The Panzer 38(t) performed well in the Polish Campaign in 1939 and the Battle of France in 1940. It was better armed than the Panzer I and Panzer II tanks. It was on par with most light tank designs of the era, although it was unable to effectively engage the frontal armour of medium, heavy and infantry tank designs.
It was also used in the German invasion of the Soviet Union from 1941 onwards in German and Hungarian units, but was outclassed by Soviet tanks such as the T-34. Some ex-German units were issued to the Romanians in 1943, after the loss of many of the Romanian R-2 tanks. By then, it had become largely obsolete, though the chassis was adapted to a variety of different roles with success. Notable variations include the SdKfz 138 Marder III mobile anti-tank gun, the SdKfz 138/1 Grille mobile howitzer, Flakpanzer 38(t) and the Jagdpanzer 38(t) "Hetzer" tank destroyer. Small numbers were also used for reconnaissance, training and security duties, such as deployment on armoured trains.
The German tank commander Otto Carius, who was credited with over 150 'kills' described an action in a 38(t) in July 8, 1941:
It happened like greased lightning. A hit against our tank, a metallic crack, the scream of a comrade, and that was all there was! A large piece of armour plating had been penetrated next to the radio operator's seat. No one had to tell us to get out. Not until I had run my hand across my face while crawling in the ditch next to the road did I discover that they had also got me. Our radio operator had lost his left arm. We cursed the brittle and inelastic Czech steel that gave the Russian 47mm anti-tank gun so little trouble. The pieces of our own armour plating and assembly bolts caused considerably more damage than the shrapnel of the round itself.
In contrast, speaking about the armour on German tanks:
"Again and again, we admired the quality of the steel on our tanks. It was hard without being brittle. Despite its hardness, it was also elastic. If an anti-tank round didn't hit the armour dead on, it slid off on its side and left behind a gouge as if you had run your finger over a soft piece of butter."
The above report highlights the reason why the 38(t) was pulled out of front lines in favour of heavier Panzer III, IV and StuG IIIs. Panzer 38(t) continued to serve after 1941 as a reconnaissance vehicle and in anti-partisan units for some time. Several captured examples were refitted with Soviet DTM machineguns and employed by the Red Army.
Reliable running gears and chassis proved useful throughout the conflict. At the start of Operation Barbarossa, the Germans found Russian T-34 tanks to be superior, as the German 37mm Pak36 anti-tank gun proved incapable of penetrating the T-34's armour. To neutralize the Russian T-34, the Germans mounted a captured Russian 76.2mm field gun on the chassis of the 38(t) model as a stop-gap measure and called it the "Marder III". Initially, the Marder III was nothing more than a 38(t) with a Russian 76-mm divisional gun M1936 (F-22) in place of a turret, with the breech modified to take German ammunition. Because of this arrangement, crews of early Marder III models fought exposed on top of the 38(t)'s engine deck, behind where the turret used to be. Continuous efforts to provide Marder III crews with more protection eventually lead to the tank destroyer Hetzer which still used the same running gear on widened chassis and slightly widened track links to compensate for the extra weight of the armour. When Germany was being attacked from both West and East, the Hetzer served the German Army as one of the most common German AFVs in the last year of the war. Production of Hetzer continued for the Czechoslovak Army after the war. Switzerland purchased 158 examples. Swiss Hetzer served into the 1960s.
The removal of turrets from Panzer 38(t) tanks for conversion of the chassis to tank destroyer and other uses freed 351 turrets for use in fortifications in various locations. Almost half of these (150) were used in Southwest Europe, while 78 went to the Eastern Front, 75 to Norway, 25 in Italy, 20 in Denmark, and 9 in the Atlantic Wall. The small-bore armament and thin armour of the turrets made them insignificant as an anti-tank pillbox by the later stages of the war, but they were still useful in combating infantry attacks.
The SdKfz 140/1 Aufklärungspanzer 38(t) is a reconnaissance vehicle based on Panzer 38(t). It came about from a shortage of light reconnaissance tanks. Panzer I was outdated and the Panzer II Luchs was only just starting production. To fill this gap, Panzer 38(t) mounting smaller 20mm gun was built in small numbers. The basic construction was to remove the 38(t)'s turret, build up the hull superstructure and place an open turret from either a SdKfz 222 or SdKfz 234/1.
- Invasion of Poland with the German 3rd Light Division
- Operation Weserübung (Norway) with the German 31st Army Corps
- Battle of France with the 7th Panzer, and 8th Panzer Divisions
- Operation Barbarossa with the German 6th, 7th, 8th, 12th, 19th, 20th, 22nd Panzer Divisions and Hungarian First armoured Field Division.
- Eastern Front operations with the Romanian 2nd Tank Regiment.
A Peruvian mission went to Europe in 1935 and looked at tanks from several major manufacturers before settling on the Czech LTL. Peru bought 24 of them, organizing them into two companies. This small armoured force was complemented by truck-mounted infantry and artillery pulled by tractors (the Czech CKD). Peruvian doctrine was influenced by the French military mission operating in Peru at the time, and emphasized the use of tanks to support infantry attacks rather than in independent mobile columns (as in the German Blitzkrieg).
The Peruvian tank battalion played an important role in the 1941 Ecuadorian-Peruvian War, spearheading the attack across the Zarumilla River and at Arenillas. This was helped by the fact that the Ecuadorian Army had no modern anti-tank guns and their artillery was horse-drawn. "The LTL tanks performed extremely well in the 1941 war and remained in front-line service for more than 50 years."
All strv m/41 SI were sent to P 3 in Strängnäs, who were the only regiment who painted the road-wheels in the same camouflage pattern as the hull against regulations prescribing field-grey to be used. Most of the m/41 SII went to P 4 in Skövde, with a small number allocated to P 2 in Hässleholm and the material reserve of P 3. All tanks had been retired from active service in the mid 1950s and later rebuilt into APCs.