The LT vz. 38, the best Czechoslovakian inter-war tank, is more famous under another name, since it attained fame in another army. Indexed Pz.Kpfw.38(t) in the Wehrmacht, this tank became a symbol of Blitzkrieg, fighting in the advance guard of the German tank units. In the spring of 1940, tanks built in Prague smashed British and French vehicles who failed to come to Czechoslovakia's aid two years prior.
Into Production, Immediately!
German forces entered Czechoslovakia in the night between March 14th and 15th. Slovakia gained formal independence, and Czechia was included in the Bohemia and Moravia protectorate, controlled by the Third Reich. The policy of appeasement practiced by France and Great Britain allowed the Germans to gain control of Czechoslovakia's developed arms industry without firing a single shot. The CKD factory in Liben that began building LT vz. 38 tanks in March of 1939 was located in the territory now controlled by Germany.
Correspondence between CKD and the German Armament Department began in mid-April of 1939. A special commission was created to study the Czech tank industry. It was headed by the head of the 6th Section, Lieutenant Colonel Sebastian Fichtner and Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich Olbrich. They arrived at CKD on May 2nd. The commission was shown a wide spectrum of the factory's products, starting with export tanks and ending with tanks meant for Czechoslovakia's army. These included the light LT vz. 38 and medium ST vz. 39.
The medium tank did not impress the commission, but the LT vz. 38 was a whole different story. The demonstration at the factory's proving grounds left a strong impression on the German commission. The Wehrmacht had nothing like it at the time. With a mass of only one ton greater than the PzII Ausf. C, the Czech tank was superior to it in every respect. Its characteristics were much closer to that of the PzIII Ausf E, which was barely stumbling its way into production.
The degree to which these tanks impressed the Germans can be judged by the fact that the LT vz. 38 was immediately accepted into service as the Panzerkampfwagen L.T.M.38 (Leicthe Tank Muster 1938, light tank mod. 1938). A permanent division of the Department Department was established in Prague on May 15th.
Unlike the LT vz. 35, the production of which was not restarted, the Germans had special plans for the L.T.M.38. Contracts were signed with Skoda and CKD that effectively continued the contracts for the Czechoslovakian army. Naturally, Germany was paying for them.
One can confidently say that the L.T.M.38 was a very profitable acquisition for the Wehrmacht. At a cost only 25% greater than a PzII, the Germans received a vehicle of a higher class.
The first 12 tanks were built by CKD for the Germans by June of 1939. At the same time, CKD was fighting with the Czech military over money. On August 18th, the Ministry of Defense (MNO, Ministerstvo národní obrany) cancelled the contract and the factory returned the advance of 32,555,600 kroner, taking back a million of paid taxes. The Germans cared little for all this, and only the rate of production mattered. CKD received a quota of 25 L.T.M.38 per month. The shortage in June was made up for in the next month, when the factory delivered 39 tanks. The contract for 150 tanks was completed on November 26th, 1939.
The change in customer was accompanied by a change in index. From May to August of 1939, the tank was called tschechische Pz.Kpfw.III, (Czech Pz.Kpfw.III), which shows what tank the Germans were comparing CKD's product to. On October 16th, its name changed to LTM 38 Protektorat. This title didn't last long, and was replaced with Panzerkampfwagen 38(t) (tank, model 1938, Czech) on January 16th, 1940. That is the title that this tank went down in history with. Its gun was renamed to 3.7 cm K.w.K.38(t).
Complementing the PzIII
The first fully German contract for the tschechische Pz.Kpfw.III was signed on June 12th, 1939. In total, it called for 325 tanks. Such a large amount once more underlines how much the Germans liked the tank. By that point, CKD followed its product and changed its name to BMM (Böhmisch-Mährische Maschinenfabrik AG, Bohemian-Moravian Machinegbuilding Factory).The factory fell within the sphere of influence of Heinrich Richter-Brohm, who was in charge of machinebuilding in Prague. In 1942, he became the director of BMM.
The first 15 tanks from the second series were due in January of 1940, but only 10 tanks were delivered. Skoda was late with their guns again, delaying assembly. Tanks from the first series, renamed to Pz38(t) Ausf. A were mostly the same as the LT vz. 3. In July of 1939, some changes were introduced. The rail antenna was deleted and Notek lights were added to the front and rear. Before the batch was completed, based on experience from the tank units, a limiter for the turret machinegun was introduced that did not allow it to turn too far to the left and accidentally damage the cannon.
Correspondence also says that an array of smoke grenade launchers was added to the rear in July of 1939, the same as on German tanks. However, the grenade launchers are rarely seen on early production tanks, so there was clearly a difference between orders and reality in this case. Tanks with smoke grenade launchers were used by the 8th Tank Division, but even there not all tanks had them.
