As in the later years of the Second World War, the Luftwaffe (Eng. German Air Force) began losing control over the sky and the German ground forces were subjected to increased Allied ground attack raids. Panzer divisions were especially affected by the lack of air fighter cover as they were always at the center of the most intense fighting. While the Germans already had copious amounts of half-tracked SPAAGs of different calibers and weights, they had a significant flaw of being themselves vulnerable to the planes they were meant to hunt. A tank-based anti-aircraft vehicle, a Flakpanzer (Eng. Anti-aircraft tank), could solve this problem, as it would have the armor to resist most aircraft armament. By 1943, the Flakpanzer IV was developed. Due to their rather slow development, the Germans were forced to introduce a temporary solution. This would lead to the creation of the Flakpanzer 38(t) in November 1943.
Search for an Anti-Aircraft Tank
In the early stages of the Second World War, the responsibility for covering the ground forces from enemy air attacks was solely in the hands of the Luftwaffe. This did not mean that the panzer divisions and other ground forces were left without the means to respond to such threats. The Germans employed a series of anti-aircraft weapons, from standard machine guns provided with anti-aircraft mounts to more dedicated weapons, including the 2 cm, 3.7 cm, and 8.8 cm anti-aircraft guns. These were mostly towed weapons quite well suited to slow infantry formations.
Panzer divisions were units whose greatest combat potential was combined firepower and excellent mobility. Once the enemy line was pierced, they would rush into the enemy’s rear, causing great havoc and preventing them from forming an organized retreat. Towed anti-aircraft guns did not work well in this concept, so a weapon system with better speed was more desirable. The Germans employed a series of half-tracks for this purpose, such as the 2 cm Sd.Kfz.10/4 and the 2 cm Flakvierling 38 Sd.Kfz.7/1 armed vehicles.
Half-tracks armed with anti-aircraft guns proved vital in providing the panzer divisions with protection from enemy aircraft attacks, but they themselves were far from perfect. Probably their greatest drawback was the lack of protection. Whilst some would receive armored cabins, this was not enough.
Developing a mobile self-propelled anti-aircraft vehicle based on a tank chassis was deemed to be more effective. One of the first attempts was to mount a 2 cm Flak 38 on a modified Panzer I chassis. This vehicle could be considered more of a field modification than a properly designed vehicle.
In 1942, several different anti-aircraft tanks were proposed. As these were mainly to be built using chassis that were not yet in production, such as the Panzer II Luchs and Leopard chassis, nothing came of them. In any case, the already overburdened German industry had enough problems keeping up with demand. As such, adding another chassis was deemed unnecessary.
The simpler solution was to use a Panzer IV chassis for this project. The Luftwaffe officials initiated this project in June 1943. Once again, Krupp was responsible for its realization. This would lead to the creation of the 2 cm Flakvierling auf Fahrgestell Panzer IV prototype. This was basically a Panzer IV with a modified superstructure with four large folding sides. As the armament was deemed insufficient, a stronger 3.7 cm anti-craft gun was to be installed instead.
The beginning of production of the new Flakpanzer IV armed with the 3.7 cm anti-aircraft gun would be delayed, and, as such, a temporary solution was needed. Other chassis were considered as substitutes, but, due to various reasons, these could not be adopted for the Flakpanzer project. For example, both the Tiger and Panther chassis were desperately needed in their original tank configuration. Panzer III chassis could have been reused for this proposal, but due to high demand for the StuG III, it also could not be used. Luckily for the Germans, they had the Panzer 38(t) in their inventory.
The TNH – LT vz.38 tanks as it was originally known, were developed and built by the Czechoslovak ČKD company (Českomoravská Kolben Daněk) in the second half of the 1930s. Production of the vz.38 began in late 1938 but, by the time of the German annexation of Czech territory, not a single tank was handed over to the Czech Army. Germany captured many brand new vz.38 tanks and, in May 1939, a delegation was sent to the ČKD factory to examine their operational potential. The Germans were so impressed with this tank that it was quickly introduced into Wehrmacht service under the name Panzer 38(t) (the ‘t’ stands for Tschechoslowakei, Czechoslovakia in German). The ČKD factory was completely taken over for the needs of the German Army under the new name BMM (Böhmisch-Mährische Maschinenfabrik).
