Infantry Anti-tank Weapons
During WW I, tanks were regarded largely as a siege weapon to be used in storming enemy trenches. Vulnerable to artillery, but protected against ordinary rifle-fire, tanks created problems for infantry which was unsupported by air-power or heavy guns.
Germany, in particular, had concentrated on anti-tank weaponry, lacking the industrial reserves to manufacture mass numbers of tanks. Ironically, the fast-paced evolution of the anti-tank rifle was partially due to the German General Staff’s slow grasp of the emerging importance of tanks on the battlefield. Marshall’s “American Heritage History of World War I” remarks: “Britain had brought along a new weapon created to break the deadlock on the Western Front. Many minds contributed to the innovation but the main credit goes to Winston Churchill.” The tank, to the German High Command, and the common German infantryman proved, indeed, to be a surprise. “The rumbling monsters seemed to scare German infantry men out of their wits. The German High Command only dimly sensed the potential and fumblingly set about developing its own armor ” (Marshall, 236).
Originally, special armor-piercing cartridges, called “Spitzgeschoss mit Kern” steel cored rifle bullets were employed, designed to be fired from a standard Mauser infantry rifle. These “K” bullets could penetrate a maximum of 12-13 mm at 0 to 100 meters (0 Degrees inclination). This gave the “K” bullet a 33% chance of penetration with a direct hit on an oncoming tank. As every German soldier in a front line position was issued 10 rounds of “K” bullets, there would be a large number of these armor piercing projectiles hitting the target. As a result, “K” bullets accounted for significant tank crew casualties in the early days of tank warfare (Inert-Ord.com). Infantry Anti-tank Weapons Page -2-
In response, new British tank designs received 12 mm of face hardened armor all round, (which reduced the efficiency of the “K” bullets to a measly 1% chance of penetration), and later 14 mm armor emerged, making the newest tanks effectively bullet proof.
Part of Germany’s reaction to the better armored British and French tanks was to employ specially designed heavy caliber and high velocity rifles as anti-tank weapons at the platoon level. The German Mauser T-Gewehr (the world’s first rifle designed to destroy armored targets) debuted in February 1918. Shortly thereafter, in May 1918, the Mauser Company began production of the 13.2 mm Rifle Anti-Tank at Oberdorf. These rifles were issued to specially designated anti-tank troops.
The idea of the Wehrmacht behind the “tank rifle” was to give the infantry integral limited anti-tank capability against light tanks without having to wait for tank hunter units or artillery support to relieve them. The high recoil of the rifle was notoriously hard on the infantryman firing the tank-rifle, sometimes breaking the collar bone or dislocating the shoulder when discharged.
Around the same time, a half-inch high velocity round for the Browning .50 caliber machine-gun was being developed in the US for use against aircraft. The Browning M2 .50 cal machine gun would eventually function for US forces as an anti-armor machine gun (Hofbuaur, 6).
In principle, it should always easier to increase the thickness of a tank’s armor than to
increase the efficacy of a rifle cartridge and this is exactly what proved to be the case during the final days of WW I. Both the “Panzerbüchse” and the Browning M2 .50 cal machine gun were soon to be deposed from their roles by both the increasing thickness of tank-armor the startling advent of a new technology: the discovery of the “shaped charge.”
Infantry Anti-tank Weapons Page -3-
The explosive shaped charge was developed in the years between the wars1930s by Henry Mohaupt, a Swiss immigrant who worked for the US War Department. Mohaupt developed a shaped-charge hand grenade for anti-tank use that was effective at defeating up to 100 mm (4 in) of armor, by far the best such weapon in the world at the time. However, the M10 grenade weighed 3.5 lb (1.6 kg) and was difficult to throw and too heavy to function as a rifle grenade.
The only practical way to use it was to place it directly on the tank. A smaller version of the M10, the M9, was developed which could be fired from a rifle. ¹
When the Second World War began, both America and Germany deployed anti-tank rifles based on a high velocity, large caliber round. However, the anti-tank role soon required more powerful weapons which were based on the application of chemical energy in the form of the shaped charge. The development of the now-famous American “Bazooka” involved the development of two specific lines of technology: the rocket-powered (recoilless) weapon, and the shaped-charge warhead.
Army Colonel Leslie A. Skinner suggested placing the grenade on the front of an experimental rocket launcher he had developed with Navy Lieutenant Edward G. Uhl. Although the recoil problem had been solved, the new “bazooka” expelled a large backblast and smoke trail which clearly marked the position of the shooter.
