A Look At Nazi Germany’s Love Of Heavy Tank Destroyers & Assault Guns

The tank destroyer is not really a tank, and an armored assault gun too is not really a tank. And that is the confusing part to some students of history.

That said, the war planners and strategists and tactical maneuver geniuses saw a distinct advantage to putting as many heavy guns on a battlefield as possible. When World War II broke out, pretty much only the Wehrmacht had curated a new kind of war where fast moving tanks would be the spearhead to open holes in enemy lines so infantry can storm through.

For most everyone else on the Allies side, tank doctrine still saw tanks as primarily infantry assault support vehicles. Tanks at first were primarily thinly armored cars with heavy machine guns, a mobile pillbox of sorts. They would knock out other machine gun nests, redoubts, field, guns and of course infantry.

They worked wonderfully. There were almost no situations ever when it was pleasant to find oneself at the business end of a mounted heavy machine gun on a tank.

Nevertheless, the fast moving Panzer Mark IIIs and the Panzer Mark IVs had not only machine guns; they had 50mm cannons on them. So planners decided that German medium tanks should be confronted with not only tanks that could destroy them, but with machines designed specifically to hunt other tanks.
Axis powers had produced Main Battle Tanks that could support infantry, yet with guns big enough to knock out other tanks.

Now it was our turn.

And so the arms race in tanks was on.

Still, the Germans were efficient, and they began putting hard hitting anti-tank guns on older chassis built for obsolete tanks. Now you had a Tank Lite. All the killing power of a typical tank, but one-third the armor protection. The Germans had thousands of 76mm high-velocity guns and shells that could do damage to or eliminate most every tank in the opposing skirmish line.

If you had a tank battalion with 20 tanks, and you had ten extra 76mm guns, with ranges of up to 1200 meters, you could use them to secure your own flanks from tanks racing in for a counter-attack from behind or the side of your forces. You could use these small tanks to sit in camouflage and ambush enemy tanks. You could make sure more shells slammed into enemy tanks than fell on your yours.

You see, the armored assault gun could dish it out, but it did not really have the armor to take it.

Most American, British, and Russian tanks killed on the battlefield in a firefight were most likely killed by an armored assault gun. Stugs took out more Sherman’s than did Tiger tanks. And German Nashorns, Elefants, and Hetzers took out more T-34s than Panther tanks.
Americans and British and Russians wasted no time creating their own long range tank snipers, and ambush guns: the SU 122mm, the M18 Hellcat, the 90 mm M36 Gun Motor Carriage, and so forth.

That said, here are the big German tank destroyers.

Marder II. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

The Marder

The Marder Series were some of the German armored assault guns used to support infantry advances and secure the flanks of armored assemblies. It was a citadel style, or open turret design. Soldiers really did not like the fact that gun operators were exposed to shrapnel and small arms fire. Some models sported the lethal high-velocity 76mm PaK gun or the 75mm Pak 40. This diesel powered mobile gun was placed on the reliable Czechoslovak LT-38 chassis.

Exactly 1736 Marder IIIs were built. They saw action on the Eastern front and in Tunisia. Its 50mm armored glacis plating was insufficient to withstand a round even from a short barreled 75mm fired from a Sherman or anything larger.

The Marder III also suffered from a high profile, and it required a crew of 4 men.

Stug III on the Eastern Front. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

The Sturmgeschütz Series.

Germany made more Sturmgeschütz anti-tank guns than they made Panther tanks IV. Over 11,000 of these mobile guns were manufactured. Only 8,000 Panthers made it off the assembly lines. The Stug for short was a series of mobile assault guns that saw much action in World War II. The Stug III was built on the Panzer III Chassis. The Stug IV was built on the Panzer IV chassis.

This odd ‘tank’ did not have a traversable turret. The advantage was that it took less time to build these and get them to the battlefield. The disadvantage was that the tank had to be steered left or right to aim. That meant the engine had to be on, which might give away an ambush position. So the Stug, while extremely effective, was a defensive armored vehicle used as support and ambush.

