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Panzerwerfer 42 auf Maultier in Action

by Stephan Ward


At the hobby shop about a year ago I saw an Italeri kit of something called the Panzerwerfer 42.  I had read about it in some vague references in a few books on German vehicles before, and it looked like a cool kit to build.  So I bought it, took it home, and started my research, something I do before I build any model.  I turned up nothing at first.  It took half a year before I had reference material that was applicable.  After almost a year it was finished, the product of countless hours of research, modifications to the kit, and superdetailing, and which turned out to be the toughest armor model I’d ever built, due to the considerable inaccuracies and lack of easily available published information on it.  That’s why I decided this article was something I needed to write, to provide other modelers with some rare pictures, and, through it’s combat history, explain some about the vehicle.

The Panzerwerfer 42 auf Maultier, Sd.Kfz. 4/1, first went into production in April of 1943, and was produced until March of 1945.  Hitler called for production of the vehicle in January of 1942, and the vehicle saw it’s first tests on the front in fall of 1943.  The rocket launcher was on a chassis referred to as "Maultier", which means "Mule".  The vehicle is referred to with the suffix "42", but all of the German texts about the vehicle refer to it as the Panzerwerfer 43, a reference to it’s first year of production.  Opel was the main manufacturer, producing most of the components, including the 3.6 liter, 6 cylinder Adam Opel engine, which had 68 horsepower and an 80 liter fuel capacity, Throughout the three years it was produced, 300 Panzerwerfers and 289 of it’s variant, the Munitionkraftswagen, were made.  The Munitionkraftswagen, or Sd.Kfz. 4, was the exact same vehicle, just without the rocket launcher.  It was mainly used for ammo re-supply.  The Panzerwerfer had a 150-millimeter, 10-barrel rocket launcher, which traversed 270 degrees, could be elevated up to 80 degrees, and was guided with the RA35 optical sight.  It had a crew of three, a commander, who was also the driver, a radio operator, and a gunner.

There were other variations of the vehicle too.  Throughout the years in production, there were changes in armoring and suspension, along with small changes in the shape and thickness of the steel armor, resulting in three specific variants of the vehicle.

The 150mm launcher was not the only rocket launcher mounted on the Maultier chassis.  The 24 rail Vielfachwerfer, or "multiple rocket launcher", was also mounted on the vehicle.  It used the same cupola base as the standard launcher, just with a smaller, 80mm launcher.  This was the version used by SS Werfer units, and not the Wehrmacht’s Maultier rocket launcher battalions.  One unit was SS Werfer Brigade 506, who was equipped with 24 rail Vielfachwerfers, some mounted on French halftrack chassis similar in shape and armoring to the Opel Maultier armored halftrack.

The Panzerwerfer saw action on both fronts, seeing it’s first combat in Russia in late 1943.  As to whether it saw action at Kursk, there is not enough solid information to support that but it is very possible.  There is some evidence that some early launcher prototypes were field tested in battles near Kursk, but that is based only on a few written accounts, and there are no photos that show the vehicle there in combat.  The rocket launcher was used for larger scale rocket barrages against positions of Russian resistance where a large bombardment of a big area would be more effective than more accurate artillery fire.  The Panzerwerfer’s rocket barrages covered much larger areas and added more psychological elements to the fight: the amount of noise, smoke, shrapnel, and flying debris as the rockets hit and exploded was tremendous.  The extensive use on the eastern front showed that this weapon could be employed effectively on the western front as well.  The weapon was finally introduced throughout the army on May 14, 1944, in France.

When the western Allies first went into action against this weapon after D-Day, they too would learn about the effects of the multiple rocket launcher.  American intelligence before D-Day pointed to the use of rocket launchers such as the Nebelwerfer by the German Wehrmacht, but besides that, they were overly unprepared for the effects of a mobile, armored, camouflaged, and highly destructive rocket launcher mounted on a halftrack chassis.  The British and Canadians were the first of the western Allies to see the German rocket launchers in action against troop concentrations and Allied positions.  The 7th Werfer Brigade was sent to Normandy from Beauvais after D-Day, and on June 10 it was in Falaise.  The next day, the unit was about 10 kilometers from Caen.  The unit was part of the attack on the Orne Bridge, which was a British held position over the Orne River.  The 84th Regiment of the brigade, which was made up of the 83rd and 84th Regiments, had fourteen combat ready Panzerwerfers, and the 83rd had about the same.  Some other Werfer units were the 101st SS Werfer Abteilung, 101st Stellungs-Werfer Regiment, and the SS Werfer Abteilung 102, which was part of the 2nd SS Panzer Division, Das Reich.  The British were usually at the receiving end of the Panzerwerfers rockets in Normandy, but the 15cm Nebelwerfers were used in large numbers against American, British, and Canadian troops throughout the summer of 1944.