A rail was added to the left side of the turret platform towards the end of the first batch.
Another change, this time a major one, was the addition of a fourth crewman. Unlike the Czech tank, where the commander would move around and perform two duties, the Pz38(t) had a crew of four tankers, each of which did one thing. This was a very reasonable step.
The Germans also built commander's tanks. There were three types. The first, Sd.Kfz.266, did not look any different from a regular on. It was equipped with Fu 2 and Fu 5 radio sets and was used as the battalion HQ tank. The second type, Sd.Kfz.268, can be distinguished by the addition of a rail antenna above the engine deck. These tanks, used as regiment HQ tanks, were equipped with Fu 5 and Fu 8 radios. Finally, the third tank, the Sd.Kfz.267, was used to communicate with aircraft as a part of the radio company. It was equipped with Fu 5 and Fu 7 radios and can be distinguished by two radio antennas on the left side.
The first «German» modification was the Pz38(t) Ausf. B. These tanks had serial numbers 151-260 and production continued until May of 1940. This tank implemented the experience gained in the Polish campaign. For starters, the periscopic observation device in the turret roof received removable armour. In order to prevent the telescopic sight from being flooded, a cap was added to the top. The rubber rims of the tires were reinforced. The pickaxe and shovel were moved from the rear to the fenders. Starting with the Ausf. B version, Sd.Kfz.267 tanks began receiving dummy guns to increase the amount of space inside. Commander's tanks lost their front machineguns for the same reason, with the hole covered by an armoured plug.
The next version, Ausf. C, had numbers from 261 to 370. The first tanks of the series, built in May of 1940, did not change compared to the Ausf. B. Changes were introduced as a result of the campaign in France. It was clear that the 25 mm thick lower front armour makes for poor protection against low caliber artillery. There were also many cases of turrets being jammed by shells that hit the gap between the turret and turret ring. These issues were solved by thickening the lower front plate to 40 mm and covering the turret ring with a guard.
Similar metamorphoses occurred with the next version, the Ausf. D. Tanks with numbers 371-475 entered production in September of 1940. Initially, there were no changes from Ausf. C to Ausf. D, but they were gradually introduced. For starters, the massive «cup» of the antenna base was removed, replaced with a simpler design used on the StuG III and Sd.Kfz.268 commander's tanks. Another distinguishing mark was the appearance of lighter track links, introduced when production was already underway. Some tanks received mounts for spare track links on the upper front plate.
The last Pz38(t) Ausf. D were delivered in November of 1940. The contract was completed ahead of schedule. According to the initial plan, BMM would produce 25 tanks a month, but Prague sent out 30 tanks per month on average.
On July 25th, 1940, the 6th Section of the Armament Department signed a third contract with BMM, which would come into power on November 27th. This time, the tank was seriously reworked, since the French campaign proved that the tank needs significantly more protection. The recently improved lower front plate was not enough, and deeper modernization was required. The result was the Pz38(t) Ausf. E, the first of which was completed at BMM towards the end of November. The new batch was larger than the previous: 275 tanks with serial numbers 476-750 were built before May of 1941.
With this modification, the designers removed the «step» in the front plate of the turret platform, moving the driver's side forward. The thickness of the upper front plate was increased to 50 mm, made from two 25 mm plates. The observation devices became more resistant to bullets and shells. The lower front plate of the hull was also composed of two 25 mm plates. The front of the turret was improved in the same way, and the sided of the turret were increased to 30 mm. 15 mm applique armour was added to the turret platform. The turret ring guard was also changed.
All of these changes raised the mass of the tank from 9725 kg to 9850 kg. To compensate for the increased mass, the number of leaves in the front springs was increased to 15. There was another change that was made according to experience. Since the track tension adjustment and manual engine starter mechanisms were easily covered with mud, they were hidden behind caps.
As with previous modifications, the Pz38(t) slowly changed during production. In March, starting with vehicle number 624, is muffler was slightly elevated so that a smokescreen device protected by an armoured cover could be installed underneath. However, these devices were not installed on all tanks, and some mufflers remained in place. The position of the rear Notek light also changed,
The aforementioned modifications were only fully implemented on the next series of vehicles, the Ausf. F. Tanks from this modification entered production in May of 1941, and had serial numbers in the 751-1000 range. The smokescreen device was now stock, and the equipment loadout changed slightly. The tank kept changing. Close to the middle of the production run, the number of rivets on the engine access hatch was reduced. The front Notek light was moved to the upper front plate. Some tanks received holders for spare track links on the upper and lower front plates. The last tanks of this type were delivered in October of 1941.
