In March 1943, Col. Gen. Heinz Guderian demanded a light tank destroyer to replace all existing „interim solutions” (e.g. Marders) and towed anti-tank artillery (e.g. 75mm PaK 40 guns). The result of this was the Panzerjägerprogram. The new vehicle resulting from it was to equip tank destroyer units of infantry divisions. The Panzerkampfwagen 38(t) chassis was chosen as a base for this new Panzerjäger.
It was first known as “Leichtes Sturmgeschutz 38(t)”, then “Jagdpanzer 38(t) für 7.5cm Pak 39 L/48”, and finally “Jagdpanzer 38 Hetzer”. It appears that the name Hetzer was not an official name but used by troops and then used in post-war publications. On December 17, 1943, designs were ready and, on January 24, 1944, a wooden mock-up was finished. In March 1944, the first three prototypes were produced by BMM (Boehmish-Mährische Maschinenfabrik) and it was decided to start production. From March to April of 1944, prototypes were extensively tested, while preparations for production were made at BMM (Praga/CKD—Ceskomoravska Kolben Danek) in Prague and then at Skoda Works at Pilsen.
On April 20, 1944, the Hetzer was shown to Hitler and other leaders of the Third Reich at Arys (Orzysz) in East Prussia. At this time, the new Panzerjäger was designated Jagdpanzer 38(t) Hetzer (Baiter or Troublemaker), Sd.Kfz.138/2, but it was also known simply as Panzerjäger 38(t). Production started, in April 1944, at BMM and, in September, at Skoda. 2,584 were produced by May 1945 in three series (chassis numbers 321001-323000 by BMM, 323001-unknown by Skoda, and 325001-unknown). In April 1944, BMM produced the first 20 Hetzers and monthly production increased greatly thereafter. Eventually, plants in Prague, Pilsen, Königgrätz, Boehm, and Breslau made the Hetzer. Late-war production plans called for 1,000 Hetzers per month, starting in mid-1945.
The Hetzer was built on the Panzerkampfwagen 38(t)’s widened chassis with modified suspension (larger road-wheels from the Praga TNH n.A prototype reconnaissance tank) and an upgraded engine. The new engine was the 160hp Praga AC/2 6-cylinder engine controlled by a Praga-Wilson gearbox (5 forward and 1 reverse gears). The chassis was modified to accommodate a larger gun and thicker armor than was used with the regular PzKpfw 38(t). The Hetzer carried 320 liters (84 US gallons) of fuel in two tanks, which gave it maximum range of 177 km (110 miles). Its combat weight was 16 metric tons (17.6 short tons) and it could travel at a maximum speed of some 42km/h (26 mph). The Hetzer’s tracks had 96 links per side, were 350mm wide and had a surface contact of 2.72m (8.8 feet).
The Hetzer had a low, well-sloped hull of welded construction. The hull had a 60mm-thick frontal plate, 8mm roof armor and 20mm side and rear armor. All armored plates sloped inward. In addition, the Hetzer was fitted with small 5mm-thick side skirts (Schürzen) to protect the hull and upper track run from shaped charges, as were used in the American bazooka, for instance. It was armed with a 75mm PaK 39 L/48 gun with limited traverse (5 degrees to the left and 11 degrees to the right) and elevation (-6 degrees to +10 degrees). It was equipped with a Sfl.Z.F.1a gun sight. The main armament was protected by a 60mm cast gun mantlet, which was dubbed “Saukopf”, or “pig’s head” because of its shape. The heavy gun and thick frontal plate overloaded the vehicle at the front, but this problem was later corrected by strengthening the suspension.
The main gun had an effective range of over 1,000 meters (1,083 yards). For example, the Hetzer could knock out a Soviet T-34/85 at a distance of 700 m (760 yards) with a hit on the frontal armor, while the T-34/85 could kill a Hetzer at a distance of 400 m (433 yards) with a frontal hit. In comparison with a JS-2, the Hetzer could be knocked out at a distance of 1,000m, while the Hetzer had to be within 100m (108 yards) to kill a JS-2. The limited traverse of the gun forced Hetzer crews to change vehicle position constantly to shift to other targets, thus exposing the thin 20mm side armor to enemy fire. An interesting feature was the remotely controlled MG34/42 mounted on the roof, with 360 degrees rotation for local defense. The machine gun had a 50-round drum magazine and could be aimed and fired from inside the vehicle. However, the loader was then exposed to enemy fire for reloading. The late StuG III also used this machine gun system.