The Battle of the Bulge was the proverbial "stomping ground" of German armored rocket launchers during World War Two.  The most concentrated, massed salvos were used in the Ardennes during the weeks of the German offensive.  Some of the few pictures that exist of the Panzerwerfer in action were taken during late 1944 and early 1945 in the Ardennes region of Belgium.

Rocket launchers saw extensive use during April and May of 1945, as the Russians were quickly advancing on Berlin and the Germans were more often on the receiving end of the defeat.  Panzerwerfers were used in large numbers defending positions inside of Germany and close to Berlin as the Russians advanced from the east and the Americans from the west.  The majority of these vehicles met their end at the hands of the approaching Russian army.  Many films of the battles in Berlin were taken in the last weeks of March and into the first weeks of April 1945, and there are many taken at night showing the firing of multiple rocket barrages.  Many of the films are of the Russian Katyusha truck mounted rocket launchers’ rockets, but many show the Panzerwerfer’s rockets too.

The Panzerwerfer was a dangerous and destructive weapon, but it had many disadvantages that were obvious once you looked past the power of the weapon it was equipped with.  The weight of the vehicle was it’s main disadvantage, as the chassis, armored body, rocket launcher, ammo, and an extra salvo of ammo brought the weight above seven tons.  Its speed on the road was about 40 km per hour, and off-road its top speed was only about 20 km per hour on reasonable terrain.  The "Horstmann" Carden-Lloyd suspension, wheels, and tracks were simple and didn’t require much maintenance, since the track links were the same as the Panzer I’s.  Due to the weight of the vehicle the climbing and fording ability was minimal.  It’s ground clearance was only about a foot, which made traversing tough terrain much more of a challenge than if it was a fully tracked vehicle.  This was its advantage in operating on the Russian steppes, as the naturally flat terrain of Russia was to the vehicles advantage.  Creeks and streams less than two feet deep were the most that could be crossed.  The Panzerwerfer was 7 ½ feet tall, 6 2/3 feet wide, and 18 feet long.

The rockets the launcher used had only one disadvantage, which was range.  The effective range for a Panzerwerfer’s rockets was about 4,000-6,500 meters, and the maximum range was less than 7,000.  In Normandy, it was an example of the ineffectiveness of a massed bombardment weapon.  A large portion of the salvos fired at troop concentrations missed their mark by hundreds or thousands of feet.  The metal rocket casings were thin, which created a large amount of shrapnel on impact, but due to the thin metal used the shrapnel effect was not as deadly as it was intented to be.  The weapon caused more chaos than mass casualties.  Combat tactics usually called for a group of three to six vehicles to mass fire on a specified position, but on many occassions crews operated from different locations but within the same firing range to reach a predetermined target.  Very few Panzerwerfers that were captured by the Allies were captured in any quantity.  Photographs of the vehicles taken my German PK (propaganda) photographers generally showed groups of vehicles at staging areas, usually loading the launchers with rockets in preparation for an attack.

When World War Two ended, there were very few Panzerwerfers left in the world.  Today, there are even fewer.  The best example of one is at the Saumur Tank Museum in Anjou, France.  It has been restored to running condition, with most of its original interior and exterior parts intact, including the 15cm Nebelwerfer 41 rocket launcher.  Its tires are about the only post war part of the vehicle, being of British manufacture, leading to the belief that this vehicle was captured by the British, who after capturing it installed new tires, possibly for transport.  There is also an intact 15cm Nebelwerfer 41 rocket launcher from a Panzerwerfer in Koblenz, Germany, at the Wehrtechnische Studiensammlug.  Most Panzerwerfers were destroyed on the Eastern Front, and American and British units captured or destroyed many of them during Operation Overlord and during Operation Cobra.  A few were captured in the last months of the war in southern Germany by American infantry units who marked them and passed them onto field intelligence units who eventually used the information gathered from them to publish late and post war technical intelligence manuals on German vehicles.

That’s the story of the Panzerwerfer, but at the same time it’s the same story as many other rare vehicles of World War Two – really cool, but at the same time tough to find anything about it without a heck of a lot of research.

A lot of thanks go to my buddy Andreas Altenburger for providing me with unpublished pictures from Singal Magazine.  Also appreciation to Dave Zimmer for helping me out with some great pictures throughout the course of my research.