The Stug had a gas engine and a low profile and its gun could knock out anything the Allies could field. In fact, German armored divisions could block holes in their lines with Stugs. This vehicle spat death all over the killing fields of Kursk and Moscow with its 7.5 cm StuK 40 L/48 gun and high-velocity armor piercing shell.

About 1100 Sturmgeschütz IVs were built, utilizing sloped armor on the Panzer IV chassis. It was so heavy that after the first run all production was halted.

The Hetzer


Hetzer Jagdpanzer 38 D

The Hetzer was a mobile 75mm high-velocity anti-tank gun mounted on a widened Czechoslovak light tank chassis and 7.92mm machine gun operated from inside the vehicle. Some 2800 of these were built, mostly by Skoda in 1944 and 1945.

It had a crew of four and a gas engine. It suffered from insufficiently thick side armor, limited ammunition storage, little or no gun traverse, and an odd configuration that made operating the vehicle difficult.

That said, on the Eastern front there is a report of a company of Hetzer mobile guns destroying 20 Russian tanks without a single loss. The Hetzer was not designed to trade with main battle tanks but as an ambush vehicle or backup for armored divisions it fared well.

The Nashorn

The PAK 43 88mm gun was the tank killer of all time. It was Rommel who discovered in the deserts of North Africa that the anti-aircraft 88mm guns could be turned horizontally and used quite effectively against armor. Mounted on the Mark VI chassis, the Nashorn was first given the name Hornisse (Hornet).

But Hitler named it the Nashorn (Rhinoceros) and off it went into battle. Its 88mm gun was feared by all and used effectively in the East against heavy Soviet Josef Stalin tanks and super heavy KV-1 and KV-2 tanks.

It has enough armor to be used as a tank but was mostly employed as an ambush gun. Its high profile made it hard to hide, but the Nahsorn’s 88mm gun was capable of penetrating 190 mm of armor at half a mile.
Four or five men could operate it effectively. Just 473 were made.

It saw action from North Africa to Kursk and was famous for its long distant kills.


Ferdinand, Later the Elefant

The Elefant Panzerjager

It began as the Ferdinand named after Mr. Porsche, the famous car designer. The Germans built 91 of these tank destroyers. It featured the famous 88mm PaK gun and a 7.62mm MG-34 machine gun. This particular 88mm gun was designed to fire a longer shell, at a longer range and it was a far more powerful round.

It’s 200 mm of armor made it rather tough on the battlefield, and thus, it could go head to head with most Allied tanks. It was installed on the Panzer Mark VI Tiger One chassis.

It weighed in at 65 tons and had a profile almost ten feet tall. It was an easy target for anti-tank guns in Italy and at the battle of Kursk. Russian infantry that could get close enough actually destroyed many of these guns by swarming over them with charges and incendiaries. The first versions lacked a machine gun for self-defense.

One Ferdinand of the 653 Heavy Tank Destroyer Battalion traded with Soviets at Kursk and counted for 320 armored vehicle hits for the loss of just over a dozen Ferdinands.

Like the Jagdtiger and the Nashorn, these guns were very heavy and plagued with mechanical problems. Most that were destroyed were scuttled by their own crews.

Abandoned Jagdtiger

The Jagdtiger

This monster German tank destroyer featured a 128mm gun that could stop any armored vehicle on the battlefield and penetrate almost any bunker. The Germans made 88 of them and deployed them as fast as possible. All of them had to be transported by rail because they were 128,000 ponds and few bridges could hold them.

On the battlefield, they performed quite well. It’s 250 mm of front glacis armor was almost impenetrable. Once, three Jagdtigers took out a dozen US armored vehicles in just a few minutes from a hidden hull down position in 1945 fighting in the Ruhr pocket. Shermans destroyed a few Jagdtigers when they exposed their thinly armored sides.

