In September 1939, Germany Army lacked any dedicated tank destroyer. First tank destroyer to enter service in 1940, was a lightly armed Panzerjager I, followed Stug III assault gun (not a dedicated tank destroyer, but used as one). Following the growing need for tank destroyers as the war with the Soviet Union progressed, Marder series of tank destroyers entered service as well as Stug III tank destroyer. Both Stug III and Marder series were armed with 75mm guns, which were adequate anti-tank weapons, but German designers wanted to utilize 88mm gun with its penetrating power and long range.
In the winter of 1941, German designers decided to utilize either Panzer III‘s or Panzer IV‘s chassis for anti-tank gun carrier. Since Panzer III and IV’s chassis was not suited to be a self-propelled mount, the idea of using them was rejected. Instead Alkett’s newly developed special chassis by Alkett – Geschutzwagen (gun carriage) III/IV was used. It combined components of both PzKpfw III (mainly Ausf J – engine, fuel pump, driving and steering mechanism) and PzKpfw IV (mainly Ausf F – suspension). The new chassis utilized many components readily available and made it easy for experience maintenance crews to repair vehicles as needed.
In February of 1942, Alkett designed new Panzerjager "Hornisse" (Hornet) armed with 88mm Pak 43/1 L/71 gun based on Geschutzwagen III/IV. The main gun was identical to the towed version of 88mm Pak 43/41 anti-tank gun, but adapted to be mounted in an armored fighting vehicle. The excellent gun had an maximum effective range of 4000 meters and was able to deal with any enemy tank on the battlefields of World War II.
In late 1942, Nashorn’s chassis and hull was used in the development of Hummel (Sd.Kfz.165). The engine was moved to the center and the hull was lengthened to allow adequate room and weight distribution for the long-barreled 88mm gun. As a result of the gun’s great weight and the limited capacity of the chassis components, only light armor protection for the crew of 4(5) was provided in an open top compartment.
In October of 1942, soft steel model was presented to Adolf Hitler, who accepted it and expected production to start by May of 1943.
In the early 1944, the arrangement of the driver front plate was changed during production, creating two different models. The main gun remained the powerful 88mm Pak 43/1 L/71. On February 24th (or 27th) of 1944, by Hitler’s order, second never model was named Nashorn (Rhinoceros). Hornisse and Nashorn were almost identical with the only difference being the driver front plate and gun version (unnoticeable). Despite their inadequate armor protection, they both provided the much needed mobility for the long-barreled 88mm anti-tank gun. Limited space provided in the fighting compartment allowed storage space for only 24 to 40 rounds, additional ammunition was carried by various vehicles attached to the unit. Hornisse and Nashorn’s crew traveled in an open-top fighting compartment with all its weather-related disadvantages. Protection against the weather could be provided by canvas covers. The heavy armor protection was not required and vehicle’s high profile was not an issue, as the Hornisse and Nashorn were to be used as a "long distance" tank destroyer, operating away from enemy tanks and infantry. Both Hornisse and Nashorn lacked a machine gun mounted in the hull, so single MG34 or MG42 was carried inside the fighting compartment for local defense. From February of 1943 to March of 1945, only 474 Nashorns and 20 Hornisses were produced. Both models were designed by Alkett and produced by Deutsche Eisenwerke in Tieplitz-Schonau.
Both models were issued to the schwere Panzerjager Abteilungens and had their debut during the Kursk Offensive with 560 sPzJagAbt and 655th sPzJagAbt and with 525 sPzJagAbt in Italy. Even with their light armor protection and high silhoutte but powerful armament, they proved to be successful tank destroyers.
Six schwere Panzerjager Abteilungens (560, 655, 525, 93, 519 and 88), each equipped with 30 Nashorns, were created and saw service on all fronts (e.g. 525th schwere Panzerjaeger Abteilung in Italy, 1944). Each Abteilung was composed of command company and 2 to 3 companies with 4 platoons each. Each company had 14 to 17 Nashorn and each platoon had 4 to 5 Nashorns.
Eventually, Nashorns were replaced by the new generation of more powerful and better armored Panzerjagers like Jagdpanzer IV and Panzerjager V Jagdpanther, but remained in service to the end of the war.
Nashorn in Action !
The most notable Nashorn ace was platoon commander of 1st company of sPzJagAbt 519, Junior Lieutenant Albert Ernst. He later commanded the 1st company of sPzJagAbt 512 (equipped with Jagdtigers). On December 23rd of 1943, he destroyed some 14 Soviet tanks in a single day using only 21 round of ammunition. The engagement took place near Vitebsk and Albert Ernst received a nickname "Tiger of Vitebsk". In December of 1943, Ernst destroyed total of 19 enemy tanks and on January 22nd of 1944, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross.
It is reported that in early March of 1945, Lieutenant Beckmann from sPzJagAbt 88 destroyed Soviet IS-2 at the range of 4600 meters near Marzdorf.