Tuesday, February 17, 2015
leFH 18/2 auf Fgst Kpfw II (Sf) SdKfz 124 Wespe
Even as early as 1939 it was obvious that the days of the little PzKpfw II tank were numbered, for it lacked both armament and armour, However, it was in production and quite reliable, so when the need arose for self-propelled artillery the PzKpfw II was selected to be the carrier for the 10.5- cm (4.13-in) leFH 18 field howitzer. The conversion of the tank hull to carry the howitzer was quite straightforward, for the howitzer was mounted behind an open topped armoured shield towards the rear of the hull and the area where the turret had been was armoured over and the space used for ammunition stowage. Maximum armour thickness was 18 mm (0.7 in).
The result was the self-propelled howitzer known as the Wespe (wasp) though its full official designation was rather more cumbersome: leFH 18/2 auf Fgst Kpfw II (Sf) SdKfz 124 Wespe, but to everyone it was just the Wespe, It was a very popular little self-propelled weapon that soon gained for itself a reputation for reliability and mobility. The first of them were based on the PzKpfw II Ausf F chassis and went into action on the Eastern Front during 1943. On this front they were used by the divisional artillery batteries of the Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions. They were usually organized into batteries of six howitzers with up to five batteries to an Abteilung (battalion).
The Wespe was so successful in its artillery support role that Hitler himself made an order that all available PzKpfw II chassis production should be allocated to the Wespe alone, and the many other improvised weapons on the PzKpfw II chassis were dropped or their armament diverted to other chassis. The main Wespe construction centre was the Famo plant in Poland, and there production was so rapid that by mid-1944 682 examples had been built. Some time around that date manufacture of the Wespe ceased, but not before 158 had been completed without howitzers; these vehicles had the gap in the armour plate for the howitzer sealed off, the space behind the armour being used for resupply ammunition needed by batteries in the front line.
A typical Wespe went into action carrying its crew of five, including the driver, and 32 rounds of ammunition. A Wespe battery was completely mobile, although some of the vehicles were soft-skinned trucks for carrying ammunition and other supplies. The forward observers were usually carried in light armoured vehicles although some batteries used ex- Czech or captured French tanks for this purpose. Fire orders were relayed back to the battery by radio, and from the battery fire command post the orders were further relayed to the gun positions by land lines, The howitzer carried on the Wespe was the standard 10.5-cm leFH 18 as used by towed batteries (although most were fitted with muzzle brakes) and so used the same ammunition, They also had the same range of 10675m (11,675 yards).
Main variant: The Ammunition carrier Since the Wespe was cramped and could only carry limited ammo, the Munitionschlepper auf Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen II, or more simply "Munitionschlepper auf Wespe", was designed as a weaponless variant, entirely filled with storage boxes containing 90 105 mm (4.13 in) shells, to complement the limited supply of regular Wespes (32 rounds). 159 were built in all, by the same manufacturer and two were attached to each unit (Abteilung) of six Wespes. The modifications were modular and each could be converted in the field to a regular SPG at a moment's notice.
It must be noted that, before the Wespe, another SPG was based on the Panzer II chassis, the rare (only 12 built) 15 cm (5.9 in) sIG 33 auf Fahrgestell Panzerkampfwagen II (Sf) which fought in North Africa. The old, but still efficient, 150 mm (5.9 in) was much heavier and in order to cope with that the superstructure was lowered considerably, exposing the crew to small arms fire.
The "Wespe" in action
The Eastern Front took the biggest part of the Wespe production and the first Panzerartillerie Abteilung equipped with this vehicle appeared in March 1943. They saw extensive service alongside the Hummel, first at Kursk, then on all three Eastern fronts. They were so successful that, after reading reports, Hitler ordered all other conversions base on the Panzer II chassis to be stopped and reserved for the Wespe only. By the summer of 1944 some Abteilungen were sent in Normandy as reinforcements. They fought in Italy as well, taking part in the pounding of Allied forces in the Anzio pocket and defending the Caesar and Gustav lines. No less than 36 Panzer divisions, including SS and special units received Wespes, seeing active service on all fronts after 1943. By March 1945 307 were still in service. The crews praised its reliability and mobility but despised the lack of protection, both in thickness and height. The fighting compartment was also very cramped. The loaders working at the back end of the superstructure were the most exposed. Surviving Wespes can be seen at Saumur and Bayeux (France), Koblenz (Germany) and Kubinka (Russia).