The alphabetical order of Pz38(t) modifications was broken on July 18th, 1940. On that day, the Supreme Command of the Land Forces (OKH) decided to cancel the contract between BMM and Sweden for 90 TNHP-S. The cause of this was the need to fill the Wehrmacht with new tanks. The tanks produced according to this contract were given to the Germany army and indexed Pz38(t) Ausf. S. Their production began in May of 1941 and continued in parallel with production of the Ausf. F.
Tanks with serial numbers 1001-1090 had an intermediate design. Their front armour was reinforced, there were changes to the design that were present in the Ausf. F, but the radio operator/hull gunner observation device was still the old type. The sides of the turret platform and turret were not reinforced. Rivets on the hull and turret were also located differently. Since the side armour was not reinforced, the turret ring guard was the same as on the Pz38(t) Ausf. D. Production of these tanks ended in September of 1941.
Preparations for war with the USSR increased the rate of production. In 1941, the number of tanks built per month dropped below 50 only once, and 78 tanks left BMM per month at its peak. At the time, few German factories could handle such volumes. The need for the Pz38(t) was so great that contract 210-3951/41H was signed with BMM for 500 tanks of the 7th series, indexed Pz38(t) Ausf. G. Later, contract 210-3952/41H was signed for 500 tanks of the 8th series. They would have been indexed Pz38(t) Ausf. H.
The first Pz38(t) Ausf. G left BMM in October of 1941. The new tanks had some earlier changes standardized. Starting with tank #1220, the spare track link holders became standard equipment, even though they were installed on some earlier tanks already. A more effective air filter and other elements seen on some Pz38(t) Ausf. F were now mandatory. The bigger changes were the introduction of a monolithic front plate and a reduction in the number of rivets.
The Pz38(t) Ausf. G was the most perfect version of the tank. At the start of production, it could be considered the best light tank in the world. However, its modernization reserve ran out. It was impossible to install a more powerful gun, like it was done with the PzIII. In late 1941, the Pz38(t) had to fight medium T-34s and heavy KVs instead of other light tanks. In addition, the USSR began receiving Matilda and Valentine tanks, which the 3.7cm KwK 38(t) was powerless against. The same was true for all German light tanks of the era. In the spring of 1942, the time of the Pz38(t) was up.
In March of 1942, after production of only 29 tanks, production of the Pz38(t) was cancelled. The final tank carried the serial number 1359. BMM received the task of designing and building SPGs on the Pz38(t) chassis. However, that was not the last Pz38(t) built by BMM.
In January of 1942, work on producing a tropical version of the Pz38(t) Ausf. G began. Compared to a regular tank, it had a more powerful cooling system and different air filter. Changes were made to the design in order to reduce the amount of sand that got inside the tank. Racks for extra fuel canisters were also tested. This program checked the possibility of carrying the tank in the Me.323 Giant transport plane. These additional vehicles received numbers 1480-1526. 21 tanks were built in April and 26 more in May. However, they never made it to Africa.
316 Ausf. G tanks were built, and, in total, the Germans received 1414 tanks from the Pz38(t) family.
Two and a Half Year at the Front Line
The first tschechische Pz.Kpfw.III were sent to the 67th Tank Regiment of the 3rd Light Division in the summer of 1939. These tanks, like other vehicles from light divisions, were transported on trucks in order to increase the mobility of the tank units. In total, the unit received 57 tanks of this type, 55 regular and 2 command.
As of September 1st, 1939, the Wehrmacht had 78 L.T.M.38 tanks, 57 in the army, and 5 in reservs. The 3rd Light Division was the only unit in September of 1939 that used these tanks in combat. It quickly became clear that they were very good tanks. Only 7 tanks were lost completely during the campaign, even though the 3rd Light Division actively fought as a part of the 15th Army Corps. Ironically, the attack of the 15th Army Corps went past Těšín, the same city that Poland took a slice of when Czechoslovakia was split up.
In October of 1939, the 3rd Light Division was reformed into the 8th Tank Division.
The next unit to receive the Pz38(t) was the former 2nd Light Division, transformed into the 7th Tank Division. In February of 1940, Erwin Rommel took command of it. Around this time, the tanks issued to the military were modified. The changes in the 8th Tank Division were minimal: a fire extinguisher was added to the right fender. The 7th Tank Division had a much different approach. The first serious change was the addition of fuel canister racks on the engine deck. Even before the invasion of France, some tanks were equipped with boxes on the fenders to store tools and the crew's belongings.