The Panzer 38(t) was built in relatively large numbers, seeing combat action from the invasion of Poland to the end of the war, and was considered an effective tank for its class. But, from late 1941 onwards, it was obvious that it was becoming obsolete in the role of first-line combat tank. The Panzer 38(t) chassis, on the other hand, was mechanically reliable and was highly suitable for other purposes, a fact which the German exploited to the maximum by developing a series of auxiliary vehicles like the anti-tank or self-propelled artillery.
Given the availability and reliability of Panzer 38(t) chassis, the Inspektion der Panzertruppen 6 / In 6 (Eng. Armored Troops’ Inspection Office 6) issued an order to the BMM to begin developing an anti-aircraft vehicle in October 1943. Given the urgency of the project, the BMM engineers simply decided to resume the already produced Marder III Ausf.M chassis which was also used for self-propelled artillery armed with the 15 cm gun known as Grille. This helped to speed up the development time, and also made the whole production easier, as there was no major need for creating new tooling equipment. After inspection of this prototype by German military officials, an order was given for a production of 141 (or 162 depending on the sources) such vehicles as quickly as possible. This small manufacturing order, at odds with the high demands for such a vehicle, can be explained by the fact that the production of the more powerful Flakpanzer IV was expected to start in early 1944.
This vehicle was designated as Panzerkampfwagen 38 für 2 cm Flak 38 (Sd.Kfz.140) Ausf.L. Slight variation of this designation may be found in the sources. For example, authors V. Francev and C. K. Kliment (Československá obrněná vozidla 1918-1948) describe this vehicle as Flakpanzer 38(t) auf Selbstfahrlafette 38(t) Ausf.M. Today, it is generally referred to simply as Flakpanzer 38(t). This article will use this designation due to simplicity only.
Interestingly, it is also described by its supposed nickname ‘Gepard’. This is likely a post-war addition, as there is no evidence to support that the German used this nickname for the Flakpanzer 38(t).
Although the German Army wanted as many Flakpanzer as possible, only a limited number of Flakpanzer 38(t)s were actually completed. This is primarily due to the single 2 cm Flak 38 often being described as having weak combat performance by the second half of the war and the beginning of the production of the much better Flakpanzer IV vehicles. In total, some 141 Flakpanzer were built by BMM from November 1943 to February 1944 when production ended. The following production numbers are according to T. L. Jentz and H. L. Doyle in Panzer Tracts (No. 12-1 – Flakpanzerkampfwagen IV and other Flakpanzer projects).
|Flakpanzer 38(t) production|
Walter J. Spielberger (Gepard The History of German Anti-Aircraft tanks), mentions that a production order for 162 such vehicles was initially made. Ultimately, only 152 were completed and the remaining 10 chassis were reused for the self-propelled artillery Grille.
The new Flakpanzer 38(t) was built using the standardized Marder III Ausf.M version. It consisted of a Panzer 38(t) chassis that was heavily modified. The originally rear-positioned engine was moved to the center of the vehicle, creating the new rear-positioned fighting compartment. To the right front side, the fully enclosed driver compartment was located, and in front of it, the transmission unit was placed.
The glacis armor that protected the front positioned transmission was placed at a high angle. It retained the large hatch door which provided the crew with easier access to the brake and transmission assemblies (in case of emergency and repair). It was protected by an extended ‘U’ shaped splash ring. Usually, spare track links were added to the left side of the front plate, as a replacement for damaged tracks and as improvised (but limited) extra armor protection. The hull and the remaining parts of this vehicle body were constructed using armored plates riveted or to a smaller extent welded together.
