Monday 19 September 2022

The Tank's Hidden Foe

On paper, German anti-tank rocket launchers were a weapon of unimaginable terror for enemy tank crews. An infantryman with a light anti-tank weapon capable of penetrating up to 200 mm of armour could be lurking behind every corner and in every window. This weapon was powerful enough to destroy any Allied tank. What was the real effectiveness of the Panzerfaust and Panzerschreck, and what did the Allies do to protect themselves from it?

After action report

The topic of tank losses was very carefully studied by the American Operations Research Office (ORO). Reports of 12,140 knocked out tanks from all Allied armies were collected and studied after the war. As could be expected, tank and anti-tank cannons were the most common killer of tanks, responsible for 54% of all losses. Anti-tank mines came in second place. Their effectiveness was largely identical between all theatres of war, around 20% of the total. The crews themselves came in at third place. Tanks that were broken down, bogged down, or otherwise disabled outside of combat came in at 13% of total losses. However, here the method of counting differed greatly. The Canadian army and US Marines kept track of non-combat losses much more carefully, and their percentage of losses without enemy action hovered between 25 and 40%. In mountainous regions of Italy, for instance, technical losses could outnumber losses inflicted by the enemy.

A Canadian soldier inspects Panzerschreck rocket launchers captured in Operation Blockbuster. Anti-tank rocket launchers were used by the Germans in large numbers.

The evaluation of the effectiveness of anti-tank rocket launchers was also difficult. On one hand, they were responsible for relatively few casualties, only 7.5% of the tanks. On the other hand, they were only used en masse starting in early 1944. At this time losses due to this type of weapon were at 10%. In Italy, the use of the Panzerfaust and similar weapons reached its peak in the spring of 1945 when they claimed 20-25% of all tank casualties. In Europe, the percentage reached 25-35%, especially during pursuit operations when the Germans used fewer anti-tank weapons of any other type. Unlike the percentage of losses, the range did not greatly differ based on theatre. The average range at which anti-tank rocket launchers were used was 50 yards (45 meters), although many reports used vague terms like “point-blank” and “close range”. Ranges from 10 to 100 yards were given in reports. Effectiveness dropped radically at ranges over 40 yards (36 meters).

The average range at which Allied tanks were knocked out by anti-tank rockets differed: American tanks were knocked out from 55 yards (50 meters), British tanks from 35 yards (32 meters).

31% of all hits came at the front of the tank, 51% at the sides, and 9.5% at the rear. Only 8.5% hit the roof of the tank, which is not surprising. Rather than dense urban environments, where the defenders could fire from above, the Panzerfausts were typically used in bocage country.

Locations of impact from cannon fire and anti-tank rockets. Infantry armed with Panzerfausts rarely aimed for the tracks and hit the turret more often.

The difference between recoverable and permanent losses should be highlighted. One often sees claims that a hit with a Panzerfaust resulted in guaranteed destruction of the tank, as it would cause a fire that would cook off the ammunition. This was not the case. Only 61% of hits from a hollow charge weapon resulted in a fire, compared to 65% of hits from artillery. Tanks hit by a rocket were only written off in 29% of the cases, whereas there was a 49% chance that a tank hit by German cannon fire could not be repaired. Panzerfausts were often used in ambushes where the crew was killed with small arms fire only after they left the tank, but the report notes that a well trained crew could escape from an abush unharmed.

Improvised protection

Tankers quickly understood the danger that anti-tank rocket launchers posed. Experiments to improve protection of tanks were conducted without waiting for action from above. An intelligence summary from the Canadian armoured forces in Italy dated July 18th, 1944, recounted a number of solutions developed by troops.

The first option was rather complicated. A 5 mm thick plate was placed at a distance of 12 inches (305 mm) from the main armour. The gap was filled with sandbags. This protection proved effective. During testing, the HEAT warhead only made a 12 mm deep indentation in the armour of a Churchill tank. The armour alone without sandbags didn’t help. Sandbags on their own were not tested.

An M4A3(76)W HVSS tank with sand bag armour.

The second type was much more common and much simpler. The armour was covered in spare track links from Sherman tanks. The first warhead that struck this armour during trials failed to go off, likely due to striking a guide horn. The second hit between tracks and penetrated the armour as usual. On the third try, the gunner hit a track link, but the results were not encouraging. The only change was that the diameter of the penetration was reduced. A third method of protection using canisters filled with water also only served to reduce the diameter of the penetration.

