Monday, March 23, 2015

Panzerjaeger 38 Hetzer

As the war ground on, Germany - fighting on three fronts against huge odds - found it ever harder to keep up the supply of tanks to her front line divisions. One solution was greatly to increase the number of Jagdpanzer or Panzerjaeger - "tank-destroyers". These turretless AFVs, their guns mounted (with very limited traverse) in a fixed superstructure, were thought adequate for most defensive fighting - and in 1944 the Wehrmacht was fighting on the defensive almost everywhere. Without a complex traversing turret, the tank-destroyers were quicker and cheaper to build; their low profile made them easy to conceal in ambush; and the crews, drawn largely from the artillery, did not have to be so highly trained for battles of manoeuvre as the tank crews. These tank destroyers appeared in many different models, using the basic chassis and running gear of existing German, French and Czech tanks; the 1944 Panzerjaeger 38 Hetzer (which loosely translates as "Troublemaker") was based on the excellent Czech Skoda 38, which Germany had appropri- ated in large numbers in 1939 after occupying Czechoslovakia. As a tank-destroyer it was given a low, boxy superstructure of sharply sloped armor, and mounted an excellent existing German gun, the 75mm L48 Pak 39. Allied tank crews advancing into German-held territory became justifiably nervous of the Panzerjaegers, whose hidden presence was usually only betrayed when the first Sherman, Cromwell or T-34 in the column was suddenly struck, with a noise like a giant's hammer hitting an anvil, and burst into flames. But the tank-destroyers suffered from several major drawbacks, and once flushed from their hiding places they had no chance of surviving a moving fight with real tanks. Their guns may have been powerful, but had such a limited range of motion in the slots at the front of their armored box bodies that initial aiming involved the whole vehicle - the commander had to direct the driver to align it with a road or valley down which the enemy were thought likely to appear, and simply hope that they would arrive in front of him from the right direction. The gunner could make fine adjustments; but if the targets decided to move across the gun's front at a high angle it was almost impossible to track them and fire before having to move the whole vehicle. This compromised any camouflage and concealment - and also turned the thin side armor towards the enemy's counterfire.

The Hetzer had the worst arc of traverse of any German SP gun: only five degrees left and 11 degrees right. Although the Hetzer's excellent chassis, engine and drive train earned it a reliable reputation, it suffered gravely from all these other drawbacks. These were summed up some years ago, in an article in AFV News by former Hetzer combat commander Armin Sohns. To summarise his comments: The main problems stemmed from the off-center position of the gun, set in the right side of the body, which meant that three of the four-man crew had to be crowded into the left side - driver, gunner and loader in single file, from front to back. The commander was stuck at the right rear, behind the gun, in a small space carved out of the engine compartment. In this type ofAFV, with its particular aiming problems, close co-operation between driver, gunner and commander is vital; separating the commander like this had a disastrous effect on efficient teamwork. Visibility was bad all round due to inad- equate provision of periscopes; the commander, stuck so far back, had a huge blind area to his front unless he exposed himself dangerously, while the rest of the entombed crew were almost entirely dependent on his directions. Using existing components to improvise a fighting vehicle may be cheaper, but it has many traps. All the breech controls of the existing Pak 39 gun were mounted on the right side, and the main ammo stowage also had to be on the right of the hull. The loader had to lean over the gunner and over the breech to reach them; and when the gunner traversed right, the breech moved left and pushed the loader even further away from them.

Slinking out of the treeline, the Hetzer shows a menacingly low profile - it is only seven feet high. Firing from ambush, it took a considerable toll of Allied AFVs in 1944-45; but it had serious built-in disad- vantages. (Right) Right front drive sprocket and apron armor. At only 16 tons, with broad tracks, the Hetzer had good floatation. Rear hull. Note the hatch under the machine gun mounting - this is the only entrance and exit for the three crew members sitting on the left of the fighting compartment - and was only accessible when the MG was traversed side- ways. The commander's hatch at the right rear corner is so small that it has to have two flaps, one in the roof and one in the sloping rear plate. The rear hull plate. The muffler was originally set horizontally, but was modified when it proved a dangerous trap for anti-tank charges tossed onto the engine deck. The 6mm armor panel, at lower right of the top plate, is for access to the engine air filters.

This general type of mantlet, of steel cast in compound curves, was typical of several German self-propelled assault guns and tank destroyers; it was called a saukopf- "pig's head". The hull front armor was 60mm thick. The 7.62mm MG34 machine gun mounted on the roof; here it has the shoulder stock fitted, but this was often omitted, as the gun could be fired, elevated and traversed by remote control from inside the fighting compartment, where a small periscope provides limited vision. Since it was fed by 50- round drums, however, it needed frequent reloading; this, and dealing with any jams, meant that the gunner or loader had to partly expose himself while he wrestled with it, his movements restricted by the small armor shields. Left side of the fighting compartment, with driver's seat at right foreground. There are two points to note. This vehicle is one of the Hetzers taken over by the Swiss Army after the war and used until the 1960s. They kept the original German radio sets, but moved them from the rear firewall to the left sponson, as here. Above the radios, note the large control handles for the remotely operated MG34 on the roof - these were a further inconvenience for the hard-pressed loader.

The driver's station, at front left of the hull, with the gun mount and transmission tunnel to the right. Note pads to protect the driver on the left sponson and above his head; AFV crewmen, closed down inside a vehicle with very limited vision,-are in real danger of injury from being slammed around by unex- pected lurches during cross-country movement. Left and below of the two vision blocks is a black box pierced for three cruciform lights; these are operated by the commander to show if he wants the driver to go left, straight ahead or right. Hetzer Road Reports Duane Klug: "The Hetzer is a very cramped vehicle, particularly the driver's compartment. I have a hard time getting my feet on the pedals because they are so close together. You only have two small vision ports to see out of, and you're always buttoned up; the restricted vision is the worst thing about the Hetzer. If you keep the RPM up, she'll dance right around for you, otherwise it can be quite sluggish. It has a 'pivot steer' capability that helps bring it around, and if you've got some speed up you can do a sliding turn around a corner - and that can be a little unnerving, until you learn how to compensate and control the tank. It can surprise you how responsive the Hetzer can be. "The pre-select transmission is really great - you select the gear you want, then operate the clutch, and the gear change is made automatically, up or down. That was a tremendous advance for its time, 50 years ago." Marc Sehring: "The Hetzer would have been a nightmare for the driver. For one thing, his visibility is very bad. You have a very narrow field of view and no sense of depth while looking through the vision blocks. It is even hard to tell if you're moving, because it is a loud vehicle with a lot of vibration, and you can creep ahead without noticing. It would be an uncomfortable tank to crew in combat, particularly for the driver, especially if you got hit; the only way out is through one hatch at the rear. Because of limited visibility, the first time you're likely to know you're in trouble is when the enemy rounds start bouncing off (or going through...) the hull. And the gunner has a very limited range of motion for the gun; the driver has to pretty much rough-aim the whole vehicle and the gunner does the fine tuning. It would be almost impossible to engage a target that was moving across your front."

The Pak 39 gun seen from the gunner's station: note periscope sight passing up through the roof; elevation and traverse controls on left of gun; but also solid body shield on left (loader's) side behind the breech. Because the Pak 39 was designed for right hand operation, the deflector bar and the solid shield were on the wrong sides for the loader's convenience. He also had to lean across to the right to reach the breech operating lever, safety switch and extractor release - opening the breech for the first round, extracting a jammed case or unloading the gun all required considerable agility.

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