The Suspension and Running Gear
The suspension of the Flakpanzer 38(t) was mostly unchanged in comparison to that of a normal Panzer 38(t). It consisted of four large road wheels with split rubber tires. The use of large-diameter wheels was meant to reduce wear on the rubber tires. These wheels were connected in pairs and were suspended using semi-elliptical leaf springs units. In addition, there was a front drive sprocket, rear idler, and two return rollers per side. The only visible difference was the reduction of the number of return rollers from four in total to only two (with one on each side).
The Engine and Transmission
The Flakpanzer 38(t) was powered by a Praga AC 6-cylinder water-cooled 150 hp@2,600 rpm engine. With a weight of around 9.8 tonnes, this vehicle could reach maximum speeds of 42 km/h and 20 km/h cross-country. The operational range was 185 km and 140 km cross-country. The fuel load of 220 liters was stored in two fuel tanks placed under the engine and protected by an armored plate. A large ventilation grill was placed on the right side of the engine compartment. In addition, a long exhaust pipe ran from the right side up to the rear of the vehicle.
The Flakpanzer 38(t) received a completely new superstructure. It could basically be divided into three sections with the driver’s compartment at the front, the enclosed engine compartment placed in the middle, and the fighting compartment in the rear.
While on a standard Panzer 38(t) the driver and the radio operators were positioned parallel to each other, on the Flakpanzer 38(t), the radio operator position was moved to the new rear fighting compartment. The driver remained alone in an especially built compartment located on the front right side of the vehicle’s bow. The driver entered and exited the vehicle through a top split hatch and had two observation ports in front and on the right side.
The engine compartment was located in the center of the vehicle. It was mainly protected using simple flat armor plates. On top of this compartment, two larger hatches were placed for the crew to access the engine itself. Interestingly, two square-shaped metal beams were placed on top of the engine compartment. Their purpose is unspecified in the sources.
Lastly, the fighting compartment was located at the rear of the vehicle, and housed the main weapon, which was enclosed with eight shield plates. In order to accommodate the new gun platform, the compartment was greatly extended over the vehicle’s rear fenders. As it was open-topped, it allowed the crew members to have a better view of the environment and search the sky for enemy aircraft. The upper part of each of these eight armored shields could be folded down. This was necessary in case the crew had to engage ground targets or low-level attack aircraft. Enemy air targets that were high in the sky could be engaged with the folding sides fully raised. When these shield plates were folded down, the only protection for the crew was the gun shield itself. The whole installation was far from perfect as the crew would need some time to fold down these shields when engaging targets at a lower height, time that could be vital for the vehicle and the crew’s survival. This was probably the main reason why on vehicles that were used by frontline troops the armor plates were often folded down. Given the small Panzer 38(t)’s chassis, a fully protected and rotating turret could not be installed. Inside the fighting compartment, various necessary tools and equipment were stored (mainly ammunition, spare barrels, the crew’s personal belongings, radio equipment, etc.).
The Flakpanzer 38(t)’s main armament consisted of a 2 cm Flak 38 anti-aircraft cannon. This was a weapon intended to replace the older 2 cm Flak 30, which it never actually did. It was designed by Mauser Werke, incorporating many elements of the Flak 30 with some internal changes, such as the addition of a new bolt mechanism and return spring. It was designed to shoot down low-flying aircraft, but it was also found to be very effective when used against unarmored ground targets. The 2 cm Flak 38 was also used extensively as a mobile-mounted weapon on several German vehicles, such as half-tracks (Sd.Kfz.10/4), trucks, and even armored trains.
Unlike other vehicles that were equipped with this gun, the installation of the 2 cm Flak 38 inside the Flakpanzer 38(t)’s fighting compartment required some modifications. The original Flak 38 three-legged mount was removed and the gun was placed on a hexagonal-shaped metal base inside the fighting compartment.
