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Allied Trials to Counteract Panzerfaust Attacks

August 30, 2014

by Roger V. Lucy

A major threat to allied armour was the German Panzerfaust. Contrary to popular opinion the Panzerfaust (the name means armoured fist) was not a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, but disposable, one-man recoilless weapon. It used a black powder charge to discharge a large over-calibre fin-stabilized, hollow-charge warhead from a cast iron launching tube. The recoil from the discharge was counteracted by a three metre (10 foot) long jet of flame, vented out the back of the launcher. Introduced into service in mid-1943, as the Panzerfaust (Klein) or Gretchen, it was steadily improved. The Panzerfaust 30 (with an optimum range of 30 metres) had a larger warhead and longer launching tube. Subsequent versions, the Panzerfaust 60 and Panzerfaust 100 saw the optimum range increase to 60 and then 100 metres respectively. A re-loadable 150 metre version was going into production at the War’s end, but few if any, ever reached the front.) Overall, the Panzerfaust was a little over 1 metre (40 inches) long and weighed 6.8 kg (15 lb). By April 1944 Panzerfaust production had reached 200,000 per month, and 1.5 million per month by December. By May 1945, some 7 million had been delivered to the German armed forces and to para-military organizations such as the Volksturm and Hitler Jugend.[i]

An inert Panzerfaust 60 in the author`s collection, showing the complete round, and the actual fin-stabilized war-head

An inert Panzerfaust 60 in the author`s collection, showing the complete round, and the actual fin-stabilized war-head

Panzerfaust 60

While relatively simple to use, and requiring little training, the Panzerfaust was not a weapon for the faint-heated. The fusing and its cylonite explosive (a TNT/RDX mixture) could be fickle. The range was short, and its rudimentary sighting arrangements made accuracy poor. The back-blast restricted where it could be used and betrayed the user (operational research indicated that users had a about 50% chance of surviving their attack on a tank). That said, if it struck a tank squarely, the Panzerfaust’s 14 cm diameter, 1.6kg warhead (5.5 inch, 3.5 lb) could penetrate 200 mm (8 inches) of armour. Traveling at 10,000 metres/second (32.800 feet/sec) the the molten metal jet by the shaped charge war-head was over 1.5 metres (4.9 feet) long. There are reports of Panzerfaust jets penetrating the 2 inch (50-mm) armour on the side of a Sherman, passing through intervening personnel and equipment to burn their way clean through the armour on the other side. If the jet encountered fuel and ammunition on the way the effects could be catastrophic.[ii] In Normandy, hollow-charge infantry weapons (Panzerfaust and Panzerschreck- a scaled up German version of the bazooka) accounted for about 6% of allied tank casualties, By the time the allies were advancing into Germany the proportion had reached 34%. The Panzerfaust also accounted for a significant proportion of the13,700 tanks and assault guns which the Soviets admitted to losing in 1945 – particularly in close-quarter city fighting. In December 1943, the Germans instituted the Panzervernichtungabzeichen (tank destruction badge) worn on the upper right sleeve. To win the badge the recipient had to destroy a tank with hand-weapons (grenades, mines, satchel charge, Panzerschreck or Panzerfaust). Some 14,000-18,000 were issued to those lucky enough to survive. In addition to the losses imposed, the ubiquity of the Panzerfaust placed heavy constraints on how and where armour was used and made close infantry/armour co-operation essential. Operational research concluded that concerns about the Panzerfaust threat slowed the pace of the allied advance east of the Rhine by about 30%.[iii]

Needless to say, troops tried to improvise whatever means they could to protecting their tanks from the effect of the Panzerfaust’s shaped charges. Extra track, wheels, storage bins, logs and sand bags were attached to the sides and turret in hope of disrupting the jet before it reached the tank’s main armour. The Russians tired welding wire-mesh frames, and even bed springs, to their tank turrets.

These photographs illustrate the lengths to which tank crew would go in using spare tracks, from whatever source,in their search for extra protection against German shaped-charge and high velocity rounds.]

These photographs illustrate the lengths to which tank crew would go in using spare tracks, from whatever source,in their search for extra protection against German shaped-charge and high velocity rounds.]

In February 1945, First Canadian Army undertook a number of experiments using a derelict Sherman and captured Panzerfaust. These trials were later continued by Canadian Military Headquarters in cooperation with the British Directorate of Tank Design (DTD). Solutions tested included: spaced armour alone; spaced armour backed by a filler such as cork, rock-wool or sand; angled plates to prevent the shaped charges fuze from working correctly; spikes mounted in plastic armour – the aim was to perforate the shaped charge’s cone as it struck and deform the jet; and mounting mesh screens – the purpose of which was to catch the warhead gently enough to stop it without detonating it.

