by Richard Henry, Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History
When the First World War (1914-1918) ended, the peace Treaty of Versailles ensured that the German military was severely restricted in the number of men allowed. The manufacture of armoured cars, tanks, submarines, aircraft and poison gas was forbidden. Only a small number of factories could make munitions or weapons.
The light 3.7 cm Pak 36 (Panzerabwehrkanone) 36 was developed by Rheinmetall in 1933 and was first issued to the German Wehrmacht in 1936. It was tested during the Spanish Civil War where it was found that the 160 kg gun could be man-handled into position. The Pak 36 could destroy the opposition tanks.
Most European countries also developed small anti-tank guns in the 37 mm calibre range as these were able to destroy the known tanks at the time. They fired high explosive and solid armour-piercing shot cartridges, which were effective up to 500 m. The British developed the Quick Firing 2 pounder anti-tank gun, which was accepted for use in October 1935.
When the Second World War (1939-1945) started, the best anti-tank weapon was another tank, followed by anti-tank guns and self-propelled guns. The calibre and size of anti-tank guns were increased to deal with increasingly heavily armoured tanks, but when tanks attacked infantry position, the infantry were easily overwhelmed. The infantry needed their own light anti-tank weapon. This article discusses the development of the infantry hand-held anti-tank weapons, leading to the successful Panzerfaust 30M.
The Munroe or Neumann effect
The scientific principle of focusing the explosive blast of a conical or hemispherical hollow charge onto the surface of the item to be penetrated was first found in 1792. This principle was investigated and developed by various scientists. In 1888 Charles E. Munroe tested a steel safe with 4-inch thick walls. He placed a hollow charge against it and when it was detonated, a hole of 3 inch (76mm) diameter was blown clean through the safe wall.
In 1910, the German scientist Egon Neumann discovered that a block of TNT (explosive substance) punched a hole through steel if the explosive head had a conical indentation. An effective military application for this principle still needed to be designed.
In 1935 a prototype anti-tank shaped charge projectile was developed by two German scientists but the results were disappointing.
In 1939 German intelligence received reports of a new Soviet tank under design. It was reported to be fast, reliable and with 60 degree sloped to a maximum thickness of 45 mm. If that were true, the German 5 cm Pak gun under design would be unable to defeat this tank. An enlarged 7.5 cm Pak project was initiated. The famous T-34 medium tank was introduced into Soviet service with a 76 mm main gun in September 1940.
The development of the 7.5 cm Pak 40 gun and ammunition progressed slowly. In mid-1940 the first High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) round with a hollow charge was introduced in German service. The results were disappointing, being only able to penetrate about 75% that of the Armour Piercing Capped Ballistic Capped (APCBC) round.
The T-34 tank has a massive effect on the development of man portable HEAT weapons
Operation Barbarossa also known as the German invasion of the Soviet Union was code name for the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany on 22 June 1941. They expected to face an inferior enemy but experienced a psychological shock when they came up against a limited number of the Soviet T-34 tank. Their best anti-tank gun, the 5cm Pak and the long barrelled 5 cm Mk III tank, were only able to destroy the T-34 tank at short ranges and when fired at the T-34s sides or rear. Many German commanders considered the T-34 as vastly superior to any of the German tanks.
The production of the larger 7.5 cm Pak gun as well as the modified version of the up-gunned Mk IV tank was made a priority. The first 7.5 cm Pak guns were delivered in November 1941 and the first up-gunned Panzer IV in the spring of 1942. These could penetrate the T-34 at ranges of 1500 m.
What do infantry to do when attacked by the T-34?
In essence they rely on the shaped charge. A shaped charge used chemical energy from the detonation of the main explosive which is shaped to force the effect of that explosive energy onto a small area of the target.
In a typical HEAT round, when it impacts on the target, the impact fuse is fired which explodes the main charge. This main charge is on the outside of a shaped conical metal liner, often made of copper. The explosion compresses and squeezers the copper liner at about 1100 degrees Kelvin forward in a high velocity jet of copper, flowing like a liquid but remaining a solid. Forward velocities of about 10 km/sec and immense pressure focus the explosion on a small area of the target, blowing a hole through the steel or concrete. It does not rely on heat to burn though the steel as is often thought.