Churchill tanks from the 4th Coldstream Guards with Sherman tank tracks used as additional armour. This solution proved ineffective.

An attempt was also made to use tightly packed blankets in order to create a cushion that prevented the fuze from being set off, but experiments showed that this method didn’t work.

A method that takes into accounts the maximum width of a tank that a Bailey Bridge could hold. The 5 mm thick additional armour plating was installed at a 40 degree angle.

The last Panzerfaust was used to test a 7 mm thick plate installed at 45 degree. The warhead hit it, but did not go off. Since this was the last Panzerfaust available for trials, the effectiveness of this method could not be established. Even though guaranteed protection was still not achieved, testers believed that the spaced armour with sandbags and spaced armour plated at an angle were the most effective measures.

A mesh screen protecting the side of a Sherman tank during trials.

Based on methods tried in further trials, none of the above solutions proved effective enough. A metallic mesh was tested on October 6th, 1944. Three out of four Panzerfaust 30 warheads fired into the mesh at a range of 30 yards (27 meters) failed to go off. However, trials with a Panzerfaust 60 showed that the mesh doesn’t help. It was better to have protection from light rocket launchers than nothing at all. The mesh screens were installed on Sherman tanks of the 7th Armoured Brigade. Experience in battle was poor: the screens were torn off when driving on rough terrain and torn mesh could coil around the turret and jam it. Attempts were made to install the mesh on Churchill tanks, but this was harder to do, and work stopped in April of 1945. Trials of a folding mesh screen installed 30 inches (76 cm) from the hull resumed only in August. The results were good, but there was no longer a need for this type of device.

The Panzerfaust 60 could penetrate the side of the tank despite the use of a mesh screen.  

Attempts to build traditional spaced armour also continued. Trials showed that a 5 kg Panzerfaust penetrates 200 mm of monolithic armour, 150 mm of armour with a 6 mm thick screen placed 11 inches (28 cm) away, and 100 mm with a 6 mm screen placed 22 inches (56 cm) away. Nearly any type of improvised armour would be ineffective against the Panzerfaust.

Since there was no satisfactory protection developed for the Panzerfaust until the end of the war, crews tried to protect their tanks with anything they could find. The staff of the Canadian 1st Army conducted research into improvised armour used in its units. The most widespread method was the use of wood, either one layer of thick logs or several layers of thinner ones, or even fascines. Another method involved a screen similar to German schurzen armour, a sheet of mild steel installed some space away from the hull using girders or pipes. The third method was similar, but more complicated. Tankers installed corrugated metal screens on wooden blocks about 50 mm away from the main armour.

Protection with logs was a common type of improvised armour.

These solutions were not tried in battle. According to Major Sangster, the author of the report, the method with logs was worth testing, but all others only had an effect on the crew’s morale.

Professionals at work

The tankers were not the only ones working on protection from Panzefausts. Proving grounds staff in the UK and the USA were also looking for a solution.

Spaced armour was the most commonly used method. In theory, detonation of the warhead some distance away from the armour would weaken the HEAT jet. Experiments with early types of hollow charge weapons showed some promise, but more modern non-rotating projectiles were harder to defeat. Trials at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds showed that the Panzerfaust made a penetration of the same depth when it hit a plate directly or if there was a ¾ inch (19 mm) screen 12 inches (305 mm) away from it. Trials of the Panzerfaust 100 showed that the range of 12 inches was a turning point. If the standoff was greater than this, penetration dropped from 8-9 inches (200-223 mm) to 6.6-6.8 inches (167-172 mm). However, no Allied tank had this much armour. Tests showed that in order to have a meaningful impact on the penetration a screen has to be placed at a distance of 3-4 calibers of the warhead, or in this case 25-30 inches (635-762 mm). This method had a significant drawback. Such a large increase in width would not allow any tank to cross a Bailey bridge. There was still an effect from a screen located at a smaller standoff. The formation of the HEAT jet when striking a screen was much more irregular, and the spread in penetration was greatly increased, with a greater effect the further away the screen was placed. It’s possible that a tank’s chances of survival when hit would be increased anyway.

Panzerfaust 30 and 60 warheads. The higher caliber gave the second warhead a much higher penetration.