The Hetzer’s interior was cramped for the four-man crew (commander, gunner, loader and driver), because of its sloped armor and low silhouette. The interior was divided into two compartments—engine and fighting/crew compartment. The gunner and loader were located on the left side of the gun, and the driver sat in front of them, while the commander was in the rear, on the right side of the gun. The crew communicated using an intercom system and a 10-watt FuG5 radio set. Hetzers completed as command vehicles—Befehlswagen 38(t) Hetzer—had an additional 30-watt FuG8 radio set.
The commander could observe the battlefield using periscopic binoculars through an open hatch in the roof, but, overall, his field of view was very limited, especially to the left front, and the driver often had to determine how to position the vehicle to shoot. The low silhouette made it difficult to spot and, at the same time, often gave the Hetzer an advantage of attacking first. The 75 mm anti-tank gun was mounted 380 mm right of center. This created difficulties for the crew, especially the gunner and loader, since the weapon itself was designed to be loaded from the right, resulting in a low rate of fire. The small interior space allowed stowage of only 40-41 rounds of 75 mm ammunition, along with 600 rounds of 7.92mm ammunition for the MG34. Storage space was later increased slightly to 45 rounds of 75 mm ammunition.
The Hetzer was constantly modified and detailed during production, and there are numerous differences among early-, mid– and late-production vehicles. Most of the changes simplified production and reflected shortages of materials. These included: modified commander’s and access hatches, a lighter gun mantlet (30mm thick), modified road wheels, various types of idlers, strengthened suspension and a different muffler.
The main training center for Hetzer crews was the Panzerjägerschule at Milovice, Czechoslovakia. Hetzers were used to equip tank destroyer units (Panzerjäger Abteilungen/Panzerjäger Kompanien) of infantry divisions, panzergrenadier divisions and independent units. The majority were issued to Wehrmacht infantry divisions (starting in July of 1944) with the 15th and 76th Infantry Divisions and Volksgrenadier divisions. Hetzers were also issued as replacements to other units for Marders and other Jagdpanzers.
In the last months of the war, Hetzers were often issued as replacements for lost battle tanks, a role for which they were not intended (e.g. Panzer Divisions Kurmark and Feldherrnhalle). Some were issued to improvised units that were created in the last days of the war from various military personnel. The Hetzer was also one of the last German armored fighting vehicles that remained in production and was issued to the troops until the last days of the war.
Hetzers equipped all types of formations of the Wehrmacht, Waffen-SS (10 divisions), Luftwaffe (1 division), Kriegsmarine (2 divisions), RAD (3 divisions) and ROA (Russian Liberation Army) and saw service on all fronts. Large number of Hetzers took part in the German offensive in the Ardennes in late 1944.
Hetzers first entered service with the 731st and 743rd Heeres Panzerjäger Abteilungen in May/June of 1944. Each unit received 45 Hetzers and saw service on the Eastern Front. Following this, Hetzers were issued to three more independent units—the 741st (1944), 561st (1945) and 744th Heeres Panzerjäger Abteilungen (1945). The Waffen-SS received some 200 Hetzers, which were mainly issued to Panzergrenadier units. The first unit so equipped was the 8th SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer in September 1944.
In December 1944, 20 Hetzers were converted into flamethrowers for the upcoming Ardennes Offensive. A flame projector, the 14mm Flammenwerfer 41, was fitted in the standard barrel to camouflage its real role as a flamethrower. All were attached to the 352nd and 353rd Panzer-Flamm-Kompanien assigned to Army Group G during the Ardennes Offensive.
In early 1945, a few Hetzers were rearmed with the Panther’s 75mm KwK 42 L/70 to increase firepower. After tests, this idea was rejected since the long-barreled gun made the nose extremely heavy and the entire vehicle less mobile and more difficult to operate.
Designers planned to use the Hetzer chassis and hull for several other purposes, such as a flakpanzer, but none of them reached production stage. In November 1944, the Jagdpanzer 38(t) was chosen as a base for the 150mm sIG33/2 howitzer. From December 1944 to the end of the war, thirty carriers were produced by BMM (Praga/CKD). They were designated as 15cm Schweres Infanteriegeschuetz 33/2 (Sf) auf Jagdpanzer 38(t) Hetzer. From October 1944, 106 Bergepanzer 38(t) Hetzer were produced, including with 64 Hetzers converted to this light recovery purpose.
