Part 1: An overview of the real tank
NOTE: Although it was not called the Hetzer (German for “Chaser”) in an official capacity at the time, the name has become synonymous with the vehicle. It will be referenced as such from now on- for the sake of brevity.
Introduced into service with the Wehrmacht in 1944, the Jagdpanzer 38(t) Hetzer was Germany’s solution to a tricky problem created by Allied bombing of its infrastructure: producing a combat and cost-effective, mechanically reliable tank destroyer that could utilize obsolete equipment and be fielded in significant numbers. Bigger projects, such as the Jagdpather and Jagdtiger, were also in development but were far more demanding of both resources and time.
Previous tank destroyer/assault gun designs, such as Marder III and StuG III, utilized viable armaments on obsolete chassis. However, both had limitations that needed to be addressed, namely, survivability. The Marder was open-topped, and the crew were very exposed with only a meagre gun shield offering protection. The StuG III, while enclosed and offering a low silhouette, had insufficient armour which was predominately flat. To resolve these shortcomings, the Germans drew inspiration for the Hetzer’s design from the Romanian “Mareșal” tank destroyer. Much like the StuG III, it was low to the ground and fully-enclosed, but it offered significantly higher protection in the form of thicker, angled armour, giving it the appearance of a boxy turtle.
German engineers opted to use a modified version of the venerable Czechoslovakian Panzer 38(t) light tank chassis. It was cheap to produce, mechanically sound, small in stature and proven for such a role, as it had served as the basis for the Marder III. The chassis was extended, wider tracks were installed, and it was given a 158 horsepower Praga 6-cylinder 7.8 litre petrol engine. As previously mentioned, it was also clad with more armour, with the front top plate being 60 mm thick and sloped at 60 degrees- making it effectively 120 mm. All up, it’s final weight was 15.75 tonnes, with a top speed of 42 km/h.
The primary armament of the standard variant was the 7.5 cm PaK 39 L/48 anti-tank gun, which was capable of defeating most Allied armour up to ranges of 1,000 meters. Additionally, a remote-controlled MG 34 7.92mm machine gun was mounted on the roof. Small numbers were later equipped with the 150 mm sIG 33/2 howitzer, and the Flammpanzer 38(t) variant was given a flamethrower.
Other notable versions produced included the Befehlswagen 38(t) command tank and the Bergepanzer 38(t) recovery vehicle. An array of prototypes and design concepts were also developed around the chassis, but most were scrapped or not capitalized on before the war’s end.
In spite of the improvements the Hetzer offered, there were some drawbacks. Although it’s small size was ideal for remaining undetected, it also meant the crew space was cramped, and only a limited amount of ammunition could be transported. The suspension was strained due to the added weight of the gun and armour and thus prone to breakdowns, and the main gun traverse was less than ideal. However, the most alarming weakness was the thin side armour, which could be penetrated by machine gunfire. Nevertheless, it was popular with its crews and proved a formidable opponent even when facing much more substantial and theoretically “better” tanks.
By the time production of the Hetzer had stopped in May 1945, over 2,800 of them had been finished. It fulfilled its role as Nazi Germany’s primary tank destroyer until the end of the war and served with distinction on both the Western and Eastern Fronts. It is one of the most iconic tank destroyers in history, and one of my personal favourites.
Now that you know a bit more about the Hetzer, please keep an eye out for PART 2: Building Tamiya’s 35285 1/35 Jagdpanzer 38(t) Hetzer – Mittlere Produktion (Mid-Production) Kit.