A plan was made to send 15 Pz38(t)s to Norway, but it never solidified. The situation in France was different. As of May 10th, the German army had 238 Pz38(t) tanks. The importance of these tanks is highlighted by the fact that the army only had 381 PzIII tanks, even though these tanks were supposed to be the main tank of the army. During the invasion of France, the Pz38(t) tanks were often used as medium tanks instead of light tanks. They performed well in this role. Only 54 tanks were lost by the end of the campaign, less than a quarter. During the fighting on the Western Front, the 7th Tank Division received 20 tanks as reinforcements, and the 8th Tank Division received 16 tanks.
In France, Czech tanks had the same issues as German ones. Their armour was designed to withstand heavy machineguns and low caliber autocannons. Meanwhile, the French met them with anti-tank guns. The Pz38(t) experienced two problems that the German tanks did not. One was that the high hardness armour was rather brittle. The other was that the armour was connected with rivets. When bullets, shrapnel, or shells hit the tank, the rivets could be torn off and turned into a projectile on the inside of the tank.
At the same time, the Czech tank showed its advantages in combat. Aside from good visibility and mobility, the tank could show off its powerful armament. The 3.7 cm KwK 38(t) had higher penetration than the 3.7 cm KwK 36 used on the PzIII. This let the Pz38(t) destroy French light and medium tanks at greater distances than the PzIII could. This advantage was often decisive.
The success of the Pz38(t) in France was a signal to continue equipping newly formed units with these tanks. The first of these was the 12th Tank Division, formed on October 5th, 1940, from the 2nd Motorized Division. Like tankers from the 7th TD, the 12th TD installed a fuel canister rack on the engine deck and toolboxes on the fenders. The most distinctive modification was the addition of smoke grenade launchers, similar to those used on the PzII(F) from the 101st Flamethrower Battalion. Most new equipment was added to the 12th TD's tanks closed to June of 1941, much like with other tank units.
The next unit to receive BMM's tanks was the 19th Tank Division, formed on November 1st, 1940 from the 19th Infantry Division. The tankers of the 19th TD were also dissatisfied with the stock location of the tools, which led to serious conversions. The stock toolbox was moved to the right of the right fender, and large boxes for personal belongings were added to the fenders. Some crews made something like «Rommel boxes» on the rear of the turret, others installed a much smaller container.
The 19th Infantry Division was used to make another tank unit, the 20th TD. It also pulled personnel from the 115th Motorized Regiment of the 33rd Infantry Division. Like their colleagues, the equipment of this tank was seriously redistributed in various ways. The most characteristic detail was the addition of two symmetrical toolboxes with perforated fronts. Another feature was the addition of fuel canister racks on the engine deck. Some crews used the stock toolbox for this purpose.
As of June 22nd, 1941, the German tank divisions contained 772 Pz38(t), 35 of them command tanks. As with the French campaign, they played a key part in Operation Barbarossa. However, the results of combat were different this time around. 33 tanks of this type were lost irreparably in June, but July set a record of 183 tanks lost. 796 tanks in total were lost by the end of the year, more than were available in total at the start of the invasion of the USSR. These were the largest losses out of any German tank type in 1941.
The cause of this was not that the tank was bad. The 10 ton tank could not perform the role of a medium tank forever. BMM's creation was betrayed by its brittle armour. The Soviet 45 mm cannon could penetrate its front from 200 meters, so even light T-26 and BT tanks remained dangerous foes. Even if the plate was not penetrated, it would crack as a result of a hit.
There were also many cases of destruction of Pz38(t) tanks from regimental and divisional artillery. The brittle armour simply caved in. The appearance of T-34 and KV-1 tanks on the battlefield was also an unpleasant surprise, as the light tanks could do almost nothing to them.
The last unit to receive Pz38(t) tanks was the 22nd Tank Division, equipped with 77 tanks of this type. The 22nd TD was the only unit to widely use the Ausf. G. Its tanks also had differences in equipment. Aside from racks for fuel canisters, boxes for personal possessions were added to the left side. The 22nd TD was actively used during fighting for the Crimea and Rostov-on-the-Don. The light Czech tanks were used by this division until its dissolution in March of 1943. The last tanks of this type to be used in battle were 13 vehicles used by the 8th and 20th Tank Divisions on June 30th, 1943.
Translated by Peter Samsonov. Read more interesting tank articles on his blog Tank Archives.
- Czechoslovak Tanks 1930–1945 Photo-Album Part 2, Vladimir Francev, Karel Trojanek, Capricorn Publications, 2014
- Praga LT vz.38, V. Francev, C. Kliment, MBI, 1997;
- Panzer Tracts 18 Panzerkampfwagen 38(t) Ausf.A to G und S, Thomas L. Jentz, Hilary Louis Doyle, 2007, ISBN 0–9771643–6–5;
- Author's photo archive