Saturday, 29 February 2020

The Almighty Panzerfaust

Soviet movies set in the initial stages of the Great Patriotic War depict the Simonov and Degtyaryev anti-tank rifles as incredibly effective. In movies that cover the end of the war, not necessarily even Soviet ones, German Panzerfausts are credited with similar effectiveness. One shot = one tank, even from incredible distances. Of course, people do not come to the cinema to wonder why such a wonder weapon did not prevent Soviet T-34s and American Sherman tanks from appearing in the streets of German cities. How effective were German rocket propelled anti-tank grenades really?

Future proof

It is commonly accepted that the first ancestor of the Panzerfaust was born in 1942, when German tanks still confidently drove along dusty roads, drawing blue arrows on the map towards Stalingrad and the Caucasus. Reports with numbers of Soviet tanks destroyed thrilled the General Staff with news of complete victory of German weapons, and yet there was still a cause for caution. Even after losing a significant portion of its territory, the USSR still produced countless hordes of tanks. Across the Atlantic, American production began to spin up. The tanks that the Americans made at first were not very good, but they were numerous. In 1942 the USA produced over 26,000 tanks of all types, more than the USSR.

Last chance weapons: Berlin Volkssturm armed with Panzerfausts.

Of course, artillery was the main anti-tank weapon. Mines and aircraft came after. However, practice showed that the infantry needs a more effective weapon against tanks, preferably numerous, cheap, and simple to use. Initial requirements were simple: a range of 30 meters and higher effectiveness than the Gew.Pz.Gr.61 rifle grenade.

One of those who answered the call of the German Weapons Agency was Dr. Heinrich Langweiler from the HASAG company. This was a bit of a side gig for him. Langweiler was a ballistics specialist and worked on creation of recoilless bullets since 1939. He had a very vague idea about what an anti-tank weapon needed to look like, and it was not surprising that the first Panzerfaust prototypes were far from ideal.

The short pipe of the grenade launcher was easy to transport, but forced the shooter to hold it far away from him, which reduced the precision of aimed fire. The inertial fuse did not work when striking sloped armour, and the pointed shape of the grenades made the chance of ricochet even higher. The spin stabilization, as it turned out, had an adverse effect on the formation of the HEAT jet. The only part of Langweiler's early work was the concept of a pipe made from low quality metal that was capable of throwing something that was somewhat dangerous to a tank 30 or even 60 meters away, albeit with no chance of hitting.

However, work continued. Langweiler prepared for the second round of trials more thoroughly. The small variant was a further development of the first prototype with an improved grenade. The more aerodynamic shape gave it a range of up to 70 meters, but the only opening in the sight corresponded to a range of 30 meters. The second "large" variant was more interesting for the military. The charge of the Hafthohlladung (Panzerknacker) magnetic mine was taken as the starting point for the projectile. Langweiler managed to obtain up to 200 mm of penetration with a grenade launcher that weighed a little over five kilograms.

Diagram of a Panzerfaust from the translated instruction manual composed at the front.

Both variants were ordered in batches of 3000 units for front line trials. The first reports showed that the principle of  "more is more" applied here: most preferred the larger type. The infantry requested that the range be increased, as closing in to within 30 meters of a T-34 was very unsafe. The request was fulfilled. The propellant charge was increased first to 140 grams and then to two 95 gram charges.

However, despite the simplicity, mass production of the Faustpatrone, later renamed to Panzerfaust, did not begin until the second half of 1943.

"Losses of two tanks and one SPG"

The USSR reacted to the German novelty quickly. The first reports usually contained a retelling of stories collected from prisoners of war and sketches based on their testimony. Later, detailed instructions were distributed on the front lines, with photos, detailed characteristics, and contermeasures. For instance, an instruction manual issued by the armour branch of the 1st Belorussian Front stated that spaced armour in the style of the German Pz.Kpfw.IV tank is an effective measure against HEAT charges. Until it was implemented, it was suggested that tanks should not show their sides and should maintain intense fire at trenches where grenadiers were firing from.

A captured Panzerfaust and grenades with deployed stabilization fins from a front line instruction manual.

More and more Panzerfausts reached the front lines. The Germans made over 8 million of them. However, this was not a cause for Soviet commanders to panic or demand that something must be done. On the other hand, as a result of the offensive in the summer of 1944 reports about wide scale use of the Faustpatrone and Ofenrohr weapons were usually accompanied with the note "the enemy abandons them on the battlefield in large numbers".

