The Second World War saw significant advances in tanks, and throughout the war, all of the major powers sought to build bigger, heavier, and more powerful tanks. Keeping in step with those efforts was another move to develop better weapons to then take out and destroy the enemy’s tanks.
When the war began the Germans and British, as well as other nations such as Finland, employed oversized rifles, and these were largely antiquated against even the earliest tanks of the war. Soon new efforts were developed to counter the tanks.
Here is our effort to lay out what we consider some of the best anti-tank weapons of the period:
American M1A1 “Bazooka”
The U.S. Army’s Rocket Launcher M1 – nicknamed “bazooka” after radio comedian Bob Burns’ novelty musical instrument – was an anti-tank platform that first saw use during Operation Torch in North Africa, to limited success.
The M1A1 version, with its improved rocket, was subsequently used in Sicily to much greater effect, where it even reportedly took out a Tiger I tank! While the bazooka wasn’t really powerful enough for late-war German tanks it did give infantry a fighting chance and more than a few went ashore on D-Day and were used throughout the campaign against the Germans in France and beyond.
The original version of this weapon was replaced by the vastly more powerful M20 Super-Bazooka, which was developed at the end of World War II and remained in service through the Vietnam War.
The American military wasn’t actually the first to “super-size” its bazooka. In fact, the German Army had captured some American M1 bazookas in the North African Campaign, but instead of merely copying it, the Germans increased the diameter of the warhead from 60mm to 88mm and gave it greater armor penetration. This was the Panzerschreck, which means “tank fright” or “tank’s bane.”
- Panzerschreck. Image: Creative Commons.
Because the rounds fired from the German Panzerschreck kept burning after leaving the tube, the Germans added a protective blast shield. This increased the weight, but given the destructive capability of the weapon, it was a worthwhile tradeoff. With a muzzle velocity of 110m/s and a range of 150 meters the first true super bazooka was actually the Panzerschreck.
British PIAT Gun
The British developed their own anti-tank weapon in the middle stages of World War II, but instead of a powerful rocket launcher the PIAT – Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank – was based on a spigot mortar system that could fire a 2.5 pound shaped charge bomb.
It was a vast improvement over existing Boys Anti-Tank Rifles, and unlike the American bazooka it had no back-blast; however, it was heavy and had major recoil. It was also difficult to cock from a prone position, yet according to a British report, seven percent of all German tanks destroyed by the British forces in the Normandy campaign were knocked out by a PIAT.
- The British PIAT anti-tank weapon. This particular gun is part of an interactive display at the Museum of Army Flying, Hampshire, UK.
The PIAT remained in use with the British military until 1950 and was used in the Korean War. It was also used by the Haganah in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, while some accounts suggest the Indian Army employed a PIAT during the Battle of Longewala in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.
The Soviet PTRD-41/PTRS-41
During the Second World War, the Soviet Red Army lacked an actual rocket launcher – and instead had to rely on oversized anti-tank rifles including the PTRD-41 (Degtyaryov Single Shot Anti-Tank Weapon System Model of 1941). As the name suggests, it was a single-shot weapon that fired a 14.5x114mm round. It could do damage to early-war German tanks or other thinly armored self-propelled guns and even half-tracks but proved inadequate against the armor – especially frontal – of later war era tanks. A similar semi-automatic version – the Simonov anti-tank rifle (PTRS-41) was also employed during the war.
- PTRD. Image: Vitaly Kuzman
Both rifles were still superior to the Red Army’s efforts to employ dogs to destroy German tanks. The animals were trained to run towards and then under tanks while fitted with a ten to twelve-kilogram mine that was carried in canvas pouches on their backs. A wooden lever extended out of the pouch and would strike the tank, activating the mine. The use of anti-tank dogs was largely unsuccessful as the dogs often only ran near the enemy tanks, while the Germans learned of the threat and shot any dogs they saw. Another problem was that the Soviets trained the dogs using their own diesel-powered tanks while the German tanks ran with gasoline engines. As a result, some of the dogs ran towards Soviet tanks!
Japanese Shitotsubakurai Lunge Mine
The Soviet effort to employ dogs as suicide bombers wasn’t the only extreme attempt to destroy enemy tanks in World War II. The Imperial Japanese Army called upon its soldiers to use the Shitotsubakurai Lunge Mine, a suicide weapon that was little more than a high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) charge on a pole. Adopted by the Japanese in 1944 it was first used against American armor in Leyte Island in the Philippines.
- A reproduction of an anti-tank lunge mine being used by Nguyen Van Thieng in 1946.
To use the weapon the soldier had to arm the mine and push it against and enemy tank – blowing up the user and if that soldier was lucky, the enemy tank. A similar weapon was later used by the Viet Minh in the First Indochina War.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military