What governs the effectiveness of the HEAT round?
The effectiveness of the HEAT round is dependent on its diameter. As the penetration of the target continues the width of the hole decreases in the characteristic “fist to finger” profile. The depth of penetration is dependent on the initial size of the fist. During the Second World War (1939-1945), HEAT rounds could typically penetrate between 150% – 250% of their diameter.
The size and length of the hollow or empty space at the front of the HEAT warhead are also vital for optimum penetration. If the detonation occurs too close to the target, there would not be enough time for the high velocity jet to fully develop. If the distance of the charge to the target is too great, the effect of the jet is reduced.
The initial muzzle velocity of the fired projectile was of no importance as the effect of the HEAT warhead did not rely on its own velocity to penetrate the target as did the Armour Piercing Shot (APS) rounds.
When HEAT rounds were fired from rifled barrels the spin imparted to the projectile, which normally helps with accuracy, actually countered and reduced the effect of the round.
Therefore an infantry HEAT round could be fired at a low velocity of about 30m/sec. The scientific principle of “for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction” was used. The mass and velocity of an infantry held and fired HEAT round was balanced by the gas and flame of that HEAT round ejected backwards out of the hand held launcher. This principle was used in the American Bazooka, the German Panzerschreck and series of Panzerfaust hand held weapons in the Second World War.
The first infantry anti-tank weapon
The well-known American Bazooka was the first to see service. It was designed by Edward Uhl in 1942 and was put into production of June that year. Some were sent to the Red Army as part of the Lend-Lease agreement, where a few were captured by the Germans. At about the same time the Americans used the Bazooka in Tunisia during Operation Torch where they were found to be unreliable. Again the Germans captured some Bazookas and reverse-engineered them into a larger, more effective Raketenpanzerbüsche 54, better known as the Panzerschreck, effective to 150 m range. These were effective but required a three-man team. The German commanders wanted a more uncomplicated weapon, which could be used by any infantryman in an emergency, discarded and the soldier thereafter to continue using his own rifle or machine-pistol.
In the summer of 1942, a German scientist Dr Heinrick Langweiler and his team started to work on a new hand held anti-tank weapon at the Hugo Schneider Factory in Leipzig. The idea was to use the hollow charge principle to design and inexpensive, single shot, effective anti- tank recoilless gun for use by a single infantryman.
Their efforts resulted in at first, the Faustpatrone (small fist cartridge) and a little later the Panzerfaust (tank fist). These weapons had only 30% the mass, 60% the length and 30% the cost of the Panzerschreck. Its drawback was that it had a range of only 30 m but at this range it was able to penetrate 140 mm of steel. The range was later increased to 60 m, 100 m, and 150 m on later models.
THE PANZERFAUST 30M
The launcher was a simple mild steel tube, 800 mm long, with a diameter of 44 mm and with a mass of 2,3 kg. Combined with the warhead the weapon had a length of 1 045 mm and a total mass of 5.2 kg. Forward of the middle of the tube was the firing mechanism. A hinged, folding simple ladder type sight covered the firing mechanism when not in use. The sight had only one setting at 30 m. It was in essence a simple recoilless gun. The warhead’s low forward velocity was countered by the ejection of the propelling gases from the rear of the tube. These gases were dangerous to about three metres behind the firer. The gases caused a significant tell-tale cloud of smoke and dust. Consequently the tube carried in red lettering the following warning. “Achtung / Vorsicht! Starker Feuerstrahl →” translated as Attention / Warning! Strong jet of flame →.
The colour of the tube and warhead always appears to be in a tan / dark yellow colour (dunkelgelb) paint colour. After firing the tube was discarded, making this the first disposable man portable anti-tank weapon.
The warhead/bomb was roughly made from thin sheet steel. It had a maximum diameter of 149 mm and a length of 235 mm. The steel head was attached to a wooden tail shaft 260 mm long. Behind the head, around the wooden shaft, was a paper tube containing 95 grams of black powder as the propelling charge. At the rear of the wooden shaft were four 0.25 mm thick spring steel fins. These were wrapped around the shaft when inside the tube and their contact with the inside of the launcher kept the warhead from falling out the launcher by friction. The complete length of the warhead was 495 mm. Just behind the head were two small mild steel horns with two small holes. The horns fitted into a cut-out in the forward edge of the launcher. This ensured that the firing nipple of the propelling charge was directly below the firing button/ percussion cap situated under the sight on the firing mechanism.