To simplify production, development started, in December 1943 on the Jagdpanzer 38(t) Hetzer Starr, armed with a recoilless 75mm PaK 39/1 L/48 in a rigid mount. An assault gun variant, armed with the 105mm StuH 42/2 L/28 gun, was also intended as part of the E-Series, to be based on the PzKpfw 38(d) chassis. Eventually, the Jagdpanzer 38(d), based on the PzKpfw 38(d) and armed with either a 75mm PaK 39 L/48 or a 75mm PzJagK 42 L/70, was to replace the Hetzer. The end of the war terminated the entire 38(d) project, also part of the E-Series. In November 1944, it was also decided to utilize the Hetzer chassis as a base for a Flakpanzer 38(t) Hetzer (Kleiner Kugelblitz) mounted with the turret (possibly with different armament) designed for the Flakpanzer IV Kugelblitz, but it never materialized due to the war situation. Krupp made an interesting proposal to mount a PzKpfw IV turret on the Hetzer, but it did not work. Krupp also proposed to mount on the Hetzer a modified PzKpfw IV turret armed with the 80mm PAW (Panzerabwehrwerfer) 600, a smoothbore anti-tank gun. This, too, was dropped for lack of time and materials.
In the summer of 1944, Germany planned to deliver 30 Hetzers to the Romanian Army but, instead, they were sent to the Wehrmacht. From October/November of 1944 to January/February of 1945, Germany exported 75 to 100 Hetzers to Hungary, the only other official user of Hetzers during the war. A few captured Hetzers were briefly used by Polish, American, Soviet and Bulgarian units. Probably the most notable Hetzer (from the 743rd Panzerjaeger Abteilung) was that captured by the Polish Home Army during the Warsaw Uprising on August 2, 1944. It was repaired and nicknamed „Chwat” (Gallant/Brave Fellow) and was used against its previous owners.
After May 1945, production of the Hetzer, now designated ST (Stihac Tanku)-I, continued at Skoda and Praga Works in Czechoslovakia until the early 1960s. These facilities also repaired abandoned and damaged vehicles. The Czechoslovakian Army was equipped with some 249 ST-1 vehicles in 1949 and used them until the mid/late 1950s. The Swedish army probably used Hetzers after the war until the early 1960s. The Swiss army purchased some 158 Hetzers between 1946 and 1952. These remained in service, designated as G-13, until the early 1970s. The G-13 was armed with a 75mm StuK 40 gun as planned by German designers during the war. The Swiss made various modifications to the G-13 to modernize it (e.g. some were fitted with 6-cylinder, 150hp diesel engines and were designated G-13D). Also, Israel was interested in purchasing 65 ST-Is, but, because of their high price (twice that of a Sherman), the transaction was abandoned. A small numbers of Hetzers remained in use by Warsaw Pact armies into the 1950s.
The Jagdpanzer 38(t) Hetzer was cheap, fast, low and hard-hitting. It is considered to be one of the most successful tank destroyers of World War II. It was not popular with crews, for the cramped space and poor external vision made it difficult to use. It proved to be a dangerous opponent on the defensive, however, and it was one of the best German tank-hunters of the late war period. The Hetzer’s design is still considered to be a base for some modern tank destroyers, most notably the Swedish Stridsvagn 103 (S-Tank).
Today, Hetzer and its variants can be seen on display in many locations. These include: a Hetzer at Axvall, Sweden; a G-13 modified to Hetzer standards at Panzermuseum Munster, Germany; an unarmed Hetzer and a post-war ST-1 at Lesany, Czech Republic; a Hetzer at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, England; a Hetzer in the Museum of the Polish Army in Warsaw, Poland; a Hetzer NIIBT at Kubinka, Russia; a G-13 modified to Hetzer standards at Bastogne Historical Center, Belgium; a Hetzer at Bovington Tank Museum, England; a Hetzer at Worthington Park Museum, Canada; a G-13 at the National Museum of Military History in Diekirch, Luxembourg; a Hetzer and a G-13 at the Swiss Army Panzermuseum in Thun, Switzerland; a G-13 at the Auto & Technik Museum in Sinsheim, Germany; a G-13 converted to Hetzer standards at the Royal Army Museum in Brussels, Belgium; a G-13 modified to Hetzer standards at the Texas Military Forces Museum, USA; and a Hetzer at US Army Ordnance Museum, Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland, USA.