The new anti-tank weapon was introduced at Operation Torch. The Allied forces assembled for Operation Torch were opposed by approximately 120,000 Colonial, Legionary and Vichy troops of unknown quality and uncertain loyalty to the Reich. Fortunately the Allies met only sporadic resistance for limited planning time, hurried preparation and inadequate training
Infantry Anti-tank Weapons Page -4-
alone were sufficient to jeopardize the landings. The new “bazookas” proved to be highly effective, but only valuable at short range (Parker).
Upon capturing American weapons during Operation Torch, the Germans immediately copied the design of the bazooka to produce their own, even larger and more effective version known as the Panzerschreck. Typically, just as the development of “Spitzgeschoss mit Kern” in World War I had resulted in the counter-response of thicker armor for tanks, the new shaped charged and rocket propelled anti-tank guns caused further rearmament and reinforcement of tanks, most demonstrably on the German and Russian sides.
Hitler himself was draw in to the tank/anti-tank gun dialogue. As Jodl remarked, “It was due to him [Hitler] personally that the 75mm anti-tank gun replaced the 37mm and 50mm guns in time, and that the short guns mounted on tanks were replaced with the long 75mm and 88mm
guns. The Panther, the Tiger, and the Konigstiger [i.e., Tiger II] were developed as modern tanks at Hitler’s own initiative” (Schramm, 200-201).
Interestingly enough, the German “bazooka,” the Panzerschreck, though highly effective, ultimately demonstrated the ephemerality of infantry anti-tank guns, just as all of its predecessor when they met their match on te Eastern front against Russian armor. Infantryman were reported to have flung the “useless” guns aside. The same followed for American anti-tank rifles, the bazooka, which had distinguished itself at Bastogne and also at Monte Cassino eventually became more useful as a mortar-style weapon, or as a weapon against armored vehicles rather than tanks. As the thickness of tanks armor increased, the use of the bazooka became more specialized. They were used in the Pacific theater to great effect in places like Pelului – not against tanks but against entrenched infantry (Gypton, 2-3).
Infantry Anti-tank Weapons Page -5-
So the story of the infantry anti-tank weapon came full circle from its beginnings in German hands as a desperate, but only ephemerally effective, counter-measure against the new tank technology, rising to a position of prominence in American hands as the “bazooka” and then, again, finding use in German hands as the Panzerschreck.
In conclusion, the infantry anti-tank gun illustrates both the pragmatism of military engineering as well as the cyclical nature of technological innovation. For very innovation, there is a counter-innovation, which spawns, itself, further evolution. The efficacy of infantry anti-tank guns occupied, precisely, that gap where the development of better and more sophisticated armor lagged behind the development of lighter, less expensive and more accurate anti-tank guns. In the long run, the use of infantry anti-tank guns in World War I and World War II demonstrates the myriad technological proliferations of combined arms warfare.
1. Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard (October 5, 1882 – August 10, 1945) had devised a tube rocket intended for military use during World War I. On November 6, 1918 he successfully demonstrated his tube-fired rocket to the US Army Signal Corps at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, but when World War I ended a mere five days later , interest in the weapon died off.
Marshall, S.L.A.. The American Heritage History of World War I. New York: American Heritage Publishing, 1964.
Inert-Ord.com 2006. “Development of Infantry Anti-tank Weapons.”
http://www.inert-ord.net/atrkts/index.html (29 August 2006).
Hofbauer, M. “Panzerfaust WW II German Infantry Anti-Tank Weapons”
http://www.geocities.com/Augusta/8172/panzerfaust6.htm (28, August 2006).
Parker, Larry. “The Development of Amphibious Assaults During World War II.” Military History Online (2004) http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/wwii/articles/AmphibiousAssaults.aspx (28, August 2006).
Iannamico, Frank. “7.92 mm Panzerbüchse (P.z.B.) 39 German Anti-Tank Rifle.” The Small Arms Review – Vol. 6 No. 8 – May, 2003 http://www.smallarmsreview.com/
Schramm, Percy. Hitler: The Man and the Military Leader. Chocago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1999.
Gypton, Jeremy. “Bloody Peleliu: Unavoidable Yet Unnecessary.” Military History Online http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/wwii/peleliu/default.aspx (29 August 2006).