While the gun could be traversed 360° with the armor plates raised up, its elevation would be limited in this case. To use the gun effectively, the upper fighting compartment plates had to be lowered down. When lowered, the elevation of this gun was -10° to +90°. The maximum effective range was 2 km against air targets and 1.6 km against ground targets. The maximum rate of fire was between 420 and 480, but the practical rate of fire was usually between 180 to 220 rounds. The ammunition load consisted of around 1,040 rounds. It usually included 720 high-explosive and 320 armor-piercing rounds. In reality, this number may be different depending on the combat need or availability of ammunition. Author Walter J. Spielberger (Gepard, The History of German Anti-Aircraft Tanks) mentions that the ammunition load consisted of 540 high-explosive and the same amount of armor-piercing rounds. To avoid the spent cartridges flying around the fighting compartment, the original net basket was retained. The ammunition was usually stored under the gun mount and the sides of the fighting compartment. Besides the crew’s personal weapons, mostly pistols and MP 40, no secondary weapon was provided for self-defense.
The crews were frontally protected by the gun’s own shield. The gunner also had another smaller gun shield in front. In addition, a head protective shield was placed for the gunner (just above the seat). Some vehicles, for unknown reasons, did not have either the gun or the gunner’s shields.
The Armor Protection
Sources such as T. L. Jentz and H. L. Doyle (Panzer Tracts No. 12-1 – Flakpanzerkampfwagen IV and other Flakpanzer projects development and production from 1942 to 1945) give us the following information about this vehicle’s armor thickness. The front glacis was 10 mm thick at a 65° angle and the lower hull front was 20 mm at a 15° angle. The top hull armor was 8 mm thick flat armor and the driver’s compartment was protected by all-around 20 mm of armor placed at a 20° angle. The side armor was 15 mm thick, the rear was 10 mm at a 55° angle, and the bottom was 8 mm. The superstructure armor consisted of 10 mm thick plates placed at different angles. The front plates were angled at 20°, side 25°, upper and lower 17°, while the rear plates were placed at 25°.
Other authors, such as D. Nešić (Naoružanje Drugog Svetsko Rata-Nemačka) provide completely different armor thickness figures. The front hull armor was 25 mm thick, sides 15 to 19 mm, top 10 mm, rear 12 mm, and the driver’s compartment 25 mm thick. The front and side armor of the superstructure was 25 mm and the rear 15 mm thick. Author W. Oswald (Kraftfahrzeuge und Panzer) lists the armor thickness as 10 to 50 mm.
Being an open-topped vehicle and with low armor thickness, crew protection was on a very low level. Camouflage and a well-selected field position were essential for survival. Another consequence of being an open-topped vehicle was thatthe crew was also exposed to weather conditions. A canvas cover could be placed over the vehicle but it limited the crew’s view of the surroundings.
Despite being a rather small vehicle, the Flakpanzer 38(t) had a fairly large crew of four. This included the driver, who was positioned in the hull of the vehicle. The remaining crew was placed inside the small fighting compartment to the rear of the vehicle. It consisted of the commander/gunner, loader, and radio operator. Sources on the topic disagree, as some mentioned that the crew actually consisted of five crew members. Author Walter J. Spielberger (Gepard The History of German Anti-Aircraft tanks) mentions that this vehicle had a crew of five: driver, commander/gunner, two loaders, and a radio operator There are even pictures that offered potential proof of this. The reasons why the number of crew is different in the sources or in the old photographs is not clear. A possible explanation is that due to shortages of manpower the Germans had in 1944, out of necessity, some vehicles were operated by a smaller crew. Another possibility is that some units may have decided to add another crew member to act as a additional plane spotter or to fulfill similar roles.
Organization and Unit Distribution
The Flakpanzer 38(t)s were grouped into Panzer Flak-Zügen (Eng. anti-aircraft tank platoons). Each of these platoons consisted of 12 vehicles. These were mainly allocated to Wehrmacht (Eng. Army) and some to SS Panzer Divisions. This included the 2nd, 21st, and 26th and Lehr Panzer Divisions, 90th and 29th Panzer GrenadierDivision, followed by the 9th, 10th, and 12th SS Panzer Division, and lastly Hermann Goering Panzer Division.