Inside the HEAT warhead was a semi spherical hollow charge. The metal line was made of copper. Around the liner was placed 1.5 kg of a 50:50 mixture of TNT (Trinitrotoluene) and RDZ (cyclonite hexogen). At the rear end of the liner was a hollow tube which was screwed into the tail shaft. The hollow tube contained a small detonating charge which was fired by the base impact fuse.
For firing, the cap at the rear of the tube was removed. The fuse safety pin at the rear of the sight when folded down was pulled out, and the sighting rail raised to 90 degrees with the tube. The Panzerfaust was taken under the right arm. The left hand was used to support the launcher close to the warhead.
To sight the weapon, the hour glass shape cut out on the sight rail, which was set for a 30 m range, was lined up with the outer edge of the warhead and the target. The Panzerfaust 30 m was fired by depressing the release button / percussion cap with the right thumb situated just below the raised sight rail. When depressed this fired the 95 gram propelling charge. The ignition of this propelling charge pushed the 2.9 kg warhead out of the lube / launcher at a velocity of 30m/sec.
Effect on the target
As the warhead left the launcher, the spring steel tail fins popped up and started to stabilise the wobbly projectile. The maximum range was 30 m and the flight time was a slow one second. When the warhead struck the target, the base fuse detonated the booster charge in the tail of the warhead. The flame from this small explosion was channelled up the hollow tube to the main 1.5 kg TNT: RDX charge in the head.
The empty space, covered by a mild steel cap between the main charge / liner and the point of contact, was set at the correct distance. The explosion of the main charge squeezed and propelled the copper liner forward at great speed (10km/sec) and immense pressure onto a small area of the target. The initial hole in the armour of the tank was about 70 mm in diameter and this reduced as the jet blew its way through the armour.
The strike caused massive spalling of steel particles into the crew compartment. When fully penetrated the molten copper liner burned the crew, set fire to the electrics and sometimes set-off the on board ammunition causing a catastrophic destruction of the tank. Panzerfausts were equally good against bunkers and other strong points.
Use of the Panzerfaust
About 6.7 million of all the variants of the Panzerfaust were manufactured from October 1943 until the end of the war in Europe on 8 May 1945.
Tank hunting teams consisting of a non-commissioned officer (NCO) and at least three men were trained in anti-tank close combat tactics. The first option to destroy attacking tanks was the use of anti-tank guns or other tanks. If these were not available, then at a last resort tank hunting teams armed with Panzerfausts would try and prevent their positions from been overrun. German tactics called for mortar and machine gun crews to fire at the attacking tank’s supporting infantry and try isolating the tanks. The tank hunting teams would then take up multiple ambush positions in the same area and wait for the tank’s arrival. On the command of the NCO the tank hunting teams would fire from different positions at preferably the rear or sides of the same tank ensuring a kill.
They were issued in large numbers to soldiers on the Eastern Front to combat the mass of Soviet tanks. For the Normandy Landings they were expected to kill many allied tanks. Just the threat of the use of these Panzerfausts in the close Boscage country was sufficient to greatly slow the progress of the allied tanks. Tank commanders rather waited for close infantry support to try and counter the Panzerfaust threat. Consequently, only about 6% of allied tanks in the Normandy Landings were destroyed by Panzerfausts or Panzerschrecks. The short range of the Panzerfaust relied heavily on surprise ambush and much personal courage from the German soldier. After his one attempt at killing the enemy tank, his position was shown by the dust and smoke of the back blast. He had to escape quickly to hopefully fight another day.
Once the Soviets started to enter eastern German towns and cities, the fight was for every inch of the Fatherland. In urban warfare the Panzerfausts accounted for a much higher proportion of tank kills.
As the German situation became increasingly desperate, young boys and old men of the Volksstrum were used to counter the allied advance of tanks and other armoured vehicles. As these weapons required minimal training and were cheap to manufacture at about 20 Reichsmarks each they were issued to the Volksstrum and even women in a last ditch effort to save the Fatherland.
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