The Germans, in part, agreed with this assessment. In February of 1944 a total of 1219 Soviet tanks were claimed as destroyed, only 35 of which were claimed by Panzerfausts. Even combat in 1945 that took place in dense German urban areas did not result in a significant rise in losses.
"Based on the reports of the Operational Research Department of the 2nd Ukrainian Front, out of 160 instances of damage sustained by tanks and SPGs in combat in February of 1945 only two were caused by the Faustpatrone, which equals 0.5-0.6% of losses. Damage from Faustpatrone weapons is as follows: one T-34 tank had its track knocked off from 50 meters, a second T-34 was hit in the sloped side armour, as a result of which a crack formed. The shot was also fired from a range of 50 meters."
Aiming diagram from the translated instruction manual on the usage of captured Panzerfausts composed on the front lines.

As the report shows, even if the Panzerfaust scored a direct hit, this hardly tore the T-34 apart. There were other similar repots.
"Operational Department of the 1st Red Banner Insterburg Tank Corps report #0802 March 31st, 1945. In carrying out orders of the Corps commander to evaluate the effectiveness of German anti-tank rifles and Faustpatrone grenades and inflicted losses in tanks and SPGs, we report that during the operation in East Prussia (January-February 1945) the brigade lost two tanks and one SPG from Faustpatrone fire. There were no losses from Panzerschreck and Ofenrohr type weapons. The brigade has no information about organisation of enemy units and their equipment with Panzerschreck or Ofenrohr weapons. Chief of Staff of the 89th Order of Kutuzon Tilsit Tank Brigade, Lieutenant Colonel V.D. Glushkov. April 4th, 1945".
One can add that the 89th Tank Brigade was hardly hiding in the rear in January-February 1945, but was taking an active part in the fighting on the approach to Koenigsberg. It lost 50 T-34s burned and 38 knocked out in February alone. The brigade was refilled twice during this period, receiving 44 tanks. Of course, it is too rash to make conclusions based on the experience of one brigade. Thankfully, there are many documents about the actions of Soviet tank forces in the second half of the war.

A column of IS-2 heavy tanks driving through a settlement in East Prussia. Panzerfausts are scattered along the side of the road.

For instance, in early 1945 reasons of large losses in General V.I. Chuikov's 8th Guards Army on March 22nd-24th during an attempt to widen the foothold across the Oder were investigated on the order of Marshal G.K. Zhukov. The report speaks volumes about the failure of intelligence to spot the enemy's preparations to deflect the Soviet counterattack, misinformed reports from units, poor cooperation with infantry, and many more. The Panzerfaust is mentioned only in the summary talble. Of 122 lost tanks and SPGs 98 were lost to artillery and tanks, 15 were lost to mines, 7 were taken out by Panzerfausts, and two were disabled by aircraft. Even in March of 1945 during a failed offensive German infantry armed with Panzerfausts did not have too great of an effect.

Another example. Losses of the 9th Tank Corps that took part in the Vistula-Oder Offensive and then fought in East Pomerania were serious indeed. From January 14th to March 14th 135 tanks and SPGs were written off and 79 had to be refurbished, 190 more had to be repaired. Of over 400 cases of damage only 9 T-34s were hit by Panzerfausts, one more than lost to aircraft, but significantly less than lost to water hazards: one IS-2 and 37 T-34s drowned during crossings.

A Red Armyman examines Panzerfausts laying on a cart in the courtyard of the Reich Chancellery building in Berlin.

The final accord of the Panzerfaust was the Battle of Berlin. It seems that there could be no doubt about their role here, however... For instance, traditionally Colonel General S.I. Bogdanov's 2nd Guards Tank Army is considered to have taken particularly heavy losses from Panzerfausts. However, as the commander reported, out of 576 vehicles disabled during the fighting 106, or 18.4%, were caused by Panzerfausts. The causes of such high numbers are known. Bogdanov describes a lack of infantry in detail and often:
"The infantry fighting alongside the tanks cleared only the lower floors, leaving the others untouched. This allowed Panzerfaust operators and snipers to fire at the tanks."
Deputy Commander of the Armoured and Mechanized Forces, Marshal of the Tank Forces P.A. Rotmistrov also had a word to say.
" Assault groups created in tank units during the preparation for the Berlin operation effectively fell apart due to the heated fighting during the approach to the city. The groups had to be restored during the fighting. These conditions, as well as a sharp lack of infantry in tank armies, lowered the effectiveness of assault groups. Assault groups created in field armies and equipped with tanks from infantry support units showed higher resilience and effectiveness due to a higher proportion of infantry. The same applies to assault groups formed in mechanized corps."
Even in fairly ideal conditions: in a large city against tanks with little infantry support, the Panzerfaust did not even come close to becoming a wonder weapon. Considering the requirement of 2-4 meters of open space behind the shooter, it is not clear that ordinary grenades or Molotov cocktails would have been much less effective. In any case, it was too late to expect anything super-effective from the "wonder weapon" when Soviet tanks were already marching along the streets of Berlin.