In May 1944, the Flakpanzer 38(t)s of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Division were given to the 1st and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions. Finally, in mid-September 1944, Flakpanzer 38(t)s were allocated to the 17th SS PanzerGrenadier Division. Interestingly, these were originally intended for the 10th SS Panzer Division but for unspecified reasons were allocated to the previously mentioned unit.
The majority of produced Flakpanzer 38(t)s would see service on the Western Front in 1944 and 1945. Some 84 were present when the Allies invaded France in June 1944. With the overwhelming Allied air superiority, the available Flakpanzer 38(t) vehicles realistically could do little to effectively protect the German units. Despite this, the Flakpanzer 38(t)s managed to bring down numerous Allied aircraft. For example, the crews of one such vehicle from the 12th SS Panzer Division alone managed to shoot down 5 enemy aircraft. This division’s main focus was the defense of Caen. By 9th July, when the Allies finally broke the German defenses, the 12th SS Panzer Division was left with 25 Panthers, 19 Panzer IVs, and a few Flaks. This means that by this point they had likely lost all of its Flakpanzer 38(t) vehicles.
In December 1944, the Flakpanzer 38(t) participated in the last, large German offensive in the West, known as Operation Northwind. The 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division had six Flakpanzer 38(t) and four Flakpanzer IV Wirbelwind in its inventory by the end of December 1944, most were fully operational by that point.
Some 48 Flakpanzer 38(t)s were sent to Italy as part of the 26th Panzer Divisions, 29th and 90th PanzerGrenadier Division, and by the Panzer Division Hermann Goering. Very few Flakpanzer 38(t)s may have seen combat on the Eastern Front, in units such as the 2nd Panzer Division, which in December 1944 had only 3 Flakpanzer 38(t).
The effectiveness of the 2 cm gun in combat conditions is often criticized to be weak by the standards of 1944. Not all support this notion, as some sources, such as the T. L. Jentz and H. L. Doyle (Panzer Tracts No.12 Flak selbstfahrlafetten and Flakpanzer) mention a report made by Major Petri dated from 30th January 1945, in which he states: “…In my opinion, the problem of whether to use 2 cm or 3.7 cm anti-aircraft guns has been decided completely in favor of the 2 cm. The Jabo [German term used to describe Allied attack aircraft] is the Mistvieh. He attacks at low heights. In every case always at an elevation where the 2 cm is effective. Most Jabo kills are credited to the 2 cm. When bombers attack in saturation bombing raids, they are always at heights that can’t be reached by the 3.7 cm.”
Today, at least two badly damaged Flakpanzer 38(t)s can be seen at the André Becker Collection in Belgium and in the Battle of Normandy Museum, Bayeux, France.
The Flakpanzer 38(t) was a mixed bag solution. On the one hand, it provided better-armored protection (but still relatively lightly protected) and mobility than other German anti-aircraft vehicles that were in service at the time. On the other hand, the weak armament, combined with the fact that the armor plate protecting this gun had to be lowered significantly to operate, reduced its combat effectiveness. By the standards of 1944 and 1945, the firepower of the single 2 cm gun was deemed too weak, but despite it, it was still effective against soft ground targets and a number of enemy aircraft were often shot down. The Panzer 38(t)’s chassis was mechanically reliable and was deemed adequate for this modification, as this vehicle was considered a stopgap solution and not many were produced. While it did not have any major impact on the war, it gave the Germans crew something to fight back against the ever-increasing Allied air supremacy.
|Size (L-W-H):||4.61 x 2.13 x 1.177 m|
|Crew||4 to 5 (driver, commander/gunner, loader, and radio operator)|
|Engine||Praga AC 6-cylinder water-cooled 150 hp @ 2,600 rpm|
|Speed||42 km/h / 20 km/h (cross-country)|
|Range||185 km / 140 km/h (cross-country)|
|Armament||2 cm Flak 38|
|Armor||8 to 20 mm|
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