The Jagdpanzer 38(t) (Sd.Kfz. 138/2), after World War II known as Hetzer ("foxhound"), was a German tank destroyer of the Second World War based on a modified pre-war Czechoslovakian Panzer 38(t) chassis.
The name "Hetzer" was at the time not commonly used for this vehicle. It was the designation for a related prototype, the E-10. The Škoda factory for a very short period confused the two names in its documentation and the very first unit equipped with the vehicle thus for a few weeks applied the incorrect name until matters were cleared. However, there exists a memorandum from Heinz Guderian to Hitler incorrectly claiming that an unofficial name, Hetzer, had spontaneously been coined by the troops. Post-war historians basing themselves on this statement made the name popular in their works. It was never the official name like the other animal names were.
It was better armored than the earlier Panzerjäger Marder and Nashorn with a sloped armour front plate of sloped back at 60 degrees from the vertical (equivalent in protection to about ), carried a reasonably powerful gun, was mechanically reliable and small and easily concealed. It was also cheap to build. Its main failings were the cramped working condition of the crew and the gun mounting, which had a more limited traverse to the left.
The Jagdpanzer 38(t) succeeded the Marder III (based on the same chassis) in production from April 1944; about 2584 were built until the end of the war. Its purpose was to equip the Panzerjägerabteilungen (tank destroyer battalions) of the infantry divisions, giving them some limited mobile anti-armour capability. After the war Czechoslovakia continued to build the type and exported 158 vehicles to Switzerland. Most vehicles in today's collections are of Swiss origin.
Also, by special order of Adolf Hitler in November 1944, a number of Jagdpanzer 38(t)s were refurbished straight from the factory with a Keobe flamethrower and accompanying equipment instead of the normal gun. The flame projector was encased in a metal shield reminiscent of that of a gun barrel, and easily prone to damage. Less than 50 of these vehicles, designated Flammpanzer 38 were completed before the end of the war, but they were used operationally against Allied forces on the Western Front.
Further variants were a Hetzer carrying the sIG33/2 Howitzer, of which 30 were produced before the end of the war, and the Bergepanzer 38(t)Hetzer, a light recovery vehicle of which 106 were produced. Plans were made to produce other variants, including an assault gun version of the Hetzer carrying a main cannon, and an anti-aircraft variant mounted with a flak turret. The war ended before these proposed models were put into production.
The Jagdpanzer 38(t) is one of the most common late-war German tank destroyers. It was, crucially, available in numbers that made it significant, and was generally mechanically reliable. Also, its small size made it a hard target, and was easy to conceal allowing it to lie in ambush for enemy tanks.
The Jagdpanzer 38(t)'s weaknesses were its very limited gun traverse, poor internal ergonomics and poor visibility. The gun traverse was so limited the entire vehicle sometimes needed to be turned to track a fast-moving target. The gun was designed to be loaded from the right but was also placed on the far right of the vehicle, making operation difficult for the gunner and loader and leading to a lower rate of fire than would be ideal. The confines of the vehicle were also very cramped with four men squeezed into the small machine. The commander sat far back in the vehicle, with a flat roof to his front and without a cupola. Thus his visibility was limited when the vehicle was even slightly elevated in front, for example, in a classic hull-down position. Some versions attempted to alleviate the space problem by removing the recoil-absorbing mechanism for the gun, though at the cost of forcing the vehicle itself to absorb the recoil.
Like other late-war German SPGs, the Hetzer mounted a remote-control machine gun mount which could be fired from within the vehicle. However, to reload the crew needed to expose themselves to enemy fire.
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