Despite the popular belief, Nazi Germany didn’t blitzkrieg through Europe in early stages of the World War 2 thanks to their superior tanks. Instead, it was their doctrine that brought them their victories. In other words, it’s not the size that matters, it’s how you use it.
French Char B1 tanks were superior to German Pz III and Pz IV tanks in both armor and firepower. A single B1 tank destroyed thirteen German panzers in several minutes at the Battle of Stonne, before being forced to retreat. Germans guns were ineffective against it. It was Rommel who devised a tactic to use famous 88 mm anti-air gun as an anti-tank weapon, thus providing a weapon that could defeat the thick front armor of French tanks. Soviet KV 1 and KV 2 tanks and British Matilda tanks were an enigma to German panzers until they applied Rommel’s wonder weapon.
All this led German high command to believe that they needed a dedicated anti-tank gun that was mobile enough to keep up with panzers. Thus, Panzerjägers (tank hunters) and Jagdpanzers (hunting tanks) were born. The trouble is that German industry was already stretched thin and could barely keep pace with losses, let alone produce enough of tank destroyers to make a difference. Germans had to find another way, and they did. The first dedicated tank hunter was Panzerjäger I. It used the chassis of, by then obsolete, Panzer I tank with its turret removed. Instead, it was armed with captured Czech 47 mm anti-tank gun. About 200 of these were made and they saw action in France, North Afrika, and Russia. The design was moderately successful, but the penetrating power of the Czech gun was limited.
The next version of a tank destroyer was Marder I. Again, instead of making it from the scratch, German engineers used the captured French Tracteur Blindé 37L tractors and armored personnel carriers and slapped a 75 mm PaK-40 anti-tank gun on its chassis. The result was a very top-heavy vehicle, with cumbersome maneuverability, but powerful enough to defeat even the heaviest enemy tanks.
There were several Marder versions. Marder II used Panzer II chassis, while Marder III was equipped with captured Soviet 76 mm anti-tank gun. Unfortunately for Germans, there wasn’t enough of old and captured equipment to create enough of these tank hunters. They had to come up with another solution.
In 1944, Germans had at their disposal a wide variety of tank destroyers, including Jagdpanter, based on Pz V Panther chassis and armed with a powerful 88 mm gun. Still, they needed more of these machines, and more importantly, they needed it cheaper, as their industry was well behind on their orders. Once again they resorted to tried and tested method of converting captured equipment into battle-worthy machines. After the fall of Czechoslovakia in 1938, Germans got their hands on several hundred of Pz 38(t) tanks. They also captured Škoda factory that produced them. Germans had enough of them to equip two full panzer divisions in time for the invasion of France.
The tanks were obsolete by 1944, but their chassis could still be used. Marder III used some of these chassis, but its high silhouette made it vulnerable. The new design, named Jagdpanzer 38(t), had a much lower profile. Combined with small size, it was far easier to conceal and ambush the enemy. It’s powerful 60 mm front armor allowed it to resist most of the Soviet anti-tank guns. It was armed with 75mm L48 PaK39 anti-tank gun, which was very reliable and able to penetrate even monstrous IS Soviet tanks. One of the German after battle reports states: “In a short period, one company destroyed 20 tanks without a single loss. A task group destroyed 57 tanks, of which two were JS 122s at a range of 800 meters.”
As the design was cobbled together from various parts not intended to be used together, there were problems. The gun position had to be offset to the right, in order to accommodate the hull width. This resulted in a poor gun traverse, allowing it only five degrees left and 11 degrees right movement. If more was needed, the driver had to turn the entire vehicle. The crew compartment was cramped, and it was very uncomfortable to drive in it for any period of time.
Despite all those shortcomings, Hetzer was a highly successful design. Operated in teams, they could destroy everything soviets threw at them. The powerful main gun, using tungsten-cored PzGr-40 shells, could deliver a killing blow at ranges well above 1,000 meters. Its small size meant that it was Hetzer who fired the first shot, which was essential for winning a tank engagement.
The fact that more than 2,800 of them were built, more than any other tank destroyer in German service, is a testimony to the successfulness of the design. It was even used after the war in Swiss Army.