Hetzer Comments from Armin Sohns

Armin Sohns commanded a Hetzer on the Western Front in the final battles of WW2, and these comments are taken from his article in the Sept./1971 issue of AFV NEWS.


I do not intend to repeat the already well known data of the Hetzer, but rather describe some of the improvements made during production, and point out some of the shortcomings of its interior layout as seen by a crew member. I should mention that I was trained on, and commanded Hetzers, and found out some of the facts described here the hard way.
The vehicle had several designations, originally called "Leichtes Sturmgeschütz 38(t)", then "Panzerjäger 38 für 7.5cm Pak 39 L/48" and finally "Jagdpanzer 38 Hetzer". The first production vehicles of early 1944 had a rather narrow "Saukopf" mantlet, flattened on the sides, which did not provide adequate protection for the inner splash shield when the gun was traversed. It did not take long to find this out, and by mid-1944 an improved wider mantlet was in production which worked well, and was used to the end of the war.
During production the suspension components were simplified, the number of bolts on the roadwheels were reduced by half, and the perforations on the idler wheel were reduced from 12 holes to 6 holes, and finally to only 4 holes. The original horizontal mounting of the muffler was also changed to an almost vertical one, because it provided a trap for explosive charges thrown onto the engine compartment.
Personally, I do not consider the Hetzer to be one of the more advanced tank destroyers of WW2. It was an improvement over the self-propelled AT guns the Infantry Divisions had to rely on, but that's all. The gun itself was excellent, but its location in the vehicle was a major drawback. The main fault lies in the positioning of the crew members, forced by the off-center mounting of the armament, and was by far the worst of any of the numerous German vehicles of the limited traverse category. This type of vehicle depends on the closest cooperation between commander, gunner and driver to locate targets and aim the vehicle and gun at them. This teamwork was especially important in the Hetzer, with the smallest amount of traverse of any type in service, 16 degrees. It is disasterous to rip this team apart, but it was done here, and the commander was stuck in a box cut out from the engine compartment and separated from the rest of his crew by the gun in front of his belly. Due to his position so far back, a large area in front of the vehicle was outside his vision. Observation was very difficult and smoke from the gun directly in front of him made it worse.
I also want to point out his very limited provision of periscopes, as compared to other TD models, which didn't help matters either. Due to the limited traverse to the left of only 5 degrees, the driver was forced to position the vehicle at an angle, to give the gunner a chance to follow targets moving to the left, and this started to expose the thinner 20mm side armor, the weakest of any German tank destroyer. Any traverse to the right, which was 11 degrees, pushed the loader away from his main supply of ammunition underneath the gun and on the right wall opposite from him. The Pak 39 was designed for right side operation, but since the loader was seated to the left of the gun, he had to load over the solid deflector screen instead of the low-mounted bar on the right, designed for this purpose. All controls were mounted on the right side of the breech ring, operating lever, safety switch and extractor release, and he had to lean over the gunner and breech to reach them.
Opening the breechblock for the first round, unloading the gun, not to mention the removal of jammed cartridge cases, required almost acrobatic skills. His movements were somewhat restricted by the controls for the MG mount sticking down from the ceiling. The idea of the remote control MG was very good, but since it was drum-fed from 50-round drums, reloading had to be frequent, and this was something else!! The hatches could only be opened when the MG was turned sideways, and the loader's movements to attach a new drum (and much more to handle jammed cases), were restricted by the side shields of the mount. On the positive side this shield did provide a bit of cover for him. By the way, all 3 crew members on the left had to bail out through this hatch, the commander was privileged in this respect.
A hard look at a top view of this vehicle and some common sense will make all this clear. I am sorry if I disappoint some of our Hetzer fans, but it is one thing to look at a well-shaped vehicle on museum grounds or in photos, than it is to fight in one. The shortcomings of the Hetzer were of course recognized by German Ordnance, and already in 1944 plans were made for improved vehicles on the widened 38(d) chassis, as well as a study by Krupp of a vehicle with a rearmounted roomy fighting compartment and a 7.5cm L/70 gun as shown here. However, this improved version never got beyond the drawing board designation of No.Bz. 3471 Panzerjäger 38T mit 7.5cm L/70 (KwK42), and the close of WW2 put an end to its further development.

A rendering of the proposed improved version of Panzerjäger 38 by Chris Tedin.

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© 26 June, 1999

Richard Gruetzner