Sherman prior to trials.

Sherman prior to trials.

A general view of how the screen protection was fitted for the trial.

A general view of how the screen protection was fitted for the trial.

A rear view showing the spacing of the double-meshed screen.

A rear view showing the spacing of the double-meshed screen.

Panzerfaust projectile caught up in screen.

Panzerfaust projectile caught up in screen.

The final report issued by the DTD on 14 May, 1945 does not make encouraging reading.

Spaced armour had to be at least 30 inches (75 cm) from the main armour to defeat the shaped charge – increasing the overall width of the vehicle by 5 feet (1.5 metres). A 3/4 inch (20 mm) spaced armour plate with a stand-off distance of 12 inches (30 cm) or less actually enhanced the shaped charge’s effect by optimizing its stand-off distance. Spaced armoured backed with 12 inches of cork or rock wool did not work. Spaced armour filled with 12 inches of sand usually worked, but added 5 to 9 tons to the vehicle’s weight.

Here the Panzerfaust has struck low, blowing off the screen and penetrating the hull

Here the Panzerfaust has struck low, blowing off the screen and penetrating the hull

A Panzerfaust is fired at a derelict Sherman, note the considerable back-blast.

A Panzerfaust is fired at a derelict Sherman, note the considerable back-blast.

Both angled plates and spikes showed promise against small rotating shaped charge shells, but not against heavy non-rotating charges such as the Panzerfaust 60 or the Stielgranate 41 round used with the 3.7 cm PaK 36. Mounting mesh screens worked to some extent with the relatively low velocity Panzerfaust (klein), which had a kinetic energy of only 440 ft/lbs. They failed to stop a Panzerfaust 60 with a KE of 3500 ft/lbs. It was not possible to devise a screen strong enough to stop the Panzerfaust 60, but gentle enough to prevent it from detonating.

 

A rear view showing the spacing of the double-meshed screen

A rear view showing the spacing of the double-meshed screen

More often it did not.  Even so both the large and small Panzerfaust penetrated the tank’s side.

More often it did not. Even so both the large and small Panzerfaust penetrated the tank’s side.

Using small charges to disrupt the jet- a forerunner of reactive armour – was also considered. It was deemed “wholly impracticable” – as it was impossible at the time to make the charges sensitive enough to detonate in time to defeat the shaped charge, but not so sensitive that they would not be set off by chance blows or near-by explosions. The British obtained similar results in trials carried out in Normandy and Italy. A Panzerfaust could burn through the frontal armour of a Churchill (175mm), and even with mesh screens mounted, had no trouble penetrating its 79 mm side armour.

The Germans also used mesh screens, the so-called Thoma Schürtzen, but their main intent was to protect the tank’s undercarriage from anti-tank rifle fire.

The Germans also used mesh screens, the so-called Thoma Schürtzen, but their main intent was to protect the tank’s undercarriage from anti-tank rifle fire.

The final conclusion was that the only certain defence against the Panzerfaust was to ensure the closest possible co-operation between armour and infantry. Despite the apparent ineffectiveness of the various improvised counter-measures, the Germans believed they were having some effect. They had begun to attack armoured vehicles by firing two Panzerfaust in quick succession, one to blow away any screening, the other to penetrate the AFV. According to a German report of 6 April, 1945 the Panzerfaust 150 was designed to overcome countermeasures. Its sharply pointed cap helped penetrate any screening, and it had a semi-circular cavity to achieve even deeper penetration. The War ended before it entered service but it influenced post-war Soviet and West German designs.[iv]

The above illustrations come a report prepared Major A.G. Sangster, the AFV Technical Development Officer at HQ First Canadian Army.


 

Bibliography

Library and Archives Canada

RG 24 microfilm C-5773 file 55/508/9

RG 24 Volume 9392

Copp T. ed, Montgomerys Scientists Operational Research in Northwest Europe, WLU. Waterloo, 2000

Gander, T.J Field Rocket Equipment of the German Army, Almark London 1974

Rottman G.L, Panzerfaust and Panzerschrek, Osprey 2014,

Weeks, J, Men Against Tanks, David & Charles, London, 1975

Notes

[i].Rottman G.L, Panzerfaust and Panzerschrek, pp 18-19,21, 28.

[ii]. Ibid pg. 54;Gander, T.J Field Rocket Equipment of the German Army, pp.55-6

[iii].Copp T. ed, Montgomerys Scientists Operational Research in Northwest Europe, pp.553-60

[iv].Library and Archives Canada, RG 24 microfilm C-5773, file 55/508/9, RG 24 Volume 9392

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