Trials were also held at the British proving grounds at Shoeburyness in the fall of 1944. Some solutions that were tried turned out to be effective. A 6 mm thick plate made from I.T.100 steel placed 11 inches (28 cm) away from a 76 mm plate could protect it from penetration by a Panzerfaust 30. A screen with a 20 inch (51 cm) standoff could protect a 100 mm thick plate from a Panzerschreck.

This type of protection didn’t help against the more powerful Panzerfaust 60 even with a 100 mm thick base plate and an angle of impact of 30 degrees. An additional 5 mm thick screen 5 inches (127 mm) away from the base plate also didn’t help. In general, trials in the UK gave the same result as the ones in the US. Very thick main armour and a very large standoff were required to achieve complete protection from large warheads. The only tank in the British arsenal that had enough armour for this was the Churchill VII, and even then the attack would have to come at an angle.

There were experiments with other materials. Like with the sandbag armour, a basic screen was covered with a layer of nonmetallic elements that could improve its effectiveness. Based on a suggestion from the Australians, trials were held with a coating of Barium Nitrate, Potassium Nitrate, wet sand, and dry sand. These coatings had an effect on the formation of the jet, but their effectiveness was about the same pound for pound as mild steel, and they were much more difficult to apply.

Effect of non-metallic armour on penetration of the side of a Churchill tank. a) penetration with a charge with an optimal standoff, b) penetration with protection by an inch thick layer of Barium Nitrate, c) protection with an inch thick layer of dry fine quartz sand, d) protection with an inch thick layer of wet fine quartz sand, e) penetration with less than optimal standoff.

In September of 1944 the Americans tried using 3.5 and 5 inch thick plastic blocks filled with aluminium shavings or gravel. These proved ineffective and didn’t even protect the side of a Sherman tank from the Bazooka. Trials held in September of 1945 with plastic blocks filled with glass beads were more promising, but the war was already over.

A Sherman tank with composite armour blocks installed.

The most unusual type of protection against anti-tank rockets was spikes. This method relied on deformation of the warhead when it struck a spike that would cause it to fail to go off or deform it so that the penetration jet wouldn’t form. This method was tested against the Panzerfaust 60 and Stielgranate 41 fired from the 3.7 cm Pak in May of 1945. The results were not inspiring. A spike that penetrated the warhead could reduce the effectiveness of the jet by 50%, but due to the low velocity of the projectile it usually went off as soon as it touched the spike, not giving it a chance to puncture the warhead. The spikes also did not work when hit at an angle. The Americans did not give up. Results of various tests of rockets versus spikes were presented in January of 1946. The most effective protection against a Panzerfaust 60 or 100 was offered by 6-7 inch (15-18 cm) long spikes set with a spacing of 2 inches (51 mm). The issue of effectiveness when hit at an angle was not resolved, and also the need to protect tanks from German weapons was already gone.

An M4A1(76)W tank with infantry riders, who offered much more reliable protection against Panzerfausts than the sandbags.

By the end of the Second World War neither the tankers nor scientists managed to find an acceptable method of protection against the Panzerfaust 60 and 100. Screens developed at proving grounds increased the dimensions of the tank too much, and the methods developed at the front lines only helped the crew’s morale. The best solution turned out to be a solid infantry cover. Due to the very short range of German hollow charge weapons, alert infantry could deal with a Panzerfaust-armed soldier before he could fire a shot.

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  1. Interesting to see plastic armour being tested, with the results being... less impressive than was promised. In fact, the fairly lacklustre performance of all of these solutions is very interesting, as it provides some clue as to why later vehicles de-emphasised protection and/or re-emphasised heavily sloped armour configurations. If there is no easily-developed composite that can improve protection, and even late-war weapons are already punching in the region of 200mm of armour penetration, then it makes sense that all you have left is trying not to get hit at all and heavily sloped pancake turrets.

    With hindsight we know that the magic bullet was active armour arrays: ERA and NERA (neither of which would have been difficult to produce in WW2, at least in their most basic incarnations). But these are apparently non-intuitive enough so that years of research were needed to develop them.

  2. The description of the HCR2 boxes as "Plastic boxes filled with aluminum shavings or gravel/glass beads" is hilariously wrong and might be a result of translation barriers. They were metallic boxes (either RHA, mild steel, or 21ST Aluminum depending on the exact config) filled with fine quartz gravel in a pitch/sawdust matrix.

    And the HCR2 boxes passed their trials against Bazookas and Panzerfausts.