Germany’s Nashorn Tank Destroyer with an 88 mm

During the Second World War Germany modified many smaller hulls to carry disproportionately large guns. The Nashorn tank destroyer was an example of this, as it carried the formidable PaK 43 8.8 cm anti-tank gun on a hull made from Panzer III and Panzer IV parts.

This terrific gun made the vehicle capable of killing every Allied tank fielded during the war from long range.

But balancing out its firepower was its armor, which… um, wasn’t great.

Find out about this well known, but rarely discussed German tank destroyer.

Contents

Background

The Nashorn was part of Germany’s Panzerjäger concept. This idea was an attempt to solve problems Germany quickly ran into at the start of the Second World War.

When the war began, Germany’s counter to enemy armor was with anti-tank (AT) battalions attached to divisions of the German Army. These guns were pulled by wheeled and half-tracked vehicles, and the smaller types could be maneuvered by their crews.

Their towed nature was a serious handicap, as the vehicles pulling them lacked the mobility of tanks and were vulnerable to damage. Also, the process of transport to firing took up valuable time, and the gun crews were exposed to projectiles and shrapnel.

PaK 40 anti-tank gun.
Guns like the PaK 40 were difficult to transport and manoeuvre. Image by Balcer CC BY 2.5.

To solve these problems, Germany looked into mounting them on tracked chassis instead. They were to be open topped to give the crew the maximum situational awareness, and surrounded by thin armor to protect the crew against light fire and shrapnel while keeping the weight to a minimum.

To get these vehicles to the battlefield as fast and cheap as possible, the guns were often mounted on the modified chassis of existing and captured tanks. This type was named Panzerjäger, meaning “tank-hunter”.

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The first of these vehicles, the Panzerjäger I, arrived in 1940. It had a Czech 4.7 cm KPÚV vz. 38 gun mounted on a Panzer I chassis. This weapon was significantly larger than the literal machine guns the Panzer I tank carried.

Panzerjäger I tank destroyer.
The first Panzerjäger, the Panzerjäger I.

Later came the Marders, which mounted either the 7.5 cm PaK 40 anti-tank gun or modified 76.2 mm Soviet field guns. The chassis used included Panzer IIs, Panzer 38(t)s, and captured Lorraine 37L supply vehicles.

Towed guns were still used in large numbers, but the Panzerjägers proved valuable, with their ability to fire and relocate much quicker than towed units.

Developing the Nashorn

In mid-1942, Hitler requested an anti-tank version of the powerful 8.8 cm Flak 41. The Flak 41 was the “successor” to the better-known 8.8 cm gun, the Flak 36/37. The Flak 36 had been developed before the war, and a derivative, the KwK 36, was used in the Tiger I.

Compared to the Flak 36, the Flak 41 had a longer barrel and much larger ammunition cases that held more propellant. As a result, it could fire projectiles further at a higher velocity.

This gun would naturally serve well in the anti-tank role, so Krupp designed a ground-based version, known as the PaK 43/41, and mounted it on a carriage made from ones used on other large guns. In 1942 though there were no tank chassis immediately available to carry it. Work was underway on a vehicle built specifically for this, but it would not be ready until the opening months of 1943.

PaK 43/41 anti-tank gun.
The PaK 43/41’s carriage came from the 15 cm sFH 18, while the split legs came from the 10.5 cm le.F.H.18.

In July of 1942 Wa Pruef (the office in charge of the development of new tanks) discussed knocking together a simpler vehicle capable of carrying the PaK 43 on a much shorter timescale.

German manufacturer Alkett was given the contract to make this happen.

Alkett quickly got to work and drew up plans for a vehicle that used components from both the Panzer III and Panzer IV.

The hull was designed to have the same width as the Panzer III, which was wider than the Panzer IV. Because of this increased width, components such as the transmission and steering system had to be taken from the Panzer III.

Nashorn early production.
The earliest production Nashorn (known at this point as the Hornisse).

The rest of the automotive components, like the engine, wheels and tracks were taken from the Panzer IV. The engine was located in the center, as opposed to the rear in the Panzer III and IV, making more room for the gun and fighting compartment.

Armor was added around the upper portions of the hull to protect the crew, but the top was left open, remaining faithful to the general Panzerjäger concept.

The vehicle was initially designated the s.Sfl. auf Pz.Kpfw.III/IV Fahrgestell, Hornisse mit 8.8 cm PaK 43. Hornisse meant “Hornet”, and would serve as its informal name until September 1944. At this point, its name was officially changed to “Nashorn”, which means “Rhino”.

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Nashorn is what the vehicle is most commonly known as, so to avoid confusion, we will refer to it as the Nashorn from now on.

Aside from the PaK 43/41, the vehicle was also capable of carrying a 150 mm howitzer. This variant was the Hummel, which means “Bumblebee”.

Hummel self-propelled gun.
The Nashorn and Hummel (shown here) used the same hull.

Production of the Nashorn began in January 1943, at first only by Alkett, by a few months later also by Stahlindustrie.

At this point the Nashorn was still regarded as a stop-gap design until a more refined PaK 43-armed vehicle came along. However the Nashorn would evolve into an established type and remain in use throughout the war.