Maintaining these Juggernauts was a nightmare. The gun needed to be recalibrated after driving for a long time. A crew member had to leave the vehicle and unlock the barrel ring. The huge 128 mm gun had to be loaded in two pieces, the shell, and the firing charge. This slowed the rate of fire down.

The gun was casemate style so traversing the barrel had to be done by steering. Most Jagdtigers were destroyed by their own crews when they ran out of gas, or ammo. Many just broke down and couldn’t be repaired in time. The cabin filled with smoke after the gun was fired which was too much to bear and had to be vented. This gave the Jagdtiger’s position away.

It was vulnerable to Allied air cover and by the time the 50 or so that were manufactured reached the battlefield, the Allied owned the skies.

The Jagdtigers destroyed about 50 US armored vehicles mostly Shermans, many from ranges up to 4000 meters.

Sturmtiger. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

The Sturmtiger

It was a weapon that could demolish sniper hiding structures with a single shot. It had a telescopic sight and was armed with a 380 mm breech loading rocket launcher and mortar. It could fire projectiles ¾ of a mile away.

The 275-pound shaped-charge “raketen hohladungsgranate 4582” was used against fortifications and could penetrate 8 feet of reinforced concrete. Each shot could bring down a building. It only carried 14 of these long rockets or mortars, though.

The launching charge was so powerful exhaust gasses had to be vented through special ducts. Each firing was accompanied by a tremendous flash. Each firing meant the vehicle had to be moved since the flash revealed its position.

The ammunition was so deadly and technical that the best estimates for production capacity was 300 rounds a month.

The Sturmtiger was a German assault gun built on the Panzer Mark VI Tiger I chassis. The idea was to create an infantry assault support vehicle specifically to destroy heavily defended pillboxes and buildings.

It not only had a 380 mm rocket launcher, but it also had a 100mm grenade launcher and a 7.92mm machine gun. The 380 mm rocket launcher was adapted from the Kriegsmarine naval depth charge launcher.

The Sturmtiger weighed 65 tons and featured fairly heavy 150 mm thick and sloped armor. It was designed for close-in urban fighting around infantry battalions, and it required five crew members to operate.
The Sturmtiger was used in the Warsaw uprising and the defense of Remagen.

Just 19 of them were built.

GIs examine an abandoned Sturmtiger.
The Brummbar, or “Grouch” Also known as the Sturmpanzer

The Sturmpanzer

The Sturmpanzer IV or Brummbår was also an assault gun designed to knock buildings down. It featured a 150mm or 6-inch gun and carried 38 of these massive rounds. It was not designed as an anti-tank gun. It was an anti-real estate round.

The Germans put this gigantic field gun on the Panzer IV chassis and apparently that was not big enough for the StuH L/12 gun, and the first model suffered terrible breakdowns. The Germans then put a lighter 150mm gun on the chassis, and that tank was used to put down the Warsaw Uprising.

They were able to manufacture 306 of them before the war ended. It housed five crew, a commander, a gunner, a driver and two loaders. It also featured a 7.62mm machine gun on the armored citadel. Bad ventilation affected the crews, and they often had to leave the firing cabin after a few shells.

The Sturmpanzer was used at Operation Citadel, the massive two-pronged assault on the Kursk Salient. It was seen at Normandy and in the Warsaw uprising. It was manufactured from 1943 to 1945.
Historians discuss the low number of German tanks manufactured because they were sufficiently complex to warrant months to build each one. Yet the Germans were experimenting with anti-tank guns and old chassis promiscuously and creatively.

The era of the mobile anti-tank gun as a sort of ersatz tank is over. Today’s manually operated anti-tank missiles make the Panzerfaust look moribund, and new anti-tank weapons make the individual soldier as deadly as a tank.

By Daniel Russ 

Daniel Russ

Daniel Russ is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE