Saturday 7 March 2020

"Baby Doll", "Stovepipe", and Others

Due to the widespread use of the Faustpatrone, its name became shorthand for any German man-portable HEAT rocket launcher in the Red Army. However, German industry produced other anti-tank weapons for infantry, including those that were much more interesting and much more dangerous than the Faustpatrone.

It all started with the capture of several samples of the famous Bazooka, the American Rocket Launcher, M1. Or did it start earlier? This question is worth exploring. Many Western sources state that the Germans began their development with Bazookas captured in the USSR that were sent there via Lend Lease, while Russian sources claim that the weapons ended up in enemy hands in the spring of 1943 in North Africa.

German 88 mm Raketenwerfer 43 rocket launcher, known as the Puppchen.

Indeed, a batch of Bazookas did arrive in the USSR in 1942, but there is no information about their use on the front lines. Existing information shows that they were tested at the proving grounds, deemed insufficiently effective, and were not recommended for use. The archive of the People's Commissariat of Foreign Affairs has the following record:
"60 mm anti-tank rocket launcher. Proving grounds trials show unsatisfactory results, namely:
  1. The muzzle velocity is low (about 89 m/s) 
  2. The design of the rocket is complex and the detonator is too sensitive
  3. Reliability at temperatures lower than 10 degrees C is poor
  4. The weapon is ineffective at ranges over 100 meters due to an insufficiently flat trajectory and bad precision
  5. The rate of fire is low
  6. It is dangerous to fire using the rifle stock, as the propellant continues burning after the projectile exits the barrel and can burn the shooter's hands and face
Trials show that the American 60 mm anti-tank rocket launcher cannot be permitted to be used in the active army and further purchases are pointless. In total, 3000 launchers arrived, but only 4260 rounds of ammunition, about 1.5 rounds per launcher."
This evaluation is confirmed by the lack of large scale orders of Bazookas. In 1942 the Red Army's position was quite tenuous, and if American rocket launchers proved to be an effective anti-tank weapon then they would have certainly been ordered via Lend Lease. Additionally, German sources say that a demonstration of captured Bazookas was held at Kummersdorf in March of 1943. In any case, the Germans were interested in the concept of the Bazooka, but not its implementation.

The Germans, namely the Westfälisch-Anhaltischen Sprengstoff A.G. (WASAG) company, already had their own rocket propelled grenade. German infantry already had a lot of experience with close (too close for comfort) quarters combat with enemy heavy tanks, so there was little optimism about a 60 mm grenade. The caliber of the 8,8 cm R.Pz.Gr. 4312 was, as its name implies, 88 mm. While the grenade was reasonable, then the launcher was designed with the slogan "never settle for 4 parts when 7 will do". The rocket was launched from a light cannon, complete with a gun shield, carriage, and trail. This weapon was named Raketenwerfer 43 and recommended for mass production. Since it was much smaller than classic cannons and recoilless rifles, it received the name Puppchen (baby doll).
American infantrymen study a captured Raketenwerfer 43.

Keep in mind that work on the Raketenwerfer 43 began and almost finished before the arrival of captured Bazookas in Germany. German reaction to American rocket launchers was utter shock. The Wehrmacht's reaction was also predictable: "give us the same thing, but better and with our grenade!"

Work to cross the two designs began at Hugo Schneider A.G. (HASAG). A reworked rocket from the Puppchen received a new ignition system and a new tail stabilizer. The caliber remained the same. Due to the similarity between the old R.Pz.Gr. 4312 and new R.Pz.B.Gr. 432, Allied intelligence contained information that the rockets of the Puppchen and lighter guns were compatible, which sometimes crops up even today.

These Puppchens became trophies of the advancing Red Army.

The launcher was also radically altered. In addition to increasing the caliber, the Germans reworked the ignition system. The American variant with batteries was unsatisfactory for the Germans. Trials showed that it was unreliable, especially at low temperatures. The German launcher received an induction charge generator.

A comparison between the HASAG launcher and the Raketenwerfer 43 showed that the Puppchen had an advantage. The muzzle velocity was 230 m/s compared to 110 m/s. The range was also greater. However, the HASAG launcher was much smaller and lighter. The  8,8 cm Raketenpanzerbüchse 6030, or R.Pz.B. 6030, weighed 12.5 kg and could easily be carried by one soldier. The Armament Agency did not order any more Puppchens and moved to the man-portable launcher.

Soliders from the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division "Götz von Berlichingen" demonstrate the Panzerschreck to SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler.

Like its predecessor, the new launcher soon earned a nickname. Since the Germans knew little about American musicians and their instruments, the only thing they saw in the launcher was a stovepipe. This nickname was appropriate for its looks, but unsatisfactory for the Ministry of Propaganda, which was hard at work coming up with scary sounding names. In addition to the Sturmgewehr, the "tank terror" (Panzerschreck) appeared in official correspondence starting in late 1943. However, the German soldiers did not pick up on this name. In 1944 and 1945 most soldiers used only the name Ofenrohr. The full name of the weapon was R.Pz.B. 54.

The first experience with the "stovepipe" in combat was marred by an unfortunate feature. As the rocket exhaust could burn the shooter, he was supposed to wear a gas mask with the filter removed and gloves. This could work on the proving grounds, but it was not particularly comfortable to hunt a T-34 with this kind of garb. A small shield was added, which allowed to fire the launcher with the gas mask removed, but protection for the hands was still necessary.

A German officer demonstrates how to fire the Panzerschreck to Volkssturm militia troops.

In addition to installing shields on newly produced launchers, the Germans also produced kits to modernize the old ones in the field. The introduction of the shield did not change the weapon's name, even though many sources claim that the early launchers were called R.Pz.B 43.

Soviet documents began reporting on the new rocket launcher in early 1944. Interestingly enough, the Puppchen was often called "improved anti-tank rifle", comparing it to the Panzerschreck, having assumed that the heavier variant was designed as a further development of the lighter one, instead of the other way around.

A R.Pz.B. 54 crew in a destroyed house in France. The soldier on the left is holding a spare R.Pz.B.Gr. 4322 rocket.

The first descriptions came from POWs and boiled down to "a new weapon will appear, which some of us were taught to use, but nobody really saw a lot of them". Detailed diagrams soon followed, and then captured launchers. The following information was obtained by 1945:

88 mm Ofenrohr
Faustpatrone I
Faustpatrone II
Caliber, mm
Launcher weight, kg
Projectile weight, kg
Muzzle velocity, m/s
Effective range, m
Maximum range, m

Data in modern sources is different, for instance giving 105 m/s as the muzzle velocity.

As you can see from the above, the Panzerschreck was, at least on paper, much more dangerous than the Panzerfaust. Then why do losses from Panzerfausts dominate discussion of the last few months of the war? Most of the losses from these kinds of weapons were taken during street fighting when there was not enough infantry to cover the tanks. The Panzerschreck's greater range gave no advantage in a close quarters urban environment, and the Panzerfaust was simpler and easier to use, and there were several times more of them built. The R.Pz.B 54 production run totalled just over 300,000 with 2 million rounds of ammunition, while over 9 million of the simpler and cheaper Panzerfausts were produced.

Of course, the Panzerschreck had an advantage over the Panzerfaust in open terrain. It's possible that a portion of Soviet tanks reported as knocked out by Panzerfausts really fell victim to the Ofenrohr or Puppchen, as it was difficult to determine the exact kind of rocket launcher in battle.

A diagram of the Ofenrohr launcher based on information obtained during a POW interrogation.

Development of the Soviet analogue of the Panzerschreck, the RPR-82, began in 1942. Trials showed good results in the summer, but when the thermometer dropped below zero the precision of the rocket decreased drastically. Considering that the Germans produced summer and winter variants of their rockets, their designers had the same issues. It's possible that during a significant portion of the year the characteristics of German RPGs were much lower than claimed.

In any case, one can confidently say that the Red Army was worried more about gathering and using the Panzerfausts and Panzerschrecks themselves than protecting themselves from them.

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