The Nashorn

As mentioned, the Nashorn was built from a mix and match of Panzer III and Panzer IV components.

The front end was its own design, and not taken from either of those vehicles. Its lower glacis plate joined directly to a sloped upper glacis, rather than the stepped front found on both of the Panzers. Protruding from the upper left of the upper glacis was a small angled structure. This housed the driver.

To his right was a radio operator.

The transmission was situated between them. Behind them was the engine, a Maybach HL 120 TRM V12 petrol engine that produced 300 hp. This was the same engine used in the Panzer IV, and as such was fitted with the same ancillaries.

Nashorn from above.
The Nashorn viewed from above and behind. Note the open top and thin armor thickness.

It was mounted centrally in the Nashorn to create room for the gun and crew at the rear, but its compartment provided limited cooling. Cooling vents were added on either side of the engine (these can be seen on the superstructure sides), which drew in air from the left and blew it out on the right, but the Maybach V12 still reportedly had a tendency to overheat.

Directly above the engine was the Nashorn’s centerpiece, its 8.8 cm PaK 43/41 anti-tank gun (in its Nashorn role, it was designated PaK 43/1). With a 40 percent larger propellant case over the Tiger I’s KwK 36, it was one of the best hole punchers of the entire war.

From a range of 1,000 meters, it could penetrate 190 mm of steel with armor-piercing composite rigid (APCR) ammunition. Even at 2,000 meters, it could still penetrate 150 mm.

In the Nashorn, the PaK 43/41 could be aimed 15 degrees left and right, and -5 to +20 vertically. 40 rounds of ammunition were carried; eight on each side of the gun, and 24 under the rear compartment, above the fuel tank.

Nashorn loading.
A Nashorn loader loads one of the large 8.8 cm rounds into the PaK 43/41’s breech.

In direct contrast to the power of the Nashorn’s gun was its superstructure, which is hard to call armored. It was opened topped, but horizontally surrounded the entirety of the gun and gun crew. Double doors at the rear provided access for the crew.

The front was sloped backwards in a similar fashion to the hull, but it was just 10 mm thick. The sides and rear were also 10 mm thick, and, of course, the top was open. The thickest parts were 30 mm, protecting the driver and lower hull front.

The sides of the lower hull were 20 mm thick. This armor was essentially paper thin, but it certainly provided more protection than a towed gun. Some shielding from the elements could be provided with a canvas cover over the top of the superstructure.

A captured Nashorn in Russia.
A captured Nashorn at the Soviet Kubinka proving grounds.

The lack of armor also had a silver lining: the vehicle was light. It weighed just 26 tons, around the same as the Panzer IV. This meant that Germany had a vehicle with one of the most potent anti-tank guns of the war, that weighed less than a Sherman.

It had a top speed of 24 mph.

No major modifications were added to the Nashorn over the course of its production, although there were a number of smaller changes were introduced, such as a new travel lock, gun sights and updates to the exhaust location.

Service

Nashorns were organised into Heavy Panzerjäger Battalions (Schwere Panzerjäger Abteilung), with each recieving 45 vehicles. Their first taste of combat came in the summer of 1943. Naturally, their guns provided excellent anti-armor capabilities, with one Abteilung of 45 Nashorns reporting 250 kills by the end of 1943. But the Nashorn’s thin armor meant they were extremely vulnerable.

Most Nashorns served on the Eastern Front, where there are many claims of huge kill counts for relatively few losses in return, and kills being scored at extreme ranges. In one report, a Nashorn is said to have knocked out a T-34 from over 4,000 meters away. They also saw action in Italy, while some were sent closer to home in an attempt to stop the Allies liberation of Europe.

As much of their actions occurred toward the end of the war, many units equipped with Nashorns suffered quite brutal losses.

Nashorn and its crew.
Nashorn crews with their tank destroyers on the Eastern Front, 1944.

In March 1945, an interesting engagement occurred between a Nashorn and a US T26E3, which was virtually brand new at the time. The Nashorn managed to knock the (then) heavy tank out.

As the tank had such a large disparity between its firepower and protection, they were a very complex vehicle to use effectively on a large scale. As so often happens in war, many Nashorns were forced into roles they were not designed for, and used to support troops at close ranges.

In a good position, with good intelligence, a well-camouflaged Nashorn was one of the most formidable tank destroyers of the war.

Aside from its combat record, crews encountered some significant reliability issues, particularly relating to the engine overheating and gun travel locks.

Nashorn that has been destroyed.
Nashorn knocked out in Italy. Note that the entire rear portion of the fighting compartment has been torn away.

When driving, the locks allowed enough movement for the gun to rattle out of alignment with the sights. Naturally, this affected accuracy. It is even reported that the stowage of ammunition near the exhaust resulted in some accuracy issues due to uneven ammunition temperature.

They lasted in service to the end of the war, although many crews were refit with Jagdpanther tank destroyers; a more well-rounded design that had the same gun but massively more armor. It did, however, weigh nearly twice as much.

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Fortunately there are still surviving Nashorns that you can see today – three in total. One is located in the US, another is at the Kubinka Tank Museum, and the last is in the Netherlands.