The Germans were early entrants into the field of SP artillery, albeit in a rather half-hearted way. In March 1940 Alkett converted 38 PzKw IB chassis to the artillery role by removing the turret and building up a huge superstructure into which was set the 15cm slG infantry gun. The vehicle could be used in the indirect fire mode, but it was more commonly used as a direct-fire weapon in spite of its thin armor. They were used in the French campaign of 1940 and the concept proved sound, but the actual vehicles were fir from ideal.
The replacement used the PzKw II made wider and longer, with an additional roadwheel each side. This permitted the gun to be mounted much lower than in the original version. Although much superior to the earlier PzKw I-based vehicle, only 12 were built in 1941 and all were dispatched to North Africa, where they served until early 1943. In the meantime, interest had turned to better -protected vehicles that could serve right up in the front lines. The original concept of a SP infantry gun thus evolved into a heavy assault gun, and those vehicles are covered separately.
The development of SP artillery had been envisioned as early as 1934, but by 1935 attention had turned to a tank with a 105mm howitzer. Thus, it was not until early 1940 that approval was given for development of a true SP artillery piece. In January 1942 Krupp showed a prototype of a 105mm howitzer on the PzKw IV chassis and in July a contract for 200 was placed. This was to be an interim design, as the Automotive Design Office really wanted a weapon with 360° traverse and capable of dismounting tor use separate from the carrier vehicle. This resulted in the “Heuschrecke 10” vehicle with a light howitzer in a dismountable turret. In the meantime, however, it had become clear that the interim design was both heavy and expensive and Rheinmetall and Alkett were called upon to. mount the 105mm howitzer on the chassis of the PzKw II light tank. Using experience previously acquired in mounting the 15cm infantry gun and the 75mm Pak on this vehicle, they demonstrated the vehicle in July 1942. The contract for the PzKw IV SP vehicle was thereupon cancelled. In fact, the Heuschrecke 10 never entered series production, and the Rheinmetall/AJkett SdKfz 124 “Wespe” soldiered on to the end of the war.
The companion heavier piece to the Wespe was the 15cm sFH18/l howitzer on a hybrid PzKw III/1V chassis. Approval tor development was given to Alkett in July 1942 and a prototype shown in October, along with the very similar Hornisse SP anti-tank gun. The first production vehicle came off the line in January 1943 as the SdKfz 165 “Hummel”. For the most part they served in mixed battalions, one per panzer division, with two 6-gun batteries of Wespe and one of Hummel.
In the meantime the availability of captured chassis in France led to the conversion of significant numbers into SP artillery for the use of local forces. Most of the chassis were too small to handle anything larger than the 105mm howitzer and were actually marginal for that role. In particular, a reluctance to undertake extensive modifications left the engine at the rear, which limited the maximum elevation of the piece, and hence the range. The one exception was the Lorraine tractor, which had a large, open bed at the rear. The usefulness of the Lorraine with the 15cm howitzer was such that it was the only one of the French conversions to be shipped out of theater, with one battalion going to the 21st Panzer Division in North Africa.
If the second half of 1942 proved anything about the Eastern Front at the operational level, it was that the panzers were more than ever not merely the army’s core, but its hope. The Reich’s manpower resources continued to erode, making it impossible to keep the infantry divisions at anything like authorized strength. A new generation of personal weapons was coming off the drawing boards. Light machine guns, assault rifles, and rocket launchers would enhance the infantry’s firepower and fighting power alike beginning in 1943. But at unit level the new hardware would at best be able to balance the lost men. In a wider context the Reich’s factories could not produce enough of it to replace existing weapons in anything but fits and starts. What had begun in the 1930s as a choice to enable forced-draft rearmament had become a necessity in the context of forced-draft war. The panzers must be the focal point of the army’s post-Stalingrad reconstruction.
Seven panzer and three motorized divisions—four if the 90th Light Africa Division were counted—had gone under in Stalingrad or surrendered in Tunisia. More than half the rest had been battered back to near-cadre status at Rzhev, on the south Russian steppes, or from Leningrad to points south. Reorganizing and reequipping them took most of a year. Even more than their predecessors, the revised tables of organization and equipment tended, in practice, to be approximations depending on what was available. The tank regiment was returned to its authorized two-battalion strength, each with four companies of 22 tanks—Panzer IVs in theory; in practice a mix of IIIs and IVs, depending on what was available. The antitank battalion was up-gunned to three batteries of open-topped, self-propelled Marders carrying the 75mm PAK 40, the definitive German antitank gun in the second half of the war, which inflicted much of the damage credited to the 88. The artillery regiment converted one of its battalions to self-propelled, full- tracked mounts: twelve 105mm howitzers and six 150mms. Both equipments were excellent. The lighter Wespe (Wasp), based on the still-useful Panzer II chassis, was a rough counterpart of the US M7 Priest. The 150mm Hummel (Bumblebee), with a chassis purpose-built from Panzer III and IV components, outmatched anything any other army’s self-propelled divisional artillery would see until well into the Cold War.
