western front and at lake Balaton in the East. The combat performance was deemed unsatisfactory. The engineering modification attempted to mount a 150 mm gun. 24 large caliber Hetzers were made.

The Hetzer resembled Soviet tanks with its simplicity and effectiveness. No aces fought in these vehicles. Crews were formed from personnel with very basic combat and technical training. Hetzers were placed in infantry AT squads, grenadier and cavalry units. The crew reviews were largely positive. The Hetzer was praised for its small size, agility, simplicity, and reliability. The gun also performed well. Soviet soldiers commented on its small silhouette  and its ability to suddenly appear, and disappear. The Hetzer's shape earned it a number of nicknames: "flea", "chisel", "ax", "coffin", and, for some reason, "whistle".

The Hetzers stayed in production until May of 1945. During WWII, it was used by the Hungarians, as well as the Germans. During the Warsaw uprising on October 2nd, 1944, Krajow's army captured one Hetzer, and used it against the Germans. During the Prague uprising in 1945, these vehicles were used by the Czechs as well.

Summing up all the information on this project, the Hetzer was a pretty good vehicle. It was used after WWII as well as during. Until 1970, the Swiss army used Hetzers under the index G-13. Most Hetzers that exist today are Swiss G-13s that were cosmetically modified to more closely resemble its German ancestor.

There are 9 authentic Hetzers left worldwide.

Original article available here.

Note: historical scholarship indicates that "Hetzer" is a post-war name. In various documents from 1944 and 1945, the TD in question is referred to as "G-13" or "Jagdpanzer 38(t)". 

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