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 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.
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.
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.
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.
A Sherman tank with composite armour blocks installed.
An M4A1(76)W tank with infantry riders, who offered much more reliable protection against Panzerfausts than the sandbags.