This vehicle mounted the 105mm light field howitzer on a slightly lengthened PzKw II chassis. The engine was moved forward to the center of the vehicle to create space at the back for the fighting compartment, the sides of which were extended upward. The howitzer could traverse 17° each side of center and elevate from -5° to +42°, and this relatively high elevation for an SP mount gave a range of 10,500 meters. The vehicle carried 32 rounds of ammunition. A light machine gun was carried, but not mounted, on the vehicle for close-in defense. Some vehicles were completed without guns as ammunition carriers to carry 90 rounds. These could be converted to gun vehicles in the field with little trouble if required. The vehicles were effective and popular in all theaters except Italy, where they proved underpowered for operations in mountains.
The standard SP heavy field piece mounted the 15cm sFH 18/1 on a hybrid PzKw III/IV chassis, essentially a PzKw IV lengthened slightly with the engine moved forward to the center. The piece had a traverse of 15° each side of center, while the open bed at the rear allowed an elevation of+42° to yield close to the piece’s theoretical maximum range. A light MG was carried, but not mounted, for local defense. The driver and radio operator sat at the front and the gun crew of four at the rear. The Hummel carried only 18 rounds tor the howitzer, and a version without the gun but with extra ammunition racks was also built as an ammo carrier to provide two such vehicles to each six-gun battery. The lack of a muzzle brake (eliminated alter the prototype) prevented the weapon from firing with uppermost (eighth) charge.
This was the most common, and successful, of the conversions of French chassis into SP artillery. Because of the open rear compartment the Lorraine was a good basis for conversions and 94 were used for the 15cm howitzer, 12 for the 10.5cm howitzer, and 170 for 7.5cm Pak, all using a similar configuration. In fact, the only real alterations were the addition of the superstructure sides, the gun, and a recoil spade at the rear (the spade not being present on the anti-tank vehicle). Because of the light weight of the tractor the old 15cm sFH 13 was chosen in lieu of the more powerful sFH 18. It was mounted with 5° of traverse each side and 0 to +40° elevation, but only eight rounds of ammunition could be carried. As mounted in the vehicle, the howitzer had a maximum range of 8,600 meters.
There were two main types of self-propelled guns in the German Army during WW2. One was fitted with an anti-tank gun and the other with an artillery howitzer, like the 10.5cm leFH 18 (Sf.) auf Geschutzwagen 39H(f) self-propelled gun. The vehicle fitted with the artillery howitzer was called a ‘Geschuetzwagen’, which is literally translated as a ‘gun vehicle’. The letters ‘SF’ stand for ‘Selbstfahrlafette’ – self-propelled carriage. The letter (f) indicates that the chassis was of French origin.
There was enough room for the crew to be transported towards the battlefield whilst protected from small arms fire and shell shrapnel. The vehicle had good mobility and could follow the infantry almost anywhere. The gun was quicker to get ready for action and fire on targets than towed artillery guns. They were cheaper and faster to build than a new vehicle. They used the chassis of an obsolete captured French tank and an existing artillery howitzer. Putting the 10.5cm leFH 18 howitzer on top of the Hotchkiss tank chassis was a more efficient use of manpower from the traditional form of German artillery battery transportation. Even in WW2, horse power was still widely used although tracked vehicles were also used when available.
In November 1942, Krupp received order to design the vehicle (waffentrager) using Tiger II components, which was to be part of the “Grille” series. It was to be able to mount 170mm Kanone 72 L/50 gun which could deliver a 68 kilogram projectile up to 25500 meters in range or a 210 mm “Mörser” (a howitzer actually) with a maximum range of 16500 meters firing a 111 kg shell. Grille 17 had its armament mounted on the rail platform inside the hull allowing it to be dismounted at any time and used independent of the actual tank itself. The maximum elevation of the main gun was 65º and its azimuth just 5º at right or left. In order to achieve the 360º fully rotation the gun and its turntable had to be placed in the ground which was folded and carried in the back of the vehicle.