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Bazooka Versus Tank

The history of the bazooka from U.S. Rocket Ordnance: Development and Use in World War II, U.S. Joint Board on Scientific Information Policy, 1946.

Bazooka Versus Tank

Among the now-it-can-be-told weapons of the American rocket family, is the super-bazooka, bigger and better version of the foot-soldier’s famed tank-buster.

By their surrender, the Germans and Japs missed feeling the impact of a rocket which travels at almost twice the speed and carries double the explosive payload of the standard bazooka projectile; which has an effective range of as much as 700 yards, instead of the 200 to 300 yards of the regular bazooka; and which can function safely through a considerably wider temperature range, thus affording greatly increased protection against the dangers of motor explosion and blast. Though the super-bazooka retains the 2.36-inch diameter of the original bazooka, and is fired from the same launcher, it is propelled by a larger motor, and its heavier explosive charge can penetrate thicker armor plate.

Another development of the original bazooka-still secret at the war’s end-is a super-powered rocket of 3.5 inches in diameter with greatly increased power to penetrate armor plate and reinforced concrete.

The super-bazooka was the joint product of Section H, which produced the design for the motor, and Division 8 of NDRC, which developed the far more powerful head. The 3.5-inch rocket was designed by the Army Ordnance Department.

Bazooka Development

To arm United States infantry to fight tanks on more nearly equal terms, the Army Ordnance Department, in early 1941, had under development a rifle grenade, carrying a “shaped charge” of high explosive. A cone-shaped cup hollowed in the front face of the explosive filling focussed the blast energy into a narrow beam of great penetrating power.

These rifle grenades had too much recoil for field use as a shoulder weapon. Recoilless rocket propulsion was suggested, tried, and adopted. Colonel Skinner, then an Ordnance Department major, and Lt. (now Major) E. G. Uhl, with Section H at Indian Head, undertook the development of a suitable rocket motor.

Following unsuccessful attempts to launch these rocket grenades from attachments to the service rifle, it was concluded that a separate launcher would be required.

To protect the gunner from the rocket blast, the launching tube had to be longer than the maximum burning distance of the rocket motor. To be portable and easily aimed from the shoulder, the launcher, and hence the burning distance, had to be short. By the use of a charge of several thin-web tubular grains of solvent extruded powder in a motor about an inch in diameter, the burning distance was made short enough for a 54-inch launcher, soon dubbed “the bazooka.”

This launcher was designed to be fired from the shoulder and to discharge the rocket blast behind the gunner. It could be sighted and swung with a moving target as easily as a rifle.

The first model of this weapon, despite recognized imperfections, was rushed through production in 1942. It was used in the first Allied landings in North Africa. The weapon soon became famous for its tank-stopping power in Africa, Europe and the islands of the Pacific.

As is the case with most new weapons, improvements were necessary and development work was continued at high priority. Blast was particularly troublesome, especially at low temperatures which caused the powder to continue burning after the rocket had left the launcher. This was eliminated by using faster-burning powders. One such fast-burning powder, developed by NDRC’s Division 8, was a new solvent-extruded powder containing a high percentage of special ingredients-this powder shortened the burning distance so much, even at extremely low temperatures, that it earned the name of “blastless bazooka powder.”

Debut of the Bazooka

This was the weapon whose effectiveness was demonstrated first in the Allied landings in North Africa in 1942, knocking out pillboxes, tanks, and other enemy strong points.

In spite of its short range-it is most effective within 200 yards-the bazooka in the hands of concealed marksmen stopped enemy armor, gave a lift to the morale of the G.I., and was feared by the opposition.

The success of the bazooka in action is best indicated in the unadorned stories of the men who used it. From his European combat experience a private recalled: “We had been hard hit and all of our bazooka men had become casualties. This Mark VI tank was really giving us a going over, and something had to be done about it. Although I had never used a bazooka before, I knew how to handle it. So one of my buddies loaded the weapon for me and I crawled up a ditch until I was so close to the German tank (he was within 40 yards) I couldn’t miss, and let them have it. That one round really did the trick.” The private won the Bronze Star for his feat.

Similarly, a sergeant, a mortar squad leader, had never fired the weapon, but during a savage German counterattack on American positions he halted a German Tiger with two rounds at a distance of 75 yards.

As the heavy tank lumbered toward him spearheading the Nazi attack, the sergeant seized a bazooka dropped by its wounded operator and fired at the track. The tank’s machine gun as well as supporting German riflemen opened up on him. He reloaded and sent a second rocket crashing home, immobilizing the tank. The crew abandoned it and doughboy riflemen smashed the counterattack. The sergeant won the Silver Star.

Bazookamen found that their improved weapon frequently performed beyond their expectations. Combat reports tell of holes driven through a 6-foot pillbox wall, of masonry walls blasted with holes big enough for a man to crawl through, of tank crews killed by fragments spalled off the inside of 8-inch armor plating although the shaped-charge did not penetrate the armor.

Bazooka versus Tanks

Tank buster-American paratrooper in action in France knocks out a Nazi tank with a direct hit from a bazooka. Note the track being blown off the far side of the tank (SC 195144).

Bazooka Versus Pillbox

Experience in the Pacific showed that even when the bazooka could not destroy the heavy Japanese pillboxes, its concussion could stun the occupants and give infantrymen an opportunity to rush in and dispatch the enemy at close range. The bazooka was highly effective against Japanese tanks, which were more lightly armored than the German.

In one frantic action on Luzon, soldiers of the 6th Infantry Division fought a close-range battle against Jap tanks, which, firing at point-blank range, were mowing down American antitank gunners as fast as they manned their weapons.

“We tore into them with rifle grenades and bazookas, the only weapons we could use under the circumstances,” a sergeant reported. His battalion claimed 57 Jap tanks in the battle.

Combat experience was translated into modifications which made the bazooka a more convenient weapon. A two-piece launcher permitted easier carrying and better concealment from observation than was possible with the original one-piece launcher. A trigger-operated magnetic replaced battery ignition. The sights were improved.

Versatility of the bazooka was increased with the development of a bazooka smoke rocket loaded with white phosphorous; this was effective against Jap bunkers and caves. Ingenious American soldiers projected telephone wire over stretches of exposed ground by fastening the wire to a dummy rocket. They used dummy rockets to carry detonating cables out over mine fields where the cables were set off, exploding the mines.

Nazi Imitations

A new step in the development of shape-charge antitank rockets began with the German capture of American bazookas in North Africa, particularly at Kasserine Pass. The Panzerfaust and the Panzerschreck were German bazookas based upon the American. Appearing some months after the North Africa action, they carried a heavier shaped charge which produced greater penetration, but were lower-powered and lacked the range of the American 2.36-inch rocket.

The American answer to heavier German armor and to Germany’s large rockets consisted of the two improved bazooka rockets already mentioned-the super-bazooka and the 3.5-inch rocket.

The superiority of the super-bazooka motor over that of the original bazooka is achieved by the use of an improved ignitor and a heavier charge of propellant, the latter consisting of many thin disk-shaped grains, stacked in a stepped-back column to allow freer flow of the gases toward the nozzle.


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2 comments to Bazooka Versus Tank

  • BobRoberts

    Man, that is the worst fake photo ever.

  • Travis

    Oh propaganda of the day. A poorly drawn bazooka soldier and a probably broke down tank. Whatever made the men feel better I guess.

    I wish I could interview a wwii vet and ask how much of the crap the government told them in some of the news reels that they belived or not.